Enjoy fantasy? And female protagonists? Make this your next vacation read.

Sabriel Cover

It took me about 18 months to give in to my boyfriend’s suggestions and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix.

I don’t know why I was so reluctant — he has good taste that’s similar to mine, and I enjoy a good fantasy novel, especially with a female protagonist. (I think actually it took me a while to discern the bust on the cover figure, and so I assumed it was about some medieval version of an ’80s skater boy).

But, thankfully, I eventually relented. And when I mentioned enjoying it on facebook, numerous friends chimed in saying they’d been fans for ages! Apparently I missed the boat back in 1995, but I’m on it now.

The map presented by Nix in Sabriel’s inside cover

Sabriel is actually the first book in a soon-to-be-quartet by Australian author Garth Nix, which takes place in a fantasy world which includes both the magical “Old Kingdom”, and (on the other side of The Wall) a non-magical society called “Ancelstierre”, which seems like early 1900s England. (While the non-magical part of the world has telegraphs, automobiles, and tanks, they lack many other modern-day accoutrements).

In the Old kingdom, magic can still function, but anything machine-made crumbles. It’s a place of monarchy & magic, and it has little to do with the people on the other side of it. To the south, a different government rules, magic doesn’t work, and some people there think all the magic is really just scientifically-explainable phenomena.

Those who live along the wall know otherwise. Soldiers guard it day and night to prevent unauthorized crossing in any direction (you need an official letter from both sides’ governments to cross) — and they use both magical and man-made weapons.

Sabriel, knows all of this — her father is the “Abhorsen”; a title claimed by one woman or man each generation in her family. The Abhorsen is a necromancer who returns the dead to where they belong, instead of raising them for evil & manipulation. He or she is responsible for protecting the people of the Old Kingdom from undead-making necromancers, and for banishing them and their possessed dead back through the seven gates to true Death.

The Abhorsen accomplishes this with 7 bells which can control either the dead or the living — making them walk, speak, be silent, or even go straight past the 7th gate on the river of death. As a necromancer, the Abhorsen must travels through the gates along the river of Death in order to find or fight other necromancers & the dead while avoiding the traps that each gate inherently holds.

Sabriel easily checks off the must-have qualities of a good fantasy novel — it’s well-written, dramatic, suspenseful, and each page leaves you hungry for more. The world is beautifully concocted and rich in detail; I was especially intrigued by the concept of the “Charter”, from which all “good” mages get their power. More power-hungry folks (like other necromancers) will instead try to tap into Free Magic, which the Charter was designed (in part) to constrain. Its power is drawn upon through runes, engraved or visualized, and it relies on the existence of engraved Charter Stones to keep it attainable by the mages. I found this concept to be very creative and distinct from magic in most fantasy novels, which is quite an accomplishment.

Once I got started, I couldn’t put it down — and then I couldn’t wait to get the next two from my local library!

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

In a delightful way which reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s books, the character development — especially of the female protagonists — is realistic & interesting. Throughout the series, we get female characters with aspirations and conflicts and problems that are multi-dimensional. And they’re not supposedly thinking about how their breasts feel against their tunics all the time, either (ahem, George R.R. Martin).

But, they’re also teenagers. And, you know what? They act kind of like real teenagers do — they can be short-sighted, ungrateful, grumpy, easily embarrassed, and reluctant to take advice. But they can also be brave & interesting & conflicted & are usually trying to do the right thing.

The comparative literature major in me also enjoyed the revelations over the 3 published books of conflicting moralities, shades of gray between wrong & right, and debates about whether anything can be truly, inherently evil (and whether attempts to restrain something dangerous can go too far).

(Oh, and did I mention there was a talking cat named “Mogget”? Yeah, he’s pretty cynical & awesome).

While the first book centers on Sabriel, the 2nd and 3rd are one long (and addicting) story arc following Lirael, whose life does eventually intertwine with Sabriel’s, though many years after the first book takes place. While this isn’t a common structure for a quartet, the books were so exciting that I didn’t care at all. I was glad I’d picked up #2 and 3 from the library on the same day so that I could move onto Abhorsen as soon as I finished Lirael.

There are elements in Nix’s series which remind me of the Gemma Doyle trilogy (Libba Bray), the Lioness Rampant quartet (Tamora Pierce), and even the Foundation trilogy (Isaac Asimov). (That last one is less obvious of a connection, but I personally got a similar feeling from the two books in how they tell stories of multiple generations & the passage of time).

They’re all quick reads, too (but so exciting that you might pick ’em up just a couple months later for a re-read!). As summer (and hopefully a vacation or two) looms closer, I heartily endorse picking up Sabriel, and seeing if you don’t get pulled along for the rest of the series!

 

Friday Feature: Pretty Deadly

I’ve briefly mentioned Pretty Deadly before on the blog, but it’s never been the subject of a Friday Feature. Part of my reasoning behind not featuring it until now was that I wasn’t certain about where it was going or how I felt about it.

Before issue #1 came out, Pretty Deadly had already experienced a higher-than-average hyping up. Part of this came from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who was excited to be working with artist Emma Rios on an all-female creative team.

Who can really blame her? Female creatorship is still pretty rare in the industry and having a creative team that passes the Bechdel test is even more unusual than having a book that does.

But the other side of that coin is that a lot of the hype came for this book just based on her excitement to be working with another woman. Again, not a bad thing, but we didn’t really know anything about the story (unless you dug deep through comics journalism) until after the book debuted.

Plenty of people ordered the book just because of the creative team with no other information. I was one of them. I wanted to support these creators (and publishers that support their creators and let the creators keep ownership of their work).

But when I read issue #1, I was a bit confused at the end of it. I liked what I saw, but I didn’t really have a good idea of where the story was headed. Debut issues of new comic titles are difficult – you have to both sell the audience on a new story and end on a compelling enough cliffhanger that they feel like they’re going to get their money’s worth out of the next issue.

I’m not totally sure that Pretty Deadly #1 did that. But after finishing issue #5 this week, I’m certain that despite my early misgivings Pretty Deadly is a solid book that lives up to promises it made in issue #1 that I didn’t even realize it was making.

DeConnick and Rios create a new mythology of the wild west in Pretty Deadly. With characters like “the Mason,” his wife “Beauty,” Death and his Daughter, Molly Raven and Johnny Coyote – this book his strongly on prototypically mythological beats. Gods or godlike characters clash with one another in a cosmic drama that plays out before us, with ramifications on a human scale.

One of Pretty Deadly’s mythic story beats: Beauty asks Death for her freedom.

Pretty Deadly is still somewhat of an all-or-nothing book. Most people either love it or hate it. The haters out there are saying that not enough happens, the characters are too vague, or that DeConnick is trying to mask a lack of drama with poetic writing.

They’re outright wrong about not enough happening. The pace of the book is variable, but there’s never an issue when the plot doesn’t advance. As far as vague characters and poetic writing go, these are characteristics of mythologies. No one story can tell you everything about a deity, why should we know everything about Ginny (Death’s Daughter) after one comic arc.

The art of Pretty Deadly is unparalleled in the industry. One of its primary colors is orange – which paints beautiful sunsets and assigns color to the arid feel of the western plains. Aside from the use of color, Rios’ penciling is beautiful, detailed, and emotional.

All in all, I think Pretty Deadly is one of the best books on shelves these days – but it does appeal very strongly to my taste for the mythic. Many will think the art is worth the cover price, and I would agree there, but if you look for story in your comic book purchase, know what you’re getting into.

Dungeons & Dragons & the Devil

I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons last year. The highlights of our game night included pizza, beer, and hanging out with a bunch of cool nerds. It was fun, but part of me expected something more.

Like the ascent of the dark lord Satan.

You see, I first heard of D&D in the mid-90s during a late night car ride, while listening to Unshackled on our local Christian radio station. If you’re not familiar with the program, it features dramatic retellings of people’s troubled life stories and their conversions to Christianity, which “unshackled” them from the demons of drugs, or gangs, or in this case, tabletop RPGs.

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

I was unable to find the episode online — as you’ll see if you click above, the Unshackled website leaves a little something to be desired — but I recall the story’s general arc. A socially awkward young woman starts playing D&D as a way to make new friends, only to discover that the game is a gateway to dark occult practices. The B-movie style voice acting and the mood music provided by a Casio organ really cemented the idea in my mind that a 12-sided die was an instrument of the devil.

