Book Review: Saga (Volume 6) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – Marko and Alana chase down the location of where their daughter is being held. With the help of Robot IV, they fly in under the radar to save her.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

After being separated from both her parents, Hazel ends up in a detainee centre for enemy noncombatants with her grandmother, Klara.

Marko and Alana break into a hall of records on planet Variegate in search of information of where Hazel has ended up. They discover the detainee centre holding Hazel is on Landfall. To get into the centre, they’ll need the help of the now disowned and demoted Prince Robot IV (who is now a knight errant).

Together they manage to break Hazel out. The family is now whole once more and then some… for it turns out that Alana is pregnant again.

Review

Saga continues its journey of exploration of its main characters as they navigate the ongoing war and bloodshed between Landfall and Wreath. Hazel is now a young girl and receiving education on Landfall at the detainee centre. She develops a close friendship with her teacher (who believes she is a Wreather because of her horns on her head) but discovers that Hazel (who reveals her secret) is the child of both a Landfallian and Wreather by showing she also has wings. Hazel’s teacher is so shocked that she faints and hits her head on the corner of a desk.

This demonstrates the perceived impossibility of Marko (Wreather) and Alana’s (Landfallian) union. The entire galaxy is of the belief that the two sides hate each other so deeply that the idea of one on each side falling in love and having a child together is so preposterous that it causes other aliens to faint.

Marko and Alana finally locate where Hazel is held and seek help from Robot IV who would rather blow his television head off than help the pair. Having lost his wife to a murderer, Robot IV is only concerned with raising his squire son in peace. In his own words, “I’m taking my boy and getting as far away from those two black holes as possible.” But good ol’ emotional blackmail ensures that Marko and Alana get their way. There is some surprising humour in this sequence of events.

Volume six also brings us back to Upsher and Doff, our investigative journalists for the Hebdomadal. They receive news that The Brand is dead, and thus the spell cast upon them by the bounty hunter (i.e. the one where if they speak of the forbidden relationship between Marko and Alana to anyone they’ll die) has been broken. Thus, they jump back on the news trail and interview Ginny, the ballet teacher that Marko almost had a fling with in volume four. However, in the process, they get roped in through threat of death by The Will who is hunting down Robot IV to get revenge for killing The Brand (his sister) and The Stalk (his ex-girlfriend). The Will has taken a turn for the worse as he’s high on drugs and keeps talking to an imaginary The Stalk who is happily egging him on for bloodshed. See a pattern here? Seems like Robot IV’s description of our lovey-dove fugitives as black holes is not far off.

With the journalists help, The Will manages to locate where Robot IV was last seen, but when he arrives he only finds the little squire and his protectors, Ghus (the seal) and Friendo (the giant walrus). Robot IV has already left with Marko and Alana to rescue Hazel, leaving his son with Ghus. A bloody scuffle occurs where The Will loses the fingers on his right hand, and he is about to start his revenge spree by killing the little squire, but at the last moment, his drug-addled brain conjures up a conversation with his dead sister, The Brand, who convinces him that revenge will not fill the holes in his heart left by the murders of his sister and ex-girlfriend. He leaves in search of some sort of absolution.

The final pages ends on a happier note for once (compared to previous volumes) where we see Marko successfully rescue Hazel and they are reunited with Alana. In the process, one of the detainees, a Wreather transsexual named Petrichor also escapes with them and is able to determine that Alana is pregnant with another child. The shock on Marko’s face and the smile on Alana’s face is priceless.

Overall, the best scenes are when Hazel finally gets back with her father and mother, along with the surprisingly funny sequence of events involving Robot IV who reluctantly agrees to help them (this is a nice change because in prior volumes, Robot IV was on mission to kill anyone in his way from finding his son). That darkness is now all on The Will, whose spiral into the abyss is a fine contrast to the light shone by Hazel. I still struggled with the journalists, Upsher and Doff (in previous reviews of Saga volumes, I commented that Upsher and Doff felt like filler characters, there to pad out the story). But volume six ties off this arc nicely and brings about anticipation of what will happen next.

3.5 out of 5

Book Review: Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder

TL;DR – Young adult sci-fi mystery involving generations of humanity stuck inside a metal habitat and run by a group that hides secrets from the rest of the populace. Everyone is stuck inside, and you can’t go outside for reasons only the group in power knows. When rumour spreads of a way out, curiosity becomes a powerful force.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Trella was born and raised ‘Inside’. Her job as a ‘scrub’ involves cleaning the network of pipes that run through the mysterious metal structure she and thousands of others call home. Their home is ruled by the Travas family, who are militaristic in their approach to maintaining law and order within Inside.

Life is pretty miserable in the lower two levels of Inside due to overpopulation, and the mundane existence everyone has and the jobs they perform. So, when Trella meets a man from the upper two levels who talks about a door to the outside, it triggers a movement to overthrow their established oppressors. Reluctantly, Trella becomes the face of this movement.

Review

The world is not a sphere, it is a square prism (or prison depending on your point of view). This square prism is two kilometres wide, two kilometres long, and twenty-five metres high. There are four levels, each level broken up into nine squares. Each square (also known as quads and sectors) performs a role. For example, the cafeteria and dining area for the lower two levels resides in one of the squares on level two, hydroponics is in one of the squares in level one etc.

People who reside in the upper two levels are called, you guessed it, ‘Uppers’. And the people in the bottom two levels are called ‘Lowers’ (and they’re also referred to as ‘scrubs’ for the jobs that they have to undertake). You can see immediately that such titles would cause a division; a failure of whoever makes the decisions in understanding that collaboration may achieve greater harmony than division. Thus, the world of Inside Out has been created. Snyder’s dystopian imagining has humanity trying to survive in this prism with the scrubs doing most of the grunt work ensuring food, clothing and power is maintained while the Uppers are left to do whatever Uppers do.

Snyder’s main character is a girl named Trella, a scrub who works within the system of pipes and ductwork keeping them clean. She spends more time in the pipes than with her fellow scrubs and has been coined ‘Queen of the Pipes’ (a term used in derision as opposed to allure). Her understanding of the network has allowed her to discover ways not only into the upper levels but also knowledge of every nook, cranny, and boundary of their confined box.

