Thursday, December 20, 2012

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards is the first book in the Bloodsounder’s Arc published by Night Shade Books. Betrayer follows the current trend of gritty fantasy. Yet where most novels might nervously toe the line, perhaps giving an apology or two, Betrayer crashes past bellowing curses and skids to a stop somewhere between gruesome and grotesque. While the tone may be crass-- and a frightening number of penis-related insults will be learned-- Betrayer is a wonderful and smartly written book.

Betrayer occupies a niche between military fiction and fantasy. The story is narrated by Arkamondos (Arki), a naive and provincial scribe. Arki is hired by a small company of elite mercenaries, the Syldoon, to chronicle their various shadowy undertakings. Chief among the Syldoon is Captain Braylar Killcoin, whose interaction with Arki forms the bulk of the narrative.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of Betrayer is Salyards’ decision to write the novel from Arki’s point of view. Arki’s naive and provincial personality acts as a buffer between the reader and the more caustic aspects of Braylar and his men. Arki is relatable to the reader whereas the Syldoon are likely, hopefully, not. In this way, Arki draws the reader into the story. Over time, Arki integrates into the Syldoon and pulls the reader in as well. This gradual shift, integrating the reader into such a harsh and foreign setting, is incredibly well done. If it had been poorly handled, it would likely have rendered the book unreadable to many.

Structurally, Betrayer is a very lean book. Salyards keeps a driving pace. The characters are always on the move. Exposition is nigh non-existent, and the focus is kept tightly on the characters. The story is revealed almost exclusively through dialogue and the larger plot unfolds almost grudgingly. World building is kept at a minimum with a few tantalizing hints thrown at the reader. Magic is hardly to be found. All of these elements were smart choices by Salyards and Night Shade Books. By minimizing the world building, Salyards has brought his voice and style to the forefront. The fast pace and short word count provide a dense and engaging read. The world building can wait for later books when the audience is captive to the story.

My favorite aspect of Betrayer is Salyards’ voice. In particular, his ability to develop narrative tension stands out. The Green Sea sequence is a perfect example of Salyards’ skill. The Green Sea is a vast grass prairie, sparsely populated and inhabited by incredibly dangerous fauna. While Arki, Braylar and Lloi transverse a portion of it, Salyards manages to make wide open space in the narrative seem nearly suffocating. While in the Green Sea, Arki’s world is reduced down to a covered wagon. Hidden beneath the waves of grass are dangerous natives and even more dangerous predators. Intermittently, one of these dangers will appear, attacking Braylar and Arki, confining them to their tiny life raft on the endless sea of grass. Arki’s world shrinks even further when Braylar becomes incapacitated during one of these attacks. Now, Arki is alone. He doesn’t know where to go. He is lost.

When Braylar and Ariki finally reach the edge of the Green Sea, to the safety of the forest, I felt unnoticed tension in my shoulders drain away. When that occurred, I laughed at the delicious irony and skill involved in creating that moment. Salyard had managed to invert the usual relationship between the prairie and forest. In Salyards’ world, the endless grass sea and boundless sky were a prison and the forest freedom.

A second notable way Salyards develops tension is through his frequent fight scenes. While such scenes are typically noisy, in Betrayer, they are remarkably silent. Salyards focuses on small sounds, rather than sweeping swords striking armor with a great cacophony. In Betrayer’s fight scenes, the shuffling of feet over dusty ground, the clinking links of a flail, and the gasping of breath predominate. As a result, the fights suddenly become more intimate, more personal, and more tense with this focus on the small sounds. The reader is pulled in close as the narrative frame shrinks. So when a combatant’s death arrives, often in gruesome fashion, it is shocking because it feels so close.

Salyards’ voice is engaging in other ways as well. The dialogue is concise, witty, and cutting. It has to be. The Syldoon are not simple goons. They are highly trained, educated and multi ethnic mercenaries--the pinnacle of the Slydoon Empire’s military. As such, Salyards not only had to find the right balance between the vulgar and cerebral but also account for the various ethnic backgrounds of Braylar’s troop. I think Salyards nails this complicated balance, as failure to do so would have severely crippled the book. The end result is this steady stream of varied and amazing banter between a diverse group of individuals.

There was little I disliked about Betrayer, but my chief complaint deals with the length of the novel. Yes, I know I praised this very fact earlier. However, the one casualty in this brevity that I did not like was the overall story plot. Not until very late in the narrative are a few hints dropped about larger schemes. I found this lack of information frustrating because it made it difficult to place the events of the novel in any sort of context. While this will likely be remedied as the Bloodsounder’s Arc progresses, it does little to help Betrayer.

Scourge of the Betrayer is a great read. But, I would have difficulty giving it a general recommendation. The general tone of Betrayer will be an insurmountable problem for some readers. For the rest, I can easily recommend Betrayer as a unique and enjoyable experience. It was one of my favorite reads of the year. If you do choose to read Scourge of the Betrayer, laugh at the crassness, grimace at the gruesome but don’t forget to appreciate the skill laying under it all.

Memorable Quotes:
"...that this would be unlike any other job I’d done."
"Every time I started to think I’d seen the oddest thing on this journey, I was proven wrong."
"'There are many who curse the plague, but women who survived aren’t among them. There are far more jobs than men can do."
"'Write. You were conscripted to script, yes? Your scriptorium is where you find it. Script.'"
"If this was how history was made, I was a fool to want to be part of it."
Image Source: Night Shade Books
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597804073

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Emperor's Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

The Emperor’s Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a standalone Warhammer 40K novel published by The Black Library. The Emperor’s Gift does not exist in a vacuum as fellow Black Library writer, Ben Counter, has published more than six novels in a Grey Knight series, also published by The Black Library, which I have yet to read. Dembski-Bowden is a rising star at The Black Library who has made his mark with his unique take on the Ruinous Powers and Chaos Space Marines. Thus, The Emperor’s Gift provides a unique opportunity for fans of Warhammer 40K: a fresh take on the purest and most potent of the Space Marine Chapters, the Grey Knights, by the preeminent writer of the perverse and profane Chapters, the Traitor Legions.

The Emperor’s Gift is told from the point of view of Hyperion, a newly risen Brother of The Grey Knights Chapter. Raw, head-strong and with immense potential, Hyperion struggles to find his place in Squad Castian of the Third Brotherhood. The events of the novel are centered on the build up and aftermath of the First War for Armageddon. Given that this is such a pivotal event in the Warhammer 40K setting, the cast is nearly a who’s who of the 40K setting with Chapter Masters, Inquisition luminaries, Primarchs, Traitor Legions and the Mechanicum all making an appearance at one point or another.

The greatest strength of The Emperor’s Gift is the ease with which Dembski-Bowden humanizes the Grey Knights, the pre-eminent post-humans of the Imperium. Dembski-Bowden does not shy away from the task. Not only does the novel occur entirely from Hyperion’s point of view, it also reveals the inner thoughts of other Marines via the psychic link shared by all Grey Knights. This link is the manifestation of the Grey Knights Brotherhood-- by this means each squad operates as one. What is so great about this is how Dembski-Bowden weaves both the verbal and psychic communication into the dialog. It creates a rich and textured presentation that allows direct insight into the feelings and behaviors of Hyperion’s intimate fraternity.

Dembski-Bowden also humanizes the post-human through Hyperion’s personality quirks. Unlike most of his brothers, Hyperion is fascinated by humans. They represent a link to his past. They are also what reminds him of what he is defending, as the Imperium is a gift from the Emperor to mankind. Through this quirk, Dembski-Bowden is able to create a contrast between humans and Marines that, otherwise, would be cumbersome and intrusive to the narrative. Hyperion’s confusion and curiosity becomes an insight into his character.

Another element of The Emperor’s Gift that I enjoyed was Dembski-Bowden’s voice and vision for Warhammer 40K. I think he nails the sense of brotherhood and struggle that is at the heart of the setting. Pervading the narrative is a sense that the Imperium is beset on all sides-- that it could collapse at any moment. The odds are stacked against humankind. Yet, faith in the Emperor and the brotherhood of Space Marines hold the line. The Emperor’s Gift is peppered with scenes reinforcing this vision. One of my favorites is an exchange between Vasilla and Hyperion:
“‘We Live in the Last Age of Man,’ Vasilla said softly. ‘This millennium hasn’t yet reached half its span, and it’s already the darkest ever faced by humanity. It will be the last one, Hyperion. The last, before everything falls black.’
...‘Mankind will never fall,’ I said again.
She smiled with genuine affection, and touched her hand to my arm. ‘You truly believe that, don’t you?’”
Dembski-Bowden’s voice is refreshing. He successfully captures the baroque post-apocalyptic quality of Warhammer 40K but without the complexity of vocabulary. While there are pros and cons to this, it does provide for a more readable Warhammer 40K novel. It allows the book to gain a rhythm that would otherwise be interrupted by arcane word choices. While I enjoy thumbing a dictionary in search of a new word on occasion, I don’t like doing it constantly. I think Dembski-Bowden finds this balance-- or rather, a balance more in line with my personal preferences.

