The Fade Out: Dark Stars

The Fade OutThe Fade Out, Volume 1: Act One

Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips
Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser

Published: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Noir, Mystery, Crime
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

The Fade Out is a tale of bad old Hollywood, when studios covered up all varieties of crime and young actresses faced near-constant sexual assault on the ladder to stardom. It definitely made me wonder how much has changed and how much has stayed the same since the 1940s, when this story takes place.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter with a few dark secrets who wakes up one morning after a debauched party to discover a promising young actress, Valeria Sommers, strangled in her own home. Charlie decides to get himself the hell out of there – hiding any evidence of his presence before he leaves – but when the movie studio he works for spins the murder as a suicide, Charlie’s guilt and horror only increase.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips love a good noir. I haven’t read all of their work so far, but The Fade Out is one of their most grounded stories. It’s an unflinching look at the seamy underbelly of classic Hollywood, led by a conflicted non-hero who struggles to figure out what to do. The book also particularly focuses on the ways women were horribly mistreated during that time period, both in and outside the film industry.

Brubaker’s dialogue crackles, Sean Phillips’ character designs are bold and spare, and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors are the perfect accent that brings it all home. Charlie views the world through thick round glasses that dwarf his face. His writing partner, Gil, slumps his way through every scene, rumpled and dissolute. Valeria and Maya, her lookalike replacement on the picture, both have fresh, open faces and expressive mouths that make it easy to imagine them as long-lost Hollywood starlets.

Although The Fade Out starts with a murder mystery, it seems content to wander through old Hollywood, introducing a slowly expanding cast of characters without pushing Charlie into his ostensible role as citizen detective. It seems clear Brubaker is playing a long game and enjoying the scenery along the way.

My only criticism is that the third issue features so much female nudity that it verges on the exploitative. It’s clear that Brubaker is criticizing a system that puts women into situations that force them to use their bodies as currency, but the amount of naked flesh on display begins to undermine his point.

Even still, The Fade Out is an excellent slice of noir from creators working at the top of their game. Definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Wayward Volume One: Pretty But Empty

Wayward Volume 1: String TheoryWayward Volume One: String Theory

Story: Jim Zub
Line Art: Steve Cummings

Published: April 7, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Adventure, Magic
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

The art in Wayward Volume One is probably the best part of an otherwise cliché book. The backgrounds are gritty and realistic in a way that feels completely grounded, and the character art is bright and stylized. Unfortunately, all of that beautiful design is in service of story about yet another teenager discovering hidden magical powers and using them to fight monsters.

Rori Lane is half-Irish and half-Japanese, which means she speaks the language but has a head of bright red hair that makes her stand out in a Japanese crowd. The story opens when she moves to Japan to live with her mother after a (so far unexplained) falling out with her father. Her mother works long hours and is hardly ever home, but Rori seems to have nowhere else to go, so the arrangement works.

There are the occasional interesting details, but they feel more like window-dressing than real characterization. Rori’s mixed heritage means she’ll never really fit in, no matter how well she learns to speak Japanese. The author plays with that theme, but doesn’t dig deeper than a moment where her teacher tells her to dye her hair black so that people won’t think she’s a troublemaker. We also learn that Rori is a secret cutter, but the revelation feels completely arbitrary and gratuitous because it doesn’t have any impact on the story. Ultimately it just feels like a cynical attempt to add depth to the story.

The other characters aren’t given much more depth than their magical abilities, but at least Ayane – a magical “cat girl” – is entertaining and strange. The story rushes through Rori discovering her powers and meeting other powered characters so that it can get to the fight scenes. I don’t necessarily prefer stories that dwell on characters discovering a secret world in plain sight, but Rori starts out the book lost in another country and ends up leading a team of magical teenagers in a very short amount of time. Additionally, the dialogue is oftentimes very wooden, reading as if Zub is trying to imitate English poorly translated from Japanese.

Ultimately the art and colors are the only things I actually liked about this book. Without the art, you have nothing but a story that relies on well-worn tropes, limited characterization, and dialog that is both wooden and unnecessarily vulgar. I doubt I’ll pick up another volume.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Rat Queens: Everything’s Coming Up Tentacles

RatQueensV2_CoverRat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

Story: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art: Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic

Published: May 19, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

Rat Queens is a modern spin on classic fantasy tropes that plays within those boundaries while also subverting clichés, and does so with a light touch. It has a great premise: a group of rowdy adventurers in a fantasy world fight, fuck, and generally incite civic destruction. The twist is that they’re all women, and they work both with and against other adventuring parties with similar mixes of race and gender.

The character designs are great, and Wiebe has a fantastic sense of humor. The character development is especially well-done, and each of the women at the center of the story feel both fully developed and entirely unique. In fact, characterization is probably the strongest aspect of the series so far.

I definitely enjoyed the first volume, Sass & Sorcery, which was a story about the team as they dealt with a surprising betrayal. This second volume, The Far-Reaching tentacles of N’Rygoth, tells a story that focuses on Dee, a semi-lapsed member of a religion that worships Lovecraftian horrors. I get the impression that future volumes of the series will tell similar stories that focus on each member of the Queens, so this volume is probably a good template for things to come.

Unfortunately, although I did enjoy volume two, it wasn’t as funny as volume one, and the pacing felt a little rushed at times. It opens with the Queens fighting against invading inter-dimensional horrors, and doesn’t really let up much from there. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout – part of the invasion involves strange mind control that distracts the Queens with hallucinated memories while they try to fight – so we do get a bit more back story for the characters, but it still felt like this volume didn’t gel quite as well as the first.

There was also a significant change behind the scenes when the original artist, Roc Upchurch, got arrested for domestic abuse charges and Wiebe fired him from the series. Stjepan Sejic, the artist who completed the last few issues in this volume, has his own unique style, but definitely fits very well within the established Rat Queens universe.

Although I do think this volume had a slight dip in quality, I would still heartily recommend picking up the series, and I look forward to future issues. Definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Wicked + The Divine: Exploding Beauty

The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1: The Faust Act

Written by: Kieron Gillen
Illustrated by: Jamie McKelvie
Colored by: Matt Wilson

Published: November 12th 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

The Wicked + The Divine takes celebrity worship to an extreme and imagines a world where the gods reincarnate in human form once every ninety years, oftentimes as the biggest stars of their generation. They are always young, beautiful, famous (or infamous) and dead within two years. Our window into the lives of the “pantheon” is Laura, a seventeen-year-old Londoner with a fan-girl crush on nearly every member.

When Laura faints at a concert performance given by a god named Amaterasu, Lucifer – incarnated here as a blonde girl with an androgynous Bowie look – takes her backstage and irrevocably tangles her life with the affairs of the gods. Laura’s time backstage ends quickly thanks to an assassination attempt on the gods, which Lucifer foils by snapping her fingers and exploding some heads. This results in Lucifer’s arrest and trial, and Laura decides that she has to do everything she can to help her idol, no matter the danger.

Before I get into the writing, I think I should state for the record that I absolutely love Jamie McKelvie’s art, which the best part of this book by far. The lines are bold and strong, and his style is so distinctive that I can identify it immediately when I come across his work. Combine McKelvie’s lines with Matt Wilson’s vibrant coloring and you’ve got a book that is absolutely gorgeous to behold. That said, The Wicked + The Divine isn’t just a pretty face; it’s also exceedingly British and peppered with Kieron Gillen’s wicked sense of humor throughout. The problem is that the story is a bit muddled and the plotting occasionally feels rushed.

Laura’s introduction to the world of the gods feels a bit arbitrary; Lucifer picks her out of a pile of fainted teenagers and then she’s neck-deep in weirdness and danger. I never quite bought into the idea that a seventeen year-old super-fan could do anything significant to help a group of supposedly all-powerful gods or that any one of them would ever rely on her for help. Lucifer reads more as a teenager play-acting the part of a butch bad girl and not the Lord of Darkness, but it still rings a bit false when Laura keeps insisting that The Devil Herself desperately needs her help.

Despite these hiccups, I did enjoy reading the first volume of The Wicked + The Divine, and I do think I’ll check out more volumes in the future. I just hope that the story gets a little tighter as the series continues and that Laura has a more active, crucial part in events as they unfold.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Bunker: Apocalyptic Wish Fulfillment

The Bunker, Volume 1The Bunker, Volume 1

Written by: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Illustrations by: Joe Infurnari
Published: August 19th 2014
Publisher: Oni Press
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

In The Bunker, five friends decide to bury a time capsule in the woods, only to find the titular bunker when they start digging. Once inside the bunker, they discover letters from their future selves, who somehow sent a bunker full of evidence back in time to warn their younger selves about the impending apocalypse they will have a part in causing. It turns out this innocuous-looking group of young people includes a future president, a soon-to-be brilliant scientist and several other eventual movers-and-shakers. Heavy stuff for a bunch of recent college grads, no?

When I started reading The Bunker, it occurred to me to wonder whether I’d ever read a graphic novel with art I hated despite enjoying the story. I’m honestly not sure I ever have. Probably the only situation where I continued enjoying a book in spite of the art is when the artist changed for an issue of a comic I was already invested in reading. In any case, I really did not like the art in The Bunker, and the story didn’t do anything to win me over.

My biggest problem with this book is a serious lack of characterization thanks to an indistinct art style and some fairly underdeveloped writing. The art is so stylized that it becomes very hard to tell the difference between the extremely generic characters. The main visual distinction is that some of the characters wear glasses and some don’t, and one guy is bigger than the others. We get a bit of back-story here and there, but the author spends the most time on one of the girls, who remembers being raped by her uncle when she was young – i.e. the most cliché, heavy-handed way to make a story about a woman feel Serious and Real.

As for the dialogue, it’s oftentimes the case that every other word the characters say is “fuck”, and everyone speaks with essentially the same voice. One character does make a few unfunny and off-color jokes in the first issue… but then things get all serious and he stops behaving that way. After the bunker and its predictions come into play, this turns into a fairly serious-minded tale of doom-and-gloom.

Ultimately, The Bunker just felt like a weird kind of wish-fulfillment. Instead of discovering a more personal and believable secret from their future selves, the characters find out that each of them is an incredibly important world-destroyer and of course that they were able to figure out how to send a huge bunker back in time. I think it’s possible to tell an interesting story about receiving notes from your future self, but this doesn’t feel like the way to do it, especially because the details strain credibility in so many ways.

The worst part? This first volume is almost all setup and very little plot. Not much of substance happens after the characters find the bunker – they freak out and fight with each other and then eventually get around to dealing with one of their predicted catastrophes. Definitely a disappointment.

HATED IT
HATED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Sex Criminals: This Raunchy Joke Goes Deep

Sex Criminals, Volume OneSex Criminals, Volume One: One Weird Trick

Written By: Matt Fraction
Art By: Chip Zdarsky
Published: April 29th 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Comedy, Surrealism, Sex, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Sex Criminals is a bit of a phenomenon. It’s one of those books that I heard a lot about before I ever got around to reading it – the reprint covers in particular were everywhere on Tumblr, so I saw every variation a good million times. Luckily, the hype is actually justified in this case, probably because the story is far deeper and more nuanced than the raunchy joke it seems to be.

Volume One of Sex Criminals tells the story of Suzie and Jon, who meet at a party and hook up, only to discover that both share the completely bizarre ability to freeze time when they orgasm. Naturally, they decide to use this ability to rob a bank. What that summary doesn’t tell you is that Suzie and Jon are both carefully drawn, believably human and full of heartbreaking flaws.

One of the first things Suzie reveals as she narrates her story is that her father is dead, murdered by a gunman. As far as her childhood goes, things don’t get better from there. Her mother quickly sinks into alcoholism and Suzie uses her ability to freeze time as an escape from the world.

As for Jon, he seems less troubled at first until it becomes clear that he uses his abilities to act out in anger against the world, oftentimes in petty or childish ways. Heavy stuff, all of it, and yet the book is still incredibly funny. In fact, I’d argue that one of the main reasons the comedy works so well is that leavening of darkness, which makes the characters seem that much more real.

Zdarsky and Fraction might have been content with telling a fractured romance story with a few sci-fi overtones, but they clearly felt like that wasn’t nearly enough. Instead, they include things like an extended sequence where the lyrics to Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” are hidden behind apologetic notes because they couldn’t actually get the rights. Additionally, the sci-fi elements ramp up over the course of this first arc and we are given hints that there is a larger world of sexual absurdity surrounding Jon and Suzie’s more personal connection.

The art is great throughout – unique without being overly stylized or distracting – and the writing is hilarious and affecting in equal measure. I can’t wait to read more of Sex Criminals; I’m just sad that I’ll catch up to the current issue very quickly, and then who knows how long I’ll have to wait to read more. This is, of course, the downside of creator-owned comic books nowadays: they can and do publish whenever they feel like it, even if that means months between issues.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Alex + Ada, Volume 1: Artificial Love Story #999

Alex + Ada, Volume 1Alex + Ada, Volume 1

Art: Jonathan Luna
Script: Sarah Vaughn

Published: July 29, 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Alex + Ada opens with its sad-sack main character, Alex, waking up to yet another mundane workday. Alex, we discover, is still pining after his most recent ex-girlfriend after seven long months, and his friends just want him to get out there and do something about it.

The only mildly different note in this parade of clichés occurs when Alex talks to his rich (and horny) grandmother on the phone and she secretly decides to order him a nearly life-like android companion. Complications ensue when the newly arrived Ada turns out to have the personality of an eager-to-please talking mannequin and Alex finds he can’t relate to her.

You can probably guess where the story goes next. The problem is that this first volume is all about getting there, and nothing about it stands out from the crowds of stories that have dealt with very similar material. Spike Jonze’s Her was a flawed movie at best, but it still had a far more original approach to relationships between human beings and artificial intelligences.

Ultimately, Alex + Ada treads familiar ground and doesn’t even try to change things up while doing it. The most interesting part of this story arc happens at the end of the book, but it still doesn’t feel like enough to make this series unique. Honestly, I’d rather read this story from the perspective of an AI instead of yet another lovelorn social misfit.

As for the art, it’s reasonably competent, but the clearly digital nature of the backgrounds is jarring enough to become distracting. Overall, however, I just found it uninteresting and ultimately forgettable.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Nowhere Men, Vol. 1: Bigger Than The Beatles

Nowhere Men, Volume 1Nowhere Men, Volume 1: Fates Worse Than Death

Writer: Eric Stephenson
Artist: Nate Bellegarde
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Lettering & Design: Fonografiks

Published: December 3, 2013
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Length: 184 pages

Nowhere Men, Volume 1 tells the story of a world that treats scientists like rock stars and celebrities. Not only do they get flashy photo opportunities and magazine cover stories, but their influence spreads so far throughout society that it causes huge leaps forward in scientific developments while also inspiring an anarchist “punk” subculture. In this world, cloning is commonplace and a robot went on a mission to space decades ago.

In the first volume, Stephenson weaves together two story lines. First, we meet the founders of World Corps, a foursome of scientists who enjoy rock star levels of fame and success until their partnership begins unraveling in the public eye. The timeline jumps back and forth from as early as the 1960s to the “present day”, which is where we meet a group of World Corps scientists dealing with a strange virus that is changing their bodies in unexpected ways (for better and worse). Interspersed with these scenes are news articles, magazine interviews, excerpts from books and advertisements that paint a fuller picture of the men behind World Corps, all done in pitch-perfect period style (with “yellowing” pages to boot).

So, on one hand this book turns scientists into the Beatles and watches how that changes the world, and on the other it deconstructs the Fantastic Four origin story and includes a much higher mortality rate. Tie this all together with an epistolary conceit, and you have an ambitious book that plays at the edges of comic book tropes without straying too far from the center. I really think it’s a fair comparison to say that Stephenson is playing with the form in much the same way that Alan Moore did with Watchmen. However, the scope of this story feels larger, if only because this first volume serves mostly as setup.

Stephenson definitely has a flair for characterization, at least when it comes to the founders of World Corps. I felt like I really had a clear sense of their personalities within the first few pages, and that sense only deepened with every interview and flashback. The group of scientists affected by the virus fared a little worse, if only because there are so many of them, and they spend most of the story in reactive mode, freaking out because they’re sick and don’t know why. I have a feeling Stephenson will correct this as the story goes on, however, simply because this first volume sets them up as potential heroes in opposition to the various misdeeds of World Corps (not that I think the story will be that clear-cut).

My only other criticism of this first volume is that it feels like Stephenson only provides the barest hint of an overall story arc; instead, the first volume mostly consists of back story and setup. However, there’s so much detail crammed in here that it seems clear that the first volume is only the first few chapters of a larger story, and not a discrete story arc in and of itself.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I’ll definitely be picking up future volumes. The only downside is that it looks like Image is releasing new issues at a glacial pace, and #7 is nowhere on their calendar. Even still, highly recommended.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Pretty Deadly, Volume 1: WTF Western

Pretty Deadly, Volume 1Pretty Deadly, Volume 1: The Shrike

Script: Kelly Sue Deconnick
Art & Cover: Emma Rios
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Edits: Sigrid Ellis
Letters: Clayton Cowles

Published: May 13th, 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

Pretty Deadly was my first exposure to “weird western”, a genre I knew existed but had never read. Things first get weird when we meet the narrators – a butterfly and a dead rabbit – and that’s only a taste of what’s to come. This first volume focuses on the adventures of Sissy, a girl wearing a vulture cloak, and Fox, an old blind gunman who sees more than you might think.

Fox and Sissy make ends meet by traveling from town to town telling the story of the Mason and his wife, Beauty, who he locked up in a stone tower. When Beauty despaired of her prison, she asked Death to come for her and take her away, but when he arrived, Death fell in love, and their union produced a baby.

That baby grew into Deathface Ginny, a relentless killer who comes to the aid of those in trouble if they sing her song. Needless to say, it isn’t long before Fox and Sissy are on the run from another killer named Big Alice and one of their friends summons Deathface Ginny. This results in a sword fight in the desert between the two women, one of whom has a skull tattooed on her face. It turns out that Fox and Sissy are on the run because there is more to Sissy than meets the eye, and all the players soon converge in a series of bloody gun and sword battles that lead them right up to Death’s door.

In some ways, Pretty Deadly reminded me of The Sandman’s penchant for dark supernatural stories set in the intersection between myth and reality. However, the characters were a bit flat, and I had a hard time keeping all of their motivations straight. Part of the reason for this is that the book feels overstuffed; we’re introduced to a decently large cast of characters in a very short amount of time, and none of them are given much depth. The pacing felt rushed, and the story relied more on bloody mayhem than genuine character moments.

Also, this volume reads like a fairly complete story arc. I’m not sure where the next book might go from here, and I’m also not sure who the viewpoint character(s) will be. The last page implies that Deathface Ginny will be the focus of the next volume, but that feels like an odd choice, simply because we spend more time with Fox and Sissy. So far, Deathface Ginny is nothing but a one-note killer with supernatural origins, and I can’t see myself being invested in a story with her as the focus. However, I suppose it’s also possible that the author will use Ginny as a gateway character into stories about other characters, much like Dream wasn’t necessarily the main character of The Sandman for its entire run.

As for the art, it’s striking, but the action scenes are so stylized that they are oftentimes hard to follow, which is a fatal flaw in a book so full of action. Ultimately, I wasn’t drawn into the world of Pretty Deadly, and I probably won’t pick up future volumes.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Red Sonja: Plagued by Chainmail Bikinis and Other Clichés

Red SonjaRed Sonja, Volume 1: Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone and Walter Geovani

Published: February 19, 2014
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Swords-and-Sorcery
Format: Digital
Length: 184 pages

I don’t have much experience with Conan the Barbarian or Red Sonja; my dad had a pretty sizable comic book collection when I was a kid, and I spent many an hour digging through it, but he didn’t have many comics from either series in his collection. I think there was maybe one over-sized Conan annual in the entire bunch, and that lone issue might have been my entire exposure to both properties. I never watched the movie adaptations made in the 80s because they looked TERRIBLE. However, when I saw that Gail Simone is the writer for the new Red Sonja series, I became intrigued even though I’ve never read any of her other work.

All this is to say up front that it’s possible I am not the right audience for this book. Simone writes in her introduction that she’s loved the character ever since she was a young comics reader, and as soon as she got the chance to work for Dynamite, writing a rebooted Red Sonja was her dream project. She’s enthusiastic about the title, found great female artists to illustrate the covers, and wrote the book so that it stands proudly on its own, separate from the Conan mythos. Simone’s Red Sonja sounds like the sort of thing that should leap off the page, but for some reason the book just felt inert and clichéd.

The Queen of Plagues bounces back and forth between Sonja’s origins and her attempt to protect the only king she’s ever respected – Dimath, who rescued her from gladiatorial slavery and to whom she pledged allegiance. Sonja is smarter, faster and more skilled at swordplay than her foes, but she is also an unrepentant drunk when wine is at hand.  When two young warriors, Nias and Ayla, find Sonja in the forest and ask her to come to Dimath’s aid, she reluctantly follows. However, when she arrives at Dimath’s court and agrees to lead his army, she soon discovers that her old friend, Annisia, is general of the opposing army. Annisia, who survived the gladiator pits at Sonja’s side only to go mad from guilt.

The story in this first volume of Red Sonja isn’t particularly deep or twisty. Sonja fights her foes and usually comes out ahead; if she occasionally fails, it is only a matter of time before she finds new resolve and returns twice as fierce. Simone relies on tropes that feel well-worn but for the fact that most of the characters are female, with male characters relegated to supporting roles. However, instead of breathing new life into hoary old clichés, Simone’s version of Sonja feels like it only satisfies the bare minimum of swords-and-sorcery storytelling.

I think my biggest problem with this book was that the dialogue is never more than serviceable, and as a result the characters fail to rise above their archetypes. I never got much of a sense of Sonja as anything other than a relentless warrior; her solitary quirk is her love of drink, played for (weak) laughs in what is an otherwise deadpan book. If any part of this book was extraordinary – plot, dialogue or characterization – it would be enough to raise it in my estimation, but unfortunately Simone just doesn’t deliver the goods.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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