Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My First Guest Review!

I'm very happy to say that today marks my very first guest review on another blog site.

My review of David Annandale's Black Dragons short story "The Tribute of Flesh" can be read over here:

If you've never been there, take a look around. It's one of the more informative wargaming sites I've seen, and I am happy that they chose to post this review, and hopefully some more in the future.

Cheers All! ~Hach.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dreams Of Steel (Black Company Book 5)

 Dreams of Steel by Glen Cook. Originally published April 1990. Approx. 222 pages (Tor omnibus edition).

Where we last left off:
The Company has lost the engagement at Dejagore. Croaker has fallen, presumably dead. The Lady, fighting with a desperate fervor, ended up literally buried beneath a pile of corpses (also presumed dead). Murgen and the remnants of the Company, along with their Taglian contingent, remain inside Dejagore, now under siege by Shadowspinner and his forces. Mogaba and his forces do what they can to harry the forces of the Shadowmasters.

Dreams of Steel:
What can one expect going into this book? There were so many open storylines left open at the end of Shadow Games. This is very much a middle of the road book, carrying action along as this new story arc further develops. But middle of the road need not apply to the quality of writing (and such is not the case here, the writing is superb as always). Also, this book brings us another first: it is the first Black Company title to feature an Annalist/narrator other than our beloved Croaker. This time it is Lady; who, as already mentioned, you probably really hate or really want to get inside the head of (I'm on the latter team). How does Lady fare as a narrator? Extremely well, in my opinion. But it's not Croaker by any means. Be forewarned. Also, you might not be getting as much of Lady as you may have wanted (more on that later).

Although buried under human detritus, Lady is not dead. Battered, broken, but not dead at all. After dragging herself away from the scene of their loss, she is aided by two Taglians, Narayan and Ram. Both seemingly from meek backgrounds, there is very obviously more to them than meets the eye. Mysteries aside, they help her make her ways back north, as she attempts to reassemble their forces.

It still has not been revealed why the Radisha and her brother the Prabrindrah (along with the sorcerer Smoke) fear the Company so much. But it is obvious that they are more than happy that the Company was decimated along with the bulk of the Shadowmaster army. But the Taglian royalty is in for a big surprise. For the Lady, the one loss and presumed death of (her beloved) Croaker does not terminate their commission. She has claimed the captaincy, and demands that her supply and replenishment needs be satisfied.

To be honest, nothing really gets resolved in this book as far as the war goes. Dreams of Steel is mostly about raising armies, moving armies, harrying opposing forces, chipping away at them as you build your own strength up, etc. There is also a focus on the "spy games" going on between Longshadow, Lady, and Soulcatcher.

Wait, did I just say Soulcatcher?

It was revealed at the end of Shadow Games that the mysterious stump that had been trailing Croaker the whole book was actually the Lady's sister, Soulcatcher herself. She has been the one all along sending the crows to watch the Company (the bats were courtesy of Longshadow, and the watching shadows were sent by Spinner). It also turns out that she is the one that sent the imp Frogface on his spying and merry mischief making. This is all great news; Soulcatcher was one of the most compelling and entertaining characters of book one, and if Cook is bringing back the Taken, thank goodness she is back too. Catcher is present not to take sides, but more to sow the seeds of Chaos. Her motivations? Seeing her sister suffer as revenge, as well as letting Croaker suffer to see Lady suffer. She is also an unabashed, all around troublemaker. And so, the travels around, causing her catastrophes, bringing the convalescing Croaker in tow.

There is another aspect introduced in Dreams of Steel: the Kina storyline. As established in Shadow Games, the Taglians, although living under a monarchy, were truly under the sway of the three prevalent religions. It turns out there is another religion at work; one that is outlawed, with followers in the shadows. Kina is a goddess of Death, and her followers, the Deceivers, carry out murders in his name. There is a prophesied-about murderfest coming, known as the year of Skulls. And Lady fits into this theology. Apparently, she will be the vessel to bring Kina back into this world, and initiate the slaughter. Narayan (actually one of the highest ranking Deceivers around), Ram, and another high ranking devotee, Sindhu, have great plans for the Lady regarding the preparations for this. Lady is forced to make a tough concession; as much as she abhors religion and the impact of clerical interference, the services provided by Narayan and company are invaluable. Plus, there are the dreams, the visions. It can't be coincidence. It actually does feel as though her fate is somehow intertwined with this Kina.

Since most of the book revolves around travels, ceremonies, and some battles, enjoyment of this book really comes down to how much you enjoy Lady in the role of Annalist. Her tone is (obviously) very different from Croaker's, and she herself even warns the reader at the beginning:

"I have no training. I am no historian nor even much of a writer. Certainly I don't have Croaker's eye or ear or wit."

It is true that there is little wit in her narration. It is not her way. Croaker's sarcasm, self-admittedly, helped him get by. The Lady is no-nonsense. She does not suffer fools. She makes fools suffer. Where narrator tries to juggle egos, or find ways to distract those that distract him, Lady cuts away all nonsense. She makes a dutiful and engaging narrator, and it is enjoyable to see her military machinations. She is a natural.

Since she is writing for the Company Annals, what you do not get is any real history on who Lady is. Where did she come from, what were her desires all along, through the attempted Dominations and even her own power plays. But this is all par for the course. People joining the Company leave their pasts behind. You get confirmation that her love for Croaker is legitimate, though. Just don't expect all your answers regarding her to be satisfied.

Another plus in Dreams of Steel is that we see more character development in the supporting cast. It is interesting to see Croaker in a third-person position (not a secondary character in the series of course, but he is in this book). We see the Prabrindrah coming more into his own. Longshadow, leaders of the Shadowmasters, is fleshed out more, showing the extent of his powers, as well as his conceit and weaknesses. The trio of Swan, Cordy, and Blade, introduced with much fanfare in the last book and then left in limbo, get much more page time and depth. They finally make for intriguing assets.

Missing in action (and sorely missed) are One-Eye and Goblin. They are hiding out within Dejagore after taking their sweet time torturing and killing Shapeshifter (who, it was discovered, was the one that killed One-Eye's brother Tom-Tom while in the form of a forvalaka). Their absence, coupled with the lack of Croaker's sarcasm, sap most of the humor from this book. Any levity is provided from Soulcatcher's twisted psyche and Frogface's scampering.

I must truly commend Cook on all the work he put into the religions that he has created. The Kina apect is both sinister and believable. We are also given snippets as to how these death cults tie into the Company's history, yielding clues as to why the Taglian royalty so feared them, and why the Company standard possesses its mysterious powers.

Cook hints that the next arc of action will take place along the plain of the glittering stone, where Longshadow resides. Perhaps the final battle with the Shadowmaster will take place there. There is also the issue of Mogaba to resolve. There is some dark force causing a madness inside of this once-stellar officer, and the end result cannot be pretty. Finally, there is a nice little last chapter twist, setting the stage for some interesting events-to-be.

Just a last note, the next volume to be reviewed will be The Silver Spike, which follows those we said goodbye to after the battle in the Barrowlands. I am not sure if it was published before or after Shadow Games, but I am reading and reviewing in the order it appears in the omnibus.

Here's what it is:
The wheels keep on turning, things keep going in motion, but the events of this portion of the Company's legacy are still developing. Better than Shadow Games by a hair, but I still prefer complete entries.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I already gushed on the majesty of this Swanland cover in my last post, so let's talk about the Berdak cover a bit. In all honesty, the background and his rendition of Soulcatcher are actually pretty good. It's the demon that he dropped the ball on. Placement and composition are totally off. But at least he tried to capture some of how Cook described the creature. 

Cover Final Score (Swanland): 


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Myriad (Tour Of The Merrimack #1)

The Myriad (Tour of the Merrimack #1) by R.M. Meluch. Originally published by DAW in 2005. Approx. 310 pages (hardcover).

A few years back, I was intrigued by the cover of a book called "The Sagittarius Command" by R.M. Meluch (I was not familiar with her books at the time). I realized that it was the third book in the series, but going back, the cover of the first book kind of put me off from starting the series (puerile as it may be, I will admit that a cover will often make or break my purchase. Isn't that what it's there for?). Fast forward to now, and I did a search of my local library system for book one. Figuring that I can't go wrong reading a book with a bad cover as a loaner, I dove right in. 

Suffice to say, it has been a unique journey. The Myriad is one of the most original sci-fi works that I have ever read, bar none. It is a work that juggles classic (arguably antiquated) character tropes with theoretical astrophysics. Meluch juggles with skill, though; skill and deft prose.

Here's an example of some of Meluch's spot-on wordsmithing, as she describes one girl's lowborn roots:

"Trailer park. An idyllic name for a slum where the landless lived in their mobile shelters stacked three high in the unpretty part of town with hard men, slutty women, and mongrel dogs."

The Myriad follows the adventures of the USS Merrimack, a space-borne U.S. battleship (at this point, the United States is the dominant world power) on its mission to destroy the Hive; an all-powerful, all-consuming, collective minded alien entity. To assist them in this mission, the Roman Empire attaches a "patterner" to the Merrimack.

Wait a minute....Patterner? Roman Empire? In the future? What's going on here?

I will probably mention again and again, Meluch has infused this tale with a good deal of interesting, clever, and fun ideas. One of these is the Palatine Empire (Rome). It turns out that all the intelligentsia of Earth which still used Latin in their professions (lawyers, doctors, etc.) were all along perpetuating the next rise of glorious Rome. Taking off from Earth, they colonized their own planet (as well as a few others). And for the next 150 years, Rome and Earth were at war; that is, until the arrival of the Hive. Rome, suffering great losses to this alien threat, sued for a tenuous peace.

Back to the Merrimack and her crew, interesting mix that they are. The Mack is led by one Captain John Farragut, the kind of stalwart, dashing, brave, good ol' boy that people can't help but fall victim to the charms of. A large focus also falls upon the company of Marines stationed on the ship, led by Lt. Col. Steele. Another character of note is Flight Sergeant Kerry Blue, a promiscuous young beauty with a tender heart. Added to the mix is the Roman patterner Augustus (just to clarify, a patterner is an augmented human with the ability to "plug in" and solve complex data problems of a wide spectrum. Their physical attributes are enhanced as well. All the tinkering is apparently quite traumatic on the patterned, though). Augustus is far and away the most dynamic character in the story; beneath his condescending veneer, he is obviously quite troubled. He has his ingrained, unquestionable fealty to Rome, and yet he lives his life knowing that they mercilessly tinkered with him as no more than a commodity. He is then attached to this crew of intellectual inferiors, knowing that these mental midgets are the ones that Rome essentially surrendered to. 

Ok, that's the gist of the backstory. So what is this book about, and what is "The Myriad"? Well, early on, the crew of the Merrimack comes across something of an anomaly; a cluster of three planets bearing intelligent, humanoid life. This is odd since this group of planets was overlooked by the Hive, even though they were in their path. This group of planets is known as The Myriad, and the humanoids are led be an Archon named Donner; a prideful, yet benevolent dictator. Farragut establishes a rapport with him; neither side wanting to show all of their cards, yet both greatly respecting each other. It's just that there are some happenings going on involving the Myriad that goose normal conceptions of space and time.

One initial mystery involves the modes of transit and communication available to the aliens. They are something of a low-tech species, with most of their ships only attaining sub-light capabilities. And then there are the kzachin. Surrounding the planets of the Myriad are portals, similar to wormholes (except they do not collapse after usage). These transit tubes are what defies all known logic, and as the crew attempts more and more to dissect their import, they realize the potential for trouble; a real time paradox. 

Around this time, the action really gets moving. A troublesome ship full of talking head dignitaries from Earth shows up, promising to undo all the goodwill established with their incessant meddling. Farragut is compelled to continue on his original mission, to hunt down the Hive. There is some decent human vs. alien action, and then, well, new problems arise.

This is all just a basic summary. I cannot do justice in this review to the scientific romping that Meluch experiments with, but it involves tweaking notions of spatial distance, as well as distance measured in time. There are interesting takes on technology, blending elements of low-tech concepts (Battleships and swordfights in space. Ships that conduct broadside assaults with projectile weapons in deep space) with legitimate discussions on gravitational pulls, faster than light travel, uses for antimatter, etc. Point being, there is a lot of thought put into the scientific aspects of this work.

Perusing some other reader reviews of this book, a lot of people take jabs at the dialogue and character interaction. The biggest complaint is that it is somewhat hokey, a throwback to the pulp novel era (as if that would be a bad thing). Trust me, Meluch is an intelligent writer, and every word in this book is purely intentional. The situations are reminiscent of a novelization of a popular sci-fi show or movie, from the accessible characters to the easy, snappy banter. The technology of "beaming up and down" and the "nearly human" aliens have a real Star Trek taste to them, and Farragut and Augustus give off a nice Kirk and Spock vibe, even if Farragut is more lethal than lothario and Augustus' aloofness is a by-product of tinkering, not birth. His sarcasm is 100% genuine, though. All the supporting cast fares well too; they may be trope, but Meluch fleshes them out well beyond the cardboard cutout realm. Exceptions to this include the character "Cowboy", who serves more as a metaphor for self-destructive machismo than anything else. His baseness, in the end, only serves to make him into an intentional running joke.

There isn't much that can be said that does not work well in The Myriad. Once affairs start on planet Arra, they feel as though they drag a bit, but not too much. Also, as enjoyable as the characters and technical aspects are, the alien battle scenes were a little lackluster. The descriptions of them are decent enough, but there is no tension, no blistering, edge of your seat effect in either the space battles or boarding scenes (in fact, the best action sequence involves an ambassador being assaulted with a muffin. Yes, you read that correctly). Again, the technical aspect is what makes the aliens interesting; such as the fact that they can "insinuate" through force fields, and how they home in on human "resonance". Another issue that I've seen being raised is perceived misogyny, or sexism. There are some pretty cold jokes made at the expense of Kerry Blue's ah.....promiscuity. It didn't rub me the wrong way, but if you have tender sensibilities, I guess you can consider yourself warned.

Some spoiler-y stuff below.




Captain Farragut! Incoming spoilers!

I'll be honest, I hadn't realized that I had grown so attached to these characters until Act III (aka the last chapter), where Meluch essentially hits the reset button (trust me, there is a reason). It is at this point that we lose Augustus, the most compelling character by far (who had just, in a heartbreaking scene, revealed himself as a homosexual in love with Farragut). Meluch also throws some subtle emotional jabs regarding Farragut and his first love in that chapter. But she also shows that even though things change, certain aspects remain cyclical. Is it enough to bring me back for book two? I don't know; I am pretty emotionally spent right now.

End Spoilers







Here's what it is:
R.M. Meluch returns from a multi-year hiatus with a bold series that entertains and twists logic into pretzels (you'll get that reference after reading the book). Easy dialogue, spiffy science, and an emotional wallop at the end.

Final Score:


Cover Score:
As mentioned in the opening, this cover is what deterred me from reading this book for so long. Even while reading it now, I wouldn't carry this book in public. The color scheme is ok, the rendition of the gorgons (the aliens) is fairly nice, but I really don't like the portrayals of Farragut (or is that supposed to be Steele), Augustus, or the girl that I am assuming is Kerry Blue.
On a bright now, they've bundled the first four books into two book omnibuses. So you can now get the first two books with this neat cover:

I'd go this route.

Cover Final Score:


Monday, March 10, 2014

A Sanctuary Of Wyrms

A Sanctuary of Wyrms by Peter Fehervari. Originally published by The Black Library, April 2013. Approx. 24 pages.

I've had Sanctuary of Wyrms sitting on the back burner for a good while now. I've truly enjoyed the stories by Fehervari that I've read so far, but he has only so many stories in the 40K universe that I get wary of running out. But given that it is already the 10th of March, and I have no posts up (plus I am only two-thirds done with the book I am currently reading), I was pooling through the archives for a short work to read and review. So here we are. How does Wyrms stack up with other Fehervari works (here, here, and here)? Very well in fact; and it is bolstered by the return of a familiar character and a great setting.

A Sanctuary of Wyrms tells the tale of Asharil, an ambassador of the Tau's water caste. Hailing from a long line of water caste servants, she holds in interest in the gue'la, the colonial xenos race known as the "humans". She finds herself commissioned to a world known among the Tau as Fi'draah, a harsh jungle environment referred to by the humans as "the Coil".

The Coil...Fi'draah.....Phaedra. Oh yes, back to the Dolorosa Coil!

Fire Caste had so many great things going for it; great characters, a twisty plot, and plenty of Easter Eggs and puzzles to play mind games with you. But one of the things which I enjoyed the most was the whole "living, breathing (hating), jungle" motif, inspired by iconic works like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. Well, it pleases me to say that Phaedra is here in all of its magnificent, teeming malice. 

Asharil is attached to some earth caste cartographers, and, for security, they are provided with a fire caste shas'ui in charge of a contingent of Imperial defectors. This shas'ui is a jaded female warrior named Jhi'kaara. Yes, the "broken mirror" herself.

The group upon an ominous, bunker-like structure known by the frog-face locals as the "Sanctuary of Wyrms". It is determined that it is both an Imperial structure, as well as a means to "keep something inside". A saunter inside reveals signs of great struggle, of terrible loss, and of great evil. It turns out that the designation on the Sanctuary, the stylized gue'la character "I", identifying the bunker as the business of the dread Inquisition. And as we all know, where the Inquisition is involved, dread things await.

After sifting through the remains of the inner struggles, the tau team makes some great discoveries. First, they find the warped and distended remains of the former inhabitants of the structure. Second, amongst the scattered remains lay fallen gods. Members of the revered (reviled) Astartes. But the space marines are different; their pauldrons bear different markings. All have a version of the "I" seen above, but they also bear separate Chapter markings as well. A true mystery to the Tau; members of the covert Deathwatch. 

Lastly, the Tau comes upon the horror that started the whole massacre; a bastardization of an ancient evil compounded by the hateful humor of Phaedra herself. And foolishly, the allow it a chance to stretch its tendrils. There is no spoiler in saying that; from the onset of the story, we already know that things did not go well, and that this will indeed be Asharil's final account.

As always, Fehervari employs a descriptive style the perfectly matches the brutal, dark nature of this universe. He also shows some chops for horror here, creating some tension in scenes where the group explores the Sanctuary. 

Asharil makes for an interesting protagonist. She strikes a sort of rapport with Jhi'kaara over time, as they share some common traits. They both rely upon and trust their intuition, where logic might be more in tune with the ways of the Tau. Also, they are both sensitive to the ways of the gue'la; Asharil chooses to study them, while Jhi'kaara always had the talent to 'understand' her enemies, especially the humans.

And yet, as interesting as she might be, she is not nearly as compelling as, well, Jhi'kaara. Or Commissar Iverson. And that's too bad. I would've loved another chance to see inside of Jhi'kaara's head again, but that could not be, as this is a first person POV. Maybe one day we'll get a Jhi'kaara solo novel....

Another point to mention, we only get to glimpse the panorama of Phaedra at the beginning of the story. The rest of the tale shifts to the "haunted house" feel of the Sanctuary. Like mentioned before, these scenes are tense and well-done. I just like the hateful living planet better.

Here's what it is:
Peter Fehervari delivers another sound Tau outing, with an emphasis on the old "enemy of my enemy" flair to it. Great to see Jhi'kaara and Phaedra again as well.

Final Score:


Cover Score:
Here we have a few fire caste warriors in formation, blasting away, with a monochromatic saturation. All fine and dandy, but there are not that many Tau warriors in the story. The picture looks like a grab from a codex, or supplement. But it's fine for the price. Best bet? Get the Deathwatch: Xenos Hunters edition so you can enjoy this gem of a cover:

Cover Final Score: