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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Anne McCaffrey - Dead

Just a brief note to mourn the passage of a childhood writer of mine, Anne McCaffrey.  I've written a review of Dragonsdawn, and given her a Great Moment in Fantasy.  The Dragonriders of Pern is a series that has been imprinted indelibally on my mind.  She was a formidable writer, and I hope an excellent human being.  Certainly in her writing, her stories and characters, she exemplified the hallmarks of what good fantasy is all about: kindness, self-sacrifice, love, and the courage to weather the storm.

Michael Whelan, her illustrator for years, and who painted the right side of my webpage banner speaks eloquently on her departure.  And some of Whelan's best work is posted at the above link.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Walking Dead Season 1 v Walking Dead Comic

So, I'm a great fan of Zombie fantasy, fiction, comedy, horror, you name it.  And so I was thrilled that someone had made a TV series about the Zombie Apocaplypse, The Walking Dead.  I had never heard of the comic until then, and I didn't watch the series until far after it came to the screen.  Also, as a full disclosure, I have not read to where Season One ends in the comic, though I have already been told that the CDC plays absolutely no role in it.

Anyway, I wanted to write today--not a review, but a commentary, on zombie fiction and in particular about the divergence between the Walking Dead comic and series.

First of all, some definitions.  Let's say that there are five separate Zombie genres at work here, though most movies use several different definitions of zombie type at once.

Zombie B-Horror.
This is the movie that we've all seen.  Radioactive waste falls off a truck in a small, depressed western town.  The good guy gets the girl, and the town drunk/rapist/plutocrat gets it in the end--happy ending.  The zombies either end up all dead, or the military successfully cordons off the town and bombs the shit out of it.  Last frame:  One zombie escapes: future unknown.  Themes:  Guy gets Girl, Evil is Punished, Zombies are Gross, Suspense.  Examples:  Zombies, Zombies Zombies, and Evil Dead.

Zombie Apocalypse.
Though this genre was started in effect by George Romero, the Dawn of the Dead movies have always had a B-Movie flair to them, evincing little of the serious nature of films like 28 Days Later.  The Zombie Apocalypse is sweeping in scale, and crosses over into regular Apocalyptic themes of isolation and alienation. Zombie Apocalypse movies are scary, but they're not going for cheap laughs or basic horror flick thrills.  The thrill instead, is the thrill all of us get at seeing the entire world laid to waste.  Why is that a thrill?  Subject of another post my friends, another post. Themes: Isolation, alienation, Ludditism, anti-consumerism, survival in a post-apocalyptic world, anti-government.

The Rare Disease Zombie
The rare disease zombie is a cross over genre, and it's ultimately the more modern type of zombie.  Let's call it the accepted zombie rule at present.  Gone are the days when a zombie could be created by an evil necromancer, of which The Evil Dead movies have plenty.  Of course a film like 28 Days Later borrows from both the Rare Disease and Zombie Apocalypse genres.  Other films like Legend, use the same sort of class for typing zombies.  They aren't undead, or dead at all, they're merely changed to where they are no longer human, and need constant violence to survive. This presents a problem however, and requires some creative shooting.  A main component of what makes zombies scary, is the fact that they're decomposing.  Dead things = yuck.  So while Rare Disease zombies no longer feel pain, they are not really stopped by the things that would stop a living being. Bleeding out, sepsis, loss of limbs, etc.  Themes: Perfectly explainable zombies, no cure, hopeless, anti-science. Examples: I am Legend, 28 Days Later.

The Magic Zombie
Mentioned above, you NEVER see magic zombies anymore.  Why?  Who believes in magic?  For some reason, the belief in Rare Disease Zombie is perfectly acceptable.  Of course, in fiction, the Magic Zombie is unalive and well.  Particularly in the Malazan world of Steven Erikson.  In some ways, I think the Magic Zombie makes more sense than the Rare Disease Zombie.  After all, zombies are scientifically impossible.  The miracle of complexity that keeps our bodies motoring cannot exist without all the moving parts working more or less ok.  They might as well be motored by some force external to them.  Themes: Zombies are Gross, Zombies Defy Explanation, External Zombie Creation

The RomZomCom
These movies are awesome.  There is a lot of humor in the field, and Zombie B-Horror encapsulates a lot of that.  Movies like Evil Dead, and Dawn of the Dead are famous for their campy humor.  However, of late, a new genre, the RomZomCom has uprooted the old failsafes. These are very modern movies, with very smart sophisticated characters.  This is important to the genre, because B-Movie Zombies typically involve one or more bimbos and dumb jocks.  The zombiness isn't really explained, but it isn't really important either.  What's important is that the guy gets the girl.  Themes: Guy gets Girl, Jocks are Punished, Zombies are Gross, Survival. Examples: Shawn of the Dead, Zombieland.  By the way, if you haven't seen Zombieland, do it.  It's awesome.

Now that we've established our definitions, I think its safe to say that The Walking Dead is a hybrid Rare Disease Zombie, and Apocalyptic Zombie.  Our first thrills are seeing the empty hospital, the town completely ransacked.  The utter silence.  These things set up the exact type of expectations we would have for a Rare Disease Apocalyptic Zombie.  Already we know science has failed, the government has completely failed to control the situation, dogs and cats living together, you get the picture.  And Walking Dead does not disappoint.  Again and again, we see the dissolution of the world, the empty streets, the undead children, the broken windows.  Also, we see the failed actions of the government.  Rows of body bags, furnaces choked with semi crisp corpses.  Tanks and dead soldiers with machine guns lay willy-nilly.  This is an important aspect of the genre.  It says "Government Failed You."

Our hero is a family man.  This is a definite sign that this ain't no RomZomCom.  He has a wife and son, and they're missing.  So we have a direction.  Find the family.  This is fairly mundane to me, it's a common apocalypse theme.  And I totally get it, but it does make for a boring hero.  It makes for a particularly boring hero because you know that A) he finds his wife, or B) he finds his wife is dead, or C) he finds his wife and then she dies, or D) he finds his wife, and then he has to "kill" her.  Of course, in a Guy Gets Girl situation, you know that there's only one option, but the sexual tension, and eventual seduction provide endless entertainment.

While looking for his wife, a survivor bats him over the head, and we learn a few things.  A) we have no idea what happened, but it happened fast.  B) News reports told the people to flee to the cities.  Ok. I have a problem with this.  Almost every major disaster includes a plan to evacuate cities.  Why evacuate the countryside?  The answer is that "the government" decided that citizens would be easier to protect grouped together.  That's milarky.  And of course, as we find out later, "reality" bears this out as milarky when we discover that Atlanta was a warzone. And then an undead graveyard.  Frankly, I think it unlikely that people would be willing, or even able to flee to cities. Or that governments would urge people to go to them.  Rather, I think the government would issue two types of warning.  One) Stock Up, Lock Up.  Two) Set up Safe Zones and Facilities.

So he goes to Atlanta.  As someone who nearly moved to Atlanta, I was intrigued.  Atlanta is not a walking city.  From what I learned, you pretty much need a car to get around.  And so of course, he gets a horse.  This is the Luddite philosophy at work.  Man back to nature.  Of course, the horse gets eaten, and he survives by hiding out in a tank.  I have to say overall, the series was very entertaining.  So entertaining that I decided to read the comic book.

This was a mistake.  If the TV series is slightly right of center, the comic book is downright libertarian, conservative even.  The authors make it devastatingly clear that they don't trust the government, all men are cruel beasts just beneath the surface, think that children should carry guns, criminals should be punished with death, cities are awful, personal freedom is the only freedom, etc. yada yada.  The gun control thing is one of the more annoying aspects of the comic.  The mom and the dad have an argument about giving the kid a gun, and four pages later, the kid saves the mom's life with the gun.  Come on, Robert Kirkman, can't we leave politics out of the zombie apocalpyse so we can all enjoy the brain eating fun?

