Monthly Archives: February 2014


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” 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.

More than Meets the Eye

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 1Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 1 by James Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is it. All your best friends from childhood getting on a spaceship and heading out who-knows-where to have adventures. The main characters you’re tired of are out of the way. The second-stringers you always wanted to get more development are getting exactly that. With a real story. And humor. And fantastic artwork. This makes all the badness that was the live action movies go away. You can even ignore the disappointing Dreamwave reboot. I haven’t had so much fun with a comic since Titan Books reissued the original Simon Furman Marvel run, and if I’m completely honest– this is better.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 2 (Transformers (Idw))Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 2 (Transformers by James Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read more Transformers comics than I would readily admit, always trying to get back to the wonder that was the finale of the original Marvel series scripted by Simon Furman. I’ve always been disappointed, until this series came along. I purchased the first volume for my son for Christmas and sat down to preview it. I quickly realized that a) this was not a comic for kids and b) it was amazing.

The second volume just gets better. Finally, someone actually building characters and writing stories that explore what it might be like to be a mechanical life-form involved in a six-million-year-old war. There are three “episodes” in this volume. The first involves Rachet solving a medical mystery on an Autobot outpost devastated by plague and actually uses the fact that Transformers transform as a pivotal plot point. The second involves the ship’s psychiatrist and a damaged patient, and– impossibly– makes you start to like Whirl. And the third– which shifts the focus from the primary players– surprises by taking some of the misfit Decepticons that usually sat forlorn in the bottom of your toy chest and making real characters out of them.

I still read more Transformers comics than I would readily admit, but now it’s usually the volumes from this series, which repay a careful re-reading.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 4Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 4 by James Roberts

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have been following this latest (and by far best) comic incarnation of the Transformers since it began, and with each volume I have been more impressed. Finally real story-telling and fantastic artwork combined to bring my favorite characters to life once again. This volume though was the first that disappointed. It was still quite good, and I liked it even better on the second read, but I have some major complaints:

1. The artwork. Not up to the standards of the previous volumes. Milne’s name was on the spine, but so were a few others, and it made me realize how much the previous storytelling has been married to the artwork. There are some things you just can’t do well without the art to back it up. The final scene of the “guys night out” issue, for instance, with Cyclonus teaching Tailgate ancient Cybertronian ballads at a table in an empty bar. It just doesn’t work if the art isn’t strong enough to carry it, and it wasn’t.

2. The resolution of the Overlord story arch. This had been building for a while, and the issue leading up to the final confrontation built it even more (and was perhaps the most effective issue in this volume). But then, when he finally faced off against the crew, it was over so quickly, and a good part of the action happened off panel. I felt we were entitled to more here. There were deaths, but it was that of a minor character that I found the most effective. Later, the ship dropped five coffins, but we never even really learned who.

3. The drama. I know all these characters have been together on a ship for quite a while now, but the drama is starting to get old. If you’re going to hang so much on the relationship between Chromedome and Rewind (which, to be fair, is quite well done), then ease back on everyone else. Magnus opening up to Swerve. Tailgate’s attachment to Cyclonus. Rodimus’s not growing up. Ratchet and Drift’s love-hate thing. I love it that these characters are being developed, but this volume in particular just seemed to be laying it on a bit thick.

None of this, of course, will stop me from scooping up Volume 5 as soon as possible.

The Sun Kings

The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy BeganThe Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began by Stuart Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t get to read a lot of popularizations in the course of my research on nineteenth-century astronomy, so when this one came across my desk I was on the one hand excited about a change of pace (“captivating, fast-paced” says Dava Sobel on the cover) and on the other figuring I’d be skimming much of it and rolling my eyes a lot. I tend to do this with books that have long and overly-dramatic subtitles like “The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began.”

I was half right. I did indeed do a lot of skimming, but I also did much less eye-rolling than I anticipated. Clark weaves a compelling tale, even if you don’t consider an understanding of the dynamic Earth-Sun relationship (think SOHO and to be the beginning of modern astronomy. (I don’t.) The book is a bit less than the subtitle makes it out to be, as I’m still not  sure what Carrington’s “unexpected tragedy” was or how it relates to the scientific quest to understand the Sun’s interaction with the Earth, but it was a quite enjoyable romp through the world of Victorian astronomy.

Because it’s such an interesting place, Victorian astronomy, you almost can’t help to tell a compelling story if you go into it with some historical grounding and a flair for narrative. Clark treats one aspect of what was happening during this period: the development of solar astronomy. At the beginning of the 1800s, no one had any idea what the structure of the Sun was or how it generated its energy. One prevailing theory was that it was composed of a solid (and possibly inhabited!) core surrounded by a luminous atmosphere. Sunspots were rifts in this solar atmosphere. Clarke recounts how a series of dedicated astronomers– both professional and amateur– deduced a link between sunspots, the solar cycle, and effects on the Earth such as magnetic disturbances and auroral activity. Carrington is simply one of a cast that includes many important astronomers from this period, though Carrington’s drive and complex personal life, as well as his final demise (and this is likely the tragedy referred to in the subtitle, though seemingly unrelated to solar physics) make him an especially compelling figure.

Even if you’re not interested in the ins and outs of the interaction between the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field or the advances in spectroscopy and photography that made the discoveries documented in this book possible, it’s the historical characters like Carrington who make studies in Victorian science so readable. Carrington was one of many amateur astronomers during this period who made their fortune in business (in Carrington’s case a brewery) and then used this wealth to build elaborate personal observatories where they could pursue astronomy as a hobby. Carrington devoted himself to solar astronomy and became a recognized authority on the subject. Besides him though, the pages are filled with other characters equally interesting: Airy, the Astronomer Royal and the story’s villain, storming about at Greenwich pursuing mathematical accuracy and largely dismissive of the new physical astronomy; de la Rue laboring in Spain to photograph the Sun’s atmosphere for the first time during a solar eclipse; Maunder taking up Carrington’s work after Carrington’s death and marrying the young mathematician hired to aid his calculations. Interesting characters pursuing interesting work. Maybe exaggerated or characatured just a bit, but they all come in and out of the story so quickly and in such succession that Clark can’t be blamed much for emphasizing their most interesting features.

It was an exciting time in astronomy, and Clark captures this. I’ll keep it on the shelf, because it would be ideal book report material for an undergraduate astronomy course. A historian will find Clark’s lack of careful documentation maddening and his rhetoric at times excessive or overblown, but a student (or reader) with a passing interest in the history of astronomy might find it a door to a truly remarkable period in history.