Samurai Jack (Season 5) / *****

samurai-jack-posterI won’t lie to you: my first reaction, as the credits rolled over the last episode of Samurai Jack that we would ever get, was disappointment. Oh, sure, we got an ending, but it was a weak one, tucked into an episode that felt rushed and hurried. No, I didn’t mind the Pyrrhic nature of the victory, and I loved the beautiful, haunting final minutes of the episode. But that final showdown – was that really how it ended? It was…well, it was anticlimactic, and a bit hurried, and just…I dunno. It was a bit of a fizzle.

But then, right after the credits rolled, Adult Swim ran a promo for the marathon they were going to do of this entire final, revived season – a season that we had had no reason to ever expect, a season that gave us closure on a show that I, along with many others, had thought would simply fall between the cracks of time. And as this long promo ran, and recapped the great season, it drove something home to me: to focus too much on the ending of Samurai Jack is to miss the greatness of this final season, and to miss the joys that this show brought me, week in and week out.

See, Samurai Jack was never a show about its story. Nominally, yes, it was the story of a samurai trapped in the future, where the warlord he opposed had become the cruel ruler of the planet. But in reality, it was a show that lived and died by its style, that succeeded not because of what was happened, but how it all happened. This was a show that eschewed dialogue, that let everything be conveyed visually, that wasn’t afraid to embrace dark screens, or stylized animation, or to toss out visual gags when unexpected. But more than anything else, Samurai Jack was a show about style – about the way it told its story. (The example I always fall back on is the episode about the blind archers, in which Jack learns to fight blindfolded – a feat the show conveyed by letting the screen go black, only to have the elements fade in as he heard them and identified them by noise. You can watch the clip here, if you’d like.)

And really, season 5 was no exception to that; it was a triumph of astonishing style, with multiple sequences every week that took my breath away. From the jagged shadows of a bloody Jack being tended to be a wolf to an underground cavern scored to a Morricone-inspired tune, from the haunting and beautiful final images to the oil-style painting that capped the penultimate episode, Samurai Jack made its way by telling a story visually, letting animation do the heavy lifting and letting the voice actors support the images, rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, season 5 of Samurai Jack told a rich story, following up on a hero whose isolated, lost nature has only become more pronounced and haunting since the last time we met him, with madness settling in around the edges. This is a hero who cannot return home, who cannot protect his family, and who seems destined to forever wander the earth, isolated and alone. And over the course of season 5, we watch as Jack struggles to figure out his purpose, and what his quest even means. We see what first appears to be fan-service cameos, only to realize that what showrunner Genndy Tartakovsky is doing is showing us that Jack has changed this world, and for the better. And best of all, we watch as Jack finds an equal – another outcast – and for the first time, meets a kindred spirit.

And yes, it all built up to a fight that was somewhat anticlimactic. But the longer I’ve thought about that, the more okay I am with that fact. Aku may have been the villain of this story, but he was never Jack’s true nemesis. Indeed, Jack’s greatest nemesis of season 5 may have been himself – a warrior version of himself cast into doubt, into questioning, into a sense of hopelessness – and into a funk where he couldn’t even be sure he was the hero any longer. Tartakovsky drove that question home beautifully, as Jack’s sword, for the first time, began to slice not just robots, but also human beings. That’s heady, complex fare, and Tartakovsky doesn’t give us easy answers to it all, showing both the brutality of the fight and its necessity.

And so, by the time Jack fights Aku, it’s all over but the shouting. Jack has unified himself, found a purpose, pulled himself together, and realized his meaning. Why shouldn’t the fight be fast? This was never about Aku vs. Jack. It was about Jack’s journey, and what it would make of him by the end – a choice that makes the finale’s final moments of quiet and peace all the more effective. For all of the drama, for all of the action, for all of the imagination, the show’s final moments give us closure on Jack itself – and it’s the perfect way to end it.

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The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey / ****

the_girl_with_all_the_giftsYou could be forgiven for passing on The Girl with All the Gifts – after all, don’t we have enough zombie fiction out there already? Hasn’t pretty much every version of this story been told, to rapidly decreasing returns? And yet, I’ve been hearing nothing but positive reactions to The Girl with All the Gifts in both its film and novel forms for a while now, giving me the sense that this was something new and fresh, a zombie story that breathed fresh life into the genre. And by and large, those reactions were correct, at least for the novel; while Girl has some flaws and shortcomings, it’s gripping and imaginative, and so much fun – and so different – that it’s not hard to overlook them in favor of the great book you’re getting.

Exactly how much to reveal about the plot of Girl seems to be up for debate – indeed, many would argue that even revealing that it’s a zombie novel is a spoiler, despite it being revealed within the first few chapters of the book. But in the interest of playing cards close to the chest (even though I’ll say I knew the basic premise of the book going in, and it ruined nothing for me), I’ll simply say that Girl opens in a school setting, with a series of students going through their lessons. But it doesn’t take long to realize how much is off about these lessons – not just the lessons, but the sealed off military base in which they’re occurring, or the cells to which the children are carted – yes, carted – when the lessons finish. Yes, something is odd about this, but it certainly seems like a safer place than beyond the fences. Of course, that’s before classmates start vanishing one day.

That’s probably enough to get you started, but don’t worry – if you think you know where this is going (and again, I did before I even read it), Carey’s smart enough to never be too precious about his reveals, or to draw things out for too long. Instead, Girl constantly evolves and changes in front of you, doling out its reveals and reversals at a great pace, and letting the dynamics constantly change, keeping the reader on their toes without fail. Whatever the status quo is at any point in the book, don’t get too comfortable; Carey’s plotting is going to keep it changing and shifting, and keep the book compelling.

And yet, the book never feels episodic; thematically, it’s rich fare, with questions being raised about the nature of the zombie virus, and the distinction between us and the. That’s a classic zombie trope, but Girl echoes Richard Matheson’s essential I Am Legend in the way it approaches those issues, diving into the zombie virus with a love of scientific explanation that pleased me to no end, and giving me a biological reasoning behind zombies that was so obvious it stunned me no one had used it before that I could remember. But not content with using Matheson’s ideas about science-based horror, Carey also blurs the lines between zombies and humans, raising questions about our actions, morality, and where the line between monster and hero really comes – and delivering a knockout ending that took the book from “good” to “pretty dang great” in its perfection.

Look, for all of that, Girl undeniably has some faults, most notably in some of the supporting cast that work fine, but never great (I’m thinking especially here of the book’s chief antagonist, who needed just a little more tuning to keep her from being cartoonishly evil; as it is, you can see what Carey was going for, but it doesn’t quite work), and the action sequences are passable, not much more. But for all of that, it’s a blast to read, and more than that, it’s a reminder that even the most tired of genres can still be brought back to life with enough imagination and a fresh take.

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The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller / *****

41gu1e0i18lPost-apocalypse stories have come in and out of fashion over the years, but it’s hard to think of a more popular one that’s gained as much traction as The Walking Dead. (I know this seems like a tangent, but bear with me.) And with my love of horror, people always get a bit surprised when I told them that I quit The Walking Dead about two seasons in, and never regretted it for a moment. The reason, though, is simple: I realized early on that, as was evidenced in both Kirkman’s source material and the TV series, the series was little more than “misery porn,” devoted to breaking its characters and rubbing our faces in the worst of humanity. And look – I’m a horror junkie. I’ve seen some twisted films, met some insane villains. But the thing about horror novels and films is that they’re finite; they tell a story, and then they end. Meanwhile, I realized that The Walking Dead was intended to be unending, which meant that it would just be a constant succession of horrors, all constantly trying to outdo the last, leaving the viewer in an arms race of misery and horror. And honestly, that’s the last thing I need in my life.

So what, you’re asking, does any of that have to do with The Dog Stars?

Like The Walking DeadThe Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic story, although one without zombies. No, this is closer to Stephen King’s The Stand, where a disease has wiped out much of the population of the planet. And as you’d imagine, survival has become difficult. Luckily, Heller’s protagonist – a pilot named Hig – has teamed up with a survivalist named Bingley, the sort of person who spent his entire life planning for just something like this, and knows exactly what he needs to do. Bingley is the sort of person who would thrive in Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse: he’s careful, thoughtful, proactive, shoots first and asks questions later. He’s armed to the teeth, self-sufficient, and trusts no one but Hig – and even that is only because the two men can help each other.

But here’s what separates The Dog Stars from The Walking Dead, and why I loved it so much: this isn’t Bingley’s story. Instead, it’s Hig’s…and Hig doesn’t want to live in the same world that Bingley does. I don’t mean that he’s suicidal, although you could forgive him for being so; it won’t take long for you to realize how much Hig lost when the world fell apart, and to say that he doesn’t exactly love Bingley is an understatement. (He does have his dog, though, and it’s not hard to see his dog as the band-aid that he’s using to cope with things – something Hig himself admits as well.)

No, what I mean is that Hig fundamentally can’t – and doesn’t want to – be Bingley. He’s an optimist at heart, someone who wants to help people, who hopes that Bingley’s armaments and defenses are for naught, that you can trust the people you meet. That’s not to say that Hig is an idiot or naive. He’s not, and Heller makes that distinction clear quickly. But he’s not a bleak survivalist, either; he wants to give the world a chance, to do more than just survive and stay alive – he wants to find something more to live for than just living for its own sake.

And if that was all The Dog Stars was – the conflict between Bingley and Hig to see which point of view was right – that, in of itself, could be fascinating. But it doesn’t take long for us to begin to see that Heller has more on his mind, as Hig shows himself capable of ruthless behavior, and Bingley becomes more than just a violent boor. And that takes Heller’s world up a notch, as we embrace both the complexity of their new lives and the nuances of their character…and just when we have a handle on that, a lot of things change, and the book evolves into something else again.

I don’t love the way The Dog Stars is written – the conceit is that Hig suffered from a massive fever that damaged his brain a little, and his writing can be a little unfocused as a result – and for a bit, I wasn’t keen on continuing. But as I went, and got more used to Hig’s voice, I started warming to the book, which may end up being the warmest, most hopeful apocalypse book I’ve read in some time. Make no mistake: The Dog Stars never gets absurdly cheery or strains credulity, but it also tries to find a place for hope, human connections, and kindness, even in the face of massive destruction. And it’s hard not to love a book that does that, especially when so much fiction defaults nowadays to bleakness and grim outcomes. (Again, I don’t mind it in some books; what I mind is the ubiquity of it.) More than that, though, The Dog Stars works because it lets its characters live and breathe, defying easy categorization and summary. It’s not a book that gives us easy heroes or villains; sure, some of us (particularly in these politicized times) might be closer to the hopefulness and generosity of Hig, while others are the stern, safe Bingley…but maybe there’s something necessary in each of us. And that’s a nice message to find in a book, even before it creates a rich world, interesting characters, and tells a great story.

I can’t recommend this one enough; yes, you may think you’re tired of post-apocalyptic tales, but maybe that’s because you haven’t read one that looks at the apocalypse as less of an ending, and more of a chance for a second start.

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Landquaker, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

landquaker_coverI’ve been reading Dean F. Wilson’s Great Iron War series since the beginning now, and since that beginning novel, I’ve grown more and more engrossed by his complex tale of the war between a well-armored Resistance and a race of creatures best described as Demons that have taken over the Earth. Over the course of the series, Wilson has spun a compelling tale of what’s almost essentially one long war, with each book largely dedicated to a single front of that war and a given effort by the Resistance.

And yet, from the beginning, I’ve often said (here’s my reviews of books one, two, and three) that Wilson’s series suffered a bit too much from a lack of backstory, and that while the story was always easy to follow and understandable, it still felt as though we were thrown into the middle of a situation we never quite understood. What’s with these “Demons”? Is the entire world like this? Are there people beyond the Resistance and the Regime?

Landquaker surprised me – in a good way – by actually taking on a lot of these questions, and providing some interesting answers along the way. Like the other books, this one is focused on a primary objective – the titular tank, a powerful weapon of the Regime’s that needs to be destroyed – but Wilson does something different this time, allowing the Resistance to start looking for allies in the tribes outside of the major cities. This gives us a window into Wilson’s world that we’ve been deprived of so far, and it’s a fascinating one – one in which the machines are moved by literal spirits, where the use of magic is more complicated and more primal than we would have thought. More than that, though, Wilson gives us more glimpses into the life of the Demons and the Regime, letting us see for the first time part of what motivated these creatures to come to Earth.

What makes this work, though, is how Wilson handles it; none of this feels like forced-in exposition or infodumps. Instead, it all fits organically into the story, as characters banter, circumstances dictate a change in strategy, and so forth. Do I wish some of this had come earlier? In some ways, yes…but Wilson’s choice to use it here is effective, and nicely broadens his world when we least expect it, and forces us to start thinking about some of our assumptions about the Regime. It’s nicely handled, and satisfyingly engaging.

As for the action that Wilson’s so good at? That continues to deliver, with Wilson bringing out a three-point front in the book’s climax that never confuses the reader, no matter how complex the plan – and the reactions to that plan – becomes. There’s an art to action, and even more of an art to wartime action, and Wilson does it right, keeping the reader oriented at all times and giving you both the bigger picture and the more intimate personal front.

I’m not sure how much longer The Great Iron War will last; the end of this one certainly seems as though things are escalating quickly, and possibly out of control. I’d be surprised if Wilson didn’t have an end in sight; this doesn’t seem like an open-ended series. Nonetheless, it’s become an interesting, engaging, and exciting series, and one that I’ve really come to enjoy a lot over the course of these books. It’s gotten better with each successive entry, and that arc shows little sign of stopping anytime soon. And I’m excited to keep on enjoying them as long as he’s writing them.

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The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

17059277-_sy540_Justin Cronin’s Passage series has always been fascinating for its refusal to easily be pigeonholed into any one genre. On one level, it’s an apocalyptic horror epic, one in which a tribe of vampiric creatures has wiped out most of the population of the Earth. On another level, it’s a survival story, one in which people are working to rebuild civilization in the face of unimaginable disaster. And on yet another level, it’s a rich character drama, one in which people’s choices and character arcs drive the action every bit as much as the threats around them.

That refusal to stick to any one genre is both the best and the most frustrating thing about The City of Mirrors, the final entry in the trilogy. At times uplifting, at times heartbreaking, at times terrifying, The City of Mirrors takes all of Cronin’s habits to extremes. This is a book that features the most terrifying and nightmarish sequence of any of the novels to date; it’s also one which dedicates a huge percentage to the backstory of its major villain – a backstory which is mainly about a young student navigating his complicated relationship with his friends and struggling with his attraction to one of them.

That means that City of Mirrors can often be frustrating, even while it’s constantly engaging. Cronin’s prose remains solid, and his willingness to focus on character depth has always been one of the pleasures of the series. Every character, no matter how major or minor, gets respect and a fully realized backstory; it’s a choice that’s paid off again and again in this series. The choice to go to this level of depth is a somewhat strange one, and one that undeniably hurts the pacing of this book. And yet, once you finish the book, you start to realize that Cronin has more on his mind than simply wrapping up his apocalyptic epic.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cronin had ended the series already. (Spoilers for The Twelve follow.) After all, by the end of the previous book, The Twelve, the titular Twelve – the original infected – had been destroyed, and peace seemed to be inevitable. Yes, Amy’s fate was up in the air, as was Alicia’s, but the story seemed to be at a sort of ending point. (Spoilers end.) Indeed, it’s a feeling shared by many characters in the novel, who feel that the story is at an end, and that humanity is finally entering a world of peace and rebuilding.

But The City of Mirrors reminds us that there’s one major threat still surviving, and focuses on that threat: the originator of the plague, a creature only known as Zero. And in Cronin’s hands, this final battle is as much ideological as it is physical. Is there any reason for hope? Does humanity deserve to survive? What, exactly, does survival mean, and at what cost should we attempt to survive? And what part does hope play in all of this? Cronin takes on the questions that underlie so many apocalyptic horror tales – from The Stand to The Fireman to The Walking Dead – and makes them part of the text, thus justifying the time spent on Zero’s backstory. Yes, it’s long, and it sort of wrecks the pacing…but it ends up being central to the philosophical battle at the heart of the novel.

That conflict extends all the way to the ending of the book, which finds Cronin looking at the far larger picture as to what it all means. It’s something he’s been hinting at all through the series, and yet that final section of The City of Mirrors is nonetheless quietly moving, giving us a true epilogue to the story, and an ending that nicely brings his themes together. The endings of apocalyptic tales are always complicated – just look at the three very different endings (or lack thereof) of the titles I mentioned above – and it’s rare to find one that moves so strongly toward optimism. And yet, it works here, giving an ending that both wraps up the story and feels emotionally satisfying. The City of Mirrors is an ambitious book, and one that’s far more “literary” and less conventional than its predecessors. And yet, nonetheless, it sticks the landing for the trilogy, satisfying the reader on a variety of levels while still providing the thrills and excitement we’ve come to demand from the series. It may be a little lumpy at points, but I’ll forgive that for the level of satisfaction that I got from the book as a whole.

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The Twelve, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

13281368The Passage, Justin Cronin’s first novel in a trilogy, introduced us to a horrific post-apocalyptic world, one created when a military experiment went horribly awry, unleashing a vampiric plague that decimated the human race. Over the course of that book, Cronin gave us a window into the civilizations that had built back up nearly 100 years later, and watched as they began to fight back against the wave of nightmarish creatures that controlled their lives. It was thrilling, imaginative stuff, and a book that hinted at much larger ambitions than you might have expected. (I recently re-read it; you can read my review here if you like.)

Now comes The Twelve, which follows in its predecessor’s footsteps by giving us a far more sprawling timeframe than we might expect. The Twelve doesn’t just continue the story of The Passage; it also flashes back to the early days of the plague, giving us a sense of what happened after the initial outbreak we saw in The Passage, as well as helping us to understand the seeds that have been planted that are bearing fruit nearly a century later. That’s ambitious stuff, and indeed, much of  The Twelve seems like an effort to create something even stranger and more ambitious than its predecessor, as our heroes find themselves in a remarkably bizarre post-apocalyptic community, we start to learn more about the Twelve (the original hosts for the virus), and our characters develop in unexpected ways – most notably Amy, whose eternally young body is beginning to show signs of change that are troubling indeed.

Yes, it’s a fair point to notice that The Twelve feels like it’s borrowing from all kinds of books, most notably The Stand in its theatrical, showy climax. And yet, none of that really detracts from the fact that it all works – it’s exciting, scary, involving, and incredibly rich, and a lot of that is thanks to how much time Cronin spends with his characters. Even characters who have little more than glorified cameos get depth and nuance, whether they be villain or hero, and that investment makes just about every death count to us, even when they’ve only just arrived in the book. More than that, though, it elevates the stakes beyond the usual “life or death” stakes of so much post-apocalyptic fiction; there are genuine emotional stakes as well, as characters realize that there’s more to life than just living – there’s love, ideals, and hope that all matter just as much, if not more.

More than any of that, though, The Twelve also brings out some truly fascinating new characters, most notably Lila, a doctor whose involvement with the virals and nearly simultaneous mental breakdown combine to make her one of the most dangerous and tragic characters of the series. Often completely unable to distinguish her carefully constructed fantasies from reality, Lila could easily be played as a nightmarish villain, one whose deranged worldview and astonishing powers makes her a potent threat. But in Cronin’s hands, Lila becomes something more human and sympathetic, while never detracting from the danger and power she represents. In many ways, that’s The Twelve in a nutshell. What could be a simple tale of epic good versus epic evil instead becomes something more nuanced, emotional, rich, and ultimately satisfying. And if it’s a little derivative in parts, that’s more than made up for by the skill with which it’s all put together, and the characters with which Cronin populates his book.

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The Passage, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

6690798I first read The Passage back in 2011, not long after it had come out. You can read my original take here, but the short version is, I was blown away. This was Cronin’s first foray into the horror genre, and he was taking a big risk; not content with doing a simple horror story, he instead decided to create a horror epic, one in which the world ends and humanity’s very survival is at stake. That’s a gutsy move; the fact that he chose to make the novel about vampires even more so, given how vaguely weary so many people were/are of them. And if all that isn’t enough, Cronin ups his own difficulty by the sheer scope of what he’s attempting: he’s telling not only an apocalyptic tale, but a post-apocalyptic one as well, and beyond that, frames that post-apocalyptic tale with hints of a world yet to come looking back at that story as it unfolds (“unfolded,” perhaps?)

I never got around to reading the second book in the series, The Twelve; it wasn’t a lack of interest, just a matter of time. But with the third (and final) book in the series soon to come out, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up on the series, after I took the time to re-acquaint myself with Cronin’s world.

In most ways, The Passage holds up incredibly well. The opening third of Cronin’s novel sets up its characters wonderfully, creating a world and establishing its dynamics carefully, and often indirectly, with asides about major events, throwaway remarks about political situations, and more. It makes it all the more impressive when the book transforms into something wholly else midway through, becoming a post-apocalyptic tale that basically skips the apocalypse. It’s here, in the main thrust of the book, that Cronin’s tale really soars, for many of the same reasons that the beginning works so well – his ability to create characters, his knack for world-building that avoids exposition dumps, his gift for dialogue and complex interactions. Indeed, much of the joy of The Passage comes from realizing just how intricately Cronin has thought out his bizarre, fractured world; there’s a true sense of coming in halfway through the story, and Cronin’s willingness to trust the reader pays off beautifully. (That goes double for the hints about the “future” world that’s looking back on this one, which offers even more implications and hints.)

Cronin’s episodic plotting generally holds up nicely as well, although there are some aspects that show the hand of the author at work than I remember. The Passage is narratively tight to a fault at times; there’s a late-novel revelation about a particular viral (the book’s name for its bestial, horrific version of vampires) that feels a bit much, and at least one character’s collision with her past feels a bit out of nowhere. And yet, it makes for compelling drama, as Cronin allows the characters and their emotions to often drive the action beyond the mechanics of plot. Yes, he may put people where they need to be, but beyond that, it’s their emotions and reactions and drive what unfolds from there.

More than that, though, The Passage is effectively, genuinely scary, creating a rich version of vampiric lore that leads to some truly haunting moments, maybe none more memorable and disturbing than a series of nightmares that begins hitting everyone in a colony after a mysterious arrival. Cronin tailors each nightmare to individual characters, and that choice makes them all the more distressing, as we see reactions ranging from erotic to childlike, from mature to terrified and beyond. Those are matched every bit as well by some of his more “action” oriented sequences, which remind you when you least expect it of why these monsters are such a threat.

The Passage is gripping, fascinating stuff; if I’m more aware of a couple of small flaws than I was on the first read, that’s balanced out by reading it knowing that this is the first book in a trilogy. It’s more clear now that Cronin is both telling a compelling, complete story and setting up something larger, and that’s hard work; to do so while creating a world, interesting characters, an epic scope, and make it all scary? That’s almost unthinkable. But he succeeds, and then some; now, let’s see how he handles the dreaded “middle book” syndrome with The Twelve.

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