Category: Dystopian fiction


Why is it so hard for writers to give satisfying endings to series? On TV, I can only think of a handful of truly stellar series finales (Lost, M*A*S*H, Six Feet Under) while I can name a litany of programs that either had miserable finales (The Sopranos, Seinfeld) or should have ended long before their final season (cough cough Dexter cough cough). Books don’t get off any easier. I love the Dark Tower series, and I don’t have the same spiteful reaction that many fans have to its controversial ending, but I recognize that Stephen King could have probably delivered something slightly more satisfying. I also love Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but there’s still no logical explanation for why Harry didn’t die in those woods (I don’t think the series should have ended with Harry’s death but J.K. Rowling shouldn’t have written herself into that corner). With Suzanne Collins history of writing rushed and hackneyed endings for The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, it should be no surprise that the series itself comes to an artificially forced conclusion in Mockingjay.

Spoilers beware for anyone who hasn’t finished Catching Fire (obviously, I’ll try not to spoil any major plot of points of Mockingjay). After destroying the force field surrounding the Quarter Quell’s arena in the last book, Katniss, Finnick, and Beetee have been rescued by the rebel factions opposing the tyrannical Capitol. The rebels are led by the long thought to be destroyed District 13 which ekes out a livable by strict life underground as they prepare to go to war against the Capitol. However, Peeta (and fellow former victor Johanna) was captured by the Capitol and is being used as a propaganda tool by the evil President Snow. District 13 wants Katniss to become the symbol of the rebellion, and although Katniss initially has questions about their motives and methods, she eventually agrees as she helps to rally the fight to rescue Peeta, take back the 11 Districts (since 12 was destroyed at the end of Catching Fire), and overthrow the government of Panem.

While I felt that Mockingjay stumbled in many respects (especially the ending but more on that later), one of the surprising areas where it succeeded was setting up such a morally ambiguous and brutal tale of war. The main powers that are standing up to the Capitol (District 13) are nearly as totalitarian as Panem. If you replaced the rampant greed of the Capitol and its use of the serfdom of the Districts with an essentially Marxist sense of egalitarian communalism, you’d get District 13. Either way, the power in both governments is centered in a very small group of people. Katniss (in her never-ending and often unnecessary inner monologue) constantly reflects on the morally questionable things that District 13 asks her to do for the war effort, but then Suzanne Collins always helps cement the ambiguity by presenting the moral necessity of removing the cruel and brutal Capitol. How far do you go before you become as bad as the despots you overthrow? It’s a question all revolutions face and its at the core of a young adult novel of all things.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Collins does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the horrors of war considering all that she put her characters through in the previous two books. Yet, I still can’t think of a single young adult book that dealt with war in as serious and brutal a manner as Mockingjay. Katniss becomes a soldier in this book, and if Suzanne Collins tried to have Katniss only kill when absolutely necessary in The Hunger Games, she is forced to kill a ton of enemy soldiers (and even a civilian in a truly shocking moment) to keep herself and her loved ones alive. Actually, by the end of the novel, Katniss has become such a cold-blooded killer that I couldn’t tell if Collins was advocating those actions are making a comment on how war changes people. In fact, the brutality of the novel almost becomes one of its flaws because at times it almost seems like Collins is going on a Heinlein-esque ode to militarism.

If you thought the ending to Catching Fire was abrupt, it has nothing on Mockingjay. For two straight books now, it’s almost like Suzanne Collins has another 200 pages or so planned out in her head but then she has to rush to the finish line because the book’s due date was coming up. This is what happens when you stick to a one book a year release schedule. I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending because it contains a handful of truly shocking moments, but it was painfully obvious that there was a lot more to this story. There were a million dangling plot threads, but Collins must have realized she was running out of time because she made a massive author’s saving throw to bring it all to a close. Whether the ending is remotely satisfying will be up to each individual reader, but for me, it was a mess that managed to rush the climax and then drag the ending out more than it should.

