January 25, 2013

Review Redux: "Gardens of the Moon" By Steven Erikson (Malazan Book of the Fallen #1)

For those of you that follow ProSe bear with me, as I will be reviewing a book in this posting that I reviewed two years ago hereGardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson is an amazing novel on so many levels, and I guess part of my rationale in providing another look at it is to encourage more readers to discover the incredible world and story that Erikson has created in his ten-volume series known as "The Malazan Book of the Fallen".

Gardens of the Moon, and the entire "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series is generally classified as fantasy fiction, and while that is an appropriate designation, it is also so much more than that.  I'd like to use this posting to briefly describe why I think it is actually kind of hard to simply pigeon-hole this series safely in the fantasy genre.

First of all, let's talk about what this series is not.  The "Malazan Book of the Fallen" (or, MBotF) is not a recounting of an epic struggle between Good and Evil.  Nor is the MBotF a bildungsroman of some young poor farmer boy or girl who sets out upon a grand and desperate quest to save the world from an evil sorcerer or ruler.  Finally, the MBotF series is not the story of one, or even a few, main characters, but contains a cast of hundreds.  Frankly, very few of the typical fantasy tropes are in play in this series, the MBotF is some seriously new and cutting-edge stuff, and it probably is not going to appeal to all who pick it up.  I'm also convinced that the MBotF is destined to ultimately be viewed as 'classic' and will be read for many, many years to come.  It really is that original.

Up front you need to realize that Steven Erikson does not 'hold your hand' while reading this series.  By that I mean there are no big 'information dumps' that explain the Malazan world, or detailed character backgrounds, or in-depth descriptions of how the magic systems works, or even what's going on at any precise moment in time.  You really gotta work for it in reading this series, and sometimes its bloody hard work and can be quite frustrating.  In some respects, reading the MBotF is kinda like assembling a giant 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollack painting--it takes time, and it can be confusing as hell; but when it 'clicks' it becomes an immensely satisfying reading experience, and one that you'll want to revisit and delve into for the rest of your life.

To me, the MBotF is like reading the history of a whole planet, as you will be learning about new cultures and events that have occurred over the span of several hundred millenia.  This characteristic is actually very reflective of Erikson's educational background and years of work experience.  'Steven Erikson' is the pen-name for Steve Rune Lundin, a Canadian anthropologist and author.  Apparently, a lot of the original concepts associated with elements of the MBotF were 'ginned up' by Erikson and his friend, Ian C. Esslemont (more on Esslemont later) during anthropological/archaeological field trips and sitting around the campfire at night.  As you read these books you do recognize similarities between some of the characters and cultures in Erikson's Malazan world and historic and prehistoric human cultures.  For example, there are human-like peoples that very much reminded me of early hominid species like Neanderthals and the even earlier hominid, Homo erectus, and there are races of peoples that certainly remind me of various Native American cultures.  The Malazans themselves bear some similarity to the peoples and cultures of the ancient Greek or Roman empires.

The mythopoeic quality of the MBotF series is astounding and maybe one of the more important elements that sets this series apart from all other modern fantasy fiction.  The only other book, in my humble opinion, that creates such a fantastical and intellectually creative fictional mythology is The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Erikson's mythology, like Tolkien's, is an elegant amalgam of creation and origin myths, religious elements, and cultural and social geography all of which seems to be strongly connected to the environment and geology of the Malazan world.  The MBotF contains an enormous and complex pantheon of goddesses and gods that rivals the Greeks, Romans, Norse, Celts and other human cultures.  Much of this mythology is presented in the MBotF as epigraphical poetry or fictional bits of history leading off chapters in each of the books, that when initially read can seem quite enigmatic but ultimately help illuminate plot points and/or foreshadow events to come.  Interestingly, the Malazan world goddesses and gods, like the Greek gods of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey delight in meddling in the affairs of the mortals, and are perhaps even somewhat envious of the Human condition, i.e., the capacity to love, to experience pain, sadness, joy, and even to die.

The MBotF, while a series of ten interconnected books, is not an entirely linear plot structure.  Each book in the series could, I suppose, be read on its own with varying degrees of success.  The point is that each book is largely a self-contained 'chapter' in this magnificent saga, this 'history', of the Malazan world.  Each novel also tends to introduce a whole host of new characters, cultures, a new geographic locale and environmental conditions, and sometimes even new gods and goddesses, but--and its an important "but"--each book and its individual story arc is hugely significant in successfully making the intellectual journey from the first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon, to the tenth and final book, The Crippled God.  And you just gotta make this journey, as it is some of the most mind-bogglingly awesome fiction you'll likely ever encounter.  There is a storyline and cast of characters that you genuinely care about, and enough pathos and drama to carry the reader through the full gamut of emotions--from the heights of great joy and laughter to the depths of profound grief.

Gardens of the Moon is arguably the toughest book to read in the entire series, and much of that is simply related to the reader having to become accustomed to Erikson's writing and story-telling style.  As I said earlier, he makes you work for it.  It took me two attempts before I successfully read and completed Gardens of the Moon, and from what I understand I'm not particularly unique in that experience.  I think if you can just 'hang tough' and get through the first four chapters, you'll start being able to put some pieces of the puzzle together and I'm betting that your interest will be piqued enough to see you through the end of the novel.  This novel, like all in the series, is full of a gritty, but heart-felt realism that I think we can all relate to, i.e., it just feels right some how.  And once you've finished Gardens of the Moon and start Deadhouse Gates (one of my personal favorites in the series), I predict that you'll be hooked and then you're in for the long-haul.

Gardens of the Moon opens with a great battle involving a Malazan army and its mages attacking the city of Pale and a bizarre gigantic chuck of basalt that is suspended in the sky over Pale that is known as "Moon's Spawn".  While you will likely leave the first couple of chapters somewhat 'dazed-and-confused', you should probably take the time to go back and reread sections of this opening section again and again, and the 'muddy waters' will slowly begin to clear for you.  I recommend that new readers get used to the notion that being 'dazed-and-confused' initially is really okay, and that eventually you will come across information later that helps explain things and start answering your questions.  Erikson rewards you as you figure things out, as you get these significant 'aha', or 'lightbulb', moments.  For example, the 'Siege of Pale' (Chapter Two) is an important event, and will be referred to time and time again throughout all ten books in the series, but you'll not quite have it all figured out until you're well into the series.  Anyway, following the events at Pale, the scene shifts south to the large city of Darujhistan and the Malazan Empire's efforts to covertly infiltrate the city and bring it to heel.  To the best of your ability, pay attention to everything, for just about everything that Erikson gives you is important, including events as well as things said.  Utilize the "Dramatis Personae" and maps (at the front of the book) and the "Glossary" (at the end of the book) liberally.  Slowly, but surely, you'll begin to get your 'sea-legs' in the Malazan world and you'll soon find yourself swept up in the tale.

Finally, I want to come back to Erikson's friend, Ian C. Esslemont, or as we Malazan fans refer to him, ICE.  Esslemont is also an archaeologist and author, and is the co-creator of the Malazan world with Steven Erikson.  In fact, ICE has now authored five novels in his "Malazan Empire" series, and the plots of his books are inter-woven and connected with the ten books in Erikson's MBotF.  It is my understanding that ICE has a couple more Malazan Empire novels in him and then we'll have "the rest of the story".  The cool thing is that ICE uses his novels to tell the stories about events and happenings or topics about which Erikson has been specifically vague or even silent on.  So, by reading the books of both authors a reader really can start figuring it all out.

In conclusion, I highly recommend both the MBotF series by Steven Erikson, and the Malazan Empire books by Ian Esslemont.  I have read the entire "Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan (and capably finished by Brandon Sanderson), and the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin, and while they are both very, very good, the Malazan world created by Messrs. Erikson and Esslemont kicks their collective asses!  Don't take my word for it though, give Gardens of the Moon a try, and see what you think.  Try your best not to give up, and just persevere through the first one-hundred pages or so; and if you do give up, just set it up on the shelf and come back a few weeks later.  It'll 'click' at some point, and you be so glad that it did.  It is one of my favorite series of books, and I know that the Malazan world is going to be a part of my literary life as long as I live.

