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Best Reads of 2018

It’s that time of year again! Here we’ve compiled our list of the ten best books we’ve read in 2018, and their consequent reviews, in no particular order. Enjoy!

Continue reading “Best Reads of 2018”

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Fables (The Deluxe Edition): Book 15 and Series Recap

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough. I procrastinated and procrastinated, never wanting this series to end. So finally I made myself sit down and finish it.

Rose Red and Snow White have never been the best of sisters. But Rose Red made an unforgivable choice, and Snow is going in full defense mode to protect her family. Soon the big players of Fabletown, for better or worse, are picking sides. Most of the normal citizens want nothing to do with the conflict that is quickly escalating into a civil war. What’s more, a big bad ghost from all their pasts is back to haunt – and kill – every one of them. In the end, who will be left standing? Will Fabletown even be left?

… I am left speechless after the ending to this phenomenal and epic story. Once again, Bill Willingham pulled a sucker punch on us. Of course, I can’t say too much without spoiling it, but rest assured that the ending is fitting for the series.

So instead, I will talk about the series as a whole. Fables is a prime, if not the best, example of a graphic novel series that is not a superhero story. Because it’s not, it’s not constrained by a lot of the writing tropes and pitfalls that plague superhero comics. I found that this is especially true as far as characterization went. Though superhero stories have come a long way in creating more morally ambiguous characters, the writing still clearly separates “good” and “evil” characters. Throughout the Fables series, many more characters are on the morally grey spectrum, and some swing more towards the “good” and “evil” side as the series goes on. Not only is it just more skillful writing, it makes for much more interesting character development, especially over a long series such as this one.

The art – guys, the art is some of the best I have ever seen. It’s a small pet peeve of mine in superhero comics when they switch artists too fast, to the point where you get 4 different artists, and by extension, art styles, in one trade paperback. For the most part, the penciling is done by Mark Buckingham for the main series. The Deluxe Editions have spin-off issues and one-shots that are done by guest writers and artists, who are all very talented, but Mark Buckingham’s artwork is really what made the series come to life for me. His ability to create intricate detail to distinguish many, many characters from one another is no small feat. One of my very favorite things about the art in this book are the borders that line the edges of each page. I’d never seen it’s like in a graphic novel before, and it really gave the books a “fairytale storybook” feel. Many times over the course of this series, I caught myself studying the art more than reading!

Much love, time, and creative energy went into this series, and it shows. This fascinating mix of fairy tales, noir, high fantasy, and adventure, with excellent characterization and suspenseful writing, has already and will appeal to a wide range of readers. Because there is some gore, strong language, and adult content (never gratuitous), I would save it for older teenagers and adults. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for??? As for me, I’ll be starting it over =P

– Kathleen

Willingham, Bill, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, and Dan Green. Fables (The Deluxe Edition): Book 15. 2017.

Northlanders: Books Six & Seven

Brian Wood’s Northlanders saga has drawn to a close. Seven books have given us intimate portraits of Viking individuals and families through out the years, in three geographic areas- Iceland, Europe and the Anglo-Saxon regions. I am sad that this series has come to an end, and will miss these emo, petulant and violent warriors!

Thor’s Daughter and Other Stories: Book Six 

The Siege of Paris– The longest of the three stories is set Paris in AD 885 and is based on an actual historical battle that was documented by Monk Abbo Cernuus, a character in this story. Told from the perspective of Danish soldier of fortune Mads, he and the other Viking soldiers prepare for a long siege.  Despite only a small army defending Paris, they manage to put off the Viking fleet. Mads is able to cut off their supplies and a battle ensues, but a political settlement is reached and the soldiers end up fighting in vain. Illustrated by Simon Gane, the rough and cartoonish looking drawings were not to my liking.

The Hunt– A hunter, whose wife and children have left him to live in the city due to unusually cold winters in the wilderness, tracks a deer through wintry Sweden in AD 1000. Defiantly bitter about it, he obsessively hunts the deer wanting to prove to himself that he is still a provider. The artwork by Matthew Woodson is decent with some nice landscapes.

