Intellectus Speculativus

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera trans. Lisa Dillman

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In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core. Part surreal fable and part crime romance, this prize-winning novel from Yuri Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage and power.
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Kingdom Cons is Yuri Herrera’s third novella with And Other Stories, and his third in the peculiarly Mexican genre known as narcoliterature; whereas Transmigration of Bodies is a postapocalyptic plague-ridden story, and Signs Preceding the End of the World a more traditional people-smuggling story, Kingdom Cons is a story itself about narcoliterature, and taking the form of a more mythic story, with Arthurian resonances.

Kingdom Cons doesn’t have characters, it has roles; it has members of the Court of the King(pin). The only character whose name we ever learn, the Artist, Lobo, is our viewpoint character, and we only see his name before he’s drawn into the orbit of the King; after that, he becomes the Artist, to join the Jeweller, the King, the Traitor, the Gringo, the Journalist, and so on. Each person has a kind of nebulous property; they are defined by their role, but also exist beyond it to some extent, such that the Artist especially has both a life revolving around the King, and a life in defiance of that life. Indeed, Herrera recalls Arthurian legend with the role of the Artist especially, as he echoes Lancelot, right through to the end of the novella’s story.

If the characters aren’t exactly fleshed out, and defined largely by their roles, those roles are incredibly vivid. Kingdom Cons doesn’t go into a detailed discussion of the King’s cross-border drugs empire, but it does give a vague picture of the kind of grime of that criminal enterprise, of the compromises made with other criminals, of the complicity of the authorities on both sides of the border, of the way that it impacts the lives of those in the orbit of the King and manipulates their lives into strange, near-mythic things utterly unlike those on the outside. Herrera doesn’t glamourise this life, but doesn’t pretend it doesn’t have upsides either; it’s an interesting balance to strike, and one done with great skill.

A theme throughout the novel, largely drawn from Herrera’s focus on the Artist as protagonist, is about the way stories about the drugs trade mythologise it. Kingdom Cons is a story about narcoliterature as well as being a piece of narcoliterature; the importance of face, the importance of image, are central to the story, and Herrera is very aware of what stories can do, in terms of giving or stealing away power from someone. The way Kingdom Cons engages with those questions, and the concommitant responsibilities or lack thereof, of artists is a fascinating discussion that is held by playing out different options for the Artist, and by following through the various possible consequences of different kinds of choice.

If Kingdom Cons has a drawback, it’s the treatment of women. In part influenced by the macho culture of Mexico, women are valued only for their sex appeal; every woman we meet, with the exception of the Witch, is a sexual partner or a potential sexual partner, and they are judged by their worth as such. Herrera doesn’t really give any of them any characterisation; he comes closest with the Commoner, but even she barely has a character or motivation, and her actions with regards to the Artist seem peculiarly undirected and motiveless.

It’s impossible to discuss Kingdom Cons without discussing the language. Between Herrera and Dillman, this is a really interesting novel; the whole thing is told in one breath, essentially, with a couple of seeming asides which move outside the immediate orbit of the Artist into a wider view or a more purely philosophical approach, and these are beautifully rendered in prose that Dillman translates with a crystal clarity. Similarly, Dillman translates the poetry and lyrics of Herrera’s novella into English with a deft hand, and presumably retains their original feel; even when Herrera is using onomatopoeia or phonetic renderings of words, Dillman conveys both their meaning and that they are translated rather than the direct words, an incredible balancing act.

Kingdom Cons may be a slim volume, but it’s a fascinating, thoughtful one. Be prepared to fall into Herrera’s myth and not fall out.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, And Other Stories.

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A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, trans. Jessica Cohen

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The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.
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I picked this book up the day after it won the Man Booker International Prize for David Grossman (and of course, Jessica Cohen, the translator); A Horse Walks Into A Bar suggested something dark and comic, and fantastically well written, given the acclaim of the prize.

That’s not what this is. A Horse Walks Into A Bar has a seemingly simple plot: we’re being narrated to by a member of the audience about a stand-up gig. He’s not comfortable at this gig, it isn’t his crowd, and he’s dogged by the tragedy of losing his wife a few years back and his job a little more recently than that. That undercurrent of grief is rendered stronger and more poignant by the subject of the stand-up’s set, and the fact that said stand-up is a friend of the narrator. The big problem with all this, though, is that this isn’t the novel we’re told to expect by Grossman’s opening.

