Friday, April 5, 2019

Conan The Barbarian 5 - Review by SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #5 by Jason Aaron
S.E.  rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In his prime, Conan encountered the Crimson Witch, and later, her child servants--all worshippers of the death god Razazel. The more a great warrior cheats death, the more imbued his blood becomes with the power of Death Magic that the Crimson Witch needs to resurrect her death god. From the hills of Cimmeria to the kingdom of Aquilonia, Conan travled, survived, and thrived by cutting a bloody swath through the Hyborian Age, and with the amount of times he's escaped death, he's become very powerful indeed..." -- inside flap blurb

This is a solid issue, that could stand alone. The inside flap blurb covers the progress and summarizes the approach to the series so far: each issue captures Conan defying death in a different part of his life across the globe. The art is great, the story consistent, battles fun, creatures weird, and it even has some a few, subtle call-outs to the Belit and Savage Sword series content. Great stuff.

But, it is part #5, and we hardly need another episode showing how much Conan defies death. I am glad that it crystallized that the idea that Conan has to enrich his sacred/cursed blood, but bring on more of the Crimson witch! She deserved more than half a page.

John C Hocking's novelette "Black Starlight" continues on a good trajectory, with Conan and Zelandra (and friends) defending the Emerald Lotus from nightmarish, eldritch creatures conjured by some sorcerer.

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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Savage Sword #3 - Review by SE

Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #3 by Gerry Duggan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For me, Scott Oden's story entry carried the issue. "Shadow of Vengeance" Ch III focuses on Octavia's perspective, ramping up the tension nicely in detailed, fluid prose. Ends with some hypnotic sorcery. Great stuff.

The comic portion had some nice elements. Conan and Suty actually try to save Menes from the cultist guards. Then a silly scene occurs [some beasts of burden are roped to a building, and Conan hijacks them and pulls the building over on top of the bad guys; but it is unclear why the ropes were tied to the building's top, so the "clever escape sequence" just seemed unnecessarily contrived.]

Anyway, after those wasted pages, the comic introduces Koga Thun and his dark sorcery, a bit of Conan's past, emphasizes role of the mind-map, and it leads Conan and the team into catacombs full of undead. Super fast paced, almost too fast, but fun & with nice art.

If not for the dumb escape-trap scene, I may have given this five stars.

SE Review of #2
SE Review of #1

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Age of Conan: Belit #1 - Review by SE

Age Of Conan: Belit, Queen Of The Black Coast (2019) #1 by Tini Howard
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Age Of Conan: Belit, Queen Of The Black Coast (2019) #1 is the first of the third-2019 Marvel series released in 2019 (the others being "Conan the Barbarian" and "Savage Sword of Conan"). Like the others, it is graced with a serialized novella, this time by Michael A. Stackpole.

"Age of Conan" has a great premise: this series focuses on non-Conan characters, this one from Robert E Howard's story "Queen of the Black Coast"(1934 Weird tales). Unlike the other two Marvel Conan series, the novella and comic are both focused on the same characters and time. The cover is gorgeous. Belit is obviously the focus, and the series promises to track her adventures from being a young girl, a daughter of a pirate king, onward.

The Cover and Stackpole's story "Bone Whispers" are worth the cover price. N'Yaga, a shaman of sorts, meets up with Belit. As an introductory three pages, it works splendid. It fills in the backstory, develops characters, and sets up a fun adventure.

The Comic's first installment is on shaky ground.

Detracting from the decent premise, I laughed out loud at a key moment that was too contrived to be dramatic. Some obscured spoilers here, but consider this: What would you do if you have a beloved mentor marooned on an island, tied to a post, and you were able to sneak to them on a boat with a knife?
(a) simply cut the rope and rescue the mentor?
(b) mercy kill them in an instant?

We are treated to the latter choice, which is inconsistent with the character relationship and the art (which shows the knife, boat, and rope together on the same page; the mentor did not appear near death).

Belit is then held captive and rescued fortuitously; then fate brings her a rare sea-creature at a random, but opportune time--merely to serve as a shallow cliff hanger. I anticipated that she would have freed herself (with less help from others), and given how scarce sea-creatures are, the encounter made me roll my eyes.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Scott Oden and John C Hocking - Accessible Authors

Reviewing books accomplishes many tasks, from documenting the experience for myself, informing potential readers whether or not to purchase, to establishing a dialogue with authors. The last one I learned as an unexpected, pleasant, outcome over the years. This blog captures interactions with Scott Oden and John C. Hocking.

Recently, I was excited to learn that Marvel partnered with Perilous Worlds  to serialize new, pastiche novellas to accompany their reboot of the Conan franchise (reclaimed from  Dark Horse comics). For reasons unknown to me, Marvel chose to blitz fans with three parallel comics in early 2019, with unrelated stories, and with bonus novellas too: making >5 near simultaneously-released serials regarding a character who is expected to jump geographies and careers (barbarian, pirate, king). 

