At the Queen’s Command: A Review

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I have been slacking on the blogging, but I’m back for a bit, with (surprise!) a nerdy-as-hell book review

Also, I just talked a bit about this particular book in my last Best Author You’ve Never Read post. So if you feel cheated, its justified. But you’re here reading, so your umbrage must have stayed on the shelf.

I digress. You can read the previous post for all of my gushing about Michael Stackpole; At The Queen’s Command is a nifty beginning to a series that’s long on captivating ideas, but a bit short on character development. I’ll endeavor to not bore you with plot summations, as ever.

The setting is essentially the mid to late 1700’s in a land called Mystria (i.e. America), a rough and rugged colony of the naval powerhouse of Norisle (i.e. England) located across a rather expansive ocean. A good chunk of the setting can be easily paralleled with the chafing of the American colonies beneath the British boot-heel, with just a few minor differences (Dragons, magical guns, zombies, nothing too major). Don’t forget the Shedashee (i.e. Native Americans), the shamanistic indigs that play a vital guidance role…and also have green skin.

The setting is very intriguing, and Stackpole delves deep into magical theory (in this work and in the next voume) almost to the point of aridity. It’s Martian-level scientific detail, except its completely made up and fantastic. Needless to say, it can be a bit hard to follow at times. The utilization of the magic, however, is the fantasy-focused area where this book shines. It’s not rampant or overpowering. Guns are fired with a type of fire-magic used to ignite the powder to supply the force that moves the lead. Everything else, including the laborious reloading task, feels very realistic and true to a historical setting. That’s the beauty of magic in the world Stackpole’s created: it supplements daily activities; it doesn’t run the world.

I mentioned character development earlier, and that’s where this one gets a bit shaky. Some of the characters are captivating, from the bible-thumping frontiersman Makepeace Bone (with a name like that, he’s gotta be awesome) and the aptly-named Nathaniel Woods (cuz he’s a woodsman) to the conflicted, somewhat naive Norisler Owen Strake who bumbles through and then falls in love with the new colonies. These three examples, and most of the other enjoyable characters, are Mystrians (i.e. Americans, at least at heart) and maybe its my own prejudice, but I found the vast majority of the Norisle (British) characters to be a bit myopic. It’s clear who we’re supposed to root for and like best in the prose, but I always like characters that have more going on than simple caricature, and I just couldn’t find much beneath the surface for the Norisle contingent, even the esteemed Prince Vladimir.

Overall, this is one for the nerds. If you like nifty alternate history ideas injected with a bit of magic, give this one a swing. The way he chooses to take the wyrm/dragon aspects are unique in a plot device we’ve probably all seen beaten to death in the genre. The arch-villain is cold, calculating, yet has the special kind of evil you can almost understand.

I’d say this one gets gets a solid 4-out-of-5 crates of tea. Floating in the Boston harbor. It has nothing to do with the book, but still…Take that, you limey Brits. Go Team America.

Signing off

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Review

17026_413852478709121_1163712783_nNeil Gaiman is a master craftsman. Somehow he has an ability to take words and shape them into strings of ideas that make you feel whole and empty all in the same breath. And he has the bloody nerve to make it feel effortless and easy. I sometimes hate him when I read his work, but love the work itself. Then I get over it and read the next one. Which led me to The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

It’s a shorter work, less than 200 pages all told. According to an afterword it started as a short story but mutated into a novella as he wrote it (Do you see why I occasionally hate this guy?). The brevity gives this novel an intensity that was not present in his more renowned work. Sandman and American Gods are fairly long works with very determinate paces, but with Ocean he manages the time well, and focuses on the emotions tied into the prose rather than mythological references or backstory.

The tight, focused narrative keeps a reader on the edge of their seat, and since its Gaiman the mythological and fantastic play a role, but a small one, definitively ancillary to the experience of the protagonist. Terrifying in parts, heartwarming in others, the pay-off at the end of the book seemed a little anti-climactic, but even that may have been intentional. The joy of Ocean at the End of the Lane is decidedly in the journey, and experiencing a small, fantastic glimpse into the life of a little boy.

I won’t bore you with plot summary, but there is an element of Science Fiction and Fantasy that Neil Gaiman handles in typically (and infuriatingly) precise fashion. Some of the more magical characters in Ocean can essentially “cut” pieces of time out of reality and sew them back together, essentially eliminating events from universal consciousness. Most other writers would see this as a cheap, Deus ex-level of cheat, especially when the climax includes an “It was all a dream” element. Gaiman takes you through every painstaking part of the memory, and then cuts it out. I wanted to feel cheated and cheapened, but the way he handles it wouldn’t allow me to. Remember how I said empty and whole in the opening paragraph? That’s exactly how you feel when you’ve read this book.

Fucking Neil Gaiman. If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll really appreciate this book, and find it immensely quotable. Even if you hate books (in which case why the hell are you reading this?) he has some great prose moments in this story:

“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”

“I lay on the bed and lost myself in stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.”

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than than that. They just were.”

“You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”

I particularly like that last one. I could list more but…you’ll have to read the book. Ha.

Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quiet yet moving short fiction piece that everyone, not just Gaiman fans, will enjoy. If you were ever a little kid (and I hope you were, at some point) , you’ll be able to relate to the emotional turmoil and desire for escape present on every single page.

I give this book 2-out-of-2 middle fingers straight up in the air. Because seriously Neil, fuck you. Stop making it look so easy. The rest of us are developing a complex.

Signing off.

The Mongoliad Book Three (And the Mongoliad Trilogy): A Review

51sIKH0vrbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ok, so I may have come down a bit hard on the ol’ Mongoliad boys with the last review. The third volume basically made-up for some of the screw-ups in the second and re-captured some of the majesty that made the first volume so enjoyable.

First a quick re-cap – Seven uber-nerds (I’m assuming), with varying degrees of commercial writing renown, set embark on a journey to write an epic historical fiction trilogy about the conflict between Christian Europe and the Mongol horde. That might be a captivating book on its own, but its actually what Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Massey, and Cooper Moo set out to do. And they succeeded.

Book three again had several different plot lines featuring divergent characters, but in this volume at least two of the groups wound up reuniting (they started off together, but lets ignore that for now). We got the story from the Mongol point of view, plenty of grim solider dialogue from multiple crews of Christian military orders, and some political intrigue in the form of a sede vacante in Rome. Are they all related? Tangentially yes. How? I don’t know, but they are. Good lord people, seven of them wrote it. Lets cut some slack where slack is due.

I’ll try not to bore you with too much plot re-hash, since you should read the damn things yourselves. The vast majority of the plot lines were wrapped up in typical medieval fiction style (“She rode off down the road, not knowing what lie ahead.” or “The party was reunited and there was much rejoicing.” or more definitely, “They died.”) but the endings felt natural. A few story lines from the preceding two volumes were cast aside and forgotten, but you didn’t miss them too much.

I had a bone to pick with the Rome setting and the papal intrigue in the last volume, and while still definitely the weakest setting, some of the issues I had were resolved. It felt like the authors embraced some of the absurdity in the base idea, and moments within the narrative were pure comedy. My favorite line (paraphrasing) “They had just elected a madman to be the next pope, and now they had to decide what to do about it.” has got to be a candidate for funniest lines of prose anywhere. Or maybe it’s funny because I was raised Catholic.

As a whole, this trilogy was entertaining to read, if a it sluggish in the second volume. I’d recommend it to any fan of historical fiction with the slightest bit of fantasy (no real magic, just some inexplicable happenings here and there) will enjoy this one. The combat and action sequences are smooth and fluid, the settings are vibrant, and the martial characters reveal a softer side after (or before) all the blood and killing that bridges the gap between the bloody battles.

The trilogy overall gets 4 out of 5 spirit poles. And that’s not a euphemism. Or referencing priest from Poland.

The Mongoliad itself is much bigger than the three books I’ve reviewed here. It’s actually set in the “Foreworld” setting, an alternate-historical, fan-driven universe that mirrors our own but apparently brings some cultures into conflict that may never have intersected in real life. The Mongoliad Cycle, as its referred, spawned from one of the author’s (Neal Stephenson) dissatisfaction with the authenticity of his sword-fighting scenes. So he gathered up some medieval fighting geeks, studied some sword-play, and then they all contributed to writing some stories. Maybe the coolest origin story for a book ever.

The project was originally serialized on a fan-contribution website, and the Subutai Corporation (Creators of Foreworld) even recognize some fan fiction as “side-quests” for their larger publishing endeavors. I wanted to look at the three Mongoliad books as strictly prose, but the origins and motivations behind the story are almost as interesting as the prose.

If you want to learn more, check out the Wikipedia page, since I am lazy.

The Mongoliad Book Two: A Review (And a brief discussion of The Empire Strikes Back)

13665175There was a little bit of space between reading volume one and two in this rather interesting series written by 7 authors: Greg Bear (Arguably the most famous), Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Massey, Cooper Moo).

I found the disjointed yet inter-weaving storylines from the first volume to be compelling and interesting. It’s very clear in volume two the same approach continued: assign a writer (or two) to a certain setting or character group and let them write that part. I applaud the unique approach, as I’ve always been curious about author collaborations and how well they actually work. The first volume ( and you can read that review here) seemed to have its proverbial shit together, as the characters were somewhat disjointed but still had an overarching theme in common (Mongols vs. Christendom, or really everyone else on the Asian-European landmass).

In book two, we get a few new characters and a new setting: Rome. A crazy priest, his somewhat savage boy companion (Get your minds out of the gutter) another binder-child girl (Binders are essentially tribal messengers…you’ll have to read it or be a history professor to understand), and a plethora of imprisoned cardinals struggling to elect a new pope.

Some of the novelty of the divergent storylines wore off in volume two. Its a comparatively short work when put next to volumes one and three, and the new papal/Roman environment felt underdeveloped. The old favorites are back (at least the ones that didn’t die), and the Shield-Brethren Knights are still trying to both distract and take down the entire Mongol dynasty with just a handful of well-armored Christians.

And the strength of book two, much like one, still lies in the martial description. Its very clear these folks did their homework, both historically and aesthetically, and the combat scenes feel alive and fluid. A fair portion of this book is dedicated to the Mongol version of gladiator combat, as well as militaristic skirmishes between Mongols and Knights. Some of the smoothest and most understandable descriptions I’ve seen since reading Dan Abnett are in these two books, and the historical accuracy is a cherry on top of that bloody cake.

The pleasant surprise of the first volume was the decidedly more intriguing story of the internal political struggle in Mongol capital, with a side of longing romanticism. Gansukh the steppe warrior struggles to save the Khagan (the BIG Khan) from his dependence on alcohol, and also kind of has a thing for a Chinese slave/etiquette teacher named Lian. The in-depth look at court politics, subterfuge, and social conflict provided an interesting counterpoint to the heavy-handed action movie that was the knights’ portion of the storyline. The interweaving continues in book two, with Lian and Gansukh getting bolder (and naughtier) with their affair.

The new cast of characters in Rome is where volume two struggles. The whole thing, setting, plot evolution, etc. just happens too fast, and it isn’t clear how it ties into the narrative from book one. Every time a chapter started for the Rome setting, I groaned (figuratively). I honestly believe keeping this entire storyline out of the book would’ve been an improvement. Maybe they’ll change my mind in book three (which is currently underway…no change yet).

The middle book, to me, can sometimes make or break a series. When a reader (or viewer) starts to experience a work of literature or media that they know has three parts, the expectation is simple: Volume one I meet the characters, and Volume three is the exciting conclusion. So…where do we get the meat of the story? In volume two. Its why Empire is so clearly the best Star Wars in the trilogy (and if you disagree, hold up two fingers. Great. Now shove them in your eye sockets.) Unfortunately for the Mongoliad, volume two is quite weak. What started off with promise out of the gate is now limping toward the finish line. At the end of the day I am reading the third volume, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

I’d say Mongoliad Book Two gets a 4 out of 7 superfluous authors, since the book has seven. In all honesty the attempt to write a series with a septuple-headed writer is commendable on its own. I struggle with having just one person arguing amongst himself, I couldn’t imagine seven. Although I may have at least that many personalities in my head when I’m writing.

Ahem.

Signing Off.

The Stand – A Review

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I’ve never been a big Stephen King fan. There I said it. Easily one of the most successful writer’s of all time, I just couldn’t get into the stuff he wrote. I like monsters. I like psychological thrillers. I like horror. But somehow, I never really liked Stephen King. I tried. I read Thinner, Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and none of it really grabbed me. I started The Dark Tower and got into it a bit, but still managed to put it down and not pick it back up again.

So why subject myself to 1200 pages of him? I couldn’t tell you. Reading The Stand has always felt like a rite of passage as a reader. Like you weren’t in the “It” crowd (pun intended) until you’d plodded through the density that is The Stand. And I did it. Lord knows it wasn’t the easiest thing to hack through, but I found I enjoyed it more than any King book I’d tried. And now, for my (slightly) informed opinion:

This book,as you can probably tell, is a bit tough to get through. It’s long, slow in places, and cuts some corners inexplicably while laboring intensely in other places where it felt unnatural. That being said, the length of the book is ambitious, and the middle section is exciting and interesting enough to almost stand on its own. Once Captain Trips starts mowing folks down, the prose really comes into its own. Things get exciting, the post-apocalyptic piece starts kicking in, and the pages start turning.

The characters are hit and miss for me. Stu Redman definitely felt like a well-developed good ol’ boy from East Texas. Frannie’s giggle fits and semi-demurity painted her as a perfect New England college ingenue with a kind heart and sharp wit. Larry Underwood was a bit bizarre, the emerging pop icon who struggles to believe that he’s not a complete asshole, but it felt real enough. And Nick Andros was believable and strong, and even though he was mute the disability never over-shadowed the character. So all the folks on the “good” side were likable and relatable for the most part.

The folks on the “bad” side were somewhat less impressive. Lloyd being the best example, he enters the story as a drug-addled homicidal maniac. Somehow magic makes him “better” and he becomes a consigliere to a demon (-ish thing). Same thing with Harold and Nadine. They seemed to be either inexplicably bad or inexplicably good, and relied on external influences to determine their actions. Harold flirted with relatability, as did Nadine, until they were ripped from the ranks of the “good” people by supernatural forces.

Some spoilers below.

That may define my biggest issue with the entirety of the book. I could not buy the supernatural elements, as it felt like the author couldn’t decide what role the “magic” elements should play. The intrigue of a drifter archetype and a centenarian African-American ultra-grandma becoming holy (and unholy) lodestones for the surviving population had me hooked for a few hundred pages, but the execution was lacking. It felt like King couldn’t decide if he wanted supernatural forces to be incredibly prevalent and tangible, or unseen and more subtle. The flu came about through strictly scientific means, with no innuendo that it may have been a part of unnatural machinations.

Randall Flag is a bit of a mystery. He runs the gamut of being a spooky, haunting but grounded character to some kind of possessed or straight-up demonic entity. I read the whole thing and I’m still not sure. I’m not convinced King knows either. I bought the seeing through or possessing (kind of) animals, or the Third Eye granting him some form of remote viewing ability. All these things aren’t active abilities that physically change the world or the environment. It’s subtle magic that grants information and that’s it. Perfect. Mother Abigail had a less-direct form of Special Sight, and that worked too. I’m with you, Steve.

And then, at the climax, which you’ve actually built up to masterfully and had me on the edge of my seat, suddenly he can cast Chain Lightning. And you lost me. I’m probably complaining more than I should because I firmly believe well-crafted villains, and to a lesser extent anti-heroes and anti-villains, are the most interesting characters in a book, and there just aren’t any in The Stand. Harold is too whiny, and lets himself be controlled by outside forces. Same with Nadine and Lloyd. Randall is all over the place, part weird vagabond and part demonic antagonist, and none of it is very compelling.

I’m about done ranting and raving about the bad parts. The beginning dragged a bit for me, and the ending was…something. But the middle portion (which adds up to about an 800-page book on its own) is incredibly strong. Once the handful of main protagonists start working their way toward Boulder, and then when they get there, the story gets good. It’s people living together, interacting, and trying to re-form a society in a very real and authentic way. The wonky, back-and-forth supernatural forces take a bit of a back seat to the “good” characters just being human. And that’s where the strength of this novel lies. I love elements of the divine,mythical, or metaphysical in stuff I read. In fact, I often prefer it. But here, it just wasn’t executed well.

Overall, I’d give The Stand 3.5 long-ass walks out of 5. Because lord there was a ton of walking. Not quite Lord of the Rings but damn close.

And now, I’m done. Signing Off.

Pride of Baghdad – A Review

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I’ve been on a bit of a review kick lately. Hopefully that’s not too boring.

Brian K. Vaughn is one of the strongest graphic writers out there. You may or may not have heard of him, most of his bigger stuff is off-major label (as in not Marvel or DC, and not being developed into million-dollar movies). He’s written some off-the-line stuff for Marvel and DC too in the past, but his best stuff is Y the Last Man and Ex Machina. He likes his own stories, and that’s where he thrives.

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But enough about the writer. Let’s look at the book. Based on a weird story from 2003, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad zoo, and apparently roamed around the broken city, starved and dehydrated, until US troops shot them. In Pride of Baghdad, the animals can all talk to each other, which gets hilarious in a hurry. Its not just the lions, but the monkeys, antelope, giraffes, bears, all of them. They can all talk to each other. The pre-bombing talk of revolution and alliances between lions and antelopes alone is worth checking out.

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The lions are the focal point, and they all get personalities that feel all too human. Ali is the over-curious cub, which can’t help but draw comparisons to the Lion King. In many ways I feel like Vaughn embraced this and didn’t shy from it. A decision that payed off. Safa is the old lioness, scarred and past her prime but still capable. Zill is the male, somewhat dopey and more or less the comic relief in the story. Noor is the younger lioness, equal parts naivete, quick-temper, and idealism. The interaction among the pack is surprisingly human, anthropomorphized into classic behavioral tropes, yet still spun around real lion behavior. Sound weird? It is a little, but after a while it works. Vaughn’s strength is he creates compelling characters, whether its a long series or a short, one-shot approach, and the Pride of Baghdad is no exception.

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I highly recommend checking this one out. It’s a bit dated (2006) but the art is still strong and the story is top-notch. It’s funny, bleak, cute, scary, all in the same breath. And the small piece of it pulled from real-life events gives it a tragic, weirdly authentic feel for a story about talking animals.

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Since I’ve been a pet owner, I find myself more attuned to the animal-based comics. If you read Pride of Baghdad, and you enjoy it (Which you should. Because I’m telling you to) check out WE3 by Grant Morrison, which is way more terrifying and tragic but still kind of adorable.

I give this one 4-out-of-5 paws up. The other one…a bear ate it.

Signing Off.

The Martian: A Review

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What do you get if you put super-science fiction, MacGyver, math genius, and infantile snark in a test tube, seal it, and watch as the seemingly opposing forces collide? A damned entertaining book called The Martian. I don’t generally summarize plot too in-depth, but I can get pretty succinct:

Man gets left on Mars, man has to use his super-brain to duct-tape-and-glue his way to survival and rescue. Also man has a Sophomore pledge’s sense of humor, so boob and that’s-what-she-said jokes abound.

If you like science fiction, this book is for you. If you don’t like science fiction, this book is still for you. Don’t let yourself be scared off, there’s no aliens or laser beams. It’s all mathematics and slight extrapolation that feels incredibly real and genuine. Andy Weir is some sort of math prodigy (He’s been a programmer since he was 15. I played football, slept a lot, and prayed for miracle acne cures when I was 15. What did you do?). He also charts orbits and does insane-level calculus for fun.

Let me repeat the salient points for you: Calculus. Orbits. For fun.

The impressive math skills of the author notwithstanding, his incredibly detailed mathematics actually lend a very stark authenticity to both the character of Mark Watney, the setting, and the story-line. This guy did some serious homework, between the calculations, the Mars geography, NASA history, and technical descriptions, and I bet he enjoyed every minute of it. Bastard.

A reader can get a bit mired-down in the endless litany of numbers and equations, especially in the beginning of the narrative, which is always the worry when you go too science-heavy in Sci-Fi, or any genre. My one complaint for The Martian is the first narrative reprieve outside of Mark Watney’s occasional hilarious journal entries comes a bit too late. When it comes, it off-sets the conversational, dare I say “blog-like” tone of the journal entries with some straightforward third-person narration with the same dry wit translated into the dialogue. I know some engineers, super math geeks, government employees, and many differing combinations of the three. This is how they interact. I swear.

To get a bit more Meta, the overly-technical descriptions in the journal could be perceived as a scientific mind’s struggle to stay sane in utter isolation an unimaginable distance from home. He rarely if ever gets too dark and self-defeating. Every writer is an arm-chair psychologist, and when I read this I felt the journal entries and super-math walkthroughs would be exactly what any nerd stranded on Mars would use to stay in the right frame of mind. Just my two cents. You can take it if you want it.

I give The Martian 4.5 out of 5 emoticon boobies (.Y.). When you read the book you’ll understand. With the movie on the horizon, go out and grab this (or download it) and read it before you see the Matt Damon version. It’s a quick read, and the author’s story is just as interesting as the protagonist’s. Go read it.

Signing Off.

Red Country: A Book Review

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My love affair with Joe Abercrombie continues. This closes out the last of the books written in the First Law universe (except maybe the Half a King series but its bit unclear…at least to me). I won’t gush too much about how awesome a writer he is, how his action sequences are great, the dark fantasy setting manages to be depressing and compelling all at once, that the characters he creates and re-introduces throughout the stretch of 6 books (All of the First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and finally Red Country) are developed in such powerful ways they make a jaded almost-30-year-old man giddy like a 12-year-old opening his first comic book…nope, I’m not going to do that.

I want to focus on the setting, which is as compelling and interesting as anything else in the book. As much as Firely was a Space Western, Red Country is a fantasy western. There aren’t any gunslingers or gunfights, but there is a gold rush into a barren, uncharted country, historically under the control of an under-developed but proud people (In this case called the Ghosts). Complete with boomtowns, Oregon-trail style caravans, and back-stabbing piled on top of more back-stabbing, and over all of it the spectre of nine-fingered ghost from the past, I couldn’t put this one down. Seriously. I read all 400+ plus pages in about 4 days. And I work 40 hours a week. I can’t give a book much higher praise than that.

I’ve always been fascinated with trying a western-style story imported into a fantasy or sci-fi realm, and one of my favorites authors attempting the juxtaposition was a welcome discovery. I’m of the particular opinion that these books are better than the Game of Thrones series and would also make better TV adaptations. Yep. I said it. Because it’s true. The books are definitely better, the characters are just as complex but more relatable, and actually make more consistent decisions (You’re rooting for a crippled torturer and a homicidal maniac…what could be more compelling?)

All in all, I highly recommend Red Country, or anything Joe Abercrombie writes. As usual. I give this particular book 5-out-of-5 bloody severed heads on pikes.

P.S. there’s way more than 5 in the book.

Signing Off.

The Last Argument of Kings – A Book Review

Last-Argument-e1432302193264The Last Argument of Kings – Inscribed on the cannon’s of Louis XIV

The third and final installment of the First Law trilogy, and it goes out with a bang. We’re treated to watching Abercrombie’s overarching vision start to take shape, and can see his writing improve even more. The characters still drive the story – Ninefingers still struggles against his more wrathful, Bloody side.Jezal dan Luther gets everything he ever wanted, and completely hates it. Sand dan Glokta is still delightfully twisted, and somehow is the most relatable character in the whole series. Ferro Maljinn realizes her dark destiny. and Bayaz gets seriously scary. Seriously.

That’s all I’ll get into for plot. In terms of the writing Joe gets a bit more refined, but in areas it felt a little rushed. In Before They Are Hanged the pace was even, and it felt like he kept control over the prose the entire time. While Last Argument is longer, there’s a lot more squeezed into it, and suffers from some of the shortcomings shared by many other multi-volume finales. Whether its movies or books, way too many times the final installment needs to tie a few too many threads into neat little bows, and the pacing and plot suffer. Last Argument is no exception, but its still a thrill to read. At this point, I’m so damn invested in the characters I can’t put it down.

This volume gets into a larger-scale battle in a more direct way than the other two. The siege of Dagoska was very intense, but was sublimely told through Glokta’s eyes from the parapets, more of an observer than front-line fighter. Abercrombie is very good at individual fight scenes, and smartly breaks bigger fights into smaller, easily-consumable pieces. He then allows the story to be told in the paces between the actual confrontations. The effect is intriguing storytelling that keeps the reader turning the pages to see what happens. He has a talent for finding balance between omission and inclusion of detail that doesn’t bog down the prose but keeps the reader in tune and interested.

In the third and final First Law book, we also get more overt magic (in the form of a gigantic nuclear cyclone in the middle of a city) introduced into the storyline. Before the effects of High Art were always tangible, but a bit more subtle in the preceding volumes. And it always came at a price. I always find “magic” to be an easy fix in Fantasy stories if not properly controlled and bound by rules. Its the sign of a strong author that they can create a fantastic world without sorcery and wizardry to rely on. Abercrombie is very good at incorporating just the right amount of mysticism, and it felt like the final act was a appropriate pay-off for the build-up from the previous two volumes.

Its just as gritty and raw as the preceding two books, and Joe again proves dragging high fantasy through the mud and mire is captivating.The whole trilogy opens a world he’s reached back into as well (The Heroes, Best Served Cold, and Red Country as well as some short stories all take place in the same setting) and features a lot of the same characters. Which for a nerd like me is like mana from heaven.

Needless to say, I highly recommend Last Argument of Kings, the rest of the First Law trilogy, and anything Joe Abercrombie writes.

This particular book gets 4-out-of-5 Back-Stabbing Betrayals…because in this book there’s way more than four.

Signing Off

The Blade Itself: A Review

944073I’ve been waiting a very long time to sink my teeth into this particular book. I sort of blundered into Joe Abercrombie (Ashamedly because he was next to “Abnett” on the shelf, and the books looked interesting) in the middle of his career, with the stand-alone story Best Served Cold as my introduction to his gritty, intense style. I was hooked, and read several books with his name on them, and was pleasantly surprised when they all existed in the same universe and made at least passing references to the previous volumes. But unbeknownst to me, it all started with the First Law trilogy, and The Blade Itself is the first of that triumvirate of awesomeness (I’m assuming).

This work is a raw, less-refined Joe Abercrombie, no surprise since it’s his first published novel, but everything that makes him great is there. He has a way of taking the things we love about high fantasy, the spectacle, the magic, the knights, the whimsy, and slamming it face first into the sludge of reality. And then he pulls you through the gutter for 500 pages and all you want to do is say thank you, I want more. He is masterful with fight scenes, excellent at characterization, and has a knack for witty dialogue. One or two times a few of the characters make somewhat uncharacteristic leaps of faith or trust, but these aberrations occurs mostly near the conclusion.

One of the ways he grabs me, and makes particularly poignant the low high-fantasy setting, is in the inclusion of disabled or physically handicapped characters. In Blade Sand dan Glokta is horribly disfigured, borderline crippled, and yet an incredibly relatable, and even by the conclusion a highly likable character (as likable as an Inquisitor can be, at least). Best Served featured a scarred protagonist in Monzcarro, and one of his more recent ventures, Half a King, is based around a prince with a birth defect that left him with one hand. Though this theme repeats in his works, its still a very powerful device to insert some stark reality into a story that revolves around swords and sorcery.

That may be Abercrombie’s chief genius, particularly in The Blade Itself. He has a gift for crafting very realistic representations of depressingly real human problems and conditions, and inserting them into a fantasy setting. One of the most powerful moments in this book to me, was the very vivid description of a put-upon brother losing his temper with his sister for basically drinking too much and illicitly rendezvousing with his best friend. It gets bad enough he strikes and chokes his sister against a wall, all told from his point of view. He stops abruptly as the anger recedes Afterward is a surprisingly moving revelation that the pair’s father abused them both, particularly the sister after the older brother went off to join the army. She accuses him of being just like him, and leaves. It was unexpected, bleak, and painfully genuine.

If you like your dungeons and dragons served with a side of wit, sans the whimsy, and don’t mind getting a little muddy and bloody along the way, this book, and any other by Joe Abercrombie is definitely for you. Before They Are Hanged is next in line, and if history is any judge, I’ll dive into that one and finish in less than a week (Yes, he’s that good of a writer).

The Blade Itself gets 9 out of 10 bloody fingers, which is the highest I can go (once you read it, you’ll get it)

Signing Off.