Monday, 25 April 2011

The Five Fists of Science

Matt Fraction (words)
Steven Sanders (art)

True story: in 1899, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla decided to end war forever. With Twain's connections and Tesla's inventions, they went into business selling world peace. So, what happened? Only now can the tale be told - in which Twain and Tesla collided with Edison and Morgan, an evil science cabal merging the Black Arts and the Industrial Age. Turn of the century New York City sets the stage for a titanic battle over the very fate of mankind.

The 'five fists' of the title are Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla and his (one handed) assistant Tim who, along with Baroness Bertha von Suttner (whose fists apparently don't count), create and attempt to sell a giant automaton that will, they think, end war and ensure peace.

It's their attempts to sell this ludicrous 60ft tall robot that make up the majority of this book. Their inability to persuade anyone of it's viability leads them to stage a series of hoax battles against 'conjured' demons that are actually electro-static representations of Tim in a variety of silly costumes.

Their antics soon catch the eyes of the fiendish cabal of J.T. Morgan, Guglielmo Marconi, Thomas Edison & Andrew Carnegie who are in the process of constructing a giant tower 'tuned' to attract real demons.

Fraction is a solid writer and is always readable. He does have a slight tendency to come across as a mini Warren Ellis - mostly in terms of dialogue - but he does it well and with ample originality so we certainly won't hold that against him. His story moves along at breakneck speed and is full of wit and some fabulous touches (Marconi being a stress eater for instance). At times the constant cuts and perspective shifts did get to be slightly annoying but it certainly stopped ones attention from wandering.

Sanders is a new name to me. I've not even heard of him previous to reading this. His art is rich and sumptuous. He has a fine eye for period detail and costume. The characters are expressive and the layout is easy and natural to navigate. The automaton is an absolute delight. It's gangliness portrayed wonderfully - the panel showing it on the back of a train being a favourite. The demons seem to be where his heart really lies as he lovingly renders whole hordes of these.

I think I would have preferred this as a novel (and that's no criticism of the art) as the depth of the characters and the added length would have allowed the story more time to breathe and for the story to develop at a more rounded pace. As I'm writing this I'm thinking about how much it reminds me of 'Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack' by Mark Hodder which had the similar premise of recasting otherwise famous historical personages into steampunk science heroes. The size of that book however allowed the author time and space to develop his themes and side-stories. Here large parts are alluded to but not pursued like Tesla's crime-fighting, Shadow style, at the opening of the book. Why is he doing this? Purely to test the guns? Surely there are less dangerous ways than that.

These are quibbles though, it's not a novel, it's a graphic novel and is confined by it's length. That length is perfect for what you get and this was thoroughly enjoyable. Shame there aren't more to come.


Gail Carriger

Alexia Tarabotti, the Lady Woolsey, awakens in the wee hours of the mid-afternoon to find her husband, who should be decently asleep like any normal werewolf, yelling at the top of his lungs. Then he disappears - leaving her to deal with a regiment of supernatural soldiers encamped on her doorstep, a plethora of exorcised ghosts, and an angry Queen Victoria. But Alexia is armed with her trusty parasol, the latest fashions, and an arsenal of biting civility. Even when her investigations take her to Scotland, the backwater of ugly waistcoats, she is prepared: upending werewolf pack dynamics as only the soulless can. She might even find time to track down her wayward husband, if she feels like it.

An Abundance of work commitments meant reading this second Alexia Tarabotti novel became quite a dragged out affair.

Not quite such an all round joyful read as the first volume this one tells the story of a curse of 'living' that first blights the afterlives of London's supernatural set before moving north to Scotland to afflict the remains of Lord Maccon's old pack. Alexia's investigation into this phenomena throws her into an adventure filled with spies, lies, assassins and intrigue.

The story this time is a little light. The set up is all in place for a rollercoaster romp but it never really delivers on this. The airship sequence could have been so much more than it ended up being and the climactic showdown was lacking in both derring-do and pathos. Too much time and effort was expended on Felicity and Ivy's bickering and nowhere near enough time was spent fleshing out the far more interesting Madame Lefoux. This leaves a large chunk of the book (the middle sequence) rather slight and unsatisfying.

All this negativity aside though I did enjoy Changeless. Carriger has a light touch and witty turn of phrase and the book was a fun way to spend a couple of sunny afternoons and the ending, whilst I have reservations (surely they (the core couple) must have contemplated the possibility of this knowing Alexia's powers - there are several references to everyone else having done so), certainly leaves everything wide open for the third book in the series.