American Gods: Shadows #2 (Dark Horse)
Hear that? That sound of punches flying, mysteries swirling mysteriously and antagonists finally showing up to throw shade at our (anti)hero? That’s the sound of Dark Horse’s adaptation of American Gods finally hitting its stride, that is. And I, for one, am very relieved. It is, after all, an uncomfortable feeling reviewing the comic version of an iconic story and finding it… underwhelming. That is not, fortunately, the case with this issue. Read on and I’ll explain why.
Issue 2 starts off exactly where the main strip last issue left off. In the john. Mr Wednesday’s repeating his job offer to Shadow, in the process pointing out that the ex-con doesn’t have a job because his best friend died in the same car crash that killed his wife. It takes some written evidence from a local newspaper to convince Shadow, but, eventually and somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to become a bodyguard-cum-chauffer for the extraordinarily charismatic stranger. The two seal the deal over a drink and things begin to get strange. Or, at least, stranger.
Much of the strangeness comes from Mad Sweeney, the self-professed leprechaun who shows up at the restaurant and appears to be, as Shadow says, “about ten feet tall”. Already known to Wednesday, Sweeney provides a fair bit of incident in this first section of the issue. Where Wednesday prefers to sit and make conversation, albeit of the decidedly enigmatic sort, Sweeney likes to provoke Shadow into a fight. Which the Irishman eventually loses. The fight is prompted by both Sweeney and Shadow’s skill with coin tricks and the latter’s desire to know how Sweeney’s managed to pull off a particularly impressive bit of sleight-of-hand. This is rather fitting given how much of this story so far has been concerned with deception and things not quite being as they appear.
After the fight, Shadow celebrates his victory with a drink or seven and wakes up on the highway in Wednesday’s car. Wednesday helpfully informs him that his wife’s body is available to view at a nearby funeral parlour and even more helpfully drops Shadow off there. And it’s here that my earlier suspicions about just what’s been going on between Laura and Richie are confirmed, when Richie’s widow enters and spits on Laura’s face. When Shadow catches up to her, she informs him that Laura’s mouth was wrapped around her husband’s gear stick (this is not quite how she describes it) at the time of the crash. Which would explain why he lost control, I guess.
Not for the first time, I’m somewhat taken aback by Shadow’s muted emotional response here. I can only assume that this is deliberate. More so than his time in prison or his conversations with Wednesday, Shadow’s memories of his wife seem to be idealised and almost dream-like. His ongoing reaction (or lack thereof) to both the death of his wife and subsequent revelation of her betrayal seem like he’s suffering from some sort of dissociation. This may, indeed, be deliberate, but it continues to make empathising with him more difficult than perhaps it should be. That said, the plot is moving now, and it’s well-constructed enough to hold the interest regardless of the slightly flat lead character. (And, to be fair, he’s nowhere near as flat as he was in the first issue.)
The book closes with Shadow being drugged and encountering a deeply unpleasant fat boy in a limo, and it is clear that the boy is much more than he initially seems. The dialogue here is clever, merging the language of computer science with that of religion. The boy has a warning for Mr Wednesday and it is clear that, in taking Wednesday up on his job offer, Shadow has chosen sides in some kind of conflict. Once again, Shadow is dropped off where he needs to go – this time the Motel America – and, with no back up this time round, the issue ends with him heading inside.
Well, this was better. The dialogue between Wednesday, Shadow and Sweeney really crackles and the encounter between Shadow and the fat boy in the limo demonstrates Gaiman’s wit very nicely. There’s a definite sense of impetus now and, although Shadow’s not quite as engaging as you’d expect a main character to be, Wednesday is and I definitely want to see more of him. I also want to find out more about the wider situation Shadow’s got himself into. There’s a genuine sense of intrigue now – and danger. Scott Hampton’s artwork is of pretty much the same standard as last issue, but the bar fight is dynamic and his portrayal of Sweeney as a mercurial, slightly grotesque braggart is very engaging.
All in all, this is a good example of comic book storytelling: the plot is intriguing, the characters fleshed out in interesting ways, the dialogue lively and the art, though still a little on the restrained side, is detailed and clear. Shadow is growing on me and Wednesday is so far the star of the book. There’s certainly enough here to hook the reader into the unfolding larger plot and I’m now very interested to see how this story develops.
This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Check them out for some great reviews of DC, Marvel and indie books!
Urban fantasy with a twist and a tough moral centre.
While I don’t particularly want to get into the brouhaha surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, I will admit that it’s piqued my interest in a number of authors of whom I had been only dimly aware. Sarah Hoyt is one of them and Draw One In The Dark is the first in a series of novels set in the Colorado town of Goldport.
The central character is Kyrie, a young waitress working in a cheap diner who just happens to have the power to shapeshift into a panther. Hoyt makes the quite sensible choice of not making this an origin story. Kyrie already knows (or at least suspects – she’s sort of in denial) that she can shift. This self-awareness is a trait shared by the two other main characters – Tom, a troubled young runaway who works at the same bar as Kyrie and Rafiel Trall, a local police officer who has been shifting for a good while and whose shapeshifted form is that of a ferocious, majestic lion. In refusing to tell a story that is exclusively about how Kyrie or either of the other two characters discover their shapeshifting abilities, Hoyt shifts the focus onto how the characters discover each other, how they learn to trust one another and, eventually, how they work together. That focus on character interaction is one of the novel’s real strengths.
That said, there is a mystery to unravel. Although the world of the shifters appears at first to be fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit of depth to the book’s mythology, particularly during conversations in which some older shifters are discussing the origins of the book’s apparently ancient antagonist. Hoyt doesn’t reveal all the details but instead keeps enough back to hint at a much wider shadowy world – a world that is dangerous, violent and just plain weird. (I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet that this book is the first urban fantasy novel to feature shapeshifting pheromone-flinging beetles.)
Although the plot starts slowly, it soon picks up pace and, I must say, never once did I feel that it dragged. The book’s action sequences are exciting and well-described and unusual coincidences early on in the novel are explained satisfactorily towards the end. It’s the unfolding relationships between the central characters, however, that make the novel so entertaining. The will-they-won’t-they of Kyrie and Tom (which is complicated in a very entertaining way by the tempting presence of Trall), the very well-realised relationship between Tom and the father who kicked him out of the family home several years ago – these have an air of authenticity about them that makes the book eminently readable, even as the reader’s (well, this reader’s at any rate) mind is coming to terms with the more fantastical and outlandish sections of the narrative.
In addition, Draw One In The Dark is a novel with a clear sense of morality. Characters are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and often seek to do the right thing, despite that choice appearing to be less convenient. Perhaps more significantly, characters are offered the chance of redemption and, by and large (and with one or two hiccoughs along the way), they take them. Call me an old-fashioned romantic, but I kind of like that.
Overall, then, Draw One In The Dark is a fast-paced, well-crafted novel, populated with a relatively small cast of mostly three-dimensional characters (I’m a little unsure about Keith, but Hoyt writes him with such panache, I’ll forgive him his quick acceptance of the madness into which he’s been plunged) who are genuinely engaging and with whom it is very easy to identify. The story hangs together really well, while leaving a few background threads dangling free to be picked up in later volumes. Speaking of which, I read this book on my Kindle. It is part of Baen’s free e-book initiative which puts out a selection of the initial novels in some of their authors’ series for free, which demonstrates an impressive confidence in the skills of the company’s authors. Well, Baen’s cunning ploy worked on this occasion, because the second book in this series, Gentleman Takes A Chance, is purchased, downloaded and ready to read. And if that isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.