Friday, January 29, 2016

Darth Vader II Shadows and Secrets

 Darth Vader II Shadows and Secrets
Writer: Kieron Gillen, Artist: Salvador Larroca

“I do not consider eliminating a few rebels a matter that requires comment” Darth Vader

When we last left Vader, he had secured a secret robot factory for him, an evil adventurer team to do his bidding, a group of people gunning for his job and massive amounts of oversight on his activities. If you ask me for a growing Dark Lord there can be nothing more frustrating then over sight. Competition and young rivals are to be expected, comes with the territory really. If nothing else a cadre of young men, women, aliens... cyborg... things? All lusting after your position should be considered a sign of success and growth, after all no one plots to take over your position if the heroes are at the door and the empire is crumbling around your ears right (well you would think that but history keeps telling me people are not as rational as I would like...)? But over sight? That means your boss doesn't trust you and is thinking of shining a light on just what it is you're doing on Friday night. Which as any Dark Lord will tell you is a nightmare, I mean Dark Side bosses are not entirely known for approving of personal side projects using official resources and Vaders got... Well he's doesn't want anyone looking too close let's put that way.

One of those side projects is his obsession with finding the man who blew up the Death Star, Luke Skywalker. However, finding people costs money and when you have to turn in daily expense reports, squeezing out the budget to find a highly mobile rebel becomes... Troublesome. So Darth Vader decides if he can't use imperial resources to finance his search, well then he'll steal some imperial resources. As the Emperor has sicced him on a number of crime lords in the Outer Rim (not incidentally doing Jabba the Hut a solid in the process), there's a lot of seized ill gotten gains to be stolen. As a side note there's a brief conservation between Vader and an representative of Jabba's that I really enjoyed. You could just about see the contempt and disgust rolling off Vader that he has to cut deals with the lackey of a Hutt Crime boss. He signed up to bring order to the galaxy after all, not be a government sanctioned hatchetman in underword wars after all. Still his dislike doesn't stop him from arranging his own thievery using Aphra as his point woman to hire himself a dirty crew of adventurers to steal a literal fortune. Unfortunately that money had already been made part of the naval budget (don't you just hate when that happens) so they assign a crack crew to find the thieves and get the money back. This crack team is to be lead by Inspector Thanoth... And by Darth Vader himself.

Let me talk about Inspector Thanoth for moment as he's pretty much the only new character with any real screen time (well there are the bounty hunters but they were kinda here and gone). I really like the guy, first off there's his really awesome distinct look, backing that up though is a character who is calm, calculating and actually pretty smart. Lastly he's the kinda of imperial you need to keep the regime going. He's the guy who believes that the Empire is the best shot for setting up a stable galaxy where people can actually live their lives without worrying about raiders or war or whatever the fuck it is this week that is going to bring civilization down. The best part is that he never says any of this! There are no tiresome speeches or sermons about how the Empire is civilization or Order is barely holding back Chaos and blah, blah, blah, we've all heard this speech 10 million times now! No, Thanoth acts like he believes it, he acts honestly, loyally and intelligently to uphold a vile, brutal war machine of a regime that is grinding billions beneath it's white armored boots. Characters like Thanoth are vital if you want to show how something like the Empire can function. Because if it's all backbiting psychopaths held in check by the Empire then the rebels don't need to conduct any military operations. They can simply sit back and let the Imperials tear each other apart. Darth Vader clearly likes the man (well, as much as he likes anyone) while holding many of his rivals and superiors in contempt.

Which is kind of funny because Vader continues to consider the rebels a secondary problem compared to his Imperial rivals. Now I will say this, Vader is shown trying to keep causalities among Imperial footsoliders and enlisted men to a minimum (he seems to prefer killing officers frankly... Which I find myself strangely okay with). This isn't to say he ignores the rebels but he's clearly unconcerned with them. For example he lures a Rebel cell to a moon and murders all of them simply to cover his tracks against other Imperial agents. He roots out clues to the location of another cell to cover for Aphra capers across the galaxy. However even that is secondary to his obsession of finding Luke Skywalker to that end he repeatedly proves he'll move planets and void, betray anyone and even let anyone live to fulfill that objective.

As for our other recurring characters, we learn a bit more about Aphra, a woman who honestly seems to enjoy repeatedly putting her life at risk and seeing how close she can get to the lightsaber's edge. I suppose that's what I should expect from a woman (or anyone really) who is excited to work with Darth Vader. I mean he's a lot of things but a good boss ain't one of them. We get this through a conservation where she revels that she's got her own broken past and loses due to the clone wars. Which helps remind us that these big epic splashy scenes we love in the movies... In real life they would come with some pretty harsh price tags. I'm not saying you shouldn't enjoy those scenes, this is fiction after all but maybe chew on what might be going on in the background of those epic moments from time to time.

Mr. Gillen's writing remains damn good and Mr. Larroca's art is wonderful to behold. They brought a good variety of characters to the Star Wars universe that help expand the breath and depth of Star Wars. While telling a hell of an interesting story about Darth Vader and the people around him. Shadows and Secrets achieves an A easily. Which makes sense as after all... The Mouse does not tolerate failure. Next week we dive into more serious subject matter with a nonfiction work Empire of the Summer Moon. See ya then.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

Lirael by Garth Nix

by Garth Nix

Finally the reviews have returned to the Old Kingdom! Lirael is the sequel to Sabriel, taking place about two or so decades after the first book. Within that time Sabreil and Touchstone have gotten married, Touchstone has claimed the throne and they have had children. They've also worked very hard to make the Old Kingdom, a place where Sabreil seemed unable to go 20 feet without attracting some undead ravening monster, into a place where people... You know... Live. I kinda wished we could have seen some of that, but I'm also sure it would have gotten repetitive after while. You know find undead monster, sally forth, force undead monster back into death, repeat. Maybe in a short story or two in the future?

But honestly they've been pretty successful in transforming the Old Kingdom from a fear ridden hell pit into a fairly pleasant place to raise your family (if you hate electricity anyways). The Capital no longer is an armed camp living under siege. Trade and Travel are now normal events that don't end in screaming and bloodshed. The network of charter stones has been mostly repaired. Allowing for villages and farms to be rebuilt. In turn allowing for the people of the Old Kingdom to live lives that are not defined by unending terror of undead monsters creeping about in the dark. It's not all sunshine and roses though as Sabriel having become the Abhorsen (the state Necromancer), is often running from one trouble spot to the next trying to root out the remaining die hard Free Magic sorcerers and necromancers who seek to undo all their work. In short through with a lot of work and a bit of luck Sabriel and Touchstone have created a fairly decent kingdom from the wreckage we saw in the last book but there's still a lot of work to be done.

The Necromancer Hedge hates this with every fiber of his wicked being (in case you're wondering... Yes, I did enjoy writing that). He plots to undo these hard won gains of the royal family by digging up some long forgotten evil and... Well basically killing everyone really. I actually kinda like Hedge, despite his omnicidial urges. As much I can like a psychopathic, mass murdering asshole anyways. He's clever, patient and while he clearly prefers to send someone else to do the dirty jobs... He ain't afraid to jump on to the front lines and do his own killing. He's also smart enough to develop connections south of the wall, making political allies in merry old Eng... I mean Ancelstierre!

Actually that's only part of what makes Hedge an interesting villain, as it's part of his adoption of insurgent tactics to fight the royal family. Hedge's pursuit of outside allies in his struggle to return a reign of terror and death to the Old Kingdom is a common tactic of successful insurgencies and rebellions. See private organizations be they terrorists like the IRA and Al Qeaeda or more conventional rebellions like the Continental Army or Garibaldi's Redshirts can rarely match the resources and power of a state. There are ways around this but the easiest way is to get your own state sponsor to help you make up the difference. Whether it be Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of France, the USSR or the USA, a competing state government can provide you with supplies, weapons and money which you need to wage a war, putting you on a more even footing with your enemies. The second part that Hedge has put into play is creating a safe zone where your enemies can't or won't go. This gives you a place to plan, train and refit. Granted training his army isn't an issue for Hedge because he's a bloody Necromancer and his armies are made up of undead monsters and dead spirits stuffed into fresh corpses. Hedge's safe zone is a region called Red Lake where the power of the royal family does not extend and the Clayr (I'll get to them) can't see into. I don't know if Mr. Nix did this on purpose but if he did, he deserves praise for applying fairly modern tactical studies to magical fantasy and making it work with aplomb!

