Friday, November 25, 2016

Goldenhand by Garth Nix

by Garth Nix

So here we are, back in the Old Kingdom.  The nation that holds back the pure chaos of free magic and necromancy with a combination of charter magic and state sanctioned necromancers called Abhorsens.  Let me break that down a little for people who never read Mr, Nix's series or have missed the reviews I've done on the other three books.  The world of the Old Kingdom is awash in a dangerous magic called free magic; while usable to humans it is a corrupting and twisting influence.  There are also creatures completely made up of free magic with their own desires which are often (but not always, free magic creatures are unpredictable) dangerous to... pretty much all life as we understand it.  Necromancy is the most dangerous form of free magic, it involves reaching or travelling into death (which is a supernatural place as well as a state of being) to pull out spirits who refuse to move on and control theml often by stuffing them into bodies to do their necromancer’s bidding.  Sometimes however, a spirit or a necromancer becomes something infinitely more scary then even a free magic spirit: a greater dead.  A spirit that has refused the call to pass and eaten so much life and gained so much power that is not even recognizable as a human being anymore nor does it think or act as one.  

Lirael returns as the main protagonist of the story, she is a shy girl who left her home in a glacier full of her future-seeing relatives to become someone who can gaze into the past and a necromancer. Not just that but an Abhorsen.  As a student of Sabriel (the current Queen and head Abhorsen) she serves to keep free magic creatures and the Dead (and those who would wake them) under control and at bay.  This book takes place some time after Abhorsen, where Lirael averted the literal end of the world.  It's a good thing she's had time to rest because while this new threat is a bit smaller in scale (being only the possible end of civilization) it's still nothing to sneer at.  The Lirael in this book has clearly grown into her powers and position.  While she's still shy and a bit of an introvert (there's nothing wrong with being an introvert mind you), she is way more comfortable asserting herself.  Especially on important matters and willing to fight to be taken seriously.  Which is a lucky thing because it's time to go home again.  Not only is she going to have to return to her childhood home, but she is going to receive a message from someone in her past, someone she has a lot of baggage with and she's going to have to untangle some emotional issues... while in a crisis situation.  Lirael is not allowed to do anything at a relaxed speed.

See, this book incorporates the events of the short story of Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case, which I read but didn't review because... It's a short story.  Nicholas Sayre is also a returning character from prior books (he got most of his screen time so to speak in Abhorsen) a friend of Prince Sam of the Old Kingdom he's actually from Ancelstierre, or as I like to call it, most certainly not England!  Magic doesn't work in most of  Ancelstierre. Between the two kingdoms is a massive wall made of charter magic which helps regulate the flow.  On the flip side, nothing machine-made survives in the Old Kingdom (Nicholas learns this when his clothes flat out rot off his back in a few hours).  There is however a borderland between the two nations where both technology and magic can work... Imperfectly and inconsistently.  Because of this, relationships between the two nations are often... full of misunderstandings.  Because of this, Nicholas kind of got himself possessed by a spirit of free magic older than the world itself and almost ended existence.  Luckily Lirael and friends were there to prevent this but there were lastingly... aftereffects.   Nicholas found himself filled to the brim with free magic, this is bad (see corrupting and twisting effects) to prevent this a charter mark was placed on him (people who can do charter magic have a magic marking on their forehead).  It was supposed to be a simple seal but it's turned into something more.  Nicholas's charter mark and his connection to the charter isn't sealing away the free magic but appears to be almost filtering it, turning Nicholas into a walking, talking source of charter magic.  This suggests all sorts of interesting things about the relationship between charter magic and free magic (especially when we know free magic came first, and charter magic was an intentional creation).  It also serves a handy role in the story because Lirael is going to have to go outside of the Old Kingdom to deal with a threat.  

The threat is Chlorr of the Mask returning.  Honestly she's frankly a step down as a villain from Hedge.  Which is ironic because Mr. Nix's has put a lot more effort into Chlorr, even writing her a prequel novel which I believe was supposed to set her up as a tragic villain but had the opposite effect on me.  Let me put this way, imagine you run into someone who despite having good intentions made a series of increasingly bad choices and ruined their lives.  You would consider that tragic.  Now imagine that same person given an opportunity to rebuild that life turns around and makes the same series of choices.  You could be excused for throwing up your hands and calling them an idiot.  That's Chlorr. So instead of being excited that she has returned, I find myself sighing and asking if maybe Mr. Nix would be better off not exploring his villains to much?  Ironically Chlorr gets very little screen time and so serves almost as a plot device within the story instead of a character. Which doesn't help me feel the tragedy here, if anything it makes Chlorr feel like a rather standard dark lady (man, I miss Hedge!). This is easily Mr. Nix's biggest misstep in the book.