With all this, fans will be glad to know that some of the tour guides (authors) are more than focused--in fact, some are compulsive about continuing Howard's Conan milieu.

"Shadow of Vengeance"

The Savage Sword of Conan series features the story "Shadow of Vengeance" by veteran historical fantasy author Scott Oden. Having read his Gathering of Ravens novel, I was excited to see what he was going to produce. 

As noted in my reviews of the first two Savage Swords (Savage Sword #1 &  Savage Sword #2), Scott Oden's meticulous craft is self-evident and stands in contrast to the frenetic plotting of the comic beside it. The first installment does not even explicitly show Conan, since its purpose was to create a sequel for REH's "The Devil in Iron" tale and Oden's transition called for a different perspective. The second installment does show Conan; I was excited to see more action, despite my appreciation for controlled pacing which I noted.

To my delight, Scott Oden read my review and explained some of his intents and methods. Check out his Scott Oden website; notes on Chapter #2.  Select snippets are below regarding (a) content delivery and (b) crafting genuine dialogue:

"The technique I’m using is one known in film and TV as the Establishing Shot. You start at a wide angle, the landscape, and narrow your focus until you’re centered on a single character — or, in this case, a pair of characters, Conan and Octavia. It’s a technique Howard used quite often (he was a surprisingly cinematic storyteller for the early 20’s and 30’s), though I’ve never been able to match his economy of words..."
"... I opened a text file and imported the text of my favorite Conan stories from Project Gutenberg. Then, I excised everything but Conan’s dialogue. This became my guide, my bible, to replicate Howard’s syntax, style, word choice, even punctuation. I think I pulled it off, but ultimately you’re the judge of that, Gentle Reader." -- Scott Oden
In short, I encourage others to review literature, and to reach out to authors too. SSoC #3 is coming out shortly, and it's set up to deliver "Vengeance".

"Black Starlight"

Similarly, John C. Hocking is writing the serial "Black Starlight" accompanying the Conan the Barbarian comic (review No.1No. 2No. 3No. 4.) In this novella, Conan and his mysterious group travels to Stygia with the emerald lotus. 

This extends the Conan and the Emerald Lotus pastiche written by Hocking himself in 1995, and also features the sorceress Zelandra. Perilous Worlds in reprinting that in early 2019, along with another pastiche novel by Hocking called Conan and the he Living Plague (excerpt on Perlious World website, and blurb below).

As part of the Sword & Sorcery group on goodreads, we are having a group read on all things Emerald Lotus( direct thread link). 

To our surprise, John C. Hocking has joined in! Feel welcome to participate. He explained that the reprint and Living Plague should be printed in Spring... so we will likely extend the groupread (currently Mar-Apr, will likely extend. May-June).
Conan and the Emerald Lotus blurb ($16 ISBN : 978-1-7328301-1-0)Lured into the addictive thrall of the Emerald Lotus, the lovely sorceress Zelandra turns to Conan for aid. They must contend with bandits, undead revenants, monsters, and the desert deeps to defeat the lotus’s Stygian master in his lair, never guessing the Emerald Lotus itself may be the greater threat. 
Conan and the Living Plague blurb ($16 ISBN : 978-1-7328301-0-3): Sent to recover treasure from a plague-wracked city, not only must Conan avoid its deranged survivors, but battle a deadly disease given humanoid shape. To save himself – and perhaps the world — he allies with a scheming sorcerer to traverse a demon-haunted abyss in a desperate bid to destroy the Living Plague.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Conan The Barbarian #4 - Review by SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #4 by Jason Aaron
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Really enjoyed this, however there are some incongruities. The artist differs from the previous three installments, and although the story-arc continues with Conan aging into an old man... it does not explicitly or implicitly mention the Crimson Witch. So that is strange.

It is very well done filler. Given that Marvel's reboot of Conan is all over the map (and time) with three comic series released together in 2019, and each apparently with serialized novellas (decoupled from the comics they are printed with), one can argue that readers didn't need any more jarring. I'm curious if the next issue can connect all the dots.

That said, Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #4 captured the "barbarian vs civilization" conflict that Conan deals with remarkably well. Conan strangles the king of Aquilonia (called Namedides instead of Numedides, as per REH canon from the 1932 "The Phoenix on the Sword" story.) Then he assumes the boring role of king without a war.

The art is gritty and mesmerizing. Instead of a shallow sidekick, he bonds with an captive lion--which seems much more appropriate and genuine. As a king, he needs to conceal his identity as he delivers vigilantly justice on the streets at night to regain his mental strength (must satiate the inner barbarian). Conan seems to re-purpose one of his old pirate flags into a mask, which made sense to me but some say it looks too detailed and anachronistic (like a "biker's mask"). I liked the idea.