To maintain order, the Uppers have established population control police (‘Pop Cops’). Scrubs that cause significant dissent that could lead to rebellion are arrested and sent to the ‘Chomper’ for recycling. Prophets, established by Pop Cops, spout propaganda to also facilitate control. These prophets would say if a scrub works hard on the Inside, then when their life ends their soul will be freed to go Outside (their physical body would be fed to Chomper).

Not much of an existence, but all the generations that might have remembered what it was like before the box have long since died.

And when a prophet named Domotor (aka ‘Broken Man’) rocks up in his wheelchair and confides in Trella the existence of Gateway and asks for her help, she thinks it is all a set up. A test to see if she is loyal to the system or wanting to start a revolution. You see, there is a myth among the lower levels about a place called Gateway that is a door to the Outside. The myth has persisted though no evidence of Gateway has ever been found. Not even by Trella who has explored practically every inch of their box.

Her thoughts change when Domotor is taken by the Pop Cops. If the Pop Cops are trying to silence Domotor then they perceive him as a threat. Trella, with the help of her only scrub friend, Cogon, rescue Domotor and whisk him away to a hidden room on the lowest level. This triggers events where Trella tries to uncover the truth about Gateway while trying to navigate the increased Pop Cops presence who are hunting down those responsible for rescuing Domotor.

Snyder has created a convincing world that should have young adult readers engaged. There’s enough mystery that had me wanting to get to the final page.

However, my struggles with the story came in two areas. The first is the characters. Inside Out has been described as, ‘The fans of The Hunger Games will devour this.’ I did not feel that Snyder brought about enough layers to Trella as Suzanne Collins did with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The empathy towards Katniss was far greater than it was with Trella, who comes off as someone who doesn’t really care about anyone. Deep down we know she does. Trella’s friendship with Cogon is genuine and when he is slated for execution, she is spurred even further to stop the uppers and show the existence of Gateway. When Trella meets Riley, an upper who is willing to help her, we know the chemistry is there even if Trella tries to deny it. But this emotional angst doesn’t have the pull that it should.

The second area where I struggled is the world itself. A dystopia where humans are stuck inside something and the outside is forbidden is a solid plot device. One of the best novels I have read that uses this setting is Wool by Hugh Howey. In Wool, humanity is stuck in a silo that is built deep into the earth because the outside is uninhabitable. The silo has one hundred and forty-four stories and the mysteries around the silo and how it came into existence are as many if not more than the prism in Inside Out. But it is not the scale of Snyder’s world that I struggled with. It is the language and descriptions she used in her writing.

Both characterisation and setting lack the depth of writing used in The Hunger Games or Wool. The areas within the prism are described in functional terms – solid waste handling, cafeteria, barracks, laundry etc – and I only got a vague feeling of the atmosphere. Yes, there’s fear, anger, disillusionment, mundanity, and slivers of hope but they are delivered in a way that was muted. Because Trella traverses many different sectors and levels, Snyder is forced to use a key code to describe where Trella goes. The nine squares are labelled A to I and the four levels are numbered. So A1 is the top left corner area on level one. This is a simple but boring way of telling the reader where Trella ends up. Whether it is E2 or G4, the codes end up detracting from the reading, and I found myself glossing over these bits.

Likewise, the characters don’t have the pull that I had hoped. One of the main antagonists, Pop Cop LC Karla, is one-dimensional in her actions and delivery. She does not seem to question her role in the system and appears to have no qualms in recycling scrubs or manipulating them into giving her information. She is almost robotic in form and personality.

What Snyder does do that kept me going is introduce the idea that the uppers are not all the same. We discover there are different groups within the uppers themselves and some of these groups are against how the scrubs are being treated. This is essential to provide some level of complexity to the world structure Snyder has created.

But overall, I struggled with the final arc. The successful overthrow of the ruling Travas family did not engage me, and Trella is depicted as somewhat superhuman. At one point, she is tortured to a point where you would struggle to stand on two feet let alone perform the level of movement and dexterity that she shows in moving through the pipes. The Pop Cops also seem to be quite inept. On more than one occasion Trella is able to grab weapons off the Pop Cops (e.g. stun guns from their belts) when she is suffering from injuries that would leave anyone else incapacitated.

There are also plot problems. Trella tries to locate Gateway only to believe it’s all a hoax. She gives up and is ready to hand herself over to LC Karla. She leaves behind a note and removes a microphone and receiver disguised as an earring and button respectively that she uses to communicate to the rebels in the lower levels. But in the following chapters she has them back on her person even though there is no explanation of how she came to acquire them again.

Then there’s the fact that the Travas family seems to want to encourage the scrubs to copulate and have more babies, which leads to overcrowding in the lower levels. Trella tries to understand the motivation behind this but is unable to do so and the story ends without this being explained. If anything, having the lowers grow in population means they outnumber the Pop Cops, leading to the eventual rebellion. It makes no sense that the Travas family would use overcrowding as a control method.

The other unexplained plot device is we find out there was a time when the uppers and lowers worked together. This all went down the tube because the Travas wanted to be the ones solely in control. Why did the Travas want to do this? Who knows? They come off as simply power hungry simpletons who want to rule Inside through fear and intimidation. That’s always going to be a recipe for success when you encourage population growth in a confined space and expect everyone to accept it and continue working tirelessly like drones. NOT!

There is a sequel to Inside Out called Outside In which may explain all these plot holes but I’m not invested enough to pick it up.

When the big reveal is shown that they are actually inside a spaceship and outside is nothing but the vacuum of space, I neither care nor feel any desire to see where the spaceship is going (not that their destination is revealed anyway). Inside Out had the potential to be gripping but in the end was a disappointing read.