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Since then, fundamentalists have attached satanic panic to other geek interests, like Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering, but despite the fact that its popularity has long since waned (playing D&D when you own a perfectly good Playstation is analogous to a hipster with a new Macbook writing a letter on a typewriter) Dungeons & Dragons remains the occult gateway drug par excellence in the conservative Christian consciousness.

This is due in no small part to Jack Chick. Chick is an old-fashioned fundamentalist who has been made internet-famous through his so-bad-they’re-good evangelistic tracts. These mini comic books highlight a whole range of “sins,” from homosexuality to Halloween to Islam.

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

One of the Chick tracts that’s been most widely circulated online is entitled Dark Dungeons. Like that radio show that scared 7-year old me away from the evil world of RPGs, Dark Dungeons tells the tale of a girl who gets sucked into the occult through D&D.

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Like most Chick tracts, it ends in tragedy and a dramatic conversion.

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The cult status of Dark Dungeons has inspired a soon-to-be released film by the same name.

DDTM---Main-Cast-Photo---web

According to the creators:

Dark Dungeons the movie is an adaptation of the comic Dark Dungeons that tries its best to stay true to the spirit and word of the source material given the limitations in adapting a comic to live-action and in expanding a 22-panel comic into an interesting and exciting motion picture. Many of the scenes and dialogue from Dark Dungeons the movie are lifted straight from the comic.

The movie seeks to achieve satire not through exaggeration, but through verisimilitude. As the panels above show, it would be difficult to make something more ridiculous than the original. While the satirical intent of the film is clear through the information provided on the website, I believe that when the film is viewed outside of this context, we will be faced with an example of that old internet adage, Poe’s Law.

Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing. Take a look at Objective: Ministries and Rapture Ready. It takes a well-developed sense of humor and a high level of literacy in the language of Christian fundamentalism to discern which one is a parody. (I’ll take your votes in the comments — know that I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical culture, and I still had to fact check to make sure I was right).

The nature of fundamentalism is that it is so extreme that it effectively self-parodies. If I had not known the origin of the Dark Dungeons tract, I would have read it as well-executed satire. The other side of that coin is that some people may encounter Dark Dungeons the movie and read it as a sincere attempt by fundamentalist Christians to reveal the evils of D&D. Hell, for all I know, Unshackled is the best and longest-running parody of fundamentalist culture ever created.

The Dark Dungeons filmmakers have compiled a pretty great collection of videos on their website featuring fundamentalists condemning D&D. You should also check out Mazes and Monsters, another reactionary take on D&D that basically consists of an hour of a young Tom Hanks LARPing in a cave. Sincere or satire, this material all makes for comedy gold.   Dark Dungeons comes out on August 14 – your D&D party or your local evangelical youth group be equally entertained.

Friday Feature: Sixth Gun

I’m not really sure when the “fantasy western” genre appeared on the scene, but with titles like Pretty Deadly and Sixth Gun on the comic landscape, I’m really happy it did.

Sixth Gun is one of the best comics nobody is reading. It debuted on Free Comic Book Day 2010 and it’s still ongoing, so it has some momentum behind it now. I’ll confess that I’ve only read volume 1 of this particular wonder, but I look forward to getting caught up on it soon.

The concept might seem a little “trope-y” to regular fantasy or western readers (maybe, I don’t actually read that many westerns). There are 6 cursed, magical guns, created by some sort of pact with the devil. The first gun belonged to wicked Confederate General Oleander Hume, who gave the other five to his trusted inner-circle. Each gun holds a different special power. One can summon the ghosts of those that the gun has killed, another immolates anyone hit by its bullets, another fires with the force of a cannon.

At the beginning of the story, Hume’s personal firearm is in the hands of someone else, and his inner circle is on the hunt for it. When the current owner is killed in a hail of gunfire, his daughter picks up the Sixth Gun to enact vengeance on his killers – only to find that the gun is now bound to her until her death.

Writer Cullen Bunn is now on my list of creators to look out for. He’s writing two upcoming villain books that I’m pretty excited about: Sinestro over at DC, and Magneto for Marvel. If you’re a fan of either of those characters, be sure and keep an eye out for their upcoming solo titles, written by Cullen Bunn.