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Sleepless: Volume Two

I recently discovered the lush romantic fantasy series Sleepless and quickly read the duology. I just wish it had been a longer series, as I enjoyed the love story between Poppy and Cyrenic and think it could have at least been fleshed out into three volumes.

The second volume opens almost a year after the first, with Cyrenic awakening from his sleep after being released from his magical vow of eternal wakefulness. Poppy is being forced into a marriage of political convenience to Lord Helder, the very man she suspects of trying to kill her, but the king has blinders on and pushes her to go through with the wedding. Surprisingly the marriage ceremony does occur, but Poppy has her own reasons for going along with it. However, the wedding night spins out of control and Poppy and Cyrenic are on the run.

As Cyrenic is the first sleepless knight to be released from his vow, and deals with his recovery afterwards, there were some interesting perspectives from the other knights about if they too would like to be released. There were some thought provoking reasons as to why some of them would prefer to stay sleepless. The last half of the book is a long action sequence, and an additional villain is revealed, but the reasoning behind this second person wanting vengeance against Poppy felt ridiculous. During their escape Poppy and Cyrenic reaffirm their love, but it was rushed and could have been so much more.

The artwork was as lovely as ever, with the wedding scene being especially well done. The patterns and brocades of the clothing worn were exquisite. I felt the illustrations really lent to world building, for the interiors from the throne room to the kitchens combined into a believable kingdom. The coloring also added to the atmosphere with jewel tones for the courtly attire, decorations and poppy motif to earth tones for much of the action. Plus, Bini the fox was as adorbs as ever. An added bonus at the conclusion was alternative covers by other artists and some process pages that showed the evolution of the artwork throughout the story.

I do want to point out two glaring oddities. There was much made that Poppy’s mother is in her home country and can not return due to political issues and many letters are exchanged between the women. Although a wedding gift from her mother helps Poppy during a crisis,  we still do not meet her, even at the end when all has been resolved. And look at the picture above- these two are falling about 50 feet and land on a pile of bones. This would have killed them, instead they act as if it was a cushion, and then there is some throwaway conversation about the caverns and bones needing to be researched.

As a whole, this was an excellent short series. But there was definitely enough plot threads that could have been expanded upon that a third volume would have been very welcome. Author Sarah Vaughn created a beautiful fantasy world that artist Leila del Duca built upon, and I’m glad that I visited their magical realm!

-Nancy

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Sleepless

Sleepless is a lovely romantic fantasy story that transports you to a lush magical kingdom where intrigue abounds.

Written by Sarah Vaughn, the co-creator of Alex + Ada, this is another strong character driven narrative that quickly has you rooting for the the star crossed lovers Poppy and Cyrenic. Lady Pyppenia is the recently deceased king’s illegitimate daughter and struggles to know her place, as her mother has been called away to her home country. Sir Cyrenic is the knight who is bound to her by a magical oath, in which he never sleeps, as to better guard her. When Poppy’s uncle takes over the throne, Poppy’s place is uncertain as she has few allies, but needs to remain to avoid a political scandal. Attempts are made on Poppy’s life and there are a few candidates: Poppy’s cousin who will one day succeed the throne and worries Poppy could lay claim instead, as well as a pompous knight who is trying to curry favor with the new reining family.

The world building is strong, and despite the story dropping you into this magical realm, there is enough explanation to understand what is going on. I quickly compared it to the story arc of  Monstress, yet it is lighter and more enjoyable. While the romance angle is strong between Poppy and Cyrenic, there is more to the story with political intrigue and a dark aspect to magic.

The art by Leila del Duca is lovely. She creates a fully realized kingdom with detailed backgrounds that make looking at the panels a delight. The era has a Renaissance feel with deep jewel tones adding to the atmosphere. The kingdom’s inhabitants are drawn beautifully as is their courtly attire, and there is a welcome diversity. And, I have to give a shout out to Poppy’s pet companion Bini, the cutest animal ever! This fennec fox like creature is always by her side and gives her a clue that her food is poisoned at one point.

