Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Marvel Action: Spider-Man #2.1 – Comic Review

Originally published on Set The Tape

I didn’t realise that the latest issue of Marvel Action: Spider-Man would be the start of a new volume, and was a little surprised by this as the series had only really just begun, and it didn’t feel like it was a time for a relaunch. Luckily, this new series seems to carry straight on from the last issue without any big changes, being more of a normal continuation than the start of something new.

The fact that there were no big, drastic changes to the status quo of the book with this new volume was a relief, as I’d say this is easily the best title in the Marvel Action catalogue and I don’t want to see that quality decrease. Another worry was that the writer for the first volume, Delilah S. Dawson, has been replaced with Brandon Easton. I’d not read anything by Easton, though I had seen his episode of Agent Carter, but quickly found him to be a great fit for the series.

Easton has managed to carry across a lot of what made the previous volume of the series so good, namely the personal relationships between the lead characters. The fun and friendly banter is back, with the trio teasing each other whilst in the middle of combat, as well as some good character development outside of their costumed identities, as we get to see the three of them obsess over science issues and their struggles with them.

This issue also introduced readers to the Marvel Action version of Shocker, the iconic Spider-Man villain. I have to say, I really like the new look for Shocker that Easton and artist Fico Ossio have put together. He’s instantly recognisable as the villain, with an updated version of his classic ‘quilted’ look. I also love the small electrical bolt symbol on his belt buckle as a nice little piece of attention grabbing detail in the middle of his suit.

What immediately jumped out about this new design, however, is that his mask looks very similar to Iron-Man. The fact that he’s stealing tech from Stark Industries means that this might not be a coincidence either. I’m half expecting the character to have an origin that connects in with Tony Stark in some way, similar to the recent Spider-Man movie villains, but hope that he’ll stand on his own as a Spidey villain rather than feeling like some kind of Iron-Man reject. The issue has presented a possible identity for the villain, but I’m not sure if perhaps I’m just suspicious of any new character introduced into the story. I’m eager to find out if this is just a big red herring or not.

Marvel Action Spider-Man has been the best book in the series, and thanks to this issue upholding the standards it’s already delivered I can say with confidence that this hasn’t changed. It might have a new numbering and a new creative team behind the wheel, but it still feels like the same title that I’ve loved since it began. I can’t wait to see with Brandon Easton does next.

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Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Golden Key by Marian Womack - Book Review

Originally published on Set The Tape

'London, 1901. After the death of Queen Victoria the city heaves with the uncanny and the eerie. Séances are held and the dead are called upon from darker realms.

'Samuel Moncrieff, recovering from a recent tragedy of his own, meets Helena Walton-Cisneros, one of London’s most reputed mediums. But Helena is not what she seems and she’s enlisted by the elusive Lady Matthews to solve a twenty-year-old mystery: the disappearance of her three stepdaughters who vanished without a trace on the Norfolk Fens.

'But the Fens are a liminal land, where folk tales and dark magic still linger. With locals that speak of devilmen and catatonic children found on the Broads, Helena finds the answer to the mystery leads back to where it started: Samuel Moncrieff.'

The Golden Key has everything that I really enjoy in a book. It’s got got mystery, a hint of horror, the supernatural, a strong female lead, and a Victorian era setting that I adore. However, I struggled to really connect with the book even though I’d been looking forward to it for months.

The Golden Key is set in the days following the death of Queen Victoria, and focuses on Helena Walton-Cisneros, a female investigator who has been hired to look into the twenty year old disappearance of the three step-daughters of the reclusive Lady Matthews.

The book is steeped in a sense of spookiness and dread as the story follows Samuel Moncrieff, a young man who is deep into the world of spiritualism and seances. Using the real world craze for the supernatural that was sweeping through London at the time, the book manages to create a great atmosphere that flows through the whole novel. The sense of creeping horror is easily one of the best parts of the book, and only increases when Helena begins to investigate the children’s disappearance in the Norfolk Fens. However, this may be one of the only parts of the book that I enjoyed.

My biggest issue with The Golden Key is a very disjointed and broken narrative. Marian Womack has created a connect the dots style mystery, one that unfolds throughout the novel, but it also feels has though events happen in a similarly unconnected way. There are a few storylines that come together towards the latter half of the book, but before that happens it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, and why their story is being included. This is made even harder at times by the amount of backstory and depth that Womack gives certain aspects.

For example, there are several pages towards the latter quarter of the book that go into great detail about one of the secondary character’s past, specifically her friendship with another woman who’s not in the book, their shared love of fairy stories, and their subsequent falling out. It’s an interesting aside that gives more detail to one of the characters, but it seems like the only reason it’s included is to show that this person felt bad about letting her friend down in the past, so wants to go out of her way to help Helena. I couldn’t help but feel that she could have still decided to help Helena without having to spend the better part of a chapter outlining her personal history.

This isn’t the only time that this happens, as Womack gives readers extra details on a number of side characters or situations that don’t have a huge impact upon the main story. In a way it reminds me of the amount of detail Stephen King can sometimes lavish upon his bigger books. It’s great if that’s the kind of thing you like, but at times it does seem to drag the pace down a bit.

Sadly I also felt that the book didn’t quite stick its landing either, and the conclusion left me a little confused and unsure of what happened. There’s a definite sense of an ending, but I’m not sure exactly what or why. Leaving a conclusion open to interpretation can be a fine thing, but when so much of the book was made around this mystery I wanted to have things confirmed for me, not just vague hints. There is a mention in the acknowledgements that there might be more to come with Helena in the future, but I don’t want to have to wait until a sequel to find out what happened with this conclusion.

The Golden Key is an interesting supernatural mystery, with some intriguing characters and some unique ideas. It may not appeal to everyone but even if it doesn’t set your world on fire you’ll still find some good things to keep you entertained.

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Monday, 24 February 2020

Small Town Residents Threaten To Sue School Over Rainbow Flag

Residents of Marshall, Minnesota, have threatened to take legal action against Marshall Middle School for including a rainbow pride flag in a display about diversity.

The display that has come under fire also contained flags from nations around the world, but parents, and some students, have only cited concern with the inclusion of the pride flag. Last week dozens of members of the local community attended a meeting at the school board chambers to voice their opinions on the issue.

As can be expected from so many other incidents like this, parents have complained about the pride flag as they believe it to 'promote' a 'lifestyle', one that they feel is against their Christian beliefs. More than one of those who spoke out against the flag chose to read from the bible as their argument against it, choosing passages that they believe highlight that God is against homosexuality and trans people. They even said that the pride flag might 'confuse' children.

One parent, Mohammed Ahmed, asked the board, 'What's next? Curriculum? Teaching the lifestyle in our classrooms?'

One of the students from Marshall Middle School took to the mic to talk about how he and other students had begun a petition to have the pride flag removed but it was taken away by a teacher and given to the principal. He, and several other students, then tried to protest the inclusion of the pride flag by displaying flags on their lockers. In this case the 'Don't Tread On Me' flag; a flag that has some connections to racism and white supremacy.

This student complained that these flags were taken down by a teacher. People are now trying to claim that this was a breach of the students constitutional rights to free speech.

Bill Mohram, a local lawyer who has been approached by several members of the community to potentially sue the school over the pride flag said; 'If that young boy accurately described what happened to him, some teacher in your school district violated his constitutional rights unequivocally;'

Thankfully, these were not the only voices on display that night, as other members of the community took turns to defend the flag, and the school's decision to display it.

'Kids can only hear so many times the public shaming and these hurtful online comments,' said Karrie Alberts, the Marshall High School GSA Advisor. 'They are absorbing these words. They cannot hear that they are ungodly, or they are second-rate, or that they should be hidden away in some other room.'

She continued to condemn the attackers for treating LGBTQ+ students as being 'controversial'. Other parents stood up to say that they felt the flag was a symbol of inclusion for their children, some of who are gay, and that taking them down would be demonstrating to queer children that they are considered to be second class citizens.

No decision was made by the end of the meeting, with the Marshall Superintendent Scott Monson saying that he would need to consult the school district's legal representation. Despite this, those protesting the flag have said that if their demands have not been met, they 'will file a lawsuit in federal district court'.

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Thursday, 20 February 2020

Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins - Book Review

Dungeons and Dragons is cool. Let's just get that out of the way first of all. Anyone who doesn't think it is has clearly never played it, because as soon as you do you realise its so much fun. But whilst it's a lot of fun to play it seems like it's sometimes hard to watch. A lot of the time this comes down to the fact that most people who play the game are just regular folk like you and me. Critical Role, however, stands out as something a little different, thanks in part to the players being such good actors.

Within the first episode of the web series you'll end up being sucked into the world that the group have created, as well as the characters that they play. It doesn't just feel like a group of friends playing a game, but a group of creatives making something special. That's why there is literally hundreds and hundreds of hours of Critical Role content out there; people recognised that it was something special.

Despite having a hugely successful web series that takes weeks to watch through even if you don't do anything else, fans always want more Critical Role in their life. This is where Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins comes in. Jumping back in time to the very beginning of the story, this book shows readers just how the group first came together all those years ago when they were playing in their homes.

The story begins with elf twins Vex and Vax investigating the strange happenings in a small town surrounded by a swamp, where the young and old are getting sick and dying. The two of them are trying to find out if it's some kind of curse, a poison, or some evil force behind the events when they discover a much bigger plot, one that has drawn in several groups of adventurers.

It's fun to see several members of the group split across other groups, and to see that they actually didn't really like each other that much. Viewers of the series got to see these characters after they'd been together for years and had become something of a family, but here they're just strangers. Instead of teasing there's outright hostility at times.

This isn't the Vox Machina that most fans will know, and it might be something of a shock to see the characters portrayed in this way, but it still ultimately feels like Critical Role, with the same group of misfits and idiots, and the same plans that don't work. One of my favourite parts of the book is when the group are standing around outside the evil lair, coming up with various plans whilst Grog goes running off in the background, attacking head on. It feels like a comic representation of every planning session the team has in the series, where things usually go a little crazy and unexpected.

It won't take you long to read through the book, but if you're all caught up with the episodes and don't want to go back and rewatch this'll certainly scratch your Critical Role itch for an hour or two, as well as shedding some light onto the origins of the iconic group of heroes.

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Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Martian Menace by Eric Brown - Book review

'A new addition to the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series from science fiction and crime author Eric Brown. A deadly Plot. For the second time in human history, Martian invaders occupy planet Earth. After a common terrestrial virus thwarted the first deadly invasion, another Martian armada arrived six years later to make peace. Now, mankind enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the aliens' scientific wonders and technology, and an entente exists between the two races. But when Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson are called upon to investigate the death of an eminent Martian philosopher, they unravel an intricate web of betrayal and murder that leaves no one - human or Martian - beyond suspicion...'

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series by Titan Books is one of my favourite series of Sherlock Holmes books. The series gives readers a broad mixture of stories, some very similar to the original books and could fit in nicely with the tales written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, others, such as this one, mix things up and present weird and wonderful new versions of the Holmes universe.

The Martian Menace combines the classic detective with the science fiction classic of The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. I've adored this series when it's combined Sherlock Holmes with other classic Victorian era books, such as Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, and this story continues that tradition.

Set more than a decade after the events of the original War of the Worlds, readers are dropped into a world where the Martians returned following their initial defeat. This time, however, they came with the offer of friendship, explaining that the Martians involved in the initial invasion were part of an aggressive, rogue faction. With these new, benevolent Martians welcomed to Earth a new age of technological development has begun, and Humanity have started to work alongside their new allies to create a better future for themselves.

When Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are approached by the Martian ambassador to England, Grulvax-Xena-Goran, to help investigate the strange murder of one of Mars' most eminent and respected philosophers the two of them jump at the chance. Having previously worked with the ambassador in the past, and desiring to see the red planet for themselves, they quickly find themselves whisked off world and into a much deadlier mystery than they first thought. When the two detectives discover that the new martian friends might not be so different than those in the first invasion, they get drawn into a battle for the very survival of humanity itself.

Before getting into the meat of the story, readers are given a short prologue story where Holmes and Watson investigate the murder of the current Martian ambassador, a story that features H. G. Wells himself. Whilst this was a good introduction to this new world, I was a little worried that the main story would become a similar rehash, though over a longer page count. This was especially worrying as I didn't think Holmes and Watson would be able to investigate a murder on Mars in the same way they normally would. As such, I was hugely happy when it turned out that this case was just a ruse, hiding a much bigger and grander story beneath.

Holmes and Watson aren't big heroes, they're not going to be on the front lines of a fight against the Martians, especially during this time period when they're older men. However, they're both incredibly intelligent and resourceful people, who have ruined far too many evil plans in the past for the Martians to just ignore them completely. This means that we get to see the heroic uprising story told from a point of view of someone other than the leader, or the front-line hero. They dip in and out of the greater story, working in the shadows on small details that ultimately make a big difference to the overall survival of humanity. The two of them just wouldn't work as figureheads leading the charge, and Eric Brown knows this, using them in a much cleverer way instead.

The story draws upon some of the history of Holmes too, with some surprise characters appearing during the narrative. It also throws in some real world figures for the two heroes to interact with, such as George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton. Brown even throws in another Arthur Conan Doyle hero, Professor Challenger, much to my immediate delight. The book is filled with literary and historical nods that it'll keep any fan of the Victorian era smiling.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Martian Menace is a great example of why this series is not just full of great books, but some of the best Sherlock Holmes books around. It manages to seamlessly put the iconic duo into this wonderful sci-fi setting without it feeling weird or out of place, in a story that's a worthy follow up to the classic tale. An absolute pleasure to read from start to finish.

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