Smoke Eaters by Cole Brannigon

Starting out with Smoke Eaters, I was completely enamored. Grizzled elderly firefighter discovers he has an unusual gift to help fight dragons that have appeared in a post apocalyptic Ohio? Sign me on! Unfortunately, the more I read, the more this felt like a middle age/40s/50s year old male Mary Sue – where the girls fall all over him, he gets to beat the crap out of the bad guys, and he gets to save people and be a hero. It was a bit much, to be honest, and I’d probably have enjoyed it more if it was less mature-male fantasy material. But hey, it was also fun and I can’t say that I completely disliked it, either.

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Story: Cole Brannigan is nearing 60 and ready to retire. He’s fought fires his whole life – and also recently had to tackle the fires caused by newly awakened dragons who have terrorized a reformed USA. With each major city turning into autonomous City-States and Canada closing its borders and communications with the US, life isn’t easy for a government worker. But nearing the last day of work, he goes to fight what should be a simple house fire and instead is the beginning of what looks to be odd occurrences drawing in dragons. When it is discovered he has a special ability that can be used to fight dragons, he will be coerced into joining the Smoke Eaters – the elite dragon fighting force. Life is about to really get interesting for Cole.

So why is this so much a Mary sue? Well, interview a man over 40 and ask if these would appeal: giving youngsters comeuppances, a young hot girl wanting to kiss and make out with you, a loyal wife at home taking care of your home, fighting dragons with big swords(!), saving people heroically, getting a hotter ripped body again, being recognized and promoted while still being able to rebel and wise crack, telling bosses exactly how you feel about them – all the things he would never encounter in a boring and mundane life. Well, all that and more is in here. So no, the tone in Smoke Eaters isn’t ‘tempered realism with dragons’; rather, it’s wise-cracking action adventure – a new type of snarky future-noir that we will likely see more of in the future.

The plot flows very quickly, going from action to action seamlessly. Our main character, everyman with an everyman type of heroic name, Cole Brannigan, gets some great snarky cracks in there and his dialogue is quite fun. Add in some fun additions like a mechanical dog who speaks Korean and you get the idea of this book – it’s sheer fun. Imagine Pacific Rim the movie – but with dragons and firefighters instead. In fact, this is so ready to be a Michael Bay movie that I’m surprised the screen rights haven’t been bought already.

Of course, since the author was a fireman, we get a lot of ‘brotherhood’ references and a more realistic approach to the actual job of firefighting. I was surprised there wasn’t more in there about fires and fighting them, to be honest, but this is about as jingostic as you will get for the profession. It radiates authenticity nicely.

If you don’t mind the wish fantasy fulfillment, it’s a fun ride. The writing is a bit choppy – it’s rough and ready like our grizzled main character Cole. As such it didn’t bother me as it would have in other books. But if there is an antithesis to women’s historical romance, this has got to be it. Both sides of the same coin, if you ask me. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Disney’s The Princess and The Frog Manga by Nao Hidaka

This is a manga version of Disney’s The Princess And The Frog and it follows the animated movie closely. We get some nice discussions from the animators that give a bit more depth to the story as well as some history, which was definitely a plus. As well, this is a superb adaptation from a Japanese illustrator, unlike many manga adaptions that are more manwha (Chinese) or manhua (Korean) based. But because this is a manga version, the entire story is in simple lines/black and white and sadly Tiana’s deeper skin color has been whitewashed out. But that aside, this adaptation is well done and suitable for readers of even young ages.

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Story: Tiana is a hard working young lady in New Orleans and best friends with the belle of society, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. When she is invited to a ball to celebrate a visit by the foreign Prince Naveen, she attends reluctantly. But Naveen has been tricked and turned into a frog; he comes to Tiana thinking she is a princess and can change him back. When that backfires, they will brave the swamps of New Orleans to find a way to revert the curse.

Interestingly enough, this volume stays truest to the original Disney animation and feels less ‘manga’ as a result (ironic, really, since the ‘big eyes’ of manga and anime were an homage to Disney cartoons in the first place). The art is clean and tells the story easily, with all the flair and panache as the source material. Character introductions in the beginning are nicely detailed with all kinds of extra information about the original animation and very welcome.

There are few additions here than in the original and really this is a retelling of the animation rather than a piece inspired on it. That means those who love the animation will get more of the same here – a fact some might find boring and others enticing. Because of the simplicity of design, this is a story that easily could be read to younger children or work as an early learning reader by lower elementary school students. Certainly, all the vim and verve of the Disney animation is in the book.

Other than the issue of white washing Tiana, it’s a lovely book and a good read. The extras make it worth the purchase, though, for fans of the movie. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Crosswind Volume 1 by Gail Simone and Cat Staggs

With Crosswind, we have a story that has been done ad nauseum: the body swap. Yet despite the familiar territory, Simone gives us an interesting perspective in this hyper violent book: a more realistic look at what a true gender body swap would entail, as from the perspective and advice of a transgender individual. Like movies such as Freaky Friday or 18 Again, it’s about a new look at one’s life, fixing what is wrong without the insular shell of the regular. But the difference here is that perhaps the change is not only better but desired; what if in the end they might not want to switch back?

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Juniper is your typical Seattle housewife with a sulky teenage stepson and an overbearing husband: she is trying her best to be a good wife and mother. Cason, is a hitman of Cuban hardscrabble descent and working for a mob boss. Inexplicably and suddenly, Cason finds himself in Juniper’s body and she in his. He’s in the middle of fixing a mess created by the boss’ son, she’s trying to create the perfect dinner to impress her boss’s husband. Both will have to fix each other’s problems suddenly – Cason figuring out how to cook and impress the boss while Juniper has to clean up a dead informant and crime scene while keeping the boss’ inept son from getting them further into trouble.

Admittedly, much of Juniper was lost in the story. She was either cleaning up Cason’s mess (e.g., scrubbing a scene clean) or doing what Cason or someone else told her to do. Cason, meanwhile, gets to not only fix all of Juniper’s issues but also help Juniper clean up his own life. Though there is that inequality (and I would have liked Juniper to use the opportunity to come out of her shell more), the story is still interesting. The book seems to be saying that aggression is the way to go and there is a LOT of violence throughout – not just on Cason’s mob side but also as Cason does things like controlling the neighbor’s annoying teen kids up by hitting them upside the head with a frying pan. It is wishful thinking – but we know the reality is that she’d have been rightly thrown in jail and the family sued into bankruptcy for that.

The illustration work suits the dark nature of the story perfectly. Deep and rich lines are complemented by jewel tone color schemes. The panel work is nicely dynamic and the whole feel is more of a rotoscoping type of effect but with more clarity. The mysticism behind the body swap is also very underwhelming and less poetic than it was meant to be – but I appreciate the randomness of how those two were chosen and yet it worked out so well for both of them.

This completes a full arc and there is the promise of more to come. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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You Can’t Just Kiss Anyone You Want by Marzena Sowa and Sandrine Revel

Author Marzena Sowa gained fame from her autobiographical graphic novels about growing up in communist Poland. Part bittersweet, part biting social commentary of life in that period, her books are full of pathos but also the joys of youth, even in the hardest of environments. With You Can’t Just Kiss, she turns her hand to fiction, giving yet another view of life in Poland and every day life of the common folk. Part coming of age and part social commentary, this is a beautifully told and illustrated work that starts with a kiss and ends with the hunt for traitors and non conformists – and the tough decisions made to survive.

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Story: In a school theater during a Stalin propaganda movie showing, a boy leans over and gives a girl a kiss. She is horrified and screams, the class is disrupted, and suddenly a lot of scrutiny comes on the boy for being disruptive during a commemorative film glorifying Stalin (one they have seen many times, they have noted). Suddenly, the boy’s father is under investigation for writing ‘subversive’ poetry, friends turn on friends and give them up to the secret police, and even teachers face harsh punitive sentences. During it all, the young boy tries to hold his family together, not get upset by friends ratting out his father, and make sense of why he wanted to kiss the girl in the first place.

If the above sounds serious, rather, it is and it isn’t. The narrative is told from the viewpoint of the young boy – and his perspective on life. Kids definitely don’t have the answers and clearly he is learning that non conformity is extremely dangerous. Sowa is very careful to not give us the final fates of characters who ‘disappear’ as so many did during the era – the kids and townsfolk would not have known any more than anyone else at the time. And yet there are the scenes of simple joy as the kids live their lives and grow up despite the hardships and the dangers in Poland under Communist rule.

The artwork is solid and tells the story perfectly. Most of the color schemes are drabs – olives, beiges, grey, steel – they give the feel of the time in a way beyond just the illustration work and the story. Because the art is by Marzena’s lifelong partner, there is a synergy and accord that elevate this work beyond a simple story about communist Poland. It’s both serious and lighthearted, joyful and mournful. As with life, there are so many nuances in this place and time that the rest of the world has never really had a chance to see. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Eleanor & The Egret by John Layman, Sam Kieth

What we have with Eleanor & the Egret is a wholly original, quirky, and imaginative story with beautiful illustrations and superb layout and coloring. One needs to keep in mind movies like Amelie or the Pink Panther to get a feel and appreciation where the author and artists are going with Eleanor. The story is set in no one period and characters can change from modern clothing to Fin de Siecle Nouveau inspired stylings page by page; this whimsy creates the perfect milieu for a story about a bird who eats art and an artist looking to gain back talent stolen by a talent thief. You don’t question the magic and instead just enjoy the ride and the beautiful illustrations and coloring.

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Story: Eleanor and her talking Egret, Ellis, are art thieves. Ellis gets bigger and more powerful the more art he eats. Together, they are targeting one particular artist – a haughty beauty whose talent may have more to do with being a thief herself rather than natural ability. Together, Ellis and Elanor, with the help of an inspector and his cat, will foil the artist and restore that which was once lost.

There are some wonderful homages to everything French and especially the Art Nouveau period of France – from an obvious Le Chat Noir Steinlein poster to Eleanor’s Alphonse Mucha inspired dresses. Contrast that with Eleanor dressed in cargo shorts, big Ugg boots, and a t-shirt in the next panel and we are transported to modern France but in the same timeline/story. The characters surrounding Eleanor and her Inspector love interest all look to have escaped from a turn of the century Cirque troupe – from clowns to mustachios, it’s all there. It’s quite fun and fortunately the story is more than the visuals, which really are fascinating.

The real stand out to Eleanor, though, has to be the coloring work. It’s the tones that unify the different eras and transport the simple plot into a breathtaking blend of pencil-like pastels. If the illustration work is inconsistent and the plot meanders a bit, the colors do a beautiful job of keeping it all together. Probably among the best coloring I’ve seen in a graphic novel in years.

If you like films like Amelie, I think you will get immediately what Eleanor brings to the genre. Fun, different, unique, interesting, and wholly distinct. The plot has surprising depth and really celebrates the small moments and the common people beautifully. Eleanor’s inspector brings the pathos to the story so it isn’t just silly and I can’t help but love his companion cat. In all, a wonderful read! Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine & Ann Aguirre

With an Ann Aguirre book, you know you are going to get a very strong, stubborn, damaged, ‘comes out fighting from the wrong side of town’ protagonist and this is no exception. Partnering her with a syrupy sweet Disney Princess for a secondary character (Bea) is always going to be problematic if she overbalances our diamond in the rough Zara. Add in a third main character, a sentient alien ship with a ‘male’ personality, and you can probably guess where this YA will go. Fortunately, there is no romance so much as ‘bonding’ in this first in the series and the focus is on the action, adventure, and discovery.

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Story: In a future Earth that was saved by an alien species resembling starships, Zara Cole has chosen to live as a petty thief in the bowels of Detroit – in a lawless area that gives absolute freedom but no guarantees of survival. When she chooses the wrong mark – a ganglord’s daughter – she has a choice few will get: become an honor and travel in an alien ship or face the ganglord’s wrath. The obvious choice made, she is partnered with Beatriz and both become honors aboard the alien ship Nadim. Zara is never one to let sleeping dogs lie and soon uncovers hard truths about their alien saviors.

Honor Among Thieves is a quick read with plenty of adventure and thrilling moments. Zara has to survive and triumph over hard moments and unexpected life threatening issues all the while learning to bond with the ship in which they live. Her shipmate Beatriz is also an ‘honor’ – the elite chosen to live inside the alien ships for a one year tour of duty exploring alien cultures. But unlike Zara, Beatrice is a highly accomplished and musical Brazilian scholar. The two women hit it off – Bea relying on Zara’s strength and Zara relying on Bea’s skills. Together, they learn to embrace their young liveship, Nadim.

Of course, conspiracies, mistakes, emergencies, and more will constantly test the two honors. There are also plenty of smoking guns alluding to the liveships having more in mind than just saving humanity from itself. By the end of this first book, a lot will be discovered and a lot will wait to be answered about the Leviathans and their true goals in suddenly showing up and saving humanity from destroying itself and its Earth.

If the plot seems familiar (girl bonds with and (probably falls in love with) AI/alien spaceship), it’s because there have been several in the last two years alone that I’ve read. In this case, though, the focus is on the danger and discovery rather than the romance. Yes, the ‘bonding’ between Zara and Nadim is obviously going to turn into something more later in the series. But at least there is a storyline here and not something tagged on to flesh out yet another soppy YA romance.

Problematic for me is believability. Out of millions of people on the Earth, it’s hard to believe they couldn’t find better candidates who also exhibit strong survival skills than Zara Cole, who is obviously going to be a problem. Of course, she becomes a bit of a unique snowflake that will answer all the issues the Leviathans are having with the Honors in her deep bond with Nadim, who is also a bit of a unique snowflake among his kind. Even accomplished Bea is suspicious – more there because she’s a perky Disney Heroine type rather than because out of millions or billions in the world, she was most desirable for the Honors program. If you can set aside the disbelief, you can run with the story and just enjoy it.

Aguirre is never one to shy away from torturing her heroine and there is a lot of that here. All on Zara, however (injuring Bea would have been akin to kicking a puppy, I think). Nor will the hero survive unscathered – I have to appreciate that Aguirre is willing to torture both hero and heroine to further the story. I am not familiar with author Caine’s work so I can’t comment there; suffice it to say that Razorlands fans will find much of the same here and much to enjoy in the same way.

In all, I found Honor Among Thieves to be surprisingly enjoyable and look forward to the next book in the series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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War Mother by Fred Van Lengte, Stephen Segovia, Tomas Giorello

I enjoyed War Mother. Superb clean illustration work combined with an interesting story to keep me involved to the end. Those not invested in the 4001 Ad universe need not worry – you won’t have to have read any of the other stories to understand what is happening in this stand alone graphic novel. And while some tangents weren’t explored enough (the New Japan boy, for instance), I can imagine the author will cover more in the future.

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Story: The Grove is a tribe hiding in a sterile organic environment to prevent contamination. They are protected by the grove’s leader, a life form named Sylvan, and by his creation, the War Mother Ana. Ana’s job is to go out into the wild jungles of what is left of post apocalyptic Earth and find needed supplied for the Grove’s technology. The problem with the Grove, however, is that it has become more of a prison than a home. Ana, along with her sentient gun, is about to change The Grove from the inside out when she saves a boy from a Satellite piece that has fallen to the Earth.

The story, while not completely original (typical “explore scary and dangerous post apocalyptic environment while scavenging) did have enough action and adventure to keep me invested. Ana is a great strong female character whose whole instinct is to protect and ensure the survival of the Grove. It is her dangerous scavenger duties that are all important but worry her husband and son and eventually brings her in contact with Sylvan.

The novel has the usual interesting predators and mutated human types that one would expect of this type of book. The author and illustrator do a sound job of making them feel unique in an honestly oversaturated genre. But it is the illustration work and snarky dialogue between Ana and her gun that really help this title stand out.

The lines are clean and the colors bold – action scenes are easy to follow and the artwork is quite beautiful in its simplicity and detail. I enjoyed the page layouts and character designs as much as I did the story. Of course, the banter between Ana and her evolving AI gun stole the show – even more so than the villain at the end. But this isn’t a series of battles or monster of the chapter death fights; there is a long arc dealing with the consequences of Ana’s actions and the big picture of the future of the Grove, internal strife within her family, and the consequences of the genengineered young and precocious boy she brings into the Grove. The story ends the story arc for this stand alone title.

In all, I enjoyed it and hope to see more. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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