Book Review: The Lord of Castle Black, by Steven Brust

With October (and therefore Hallowread) past, it’s time to switch from random horror novels to, well, random other-genre novels. Which brings us to The Lord of Castle Black. Frustratingly enough, I found the first volume of the trilogy, The Paths of the Dead, and the third one, Sethra Lavode, in the same dollar-bin … but it took me years to find that second book, which I spent like FOUR dollars on. (Which is totally worth it, I will note). But hey, now that I’ve got the full set, we can get things going!

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as the old cliche goes. It’s a piece of advice I’ve ignored many a time, as I found myself drawn in by some surreal or outrageous bit of artwork. (Quite often on a Baen novel, but that’s neither here nor there). For The Lord of Castle Black, however, that old adage is very, very true. As The Lord of Castle Black is an absolutely wonderful book … with an absolutely terrible cover.

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“Shouldn’t I at least have some chainmail bikini girls hanging around? Conan would have chainmail bikini girls hanging around.”

Technically, the cover art here is accurate. But it’s boring.  I mean, that is the titular Lord of Castle Black on the cover. Just kind of … sitting there. With a sword. Looking bored. And that’s it. I can only presume the artist got the assignment on a Friday morning and just hammered it out real quick because he was about to go on vacation or something.

Which is a damned shame, as The Lord of Castle Black is a brilliant novel. Or, well, part of a brilliant novel. As it’s technically the second volume of a larger work called The Viscount of Adrilankha. At least, that’s the gimmick.

Y’see, The Lord of Castle Black is written in the style of Alexandre Dumas, to the point where there are several character-to-character analogues between Brust’s novel and The Three Musketeers. Tazendra, who’s basically Porthos as a lady-wizard, is my favorite, for the record. The conceit in the series is that The Viscount of Adrilankha is an in-universe text, serving as a pop-history story that is also a prequel to Steven Brust’s other (notably grittier) fantasy novels. It’s convoluted, yes– but intentionally so, and that’s part of the fun.

The Lord of Castle Black (and really The Viscount of Adrilankha) is a sprawling fantasy adventure, detailing an Empress reclaiming her birthright in an empire torn by civil war and magical disaster. It’s got the sorceresses and warlocks and floating castles of a Big Ongoing Fantasy Series, combined with the duels and secret affairs and general wit of a proper Swashbuckling romp. A great deal of the book is devoted to the ninth (or tenth, depending on who you ask) Battle of Dzur Mountain, in which the Empress’ fledgling forces (led by the D’Artagnan analogue, naturally) defend themselves from the much larger armies of the pretender to the throne.

The stakes are high, and the cast is huge– but at the same time Brust tells the story in a breezy, rollicking manner which is quite often laugh-out-loud funny. The verbose chapter titles themselves can be great gags in their own right, and Brust never lets a witty quip go unsaid (or, er, unwritten). Think something along the politicking complexity of Game of Thrones … only without the swearing and incest and pessimism.

While I enjoyed every page of The Lord of Castle Black, I honestly couldn’t recommend it to a first-time reader. Things jump right into the swing of it, with the book starting on “Chapter the Thirty-Fifth.” You really should read The Paths of the Dead before reading The Lord of Castle Black … but really, you need to read Five Hundred Years Later before that, which really needs one to read The Phoenix Guards to really start from the beginning.

These days, I tend to stay away from super-long series, but in this case I will heartily make an exception. (Plus, well, five normal-sized novels is a lot more manageable than eleven of Robert Jordan’s door-stoppers, but I digress). So! If swashbuckling elves in fancy hats sounds like your cup of tea, go nab a copy of The Phoenix Guards, and then enjoy watching the characters grow over the course of several more witty, entertaining adventures.

As for me, I’ve got a copy of the final book in the series, Sethra Lavode, laying around, so I’ll probably be getting to that sooner rather than later. I probably won’t have to keep referring to the cast of characters chart at the beginning of the book that way.

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Hallowread ’18, Part 6! Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls

Heavy Metal is the only kind of music in which it’s acceptable, if not expected, to write songs about dragons.

For this reason alone, you could say Heavy Metal is the nerdiest of music genres, but there’s more to it than that. The complexity and skill in a lot of heavy metal songs can appeal to certain parts of the geek-brain, and on top of that, there are dozens of sub-genres and sub-sub genres under the “Metal” banner that there’s always stuff for nerds to quibble over. Thrash Metal is different from Power Metal which is different from Death Metal which is different from Doom Metal and so on, ad infinitum.

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Which brings us to the most Metal of books I’ve read this year, Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls. Hendrix knows his way around the horror genre better than anybody– last year’s Paperbacks From Hell is an essential read for fans of paperback horror. In We Sold Our Souls, Hendrix builds on the sub-sub-genre of 80’s era Satanism-Music-Scare Horror Fiction (it’s a thing) and really makes it his own.

