The Five Brothers (Krishnavatara, #3)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

The third volume of the Krishnanavatara deals mostly with the five Pandava brothers, with Krishna relegated to political mover and shaker, rather than taking part in the adventures himself. Duryodhana, the son of the blind king Dhritarashtra* hates his cousins, the five brothers, and plots to have them killed. Through “shenanigans”, they are believed dead, but go into hiding, only to be miraculously “brought back to life” by Krishna when it’s politically convenient.

In the course of the book, we encounter cannibalistic rakshasas, ridiculously overblown senses of entitlement, and a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a trans man. Through it all Krishna goes from crisis to crisis, exerting his (supernatural?) charisma, making people trust him and making unwise promises. But he somehow pulls it all together and comes out smelling of roses.

It does feel like most of the problems in the book (not counting cannibalistic rakshasas, who can be dealt with in the old-fashioned way of killing the existing chief and becoming their king) were mostly down to vastly inflated egos. Both Duryodhana and the brahmin master of warfare Dronacharya are idiots who who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

I did know about the polyandry of Draupadi marrying all five of the Pandava brothers, but I hadn’t known how that came about. She was “won” by Arjuna, but through a ridiculous misunderstanding, his mother tells him to share “his alms” with his brothers. And the boys always do what their mother tells them… Even though she admits that she made a mistake. It’s just silly.

We also finally get some “real” magic in this book, with both a Brahmin who heals the lame, and a Yaksha who magically turns Shikhandin from a girl into a boy. I’m still surprised how sympathetically that was handled, by the way (although I suspect it wouldn’t have been so understanding if the case had been that of a trans woman).

I will continue to read these, as I get a chance, but I can’t help feeling that so much could have been defused by people talking about their feelings, and going to therapy.

* it’s commented several times in the book that Dhritarashtra couldn’t be a king, because he’s blind (um, sure), and so his son couldn’t either (eh?), and yet Dhritarashtra is very definitely a king, and Duryodhana becomes crown prince, so I don’t know what that’s about

Book details

ISBN: 8172763786
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
Year of publication: 2006

The Wicked + the Divine Deluxe Edition: Year Four

By Kieron Gillen

Rating: 5 stars

The final volume of the excellent The Wicked + The Divine brings the series to a close with a bang. This collects the final two volumes of the main story, as well as a set of historical specials that help contextualise it. We learn Baal’s big secret, find out about the Great Darkness and have several fist-pumping moments of pure comic book joy, as well as reveals that break the heart and a surprisingly tender coda that left me in tears.

Jamie McKelvie continues to draw the main story, with guest artists for the specials, which fit just before the last chunk of main story and look back at previous Pantheons including the Roman era, the middle ages and the 1923 one we saw right at the start of the story. That one is a mixed comic/prose story that works really well.

Can I take a moment to talk about the edition itself? All the Deluxe Editions are absolutely gorgeous, but this final year of the story was so big that they needed an extra volume to fit it in. The core of the story fits into one volume (which is, itself, bigger than the previous Deluxe WicDivs), and the supplementary material that normally goes at the end — the alt covers, the makings of and, of course, the writer’s notes, as well as a couple of additional specials that aren’t essential to the story — is in a whole separate volume.

The two remaining specials are the “Christmas annual”, which tells some side stories that were hinted at previously but are now made explicit (and include a lot of the cast getting it on with each other), and the “funnies”, little stories written and drawn by people that the creators invite, often poking fun at Gillen and McKelvie themselves. My favourite of these was The Wicked + The Canine, which imagines all the gods as dogs, and my goodness are they adorable (the alt cover with dog-Amaterasu is the best thing ever).

We finally get Ananke’s story here, as her history and that of the gods finally spills out. We see some of that history (in fact, we see something out of each recurrence), and because the internet is sometimes amazing, someone out there has written a set of blog posts that give you the real world history of the time and place of each recurrence (warning, there are spoilers here if you’ve not read the book yet).

