Book Review: Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms

Oh hey, I still have a blog, don’t I?

Sorry for being a bit incommunicado– I’ve been pretty busy with a bunch of stuff as of late. And, uh, will likely continue to be a bit busy for another week or so, but at least it’s a fun kind of busy? More on that in a later blog post.

The other thing that’s kept me from writing a timely update is the fact that … well, I just read a Terry Pratchett book. And Terry Pratchett books are really, really hard to review. It’s easy enough to roast some dollar-bin sci-fi schlock (which I honestly haven’t done in awhile), but if you do it too much you almost don’t know what to make of a good book.

And Men At Arms is pretty dang good, guys.

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Men At Arms is the 15th Discworld novel, and the second in Pratchett’s ‘Watch Series,’ the collection of novels centered on Sam Vimes, captain of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. I’ve read most of the Watch novels (albeit out of order), but Men at Arms is one I hadn’t been able to get ahold of ’til now. That’s another problem with Pratchett: his books are so good it can be hard to get your hands on them at the bookstore or library.

The Watch novels are arguably the best of the Discworld books, as they’re a fun combination of crime, fantasy, and comedy. Of course, this being Pratchett, it’s not just hijinks and shameless puns. Rather, Ankh-Morpork , a sprawling, dirty complicated city, acts as something of a reflection of our own world. For example, the growing populations of dwarfs and trolls coming to the city are obvious metaphors for immigration and cultural assimilation– themes that come to the fore as we get the first appearances of key Watch members like Detrius the troll, or Angua Von Uberwald, werewolf. Honestly, Men at Arms is pretty interesting in that it’s something of a turning point, in which Pratchett starts really developing and changing the setting of Discworld into its own thing, rather than a charmingly ramshackle pastiche of other fantasy books. I haven’t read the entirety of Pratchett’s work (so at least I’ve still got something to look forward to), but I dare say Men at Arms is the first great Discworld novel. Or at least he’s getting there.

One of Pratchett’s habits as an author is to toss something ‘modern’ into Discworld, to see what happens. In The Truth it’s newspapers, in Moving Pictures it’s movies, and in Men at Arms it’s … a gun. Mild spoiler I guess, but hey, look at this cover.

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American Discworld covers continue to be terrible. It’s like they knew the book was going to be so good they just phoned the design in.

So when a prototype “gonne” is stolen from Ankh-Morpork’s Assassin’s Guild, people start turning up dead, and so it falls on the brave men (and dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, etc.) of the City Watch to sort things out before riots can break out. True to form, the modern tech takes on a certain personality of its own– which is hardly that flattering, given that the gonne is designed to kill. Pratchett, of course, is from the UK, which has a far different gun culture than the US (i.e: it doesn’t have much of one). I’m no Fox-news talking head, but one might ask just what makes a firearm so different than another weapon like a sword, or even a crossbow– but that’d be beside the point. Men At Arms has more on its mind than a simple ‘guns bad!’ message.

And while I’ve read a bunch of later novels, Men at Arms still had a lot of surprises in store. The biggest one was some stuff regarding Corporal Carrot, the square-jawed, upstanding, dwarf-raised pillar of the City Watch. Both a matter of his heritage, along with his relationship with Angua are out and out confirmed– later books kind of dance around and imply certain things, which led me to wonder if Pratchett was just gonna lead it on as a running gag, but apparently not. Of course, Pratchett writes comedies, not romances, so Carrot & Angua’s personal lives are their own business.

Anyway, yeah. Men at Arms is a great novel from a great writer, well worth a read. It’s Pratchett just coming into his prime, writing with some of his strongest and most interesting characters. So if you haven’t tracked down a copy of Men at Arms yet, get to it already. You won’t regret it. But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?

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Book Review: Feed, by Mira Grant

I’m not sure if “Zombies go with everything” is a factual statement, but that hasn’t stopped lots of people from trying. I dare say the “zombie boom” of the last decade and a half or so has subsided a bit, but it’s still given us mashups like Superheroes + Zombies, Zeppelins + Zombies, Classic Literature + Zombies, and more.

Which brings us to Mira Grant, who decided to mash up Zombies with … the internet?

Huh.

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Feed, the first in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, isn’t a zombie-apocalypse novel. Rather, it’s a post-apocalypse– or more accurately a post-post-apocalypse novel. See, in the far-off future of 2014, a zombie epidemic arose– and, after a hellish summer, was put down. With the help of, uh … bloggers.

No, really.

