Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

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I’ve had some trouble putting my thoughts in order where Senlin Ascends, the first book in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series of four, is concerned. This book is an excellent read, the kind whose characters live with you well after you’ve put it down for good. Perhaps Senlin Ascends is one of those rare novels which excel so completely at surprising and thrilling many of its readers that words all of a sudden elude you.

Then again, maybe it’s the sort of read you need a few days to process. And process I have. What did I come up with during those few days?

Senlin Ascends is an excellent novel that doesn’t fall into any one genre checkbox. We can spend all day discussing its Victorian influences and steampunk elements, but at its core, this is (the beginning of) a story of a husband doing everything in his power to find his wife.

Senlin is the headmaster of the only school in the small town of Isaugh, a man ‘at the edge of things,’ a man of reserved judgement who looks on his fellow residents as uneducated and treats them somewhat like children, to their mild disdain. He only recently married the beautiful, talented and lively Marya, described as:

Marya was a good match. She was good-tempered and well-read; thoughtful, though not brooding; and mannered without being aloof. She tolerated his long hours of study and his general quiet, which others often mistook for stoicism. He imagined she had married him because he was kind, even-tempered and securely employed. He made fifteen shekels a week, for an annual salary of thirteen minas; it wasn’t a fortune by any means, but it was sufficient for a comfortable life. She certainly hadn’t married him for his looks. While his features were separately handsome enough, taken altogether they seemed a little stretched and misplaced.

She played the piano beautifully but also brutally. She’d sing like a mad mermaid while banging out ballads and reels, leaving detuned pianos in her wake. And even still, her oddness inspired admiration in most. The townsfolk thought she was charming and her playing was often requested at the local public houses. Not even the bitter gray of Isaugh’s winters could temper her vivacity. Everyone was a little baffled by her marriage to the Sturgeon.

Not much time at all passes before Marya and Senlin lose track of one another, in the very foundation of the massive structure that is the Tower of Babbel, the setting — and, in a way, the prime antagonist — of this fantastic story. Senlin has had a deep fascination with the Tower for most of his life, having bought into all those books proclaiming the Tower of Babel the greatest accomplishment of humanity. Senlin’s trusted Everyman’s Guide to the Tower even describes it so:

The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvelous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are the Tower’s real trade.
Ah, how wonderful it sounds, how exciting! If only reality were so…
Senlin’s obsession with the Tower will cost him, as its true guise is much different from what he’s imagined and read about throughout his life. His wife lost, Senlin is forced, after a period of dumbfounding shock, to begin his ascension of this great structure.
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Along the way, questions will pile up. Who built the Tower, and just what is its purpose? These lay on the wayside, however. More central are the myriad questions, which shove and prod Senlin at every corner, forcing the well-meaning but cowardly teacher to grow and change in order to survive and follow Marya’s trail. Despite the trials and tribulations in his path, what Senlin retains is a core of decency, compassion and the belief that the Tower’s destructive influence doesn’t necessarily erode everything good and decent in people. It’s this belief in men and women that forces them to do better, to meet him half-way.
Senlin’s growth, in fact, is one of the main reasons this novel pulled me in so thoroughly. It’s no small feat, making a likeable person look completely unprepared and incapable of dealing with a situation, to have all his positives turn into flaws to disastrous effect, only to see him realize all this and, step by step, rebel against it, becoming something of a charming rogue by the end. (Bit long-winded, that sentence.)
Mysteries abound in the form of indebted slaves called ‘hods,’ a terrifying gentleman monster playing at Dr Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde called Red Hand, four ringdoms, levels of the Tower, each under different authorities, built for different purposes, and so on.
Plenty of side-characters are to be found, all of them excellent. My favourites have to be Edith and Tarrou, the latter’s description:
A two-pointed black beard accentuated his iron gray mane of hair. He seemed hale and athletic for a man his age. Senlin was a little intimidated by the width of his chest and shoulders, though his smile seemed amiable enough. “And that is the dazed look of a man fresh from the monkey pen.” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “The Parlor is an awful place.”
The prose is nothing short of exceptional. Bancroft’s sentences flow easily and present a clear view into another world, a world that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes unspeakably ugly and nearly always bizarre. It will set your imagination on fire, both with its adventurous streaks and with the darker undertones Senlin Ascends is rich in.
In short, Senlin Ascends is excellent and well worth your time and hard-earned cash. It’s even worth your tiny sum of pocket money, if you make no cash what-so-ever.
I can see why it has as much hype as it got; I’m almost sad to have found it only now that a big publisher has republished the first two books and will soon publish the third (in September). Now that I’ve started, I can’t wait for the last two books of the series to hit the shelves!
The simplest way to make the world mysterious and terrifying to a man is to chase him through it.
In this, Josiah Bancroft certainly succeeds…even if Senlin Ascends doesn’t always feel like a chase, it’s one hell of a ride. There I go, mixing my metaphors again.
Thank you for reading this review! I’ll be back with a review of the second book in the Tower of Babel series as soon as I finish reading it! Now I’m off to read it!
P.S. Action scenes! Excellent bloody action scenes!
P.P.S. Six seasons and a movie!