Well, the series is finally over. I’m not sure what I’m going to read next. Neil Gaiman (who responded to me on Twitter!!!!!!!!!) just announced that he’s writing a prequel to the Sandman series so maybe I’ll do my semi-annual re-reading of my favorite book series ever. I used to read it like once a year but it’s been two now. I feel it’s high time to get back in the swing of that awesome book series. Although at the same time, I sort of want to read something more serious. I have On the Road which I’ve never read and I’d like to read it before I see the movie. Anyways, I don’t regret the time I spent with The Hunger Games trilogy. As I’ve said before, Suzanne Collins is a mostly excellent storyteller who just happens to be a terrible writer (her prose is abysmal but I’ve beat that dead horse enough in the reviews of the first two books). However, by the end of Mockingjay I came to a conclusion. She isn’t writing children’s books. She just happens to be writing semi-mature themed books that are enjoyed by children because she’s only capable of writing at their level.

Final Score: B-

My feelings about Suzanne Collins’ breakthrough novel (and worldwide sensation) The Hunger Games are complicated. I think that Suzanne Collins is an accomplished storyteller and her sense of pacing and suspense are superb. However, she is the clumsiest “writer” (in the literal sense of the word) that I can think of in modern, popular fiction. Her vocabulary is more limited than the audience she writes to and her prose is amateurish at best. She writes the way that I imagine an especially talented middle schooler would write. And the fact that she writes young adult novels isn’t a good enough excuse. I used this analogue in my The Hunger Games review but it bears repeating. C.S. Lewis also wrote for children but there was more deft poetry and inspired imagination in his wordsmith than Collins could ever hope to imagine (thankfully her books are devoid of Lewis’ overbearing proselytizing and Biblical imagery). I read The Hunger Games back in the beginning of January before I left for New York City, and I figured I’d wait til I got home to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Friday, when the electricity was out, I read nearly the entirety of Catching Fire by candlelight. While Suzanne Collins has yet to improve her atrocious prose, her storytelling is on even better display in Catching Fire as the characters seem more sharply realized and the universe of Panem finally began to take a clearer shape.

After Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark foil the plans of the evil Capitol of the dystopian nation of Panem by both surviving the annual Hunger Games, Katniss knows that she has officially become an enemy of the state. After a visit from the despot known as President Snow (something tells me no one actually elected him), Katniss is informed that her act of rebellion by threatening to kill herself and Peeta (to rob the Capitol of a winner) has become a symbol of anti-Capitol resentment throughout the 12 districts of Panem. As bluntly as possible, President Snow informs her that she has til the end of her Victory Tour with Peeta (where they have to continue their charade of being star-crossed lovers) to convince the districts that she’s truly the smitten lover he knows she was pretending to be or he’ll kill her and every one she cares about. It doesn’t take long for Katniss to realize that the decks are stacked against her. The sparks of revolution are simmering across all of the districts and even the most innocent acts by Peeta and Katniss as they tour Panem have become enough to sweep the oppressed masses into rebellion. When the Victory Tour is over and President Snow makes it clear that she failed in her duty, Katniss prepares to flee into the wilderness with her family and friends but the arrival of the Quarter Quell, the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, and the devious machinations of President Snow means that Katniss’ fight is only just beginning.

I’ll try to keep this review short because I still need to review Sunday’s True Blood as well as my surprise movie reveal (here’s a hint. my female readers are the most likely to be interested in my review of this summer movie). I’ve said enough about Suzanne Collins’ inability to string a beautiful sentence together so I’ll skip to the ways she’s improved on her storytelling in this novel. Other than District 12 and the Capitol, the details surrounding the rest of Panem were very vague in The Hunger Games. In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins takes the opportunity (roughly the first 200 or so pages of the book) to finally paint the scene of what her universe is like. It’s a two part morality tale. On one level it’s a child’s introduction to fascism (with hints of Battle Royale to maintain their attention) as well as a subtle commentary about the moral wasteland of massive wealth inequity (i.e. the ludicrous wealth in the Capitol compared to the squalor in the Districts). And as much as her world and themes become clearer, the characters become significantly more defined. Katniss goes from being a boring, nondescript blank slate for young readers to project themselves on to a hardened veteran going through obvious levels of post-traumatic stress disorder who has to make tough choices between saving herself and saving those she cares about. Peeta is still a conventional hero but Collins continues to make him so charming and sympathetic that you can forgive him for being relatively flawless (except for perhaps being so secretive). However, I can’t really comment on the biggest improvement in the novel without spoiling one of the major twists but let me simply say that my complaints about the nameless, characterless Tributes from the first novel is a thing of the past.