I read this book quickly and have enjoyed looking back at the illustrations throughout the week. I found out there is a volume two that wraps up the story and I have it ordered already! I now await for how Poppy’s and Cyrenic’s story will conclude…

-Nancy

Criminal (Vol. 1): Coward

I recently read My Heroes have Always Been Junkies, and was impressed by it. It is a spin-off of this series, Criminal, by the same creative team: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. This is the first volume of that series, which I was eager to get started.

Leo is a criminal who plans a score from the first second down to the last wisp of exhaust from the getaway car. He’s the best at what he does, but he doesn’t do it anymore. Not after the Salt Bay job, where his best friend was killed and his father went to prison. Leo won’t end up in prison. He knows it’s exactly where he belongs, but what is life without freedom? When he is approached by an old colleague about a diamond heist, it’s five years after the Salt Bay job, and Leo is clean, but struggling. He’s caring for Ivan, a father figure with Alzheimer’s, and money is tight. Reluctantly, he agrees. When inevitably things go south, just as Leo planned, will he make it out alive and free?

I’m a little torn on this one. The story is compelling. We get a glimpse of what Leo is truly scared of at the end, which makes me want to read more. The whole read is an adrenaline rush. You wonder how could these characters possibly be more screwed up, how they could possibly get out of the trouble they’ve gotten into.

However, it was a bit too graphic for me. It seems I like psychological thrillers, like My Heroes have Always Been Junkies, more than this hard-boiled stuff. There is strong language, which I don’t mind, but the violence and drug use was too much. It is well-suited to the story, as we are reading about, well, criminals, but after a certain point it just turns me off to it. I’m not the right reader for this story, but I can see the appeal for others with stronger stomachs than I!

The art was well-rendered and appropriate for the story. It reminded me of The Wolf Among Us, the Telltale video game based on the Fables series, with the stark lighting and strong shadows on characters’ faces (leaving the reader to guess at their intentions; man I just LOVE THAT), but without the neon ’80s color palette. No, this story is situated in the real world, and the art reflects that with a murky palette instead.

I’m unsure if I’ll continue this series, but I can see why it’s considered an excellent example of a crime graphic novel series. The main character is mysterious, compelling, and while I haven’t read much crime, he seems like he’s a different sort of main character in a crime series. The writing is tight, tense, and fast-paced. The art ties it all together with dramatic lighting and a subdued palette. Kudos to Brubaker and Phillips!

– Kathleen

Brubaker, Ed, and Sean Phillips. Criminal (Vol. 1): Coward. 2015.

Norroway (Book 1): The Black Bull of Norroway

Sibylla is not your usual little girl. She craves adventure, not a husband. When she goes to see a witch with two of her peers to get her fortune told, she asks, “Will I ever get to sail a ship?” The amused witch tells her instead that she will marry – the Black Bull of Norroway. He is supposed to be a terrifying legend. Sibylla, however, isn’t fazed. When the Black Bull does indeed show up at her doorstep when she’s older, she readily packs her bags and goes with him. He is on a quest to break the curse that was put on him, and do to that, he needs a bride, a sword, and a shield. Sibylla is the required bride, but she’s ready to prove that she’s so much more than that. She puts her foot down and travels with him across Norroway, searching for the last elements and trials he must endure to break his curse.

I absolutely adored this graphic novel, adapted from a Scottish fairy tale, written and illustrated by two sisters named Kit and Cat Seaton. I’d say it’s middle grade to young adult, but I found it entertaining as an adult. Sibylla’s no-nonsense and tenacious personality was a big draw for me. She and Bull are a lot alike, but they also learn a lot from each other throughout this story. This is only the first volume, with (hopefully!) many more promising adventures ahead.