A stand-up set has to be funny above all else; however it achieves that, it has to be funny and engaging. In retelling a stand-up set, A Horse Walks Into A Bar needed to grab the audience’s attention from the start, like the comic bounding onto the stage at the end of the introduction and telling a great joke. Instead, in something that will become a motif of the book, it’s a slightly shambolic opening, completely missing the chance at humour. Grossman’s book isn’t really about a comedy set: it’s about a man standing on stage and, interspersed with jokes, telling his tragedy. The opening very much embraces the unfunny failing, the shambolic element of this, but it doesn’t situate it as anything; it reads as Grossman attempting to write a good set and failing, rather than successfully writing a bad one.

Once the reader gets passed the opening and into the real meat of the novel, though, A Horse Walks Into A Bar improves – as, indeed, does its humour. Grossman slowly peels back the layers of artifice of both his narrator, a childhood friend of the comic, and of Dovaleh G., the comic himself; each reveals themself to the audience, whether of the set or of the book, and shows their vulnerability. The tragic presence of our narrator, and the tragic past of Dovaleh, are slowly exposed, and the links between them made clear; it’s a fascinating and deep, thoughtful, and empathetic piece of writing that really does cut to the heart of grief and loss and self-blame.

It’s also as the novel goes on that the humour of it improves; not so much of Dovaleh’s set, but of A Horse Walks Into A Bar itself. The way the narrator interjects into Dovaleh’s set, his commentary on the audience and the audience’s reaction to the comic, and even some of the jokes Dovaleh tells (without telling them necessarily as jokes) all lighten the mood expertly: this is a deeply dark novel, and a bleak one, but with a strain of black humour to leaven it.

I’m not sure I agree with the judges of the Man Booker International that A Horse Walks Into A Bar was the best book on their shortlist, but will admit that Grossman’s novel does reward a persistent reader: if you get past the faltering, clumsy start, there’s something deeply human to behold.

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Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

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Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari. Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.

Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.
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Alternate history tends to focus in on a couple of lynchpins; the American Revolution, the Second World War, the collapse of the Roman Empire. It’s rarer to see an alternate history that doesn’t make its point(s) of divergence explicit, or that so strangely combines the alternative and the historical in its worldbuilding, as Buffalo Soldier.

Broaddus’ worldbuilding is key to the novella, after all. Set in a steampunk present where the British Empire, under the name Albion, never lost the North American colonies, but where Jamaica became a major world power and where Native American tribes successfully resisted British occupation beyond the original thirteen colonies, Buffalo Soldier has a lot of history and politics to convey. It’s unfortunate that most of this is done in the form of three separate infodumps; they’re very much “Here is the history of this world”, not so much from the point of view of a particular people on a set of events as simply the events themselves, since the infodumps don’t overlap.

This approach also infects the narrative of the novel in other ways; Buffalo Soldier repeatedly has clunky moments where things which are implied are then spelled out a line later, as if Broaddus doesn’t trust the reader to make the leap, or where things are restated repeatedly just to ensure they’re noticed. This isn’t helped by a narrative chronology that isn’t ever very clear: while the plot is strictly linear, how long certain things take is never made explicit, and the whole stretch of time over which the backstory to the plot and the plot itself, let alone the points at which it jumps in time, is terribly murky.

That plot is a relatively simple one, though Broaddus does make its political implications clear. Buffalo Soldier is a novella about colonialism, about power, about international relations, and about a peculiarly Anglophone approach to control; but it tells this story through a mix of industrial espionage, mutual suspicion, and Desmond’s quest to save Lij. The writing is at its best in action scenes; they have a blunt immediacy, and a really gripping sense of speed and violence, that grabs the mind, along with a quality that makes the reader feel it might have been written for the screen.

Where Buffalo Soldier really saves itself is with its characters. Broaddus gives us a very compact cast; Desmond, Lij, Cayt, and later Inteus and Kajika. Each of them is very distinct, and comes from a different cultural background, whether free Jamaica, Albion, or the Seminole. Desmond is our main character, and his whole narrative arc is really well conveyed, with his mix of internal moral turmoil, mixed feelings about what he’s doing, and sense of his lost home; Broaddus conveys both his angst and his need to push through it to protect Lij excellently. Lij’s own characterisation as someone with what we’d now probably describe as autism is a really sensitive, intelligent piece of writing that never lays the point on too thick but also doesn’t back down from that part of his character.

Buffalo Soldiers has a lot of interesting ideas, but Broaddus really needed a bigger canvas to lay them all out, rather than condensing them into a novella, and a smoother hand at setting up his world. Fantastic characters and great action scenes aren’t enough to hang a novella on when what comes between those scenes is so uneven.