Lastly, apocalypse fiction is typically a little bit right of center.  Since a mainstay is the idea that without the strong arm of the law, chaos would reign, it follows that the heroes of such epics must be strong arms themselves.  Else how would they create order and safety in the Post-Apocalyptic world?  I object to this notion.  As anyone who reads Gods of Dark, or my politics blog, Ravingleftatic will know.  I'm essentially an optomist who believes in the good that men do.  And I think I have all of human history to prove me right.  Atrocity is NOT the norm.  Yes, the poor citizens of Syria are getting murdered by their government, but the history of the world is moving away from mobilized warfare to local, smaller stages.  I think this is a point in my direction.

I love Apocalypse fiction too, but for a different reason.  I like the survival aspect, the rebuilding aspect, the isolation aspect.  There are so many people in this world, what a strange thing it would be if you woke up one morning and the entire city was empty?  Not because I hate or distrust people, but because think of the wealth of wonderful people, personal histories destroyed.  I think about Pompeii sometimes, and how an entire civiliation was extinguished in mere moments.  There were husbands and wives, and children, and politics and crime, and love, and desire, all the elements of human drama, all gone, in an instant.  Thinking about those extinguished lives, and stories is why I love the genre, not from a fundamental belief that Hobbes was right and that the lives of men really are, nasty brutish and short.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Memories of Ice, Steven Erikson

So my Amazon Associates is no longer working. So if you want to pick up this title, click here.
So this is one of my favorite entries in the Malazan Book of the Fallen.  There are some great new characters who live, some amazing, honorable new characters who die, great drama, and as usual with Erikson's work, events occur which make every atrocity you've ever heard of pale in comparison.  I think that is why Memories of Ice sticks with me so vividly.  My second reread was not easy.  It's as heavy as Deadhouse in its own way, and I had to read some lighter works in between.  But the imagery is dark, and those who are good, are so heartbreakingly good as to inspire in a way that real people cannot.

I remember from my school days reading Chaim Potok's The Chosen and learning about a concept in Judaism that I always loved.  In it, Reb Saunders is a tzaddik, one who suffers for the entire community.  At least that's my definition.  The Wikipedia definition involves the Kabala and notions of purity that I'm uncomfortable with.  Memories of Ice is filled with suffering, and one character is charged with accepting the suffering of two entire peoples. Why am I so enamored of this concept?  I suppose because I think from day to day, most of us detach ourselves from the suffering that is ever present in the world.  We have to do so for our own survival, though in many cases it is for our own convenience.  That such men and women can exist that can feel for others to this degree is a beautiful idea.  Though perhaps, mere acceptance and benign willingness to receive it is not very helpful to those who are in need now.  It was this concept that so drew me to my wife, who would see the ads of suffering children on the TV and start crying in empathy.

At anyrate, I'm going to continue, as I have thus far reviewed the Malazan Book of the Fallen, by simply discussing topics of interest.  As usual, if you haven't read the book, or are leery of spoilers, DO NOT READ AHEAD!

Topic 1:  The Bridgeburners are back!  After an incidental appearance in the second novel, the Bridgeburners themselves are more central to the story in Memories of IceErikson has very cleverly built up the reputation of the Bridgeburners.  He shows the trust and admiration that the rest of the soldiers have for these old timers in small ways.  A soldier is startled to learn that one soldier is the illustrius Fiddler, Detoran, Hedge and Trotts are reeled off as famous soldiers.  In this way, the epic's name "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" is very apt--it is a scrapbook of famous soldiers.  And so in the last 100 pages of the book, when the unit is decimated in the fall of Coral, it feels like I lost some family.  The importance of the soldiery, particularly of the Bridgeburners, cannot be understated.  The soldiers' black humor, pithy commentary, and sage advice gets the reader through some of the more hellacious moments in the book.

Topic 2:  Some mysteries resolved.  The first two books of this epic have referred to an overall baddy, and that baddy is finally given a shape, a voice, and a name.  He is the Chained God, the Crippled God, and for a villain, he is BAD ASS.  He was a god to another realm, lured to the aid of a troubled city-state undersiege.  Unfortunately, bringing a god to another universe requires some fell magics, and those magics destroy the city, melt the entire continent, and leaves the Chained One, severely crippled.  However, still powerful, massively ticked off at his predicament, he is chained to the sleeping Goddess, Burn, who sleeps beneath the earth (who is in fact, the earth) by the most powerful ascendants on the planet, including our friend Anomander Rake.  But that all happened thousands of years ago.  But the point is this:  The Crippled God is an alien, and as such his power is a different type from what our ascendants are used to--raw Chaos.

I love Chaos and Order as themes in fantasy, I've always thought that L.E. Modesitt's treatment of it in the Magic of Recluce was excellent, a very biological view of the world.  Order bounds chaos, but the energy inherent in chaos is also life sustaining, when properly order bound.  I digress.  This is not the rubric Erikson uses.  Chaos is a tainted force, and he uses it to tell us more about how the magic of the Malazan world works.  Magic is based on a system of warrens, which are different worlds.  Warrens can be used for travel, but they also have certain properties that can be harnessed for casting destructive magics.  It is not entirely clear how this process works.  Regardless, in Memories of Ice, we learn that the Crippled God has tainted the warrens, and in so doing, he has poisoned the blood of one of the Elder Gods, K'rul.  Though the explanation seems somewhat convolouted here, it actually comes as something of a revelation.  Certainly to some of the more powerful ascendants, who are old enough to know better.

By Lady Envy by Luktarig

Topic 3:  Lady Envy.  I love Lady Envy. First of all, the naming convention of the two sisters, Spite and Envy, is pretty awesome.  Though Spite does not necessarily appear in Memories of Ice.  Envy is a beautiful and funny character.  And though extremely powerful when angered, she does not come across as sullen or remote, as the female assassin, Sorry, from the first two novels.  Lady Envy is actually quite charming, and we get the picture that we'll be seeing more of her.  I like this painting by Luktarig of her, but he did a particularly shoddy job of her legs.  Oh well.

Topic 4:  Burn's Sleep. When you open the first book of the series, you notice that it's dated 1157th year of Burn's Sleep.  An odd way of dating things.  But the explanation, is actually quite literal.  Burn is an earth goddess, sort of like the sleeping dragon of yore on whom the world lives.  However, Burn is taking a more central role in the story now.  Caladan Brood serves as the goddess proxy, and his hammer has the power to wake the goddess.  A true doomsday device.  Brood was a character in Gardens of the Moon, though he was barely mentioned.  He is a mercenary captain with an enormous hammer, an ascendant who has been a long time friend of Anomander Rake.  Oddly, I could find no internet art on Caladan Brood.  He is not a central character as yet. 

Topic 5: The Return of Tattersail.  We knew she'd come back, Erikson made it quite clear.  However, her return poses new questions.  She is not the woman she once was, a warm-hearted, vulnerable woman, the paramour of Gannoes Paran.  Instead, she is four people in one:  Tattersail, Belladuran, Nightchill, and born of the T'lan Imass.  Nightchill, who died in the first book before we e'er knew her, is actually a goddess in disguise, the sister of K'rul.  Though we only suspect at this point.  But Nightchill, was not a nice woman...not an evil woman, but a necromancer, and a her reputation as a Malazan High Mage was fearsome.  Belladuran, was her lover, another mage in the Malazan Mage Cadre.  A very gentle soul, but there is little evidence of him in 'Sail's personality.  More, Tattersail, who started as a child, and grows to teenage in a few short months, is sucking the life from her Rhivi mother as she grows.  This makes her something less than innocent, even though she is a young girl.  And though her intentions are good (to help her Malazan allies) a number of mistakes and unfortunate occurrences make her character turn on a very dark path.  In fact, her primary cause of existence is to end the Ritual of Tellann, which created the undead T'lan Imass.  After thousands of years of warfare, these long-dead, undead warriors are tired, and want their torment to be over.  Tatterail refuses!