See, apparently the mainstream news media wasn’t covering the zombie apocalypse honestly, which meant that people took to the internet to share tips and news on how to survive. It’s not the most ridiculous version of “and then the nerds saved the world!” thing I’ve read before, but reading it today, it just seems more than a hair idealistic. On the one hand, Feed was published in 2010, right at the dawn of YouTube culture & celebrity, so she’s kind of on to something? But on the other hand, reading things in 2018, I can’t help but find some of the ideas here to be way, way too naive. Like, John Green seems like a nice enough dude, but if he’s the one who’s got to save the world, we’re probably screwed. Honestly, I’d more expect a bunch of 4chan trolls to spread disinformation and send people towards the zombie hordes “for the lulz” nowadays, but I’m old and cynical like that.

But! Grant doesn’t cover that initial outbreak in Feed. Instead, she pushes the timeline forward a generation, to the point where society has been inexorably changed by the zombie epidemic in all sorts of ways. The zombie threat wasn’t completely eradicated, only contained, leading to a compartmentalized, heavily-armed, and generally agoraphobic way of life.

And so, with most people deathly afraid to leave their homes, the internet becomes more important than ever, with intrepid adventurer-journalists going out to provide news and entertainment. They come in different flavors, such as the fact-reporting Newsies, the poke-a-zombie-with-a-stick Irwins, or Fictionals, who … write poetry and sappy romances about the others? Huh. Still, as some of the only people brave enough to go outside the various safe zones, these bloggers become a weird kind of celebrity. Feed is told from the perspective of one such newsie, Georgia, along with her brother (and daredevil Irwin) Shawn, and their tech-support Fictional, Buffy.

If those names didn’t tip you off, Feed is a very genre aware novel– it’s a zombie story in which people are well aware of George Romero movies, which actually helped to save the world (“aim for the head” being rule #1, of course). Feed is littered with various references to nerdy pop culture, though for the most part Grant does this subtly, so it never reaches the grating “HEY, REMEMBER ATARI!? I LIKE ATARI!” lows of Ready Player One.

In any case, Georgia & friends get hired on to follow the trail of the Republican nominee in the 2040 Presidential election, at which point they stumble across the inevitable conspiracy(tm), at which point various assassinations, betrayals, and zombie outbreaks ensue. Which doesn’t stop Georgia from seeking out The Truth(tm), no matter what the cost. So really, Feed isn’t a zombie novel so much as a sci-fi political thriller that happens to have zombies in it.

Unfortunately, this mashup doesn’t quite click all the way. For one, with the strain of zombification Grant lays out, I kind of wonder how the hell society even recovered to begin with. See, any mammal bigger than a goat is fair game for zombification, and all it takes is the tiniest of fluid contact to spread the contagion, so any little scrape can turn you into a murderous corpse. Furthermore, society in Feed is dependent on communications and medical technology … which had me wondering just who the hell is making this stuff to begin with. I mean, it’s pretty hard building an electronics factory from scratch normally, without the undead pounding on the door, y’know?

Feed touches on a lot of the common zombie apocalypse tropes (such as the dread of being bitten and knowing you’re going to turn), but it’s not quite as gritty and gory as one might expect. Likewise, the political thriller angle is … honestly kind of boring. Like, you’ll know the villain immediately once he shows up. Dude might as well start twirling his moustache and tying orphans to train tracks. And yet, the big conspiracy he’s part of is … only vaguely motivated by ‘power’ or … something. I’m sure this is elaborated on in further books, but still. If you’re in the mood for something about gonzo cyberpunk journalism and dirty politics, I’d recommend reading something like Transmetropolitan instead.

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Transmetropolitan also has more poop jokes. 

And yet, complain as I may, I still enjoyed Feed– or at least some parts of it. While I had issues with the setting and plot, Grant paints the main characters of Georgia, Shawn, and (tangentially) Buffy very well, to the point I started getting mad at the book when my favorite characters inevitably met horrible zombie-apocalypse ends. Grant obviously put a lot of research and work into figuring out how a zombie epidemic (and the subsequent rebuilding of society) might work, but she occasionally falls into the trap of “look at all my cool worldbuilding, you guys!” This said, the book’s action scenes, particularly towards the end, are crisp and tense, and legitimately had me eagerly reading to see what happened next. Of course, this might just be my own tastes tending more towards action than political thriller.

All and all, Feed is an interesting novel– it was actually nominated for the Hugos in 2011, but didn’t win one, losing out to Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear (which I may need to check out at some point) And, well, I can honestly see the logic on both counts, there. Feed has some new and interesting ideas to bring to science fiction, buuuuut it never quite comes together to be as mind-blowing a novel as the best sci-fi can be.

So yeah. I enjoyed Feed, but I’m not sure if I want to go on with the rest of the series. Maybe if I get into a zombie apocalypse conspiracy mood? But honestly that just reminds me I’ve yet to read the last of Peter Clines’ ‘zombies fight superheroes’ series. So I’ll at least get to that one first.

Let’s look at PRIMAL CLASH, because terror-birds are rad.

It is far too cold outside.

