Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mechanicum by Graham McNeill

Horus Heresy: Mechanicum by Graham McNeill is the tenth book in the Horus Heresy series and the first that doesn’t focus on the Space Marines. This, I assume, was an editorial risk by Black Library to broaden the scope of the Horus Heresy series. It was trying to reconcile the lack of Space Marines that lead me to write my previous article Warhammer 40K Universe - Black Library’s Challenge. By defining the Horus Heresy not in terms of the Space Marines and instead by a broader theme of a loss of innocence, then you can easily fit Mechanicum into the Horus Heresy canon. That fact is precisely what makes Mechanicum so successful.

Graham McNeill has continued the trend of being my favorite Horus Heresy writer. Graham writes memorable dialogue and thus far in the Horus Heresy has done an excellent job of creating dramatic irony through excellent foreshadowing. Not only does Graham capture the feel of the Space Marines, he is able to capture the unique flavor of each chapter. Graham brings these talents to Mechanicum. The Mechanicum has its own unique culture, and history alien to the rest of the Imperium. Capturing this is a unique challenge as they are so completely different from the Space Marines and Imperial Guard that dominate the majority of the Black Library’s catalog.

Mechanicum’s plot is its strongest feature. This is not to say that the dialog and world building are deficient, which they are not, but it is the plot that shines. Mechanicum’s plot is two fold. The primary plot charts the fall of the Mechanicum into heresy. The secondary plot concerns the secret origins of the Mechanicum. The secondary plot is interesting and full of fluff for the hardcore Warhammer 40K fans. But, beyond setting up an obvious sequel it has no direct bearing on the Horus Heresy’s overall plot. It is also impossible to discuss without major spoilers so I will simply avoid it.

The primary plot, the rise of the Dark Mechanicum, is incredibly well conceived because it captures the essence of the Horus Heresy so completely. The essence being betrayal and a loss of innocence on the eve of greatness. Parallelling the corruption of the Space Marines, the Mechanicum is slowly being corrupted from the inside as well. Drawn into heresy through petty jealousies and ego. Kelbor-Hal, the Fabricator General of Mars, resents the Emporer and his capricious edicts; specifically declaring some information verboten. This central fact is a recurring theme within the Horus Heresy; e.g. the Emperor’s mysterious retreat to Terra and interdiction on sorcery. Of course, this lack of faith in the Emperor leads Kelbor-Hal into heresy via his lust for knowledge.

The complement to Kelbor-Hal’s fall is the rise of Koriel Zeth, forge mistress of Magma City. Koriel works to throw off the superstitious shackles of the Machine Cult; risking being branded a heretic by her peers. Her greatest ambition is the creation of the All Knowledge Machine. A device which taps into the aether, aka Warp, to access the latent knowledge of all mankind.

That is the setup for the novel. As you can see it mirrors the fall of the Space Marine Legions. Kelbor-Hal is the greatest Fabricator General in the history of Mars. He takes the role of Horus. Koriel Zeth is about to lead the Mechanicum into a Golden Age, indeed lead all mankind into a new Golden Age. She takes the role of the Emperor.

Kelbor’s decent into heresy leads the Mechanicum into civil war. The outcome of which is the creation of the Dark Mechanicum. Additionally, a good part of the Mechanicum’s knowledge and history is also lost during the conflict The result of which sends the Mechanicum deeper into the arms of the Machine Cult, leading to future of stagnation and superstition. Again, this parallels the future of the Imperium as the ultimate outcome of the Horus Heresy.

As Graham develops this plot, he also brings his trademark skill to the novel. The Mechanicum is brought to life through its characters. Their unique drives and ambitions are explored. Of particular note is the detail into which the Legio are explored. Although they have little direct bearing on the plot, they do serve to bring a martial element to the novel so that it is not saturated with purely political machinations. Mixed in is a tremendous amount of fan service through delicious fluff, particularly the secondary plot.

But, the reason I enjoyed this novel so much is how it successfully broadened the scope of the Horus Heresy, showing the reader that the treachery of Horus was repeated many times throughout the Imperium. The sense of loss in Mechanicum is acute and painful. The grand battle at the end of the novel is heart wrenching. Mechanicum captures the heart of the Horus Heresy and provides a new perspective through which to view heresy; giving the reader a great appreciation of the scope of Horus’ treachery. I can only hope the rest of the Horus Heresy is as successful as this novel.

The Black Library: Mechanicum by Graham McNeill
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1844166060

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Horus Heresy - Black Library's Challenge

While trying to organize my review for Mechanicus I started thinking about the unique challenges faced by Black Library writers. In short a writer must integrate themselves into an existing universe while conforming to a predefined canon, style, and tone. That is no mean feat. Thinking on this idea further I was trying to decide what exactly defines the Horus Heresy.