Still there's plenty to make up for that.  There's Ferin, a new character who opens a whole new window on the world of the Old Kingdom.  Ferin is not from the Old Kingdom, she is from the north of the Kingdom, from a wild land full of barbarian tribes where Free Magic runs wild and the Charter is fairly unknown.  Ferin gives us a fascinating window into what the other cultures of the world of the Old Kingdom do to survive. The different tribes, from Ferin's own mountain tribe to various horse tribes on the rolling steppe have had to adopt their own tactics and strategies for dealing with free magic creatures and users without the protection of the charter.  Often by using chained free magic sorcerers or imprisoned free magic creatures, giving us a whole new set of golems and such to marvel at.  On top of this, they have to deal with the fact that they were conquered by Chlorr.  As far as dark overlords... Dark overladies go, Chlorr isn't that demanding.  She just demands that every tribe raise one of their children to be trained from birth to be a possible vessel for her spirit.  Basically if her current body dies or grows weak, she destroys it and hijacks a new one.  Because of this Ferin doesn't even have a name, it's a nickname that comes from the mispronouncing of her tribe’s word for offering.  Her tribe would rather not have to sacrifice one of their own children every generation in exchange for not being wiped out to the last babe however, so when a certain Abhorsen's mother leaves them a message to be delivered at a certain day to my favorite necromancer, Ferin jumps on that job.  Ferin herself is an interesting character in that she is someone who is very used to magic and weird shit but is not someone from the Old Kingdom, which gives us another fresh pair of eyes to examine this from.  She's also pretty awesome in her own right having no magic powers, few weapons beyond her own grit and courage and still being willing to brawl it out with free magic golems and necromancers.  I'm hoping to see more of her.  In fact, this book leaves me wanting to know more about the world beyond the Old Kingdom's borders.  If this is what lies to the north of the Old Kingdom, what is over the sea exactly hmm?

Another fun spot is the relationship between Nick and Lirael, which honestly is a lot better done for me then the relationship between Sabriel and Touchstone in the first book.  These two kids are a bit awkward but not painfully so.  Additionally Mr. Nix doesn't keep this dance going on to long, there are no wacky misunderstandings or characters refusing to admit how they feel to each other for painfully overwrought reasons (take notes fantasy writers, dragging it out too long is a pain in the ass).  Instead we get two kids, one of whom is painfully shy and the other worried of frightening the other off, talking to each other like adults and realizing their feelings are shared.  It helps that there was a private dinner with some really nice wine (make a note of that everyone, not just the writers).  It's a relationship that evolves well and believably and works on a professional level since Nicholas is a now a moving power source.  I'm honestly interested in seeing more exploration of that idea.  It's also through this relationship that we learn more about the Charter and its interaction with free magic.  It's the implications that are really interesting though.  With revelations given in Abhorsen in regards to the origin of the Charter (that it was willfully designed and created by magical creatures wanting to place free magic under some control for safety’s sake) and how Nicholas' charter mark interacts with his internal free magic.  I am left thinking that the Charter stones that power Charter magic all across the Old Kingdom aren't power generators after all but instead are filtration systems.  Filtering free magic through the marks of the charter to create a form of magic safe for life as we know it.  I'll be honest this just a theory but I think it’s a sound one and getting more information to prove or disprove it should be interesting.  

The battles in the book are well done, especially Ferin's running battle against the free magic sorcerers, nomadic warriors, and worse trying to stop her from reaching Lirael with her message.  A number of minor characters are introduced and very well written here to give the struggle additional meaning and let us see the view from the ground as it were (not everyone is an Abhorsen or a Royal after all).  However the last battles, while engaging and interesting are... rushed.  It feels like Mr. Nix was running out of steam when he hit the climax and didn't spend as much time on the end battles and confrontations that he should have.  They're still fairly well done just bloodlessly so. Part of this may be that I am just rather hard to please when it comes to writing violence.  I want to believe it and most modern writers don't have the experience to do that.  It's hard to write something you've never done after all, especially when some of your readers have.  Additionally this is not a good place to join the Old Kingdom.  You'll need to have at least read Lirael and Abhorsen to really understand the characters relations to each other.  Anyways, I found Goldenhand an engaging and fun read but with noticeable flaws, you're not going to find a classic villain here but you will find a good story with good characters here and you know... that is enough.  Goldenhand by Garth Nix gets a B.  

Next week… The blog that became a best selling novel, the novel that became a best selling film, the film that got our asses back to mars.  Next week The Martian!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Digital Divide by K.B. Spangler

Digital Divide
by K.B. Spangler

I'm not sure that Digital Divide counts as high concept, but damn if the premise doesn't pack a punch. Published in 2012 by K.B. Spangler, a young lady who lives in North Carolina with her husband and dogs, Digital Divide is her first novel but is not her first work. That work happens to be a girl and her fed, a web comic (that she was the artist and the writer for) that actually provides the setting for Digital Divide (it's also the work she's most known for). That said you don't have to read the web comic to follow or understand the story of Digital Divide. It is completely self contained and provides a full story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's just that the story is one of many set in a greater story. That said the novel speaks for itself and explains itself rather well and I could hand it to someone who had no idea what a web comic even was and they would still grasp everything going on pretty well.

The term digital divide has an actual meaning, at first it meant the gap between those who have access to a computer and those who don't; as society has changed the term has also changed to mean the gap between those who have internet access and those who don't. As we become more and more digital (last time I went looking for a job 2 years ago, most of the places I checked didn't even have paper applications) the more things become stacked against people who either can't access the internet or develop the skills to use it. Think how much of your information comes from the internet? How many products have you bought using it? How much of your contact with people flows from it? Imagine you didn't have that, how much would your life change? In this story the divide is turned up to 11. See, in the time the story is set, five years ago fresh from the shock of 9/11 the government was handed a technology that would ensure that it never happened again. It meant there would be a way to seamlessly integrate different government agencies and ensure they shared information quickly, efficiently, and consistently. The technology donated by a private company was that of a cybernetic implant that went into the brain and allowed the user to directly interface with the internet and with machines and computers that were online.

The government authorized a pilot program of 500 government agents from across the federal government. Military, law enforcement, regulatory; basically any government agency could send a candidate and if they passed the testing phase, they would receive an implant. Everyone sent their brightest and their best, which made the results even more heartbreaking. The implants worked alright but... the interface responded erratically to the agents, prone to react to their emotional state, instead of direct commands. It even showed up in their dreams when they were asleep. It began to drive them mad. A stopgap measure of drugging the agents into an emotionally neutral state was adopted along with heavy use of sleep aides to ensure they actually slept. However this rendered the agents useless for field operations and frankly an embarrassment. They were quietly shuffled off into the gray hell of ignored failures left to moulder and die while being kept as comfortable as they could with busy work. This busy work resulted in a not entirely chance meeting between an agent of the program and a certain young lady. They were able, with the help of friends (you're going to need to read the web comic for information on those friends!), to turn off the interface and pull the agent back to the realm of humanity. But what to do now that everyone was awake and firing on all cylinders?

In response to this the agent in question, Patrick Mulcahy, the guy who freed everyone and as a result was made the leader of this band of cyborgs, made a decision. He went public and broke the story to the world. By the time he did so there were around 350 surviving agents left. This book however is not about him. It's about one of the agents who was pulled back to humanity by the efforts of Mulcahy and his friends and how she tries to at least be of some service to a government that frankly doesn't deserve it. I suppose I could say that is the curse of humanity to be governed by governments that always act in a rather ungoverned manner. It is our blessing that those governments are served and often held in check by young men and women whose skill, talent, and loyalty are entirely more then those governments deserve. This book is about one of those people: Rachel Peng.

Rachel Peng is something of a unicorn. I don't mean she has fur and a horn, but instead to refer to her so-rare-as-to-be-mythical status. I'm not referring to the fact that she's an American girl born to a Chinese mother, or that she's gay (although those facts don't hurt the unicorn status), or that she's an active duty officer despite her organic eyes being rather useless. I mean the fact that she's an Army MP who managed to not only become a warrant officer (a nearly extinct breed), but that she's a warrant officer who was tapped for officerdom but was detached out to civilian duty! The fact that she's a cyborg is really just an ‘of course she is’ fact at this point. I mock but I actually like the character, it would have been really easy to let a number of labels overwhelm the character but they don't. Agent Peng clearly has a Chinese background but isn't “the Chinese character.” she's attracted to women but isn't “the Gay character.” These parts of her aren't hidden or shoved to the background but they're not allowed to overwhelm the individual that is Rachel Peng, which is how you want it to be. Our little unicorn is still on detached duty actually, as she has been sent out to the Washington D.C. Metro police in order to build ties and render her unique skills and talents via implant, and otherwise to aide in serving and protecting the District of Columbia. Unfortunately she is somewhat less than popular, by which I mean openly hated and reviled for her cyborgy nature. But when a young woman is murdered in front of an ATM camera and there's no video of the murderer, loved or feared, Agent Peng is needed. The murder leads her to other crimes, each related by the fact that one had digitally altered the evidence to either remove any visuals of the attacker or edited it to make it look like someone else was attacking. Things that would be really easy for a Cyborg to do.

So now Agent Peng with a handful of allies (including two other agents! One of whom is an asshole!) must lead an investigation against an opponent who has been carefully planning ahead, with no idea as to his identity, goals, or his limits; and they need to find him before he kills again. They also need to find him without breaking the rules however, as going to far in a rush to find him will alienate not just the law enforcement community but runs the risk of branding them as monsters who will respect no law or boundary. Given that they are in the middle of Senate hearings to figure out just what do with these people, a single wrong step could prove disastrous for Agent Peng and her fellows. Ms. Spangler uses this conflict to not only give us a well done police procedural but to address ideas of security vs freedom and how far can the right of privacy extend in a world where someone with access to google search and some skill with computers can unearth things about you that you would really prefer to keep private. Additionally it's not enough to catch our villain, Agent Peng as to figure out the motive behind his actions. Why try to frame the Cyborgs? Why intentionally poke 350 of the most powerful people on earth? Is there someone else behind it? If so, what are their goals?

She has to figure this out while dealing with a politically ambitious judge who wants to make his election chances soar over the cyborgs broken bodies; police detectives who view her as a freak and possible monster; and the ever present power of bureaucracy slowing her down or threatening to get everything tossed out if she doesn't dot every I and cross every t. It's an interesting look at some of the obstacles that the police encounter, complicated by the fact that we really don't have rules for some of the stuff now coming out. If I equip a drone with an IR camera capable of pinning down a person at 500 meters through walls... Do I need a warrant to use it to film a suspect's home? Does a search warrant for everything in plain sight cover looking through a browser history? What if I have an app on my super-phone that automatically connects with your computer and pulls up your browser history(pretty sure that's not possible... yet)? Is that covered by the warrant? As technology continues surging forward, these are issues we got to consider and Ms. Spangler does a good job of this while using the cyborg characters as almost a metaphor for these challenges and in doing so avoids demonizing people. We're shown that the cyborgs despite the fact that they can basically run amok if they choose are not bad people and work to rein themselves in for the betterment of those around them. The folks who worry about the issues the Cyborgs present are in turn shown not to be awful people but having a real basis for their concerns. I really actually appreciated Agent Peng's struggle to find the murderer before he killed again and not shatter the rules that govern our legal system in the process. This isn't to say that she doesn't bend a rule or two, but all in all she ensures that people's rights are respected. Even when she doesn't want to, which I really respect. Of course I tend to agree with Benjamin Franklin “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.”

If you enjoy a good mystery, then you will find one here. If you're interested in reading a police investigation with a science fiction spin? This is your book. K.B. Spangler uses technology and interesting characters to weave us a tale of murder, politics, intrigue, and drama. The violence is low in this book; there are shocking confrontations to be had but most of it is driven by investigation and character interaction. So if you're looking for an action soaked, pulse pounding read, you're likely to be disappointed. What violence there is in the book is fairly standard really, but then I may be spoiled by a steady diet of Matthew Stover books. All of that said, I enjoyed the book and I kinda went out and ordered the sequel. So you can expect to see more of Ms. Spangler’s work on this review series. As you might have guessed Digital Divide by K.G. Spangel is a B+, the lady's opening novel is better then the work of some veteran writers I've reviewed here and I hope to see only improvement.

Next week? We're going back to the Old Kingdom, with Goldenhand

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan by Hiroshi Shiibashi

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan
  By Hiroshi Shiibashi

Okay, it's been a long week but I'm not letting that stop the review.  So I know it's Veteran's Day but...well....a friend has really been wanting me to take a look at this for a while.  Also, I'm a vet and want to do a short review so I can go play on veteran's day. So, let's hit it.  Nura was released in Japan in 2007 as a one shot and started running as a comic in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump in march 2008, it ran for until 2012.  Weekly Shonen Jump is not only the most successful and longest running (48 years as of 2016!) magazine in Japan but the birthplace of many manga and animes that have been popular here in North America.  Such as One Piece, Rurouni Kenshin and Dragonball Z (admit it you know at least one of these series). The writer and creator of the series, Hiroshi Shiibashi was born in Osaka Japan in 1980, before creating Nura he was an assistant on Steel Cannonball run, an arc of the series Jo-Jo's Bizarre Adventure (not going to discuss that series, because then I'll have to write a novel).  Having gotten all of that out of the way... Let's look into the book itself.

The book centers around young Rikuo Nuru, a young man who has been born into power and wealth... of a sort.  The Yokai are type of supernatural creature from Japanese folklore who usually exist to scare the crap out of humans.  Now some of them were actually fairly benevolent (tengu for example were credited with teaching humans swordsmanship) but on the whole they were at least very fond of pranking people.  You see Rikuo is the grandson of the leader of the Nuru clan, the Lord of Night, the Supreme Commander of the Yokai. This wouldn't be a problem except that Rikuo is 3/4ths human, due to having a human mother (dead) and a human grandmother (dead) along with having a dead father (all parental deaths are unexplained but let's be honest Japanese stories tend to require absent parental figures).  So he's raised by his grandfather and his Yokai retainers, who are visually interesting and written in a fun way.  Since he's in line for the throne so to speak his human heritage is an issue.  Rikuo starts being very pro-Yokai and wanting to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps but as his exposure to humans and human culture change his mind to where he wants to be a human being and starts turning his back on Yokai culture in favor of embracing his humanity.

Now brace yourselves because frigid is going to read waaaayyy too much into this.  As I've noted before my parents are deaf, so I kinda know what it's like to have one culture at home and have to deal with another one at school and otherwise.  So I kinda get where Rikuo is going through, he is having to make a choice between two cultures and most of his peers are members of another culture. Rikuo starts off as totally gung-ho for Yokai but faced with the problem of dealing with his peers who don't believe in Yokai or think they're nasty monsters...  His enthusiasm wanes and he starts hiding his home culture and situation in an effort to blend in. I kinda dealt with this, where I went from thinking sign language and associated habits were normal, to trying to hide my deaf connections, to growing up and just learning to deal.  In this case confronted with the fact that the Yokai might not be shining heroes like he thinks, Rikuo decides he isn't gonna have anything to do with this to the point of rejecting his ambition to take over from his grandfather.  This becomes a problem, as his grandfather really wants to retire but there is no one else that the clans that look to him for leadership will accept and a good number of them won't accept someone with not just a human mother but a human grandmother to boot.  Sensing weakness, the plotting begins and Rikuo's struggle to balance the twin cultures he's a member of threatens to spill over onto his human friends in the form of good old fashioned violence!

This is complicated by the fact that a number of his human friends have formed into a club specifically to find Yokai (hilariously this is kind of his fault).  Included in this club is a young lady who is an exorcist who specializes in finding and destroying Yokai.  So of course the family retainers find her terrifying.  Rikuo has joined the club for a couple of reasons: first to keep the club from finding Yokai; second to keep any Yokai they find from actually hurting them; third to keep the exorcist from destroying any of his family retainers.  Although that one pops up later.  To be honest outside of Kuna (his oldest friend from school) who is a nice young lady none of the other human characters really stand out to me.  I enjoy their interactions however and get a chuckle from Rikuo's constant efforts to keep them from, you know, dying.

Lucky for our boy, he does have a card he can play and it's an ace.  Turns out through some quirk of magic genetics (because seriously he's 1/4th spirit being, this shit gets weird) he can switch over to the power and bearing of a full blooded Yokai... in the dark... with no memory of what happens afterwards.  Basically we have two people in his body.  One of them is a boy who identifies as human and wants a normal human life.  The other is a young Yokai noble with ambitions of uniting the Yokai of Japan under his rule and murdering any Yokai who tries to fuck with him and his buddies.  Interestingly enough his Yokai side acts and speaks like a full grown adult and has a completely different personality from our all-too-human protagonist.  It's almost as if his twin cultural allegiances have split off into different personalities.  That said they both agree that they will not stand for Yokai harming human beings and if need be that rule is getting enforced via stabby death. I can't say much more about the Yokai personality because he only appears briefly and doesn't really speak much, so while I know he wants to protect humans and rule Yokai... That's about it.  I do find it interesting that the Yokai shows up as an adult to Rikuo's child, as if showing a possibility of what Rikuo could grow into if he learns to mesh his human side and his Yokai into a single whole.  

I'm not sure other readers would enjoy Nura for the same reasons I do.  For that matter I'm pretty sure that I'm engaging in what we call Death of the Author, where I project meanings and subtext into a story that the writer never stuck in.  But what the hell, if college professors can be paid to do such things, I can surely do so for free!  Without the interesting conflict the protagonist is experiencing though, you get a pretty bog standard manga for boys.  Character must master hidden inner power and confront bad guys and and then kick the crap out of them.  It does at least avoid the sin of Dragonball Z by having fights be frankly unnecessarily long in length (to be fair this shows up in animes more than mangas but still...). But because of the subtext and the fun of the Yokai characters who are honestly at this point more interesting than the human characters (who frankly aren't standing out that much from each other yet), I can give Nura: Rise of the Yokai a B-.  I'm interested to see if Rikuo comes to term with his identity or continues trying to life as a split personality forever being pulled in two ways and if the writer will actually confront this issue.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Barrow by Mark Smylie

The Barrow
By Mark Smylie

This is Mr. Smylie's third time on this review series, and the first novel of his that has appeared. The other two appearances being his comic book series Artesia.  In this novel Mr. Smylie shows us that he's basically gripped by a creative vision that is not letting him go, as he has been working on this for over a decade now.  The Barrow, published in 2014 by Pyr books is set in the same world as the Artesia comic series but instead of the relatively backwater highlands where the first comic series took place, this novel takes place mainly in the Middle Kingdoms.  Whereas the highlands are a rural place divided into a series of petty kingdoms, the Middle Kingdoms are (in theory at least) unified under the rule of a High King.  Being a feudal society, there's a lot of infighting and rebellion among the noble class, which of course has a lot of consequences for the lower classes.  The Middle Kingdoms are more densely populated than the highlands, having large cities, vast kingdoms with great populations, and all the problems that those things bring.  There is a strict class system with nobility and commoners being fairly divided with the rare mingling usually taking place on the margins of society.  For example a lot of the clerks and skilled labor of the royal courts are commoners, with a large minority of noble born younger sons who rub elbows with them on and off work.  They're educated at a university which is open to men of noble and common birth (no girls allowed, I'll get back to this).  The clerks are exiled to the edges of court society (to the point that one of the nobly born characters doesn't know the names of his little brother's commoner friends) and aren't considered worth any mention in commoner society.  Adding to this tension is boiling pot of three-way religious conflict.

The Middle Kingdoms are a place where the Old Religion of the worship of Yhara Queen of Heaven has been mostly supplanted by Islik, Divine King of Heaven.  A lot of this was done by the invasion of a new ethnic group that invaded the Middle Kingdoms a long time ago that basically took them over, burnt down all the temples, committed atrocities, and then declared themselves the pinnacle of morality.   This is really a metaphor for... basically all of human history (seriously I could put anything in here from the Aryan Migration theory to the Imperialist Age).  The third religion is despised by both groups, because... they literally worship the Devil.  The Nameless Cults are all about corruption, depravity, and ruin.  I mean, we literally have them practicing human sacrifice and eating people!  The Old Religion hangs on mostly in the rural areas among commoners and members of the ethnic groups displaced by the new nobility, the Religion of the Divine King is mainly in the cities and in proper society.  The Nameless Cults show up in the wilderness and the darker cracks of urban society working to subvert and corrupt the world.  These conflicts help drive the plot forward and provide both background and character motivations.  Speaking of character motivations, let me talk about the characters a bit.