God of War: First Impressions

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I played six hours of God of War with two of my closest friends, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

It’s rare that I’ll find a game lingering on my mind after I’ve put it down. Such games more often are those “just one more turn/game” strategy experiences, which can suck your life away while you’re grinning happily at your perceived intellectual genius, caused by thrashing a bunch of AI opponents. There’s a reason I no longer play StarCraft 2 on ladder!

But I digress. God of War, what an epic experience! First of all, this game’s encounters are Hard! We three amigos played on the third difficulty, i.e. what would be called in yon olden days “Hard mode,” and it frustrated me a few times if I am honest. If I were alone, I would’ve played the game on Normal. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I often pick Normal on most games, because,

A) I’m not that good, and;

B) I have a library of games I want to finish, and no matter how many I finish, it seems to always expand. I haven’t finished the Witcher 3 DLCs for Tolkien’s sake!

A few fights were an outright nightmare, I tell you. I reckon a few battles forced our collective blood pressure to go way, way up due to the sheer amount of time spent trying to beat them. The first battle with the heavy shield draugr(might’ve misspelt that, I’ll freely admit) was…not fun.

That said, passing through those moments eventually, after all that effort, it’s a high. I am definitely beginning to see the appeal of games like Dark Souls (my friend, whose place we invaded to rob him of his time with God of War made loads of Dark Souls meets Kratos jokes, some of which were quite good).

Enemies can take a lot of punishment on Hard. I don’t want to think what it’s like to play on God of War difficulty. It’s doubtlessly insane. But then again, the rush I felt at beating a few of those encounters which so flummoxed us — that’s almost enough to make me consider.

Might I not be able to spare the time? It might just be worth it if it’ll make me feel like a… God of War.

Cringe. I know, that last line was abhorrent. What about the story and the four boss fights I witnessed and/or participated in?

I liked BOY.

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Boy is the boy of Kratos, who is patiently taking care of him, bonding with him over hunting magical deer and boars, and also over his mum’s death. They’re taking a road-trip to the peak of the nearby mountain and I can’t help feel that it’s a lot more difficult than it should be, what with the army of undead giants and non-dead giants, and angry gods without any clothes on.

The story is one-fourth road trip, one forth greek tragedy, and many more forths of cheese axe-throwing, all to defeat incomparable odds and yell some more at this little godling. Or demi-godling. Probably all-part godling though, if you ask me.

It’s great. Angry dad Kratos 2018 is even more entertaining than I hoped, and those few times during which you see Kratos fighting to keep as calm as possible or having a tender moment with Atreus Boy are nothing short of emotional.

Oh, and fighting the naked Stranger (who may or may not be a very weird interpretation of Baldr, though I’m beginning to see it)  was epic beyond all rhyme and reason!

In short, I’m excited to experience more of this god-son road-trippy goodness.

P.S. I love how the side-quests are done! Because of Kratos and BOY’s continuous conversations, none of the ones we played through felt like they were moving away from the actual main plot; it was all an extended lesson for the Boy. The levelling up-upgrade system is also something I have a lot of appreciation for, though I need to further familiarize myself with it before I can really discuss it.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

While I’ve been much engaged in Norse mythology in recent years, the Greek myths and legends have always had a special place in my heart, owed to the fact that I grew up with them. Before the thick volumes of high fantasy, before the Lord of the Rings, my parents and grandparents would tell me of the Olympians, their mighty heroes and monsters. These stories are almost a part of my DNA and so I’m picky about modern retellings of these timeless stories.

Plot:

Circe by Madeline Miller is a spellbinding read, a novel that humanises the sorceress of Aiaia in ways I could’ve only hoped for. A story which will sweep you off your feet, this follows the lifespan of the goddess and Oceanid nymph Circe, the strangest of all the Titan Helios’ children, his first with the nymph Perse. Her life’s journey is one that begins in parental neglect, all too common a motive for the gods and their children. (One could make the case that being neglected is better than your father eating you whole along with all your siblings, but that’s beside the point.)

