Liz Williams: Banner of Souls

We read Williams’ novel Nine Layers of Sky for our book group a few months ago. I thought it was pretty good, but it hadn’t been my first choice for books by her to read. That was Banner of Souls, and I finally read it recently, and it’s quite a step up from Layers. It fits in with my high-tech, far-future space opera preferences.

In the distant future, human males are extinct, and women reproduce through the use of technology. (This isn’t an essential part of the book – or if it is, it went over my head – but rather a piece of the setting’s color.) Most of Earth is now under water, and is ruled by the Matriarchy from Mars. The third player in the solar system is Nightshade, a renegade colony at the system’s edge which has either been given or developed very high tech called “haunt tech” which allows certain forms of contact with the afterlife. Their tech has also created the Chain, allowing fast travel to certain points in the system, and they are able to create Kami, which are either souls or constructs which can inhabit a living (or dead) body and make it do Nightshade’s bidding.

Dreams-Of-War, a Martian warrior, is sent to Earth, charged with protecting the young girl Lunae, who was created by her Grandmothers to server a special purpose, and who is being nursemaided by Tersus Rhee, a kappa, one of the underclass on Earth. Lunae needs protection because on Nightshade another girl, Yskaterina Iye, has been created and bonded with a demon-like creature and charged with going to Earth to kill Lunae. None of these players knows why Lunae is special, but we learn that she holds the key to the survival of the human race, beyond these sunset years.

Banner of Souls is an unusual mash-up of SF adventure, horror, and dark fantasy, with high-tech armor, resurrected souls, and genetically-engineered monsters. The fantasy is glossed over with a science-fictional description, which works well enough. In its overall tone, the book feels like it’s just a step removed from Alastair Reynolds’ early work, such as Chasm City.

But Banner mainly an adventure story, with a little bit of mystery as to why Lunae is so important and what the big threat to humanity she’s supposed to stop is. Most of the story involves her and her guardians staying one step ahead of Yskaterina, who’s pursuing her own agenda rather than acting as mere assassin. Yskaterina has resources the others can barely imagine, so at first they don’t know what they’re running from, and then they don’t know what they’re really up against.

The characters are entertaining but not the driving factor, either: Dreams-of-War is the most vivid character, a hard-nosed warrior whose mind has been slightly altered to feel protective of Lunae, but who is still cold and uncompromising. What makes her interesting is that she’s highly skilled, but also vulnerable for having too much reliance on her high-tech armor. To the extent that any of the characters have an arc, Dreams-of-War learns to rely on her own smarts and skills and gain a sense of worth through accomplishment rather than accolades, lessons for which she’s ultimately rewarded.

The other main characters are less compelling: Lunae is little more than a cipher, a fairly generic heroine for whom this would be a coming-of-age story except that there’s no real sense of the transition from childhood to adulthood, as she was fairly mature at the beginning, and seems hardly more mature at the end. Yskaterina starts off as an interesting anti-hero type, but becomes more villainous as the story goes on, and ultimately has her story cut short, for a perfectly good reason given where the plot goes (she’s not what she seems), but it still means her character arc doesn’t really work.

The story doesn’t have any deeper meanings behind it, but Williams’ writing pulls off the dark and melancholy atmosphere of the setting quite well. The pacing is on the slow side, but it mostly works in this setting as there are a lot of details in the background worth savoring. Readers who prefer more action-packed fiction might not enjoy it as much.

Banner of Souls falls short of being a great book: The ending is a little too abrupt, and the fates of the characters lacked emotional resonance, for me. But the world building is quite good, and Williams carries off her ideas convincingly. By contrast, Nine Layers of Sky had a more satisfying conclusion, but most of the book lacked the sense of wonder present here. Between the two books, it seems like Williams has all the pieces necessary for a great SF novel, and I wonder if she puts them together in one of her others.

Michael Swanwick: The Dragons of Babel

I came to this book in a roundabout manner. While I enjoyed Swanwick’s earlier novels In The Drift and Vacuum Flowers, his later ones Stations of the Tide and Jack Faust didn’t do it for me. But Swanwick published excerpts of this book in one of the SF magazines, and I enjoyed both of the ones I read, so I sought this out, only to find out that it took place in the same milieu as his novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (though it’s not a sequel), which I hadn’t read, mainly because I’m not a big fan of elves-and-dragons fantasy. So I read Daughter and thought it was, well, okay, but not great (I reviewed it here). Nonetheless, I picked this one up – and liked it a lot!

