Thursday, February 27, 2014

Shadow Games (Black Company Book 4)

 Shadow Games by Glen Cook. Originally published June 1989. Approx. 212 pages (Tor omnibus edition).

The White Rose wrap-up:
The expedition to the Barrowland revealed the extent of the Dominator's efforts to resurrect through that venue. Croaker discovered who the mysterious Corbie was; his old friend and former Black Company soldier Raven. Raven's efforts to discover the Dominator's intent ended with him becoming ensnared in the barrow. When this occured, Tracker and Toadkiller Dog, actually revealed to be lesser demons had a chance to escape.
Trying to hotfoot it back to the Plain of Fear, the group separated and Croaker ended up becoming a "guest" of the Lady. Under the pretense of wanting to see The White Rose (Darling) up close and personal, she donned the guise of a "normal" woman and joined him for the return to the Black Company's base.
Darling was not fooled, of course, and she and the Lady worked out a semblance of a truce to work together against the impending return of the Dominator.
this all led up to a spectacular free-for-all at the Barrowland. Raven was freed, as was the wizard Bomanz, who had been ensnared during his duel with the guardian dragon. The Dominator tried to sidestep all the traps laid for him by making a dash for the river. He was caught within Darling's null and set upon by everyone. A silver spike was driven into his head, which was then nailed into a sapling from Old Father Tree (who was revealed to be guardian of a similar defeated baddie). With the Dominator out of the way, the Limper makes his play and tries naming the Lady, but he guesses the wrong name (remember the Lady had a few sisters, of whom Soulcatcher was one). Failing this, Croaker carves him up yet again, hopefully for good. 
Then, the Lady shows her true colors and names The White Rose by her true identity. Before she can start thinking of making power moves with her nemesis out of the way, Silent breaks his vow of silence and properly names the Lady, rendering her human at last.
The battle finds the Company decimated, with almost all dead; including long-timers like the Lieutenant and Elmo. By simple fact of being the highest ranking remaining officer, and with no votes against it, Croaker becomes de facto Captain. His decision is to essentially dissolve the Company and fulfill his obligation to return the Annals to Khatovar, where the Company originated. He grants dismissal to all that want to go there own way. Darling takes this option, and Silent chooses to follow (he was harboring his love for her). Raven makes a play at amends, but is rebuffed. Darling compels him to get his affairs in true order before trying to become close to her again.
Lady makes the big decision to ride with the Company as well. How will this ragtag group fare on the long journey south?

HachiSnax note: Ok, this is getting ridiculous. This tie-up summary of the end of The White Rose is almost as long as the original review. I'm afraid that these reviews are going to have to get a little more spoiler-y, which should be fine, since someone starting these books with the later volumes will just be lost. I'll also say that with some of the "secrets" or "big surprises" in Shadow Games; they are pretty much announced early on. So I really don't think I am actually risking spoilers. I won't, of course, reveal the final outcome though. Anyway, enjoy Shadow Games, the first Book of the South. Cheers, Hach.

In its greatest moments of glory, the legendary Black Company fielded thousands of hardened soldiers. Now only seven remain. Croaker heads his little band southward, always aware the Imperial troops met along the way are in no way obligated to be friendly anymore. At his side, the Lady is getting her first real taste of being human. The long-tenured, always bickering sorcerers One-Eye and Goblin are up to their old antics, and Company veterans Otto and Hagop are along for the ride as well. Lastly, we are introduced to a new face; Murgen, formerly of the Imperial army, bearer of the Company standard, and potential Annalist in training. 

Much of the first portion of Shadow Games involves the journey; the initial leg of the trek southwards. There are stops along the way, including a trip back to the Tower to retrieve the Annals, which gets dragged out into a multi-week stopover as the Lady attends to Empire matters. Croaker and Lady also have time to honor their promised dinner date in Opal as well. 

Along the way, the Company swells their depleted ranks with odd and ends picked up along the way; some former Empire troops, caravan guards, and some guides that initially lead them through D'Loc Aloc, One-Eye's ancestral homelands.

There are highlights as well. At one rest location, they come across a trove of ancient annals. Once these are translated and transcribed, they provide an invaluable asset to the newly-minted Captain.

But along the way, there is always danger. Danger of new foes and unfamiliar lands. And Croaker is seemingly haunted; harassed by groups of phantom crows wherever he goes. And a stump. An actual walking stump. It might sound strange, but after a book full of denizens of the Plain of Fear, what is actually strange anymore?

Some interesting events transpire at a city called Gea-Xle. What makes this city interesting is that it is the place where the Company spent the longest amount of time in their history, almost becoming a formal army rather than remaining a mercenary group. There is even a group, called the Nar, which is comprised of descendants of the original Black Company members garrisoned there. They are outstanding specimens of soldiering, and they are led by one Mogaba, who is quite possibly the most pure soldier that Croaker has ever laid eyes on. 

To secure transport to the next large southward city, Taglios, the Company agrees to perform anti-pirate security on a massive barge. Their inevitable encounter with the pirate force gives us some of the best action in the book. At the next stop en route to Taglios, they meet five mysterious travelers, and that is where Shadow Games takes a turn for the very interesting.

As in the previous two volumes, Cook utilizes third person narrative to illustrate what is transpiring in important story arcs outside of Croaker's point of view. He employs two such arcs in Shadow Games. The first follows some residents of Taglios; two (white) northerners named Willow Swan and Cordwood "Cordy" Mather, and their companion Blade. Swan and Cordy had done "some soldiering" up North and are now just looking for a comfortable way to make easy money. They become recruited by two mysterious figures, Smoke and the Woman, to aid in repelling an assault from further south. To better understand this scenario, there needs to be some clarification on the state of affairs in Taglios.

Taglios is the largest and most prosperous city in the area. It is ruled by a prince; however, it is the heads of the three largest religious sects that hold the real power. So, there is a perpetual power struggle. To compound headaches, there is a new threat from south of the Main river; a quartet of mysterious, powerful and evil sorcerers known as the Shadowmasters. It is their advance that Swan, Cordy, and Blade are commissioned to lead the local forces against. And they do so successfully, the first time (not bad for a trio with a supposedly nominal amount of soldiering under their collective belts, no?). However, the Shadowmasters are gearing up for The Big Push, and so, Smoke and the Woman set out to sign the Black Company up for the big dance.

The Company weighs all its options and does its recon thoroughly before even entertaining the notion of accepting the commission. Croaker decides that one of his terms will be the institution of a military dictatorship with himself doing the dictating, thus eliminating the petty power wrangling between the prince and the priests. Then, it is time to set up for the big battle. Like the previous entries, Shadow Games culminates with a massive battle, and this one sure does not disappoint.

And there' the basic framework. So now, in this fourth entry, what works well and what, not so much? Croaker's narration is, as always, a pleasure to read. But you must take this into consideration, the tone always changes, evolves. Cook respects the readers and the series enough to allow the the narration to evolve along with the story progression. A lot of Croaker's internal dialogue is filled with doubts; doubts about his decisions, doubts about his capacities as leader of the Company, and doubts about his relationship with Lady. These doubts are tempered with copious amounts of sarcasm, in true Croaker fashion. Later on, Croaker's primary focus becomes logistics and strategy. With the full might of Taglios at his disposal, he has little time for playing Tonk or enjoying the antics of One-Eye and Goblin. Now, it all comes down to battle reports, recon, land surveys, etc. This might come off as boring for some readers, but I think it really shows Cook's flair for tactics, and how terrain affects battle.

In fact, the only complaint that I have with shadow Games is that it ends with a wide-open cliffhanger. The previous novels, even though parts of a story arc, were complete novels with open endings. At the end of this book, the fate of everyone comes with a question mark.

This cliffhanger format ends up hurting the effectiveness of the third person story sections. For example, we know that Cook's characters always have secrets and tricks up their sleeves, so we know that there must be more to the story of Swan, Cordy, and Blade than meets the eye. And yet, after the first few chapters with them, we see precious little of them. And we still "know" nothing about them.

Ditto for the Shadowmasters. Understandably, they are the mysterious evil. But even at the end of a major battle, we know nothing of their true motives. And this is a shame, since they, like Swan & Co., get their own third person chapters. Most of these are spent bickering with each other and hinting at internal dissent; fine, but I'd like to know what they hope to achieve and where they are getting their innumerable forces from.

Finally, I just want to mention everyone's most/least favorite character: Lady. Cook keeps his writing regarding her as deliberately ambiguous as possible, so that you can experience Croaker's frustration in trying to relate to her. She leads on, then rebuffs, opens up, then clamps shut ferociously, and one can never tell exactly whose side she is truly on (assume her own). Towards the end, we are treated to a small peek inside her head as we get one chapter focusing on her (so I guess that brings the actual amount of third person arcs to three).

Ok, one more minor quibble, but it is in fact a spoiler, so let's skip a few lines....





I think it is kind of cheap to insert new special items late in the game, so I took some issue with the fact that suddenly the Company standard can inflict direct, massive damage upon the Taken. I don't remember anything to this extent in the previous books, and this explains the sudden need to introduce Murgen's character. At least it explains why the prince of Taglios is so keen on hiring the Company, even though their numbers are so few. Don't get me wrong, it's a very cool touch, just odd to be introduced now. Oh well, let's just go with it.



And that's it in a nutshell. The trek southward promises more interesting times. Personally, I can't wait to see how Cook ties up all these loose ends. There were some pretty majors turns of events at the end.

Here's what it is:
A change of leadership and venue for the Company, but still the same old, same old. Tough commissions, impossible to kill sorcerers, and lots of conniving and subterfuge. Another day in the life. Not the best entry, but far from bad. I just didn't appreciate nearly 200 pages of buildup just to be handed a cliffhanger.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

As previously mentioned, I am reading these books out of the Tor omnibuses with the Raymond Swanland covers. And while I've gushed plenty on how awesome his work is, he really outdoes himself here. This cover is the epitome of badass fantasy. And this brings me to my next little rant. Let's look at these covers again. first is Berdak's:

His rendition of Croaker in the "Widowmaker" armor is well done, and the pair of forvalakas in the front look decent too. I'm not crazy about the rainbow effect, but, it's good for contrast, and it was the 80's, so....
Now let's look at Swanland's beauty:

Here's my issue. Going from this interview, Cook mentions how often in the industry things that have nothing to do with what is inside the book get slapped on the cover. Now, with the first omnibus cover, I am assuming it was Croaker, Darling, and Raven depicted, although I didn't agree with the appearances. This cover, however, has a perfect rendition of Croaker in the Widowmaker armor right down to Soulcatcher's device on the standard (well, I don't think that was in the book). It's fine if Cook doesn't like Swanland's style, but to me this cover is beautiful and relevant.

Cover Final Score (Swanland):


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Blood And Fire

Blood and Fire by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. An Armageddon novella featuring Grimaldus, the hero of Helsreach. Originally published by The Black Library, July 2013. Approx. 113 pages.

Within the vast body of the Imperium, so many different relationships can form. Bonds of brotherhood, grudging respect, and friendly and bitter rivalries. And, once in a while, actions as odious as betrayal. While Grimaldus and his Black Templars waged the bitter battle for the salvation of Helsreach, on the other side of Armageddon, at Hive Volcanus, the Celestial Lions fought as well against the bastard xenos greenskins. As if battling the endless hordes isn't difficult enough, something is just...wrong. So very, very wrong. Ships in orbit are suffering disproportionately grievous losses. Supply ships are being shot down. They are being fed misinformation at every turn, leading to wild goose chases and ambushes. And then came the Mannheim Gap, where the most brutal, decimating blow was tendered. Sent to destroy a gargant-manufacturing base, they found those vicious god-machines very operational, as well as meeting some very prepared orks and snipers. It was a massacre, and a message.

Reclusiarch Grimaldus recovers a report of the treachery from Chaplain (Deathspeaker) Julkhara of the Lions. He knows as well the cause of it. The Templars and Lions are cousin, descendants of Dorn all. He knew the error of the Lions. They crossed and questioned the authority of the Inquisition. They showed compassion in the face of an overzealous, violent, dogmatic regime (never a smart move). A message needed to be sent. A message to all Astartes chapters. Grimaldus knows all of this. He knows what pride will prompt the Lions to do. And he knows that it is his obligation to try and counsel them, or at least record their last actions. So, with aspiring Chaplain Cyneric in tow, he flies down to Hive Volcanus to meet with the remaining Lions. 

Grimaldus meets with them, and bonds with them. And, as you can tell by the pretty awesome cover, he goes to battle with them. Again, the Mannheim Gap promises to run blackish-red with the blood of these mortal enemies.

Blood and Fire is told, like Helsreach, from the first person POV of Grimaldus. The whole tale is rendered via his internal monologues. This works, and for a very good reason: AD-B is one of the very few authors that is talented enough to properly depict what the mindset of one of these superhumans might be. Space Marines aren't only superhumans, or jacked up humans, or humans minus fear. They are, for all intents and purposes, a separate race with certain similar values, or, as Grimaldus puts it, "a weapon with a human soul". It is a herculean task for any author to sit in the mindset of any alien entity for the course of an entire novel; for one of two mistakes can occur. First, the author might not be up to snuff and write the character as a slightly modified human, thus risking forfeiture of that race's identity. Second, the depiction might be so accurate, so "alien", that audiences may not be able to sympathize with the characters. Sometimes it is best to view these superhumans in an observational capacity, like in shorts such as Witness. But, again, AD-B (and a few other Black Library scribes) can pull off this first person view.

Grimaldus' narration is a mixture of storytelling and philosophical discourse. This being the case, the action scenes are retold as stories as well. We get an account of the Mannheim Gap massacre, a great, juicy tale of how Grimaldus earned his skull face, and a telling of the relevant events of the second Mannheim campaign. In this last tale, Grimaldus waxes more on the logistical philosophy of combat than on the actual "pew pew pew", which is fine since AD-B has always stressed characterization over bolter porn. Again, he can strike that balance.

Are there any complaints about Blood and Fire? Very few. While AD-B excels at descriptive prose, and his knowledge of the 40K lore is excellent. However, when it comes to dialogue, he sometimes falls into the habit of having different characters speak with the same voice. This is especially obvious when it comes to the "brooding, sarcastic badass" type, making the humorous quips of those such as Talos and Grimaldus essentially interchangeable.

Blood and Fire also offered me a sad epiphany as to the grouchy old codger that I am becoming. It seems I am getting too old and jaded to appreciate pop culture references. In the second battle scene (where Grimaldus earns his stripes), there is an actual Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. 

In case you were unfortunate enough to be under a rock for the past 40 years.

Or, as it is referred to in 40K lore, an Antioch Orb. I don't know if this piece of fluff existed before this novella or not, but I kind of just shook my head and wondered if the High Marshal was going to say "We'll not risk another frontal assault, that daemon's dynamite!" Then again, if I had found that Easter egg in my early 20's, I'd have been harassing my friends to read the story on the merits of that alone. So the lesson here, don't get old. It sucks.

But anyway, AD-B still delivers a solid novella featuring some fan favorites (yes, even Andrej makes an appearance). While it doesn't have the epic bombast of Helsreach, or the emotional weight of For the Fallen, it strikes a comfortable balance somewhere in between.

Here's what it is:
An enjoyable novella that sees the return of an iconic character. A good study on how cruel and petty those who wield power can truly be.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Another great cover in the Space Marine Battles series. It's a shame that Grimaldus is mostly cut from the main cover, but it was a good choice to keep the ork and the Celestial Lion in the frame. Here's the full cover so you can enjoy it in all its glory:

I think Tom Cruise sums it up best here....

Cover Final Score:


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sword Of Justice

Sword of Justice by Chris Wraight. A Warhammer Heroes book (and Book One of the Swords of the Emperor Duology. Originally published June, 2010. Approx. 414 pages.

Being as though I am slightly ahead of schedule on the Black Company books, I decided to go digging in the old Rubbermaid tubs for some reading that has been on the back burner for way too long. Sword of Justice seemed a good choice. Generally good reviews online, penned by a solid author (Wraight), and it has a pretty epic cover. So let's see how the first book in this duology pans out.

Sword of Justice focuses on one of Warhammer Fantasy's greatest heroes indeed, the Emperor's Champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm. He, along with Grand Marshal Kurt Helborg are the greatest warriors of Emperor Karl Franz (they also possess the mightiest facial hair, with Schwarzhelm sporting a beard that could make Santa Claus weep tears of envy and Helborg touting a moustache that Rollie Fingers would deify). They each wield an iconic blade of the Empire; Schwarzhelm the Sword of Justice, and Helborg the Sword of Vengeance. They are contemporaries, allies, and brothers. And, due to their distinctly different personalities, they are at times bitter rivals. Helborg is more the idolized celebrity; while Schwarzhelm is all dour efficiency. He is truly akin to a living sword; a powerful symbol, sharp within the confines of his trade, ready to mete out the Emperor's justice. But, more stately affairs elude him. And the crux of Sword of Justice lies in Schwarzhelm becoming embroiled in political affairs that are clearly out of the range of his expertise. But more on that in a bit.

I really need to start from the beginning, especially with a book like this. Sword of Justice opens with one of the best battle scenes ever to be read in a Warhammer Fantasy novel. And by opening battle scene, I mean three straight chapters of brutal Empire vs. Chaos Beastmen action. Wraight really excels during these brutal action sequences, although to be honest, I preferred Robert Earl's physical descriptions of beastmen in Broken Honour. This rousing opener introduces us to Schwarzhelm, some of our later supporting cast, and shows a bit why the Emperor's Champion is a bit leery of the Reiksmarshal. Again, even if you do not read this entire book, you should treat yourself to this great battle scene. 

After the cleansing of the beastman horde, Franz dispatches Schwarzhelm south to Averheim (the Champion's birth land) to oversee and pass the Empire's judgement regarding the electing of a new count. The whole affair has gotten rather ugly, as the side with the claim of blood lineage is offering a weak candidate, an effete aristocrat married to a mysterious woman. On the other side is a popular figure of no royal blood, who is backed by one of the richest families in the region (which itself has extremely slight bloodties to the throne). This latter candidate also has the coveted backing of the trade guilds. But, there is more. Always, there is more. Reports are pouring in of a massing ork army in the east. Also, there is the issue of a burgeoning drug epidemic in the area. Plus, something is not right in the air. Something that cannot be directly quantified, but still definitely wrong.

This, of course, is not the mission that Schwarzhelm would prefer. He would be much more content to pursue the rumors of massing greenskins than pore throughout lineage claims. But he does as he is directed, and as he goes to sort through the petitions, he dispatches a force to address the orks.

Things do not go any smoother once the focus shifts to Averheim. While it was to be expected that both sides would try to subvert the judgement process, the two factions push it to some pretty harsh extremes. Someone is blocking news of the force in the east; and paid mobs of the two claimants riot in the streets. Plus, the narcotics distribution has gotten out of hand. Also, there is the growing, festering evil, coursing through the undercurrent of it all.....

Sword of Justice has a lot of things going for it. First of all is the action, and there is a lot of it. You get large battles with beastmen, orks, servants of Chaos, and even the forces of man dueling it out. 

The characters in the story are a mixed bag. There is only so much that can be done with Schwarzhelm due to the established parameters of his personality. Therefore, we are given the character of Verstohlen, a spy/counselor who handles all of the "finesse" aspects of the Champion's duties. It is Verstohlen who emerges as the most fleshed out and likable character. We are also introduced to Bloch, a halbardier captain who Schwarzhelm sees promise in an takes into his force. He is a gritty, dirty fighter, salt of the earth leader, and provides the smart ass remarks that are necessary in darker works like this. After that, some other characters get a cursory treatment; we get a brief saunter through Helborg's head (very welcome), and then there are the remaining roles filled by trope players; thuggish thugs and bookish intellectuals. It all makes for a smooth ride. There are characters who you can from a mile away aren't to be trusted, and there are some whose deceit does come out of left field.

And deceit is one thing that is in plentiful supply in Sword of Justice. I was honestly expecting a few sneaky twists and turns, with a swift resolution at the end. That's not what happens here. Wraight ups the ante, and creates an unholy quagmire in Averheim. There are points where you seriously doubt whether or not any of this can be rectified. It is to Wraight's credit that this becomes more than what it appears on paper.

I will put this out here, not as an actual complaint, but just to let you know: this is most assuredly a "Part 1" book. There are a slew of unresolved threads at the end of this book that you will not get any closure on until reading Sword of Vengeance. This might seem pretty obvious, knowing that this is a duology, but remember that when Sword of Justice came out, it was not billed as such; it was just the first Warhammer Heroes entry. So, if you don't like cliffhangers, you might be a little let down by the end of this book.

And that's it in a nutshell. Any issues are in the fact that the characters are somewhat one-dimensional (though still compelling enough to carry the narrative), and the cliffhanger ending (although the quality of the writing will hook you in for the second entry).

On the plus side, you get great action and a lot of it. Like previously noted, Wraight brings a broad selection from the Warhammer beastiary into play here; and he writes for each of them well. The best ones; Chaos "pets" (kind of like evil marionettes) are truly frightening and showcase some very tense moments.

Another good thing, I would fully endorse Sword of Justice as a good "entry point" to the world of Warhammer Fantasy. Wraight does a good job in introducing many aspects of the worldscape, and the workings of the Empire in a way that is informative for new readers while not being redundant to long time readers. Recommended.

Here's what it is:
The first shot in a promising duology has equal parts bone crunching action and shady political dealings. A shade darker than your average fantasy yarn, with high stakes and some despairing moments. It could have been tied up a little more neatly so as to be complete, yet open-ended. Still, very enjoyable.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I unabashedly love this cover. It is a cover that sells a book (although this book is sold on its own merits). Unwavering, unflappable. A true icon of the Emperor. A perfect representation of Schwarzhelm.

Cover Final Score: 


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Child Of God

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. Originally published by Random House, 1973. Approx. 208 pages.

I've been lounging about in the worlds of fantasy and sci-fi far too long recently, and have become remiss in reading some, well, "normal stuff". So when I saw recently that James Franco has helmed a film adaptation of one of Cormac McCarthy's earlier works, I decided to give it a read. I will go on record and say that I am a huge McCarthy fan, and I regard him as not "among" the best living writers of our time, but indeed as our greatest living literary treasure. First, a look at the preview for Franco's take, and then, let's look at the book itself:

This Scott Haze gentleman, just on appearance alone, epitomizes Ballard's appearance.

Child of God is Cormac's third published novel, originally released four decades ago. It focuses on one Lester Ballard, a social outcast roaming the mountains around Sevier County, Tennessee. There is something off, something wrong about Ballard, on this everyone can agree. But there is the one line from the beginning that describes him so well, and serves as the moral lesson throughout the work:

"A child of God much like yourself perhaps."

When we first meet Ballard, he is trying to make a stand as the county prepares to auction off his family's last possession, his property. His father had committed suicide a whiles back, and the already ill-adjusted Ballard was left to his own means. He possesses the most basic of survival skills, and absolutely no social graces. And so, now homeless, he takes up squatting in someone's vacation cabin, maintaining a basic sustenance, and casting lewd remarks at local women. He is almost always seen with his most prized belonging, his trusty rifle, and it can be said that his one true skill is in his marksmanship. He also satisfies his internal inadequacies by watching others in the act of copulation and pretending to shoot those people and animals he despises with said rifle.

A turning point in the novel occurs after Ballard is briefly jailed on an unfounded rape charge. Not long after, he comes upon a car on the road containing the bodies of a young couple that died in the middle of intercourse (carbon monoxide poisoning maybe?). Perhaps realizing with a stark urgency that his desires will remain forever unrequited, he gratifies himself with the female corpse. He then brings her home, and.... I don't know, tries to approximate an imitation of a relationship. He cares for her like any of his other trophies (his rifle which he maintains immaculately, some stuffed animals he won in a shooting game at a fair), and he also, well, continues to consummate this relationship. However, one night his new found love is lost when the cabin goes up in flames, and he becomes a literal mountain recluse, living in a cave. He also sets about replacing his lost love, and then escalates to collecting corpses like trophies, like his stuffed animals.

This may seem a little spoiler-y, but trust me, it really isn't. Any search on this work will tell you that necrophilia is a central theme of the story, and I won't get into the ending or Ballard's ultimate fate.

The real treat in Child of God is, of course, McCarthy's masterful prose. We are treated to his traditional stream-of-consciousness style, bereft of such hindrances as quotation marks and with run-on sentences scattered throughout. The earlier portions feature first person accounts, testimonials supporting just how "off" Ballard is. Always one to create his worlds seemingly brick by brick, McCarthy paints 1960's Tennessee with colorful descriptions and poetic metaphors. Also always remember that the same attention is paid to descriptions of harsh brutality as well. 

The characters in Child of God follow familiar McCarthy tropes as well: Ballard himself is the destructive force of nature, emboldened with a distinct set of values, cutting a swathe across the landscape (like Judge Holden in Blood Meridian or Chigurh in No Country for Old Men). Sheriff Fate represents the voice of judicious reason, a complete fish out of water in a world where moral depravity seems to be the more and more accepted norm (like Sheriff Bell in No Country). There is mention of a bigger, badder lawman in the area's history (like Bell's father), and there is a prophetic old timer reminding us that these wrongs have been around since Adam was around (the prophetic of man in The Road).

This following part is a bit of an analysis and may have some spoilers in it:

Some might say that McCarthy has crafted in Lester Ballard a character who is just as sympathetic as he is repulsive. In a way, this is true but looking at him, do we feel more sympathy, or pity? I think McCarthy dares us to pity Ballard. Pity his inherently miserable experience. For the irony is that once we pity something, we assume a position on a plateau above that which we pity. And that conceit is what makes us uglier than what we leer upon. Ballard does despicable things, but he has an incredibly strong, linear logic. McCarthy points out that this logic is on par with a local child who is an imbecile, but it is still there.

This is not to say that this is Cormac's best work. Some of the descriptions go on unnecessarily, and some of the gory bits are a bit overblown for shock value. It's obvious that the reason is this being an earlier work, over the years he has done well to refine his style to make the horrors and violence brutal, yet believable. And inescapable. Like the horrors in our very souls.

The point is, Ballard is not there for us to wrestle with sympathy or revulsion over. He is there to serve as a counterbalance. He is there to show up all the self-righteous folk for the hypocrites that they are.

For example:

Ballard is falsely accused of rape. Some boys did in fact rape the accuser.
Ballard did have sex with dead women. But he never raped a live one (how I'm guessing his logic works).
Ballard did have sex with dead women, but the dumpkeeper had no reservation about forcing himself on one of his own daughters (and probably more, as he had nine of them).
Ballard squatted and stole enough food to get by. The townsfolk had no problem ripping him off in barters and also stole expensive items during a flood. In fact, the townsfolk had no issue with auctioning off the only thing he owned at the beginning of the book, even making an event of it with musicians and concession stands.
Ballard stole all the possessions off of the dead he came across or killed. But when he stole, they didn't need it anymore (twisted logic).
Ballard killed to make more trophies. The townsfolk had no qualms attempting to lynch him.

See, no matter how much one points the accusing finger, it always ends up aiming back at ourselves. This is not to say that Ballard is a hero, but only the most extreme villain. But he is no monster, just the perennial outsider, mocked, ignored, loathed.

And still a child of God.

Here's what it is:
One of legendary author Cormac McCarthy's works serves as a study of the spiritual degeneration of a social pariah, and asks whether monsters are born or made.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Not much to be said regarding this cover. Green grass and a fade to black, with the lettering standing out in bold white. If I were looking to buy this new, I'd wait for a movie tie-in version.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The White Rose (Black Company Book 3)

 The White Rose by Glen Cook. Originally published April 1985. Approx. 251 pages (Tor omnibus edition).

HachiSnax Note: Same as when I started the Shadows Linger review, I'll just let you know now that this review will be peppered with some references to the events that transpired at the end of that book. These reviews will probably be getting vaguer and vaguer; which is a testimony to Cook's ability to texture his works with deft twists and turns. So, be warned about Shadows Linger spoilers, and also be warned that this review may be a little scanty on details, so as to avoid a trip to Spoilerville. Cheers, Hach.

One thing that could not be touched upon in the review for Shadows Linger was the fate of the Company after the climactic battle in Juniper. As the Lady fought to keep her husband, the Dominator, from barging into the world via the black castle, the Captain had arranged for Croaker and a group of Company survivors to grab a fast ship out of Dodge. The losses were devastating, only around a hundred made it out. Those survivors that remained in Juniper stayed under the imperial banners of the Lady. The Captain himself perished in the great egress. And the last of the Company had no other hope than to chase the ghosts of Darling and Raven, knowing that the Lady marked them as betrayers and deserters.

But the Lady could not wipe them out so easily; her own forces had been greatly weakened in the wake of the battle at Juniper. Some of the Taken were dispatched to fetch them back, led by one Limper, more than enthusiastic to settle some debts of his own (he was also hoping to recoup the documents, believed to be in Raven's possession, which Soulcatcher had hoped to use against the Lady). Long story short, the last quarter of the book was an extended chase scene, with a great chance at redemption for Shed.

And so, at the very end, the tattered remains of the Black Company pledged themselves to Darling, the White Rose. With almost thirty years until the next coming of the comet, they had a long time to wait, and evade the Lady's all-seeing Eye. A hundred men versus the entire empire. Not very good odds, but never count Croaker & Co. out.

Some years have past. An aging Croaker laments on his declining capacities. Darling, the White Rose, is now a grown, strong woman. A hardened, natural leader. And the Company itself has found some semblance of home on, of all places, the Plain of Fear.They have set up a makeshift base and ironed out an unspoken agreement to stay with the bizarre denizens of said Plain, including walking trees, talking menhirs, the infamous flying windwhales, and Father Tree, a mysterious godlike tree rooted dead center in the Plain. From this 'home', Darling and the Lieutenant make their plans for defeating the Lady, while Croaker is brought messages from various couriers. While busy translating the papers taken form Soulcatcher, he needs to discern the importance of the new letters. What do these letters touch on? Nothing less than an account of Bomanz, the legendary sorcerer whose actions led to the release of the Lady in the first place.

Time is not on the company's side though. The Lady now knows their hiding spot, and has her new Taken harry them often. Also, her forces are hard at work developing advanced tactics with which to circumvent Darling's null and destroy her and the Company physically. Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin, and newcomers Tracker and Toadkiller Dog ( his canine companion that must be referred to by his entire name), set off to find the missing parts of the Bomanz accounts, in hopes of finding anything that would help name that Lady by her true name and defeat her.

In the end, another huge showdown looms, but the focus needs to be realigned. Although the Lady and Darling are locked in mortal combat, both know that the true enemy is still the entombed Dominator. And it bears remembering that entombed does not mean idle. After he got his foot in the door in the last book, the Dominator knows that his best chance is at hand, and he has some real doozies up his sleeve.

Again, that's about all I can divulge without ruining anything. This is it, the final entry in the Books of the North saga, and for better or worse, the end of the cycle involving the Lady, the Dominator, Darling, and world domination. Now let's look at how Cook handled this third installment.

Like in Shadows Linger, we have a narrative split between first person POV (for Croaker), and two third person story arcs. Those two arcs take place in different time periods. As mentioned, one centers on the actions and preparations of the wizard Bomanz. The other focuses on another new character, a veteran of the Forsberg campaigns (under the Limper) named Corbie. Corbie's tale takes place in the very recent past. Before commenting on these portions, I will mention that those tales terminate a little after the halfway point of the book, meaning the final 40% or so is all first person Croaker.

I will just say it plain and simple; I really enjoyed the Bomanz chapters of the book. I don't know how other readers had imagined what Bomanz looked like, but I had always pictured him looking like Kelek, from the old D&D action figure line....

Yeah, I was pretty much dead wrong. Turns out Bomanz is a pudgy, aging wizard working as an antiques dealer specializing in Domination-era artifacts. Or perhaps that is just a glamour he wears to disguise the thirty-seven years he has been working on contacting the Lady. Turns out, there are many Resurrectionists; those who are enamored with the lore of those cruel times and seek to release those trapped miscreants from the Barrowlands. Bomanz is different; his focus is solely on the Lady, he is enamored by the notion of her (much like a certain Annalist/physician we all know), and he believes that he possesses a tool which would grant him leverage in dealing with her. Bomanz's tale is, again, extremely well done. I'll admit; this tale struck a personal chord for me. Being a child in the 80's, when these books came out, antiquing was big business, and my parents were all in on it. Reading these chapters of Bomanz and his wife with their nonstop bickering and insulting was such a throwback for me; I felt like a pudgy little kid in a weekend cabin outside of Lancaster, PA all over again.

Corbie's tale is done very well too. Corbie comes limping into the Barrowland, an unassuming, taciturn veteran, taking odd jobs and keeping to himself. However, he soon takes up residence in Bomanz's old house, and embarks on some serious research into Bomanz's ways and works. Is he looking for info? Or looking to finish what Bomanz started? Cook keeps you guessing to the end on this angle as well. We are also introduced to a young soldier named Case, who befriends the sullen Corbie. He is a very interesting new character as well.

So there you have it. I give The White Rose a slight edge over Shadows Linger for a few reasons. For one, the Black Company supporting cast is more in the fore again. I really missed One-Eye and Goblin's constant bickering in Shadows (there was some, but more here). Also, we see more of the Lady in The White Rose. Love her or hate her, she is always compelling. Shadows Linger had some better fight scenes, and a likable character in Shed, though. No matter what, Cook ends this first arc in grand fashion.

Here's what it is:
The final installment in the Books of the North is resolved in grand fashion. One might assume it is simply the Lady vs. Darling, but Cook weaves so many twists and turns your head is left spinning. All make huge sacrifices, and they are only rewarded with the most bittersweet of endings.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I'll be honest, this is where Berdak's skills shine through. His renditions of people come off as somewhat clumsy and awkward, but this vision of Father Tree really captures the wild distortions of the Plain of Fear. But, like the other two books, I am grading on Swanland's work.

Cover Final Score (Swanland):