Circe is, at first, much like a child — desperate in love, and without knowledge of her witchcraft, she turns a mortal into a god. When he does not respond to her feelings, Circe, in jealousy, turns the selfish nymph Scylla into the terrible, many-headed monstrosity; a morally reprehensible act, which leaves a deep stain on her conscience.

Once banished to Aiaia, Circe begins to grow in earnest, and hers is a spectacular change, helped along by a small but impressive cast of supporting characters — Hermes and Daedalus, Ariadne and the Minotaur and, of course, cunning Odysseus. I’d say spoilers to that last name, but that particular bit of trivia is a few millenia past the expiry date.

Themes and Characters:

This book will scrutinise what it means to be immortal, what it is to be broken time and time again, only to rise stronger than the time before. It is not an easy road — my heart tightened at the cruelty Circe endured at the hands of both gods and men more than once. She learns bitter lessons from both, but her own exercises in cruelty are rarely callous and undeserved.

Acting as foil to Circe will be every Olympian and Titan, every Oceanid nymph — self-centered, unchangable and unconcerned with anything besides themselves and their hedonistic pleasures, power-struggles and small betrayals. All but one, that is, although who that one is, I won’t reveal…though if you’re knowledgeable enough in matters mythological, you might already have a shortlist. A very short…list.

Mortals, too, are different from Circe. But where they run counter to the gods is, each is different. No one trait, good or foul, is shared between them. Odysseus could be no more different from Telemachus, for good or ill.

So many gods and heroes appear, whether washed up on the shores of Aiaia or before. I can’t describe how much I enjoyed Circe’s interactions with Hermes and Ariadne, with Odysseus and…many others. To mention their names would be to take from the surprises you’ll find within the novel, and I just can’t do that. I don’t want to!

Very Subjective Thoughts

I love, love, love this novel! I stayed up until 4 in the morning reading the bloody thing! I ignored my poor sweet wee girlfriend to finish it! I couldn’t function, I couldn’t put it down until I finished the whole damn thing!… Which happens to me a lot more commonly than I’d like to admit.

But one thing I want to underline — this is a story worth experiencing. There is pain here, but also love and kindness and so much more that words escape me. I cannot recommend this book enough. (And I’ve obviously tried!)

Circe is such a strong, likable heroine. Her journey will long burn bright in my mind.

Score and Totally Arbitrary Awards

I gave Circe a 5-star review on Goodreads! More importantly, it is now a permanent part of my Greek mythology headcannon!

/r/fantasy Bingo

The Intentionally Unhelpful Villain #02: Acts of Villainy

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Journal Entry The Third

My brother, the big-time villain. Who does he think he is, smacking me around, placing chains of iron around MY person, threatening and cajoling me!

I’ll find his daughter, I will. The question is…where do I begin?

I’ve been in a perpetual dream prison for years. The answer is obvious — I begin in a restaurant.

The former village of Woodstick is now known as ‘The Capital.’ I have no doubt as to who renamed it so, and much as I’d like to badmouth this city, I cannot. He has done well in creating a city of lights, sinister as they may be…or advisers have, despite my wily brother. What well his direct underlings tap into in order to survive that child-like whimsical nature, I fear imagining.

The restaurant I picked was a fine place. Colourful, filled with military types in shining white. Their faces turned pale as soon as they saw my face–but they weren’t really seeing mine, were they? I sat down, unperturbed by this misguided attention.

I ordered a steak and waited for the fun to begin.

What my brother never understood, despite all his infuriating successes is this: True acts of villainy are small things. They pile up and up, a great stack of nasty deeds which push men to madness. This cook, for example. I have now returned his steak seventeen times. The last waiter to ask me to leave left a trail of digestive fluids all the way out onto the boulevards of the Capital.

The cook will snap. He’ll start off with acts of spite. Spitting in the soup. Putting sugar in the sugarless desserts (as if there is such a thing as sugarless desserts, bah!), putting too much salt in the stew. Then, it’ll be allergens. Peanut paste to those allergic to peanuts, if precognition is anything to go by.

It will end with poison. He’ll sprinkle some on a wedding cake. But he is no poisoner, and so a single drop will fall on his index finger. He’ll rub his nose, or eye, or put the finger in his mouth for all I care, and it’ll do him in. I only see parts of the future and the last bit I see is him falling all over the six-foot tall poisoned cake.

A pity, that. It is my brother’s wedding. But oh well. I have illustrated my point well enough.

So much spite drawn out of a mere cook’s heart, and all of it — because of a bad night filled with steaks. This is the essence of evil. My niece was quick in learning this lesson. The question is, just where has she been practising it?

There will be a pattern. All I need do is discover and follow it.

Dungeon Master’s Diary, S01, Session 02: Poke

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Hello and welcome back to my Dungeon Master’s Diary, where I recollect the long and winded tale of my Dungeons&Dragons party, the Assholes. Some time has passed since I last posted about these venerable adventurers.

Let’s get straight to it! The problem with note-keeping is…sometimes you lose the notes. Others, you’re too lazy to write them down in the first place. So it is that I’m forced to recreate this particular session from memory alone, which might bring about a continuity issue or five.

Dramatis Personae:

P. as the Witcher-y Warlock Logen Thum.
S. as the cowardly fighter Kalis Dargon.
I. as the young half-elven cleric Ignus.
N. as the half-orc-like homebrew Kimir barbarian Gell.

NPCs of note:
Tess Einhorn, princess of the Einhorn Duchy. Thief.
Shank, Sergeant of the Einhorn army.
Crazy old herbalist guy.
Crazy old herbalist guy’s drunkard nephew.

When last we left off our valiant heroes, Logen Thum went after a suspected thief, whose dextrous fingers the witcher felt on his backpack. Without checking to see if his hunch was right, Logen rushed after the thief, closing on and eventually catching the young woman. Without so much as a question, he forced her into one of many back-alleys of the capital city of Moranth, and punched her twice in the stomach in quick succession.

Just then, the rest of the party caught up with the witcher. Kalis, horrified, realized the girl clutching her stomach in pain was none other than Tess Einhorn, the sole daughter to the Duke, the man they were to investigate.

What the players didn’t know was, the thief was no thief. Tess, a spirited young woman, had gotten away from her chambers in the palace and gone exploring, looking for news from her brother. It was a happy coincidence–the kind ever-so-helpful to DMs everywhere–that she heard the party discussing their plan to find the prince and gain his father’s favour.

So it was that Tess decided to stealthily put a map of the prince’s last known movements in one of the party’s backpack–the lucky recipient none other than our exceptionally violent witcher. She, a natural at sneaking, was more than surprised when Logen immediately shot after her, surprise turning to shock as his knuckles sank into her belly, forcing the stomach out of her lungs. Ouch.

Not a great first impression to leave on a woman in her position but after a short conversation, she assured the party that she would forget all about the warm welcome if they found and brought back her brother. This didn’t sit right with some of the party, and they went for an Insight check. Surprise, surprise — Tess can swallow a lot for family’s sake.

This misunderstanding cleared up with surprisingly little backlash, our heroes got to studying the map. Where the first attack of the undead had started was a fishing village two hours from Moranth by the name of Sarhas.

When they reached the village, they found nearly half of it burned to shambles. Soldiers toiled away, building barriers and digging mass graves. The attack has been recent if the smell is anything to judge by. What happened next?

Did they ask the soldiers what happened, do you think?

Nope, they got into a brawl with the town drunks, beat them half to death, and Logen took to carrying the drunken ring-leader’s body in the stead of a cape. This strange exhibit caught the attention of several soldiers, and the party was very close to getting into some very deep, very serious trouble with the law — if not for one sergeant Shank, who was familiar with the drunk’s antics and laughed it off. Kalis, an imperial soldier himself, found a common language with Shank, and so the two escaped any further trouble.

As for the drunkard? Turns out, he was the nephew of the crazy village herbalist! Wot!

They traded a man for a bunch of healing potions, is wot I’m saying. Note, the herbalist was off his rocker in a major way, and he was a standoff-ish old goober, so I don’t necessarily blame the party for kicking his nephew around a bit. It later turned out, most of those potions the herbalist offered were way past their ‘best before’ date, which made for some pretty strange and often horrifying effects!

So it was that Ignus drank a potion and fell in love with a scullery maid! There was a lot more to the potion, I reckon — but unfortunately, that’s one more thing I did not record. Yes, I know, I really need to write these hilarious events down! It’s so annoying, remembering how hysterically all of us shook in laughter, but being unable to recall why exactly. Was Ignus giggling uncontrollably? Was he belching, perhaps? Maybe he hallucinated slightly. I’m not sure, and the world is all the darker for it.

What comes next?

Find out next time, in the Dungeon Master’s Diary!

Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed this one! As I cover more of the game, more details will emerge, what with my consistently better notes. Besides, this session didn’t really hold much in the way of using the game’s system to enrich the narrative, besides the occasional initiative check and simple combat rules. It’s all going to get progressively more interesting as we move forward!

