Friday, December 18, 2015

Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia

Son of the Black Sword
by Larry Correia

Okay, let me grasp the bull by the horns. I've discussed my stance on some things Mr. Correia is/was involved with. I'm not doing it again, and my opinion has not changed. If you're interested go take a look at the first and so far only sidebar I've posted. While I have differences of opinion with Mr. Correia politically, there are also things I agree with him over. That said I don't think such things are relevant in a discussion about his books. So on to the book!

This is the second book of Mr. Correia's I'll have reviewed here, unlike the last one, this book is the first in a series! So unlike Monster Hunter Nemesis a reader doesn't need knowledge from half a dozen prior books to really appreciate what's going on. It's not that I'm against long series mind you, but I do feel that the industry seems hell bent on turning every story into a 7 to 12 book series... Which is unnecessary. Some stories do need that kind of space to tell their tales, but a number of series really went longer then they should of (Wheel of Time is the poster boy of this to me. That's right! I said it!). But I digress.

Unlike the other two series of Mr. Correia's that I've read. Son of the Black Sword is a more or less straight fantasy. Being a fantasy taking place on another world, we of course have... Backstory! In this case long ago, the Gods went to War and cast Demons out of heaven. Unfortunately the aim of the Gods leaves a lot to be desired as those Demons landed on the world of men. Unprepared and unwarned the Demons were able to cause widespread destruction and chaos, and basically brought about the downfall of civilization, as demons tend to do. The gods realizing that this little oops was on them sent a great hero to save mankind, his name was Ramrowan and he united mankind, taught them magic and created the weapons they needed to kill demons. Under his divine leadership they fought back and drove the demons literally into the sea. The Demons however were not destroyed, instead they remain in the sea, lurking, waiting and at times attacking the land seeking weakness. So they may once again throw down the works of mankind and bring ruin. To ensure that this would never happen, the sons and daughters of Ramrowan were made into kings and priests. The 1% if you will. Over the generations, they grew degenerate, venial and cruel. Until unable to bear their unjust rule anymore, the people rose up, killing many of the Kings and Priests and forcing their relatives into a subservience. Mankind then established The Law, creating a stable society that had a place for everyone and put everyone in their place and ensured that a watch would be kept on the sea... Or did they?

The society that rules the continent of Lok, which due to the ocean being a demon infested death trap is completely cut off from the outside world, is an harsh, demanding one. A complex Caste system sprawls over the land, locking men and women into social roles dictated by birth. The Castes themselves have internal ranks and hierarchies as well. A man (or woman) can move up the ranks of their Caste, but they can never hope to move beyond that. Political administration and power is handled by Great Houses ruled by noble families served by military families, fed by farming families, with goods and services provided by merchant families. Meanwhile the dirty, painful disgusting jobs are handled by the untouchables. A group of people who are literally lower then slaves, slaves usually being war captives or debtors, who unlike the untouchables can be freed. The system itself is maintained by a number of organizations who exist outside the control of the Great Houses. The Judges, who hear and decide the law. The Inquisitors who seek for those who would subvert or corrupt the law. The Protectors, who fight and kill those who would openly defy the law and also fight and kill outside threats to society (like Demons). Protectors are able to do this because they are magic super soldiers! Just think of them as an order of psychotic Captain America's who live like warrior monks and have no problems tearing people apart with their bare hands. The deal with the Protectors is pretty simple, very young men are sent to train by their Great Houses. They are made into the best two legged killing machines possible and given strength, speed and stamina beyond the limits of normal men. They are unleashed against the enemies of Order and Law. If they survive 20 years of this, they can be promoted into high office within the Order of Protectors... Or they can go home. Most never face that choice.

Our main character and his best buddy are actually Protectors. Ashok Vadal, who is the son of the black sword in the title (I'll get to the magic sword in a minute) and his bestest best friend (to be honest from what I can tell his only friend) Devedas. Ashok Vadal has survived 20 years in the service by being the most dangerous man on the continent. He's aided in achieving this status by his magic sword, Angruvadal the Black Sword of the title. Angruvadal gifts Ashok with the battle memories and reflexes of all it's past wielders, meaning that he always knows what the right counter move or the best tactic in a fight is. Add this to his Protector given speed and strength and fighting him is really a messy method of suicide. Angruvadal isn't unique, as there are a number of black swords out there and they all grant their users such abilities. However each sword chooses it's wielder and if someone who the sword doesn't approve of tries to pick up the sword... Well, honestly folks it might be better to go tug the tail of a cobra or something. What really makes Ashok special though, is his utter and complete devotion to the Law. Serving the Law is everything to him, fulfilling his proper duty and station are what give his life meaning. He literally cannot conceive of another life and even if he could, he wouldn't want to. He is what everyone thinks they want a perfect law enforcer to be (trust me. Y'all don't really want that though). Which may be why he reacts so violently when he finds out everything he thought he was and everything about his past... Is a damn lie. Ashok's refusal to go with the lie and his refusal to let anyone keep it buried or well, to let the people who profited it... Live... Adds fuel to the fire of a crisis already shaking the foundations of his society (the untouchables have had enough of your shit sir and they got a prophet to lead them this time). In a lot of ways Ashok's character is comparable to Master Sergeant Sage, from Mel Odom's Master Sergeant. Only instead of me being bored out of my mind because Sage isn't real person, Correia goes with the fact that real people aren't like this and asks “What would it take to make a person like that?” What answer did he come up with you ask? An atrocity so vile that despite the fact that I'm not sure that I like Ashok...

I was cheering him on when he hacked an old lady to death for what she did to him to make him the perfect wielder of the Black Sword. It's a revelation I found disturbing because, frankly I think if it could be done there are people who would support doing it to police and soldiers and in doing so would take away large parts of our humanity and autonomy. Not to get political on you folks, but my experience has been that there are people on the left and on the right who would gleefully scrape away the free will and independence of every Marine, Soldier, Police Officer, Sailor and so on in order to achieve their goals. Some of those goals are even noble but speaking as a man with 4 years in the Marine, I find the sheer gleeful disregard of my own personal right to rule my own mind unnerving as it seems some folk are perfectly okay with viewing us as less then human because we decided to wear a uniform. But enough of that. Let me talk about Devedas.

Devedas is the son of a Black Sword wielder, he grew up being trained to take his father's place so when the sword shattered (when the wielder does something that the sword finds disgraceful, it breaks and usually the wielder dies soon after if not on the spot) his family is disgraced and cast out of power and he joins the Protectors because... Well he doesn't have any other options. He's loyal, cunning, smart, brave and ambitious. In another book, he would be our main character! He's also deeply jealous of Ashok because... He has everything Devedas wants. He has done his level best to master his jealous of his friend when the truth comes out... It's the final straw. Devedas washes his hands of Ashok and goes to become leader of the Protectors. Which in an interesting twist means that he's the one who is confronts and for most of the book is doing the most to oppose the villain of the story. The villain being Grand Inquisitor Omand.

As we all know, being an Inquisitor is a bad sign in fantasy fiction. Omand lives up to this being a vile, double faced, monster of a human being that someone should have drowned in a pond before he reached adulthood. I hate Omand's guts all the more because... I agree with his premise. Our Grand Inquisitor argues that the Great Houses have to much power. To many lives and resources are wasted in their petty conflicts and border wars. Additionally despite the best efforts of the Judges, Inquisitors and Protectors, the Great Houses often twist or bend the Law to their own advantage with the leading families being more concerned with their privileges then their duties. He's not wrong, but his solution is to create a centralized state (ruled by him of course) via methods that place him firmly alongside people like Pol Pot! His solution is worse then the problem! It's akin to fixing broken legs by cutting off everything below the waist! The cherry of what in the hell is wrong with you on this you are a terrible person sundae is the fact that... I think Omand knows this and just does not care because this method ensures that he'll be in charge when the dust settles. Which makes him even worse!

Ashok, Devedas and Omand form 3 factions moving through larger events that the other characters find themselves falling into. My two favorites being Thera and Rada, both of them are women, but that's all they really have in common. Thera is an outlaw and criminal because she can't keep to her place. Because of that she is officially done with your shit. She's blunt, outspoken, clever, sneaky and always pushing at Ashok and letting him know firmly what an idiot he is. Which I approve of. She's also rather talented with knives which while a traditional choice for women characters, makes perfect sense. She's a criminal who legally isn't suppose to own any weapons, any weapons she does own is going to have to be easy to hide, easy to obtain and be cheap enough that you can afford to lose it. Knives fit that rather well. Rada on the other hand is an upper class woman, her father is the chief of the libertarians, who function as the record keepers, researchers and general scholars for the central government. All Rada wants to be left alone to do a good job with her books and provide complete untampered with information to the Judges who ask for it. She doesn't have any problems jumping into bed with Devedas mind you and isn't militantly anti-social, it's just she would be perfectly happy if all these political manics just left her and her books alone damn it! But when they do drag her kicking and screaming out of her book stacks, she is going to do her level best to do the right thing. I like Rada honestly and I can completely sympathize with where she's coming from. Devedas also doesn't have a problem jumping into bed with Rada, which shows he has good taste in woman at least.

Unfortunately, I spend a lot less time then I would like with characters like Rada and Thera and more with Ashok, who I'm not sure I like. I'm sympathetic to his inner turmoil but his stubborn death grip on what he knows to be merely be someone else rearranging his life grates on me. Maybe he has no choice in the matter but it gets damn annoying and I find myself wishing Thera would hit him over the head with a rock and hopeful knock the stupid out. At this point I'm going to have throw my hands up and declare that protagonists that grate on people are Mr. Correia's specialty. Ashok is also damn passive throughout a lot of the book, leaving a lot of work to Rada and Devedas. The Caste System is pervasive through the book, but honestly we're left with no voices to really make an argument for it. The book takes the position that Caste systems are bad, which I agree with but... Seriously have someone make a good argument for it if it's going to be something everyone agrees with. Additionally the book ends on a bloody cliff hanger which frustrated me greatly. It's not a huge cliff so to speak but still... Tell a complete story in a single book guys! That doesn't mean you can't have plot threads that continue through more then one book but each book should be a story in it's own right! Still, despite this Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia lands at a B-, hopefully the sequel won't have a cliffhanger.

Announcement! I am going on a holiday break as I am leaving my home in Phoenix for awhile to visit my parents in Oklahoma. As such the reviews are on January 15th with Heroes Die. What else can you expect to see? Empire of the Summer Moon, Lirael, the Dinosaur Lords, Seedbearing Prince II and more! Thank you for reading! I Will Return!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Sabriel by Garth Nix

By Garth Nix

Sabriel was written in 1995 by Garth Nix, right when I was in high school and devouring fantasy books at an absurd rate. Strangely enough though... I had never heard of it. In fact it wasn't my buddy Russell mentioned the book to me almost 20 years after it had been published that I found out about it. Russell would then go on to buy the first 3 books in the series for me as a Birthday gift. So I'd like to take a minute to say thank you to him for that. Now to the book!

Sabriel is named after the title character, a young lady graduating from Wyverley College, an all girls school (that is not an actual college, it's a boarding school in the British fashion). It's an unremarkable upper class institution, expect for one thing, it's very close to the wall. What's the wall you ask? It is the barrier separating Ancelstierre (the nation the school is in) from the Old Kingdom. See, Ancelstierre is pretty much like early 20th century England. There's a class structure but it's a fairly modern capitalist one as opposed to a feudal one. There are cars, but they are rare. Soldiers carry bolt action rifles and have machine guns. The further away from the wall, the less powerful magic is until it stops working at all and you find yourself in a world that would seem very filmilarfamiliar to us. The Old Kingdom on the other hand... Is a place where magic works and technology doesn't. It is a wild, savage place where authority is breaking down under the assault of dead. Where the armies of the dead and those who command them are gnawing away at the very fabric of life and few can stop them.

There are some few obstacles in their way. To explain let me discuss the magic presented in this book. There are 3 kinds. Charter magic is the magic of order and law, created by the memorizing and utterances of certain symbols. Charter Mages are marked with symbols on their foreheads. Furthermore magical devices called Charter stones are set up at town and villages to help strengthen and protect Charter Magic and the people who depend on it (which is pretty much everyone). That said it's a fairly free form magic. It works by combining different symbols to produce various effects. The more symbols you know, the more combinations and the more you can do. It's the kind of magic where it makes sense for it's users to be constantly in a book. Which I appreciate.

Free Magic is dangerous and often practiced by nonhuman creatures who are for the most part very hostile to humanity. Last is necromancy, which just in case this is your first exposure to this stable of fantasy, is magic concerning the summoning, creation and control of the (un)dead. The necromancy in this book is presented very interestingly. First of all necromancers have the ability to enter death, which is divided into 9 parts with gates. The first ward of death is a giant rushing river that washes the dead deeper into death. All the wards of death have a water theme more less and those without ability or a whole lot of willpower get washed deeper into death until they past the 9th gate from which there is return. This actually explains a few of the weakness of the dead, for example they can't cross running water. Nor can they stand natural sunlight. So the dead tend to attack at night or on days where the sun cannot be seen. In the old kingdom no one is happy about cloudy days.

Additionally every necromancer uses bells as a tool to control the dead (the phrase undead doesn't appear in this book which is interesting). The bells are stored very carefully as it is the sound they make that produces the magic (I assume that I could produce magic by ringing these bells just really screwed up magic). They tend to be worn across the chest wrapped and stoppered to prevent accidental ringing. Each bell has a different effect (one compels obedience, another sleep, another kills everything that hears it, including the ringer... It is not a popular bell) and has to be ring in a certain way and pattern to control the effect. I'll admit I find it fascinating the use of sound in the magic system. Nix isn't the first to do this. Mercedes Lackey liked to use music in her magic systems for example, while Christopher Stasheff really liked using poetry and rhymes in his magic. This is the first time I've run into bells however or anything comparable though. I'll admit part of the fascination is due to my upbringing. My parents are deaf so music was not something I encountered regularly until I was a teen. Even then it was my little sister who really introduced me to stuff. So all things musical seem rather exotic to me honestly. I mean if I wrote a magic system it would likely depend more on gestures (or well... sign language) and will then the spoken word or song. It would certainly never occur to me without outside prompting to make musical instruments an important part of it.

Ahem, the book yes. The main obstacle to ye olde forces of darkness is the Abhorsen, who is well... The state necromancer. His/her job isn't to raise the dead but put them back and make sure they stay put back! To this end the Abhorsen is allowed to use charter magic, various magic items and of course necromancy. It is a family job, being passed down through the family line. In this case the current Abhorsen is the father of our main character Sabriel. Let me talk about her for a minute here.

Sabriel as I mentioned at the opening of the story is attending an all girls boarding school in Ancelstierre. That said she was born in the Old Kingdom but the Abhorsen felt it best that she grow up away from the Old Kingdom. This may have to do with the fact that the Old Kingdom is going full on Dark Ages Mad Max on us. Sabriel is unaware of this. While educated in Charter Magic and Necromancy by her father in secret, I found the idea that he appears to her every month to teach her things really interesting as well. She has friends and a vague idea of going to university with them to expand upon her future just like a normal girl. All of this is put on hold however when a dead creatures appears with a message from dear old Dad. That message? “HELP!”

This finds Sabriel inheriting the office of the Abhorsen much earlier then anyone would have liked and without much time for on the job learning. Now to be fair to dear old Dad (yes, I'm sticking to that!) he also sent his gear. His magic sword (and badge of office), his books and his bells. Sabriel is now let loose on a mission to find out what happen to her father, where he is and to rescue him. To do that she has to get into the Old Kingdom, a place she hasn't been since she was a toddler, figure out who she can trust and where she can find clues. She's not without resources here, she has all the knowledge her father gave her and she is able to locate some companions. To boil it down, she's got the tools, she's got the talent but her intell on the ground is nonexistent and she's more then a little blind to the situation.

The first of these is the slightly untrustworthy and rather magical Mogget. Mogget is currently a talking cat, who has been bound to serve the Abhorsen but does have his own agenda. That said his actions are limited due to a magical collar on his neck that only the Abhorsen can remove. It's generally a bad idea to do so however. Mogget is a bit of a smart ass, but he's fairly funny in a laid back sardonic kind of way. There's also Touchstone, who unlike Mogget is human but is hiding a lot. He's a fairly impressive in a number of ways, although there are a number of times where like Sabriel I want to smack him in the mouth and tell him to stop being a jackass. In this case his jackassery comes in the form of to much bowing and scraping. Which drives Sabriel half insane. Opposing them is an army of the dead and necromancers, arrayed under a mysterious villain who had been working to undermine peace, law and order in the Old Kingdom for a very long time now. By the time Sabriel shows up this enemy seems to have all but won. His armies and minions are lurking everywhere including in the very places of power of the Old Kingdom, they are breaking Charter stones (which is done using a very dark ritual which requires killing a Charter Mage and using their fresh blood) and gathering larger and larger armies of the dead. Things look very dark and our hopes ride on a freshly graduated school girl of 18, a magical cat-thingy and a guy who even tell us his real name. It's enough to make you want to invest in a boathouse.

The mostly takes place in the Old Kingdom, but with enough scenes in Ancelstierre to increase the alien strangeness of the Old Kingdom. As a setting itself the Old Kingdom harkens back more to the old sword and sorcery settings then Lord of the Rings. There are no elves, there are no orcs, dwarves or trolls. There are creatures and spirits born of magic, wicked magic users who thrown away the very idea of restraint and a few men and women who fight them using magic and blade. I... Really like this book.

It's not perfect of course. Sabriel and Touchstone could have used more time together, more basic interaction really. The book itself moves a break neck pace, which leaves me wanting more as I feel I didn't get to see to much of the characters. Honestly the characters are fairly well done but I feel like there should have been more character work laced into this book. Ah well. Sabriel by Garth Nix's get an B+. I really enjoyed this book and wish more people knew about it.

Next week, Son of the Black Sword.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Graphic Novel: Darth Vader Written by Kieron Gillen Art by Salvador Larroca

Darth Vader
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larroca

We do not suffer failure.” Darth Vader

There are standards. Standards by which you measure and weigh things to see if they are worthy or will be found wanting. Even for villains and antagonists. Standards like Magneto, Sauron and Darth Vader. When I was but a tiny lad, watching Star Wars for the first time, Vader immediately got my attention. He was massive, dark, implacable and relentless. He seemed more a force of nature in a black suit then a man. When he beat the crap out of poor Luke in Empire Strikes Back, I believed every moment of it because Vader Was Unstoppable. I mean Han even shot him and Vader didn't even seemed annoyed. A blaster shot didn't even slow him down! Of course Luke, who was no where near as cool and cunning as Han Solo (look I like Luke, he's cool but we're talking Han Solo here) was just meat to the grinder. Of course you could bring up Luke's win in Return of the Jedi, which is fair, but let me ask you, when our favorite Jedi was on the ground bawling due to having an entire lighting storm frying his ass... Who did he need to pull out the win? Daddy Vader himself of course. The man who won the war for Luke single handed.

So you can understand why the prequels hurt? I mean it was kind of a gut shot. The kind of injury that rots and leaves you suffering a slow lingering death full of pain and humiliation. I was expecting Anakin Skywalker to be a hardcore kind of guy, a hero maybe. Instead, well, the Anakin in the movies didn't sell me on any idea expect that Obi Wan really needed to find someone to be a parent to the boy. Maybe I expected to much? Maybe my standards were to high? Either way the result was for a period of time I was put off Darth Vader, his appeal had been tarnished a bit. Of course I could still take refuge in the movies but well I think we all know how the human mind works. Doubts and concerns have a way of worming their way in. So when I heard there was a Vader comic, I was kind of on the fence about it. I really wanted more awesome stuff about Vader... But other attempts to look at him had been kind of... Underwhelming.

The Dread Lords of the Mouse however do not tolerate failure and are not as forgiving as the House of Lucas. Summoning a creative staff from deep within the pens of Marvel, such as British born, veteran comic book writer Kieron Gillen. He started his work in 2003 and hit the big time in 2006, since then he's written for Uncanny X-Men, Young Avengers, Thor and Iron Man. He wrote an issue for Avengers vs X-Men but everyone makes mistakes. The other half of this team Salvador Larroca is also a long time Marvel Veteran. Born in Spain way back in the 1960s, if I were to list all the comics he's done art for I wouldn't have space to review the actual graphic novel that brings us here today.

The comic begins after A New Hope but before The Empire Strikes back. The Death Star is a very expensive cloud of dust orbiting Yavin and Vader is the sole survivor of the greatest military disaster in the Empire's short history. The Emperor makes it clear who he's blaming for this and it ain't the dead guys. So Vader, insulted, degraded and dismissed is sent back out to the trenches to make good. Having a bucket list of problems and diminishing resources Vader decides what he needs to do two things, one, start murdering his problems. Which he does with ruthless aplomb. Two, subcontract the problems he can't murder. There are a couple of ways to do this, either by hiring outside help or by recruiting new personal, Vader opts for both of course. Hiring bounty hunters to deal with a couple problems and recruiting others to deal with yet other problems.Which brings us to the other major characters in this graphic novel.

Dr. Aphra is one of the new recruits, a rogue archaeologist and lover of old weapon systems, she makes her living by hunting down old super weapons or abandoned weapons tech, updating it and selling it to the highest bidder. This also means she will break into high security vaults and areas in order to loot these systems as she believes “It Should Be In an Armory!” She's very talkative compared to Vader, which I find a good thing. It helps maintain Vader as a laconic brooding presence while giving us some humor to keep the mood from getting sour. Dr. Aphra also provides the two other members of Vader's Adventuring party Triple 0 for example is a protocol droid who has a sideline in torture and interrogation. He also has a nasty habit of draining his masters of their blood for shits and giggles. He's very snarky and a bit snide which makes his interactions with Darth Vader really fun. His counterpart is BT-1 who can pass as an astromech but is actually an assassin droid. Whoever made it seems to have made what I like to call the Gandhi mistake, after the Gandhi in the civilization game (if you don't know, there's a reason why veteran civ players will tell you to kill Gandhi before the fucker gets nukes). See, BT-1 was designed an in advanced weapons lab and right after he was turned on? He kinda killed everyone in the lab. Needless to say Dr. Aphra is incredibly excited about turning him on. She's that kind of girl.

With his adventuring group Vader confronts the conspiracies and schemes within the Empire that threaten his position and power. It's interesting that in this comic we never see Vader going head to head with the Rebels (that's left to the other Star Wars comic). Instead he's fighting pirates, robbing from aliens, threatening Jabba the Hutt, and fighting and killing other imperials. Vader doesn't seem to consider the Rebellion his main threat in this book instead being much more worried about other imperials and backstabbing from the Emperor. To be fair, Emperor Palpatine has a much better record in killing Apprentice Sith (ask Count Dooku) then the Rebellion does at this point and it is in the nature of the Sith to brutally murder each other at the drop of a light saber (hence why we have the rule of two in the first place!). The book never lectures us about this or points this out though. We are left to simply read and consider as it makes very clear the backstabbing untrustworthy nature of the Sith Regime, where it's rulers and elites must spend time and resources against each other just to make sure they can do their jobs without... Dying. Maybe I'm naive but that's kind of a flaw in the organization if I got worry just as much about the people on my side as the people who are suppose to be shooting at me. Maybe being in the United States Marines Corp spoiled me. I mean yeah I had personality conflicts and people I didn't like but I never had to ask myself, hey if we get attacked is the Lcpl there going to shoot the enemy or me? Darth Vader does and his solution to this problem is to destroy everyone that he can't be sure of. But in the Empire, just who can you be sure of? It's no accident that he had to go outside of the Empire for trustworthy henchme... Henchwo... Henchpeople?

All that said, Darth Vader is definitely back in true form! He's amoral at best, he's relentless, pitiless, massive and unstoppable. More Machine then Man! He is the villain protagonists we want, the one we need and the one we deserve! The book avoids trying to sell on the idea that Vader isn't a villain. Instead the book says, yeah Vader's a bad guy but hey, there's a lot of bad guys in this Galaxy. The writing is worthy, the art is worthy and the opponents are type I can't wait to see fall beneath his lightsaber! That said, the graphic novel doesn't really resolve this story, it's half of the story and a lot of set up. Which I suppose is a problem in serial story telling. I'm a big believer that a graphic novel should tell a complete story and I feel the ending left me hanging a bit. Of course I'm very eager to see what happens next and I will be bringing you a review of Darth Vader Volume 2! If you're a Star Wars fan, if you want to see more of the real Darth Vader or if you enjoy a good (bad?) villain protagonists who doesn't engage in any moral waffling or gray areas... Then you too should come to know the power of the Dark Side. Darth Vader gets a B+ as I have A New Hope but the Empire hasn't struck yet .

Next week we sound the bells with Sabriel by Garth Nix.