Thor’s Daughter– Set on an island in the Outer Hebrides, islands off the coast of Scotland, in AD 990 we meet Birna Thorsdottir, the daughter of the man who owns the island. A tough teen, she is still caught unaware when her father is ambushed and killed by some of his guards. Kicked out of her home she seeks other guards that still remain loyal to her family. She ultimately gets revenge, but there is a huge gap in the story to explain how she persevered and claimed her birthright. The artwork by Marion Churchland was lacking and the short story was not strong enough to deserve the title of Book Six.

The Icelandic Trilogy: Book Seven

This last book details a family’s rise and fall through several generations in Iceland beginning in AD 871 and ending in AD 1260. Three artists are utilized- Paul Azaceta, Declan Shalvey and Danijel Zezelj- as we move through the different eras.

We begin with Norwegian immigrant Val Hauker, whom with his wife and son Ulf, settle on the empty shores of Iceland. Within a year other immigrants begin to move there too, but Val wishes to establish dominance as he was there first. After a violent run-in with the Belgarsson clan, Val wishes to teach Ulf a lesson on how to be strong against future attacks, but he goes too far and turns Ulf into a sociopath. Time passes and Ulf grows up and he consolidates power so his family can reap the riches of the region. He frees an Irish slave and takes her as his wife, and their bloodthirsty ways grow. However, I do not understand how Ulf becomes so powerful- why would other settlers align with his small family in the beginning? While this establishes the beginning of the Hauksson dynasty, I did not buy it.

Skipping ahead to AD 999 we meet the fifth generation of the Hauksson’s, brother and sister Brida and Mar. There is a Game of Thrones vibe here,  including a sexually charged relationship between the siblings. When Mar leaves to loot among the southern coast, the Belgarsson clan aligns with the growing group of Christians in the area, putting the Haukssons at risk. Brida needs backup so she finds the illegitimate son of her father,  hoping her half brother Ott can help strengthen her position. When a converted Mar returns, the twins fight over how Christianity is changing traditional Icelandic ways, but Mar argues that they must join with them if they want to stay dominant. At the height of their family’s power, this is a turning point for them, and the siblings need to adjust accordingly.

The final jump is to tenth generation heir Godar and his impetuous son Oskar in AD 1260. Godar is a steady man who is documenting his family’s linage and has the riches of his family in stable holdings, now that the family no longer has to go to war to retain their power. However, Oskar wishes for glory and makes a power play so he and his allies can fight soldiers from Norway who are encroaching on Iceland. But things don’t go as planned, and after several failed military maneuvers, Oskar loses the confidence of those he leads. The Hauksson family is now in decline, 400 years after settlement, but the family name lives on…

I am a huge fan of much of Brian Wood’s work, especially Briggs Land and Rebels, and this sometimes uneven series further cemented him as one of my favorite authors. Some stories were obviously stronger than others, but the problem I had was the inconsistent artwork. Illustrators like Leandro Fernandez, Becky Cloonan and Ryan Kelly were excellent, others were horrible. Dave McCraig, the colorist throughout the series, did the best with what he was given and kept to an earth tone palette which brought some consistency to the varying art styles. I loved every single work of cover art by Massimo Carnevale and wish he had illustrated some if not all of the stories. Wood shines with his historical fiction series, and you can tell he does his research, although he often will put in modern sensibilities into his work. His interpretation of Viking history is one you don’t want to miss!

-Nancy

Read my reviews on: Book One, Books Two + Three, Books Four + Five

Northlanders: Books Four & Five

Northlanders continues to wow, after my initial rough start with Book One. The fourth book in the seven book series was my absolute favorite!

The Plague Widow: Book Four

The story takes place in the frozen Volga region in AD 1020. A plague has come to the seven hundred person settlement in October, and as winter has started, burials in the cold ground are impossible so pyres of dozens of bodies are lit to dispose of the diseased bodies. Frantic with worry the inhabitants listen to their elderly leader plus the local priest Boris. Boris counsels strongly that the settlement go under quarantine and those who show any sickness be banished so those remaining may live. But what they don’t take into account is how claustrophobia sets in, and they find they locked the greater danger inside their walls with them.

Hilda, a young beautiful widow with an eight year old daughter, is caught in the crosshairs as her former status as a wealthy woman is stripped when her husband dies of the plague. Destitute, with a long winter ahead, she struggles to survive and is targeted by Gunborg, who is the second in command and has it out for her after she votes against him in council. Two other men want her as a wife, but each man has different motivations and their jealousy of one another results in bloodshed. A final battle between Boris and Gunborg comes to a head, and Hilda and her daughter are given a chance to escape.

The art by Leandro Fernandez is a perfect match to the story. He captures the isolation of a Viking settlement shown mostly in dull colors with overlays of blue wash, which effectively shows the icy coldness of Russian winters. Some of the changing artists in this Northlanders series have not been to my liking, but the pairing of this excellent story with Fernandez’s precise artwork made this a winner.

Metal and Other Stories: Book Five

After how much I loved The Plague Widow, this book turned out to be disappointing in comparison. Metal is the long middle story, with two much shorter stories book-ending it.

The Sea Road

Illustrated by Fiona Staples who is now known for the Saga series, this short story takes place on the open sea in AD 760. Captain Dag is running cargo along the coast when he suddenly decides to turn the tiller and sends him and his crew westward towards the unknown. Putting his men at risk on a moments whim, he wishes for greater glory but instead encounters storms, mutiny and crew members experiencing hallucinations and going berserker. When they finally make landfall on Greenland, the few surviving members are met with treachery by the captain and their epic journey is for naught. This was an interesting take to show that many unknown sailors died ignobly with their discoveries unrecorded.

Metal

I recently read Boxers & Saints, about how Christianity changed China forever, and how many fought the new religion as it significantly changed their culture and resulted in many old traditions being outlawed.  So it was quite a coincidence that a week later I read another graphic novel story about Christianity changing Norway in AD 700.

Erik is a young blacksmith who is tied to traditional Norse Gods and is against his settlement allowing a new Christian church to be built. He watches as priests and nuns move in, along with a teenaged albino girl whom the nuns mistreat. In the night Erik burns down the church but first rescues the girl Ingrid and they run off together. The story then becomes a Bonnie and Clyde caper, with a strange magical realism aspect, that doesn’t match the rest of the series of realistic fiction. There was no subtlety, it was just Eric slaughtering any Christians he encountered, so the reader could not take his side at all in his wanting the Nordic Viking traditions to live on.

The art by Riccardo Burchielli was awful. Not only was I unable to get into the story, but the people he drew were grotesque looking. Erik is drawn as a hulking troll, not even resembling a human (the picture in this post makes him look normal, the rest of the series does not). Ingrid is drawn slightly better, but there are some sequences that she was drawn so horribly, and I didn’t understand why. In the concluding pages, Erik is drawn so differently that I question if the same artist drew him.

The Girl In The Ice

The best of the three stories is illustrated by Becky Cloonan and is a character study of an Icelandic fisherman set in AD 1240. Jon is an elderly widower who discovers a young girl frozen in the lake ice. He carves her out and brings her back home to investigate who she is and how she died. With no obvious trauma on her body to explain her death, he doesn’t understand why no alarm in the nearby settlement would have been sounded when a girl went missing.  Soon some patrolling soldiers discover Jon trying to hide the body and take him into custody believing he is the killer. He is taken into town to be tried for the murder, and we learn how the girl came to be in the ice. It ends on quite the melancholy note.

I have the last two volumes on hold and look forward to wrapping this series up. My only real complaint is that the art in the various volumes is so inconsistent. While I liked the first and last illustrators in this book and the cover art throughout by Massimo Carnevale was top notch, when a story has sub par art the entire story suffers.