The high concept of the setting is that even a medieval fantasy setting would progress and go through the industrial revolution, and by the time of Dragons technology has reached something close to modern standards, with big cities, subways, and modern warfare alongside the fantastic creatures of fantasy. Class differences exist not just among individuals, but among different types of creatures (with elves being at the top, of course). Into this world is born Will, a young elf who is being raised in a woodland village until a dragon (basically a flying tank) from the ongoing war is wounded and crawls into Will’s village and takes over. The creature disrupts Will’s life so severely that he’s forced to leave the town, and he joins a pack of war refugees where he befriends a young girl, Esme, and an old confidence man, Nat. The trio make their way to the city of Babel, where Will joins a revolution, becomes an aide to a politician, and works with Nat to pull off what for Babel might be the ultimate confidence trick.

The Dragons of Babel is a coming-of-age story, of course, and also a traditional fantasy arc wrapped in a rags-to-riches story, but Swanwick crafts it so artfully that the clichés are just the structure on which the story is hung. A structure which is also largely episodic, which is why he could carve out pieces to publish in magazine form, and which also serves to mask the simpler structures.

Individual episodes are arresting. The opening sequence with the dragon is as tragic for Will as it is enabling of his character. He gains confidence by joining the mysterious Lord Weary in his revolution against the ruling powers, by working inside the political machine (the episode “A Small Room in Koboldtown” during this phase is a locked-room murder mystery as it could only happen in a fantasy world), and he has to grow beyond his mentor Nat and confront his own identity in order to reach the culmination of his story.

Swanwick’s writing style always has a hint of mythical wonder about it, but he can get down-to-Earth when he wants to, when he does more often here than in anything else I’ve read by him. Will is a fundamentally grounded, practical character who confronts the fantastic things in his life with level-headedness, even though he’s constantly dreaming of a better life for himself. He bridges the gap between the technological side of his world and the fantasy side, bringing everything together more successfully than in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.

Altogether, Dragons is perhaps Swanwick’s most nuanced, and maybe best, novel. Swanwick seems to approach each novel differently, so it’s probably too much to hope that his next book will deliver more of the same. But it’s got me interesting in seeing where he goes from here.

This Week’s Haul

Actually 2 weeks’ worth of stuff, since I was on vacation for a week:

  • Astro City: Astra #1 of 2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Green Lantern #46, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #31, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges & Jesus Merino (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #15, by Matt Wagner & Michael Wm. Kaluta (DC/Vertigo)
  • Power Girl #5, by Jimmy Palmotti, Justin Gray & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Sleeper: Season Two TPB, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Wednesday Comics#12 of 12, by many hands (DC)
  • Immortal Weapons #3 of 5, by Rick Spears & Tim Green II, and Duane Swierczynski & Hatuey Diaz (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #18, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Wesley Craig (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #135, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #29, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Kevin Sharpe & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • Echo #15, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • The Pound #1, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #1 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Invincible #66, by Robert Kirkman & Cory Walker (Image)
Astro City: Astra #1 If you haven’t read Astro City before, or the long delays in publishing The Dark Age have put you off it (or if you just didn’t like it, which I could believe), then this 2-part special Astra is a good point to jump on. Astra is the daughter in a Fantastic Four-type team of superheroes, having previously appeared as a young girl in a good 2-parter a decade ago. Well, now she’s all grown up and is graduating from college, trying to figure out what she wants to do next. You’d think this would be easy for a world-famous superheroine and theoretical in-line-for-the-throne of two exotic kingdoms, but it’s more complicated than that for Astra. This story is very much in keeping with Kurt Busiek’s explorations of the personal nature of living in a world with superheroes.

As Mike Sterling notes, the cover of this issue isn’t a great advertisement for people seeking out the comic; it’s a cute idea, but for a series now trying to reestablish itself on a regular schedule, they should have gone with something more traditional.

Sleeper: Season Two I quite liked the first volume of Sleeper, so I snapped up the second volume as soon as it came out. The first was about a superpowered character, Holden Carver, who was put into deep cover by his spy organization into an international crime organization, but when his boss went into a coma he was left on his own and had to grapple with the fact that he probably wasn’t going to come in from the cold but he wasn’t one of the bad guys either, even though he started to befriend several of them. At the end of that volume, two things had happened: He had pretty much given up on ever coming back to the side of the good guys and had risen in the ranks of the crime group, and his former boss came out of his coma.

So while the first volume followed Carver’s descent into darkness as he adjusted to being on the side of the devils, the second volume dangles hope of redemption in front of him, even as he realizes that the guys he used to work for weren’t exactly angels themselves, and that the only way out is to somehow get away from both of them – a good trick since the leaders of both groups are highly talented planners and manipulators who are using him as a double agent to get at each other.

Although the novelty of the idea has worn off by this volume, Ed Brubaker still spins an intense yarn as Carver plays both ends against the middle in an intensely dangerous game, trying to out-think the thinkers, and bringing the series to its conclusion. As I said in the first volume, it required a big finish, and it gets one, although Carver’s ultimate fate ends up being a little disappointing (Zack Overkill’s ending in Incognito was much more satisfying). But Brubaker’s hard-edged plotting means he really has few options available unless he decides to change some of the rules at the last minute, which isn’t the sort of thing he does; Brubaker always does his best to play fair with his readers. Sean Phillips’ art is terrific, as always, not too flashy (and the super-beings in the story don’t have flashy powers), and very, very dark, as befits the story. If you like Michael Gaydos’ artwork (e.g., on Marvel’s Alias), well, Phillips’ is all that and a lot more.

Sleeper might be Brubaker’s best work, but not by much; Criminal and Incognito were both very good, too. In any event, if you like dark superhero stories and criminal noir yarns, then you should definitely check out Sleeper. It took a while, but Brubaker’s definitely won me over as a fan.

(Hmm, I wonder if this means I should check out Brubaker’s mainstream work for Marvel? I read X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire and thought it was okay, but his Captain America series has been very well received and I haven’t done more than thumb through that.)

Wednesday Comics #12 With the final issue of Wednesday Comics, I’ll run down the series, in order from what I think was best to worst:

  1. Flash: Clearly the top of the class of the series, Karl Kerschl played around with story structure, sometimes a little too much, and the ending felt abrupt and a little confusing. However, his artwork was solid-to-excellent, and his handling of the characters of Barry and Iris evoked the Flash’s adventures of the 60s and 70s without feeling dated. I’ve never seen Kershl’s work before, but I’ll keep an eye out for it in the future.
  2. Strange Adventures: I’ve had mixed feelings about Paul Pope’s work in the past, and the first half of the story here felt pretty pedestrian, a straightforward “back to basics” yarn for Adam Strange (who originally was just a step away from being a rip-off of John Carter of Mars). Pope won me over with the second half, with the twist he threw in (Strange is an aged archaeologist on Earth, a young hero on Rann) and how he worked it into the story. He brought it in for a graceful landing, and made me think I’d be happy to read an Adam Strange (or Doctor Fate) series by Pope. Well done.
  3. Supergirl: Jimmy Palmiotti’s story was light and amusing, and had no pretensions of being more than that. Conner seems to be the ideal artist for Palmiotti’s flights of fancy, as we’ve seen in Terra and Power Girl. The last page has a cute twist to it. It’s a big step down from the two stories above, but I still enjoyed it.
  4. Kamandi: I’m not a fan of Jack Kirby’s DC creations, as I’ve said many times before, and Dave Gibbons’ story is trivial and generic. What raises this series above the others is Ryan Sook’s amazing artwork. I’ve seen him develop for a few years now, since his work on Mike Mignola’s Jenny Finn, and this is hands-down the best work he’s ever done. If he’s up for a monthly book, someone ought to pair him with a top-flight writer and put him on a top property, because he’s really that good.
  5. Deadman: An uneven story by a couple of guys I’m not familiar with. It seemed to evoke the Dini/Timm animated cartoons in its look, and it was a pretty straightforward Deadman story overall; it would have fit in well with his shorts in Adventure Comics circa 1980. Pretty good, not great.
  6. The Demon & Catwoman: This story meandered all over the place, and felt like a rehash of any number of Demon stories I’ve already read. Brian Stelfreeze’s art was interesting, since I’ve don’t think I’ve seen him do line art before, just painted work. I’d be happy to see more of it. A few nice moments sprinkled through the otherwise pedestrian script, though.
  7. Green Lantern: A yawner of a script by the usually-reliable Kurt Busiek, although Joe Quinones’ New Frontier-esque art was good. Like the previous story, it had a few good moments sprinkled in, but this was a run-of-the-mill series.
  8. Metal Men: Also run-of-the-mill, which was probably more than most people expected from Dan Didio, whose fiction writing I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Jose Luis Garcia Lopez is always good for some boffo artwork, though.
  9. Sgt. Rock: Utterly routine story by Adam Kubert, with art that looked like it was phoned in by Joe Kubert. Too bad.
  10. Metamorpho: Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred mostly play around with story structure, very self-consciously. The basic story wasn’t very much, and the structural experiments weren’t very interesting to me, so I don’t count this as a big success. A nice try, though.
  11. Hawkman: Mostly-lovely artwork by Kyle Baker completely sunk by his wretched story and awkward script, complete with an abrupt ending. Probably the biggest disappointment in the series.
  12. Teen Titans: A “nice try” of the story with a twist that came too late to save it, and artwork in a style that doesn’t appeal to me, with an unsympathetic coloring job. The last page doesn’t even feel like an ending, and it ends on a cliché.
  13. Batman: Nice Mazzucchelli-esque art, but Azzarello’s script meandered around the edges of the story, going for a noir feel without any of the impact I expect from noir-ish stories. And ultimately I just didn’t care about the story being told, as the characters were too superficial.
  14. Superman: John Arcudi’s story, about aliens making Superman doubt his identity, just felt completely wrong for the character, so wrong that even revealing what was going on didn’t make me believe in it. Lee Bermejo’s art didn’t work for me at all, with a coloring job that made the pictures look ridiculous. This one just missed on every level, and it didn’t even feel like a Superman story. An Atomic Skull story would have been a step up.
  15. Wonder Woman: Ben Caldwell seems pretty talented (this is my first exposure to his work), but his approach to this story didn’t work for me at all: Way too many panels, very little detail, too many words, and layouts that rendered the whole thing basically unreadable. He seemed to be actively working against the format. I think I gave up after the second page.

So what about the package as a whole? Well, it was very uneven, and it was disappointing that only 3 of the 15 stories were more than mediocre, and there were so many that were just blah, indeed that fully a third of them were downright bad (okay, Sturgeon’s Law applies, but still, disappointing). The art in the series was generally good, but the writing really fell down, time after time, either trying and failing to be meaningful (Superman), being too lightweight (Green Lantern, Metal Men, Sgt. Rock), or trying to be clever about working with the format but failing (Batman, Hawkman). The best strips told stories with their own unique twists or structure, which worked within the page-a-week format but weren’t self-conscious about it.

If DC tries an experiment like this again, I doubt I’d pick it up unless it looks like they’re putting a new twist on it, or the stories appear to be significantly better. Overall I don’t think Wednesday Comics was a successful experiment, and I think it will be quickly forgotten. So far DC hasn’t come close to the artistic success of 52 in their later weekly series.

The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #1 Last month, I was disappointed in the ending to the first series of Mark Waid’s The Unknown, as the story ended in an unsatisfying manner. But this first issue of the new series has me excited for what Waid is doing.

In the first series, James Doyle is hired as an assistant and bodyguard to Catherine Allingham, the world’s greatest detective – who has six months to live. Naturally she’s become fascinated by things involving life extension, death, and the soul, perhaps obsessed. In this issue, Doyle is on his own, being hired as a security guard for a park where Allingham will also be present – but Doyle has no memory of meeting her. Moreover, it’s a year later. And Allingham is hiring a new assistant. Doyle starts to regain his memory, and realizes that many things are not right, and he starts investigating why.

This is quite a hook for the series, and explains why the first series was merely set-up; in its way, it’s as big a revelation as the big surprise in Invincible ten issues in, only here it’s the set-up for the story going forward. On top of that, this issue ends on a big cliffhanger.

Waid’s got me. I’m hooked.

Return to the Big Island

It’s been a few days since we got back from our second trip to Hawaii. (Our first trip was back in 2003.) We flew out on Tuesday September 22, and went back to the big island of Hawaii, since after our first week there we figured there was at least another week’s worth of stuff to see. We used The Big Island Revealed as our guidebook again, picking up the latest edition, and again it was quite good.

Tuesday we woke up at 5 am PDT, caught a 9 am flight from San Francisco, and got in to the Kona airport at 11 am HST (there’s a 3-hour time shift at this time of year compared to the west coast). We unfortunately made the mistake of not eating enough early in the day, and even though we had a good-sized lunch, I ended up worn down and with a splitting headache by the evening. A good-sized dinner helped, but it made the later afternoon a bit of a downer, especially as we were shopping in downtown Kona in the heat and humidity. So basically: Not enough food, and doing too much on the day of our arrival. (I was also bummed to find that the Big Island Steak House in the nearby Kings Shops had closed since our last visit. Their food was good and plentiful, and their drinks were terrific, but I guess business just wasn’t good enough to stay afloat.) We ended up eating at Roy’s instead, which I think is okay, but rather pricy even by Hawaii standards.

Incidentally, we stayed again at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott, about 25 miles north of Kona, in the middle of the resort coast. While there isn’t much on the resort coast other than, well, resorts, it is a convenient place from which to get to several other parts of the island. We liked the hotel when we stayed there before, and they’ve renovated since then, so we were happy with it the second time, too.

Wednesday we started the day – as we almost always did on this trip – with breakfast and coffee from the coffee bar, followed by several hours in and by the hotel pools. Then we headed out in the car (okay, the boat, as we’d rented a Ford Expedition, which felt huge to drive, although it wasn’t bad once we got used to it) and headed into the north district of Kohala. There’s something about the land on the north coast that appeals to me: The grassy lands which gradually change to rainforest, the houses and towns and communities. Not a bad place to live, I imagine, so long as you don’t mind an hour’s drive to the nearest “major” city.

We stopped for lunch in the larger town of Waimea before heading north where we did the hike down the hill to the black sand beach in Pololu Valley. It was hot, muggy, and a steep hike over uneven terrain – and still worth it when we got to the bottom. We did this hike last time too, and perhaps next time we’ll go to one of the more accessible black sand beaches instead. On the way back we stopped at Tropical Dreams in Hawi for some ice cream. Alas, I was sad to see that the Kohala Book Shop closed earlier this year, as they were a nifty used book store in Kapa’au where I found some neat stuff on our last trip. But I imagine trying to run a used bookstore in a remote part of a tropical island is a difficult feat to pull off for a long time.

The black sand beach viewed from the trail down
(click on icons to view
a larger image)

Most of our days ended with us heading back to the hotel to shower since we would get pretty grubby on our travels, and put on clean clothes for dinner. On this day we drove up to the Cafe Pesto, which I think is the closest good restaurant to our hotel which isn’t on a resort, about 10 miles away. We think they’ve moved since last time we went there, to a larger venue with a larger menu. They’re still good, though. We got mixed drinks at almost every dinner on our vacation, which ain’t bad.

Thursday was one of our two forays over to the larger town of Hilo, which is unlike anything on the island, as it appears to have been mostly built in the 40s and 50s, and not significantly updated since then, so it almost looks like something out of an old movie. On the way we stopped at Huli Sue’s in Waimea for lunch, which I think may be my favorite restaurant we ate at on this trip. Very good BBQ, very good milkshakes.

The weather on this trip was funky: A little overcast at the hotel when we left, but cloudy and lightly raining in Waimea, which is up at 2500 feet. As we drove east towards Hilo, we drove through a heavy rain squall, and then into sunshine along the north coast. By the time we got to Hilo it was overcast again. Then we drove down into the eastern district of Puna, which we hadn’t really gone to last time, and which was mostly overcast and raining. It also, oddly, had one of the widest stretches of highway on the whole island. Maybe Puna is more built up than it appears and the lanes are needed for the travel to and from Hilo.

Originally, I’d planned for us to see some of the sights along the Puna coast, but before we’d set out I’d checked our guidebook’s web page to see where the current lava flow is, and it turns out we could get to it from the Puna side of the island. So we drove down towards the flow, and soon saw a giant steam plume where the lava was flowing into the ocean, at the end of a grinded lava road the state maintained. We headed down to the road where we were confronted with signs saying it was only open from 5-8 pm, and it was currently about 3 pm. Unsure what to do we waited a little while, and then several cars blew past us, and one guy in a coffee truck waved us to follow him.

It turns out that the road is open all the time (it’s a funky mix of ground-down lava and old road from the town of Kalapana, which was mostly destroyed by the lava flow about 20 years ago), but the actual walk to the viewing site is on private land, and due to budget issues the state only has guides for a limited time each day, around sunset when the viewing is best, so the viewing area didn’t open until 5. However, a number of vendors set up at the end of the road to sell art, coffee, flashlights, etc., and arrive early to get the good spots. So we drove up along the Puna coast, through the rainforest, and stopped to see the ocean several times, taking some good pictures of the blue water, and occasionally getting rained on. That killed time until we returned around 5, and hiked out to the viewing area.

It was not a terrific view, as we were about half a mile from the lava flow, so our view was quite distant. (I guess much of the land between the viewing area and the flow is various private lands so we couldn’t get any closer for legal reasons.) But as the sun set we were able to get some pretty good pictures and camera-films of the plume and the glow of the lava, occasionally seeing some lava flow over the edge on our side. We’d completely missed out on seeing lava last time we were here, so it was great to see some of it this time. Maybe next visit we’ll get even closer! On the drive back we stopped for dinner at Pescatore, which is a pretty good traditional Italian restaurant. I seem to recall the food being a little better last time we were here, but it was still good.

The glow from the lava flow, a little after sunset

Friday we decided to take things a little easier after our adventures, although it didn’t quite turn out that way.

We had lunch in Kona, at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, which was quite good and I think was Debbi’s favorite restaurant on the trip. Then we drove down to Kona coffee country, and bought coffee at both Greenwell Farms and Bay View Farm. Kona coffee is plenty expensive ($25-$30 per pound), but it’s soooooo good, so we bought several pounds. Everyone at both farms were very friendly, but we also learned from these visits (among others) that the recession has been hitting Hawaii hard, as tourism is really down. We’d noticed this at our hotel, too, as the pool was much quieter than last time. I imagine the coffee farms rely on tourists quite a bit, so I hope they can make it.

I made a friend at Bay View, a brightly-colored gecko who was licking the dry coffee creamer, and of which I got some good pictures and a video.

Friendly gecko

I thought it would be neat to do an easier hike, going down to the natural “arch city” along the cost in Honaunau, north of the Place of Refuge (which we visited last time). Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy. First we had trouble spotting the entrance to the gravel path through the forest leading to the coast, although we found it after a little trial and error. The path is a little tricky to follow, but not too bad. But when we got to the coast, it was quite rocky, and we had to be careful to avoid spots where the ocean waves might splash up on to us (and, more importantly, try to drag us into the ocean). We hiked maybe half a mile along the coast, and saw a couple of arches, but we couldn’t get close enough to get a real good view of any of them, although seeing the water ebb and flow in them, and sometimes blow out a hole at the other end, was pretty neat. But overall it was less impressive than I’d hoped.

Water flowing back into one of the stone arches

The real excitement came when we turned around to head back (rather than continuing the 3-mile circle the guidebook recommends); we couldn’t find the path back! At one point we thought we spotted the path, so we forged into the forest, but it didn’t look familiar.

And then I walked into a spider web. And got a big-ass brown spider crawling over me (maybe an inch and a half from leg to leg).

And Debbi hates spiders.

So I was frantically trying to brush the thing off of me – off of my brown Hawaiian shirt – and it took several tries before I did so. And then we tried to find our way back to the coast, but as I looked around, it seemed like every path had an even bigger spider in a giant web blocking the way (some of them were bright blue or green, but some of them were also twice as big as the one I’d already met). Yes, we were trapped in The Grove of Big-Ass Spiders.

Finally I calmed down enough to look around and figure out how we’d gotten in, so we got back to the coast. Debbi finally noticed that we hadn’t gone back far enough, so we walked back the rest of the way, found the path back to the road, and made it out.

But that was a lot more excitement for a lot less pay-off than we’d hoped. My guess is that the arches look a lot more impressive from a boat in the ocean. Oh well.

After this we were pretty much done for the day, so we drove back to the hotel, had dinner at a nearby restaurant, and collapsed for the evening. Whew!

Despite this, on Saturday we headed out early – the one day we didn’t spend by the pool – for the big adventure I’d most wanted to go on: Driving to South Point, which itself is neat enough, and then hiking an hour each way to the green sand beach. We’d skipped this hike last time since Debbi was recovering from a sprained ankle and we didn’t want to risk something happening on that hike. On the drive down we stopped for breakfast at the Aloha Theatre Cafe, whose french toast breakfast with coconut syrup was totally yummy, and which we highly recommend.

The hike, it turns out, is not so bad; the ground is not very even, but we made pretty good time, and it was always pretty easy to figure out which way to go. We were also fortunate that the wind was not so bad, and that it was overcast and cooler than it might have been. Once we got to the beach, which is at the bottom of a steep incline, we tried to figure out how to get down to it. Some folks we passed told us to go to a sign on the near side, climb down some rocks, and then take a path around the edge of the incline to the beach. We found the sign, but going down – and, more importantly, back up – the rocks looked pretty daunting, so we passed. Instead we walked around to the top of the cliff to get a better look. Well, when we did so, we saw people scaling the cliff pretty easily to get up and down. It turns out there’s a short ladder at the top to get you down the toughest part, and then you can work your way down the sandstone along some inclines, and use some stairs people have carved into the sandstone to get down. It’s not trivial, but it was actually pretty easy once we saw what to do. So we went down to the beach and hung out for a while, marveling at the green sand, and watching swimmers and even one diver enjoying the water.

The green sand beach from the top of the cliff

On the walk back we passed several people going to the beach. At one point two women in a jeep asked us if it was worth it, and we said yes! We made it back to the car, a little tired but very happy to have made the trip, and drove back to the hotel (well, we stopped to buy some donkey balls at Surfin Ass on the way). We were pretty exhausted, so we had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was okay, although rather overpriced. (Saturday they give 30% off your bill, which helped.) On the bright side, it was more food than we could actually eat! Afterwards we changed and went down to the hot tub, where we chatted with one couple for a while before they went in, and then were joined by a couple of women – who turned out to be the same women who’d passed us on the way back from the green sand beach and asked us whether it was worth it! They agreed that it was. Apparently they’d spend 5 days on Maui and then 5 days on the big island, and had driven all over the place on both islands, and this night was the one time they’d really used the hotel pools at all – and they were leaving the next day. One of them wondered if they could stay another day, and the other one said the “marginal value” of staying wouldn’t equal the cost, which amused me since I hear the term “marginal value” mainly in baseball analysis; she said she’s an accountant, which makes sense. I guess everyone uses the geek-speak from their profession in humorous contexts from time to time.

Sunday we used as an off-day, driving into Kona and eating and shopping for most of the afternoon. The weather was overcast and cool, so it wasn’t too uncomfortable to be walking from store to store. Our one disappointment was that we’d wanted to go back to Jackie Rey’s for lunch, but they’re closed for lunch on Sundays. Alas.

Monday we drove back to Hilo, or nearly so, having lunch at Huli Sue’s, and visiting the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, which was the last major sight on the island I really wanted to see. It’s beautiful! A lot of vertical walking to get from the road to the garden, though, but they have lots of tropical plants and flowers, a waterfall, and a beautiful coastal view. Well worth the entry fee, I thought. We also drove to Akaka Falls, which was okay, but not really a must-see.

In the evening Debbi wanted to do some shopping nearby. She ended up buying a pendant at the Pearl Factory, and getting a much-larger-than-average pearl in the bargain. Good deal! We had dinner, lay in one of the lounge chairs on the patio for a while, and finished the evening with a dip in the hot tub.

Tuesday it was time to head home. Sob! We got to the airport way early, so we had plenty of time to cool our heels and be sad to be leaving. On the other hand, we blew through security in no time at all, which beats standing in long lines. Unlike our trip back from Boston in June, this flight went completely smoothly, landing in San Francisco a little early, and we were home by 10 pm. We both took Wednesday off to catch up on important stuff after the vacation, and it was nice to see the cats again (Newton was so excited he kept waking us up overnight, which was not appreciated).

But now we’re already looking forward to going back again. Not sure when that’s going to happen, but hopefully before another 6 years have passed!

Above the black sand beach

That's all folks!