Monthly Archives: February 2014

Bone

Bone, Vol. 5: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border (Bone, #5)Bone, Vol. 5: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border by Jeff Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s very hard not to like BONE. When people want to know a good place to start as far as graphic novels go, this is always near the top of my list. Especially if the person who is asking has kids or is a kid. Because besides being heart-warming, adorable, compelling, humorous, and well-drawn, BONE is also pretty wholesome. Imagine Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald (or rather, Uncle Scrooge) stumbling upon an enchanted valley where they get mixed up with dragons, rat-creatures, a princess, prophecy, etc., etc. And to add to that level of surreality, throw in some lovable Bambi-esque woodland creatures. Our heroes fighting alongside, for example, some orphaned turtles, raccoons, talking bugs, and possum kids. Yet the drawing and the story-telling make this Disney-meets-Lord of the Rings schtick work. And work as more than schtick. This isn’t simply a fantasy epic drawn through the medium of a cartoon. It’s cartoon characters– with all the slapstick and mayhem that entails– actually entering into a fantasy epic as characters (and of some depth) in their own right.

I’ve read BONE up through Volume 8, though it was a while ago. Our kids have gotten into them now, so I’ve had the chance to re-read them again up to Volume 5, and I’ll take completion of this volume as a chance to review the entire series so far. The Bone cousins– Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone (the loosely Mickey, Uncle Scrooge, and Goofy analogues)– were chased out of Boneville after one of Phoney’s schemes to get rich backfired, and at the beginning of Vol. 1 they find themselves in a strange valley and thrust into the center of a conflict that involves everything from a lost kingdom to cow races to an invasion of an army of rat-creatures. Epic really is a fitting description of what Smith does with these volumes. It takes a few volumes of the story to even get a complete picture of the conflict the Bones have found themselves in.

It’s whimsical without being flippant. Smith’s artwork runs the gamut from suitably cartoonish (the minimalist Bone cousins are in some respects ‘toons boiled down to their essential properties) to subtle (as in some of Fone’s dream sequences or the sweeping panoramas of the valley we’re occasionally treated to). Originally black and white, the volumes have been colored, and having never read the black and white versions I can’t imagine them without it. The colors are vivid and bring an additional depth and drama to the artwork.

Smith’s work is somehow, absurdly, a nod to both cartoons along the lines of Ducktales at its best and your standard sword-and-sorcery epics. And perhaps even more absurdly, it works incredibly well. Every character– including Phoney– is likable. The story continues to build in complexity and raise the stakes but in a well-paced manner without throwing out a huge web of characters or inscrutable backstory. By volume 5 we learn that the girl Fone has fallen for is the lost heir of a kingdom, that a Sauron-like power has return to threaten peace in the valley, and that Phoney’s money-making schemes coupled with the townsfolk’s gullibility spell trouble. And that Smiley has adopted a rat-creature cub. Where it will go from here is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: Smith proves that there’s nothing at all flat about two-dimensional characters.

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters

The Wind's Twelve QuartersThe Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Le Guin convinced me with the first two volumes of her Earthsea Cycle that she was worth classifying with Tolkien and Lewis as a writer whose fiction stabbed at the deep, bright heart of things. But while Tolkien and Lewis were not known for their short fiction, Le Guin’s first publications were short stories. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is what Le Guin calls a retrospective sampling of the first decade of her short fiction, spanning 1964 to 1974. I don’t know Le Guin’s complete bibliography, but it’s clear this collection contains the seeds of many of the novels for which she would ultimately gain such recognition.

The collection shows a growing author playing in the wide fields of science fiction and fantasy. Some of the tropes, especially in the early stories, are almost painfully worn now, the plots predictable, but it’s hard to tell whether this was because Le Guin was young or because the field itself was young and what seems prosaic now was ground-breaking then. The language is always layered, lovely, and descriptive, but stories like “Semley’s Necklace,” with its relativistic twist, or “The Masters,” with its theme of forbidden science, have not aged well. There were others stories– “The Good Trip” and “A Trip to the Head”– that were largely inscrutable to me. And “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” set out some of the groundwork for the later Earthsea work but without the depth or beauty held by the full-fledged novels.

Yet the collection got better and better the further I read. “Winter’s King” finally convinced me of something I had long suspected– that I need to read The Left Hand of Darkness. “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was a truly excellent story about forests and a planetary intelligence that I’ve been trying to write for years. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” shows Le Guin at her best as the poser of riddles based on magic and morality, and “The Stars Below” was my favorite story by far: the haunting tale of an astronomer in a skyless world, looking for the light below that he once saw above.

The thing I keep coming back to in Le Guin is this sense of light in the universe, never far from the surface in her work. “Beyond all imagination,” the astronomer says in “The Stars Below,” “in the outer darkness, there is light: a great glory of sunlight. . . . There is no place bereft of light, the comfort and radiance of the creator spirit. There is no place that is downcast, outlawed, forsaken. There is no place left dark. . . . There is light if we will see it.” My suspicion is that this belief informs much of Le Guin’s work. There is a huge strata of speculative fiction, far too much to wade through in a single lifetime, but there are certain authors in whose work veins of gold and brightness run thick, and I think Le Guin is one of these.

Barstone

Shimmer13Cover_small

“Barstone” was my first publication in an honest-to-goodness real print magazine, back in April 2011. The kind with actual physical paper that you can pick up and thumb through and then put on a shelf. And not a crappy cheapsie magazine either that looks like it was run off on a Xerox and stapled together in someone’s basement. No, a real high-quality perfect-bound magazine with a glossy cover and sharp, crisp pages.

At the time of publication¬†Shimmer was a semi-pro magazine, but they’ve since begun paying professional rates. They’re a great market for urban fantasy or surrealist pieces with a melancholy tone and a literary flavor. Which is why “Barstone” fit nicely. It’s a surrealist piece about a giant or a hill or a giant who became a hill or something. A love story about conservation of momentum, loosely based on an actual three-legged dog and a park in Mississippi. The word “Barstone” popped into my head one night as I was falling asleep, and then I tried to build a story around him.

Unfortunately, this is the first story of mine that’s also behind a paywall. I guess it’s not perfectly inexpensive to publish nice, glossy magazines of good stories and pay authors for contributing. If you want to read “Barstone” (and some other fine stories) you can come over to my house and borrow my contributor’s copy. Or you can purchase Issue 13 of¬†Shimmer here. You’ll be supporting good art, good people, and a good publication.