Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Belgariad, Volume Two, by David Eddings

This week we finish the Belgariad saga with volume two, which covers the last two books in the five part series, Castle of Wizardry and Enchanters' End Game. In a way, these almost form a second story from the first three books, so I can actually understand the decision to separate them as such. In the end of Volume One the mystical Orb of Aldur has been recovered by our heroes and while they're still deep within enemy territory, you honestly don't have any doubts they'll make it home safely, do you? I mean, with two whole books left? Yeah, that's what I thought. For me these books kind of were all over the place, going from really interesting when we explored the political complexities of the different fantasy kingdoms and how they actually had to prepare for a full-scale war, to boring with Garion continuing on his epic quest as the Chosen One and heading towards the final confrontation, to downright infuriating with the behavior of Ce'Nedra. The result for me is an all-around middle feeling with this book. Not terribly good but not terribly bad either.

We'll start with Garion and his hero's quest, which is not yet done at all. There is of course the requisite scene where he realizes he can never go home again, and then eventually the revelation that he's secretly been the Chosen One all along and if you hadn't figured that out by now you need to get a better education in tropes. Garion is confronted with the fact that the war against the different countries of Agnaraks will take decades, if not centuries, and an incalculable cost in both blood and treasure. When he learns that there may be a way he can avoid those millions of needless deaths he heads off to his final battle with Torak, the Shadow of this particular monomyth. In a way, I feel like the author himself kind of gets bored with Garion because we eventually leave him behind and all focus shifts to the other characters who have to prosecute a war against the hordes of Agnaraks.

The war bits themselves actually prove fairly interesting, perhaps at the expense of everything else. Ce'Nedra actually becomes interesting when she has to rally and unite the disparate people of the West into a unified fighting force and field an army in the millions capable of holding off the hordes of the East. Plus, one of my favorite chapters showed all the political jockeying going on back home between the people left behind, trying to take advantage of the fact that queens are ruling in the stead of their husbands. It is really interesting and probably could have been an entire story on its own that could have been deeply fleshed out, but like so many things eventually falls to the wayside and gets consumed by the monomyth in the end.

My biggest frustration was definitely Ce'Nedra, the female lead who's destined to fall in love with the hero, but you know those parts. What irritates me the most is that while Ce'Nedra undergoes some character development and actually becomes an inspirational leader for the army, she remains in many ways a spoiled, manipulative princess. Before the war we're explicitly shown how she plans to emotionally manipulate Garion into doing what she wants him to do and once the war's over she goes right back to emotionally manipulating him. And I get the feeling we're supposed to just be....fine with all of this. And, at least in my opinion, that's not how people should behave. Any sort of manipulation is just wrong but here it's depicted as funny because "Women, amirite?" I'm probably putting too much into this and at least the book remains readable, but jeezalpete, man.

Anyway, overall Belgariad is very much middle of the road for me. It's not bad, but it's not terribly good either. There's potential and some really good bits with the political intrigue and the fleshing out of countries beyond the basest description, but much of that is squandered on a Hero's Journey story that even the book itself becomes bored with and a spoiled princess you sometimes just want to chuck out a window.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Belgeriad Volume One, by David Eddings

A couple of years ago I had mentioned to someone that I had been feeling pretty burned out on high fantasy novels, largely because they all tend to heavily follow the example set by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. There's some sort of important artifact, a band of heroes usually including a wizard, a chosen one, a tricky thief, a brave warrior, and usually a princess thrown in for good measure. It's desperately important that they retrieve/destroy said artifact because the fate of the world is at stake, you know the drill. It's been done a thousand times in a thousand ways since Gilgamesh. Of course, this doesn't mean these stories are outright bad; most of the greatest works of mythology, literature, and film have followed this trend. However, personally I can only read so many Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off before I get desperate for something new and interesting.

When this series was recommended to me I was told that it followed the author explicitly followed the formula of the monomyth in a way that many people have liked. I was at least intrigued by this promise, so I decided to pick up both volumes which contain the five books in this series. The plot is, of course, exactly what you'd expect. An artifact that the fate of the very world relies upon has been stolen, prophecies are becoming fulfilled, and the time is nigh when good and evil will have an epic confrontation. There's sorcerers, warriors, thieves, and of course the chosen one. Any reader who's half awake will fill in the numbers pretty quickly, which I think was the intention of the author. And I can see how a lot of people would like the books but for me it just become....boring.

I hate to say it but I feel like there was a lot of lost opportunity with these novels. We're shown a lot of interesting characters and a lot of interesting plots. Numerous countries are suffering from political turmoil (which is, of course, being fueled by the bad guys) and much like Song of Ice and Fire, there were some really good opportunities to show all the political jockeying and shadow games in the halls of power and we get a taste of that. But then we're off on the road again, going after the all-important artifact. I feel like there was an opportunity to take a typical high fantasy quest and include all these behind the scenes elements that add depth to a story. You feel like Eddings has spent time thinking out the political elements of each of the countries we visit and developed rich backstories going back thousands of years, but they amount to little more than set pieces.

As our band of heroes continues on its merry way, you also loose all sense of urgency. We're informed by the mentor character that it's desperately important that the bad guys don't get the artifact because then they can raise their evil god, but the bad guys are always one step ahead of the heroes and all sense of urgency is lost. In the first book they actually get taken off the trail for a good amount of time because of a war council, much to the mentor's frustration, and we only get back on the trail in the second book. Throughout the second book things just seem to advance at a leisurely pace, stopping here and there to pick up more characters or foil a local plot by the bad guys. It's interesting, but I kept being nagged by the thought, "Weren't we trying to get this artifact back? Guys? Shouldn't we pick up the pace a bit?" Anyway, by the end of the second book the bad guys (surprise) have the artifact and the response from the characters seems to be just, "Eh, well we know where it is now. We'll pick it up at first convenience." Personally it just seems like a huge disconnect between the fate of the world and how high a priority it is to the characters.

I think my other big issue is with the protagonist Garion. He starts out like a typical teenager, impulsive, hormonal, prone to error, really relatable character. He's then thrust into a situation that he doesn't understand, a larger world beyond the farm where he grew up, and finds himself along on this adventure for the fate of the world. He of course thinks he's just an ordinary guy who's being dragged along, but we're not fooled for a minute. The problem I have is that as the story progresses, he grows a little bit in his abilities, but also learns that he has to control these abilities otherwise bad things can happen. And the result makes him more....bland almost. He's just sort of there and the book keeps focusing on him and his....blandness. There are half a dozen other characters who all have their own dreams, ambitions, goals, and appear to be a thousand times more interesting than Garion. Even Durnik the smith, the true everyman who's tagging along for the ride, manages to prove more interesting at times than our protagonist. It's just frustrating to have a protagonist that isn't interesting.

I will, of course, read the other two books contained in the second volume of this series,  and hopefully I'll start enjoying it more.

- Kalpar

Monday, May 19, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: Have I Got a Mosaic to Sell You

We landed on the island with no further incident and I secured the boat above the tideline to ensure we were not once again stranded. Soma and Whitmore immediately noticed an intense magical aura to the island, permeating the fabric of existence, and a collection of energy around a large rock towards the center of the beach. A quick examination of the rock unfortunately identified it as the rock on which the pirates performed their disgusting, perverted wedding rituals. Giving the rock a wide berth we examined the rest of the cove, finding nothing of interest. Aside from this somewhat sheltered cove the island's perimeter consisted entirely of sheer cliffs which we would have to scale if we wanted to head towards the island's interior. Largely utilizing what appeared to be the remains of an ancient road, in extremely deteriorated form, I was able to climb up and lower a rope for my comrades to follow. It was at this point that some of us began suffering mysterious symptoms, most likely a result of the strong magical field on the island. Thanks to my training I was able to simply shrug off these effects, but my comrades were not so fortunate.