-Nancy

Book One

Book Two & Three

Book Six & Seven

Fables: The Deluxe Edition (Book 14)

Rose Red has finally decided what kind of hope she inspires in people. As a paladin of the goddess Hope, Rose inspires the hope of second chances. Taking her cue from her niece Therese, she orders a Round Table built at the Farm. She is rebuilding Camelot and recruiting knights who are in dire need of second chances. One such recruit, Brandish, is going to be her pet case. Snow White is outraged after what Brandish did to her and her family. If Rose Red sets Brandish free and recruits him to her cause – they’re done. No longer sisters, and Rose will no longer be an aunt to the cubs. Can Rose reconcile her calling with her only remaining family’s wishes?

Rose stepping up to the plate is really exciting! It’s fun to see that even in the Fable world, stories are recycled and refreshed. Different characters take on different roles in Rose’s new Camelot, including characters who were in the original! The extra stories were kinda “meh” in this one. They didn’t add much or elaborate on anything from the main story. The real action, as ever, is in Fabletown – and new Camelot! I don’t want to pick up the next volume – I don’t want it to end!!! 😭

– Kathleen

Willingham, Bill, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Russ Braun, and Barry Kitson. Fables: The Deluxe Edition (Book 14). 2017.

Northlanders: Book Two and Three

Three weeks ago I read Northlanders: Sven the Returned (Book One) and I said “This is a series (that continues on with different characters and dates) I will not continue.” Yet…here we are. When I heard that Book Three included a short story on Sven whose story was all of Book One, I ordered it. Then I thought, well, I should get Book Two just to keep it in order. Damn it all- I was hooked.

The Cross + The Hammer: Book Two

While Book One had taken place in AD 980 on the Orkney Islands of Scotland, this story takes place in occupied Ireland in the year AD 1014. The story centers around brute father Magnus and his pre-teen daughter Brigid who are on the run. Former monk Magnus is on a crusade to kill as many of the King’s men as he can while defending his homeland, despite having his beloved daughter by his side. Lord Ragnar, using unlikely detective skills (for that era) tracks this vigilante. But Ragnar is no noble Norse leader; he and his fellow soldiers leave as much destruction as Magnus does, each feeling their cause is worthy and justified.  Then the last chapter pulls the rug out from under you, and everything you thought about this father and daughter is suddenly upended. I had to re-read the concluding pages several times to truly understand what had just happened. Not all the pieces fit (you have to have a suspension of disbelief) but I applaud the author Wood for trying something new.

The artist is Ryan Kelly, different from the artist in Book One, and he ably recreates the Irish countryside and it’s inhabitants. The men are rugged and battle weary, but Brigid is always drawn as a beautiful waif, making her a studied contrast with her father.

Image result for northlanders the cross and the hammer

Blood in the Snow: Book Three

This volume is broken into several vignettes (similar to how Wood wrote Rebels), where as the two previous books dealt with one extended story at a time. While I at first only planned to read the last chapter about Sven, I was sucked into the other stories, that were all drawn by different artists.

Lindisfarne– Northern England AD 793: Teen Edwin hates his bitter father and older brother and when Vikings land near his home he leads them straight to his village. Conniving Edwin sides with the Northlanders and forever turns his back on his Saxon kin.

The Viking Act of Single Combat– Northern Europe AD 790-1100: Six generations of two neighboring lords battle regularly. Two ugly Vikings battle to the death. Whatevs.

The Shield Maidens– Danish Mercia AD 868: Three widowed Danes escape and become shield maidens who were women warriors who fought alongside men in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. They escape to an abandoned Roman fort and defend themselves against the invading Saxons. Fate is intertwined into the story, so how they succeed seems less due to their own prowess than just luck. The very dark coloring and lack of individualization of the three women made this female-centric story less powerful than it could have been.

