Sunday, December 29, 2013

Out Caste

Out Caste by Peter Fehervari. Originally published by The Black Library (as part of their 2012 Advent Calendar Compilation), December 2012. Approx. 6 pages.

Without a doubt, the Black Library book that I enjoyed the most this year was Peter Fehervari's Fire Caste. His detailed, atmospheric writing truly brought that imaginative tale of Imperial Guardsmen vs. the Tau Collective in the bowels of warp-twisted space to life. Yet, as mentioned in my review of Fire Caste, the only issue I had with the book was that it did not feature enough of the Tau warrior Jhi'kaara, Commissar Holt Iverson's shattered mirror image. Luckily, Fehervari had penned a backstory for her that appeared in 2012's Advent Calendar series. Ah yes, love or hate those Black Library micro-shorts, checking the site each morning in December is like opening one of those German chocolate-filled Advent Calendars.

A childhood filled with these was a childhood filled with awesome.

Out Caste is told in a bifurcated narrative; we get a first person POV of the newly minted shas'la J'kaara ('the mirror'), as well as musings on the history of the scarred Jhi'kaara ('the broken mirror').

What I think works best about Out Caste is that it ties so nicely into the themes presented in Fire Caste. Between the Tau and the Imperium, there seem to be more similarities than differences; in fact, to very loosely paraphrase Fire Caste, it comes down to "one evil empire against the other". The Tau have the collective notions of the Greater Good, and the Imperium stresses the harsh dogmatic regime of the God-Emperor, but in the end, it all comes down to control, top to bottom.

The reason I mention this is because it all plays into Jhi'kaara, and the meaning of her name. She is originally named J'kaara because she can "read the hearts of her comrades". Therefore, should anyone be so surprised that she can find respect and nobility in a race that shares more parallels than divergences with her own? This might be the real reason behind the broken mirror moniker; more of a tribute to her ability to read her enemy as well as her own kind than a badge of shame, resulting from the kiss of a chainsword when she stopped questioning the natural deadliness of the gue'la (humans) for a moment.

But of course she bears it as a mark of shame. A reminder that she is no longer the shining phenom that went out, full of confidence, on her first mission. A reminder that life is fractured, hard to look at face on, and never yields a clear answer.

One other thing to mention, beyond the thematic elements, is the prose. The writing in Out Caste is full of juicy, bloody descriptions, especially the savage, avian motions of the Kroot warriors. The philosophies and tactics of the Tau are properly laid out, and the scene with the commissar is a wonderfully gory scene.

And lastly, very clever wordplay with the title. Outcast, indeed.

This is a great micro-short, and further proof the Jhi'kaara is a character that can carry a full novel. Why not? people bitched that there wasn't enough Tau in Fire Caste (although I disagree, but that's me), so why not let Fehervari do a full-on Tau novel?

Here's what it is:
Appreciated backstory on a very good character from an excellent novel. Well worth picking up, even if you don't particularly like these micro-shorts.


Final Score:

9.5 out of 10


Cover Score:
Tough call here. I feel cheap for slamming the cover, it is what it is. These Advent Calender shorts basically take some iconic symbol or logo from the species featured and dot the cover with it. Here, it is a take on a Tau helmet. Looks cute enough, but the color reminds me of cheap dijon mustard. But for $1.25, you aren't getting much more.

Cover Final Score:

1 out of 10. I'm not rating this on a scale of 1 to 100.

Looking back, looking forward

2013 is drawing to a close, and here's hoping for better things for everyone in 2014.

I'd like to thank everyone that stopped by the blog this first few months; readership has been good, but please leave some comments, so we know what to improve.

So, just a few things....

First, I was looking over the Angels of Death Collection reviews. I think, going forward, it'll be best to assign scores of 1 to 10 (with half point increments like 7.5) for those 1,000 word micro-shorts, while keeping the 1-100 scale for short stories up to novels. I'm not going to go back and adjust the AoD ratings though; I am satisfied with the scores assigned.

Second, does anyone have New Year's Resolutions? Well, other than lose weight, quit smoking, etc. I mean literary ones? Shooting for a certain number of books read? Committing to finally finish that novel this year?

What's mine? Well, I am hoping to finish at least one fantasy or sci-fi series each year. I am realizing how many series there are to finish, and I am not getting any younger. And, at my glacial reading pace, series of 10 books or under should take me about a year to finish.

So which series will I tackle in 2014? It was a tough call between Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts (of which I read and enjoyed First and Only) and Glen Cook's iconic series The Black Company. After much deliberation, I opted for The Black Company series. So, look out for those reviews, and share your thoughts.

Other than that, I got more reading done this year than I expected, and for that I am glad.

Again, all the best to all of you in this coming year. 2013 kind of sucked. That seems to be a general consensus. Let's hope to put the bad times behind us.

Cheers,
Hach.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Baneblade

Baneblade by Guy Haley. Originally published by The Black Library, April 2013. Approx. 405 pages.

I do believe that I mentioned at some point that I belong in a minority amongst Warhammer 40K novel readers in that I prefer stories featuring the Imperial Guard more than those of the mighty Adeptus Astartes. For me, the essence of science fiction is depicting that the core traits of human nature do not ultimately change, despite massive advances or regressions in technology. For a while, Guard novels were coming out with less frequency, so I was pretty excited when Baneblade came out. I prefer Imperial Guard, and I really enjoy tank books (absolutely loved Gunheads). Speaking of Gunheads, I'll be drawing some comparisons between that book and this one; for there are some structural similarities. 

It's been a very busy year or so for Haley, with his tenure at the Black Library starting off with three novels and a slew of shorts. I've already reviewed four of his short stories here (Stormlord, King of Black Crag, Engine of Mork, and The Rite of Holos), as well as one micro-short. They've ranged from very good to great, so I had some pretty high hopes for Baneblade. In fact the only thing keeping me from buying it up until recently was the god-awful cover, as well as the trade paperback pricing for these larger sized books. Alas, during my last visit to Barnes & Noble, I succumbed to that glorious "new book" smell surrounding me and picked it up, along with Skarsnik. So, bad cover aside, how does Baneblade fare? Well, in world-building and mechanics, it knocks the ball out of the park. As far as the human element, however, it is a swing and a miss. Let's take a look-see.

Being as though WH40K novels are based off a tabletop wargame, the author must create a scenario that incorporates a satisfactory macguffin, to stave off questions as to why the Imperial Navy doesn't just virus bomb the planet in question to oblivion. Haley does a great job here; making the scenario plausible for tank-heavy engagement. Behold Kalidar: a brutal desert planet. Torrential winds kick up shards of sand akin to slivers of crushed glass. These winds make air assault/support next to impossible, and limits the ability of troop advancement, as breathing in the open will cause a horrifying disease (with an even more horrifying cure) called dustlung. Now, the reason for the Imperial presence? Kalidar is rich with a green element known as lorelei, a mysterious mineral that enhances and plays havoc on psychic abilities. This has attracted a massive infestation of orks, especially that of a super-powerful witch named Greeneye. The Guard and the orks each control one of two large, subterranean hive complexes, and have been going at each other for a few years. The Imperial position is that the ork purging has been too long in getting done, and on the orky side, a twofold advantage has arisen; first, they have learned to manipulate the lorelei into impenetrable force shields, and second, they have an ultra-devastating Titan-sized Gargant at their disposal.

The Imperial Guard contingent is made up mostly of regiments from a planet named Paragon (with supporting Atraxian forces). Haley has also invested a lot of information into the Paragonian backstory; a planet which provides valuable industrial/mechanical services, they worship both the God-Emperor and the Omnissiah. There are some distinct caste systems there; and we see some of the workings of the extensive aristocrat clans. It is from one of these clans that we meet our protagonist; and, unfortunately, this is where Baneblade's cracks show all too well.

Our hero in Baneblade is Lieutenant Colaron Artem Lo Bannick, a disgraced scion of one of the Paragonian ruling clans. After causing quite a stir back home following a duel gone wrong, he joins the Guard and is attached to a super-heavy group. Following some heroic action in an engagement with the greenskins, he gets a promotion (of sorts) to third-gunner on the revered Baneblade Mars Triumphant, a super-heavy with a millenia of exemplary service. As the crew gets dispatched on a mission to purge the xenos once and for all, they must learn to gel with each other in the cramped quarters of this massive tank.

Sounds good enough on paper, even if fairly paint-by-numbers, right? The problem is, the crew was not fleshed out nearly enough. From top to bottom, it just gets more and more vague. Honoured Lieutenant Cortein is enjoyable enough, but entirely trope as the gruff, stern yet fair commander. Then we get the talkative guy, the shifty tech-adept, a rookie, a guy with a cigar, and then some names. The two most memorable crew members were second gunner Ganlick and tech priest Brasslock (mostly because he gets some of his own chapters. Haley, an admitted orkyphile, invests plenty of detail into the orks, which is appreciated.

Well, enough on the crew, what is wrong with Bannick? There is not much wrong with the concept of his character; the flaws are revealed through flawed execution and problems in the structure of the novel. We know from the onset that Bannick feels emotionally plagued by the duel back home, but his transformations throughout the novel make no sense. What we know of him back home is that he was a lazy, pompous, womanizing, stereotypical "rich boy". Fine. I also mentioned how they revere the Omnissiah. But nothing explains why Bannick is so enamored by Baneblades that he was nearly salivating over one in a loading dock near the beginning of the book. Nothing explains why this former pompous ass is so gifted at piloting tanks, and makes such quick, crackerjack strategic calls on the battlefield (other than the fact that he was involved in a lot of duels back on Paragon). Nothing explains how Bannick achieved the status of pilot of a Leman Russ tank so early in his career (I was guessing family connection, since he enlisted in officer's school from the get-go, plus other family influence. There was still no justification as to why he was such a natural at it, though.).

Another problem in Baneblade is loose ends. As we hear more from Bannick, he comes off as very religious. We know he is straining under the burden of guilt, and that he visited a priest, but we only see of snippet of their interaction. Something feels missed. Two more loose ends are kind of spoilery, so let's skip a few lines here.

.....

....

...

..

.

First, what happened to the sandscum? We can assume most of them got wasted along with the Atraxian infantry in the final scuffle, but all of them? There is no mention of what will happen with their colony in the final chapter, either. Big changes are coming to Kalidar, so what is their fate?

Second, and this is a small quibble, what was the overall implication of the ominous readouts on Vorkosigen's tarot decks? Was it the effects of the lorelei? I mean, in the end, what happened to the Mars Triumphant and her crew were not Bannick's fault, so was that whole angle even necessary?
.
..
...
....
.....
Those are the most glaring loose ends. There are also, as mentioned, structural issues. For example, we don't even meet Bannick until around 30 pages in. We do, however, get treated to an amazing prologue centered on the forging of Mars Triumphant. It is a true spectacle, and I almost imagined it as a musical production sung entirely in binary. Truly great.

Another problem is Bannick's friend, Kalligen. When we first meet him, we know almost nothing about his and Bannick's relationship. We have no idea that he has always been the more jocular of the two, and we do not yet realize why Bannick is so dour.

I guess what I am saying is that a little more backstory would have helped a lot. For most of the book, we get a chapter set on Kalidar, then a flashback chapter to Paragon. At the beginning of each chapter are little informative bits termed "interstitials", although these fade away in the later chapters. The flashback chapters focus almost entirely on events "post-duel", and I can only say that some of these should have been used sketch Bannick out a little more.

I hope this doesn't come off as an overly negative review; for there are so many things to enjoy about Baneblade. First of all, there is Haley's rich, intelligent vocabulary, which is one constant that I have seen in all of his works that I've read. Second, you can see that he really did his homework into the mechanics and workings of tanks. The descriptions convey a true authenticity; as there are times when you can feel the sweltering claustrophobia that the crew is suffering. Good stuff. And finally, there is the work that Haley put into creating Kalidar and Paragon as plausible locations. Places you want to hear more about.

Now, remember earlier on that I mentioned Gunheads? Well, let's have a side by side comparison:
Desert Planet? Check
Imperial Guard? Check
Stronger than your average orks? Check
A unique Baneblade as an integral focus? Check
Emotionally troubled protagonist? Check
Looted super-heavies? Check

A lot of similarities, and, as much as I did enjoy Baneblade, Gunheads is the better book. Don't miss out on Haley's Stormlord short though!

Here's what it is:
A lot of great ideas for an Imperial Guard novel that fell just a tad short. Great ideas, great writing, but fairly trope characters.


Final Score:

76/100


Cover Score:

I've said it before, and I'll say it some more: I hate this cover. This cover does the story, and Baneblades in general, no justice. This cover looks like an FMV still from a computer game, or maybe a two-page foldout from an Imperial Armour supplement book. There should have been some weathering on the tank, some indication of the harsh Kalidarian weather, a change of the angle to an upward one to stress the massive tank size, some orks or infantrymen to show scale, something.

Cover Final Score (as promised): 

9/100

Friday, December 20, 2013

Angels Of Death Collection

Angels of Death: The Digital Collection by various authors. Originally published by The Black Library, September 2013. All stories approx. 1000 words each.

Readers can be decidedly opinionated regarding short stories (often they love them or hate them), but, you have to admit, for a universe as vast and rich as the Warhammer 40K one, short stories have an invaluable benefit. They serve as a testing ground for new authors, and, as evidenced here, can provide exposure for some of the lesser known Chapters. Now, the micro-short (roughly 1000 word per tale) format is very challenging; authors are compelled to tell a story in its entirety, while also capturing a Chapter's unique characteristics, in 3 pages. How did they fare? Of course it's a mixed-bag. There is a great assortment of writers involved here (but before you start drooling, Abnett and Dembski-Bowden sat this one out). Each has their own fans, of course, so maybe for some of them, their style just didn't gel for me, or, gelled a lot. Some of these writers represent the Black Library "Old Guard"; McNeill, Thorpe, Swallow. Some are the "New Guns" that have upped the literary value of the Library's offerings in recent years; Sanders, Wraight, Haley, Fehervari.

Be warned, many of these stories are "bolter-free"; they focus on ceremonies, character studies, etc. These make for interesting topics, and are, in my opinion, a good way to budget a tight word count. However, I can also understand that some people expect loud bangs and bloody gobbets when reading about super-human space warriors. Fair enough.

For these micro-shorts, I will be assigning a score of 1 to 10. I will list the story, the author, the Chapter involved, and then my 2 cents. You can buy the collection in its entirety or a la carte at the Black Library website.

Codex by Graham McNeill (Ultramarines):
By naming this Codex, I assume the metaphor is "by the book" (or, as the Black Librarians say, "buy the book". Sorry, no more bad puns. I promise). McNeill kicks off the collection with his go-to character, Uriel Ventris of the Ultramarines. I'll be honest, I've never read any of the Ultramarines books. I like McNeill's work to a degree; while he is a master choreographer of action, his dialogue often comes off as stilted. Such is the case here. A by the book setup, the boys in blue have to assault an ork stronghold to rescue a person of importance. It starts with some bad dialogue, and, in McNeill fashion, some affront is taken, there is a tense moment with a terse warning, and then the action starts. There is no character advancement, and none needed. There is an intentionally annoying Adept, who takes it to a new level by referring to himself in the third-person. But goddamn it, when the bolts start flying, it is beautiful. I would love to see how McNeill storyboards his action sequences. You get some bang for your buck here.
Score: 5 out of 10

Death Speakers by Andy Smillie (Executioners):
The Death Speakers, a trio of morbid Chaplains, are making the account of a fallen Executioners sergeant, culminating in his last deeds. We then flashback to that sequence. Smillie really impressed me with his brutal, visceral action scenes in the otherwise lackluster Flesh of Cretacia. This holds true here. A sufficient mood is not evoked for the ceremonial part of the tale, but the action is great, especially in Smillie's rendering of a wretched, Nurgle-infected Death Guard warrior. His descriptions of the vile, disgusting afflictions that permeate through Lebbeous Scara are perfectly stomach-turning. Not bad at all.
Score: 6 out of 10

Skin Deep by Sarah Cawkwell (Silver Skulls):
Lord Commander Argentius of the Silver Skulls comes home from fighting to get a tattoo. And his tattoo artist is dying, which makes him sad. That's it. I haven't read anything by Cawkwell before (and probably won't in the future), but I am assuming the Argentius was featured in her Space Marine Battles title "The Gildar Rift". So, I am further assuming that prior knowledge of this character going into the story might arm the reader with some emotional attachment. I had none, and this story did nothing to create it. I know nothing of Argentius, other than that he is muscular and handsome. And tattooed, obviously. But what really gets me in this story is the dialogue. It's not just bad, it's forced emotional writing. It tries so hard to be endearing, meaningful, and just ends up cloying and false, like a spoonful of Equal.
Score: 1 out of 10

Final Journey by Guy Haley (Novamarines):
There is not much to describe here. This tale is about the ceremony of tendering fallen Sergeant Voldo to his final resting place. So the word count is devoted to setting the scene, which Haley does very well. Haley is very descriptive, and uses fiercely intelligent prose to convey his ideas. This story is one that you can completely immerse yourself into for 3 pages; and feel the somber tone. Well done.
Score: 7 out of 10

Judgement by Mark Latham (Doom Legion): 
The Doom Legion is a Chapter I would like to hear more about. They are one of those Chapters which are under the microscope of the Inquisition, their ultimate affiliation and loyalty to the Emperor being under question and investigation. So, in this tale, which sees an Inquisitor being sent on his way before more important business was attended to, there was a lot of potential for tension and drama. Unfortunately, instead of craftily veiled threats and accusations, what we get is basic sarcasm. And, the three main characters doing the talking all use that same level of sarcasm in their dialogue, despite their vastly different affiliations. Point being, Latham did not alter his dialogue for different speakers. Pretty bush-league fumble, in what should have been a good story. I will admit, I would really like to know what happens after the final line.
Score: 3 out of 10

Bastions by Rob Sanders (Excoriators):
I have been jonesing for some more Excoriators action since the excellent Legion of the Damned. I was pretty psyched when I saw that Sanders put this tale out. When a Chaplain and his contingent board the watch-fortress Semper Vigilare to read charges of dereliction against the Castellan, they find the cause of the infractions, and it is a greater horror than they could have imagined. There is some great, blistering action going on here, bolstered by Sanders' trademark rich descriptions and cinematic style. Proper service has been given to the Excoriators, from mention of their maintaining and reverence of battle-damage, to their style of attrition fighting, maximizing enemy losses while minimizing ally loss. Even better, this story is more than double the length of most of the other stories in the collection. Please, let Sanders put out a full-length Excoriators novel!
Score: 10 out of 10

Iron Priest by Chris Wraight (Sky Warriors):
Wraight brings us a tale of a boy, and the man he will be. Young Olvar is making his way on his journey to become an Iron Priest of the Sky Warriors of Fenris. But something is watching him. Also, the grown Iron Priest, now known by a different name, does battle with a champion of Chaos. Wraight is one of the strongest writers in the Black Library stable, and the bifurcated approach he used here paid off well. This is a nice, solid tale of the bonds we forge in our journeys, and how they affect us. Well done.
Score: 9 out of 10

Iron Soul by Phil Kelly (Iron Hands):
While billed as an Iron Hands story, most of the plot focuses on a Space Wolves Wolf Priest. Wolf Priest Leatherhand is making his rounds in the aftermath of a tyranid/Iron Hands battle. While going about his business harvesting progenoid glands, he engages in some discourse with a dying Dreadnought. It's nice to watch the priest at work, and there is a bit of a twist at the end with a knee-jerk finale. This one was well-written through and through.
Score: 8 out of 10

Mission:Annihilate by Gav Thorpe (Deathwatch):
I don't know why it is so hard for me to get into Thorpe's books. I can see that he strings words and ideas with precision, and yet, nothing he writes ever pops off of the paper and grabs me. I've tried starting a lot of his books and stories, and yet the only one that I finished was his enjoyable, if not very memorable, dwarf book Grudgebearer. Mission:Annihilate is another case of this. There was absolutely nothing engaging about this tale. None of the immediacy or urgency that should drive a Deathwatch tale, especially one with stakes this high. The baddies here are the necrons, who get no real screen time. I couldn't even be bothered to commit to memory the names of the Deathwatch team members, or even care what Chapters they had been cobbled together from. If you want good Deathwatch action, pick up something from Steve Parker.
Score: 2 out of 10

The Judges, in Their Hunger by David Annandale (Carcharadons):
Lord Nathaniel Bellasun of Sendennis is in crisis mode. The Flawless Host has taken the planet, and he must now find the best way to supplicate and ingratiate himself to his new lords so as to insure his continued survival. And then, a miracle. Salvation! Annandale has crafted a juicy little tale here, with a very clever, fitting title. It is easy to see that sharks have stunning smiles which become terrifying when they turn to you. Finishing this story, you find yourself wanting to hang around for another page or two to see the true judge dispense real justice. It would be nice to see some more shorts featuring the Carcharadons.
Score: 8 out of 10

Duty's End by Robin Cruddace (Howling Griffons):
Cruddace's freshman short story finds a lone Space Marine holding the line against a rampaging horde of orks. Already reeling from his injuries, the Griffon still deals out death in a manner as natural as breathing. Cruddace does well in capturing the motions of an Astartes in action, the violence being relayed well. However, some small thing is missing. There is nothing to distinguish this lone Marine as a Howling Griffon. He could have been a member of any Chapter, saying it is the Griffons just prompts you to imagine him in a certain color scheme. But then again, in a story like this, isn't that enough? You'll have to decide that one yourself, as the reader. Well done overall.
Score: 7 out of 10

Cadre by Josh Reynolds (Mentors):
Now Cadre, on the other hand, makes the Chapter's characteristics the driving point of the plot. The Mentors Chapter act as sort of Astartes consultants, working with resistance fighters to make them more self-sufficient. In Cadre, Tutor Manse helps a pocket of fighters strike back against some cultists. Another thing that makes this story stand out is that Reynolds injects a little more levity into his prose than the other authors. It feels....odd. But, oddly, it kind of works. Kind of. In the end, a good short story. Not great, totally different. Which is admirable. Honestly though, I don't need anymore Mentors stories in my life. This one was more than sufficient.
Score: 6 out of 10

Setting the Stage by C.L. Werner (Emperor's Warbringers):
Warhammer Fantasy cornerstone author Werner has done some work in the 40K universe (his Siege of Castellax is floating on the "To Read" horizon), and this tale is his second featuring the Emperor's Warbringers (his first appeared in the Victories of the Space Marines anthology). What makes the Warbringers special is their truly practical approach to warfare. This story focuses on Feralis IV, a planet that has fallen to the ranks of traitor guardsmen. The Warbringers' plan is to cause chaos and foster confusion among the traitors before they make planetfall. Tasked with this special ops endeavor is a contingent of Warbringers scouts. Setting the Stage recounts their maneuvers as the scout squad fishes for a big catch with a very special piece of bait. This is another of the few stories in this collection that fully integrates the spirit of a chosen Chapter with a complete story. Werner's descriptive prose is top-notch as always, gory, harsh, brutal, perfect for the medium.
Score: 9 out of 10

Honour of the Third by Gav Thorpe (Dark Angels):
Thorpe's second offering in this collection focuses on the Dark Angels, a Chapter he has done considerable work with in the past. Legendary Sergeant Belial helps lead an explosive egress from a Temple, and the forces of arch-fiend Furion. Some explosive action culminates in a nifty duel. It's exciting, fast-paced, but not as visceral as some of the more recent authors. But in all honesty I enjoyed this tale immensely more than Mission:Annihilate. The Dark Angels are a compelling Chapter, the duels have a brutal balletic grace to them.I don't know if the Belial/Furion dynamic branches into any other works, but their encounter here is well done.
Score: 7 out of 10

The Fury by James Swallow (Blood Angels):
Here we have another classic Black Library author weaving a tale with their iconic, go-to Chapter. What The Fury focuses on is one aspect of the Blood Angels' persona: the Black Rage. The blood fury of mental instability that warriors of the Chapter can fall to. And in this short tale, we watch a brother succumb. The Fury is paced brilliantly, and its first person POV allows the reader to truly step into the ceramite armor and watch the goings-on. And there is blood; oh so much blood. This is how you put 1,000 words into brutal, blood-soaked use.
Score: 9 out of 10

No Worse Sin by Joe Parrino (Brazen Claws):
I was thoroughly impressed by Parrino's Witness a while back, and hoped that future works would maintain the same level of quality. Well, the strengths that he exhibited in Witness; setting mood and tone, are definitely evident here. No Worse Sin is one of the stories in the collection that does not see a single bolt fired; although there is a nice, nasty twist at the end. At the tail end of a failing twenty year crusade to avenge their fallen home world, Chapter Master Engentre summons his legion. Those who answer, severely decimated and depleted, finally confront him on the folly of the venture. It is a tense story, and Parrino does well in capturing that emotion which is so strong, so prevalent in the Emperor's Angels: pride. Injured pride, acceptance of wrong and loss. Very well done. Please tell me Parrino is going to get a full-length 40K novel out soon.
Score: 9 out of 10

Visage of Zeal by C.Z.Dunn (Black Templars):
Christian (C.Z.) Dunn has been editing at the Black Library for pretty much forever. However, in the past year or so he has started churning out some shorts and novellas. To be honest, I really didn't think much of Easy Prey, his entry in the 15th Birthday Collection. Even though I did not expect much going into this tale, I ended up enjoying it well enough. Fun, but forgettable. A Black Templars Chaplain peruses a field, looking for a certain trophy from a fallen brother. Flashbacks serve to relay the last moments of said brother Chaplain. Nothing reaches up from the pages and grips you, but the battle scenes are rendered well enough.
Score: 6 out of 10

The Third War by Ray Harrison (Mortifactors):
A Chaplain of the Mortifactors Chapter engages in the near-death meditation and sees events to come on Armageddon. Such a basic premise, but it fully focuses on a unique aspect of this Chapter. And Harrison's descriptions of the surroundings, and the orks in particular, are masterful. Not much else to say, but it is a rousing three pages.
Score: 8 out of 10

Final Duty by David Guymer (Hospitallers):
Can't really say what's going on here. The Hospitallers are one of those mystery Chapters that even the Warhammer wiki describes as "not much is known about...." This essentially gave Guymer carte blanche to make what he would with a malleable Chapter. The final result is a competently written (never read any of Guymer's stuff, so I have no frame of reference), yet quite vague tale. And I'm sure that mystery is what he was aiming for. In Final Duty, Imperial Guard Lieutenant Caleb is falling in and out of lucidity as he dies upon some razorwire. In moments of clarity, he finds himself recuperating in a medical bed, hearing soothing assurance from a beneficent giant in white. My personal take, I am guessing Guymer fashioned the Hospitallers as an ethereal Chapter, like the Legion of the Damned, but a Chapter that ushers honored fallen into the Emperor's Light. Maybe I'm wrong. All I know is that Guymer was handed a mystery and, in turn, served a mystery. Props for obvious trolling.
Score: 6 out of 10

The Ghost Halls by L.J. Goulding (Grey Knights):
In this tale, a group of Grey Knights wait patiently in an eldar dome to speak with a revered seer. Okay, I'm sure this all ties into some larger storyline. But even though I have no idea which one, that isn't the reason why I didn't care for this story. The writing just didn't work for me. At all. The writing seemed patently false (yes, I understand it is hypocritical to claim falseness regarding dialogue between genetically engineered super-humans and ancient alien races), and is completely bland. Pass.
Score: 1 out of 10

The Tithe by Ben Counter (Imperial Fists):
Long time readers seem to have a love or hate relationship with Counter, so, with the only offering of his that I have read being Galaxy in Flames, I came into this expecting some nice, easy, mindless fun. The Tithe follows an Imperial Fists brother, and his relationship to an Iron Warrior that he slew in combat. Counter's style focuses less on poetic descriptions, and more on which pattern bolter an Astartes uses, or which version armor they don. He also tries to go for a surprise at the end, which aspires to be shocking, but comes off as corny.
Score: 3 out of 10

Rite of Pain by Nick Kyme (Salamanders):
I'll put it bluntly, it is a chore for me to get through anything by Kyme, and this tale is no different. Someone is being tortured throughout the story, and then a Chaplain fights him. Maybe if I read Kyme's Salamander books, I would know who some of these folks are, but I don't, and I don't care to know. Here's the challenge to the author: if you are writing a story that requires some previous knowledge to understand, make your writing interesting enough that established readers are satisfied, and also engaging enough to pique the curiosity of potential readers. It's not easy to do, I understand. I couldn't get into this; for Salamanders fans only.
Score: 2 out of 10

Trophies by Cavan Scott (Death Spectres):
I did not much care for Scott's Doom Flight, so hope were not high going into Trophies. The same problems which plagued Doom Flight are evident here as well; I just don't think Scott "gets" the Astartes mentality. However, once again, the action scenes are well done, and the tale never lapses into being boring. In Trophies, we have a Death Spectre engaging in a hunting expedition, under the guise of purging xenos in the name of the Emperor. The protagonist is a real jerk (well hey, no one ever said Space Marines were nice). Again, good action, bad everything else. Side note: this is one of the longer stories. About five pages where most of the others are around three.
Score: 4 out of 10

The Thrill of the Hunt by Anthony Reynolds (White Scars):
Whereas some of the tales in the collection focus on ceremony, Thrill of the Hunt centers entirely on action. Action, and how the Scars relish harrying their prey from their mighty bikes. In this story, the prey is eldar. There is nothing earth-shattering or game-changing in this story, you are just watching a chase in motion. Fun, forgettable reading.
Score: 6 out of 10

The Crown of Thorns by Peter Fehervari (Angels Penitent):
Peter Fehervari's Fire Caste blew me away earlier this year, and so I had some high hopes for this story, especially since this would be my first exposure to his handling of Space Marines. Crown of Thorns is another absolute home run for him. The Angels Penitent are an intriguing Chapter, being formerly named the Angels Resplendent. However, the entire Chapter falls under the sway of an eerie, spectral martyr figure, and they now operate under a brutal, dogmatic regime. With the ascendancy of this new ruling order, books and art are now forbidden (doesn't sound like too much of a stretch from most militant religious orders, now does it?), and the Crown of Thorns, a panel of Chaplains acting as judges, metes out cruel punishments for perceived infractions. In the story, a sergeant prepares to bring a neophyte before this kangaroo court, knowing full well the extents of how much wrong is going on around him. Now, Crown of Thorns is another five-pager, but the amount of Chapter backstory (along with the main narrative) that Fehervari packs into it is nothing short of amazing. Bravo!
Score: 10 out of 10

By Artifice, Alone by George Mann (Raven Guard):
George Mann has been putting out a bunch of Raven Guard shorts recently, that I unfortunately missed out on. I was glad for this story so that I could get a sampling of his work. What we have here is Raven Guard Captain Koryn having his mental mettle tested by Chaplain Cordae prior to a major engagement. As Koryn prepares his armor, he resolves himself to his probable fate and engages in the wordplay. This story is written well enough, although it strays somewhat towards melodrama. It would be great to read a novella of the engagement itself, Raven Guard paired with Brazen Minotaurs. One can only hope, right?
Score: 6 out of 10 

Bitter Salvage by Nick Kyme (Marines Malevolent):
Kyme strikes back in this collection. This time, he has Marines Malevolent (a very interesting Chapter to write about) squaring off with some Black Templars over the spoils of a tussle with some orks. After some insults are traded, a duel ensues. However, unlike most duels, honor is not the only motive here. Salvage stands head and shoulders above Rite of Pain in terms of quality, but it still is not a "good" work. Points for an original story concept, and decent duel choreography. If only Kyme could craft some more clever wording, and not focus on telling the audience what he is implying so as to ensure that they "get it".
Score: 5 out of 10

Vigil by James Swallow (Doom Eagles):
Yes! Now this is a great story! Brother-Sergeant Tarikus of the Doom Eagles is waiting. For other a Terran standard month, he waits. And as he waits, he reflects on his philosophy, his cause, his purpose. This is how you summarize the psychology of the Doom Eagles, that death is inevitable, it is the point of service to the Emperor, and that the only thing of importance is to make sure that you inflict as much death on the enemy as possible before succumbing to your own. And it all culminates in a rousing finale as well. Swallow really steps it up here, and the payoff is huge. Like I said, he has perfectly depicted a Chapter philosophy in the span of three pages. Great work!
Score: 10 out of 10

Blood Calm by Guy Haley (Blood Drinkers):
With their Chapter Master dead, Captains Castor and Sorael, of the First and Fifth Companies (respectively), will duel for the right to don the mantle of stewardship. Squared off, swords drawn, it seems a perfectly typical duel, except, the victor will be the one that displays "Blood Calm", a mental state of mind in which the blood thirst so integral to the Chapter's internal programming is harnessed as the task at hand is completed. Under the blistering sun of their homeworld, and denied the sanguineous nectar they so crave, who shall emerge victorious?
Haley is in great form here. He deftly uses the motif of the oppressive heat to accentuate the thirst that must be suppressed. Even if the outcome is never really in doubt, the tension builds, with a payoff as satisfying as a burst vein rupturing forth for these frightening warriors.
Score: 9.5 out of 10

Reclamation by L.J. Goulding (Scythes of the Emperor):
Boy oh boy oh boy. What can I say here? I have never hidden my admiration for the short story "Orphans of the Kraken" (it being, actually, the first story I ever read focusing on the Space Marines). I can't say that the Scythes are my favorite Chapter, but their decimated situation provides the potential for great storytelling. In the hands of a good storyteller. Which Goulding, unfortunately, is not. More's the pity, there's a chance that he may pen the full-length Scythes SMB novel, if it ever sees the light of day (please, Black Library, just let Richard Williams do it).
Anyway, enough complaining. What's going on in this story? Not much, to be honest. Some neophytes show their Forge Master some salvage (as the Scythes are reduced to being scavengers), and he gives some trivia regarding it. Then there is a nice piece presented. The problem is that Goulding does nothing to evoke emotion here. Either a paragraph at the beginning to really draw a picture of the surroundings, or some work with the dialogue to capitalize on the range of emotions circling this rebuilding Chapter, would have worked wonders here. Goulding knows the lore, but the soul eludes.
Score: 1 out of 10

Obsidian by Graham McNeill (Sable Swords):
The Sable Swords are an interesting Chapter, formed to replace the decimated Astral Knights. Obsidian deals with the transfer of ownership of the Astral Knights' fortress monastery to the Swords, who will assume stewardship and garrison it.
McNeill is another writer that isn't your best bet for character-driven work. He maps out masterful battles, and he can paint vivid backgrounds. But his dialogue has a generic movie-script feel to it, and you can bet sooner or later someone will either reach for a sword (or other weapon), or seriously contemplate doing so. Spoiler Alert: it happens in Obsidian.
Obsidian isn't a bad story, but there was so much potential here. You have the dynamic of the older inhabitants that bridle at being put out to pasture, and the resentment they naturally feel for their replacements. Replacements that bear them no ill, and who have their own tests to face in the future. But it is definitely readable, and good subject matter.
Score:5.5 out of 10

Here's what it is (Final Thoughts):
Well there's not much to add here. It is what it is; so if you are one of those that do not care for the micro-shorts in general, just pass. The good is that one of you favorite Black Library authors probably has an offering here, and some really interesting Chapters are getting to see the light of day. I will say this, while I appreciate the directions that some of the authors took here, I would have loved to see a little more; say an epic short poem, or an account in the form of a distress transmission. You know, something a little different. Oh well, maybe next year.

Cover Score:

The cover of each story in this collection is essentially the same; the basic color scheme characters you usually see on the Warhammer wiki, adjusted for the unique heraldry of the showcased Chapter. For a slew of $1.99 shorts, I guess no one could expect unique covers for each short. The collection cover is just an array of such pics with the text in the middle. Nothing special.

Cover Final Score: 25/100

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Orphans Of The Kraken

Orphans of the Kraken by Richard Williams. Originally appearing in the Legends of the Space Marines anthology, April 2010. Approx. 35 pages.

After making a recent post on Richard Williams, I started to reflect on which of his works I had read in the past. This short popped into my head almost immediately, probably my favorite work by him and one of my favorite Warhammer 40K shorts to date. 

Orphans of the Kraken centers on the Scythes of the Emperor, an Astartes chapter which has been utterly devastated by the tyranid forces of Hive Fleet Kraken. So drastic is the decimation that the chapter has lost its homeworld, and now can only field a force of roughly one hundred Space Marines. In a desperate attempt to keep the chapter alive, the current Chapter Master has created "salvation teams", salvage groups which scour dead tyranid hive ships in the hopes of finding any remnant of their shattered chapter; be it in the form of weapons, armor, or, wishfully, survivors. Orphans follows the journey of one such salvation team.

Leading the 21st Salvation Team has never been easy for Brother-Sergeant Tiresias. As an Astartes that witnessed both the loss of the home planet of Sotha and the crippling defeat at Miral, he licks wounds to his pride that can never heal. The group of neophytes under his command are hive-bangers and a savage; with the only fellow Sothan an indecisive youth, the group's weakest link. Like most of his fellow brothers, Tiresias yearns for one last grand assault against the foul xenos. They feel as though there is naught to lose; that the chapter is already doomed. They bridle at the current Chapter Master's frugal tactics of self-preservation over revenge. They feel shame at spending their days picking clean the corpses of their fallen brothers. In a decision of pride versus planning, it is often difficult to err on the side of caution.

However, things take a dramatic turn when the team makes an amazing discovery, one that they had always dreamed of but never actually expected to find......a survivor. Laying entombed, but not yet dead, within the bowels of a dead hive ship is revered Commander Cassios.

Cassios, revived from his slumber, is of a mindset that nothing has changed since his time in stasis, and therefore he is ready to resume his charge against the insidious tyranids. This of course has a dramatic effect on the impressionable neophytes of the Salvation Team. Cassios' actions provide a great moral quandary for Tiresias; for although Tiresias desired no more than to die in a blaze of glory, he suddenly comes to grips with the dire consequences of throwing four pieces of precious future resource into the furnace for a simple, vainglorious charge. In the end, whose voice will hold greater sway: that of Tiresias or of the newcomer hero Cassios?

Richard Williams' prose really brings this Orphans of the Kraken to life. The story, told in the first person POV of Tiresias, unfolds via multiple layers of flashbacks, and truly conveys the depth of loss and melancholy felt by these proud warriors of the God-Emperor. Williams has also crafted a fine backstory for the Scythes; I don't know how much original backstory existed for them other than this old pic from the old GW days when Space Marines either had mohawks and shades or looked like Duke Nukem rejects:


When I was reading Orphans, I could not help but think of the phrase "Waiting for Superman" (as in the title of the documentary). The phrase refers to waiting for some legendary hero to arrive to right a dire circumstance through his own inherent magic; with the implication of course being the reminder that the onus is always on us to enact change. Thus, by the end of Orphans, you realize how fractured is this knight in shining armor, arriving out of the blue, and you truly appreciate the methodical planning of those like Chapter Master Thracian, a master of planning long-term objectives and accepting the concessions involved.

Along with doing an admirable job presenting the psychology of the super-human Astartes, Williams conveys the tyranids in masterful fashion. He understands the physiology of the repulsive aliens, from their tiniest organisms, up to the massive, living hive ships. In this manner he conveys the circle of life in which the role of each participant contributes to the continuation of the monstrous whole.

This is a story that I cannot recommend highly enough. It perfectly conveys emotions that run deeper than can be quantified; shame, pride, loss, and brotherhood. Perfect pacing throughout, with a rousing, emotional climax.

Available in the Legends of the Space Marines anthology, as a single e-book, and as part of the 25 for 25 exclusive. Please Black Library, give Richard Williams a big fat advance to do a few more books!

Here's what it is:
Warriors of a chapter on the brink of extinction get a choice; continue the ponderous task of rebuilding, or go out with guns blazing. A near tear-jerking tale.

Final Score:

93/100

Cover Score:

Out of all the Space Marines anthologies, this one is my favorite cover. Doom Eagles in action! If you look at the hi-res pic, you can see all the amazing detail on the armor. Look at the ornamentation, as well as the nicks and other damage. Love it.

Speaking of awesome covers, I graded this one because it is the book I read Orphans in. As mentioned, however, this story also appears in the 25 for 25 compilation. So, here's the wondrous pic of the cover as well, just in case you haven't seen anything worth drooling over today...



Cover Final Score:

91/100

Sunday, December 1, 2013

More Imperial Glory?

One of my favorite Imperial Guard books of all time is Richard William's Imperial Guard. It is a great piece of Guard vs. Ork action, with well-done orky point of view chapters and an unconventional, but excellently handled ending, all of which inspired by the British-Zulu conflict. It is due for a re-read for sure, and hopefully a review.

Williams currently has no Black Library work in the pipeline right now, which is a shame. So you can imagine how excited I was when I spotted this on his Facebook page:

I was re-reading Imperial Glory the other day and was wondering:

I'll have a small amount of time over Xmas, would people be interested in a short 'unofficial' piece that covers exactly what happened to Blanks between the penultimate and final chapter?

Or is this the kind of thing where everyone already has their own idea and actually you wouldn't want a version that will contradict/may be worse than what's already in your head?



Sounds like a great idea, right? If you've read this title, and if you have a chance, drop by Richard's page and voice your support for this great idea!


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Broken Honour

Broken Honour by Robert Earl. A Warhammer Fantasy book, originally published by The Black Library, February 2011. Approx. 416 pages.


Robert Earl's Broken Honour is another one of those books that has been winking at me from the "To Read" pile (now an estimated half-mile high) for close to three years. It is the type of fantasy work that usually appeals the most to me; a tale of rank and file infantry versus seemingly insurmountable odds. Now, I had never read any of Earl's work before (I actually had not heard of him until the Florin & Lorenzo omnibus was released), but Honour garnered mostly positive reviews, including a glowing one from none other than Graeme Flory.

So, taking this into consideration, and adding a badass cover, and neat a premise (a company comprised of former prisoners vs. a horde of beastmen) into the mix, we have the makings of a great read. Does Earl deliver? The answer is a near-emphatic yes.

Trouble is quickly closing in on the city of Hergig. Vast numbers of beastmen, in all shapes and forms, have eluded the efforts of Hochland's annual cull by employing such foreign behavior as strategy and tactics. Every able-bodied man is already wielding a weapon under the baron's banner, and still, the outlook is grave. Enter Free Captain Erikson, late of Praag, late of Reikland. Knowing the need for troops, and the profit to be had in the business that is war, he sets off for Hergig with a pouch full of gold to raise a regiment and secure a commission.

But as already mentioned, anyone that can stand upright and wield a weapon at the same time is already doing so; therefore, Erikson's only choice is to fill his ranks with the city's leftovers: the 'guests' of the Hergig gaol. So, rounding up roughly 160 "soldiers" from this pool, Erikson forms the "Gentleman's Free Company of Hergig", and the festivities commence.

The narrative of Broken Honour focuses mainly on the Free Company (naturally), with some time devoted to the supporting cast. To its credit, there are also portions focusing on the beastmen, and their leader, Gulkroth. Gulkroth is a particularly nasty specimen (and considering these are beastmen, that is pretty bad), a formerly shifty and sneaky character who is "touched" by a local herdstone and achieves a godly level. It is he, in this enlightened and enhanced form, that consolidates the various herds and integrates the techniques that they bring to bear.

Earl's writing style, I can only imagine, may not be for everyone. When he writes for the human characters, he injects a lot of humor into his prose. Playful jibes, sarcasm, these are the norm. There is little to no character development to be had here. These characters are absolute stock characters; and would be immediately recognizable onscreen. Don't get me wrong, he used stock character tropes, but made them engaging and likable. My point is, if you are looking for poignant character studies, look elsewhere. Case in point, there is precious little insight offered as to what motivated Erikson to form his army. It's just put forward that he has been a lifelong soldier and mercenary and now he has decided to be a troop commander.

Earl's writing for the beastmen is quite superb; he has immersed himself into what the psychology of these bovine bastards of Chaos might be.

One field in which Earl more than excels is in writing battle scenes. The actions committed to paper are neither extravagant nor sparse. He understands the anatomy of the monsters he is writing about, understands which movements are fluid, and which are ungainly. He utilizes a rich vocabulary to flesh them out (I have never seen another author write about beastmen and use the word "dewlaps". Kudos, Robert). Empire soldiers fight with precision, the freed prisoners fight with the desperation of street-fighters.

Other than that, there are few surprises to be had here. Very few of the Free Company are even given names (less than 10), the rest are pared down via redshirting. The Company is sent on various "certain death" missions, which you know that through grit and guile they will make it through, because, well, there attendance in the final brouhaha is obligatory.

This is all fine though, since, as already mentioned, there is a fine cast keeping things lively. Erikson and the few Company members that get fleshed out are good protagonists, and you enjoy rooting for them. There is the "cool aloof character" in Freimann, the morally-ambiguous leader of the guerrilla longrifle troop. Throughout the book there is a subplot featuring a cowardly officer in the baron's employ whose relationship to a company member causes the suicide missions they find themselves deployed on.

There are only two more minor quibbles to be had here, and one is a tad spoiler-y, so read on at your own risk. The first problem is that one character arc goes largely unresolved. Understandably, this may be because the book leaves itself open for a sequel, even though it ends well as a standalone (very craftily done, in a way that shows that events are ultimately cyclical). The other problem, and is just in one scene, is that...

.....
....
...
..
.
SPOILER: In the final battle, when the baron is fighting Gulkroth, the Free Company members get a free swipe when his back is turned. In that moment they inflict "half a dozen" wounds on him. Then, the baron gets a swing with his runefang sword, which, Earl writes, is the only type of weapon that can do any real damage to him, adding that normal swords or spears would just break against his hide. But, on the same page, the Company just did damage against him with ordinary weapons. Not to be petty, but that is quite the contradictory WTF moment to transpire over the course of a page.
.
..
...
....
.....

Back to our regularly scheduled review.

I know it seems that a lot of nit-picking is going on here, but that is not the case. I am only listing a handful of objections. The rest of the book is 400 pages of well-paced, action-packed, cleverly written fun. It would be great if a sequel novel would present itself. Maybe Honour was intended to be a series, hence its release as a standalone and not as an entry in the "Empire Armies" series. Either way, grab a copy if you can. It is one of the few Black Library out of print titles that doesn't cost a small fortune in the secondary market, or you can opt for the ebook version, available directly at the Black Library website. Highly recommended.

Here's what it is:
An excellent Warhammer Fantasy standalone title that focuses on the lowly infantryman. The first book I have read that features Chaos Beastmen as the main antagonists. A fast-paced read with well-rendered battle scenes, and clever dialogue.


Final Score:

81/100


Cover Score:

Pretty nice cover indeed. I am not too crazy about the title font, but the gold background color scheme works well, especially when paired with the red of the pistolier's garb. This soldier serves as a fine avatar for the grimdark mood of Warhammer Fantasy, square-jawed, rough around the edges, and death dealing pistol firmly in hand.

Cover Final Score:

82/100

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Mouse And His Child

The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban. With illustrations by Lillian Hoban. Originally published in 1967 (this edition by Harper & Row). 182 pages.

Sometimes it helps to take a step back from the usual genres being reviewed and remember that there are so many children's literary works worthy of real consideration. I've always had a fascination with Russell Hoban's The Mouse and his Child, although this was mostly in regards to the 1977 animated version. I used to catch it on frequent HBO showings, and to be honest, I don't remember much of the movie itself. I do remember that (to my younger self), it did succinctly convey those notions of fear, wonder, and love that are the integrals pillars of the work. Luckily, since I am long overdue for a re-visit of the film, it is available to view in its entirety on Youtube:


A few years ago, memories of watching the film popped into my head one day, and I reserved the book through a local library. I read a few pages in, enjoyed it immensely, and then decided to wait until my children were a little bit older, so that I could read it with them, and then we could all enjoy the book together for the first time. So, a few months ago, I grabbed a copy, and began reading two or three pages a night to my older daughter. All I can say is that this is a beautiful piece of writing that so deserves to be read by young and old (preferably together). But enough about my personal investment in the story; on to the book itself.

The Mouse and his Child tells the tale of the two titular wind-up toys. In the world of the narrative, the toys "come to life" at the stroke of midnight; although this animation is limited, since they become able to think, and talk, but still rely on manual winding for movement. The mouse and child, while technically one toy (they are joined at the hands and share a winding key), have separate personalities. The tale opens with their first awakening in a toy shop, and with coming to grips with what they are in fact, are. Being Christmastime, they are soon bought, played with for a while, and then discarded. Finding themselves alone and abandoned in a dump, this is where there journey truly begins.

One of the greater themes of TMahC (and there are quite a few themes within) is societal structure and finding ones place within. At the onset, the pair learned of the establishment that was the toy store, with its great dollhouse and monarch wind-up pink elephant. In the dump, however, it is a different story. The animals reign in the denizens of the dump. Striding atop the hierarchies of the dump are the rats, led by the odious Manny Rat. Manny is a particularly nasty customer; conniving, shrewd, sharp at business and handy with mechanical parts. He also runs a 'forage squad' of tossed wind-up toys that he uses to gather junk, by both honest and dishonest means. The hapless mouse and child, incapable of self-winding, are shanghaied by Manny. After a botched robbery attempt in which they were forced to participate, the wind-ups find themselves fleeing the dump and certain death from the pursuing Manny. They are aided in their urgent egress by the prophetic Frog, a kindly fortune-teller/surveyor who finds his fate intertwined with theirs.

Along their journey, the mouse and child run into colorful characters, and latch onto new concepts. From observing a turf war between two groups of warring shrews, they learn the idea of territory, and why it is so important (and they decide they want their own). From an eccentric avian theater troupe, they learn companionship, and glean hope as to the fate of a fellow former toy store wind-up. And. at the end of their trek, they hope to meet up with Muskrat, a genius mathematician who may hold the secret to self-winding.

To divulge any more would compromise too many story points, but suffice to say, as in life, there are many ups and downs, and the downs seem to outnumber the ups.

Hoban is an author who obviously does not feel the need to pander to a young audience. Rather, he embraces and celebrates their resilient optimism, and simple common-sense. There are some mature elements in the book; extended periods where things just do not go well for the protagonists, and there is a good deal of violence, blood, and death. Again though, kids know what these things are, and Hoban knows that they know. The focus here is on this father and son pair, lost in this new, dark, bleak world, facing danger at every turn. The son strengthening and developing into a spiritual and moral compass, as the father focuses on their day to day safety and survival. The trying voyage that cements their bond as each other's whole world. Wait a minute, I think that I've read a story like this recently.....

I can't decide which one had more heartbreaking moments to be honest.

The prose is charming throughout. As mentioned before, there are some big words which will need explaining for kids (especially those in the 7-11 range, which I think is a good target audience). There are many strong instances of imagery throughout; central of which is the fact that father and son are joined at the hands for the book. A small drum, salvaged from a shrew drummer boy, beats time near the child's chest, simulating a heartbeat.

Hoban also incorporates many different philosophies into TMahC, without giving any a preference as the superior. There are Frog's oracular prophecies, Muskrat's mathematical tangents, the deep, philosophical ramblings of C.Serpentina, and the mechanical "know-how" of Manny Rat. Each mindset has its own chance to shine, to show its strength and validity.

Now, for all the accolades, this is not a flawless book, either. There are scenes that meander, and dialogue that drags on. The ending is wrapped up just a little too tidily for my taste, as if a box bounced in the back of a parcel truck on a cross-country jaunt just to get decked out in a shiny red ribbon. But these are minor quibbles that barely mar a great piece.

Very highly recommended.

Here's what it is:
A great bedtime story tome that truly stresses the wonders and values of friends, family, home, and belonging, while also incorporating high stakes, danger, and sadness. Get it, read it, love it.


Final Score:

91/100

Cover Score:

As with most older titles, there are various covers for The Mouse and his Child. The one read, the Harper & Row edition, has the same picture as in the picture at the top, although with a bluer background palette and a different dollhouse design. I like the covers that utilize the artwork of Lillian Hoban, who also provided the inside illustrations. They are simple, and sketchy, but sufficiently emotional.

Cover Final Score:

80/100

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dracula

Dracula by Bram Stoker. Originally published 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company. Signet Classic edition reviewed. 380 pages.

Tall, dark, handsome, and dressed to the nines, Count Dracula, courtesy of his many cinematic manifestations, has ruled for nearly a century as the godfather of all things Halloween. He has been at times cool, cruel, suave, terrifying, seductive, and distinguished (or any combination of those listed traits). But the lion's share of this iconic referencing is, as mentioned, associated with the thespians who have brought the un-dead count "to life". How much is known of the seminal work which started it all. I can count on one hand, amongst my reading friends, the number that have read Bram Stoker's book in its entirety when it hasn't been a class assignment. I myself am guilty as charged; a few attempts to finish it in the past remained unresolved, until now; until , fittingly, today.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is told in the epistolary format (the success of this attempt will be addressed later). It focuses not on the titular Count, but on those who become intertwined with him and his machinations to establish himself in England. Therefore, it is an assembly of diary and journal entries, news clippings, notes and memorandums.

The tale opens with young Jonathan Harker, a freshly minted solicitor, on a train to Transylvania to cement some real estate purchases with the reclusive, mysterious, Count Dracula. As he travels deeper and deeper into these mysterious Eastern European lands, he finds a pervading aura of fear and superstition. So many locals pray for his safety and adorn him with talismans and fetishes, much to his confusion. Upon arrival at Castle Dracula, he becomes increasingly aware that there is not only something amiss with the Count's intentions for his purchases, but he comes to experience what kind of creature this Dracula truly is.

Back in England, we meet Harker's fiancee, Mina, and her best friend, Lucy Westenra. While Mina awaits the return of her beloved, Lucy contemplates three separate proposals from young men enthralled with her; Dr. John Seward, steward at a local asylum, Arthur Holmwood (later Lord Godalming), a society gentleman already in courtship of Lucy, and Quincey Morris, a brave and adventurous Texan. Little do the members of this circle realize how closely the events about to transpire will bring them together as they rend their lives apart.

This occurs when Dracula, now in England, makes a wicked thrall out of Lucy. To assist in deciphering this unfamiliar malady, the aforementioned group enlists the esteemed Dutch doctor, Abraham Van Helsing. It is he who first ventures to guess the contribution of an unholy force in Lucy's suffering, and it is he who acts as the linchpin in ferreting out and trying to destroy Dracula. This proves to be a task much easier said than done, especially as the work must be done on the sly, since no one would be apt to believe the nature of this creature.

There are so many other details, which are best left to the reader to discover. Suffice to say that the events of the story differ greatly from Browning's picture, and go so far beyond Coppola's interpretation.

Dracula's supernatural powers in the book are pretty amazing, and all have some clearly drawn limits. He has his sharp intellect and cunning, as well as the strength of twenty mortal men. He can change the appearance of his 'human form', as well as transforming into a giant bat,or an ominous mist. He can impact the weather, and bring on fog and winds. And, not only can he makes thralls out of humans, but he holds mastery over the nastier animals of the world; wolves, rats, etc. However, he slumbers during the day, and needs the earth of his homeland for his vulgar rest. He cannot cross moving water, and if he cannot get back to his familiar earth, he will be trapped in his current form until the next sunup/down. Also, he cannot enter a home without being invited, or allowed in. Although once he gains access to an abode, he has free reign to come and go as he pleases.

Now that we have all the basics out of the way, what is there to say of the prose? Of the many works and shows that attempt to dissect Stoker's masterpiece, many nitpick on two main points: first, the lack of accuracy in the depiction of the Transylvania locale, and the fact that Stoker's writing is a tad on the dry side (I've seen some go so far as to argue that without cinematic fame, Dracula the book would have faded into obscurity). Let's address the latter first.

Dracula is not, suffice to say, a "rip-roaring" action romp. It doesn't need to be. And it might be a bit lean on the main villain, simply because for the most of the work, he is acting as a quarry that is stubbornly hard to root out. Therefore, after a great, and chilling opening portion (covering Harker's plight in Castle Dracula), things pretty much level out.

Where Dracula suffers is that there is precious little character development. While there are attempts to try and inject urgency into the text, most characters remain relatively stable despite the extraordinary events. There are many melodramatic outbursts and declarations, but the despair, frustration, elation, etc., it just doesn't show. This is especially true regarding the contributions of Van Helsing and Seward, who, as it just so happens, constitute the bulk of the narrative from the middle to the end. As a note, I will say that Jonathan Harker's character is the one best rendered throughout the novel, making the middle portion where he is absent noticeably lacking.

Another point I will make is this; there is a lot of dialogue. A lot. And most of it is done by Van Helsing, whose expositions go on and on for paragraphs. He serves as the moral compass for the group, and injects what little humor there is to be found. But quite honestly, I can see how his broken-English caricature can be grating at times. So, if you read this book, after a page or two of Van Helsing, if you find him annoying, just put the book down.

And this leads me to the next little gripe about Dracula. While the attempt was made to convey the story in the epistolary format, there are times when the prose unmistakably falls into a traditional narrative. Honestly, the book would have thrived more within the parameters of that format, with the diary entries and news clippings peppering the story throughout.

As for Stoker's efforts in fleshing-out the Eastern European locales that he had never himself visited, all I can say is that it is easy enough to be a Monday morning quarterback over a century after a book comes out. Working from whatever available resources on those lands, he creates a plausible, imaginary area that would gel with contemporary assumptions. What I find more mournful is how little description England itself gets. Street names are rattled out as if the reader has complete familiarity with them. Therefore, it is truly a work that was made for his English contemporaries.

All in all, Dracula is a classic in regards to what it has spawned, more than what it is. It is completely and utterly dated, where a true literary masterpiece is timeless. And yet, it is spectacularly imaginative, and even disturbing at times. It is a book that has truly earned its respect.

Here's what it is:
It's the book that introduces the world's most famous vampire. On that merit alone it deserves a look.

Final Score:

83/100

Cover Score:

This Signet Classic cover isn't too bad. A nice, evocative pic, which gives the impression of emerging from dark woods and happening upon the nightmarish Castle Dracula. Not bad at all.

Cover Final Score:

64/100

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Thing On The Doorstep

The Thing on the Doorstep by H.P. Lovecraft. Originally published in Weird Tales, January 1937.

There is simply no way that a month of telling creepy Halloween tales would be complete without a little bit of Lovecraft. Now, I'll make a confession; I have not read as much Lovecraft in my years as I should have. My younger self did not properly appreciate the suggestive and cerebral pervasiveness of his work, opting for tales with more "in your face" shock. But I digress, as it is always better late than never.

Today's story comes courtesy of this amazing list of 25 chillers to read, absolutely free. What better source of quick Halloween scares than that?

The Thing on the Doorstep is told in the first person narrative of Daniel Upton, and it serves as an account to justify his actions in emptying the contents of a revolver into the face of his dear friend Edward Pickman Derby. The declaration of this actual deed constitutes the opening lines of the tale. The remainder of the story recounts the bizarre events that led to that tragic moment.

Upton tells us of how he befriended Derby, an odd, coddles, socially inept youth eight years his junior. Even though their career paths took different routes, the two became and remained fast friends. Upton always maintains a high regard for Derby's authorial talents, and penchant for dark themes, black magic, and the occult.

Derby, who, as already mentioned, was critically introverted, finds love with one Asenath Waite. She is some fifteen years younger than him; a student at Miskatonic University, and quite the phenom in regards to black magic and such. She is a very odd character, but pretty nonetheless, her looks marred only by what appears to be a tad of the old "Innsmouth Taint"....

Yeah, I can see that being a bit of a dealbreaker.

However, from the get-go, Asenath seems to have some kind of hold on Edward (HINT: foreshadowing), and, soon enough, they are wed, and things are free to take a Lovecraftian-manic turn.

Look, there is no spoilers involved in just saying outright that Asenath is vying to take control of Derby's body. This is hinted at in an extremely blatant fashion, numerous times throughout the work. The fun is in watching it happen, and feeling a sympathetic response to Upton's plight of frustrating impotence in salvaging his good friend's soul.

In fact, the narrative of the tale is terribly predictable, leaving all to rest on the money shot: the titular "thing" on the doorstep. In this, Lovecraft pulls out a win. The final payoff to this tale is suitably scary, creepy, and haunting.

The rest of the tale is Lovecraft by-the-numbers; and there is even mention of an Old One, just because the story wouldn't be complete without one.

In this story, Shub-Niggurath.

And that's really all we can say about it. Great opening, great ending, a lot of dragging out in the middle.

Here's what it is:
Not exactly a classic from Lovecraft, but a solid, quick, free read. Solid characters bring to horrid life the tragedy of love in Arkham.


Final Score:

75/100


Cover Score:

No real cover score here, as the story was read in the public domain from a free website. It has also been anthologized many times. So, I just posted the pic of the cover of the Weird Tales that it was originally printed in. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Night Winds

Night Winds by Karl Wagner. A collection of Kane short stories originally published by. Approx pages.

HachiSnax Note: Like some unearthed treasure, I have only just recently discovered the work of Karl Edward Wagner. This is a sad testimonial for one who grew up in the fantasy heyday of the 80's. Whatever the reasons may be, now I have heard of him, and how highly his work is regarded. The first Kane book that I was able to obtain was "Night Winds", which I believe runs fifth in the series. It is a collection of short stories, and it works fine as a standalone, although I don't know yet if any of the supporting cast appear in previous volumes. Each tale will get a grade with an overall score below. Cheers, Hach.

Undertow: 
My first foray into Kane's world was everything that I had expected based on what I had heard of Wagner's writing. Undertow is dark, moody, atmospheric, dark, and even slightly chilling. Undertow tells the story of Marvsal and Dessylyn. Marvsal is the captain of a cargo ship, in Carsultyal to be patched up and manned. He meets the beautiful, yet obviously troubled Dessylyn as she is trying to escape the city via his ship. Her demeanor is vague and elusive, but there is one surety; she wants to escape the attentions of Kane, the dreaded wizard that she once loved and who loves her still. As she posits it, that "love" is a twisted mockery of the word; he treats her as a trophy, and dedicates his efforts of necromancy towards concocting foul potions to keep her as his thrall.

But Kane's reputation proceeds him, and therefore freeing Dessylyn from his tendrils will be no easy task. To stress this point, Dessylyn recounts the tale of Dragar, the young barbarian who she loved, and who would have been her erstwhile savior as well.

There are sufficient twists and turns, making the title of this story very appropriate.

Wagner's writing is haunting and ominous here. It takes a lot for a story to actually frighten me, but certain scenes in Undertow do so. Wagner writes with a precision that taps into your subconscious reservoir of fears and lets your inner five year old wonder what is under the bed. As for Kane, his depiction here is everything that I expected; a massive, formidable fighter that is also adept at profane sorcery.

My only question regards continuity; is Dessylyn a character from previous stories or is this her sole outing? It doesn't really matter; as Undertow works masterfully as a standalone piece. There are discussions, or spiritual dialogues, between Kane and Dessylyn that a poetic and brilliant. They have a flow akin to the ripples of the ocean, as heard by someone stranded in its ice depths.

Final Score: 93/100

Two Suns Setting:
This story appears second in the book, but is not a direct sequel. Two Suns Setting finds Kane on a (possibly) self-imposed exodus from Carsultyal. While traversing a vast desert in search of lands where he is not infamous, he happens upon the giant Dwassllir, one of the last of his ancient race. As they sit by a campfire and share a meal, they engage in discussions of their respective races. Kane agrees to accompany Dwassllir on his journey; a perilous venture to explore the nearby caverns and try to discover the legendary tomb of Brotemllain, the last great king of the giants.

Let me start off by saying that this story is masterfully written. There is the great metaphor of the "two setting suns"; the literal sense (although one of the 'suns' is actually the moon, brilliant in the sun's light), and also in reference to the two wanderers; a proud pair that are both licking their emotional wounds. The dialogue between them rings true since it reflects themes that have been relevant across time; the fading elder race scoffs at the soft beings that have usurped them; weak, mewling things that only survive due to the speed with which they breed. The voice of the younger race counters the merits of his kind; arts, literature, architecture, science, technology. Variations of this conversation pass from generation to generation; there is indignation regarding change as well as respect for the strengths of others.

The scenes down in the caverns have a great claustrophobic flair about them. The dusty darkness is palpable, and there is a true creepiness about the denizens of these depths, creatures that time and light forgot.

My big question mark regarding "Two Suns Setting" is: who is this Kane? The Kane in this tale is no different than a standard adventurer. He is still physically formidable, but where have his arcane skills gone? Am I missing something? Does he need tomes or potions to work his art? When he is pinned behind a rock, he is effectively useless, while in Undertow he was blowing doors and shutters off of hinges. Don't get me wrong, this is a great story. I am just guessing that Kane was chosen as the protagonist so as to help the audience feel more invested.

Two Suns Setting is a great parable about pride and former glory. There is some great action in it, and there is a sense of loss and sadness, as well as vindication, that permeates it throughout. What it does not seem to be, however, is a true "Kane" story. Don't miss this tale though!

Final Score: 88/100


This Day In History....Karl Edward Wagner


It was on this day, October 13th, in 1994, that Karl Edward Wagner lost his battle with his inner demons and succumbed to his alcoholism. As I mention in the "Night Winds" review, I am only just recently discovering his work, and am very happy for the discovery.

Now, Wagner is of course best known for his character Kane, a sword & sorcery heavyweight definitely in the vein of Howard pulp-fantasy. Wagner was also prolific in the horror genre as well; and integrated elements of horror into his fantasy works. If you ask me, horror-fantasy is a vastly under-served market, so it is a treat to get good stuff. The other great thing about Wagner was, well, his mind at work. It must be remembered that Wagner held a degree in psychiatry, and he injects a cerebral element into his prose.

I had hoped to get the full review for Night Winds up by today; but sadly it hasn't worked out that way. So I will be putting up a partial review (which I abhor the notion of doing), which covers the first two stories in the compilation, and then I'll revisit with updates as more tales are read. The first tale in the book, Undertow, has some definite horror elements and plays well into the October/Halloween theme.

So, if you can, track down some work by Wagner (it's getting harder and harder to find). You'll be happy that you did.