Saturday, August 31, 2013

Chronicles of the Black Company

by Glen Cook

"Oh, 'twould be marvelous if the world and its moral questions were like some game board, with plain black players and white, and fixed rules, and nary a shade of grey."

war is hell. hell is other people. other people are other people. other people have their problems. i have my own problems. my people are my people. their goals are my goals. we do what we can. we fight in a war. war is a business. war is our business.

The Black Company is a mercenary outfit. they are from the South; they currently work in the North. they fight for the Lady. they fight against the Rebel. they fight against the Lady. they fight for the White Rose. they fight for the Lady again. they fight for evil, they fight for good. they fight for who pays them. they fight against those who are against them. they do terrible things. they do some good things too.

400924Glen Cook was in the military. he understands what could be called the military mindset, i suppose. his characters feel completely real. they feel like real soldiers. they are cynical; they follow orders; their first loyalty is to each other. Cook writes in choppy, abrupt, stripped down prose, like a journalist writing on-the-spot field reports. his prose is not rich or lyrical, it does not glow, it does not leap off of the page. his characters have names like "Croaker" and "Darling" and "Shed" and "One-Eye". his cities have names like "Rust" and "Oar" and "Opal" and "Roses". there is a crude poetry to his prose. it is perfectly suited to what this series is trying to accomplish.

i read some reviews of this series before writing this review. a regular complaint is the lack of beauty in Cook's naming of people and places; a certain lack of fantastickal whimsy or majesty in the writing itself. SWOOSH, you are missing the point. The Black Company series is indeed pure fantasy - it contains magic and monsters and wizards and epic battles involving magic, monsters, and wizards. and yet its goal appears to be to reduce all the lavish world-building and all of the lustrous magic within those fantasy elements in service of making something that actually feels real. something that feels dark and dirty, and yet because of that dark dirtiness, something that also feels alive and warm. Cook does not write with a flair for microscopic detail; he does not envision his characters as having larger-than-life personalities or operatically tragic narrative trajectories. he is not George RR Martin. nor does Cook write with snarky, sizzling wit or an eye for the cinematic action sequence or a need to surprise the reader with various malevolent sucker punches. he is not Joe Abercrombie. he writes from a ground-eye view, from a working man's perspective, through the eyes of people who are neither all good nor all bad, but who are just trying to do what they can with what they have been given. they want to get paid, they do not hunger for danger, they want to make their lives a little better. so when the realization dawns that these disreputable, shady, completely fallible characters are trying to accomplish some good with what little they have available... well, it is a beautiful thing. if shades of grey can be considered a beautiful thing.

and he doesn't just do this for his soldiers. the third book portrays a powerful god-tree as a being who is just trying to do a job that needs to be done. he's grumpy about it. he is not particularly sympathetic to other people's problems. he's a good guy, apparently - but a disinterested one. after all, he has to focus on his own work. the series also features a rather loathsome innkeeper and various malevolent sorcerers and tyrants. they get the same treatment... after all, who is a villain in their own mind? the eventual realization that a loathsome innkeeper and a terrible sorceress-tyrant are also trying to do what little good they can accomplish comes slowly and is mapped out carefully, hints dropped nonchalantly, an accumulation of evidence. Cook does not push this revelation on the reader... it just is what it is. and so characters like Shed the Innkeeper and the tyrant known as the Lady - much like soldiers with names like Elmo and Croaker and the Captain and the Lieutenant - become real in a way that i have seldom seen accomplished in other works of fantasy.

great job, Cook. no wonder your series is such a cult classic.

although i think the first novel in the series is clearly the strongest, the entire trilogy is certainly a worthy experience. if you are in the right mindset, if military fantasy doesn't bother your more progressive sentiments, if you actually don't need things like sentiment in your fantasy.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Star of Danger

by Marion Zimmer Bradley

1203635an entry in the Darkover cycle. pleasantly enjoyable overall, but also slim and rather forgettable. this one concerns Larry Montray, Terran, and his teen adventures on the wintry, semi-barbaric world of Darkover. those adventures come complete with assorted monsters & aliens, bullying street urchins & dastardly kidnapping bandits, psychic powers, a forest fire, an amusingly antagonistic bromance between our hero & an arrogant Darkovan lordling, and much contemplation & conversating regarding the nature of being a man & what constitutes honor in a fight (i prefer the Darkover belief system that loathes guns & bombs as the weak man's choice). this early novel in the long-running series has none of the mid-saga's books' fervent, near-hysterical emotional content nor their sometimes moving, other times soap operatic deconstruction of gender & sexual orientation. it is a pleasingly straightforward, clearly written, earnest young adult novel filled with boyish enthusiasm, teenage angst, and on-the-cusp-of-maturity musings on Adulthood. probably a good starting point for kids interested in Darkover. but are there any even out there?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Last Unicorn

by Peter S. Beagle

13124003so i set the mood for rereading The Last Unicorn by putting together a nifty mix of woodstock era classics, heavily featuring the likes of jethro tull & canned heat & richie havens & a lot of early pink floyd. i put on my comfy clothes. i brewed some tea. i picked my sunniest room and my cat - sensing my mood - snuggled in close. however, i did not smoke any weed. perhaps this was my mistake? nonetheless, the mood was definitely set and the enjoyment swiftly commenced.

this is a nice little book. it's sweet and cheeky and full of a kind of idealistic purity. it is very counter-culture in its quiet way. i was reminded constantly of things like Harold & Maude and King of Hearts and the Yellow Submarine and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. and of laying out on the grass with my friends during college in the 90s, happily on drugs and talking about life. it made me think of flowers and sunshine and animals that i like. this is certainly not a trippy book, but it is a pleasantly mellow one in tone and outlook. the writing is similarly warm and fuzzy. characterization is relaxed; living metaphors for freedom & authority & purity & greed & experience are mixed and matched in a loose, breathable fashion. the entire endeavor is what one would call a warm and human experience. i can see why this book has so many admirers and why it has apparently never been out of print. reading it is like reading a modern fable - it feels instantly classic, automatically timeless. and hopefully its beautiful messages about life and how to live it will never go out of style.

29127my favorite parts came early and then at the very end. the final standoff between our heroes and the Red Bull was very well done and genuinely gripping. even better was the time spent in Mommy Fortuna's horrible caravan. that was awesome! the descriptions of the different ensorcelled beasts, the dreaming spider, Schmendrick's introduction, Mommy Fortuna herself (such a poisonous yet rather sad & pathetic character), Mommy Fortuna as Old Age, and of course the terrifying, brilliantly rendered harpy... all quite delectable.

it's interesting to me to think about my two different reactions to the book: now and then. "then" was back in junior high, i think. i LOVED Schmendrick and found Molly Grue to be an annoying, tedious character. despite her, i loved the book from beginning to end. the beauty of its ultimate meaning (whatever that may have been to my 14-year old self) had me thinking about life and how to live it. many, many years later - yesterday! - i found Schmendrick to be distinctly annoying and Molly Grue to be the secret hero of the novel. this grouchy, critical, often overbearing middle-aged lady is also brave, honest, decent, completely down to earth - and such an unusual character to find as a lead in a fantasy novel. go, Molly, go! unfortunately, i also found myself to be positively un-charmed by all the anachronisms and whimsy. all that stuff just felt dated, goofy, sorta cheap. like that fookin butterfly for chrissakes. so unfunny. and judo. and "last of the red-hot swamis". and much more. ugh!

still, a lovely book with a timeless message. although i found those whimsical anachronisms to be obnoxiously precious & cutesy-poo, overall they didn't end up being too dire and my experience was not remotely ruined. hell, i roll my eyes at my closest friends and i still enjoy their company. so i did like The Last Unicorn quite a bit. it is sweetly appealing and genuinely charming.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dr. Bloodmoney

by Philip K. Dick

636108Dick places his absurdist situations, bleak scenarios, and quirky characters within an almost pastoral post-apocalyptic san francisco-bay area. the setting is primarily a small town in marin, with everyday people slowly trying to rebuild themselves and their world. the writing is typically loose and off-kilter. results are sublime. and very strange, per usual. two oddly endearing yet threatening characters stood out for me amongst the compellingly diverse cast: Hoppy Harrington - cringing, deluded, armless & legless, gifted with increasingly terrifying powers and a very specific plan to take over the world; his nemesis Bill - whiny, yearning, able to speak to the dead, an unborn twin to a self-absorbed 7-year old girl, longing for a release into the larger world. watching these two face off against each other was worth the price of admission - their escalating conflicts are wonderfully amusing and often genuinely thrilling. and yet they are but two pieces in an intriguingly mystifying and often ironic larger puzzle.

this is a book of many minor, human notes; mournful and hopeful in equal measures. a true pleasure to read.