The weakest aspect of the book is its structure, specifically in the second half. The first half of the book was very successful. In the opening moiety, there is a tight focus on Hyperion and his relationship with Squad Castian and with Inquisitor Jarlsdottyr. However, after events on Armageddon, the narrative becomes muddled and confused. Perhaps this is reflective of Hyperion’s state of mind at the time, but regardless of artistic choice, it isn’t as successful or cohesive as the first half of the novel.

Central to this weakness is a sudden change in course. I would have rather seen the first and second halves of The Emperor’s Gift exist as separate novels. The first half is already an excellent novella, and the climax of the First War of Armageddon is unforgettable. The second half, while problematic, could be an exciting stand alone read with enough room to flesh out the characters and events.

Gone is the focus on the growth of Hyperion and the Grey Knights as a Chapter in the events after the First War of Armageddon. Instead the story becomes about a potential civil war between rival Imperial factions. On one side is an overly zealous Inquisitor, Ghesmei Kysnaros, and on the other is an idealistic Chapter Master of the Space Wolves, Logan Grimnar.

The abrupt introduction of Inquisitor Kysnaros is frustrating because it marginalizes the already interesting Inquisitor Jarlsdottyr. Beyond that, Inquisitor Kysnaros is inserted into the novel at such a late stage that he fails to develop beyond a stereotype. The addition of the Space Wolves to the story is also irritating. Much like my issue with the Inquisitors, it sidelines the earlier focus on the Grey Knights Chapter.

Exacerbating matters is the lack of narrative restraint. Too frequently, Dembski-Bowden introduces major characters and major reveals in the second half of the novel without advancing the story. Instead, the parade of cameos gives the story a flashy, hollow quality. Whether it is Inquisitor Ravenor, Bjorn the Fell-Handed, Logan Grimnar or whole new secret Space Marine chapters, it is simply too much, too fast. In this way I feel Dembski-Bowden is writing too much as a fan, letting his excitement roam too far.

The silver lining is that the events described in the second half of The Emperor’s Gift are pivotal to the Warhammer 40K setting. It is exciting to have this glimpse into the secrets of the Imperium. Within the jumble of the back half of The Emperor’s Gift are a number of memorable scenes, yet they are lacking was a strong thread to tie them together.

Overall, there is a lot to like about The Emperor’s Gift. Dembski-Bowden is exciting to read. I enjoy his take on the world of Warhammer 40K and look forward to reading his other contributions to The Black Library. The Emperor’s Gift is a novel full of big events and big people, and while it may break a little under that burden, it will satisfy fans of the setting. For newcomers, I would recommend starting elsewhere. While flawed in its overall execution, The Emperor’s Gift is successful in capturing the essence of the Grey Knights-- both that which binds them and that which separates them from Mankind. As the Emperor gifted of himself to his Knights, the Knights the Emperor’s gift to Humankind. With them...”’Mankind will never fall.’

Memorable Quotes:
"I'd never seen her hesitate in doubt before, and I found it a strangely compelling sight."
"I was a weapon, not a man, but moments like this always reminded me that I was a weapon born with a soul. It made all the difference."
"'Hush,' she said. 'Have faith, Hyperion. You were made to win wars like this. All of you were'"

Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9781849701891

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan is the first book of The Riyria Revelations published by Orbit. It is composed of two books, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, originally published by Ridan Publishing. Theft of Swords is a story of high adventure. For me, it evokes a sense of nostalgia for fantasy as a genre prior to the rise of epic and/or gritty fantasy-- a time when serials and pulps were predominant, and fantasy centered on interesting characters doing interesting things. So while Theft of Swords is a fun read and doesn't push genre boundaries, do not mistake it for a poorly written novel pandering to readers with rose-tinted glasses. Theft of Swords is a smartly-written, polished, well-paced story that is littered with interesting dialogue.

Theft of Swords is centered on the exploits of Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, who are thieves. In the first half of Theft of Swords, The Crown Conspiracy, Royce and Hadrian are fulfilling a contract that, naturally, goes all wrong. They subsequently become implicated in a plot to kill a king and his immediate family. The only means to clear their name is to save the surviving prince and foil the conspiracy. Along the way they encounter an ancient wizard, find hints of a larger conspiracy, and meet new friends.

The second half of Theft of Swords, Avempartha, picks up not long after the events of The Crown Conspiracy. Fate pulls Royce and Hadrian back into exciting events. This time to a remote village on the border of human and elven lands. Once again, they foil a sinister plot, uncover more of the larger story arch, and reveal a bit more of themselves.

If all of this sounds straightforward, it is. There is no fancy magic system. There is no complicated world building. This is a story about two men: Royce and Hadrian. Everything else exists merely to showcase them. If Royce and Hadrian were boring, Theft of Swords would likely be unreadable.

Thankfully, Royce and Hadrian are immensely interesting. Both have secretive pasts that they keep even from each other. They are polar opposites in nearly every regard. The only thing they have in common is their deep friendship and respect for each other. Via this bi-polar tandem Michael J. Sullivan tells his story. Every event is seen through the lense of two distinct points of view; every new character found is scrutinized in this bi-fold manner. Likewise, a little more about Royce and Hadrian is teased out in each encounter as well. It is a lively read and the back and forth between the thieving duo helps keep the novel fresh.

Structurally, Theft of Swords is also to the point. There are very few breaks from Royce’s and Hadrian’s point of view-- maybe a brief jump to the ‘bad guy’ to help frame the next sequence. Yet, the novel is very well-paced and edited. There is very little down time and very little exposition. Most of the story and novel is revealed through the characters’ dialogue.

More than anything, I enjoyed the dialogue. Royce’s and Hadrian’s exchanges with each other and with others is always memorable. Theft of Swords is a steady stream of conversation, and the banter seldom stops. This fact contributes greatly to the ease of reading and the sense of pacing. Also a refreshing change of pace is the absence of the vulgarity that has found its way into modern, gritty fantasy. Michael J. Sullivan uses sarcasm, word play, and puns instead.

Another thing I enjoyed was the tone. The novel keeps to the more light-hearted side of the spectrum, again eschewing the dark and gory descriptions more common in newer fiction. While there are some truly dark moments, Michael J. Sullivan cloaks them in poignant dialogue and quiet introspection.

My only criticism is that Theft of Swords doesn’t feel ambitious enough. It is clearly well written but it lacks a certain spark that I think would elevate it to the next level. Instead, Theft of Swords seems quite content to simply be what it is: a fun story with fun characters. That said, it is also the first book in a trilogy, and very little of the overall story arch has been revealed. My opinion here could very well change while reading the next installment.

Overall, I enjoyed Theft of Swords. I loved the sense of nostalgia and a break from the gritty and the dark. I also appreciated the skill that went into this novel. Without that skill and the great dialogue, Theft of Swords could be entirely forgettable. I look forward to the rest of the books in The Riyria Revelations series. While I have no doubts they will be memorable reads, I hope they take the next step and become classic-- with or without the rose-tinted glasses.

Memorable Quotes:
"'Oh, so you’re saying that you’re going to hang on to this and throw it at me at some future, more personally beneficial moment?'"
“'Actually,' Myron said sheepishly, 'I was praying for the horses. But I will pray for you as well,' he added hastily."
"'This is the first time, I suspect, anyone has ever visited a whorehouse and brought his own woman.'"
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9780316200714

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Legion by Dan Abnett

Legion by Dan Abett is the seventh book in The Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. Legion is ostensibly about the most secretive and least known of the Emperor’s Angels, the enigmatic Alpha Legion. In keeping with the theme of acting behind the scenes, the Alpha Legion is rather invisible for most of the book. Instead, the bulk of the book is taken up with a panoply of Imperial Guardsman characters as they deal with secretive plots, xenos agents and the Ruinous Powers. It is a heady mix indeed, but one that unfortunately is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Legion takes place largely on the world of Nurth, an ancient human homeworld cut off from Terra during the Long Night. The 670th Expeditionary Fleet has been mired in enforcing compliance. The Nurtheans have bloodied the Imperial Army heavily and compliance has taken far longer than expected through their use of unknown technology. Readers familiar with the Warhammer setting will recognize it as the chaos sorcery. Even with such foul aid, the Nurtheans are losing ground through attrition.

Behind the scenes numerous plots fester. The Alpha Legion is operating unknown. Agents from the Cabal, an ancient xenos organization, are attempt to contact the hidden Alpha Legion agents. Capping it off, The Lord Commander of the Imperial Army dreams of grandeur. At the height of fighting on Nurth, Chaos reveals its hand with disastrous effect to all involved. Afterward, the story shifts focus to the Alpha Legion and the Cabal, centered around a rendezvous on a forbidden alien world where dangerous truths are laid bare and the fate of the Imperium hangs in the balance.

Dan Abnett once again shows his fondness for the human side of the Imperium. In particular, he seems to enjoy the creative potential of the pre-Heresy Imperial Army. The Imperial Army, as usual, is composed of many smaller armies, each with their own martial traditions. What is thrilling is that this time, the units date to the time of the Unification Wars. These are the armies of ancient Terra during the Age of Strife. Dan Abnett fashions whole new histories, filling in the blanks of Terra’s history. The martial pageantry of each unit is carefully constructed. You learn of the Zanzibari Hort, Crescent-Sind Sixth Torrent, Outremars, Geno-Chiliad, Lucifer Blacks and Regnault Thorns. For fans of the Warhammer 40K, this world-building fluff is truly exciting.

The strength of Legion is found in its human characters. The interactions between Hurtado, Peto, Honen Mu, Rukhsana and John Grammaticus drive the novel. Their loyalties, honor and sense of self are all tested. Also, the characters from the Geno Chiliad stand out because their loyalties are suppose to lie with the Geno first, Imperium Second. This test of loyalties becomes central to Legion’s story and makes the ending heartbreaking.

The non-human characters stand out less. The Alpha Legion and Cabal exist as philosophical extremes, tugging at the human players. Each are devoted to long term monolithic causes with pragmatism dominating their decisions. Their knowledge is secret and dangerous, not to be shared. In one scene, such is the danger of this knowledge that its mere revelation kills one of the Alpha Legion’s psychic agents. In occupying such extremes, it is difficult to identify with either the Alpha Legion or the Cabal. The Cabal was intended to be this way as they are composed of incredibly ancient xenos. With the Legion, I think they were simply under-developed, especially when compared against earlier Horus Heresy novels. If not for the major revelatory moments concerning the Cabal and the Alpha Legion, they would have very little impact on the story as a whole.

My primary criticism with Legion is that it fails to form a cohesive whole. There are many excellent elements to the narrative and much to like about the book-- the splendor of the Imperial Army, the memorable characters, glimpses of the Alpha Legion, momentous secrets, etc. These are all things that are well done and exciting when examined individually. Yet when viewed as a whole, they feel as if they had been stitched together from a handful of short stories. Some elements seem to exist only to move the story to the next phase, such as the Black Cube. I think this weakness manifests itself most clearly in Legion’s anticlimactic ending. The most powerful moments center around the human characters. The moments featuring the Alpha Legion are lackluster as a result of their under development, and this unevenness robs the ending of its potential.

Overall, I enjoyed Legion. As a fan of the Warhammer 40K and Horus Heresy settings there is a lot to enjoy about the novel. The good points far outweigh the negatives. Yet when Legion is viewed independently of its setting, it isn't as successful and lacks a cohesive, driving narrative. This weakness was unexpected given the excellence of Dan Abnett’s previous entry in The Horus Heresy, Horus Rising. Legion is a solid if average entry to The Horus Heresy series. It helps drive the series forward but doesn’t raise the bar. Like the Alpha Legion itself, Legion is important due to its impact on the overall series story-line but will fade into the background letting other standout novels take the spotlight.

Memorable Quotes:
"'We are all Alpharius' said a third. 'We are all Alpha Legion, and we are all one.'"
"Overhead, the slow skies turned. The wind made a reptilian hiss, and the noise of the drums almost drowned out the sounds of screaming coming from the city ten kilometers away."
"He realised at length, that it was simply too big, too alien, too unparalleled, for his mind to accommodate without collapsing into madness. He looked away. He'd seen enough of the extraordinary for one lifetime."
"Honen Mu perceived that no one would be coming for them."
"It wouldn't be his first death, but he hoped it would be his last."
The Black Library: Legion by Dan Abnett
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9781849703406

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Double-Edged Sword by Sarah Silverwood (Pinborough)

The Double-Edged Sword by Sarah Silverwood is the first book in The Nowhere Chronicles. Sarah Silverwood is a pseudonym used by Sarah Pinborough for her young adult writing while publishing her adult writing, primarily horror, under the latter. The eerie and haunting elements of horror bleed over into The Doubled-Edged Sword, creating a mysterious and otherworldly work counter-balanced with humor and memorable characters.

The Double-Edged Sword is told primarily from the point of view of Finmere Tingewick Smith. Finmere has just turned sixteen and is quite uncertain of the world and his place in it. Before he realizes what is happening, he is drafted into a quest to prevent the end of not only his world, but numerous others. Along the way he makes a few new friends and becomes even more confused about his place in the world.

The Double-Edged Sword is a smartly written novel. The writing and its characters are exceptionally inclusive-- creating personas that draw the reader into the narrative. Finmere himself is vague, lacking hard lines. Fin has no clear background, no clear future, and no clear present. On this blank canvas, the reader can insert themselves. Finmere is more apt to be frustrated, confused, and/or lonely. These are elemental feelings that will connect to the reader, creating a window in the lovely, off-kilter London of The Nowhere Chronicles.

Surrounding Finmere is a motley cast of characters providing a nice cross section of a multi-cultural London. This diverse cast also provides the reader a side-kick. If the poor, rough around the edges Joe isn’t to your liking, then Sarah Pinborugh provides the blue-blooded Chris as well. Joe and Chris don’t exist solely as side-kicks, as they quickly develop into complex characters-- especially compared to Finmere-- with believable motivation. Benevolent, closed mouthed and mysterious Ted provides a stabilizing force.

The Double-Edged Sword revolves around an organization named The Knights of Nowhere. The Knights act as a policing force between The Somewhere and The Nowhere. The Somewhere is the world of the reader. The Nowhere is the closest parallel world. The Knights are able to travel back and forth between the worlds, keeping the peace and keeping The Nowhere a secret to folks in The Somewhere. In the events of the story, the Knights are suffering an internal schism precipitated by St. John Golden, the current leader of the Knights. St John Golden is attempting to manipulate the Magi’s Prophecy to transition the Knights from a policing force into a political force, granting Golden rulership over both worlds. In doing so, St John Golden sets events in motion that could unravel all known existence.

The Nowhere is what makes The Double-Edged Sword shine. It is here that you feel a more direct link with the creative spark within Sarah Pinborough. The Nowhere is a lush, haunting, and strange creation. Sarah’s penchant for horror leaks into The Nowhere, providing rivers of madness, misty borders of nothingness, and beguiling appearances. The Nowhere itself is a temporal patchwork of districts mirroring London as it existed in time-- past, present, and future. One district may be medieval, another modern, and another still the future. These districts also have an animus of sorts, resisting anachronistic changes (such as the installation of lights into the medieval district). The inhabitants of each district are tied to it, unable to travel easily to other districts without suffering debilitating effects. Inhabits of The Somewhere, such as the Knights, can travel anywhere, as they are not tied to any specific district.

Tying everything together is Sarah Pinborough’s understated prose. It is neither mawkish or condescending to the reader as can happen with young adult fiction. Instead it is subtle and supple, showcasing realistic and distinct dialog. With such a diverse cast of characters, their speech and mannerisms could easily have become muddled. Instead, Sarah ensures that each character has a unique identity-- not just through description but with how they speak. When not displaying linguistic gymnastics, Sarah Pinborough’s words drift towards the poetic. In particular, they reinforce the melancholic and mournful tones of the novel, yet are tinged with hope. Her writing strengthens good scenes into memorable scenes. The ending sequence in Postman’s Park is especially poignant. Once finished with the novel, I actually opened it again to re-read those passages.

The Double-Edged Sword is an excellent book. It is a young adult book that is both smart and mature, speaking up and not down to the reader. It substitutes gentle elements of horror for raw violence to provide a dark tone without gritty realism. It is possessed of haunting symbolism and real emotion, avoiding the trite and cliche. It is a memorable and refreshing book that I highly recommend to all readers of fantasy, not just young adult readers.

Memorable Quotes:
"‘No,’ she whispered, and even in her despair, there was such beauty and strength in her voice that it dispelled the darkness around her. ‘No, you will not have your answers.’"
"Surely a Nowhere nobody would never insult one of the Knights?"
"‘You put the stories into my blanket?’ he eventually breathed. ‘You brought me here in it? Wrapped in the Stories?’"
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9780575095311

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is the first book in the Broken Empire series published by Ace. Prince is a deceptively simple book, incorporating many familiar fantasy cliches. Lulled into bland familiarity, Mark Lawrence ambushes you with his decidedly un-simple writing-- incorporating memorable characters, setting, and voice.

Prince is told primary through the point of view of Jorg Ancrath, the titular Prince, with regular flashbacks to Jorg's youth. The flashbacks serve as preparatory moments, providing backstory and motivation for the next major plot push. Prince of Thorns is a tale of revenge. Jorg's mother and siblings were murdered in front of him during his youth while he watched impotently. As his father, King Olidan Ancrath, refused to seek revenge due to political expedience  Jorg seeks it himself. By doing so, Jorg unknowingly launches himself into a larger plot, becoming as entangled as he was on the hook thorns as he watched his mother and siblings brutally butchered. Only this time, he is butchered by hands unseen; his childhood, his free will, and his memories are all mutilated.

It is this damaged boy that the reader follows. Without guidance he becomes cold, immoral, and impulsive. Combined with his raw intelligence, you are left with a dangerous and unpredictable character. Yet, Mark Lawrence couldn't leave well enough alone and throws more fuel onto the fire. The fuel is a band of degenerate outlaws that Jorg affectionately calls his Brothers. They are outcasts, adrift-- so they think-- seeking that which their desires drive them to seek.

What makes Prince of Thorns so engrossing is that Jorg isn't simply a cold-blooded killer. Mark Lawrence carefully lays down the motivation for the character. You get to see the events that build this broken creature. You experience a whirlwind mix of sympathy and revulsion. Jorg at his core is simply a child lashing out. He is a child who says "no" and simply refuses to obey.

What is particularly masterful is how Mark Lawrence tortures Jorg's character. In particular, the unseen players in a larger world-wide scheme-- the Broken Empire's resurrection-- have ensnared Jorg in their schemes. So even when Jorg thinks he is fighting back and denying someone else's desires, he finds instead that he helped them. Worse, Jorg finds that his own memories have been compromised, his own desires for revenge stolen. Every step of the story, Jorg reaches a goal, only to have it pulled out of his grasp. This drives Jorg to the point of insanity. His mind keeps folding in on itself, questioning who he is and what he wants. In Jorg's view, the entire world is his enemy that has taken from him everything, so he will take everything from the world.

Matching Jorg's unsettling character is Mark Lawrence's interesting take on a post-apocalyptic future. The world is green and beautiful but littered with the artifacts of a past age. Things familiar become twisted. Castles are in fact re-purposed concrete bunkers. 'Magical' swords are actually high technology relics. Christianity still thrives, if subtly changed. Yet, for all this quasi-realism, magic exists. It is a warning. For all the familiarity, the world is as broken as Jorg, and things are not as they should be. It is delightful and suspenseful.

Wrapping this whole beautifully damaged packaged is Mark Lawrence's voice. An author's voice is generally workmanlike, seeking to be unobtrusive, letting the plot, setting, etc. stand on its own. Occasionally, an author is gifted, such that his prose ascends functionality and becomes artistry-- a character unto itself. With such purple praise I declare Mark Lawrence an artist. Without his skill, I doubt Jorg would have been nearly as enjoyable a character.

The sarcasm, uncertainty, and pain within Jorg is found within the word choice and sentence structure of Prince of Thorns. Just as the characters love the ancient Classics, so too does Mark Lawrence. In particular, he uses the Latin-inspired device of delaying the main unifying clause to the end of the sentence. What opens as praise will quickly close as a barbed insult. This sharp poke jabs both the narrative's recipient and the reader.

I loved Prince of Thorns. It is simply a great novel. It is very well written, simple in structure and slavishly devoted to its characters. I also love it because it is a testament that cliches do not automatically make for a bad book. Mark Lawrence's writing elevates these cliches-- sometimes directly and sometimes with a nod and wink to the reader. It is gratifying to see an author breathe new life into the genre by showing what can be crafted from such mundane and familiar materials. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is worth a read for any fan of speculative fiction. It is one of the best books I have read in recent memory.

Memorable Quotes:

"The corpses posed as corpses do."
"Her voice flowed through the octaves, an echo of every kind word and every promise fulfilled."
"We paper over the voids in our comprehension with science or religion, and make believe that order has been imposed."

Penguin: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Image Source: Harper Collins
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0441020324

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Re-Review of Descent of Angels by Mitchel Scanlon

As part of my ongoing re-read and review of the Horus Heresy series from The Black Library, I re-read the Descent of Angels, the six book in The Horus Heresy series. Descent by Mitchel Scanlon was the first book review I wrote on this blog. Part of what prompted me to write my first review was how completely let down I felt by this book. You can read my original review here. Nearly three years later, I feel that my original review is still accurate. I re-read the book for two reasons: to give it a second chance, and to place it in the series chronologically.

Finishing the book a second time really crystallizes how out of sync this book feels with the rest of the Heresy novels. What really stood out is how ludicrous the prelude is upon closer inspection-- a point I missed in my first review.

The prelude goes into great detail about how this is the story of Lion El'Jonson and Luther. It provides a concise summary of all the events leading up to the arrival of the Emperor. The whole prelude is also in italics so you know it is from an unknown narrator.

In an ironic twist, the narrative doesn't mention Luther or the Lion for nearly the entirety of the book. It also replays all of the events laid out in the prelude, just from a different perspective. Worse yet, the closing line of the prelude is: "Let us talk of the Dark Angels and the beginning of their fall." Yet, the fall of the Dark Angels is not readily apparent. It is a distinct subtext to the main text. Descent of Angels is perhaps the beginning of the beginning of the Fall of the Dark Angels Legion.

I just simply do not understand why this book was green-lit. There are structural issues with the novel. The prelude, first seventeen chapters and final five chapters feel like three disparate products and do not make a cohesive whole. I do not understand what it was trying to accomplish. It did not push the boundaries of the Heresy by any appreciable amount. It provided very little back-story that was directly pertinent to the Heresy. It had no tie in with any existing novels. All of these items were present in Heresy's previous installments. I do not see how Descent of Angels adds value to The Horus Heresy as a series.

What is really unfair in all of this criticism is that the writing itself isn't bad. If you stripped The Horus Heresy from the cover and replaced it with Warhammer 30,000 then I would probably enjoy the book much more. The first seventeen chapters would have fit this setting perfectly. The last five chapters actually feel like a Horus Heresy novel. I think the conflict with the Saroshi could have been expanded and made into a wonderful novella.

Descent of Angels is not a bad book. It is simply an unsuccessful Horus Heresy novel. In that light, I cannot recommend the book. For readers who simply love everything published by The Black Library and love the Dark Angels Legion, it is worth a read. I was left unsatisfied and wanting more.

The Black Library: Descent of Angels Mitchel Scanlon
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1844165087

Monday, August 27, 2012

Fulgrim by Graham McNeill

Fulgrim by Graham McNeil is the fifth book in The Horus Heresy series. It is the first truly stand-alone title in The Horus Heresy. Granted the creative freedom to strike off in a new direction, Graham presents the fall of Fulgrim and his Legion, the Emperor’s Children. It is especially poignant and ironic given the symbolism of the Legion and their Primarch.

The tagline for Fulgrim, “Visions of Treachery,” sets the tone for the novel. Chaos is never encountered directly. It is only through indirect contact that Chaos works its corruptions, through “Visions.” Through this, Graham crafts a tale of a Legion losing a battle for its soul without ever having seen or confronted its attacker.

Fulgrim is a whirlwind novel, rarely staying in one place for long. The novel begins with the assault on Laeran. The opening chapter introduces the principal actors, and the qualities of the Emperor’s Children are detailed. It is here that Fulgrim finds the demon possessed blade that will be his downfall.

The narrative dwells briefly on a joint operation with the Iron Hands Legion against the Diasporex, a nomadic fleet of humans and xenos, and then jumps to an exciting sequence involving the Eldar. The sequence is exciting both in that the Eldar are appearing in the Heresy for the first time, but also for the backstory presented on Eldrad Ulthran which becomes pivotal in the Warhammer 40K setting. Fulgrim wraps up with a small skirmish with the Orks before moving to the finale in the now familiar Istvaan system.

Structurally, Fulgrim is a very complex novel. The complexity lends to the greater length; it being nearly one hundred pages longer than previous novels. Graham puts those pages to good use, and the conflict between various factions within the Legion is critical to the novel’s structure. These struggles are crucial because it is through this battle that Graham showcases the creeping corruption of Chaos.

There are three central conflicts upon which the novel hinges. The conflict between the Captains of Emperor’s Children, the conflict amongst the Remembrancers and finally the conflict between Fulgrim and Ferrus. Of these, the strife between the Captains is the least successful, and Fulgrim and Ferrus’ the most.

The conflict starts with Fulgrim and his demon possessed blade. Unbeknownst to Fulgrim, the blade contains the soul of a Greater Demon of Slannesh--a deadly enemy. Slannesh’s principle domain is excess. Introducing such a fiend into the midst of a Legion who prides itself on Perfection, in all its forms, could not have created a more volatile situation.

It is via this classic Shakespearean setup that the novel gains its momentum. Fulgrim is plagued by the fear of failure. Therefore, he seeks to ward against failure through perfection since you cannot fail if you are perfect. In this tiny, well-meaning crack, Chaos gains it toehold. From Fulgrim, the infection spreads to the rest of the Legion.

All of the conflict in the novel follows the same basic premise; contrasting the points of view between the Chaos-corrupted actors and the Loyalist actors. The fued between Fulgrim and Ferrus captures this dynamic at its most simple and most potent. It is here that petty bickering of brothers metastasizes into something malevolent, purely through the instigation of Chaos.

The demon in Fulgrim’s blade is constantly whispering into Fulgrim’s mind; turning every kind gesture by Ferrus into a slight. When Ferrus saves Fulgrim’s life during the battle with the Diasporex, Ferrus was trying to steal Fulgrim’s glory. This resentment builds to hate, blinding Fulgrim to the true nature of Chaos, and allowing himself to be manipulated.

Graham also renews the focus on the Remembrancers, largely absent from the previous entry in The Horus Heresy: The Flight of the Eisenstein. I was pleased to see their return as I think they help bring a very human element to the story that is often missing when the Astartes are the sole focus. The conflict between the Remembrancers is interesting because it is so lurid compared to the rest of the novel. It brings a welcoming change of pace.

In particular I enjoyed Ostian Delafour and Serena D’Angelus story thread. While it was Fulgrim’s blade that whispered treachery into his ear, it is Ostian’s and Serena’s artistic talents that whisper to them. Ostian and Serena also create a neat mirror of Fulgrim and Ferrus. While the Primarch express a brotherly love, Ostian and Serena express a romantic love. Like Ferrus, it is Ostian’s humility that inoculates him to the lure of Slaanesh. Serena’s self doubt is what leaves her open to the sickly sweet seduction of Chaos, as with Fulgrim. Serena’s ultimate fate also parallels Fulgrim. I also find it interesting that Serena has the fortitude to kill herself but Fulgrim does not.

The conflict between the Captains of the Space Marines was less successful. I think this in a large part is due to the lack of word count. Most of the story is focused Eidolon, Julius, Lucius and Fabius. Much less time is given to Vespasian, Solomon and Saul. As a result you end up with an imbalance in points of view.

In particular, Solomon Demeter’s character is sorely lacking. Solomon’s character bears a lot in common with the character Garviel Loken from earlier Heresy novels. I think Graham was counting on that fact to help bolster Solomon’s character but it only serves to exacerbate the sketched in quality of Solomon. Vespasian is in some ways even worse; he basically doesn’t exist in the story except to be introduced and then killed later on.

Why this bothers me is that it weakens the scenes involving the death of Solomon and Vespasian. Without any substance, it is hard to generate the empathy needed to give those scenes the gravitas they deserve. These should be pivotal scenes, but they fall flat.

One grating annoyance I had with Fulgrim was the character Saul Tarvitz. In the previous four books, Saul’s character had been steadily built up. He felt like a pivotal character. I was really looking forward to Fulgrim in large part because I wanted to see more Saul Tarvitz. Instead, he is a bit player until the closing chapters. In fact, it appears he has been demoted. My greatest frustration is that Saul could have easily replaced Solomon Demeter’s character in the narrative. I think Saul’s character was more interesting and dynamic than Solomon’s and was a better fit to contrast against Eidolon. Especially due to the past confrontations between Eidolon and Saul. Yet, by dividing time between Solomon and Saul, both are weakened. I feel like something was missed here that could have elevated the book another notch.

Overall, I think Fulgrim represents the high point in The Horus Heresy series thus far. Graham McNeill delivers a book that is all his own, one that he didn’t have to share with his fellow Black Library authors. You can feel that excitement in the narrative. The book's structure is complex, beautiful and successful. Chaos is represented in a truly intriguing and suspenseful manner. You catch yourself yelling at the pages, trying to warn Fulgrim.

Fulgrim’s one downfall is that it is perhaps too ambitious. I think Fulgrim could easily have been two novels. As it is, everything is crammed into one book and a few characters do not get the attention they deserve, which weakens key scenes in the book. I am especially disappointed with Saul Tarvitz’s lack of growth and, in some ways, regression. But, do not let this criticism deter you. Fulgrim is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.

Memorable Quotes:
"Yes you did. With your own hands, you struck down your brother, he who had only thought well of you and fought faithfully with you through all the long years.
'He...he was my brother.'
He was, and all he ever did was honor you."
The Black Library: Fulgrim by Graham McNeill
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self purchased mass market paperback
ISBN-13: 9781849703383

Monday, July 23, 2012

Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow

Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow is the fourth book in The Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. It is a book of transition-- from the opening acts of the Heresy to the middle acts, from Imperial Truth to Lectitio Divinitatus, and from the tightly scripted narrative of the starting trilogy to a more free-form exploration of the Heresy. It is a book of transition both literally and figuratively.

Flight opens with the assault on a Jorgall “bottle ship,” a giant, sub-light colony ship. The story quickly shifts to the events of Isstvan III. The narrative doesn’t dwell here long, as this is well worn story this point. Instead, Mr. Swallow quickly jumps into new territory with the flight proper of the Eisenstein. These subsequent events are primarily divided into three distinct phases. The first phase covers the trials endured while the ship was becalmed in the warp. The second phase details the rescue by the Iron Fists. The third phase wraps up events at Luna. It is a fast- paced narrative, rarely staying in one place long.

Flight does several things well, and there were several very smart choices in crafting the narrative. For one, it had to be a difficult story to stitch together. The opening of the book is a great example of these intelligent choices. The assault on the Jorgalli fleet is completely superfluous in terms of The Horus Heresy. Yet, it allowed Mr. Swallow to introduce nearly all of the characters and their motivations. It is in these events we see how Nathaniel Garro differs from his peers. More importantly, we see the seeds of his faith, a critical element in Garro’s future growth as a character.

Another element that I enjoyed were the brief scenes with Mortarion. The Death Guard is a very stern Legion, reflecting their Primarch, the Lord of Death. Yet, in several private scenes between Mortarion and Garro you see a very human side to Mortarion as he struggles with signing Garro’s death warrant. Ultimately, this very human sentimentality is what allows the Eisenstein, and Garro, to escape and thus alert the Emperor of Horus’ perfidy.

Flight at its core is really a story about Nathaniel Garro. The story focuses on him to such a degree that the other characters suffer as a result. Garro is defined by a few core traits: his loyalty to the Emperor, his loyalty to Terra and loyalty to his Legion. As these elements come into conflict via events in the story, there is a parallel conflict within Garro as he fights to maintain his sense of identity. The end result is that Garro is reforged into a weapon of the Emperor.

The supporting characters get much less attention and for the most part serve as little more than foils to Nathaniel. But, that is not to say they are not interesting. In particular I liked Kaleb Arin, Garro’s housecarl. Kaleb is pivotal in two important ways. Kaleb’s faith helps steer Garro down the path of the Lectitio Divinitatus, and Kaleb’s backstory as a failed aspirant helps bring a human touch to the story. Both side stories are written in a very organic manner that meshes well with the story.

I also liked the introduction of the Sisters of Silence-- in particular how Mr. Swallow opens and closes the book with them. It brings a certain elegance to the narrative. It is Garro’s interaction with the Jorgalli psyker that causes his first internal crisis, and it is at the Sisters’ citadel that he completes his journey both internally and externally. The Sisters themselves are interesting being null entities in regards to the Empyrean. One can’t help wonder what becomes of them in the Warhammer 40K setting.

Lastly, I thought Solun Decius was interesting, less as a character, but more as a plot tool. Solun mirrored Garro’s doubts. As Garro’s doubts grew, so did Solun deteriorate both initially through insubordinate behavior and later due to the effects of the warp pathogen. Solun figuratively becomes a boil on Garro’s soul, finally erupting as the Lord of Flies. Only when Garro lances this infection, killing the Lord of Flies, does he purge himself of doubt.

There were a few things that I think were less successful. First, I was disappointed in the cursory attention given to Euphrati Keeler and Kyril Sindermann. They did not grow as characters nor did they add much to the story, only appearing when Garro’s character development needed them.

The story sequence involving the Iron Fists was also disappointing, again because they seemed so very unimportant. Other than a key scene with Rogal Dorn, there was not much of note happening and bordered on boring. I wished this section had been fleshed out a bit more in some way. But, given the tenseness of the previous section in the narrative, being trapped in the warp, perhaps this slow pace was purposeful; giving the reader a rest before the climatic finish on Luna.

Flight of the Eisenstein is a strong entry into The Horus Heresy series. It was a book that could have failed in numerous ways. Yet it successfully transitioned from the scripted opening to a more open stage. It presented a character in Garro that represents the soul of the Imperium. In him you see the Imperium transition as well, from the ideals of the Great Crusade, to something new and not yet defined. Flight matches the bar set by previous novels and it is an easy recommendation.

Memorable Quotes:
“‘No’ he spat, ‘this is my vessel, and you have boarded it without my authority!’...’You will stand down, you will identify yourself, and you will answer to me!’” Garro page 320
“‘The Emperor protects,’ said the Sigillite slowly, as if he were reading the words from the page of a book. ‘He does indeed, Astartes, in ways that you cannot begin to comprehend.’” Lord Malcador the Sigillite page 402
“‘I am an Astartes, but now I am a brother without a Legion. Alone, I stand unbroken amid all the oaths that lie shattered around me. I am the Emperor’s will, but I am nothing if He will not task me!’” Garro page 404
The Black Library: Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-1844164592

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter

Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter is the third novel in the Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. Galaxy in Flames closes out the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy. Ben Counter takes the series into a more passionate direction as the characters come to grip with Horus’ treachery.

The story arc of Galaxy in Flames is fairly compact. Most readers will already know how the books ends with the betrayal at Isstan III. The entirety of the novel is the build-up for that galaxy-shattering event. Though the reader may be aware of the future, the characters in the novel are not. So while the characters struggle to understand events, the reader is horrified as they see the underlying treachery unfold each step of the way.

A familiar cast of characters returns, and some of the smaller characters grow in importance as new ones arrive. I particularly enjoyed Titus Cassar, Primus of the Dies Irae. Although he might have been little more than a plot device, he was a very effective one. It is via Titus that you get a glimpse into the workings of the Collegia Titanica which is always interesting.

Perhaps most important is the interaction between Titus and Jonah Aruken. As events move along, Titus’ faith in the Emperor and the nascent Lectitio Divinitatus strengthen. Jonah however doubts. He has faith only in the Dies Irae, and his only desire is to one day be the princeps of such a machine. Ultimately, even in the face of proof of the Emperor’s divinity via Euphrati’s miracles, he rejects the Emperor and betrays his friend Titus. While Jonah was perhaps a good man, his desires prove to be his undoing. I thought this was a great way to showcase the insidiousness of Chaos.

Kyril, Mersaide and Euphrati’s story thread was perhaps the most interesting piece of the narrative as it was more of an unknown. The events of Isstvaan III are a known factor, but the rise of The Saint is an unexpected variable that is a pleasure to read. To see the beginnings of the Imperial Cult, its iconography and its sayings is very interesting. It was also fun to read how Mersaide’s character doubts the veracity of her friends’ new faith much like Jonah doubts Titus. Ultimately, Mersaide stays loyal to the Emperor. I thought that was a nice counterpoint point to Jonah.

The tagline for Galaxy in Flames is “The heresy revealed.” This manifests itself in the passion of the characters. While False Gods was more introspective as the characters sought to understand events, in Galaxy they rage against them. The character rage as they witness the ideals of the Great Crusade are perverted and stolen from them via base acts of treachery. The characters mourn as they see the potential for glory be lost.

All of this raw emotion is kept under tight control for the bulk of the novel. The characters seethe inside. They have no way to vent; Isstvan III serves as the pressure release. It is here that the full extent of Horus’ betrayal is laid bare, and there is no rationalizing it away. Watching Horus’ Chaos corrupted personality emerge during the slaughter of the remembrancers is tragic. You know there is no redemption for Horus. In the face of such repugnance, Iacton Qruze’s character is finally shocked out of complacency, honoring his brother Loken in protecting Kyril, Mersaide and Euphrati.

On the surface of Isstvan III, the loyalist Space Marines finally face the treachery of not only Horus, but their Primarchs and their battle brothers. There is no hope of victory; there are no reinforcements. Yet, in this crucible, they fight on. Their spirit is unbreakable. They fight to the last.

In this desperate milieu, two events are especially poignant: the battle between the Mournival brothers and Lucius’ betrayal of Tarvitz. Loken and Tarvitz have been built up as characters now for several novels. They have been developed as paragons of their Legions, ideals to which every Space Marine should aspire. Now they both die, betrayed and unwilling to break their oaths to the Emperor even for the love of their brothers. Lucius’ betrayal is especially foul as he succumbs to Chaos due to his pride and vanity.

The closing chapters of Galaxy in Flames are Ben Counter’s most successful. Whereas the bulk of the book can feel frustratingly slow at times, the final chapters explode in violence and emotion. Given that this gradual build up was likely intentional, the climactic end is highly effective.

What I didn’t like about the novel was Ben Counter’s rather loose grasp of facts at times. Saul Tarvitz’s character is incredibly promoted to First Captain, which is not really in line with the previous Horus Heresy entries. It is jarring because that is a fairly august position, yet he is not treated as such in the narrative. Ben Counter was also sloppy with the virus bombing of Istvaan III. Specifically, scenes of local citizenry dying both to the virus and later to the firestorm. They should not have been alive for the firestorm. I have a hard time describing these issues as anything else but sloppy writing and sloppy editing. They are minor, but they are also very annoying-- more so than grammar issues.

All in all, I enjoyed Galaxy in Flames. As a whole it isn’t as successful as the preceding two novels. But, its high points are very high, and Ben Counter creates some of the most memorable scenes of the Horus Heresy thus far while fashioning a fitting end to the opening trilogy. I think this is quite an accomplishment given the very strict framework within which he wrote this book. What I will remember the most is how Ben Counter was able to infuse the narrative with so much emotion. Galaxy in Flames is a must read for fans of Warhammer 40K and the Horus Heresy.

The Black Library: Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-1844163939

Sunday, June 24, 2012

False Gods by Graham McNeill

False Gods by Graham McNeill is the second book in the Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop. False Gods is a direct sequel to Horus Rising by Dan Abnett, picking up shortly after the events in that book. Read my review of Horus Rising. Graham picks up the same cast of characters, introduces a few more and in general, expands the universe and its characters. In doing so, False Gods takes on a decidedly more introspective tone than Horus Rising.

The tagline for Horus Rising is: “The seeds of heresy are sown.” As such, there is much innuendo and hints, but rarely anything direct. The result being that Horus Rising focused much more on the action of things and introduced the characters and generally sketched in the boundaries of the narrative. In particular, there is a lot more gun play, or “bolter porn” in Warhammer terms.

The tagline for False Gods is: “The heresy takes root.” The elements of heresy step more clearly into the open. The issues therein take center light in the narrative, not longer limited to innuendo and hints. The immediate impact is how scaled back the action is in this book. What action sequences that exist, although well done, are quickly resolved; shifting the spotlight back to the characters.

The story for False Gods opens at the close of the annihilation of the Interex. From here the narrative alters course, moving to the world of Davin a previously compliant world that has revolted. This is a shocking event, the very idea of revolt against the Emperor by once loyal subjects is anathema. It is here that the characters of the book have their first direct encounter with Chaos, although they do not understand it as such. It is also on Davin that the pivotal moment of the Horus Heresy takes place, Horus’ fall. After Davin, the book closes with the war on the Auretian Technocracy, revealing the opening moves of Horus’ rebellion.

The recurring them of False Gods is loyalty. Each of the characters, great and small, are tested. These tests are all in the context of the coming events, specifically Horus’ renunciation of his Father’s, the Emperor of Mankinds, legitimacy. The end result is a wonderfully layered book of parallel narratives. Whether it is Horus’ fall to Chaos, Ignace Karkasy's re-awakened muse or Horus Aximand’s doubt, every character is tested. Events conspire to force each character to make a choice between the Emperor or Horus. Within the struggle of this choice, the characters are explored.

Garviel Loken continues to be my favorite character, standing firm in the face of adversity. His loyalty to the Emperor standing above all else, including his Mournival oaths. His path is a purity of purpose, embodying the ideals of the Astartes. His path is guided and shaped by those he surrounds himself with, whether they be remembrancers or fellow Astartes. The schism of the Mournival presages coming Heresy. As the bonds of brotherhood shatter within the Mournival, so do the bounds of brotherhood shatter with in the Astartes. There are numerous poignant moments as you witness Loken attempts to rationalize what is happening to his Legion and in doing so, loses his innocence.

There were a few elements to False Gods that were not as successful as others. Horus himself was in the spotlight much more in this book. Yet, even with additional word count, he never really grows as a character, continuing to be rather flat. During one of his conversations with his documentarist, Petronella Vivar, he remarks that each of the Primarchs gained some element of their father, the Emperor. Horus was gifted with the Emperor’s ambition. In this way, Horus’ character suffers. Horus rarely grows beyond this single faceted ideal.

The second element that fell rather flat was Part Four of the novel encompassing the war on the Auretian Technocracy. This chapter seemed bolted on. Part Four picks up nearly a year later. Events have progressed that you as the reader are not privy to. You suddenly feel a bit lost in the narrative, struggling to quickly come to grasp with where things are.

This is not that it was written poorly, it contains some of the more important events in the book, rather the flow from Part Three to Part Four is jarring. Part Three culminated with the fall of Horus. The book could easily have ended there. But, as you continue to read, you realize that Part Four is simply a very long denouement. Ultimately closing with the fateful words: “‘A place not far from here,’ said Horus. ‘The Istvaan system.’”

I really enjoyed False Gods. I think it was a step up from the foundation laid by Dan Abnett in Horus Rising. I enjoyed the more introspective approach and the regression of action set pieces. The Heresy is more about the breaking of bonds and less about the breaking of bones. False Gods clearly steers the Horus Heresy series in this direction. I am excited to continue reading the Horus Heresy book and, in particular, the next book to see the opening trilogy brought to a close. I highly recommend this book.

The Black Library: False Gods by Graham McNeill
Image Source: Lexicanum
Review Copy: Self Purchased Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-1844163700

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Measure of Magic by Terry Brooks

The Measure of Magic by Terry Brooks is the second book in the Legends of Shannara duology published by Del Rey. I recently finished reading Bearers of the Black Staff, the first book in the duology, and was pleased with the book. You can find my review here. I thought there was a lot of promise in the book. The Measure of Magic is a at a bit of a handicap as it cannot be full of promise, it must deliver on the promise being the concluding installment in the series.

I think that Terry largely delivers but misses the mark in a few areas that keep the book from being as good as it could. That being said, I enjoyed the book a lot. It is very well written and keeps intact the core themes of Shannara. Please be warned that there are some minor spoilers in this review if you have not yet read the first book.

The Measure of Magic continues the journey of the three main characters of the Legends of Shannara duology: Panterra Qu (Pan), Prue Liss and Phryne Amarantyne. The three continue to search for a way to prevent an army of Trolls from descending into their hidden valley and seizing it for themselves. Complicating matters, a demon, the Ragpicker, has appeared bent on seizing the Black Staff, an artefact of magic carried by Pan. The demon complicates matters because it decides the best way to go about seizing the Black Staff is to sow discord amongst the inhabitants of the hidden valley and aid the troll incursion. So, Panterra, Prue and Phryne must work to not only save their respective peoples from the trolls but also confront the demon. Generally speaking, fairly standard fantasy fare.

The biggest surprise with the book was how Prue Liss became my favorite character. I thought Terry Brooks did an excellent job developing her as a character and really filled the void caused by the death of Sider Ament. In the Bearers of the Black Staff she was a character full of promise but of little real impact. Her encounter with the King of the Silver river provides Terry a great means of exploring her character but also keeping in line with one of the core themes of Shannara, sacrifice.

A second surprise with The Measure of Magic was the increased narrative complexity in the last half of the book. I both praised and criticized the Bearers of the Black Staff for its excellent pacing but also feeling over edited resulting in a very linear and vanilla story. The Measure of Magic keeps with that style until the last half of the book. There, in an effort to wrap up each story line and unveil the climatic finish, each story thread ends in cliffhanger fashion with the big reveal saved for the final few chapters. I though this really elevated the tension of the book, making you want to read just one more chapter.

Lastly, I thought Terry did an excellent job keeping with the core themes of Shannara. Great sacrifice is required to preserve the world. Evil of the few is abetted by the inaction of the many. One of the bit criticisms leveled against the Legends of Shannara duology is how little it ties into the mythos, i.e. the lack of specific objects and people. While I can sympathize with this perspective, I think it is unimportant. First, because you do not want to alienate new readers. Second, it is the themes that are more important, not cameos of items and people. Terry’s ability to preserve those themes also preserves the “Shannara” feel to the books and helps make them distinct from his other writings.

Now, there were several things that I did not like as much. Upon reflection, I did not like them in the Bearers of the Black Staff either, but it was the first book in the series and not the last. So, I was willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt. My biggest issue is that the relationship between Pan and Phryne. I commented on my dislike in my review of the first book.

Things haven’t improved in The Measure of Magic. The relationship between Pan and Phryne still feels rather superficial. I think you could have removed it entirely from the series with minimal impact. I think the main reason it exists was to develop an additional connection between Sider & Pan’s character vis a vi Sider’s relationship with Aisilline. Thus you create a better metaphorical transferral of duties between Sider and Pan when Pan takes up the staff.

There is just zero depth to Pan & Phryne’s relationship. Worse, is the narrative continually reminds you that it is impossible. So why bother? The low point of this relationship was the sad “I need to be close to someone right now, lets have sex” scene. It was just very hollow. Conversely, Sider & Aisilline’s relationship had weight. Weight that was increased with Aisilline visiting Sider’s old homestead. Also worsening matters is the wonderful interplay between Pan and Prue over Prue’s sacrifice. The fact that Pan can have a complex relationship with Prue but have such a non-existent relationship with Phryne is frustrating.

Also disappointing were characters I found interesting but were never given an opportunity to grow into something great. Particularly painful was Aisilline. I thought she was interesting and really wanted to read more of her, but unfortunately the book ends just as she really hits her stride. This criticism is perhaps a bit unfair however, as it is more directly a criticism on the length of the books. None the less, in addition to Aisilline, I would have liked to seen more time spent on Tasha and Tenerife as well.

Another frustration that centers on the relatively short length of the series is how some characters are less characters and more plot devices, some are clearly deus ex machina. In the Bearers of the Black Staff, Deladion Inch was a the best example of this fact. Deladion was introduced to aid Sider, save Prue and set the stage for the introduction of the Ragpicker. Once this was accomplished, he was pruned, i.e. killed, from the story.

In The Measure of Magic, you have a few more of these characters. Xac Wen in particular seems to exist for little reason beyond conveying information between far flung characters. He runs fast and is of little import. I think Isoeld even fits into this category, being a fairly two dimensional antagonist for Phryne. The dragon at the end of Phryne’s story definitely fits and one of the more egregious deus ex machina moments. That said, dragons are like literary bacon. But, can these even be criticisms when ultimately, I am complaining that I simply wanted more?

So what is my verdict? If you are a fan of Shannara then read the books. It is really that simple. Terry is a terrific writer and his skill shows. The Measure of Magic is probably too vanilla for more adventurous speculative fiction readers, much as I said for Bearers of the Black Staff. But, I still have a soft spot for Shannara. I thought there were a few misses and the story didn’t finish nearly as strong as I would have liked, but that only means its a good book, not a great book. Lastly, I just wish there was more. I would have liked to seen Terry explore the people of the hidden valley and the outside world. But is that not itself an endorsement of the book? I want more? May you will as well.

Random House, Inc.: The Measure of Magic by Terry Brooks
Imagine Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Amazon Vine provided Advanced Review Copy
ISBN: 0345484207

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ebook Pricing Lawsuit & Tor Announces DRM Free eboooks: Why they are related?

I have avoided talking about the Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple and the Big Six publishers as I did not feel it was relevant to this blog.  I view this blog as a "book" blog and not an "industry" blog as first and foremost I am a fan of books.  But, today's announcement from Tor that their catalog is going DRM free by July 2012 is a watershed moment for fans and industry alike.  I do not think it can be overstated how important this is.  I think Tor will simply be the first of many publishers taking this path.  I fully expect in the next few years that DRM free books will be as prevalent as DRM free music.  Also, why are these two topics related?

I will not go into the backstory as it is well covered by outlets emminently more qualified to discuss this than I am.  I would recommend you start with Charlie Stross' critique and then hop over to GigaOm and PandoDaily for other salient points of view.  If you follow me on Google+ or Twitter, you will undoubtedly have read some of my opinions as I felt those forms more appropriate than this blog.

What I find relevant in all of this mess is how it has impacted the average reader.  My frustration with publishers is simple, I think they squandered a golden opportunity with ebooks.  One that they will have to fight to regain.  I think when facing the classic "Innovator's Dilemma", the publishers lacked courage.  Instead of risking their existing physical sales channel by pushing ebooks, the publishers doubled down on physical.  So, when Amazon came knocking asking for rights to publish ebooks, publishers gave Amazon everything and the kitchen sink.  Ebooks were unimportant, a non-existent revenue stream.  Amazon was going to foot all of the risk in their wild goose chase.  After all, Sony had been slogging away at ebooks for years without any success.  It was a niche market.  Readers wanted books.  No one would ever want an ebook.  Full Disclosure, I am an unabashed Amazon fan.

It is this event that frustrates me to no end with publishers.  Publishers for the first time had a chance to connect more directly with their readers, to take control of the relationship.  Up until this point, that relationship was controlled by bookstores and more recently by Amazon.  Yet, with digital distribution, lets ignore the economics, publishers could sell direct to the consumer.  They could have fostered a relationship that would help drive book sales.  EBooks are tiny files, setting up a store front would have been trivial.

But, instead, publishers gave everything to Amazon.  They let Amazon build an eco-system that flourished.  More importantly, they gave Amazon complete control over the customer relationship.  This control existed both up front and more importantly behind the scenes.  Amazon had already become the go to place to purchase physical books.  People equate books with Amazon.  So now, a trusted source selling ebooks was a reasonable proposition.  So between the trusted brand, the awesome Kindle eco-system and great pricing...readers bought in hook line and sinker.  The ugly truth however is the Kindle DRM.  This is why I resisted purchasing a Kindle for so long, I kept hoping that ebooks would go the way of mp3, meaning that they would be DRM free.  But, it never happened and I ran out of patience.

Kindle's DRM is insidious.  It prevents you from owning your books and it prevents you from moving to another service.  So, even if for some reason, you decided you didn't like Amazon, their great pricing, their great website their great Kindle service, do you leave?  You can't without breaking the law.  But why would you want to leave anyways?  The Kindle eco-system frankly gives you little reason to leave.  In this way, Amazon OWNED, in all capitals, the customer relationship.  Not only that, but Amazon sank the capital into the ebook market that no one else was willing to sink.  Capital with with a Capital meaning both money, mind-share and technology.  The Kindle as a product was a total company effort by Amazon.  Its success is telling, a near monopoly.  Not only was it a success for Amazon, it was a success for readers and publishers.    Why? Books were easier to find and read than ever and people started buying MORE books and reading MORE.  The problem was that Amazon was in the driver's seat and not the publishers.

Publishers realized this too late.  Publishers honestly did have a lot of time to realize it either.  Ebooks went from a non-existent market-share a few years ago to a project 40% of all book sales by the end 2012.  If that is not pulling the rug out from under the publishers, I don't know what it.  In the mean time, Google was proving a half-hearted attempt to compete w/ Google Books and its independent re-seller program.  Barnes & Noble's was mounting a good effort with the Nook but was barely putting dent into Amazon's Kindle juggernaut.  Worse, all of these options also had DRM that locked you into the respective eco-systems.  The publisher's savior was Apple.  A company with the resources and brand recognition to compete head to head with Apple.  But Apple had one pesky problem, they had no interest in being a wholesaler and had zero interest to sell books at a loss like Amazon.  Enter the "collusion" over the agency model.

It is at this point the story that I become completely exasperated with the publishers.  They OWN the content.  They could get out from Amazon's thumb by offering DRM free books direct to its readers or forcing its agents, Amazon et al., to do so.  DRM-free books that would work with any device.  Instead, they partner with Apple and yet again, force DRM onto the reader, locking the reader into Apple's eco-system.  So instead, the publishers repeated the mistakes of the past and in the process, get themselves entangled into a nasty lawsuit that does little to help their public image.  Worse, they make Amazon look like the readers best friend.

I do not like the current marketplace for books.  Because of DRM it is basically three walled gardens: Amazon, B&N and Apple.  I am pretty confident that this isn't the best for the industry or readers.  It is also completely the fault of publishers.  But, I do not want publishers to go away.  I think that would honestly be terrible for the industry in general.  While Amazon has many sterling qualities, I do not think they are "book" people.  Publishers, at least the rank and file of people, are book people.  Just follow them on Twitter and you will see their love of books.  I think the worst they are guilty of is being snobby, hence their distaste for ebooks.  But, it is their love of books and their dedication that is in the best long term interests of the industry.   At the end of the day, publishers want to put the best book they can in front of you.  That is their business.

That is precisely why the announcement by Tor is so important.  Tor is a publisher of consequence.  It can empower change.  I hope this is a sign that publishing is waking up.  But, it is the first of many steps that publishers will have to take.  It is not good enough to simply sell DRM free books.  You have to foster a relationship with you customers.  You have to give them a reason to purchase your books.  Publishers will largely have to start from square one as they have squandered away their advantages at every turn.  They have given Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble's a colossal lead.  Each has built impressive eco-systems around their respective devices.  Readers have very little reason to look up from their Kindles, Nooks and iPads with their built in book stores.

But, I will buy DRM free books.  If the publishers offer them direct, I will buy from them first.  If the publishers let author's sell their books direct, I will buy them that way.  If publishers empower local book stores to sell ebooks, I will buy them that way.  The point is, I would prefer to buy books directly from publishers DRM free.  As much as I love Amazon, I love books more.  I am very excited about this news.

Image Source: Scanned Cover

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Personal Peeves Part 01: Cover Art

I have a love/hate relationship with cover art.  As a general rule, I hate cover art.  I rarely love cover art.

Why do I hate cover art?  It is perhaps better to start elsewhere.  I enjoy art in general.  I really enjoy the art that appears on the cover of books.  While some may be bad, and some good, it serves a purpose.  It is a unique visual medium that is equal parts art and marketing rolled into one. I like that intersection of form and function.  Each niche of books seems to have its own visual language.  So you can pick out a history book, paranormal romance, science fiction and fantasy based on their respective covers.  Cover represent an incredible focus of effort on the part of publishers.  The cover is the "elevator" pitch to consumers.  It has to be both unique and familiar.  It has to be above all eye-catching.

It is also for this reason why I hate cover art.  It is this success in creating a striking cover that fosters my dislike.  It is for one very simple reason.  Books are a written medium that lacks a visual component.  It is up to the reader to develop that mental imagery based off the author's words.  Each reader develops those cerebral landscapes differently, as reading a book is unique to each participant.

Cover art however...cover art interrupts that process.  It is a third party injecting their opinion into your own private world.  Worse, it is art that is suppose to be striking and memorable.  It is art that helps drive book purchases.  The end result is that cover art is very effective in interrupting the very personal experience of a reader developing their own visual opinion of the written content of the book.  Even worse, it is a third party's opinion that may or may not be the opinion of the author!

This is what drives my dislike of cover art.  It interjects an opinion that I would rather form myself.  Worse, it injects an opinion that may just be flat out wrong.  So, while I may love art on its own and the skill behind crafting the right cover, I find them intrusive in all but rare instances.

I can give no better example than covers for the Wheel of Time series.  I have hated these covers for nearly two decades.  I think they are really great examples of cover art gone wrong.  They take enough key imagery from the books to be recognizable, and then its twisted into something else, something that fits Darrell K. Sweet's viewpoint.  The worst part is that the art by itself, is very good.  I really enjoy Mr. Sweet's artwork...just not his interpretation of the Wheel of Time.  

The Eye of the World is especially bad as you can tell Tor's marketing department was trying to provide new readers with familiar visual cues.  While I may dislike other covers more, this is the easiest example to provide. The Eye of the World starts off with a trio of riders leaving town at night, how mysterious.  One looks to be the classic D&D ranger garbed in greens and browns.  One a samurai with TWO swords with black swords, black armor and black threatening!  Then you have the diminutive sorceress with comically large breasts and staff.  All of it capped off with the flying bat thing...looming menace abounds.  This must be the start of an epic quest full of danger and heroism! 

But, everyone once and awhile, you do find a cover that is really perfect.  One of my favorite covers of recent memory is the cover of Perfect Shadow by Brent Weeks courtesy of Raymond Swanland.  I think this cover really nails all of the bases.  It is impressive on its own but also captures the look and feel of the Night Angel world in a manner very similar to my own imaginings.

So, there you have it, my peevish opinion of book covers.  I hate them, rarely love them but always appreciate them.  I am hoping to turn this into a series of sorts.  My next peeve will likely be "fandom".

Image Source for The Perfect Shadow: Scanned Cover
Image Source for The Eye of the WorldFrom Heroes to Icons