Friday, January 28, 2011

Great Escape from the Castle in the Sky

For most things, there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do them. 
Whether it’s sorting lights from darks in the laundry hamper (oddly, not as self-explanatory to some people as one might think or hope), loading the dishwasher (and yes, there is a “correct” way if you want to get more than one meal’s worth of dishes in there), writing an effective business letter (please, for the love of Thoth*, pay attention in your high school English classes), or dealing with an unsolicited caller/salesman/annoying neighbor (a firm “No”, followed by a click/slam/walk away rarely fails), most of us have a pattern we follow to complete each task... the “right” way of accomplishing whatever.
The same holds true for books. We start at the beginning and read until we get to the end (unless you’re one of those people who--for some unfathomable-to-me reason--peeks at the ending first). We expect a book labeled as a “mystery” to contain a puzzling whodunit and a “romance” to be full of lusty bodice-ripping... but in neither case would we consider a tedious discourse on economics or the inner workings of combustion engines to be appropriate. (See? The right way, versus the wrong way.)  
We look forward with equal parts anticipation and trepidation to movie versions of our favorite stories... but rarely (never?) leave the theater thinking to ourselves, “Wow, I hope they make a book out of that!”. (That would just be all sorts of wrong.)
And now, we have the increasingly-common practice of subjecting popular books to the graphic novel treatment, in which either an entire book is summarized (sort of like a Cliffs Notes version with the addition of cool artwork), or one thrilling episode is pulled from the larger story and recreated in visual form. So, to take something from the graphic medium and then make a book out of it would surely be kind of wrong, right?
Normally, I'd agree. In the (happy) case of Agatha H. and the Airship City, however, that backwards approach works almost smashingly well.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s popular “Girl Genius” web-comic, here’s a little background... Set sometime during the Industrial Revolution--with an “alternate history” in effect--Europe has become a strange and fractured new place, ruled by a kind of weird science in the form of the “Sparks” (genius mad scientists who crank out one bizarre fighting contraption or weapon of war after another, keeping the populace in check through fear). These nefarious Sparks came to power on the heels of the (highly-fortuitous) disappearance of the last of the brilliant-and-good scientists, the beloved Heterodyne Boys (whose legend lives on some sixteen years later, in the hearts of the beleaguered townsfolk). 
Agatha H. and the Airship City concerns the earliest days of "GG", introducing us to our heroine and setting up the rest of the series. It follows the adventures of a rather hapless student attending the esteemed Transylvania Polygnostic University--one sweet and innocent Miss Agatha Clay, a budding scientist who singlehandedly builds scores of nifty little contraptions in the lab at the university... none of which work, to her immense chagrin. (Never fear, though; failure isn’t about to stop our intrepid Victorian Miss.) When the ruthless Baron Klaus Wulfenbach orchestrates a hostile takeover of TPU, poor Agatha becomes part of the spoils of war, and finds herself put into service aboard Wulfenbach’s gigantic airship (the new, floating home of Castle Wulfenbach, by the way). And, as Agatha learns the ropes--meeting many young Sparks, some ordinary scientists, and a lot of bizarre... erm, “others”--while plotting ways to escape the airship (in hope of reuniting with her missing parents), she gradually comes to the unexpected realization that she, too, seems to have more than a bit of the Spark in her... and that her destiny just might end up being way bigger than she could have ever dreamed.
Agatha H. actually begins prior to where the web-comic does; we get a scene featuring the Heterodyne Boys, before they disappeared, and it’s a very nice addition to the story. The rest of the book more or less follows the same timeline and action as the early “GG”, though: Agatha’s home life and time at the University, the takeover at TPU, and her escapades once she finds herself part of the strange new world of Castle Wulfenbach.
“GG” is a delightful, inventive series, and the writing duo (the Foglios) deserve every award for which they’ve been nominated and have won. The artwork is gorgeous, bringing all the myriad characters to stunning life on your monitor, and the story is richly-layered, taking unexpected twists and thrilling turns along the way. Going into the smart, clever Steampunkian (note that author Kaja prefers to call it “gaslamp fantasy”, as their work adds science to the “steam”, but leaves out the “punk” aspect) world of “Girl Genius” is an immersion exercise; once you start, you get hooked, and you don't want to stop.
Conversely, therein also lies my one-and-only problem with it. New episodes appear thrice weekly, meaning--since the Foglios have been working on this since 2001, and publishing online since 2005--there’s a LOT of comics to go through. Online. Which not only takes a lot of time, but really fatigues my eyes (leading to progressively-inattentive reading, headaches of epic proportions, and tired, twitchy peepers, yay). Bottom line? I’m not even remotely caught up to the present in the series, which is incredibly frustrating, because I long to be. (Yep, the story really is that good.)
For me, then, the advent of this first “GG” webcomic-to-book is cause for celebration. Sure, I already knew the story (or most of it--there are little additions and tweaks here and there, as I mentioned), but it’s a completely different experience reading everything without benefit of all that glorious artwork. I now understand things that I hadn’t quite caught onto--or maybe hadn’t paid enough attention to--when I first read/viewed it online last spring/summer. Reading the story in book format has filled in some of the gaps, and the chance to immerse myself (after a ridiculously-long absence) in that world once again--in a different and new way--is nothing short of awesome.