The map that the pirate captain had given us pointed out a series of ruins on a plateau surrounding a larger, central plateau that seemed to be the center of this ancient settlement. We decided to investigate the outlying ruins and try to glean some more information before heading into the center and trying to find Gerlach. Well, and loot the place, but that's just standard procedure for Whitmore and me at this point. The first ruin turned out to be inhabited by these giant enemy crabs. One of them sadly managed to grab a hold of Whitmore and shake him up pretty good. Fortunately we were able to attack their weak points and dish out some massive damage, and get a pretty good lunch in the bargain. We also managed to find some magic gloves of climbing and swimming which will come in handy with all these cliffs. The next ruin was an old barracks building that's barely worth noting, but the third one gave us a bit of trouble, and unfortunately Soma only added to it.

It turned out there were three will-'o-wisps hiding out by that third ruin and they were some downright speedy guys, zapping all of us pretty good. We were scrambling on the defense for a bit there, but we managed to get back on the offense and drop them. We were down to two critically wounded when one managed to pop back up, turned invisible, and asked us who we were and what the hell we wanted. I started trying to explain that we were looking for a fellow named Gerlach and trying to find out where he was and what he was doing. The wisp said they were angry because we had started looting the place, and it only got more angry when Soma double-tapped his buddy. Overall we were just kind of pissed with the situation: Soma had prevented us from getting more information about what exactly we were getting ourselves into, but more importantly the wisps attacked us with no warning and then got indignant when we had the gall to defend ourselves. And it's not like the wisps could have used the gloves. They don't even have hands! Anyway, the wisp made some vague threat about how it'll be watching us and buggered off. Ultimately his threats proved ineffective and we continued to loot the shit out of the place, potentially more so out of spite now than hope for profit. The third ruin didn't have any mobile wealth but it did have a really old mosaic dating from Azalanti times that Soma said was worth a good amount. Whitmore suggested instead of trying to cart the thing off of the island we sell a deed for it to someone and let them worry about getting it off the island. I rather liked the idea and suggested that we could even draw up multiple deeds and sell them to a bunch of nobles and walk away with even more cash than what the mosaic was worth. Everyone responded pretty well to that idea and Soma went ahead and drew up two deeds to it, although we may make more at some later point.

Finally we headed straight into the center of the old settlement, scaling the last cliff. Although I continued to remain unaffected by the island, everyone else was showing strong signs and in some cases the conditions were getting worse. We headed into the closest ruin that turned out to be a library of some sort, with numerous books made up of copper plates floating through the air, suspended by some sort of magic. Before we could investigate further Meda heard the sound of metal on metal and a number of creatures came scurrying towards us, and for one of the few times in my life I felt genuine fear. For scurrying out of the recesses of that library came four rust monsters, the most dangerous foes a warrior can face. I was left with no option but to quickly hide my greatsword in my quiver and try to dodge their attention. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough and one of the monsters managed to severely damage my breastplate. I was left with no option but to flee out of the building and let Soma and Meda handle them. Fortunately unless you're wearing metal, rust monsters aren't terribly dangerous, and they were pretty quickly taken care of. Whitmore was even able to use some of his alchemy to reverse most of the damage to my armor. We also managed to find some more or less intact books and Soma was able to glean a little bit of information. It seems that this whole island was a research colony with an observatory at its center, and quite a lot of research experiments being performed. Aside from some ominous signs we weren't able to gather much else. On the bright side, we also found an artifact that acts like a crown of blasting, so I can sear somebody with daylight if I really, really want to. Hopefully we'll be able to find Gerlach soon and get to the bottom of this mess before it gets much worse.

