Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 5

For someone who did everything he possibly could to avoid being posted to India, Flashman's opening comment in Chapter 5 is rather curious: There may be better countries for a soldier to serve in than India, but I haven't seen them.. Despite his impressions of the country back in England, Flashman is an adaptable chap, and once he finds out how things work for a moneyed British officer in India he soon makes himself very comfortable. He rents a house and procures some servants, including a nubile teenage bed warmer by the name of Fetnab. Judging by her description the lass on the cover may be a depiction of Fetnab. She serves a double purpose for Harry. She keeps him busy in bed, teaching him the ninety seven ways of making love (a Kama Sutra reference), although Flashman considers it all nonsense as the seventy fourth position is the same as the seventy third, but with your fingers crossed, this is one of those laugh out loud moments that George MacDonald Fraser regularly inserted into the narrative when you least expected it. The other thing that Fetnab taught her employer/owner was Hindustani. Flashman has an ear for languages, but never picked up Greek or Latin at school because he had no interest in them. He muses that the best way to learn a language is to spend a time in bed with a native girl, he would have gotten more of the classics from an hour's wrestling with a Greek girl than he did in four years with Arnold.

As well as the language, Flashman practises the local custom of lancing from a horse. He is tilting at pegs (and pariah dogs) one morning with his rissalder; a Pathan called Muhammed Iqbal, when he is summoned by an observing British general by the name of Crawford. Two things about the young British officer impress the general. One is his ability on the back of a horse, the other is his facility with Hindustani. Crawford has been in India for nearly 30 years and hasn't been able to pick up more than a handful of sentences, to his ear Flashman has been in the country for 3 weeks and speaks the language like a local. He invites Flashman to his residence that evening.

One thing led to another (although Crawford obviously had this planned from the moment he met Harry Flashman) and the two soldiers are attending a dinner with the Governor-General Lord Auckland and his sister Lady Emily Eden. The Governor-General and his sister take a great interest in this charming young officer and inquire as to where he will be stationed. Not having any great enthusiasm for Company service (the British East India Company effectively ran the country and were the ones who decided where the soldiers were stationed) Flashman indicates this to Lady Emily. Crawford agrees, as does Lord Auckland and they begin to talk about a posting where Flashman's talents can be put to best use. Flashman believes he's landed on his feet, and dreams of a relatively easy position as a galloper for General Elphinstone.

Then the news of where General Elphinstone and his staff are being posted is delivered; Afghanistan. In the 19th century Afghanistan was one of the most far flung areas of the British Empire. Flashman describes the country as being 'the hottest, hardest, most dangerous place in the world.' The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? I'd bet a few American Marines have applied the same description to Afghanistan in the 21st century as Flashman did in the 19th. Flashman knows that refusing what they see as a generous offer from a general, the sister of a Governor-General and the Governor-General himself is a career limiting move, so with a sinking heart, he accepts. He later takes out his rage and fear on Fetnab, this makes it rather hard to feel much sympathy for him.

Flashman's description of the political situation in Afghanistan, like his description of the country itself, has an eerie parallel today. Afghanistan lay between Russia and the areas it controlled in Turkestan, and the British Empire's Jewel in the Crown in India. The British had invaded the country, removed Dost Mohammed, who they suspected of having Russian sympathies, and replaced him with the less popular, but more amenable Shah Sujah on the throne. The whole thing was a tinderbox just waiting to go kaboom and Flashy said it was just his luck that he was going to end up on top of the resulting conflagration.

Among Thieves - A Tale of the Kin by Douglas Hulick

Among Thieves is Douglas Hulick’s debut novel, and the first of what looks like turning out to be a consistently entertaining series. The best way I can describe this quickly is to say that it is a cracking good read. Among Thieves treads some familiar ground, but does so with style and class.

Drothe is a Nose (a sort of underworld spy in the ‘thieves cant’ of Ildrecca), he plays a dangerous game, working for two Upright Men (criminal overlords) as well as for himself. One of Drothe’s most lucrative sidelines is the acquisition of powerful relics, which he usually auctions off to the highest bidder. Almost at the opening of Among Thieves the book’s first person protagonist comes in possession of information leading to a particularly hard to find relic. The search for and acquisition of this relic, which seems to be wanted by everyone in Ildrecca for a host of reasons, will lead Drothe into a deadly game of cross and double cross where he can trust almost no one. His family and friends will be put in danger and threatened. To get out of this one intact Drothe is going to have to empty his large bag of tricks, call in every favour he’s ever earned and test his friendships to the very limits.

Very little of this is probably new to a fantasy veteran, particularly of the 'gritty' kind, but Hulick has created something very enjoyable with Among Thieves. There’s top notch world building and characterisation, it’s tightly plotted, the description creates atmosphere without boring the reader by delving into inconsequential details, and the magic system is interesting and makes sense, it doesn’t over saturate the story or give the heroes an easy out, either.

The teeming Byzantine city of Ildrecca with it’s exotic mix of cultures and thriving communities of thieves (the Kin of the book’s sub title), merchants and nobles is Drothe’s world, and he is the readers guide to it. The ‘thieves cant’ (a curious mixture of Elizabethan and modern 20th century criminal slang) is something that sets Among Thieves apart from many similar works. It allows Hulick to be descriptive and give the world some depth, but also means he doesn’t rely too heavily on profanity to get his message across. Some readers have found the ‘cant’ a little hard to come to grips with, but Drothe is an engaging and informative narrator, and he gives readers enough explanation to understand. I personally didn’t need it, but I think a glossary of the ‘cant’ at the back of the book may have been helpful for some, and a nice touch.

The magic makes sense, it’s employed sparingly, but not so little that it is non existent, but again not so much that the reader thinks no matter how dire the situation Drothe and his allies find themselves in, some hitherto unknown magical trick will get them out of it. It exists, it can be useful, but don’t rely too heavily on it.

The characterisation is strong. I particularly liked the banter between Drothe and his best friend; the blademaster Bronze Degan. For that matter Degan was a favourite character, he doesn’t say much, but what he does say is often both amusing and pertinent, he’s loyal and deadly, he lives his life by a code of honour that he will not allow to be compromised by anyone or anything. Drothe and Degan are the main characters, there are others who play smaller parts, but are just as well written. The many members of the Kin are worth it just for their colourful nicknames. I particularly liked two of the female characters; Christiana, Drothe's younger sister who has married into the nobility. There was genuine affection between the siblings, despite the fact that Ana, as Drothe calls her, has tried to have her brother murdered a couple of times. The other was Drothe's bodyguard Jess the Fowler. I hope readers get to see more of both in future books, as Jess could even turn out to be Drothe's love interest. Romance was one element that was rather conspicuously absent from Among Thieves.

The tight plotting allows Among Thieves to roll along merrily without overdoing the action, however when steel is drawn and blades are crossed the choregraphy is another of the book's strengths. Not everyone can write realistic and convincing fight scenes. One of Hulick's hobbies is fencing, and he's used his knowledge to enhance his beautifully written sword fights.

I've read a few debuts this year and Among Thieves is head and shoulders the most assured and my favourite (Ready Player One is a sci-fi, so takes out that title for me), the book is even at this stage likely to end up in my top 5 reads of 2011.

Although the book can be easily read as a standalone, no messy cliffhangers, Douglas Hulick has been contracted to write at least 3 Tales of the Kin books and the second; Sworn in Steel , is due out in April of 2012. I'm there!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 4

Chapter 4 of Flashman is a real game changer for the character and the series in general. It is for me anyway, it also has the introduction of one of my favourite characters, not just in this series, but in fiction generally.

Harry is in Scotland and he doesn’t much care for the place. The climate is wet and the people are rude. I found it amusing that Flashman calls someone else rude, when he himself is so terribly rude to everyone, unless he can see some sort of opportunity in being polite. He’s in Scotland because the working class are sick and tired of being underpaid, overworked and poorly treated in general and are rising up against the ruling class. Flashman, who at this stage of his life, has only a rudimentary grasp of anything outside his own life, is on the side of the factory owners and aristocracy. He is however concerned about the enlisted men, as most of them come from similar backgrounds to the oppressed workers and he’s not entirely certain of their allegiances should push come to shove.

As an officer, Flashman is billeted with a local factory owner by the name of Morrison. Morrison is a miserable, hypocritical, cowardly penny pincher. He reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge, as Flashman seemed to associate with many literary types it’s entirely possible that Dickens did base his famous miser on the Scottish factory owner. Unfortunately for Morrison he has 4 daughters. Flashman’s reactions on meeting the girls are as follows: Agnes, buxom and darkly handsome - she would do. Mary, buxom and plain - she would not. Grizel, thin and mousy and still a schoolgirl - no. Elspeth was like none of the others. She was beautiful fair-haired, blue-eyed and pink-cheeked, and she alone smiled at me with the open, simple smile of the truly stupid. Despite Flashman’s description of Elspeth as being stupid, I think it was love (lust?) at first sight.

In an effort to have his wicked way with Elspeth Morrison, Flashman plays the manly, dutiful British army officer for the family until he can get his chance. The opportunity arises when there’s a riot in the town and only Elspeth and her father are at home. Harry offers to escort Elspeth to safety in Glasgow, although he does observe that the girl is unconcerned about any possible danger, seemingly more interested in admiring her reflection in the window than in being spirited to safety.

It is a pleasant evening, and the scenery along the Clyde is nice. One thing led to another, and Miss Elspeth Rennie Morrison became the latest notch on Harry Flashman’s bedpost. Flashman did note that for a novice Elspeth seemed very willing and quite able. Her innocence shows when she inquires if that they had just done could be referred to as fornication and why the minister seemed so set against it. It didn’t bother our ‘hero’ that he had just deflowered a beautiful young woman who didn’t really understand what they were doing, but more that not realising the enormity of the act she could blithely confess it to her mother 'Mama, you'll never guess what Mr Flashman and I have been doing this evening...’ . By and large something of that sort does occur and in the face of an angry, but ineffectual Morrison, Flashman feels it is best to move lodgings.

He hasn’t been out of the Morrison household all that long when a flinty eyed lawyer by the name of Abercrombie calls on him. He’s Elspeth’s uncle and demands that Flashman marry the girl, or be called out. Initially Flashman refuses and tries to bluff his way out of the situation by bringing up his reputation as a duellist. Abercrombie is a no nonsense type, who can see Flashman for what he is and will be only too pleased to accept a challenge on behalf of his niece’s honour. Realising that he could be in trouble, and with no one like Bryant to call on, Flashman reluctantly agreed to marry Elspeth, although her uncle seemed to really look forward to the opportunity of publicly humiliating the young British officer.

When the recently wed couple returned from their brief honeymoon a letter from Cardigan was awaiting Harry. The contents were going to change his life. In it Cardigan suggested that Flashman may wish to enjoy married life, so wouldn’t want to return to the Hussars. A panicked Flashman returned immediately to London with Elspeth. In a private meeting with Cardigan, Harry found out the real reason for his dismissal from the Hussars. Flashman is a snob, but he’s got nothing on the Earl of Cardigan. The aristocrat doesn’t care if one of his officers is married, it’s more who Flashman has chosen to wed. It doesn’t matter if Elspeth’s father has more money than Midas, he’s a commoner and Scottish one at that, it’s a personal humiliation to Cardigan that one of his nobly born officers is married to a common factory owner’s daughter. Cardigan says that India is the place for Flashman, it’s been the making of many a young army officer before.

This was exactly what Harry wished to avoid by joining the Hussars in the first place. He has an aversion to the colonies in general. To him they’re unpleasant, uncivilised, dangerous places. All Harry Flashman wants to do is play fast and loose in London, and let his pretty uniform and magnificent whiskers attract the pretty young things like moths to a flame. Precious little chance of being able to do that in India. Damn Elspeth’s iron backboned uncle!

Not entirely to Flashman’s surprise, his father agrees with Cardigan. Flashman’s immediate response is to resign from the service. Buck Flashman tells Harry that he can do that, but he’ll have to make his own way if he does, he won’t get a penny out of him from that point on. Buck doesn’t lie where money is concerned. Harry behaves like a spoilt child denied a treat, but Buck stands firm. He even tells Harry that he’s a bad lot, as was his grandfather, but India could be the making of him. He has to take responsibility for his own actions, and going to India is part of that and may even change him for the better. Flashman believes his father’s stand is mostly out of spite, and no doubt there’s a fair amount of that in there, but I believe Buck does think Harry needs to grow up and forcing him to go to India may do the trick. Then of course there’s Elspeth. Harry blames Elspeth for his current situation, and that’s not the case. Buck won’t have it. In a very short time he’s grown fond of Elspeth, he may have even wished the girl was his daughter, and Harry not being around for a long time will in the long run be better for her. Flashman shows some of the depth of his feelings for Elspeth when he says that what upsets him most about his father during this exchange is that he does not believe Harry cares a button about Elspeth. Harry doesn't really fall in love with anyone, not in the true sense of the word, he does kid himself that he was in love with Lola Montez (Royal Flash) and Lakshmibai (Flashman in the Great Game), but the only woman he has ever truly loved is Elspeth.

I need to finish this off by talking a bit about Elspeth. I love Elspeth Flashman. She is one of the best characters George MacDonald Fraser ever created. Many see her through Harry’s eyes, as an indulged airhead. She is most definitely indulged, she’s 'Daddy’s little princess', Morrison’s favourite of his 4 girls, but she is not, as Harry often asserts, stupid. She’s certainly naïve and uncomplicated, but I think she’s highly intelligent. She’s aware of her affect on people, it later becomes apparent that women want to be her and men want to be with her, and she uses it to her best advantage. She does genuinely love Harry, too. Once they’re married, you slight Harry Flashman at your own peril! It’s a shame that Flashman does spend so much time away from home and therefore Elspeth, because readers are deprived of her so very often. Glumly, Harry is left packing his bags for India.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 3

The 3rd chapter of Flashman opens with young Harry getting his wish of being given a junior officership in Cardigan’s 11th Light Dragoons (the name was later changed to 11th Hussars, but early on Cardigan even makes a joke that Flashman is a little heavy for a ‘light’ dragoon).

This is the first time readers of the books would encounter James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. Cardigan has gone down in history as the man who led the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War (the event was later immortalised in verse by poet laureate Alfred Tennyson), the name has also become famous as a knitted button up garment generally worn by elderly men and women. The Cardigan of the Flashman books seems to embody everything that was wrong with the British Army’s aristocratic, often incompetent leaders. He’s arrogant and spoiled, he’s also petty and completely unable to ever admit that he was wrong about anything. I’m not sure if this was historically factual, or whether George MacDonald Fraser did it for comic effect, but Flashman’s Cardigan has a speech impediment similar to that of noted ‘wabbit hunter’ Elmer Fudd, he regularly pronounces his ‘r’s and 'l's as ‘w’s. He’s also referred to by some of his men (not of course to his face) as ‘Lord Haw Haw’.

There was an interesting split in the 11th Hussars at the time, something which Flashman explains. Cardigan had dreams of leading an elite regiment, and although he did serve briefly in India, he had little time for the career officers in his unit who had spent a large amount of time on the subcontinent. The high handed peer referred disparagingly to these men as ‘Indians’. The newer younger officers, like Flashman, became known as ‘plungers’. Flashman was probably set to rise under Cardigan’s leadership. His commander was largely about appearance, and Flashman looked great in the uniform and on a horse, he was also extremely good at toadying up to his leader, despite his personal feelings about the man’s shortcomings as a military commander.

During this time Flashman took an intense dislike to a brother officer by the name of Bernier. The feeling was mutual. Bernier was the regiment’s crack shot and best blade, he had been the best horseman until the arrival of Flashman. One day in London Flashman chanced to see Bernier with his girlfriend; a pretty little French girl by the name of Josette. Being the unpleasant sort of man he is, Flashman seduced Josette, just so he could have something else over Bernier. It was always going to be discovered, and Bernier surprised the two of them in the act. He later hit Flashman in a fit of jealous rage.

Although Flashman knew that discovery meant disaster he was unable help himself. Once Bernier hits him, he’s between a rock and a hard place. If he allows it to go unanswered then his reputation is shot and he’ll lose any respect anyone had for him. On the other hand Bernier’s a crack shot, and would be likely to kill or seriously injure Flashman if it comes to a duel. Eventually Flashman answers the slight and challenges Bernier to a duel. Pistols at dawn.

Again Harry’s planning comes to the fore. He’s managed to cultivate the friendship of another junior officer called Bryant. Bryant is the regiment’s pauper. It was not possible to survive as an officer in the British Army during Queen Victoria’s reign without some sort of monetary backing. Bryant manages to scrape by, and as he’s funny and good at games of chance he keeps up goodwill and his funds. How exactly Bryant got to where he has, is never explained, he’s too young to have risen from the ranks, but his sleight of hand suggests that he may not have come by all his money honestly. Flashman explains his plan to Bryant. Bryant will offer to act as loader for the two men. and ensure that Bernier’s pistol is unloaded, and Flashman will shoot wide. This upholds Flashman’s honour and saves his skin at the same time. If the deception is discovered then both men will probably be hung for the crime. Flashman offers Bryant 10,000 pounds to do the act. He has no intention of ever paying, but as long as it works he’ll walk out of the duel with honour and life intact.

It was just as well that Flashman did have Bryant unload Bernier’s weapon, because as it is he actually feels the passage of the wadding and the powder past his face. Had the gun been loaded at best Flashman would have suffered a severe and disfiguring facial injury. He then fired wide and accidentally whipped the top off the attending doctor’s bottle of some medicine, and was hailed as a brilliant shot who took the honourable action and deloped, when he could have killed his opponent. During this affair readers discover a slight peculiarity in Flashman’s physical make up. Most people when scared go white in the face, not Flashman. He goes red in the face, the more scared he is the redder he gets. People often mistake his cowardice for anger, it’s helped his reputation no end over the years.

The aftermath of the duel, which will impact on Flashman’s life in years to come concerns Tommy Bryant. Once the duel is over Bryant wants the 10,000 pounds Flashman promised. Flashman predictably refuses, and he knew he had Bryant over a barrel. Bryant can’t publicly admit to his actions, he’d be putting his own neck in the noose. Flashman will just deny the accusations and he’ll probably be believed. Bryant has no option, but to swallow it. He does vow revenge though, and he proves to be a bad man to make an enemy of.

The duel and it’s outcome creates a small wave through London society, and Flashman becomes a minor celebrity, even being praised by the Duke of Wellington. It also has another unintended affect. Strictly speaking duelling is illegal. However out of the public and legal eye, especially in the military, it is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. The old school tie types who run the British military machine see duelling as a perfectly acceptable way for men to settle matters of honour. Cardigan even had to rubber stamp the Bernier Flashman duel before it could go ahead. Unfortunately the attention the duel creates brings it into the busy eyes of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria. Albert does not approve of duelling and makes his displeasure known.

Cardigan has to discharge Flashman from the Hussars for a brief period until the fuss over the duel dies down. Albert actually wanted Flashman decommissioned, but Cardigan refused as he felt Flashman was a ‘pwomising officer’ (ahhh how little did he know). It was common practice in the British Army in those days for officers to be handed around from regiment to regiment as needs demanded. Flashman, to his horror, is going to be posted to Scotland!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 2

In the 2nd chapter of Flashman readers see the ‘heros’ true colours.

Despite his father’s volatile temperament the young Flashman does not seem overly concerned about his reaction to the news that his son has been expelled from Rugby. Possibly Harry realises even then that he and his father are not all that dissimilar and that neither of them have much love for Dr Arnold and his teachings. Although they have very similar characters there is one significant difference between Harry and his father. No one could ever call Buck Flashman a coward.

Readers also discover where the Flashman’s money came from, Harry’s grandfather was a nabob, who made a fortune out of the slave trade, and Harry even muses that there was more than likely some piracy involved. Although Buck married into respectability (Harry’s mother was a Paget, and according to Flashman they sit on the right hand of God), the family is still not well regarded, their coarse streak shows through generation after generation.

Although the older Flashman is not greatly concerned at his son’s plight being expelled, he still doesn’t really want him hanging around the Leicester estate. Even then he knew what Harry was like. Harry himself gave his future some thought on the journey home, and says he wants to join the army. Now why would a self confessed coward want to do something like that? The thing is Harry has no intention of ever seeing action or even serving overseas, and for that reason he chose his regiment carefully. Lord Cardigan’s 11th Hussars had recently returned from active duty in India, so were unlikely to be sent back or pressed into service unless absolutely necessary, being commanded by one of the rising stars of the British military in Cardigan they were well regarded, and most importantly to a young Harry they cut a fine figure in their uniforms. Buck Flashman’s first question is how much is it going to cost him? In the 19th century no one could get ahead in the British Army unless they had money or a good name, usually both, and the money was the most important thing. First you had to purchase a commission. A 17 year old like Flashman would be looking at shelling out for the rank of cornet or junior lieutenant, then there’s the uniform and horses on top of that, plus money for the officer’s mess and to keep up appearances. It all adds up. Flashman gives his opinion that even though positions aren’t generally bought now, the recent showing by the British army in South Africa hasn’t proved that it wasn’t a sound policy. It sounds as if Flashman is referring to the Boer War with his South African comment, which would suggest that this particular packet was written in the early 1900’s, post 1902. This is the first time that Flashman prevails upon his Uncle Bindley to use his family name of Paget and his considerable influence with the Horse Guards to get Harry the commission he wants with his preferred regiment. Uncle Bindley proved very useful in the early years of Harry’s career.

It is during his conversation with Uncle Bindley and listing his qualifications, such as they were, for the calvary that readers were made aware of two of Flashman's natural talents. He later claims to have 4: women, horses, languages and cricket. Here he mentions two of them: horses and languages. Flashman is an excellent rider, always has been, he's a natural born horseman, this will appeal to Cardigan, who appreciates a soldier who looks good in the saddle. Despite not being particularly good at the classics (Greek and Latin), Flashman does have an ear for languages, and picks them up very quickly. Both of these talents have saved his life more times than he comfortably cares to remember.

While this was being done Harry set his cap for his father’s mistress; Judy. She seemed receptive to his original advances, and even spent an afternoon ‘playing’ with Harry, but when he tried it on again he was rebuffed, with the woman telling him once for fun was fine, but she had a position and a name, and that afternoon was all he was going to get. Flashman’s mean streak shows, and he threatens to blackmail her, unfortunately for him Judy is made of sterner stuff and tells him to go ahead. He wasn’t expecting his bluff to be called and takes no further action, but he’s not a man to be scorned, and he darkly plots revenge. He tries apologising to her for his behaviour and when it is accepted, again attempts to force himself on her. It ends badly and in violence. Flashman proves, not for the last time, that he is no gentleman by hitting the woman. This particular action reinforces Harry Flashman’s amorality and readers wondered what exactly they were letting themselves in for by following this sort of character.

This chapter also contained the first of the footnotes. George MacDonald Fraser’s footnotes were a feature of the books. Some people found them a little irritating, but I thought they added to the authenticity of the manuscript and often contained some delicious historical nuggets that made the events covered really come alive. There are probably less of them in Flashman than subsequent volumes, but Flashman is one of the shortest packets at just shy of 300 pages in length in the paperback edition I’m using. George MacDonald Fraser quite often had Flashman’s memory for historical facts play him false, errors which he would then mischievously correct in the historical notes at the back of the book. They really made you wonder if somehow he hadn’t really stumbled across an actual historical document.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bloodshot by Cherie Priest

I normally avoid Urban Fantasy's featuring vampires like the plague, so why did I pick up Cherie Priest's Bloodshot? There were a few reasons behind the purchase. Despite the main character being a female vampire, an ass kicking one at that, the idea sounded intriguing, Cherie Priest is a quality author (her 2009 opening novel to her steampunk Clockwork Century series; Boneshaker, was nominated for the Hugo in 2010) and Bloodshot was cheap at a Borders going out of business sale.

Bloodshot is a little different from a lot of the vampire infested Urban Fantasy at the moment in that the heroine; Raylene Pendle, is a vampire herself, and she's not a PI or a member of the law enforcement community, she's an art thief. Against her better judgement she takes on a mysterious case from Ian Stott, another vampire. What makes Raylene's 'spider sense' tingle about Stott's case is that he wants her to retrieve classified government documents about a program called Bloodshot.

The case forces Raylene across states, well out of her comfort zone, nearly destroys her carefully built up life, ruins her support network and gives her a sidekick in the form of ex Navy SEAL and current drag queen Sister Rose.

It's a fast paced story and it rattles along with things blowing up and people getting killed on a pretty regular basis. It's interesting enough, although a fair bit of it is paint by the numbers Urban Fantasy. I have to admit to liking Sister Rose, and being taken by Raylene's 'pet children' runaway siblings Domino and Pepper, especially the part fey Pepper. There's a definite mystery behind that abused little girl.

Despite it's relatively throwaway nature Bloodshot has hooked me enough to want to read the sequel Hellbent, if for no other reason than to get the actual conclusion to the story started here. Bloodshot doesn't actually end on a cliffhanger, but it's definitely not standalone.

Raylene has an interesting history that I do want to find out more about, and she's given the vampires in this world (which refreshingly appears to be our world, not some alternate version where vampires, etc... are accepted members of society) an interesting history, with rules that govern their society and lifestyle. Like any good story teller Cherie Priest gave readers just enough to keep them interested, but not so little that all they got was frustrated.

Raylene is annoyingly well prepared (one of the things I like about Laura Resnick's Esther Diamond series is the fact that Esther is completely clueless and totally unprepared for the dangerous magical situations she invariably finds herself in), and she has a tendency to keep talking about her vampire advantages, she continually referred to how she appears as a blur when she moves really fast. I got that the first three times she said it.

Those criticisms aside Bloodshot is a strong entry into the field and I will probably pick up Hellbent when I can.

Flashman - Chapter 1

Before beginning the chapter reviews I need to say a few words about reading order and explain how the books were written to an extent. The books are not written chronologically. They started to veer off significantly with the 4th book; Flashman at the Charge, and never really got back on track, jumping around all over the place from then on. There is a chronological order on the inside of the 2005 paperback edition that I'm using for this, but even using that there are significant gaps in the old soldier's life. I wouldn't suggest to even attempt reading them chronologically, I've done it and it's not all that satisfying an experience. I've read all the books a number of times; chronologically, in publication order, and just any old how. I recommend reading them in publication order, that was after all how they were written, and that's what I'll be doing in this.

The cover of the 2005 paperback edition has a picture of a youngish Flashman in his dress uniform, leaning on a ceremonial sword, a calvaryman's sabre, I assume, with a scantily clad Indian lady at his feet, wound lovingly around one leg. Flashman himself wears a rather knowing smirk under his magnificent set of calvary whiskers. A horde of heavily armed Afghans can be seen massing in the distance. The first packet of the Flashman Papers covers the years 1839 - 1842.

The back of the book sums it up beautifully:

Can a man who is expelled from Rugby School as a drunken bully, who wantonly seduces his father's mistress, who lies, cheats and proves a coward on the battlefield, who romps his way through the boudoirs of Victorian Britain to the erotic frontiers of her Empire be all bad?

The book opens with an explanatory note from George MacDonald Fraser explaining the discovery of the manuscript and how he came to be in possession of them and was given permission to publish them. He believes that they were written sometime between 1905 and 1910, when Flashman was over 80. There is the possibility that they were dictated. I doubt that due to their expository nature and highly racy contents. His scandalised relatives buried the papers following Flashman's death in 1915, and it is a wonder they weren't destroyed. Fraser said his editing amounts to correcting spelling, punctuation and the addition of a few historical notes.

The passage from Tom Brown's Schooldays where Flashman got himself drunk and was subsequently expelled from Rugby School has been pasted onto the front of the first packet.

Flashman begins the manuscript by saying that Hughes got it wrong, even at the age of 17 (it's often stunning to realise exactly how young Flashman is in this first book) he knew better than to mix his drinks, which he supposedly did in the passage from the book. He blames this on his friend Speedicut.

He claims that he is concerned with facts and that he will be completely truthful in the manuscript, even if he is breaking the habit of 80 years. He asserts that he has a knighthood, a Victoria Cross, high rank (I believe he was a brigadier general when he retired from active service) and popular fame. Looking at the picture of him above his desk from his early days in Cardigan's Hussars (they were originally the 11th Light Dragoons, until Prince Albert changed the name) he can see a tall, roughly handsome young officer. He has always described himself as tall (6'2" or 3"), powerfully built and darkly handsome (even Hughes admitted that he was big and strong and could be charming when he wanted to be). Flashman describes the picture with his usual candour as being the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward and a toady.

He goes on to cover the episode of his drunkenness in more detail than was in Tom Brown's Schooldays and talks about how he was to face the school's legendary headmaster; Dr Thomas Arnold (Arnold is one of the many real characters that will appear throughout the books, and he is the first genuine historical figure to make an appearance). Flashman admits to being terrified of Arnold, moreso than of any punishment he may choose to levy on the student. He says that facing Arnold in his study he was as scared as at any time throughout his life and when a man has done what Flashman has throughout life (riding into a Russian battery at Balaclava - Flashman at the Charge, and waiting for the torturers in an Afghan dungeon - later in the pages of Flashman) that is saying something. It is interesting that even at this early point in the books George MacDonald Fraser was referencing incidents that would not actually occur until later in the books. He also talks about the sad end to Scud East later in this chapter, and that doesn't happen until book 5 Flashman in the Great Game.

Flashman is expelled, and as he leaves the school Scud East offers him his sorrow that he's being expelled (East was Brown's best friend and had suffered as much at Flashman's hand as any younger boy had), Flashman calls him a liar and damns his sorrow. He later reflects that all East's gallant goodness got him in the end was a painful death by a sepoy's bayonet in the dust at Cawnpore. Thus ends the opening chapter of Flashman.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A New Project

The story of Cerebus is done, all 300 issues of it.

I said when I finished the final Cerebus post to stay tuned for something new, so here it is. The Flashman Papers. I need to do a bit of explaining before continuing.

When I decided to reread and review Cerebus the idea came to me because there were a number of read and review and reread projects going on about the place. I read some of them and thought 'Hey, I can do that!' only what to do? Mostly what I came up with were popular things and had all been done to death. Let's face it did the web really need another A Song of Ice and Fire or Harry Potter reread? In the end I came up with a fairly obscure title. Outside of a few comic collectors not many people are aware of Cerebus, at it's height the book only ever had a circulation of just over 30,000 issues per month. I knew at some stage I'd finish Cerebus, so I wondered what to do next. My initial thought was to do Neil Gaiman's Sandman, mainly because I've never read it, and it's talked about a lot, and I know I'm missing some jokes and pop culture references there. I will still read it and review it, just not sure when. Sandman is another graphic novel and I really wanted to do a book or a series, that's when I remembered the Flashman Papers. I reread all 12 of them early in 2010 and did intend to do a series of reviews, however when i started reviewing them there's just too much for me to put all in one review, so I decided to read and review them a chapter at a time similar to the way I did Cerebus.

Who's this Flashman bloke and what is this all about, I hear you ask. Glad you did. There's a book called Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, it came out in 1857. It's an English classic, and it covers the adventures of a young man called Tom Brown attending the elite British public school of Rugby (I believe the game is named after the school, that's where legend has it that it was first played when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it). The villain of the piece is the school bully; Flashman. He's a coward, he smokes, drinks and gambles, he cheats and lies, he uses woman badly, in short he's everything you do not want a young English gentleman of the Victoria era turning out to become. Flashman makes Brown's life a misery until he gets as Hughes' puts it 'beastly drunk' and is expelled. The characters life may have ended there and then, but for a British journalist by the name of George MacDonald Fraser.

George MacDonald Fraser wondered what would have become of someone like Flashman. Wealthy, titled and with an education behind him, but expelled in disgrace from one of the country's top schools. Where would he go? What would he do? The answer; join the army, of course. Thomas Hughes created Flashman as the archetypal bully, he didn't even give the character a first name. MacDonald Fraser gave him a first name, a family history and created the most extraordinary life for him post Rugby. I don't know how many adventures he initially intended to write, but he had completed 12 books between 1969 and his death in 2008, there were also allusions throughout the 12 published packets of the Flashman Papers to other adventures, most notably the American Civil War, that were never written, but were part of Flashman's extensive Who's Who entry, created by George MacDonald Fraser to conform to the conceit that Harry Flashman was a real person and he was only editing and publishing his memoirs, which lay undiscovered for many years before being found in a Midlands salesroom. In the Flashman Papers an elderly Harry sets the record straight about his extraordinary life of adventure and his ill gotten hero status. I've had a ball every time I've read the books, so I hope you will too as you follow Harry and I through his life in an era of adventure.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Last Day

The Last Day, the second part of Latter Days, the final book of the Cerebus graphic novel, comprises the last 11 issues of the comic.

There’s an introduction from Dave Sim, in which he congratulates himself for having finished the book (and deservedly so, 300 issues, 6,000 pages over 26 years is a hell of an achievement, even if the narrative did devolve into largely incomprehensible ranting for most of the last 50 odd issues, the artwork never dropped in quality, nor did the artist’s willingness to continually experiment with the format), and then not killing himself when it was done.

It begins with Dave Sim’s vision of the creation, each panel is accompanied by suitably biblical script with elaborate lettering to match. Dave has also annotated each page. Every page or so there is a small section with a picture of a very elderly Cerebus sleeping. What takes up the bulk of the pages is his dream.

When Cerebus awakes he is convinced that he has just dreamt the greatest book ever, and fuelled with a desire to write his dream down. Getting from the bed to his desk is a Herculean effort. The aardvark is by now extremely old, infirm, frail and partially senile. Although the descriptions of hi aches and pains are mildly amusing (they are a theme that runs through the book), they’re also a little sad for a long time reader. I couldn’t help contrasting the young vital largely indestructible Cerebus with the dessicated shell that he had become.

Cerebus desire throughout most of this book is to see his son; Shep Shep again. He is stymied in most of these endeavours by his officious head of security; Walter O’Reilly. The character, never seen, is obviously based on the M*A*S*H character of the same name. Like the diminutive bespectacled corporal from the sitcom the head of Cerebus’ security seems to be able to at times read his bosses mind. I wondered if O’Reilly wasn’t really Shep Shep and Cerebus had become so senile that he didn’t even recognise this.

Outside shots of Cerebus Sanctuarie show that it is heavily fortified. It’s never really explained if this is to keep Cerebus’ enemies out or keep Cerebus in. Admittedly one very old aardvark couldn’t cause much damage, but Cerebus was hell on wheels in his day and memories of that may have lingered.

Interestingly in Cerebus’ memories of his son Shep Shep does not appear to be an aardvark, he seems to be human in every way. He does resemble his mother a little. Cerebus refers to her as Joanne, I think he now refers to all women as Joanne, the name seems to have replaced that of Cirin in his mind.

Suffering what he believes is a major case of heartburn caused by eating too much cheese Cerebus takes to his bed. It’s the beginning of a heart attack. The reference to Citizen Kane (why do I think I should be saying Rosebud?) as Cerebus gathers the covers around himself is a way of telling the readers that this is it for the aardvark.

Shep Shep comes to Cerebus in his sleep. He talks about the meaning of his real name, lets Cerebus know that he believes in his mother, that Cirin is still alive, and they’ve developed a giant half person, half lioness that will take over the world. Personally I think this is a dream, but there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Cerebus rises up, sword in hand to kill his son, falls from the bed and dies.

As Cerebus lays there alone on the floor, thus fulfilling the Judge’s long ago prophecy that he would die alone, unloved and unmourned, his life flashes before his eyes. We see Cerebus as a child, as a mercenary warrior, as a politician, Prime Minister, Pope, religious leader. A ghost of Cerebus, tellingly dressed in his vest and medallions, looks down on the old creature laying on the floor in a circle of light and figures from his past appear around him. They’re all there: Boobah, Lord Julius, The Elf. The Roach, Elrod, Astoria, Po, Princes Mick and Keef, the Three Wise Fellows, everyone who was important in Cerebus’ life over that 300 issues (the only reason I can think that Cirin didn’t appear is that according to Shep Shep she was still alive, thus reinforcing the possibility that his appearance to Cerebus wasn’t a dream). Cerebus sees Bear, Jaka and Ham, the love of his life, and the two most important male figures in it (I’m not sure exactly how Ham qualifies, but anyway). Jaka reaches out to him, but before he can join her he realises that Rick isn’t there, and turns into his Reads hero Rabbi, he turns from Jaka and runs into the light, calling out for God to help him. It’s kind of hard to know exactly where Cerebus went. The light could have represented Heaven, although Dave Sim always seemed to believe that the light was representative of Hell. Cerebus could have also just ceased to be. In some ways I think Dave tried to give the fans a happy ending. We’d long known Cerebus would die alone, unloved and unmourned, so that was no real shock. We got to visit one last time with him as he was, and we got one last vision of all his friends throughout the journey.

So that’s it. It’s all done. I’ve finally gone through all 300 issues. I think I first started reading Cerebus in the mid 80’s, so it eventually took me about as long to read the whole thing as it did for Dave Sim to write it. Admittedly I took a long break in between.

I’m kind of unsure what to think or how to rate it. I think the first 150 issues are sheer brilliance and a great look at the evolution of something unique in the field of graphic novels. The last 150 not so much. Dave kind of lost focus, and just getting to issue 300 became more important than actually telling a story. At times his interests in writers, artists and celebrities were fascinating and at other times tedious and self indulgent, as I said earlier though, the art and the experimentation were always at the very least interesting and at their height astonishing and revolutionary. If I were going to recommend Cerebus to anyone I’d advise them to read up to Guys and then stop. That’s the first 200 issues. Pick it up again at The Last Day and just read one of the internet précis of Guys, Rick’s Story, Going Home, Form & Void and Latter Days (there are good ones on Wikipedia and Margaret Liss’ Cerebus Fangirl site has the Cerebus wiki, which is the best resource for the graphic novel that I’ve seen, of course you could also read this blog). It’s an achievement and I’m glad I’ve finally read it all the way through. I don’t think there’s another ride like this in comics.

I set the blog up to read Cerebus and share my throughts, that’s why it’s called Travels Through Iest. It’s kind of evolved into a place where I review books and have the occasional muse on one thing or the other. Now I’ve started this whole reread thing I kind of like it. I won’t be changing the name of the blog, but once this review goes up the focus will by necessity alter. I’ll still review what I read, but I have a new interest to reread, and go through as I do.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Conqueror by Conn Iggulden

Conqueror is the 5th and final book of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, which covers the Mongol Empire from the birth of Genghis Khan up until the reign of his grandson; Kublai.

Guyuk Khan, Genghis’ grandson through Ogedai, is khan when the book opens. Guyuk was not a strong leader, and the book intimates that the empire may have fractured and descended into civil war had he not died when he did. Guyuk’s death brings his cousin; Mongke, older brother of Kublai, to the throne, and that is where the story really starts.

While in the previous book it was implied that Kublai and Mongke’s mother; Sorhatani, really wanted the throne to go to Kublai, she was happy for any of her sons to ascend to power, so accedes to Mongke’s leadership.

Mongke is a warrior first and foremost, and a proud Mongol, this leads him to drive all of the Chin scholars and scribes from the capital of Karakorum, and may also provide some of the conflict between he and Kublai, as the younger brother is scholarly and adopts many Chin customs and manner of dress. Mongke then gives his brothers some measure of power, and in the cases of Hulegu and Kublai sends them away from the Mongol homeland, so as to lessen the chances of conflict, he only keeps the youngest brother Arik-Boke, close.

From this point on the story really divides into 2 separate stories. Mongke’s part is considerably lessened and the book focuses on Hulegu and Kublai. The warlike Hulegu finishes what his grandfather started by extending Mongol control into the middle east, even taking and sacking Baghdad. The khanate Hulegu established in what is now Iraq lasted until 1338 ending with the death of his great great great grandson Muhammad Khan.

While Hulegu is occupied in the middle east, Kublai goes into China to overthrow the rulers of the Sung territories. Genghis had also tried to take over the Sung territories in China, but had died before being able to do so. Kublai’s scholarly ways were seen as a weakness by his brothers, but they along with wise counsel from the Buddhist monk Yao Shu and generals like Uriang-Khadai (in reality the son of the great general Tsubodai, but not mentioned as such for narrative reasons in Conqueror), prove a great strength during the campaign. Unfortunately Mongke’s untimely death and a grab for power by Arik-Boke, cut Kublai’s largely successful campaign short.

I knew that Kublai Khan would eventually become the Khan, as it’s been largely recorded in history, and he is seen as one of China’s great rulers, reigning for over 33 years, and at the height of his powers the empire covered one fifth of the world’s inhabited lands. What I was unaware of before reading the Conqueror series was that there were 3 khans in between Genghis and Kublai. I had always thought that power passed seamlessly from Genghis to his grandson. I was also unaware that Kublai was himself a warrior and general when he was younger, before Mongke died, and he had to wrest power from his younger brother to prevent a civil war and extend the empire as much as he did.

Throughout the series Conn Iggulden has filled in the many blanks surrounding the Mongol Empire to create a fast moving, fascinating picture of an ingenious, although sometimes brutal people. The differences between the various tribes of the Mongols that made up the Golden Horde and would rule the eastern world were often mirrored in the relationships between Genghis and his sons and then later his grandchildren. Women too played a part in these books. Genghis’ mother Hoelun, played a big role in Wolf of the Plains, as did his first wife; Borte. The mother of Kublai; Sorhatani, put the wheels in motion for her son’s ascension to the throne in Empire of Silver and in Conqueror and Kublai’s wife; Chabi, is a strong lady who has significant influence over her husband.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed expanding my knowledge of the Mongols through this series, although at times Iggulden does play a little fast and loose with history for reasons of not spoiling a good story, and he puts in a few too many repetitive battle scenes for my liking. If you want your history entertaining and don’t mind not being pedantically accurate in every detail then the Conqueror series is a good look at a part of history not often covered by many of the historical novelists around today.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

RIP Anne McCaffrey

The sad news broke today that Anne McCaffrey passed away at the age of 85.

Anne McCaffrey was both a giant of the SFF genre and a pioneer as far as female writers went. She was the first woman to win both a Hugo and a Nebula award. She worked with names such as Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon and S.M Stirling. She inspired an entire generation of young science fiction and fantasy writers and delighted millions of readers.

She is best known for her Pern series, although they were far from the only books she wrote, including two cookery books. Since 2003 she has been co authoring the Pern books with her middle child; Todd, and Todd McCaffrey has published a number of Pern books on his own.

Anne McCaffrey will be sadly missed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Latter Days

To be perfectly honest I’m not entirely sure how to review the rest of Latter Days because I don’t understand it. I’ll do what I can, though.

Cerebus’ plan to be killed by the Cirinists is to open a bar that flies in the face of everything they believe, given the nature of the establishment it probably would have worked, except for one…well three things or people. Three characters looking suspiciously like the original Moe, Larry and Curly of Three Stooges fame enter the story. They call themselves Mosher (Moe), Losher (Larry) and Kosher (Curly). They become known later in the story as the Three Wise Men. In his notes at the back of the book, Dave Sim said he’d been planning to have the Stooges enter the story for some time. I’m really not sure how far he thought ahead. They’re devotees of Rick’s (we find out later in the story that Rick was actually martyred by the Cirinist, they crucified him, another Jesus parallel), they read regularly from the Bookee of Rickee. Kosher recognises Cerebus as the same one in the Bookee, and the three kidnap him and hold him prisoner in the cathedral they’re building. I never understood exactly why.

Resigning himself to the fact that he’s their captive and that they’re mad Cerebus believes he has turned into the popular Reads hero; Rabbi (a Jewish representation of Superman. Yeah, it just kept getting weirder and weirder), eventually he manipulates the trio into attacking the Cirinists. Once they’ve massacred the forces of the Three ‘Wise’ Men, the Cirinists will track it back to Cerebus and kill him. Only it doesn’t work out that way. Forces loyal to Cerebus massacre the Cirinists.

A lot of the victory is due to an insanely brave commander who goes by the name of Todd Farlane McSpahn (this is a parody of popular artist and writer; Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, and at one time a friend of Dave Sim’s). Farlane, whose speech is almost unintelligible (I don’t know if the real McFarlane spoke like this, I’ve never heard him talk, but I doubt it), leads a breakaway sect of Cerebites loyal to him. Cerebus takes on the persona of Spore (a parody of McFarlane’s Spawn) to regain his forces and control. This works to a point and Cerebus becomes the head of a religious movement.

This eventually gives him a lot of time to do whatever he wants and he devotes it to completing his Rabbi Reads collection and even publishes a Journal about it. I have the feeling that this had something to do with a long running feud Dave Sim had with Gary Groth of Fantagraphics, which published it’s own Comics Journal, but it may have just been coincidence, and was inspired by the inevitable feeling that many collectors feel when they complete the collection that maybe it wasn’t really worth it, and what do they now do?

Cerebus begins a reading of the Torah, and this is where it totally lost me. The pages became long screeds of philosophy about religion, women, relationships, politics, the bible, you name it, it was in there. It may have been Sim writing Cerebus reaction to what he was reading, or it may have been Dave using his creation to put his own thoughts down. During this the writing was accompanied by a largely pictorial history of a film maker called Konigsberg, who was in fact Woody Allen. Why? Probably because Dave felt like it. It’s as much reason as why Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway appeared in the pages of the books.

At the end of this one Cerebus is powerful and wealthy. He can have or buy anything he wants, but he’s still not really happy. He finishes it by seducing a female reporter who looks remarkably like Jaka, but obviously isn’t.

There were a couple of things I noticed in this collection. One was Cerebus’ age. Dave’s always been vague about the passage of time, but Cerebus never seems to age. He’s packed a fair bit into his life, more than anyone who is the age he appears could possibly do. There’s another whack of years in between him arriving in Isshuria and finally beating Annan at 5 Bar Gate, Annan died of old age, and he was in his prime when he first faced Cerebus. The Wise Men all died in between kidnapping him and the end of the book (this was done as a representation of The Three Stooges real break up, decline and ended with the death of Moe), and Konigsberg started out as a young man and ended up as an old one. Cerebus does age in Latter Days, the first time I ever noticed it. The tuft of hair between his ears turned white, and while he was imprisoned by Mosher, Losher and Kosher he was either bald or wearing a yarmulke, it was hard to tell. By the end of Latter Days Cerebus is actually looking like an old man…uhhhhh…aardvark.

The other thing was that what made this particular book a hard one to understand and read wasn’t the fact that it was no longer funny or that it was filled with endless philosophising, there was no support cast and readers didn’t even really know what had happened to them. The Three Stooges are pretty funny on screen, but they didn’t work for me in Latter Days, maybe it’s because their humour is largely physical. Part of the reason Dave never used Harpo Marx was because he never spoke and it doesn’t translate well to the comics medium, which has visuals, but no sound. Readers didn’t know what happened to everyone else. It’s a safe bet to assume that Lord Julius was in Palnu and Jaka went back there, and they both died of old age, but what about Elrod, Sophia, the Roach, The Elf, Astoria and Po? One of the Joanne’s said that she lived next to an Elrod and a Sophia, but it was never made clear who they were. We hadn’t seen the Roach since a cameo in Guys and The Elf may have disappeared in the destruction of Iest, as may have Astoria and possibly, but less likely Po. Dave makes the argument that they died of old age, but weren’t Elrod, the Roach and The Elf all meant to be figments of Cerebus’ imagination? As such could they even die or age? Po, was like Cerebus, a largely ageless aardvark. It was frustrating, and continually took me out of the book to wonder as to their fate.

I’m going to read on to The Last Day to see how it all turns out, but I have the unsettling feeling that Cerebus was on the money with his owun abrupt unexplained theory of the end in Rick’s Story.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones should be required reading for any aspiring writer of fantasy...come to think of it any reader of fantasy should also seek out a copy of The Tough Guide.

The book is organised like a guide book or an encyclopedia, alphbetically from A - Z. Entries begin with Adept (anyone reaching the Adept level is pretty 'hot stuff' as far as magic is concerned) and finish with Zombies who are Undead only nastier, more pitiable and generally easier to kill. Most letters are prefaced with a sometimes relevant quote from the book Gnomic Utterances, most of these come from the scholar Ka'a Orto'o, and contain flashes of insight such as: Beware, when the landscape is of surpassing beauty of the needle in the haystack.

If you've read much fantasy you will find yourself laughing aloud as you read through The Tough Guide and encounter the many cliches and tropes that you have no doubt read of. If you're a writer you may be squirming uncomfortably at times as you remember that stereotypical elf that seemed to be a cool idea at the time you wrote him. Just because you stumble across a cliche mentioned in the book and connect it to something you've either read or written does not mean it is a necessarily a bad idea, it all depends on how it was used.

The conceit behind the book is that the reader is a tourist on one of the many tours that the management (the book is littered with references to OMT's; official management terms) run for profit, which is largely why it's organised the way it is and why it is so exhaustive. Diana Wynne Jones later used The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as the basis for her comic romp The Dark Lord of Derkholm.

I'd recommend The Tough Guide to Fantasyland very highly to anyone with any interest in the genre at all. It's become a classic of the genre and deservedly so.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff

Tanya Huff, the author of the The Enchantment Emporium, is a veteran writer (published since the late 1980’s) has experienced success in the Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance (her Blood Books was turned into the TV show Blood Ties) alternate world fantasy and even SF genres over her career.

The Enchantment Emporium finds her clearly back in Urban Fantasy territory. Alysha ‘Allie’ Gale is one of the younger members of the prolific, insular and highly powerful Gale family (none of the girls are ever named Dorothy). The opening of the book finds her jobless and without focus. That is until she receives a letter from her Gran (Catherine Gale) saying that the older lady has died and left her shop (the emporium of the title) in Calgary to Allie. Allie’s multitude of meddling aunties, especially the intimdiating and formidable Auntie Jane, are none too happy that the irresponsible Catherine (Gran isn’t held in high regard by the rest of the clan) has taken action that will give Allie an excuse to leave the bosom of the family, they’re based in rural Ontario. However they do know that they can’t stop Allie from leaving, and they have no intention of just letting her get on with her life without their influence, they’ll be phoning regularly and may even visit from time to time. There’s also nothing to stop them from sending some of the families younger members to Calgary to ‘spy’ on Allie.

Right from the time Allie arrives in Calgary, and looks around the shop, she has suspicions that her Gran is not dead and there’s a mystery to be solved here. Before she can really even find her feet she’s adopted a leprechaun, managed to trap a monkey paw and formed a sarcastic relationship with the shop’s magic mirror. Favourite cousin; the wild and highly amusing musician Charlie, also drops in for a visit, although she acts to me, and everyone else, like she’s staying for quite a while.

As Allie probes deeper into the mystery that was her grandmother she becomes involved with a charming reporter, who has an interesting sideline as a magical sniper for a malevolent sorcerer, and realises that the dragon in Calgary may have something to do with her Gran’s disappearance. Auntie Jane tells her great niece: ‘Dragons are not this family’s business.’
Allie counters with ‘Unless one ate Gran.’
‘Yes, unless one ate your grandmother.’ Auntie Jane sighs resignedly.
To get herself and everyone near and dear to her out of this Allie is going to need every member of her high powered family she can get and will have to call on powers she never knew she had.

I had a ball reading The Enchantment Emporium, and although the book is largely laying the groundwork for the concept and a series (the sequel The Wild Ways, has just come out and as that is from Charlie’s point of view; one of my favourite characters from the opener, it should be a hoot) it never really flags. There’s enough weight behind the concepts and the tension is good, which stops it from straying too far into light and fluffy territory. The ideas are fun and interesting, the characters are engaging and appealing as well as being multifaceted with depth. One small quibble there, I got very early on that Allie’s best friend and adopted Gale; Michael, was a big guy, I didn’t need it spelled out nearly every time the character was mentioned. The dialogue between the characters flows and it snap, crackle and pops with plenty of pop culture references as any self respecting Urban Fantasy book should. I’m also in total agreement that Sci-Fi cancelling The Dresden Files was a very bad thing.

I hope the series gets the attention and popularity it deserves because I’d like to learn more about the Gales, and I think The Enchantment Emporium has only just scratched the surface.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Latter Days - Prologue

I decided to give the prologue of Latter Days (phone book #15 of Cerebus the Aardvark) it's own post, because it deserves one. It's a fairly complete story in it's own right, and in many ways I thought it was a return to form of what Cerebus used to be like before Dave Sim lost focus.

I'll mention the cover, because it too is in colour. It's not a photograph this time, it's all artwork. Cerebus is standing with his back to the reader examining a poster on a wall which has reviews of the book, they're all bogus and are from Dave Sim and Gerhard's press junket. This was the sort of humour readers hadn't seen since for quite some time. The top of the cover has TV screens showing Cerebus in a number of situations and costumes. For some reason he's wearing a Charlie Brown t-shirt in a few of them.

The prologue picks up where Form & Void left off. Cerebus is still in the clothes he tore and is pressing ever northward. He finds that Isshuria, which I get the impression is based on Canada, isn't really that different from the Cirinist controlled areas of Estarcion. In some ways it's worse. The bars have a 3 drink maximum and you have to actually pay for them!

Following a rather unpleasant experience in a bar Cerebus 'blanks out' and comes to 3 years later herding sheep. He looks after the sheep, reads what he can find and lust after his employer's younger wife. His employer; Mr Gurzky, comes after him with an axe, for peeping on his wife while she's bathing.

Cerebus 'blanks out' again and heads further north. Eventually he runs out of north and goes east. He seems to want to get himself killed. He lands up at a tavern in Northern Isshuria, it's called McBee's. Cerebus works at various jobs for his keep until they find out that he's really good at a game called 5 Bar Gate.

5 Bar Gate is a 2 player game where each player has a racquet and tries to put a ball through the other player's goal. I think Bear taught the game to Cerebus and he is a gun at it. The rules are totally different, but the following and the passion seems to be based on Canada's love of ice hockey. To the Isshurian's 5 Bar Gate isn't just a game, it's like a religion.

McBee's promote Cerebus as their champion and he goes to the city of Moosehat to compete at Moosehat Gardens (I wondered if this was a take on Madison Square Gardens) to play for the championship. Cerebus is using his old alias of Fred and he's chosen Hammer as his surname. He plays the legendary 5 Bar Gate champion Paul 'Coffee' Annan. Exactly why Dave Sim decided to make his champion's name very similar to that of the former UN Secretary General I don't know, but it was funny.

The problem for Cerebus is that he can beat anyone at 5 Bar Gate, anyone except Annan. Year after year after year Cerebus loses the championship to Annan. The bar even takes to paying him money to represent another tavern in the championship so they won't be associated with Fred 'The Loser' Hammer. Eventually Cerebus does beat Annan, largely because the unbeatable champion dies of old age on the court.

No one wants to accept him as champion, but he is and he's rich. Just before he 'blanks out' again Cerebus decides that if he wants to get killed the only way to make it happen is to have the Cirinists do it for him.

The story was funny and well told. It had the feel of one of those old sports stories that get made into films like The Legend of Bagger Vance. It was probably the most I've enjoyed a single issue since Jaka's Story.

Form & Void

Form & Void the 14th phone book is actually the 2nd part of Going Home and begins with Cerebus and Jaka travelling north to visit Cerebus’ childhood home of Sand Hills Creek. In keeping with the way the cover of Going Home was presented, the cover of Form & Void is also a colour photograph, this time of a cold looking, rocky coastline.

The fact that the couple are actually going that far north would seem to indicate that Jaka has gotten over her insistence of never wearing the same clothes two days in a row. Maybe this was never true and Jaka only said it so that she wouldn’t have to go north, but the attempt on Cerebus life at the end of Going Home has convinced her that they have to head far north to keep him alive. Possibly it’s a continuity thing, the closer the book moves to the end the less continuity seems to matter. Apparently this far north the only alcohol available is a beer that they refer to as Grizz. A closer inspection of the label shows that the brewer is Lord Julius imbecilc cousin Duke Leonardi. I'm betting Julius pockets the profits, but uses his cousin's likeness to advertise and promote the drink.

They have hooked up with famous writer and adventurer Ham Ernestway. Dave had a new literary obsession, and this time it was Ernest Hemingway. Ernestway and his wife; Mary, agree to guide Cerebus and Jaka in the their trip north. I found it of interest that Cerebus was a huge Ernestway fan. Cerebus has never really been much of a reader, and his efforts at writing his memoirs showed that he wasn’t much of a writer either. In his notes at the back Dave Sim said he thought the idea of turning Cerebus into a Ham Ernestway fanboy was amusing. Oookay.

This is Hemingway late in life and he has regular blackouts due to electroshock treatment. Most of the talking is done by Mary, and the majority of the first 2 3rds of the book is a visual representation of Mary Hemingway’s accounts in her diaries of the African safaris she and the writer went on. It was beautifully drawn and an interesting idea, but I kept wondering why it was in the pages of Cerebus the Aardvark. It could have stood as a graphic novel of it’s own. Having it here is fairly self indulgent and an indication that at this stage Cerebus’ story was of secondary interest to it’s creator.

This particular part of the book and the journey itself comes to end when Jaka informs Cerebus that Mary killed Ham. Whether she did or not is left open to speculation, but it’s probably more likely that Ham took his own life as did the real life Ernest Hemingway. What happened to Mary or the African bearers that were with the couple I don’t know, they simply disappeared out of the story at this point. The setting in terms of clothing and implements seemed to be more mid 20th century than anything. The Ernestways had shotguns and they knew about airships. Cerebus explained his ignorance of these things by claiming that Sand Hills Creek was very off the beaten track. That was another interesting revelation. Part of the reason Cerebus is heading for Sand Hills Creek, quite apart from an apparent desire to see his parents again, is because it’s almost in Isshuria and is not under Cirinist control. This also seems to make it slightly more attractive to Jaka.

With the Ernestways out of the picture Cerebus and Jaka realise that Mary Ernestway has been leading them around in circles. They get caught in a blizzard and are snowed in. There’s a period where they believe that this is it and they will eventually starve to death. Cerebus has a vision involving Rick (the Cirinists killed him, although it’s a dream Rick, so maybe they didn’t really) and is told how to get he and Jaka out. He’s meant to leave everything, including Jaka behind, but he doesn’t and still gets out. In the rush to leave though they forget Missy. By the time Jaka realises this Cerebus claims it’s too late to turn back and he’s not risking his life for a doll.

To say that the relationship between Cerebus and Jaka has been strained ever since the boat trip would be understating it somewhat. They rarely speak and when they do they complain at each other. Cerebus is continually worried that Jaka’s behaviour will embarrass him in front of his parents and the good folk of Sand Hills Creek. When Cerebus started to give a damn what anyone thought of him or who he was with I don’t know. The old Cerebus would have simply beaten up or shouted anyone down. Cerebus’ attachment to his parents was also out. Readers had to wait until Church and State to get any meaningful data about his parents and even then it was in a dream sequence. I didn’t think he’d really given them a second thought after his father left him with Magus Doran as a kid.

Because the Cirinists don’t really want people leaving the lands under their control, especially someone as important as the Princess of Palnu, Cerebus and Jaka have to be careful about when and where they travel. There were flashes of how Cerebus and Jaka envisaged their life being all those years ago, but they’re only brief and fleeting. Sigh. The two uncover some long hidden tunnels, left by the Black Tower Empire, which allow them to get quickly and unseen to Sand Hills Creek. Jaka asks Cerebus to translate the runes in the tunnels for her and his translation is rather amusing, it’s all about how everything in the Black Tower Empire is bigger than anything else anywhere else. This hearkened back to the sort of joke that used to populate the book back in the early days. Cerebus tells Jaka that she can’t let on to anyone she’s been in the tunnels, it’s forbidden for women to be in them.

Sand Hills Creek appears to be deserted, although it soon becomes apparent that everyone is shutting their doors to Cerebus. He eventually reaches his parents house, which is also closed. Peering in, all Jaka and Cerebus can see is one empty chair. Cerebus knows his parents are dead, but wants it confirmed. They see an old man in the field next door and manage to catch him before he can get inside.

He tells Cerebus that his father died not long ago and that the village has shunned him because he couldn’t even come home to be with his father in his dying moments, too busy down south with his ‘harlot’. Cerebus blames Jaka for keeping him down south. She was why he missed his father’s death. This is unfair, but Cerebus often is unfair and irrational. He sends Jaka away from him. She stumbles back, crying, then a carriage appears and an austere gentleman steps out, holding something in his hand. It’s Missy. Jaka accepts it from him and lets him escort her into the carriage which rattles away.

Overcome with grief and rage Cerebus tears his clothes and falls to his knees screaming his pain out. Alone, unmourned and unloved.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I’ll begin this review by stating that I didn’t much care for Prince of Thorns, so this particular review isn’t going to join the many glowing reviews Mark Lawrence has received for his debut novel.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding Prince of Thorns and Mark Lawrence seems to have become the ‘next big thing’ in the subgenre of gritty fantasy, joining the likes of Joe Abercrombie.

Prince of Thorns most definitely fits neatly into the gritty subgenre. The book was so gritty in fact that I had to have a glass of water after finishing it to wash the dirt out of my throat.

The Prince of the title is Jorg Ancrath; a seriously damaged, highly ambitious, vengeance seeking, 14 year old psychopath. When Jorg was 9 years old he was forced to watch his mother and younger brother murdered by the forces of the powerful and vicious Count Renar, Jorg was trapped in the embraces of a thorn bush at the time (hence the book’s rather lyrical title). As his father does not appear to be motivated to move against Renar, Jorg strikes out on his own (at the age of 10, mind you), gathers a band of brutal mercenaries around him and determines to make Renar pay for what he did.

After finishing the book and thinking about it the word that sprang to mind most often was basic. I’ll try to explain why. Prince of Thorns ticks off most of the boxes of epic fantasy, but does so in a very spare way. Compared to many of it’s competitors Prince of Thorns is quite a short work, very tightly edited, it’s one of the few instances where the writer could have afforded to be a bit more expansive. In his defence there, Prince of Thorns is the first of a trilogy and the author wrote it as one work (the sequel King of Thorns is due out in August of 2012).

The need to world build was neatly circumvented by not really bothering to build a new world. Prince of Thorns is set in a post apocalyptic earth in which society has managed to advance to the medieval stage, in the 1100 years since the downfall of the previous civilisation. I had some problems with this setting. Firstly I was over half way through the book before the reveal about the apocalypse came about, and this was done to me in a rather out of the blue fashion. References to ancient philosophers such as Plato and Sun Tzu are scattered throughout the book, I started to wonder about the setting when a character quoted Nietzsche. I found it stretched credibility for me that works from ancient times survived, but nothing later than the 19th century did. There was a distinct lack of history about the setting. The civilisation in which Jorg lives has been around for 1100 years, yet they don’t seem to have any history about them, beyond starting a huge civil war that has fractured the continent into a number of small kingdoms.

Then we have the characters themselves. It’s a very popular thing these days to people a f epic with ‘shades of grey’ characters (I regard George RR Martin as the master of this, and Mark Lawrence has confessed to enjoying Martin’s work), and Prince of Thorns is no exception. Lawrence has attempted to make the characters grey, but they’ve mostly turned out black or irrelevant. For me this made it hard to actually care about any of them. The only character I managed to make any sort of ‘give a damn’ connection with was Jorg’s zen master tutor Lundist; and he was dead by the start of the book.

The construction of the book itself was odd, and this may have been a publisher thing. It’s composed of very short choppy chapters. The chapter ends and it goes straight into the next one, making the reader wonder why it ended where it did. There are a few flashback chapters throughout, set four years before the current narrative, they explain Jorg’s situation and give him some sort of reason for his actions.

I don’t actually mind first person narration, but I didn’t like Jorg as a narrator. He was to the point and blunt, but gave the reader no real insight into his character. He didn’t seem to see beneath the superficiality of anyone else either. Maybe the characters were genuinely that two dimensional. Other reviewers have mentioned the beauty of Lawrence’s writing, there are a few poetical touches, but overall the writing is serviceable, rather than remarkable. The whole thing had the feeling of something written for a writing class or writers group and then workshopped into a full length novel.

The action was well done, although one of the big action set pieces; a fight with animated skeletons controlled by a necromancer/vampire, had the distinct feel of being lifted directly from a computer game. One of the few criticisms that people do direct at the book, and I’m going to touch on it too is to do with Jorg’s age. The belief is that Lawrence made him a little too young. I have to agree. I can’t buy that a 10 year old, no matter how ruthless can run with a bunch of badass mercenaries for three years and wind up running the crew and having them scared of him by the age of 14. There’s also the matter of how Jorg regularly beats bigger and better trained opponents. He does say that at 14 he’s six foot, which is a big kid, but he wins most of his fights by the virtue of being sneakier and more ruthless than his opponent. Sorry, didn’t work for me. Jean Tannen, he ain’t.

Throughout I kept feeling that there was something missing, and it eventually dawned on me that the missing ingredient was humour. I think I chuckled twice, once had to do with an exasperated Jorg cutting off a necromancer’s head before he could bring a spell to bear, and that’s an old joke that I’ve seen done many times in the past, and the other was his observation about another knight’s horse late in the book. People compare Prince of Thorns to Abercrombie's work, although Mark Lawrence has said that he did not read any Joe Abercrombie until after he’d written Prince of Thorns, but his story lacks the wit, charm, class and polish of his fellow fantasist.

Prince of Thorns does have the advantage of resolving most of it’s storyline in this volume, although the way is clearly open for the sequel. That was handy for me, because I was distinctly unimpressed by this and won’t be strapping in for the rest of the ride.