By now you're probably wondering if you need to read the web-comic. Absolutely, if you enjoy fabulously-creative sci-fi/fantasy complete with uber-cool world-building, witty dialog, some ripping-good action/adventure, and a little romance thrown in... not to mention those gorgeous illustrations. (Wait... did I mention that there's also a cat--a bipedal, talking one? Yes, well, just chalk that up in the lengthy "why you should read GG" column, okay?)
But, I highly recommend that you follow your reading/viewing of the first year or so of the online series with Agatha H. and the Airship City, because it really finishes the job of fleshing everything out. (Unless, of course, you’re a genius of Spark proportions, yourself, and grasp every little nuance instantly--in which case I can only assume you’re only reading the series to try to gank a few dastardly ideas to carry out your own Plot to Overthrow the World... in which case, good luck with that.) For the rest of us mere mortals, though, it’s just another way to enjoy the ride.       
(Note that the serial web-comic is periodically assembled into volumes of graphic novels--good to know if your budget allows for them, or if you’re lucky enough to have a library that stocks them. There are now, I believe, nine volumes of “Girl Genius”, so Agatha H. clearly just covers a fraction of the story, to date... paving the way in future, I hope, for many more of these graphic-novels-to-books.)

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 mousies  
*Thoth is the Egyptian god of writing, wisdom, and speech. (Good to know, right? ;)) 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Real-life Noir: A Master Exposes the Seamy Underbelly

An impressionable young boy, later haunted in adulthood by one simple, rather ordinary act committed as a ten-year-old child... that of wishing his own mother dead. It was a wish--a curse, really--which all-too-soon would come tragically true, when the mother was found strangled to death.
Years of unhappiness and uncertainty followed, as the boy struggled to make sense out of the horrific event he was secretly sure he’d somehow caused...

An endless search for something, anything, to give some meaning to the inexplicable event or to mask the pain... 
The inexorable, downward spiral into the welcoming arms of drugs and alcohol, and finally to crime-- breaking & entering, peeping at windows; sinking ever deeper into a pit of despair and depravity...
It could be fodder for a story about a serial killer in the making (or about someone who “went postal”, turned to religion, or earned a stay in a fine correctional facility, with complimentary orange jumpsuit included). Instead, it’s all part of a tale plucked straight out of the pages of acclaimed author James Ellroy’s own personal history book, and is the focus of “James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons”, the first episode in a brand-new, six-part series about the City of (fallen) Angels--as seen through the eyes of native son Ellroy--airing on the Investigation Discovery channel starting this week.  
✬ ~ ✬ ~ ✬ ~ ✬
Ellroy, of course, specializes in crime stories--those of murdered women, more precisely. And, as he intones during “City of Demons”, the reason for that is simple; “Dead women own me,” he repeats, over and over again. 
It is an ominous statement which seems eerily pertinent, for his career--at least since he sobered up in the late ‘70s--has revolved around writing about women who've died at the hands of others, all well before their time. His is not a fascination based on mere titillation or chosen as a way to make a quick buck, though, and it soon becomes apparent how deeply Ellroy’s interest in the subject matter lies; it is his lifelong passion.

Beginning with the details of his mother’s murder--his feelings, what he remembers, and how his life changed from that point on--Ellroy then moves on to explain the other key ingredient in the formation of his obsession with murdered women... his exposure, only several months after his mother’s death, to a book which luridly recounted in graphic detail an earlier L.A. murder, the notorious Black Dahlia case.
According to Ellroy, the two unsolved cases--his mother’s strangulation and the grotesquely-violent, misogynistic murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth "Betty" Short (aka the Black Dahlia) more than a decade earlier--became irrevocably intertwined in his mind. The younger woman’s death achieved a near-mystical symbolism to the eleven-year-old James, vividly illustrating, to him, just how vulnerable women really are. 
“Kiddy-noir obsession... or spiritual quest?”, he asks somewhat wryly. (It is a question he never really answers; rather, it’s something he tosses out there to percolate in viewers’ minds.) 
More than thirty-five years would elapse before Ellroy at last recognized his long-time obsession for what it had become: his mission, of listening to dead women and telling their tales to the world. (The rest, as they say, is history, as he goes on to pen such bestsellers as L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia.) 
✬ ~ ✬ ~ ✬ ~ ✬
“City of Demons” offers a fascinating look into a strange and brilliant man’s psyche--a little stroll down the dark, demented side of his soul, as he discusses four murder cases which have particularly affected him. Ellroy is a creepy narrator/tour guide throughout, emphatically melodramatic in his delivery one moment and flatly monotone the next. He is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from, his bespectacled eyes full of a grim reality (tempered by a soupçon of mischievousness) as he paints a picture of a very gritty L.A.--one far-removed from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, but which is, instead, a place forever tarnished by malevolence, mayhem, and murder. 
“James Ellroy’s L.A.” premieres Wednesday, January 19 at 10pm ET/PT on Investigation Discovery... and it's must-see TV for all my fellow crime/thriller/mystery afficionados out there! :)

Friday, January 14, 2011

On Wings of Metal, the Heart takes Flight

Someone tries to sabotage (cause the complete downfall of, overthrow, etc.) a company (government, country, or the like) by jacking into its computer systems and committing all manner of dastardly deeds once inside. That used to be a recurring theme found only in science fiction books. These days it’s just as likely to be the plot of the latest high-tech thriller, though, because it’s the kind of thing we worry about now. 
What changed? Technology, of course. Suddenly, what once seemed futuristic and impossible is commonplace. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that our cell phones actually make calls, because they do so many other things. Cars operate via a complicated system of computer chips that monitor and adjust for pretty much everything (let alone the ones that back into parking spots on their own). We can carry hundreds of songs wherever we go in a gadget smaller than a deck of cards. We're able to turn on the computer, click a few keys, and be talking to someone on the other side of the world within seconds--and we can look at them in their pajamas while we’re doing it. Imagining a world before 3- and 4G or plasma TV (or washing machines and clothes dryers that do everything but fold your laundry and put it away for you) grows harder and harder with the passing of every month, it seems.
So, where does that leave sci-fi authors who're scrambling to come up with interesting plots about the future, now that so many once-impossible ideas have become reality? Shuttling back and forth to Mars, contacting beings from other galaxies, or flying around in hover cars? Sure, there’s some of that.     
There’s also a totally different direction to take, sort of a backwards look at things.  Say, for instance, you think about a simpler place, more like our world was in the early 1800s--when horsepower literally referred to huge whinnying animals with manes, and powering things by steam was all the rage--then plunk down some rudimentary computer technology in the midst of everything... something like those room-size monoliths from the 1960s, which required endless boxes of punchcards being fed into them in order to produce results? 
Yep. Meet the newish sub-genre of sci-fi/fantasy charmingly known as Steampunk, which takes the Victorian Era (or something very much like it) and introduces some early, modern-day tech stuff into it, creating a delightfully-odd pastiche of normally-incongruous elements. Intrigued? Well, then... perhaps a closer look at Dru Pagliasotti’s Clockwork Heart is in order.
✤~ ✤~ ✤~ ✤~ ✤
Set in a small mountainous country, the action in Clockwork Heart takes place in the capital city of Ondinium, which is built entirely on a mountain. Following a period of upheaval and the overthrow of the old monarchy, Ondinium has gradually realigned itself under a strict caste system, comprised of three parts. The plebeians live and toil at the bottom portion of the mountain, packed into a densely-crowded, filthy sector. They are the miners and common laborers. Midway up the mountain is the area set aside for the religious leaders. Circling the top of the mountain are the so-called exalteds, who function as the governing elite. 
As though the stratification weren’t made obvious enough by each caste’s placement on the mountain, though, the exalted class takes it one (bizarre) step further; they’re forced to wear multiple layers of loose robes in public (with no skin whatsoever showing), as well as a featureless mask with only slits for the eyes (but none for the mouth, rendering them mute as well as anonymous). They present truly ominous figures in public, to which the lower classes (unsurprisingly) bow and scrape. 
All but one small group, that is. The icarii are in a class of their own... fitted with special suits which have metal wings and given intensive training on how to use them, the icarii function as the couriers and go-betweens among the exalteds and the lower classes, and between the exalteds and visitors from other countries. They regularly see the exalteds in less-formal dress (although--unfortunately for the poor exalteds--that just means three robes instead of the usual seven), and are allowed--by necessity--to talk to them, in the course of business. 
Clockwork Heart follows the story through the eyes of icarus Taya, a smart and competent flyer, and an intelligent, witty, and attractive young woman. After finding herself in the right place at the right time to perform a daring mid-air rescue of an exalted female and her son from a falling wire ferry (think ski lift) one day, the young woman with the previously-ordinary career is suddenly thrust into a whole world of intrigue... particularly after the police determine that the sky car failure was no accident.
Who was meant to die in the falling lift? It was one used almost exclusively by the exalteds--in particular those who sit on the governing council. Is it the work of one of the largest, most-well-known radical groups opposing the Great Engine (the most important of the several "thinking machines" in Ondinium), the Torn Cards (whose name is derived from the piece of punchcard they leave at the scene of all their demonstrations against the use of the Great Engine)? Is a network of spies from neighboring countries--who possess neither the buoyant ondium metal which allows the icarii to fly, nor the technology behind the thinking machines? Or, is another, as-yet-unknown element trying to create havoc and disruption in the currently peaceful Ondinium?
When Taya receives thanks from the family of the mother and son she saved in the heroic rescue, she discovers that she very much wants to find out who was responsible... particularly once she meets the fascinating Forlore brothers, who are relatives of the family. Alistair Forlore--the dashing, magnetic, and newest member of the governing council--seems quite taken with the brave icarus. More than just a handsome face, he’s also one of the brains behind the Great Engine (and the other, lesser computing machines in use at the University), and writes experimental programming for the them. Cristof Forlore is more of an enigma; although equally brilliant, the acerbic and prickly elder brother has chosen to exile himself from the exalted caste and now lives at the bottom of Ondinium with the working class, where he runs a clock repair shop. Despite his innate gruffness and awkwardness, he, too, is grateful and seemingly attracted to Taya. 
Together with the Forlore brothers and the police--plus a couple of her fellow icarii buddies, a motley group of programmers from the University, and even a friendly hack driver--Taya tries to unravel the mystery of who is behind the near-tragic accident.... and the subsequent acts of political terrorism, murder, and kidnapping which soon follow. The fate of their city, which beats to the steady ticking of its clockwork heart, and of the happiness and welfare of everyone who lives therein, depends on their success. 
✤~ ✤~ ✤~ ✤~ ✤

Clockwork Heart is a fun example of the Steampunk movement, and a very good place to start if you’re wanting to get your feet wet, thanks to its easy accessibility. It’s a hybrid, really; by turns thrilling action/adventure and mystery, with sci-fi and romance thrown in for good measure, this is a captivating tale which I found instantly appealing. Pagliasotti writes with an ear and an eye for detail, yet doesn’t overwhelm with the technical aspects. Her characters (not to mention the situations they find themselves in) are compelling, and the dialogue nicely-done. Weightier issues are present (most notably the caste system), but she definitely keeps things on the lighter side.
Although Clockwork Heart is a complete story in and of itself, it’s a shame there isn’t a sequel. Besides the evolution of the relationships, it would have been interesting to see how Pagliasotti handled the disagreements within the governing council (especially those relating to the Great Engine) and whether or not she might have dealt with the societal divisiveness wrought by the caste system. But, unless she someday revisits Ondinium, readers will just have to decide for themselves what the future holds in store for the characters. I suppose that's not such a bad thing...  
One word of warning: Clockwork Heart can be, unfortunately, a bit difficult to find. It's well-worth the search, though, and if you’re intrigued by the whole premise, this one comes with my recommendation. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3.5 mousies

(With thanks to a friend for recommending this one to me. :))

Monday, January 3, 2011

Shedding Tears over an Icy Grave

“Life was a random mass of unforeseeable coincidences that governed men’s fates like a storm that strikes without warning, causing injury and death.”
That one rather stark statement sums up the message at the very heart of Arnaldur Indriđason’s Arctic Chill, but it applies to each of the other books in his continuing “Reykjavik Thriller” series, as well, for there is always the underlying awareness in his writing that truly awful things happen around us and to us... but we’re powerless to do more than attempt to pick up the pieces and forge ahead. (Fortunately, that’s precisely what most of us typically do.) 
The primary case in question in Arctic Chill is particularly tragic; the body of a young boy has been found outside on a bitterly-cold January evening, frozen to the ground. A closer inspection reveals that he was stabbed and subsequently bled out on the spot, dying in a little garden area behind a block of flats before anyone who might have been able to help could stumble upon him. 
A bright, sweet, ten-year-old boy--his life snuffed out before it had hardly even begun...
A mixed-race child, half-Thai and half-Icelandic, not quite belonging anywhere...
And now, his older half-brother is missing, too.
It is a case which, unsurprisingly, hits the members of our trusty trio of Reykjavik detectives very hard. Sigurdur Óli--the brash younger detective with a penchant for Americanisms and a love of American TV police shows--has been grappling with child issues of his own at home, as he and his girlfriend have only recently learned they’re unable to conceive. For Elínborg, the female member of the team, life is a constant struggle of trying to balance the demands of her job with the needs of her own family, a husband and daughter. Both Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg feel the sadness and frustration inherent in such a case--the outrage that such a thing could even happen and a grim determination to bring the boy’s killer to justice--and the sense of urgency to find the missing brother. 
Nothing compares to what Erlendur, the solemn lead detective, is experiencing as the team painstakingly analyzes each clue and contemplates every possible scenario, though, because there are just too many parallels to his own life. He is a man haunted by a nightmare from childhood; his life has been forever tainted by a tragedy more than thirty years in the past, when he and his eight-year-old brother were lost in a horrible snowstorm... and only one of them was ever found. 
The fact that the case also involves a broken family--the dead boy’s mother and the remaining half-brother, who are scraping by on their own, while the father (now divorced from the mother) has very little contact with them--further contributes to the crushing weight Erlendur endures as he struggles to make any sense out of the events, because that is yet one more similarity. Following a messy divorce of his own long ago, Erlendur is still in the process of very slowly getting reacquainted with his two (rather troubled) adult children, after a very long absence from their lives.
Thus individually affected, the team wastes no time in tracking down every possible lead; with one child dead and the other missing, time is the enemy. Neighbors submit to interviews, as do the boys’ classmates and teachers. Gradually, a picture of two very different boys begins to emerge. Elías, the dead boy, was mixed-race, and although born an Icelander, his darker coloring from the Thai side still caused him to stand out as a foreigner, and he was thus subject to being treated differently by some people. Half-brother Niran, on the other hand, was born in Thailand, and had only moved to Iceland in recent years to be with his mother and brother. Although Elli encountered a bit of difficulty fitting in, he genuinely wanted to do so, unlike Niran, who hates being in Iceland and refuses to learn the language or local culture. And, where Elli had become friends with some of the other children in his classes, Niran is only friendly with a couple of other “outsiders”--immigrants, like himself, who want nothing to do with the native kids. It is clear to the detectives that racial issues could conceivably play a part in this heartbreaking case.
Worse, it isn’t only the other children who’ve exhibited signs of racial bias; a couple of teachers have been quite outspoken about how unacceptable the presence of non-Icelanders in the schools is to them, as well.
There are other possible motivations, too. Rumors swirl of drug problems at the school. A local pedophile’s name pops up in connection with the case. Perhaps the boys saw something they weren’t meant to see... and someone is out to make sure they never get the chance to tell anyone. 
It’s a frustrating case for the team, as they race against the clock trying to figure out who killed one brother... while trying to locate (save, protect) the other. Erlendur, Sigurdur Óli, and Elínborg are well aware they’re being lied to and/or misled at every other turn--whether by someone guilty of this crime (or another) or by someone who would just prefer to keep certain things hidden. The trick is determining truth from untruth, nuance from implication, and ferreting out the guilty party. The truth, however, seems destined to remain as elusive to the team of detectives as the rays of the January sun...
❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅
Arctic Chill isn’t the sort of book to reach for if your taste (or mood) runs to the light and amusing; Indriđason’s stories are as grim and moody as the bitterly-cold, grey, and forbidding Icelandic landscape in which they are set. It’s just as layered as the endless snow and frost, too; Erlendur is simultaneously working an older case, while also coping with a terminally-ill friend, with a fledgling love life, with his prickly adult kids, and always--always--with the tragic loss of his own brother so long ago, which has since become his obsession.
As much about the human condition and the emotional turmoils which fell us as it is about crime, this is an intensely-thoughtful work, full of atmospheric details and descriptions which perfectly frame such a dark tale. Lyrically beautiful and touching, it’s incredibly easy to identify with the main characters, even as they perpetually hold themselves somewhat apart from each other. These are people--and this is a story, and a situation--which will resonate for a very long time.
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies