Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Heirs Of Babylon

The Heirs of Babylon by Glen Cook. Originally published by Signet Science Fiction, 1972. Approx. 183 pages.

Last year, for my birthday, I decided to get myself a little treat, and so I tracked down The Heirs of Babylon, Glen Cook's first published full-length book (he already had his porn novel, The Swap Academy, released under the pen name Greg Stevens, and some short stories and Clarion contributions published by the time). Of course, with the TBR pile as high as it was, I haven't really had a chance to read it. Actually, no...that's not 100% true. Like many other books by Cook, I tried a few times to read it, getting a few pages in, before I could actually sit through it. It's a strange thing; I'd put him as my favorite author; and yet, it's like the stars need a certain alignment for me to be able to commit to the long haul of finishing one of his books.

Well, I decided I would get it done by this birthday. 100%. And, of course, that passed over two weeks ago... But hey, this is as close to being on schedule as I can get these days, so I'll take it.

The Heirs of Babylon is an interesting little novel. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world, two hundred years after nuclear and chemical warfare has annihilated almost the entirety of the global population. And yet, for some reason, maybe the inherent madness of man, the war continues. Every few years, there is a Gathering; where the remaining territories must cobble together a Tribute: man and naval power, and trudge off the the "Meeting", and do battle with the phantom enemy. Few, if any, ever return.

Our protagonist, Kurt Ranke, is a young man that lives in the Littoral, the ragged remnants of Germany. Impulsive action and obstinate pride have committed him to participation in what High Command (the ruling force for the West) has deemed the "Final Meeting". We meet him as he is bidding farewell to Karen, his new wife. Before leaving, she hits him with two curveballs; one, that she is possibly pregnant, and two, she is contemplating absconding to Telemark, Norway, to join a pacifist faction up there. She begs him to join, but he commits to duty. And so, he boards his ship, the Jager, and sets off on his appointment with destiny.

For the most part, the book details life aboard the ragtag destroyer. This is what Cook has always excelled at; taking something seemingly normal, and adding fantastic elements to it. Due to the loss of the technology of two centuries past, those attending the Gathering can still put mighty ships in the water, but they are often patchwork craft, often running on steam power.

This part of the story works because of the authenticity of the naval portrayal. As Cook even mentioned recently in an interview, a lot of what was written here was drawn upon from his Naval service a few years prior. So, if the day to day actions of a Quartermaster don't appeal to you, a good chunk of this novel won't work.

Now, as these things are wont to happen in a militaristic system of government, High Command has a sort of "propaganda police bureau" known as the Political Office, to make sure that everyone keeps marching in step. These feared agents are clad in black, and inspire fear and command respect wherever they go. Think SS officers or Warhammer 40K Commissars.

In such a totalitarian society, it comes as no surprise that the undercurrents of dissent are evident on a broader spectrum than those fleeing to Telemark. On the Jager, and, we find later, most other ships participating in the Gathering, there is an underground movement. The seeds of mutiny that they sow create an intense amount of tension on the ship.

Our protagonist, Kurt Ranke, finds himself smack dab in the middle of this ideological maelstrom. Cook has, in Kurt, presented us with a very real, human lead. He is a young man who is not non-violent, but simply not violent. He is not anti-war; he just cannot quantify hating an "enemy" that he has never seen. He is not pro-High Command, but he understands that life is much easier when one follows a set path (even though in the back of his mind he realizes that this path is probably a one-way trip). He also recognizes the goals of the resistance; he even finds excitement in them, and a desire to help bring about change. Of course, he ends up committing again to the path laid out for him, and hating himself for his laziness. Kurt is very much like us in this way; we can rage over political and social issues in the news and on social media, then finish our coffee and head off to our work pods.

Even though Babylon borrows from other anti-war and anti-totalitarian works, it is not a propaganda piece. It is, like so many of Cook's other works, a story seen from the everyday soldier's point of view.

Towards the middle, Cook borrows a page from 1984 and has Kurt visit a small shop, where upon him is bestowed a book which illuminates some of the mechanics of the current societal structure. He picks up some rudimentary English skills, and sets about translating the tome.

As the rickety armada trudges off to its final rendezvous, the clamps from High Command are tightened, and the seeds of mutiny truly begin to blossom. At this point, it all becomes a matter of time....

There's really two main ways to look at a book like The Heirs of Babylon. If you are reading it today, it's most likely because you are a Glen Cook fan, and perhaps a completist of sorts, and are interested in seeing what his earliest works were like. Perhaps you want to see if you can see parallels between older and contemporary books by him, and see if you can chart the evolution of his writing prowess.

Or, you can look at it as a standalone. Imagine you plucked this off the spinner rack at a bygone drugstore, or found it in a used-books box at a flea market. In that case, you can appraise it on its own merits as a standalone book.

On its own, The Heirs of Babylon is an enjoyable enough book. It is post-apocalyptic, but not in an insane, "Mad Max" manner. Given this, it might come off as a tad boring for some. In fact, this may be the first instance of Cook "self-critiquing" himself in-book (remember when Croaker savaged Murgen for how he recorded his Annals?). As Kurt is translating the forbidden book, he notes how it is much more boring than he expected, and after a certain point he was just continuing to turn pages in the hope that something exciting would happen. Babylon isn't boring, but it isn't chock full of explosions either. The action scenes, when they come, are fast, furious, and intentionally confusing. Terrifying, too. You know, just how they'd be in real life.

I'm not going to give away too much in regards to the climax. Suffice to say, Cook surprises us by not giving us what we expect, and yet delivering something entirely believable. If you are hoping for either a lofty, heroic ending; or an overly dramatic, sad one, you will be disappointed. Cook knows that in the end, soldiers do what they need to do to survive (remember, soldiers live and wonder why). Ergo, this story ends the moment that the war ends for Kurt. This yields a finale which is both immensely frustrating and completely satisfying at the same time.

In the end, I'll just say that The Heirs of Babylon was much better than I expected. Cook exhibited smooth polish even as a young writer, although I wonder if he would've written from the first-person perspective if he had written it later in his career. If you are a fan, and have $5-10 kicking around, it's totally worth hunting down a copy.

Final Score:

8/10

Cover Score:

Not bad at all. The ships are beyond basic, and the faces in the mushroom cloud remind me of the onionheads in the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark movie, but it's still fairly evocative.

Cover Final Score:

6.5/10

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Last Wall

The Last Wall by David Annandale. Book Four in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series, originally published March 2016. Approx. 157 pages.

Here we are at Book Four in the The Beast Arises series. The Last Wall marks the first entry by David Annandale; who will be the most prolific author in the series with three books contributed. This will also be the furst full-length book by him that I've read; having mostly dealt with his short stories. Those have been a little hit or miss for me; a bit of cause for concern, seeing as though if you really don't like his writing then this may not be the series for you. Let's see how it worked out...

Another mention; at this point, I'm assuming that those reading this have read the previous installments. So, as much as I try to avoid spoilers, a lot of these stories pick up from pretty significant cliffhangers, and they will be mentioned.

At the end of The Emperor Expects, Lansung, Lord High Admiral of the Imperial Navy, was returning to Terra to much celebration and fanfare after destroying an ork attack moon off of Port Sanctus. And then, to the surprise and horror of all, another ork attack moon simply materialized....right over Terra.

Over a Terra that, post-Heresy, post-annihilation of the Imperial Fists, and without a Navy that is still returning from Sanctus, finds itself virtually undefended. Truly the worst case scenario.

A lot of the action which transpires in The Last Wall occurs on and around Terra, and Annandale wisely opts to kick off the proceedings with a snapshot of the utter panic that unfurls directly following the moon's arrival. Here we meet Galatea Haas; a dedicated and dutiful officer in the Adeptus Arbites, who is also one of our primary protagonists. This scene gives the reader and excellent bird's eye view of the sheer magnitude of this event on the common Terran, and it is masterful. So, so far, so good.

Even though all of the introduced story arcs get advanced a little for continuity's sake, the centerpiece of this book is the Proletarian Crusade. This little slice of military genius was concocted by Juskina Tull, Speaker for the Chartist Captains, and one of the High Lords of Terra. As part of the perpetual jockeying for ascendancy among that group, her plan is to unite all of the merchant ships under her purview, and have them carry millions of members of the Imperial Guard (to be cobbled together by volunteers from the general public), and take the fight to the ork moon itself (which, to this point, has been laying completely stationary in low orbit). With the Navy still absent, this would essentially be an orbital Normandy landing, without any fire cover, to initiate a ground assault on a moon which, as far as I understood, no one even checked to see whether or not had any breathable atmosphere on it.

It is a concept of unparalleled idiocy and lunacy. And yet, coming from the mouth of such an emotive orator, it resonates with hope and heroism. The fact that this ludicrous reality of the human mindset is so believable, and conveyed in such an authentic manner, was my crash course in realizing how good an author Annandale is. When it comes to writing about the core levels of belief inside all of us, he does so with a frightening mastery. Whether he is illustrating it by showing us how easily even rational people get caught up in a jingoistic call to arms, no matter how ill-conceived, or showing us the fierce, yet futile raging of an sole, insignificant person against a force that stands ready to crush it in a heartbeat, he does it with utter realism. This is a trait that I saw a glimpse of in his kaiju short story The Conversion, and now I can see that it was no fluke.

With that all being said, let's see how the other elements here were represented.

Characters:
The new characters introduced here, most notable Haas and Leander Narkissos (a Chartist Captain), are all well done and well-rounded. One of the nicest surprises here is that we also get an appearance by the Iron Warriors as they do battle with the ork menace. I really enjoyed the character of warsmith Kalkator. I really did not want the Iron Warrior chapters to end (although I stopped thinking of them when the focus on the Crusade started heating up).

Annandale's treatment of the established characters is excellent as well. Although I still prefer Sanders' Vangorich a smidge more, we get a return to some of that character's snark; though; thankfully not in the amount that Abnett saturated him in. His handling of the Space Marine confluence of Koorland, Bohemond, Quesadra, Issachar and Thane is superb as well. At least here they sound like the leaders they are. They exhibit the right balance of concern and reserve.

The only real storyline that did not do much for me, yet again, was Wienand's. I don't even attribute this to authorial error; nobody has really been able to make this character compelling. The ante of the Inquisitorial squabbling has been upped, with Veritus stepping in to take Wienand's place. His philosophy leans more towards the fanatical; with the Ruinous Powers being his primary concern, even with an ork moon in plain view.

Bad Guys:
I love these orks. We all know by now that these specimens are smarter than the average greenskin. However, Annandale seems to take pure joy in concocting wonderfully complex tactics and traps that the minions of the Beast use to trip up the hapless 'humies at every turn. Terrifying in the flesh, and terribly fun to read about.

Action:
The action scenes are good, and are nicely conceived and choreographed. I would say that they don't 'pop' or that they aren't as visceral as the scenes in other books, but that's not the point. I enjoyed this more because my concern for the characters was the paramount concern. If you can be emotionally invested, everything else is good. And, again, the scenes we get are done very well.

Now, one exception is this: tank battles. We get tank action in the scenes that deal with the Iron Warriors, and with those that deal with the Imperial Guard. And these are amazing. Bonecrushing, devastating, beautiful.

Pacing:
The Last Wall moves along at a nice clip. As mentioned, there were certain scenes that I never wanted to end. Other ones, I don't know if it was Annandale or myself that weren't into them, just kept moving. Cases in point: the Wienand scenes (although the early on assassination attempt is nicely done), and the chapter focusing on what the AdMech is up to on the sly. We close once again with a huge cliffhanger. The last few pages, I'm not going to say they feel rushed, but there was something about what was going on that I felt was a bit.....I don't know, silly? Even by the standards of what the 40K universe has to offer. Maybe it all just seemed a bit flippant after the emotional draining that occurred with the conclusion of the Proletarian Crusade.

Writing Style:
I'm pretty sure I've covered how much I was impressed by Annandale's writing in The Last Wall. He has a strong grasp on highly descriptive, figurative language. He displays this by using short, power-packed statements, like:

"It was stone and iron come together as if brute force had a geology."

See, with succinct, clever lines like this, there is no need for pages upon pages of flowery prose. And, writing like this, it becomes possible to pack a full story into a lean volume. Another trick he employs which I laud him for is the running "Last Wall" motif. Permeating each aspect of the narrative is a wall of sorts; be it human or inorganic. We see this from the opening pages, as Terra goes mad with the ork moon looming above; we see the greatest example in the wall that heralds the end of the Proletarian Crusade. Great stuff.

In the end, boasting a great story line, nice action, and some frighteningly powerfully emotional scenes, I'd list The Last Wall as my current favorite entry in the series.

Final Score:

9/10

Cover Score:

Again, I can't stress how much I love these Beast Arises covers that feature the orks. And this one has a squig to boot!


Cover Final Score:

9.5/10