Hedge has also rather cold bloody marked out the biggest obstacles to his plan and works very hard to remove or completely eliminate them. Those obstacles being the Royal Family with Touchstone as the King and focus of the Charter Magic network and Sabriel as queen and Abhorsen... And their youngest child, a boy who is considered the Abhorsen in training. Deciding to avoid direct confrontation with the Royal Adults instead using minions and politics to divert them and tire them out. Hedge elects to go after the boy himself, the Price Sameth, aka Sam and he finds himself running into Lirael, who is our main character (graciously sharing the book with Sameth in my opinion) and is our main view point character. Let me talk about her a bit.

I know I rambled on about Hedge but this book is about Lirael. The book opens with her growing up into a young lady and deeply grieved with that fact. Why would this bother her? Because she is a daughter of the Clayr, a mystical family known for their ability to see the future. They generally develop this ability at the onset of their teen years and Lirael... Hasn't. It doesn't help that Lirael never met her mother, who disappeared shortly after Lirael's birth. Additionally the Clayr raise their children in communal fashion, which while it has it's virtues, ensures that Lirael never gets the attention she kinda needs to reassure her that she is actually a member of the family. Instead she's just kind of left knocking about the childern's dorms feeling sorry for herself as each one of her friends graduates into a life she can't understand and leaves her behind. On top of this is the fact that Lirael has problems socializing and she doesn't look like the rest of her family. They're all ice blondes and she has hair dark as midnight. You know, I am somewhat sympathetic to Lirael, I mean I often feel kinda on the outside of groups due to various things (I found later this can be a common feeling among hearing children of deaf parents or the children whose parents are from one culture but raising them in another) but you know... At least I never any doubts as to whether or not my family loved me and considered me one of their own. Frankly that's a terrible fate I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Thankfully we're not left with her moping about for long as a pair of her cousins realizes that leaving a teenage girl with nothing to do but think about how she doesn't fit in and how her own family feels like a pack of strangers just isn't healthy (you know for people who can see the future sometimes..). So they get her a job in the Clayr's magical library (I'm really kind of jealous of magic libraries in general, but this one is also a museum and at times a zoo... People who can see the future really do get the best shit don't they?). It's here that Lirael really gets moving as she starts learning magic in a big way, fighting monsters (turns out the magic library isn't really safe and these people sent a 14 year old to work in it!) and summons the Disreputable Dog. The Disreputable Dog is a creature of magic that seems to contain some of the essence of canines, of course being magical she is smarter then actual dogs being able to talk, fight and do magic on her own. I honestly love her, she serves as Lirael's friend, teacher and even mother figure from time to time. She even teaches Lirael and by extension us more about the nature and Lirael has the most complete arc of the characters in this book, going from a lost, depressed child to a young women with hard won powers and abilities willing to take great risks to solve problems by the time of the book's end when she is 19. Sameth on the other hand...

We met Sameth as he finishes his last year of school in Ancelstierre on the other side of the wall. This seems to be becoming a family tradition for the Royals, since Sabriel and Sameth's older sister were also educated in Ancelstierre. We don't actually get to see him in school (to be fair we didn't really see Sabriel in school either) since he gets in trouble on a bus ride back from his very last cricket match (sooo English) and well... Sameth did his damnest but he didn't really cover himself in glory. Much like Lirael, his first brush with danger was almost his last and he basically had to run for it. Here there's a difference though, Lirael gathered resources and got herself a mentor, by whom I mean Disreputable Dog, went back and made herself awesome! Sameth... Well it turns out confrontation isn't really his thing. Which is awkward because he's suppose to inherent the title of Abhorsen, a job that is well... Pretty much all about confrontation really!

Which bring us to a problem. I think Lirael is pretty awesome and she easily makes the first string on my own personal monster killing team picks (if you don't have one... Man what are you doing with your life?). It's not that she's perfect, she's has bouts of insecurity, is cripplingly shy and uncertain to the point of being terrified of conservation in social situations but she is able with the help of her mentor push through her weaknesses and do what needs to be done. Sameth... Can't bring himself to admit his problem out loud and ask for help when surrounded by people who want to help him. I get being afraid of disappointing your parents but really. That said I am being rough on a guy who was nearly murdered, while within Death itself (that has to be more terrifying then almost being murdered in the normal world). I'm pretty sure that's got to least leave mental or emotional scars! Part of the blame does have to go to his parents, who honestly are fairly absent. Which no slight on them, since if they ignore a call from work, thousands of people can die in horrifying ways unleashing unspeakable horrors on the world. That kinda means you can't ever turn off the phone to the office really. Still I have to think that if Sameath had a mentor like Lireal did... He be able to confront his fears. That said it's not that Sameth is a coward here! He puts himself repeatedly at considerable physical and mental risks to protect and help others. He sneaks away from his family to help a friend in peril. He is able to outwit enemies and make basic plans, so he isn't an idiot either. He's clearly not just some trembling child who just needs to be taken care of. Which makes a lot of his behavior even more frustrating! There are times when I want to reach into the book and shake him until the rattling forces his brain to actually boot up and engage. It's just that when the objects of his phobia and PTSD are thrown out there he locks up and turns into a gibbering wreck. I understand this and I can sympathize but look I'll be blunt. Speaking as a vet, if you're suffering something like PTSD, Depression or a fear so deep you can't even begin to function around it? Get help. Please. There's no shame in that. Your friends and your family will be thankful. Let me get back to the review.

I liked Lireal more than I did Sabriel. I liked the character's more, I like the villain more, I was excited by the revelations on the nature of charter magic and it's relation to free magic. As well as insights into the origin of the Old Kingdom itself. I enjoyed Lirael's story arc and really enjoyed reading about her travails and triumphs. Sameath I'm less thrilled by but I'm hoping he'll shape up. That said... The book ends on a cliff hanger. Again. I'm going to get a complex like this guys. That said, the cliffhanger is my only real complaint. So Lirael by Garth Nix gets an -A. It's a great book and I think everyone will enjoy it. Just get it's sequel Abhorsen before you crack it open. Speaking of which Abhorsen will be with us soon but first, Vader Returns! See you next week!  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover

Heroes Die
Matthew Woodring Stover

I was aware of Heroes Die for years but was never really tempted to pick up the book. Honestly the blurb didn't really tempt me, it just looked like ultra violence for the sake of ultra violence in paperback form. Well, a trusted friend (the one who suggested Prince of Nothing to me) said I should give it another look... So.. I did. I'm actually glad I did, let's get started. Heroes Die was published in 1998, making it almost old enough to graduate high school! It was third novel of Stover's published, the first two (Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon) were set in the bronze age covering a trio of mercenaries doing mercenary things from what I understand. Mr. Stover himself is a fairly eclectic person, born in 1962 and having worked a wide range of professions from stage actor, waiter, short order cook, telemarketer (no wonder he has a good grasp on the dark side of human nature) and more. He's also studied a board number of martial arts which shows through in his books. Stover is also a pretty big sci-fi and fantasy fan with references to Heinlein, Moorcock and others hidden quietly and not so quietly in this book.

Let's talk about this book, there are two settings both are kind of grim but the setting on Earth is a grim dystopian nightmare labeled “everything you hate.” Earth society has been homogenized and united under a single government of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. Society has been converted into a Caste system, where your job defines who you are, where you live and what you are allowed to do. Hell more then that, what you can wear in public, what you can say, who you can touch, all dictated by your Caste. For example if I was a member of the laborer caste, I wouldn't be allowed to do these book reviews because that's academic work and thus forbidden to me. This is backed up by a high tech security state with surveillance, rewards for snitches and an intruding level of government control you thought you would never see outside of the wet dreams of people like Hitler and Stalin. The top 1% of the Leisure caste lives lives of ease and comfort surrounded by wealth and privilege. The growing majority of people in the Labor Caste live in slums. Now you can get yourself into a higher Caste, but you're going to ass kiss and bribe your way into it. Which means it's pretty much impossible for people at the bottom. Cocaine is legal, only if you're in the upper caste though meaning our our main character uses it bribe lower caste people quite often (this is actually pretty standard behavior). Jail is something you bribe your way into, otherwise your punishment is likely to be converted into a worker. A lobotomized cyborg who follows orders doing work to dangerous or dirty even for Laborers until you die. This system is maintained by outlawing the knowledge of alternatives, books by Jefferson, Smith, Voltaire, Locke and even fictional works by men like Heinlein are outlawed (I almost feel like Stover asked “Would frigid like this book? Banned it is!). Even quoting someone like Kennedy can get you in deep shit. The other thing keeping a lid on this system is the carefully nurtured and cared for obsession the population has with Actors.

Actors are men and women from all walks of life who volunteer for a dangerous job. If you are an Actor you will be trained, you will be conditioned, you will be modified and sent to another world. A world known as Overworld. Overworld exists in another universe with physical laws that match the basic fantasy universes we all know and love. There are a number of humanoid races, Trolls, Ogres, Elves, Dwarves that kind of thing (although Stover adds a twist in that those names are are human slurs for the races in question), there are gods that gift some of their more devoted followers with amazing powers and of course there's magic power that people can use to throw around lighting and fireballs and animate dead bodies to do their will. Overworld is a wild, dirty, dangerous place, even the cities are full of people and creatures that will kill you for standing in the wrong place and then sell your dead body to a wizard to zombify for cheap labor. Frankly I would rather live on Overworld the rest of my life then spend more then 10 minutes in Stovers earth where I would have to live in terror of the nearly omnipresent security state deciding to punish me for knowing to much or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Anyways, Actors are trained to survive and blend into the populations of Overworld and go on grand, bloody violent adventurers. As dictated by the studios and their own abilities, they play the role of heroes or villains, assassins or paladins. Saving lives, or ending them. Building up nations or tearing them down... For the entertainment of the masses on Earth. It is not without risk to the Actor however, they can be hurt, crippled or even killed. Despite the fact that the studio can save the Actor, if it will increase the sales of their adventures... The Studio will let them die. The implants in their heads not only record all of their actions, but their emotions and to a degree their thoughts as well. Hell you can not only watch your favorite actor battle platoons of Trolls to the death but if you're rich enough, you pay for a VR rig that will let you experience it as if you were the Actor yourself! The adventurers of the Actors have become the main form of entertainment on Earth, the circus that the shadowy rulers of Earth use to keep the populace sedated. The people of Overworld are unaware that their lives are being used in this fashion but they are aware that Actors exist and consider them a form of demon. They also consider Earth to be a kind of hell. Frankly... I don't think they're completely wrong to feel so.

Hither comes the greatest of the Actors, Hiri Michealson, known throughout both worlds as Caine. Caine is warrior that in a world of arch wizards and blade masters prefers the use of his bare hands in killing and in comparison everyone else is unarmed. He has killed kings, wizards, warlords, gang leaders, warriors and soldiers of every race and type. Hiri Michealson is an Actor from the worse Labor Slums on Earth. Having clawed his way up from the bottom using nothing but his hands and his willingness to kill and maim. He is wealthy, famous and adored by the public. He is a miserable slave. He is a slave to the studio, who dictates his goals and his behavior on Earth and Overworld. He is a slave to his past and everything he has had to do to get here. He is a slave to his patron Vilo, a member of the Businessman Caste, who can order his private life to the point of dictating his martial status. He is a slave to his own mind, that repeatedly tells him he has no choice in who and what he can be. All of this makes him a living indictment of the culture that birthed him. It wasn't enough to strip away any chance of advancement other then through murder. It wasn't enough to reduce him to privileged property. No, he had to be reduced to a state of self induced helplessness, where he believes he can't be anything else!

rankly however that's not what makes him miserable. What makes him miserable that he's a divorced man. His wife a fellow Actor (the book doesn't use the word Actress) left him. Shanna, or Pallas Ril is also an Actor. Shanna is more heroic in mold then Hiri is, working constantly as a hero to help and save people. She also left him because in the end she couldn't accept what he was or why. I don't say that to condemn her, how many of us would be comfortable sleeping with a hitman after all? The problem of course being that Hiri is still in love with her. Which gives the studio a pretty good lever to use on him. Due to a strange magical effect, Shanna has been cut off from the studio. She's not transmitting so no one knows where she is. Additionally they can't bring her back. If they don't find her before a certain amount of time passes, she'll die. That's something Hiri would give anything to prevent and his handlers know that. So the deal is simple. We'll let you save your wife, as long as you kill someone for us. As long as Caine kills the new Emperor and Demigod Ma'elKoth.

Ma'elKoth is the primary antagonists in this book, and you know I should be able to call him a villain. He traffics with powers best left alone. He murders and tortures his political enemies using the fear of Actors for a phony witch hunt. He puts himself as a god! Pushing people to worship him! I'll admit that one sticks in my American Christian craw. More then it should really given that he's living in a fantasy universe where someone powerful enough might just be able to boost himself to godhood. I think on a personal level Ma'elKoth is a rather horrid person in a lot of ways but... While being willing to sacrifice his followers, he clearly cares about them. Even going so far as to care for the families of his fallen followers. His intentions are in a way noble, he desires to put an end to human infighting to ensure that humanity survives and thrives on Overworld, given that it's surrounded by competitor species, many of whom are rather dangerous and savage... He's not wrong to think that unity might be the best way forward. Frankly he's not wrong in suggesting that he's the best person to bring about this unity, because I don't see anyone else even trying. Ma'elKoth while not an Actor does have some experience with Earth and he does point out that... Actors have caused wars, brought chaos, torn countries and wiped out cities. They have murdered, raped and maimed. For what? Money? Power? Ideology? No. They do it to entertain people. That's... well.. It's fucked up. Compared to the Earth government, at least Ma'elKoth wants to lead his people into a better and brighter future where even the least of them will benefit. He might be a son of a bitch, but at least he in theory stands for something beyond his own power and pleasure. That said he has shit hiring practices as shown by his selection of Berne.

Berne! I hate this sick twisted asshole with all my heart. I don't love to hate him, like I do some villains. I just hate him. He's an utter depraved sociopath that is frankly a hollow mockery of a human being. Berne in a lot of ways I think is in this story to reinforce Hiri's humanity. Yeah, Caine is basically an assassin and in some ways a thug, but he tries not to hurt anyone he doesn't really have to. In some cases he even dials down the damage and pain to do so, putting himself in danger. Berne? Revels in doing the most pain and damage he can do. It's not enough to kill you if he can torture you, it's not enough to torture you if he can rape you. It's not enough to do just one of those if he can do a combination of them. He serves as Ma'elKoth's chief enforcer and priest, leading both the cult and the secret police force known as the Cats. I spend the entire book hoping beyond hope for his sudden and violent murder. Preferably at the hands of Caine. Interestingly enough that's what Hiri is hoping for to! As Berne and Caine have a long, blood soaked, bitter history the kind that only two men who have no fucks about violence can have. I'll take Caine anyday of the week through. He might be a violent assassin, but I know he won't kill me because we ran out of soap or he's feeling twitchy. I can also count on Caine not to sexually assault people for shits and giggles or run off to violently beat people because he's had a bad day. Sometimes it's the little things that make you prefer one person over another.

Hiri Michealson has to fight his own studio, he has to fight Ma'elKoth police forces and soldiers. He has to come face to face with a Demigod and figure out how to outwit and out fight a man who can go toe to toe with gods. He has to fight Berne. He has to fight the relationship issues between him and Shanna. Excluding the issues with his wife, all of these fights are violent in a lot of ways. There is enough violent and murder in this book to make a 1980's action star queasy and start to consider pacifism. Part of that is because the book does not shy away from the consequences and implications of that violent. It's not clean, it's not boxed away, it's everywhere and splashing into all aspects of Hiri's life whether he likes it or not. That's a real and raw treatment on the matter of violence that a lot of books and movies lack. But again not the real fight in this book. The real fight in this book is Michealson against himself. Because until he realizes that the limits that he imposes on himself are not real, that the chains he wrapped around himself can be removed... He can't possibly hope to defeat the legion of external enemies around him. He can't hope to save the one thing that matters to him, the life and happiness of his wife. This book is savage which I expected. It's also thoughtful in some ways which I didn't expect. Don't get me wrong this isn't some deep philosophical work on the meaning of life but it does examine the issues of violence and their effects on people and how often our biggest enemies are the ones inside our own heads. I find myself shockingly giving Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover an A. If you can stand going to some dark places and getting some grit in your teeth? Read this book. You'll be surprised how glad you are that you did.