When trying to define the writing style of Warhammer 40K, you really have to think sci-fantasy. Warhammer 40K is nominally sci-fi but perhaps more accurate to be called sci-fantasy and even more accurately, dystopian gothic sci-fantasy. This style is most keenly felt in the diction choice both through spoken dialog and description. Black Library uses anachronistic word selection which conveys a sense of age and authority to the text. In addition, Black Library has cultivated a pidgin language of pseudo-Latin techno-speak. Perhaps the greatest aspect of this unique pidgin is how it manages to merge science and religion through root word choices, creating a high description word selection.

Where the Horus Heresy differs is that it is not dystopian. It is still gothic sci-fantasy but the fledgling Imperium has not yet lost its innocence. This is found in the diction choice. The dialog and description is decidedly more positive, everything is tinged with a sense of anticipation. The galaxy is falling to the might of the Emperor and his Legions. The Horus Heresy is the zenith of the Imperium. This diction choice directly supports the narrative them of the Horus Heresy. Mankind is ascendant. Horus Heresy is about man at his finest with the galaxy firmly in his grip.

This is itself in direct contradiction to Warhammer 40K where the galaxy is in a slow decline to stagnation; a stagnation of both spirit and mind. Whereas Warhammer 40K is full of heroes facing valiantly fighting a loosing battle, Horus Heresy is still an age of conquest and glory. The Emperor and his Primarchs walk with mankind. In Warhammer 40K the Emperor and the Primarchs are nearly myth, cloaked so heavily in mysticism from the passage of time.

So, when I am reading a Horus Heresy novel I really look to see how well an author captures the feel of the Horus Heresy universe; the sense of hope and glory. I can’t imagine how tricky this must be for the Black Library’s long time contributing authors as due to the amount of time they have spent in the Warhammer 40K universe proper and its distinctly different style. Not only does the author have to capture the unique pidgin and cleave to the canon but they also have to reverse course on the theme of the universe. This fact is of the utmost importance because after all, everyone knows the end of the Horus Heresy story. If the Black Library and its writers do not build up the narrative enough then the fall will impact weakening the most pivotal moment of the entire Warhammer 40K universe. Now that is a daunting for a Space Marine.

Image Source: The Black Library

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Complicated. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is complicated. It is hard to appreciate the amount of effort that went into developing the structure of this narrative. After having read A Game of Thrones, that is the one truth of this book that stands out to me. It is a complexity of necessity as G.R.R.M. slowly pulls the curtains up on the theater that is A Song of Ice and Fire.
The complexity of the narrative is centered on the myriad viewpoints and characters that pack the story lines to bursting. Each chapter is titled and centered on the viewpoint of a single character with an extraordinary eight distinct points of view to be juggled by the reader. Taken at face value, it is rare to see an author attempt to develop so many primary characters to say nothing of the myriad secondary characters. Rarer still to be successful.

To make things even more difficult, the age range of these characters is enormous, from small children to age adults. Although one of my few critiques of A Game of Thrones is that the children do not seem to be children but adults with a smaller world view. This very well could be intentional as I am not sure what entertainment could be had from a true recreation of a child’s point of view.

The primary effect of this narrative division is to quickly build up the substance of the fictional world of Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms in particular. You are exposed to wide diversity of viewpoints. There are no hard, good vs evil, lines drawn. Each of the characters has their own motivations and reasons for such. In short, it is one gigantic blog of political intrigue. The warp and weft is textured and patterned intricately.

The chapters themselves tend to be fairly short. Afterall, even with a nearly 700 page book, with so many characters things will need to move at a brisk pace narratively speaking. This itself serves two points. It keeps the reader engaged with lively and quickly shifting viewpoints and hides the fact that not much of anything is actually happening.

This statement is relative and must be taken in context. Via the viewpoints of the main characters, the world is spinning wildly out of control. The established order is lurching about mortally wounded. People are dying. Yet, when taken in context of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, they are the petty affairs of small kingdoms.

Jon Snow’s viewpoint obliquely hints at the coming winter and the stirring of ancient enemies. Daenerys Targaryen plots the restoration of her family’s mastery of The Seven Kingdoms. But these are all far off goals. In the meantime, The Seven Kingdoms are embroiled in bitter politically rivalries; so keen on their own ambitions they have lost sight of the larger picture.

This is why the complexity of the novel is so breathtaking and brilliant. A Game of Thrones is nothing more than the setup , the opening gambit, the prologue of a longer opus. As drastic as the changes seem main characters, they are nothing as compared to the future. These forthcoming calamities cast a long shadow over the narrative, letting the reader know that something is coming even if the narrative’s characters may not realize this truth.

In the meantime, G.R.R.M. infuses the story with wit and charm. The dialog is sharp. The viewpoints are distinct. There is a tangible difference between each character. Even better, each character is sympathetic in their own way. Yes, the Stark’s are the nominal “heroes” but the Lannister’s have perfectly understandable motivations. The Stark’s are not always the most honorable and the Lannister’s not always the most avaricious. This simple fact, that everything is layered in shades of grey, just showcases a level of mastery at writing that I seldom encounter.

So, A Game of Thrones was a difficult but enjoyable read. It is not the typical fantasy. It may be clothed in the trappings of Medieval Western Europe but it is something far different. The lack of obvious magic only serves to enhance the impact of the Others and the pending Long Night. The narrative abuses it’s characters. Loss, misery and isolation abound. There is an enormous cast and set of viewpoint to manage. Yet, in all of this complexity there is pleasure to be found for all of it works in harmony; guiding the reader to the future. A future in which winter is coming. I for one look forward to it.

Random House: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Image Source: Random House
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0553381689

New Books

 A mix of new books and used book finds. I am very curious to start reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin as the general consensus is extremely positive.

I was also rather happy with my finds at a local used bookstore, The Laughing Duck. In particular I was excited about the first edition book club edition of Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Image Source for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Scanned Cover
Image Source for Unfinished Tales: Wellington Square Bookshop

Review Philosphy Updated

Finally got around to updating my rambling review philosophy into something more concise and direct.

Image Source: WordTipping

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan - Signed and Numbered Copy

My signed and numbered copy finally arrived in the mail today from Sam Weller.  Thank you Brandon Sanderson for taking the time to sign all of these books at no extra charge.  Thank you Sam Weller for packaging the books with such care and organizing this whole mess without extra charge.

The inscription reads:
"WordTipping, The Wheel of time turns, youth fades, experience grows, but the memories always remain." -Brandon Sanderson.
Image Source: WordTipping

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Orcs by Stan Nicholls

Orcs by Stan Nicholls is a fairly straightforward sword and sorcery novel. That becomes the central problem as well. Orcs is sold as something different, a breath of fresh air. The central conceit is that the story is told from the perspective of the orcs. This sounds incredibly exciting but starts to fall apart immediately as the novel retreats into the tried and true.

The novel is set in the fictional world of Maras Dantia/Centralia depending on whose perspective you are reading from. The world is racially rich with everything from centaurs to trolls. The world is also dying. The why of it centers around humans destroying the delicate balance of nature. Humans who well up from the southern reaches like a plague of locusts, devouring the magic of the land and disrupting the lives of the elder races. Humans who have destroyed their homeland and now flee to new land for a new start. The setting is dramatic to say the least.

The story is largely told from the perspective of Stryke, the leader of an orc war-band. Stryke’s war-band is owned by Jennesta a half breed sorceress who is quickly identified as an evil tyrant. The story opens with Stryke’s team finishing up an assault on a human outpost. Their job was to retrieve a magical trinket or as it is called in the story, a “star”. En route to home base Stryke’s team is way laid by kobolds who steal the “star” and take of for their main encampment. Through a series of events and misunderstandings, Stryke is labeled a traitor by Jennesta. This sets off the main story.

Long story short Stryke finds out that there are more of these “stars” and that they have a hidden history; a history steeped in magic. So Stryke sets off to find the “stars” so as to barter his way back into Jennesta’s good graces. Along the way he starts a lot of fights, makes a lot of enemies and is chased by Jennesta relentlessly.

At this point, the plot basically goes on sabbatical. As you read through the next several hundred pages, the plot never advances. Stryke just collects “stars”. He rides from one place to next killing things. You get occasional hints of bigger things, but nothing materializes until the final pages of the book.

This is where I find myself torn in opinion. If Orcs hadn’t be sold as “something different”, I would have a generally positive opinion of the book. Orcs is a perfectly good sword and sorcery book. In fact I would call it one of my favorite books of that genre in recent memory. The problem is that the books sells itself on the “conceit” of how orcs save the world. This of course is playing on the Tolkienesque stereotype of the orc; a brutish semi-intellegent berserker.

Instead, the orcs of Orcs at best come across as a noble savage. At worse, they are simply humans with a few linguistic oddities. That to me is heartbreaking. The fact that the orcs seldom appear to be anything other than a different nationality of humans renders the primary selling point of the book as a complete failure to me.

Also a failure to me is the attempt at a ecological message. The opening of the book is framed with humans despoiling the land. That is about as far as the message goes. To let this theme just dangle without meaningful resolution when it is so relevant to many readers is a complete failure as well.

Another oddity in the book is the ending. While you spend the first six hundred odd pages reading a good sword and sorcery book with a few “mysterious” elements that hint and bigger things, the ending is an abrupt change in course. The last one hundred pages suddenly switch over to a high fantasy setting. Where as plot was no where to be found early on the last hundred pages are packed. There are twist and turns, surprises and revelations to be found on every page. The ending is satisfying if in-congruent with the marketing language on the rear cover of the book.