Gillen also gets to heavily troll the readers in one issue with 90 panels, across 10 pages that are just black. This made me laugh out loud at his audacity, but it definitely fits with some of the playfulness of WicDiv, in amongst the grief and pain.

This has been an epic journey, which ended on a much more hopeful note that I expected, and it’ll definitely be an experience to go back and read the whole story again at some point, with the full knowledge of the characters and events.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534313583

The Wicked + the Divine Deluxe Edition: Year Three

By Kieron Gillen

Rating: 4 stars

I have a tendency to race through graphic novels at breakneck speed (well, that’s true of most novels, but especially so of comics). Hence I really like the writer’s commentary at the end that lets me re-read it, more slowly, a few pages at a time, paying attention to things that I never noticed first time round, and generally decompressing a bit. This was especially helpful here, in issue 27 where I had been reading so quickly that I didn’t even notice that I was reading panels out of order (this is a neat section with multiple stories being told on the same page, in differing layouts, with panel borders linking stories). I got the gist of it, which was all I wanted at the time, but it was good to go back and read it the way it was intended.

But, my goodness, WicDiv repays a close reading and then some. This third year covers the whole of what Gillen calls the Imperial Phase, following Ananke’s death, how the remaining gods turn things up to eleven and how that goes very, very wrong, culminating in two huge twists (or “reveals”, as Gillen prefers) at the end of the book.

WicDiv has always been a story of excess, whether that’s hedonism, sex or love, and all the gods give in to that excess in the Imperial Phase. There are tough themes covered in the story, from the co-dependence of the goth kids to Sekhmet’s nihilism and Persephone’s fatalism. some are shocking and some are just heartbreaking.

While there’s a lot covered here, and we finally get a glimpse of the Great Darkness that Ananke had talked about before, we don’t really get much idea of what it is or what the gods are doing about it (although I suspect that may be coming in the final year). I can’t wait to find out – even if I’m sure it’s going to be mostly heartbreak and misery for the cast.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534308572
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2018

Norse Mythology

By Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4 stars

Gaiman’s retelling of the mythology in this volume perhaps doesn’t add anything new, but the stories are pared back and well-told, with little getting in the way of the story itself. I was half way through the book in one sitting, so it’s definitely easy to read.

Gaiman talks in his introduction how he was inspired by Roger Lancelyn Green. Although I read his collection of Greek mythology as a child, it appeared to make little impression, as I don’t have much memory of it, and I never read the Norse mythology book.

I appreciate that the book has to rely on what sources there are, but I’m sure there are more stories than the handful of familiar ones told here. It would have been nice to read some of the more obscure ones, but that’s about my only big complaint. Other than that, it’s a very easy book to read, the stories in it would work well told aloud, and it helps to keep an important cultural touchstone alive.

Book details

ISBN: 9781408891957

The Wicked + the Divine Deluxe Edition: Year Two

By Kieron Gillen

Rating: 4 stars

This second oversize volume of WicDiv collects the third and fourth arcs of the overall story. The first arc in the collection steps back from the overall plot to do more character-focused issues on some of the remaining members of the Pantheon. Regular artist Jamie McKelvie is missing for this arc, with a bunch of guest artists brought in. This mostly really works, but I wasn’t sure about Kate Brown’s art for the first issue of the volume. It’s rather cartoony and, for me, didn’t quite work with the material. On the other hand, Tuta Lotay’s art for issue 13 is fantastic, and puts a soft touch to a delicate subject (and that issue is pretty hard-hitting). I also really like Brandon Graham’s almost dreamlike art for issue 17, which gave us more insight into Sakhmet, who was present right from the start, but who we hadn’t really spent any time with before this.

After dropping hints of her in the previous volume, we finally get to meet Tara in the flesh, as it were. It’s a shame it’s so brief though, as her issue is very powerful, dealing, as it does, with objectification and harassment of women.

The second arc not only goes back to the plot, but turbocharges it. After seeing Ananke’s questionable actions last volume (not to mention the frankly murderous behaviour at the end of that volume), here we see her further manipulate her “children”, culminating in a dark ritual that even Woden doesn’t like the look of.

