Review: Half a War, Joe Abercrombie (2015)

I sometimes wonder what life is like at the Abercrombie household. I’m sure they’re a perfectly happy family and that Joe’s a (reasonably) well-adjusted guy, but my imagination gets away with me. I unspool cartoonish scenarios. I picture a great deal of snarling, and spitting, and nose-breaking, and bone-crunching. Dinnertime would be the worst. “Death comes for us all,” Joe snarled as he speared the last chicken leg with his fork. The little Abercrombies puffed their cheeks and eyed Joe sullenly.

There’s a great deal of cheek-puffing in Half a War, the third (and presumably final) entry in Joe Ambercrombie’s Shattered Sea series. And with good reason: As the events begun in Half a King and continued in Half the World come to fruition, Abercrombie’s characters are pushed to their limits. The story opens with Princess Skara fleeing Throvenland, having just evaded the clutches of Bright Yilling (fantasy authors love names like this), murder of her grandfather, who was the king, and his advisor. As Throvenland burns, Kings Uthil of Gettland and Grom-gil-Gorm (seriously, these names) of Vansterland are close to breaking their unsteady alliance–and thus exposing themselves to the advances of the High King. The cunning Father Yarvi, first introduced in Half a King, strives to keep the two kings working together, all in service to his oath to bring down the High King, of course.

half a war joe abercrombie

Half a War, Joe Abercrombie

The main complaint I can muster about Half a War is that there’s nothing really new here. There is a great deal of violence, although far less than in Abercrombie’s First Law world, presumably since Shattered Sea is aimed at the YA audience. There is conniving and backstabbing, characteristic of Abercrombie’s cynical view of politics and power. And, as there must be, there are a few twists–which I can’t discuss here, of course. If you liked Abercrombie’s other books, you’re likely to enjoy Half a War, too. It’s comforting, in its prickly way. You can count on his characters to be bastards even as they half-heartedly struggle to do the right thing.

The most overtly interesting thing about Half a War is the attention Abercrombie gives the (previously) scarcely-mentioned “elf relics,” artifacts of a lost advanced civilization which sounds remarkably like our own. Indeed, the so-called elf relics play an important role in Half a War, to the point of being a bit of a deus ex machina. But Abercrombie handles it wisely, parsing out only bits of information; he knows that spelling out what happened to the “elves” would ruin the magic. (Although, based on the clues Abercrombie gives, it’s not hard to guess.)

I was impressed, too, by Abercrombie’s (typical) refusal to give his characters tidy resolution. Some characters lose people important to them and are denied the vengeance they seek; others discover that fulfilling a long-planned-for goal can be disappointing. But there are happy endings, too: Some loves are requited, and some characters redeemed–although in a way that’s less satisfactory than they may have hoped. Abercrombie’s characters have to make choices (even if their decisions are often predictable).

half a war job abercrombie

Haven’t actually seen this cover anywhere.

Putting predictability aside, the major weakness of Half a War, indeed, of the trilogy, is Abercrombie’s decision to shift his focus to new characters with each book. Half a King was Yarvi’s story, while Half the World was about Thorn and Brand. In Half a War, Abercrombie moves Princess Skara, the warrior Raith, and Yarvi’s apprentice, Koll, to the fore. Previous characters–the ones still alive, anyway–are still present, but in the background. Ultimately, the feeling is disjointed; characters you became attached to in a previous entry are still enticingly there, but far removed. Thorn, for instance, who was perfectly aggravating in Half the World, is barely present in Half a War.

Half a War is weaker than its predecessors, but still quite fun. Although hampered a bit by a predictable plot and its uneven treatment of characters, Half a King makes up for it with Abercrombie’s earthy prose and the compelling Shattered Sea world. I’ve said before that I thought writing for young adults softened Abercrombie’s harder edges, making him more pleasant to read. Although still quite cynical, I far prefer the moral world of the Shattered Sea to that of the grim (and, I suspect, deliberately contrarian) First Law universe. Stalwart Abercrombie fans will most enjoy Half a War; readers new to Abercrombie might want to start with the Shattered Sea.

Similar books:

  • Back when I was a Young Turk of book blogging, and actually blogged semi-regularly, I helpfully reviewed Half a King. Now with more adverbs!
  • Earlier this year I took a look at Abercrombie’s latest entry in the First Law world, Red Country.
  • What’s grimmer than Lord Grimdark? Andy Remic’s The Iron Wolves.

Review: Black Light, Elizabeth Hand (1999)

Been a while since I posted anything here. Been a while since I finished a book. Oh, I’ve been readin’, but I’m in one of my phases in which I just can’t finish anything. Nothing quite scratches the itch, ya know? So I thought to myself, I thought, “Hey, man, I really enjoyed Elizabeth Hand’s novella Wylding Hall. And I liked Generation Loss. Maybe I should read something else by Hand.” I’m clever. I know things. So I went to the library and found Black Light (HarperCollins, 1999). And I’m here to tell you I walked away a little sad. And a little hungry. But that didn’t have anything to do with the book.

Paperback edition.

Paperback edition.

Black Light begins promisingly enough. Teenager Charlotte “Lit” Moynihan lives in the New York village of Kamensic, a quaint little town inhabited mainly by actors and their families. Lit’s parents, for instance, are both on television. Lit’s neighbor, Hillary, is her best friend and occasional lover. Ali, a bit of a stoner, completes the triad. The first third of the book faithfully recreates the seventies teenage experience. The crew skips school, drinks, and listens to music. All right, all right, all right. And the entire town looks forward to the Halloween party to be hosted at Bolerium, the estate owned by Alex Kern, Lit’s godfather.

The first half of Black Light is quite strong. Hand is particularly gifted when it comes to setting and atmosphere. Hand describes Kamensic with just the right degree of detail; readers will find themselves envisioning the village. But there is something “off” about Kamensic. The graveyard is full of tombstones that feature sculptures of animal heads. The roads leading to and from the village never seem to be in the same place twice. And, as Halloween approaches, every family hangs creepy terracotta masks on their doors. Seriously, it’s weird.

E-book edition.

E-book edition.

And…then things stall. Soon enough Lit is bundled off to Kern’s party where, it is not-so-subtly hinted, she will play a starring role. And it might have something to do with a giant horned god with a massively erect phallus, of which Lit had a vision earlier that day. Hand begins to reveal the mysteries behind Lit’s dreams, Alex Kern, and the party. Suffice it to say that there are religious themes, of a sort, with which Hand has dealt before; she studied anthropology in university. But it all becomes somewhat muddled. There are secret societies that are facing off against one another, and of course Lit is caught in between.

The party takes up the entire second half of the book, and, sadly, seems interminable. Lit wanders Bolerium looking for her friends. Lit experiences visions. Lit engages in weird rites. Drugs. Orgies. Dead gods. It all just sort of meanders, much like the labyrinthine Bolerium itself. In keeping with its apocalyptic themes, Black Light ends not with a bang, but with a whimpered “meh.” Recommended mainly for hardcore Hand aficionados.

Similar books:

  • For my comments on Generation Loss and Wylding Hall, see my post on my “Winter of Discontent.”
  • If you like atmospheric horror novels that start off strong and then peter out, consider Adam Nevill’s The Ritual.

Review: Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff (2016)

Few writers have influenced fantasy as much as H. P. Lovecraft, and few writers have such a fraught legacy. Obscure during his lifetime, Lovecraft’s “weird” fiction, characterized by “cosmic horror,” has influenced generations of authors. Lovecraft’s legacy, though, is soiled by his virulent racism. Critics and fans have for years downplayed Lovecraft’s racist views, often with the (weak) argument that “he was a product of his time.” Lovecraft’s defenders also take the tack that Lovecraft’s racism in no way detracts from his vision.

In a global and diverse age, it’s becoming more difficult to defend Lovecraft. (And why would you want to?) Writers and fans were troubled by the use of Lovecraft’s visage on the World Fantasy Award. Consider the ambivalence of Nnedi Okorafor’s, the first black writer to win the award; pride at having been recognized by the fantasy community, horror at having Lovecraft’s face in her home. The World Fantasy Convention announced late last year that it would no longer use Lovecraft’s image.

Still, there is no denying Lovecraft’s legacy, part of which is his racism. What then to do? Contemporary fantasists are beginning to come to grips with Lovecraft’s legacy in its totality. In Harrison Squared (2015), Daryl Gregory played it for laughs; his fish people were stodgy old racists. Matt Ruff now tackles the topic of Lovecraft’s racism, which is, after all, America’s racism, in Lovecraft Country (Harper, 2016).

Lovecraft Country Matt Ruff

America’s Demons Exposed!

There is horror aplenty in America circa 1954, especially if you’re not white. The novel opens with Korean War vet Atticus Turner’s journey back to his hometown, Chicago. Almost from the beginning, Atticus is subjected to a kind of casual racism, for instance, the denial of service at a garage, that isn’t overtly violent but is nonetheless systemic and damaging. But Atticus is as accustomed to everyday racism as one can get. It’s the disappearance of his father in a mysterious Massachusetts town that troubles him, and which sets the plot in motion.

The action rotates among Atticus and his friends and family as they become embroiled in the conspiracies of a white sorcerer, Caleb Braithwaite. As Braithwaite’s plots unfold, Ruff shifts the action to a different character, each of whom encounters a different aspect of American racism: Sundown towns; housing segregation; police harassment; and the constant threat of violence.

Braithwaite portrays himself as a benign benefactor, friendlier to blacks than his father’s generation–but his generosity always comes at a perverse price. Letitia, for instance, acquires an old mansion due to Braithwaite’s intervention; never mind that it’s haunted by the ghost of a rival wizard. Ruby is given a potion that transforms her into a white woman; she merely needs to serve at Braithwaite’s beck and call. Indeed, it’s Ruby’s story that is the most troubling. Ruby has so internalized the values of the larger culture of which she’s part that she finds her white counterpart not only more liberating, but also more beautiful.

Ruff wisely employs the Lovecraftian elements to lighten the story. It’s counterintuitive, but it works. Cthulhu can’t hold a candle to endemic racism. Atticus, George, and Letitia travel to an…odd…town in Massachusetts. Hippolyta travels to a hostile world at the other side of the universe. In my favorite chapter, George and Montrose are recruited to steal a magic book from an ensorceled room in the Chicago Natural History Museum. It’s clear that Ruff enjoyed writing these pieces.

Lovecraft Country isn’t quite a tour-de-force. The shift from one character to another provides the reader new perspectives, but it’s also jarring. Inevitably, readers will find some characters and scenarios more compelling than others. The story begins to lose energy near its end. Still, Lovecraft Country is well done, its individual parts very strong. Ruff’s portrait of mid-century American racism is eerily accurate, at least to this history major. The horror here is earthly, not cosmic. Highly recommended for those fans of Lovecraft’s fiction who are capable of irony.

Similar books:

  • Although I haven’t reviewed them here, I strongly encourage you to read Matt Ruff’s novels Bad Monkeys and The Mirage.
  • If you want straight-up weird fiction/horror sans racism, see Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence.
  • For a reappraisal of the cultural tropes of fantasy, see Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs.
UK Cover Red Country

Review: Red Country, Joe Abercrombie (2012)

The First Law

Since the 2006 publication of The Blade Itself, the first entry in the First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie has been intent on deconstructing the modern fantasy genre. In contrast to traditional (read: Tolkienesque) fantasy, the world of the First Law is characterized not by lofty ideals, but by politicking and the pursuit of power, all of which is more commonly referred to as “grimdark.” In this, Abercrombie follows in the footsteps of the modern forebear of dark fantasy, George R. R. Martin, he of A Song of Ice and Fire.

And, like A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s blood. Lots of it.

Red Country is a “standalone” entry in Abercrombie’s First Law world, set approximately 10 to 15 years after the close of the original trilogy. Red Country is preceded chronologically, both in publication and in plot, by Best Served Cold (2009) and The Heroes (2011). It’s not necessary to have read Abercrombie’s other novels to follow Red Country, but a number of the characters are recurring, so some familiarity is implied.

Red Country (2012)

Abercrombie continues in Red Country the experimentation he began with Best Served Cold, which is a revenge story, and The Heroes, which, in contrast to traditional fantasy, condenses its activity to a single battle that takes place over just a few days. (And in which is introduced the best-named character ever, “Stranger-Come-Knocking.”) Here Abercrombie tackles the Western genre, but the results are less successful than were his previous standalone novels.

UK Cover Red Country

UK Cover

The story opens with the destruction of Shy South’s family farm and the abduction of her younger brother and sister. Shy and her stepfather, the cowardly Lamb, set off in pursuit of the kidnappers. Meanwhile, on the geopolitical scale, the Union is in pursuit of rebels who have taken refuge in “the Near Country,” where Shy and Lamb reside. The Union employs infamous mercenary Nicomo Cosca, familiar to readers from previous novels, and his right hand and lawyer, Temple, to wreak havoc throughout the Near Country, ostensibly to root out the rebels, but really in anticipation of the possible annexation of the frontier. The main plots, of course, are destined to collide.

Red Country begins energetically, economically introducing Shy and Lamb and setting up their quest, the recovery of Shy’s younger sister and brother, Ro and Pit. Lamb abandons his passive demeanor and soon, in a (typically) brutal scene set in a saloon, reveals his capacity for epic violence. Readers familiar with the First Law world will find something…strangely familiar…about Lamb….

That sense of familiarity, which often works so well in Abercrombie’s novels, is less effective in Red Country. Nicomo Cosca, for instance, first introduced in the original trilogy, and employed to great effect in Best Served Cold, here becomes something of a parody of himself. Abercrombie uses Caul Shivers, one of the main characters of Best Served Cold, to play with the Western trope of the “showdown.” But Shivers’s appearance is essentially a cameo and, as a result, feels forced. My sense is that a host of other minor characters reappear in Red Country, but I’m not quite sure; the sprawling nature of fantasy, with its dense tomes and casts of thousands, works against me here. Readers will forgive me for an impression that might not be true. (But it felt that way.)

US Cover Red Country

US Cover

The plot is comprised of a variety of intersecting storylines that come together and are held that way mainly through battle scenes. That’s not entirely a surprise, given Abercrombie’s predilection for violence. It all feels a bit forced, though. In reading Red Country, I could never quite shake the sense that it’s the bridge to the next trilogy. It has the feeling of a placeholder: Abercrombie advances his geopolitics, as he did in Best Served Cold and The Heroes, but nothing definitive happens. A few new characters are introduced, for instance Shy and Temple, but few significant changes are made. There is some redemption and just rewards, neither of which I’ll spoil here by going into detail.

All of which raises the question: Should you read Red Country? If, like me, you’re an avowed Abercrombie fan, then by all means, yes. I’ve always enjoyed Abercrombie’s prose, which I’ll describe as “earthy,” and his dialog is, as always, snappy. Red Country will meet, but likely not exceed, your expectations, and it lacks some of the energy of Abercrombie’s previous novels. If you haven’t read anything by Abercrombie before, begin with his first novel, The Blade Itself, or his young adult series, Shattered Sea. But, by all means, reading something by Abercrombie.

Similar books:

  • If you’re curious about Abercrombie but prefer less grim in your fantasy, try Half a King
  • If (for some reason) you think Abercrombie isn’t grimdark enough, consider the sociopathic The Iron Wolves by Andy Remic
  • For more traditional fantasy fare, see Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, the third volume of which is The Republic of Thieves

Flash Reviews: Books, Brains and Beer’s Winter of Discontent

Had you fooled, didn’t I? You thought I was back for (at least) semi-weekly rants about robots and doughnuts and whatever book(s) I was reading at the time. And you were at least partly right, ’cause that was the plan. Then, as it often does, Life got in the way. Since January, I haven’t been online much except for work. I haven’t even kept up with my blogger buddies, which makes me sad, and I feel a little guilty, but I suspect they function quite well in my absence (perhaps better!) and, more importantly, they “get it.” It’s not like I’m snubbing them. With the exception of From Couch to Moon.

Since I don’t have the energy to fully review everything I read from September 2015 through the present, it occurs to me that I can, at least, give a summary, much as I did last August when I reviewed my Long, Strange Summer. Without further ado, then, my Winter of Discontent. (I’m being cute; my discontent has nothing to do with what I’ve been reading.)

Fiction

Summer of Night, Dan Simmons

This book. I don’t… Well. It’s horror. Crossed with the author’s nostalgia for 1950s/1960s Americana, which I find fitting for a horror novel…but Simmons is genuinely nostalgic for small town life, with its homogeneity, and its cultural shortcomings. There is a certain breed of white, male American author who came of age in the postwar years and who cannot resist writing a paean to his childhood while trying to also make it into horror. I suppose Simmons and King would have a lot to talk about. This is the third (non-sci-fi) Simmons I’ve read, and by my estimation he’s at a 33% success rate. Skip this one.

Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest, better known for her zombies/Civil War mashup The Clockwork Century, here reimagines Lizzie Borden, she of “forty whacks” infamy, as a reluctant hero defending humanity against Lovecraftian monstrosities. I’ve now read a handful of Priest’s books, including several from The Clockwork Century, and have come to expect premises that are more promising than their execution. That’s true here, too. If you’ve read and enjoyed Priest, you’ll probably like Maplecroft. If you haven’t, perhaps start elsewhere.

The Mathematician’s Shiva, Stuart Rojstaczer

Narrated by the titular mathematician’s son, The Mathematician’s Shiva is the story of her nutty family’s mourning period. As with most Jewish American fiction, this is comedy peppered with tragedy. Some familiarity with Judaism might be helpful, but isn’t necessary. Quite amusing; recommended.

The Treasure of Sainte Foy, MacDonald Harris

An unexpected treat. See my full review here.

Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand

I’m not quite sure how to classify Generation Loss. Suspense? Horror? “Thriller”? It seems to straddle all of the above without fully belonging to a single genre. I enjoyed it, but was a little disappointed by the finale. I preferred Hand’s recent novella, Wylding Hall (see below).

the-keep-f-paul-wilson

I mean, this cover. It’s hardcore.

The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

Sometimes I likes me some well-done schlock. The Keep begins as a straightforward horror novel: During World War II, Nazis occupy a mysterious, abandoned castle in the Carpathian Mountains. You can probably see where that’s heading, and it begins with promise. Unfortunately, it begins to sag under the weight of Wilson’s mythos, apparently elaborated upon over the course of his bibliography. You can avoid this one.

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon

Among the best, and perhaps the funniest, of all the books I read in 2015. An eventful (and hilarious) weekend in the life of burnout writer Grady Tripp. Highly recommended.

The Night Gwen Stacy Died, Sarah Bruni

The Night Gwen Stacy Died demonstrates the degree to which comic books have become modern mythology. A troubled young man who calls himself “Peter Parker” kidnaps a teenage gas station attendant who begins calling herself “Gwen Stacy.” Any Spider-Man fan worth his or her salt knows that calling oneself “Gwen Stacy” (or, really, being anywhere in proximity to Spider-Man) can’t end well. The Night Gwen Stacy Died has some problems, especially near the end, but overall is well told and worth reading.

Nobody is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey

Alternately maddening and heartbreaking. Read my full review here.

The Gospel of Loki, Joanne M. Harris

The Norse myths as retold by a gossipy Loki. This was just…boring.

Hold the Dark, William Giraldi

A dark story about murder and other unsavory incidents in a remote Alaskan town. The prose reads like Cormac McCarthy light, complete with declarative sentence fragments and arcane profundities. Despite some structural problems, Giraldi’s book is worth your time.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Now this. This was my kind of book. With light horror touches, Wylding Hall tells the story of a band recording its hit album at an old English manor in the 1970s. That alone should tell you that weird things are going to happen. I really enjoyed Wylding Hall and highly recommend it. My only complaint is its brevity; it’s a novella.

A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab

I finally broke down and read this after seeing everywhere. The magical story of several “overlapping” Londons: Grey London, in “our” world, which is mundane; Red London, rife with magic; and White London, from which magic is slowly leaking. Predictable in spots, and clearly the first entry in a series, but enjoyable.

Nonfiction

The Road to Character, David Brooks

If you’ve enjoyed the singular fortune of having not read anything by David Brooks to date, I advise you to not spoil it by reading this book.

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane walks ancient paths (“old ways,” get it?) throughout England and beyond. An intense and moving meditation on place and man’s relationship to it. Highly recommended.

how-to-read-jung-david-tacey

Probably while reclining on a couch.

How to Read Jung, David Tacey

I always thought of Jung as a bit of a kook, and parts of this book confirmed my beliefs. Still, being a weirdo doesn’t mean that a person is unintelligent or boring. Jung has some peculiar but compelling ideas; this is an excellent introduction to them.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, Cheryl Strayed

The basis for the Reese Witherspoon movie, which is amazingly faithful to the text. For most of you, then, I recommend skipping the book and watching the movie.

Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, Stacy Horn

Belive it or not, until recent years Duke University sponsored investigations into phenomena that fall under what we currently refer to as “the paranormal.” Horn looks into the history of the Duke Parapsychology Lab. Imagine Mary Roach without the twee humor. So boring.

Unruly Spaces: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, Alastair Bonnett

Like Macfarlane (above), Bonnett, a geographer, is interested in place–particularly strange places. He chronicles empty cities in China, islands off the coast of Australia that turned out not to be there, and places in India that, because they host near-stone age peoples, are off limits to modern man. A delightful tour of some of the world’s strange geographies.

Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior and Happy at Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy, both by Richard O’Connor

Yeah, I sometimes read self-help/pop psychology. Judge away. Some of my motivation is academic (“What is being said here? How is he saying it? Who is his audience?”) but I’m also seeing if there are any useful nuggets among the chaff. The verdict? As with all self-help, there’s quite a bit of drek here, but O’Connor seems more realistic (and curmudgeonly) than many of his peers (he is a respected psychologist), but I did find a few things of value, for instance a brief but thorough introduction to mindfulness meditation. (Mindfulness is all the rage in therapy these days. Unless it has already peaked.) Warning: Rewire, published several years after Happy at Last, repurposes a lot of material from the latter. Go with Rewire.