As such, the full backstory of Bull’s curse is only hinted at, and the repercussions of the curse on those close to him aren’t yet fully unfolded. Many times in fantasy, when there is a curse involved, it only involves and affects the one person on whom the curse was placed. Here, the curse affects multiple people, adding an extra layer of intrigue. By doing this also, it emphasizes the fact that the actions of one person have consequences for many. Very rarely do our choices impact only ourselves. I appreciated this aspect of the story most, and would be looking forward to more for that alone…

… If it weren’t for the art, too. It’s delightful! I don’t think it is watercolor, though there is an airy quality about it all the same, like you would get with watercolors. Both human and bull characters are adorably animated and expressive, bringing the story to life. The backgrounds and landscapes remind me almost of ancient Asian paintings. There is a soft and calming quality about them, much like those old works, that I enjoy.

This is the first installment in what promises to be a delightful series, filled with intrigue, adventure, and two stubborn heroes learning to live with and like each other. I am highly anticipating the second volume.

– Kathleen

Seaton, Kit & Cat. Norroway (Book 1): The Black Bull of Norroway. 2018.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

Ellie idolizes old singers and movie stars: Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, John Lennon, Elliott Smith, and more. One thing they all have in common? They were all drug addicts. Ever since she found a mixtape her mother made for her father (both drug addicts themselves), containing songs written and performed by drug addicts, Ellie has been obsessed with the old stars and their struggles with heroin, amphetamines, cocaine, you name it. So you could say it’s no surprise Ellie winds up in a rehab facility. What is surprising is she meets a boy. Skip is trying desperately to not throw this last chance away, whereas Ellie has no plans for getting sober. Once they realize their attraction for each other, will they recover together, or spiral back into old habits?

This one isn’t what you expect it to be. You go in expecting one thing, but by the end, it’s quite another. Brubaker and Phillips pull no punches here. The writing is excellent, big plot twist aside. We alternate between the present day and flashbacks to Ellie’s childhood, which give us more context. Each of Ellie’s flashbacks relate to the next slice of the modern day story in subtle ways that you only truly pick up on with a second read through. Sometimes flashbacks are too obviously related to the main story, but the fact that they aren’t here shows a deft hand. I was highly impressed.

The art uses color more than solid drawing to convey the overall mood and individual emotions.  Don’t get me wrong: the drawing is great, but color was the focus here. The modern day sequences are rendered in saturated pastels. While the characters for the most part are solidly colored in, the backgrounds are splashed with hardly-mixed color, suggesting chaos and uncertainty, even if the palette is cheerful. The flashbacks are in greyscale, but the splotches remain, again conveying the turbulence of Ellie’s childhood. The art suggests something is going on long before it happens, which is arguably more important than foreshadowing in the writing of a graphic novel.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that this isn’t the first collaboration by Brubaker and Phillips. This is a novella from their series called Criminal. Excuse me while I go check it out 😉 I was, again, very impressed with this graphic novel, and the way the writing and the art worked together to the conclusion you didn’t expect. I anticipate more good stuff from these guys.

– Kathleen

Brubaker, Ed, and Sean Phillips. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies. 2018.

Death or Glory (Vol. 1): She’s Got You

Glory’s adopted father is dying. He needs to have a major surgery in order to have even a chance at survival. The money’s all run out, and Glory is getting desperate. She decides to set up a series of heists, stealing money from drug lords, to pay for Red’s surgery and save his life. It’s not really stealing if you’re already stealing from a criminal… right? But the first heist goes awry, and Glory soon finds herself in way over her head. Soon she’s dodging crooked cops and her ex-husband, all of whom trying to bring her in no matter what, in addition to well-meaning members of her trucker family. When things go from bad to worse, can Glory pull off her plan and save Red?

I admit I had to skim this one after a certain point. The story is interesting enough, but it was too violent for my taste. Strong language is fine with me, as are love scenes, but soon as one guy starts cutting another guy open with a chop saw, I check out. That said, most of it seemed well-suited to the story, and there were only a few scenes that I deemed excessive. Because of the violence, I’d have to say this one is adult only.

What I did enjoy about this one was Glory herself. She’s not some hero, and she’s not pretending to be one. She is straight up hurting for money and not willing to let go of someone she loves. She’s ready to do whatever it takes to save that person, even if it means breaking the law. Is that ethical? It’s up to the reader to decide. I’ve always been fascinated by stories like hers – it’s why I think Mr. Freeze from Batman is such a good villain. When written well, you question whether or not he’s even a bad guy. I questioned whether or not Glory was good here, and I loved it.

The art is great. The backgrounds and environments are rendered in sort of a dusty ’50s meets Wild West style. They’re rendered a little more carefully than the characters, grounding the reader in a plausible reality. The characters are a little more sketchy, a little more exaggerated, to suit the action-oriented story. Even though there is a lot of action, the panels are still laid out in a straightforward and easy-to-follow format.

Skip this one if you mind a lot of violence; but if you don’t, this story will take you on a ride-or-die roller coaster that has you questioning the morality of everyone involved.

– Kathleen

Remender, Rick, and Bengal. Death or Glory (Vol. 1): She’s Got You. 2018.

I Hate Fairyland: Volumes Three & Four

I Hate Fairyland is fluffin’ over, with the third and fourth books bringing this series to a fantabulous conclusion! I applaud writer and illustrator Skottie Young for keeping this series to four volumes, for as I said after my review of volume two, “I am leery of falling into a candy-induced coma if I read too much of this series.”

Young has quite a distinctive illustrative style and is already well known for his past work such as Rocket Raccoon and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Plus, his chubby baby superheroes are a fan favorite for variant art in the Marvel books. As such, he is the only artist I can imagine pulling off this storyline. Colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu gives the residents of Fairyland a candy-colored motif that is a perfect juxtaposition for green-haired Gertrude’s nightmare.

Volume Three: Good Girl

Volume three opens with a fun shout-out to comic cons as Gertrude actually looks forward to the annual Dungeon Festexpocon. There she acquires a super-fan who admires the destruction that she has wrought over the community. But as usual, that pairing doesn’t last and Gertrude moves onto the next disaster. We also get a lengthy origin story to her guide, Larry the Fly, but I wasn’t quite clear if it was a memory or a dream.

Our favorite psychopath decides to try something she hasn’t before in her quest to leave Fairytown- she is a good girl. Could this be the key to going home? However, after the swath of horror she has inflicted upon the Fairyland citizens for over 30 years, the creatures do not believe her and former foes come back to kill her. A trip to Hell seems apropos at the end.

On a funny note, when I went to pull these two books from the graphic novel collection at the library I work at, I couldn’t find them, although the computer said they were checked in. A new shelver of ours had put these two volumes in the kid’s graphic novel section, due to the look of this volume in particular.  I hope no youngster was traumatized by accidentally flipping through the very mature content!

Volume Four: Sadly Never After

Hell is filled with Gertrude’s former enemies who wish to make her suffer. As Gertrude is still longing for home,  the Devil plays with her insecurities and sends her to an alternate reality of her parent’s home. But he soon deducts that the real agony for Gertrude is to send her back to Fairyland. Back in Fairlyland, we meet Queen Cloudia who was vanquished in the first volume and who has now become Dark Cloudia. Bitter, she wants to destroy her former kingdom so some of the council leaders appeal to Gertrude to defeat her. They tell her that Cloudia’s defeat will earn Gertrude a way home.

While Gertrude’s way home is not straightforward and easy, the short epilogue with a grown up Gertrude back home is bittersweet, as it’s not exactly what she had been wishing for…

I loved the little jokes that you could find in the background panels, with dark humor and satire interwoven into it. The art remained fresh throughout and even knowing what kind of story this was, some of the violence and mayhem continued to surprise me. I will miss this foul mouthed sociopath, as Skottie Young created an unforgettable character in Gertrude.

-Nancy

Make sure you check out Volume One: Madly Ever After  &  Volume Two: Fluff My Life

Black Road: The Holy North

Black Road continues Brian Wood’s take on emo Vikings. Set in Norway in AD 1000, Magnus The Black is a warrior who discovers a secret among the new Christian priests who are laying waste to the Norskk culture and landscape. This isn’t an extension of Northlanders, instead this series is set up to be a mystery thriller and not as historically accurate.

Magnus is a bear of a man, who respects his pagan upbringing, yet realizes that Christianity is taking over the region and wants to help his people through the transition. However, this makes his unpopular with both sides, as neither fully trust him. A former soldier, he is grieving the loss of his beloved wife and wants reassurances from the Catholic priests that they will be reunited in Heaven together. He takes on a job of escorting a Cardinal from the Vatican up the “Black Road” to a new compound up North. The job goes sideways, and he joins up with Julia, the Cardinal’s adopted daughter and the local blacksmith, Kitta, to finish the journey northward. There they find a rogue priest, Bishop Oakenfort, who wishes to shift the power of the Vatican from Rome to Norway and for him to be in charge. Chaos ensues.

I’d also like to know Wood’s true view on Christianity and about his faith journey, as many of his works portray the Church in a very negative light. While historically accurate in many respects, his bleak and dark views only show the negative side of this era’s conversions, and is not a balanced viewpoint. But I obviously find it fascinating, as I keep on reading his graphic novels.

The artwork was solid, by Garry Brown who did the artwork for Wood’s The Massive series.  His style is rather blocky, which doesn’t always translate for faces, yet his backgrounds are detailed and the Scandinavian landscapes are well drawn.  Dave McCraig does the coloring, as he did for the entire Northlanders series, and effectively guides you through the changing chronology with color changes to signal Magnus’s flashbacks. I read the compilation of the series, which included V1-The Holy North & V2-A Pagan Death.  At the end of the book it included a mock up of the first issue, after which Wood changed direction and re-wrote parts of it, which was interesting to see the evolution of the story.

This Norse saga will appeal to all Northlanders fans, although like I said earlier, it is not a continuation of that series. Magnus The Black is a layered individual with conflicting desires, and this story has the potential to say something fresh about faith and conversion, so while I doubt the series will continue, I’d read more if it does.

-Nancy

Wood, Brain & Garry Brown. Black Road: The Holy North. 2018.

Manifest Destiny: Volumes 5 & 6

The reimanging of the Lewis and Clark expedition continues as history, colonization and government conspiracies are shaken up together into a unique tale about the Corps of Discovery.

Volume 5: Mnemphobia & Chronophobia

In November of 1804 , Fort Mandan is built in North Dakota so the corps could winter safely before continuing on their journey in the spring. As soon as the fort is finished, a dense fog rolls in and everyone begins to experience paranoia and delusions.  All the creatures that the corps have encountered seem to come at them, and the past sins of the soldiers come back to haunt them. Thus the title of the book comes into focus, as the fear of memories and anxiety over the passage of time are shown.  It is during this chaos that Sacagawea goes into labor while battling her own private demons. Little Jean Baptsite’s birth is tempered by the knowledge of the subterfuge Lewis and Clark are planning regarding the infant, and Sacagawea’s strange acquiescence about it.

The art remains strong with layouts that are fresh and unique. The era is beautifully rendered with the clothing, guns, buildings and landscapes accurately drawn. Plus the creatures are freakishly awesome!

Volume 6: Fortis & Invisibilia

Mutiny! A few weeks after the dangerous fog, nerves are frayed and Lewis is obsessively monitoring the arch discovered nearby. Sargeant Pryor preaches to the soldiers and develops a following, creating a rift between those who align with him, and those that stay true to Lewis and Clark. Eventually Pryor plans a coup and the leaders are ejected from the fort along with others. The ghostly conquistador from Volume Four is moving between soldiers hoping to find the strongest leader to fulfill his diabolical plan for conquest. This volume was a bit of a convoluted mess, and I was having trouble keeping straight who was who among the soldiers.

This story dragged for me, as two volumes have been set in the fort, and the dead of winter hasn’t even begun. They need to pick up the pace of the storytelling for there is still much to tell of the journey, and they are nowhere near the Pacific Northwest yet. I checked when the next issue is out, and I don’t see a date yet, so I am worried that this series will ignobly end before the journey can be properly told. Despite my rough start with this series and these shaky middle volumes, I hope the entire scope of this re-imagined  journey can be properly told.

-Nancy

Read the proceeding volumes: Volume One, Volumes Two-Four

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