Friday, March 25, 2016

The Knight of Swords by Micheal Moorcock

The Knight of Swords
by Micheal Moorcock

Last week I called Stan Sakai a legend and I stand by that. Today we are talking about someone whom is a greater legend in a lot of ways. Micheal Moorcock, born in 1939 and got his start in the industry at the tender age of 17. Before he even finished high school he was editing pulp magazines. In the 1960s, as the editor of the New Worlds magazine he became a leading figure in New Wave Science Fiction. Like a lot of things in the 1960s, New Wave fiction was incredibly experimental and often started by rejecting the traditional that came before it. In this case New Wave authors rejected a lot of the traditions and starting points of pulp science fiction, seeing it as juvenile, stodgy and poorly written. While I'm personally a fan of a lot of pulp science fiction (Barsoom forever!)... They weren't entirely wrong. Pulp had started at this point to go a bit stale and formulaic, to be honest... Science Fiction needed the kick in the pants. It also brought in a number of new writers, and a good part of that number of those writers were women. While in the United States the New Wave was more diffuse, in the United Kingdom Moorcock used his editorship to build New Worlds into something of a fortress for the movement. To quote Judith Merril, a science fiction writer of the time

"galactic wars went out; drugs came in; there were fewer encounters with aliens, more in the bedroom. Experimentation in prose styles became one of the orders of the day, and the baleful influence of William Burroughs often threatened to gain the upper hand."

It is somewhat ironic to note that today Burroughs is very much considered a pulp writer but such is life. During the 1960s Moorcock would from time to time write under the name James Colvin, which as far as I can determine is the start of his extensive use of the initials JC (you may note that those are also the initials of Jesus Christ,Mr. Moorcock certainly did and even won a Nebula award in a science fiction story about a historical christ of sorts in Behold the Man). Mr. Moorcock would also win awards for literately works he wrote such as Mother London, King of the City (and others you may see in this review series in the future). In short even without his fantasy work, this is a towering titan of a writer, who is still at work today but it is his fantasy work that brings him to this review series today.

In the 1960s and 1970s, fantasy (even more then today) stood under the immense shadow of Professor JRR Tolkien. It was a overarching and far reaching influence in the United States, so imagine the weight of it in the nation of his birth. One where a number of critics, writers and readers could have even attended lectures given by the man. Mr. Moorcock himself had met Professor Tolkien and had mentioned that he found the Professor a likable man, he did not have such kind things to say about Tolkien's work. Calling it infantile, conservative and boring, Mr. Moorcock set out in the 1970s to do what just about every critic of a successful fiction is told to do. He went and wrote his own fantasy. In 1961 an albino, drug addicted, cursed bomb carting an evil soul eating black sword was lobbed into the fantasy genre. As you might have guessed I'm talking about Elric of Menibone, a character and a story that take a hold in fantasy in ways no one would have really guessed when it was published. Elric is a member of an elder race but with none of the grace of Tolkien's elves. He's is frail and must use drugs to maintain his physical health. He is addicted to using the power of his Black Sword Strombringer (a weapon that is frankly more iconic in fantasy then anything Tolkien came up with). He is flawed, Byronic hero with a tendency to get the people closest to him killed. If anything he resembles the bad guys in earlier works more then does the heroes. Elric much like Mr. Moorcock was an intense product and expression of his times and as with the New Wave science fiction... It was needed.

Mr. Moorcock's influence can be felt in American and British fantasy to this very day. If you're a warhammer fan? You have been enjoying the indirect results of his work, as Mr. Moorcock's work often turned around the conflicts of Chaos and Law (Games Workshop even uses the same symbol for Chaos that Mr. Moorcock coined, the 8 pointed arrows). Fictional works within the old warhammer fantasy universe (I'm not discuss this, this is a book review series, not a wargame series) like Malus Darkblade pretty much follow the path that Mr. Moorcock burned into the jungle for them. Along with this Mr. Moorcock helped popularized and expand dark fantasy and other expressions of the genre.

