Archive for August, 2011

Marvel Comic Capsule Reviews

It’s been a few months since my last round of comic book capsule reviews, and there are several more miniseries and new titles that I’m ready to discuss. This one will focus on some recent Marvel comics, since none of my new independent comics are far enough along for a review. (DC comics is currently in the process of winding all its titles down, rather than starting new ones up. I plan to look back at some of these soon, once their big reboot happens.)

It’s interesting to see Marvel branching out more and more from superheroes. In addition to four new superhero series, this article takes a look at two new titles in the Crossgen line.

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Embassytown (Book Review)

Embassytown cover


China Miéville is a restless author who resists being pigeonholed from book to book. The one constant element, though, is his love for unexpected and truly unusual ideas. From that perspective, Embassytown is on the same end of the spectrum as The City and The City, having just a couple new ideas that are worth taking the entire book to develop. Embassytown probably doesn’t have the crossover potential of The City and The City, though. While that new book was structured as a more easily-accessible police procedural, this new one is unashamedly science fiction.

In a way, it’s disappointing to see Miéville work in a traditional science fiction space. His irreverent experimentation sent shockwaves through the fantasy community a decade ago, but it seems perfectly normal on the SF side of the fence. However, this is the story of humans figuring out a strange alien race, and that subgenre plays perfectly to Miéville’s strengths.

The titular Embassytown is a human settlement on a planet populated by the Ariekei, an alien race whose language requires one to make sounds out of two mouths at once. It only sounds right to them if a single being is making both sets of sounds, so they simply can’t comprehend speech coming from a machine or from two humans working together. The human settlement can only communicate through “Ambassadors”, pairs of people whose brains have been altered to give them such a strong connection to each other that the Ariekei accept them as a single being.

The premise sounds hard to accept, like one of the minor races that a typical space opera would just mention in passing. In Embassytown, though, this concept is explained and expanded upon so carefully that it becomes meaty enough for an entire book. There are a number of interesting quirks to this system, of course. The Ambassadors’ lives and positions within society are important (as is the way this colony planet relates back to its parent empire – Miéville’s books always involve some cynical politics).The Ariekei, meanwhile, are born with an innate knowledge of their “Language”, but are unable to comprehend that any other forms of communication exist. The Language is so fundamental to them that they aren’t even able to lie, and the fact that humans can speak untruths is fascinating to them. To even use something as abstract as a simile, the Ariekei need to create that simile in real life. For this reason, the narrator of the book once took place in a carefully-orchestrated ceremony to become “the girl who ate what was given to her”. The narrator, Alice Cho, is unable to speak Ariekei Language despite being a part of it, and has no understanding of what meaning she now has in their alien minds.

All of this, with culture, the mysteries of alien language, and a little bit about space travel through the futuristic empire, makes the first half of the book fascinating. Mysteries slowly start to unravel, though human understanding remains imperfect. For a time, it seems like it may be one of Miéville’s most fascinating and original works yet. However, the novel’s real conflict becomes clear about halfway through, and these mysteries are all put aside in favor of simple survival. Miéville does not write about fear, crisis, and war as convincingly as he brings strange ideas to life, so even as both the human and alien civilizations begin to collapse, the danger feels abstract to the reader. It’s not an uncommon problem for Miéville – his strengths lie in the way he can build up worlds for us, but he personally is more interested in tearing them down – but it is more obvious in this book than in most, since the particular crisis the characters face makes it impossible to keep learning more about the fascinating Ariekei and their Language.

Fortunately, it all does come together again in the final chapters of the book, with the ideas that had been building at the beginning providing the answers at the end. Embassytown may have the tightest and most satisfying conclusion of any Miéville book yet, which should be a very reassuring sign to his fans.

That dragging section in the latter half of the novel is significant, but it really is the only fault in what would otherwise be one of the best science fiction works of recent years. With its original, weird, but still well-justified ideas, Embassytown is well worth experiencing.

Grade: B

State of the Blog

Hi everyone. I know that this blog hasn’t been updating as regularly over the past couple months, but don’t worry. This won’t be a permanent thing, and I have a very good excuse: I got married.

Life has been pretty crazy lately, and most other things (especially reading books, and even more so writing about anything) have been put on the back-burner. But I intend to get back to a regular posting schedule soon. I have a huge backlog of half-written reviews in my head, and I’ll go crazy if I don’t get around to it soon.

I’m halfway through my 2-week honeymoon right now. When I return, I’ll have a 3-day weekend at home before returning to work, and I definitely intend to write then.

(By the way, I don’t normally write reviews of events. But if I did, my wedding and reception would have easily earned an A.)

Dropkick Murphys – Going Out In Style (Music Review)

Going Out In Style cover

Dropkick Murphys - Going Out In Style

Don’t let the Dropkick Murphys fool you. Though they named their latest album Going Out In Style, they have no plan to disband anytime soon. They’re an institution now, so much so that their Wikipedia page needs a chart to record the members who have come and gone over the years, and they know exactly how to please their fans with every new album. (It helps that they wait a few years between each release, so there’s never a glut of Murphys music.)

That’s not to say that the Dropkick Murphys sound exactly the same from year to year. Interestingly, Going Out In Style is possibly the Irish punk band’s hardest album yet, but the standard punk signifiers are almost missing. Bagpipes and flutes, which used to appear sporadically for flavor, are now as prominent as the guitars, and a new listener could easily interpret this as an especially raucous Irish band.

Despite this change, the band’s strength is still in how naturally they connect Irish and punk culture. The wild party in Going Out In Style’s title track is a punker’s dream, but the specifics draw from hard-drinking Irish culture. “Sunday Hardcore Matinee” is about going to concerts as a kid, but describes punk shows as a character-building experience that their community-oriented fanbase will embrace. And of course, the Murphys’ rocking renditions of traditional songs (here “Peg of My Heart” and “The Irish Rover”) still sound like they should have been the definitive versions of the songs all along.

Even more than the Irish elements, the thing that really sets the Dropkick Murphys apart from other punk bands is their perspective as mature adults. It’s a traditionally youthful genre, but they manage to sound perfectly natural looking back at a hard-fought life (“Cruel”) or giving life lessons to those around them (“Deeds Not Words”). This element features even more strongly than normal here, with Going Out In Style being billed as a tribute to a (fictional) 78-year-old veteran and longshoreman named Connie Larkin.

In short, the Dropkick Murphys have once again released one of the best legitimate punk albums of the year, while also writing songs that will appeal to a lot of people who would normally even never give punk music a chance.

Grade: A-