So, I am torn. Orcs at its core is a good book. The dialog is fun, the action abounds and there are plenty of sights to be seen. Orcs is a solid sword and sorcery book. But, I feel that it falls on its face with the whole orc conceit. At no point did I feel that I was reading something other than the viewpoint of a human. The orcs didn’t even seem different from the humans in the book which is all the more damning. Especially damning when you take into account the text found in bold and all caps on the rear cover of the book: “THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU FEEL ABOUT ORCS FOREVER.” Compounding this is the failure to expand on the environmental theme. Lastly, why so much plot was saved until the final of the moments of the book I do not understand. The last hundred pages show that Orcs could have been a radically different book.

Orcs is ultimately a good book that fails to live up to its promise. It is hard to ignore the potential this book had. It was trying to do something new but failed. The bitterness of that failure taints the sweetness of the underlying story craft on display. But, I am glad Stan Nicholls tried.

Hachette: Orcs by Stan Nichols
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316033701

Monday, October 25, 2010

Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks - Babel Clash Interview

 I know I am a month late to this fascinating back and forth between two of my current favorite authors, Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson. What makes this back and forth so interesting is that Brent and Brandon write in such differing styles. Brent is very up tempo with great dialog but with a more nebulous world. Brandon is a worldbuilder with a slower pace, leaning towards indulgent, with characters defined less by dialog as by narrative events.

The topic that is brought up that I can't help but comment on is Brent's assertion that in a long series, the books get worse as the length grows. They get worse because eventually, the weaknesses in each authors style is finally revealed. I agree with this in general but would like to make a subtle distinction.

The writing doesn't get worse per se, its just that the reader gets more educated in the writers style. The writing tends to stay equally good, it is the reader that improves in capability. So yes, eventually people get tired of recurring mannerisms or such. I know by the 10th Wheel of Time book I sighed every time Mat/Rand/Perrin made the comment that " always better with women." The joke wore thin. But, do not the people in your real life have these same issues? Doesn't your uncle repeat the same hunting stories every family gathering...or start mixing and matching them. You have heard the stories a hundred times but you still smile and laugh.

But, ultimately the point I would like to make is that after reading millions of words written by a single author, the reader KNOWS the subject. The reader can articulate well the technical merits of the author. This isn't because the author has become lazy as a series waxed in length so much as become the chatty uncle. We recite the stories by memory, we know the author's foibles...but we still love them. via - Babel Clash @ Borders Blogs

A Song of Fire and Ice Maps (Westeros) - UPDATED 12 Mar 2012

A fan of G.R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice has created a whole series of maps done in a High Medieval illuminated manuscript fashion.  They are truly engrossing pieces of art, especially when you consider how much I love maps to begin with.  Follow the links to the artist's, J.E. Fullerton, Deviant Art page to see lovely high resolution versions.  via - A Dribble of Ink via - Deviant Art

Since this post has become so popular I thought I would add some additional information to it for the benefit of my many webpage visitors.

HBO has created a new "official" map which can be reached HERE.

For an awesome fan made online map of the Seven Kingdoms click HERE.

For a more traditional map of the Seven Kingdoms split into the NORTH and SOUTH click the links.

Lastly, I have attached some photos from the above links below.  Enjoy!

UPDATE - 12 March 2012

serMountainGoat has created an absolutely beautiful and painstakingly created map of Westeros.  Please visit his website here to see a bigger and nicer version.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Musings on The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings is an enormous book and a dense book at that. The amount of detail flowing off the pages is immense as Brandon Sanderson builds the world of Roshar. So far though, I have noticed a few quirks that I am not so sure about.

Spheres...I find them very interesting and at the same time odd. Instead of metal coins, the inhabitants of Roshar use gemstones found at the center of a glass marble, i.e. spheres. It makes a lot of sense if you consider the existence of soulcasters.

Soulcasting can transmute any material into another material except true gemstones. So, if you had coins made of metal, you could basically print your own money with a soulcaster. However, because of the inability to create true gems via soulcasting gems are still a rare item.

What makes even more sense is that there is a natural economical sink for gems. Gems power soulcaster and are consumed by the act of soulcasting. So, there is always need for more gems. So, gems are valuable.

So, gems as a monetary system are segregated based on use and rareness. Some gems are more valuable than others because of their use in soulcasting; e.g. emeralds are valuable because you use them to make food.

However, the issue that I find quirky is how the gems are managed. Naturally, handling lots of gems, especially small "chips" of gems which serve as the lowest denomination would be difficult. So, Brandon's answer are glass spheres. Gems are embedded in the equivalent of a clear glass marble, colloquially called a "sphere" much the same way we say "dollar".

I just can't for the life of me think that a glass sphere would be the best way to manage money. I will assume for the sake of simplicity that the glass sphere are by some means very robust and do not easily break. But, as anyone who has handled marbles as a kid...they are a real pain to handle. They roll everywhere. You can't stack them. They always compact into a clinking noisy spherical mass.

So, my point is, I would have picked a different shape of glass. Instead of a sphere, perhaps a rectangular prism. This would be an improvement, to me as the reader at least, in a few ways. First, you could stack them. Second they would still function as a light source but you could use them in something akin to a candle holder versus vases. Third, you could have a more flexible money system.

How exactly would this be a more flexible money system? Easy, each stick could hold up to say 5 chips or broams. This would allow for a base 5 system of counting versus a base 1. It would greatly reduce the number of spheres that needed to be carried.

So, the sphere system I just find quirky. Mostly because it seems so impractical. Visually though it would be arresting to see a glass sphere with a glowing center.

Image Source: Scanned Cover

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Book

I really enjoyed the Percy Jackson books, so I am really looking forward to reading my new copy of The Lost Hero that showed up on my doorstep today.

I have a soft spot in my heart for these books for two simple reasons.  Rick Riordan writes some amusing dialog and I am a Classics and Latin Literature major.  So, this is sort of like literary crack cocaine for me.

Anyways, this one is definitely bumped to the top of the old reading queue.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Religion & Logic in The Way of Kings

I have run into a recurring point of annoyance while reading The Way of Kings and that is the continuing religious debate going on with the heretic Jasnah Kholin. Jasnah Kholin's character is a logical empiricist and as such refutes the existence of God due to a lack of evidence.

This is aggravating because religion and logic are incompatible "means of knowing". Logic is a rational system of understanding the world outside of your consciousness. Religion is an irrational system, faith, of understanding the world outside of your consciousness. Using rationality to explain irrationality is pointless, they are inimical. This is also an issue I have with creating "logical" magic systems. Its a paradox of logic.

So, I just find it annoying to constantly see this debate as there is no solution to it. Neither can meet in the middle. Neither can agree to disagree. To prove either one right disproves the other. As I said, both are different, and incompatible, means of knowing.

UPDATED - 12 Oct 2010 @ 6:40PM: In response to Peter's comment.

Reading my post I see that I failed to put my annoyance in context of the book. I am fairly certain that Brandon would understand my point.

My main annoyance is that Roshar's foremost scholar seems to be so ignorant of the debate. At least as far as I have read so far, which is about halfway. this far into the book.

Rationality versus Irrationality is a fairly ancient debate in western society, easily found in Greek philosophy. So, whether the debate is medicine vs shamanism, chemistry vs alchemy, religion vs aethism you always seem to come back to this conundrum. This isn't a modern idea or issue.

So, to see this debate crop up in the narrative and taken at face value by Jasnah Kholin is why I am annoyed. I think she should have picked up on it. I could see Shallan falling for this early in her wardship or perhaps a young adept. But, to the higher echelons of scholarship, it should be old hat.

I am halfway tempted to think Brandon present this debate as he did just to challenge his readers. To someone not familiar with the debate it is certainly an alluring topic

Image Source: Scanned Cover

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review Process

I have found that I have a very odd methodology for reviewing things.  I don't like to write a review immediately after reading/view whatever it is I want to review.  I prefer to wait, giving it some time, let it simmer in the back of my mind.

Why do I do this?  As the movie simmers, it distills down to the most memorable elements.  The elements my mind found as especially important.  This serves to provide clarity and brevity without relying on spoilers.  Both of which are valuable when I am limiting my word count but also provide punch to the reader.

Image Source: WordTipping

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Gift in the mail from The Random House Publishing Group

Last night, upon arriving home from work I noticed a package on my doorstep.  As I picked it up, I noticed it felt like a book which I thought was odd as I wasn't expecting a book delivery.

Upon opening the package I found a copy of Terry Brook's Running with the Demon, the first book in the Word & Void series which serves as a prequel of sorts to the Shannara series.

Also included in the package was a nice letter from Random House asking me to enjoy the book and to please visit

My first free book...ever.  I was rather excited.  But, this freebie held a special significance to me.

The first fantasy book I ever read was The Sword of Shannara back when I was a grade schooler.  This book had a huge impact on me and was an important milestone in my life.  After reading The Sword of Shannara I become not only a fan of the fantasy genre but I became a reader.

I had been a reader up until that point but I had mostly read non-fiction, natural sciences in particular.  But, after reading Mr. Brooks novel, I started to love books.  I collected books and I actively sought out new books.  Reading became my number one hobby over music and video games.  It has stayed that way since.

