Hellblazer: Pandemonium reviewed

World weary occult detective John Constantine is blackmailed by British Intelligence into undertaking a special interrogation assignment in war-torn Iraq. His guide and fixer is Aseera al-Aswari, an Iraqi archaeology graduate who happens to also be the bait used by the Intelligence Service to entrap him into their service.

Forming an uneasy alliance suffused with sexual tension, Aseera leads Constantine to Abu Ghraib to interrogate a prisoner with unnatural abilities that have thus far frustrated all attempts at questioning. Constantine’s unique knowledge of the supernatural allow him to recognise and communicate with a djinn inhabiting the prisoner’s body. The interrogation reveals much larger and darker forces at work. The culmination of Constantine’s investigations lead him to Kutha, ancient temple of Assyrian deities. Here, he discovers that war is hell in the most literal sense – that the horror, violence and fanaticism of the Iraqi war is being channelled by old adversary the demon Nergal into feeding the economy of Hell. To win vital concessions, he uses his innate cunning to champion the forces of good in the game of war – allegorically an ancient form of poker – where the stakes are the very souls of the war’s victims.

Pandemonium is a welcome return by the original writer of Hellblazer, Jamie Delano. His definitive writing style portrays Constantine at his dubious best: acerbic, antagonistic, witty, contrary – a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed cynic of uncertain morality with an innate ability to mix with all walks of society without being a part of any. Pandemonium pulls no punches: you are thrown straight into Constantine’s murky world without preamble or prior explanation. The story provides an alternative take on a contemporary theme, namely the War on Terror. It’s inventive, mixing enough fact with the fiction to make a satisfyingly plausible yet fantastic storyline. The novel has the feel of film noir throughout with gritty dialogue and a brooding atmosphere. The narrative is provided through the character of Constantine – a man of few words, that nevertheless thinks volumes. He is a character of contrasts that is neither good nor bad, black nor white but a smoky, amoral grey that nevertheless has a fundamental belief in people. When he speaks, he can be terse or dismissive, though in stark contrast often his inner monologue rambles. Sometimes he drops a philosophical gem, equally often it’s a throwaway line that merely serves as a vessel for his black sense of humour (a djinn in a bottle of gin?).

The artwork by Jock I have to say at first glance I wasn’t really taken with. I confess to having a predilection for more detailed artwork from artists such as Simon Bisley. However within a few pages, I revised my opinion since any other style would have detracted from the storyline. As portrayed, Jock’s work is minimalistic, edgy, dark and urban and really marries with the narrative perfectly. In this case, less is definitely more – I am therefore a convert.

Because the reader is dropped straight into the thick of it, I believe Pandemonium is really fodder for existing fans of Hellblazer rather than casual readers. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t prove to be an entertaining read for the uninitiated, but at £14.99 retail for the hardback, most casual readers I think would baulk. But those fans previously acquainted with Constantine’s complex character will doubtless derive the most from this particular novel. For them it pays in spades. Get it.

The Amulet of Samarkand: A Bartimaeus graphic novel reviewed

Adapted by Jonathan Stroud and Andrew Donkin. Art by Lee Sullivan. Colour by Nicolas Chapuis.

Fantasy Book Review Young-Adult Book of the Month, April 2011

Nathaniel, a young magician’s apprentice, has revenge on his mind. Desperate to defy his master and take on more challenging spells, he secretly summons the 5,000-year-old djinni, Bartimaeus. But Bartimaeus’s task is not an easy one – he must steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, a master magician of unrivalled ruthlessness and ambition.

It is very difficult to review this graphic novel without constantly referring back to the original book. I am a big fan of the trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate) and count it amongst the best fantasy trilogies available so I will get the first question I asked myself out of the way early and quickly… Is this graphic novel as good as the book upon which it is based? Not quite, but almost. And for the remainder of the review I will try to keep comparisons to a minimum and treat it as the separate medium that it is.

The Amulet of Samarkand: A Bartimaeus graphic novel cover

The first thing you notice upon picking up this graphic novel is the artwork. The work by Lee Sullivan (Transformers, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who) is stunning, detailed and spookily close to my own imaginings of the characters and locations. If you add to this the vibrant colours of Nicolas Chapuis (who has previously worked on the graphic novel adaptation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time) you are presented with a graphic novel that is beautiful to look upon. In fact, excellency marks all aspects of this graphic novel, from the story to the art, colour and lettering it is obvious that those involved in their roles are amongst the very best at their craft.

The book is of course reduced (496 to 144 pages) and there is much to to this graphic novel that is cinematic with a screenplay feel. The most important thing for me was that the relationship between Nathanial and Bartimaeus was able to build as it had in the book and that the humour, such a vital ingredient in the trilogies success, was successfully transferred across. This task fell to Andrew Donkin, the co-writer of the successful graphic novel adaptations of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl and Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident. Donkin achieved  the transfer with great aplomb and many of the poignant and laugh-out-loud moments are thankfully still to be found.

This graphic novel should appeal on all seven planes, from those familiar with the books to complete newbies. Where I think this may well come up trumps is with a reluctant reader – a youngster confronted with a graphic novel will react differently to one with a 500-page book of words shoved under their nose. It would be nice to think that said reluctant reader, upon enjoying the graphic novel, felt compelled to give the book a try and thereby be rewarded with an even fuller story. I believe that this was the case with the Artemis Fowl graphic novels, hopefully the same will happen here.

Everybody involved in this book has done a marvellous job and should be congratulated. That this is currently available on Amazon for just over a fiver offers great value for money considering the work that has gone into creating it. Highly recommended.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate), and the prequel Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon have now sold more than six million copies around the world.

Locke & Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows reviewed

Rating 8.9/10

A mediocre Locke & Key is better than most other stories out there.

Buy Now!

Image: Locke & Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows cover The third story arc in the 2009 British Fantasy Award winning and Eisner nominated series continues to impress, although for the first time in its release there is a weak link.

Review by Brian Herstig

Acclaimed suspense novelist and New York Times best-selling author Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box) has created an all-new story of dark fantasy and wonder: Locke & Key. Written by Hill and featuring astounding artwork from Gabriel Rodriguez (Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show, Beowulf), Locke & Key tells of Keyhouse, an unlikely New England mansion, with fantastic doors that transform all who dare to walk through them… and home to a hate-filled and relentless creature that will not rest until it forces open the most terrible door of them all…

If you are not familiar with the Locke & Key series, it is a limited edition graphic novel that is one of the best examples of the difference between  a comic book and a graphic novel. It all starts with Hill, an acclaimed and experienced writer. This is a series whose storyline could easily be a novel. The characters are real, flawed, and relatable. Despite being a fantasy, the actions and situations are surprising believable and feel like they could be occurring in the next town, or house, over. The compelling storyline set in motion in the first book of the series has started a series of events and actions that are constantly mined for deeper and deeper emotional (and visual) impact. Rodriguez is one of the top illustrators in the business and his drawings pair perfectly with Hills prose and add a depth and richness to not just the language and actions occurring, but the world being created.

One of the best things about Locke & Key as a whole is how it feels like it COULD be something that is happening right now. It lives just on the edge of believability. If only because, in some instances, we WANT to believe the fantasy places it goes to could be real. A key to open your brain and take out unwanted memories or emotions? A key that can take you through a door to anywhere you can imagine? But all of these flights of fancy are grounded in reality – as are the consequences of using them. The other thing that makes Locke & Key so compelling is the rich, and realistic, emotional component of the series. The main characters are a family whose father/husband has been mysteriously, and brutally, murdered. As a newly single mother tries to find a way to keep her family, and herself, going, she and her 3 children are horrifically attacked. The mother is beaten so badly that she uses a cane to walk and turns to alcohol to cope. The oldest son, a slacker to some degree before, becomes the man of the house, responsible for the welfare of the family and looking out for his younger brother. The daughter’s response to the senseless tragedy is to eliminate the emotion of fear from herself – but what are the implications of that in a teenager? And the youngest brother, still a child, is being protected by everyone from the strangeness going on around him. Between the family dynamics these situations impose, issues with high school, and a paranormal and fantastic new world opened to them, it’s no wonder the kids are screwed up.

This arc takes us deeper into the mystery of Keyhouse, the keys, and a possible otherworldly hand in what is happening. Unfortunately, it also has the first stumble of the series. Sadly, issue 4, Light of Day, takes a turn too far into fantasy with the discovery of a new key that creates a situation that feels unbelievable for an otherwise grounded series. Hill has created an increasing sense of foreboding throughout the series and in issue 4 begins to draw all of the evil together. This will require a huge response to drive it back and he veers into an area that probably sounded good in concept, and certainly has a very appealing visual nature to it, but ends up not fitting in with the tone of the series.

Locke & Key may take its first stumble, but a mediocre Locke & Key is better than most other stories out there. The illustrations (particularly in issue 2, which focuses on the Drowning Pool) continue to be top notch and the story and issues put forward by Hill are moved forward and deepened. Where else can you deal with a broken family, the emotional trauma and recovery from a brutal murder and attack, high school term papers, and what happens when you remove emotion from a teenager? The opening issue, The Haunting of Keyhouse, gives us some interesting hints about the malevolence behind everything, and the closing scenes of the final issue, Beyond Repair, offer a tantalizing hint of what is to come. Locke & Key is a limited edition series – meaning this is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. That end is coming and the fact that is not open ended, like Y and others before it, only adds to the excitement and plotting in a positive way.

In September FOX announced that Locke & Key would be made into a television series, to possibly debut in summer 2011. Producers will include Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (LOST, Star Trek reboot), as well as Steven Spielberg and it will be written by Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles). All of this is good. How they intend to turn a limited run graphic novel into a TV series remains to be seen. Will it veer away from the plot of the series (a la The Walking Dead, which originally hewed close to the graphic novels but towards the end of the season went off on its own direction)? Or will it stick to it and end up being a limited run series, more akin to a British television series (6 episodes for 4 or 5 seasons)? We’ll have to wait and see, but the pedigree of those involved is promising.