Assassin’s Apprentice Vol. 1 is an adaption by Jody Houser of the novel by the same name from author Robin Hobb. The novel is Book 1 in Hobb’s “Farseer Trilogy”, which is also the first trilogy in her larger world of “The Realm of the Elderlings Series.” This graphic novel covers maybe half of the book it’s being adapted from. There could be a lot more of these coming if this adaptation is popular and there is a decent chance of that because the source material is beloved and this adaptation is faithfully done.
King Shrewd Farseer rules the land known as the Six Duchies with his sons Chivalry, Verity and their step-brother Regal. The Farseers are given names that are hoped to shape their lives in the tradition of the very first king, Taker. “Folk beliefs claim that such names were sealed to the newborn babes by magic.” Those of the Farseer line also are gifted with a type of magic called “the Wit” or “the Skill” and it is essentially a form of telepathy. We meet our young protagonist when his maternal grandfather drags him to an army outpost where Prince Verity is in charge and leaves him saying, “it’s Prince Chivalry’s bastard”. The child has no name and is only called “boy.” Verity entrusts Boy to the care of Burrich, Chivalry’s man-at-arms and most trusted right hand. Burrich, knowing nothing of children, leaves the boy he calls Fitz with his best dog and her pups. In that first night we learn that Fitz has the Wit and starts to unintentionally form a bond with the youngest pup.
King Shrewd has Fitz brought to his castle, Buckkeep, and the early days there are hard. He has no friends, no place and no family. Chivalry abandons his claim to the throne to spare his wife the talk and (we learn later) to protect Fitz from those who would see him as a threat. Burrich takes the pup away from Fitz as we learn they have become too close, too bonded and many see that as a perversion of the Wit and it threatens to make Fitz less man and more beast. Shrewd eventually takes an interest in Fitz and binds Fitz to his service with the Skill and makes him a tool to be used. Shortly hereafter Fitz meets an assassin & spy living secretly in the walls of the palace. He brings Fitz to a hidden room and begins his training as the next generation of spy and assassin in the Farseers’ service.
The art in this book from Ryan Kelly and the coloring from Jordie Bellaire feel immediately recognizable and scream Classic Fantasy. It’s a richly textured and the world feels fully realized. It greatly aids the introduction of the magic to the story without unnecessary exposition. Credit where it’s due to Jody Houser as well; adapting one of the most emotionally compelling and sympathetic characters in modern fantasy is no small feat. Hobb’s original novel is considered slow moving at times because such care and attention is given to the characters, creating real emotional stakes for the reader. Here, with the aid of visuals, it’s compressed while still being effective.
Dark Horse rates this book age 14+ and that feels appropriate given the title. Fitz is a bastard son and that word is used a lot, he’s training to be an assassin and that’s talked about for most of the latter half. That is the extent of the age restrictive content, but the original novel was written for an adult audience and as such a lot of the context for the book could be lost on younger readers. Simply understanding some of the nuance of the world is going to be easier for readers who are a little older. If you aren’t opposed to buying more volumes of this story (at least one for sure as part 2 of this tale is being published as individual issues at the time of this review), this is an easy recommendation for collections that could use more quality fantasy books.
Assassin’s Apprentice Vol. 1 By Jody Houser, Robin Hobb, Art by Ryan Kelly Dark Horse, 2023 ISBN: 9781506728971
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Zoe Thorogood received multiple award nominations for It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth, including 2023 Eisner Awards in the Best Graphic Memoir and Best Writer/Artist categories, Forbes’ “The Best Graphic Novels of 2022” list, and she won the 2023 Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award at the Eisner’s. Her art is evocative, engrossing and layered, grabbing readers immediately.
Zoe herself, however, is an entirely different story. She is certainly layered and complex, but she’s also self-conscious, shy, self-described as pathetic and suicidal. It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth is her attempt to record a six month span of her life and try to make sense of how and why she is mental and emotionally in the place she finds herself. A large portion of the story takes place during the Covid-19 lockdown period of 2021 and the sense of isolation many of us experience then is personified by Zoe, who was lonely long before then.
There is a lot of fourth wall breaking as Zoe directly addresses the reader in this book. Very early on she admits that she’s recently had suicidal thoughts, but she’s had them since she was 14 so it is nothing new for her. She is also quick to admit that this book may be an exercise in narcissism or it might help someone else, but it certainly is a selfish act. She’s hoping to bring us along on her journey to America for her first big comic convention she’s been invited to and her hope is the trip itself might be a journey of self-discovery. During the course of the story we’ll meet 14 year old Zoe back in 2013 and see what it was like for her to try and survive in school, watch Zoe meet her best friend in college and have her heart broken in America.
We see Zoe struggle with personal interactions in public with strangers, fans of her work, her parents and at time her friends. She illustrates her depression as a monster that follows her, a giant looming specter waiting just behind her. She illustrates multiple versions of herself and her personality in varying styles so that we can better see how she transitions in and out of comfort and confidence to stress and fear. I’ll point out here that the art in this book is phenomenal and truly aids every facet of the storytelling. There are times it is told in just black and white, other times with splashes of color and some pages are collage with photocopy and photographic elements. I was completely captivated throughout the book.
It is bold for a 22 year old to write a memoir as there is usually not much life experience to draw from, but this book didn’t suffer from a lack of self-awareness there. Zoe explores themes of isolation, self-worth and perception while pointing out to herself how wildly indulgent and vain it is. While it may not have provided a neat, tidy ending where all ends ‘happily-ever-after’, we did see a lot of personal growth from Zoe even as she simply engages with the idea that her younger self would see her current art as successful and fulfilling. She ends the story in a better place than we found her at the beginning saying, “Loneliness makes it hard to see the bigger picture. It makes you self-obsessed; not out of narcissism but because your own self is all you have. Your flaws, quirks, regrets, and mistakes begin to engulf you. Your own self begins to overshadow that bigger picture, but there is always a bigger picture.”
Image Comics rates this book as Mature and I would agree for the sake of placement inside a library. Suicide is already a tough subject to tackle with younger readers, but Zoe depicts (and comments on) her casual drug use and there is profane language sprinkled throughout. I wouldn’t tell older teens not to pick this up, it’s clear why it was nominated for so many awards, but for them especially I would point out Zoe’s disclaimer inside the cover about talk of suicide and her confrontations with it. I hope for her sake it was as cathartic to write as it is to read. Her frankness and honesty was compelling and I found myself rooting for her.
It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth By Zoe Thorogood Image, 2022 ISBN: 9781534323865
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Anxiety, Depression
Insomniacs After School is the most surprising, delightful, and charming book I have read in quite some time. It is a simple slice of life book that, thanks to its sincerity, at no point let me down. I wondered constantly if something exciting, paranormal or extraordinary might happen. It had all the hallmarks of a book that was about to toss a curveball at the reader, but it didn’t and yet I was never disappointed.
The books opens with a student at Kuyo High School telling another why they no longer have an astronomy club. It is a ghost story about a girl who supposedly threw herself off the top of the astronomy tower. Then other members of the club started dying mysteriously. It’s an interesting way to open the book, and it is what set me up to think something unusual might happen at any time. However, we learn in time that one of our protagonists made up the story to keep people away from the astronomy tower. Isaki Magari cannot sleep and as someone who had childhood illnesses, she doesn’t want people making a big deal about her sleep now and fussing over her. Ganta Nakami can’t sleep either and it makes him grumpy which keeps people at bay, so he doesn’t have many friends. He doesn’t want to go to the nurse because he’d be going all the time and he doesn’t want people to think there is something wrong with him. They both discover that the disused observatory is quiet, comfortable, and entirely theirs for the taking.
Magari and Nakami bond over their inability to sleep and the feeling of being an outsider because of it. There is a cat that befriends them and harasses one of their teachers, stealing lettuce from Kurashiki Sensei’s sandwich. They find they can actually sleep when together in the observatory and so they try to make time to be there together. Kurashiki Sensei one day chases the cat all the way up to the observatory trying to get her food back and stumbles upon their secret. She isn’t mad, she isn’t judgmental, but she is required to report it to the school. Fortunately, they work around this by reviving the astronomy club and Nakami and Magari become the first members.
The publisher has this tagged as a romance genre book, which may be true later, but in this volume I would say you only get a glimpse of attraction. Magari certainly seems to sense she has feelings for Nakami, but never speaks them out loud, even to herself. Nakami realizes he only wants to come to school to see Magari, but he can’t quite sort out if it’s more than to be able to sleep. This may develop into a relationship in further installments, but for now it’s entirely chaste as two high school students try to navigate making friends with someone very different from themselves. That said, the art certainly wants you to find Magari adorable and charming.
The strength of the art is how effectively it’s used to forward the plot with wonderful subtlety. Characters are framed in-panel to help shape our feelings about them, much like a movie director giving us cues wordlessly. Each character is distinct and the world is fully recognizable without any panel being overstuffed or too busy to enjoy. It feels like choices were made specifically for pace and atmosphere so that there is never a wasted moment; everything is about creating an almost ethereal world for our sleepy protagonists even in the middle of a school day.
This book is rated Teen and while I understand that rating, there is nothing here that would prohibit tweens/junior high readers from enjoying it. As an adult, the art and tone captivated me immediately and I have already preordered all available volumes for our library. For libraries considering this book, at the time of this writing there are 13 volumes available in Japanese. English translations may be slow to follow, but there will be a lot more to come. I am recommending this to readers at my library who are looking for books that are not heavy action or high emotion stakes. This is a gentle read that still satisfies, and I think will find a lot of different types of fans.
Insomniacs After School, Vol. 01 By Makoto Ojiro VIZ Signature, 2023 ISBN: 9781974736577
Publisher Age Rating: Teen NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Japanese Character Representation: Japanese
The Girl That Can’t Get a Girlfriend is a semi-autobiographical manga about self-loathing, self-discovery, and ultimately, thankfully, a story of self-acceptance and love. Mieri introduces herself to us as a Japanese office worker living in the U.S., setting up the narration she will provide to catch us up to the present. In middle school she found herself attracted to anime women, but didn’t realize until she was in college that she was gay. She takes us through her journey from repressed tomboy to self-actualized adult, but that journey is anything but easy. The line that summarizes the experience of this book best happens late in part two: “Little did I know that Ash would become my first girlfriend and that we would break up after a month of dating and that I would spend 4 years in hell trying to get over her.”
Mieri is a sophomore in college when she has her first relationship and while it is very short lived it winds up dominating the next four years of her life. It’s immediately apparently that Mieri has very little self-confidence. In the early chapters she is repeatedly putting people on pedestals. This is as equally unfair to herself as it is to these people in her life. She feels she hasn’t earned the love and consideration she’s shown. This causes an imbalance between them which, in her mind, seems impossible to overcome. The trend for most of this book is Mieri experiencing so many firsts in life and trying to reconcile what they might mean, while not loving herself enough to take care of herself. She tries to work hard enough to earn the love of others or to keep a relationship working even when it’s not.
The central character to Mieri’s journey of discovery is her first girlfriend Ash, who she meets on summer vacation when she visits her grandparents in Japan. After the early, tentative days of dating, they say they love one another and promise to stay together even after Mieri has to fly back to the U.S. for school. Things fall apart when Ash learns that Mieri isn’t graduating as soon as she thought she was. It’s basically a semester later, but Ash has had several long distance relationships with boyfriends that didn’t work out and she won’t wait a year for anyone again. Mieri is initially heartbroken, but decides she will get an internship in Japan so she can try to win Ash back. What she thinks is a grand romantic gesture ultimately falls flat when she learns Ash is seeing someone new. From here she spirals into depression and loneliness as she has no friends in Japan. She could have wallowed forever, but she slowly comes to embrace the life she actually has. She becomes a better friend, gets back to drawing manga, and carving out an identity for herself. There isn’t a clean resolution at the end of this book, but only in service of setting up the next installment.
The redeeming part of this book is that Mieri never gives up on herself and even when things are dark, she doesn’t engage in self-destructive behavior. The style of this book and it’s incredibly frank honesty reminded me at times of Nagata Kabi’s work in books like My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and My Alcoholic Escape from Reality. The difference between these is that Mieri does not spiral into such dark places. She’s depressed, she’s sad, she’s lonely, but she’s never actively self-harming. I think that’s important because it makes this story accessible to more people, especially teen readers. There is one kiss in the entire book and you only see the back of someone’s head, so it’s not prurient in any way. Viz has this rated Teen and I agree with the assessment for placement in a library collection. As someone who has had a first infatuation, a first love, and first heartbreak, I was able to identify and empathize with this story. It left me wanting to tell her to hold on and keep trying. I felt parental in that moment. For readers who haven’t lived these things I imagine it only makes you read faster to see how she resolves these feelings and if she will find a happy ending. I enjoyed this book and have already purchased it for our library. Autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical in this case) manga and graphic novels have a huge reach and wide audience appeal, this book is no exception.
The Girl That Can’t Get a Girlfriend By Mieri Hiranishi VIZ, 2023 ISBN: 9781974736591
Publisher Age Rating: Teen
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Lesbian Character Representation: Lesbian
Once & Future is the kind of sprawling, engrossing, chaotic tale that you don’t see every day. It’s incredibly well plotted and while it may have resolved itself in five volumes, it feels much larger than that. Now that the story is finished (at least for now according to author Kieron Gillen in the afterword), I think it is easier to give the series the endorsement it deserves because of how well it sticks the landing. The story itself is incredibly ambitious and reviews of the first volume might not have been overly effusive. To see the scope of it now in retrospect, the amount of weaving Gillen did to bring it all together and to do it in such a satisfying way is no small feat.
Once & Future, Vol 4: Monarchies in the U.K. opens with all of the United Kingdom pulled into The Otherworld, where Duncan and Bridgette are trying to find a place to hide long enough to regroup. They decide on Bridgette’s ancestral home, which here is actually the Grail Castle. Early in this volume another Arthur and Merlin step into this world and now there is a battle over who is the “true” king. This Arthur brings new knights with him, like Eliold and Yvain. Turns out that William Shakespeare was the greatest monster hunter of the accord and this is where all the talk of “stories” really coalesces. His secret armory is as much collected writings as it is weapons, but Bridgette is after his quill. This is about the time Mary shows up and complicates how Bridgette planned to get the upper hand in Otherworld. She is looking for the water god Leir or Lear who is now trapped in the waters of Leicester. This should be more than enough for one book, but Lancelot seems torn as to which Arthur to serve and then another Arthur and his army show up as a battle for the land ramps up. This volume concludes with Bridgette, Duncan, and Rose finding the person who is tied to the quill, Robin Hood.
Once & Future, Vol 5: The Wasteland introduces Robin Hood’s terrifying band of merry men and he inducts our three heroes in the group. They wind up discovering a new steampunk Arthur while Mary is at Grail Castle working her own angles. Did you forget the Green Knight was part of this story? I did. He’s back and book five doesn’t have time to waste. Bridgette’s new plan is to get the waters of the Lethe, which are waters of forgetting, and use them on the whole of the U.K. so that everyone forgets they know about Arthur and the stories, and hopefully pull them out of The Otherworld. Mary and Lancelot find poor, broken Galahad and try to get him to reach the Grail inside the castle, but it’s futile. December 24th rolls around and a bolt of lightning delivers a sword directly into a stone and proclaims “Whoever Draws This Sword Shall Be the Rightful King of England”, changing the plans. Now our heroes have to guard the sword from all the Arthurs, but they have some help in Sir Hempleworth from British Intelligence and some of his soldiers who have survived. While they hold their ground, Galahad finally reaches the Grail, but it costs him his life. This brings Mary back to her mother and the revenge she seeks against the first Merlin.
The rest of the story is told at a fever pitch and it is all spoilers from here out, so I will simply say that even after introducing so many story lines and so much folklore, Gillen doesn’t forget to close a single thread. The amount of story arcs that get a fitting and fulfilling conclusion is actually really impressive. There are big plot twists, but none of them feel unearned. It is just a series of payoffs for storyline after storyline, some of which were set up in volume 1 and just left till now. I cannot think of another book I have read like this that manages to tidy up all the things it set out on the table in a way that demonstrates a clear plan and deliberate execution.
Dan Mora had to come up with so very many creatures, villains, and monsters for these books it is equally impressive he kept them straight. All of the different Arthurs have their own unique look and feel while also being tied just enough together that you know they are the king of their timeline. The pace of the narrative at times is driven by the energy and composition of the panels, which Mora won’t get enough credit for. This series owes a great deal to his attention to detail and ability to build multiple worlds or timelines that all reflect each other while standing on their own.
This series is best suited for older teens and adults due to occasional swearing a lot of fighting. It’s just bloody enough to not recommend to young teens, but there are enough high concepts here that it might not appeal to that age group anyway. That being said, you don’t have to be an Arthurian expert or remember how Beowulf goes to enjoy this. It is equal parts history lesson, literature class, and heavy metal album. Recommending this to libraries who might have been on the fence early is easy now because we can say definitively it is only five volumes altogether and they are worth it. It starts out complex and, while that does not really change, it gets easier to follow and the through line becomes a lot more clear. This is a worthwhile addition to an adult collection that wants something that is not superheroes, but has a tinge of familiarity to it. It is a pleasure to read and a truly satisfying conclusion for those who make it to the end.
Once & Future By Kieron Gillen Art by Dan Mora BOOM! Studios, 2023 Vol. 4: Monarchies in the U.K. ISBN: 9781684158294 Vol 5: The Wasteland ISBN: 9781684158621
Joan Peterson has a problem, she’s stuck in the worst sort of Groundhog Day loop. Joan grows up to fall in love with a man who is deeply devoted to her. As soon as he proposes and she says yes a cowboy shows up, tells her “Miss Joan Peterson. She would like you to know… Love is Everlasting.” and then shoots her down. This happens to her across decades, across the country and across eras. Joan is trapped in a cycle of romance that isn’t allowed to be and she cannot figure why or who is behind this.
Love Everlasting opens with Joan falling for George Huff, an executive in what looks like a “Mad Men” 1950s era office setting. We only see them together shortly before Joan experiences life in a 1960s/70s era Bohemian music scene. Kit Myers is a local musician who Joan’s father certainly does not approve of until he learns who his parents are. As soon as he realizes the boy is from good stock, Joan and Kit are free to be together. They profess their love and then Joan is the old West. Two men are fighting over her and at this point she’s realizing her memories are getting muddled together, so she tries running away. She’s running for all three women who she knows she’s been, but she doesn’t know where to run to. She passes out in the desert only to wake up next to a fire, lying on a blanket that’s not hers. A cowboy is sitting at the fire with a message for a Ms. Joan Peterson. There’s something familiar about him she can’t place. He says she shouldn’t have run. This is the first time we see him tell her “Love is everlasting.”
The rest of the book shows Joan with more of her memories and faculties, trying to fight her way out of this cycle. She’s often about to graduate high school, or at that age, and the idea that life, college, or war could separate her from her love propels the couple into early engagement. In the hands of a lesser author this could become convoluted, but at no point was I lost. The book does ask pretty early on that you have faith in the creative team to give you the information you need as you need it, but if you are willing to follow them it makes for a very intriguing journey.
Author Tom King makes a slight departure from some of his recent work to tell a story that is part metaphysical mystery and part family drama. The story is as layered and detailed as you’d expect from him and I genuinely enjoyed the mystery slowly presenting itself right up until the biggest reveal at the end (which admittedly is the springboard into the next volume, leaving plenty left to yet discover.) The art from Elsa Charretier works wonderfully in every decade this story shifts through. Color palettes change and help give a sense of mood every time there is a jump in the story. This feels influenced by artists like Darwyn Cooke and Bruce Timm, which is as high a compliment as I can pay, because their work stands the test of time and this has that same timeless quality.
I agree with the publisher’s age rating of Teen+, which Image Comics defines as “16 and up, may contain moderate violence, moderate profanity use, and suggestive themes.” This book is a little bloody, but not nearly as much as it could be, and it isn’t leaning into gore by any stretch. There is a moderate amount of swearing, but I would like to point out that this book doesn’t contain suggestive themes. This checks a lot of the boxes I use when considering adding book to our collection, including having an unusual premise, art that helps support the storytelling, isn’t intentionally upsetting, and leaves you wanting more. I think it is a solid addition to a library collection, but be aware that it’s still an ongoing title, so it is not yet clear how many additional volumes may follow.
Love Everlasting, Vol. 01 By Tom King Art by Elsa Charretier Image, 2023 ISBN: 9781534324640
Publisher Age Rating: Teen+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Christopher Chance is not a DC character many people will be familiar with. He wasn’t the first “Human Target” from DC Comics, but since Len Wein and Carmine Infantino reimagined the character in Action Comics #419 December 1972, he’s been impersonating people who pay him to take their place and save them from assassins and others looking to harm them. Chance is part bodyguard, part private investigator. In this latest iteration, he is hired by Lex Luthor to find who was trying to assassinate him and wound up taking a bullet from a would-be assassin. The twist is that this isn’t the only person trying to kill him that day and someone else with much more sophisticated methods poisoned Chance by mistake. He now he has 12 days left to live and try to solve the puzzle of who poisoned him and why they wanted Luthor dead.
Doctor Midnight diagnoses Christopher after he passes out from the poison and crashes his car. He gives his some medicine to try and help manage the pain, but more importantly makes a discovery. The poison in his system gives off traces of radiation from another dimension and the only people to have traveled there and returned are The Justice League International. Now, with 11 days left to live, Christopher has to try and figure out who in the JLI would want Luthor dead bad enough to poison him and why. This is where Tora Olafsdotter enters the picture, Ice of Fire and Ice, and JLI fame. She will be the key to all of this as Lex once had her killed and most of the JLI hasn’t forgotten. Ice, however, is full of surprises herself. There is a bond growing between her and Christopher and the more time they spend together the further complicated his investigation is getting.
Of all the books I’ve read in 2022, The Human Target is the one that made the biggest impression and the one I’ve talked about the most since reading. This is the first of two volumes, covering the 12 part mini-series written by Tom King and illustrated by Artist Greg Smallwood. Both have equally contributed to why this book stays with me and why I enjoyed it so much. While both are producing great work respectively, as a team they have elevated the work and created a truly distinct, riveting book.
Tom King is doing what I would argue he does best, taking characters outside of their normal continuity in universe and telling interesting and unusual stories with them. Some of his most popular and well regarded work falls under this category, like The Vision or Mister Miracle. This is also a detective story and King excels at having people solve mysteries that involve a human element.
I mentioned before that Greg Smallwood’s art made a lasting impression and that is an undersell. I haven’t seen a book like this maybe ever. It has the feel of a chalk or soft pastel ad from the 1950’s. There is a timeless quality to the entire book that makes it impossible to place, while at the same time you know exactly where and when it is. It feels akin in style and dress to a show like Mad Men, while somehow being more colorful and vibrant. When I recommend this book to people (which I do constantly) my inability to articulate everything that is important and beautiful about Smallwood’s work frustrates me and makes my point. I simply don’t have the words to do justice to what he’s managed here and for that reason you should read it for yourself to understand.
Because The Human Target, aka Christopher Chance, and the Justice League International aren’t the best know or most compelling characters at DC Comics I can easily understand this book flying under the radar for a lot of readers. An author like King being attached should help it gather some attention, but it may not look like the most accessible story. For the uninitiated reader there is enough introduction and background information included in this volume to give you everything you need to enjoy this story. If you do know something about the JLI or its members this is a fascinating look at how King pulls characters apart psychologically and presents them as flawed individuals who are trying their best despite their shortcomings.
An absolutely worthwhile addition to any library collection for older teen and adult readers, this particular 12 issue story is coming out under DC’s Black Label. Since 2020 is Black Label has been defined as “The imprint intend(ed) to present traditional DC Universe characters for a mature audience with stand-alone, prestige-format series.” DC rates this as an ages 17+ book and I would agree that between the drinking, language and romantic intrigue it’s best suited for older readers. It feels like a hard-boiled detective novel in both tone and look, something of a throwback. It’s not as brutal as something like Ed Brubaker’s Reckless series, but will certainly shares an audience with those books.
The Human Target Vol. 01 By Tom King Art by Greg Smallwood DC Black Label, 2022 ISBN: 9781779516701
Publisher Age Rating: 17+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)