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The Switch by Justina Robson

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In Harmony, only model citizens are welcome.

A perfect society must be maintained. The defective must be eradicated. For orphans like Nico and Twostar, this means a life that’s brutal, regulated and short.

But Nico and Twostar are survivors, and when they’re offered a way out of the slums, they take it.

Unfortunately, no one told Nico the deal included being sentenced to death for the murder of one of Harmony’s most notorious gang leaders.

Or that to gain his freedom, first he must lose his mind.
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Justina Robson is well known for two different strands of writing: a paranormal science fiction romantic action series, the Quantum Gravity books, and also hard far-future science fiction like Natural History and her BSFA shortlisted Glorious Angels. The Switch is her latest novel, and comes with a cover which suggests continuity with the former, but content much more in line with the latter…

The Switch is a slightly odd book, formally. It starts in media res, before jumping back for a number of chapters to give the backstory to how we got to the point we started at, and then continuing from that starting point. Robson’s first-person narration notes things in the retrospective section that would, had the character marked them at the time, been foreshadowing, emphasising how much it’s a looking back on his life, but when we catch back up to the narrative, those things still sometimes appear: The Switch is told in a very immediate style but in the past tense, which gives it a slightly odd feel. That’s not helped by Robson’s first person narration slipping into omniscient third at times, knowing not just how other characters appear to feel but how they actually do, a strange slip of the narrative wrist.

The plot itself is, on the surface, very simple: orphans cast out for their flaws (homosexuality) by a twisted and repressive religious society seek escape from the society, through criminal cartels and then off-world. The Switch takes that very basic idea and makes of it a twisty, turny plot with all kinds of things going on inside of it, all kinds of slips sidewise, adding in extra complications, additional motivations, and deceit; Robson ends up with a kind of heist plot that is part revolution and part selfishness. The big problem is how messy it all gets; The Switch relies on layers and layers of deceit to pull off an overcomplicated scheme, and Robson never really makes clear why characters trust each other despite betrayals, or why the complexity of the scheme is the easiest approach they could take, instead of anything more straightforward.

Despite all that, there are compelling characters in here. Nico, the protagonist and viewpoint character of The Switch, is a gay man in a society with an extremely homophobic underpinning; he’s simultaneously rejecting of, and yet unable to entirely escape, that socio-religious programming, and Robson really conveys that internal tension well. Similarly, his armour against the abuse society heaps on him is shown as both a survival measure and something that does do harm; Robson is really good at writing his emotional intimacy with his chosen partner, later in the book. Twostar is less well-written, seen only through Nico’s eyes, but she’s still a compelling character in her own right, with some fascinating contradictions about what she wants and needs. The problem of character arises in much of the rest of the cast; every antagonist is incredibly simplistically portrayed and two-dimensional, whereas the meddling agent Tishan who creates much of the complexity of the plot seems to switch almost at random between genius mastermind and someone who can’t even see the obvious implications of their decisions.

In the end, The Switch is a fun book, with some great characters, but it could really have used some pruning of the complexity of the plot, or at least explanation of it; this is not Robson’s best work.

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Tremontaine Season One created by Ellen Kushner

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Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint!

A duchess’s beauty matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution­. Suddenly long-buried lies threaten to come to light and betrayal and treachery run rampant in this story of sparkling wit and political intrigue.

Written serially by six critically acclaimed authors, Tremontaine is a tale of intrigue, manners, treachery, and cleverness that will delight readers.
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Last month, I reviewed Bookburners, the first Serial Box series to see a physical publication from Saga Press; now, I turn to their second, a very different prospect in a number of ways. Tremontaine, rather than being a world created for the purpose of a series, is a return to a world Ellen Kushner devised in the 1980s: the world of Riverside, of the novels Swordspoint, Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings, of some seminal queer fantasy and foundations of mannerpunk. It’s got quite the legacy to live up to, therefore.

The plot of Tremontaine is set twenty years before Swordspoint, the first of the Riverside novels; as a prequel series, it occupies an interesting place in revealing the pasts of several characters we know from those books – although none of their protagonists, who are at most newborns at the time of this series. Unlike Bookburners, this isn’t episodic storytelling; the plot is broken up into discrete episodes, but they’re more like the episodes of The Night Manager than Supergirl, each one telling part of the whole and not really working in isolation. The writers of the episodes have varied ways of dealing with that; some are excellent at slipping in the relevant details to their episode, along the way, for those reading monthly, while others seem to treat the story as if Tremontaine will be read in one go, not including that information.

There are really three plots to Tremontaine, all intertwined. Duchess Diane Tremontaine is trying to recoup the fortune she lost on a failed mercantile venture (the ship went down); Ixkaab is in disgrace with her Kinwiinik Trader family after a catastrophic failure; Rafe is trying to found his own revolutionary school of thinking – and pass his university exams; and Micah… is mostly buffetted around in Rafe’s wake. For having such a complex set of plotlines, they all come together relatively quickly, as the principals meet or interact, mingle, and their interests coincide or run counter to each other. The shape of the plot as a whole is well-controlled, and Kushner’s editorial oversight of the project in keeping things moving is judiciously used, such that seeds are planted earlier for later revelations that one does not see coming but hindsight reveals were always there.

That’s not to say that the writing is necessarily even. While most of the episodes are excellent, and Kushner’s own ‘Arrival’ makes a perfect pilot for Tremontaine, there are a couple which don’t work quite so well. Joel Derfner’s ‘Shadowroot’ takes a long, convoluted journey to get to its destination, and telegraphs from the very start what takes a long time to come, without much really to justify that time. Some of the most complex chapters are the best though; in ‘The Dagger and the Sword’, Alaya Dawn Johnson uses a nonchronological approach to intersperse two timelines in a really brilliant way that reminds the reader of TV heists like Hustle, and that really spark along and advance both plot and character.

Unsurprisingly, Tremontaine has a lot of those hanging around; across thirteen episodes involving storylines revolving around three (or four?) principals, a certain number of background characters are going to be necessary. The principals themselves are well realised; from Kushner’s introductions of each in ‘Arrivals’, they’re clearly distinctive and distinct characters, each of whom has a different agenda and set of priorities, and the way those play out across the series is beautiful. From Diane’s increasingly desperate grip on control of the Tremontaine fortune, to Kaab’s torn loyalties between her romantic entanglement with the beautiful forger Tess; from Rafe’s burning need to create a new institution of learning to Micah’s pursuit of mathematical certainty, they’re each vivid and fascinating. Micah is also that rare thing in fiction, a well-portrayed autistic character, who is also a viewpoint character; the authors between them really did a lot of work to try to accurately portray life as someone neuroatypical amongst a neurotypical crowd who don’t know what makes you different.

The background characters are all just as vivid; Tremontaine is like a TV series that not only cast great actors in its main roles, but also used every character actor it could find in the background. They have distinctive voices, mannerisms, and approaches to the different characters; they have individual motivations which we either see from their point of view or through observation. If there’s an exception, it’s in House Tremontaine’s second swordsman, Reynald; while a little of his character is revealed, throughout all his appearances it remains essentially flat, and none of the authors really give us enough to get to grips with to care much about him.

Tremontaine is a real triumph of Serial Box’s and of Ellen Kushner’s; this expansion of the Riverside universe really shows us sides of it we hadn’t seen before and expands it beautifully. I’m looking forward to the second season omnibus.

Disclaimer: Ellen Kushner is a friend.

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Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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The kingdom of the Six Duchies is on the brink of civil war when news breaks that the crown prince has fathered a bastard son and is shamed into abdication. The child’s name is Fitz, and he is despised.

Raised in the castle stables, only the company of the king’s fool, the ragged children of the lower city and his unusual affinity with animals provide Fitz with any comfort.

To be useful to the crown, Fitz is trained as an assassin; and to use the traditional magic of the Farseer family. But his tutor, allied to another political faction, is determined to discredit, even kill him. Fitz must survive: for he may be destined to save the kingdom.
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Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book to appear under the Robin Hobb pseudonym of Megan Lindholm, was published over two decades ago; since then it has remained constantly in print, and a number of sequels – the rest of the Farseer trilogy, but also four other series set in the same world – have appeared, the latest, Assassin’s Fate, bringing to a close the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the main character of Assassin’s Apprentice, nine books across three trilogies later, only this year. So it seemed like a fine time to pick up where it all began…

In many ways, Assassin’s Apprentice hews close to trends in epic fantasy from the Eighties; the lowly child who turns out to not only be part of the royal family, but also have special magical gifts – if you’re getting flashes of David Eddings, that’s not unreasonable. However, Hobb uses that basic model to go to very different places; for a start, Fitz is raised as a royally acknowledged bastard – that is, in the palace, with an education to make him useful to the royal family – rather than anonymously; he’s also not someone we see as destined from the word go, let alone to destroy a singular great Evil, since Hobb resists presenting us such a thing.

In doing so, Assassin’s Apprentice is also a very obvious influence on and forerunner of the fantasy of the twenty-first century: grey morality, plots and schemes, an interest in the actual reality of the complexity of politics over simplistic approaches, a more complex engagement with historical influences, and of course, assassins. The trend of the hooded assassin hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s one Hobb is a significant figure in; her book presents us the assassin as conflicted hero, serving his king loyally but not without moral qualms at times, and with a satisfyingly subtle approach to assassination (few knives in the dark here).

Beyond the ways in which Hobb created something of a critical turning point in fantasy, though, there’s the quality of the book itself to consider. Assassin’s Apprentice has some of the subtlest characterisation I’ve seen in a novel, especially in some of the secondary characters. While Fitz is very open, others – especially his surrogate parental figure Burrich – are much more interestingly layered with complexity; not in the sense of mystery, but in the sense that there’s always more than just the surface characterisation. Every single character has their own web of relationships and motives that Hobb has thought through, and those are complicated, interesting, human relationships. The closest we come to an exception is Galen, something of a Snape figure without the eleventh hour pseudo-redemption; but Hobb, unlike many other authors using a similar figure, openly has characters acknowledge that Galen’s teaching is abuse, and Assassin’s Apprentice condemns both it and, separately, points out that it is ineffective for teaching anything but pure obedience.

This is also a book with quite a nontraditional plot. Assassin’s Apprentice reads much more like a true biography than most seemingly-biographical fantasy novels: not everything impacts on Fitz’s eventual victory, although there are some great Chekhov’s guns loaded early that the reader may not realise exist. Instead, it’s a story about growing up, and the more formal model of plot only really occupies the last hundred or so pages of the book; while everything has been building towards it, it’s not an inevitable conclusion, it’s just the most dramatic set of events, that wraps up with a conclusion that could end a series, without frustratingly obvious cliffhangers or the absolute necessity of another book.

Assassin’s Apprentice now doesn’t read as radical in what it does with epic fantasy only because it’s so often been (often poorly) imitated: Hobb’s work is a classic of the genre, and based on this encounter with it, very deservedly so.

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Girl Over Paris, writ. Gwenda Bond, Kate Leth; art. Ming Doyle; col. Andrew Dalhouse

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After a high-profile tumble, Cirque American’s star wire walker, Jules Maroni, has a lot to prove—and her invitation to an exclusive exhibition in Paris looks to be just the opportunity to put her back on top. Unfortunately, the City of Lights glitters with distractions, including the presence of her first serious boyfriend and a mysterious figure haunting the venue.
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Girl Over Paris is part of the Cirque American series, but unlike the two novels in the series, is a comic book co-written with veteran comics writer Kate Leth (of series such as the wonderful, albeit now concluded, Patsy Walker aka Hellcat from Marvel); it’s also the first time I’ve encountered Bond’s Cirque American setting.

Girl Over Paris is a compact little introduction to the world and the characters; over four issues, we only meet six people, really, plus a number of nameless fans and spectators briefly, and half of those are really just background parts to the story of Jules, her boyfriend Remy, and Remy’s sister Dita (and Dita’s girlfriend Gab). These central characters are a little thin; although Doyle’s art keeps things interesting by making sure every character’s reaction to events is clear on their faces, and even background crowds have a variety of expressions, the central cast are a little simple, even two dimensional, and Jules’ reactions are a little flat for a lot of the story. Dita is the stand-out character, the most emotionally interesting one, so it’s sad this story didn’t centre more on her.

The intense focus on such a small group means we don’t really see a lot of the world – there are hints to what goes on around this story, including black magic and curses being definitively real, but Girl Over Paris is a ghost story, and a rather good one at that. It’s not a tragedy, but has tragedy in its past; there’s a certain Phantom of the Opera vibe to elements of the story, and Bond and Leth are clearly aware of the vibes they’re playing with, using the supernatural to amplify human emotionality and exploring relationships primarily, even between characters who are fundamentally quite flat. This isn’t a comic of action so much as one of feel; Girl Over Paris isn’t flashy, but it does have a strong sense of place, reinforced by the detailed art of Doyle which puts in small details to make it clear this isn’t some fantasy Paris.

In the end, Girl Over Paris has an all-star creative team behind it, but it just doesn’t have enough substance to really make use of their talents: the hints of the levels of skill involved are there, but no one really shows their best work on this one.

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