So what is my stance on Mr. Moorcock? I am opposed to many of his criticism on Professor Tolkien and fantasy in general. I am opposed to many of Mr. Moorcock's philosophical and political stances (he describes himself as an anarchist, I have many things to say about anarchy and none of them kind). I will also state that I there are fans of Mr. Moorcock that I absolutely cannot stand, they are type that make a moral stance out of what kind of fantasy writers you like to read, while looking for a boost on their high horses so they decry Tolkien fans as Crypto Fascists. To be blunt, people who say to paraphrase a friend of my “Have no other meaning for the word Fascist expect things I don't like.” I find such things pretentious and frankly tiresome. Tolkien's work is certainly conservative but fascist? This is a man who decried Fascism from day 1, not all right wingers are fascist, ladies and gentlemen anymore then all left wingers are communists. That said I will defend the quality and value of most of Mr. Moorcock's work to the death. Those of us who are fans of science fiction and fantasy owe Mr. Moorcock and his fellows a debt, his experimentation, his willingness to overthrow prior rules in the pursuit of a story and his willingness to tell tragedies helped expand and enrich the genres even to this day and beyond. Now that I've beaten the point into the ground... Let me discuss the actual book.

The Knight of Swords is a book in the Eternal Champion multiverse, basically a heroic character fated to exist in many times and places while waging a war to keep Law and Chaos in balance. Because if one side actually wins out over the other then everything goes batshit and the universe might actually end and we can't have that, all of our stuff is here after all. Elric is the most famous Incarnation of the Eternal Champion but the main character of this story is Corum Jhaelen Irsei, who while not being Elric certainly does rhythm with the albino. Corum is a young noblemen of the Vadhagh, an elder race that once feuded heavily with another race the Nhadragh but has since sunk into … Well I'll be blunt the Vadhagh are sinking into slow extinction. They live in small isolated family (by small I mean in groups of under a dozen) groups in castles with little to no contact with other family groups. Societies don't work this way! I've complained about this before but... Look you got at least have enough mixing that the younger members can find mates otherwise you're going to slowly decline into oblivion. The Vadhagh don't get that chance though, they are messily and violently wiped out by a younger, savage race. The race of humanity or as we're called in the book Mabden. Prince Corum is essentially the last of his race, as his family and every other Vadhagh he can find has been wiped out, victims of the barbarism of a younger race that operates out of hate, fear and the urging of dark powers. Corum tries to fight this tide but pays a heavy cost for it.

Corum starts on a journey of vengeance wanting nothing else but to kill the people who killed his people no matter what it costs him but he's turned aside when he is delivered to a Castle of civilized Mabden to recover. These Mabden had figured out the basics of civilization earlier then most and created a fairly decent society however the castle had been cut off from the rest of it's civilization. It's there he runs into Rhalina, the widowed ruler of the Castle who basically throws herself at Corum within 5 minutes of meeting him. As romances go... It's not one. I'm not terribly fond of Rhalina as a character. Her job seems to basically get kidnapped and held captive to force Corum to go on quests. She also faints a lots. Eowyn, she is not, hell she isn't even Lois Lane in this book. It's when she is kidnapped by a demi-god sorcerer that Corum gets busy with the main quest of the story.

In that quest he'll be sent off to a variety of impossible lands and meet strange barely possible people. This is honestly the part of the book I like best. I have to admit to being a sucker for a quest and Corum's is a dozy, being sent off to confront a god. Given magical artifacts to make up for his injuries at the hand of the previously mentioned savages Corum finds himself confronting a world wracked by a major change. It's a world where one age is ending and another one is beginning and he has to learn why the wheel has turned. In doing so he finds himself being educated as to the nature of the conflict that he has been enlisted to and informed that he's part of it now whether he likes it or not. Corum most certainly does not like it but he does what he needs to.

The story is rather straight forward and somewhat basic by today's standards but told with fantastical settings and peoples to provide the needed dash and color to make this work. Corum himself is fairly understandable character, as a person I certainly prefer him over Elric but he's well... Kinda dry in some respects. I've read the Elric and other books by Micheal Moorcock so I know what's he capable of and honestly that's reflected in my grade. The Knight of Swords gets a C+, better then average and certainly worth reading (at under 200 pages it shouldn't take you long) but compered to his other work? I mean I enjoyed it but the Elric novels took a lot of the same themes and ideas and frankly explored them better and with more depth. Additionally I feel the work hasn't aged very well. I'll admit I'm being biased on that and I intend to come back with some of Mr. Moorcock's better work in the near future.

