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Graphic Novel Review: Path of the Assassin Vol. 1: Serving in the Dark, by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima

Graphic Novel Review: by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, published by Dark Horse, 2006, (originally published in Japan by Koike Shoin Publishing Co., Ltd, 2000.)

As a rule, I don’t like conventional manga. It just isn’t my thing. I don’t like the simplified expressions, the little “chibi” figures, or the use of motion lines, and I often find the story lines over-fantastical.

However, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, masterminds behind the amazing Lone Wolf and Cub, helped change my opinion. This stuff is the real deal, this is what manga is supposed to be.

Even if you aren’t a manga fan, I recommend giving Path of the Assassin an honest try. It is the tale of a young albeit skilled ninja, Hattori Hanzo, who is charged with protecting the teenage Tokugawa Ieyasu. Volume 1 follows Hanzo as he serves his master in the dark, telling the story of the unlikely friendship that develops between the ninja and the shogun. The

hatch-y ink drawings, much more realistic than normally found in manga, lend the graphic novel a dark, solemn mood. Path of the Assassin rolls expressive artwork, action, history, and a unique coming-of-age tale into one bundle.

My copy has a eye-catching black and white sticker on the cover. “Explicit content,” it reads. “Parental Advisory.” The sticker does not lie. This manga is for mature readers only. While the fight scenes are violent, I don’t find them overly graphic or gory – the advisory is for explicit sexual content.

I suggest reading in the original right-to-left format. It takes a while to get used to – you’re essentially reading backwards – but the experience becomes a little more authentic.

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Book Review: The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by Matthews

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: The Ultimate A-Z of Fantastic Beings from Myth and Legend by John and Caitlín Matthews, published by HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004.

The Element Encyclopedia is not a new book, but is definitely worth the time it takes to write a review. Like the title claims, this is the ultimate guide to critters and beasties of myth and legend.

I have never heard of the majority of the monsters and legends in this book – for a general idea, consider this: I just randomly flipped to a page describing the “Basket Monster,” a baby stealing creature found in Zulu folklore. Basically, if you are looking for an uncommon and not-yet-been-destroyed-by-pop-culture monster (read: “vampire”), this is the book for you.

How many can honestly claim they have ever heard of the Middle Eastern “Ant-Lion?” What about “Hotu-Puku the Taniwha” of Maori legend?

This book is pretty large, with 650ish pages and weighing just under 4 pounds. Fortunately, all this space is utilized – The Element Encyclopedia is absolutely packed full o’ information. As a writer, I find it incredibly useful. Whenever I need an obscure legend or monster, I know exactly where to look. The descriptions are generally in-depth and informative, and occasionally compare a lesser-known creature to one similar and more common.

My biggest complaint is the lack of visuals. There are virtually no illustrations, which I found dissatisfying. Then I realized that if pictures had been included, this encyclopedia would be too bulky to actually use.

Recommended for anyone interested in monsters and/or mythology. I have to reduce my rating due to disappointment in the lack of illustrations: The Element Encyclopedia is awarded 8.5 out of 10 stars.

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Graphic Novel Review: The Odyssey by Hinds

Poseidon in all his watercolored glory

The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds, based on the epic poem by Homer, published by Candlewick press, 2010

This full length, watercolored version of The Odyssey, adapted, drawn and colored by none other than the amazing Gareth Hinds, is nothing short of wonderful. Expressively penciled and beautifully painted, there is so much to love about this graphic novel.

If anything, the length should impress you. Anyone who has read The Odyssey, whether the original or an adaptation, knows that it is the epic to end all epics. This sucker is long. At 250 fully colored pages, I can imagine this project took a healthy (ungodly) amount of time to finish. I stand in humble admiration – I can’t even imagine completing something this big.

And then there is the art. I was very impressed by Hinds’ cfritically acclaimed graphic version of Beowulf, and was expecting the coloration to be similarly dark and delightfully grim. However, the painting in Odyssey is very different; it is lighter, more colorful, and complements the Mediterranean scenery. Gareth Hinds is clearly a master.

One detail that stuck with me was the rendition of the cyclops. He doesn’t just look like a giant human with one eye, as he is so often portrayed. This cyclops truly looks like a monster. He’s got fangs, slightly pointed ears, nipple piercings, and a wide range of expression – he goes from laughing to cunning to anguish in the space of a few panels. This guy has personality. Other versions of The Odyssey tend to use him as a prop, nothing more than a cruel monster, but for once I actually felt sorry for him.