Part #4 of Black Starlight by John C. Hocking starts to gel and get dark. Conan and his party are on Stygian shores and zombies had attacked them. The role of the emerald lotus grows clearer, and the conflict with a ghostly entity escalates. Looking forward to #5.

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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Is That The Best You Can Do? Card Game - Review by SE

 "Is That The Best You Can Do?"
Free Market Kids delivers a solid card with "Is That The Best You Can Do?"

It is inspired to teach basics of financial literacy and negotiating skills, but it's fun whether or not you care about learning. It is as easy as Uno... but totally different.

The games works with three people, but works best with four or more for the negotiations to get exciting. It is excellent for family gatherings, home schooling, or class settings. A match runs about 30-45min, but a single ~5min round can be fun and full of teachable moments.

High quality materials, art, and design produced this Deluxe version. The box is like a book that can be stored like one. A magnetic closure/top is slick .  The currency, core to the game, are translucent, poker-sized "crypto-currency"---they are fun to hold and durable.

Each player takes 7 Supply/Demand cards. Then the negotiations start.  One player begins by offering to sell or buy an item (all are Sci Fi based.... like flying cars, robot dogs, alien chess, etc.).  Then... the others chime in. Some will want to buy, and others enter as competitive sellers.  Everyone has different goals (ie buy-for-less-than OR sell-for-more-than).

Pairs negotiate, come to a price, and are awarded the difference between their card value and the end-price.  Then they replenish their deck of 7.

It is easy, but different than most buying-trading games. Only takes a minute to pick up.

To add spice and learn more, there are Market Cards. Instead of replenishing one's deck with Supply or Demand cards, one can pick a Market card that introduces one-time events; there are 9 flavors (ie everyone holding a Robot Dog gets taxed! Or arbitrage is enabled, so you can buy/sell to yourself...and seven more events).

Free Market Kids are going to spring board off this, as they are preparing lesson plans and game-add-ons to stimulate learning. I suspect they will create a basic (non Deluxe) set that just has the basic cards and will cost less.

Game Overview


Set up




 Market Cards


Friday, March 1, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan 2019 #2 Review by SE

Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #2 by Gerry Duggan
S.E. rating: 3 of 5 stars

Starts off great, with Conan and his newfound buddy Suty landing on Stygian shores. A brutal landscape of "trees" leads to an encounter with pseudo-human (Darth-maul inspired) followers of Koga Thun. Conan administers the expected, titular savagery. The art is nice. This leads to a history of the area and the city of Kheshatta.

Then the comic portion stalls and becomes contrived and inconsistent. With limited pages, the information flow has to be spot on, and this issue seemed to spend/waste its precious pages after the nice beginning. More on that below in the spoiler section.

The bonus serial installment of "Shadow of Vengeance" by Scott Oden was an okay follow-up to an awesome beginning from Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1. Conan is now on stage with Octavia. I appreciate the call outs to the Hyborian Age milieu but it ate two of this three-page dose. The last page did not end with the cliff-hanger I expected. Conan is slowly entering peril. I hope for a fun confrontation in the next installment.

Spoiler section...

The Koga Thun followers go from being thugs to weakling rats who reveal their master's plan to find treasure. Conan kills them and goes to the city. At this point I expected Conan to "use the map in his head" to steer him into the guarded city. But no, the scrawny Suty calms the angry guards by explaining that the towering hulk of Conan is simply a slave he wishes to sell, so the guards instantly flip to being okay with letting them in. This was a wasted page of silliness that could have been better spent on reinforcing the mind-map. 

Then we have several pages of Conan wandering into a library. It is unclear if his mind-map is steering him or if he is just goofing around. A lady he saw in a vision from Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1 appears; her name is Menes. She introduces herself with a silly one-liner (she sneaks up on Conan, and he says men cannot do that... but wait...she is no man; I half expected her to say her name was Eowen.)

Whatever, Menes seems to be on their side (anti Koga Thun), so they make up a team.

It ends on a real shallow WTF. Menes, who was hiding and/or protecting the library, departs randomly from the conversation to head down stairs and open the barred door. Strange. She walks casually while asking if they brought friends. Conan strolls behind saying nothing. She opens it to be drug out by three bad guys! 

Menes was stealthy & smart enough to sneak up on Conan, but then not observant enough to sense danger when a random person knocks--why is she opening the door? Does "savage" Conan & Suty help save her from being drug out, or fight after? Nope. They hide behind the door. 

It just feels inconsistent & contrived from frame to frame. 
It is unclear how Conan and Suty have and react to any vision.

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