That said, next week Baker returns with the White Luck Warrior.   

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 5 by Stan Sakai

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 5
By Stan Sakai

I will be doing this forever; I love Usagi,”
Stan Sakai Newspaper Interview 2011

Ah, Stan Sakai, the myth, the legend. Born in Kyoto, Japan in 1953, he is a 3rd generation Japanese American who currently resides in California. Mr. Sakai has worked on Spiderman with Stan Lee doing the lettering for the newspaper comic strip for 25 years (Stan Lee has a picture of Stan's daughter in his office, Mr. Sakai's son personally received a box full of signed works by Lee when Sakai mentioned how big of a fan he was). He got his start lettering comics (most notably Groo the Wanderer), before moving on to write and illustrate his own comic the Adventurers of Nilsen Groundthumper and Hermy (a medieval comic). It wasn't until 1984 that he hit gold however, Sakai was plotting out a comic book series that would be based on the life and times of Miyamoto Musashi a swordsmen from Japanese history... No wait that's underselling it, with a record of 60 duels undefeated, being the founder of the sword style called Niten ryu and writer of the Book of Five Rings, Musashi is an enduring figure in Japanese culture and in pop culture. He was a character in fictional tales before he died and his life has been so mythologized that it is impossible to separate fact from fancy. You can kinda of consider him a Japanese Robin Hood or Jessie James, a person who has been romanticized so heavily that who he actually was... Kinda ceased matter in a cultural sense really. In lot of ways the character of Musashi is vastly more important to Japanese culture then the actual person, but that character simply couldn't exist, nor would that character be as enduring or far reaching in his influence if it wasn't for the real person that he was based on it. It's an unending fascinating thing to examine and consider but... This is a book review so I'll just leave the thought there for you the reader to chew on. Anyways all of that considered it's no surprise Mr. Sakai turned to Musashi for inspiration. That's not what would make Sakai in my opinion (let's be honest my opinion is not humble) immortal. It was the combination of that inspiration with a random chance doodle he made. That of an anthropomorphized rabbit samurai with his ears in a top knot. The image took a hold of Mr. Sakai and the series quickly found itself in an anthropomorphized fantasy version of 1700s Japan.

Mr. Sakai started the comic series Usagi Yojimbo in 1984 and here we are 32 years later and not only the series still running strong but it is still considered a series with quality art, characters and story telling that both children and adults can enjoy. This is nothing short of amazing considering that we have series who couldn't keep that up for a 1/10th of that time! The series has won 5 Eisner awards and a Parent's Choice Awards. The series has been translated into 14 different languages officially (I am told there are many unofficial translations in Russian and Chinese but cannot confirm at the time of this review). Ironically one of the languages that it hasn't been translated into and one place that Usagi isn't very popular is... Japan. Even then, this is a successful series by any metric. I've been a fan of the series for years and I've been meaning to review these books for awhile now.

I'm reviewing the Saga collection which collects several graphic novels worthy of the series together often bringing together entire story lines into a single book. Book 5 takes place after Usagi ends his travels with his son Jotaro having decided not to tell him that he is his father (while Jotaro in turns decides not to tell Usagi that he is his son, both of them believing the other to be ignorant of the relation.). Emotionally exhausted by this Usagi decides to head to the Geishu province under the rule of Lord Noriyuko who counts Usagi as a welcome friend. Perhaps more importantly to Usgai though, it's also the home of Lord Noriyuko's vassal and guardian the lady samurai Tomoe. Interestingly, Lady Tomoe is actually based on a historical personage, the lady samurai Tomoe Gozen. She was a fighter for the Mimamoto clan in the Genpai war (which was in the 1180s, some time before the Japan of Usgai which is likely in the 1700s). Reputed to be beautiful, intelligent and deadly in archery and sword who met with an uncertain fate in history. The Tomoe in our story certainly lives up to her namesake with several characters talking about her looks but more importantly she's one of the few characters capable of fighting Usgai to a draw with a sword and a able to think quickly on her feet.
These are all good things because most of the book isn't about Usagi, it's about her. Thankfully Tomoe can carry a book or two, although Usagi is still a major part of the events (it is his series after all). The book examines her origins, how she achieved her position and gives us more insight into her family. We get to meet a relative of Tomoe's, Nokiro who was raised along side Tomoe. Nokiro is also an incredibly skilled swords woman but much crueler and darker in personality. Nicknamed the Blood Princess, she serves in a lot of ways as a mirror to Tomoe, perhaps showing what could have happened if she had let her anger (justified anger to be fair) at the way she was treated for being woman overcome all her other traits. We also get some hints of what the future may hold for Tomoe and for Usagi as well.

This was a welcome change of pace as the last book was taken up with a fair amount of Usagi's adventurers with Jotaro. While I really did enjoy the mentor-student relationship between father and son (and I drew a lot of amusement from the fact that both believe the other ignorant of the relationship), after awhile you kinda want to see Usagi in a more equal relationship. We get that with Usagi and Tomoe, who are both equals and treat each as such. Both respect the talents and skills of the other and is willing to listen to their opinion without being threatened by those same skills. Usagi is perfectly willing to follow Tomoe's lead without feeling his masculinity is undercut, while Tomoe is willing to do the same without needing to worry that Usagi is dismissing her because of her gender. It's a clean, healthy relationship that I am continually delighted to read. Plus either one of them can murder a small army on their own so when they get together? You didn't bring enough men to pull these two down. There are not enough men to bring these two down if they're at the top of their game. This book, is more then happy to prove it.

Stan Sakai has written other works but it is likely that Usagi Yojimbo is the work that will outlast him, even though I personally wish him decades more good health and joy. This book continues to uphold the high standards that the Usagi Yojimbo series is respected for and has earned. I certainly needed this after the crap that was No Game No Life! Book 5 of the Usagi Saga by Stan Sakai gets an A.

Next week, I venture into dark British fantasy to review a book by a man, who like Tolkien, is inescapable when discussing English Fantasy. See you then.

Friday, March 11, 2016

No Game No Life by Yuu Kamiya

No Game No Life
by Yuu Kamiya

No Game No Life is the 4th novel worked on by Yuu Kamiya (which is a pen name), a Japanese-Brazilian illustrator-writer. He first started working in 2006 on E.A.R.T.H (which I couldn't find anything about). No Game No Life was published in 2013 and was recently made into anime. It was recommended to me by someone I knew in the Barnes and Noble... Which I'm really regretting. Oh man am I regretting reading this book. Let me get started here.

No Game No Life tells us the story of Sora and Shiro, a brother and sister who are both maladjusted genius who are incapable of dealing with people. Sora, the brother is 18 years old, very smart (he speaks 6 languages for example) and incredibly capable of reading people and getting inside their heads especially while playing a game against them. So of course he can't figure out social interactions and can't understand people... Wait... That doesn't seem right does it? Yet the novel keeps insisting that Sora is a genius who within minutes of meeting people can climb into their heads and figure out how to rattle them or string them along in a sense of security but can't figure out what kind of behaviors would seem weird. Yep, it's that kind of novel. I could let this slide but frankly not only does Sora annoy the piss out of me but the book has an unnerving obsession with his sexuality. Mentioning repeatedly that's he a virgin and can't figure out how to get a girlfriend (although given how he treats the other female led it's no wonder to me). I'll expand on this stuff later.

Shiro, the 11 year old younger sister is basically an autistic super genius (she speaks 18 languages and does calculus in her head) who just can't really connect to people expect her brother. Honestly I have less of a problem with Shiro expect for the fact that she's not really a character, she's a plot device. She just tamely follows along with her brother's plots and ideas, every now and again muttering that he's an idiot and stepping in to solve problems for him on command because super genius. She displays next to no real agency in of herself and frankly speaking as an older brother I found her docileness odd and hard to believe. Of course when she does express a goal of her own near the end of the book... I found myself wishing she had stayed a plot device.

Now both of these kids start out as utter and complete shut ins living in the same room in Japan. The story states that they've been abandoned by their parents (who pays their rent then? Where do they get money for their phones and tablets and solar chargers and... sigh you know what never mind) and they spend their time playing games until they pass out and eating instant food. They also pose as the same person going by the handle “ “ aka Gamer Blank (seriously how would that be a thing?) which honestly strikes me as bit of cheating there but not important. After being challenged via email to a game by a mysterious individual and winning they are transported to a strange new world that operates under different rules and is filled with strange places and stranger people. Being transported to a strange new place where your gifts are of more benefit to you is pretty much a staple of planetary romance and the whisked away fantasy genre so it's fairly normal here. Let's talk a bit about the world.

The sibs are transported to a world that had been locked in a endless series of violent race conflicts between various fantasy races until a new god managed to grab the top seat and changed the rules. The new god issues 9 (well 10 but the 10th rule is frankly not in effect) which boil down to basically all bodily harm, war and such are utterly forbidden and all conflicts are to be settled by games. Games are played according to rules agreed upon by the players for stakes and wagers that the players agree to. Any game or wager is permitted as long as everyone playing agrees to it and if you're caught cheating, you lose. So basically try any violence and god himself will strike you down, but you can solve your issues with a great round of Parcheesi if you like. Course this does leave a massive hole in the rules, what if I just don't play? I mean, let's say I walk into the store, grab an apple and walk out, you tell I have to pay for it and I say nope. The cops come and... Do what? Physical violence has been forbidden! You can't arrest me! I can just walk away! What are you going to do tackle me? All Bodily Harm is forbidden! Basic property rights cannot be enforced (on the flip side murder is now impossible so there's that at least). Hell we have a bandit scene where bandits wait by the road and challenged people to games and I'm left asking why anyone would bother? You just walk right pass the bandits because they can't stop you! I mean if they blocked off part of the road maybe? But then it would be charging a toll. You can't say that no one can refuse to play because in the story one race is mentioned as simply refusing to play any games at all and others suggest that route for humans. It's tempting because well...

At this point humans are at the bottom of the ladder with just one city state to call their own. See there's a problem with the rules. It doesn't count as cheating unless you get caught, you might be thinking okay fine so what? Every other race on the planet expect humans can use magic. Humans cannot even perceive someone using it. We can't directly interact with it at all and we're completely blind to it. Which means anyone who isn't human just has to use magic to cheat and their human opponent is completely boned. So the Kings of Humanity and by extension humanity have been having their asses to handed to them. Which is where the 3rd character of this story comes in and where things really start to go downhill, the granddaughter of the last king of the humanity, Stephanie..

She shows up losing a game (after Shiro tells her the other person is cheating her) and hunting down the sibs to find out how they knew. Now I had figured her for the love interest/guide a character who is a native of the strange new world and would be able to explain and guide our main characters through the social and physical laws of the place. This venerable role stretches at least as far back as the Princess of Mars by Burroughs in modern fiction (that's only if I stick to the planetary romance genre of course). That would however require that anyone else be allowed to know things besides the diamond duo! So instead I have the sibs who have been on this planet for a whole 3 days explaining to Stephanie how her own fucking planet works! Never you fucking mind that as a member of the royal family one of her biggest jobs would have been to learn this system as it's part and parcel of having the ability to rule in the first place! Especially when you consider that Stephanie has no cousins, no siblings and her parents are incredibly absent making her the de facto heir to her grandfather! But No! No one else is allowed to have any talent or understanding of how anything works besides our “heroes” because if they're not the only ones allowed to know things how are we suppose to realize they're geniuses?!? So pretty much... In order to make our protagonists cool and smart... We have to make everyone else a mouth breathing idiot barely able to tie their shoes without accidentally hanging themselves (although to be fair some of the characters may be trying to escape this story through the sweet release of death!). I cannot stress how much I utterly and completely loath this style of building up a character. It's bloody easy to look like a genius when you surround yourself with idiots guys. You want to impress me? Surround yourself with smart people and make yourself look like a genius. That's awesome and interesting, this? Is middle school antics. Of course the way I just outlined is hard and making everyone an idiot is easy.

That's the worse of it though. See Sora tells Stephanie gleefully that he'll gladly explain all his super awesome secrets and skills (in 3 easy to read lessons!) if she can beat him in a game. He even explains how to beat him in the game (rock, paper, scissors, I swear you have this chance to revel in all manner of exotic and strange games and what games do I get in this story? Poker, Chess and Rock, Paper Scissors... Really... I just... Ugh!). On the flip side Stephanie has to promise to do him a little favor. She of course double and triple thinks herself into failure BECAUSE DOING ANYTHING ELSE WOULD MEAN SORA CAN'T BE AWESOME! Of course Sora announces that his little favor is that she has to fall in love with him. Which leads to the part that is frankly a little nauseating to me. See Stephanie now has no choice but to fall in love with Sora against her will (which okay, that happens, people find themselves loving people they don't want to or shouldn't and you can write about that) and is fully aware that this is being forced on her. It's a horrific situation if you think about it, part of your personality and desires are being rewritten by an outside force and you can't do anything about it... Because you lost a child's game. You could do a lot with this, depending on the kind of story you want to tell, you can emphasize or try to de-emphasize the horror of the situation as you see fit but there's a lot of potential here. It is of course wasted as the story uses this for cheap laughs and pandering titillation. It's not even funny either, just cringe worthy as Stephanie is assaulted (first they do? Start groping her chest... Classy!) forced into fetish outfits and at one point is flat out told that her purpose in life is to provide well... Huh... Let me call it “viewing material.” Not only is this rather disgusting (If would be fine if she knew what was going on and wanted to but she can't say no! She wants to say no but she can't!) but it's a criminal misuse of a character. Instead of her having her own arch and desires stemming from her background and interacting with the main characters on that ground, she is forced into well... Slavery! Utterly subordinate and unable to even really protest her humiliation and reduction to a thing and well... This wouldn't happen if Stephanie was Steve. Look, I'm not a feminist but even I have to protest this! Everyone has the right to control over their own body and who can touch it! This isn't a gender thing that's just basic shit! I shouldn't even have to discuss this in a damn book review blog what is your fucking malfunction!?! To have your main character do this and it's not even discussed or considered as something he shouldn't be doing? I'm not saying your protagonists shouldn't ever do fucked up shit but... Look, I read a book called Malus Darkblade once about a dark elf that murders his entire family and it was at least treated as a fucked up thing to do! Even has pandering fetish material this is just cringe worthy and clumsy at best and utterly disgusting at worse. Surely we can do better then this? Right? Please?

Add in wooden, tell don't show writing, really ham handed dialogue (I would love to blame this on the translation team but Log Horizon did a much better job and No Game No Life had corporate backing from day one, while Log Horizon started as some guy's fiction on word press basically) characterization ranging from lazy to eye rolling and Oh right, the big reveal at the end that Sora and Shiro aren't really blood related and Shiro muttering about how she just needs 7 more years (UGH! Fuck you people that's not how sibling relationships work! We've done studies on this! Christ is being an only child that fucking bad that you come up with this shit?). I ain't even going into that issue, I'm just going to say I almost tossed the book in the trash right there but then some poor innocent might find it and try to read it! Add in large holes in the world building that I could let slide if you were telling a decent story (Harry Potter's world building has a number of holes to, but you what it has over this book? Engaging characters I like and care about and a story that was enjoyable to read!). As it stands I pray for the trees that were killed to make paper for this book, for their sacrifice was in vain! Between the offensiveness and the sheer wasted potential what can I say? A lot honestly I could for another 3 pages but I think you get the point gentle reader, remember my suffering!

We had a good streak this year but it's over folks! This book? THIS SO CALLED BOOK!?! No Game No Life by Yuu Kamiya gets a D-! Making it our new lowest book yet beating out Touched by an Alien, which I found merely bad and overwrought as opposed to this which is terrible on every level I care to consider it on and offensive in the bargain. If you're considering punishing someone try making them read this but don't be surprised if they don't speak to you for a couple weeks!

Oh this was suppose to be something nice and light after reading Stover! Fuck this I'm reading about Rabbit Samurai! Next week, a long eared Ronin arrives! Thank God for Stan Sakai!  

Friday, March 4, 2016

Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

Blade of Tyshalle
by Matthew Stover

"How many of you want to be my friend?"
Caine page 505

Blade of Tyshalle is the second book in the Acts of Caine series, if you haven't read the first book “Heroes Die” I would recommend you go read it first because there are going to be spoilers for that book in this review. Okay, let's do this.

Blade of Tyshalle opens with a story from Hari Michealson's days of training to be an actor. We learn that he originally was slated to be a mage, due to his size and slight build, but well... Basically? He brawled his way into the combat school where they focused more on murdering people with your bare hands and what not. Which honestly was a better fit for him anyways. We also learn about what may have been his first friend Kris Hansen. That peek into the past turns out to be important because this book ends up much like Heroes Die being rather philosophical in nature... Interestingly enough, to me anyways, Stover's books are philosophical not in spite of the ultra violence present in the book or the rather stark and pared down outlook of it's protagonists but because of those reasons the story and the characters within it find themselves asking some important questions... Including our main character, despite his constant claims of how that is not in his nature. I find myself constantly comparing this to Baker's (Prince of Nothing) books and while I think Baker's books are maybe deeper and likely better written... I would reread Mr. Stover's books first because frankly... I like the people in Stover's books more, even when they drive to distraction.

If I can be forgiven the reference, the Vorlon and Shadow questions (if you don't know, go watch Babylon 5) make an appearance in this book, although other questions also appear. “What do you want?” makes an overt appearance. You see the climax of Heroes Die had a profound effect on Overworld, kick starting two new religions into gear. The overt and popular one is the church of Mal'elKoth (who trapped on Earth now calls himself Tan'elKoth) which has adopted a lot of trappings that frankly are a bit to familiar to me (an organized church of Bishops answering to a Primarch who is also a temporal ruler?) and a religion that most of it's followers proclaim is more of a philosophy called Cainism. Cainism's questions are simple but can be rather profound. What do you want and what will you do to get it? It's followers openly state that rules do not matter to them, expect when they allow them to matter and that the world is about what you want and what you will and will not do. As you can guess the ruling powers do not care for that at all. It is interesting to note that Cainist are for the most part rather law abiding individuals (not all of them but most) but it's the church of Mal'elKoth who has taken over the rule of the Empire and that church has declared Caine to be the Enemy of God. Which means anyone who declares for Cainism is about as popular as a leper in an orgy.

Meanwhile back on Earth, Hari Michealson despite having almost all his wishes granted (got his wife back, got a cool kid, Dad's out of jail, he's running the studio, can't really walk due to his spine being severed at the climax of the last book) is utterly depressed and miserable. He and Shanna are trying their damnest but their marriage is at best kludging along. He hates the job, he's worked for so long to get. He can't figure out how to sit down and talk to his wife and hammer out the problems in his marriage. I'm going to be honest this one frustrates me the most. Not because I don't think it shouldn't be there but because I just want to reach into the book drag Hari and Shanna by their ears to an escape proof room and not let them out until they stop making vague word noises at each and actually talk to one another. I'm not going to claim to be Mr. Successful Relationships here (No, I'm not discussing my dating record and I don't care if you like it) but one thing I've notice? If you cannot really and honestly talk to your Significant Other about what's bother you? Your relationship is crippled, I don't mean in the still perfectly functional as a person way, I mean in the utterly fucked up this car only has two wheels and the steering wheel is on fire way. I'm basically awkwardly flailing at the statement that you should make the effort to talk and listen (I don't mean yap and wait your turn to yap, I mean really talk and really listen) to your loved one if you want it to work. That said Shanna and Hari are keeping their marriage a going concern by sheer manic determination and an honest desire to make it work. They just suck at it.

The Vorlon question “Who are you?” does not make an overt appearance but it is frankly central to the plot. You see, it's the question each of the characters has to answer along with the questions of the Cainist. The answers of Hari Michealson, Tan'elKoth, Pallas Ril, Hanno the Scythe and others to these questions are the axis on which the plot turns and that plot will determine the ultimate fate of Earth and Overworld. I'll throw in my own statement on these questions here (reviewers privilege folks, you can to toss out commentary even if no one asks you to). All of these questions are interlinked to the point that you cannot answer one without answering the others. They gotta answer these questions fast to because the powers that be of Earth have decided to stop playing around with Overworld. See, they've started slowly and covertly colonizing Overworld but slow and covert is just not hitting the spot. So they're going to make their colonization a necessity. They're going to release the plague that almost ended life on Earth on Overworld. A modified version of rabies that dehydrates it's victim and drives them into homicidal paranoia. It's highly infectious and when enough people have it... Their society literally tears itself apart. Hari and Shanna along with others on Overworld and Earth race to stop this biological doomsday from coming to past while all around them dark but all to human forces conspire to not only stop them but utterly destroy them and everyone they love. Especially their daughter Faith. At the risk of slight spoiler here, while everyone in the story has to answer who they are, what do they want and what will they do to get it... The person's whose answer turns out to be most important isn't Hari, or Pallas Ril but a figure that has been sitting in the background of both this and the last story. I won't say who but I will say I found his answers to be the most... Human.

Another argument that takes place in this book is what does it mean to be human? In a lot of fantasy works the bad guys signal their badness by rejecting their humanity. Declaring themselves above it and better then humanity. In this book the bad guys declare themselves the most human people of all and put themselves forwards as in some ways literal avatar's of humanity. Mr. Stover's talent is on full display here because I can't decide if he agrees with this argument or if it's just something the bad guys are advancing to give them intellectual cover for their sheer disregard of life itself. I am going to state my own firm disagreement that the bad guys represent human nature in it's complete state. Oh I'll grant they represent parts of human nature, the need for control, the disregard of the price other people have to pay for our actions, the selfish unending hunger that flat out doesn't care about anything but sating it's desires. I didn't need Mr. Stover's books to point that part of human nature to me. In the Marines a friend of mine nicknamed that part of us “The Monkey,” it's the part of you that encourages you to take that last cookie even if your buddy hasn't had one yet, to fuck over that other guy at work for the promotion. The Monkey wants. That's what it does and from it comes greed, ambition, desire and a host of goods and ills. But the Monkey is not the whole of human nature, not even close. The willingness to take a hit for another person, to buy food for someone because they're hungry, to give to charity and bleed for a common goal is also a part of who are as much as the damn Monkey and that part is well represented in this book also. Repeatedly we'll see people sacrifice for their loves ones, for people they just met, for people they don't know and won't ever know. Hell we see it in the person of Hari Michealson, who would be the first people to tell us he's no hero and he gives no fuck about saving people he don't know. I would argue it's the clash between our selfless instincts and our selfish instincts that what it means to be human comes out. How we answer the questions after all is as important as what our answers are sometimes.

At this point I've likely made the book sound like some moody meditation on dusty philosophical and boring. Well this book is a lot of things but it isn't boring. We got fights, be it duels between men, between gods or between gods and men. We also got combat on larger scales and dying by the truck load. We even got us a bit of an old fashion war here. Our characters may be struggling to answering bone deep questions of identity and desire but they're testing and refining their answers by breaking bones and shedding blood. We also got plots and intrigue, as wheels within wheels turn to trap and save our characters and the whole plot can twist on a single friendship or conversation. You'll see battle between technology and magic, divine and man, brawn and brain. In short this book is 800 pages but thankfully none of them are wasted and unlike some Stover doesn't just keep repeating himself (you know who you are! YOU KNOW!). I will note for the record one thing that Stover did that offended me, I'm prepared to forgive but I ain't letting it pass without comment. Mr. Stover... Your jumped up secret police wanna be riot cops ain't combat troops and if your upper Caste knuckleheads think they are... Then they got the military sense of peacock on crack and they damn lucky there are no competing societies on Earth. With real combat troops. Who would love to to brawl it out with Soapie.

My outraged sense of dignity for front line troops aside, I really enjoyed Mr. Stover's book even when I was violently disagreeing with it. That's take a lot of talent and work and I think Mr. Stover deserves praise and recognition for that. So because it earned it, I'm giving Blade of Tyshalle an A. Matthew Stover is batting a thousand so far and let's hope it stays that way. Still... Man... That was dark and dense and is the kind of book that sits like a lump turkey in your gut. I'm gonna need something... Lighter next.