If you're interested, here's a listing of Erikson's books in the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series--

Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters
Reaper's Gale
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God

And here's a listing of Esslemont's books in his "Malazan Empire" series (so far)--

Night of Knives
Return of the Crimson Guard
Orb Sceptre Throne
Blood and Bone

January 22, 2013

Review: "Blood and Bone By Ian C. Esslemont (Malazan Empire #5)

Blood and Bone is far and away the best episode in Ian C. Esslemont's on-going series of "Malazan Empire" novels.  For those who don't know, Esslemont and his "Malazan World" co-creater, Steven Erikson, have authored two series of books that are all interconnected and interwoven together to create, in my humble opinion, the finest fantasy series ever written.  Erikson's series is ten books and is entitled "The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and with Blood and Bone, Esslemont has now completed five novels in his "Malazan Empire" series.

Blood and Bone is a tour de force on so many levels--the quality of writing, the plotting and complexity, characterization, and then the sheer significance to the entire Malazan canon.  This novel grabbed me from the first page and didn't let up until the very last page--it really is that good!  Both Erikson and Esslemont are known for Malazan novels that build with tension and a whole host of seemingly incongruous plot-threads, but generally about two-thirds of the way through the book a series of convergences begin to occur.  This typically culminates in the 'mother of all convergences' near the end of the book, with everything coming flying together, usually in spectacular--and sometimes bloody--fashion.

Blood and Bone begins its mega-convergence pretty much from the first page and just builds like a series of monstrous waves crashing on a rocky shoreline.  As I read Blood and Bone I kept thinking about Joseph Conrad's brilliant little novel Heart of Darkness, and I just have to believe that Esslemont must have also been influenced by it as he wrote this book (as well as his anthropological work in Southeast Asia).  Additionally, there is a real cinematic quality to Esslemont's writing in this book that very much reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now (his take on Conrad's Heart of Darkness).

Blood and Bone is set on the island continent of 'Jacaruku' which is bisected by a great range of mountains that run from the northern end to the southern.  The western half of the island is home to a group of warring desert tribes people and a brutal society of practitioners of dark and evil magic.  The eastern half of Jacaruku is a dense and incredibly dangerous jungle realm known as 'Himatan' that will likely make most readers think of the great jungles in the heart of Africa or the Amazon in South America.  And like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Blood and Bone recounts the stories of the trials and tribulations of several disparate groups of peoples that are all struggling to travel into the interior of this jungle to a fabled lost city--including one group's truly epic journey up a river through the jungle of 'Himatan'.  I'm not going to tell you why, except to say that it is all about power--gaining it, or denying it of somebody else.

I think that Blood and Bone is vitally important in helping to answer some questions, or shed significant light on events touched upon in the other novels in Erikson's and Esslemont's Malazan world.  If you've been a close reader, you will very much enjoy much of what you discover in this action-packed novel.  You're also going to be delighted to encounter some 'old friends' from previous novels, and you're going to love the 'new friends' you're meeting for the first time.  While complexly plotted, this is a rollicking good read with loads of action, tension, and a goodly number of moments of mind-numbing terror.  As I said at the outset, I think this is Esslemont's best novel yet, and I can't wait to see where he takes us in his next installment.  While I have a pretty good guess, I'll let you read Blood and Bone and work that out for yourself.  I have no qualms awarding this book five of five stars, it is a truly great story!

Blood and Bone
By Ian C. Esslemont
Bantam Press, UK, Hardcover
586 pp.
ISBN 0593064467


January 14, 2013

Review: "The Graveyard Book" By Neil Gaiman

I loved this little book!  What a wonderful reimagination of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.  Neil Gaiman is just a born story-teller, and The Graveyard Book is such a terrific example of his talents.  While there is a touch of horror and macabre in the book, it is very much a book that should appeal to young readers as well as adults.  It is also lavishly illustrated by the author-artist Audrey Niffenegger which adds ever so much to the tale.

The premise of The Graveyard Book is of a mysterious man who slays three members of a family, but the fourth member--an 18-month old little baby boy--toddles off in the night and ends up in an old graveyard.  He is adopted by the 'residents'--all dead themselves--who range in age from Roman times up to the present.  He is taken in and 'raised' by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who've been dead for something like 300 years, and is named "Nobody Owens" (nick-named "Bod").  Bod also has a living caretaker, 'Silas', that provides for his material needs whilst keeping him safe as he lives and grows up on the grounds of the cemetery.  Bod is in the unique position of being able to essentially cross-walk, if you will, between the land of the living and that of those dead and residing in the cemetery.  Bod is given a basic education from former teachers who are now permanent residents in the cemetery.  His teachers send him out to practice his reading of English and Latin by studying the plethora of headstones in the cemetery.  Bod also learns some nifty little survival tactics, like how to haunt and fade, from all of his dead 'family' and 'friends', and this serves him very well as the mysterious man is still earnestly looking for Bod in order to finish the job.  Bod also begins to learn more about his protectors Silas and Miss Lupescu.

Like much of Gaiman's fiction this is a quick read, but the plot and the writing are immensely satisfying.  There are all sorts of allusions and references to fairy tales and bits of folklore scattered throughout the book that, taken together, truly cements Gaiman's reputation as a master story-teller in our modern age.  The Graveyard Book is a story that I'd love to see somebody (i.e., like Tim Burton, maybe?) endeavor to bring to the 'big screen', as it such a wonderful, wonderful story from start-to-finish.

The Graveyard Book
By Neil Gaiman
Harper Collins, Hardcover, 2008
312 pp.
ISBN 0060530928


Review: "A Memory of Light" By Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson

As I turned the last pages of A Memory of Light so many things were racing through my mind.  First, it struck me that this is the end of an era, as I have been religiously reading and rereading this series for over 20 years (23 to be precise!).  Second, this is absolutely one of the best fantasy series I have ever read, and I am profoundly and utterly amazed and astonished at the quality of the writing, and complexity of the plotting and characterization from the first volume to this, the fourteenth volume, A Memory of Light.  Finally, I don't know that I have ever read one single book that has run me through the emotional 'ringer' the way that A Memory of Light has; and like Life, there are moments of great joy and happiness as well as deep sadness and grief.  I cannot begin to tell you how many times while reading this book I simply stopped reading and quietly wept for a few moments.  It was, all in all, a simply glorious reading experience! 

I am not going to give one word away about how A Memory of Light wraps up this grand journey that all of us have been on for nearly two decades.  Suffice it to say that A Memory of Light is nearly 1,000 pages of near perfection, and we should all stand up and bellow at the top of our lungs, Tai'shar Jordan! Tai'shar Sanderson!, as they have given us a grand story and an ending for the ages.  Obviously, much of A Memory of Light revolves around 'Tarmon Gai'don' (The Last Battle), and the battle scenes are riveting and make the book incredibly difficult to put down.

As any devoted 'Wheel of Time' fan, I went into A Memory of Light with just a tiny bit of trepidation.  After all, this series has finally come to an end, and how it ended was very important to me.  Now that I've finished my first reading of A Memory of Light, I have to say that I really don't know what I was worried about.  Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson have crafted a finale that is emotionally powerful and so intellectually satisfying that it very nearly belies words.  Oh, I'm sure that there will be those that will want to change this or that, but not me.  I really do think that the series has ended just as it should, and I honestly don't think I'd change a thing.  I can't wait to reread A Memory of Light again soon, as I'm sure that upon a more careful second reading it will become an even more meaningful experience for me.

For something over twenty years this series has been a meaningful part of my literary life.  At first it was really just great fun--a wonderfully complex and complicated bit of fantasy fiction to enjoy as each installment came out.  Now, however, I am beginning to realize that just as Tolkien was inspired through his fiction and poetry to work on developing a mythology for the English peoples, I think Robert Jordan challenged himself to craft a mythology for an American time.  Nation-building, economic and environmental pressures, political machinations, faith and belief systems, cultural diversity, it is all there.  Mostly the 'Wheel of Time' is the story of men and women and the human condition and the choices we make.  Seriously folks, this series is right up there, in my humble opinion, with Steven Erikson's "The Malazan Book of the Fallen", George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire", and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"--it really is that good!
There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of the Wheel of Time.

But it was an ending.
A Memory of Light
By Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
Tor Books, Hardcover, 2013
909 pp.
ISBN 0765325950


Review: "The Child Thief" By Brom

I am now an unabashed fan of the artwork and writing of Brom.  I recently finished reading Brom's The Child Thief, a dark--and very much adult--retelling of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.  Frankly, based upon this novel, I'm willing to suggest that Brom is America's answer to British author Neil Gaiman, with the ability to take the folklore and fairy tales of the ages and give them a thoroughly modern spin.  Even setting aside Brom's gorgeous art that graces this novel, the tale itself is a sophisticated amalgam of elements from Celtic mythology, Arthurian legend, and American history, and it really, really works well.  Having said this, this is not the 'Peter Pan' of your youth, and most certainly is not the 'Peter Pan' and 'Tinkerbelle' of the Disney cartoon.  Nope, this is some seriously dark stuff that continually tugs at the heart-strings, horrifies, and even amuses as it deals with things like friendship, loyalty, belief and faith, and love.  Something tells me that J.M. Barrie would very much approve of Brom's interpretation and retelling of 'Peter Pan' in this book.  I really need to see if I can find a hardcover edition of The Child Thief, as this is a book to cherish and reread, and add to my growing collection of the tales of mythology and faerie.  This gets a solid five out of five stars from me, a genuine favorite.

The Child Thief
By Brom
Harper Voyager, Trade Paperback, 2009
476 pp.
ISBN 0061671339


January 9, 2013

Review: "Great North Road" By Peter F. Hamilton

In reading Peter F. Hamilton's Great North Road I certainly stepped out of my reading 'box', but then I've been doing that a lot over the past few years.  This massive tome--nearly 1,000 pages--is a rock-solid and riveting example of the sub-genre of science fiction known as 'space opera', and I have to say that I enjoyed every moment reading this book.  I had never read anything by Hamilton before, but I am quite sure that I'll be looking at some of his other fiction in the near future.

Simply put, Great North Road is a tale that takes place approximately 150 years in the future, and is a wonderful combination of a police-procedural murder mystery and the story of a military expedition and exploration on the new and strange world of St. Libra, an Earth-like planet, orbiting the Sirius star system (about 8 light years from our own Solar System).  St. Libra is a planet that is mostly covered with water, but with several large land masses that contain a dense and virtually impenetrable jungle.  St. Libra also happens to be the location of a large "bioil" facility that manufactures petroleum products created from algae that is 'farmed' in large paddies.  This oil is then transported through a "trans-spacial connection", or gateway, back to Earth where it is used by European countries in what is now known as "Grande Europe" (a nod to the current European Union, I'm guessing).

Much of the police procedural elements of the novel are centered on the city of Newcastle in England, where there is a corresponding 'gateway' that allows instantaneous travel and transportation of people and equipment from Earth to St. Libra.  Many countries around the world have also established gateways to other worlds and have either created quasi-Utopian settlements, or have engaged in economic- or ethnic-cleansing and have transported their undesirables to these new worlds (i.e., much like the English used to transport criminals, and others, to penal colonies in Australia in the early 19th century).  Additionally, there is the added tension throughout much of the novel of the risk of invasion and attack by a truly horrific alien life-form, the "Zanthswarm", which has attacked and destroyed several of the human settlements on other worlds with millions of human casualties.  The Human Defense Alliance (HDA) exists to protect all humans (and the gateways) from alien threats, and kind of reminded me of our NATO alliance today, or even the U.S. Homeland Security Department.

Hamilton's world-building and his information-dumps are well handled through the use of a timeline that hops back and forth over a span of a century or more, and seen through multiple points-of-view of the various characters in the novel.  There are also some really well thought out notions associated with human cloning, and gene modification (if you have the money) that slows and even reverses the effects of aging, some seriously cool and advanced medical procedures.  I also really found fascinating Hamilton's vision of how artificial intelligence (AI) and information technology is used in this novel.  People are essentially hard-wired into the 'world-wide-web' and can pull up and utilize their own personal 'net' to communicate and access and process all kinds of information and technology--pretty much all 'virtual reality'.  Obviously, this technology allows the police to accomplish some pretty amazing things when it comes to trying to solve crimes, and the soldiers on St. Libra to coordinate and stay linked together as they search for a dangerous alien entity that may, or may not, be involved in the murder that occurred back on Earth.

While some readers may balk a bit at the slightly ponderous pace of the first third of the novel--mostly involving the murder mystery and the Newcastle police--I encourage readers to stay with it as the pace picks up dramatically as characters and plot-lines begin to converge, and then one finds oneself fully engaged as the book roars to its very satisfying conclusion.  I have to say that I was mightily impressed at the overall tone and tenor of the novel and its subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, moral messages that invite the reader to periodically stop and reflect upon a whole of host of issues, including things like population and emigration/immigration control, medical and bio-ethics, control and use of nuclear and biological weapons, and environmental stewardship and the harvesting and utilization of natural resources.  Without being 'preachy' in the novel, I think Hamilton wants his reader to think about these issues and the moral and ethical responsibilities that humans--as an intelligent species--have, and that as we move forward in exploring our Solar System that we do so in a thoughtful, deliberate, and responsible fashion.

The Great North Road is an excellent novel on many levels, and I unhesitatingly recommend reading it.  If you like scifi you'll probably love the book; and even if you don't, the plot and science elements in Great North Road are still close enough to our time frame such that it makes sense and isn't too abstract.  For me, Great North Road is a solid four out of five stars.  A good read indeed!

Great North Road
By Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2012
948 pp.
ISBN 978-0-345-52666-3 


January 5, 2013

Review: "Red Country" By Joe Abercrombie

Wow!  Joe Abercrombie's Red Country is one of the first books that I've read in 2013, and I'll wager that it ends up being one of the best I've read this year.  I found the dark gritty fiction of Abercrombie a few years ago when I read his First Law trilogy (2006-2008), and then followed it up with his brilliant, and my favorite, novel, The Heroes (2011).  Red Country is right up there with The Heroes and is somehow an incredibly clever blend of cinematic gorefest ala Sam Peckinpah and the unrelenting violence and pathos of the writing of Cormac McCarthy; and while Red Country is a fantasy novel of the first order, it reads and feels like a western.

The plot is really quite simple.  Farms in the hinterlands have been burned, people brutally killed, and a lot of children have been captured and kidnapped by a gang of desperadoes.  The novel's primary protagonists are all a group of misfits and deeply flawed characters that have come together to trek across a brutal landscape, some in search of the missing children, others in pursuit of gold, and others just trying to find themselves and start new lives.  'Shy South' and 'Lamb', a father-figure to Shy and her younger siblings, are in pursuit of the kidnapped children.  And if you've read any of Abercrombie's earlier novels you'll be delighted as you encounter a goodly number of rogues who reappear in Red Country.  Additionally, there is a whole group of fascinating new characters that range from utterly monstrous and despicable to some that are honorable and good-hearted.  Having said that though, it is amazing to me that at times it is still hard to sort out who is really good and who is really bad, and that is solely a function of the quality of Abercrombie's plotting and writing.

Abercrombie has a way with words and can truly turn a phrase.  One thing I've come to expect when reading his fiction is the earthy and pithy philosophical one- or two-liners from his characters.  They're really quite priceless, and I've taken to marking them as I encounter them whilst reading.  Here's a sampler of Abercrombie witticisms--
My old commander Sazine once told me you should laugh every moment you live, for you'll find it decidedly difficult afterward.
'Severed heads,'Cosca was explaining, 'never go out of fashion.  Used sparingly and with artistic sensibility, they can make a point a great deal more eloquently than those still attached.'
There is no bad living, and no good death.
The bottle's a shifty banker--it might lend you courage but it's apt to call the debt in sudden.
'Death loves me.' Lamb smiled, black-eyed, wet-eyed, and the smile was worse even than the snarl had been. 'All the work I done for him? The crowds I've sent his way? He knows he ain't got no better friends.'
'Why does everyone pout so over children?' Cosca called after him. 'They'll turn out just as old and disappointing as the rest of us.'
'Men are animals.  Conscience is a burden we choose to bear.  Morality is the lie we tell ourselves to make its bearing easier.'
Well, you get the picture.  Abercrombie sure can write, and Red Country is a relentless torrent of words and writing that simply compels you to keep reading and turning pages, one after the other until you reach the immensely satisfying conclusion.  This is a great book with awesome characters that is sure to please any reader encountering Abercrombie for the first time.  If you've had the pleasure of reading any of Abercrombie's other books, oh are you in for a hell of a delightful surprise.  Finally, even if you're the type of reader who swears they don't like fantasy fiction, give Red Country a try, I'm gonna bet that you're gonna find Abercrombie's fiction is well worth it and in the 'wheel-house' of many, many readers.  Red Country gets a solid five out of five stars from me.

Red Country
By Joe Abercrombie
Orbit Books, 2012
453 pp.
ISBN 9780316187213


Review: "Something Red" By Douglas Nicholas

Every once in a great while you just happen upon a book and author that you absolutely know nothing about, but you take a chance and take it home with you and you are simply blown away at what you've discovered.  Something Red, by Douglas Nicholas, is just such a book and is really a stunning little novel.  This dark and grim story revolves around a small troupe of travelers on a journey through a rugged wild portion of northern England during a bleak and cold winter in the 13th Century.  During the course of their trip the horror and terror mounts until the explosive climax near the end of the book.

The author of Something Red, Douglas Nicholas, in my opinion, is a writer of great promise.  Not only can he spin a great yarn, but his prose is gorgeous and verges on the poetic at times; which actually makes sense as Nicholas is apparently a well known published poet from the Hudson Valley of New York state.  The characters in Something Red are interesting and well wrought, and his use of magic and mythology is deft and sure-footed and works well in the plot.  I have to say that more times than not this dark tale reminded me of the early Anglo-Saxon alliterative epic poem, Beowulf (especially Seamus Heaney's brilliant translation). Also, it is actually quite hard to pigeon-hole this book as horror, fantasy, mystery, or medieval historical fiction--as it really is all of the above.  Mostly though, this is just one damn good book that I had a hard time putting down until I'd read the last page.  I ain't gonna say anymore, other than to urge you to read this superb and riveting debut novel from Douglas Nicholas.  This received five out of five stars from me, as it really was a most excellent novel, and one that I will surely read again sometime soon.

Something Red
By Douglas Nicholas
Emily Bestler Books/ATRIA Books, 2012 
315 pp.
ISBN 978-1-4516-6007-4


January 1, 2013

Review: "The Road" By Cormac McCarthy

I just finished rereading this spare, but intensely powerful, little book.  There's an almost intoxicating quality to the writing of Cormac McCarthy, and The Road is an excellent example of his mastery of the craft.  I swear that there is simply not one extraneous word, and that his brief--almost painfully brief--prose somehow majestically morphs into an elegy that becomes a song of sorrow about the last vestiges of human existence on a shattered Earth. 

The Road is both relentlessly sad and horrifying as the reader follows the struggles of the 'man' and the 'boy' as they slowly journey on the road across the ash-covered and tortured landscape.  But as painful as this book is to read, it is also at the same time the story of a beautiful love between a father and his son.

The Road is, at some level I think, a retelling of the Myth of Prometheus.  Prometheus, as you may recall, was the Titan that created humankind from clay and then gifted them with fire.  For defying Zeus and providing humans with fire, he was chained to a mountain-top where each day an eagle swooped down and devoured his liver.  In The Road, the man and boy travel down the road trying to be the "good guys" and "carrying the fire" in a world that has obviously been, and continues to be, brutally ravaged by fire (whether it was by nuclear holocaust, an asteroid strike, or environmental catastrophe is not made clear, nor is it particularly relevant).

In my opinion, McCarthy's prose in The Road rises to the level of the apocalyptic poetic visions of William Blake, William Wordsworth, or even T.S. Eliot, and is richly loaded with allegory, metaphor, and symbology.  And while The Road is grim, dark, and utterly bleak, it is entirely consistent with much of the rest of McCarthy's oeuvre.  Like many of McCarthy's earlier works, The Road is the story of an epic journey and the relationship between a father and son (or older man and younger man).  Think about, for example, Blood Meridian ("The Judge" and "The Kid"); No Country for Old Men (the Sheriff and his Uncle); and then each of the books in The Border Trilogy, and some of his earlier "Appalachian" works like The Orchard Keeper, Suttree, and Outer Dark.

Some how, some way, McCarthy, while exploring the dark side of humanity in his fiction also always manages to find the spark of goodness in some of his characters--and yet Hope always remains an elusive and sketchy notion.  For me, what makes McCarthy's vision of Hell so goddamned terrifying is that there is a palpable sense of doubt in the validity of Hope and Grace in his fiction.  In The Road it is the 'glimmer' of Hope that carries the scent of salvation and keeps the reader going page after page, paragraph after paragraph, and spare sentence after spare sentence. 

When you read Cormac McCarthy you quickly come to realize that really bad things can happen to decent people and that walking 'the road' of life is a difficult proposition at best. Tough stuff to read, but oh so worth it.