There’s an unavoidable tension in these mini-sagas between the need to quickly introduce readers to a bizarre setting and the need for an engaging narrative arc — but nearly all of them pull it off. The newer writers tend to take more risks and feature more engaging characters. Gwendolyn Clare’s “All the Painted Stars,” for example, veers away from the usual human protagonist, taking readers instead into the mind of a tentacled alien cop who must cooperate with humans to solve the mystery of a lost civilization. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” offers a painfully contemporary tale of young Vietnamese women taken from their own “savage” people and forcibly re-educated to serve a society of cold artificial intelligences. By contrast, the established writers tend to focus on ideas and settings more than characters and to follow well-traveled storytelling paths. These can be fun too; one notable example is Brandon Sanderson’s “Firstborn,” the overlong but otherwise delightful tale of a born loser slouching along in the shadow of his military-genius older brother.
One or two of the stories devolve into a travelogue, with characters and plot merely painted on for flavor, but overall this anthology is mostly hits, remarkably few misses. Highly recommended.
Adapting any prose novel to the graphic format is an audacious undertaking at the best of times, but translating Octavia E. Butler’s fearsomely powerful work in particular must surely have been a herculean task. Yet Damian Duffy and John Jennings have managed it with their version of KINDRED (Abrams ComicArts, $24.95), giving her most accessible novel — as noted in an introduction by the acclaimed science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor — fresh life.
The story itself is the same one that’s been studied in countless university courses on race, gender and literature since its publication in 1979. Dana, a young black woman living in modern-day California, suddenly begins traveling backward in time to the early 1800s, where she is compelled again and again to save the life of Rufus, the scion of a Maryland plantation owner. The mechanism of her movement through time and space is never explained and is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that Dana must cope with the realistically depicted, gruesome horrors of slavery — which Butler in fact “cleaned up,” according to a well-known 1991 interview in the journal Callaloo. Perhaps more horrifically, Dana must struggle with a fuller understanding of the damage slavery inflicted on everyone it touched, free and slave, then and now — not just violence and family disruption, but an ugly mix of societally reinforced Stockholm syndrome, toxic codependency, and dehumanization.
Duffy and Jennings’s adaptation retains the spare, almost baroque feel of Butler’s narrative, down to its ominous chapter headings (e.g., “The River,” “The Fall”), rendered in all-caps on a black background. This is a story heavy in dialogue and internal narration, although some of the interiority is necessarily lost to the visual format. The art here, which is angular and line-heavy and somehow apocalyptic, fits the weight of the material perfectly. This helps to make up for narrative lost, through stark renderings of blood or vomit or the ashen skin of a hanged woman. The adaptation does not flinch from the ugliest parts of Butler’s text. (Parents hoping that the graphical format may work better for teenagers, take warning.)
A worthy and powerful supplement to a classic.
In a strangely small galaxy, the civilized peoples of the nine inhabited planets live in constant fear of the Shotet, a tribe of fierce multiracial scavengers. After the Shotet kidnap a boy named Akos and his brother for mysterious reasons, Akos has no choice but to go native, learning how to fight and earn armor to survive. Akos has a few advantages, however, including genetically imbued language skills and, more important, a special “currentgift,” or unique magical ability, which is capable of shutting down others’ currentgifts. This naturally makes him useful to Cyra, sister of the tyrannical Shotet leader; Cyra’s own currentgift grants her the ability to project, and experience, constant agony. Akos alone can ease her pain. That they end up a couple is hardly a spoiler.
So things go in CARVE THE MARK (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, $22.99), the latest outing from Veronica Roth. Roth is the author of the best-selling Divergent series, and like those books, this one seems destined — designed, even — for a film adaptation. The story focuses less on Cyra than on Akos, who is by turns vulnerable, tough and talented at combat. The plot is also familiar: A young woman trapped in a brutal system must fight to win freedom for herself and her male companion, eventually fomenting a rebellion against her oppressors. The whole thing turns out to be a power struggle between roughly four factions — special families, that is, whose members are bestowed with predestined fates. There’s some jumbled, vaguely science fictional worldbuilding involving spaceships and people from planets of darkness or planets of heat, but frankly, Roth could’ve set the whole thing on a single planet and cut down on the potential special effects budget.
This story is simpler than it sounds, and even more clichéd than this synopsis suggests. It will doubtless make money hand over fist.
Another work that seems designed for the big screen — or more likely the small screen, given that it’s organized into episodes and seasons — is BOOKBURNERS: SEASON 1 (Saga, paper, $21.99), a collaborative effort by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty and Brian Francis Slattery. Originally produced by Serial Box as an intriguing experiment in serial fiction for mobile devices, the 16 episodes that first appeared in 2015 have now been compiled into a single volume by Saga Press.
The story is fast-paced and pulpish. The police detective Sally Brooks is interrupted one night by her hapless brother, who’s carrying a mysterious ancient book and is terrified he’s been followed to her apartment. He’s afraid of the Bookburners, a shadowy “men in black” type of organization said to hunt down rare-book thieves. After she sees her brother open the book only to become instantly possessed by an ancient malevolent entity, Sal finds herself embroiled in a whirlwind caper, occasionally terrifying, to try to save him. Naturally, she joins forces with the Bookburners, who turn out to be a special division of the Vatican Library employed to hunt down dangerous artifacts for capture and safe storage in the Black Archives. Think hackers and traveling exorcists, but for books. Turns out they could also use a good cop.
If that sounds like lighthearted, slightly silly fun, it is. Each “episode” of the serial is noticeably picaresque in style — lots of action sequences, horror visuals, and witty banter, but not many moments of narrative pause or introspection. As a result, the characters aren’t especially complex or deeply rendered; it’s an ensemble cast, though Sal remains the main character throughout. And the peril rarely feels genuinely perilous. This seems intentional, too, however — rather like watching a TV show with episodes that can be skipped or watched out of order, and characters who remain comfortably predictable throughout. Maybe this isn’t the kind of show that’s going to win a lot of Emmys; it’s more the type that could win a devoted audience and keep going for season after season. Probably ideal for commuters looking for pleasant popcorn reading to start or end the day.