Also, Laura/Persephone’s alive! *Happy dance*! And while I don’t necessarily blame her for killing Ananke, this can’t end well.

I’m still really liking Gillen’s writer’s commentary. It’s a great way to review what you’ve already read, but more slowly and thoughtfully, paying attention to things that you rushed past on the first pass. And comics, even a large book like this one, are still brief enough that you can make multiple passes like that in a reasonable amount of time.

A compelling story, combining very modern storytelling with ancient tropes in an effective manner. I’m both dreading and can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534302204
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2017

The Wicked + The Divine Deluxe Edition: Year One

By Kieron Gillen

Rating: 4 stars

I’d heard some good things about this series and it was the hard recommendation of a friend whose taste I trust that finally sold me. Firstly, the physical object here is beautiful. It’s a hardback book with a minimalist black cover showing the logos of the twelve gods who have been reincarnated for this Recurrence.

The art is of a style that I generally enjoy and I really liked it here. The story is intriguing and has kept me engaged the whole way through: every ninety years, twelve gods return as young people, help inspire and change the world, and within two years, they’re all dead. That’s quite the hook, and Gillen and co make good on it. This time round, the gods are all pop stars, allowing the writers to talk about our culture through that lens. Our PoV character is Laura, a fan, maybe acolyte, of all of them who Lucifer (aka Luci) takes a shine to. This is followed by attempted murder, actual murder and a mystery over a death.

Gillen is happy to build up his mystery slowly, as he builds his world. And you can’t help but get drawn in. With such a large cast, to start with, it is sometimes difficult to remember who is who and what their shtick is. This gets easier as the book goes on, and it ends on a heck of a cliffhanger, that completely threw me.

I’m definitely going to be picking up more WicDiv, and how can I not get these gorgeous hardbacks? My favourite ‘extra’ in this volume is the writer’s commentary at the back. Gillen goes through pretty much the entire comic, page by page, with his own thoughts and analysis, pointing out things that I missed in my first desperate rush to read the next page. It’s a great way to read the whole thing again in a more thoughtful manner.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632157287
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2016

The Wrath of an Emperor (Krishnavatara – 2)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume in K. M. Munshi’s interpretation of Sri Krishna’s story sees his (mostly) indirect battle with the emperor Jarasandha, whose son-in-law he killed at the end of the first volume, and whose empire is now threatened. In between, Krishna and his brother Balarama have many adventures, make many friends, and forge the weapons that they would become known for.

I mostly knew the structure of the story in The Magic Flute, but this book tells stories of Krishna that I was completely unaware of. That he boards a pirate ship and displaces the captain; his sailing to a city of snake-goddess-worshipping women and freeing his tutor’s son from captivity as the princess’s husband; his joining the Garuda people and curing the paralysis of their prince. These are rip-roaring adventures and I’m really surprised that I haven’t heard of them.

There’s also quite deep political dealings, as he has to deal with Jarasandha’s attempts to strengthen his alliance and destroy the Yadava people and their city. This mostly has to do with various arranged marriages of princesses, and the desire of Princess Rukmini to marry Krishna, rather than be a tool of her brother and the emperor.

Following on from the first volume, Munshi continues to take a rather naturalistic line with his story, playing down the supernatural elements in other variations of the myth. His Rakshasas are barbarians who don’t respect Dharma, rather than literal demons. And his Garuda people are people who claim descent from a giant eagle, but who are just people who wear bird masks. This is an interesting interpretation of a myth that can sometimes be presented as much larger than life.

The treatment of women is sort of mixed. For every Revati (a giantess warrior princess whose country Balarama helps liberate), there are others who are there purely to be symbols of lust and desire and the path away from Dharma. Perhaps not unexpected in a myth this old, but still not pleasant.

If one can leave that aside, however, this is an exciting tale of adventure and politics, with the path of Dharma at the centre of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9788172764753
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
Year of publication: 1966

The Magic Flute (Krishnavatara #1)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

My parents got the the full set of Krishnavatara books when I was young, but I’ve never really felt the urge to read them until recently, when I’ve felt more interested in reading up on parts of my heritage. I knew some of what was in this volume from the stories that my parents told me as a child, and others from when the BBC showed a dramatisation of the Mahabharat back in the early ’90s but I enjoyed refreshing my memory of those, and fitting them into a single narrative (even if it was difficult to keep the various relationships straight in my head).

One thing I liked quite a lot is that the young Krishna feels very human. He’s frankly a bit of a git at times, when he steals butter and breaks jars, and the chapter that involved him killing a heron that seemed to just be protecting its children only made any sense when it was revealed that the bird was possessed (a couple of chapters from the end!).

It was also very interesting to read the note preceding the chapter on Radha which admits that she wasn’t part of the ancient texts, the first mentions only appearing in the first few centuries CE and not becoming fixed in the consciousness until the 12th century CE.

On a similar note, but within the text itself is the festival of Gopotsava, in which Krishna persuades his village to abandon a festival of Indra based on fear and, instead, celebrate the herdsmen, cattle and mountain that give them life, effectively elevating the landscape to godhood. I thought that was a fascinating mindset with defiance and grace in one action.

As with all ancient writings, some things don’t fit well to a modern mindset: polygamy is normal, and the idea of a childless wife lying with a man other than her husband (with appropriate rituals) to gain a child is a bit icky, as is the condemnation of women who don’t want children. There’s also a slightly uncomfortable connection between physical health and beauty on the one side and goodness and grace on the other. But all these have to be read in the context of their time.

The stories are full of action and memorable characters, for good or evil; it’s an easy book to read. I’m not sure if it was written in English or if it’s just a very good translation, but it’s very readable (although I’ve never figured out the obsession with appending an unnecessary ‘a’ to the end of many transliterated names: Balarama instead of Balram etc). I’ll definitely pick up the the rest of the series when I get the chance.

Book details

Year of publication: 1966

Tales of India: Folk Tales from Bengal, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu

By Svabhu Kohli

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve felt my lack of knowledge of the Indian side of my heritage over the years, so it was interesting to read this book, and compare it to the folk- and fairy-tales that I’m familiar with. In some ways, the stories were different, as reflecting their background, with kings with multiple (sometimes mutually jealous) wives, and very different animals. But in other ways, tropes that I was familiar with did pop up, such as the hero with his friends who all had their own power and who helped him at the opportune time (Prince Lionheart and His Three Friends), or the battle of wits between two friends/rivals (Eesara and Caneesara).

The illustrations in this edition were absolutely delightful. Stylised and distinct, the illustrators (the only ones credited with working on this book, by the way, no mention of the editor) have a style that really fits with the stories. The stories themselves are divided into three sections: animal tales; outwitting and outwitted; live and death; although, of course, there’s quite a lot of overlap between the sections.

These aren’t stories that I grew up with, but the tone is similar enough to something like Grimm that they have the feel that they could have been. It’s an interesting book and if these stories were old friends, then I would treasure it, but as it is, I’m content to have just read it and move on.

Book details

ISBN: 9781452165912
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Year of publication: 2018

The Fantastical Feats of Finn MacCoul

By Norah Montgomerie

Rating: 3 stars

Despite being a native of Ireland, I know very little of Irish mythology. I know of the existence of Finn MacCoul (or Finn MacCool as I know him) and the story of the Giant’s Causeway but beyond that, I don’t know any of his stories, so seeing this volume lying on a friend’s bookshelf was fortunate.

Mythology definitely has its own rhythm and flow. The stories often follow a pattern, which can suggest some slowness on the part of the king of the Fian as he’s caught by the same lure more than once. There’s a lot of repetition within the stories as well, possibly as an aide memoir to the bard or storyteller, but which can be trying to the modern reader. I also feel that there’s probably a lot of context that I’m missing when reading these, so more and more detailed explanatory notes would have been nice.

This volume is taken entirely from Scottish folk tales of Finn, rather than the extensive Irish catalogue, hence the Giant’s Causeway story is missing, but there’s still a lot of stories here.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841588179
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
Year of publication: 2009

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