|Art by Goñi Montes|
"Kingmaker" by Lindsay Smith (7008 words)
Well this is an interesting story about a woman playing the spy game in the most dangerous ways possible, working to take down a number of violent gangs, yes, but mostly aiming to get rid of the man who stood in the way of her happiness, in the way of her relationship with the woman she can't get over. It's a great world that's built up with cults of sleep, basically, and a Dreamer who guides people through their dreams. The action is intense, the world rather grim and dark with a lot of people being oppressed and ignored. Gangs rule the lower levels of society, are propped up by aristocrats who use the money and influence provided to in turn make life difficult for the merchant class. It's all fascinating, and the main character, Vera, is deep into plots on top of plots. Of course, things don't go exactly to plan and there are a few twists involved that make for some entertaining reading. And that's really what the story is, entertaining. It doesn't go as deep as some but it does provide a setting against which a great many points can be made. This story just...doesn't quite get to most of them. It sets things up, including an ending that had me a little confused as someone brand new to the setting. Still, it was a lot of fun and as a taste it was enough to make me curious enough to perhaps search out more of it. It's the kind of cliffhanger ending that could easily have gone either way, but it sounds promising enough, and the rest of the story is fun and well done enough, that I'm willing to trust that things will be made clear. For now, it was fun, and left me wanting more.
"The Pyramid of Krakow" by Michael Swanwick (4932 words)
This is the second of the Mongolian Wizard stories that I’ve read, and I like that in both Ritter is sort of an ass and gets shown up by a woman. It does somewhat undercut the heavy patriarchy that’s present in the setting. The world building again is interesting, magic infusing nineteenth century Europe with new life. That Ritter is bonded with his wolf continues to be fun and interesting, and that Ritter himself is mostly out of commission in this story also makes for a rather novel experience, the main character taking a back seat to those around him. Which is rather well done. The places where I hesitate are at those places where I feel the story does make sure to make it very obvious who the bad guys are. I’m the sort who finds Nazi stories…well, normally not done as well as I’d like. And don’t get me wrong, this story does not have Nazis. [SOME SPOILERS] But it does have certain things, internment camps with mass killings and magic that is spurred by such acts. The story plays with the power of atrocity to break down mental barriers, and that rings as an interesting way to conceptualize brainwashing and power. At the same time, I kept waiting for a bit more complication, a bit more to sell the premise of Ritter visiting an internment camp. And it does show up in the end, but only after Ritter returns to England and reveals what he has learned to his superiors. And then the story really does get a bit deeper, showing how the good guys and the bad guys begin to blur a bit. Things are not as simple as they seem and I’m guessing Ritter is going to have some uncomfortable things to face going forward. Especially because it’s his work that leads to this shift in morality. Of course, then the story ends, saving the promise of that last scene for another time. But it does make me want to see what comes next, to know what the fallout of this will be. So mission accomplished, story. Certainly one to check out.
"Secret Coders: Lost and Found" by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes
So luckily enough for me I've already read the first volume of Secret Coders and thought it was cute and fun and while I also felt like it wasn't really a complete volume that complaint is mainly defeated by...more content! So I definitely wanted to take a look at this rather short graphic story that picks up with Hopper, Eni, and Josh. Now, the first volume of books didn't really do much with Joshn, but he does fit the roll of rather dense comic relief pretty well, and he adds to the dynamic between Hopper and Ein, Hopper being more impulsive and Eni being more reserved. The character work here is strong, completed in a small space largely on the strength of the visuals, which are fun and memorable. Giant turtle flying laser car, hilarious dumb looking dogs, and deranged squirrels all show up and are charming. The actual plot of the piece is rather simple, Josh having lost his dog and the gang having to solve the problem with a bit of coding. The premise, of teaching coding through a graphic story, is still interesting and done fairly well. It reminds me of old PC games like Dr. Brain's Island where you had to control a little bot to go and pick things up using simple coding. Because in-between the cute art and fun characters there are actually small lessons to be learned, as if this was a chapter review for something that happens in the regular series. And it works well on its own, without really knowing who anyone is. Some of the characters become a little flat if this is the only piece you'd see them in, but gives each character a unique voice and a moment to shine. I am a bit frustrated that there are some minor spoilers in the piece for Secret Coders volume three, which won't be out until 2017. At the time I read this, I only had read volume one because I got an advanced reading copy. For those hungry for more Secret Coders after volume one, though, I still say this is worth reading. As a taste of the world and its sensibilities, and as just a cute little story, I'd also say it's worth checking out. It's just a little unfortunate that readers (okay, that I) will have to wait all the way until 2017 to get to see the story behind the flying turtle laser car.