Sidenote, while I will heartily encourage you to read We Sold Our Souls in any means you can get it, I really, really recommend you pick up a physical copy. The hardback is a wonderful piece of work– I mean, just look at the black-trimmed pages here. Appropriately metal.

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And if that wasn’t enough, if you look inside the dust cover, you get backwards song lyrics! Even better!

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We Sold Our Souls centers on Kris Pulaski, formerly the tough-as-nails lead guitarist for 90’s metal act Durt Wurk (I forget how to do umlauts in this word processor so just pretend they’re there). She’s currently a night manager at a Best Western, as her musical career collapsed once Durt Wurk’s lead singer (and Kris’ former best friend) sold out to create Nu-Metal super-act, Koffin. (You can tell Terry’s evil ’cause of the Nu-Metal thing). When Terry announces Koffin is going on one last tour, Kris digs her guitar out of the basement and sets on a cross-country trek to confront Terry and find out just what the hell happened all those years ago.

Of course, since this is a horror novel, things get much darker from there. The title of We Sold Our Souls comes out to be very, very literal, and soon Kris finds herself the victim of an enormous otherworldly conspiracy. On the surface, the ‘getting the band back together’ aspect of We Sold Our Souls kind of reminded me of that of Meddling Kids— but Hendrix soon takes a far grimmer and more unpredictable take with the book. The whole thing is a roller coaster ride, as every time it seems Kris is back on track, Hendrix yanks the rug out from the reader with a new plot twist or betrayal. It’s honestly a little exhausting, to the point where I only read a couple chapters at a time (at least until I got to the final act, which barreled downhill to an appropriately metal finale).

We Sold Our Souls is a horror novel, and it does feature unknowable demons and scenes of gory murder. These face rippings are fairly rare, however– which makes them hit all the harder when they do. The real horror of We Sold Our Souls is in its scathing portrait of modern society. Hendrix depicts banal, strip-mall, rust-belt despair unflinchingly, in a way that hits a lot harder than a story about a haunted guitar ever could.

It’s no coincidence that We Sold Our Souls has two female viewpoint characters– Kris, and a young (and broke) Koffin superfan named Melanie. Hendrix mines the simple, everyday horror of something so simple as a woman walking across a parking lot by herself. Bleak, harrowing stuff– though it serves to make Kris’ return to ax-wielding form even more triumphant.

Music runs through the soul of We Sold Our Souls. I mean, it is a heavy metal horror novel, after all. Hendrix highlights the appeal of metal to weirdos and outcasts– but he doesn’t just stop there. Hendrix touches on music as a whole, and takes special care to highlight metal’s origins in country & blues. There’s even a really great (and unexpected) scene featuring Kris & Melanie bonding over Dolly Parton.

You don’t have to know the difference between Dethklok and Sabaton to enjoy We Sold Our Souls (but at least being down with Black Sabbath probably helps). It’s a hard-hitting, hard-rocking, mosh-pit of a novel, definitely worth your time.

Hallowread ’18, Part 5! Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero

Scooby Doo is one of the most successful (or at least most enduring) cartoon franchises out there. One might even call it a “cultural institution” depending on how pretentious you’re feeling. Whatever term you use, Scooby Doo has cast a long shadow over pop culture for the last couple decades, to the point where it gets name dropped in just about anything involving teenagers and/or monsters. I mean, heck, Buffy and her friends referred to themselves as “Scoobies,” but that show was always pretty self aware.

With that in mind, I’m kind of surprised I haven’t stumbled across more Scooby Doo references in books– well, that is until I stumbled across Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids. As one can imagine from the title, Meddling Kids wears its influences on its sleeve, from the title, to the oft-mentioned Zoinx river that runs near the town in which the action takes place, to probably a bunch of other references I missed in my casual reading.

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There are a lot of easy jokes to be made about Scooby Doo: Velma’s a lesbian, Shaggy is like, totally stoned man, and who the hell wears an ascot anyway? Thankfully, Cantero goes a little bit deeper than that. Not much deeper, but at least there’s more to Meddling Kids than the cheapest gags.

Meddling Kids centers on the Blyton Summer Detective Club– or, well, what’s left of them. See, back in 1977, the quartet of kids (and their non-talking dog) stumbled across … something. It was supposed to be just a guy in a mask, but what they found left them shaken. Thirteen years later, they’re not in good shape. Peter (the leader) died of an overdose. Kerri, (the brains and the hot one) is an alcoholic, Andy (the tomboy) is wanted in a couple of states, and Nate (the, uh … other one) is in an insane asylum, where he hallucinates Peter’s ghost. So, y’know, they’re not in a good place.

And so, in 1990, Andy gets the gang (or what’s left of them) back together to return to Blyton Hills and find out what really happened way back when. Sleuthing (and mayhem) ensues. Especially when it comes out that Nate found The Necromonicon up in the attic of the obligatory creepy mansion. Oh, and there’s also a race of horrible monster-things lurking beneath the lake, along with an ancient slumbering god.

Yep. It’s Scooby Doo meets H.P. Lovecraft. Heck of a mashup, that. Though I feel I must note that this crossover’s been done before.

By Scooby Doo.

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Get ‘im, Fred!

Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc was the 2010 incarnation of the franchise– and arguably its best. It was a very self aware show, with metaplot and references aplenty. I mean, in addition to doing a Lovecraft episode, Mystery Inc also did a ska episode, a riff on the Saw movies, and even a loving tribute to the oldschool kaiju flick, War of the Gargantuas. And that’s just the highlights I remember off the top of my head. It’s really the best Scooby Doo show ever and you really need to go watch it. (And now I want to re-watch it, but I digress).

But hey! Meddling Kids has more to it than an off-kilter crossover. I mean, it deals with the PTSD that ensues when otherwise innocent kid-detectives find themselves confronted with mind-shattering occult horror, where the ghosts and monsters are real–

Oh wait, Scooby Doo did that too.

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The Scooby Doo crossover is the only Supernatural episode I’ve ever watched, for the record.

To be fair, the Supernatural/Scooby Doo episode came out in 2018, well after the publication of Meddling Kids. So I can’t fault Cantero that. What I can fault Cantero for, however, is that despite the book supposedly being set in 1990, the characters read more like they’re modern-day pop culture nerds. It’s a minor thing, but it’s really jarring.

For example, there’s a point where Andy uses the word “kawaii” to describe Kerri’s hair … except I’m pretty sure the word didn’t enter the common parlance until the dawn of the internet. Andy doesn’t even have the excuse of being a VHS-era otaku, either. Or, for more defined anachronisms, there’s a point where somebody talks about how the bad guys always attack Jackie Chan one at a time … even though Jackie Chan didn’t really become well known or popular in the U.S. ’til the release of Rumble in the Bronx in 1995. Again, you could argue that one of the characters just watched a bootleg of Police Story or some other classics at some point (even though there’s no indication of this). But arguably the worst example of this is the point where somebody makes a quip about Captain Planet, and how Heart is a shitty superpower. But here’s the thing: Captain Planet didn’t premiere ’til September of 1990 (and it hardly seems like something a bunch of PTSD-addled twentysomethings would watch).

Meddling Kids is supposed to take place in April of 1990.

Am I being overly nitpicky? Maybe. But the thing is, I was able to look these facts up with the most basic of Google-ing. That Cantero didn’t do such easy research just seems lazy and badly edited. It’s almost like Cantero wrote Meddling Kids intending to set it in the modern day, only to dial the timeline back to make it more of a direct Scooby Doo riff.

Complain as I may, Meddling Kids is a fun, serviceable adventure. Though even then, it wasn’t quite the best fit for a Hallowread, er, read, because it feels a little toothless. Oh sure, there’s plenty of swearing, and dozens upon dozens of bootleg Deep Ones get shot and mangled and dismembered by the surprisingly badass former-kid detectives … but at the same time, there aren’t many human victims on the other side of things. Like, spooky skeletons to stumble across? Sure. But Meddling Kids never uses the proper Horror tropes of introducing some rando just so they can be messily dismembered by the monster of the week. Of course, I may be a little biased, having just read the gory, giddy, and glorious mayhem that is The Wolf’s Hour.

All and all, Meddling Kids is kind of like, well, a Saturday morning cartoon. Or maybe a Saturday evening cartoon– something shown on Adult Swim. If you can get past the anachronistic tone, and if you’re not expecting anything too deep or too horriffic, Meddling Kids is a fun little trip. It’s fun and fast paced– creepy, but not too creepy, and every so often there’s a rollicking action scene where a bunch of greebly monsters get dismembered. Oh, and there’s even a bit of lesbian romance in there too, so bonus.

Guess Cantero had to make the Velma joke after all.

Hallowread ’18, Part 4! The Wolf’s Hour, by Robert R. McCammon

What if Captain America was a werewolf?

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That was a rhetorical question!

Incidentally, The Wolf’s Hour was published in 1989, while the Captain America storyline pictured above was published in 1992. Could the guys at Marvel been influenced by this obscure Robert R. McCammon novel?

Probably not. As Michael Gallantin, the werewolf commando protagonist of The Wolf’s Hour is a bit more akin to James Bond; he speaks several languages, drives fancy cars, and sleeps with beautiful women. Unlike James Bond, however, Gallantin is also a werewolf. A werewolf who kills a lot of nazis.

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Hell. Yes.

This is actually a re-read for me, as I first read The Wolf’s Hour back when I was a kid. I’m fairly certain I was too young to read it, and found the book someplace it probably shouldn’t have been. Like, I’m pretty sure the sci-fi section (well, more of a sci-fi shelf) at my old high school library was stocked solely with random cast-offs donated by some alumni or something.

So yeah, The Wolf’s Hour is a genre mash-up of a horror novel with a WWII commando thriller. It’s got everything you’d expect from a pulpy WWII thriller: evil nazis, brutish henchmen, death traps, doomsday weapons, femme-fatale spies, and so on. On top of that, as a horror novel, the book also features ludicrous and over-the-top violence. People get shot, stabbed, werewolf-mauled, exploded, thrown into spinning propellers, melted, run over by trains, and so on. A lot of these horror victims are nazis, though, so you don’t need to feel bad about it.

Oh, The Wolf’s Hour isn’t just violent– it’s got sex, too! For the first two thirds of the novel, there’s at least one sex scene per section, because Gallantin is super sexy, you know. Why should vampires get to be the sexy monsters, huh? Though the book wasn’t quite as explicit as I remember it being … but I may be saying that just ’cause I’ve been on the internet too long. Really, the sex scenes come off as something you might see in a certain kind of romance novel, balancing that fine line between purple prose and outright boning.

One interesting note about The Wolf’s Hour is that Gallantin (along with the pack of werewolves that raised him) is the only supernatural creature in the novel. There’s no secret nazi occultists or anything– just an evil SS officer who likes chemical weapons. On the one hand, this means we don’t get the crazy mad mayhem of an allied werewolf commando fighting cyborg zombie Hitler or whatever. Though on the other, I guess McCammon was going more for a vibe of “You know who the real monsters are? Nazis. Fuck those guys.” Which, y’know, is an idea I can get behind. And even though Gallantin is just as vulnerable to regular bullets as he is to silver ones, the resulting conflicts still can be pretty one-sided. But, again, it’s nazis getting their faces bitten off, so I’m cool with that.

So yeah. The Wolf’s Hour is a pulpy, arguably trashy read. Which is just the thing for October, honestly. If you’re in the mood for some boobs and gore, The Wolf’s Hour certainly delivers. And as a bonus, Wikipedia tells me McCammon wrote a sequel collection of stories centered around Gallantin– I’ll have to see if I can track it down at some point.

Hallowread ’18, Part 3! Baltimore, by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

Mike Mignola is one of those artists who I feel like I should follow, but I, er, don’t. I mean, I watched both Hellboy movies, at least, and I found them pretty fun. But at the same time, I never really got into the Hellboy comic, and by this point it’s gone on for so long that I don’t know where to even start.

But! When I stumbled across Baltimore, Or: The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, I figured it would be a good way to enjoy some Mignola stuff without having to worry about however many years of continuity or whatever. Though wikipedia tells me that there’s a Baltimore comic as well as the novel, and the various issues of the comic expand on stuff not covered in the book, so, uh, yeah.

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On the surfaces (or at least on the back cover blurb), Baltimore sounds like a straightforward monster story. In the trenches of WWI, one Lord Baltimore accidentally unleashes a plague of vampires on the world, at which point Baltimore does the only natural thing and swears a quest of vengeance on the undead. As you do.

This said, it’s to Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden’s credit that Baltimore is anything but a simple adventure story. Instead, the story of Lord Baltimore, one-legged vampire hunter, is more of a framing device. Baltimore is odd in that it’s ABOUT Baltimore, but it doesn’t center on him. Instead, Baltimore is kind of like the Canterbury Tales, or the Arabian Nights, in that it’s a chance for a couple of characters (three friends of Lord Baltimore) telling various stories to each other, sometimes with stories-within-stories to complicate things further. It’s a little more continuous than a short story anthology, but it took me a bit longer than it should have to get my head around just what Golden & Mignola were going for.

Oh, and the book is dotted with Mignola’s illustrations– little ink drawings to help set the mood, though not nearly as large or intricate as his comic book work. It’s still pretty neat, nonetheless.

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The structure’s not the only thing that threw me off in Baltimore. The mood of the book is, too. Again, I had thought it would be a pulpy adventure going in– and while things kind of get there in the last quarter of the book or so, the stuff leading up to it can get pretty grim. I mean, the book starts with a harrowing account of how Lord Baltimore lost his leg in the Ardennes, and gets bleaker from there. A lot of the stories are straight-up Gothic, in the original ‘cathedral spires and isolated country houses’ sense of the term. Sorry to you Cure fans. As a result, while Baltimore is a short read, it took me longer than I had anticipated to read, simply because I could only take so much at a time.

But hey, that’s kind of a sign of a good horror novel, right?

So yeah. Baltimore is stylish and all get out, and is suffused with plenty of gore and creepiness. This said, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly deep. Maybe it’s just because of the book’s episodic nature, but Baltimore doesn’t have much to say about human nature or society in the way a more ‘literary’ horror novel (whatever that means) might. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t quite deliver on the giddy, sleazy thrills a trashier horror novel might have.

Which is fine, honestly– but it helps to know what you’re getting into when you crack Baltimore open.

Hallowread ’18, Part 2! The Annihilation Score, by Charles Stross

Okay, so I’m not going to read Lovecraftian-inspired cosmic horror for all of October– things are just working out that way.

The Annihilation Score is the sixth in Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series. The books are centered on the Laundry, the UK’s super-secret government agency devoted to protecting the world from horrible and gibbering outer gods from beyond our reality. The books are a weird mishmash of spy fiction, cosmic horror, and workplace comedy as The Laundry’s operatives have to deal with mind-numbing powerpoint presentations and expense reports far more often then they fight shoggoths or whatever.

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Stross changes things up in The Annihilation Score, in that instead of following Bob Howard, the world’s unluckiest IT-guy-turned-Necromancer, it instead is written from the perspective of Bob’s wife, Dominique O’Brien, a.k.a. “Mo,” a.k.a. Special Agent CANDID. See, Mo also works for the Laundry, using a demon-possessed violin made from human bone (which she’s nicknamed Lecter) as a weapon against the even worse things lurking at the edges of reality.

If that last sentence didn’t tip you off, these novels are capital-W Weird, which is what makes them fun. The contrast of Lovecraftian horror with banal government bureaucracy is the whole point. However, as the series moves on, Stross gets a little more … kitchen sink-y with each new novel. In  The Rhesus Chart, the book before this one, Stross introduced vampires– admittedly with his own horrific spin to them, but still. And in this one? Charles Stross brings in superheroes.

Huh.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that Charles Stross is British– and therefore so is his take on the superhero genre. There’s a strong undercurrent of ‘superheroes in tights are too silly and too American’ going on throughout the book. For example, the most prominent new superhero in England is called Officer Friendly. This sort of English silliness no doubt stems from Stross reading a bunch of Judge Dredd or whatever as a kid.

This said, the explanation for the sudden appearance of superheroes is a liiiiittle flimsy. Basically, due to unfolding events in The Laundry novels, The Stars Are Right(tm), which leads to the slow awakening of long-dormant gods, and a resurgence of magic in the world. At which point people randomly start manifesting various powers– which the broader public explains away using the most popular paradigm they can think of: superhero movies.

After TV crews catch Mo magically duking it out with a pervy telekinetic in Trafalgar square, her superiors soon put her in charge of a newly created government ministry to deal with the sudden emergence of superpowers. It’s all part of the cover up, of course, as The Laundry figures it’s better that people think superheroes are suddenly a thing rather than knowing Cthulhu is waking up with a case of the munchies.

Complicating things even further are some of the folks assigned to Mo’s staff– a vampire and a mermaid (well, a deep one in transition), who were both involved with Bob in the past. Awkwaaaaard. Though they all soon move past the whole ‘ex boyfriend’ and ‘I almost killed you with my magic violin’ before long, because they have a job to do. Because, as one might expect– they don’t just have to deal with superheroes– they soon find themselves chasing a bona-fide supervillain who’s named himself Dr. Freudstein. Like I said, things get a bit silly.

So yeah. Stross does a good job of juggling supernatural/superheroic mayhem along with the sheer amount of work it would take to basically create S.H.I.E.L.D. from scratch. Furthermore, the switch to Mo’s perspective is done quite well. She’s very different in attitude than Bob is, and Stross makes sure to highlight the unique challenges facing a middle aged woman who’s suddenly found herself in charge of a government agency. And on top of that, Mo has to deal with her ‘relationship’ with Lecter. That last part was a highlight, I’ll admit, as Stross writes some of the best ‘dream-temptation by a seductive and super-evil entity’ stuff I’ve ever read. One could easily read it as an abusive relationship– which is absolutely the point. I wonder if it comes off ‘better’ or less cliche since the seduction’s coming from an evil violin, rather than some pasty dude with long hair and a bad-boy leather trenchcoat.

While The Annihilation Score is a fun read, the whole superhero angle still feels a bit jumbled. I mean, I get that Stross is trying out new things and introducing new elements, buuuuut it’s also a far cry from the ‘programming is magic and magic drives you insane’ roots of the earlier books. Furthermore, while Mo’s new perspective is refreshing (and it also avoids a lot of the ‘cheating’ Stross did with POV in some of his previous Laundry books), I couldn’t really recommend this as a jumping on point in the series, as there’s a lot of stuff going on here.

Unfortunately, looking at the synopsis of the next book in the series, The Nightmare Stacks, has got me a bit leery. It’s apparently about one of the IT-nerd-Vampires from The Rhesus Chart falling in with an elf princess to stop an otherworldly fae invasion and it all just sounds way too Urban Fantasy-ish. I’m sure Stross puts his own spin on it, but at the same time, that’s not quite what I came into the series looking for, y’know?

But hey, if you dig The Laundry Files, The Annihilation Score is a solid entry, and worth reading. But if you dig The Laundry Files, you probably have read it already, haven’t you?

Hallowread 2018! Part One: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.

Welcome to Hallowread 2018!

In the spirit of the season, I like to use October as an opportunity to put aside books with dragons and spaceships on the cover, and instead start reading random horror novels that tend to have skeletons on the cover. Spooky!

Though really, horror and sci-fi are fairly similar genres, going back to Frankenstein if not earlier. They both often feature strange and bizarre creatures– and they both have a lot of potential for social commentary, despite their pulpy roots. Which brings us to Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.

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But, before we talk about LaValle’s novella, we need to talk about H.P. Lovecraft. There are few authors whose names have been turned into adjectives, but “Lovecraftian” instantly brings up images of foggy New England towns, roiling seas, and horrible body-horror tentacle-monsters.

The thing is, Lovecraft is also a … problematic author. Which is to say he was super racist. The key to cosmic horror is the fear of the unknown. Which, to Lovecraft, wasn’t just howling outer-gods too vast for man to comprehend, but also … well, just about anybody who wasn’t a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. This is most apparent in his story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” in which the big twist basically comes down to “Oh no! Immigrants are scary!” To be fair, Lovecraft himself said the story wasn’t very good, and he started being less racist towards the end of his life, but it’s still something to take into consideration when talking about the guy.

Fast forward the better part of a century, in which Victor LaValle takes “The Horror at Red Hook” and upends it, telling it from the perspective of a black man. You could almost call it Lovecraft fanfic– though in the best sense of the word, in which a fanfic author re-imagines and transforms a particular work or canon to feature elements that would never, ever have been put in the original. In this sense, it kind of reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, though Rowell’s novel is sorely lacking in gore and madness.

The Ballad of Black Tom centers on one Tommy Tester, a black man in 1924 Harlem. He makes a living as a small-time hustler to support his father. He knows just enough about playing guitar and enough about the occult to make a quick buck– until he’s hired on by an eccentric (and white) millionaire who keeps on going on about “The Sleeping King.” Not spoil anything, but things quickly go downhill from there.

LaValle is sure to include all the squamous creepiness that one would expect from a Cthulhu story, but there’s obviously more to the story from that. As terrible as the outer gods may be, what’s even more striking in The Ballad of Black Tom are the moments of mundane, everyday horror. LaValle writes something so simple as a black man walking through a white neighborhood at the wrong hour, and makes it absolutely harrowing. And heck, it makes the whole ‘cultist’ thing a bit more understandable– if you’re being systematically abused and dehumanized, why not summon Cthulhu?

So yeah. The Ballad of Black Tom is a short novella– I was able to finish reading it over the course of a day or so. It’s still a damn good read, and well worth anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Lovecraft mythos to check out. Plus, the book’s on that Overdrive public library app, so hopefully you shouldn’t have any trouble reading it yourself.

Audiobook Review: Brandon Sanderson’s The Bands of Mourning

So! A couple weeks ago, after I read Pirates of the Levant and The Black Company back to back. After that, I was in the mood for something lighter, and I needed an audiobook to listen to during my vacation road trip. A little browsing around on Overdrive brought me to an author I apparently return to once a year or so: Brandon Sanderson.

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Which isn’t to say that Sanderson’s work is light and fluffy, mind you– but rather when he does get grimdark, he’s … not very good at it. At least, he doesn’t have Glen Cook’s callous horror, or Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Spanish fatalisim, so yeah. Sometimes you just want to read something that’s a little less challenging, y’know?

Sidenote: from everything I’ve heard, Brandon Sanderson is a really good guy, and his writing lectures on YouTube are really, really interesting. It’s just that he’s always struck me as a very middle-of-the-road author. On top of that, he’s ridiculously prolific, so there’s a lot of opportunity for him to make the same mistakes over and over again. Or maybe I just haven’t completely forgiven him for Steelheart ’cause holy crap that’s a terrible book.

Anyway! The book (well audiobook) in question is the sixth of Sanderson’s Mistborn series, The Bands of Mourning. They’re set in a vaguely steam/dieselpunk era, hundreds of years after the ‘traditional’ fantasy setting the first three novels in the series. It’s not too complicated, but The Bands of Mourning certainly isn’t the best place to start reading in the series. Though to be honest, I only have the vaguest recollection of the plots of the two books that came before this one and I was able to muddle through just fine.

For the third time, Sanderson returns to Wax, a super-jumping, gun-slinging nobleman-turned-lawman. And for the third time, Wax is pulled in to investigate a strange conspiracy involving ancient relics of unspeakable power and his long-lost sister who was probably mentioned in an earlier book but I honestly can’t remember when. And, because this is a Brandon Sanderson book, the conspiracy will involve a whole lot of intricate worldbuilding plus crazy magical gunfights. There’s a bunch of action packed setpieces you’ve probably seen before: a train robbery, a fancy dress ball, some fighting on a flying airship, and so on. Then again, Sanderson’s greatest strength of an author is punchy and creative fight scenes, so that’s a plus.

