Friday, October 28, 2016

Death Vigil Vol I Art and Story by Stjepan Sejic

 Death Vigil Vol I
Art and Story by Stjepan Sejic

That Necromancer has a fine nose! I shall take it!”
Gunnar undead super Viking

Stjepan Sejic is a Croatian born writer and artist, there's not much about him floating about except for the fun tidbit that he wanted to be lawyer before becoming an artist. This is Mr. Sejic's 2nd appearance on this review series; he was an artist for Rat Queens, and I did say we would be reviewing this series sooner or later. Promise made... promise kept! He does most of his work for Top Cow Studios. You may be asking “just what is Top Cow studios?” and that's a fair question. Top Cow is the little sister company of Image Comics, which was founded in 1992 by a group of comic artist rebelling against the policies of the big two (Marvel and D.C), centered around the idea of letting creators keep ownership of their own characters. The biggest early hit of Image Comics was the demonic hero Spawn (if you don't know who this is... you missed the 90s, which honestly isn't that terrible of a thing). Today Image's biggest hits are a pair of comics known as Saga and the Walking Dead. Marc Silvestri, one of the founders of Image set up Top Cow as his own studio, working mainly on a comic named Cyberforce (I'm not looking into this because there is no way that the Cyberforce on paper is as awesome as the Cyberforce I'm imagining right now. I will leave my delusions pure on this one). Top Cow's line up would later include comics like Witchblade. I'm just going to go ahead and admit that I didn't read lot of Top Cow comics and still haven't. So let's get to the book itself.

The story itself is mainly told from the viewpoint of two characters, although it does skip around a bit. In a break from tradition, we meet both characters on the day of their first death. Let me address them in order of appearance. First we have Sam; Sam was coming home from a Halloween party when he saw a pair of girls being mugged, since he was dressed as a cop he jumped in hoping his fake gun would scare off the mugger. He got shot, then he died in an alley. Clara on the other hand had just said “I love you” to her boyfriend for the very first time. She then agreed to accompany said boyfriend on a visit to his father's grave as it was the anniversary of Daddy Dearest’s death. After showing her the grave and going on a crazy rant... he stabbed Clara to death as part of a magic rite to break the veil between life and the beyond. Then in both cases the Reaper showed up with a recruitment spiel. The Reaper in this case being a cheeky pale lady by the name of Bernadette, who is looking for a few good (dead) folks to given a second shot at life--with a price. Her recruits will be locked into a war with inhuman monsters who seek to destroy reality as we know it and their all-too-human servants, the Necromancers. The Necromancers bind themselves to creatures beyond the limits of our universe they call Primordials, who honestly look like Lovecraftian monsters filtered through H.R. Giger. The cherry on top of this is that Primordials eat people, so it's difficult to see any peace treaty really getting off the ground. On the flip side you do get immortality, superpowers, and membership in a rather nice social club. There's also the perk of not being dead so it balances out if you ask me. The superpowers come from the magic weapons created by Bernadette's scythe. Well they're not always weapons, sometimes they're a deck of cards, a mask, goggles, or a even a magic feather.

This story is more about Clara with Sam as an observer honestly, as it's Clara's abilities and insight that move the plot along. That doesn't mean that Sam doesn't get anything to do or doesn't get some nice character movements of his own. Sam starts off the comic as a veteran member of the Death Vigil, with the ability to beat people up with his magic shovel and pick as well as use them to summon a crew of Viking Draugr (Draugr are what zombies would be if they grew up with any ambition or drive) but he's unable to tap into the special abilities of his tools. Clara on the other hand figures out the abilities of her tool in a matter of weeks; a magic feather based on something she came up when a child. She's a little slower in picking on some other abilities she has due to her unique origin but we'll let that pass and I won't comment on them because those should remain a surprise. Sam and Clara play off of each other really well and have a really solid human relationship (in a platonic way). While Sam might be jealous of how fast Clara is picking things up, he doesn't angst or get ridiculous about it but handles it like an adult. This is a welcome change. Clara for her part doesn't dump all over Sam for not picking up things as fast as she can but respects him for his own talents and abilities. `

Mr. Sejic also avoids making this world to black or white by introducing us to several characters who are decidedly gray. For example Allistor and his daughter Mia, Allistor is a Necromancer but it's honestly hard to hold that against him. Recruited in medieval France by a cadre of Necromancers who had infiltrated the Catholic Church for his genius, he actually made contact with Bernie the Reaper because he wanted to find out her side of the story. I feel for this guy because if my pastor (who is also my father for a double whammy) came to me telling me that God wanted me to pick up these super powers to do His Work, well I would be inclined to believe him. Unfortunately Allistor and Bernie had a falling out and afterwards his daughter Mia grew terminally ill. So Allistor used the same rite that was used on Clara to bind a super Primordial to her and save her life. It also kinda turned her into a monster who eats other Primordials... But you know... as long as she's not eating humans, it kinda feels like something heavily drenched in Not My Problem! The relationship between the vigil and Allistor and Mia is complicated, some of them are friends and some of them are not. It interjects a human element to the conflict showing that this isn't a bunch of crazy maniacs fighting a bunch of Immortal Death Knights but a conflict driven by people with human desires using forces that they really, really, shouldn't use.  Interestingly enough the villains of our piece have a lot in common with Allistor, to the point where they almost feel like a twisted reflection of his story and as kind of a signpost of how things could have gone terribly wrong for him and his daughter.  I won’t go into details because… Well spoilers.   Mr. Sejic does well in making his villains human, mainly by keeping the utterly monstrous necromancers to the background and giving us people with understandable motives and grudges.

I also enjoy Mr. Sejic's art style, which uses a lot of muted colors without being drab or overly dark. His facial expressions are a real strong point as well and he's better then a lot of comic book artist at conveying emotion without being utterly ridiculous about it. That said, he tends to give away a bit too much, there's a lot of things that the characters haven't figured that even a very unalert reader is going to be able to figure out real fast. I would encourage Mr. Sejic to be willing to give out less hints in the future for secrets he doesn't want to reveal until future storylines. Still, it's a fun story with good art and likable characters (which was needed) so I am giving Death Vigil Volume I an -A

Next week, we're going grave robbing! Join us for Mark Smylie's the Barrow!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Great Ordeal By Scott Bakker

The Great Ordeal
By Scott Bakker

“There is no such man as Anasurimbor Kellus... No such Prophet. Only an intricate web of deceptions and stratagems... bound by one inexorable and as you know, quite ruthless- principle”
Anasurimbor Kayutas page 340

Scott Bakker is the best writer I review that my readers also hate. Well, a good number of them anyway. The complaint is usually that his work is to dark and to grim. It's a fair point, as Mr. Bakker's work is exceedingly dark and on many levels. When I read his work, I imagine him as someone who has studied the ancient world, understands how it worked, and in a way committed himself to rubbing his readers face in the more unpleasant truths of the world of antiquity. I say that because while in the first trilogy cribbed deeply from the events of the 1st Crusade, the wars between Islam and Christianity, and the world that those events took place in; the people in are people of the ancient era. To be fair the men and women of the medieval era would have a lot more in common with the pagans of old Rome than they would 21st century Europeans and Americans (or Canadians, Australians, New Zealand and the other far flung outposts of the west). Many of these characters, magic aside, could fit themselves into a story about Caesar or Alexander with ease. Hell! Kellus could be Alexander with ease. He is after all a man who has conquered the entire known world and taken the greatest army in history off the very edges of the map. He is a man who has risen himself up to be worshiped as a god. He is the most powerful man in the world and he may be utterly mad.

Insanity drips from this story and plays a part in each story-line; from Sorweel, chosen of the goddess of birth and fertility to kill Kellus, who is sent as a hostage to the non-men of Ishterebinth. Ishterebinth is the last fortress of a doomed race (the non men as some of you might remember were a pre-human race that fought the bad guys before human civilization. The bad guys lost the war but won the peace by offering to make the non-men immortal. Which they did, they also killed every female member of the non-men race). For while the Non-Men are immortal, their minds are not able to cope with thousands of years of memories and loses. I invite you to imagine for a moment losing every woman you know and care for and having to spend centuries locked in an endless war with numberless enemies; knowing that even if you win, it won't matter for humanity. Now remember that the human mind has limits and you literally cannot process all the information you absorbed in those thousands of years. So when I tell you that the last fortress of a doomed immortal race has become a barely glorified insane asylum, understand that I'm not speaking in metaphor here. Ishterebinth has literally become a storehouse of madness. Of course--even mad--the average surviving Non-Man is closer to a superhuman murder machine then anyone moral or sane would really like and a lot of them can do magic. The cherry on top of this bad news sundae drenched in chocolate nightmare fuel is that this place has fallen to the control of a puppet king for the bad guys. The Unholy Consult. So Sorweel, in the company of the youngest Non-Man alive and possibly the last sane member of his species, Oinaral Lastborn, must walk through the bowels of this insane asylum and bring the news to the Lastborn's father Oirunas: Lord of the Watch and a giant among Non-Men; seriously he's about 15 feet tall or so and back in the day was known for going one on one with dragons. He's a member of the group that the Non-Men in all their serious understatement call “The Tall.” The Tall are crazy but more coherent than most of the Non-Men, the problem is they're also waaayyy more prone to violent, homicidal rages at the drop of a hat, scarf, or anything really. Basically Sorweel and Lastborn's plan is, let's take a walk through the parts of this crazy house most infused with the very essence of madness to go talk to a Giant killing machine that could flip out because we're standing wrong and kill us with his pinkie and tell him that his home as fallen under the control of his worse enemies and see what happens. It's a great plan and I'm excited to be very far away from any of the consequences of it!

