Review - Mini Reads

I've been on a bit of a reading binge lately. The recently released Mass Effect 3 had been taking up a lot of my time the past couple weeks and in between missions I ended up feeling guilty over neglecting the several bound volumes of literature and comics that had been collecting dust on my shelf, one of which had been sitting there for a couple of months. The following list is a kind of penance, but one I enjoyed for the most part. So, not really a penance, no.

Wildwood, by Colin Meloy – It’s been roughly a year since I first started getting into The Decemberists. Hurl all the anti-hipster remarks at them you want, but these guys are damned good musicians. Their 2009 concept album The Hazards of Love is a tightly woven opera of rustic fantasy punctuated by the incredibly disturbing "The Rake's Song," and "Down By the Water" off of last year's The King is Dead is perhaps one of the best songs ever written.

But while sea shanties and odes to infanticide are his primary output, chief songwriter Colin Meloy has also taken a stab at, of all things, children's literature. Wildwood, intended to the first part of Meloy's Wildwood Chronicles, is the story of the secret country located in the deep woods outside of Portland, Oregon, and the two children who stumble into the hidden domain. What starts as a fairly cutesy work of modern fantasy develops into a surprisingly complex epic, with various factions of humans and sentient animals vying for power—Fantastic Mr. Fox as written by George R.R. Martin, so to speak. And, this being Meloy's baby, there's a darker element to the whole work, largely manifested in the threat of baby sacrifice (the driving plot element, if you could believe it).

Keeping with his usual songwriting fare, Meloy's prose is ornate and at times a little archaic, which might jive with a twentysomething audience but seems an odd choice for the 9-12 age range he's aiming for. That being said, it's fun to read and with the exception of a few polysyllabic words shouldn't require a dictionary on hand at all times. It's also a wonderful-looking volume, the dust jacket and pages decorated by the illustrations of Carson Ellis, Meloy's wife. If you're finished reading both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games sagas I recommend giving this one a shot.

11/22/63, by Stephen King That book I neglected for over two months? This is it. I picked up 11/22/63 the day of its release in early November, and made it roughly a third of the way through before being sidetracked by NaNoWriMo and, Hell, everything else that has happened since. Like many of King's works it's a heavy volume, exceeding 800 pages, but it's also a complex story that deserves most of its length.

11/22/63, as any history buff will know, is the date President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. The eventful November day becomes the core of English teacher Jake Epping's obsession when he's given the opportunity to travel back in time and, if he should so dare, prevent the tragedy from ever occurring.  His means of travel is an inexplicable gap in the spacetime continuum, accessible through the rear storage closet of a local diner (strangely believable in the context of the novel, I assure you). The rabbit hole, as Epping comes to refer to it, deposits him in the exact same location in 1958, and with the guidance of his friend’s notes he makes it his mission to seek out Lee Oswald, establish the man’s guilt, and dispatch him.

Like most of King’s books released over the last decade, 11/22/63 can be adequately described as solid. The characters are likeable, the concept is (as always) fascinating and with the exception of a hundred or so pages in the middle of the book the plot never meanders or comes to a halt. To boot, there’s a neat cameo by a couple of characters from It, in my opinion King’s best work. Most interesting of all are the actual mechanics of time travel King—by way of Jake Epping—explores, avoiding the much relied-on trope of paradoxes and introducing a neat and fragile system of harmonics that play a massive part in the final act of the novel. It’s not horror, so if you’re turned off by King’s usual work you might find this epic a little more palatable, though I recommend setting aside a lot of time.

Seven Soldiers of Victory, Vol. 1, by Grant Morrison – Grant Morrison is perhaps the single greatest writer working in the comics medium right now—the best in the last quarter of a century, perhaps. I briefly praised his mind-bending late ’80s run on Animal Man in a previous piece but I think I would need at least 2000 words to lay out his brilliance in greater detail. The least I can do for now is offer a couple hundred in appreciation of a more recent and counter-intuitively mesmerizing series.

On the surface, there’s no reason a casual comics reader might invest interest in Seven Soldiers of Victory. With the exception of Zatanna, a character who has been out of the limelight for a few years, this volume’s titular characters aren’t famous in the slightest. There’s the Manhattan Guardian, a guilt-ridden former police officer persuaded to don armour and shield as the chief reporter for New York’s newest (and strangest) community news source; the Shining Knight is the last survivor of a paradise ravaged by an insectoid master race; Klarion the Witch Boy, a cheeky descendant of the lost Roanoke colony, finds himself in modern day NYC; lastly, there’s Zatanna, the former magician now attending a support group for former sorcerers and referring to herself as a “spellaholic.” These first four of the series’ seven characters, ostensibly separate parties with their own missions and concerns, find themselves bound together in shared destinty.

Morrison has made a name for himself twisting genres inside and out and resurrecting long forgotten characters, and Seven Soldiers is built on the foundation of these two properties. A new reader is not likely to have any idea of where this series is going from the initial issues, but as the story progresses previously isolated threads weave themselves into a complex and mindblowing tapestry. He also pokes fun at the comic industry’s desire to turn fun (albeit hokey) characters into grim and gritty vigilantes, which is always a plus for me. I look forward to picking up the second and concluding volume of this series.

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