After reading The Sword of Shannara my search for new material lead me along a fairly linear path of Tolkien, to Robert E. Howard, to Eddings, to Dragonlance and then Robert Jordan.  After that my scope of my reading grew and I found myself reading multiple series and authors at a time.  Now, I own over a thousand books.  I still read a lot of non-fiction especially Classical/Medieval history but my true love is fantasy.

So, Terry Brooks had a big impact on me as a child.  His book altered the flow of my life and the development of my personality.  So, I found it more than a coincidental that my first free book was a Terry Brooks book...and a prequel to the Shannara series at that.  It has a nice sort of symmetry.

Image Source: WordTipping

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Legends of the Dragonrealm by Richard A. Knaak

Legends of the Dragonrealm by Richard A. Knaak is an omnibus containing the first three books of his original series, the Dragonrealm; Firedrake, Icedrake & Wolfhelm. I was first introduced to Richard A. Knaak through his early work on the Dragonlance books, specifically The Legend of Huma. I enjoyed his Dragonlance work so I looked forward to his Dragonrealm’s creation.

In general my reaction to Legends of the Dragonrealm is mixed. My primary issue deals with what exactly is the Dragonrealm series. Is it epic fantasy or sword and sorcery serial? The omnibus attempts to straddle the two and I feel that this weakens the whole. The first two books, Firedrake and Icedrake are a continuous story that starts out in a familiar epic fantasy feel. A young man, Cabe Bedlam, with a mysterious past suddenly thrust into the role of savior all. Along the way he collects a romantic interest, befriends people in high places and becomes the most powerful magic user in generations. Predictable but enjoyable none the less.

The third book is a shock as it completely shifts focus, choosing to thrust a supporting character from the first two books, the Gryphon, into the limelight. The Gryphon embarks on a quest to solve his mysterious and forgotten past and ends up saving the world. This book drops any epic fantasy pretense and moves firmly into the realm of sword and sorcery. The Gryphon is a jack of all trades with a mysterious past and first and foremost a master of survival against all odds.

Aesthetically, these three books should not have been sold as an omnibus. It is a disjointed collection and the three books do not really fit together. The first two books are an obvious pair and the third is just sort of tacked on. However, that is the fault of the publisher, not the author. But it does highlight the style confusion of whether or not the book is epic fantasy or sword and sorcery.

The narrative works much better as a sword and sorcery serial. The first two books, Firedrake and Icedrake make a pretense at epic fantasy but do a poor job at it. Character development is threadbare and the romance is laughable. Action, plot and setting more than make up for the lack of character development. As shallow as the characters may seem, the plot is convoluted and full of surprised. The action is non-stop. The settings are varied and if not original, interesting.

The omnibus really picks up steam with Wolfhealm. At this point most of the epic fantasy pretense is dropped completely. The character development is minimal and there is an emphasis on adventure and plot. The plot is wildly convoluted with red herrings to keep you guessing until the end. There is action and magic in spades. Its a very successful sword and sorcery novel.

Overall, I think the weakness in this omnibus is due to Richard A. Knaak discovering his own style. The three books contained in the omnibus were among the first books Knaak had published. I think the first two books, Firedrake and Icedrake, represent and effort by Knaak to write his own epic fantasy. By Wolfheam, I think he had a change of heart and instead embraced sword and sorcery. It is obviously something he is better at. The omnibus finished strong and I hope that trend continues as I would like to read more in the Dragonrealm series.

Simon and Schuster: Legends of the Dragonrealm by Richard A. Knaack
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1439107003

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks is his fourth book and first in an original new series. Brent Weeks has over the last year become one of my favorite authors. I have read his original three books in the Night Angel Trilogy several times now and I have read through The Black Prism once. I am starting to get a good feel for his style. What makes Brent Weeks so engaging as an author isn't his world creation skills or intricate magic systems, which are by no means bad, but his interaction with the reader. Quickly becoming Brent’s hallmark is the ironic interplay between what I call the “blind reveal” and the “open secret” welded together with great dialogue and characters.

The oxymoron, open secret, I define as a secret known to the reader but not the characters in the book. The narratives inhabitants are often family members or friends close enough to be siblings. The meat of the fiction is how these characters interact. Needless to say, each of the characters, through a variety of story telling tricks, always end up with massive secrets that are withheld from their compatriots for a variety of reason. These secrets are often of the life changing and world shattering variety but the characters always feel they are doing what is best by keeping the secret. As the reader, you rage at the book in frustration, beseeching the characters for one iota of honesty with those that they call friend, family and/or wife/husband. These secrets compound as every character seems to accrue several and each secret affects the characters web of relationships.

It is at this level that Brent creates such an engaging cast of characters. The level of interplay needed to keep these secrets is intense and Brent captures it in brilliant detail. What is more, through the burden of these secrets you get to see into the core of each character and find what drives them. Do they take the easy way out. Do they take the higher path. These secrets are a figurative crucifixion of the novel’s characters and you get to witness how they breakdown under the telamonic burden. Have no illusion, Brent crushes his characters into their component parts only to reassemble them later in the novel. But in this way, you as the reader gain such a fascinating insight into each of the characters. You know both how and why they tick and they become ever so real as a result.

Now, the dramatic irony comes into play with the second oxymoron of the pairing: blind reveal. As you grow engrossed with the secrets each character carries you begin to feel a level of control. You start to feel as if you know where the novel is going to go. You know these characters so well. That my dear reader cannot stand. After all, if you get too comfortable you may get bored. It is at this point that Brent strikes. Because, it is not only the narrative residents that have secrets...Brent has some as well that you don’t know. It is these secrets that Brent thrusts up from the pages and skewers your mind. I am quite sure I have heard his manic cackling while I figuratively wriggle in mental distress. In a single page, the entire stream of the story can shift. The reader is left foundering trying to cope and readjust.

These two components, the blind reveal and open secret, combine to create what I find so appealing in Brent’s work: anticipation. You know something is going to happen. You wait for it. You are mentally tense. You thumb the next page with tingling anticipation waiting for the bomb to drop. It is utterly engrossing.

I have wanted to immediately re-read every one of Brent’s books after I finished them just to see if I could guess some of these blind reveals through small innocuous clues. What keeps the re-reads so enjoyable is Brent’s ability to create such entertaining characters; each with their own quirks and foibles. Karris’ paranoia about her shoulders is priceless. I would also like to mention that I think Brent is the best male writer of female characters I have ever read. I am tempted to think he has a woman ghost write for him. Going along with the great characters is memorable and unique dialog for each character. When the characters speak in the narrative you feel as if it is truly the characters speaking, not Brent.

The Black Prism is a really enjoyable read. I have not spoken of the setting, or magic systems, etc and that is for a reason. Those are immaterial next to simply flat out great storytelling found in this book. This book could have been set anywhere and been great. Yes there is magic and adventure. Yes there are muskets and cannons. Yes there is numerology and mysticism. These are all important but what should be foremost is the glee that this is another Brent Weeks book. A book where you can see Brent starting to take his craft to the next level.

Hachette: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316075558

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nagash the Unbroken by Mike Lee

Nagash the Unbroken by Mike Lee is the second book of the Nagash series, itself part of the Time of Legends series. I was not fond of the first book in the Nagash series, Nagash the Sorceror, due to the cumbersome dual perspective narrative. In the second book in the series, Mike Lee has carried over this narrative style to improved success. Unfortunately, I feel that Nagash the Unbroken suffers from a critical flaw; lack of scale.

The Time of Legends series is aimed at telling the tales of the greatest figures of Warhammer Fantasy antiquity. Figures that are larger than life and shaped much of the current realms structures. Figures that are less a person and personality but rather a demiurge. Nagash is the father of Necromancy. His ancient and titanic battles transformed a major portion of the Warhammer world into a wasteland of the walking dead. A single man overthrew the rule of the Gods and shackled millions of people into eternal undeath. A man who himself had conquered death to gain mastery over death.

This is a rich tableau from which to work from. To tell the tale of a man with nigh limitless powers drawn from a depthless well of evil. Nagash the Sorceror had a suitable if restrained scope. I was after all a story of his gensis. With this in mind, I expected Nagash the Unbroken to really dial things up a notch. I wanted to see Nagash rise to his full and awesome power. I experienced none of this.

Instead, I spent most of the book reading about a broken man scurrying about the desert half mad. When Nagash does stumble onto a new source of power, warpstone, I felt a thrill. Here then, would Nagash would finally turn into the incredible figure of unfathomable power. Denied again. Instead, Nagash spends the remaining portion of the book attempting to conquer and enslave a small group of primitive barbarian swamp people living at the base of what will become Nagashizzar. They are a people tained and twisted by Chaos and lead by priest men who worship the warpstone.

During this time period, Nagash is routinely defeated or harrassed by the primitives and his eventual success in subdueing them is more by pure luck and accident than anything else. This is extremely frustrating to me. I am not reading about a Legendary Figure. I am reading about a half dead old mad man who can barely beat a handful of mystics. Once Nagash has these primitive under his thumb, he then inadvertently starts a war with another group of barbarian peoples. This once again does nothing but highlight the utter lack of world shaking power that Nagash possesses. Why? Because when the war starts, Nagash is dismayed that this will be a war that lasts years and will set back his overall plans. The war doesn’t last years. It lasts over a century. The book ends with Nagash having never really accomplishing much beyond conquering some petty barbarians.

The second intertwining narrative is not much more appealling. It is concerned with the rise of Queen Neferata in the city of Lahmia. It has a very basic setup; Queen Neferata walks a path to damnation paved on a road of good intentions. Convinced her husband and brother, King Lamashizzar, is neglecting his duties in pursuit of Nagash’s secret of immortality, she plots to overthrow him. Mixed into this whole affair is one of my favorite characters from Nagash the Sorcerer, Arkhan the Black. Unfortunately Arkhan is marginalized extensively and has an utterly forgettable end. Honest, he serves more as a prop than anything and probably didn’t even need to appear in the story. In predictable fashion, Queen Neferata becomes suitably damned and slowly enslaved to her evil powers all the while longing for the past. Not very engrossing at all.

Perhaps most puzzling about this book is the absence of the Skaven. The cover shows Nagash battling the skaven and the rear of the book declares that Nagash will enslave them. Being a fan of the Skaven, this was exciting. Alas, I was in for another disappointment. The Skaven really have no substantial appearance in the book, occupying only a handful of pages. Early in the narrative they exist only to introduce Nagash to warpstone and then promptly disappear from the narrative. They only return on the final pages of the book for a few moments with some ill formed plans to conqueror Naggashizzar. However at no time does Nagash actively fight the Skaven or enslave them. This was rather shocking to me and misleading.

This book feels like little more than a setup for the next book. Everything that happens lays the ground work for the cataclysmic battle that creates the Lands of the Dead. And this is why I feel this book lacks grandure. It is focused on the mundane. This book should not have been sold under the Time of Legends heading. I would take less umbrage with it if it had been published as a normal Warhammer Fantasy novel. There is nothing legendary outside of the names invovled. I wanted titanic battles and clashes of will. Hordes of undead erupting from the firmament. I wanted to see Nagash as The Necromancer; peering into the darkness of death and seizing its secrets. No, I get a man who is a a slowly rotting corpse covered in tumors who lives in a dirty mountain as king of the swamp barbarians. Nagash isn’t very great let alone legendary and in a book about an paragon of evil, that was the greatest evil perpetrated...banality.

The Black Library: Nagash the Unbroken by Mike Lee
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1844167913

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

The Left Hand of God is a confusing book. It is as if the author, Paul Hoffman, took a history of Classical and Medieval Europe and ran it through the blender. Once the source material was a rich broth of ideas, Paul, with a story teller’s flair, reassembled the whole mess into something new. However, he did not quite end up with a cake.

The Left Hand of God just never gels together into something greater than the sum of its parts. As you read you see flashes of Harry Potter, Karen Miller’s Godspeaker Trilogy, or alternate history fantasy, etc. The last is especially jarring. Mr. Hoffman’s re-use of familiar terms is off-putting. Every time it seemed that I was sinking into this new world a very familiar term would pop up and yank me back to the present. Trying to reconcile the fact that Jesus of Nazareth makes an appearance is difficult. It breaks my immersion.

What exacerbates this issue of reality intruding into fantasy is the enormous amount of irrelevant information pouring off the pages. While the use of historical terms may have been intended to be comforting and familiar to a fan of history, the majority of them are not needed and simply confuse you. The narrative is constantly speaking of far away lands and nationalities and then promptly forgetting them.

What really illustrates this problem is the world map supplied with the book. It is very small. It focuses on the two primary points of interest, The Sanctuary and the Great City of Memphis; excluding all else. The maps conveys the idea of a narrow narrative focus. Yet, the main focus of the Redeemers is their War with the Antagonists along two great Fronts. This is repeatedly referenced yet is agonizingly absent on the map. The story steadily doles out new people, facts, places, names, etc that are not on the map. If the tale is suppose to be focused on this little corner of the world, then why does it constantly wander off?

The most damning aspect of this deluge of useless trivia is trying to figure out what is important and what isn’t. Some things seem important, such as the scented pellet Cale finds during his ordeal with Redeemer Picarbo, but are never mentioned again. Others, such as Arbel Materazzi’s brother Simon, are equalling confounding. Without any foreshadowing, Simon appears, figuratively, out of thin air seeming to serve no more purpose than to cement the relation between Cale and the ruling Materazzi. Will Simon become a central figure or will he simply be dismissed with a laconic “that is that,” as with Solomon Solomon?

My worst complaint with the narrative are the jumps. Mr. Hoffman sets the stage for conflict and then promptly leaps to the resolution. This left me angry. Everyone knows a Hollywood movie has a happy ending, its the path there that makes the movies interesting. When the plot leaps forward from conflict to resolution without traveling the intervening thorny path you feel robbed.

I did enjoy the book though. It was amusing and interesting. More than anything it has a feel of promise. Perhaps all its component parts have not yet meshed very well but maybe in two or three more books I will get the cake I want.

Penguin: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0525951315