- Krinsblag  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Plucker, and Illustrated Novel by Brom

Almost a year ago a friend told me about an artist named Brom who had created a few illustrated novels which had some very scary artwork. She mentioned the novel Plucker and had briefly talked about the story, which I found intriguing and decided to put it on my ever-growing "To Be Read" list. Well, eventually I got around to reading Plucker and I'm certainly gad that I did. I definitely want to read Brom's book about Krampus come Christmas time this year as well.

Let me begin by saying that although Plucker is an illustrated novel with some downright amazing artwork and talks about toys, it definitely is meant for grownups. Aside from some very strong language throughout the book, I think the events would give even the bravest of kids nightmares about what's under the bed. But I think that's a very good thing because as adults we sort of fall into this assumption that illustrated novels are beneath us. They're meant for kids and we should be reading big, thick books with lots of words that talk about important things. (Or if we read the more pulpy sort of books like tawdry romances or two-fisted action stories we're supposed to deny it enthusiastically.) But illustrated novels don't stop being fun, and to see something designed explicitly for adults is really refreshing in its way. Plus, this book deals a lot with primal fear which is a pretty deep topic in and of itself.

The overall plot of Plucker follows the adventures of Thomas's toys, specifically Jack. Although the secret lives of toys is a subject that's been explored dozens of times in works ranging from The Velveteen Rabbit to Toy Story, as pretty much all of us were children that played with toys at some point in our lives (and some of us still do) it remains a very relevant theme and fertile ground for new material. Plucker provides its own very creepy and dark twist with the titular Plucker, an evil spirit that begins attacking the toys in Thomas's room. Although it's a very short story, it packs a huge emotional punch and is well worth reading for those who are still young at heart. (Although I wouldn't recommend it for those still young at age.)

But of course, it's coupled with some downright gorgeous artwork that really captures the spirit of the story. The toys look like toys with their cotton and sawdust stuffing. The monsters look grotesque and terrifying, and the Plucker is a real piece of work too. Plus toys make a really great medium because I think we've all been a little creeped out by a decapitated porcelain doll's head. And if you don't mind my saying, it all comes to a very good end as well.  Highly recommend.

- Kalpar

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: I Feel Like We've Done This Before

We arrived at the town of Blackcove in short order, only to discover that the town had recently been hit by a tidal wave and was mostly destroyed, reminding me of at least one other town we'd visited. Once the ship was moored, Captain Nortrom jumped onto the wharf and ran towards the village, intent on finding out what exactly happened to his village. Nortrom urged us to follow him, however a tingling sensation on the back of my neck made me instantly suspicious of the wharf, so I pushed Soma off the boat onto the dock. My suspicion was confirmed when Soma immediately crashed straight through the dock and landed in the water below, only to levitate out. Whitmore managed to get to land without incident, but I was still uneasy, my fears justified when Meda crashed through the dock as well. After fishing her out, I was left with no option but to try and make it to land, discovering that this dock had apparently been made of balsa wood because I too crashed through it. This situation was made worse by the addition of a sea cat which decided to bite me. Undeterred I bit him back and a few punches from me and Meda convinced the sea cat that an easier lunch would be found elsewhere.

Nortrom was rather upset by the delay and rushed into the town, telling us to look around and see what we could find. Our initial assessment was that Nortrom and his crew weren't very good pirates because there didn't seem to be any loot whatsoever. I mean, stealing from these people probably wouldn't be the wisest course of action, but I am determined to make a profit off of this. Aside from more evidence that the sea itself seemed to have declared war on these people, there was very little of interest. At least, until we got to an alchemy lab. As Whitmore poked around, finding various odds and ends in the surviving equipment, some of us noticed a gasping sound of labored breathing coming from a nearby vat, which suddenly stopped. Soma was adamant about finding what had been inside and it was left to me to shift the lid and poke it with a stick. The....object...turned out to be a weird fish-man hybrid sort of thing and a careful and thorough prodding with a stick proved it was, in fact dead. At least, it didn't jump up and try to eat me, which is dead enough for me.

Captain Nortrom soon returned and announced that people had been mysteriously disappearing from the island and things (surprise!) did not look good. Furthermore, he was unable to find his friend Gerlach, the town alchemist, who seems to have declared he was close to a breakthrough in saving the village and had retreated to the nearby island of Nalkashol, apparently a sacred spot to the people of this village and the location of their marriage rituals. (As well as the location of several ruins from the village's Azalanti ancestors) Nortrom's fears were exacerbated when we revealed what was in the vat, needlessly running it through several times with his cutlass. Nortrom then rushed off towards the lighthouse on the other side of the cove, where the survivors of the village had holed up for the time being.

By the time the rest of us had arrived at the lighthouse, it had descended into sheer anarchy with Nortrom and the rest of the village arguing, accusing, shouting in downright fear, it was pure bedlam. I utilized my great skills in convincing people it's in their best interest to shut up, enabling the captain to pump the survivors for any more information. They were able to fill in a few more details but seemed largely terrified at this recent turn of events. Our ensuing argument was soon interrupted by a very unusual tide coming into the bay. I quickly bolted the door to the lighthouse and, determining it wasn't waterproof, directed everyone to head upstairs and quickly began ascending the stairs myself. The villagers, for whatever reason, decided to continue to argue until water had begun leaking into the lighthouse, by which point I had already made good progress up the stairs to higher ground. However, the panicked mob soon caught up with me, which was further exacerbated by the appearance of four powerful tentacles through the windows of the lighthouse, which grabbed several villagers and drug them out the window. The party, the captain, and I quickly acted to stave off the tentacles, although it did little to calm the ensuing panic.

I will say this, seeing the captain disappear through a window in a tentacles suckery embrace and reappear through another window is quite hilarious, even if painful. Quite glad that someone else was taking a beating for once we set to work eliminating the tentacles. When I was able to actually hit the writhing forms severing the tentacles was a rather simple task, but hitting the damn things was the tricky part. We eventually managed to sever eight of the things before the tentacles, and the mysterious tide, soon departed. We ferried a very badly bruised captain and the remaining villagers back to the main island, having apparently no more need for the semi-fortified nature of the lighthouse.

The captain, after paying as a well-deserved if scanty fee, informed us that whatever the hell was going on was clearly on the island of Nalkashol, and Gerlach was almost definitely involved. However, it seems that none of his people could approach the island without running the risk of turning into freaky fish guys like the one we saw in the vat. As such he requested our services and promised to reward us handsomely. Meda was happy to be of assistance while Soma, Whitmore, and I were already arguing over what we should demand from them as a fee. I was ready to demand as much as 30% of their gross yearly earnings in perpetuity while Soma and Whitmore wanted to take just a flat fee. Determining that we should hash out the details of our financial transactions later, we agreed to assist the captain and were ferried to the island in the morning.

To really our utter unsurprise, our ferryman turned into one of the freaky fish guys when we approached the island and soon jumped out of the boat and into the water. Unfortunately, this sudden transformation resulted in both Meda and Soma falling out of the boat and being stung by a nest of jellyfish. Fortunately the stings were painful, but not terribly serious. On arriving on the island Soma determined it was steeped in quite a bit of magic and Whitmore and I looked forward to picking up whatever loot we could unearth from the ruins. I can only hope that we can resolve whatever the hell is going on here for once and get paid.

- Krinsblag

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Dynasties of China: A History, by Bamber Gascoigne.

People who know me fairly well are no doubt familiar that my specialization with history is mostly Europe and the United States. I am, of course, passingly familiar with some more general facts of world history, but much of my studies have been focused on, to put it plainly, dead white men. In an ongoing attempt to try and learn more about the history of the majority of the world I picked up this book a while ago and finally got around to reading it. Going into this book I was aware that it was going to be a very basic primer talking about Chinese history in very broad strokes, but I thought that'd be particularly useful in giving me a much better understanding of the world's largest countries in terms of geography, economy, and population. Overall the book did an adequate job, and I hope to be able to explore more about China's four thousand year old culture.

The thing that I found rather frustrating, and I had to keep telling myself in my mind, is that this is a very basic book covering four thousand years of history in about two hundred pages. I alone have read books that talked about events that happened in a few weeks in twice as many pages, so I had to keep in mind that this book wasn't going to go into as much detail as I'd like just because of its broad focus. I would have also liked perhaps a list of recommended reading on topics discussed within the book to further my understanding of Chinese history, but unfortunately that simply was not the case in this text. However, as a very basic primer I feel like it managed to cover a lot of ground very quickly and give the reader a very good grounding in Chinese history. With a timeline and map it also looks like a handy quick reference for students going further in depth in Chinese history.

This text manages to touch on many issues, such as trade, religion, philosophy, poetry, and China's notorious civil service examinations. At points, however, I feel like this book decided to opt out of talking about the big picture to focus on individuals, which I feel is rather at odds with the intended focus of the book. I personally tend to be a big picture historian and don't really like focusing on one individual because I feel like it places too much emphasis on the person rather than the larger social, economic, and political framework which they inhabit. People certainly can be important, but I am staunchly of the opinion that it's the circumstances that allow them to be influential rather than some innate quality within the person themselves. I felt like Gascoigne focused on influential individuals to the detriment of the larger picture, which really should have been the main focus for a basic primer like this.

The one thing I did notice, and I found rather frustrating, was there were a couple of points where there was a focus on the exotic aspects of China, as if it was still a strange land to be explored by white people. The focus on human sacrifices during the Zhou period, the extremes of Legalism during the brief Qin dynasty, the more interesting of Taoist sexual practices, and the horrors of footbinding all were mentioned in considerable detail. And while these are all part of history and certainly shouldn't be forgotten, I feel like they were presented in a "Look at how different those foreigners are from us!" manner. The presentation certainly could have been done with far more dignity than it seemed to be done here.

Overall it was a very good primer for learning the very basics of Chinese history and I'd recommend it for people looking to get a start. Personally I think I will at least attempt to read more about Imperial China in the future.

- Kalpar

Monday, May 5, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: A Rollicking Band of Pirates We

After a night of carousing with the pirates we set sail in the morning, hopefully leaving this undead-infested island behind us for forever. As the days passed we settled into a peaceful sort of tedium. With very little to do, Meda and I engaged in a series of drinking contests with the crew, occasionally even winning and earning the crew's respect. Soma did various odd jobs around the ship, including assisting with some navigational measurements which informed us we were heading largely to the north and west, while Whitmore sold potions and tonics to the crew. Personally I welcomed the continue respite from constantly keeping our guards up and making sure little cannibal children didn't creep up in the night to eat our face off. Eventually we got along so well with the crew that they were willing to let us go through their spare equipment and loot and exchange much of the useless junk we had picked up on the island for useful odds and ends. 

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, although us landing in a safe port and able to wander off wherever we damn well please was not to be. About four or five days into our cruise with the pirates the ship was attacked during the night. I initially slept through the attack, sleeping the peaceful sleep of the highly inebriated, when Meda and Whitmore woke me up, informing me that there had been several sounds like the boat had run over something. Assuming that it wasn't good we rushed up on deck, discovering that a good portion of the crew had been swept overboard and the remaining crew were all armed. The captain quickly directed the first mate to take us below and give us back our weapons, and by the time we returned to the deck we found the captain battling a great sea serpent near the prow. We all rushed forward to assist the captain and quickly dispatched the creature. We decided to collect some of the creature's blood, skin, and other materials for potential future uses. Hopefully I may be able to get a new grip for my weapon out of this, and Whitmore's very excited at the alchemical potential with some of the odder substances. 

