Friday, 28 August 2020

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager) | review by Stephen Theaker

Rin, a girl living in a horribly sexist society, realises that she only has one way out of the marriage arranged by her drug-dealing foster parents: painful sacrifice and round-the-clock study to get into a prestigious military academy. She succeeds, but further sacrifice will be required and war is on the horizon. It won’t wait for her to finish her studies. This was quite slow and long-winded, and none of it felt at all new, but I enjoyed it. Rin reminded me of Jack Vance’s capable heroes. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Space Bandits, by Mark Millar and Matteo Scalera (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Cody is an Orcadian space bandit. She has a telepathic link to a Nibiruan White Lizard, which will no doubt come in handy, and she has led her gang on ten successful jobs in twelve months, without killing a single person. Unfortunately, when the time comes to split up the money, the four men in her gang decide that they would be better off not splitting it with her. They shoot her and leave her for dead. This all happens in the first ten pages. Over the five issues collected in this volume she will team up with Thena Kole, a con artist who has suffered a betrayal of her own, and they will have their revenge.

It’s action-packed (the reader is rarely more than a couple of pages away from someone being shot or punched), and feels a bit like a 2000 AD version of Saga, with Matteo Scalera’s art reminding me of Ian Gibson or Mike McMahon. It looks great throughout, especially the alien creatures, and the 1980s theme makes for some wild fashions. So I certainly didn’t dislike the book, but (unusually for a Mark Millar comic) it didn’t really stick with me either. If Netflix make it into a film, I would watch it for the spectacle, but I’ll wait for any comic book sequels to make their way to me, rather than seeking them out. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 21 August 2020

The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell ( | review by Stephen Theaker

Three women – a vicar annoyed with her flock, a magic shop owner, and a grumpy old lady who lives with a ghost – try to protect their village from supernatural intrusion in the run-up to Christmas. I always thought of myself as a fan of this author, but reading this and The Four Doctors made me realise that while I loved Love and War and Human Nature, five star books both, I haven’t been quite as keen on anything I've read since. This felt like Brenda and Effie without the sparkle. Stephen Theaker **

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, Volume I, by Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

This book collects stories of the Trigan Empire which appeared in Ranger from September 1965 to June 1966, and then Look and Learn from June 1966 to May 1967. Although Look and Learn and the strip continued to run till 1982, I first encountered it in the 1978 Hamlyn collection, lent to me for one glorious night only. As with many classic British comics, the copyright is now held by Rebellion, publishers of 2000 AD and the Sniper Elite games, who have published this chunky collection as part of their Treasury of British Comics.

This is, essentially, a tale of the Roman Empire, if it had come into contact with more technologically advanced civilisations early in its development and still managed to come out on top, accelerating them through what for us were two thousand years of changes in the space of one man’s lifetime: Trigo, destined to become an emperor. This is adventure in the classic style, as we see the founding of their city, battles with monsters, and the wars they must fight against predatory neighbours.

It’s written by Mike Butterworth (not the Michael Moorcock collaborator of that name), with wonderfully illustrative artwork by Don Lawrence. Every panel looks amazing, like the Ladybird books of the seventies, with a succession of distinctive faces, locations, creatures and vehicles. It doesn’t always read as well as it looks, since it’s not always clear in which order panels and dialogue should be read, but that’s forgivable.

Reading it now, I realise that the stories aren’t perhaps entirely original, or to put it another way, I now understand why Gods of Mars felt so familiar when I read it. There are some slightly old-fashioned aspects to it. And it’s frustrating that the Trigans can be such dunderheads, constantly being conquered or fooled or having their minds controlled. It’s baffling that Trigo ever makes his brother deputy emperor when he knows just how useless he is.

But the yo-yo fortunes of the empire inspire endlessly thrilling escapades – rescues, sneak attacks, plots, plans and desperate searches for allies – so it would be daft to complain about that aspect too much. I loved it from start to finish. And it’s a very solid read: 304 pages long, but it’s like reading an omnibus of French albums rather than whizzing through an American comic. I can’t wait to read the rest of the saga at last. Stephen Theaker *****

Friday, 14 August 2020

Atalante, la Legende, Tome 1: Le Pacte, by Crisse (Soleil) | review by Stephen Theaker

French-language graphic novel about a young woman who is trying to earn her place among Jason’s argonauts. Artemis has blessed her with strength, and Aphrodite has blessed her with beauty, but jealous Hera has cursed her to be struck by divine lightning if she ever takes a lover, so Hecate blesses her with a personality which will put off potential suitors. To get on the ship of heroes she has to rescue Jason’s mentor, the centaur Chiron. It’s okay. Art is a bit like Elfquest. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings, by Sarah Graley (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

I did not enjoy this very much. Our protagonist, unfortunately, is not Kim Reaper, the young grim reaper on the cover with purple hair and an undercut, but Becka, the other young woman, who has a creepily intense crush on Kim at the beginning of the book and by the end of it is in a creepily controlling relationship with her. We’re obviously meant to think Becka is very cute, from the way she is drawn and, for example, portrayed with love hearts all around her, but she acts like the bad boyfriend in any teen romance. The very first time Becka interacts directly with Kim is to stop her doing her job. As soon as Kim realises who she is, she says, “Wait, are you the girl who’s always staring at me? ’Cos, like, it’s kinda weird and you need to stop.” It’s a fair point! When Kim says her job is to be a reaper (albeit only collecting the souls of animals so far), Becka immediately tells her to get a job working at a bakery instead. After Kim stresses the importance of her job, Becka keeps asking her for drinks, over and over, despite Kim not responding to the invitation the first, second or third time. And when Kim takes her to an undersea shipwreck Becka ignores Kim’s instructions: she tells her to be quiet again and again, and then when things go wrong Becka blames Kim and demands again that she quit her job. Later, when Becka’s male friend meets Kim, his red-faced anger at her is repulsive. But the book isn’t all bad. The art style is likeable, there are some cute moments, Kim herself is quite cool, the cat owner they tangle with is genuinely bizarre, and the last chapter takes an interesting turn. I’d read more about Kim, but not about Becka. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 7 August 2020

Lightning in the Blood, by Marie Brennan ( | review by Stephen Theaker

A well-told and imaginative heroic fantasy tale, about a travelling fighter. She is an archon: created in stories, those stories continue to act upon them and draw in the people they interact with, and if they stay too long in one place they begin to warp the world around them. For example, the protagonist can’t sleep in the same bed for more than three nights. In this book she gets involved in dealing with a rebellion. Tough, neat, satisfying, and very modern. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Infinity 8, Vol. 1: Love and Mummies, by Zep, Lewis Trondheim and Dominique Bertail (Magnetic Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A hundred-page graphic novel about an exceptionally attractive security agent, Yoko Keren, who is sent to investigate an anomalous mass of space junk encountered by an interstellar cruise ship. She is also quite keen on getting pregnant, since she has a year of paid leave coming up and it would enable her to retire early, and passengers of many species are keen to help her with this project. The artwork and colouring is quite lovely, and the sense of humour appealed to me. I liked Yoko, and found the whole thing quite entertaining. I wonder what the appeal will be of future volumes, since they all seem to be about more agents being sent into the same anomaly, illustrated by different artists, but I’ll probably give them a try. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 1 August 2020

The End of the Day by Claire North | review by Stephen Theaker

The beautiful goth Death of The Sandman and the stern DEATH of Discworld are extremely popular with fantasy fans, while the versions of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) and Piers Anthony (On a Pale Horse) are also influential. Here we have a new book (Orbit hb, 416pp, £16.99) about the one we all meet at the end of the day. Drawing on previous portrayals, this Death changes its appearance and gender depending on the circumstances. But it is, along with its fellow horsepeople of the apocalypse, just a supporting character in this story.

Our lead is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death, its Silver Surfer, the one who comes before. Unlike poor Norrin Radd, Charlie applied for this job, had to pass an aptitude test to get it, and could resign at any time. (His predecessor is thoroughly enjoying her retirement.) He gets paid, he claims expenses. It's a regular job, albeit one that's harder than most to explain on a date. When Death is coming, Charlie is occasionally (rather than always, as the book's marketing suggests) sent by the Milton Keynes office to meet the imminently deceased.

He never knows why. Sometimes there's a chance to avert an accident; he's allowed to nudge people off-course if he can. He might be sent to hear a language spoken before its last living speaker passes away, or to see a multi-faith orchestra perform before a riot forces it out of action. Sometimes he's sent to pay tribute to a good life, or to mark the passing of an idea. Some people are glad to see him, others angry, and a few hope to bargain. He brings each of them a gift from his employer, not knowing what it means; the effect is always profound.

Perhaps that's enough for you to know whether or not this is a book you would find interesting. I'd had enough by about a third of the way in. Its short, unhappy chapters put me in mind of watching a series of balloons deflate, and it was always hard to summon the enthusiasm to read another. Having said that, it was clear fairly quickly what kind of book it was going to be – a guided tour of the world's most miserable situations, with little in the way of plot beyond the effect it all has on Charlie – and in those circumstances it's perhaps unfair to blame the book if you choose to keep reading.

If anything, I liked it a little more after that point. The book takes us through a period where Charlie starts to struggle with the demands of the job, physically and mentally, and not just because he gets beaten up a lot. He gets involved in increasingly dangerous situations, as criminals and law enforcement agencies begin to take an interest in his destinations, sometimes forcing Death itself to take a hand in protecting him.

But it's hard to understand why, in a world where everyone knows about Charlie's job, this kind of thing hasn't been happening since his first day on the job. You'd expect him to be followed by a news crew at all times. This isn't a book that's interested in exploring the societal ramifications of its central idea, or showing the systems at work in its world, as opposed to ours. Eventually Charlie gets a travelling companion, a chap who wants to return to New York to see his long-lost brother, and that was when I came closest to enjoying the book.

At times it reminded me of Martin Millar's urban fantasies, which raised some similar issues, but it lacked their fun and energy. It feels the weight of its social conscience, and strains so hard for relevance it hurts itself. Chapters often begin with snatches of unattributed dialogue (“I don’t want to generalise, but Mexicans are criminals”, “The schools can’t cope, the hospitals can’t cope”), that hope to give it a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, but it starts to feel like the High School Theatre Show sketch on SNL, where well-meaning teenagers perform their buzzwordy school plays.

Readers I respect have liked the book a lot, so don't necessarily be put off, but for me this was a trudge, a sit down for a few hours and force yourself to finish it kind of book, a four hundred page Observer editorial about everything that's wrong with the world. I think it's the book it wants to be: a sensitive, thoughtful, serious novel with an admirable grasp of the big issues, about how gruelling it must be for those working close to death: doctors, police officers, environmental scientists. I just didn't enjoy reading it. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #270.