Questionable Content, Vol. 2

By Jeph Jacques

Rating: 4 stars

The second three hundred strips of the excellent Questionable Content see the format shift. We finally get a resolution to the will they/won’t they thing between Faye and Marten and the introduction of the rather awesome Hannelore. The art starts to mature as well and by the end of this volume we start to see the characters as we know and love them today. The cast also starts to expand as not only Hannelore appears, but we start seeing the family of our already established cast, with Marten’s mum, Dora’s brother and Faye’s mum and sister. This starts to make our cast start to feel like rounded people with real lives that we care about (especially after we find out about Faye’s history) and this is something that Jacques has been very good at maintaining to this day. So still early days but evolving rapidly.

Book details

ISBN: 9781936561964
Publisher: TopatoCo Books
Year of publication: 2011

Questionable Content, Vol. 1

By Jeph Jacques

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been reading Questionable Content for several years now and have read it start to end online a couple of times since then, but I’ve decided to splurge on paper copies. The book is physically attractive, being a good size, although I was disappointed by the size of the comics within, with the text sometimes making me squint a bit (especially in some of the wordier ones). But QC is a vertical strip, so having two strips side by side like that on a page seems like the best way to make it work. The art is a bit wobbly in this volume, a long way from Jacques’ later work (as seen on the cover and some of the early strips here, where the originals weren’t of good enough quality to print, so he redrew them) but something I always like about webcomics is the way that we can literally see the artist getting better in front of our eyes.

The plot concerns indie kid Marten and his pals (including sociopathic AI pal Pintsize) just trying to get on in life, find love, a job that they don’t hate and talk a load of crap about music. I’d forgotten just how much time the early comic spends talking about music and bands that I’ve never heard of. Thankfully, this fades away later on, but if that’s not your geekdom, those strips are skippable. I’d also forgotten just how small the cast is at this stage. QC’s cast grows arms and legs over the years, but here, it’s pretty much just entirely Marten, his flatmate Faye and her boss Dora forming the core love-triangle cast, with Marten’s friend Steve and Pintsize as the supporting cast.

The book is funny, interesting and shows flashes of the greatness to come, but it’s still definitely worth reading on its own merits.

Book details

ISBN: 9780982486252
Publisher: TopatoCo
Year of publication: 2010

Downside Girls

By Jaine Fenn

Rating: 4 stars

This is a small collection of four short stories set in Fenn’s ‘Hidden Empire’ universe. The first three stories all directly involve Angels, the official assassins of the City, while the last focuses on a musician and only references them indirectly. I’ve not actually read anything else by Fenn, but she’s going to be a Guest of Honour at Satellite 5 so I thought I should read something that she’s written before the con and I enjoyed the collection quite a lot.

Fenn is excellent at both storytelling and worldbuilding without exposition. Despite it never really being mentioned, I picked up a fair bit about the City that the stories are set in, and I enjoyed reading about this city whose elected officials all have a Sword of Damocles hanging over them. If they fail to do what is expected of them, the Angels carry out “the will of the people” and “remove” them from public life. Permanently. The three linked stories see a few characters recurring, from the newly appointed Angel, Malia, to the shadowy Minister, the master of the Angels.

Collateral Damage starts with a newly appointed Angel and an accidental friendship that she strikes up with a woman in a bar and deals with love and betrayal. Death on Elsewhere Street has a downsider getting accidentally involved with a “removal” and the repercussions that she has to deal with following it. The final linked story, Angel Dust sees a young downsider have to complete a mission for a wounded Angel to the Minister himself. This is probably the widest in scope of the three stories, the one that gives us more than a very narrow view of the City and whets the appetite the most.

The fourth story, The Three Temptations of Larnier Mier shows us a musician who was injured while witnessing a removal and who must decide between her career and her faith. I found this one somewhat less interesting than the Angel stories. Perhaps I was hoping for a different outcome, but you can never entirely win with religion.

I enjoyed the collection a lot, and I’m intrigued now to read Principles of Angels, the book from which these stories are spun off. However, I’m somewhat put off after discovering that that is the first in a series that currently spans five books, and it’s not clear if it’s finished or not. I don’t know if I want to commit to yet another ongoing series, but that’s a question that I can perhaps put to Fenn at the con :).

Oh, and I’m still not entirely sure if the cover art is fantastic or awful.

Book details

ISBN: 9781909016170
Publisher: Monico
Year of publication: 2012

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer

By Sydney Padua

Rating: 3 stars

This is an odd book. It’s a steampunk alt history set in a pocket universe concerning the imagining of what Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and Charles Babbage might have got up to if the former hadn’t died young and the latter had completed his analytical engine, aka the first computer.

There are several short stories featuring a pipe-smoking Lovelace and organ-hating Babbage, ranging from preventing Samuel Taylor Coleridge from completing his poetic masterpiece Kubla Khan to having to stop a runaway economic model. The stories, plus a longer piece involving organised crime, are all available on the author’s website, but it’s nice to have a collection.

I said that this is an odd book. The comic stories themselves only make up a relatively short portion of the book. The rest is dedicated to footnotes and endnotes, not to mention some rather extensive appendices about Lovelace, Babbage and the difference and analytical engines. Another review here points out that the book has the same sort of structure as Lovelace’s only major publication, a translation of Luigi Menabrea’s article about the analytical engine, complete with her own extensive notes, which far outstrip the work being translated. This is something that I hadn’t considered while reading the book and does shed new light on the structure. I still found it a difficult thing to read, though. In the end, I started parsing the stories multiple times. Firstly reading the stories themselves, without interruption, then going back and re-reading them with the footnotes and the endnotes.

In the end, the work feels very slight, but there’s enough historical context to be interesting, and it’s great fun to see various other Victorian figures show up, including Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as the recurring figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And for those of an academic bent, the footnotes, endnotes and primary sources included are a treasure trove to be pored over in a leisurely fashion. Personally, that’s not my cup of tea, but I still enjoyed the energy and fun of the stories themselves.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141981512
Publisher: Particular Books
Year of publication: 2015

Voyage of the Basilisk (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #3)

By Marie Brennan

Rating: 5 stars

The third volume of Lady Trent’s memoir sees her documenting her time on the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk on an expedition searching for sea serpents. She finds these in abundance, and much more besides.

The third of Brennan’s Lady Trent books is the most assured yet. It’s lovely to see the character of Isabella Camhurst develop over the books and something that I think is quite clever in the writing is that the younger Isabella is, as she ages, starting to sound more like the elder Lady Trent. She’s maturing, gaining experience and wisdom and it’s lovely to see how Brennan conveys that in the writing.

I think this is also the first in the series that really features dragons to any great degree in the forefront. That’s not a complaint about previous volumes (it’s been great fun just following Isabella’s life as she struggles to be recognised as a serious scholar while having the terrible handicap of being a woman) but it makes this one even more fun. The ongoing background plot concerning the now-dead Draconian civilisation also picks up a little in this volume and I look forward to see where that goes in future.

I was slightly concerned at the start when Isabella brings her young son with her on the voyage. I feared it might descend into one of many annoying child-related tropes, but in the event, I ended up really liking Jake and hoping that we see more of him in future, not to mention the mysterious Suhail. Isabella’s constant companion on these trips, Tom Wilker, is with her through this volume as well, and I admired his dry tone and his humour as he has come to accept that he can’t stop Isabella doing, er, un-ladylike things but he’s always there to help, and often as enthusiastic as she is.

So all in all, I highly recommend this book to fans of the series to date. If you’re new to Lady Trent, you’ll certainly be able to read and enjoy this book without having read any of the others, but you’ll appreciate it more if you have. As for me, I’ve already pre-ordered the next volume.

Book details

ISBN: 9781783295067
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2015

The Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2)

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 4 stars

Barely has Librarian/spy Irene settled into her new role as Librarian-in-residence on Vale’s world than her Dragon assistant Kai is kidnapped, and it’s up to Irene, acting alone, and without help from the Library, to get him back, and possibly prevent a war.

The second volume in Genevieve Cogman’s excellent Invisible Library series is, if possible, more self-assured and fun than the first. There’s no sign of second-book nerves here. Cogman throws us into the middle of the action and then back-tracks from there; an old trick, but an effective one, and one that Cogman’s writing is good enough to pull off with aplomb. It takes a while to get to Venice, the masked city of the title, but once we do, the city that the author draws for us is beautiful to behold. It’s evocative, dangerous and lovely to read.

While the apparent Big Bad of the series, the disgraced former Librarian Alberich, remains off-stage for this book, the villain of the piece, the powerful Fae Lord Guantes, is just as effective and, in combination with his wife, quite the foil for Irene. Lord Silver returns as a decadent Fae aristocrat combining playing for power with playing with people in a turn that makes me sort of want to scrub myself down. He’s a lovely character. The rest of the supporting cast is mostly just sketched, something which works well for the Fae, given their embrace of narrative and storytelling roles. I would like to see Vale be slightly better developed, and become more than just a Holmes-clone, though.

Still, that’s just a little niggle in a series that has been, to date, a joy to read. I mean, for book-geeks like people who hang out at GoodReads, what’s not to love about a kick-ass female librarian who can rewrite reality around her! Roll on volume three.

Book details

ISBN: 9781447256250
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 2015

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 4 stars

Kamala Khan is just an ordinary Muslim-American teenager coping with life until she unexpectedly gets superpowers. She takes up the mantle of Ms Marvel and adds another complication to her life, now having to juggle superheroics to just being a sixteen year old girl, trying to balance the expectations and cultural baggage of her parents with that of the world around her.

This is a fun story and even if, like me, you know little of the Marvel universe beyond the MCU you’ll still be able to get a lot out of it. There’s as much focus on Kamala’s daily life and how she balances life as an American with life as a Muslim, as well as the angst that all teenagers, no matter what their background, feel. This makes Kamala a relatable protagonist which helps cover the problem with many origin stories: that there isn’t much in the way of plot. It’s not too bad though, there’s enough to not make me feel cheated and lots of groundwork for plot to come in future volumes.

For me the question is not ‘am I going to read any more Ms Marvel’, but ‘do I continue with the paperbacks, or switch to the larger hardbacks’?

Book details

ISBN: 9780785190219
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2014

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