Monthly Archives: December 2013

Review: Hobbit Lessons, Devin Brown

If, as Devin Brown, channeling Professor Tolkien, reminds us, “all that is gold does not glitter,” then readers might be forgiven for overlooking Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life’s Unexpected Journeys. Brown’s book is much like the titular hobbits from which it draws inspiration: short and unassuming, at barely 140 pages. Billed loosely as “self-help,” Hobbit Lessons is really a meditation on the themes of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, and a gentle nudge to set forth on the adventurous possibilities life presents us.

Hobbit Lessons, Devin Brown, Abingdon Press, 2013.

Hobbit Lessons, Devin Brown, Abingdon Press, 2013.

Brown discusses Tolkien’s themes across several chapters, touching on such subjects as the importance of friendship, giving and accepting help, the power of greed, and the “sacramental” quality of ordinary life. Readers will not be surprised by Brown’s conclusions, although they will sometimes find nuggets hearty enough to tide them over to second breakfast. It might have spared Bilbo and friends no end of trouble, for instance, if the hobbit had slain Gollum upon meeting him. But by staying his hand, whether out of compassion or pity, Bilbo saved Middle Earth: It was Gollum, of course, who showed Frodo and Sam the way to Mordor, and Gollum’s treachery that ultimately delivered the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

Hobbit Lessons is written in a style that both readers and non-readers will find accessible. Although Brown is a professor of English, he hews closely to the purpose of his book and avoids literary jargon and analysis that some readers would find off-putting. Readers of Hobbit Lessons needn’t be hardcore Lord of the Rings aficionados. I’ve seen the movies, read the books multiple times, and read books about the books, but my sense is that anyone who has seen the movies will be comfortable with Brown’s subject matter.

I will note one caveat in regards to Hobbit Lessons. Abingdon Press is a Christian publisher, and Asbury University, where Brown teaches, is a Christian college. Brown is writing from a Christian perspective, as becomes clear with his references to biblical parables and his assertion that there is a “Plan” (my term, not Brown’s) to Middle Earth’s destiny, that is, it follows, the result of a behind-the-scenes “Planner.” That said, Tolkien wrote from a Christian perspective, too, and Brown in no way misrepresents the professor’s intentions (at least according to my understanding). Brown’s references to religion are subtle and will be noted only by the very alert (some might say “sensitive”) reader. This non-Christian reader was alarmed by the first veiled religious references, but those concerns were quickly put to rest. Hobbit Lessons may be enjoyed by any reader who appreciates the stories, regardless of religious or philosophical persuasion.

What you need to know: As a flannel-clad, bearded manly-man, I rarely use the term “cute,” but it seems appropriate here: Hobbit Lessons is a cute little exposition on the wisdom Tolkien packed into the little people who dwell in the Shire. Brown hints that Tolkien’s stories are so popular because they are “true”; readers will appreciate the mythic power Brown describes. A short and fun little book that can be quickly read and appreciated by any LotR fan.

(Special thanks to NetGalley and Abingdon Press for providing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.)

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Review: The Iron Wolves, Andy Remic

I confess that I was a comic book nerd as a lad. (Comic books weren’t as mainstream then as they’ve since become; hence “nerd.”) Once, two friends of mine who didn’t read comics flipped through an issue of Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S that I had stowed in my locker. Laughing, they pointed out to me that, of 28 total pages, there were only three pages on which there was no fighting whatsoever. I remember that I was embarrassed, not only because I had been caught reading something with so little story, but also because I hadn’t noticed that the book had no story to speak of. Jim Lee’s artwork blinded me to the comic’s vacuity.

All of which is extravagant context for my review of Andy Remic’s recent book, The Iron Wolves (The Rage of Kings, Book 1). I must reluctantly report to potential readers that The Iron Wolves reads as if Remic strung together a series of grotesque fight scenes with a bare-bones plot.

The Iron Wolves, Andy Remic

The Iron Wolves, Andy Remic

The Iron Wolves’ premise is simple: Orlana the Changer (aka the Horse Lady), sorceress and (apparently) embodiment of supernatural evil, raises an army to attack our heroes’ homeland, Vagandrak. General Dalgoran, apparently the only official of sound mind in the kingdom, reunites the Iron Wolves, heroes of a previous war, in an effort to stop Orlana. The five Iron Wolves (Kiki, Dek, Narnok, Trista, and Zastarte) are morally deficient delinquents for whom the coming war presents an opportunity to reverse their fortunes and save their souls through redemptive, patriotic violence. Think Joe Abercrombie writing a reboot of The Dirty Dozen.

There is gore aplenty here for those who seek it. You might consider using decapitations as the foundation for a drinking game; in Remic’s universe, heads exist to be split from the bodies to which they’re mistakenly attached. Faces are sloughed off of heads on several occasions, the victims’ brains spilling forth. None of which bothers me, per se. I’m desensitized to random violence (thanks, television!). The perversity of some of the war crimes exacted here, though, disgusted me.

Consider a scene in which Orlana impales several women on spears so that the blades project from their mouths. It’s torture: she begins while they’re still alive. For good measure, she uses the spears as spits and roasts them, feeding the flesh to their husband. Worse, one of the “heroes” kidnaps and tortures young noblemen and -women, possibly because they “deserve” it for their abuse of the lower classes. Or because it’s just fun to torture people. I don’t expect my heroes to be perfect, but this is fantasy. Please permit me the luxury of not having to root for a sociopath just because he’s not (literally) a demon.

The Iron Wolves has two major problems. The characters are simplistic. They’re all mercenaries, and readers will find it difficult to sympathize or identify with any of them, even Kiki, their leader, who, at least, has motivations beyond self-interest.

Remic’s world, and as a consequence, the book, is disjointed. Remic spends the first third of the book establishing the story, which seems reasonable, but some of the Iron Wolves are introduced to readers even later. The initial chapters jump from one character to the next without segue or elaboration. The intent was, I think, to dump readers directly into the action. The effect is jarring, as the reader wonders what’s important and what isn’t, if he’s following everything properly, why this is happening now, and so on.

Furthermore, Remic engages only in minimal worldbuilding. Not every author should imitate Tolkien, of course, but Vagandrak is painted in strokes so broad as to be nearly invisible. There is a stony country (Vagandrak), bordered by a poison sea and steppes, and in which there is a forest full of suicides. And everything is really big. You now know everything there is to know about the setting of the book.

I spend a lot of time here going over the book’s weaknesses because it’s all so unfortunate. Remic shows talent as a writer. His prose is muscular and he shows evidence that he does know how to tell a story. Remic uses the last quarter of The Iron Wolves to elaborate on his heroes’ history and provide some background the rules that govern magic in his world. The Iron Wolves are bound together in a special way that I found intriguing, and one character has an important destiny that demonstrates that Remic has, in fact, developed his world. He just doesn’t share it with the reader.

What you need to know: Not for the squeamish, The Iron Wolves is a fantasy big on action and short on character development and worldbuilding. Possibly ideal for readers who think Joe Abercrombie is a pansy.

(Special thanks to Angry Robot and NetGalley for providing me access to The Iron Wolves in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Saxon’s Bane, Geoffrey Gudgion

There was a moment early in Saxon’s Bane, as the protagonist hurtles down a dark road in the English countryside on Samhain, when I thought, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Geoffrey Gudgion maintains that propulsive energy throughout much of his debut novel.

Saxon's Bane by Geoffrey Gudgion.

Saxon’s Bane by Geoffrey Gudgion.

Saxon’s Bane is a story of intersecting fates. Fergus, the main character and the author’s proxy, suffers a debilitating car accident in the opening chapter. (Not a spoiler.) Clare, an archaeologist, begins a dig near the scene of the accident. Fergus, trapped in his car’s wreckage and in shock, perceives a visit from a stranger who, the reader learns, resembles the male remains Clare is excavating. Clare and Fergus encounter one another, of course, as the titular Saxon’s presence is felt in the small English village that is the novel’s setting.

There is much going on in Saxon’s Bane, and in a good way. I regret that I’ve never been to England, and Gudgion’s descriptions of the English countryside and village life made me feel that regret more keenly. Gudgion lovingly describes what I assume is an accurate depiction of English village life, replete with homey cottages, local’s and tourist’s pubs, and a (sometimes overbearing) familiarity among neighbors. I’d like to spend a day roaming Allingley’s streets.

Gudgion strikes a fine balance between character and plot. Experienced readers will know from the book’s beginning that certain things are bound to happen, foreordained not only by Gudgion’s storytelling, but also by certain genre conventions. It should surprise no one that there is a romance between Fergus and Clare. Still, Gudgion does a fine job of fleshing out characters who are recognizable. Fergus seems real enough, his troubles and motivations well-depicted and comprehensible. Clare is likewise sympathetic. Even minor characters, such as the village pastor, John Webster, have an air of reality about them.

The plot moves forward in a way that is not unpredictable. Gudgion follows an arc typical for this sort of novel. The good news is, he succeeds: I would call this a legitimate “page turner,” and Gudgion managed to surprise me in spots. Gudgion is successful in part because of his willingness to permit, rather than resolve, certain tensions. Fergus remains attracted to Eadlin, a village woman, despite his involvement with Clare. In Saxon’s Bane, such ambivalence is accepted as natural, even if readers know the story will progress in a specific direction. Still, Gudgion’s characters are complicated, and, thus, more “real.”

The jacket copy bills Saxon’s Bane as horror, but I’m not sure it best fits that genre. There is some minor gore, but no tides of plasma. Saxon’s Bane is horror in the sense that is a ghost story, and ghosts are, one supposes, loosely part of the horror canon. Blessedly, there are no zombies, and, although the story definitely points readers in a certain direction in regards to the supernatural, Gudgion kindly (and wisely) permits readers enough leeway to come to their own conclusions.

Saxon’s Bane is an entertaining debut novel with strong characterization and setting. The plotting, if not surprising, is satisfying; I appreciated the momentum Gudgion maintained throughout the book. I recommend Saxon’s Bane to readers of ghost stories and historical fiction.

(Side note: Saxon’s Bane reminded me of Karen Maitland’s novels Company of Liars and, especially, The Owl Killers.)

Review: Something More Than Night, Ian Tregillis

A swell gets rubbed out. A private dick meets a skirt. They’re in cahoots. Some mooks get the bum’s rush into them. Suppose things aren’t what they seem, that it’s all a two-bit sideshow, that the real party’s going on next door in the big top.

Cover, Something More Than Night

Okay, so I’m no Philip Marlowe, but Ian Tregillis comes close in his most recent novel, Something More Than Night (Tor Books). Tregillis reimagines the hardboiled detective novel as a metaphysical mystery. What’s really going on behind the veil of reality, as people pursue their humdrum lives?

Tregillis begins his novel with a bang, as Bayliss, the detective who speaks in hardboiled cliches, witnesses the death of the angel Gabriel. The heavenly Choir needs a replacement (its membership seems static at 144,000), and Bayliss recruits Molly, an unsuspecting human, via less-than-forthright means. Bayliss becomes Molly’s absentee angelic mentor.

Not this kind of angel.

Not this kind of angel.

The plot of Something More Than Night involves Bayliss’ and Molly’s investigation into Gabriel’s murder. Who would want one of the most powerful angels dead, and why? And where is the Jericho Trumpet, an artifact of universe-shattering power, now that Gabriel, its protector, is gone? Questions of importance, questions that dwarf the concerns of the hapless “monkeys” (angelic patois for “humans”) bumbling their mortal lives away on earth. Our heroes’ investigations are further complicated when strange phenomena begin popping up in the Pleroma (where the angels live).

Readers will immediately be taken in by Tregillis’ prose. Tregillis does an uncanny job of mimicking (and caricaturing) the cadence and slang of hardboiled detective fiction. Bayliss’ narration is spot-on, whether he’s “lighting a pill” or “scraping his face.” The diner at which Bayliss spends his time, too, is a direct manifestation of our collective impression of 1940s America, complete with a waitress named “Flo.”

The story, too, keeps the reader hooked. After all, who wouldn’t want to know why an angel was murdered? Much of the mystery, though, is a sideshow to Molly’s quest to discover how to be something other than human, a task with which Bayliss is little help. Molly visits a former lover and her older brother, and, eventually, a small Midwestern town where she has a fateful encounter with a library employee. Tregillis makes Molly’s supernatural life recognizably human, no small feat given the subject matter.

That’s not to say that the book is without its weak points. Because Tregillis deals with the cosmos and the supernatural, he sometimes adopts pseudo-scientific prose or lapses into poetic passages about the nature of the heavenly reality that is the book’s setting. I confess that I found these sections tiresome and off-putting; they left me wondering if I had missed something, if Tregillis were speaking over my head. I suspect it’s partly that, and, partly also, that he’s trying to describe something for which the reader has no reference but Tregillis’ imagination.

Ultimately, though, Something More Than Night is a great success. Tregillis slyly uses two seemingly disparate strands, hardboiled detective fiction and angels, to weave a surprisingly coherent whole. The story, both the human and angelic parts, is compelling, and the prose, despite my few quibbles above, is a joy to read. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing me the opportunity to read an advance reader’s copy of this title.