The Bands of Mourning ties heavily into the earlier Mistborn novels, as Wax and his buddies race to find an artifact from the first book in the series. And if that wasn’t enough, the Mistborn novels are part of Sanderson’s “Cosmere.” That’s his term for a bunch of his fantasy novels (including The Way of Kings) that are somehow tied together because they’re … taking place on different planets in the same universe? Or something? He only dribbles out a couple of hints in The Bands of Mourning, so I’m sure I missed some “oh crap!” kind of revelations that a real Sanderson fan would’ve flipped out over.

The puzzle-box worldbuilding and creative applications of magic are Sanderson’s schtick as an author, and he certainly tosses out a bunch of new stuff for the reader to chew on. At the same time, Sanderson has a bad habit of overlooking mundane details. For example, over the course of the novel, Wax and Co. meet some strange people from a frozen wasteland … who somehow can grow chocolate. It’s a minor thing, I’ll be the first to admit, but it still comes off as sloppy when compared to the complex magical systems Sanderson specializes in.

Quibble as I may, I found myself enjoying The Bands of Mourning more than I thought I would. Admittedly, I may have gone in with somewhat low expectations, but Sanderson does a good job of tying together a bunch of plot elements from the previous books in the series. An expanded focus from just Wax (and his insufferable sidekick Wayne) likely helps, as once the book gets underway, Wax has a bunch of other characters tagging along in a way rather reminiscent of a D&D adventuring party. Heck, there’s even a trap-filled dungeon holding a secret treasure at the end of the book.

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Wait a minute …

Speaking of the characters, Wax’s arranged-marriage-fiance, Sterris, stands out a bit. I may have spoiled myself a little in reading reviews when The Bands of Mourning first came out, as many of those praised the book for presenting Sterris as explicitly aneurotypical. She’s basically got some degree of Aspergers, in that she’s really bad at dealing with people, and obsessively tries to control the situation around her through listing out every possible situation she might find herself in. I’m not sure if I would’ve caught this if I didn’t know about it going in. For example, Kaladin in The Way of Kings is supposed to have clinical Depression, but I just read it as him being an awful character. Also, Kaladin still sucks. Thankfully, Sterris is a lot more interesting than Kaladin, so that’s nice.

Unfortunately, not every character is so well laid out. Because, again, there are quite a few chapters written from Wax’s kleptomaniac sidekick, Wayne. Wayne’s supposed to be the “whacky” one, always drinking and flirting and stealing stuff. It’s just … well, I get the impression that Sanderson doesn’t really know how drinking and flirting and stealing stuff works. It’s very broad, and very grating.

The audiobook format doesn’t help much on that end, either. For one, it’s harder to skip pages of Wayne’s perspective when you’re listening to the audiobook. On top of that, Michael Kramer, the audiobook’s narrator, gives Wayne a pseudo-cockney “’ELLO GUVHNAH!” accent that makes the character even more obnoxious. At least there aren’t any tinfoil hats this time around.

In fact, audiobook probably isn’t a very good format for a Sanderson book to begin with. For one, a Sanderson novel usually has detailed appendixes detailing the magic system (with charts, even) which … well, I’m not sure how to narrate a chart. And, in particular to this particular series, Sanderson writes up little broadsheets full of advertisements, editorials, and serialized pulp stories to slip in every couple of chapters– the effect is somewhat lost in audiobook form.

So yeah. The Bands of Mourning is a mostly solid fantasy adventure (even if Sanderson backs away from a heck of a plot twist at the very end). It wraps up some particular threads from the earlier books, but also leaves quite a few more dangling for the next book, which is supposed to come out sometime late next year.

I figure I’ll be up for another Sanderson book by then.

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

It’s been too long since I’ve read a book with a spaceship on the cover. It’s also been too long since I’ve read something by John Scalzi.

Let’s fix that!

empire

The Collapsing Empire centers on, well, a collapsing empire. See, thousands upon thousands of years in the future, humanity has spread across the galaxy in a star-spanning empire called the Interdependency. This collection of colony-worlds and space-stations all rely on each other for survival, connected by a FTL network called the Flow. Kind of like a river network through space-time, to boil it down to a too-simple metaphor. It’s a solid, self-sustaining system.

–that’s about to fall apart.

See, the Flow is shifting, “dying up,” to belabor the metaphor some more. It’s a civilization-threatening natural disaster, steadily looming while most of humanity either ignores it altogether, or denies that it’s going to happen in the first place. A bit … too on the nose there, when you start thinking about it.

And so, it falls on a young scientist and a scion of a merchant guild-house to make their way from the literal ass-end of the Interdependency (seriously, the planet’s called End) in order to warn the newly-crowned (and horribly unprepared) Empress about this impending doom.

Summarizing The Collapsing Empire this way is technically accurate, but it doesn’t get the whole point across. While The Collapsing Empire is a big sprawling space opera, it’s still a John Scalzi novel, so it’s often vulgar, hilarious, and even occasionally touching. Scalzi never loses sight of the fact that his characters are people, with all the little quirks that accompany it. It’s this attention to the details of humanity that distinguishes The Collapsing Empire from the earlier space operas it draws inspiration from.

And there’s a lot of inspiration here. For whatever reason, it took me until now to realize that Scalzi is a writer who builds a lot of his stuff on earlier sci-fi. I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “derivitave” but there’s a direct line of inspiration in a lot of his work. For example, Old Man’s War is more or less “Starship Troopers for liberals,” while the inspiration for Redshirts is right there in the title. In The Collapsing Empire, Scalzi pulls from a bunch of classic sci-fi: there’s hints of Foundation in there, the merchant-guild-houses are vaguely reminiscent of those in Dune, and even the silly names of spaceships (such as the Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and her sister ship No Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe) reminded me of The Culture. It’s a fun mix of elements, one that Scalzi has a lot of fun subverting and playing around with. For example, there’s a big climactic plot point that doesn’t rely on a space-battle or a laser sword duel, but on academic peer review.

This isn’t to say The Collapsing Empire is a perfect novel. For one, it’s got “first in a series-itis,” in which there are a whole bunch of dangling plot points left unresolved. Furthermore, I’m not quite sure what to make of the book’s villains, a power-hungry merchant-house family. They plot and scheme … but at the same time, they don’t seem very good at it. Seriously, they’re only a hair better at planning than, say, Starscream. So it’s kind of gratifying to see the villains’ plots fall apart, but it’d also be nice if the heroes had to try a little bit harder to win the day.

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“The Flow has fallen! Now I shall lead the Interdependency!” 

Silver lining is the sequel, The Consuming Fire, comes out in October, so at least there’s a follow up coming soon. Though now I’m wondering just how many books Scalzi’s planning on writing in the series, and whether I should just wait ’til the whole dang thing is finished before digging in. But hey, I’ve got an ever-growing to-read pile these days, so it’s not like I’ll ever be at a lack of something to read.

Book Review: A Prince of Swindlers, by Guy Boothby

Sometimes, where you find a book can be a story in and of itself.

Don’t get me wrong, the convenience of Amazon and the local library is a great thing. However, I still can’t resist the siren call of the dollar bin, where one can stumble across all sorts of obscure, out-of print material. Though in this particular case, things are one upped even more, as I stumbled across A Prince of Swindlers in a Dollar General, of all places. I can’t help but wonder what sort of overstock shenanigans went on to get it there, but it was a pleasant surprise, nonetheless.

swindler

It says “classics” right there on the cover! I’m cultured!

Published in 1900, Guy Boothby’s A Prince of Swindlers pre-dates other famed gentleman thieves such as Raffles or Arsene Lupin. The book centers on one Simon Carne, brilliant criminal and master of disguise. Over the course of the novel, Carne moves to London and sets himself up as a proper gentleman and man-about-town, which gives him ample opportunity to rob high society blind.

A Prince of Swindlers, like many other gentleman-thief stories, is something of a response and rebuttal to Sherlock Holmes and his ilk. It functions as the reverse of the typical detective tale, less of a “whodunnit” than a “howdunnit.” However, where things get really interesting is that one of Simon Carne’s go-to disguises is that of the great Amateur Detective Klimo, who invariably gets called in to investigate Simon’s own crimes. It’s a delicious little twist, one that I’m kind of surprised that nobody’s used since.

The book is light and episodic– after a short introduction detailing how Carne came to London, it launches into six chapters, each their own little crime-adventure. Carne steals priceless jewels, a champion racehorse, and hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash. And, like a proper gentleman-thief, Carne even has a chapter where he foils a villainous bombing plot (and makes off with a bunch of money in the process). Still, Carne’s still something of a bastard, as he also makes it a point to steal a bunch of money from a charity fundraiser as well. Though after the crime, the money gets re-raised anyway, so no harm, no foul, I guess?

Boothby has a readable, turn-of-the-century style, full of dry, English snark. He has a lot of fun using Carne to lampoon high society of the time, and take them down a peg by lifting their most prized possessions. My only real complaint about the book is that some of the latter chapters’ schemes aren’t quite as intricate or interesting as the earlier ones.

For a book pushing 120 years old, I’m kind of surprised nobody’s made a Simon Carne movie yet. I mean, the character’s probably in the public domain by now, right? Plus, there’s a whole bunch of potential in the stories. There’s Carne himself, of course, but it’s also worth noting that Carne’s schemes are bankrolled by Tirincomalee Liz, a half French/half Indian pirate queen, who is one of those characters who is only around long enough to make one want to know more about her.

This wouldn’t be the only time Boothby wrote about fantastical crime– his most famous creation is one Dr. Nikola, a criminal mastermind-type along the lines of Fu Manchu (just without the Yellow Peril). He also wrote a book called Pharos the Egyptian, with an immortal mummy as the villain, which I may have to dig up sometime.

But yeah. If you’re a Holmes fan, or just a fan of crime stories in general, I highly recommend giving A Prince of Swindlers a read sometime. And, if your local Dollar General doesn’t have a copy, you can find the book on Project Gutenberg, so bonus!