1.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Saga (Volume 5) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – roles change as Marko turns from hunted to hunter as he tries to track down his wife and daughter who have been kidnapped by Dengo, a commoner of the Robot kingdom looking to change the course of war.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Dengo is on a mission. He now has Prince Robot IV’s baby son and Hazel in his possession along with control of the treehouse rocket ship. Alana and Klara are held prisoner inside and debate whether to make a move on Dengo. But before they can act, Dengo has contacted the Revolution, an organisation seeking to end the war between Landfall and Wreath by any means necessary, and they arrive to meet him.

For three months, Marko has been following Dengo’s trail. His tenuous alliance with Prince Robot IV is under constant strain as Marko refuses to kill to find his family. Prince Robot IV does not have such inhibitions, but the pair manage to continue their hunt with the help of Yuma and Ghus.

Events come to a head when Dengo realises the Revolution have their own agenda; they wish to trade Hazel to the Wreath high command in exchange for the release of revolutionary prisoners. Dengo and Alana manage to escape, but Klara and Hazel are re-captured and blast off inside the Revolution’s ship piloted by the remaining soldiers that are still alive.

This coincides with the arrival of Marko and Prince Robot IV. The prince confronts Dengo and kills him and is finally reunited with his baby son. Marko and Alana are also back together, but now they have to find their daughter.

Review

The opening pages of volume five reveals how the war between Landfall and Wreath damaged both spheres. On Landfall, people were chosen initially via lottery to defend the planet, but as the number of deaths mounted, it switched to a voluntary force. More importantly there was the underlying realisation that because Wreath was Landfall’s only moon, destroying either sphere would cause the other to spin out of orbit. As a result, the war spread outwards to new places in the galaxy considered of strategic value and meant other alien races had to choose sides and form alliances.

Fast forward to the lives of our intrepid fugitives, Marko and Alana, and a strange phenomenon has occurred. The war still rages on other planets but the majority of the population on Landfall and Wreath has ceased fighting.

The inference is that the political powers of Landfall and Wreath are continuing a galactic war for power and profit (as opposed to any sort of persecution between each side). This lends even more as to why the political powers don’t want Marko and Alana’s union to become public knowledge. For if a Landfallian and Wreather can fall in love and have a child, why are both sides still fighting? There are obviously puppet masters pulling the strings of war for their own gain and not the betterment of their people or the races of other civilisations.

Volume five continues to explore the impacts of war on individuals. Both the mental and emotional toll are revealed in varying forms. For example, Marko spirals into depression and nearly kills himself taking tainted drugs in an attempt to find peace. He is saved surprisingly by Prince Robot IV and in the process has a renewed focus on what is important in his life (i.e. his wife and daughter).

Then we have Yuma, the green spider-like alien who was once in a relationship with D. Oswald Heist. She has made a vow to live a life of sensuality, and achieves this by also taking the drug, Fadeaway. She admits to being a coward, but it is driven from a desire to live free from violence. Unfortunately, her choices lead to guilt, and she is driven to help Marko reunite with his family. In the end, she chooses to be brave and performs an act of sacrifice in order for Marko, Prince Robot IV and Ghus to stay alive.

While the volume examines other characters and the impacts of war on them, the last shout out goes to Dengo for his attempt to try and stop a war that has no interest in being stopped. As the reader, you know his part was always going to be short when he was willing to murder Princess Robot, kidnap the son and then also steal away Hazel from Marko and Alana. His intentions were to show the leaders of the Robot Kingdom that they cared more about working with the Landfallians than they did about the commoners who resided in the kingdom. When Dengo’s own son died of a treatable illness because all resources were focused on the war effort, he started on a path that would cost him his life.

It is the willingness to explore these rabbit holes and the post-traumatic stress of warfare that gives the story strength. I anticipate the exploration will continue by expanding on how children like Hazel and Prince Robot IV’s son will grow and what they are taught. Indeed, the end of volume five sees Hazel grown from toddler to child now learning in a classroom. The impression is that her parents have not found her and has somehow ended up an orphan. While it will be interesting to see if and when Hazel’s parents will find her again, the other story threads also ask questions of whether the war will ever end and even if it does, who will come out of it with their mental, physical and emotional well-being intact.

4 out of 5

Book Review: Saga (Volume 4) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – Just when Marko and Alana look like they have a chance to raise their girl, Hazel, in peace, they self-destruct.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Marko, Alana and their family are hiding out on Gardenia. Marko is the stay-at-home dad while Alana is the working mum at a theatre broadcasting centre where she has secured an acting gig. They struggle to find time for each other while juggling their responsibilities and trying to stay under the radar of their pursuers (Prince Robot IV, The Will & Gwendolyn). Little do they know that their pursuers have huge problems of their own.

Prince Robot IV has amnesia and ends up on Sextillion. Back home, his princess wife gives birth to their son. While she holds out hope that those who serve the Robot kingdom will eventually find her husband, she consoles herself with her newborn. However, her bliss is short lived when a vengeful employee at the palace named Dengo murders her and kidnaps the baby. When Prince Robot IV finally gets his memory back and is told the news, all thoughts of the fugitives disappear as he focuses on getting his son back.

The Will is still out of action in a coma lying in hospital. Gwendolyn teams up with The Brand to find an elixir that will heal The Will’s wounds.

Marko and Alana’s relationship comes to a crossroads when Marko discovers Alana has been doing drugs, and Alana finds out Marko has become close to another woman, Ginny, a dance teacher who has been teaching Hazel. Their confrontation leads to Alana throwing Marko out.

The timing of their fight couldn’t be worse as Dengo appears on the scene. His intention was initially to take over the media airways where Alana works to broadcast his message to everyone watching including his Robot royal oppressors, but he then finds out that Marko and Alana are on Gardenia and have had a love child. Dengo realises that if he can show to the masses that a Landfallian and Wreather can overcome their hatred and have a child together then the endless war and bloodshed can stop. Dengo breaks into Alana’s rocket ship home and seizes Hazel. In a desperate move, Alana launches the rocket ship, the sudden take off causing Dengo to let go of Hazel, but he manages to get a hold of Marko’s mother in the ensuing tussle and threatens her at gun point.

At the same time, Prince Robot IV hunts Dengo down to Gardenia but bumps into Marko instead. Together the pair realise that their goal is the same. They both want to rescue their families.

Review

Artist Fiona Staples has been given the freedom to be as graphic as she wants in Saga. She does not shy away in depicting sex and violence, which are not introduced merely for effect but are central themes that dictate the story of the seemingly endless war between Landfall and Wreath.

Volume four opens with Prince Robot IV’s wife giving birth to a son. The Robot kingdom is an alien race made up of humanoid figures with televisions for heads. Biologically, this alien race functions just as humans do except they have a TV where a human head would be. Thus, the first page showing a robot baby coming out of her robot mother’s womb is both bizarre and confronting.

A quick history lesson shows that the Robot kingdom resides on a dwarf planet that has sided with the Landfallians. Like the name suggests, not everyone on this planet is considered royalty and we are thus introduced to Dengo, a Robot janitor, working at the palace where said princess just gave birth. Calling Dengo a disgruntled employee is putting it mildly as he is asked to clean up the mess in the birth suite and displays on his TV head the image of an angry skeleton face. Suffice to say, I don’t think it’ll take much for Dengo to get pushed over the edge.

We then switch over to our fugitive family. Marko wraps his face up in bandages to hide his features while he takes Hazel out to play. Alana is the bread winner and working at a theatre called Open Circuit. The characters she plays always wear masks, so she is less likely to be recognised. We follow their daily struggles while an “older” Hazel does a narrative over the top of what we see in the pictures. Everyone seems quite happy but “older” Hazel says this is the story of how her parents split up.

Writer Vaughan makes the story relatable by introducing elements that would make any relationship pull apart at the seams. The key triggers are the threat of a potential affair (i.e. Marko becoming attracted to another woman) and the use of drugs to cope with a stressful job (i.e. Alana working in a theatre company as an actress performing roles that she hates).

This would be ho-hum if not for the fact that it happens against a backdrop of galactic war, and that Marko and Alana are wanted fugitives. The cleverness comes in the form of saying that relationship challenges are universal regardless of race (alien or otherwise), colour and creed. That Marko and Alana were able to see past the hatred instilled in them by their political leaders, war propaganda, and conditioning, yet still be undone by the very common temptations that a committed relationship face is both astute and compelling. Self-destruction can happen in any form. As the reader, we want our fugitive pair to overcome the immense obstacles presented to them but when the obstacles are of their own making then that flips things on their head. Gripping in unexpected ways.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Saga (Volume 3) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – Prince Robot IV finally catches up with Marko and company as does mercenary The Will and Marko’s ex-fiancée, Gwendolyn. There’ll be casualties and a bloody mess galore.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Volume three sees Marko, Alana and baby Hazel arrive at planet Quietus to meet author, D. Oswald Heist. Accompanying them is Marko’s mother, Klara, and the child ghost, Izabel (now bonded with Hazel). Marko is mourning the loss of his father who sacrificed himself in volume two to save them.

On their trail is Prince Robot IV, who we know arrives on Quietus and confronts Heist at the end of volume two. Volume three rewinds events to show how Marko, Alana and company arrive before Prince Robot IV and end up hiding in Heist’s attic.

Also on their trail are The Will, Gwendolyn, and Sophie who are having spaceship troubles and are lagging behind.

The story jumps between that and a pair of tabloid journalists back on Landfall investigating into the story regarding Marko and Alana’s illicit relationship.

Review

Volume three takes a different route from previous volumes and comes out with mixed results. Sharing the lime light of our fugitive couple, we are introduced to the tabloid press who interview a sergeant involved in a conflict with Marko and Alana.

Upsher is a blue-skinned alien journalist and Doff, his green-skinned photographer. Together they start digging into the forbidden relationship between Marko and Alana and their love child, Hazel. Scenes jump between Marko and Alana and our investigative journos.

The introduction of these two new characters is meant to broaden the scope and impact of Marko and Alana’s relationship, but it felt like filler to me when all I wanted was to find out what will happen when Prince Robot IV finally confronts our fugitives. And as expected the confrontation does not happen until the end of volume three.

What is good about the build up is that Vaughan continues to reveal more of the history and personalities of the main cast. For example, Klara makes it known that she thinks Heist’s novel is complete trash and not some sacred text that is meant to transform the minds of Landfallians and Wreathers that will end the conflict. Her interactions with her son and Alana while being a loving grandmother to Hazel are spot on.

Another example is The Will, who is shown to have more layers than a mere mercenary for hire. Haunted by the murder of The Stalk (his ex-girlfriend) at the hands of Prince Robot IV, he is now out for revenge. However, he can’t go anywhere because his ship needs repairs and he has an epiphany imagining a conversation with The Stalk who advises he should drop his revenge trip and settle down with Gwendolyn and adopt Sophie. It’s these little developments that add extra dimensions to the characters.

Author D. Oswald Heist is also quite the character. His trashy novel “A Night Time Smoke” turns out was written with the intention of having a hidden message surrounding the idea that sex (yes, ‘sex’ not love) can conquer all including a galactic war. He’s also a drunk cyclops who wears slippers and a dressing gown and ends up puking all over Hazel when they first meet. I’m not sure how much of writer Vaughn is reflected in Heist, but I imagine he had fun creating the character.

The ending sees the confrontation between Prince Robot IV and Marko and company unfold but with the added complication of Gwendolyn thrown into the mix. Not everyone makes it out alive. Prince Robot IV becomes seriously damaged and reboots resulting in what one would call ‘robotic amnesia’. Heist gets killed by Gwendolyn, and Gwendolyn gets shot by Alana. The Will is on death’s door due to the unexpected twist of Sophie (high on hallucinogenic fruit) stabbing him in the neck, and Marko’s mother seriously injured.

In the aftermath, Marko and company escape. Gwendolyn manages to get The Will to a hospital and save him. Prince Robot IV wanders off into the fog on Quietus with robotic brain damage, and Heist being the only fatality. The volume concludes with a narrative from Hazel explaining they continue to flee from planet to planet on their wooden rocket ship and showing a passage of time leading to Hazel now a toddler able to walk.

As for our budding tabloid journos, they get silenced by The Brand (The Will’s sister). The Brand breaks in to Upsher and Doff’s home and injects them with a poison that will only activate and kill them if they breathe word of the story regarding Marko and Alana. Like I said… filler. Not as progressive as the first two volumes but gives deeper insight into the war ravaged galaxy Marko and Alana are seeking to raise Hazel in.

3 out of 5.

Book Review: Saga (Volume 2) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – Marko and Alana are on the run in search of somewhere to hide so they can raise their newborn daughter, Hazel, in peace. You would think that when you have a galaxy of planetary systems to choose from, it would be easy. But when you have two sides of a war trying to hunt you down and that war is raging across the entire galaxy, hiding turns out to be harder than expected.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Volume two focuses on backstory between Marko and Alana; how they met, Marko’s parents and childhood, Alana’s change in perspective of the war, their eventual connection and relationship, and conception of Hazel.

This is mixed in with current events that revolve around their journey to visit author D. Oswald Heist’s home. Marko’s ex-fiancée, Gwendolyn, makes her first appearance and joins forces with The Will as they track down Marko and Alana. Along the way, The Will and Gwendolyn rescue Sophie (the young girl trapped on Sextillion in the first volume) that The Will attempted to free.

Also, hot on the scent of our fugitive couple is Prince Robot IV, who figures out that Alana and company are heading to Heist. He has read Heist’s novel that Alana believes is revolutionary. Prince Robot IV also believes that there is a hidden message within Heist’s text that talks about how love (and sex) can conquer war and thus two opposing sides can achieve peace (or at least stop from massacring each other).

Volume two ends with Prince Robot IV confronting Heist who says he wrote the novel simply for a paycheck and that there is no hidden message within. Prince Robot IV is unconvinced and sits down to wait for Alana and Marko to come to him with a gun calmly pointed at Heist. Little does the prince know that Alana and company are already there hiding in the attic.

Review

The end of volume one saw Marko, Alana and their newborn child, Hazel, blasting off in a tree-like rocket ship that appears partially sentient. Their destination is the location of D. Oswald Heist, author of Alana’s favourite novel, ‘A Night Time Smoke’. Why does Alana want to visit Heist? Because she believes his writings can unlock the never-ending war between Landfall and Wreath. In her mind, somehow Heist’s trashy romance novel equates to a message from on high.

Joining their journey are Marko’s parents, who magically appear aboard the rocket ship when Marko intentionally shatters his sword. He does this in an act of penance for breaking his vow to never unsheathe his sword and dish out violence. The sword was a family heirloom and magically bound. As soon as Marko broke it, his parents knew and homed in on his location, magically teleporting inside their ship.

Also along for the ride is Izabel, an innocent victim of the war, who is now a fluorescent pink ghost with only her upper body and entrails exposed. She convinces Alana to allow her to magically bond with Hazel in exchange for showing them how to start the rocket ship.

While volume one sets the scene, volume two delves much deeper into the impacts of the galactic war especially from an emotional and psychological stand point. At its epicentre is our daring couple, Marko and Alana, but their relationship ripples to all other parties linked to them.

Marko’s parents, his ex-fiancée, Gwendolyn, Prince Robot IV, D. Oswald Heist, and Izabel all have their own stories, views and biases regarding the war. This lends depth and gravity to the central story around Marko and Alana wanting to raise Hazel outside of the war. And shows the strength of Vaughan’s writing.

Staples artwork also seems to be fine tuned in this second volume with outrageous and eye-popping panels including a fat, naked giant that reveals too much of itself and a planet-sized egg that gives birth to an embryonic shaped creature that acts like a black hole and shoots black goo from its eyes.

With a story driven by strong characters and backed by killer art, Saga volume two draws you in and makes you think honestly about violence and the impacts of war. Oh and The Will saves his Lying Cat from dying in outer space, which was pretty damn wicked… I would’ve been bummed if the cat died.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Saga (Volume 1) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – epic sci-fi series that centres on two individuals from opposing alien races that manage to fall in love against a backdrop of a never-ending war that spans the galaxy. When they manage to conceive a baby girl that has physical features from both their kind, they know their daughter symbolises a hope that threatens the war. Hunted by both sides, they do the only thing they can think of… they run.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Alana and Marko are on opposite sides of a galactic war. A war that has raged beyond their two worlds and expanded to other alien races who have been forced to pick a side. Volume one contains the first six issues and focuses on Alana and Marko’s forbidden relationship and the birth of their daughter. Their family representing an aberration that could change the political landscape forever.

Review

Saga has been described as “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones”. That certainly is an ambitious undertaking. While this Eisner award winning graphic novel series certainly is epic in scale with a large cast of characters, it was for me more a Romeo & Juliet story as opposed to a Game of Thrones one (note: the Star Wars side is definitely captured in terms of the sci-fi elements and the multitude of alien races).

The story opens with Alana screaming her head off as she gives birth to baby Hazel. Her husband, Marko, is there and it is just the two of them in an old body shop. Immediately, there are questions that floated through my head: Why are they in a body shop and not a hospital? Why is it just the two of them? Where are the nurses? The mid-wives? The doctor? And why does the baby have horns?

If I had been paying attention to the art instead of racing through the first couple of pages of dialogue, the answer to the last question is obvious. Marko has horns; big, curling ram horns that would make Princess Leia’s hair stylist proud. But wait, Alana doesn’t have horns. She has wings; delicate, gossamer, emerald wings sprouting from her shoulder blades.

As volume one unfolds, it is revealed that Marko is a Wreather and Alana is a Landfallian, and Wreath and Landfall have been waging a war that has spread throughout the galaxy. We learn that their love is a definite no-no, and the fact they have a child together could turn everything on its head. Thus they are hunted by their respective sides in an attempt to prevent the rest of the galaxy finding out. It’s a Romeo & Juliet story on a galactic scale.

Landfall sends Prince Robot IV while Wreath sends a mercenary named The Will. The prince comes from an alien race that has a human body but a television for a head. I don’t know if there is some deeper meaning behind this though it is interesting how the television heads of the robot race display various images to convey emotions. By contrast, The Will appears like an ordinary man but with an extraordinary pet known as a Lying Cat (a giant feline capable of detecting when someone lies). Later, we see that The Will may look ordinary but he is exceptional at killing.

Volume one concludes with Marko, Alana and Hazel escaping Cleave, the mud planet where they met, fell in love, and Hazel came into being. But not before we learn a bunch of things about our lovers and the hunters seeking to track them down. Turns out Marko was engaged previously to a girl named Gwendolyn. He was naïve about fighting for Wreath (his eyes opened when he was thrown into the horrors of war) and made a vow to never unsheathe his sword in combat. Eventually he breaks this vow in order to protect Alana and Hazel and laments that his action will have consequences (violence begets violence).

Alana is revealed to have been indoctrinated into the idea of romantic love from reading trashy novels (think ‘Mills & Boon’ stories). She idiolises the author, D. Oswald Heist, who wrote her favourite trashy novel titled ‘A Night Time Smoke’ and believes there is a hidden message within its text. Heist lives on a planet called Quietus, and it is there that they aim to travel to.

Meanwhile, Prince Robot IV has been assigned the mission to hunt down the pair after just having served a two-year tour of hell. All he wants is to be with his wife and start a family. However, it is his father who requests he undertake the mission, much to his frustration. Following the trail of Marko and Alana, he encounters The Stalk (another mercenary hired by the Wreathers to also hunt down Marko and Alana and retrieve Hazel and happens to be the ex-lover of The Will). In a moment of panic, Prince Robot IV kills The Stalk thinking she is going for her gun.

The Will commences his own hunt to find Marko and Alana, but decides to not bother when he finds out from his agent that the Wreathers have also hired The Stalk. He instead ventures to Sextillion (a planet-size brothel) intending to sleep with whores but discovers a more insidious scene beneath Sextillion where children are being used. We find The Will does have some sort of moral compass and seeks to save a little girl but fails to free her. He then contacts, The Stalk, in hopes of partnering up with her to split the reward for killing Marko and Alana and retrieving Hazel (his plan is to buy the little girl’s freedom trapped on Sextillion). But he finds out that Prince Robot IV has killed The Stalk (he’s actually on the line talking to her when she gets shot). Now, The Will has two goals: free the girl from Sextillion and kill Prince Robot IV.

The multiple storylines are engrossing and the art by Fiona Staples is impressive. Worth the read for adult readers and shows publisher Image Comics are willing to explore stories that branch outside of the mainstream superhero/villain comic book form.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Real Story (Book 1 of the Gap Cycle) by Stephen R. Donaldson

TL;DR – a sci-fi space opera that started off as a novella and became a pentalogy. The Real Story is book 1 in The Gap Cycle Series and essential reading for adult sci-fi enthusiasts.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Angus Thermopyle is the worst of the worst in Delta Sector (DelSec). A pirate and murderer who cares about only one thing other than himself and that’s his ship, Bright Beauty.

Morn Hyland is an ensign for the United Mining Companies Police (UMCP) and undertakes her first mission with her family aboard the UMCP destroyer, Starmaster.

Nick Succorso is a star captain with a reputation that rivals Thermopyle except his is one that everyone views as a hero. Or anti-hero as it may be. After all, he is still a pirate. Even among the riff-raff, Nick is considered the most desirable man in DelSec. He captains a sleek frigate, Captain’s Fancy.

When Angus and Morn waltz into Mallorys Bar & Sleep together, the crowd can’t make sense of what they are seeing. Morn stays by Angus’s side even though her expression is one of deep hate. The simple conclusion by most was that Morn was being held against her will by Angus.

So, when Morn and Nick make eye contact, the electricity is palatable. As much as everyone else in the bar would like to swoop in and take Morn from Angus’s clutches, no one dares take on the notorious pirate. No one except Nick.

And two weeks later, when Angus is arrested on a crime that will actually stick, and Morn rushes into Nick’s arms and they disappear, no one was surprised. Morn with Nick made much more sense than Morn with Angus. Everyone went back to their own schemes and drinking away their dreams.

But as Stephen Donaldson reveals, that is not the real story.

Review

When I first read, what is considered, Donaldson’s most successful series – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – I was blown away, and I thought there would never be a series that he could write that would be as good.

I was wrong.

The Real Story is the first book in The Gap series that follows three central characters – Angus, Morn and Nick – in a space opera of epic proportions.

What is brilliant about this series is Donaldson’s first book is one massive hook. What is mind-boggling is that Donaldson intended this first book to be self-contained, a novella that would stand on its own. But for reasons he explains in the afterword of The Real Story, he was driven to deep dive into this world he created and tell the full story resulting in four more books. We should all thank German composer, Richard Wagner, for his masterpiece Der Ring des Nibelungen, which is a set of four operas based on Norse mythology. It was these pieces of music that ignited the fire in Donaldson to expand from his initial novella.

Further, The Real Story being of novella size, it is easy to digest and if you find that it does not appeal to your sense of taste, you won’t have wasted much time. But if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself launching into the much thicker volumes two to five in the The Gap series with relish.

In Donaldson’s own words, his original intentions were ‘explicitly archetypal’. He goes on to explain the difference between a melodrama and drama. That is, a melodrama presents a victim (Morn), a villain (Angus), and a rescuer (Nick). A drama seeks to take these archetypes and have them change their roles. In this way, Donaldson cleverly flips things around so that Nick victimises Angus and Morn ends up being Angus’s rescuer.

This is an incredible feat given Angus captures Morn and puts a zone implant in her brain that allows him to control her every emotion and action. The abuse she receives is graphic and not suitable for young readers. Donaldson is a master at delving into the complexities of his three main characters and somehow portrays them in a different light by the time you reach the last page.

When you read the final words of the last chapter, you will realise that the stereotype portrayals at the beginning have gone through a freakish transformation: Nick is not a rescuer, Morn is not a victim and Angus is not a villain.

Donaldson take a bow. Cue applause.

5 out of 5.

Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

TL;DR – a Holocaust fiction novel told through the eyes of a German child who meets a Jewish child on the other side of a fence encircling a concentration camp. They become friends amidst a time of hatred.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Set during World War II, nine-year old Bruno and his family move to Auschwitz because his father has been promoted to Commandant and assigned to oversee the concentration camp. Bruno does not want to leave their home in Berlin nor does he want to part from his best friends. Things are made worse when he arrives and sees the house they have to live in is nothing compared to their lavish Berlin home.

Miserable and lonely, Bruno ventures forth to a camp he has spied from his house and walks along the chain fence. There he encounters a boy named Shmuel who wears striped pyjamas (prison clothes) just like everyone else on that side of the fence. They strike up a friendship with Bruno not understanding what is going on in the camp, but smuggles food for Shmuel because he always looks so thin and hungry.

As time passes, their bond grows stronger even though Shmuel’s body gets weaker. Eventually Shmuel tells Bruno that his dad has gone missing, and Bruno wanting to help, agrees to sneak into the camp through a hole in the fence. Shmuel manages to find a spare set of striped pyjamas and Bruno puts them on to blend in. Before they can fully search the camp, soldiers round up a group of the prisoners with Burno and Shmuel among them. They are then led into a building, which Bruno thinks is a shelter used to protect from storms but is actually a gas chamber.

In his final moments, as they hold hands, Bruno says to Shmuel that he is his best friend. The door closes and the lights go out.

Bruno’s parents search for him, and it is only when Bruno’s father discovers his son’s clothes folded neatly next to the fence that he is able to piece together what has happened.

Review

John Boyne’s novel is a work of historical fiction. I am not going to delve into the accuracy or lack thereof regarding its setting and the depictions of the characters. There has been plenty of controversy around this novel. The concern around historical inaccuracies and the trivialisation of the Nazi regime has led to criticism and concern that this book will impact adversely on people’s understanding and education of the Holocaust. Again, I reiterate that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is fiction, so if your hackles rise because you’ll be upset by historical liberties taken in this story then I would suggest dropping this off your book list and reading a text book on the Holocaust instead.

There has also been criticism surrounding the main character, Bruno, who has difficulty pronouncing words like ‘The Fuhrer’ and ‘Auschwitz’ which he pronounces ‘The Fury’ and ‘Out-with’. This has been perceived by some as downplaying the significance and atrocities that occurred in Auschwitz. Given the story is told from the viewpoint of Bruno who is nine-years old, I have accepted Boyne’s capturing of a child’s perspective. If anything I believe it to be quite effective and not at all reducing the magnitude of the Holocaust.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a thoroughly engrossing read. Boyne was able to capture my imagination through his writing and insert me in a place that was vivid, horrifying and alien, and at the same time, made me care about Bruno even though I have the knowledge of the events at Auschwitz. Somehow Boyne is able to stay the underlying dread for long enough that you will see it through to the bitter end. This is in large part to capturing the eyes, mind and heart of a child that is Bruno. Though you want to ignore that deep down somewhere you know this whole thing will end in tragedy, you are tugged along anyway by this thread of hope that perhaps Bruno and Shmuel will somehow defy their situation and miraculously escape.

The fact that Bruno and Shmuel see each other as children and not German and Jew is the obvious moral and message that Boyne seeks to impart to readers both now and into the future. The moral imperative to treat each other as human beings, to care for one another, to show compassion is never more evident than in every interaction between the two children, whether that be Bruno saving food to give to Shmuel, their talks and sharing of stories, or in the final act when Bruno sneaks into Shmuel’s side of the fence to search for Shmuel’s father.

It is heart wrenching in its simplicity. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been described as a cautionary tale and a fable. It is both these things and so much more. To me, it was not simply a fable to reflect the Holocaust but also a reflection on our world today and how hate and fear can divide us. This is never more evident than in the final words in this book where Boyne writes, ‘Of course, all of this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.’

4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Love, in Theory by Elodie Cheesman

TL;DR – a romantic comedy for the 2020s. Romy, not having seriously dated for two years, decides to jump back in using theories developed by psychologists, mathematicians and researchers to find love.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Romy, an unusual, thoughtful 24-year old with a deep desire for rational thinking, decides to embrace science and statistics to find the ideal guy. She uses ‘optimal stopping theory’ to calculate that she is at the age where if she meets a guy that is better than all the previous men she has dated then he is likely to be the one she can build a life with.

She meets James who she has chemistry and spark with but ticks many of the boxes that are similar to her previous ex-boyfriends and doesn’t want to fall into the same trap of basing a relationship solely on a bonfire that will eventually flame out.

She then meets Hans who ticks all the relationship theoretical science boxes that she has set out for herself, but she can’t help noting that there is no initial bonfire that burns as deeply as what she experiences with James.

Who will she choose?

Review

‘Optimal stopping theory’ is a genuine mathematical theory that examines when it is an appropriate time to take an action to maximise reward or minimise cost. While the theory has been applied to statistics, finance and economics, it is with one particular problem that this novel is based on. The problem goes by many names including ‘the marriage problem’ and the ‘fussy suitor problem’.

In short, the problem surrounds when it is best to choose a partner and using the optimal stopping theory, one can calculate at what age based on your ‘expected dating life’ you should go about choosing a partner that you can live ‘happily ever after’ with. The magical number based on this formula is 37%.

This means, hypothetically, if you started dating at 18 years and wanted to settle down by 35 then that is a 17-year dating span. 37% of 17 is 6.29. Add 6.29 years to 18 and you get 24.29 years as the age that is your optimal stopping point.

It just so happens that Love in Theory‘s main character, Romy, is 24 years old and thus in theory, she should choose the next guy who is better than all the previous guys she has dated for the best chance of settling down with ‘Mr. Right’. Thus begins Romy’s dating escapades after not having seriously dated anyone for a couple of years. A different type of clock, not biological, starts inside her as she goes about finding someone based on the fact she has reached her optimal stopping point.

Whether you believe in the theory or not, Elodie Cheesman’s tale of finding the perfect match will likely propel young readers of romance (older readers who have experienced that relationships require work will probably not). Cheesman utilises all the current day mechanics that people use when they are trying to meet people (i.e. Tinder, Bumble, and other social networking or match-making apps). Romy’s introspection is reflective of a 24-year old who is a deep thinker, and the people she meets have a wide range of personalities that ensures she goes through the bores, the cringes, the narcissists in equal measure. Eventually her path crosses with two potential suitors: James and Hans.

In many ways, the character of Romy is deeply flawed. There is nothing wrong with this as characters that are flawed make for interesting reading. However, I do not know if certain flaws were intended by Cheesman. It certainly does not feel intentional. Romy comes off as an intellectual with a deep desire to scientifically analyse her love life and how she goes about searching for the ideal partner. She buys into the ‘optimal stopping theory’, attends an ‘intelligent dating’ class and is presented with research into relationships including a 2010 paper by mathematician Peter Backus entitled “Why I Don’t Have a Girlfriend”.

Backus calculated the odds of meeting someone who met all the traits that he was looking for in an ideal partner and came to the bleak probability of finding such a person on any given night out was only 0.0000034% chance. Through the ‘intelligent dating’ class, Romy is asked to identify three key traits (only three because the more traits you want ticked off in a partner will reduce the probability of finding someone dramatically. Just ask Mr Backus) and choose these three traits to create a relationship based on mutual liking (not lust or intense love, but liking).

Romy chooses the following:

  • ‘low novelty-seeking’ which means someone who is not always searching for something new. Romy reflects that her previous boyfriends were a combination of high extroversion, high openness and low conscientiousness, which made for a fun and spontaneous partner in the early days of the relationship, but also someone who was more likely to get bored and move on.
  • ’emotionally stable’ being someone who does not react intensely negative when things become difficult.
  • ‘agreeableness’ being someone who is ‘nice’. Nice people are generally kinder and better at intimacy.

From this approach, I felt strongly that here is a young woman who believes in rationality and using scientific research in finding the ideal partner (whether I agree with such an approach is beside the point, Romy’s personality is distinct and for the purposes of the story that is what matters). However, Cheesman then has two male characters in James and Hans that are Romy’s primary focus and while she reminds herself of the three traits she is looking for, it becomes apparent that for all her rationality she still wants the ‘magic’, the ‘spark’ or whatever other romantic trope you want to use.

Again, this is not necessarily an issue. Love in Theory, after all, is meant to be a romantic comedy. But I could not help rolling my eyes at how Cheesman goes about describing James and Hans.

Hans is tall, blonde, blue-eyed German with a ‘Statue of Liberty nose’, a strong jaw, wide smile with dimples. Might as well have described him as a ‘German prince’.

James is described at one point as wearing a white T-shirt and dark jeans that makes him look like James Dean or perhaps James Franco playing James Dean.

Look, I get it. We often judge books by their cover even if we say we don’t. First impressions make a difference, and I’m not saying Romy should date a guy she is not physically attracted to. But really no matter how much Cheesman tries to show the two male leads as having depth (and their own flaws), Romy still wants all the shine and physical sparkle as much as the rest of us. So, for all of her rationality, logic, and ‘scientific’ approach to finding someone, it was disappointing to me that the men she desires are Hollywood stereotypes in the looks department.

The fact Romy reflects deeply on her previous boyfriends, all charming, charismatic and good-looking and subsequently dates James and Hans who fit the same mould was disappointing. The only male character that presents themselves physically as flawed is Romy’s boss Graeme (for whom she is not attracted to in the slightest). Would it have detracted from the romantic comedy theme if the two male leads had physical flaws? I would like to think not. If anything I would have felt it would lend to a more authentic story and perhaps aligned better with the idea that Romy has learned from her past relationships and now applying her rational, analytical mind.

Was this intentional by Cheesman? I don’t know. But looks of the male leads aside, the story moves along to the conclusion we all suspect. That is, you can read all the science and statistics you want, but in the end love is more than this.

Romy is like a pendulum, she swings to the extremes applying theories to finding someone, she finds that person in Hans, and then swings to the other end, unable to deny her attraction to James and throws out all the theories. There is no balance in the delivery as the ending rushes in the final couple of chapters that has Romy having a supposed epiphany after being told by Alexandra (neuroscientist and Romy’s aunt) that the science of relationships can be cast aside if you feel that ‘magic’. She then rushes over to see James and confesses that she has been ignoring what they have and wants to be with him. And it should be noted that this is after things have ended with Hans through Romy’s own fault.

I found it a disappointing read because in the end, the book is lauded as being perceptive about love and relationships but ends up following a path well trodden. It’s Sleepless in Seattle where Meg Ryan’s character dumps Bill Pullman’s nice-guy character for Tom Hank’s character whom she feels the magic spark with.

Cheesman tries to offset this by describing two other important couples close to Romy: her parents and about-to-marry couple, Mara and Angus. We learn for both of these couples, their love blossomed from liking and the guy being ‘nice’ as opposed to a ‘love at first sight’ experience with explosions and fireworks.

Still, for all of her ruminations, thoughtful introspection, research and reading, her apparent belief in the science to create a relationship that will go the distance gets thrown out the window, and she ends up going with her gut in James as has happened with her previous ex-boyfriends. The book ends with her saying she has a ‘magnificent hunch’ that this time it will be different.

And perhaps it will be different, but as a romantic comedy it doesn’t say anything different. Listen to your heart instead of your head is the end message even though this book seeks to break out of all the Hollywood brainwash about ‘happily ever after’.

Had the inciting incident that wrecked Romy’s relationship with nice-guy Hans led to her actually trying to fight to get him back, and this in turn would lead to her choosing Hans over James… now that would have been different and broken out of the Hollywood rom-com mould. But alas, the formula has been set.

It is sad to think that hope fulfilled cannot stem as much from the head as it can from the heart (or at least, from a balance between the two). I guess that just doesn’t make as good a story and is not as sexy.

2 out of 5.