Prosper's Demon by K. J. Parker – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Dark
Pages: 112 (according to Goodreads)
Format: Novella, e-book
Review Copy:  Provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Release Date: January 28th, 2020

At long last, I’ve gotten my hands on a work by K. J. Parker, an author very well regarded in the wider fantasy community. Judging by the quality of Prosper’s Demon, I have to wonder – what the hell took me so long?

Written in the first person, this novella tells of the trials and tribulations of an unnamed exorcist in a world very like our own during the early Renaissance. Our protagonist is not a nice guy. He is devious, cunning and unscrupulous, a man who shows no qualms when it comes to inflicting pain to his fellow human beings. A vile man, written excellently and with an undercurrent of gallows humour that colours everything in the world around him – this worked very well for me.

The world this exorcist inhabits is one filled with cruelty, pain and Them, an awful lot of Them, demons who possess humans and seem capable of inducing in them extreme states – these creatures can only be seen by a chosen few born with the ability to recognize them, and this ability is as much a gift as a curse…as the protagonist will prove to you, reader.

You have to learn to think like Them, they told me when I was just starting out in the business; only, don’t get too good at it. They say that to all the students, and none of us really understand what it means at the time. In and out of each other’s heads, like neighbors in a small, friendly village, which is exactly what we aren’t. Or to put it another way, it doesn’t do to get too familiar.

The reason Prosper’s Demon won me over, though, has to do with it not being your average exorcist/demon game of cat and mouse. Rather, it’s the structure of the story, the fact that a lot of it is built around conversations between the protagonist and the eponymous Prosper, a Leonardo da Vinci-esque genius of unparalleled scientific intellect. A lot is done right in those dialogues, obfuscating the truth, confusing the reader and making the outcome of the story questionable at all times.

Some of it, too, has to do with bronzeworking and the casting of statues – and I was struck by how well researched these sections were, by the veracity of complex processes as they were described.

If, like me, you’ve never before read the work of K. J. Parker, Prosper’s Demon is an excellent place to start, short but none the poorer in ideas for it. My score? 5/5!

Oh, and the cover? Gorgeous, sets up just the right tone for this strange tale.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am but it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

The Train Station, 4:30 a.m.

I wrote and sent this to one of my best friends early in the morning as I was waiting for a train to take me to the airport. I enjoy doing small pieces like these, reflections on reality through my point of view.

At four thirty in the morning, Malmö Central is nothing at all like what it is in the greyness of day. It’s a serene spot, empty of all life, devoid of the crowds that assail it in waves during the day, flittering back and forth. Not a single human in sight. Not even a bone!

That is, until the passengers of city bus number 4 dismount their creaking, mechanical mount and step inside. They shuffle inside like a crowd of mildly peckish zomboids. They devour the silence. The crunch of leather, the rhythmic pat, pat, pat of steps against the shiny floor tiles, the hushed groans of those who know each other in this abysmal hour. It continues, but only for a short while, only until you reach the escalators, where all comes to a halt, you and your suitcase in tow, both of you staring at the sliding door. There’s plenty to stare at – it’s made of glass, only a huge chunk of it is missing. Someone’s come up with an elegant solution to the problem — duct tape, in ludicrous quantities. As if someone tried to mumify the door after seeing Tutenstein a few times too many. It’s ludicrous, and it works, and that’s ludicrous too, and I love it.

Then you step past the door — it still works, it slides open for you, what magic is this?! — and you accept that the next time you see it, it will most likely be sporting a new sheen of glass. Everything interesting about it gone without so much as a screech of protest. You say your goodbyes, the thought that a picture might come in handy later never even having crossed your mind.

You hope the maintenance guy gets a cut for ruining it.

And then, at last, you see it, and all your dislike for your fellow man, striding the earth as early as you yourself do, dies away. That infernal desire machine, that glistening titan of industry. The train that will take you home*.

Charlie the Choo-Choo, illustrated for Stephen King’s…children’s book…? (Dark Tower fans will know!)

*in my case, the train that will take me to the airport that will allow me to board one plane that will fly me to another airport in which another plane, if I be lucky, will await. Thanks for being witness to my crimes against writing!

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

This novel constitutes my first experience with the non-fiction work of the great Haruki Murakami. It was a hell of a lot of fun – and now that I’ve read it, I feel I have a touch greater understanding of the man behind some of my favourite magical realism fiction.

This book will motivate you even if you’re not a runner, even if you have no interest whatsoever in taking part in a marathone or a triathlone or any sort of endurance-based competition at all. It’s a book about perseverance, about a man chasing after what he loves.

Murakami persevered first in running a bar; then, he began to write and once he found his legs, he’s never stopped since. Throughout, he’s kept running. Succeeding, failing – that matters…but not too much. What matters more is, he’s never given up, not even as age slowly crept up on him; as it does with us all.

I suspect writing this one was something of a cathartic experience – almost as cathartic as running itself has been for him. In his catharsis, I find inspiration – metric tons of it. In how he’s dealt with loneliness, for example, I find solace; rather, I find solace that he has never really minded it. Sometimes, I feel a certain amount of guilt for being okay with mine.

I love running, even though I’ve never done too much of it. A few months here and there, inevitably ruined by some cold or flu or virus; the cycle broken and my willpower smashed to smithereenes. But this book…it inspires me to go back to it, to make another effort.

“To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.”

I also happily accept the following quote as a pat on the head, in my charmingly arrogant fashion:

“If you’re young and talented, it’s like you have wings.”

Don’t worry, this didn’t get to my head too much, not after I came across this piece:

“An unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.”

You’ve got to be realistic about these things.

I listened to this one on Audible. The narration was courtesy of Ray Porter, who is one of my all-time favourite narrators; I’m familiar with his work as gruff detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s classic noir novels. Brilliant job, my good Mr Porter, brilliant.

My score for What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is 4 out of 5 stars. Toodles!

STAR WARS JEDI: FALLEN ORDER REVIEW – Excellent, Buggy, Lacking Ambition

Jedi: Fallen Order has a lot going for it – an excellent story, an addictive combat system and plenty of Metroidvania elements in the planets we players explore as we take on the role of Cal Kestis. Unfortunately, Fallen Order is also plagued by bugs and the number of gameplay systems directly copied from other games make for a certain lack of ambition in terms of the innovation developer Respawn Entertainment implements.

In this video, I did my best to take a critical look at the story, dialogue, gameplay systems and the overall presentation of the game. I’m happy with how it turned out – if you are too, leave me a comment and please, please, please…share the video with your friends!

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin – Book Review/Essay

Originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Published by: Gollancz, SF Masterworks Series
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 128
Format: Paperback

Here is a work of speculative fiction worthy of the “Masterworks” label. The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin has plenty of meat on the bone despite the short number of pages its text occupies. It’s thematically rich, a novel of memorable ideas and characters both. Le Guin problematises the ethic of exploitation in her signature style, poignant and deeply thoughtful.

“…it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of “peace” was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of “man”. The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.” (from Le Guin’s Introduction).

This realisation is the initial push that gave birth to The Word for World is Forest. The theme of exploitation is joined by the equally relevant subject of colonialism: our very own human race, now travelling along the stars, has promulgated across different planets; central for The Word is the so-called world of “New Tahiti,” dominated by oceans and lush green forests, where a little over two thousand men are working to deforest the world one island at a time, in order to sate the unquenchable thirst of an Earth that has exhausted all its natural resources of wood.

New Tahiti isn’t a world devoid of life, however – it teems with small green humanoids, as short as human children (or ewoks, if you, like me, have an unhealthy Star Wars obsession and measure everything according to ewok size). The earthling conquerors call these native cousins of theirs ‘creechies’. They think of themselves as human – and indeed, they’re an off-shoot of the human race, just one branch in many throughout the galaxy, as Le Guinn’s narrative tells us. They do not know violence towards one another, except for those few among them who grow insane, and they inhabit the world of dreams in the same way that they inhabit the waking world. To them, there is no difference between what we would describe as ‘real’ and ‘unreal’. The message is clear – reality is more nuanced than our understanding of it.

The humans of the world that is forest are the vessel of the third major theme of this novel – the collective loss of innocence of a whole race. Because while they never could take lives before the coming of the humans, after three years of what is called “voluntary service” and is in fact slavery, and the horrific brutality of one particular man, Captain Davidson, the “dumb, simple, harmless creechies” change. The catalyst for their change is one native of the planet, Selver. Put through a horrible gauntlet, Selver changes, becomes a god to his own people. “We may have dreamed of Selver these last few years, but we shall no longer; he has left the dream time. In the forest, through the forest he comes, where leaves fall, where trees fall, a god that knows death, a god that kills and is not himself reborn.” Selver is nothing like our own gods, for the word carries a different context – it stands to mean someone who brings change along with them.

As for Davidson? He is, in Le Guin’s own words, “pure evil.” The spirit of the militaristic, exploitative imperialist is imbued in his image, a man whose implacable certainty in the fact that he knows best is nothing short of horrifying, a man who would describe himself as “a world-tamer. He wasn’t a boastful man, but he knew his own size. It just happened to be the way he was made. He knew what he wanted, and how to get it. And he always got it.” Davidson is a scathing critique whose Point of View speaks more loudly about the sickness of imperialist policy and thought than I ever could.

The short novel is an art form in itself and The Word for World is Forest shows, once again, Ursula K. Le Guin’s mastery to the fullest extent. I give this novel a 5/5 and my absolute recommendation – this is a must-read for any fan of science fiction and for anyone whose interests involve any of these three major themes. The way Le Guinn examines them leaves awe and awakens deep reflection in the reader – and the ultimate fate of the natives of the world is tragic, for as Selver says, “You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back to the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses.”

Pretenses, after all, are one thing Le Guinn has never allowed her readers to hold onto.

For Your Reading Pleasure, A Pair of WebToons Comics: Lore Olympus and Urban Animal! (October 5th Edition)

Lore Olympus

Romance isn’t my genre but the myth of Hades and Persephone has always stuck with me. What Lore Olympus does is, it reimagines the gods as living in modern society, with all that entails — technology, complex relationships, hints of egalitarianism that somehow fiercely contrasts with half the panels with Zeus in them, and more. It’s a distinctly late-2010s sort of comic book, distinctly American in the way it deals with some heavy topics and that’s no criticism on my part.

The chemistry between Persephone and Hades is incredible and without a doubt the webcomic’s driving force but there’s a lot more going on. Side characters get entire issues for their stories, such as the Eros/Cupid-Psyche side plot. Further, mysteries are introduced one after the other, making the world feel multi-layered and unique in unexpected ways. Surprises abound over the 80 or so issues of this comic.

And the art? Gorgeous, it has this pastel quality to it that is nothing short of breathtaking. I even made a pinterest board with a few of my favourite panels! Check it out, if you’d like!

I love it, I do, I do, I do! And I can’t wait for more Olympian mischief, chaos and godly fun. Oh, yes, the humour is…it’s really good. The art works in tandem with every joke (and sets a fair few up all on its own) and it nails each and every bit of comedic set-up has great pay off.

Love those modern-day Olympians!

For my closing note, what astounds me most of all is, this is all the work of one single creator, Rachel Smythe. Rachel is chock-full of talent, that’s wot I think.

Urban Animal

You know what this one reminds me of? Kirkman’s Invincible and Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man. It might not be a superhero comic book but it threads similar ground – characters find themselves possessing great power and forced into doing something with it for everyone’s But it’s got the same quality of sleek, fun supporting characters and the art really reminds me of the expressive quality of Cory Walker’s illustrations.

Joe is a chimera, a champion of nature capable of transforming himself in different animals — to start with. A chimera’s abilities are pretty effin’ cool, let me tell you that. Reminds me a bit of Malazan’s D’ivers and soletaken — especially one character whose chimera ability allows him to transform into a mischief of rats.

The first season was amazing. While it tackles with a lot of familiar ground that superhero comics go through, like the young protagonist hiding his powers and flaking out on his friends and family, I thought this particular aspect of Joe’s story was handled well and the resolution came about naturally.

The second season has only recently begun but already it’s got me hooked!

Crazy revelations, cuteness, bloody murder and some serious psychological warfare on our main character all make for a great story that’s well worth the time investment. And the art is, as you’ve probably gathered by now, absolutely great. It really does remind me of Invincible but with a hint of something else there — and the colour gammut has a lot of these gorgeous amber and browns contrasted with the most stunning light blue that just spells trouble for everyone. Another one on my weekly list and it deserves to be on yours, too!

How about you? Any web comics you’re currently following with interest? Leave me a suggestion in the comments below! And if you’ve read any one of these two, tell me what you thought about them, what you loved, what didn’t quite work for you.

See you next time, Reader!