Books: Last Argument of Kings

In Brief:  The final book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy brings main characters Logen, Jezal, Glotka, Ferro, and Bayaz full circle amidst grim warfare, invasions, political machinations, and ancient magic.

Pros:  This is Joe Abercrombie, who has the knack for great characterization, realistic action, effective plotting, and occasional dark humor.  Many of the showdowns hinted at in the first two books (internal and external) come to pass.

Cons:  To quote the overused coach-speak cliche:  “They are who we thought they are.”  And in the end, this may not be enough.

Review: Last Argument of Kings begins with the lead-up to the election among the nobles of the Union to choose a new king.  Inspector Glotka and the Inquisition, attempting to secure votes for the candidate of their choosing, proceed along a course of threats, bribes, and blackmail as they vie for power.

The scenario is familiar, having been setup towards the end of Before They Are Hanged, the previous book. So too we follow the splitting of the wizard Bayaz’s ‘anti-fellowship’, who, having failed in their quest to recover the powerful artifact called the Seed, now find themselves sucked into plot arcs the author has skillfully molded throughout the series. Continue reading

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: 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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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: 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

Movies: Conan the Barbarian

…written by Thomas Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood; directed by Marcus Nispel; starring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, and Rose McGowan.

Pros:  In the title role, Momoa has some convincing movements, and Lang makes for an excellent arch-villain.  The set designers and artists have created a convincing Hyboria, and the action is full throttle.

Cons: The tired old revenge-cliche forms the spine of the plot, which is an opportunity lost, considering the breadth of Robert E. Howard’s source material.

Review:  The latest offering of Conan the Barbarian starts well enough, with none other than Morgan Freeman providing the voice-over narration – the classic introduction to Conan of Cimmeria as penned by Robert E. Howard in the very first short story so many years ago.  But then, about a paragraph in, the narration breaks from Howard’s prose and drifts into the tale of an ancient magical artifact, the Mask of Acheron, that was eventually sundered in scattered by tribes of men to prevent its evil use.

Standard fare.  And I’m sitting there in the theater thinking, Why?  Why go this route?  Just stay true to the source material!  Other fans of Robert E. Howard likely had similar reactions, and this is pretty much the theme of my review for this movie.  Why take this iconic character down the familiar, well-worn path?  Don’t want to lay blame on the writers (who nonetheless missed some hanging curve-balls with this script), but rather look at the producers, who most certainly squashed anything creative ideas they perceived as outside the realm of the standard Hollywood take on action/fantasy.  This is truly a shame, because the cast seemed capable of more, the set-designs – echoing Frank Frazetta and the old Marvel magazines – are evocative, and the action/stunt/fighting team is first-rate.  Much like the recent Wolverine film, I found myself lamenting a colossal missed opportunity for something more memorable and unique.  Dark Horse Comics got it right with their re-telling of some of those classic Howard stories.  They stayed close to the source material, their writers steeping themselves in the original prose.  The screenwriters and producers of this movie should have followed suit.

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Books: House of Chains

…by Steven Erikson.  Every time I’m about to begin another chapter in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, I get that prickly sense of anticipation of a reader who knows they’re in for some of the good stuff.  House of Chains, Book 4 in this series, definitely meets that standard.  The paperback checks in at over 900 pages.  It has maps in the front, a glossary, and a character list.  It starts with a scene of callous carnage – bloated corpses washing upon the shore in the aftermath of battle.

House of Chains picks up with threads from the previous books, though the central plot element involves the showdown in the holy desert of Raraku between Felesin, now possessed by the vengeful goddess Sha’ik, and Tavore, Adjunct of the Malazan Empire.  Felesin and Tavore, who happen to be sisters, each have their respective armies and their Ascendant patrons in the mix.  This includes a couple of hard-to-kill Bridgeburners and other recurring characters to round out the cast.

As always, there are ancient threads and multi-planar intrigue tied to the showdown.  On either side there are other characters drawn in to battle who have their own histories and agendas, some of which provide hints and clues to this world’s epochal history, some of which will no doubt feature in future chapters. Continue reading