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Night Soldiers - Alan Furst

Fleeing persecution by fascists in his village, a Bulgarian peasant allows himself to be recruited into the Russian NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. Thus ushered into the shadowy world of espionage and the Byzantine intrigues of frightened, self-interested men with a little bit of power, Khristo Stoianev spends the next several years fleeing from one insane situation to another as he tries to make a life for himself in a Europe teetering on the brink of WWII.

I am very impressed with Alan Furst’s first entry in the Night Soldiers series and I shall certainly be reading more. His mastery of language and character elevates his work above being merely genre fiction. He peppers his narrative with hundreds of vivid, telling details that display his understanding of pre-war Europe, the people who lived there, and the competing ideologies that seemed to drive a continent insane.

Avatar Book Two - S.D. Perry

You have to take the long view when evaluating this book. If you come to this duology expecting a neat, self-contained story, you will be disappointed. However, as the set-up for the DS9 relaunch series, it has me looking forward to reading more. The greatest weakness of this book is that the action of the story is anti-climactic. In Book One we had a spectacular attack on DS9 and the investigation of a spooky abandoned spaceship; in Book Two, the action is mostly restricted to DS9 and the highlight is the pursuit of a rogue Jem’Hadar that really goes on too long. Nevertheless, I was won over because S.D. Perry writes the characters so well. If you are invested in these characters (and if you’re not, why are you even reading this?), then you will find that an awful lot goes on in terms of their interactions. Perry even pulls off the difficult task of introducing compelling new characters to replace figures such as Sisko, Odo, Worf, and O’Brien, who went their separate ways at the end of the series and whom I expect to see return in future books.

B is for Burglar - Sue Grafton

Kinsey Millhone takes on a missing persons case that seems to be connected to a murder.

So far, these alphabet mysteries have been pretty average. Although it is an improvement from the previous book, it still proceeds from plot point to plot point without any particular flair or sense of urgency. Sue Grafton seems to be shooting for a hard-bitten PI vibe, but it reads as though it has been filtered through a cozy-mystery mentality. Many readers find Kinsey to be an engaging character, but I don’t find her particularly interesting. I happen to be reading one of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books at the moment and the contrast is stark. Archer is no more distinctive a character, but his interactions are fascinating where Kinsey’s are rather pedestrian and the writing is vastly superior. I’ll tackle book C at some point; I never really abandon a series, though it may be years before I get around to the next installment. If Grafton continues to improve, we may really have something before we reach the end of the series.

Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis - Warren Ellis, Kaare Andrews

The X-Men travel to Africa to investigate the anomalous births of what seem to be infants with mutant abilities that are active at birth.

It’s been a long time since I was a regular reader of Marvel Comics, so it took a little while to get oriented in the convoluted history of their mutants, but once I had my feet under me I was…pretty underwhelmed. This was my first exposure to the work of Kaare Andrews and hopefully my last. I’ll give him credit for drawing the occasional priceless facial expression, but his art is to human anatomy what a dyslexic is to good spelling. His idea of sexiness in the female form consists of gargantuan gravity-defying breasts on emaciated bodies. The men are unwieldy muscle-bound clods. The story by Warren Ellis is okay. I know him by reputation, but this is the first time I have read him. There is some good dialog, but the straightforward plot is stretched thin and the setting is problematic. If you wish to appropriate African suffering as a backdrop for your story, you become obligated to treat it respectfully and seriously. However, the African characters are relegated to the background with the exception of a ruthless cyborg warlord who rules with an iron hand and emerges as a semi-sympathetic character.