Books: Dawnthief

In Brief:  James Barclay’s Dawnthief features a band of mercenaries in sword-and-sorcery style adventure.  The characters are hard men (and women), loyal to each other first, who find themselves drawn into a great conflict with darker forces in the land.

Pros:  Barclay has a good command of military history, and his system of magic is consistent.  A good sense of history, solid characters, and an eye for avoiding cliches make this a an effective first effort.

Cons:  The beginning chapters are messy – perhaps due to a switching p.o.v. style that is somewhat troublesome.  The logic behind the penultimate spell at the heart of the story is a little sketchy.

Review:  Dawnthief introduces a band of mercenary soldiers known as the Raven.  A small but intensely loyal group who earns their money fighting the small wars between the nobles of Balaia.  Their code is simple:  they don’t do assassinations and they always put the members of the Raven first.

We meet them marshaling the defense of a small castle outpost – a simple enough mission that goes sideways when a mage from the College of Xetesk called Denser appears.  The mercenaries follow him in an attempt to stop him, losing one of their number in the process.  They find themselves in an alternate dimension, where Hirad, one of their leaders, confronts an ancient guardian and inadvertently helps Denser steal an important magic talisman – one of the key components for the spell, Dawnthief. Continue reading

Books: The Hammer and the Blade

In Brief:  Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade is old-school Sword and Sorcery with contemporary sensibilities.  Kemp pays homage to Leiber and Gygax, and sets up a pair of of likable characters for serial-style adventures.

Pros:  The lead characters, Egil and Nix, are familiar tomb-raiding adventurers straight out of the AD&D Player’s Handbook.  They are also fleshed out pretty well as the author introduces his magical world and keeps the plot moving.  Kemp obviously knows his Sword and Sorcery, and you feel as if you might bump into The Gray Mouser or Conan or Kull at any moment.

Cons:  The Hammer and the Blade is a self-contained adventure focused squarely on Egil and Nix.  It’s not an epic continent and kingdom spanning tale.  Some may prefer a grander scope.  The setting and styling are also very familiar fantasy staples, a potential drawback for those seeking less familiar worlds.

Review:  The book opens with Egil and Nix in the final stages of a dungeon crawl.  They are professional tomb raiders who’ve been at it for awhile, as quickly established by the author’s rapid quip-filled dialogue.  This is Riggs and Murtagh with swords and warhammers.  In the tomb of an ancient wizard king, they avoid traps and finally face off with a hellspawn guardian.

The author sets the scene and handles the introductions with smooth efficiency and we almost immediately like these two characters.  Egil is a warrior-priest of Ebenor – a deity who was only a god for a brief moment before being destroyed.  Egil is also apparently the only priest of Ebenor (not much use worshiping a dead god who can’t answer your devotion after all), with a philosophy tied to recognizing and venerating the moment.  Nix Fall, aka Nix the Quick, is a thief with a bit of magical training (he takes pride in the fact that he was expelled from the Magician’s Academy), who pulled himself out of the slums with his wits and skill.   Continue reading

Books: Control Point

In Brief:  Myke Cole’s first novel in his Shadow Ops series introduces a world where people suddenly begin manifesting magical talents.  When Lieutenant Oscar Britton show his wizard’s chops, he soon learns how far the U.S. Government and Military will go to control this new power.

Pros: Excellent and well-conceived scenario building and magic extrapolation blended with the military sci-fi tradition.  The author’s military research and experience and familiarity with other similarly-themed stories provide weight, as does the solid characterization.

Cons:  Oscar Britton is a sympathetic likable dude, but he spends too long waffling and deciding on an eventual course of action.  Not coincidentally, the plot does stall somewhat in the middle of the book.  Also – and this is directed at the publisher, Ace – my paperback copy came unglued and fell apart completely in less than two weeks.

Review:    The excellent Sci-Fi Signal Podcast pointed me to Control Point, listening to Myke Cole on a panel discussion about the state of Military Sci-Fi.  A small plug for his own work and appreciation by other panel members was enough for me to seek out this book.  The cover, with its “Blackhawk Down Meets the X-Men’ blurb sealed the deal.

Cole is an Iraq War veteran and an old-school comic book and Dungeons & Dragons fan.  This is my guy.  Reading Control Point gave me the sense of an author who grew up with the X-Men, read Ender’s Game, Armor, maybe some Starship Troopers.  Throw in Guardians of the Flame and the old magic-cyberpunk mashup RPG,Shadowrun for good measure.  The author is definitely familiar with the conventions and pitfalls of this particular corner of the speculative fiction world, and I appreciated that from the outset.

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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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