(Yeah. I know that picture is from The Hunger Games movie. Sue me.) Anyways, I told you it was going to be a short review. It’s a young adult novel. I don’t need to write a grand discourse on its multi-layered themes and the less I think about Catching Fire at an intellectual level, the better. I’ll leave on one final note. There’s a new character introduced in Catching Fire named Finnick Odair who manages to come even with Haymitch as the most interesting character in the franchise. His name is Finnick Odair, and ever since I finished the novel, my sister and I have spent hours debating about who should play him in the movie. I’m leaning towards either Chris Hemsworth or Channing Tatum. Alexander Skaarsgard (Eric on True Blood) is my preferred casting choice there but he’s a little too old for the part (the character is 24). Do any of my readers have an opinion about who would make a good Finnick that have read the book? I’m curious to hear other people’s opinion.

Final Score: B

There is an inherent difference between a good writer and a good storyteller. Anyone that doubts Stephen King’s ability to craft a mesmerizing story and construct almost mythic universes has obviously never picked up The Dark Tower franchise; it is his accessible, every man’s prose that fuels the flames of his detractors (along with his absurdly prolific writing schedule which guarantees not every book will be a winner). At the other end of that spectrum, you have a man like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce who agonize over every word in every sentence of their novels for maximum poetic and intellectual value but whose ability to craft an engaging story is less apparent. I read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for his masterful deconstruction of the structure of the novel and his ingenious prose, not for the nearly incomprehensible plot involving potentially non-existent German rocket. Some authors can do both, and they tend to be my favorites like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin (and of course there are those who can do neither like Stephenie Meyer). I just finished the young adult novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (which is about to be adapted into a film starring Academy Award nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence), and she is assuredly more storyteller than writer. Her prose is almost criminally deficient (though I feel guilty judging her for what is a young adult’s novel), but her pacing and plotting are spot on even if the book bears some remarkable resemblances to the Japanese manga Battle Royale.

Set an indeterminate number of years in America’s future, The Hunger Games is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel of one girl’s will to survive. After a vague cataclysmic event nearly destroyed the nation, an autocratic government formed the nation of Panem in the Rocky Mountains. The rest of the nation has been divided into 12 separate districts. As punishment for a failed uprising against the Capitol’s overlords, each district is required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 every year to the Capitol to compete in a bloody battle to the death until there is only one “tribute” left standing. The story is told through the eyes of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, a young hunter living in District 12 (Appalachia) who has been forced to take care of her young sister and helpless mother in the many years since her father’s death when she was five. When Katniss’s younger sister Prim is chosen to participate in the titular Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to be the tribute in her place along side the boy that was chosen, a resourecful young man named Peeta Mallark who has always shared an unspoken connection with Katniss since childhood. Katniss and Peeta are forced to travel to the futuristic capitol (as opposed to the crushing poverty of their home town) to do live, televised battle against the other district’s tributes and see how far each is willing to go to live.

Let me be upfront. Suzanne Collins has an even less impressive mastery of the English language than Stephenie Meyer, and I’m not sure if I can think of a more unfortunate thing to say about someone. Something tells me that I’m judging this book far too harshly as it is primarily intended for middle-schoolers and high schoolers but as a grown up reading it and trying to figure out what all the fuss has been about this last year or so, it’s really unfortunate. The book is told through very bland first person perspective in an almost constant mono-syllabic drone of cut and dry descriptions. There’s no poetry to the way she arranges her sentences, and there isn’t even some of the wit or self-effacing humor that makes less prosaically impressive authors like Stephen King more acceptable. Had her storytelling not been so impressive (at least until the novel’s last 100 pages or so which are over-reliant on some questionable deus ex machina), her writing style would have been completely unacceptable and I would have simply been unable to explain the book’s success. However, I feel like being a young adult novel isn’t enough of an excuse to forgive the amateur writing as J. R. R. Tolkien considered The Hobbit a children’s story as did C. S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia and they are still engaging reads (though Narnia‘s overt religious undertones make me more uncomfortable now then they did as a child).

Fortunately, for Collins, she is an exciting and action-packed storyteller. The novel comes off as a cross between Battle Royale and the film adaptation of The Running Man but with a modern and youthful slant. The novel isn’t afraid to display occasionally shocking incidents of gruesome violence, and Collins’ decision to include such subject matter as the violent deaths of children makes her childish writing more of a problem. Supporting character Peeta Mellark is a fun and engaging hero, and the increasingly deep layers of his character consistently make him more interesting than the more conventional action girl that is Katniss. By no means is she boring (she runs circles around Bella Swan or Sookie Stackhouse) but she experiences very little in the way of growth over the course of the novel, even when the situation she’s been thrust into would cause anyone to undergo horrific transformations. Also, the novel isn’t afraid to deal with some morally ambiguous grey areas and forces its heroes to do some awful things in order to survive. It presents several different ethical conundrums and while they aren’t necessarily the deepest issues on the planet, their presence at least shows that Collins wishes her book to be a little bit more than a violent science fiction adventure story.

There are very few opportunities where I will say I am more excited for a movie than I am about the book, but the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games will be one of those moments. Free from Suzanne Collins stilted prose, her wonderfully evocative world should translate to a colorful and distinctly visual film experience. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence is starring as Katniss and if that wasn’t an inspired casting decision, I don’t know what is. Ever since she completely stunned me with her break through performance in Winter’s Bone, I have pegged her as one of the most talented and promising young actresses today. If she continues to make smart career decisions, the sky is truly the limit for someone with as much talent as her. She seems like a perfect fit for a tough role like Katniss, and I’m very excited to see a version of this story that isn’t held back by weak writing in the technical sense of the word (Woody Harrelson should be a treat as the loutish Haymitch, the drunk mentor of Katniss and Peeta). All in all, if you enjoy young adult fiction, you may appreciate this tale. I know I’m going to end up reading the two other books in the trilogy. However, for everyone else, you should wait for the movie because I would willing to bet a not insignificant sum of money that it will be a more entertaining product and I almost never like the movie more than the book.

Final Score: B-

What is there to say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said a million times before? Easily the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, Watchmen isn’t just a seminal work in the burgeoning realm of graphic novels (that would ultimately allow other celebrated works like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man to exist), but it is simply one of the defining novels of the last 30 years. Simultaneously science fiction, political satire, mystery, superhero (the definitive supehero tale), psychological drama, and a massive deconstruction of every comic book that predated it, Alan Moore didn’t just write the premier superhero story of all time; he made it nearly impossible to look at any superhero tales before or after in the same light ever again. As a child, I was a huge comic book fan, but I grew out of it as I got older because for the most part, the average superhero story wasn’t maturing as I was. Then, my sophomore year of college, I saw that Watchmen was being released in theaters and I felt it was high time to read this story that every one kept praising, and nothing was the same ever since. It rekindled my love with the comic book genre (and produced a drain on my finances thanks to my new comic book addiction), and introduced me to what is simply one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

At its core, Watchmen begins as a murder mystery but to say its morph into so much more would only be scratching the surface of the various layers of this dense and complex novel. In an alternate U.S. history where superheroes are real (though only one has any actual superpowers and is therefore essentially a god amongst men) and Richard Nixon is seeking his fourth term as U.S. President after superhero involvement led to a U.S. victory in Vietnam, one of the world’s superheroes has been murdered. A caustic and darkly comic man known as the Comedian (one of two superheroes still legally allowed to fight crime) was thrown out of his apartment in New York by an unknown assailant and the remaining superheroes (retired or vigilante) are worried that someone may be gunning for former masks. The remaining superheroes include Nite Owl (an aging millionaire [the Batman stand-in] who spends his days reminiscing with one of his predecessors from the 1940’s, the original Nite Owl), Silk Spectre (the daughter of one of the original 1940’s superheroes who only got into the business to please her mother), Rorschach (a psychotic and violent crime fighter who refused to retire and sees the world in starkly black and white terms), Ozymandias (smartest man in the world and most financially successful of the superheroes as he cashed in on his name post-retirement), and Dr. Manhattan (a former nuclear physicist who was transformed into a godlike being that can alter the state of matter at will among many other powers after a lab accident disintegrated him). As Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s murder, the others deal with personal and psychological flaws until they eventually stumble onto a conspiracy that may destroy the world.

Let’s start with the artwork. This is going to be a long, long review, and I guess art seems like the logical place to begin an assessment of a comic book. I’ve read Watchmen in its entirety about 4 times now, and the simple fact that I notice new things (and a large number of new things) every time I read the book should be a testament to just how much detail is crammed into each individual frame of this story. Whether it’s Dave Gibbon’s artwork simply from an aesthetic view point, which can be both beautiful and terrifying (those who’ve been exposed to some aspect of this piece know how gruesome it can get) or its the many recurring visual motifs and symbols that frequent the pages, it is likely you will spend as much time parsing the images of Watchmen as you will reading Moore’s words (and ultimately that is where the true genius lies). It truly takes a special talent to keep up with the brilliance of Alan Moore, and I honestly can’t think of a better author and artist pairing than Moore and Gibbons in this work. If it weren’t for the fact that there are still literary types that can’t get fact that this is a comic book, I would personally guarantee that academics could spend as much time parsing Watchmen for all of the symbolism and deeper meanings that they could Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, and Dave Gibbons’ art adds richly to the symbolic tapestry of this novel.

Next, the characters. As a grown-up comic reader, when I read a traditional Marvel or DC story, I would say that 75% of my enjoyment from those tales comes more from an attachment to the characters rather than the plotting itself, which is often cliche comic book material. There are so many fun and memorable comic book characters out there, and it takes decades of mythology to turn them into the beloved icons they are today. In 12, 28-page, issues, Alan Moore was able to craft the most complex and distinct characters in the history of the genre. With the possible exception of Silk Spectre (who movie or book remains the least compelling character in the story), these characters all have dense psychological profiles that are explored in-depth and they almost all seem to represent some specific philosophical archetype. Rorschach is the definition of a right-wing deontologist where things are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The Comedian can also be called a nihilist because he sees how damaged and broken the world is and decides to be a dark mirror of the world. Ozymandias is more of a utilitarian though I can’t get into exactly what that entails without spoilers. Dr. Manhattan is an examination of how an all-powerful deity would view something as mundane as human life (which is to say with bemused indifference). Nite Owl doesn’t really represent one of these philosophies. He was just a bored playboy who had a romanticized fascination with the superheroes of his youth and wanted to follow in their footsteps (which isn’t to say he’s not as emotionally scarred as everyone else).

The way that Moore lays out the story manages to be even more dense (and beautiful) than the artwork itself. Eschewing a linear format, the story jumps all over in time and place, and there is one chapter told from the view point of Dr. Manhattan (whose mind exists outside the normal bounds of linear time) that is arguably the single greatest issue of any comic I’ve ever read in its masterful non-linear story and haunting tragedy. At the end of every chapter, Moore provides several pages of non-comic book material that are presented as either excerpts from books within the Watchmen universe or newspaper articles or similar diegetic material. About halfway through the book, you are suddenly introduced to an in-universe comic book called The Tales of the Black Freighter which seems oddly out of place at first until you reach the end of the story and you realize just how relevant it truly was. The most amazing thing about this comic is that in spite of all of its intellectual pretensions and ambitions (which it fulfills extrrordinarily well), it also manages to stand on its own as an entertaining and engaging superhero story. Even when the mechanics of its ending are a little odd (perhaps the only area where the movie was better), it doesn’t lessen the impact of this story’s brutal and shattering climax.

If you somehow haven’t read Watchmen yet, you have to. Even if you saw the movie and didn’t enjoy it (which a frustratingly large number of people didn’t), you should still read the novel as I know several people who are big fans of the book that don’t like the movie either. It’s one of the most important novels of the last 50 years. It’s really a shame that DC screwed Alan Moore out of the rights to these characters and that led him to sever all ties with the company because considering what he was able to accomplish with a brand new set of characters (though many of these characters are direct responses to certain obscure Silver Age comic characters), I can only imagine what he could have done with established heroes. His The Killing Joke story for Batman remains one of the definitive Batman tales along with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and The Dark Knight Returns. I’m very glad that I chose to re-read Watchmen for this blog because each journey into that dark and twisted world reveals a little more of its secrets and I guarantee I still haven’t discovered all there is to know. Who watched the Watchmen? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sure as hell know who’s telling everyone else they should read them.

Final Score: A+

I remember my first introduction to the works of Alan Moore as if it were yesterday. I turned 17 in 2006, and the very first R-rated movie that I bought my own ticket for at the movie theatre was the Wachowski brothers’ (The Matrix) adaptation of Alan Moore’s beloved graphic novel starring Hugo Weaving as anarchist/terrorist V and Natalie Portman as besieged heroine Evey Hammond. I loved that movie when I was in high school, and at times, I still appreciate its fairly vocal outrage against the dangerous path this nation was traveling during the Bush administration. However, much like Alan Moore has with all of the adaptations of his books, Alan Moore was an especially vicious critic of this particular re-imagining of his book. I had never understood why when I was younger since the film seemed a clear indictment of fascism and a call to arms for citizens to take responsibility for their own freedom and the governments they give free reign to run their lives. I get why Moore doesn’t like the movie now (though it doesn’t forever ruin the movie for me) having now read his original graphic novel. Whereas the movie is an almost clear-cut tale of a superheroic freedom fighter in a not entirely subtle knock at the Bush administration, Moore’s original graphic novel is a far more morally ambiguous and challenging tale centered on an uniquely British take on the danger of rampant Thatcherism which makes V less a superhero and more of a flawed prophet for his unique vision of the seeds of a new anarchic England. While both versions of the work have their strengths and weaknesses, Moore’s ability to craft a tale that makes you think more than a self-aggrandizing vision of liberal victory against neoconservatism makes his original adaptation the far superior product.

Set in 1998 (or 16 years after the book was first published), V for Vendetta is a vision of a dystopian British near-future where a nearly worldwide destruction at the hands of nuclear war has caused England to fall under the tyrannical rule of a fascist political regime known as Norsefire. At the center of the tale is a terrorist named V who wages a practically one-man war against England’s new rulers. Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask (the anarchist who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605) and spouting Shakespeare and other literary luminaries, V is the keeper of culture in a world where the fascists have erased all aspects of society (blacks, Jews, gays, intellectuals) that don’t fall in line with their Nordic vision of humanity. At the beginning of the story, V rescues 16 year old factory worker (and attempted prostitute) Evey Hammond from this world’s equivalent of the Gestapo who are about to rape and murder her. She soon finds herself drawn into V’s world where he plans on destroying every inch of the current society so that humanity can rebuild from scratch and finally take responsibility for their own future. Along the way though, he sets in motion an elaborate revenge scheme against key members of the party who committed terrible atrocities against him and others at a government sponsored concentration camp.

I’m having difficulty making up my mind on how I feel about the artwork in V for Vendetta. It certainly improved as the series progressed, and there was a certain artistry in a lot of the individual frames where David Lloyd was able to accomplish quite a bit without the need of any dialogue or thought bubbles (no sound effects for the entire series). However, on the whole, it wasn’t especially aesthetically pleasing to the eye. There was a certain ugliness about every character and every building. That was probably intentional considering the story, but I certainly preferred Dave Gibbons’ artwork with Alan Moore on Watchmen. I can attribute a lot of the early awkwardiness though to the fact that this strip was originally done in black and white with color being something that was stitched on to the final product when DC would pick up the strip years after it had laid on the shelf when its original home went under. There’s a lot of strange, muted color palettes used for the strip, and while, yet again, this makes sense from a story perspective, it is very rare that is comic is ever pleasant to look at. The one great thing I will give to David Lloyd is how he handles the moments when Alan Moore would provide absolutely no dialogue pertinent to what was actually happening on screen and Lloyd had to tell the entire story (rather than the subtext Moore was providing) through his pictures. Lloyd is very gifted at visual storytelling; I just wished he approached the aesthetic part of his drawing with more of an eye for beauty, but then again, I’m probably complaining about an aspect of his drawings that he was actively trying not to achieve.

This was Moore’s breakthrough novel, and as much as this man certainly represents (along with Neil Gaiman) the apex of the literary ambitions of the graphic novel market, he was still in his formative stages when he was putting this book together, and it really shows. A lot of the dialogue (V’s excepted) is rough, especially in the stories written before the book’s years long hiatus. Moore often layers so much external dialogue over what is happening that it becomes harder to understand who is speaking and what is quite going on than in a Robert Altman film. Despite Moore’s attempts to flesh out his character, the Leader, Adam Susan, still comes off as almost cartoonishly villainous and by book’s end, comically inept. You never see any of the charisma and manipulativeness which would have needed to exist to propel this strange man to power. Nearly all of the primary antagonists of the piece are one-dimensional political strawmen, and there’s one, a Scottish gangster, that I couldn’t understand most of what he said because of Moore’s decision to spell out his dialogue phonetically. Outside of V himself, none of the characters in this book have the mental staying power that every single character in Watchmen portrayed. What made Watchmen so good was that not only were the heroes often fatally flawed, the villains often made their fair share of points. In V for Vendetta, the only character with much depth is V, and while his motivations and methods spark debate, there’s no villain worthy of the kind of thought Ozymandias provoked in Watchmen.

You have to understand though that any complaints or quibbles I have about this work are all in relation to Moore’s later work. When this first sprung on the scene, it was light years ahead of everything else out there in terms of quality and content. This was the book that let Watchmen happen. It allowed Frank Miller to write something like The Dark Knight Rises (the more I know about Miller’s personal politics, the more it puts all of his comic writing in an increasingly negative light). Neil Gaiman would be able to craft the apex of graphic novel storytelling with Sandman thanks to this early experiment. Yes, it’s flawed, but that tends to happen when you’re crafting the beginnings of a comics revolution. Watchmen remains one of the greatest novels of all time (regular or graphic), and he laid the foundations for his dystopian vision in this book. If you’re a fan of comic books, this is must read. It helped to usher in the modern world of comics where people finally took them seriously, and at the end of the day, it’s still a great read from beginning to end.

Final Score: A-

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Stephen King is one of the most accomplished authors of all time. He published his first novel, Carrie, in 1973, and over the next 38 years he has produced a mind-boggling 49 novels, not to mention his screenplays, short story collections, and non-fiction books. For those doing the math, that means he’s averaging more than one novel a year. Admittedly, for every The Stand or The Dead Zone, you’ll get a Christine or Thinner, but there’s simply no looking past how prolific this legend’s career has been. It’s popular for literary academic types to beat up on Mr. King for his accessible and simple prose as well as his penchant for the supernatural and other pulp material. What they often overlook, however, is his incredibly rich characterization (among the best in the business) alongside his striking insights into the darker sides of human nature. Real Stephen King fans know that his best work are among his least reliant on horror cliches like ghouls and monsters (It excepted which is terror incarnate). Instead, the terror comes from the darkness inside us all, if horror is even the point. Along side George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, Stephen King’s Dark Tower books have become hallmarks of American fantasy. Similarly, his apocalyptic magnum opus, The Stand, is a seminal piece of Americana rife with plentiful Biblical symbolism and social allegory. My favorite King novel, Insomnia, has an urban fantasy plot but at its core is a deeply touching tale of old age, loss, and sacrifice. I’m happy to report that Stephen King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is simply the best work he has done in over a decade. Rife with political allegory and a plot that never lets off the gas for its nearly 1100 pages, Under the Dome is King at his very best.

Under the Dome, a door-stopper along the lines of It and The Stand, is one of King’s most ambitious novels to date, even if the action all occurs with the confines of one small Maine Town (for once not Castle Rock or Derry). As retired Army Lt. Dale “Barbie” Barbara is trying to leave the small town of Chester’s Mill after a vicious beating from some local hoods, an invisible but impenetrable dome covers the entire town exactly along the town lines. Planes crash into the invisible barrier and any car that hits the Dome explodes. People working in their gardens or walking along the town’s barrier are cut in half by the quick descent of the bars that have turned this town into a prison. As Barbie (at the urging of his former military superiors) tries to discover the source of the dome, he is also forced to contend with “Big” Jim Rennie, the town’s Second Selectman (which must be Maine’s equivalent of a Deputy Mayor) and used car salesman. Rennie’s a cut throat politician with a dirty streak that would make Dick Cheney blush, and he sees the potential for unchecked power in “his” town now that they’re cut off from the outside world. It’s up to Barbie, as well as local newspaper woman Julia Shumway and physician’s assistant turned town doctor Rusty Everett, to stop Rennie and save this town from the impending ecological and social disasters this Dome is sure to cause. When the local children start having visions of a massive fire and imminent doom, it’s obvious to everyone that time is running short.

George R. R. Martin could really take lessons from Stephen King about how to maintain good pacing over the course of 1000 pages. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books (especially all of the ones after book 1), Martin tends to back load all of the action and actual development into the last couple hundred pages which can make the first 4oo pages or so, a little taxing to read (especially in A Feast for Crows). This book starts out with a series of literal bangs and continues to up the ante non-stop for the rest of the book. Every time you think that there’s no way that Stephen King can make the stakes any higher or increase the tension to more unbearable levels or (especially) take his story to even darker places, he essentially bitch-slaps your misgivings and lays down the acceleration even more. This book is the definition of can’t put down fiction. I read this while at work (where I bar tend and have plenty of free time) and I was averaging something along the lines of 200-300 pages a shift over 6 hour shifts. It inspired me to get the actual work of my job done as quickly as possible so that I could spend as little time away from this tome as I could spare. Over it’s 1000 pages, it would be difficult to recount just how many different action filled moments King provides, but a quick breakdown would include a Roadhouse style bar room brawl, a prison break-out, attempted political assassinations, a shoot-out straight out of The Wild Bunch, and other moments I don’t want to ruin through simple allusion. Needless to say, this plot continues to evolve into a continuing darker and darker place, and what starts out as a more personal and political version of King’s earlier Needful Things metamorphoses into something more akin to Cormac McCarthey’s The Road.

What strikes me the most about the book (even more than its break-neck pacing) is how effective King has become at painting an incredibly political tale. Under the Dome is the logical culmination of his short story The Mist and his novel Needful Things, in how it takes a supernatural situation but rather than that being what causes most of the damage, it shows just how short a period of time before being cut off from society and security turns us back to our baser and more animalistic nature. However, if it were simply those themes at work, then King would just be recycling old material (something he’s been accused of doing in the past, but it isn’t as true as his hater’s think. The only thing From a Buick 8 has in common with Christine is a car. From a Buick 8 is a much more ambitious and interesting novel). Instead, he layers a political allegory on top of his social commentary that is as relevant today as it was two years ago when the book was released and four years ago when he started writing it. “Big” Jim Rennie is a not entirely subtle dig at Dick Cheney (First Selectman Andy Sanders being his puppet George W. Bush), and the dangers and disasters that come when you have the wrong kind of people in office at the wrong moments. It’s a novel about greed and lust for power, and King is expertly able to show how a crisis and an unwitting and scared public are all it takes to create despots like Rennie and the Bush administration. Some people may take umbrage at the fairly one-sided political nature of the novel, but for anyone who has seen our nation’s liberties eroded time and time again in the name of “safety” and “protecting our freedoms”, you’ll appreciate King’s sharp insight.

This should come as no surprise to long time King fans but his characterization and mastery of telling a story from many, many points of view is on better display in Under the Dome than in any of his novels since It and The Stand. It is essentially a book about small-town America, and King wants you to know as much about the citizens inhabiting Chester’s Mill as you can. The story is told from around 20 separate points of view (though the main cast is perhaps a more reasonable five or six characters), and by the time the book ends, you may feel you know the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill as well as you do your own small town. The fact that King is able to accomplish all of this character development and backstory without ever sacrificing the pacing of the novel is a masterful achievement (and something he wasn’t even able to do in the universally lauded The Stand). King’s gift though is not only getting into the minds of his heroes but truly inhabiting his villains. “Big” Jim Rennie and his even more psychopathic son, Junior, are among King’s best villains to date. Their only real competition in that category are recurring King villain Randall Flagg as well as It‘s Pennywise the Clown. Combining Rennie’s utterly evil and despotic tendencies alongside his borderline genius on how to maintain his own power, you get a villain who is more than a match for our heroes and does far more damage to the town of Chester’s Mill than the Dome could ever hope.

For those who can get past their own literary pretensions, it is plain that Stephen King has remained one of the most resounding literary American voices for the last 40 years, with absolutely no signs of slowing down any time soon. Not even his nearly fatal car accident has been able to take the spring from his step. Under the Dome marks, not a return to form which would imply his writing had gotten bad in the last decade, but a return to the masterful heights all of his fans know he is capable of. Even if you’re intimidated by the books remarkable length, you shouldn’t let that discourage you from picking up one of the most powerful works by one of our nation’s best. After I finally finished the book and came to the end of its incredibly shocking final 100 pages or so, I was left with so much to think about and spent the remainder of my shift at work in deep contemplation about what I had just read. For someone who loves the works of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and James  Joyce, I should be one of those literary snobs that turns his nose up at the pulp fiction Stephen King writes. I don’t. His ability to transform clear and simple prose that every one can appreciate into tales that cross the border into legitimate artistic expression make him a modern American egalitarian legend. This is King like he hasn’t been in decades, and fan or not, you shouldn’t let this one slide by.

Final Score: A+