Book Review: The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag

TL;DR – our greatest threat is not technology itself, but how we use it.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

In an alternate universe, a post apocalyptic America in the late 1990s reveals that humanity and machines have become one. Almost everyone has become plugged into Sentre – virtual reality (VR) headsets that make the wearer look like a metal pelican – allowing their minds to be connected to a global consciousness, play games and control giant robots in the real world.

However, the Sentre headsets has led to a drug-like addiction resulting in people staying plugged in, their physical forms becoming emaciated, kept alive by IV drips or withered away until their bodies have died and their consciousness kept alive through machine.

But the headsets do not work on everyone, and teenager Michelle is one such person. With a backpack, shotgun, stolen car and Skip, her robot friend, Michelle treks across a desolated and ruined American west trying to reach San Francisco. There she hopes to find a boat and sail away leaving behind the desiccation, depravity and violence of an America sucked into the machine void. But not before making one final stop at a rundown house in the suburbs of San Francisco to retrieve something stolen from her.

Review

Simon Stålenhag has created an alternate world that is far more haunting and frightening than any other “rise of the machines” type scenarios that you see in sci-fi films. Unlike movies such as “Terminator” and “Matrix”, this is a world where humans have willingly embraced a technology and been consumed by it without even realising what they have done. The Electric State reminded me more of “The Road” (the film directed by John Hillcoat based on the book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy) with creepy, tentacled, giant robots thrown in.

It is a world where vast landscapes show nothing but drought, desolation and death. Skeletal remains of humans still connected to their Sentre headsets lie in rundown homes, on the side of streets, in their cars, or in the middle of shops with desert sands and decay enveloping them.

Giant robots (controlled sometimes by a single consciousness, sometimes by many) roam the land. Their purpose a mystery, but their ability to dole out death and destruction very real. And then there are the remaining humans that are not plugged in, who have become scavengers and hunters. It is survival of the fittest where the strong prey on the weak, so you best be wary and armed at all times.

As we follow Michelle and her robot, Skip, across America’s west, every page has an illustration that will linger in your mind and penetrate your dreams. Stålenhag’s artistic skill to mesh the familiar with the futuristic is disturbing. Debilitated 3-D billboards of mechanical faces, gigantic tanks riddled in the shape of animatronic rubber ducks, a broken down shed with a puppet robot peering out waving its hand, and roaming metal behemoths with hundreds of cables trailing behind them connected to humans with Sentre headsets making them all stumble around like zombies worshipping a mechanical sentinel are some of the disturbing images that take you through The Electric State.

The text that accompanies each page provides both history of how America became what it is while also providing the narrative from Michelle’s perspective. Stålenhag is careful with his story telling, revealing only so much through his words as he does through his illustrations. Together, you will re-read the paragraphs while re-examining the pictures. To and fro, trying to decipher Michelle’s intent and why things are the way that they are.

The dangers she encounters are both subtle and obvious, and by the time she reaches San Francisco to the one-storey house that has seen better days with its overgrown garden, there will be this little voice in your head screaming at Michelle to be careful or to not even bother going into the house and just head to the coast, find a boat, and leave this nightmare behind.

I won’t spoil the finale but the astute should figure out what is inside the house. And when you turn the final page, part of you will flip through its pages again to look at the pictures not knowing why you feel compelled to do so.

4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: In by Will McPhail

TL;DR – a tale of existentialism through observation, courage, and a lot of coffee shops.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

In tells the story of Nick searching for meaning in his life. He knows there is more than meets the eye to everyone he meets, but he does not know how to reach them. Every conversation, every encounter is on a superficial level.

Even when he meets Lorena, a sassy, engaging woman, he struggles to feel anything below the surface. Their ‘dance’ is one where they both stand behind protective walls they have built over time.

When finally he dares to speak his mind and true feelings to someone, he discovers something beyond the bubble of his own existence. He discovers the significance of others, and he learns that to live life means you have to become vulnerable.

Review

Every now and then you stumble upon something that leaves you speechless. Something that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. In by Will McPhail is one of those reads that will linger with you and make you re-examine how you live your life.

This is not your normal graphic novel. As both artist and writer, McPhail uses everything at his disposal to create a poignant, meaningful, and significant story. The minimalist nature of his character designs, the detailed beauty of his backdrops, the way he conveys emotions such as nervousness through how he draws dialogue bubbles/speech balloons, and his use of colour ensures the reader will want to examine every page in detail.

And that’s just the art.

The story he tells is of a character named Nick who is searching for genuine connection. It is not just the meaning in his own life but also the meaning in others. He works as an artist drawing carp for a fishing magazine and carries around a sketchbook wherever he goes doing doodles.

In a city thriving with people, he feels lost and suffocated. He ventures into random coffee shops and bars seeking to have meaningful dialogue as well as to get out of his lonely apartment where he spends too much time either watching porn or listening to Joni Mitchell on replay. But everyone he interacts with is stuck keeping their head down, nose to the grindstone, and fearful of revealing anything deep about themselves because it could lead to ridicule, strange looks, and vulnerability.

Nick knows he is no better than anyone else, stuck on the outside looking in (not that he believes anyone is really ‘in’). But when he finally builds the courage to step outside his own fortress/prison, he experiences doorways into lives filled with colour.

Life is filled with highs and lows. Laughter and tears. There is strength, hope, and love in vulnerability even if it causes you to fall to your knees.

Essential reading.

5 out of 5.

Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

TL:DR – The story of a young girl over a ten year span who has to learn how to live with blindness during World War II.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

In August 1944, the French coastal town of Saint-Malo was occupied by Germany. Allied forces sent bombers as part of an offensive to capture the town. A quarter-mile offshore, Fort National holds several hundred prisoners who spy the bombers’ approach including Marie-Laure Leblanc’s uncle who thinks:

Locusts, and an Old Testament proverb comes back to him from some cobwebbed hour of parish school. The locusts have no king, yet all of them go out in ranks.

In Saint-Malo, on the sixth floor of number 4 rue Vauborel, sixteen year old, blind girl, Marie-Laure is in her bedroom with a replica model of Saint-Malo in her hands. The replica is so precise that Marie-Laure can run her fingers over the model town and find number 4 rue Vauborel. She pushes the miniature front door and discovers the model house is a puzzle box. Puzzle boxes were made by her locksmith father who often gave them to her as gifts and a guide to help navigate the town she lives in. She turns the chimney ninety degrees and removes three panels of the roof before turning it upside. A cold, teardrop shaped stone, the size of a pigeon’s egg falls into her palm. A stone she cannot see.

She clutches the model house and gemstone to her as the house shakes from the incoming bombers. Sirens wail outside telling everyone to find shelter. Marie-Laure crawls beneath her bed wishing for her father.

This is her story.

Review

As a species, we are a weird bunch. We should love and respect one another, yet we fight and unleash wars, and we know this inherently. We should treasure each other, yet we treasure inanimate objects, and we know this inherently. We should learn from our mistakes, but we often repeat them, and we know this inherently. (Is it a mistake that I repeated ‘we know this inherently’ three times? No, that’s an epistrophe, and I admit is annoying unless they’re the lyrics of a song).

This dichotomy between what we know and what we end up doing drives home a message around humanity in All The Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s epic tale of historical fiction is not so much a cautionary one as it is a blatant message that there is an essential need that we, as a species, do not lose our own empathy toward each other lest we lose our humanity.

This got me thinking about museums. Our fascination for recording history, learning about the past, and using it to inform the future is a noble enterprise, and museums are a wonderful testimony to past achievements and allows exploration of new ideas by examining the old.

Museums also, I believe unintentionally, place focus on treasuring and valuing inanimate objects rather than people. Do we love Van Gogh the person? Or do we love Van Gogh’s art?

One of the key motifs in All The Light We Cannot See revolves around a museum treasure. And it demonstrates that even in the midst of World War II (or perhaps because of a world war), people lose sight of what is important and the thread of empathy towards each other is cut.

This museum treasure is housed initially in Paris at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and is called the ‘Sea of Flames’; a teardrop blue diamond with a touch of red in its centre like a flame. The stone is said to be cursed, and the story goes roughly like this:

The Sea of Flames was created by the Goddess of the Earth as a gift to her lover, the God of the Sea. She sent the jewel to him through the river, but the river dried up. It was found by a sultan’s prince. The Goddess, enraged, cursed the stone. The keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as they kept it, bad things would happen. And indeed the prince, along with subsequent individuals who possessed the stone, suffered tragic deaths of those they loved and cared about and misfortune fell upon them. Like I said, Doerr’s message is clear rather than cautionary; don’t place more value on objects than people.

It goes on to say that the curse can be broken if the keeper throws the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient.

The legend behind the Sea of Flames is told to a bunch of children visiting the Paris museum. One of these children is a six-year old Marie-Laure. Thus we see this event happens ten years before the opening chapters of the bombing of Saint-Malo. The tour guide who tells the story informs the children the Sea of Flames is now housed in this museum behind thirteen locked doors inside a vault not to be opened for two hundred years.

One of the children asks the guide, how long has it been since it was locked away. And the tour guide answers that 196 years have passed. If you work out the maths, Doerr has cleverly made it so that when the vault is finally opened in four more years, World War II will commence with Germany invading Poland. Could the outbreak of a world war have been triggered when a vault containing a diamond treasure was opened releasing a pent up 200-year curse?

The answer is it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a six-year old Marie-Laure asks the guide, “Why not just take the diamond and throw it into the sea?”

Her fellow peers scoff at her; who throws a diamond that could buy five Eiffel Towers into the sea? They have all (except Marie-Laure) already been convinced in treasuring and valuing an inanimate object. At the end of the tour, Marie-Laure is reunited with her father who happens to be the head locksmith at the museum. And one month later, Marie-Laure goes blind.

The other main protagonist in this story is a German boy named Werner Pfennig. He’s a gifted child plucked from an orphanage for his skills in fixing radios and ends up being indoctrinated with Nazi values and is placed in the army corps. His role is to use radio technology to track illegal enemy signals. However, he becomes disillusioned when not only Allied soldiers but also innocent civilians are killed.

As the story unfolds, we get to see how Marie-Laure learns to live during a time of war without her sight, and how Werner’s brutal training does not undermine his core empathy. It is majestically done by Doerr, and you have to be willing to absorb his prose because All The Light We Cannot See is a tome of a novel and a lengthy read. But I found every moment spent poring over each page a worthy investment.

By the end, when everything comes full circle, and the Allied forces invade Saint-Malo, I was riveted to see what would happen to Marie-Laure and Werner. Doerr’s ability to capture not only the historical places in his story but how Marie-Laure navigates her life during a time of strife completely blind is both ambitious and mind blowing.

When Marie-Laure discovers the stone hidden in the model replica of Saint-Malo given to her by her father who was entrusted with the stone by the museum when the Germans invaded Paris, she fulfils the question she asked ten years prior and releases the stone (and all the light she cannot see in the diamond) back into the ocean.

The fact that the Sea of Flames finally reaches its intended destination, and this coincides with the Axis collapse and the Allied victory shortly thereafter is not coincidence on Doerr’s part. The curse has been lifted.

5 out of 5

Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

TL:DR – In between life and death there is the Midnight Library. This place contains all the possible lives you could have lived depending on the choices and actions you take. When Nora Seed finds herself in this state of limbo, she is confronted by the infinite books detailing paths she could have taken. What will she learn about herself, and will she discover life is worth living regardless of what it throws at her?

Summary (warning: spoiler)

At the age of 16, Nora Seed had many interests; swimming, glaciology, music, cats/dogs, philosophy, boys, finding love, books and chess to name a few. Living in Bedford, UK, she had dreams and pathways unexplored before her.

At the age of 35, she decides to end her life.

Nora then finds herself in a library, but this is no normal library for it does not appear to have a beginning or end. There she meets Mrs Elm the librarian; the same librarian she had in high school when she was 16 years old. Nora asks Mrs Elm if she is dead, and the librarian replies, ‘Not exactly.’

‘Between life and death there is a library,’ she explains. ‘And within that library the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’

Nora’s exploration into the multiverse of alternate lives she could have lived leads to a transformation. Will the other lives she could have lived amplify the regrets in her root life and reinforce her desire to die? Or will they somehow give her the courage to own her root life and live it?

Review

The Midnight Library is a marvellous read from author Matt Haig. The story’s greatest strength is Haig’s ability to capture the existential crisis experienced by Nora. Her decision to take her own life in the opening chapters is portrayed not only in a believable and sensitive fashion but also with minimal text. This is quite a feat as the mental state of Nora is key to understanding how she ends up in the library.

What is also impressive is how Haig shows Nora’s depression is not necessarily the product of her choices, circumstances and actions, but the perception of all three. He is not heavy-handed in his delivery, which makes it all the more relatable. Nora could have been addicted to drugs (she is on anti-depressants but nothing else), or an alcoholic, or in an abusive relationship and thus explain her desire to commit suicide. Instead, she is simply a person struggling with life, and it is her perception that drives her to the decision to end her life.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind and soul, she understands that it is impossible to live a life that is perpetually happy. She understands that suffering and sadness are also part of life. Instead, there are two key points that drive her to despair. A despair so deep that she can’t bear living any more.

The first point is her perception of regrets. Not just the quantity, but her inability to ponder her future when she focuses so intensely on the past. Past choices that lead to regrets that she sees is a pattern of self-destructive behaviour.

The second point is after a series of events, she believes that no one needs her. That the world would not miss her. That those who are her family and friends would not notice if she simply disappeared.

This is the true spiral that a person contemplating suicide undertakes. Drugs, alcohol and violence can amplify this, but they are not essential. In the end, it is the mind that perceives and convinces the person that there is nothing but despair and suffering, so why go on living?

The bulk of the book then explores other lives Nora could have lived. And from these experiences she realises that in life, along with joy and sadness going hand-in-hand, our regrets do not define who we are, and that owning our choices whether they turn out to be good or bad are critical to living a healthy and fulfilling life.

Traversing the multiverse results in a range of highs and lows. At one point, Nora gets lost in the woods and can’t see the forest for the trees. Her own identity perched on the precipice of not knowing what she wants/needs and who she is. When finally she discovers a life that achieves a balance between the challenges and serenity, she believes she has found the life for her. But it’s not her (root) life, so when she returns to the library against her protests and the library begins to crumble around her, the state of ‘in-between’ comes to ahead and Nora must decide. Life or death?

Beautifully written, evocative, page-turning, and with a powerful message of hope.

5 out of 5

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.