Consequences and Insanity continue in the story-line of the ordeal itself. The army of a quarter million soldiers hundreds of miles away from any civilization has been feasting on Sranc. I'll explain Sranc simply: take orcs and scrape away every little bit of humanity. Any feelings of friendship, pity, love, or even the ability to comprehend these ideas. Leave behind only a ravening desire to kill, eat, rape and a very basic ability to use tools and you’ve got a Sranc. Sranc make the orcs of Tolkien look like guys from Doctors Without Borders, that's what we're dealing here. Kellus at the end of the last book declared that with the army being beyond any logistical chain at this point would start eating Sranc. I'm going to ask my editor here to back me up that I repeatedly said that nothing good would come of this.

Note From the Editor: Yes, yes he did say that.  Repeatedly, at length.  Also.. No no no no no!  The Sranc are BAD. Not only are the soldiers going to have to contend with the utter madness of eating A) the same thing over and over again which is never good for morale and B) being really close to cannibalism, nothing turns someone into a beast more than devouring one’s enemies; they have to contend with whatever is inside the Sranc.  The Sranc are so bad, and the beings who created them so fucked up (pardon my language, but Fucked Up) and twisted, that there is no way they did not plan for this sort of contingency and poison the flesh of the Sranc.  I would.  Bad Plan!  Even if the army survives and wins, the only choice is to have gnostic sorcerers nuke it from orbit, so as to be sure.

Boys and Girls pick up that phone, because I called it! The army is slowly but surely losing all discipline and self control as it falls increasingly under the spell of Sranc meat. To the point of not seeing the Sranc as enemies that have to be fought and killed but rather as feral cattle to be harvested. Frankly, this is the most terrifying thing in the book for me because the very existence of humanity as a species is riding on this army reaching the stronghold of the Unholy Consult and tearing it down before they can unleash the most terrible weapon in this world's history. Here's the thing readers: inside every army is a howling mob and the thing that keep that mob from escaping is training, control, and discipline. If discipline is lost, then any armed force becomes just an armed mob capable of inflicting terrible atrocities. I say this not because I am critical of militaries mind you, but because every armed force that has lost control of itself has found itself committing terrible acts. The ability to commit atrocities doesn't come from being a member of an armed force, it comes from being a human being. It is discipline, whether it be from self control or imposed from external forces, that prevents it. The effect of eating Sranc is tearing apart the ability of the troops to control themselves as well as the officers to keep them under control. This is displayed to terrifying effect in the climactic battle where we see men just go berserk and charge into a Sranc horde so they can begin eating the corpses! I find myself asking if Kellus is even going to have an army when he gets to his target or a ragged mob of howling savages barely able to conduct basic tactics and that question is horrifying given the stakes here.

Then we have Drusus Achamian (who is still not allowed nice things) having finally reached the stronghold of the Dunyain only to find it in ruins. It was torn down by the Unholy Consult who frankly seemed to have panicked at the idea that there's a group of men out there who can see through all their disguises. That said there are two survivors... an adult and a child, the adult is Kellus' oldest son, sired before he left for the wider world. The child is Kellus' grandson (seriously there is something about this bloodline that seems to make killing them impossible). We also learn why the Dunyain are a male dominated society and it's a monstrous reason. I won't spoil this for you but I will say I had to put the book down for a couple hours when I hit that spot. The survivor as the adult calls himself is a scarred, half mad wreck of a man who is the most human and sympathetic Dunyain character in the whole bloody series. The Survivor saved the child (who has no name), his son and fought a war in a deep underground maze for over a decade against Sranc and sorcerers and against his own insanity for the single overriding goal of keeping his son safe. This is despite that by the standards of Dunyain society, his son is defective (he has a deformed hand) and should have been put to death. He is a PTSD ridden, insane ruin of a human being but he becomes a glowing ember of light in the darkness of this book. Kellus has repeatedly said he loves Esmenet, the women he lured away from his teacher Drusus but honestly I have found myself quite often questioning that. Or wondering if Kellus means the same thing I would mean in such a situation. In all honesty I find myself wondering if Kellus or any Dunyain could feel emotion beyond base primal urges. Sure, Kellus says that he has taken harder paths because of his love for his wife but... those harder paths at times seem awfully profitable for him. The Survivor however proves that it is possible for a Dunyain to love and care about someone more then themselves and he does it in the manner that means the most. He proves it through his actions and in the most unarguable manner. We learn more than this in this story-line but I won't speak of that here, I'll just say Drusus' still has a great part to play in the fate of the world and I have no idea how that specific die is gonna land.

Our last story-line is honestly the one most uninteresting to me. Part of it is because it focuses on Kelmomas, the youngest surviving child of Kellus and Esmenet, who is crazy. It also focuses on Esmenet herself who doesn't really get to win victories in this. Every time she actually pulls something off it's quickly nullified or she gets saved by greater powers. This is really frustrating for me to read. If Kellus does love her so much, which I am willing more than before to grant, he really should have given her more training in controlling the Empire. The one that's falling apart without him. Putting to risk the very person he claims to want to protect more than anyone else. The focus on a mad child in a book already over-flowing with insanity and Esmenet's general inability to really shift the plot just kind of leaves me cold to the whole story-line. I know some people will disagree with me but... can we give Esmenet something to do besides be fought over by men? Even in the ancient world powerful women were able to do more than that. That said the theme of madness shows up here as well and takes on a divine tinge as we see the madness of a prophetess and a boy who thinks that he is being stalked by a god. Which at least gives a different spin on the theme.

As you might have guessed from this review the Bakker train still has no brakes. Mr. Bakker takes us to a world shaking on the knife edge of extinction or victory and keeps us there for the entire book. The mood is palpable and the themes are heavy and thoughtful. The book is relentless in showing us and exploring madness and what it can drive people to do. That said the pacing in this book is slower then I would like and there are parts especially in Sorweel's story-line that drift incredibly close to navel gazing. I'm honestly left kind of exhausted and worn out by this book, though it's well-written despite some parts dragging a bit on the pace. I also feel that Mr. Bakker should spend less time taking us through the internal mutterings of his characters and more time describing what they're seeing. When he does describe the scene and the characters it's powerful and well done but sometimes he prefers to linger on how the scene makes his characters feel and think and I find that frustrating. The book doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger but comes close. Despite all my complaints here, this is a book that leaves an impression and gives you something to talk about for hours. I had to argue with myself a bit here but in the end I found myself preferring Caine Black Knife. So I am giving The Great Ordeal by Scott Bakker a B+.

I'm gonna try something lighter for my next review... Let's say a graphic novel about death knights fighting a bunch of necromancers who summon monsters that fed on human flesh! That sounds downright relaxing right now. See you next week!

Note from the editor: In other words, Frigidmagi needs an adult, and some light-hearted necromancy.  It took me years to finish the first trilogy by this author because… Oh. My. God.  They are kind of like Galadriel; beautiful and terrible.  Terrible in the sense that after reading one of them, I find that I need to be held.  I need to read this next trilogy but… watching videos of an Ebola outbreak in Africa is full of less despair.

I don't need an adult! I'm fine! Everything is fine!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Caine Black Knife Matthew Stover

Caine Black Knife
Matthew Stover

“Faith is adopted”
The river of bells flash-froze in midair
page 191

Caine Black Knife takes place some years after Blade of Tyshalle which was reviewed earlier in this series (go check out the archive!). Caine is now in his 50's and older than he ever thought he would be, unfortunately for him, no one wants to leave an old man alone. Let me go over the premise for those of you who missed or don't remember the reviews of the last two books. There are two worlds, one of them is Earth: a future Earth that thanks to weaponized super rabies descended into a nightmarish hell of a caste system enforced at gunpoint by a totalitarian government of for and by the super elite 1%. The other is Overworld: a fantasy world with a variety of non-human sapient creatures and native born humans all rubbing elbows, knives and every now and again more intimate parts. There's a native population of humans on Overworld due to the elves (or primals as they prefer) kidnapping or bribing humans to come to their world and serve them. So honestly the elves have only themselves to blame for this whole mess of a planet. Anyways they were able to do this because our worlds are intrinsically linked due to magic... or Quantum Physics. Let's be honest, in fiction Quantum Physics is a way of saying magic. Later on the people of Earth were able to figure out how to reopen that link with technology and they started sending actors. Actors are people who pretend to be adventurers and heroes... by doing real adventures and heroics so that the people back home can experience the thrill thanks to really well done VR tech and the ability to beam everything the actors are experiencing in real time to a computer. The people of Overworld are not fans, because the studios of Earth keep stirring up wars and worse to give their actors places to get into adventures and perform heroics. In th last book Caine and his friends slammed the door between worlds shut.

Years later Caine finds himself being pulled by prophetic dreams being shoved into his uneasily sleeping head by God (who has a hell of a backstory with Caine in this story, if you want to know more read Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle). He heads to the last place on Overworld he wants to go in order to rescue Orbek, the Black Knife Ogrillo that had adopted him into the clan in Blade of Tyshalle. That place being the place where he became a superstar and a legend. The place where he found out just how bad of a man he could be. The Boedecken, where over 35 years ago he waged a war of genocidal proportions on the Black Knife Ogrillo Clan. Not because they were trying to kill him, not even because of what else they did to him, but if we're going to get down to it for two reasons; he did that because of what they made him watch and what they made him learn. The Boedecken is the scene of Caine's first great massive triumph that turned him from a 3rd rate Actor Adventurer to a mega star known throughout two planets. In the present it's the domain of the church of Khryl, granted to them at the end of the wars that created the most powerful empire on the planet. It's a human dominated theocracy ruled by warriors that can heal themselves (and sometimes others) of almost any injury,  are blessed to be nearly unstoppable killing machines, and they can sense the truth. In short, they are paladins. They preach a lot about honor and justice. They also keep a massive Ogrillo under class in their human dominated state and only lets them advance socially and economically if they accept castration (and you thought your boss was demanding?).

It took me a couple chapters to figure out what bothered me about the Khryllians. It's not just their racism and hypocrisy. Nor is it my 21st century American uneasiness with militant theocracies (we just haven't had a lot of luck with those). It's the unending turning of everything into a conflict, armed or unarmed, to the point of fetishising being at war itself. See, I'm not exactly what you call a pacifist and respect or even admiration for the military doesn't exactly give me the vapors. But here's the thing, war? Battle? Conflict? Those are all a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. It may be paradoxical but the whole point of war is to create a peace that's better for you and yours. Otherwise you're just a glorified pack of bandits. Now I grant I enjoy a war game as much as the next guy but you know... Those are games, no one gets hurt. When I bomb a city in Civilization or besiege a fortress in Total War? No one except my social life gets hurt. I'm not going to deny that yes there is a certain grandeur to war and the armies that fight them. Being in a war is one of the most enduring memories I have. That said a war is nothing to celebrate in and of itself. It's a hard, demanding job we have to do to get what is hopefully a better, more just peace that will prevent further wars. Or at the very least create safety for the people we love and care about. The Khryllians have taken this state and used it to create a society designed to build and maintain a war machine led by divinely empowered super soldiers and do fuck all with it except bully some Ogrillos. Which makes it a fucking waste at best. Moving on...

Caine, as one might expect is grumpy and honestly comes off as a bit tired. In the last two books he was playing for the lives and freedom of people he loved and cared for way more than he does himself. So he might have come off as a tad unreasonable if I may attempt British understatement here. He's also a touch bitter about how his life has gone but he doesn't moan about it a lot. It pops out in odd moments when something reminds him of his wife (it's interesting that he's decided that she hated him, I didn't get that from the last book but then that marriage was a resounding testament to the poor communication skills of the people involved) or of past decisions. In this book is he constantly trying to be reasonable and adult and no one will let him. It's actually kinda funny in a dark amusing way. On the one hand Caine appears to have grown a little bit as a person, on the other hand no one else believes this. Caine keeps trying to just cut a deal with people to let him take his little brother home and be out of this crap and everyone refuses to believe that it could ever be that simple. Worse, they all keep demanding that he perform a little job for them first. Honestly it leaves me wondering if there's a some sort of learning disability that's become common in the future or maybe something in the water in Overworld? Because it seems to me that if one the most legendary killers, who you know has a talent for causing massive chaos and wrecking everything even when he's not trying to, is someone you might want to bribe to stay away from your really tense, intricate situation with the plan that has to go juuuusssttt right.

Because of this Caine finds himself between the Church of Khryl, a group of freedom activist trying to gain full civil rights for non humans, and the Smoke Hunt; a terrorist group of Ogrillos who randomly show up and start killing people until they're put down. As is usual, Caine is basically alone in this. No one likes him and all he wants is to get the people he cares about out of the line of fire. Intertwined in this story are flashbacks to the last time he was here, the adventure I mentioned earlier. That part of the story is damn brutal and dark and ensures this is a novel you want to keep in the hands of adults. We have people being eaten alive, tortured, murdered, raped and more. We see what kick started Caine's rise to the top and we see some of the really nasty things he's done to gain him his rep. One of those thing is basically wiping out the Black Knife Clan, which frankly... I find it hard to condemn him for. I think I'm supposed to see the Black Knives as an analogue for native Americans and other groups who had their lands taken by invaders and reduced to 2nd or 3rd class citizenship but... look asking me to feel bad that Caine destroyed a group of people whose reaction to finding a bunch of strangers nearby was “Hey, let's kill, torture, main and eat them and if they're really lucky we'll wait til they're dead to start snacking on them!” is a fool’s errand. The Black Knives terrorized their fellow Ogrillos as well as other species. They were reavers and threw themselves into the joys of murder, torture, and worse. Frankly the world--any world--is simply better off without societies like that and I find it hard to really muster up any moral outrage towards Caine for those actions. Other actions in this book, sure, but Caine does a good enough job punishing himself for them anyways.

Let's be honest, up until now Caine hasn't been the worst fantasy protagonist I've ever read. He's head and shoulders above people like Malus Darkblade for example and vastly preferable to the protagonists of No Game No Life. Yes, he's been violent and brutal but it's not like his birth society or his adopted society gave him any choice. Every time Caine gets extremely violent and starts tearing everything down, he gets rewarded. Every time he tries to not be a in his own words “a bloodthirsty thug” everyone lines up to kick him in the face. At no time has Caine really been given an option other than being a super violent killer, or be a dying broken man. If nothing else I think this book series encourages us to consider that if a lot of our successful people display certain character traits and behaviors, we should consider if maybe, just maybe, it's because our society is rewarding those traits and behaviors and we should think about what that says. That said, Caine does some screwed up stuff in the flashback scenes. Just what actions were screwed up however is a matter of opinion. If you have a book club with a strong stomach, having them read this and discuss just where and when Caine crossed the line would in and of itself tell you a lot about what people consider important.

As you might guess, I admire Mr. Stover for giving us a dark, violent book that actually has a lot of thought in it. There's also a fair bit of anthropology in here as well which always gets approval from me. There is one thing that frustrates me however and that is that this book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I really hate it when a book does that. It's not as bad as it could be considering that Mr. Stover makes sure to tell us at least one complete story in this novel but I'm still left hanging. So I do have to apply my penalty here. Which means I give Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover a -A. If you got a strongish stomach and are interested looking at social and personal conflict this is a book you might just enjoy. I would recommend however reading the last 2 books, or at least the last book to really get a grip on what's going on as there's a lot going on in the background you can't grasp unless you've read them.

Next week? We go darker with the Great Ordeal. Brace yourselves!  

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross (Bonus review inside!)

The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross

Charles Stross was born in Leeds England, in the year of our Lord 1964. His first written works were for the Dungeon and Dragons game where he invented the Githyanki, Githzerai, the Slaad, and the iconic(at least for me) Death Knight. These monsters were published in the White Dwarf magazine back before it became a Games Workshop shill. I won't go into these creatures or White Dwarf here but feel free to ask in the comments. Mr. Stross attended the University of Bradford got a degree in Pharmacy, and qualified as a pharmacist in 1987. He reentered the university to get a degree in computer science and started work as a programmer in 1990.   In 2000 he started writing and went full-time. He has since won the 2005, 2010, and 2014 Hugo awards; along with the Nebula award, the Locus award, and more. In short he is very well received. Mr. Stross currently lives in Edinburgh Scotland, and is a member of the Green Party. This places him firmly in the British tradition of howling left wing writers like Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock. Although given both of them are anarchists (with Mr. Moore refusing to vote at all), I'm going to say that Stross is frankly more reasonable than most men who can be placed in this tradition and that shows in his work. Generally he writes towards a view of being somewhat critical of society. I don't say that as a criticism, without critical voices a society cannot notice it's own flaws and change for the better. Writers and thinkers like Stross have an important role to play and even when I don't agree with them I'm not going to deny that role is needed. There is nothing in greater danger than a society that believes itself perfect and without the need to change. Well except maybe a toddler in a Lion’s Den but work with me here folks. Now, that doesn't mean I agree with all of Mr. Stross' criticisms. He once referred to the five eyes intelligence sharing organization (an alliance between the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom for sharing intelligence and to a certain extent organizing operations) a top-down parasite looking for justifications for its own existence. I rather disagree with that, as we need open eyes and ears in an unfriendly world. That said I do find his criticisms about how well... Beige our political systems are becoming to be somewhat spot on, or at least I did before this election.

The Laundry Files follow the career of the magnificently named Bob Howard (if you don't know why, read more Conan); an up and coming young man, who in spite of himself, proves an effective trouble shooter for the covert organization of British Intelligence known as the Laundry. The Laundry won't wash your shirts but they will do their best to save civilization from things beyond the universe and creatures beyond your ken, provided that our heroes aren't done in by office politics and complete the paperclip audit on time of course. Howard has to deal with entities that will possess you and eat your brains, Iraqi terrorists who are dabbling in forbidden magics, and the horrors of Matrix Management. Bluntly, after reading up on just what the hell Matrix Management is... I'll take the terrorist necromancers please. Seriously how is any work supposed to get done under Matrix Management? That's not an organizational method, that's a promise of open warfare in the office... but I'm off topic. Let me get back to the premise: basically there's good news and bad news. First the good news, magic is real. Now the bad news, magic is real and it's made of math! Use your math well (or badly as the case may be) and you may gain the attention of things that live beyond our universe and they may even do you favors! Or if you're really unlucky or just stupid, they'll come to visit. This results in things that we call bad. Additionally perform magic without the proper safeguards and your brain will literally turn into Swiss cheese. The best way to do it is to through a program on a computer. Basically, if you want to do magic safely? There's an App for that and you best use it young wo/man!

How do you combat this though? I mean magic is depressingly easy to do once you know how and ruinously dangerous. Basically in the Laundry system, we're looking at every citizen having a nuclear bomb in their pocket that most of them don't know how to arm correctly, let alone disarm. The solution the governments of the Laundry-verse have come up is absolute secrecy and control. If you find out about this stuff, men with secret clearances are going to come after you and things are going to get upsetting for you. That said they're not going to kill you (well they might if you prove yourself unreasonable, so if the nice man in suit and really conservative haircut offers you a job... take it). that's because frankly it's rather unseemly for a government to engage in regularly murdering of it's own citizens.  Worse, it's expensive to murder dozens (at least) of people each year and cover it up; even worst it's very likely to cause other people to start asking questions and some of them might find out what's going on starting the whole process all over again! No, no, no, this is a British Intelligence service after all, that means a limited budget and a desperate need to keep the good taxpayers alive long enough to keep the pension fund afloat. So instead the Laundry will bring you in from the cold and if need be let you count paperclips for 20 or 30 years until you retire. As. Long. As. You. Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut.

That's not good enough for Howard though. He wants to be part of the effort to save the world and as such is pushing to be reassigned from Laundry tech support to field duty. He has the talent to be a good field operative and just as importantly, the luck. The problem is he's a smart-ass kid who thinks that he has a right to know everything and often forgets the stakes of the game he's in. Fortunately for us (unfortunately for him) the men in the field office of the Laundry are willing to take him in hand, educate and train him and basically make sure life kicks the cockiness right out of him without killing him. I actually like Howard as a character. Yes, he reminds me of way too many PfC's who are all too sure they know waayyyy more about this war stuff then those stupid old men who have actually seen the elephant; but he's not malicious or self righteous about it. Just another damn boot is all and that's fine, it also helps that Howard is someone who wants to be a decent human being and can recognize his shortcomings and try to address them. This makes him infinitely more tolerable than many perfect characters or characters with one or two shortcomings that never actually bite them in the ass--and get bit in the ass he does. This is where our other lead Mo comes in.

Mo, short for Dominique, philosophy of mathematics professor who found herself trapped in the United States when her research took a turn for the mind controlling kind. Yeah, that's the kind of Universe that Mr. Stross is writing. Even philosophy professors can be dangerous and useful... and even gainfully employed! Because of the forbidden knowledge that Mo is slowly but surely piling up all on her own, she's been made a target by a group of Iraqi terrorist (the book is set in the year 2000, before the Iraq war and 911) and is trapped in the US by the US version of the Laundry, the Black Chamber (which actually was a US intelligence agency and the forebearer to the NSA, it was shut down in 1929 by Secretary of State Henry L Stimson). The Black Chamber is a bit of misstep by Mr. Stross in my opinion, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of how the US government and intelligence community works. Bluntly, there wouldn't be a single all powerful agency in charge of this stuff in the US. I mean look at how we do normal intelligence work. We have the CIA, the NSA and the FBI often doing counterintelligence work, along with military intelligence organizations who are doing their own thing. This is a minor thing though, it just bugs me. Anyways back to Mo. I like Mo, she's smart and despite being terrified half the time is remarkably useful and level headed. In this story she mostly serves as the goal/target of the bad guys, bait and as someone for Howard to explain things to. What I'm left with at the end is really wanting to see a Mo who understands what the fuck is going on working with Howard in the field. I'm pretty sure that would be amazing.