And my god, I have never seen anyone paint blood better than Mr. Hinds! Who knew gore could be so esthetically pleasing?

But alas, I do have one negative thing to say about this graphic novel. The word balloons are obviously computer generated. They take up a lot of space and the balloon tails are often awkwardly shaped. They seem out of place juxtaposed with the fantastic illustrations. It makes me wonder what these pages would have looked like with hand drawn, hand letter balloons.

In short, this is a great introduction to Homer. Not nearly as tedious as the actual poem (writes the highly opinionated, not-at-all-famous book reviewer), and the reader actually gets to see the heroes, the villains, the monsters, the gods, the action and the inevitable blood. Highly, highly, highly recommended for anyone 12 and up.

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Graphic Novel Review: Rose by Smith, Vess

The cover - illustrated by Smith

Rose written by Jeff Smith, illustrated by Charles Vess, published by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2009.

I am a huge fan of Jeff Smith’s Bone. I read and loved the original black-and-white tome, and loved it even more after Scholastic published the version colored by Steve Hamaker. Bone was funny, smart, wonderfully illustrated, and above all a strongly written, engaging tale. Needless to say, I was excited when I saw there was to be a prequel to the series.

Instant disappointment struck when I saw that Rose was not, in fact, illustrated by Smith. It was instead done by the highly acclaimed Charles Vess. Unfortunately, I can’t say I am a huge fan.

There’s no denying it: Vess is a great artist. He has won two Eisner awards as well as the 1999 World Fantasy Award for Best Artist. He is very accomplished at drawing backgrounds; the wooded hills and ice-bound cliffs of The Valley are expertly depicted and colored. The backgrounds lend the whole graphic novel an air of mystery and danger – I can’t help but compare them to locations in The Lord of the Rings.

However, I am not impressed with his depictions of the characters. This is probably because I already know what they are supposed to look like; Jeff Smith had already show us the younger versions of Rose, Briar, and Lucius.

Rose isn’t a bad story. However, it just doesn’t seem to fit the tone of Bone. I think I would have found it more enjoyable if it was offered as a stand-alone story as opposed to a prequel. During the second reading, I realized there were multiple aspects of the artwork and storytelling that I enjoyed – the problems arose when I tried to connect it to the rest of the story. Maybe I’m just being clingy and nostalgic, but I would have appreciated this prequel much more if it was both written and drawn by Jeff Smith.

I am finding it impossible to rate Rose. The best way to say ti is this: even though it was not quite what I was hoping for, Rose deserves its spot on my shelf.

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Book Review: The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

Here is a case of judging a book by its cover – and being both completely right and absolutely wrong.
I read the back cover of The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett and was instantly hesitant about reading. Brett’s debut novel sounded bland and generic; nothing grabbed my attention. It sounded suspiciously like just another unoriginal fantasy story, the kind with a cover depicting a voluptuous female elf wearing, of all things, a bearskin bikini, complete with metal studs and maybe even some rips in appropriate places.
I generally have a mistrust of such stories.
However, the real-life picture is dark, has an original feel, is very esthetically pleasing and is most definitely several steps up from mediocre. It couldn’t hurt to give a book with a cover this nice a try, I thought.
I carried my hesitation through the first seven or so pages. It was soon forgot.. Several chapters later, I realized that I was reading something completely different than expected, something unique.
The Warded Man is set in a developed and well-imagined world. The characters – three main protagonists, who switch every few chapters – have equally strong personalities. The plot is fairly simple. The Warded Man is essentially the story of a seemingly endless battle between elemental demons and the weakening forces of humanity, who cower behind magical symbols and watch as their settlements fall one by one, there hope residing in an ancient legend. The story follows the coming-of-age of three young adults, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer, all highly talented survivors. All three are different in personality and belief, but they ultimately share a common goal.
Peter V. Brett’s world is dark, grimy, dangerous, and attractive in a slightly morbid sort of way. He is a very descriptive writer, but yet the scenery is not overly obvious. The setting and the characters fit well together to create a convincing atmosphere. The fantasy element is described in a way that allows the reader to accept it as just another part of the world. This is top-notch world building.
This is fantasy at it’s best.
A review by SFRevu (U.K.) shares my overall opinion of The Warded Man: “…A very accomplished debut… without doubt exciting and with exceptionally well-rendered characters–the fate of whom the reader cares about very much.”
Also, there are no bearskin bikinis.
Highly recommended.

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