We later met with the captain in his cabin who explained that he is the leader of an entire pirate village and they all are descended from the Azlanti, the legendary humans that once ruled the world thousands of years ago before the Earthfall, albeit their bloodline has been greatly diluted. According to the captain, they've had a long relationship with the sea and have always relied upon it for their livelihood. However now an...entity, known as Maelwran the Tentacular has declared war on them and is determined to wipe out their bloodline. So, of course, now the captain wants to change their bloodline to avoid this curse but has no idea how to do it. Which, you know, is apparently more logical than my solution of move inland and never go near the sea again. Because I'm pretty ready to do that. And, of course, the captain's heading straight back to their village of Blackcove instead of dropping us off somewhere on the mainland. I get the feeling we've traded one inescapable island for another. 

- Krinsblag 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind, Issues #3 & #4, by Dark Horse Comics

This week I'm taking a look at the two latest issues of the miniseries Serenity: Leaves on the Wind. As I mentioned in my previous review, I had some serous concerns regarding this particular series and the direction that it seemed to be going. Particularly with the tendency to rehash and reuse already existing ideas rather than expanding and improving upon the 'Verse. As this project comes closer to an end, being ostensibly only a six-issue miniseries, the initial intentions of this project seem rather audacious in hindsight. Put together, these six issues might have enough material for one, possibly two forty-five minute episodes of the original TV show. All of the questions and potential plot threads that this miniseries raises could be covered with a whole season of a TV show, rather than just a few episodes. The result is the feeling that we will be left with an unsatisfying finish to a story that had already been tied up.

WARNING: Dear and gentle readers, I have once again found it sadly necessary to delve into the spoiler material of this particular work and shall be doing so in the rest of the review. If you are desirous of avoiding spoilers, now is the time to avert your eyes. 

The third issue consists of almost a repeat of the episode "Objects in Space", as Jubal Early takes out the members of the crew one by one, but with the added twist that Jubal (somehow) forgets about Kaylee and she whacks him over the head with a giant wrench. Mal and crew debate what exactly to do next, with River saying they should go break into the Academy and rescue more of the students to they can rescue Zoe from the prison she's been sent to. Of course, they can't do this without help so Mal finds the Operative from  Serenity and they team up.

The fourth issue begins with the Operative coming on board and Serenity's crew dumping a bound Jubal Early as they take off, presumably to his death. (Although I get the feeling that he'll be back again as well.) A little bit of development is given to the prison planet where Zoe's been sent. Much like a Siberian gulag the environment makes escape impossible so there's not much hope. Otherwise we see the gang break into the Academy only to discover: 1. it's a trap, and 2. all the other students at the Academy have been successfully brainwashed which means the crew is now in incredible danger.

I think my biggest frustration is the return of both Jubal Early and the Operative. When the Operative was revealed at the end of issue #3, I was half-expecting Saffron to pop out of a trash can at some point in the next issue as well. In a, let's cram everyone possible into the series sort of thing. Fortunately, that did not happen, but I'm sort of left wondering why we even bothered with Jubal Early. He doesn't seem to do anything to the plot other than (very temporarily) inconvenience the characters. He shows up out of space, tracks them down, gets beaten by Kaylee, and then dumped out the airlock. It's like all the time we spent with him could have been better spent further developing the plot. I get the feeling he was included because the creators think he's this really cool character and want to see more of him, but I was never really a fan. He's just sort of this dangerous, violent sociopath that is less interesting (to me) than Jayne.

My outlook for the next to comics and the theoretical finish to this series is not terribly optimistic. I feel like the creators have spent four issues building bigger and greater challenges for the heroes to overcome and now we're faced with two issues to resolve everything by the end. Maybe they'll be able to pull it off in two issues but my biggest fear is that it'll be so haphazard and rushed that it will fail to give a real sense of closure to this project. I'd also complain about the lack of focus on the larger macro-scale of the sociopolitical structure, but Firefly never was really about that so it's an invalid complaint. Hopefully things will get better, but I'm not exactly sanguine.

- Kalpar