Kallor, by Timett
Topic 6:  Kallor, the High King.  I love the character of Kallor.  One of the oldest memes, or Cliches in fantasy, is that of the High King.  The myth of the High King is derivative of King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and is also part of the Chronicles of Prydain.  The High King is almost always a force of good.  Jordan made good use of the High King myth in his Artur Hawkwing--another interesting portrayal of the High King cliche.  Artur Hawkwing, though a noble hero in many respects, was a Napoleonic conqueror and reformer.  He's also guilty of a massive pogrom against those who could channel the One Power.  Kallor however, seems to have none of the good qualities of a High King, and is merely a twisted and evil opportunist.  He had amassed an entire kingdom, and ruled it ruthlessly and tyrannically.  And when the Elder Gods attempted to intervene on behalf of humanity, he raized the entire continent.  Which provides another answer to another mystery.  K'rul removed the ravaged continent from the world, and created an entire warren to hold it.  What we are lead to believe is the ashen and dead, Imperial Warren.  The gods punished Kallor for his sin, and cursed him to live as an ascendant without granting him the powers or immortality of one.  Despite Kallor's cruelty and to the betrayal he perpetrates at the end of Memories of Ice, he is a fascinating character, and one to watch.  Spiteful, cynical, and cruel, he is still an imminently believable character.

Topic 7:  Kruppe v. Brood, Deathmatch!  This was a truly excellent scene.  For over a thousand pages, we've been subjected to Kruppe's meandering, circular, and misleading dialogue.  In contrast, the Warlord Caladan Brood is eloquent in that he carries a big hammer.  For hundreds of pages we've wondered at this absurd power Kruppe seems to wield.  He's not a magician, he has no warren to wield, nor is he religious and belonging to a god or cult.  Instead, he's just brilliant, and its his brilliance alone which stands up to the test.  So when Kruppe's loquacious, and mischevious tongue infuriates the reluctant warrior Brood, the giant slams his God Waking Hammer down to the earth and creates a chasm.  Which goes completely around the rotund little man.  It isn't explained, it isn't clear, but it was glorious good fun to "watch."

Topic 8:  The Mule.  Yes, a real mule.  This endearing character has been around from the first book, ridden by Kruppe on his way out of Darujhistan, then living with the high priest of Shadow, Iskarral Pust.  Each time, the Mule has been ridden by a comedic character, and not surprisingly, as we find out later, is anything but a mule.  My guess is that the Mule is actually the god of the sea, Mael.  Who takes great pleasure in unseating those of great genius.

In this famous Bridgeburners painting, Whiskeyjack is on the right.
Topic 9:  Whiskeyjack, His Leg, His Death. In my first read of the Malazan epic, I was as in love with Whiskeyjack as Erikson must have wanted me to be.  He was hard-bitten, a fierce warrior, a beloved commander, a gentleman, accomplished.  But having read the series a second time, though I still look with great fondness on the character--I've realized just how little the author has given us to go on.  Whiskeyjack is only a character in a few scenes in the first and third books, and his death, though sad...well, we just don't know that much about him.  In fact, it isn't until future books that we learn postumously about his life.  That said, there are a couple of things that stand out about him:  his protection of Tattersail.  As we've discussed, there is ample reason to distrust the child-god, but Whiskeyjack, sees only the first half of that conjunction, and so when Kallor threatens her life, he responds with force, earning the High King's enmity.  Later, when the Tenescowri witches have been rounded up, they're about to cast an awful spell, but he executes them himself because rather than have Anomander Rake slay them with his sword Dragnipur, a promise of eternal suffering.  Before we move on to the betrayal that kills him--we must touch upon his leg.  Erikson uses a very obvious Achilles Heel cliche, the Fatal Flaw cliche, or to use the Greek, Homartia.  From the Siege of Pale to his death at Coral, Whiskeyjack has been plagued by a simple injury, a bum leg that was never healed correctly.  Given that the magics of the Malazan Epic could easily correct this, it becomes almost a series joke.  Mallet, the squad surgeon, asks him if he can take a look at "that leg" and Whiskeyjack always refuses, he's too busy, or his men are in worse condition and need Mallet's talents more than he.  Which leads us to the death of Whiskeyjack, and the end of the Bridgeburners.  When Kallor shows his hand, that he is indeed a member of the House of Chains, Whiskeyjack stands in his way and duels him.  And of course, he fights well given the almost-ascendant nature of the High King, but the duel ends abruptly when he lunges on his bum leg, and no surprise, collapses on it.  Kallor impales him, and the Malazan legend dies. 

Korlat, by Dolemn+, Deviant Art

But not before he is allowed to pursue the greatest of human endeavors, to love again in midlife, with the beautiful Tiste Andii, Korlat. Of course, what makes death so unbearable, isn't that it signifies the end for the victim, but that it represents an end for all who remain. Korlat's grief at having loved for the first time in millenia (she's immortal) Quick Ben, and the other Bridgeburner's grief at losing a valued commander, and friend.  It is witnesses their grief which makes the Death of Whiskeyjack so poignant. 

Topic 10:  Heboric Light-Touch
Though Heboric is not in Memories of Ice, several events are commented on within it which help solve some of the riddles posed in Deadhouse Gates.  So the former historian was a priest of Fener (The God of War), who was unjustly accused of something.  The punishment for that something was to have his hands sawed off.  Anomander Rake however, reveals that the priest of Fener was highly ranked, and was probably set up by a Claw (the empress' master assassins) in so doing, the unjust ritual corrupted the act and put Fener at risk.  The God sealed those hands (the tattoing in Deadhouse) and eventually, Heboric would die and be reunited with his hands, whereon he would become an avenging angel of some kind.  In most writers this sort of thing would be a stretch, if not absolutely inconveivable.  Contrary to popular opinion, even fantasy has to adhere to some rules--namely--its own.  But due to the size, complexity, and timing of this revelation.  I bought it completely, and was even gratified to understand what had taken place in the earlier novel. To top it all off, Heboric's contact with the Jade pillar, which is somehow connected to the Crippled God (more of that in Midnight Tides) destroyed Fener's seal, and pushed the God into the mortal realm!  Wowee Zowee!

Gruntle, by Merlkir at Deviant Art
Topic 11: Redeemed Drunks
I thought this an interesting topic because Erikson is a big fan of the anti-hero.  That's right, remember your 9th Grade lit classes.  An Anti-Hero is one whose great potential is marred by his own tragic excesses or personal flaws, and who is offered time and time again, a path to redemption, but never seems to take it.  Anti-heroes are difficult characters to draw in fantasy since the arc of a character can go for thousands of pages.  But the two characters I have in mind here are Gruntle and Coll, although later books drop a few other drunks into our laps.  Coll was a Gardens character, a noble who had lost his title to a conniving prostitute, and devolved into drunkenness. He was "rescued" by his friends in Darujhistan, but really, it was redeemed by a conversation with Captain Paran--another anti-hero, where he decided that he wasn't ready to drink himself into oblivion quiet yet.  Our new character, Gruntle, is a Memories of Ice character.  Gruntle is a caravan driver, and mercenary captain who is chosen to be the Mortal Sword of Trake, (the ascendant who becomes the new God of War by book's end.)  Gruntle is into doing his job and getting out.  A real Han Solo.  However, in getting his employer and team to the city of Capustan, his best friend is killed.  He takes it hard.  Really hard.  In fact, in this one instance I find Erikson's decisions a little poorly justified.  Drinking yourself into oblivion after a friend dies, even your best friend, is hard for me to believe.  Particularly because that friendship isn't particularly well fleshed out, nor does the dead friend seem to have a deep connection to the man.  However, Gruntle is a real alcoholic.  And, I guess more to the point, he's done this before.  So after reaching the city, he goes on a drunken binge that lasts the entire course of the novel.  However, it is Gruntle's heroic visage which adorns the copy of the book, so you know he's going to pull out of it.  And he does so, only when the city's walls are breached by the Tenescowri.  A Seerdomin (an enemy captain) rapes his other best friend (and casual love interest) Stonny, and Gruntle goes beserk.  His killing frenzy calls upon the ascendant Trake, and feeds his ascendancy, even while Fener's Destriant is killed defending the same city.  However, it is difficult to say whether or not Gruntle is actually redeemed by the book's end.  He climbs out of the bottle, and again becomes theornery caravan driver who just happens to be the hand of a god.  Unlike Coll, there seems to be little character growth for Gruntle.

