Review: Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

It left a bad taste in my mouth, like toothpaste and orange juice, when I learned that Joe Abercrombie was writing a series for young adults. Lord Grimdark is pandering to the kiddies? Gross. I needn’t have worried. From the moment I got my clammy, fanboy hands on Abercrombie’s latest book, I was hooked. Abercrombie and YA is like peanut butter and chocolate. Come, fantasy fans and Abercrombie aficionados, and gorge upon the bounty that is Half a King (Del Rey, July 3 2014).

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

The story opens when Prince Yarvi of Gettland, intended for the ministry (in this case, a brotherhood of advisers and diplomats who work toward peace) learns that his father, King Uthrik, is dead, killed by the Gettlanders’ neighbors and foes, the Vanstermen. Yarvi was not meant to be a king: His left hand is deformed, rendering him unsuitable for the throne. But with his older brother dead, too, Yarvi is the only heir, and he swears an oath to avenge his father. Yarvi leads a raid against Vansterland, only to be betrayed. Armed with only one good hand, years of resentment, and the cunning he learned as an initiate of the ministry, Yarvi sets out to fulfill his oath.

The world of Half a King is separate of that from Abercrombie’s previous fiction. Although still within the vaguely medieval consensus that defines traditional fantasy settings, there is a definite Norse, particularly Icelandic, flavor here. Gettland, Vansterland, among other kingdoms unified under the “High King” border the Shattered Sea, a roiling, storm battered mass traversed by longboat. Much of the middle of the book is set in northern ice fields and, subsequently, land rent by hot springs. And then there are the elves. Not to worry: Abercrombie’s focus is decidedly human, and his elves are long extinct. Only their ruins and artifacts remain, hinting at a curious back story. For instance, the woman who wears around her neck “an elf-tablet, the green card studded with black jewels, scrawled with incomprehensible markings, riddled with intricate golden lines.” The millennium-old ruins, untouched by time, are reminiscent of the Eldren constructions of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, haunting the scenery with an implicit threat.

Is this an "elf-tablet"?

Is this an “elf-tablet”?

If the setting is different, the tone is the same. This is a broken world: Yarvi has a “crippled” hand; the characters sail on the Shattered Sea; and even the gods are broken, the elves having waged war on the One God, shattering her into many. Perhaps writing for young adults has mellowed Abercrombie. Half a King may not be upbeat, but neither is it the cynical Ouroboros that characterizes Abercrombie’s previous novels: Here the backstabbing has an end. The camaraderie of Yarvi and his fellows is refreshingly authentic, free of the edges apparent in The First Law trilogy and its successors.

That’s not to say that violence is absent from Half a King. I lost count of noses broken with a “crunch” after a half a dozen. Abercrombie continues his fascination with the grotesque; he knows that, however much violence sickens us, it draws us in, too. We cannot look away. Abercrombie has always been sophisticated in his attitude toward violence: He portrays it with gusto, knowing that we’re attracted to it despite our denials (and thus making us complicit). But he has always portrayed its consequences, too, perhaps to greater effect in Yarvi, who is no warrior: “And Yarvi realized then that Death does not bow to each person who passes her, does not sweep out her arm respectfully to show the way, speaks no profound words, unlocks no bolts. The key upon her chest is never needed, for the Last Door stands always open. She herds the dead through impatiently, heedless of rank or fame or quality. She has an ever-lengthening queue to get through. A blind procession, inexhaustible.”

If Half a King has a weakness, it is the plot, which is predictable. Perhaps that’s because I’m older than the intended audience, or maybe, having read Abercrombie’s other novels, I am able to intuit when he’s preparing to spring a trap on his readers. That the twists and turns of the story are unsurprising in no way diminish the reader’s pleasure, a testament to Abercrombie’s storytelling skills. Indeed, I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could, impatient to see what travails would next befall Yarvi.

Abercrombie, if not the anti-Tolkien, is a contrarian, turning on its head the tropes of high fantasy. He lays aside that ideological jihad in Half a King, instead telling the story of one character’s quest, and a very grounded one at that, motivated by revenge and gold. The only magic here is the depth of the world and the propulsive story, all of which Abercrombie manages in less than 300 pages. The only disappointing thing about Half a King is how soon it ends, and how long we have to wait for the sequel. Highly recommended.

 

Inbox / Outbox

This is the inaugural post of what I plan on making a weekly feature: A brief note regarding my “inbox” (books acquired) and “outbox” (books read). (Credit where credit is due: I saw my pal at Genre-bending post something similar a few weeks ago and am now appropriating it.) If nothing else, as I share information regarding the ever-widening inbox/outbox gap with readers, perhaps I will be shamed into curbing my acquisitiveness. Everything I’ve ever heard about moving house indicates that books are the heaviest, most cumbersome objects one will schlep from one place to another.

Without further ado…

Inbox

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick

I must confess that my science-fiction education is spotty at best, suffering from huge gaps and omissions. I’m not unaware of PKD’s reputation or his importance to the genre, but, despite both that context and the urging of friends, I have avoided his work for some time. I’m afraid. Or perhaps intimidated. This is “real” sci-fi by a master. What if I don’t get it? Still, I grab PKD’s books when I spot copies at the used bookstores I haunt. I now have copies of The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly, and I’ll begin reading the latter soon–probably later today.

The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu

The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu

The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu

I recently read and enjoyed Chu’s first novel, The Lives of Tao, about a chubby corporate drone who happens to serve as host for an ancient alien intelligence. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel. Out of respect for those who haven’t read The Lives of Tao but are considering doing so, I won’t drop any spoilers here. Rather, I’ll express my hope that Chu advances his storyline in a meaningful way, with elements of action and light humor. I’m worried about how The Deaths of Tao might compare to its predecessor.

Outbox

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Huran

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Harun

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Harun

I’m a slow reader. Always have been. (I was as a child placed in a remedial reading class.) I’m lucky if I average one book per week. So the outbox will always be a little sparse.

Last night, I finished reading Adrianne Harun’s debut novel, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (February 2014). A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is neither science-fiction nor fantasy, but it does exhibit some fantastical elements, and the tone is spooky. There is throughout the story a sense of creeping dread. Harun relates the story of a decaying small town in British Columbia, along a stretch of highway where aboriginal women go missing. (Harun based her story on real events, the so-called Highway of Tears.) A great book and a promising debut. Review forthcoming! (Next week.)

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Quote: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Observant readers may have realized that the subtitle of my blog, “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on,” is a quote taken from Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I first encountered the play in its 1990 film incarnation, by the mid-’90s in heavy rotation on Bravo, before the network abandoned the arts in favor of catty rich women being catty with one another in their mansions and/or on dream vacations.

The movie starred Gary Oldman and Time Roth as the titular refugees from Hamlet. Stoppard is better known as the screenwriter for Shakespeare in Love, which demonstrates evidence of his love of wordplay. (E.g., “The show must–” “Go on!”) Still, if you can find it, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is worth watching.

1990 movie poster

1990 movie poster

Almost 20 years later, quotes from the play continue to pop unbidden into my brain on a daily basis. Here’s one of my favorites:

“Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood, when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it, before we know that there are words,out we come, bloodied and squalling…with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction and time is its only measure.”

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

 

Review: The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

People require meaning. Indeed, we so crave meaning that we devote much of the human enterprise to generating it, whether in the form of religion, or politics, or (and especially) fiction. What can fiction tell us? In the case of Wesley Chu’s 2013 sci-fi novel The Lives of Tao, we learn that individual happiness can only be achieved by having a cause. And possibly by mastering a martial art.

The Lives of Tao tells the story of Roen Tan, a schlubby, unhappy, Chicago-based engineer. After a lonely night at a club, and while vomiting out of the door of his car, Roen is unwittingly inducted into a worldwide extraterrestrial war. Humanity is not alone: Quasings, a gaseous alien race, have been stranded on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs. Unable to exist for long in Earth’s atmosphere, Quasings are able to survive by entering a living “host,” be it rodent, chimpanzee, or sad, chubby human. Unfortunately for Tao, the recently-evicted Quasing who takes refuge in Roen, his new host is a mess. But there’s a war on, so Tao gets to work. Extraterrestrial symbiotic buddy dramedy!

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

As Roen and the reader learn, Quasings have been trapped on earth for millions of years, using animal life as hosts. When the first hominids appeared, Quasings saw their opportunity, and stepped in to direct evolution. One can only imagine the rictus of fear on the face of the first australopithecus to be inhabited by a wise and ancient cloud of sentient gas.

With the development of modern man, the Quasing realized that they now had a being capable of devising ever more advanced technologies, which presented them the (very) long-term possibility of finding a way home. Convinced that conflict drove human technological advancement, Quasings meddled with abandon, fostering discord throughout human history. In the wake of the Black Death, a small group of Quasing, calling themselves Prophus, determined that they should coexist with their human hosts and promote peace. The Prophus oppose the Genjix, those Quasings who believe that humanity is a mere means to their end. Roen is a bit player on a drama the timescale of which he can’t even imagine.

Chu does an admirable job of presenting his scenario to readers without overwhelming them. The Lives of Tao opens with an action-oriented prologue that grabs the reader’s attention and introduces Tao, who is clearly not a familiar life form. Tao’s decision to wait to introduce himself to Roen serves to further ease the reader into the plot: The reader learns about Roen (and his many weaknesses), and Chu uses the opportunity to explain the back story to the reader by positioning it as Tao speaking to his new host. It’s a very clean and clever way to orient the reader.

The book’s structure is its weakest point. The Lives of Tao is an action-oriented story with dashes of humor. It is not comedic: The sobriety of the climax and ending belie that. Still, Chu writes the first third of the book from a comedic viewpoint. The joke is on Roen, to whom Tao serves as drill sergeant and counselor. Readers will enjoy Roen and Tao’s exchanges as the latter harangues the former about getting shape, standing up for himself at his job, and so on. This portion of the novel is more lighthearted. Chu also shares extensive background about the Quasing sojourn on Earth. Readers will want more.

Unfortunately, Chu treads more traditional territory in the remainder of the book, which is mostly action. Finally trained, Roen begins to go on Prophus missions, one of which leads to some soul searching before he returns to the fold. Chu ends The Lives of Tao with an extensive action sequence and neatly positions it for a sequel.

Quibbles about structure aside, Chu poses interesting questions about human agency at both the individual and collective levels. Roen won’t quit the job he hates. His colleague tells him to do something about it, to go to law school. Roen balks. It’s only later, with Tao on board, that Roen finds the willpower necessary to improve his life. He eats right and works out. He stands up to his boss. He asks out his cute coworker. In the book, of course, Tao is an intelligent alien life form giving Roen a kick in the pants. But perhaps Tao is really that part of the mind that tells you to try something different. Chu seems to be saying to the reader that, if you don’t like something, it’s up to you to do something about it. For those of us who aren’t locked into impossible circumstances, there are choices to be made. You can take the safe route, like Roen, or you can change things. It might not be pleasant, it might not be easy, but it’s probably better than suffering in silence. Diagnosing Roen’s unhappiness, Tao tells him, “You are causeless.”

Those existential questions occur at the “species” level, too. What is the human enterprise all about? Is human history really just the story of war punctuated by all-too-brief periods of peace? Is there a common narrative to our history? The Genjix position, that war is necessary for evolution, seems almost to mirror certain theories that humans evolved only to better perpetuate the “virus” of DNA, or the assertions of some neuroscientists that humans lack free will, that we are simply acting out, based on received stimuli, the actions programmed into us.

This is all to say that there is more going on in The Lives of Tao than it would first appear. The Lives of Tao isn’t a “big idea” book. It is light on science-fiction; don’t read it expecting a serious exploration of the implications of this or that science. Chu, a martial artist (and former stuntman!) is firmly focused on telling an action-oriented story. There are guns. There are explosions. Still, The Lives of Tao is far from shallow in its examination of human motivation and agency. Recommended for casual sci-fi readers who enjoy action and a touch of comedy.

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

There is a moment early in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when the narrator, Clay Jannon, first meets and describes his love interest, Kat Potente, describing her thus: “[T]his girl is a Googler. So, she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.” It’s narration that not only describes Kat, but also reveals Clay’s reaction to her, and, above all, it’s true: It’s the way a twentysomething geek might react to a girl to whom he’s attracted. I couldn’t help thinking, “Reading is fun again!” Over-the-top, perhaps, but that’s how I felt throughout the entirety of Robin Sloan’s 2012 novel.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

The story begins in the wake of the Great Recession. Clay Jannon, recent art school graduate and employee of NewBagel, the pet project of two ex-Googlers, finds himself out of a job and in fear of living in a tent. Desperate for a job, Clay gives up on Internet searches (which invariably lead to hours spent bookmarking articles that are too long to read) and turns to the now-arcane art of “beating the pavement.” On one of his treks throughout San Francisco, Clay notices a “clerk wanted” sign on the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Inside, Clay meets the kindly and aged proprietor, Mr. Penumbra, and takes the job; Clay will work the 10pm to 6am shift.

But (of course) the bookstore is not all it seems. The entryway is stocked in a desultory way with the kinds of books a reader might expect to find – A Steve Jobs biography, some Dashiell Hammett — but the bulk of the store’s cavernous interior is devoted to huge folios checked out by members of the “club.” Clay opens one of these books (despite Penumbra’s instructions not to) and finds that they’re all written in code. A data simulation run on Clay’s laptop reveals a strange pattern in the customers’ borrowing behaviors. And that’s when things start to get weird.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra's store.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra’s store.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delight to read. Clay’s narration is spot-on. Meeting Kat for a second time, he notices that she’s wearing the same t-shirt as she was during their first encounter. Clay concludes: “(a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical t-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.” Later, describing Kat’s enthusiasm for various Google initiatives: “They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself…They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.” It’s that sort of knowing and just-slightly-jaded-enough tone that Clay uses throughout the story.

Of course, Clay’s commentary is informed by Sloan’s firsthand experience in the tech industry: Sloan has worked for Twitter, among other companies, and knows a thing or two about their culture. Several scenes take place on Google’s campus and, based on Sloan’s descriptions, it seems safe to say he’s been there. San Francisco, too, is lovingly described, and Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore will be recognizable to those bibliophiles who still indulge in haptic reading experiences.

Indeed, part of Sloan’s purpose appears to be the examination of the intersection of tradition and innovation, of old and new technologies. While Penumbra champions Clay’s use of technology, Corvina, Penumbra’s boss, takes umbrage: The “cult” (Clay’s word for it) should only use its traditional methods, which involve print books and slates for notes. Sloan recognizes that too great a reliance on any one idea or artifact is the basis for the cults he describes. He rightly points out that the movable type was a disruptive technology in its day, and that, of course, Google is not the antithesis of print (and other, more “traditional” forms of information and knowledge), but a continuation on a spectrum. The print book is a technology, among the most successful the world has ever known, but its use led to, and interacts with, the digital world. One does not negate the other. The story’s end points to a hopeful partnership between the two.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a pleasure to read. Sloan’s humor is snarky without resorting to cynicism; there is a touch of whimsy that buoys up what is ultimately an uplifting narrative. Even the secondary characters are recognizable, real, and readers will find themselves emotionally engaged with them, which, after all, is what you want from a good book. The “bibliomystery” aspect is really a device to move the plot forward, but book lovers, in the truest sense of that world, will especially appreciate it. Highly recommended.