The book as a few conceits I don't care for. Howard has a tendency to get knocked out or not around when major violence is happening. Additionally there are times when instead of showing me the climactic action, Mr. Stross cuts away to the future and just has Howard tell me what happened via the medium of the briefing. This is an effective method for communicating the perils of bureaucracy and the navigation thereof but is really jarring and annoying at times to read. I want to be shown the action, not told about it later. Thankfully the big climax at the end of our story is not skipped ahead but shown to us as it happens. Otherwise this story would be getting a much lower grade. There were also characters I could have done without in the story itself. For example, Howard's ex-girlfriend who thankfully disappeared halfway through the story. I kinda wondered if she had a bigger role in past drafts? You could make an argument that she is there to show just how stuck Howard feels before getting into field duty but really their interactions just left me frustrated with Howard and reinforced my feeling that he was a smart mouthed dumb-assed PfC in need of a good kicking from his Cpl. The civilian world really would be improved by the introduction of a NCO class I sometimes think, but I wander off topic.

That said I really enjoyed the story itself and the world of the Laundry. Howard is a interesting and good guide to this world as well as being a rather good protagonist. Mr. Stross is supremely capable of creating the dark, surreal, but also sublimely ridiculous atmosphere that occurs when you go out, save the world from ye elder things that dwell beyond the rim of the universe, and then have to come back in order to fill out an expenses and accounting form in triplicate. There's something fundamentally British about this to my mind and I honestly enjoy it. I also enjoy the treatment of magic and the fact that we are not only able to use it effectively but we can modify it and our technology to work together in safer and faster ways than the traditional methods. We have summoning pentagrams made from lasers, palm pilot spell casting, mass produced magic items and weapons and more. This lends itself to the surreal modern feeling of the story. So while we may be very small fish in a possibly very doomed pond, we are not without our own abilities and resources. The threat that we are shown in this story is vast and terrifying as well and is rather fitting for the Lovecraftian nature of the story. In the end though I wouldn't call this a true Lovecraft story as there is victory against those dark incomprehensible forces, but it is entirely possible that this is at best a fleeting temporary victory against the many headed forces of extinction that are slowly gathering around us. Due to some of my frustrations with cutting away from the action in the story and some of the other bits and pieces that bug me, I have to give The Atrocity Archives a B+. I really recommend it however!

The Concrete Jungle
by Charles Stross

It's 3 am and the phone rings. Who do you want answering it? Bob Howard of the Laundry of course! The Concrete Jungle takes place after the Atrocity Archives and shows us a case in the life of Bob Howard as he is roused to determine why there is an extra concrete cow in Milton Keynes. The answer is someone has hijacked the Laundry's best defense system against invasion by creatures man was not meant to know. Howard has to find out who is hijacking this extremely dangerous weapon system that could end up killing millions, keep it a secret from the general public, and navigate office politics as the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned matrix management system means he has actually has three managers (I'm not sure anyone really deserves that, I mean yeah Howard's got a smart mouth but I figure just make him do some push ups).

The weapon system in question is a technological version of a medusa stare. Medusa are not only real but are normal people who through the power of Cthuloid brain tumors develop the curse of turning anyone they look at into burning radioactive stone rubble because they turn a chunk of our meaty carbon molecules into silicon ones. This causes a number of side effects, like for example... death. The British government has figured out how to do this with machines and has realized that the best defense against the creatures from beyond was to upload this into their ever-expanding network of public surveillance systems. This system would let them zap monsters pretty much anytime they showed up in an urban area. One problem: you've planted a weapon of mass destruction pointed at your populace within your very cities. Interestingly enough everyone's aware of this and is very unhappy about it but decides that this is the better option, which should tell you something about what these cameras are meant to fight I think.

Much to my disappointment there is Mo in this story, she's off training on the coast. Instead, Howard is paired with a lady inspector cop who is kinda fun in a no-nonsense “I can break both your arms”  kind of way. We also get to see more of Howard's relationship with his field bosses and it becomes very clear to me that they're pushing him through some fast training with an eye towards promotion. I'm not sure Howard understands that, all he seems to grasp is that they keep throwing him at big messes with a broom and a mop. In this case, when the person hacking the camera systems is revealed to be someone rather close to home, Howard is racing not just to save the British people but the Laundry itself.

The Concrete Jungle is a short story that was included with the Atrocity Archives in my copy of the book. It's enjoyable and provides a look at some of the stuff that Howard has to deal with as well as clearing up some problems from the last book that simply were too close to played out to make it to another novel. Additionally I get shown more of the action than last time, which is a grand improvement I think. That said, I really want to see Howard and Mo together in the field and Mr. Stross just isn't letting me have my damn cookies. Still, I enjoyed it so I'm giving the Concrete Jungle a -A as it's showing improvement in my opinion.

These Reviews edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

I would like to remind our readers that the floor is still open for suggestions for the Halloween review!
Next week, Caine Blackknife!