Topic 11: The Missing Tribes of Tellann

Trull and Onrack, Onrack is T'lan Imass, by Slaine69
Almost from the get go, one of the most interesting aspects of the Malazan world is the presence of the T'lan Imass, an undead race of people who sacrificed their mortality so that they could enjoy a senseless eternal war against the Jaghut.  One of the reasons that the Malazan world is so dense is that the reader is dealing with hundreds of thousands of years of history.  Remember that Erikson was an anthropologist.  He knows all about early peoples, and phylogenetic trees.  Both of which are incredibly relevant.  As my wife is an Ph.D in Anthro, it just so happens that I know a little bit about these things myself.  The Imass, are defined as one of the original three races, the Forkrul Assail, the T'lan Imass, and the Jaghut.  The Jaghut were hunted to extinction by the Imass, and know one really knows what happened to the Forkrul Assail.  However, it is given that humanity is generally derived of Imass stock.  Splitting into a dozen tribes and peoples in their ceasless quest to rid the world of Jaghut.  The Imass are the younguest of the three peoples, but their own history goes back about 400,000 years.  This is relevant because nearly a half a million years of evolution has passed between then and now.  And the descendants of the Imass (those who didn't join the ritual to become undead, are human.  Though House of Chains goes far more into depths about the history of the Imass.  Memories of Ice shows us two things: 1) The current war against the Pannion Seer is a direct result of this ancient war between the Imass and Jaghut, and 2) We first learn that the Imass as a people have modern descendants, the Barghast, who are more closely related to them genetically.  Think of the Barghast as maybe a more intelligent Homo Habilis.  Above is a picture of a character from House of Chains, but it is the best representation of a T'lan Imass that I've seen.  Note the enormous flint sword, which is a ritual weapon typical of these undead warriors.  The T'lan Imass were born in the "Stone Age" of the Malazan world.

Topic 12:  Silverfox and Captain Paran

Captain Paran by Dolmen, Deviant Art-though I pictured him slimmer
 So one of my favorite characters is Captain Paran, sort of the classic fantasy hero: young good looking male hero type.  And after a hiatus in Deadhouse, he's back.  Now, his run ins with various entities of great power, including a hound of shadow, have made him something more than human.  And fate has a new role for him to play.  Meanwhile, his lover Tattersail, now Silverfox has matured into a young woman.  Yet, their meeting, though a poignant one, is filled with a bitter distance.  Silverfox is on entirely new level of power, and Paran, just learning his new role as Master of the Deck is uncomfortable with the two other wizards stored inside this girl.  Also, Silverfox possesses an entirely different set of issues, described in part, above.  I'm not sure what I wanted from this meeting.  Romance is a necessary part of fantasy, though not, I believe in science fiction.  It doesn't have to be a vast sweeping love story, but Korlat and Whiskeyjack's love story adds character color and poignancy to a world torn by war.  But, there are many books left to go.  Though Silverfox and Paran's parting was cool, much can happen in 20,000 pages of writing.

Topic 13:  The Painter and the Toad.
So we have two new characters who make a brief yet intriguing debut in Memories of Ice. Ormulogun is the official painter of the Malazan Army.  I like that the Empire has official historians and painters.  These are the sorts of details that are often overlooked.  Court painters were common, and even now, I suspect the U.S. has a portrait painter for each American President, though the thing now seems to be photographs.  At anyrate, though Ormulogun's appearance in Memories is small, you get the sense that if mere experience can guarantee magical powers, than the court painter of the Malazan Empire, must have some kind of power.  Not the least of which, is a caustic talking toad as his familiar or "art crtic."  The exchange between them was definitely one of the funnier in the book.

Topic 14: New Enemies-The Tiste Edur
So, while the Pannion Seer's terrible reign is destroyed in Memories of Ice, one is informed consistently, that this war, terrible as it is, is not the main thrust at all.  Erikson does a good job of very slowly introducing the real enemies.  The Tiste Edur.  As you may recall, The Tiste Andii, are the children of Mother Dark, and are a race of black skinned white haired people who are long-lived powerful fighters and magicians.  They almost match the Drow in description.  The Tiste Andii are lead by Anomander Rake, and function largely as a force for good, though Rake's justice is a rough one.  The Tiste Edur, are the second offspring of mother dark, the first being the Tiste Liosan, of whom we know nothing in Memories.  They are shadow, born of the interplay of Light and Dark.  We know little of them, save that they had a massive battle on a submerged and destroyed warren, where the single surving ship is a refitted Malazan vessel, manned by undead Tiste Andii.  That ship, undead as it is, comes back in almost every novel.  A truly spooky invention.  The undead warriors man the oars, and their heads, still living are piled up on the front deck of the ship.  At anyrate, the Tiste Edur are a mystery that is first proposed in Memories.

Topic 15:  No End in Sight
One of the cliche's in fantasy is that the end is almost always predictable.  This isn't a bad thing.  We want good to win out over evil, and fantasy is about character redemption and growth, so how good wins over evil is really the more important question.  However, this is one cliche that Erikson has managed to sidestep.  Even the evil Chained God, the Crippled God, has likeable qualities.  He purposely chooses the maimed, the corroded, the ugly, the insane, the leftovers and detritus as his servants.  Given our natural proclivities of choosing that which is beautiful and pure, that there is a god for the less perfect, isn't wrong.  And in fact, the god himself was wronged from day one.  Anyway, all that aside. At the end of Memories of Ice, we know that the real bad guy is the Crippled God, but we still know so little about him and his agenda, that is impossible to say how the saga will end.  Well played Erikson.
Topic 16: Dragnipur
As I've riffed on before, magical items, and magical weapons are a staple of the genre, and Dragnipur is the ultimate accessory.  We learn a lot about it in Memories of Ice.  We know that Draconus, one of the Elder Gods who cursed The High King Kallor, was trapped within his own weapon.  Those who have been slain by Dragnipur end up in the sword's own warren, chained to a wagon that they must pull forward for eternity.  Draconus reveals however, that there is something pursuing the sword, and those who have been chained by it.  And it is Chaos, or the Crippled God.  Draconus urges Paran to tell Rake to use the sword more often.  That the sword needs new souls to pull its heavy load from the pursuing Chaos.  Of course, the other option, as with any good doomsday device, is that the sword must be destroyed.  Rake has slain some of the worst demons of all time, and should Chaos reach the wagon, the worst of these creatures would be freed to wreak havoc.

Topic 17: The Tenescowri
The Tenescowri is one of the most horrific inventions of fantasy I've ever heard of.  The Pannion Seer has created an army of peasants, and rather than feed them, he supplies no food, but instead has his priests encourage the peasants to eat the inhabitants of the cities they assault.  It is absolutely disgusting.  Worse, the women of the Tenescowri are likewise encourage to mount the dying on the battlefield, hoping to get pregnant.  Their children become the Children of the Dead Seed, and are the creme de la creme of the peasant army.  One such creature, named Anaster leads the Tenescowri.

Topic 18:  The Return of Toc the Younger
Lady Envy, mentioned above, finds Toc in another warren, passed out, and wakes him up.  This provides a nice resolution to the Toc story, who was thrust into the warren by the insane mage Hairlock in Gardens of the Moon.  Toc is a typical Erikson character, a genuinly good human being.  Though he is fact trained as a Claw, and thus serves as one of the Empress' trained killers.  However, serving in One Arm's Host has re-converted him to the good side of humanity.  Unfortunately, his fate in Memories of Ice is just awful, and shows that it don't pay to be good.  I was sad that Erikson torments Toc in this way, and though Memories ends with hope that Toc will return, I admit that it's a dim hope.

Topic 17: The Death of Itkovian
I intend to make this one a Best Moments in Fantasy post, so I'll leave it, and this post to one simple fact.  Itkovian is awesome, and his death, like his life proves what I've always believed about humanity.  That good is real, and possible, and that it is something that we all must continually work to be, to improve upon, and to love all, and as many as possible, without reservation.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Supernatural and Grimm - Fantasy TV Reviews

Both of these shows are pretty lame.  We'll start with Supernatural, the two lead actors featured on the left.  I've seen the entire first season of this show, and I was disappointed.  It was sold to me as kind of an X-Files update, but it turns out to be more of a Buffy Update, without the tongue and cheek humor which made the vampire series and spinoffs so endearing.

I don't know what it is about good looking men, but these two eye candies, can't act for shit.  I suppose I should give them the benefit of the doubt: the writing is dumb, and the direction is half-assed.  Both of these shows start with the same initial premise:

There is an unseen world of goblins and ghouls, and ghosts, and there is an equally unseen world of vigilante ghost and goblin hunters.  Sam and Dean Winchester are two such.  Their mother was killed by a particularly bad ass demon who gets off from setting hot milfs on fire and pasting them to the ceiling.  Dad got into the business of hunting him down, and taught the trade to his two sons.  Lame premise?  You bet.  About the only thing its got going for it is that Nicki Aycox is smoking hot, and quite humorous.

Grimm, which is equally retarded, at least has a literary backing of the world of Grimm's Fairy Tales.  But all this really means is that the writers didn't have to be bothered to create actual demons of their own.  The first two episodes are remakes of Little Red Riding Hood and Goldy-Locks and the Three Bears.  Yup.  Their pilot (the episode they wanted to lead with, their best shot, was Little Red Riding Hood.)  It's a bit understated, which is nice. They never mention the name of the fable, but it's still pretty obvious.  Episode two, has a pretty girl in her twenties, breaking and entering the house of the Bear family (who are rich lawyers). The premise here is slightly different.  The main hero is a cop, whose auntie is dying of cancer and suddenly inherits her power of being able to see demons.  Again, the main cop is superfluously good looking, with a miserable hair cut.

One of the many problems with these shows is their starting premise.  It isn't the need for vengeance (in Grimm, Auntie is dead by Episode 2), although that clearly is a bit simplistic, it's the "unseen world" business that is so hard to take.  In Supernatural these two assholes criss cross the country, searching for their missing father, their mother's and girlfriend's killers, and meanwhile pretending to be FBI agents, DEA agents, Fish and Wildlife officers, etc., all the while using stolen credit cards to pay their bills.  I had to laugh, in one episode, one of their clients runs a hotel.  They stay for a week, kill the demon, and then pay the woman with a stolen credit card.  Why there isn't a coterie of FBI agents after them is beyond me.  (I understand that in subsequent seasons, they begin to address this issue).  In Grimm, it's too early to say.  By episode two, the cop's partner still has no idea how his partner is finding the baddies (and always somehow stumbles away during the crucial moment.)  This could actually be pretty funny if they were willing to make it so.

But the world has to be unseen, because both of these terrible shows take place "today" in "our world."  And that is the problem with the series.  No matter how silly it gets, that world will always need to be "unseen."  That is the essential problem with this particular cliche.  The only way out of this dilemna is for the truth to come out, for the veil to be punched through--and that would change the nature of the show entirely.

Both Buffy and X-Files dealt with this problem in different ways, and with varying amounts of success.  In Buffy, the entire town of Sunnydale was in on it.  There was ample evidence: ineffectual police (whose principal job was to provide blankets and flashing lights) the mayor (who was a giant snake) the principal (devoured by hyenamen) the secret military base (which was stocked with a mad scientist and subsequently imploded.)  But as silly and implausible as Buffy was, the problem was addressed.  There was an entire demon hunting branch of the military, why they so often seemed absent in saving the world and leaving it to Buffy Summers must have been a bureaucratic failure.  And of course, the show was a comedy.  Like any good comedy, it had it's sad moments, but the characters were one and all ludicrous, and the actors did a good job of not taking themselves seriously.  Not so with these three coifed and perfectly manicured speci "men".

X-Files, operated within the system.  They were actual FBI agents, not just fake ones.  The agents discovered stuff, but they were never able to amass physical evidence, or photographic evidence, and the central premise of the show was that the government already knew about the supernatural and was hiding it from the populace.  That is far different from the worlds of Grimm and Supernatural which purport a general, blanket ignorance regarding it.  And though X-Files was far more episodic in nature, it did bring a fairly logical sense to everything that occurred, leaving mysteries unexplained instead of half-ass explanations which leave a lot to be desired.

Another thing that bothers me about these shows is that there is apparently a cottage industry of books on the occult.  Buffy's library was implausible, but it was given credence by the organization that fostered her called The Watchers.  An organization of international might could conceivably track down a variety of old books, and send them with their agents to various hot spots (such as the HellMouth) where they would be of more use.  In the X-Files they had the entire agency to bring to bear when it came to investigatory resources.  There were tons of government reports on crazy shit (which is totally believable-by the way), access to fingerprints, photo experts, DNA experts, you name it!

That's key.  Supernatural, and Grimm, never address this issue adequately (Grimm is at episode two, but I don't hold out much hope).  Grimm at least has a cop hero, and he can use some of these resources, but his occult resources again come from the trailer his auntie leaves in his backyard.  In Supernatural, the boys' father leaves a journal behind that guides them to the first few cases.  But then they're doing "internet" research on ghosts?!? They reference it sometimes, when they've got little or no leads, they say insipid shit like, "I've checked all the usual sources, but I can't find anything on the Mooboodooboo demon!"  These shows rely on faux investigations, and in a way, there structured like mysteries.  Though frankly, there isn't much mystery. But the investigations all rely on completely inane and unbelievable sources, and at the very least Moulder and Scully, quite frequently thought they were dealing with regular crime (as it happens, they were always wrong, but it was a nod in the right direction).  In the last three episodes of Supernatural, the sad, sad episode where the only reason to watch the show (Nicki Aycox) dies, the boys go to visit an "old friend" who happens to be a tattooed motorcycle mechanic who happens to be a demonology expert.  Where did these old friends come from?  I thought they were alone in the world, forced to wander in sullen loneliness!

Anyway, there isn't much point in going on.  I will say that all of these shows would be much improved if there were more blood and gore.  But that might be a ratings thing.  I'll continue to watch them because my life is boring, and I hate shows about the Real World. But man, I need some intelligent programming!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Great Moments in Fantasy - The Chain Breaks

Though I really have to fill in the blanks with some older fantasy moments, I couldn't resist my first Erikson great moment, this one from Deadhouse Gates.  It won't be the last, my favorite Erikson moments are yet to come.

Ok, some background.  Deadhouse gates, which I haven't yet completed my review for is a real slog.  All of the characters have such harrowing awful experiences, that it can be quite heavy at times.  And the end, of course doesn't get any better.  So--if you haven't read the novel, and are considering it.  This is a massive spoiler.  DO NOT READ BELOW!

Why this moment?  It's a classic movie moment.  It's simply made for, written by a generation of film goers.  I suppose that might make it cheesy or trite, but it's so tragic, and it really comes out of no where. 

By way of introduction, the High Fist Coltaine has lead a column of over thirty thousand refugees about five hundred leagues, being harried the whole way by the Army of the Apocalypse, a revolutionary holy war, that overthrew the Malazan conquerors.  There have been massive slaughters, like that at Sekala, or at the river Vathar, where fisherman we're hooking the bodies of dead and bloated refugees from the river for weeks afterward.  The army sent its refugees onward to the safety of the Imperial City of Aren, but the did so at the cost of their lives, staying behind to engage the enemy and buy the refugees time.  One last thing you'll need to understand.  Coltaine is a plainsman, a horselord, and the shamans of his tribe, when they die, they're essence is contained in living vessels which collect and deposit their metaphysical load in an unborn child of the same tribe.

The Death of Coltaine

A strange murmering was building from Aren's walls, a sound of darkness that filled the dusty air.  Sliding down from the saddle, Duiker felt his heart begin to thunder.  Nether's hand pulled him through the crowd of Garrison Guards and refugees.  He felt other hands reach out, touch lightly as if seeking a blessing or conferring one, then slip past.
       An arched doorway suddenly yaned before him, leading to a gloomy landing with stone steps rising along inside of the tower wall.  The sound from the city walls was building to a roar, a wordless cry of outrage, horror and anguish.  It echoed with mad intent within the tower, and rose in timbre with each step that the warlock and the historian climbed.
      On the middle landing she swept him past the T-shaaped arrow slits, edging them both behind the pair of bowmen pressed against the narrow windows, then on, up the worn stairs.  Neither archer even so much as noticed them.
       As they neared the shaft of bright light directly beneath the roof hatch, a quavering voice reached down.
       "There's too many ... I can do nothing, no, the gods forgive me--too many, too many ..."
      Nether ascended the shaft of light, Duiker following.  They emerged onto the broad platform.  Three figures stood at the outer wall.  The one on the left Duiker recognized as Mallick Rel--the advisor he had last seen in Hissar--his silks billowing in the hot wind.  The man beside him was probably High Fist Prmqual, tall, wiry, slope-shouldered and wearing clothes that would beggar a king, his pale hands skittering across the top of the battlement like trapped birds.  To his right stood a soldier in functional armor, a torc on his left arm denoting his commander's rank.  He held his burly arms wrapped around himself, as if trying to crush his own bones.  The stress bound within him seemed about to explode.
     Near the hatch sat Nil, a disarrayed jumble of limbs  The young warlock swung a gray, aged face toward Duiker.  Nether swept down to wrap her brother in a fierce hug that she seemed unwilling or unable to relax.
      The soldiers lining the walls to either side were screaming now, a sound that cut the air like Hood's own scythe.
      The historian went to the wall beside the commander.  Duiker's hands reached out to grip the sun-baked stone of the merlon.  Following the rapt gaze of the others, he could barely draw breath.  Panic surged through him as his eyes took in the scene on the slope of the closest burial mound.
       Above a contracting mass of less than four hundred soldiers, three standards waved: the Seventh's; the polished, articulated dog skeleton of the Foolish Dog Clan; the Crow's black wings surmounting a bronze disc that flashed in the sunlight.  Defiant and proud, the bearers continued to hold them high.
      On all sides, pressing in with bestial frenzy, were Korbolo Domn's thousands, a mass of footsoldiers devoid of all discipline, interested only in slaughter.  Mounted companies rode past them along both visible edges, surging into the gap between the city's walls and the mound--though not riding close enough to come within bow range from Aren's archers.  Korbolo Dom's own guard and, no doubt, the renegade Fist himself had moved into position atop the mound behind the last one, and a platform was being raised, as if to ensure a clear view of the events playing out on the nearer barrow.
     The distance was not enough to grant mercy to the witnesses on the tower or along the city's wall.  Duiker saw Coltain there, amidst a knot of Mincer's engineera and a handful of Lull's marines, his round shield a shattered mess on his left arm, his lone long-knife snapped to the length of a short sword in his right hand, his feather cloak glistening as if brushed with tar.  The Historian saw Commander Bult, guiding the retreat toward the hill's summit.  Cattle-dogs surged and leaped around the Wickan veteran like a frantic bodyguard, even as arrows sweept through them in waves.  Among the creatures one stood out, huge, seemingly indomitable, pin-cushioned with arrows, yet fihting on.
     The horses were gone.  The Weal Clan was gone.  The Foolish Dog warriors were but a score in number, surround half a dozen old men and horsewives--the very last of a dwindled, cut-away heart.  Of the Crow, it was clear that Coltain and Bult were the last.
     Soldiers of the Seventh, few with any armor left, held themselves in a solid ring around the others.  Many of them no longer raised weapons, yet stood their ground even as they were cut to pieces.  No quarter was given, every soldier who fell with wounds was summarily butchered--their helmets torn off, their forearms shattered as they sought to ward off the attacks, their skulls crumpling to multiple blows.
     The stone beneath Duicker's hands had gone slick sticky.  Iron lances of pain shot up his arms.  He barely noticed.
     With a wrenching effort, the historian pulled back, reaching out red fingers to grip Pormqual--
     The garrison commander blocked him, held him back.
     The High Fist saw Duiker, flinched away.  "You do not understand!" he screamed.  "I cannot save them!  Too many!  Too many!"
     "You can, you bastard!  A sortie can drive right to that mound---a cordon, damn you!"
     The commander's low growl reached Duiker.  "You're right, Historian.  But he won't do it.  The High Fist won't let us save them--"
     Duiker struggled to free himself of the man's grip but was pushed back.
     "For Hood's sake!" the commander snapped.  "We've tried--we've all tried--"
     Mallick Rel stepped close, said softly, "My heart weeps, Historian.  The High Fist cannot be swayed--"
     "This is murder!"
     "For which Korbolo Dom shall pay, and dearly."
     Duiker spun around, lurched back to the wall.
     They were dying.  There, almost within reach--no, within a soldier's reach.  Anguish closed a black fist in the historian's gut.  I cannot watch.
     Yet I must.
     He saw fewer than a hundred soldiers still upright, but it had become a slaughter--the only battle that remained was among Kporbolo's forces for the chance of delivering fatal blows and raising grisly rophies with triumphant shrieks.  The Seventh were falling, and falling, using naught but flesh and bone to shield their leaders--the ones who had led them across a continent, to die now, almost within the shadow of Aren's high walls.
     And on those walls was ranged an army, ten thousand fellow soldiers to witness this, the greatest crime ever committed by a Malazan High Fist.
     How Coltaine had managed to get this far was beyond Duiker's ability to comprehend.  He was seeing the end of a battle that must have run without cessation for days--a battle that had ensured the surivival of the refugees--and this is why that dust cloud was so slow to approach.
     The last of the Seventh vanished beneath swarming bodies.  Bult stood with his back to the standard bearer, a Dhobri tulwar in each hand.  A mob closed on him and drove lances into the veteran, sticking him as they would a cornered boar.  Even then he tried to rsie up, slashing out with a tulwar to chop into the leg of a man--who reeled back howling.  But the lances stabbed deep, pushed the Wickan back, pinned him to the ground.  Blades flashed down on him, hacking him to death.
     The standard bearer left his position--the standard itself propped up between corpses--and leaped forward in a desperate effort to reach his commander.  A blade neatly decapitated him, sending his head toppling back to join the bloody jumble at the standard's base, and thus did Corporal List die, having experieinced countless mock deaths all those months ago at Hissar.
    The Foolish Dog's position vanished beneath a press of bodies, the standard toppling moments later.  Bloody scalps were lifted and waved about, the trophies spraying red rain.
    Surrounded by the last of the engineers and marines, Coltaine fought on.  His defiance lasted but a moment longer before Korbolo Dom's warriors killed the last defender, then swallowed up Coltaine himself, burying him in their mindless frenzy.
     A huge arrow-studded cattle-dog darted to where Coltaine had gone down, but then a lance speared the beast, rasing it high.  It writhed as it slid downt he shaft, and even then the creature delivered one final death to the enemy gripping the weapon, by tearing out the soldier's throat.
     Then it was too was gone.
     The Crow standard wavered, leaned to one side, then pitched down, vanishing in the press.
     Duiker stood unmoving, disbelieving.
     A high-pitched wail rose behind the historian.  He slowly turned.  Nether still held Nil as if he were a babe, buty her head was tilted back, raised heavenward, her eyes wide.
     A shadow swept over them.
     And to Sormo the Elder warlkoc, there on the wall of Unta, there came eleven crows--eleven--to take the great man's soul, for no single creature could hold it all.  Eleven.
    The sky above Aren was filled withc rows, a black sea of wings, closing from all sides.
     Nether's wail grew louder and louder still, as if her own soul was being ripped out through her throat.
     Shock jolted through Duiker.  It's not done--it's not over--he spun round, saw the cross being raised, saw the still living man nailed to it.
    "They'll not free him!" Nether screamed.  She was suddenly at his side and staring out at the barrow.  She tore at her hair clowed at her own scalp until blood streamed down her face.  Duiker grasped her wrists--so thin, so hcildlike his hands--and pulled them away before she could reach her own eyes.
    Kamist Reloe stood on the platform, Korbolo Dom at his side.  Sorcery blossomed--a virulent, wild wave that surged up and crashed against the approaching crows.  Black shapes spun and tumbled from the sky--
     "No!" Nether shrieked, writing in DUiker's arms, seeking to fling herself over the wall.
     The cloud of crows scattered, reformed, sought to approach once again.
     Kamist Reloe obliterated hundreds more.
     "Release his soul!  From the flesh!  Release it!"
     Beside them, the garrison commander turned and called to one of his aides in a voice of ice, "Get me Squint, Corporal.  Now!"
     The aide did not bother darting down the stairs--he simply went to the far wall, leaned out and screamed, "Squint!  Up here, damn you!"
     Another wave of sorcery swept more crows from the sky.  In silence, they regrouped once again.
     The roar from Aren's walls had stilled.  Now only silence held the air.
     Nether had collapsed against the historian, a child in his arms.  DUiker could see Nil curled and motionless on the platform near the hatch--either unconscious or dead.  He had wet himself, the puddle spreading out around him.
     Boots thumped on the stairs.
     The aide said to the commander, "He's been helping the refugees, sir.  I don't think he has any idea what's going on ..."
     Duiker turned again to look out at the lone figure nailed to the cross.  He still lived--they would not let him die, would not free his soul, and Kamist Reloe knew precisely what he was doing, knew the full horror of his crime, as he methodically destroyed the vessels for that soul.  On all sides,s creaming warriors pressed close, seething on the barrow like insects.
     Objects started striking the figure on the cross, leaving red stains. Pieces of flesh, gods--pieces of flesh--what's left of the army--this was a level of cruelty that left Duiker cowering inside.
     "Over here, Squint!" he heard the commander growl.  A figure pushed to DUiker's side, short, squat, gray-haired.  His eyes, buried in a nest of wrinkles, were fixed on that distant figure.  "Mercy," he whispered.
     "Well?" the commander demanded.
     "That's half a thousand paces, Blistig--"
     "I know."
     "Might take more than one shot, sir."
     "Then get started, damn you."
     The old soldier, wearing a uniform that looked as if it had not been washed or repaired in decades, unslung the longbow from one shoulder.  He gathered the string, stepped into the bow's plane, bent it hard over one thigh.  His limbs shook as he edged the string's loop into its niche.  THen he straitened up and studied the arrows in the quiver strapped to his hip.
     Another wave of sorcery struck the crows.
     After a long moment, Squint selected an arrow.  "I'll try for the chest.  Biggest target, sir, and enough good hits and that'll do the poor soul."
     "Another word, Squint," Blistig whispered, "and I'll have your tongue."
     The soldier nocked the arrow. "Clear me some space, then."
     Nether was limp in Duiker's arms as hed ragged her back a step.
     The man's bow, even strung, was as tall as he was.  His forearms as he drew the string back were like hemp ropes, bundled and twisted and taut.  The string brushed his stubbled jawline as he completed the draw, then locked it in place with a slow, even exhalation.
     Duiker saw the man tremble suddenly, and his eyes widened, revealing themselves for the first time--black, small marbles in red-streaked nests.
     Raw fear edged Blistig's voice. "Squint--"
   "That's got to be Coltaine, sir!" the old man gasped.  "You want me to kill Coltaine--"
     Nether raised her head and reached out one bloody hand in supplication.  "Release him.  Please."
     The old man studied her a moment.  Tears streamed down his face.  The trembling stilled--the bow itself had not moved an inch.
    "Hood's breath!" Duiker hissed.  He's weeping.  He can't aim--the bastard can't aim--
     The bowstring thrummed.  The long shaft cut through the sky.
     "Oh, gods!" Squint moaned. "Too high--too high!"
     It rose, swept through the massed crows untouched and unwavering, began arcing down.
      Duiker could have sworn that Coltaine looked up then, lifted his gaze to greet that gift, as the iron head impacted his forehead, shattered the boan, sank deep into his brain and killed him instantly.  His head snapped back between the spars of wood, then the arrow was through.
      The warriors on the barrow's slopes flinched back.
      The crows shook the air with their eerie cries and plunged dcown toward the sagging figure on the cross, sweeping over the warriors crowding the slopes.  The sorcery that battered at them was shunted aside, scattered by whatever force--Coltaine's soul?--now rose to join the birds.
     The cloud descended on Coltaine, swallowing him entire and covering teh cross itself--at that distance they were to Duiker kike flies swarming a piece of flesh.
     And when they rose, exploding skyward, the warleader of the Crow Clan was gone.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Darkwalker on Moonshae, Forgotten Realms 1, Douglas Niles

I intend my review of this book to be short and sweet.  This book was terrible.  As an intro to the Realms, it brought, literally nothing to the depth of the world created by Ed Greenwood.  After reading R.A. Salvatore's Homeland, I was deeply disappointed.  As I stated last post, I am going to attempt to read these books by date of publishing, having faith that Wizards of the Coast had some idea that the world they would be creating would be somewhat cohesive, and not like The Simpsons, where every character restarts every episode with little or no history.  Granted, this was the late eighties (published 1987), and it was a different time for fantasy genre fiction.  The genre, whose following grew by leaps and bounds because of works like these, has grown infinitely more sophisticated.  However, Douglas Niles' first stab at a Forgotten Realms novel reads like the senior project of a highschool student.

I was rather hoping that the first series in the Realms would be of the same caliber as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's War of the Lance, saga.  So far, I am deeply disappointed.

Character:  There are no characters in this book.  The lead character is a feckless prince named Tristan.  He's apparently irresponsible, but we don't see any evidence for that, apparently he whores and drinks every night, but we only see that one night at a summer festival.  And apparently, he's got a heart made of gold, and is really in love with a ward of the King, a young girl named Robyn.  Who flirts with a thief, for no apparent reason, which never goes anywhere, and is completely unresolved by storie's end.  SPOILER:  It turns out she's in love with the prince too, and the thief flirt was a red herring.  Big surprise.  Still though, it's not all bad.  I'm reminded that a big part of high fantasy was romantic love.  A lot of modern fantasy writers, in their cynicism choose to ignore this.  But Arwen and Aragorn's forbidden love was a highlight of Tolkien's saga, not a distraction, or a subplot.  Readers of fantasy are romantics, and love, no matter how unrealistic, always appeals to us.  Back to the facts:  Tristan is the most developed character, and he's as shallow as condensation.

Images are from Daniel Eskridge's website
Cliche:  The interesting thing about reading a book that takes place in a world that is determined entirely by the rules of the 2nd edition of the Dungeon and Dragons handbook, is that the author can choose when he breaks with the rules, and when he upholds them.  As an old dungeon master, I find both possibilities interesting.  When one of the minor characters, the aforementioned flirty thief, Daryth garrots a Firbolg in one stroke, you realize immediately, that is what those of us in the trade called a "backstab" an attack that only a thief or assassin type character class can use, depends upon him being "hiding in shadows" and gets to roll an incredible damage roll (I forget the dice roll, and the internet failed me--D&D was pre-internet!)  On a side note, I've noticed that much of the D&D terminology pervades the videogaming industry at large, and that the first hits for the term backstab, were DragonAge Origins hits.  Anyway, Darkwalker uses all the D&D cliches, about dwarves, halflings and elves, with some interesting additions.  The Moonshae Isles are home to a druidic clan of peoples based largely on a Celtic-Welsch-Scottish mythos.  Druids are anything but common (though possible) in Dungeons & Dragons, and to have three of the central characters, including the novel's central conflict be based off a Druidic conflagration was quite refreshing.

Eskridge, Image of Tristan's home, Corwell
Scope:  Despite this being our first immersion in the Forgotten Realms, the scope of this novel was perilously small.  There were the Ffolk of the Moonshae Isles (which don't seem to be isles at all) and the Northmen (think Vikings) who ravaged the peaceful Ffolk in longships.  The only reference to a larger world is that this character, Daryth, the thief, rogue, assassin, was from another land, and was called a Calishite.  No reference is drawn to a larger world, and even the central conflict of Darkwalker is based around the defense of a fairly minor castle in a larger kingdom, the High King of which never bother's to even show up.  Still, this is the first book of a series, so I'll be patient. 

Magic:  As in cliche, the magic of Darkwalker is fairly limited.  The Big Bad seems to be unlimited in scope, but is ultimately defeated with a magic sword.  Here Niles completely abandons D&D rules.  D&D is one of those games where characters die all the time.  Dungeon Masters can be unflinching about killing characters, despite the vast amounts of time it takes to create one.  So Big Bads are really, really hard to kill.  This is why Rogue characters are so important.  If you can't kill the Dragon, you need someone who can steal the famed Gem of Aranar from it!  As a rule, in Darkwalker, all of the magic is clerical in nature.  This is unusal for the genre, particularly in D&D where magic is an involved affair with spell memorization and spell ingredients.  Clerical power is innate and based on your level, your natural abilities, and your chosen faith.)

Theme:  Despite all of my misgivings about Darkwalker, it's fairly lighthearted.  Something, which after the heavy fiction of Steven Erikson and others is a bit of a relief.  Still, Darkwalker seems like a one off, classic swords and sorcery novel.  The writing has an innocense about it that comes off as amateur rather than intentional.  Since its plot based fiction, which skimps on the characters inner dramas, or treats them, again amateurly, there's really no theme to this novel.  It's get in there, and get her done.  Slay the dragon, save the damsel.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Homeland, R.A. Salvatore, Forgotten Realms

I was always a DragonLance man, so for many years I figured reading Forgotten Realms books would be treason.  How silly is that?  Of course, they never made a DragonLance videogame worth its salt, though attempts were made on the 386!  Did I date myself or what?!

So my first Forgotten Realms experience was actually through the truly excellent videogame, Baldur's Gate (which is really a precursor to DragonAge Origins.) And I loved it.  Years later, after seeing R.A. Salvatore books on the shelf, and being suitably intrigued.  I finally decided to go for it.  If you want a phenomenal history of the Realms go to Wertzone site

Since I'm taking a break from Memories of Ice to read this, it's interesting to note the stark differences in contemporary fantasy with fantasy from two decades ago.  Salvatore did not invent the Realms.  Far from it--Ed Greenwood did.  I actually a did some research for this post, something I rarely do, but the Realms have a complex history.  And unlike DragonLance whose seminal volumes were all penned by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the Realms were created by a collective of writers drawing on the maps and notes of an accomplished Dungeon Master.  The Realms were designed to be free floating, more loose than DragonLance which took place in the middle of a continent spanning total-war.

Anyway, the point of all this is to show, once again, that good fiction does not have to be genre busting.  In fact, it can draw on cliche's so overdone as to be boring and repugnant, and still make a good yarn.

Let me say from the outset, I thoroughly enjoyed Homeland, and intend to immerse myself in the Realms, 20 years after their creation.  I have one caveat.  The book, though an absorbing and fun read, is no poetic work of genius.  It's a good romp through an interesting world.

1.)  Character.  Drizzt Do'Urden is the name of the main character for this volume.  I grew up with this cat, though I didn't know it.  I saw his picture on shiny hardcover novels all over the Barnes & Nobles of my youth.  Homeland is definitely a plot based story, nonetheless its characters are compelling.  The story begins with a race of dark elves called the Drow, dwelling in lightless caverns called the Underdark.  I've always found evil races to be an interesting study.  How can such a society function?  All societies are based on trust and cooperation--which is a flat impossibilty for the genetically evil.  And of course, this is a central conflict in Homeland.  The Drow worship the spider Goddess Lolth, who believes in corruption and greed, and encourages her priestesses to war with one another.  However, Drizzt, and his father Zak are different, possessing an inate innocence that puts them at conflict with the larger drow society.  They don't like to kill, yet both of them are singularly gifted fighters.  So the natural conflict set up here is between Drizzt and his entire race, his entire culture, and closer to home, his mothers, sisters and brothers.  Which brings us to cliche.

Mindflayer from FR wiki

2)  Cliche.  Elves, Dark Elves, Coming of Age, Dungeons & Dragons, are all cliches used by Salvatore.  Elves figure only as a distant enemy to the Drow, but as the Dark Elf cliche is built off the Elven cliche, much of the same is true about both.  Elves are long-lived, beautiful artisans, dwelling in nature, strong, yet slight, natively good, and are beautiful to look upon, and inherently magical. All this is true for the Drow, save the natively good part.  The city of Menzoberranzan is carved from stalagtites, and the buildings and temples are designed to look like spiders.  A thoroughly disgusting concept, yet one requiring a degree of skill in art and engineering to execute.  The drow live as long as elves, except for the fact that they keep on killing each other.  This means that despite the native difficulty of breeding (elven females ovulate infrequently, like every 50 years or so) a concentrated effort is made to breed, since family strength is a direct and certain route to power.  This culminates in some interesting breeding practices practiced by female drow. The drow is likewise beautiful to look upon, but they have black skin and pure white hair.  Like elves, the drow is capable of casting spells from an early age, and all drow are capable of casting certain spells, regardless of caste.  Which brings up the Dungeons & Dragons cliche.  Every single item or monster in this entire novel has a series of stats to back it up, from the adamantine twin scimitars which are Drizzt's hallmark, to the tentacular mindflayers who dwell in the Underdark.  Anyone who ever played Dungeons & Dragons knows the mindflayer intimately, even those who didn't ever have to fight one, the picture was just so frickin cool you had to look at it.  These cliche's for the most part are informative.  However, for a non D&Der, and we're dying out, some of the cliches are just obscure.  Halfling and Gnomes.  All manner of small people.  Halflings are familiar because of the Lord of the Rings, but most people are familiar with the term hobbits instead.  There are no hobbits in Dungeons & Dragons.  Just halflings.  Gnomes are another one.  We're all familiar with garden gnomes, those cone hatted, blue skirted small creatures, but just how are they different from dwarves?

3)  Scope.  The scope is immense and confined all at once.  The Realms are hard and fast.  Ed Greenwood's world is all mapped out, its creatures are decided, it's politics analyzed.  It's open ended in terms of story telling, but the world, like ours has a physics that is entirely determined by the roll of six, eight, twelve and twenty sided dice.  This makes for a very interesting fantasy setting.  Half of the joy of fantasy is discovery, does the comprehensive mapping elminate this joy?  It turns out, no.  I look at they world map, and I wonder what famous warriors have traveled to Cormyr?  Who is the greatest wizard in Waterdeep?  All this and more, after reading Homeland, I intend to find out.  Now of course, I wonder, how should I read these books?  Drizzt wasn't a character started in Homeland, far from it--he was first mentioned in the Crystal Shard, (again, hat tip to the Wertzone).  I have determined that the best way to do this is to read the books in order of publication, though I may drop off after the first ten books or so.  I always found that the splinter novels in the DragonLance series were of a drastically lower quality, and that the events that occurred in these books had no play in any of the more central literature.  Even so, the more limited scope is Menzoberanzan, the drow city.  And in this Salvatore is the acknowledged champion.

4)  Magic.  Dungeons & Dragons magic.  After having spent a lot of time with more complex brands of magic.  Sanderson's Allomancy, Jordan's The One Power, Erikson's Warrens, the system of magic in the Realms is reassuringly simple.  Most spells require ingredients, and must be memorized to be cast.  They can only be cast once or twice, depending on the sophisitcation and "level" of the wizard, and then they must be re-memorized.  Magic is important, of course, but having owned the 2nd edition Players Handbook, I know most of them already.  There is no magic to devastate an entire city here.

5)  Theme.  As stated above, this novel is no scintillating work of genius.  It's fast moving, absorbing, with interesting characters and a fun, unpredictable plot line.  It's candy, it's beach reading, even more so than most fantasy is considered to be.  That said, the writing isn't poor by any means--it's just there to communicate a story, not to edify.  There is a tone to Salvatore's writing, but its businesslike and not self-reflective.

This book is definitely worth a read, and it has definitely inspired me to read further.  Unfortunately, my wife has decreed an end to all fantasy books, and so I can't buy anymore of them unless they're grand slams.  (It's not the money so much as it is the space on our shelves)  I think I see a Kindle in my future.