Thankfully, I had the day off work anyway, so that means I get to stay inside, drink tea, and … play with action figures. There are worse things to do, really.

And so, let’s take a break from talking about weird and obscure books to talk about weirder and obscurer action figures! Because honestly, I’m just a big kid. And it doesn’t get more weird and obscure than PRIMAL CLASH.

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I first learned about Primal Clash via The Dragon Fortress (who you should all be following, by the way) and some other GI Joe fans on Twitter, and once I saw them posting pics of the packaging, I knew I had to at least snag one of these figures. I mean, check out the setting description on the back of the card here. img_1296

So, let’s break this down:

      1. It is the year 25XX, just like in an NES game.
      2. We can use our future technology to bring back dinosaurs (and other extinct species)
      3. Having dinosaurs let us end pollution? Somehow? I guess if you ride a raptor everywhere you’re not producing exhaust fumes.
      4. Oh, and there’s also a telepathic supercomputer called EVOLUTION that took over the world through the CYBERGEDDON.
      5. Now let’s ride dinosaurs and fight!

 

And by ‘dinosaurs’ I mean ‘various megafauna,’ because, technically, there’s only like two and a half dinosaurs in the whole line– the Raptor, and the deluxe toys also have a Triceratops. The giant bird might count for half a dinosaur, because evolution, maybe? But everyone knows a sabertooth tiger is a mammal, while “Trimetrodon” wasn’t even a thing. (The critter you’re thinking of with the big sail on the back is Dimetrodon, which actually went extinct millions of years before the Triassic period).

Dinosaur nitpicking aside, this is exactly the sort of thing 10 year old me would come up with if asked to make up a story for a toyline, so I honestly kind of envy the nameless ad-copy writer at Lanard who got paid to crank this out. It’s basically Dino-Riders jacked up on bath salts, and I absolutely love it. Plus, the figures themselves are under seven bucks at, and you can’t even get a pair of Transformer Micromasters for that cheap these days. So I figured I’d pick one up!

The dude riding the giant bird is taken from Lanard’s CORPS line— basically a low-budget ‘parallel toyline’ meant to piggyback on the success of GI Joe. Think of Go-Bots & Transformers, basically. Of course, the funny thing is, you can still buy CORPS toys in stores these days, while the only new Joes currently being produced are, as far as I can tell, convention exclusives. Go figure.

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So yeah. According to the CORPS website (he’s the 5th one down) this dude is named “Trickshot,” and he’s a former Hollywood stuntman turned supercommando. Seems a pretty standard career path, I guess. Honestly, the CORPS bios in general read like GI Joe filecards “only X-TREEEM,” which is all kinds of hilarious. Larry Hama, this is not. Still, the figure itself is surprisingly good, if a bit generic. He’s got ten points of articulation, including a fairly neat ball-joint at the waist. The plastic feels a little cheap & rubbery– but at least the dude comes with some cool accessories: a rifle, a crossbow, and a dinky little pistol he’s even got a leg-holster for.

Of course, things get more interesting once you put the dude on a giant killer bird.

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YEEHAW.

For one, I gotta give Lanard points for digging a bit deep with this one. Like, most dinosaurs have been done countless times, but I can’t think of many terror-bird toys. Lanard also did toylines for the Kong: Skull Island & Rampage movies, so this might be a recycled mold? But I can’t recall seeing the killer bird in either of those toylines, either, so … yeah.

Sidenote: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was in the second live action GI Joe movie, and the Rampage movie, which means he’s had action figure likenesses of himself made by Hasbro and Lanard. Go figure.

The bird itself is pretty well detailed, with cool sculpting and paint-applications around the beak and head feathers. It’s also something of a brick– not poseable at all, save for a beak that can open and close a little bit. The saddle & reins look removable, though– but I’m probably not gonna bother doing so, as I bet they’d be a pain to put back on. Though honestly, the bird is mostly meant to stand there as a platform for other figures to sit on, and it does that job really well. Plus, the saddle has clips to hold the figure’s guns, which is a really nice touch.

Honestly, though, this Dino Raider is a toy, not a collectible. It’s cool looking enough to catch the eye in the toy aisle, and then solid enough to survive getting left in a sandbox and/or thrown at your little sister. There’s no cartoon or movie tie-in– it’s just a dude with a bunch of guns on a giant bird. And sometimes, y’know, that’s enough.

Though heck, if you’ve got a roughly to-scale Cloud Strife figure (and I’m almost certain there’s got to be a 3.75 in Cloud figure out there), you could easily forget about this ‘Trickshot’ dude and stick BigSword McPointyhair on there instead. Instant chocobo!

Still, for a silly, cheap toyline, I’m kind of digging on this Primal Clash business. Kind of hope they’ll put out another wave, because I’d love to see where they go with it. Plus, some of those other CORPS molds look actually not-terrible, so it might be fun to pick some of those up as well.

And with that said, we’ll be returning to our regularly scheduled book reviews before long. Stay tuned, folks!

Book Review: Railsea, by China Mieville

Technically, China Mieville’s Railsea is a Young Adult novel. At least, that’s what Amazon says it is. And on the one hand, it does center on a teenager finding his way in a strange and arbitrary sort of dystopia. But on the other hand, Railsea doesn’t have any love triangles, and I actually, y’know, enjoyed reading it (possibly due to the lack of love triangles).

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Petty jokes aside, Railsea’s young-adult-ness is something of an advantage. Y’see, Mieville is a writer who loves the grubby, the dirty, the gritty and the weird. Railsea is no exception, as it’s populated with all kinds of weird monsters (more on them later)– but, since this is a YA novel, Mieville doesn’t go as gross and grimy as his ‘normal’ novels, which honestly may be something of an advantage for someone who doesn’t want to read about the sex life of a woman with a beetle for a head who makes sculptures out of weird insect-barf.

Still, it’s worth noting that Railsea is weird as hell. New-Weird as hell, even. Y’see, it’s set in a far, far future. Kind of a post-post apocalypse, maybe? The world has been covered by rails, except for various ‘islands’ of hard rock (one of them is presumably Mt. Rushmore?) to which human civilization clings. In turn, people ride the rails in various ramshackle trains of various strange designs, either searching for salvage of the old world, or hunting the massive burrowing monsters that live beneath and between the rails. This being Mieville, he has a lot of fun with these creatures; enormous earthworms, predatory rabbits, hive-mined naked mole rats and more– basically anything that burrows underground gets turned into a strange and terrible creature. It’s basically Mad Max plus Thomas the Tank Engine plus a little bit of Godzilla for good measure.

 

(I just like having an excuse to post that video).

In such a strange world, the book centers on a teenager named Sham– a doctor’s assistant on a ‘moler’ train– the post-apocalyptic equivalent to a whaling ship, complete with a captain obsessed with finding the great ivory-furred mole that took her arm. The reference is absolutely intentional, as Mieville draws from Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and a bunch of other classic adventure authors I’m probably missing. To this end, Sham finds a sort of treasure map in a shipwreck (well, trainwreck) which sets him out on a voyage of exploration, complete with uncharted rails, terrible monsters, and more than a few pirates. Fun stuff.

Like one of the locomotives Sham rides on, Railsea takes a little bit of time to get going– but once it does, it’s a strange and intricate adventure populated by a cast of entertainingly strange characters. It’s quirky– for example, Meiville makes it a point to use ampersands (&’s) instead of the word “and” — even in dialogue and at the beginning of sentences. He’s even got an in-setting explanation for this, which … kind of makes it literary? Breaking the rules and whatnot. And, Mieville being Meiville, he’s got more than a little satire in the book as well– though again, toned down from that of his other books.

Really, the more I think about it, I get the impression that Mieville had a lot of fun writing Railsea— which in turn makes it a fun read. So, if you’re in the mood for something different (but not too different), I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot.

Book Review: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy

It’s been awhile since I’ve read something with a spaceship on the cover, and it’s been even longer since I’ve completed a Big Trilogy, which is what brings us to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy. I really enjoyed the first one, Ancillary Justice, as its own stand-alone novel, but the second, Ancillary Sword, wasn’t as tightly written. It was a second act, meant to directly lead into a third, so it didn’t quite stand alone on its own. Which, finally, brings us to the conclusion of the Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy.

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The book still follows Breq, a former ‘ancillary’ (which is to say, a human who’s had their mind scooped out so their body can be used as an extension/crew of a spaceship), and the last remaining part of the mind of a ship called Justice of Toren. Given Breq’s unique experience as a ship-turned-individual, she becomes an important player in the slow collapse of the Radch, an honestly reprehensible space-empire.

In Ancillary Mercy, Breq does her best at captaining a ship and leading a crew of actual humans as she tries to protect a single system from encroaching civil war. Which … is honestly something of an oversimplification, as Ancillary Mercy builds on two earlier books worth of plot and character development, so it’s hard to pithily sum up the books in a couple of sentences. Not to mention, of course, one of the book’s ‘gimmicks’ in which the Radch language is gender-neutral, but in translation everything defaults to ‘she,’ so you can’t be quite sure about the gender of most characters. Oh, and Leckie also cheats with P.O.V. a little bit, as the book is technically written from Breq’s perspective, except she’s mentally linked with the ship she’s captaining’s sensors, which allow her to observe stuff happening elsewhere, down to the point of registering other characters’ emotions.

As the culmination of a trilogy, does Ancillary Mercy wrap things up with a grand finale? Not … really. As while there’s certainly a lot of space-politicking going on, Ancillary Mercy, the book is pretty light on the space-action. Which isn’t to say it’s nonexistent– there’s a particularly cool bit where Breq straps on a spacesuit, clips herself to the hull of her ship, and uses an alien space-gun to shoot at enemy spaceships, but honestly Ancillary Mercy is more concerned about smaller-scale stuff. As while the culture of the Radch is sufficiently alien, the characters are decidedly human: they get hurt, they have addictions, they take meds, and they cry (a lot). Though amusingly enough, my favorite characters turned out to be the least human: a strange alien ‘translator,’ as well as another ship’s ancillary.

Leckie intentionally twists the focus of the space opera genre, so it’s more about characters and ideas than spaceships and superweapons. Which is fine, but I kind of get the feeling that Leckie tries to include too much, especially in the first half of the novel. (Though part of that might have been me trying to remember all the stuff from the first two books) There’s the thing on gender-neutral language, language in general, discussions of colonialism and genocide, a sprinkling of romance, and talk about the ethics of AI and free will, and I’m probably missing some other stuff. I’m all for science-fiction having stuff to think about, but by including so many themes, Leckie kind of muddles the message. For example, LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is centered on the idea of a gender-less society, and goes on from there.

But again, the kitchen-sink approach to sci-fi ideas is a deliberate choice on Leckie’s part. She wants to make things complicated, because life is complicated. And, likewise, she deliberately ends the book with a far less grand climax than she could have– it’s a single discussion between a couple of characters, rather than a sprawling fleet battle. Breq even mentions how things never wrap up neatly like they do in the space-movies, as if to prove her point. Though Leckie’s savvy enough to leave more than a few dangling plot threads, should she decide to continue the series.

Though, to be honest, I’m not sure if a continuation is necessary. The first book, Ancillary Justice, was a great, standalone book, but I think the broader scale of the later two doesn’t quite live up to the first one. I mean, if you read Ancillary Sword already, you might as well finish off the series, but otherwise I’d say just stick with the first one.

Book Review: Dan Gilvezan’s Bumblebee and Me: Life as a G1 Transformer.

Ever since I was a kid, I loved Transformers– I mean, cars are cool, robots are cool, and therefore cars that turn into robots are exponentially cool. This is science. However, there aren’t too many books written about Transformers (not counting comics, at least). Which is why I was rather excited to get my hands on Dan Gilvezan’s Bumblebee and Me: Life as a G1 Transformer.

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Gilvezan was the voice actor for Bumblebee, the little yellow VW dude, in the old Transformers cartoon. It’s easily his most famous voice-over role, though playing Spider Man in Spider Man & His Amazing Friends probably comes close. In Bumblebee and Me, Gilvezan recounts how he auditioned for the old Transformers cartoon, and gives a little peek into its production.

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Aaaaand that’s it.

Don’t get me wrong, Bumblebee and Me is an interesting book (at least to a Transformers fan), and it has some really neat little insight. For example, Michael Bell (voice of Prowl in Transformers, as well as Duke in GI Joe & Papa Smurf on, well, the Smurfs) was something of a practical joker, while Chris Latta (voice of Starscream and Cobra Commander) dressed in all black and did, like, all the drugs. Likewise, Gilvezan fondly recalls hanging out in the recording studio’s green room while the other actors goofed around and Scatman Crothers (who played Jazz on the show, and Hong Kong Phooey in the old Hanna Barbera cartoon) played blues guitar.

This said, Bumblebee and Me is pretty dang short– not to mention Gilvezan is a better actor than a writer. The whole thing’s written with a breezy, gee-whiz kind of tone– enthusiastic enough, but nothing particularly gripping. Likewise, this book is short. Like, there’s barely 80 pages of actual content, padded out afterward with a cast list & episode guide to the old Transformers cartoon. The book’s basically the equivalent of seeing Gilvezan talk on a panel at a convention– light and entertaining, but not a super in-depth discussion of the entertainment industry. Heck, Gilvezan doesn’t really talk about his career before or after Transformers, either.

So yeah. Bumblebee and Me is a fairly interesting, if ultimately inessential, book for hardcore Transformers fans. It would’ve been nice if Gilvezan went a little deeper into the hows’ & whys’ of the voice acting industry, but on the other hand Gilvezan is also dredging up memories of a cartoon he worked on 30 years ago without knowing it would turn into a multi-million dollar franchise. But really, if you’re not the sort who can rattle off who played which giant robot off the top of your head, you probably can pass on Bumblebee and Me.

Book Review: Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer & The Blade

Swords & Sorcery is a fun sub-genre, but also something of a dated one. I mean, the first authors that come to mind when you bring the genre up are the likes of Howard, Lieber, and Moorcock. Luminaries in the genre, yes, but the first Conan story is over eighty years old. As the fantasy genre has evolved, big sprawling epic trilogies became the norm– a far cry from the short and punchy stories of the pulp magazines. As a result, I can’t think of too many modern authors who are definitively writing Swords & Sorcery, as opposed to Tolkien/Martin inspired (and TV-series-deal friendly) Map Fantasy. Of course, if I’m missing any big writers of modern S&S fiction, feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

Which brings us to one of the Swordiest and most Sorcerous books I’ve read in a while, Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade. It’s the first in his Egil & Nix novels– I read the second one (also coincidentally found on the clearance shelf) some while back and enjoyed it well enough. And this one is more-or-less the same.

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Kemp’s written a couple of D&D novels, and it definitely shows. Considering D&D drew more from the old pulps than from Tolkien, this is fitting. He makes no pretentions as to where he’s drawing from. Egil & Nix are basically Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, just with a few minor differences. Egil’s the big guy, a hammer-wielding priest of a dead god, while Nix is the shorter, sneakier one, who picks locks and throws knives and does a little magic. Together, they pillage ancient tombs for treasure, then spend that treasure on booze and whores, and get into more trouble from there. A lot of the old Swords & Sorcery tropes are put to good use: there are grody demons and scheming sorcerers and lost civilizations and so on.

This said, Kemp throws in a couple of little genre-aware touches that elevate The Hammer and the Blade past the level of pure pastiche. For starters, Egil & Nix have a conversation in the first chapter about just why they’re trying to steal some ancient artifact, when they’ve already got enough gold saved up to retire on. This doesn’t stop them from stealing said artifact (it’s the principle of the thing, you know), but once they get back home, they use their ill-gotten gains to settle down and buy themselves a tavern/whorehouse. Likewise, when they’re shanghaied into working for the obligatory Evil Sorcerer, they wind up making friends with said Sorcerer’s hired goons– because, well, those guys are just poor schlubs on a job, right? But again, Kemp doesn’t stray too far with it, as there are swordfights and monsters aplenty to deal with.

The Hammer and the Blade is a perfectly serviceable adventure, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. I enjoyed reading it– but I’ll be the first to say that the book is far from perfect. For one, Kemp has the characters speak with pseudo-swear-words– “fak” instead of “fuck,” “shite” instead of “shit,” and “bunghole” instead of “asshole.” That last one always makes me think of Beavis & Butthead, which probably wasn’t what Kemp was going for. It’s a silly little quirk, but I think the book would’ve been served better with properly spelled obscenity.

What’s a little more iffy in the book are some of its themes around sexuality. Now, it’s not nearly as bad as the last Farfhd & the Grey Mouser book I read, buuuut there’s enough to make one quirk an eyebrow. For example, the evil Sorcerer’s evil scheme hinges on him summoning a demon to impregnate some damsels with hell-babies as per an ancient ritual. Things never get explicit (and, spoiler alert, Egil & Nix rescue the damsels, because this is how the genre works), but it’s still a bit problematic. Likewise, the tavern/whorehouse Egil & Nix buy is named The Slick Tunnel, which … that’s like not even a double entendre. Like, can you have a fractional entendre? I wonder if it’s the sort of gag that Kemp found funnier in his outline, or if he’s just working in all the bawdy jokes he wasn’t allowed to put into all those Forgotten Realms books.

Likewise, the tone of the book is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, there’s plenty of gore and grimness and the like– while on the other, Egil & Nix are almost constantly quipping and bantering to each other. Which … I guess is fitting. Now that I think of it, if the book had gotten too clever and quippy, it probably would’ve come off as insufferable … but at the same time, the swinging between grimdark gore and snappy dialogue makes the book something of an odd duck.

Honestly, comparing The Hammer and the Blade with A Discourse in Steel, I can see how Kemp’s refined his writing and setting. Which has got me somewhat looking forward to reading the third book, A Conversation in Blood, whenever I happen to stumble across a copy.

Book Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Happy New Year, folks!

Hope you had a fun and eventful end to your 2018– myself, I just drank a couple of beers and went to bed at 10. It was great. But, with that sort of thing past us, it’s time to get back into the swing of things with the first book review of 2019! (Which is a book I started reading back in 2018, but I digress).

I’ve read enough D&D-derived “swords and elves” fantasy to last me quite some time. In fact, if a book’s got a picture of some wizard/assassin in a hood on the cover, I’ll tend to roll my eyes at it and move on. Buuuuut, if that fantasy novel is Asian-inspired, instead of a mishmash of Renaissance Festival whatnots? I am there. Which brings us to a book that’s been on my radar for awhile now, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

grace

Nebula award, no dragon on the cover, AND an NPR quote? I guess I’m reading classy literature now.

The Grace of Kings is a big book, detailing the rise and fall of empires. There are dozens of characters, though the two most important ones are Kuni Garu, a brilliant slacker-turned-bandit-turned-king, and Mata Zyndu, an unstoppable warrior who should probably be played by Jason Momoa in the TV adaptation. The two of them find themselves leading a rebellion against a wicked Emperor– only to turn into rivals once the Empire’s defeated, and they’re left to fight over the spoils.

The Grace of Kings is heavily influenced by The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Liu gives a shout-out to Chinese radio storytellers in the forward), though with a key difference (well, besides the one being a thousands-year-old historical novel). See, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms relies on a certain set of Chinese cultural knowledge to know which provinces and rivers and whatnot are where. The Grace of Kings, being complete fiction, is set in a completely original setting– and one of the best fleshed-out ones I’ve seen in awhile.

In fantasy, it’s easy to get caught up in worldbuilding, leading to lengthy, boring infodumps about just why things are the way they are (looking at you, Brandon Sanderson). In contrast, Liu manages to pack a massive amount of worldbuilding into this novel– but at the same time, he makes this worldbuilding central to the plot. Tactically, one has to keep track of just where the various armies are positioned, and culturally, where the various characters are from informs their personalities and worldview. Liu himself mentioned that The Grace of Kings was meant to be read with the map handy, which only serves to deepen the sense of immersion.

Dara_Map_final

The setting is a quirky melange of various Asian cultures, with a slightly Indonesian/Polynesian bent. Liu used the term “silkpunk” to describe it, which is a fancy way of saying the airships are built out of silk and bamboo. It’s also interesting to note that the islands of Dasu are quite diverse, with a whole range of skin & hair colors. In particular, the ‘noble savage’ types who live on their own little isolated barbarian-island have blonde hair & blue eyes, so that’s a fun touch.

With the various armies and alliances and betrayals and politics and the like, I suppose it’s inevitable that The Grace of Kings will get compared to Game of Thrones. Which … is technically appropriate, though there are a lot of key differences. For one, The Grace of Kings is a complete novel– sure, it’s big, but it never drags. Battles, campaigns, whole years are glossed over at points in order to tell the story Liu wants to tell. Furthermore, while there are a couple of key massacres and maimings, I’m not sure if I’d call The Grace of Kings grimdark– the whole book has a grand, tragic scope to it, so it tends not to get bogged down with gratuitous torture or whatever.

It’s funny, as one of my few quibbles about the novel was a lack of compelling female characters (except for Kuni’s wife Jia) … until about three quarters of the way through the book when a whole bunch of new women show up, each with their own particular role to play. I can kind of see where Liu was going with this, as there’s a definite theme of change & progress over the course of The Grace of Kings, but it still would’ve been nice to see some of these characters show up earlier.

So yeah. The Grace of Kings is an engrossing novel, well worth reading. It works as a standalone (as again, it packs more story into its pages than some doorstopper fantasy trilogies), but at the same time it sets stuff up for a sequel, The Wall of Storms, which I look forward to reading at some point in the future. Because honestly, sometimes the best thing you can say about a story is “I want more of it.”

What I read in 2018!

So!

A friend of mine invited me to a facebook group where everyone has the goal of reading 52 books in a year. And I made it! … Barely.

I mean, I didn’t finish Black Star Renegades (because it was awful), but I didn’t count comics or reference material either, so I guess it balances out, right? Regardless, through the cunning application of the screenshot feature and MS paint, I’ve compiled a not-in-any-particular-order collage of what I read, like so.

2018 reading list

Laying the covers out like that kinda puts things into perspective– or at least it lets me show off the proverbial bookcase. Also, just from an entirely non-scientific breakdown, I could stand to read more books by female and/or POC authors. I keep on saying I’m gonna read some N.K. Jemisin, but I’m not quite sure where to start. Still, if the whole twelve of you reading this blog have any suggestions, feel free to share in the comments!

Another big change this year was me jumping on the ebooks wagon. Between Tor.com’s ebook of the month club, Baen’s free library, and the Overdrive app (which lets you borrow ebooks from your local library), I read a significant amount of stuff on my phone. Which did wonders for my book-count, as during slow days at work it’s a lot easier to fiddle around on my phone instead of having to remember to carry a paperback around. Not to mention Tor.com and Overdrive are both sources of pretty recent books … which are usually (but not always!) better than whatever random stuff I dig out of the dollar bin.

And since I’m looking back on things, how about some best of/worst of stuff?

THE BEST:

I’m gonna say this one’s a tie between Fonda Lee’s Jade City (magic kung-fu fantasy gangsters!) and Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls (fucking metal). The latter might edge out a little bit, because holy shit it hits hard, but those are the two books I’ll most happily rave about if given half a chance. You should go read both those books. Right now.

THE WORST:

And that’s what you really came here for, right? Because the internet is built up on ragging on terrible media. Or something. Still, there are certain books entirely deserving of your ire. And again, I’m indecisive, so we’re gonna say it’s a tie between Ready Player One and Black Star Renegades. Which, again, I didn’t even finish Black Star Renegades so theoretically that’s worse? But on the other hand Ready Player One got a Spielberg movie made out of it so it’s bigger in the public consciousness and so it’s a benchmark for how “nerd culture” is perceived and just the whole thing around it just makes me mad. So those are the two books I’ll most angrily rant about if given half a chance. Don’t read either of them unless you’re specifically looking for a shitty time.

But! Lest I wallow in anger too long, I’m happy to say I’m looking forward to 2019! I’ve got at least one convention I’m looking forward to going to, as well as a couple of other projects that I should … probably start working on right now, but eh. That’s what January 1st is for, right?

And, of course, I’ll be reading and reviewing bunches of books and talking about it on here, so stay tuned!

Book Review: Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City

Happy Holidays to everybody who reads this blog! All, like, fourteen of you.

It’s been a pretty busy holiday season on my end, which has finally settled down, which means I get to tell you what I’ve been reading. That’s what you guys are here for, right? In any case, I finished Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness in the Fair that Changed America a few days ago, and now you guys get to hear about it. Woo?

whitecity

The Devil in the White City was a book that was on my radar for quite some time, but I’d never gotten around to reading (what, with the lack of spaceships on the cover). However, to make things even nerdier, what pushed me to actually go ahead and read it was the fact I’m currently playing in a Tabletop RPG set in 1893 Chicago, so … research, I guess? That’s right, I’m such a nerd that I do homework for my hobbies.

Still, even if I wasn’t playing in a convoluted historical epic, The Devil in the White City is a solid read. It’s a mixture of history and true-crime, detailing the parallel rise of two figures: Daniel Burnham, the architect who designed the titular “White City” for the 1893 Worlds Fair, and H.H. Burnham, a serial killer who built his own “murder castle” full of hidden passages and an underground cremation chamber not too far from the World’s Fair itself.

Burnham’s story is more traditional history, as he and his colleagues set out to create something that would eclipse Paris’ 1889 Exposition Universielle. It was a daunting challenge, one that often went over budget and behind schedule (as massive projects are wont to do). Still, Burnham did manage this monumental task, building up nearly 700 acres of enormous buildings and exhibits from literal nothing. The world’s first Ferris Wheel debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair, along with dozens of less flashy developments such as the spray paint used to coat the fair’s two hundred buildings in white.

Just about anybody who was anybody in 1893 had something to do with it: Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Buffalo Bill (who actually set up his Wild West show next to the World’s Fair when they wouldn’t let him be part of it), Hellen Keller, and a bunch more I’m missing. Likewise, the Fair itself would serve as a showcase for new technologies (like this “electric lighting” stuff) that would go on to shape the modern world. Though Larsen does make it a point to note that the 1890’s weren’t exactly a pleasant period to live in, either. Women were paid a tenth of what men were, fire safety standards were pretty much nonexistent, and one ran the risk of dying of disease no matter how young and healthy you were.

Less inspirational (and yet just as interesting) is the story of H.H. Holmes, a charming sociopath who preyed on the many young women who went to find their fortune in Chicago, luring them to stay in his apartment building, at which point many were never seen again.

The Devil in the White City is written as pop-history, which is one of my minor quibbles with the book. Larsen has done an exhaustive amount of research, often quoting first-hand accounts and letters. He has an exhaustive bibliography at the end of the book as well, but I still would’ve preferred footnotes. But that’s just me being even nerdier than usual. Though occasionally things skew a little more to the “pop” side of history, as Larsen squeezes in little embellishments. “We can’t say if things happened EXACTLY this way, but it’d be super scary if it did, right?” Which, again, spices things up, but I find myself looking at it askance. Oh, and for all of the grandeur of the White City that Larsen describes, it might’ve been nice to have some more photographs of the fair itself. Then again, I just read the ebook version, so I wouldn’t be surprised if certain hardcopy editions had more pictures. But this is just my personal look at it– I imagine the slight embellishment and less-than-dry tone are what make The Devil in the White City so popular.

I suppose it’s a credit to Larsen as a historian that the end of The Devil in the White City is kind of anticlimactic, as history often is. The 1893 World’s Fair eventually came to a quiet close, and a short while later many of the buildings burned down (like I said before, not much of a fire code). Likewise, H.H. Holmes left Chicago, eventually getting arrested for insurance fraud in Philadelphia several years later. Larsen does wrap up the book with a detective story, following Philadelphia police detective Frank Geyer as he traced Holmes’ footsteps in search of his victims, but it’s pretty far separated from the heady events of 1893.

But again, these flaws are minor– and perhaps not even flaws at all. The Devil in the White City is well worth a read for anyone with an interest in history and/or anybody from Chicago and/or anybody who likes binging those true-crime serial killer shows on Netflix.