Book Recommendation: The Dark Tower, Book 2 — The Drawing of Three

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I’m very fond of Stephen King’s Dark Tower.

So fond, in fact, that I’m taking considerable time from an unfortunately busy schedule to reread and finish it (on my first read, I lost the thread at book 6, The Song of Susannah). I’ve already spoken about The Gunslinger, and the bell strikes for a recommendation of that second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of Three.

Three people. Two men and a woman. A druggie, a cripple and a serial killer. Three compelling stories crossing the borders between worlds and time, bonding three together, and changing the fate of a fourth.

The intersection of the three, the one that draws them is none other than the gunslinger Roland, maimed and severely weakened by fever due to an infection running rampant, poisoning his blood and clouding his mind.

On a beach, Roland finds a door. A door that, once opened, leads him into the mind of another — the drug addict Eddie, a young man ridden by a demon known as cocaine. Now he is ridden by Roland, also, and you better believe that a stinkin’ drug doesn’t stand a chance against the last gunslinger of Gilead.

The second door leads to a New York different from the one Eddie knows, the Big Apple of the sixties. Meet Odetta Walker, a black crippled woman with no legs, and the heiress of a fortune. Odetta is a proper, if slightly uptight young lady but there’s a catch — she’s a schizo. Not that she knows it! No, far from it. What could possibly go wrong?

As for the third…I think I’ll say no more about him than I have already. It’s a thrilling third act to this second chapter of Roland Deschain’s quest for the Dark Tower.

If you’re familiar with any of Stephen King’s prose, you’ll know what to expect — clear, concise writing that absorbs you with ease. Putting the book down was downright impossible, at times. As far as the re-read goes, I was surprised to find so much material I’d originally overlooked. Now that I have a lot better idea of where the story is going, I found a lot of foundation building, not just the obvious kind but also that more intricate, subtle sort.

The Dark Tower grows closer. Don’t ignore it.

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain Vol. 2, #01: Brother, Brother

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This is the Diary of High Imperial Supreme Sourceror, Sheikh, Sovereign, Suzerain and Ship Captain Maus. If lost and found, please return to:
The City (capital of The Empire),
0000, Imperial Palace,
Seat of the Empire,
Throne Room. Any of them is alright, really.
Upon return, you shall be rewarded, and promptly murdered for having touched this sacred artefact. Try not to bleed on it.

Diary Entry #001

I do enjoy new beginnings on occasion.

Sitting before my chained twin-brother in the damp, mossy dungeon of my newly refurbished castle doesn’t mark one of these occasions. He’s got a handsome face, I’ll grant him that but little else going for him. For one, he’s the brother set to rot in a nightmarish dimension of fairy tales come alive, which I reckon he deserves.

How do I reckon that? Having put him there, I doubtless had a fine reason for doing so. He’ll be back in his prison in due time, no doubt of it, and by Me, he’ll learn to enjoy it. Or perchance he won’t. At any rate, mine patience having grown short, I turned to the jailor and snapped my fingers at him.

‘Awaken him,’ I said.

The guard’s face slackened at the order. ‘I-I only puts them to sleep, master,’ he groaned under my gaze.

I sighed. Whose idea was it to cut on expenses and reanimate undead to use as jailors? The stench is pleasant enough, I’ll grant you that, but the shambling legions of rot-infested beings are hardly known for their ingenuity.

‘I suppose it can’t be helped,’ I said, and clasped the zombie with one hand. The creature seemed only mildly surprised as I held it above my brother and squeezed. Its juicy insides plopped over his hair and face. A piece of entrail staunchly refused to fall off him, like a bizarre amulet put on by a small child. Most of the grey rot tapered off, leaving not a spot on his bright white mane, not even on his beard.

How had he grown a beard? I never had a beard. Once glued on the beard of an exceptionally beardy, subsequently beardless, dwarven adversary. Wasn’t quite the same, and I suspected a number of my more cruel and oppressive generals for snickering while I had my back turned to them. Unfortunate to learn how they’d lost their heads later in the evenings.

You can imagine my surprise when they were found to have laughed at an entirely unrelated and military matter I’d heard nothing about. Paranoia is such a terrible weigh on my chest as of late,  I even suspect it might be a curse done me by one of my many viziers, advisers and court magicians.

‘How much longer must I listen to your ridiculous monologues, brother?’ said I. Oh, no, wait. That was my brother that’d just spoken. Permit me to do a little something to this here magical quill that takes my thoughts, actions and words into account and writes them down with– dontyoudaretouchmemausstayawayarghhhhh–

‘There, all better. The Quill has been mentally prepared to deal with your whining, brother,’ I (i.e. Maus, Dark Lord extraordinaire), said.

‘You’ve lost your marbles. Perhaps the last single marble you had, when you threw me in that happy little dream of yours,’ he said, scowling. ‘Is that a zombie gut on my head?’

‘It couldn’t be helped, place is full of them. And I didn’t lose my marbles. Look!’ I produced a marble from one of the hidden pocket dimensions within my armour.

‘You’re so bizarre, I swear.’

‘Takes one to know one, brother!’

‘Should’ve strangled you in the womb.’ He suddenly strained against the chains. His muscles grew taut as ropes, but the chains held. With a final huff, he relaxed.

‘An impressive, if useless display, brother.’ Looking down on him, I smiled. ‘Shall we hold counsel, as we once did, you and I?’

He nodded, grumbling.

‘It has come to my attention that I have a daughter.’ No surprise on his face. ‘You knew?’

‘Only you can forget your own kid, you mad basta–nope, forget that one. Of course I remember Alisha.’

‘A-lee-sha.’ The name tasted good on my lips. It felt right.  ‘I’ve been busy, what with defending against the Council of Wotsitsname and making moves to rob my enemies blind.
Good governing is a complex task I don’t expect you to know anything about.’

‘I was your chief governor, you wanker!’ Oh! Right. ‘And besides, I’m not going to help you look for your daughter. If she’s in hiding, it’s probably because of a good reason. Like, I don’t know, her father is a witless git!’

‘You’re one to talk!’

‘Who better?!’

I shut my mouth before fire escaped from it and burned him to a crisp. A deep breath and I began anew. ‘Fine. Talk all you want. But you will find my daughter, whether you want to or not.’

‘And just how do you see that happening?’ he asked, smiling that infuriating half-smile that should be mine, and mine alone!

I returned the smile as frosty as I could’ve made it.

‘I have set the curse of unicorns and puppies upon thine body, brother. If you don’t…’

His eyes widened in disbelief. ‘You would do this to me? To your own brother? You have turned cold, indeed,’ he said. His eyes studied me carefully, no doubt measuring me up, wondering how I’ve grown in power and what could be done to remedy his blighted situation. Whatever his conclusion, it didn’t please him. He broke the eye contact with a last heavy sigh. ‘Very well, brother. Let’s shake on it.’

‘Good, good! Welcome back to the fold,’ I said, ripping his chains off him.

As he got up, unsteady at first, I turned, walking towards the cell door. ‘Oh, and no more attempts to stab me in the back. I may not remember some things, important ones at that…but I’ll never forget your betrayal, brother of mine. And the next time you so much as lift a finger against me, your last prison will look like a dream resort.’

He said nothing to that, just looked at me.

‘Oh, and if you see any undead jailors here, would you turn them to naught for me? I’ve decided on expanding government expenditure, after all. I know, I know, beware of labour unions, but…’

Here, the Dark Lord chatters for several thousand words on policy and labour rights. The Quill would continue to write all this down, but…it doesn’t care enough to want to. Alas.

 

Thank you for reading, dear reader! I had way too much fun writing this, I swear, and time passed by very quick this time around. What’s next for the Unintentionally Helpful Villain? …Labour unionisation? Spoilers: Probably not.

And what about his brother? Find out in the Intentionally Unhelpful Villain, coming soon!

 

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

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Once upon a time, I read Half a King by Joe Abercrombie and was quite fond of it.

Half a King was a wonderful entry into the unique brand of subversive storytelling Abercrombie is famed for. It was a thrill to go through but now that I’ve read four of the six First Law books (the First Law Trilogy and ‘Best Served Cold,’ which introduced me to one of my all-time favourite female protagonists)  I can safely say, the First Law is what  food is to the prisoners of a Siberian penal colony!

You’re impressed by my uncanny ability to make up weird and frighteningly specific similes, I know.

Just before I begin the review in earnest, allow me to say…I finally read it! I’ve had this trilogy for a shamefully long period of time, without ever touching it for reasons that elude me and defy reason! With this out of the way…

What’s the Blade Itself all about? Ask our old friend, Homer, and he’ll give you an excellent answer: ‘The blade itself incites to deeds of violence*.’ See? Even Homer read The First Law trilogy. It’s that good! It incites even the temporal laws of the universe to violate themselves!

The world of the First Law will, at first glance, seem no more or less alien than any other epic fantasy world you might’ve explored. A great and wise Magi is to be found, a bloodthirsty barbarian fights for his survival, a cruel Inquisitor tortures both the guilty and the innocent for his own advancement, and a young nobleman and soldier prepares for a test of skill, which can see him become champion of the Union.

Dig deeper, and you’ll discover few things are as they first appear — Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is a man deliciously cynical but to whom there is more than is readily obvious; Logen Ninefingers, a blood-thirsty barbarian by reputation wants nothing more than to leave that reputation behind; our young, dashing officer Lothar is as cowardly as he is pleasant to look at–and oh, how handsome he is. Even our wizard hides within layer upon layer, every one stranger than the one before it. The only character who doesn’t seem to go against my first impression of her was Ferro, the fugitive slave from Gurkhul, the Union’s Southern neighbour and favourite country to go to war with due to reasons way too complex and spoiler-y to explain here; and I quite understand a former slave wanting nothing more than to murder her former slavers.

Dozens of other characters, both likeable ones and absolute bastards are to be found within the pages of The First Law.  None lack in character, none come off as anything less than real human beings with their own motivations and goals, and those come off starkly in conflict with what our protagonists are attempting to accomplish. The conflicts can be very clear-cut, with impressive battle and chase scenes; other times, they’re much more discrete, happening during spectacularly written pieces of dialogue which may leave goosebumps all over your body.

Abercrombie’s battles deserve mention, both for the excellent description and the cost they exact upon the characters who take part in them. War is not without cost, regardless whether you come out on top and the author makes a wonderful job of illustrating what a toil war bears.

Possible problems you might have with The Blade Itself:

  • The plot moves slowly. I never once had an issue with that, because it didn’t feel like pointless build-up to me; exciting and interesting events happened throughout, but we did spend a lot of time in a single city, setting things up; totally worth it in my opinion, but some people are less patient and might not find it as enjoyable as I did, or at all.
  • You might not like the characters. But then again, that’s the risk with every book ever, so why am I drawing this out?!

The Blade Itself is a book about a few different things, and those work really, really well. It’s a character-driven story, a tale about a monarchy besieged on all sides by enemies just as all those enemies move to attack it; it’s a book that sets up one of the most subversive and genre-flipping stories I’ve read in recent memories; and it’s a treat of excellent worldbuilding that never once threatened to overwhelm or bore me.

Perhaps I was wrong to review it only after reading the entire trilogy and appreciating, in retrospect, just how well a number of mind-blowing events are set-up. If that is so — that’s my cross to bear, innit?

One last mention — the city of Adua, where a large portion of this book takes place, makes for a really awesome set piece. It’s majestic and beautiful, but deeply corrupt–three things I want in any city worth visiting! #visitAduanow

PS Yes, the cover above is from the audiobook version. I haven’t listened to it, so I can’t speak to the level of narration; the image was the most high-quality one I could find on the Interwebz.  Feel free to check the audiobook out, if that’s your thing, or if you spend three hours a day in a car, public transport or by train. Go trains!

Thank you for reading! I’ll be back soon with reviews of Before They Were Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings. If you enjoyed this review, please click that ‘Like’ button, and don’t be afraid to Follow me! Have you read the Blade Itself? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments below!  Go grimdark fantasy! Whooo!

 


*Quote in the Odyssey is from the beginning of book XIX , and is, depending on the translation, either For iron by itself can draw a man to use it’ or ‘Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin,’ both of which aren’t too far off from the quote presented above andat the beginning of The Blade Itself. It’s likely that Abercrombie mixed and blended the two translations, adding a bit of his own magic, which I’m all for.

 

 

 

Book Recommendation: Sun Wolf and Starhawk Book 1, The Ladies of Mandrygin

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Ah, 80’s era fantasy. An era much beloved by many and fairly disliked by some. To me, it’s a by-gone age with some great books that hold up really well, and some that…well, don’t. Either way, I’ve been going out of my way to explore this decade’s worth of fantasy trends, and–surprise, surprise– sword’n’sorcery is indeed a thing. And a wonderful thing it can be, but also a terrible one.

Where does Sun Wolf and Starhawk fall on that spectrum?… It’s mostly good. Bit anti-climatic to just come out and say so, I know, but it’s true!

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you might recall how much I enjoyed Barbara Hambly’s Time of the Dark trilogy. She’s penned several trilogies and I intend to explore all of them, year by year until I’m all done with them, and The Ladies of Mandrigyn is the beginning of Sun Wolf and Starhawk’s adventures. It’s a good start, which nevertheless does a few things I didn’t enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily do them badly, mind you.

Sun Wolf is a mercenary captain, Starhawk — his loyal lieutenant. Sun Wolf is first described as an exceptional commander, a skilled fighter that has the ability to see demons. Starhawk is a cold and brutal commander in her own right, following in the footsteps of Gil (Time of the Dark main heroine) in terms of badassery, among other traits.

I was overjoyed to be reading about yet another mercenary squad — the enjoyment on this front soon disappeared, what with Sun Wolf getting himself kidnapped by a number of willful women who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The question? “Will you help us fight the immortal wizard Altiokis, who took over Madrigyn, our pretty seaside city, and also enslaved our men, and put them to work. We’d really appreciate it if you could give us a bit of a hand for a bit of coin!”

Sun Wolf, whose two rules of conduct are, “Don’t mess with magic, don’t fall in love,” says no to that and gets poisoned for his troubles. I’d hate to say ‘no’ to those ladies.

Starhawk, being secretly in love with the Wolf, goes after him, though she really has no clue where he went off to, what with his surprise disappearance. Her companion is Fawn, the Wolf’s pretty, young concubine, whose role isn’t all too important in this book. Wonder if she’ll reappear later on or if we’ll steer clear of the lass.

My problem with this book is that although the Wolf is supposed to be this highly skilled mercenary general — which translates to a cut-throat sunuvabiscuit who has more than a single vicious bone, he takes a lot of punishment and abuse from the ladies with a very…Zen Buddhist bearing, if you will. He’s such a stoicist — and he shows his disobedience for the leaders of the Mandrigyn resistance in the most stupid, tantrum-throwing way! It’s not that his character feels unnatural, it’s that the descriptions we get of him early on really have little to do with what he is, in reality. It bugs me.

Starhawk is fantastic, though. Sadly, she plays a less prominent part than does the Wolf. Nevertheless, the chapters with her as our PoV character caught and held my attention from beginning to end.

It’s a good book, with a few good mysteries and one of those moments where a lightbulb in your mind will turn on and you’ll say “Ah!” or, if you’re anything like me, you’ll laugh with sinister delight!

It made for a mostly enjoyable read. Not what I’d recommend if you wanted something to grab you by the throat and transport you to another world as forcefully as possible — if you want that, read Malazan or The First Law, or even Hambly’s Time of the Dark trilogy.

As to how the trilogy itself holds up, I cannot yet say. I’ll get back to it in due time, but I think I need something a bit more captivating first. Luckily, March has been rich on good fantasy. I’ve started working on Senlin Ascends, the first book in the Tower of Babel trilogy.

Working on? Pfft, reading is wot I meant! More’s to come, at any rate, in the following weeks. We are, at this point, back to our regularly scheduled programming, what with at least three posts per week — hopefully more, if I manage to squeeze in the time to write a bunch of stuff about graphic novels you might want to know more about! 

The Intentionally Unhelpful Villain #01: Help?

Journal Entry The First

Let it be writ:

Today, an oaf of a man, a woodcutter through and through, passed by my cabin.

“Where go you, axeman?” I said.

“A good day to you, villain!” he said, scratching his beard. “I am on my way to cut a little girl and her granny out of the tummy of a wolf. Bad business for the timber business, wolves eating one of my biggest clients and whatnot.” He sighed. “‘Tis the third time this has happened over the past season. Say, care you join me?”

“I’m good,” I said. I wasn’t, but I was going go be. Snicker.

He nodded, and turned around, tugging at his axe, skipping two steps at a time. Little did he know, a single step was worn out and slippery. It was this step, in fact, which his foot gave way under.

He flew into the air for a few glorious moments. Then, he fell to the ground, the head of the axe burying itself in his chest under the monumental weight. I got up, cackled at the sight, then sat back in my rocking chair.

Sometimes, it’s good to be partially precognisant.

Journal Entry The Second

The axeman pulled the axe out of his chest this morning. He seemed displeased with me. Nothing new under the sun.

“Listen here–” he said. The air shimmered behind him, and a shape enclosed in black iron grasped and threw the oafish man far away into the air. The axeman was silent, be it surprise or shock.

His form was gaunt, the face that appeared behind the iron helm an unnatural shade of white. Save for the difference in colour, it was familiar insofar as my own.

“Villain,” he said.

“Villain,” I nodded. “Have you come to free me from this prison, brother?”

He shrugged. “Something like that.” His fist went flying towards my face.

Partial precognition sucks.