Thursday, May 29, 2014

She Is The Darkness (Black Company Book 7)

She is the Darkness by Glen Cook. Originally published September 1997. Approx. 399 pages (Tor omnibus edition). 

HachiSnax Note: Just wanted to warn all readers; this review will be a tad more spoiler-y than previous installments. I have tried to keep all the secrets secret, but we are getting to the end of the road in this series (quite literally), and as is Cook's style, the secrets and double-crosses keep popping like Jiffy-Pop. A spoiler-free review of this book would read something like: "the Company tied up matters here and here and then headed there".  I will try to succinctly cover the story as well as I can without any major reveals. Other mention will be given to the further narration of Standardbearer/Annalist Murgen, whose style has always served as a source of contention amongst fans. Enjoy the review! Cheers, Hach.

Where we left off:
As mentioned before, there was very little new trail blazed in Bleak Seasons. However, it served as more than a mere digest of previous events. Cook used Seasons to introduce several elements integral to this last arc of the Black Company storyline: namely the Nyueng Bao (including their "duty" to the Company), and Murgen's "time travel" capabilities. At the very end of the story, the gang was all back together and ready for their big final push to Overlook, the Shadowgate, and beyond. But first, former comrade turned arch-for Mogaba awaits them at the Charandaprash Pass.

Where we are now:
As mentioned in the note above, stripping away all the twists, turns, and espionage, She is the Darkness breaks down to three major events (and the lulls in action in between): the battle at Charandaprash, the final standoff with Longshadow at Overlook, and the Company's first voyage to the plain of Glittering Stone. This is a bit of a departure from the previous novels in this arc which needed to devote more and more time to the cultures and geography of the Southern areas. As a result, we have a much more structured, linear tale here. Which ultimately works out for the better. There is no over exaggerating in saying that She is the Darkness is the best Company novel since the first installment as far as scope is concerned. As for most enjoyable? Well, let's just say that Murgen's verbal meanderings take a bit of the shine off of an otherwise well-polished novel.

Serving in the military is not a prerequisite for writing good military fiction, but it certainly helps. We can all agree that the authenticity of the interplay of the members of the Black Company comes from Cook's Navy experience, but he infuses so many other aspects that allow his works to transcend the norm. First and foremost of these skills is his understanding of strategy and battlefield psychology. Like it's predecessors, Darkness remains a fairly blood-free gritty fantasy title. The focus has never been on stroke by stroke descriptions of swordfights. Cook's focus is on what really wins wars: intelligence and counter-intelligence. With each page turned, another devious plan is revealed, another betrayal perpetrated.

She is the Darkness is once again told from the point of view (first-person, as usual) of Murgen, still serving as Standardbearer and Annalist. As in the first novel, Darkness is told entirely from the point of view of the Annalist. There are no third party interludes checking on how other players in the game are faring. These checkups are done via Murgen's spectral jaunts with Smoke.

I had no problems with Murgen's narration in Bleak Seasons. We knew already that he was mopey and introverted, but he still had a healthy dose of pessimistic humor which helped with the descriptions of the horrors of Dejagore. Now, well, he just talks to damn much. How much? So much so that near the end of the book, Croaker flat out tells him that he doesn't like his Annals since they are so verbose (and self-absorbed, which Murgen is in spades).

Let's just put it out there: Murgen is kind of a dick. He is the epitome of middle-management; he thinks that he is too good to haul the weight with his underlings, and he thinks that he is smarter than his bosses (another character flaw which Croaker calls him out on later in the book). You can't really blame Croaker either; Murgen is way too casual and flip in how he addresses his superiors.

His narration gets way too repetitive after a bit. The beginning of Darkness was showing signs of being weighted down by this fact; for every few steps, we have to wait while Murgen remembers his dead wife Sahra, and comment on how taciturn his perennial Nyueng Bao shadow Thai Dei is.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. You can glaringly notice how self-centered he is once he has cause to question the motives of the Nyueng Bao. Murgen questions them because he feels personally slighted; whereas Croaker has had to grow an extra eye to watch them since he already detected possible duplicitous behavior and had to worry how it might affect his grand army.

Which brings us to Croaker. Croaker has changed. My, how he has changed. He has learned, hardened, and adapted. Croaker employs some truly mind-blowing schemes over the course of this book. I won't get into spoilers with them, but suffice to say, he has learned to manage his resources in the most pragmatic fashion possible. Factors with the lowest overall value are the currency most easily spent, and he also has ways of whittling down those that would come to bite his ass another day.

Working together with Lady (still in the role of Lieutenant), the Company has also developed some new technologies. Most prominent of these are a sort of "bamboo rifle", rods of bamboo with a mechanism to discharge colorful projectiles which work as shadow-killers (Longshadow not only uses a Shadowlander army, but he also releases forces of shadows from behind the Shadowgate as well).

On the subject of Lady, there is not much development with her. It is fairly obvious that Murgen is not very fond of her (and she has precious little patience for him), so their conversations are few and far between. The most important thing to realize about Lady is that she has regained a lot of her former potency, and we finally discover how this once-named sorceress has managed that feat.

On the opposing team, we still have Longshadow in charge. Longshadow seems to be at his wits' end; falling victim to frequent spastic attacks and behavioral fits. He is still formidable as ever, and a plot device has been added in which guarantees him a little more personal security. The former Taken member Howler is still in his service, although he is investing more effort in CYA maneuvers than anything else. Narayan Singh, the living saint of the Deceivers, is still loitering around with his group. He also remains the guardian of the Child of Darkness, the Daughter of Kina, Lady and Croaker's kidnapped four year old daughter. And finally, we still have the traitor Mogaba, who is still pursuing his personal vendetta against Croaker.

I just wanted to take a second to talk about Mogaba. I've always liked his character, despite being a brutal, cannibalistic traitor. He has always been, and still remains, a consummate soldier and leader. What bothers me is that he seems overly eloquent speechwise for someone who cannot read, and also, when Croaker was reunited with him in Dejagore, it was hinted at that he was suffering from a mental affliction driving him insane (which is why he begged Croaker to kill him then). Now, it seems like that plot point got swept under the rug. To be fair, we only see Mogaba through Murgen's spectral eyes (and Murgen can't see inside his head), so maybe this will come up in the future.

As always, affiliating herself with no side but Her Own, we have everybody's favorite Agent of Chaos, Soulcatcher. The looniest Senjak sister is in supreme form in Darkness, playing side against side against side. As the strongest free agent on the market, it is understandable that people would want to retain her services, but why anyone could think they could trust or manage her is beyond me. It doesn't matter; anyone that does pays a hefty price. I really can't get into detail about how much damage this psychotic vixen does over the course of the book, but it is a joy to watch. You can't help but understand Murgen's fetish about wanting to give her a good spanking.

Those are the main players in the game (oh, and don't forget the Radisha, still back in Taglios planning to shortchange the Company). And over the course of the book, nearly everyone manages to one-up everyone else. It is safe to assume throughout Darkness that everybody is in bed with someone from this side, someone from that side, as well as pushing their individual agendas. Cook has always been a master at layering these plotlines, and unwrapping them well.

The pacing is well done throughout, with only a lull in action between the siege at Overlook and the journey past Shadowgate (which is to be expected since a real life army would also need this time to secure sufficient resources). The final segment, while woefully short, delivers a surprise payoff and sets the stage for what big things must come.

It may be easy to complain about the over saturation of Murgen in this book; but you need to remind yourself that he serves as a linchpin for several of the threads. Likewise, not only does he use Smoke as a vessel for his spy missions, he is also used as one by both Soulcatcher and Kina herself (which helps to explain the omnipresent white raven that visits Murgen). Top that off with the fact that even in his dreams, Murgen is walking out of body, and it becomes understandable why the Standardbearer is so often irritable. It does not absolve him of his insufferable expositions and self-pity. Too bad One-Eye and Goblin are still separated, their antics would have brought a lot of much needed levity to the proceedings.

Either way, the Murgen era is over. It was not nearly as bad as many reviewers have made it out to be. I am just especially happy that this whole story arc made bold moves forward towards what may be the inevitable Year of the Skulls. Next up is Water Sleeps, featuring the very intriguing Sleepy as Annalist. And remember:

Water sleeps, but Enemy never rests.

Here's what it is:
The Black Company steamrolls towards their ultimate fate in this superb outing featuring double-crosses, triple-crosses, almost got thems, and spiritual journeying. A great setup for a knockout ending.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

As stated last time, this is my least favorite of the Swanland covers. I guess it has to be Lady or Soulcatcher on the the cover; but they are supposed to be pale with black hair, not dark with white hair. But I digress. The older cover, again by Nicholas Jainschigg, is pretty good. The background is nice; and there was an effort to make Croaker actually look as he was described in the book (although this Croaker is a few books younger). As for the treatment done to Lady's face: no comment.

Cover Final Score (Swanland):


It's been a year.....

One year. One year already! A year ago today I started this blog, hoping to share my views on the things I read, hoping to engage in some discussion with some people who maybe read similar works.

Well, all I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you to everyone that has stopped by, who has took the time to leave a comment.

I would like to make a few special shout-outs though; first, I would like to thank the authors who communicated with me regarding their reviews, namely Peter Fehervari, Rob Sanders, and Guy Haley (through Goodreads). You have no idea how much of an honor it is, as an overweight, middle-aged armchair book reviewer, to hear from authors directly.

Second, I want to thank all the fine folks from, who followed my links there and checked out my reviews. It's really appreciated!

So please, keep coming back and reading the reviews. Please take a few moments and leave comments, criticisms, ideas, whatever. The only thing I enjoy more than talking about books I enjoy is discussing them with others.

All the best to you all!

First birthday? First anniversary? Whatever it is, thanks for making it happen.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla Returns

Godzilla Returns by Marc Cerasini. Originally published by Random House Books for Young Readers, October 1996. Approx. 233 pages.

As I am not going to see the new Godzilla movie in the theater tonight (despite being a G-Fan since toddlerhood, I turn into a quivering, gibbering mess in large crowds), what I had hoped to do was to order a copy of the movie novelization through Amazon, have it magically be delivered a week or so before the movie came out (even though it isn't slated to be released until the 20th), and have a spiffy review ready to go for today.

That obviously did not happen. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present you with Plan B...

The early to mid 90's were actually a great time to be a Godzilla enthusiast. There was word of an American Godzilla movie in the works (ah, and we all saw how well that turned out), Trendmasters had a sweet line of Godzilla toys, and over in Japan, the Heisei series was in full steam, meaning $20 could secure you a sweet fansubbed 2nd or 3rd generation bootleg VHS at your local game store (or you could risk a $5 Chinatown bootleg which might have video quality on par with the first few seconds of the video in The Ring).

"Hey, I think I see Battra in there."

Another by-product of the 90's Godzilla Renaissance was a handful of kids & YA novels. And this brings us to Godzilla Returns.

Godzilla Returns is a short novel for the 12-14 year old set penned by author Marc Cerasini, an author who is fairly prolific in various tie-in universes. At first glance, one might not think that this will end with a story that gives fair treatment to the Great Lizard, but there is one more factor here. Cerasini is a big-time Godzilla fan, and a co-author of the very excellent Godzilla Compendium. And his affection for the subject matter is evident here, making the dividend a pretty darn good kaiju romp that even an old coot like me enjoyed.

As far as the story line is concerned, the structure of Godzilla Returns is more or less similar to Godzilla 1985 (The Return of Godzilla). In the mid-90's, nuclear testing by the French has awoken the Big G. And, of course, he cuts a path towards the Land of the Rising Sun, leaving maritime disasters in his wake. 

Like Godzilla 1985 (and other Millenium G films), Godzilla Returns eliminates a monster chunk of previous canon and acts as a direct sequel to the original film. Cerasini also deftly works the American release of the original Godzilla film into the book by referring to it as a "docudrama" which combined Raymond Burr's portrayal of real life journalist Stephen Martin (who, in this universe, published an acclaimed journalistic account of the event) with historical footage of the Godzilla attack. This move he handles very well, making it a significant contribution to the emotional vibe of the story. One last note regarding the incorporation of the original Godzilla story; there is no mention of the Oxygen Destroyer here; which I guess is why the big guy is around to make a return.

We all know that you can't have a Godzilla story without talky parts. I have got to say, Cerasini introduces an engaging group to carry the story along. The "people side" of the story centers around INN (Independent News Network), which has a field office in Tokyo. Being as the story is aimed at the younger crowd, we are presented with two young interns, Brian Shimura (an American of Japanese descent) and Nick Gordon, the resident comic relief. More of the focus revolves around Shimura, a quiet, sincere young man who is easy to identify with, allowing us to jump into his skin and see the action through his eyes. Both of these characters are enjoyable, and while Nick's comedy falls flat at times it never becomes a true annoyance. The secondary characters are strongly sketched out and play their parts well. The main thing here is that Cerasini wrote these characters honestly, he did not pander to or patronize his younger audience, or try to ape what he thought their speech might resemble.

So now that we know that the human characters were handled well, how did Cerasini do with Godzilla himself? Superbly. His physical descriptions of Godzilla were spot-on; and his theories on the Big G's physiology and motivations were sound. His portrayals of the fearsome creature in destructive mode are solid, and he succeeds in doing something that almost 30 motion pictures have failed to do; make Godzilla's battles with conventional military weapons engaging and exciting. 

Speaking of action, don't let the fact that this is a youth novel make you think that the action suffers for it. Remember, the best Godzilla movies are not children's movies; but they are all accessible to children. Same goes here. The violence might be on the PG level, and is relatively bloodless, but it is there. There is death, and devastation, and all the things that make giant monsters so enthralling.

More kudos goes to Cerasini for his knowledge of Japanese geography and culture. He does not simply name-drop locations; you can tell that a lot of time and research went into this world building. He also chooses Godzilla's targets well; there is a fantastic battle that occurs at the Seto Ohashi Bridge.

As for incorporating parts of existing canon, apart from what was mentioned, there are several other instances (of which I am sure even I did not pick up on all of). Just to name a few: the Godzillasaurus seen by the Japanese troops in WWII in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is mentioned here (although I think the geography is off), as well as the "bird call" concept from Godzilla 1985. There are tributes as well, including a pretty Japanese Defense Force soldier named Emiko, and I am positive many more.

Are there any complaints about Godzilla Returns? I don't have many. Some fans may have wanted some kaiju on kaiju action, and this is definitely a solo outing. Rest assured, Cerasini's later Godzilla titles feature some familiar faces from Monster Island. Other issues just seem nitpicky; for example, towards the beginning, I thought it odd that there was a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls at Narita Airport checking out guys. I've only been to Narita once, and I don't remember many sailor skirts. But maybe it is a hangout for those Japanese icons. Later on, as Tokyo goes on lockdown with Big G coming, Cerasini stresses how difficult it is to make an egress from the metropolis by mentioning how inflated airplane ticket prices are on the black market. Not for nothing, but if a 350 foot tall lizard with long distance radioactive breath is prowling the area, I'm pretty sure all the commercial flights are grounded. And lastly, there is a floating rumor that a yakuza contingent stole a helicopter to engage in some looting. Come on, we all know what the yakuza does with helicopters during national disasters....

"Stop projecting your stilted Western values on us, kuso-gaijin. Baaaaaaa-ka."

Like I said, any problems are minor. The fact is that the pacing is solid; with a cinematic structure. The earlier chapters alternate between character introductions and Godzilla's attacks on sea-borne vessels. Once he makes his big appearance, everything moves at breakneck speed. And believe it or not, at the end of the story, you might just find yourself wanting to hear more on what's going on with the human characters. You can't say that about every Godzilla outing, can you?

Alright, maybe just two minor complaints: there's no mass evacuation scene, and there's no kid pointing to the sky and shouting "GODZILLA!!!". The book still rocks, though.

Here's what it is:
An example of how tie-in fiction should be done, this solid little novel takes us on a rollicking ride as a certified G-Fan writes about the King of Monsters with obvious aplomb. SKREEEEEONK!

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Decent cover here, and very catchy for the target audience. We get a nice closeup of the big guy, and also a pic of him wading through a Tokyo baptized by fire. The helicopter is a tacked-on afterthought, and I am not too keen on the coloring of the name GODZILLA.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Giving Up On: Island 731

Bit of a long story here that ends with me just declaring "I quit". I always have tried to stick through with books that weren't going very well. Whether they started off poorly, dragged on incessantly, whatever. However, that was then and this is now. I am surely not getting any younger, I am not reading any faster, and my "to read" pile is still hovering at around 1,000+ books. And that's why my review scores may seem a little high; most of the stuff I've been reading has gripped me from the beginning and held my interest the whole way through (with a few exceptions. Yes, Poppet, I'm referring to you).

I wanted to like Island 731. No, scratch that. I wanted to love Island 731. Even though he has been releasing around 6 novels/novellas a year, I had never heard of Jeremy Robinson. But recently, I had the honor of supporting the Kaiju Rising book effort on Kickstarter (hopefully a review will be coming in the next few months), in which Robinson pens the forward. Searching kaiju novels on Amazon, his name also pops up with his Project Nemesis and Project Maigo novels. And I thought, hey, here's a guy my age, a fellow kaiju-lover, I better check his stuff out. My local library system does not carry any of the Project books, but they did have Island 731. And so my heart did another little leap. Not only do I love kaiju things, but I also love WWII histories, especially those circling the secretive Japanese Unit 731.

Not to be confused with this Unit 731, although these guys kinda rock too.

Anyway, digging into the book, the problems started almost immediately. The main thing being, I instantly hated our two leads, Mark and Avril I believe. Mark is painfully perfectly resourceful, and Avril is equal parts everything outstandingly annoying in a female character if the traits have to be called to your attention: beautiful, smart, impulsive, and tough as nails. Before you say "Hold the phone Hach, you lovely misogynist bastard! What's wrong with women having/displaying those characteristics?", the answer is: nothing's wrong with it. Most women have those traits in spades. It's when your writing has to declare it that the character instantly annoys me. But that's just me.

Another big turn-off: every chapter seems to end in a cliffhanger, a la Dan Brown (an author that deserves burning at the stake). I only read a few chapters, and seeing this trend, flipped forward and checked the ends of other chapters. Cliffhangers. Cliffhangers everywhere. 

One more pet peeve of mine is when there is entirely too much detail given at one time to small items, at points when the mention does not add to the overall situation. For example, in the midst of trying to free a sea turtle tragically caught up in ocean debris, protagonist Hawkins "free[s] his seven-and-a-half-inch San Mai Recon Scout hunting knife". Really? I don't even know what our hero looks like at this point, but God-damn if I don't have everything but the catalog number for his gear. 

"Thanks for the shout-out Mr. Robinson. Your knife is in the mail." -San Mai Marketing Dept.

My list of grievances concludes with one which is not Mr. Ronbinson's fault. This would be a spelling error. Let me be clear; I am no grammar Nazi, and I am not beyond making spelling/grammar mistakes (big difference being I'm not getting paid either). But on Page 11, I found this gem:

"Desperate for air, and confused by Joliet's actions, he hitched him thumb toward the surface..."

Hitched him thumb? I know, not the end of the world. Like I said, it's my pet peeve, but when I get into a reading flow, things like this just rip me out of my trance of complete immersion, forcing me to scream like a lunatic and kick some puppies. 

Just another day in HachiWorld.

I've got two and a half weeks left on this rental. I don't think it is getting a revisit. I'll be on the lookout for Project Nemesis, but this was pretty disappointing. There are certain things that Robinson handles well, like nautical descriptions. Nice cover too.

Final Score:

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Siege Of Fellguard (Fellguard Pt. 1)

The Siege of Fellguard (Fellguard Pt.1) by Mark Clapham. An Imperial Guard short story, originally published by The Black Library, December 2013. Approx. 31 pages.

Today we will focus on another Black Library short showcasing the Imperial Guard; this being the first of two installments in the Fellguard story arc by an author relatively new to the Black Library, Mark Clapham (Iron Guard). As said numerous times, stories like this are great primers for getting to know the authors. So, did Clapham's treatment of the Imperial Guard make the case for giving his full-length novel a look? I'd say so. The Siege of Fellguard is not a character-driven story, but an action-driven one, and the author writes with a descriptive touch that brings the situations to life. 

The story in Siege could not be any simpler; we have a force of Cadians (the 39th) working to take back the Fellguard stronghold on the planet of Kelthorn, which has fallen to cultists of Nurgle (it's turning out to be a Nurgle-heavy month here). If, by reading the title, you were expecting a siege involving a protacted waiting/mindgame, with studies of defensive positions, cutting off resources, harrying attacks, etc., you might be disappointed. A more appropriate title for this story might have been The Storming of Fellguard, since that is what it is. We open with the Cadians taking the out wall, and from there, fighting for the best way in. It might be worth noting here that said outer wall is one of the most outlandish things that I have read about in the 40K universe, a wall comprised of the bones of millions of martyrs of the God-Emperor. When I had first read that, I thought it was a pretty ridiculous notion, even for this franchise, but Clapham is a skilled enough author to believe his story, and therefore sell it to the reader.

Now, although this is an Imperial Guard story, Siege is split fairly evenly between the forces on both sides of Fellguard's walls. On the Cadian side, most of the focus centers around regimental priest Vurtch, while on the Chaos side, we follow the blessed cultist sorceror Mazalai, who, for all the favor shown to him by Nurgle, has not attained the ultimate power he seeks: the ability to raise unliving forces (zombie hordes like in Cadian Blood? yes please!).

Characterization is not particularly strong in Siege. The Nurglite cultists are far more compelling here; it is pretty thrilling to watch Mazalai ascending towards what his kind might call greatness. The most sympathetic character in the story is his assistant, a gibbering mess named Grent, who seemingly has a few crumbs of humanity strewn around his many "blessings". 

The Cadians, on the other hand, remain rather one-dimensional throughout. There is a fine duel between their commanding, Castellan Blakov and a cultist commander protected by a scabrous armor. Other than that, there are no characters of note. There is an interesting female lieutenant mentioned, but she drops off the map pretty early on (hopefully to return). Not much time is spent on the troopers. I remember that there was an obligatory griper in the crowd. As for Vurtch, he remained pretty low-key throughout. I am assuming that the Cadians' time to shine will be in Pt.2, as this first installment focuses more on building up to a grand cliffhanger. So here's hoping we'll see some grit and resolve against insurmountable odds in The Hour of Hell.

Clapham's best strength in Siege comes in physical descriptions. Authors must feel like kids in candy stores when they get to write for the servants of Nurgle. There are so many opportunities for grossness, for pus and ooze, decay and insect swarms. And Clapham revels in this. The yellowish funk that surrounds Fellguard is nearly tangible, and in battle, wounds weep horribly discolored ichor. It is all gloriously repulsive.

For what it is, Siege is put together nicely. The pacing and alternating between armies is all done well. It opens and closes with portions of an Inquisitorial report on the encounter, replete with all the redactions and trimmings. While it lets you know outright how things will turn out, it is still fun to watch. Like all things in the Imperium, when things go bad it is terrible, but when things go right, well, they still end up pretty bad too. It's all part and parcel of serving in the Guard:

"Be all that you can be."

Here's what it is:
Part one of Mark Clapham's Cadians vs. cultists duology starts off with a bang (actually a lot of bangs), but not a lot character development. Very enjoyable for what it is, straight up Guard action with commendable attention to detail on the disciples of Nurgle. Look for the review of Pt.2: The Hour of Hell later this month.

Last Note:
Was just looking up some stuff on the Warhammer 40K wiki and found an entry on the Cadian 39th. Interesting reading here. Did not realize that they were such a notable unit in previous canon.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Nothing of note here. You have the text and an Imperial Guard logo in front of a metal plate that could either be part of a fortress wall or a high school locker. Greenish saturation is, I suppose, a nod to the corruption of Nurgle. It's a decent enough nauseous green to do the job.

Cover Final Score:


Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Gangs Of New York

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury. Originally published in 1928 by the Garden City Publishing Company. Thunder's Mouth Press edition read and reviewed. Approx. 348 pages.

The Gangs of New York is a book that had maintained an impressive amount of regard and notoriety long before it was developed into a near-masterpiece motion picture by Martin Scorsese. And why not? This self-proclaimed "informal history" offers the prospect of a lurid fifty year account of New York's seedy underbelly. A world where the base scum below the bottom of the totem pole callously murder each other for the slightest gains. The obvious question always seems to arise though; what herein is truth, and what is show? Word of mouth accounts are always inflated to serve a dual purpose; out of sheer braggadocio and also to serve as smoke and mirrors to deter and confuse the competition. There is also the question of what facts may have been, how shall I say, "enriched" by the author to stimulate reader interest. And that's fine. Let's just put it out there: there's a good chance that some of the words put to paper here qualify this work as more "sensationalized journalism" than straight-up historical account. This would be fine in and of itself; the problem arises in that this reads very much as a methodical history, and it is very dry in very many places. Yet, as a native New Yorker, and even more so, a native Manhattanite, I cannot help but have my interest piqued by the Manhattan posited here; right under my feet, yet so vastly different. Or, was it really so different? In the past 100-150 years, have we really changed so? Or is the real difference mainly in architecture? As skyscrapers rose haughtily over the former squalor-ridden tenements, have we eschewed a society saturated with a violent poor populace lorded over by corrupt politicians? Very rhetorical question, yes. Let's just proceed to look at the book at hand.

Just a disclaimer before we begin; while I admit that it is never good practice to subscribe to broad generalizations, I will assume that the reader of this review has some basic familiarity with the old New York gangs from either the Gangs of New York movie, or from any of the numerous Five Points documentaries.

While The Gangs of New York focuses on criminal activities spanning approximately 70 years (1850's to 1920's), it begins with a helpful chapter chronicling the formation of the infamous Five Points area of Lower Manhattan. We then go into a chapter covering the wars and activities of the myriad local gangs in the area (the primary focus of the movie), and then subsequent chapters handling river piracy, the Draft Riots, the activities of New York gangs close to the turn of the century, some lip-service to the gang wars of the Chinatown area, and finally, some coverage of the supposed "death of the gangster" (a completely ludicrous assessment, but more on that later).

I found the opening chapter quite interesting. The evolving panorama of the Manhattan landscape is a wondrous concept. Even in my own meager four decades I have seen Manhattan change so much, so to see areas which are so vogue right now remembered as mires of violence and utter squalor is nothing short of amazing.

The section regarding the battles of the Five Points is interesting for its historical relevance; of course it does not have the dramatic flair of the movie, which was cultivated to be palatable for the theater-going audience. But without this book as a reference point, we may never have known about the Plug Uglies, Chichesters, Shirt Tails, and, of course the Dead Rabbits.

The problem in this part of the book is that it is most difficult to tell here what is fact and what is exaggeration. One can never underestimate the proclivities of the destitute regarding sex, violence, and living piled on top of each other. But were there really as many murders as proposed in the book? Did hulking female bouncers truly keep jars of pickled ears which they had "chawed off"? Reading this, you would think that a night in the points would involve trying to avoid a mugger, tripping over a corpse, and landing on a prostitute. Again, though, it is an invaluable resource of gang names, territories, manners, and dress. Did you know that the Dead Rabbits and their parent group, the Roach Guards, wore battle dress of red and blue, respectively? Where have we seen this recently?

We all know that the Bloods and Crips have been going at it for near on what, 50 years now? Pretty amazing that a full century earlier, there were red and blue gangbangers as well.

And speaking of Dead Rabbits, the bane of that group, Bill the Butcher, is here as well. While the pages covering the reign and demise are important for illustrating the nativist vs. immigrant mentality that existed then, none of the coverage attains the lofty heights of the dramatized version, and Daniel Day-Lewis' bravura performance (then again, the movie version features a different last name and custom-crafted backstory).

Two further chapters explore popular criminal enterprises of the time; first and foremost being river piracy. It is no surprise that this was a plague in those times; so much of the commerce was handled via the waterways. And anytime there is poverty mixed with floating fortune, piracy is the natural solution. It really doesn't matter if it is off the coast of Somalia or the waters surrounding Manhattan. The other chapter touches on some of the bolder bankrobbers of the era. Although there were some notable heists in that time, it feels as though Asbury falls back on exaggeration in depicting the skill and techniques of the robbers. The same exaggerated touch flits across the piracy tales; while there were undoubtedly some bloody sorties, it seems unlikely that as many bodies as advertised were floating ashore daily.

Two large chapters in the middle of Gangs cover what should be some of the most interesting subject matter: the New York Draft Riots in 1863, in which the poor masses (who couldn't pony up a $300 exemption fee) rebelled against the Civil War conscription law. For close to four days, New York erupted and burned. Ships fired upon civilians; joined by cannons and howitzers. Troops, both destined for and returning from Civil War conflicts, were rerouted to quell the uprising. An exact figure of the dead and wounded will never be known; Wiki puts the tolls at around 120 dead and 2,000 wounded, while Asbury goes for shock and awe with estimates at 2,000 dead and 8,000 wounded. I would wager somewhere in the middle; as the poor did what the poor did and tended to not broadcast it. I was really looking forward to some information on these Riots; it's pretty sad that as a New Yorker, this was nowhere in our history curriculum growing up (hopefully it is now). It is a pretty sad statement that as we waged a war; part of which was abolishing the slave trade in the South, rioters gleefully lynched blacks here in New York, as well as burning down an orphan asylum for blacks. The whole event; like most of these sorts of "loot and burn" riots, was essentially senseless. As Asbury points out, most of the rioters were too young to even be drafted. It was like modern day "ghetto Christmas shopping", where the angry underclass looks to exploit a perceived affront as an excuse to turn to mass violence and theft.

While the Riots are arguably the most historically significant portion of the book, the telling is the driest in the tome. Where colorful embellishments were in no short order before, this section reads like a police log: "Sgt. Smith took a detachment of 15 patrolmen and a company from the Invalid Corps up Chambers, made a left and encountered some ten thousand riled Pointers". The attention to detail is appreciated, but the numbers of the mobs seem somewhat inflated (but none of us were there, so just a guess). Also, throughout the book, you need to take with a grain of salt any instance where Asbury uses the modifier "many", for in many cases, many people fall with fatal wounds, and many just fall dead, but many could be four, forty, or four hundred.

The portions of Gangs that deal with "later" gangs read a bit better; perhaps because more information was available to Asbury at hand. In these chapters, we get some real details on all the facets of the criminals' lives; the full range of their rules (as in these chapters we read about gangs throughout the city, not just the Points), as well as their real estate and business holdings (speakeasies, brothels). There is also what seems at first glance a bit of narrative meandering going on as Asbury also ties in these same facts to police and politicians, but the point is that these groups were just as devious as gangs as the low-born miscreants. Still, a chapter detailing the full extent of the police and political corruption would have been a great asset.

There are some instances where Asbury does wander from the point; for example, in the chapter detailing the Chinatown wars, no less than four pages are dedicated to neighborhood celebrity Chuck Connors (not The Rifleman), chronicling the latter part of his life up to and including his funeral. Connors was no gangster, so what was the point of his inclusion in this book? There is none, but in the end we can appreciate it for the cultural footnote that it provides. But this is only one of many instances, and combined with some very dry writing, hobble Gangs from being as good as it should be.

The reason that gangsters are so popular is that, to a certain extent, we revere them as much as we claim to despise them. Asbury is not exempt from this philosophy. You can see which gangsters he roots for or thinks are of considerable mettle, in the later chapters a lot of this is given to notables like Monk Eastman and Paul Kelly. The pages covering them are some of the best in the book, and feature the crispest writing.

Where Gangs of New York ultimately falls apart is towards the end, where he covers the "passing of the gangster". He postulates that at this point the gangster is a sad remnant of his former glory, since even the best bosses cannot field close to the numbers they once did. Why was this? It could be because the rife nature of police and political corruption was somewhat curtailed (but still very present) from its bloated Tammany days. The theory in the book seems more in line with it just going out of vogue. And while there are some interesting tales of gangsters used in labor wars, Asbury makes it seem that by the late 20's, the gangster is as good as extinct. This simply is not the case.

Why not? What about Prohibition? There is nothing regarding the gang activities stemming from the Volstead Act other than the most nominal lip service. There is no way to claim that there weren't extensive bootlegging operations in Manhattan, and to omit them in a comprehensive history is kind of a disservice to the subject matter. To put it short, Gangs starts with a bang, and ends with a whimper.

The subject matter. Gang history is fun to read, and New York history is enjoyable as well. Should have been a chocolate and peanut butter moment.

A nice amount of photographs and classic illustrations bring the rogue's gallery to life.

It serves to show us that many of the vices today were prevalent a century ago; union strong arming, cocaine addiction, prostitution, robberies, assaults, polarizing social orders, xenophobia, etc.

Dry writing in many places.

Meandering tangents that stray from the material.

No adherence to a semblance of a timeline making chapters do historical pendulum swings.

Ultimate accuracy always in question; liberal use of vague modifiers. Seeing the words "It was also said" a good indicator that legend or myth is about to follow.

Virtually no coverage of the bootlegging activities of the 20's.

Virtually no service paid to the outer boroughs, where many Manhattan criminals did good amounts of business.

Final thoughts and recommendations:
Despite my many criticisms, The Gangs of New York must be respected for preserving and presenting the accounts of these organizations. For the modern reader, who might find the presentation somewhat dry, there are other options that provide as good an account of the information in Gangs. The movie adaptation, as mentioned, gets kudos for optimizing Asbury's book as source material. There are also some informative and interesting Five Points documentaries that are easily accessible.

For more gang-related/New York history enjoyment, there is always the classic movie showing colorful Gangs of New York:

For your reading enjoyment, another historical gang account that I enjoyed was T.J. English's The Westies, an account of the Hell's Kitchen mob (the Gophers of Hell's Kitchen get a fair treatment in Gangs):

And finally, a book that is not gang-related, but shows the ever-evolving panorama of New York City. A book that was highly recommended to me by one of my best friends, Forever by Pete Hamill (it is actually an inventive and unique fiction piece that combines history with some elements of magic and fantasy):

Here's what it is:
It's the iconic book of the gangs that prowled Manhattan over 150 years ago. This pedigree does not mean that it is a well-written work.

I will say this, there is a closing though made by Asbury at the end of the introduction that perfectly summarizes the soul of the gangster, past present and future:

"But in the main the gangster was a stupid roughneck born in filth and squalor and reared amid vice and corruption. He fulfilled his natural destiny."

That's it in a nutshell, folks.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Nice enough cover here. We have a dingy alleyway, with some ruffians looking our way, nothing but malice in their eyes. the font on this cover works better than recent additions, which feature ribbons of banner text.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nurgle's Gift/The Tallyman

Nurgle's Gift by Guy Haley and The Tallyman by Anthony Reynolds. A pair of Nurgle-related short stories, originally published by The Black Library, February 2014. Nurgle's Gift approx. 6 pages, The Tallyman approx. 12 pages.

Here we have a duo of tales revolving around everyone's favorite pustulant deity, the Plague Demon Nurgle. The prospects are good for a combo pack like this; the reader can expect tons of oozing orifices, bloated, buzzing creatures, rot and a pervading reek. And what makes it even better is that these two stories are penned by authors that excel at atmospheric prose. So how did they stack up?

Nurgle's Gift:
The shorter of the two stories here, and far and away the superior. Barely longer than some of the Advent Calender works, Nurgle's Gift is fast, powerful, and cruel, like a punch in the gut from an older brother. In an unnamed village on an unnamed planet, the townsfolk are falling one by one to a vile plague that holds their land in its thrall. But there is "hope"; just outside of the village, from where the mournful chanting rolls down incessantly. Hope, just a ring of the gong away.

Hope is called for, and the call is answered by a sextet of shambling giants; Chaos Marines (the Black Library page says they are Sky Warriors) distended and deformed by their fealty to Nurgle. As promised, they offer hope, and for only a small price, for nothing comes for free. Humans being what they are (even in the fortieth millenium), the decision is fairly easily made. 

I've lauded Haley's mastery with settings and descriptive wording before, and I am here to do so again. This is a true fireside frightener told in the WH40K setting. Haley does such a superb job painting these disgusting fallen Astartes in all their nauseous glory; and the doomed village, seemingly found in thousands of stories and movies before, permeates with fresh terror. There is no safety here; not when your God has abandoned you. That is why you do not stop to inspect the straws you clutch at. Or take the time to look Nurgle's Gift Horse in the mouth.

Bear in mind that there is no battling or bolter-fire in this story; it stands as a twisted parable. And again, it is the descriptions that make this story shine. The ending has some nice twists, although you will probably see at least one coming if you have ever watched Storm of the Century. But for depictions of once majestic bodies distorted by the most vile influences, you can't beat Nurgle's Gift.

Final Score:


The Tallyman:
Our second tale stars Reynold's star character, Word Bearers Dark Apostle Marduk. As Marduk's ship, the Infidus Diabolus approaches an infected jungle world (so infected, in fact, that the taint spills into the lower orbit), it receives a beacon from a missing First Acolyte. After being warned by the mysterious augur Antigane that a creature named The Tallyman lords planetside, Marduk takes a team down to retrieve the missing Word Bearer. Fairly simple setup.

It turns out that there is a good reason why the plague taint has saturated the planet so. Down on the fetid planet, there is a "Garden of Nurgle" in which labors the titular Tallyman, a creature which is essentially Nurgle's Accountant (making him a doubly odious creature).
Finance humor!

Of course, the missing First Acolyte is smack dab in the middle of said Garden, so extracting him might lead to tempers flaring and bolts flying. Ergo, if you felt as if there was a lacking of action in the first story, it is more than made up for here.

Tallyman is written fairly well; the corrupted background is well rendered, and where Haley writes better physical descriptions, Reynolds sets up some scenes of suffering that make the skin crawl. Dialogue is fairly standard; no memorable quotes but nothing cringe-worthy either. The fight scenes are equally uneventful; they just are. The concept and execution of The Tallyman are done well enough; but he should have been given some real biting dialogue, a chance to chew the scenery some.

What keeps me from enjoying The Tallyman to its fullest is the limited extent of my knowledge of WH40K lore. I can only blame myself on this one; I started reading the books too late, and now I don't have enough reading time to fully catch up. If you are not familiar with any of Reynold's Word Bearer works, you might not care about Marduk, and you won't know him any better by the end. Same for Antigane; I would love some detail as to who she is and why she is important. And, without knowing some of the broader lore, the importance of the last sentence of the story is lost (although it is obviously a setup for something big). I am not suggesting that it is the author's job to provide a glossary detailing every person, place, and thing appearing in the story; and, The Tallyman is still fairly accessible to even the lay reader.

While not deep like Nurgle's Gift, The Tallyman is still enjoyable. Though some of the elements of the story seem arbitrary, Reynolds makes the most of the scenery in a Nurgle-themed party. Just wish that the title character had been given a stronger part.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Great cover by Black Library regular Paul Dainton. This is a perfect example of a work that matches the tone and content of the story within. This stalking horror seems to have waltzed right from the pages of Nurgle's Gift. Appropriate color palette, and a good choice in leaving the font plain white.

Cover Final Score: