Review: Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe

A Facebook ad brought this comic to my attention two days ago, and it really pulled me in (as in, I made Poor Life Choices and stayed up until 2am on a work night getting caught up on it).

Lore Olympus is a modern/alternate take on Greek mythology, centered around the story of Hades and Persephone, but including the full cast of Greek gods and goddesses. The basic premise of the comic is that Mount Olympus and the Underworld are modern cities, while the mortal realm is at the time of Classical Greece. Demeter, Persephone’s mother, doesn’t like many of the other gods, and has chosen to live in the mortal realm, and that is where Persephone was born and raised. At nineteen, she has recently come to Olympus to study at the university, to get some freedom from her mother, and to learn about the more high-tech world that is open to the gods and other mythological creatures (nymphs, centaurs, etc.). Persephone is staying with her friend Artemis.

Hades (at 2000-something, as he puts it), is the King of the Underworld, ruling his night-time kingdom alone while his brothers Zeus and Poseidon are long married and have at least superficially happy families. Though he doesn’t necessarily like to admit it, Hades is lonely.

The story opens with Hades being stood up by his date for one of Zeus’ parties, and going anyway only to be very taken by Persephone, who has come to the same party with Artemis. Hades then proceeds to Say Stuff about how beautiful Persephone is within hearing range of Aphrodite, which leads to the Goddess of Love enlisting her son Eros to pull a prank on Hades. The prank ends up giving Hades and Persephone a chance to meet and to talk, and to discover that there is something that clicks between them, though neither is quite willing to acknowledge it.

The story proceeds from there, with Persephone slowly meeting more of the Olympian gods (for good and ill), slowly getting to know Hades, and slowly getting to know herself a bit better, looking for confidence and purpose and struggling against a conviction that her powers are “not very important.”

I like a lot of things about this comic. The art style is bold and fun, both in the drawing and in the use of color to differentiate characters; the artist plays with the idea that as gods, these beings might have very differently colored hair and skin (Persephone is all pink, for example, and Hera all golden) rather than having the usual mortal tones. There are some scenes showing the modern city-scapes of both Olympus and the Underworld that I thought were truly amazing, and there are many more gorgeous moments throughout.

Another thing I like is that the gods and goddesses, while certainly empowered with a certain amount of modern technology and ideas, are still recognizably their characters from the traditional stories, with all the shenanigans, shape-shifting, relationship drama, and sexual escapades that implies.

And, perhaps most of all, I really like Hades and Persephone as characters, and I like the relationship as it is starting to grow between them. There is more to either of them than most of the other gods see or acknowledge; Hades is hated and feared by many as the King of the Underworld, and Persephone is seen as young, naïve, and unimportant. In each other, they find someone who sees them more for who they really are: Hades as a gentleman (wavering often between dignified and dorky), with much greater depth of feeling than most understand, and Persephone as a young goddess who is very intelligent and has not yet begun to tap the depths of her potential. I also personally enjoy stories about relationships with a notable age difference, so that aspect of them is interesting as well.

The story is gripping, and also made me laugh aloud many times as I was reading it. The artist is exploring some darker themes as well as the humor, but Greek gods and consent issues are not new. Although Persephone and Hades are the main characters, we meet and get stories for many of the other gods as well, which fills in the world and pulls in more of the original stories. I would recommend this comic to anyone who likes modern and/or alternate takes on mythology, or who is looking for a good romance.

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Review: The Dragonoak Trilogy by Sam Farren

I believe I came across this trilogy first on Tumblr, and primarily because the author, Sam Farren, keeps ball/royal pythons, and I followed them for posts about their snakes. On seeing that Farren was also a self-published author, however, and being intrigued by the description of the first book, I decided to give it a try, and was glad I did; this is one of the more unique fantasy worlds that I have read in recent years.

(Some spoilers past this point.)

The series follows Rowan Northwood, a young woman from a rural village who has recently failed to hide the fact that she is a necromancer: someone with the power to snatch death away from or push death into other living beings. While her family stand with her and the local villagers are tolerating her presence as long she stays out on her family’s farm, life is not comfortable for Rowan. Taking a chance when one of her country’s famed Knights comes through the village, Rowan goes with her, following her to the neighboring country of Kastelir.

The title of the first book, The Complete History of Kastelir, struck me as a bit ambitious when I first read it, assuming that it was meant to be taken literally. The entire history of a country in a single book?

But the complete history of the country of Kastelir is exactly what I (and Rowan) learned through the course of the book. As a nation, Kastelir is relatively new, formed only a few decades previously out of a land of warring groups. By the end of the book, Rowan has (just barely) survived Kastelir’s fall, and has lost the woman whom she was beginning to love.

