Book Review: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (2017)

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Octavia E. Butler Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment (Finally!)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

Inventive, hypnotic, unflinchingly honest – such is the work of Octavia Estelle Butler, and in Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, the grand dame of science fiction finally receives the graphic novel treatment she so desperately deserves.

First published in 1979, Kindred tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported to the antebellum south. She finds herself on a Maryland plantation, circa 1812(-ish), placed directly in the path of a drowning boy named Rufus. Over a period of weeks (her time) and years (his), Rufus will unconsciously summon Dana to his side whenever his life is endangered. Though she’s often tempted to let the selfish young man – and heir to the Weylin plantation – die, to do so would threaten her very existence. Rufus is Dana’s distant ancestor, and her life depends on the continuation of his. That is, at least until Grandmother Hagar Weylin has a chance to be born.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0006 [flickr]

There’s a well-known nerdy maxim (or trope, if you prefer) that time travel isn’t safe for black people, or women, or [insert your marginalized group here]. Time travel is “exclusively a white [male] privilege,” as Louis CK put it. Kindred manifests this principle in ways both chilling and potent. Dana uses her time in the past to try and change things for the better, if only in tiny increments: she surreptitiously teaches some of the enslaved children to read, and attempts to steer her great-grandfather in a more enlightened direction. Yet history is more likely to change Dana than vice versa, as she notes with shock and horror as she finds herself growing accustomed to the daily cruelties of slavery.

Likewise, when Dana’s white husband Kevin is left stranded out of time – for a whopping five years, as she later learns – Dana is frightened of who or what she might find upon her return. How might an era steeped in racism and misogyny stain the man she loves?

Kindred is one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite writers. The prospect of an adaptation left me both nervous and excited, which is par for the course when it comes to literature that’s burrowed its way into my heart and mind. But Damian Duffy’s translation of the work is masterful; he mostly captures the spirit and tone of the original, and deftly condenses the novel into a comic book format.

(I say mostly because, let’s face it, Octavia Butler is in a class of her own. The original work is infinitely more harrowing, but the adaptation is still pretty great. If you haven’t yet read Kindred, you owe it to yourself to start today. If you have, this will definitely leave you clamoring for a re-read.)

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0018 [flickr]

From the first panel, which ominously proclaims “I lost an arm on my last trip home,” John Jennings’s artwork is moody and atmospheric.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0001 [flickr]

Many of the palettes are stripped down, with two or three colors dominating many of the scenes.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0014 [flickr]

He employs some pretty neat tricks, such as placing close-ups of Dana and Rufus side-by-side to emphasize both their opposition and interconnectedness,

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0010 [flickr]

and underscoring Dana’s trips through time and space with dramatic changes in color. Some of the drawings, especially of Rufus and his father Tom, are a little rough around the edges – which struck me as perfectly apt, given the circumstances. Dana, on the other hand, is a near-perfect mirror image of how I envisioned her.

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0007 [flickr]

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0008 [flickr]

Even the design of the book is breathtaking. The book cover features an almost gothic landscape of dark purple trees against a black sky and lavender moon. On the back side, the Weylin house beckons. The first and last pages are splashes of red with streaks of pink; Dana, Isaac, or Alice’s skin after a brutal lashing.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0017 [flickr]

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation is a wonderful homage to Octavia Butler and the world she built, explored, and ultimately dismantled in Kindred. I hope it’s also a hint of what’s to come: from Kindred to the Parables duology, Lilith’s Brood to the Patternmaster series, Butler’s novels and short stories are all but begging for second lives on screens both big and small, panels in comic books and fan conventions the world over. May Damian Duffy and John Jennings’s work introduce a whole new generation of fans to this extraordinary writer.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Unexpected Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2014)

Friday, March 6th, 2015

Two New-to-Us SF/F Short Stories from Octavia Butler

five out of five stars

Published eight years after her death, Unexpected Stories contains two all-new stories written by the great Octavia E. Butler: one fantasy, the other with more of a science fiction bent. As Walter Mosely observes in the forward, “In these stories we find two women faced with war or with peace. Carrying on their backs society’s future or its end.” One works within the confines of her position and the system which holds her there, while the other has escaped – albeit temporarily.

The beings in “A Necessary Being” are humanoid – but decidedly non-human. Their skin shifts and shimmers in shades of blue, signaling their emotions and intent; highest among them is the Hao, a pure blue being thought to be divine – a harbinger of good luck. Unfortunately, Hao are rare; occasionally a member of the judge caste may birth one “out of the air,” but more often they’re descended from a long line of Hao. Kohn tribes without a Hao are “tribes[s] in the process of dying.” This has caused a great many tribes to find a Hao wherever and however they can – even if this means kidnapping another tribe’s Hao, imprisoning him or her – sometimes crippling the captive Hao to prevent future escape.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2005)

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

These stories will burrow into your brain like a grub into an achti carcass.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for rape and sexual/reproductive exploitation.)

The truth is, I hate short story writing. Trying to do it has taught me much more about frustration and despair than I ever wanted to know.

Yet there is something seductive about writing short stories. It looks so easy. You come up with an idea, then ten, twenty, perhaps thirty pages later, you’ve got a finished story.

Well, maybe.

Don’t let Butler’s apparent distaste for short stories fool you; many of the stories collected here are shiny little masterpieces in their own right.

(…although I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t also love to see several of the stories fleshed out into full-length novels; “Bloodchild,” “Speech Sounds,” and “Amnesty,” I’m looking at you!)

The second edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories includes seven short stories (five previously published, two brand spanking new) and two essays (both reprints). While the essays offer advice to aspiring writers as well as insights into Butler’s childhood (“Shyness is shit.” might be the realest, rawest sentence in the whole damn book), the stories are that wonderfully creepy, complex, unsettling, and ultimately deeply profound brand of SF/F that I’ve come to associate with Butler: earth-based worlds characterized by rapidly crumbling dystopias, or alien societies in which the human survivors are forced into untenable compromises with their extraterrestrial saviors/overlords. Each piece is followed by a brief (but enlightening) Afterward penned by the author herself.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

200 Billion Stars

five out of five stars

Lauren Olamina isn’t like the other kids in her neighborhood, a walled-off city block in Robledo, just twenty miles outside of Los Angeles. Born to a drug-addicted mother, Lauren is afflicted with hyperempathy – the ability to share in the pain and pleasure of others, whether she wants to or not. This makes her an especially easy target for bullies – brother Keith used to make her bleed for fun when they were younger – so Lauren’s weakness is a carefully guarded secret, one shared only with her family. In this crumbling world, a near-future dystopia that’s all to easy to imagine, humans already devour their own: literally as well as figuratively. Lauren won’t make herself an easy meal.

As if her hyperempathy isn’t alienating enough, Lauren has another secret, one that she only shares with her diary. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Lauren no longer believes in her father’s god. Instead, she’s cultivating her own system of belief – Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Lauren gathers these verses into a book that she comes to think of as “The Books of the Living.” Her new religion? Earthseed. Its destination? The stars.

(More below the fold…)

One small seed

Friday, May 9th, 2014

To Ralphie

We give our dead
To the orchards
And the groves.
We give our dead
To life.

Death
Is a great Change –
Is life’s greatest Change.
We honor our beloved dead.
As we mix their essence with the earth,
We remember them,
And within us,
They live.

– Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents

Book Review: The Culling (The Slave Girl Chronicles #1), JC Andrijeski (2014)

Friday, February 21st, 2014

A dystopian alien abduction story – WITH DINOSAURS!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, vague spoilers in the last few paragraphs.)

Nineteen-year-old Jet Tetsuo is a skag. Along with thousands of other human refugees, Jet spends most of her time underground, eking out the barest existence beneath the ruins of what once was Vancouver. It’s this, or risk capture by the Nirreth: a race of blue, bipedal, lizard-like aliens that invaded Earth several generations before. Rumor has it that the Nirreth vivisect humans, keep them as slaves, and even cook and eat them. To be picked up by a Nirreth culling ship means certain death. Or at least that’s the word in the skag pits that Jet calls home.

A fierce fighter who’s skilled with the blade, Jet saves most of her worries for her younger brother, Biggs, who’s been spending a dangerous amount of time hanging around the rebel fighters. It’s him she’s thinking of when, out on a trading errand overworld, she’s spotted and captured by a Nirreth culling ship. In time, she learns that she’s a “special commission”: the ship’s captain, Eamon Richter, former leader of the resistance in Vancouver, abducted Jet for sale to the Nirreth High Command for the Pacific Region – “The Royals” for short. Like many humans kidnapped to the Green Zones (park-like cities constructed by the Nirreth), Jet is to be a pet for her Nirreth owner’s amusement. In addition to providing protection to Ogli, the young heir to the throne, Jet is slated to fight in the Rings for the amusement of Nirreth crowds. But only if she can pass the demonstration.

The first installment in The Slave Chronicles, The Culling is an enjoyable and fast-paced read. It’s got everything a YA (NA?) scifi fan could want: A kick-ass heroine. Sword play. Space ships and intergalactic travel. Environmental collapse. A burgeoning rebellion. Alien colonizers. Dinosaurs, even!

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler (2000)

Monday, May 6th, 2013

I’ll never look at an octopus the same way again.

five out of five stars

Lilith’s Brood is one of those books that’s so amazing and epic that I can’t even. As in, I can’t even form a complete sentence, let alone maintain a coherent flow between paragraphs and ideas. And so this is where I break out the bullet points.

* Warning: major spoilers ahead! Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence. *

  • The books in Lilith’s BroodDawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – were originally published as the Xenogenesis trilogy. Definitely pick up a copy of Lilith’s Brood – it’s easier and less expensive than buying the books individually, and you’ll be hooked after the first installment anyway!
  • The basic premise is this: some time in the unspecified future, earth is decimated by nuclear war. Though it primarily involves northern, industrialized nations, the fallout results in massive casualties and renders the planet uninhabitable. As humanity lingers on the brink of extinction, the few remaining survivors are “rescued” by an alien species. The Oankali transport the human refugees to their ancient ship, where they’re kept in a state of suspended animation as the Oankali work to repair their wounds and rejuvenate earth. A century and a half later, the Oankali begin “awakening” humans so that they can prepare for their homecoming. Among them is Lilith Iyapo, an anthropology student from New Mexico. She was in vacationing in the Andes, grieving the loss of her husband and young son to a drunk driver, when the war started. (Many of the survivors are from the southern hemisphere – South America and Africa – resulting in great racial and ethnic diversity among the characters. Lilith, who has dark skin and curly, “cloud-like” black hair, is African American.) Lilith becomes a sort of “pioneer,” choosing, awakening, and teaching survival skills to multiple groups of humans before she’s allowed to return to earth herself.
  • Though vaguely humanoid (at least in their current form), the humans still find the Oankali dreadfully – repulsively – alien. (So much so that they must be acclimated to their rescuers slowly over time, usually with multiple awakenings and the use of drugs to dull the sense of revulsion.) Bipedal with two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, the Oankali are hairless; their earth-toned skin (in colors of gray, brown, and mossy green) is covered in hundreds of slug-like appendages called “sensory tentacles.” Through these, the Oankali are able to communicate with one another on a neurochemical level, sharing thoughts, pictures, feelings, memories, and even genetic information almost instantaneously, and with one or more people simultaneously. While they’re also capable of verbal communication – they can speak, and are proficient in countless human languages – the Oankali prefer to “hook in” to one another’s nervous systems. This is also how they control the ship, a living, organic creature created especially for intergalactic travel by the Oankali.

    (More below the fold…)