Book Review: The White Rose

Standard

The final installment in Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company which are also known by the moniker ‘The Books of the North’ in the greater chronology of his Black Company series, The White Rose is very much unlike any finale that I’ve read to date. I shouldn’t be surprised because, if you’ve read my reviews of the previous novels The Black Company and Shadows Linger, then it’s obvious by now that Glen Cook knows how to weave a unique tale that simultaneously embraces and eschews the fantasy norms.

The White Rose resumes about four years after the conclusion of Shadows Linger and the ragged dregs of the Black Company have retreated to the Plain of Fear, a wild region of the world where windwhales and change storms sweep the coral-covered desert. After suffering the Black Company’s betrayal at Juniper, the Lady is tightening the noose around them on the Plain. Darling, the girl around whom magic ceases to work, is plotting the downfall of the Lady and her northern Empire when a familiar shadow casts itself across the north: the Dominator.

One of my few issues with this book is that the story comes dangerously close to be an almost exact retread of the plot from the second book. In The White Rose, our protagonists and antagonists find themselves at odds with one another but must band together, setting aside their personal differences temporarily, in order to subdue the greater evil. What The White Rose boasts that Shadows Linger never managed to accomplished, and luckily elevates it therein, is a more mythic feel that arises from the fantastic locations in which it is set. The Plain of Fear and the Barrowlands, bought lively and monstrous in their own ways, are so integral to the plot of the novel that they almost become their own characters respectively.

Another great feat is the continued humanization of the Lady. Cook, through Croaker, really takes to task the notion of good and evil. Through the Lady, readers are asked to consider the idea that people can do terrible things in the pursuit of a higher goal and, therefore, not necessarily be evil. The Lady has massacred hundreds of thousands in her effort to maintain power and, just as willingly, sacrifices even more to secure the world from the return of her malevolent husband. Darling is another unique break from the status quo because she projects a null, a field in which magic can’t work. Therefore, any lasting resolution to the question of the Lady and the Dominator will almost certainly involve her specifically for practical, if not prophetic, reasons.

Cook lines up the many displaced pieces of his story to tell the story of what must be done for the greater good, even if the resolution is far from whatever happy ending readers might feel entitled do. In essence, The White Rose is about people doing the work that needs to be done—fantastic, realistic, good, or bad.

Generally, I’m wary when recommending series. Typically, they require an investment with little promise of a worthy return. I can safely say that The Chronicles of the Black Company, the compendium volume that includes The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose, is certainly worth the time of any reader looking for a series that will refresh their appreciation for the genre.

UP NEXT: A review of “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey!

Book Review: Shadows Linger

Standard

Four years have passed since the epic final battle at the Tower of Charm in The Black Company, the first novel in The Chronicles of the Black Company, and readers once again experience the mercenary brigade’s adventures through the eyes of Croaker, the Company historian. Shadows Linger does not so much concern itself with the aftermath of the war against the Rebel but with the growing specter of the Dominator (the male counterpart to the first novel’s antagonistic sorceress and chief-employer of the Company, the Lady) and the forces that seek to return him to corporeal world.

As the Black Company purges the North of the last Rebel elements they are unhappily drawn to the distant fringe city of Juniper, a cold and religious place where a dreaded black castle inhabited by monstrous beings is engaged in the latest attempt to revive the Dominator. Currently entombed in the Barrowland, the Dominator’s minions are trying to build another portal through which he can return and usher in ten thousand years of darkness.

The Lady, ruler of the northern Empire, orders the Black Company to spearhead the siege but Croaker and the others inadvertently find themselves on the trails of Raven and Darling. Darling is the girl prophesied to be the White Rose who will ultimately destroy the Dominator and the Lady, and is a friend to the Company, which puts them on the defensive in more ways than one.

Shadows Linger is a strange sophomore installment because, in almost every way, it breaks from the traditional middle-book mold fairly regularly. Rather than center itself as a bridge between the first and third books Shadows Linger produces its own plot that is secluded enough that it can be read independently of the first book, but inclusive enough that it fits well with the trilogy. What’s more, it expands the narrative from Croaker to Raven and a Juniper-native called Shed. By doing so it better explores the depths to which these men will sink in order to advance their individual goals: Shed is a study in poverty and immorality; Croaker’s unusual relationship with the Lady grants us a peculiar view into the inner workings of a ruthless but almost humane tyrant.

But, like its predecessor, Shadows Linger shines when it’s Croaker that’s doing the talking. He, along with the rest of the novel, genuinely wrestles with what it means to ally with the lesser of two evils because as the Dominator nears his return,  Croaker and the rest of the Black Company must fight even harder to keep him down; and therefore in defense of the Lady. This central conflict overshadows Shed’s acts of heresy against Juniper’s dominant religion; and compliments Raven’s architecting the destruction of one of Juniper’s criminal overlords. Repeatedly, this book provides instances of characters picking the least worst option and never gets close to something as naive or unrealistic as a happy ending.

Shadows Linger provided a strong second installment in The Chronicles of the Black Company and is an excellent introduction to the final novel in this first trilogy. Succeeded by The White Rose, Shadows Linger did a great job of giving us more of the characters that we love in a world where the only choices are either bad or worse.

Book Review: The Black Company

Standard

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.

Book Review: The Rook

Standard

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 Name of the Wind

Standard

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…

Quote

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
Standard

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.

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

Standard

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman was recommended to me last Christmas by an individual that I thought least likely to ever recommend any type of fantasy literature. That person raved and raved about it and then went on to teach me a lesson in stereotypes by outlining their other favorite fantasy novels, but I started with Neil Gaiman’s phenomenal novel, The Graveyard Book.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK BY NEIL GAIMAN

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK BY NEIL GAIMAN

I have to admit that this was my first ever Gaiman novel, though I knew the author’s name because I saw the movie version of STARDUST some years ago. I enjoyed STARDUST and promised myself that I would one day read the book, but while I never made the time for that I squeezed in the episode of DOCTOR WHO written by Gaiman, “THE DOCTOR’S WIFE”, and I was very impressed. Since then, I’ve had a strange fringe-relationship with Gaiman where I’m familiar-ish with the author despite never having technically ‘read‘ a word of his writing. When The Graveyard Book came to me so highly recommended from a person that I deeply respect, I picked it up without a moment’s delay.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is, perhaps, one of the most difficult books to adequately review that I’ve ever encountered. It is one of those rare novels that examines the most valuable question that anyone has ever asked: what’s the purpose of life? The novel follows Bod Owens, a toddler who has escaped a dark fate and is taken in, quite literally, by the nearby graveyard and the phantoms that inhabit it. Its ghosts and tombs and natural beauty become the little boy’s home and there he grows up, all the while learning more about the world he must be protected from, until the day when the dangers of his past catch up with him.

But do you want to know the truth? That might be what this book is about, but really it’s not about that at all. Gaiman is telling a personal, intimate story in this book. Not about himself, not necessarily, but certainly about everyone. This is a story about death, about growing up and growing old, and about Life.

I’ve read some of the most stirring passages that I’ve ever encountered in my career as a reader within this novel. I love that it’s a children’s book that is still so dangerously adult. I love that I honestly wanted to cry at the end of this book—not manly, crocodile tears but little kid tears.

That, I think, is what The Graveyard Book is about.

Book Review: The Affinity Bridge

Standard

The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann, was another one in the pile of books that I purchased as a birthday gift to myself. I know they say to never judge a book by it’s cover, but Mann’s cover certainly didn’t dissuade me from purchasing his novel. I am a fan of anything that flies in literature—private planes, jumbo jets, airships—for the practical utility they offer. So fast! So convenient! Mann’s cover then, an enormous airship above Victorian-Era London, sang to me in several ways.

Newbury and Hobbes, the novel’s protagonists, are academics; researchers employed by the British Museum as a cover for their other job as Crown investigators for Queen Victoria. In this fictional steampunk England, Sir Maurice Newbury (think Holmes!) and his assistant Veronica Hobbes (elementary, dear Watson!) are attempting to solve the riddle of a string of murders when an airship crash in London diverts their attention elsewhere. What follows is a brisk story of industrial intrigue, precision investigations, and appropriately romping action.

One of my more marked appreciations for this novel is perhaps the one that is most forward-thinking: Mann spins the trope of the helpless, witless assistant on its head. When it comes to endangered protagonists, I would argue that Hobbes does more of the saving than being saved; and true, Hobbes bumps into sexism on occasion, but Newbury insists on treating her as a fully capable equal. And, repeatedly, he is proven right when Hobbes is daringly more functional than he on occasion!

Beyond that, the plot isn’t terribly thick. Queen Victoria is strangely interested in a civilian airship crash; paupers are being murdered by a “glowing policeman” and the two main characters have private matters to contend with along the way but Mann’s triumph here is the creation of a gripping alternate 1901 London. A London where technological revolution has placed clockwork men on the streets and airships high above. In a very noticeable way London 1901 is the third protagonist of this novel and any reader who appreciates a good detective story and Victorian-London to boot are certain to enjoy themselves.

The novel’s cover declares itself to be “A Newbury and Hobbes Investigation” which, if intuition serves, would indicate that there are more on the way. And, if that isn’t enough, Mann sets the stage for future work with a phenomenal epilogue! Here’s to more “investigations!”

UPDATE: A quick jaunt around George Mann’s blog reveals that, in fact, there are multiple sequels  to THE AFFINITY BRIDGE (which was published in 2009—where have I been?!) which I must now, delightedly, purchase!

Book Buying Bonanza

Standard

After my shopaholic stint at Barnes & Noble on my birthday, it’s safe to say that I’m stocked up on books for the foreseeable future. Eight books later, I’m still trying to figure out the order that I’m going to read all these excellent-looking novels. Also, I’ve noticed a trend: anything steampunk or urban fantasy wound up in the pile without hesitation—with a few exceptions. From smallest to largest, my purchases were: Continue reading