The Sky Beneath the Sun finds Rowan far to the south, in a completely different part of the world, along with the handful of friends and allies who escaped Kastelir at the end. Everything is new (and hot), and Rowan finds it mostly a welcome distraction from her grief. Unexpectedly, it also gives her a chance to learn more about herself, to learn that the commonly-used word “necromancer” does not at all begin to encompass the truth of her powers and the kind of being that she is. Through these revelations, a betrayal, and the eventual realization that their work in the land that was once Kastelir is not done, Rowan must decide where she will set the limits on her own power.

The final book in the series, Gall and Wormwood, sees Rowan and her friends returning north across the sea first to what remains of Kastelir, and then eventually back to her birth country of Felheim, where the heart of the conflict truly lies. It takes not just a better grasp of her own powers for Rowan and her allies to unravel the war that has been going on much longer than any of them realized, but also a rediscovery of their world’s more distant past.

The author of the Dragonoak trilogy created a truly unique world, that has breadth and depth enough that it is easy to feel the weight of its history even as the characters do. Farren’s take on what at first seems like a straightforward fantasy element like necromancy, turns into something unlike any other version of necromancy that I’ve seen. There are dragons and phoenixes, though even they are not quite what one might at first assume. This may be the first time that I have read a story in which the main character is dyslexic (though she does not use that particular term for it), and must work around her inability to read, though it is largely something that she just accepts about herself.

I enjoyed the whole trilogy, and would recommend these books to anyone who likes fantasy stories with original worldbuilding, queer characters, or a good story about the heroes fighting for (and winning) the right to live their lives in peace.

Quick Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I recently finished the first of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, and as with his other work that I have read (mostly the Mistborn trilogy) it really pulled me in. It took me a little time to get into it at first, but after that it was difficult to put down, even the supposedly “slower” parts. Sanderson has created a large, complex, and very interesting world, and I’m now eager to read the rest of the series!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jasnah Kholin and Kaladin are my two favorite characters so far, although I like Shallan and Dalinar as well. Jasnah is a very interesting person, and I like her thoughts and attitude, her deep love of learning, and her determination to get to the truth about her world. I like Kaladin for his determination to not give up, and to make the most of whatever situation he finds himself in. Revelations at the end of this first book now make me especially eager to know what happens next.

Sanderson does a good job of building different cultures in the different geographical parts of his world, and showing how they vary depending on their distance from some of the world’s dangers (such as the highstorms), and how they interact with each other and have influenced each other over time.

I would recommend this to anyone who like long, epic fantasy stories, with many characters and complex world-building.

Review: The Greenland Diaries by Patrick W. Marsh

(“A book that scares you” from the Reading Challenge)

This is a review for the first two books of this series, Days 1-100 and Days 101-140.

These were gripping books! Horror is not my usual genre, but I happened to meet the author at a local convention last year, and this story sounded intriguing. It sucked me in right away; in spite of having told myself I wouldn’t read it in the evenings, I did, and ended up finishing the first book in just a few days. Similarly, I read the second book in just a few days as well. They are difficult to put down! I live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and I think that it makes a story like this more real, and more terrifying, to have it set in an area that you know well, because then you can’t help but picture what is happening to these familiar places, and feel sympathetic to what the main character is going through.

The premise was very different than anything I have read before, and therefore quite interesting. The main character, a bank teller, manages to survive a terrifying night at his bank when strange drums signal the arrival of monsters which kill anyone they encounter out in the open. Being careful and observant, he makes it home, and continues to evade the monsters that appear every night, even as strange green plants begin to slowly grow over everything. The story does a good job of capturing both the hair-raising periods of terror and the in-between tedium that the main character experiences. Both volumes leave off on quite a cliff-hanger, so I’m looking forward to reading the third book. I don’t know how many books the author intends, but it will be satisfying whenever the characters finally learn what has happened to their world and why! I’ll do an update when I’ve read more.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes horror, and particularly horror with a fantasy/fantastical twist to it, or someone who isn’t picky about genre but enjoys stories set in Minnesota.

Review: The Orc of Many Questions by Shane Michael Murray

(“A book with nonhuman characters” from the Reading Challenge)

I got this book specifically because it seemed like it would have an unorthodox take on orcs, and I was not disappointed.