Stjepan, the Black Heart, royal cartographer, adventurer, and man with a past is one of our protagonists and viewpoint characters.  Despite that Stjepan keeps a lot of secrets from us (to be fair all the characters do), but then keeping secrets seems to be fairly second nature to him as throughout the entire book he's keeping secrets from his friends, his protege, his boss and well... Everyone.  Stjepan is a Athairi, one of the older ethnic groups which in the story serve as a kind of a gypsy analogue without the reputation for theft and kidnapping.    They are one of the groups that remain worshipers of the Old Religion and tend to live out in the country and in nomadic groups.  On top of that Stjepan's mother was a priestess of the Old Religion (which got her burned at the stake for witchcraft, we flashback to this a lot in Stjepan dreams) combine this with Stjepan having an education from the royal university (where they also store all the forbidden magic books because where else would you hide all the books you don't want read but at a place full of people eager to learn anything and thumbing their noses at social convention!).  Stjepan's role in this story is basically that of the experienced leader who doesn't tell anyone everything.  This is reinforced by the fact that no matter where in the Middle Kingdoms we go in this story there is someone who knows Stjepan or at least knows of him.  You’re certainly left feeling that this guy has been around a bit.

Erim serves as Stjepan right hand... not really a man, huh let me explain.  Erim is a city born brawler who is exceptionally dangerous and may be one of the best sword masters in the Middle Kingdoms.  A commoner born, Erim lives a life by selling fighting services and doesn't really fit in well anywhere.  There's a good reason for that, you see Erim is also hiding a secret, from everyone but the reader.  Erim is a girl.  Now for a 21st century American like myself you may be saying “big whoop”.  Well, Erim lives in a society with very strict gender roles and strict sexual mores and she's a bisexual woman who is fulfilling a male role that would be disapproved of even if she were a man. The thing is, Erim isn't someone like Stjepan who has enough grounding in a different culture or education to be able to consistently reject society's judgment, she is a person completely formed by her culture but is unable to fit herself into the hole demanded of her.  She honestly feels guilty about this and believes that she'll be punished for it and worse, believes she deserves it.  I end up feeling bad for a number of characters in this book but Erim takes the lead in my sympathies and ends up being one of the more interesting characters.  Although seriously, someone teach her how to read, I'm not kidding this could kill her sooner or later.

Three of our characters are nobility from the same family.  A family that has fallen due to scandal and disgrace.  Let me hit them in order of appearance, first there's Harvald, a younger son who was sent off to university and works as a clerk of the court.  It's not that bad a life as he also gets to run loose with Stjepan and have violent adventures.  I started out liking Harvald as he's a charming rogue when he wants to be but... oh God is this man an utter monster.  This is hammered in when we see him go home and interact with his sister.  Which brings us to Annwyn, which while I sympathize with Erim the most, I find myself truly saddened by Annwyn's story.  Frankly her life is awful and I find myself not agreeing with the choices she made but understanding them and seeing her reasoning as justifiable.  While Erim is wronged by her society in a general way, Annwyn is flat out victimized by the men in her life--by the very people who should have protected and helped her.  Frankly her character arc is heartbreaking.  Lastly is the older brother Arduin.  I'm an older brother myself so Arduin kinda annoys me deeply.  It's worse because unlike Harvald, Arduin isn't a screaming douchebag on purpose.  There's no cruelty or drive to humiliate in his actions but Arduin is an idiot.  That's harsh, but he is utterly wrapped up in himself and his drive to get his family out of disgrace and isn't even paying attention to that family.  Additionally, despite being thrown under the bus by his society for something he had nothing to do with, he refuses to think that there might be a few flaws in his society.   Additionally: listen bro, I ain't batting a thousand as a brother.  I'll admit that, but you know I've at least tried to talk shit out with my siblings when there were issues.  Admitting to your sister that you felt bad about your part in things and wish you could change it would have likely avoided at least some of the worse of it for you.  Arduin is a man too caught up in his prejudices and problems to remove his head from his ass.  Seriously his skull is firmly wedged in there and that kinda causes more problems then really necessarily.  I want to have more sympathy for him because he's not an awful person, just... stupid, but he's just so deep in his own rectum that I can't.  

