A book that might have been decent or even good if the protagonist wasn't such a doof. The idea is that a mercenary book hunter and fixer, Corso, has been hired at an extravagant rate to investigate the authenticity of an ancient book. From there follows investigations, suicides, bribery, theft, assault, European travel, light murder and arson, etc. I'm making it sound more interesting than it actually is. The book is also extremely meta; it is about people who collect and hunt books, and the plot beats of the main story are setup to mirror the plot beats of *two* different books, the A) Three Musketeers and B) a fictional book of alchemy and demonology, which purports to lead the way to secret wisdom. On the face of it, it's an interesting conceit, to have the story mirror and intermix two other stories, one of which is entirely fictional to the book itself. In practice it only about 75% works; the author spends a bit too much time dwelling on the meta and not enough writing a story that is interesting and clever in and of itself.
I've mentioned some light problems, now let me mention more serious ones. The main character is not likeable, and when anyone in the story treats him as likeable or does anything for him it is annoying. I believe the funadmental problem is that the author has an idea of what a neat guy/cool guy is, and writes the protagonist to be this guy. But the author is wrong. Drinking gin isn't cool, board games are cool. And I'm not talking about Napoleonics, which Corso is lightly into, but real Euro games which mix cooperation and competition. Other things that are not cool: being hung up on the girl who left you because you were such an incurably boring downer, being rude to people, losing fist fights to guys, sexually assulting girls. The main character has such a weirdo mythology of himself that it just makes me feel vicarious pain for anyone who has to deal with him, and it make reading the book a progressively more grueling task as the pages went by. So the book has interesting ideas, and the mechanics of the writing are fine, but I was out of phase with what the author was trying to portray.
A not very good entry in the canon that comes across particularly poorly via audiobook. The basic problem is that the book is long and the plot is short, and the difference between the two is made up by absurdly lengthening what should be much more straightforward plot beats. It reminded me of Netflix TV programs, where in liu of coming up with more plot points the writers just circle endlessly and pointlessly through the same narrative paths before finally and limply resolving things once their 10-hours has been filled. Anyway! There's a ritual, there's a guy come to stop it, but wait that's actually what the ritualists wanted all along. It's a completely-characteristic and predictable Warhammer story. Things are livened somewhat by A) the post-Katrina New Orleans swamp setting and B) the Bulldozer like main character and C) they did at least mostly commit to the ending. Still, any gathering excitment was continually deadened by every single investigative interaction going through this process.
Harrow the Ninth
A neat and fast reading sequel that failed to come together for me like the first one did. Part of this is due to the fractured narrative, as the main character has partial amnesia & sensory glitches & unreliable flashbacks & peer-to-peer-dreams, and has to use a Memento style system of notes to help her out. Part of this is due to my own amnesia, as I try to remember ~20 characters from a year ago. Part of this is due to the magic system, which reminded me of the transition from high school level math to college level math, where small seeds of misunderstanding blossomed into flowers of complete incomprehension. It did not help that the power level of the magic system launches completely into the stratosphere, so that all the main characters are basically demi-gods who can heal and reshape themselves at will and travel through dimensions and fight planet-size psychic beasts. And part of this is simply do to the character of the main character, Harrow, who seemed to have way to much detachment and chill for someone in her place. I kept comparing her to other teenage void priests/necromancers, e.g. the priestess from le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, or the kindly necromancer from the Sabriel series. Both of these were grounded characters and grounded worlds that fully explored their subject and all its details. They felt like worlds you could reason about and understand, and less like "a wizard did it" (though of course a wizard did do it, just in a way that it is consistent and understandable given the previous world building).
Despite these flaws, Harrow is a fast reading book, and the author does an excellent job on a number of fronts. The simplest accolade is that it is well written and fast; I read 600 pages over 2 days which is a good clip for me. Many of the characters are interesting, once you remember them, and the sensory description and anatomy poerty is often great. At it's best the book has a giddy energy where the author just leans into the psychedelic craziness.
Green Magic, Assault on a City, by Jack Vance
Two shortish tales by Vance that I read while waiting for Windows updates to clean themselves up (40GB of wasted space? really?). Green Magic is classic, beautiful Vance, just 30 pages of constantly creating and unfolding. Assault on a City is longer and while it is sci-fi, it is sci-fi that is very close to everyday modern existence. It's also, like, really mean to city dwellers. I did like the education-via-maze, and I did like the word "gunk".
Peace Talks, Dresden Files book #118, by Jim Butcher
A serviceable entry in the series. Jim Butcher has been much slower than normal to publish this most recent book, due to A) divorce-and-remarriage and B) trying to move into a new house, and the changing living conditions disrupting his productivity. I am highly sympathetic to this; keeping multiple women satisfied is *exhausting*, and it's not made any easier when your sleep and environment are irregular. So I am grading this most recent book in the series on a slight curve. His basic story telling style still works; Butcher uses a sort of Mad Max: Fury Road pacing where he starts the action on page 5, and then just keeps compounding and complicating that action for the next 300 pages. It makes for some very quick and easy to read books. Things break down slightly in this book as it is shorter than normal, so the action doesn't get quite as deep/involved as we are used to, and also because this book is really just Part I, so things end on a lull between story beats rather than with a full resolution. There's also sort of a spottiness to the writing, with minor plotting mistakes and a lack of really stellar set-pieces. It is not his best work and tends to fall back on older beats and cliches that he has used frequently before. Anyway, despite the flaws I'm looking forward to Part II being the next book that I read, sometime in August.
Passage at Arms, by Glen Cook
Another bit of Glen Cookery. Outside of The Black Company this is probably his most famous and well regarded book; it takes the general formula of _Das Boot_ and submarine warfare and flings it all into space. I liked the result, and it benefits from the standard Cook Qualities of grounded characters drawn from his personal military experience, surprisingly intelligent and inventive world building, and well plotted and fast moving events. The basic sci-fi conceit is that human scientists have discovered a way to make small ships nearly disappear into their own pocket-universes, connected to the real universe by only the most microscopic of apertures. While pocketed, the ships are nearly invisible and untouchable (depending on how far up their own asses they have gone), and are only constrained by their fuel stores, the heat that they build up, and the gradually increasing weirdness of physics the further they narrow their aperture. It's the sci-fi equivalent of a submarine diving as it renders them difficult to detect and harm so long as they are submerged. The narrator of the story volunteers to join the crew of one of these ships as it sets out on a months long raiding mission. There's a steadily ratcheting tension as the ship and its crew face increasing danger from enemy action, the depletion of their ship and supplies, and a steadily worsening strategic situation. It is a neat plot that's done well, and it steadily introduces the detailed and crunchy concepts of its sci-fi world in a well thought out and considered way.
Elizabeth, Ken Greenhall
A novella about a very young, very beautiful, and very sociopathic Witch in New York. The book's narrator is odd; she has an extremely flat and straightforward affect, is utterly amoral, and while intelligent and perceptive she perceives and values things at a different wavelength than all of the other characters in the book. So while she arranges a number of deaths, she doesn't do so with any large amount of hatred or glee in wickedness. The main thing she cares about is the cultivation of her magic and the spirit-guide who talks to her through mirrors, and everything else in life sort of barely rises to the level of "interesting". So the character is not purely evil, she just does evil acts out of boredom, curiosity, amusement, self-advancement, and for protection. She does have her positive side; she enjoys and is mildly interested in several of the characters E.g. she enjoys her uncle's fierce desire for her, she enjoys a hedge mage's gender fluidity and magical talent. It's just that she is also willing to do away with them once they are inconvenient or challenging.
Despite this being a novella I think it would have been better if it was even shorter. The narrator's affect is neat and puzzling and it works well for a while, but it's also not one that you want to spend a ton of time with. I'd say it has enough charm to last for 125 pages but not for 175 pages . Also, despite the narrator's coldness and flatness the book itself is quite sensational, with lots of "dramatic" and "shocking" acts. This is fun and makes for a quick read, but ultimately I think it comes off less well/intelligently compared to other books which have similar starting points but do more clever and nuanced things with them (e.g. The Wasp Factory has a murderous youngster with magical thinking, but goes to more interesting places. E.g. A Darkness Visible has two murderous young semi-witches, but the descriptions of their psychology is much more fine, much more detailed, much more realistic. E.g. Brenda is far shorter and punchier and has more actual and relatable human passion. Finally and ever so slightly E.g., Flavia De Luce has some shared qualities, but again, the character is much more realistic to an actual child, who even though she is extremely gifted still has enormous blind spots and areas of inexperience simply because she hasn't lived long enough. This concludes my knowledge of relevant pre-teen and teenage witches.)
Wide Sargasso Sea, by Rhys
Rhysable! Another story of a lady who somehow parlays good money and a lack of responsibilities into a terrible situation. Although this time she is assisted by Mr Rochester.
This was my second attempt at Rhys, and I think I just have to accept that her writing does not do anything for me.
Assassin's Quest, by Robin Hobb
The third book in the series changes the format, and rather than being about the awakening and acceptance of the sexual bond of the main character with his wolf, the story instead switches to a harem format, as the protagonist and his wolf go on an extended journey with a bevy of available women. The cast includes:
Kettrigan - the young royal widow; her duty pulls her one way, her body the other.
Starling - a vivacious and flirtatious bard with a checkered past. Easy to bed, but can anyone truly win her heart?
Kettle - the knowledgeable older woman who's passion is veiled but unquenched. Seduces younger men with boardgames and talk about dragons, has a bit of a dom side
The Fool - androgynous and prickly, like a tawny lanky lychee, but inside she is the sweetest and most romantic of them all
Overall I liked the story, especially the sexy wife-swapping farce that happened at the end.
On a more meta-note, this book is a good example of why I wasn't entirely impressed with some of the points of _The Refrigerator Monologues_ (TRM). Yes, as TRM says trauma is often used by comics as a narrative fuel or excuse in order to enable fantasies of conflict or violence or power. The flip side though to that characteristically male story telling is the more characteristically female story telling where trauma is used to create narratives of hurt/comfort and martyrdom. This book (and the other Robin Hobb boooks) are good examples of this, as the author is constantly doing *terrible* things to her characters in order to advance the fantasy that she is creating and craft these highly emotional narratives. And more generally, authors of all stripes use trauma to push or initiate or sustain the narrative or emotion or fantasy that they are creating. So it's true that early comics use trauma against women to propel their stories, but all sorts of stories use all sorts of trauma. Hmm, ok, I guess there is the gendered aspect to the comics, so alright alright I will give it half marks on that.
The Refrigerator Monologues, by Catherynne M. Valente
A neatish novella by a talented author that is lessened by the work that it critiques. The idea of the novel is similar to Atwood's Penelope, except that rather than critiquing and re-imagining the role of women in the Odyssey, this book critiques and re-imagines the role of women in comic books. So you have a Spiderman chapter written by a Mary Jane type character, a chapter by a Queen of Atlantis, a chapter by a Harley Quinn stand in, etc. etc. The basic problem with this is that everyone already knows that the earlier comic books were all terrible. They were intentionally terrible. The comics were written for teenagers, and not high quality teenagers either. So this is a bit like writing a book critiquing the marketing copy on your cereal box, or complaining about the NYTimes Editorial section. It's like "yes, they are bad, they are intentionally bad, and if you are taking them seriously you are giving them more credibility than they deserve." There is also the issue that this critique is super-common these days, e.g. in the last year there have been not one but two Harley Quinn treatments that make many of the same points that this book does.
This is a shame, since the author herself is quite good. She is clearly a comics super-fan, and her ersatz versions of the well known characters and story lines are consistently creative, grounded, and fun. She's a skilled world builder and story teller. I would *much* rather read a straight up super-hero story written by Valente, than read her critique of terrible comics from 30 years ago. And now checking her wikipedia page... she is super prolific and I actually have read another one of her books before. So there you go.
Jane Eyre, by Bronte
A perfectly absurd book. In the dim warrens of my mind I had Jane Eyre lumped in with all the other 1800s English fiction. I was expecting it to be like Austen's books with extended sentences, careful character portraits, and gradual, realistic plotting. Nothing could be further from the truth! Eyre is a roller-coaster of silly characters and grand emotions and improbable events. It's not quite at the level of a Korean television drama or a Phillip Palmer book, but that is only because it was written in the 1850's before we had discovered the technology needed to reach such heights. The two main characters are the titular Jane, an 18 year-old ball of tightly repressed Puritan sexual energy, and Rochester, a 40 year old rich and roguish and cunning sleaze bucket. The two hit it off immediately. There are complications of course: differences in money and class, old family ties, a meddlesome priest, sudden inheritances, rain swept moors, etc. etc. What else to say. I loved the usage of "etoliated"; it's the first time I've seen the word outside the context of plants or art. I liked "charivari", it is such a cheerful word. I liked the conversations with Rochester, even if the character himself is an ass. The dialog is frequently delightful, even when the characters and their reasoning are silly. There's a lot of Christian LARPing, especially in the second volume, which made me pay steadily less attention to it, but the book has a strong finish which brought me back around.
She Who Waits, a Lowtown novel by Polansky
A fast, creative, gritty, and violent mystery-adventure that is true to its characters and world.
The last and the best in the LowTown trilogy. After a moderately disappointing second book I was expecting the decline to continue, in the pattern you typically see in trilogies. Instead the third book had what I thought was a better mystery (though too complex for my brain to 100% grasp, or to be 100% sure it all made sense), a better reason for the protagonist's actions, better plotting, and just a general creativity and pacing and trueness to the world that I really enjoyed. Other items I liked: how the book's aren't afraid to time skip 3-5 years, how Polansky lets the different characters develop and rise and fall over the years, and the flashbacks that reveal steadily more about the protagonist's life from book to book. For a bit I thought that there would be a magical reason (e.g. the Manchurian candidate magic) why the protagonist was such a doof in the second book, but the author seems to have settled on it just being the crystal meth that the character was abusing at the time. Which I guess is valid too. I also liked how this book had a bit more of spy-craft and relationships, and edged into semi-slightly Le Carre territory. It even had a Karla type character, in the form of the Old Man. To paraphrase him and Karla:
Oh and a final reason for my appreciation of this book was that I was coming to it after the execrable Landsdale book; the difference in talent and quality is just immense and it really made Polansky shine in comparison. Thanks Landsdale! :D
Our Business is Terror, by various Lansdales
Another Book People purchase, this time of modern mediocre terror tales. The basic formula is similar to M.R. James: each ~30 page scary story has a brief intro and outro, an initial investigation, and a stint of grounded and occasionally brutal action near the middle and end. There's a bit of urban fantasy here, and a lot of hiding behind only moderately effective chalk pentagrams. The stories are not complex or enormously clever, but each story has at least a few moments of sensory description that I liked.
The first half of the collection is written by Joe Landsdale, and while the Joe Landsdale stories were not brilliant they did have a simplicity and straightforwardness that helped make the super-normal action seem more real.. E.g. rather than hyping up how weird it was to have a shadow walk across the dinner table, the author just directly and plainly describes what happens. The second half of the collection had collaborative stories, written in conjunction by Joe Landsdale and his daughter. These stories were not good, mostly because the writing was terrible. A few characteristic examples:
"she was as dedicated to finding her chair as a workhorse is to finding the barn."
"I tried to go to sleep, but lay in the dark, twisting and turning as if the mattress were made of tacs."
These are not good sentences! And they just keep coming, one after another. It doesn't help matters that the main character in these secondary stories is this sort of unpleasant valley girl, while her companion is her toxic and poorly drawn boss. Halfway through the collection I thought that this was going to be a shaky 3-star book, but the collaborative stories dragged the compilation down to a solid 1 star.
Assassin's Apprentice, and Royal Assassin, by Robin Hobb
The story of a viking prince coming to terms with being a furry. The first books covers young puppy love and then teenage dog love, while the second book has the main character forming a bond with a dangerous and sexy wolf.
I liked the quiet world building: it has waves of viking raiding and then settlement, and various types of low-magic flowing through the world and its history. I also liked how so much of the story is about relationships. Despite the awkward titles of the books, what they are mostly about are things like family bonds, romantic bonds, toxic co-workers, and other social and sentimental aspects of the characters. A few people do get poisoned, but that is not at all the focus of the novels. The magic in the story is similarly themed, as virtually all of the magic is about communication or connection. E.g. the ruling viking family has a sort of basic mind magic that lets them communicate from mind to mind and form a sort of janky hive-mind, while hedge witches and the like are able to sense the bodily strands of life and physical connection between living things. The Big Bad in the story has an opposite power, that of forced-Republicanization, where people are completely separated from all social and moral connections to the world and turned into little more than savage ghouls.
Other neat minor aspects: there is a Fool character who has a bit of meta-knowledge, and who actually does a good job with being intelligent and clever (contrast this with Sanderson's Fool character, who ruins every scene he is in because the author is not funny/clever in that way), there is a province named Tilf, and I liked the occasional bouts of writerly brilliance when the author decides to really stretch her legs and describe a scene or an emotion, I liked how the danger of magic to its user was that it was so pleasurable, that it was a nearly perfect flow state, and that in time it could lead to the user forswearing rest, food, and drink in order to continue the joy of its use.
On the downside, I did not like how the books become progressively more about being lawful stupid as the story goes on. After a certain number of iterations of someone being abusive/hostile, if you don't take reasonable steps to stop the abuse, it starts to seem like you just enjoy it. The main characters increasingly fail to take basic actions to deal with their situation, mostly because from a narrative standpoint the author is seeking to create emotionally charged victimhood/martrydom scenes rather than intelligent action. It reminds me of some of Le Carre's later work in this way. There's also a certain amount of fetishizing of monarchy and fealty that goes on in the second book, which I'm not a huge fan of. The wolf is waaaay smarter than any of the humans when he says "yeah screw this this lets go live in the forest and hunt does and fuck hoes".
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee gravely disappoints me by failing to produce a second work of genius. Instead, he merely wrote an enjoyable and fast reading and dramatic space opera. I liked this book, but it wasn't a continual stream of new ideas and revelations like the first book in the series was. The second book mostly sticks to the ideas and world details established in the first, and doesn't have as many or as neat of tactical puzzles to be unlocked by Jedao. There are several clever bits, but it's not at the level of Ninefox Gambit. Step up your game Yoon Ha Lee! Your readers demand completely new and ground breaking settings and plot twists for your third book! That is the very least you can do for us.
Edit: Actually, wait, the ending of the book was kind of warm and sweet. So I'm provisionally adding one more star to this book's rating.
Tomorrow, the Killing, a Lowtown novel by Polansky
A middling and uneven continuation of the Lowtown mystery novels. I solidly enjoyed the first Lowtown novel, but this second one felt more rushed. It was less whimsical and more derivative, and had fewer interesting things going on. Some of the problems: I'm not very good at mystering, but I guessed the killer at about 20% of the way through the novel. It's a bit like DMing, when the players know you and they know tropes and they know the characters you have introduced so far, and so at the 30 minute mark they can jump straight to the conclusion without any of the intervening fluff that was supposed to take up the remaining 4 hours. I appreciated how in the previous novel I could piece together the logic of the plot at 80%-90% of the way through the story, but 20% is far too early. The novel also had motivational issues (e.g. most of the plot is because the main character is so disgusted at his life that he is subconsciously trying to get himself and the people around him killed, which is ok but becomes a bit too edgy at times), and believability issues (e.g. the Lies Locke Lamora/House of Cards problem where the plots and lies seem *very* thin, and don't seem as though they should work for any reason except for authorial fiat). Oh, there's also like a lot of violence against women. A final and very personal problem; the author wants to capture the feel of the Inter-War period, that post WWI experience of disillusionment and unemployed vets and pension riots and such. That's fine, it is a great atmosphere. Less fine is that A) nearly every other chapter is a flashback to the war itself, and B) the author also wanted the war experience to match that of WWI, e.g. trenches and mud and no man's land and grinding attritional warfare. But that sort of combat makes no sense with the technology he presents, e.g. there are no machine guns or guns at all, there is no barbed wire, there is no population explosion or industrial explosion which greatly increased the amount of force trying to channel itself through a limited geographical space. Or to put it another way, if you are primarily murdering each other with swords and arrows, it does you very little good to dig a trench and then stay at the bottom of it. So you have chapter after chapter set in the war period, but none of the tactics made any sense, and it *deeply* bothered the part of me that is a (minor, minor) WWI buff.
Anyway, those are the complaints. On the plus side, the novel is not overly long, and it reads very breezily even at the worst of times. The characters are distinct and interesting, e.g. every mook or minor person has at least one neat character trait. The dialog and descriptions manage to be clever at regular intervals, and despite hypothesizing the killer early on, there are a couple of plot twists that I did not see coming and which were enjoyable and earned. Oh! And I liked the time skip between the two books, and how the various characters aged. That was nice. So this is not a bad or incompetent novel, it just didn't rise to the level that I've come to expect from Polansky.
Fingersmith / The Handmaiden by Sarah Waters
A pure and great book. The author, Sarah Waters, wisely decided to center her story around lesbians, who are the foundation upon which all great art is built. In addition to the lesbians, the book has memorable and well drawn characters, lock picking, severe trickery, excellent writing, and a lot of neat little grounded details of 1850's English life. The movie Handmaiden draws *heavily* from the book, though it changes several of the later narrative beats. I like both versions; the movie has a simpler and cleaner third act, where the motivations take yet one more ninety degree turn. It can get away with this last twist since the movie only shows the surfaces of characters, allowing some motivations to be hidden in ways the book could not. For the book, the third act dragged a bit, it was more complicated and muddled and slower and way meaner than even the first two acts. I did not like it quite as much. Except for the very, very, very end of the book, which was 100% delightful and wraps up some niggling meta-issues. E.g. one the villains of the book is someone who obsessively collects and collates erotica, including lesbian porn (quiet! quiet!), but then how do you square that with the fact that the reader is reading a steamy lesbian book and the writer is writing a steamy lesbian book? Anyway, this was my first Sarah Waters book and I'm looking forward to trying more of her work. One complaint: I kind of want to re-read the book to better understand some of the smaller bits and symbols, since it is a book that reveals itself in stages and so encourages a second reading to catch everything. However, at 600 pages I can't justify the time it would take to re-read. The Handmaiden movie has the advantage there, since it is not as big of a commitment to re-watch.
The Warded Man
Not good! Trying to listen to this reminded me of trying to listen to the Wheel of Time books ~15 years ago. There's this combination of extreme slowness, predictability, boring characterization, 1950's gender views, and just generallly shallow and constrained thought. Rather than delving into this at any great length, let me instead link to something that is actually enjoyable.
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
Not a bad novel, but not a great one either. The basic idea is that a second-rate gay author is traveling the world to avoid thinking about his ex's wedding. He deals with travel travails while sorting through memories and relationships from his last 50 years. The central problem that the novel has is that the central character is not entirely interesting or sympathetic, and so there's not much joy in reading about his endless navel gazing and self regard. Breaking this down into more concrete terms: the main character, Less, is supposed to have this flaw where his life is undignified, e.g. one time at a party he got Tibet and Nepal mixed up, and that was super embarrassing and worth remembering. And for him maybe that would be one of the most embarrassing moment of his life, but for me that would just be a Tuesday. This flaw of indignity is never really brought to any real depth or weight, it is like in a YA novel where the worst flaw the author can stand to give the protagonist is that she is supposedly clumsy. Which brings us to the flaw #2, the self pity and self regard. Like, there are worse and less dignified fates than to travel the world while being served and waited on by other people. For instance, you could be any one of those people who works to make your existence possible. Or you could be one of their children who will have to deal with the massive carbon foot print from all of your air travel. The narrator doesn't actually have anything seriously or uniquely wrong with his life, so it makes reading about his made up troubles kind of blah. At least he won't be having any kids to add to our environmental problems. Which brings us to flaw #3, the blurry sex. There's a lot of nominal sex in the book, but it's also unclear what exactly is going on. E.g. the book does this sort of 1950's movie dissolve whenever actual sex comes up. The story would have been improved with more heat, with a sex dungeon or two, with some honesty or detail about what it is these characters desire and enjoy. I felt like _Brenda_ had more realism about sexual desire in 3 pages than this book does in 300 pages. Then there are problems with the relationships, e.g. the two main relationships in the book are about 40 year old dudes hooking up with 20 year olds. Not hooking up with someone who is in their 20's, rather hooking up with someone who is literally 20 years old. Which is just creepy and predatory. Which is not to say I wouldn't do it, but I also would not be under any illusions about it. But the book is perfectly fine with this sort of action. Which bring us to issue #4) ... actually I've kind of run out of interest in criticizing the novel, so I will just stop there. Oh wait actually one more: no one is interested in an entertainment-unit about making said entertainment-unit. Don't write a novel about writing a novel, don't write a song about writing a song, don't make a movie about making a movie, don't make a video game about running a video game studio. It's tired already. Write to your reader's fantasies, not your own, that is your job.
On the plus side, the writing is competent and often cheerful. There is light humor which frequently works, there are some brief and enjoyable travelogue descriptions of various parts of the world, and there's some grounded and well thought out sensory descriptions. I also liked the tiny bits about the different authors' work habits, which were not ground breaking but were accurate to life.
Oh, and this novel won a Pulitzer. ?? I have no idea how that worked out, except that the novel seems somewhat tailored to what (I imagine) the Pulitzer committee would like, e.g. the novel name-checks the Pulitzers and Proust, the novel is about writers and writing novels, the novel has a ton of self-regard, the novel has Oprah-type sentiments, the novel is about the upper middle class of the cultural production set. Ok so maybe the author was writing to a very particular sort of reader, it just wasn't someone like me.
The Black Company, Books 1-3 + The Silver Spike, by Glen Cook
The final entry in this year's Christmas of Counter-insurgency event. This was another elder book, one that had I originally read during high school, and then last re-read about (calculates...) 18.25 years ago. When I first read the series in high school I looooved it, and I'm happy to say that in many respects the series (or at least its first ~3 books) holds up really well. Normally at this point I would do a quick summary of the book, but the web actually has some much better lines that I'm going to quote instead:
"Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote." - Steven Erikson, in one of his better lines of writing
"Lord of the Rings told from the perspective of a medic in Sauron's army." - not entirely accurate, but not a terrible summary either
My own less pithy take would be that the series is a sort of military or tactical noir, narrated by the surgeon/historian of a mercenary company as they get caught up in the rebellions and grand events of a fantasy continent. So far so basic, except that the series distinguishes itself in several ways: - The author was part of the US military during the Vietnam war (though as part of the Navy rather than a grunt), and his first hand experience is an enormous help in making the characters and actions feel real and lived in. I didn't know that the author was a Vietnam vet the first 2 times I read the books, but a friend mentioned it to me years later, and it made soooooo many things about the books click into place. Ok, continuing on...
- The magic "system" is great. With fantasy books there is always the question of how do you handle magic, how do you capture a sense of strangeness and wildness and wonder while still also having a somewhat consistent world. Cook's answer to this question is to A) have all the PoV characters be non-magic users and B) have magic be to these characters what US airpower was to a Vietnamese peasant. That is to say that magic is completely alien to their lived experience, it is massively violent and destructive and just completely outside the bounds of what they are familiar with. Magic in the world is a force without limits; like technology there is no upper bound on what can be done with clever enough rules-lawyering. Nothing about magic is explicable to the characters, and any sort of real sorcerer is a terrifying creature that is capable of almost anything. Oh, oh, here's another way to put it, it's a bit like having a Star Wars series from the perspective of the non-Jedi, where the force using characters are these super-human murder machines driven by abstruse and ancient ideological conflicts, and the best you can hope for it is not be noticed/force-strangled by them.
- The villains! The villains in this series are great; they are all basically powerful wizards that have been lucky/vicious/paranoid enough to survive for 500+ years. The downside to that survival is that A) using high level magic is semi-Lovecraftian, since vibing with its alienness requires/creates serious psychological harm, so the wizards are all disturbed to one degree or another just as a baseline, and then B) most of them were horribly tortured into serving the previous Big Bad, before C) they were all defeated by an ancient rebellion and buried alive in warded tombs, since they were too powerful to be destroyed by the rebels of the time. So by the time some memorabilia hunters accidentally released these wizards from their centuries long entombment, they are all pretty freaking insane. A characteristic example would be the Howler, a 4 foot high dude completely wrapped in stinking rags who, every 20-30 seconds, just screams at the top of his lungs with mad abandon. He doesn't sleep, but except for the chronic screaming he's one of the more rational spooks. And then of course all of these weirdo wizards are completely driven by their old politics and endless, byzantine feuds and plots, like if high school had gone on for 500 years.
- The hero! The most heroic character in the story is the White Rose, a Joan of Arc type character that is prophesied to re-incarnate every so often to defeat the great evils of her day. I don't want to spoil too much, but she's super sweet and brilliant and vicious and I still get all sentimental about her story. Like you can imagine the Vietnamese girl who was napalmed in that infamous photo, if she had spent her life watching, learning, scheming, and fighting in order to get her revenge on those fucks in the US Air Force.
- The wildness of the world; there are were-jaguars, there are wizards with gestalt-minds, there are illusions and invasive mind-magic, there is a ranger and pet pair where the pet is the one actually controlling the ranger, there are snake demons and flying carpets, sentient menheirs and ents, and these things are all sort of introduced organically and bit by bit into a the backdrop of a grounded, low-tech world. E.g. at the start of the books you learn about this thing called the Plain of Fear, and how it's a really crappy and inhospitable place where a far-away battle or two was fought, and then a book or so later they actually visit the Plain and you learn more about the place and its fever-dream creatures, and then another book or so on you learn more about what actually creates the Plain, and the ecosystem of its creatures, and how it ties into the ancient history and a wider cosmology, etc. etc. So the books are constantly dropping references and names, and some of them get passed by, while others are expanded more and more by events. It creates the illusion of a full and lived in world with a wild history stretching back for millennia, with each great event leaving its detritus and weirdness behind it.
- Minor neat thing 1: there is this really evil thingy-ma-jig, kinda like the One Ring, but no one extant in the world really knows how to destroy it. Solution? Open a gateway to a different dimension, throw it in there, have it be someone else's problem. I love this, it is so perfectly human.
- Minor neat thing 2: There is this demon dog, a millennia's old protean slavering beast of Zhul that can take Terminator 2 levels of punishment. He's also kind of one of the more level headed and rational creatures in the books, he just can't actually talk and so is sort of forced to work with/around the various insano wizards he's on the same side as.
- Minor neat thing 3: The wonderful Myth series of games that Bungie created draw *extremely* heavily on the Black Company's world building/flavor/cosmology, and I loved those games too.
- Minor neat thing 4: At the end of the first book they visit Charm, the center of the evil empire, and this world's equivalent of Mordor. And rather than being a blasted desert, it has these perfectly green and well managed fields, with a giant black basalt cube-fortress in the middle of the lands. It's basically his fantasy version of West Virginia and the Pentagon, except that the Pentagon has one less side and is all in black stone.
- Minor neat thing 5: One of the reasons the ancient wizards are so scary is just because of their enormous breadth of knowledge. E.g. there's a point midway through the first book, where the rebellion's living mages are trying this new spell to break a siege, and the narrator digs through his history books because he remembered that this magic was mentioned in his annals at one point from like 400 years ago. And he takes his information to the insano-crypt-wizard in charge of their army, and the insano-wizard is like "yeah, that class of spell was the meta several centuries ago, but don't worry I spent 20 years playing that sub-game and so just watch as I take these noobs to school." I love this from a game design view-point,;it's completely unrealistic in terms of actual playability and such, but I love the idea that this deep-deep knowledge is almost more useful than raw skill.
Anyway! In case you can't tell, I'm still an *enormous* fanboy of the series, and I could go on and on mentioning things I liked from it. The quality kind of drops off after the first 3.5 books, as the events which drive the first trilogy are largely resolved and new and less interesting impulses to action have to be created. As I remember and half verified, the next ~6 books don't really rise to the level of quality as the first 3, though they do have their moments (e.g. a surprising head in a box, a 50 year old death-cult high priest who is getting tired and arthritic and reconsidering his choices in life, a very nice and sweet final ending).