The story follows a young orc (a “blunc”) who unusually has a fairly sharp mind and a very inquisitive nature; not attributes that are looked on favorably in his tribe. Large, powerful orcs who can be successful in raids against the humans, elves, and dwarves of the world are the ideal, this being the only way that the orcs can procure food, weapons, goods, and “entertainment.” Talking-Wind wants to know why his people are stuck in this life of constant raiding, and even has some hints that life was not always like this for orcs, but he has more questions than answers, and little time to search for them. Talking-Wind’s curiosity draws unwanted attention not only from the other young orcs, who are all too happy to bully someone smaller and weaker, but also from the dragon that demands regular tribute from the orc clan. When the dragon comes for him, Talking-Wind needs all his wits in order to have a hope of surviving long enough to get all of his many questions answered!

This book was a lot grosser than I was expecting, which perhaps should not have surprised me given the subject of the story; there is some gore, but mainly a lot of unpleasant bodily functions! This does not detract from the story, but might be something to be aware of.

It also does a good job with starting to break down the standard fantasy trope of “orcs are evil because they are evil,” which has bothered me more and more in recent years. A certain well-known fantasy series that shall not be named recently doubled-down on this, after spending several books/years looking like they too might be reversing or at least questioning the trope, which annoyed me. Partly for that reason, I’ve been looking for stories that do better and don’t automatically go the route of saying that some races are actually evil by nature. To me, that makes for much less interesting villains/enemies. Easier to kill with a clean conscience, perhaps, but not much else.

There is a sequel which I have not gotten to yet, but do hope to read soon! I would recommend this one to anyone who is interested in a subversion of typical fantasy tropes, anyone who likes a very down-to-earth-complete-with-bodily-fluids type of story, or anyone who happens to be interested in orcs as a fantasy race.

Review: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

My first thought when I finished this book was “I have died and gone to heaven…or maybe just to Paradise.”

In many ways, this is just another Alternate-Medieval-Europe fantasy (though quite well-written); it has bloody battles, secret (and not so secret) religious fanatics of various flavors, and plenty of political intrigue. I appreciated the author’s way of using languages; the book is written in English, but he uses a blend of English and other languages to give the sense of the different countries, for instance giving titles in both Spanish or French as well as in English. It leaves the reader not needing to guess what unfamiliar words mean, while still getting to see them, learn them, and appreciate the varied vocabulary.

In many ways, it is just another fantasy…but it also has dinosaurs.

Some reviewers have made the point that this story is not a Medieval Jurassic Park. I agree, and would then add that I think it’s much better than that. If you are a Jurassic Park fan and your favorite part is that a bunch of people run around screaming and then get eaten by the dinosaurs, this may not be the book for you (though some people do get killed/eaten by dinosaurs in the story).

I think the best way to describe it is to say that dinosaurs exist in the world of Paradise; they are animals that inhabit the land, and people have learned to exist with them, much as we exist with the many animals around us today. There are some unique challenges to life with dinosaurs, given their often-large size and definite ability to cause harm to humans, but in this world those are challenges that people have undertaken. Some dinosaurs still roam the wild, and are hunted for meat or sport or self-protection by the humans. Many have been tamed or domesticated to one degree or another; they are beasts of burden, war-steeds, pets. The dinosaurs in the world of Paradise feel real, because they are part of the landscape and the ecosystem and the culture; much better than attractions at an amusement park.

To many of the characters, this is all dinosaurs are: part of the landscape, a familiar backdrop to everyday life. But to a couple of the characters (and to the author, I believe), the dinosaurs are more than that: to these characters, dinosaurs are a source of awe. Even as they fully understand and constantly deal with the realities (pleasant and otherwise) of coexisting with dinosaurs, they never lose the lingering edge of breathless wonder at the existence of these great creatures. That, more than anything, was what sold me on this book’s premise and world (and not surprisingly, those two characters are my favorites so far!)

I did enjoy the story itself, and am interested to see where it goes in the next two books of this (I believe) trilogy. This is a very adult book – plenty of gore, sex, violence, and foul language. If you don’t mind those things, then I would recommend it to fans of dinosaurs (the author seems to have done his research fairly well), fans of epic medieval fantasy, and fans of stories with battles and political intrigue.

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

I went to see this opening night, and was not even a little bit disappointed.

As a brief, spoiler-free review: Visually stunning, with good music, I would recommend it to fans of superhero/action movies. Setting it during World War I rather than World War II worked with some of the themes about human free-will in interesting ways (and contributed to some of the aforesaid stunning visuals). I thought the setup used to frame this (Wonder Woman’s origin story) was well-done. I am not greatly familiar with the DC universe, so this take on some of the Greek mythology struck me as strange, but interesting. Definitely recommended.

More in-depth thoughts (with spoilers) below.

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