We also have a number of adventures joining us.  There's Gilgwyr, a brothel owner and pimp that I was leaning towards liking but... let me sum up his introduction this way.  Hi! I'm Gilgwyr, I'm a brothel owner but I don't force myself on my girls and do everything I can to keep them in good health and spirits.  Because they don't deserve to be shit on for their occupation.   Instead I like to blackmail my clients into giving me blow jobs!  His character only gets worse from here folks.  I hate this asshole.  He's smarmy and self serving and pompous and if Arduin had cut him open then I would have been a lot more forgiving of Arduin's failures because then he would have at least done something useful.  Mr. Smylie kinda telegraphs Gilgwyr's fate and well... I laughed.  That's all I'm going to say there to avoid spoilers.  We also have Leigh, a crazed wizard who... is actually bat shit insane and evil.  I've run into a lot of “crazy” wizards in fantasy and this is the first guy that actually really came across as dangerously insane.  He goes from cheerfully buying pastries in a shop to cursing (I mean with magic here not swearing) the shop owner at the drop of a dime for example.  He's grandfatherly and protective one second and malevolent the next.  Leigh honestly feels like someone you need to have in your sights at all times because having him out of sight means you have no idea what he's doing and that is when he's most dangerous.  

All these characters come together to follow a magic map to find the tomb of an ancient witch king who was buried with a divinely blessed magic sword that said witch king had stolen.  It's a mess of conflicting motivations and secrets, of characters who are working against each other when by doing so they place each other in greater danger and a group with a cross section of simmering resentments and outright hatreds that could boil over at any moment only held together by mutual need and desire for reward.  The Trek takes us across the Middle Kingdoms which Mr. Smylie takes as an opportunity to show a place with a intense depth of history and culture being played out.  As you might guess I enjoy settings like this, although I get a little twitchy with his somewhat half-hearted attempts to make the Cult of the Divine King into a fantasy Christianity (seriously why does everyone turn us into sun worshipers!?!).  I can see and feel the vast amount of care and thought that Mr. Smylie has put into the setting, he just manages to avoid the sin of paragraphs of massive info dumps mainly by having the historical information come out in conversations between Stjepan and Erim or with other characters.  There are a ton of interesting places in this book, like the Plain of Flowers, or the Waste Beyond the Watchtowers (that interestingly enough are a result of good guy actions not bad buy actions).  It's a setting where I actually understand why there's an Inquisition because holy fuck there are cannibal rapists lurking about who worship the fucking Devil!  There are also references to real mythological figures buried in the book (like the Corn King for example) although they are twisted a bit.  

That said this book is not for minors.  There are graphic sexual scenes in here, some of which are intensely depraved.  I don't mean there's some blindfolds and ropes, I mean this stuff is all manner of messed up.  Mr. Smylie train also has no breaks, which is becoming a theme in adult fantasy in the 2010's maybe.  I kinda feel this a reaction to people pooping fantasy as being rather restrained in some ways (David Eddings for example would write that Anglo Fantasy works at least tended to be very prissy in terms of human sexuality and he blamed Tolkien for that) but I really do need to research this further before making any real definitive statements.  There's no holding back on the violence here either, nor are the consequences of said violence sanitized.  People--innocent people--die in this book in rather terrible ways (as do a number of not so innocent people).  That said, this isn't nearly as dark or depressing as Bakker's work, there are relationships that are good ones here and characters are allowed to have good ends.  I actually find myself emotionally satisfied in the ending even if it is somewhat morally ambiguous.  So while I wouldn't hand this book to anyone under the age of 16, or even to all adults, I do think it a very well written book that isn't afraid to confront some really dark stuff without getting pulled down by it.  I find myself giving the Barrows an A, the character work, the action and the overall depth of the setting more then carry it there.  That said, this book could have stood with the other Halloween books rather easily, so I'm going to try something a little lighter.  You know... I haven't tried a Manga on this review series have I?  Let's give it a shot.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen