Tag Archives: Dystopias


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews FreakAngels, Vol. 1 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, part of the FreakAngels series.

Ellis Duffield Freakangels

The first print volume collecting the FreakAngels webcomic by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield is very good indeed. The FreakAngels are a group of young mutants with psychic powers, who believe themselves to have been responsible for the collapse of modern civilization. They serve as warrior sentinels to a somewhat utopian community of a few hundred people assembled in Whitechapel in the midst of a flooded future London. The story was inspired by John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, although the comics medium makes it hard not to read it in light of the X-men and other mutant superhero bands. 

The characters are strongly drawn, with the central corps of the dozen FreakAngels complemented by a few key ordinary people. Dialog is often telepathic, and Ellis and Duffield manage to convey that with a number of seemingly effortless narrative and pictorial devices. As is typical of Ellis, there is some violence, the more brutal for being set in the midst of stretches of calmer, more reflective storytelling. 

Paul Duffield’s art is very beautiful. There’s no garish four-color palette here: the future is gray and green and ivory, and the FreakAngels are pale and purple. The ruined and flooded cityscape is lovingly and credibly rendered. 

The physical production of the Avatar Press softbound volume is quite satisfactory. The book’s webcomic origins have two interesting effects. First, the page/panel design is quite inflexible, accommodating only quarter-, full-, and half-page rectangular panels. Second, the narrative pacing doesn’t “chunk” into roughly 20-page “issue” components, as one can routinely expect from trade volumes that collect individual print comic books. Nor does it fully resolve at the end of this book. Having been frustrated by Ellis’s apparently stalled Doktor Sleepless after reading its first trade collection, I’m relieved and gratified to see that there are already six FreakAngels volumes in print.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews We [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Евге́ний Замя́тин), foreword Masha Gessen; trans, notes, & introduction Clarence Brown.

Zamyatin We

In the sterile land of numbers, only the Devil can save your soul.

The Physiognomy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Physiognomy [Amazon, Bookshop, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford, book 1 of the The Well-Built City Trilogy.

Ford The Physiognomy

The Physiognomy is a book about terrible violence: physical, emotional, and social; and yet the whole mood is dreamy and vaporous, with many moments of real cheer. The protagonist Cley is a Physiognomist First Class — a ranking agent of the totalitarian Well-Built City — and the novel is the story of his gradual redemption from his own vicious participation in a society of exploitation and control.

The closest comparison I could make to characterize the setting of this book would be to the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil. It is a fantasy, in a world that differs from ours cosmetically, but includes 19th- and 20th-century levels of gadgetry as well as decidedly modern forms of social organization. Features include clockwork zombies, exotic drugs, and the oppressive canon of stigmatization that is the physiognomy itself. Cley serves as the narrator, and he is often uncertain about the boundaries between his dreams, his drug-addled hallucinations, and the possibly supernatural events that overtake him. And yet for all that, and the anguish involved in the story, the prose style is remarkably limpid.

The NYT review characterized this book as an allegory, and it could easily be read as one. The names are all numinous and provocative: Cley himself is mortal and malleable “clay,” as well as the “key” (clef) to the story. Still, the story holds up as a fantasy adventure in its own right, and it doesn’t stagger under any didactic burden. In this case (contrast Lewis’ Narnia, for example) the allegorical dimension enriches the narrative rather than deflating it.

Although The Physiognomy is the first volume of a trilogy, it definitely stands as a complete work on its own. I would caution readers against the “Introduction to the New Edition” set at the beginning of the Golden Gryphon reissue: it is mostly the author’s retrospective on his writing process, and would be better read after the novel, rather than before.

“Imagine if they’d had you in Alexandria.” “Would it have added to the sum of human happiness if the library had survived?” “Apparently most of it did, despite the myth.” “Humans never use the information they’ve got. They seem to value it less the more they have.” “But there’s a romance in what we don’t know or never can.”

Karen Traviss, The Best of Us [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Traviss The Best of Us imagine alexandria added sum human happiness library survived despite myth humans never use information value less more have romance dont know never can

There’s always been disaster and war, ups and downs, dark ages and golden eras. It’s not the first time that something’s wiped out a big chunk of life on the planet, either. But each time that happens and the world recovers, some species don’t make it. This time it just might be us.

Karen Traviss, The Best of Us [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Traviss The Best of Us always been disaster war dark ages golden eras not the first time wiped out life planet world recovers some species dont make it might be us

While he wasn’t capable of taking his mind off something like a human would, he could certainly experience things that gave him peace and enjoyment to counterbalance uncomfortable knowledge.

Karen Traviss, The Best of Us [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Traviss Best of Us taking mind off experience peace enjoyment counterbalance uncomfortable knowledge