Sven The Immortal– Oslo Norway AD 1009: Sven and Enna are back! As is original artist Gianfelice and his issue with eyes! Sven has been in exile for several decades when young men who want to prove their manhood by killing the fabled Sven Of Orkney, decide to find him. Sven sends his two children into hiding, and he and Enna prepare for the attack. These young bucks underestimate the greying Sven but he shows them that he can still battle with the best of them. While I won’t spoil how he and Enna persevere, I will say that I was extremely happy with the ending. Sven- who knew that your character would end up being so appealing to me?

There are seven books total in this Northlanders series, and while I truly don’t plan on reading the remaining four, never say never! ( Edit- I did, and loved the series! Books Four & Five, Six & Seven)

-Nancy

Image result for northlanders sven the immortal
Wood, Brain & various artists. Northlanders: Book Two + Three. 2009 +2010.

Fables: The Deluxe Edition (Book 13)

Bufkin finds himself the leader of the revolution in Oz to overthrow the Nome King. Fabletown is moving into the ruins of Castle Dark, and they find quite a few surprises. In Haven, Beast is working around the clock to try to get around the deal he made with the Blue Fairy. Snow and Bigby’s children are starting to scatter according to Ozma’s prophecy: Winter at the Palace of the North Wind, Therese gone missing, and pack leader Darien setting out to bring her home. She was last seen carrying the toy boat she got for Christmas into the woods to play with it. It took her to the shores of what they call Toyland, but really is Discardia, a land of broken toys, and they are sure she can restore them…

Make sure you have a warm drink at the ready while reading this one. You’re going to need it when you’re done! It’s great to see the story shift to center a little more on the next generation of Fabletown, but it’s not without a price. The “Cubs in Toyland” arc is truly chilling. It’s amazing how GOOD the writing still is after all this time! The story still keeps you on your toes and keeps you guessing; nothing goes how you expect it to. Very near the end now – oh, how I hate to think of it!!!

– Kathleen

Willingham, Bill, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Shawn McManus, Gene Ha, and Andrew Pepoy. Fables: The Deluxe Edition (Book 13). 2016.

Northlanders: Sven The Returned

Who knew Vikings were so emo?

As a huge fan of Brian Wood’s Brigg’s Land and Rebels series, I wanted to check out his earlier work and picked up this Viking saga set in a A.D. 980 on the Orkney Islands of Scotland. Norseman Sven, who has been banished from his ancestral home, returns home after his father’s death to claim his inheritance.  Continue reading “Northlanders: Sven The Returned”

Fables: The Deluxe Edition (Vol. 12)

Fabletown is gearing up for one last stand against the Dark Man. Pinocchio is assembling a team of the strongest Fables and, in what is seen as a hare-brained scheme by many other Fables, giving them costumes and superhero names reminiscent of those found in the comic books he loves to read. Meanwhile, at the Fortress of the North Wind, a motion to choose a new North Wind is underway. The North Wind has gone missing, leaving Bigby, Snow, and their children confused and hurt. The other Cardinal Winds move in, hoping to choose a child who’ll serve their own ends. The children think it’s obvious who the new king will be, but who ends up being chosen surprises all of them. Will the child step up to the challenge? Will Bigby and Snow be able to do what all parents must do at some point – let go?

What I like about this series is that nothing goes the way you expect it to – this volume was no exception. They could have titled this volume “Fables: Plot Twist Central”! I loved the arc about Pinocchio and his superhero scheme. This series isn’t afraid to poke fun at classic comic book tropes, and the end result is always hilarious. The cubs, thus far, have been more of a side story, and it’s fun to finally see them get more of the spotlight. Not much has gone on in Fabletown as far as “the next generation” goes, and it only adds a new element of intrigue to the story. I can’t wait to see where the story of the kids especially goes from here!

– Kathleen

Willingham, Bill, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Erick Shanower, Terry Moore, and Andrew Pepoy. Fables: The Deluxe Edition (Vol. 12). 2016.

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