Monday, April 18, 2011

Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

Horus Rising by Dan Abnett is the opening fusillade of The Horus Heresy series by publisher Black Library. It is deafening. The Horus Heresy is a new series of books designed to document the events leading up to and immediately after The Horus Heresy. This is a pivotal moment in the Warhammer 40K canon. As such, The Horus Heresy series is a “premium” product; replete with lavish cover art and edition specific foil accents. More importantly, the Black Library has deployed its elite writers to man the literary canons in a campaign designed for nothing less than shock and awe.

As an opening gambit, Horus Rising is a resounding success. Dan Abnett has crafted a surprisingly deft narrative that allows him to explore the motivations of the characters central to The Horus Heresy series and critically, to allow subsequent writers to hook into this narrative and continue the story. Thematically, Horus Rising captures the joy and grandeur of the Great Crusade while revealing the subtle seeds of subversive Chaos taking root in the hearts of the Emperor’s beloved Sons, the Primarchs.

The narrative structure of this book is Dan Abnett’s true success. While Dan has a reputation for writing amazing combat scenes, I think his other skills are often under appreciated. Designing the narrative for Horus Rising had to be an immensely difficult task. Foremost, it is the first in a planned inter-series trilogy with each book written by a different author. So, Mr. Abnett had to design a book with a plot and characters open ended enough to allow his fellow Black Library writers room to be creative while also maintaining the narrative force of Horus Rising. The force of his story was especially critical since this is the first book of The Horus Heresy series. A weak story would jeopardize the future of a critical piece of intellectual property.

The next hurdle was humanizing figures who are decidedly super-human. Why is this important? Because the central story of the Heresy is a very human one. It is a tragedy, one caused by such everyday emotions as jealousy and pride. But, these emotions are the very antithesis of the Astartes. The Astartes were engineered to be more than human, to not have such human flaws. They are a brotherhood. They are the Emperor’s Angels of Death. They know no fear.

The means to this end, the humanizing of the machine, was quite brilliant. Rather than focus solely on Horus and the Primarchs, Dan Abnett uses a foil. The foil being a experienced but still raw Space Marine by the name of Garviel Loken. Garviel’s character is raw in the sense that he has not yet formed an identify beyond that which is stamped onto each Marine during their training. His ideals are abstracted without a grounding in reality.

Abnett carries this technique even further, creating yet another layer in the narrative. While a Space Marine is more human than a Primarch, for a Marine was once human and a Primarch was never human, a Marine is still something more than human. As such, Garviel himself has a foil, or rather an assortment of foils; the human Remembrancers serving to document the Great Crusade’s glory for future generations. Each of these humans’ interactions with Garviel provide a glimpse into his pysche. Each of these humans provide Garviel the anchor he needs to ground himself to the true purpose of the Great Crusade; to serve.

As the novel progresses, you bear witness to Garviel’s personal growth. This growth is idealized for Garviel represents not just the purity of the Emperor’s purpose but the purity of his Chapter. Garviel is a paragon, the archetype. The plot is the antagonist, throwing up hurdles that are not just physical battles but mental. Garviel’s ideals are challenged and with each challenge overcome, his ideals are strengthened.
It is with this technique that you see the brilliance in Abnett’s narrative. Garviel’s idealized growth serves to perfectly illuminate the slow perversion of Horus. Where as Garviel walks a straight path in the Light of the Emperor, Horus strays from the path into Darkness. For every test that Garviel faces and is triumphant, Horus fails.

It is by this narrative tension that the full impact of the Heresy and its very human repercussions are laid upon the reader. As you watch Garviel grow, experience his love of his Primarch and his Chapter, you witness these things being slowly ripped away from him by forces unknown. You sympathize with Garviel’s character and feel his pain and frustration. As Garviel’s character is betrayed, you experience not only his pain, but the metaphorical pain of the Emperor and all that it represents; the betrayal of humanity.

In conclusion, Horus Rising is a resounding success. The Black Library could not have asked for a better start to The Horus Heresy series. Dan Abnett delivers not only his awesome trademark action sequences but weaves a complex narrative that operates flawlessly on many levels. The thematic tone is pitch perfect. The only negative to this review is that there will be no happy ending to this book nor any that follow. At best they are bitter sweet.

To read Horus Rising is to watch humanity’s hopes, nobility and its heroes be slowly snuffed out by the blackest betrayal. I found myself rooting for Garviel even though I knew the results already. Foolish I know, “...for in the grim dark future there is only war.”

The Black Library: Horus Rising by Dan Abnett
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self-Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1849701129

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Domain - UPDATED

To aid in growing my blog, I have recently purchased a domain name,  So far I am still stuck in the "transition period" according to Google.  As a result, my blog is not operating optimally and numerous links appear to be broken.  I am hoping this is resolved soon but I do not have any firm information.

One of the primary improvements of this change is that I will now also have a Google Apps account to help manage the website.  This includes email addresses, Calendar and Docs.  I plan to utilize these features in the near future contests and other such things.

As always, I appreciate your patronage and have a great day.

Image Source: WordTipping

UPDATED: Blog finally finished transitioning.  Yay to:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Peter Edition

I recently received an invite from Amazon to join the Amazon Vine program. I was very excited about this fact simply because it meant I had a chance at early copies of books of my choosing.

So, this month, I finally found a book that I would wanted to read, The Unremembered by Peter Orullian. Tor, the publisher, has been on a full court press style marketing campaign. This book is "the next big thing" in epic fantasy. The rear cover of the ARC even details out the campaign with a bullet pointed Marketing Plan.

I can see why Tor in particular would want to find the next big thing. Fantasy as a genre to me is at a bit of a crossroads. Many of the big epic series have wrapped up or are wrapping up in the near future. The Wheel of Time, A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Sword of Truth, A Song of Fire and Ice, etc are all big series that need replacements.

The Unremembered seems to be custom made to fill the void left by The Wheel of Time. So, now we are presented with a book that is about a young man from bumpkin-ville who has always been slightly different. Two strangers stroll into town...and older man and a beautiful woman...and his whole life changes. Before you know it, the whole world is teetering on the brink and only our bumpkin can save it. I love it already.

The second book is The Great Bazaar and Other Stories by Peter V. Brett. I really enjoyed reading The Warded Man recently and so I am enthusiastic about exploring this new fictional universe. The Great Bazaar and Other Stories is basically the cutting room floor material from The Warded Man. Within The Warded Man's narrative there are a few temporal gaps and these series of stories, gaps created to help keep up the narrative pace. The Great Bazaar fills in those gaps as a stand alone product with both material edited out of The Warded Man and new material to flesh out these scraps. So, I am looking forward to this one and it will give me an excuse to try out my new Kindle as the only affordable option for The Great Bazaar was the ebook format. The physical copy was a limited edition copy from Subterranean Press.

Image Source for The Unremembered: Scanned Cover
Image Source for The Great Bazaar: Peter V. Brett

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss and illustrated by Nate Tyalor

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss and illustrated by Nate Taylor is a delightful and subversive graphic novel. The Princess and Mr. Whiffle is in essence a dark fantasy graphic novel masquerading as a children’s book.

The themes and setting of The Princess and Mr. Whiffle are exceedingly familiar. This is a realm of make believe complete with a candy castle, tea sets and make-believe adventures. Even the American-Anime drawing style emphasizes the cuteness and frivolity of the world.

The book sets out as you follow the Princess on her daily routine with her stalwart companion, Mr. Whiffle...a slightly over used teddy bear. It is cute and endearing. The art is a bit inconsistent in its visual style but does not detract from the story. The story is well crafted and extremely succinct to fit the faux children’s story format; often with only three or four words per page.

As you read, you begin to notice that something isn’t quite “right”. Namely, there is an excessive amount of violence. It is make-believe violence against stuffed animals...but a strangely out of place violence. Not the cartoony violence of Looney Toons...I am talking, putting the stuffed heads of the rebel army on a stick sort of violence. But, it is done so innocently.

Unexpectedly the story ends. However, you find out this is simply the first ending. If you continue to read, you find that the story continues and ultimately reveals two additional endings. It is within these endings that the true genius of the book is revealed. While the first ending is a feel good ending, like a children’s book, the following two take a turn for the surreal and the horrific. A twisting path that inverts your assumptions and proves them wrong.

If I wanted to reach, you could say that the ending of The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed is a great cultural teaching tool. Because it the books lulls you into complacency with culturally familiar words, sights and make assumptions. Cultural constructs leap to the fore of your mind and blind you to the reality unfolding in the story. The three endings slowly show you how blind you really are and how much culture blinds you to objective facts.

When you re-read the is all so suddenly clear and you will feel those cultural blinders lifted. You will see all the tiny clues laced into the story and so invisible to your mind...your eyes covered by cultural filters. If you don’t want to turn the book into a cultural learning tool...then it is simply subversive fun. The unexpected twists are delightful and entertaining.

I can only caution that you do not let your children read this book; it is not fit for children. Honestly, it might not fit for anyone who is slightly squeamish. I take great enjoyment on springing it unsuspectingly upon my friends, as their expressions while reading the book are priceless. So, I cannot recommend this book enough. Patrick Rothfuss has catapulted himself to the forefront of my favorite authors list, showing how dynamic his artistic gift is in both long and short form.

Subterranean Press: The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss and illustrated by Nate Taylor
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1596063136

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New Books

This week I bought a smaller selection of new books. 

I am most excited about The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett. I found a hardbound copy on the Amazon Marketplace that ended up being an British edition. Oddly enough it is one of the smaller sized hardcovers that seem to be gaining in popularity. I really enjoyed The Warded Man which I recently finished reading and should be reviewing soon. So, I am looking forward to reading The Desert Spear in the near future.

I am also eager to read The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. I have really enjoyed the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, especially because of my academic past. Though the books may be fairly simple they are Young Adult but more importantly make Ancient Myth exciting to young readers.

In the Earth Abides the Flame and The Right Hand of God by Russell Kirkpatrick I am a bit more ambivalent about. I liked what Across the Face of the Earth was trying to do, but the book almost suffocates under the weight of its slow pace and incessant exposition. But, the last hundred or so pages of Across the Face of the World really picked up the narrative pace and made me want to give the final two books in the trilogy a go.

Image Source for The Desert Spear: Harper Collins
Image Source for The Last Olympian: Wikipedia
Image Source for The Right Hand of God: Hatchette
Image Source for In the Earth Abides the Flame: Hatchette

Sunday, April 3, 2011

World-Building: The Narrative Risks Posed by Immortals and their Culture

I recently watched Daybreakers, a rather disappointing vampire flick. But, Daybreakers did present the proposition of a culture of immortals, in this case the aforementioned vampires. Over the next several days I thought more and more on this topic: a culture of immortals.

A culture of immortals is a very tricky world-building proposition. Authors and screenwriters have approached this topic from a number of different angles but all attempt to answer the central problem a culture of immortals creates: a depletion of resources. This was the central motivating force in Daybreakers...a lack of humans and by extension a lack of blood and thus starvation.

Assuming you answer this issue of resources, you then encounter the second issue: a reason for existence. Most members of mortal cultures compete for resources for a variety of reasons. The great equalizer in this competition for resources is time...the mortality of the culture’s group members. A culture of immortals would be free of this constraint. Given unlimited time to collect and save any resources in excess of a subsistence level, everyone could be wealthy in time, especially in a culture with banking and compound interest rates. So, what would immortals live for? Competition? Scholastic pursuits? Love? War?

Any world-building of a culture of immortals needs to account for these two critical issues. I disliked Daybreakers because it posited these two problems and instead of providing an answer devolved into Hollywood action sequences and a happy ending. Honestly, not many authors or screenwriters do much better.

The inability to create a dynamic culture of immortals is why I think such cultures tend to be parasitical in nature, they cannot exist on their own. Whether this be via the tropes of a lonely wanderer who drifts in and out of the mortal world or static secret societies waging an eternal conflict.

In my experience these parasitical cultures of immortals are controlled by two factors: psychology and conflict. Psychology is utilized in a few ways but tends to manifest as either crushing boredom or depression/madness. After centuries of existence it seems in the minds of most writers an immortal would simply go numb...drowned in the ennui of existence. The alternative is that centuries of mental trauma would simply cause the consciousness of an immortal to fracture.

Conflict is the other popular choice and can materialize in two primary ways: internecine conflict and persecution. Immortals are often depicted as warring with one another in a endless battle. The immortals involved are defined as much by the war as anything else, it is the reason for existence. Persecution is the other popular option and can co-exist with internecine conflict. Persecution is fairly straightforward; the immortals are the target of non-immortals who feel threatened. This often, as with internecine conflict, is the driving purpose of the culture.

The end result is that most cultures of immortals lack depth. They are defined by self-perpetuating cycles that allows no cultural growth. They are never dynamic. Their parasitical existence forces them to be passive while the mainstream mortal culture assumes the active role.

So how do you build a culture of immortals? I don’t know. In my opinion, immortality isn’t rational. I only know that they present enormous pitfalls for writers and immortals need to be incorporated into a story very carefully. Immortals can easily become a narrative anchor, slowing down the active and dynamic quality that is crucial to any story. Why are they needed? What do they add? These and many more questions need to be answered and these answers carefully considered.

So, I ask a question of my readers? How would you build a culture of immortals?

Image Source: Daybreaker's Official Website Media Downloads