Book Review: The Black Company

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Ever wonder what it’d be like to work for Sauron? Or Voldemort? Or just about any other big-bad in fantasy literature?

To be honest, it was a question I hadn’t pondered until THE BLACK COMPANY cunningly brought it up. Glen Cook’s fantasy exodus is narrated from the vantage point of Croaker, the historian of the mercenary group known the world over as the Black Company. For 400 years the company has moved from employer to employer, doing deeds and moving on. When their latest employer, a malignant ruler of the empire in the north who is known simply as the Lady, hires the Black Company to help her win her war against a rebel uprising, the spirited sell-swords are dragged into a terrible conflict.

And, as it turns out, it proves to be a thrilling journey that is quickly paced, deviously plotted, and left me desperate for more.

There’s so much to love about the Black Company. Maybe it’s Croaker, the historian and physician, who hasn’t quite lost his own spark of goodness. Not that the rest of the company has either, since the novel makes clear that good people can still do terrible things. Or maybe it’s the brilliantly written, stunningly executed antagonist known as the Lady. Sometimes mocking, sometimes cruel, but always brilliant—the Lady is a treatment on villains done exceptionally well. Perhaps it’s the web of strategy, betrayals, and subversion that the Company finds itself caught in amongst the Lady’s most ancient and dangerous servants, the Taken?

Add to that the tried and true story of the Rebel fighting against the oppressors, but this time add in the horrors and realities of war, and the result is borderline magnificent. Reality is an omnipresent theme of the first novel in the omnibus set called the Chronicles of the Black Company. Croaker and the rest of the Company don’t read like the stereotypical military unit that is portrayed in other books and movies. Rather, it’s a band of outcasts who join together to try and create their own bizarre family while doing the work demanded of them to get paid.

Make no mistake, the Black Company isn’t an easy read. In fact, it can be challenging because of the ideas it proposes and the grisly scenes it presents. But Croaker’s central tenet that the Company often picks the lesser of two evils and that morality is inherently subjective sets the stage expertly for the showdown between the imperial forces of the Lady and revolutionary army thrown together by the Rebel. Is either force really any better than the other? Is there a breaking point where the money doesn’t outweigh the values of morality?

In several ways, The Black Company is a book that proposes questions but hardly bothers to answer any of them. In the end, Cook leaves us with a haunting scene. A pyrrhic victory.

In a sense, the first book in the Chronicles proves to be something of an initiation rite for readers. By going through this haunting experience with characters that feel less imaginary and more real, Glen Cook does an amazing job of establishing his world and making its merits, successes, and losses all the more poignant.

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Book Review: The Rook

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When Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the rain bruised and battered but—most importantly—amnesiac, she is thrust into the supernatural underbelly of modern day Britain.

Rarely, oh so rarely, does a novel as engaging and thrilling as The Rook come across my desk. This is one of those precious urban fantasy novels whose conceit simply works right from the start. From the first page to the last, Daniel O’Malley utterly envelops the reader into the most believable of unbelievable notions: that an organization called the Checquy Group monitors and covers-up the supernatural activities in the UK and that Myfanwy Thomas, the unsuspecting bureaucrat, has been drawn into a brutal power-struggle. O’Malley treats his world, where possessed houses gobble people up and the ‘powered’ individuals of the Checquy are given chess-related titles (hence the title), with equal parts gleeful joviality and soberingly pensive moments.

The Rook tackles a variety of themes ranging from what constitutes a personality to the nature of equality and Rook Thomas takes point in these spirited debates. I found that the informal tone of the book added depth to it; enriched by the often times bizarre gifts that O’Malley imbues the staffers of the Checquy Group with—a team of doctors actually licks the protagonist thoroughly at one point! But The Rook, for its many foibles and irreverent references, always plays with a central question of the nature of power: who wields it, who doesn’t, and whether that’s reality or a fantasy in itself.

