Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cold Roads

Cold Roads by Joe Parrino. A Warhammer 40K  short story, Day 2 of the 2014 Advent Calendar. Originally published by The Black Library, December 2014. Approx. 7 pages.

HachiSnax Note: Sorry these posts are getting to be fewer and further in between. I thought I was going to have more free time at my disposal than I actually seem to end up with. Also, another thing that I had planned on doing - reviewing all the entries in the Advent Calendar -  may not happen, as some of them offerings are turning out to be audiobooks. I might try reviewing one of them, I haven't decided yet. So again, thank you for your patience, and thanks always for stopping by. Cheers, Hach.

Day 2 of the Black Library Advent Calendar yields a Brazen Claws short by Joe Parrino. I was pretty excited about this, since he had such strong offerings with earlier shorts like Witness and No Worse Sin (also featuring the Brazen Claws). Parrino is a master of conveying the atmosphere of Chaos; adding Lovecraftian touches to the Warhammer 40K world, and painting his scenes with a robust palette of "colors that should not exist". This is why the Brazen Claws are the ideal Chapter for him to write about; a Chapter tasked to perpetually serve so close to the Warp.

In this story, we meet Techmarine Luveran Llir as he tries desperately to maintain the integrity of the titular ship, the Cold Roads, as it finds itself assailed by Slaanesh-worshiping forces, including none other than the Emperor's Children. This tale documents those final moments as he attempts to stave off succumbing to the call of Chaos. Standing along with a stout Terminator bodyguard, these last few moments will decide the fate of the entire ship.

Simple premise, flawless execution. There is very little more I can add to flesh out this review. Our two leads are interesting, there is some action, and the way Parrino presents how the allure of Chaos tugs at one so logic-oriented as a Techmarine is excellent. Other than that, this is an excellent portrayal of a descent into madness that offers readers what they truly want but rarely receive; a completely immersive journey into the universe being written about.


Final Score:

10/10


Cover Score:

It's just the Brazen Claws logo, but they have a pretty awesome one. And the rich colors make this a really eye-catching cover.

Cover Final Score:

5/10

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Final Compliance Of Sixty-Three Fourteen

The Final Compliance of Sixty-Three Fourteen by Guy Haley. A Warhammer 40K Horus Heresy short story, Day 1 of the 2014 Advent Calendar. Originally published by The Black Library, December 2014. Approx. 6 pages.

Season's Greetings everyone! One of the best things about the holiday season, The Black Library is once again conducting their annual "Advent Calendar", offering a new short story everyday from yesterday up until the jolly fat man squeezes down the chimney. Now, like I've stated before, many readers either love or hate these micro-shorts. I really enjoy them, even though they usually run only 4 to 10 pages (mostly closer to 4). But, you are getting stories from the best writers in the stable as well, and sometimes you get a real gem in your stocking. Like this story from master wordsmith Guy Haley.

The moment of compliance has arrived for Planetary Governor Mayder Oquin. For many years he has served as steward over the planet Goughen, formerly designated as Sixty-Three Fourteen. In all the years of his service, from foot slogger in the Guard up until his tenure as governor, he has loyally served the Truth. The Imperial Truth. Now, however, the Emperor's own favored son, the Warmaster Horus, has challenged the legitimacy of the Emperor's reign. He is crafting a new Imperium, and the compliance of Oquin, as well as that of Goughen, is demanded. 

These micro-shorts often fall into two types, emotional character studies or quick action pieces. Final Compliance is in the former category. This quick read is a potent examination of what is truly important to a man. We watch as Oquin studies a collection of artifacts; all the remains of many cultures he has helped subjugate in the process of bringing these planets to their compliance. There is a grim irony at work here as we prepare to watch a former operator of the war machine be consumed by it.

What works here is that Haley gives us an extremely sympathetic (and tragic) protagonist within a economical wordcount. Oquin is stoic and proud, never pompous. He treasures fond memories, and he looks on the faces of those he did battle with with a proper modicum of respect. These were warriors that willingly died for something they knew to be more important than conscription to a dogmatic tyranny. Warriors who donned their finest livery to go die for a higher truth. Entire cultures reduced to novelties in a trophy case. In a powerful climax, Oquin must choose compliance or a spot on someone's shelf.

One other aspect of Final Compliance that works very well is how Haley integrates core concepts of human nature into it. What makes good sci-fi is the vision of the creator; how technology and society advance or regress over the passage of time, and the scope of the author's imagination. What makes great sci-fi is when we can naturally see that the core tenets human nature, the spectrum of moral values (or lack thereof), remain constant, even in quite distant times. 

There is one line in Final Compliance which really stands out to me. It occurs while Oquin is making his final decision, as gunships hover outside, like enemies at the gates. It reads:

"The threat to go with the promise. Always the way."

Such a simple observation, and so prophetic. Hasn't it always been this way, where ultimatums are concerned, from the first recorded history, up to the present day and into the far off future of genetically enhanced super soldiers? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Final Compliance is peppered with other nice, small touches as well. The vivid details of the artifacts on Oquin's shelves, the constant broadcast of Horus' "message" in a very Big Brother manner, all contribute to setting a palpable tone.

The Final Compliance of Sixty-Three Fourteen is a great way to kick off this year's Advent Calendar. Highly recommended.


Final Score:

10/10


Cover Score:

The logo of the Sons of Horus in a rich blue. Doesn't look shabby, but the story is the prize here.

Cover Final Score:

3/10

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bone Candy

Bone Candy by Glen Cook. A Black Company short story, originally appearing in the Shattered Shields anthology, published October 2014 by Baen. Approx. 25 pages.

While I am loathe to review individual short stories from anthologies, today we have a special case. Shattered Shirlds, a military fantasy compilation published by Baen last month, features a brand new Black Company short by Glen Cook. So, while I will most likely finish this anthology at a later date, it is imperative that I review this short story.

Now what do we have here? To start, Bone Candy, like the previous two shorts (Tides Elba and Smelling Danger), takes place in the city of Aloe, at some point on the timeline between the first book and Shadows Linger.

Before I get into what is good in this story and what I have issues with, let's look at the premise:

Things are rather uneventful for the Company in Aloe. However, they have an officer from Charm attached to them to contend with: Two Dead, a wizard dispatched by the recently minted Taken Whisper. Two Dead is no friend of the Company. Whisper does not hold them in a very high regard either.

One day, nuisance turns to legitimate problem. Two Dead grabs Croaker and Silent to help investigate some odd furry creatures that have turned up. These furry mysteries are packing a nasty secret inside, which lays Two Dead up. Meanwhile, Two Dead's hulking bodyguard, Buzz (who is actually well-liked by the Company), is contending with sudden health issues of his own.

It falls on Croaker to keep these two in the realm of the living, since their passing would cause some waves with people you don't want to cause waves with.

Ok, let's start with the good. Cook shows us that he is still in perfect form with this story. He is able to tap into the vibe of the Company from around that time seamlessly.

There is also an added bonus here: Bone Candy actually makes reference to the Port of Shadows. Black Company fans will of course recognize this as one of the potential new Black Company books announced years ago. So does this mean that a new novel is actually in development? This is quite exciting indeed. But, also, a tad anti-climactic. Why? Read on, as I present my issues with the story.

Look, I am as grateful as the next Company fan for anything to nibble on from Cook. But, let's be honest. Croaker's tale is done. He got one of the best endings in a fantasy series. I understand that he is the fan favorite (with good reason), but, as Cook said in one of his rare interviews: "The Company itself is the character." So, how come we can't get a book with Suvrin as Captain? Or one from pre-Croaker times? Part of the suspense in reading Black Company books is that anybody's number can be up, any moment. You can't do that, going back to circa book 1.5. If you've finished the series, you already know what's happened to all these guys. We've met some new faces in these shorts, but that means they are the only ones at risk. And the fact that the Port of Shadows is no more than another Dominator Resurrectionist tool is deflating too. Obviously he doesn't come back before Shadows Linger.

One other issue I have is with the usage of modern terms. "Wait a sec..." you might say, reminding me that way back I defending the usage of modern slang and colloquialisms in what is a "fantasy" setting. I still support that type of dialogue. What I have an issue with is technology. One of the later books, I don't remember which, had a scene in which rock melted "like plastic". That jarred me out of the moment. I have no problem with fantasy characters saying "Go f*** yourself, a$$hole." instead of a faux-British "Bugger off, you arse." (Note: this assessment does not pertain to actual British writers; it is directed at those who try to emulate what the speech of a time period might have sounded like rather than focus on how the conversation would proceed in modern discourse). But plastic is not part of their universe. In Bone Candy, someone uses the term "live ammunition". It doesn't read right.

Ok, gripe's over. Bone Candy is the most solid of these Black Company shorts (so far), and hopefully this is the segue into the next novel. If you have a chance, get a hold of this and check it out. I hope that soon I can finish the whole anthology and let you know how the other entries fare.

Final Score:

93/100

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Skarsnik

Skarsnik by Guy Haley. A Warhammer Heroes (Warhammer Fantasy) novel, originally published by The Black Library, June 2013. Approx. 402 pages.


One of the very first short stories that I ever reviewed on this blog was The King of Black Crag, a fun piece that revolved around the notorious ork King Gorfang Rotgut. The tale told of Rotgut's journey to sort out "what's wot" with the rumored new "King" of the Eight Peaks, an upstart goblin daring to bear an orkish name: Skarsnik. King was released at the time as companion piece to Haley's then upcoming novel about said goblin king, named for that goblin king. Based on the strength of his orky writing in King (as well as that great cover), I grabbed a copy of Skarsnik soon after it was released. This month, I decided to finally dust it off and give it a read. Hard to believe that it's been a full year and a half since I reviewed King of Black Crag. Alas, tempus fugit.

There were a few considerations going into a full-length goblin novel. First, considering that Haley is a self-admitted orkyphile (orkophile?), the potential for this greenskin-centered book being a great read is quite high. On the other hand, the greener races in the Warhammer universe (both Fantasy and 40K) are usually portrayed in two completely manners: as opposition, their brutality is showcased. However, as far as characterization goes, they usually serve as comic relief. Usually employing exaggerated Cockney accents, they lampoon the social undertow, reminding us always that the orky races are projections of the qualities that we all possess, hate to admit that we possess, and hate even more to admit that we admire to a degree. So my concern was as to whether or not the comic aspect would become numbing when spread over 400 pages. It would take a gifted author to properly blend and incorporate all the elements of goblin psychology, physicality, diversity, and behavioral tendencies into a solid narrative. Luckily, it was Haley that answered the call.

As it states on the title page, this book serves as a "True and Compleat History" of Skarsnik (by the way, that old-fashioned style title page sold me on this story from the minute I opened the book). Instead of utilizing a first-person POV for Skarsnik, Haley uses human filters to relay the tale. The story is told by the now-insane playwright Jeremiah Bickenstadt, who was a "guest" of Skarsnik's, charged by the goblin lord with recording his history. He recites this oral account from his cell in an insane asylum to Kaspar Wollendorp, an academic who has authored the most comprehensive treatise on goblins in the Empire. Finally, the transcript we are presented with has been tidied up by one Guido Kleinfeld, a scribe who remains offscreen during the proceedings. It is safe to assume that Kleinfeld is the pen name of Haley himself, an author whose task it is to compile the embellished ravings of a lunatic and the methodical notes of a professor. Or maybe Beckenstadt and Wollendorp are the aliases for the voices in Haley's head. We may never know.

Either way, the usage of human filters is the best medium for delivery of this history. Skarsnik the story is both the biography of a megalomaniac and a press release to the Empire at large, putting them on notice that the King of Eight Peaks is looking to expand his holdings.

As a biography, the book details Skarsnik's rise to power from his humble roots. Skarsnik was spawned runty, and remained runty for most of his ascension. What he did have a surplus of was the cunning that is such a large facet of the goblin psyche. He was also gifted with a higher intelligence than his peers. Lastly, and most importantly, he possesses an uncanny amount of luck (as to whether it is luck, or being chosen by Gork and Mork is ultimately up to the reader to decide). Being born a goblin in Karak Eight Peaks, the young runt matures in an environment filled with not only the perennial violence between greenskin factions, but with other races as well; the noble dwarfs in the upper levels, and the verminous Skaven in the lower holds.

What follows is an account of Skarsnik's (then known as Runtgit) schemes and ploys as he uses not only his gifts, but everyone and everything around him to advance his cause. In theory, this sounds like a thin premise, but it is fleshed out richly. No matter how clever he might be, Runtgit was still a little body in a largely strength-dominated society, so the entire trip is an uphill climb. And so, everyone who comes in contact with him is used, betrayed, and discarded, be they friend or foe. It's all part of the goblin mentality; any friendly gesture comes with a knife in the back, metaphorical, literal, or both.

Skarsnik's green contemporaries are not the only adversaries obstructing his climb. On top of an exile into the world under the "Evil Sun" to remedy, there are still the persistent threats of stunties and skaven. How will this history of the greatest goblin since Grom climax? How much is fact, and how much is truth with a little dressing? Let's take a look at the book bit by bit and see how Haley constructed this masterpiece.

Characters:
Of course, the bulk of the story falls upon Skarsnik's knobby green shoulders, and he carries it like a true performer. There is an nice array of secondary characters as well. Many of them end up as little more than disposable pawns, steps on Skarsnik's climb to the top. There are, however, some characters shrewd/useful enough to go the distance. One is Duffskul, top shaman for the gang Runtgit is affiliated with, The Backstairs Boys. It is he that proves to be a greater consul than Skarsnik would ever admit. Another favorite character is Skarsnik's faithful "pet", a massive squig named Gobbla. This twisted guard dog surely lives up to his name throughout, and steals many a scene along the way. It is no great secret that these two contribute more markedly to the king's longevity than his personal accounts of his physical prowess.

As mentioned, the disposable characters provide solid comic relief. Haley also makes sure to have at least one or two distinct characters represented in each of the races/tribes featured here. Again, he takes care to form their personalities from established canon and environmental factors.

Also mentioned was how well handled the human characters are here. Haley has a skill with descriptive terms that allows you to form a solid picture of a person from a few key words. I could fully picture Wollendorp, his guard Meisen, and the mad Bickenstadt.

Realization of Tie-In Universe:
World building is one of Haley's strengths, and you can see it here. From the fog enveloping the cobblestone streets of Averheim to the grandeur of Karak Eight Peaks, the feeling of immersion is engrossing. It is indeed the interior of the Eight Peaks that is a crowning achievement; represented as three tiers, each section shaped by its denizens (goblins, dwarfs, skaven). You get a true feel for the sights and smells of each, how these races have altered, defaced, destroyed, and added upon the magnificent architecture of the dwarfs.

The tactics employed by the races included are well researched and thought out, the battles plotted with excellence. There are minor skirmishes and all out wars. Haley includes a broad range of special unit types/weaponry for each army type. These books are, in some small part of their soul, a commercial for the tabletop product line, and Skarsnik serves to capture the imaginative essence that draws so many to the game.

Side note, one of my favorite portions of the book was the time that Runtgit spent during his exile with a band of goblin wolf riders (who he, of course, solidified ties with and rose withing the hierarchy of). I haven't had this much fun reading about wolf riders since I got the book of the same name (featuring the William King story of the same name) as a Christmas present when I was a wee pudgy youngster.

Still have my copy to this very day. Thanks, big brother!

Another favorite part was one chapter which was structured as a captive dwarf's lament. In this one chapter, with one sorrowful dirge, Haley encapsulates dwarf psychology more succinctly than some of the full length novels written about them. All of their motivations, their loves, the anger rising from injured pride, are made near palpable in this chapter.

Overall Writing Style:
This is, without a doubt, my favorite book by Haley to date. Heck, it's one of the top Warhammer Fantasy books I've ever read. You can tell that there is a good deal of personal investment in this story, and the end result is an obvious labor of love. Haley's pacing is spot-on, the book does not drag, meander, or lapse into mediocre moments. 

Since the story is told (first) from the mouth of a playwright, there is a certain theatrical flair to the proceedings. Individual chapters are given names (something I really like), and many of them include stage directions. It all serves to solidify a clever motif that enriches the overall experience.

Perhaps the best balance is struck in the the dance of comedy and danger which is a core aspect of Skarsnik. The dialogue is fun, the physical comedy lively; then, at any moment, we can be reminded of just how sadistically malicious these little green critters are. It's always a jarring moment when we go from slapstick capering to a clinic on how much goblins enjoy experimental art using sharp blades and the faces of captives. But that's the world that spawned Skarsnik, King of the Eight Peaks.

Final Thoughts:
Obviously I highly recommend this book. Grab yourself a copy, enjoy it, and then recommend it to your friends who might be wary of tie-in fiction. Any fantasy lover that can enjoy a great book written from the point of view of the monsters is sure to enjoy this.

Here's what it is:
Guy Haley's greenskin magnum opus is a highly enjoyable history of the baddest greenskin in the world of Warhammer Fantasy. Comedy, grand battles, and faithful presentations of various races are bundled with precision. Get yourself a copy.


Final Score:

96/100


Cover Score:

Bonus! The cover is awesome as well. I really love the work of Cheol Joo Lee, who also did the Swords of the Emperor covers. There's something about the overall style, it has a feel as if the miniatures for the game came to life in your mind. It is also worth noting that this cover made the list of nominees for a David Gemmell Ravenheart Award. A well deserved nomination indeed.

Enjoy this pic of the full cover:



Cover Final Score:

95/100

Friday, October 31, 2014

Votum Infernus

Votum Infernus by Nick Kyme. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 17 pages. 


We close out this year's Haunted Happenings with the last of the Legion of the Damned short stories, this one a yarn penned by Nick Kyme. So, yeah, that is what scared me the most off the bat. Wasn't I pleasantly surprised that this tale of an Imperial Guardsman trying to escape the sadistic Dark Eldar turned out to be an enjoyable, tense, action packed romp.

The world of Kaeros has been laid to waste by Dark Eldar raiders. One trooper, a man named Hersk, is the last man standing of the proud ranks of the Vostroyan 64th. There is no safety; there is no escape. And worst of all, his suffering has piqued the interest of a sibling pair of Eldar succubi. There are few things worse than being privy to the sadistic tendencies of the Dark Eldar elite.

And yet, on the near horizon, a lone warrior stands, clad in in ebon black and bone. What does this warrior's arrival portend for Hersk and his pursuers?

This is by far the best work I have read by Kyme to date. He utilizes strong imagery, helping to generate palpable tension. There are one or two twists in the tale that I really did not see coming. I like his portrayal of the Dark Eldar as well. It is campy, and lurid, as charged sexually as it is violently. The violence is choreographed well, and he knows well how to write for the Dark Eldars' bizarre weaponry, weaponry designed to maximize infliction of pain.

Kyme's portrayal of the Legion is done in a fine manner as well. The lone legionnaire serves as a stoic rock for the wild eldar to break themselves upon. The reason for introducing the Legion in this story works just fine.

Where the Votum Infernus falters a little bit are in the scenes where the number of characters on the page increase. It works best when we have our core quartet; Hersk, the Legionnaire, Slethial, and Yethanda. The parts where more of the Legion appear, as well as larger masses of the Eldar, the writing feels rushed.

It also seems unnecessary to even mention that Hersk and his comrades are Vostroyan. There are no cultural references, save some made up slang, and there are no special tactics either (to be fair, from the onset of the story, the main plan is "run for your lives!"). This is no big problem, and Hersk remains a sympathetic, if pitiable, character.

And there you have it. Votum Infernus is a solid Legion tale that deserves to be read. Happy Halloween everyone!

Here's what it is:
A lone member of the Vostroyan finds potential deliverance from evil in the form of a spectral warrior clad in midnight. This is my second favorite of the LotD shorts.


Final Score:

83/100


Cover Score:

Same skull, enveloped in green. This green either signifies the Dark Eldar armor, or the fact that Kyme usually writes for Salamanders (I know it's the former). Not my favorite color.

Cover Final Score:

20/100

Undead

Undead (Living Dead Omnibus) by John Russo. Originally published in October, 2010 by Kensington Books. Approx. 156 pages (Night of the Living Dead) and 165 pages (Return of the Living Dead).


Back in 1968, a little independent movie went on to become the best horror movie of all time. I am speaking of course of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which is required viewing for Halloween night. And, as we all know, due to the infamous leaving out of a copyright, it can be viewed any time for free in the vast openness of the Public Domain.


But what I didn't know was that there was actually a novelization of the film, penned by co-screenwriter John Russo. Russo would also write the blueprint for a sequel, very serious in tone, called Return of the Living Dead, which would be made into a classic, although not very serious in tone, movie.


Anyway, both of these books have been compiled into a handy omnibus, with a very nifty cover (just look at that ugly mug). Just a not: currently on Amazon, the omnibus is selling as a bargain book for $5.98. So how do these stories fare compared to their film counterparts? Both are quick reads, and reviews vary pretty widely . Let's take a look.

Night of the Living Dead:
This adaptation is the shorter of the two included here. If, by some chance you are unfamiliar with the story, here's a quick synopsis: some mysterious force has caused the recently dead to come back to life in a murderous state. In NotLD, we follow Ben, a resourceful father separated from his family in Western Pennsylvania, as he holes up in a farmhouse to try and weather out the zombie attack. He does his best to reinforce the home, while taking care of another survivor, a young woman named Barbara, who is in a catatonic state since being attacked along with her brother. Later on, they meet some more survivors hiding out in the basement, including a married couple with an injured daughter, and a young teen couple. Unfortunately, as the night progresses, the zombie mass swells, and the outlook within the farmhouse gets bleaker and bleaker.

Russo does a fairly serviceable retelling of the movie here. Novelizations, at best, offer an author a chance to "flesh out" characters from a film, giving fans that precious look inside of their heads which isn't visible on celluloid. Russo opts not to do that. He gives these familiar characters a little extra backstory, but that is about it. In this case, it isn't a bad thing. These characters don't need to be fleshed out even more, they've stood the test of time for effectively conveying personality types you see in a crisis: the calm-headed resourceful one, the one that shuts everything out, the cowardly, griping, malcontent, the youthful, helpful ones that don't think things all the way through. So, what Russo does is assign physical descriptions to the zombies that were not available with the budget and technology that Romero had to work with. This yields satisfying depictions of walking, rotting carcasses, more gruesome deaths, etc. 

The only other additional material here is a little more focus on Sheriff McClellan's posse, giving you an idea of their progress.

Russo has a decent writing style; I really don't get the people who call this work "amateurish". There is amateurish, and there is accessible. This book falls in the latter. It is a novel that can be read with ease by a twelve year old, which might in fact be the best target audience for the book. Some words are used fairly repetitively; Russo does not really use the word "zombie", although "ghoul" is a good substitute, but when he keeps calling the "attackers" or "aggressors", it sounds kind of odd. There are some times where the descriptions are just silly; I believe he was referring to the TV when he described it as "one like those people bought in the thirties". 

All in all, this is a good enough novelization, assuming you ever wanted to read the book version of Night of the Living Dead. At least with Return, there is some new material to be found. So, how did that story turn out?

Return of the Living Dead:
For his sequel to the events in Night of the Living Dead, Russo sets the timeline at ten years after the original outbreak. The location remains the same, and we are even reunited with hard-nosed Sheriff McClellan.

In this follow-up story, the events of the first outbreak are never forgotten, but rarely talked about. A reason for those events was still never isolated, and after the dead uprising was quelled, the government kept all talk of it hush-hush. However, in the areas around Willard, the local church goers have learned to be proactive: with each death, a railroad spike is driven into the corpse's skull, lest it may walk again.

Again, we never learn what triggers this outbreak. Whereas in Night, there was speculation put forward that the cause of the dead rising was linked to radiation from a Venus Probe, in Return the consensus is that it is viral. 

In RotLD, we focus at the beginning on Sheriff McClellan. Once things get off and shambling, the focus shifts to the Miller family, and their dealings with a roving gang, and also on a State Trooper named Dave, as he tries to make sense of a world turned on its head.

Storyboarding itself like a low budget movie, Return has a very "localized" feel. There are good and bad aspects to this. It serves well to stress the immediacy of the danger. But there are some things that just don't add up. For example, the bulk of the book takes place over the span of 48 hours, and, even though it is mentioned that it is happening elsewhere (again), you never get the feeling that there is anything going on outside the area of action. With not too many shamblers afoot, you would think that when someone gets their hands on car, they would bolt 10-15 minutes away to where some serious backup could be acquired. The attempt is made to recreate the same feeling of isolation from help as in the previous novel, but logic quells that argument. Another part that gave me a laugh was when a farmer holed up on a hill told the trooper that they had been "surviving off of canned food since it started". Sir, it only started yesterday. 

One other problem we encounter in Return is flat characters. All the primaries are painted in the broadest possible manner, in what I am guessing is a move meant to create identifiable, sympathetic, screen ready characters. So, while there is precious little development, it is fairly simple to guess each characters core function and guess how they will fare in the end.

On the other hand, the zombies are written with obvious aplomb. Russo again fleshes out some scary looking walkers, infusing them with a sort of malevolence burning behind their ravenous cravings for living flesh. He goes into gory detail when it comes to their feeding sessions. One instance in particular has him adding symbolic rape elements to a death by zombie; a moment that would have translated extremely well to the screen.

Another story angle that Russo wisely explores in this sequel is embracing one of the inevitable results of a zombie apocalypse: the fact that once people learn to contend with the undead, the real danger lies with other people. The people pushing their motives to the fore in a now lawless area. The looters, the rapists, and those with delusions of grandeur. Now, while Russo spends a good amount of time focusing on these miscreants, what he serves up are fairly one-dimensional bad guys (this is where the fact that this was written as being intended for a screen adaptation shows through). So, on both ends of the spectrum (good vs. evil), Return is filled with static characters and cardboard villains.

The final act of Return is composed in an interesting manner. As McClellan and his posse figure into the story more and more, Russo copies chapter from the first novel to the word (just updating a few facts to coincide with this scenario). Obviously this is meant to be a parallel to Night, but it just feels like deja vu all over again.

It's hard to deliver a final verdict on Return of the Living Dead. I don't want to say it's a mediocre book, because there are some very good elements here. But for everything done well, there is something phoned in. And there's no way to avoid that affecting the bottom line.

Here's what they are:
This zombie double-feature boast some well drawn zombies, but poorly realized characters. Both employ simple, easily accessible writing. Perhaps, in the end, they are entirely unnecessary novelizations, but they are still quite enjoyable in their own regards. Whereas in NotLD, the extra bells and whistles on the zombies themselves and their attacks add to the story, in Return is feels like a bit of a rehash. 


Final Scores:

Night of the Living Dead: 72/100

Return of the Living Dead: 67/100


Cover Score:

Very nice cover showing good detail on a zombie's face. What more can you ask for with a cover for a book like this?

Cover Final Score:

81/100

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ship Of The Damned

Ship of the Damned by C.Z. Dunn. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 29 pages.


Ship of the Damned is a short story that worried me a little bit from the get-go, from the moment I saw the sub-header "An Agentha of the Fractured Cipher Tale". When I see something like this, I worry that either a) I am about to read the further adventures of a character that I will need to track down previous works for background info on, or b) the author is presenting a character that they created which they believe is the cat's pajamas, and thus that character's appearance in the story is important enough to justify said sub-header. Which would imply that the character really is that good, and ergo, so is the writing. And, not to be rude, but while C.Z. Dunn is not a bad writer, he certainly isn't that good. Rant over, no disrespect intended.

Fact is, Ship of the Damned is a serviceable story, and that's about it. It does succeed in providing an interesting protagonist, one that is strong enough to carry this tale which features the Legion itself in a pretty sparse role. So who is Agentha, and what is the Fractured Cipher? Well, Agentha is a Sororitas of the Ordo Dialogous, which means that her specialty is more in linguistics than ballistics (although she does have serviceable weapons training). The Fractured Cipher is simply her Order. It's always welcome to have a story headed up by the Sororitas, and focusing on the Dialogous is a fresh point of view.

In Ship of the Damned, Agentha grabs some transit on a somewhat dilapidated pilgrim ship named the Herald of Piety. The opening pages detail which steps she has taken to streamline and upgrade worship services and education on this ship, which has gone years without touching planetside, and boasts an ever-increasing population of voidborn. Soon, a cryptic distress call is picked up over the ship's antiquated vox. Unfortunately, by the time Agentha decodes it, it is too late. The Herald is already executing a boarding maneuver on the hailing ship, and what it unleashes is horror from beyond the grave. How can Agentha help to save some of this flock she has grown so close to? And what part will the strange orb, retrieved from a bunch of squabbling youths, play in all of this?

So, what we have here is a fairly decent premise done little justice by the paint-by-numbers writing style. Dunn introduces an idea, a character, a theme, whatever, makes sure that there are sufficient explanatory terms, and moves on to the next checkpoint. The thing is, working within the parameters of a LotD short, there are some givens: we will meet the characters, we will meet the evil, the Legion will arrive, the Legion will eradicate the evil, the characters will enjoy a positive or negative outcome, the end. Knowing these will happen puts the onus on the author to really pack their story with tension, drama, terror, hope, whatever, just so long as they engage the reader. Dunn just isn't an engaging writer.

There are a few ways in which this is evident. First, the opening pages are spent acting as a checklist for all the good things that Agentha has done, as if that will solely endear her to us. No. Think of the universe you are writing in. A bleak, Orwellian, cruel, dogmatic regime. Now, think of what life would be like on a ship full of thousands of zealots devoted to this theological dictatorship. Then, think of how a warrior nun, raised since childhood to be a devotee of the Emperor-God of this interstellar superpower, would act normally. Once you have those parameters set, find a way to show us that the basic goodness of human nature can be extruded through the cruelties, and you have yourself a winning protagonist. Another problem is with the plague zombies. There simply isn't enough of them; not enough detail, not enough action. Dunn throws the children into the line of fire with them in an attempt to force tension (oh no! not the kids!), but, since we really don't care about the kids that much, we don't really worry that they might get gnawed on a bit.

One final question I have regards time keeping on pilgrim ships. Early on, we get mention that Agentha has scheduled classes and scripture in morning, afternoon, and evening blocks. Do they really adhere to those things in deep space? When does morning start? At sunrise?

As for the Legion, I have no complaints. The only original thing introduced in this story is that they are summoned via an artifact (personally, I like their appearance to be a miracle of their own deciding, as in Sander's novel). They have a very low page count here, so if that is a deal-breaker for you, consider yourselves warned.

Reading over the review, it seems I might be raking Ship of the Damned over the coals a bit too much. In retrospect, I will say that I would not be against reading another Agentha story in the future, assuming it is around the same length.

Here's what it is:
A Sororita (of one of the non-militant orders) does battle with plague zombies in a desperate bid to save her flock. Spectral assistance is tendered. This story definitely needed some better authorial chops to be properly realized, but is still readable.


Final Score:

65/100


Cover Score:

Same skull, now in blue. Basic color association trends cause me to associate this scheme with cold. Nice color, though.

Cover Final Score:

20/100




Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tomes Of The Dead: Viking Dead

Tomes of the Dead: Viking Dead by Toby Venables. Originally published by Abaddon Books, April 2011. Approx. 345 pages.


Continuing along with "period zombie novels" in Abaddon's Tomes of the Dead series, we move on to a historical figure that I am guessing has not gotten a lot of zombie treatment yet: the viking raider. Toby Venables aims to touch on this very promising subject matter in his debut novel, the matter-of-factly named Viking Dead. Now, while I was stoked at the premise, you can't help but be wary of freshman novels. However, existing online reviews were promising for this title, so I dove in. Upon finishing it, I can say that there is some really good stuff here, some run of the mill things, and a major "WTF" turn that will either be embraced or hated by the reader. Let's read on...

Taking place circa 976 AD, Viking Dead focuses on Bjolf, captain of the longship Hrafn, and leader of a diverse group of veteran viking raiders. We meet them as they launch a raid on a small village, where things do not go as planned. Picking up a young villager in the process (who later becomes a full-fledged member), they then run into a rival (and much larger) raiding party. Escaping catastrophe by the seat of their pants, they find themselves embroiled in a much greater horror.

Strange occurrences begin manifesting themselves soon into the Hrafn's egress. Following the ominous warnings of a terrified villager (the new "recruit", Atli's, father), evidence appears that the dead may indeed walk the earth again. At first, the incidents are small, although still jarring. The crew tries their best to not believe it, but mounting evidence makes that impossible. Soon, desperate for supplies, they find themselves approaching a mysterious land. A land shrouded in mist and mystery, which will, of course, prove to be the epicenter of the bizarre, twisted resurrections.

Within this land is a small fortress, where a ragtag clutch of villagers cower under the continual harassment of a villain named Skalla, a dreaded character who somehow holds sway over an army of corpses, a man who is the most likely key to the pressing questions of "how" and "why". But of course, there is always more beneath the surface. So much more. Let's look at all the parts of Viking Dead and see how they stack up together.

Characters: Hmmmm, gotta be honest here. Pretty much stock characters throughout. I don't know if I should chalk that up to rookie writing or Venables playing it safe. The characters are picked from templates and then written competently, even if predictable. Although written in a third person POV, the focus shifts primarily between Atli (the village boy turned viking recruit) and Bjolf. Atli was a bit of a pleasant surprise; it is very easy for books, movies, etc. to get ruined by introducing a child character that isn't presented well. Venables doesn't try too hard to make him into a prodigy, or make him likable. His is a fairly accurate account, if you take the time to step back and put yourself in his young boots. Unfortunately, Bjolf is a bit more cookie-cutter. He is just right in every facet, and of course, he has a heart of gold. I am not saying that all vikings were ruthless miscreants, but I'm assuming that Bjolf's crew has taken part in some rapings and child throat slittings during their years at sea. So much attention is paid to historical detail throughout (more on that later), that it seems somewhat cheap to forcefully impart 20th/21st century morality sets on these characters just to make them more palatable to a modern audience. But I guess we must do what we must do. Secondary and ancillary characters are punched out of cardboard as well. For example, we have Gunnar, Bjolf's longtime friend and second-in-command. Of course he is the bigger one, a bit socially awkward, and the completely loyal comic relief. Other crew members get fantastic introductions, but then, only a handful remain memorable, leaving the rest idling in the background as zombie fodder. There are friendly ones, and gruff ones, ones that are built around a single skill and no more, and of course, all are reliable at just the right time. These are tried and true tropes, so, while they are easily identifiable, they also make for easy reading. There is a late interlude where we get to saunter around a bit in the mind of our bad guy, Skalla, and in that time we have the set up for a sympathetic baddie (the best kind!), but, alas, not much is done with it.

Overall writing style/Knowledge of material: Venables has a very promising writing style, although there are some rookie missteps abound (we just finished the drubbing based on the characters). One of the main problems is "action for the sake of action during journey scenes". Yes, I get it. Those long walking scenes are pretty tiresome, so I can definitely understand the temptation to punch them up with some excitement, but some of the scenes are so arbitrary that they leave little chance to feel engaged.

However, there is an undeniably robust writing style at play here. Venables paces this novel extremely well. I have read some other reviews complaining that it is too long before the zombies arrive (well, in any considerable number). Yes, that portion of the book doesn't kick in until nearly halfway in, but you don't feel it as such. The story never bogs. The scenes of introduction and bonding are lively and entertaining. The world building is intense, detailed, and immersive. And it is peppered with great action scenes throughout.

One thing I really enjoyed is Venables' grasp of viking history. A hack writer attempting to compose such a period piece might have limited themselves to broad terms like "use the word longship, everyone is blond with beards and axes, etc.". Not so here. Viking Dead is saturated with terms and traditions that give you an intimately accurate experience of what traveling on one of these ships might have been like. The very real urgency of resource gathering, making the most of limited space, when to raid, and when to prepare to barter. The crew, as well, reflects a diversity that was more likely evident at the time than the standard "bearded blond" viking template we are familiar with. The Hrafn has warriors that are Scandinavian, English, Irish, and even Arabian in origin. There is mention of the mixed religions observed. Some revere the old Norse gods, some the "White Christ", some a mixture of both, some none. Again, though, as most of the playersdon't get a lot of characterization, these nice touches aren't as fully realized as they should have been.

Battle Scenes: Excellent. Venables writes robust, rousing action pieces that are complete with berserk rages and flying gobbets. There is plenty of action abound; be it viking vs. viking or viking vs. zombie. The characters use a nice array of weaponry, and it is interesting to see the utilized based on their characteristics (i.e.: there are various types of axes used, all with different blades, and therefore different techniques).

Zombies: Here we are at the most important ingredient in this viking horror stew. I must say that Venables writes some pretty amazing zombies. This is the billed main event, and it delivers. Drawing upon creatures from historical viking lore known as draugr, the author makes them into a truly palpable menace. These are dread figures of the shambling sort, although they can put on little bursts of speed. They are a bit stronger than their musculature might imply, and they can be killed by the traditional head shot. Two things, however, elevate the portrayal of them here. First is Venables' descriptive prose. He does not stop with the physical descriptions of the shamblers, he also gives you a first hand feeling of what it is like to do battle with one. The vile, black ichor that weeps from their wounds, The smells from beyond the grave. Impotent body blows that feel as little more than "stabbing into jelly".He takes it from painting a picture to delivering an experience, and the book benefits greatly from it.

Second, Venables employs a trick not often seen in zombie media, he makes the virus affect all creatures that taste the zombie blood. So, in a few choice encounters, the crew must face off against zombified critters. Nice.

Fear Factor: Fairly high here. There are some real claustrophobic moments, especially aboard the ship as the crew heads to their fate. The moments where our characters first discover evidences of the undead horrors resonate with the reader.

The Trouble With Quibbles: I've already mentioned the lack of unique characters and characterization, so for the time being I'll stop flogging that dead horse.

Ok, maybe just a few more strokes, you magnificent equine bastard!

There are a few more issues regarding some loose ends in the story, so as a warning, this bullet point list contains some SPOILERS:

  • First, what exactly are the ramifications of the scratch Atli receives from the underwater zombie? Is he impervious to the contamination? Does he possess an immunity that a cure can be extracted from? Or did the importance of it just wear off?
  • Second, what was the point of the "experimentations"? We know "the masters" were looking for a cure (or said they were), so why exactly were they stitching together zombie abominations? The scenes with these creatures were creepy, but what was the point?
  • What exactly was the point of the zombie "on and off" switches (the liquid and powder that Skalla carried)? No, I know the literal function of them. But the reasoning behind why they were introduced is never given to us.

Finally, we get to the big issue: the old twist ending (although this one was pretty easy to guess about twenty pages before it happens). I am guessing this turn will really not sit well with some readers, and I'll give Venables credit, it takes a lot of balls to steer your novel in a completely different direction after following the same road for a little over 300 pages. And, in all honesty, if you can swallow viking zombies in your book, well, you should be able to take anything. All I'm saying is, you might hate the ending. I didn't mind the twist.

"And I loved it!"

To the author's credit, it left the window open for sequel(s) featuring the remaining characters, in a new setting, which, given how enjoyable the overall quality of this book was, would not be a bad thing.

Here's what it is:
It's all in the title. Vikings vs. the viking dead. And it's done fairly well too. You get the bonus of historical authenticity and some of the better zombies I've seen in print. Plus, zombie ants. Don't laugh. Imagine your last moments being spent getting stripped to the bones by millions of crazed zombie ants.


Final Score:

83/100

Cover Score:

I like it, but I don't love it. The color scheme is great, as is the arrangement of the zombies. I love the physicality of the central berserker (ties in to actual creature in the book). The only problem is that he is "too neat". It looks like someone drew a nice, fit viking and then tried to "deadify" him in Photoshop. For the two zombies on the wings, the one on the right is done very well, while the one on the left simply looks like he stepped on a Lego. A fate worse than death.

Cover Final Score:

73/100

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Remorseless

Remorseless by Josh Reynolds. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 25 pages.

I will be completely honest right off the bat here; even with two more stories in the Legion of the Damned series to go, I don't think any will top Remorseless. This is a story written by an author who "gets" the universe he is writing in. And it is a story in which different types of troops, using different styles of tactics, are written properly. 

On the shrine world of Wayfarer, Hive Coramonde is under siege by the Iron Warriors (for the uninitiated, these are Traitor Space Marines that are the best in the universe in the siege business). On a somewhat brighter note, the residents on the hive are being assisted by the Imperial Fists, best in the universe at defending fortifications. Alas, the siege has been protracted quite a while, and the defenses are withering.

Taking down the hive, however, is not the Iron Warriors only motive. There are treasures on Wayfarer, treasures of a value beyond estimation; the progenoid glands of the Imperial Fists.  These glands are a prize worth fighting a war for.

Remorseless centers on Skaranx, who is what is known as a "gland hound". I don't know if Reynolds coined this term, but if he did, he deserves a lot of credit. The blurb for this story states that it follows a "traitor guardsman", but Skaranx is so much more than that. He has been genetically enhanced to a level of being just below the skill set of your average Astartes. He is pumped full of drugs and stimulants before each hunt, and he is given a retinue of bullet sponges to help him complete his task. 

But on this day, as he is unleashed on a gland hunt, something is different. Very different. As he harries a rather resourceful Fist, he keeps seeing ominous shadows just outside of the vision. Then a ghostly chatter begins to cloud his vox....

Okay, since this is a LotD story, it's a foregone conclusion where this is heading. So how did Reynolds fare in his depiction of the Legion? Wonderfully. This is the closest thing to a perfect representation of them that I have seen since Sander's novel. He plays up their fearful physicality superbly. And just when you start to wonder why their tactics differ somewhat from other appearances, he reveals a nice little twist.

It is not just his depictions of the Legion that I laud here, Reynolds writes with a colorful flourish throughout. He paints a wide horizon of a hive under siege, from the crushing artillery to the cannon fodder advancing through the trenches, to gore-soaked details of the handiwork of chainswords and grenades.

The characterization of Skaranx is very well done; he is given a personality strong enough to carry the text. He is as envious as he is proud; determined, and resourceful. One line in particular stood out to me in summarizing Skaranx's aspirations:

"He wondered what it would be like to be an angel, clad in baroque armour and wading through oceans of blood and eternities of slaughter."

If there is any minor quibble I have with Remorseless, it is that some themes get repeated quite a bit. I can understand that Skaranx might be repeating the same mantras over and over in his head, as a way to psyche himself up for the task at hand, so I won't dwell on it.

All in all, if you plan on reading only one of these Legion of the Damned story, make Remorseless the one. 

Here's what it is:
A genetically engineered super soldier of the Iron Warriors sent out to harvest progenoid glands gets an unforgiving lesson in what it feels like to be prey.


Final Score:

90/100

Cover Score:

Same as the rest, but with a nice blood red hue.


Cover Final Score:

23/100

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dark Wars: The Tale Of Meiji Dracula

Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula by Hideyuki Kikuchi. Originally published in America by Del Rey Manga, 2008 (in 2004 by Kodansha in Japan) . Approx. 250 pages.


Hideyuki Kikuchi could be considered an icon of the horror and vampire genres based simply on the voluminous body of his work. What grants him even more esteem is that his seminal work, Vampire Hunter D, was adapted into one of the greatest vampire films of all time:

Sorry, Youtube doesn't have a full version in Japanese with English subtitles. But this is the version people around my age grew up with, and it's not the worst dub you'll ever see.

A few years back, I wanted to try one of the Vampire Hunter D books, but my local Barnes & Noble of course did not have the first volume. Instead, I opted for Dark Wars as a Kikuchi primer. I wanted to see his usage of Dracula as a central antagonist, plus, the cover (by Katsuya Terada), was more aesthetically appealing to me than Yoshitaka Amano's VH-D covers.

So how was this vampire standalone? I will be honest, this is one of the harder books for me to grade. There is a simple delivery here which might be taken for amateur writing, which it isn't. There are opportunities for some real discourse regarding the changing dynamic of Japan in the Meiji era, but that was not the author's intent, so it is not on me to criticize. What I can say about Dark Wars is that it reads like a novelization of an anime storyboard; and as such, it is filled with as many stale tropes as it is with bold, imaginative moments. There are the touches of Kikuchi's authorial pedigree which transcend this yarn from simple Dracula fan fiction to something that sticks with you a bit. But I will say now, there is a major complaint I have regarding the ending (and I mean the last page), that might be considered a SPOILER when I get to it. So, consider yourselves warned; you might want to scroll past it later.

Dark Wars is structured as both a historical horror-fantasy and a Japanese parallel (of sorts) to Bram Stoker's opus. It takes place in the year 188- (seriously), in post-Bakumatsu Meiji Tokyo (formerly Edo). There is a nice little assortment of characters here, but the protagonist of note is Daigo, a seventeen year old kenjutsu (swordsmanship) prodigy. Daigo is a withdrawn, stoic, handsome type with a secret(more on that in the "tropes" section); and he carries a sadness over the loss of his father, an esteemed samurai who was lost at sea. He is close friends with historical figure Shiro Saigo, a prodigy of the newly founded discipline of judo, Both of them share close ties with sisters Chizuru and Akane, daughters of the Kashiwabara Isanosuke, master of a local koryu school. And how do these martial artists tie into the Dracula mythos?

Well, it turns out that our beloved Count is in Tokyo on personal business. A personal obligation, a promise to a man he met over four centuries ago, who has ties to Daigo's family. As with his expedition into London, Dracula precedes his Nipponese venture with a slew of real estate purchases (setting the stage for some rather convenient scenarios to integrate Kashiwabara's daughters into the proceedings).

Even though the Count's primary motives for being in Tokyo are to settle his debt and take in some of the foreign sights, before long, the tell-tale signs of a vampire in town soon begin to manifest themselves. And when the fangs start to sink close to home, it's time for Daigo and Shiro to go into action.

Aiding them in their chase, providing invaluable insight and help all along the way, is another historical figure; none other than the father of judo himself, Jigoro Kano. In Dark Wars, Kano serves as one of the greatest parallels to Stoker's classic; he fills the role of a Van Helsing type. He is schooled in certain Western cultures, and has dabbled in medical theory (this is admittedly added to further the narrative). So, starting from Kano, it is easy to see how the other characters match Stoker's English counterparts; Daigo is our Harker, strong and resolute although physically diminished, Shiro acts as an aggregate of Seward, Morris, and Holmwood (although his only skill is his judo), Mina and Lucy are represented by Chizuru and Akane, respectively, and later on, we meet Dracula's servant, Renta, who is our Renfield substitute. Well, while I am on the subject of characters, why not just start dissecting the book part by part? We start with...

Characters/Characterization: Weak. Oh so weak. Like I said, Dark Wars reads like a novelization of an anime storyboard. A good part of why I frame it like that is because so many of the characters are stock anime tropes. The two sisters? The depth of their character is that one is quiet and dutiful and the other is gregarious and somewhat tomboyish. Our main character, Daigo? Aloof, painfully handsome, consummate swordsman. But why so withdrawn? Because of pulmonary tuberculosis, which causes him to cough up blood at dramatic moments. the depth of character mined for Kano and Shiro is constant reiteration of their martial arts contributions. I mean, it is a very interesting gimmick to not only name drop famous historical figures, but weave them into the action as well. But that's it; it stays a gimmick. Other characters are relegated to the duty of window dressing. There are the yakuza members with honorable streaks, and a friendly girl who is fleshed out solely in colorful descriptions of how fat she is.

Dracula, on the other hand, fares a bit better. Although Kikuchi mentions some of the various forms he can assume, he spends his time alternately mostly between human form (as a young man, not the ancient he actually is), and bat form. His human form differs from other presentations, this Dracula is extremely tall and muscular. He is still suave and seductive. He is honorable, yet undeniably evil. And, towards the end, he gets a soliloquy that actually conveys emotion. Kikuchi mentions in the afterword that he was shooting for a Dracula that is in some ways weary of an eternal mortal existence. To a satisfactory degree, he succeeds in this.

Action: Lots of action here, and it is all rather well done. The martial arts are a central theme here; and always at play are the fading sword arts, the foreign sword skills, and the "new ways" of judo and evolving gun technology. Of course, people (and vampires) execute physical feats that defy reality, but that's all part of the fun here. The details are technically accurate, and Kikuchi goes to great lengths to attempt to integrate the mental aspects of the martial arts into the scenes he pens.

Fear Factor: There are a few tense moments and creepy creatures, but no screams here. But it is always fun to read about Dracula at Halloweentime.

Other Themes: As mentioned before, there was a great opportunity in this book to broach some themes that were both relevant and uncomfortable. The Meiji era must been an era that was equal levels exciting and terrifying as Japan changed so many aspects of their living. How uncomfortable it must have felt to have lived your life in an isolated country, and then start seeing an influx of foreigners with alien features and customs. Also, it must have been disheartening for many to see so many traditions and cultural institutions dying away.

It is fairly obvious that Kikuchi is using his primary characters as symbols for some of the emotions. Representing the dying art of Japanese sword arts is Daigo, our impossibly beautiful, perfectly skilled, dying young man. Symbolizing "modern Japan" is Jigoro Kano, educated, knowledgeable in Western culture, and creature of the perfect new martial arts style. And representing the foreign visitors and their interests is Dracula, a deadly, calculating, bloodsucking outsider who is threatening to buy all the real estate and seduce all the local women, making them his thralls.

In other news, this picture was found in Kikuchi's Japanese-English dictionary under the word "subtlety".


Writing: As with other foreign language fiction, there is the quality of the original story, and then there is always the risk of a poor translation. This is not the case with Dark Ways. It is immensely readable from the get-go. Due to the content (Dracula in 19th Century Japan), it does not require suspension of disbelief, but outright surrender of it. The prose is accessible, but not amateurish. And there is something about it that sticks with you after you are done with it. I can't put my finger on it exactly, so I'll just chalk it up to Kikuchi's skill.

Gripes: Well, now that I've listed all the things that I enjoyed in Dark Wars, not let's get to the quibbles. I've already punched through the paper-thin characterization. Another peeve here is repetition. How many times must we be beaten over the head with the "perfection" of a sword stroke or judo throw? There is repetition galore in conveying peoples' rationales and thought process. I don't want this misconstrued as a critique of Japanese single-mindedness, focus, or obstinacy (being married to a Japanese woman for a decade, I am more than familiar with all of those). It's just, how many times do you need to hear phrases like "It was so hard for her to believe that a man who created an art with the purity of judo would dabble in Western medicine/believe in people that turn into bats/etc.".

Another gripe that messes with the flow of the story for me are instances where Kikuchi references modern day places/technologies in a story that takes place 130 years ago. I am talking about lines like (paraphrasing): "The ball was held in the So and So Hall, which is on the third street in the Somewhere district in Tokyo, in the same building that is now the Acme Insurance company." or "They knew almost nothing about Transylvania. You know, back then, before e-mail and cell phones, they got their  information word of mouth." I the story was being told by a present-day narrator, this would not be an issue. But it isn't, and so those moments jar you out of a comfortable story flow.

My next to last gripe is a small one, and involves something that doesn't take away from the overall narrative: the arc involving Daigo's father. To be fair, once the Count makes his delivery, that portion of the story can be considered officially closed. However, in the small amount of time devoted to him, Kikuchi introduces a dynamic character, and a pretty cool time-travel element that begged for a heartier word count.

And now, the big complaint, the last page. If you don't want spoilers, scroll down to the final score.

Still here?

On the last page, Kano and Shiro are racing off to the docks, where a wounded Daigo is aiming to meet Dracula for a final showdown before the Count hops on his ship back to Transylvania. Now, I wasn't expecting a ten page, blow by blow account of their duel, but this is what we get (again, paraphrasing):

"They were almost to the dock. What would they find there?"

Yes. Seriously. There is a minor occurrence which hints at what the outcome was, but that is the ending we get. That's kind of a cop-out if you ask me. Ah well, if the Sopranos ending didn't kill me, this won't either....

Here's what it is:
A Dracula in Japan fanfic rises above the levels of forgettable fantasy thanks to the skill of one of the best vampire writers in the business. A fun romp (with a crappy ending), that I was able to enjoy a lot more once I looked at it from the eyes of my inner 14 year old (the point where I think my maturity capped off at). Some missteps keep it from being great, but some nice touches keep it from being bad. Fun vampire reading to leaf through while playing your favorite Castlevania soundtrack in the background.

This one.


Final Score:

77/100


Cover Score:

I absolutely love this cover. I really dig Katsuya Terada's artwork, especially the way he captures women's faces. Even better, you get an additional 14 black and white illustrations throughout the book. The action poses are a little weak, but some of the others are very nice. I have no problem admitting that sometimes it is nice to have some pictures in your book.

Cover Final Score:

91/100

Friday, October 17, 2014

From The Flames

From the Flames by Graeme Lyon. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 4 pages.


The review for From the Flames will be considerably shorter than the other entries in the series, since this is essentially one of those ~1,000 word micro-shorts that usually appear on the annual Advent Calender. Also, it will be graded on the 0-10 point scale, allowing for .5 scores as well.

From the Flames begins near the culmination of a brutal battle on the Eldar Craftworld Idharae. We see a burning inferno of a panorama through the eyes of Seoc, battle brother of the Invaders Astartes chapter. Narrating from a first-person POV, we behold a monstrous daemon, wrapped in fire, wreaking unholy havoc upon his fellow brothers; turning them into kebab with a wicked, two meter long spear (I am assuming this monster is an Avatar of Khaine, and not some Warp-spawn).

At the moment when all seems completely lost, a group of spectral soldiers emerges from a different set of flames, making their obligatory appearance in the story showcasing them.

But everything is not so by-the-numbers as you might guess. It is apparent that with each of these shorts, the authors are trying to add extra facets to the LotD lore, making them more than simply an unstoppable spectral killing force. In From the Flames, Lyon offers a situation in which the servant of the Emperor in need (Seoc) finds a way to communicate with the Legionnaires, and work in tandem with them.

The effect is very satisfying. It also helps that, even in this compact word count, Lyon makes Seoc into a solid protagonist, the epitome of Astartes fortitude (even if this warrior, genetically engineered to know no fear, can get a shiver down his spine at the arrival of his ghostly saviors). Even though the Legion feature, he is still the emotional core of the story.

Other factors in the story are handled to a perfectly satisfactory level. Lyon paints the background with fast, broad strokes of a colorful brush. The action scenes dictate the action effectively. The scope of the size of the Avatar is conveyed.

And that, in the proverbial nutshell, is that. From the Flames is a solid ten minute read that tells a complete story, in which the LotD are used well in a secondary role. I know these micro-shorts are polarizing for some 40K readers, but this one bears a look-see.


Final Score:

8.5/10


Cover Score:

Of all these palette swap covers, this drab silver might be my least favorite. Might be.

Cover Final Score:

2/10

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Very Old Folk

The Very Old Folk by H.P. Lovecraft. Originally published November, 1927. Approx. 4 pages (2,700 words).


The Very Old Folk has long been one of my favorite Lovecraft stories; not because it in any way deviates from his tried and true playbook (setting, rising action, indescribable horrors from the dark recesses of the universe appear), but because it does so in a well-rendered period setting (Spain under the banner of the Roman Empire), and, with its concise word count, conveys the message without meandering.

I am a bit unclear as to the origins of this story; it apparently was not a magazine story entry. Wikipedia chronicles it as a letter sent to Donald Wandrei, a member of Lovecraft's inner circle (Cthulhu Club?). The letter is addressed  "Dear Melmoth", so, I don't know if that was a nickname for Wandrei, or if this whole this tale was a story written in letter form and mailed to his friend.

Either way, The Very Old Folk centers around the author of said letter relaying to his friend a most vivid dream of his, taking place in Roman times. In this dream, the author finds himself in the body of a Roman quaestor, in what is now modern day Pamplona. This official, named Rufus, finds himself in debate with the Roman officials in the area, regarding mysterious, and quite terrible Sabbath celebrations carried out by the denizens of the surrounding hills. These reclusive people are rarely seen, except in limited trading ventures, and bad news usually follows in their wake. Whenever these dreaded masses occur, townsfolk go missing, and a pervading terror envelopes the land. With the Sabbath approaching, the local officials think the best action is inaction; yet Rufus believes it would be best to quell these masses, seeing the benefit to the current masters of commerce and productivity outweighing the heretical celebrations of the indigenous folk.

The vote goes in favor of taking out the troublemakers, a cohort is dispatched, and what makes this story a Lovecraft tale happens. In my opinion, it is executed in a superb manner.

The Very Old Folk is a tale that I think would work extremely well as a theatrical production; it has some of the best rising tension in a short story that I have read. The climax could be executed perfectly on a stage; the lights going out entirely, all sound stopping, then the ear-splitting screams of the guide and the horses. The shapes forming on the hills, all those things that reach in and strangle your soul.

What also works in this tale is a knowledgeable application of Roman terminologies. Lovecraft writes a believable rendition of the local power structure, and a debate within as it might have occurred in those times.

Highly recommended for a ten minute chiller. Since, like most Lovecraft stories, it is in the public domain, it is available to read for free in many places. I read it here, the background aesthetics worked for me. There is also a decent reading of it on Youtube here.

Final Score:

10/10


Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Dark Hollows Of Memory

The Dark Hollows of Memory by David Annandale. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 28 pages.

Winter has come to the Imperial world of Mnemosyne. Seems innocent enough; most planets inhabitable by humans have a winter cycle. But winters here are a bit different. On Mnemosyne, a thick fog envelopes the land during those months, forcing a sort of limbo among the citizenry. But the center of Mnemosyne's importance to the Imperium lies in the records kept in a monstrous Librarium.

One scribe out of many, a deaf man named Gosta, senses something is coming to Mnemosyne. Something will be happening soon.

Actually, more than one thing will be happening. One arrival not prophesied is that of the Company of Misery, here to bring their truth through agony and purge the Imperial lies from the cavernous Librarium. But arrive they do, and they soon begin the work of slaughtering the massed congregation as they search out scribes to give them access to the records.

Being as though this story falls in the Legion of the Damned series, it is no big surprise which direction this story is heading. The big question is just how well does the author present it?

Dark Hollows has some real strengths solidifying it as a good story; those being an atmospheric setting, bone-crunching violence, and a decent portrayal of the Legion.

Annandale crafts a real horror-film vibe for Dark Hollows, and it works to the overall betterment of the tale. The fog which envelopes Mnemosyne is a proverbial pea soup, and it stresses the tone of not having a safe haven. If this is to be looked at as a horror piece, than the Company of Misery play the slashers. Their captain, Akror, gleefully chews scenery as he theatrically massacres the innocents. However, beyond the flying gobbets of Imperial citizens, the Company offer little more than posturing and meanness. Their most clever attribute is that their armor is festooned with images of flames, a mirror of sorts to those that stand in the way of the delivery of their message.

Which brings us to the Legion. In Dark Hollows, the Legion act as specters opposing the Company's murderous rampage. Annandale does a great job describing their physicality; how their spectral flames play all across their armor, and the workings of their ghostly weaponry. He does not give them the same gift of gab the Goulding did (much appreciated), but pens for them a sort of collective thought pattern. It is well done and pretty creepy. Another interesting point is that in this story, members of the Legion are not completely invincible. Good way to up the ante by taking them off of God mode.

Where Dark Hollows falls a little short is in characters. The Imperial characters are interesting enough; deaf scribe Gosta and Imperial Commander Keremon. But after a decent introduction, they are relegated to the duty of running around with Death chasing on their heels. The ending is done nicely enough though. There are no Legion protagonists this time out, and as mentioned, Akror is more about catchy soundbites than anything else.

Again, you don't need great characterization to make an effective story. Dark Hollows of Memory offers creepy scenery, a good choice of a traitor Chapter, and some epic, bone-crunching, blood and viscera flying, action. And sometimes that is really all you need.

Here's what it is:
A Traitor Company ends up biting off more than they can chew when they invade a world full of Imperial records. One of the better depictions of the Legion of the Damned in action.


Final Score:

76/100


Cover Score:

Same as the others, now in a weak orange.

Cover Final Score:

20/100