Books: Before They Are Hanged

In Brief: In this second book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, established characters pick up the pace with war brewing on two fronts and a quest for a lost artifact.

Pros:  The excellent writing and Sword and Sorcery feel continue from the first book.  The author sticks with the same core characters and continues to develop them.  The action is quick and deadly, the pacing and plotting are spot on.  And you have to appreciate the gallows humor.  No second book lull here.

Cons:  Some readers seeking a deviation from the classic neo-European fantasy setting may be disappointed.

Review:  The title of Before They Are Hanged, courtesy of an epigraph from the poet, Heinrich Heine: “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”  Yeah.  That sums up the prevailing ethos of the main characters as well as the author’s thematic approach.

It’s a welcome approach, true Sword and Sorcery in the tradition of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber rather than Tolkien (although the nods to Tolkien are evident).  Abercrombie continues with the main characters from The Blade Itself: Logen Ninefingers, practical barbarian from the north, Superior Glotka, the crippled inquisitor who was once a soldier and court favorite, Bayaz, first of the magi, Ferro, former slave and assassin, Captain Luthar Jezal, fencing champion and upper-class twit, Colonel West, self-made officer from the provinces, and the Dogman, renegade Northman tracker and archer.

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TV Picks Return

Quick programming alert: two Beemsville TV picks return for each of their second seasons this week.

On AMC, Hell on Wheels kicks off at 8:00 CST.  You can watch trailers and plot-line lead-in from last season if you want to get on board or missed some episodes.  AMC is also doing a Season 1 Marathon all day today (Sunday) as is their custom.  We like this show because it’s a well-made Western with strong performances and interesting characters.

Tomorrow night at 9:00 CST, Grimm starts up again on NBC.  Move on from your Olympic hangover with supernatural style.  NBC’s site also has plenty of media and content to initiate or reintroduce you to Detective Nick, Monroe, and the Grimm-iverse.  This show has old-school X-Files appeal, a well-conceived urban fantasy setting (easier said than done – just look at all the crap fantasy spin-off attempts), and interesting characters.

You gotta have interesting characters.  Check them out.

Movies: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

…based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Rufus Sewell, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

We are of two minds about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter around these parts.  One one hand, it’s a fun summer popcorn movie that takes the semi-ridiculous and makes it cool.  On the other hand, my history major hand, it takes a pivotal historical figure and series of events, and throws it in the pop culture schlock-o-meter.

Four Score and Seven Decapitations Ago…

The vampires brought forth onto this continent, a new nation, conceived in darkness, dedicated to the concept that slavery provided a steady food supply and also helps explain why there’s always so many vamps in the south.

Young Abe Lincoln learns the truth when, after he and his father’s disagreement with a river merchant over the treatment of a young slave, Will (Mackie), that merchant pays the Lincolns a visit.  Yes, he’s a vampire, and he gives Abe’s mom a little bite-and-drain.  Abe watches, horrified, from the attic.  She quickly becomes ill and dies, and Abe vows vengeance. Continue reading

Books: The Blade Itself

In Brief:  Joe Abercrombie introduces a cast of realistic characters with a harsh and sometimes humorous Sword and Sorcery bent.  There are quests and vendettas and backroom deals.  The plot and world will no doubt seem familiar; the execution of the story, however, places this book above that fantasy norm.

Pros:  The characters are flawed, human, and extremely well-conceived.  You may not always like their actions or motives, but you damn sure know where they’re coming from.  The author hits enough plot marks to keep it moving, introducing his world, history, and system of magic.  Very well-written in a gritty realistic fashion.

Cons:  The late Medieval European-style setting is awfully familiar, which may be off-putting to some.  If you like your prose flowery and full of high Fantasy virtue, you may want to look elsewhere.  Abercrombie plays in the mud (full disclosure – not a con for me).

Review:  Author Joe Abercrombie has been so lauded and praised since he hit the scene a few years back, I think I subconsciously resisted reading his books.  No good reason – other than having been less than impress before with writers getting that kind of pub.  But I continued to read and hear about his Sword and Sorcery roots, his two-fisted action pieces, and the interesting, realistic characters he’s created.  The final straw was listening to an SF Signal podcast on Sword and Sorcery, in which pretty much all the other writers and editors on the panel recommend the First Law trilogy and Abercrombie’s newest book.

So I picked up The Blade Itself, and I’m very glad I did.  One book in, and I can already tell it’s likely to be one of my favorite series in years.  I will probably end up recommending it highly to my friends who read fantasy and science fiction on a consistent, borderline annoying basis.  And here’s why:  Characters.

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Books: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

In Brief: Steampunk meets historical fiction in Victorian London, with time travel paradox and some mysticism thrown in for good measure.  Author Mark Hodder hits the ground running.

Pros:  Fast-paced and fun for readers familiar with the history of the British Empire at its apex, the book quickly introduces its sci-fi conventions, stamps them in the plot and moves onwards.  And also – werewolves.

Cons:  Readers with no grounding in history may still enjoy much of this book, but won’t be in on some of the most creative turns with historical figures and famous events.  This book has more of a pulp feel, so some of the characters come off a little flat (or would if you didn’t have the historical versions of them to fill in space).

Review:  At the library, saw the cover, and read the back  copy (which was written in the style of a 19th century newspaper advertisement).  I immediately noticed that one of the main characters was none other than a fictionalized Sir Richard Francis Burton, famous explorer and Victorian writer and a person I’ve read about before.  OK, Mr. Mark Hodder – well played, I told myself.  I have to give this a look.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack immediately plunges us into an alternate England – one in which familiar historical events have changed, not occurred, or happened out of sequence.  Beginning with Burton’s feud with fellow explorer, John Speke, over the location of the source of the Nile.  As history tells us, Speke shot himself (either on purpose or accidentally) as he and Burton were about to debate their specific expeditions.  But in this novel, Speke does not perish almost immediately but instead disappears.  And Burton has himself a mystery to solve. Continue reading

Picking and Grimming

Last fall we picked the NBC series Grimm as one to try out, and one we initially enjoyed.  While the idea of police drama and fantasy stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales isn’t all that novel – cops and monsters have been around in some fashion for decades – the effective creation of such a show has proven more elusive.  In earlier posts we’ve referred to the Twilight Effect, wherein a high percentage of new drama shows have included some element of the fantastic of a science fiction aside.  You might think that as proponents of sci-fi and fantasy, we would appreciate this trend.  But here’s the thing:  many of these shows are just bad.

Not so with Grimm.  Although I had initial concerns about ‘monster-of-the-week’ issues and whether the basic formula of giving Detective Nick Burkhardt a new fairy tale inspired creature and mystery to confront each week would grow stale, the series’ producers and writers have mostly avoided this by adding elements of a larger hidden-world struggle.  This struggle involves the power structure and traditions of the various creatures, a hidden multi-layered history (which Nick can discover along with the viewers), and how these elements intersect for Detective Nick. Continue reading

Books: The Dragon’s Path

In Brief:  Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path blends political intrigue, medieval finance, and forgotten religions against a familiar fantasy backdrop.

Pros:  The author’s familiarity with conventions of traditional fantasy allows him to turn down some unique corridors. The characters are well-realized and far from the typical archetypes, and the world with its different (sub) races of humanity seems well layered and interesting.

Cons:  Pacing and long stretches that border on repetitive let you know the author is slogging along in trilogy mode.  The lack of action, palpable danger, and physical conflict are puzzling.

Review:  Sometime you pick up a new series on the strength of recommendations, reviews, and cover blurbs.  In the case of Daniel Abraham, I’d read of his skill with plotting and character from several trusted sources, seen comparisons to other authors I’ve enjoyed.  And so I picked up The Dragon’s Path, first book in The Dagger and the Coin series.  It has some of those pleasing fantasy conventions:  girth (555 pages), a map, a prologue, and multiple point-of-view characters.

Abraham’s first 100 pages introduce the world and main characters in expert fashion.  A familiar setting – neo-Europe in the late Middle Ages, a smattering of kingdoms in political conflict bordering on war.  The story features different races of humanity also – firstblood men (regular humans), elf-like Cinnae, thick canine men called Traglu, insectoid Timzinae, and so on – according to legend fashioned by the ancient dragons to do their bidding.  There’s a hint of magic, though it’s certainly not pervasive, and the textured feel of rich history and speculative geography.

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Books: Among Thieves

In Brief:  Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves provides fantasy fans a first-rate immersion in one of the great but often overlooked settings of the genre:  the thieves guild.  The story, a first-person account of local rogue Dorthe, twists, turns, and double-crosses through mean streets, imperial plots, and ancient conspiracies.

Pros:  For a thief, spy, and wise-guy, Drothe is a likable guy and an excellent narrator.  Hulick does a fine job describing the workings of the Kin underworld, injecting their Cant speech, and providing a descriptive background of the city, Ildrecca, without going overboard or bogging down.  The action and swordplay are also well-written.

Cons: A first-person fantasy novel will nearly always lack a level of self-awareness by the narrator.  In other words, Drothe tells the story, while withholding some key developments, and doesn’t seem that changed or affected by it.  That’s mostly OK.  I wonder if Hulick could have pulled this story off in a close third person perspective, which would have freed him up to do some chapters from other character viewpoints as well.

Review:  Admit it:  if you come to fantasy fiction from any kind of role-playing background (e.g. D&D, GURPS, etc.), you probably have a soft spot for the thief.  He’s the guy who blends into shadows, ferrets out information, picks locks, and infiltrates hard targets.  He contributes through guile, stealth, and skill rather than brawn or sorcery.  In most fantasy, the thief is a supporting character, there to pick pockets, sneak around, double cross, etc.  Not often enough do we see a novel not only devoted to this archetype, but set in the seamy underworld of the thief’s domain.

Among Thieves – A Tale of the Kin, delves into this world from the opening scene.  Drothe, is a Nose – a wiseguy collector of information and spreader of rumors – with enough clout and experience to be successful without being important.  He moves from dodge to dodge, specializing in artifact retrieval, which soon puts him on the trail of a relic – a book.    Drothe starts sniffing around, finding clues that seem to link the book to a burgeoning underworld war in a particularly seedy part of town.  Old favors get called in.  Powerful crime lords and imperial forces get interested.  Drothe quickly starts to understand that this book many involve powerful, forbidden magic, and old secrets.  He’s in over his head.

Hulick moves his protagonist through this shadowy web with skill, providing enough detail and nuance to give the reader a sense of the city, its history, and its many layers of underworld society.  He doesn’t go overboard as is so often the case in fantasy and keeps the plot and Drothe moving.  This book is a caper and a mystery at its heart, which means timing and pacing are very important.  The author and his editors deserve kudos for finding the right balance.  It’s obvious Hulick had a huge amount of background notes and material he used in building this world and story, but he was sharp enough to keep this from overwhelming the novel.

The characters are fun and vivid as well.  Sure, they’re built from well-used archetypes (a mix of crime novels and fantasy), but the important ones are distinctive enough.  Bronze Degan, a sort of mercenary with a secret code of honor, protects Drothe’s back and jabs back and forth verbally with him to good effect.  Christiana, Drothe’s sister, has moved up from the street to the nobility without revealing her true origins.  Her secret gives Drothe additional worries and headaches.  Jelem is an outlander wizard, providing occasional help for a price.  And the crimelords with whom Drothe works and runs afoul – Nicco and Kells and Shadow –  all convincing and distinct in their way.

This being a first-person novel, the heart and soul of the story resides firmly with Drothe.  He seems more motivated by loyalty to his friends and allies than turning a buck, and his curiosity, wit, and, yes, humility make him easy to like and identify with almost immediately.  Drothe’s skills and contacts help him move from one mystery and escape to the next.  He manipulates people, sure, and calls in old favors and betrays old trusts.  But he feels bad about doing it, rationalizes, and ultimately looks for the path to redemption.  It’s a strange code of honor Hulick has created for his lead thief, yet this only adds to the enjoyment.

My main problems with first-person novels in fantasy are annoying narrators, point-of-view limitations, and literary hang-ups.  Among Thieves doesn’t suffer from the first.  The point-of-view limitations are more speculative on my part:  I like a close third person story that switches between several lead characters, and Hulick’s skill with Drothe makes me wonder if he couldn’t have pulled this off with a few more leads.  As far as the literary argument:  when a first-person lead withholds key information for the sake of a plot, this annoys me.  The fact that Drothe is telling this tale lets me know he’s not going to die.  And self-awareness and epiphany are supposed to be key elements of the first-person story (at least according to our literary betters).    These are very minor nitpicks, probably my own personal hangups, and certainly shouldn’t dissuade a potential reader.

Bottom Line:     Among Thieves is well-written underworld fun.  For those looking for a book set in the urban-crime sub-genre of fantasy, this is a real treat.  I’m looking forward to Doug Hulick’s next story and eager to see where he takes us.

Magic in Prime Time

We’ve been watching a couple of new TV shows with firm contemporary fantasy roots:  ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm.  They are similar in that they juxtapose well-known fairy tale characters and stories in the really real world, feature reluctant non-believer protagonists, and have intriguing bad-guys in the mix.

Once upon a Time takes place in the town of Storybook, Maine, where skip-tracer Emma Swann has arrived at the request of her 10-year old birth son, Henry, to investigate his claims that she’s the one who can the curse.  What curse, you ask?  The one cast by the wicked Queen (of Snow White’s tale) on the denizens of the magic kingdom, causing them to all forget who they are while transporting them to a ‘horrible place’ (i.e., Maine).  So, in the context of the story, the wicked Queen is now the control-freak Mayor with a thing for apples, Jiminy Cricket is Henry’s Shrink, Snow White is an elementary teacher, etc.  So far the show has balanced on the crux of Emma believing in Henry’s explanation and playing along with him for the sake of his therapy.  However, we know she has a part to play because we also know she is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, the only person who can break the curse and send everyone home. Continue reading

Books: Conan – Cimmeria

In Brief:  Conan – Cimmeria is the 7th compilation of Dark Horse’s excellent Conan series, which brings the barbarian back to the land of his origin after years abroad adventuring, plundering, and reaving.  Written by Timothy Truman, art by Tomas Giorello and Richard Corben, colors by Joes Villarrubia.

Pros:  This is the real Conan – Robert E. Howard’s Conan.  Expertly characterized by Truman, with beautiful, savage artwork.  The story has a mythic yet grounded quality.

Cons:  The cartoonish artwork of Conan’s grandfather’s interwoven story could have been better.  Reading this just makes you wonder why Hollywood didn’t contact Truman and series originator Kurt Busiek to write the recent movie.

Full Review:  The prologue begins with a view of an old typewriter, Weird Tales magazines on the desk and boxing gloves hanging from the wall.  It’s Howard’s room, of course.  Flowing into his haunting poem, Cimmeria, which he penned in the Texas hill country back in 1932 when the idea of Conan was being conceived, we see the view of those hills and a transition to Conan returning to his bleak homeland.  A bloody encounter with a band of Vanir raiders; we know we’re in good hands with this book.

Dark Horse has received many accolades for their series of Conan comics, which began back in 2004 and has continued intermittently since.  This offering by Truman and company is up to that standard.  The story begins with Conan crossing back into his northern homeland of Cimmeria in mid-winter, several years after leaving to adventure in the more civilized lands to the south and east.  He’s not sure why his feet have pointed him north, other than a certain wistfulness and yearning to be away from the treachery and double-dealings of the southrons.  It echoes that time in all our lives when we’ve gone away from home and out into the world for awhile, and now we return.  A few changes, but much has stayed the same.  So it is with Conan – only with much more grim-eyed slaying. Continue reading