As far as urban fantasy goes, which can be done poorly as often as it done well, The Rook exceeds where others have failed namely by maintaining the veil of secrecy that separates the supernatural realm from the mortal realm. The Checquy Group act as the judge, jury, and executioners in all magical affairs in their effort to maintain strict secrecy. This element of secrecy really helps the book excel as a whole and reinforces why urban fantasy exists as a genre: we want to believe that there are dark and terrible things on the fringes of reality and The Rook delivers upon that notion in droves.

It’s with rabid enthusiasm that I recommend Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook to anyone looking for a great read. And if this review wasn’t enough to sell you on the book, then the duck that can tell the future should definitely do the trick…

Book Review: The Sky: The Art of Final Fantasy

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There are few things that I adore as fervently as the Final Fantasy series. Regardless of your opinion of the current state of the franchise, there’s no denying that a series with over 25 years of history is a force to be contended with. In 1987, a nearly bankrupt game company by the name of the Squaresoft released what it thought would be it’s last game and, in what proved to be an ironic twist of fate, FINAL FANTASY became the first entry in Square’s wildly successful RPG franchise. Currently encompassing fourteen main entries (FINAL FANTASY I-XIV) and dozens of spin offs, remakes, and—in certain instances—pure cash cows (I’m looking at you, FINAL FANTASY: ALL THE BRAVEST), the name FINAL FANTASY is synonymous with the highest quality story, music and art that can be found throughout the medium.

FINAL FANTASY: A Series History in Logos

FINAL FANTASY: A Series History in Logos

For some people it’s Mario. For others it’s Link. For me, it’s all about Final Fantasy. If I had to name a favorite then, easily, I would choose FINAL FANTASY IX. Most people name-drop VII (with Cloud and Sephiroth and Meteor) as their favorite Final Fantasy, and while that’s fair, it’s simply not the best Final Fantasy. As far as translation quality, art direction, and musical execution go, FINAL FANTASY IX is superbly unmatched. As the swan-song Final Fantasy for the Playstation 1 era, it goes unrivaled even thirteen years after its release.

FINAL FANTASY IX Characters

FINAL FANTASY IX Characters

It’s only fitting in an ironically cruel sort of way, then, that I discovered THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY almost a month after it was published. After a particularly grueling week at work, I came to the conclusion that I deserved a treat for a job well done and this elaborate, beautifully slipcased edition was mine as soon as I found it on Amazon. As far as quality goes, I’ve owned a lot of “collector’s edition” memorabilia when it comes to the Final Fantasy series but this set of art books is the most stunning and impressive that I’ve ever owned. It outdoes, by sheer weight alone, the other contenders that come to mind. It shames the guide books for the games and derisively snorts at the art book that came with the collector’s edition of FINAL FANTASY XII.

FINAL FANTASY XII Collector's Edition

FINAL FANTASY XII Collector’s Edition

Where to begin, then, with THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY? Firstly, this box set is epic. I hate throwing that word around because of how devalued it has become as a result of the über-hype media machine that’s been built by my generation, but nothing else so perfectly describes the heft and weight of three respectable art books kept within a high quality slip cover. This “slip cover,” by the way, is more like a protective casing with an animated felt exterior. Nothing about the box feels cheap, but rather silky and ethereal as the artwork it contains.

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY

Yoshitaka Amano, to any respectable Final Fantasy fan, is immediately recognizable as the artist responsible for the logos of each numbered installment in the main series—the exception being the logo of Final Fantasy IX, a logo that nobody wants to take credit for. Amano was the main illustrator for games I through VI, contributed promotional artwork for VII and VIII, and returned as the main illustrator for IX. Since Final Fantasy X his role in the series’ illustrations is largely a symbolic one; he creates the logos for each numbered game, contributes some artwork prints, but has otherwise been active in different fields ranging from novel illustrations to manga and comics.

However, that does not detract from the fact that Yoshitaka Amano’s fame is eclipsed, or perhaps only shared with, the pantheon of individuals who launched the FINAL FANTASY series to international acclaim, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu.

And so this box set is primarily aimed at series fans of games I through X. Book 1 details his illustrative contributions for games I through III; Book 2 contains his work on games IV through VI and is the thickest of the set, nearly the size of the first and third books combined. Given that IV, V, and VI were the first games to really try to tell stories that were unique to themselves—despite being numbered, each Final Fantasy game is wholly separate from its predecessors—and introduced iconic elements like chocobos, moogles, and Cid, that was to be expected. And fans of FINAL FANTASY VI, which is widely regarded as one of the best videogames in history, will not be disappointed. Book 3, thinnest of the bunch, contains art from VII to X and more than a third of it is dedicated to IX, much to my joy!

Book 1 is a treat, if only to see how Amano’s style began. His black and white drawings, often fearsome, are almost gothic.

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As the series matured, along with the technology responsible for translating Amano’s craft to playable format, so too does Amano’s style. Color and definition play a more important function but his most striking work tends to be excruciatingly detailed in black and white, as we see in Book 3. Take, for instance, the logo of FINAL FANTASY X.

FINAL FANTASY X Logo

FINAL FANTASY X Logo

It’s an iteration of a massive print, originally done in black and white, of the protagonist character Yuna conducting a dance called “the sending” in which the souls of the dead are dispatched to the afterlife. Book 3 contains, across two massive pages, the immense masterpiece that the logo ultimately underserves. I snapped a square of Yuna alone, and I think it at least hints at the intricate beauty with which the image was crafted.

Yuna, FINAL FANTASY X

Yuna, FINAL FANTASY X

Where this set shines is when, as an avid fan, I was able to connect with the artwork for my favorite games. In particular, I found the artwork for IV, VI, and IX to be especially compelling. Absorbing art is always a silent and rather contemplative action, but in this instance it’s amplified by the knowledge that Amano directly impacted the evolution and visual style of my favorite entries. In a small and unimportant way, I participated in his artistic process. 

Adelbert Steiner, FINAL FANTASY IX

Adelbert Steiner, FINAL FANTASY IX

As soon as it arrived, THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY became one of my most treasured possessions. Dark Horse Comics, the publishers of this tome of artistic triumphs, has published a variety of other companion art books of high quality. At this year’s San Diego ComicCon, I perused their booth and took note of the art books they had for The Legend of Korra and was definitely impressed. THE SKY will assuredly join my copy of  HYRULE HISTORIA as testaments to the fact that videogames can be, and inherently are, works of artistic merit.

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY is a nostalgic and powerful love letter to the fans of Final Fantasy, and is not to be missed.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

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By no means does the debut novel of Patrick RothfussTHE NAME OF THE WIND, start with a bang. In the age of instant gratification and explosive action, The Name of the Wind reads more like poetry than prose. Originally published in 2007, this book had been on my radar for months in a “if I ever have the time I’ll definitely read that book” kind of way. Purchased as one of the eight novels of choice on my birthday, it was number four to be read from beginning to completion.

The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind

Perhaps the most charming aspect of the story is the humble beginning in which it is strongly rooted. In the novel’s present, a man named Kvothe is hiding in a backwater town under the alias of Kote, the simple innkeeper who is almost nearly out of business. A chance encounter on a dangerous night brings a famous historian, aptly named Chronicler, to Kote’s inn. Chronicler has heard the tales and legends of Kvothe’s greatness and is allowed to record the truest version of the man’s life.

The Name of the Wind, with its near constant emphasis on music, is lyrical in its composition and unabashedly meticulous in its execution. Rothfuss creates an enamoring world of magic and music, of friendship and betrayal, that doesn’t shy away from cruelty. Part of what makes Kvothe’s story so compelling is how unfair the world is to him, given that he so rarely catches a break. This level approach makes the character relatable in some aspects, irritating in others, but wholly realized and developed. It’s such an intimate story of a young man’s growth, a true bildungrsoman, because an adolescent Kvothe must come to terms with the challenges of his life as he attempts to reconcile his pursuit of education with his heroic, altruistic, and sometimes self-serving tendencies.

Rothfuss pays judicisous attention to the Four Corners, the sub-section of the fantasy world that he’s created in which his story takes place. With the precision of a linguist, he subtly establishes the tonal differences that exist between the rival states as well as their cultural gaps—going so far as to remind us that Cealdish coin is good anywhere, but that Commonwealth currency will suffice in most other circumstances. In this benign method, Rothfuss gives us what we need to know about his world without bludgeoning us over the head with it. This, in my opinion, is expert fantasy craftsmanship at work.

Eventually, the major challenge that The Name of the Wind faces is the format of its own story; this novel is day one in Kvothe’s promised three day recitation which means that there isn’t an overarching endeavor or singular goal that Kvothe is working towards in this first novel. Kvothe even admits, at the novel’s end, that it’s a satisfying foundation upon which the real story can be told. Either way, the content by and large allowed me to lose myself within the pages and the world of The Name of the Wind long enough to practically tear through it and thereby subdue my modest qualms.

highly recommend The Name of the Wind and feverishly anticipate the sequel, THE WISE MAN’S FEAR.

At 11:36pm on Monday…

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At 11:36pm on Monday, September 2 2013, I completed the rough draft of my second full-length novel. It is, preliminarily, 211,722 words and numbers 388 pages on 8.5 by 11 inch pages set to a single-space lining. It’s hard to say exactly what I’m feeling, though relief and satisfaction (joy, maybe?) would be the obvious contenders. There’s so much work ahead but the difficult part, and the most enjoyable for that matter, are behind me. Editing is upon me, and I know I don’t fully comprehend what I’ve accomplished, but I am definitely…pleased.

Book Review: The Long Earth

The Long Earth
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Prior to reading THE LONG EARTH, I had never read a book written (in part or in whole) by Terry Pratchett. His joint effort with Stephen Baxter, the first novel in a three-part series, proved to be my first exodus with these authors. I’m always entertained by non-natives writing foreign characters and in this case knowing that Pratchett and Baxter are British made me particularly interested to see the results of their labor.

The Long Earth

As a novel that blends comedy, pseudo-science, and pioneer adventurism The Long Earth is, perhaps, the strangest book that I’ve read in a long time. It is a mixture of at least four genres that produces, maybe not too surprisingly, an equally strange novel. Almost two weeks after I finished The Long Earth I’m still grappling with my final impression of the book but, before we get to that, I want to outline the novel itself.

In the very near future, the instructions for a device called a stepper are uploaded to the internet. It is easy to assemble and the lone button on a stepper can be switched to east, off, or west. As thousands of children discover on what is later named Step Day, switching the button east or west moves you one parallel world in that direction.

Stepper-Diagram

Overnight, a new era of exploration is born. Only certain people and certain objects can step and what follows Step Day is a second age of pioneering. Thirteen years later, a man called Joshua is asked by a soda machine to go exploring these alternate Earths in search of answers.

And that all happens within the first fifty pages. Going back to my impressions, I’m pretty sure I liked the book. It’s fun and humorous at times, and Joshua Valiente is an extremely well-developed protagonist that I mostly approve of. The book’s breakout character, of course, is Lobsang the AI who moves from machine to machine as needed. He’s clever and witty and the inclusion of a non-human character allows the novel to inquire on the human condition but it never quite escapes the gimmicky feeling that stitches the book together.

Boy, does it wander. Not that wandering is a bad thing since this is, at its heart, a novel about a journey with no destination. Books, however, have an end and so when The Long Earth begins the rushed approach to its own ending the experience is rushed and disconnected; surreal but relevant in a strange way. The Long Earth owns a cool premise that it loses sight of on its way to the next sequel. Not quite a disappointment, but not quite spectacular either.

The best way I can phrase it is that I’m glad I picked up the book and I did enjoy it, but not enough to run out and buy book two. Baxter, who I’m led to believe did a majority of the writing, did it well, though British mannerism and expressions sneak into the dialogue and most of the police jargon is lifted from an episode of Law & Order.  Ultimately, what concerns me about The Long Earth is a theme it revisits numerous times: emptiness.

The Long Earth, the expression for the infinite number of parallel Earths that are “east” and “west” of our own, is vast but empty. Unfortunately, so is THE LONG EARTH itself.