Showing posts with label David Gemmell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Gemmell. Show all posts

Monday, January 29, 2018

Brandon Sanderson's WORDS OF RADIANCE Continues a Delightful Series

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, #2)Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brandon Sanderson's second volume in The Stormlight Archive adds some significant complexities to the plot, but it does so without introducing a laundry list of new characters. In many multi-volume door stopper epic fantasy series the authors substitute adding new characters and new plotlines for adding depth and conflicts to existing characters. This kind of writing is typically suggestive of an author who, while talented, doesn't have a clear map for the overall series. It's clear that Sanderson knows where this story is going and it looks like the story is going some interesting places.

Where the first volume introduced the major characters in the epic, WORDS OF RADIANCE introduces the major factions (similar to political parties) who are driving a great deal of the conflict in the narrative. Key characters are revealed to be members of these factions, each of which wants to "save" the world and each of which seeks to do so through different means. These factions include both Human and Eshonai factions, and less political factions among the Spren as well. There is politics a plenty in the world of Roshar, and WORDS OF RADIANCE is where we readers begin to dip our toes into the complex political interactions Sanderson has set up. In an effort to refrain from spoilers, I won't say what each faction wants but will say that each faction seeks a "better" world even if their actions are heinous.

In addition to the factions, Sanderson continues his exploration of the theology of Roshar in particular (with some about the Cosmere in general) as we find out more about the Knights Radiant, The All-Father, Honorspren, Crypticspren, and the nature of Shardblades. That last one would be a huge spoiler, but it demonstrates the real cost of the Recreance in an emotionally powerful way and conversations between Kaladin and Syl about Shardblades suggest future plot development.

There was an emergence of a potential love triangle in the book, and obvious one, and it's one that I hope Sanderson doesn't move forward with because it seems like a tangent that might lead to a repeat of the kind of betrayal committed in this book. A repeat of that betrayal, even if different in nature, would be staid in an otherwise fresh story. It's fine to have emotional dynamics and love triangles, but I pray that this one doesn't come to dominate the conflicts of the overall plot. There are plenty of factions and conspiracies, we don't need a repeat of Camelot here. Even if it's nice to see echoes of mythic tropes.

While I have my favorite characters, and those are shared by others, I was particularly impressed with the development of the Parshendi General Eshonai in WORDS OF RADIANCE. I want a lot more of her character as she, Rlain, and certain "wanderers" have created an opportunity for the series to end with a brighter tomorrow in a way that once again brings to mind David Gemmell's book DARK MOON. In fact, this series continues to have a Gemmell-esque feel even its volumes are much longer than a typical Gemmell tale.

I am eager to begin reading OATHBRINGER, the third in the series, and hope that it continues to develop the major conflicts of the series and lets us get to know even more about the wonderful characters (both virtuous and vicious) who inhabit Roshar.

View all my reviews

Monday, February 07, 2011

Kell's Legend -- An Action Packed Fusion of Legends Past and New Concepts

It is often said that you cannot judge a book by its cover, but we know that isn't entirely true. Marketing departments work hard to ensure that a book's cover conveys a hint of what a book's contents will be. The cover to Andy Remic's book Kell's Legend, published by Angry Robot Books, practically screams at the potential reader.

"Psst! You! Yes, I mean you. You like David Gemmell books right?"

I am a big fan of Gemmell and I admit that the prospect of an author continuing to satisfy my pulp action reading itch is a pleasant one. Gemmell had a way of combining tried and true narrative tropes with interesting characters and pulse pounding action with a hint of moral philosophic undertones. Gemmell's originality as a writer wasn't in plotlines -- some of his most famous books were adaptations of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae and stories of Scottish rebels -- it was in his ability to create human characters in a genre that too often presented ciphers.

By making the comparison to Gemmell, the marketing department set the bar to impress readers fairly high. How did Remic fare?

Kell's Legend -- the title even evokes Gemmell comparisons -- opens with a massive army invasion. From the initial description of the invasion, the reader does not hold much hope for the Kingdom of Falanor to resist the Iron Army that seeks conquest. The Iron Army is more than a disciplined army comprised of skilled soldiers led by a talented commander invading at an opportune moment -- though it is all of those things -- it is also an army that has access to sinister "blood oil magic." This magic can win battles before they even begin as it creates a frightening pogonip like "ice fog" that can freeze defenders, and citizens, to death before the first blow is struck.

This pleases General Graal for many reasons, not the least of which is that his army doesn't merely seek to conquer the Kingdom of Falanor. His army seeks to harvest the blood of Falanor's citizens to provide food for his people to the north. General Graal, and his kin, are a vampiric fusion of man and machine. The country from which Graal hails is one where the citizens are merged with clockwork mechanisms as children in a process that creates a race of vampire machines -- or as the book calls them "The Vachine." The process doesn't go well for every child. There are those whose minds and bodies are twisted in the attempt. These poor souls become the feral "cankers," primitive societal rejects filled with bloodlust and rage.

This is the force that our hero Kell must resist. When the novel opens, Kell is already a legend among his people. His "Days of Blood" are the subject of great ballads that travel the land, but those days are long past. Kell would rather spend his time supporting his granddaughter's pursuit of an education, and leave his bloodbound axe Ilanna hanging on a wall mount. While the axe is mounted, it cannot speak to him, grant him its terrible strength, and he can attempt to forget all of the terrible things he has done. Things that have brought him fame, but at what personal cost.

Through the events of the tale Kell encounters his chief ally, a master swordsman named Saark. Saark is the Grey Mouser to Kell's Fafhrd, the Moonglum to Kell's Elric, the eternal companion. Like Kell, Saark has done horrible things in his past. He too has killed for King and Country, but he has also betrayed them. Saark is a witty and self-loathing character who often takes his own self-hatred out on others. He was once a paragon of virtue and now he wallows in debauchery as a means to punish himself. It is only in meeting Kell and fighting a hopeless battle against the Vachine that Saark can find any possible redemption.

The book has everything one could ask in pulp fantasy. It has pulse pounding action, brooding heroes, elements of horror, clockwork vampires, epic battles, and ancient evils.

Did I mention the clockwork vampires?

Like Gemmell, Remic is working in territory familiar to the fantasy fan, but he combines familiar elements into an engaging tapestry of action. Remic's writing jumps off the page and leaves reader's asking for more as the book's final page ends on a desperate cliffhanger.

Though the book is quite good, it isn't perfect either. The milieu of the novel is filled with allusions to a detailed history, but these allusions often come up after the information might have aided the reader in understanding the context of narrative elements. We are given the name vachine before the term is explained to us. Given that "vachine," and "canker" for that matter, sound like things you might catch frequenting brothels, this is an oversight on the part of the author. When the clumsiness of the introduction of the vachine as race is contrasted with the introduction of the Stone Lion of the Stone Lion Woods, it becomes clear that Remic has a detailed setting from which to draw. I could easily see myself highlighting passages of the book to form the basis of an rpg campaign, there is myth-building going on here. It is just sometimes presented out of order.

Remic also has a penchant for profanity in the book which that can seem shocking at first. The sexual escapades of Saark are a necessary part of the narrative, they demonstrate his self-loathing aptly, but Remic's choice of vocabulary was straight out of Deadwood. Like Deadwood, the reader becomes used to certain characters and their use of what Spock called "colorful metaphors," but one does wonder if the word choice itself is as vital as the scenes where the vocabulary is used. What does the use of the "c" word and "q" word add to the verisimilitude of the tale?

As can be seen from the brief synopsis of the book's opening, Remic draws from many of my favorite fantasy authors for inspiration. Kell's Legend contains echoes of Moorcock, Lieber, Howard, and Gemmell while maintaining a rich originality.

While Remic's book lacks the subversive political critiques of Moorcock, or the Just War undertones of Gemmell's fiction, it does contain imagery that makes for interesting discussion about modern man. By making the results of man and machine into horrifying vampiric creatures, sometimes less than human and sometimes more, Remic allows us to consider the wisdom of fiction's current obsession with "Transhumanism." By becoming more than human, are we really becoming less than human? The industrial nature of the exploitation of conquest itself adds some interesting elements for conversation. When the Vachine invade, they harvest the conquered and prepare them for processing in their "Blood Refineries."

Some may find such descriptions as too "on the nose," but I found them fresh, topical, and engaging.

The battle scenes of Kell's Legend are vivid, the human relationships are compelling, and the hints at the legendary past of the world spark the imagination. That is exactly what one should be hoping for when one opens the pages of a novel.

I am eagerly opening my copy of "Soul Stealers."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

David Gemmell Award for Fantasy Shortlist Announced

I was late in discovering the fantasy works of David Gemmell. Even though Gary Gygax's company New Infinities published the first American edition of Gemmell's debut novel Legend (they published it under the title Against the Horde), it wasn't until 2001 that I'd even heard of the author. A friend of mine (Tom Wisniewski), a player in my regular D&D group, mentioned that his favorite author was David Gemmell and that Legend was one of the best fantasy stories ever written. Based on this high praise, I bought a copy of the Del Rey edition and was so enraptured that I read the book in a single sitting. It has been that way with every other Gemmell book I have read. They aren't uniform in their literary quality, but they are uniform in their ability to get you to turn the pages.

Gemmell isn't my favorite fantasy author, but he was a fine example of what a author in the school of Sword and Sorcery themed fantasy can be. Robert E. Howard was the founder of this particular sub-genre of fantasy which merges supernatural horror with some traditional fantasy elements. It is a sub-genre that has seen its literary qualities undervalued due to the frivolous hack work of some of its supporters/promoters. The key criminals in this regard are L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter. DeCamp was a skilled fantasist outside of his Conan and Howard related work and without Carter's editorial hand modern fantasy would be lackluster today. Both of these men were deeply influential figures in the fantasy genre, yet when either of these men got their hands on a Sword and Sorcery tale of the Conan school all they could produce was hackneyed drivel. Comparing Carter's Thongor, or his Conan "collaborations," to the Conan tales of Howard is like comparing a research paper I wrote in 5th grade to one I wrote in Graduate school. DeCamp and Carter did yeoman's work in promoting the Sword and Sorcery genre, but both did great damage to the literary respect the average person believes the genre merits.

David Gemmell was a writer in the Sword and Sorcery school, in the best sense of the term. He was the most "Howardian" writer of his era, something he accomplished without writing Conan pastiches. Gemmell's tales featured the deeply individualist protagonists and supernatural horrors that the genre demands, but he added other narrative layers as well. Like Howard, and unlike many other Sword and Sorcery authors, Gemmell incorporated historical events into his fiction. Gemmell's Drenai saga contains many tales pulled straight from Herodotus, including the Battle of Thermopylae which forms the structural basis for Legend. Gemmell also incorporated a sub-narrative discussion of Christian morality and "just war theory," something I cannot attribute to any other Sword and Sorcery author. Yes, other fantasy authors incorporate such discussions, but they don't tend to be in the Sword and Sorcery genre with its anti-hero protagonists and often nihilistic worldview.

This isn't to say that Gemmell's fiction was a kind of Christian apologetics or that they were works of evangelism. His discussion of religion, war, and heroism is what one would expect from a man who could be described in the following way:

Expelled from school at sixteen for gambling, Gemmell entered the world of work with little in the way of vocational skills and drifted through a number of casual jobs. These included labourer, lorry driver's mate and nightclub bouncer, a profession well suited to his robust six foot, four inch frame.

He isn't writing books to convert anyone or to preach. The religion in his books puts a context onto the violent actions of his villains and protagonists. The faith of the Gemmell books lacks simple Manichean dualism. It is a world where even though miracles happen, there is still suffering and heroes wonder why such suffering exists. Gemmell provides no answers. It is as if he is writing through is own musings on the topic, he is discovering rather than dictating. It makes for interesting reading.

That said, Gemmell's works aren't books that are meant to be read as religious tracts, they are adventure tales where heroes battle powerful foes to protect the things they value. Sometimes the heroes are redeemed villains, sometimes they are citizen soldiers, and sometimes they are murderous avengers who may never be redeemed for their actions. Most of them are compelling, and the vast majority of them partake in exciting adventures.

Gemmell's fiction is the perfect combination of Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock. His writing contains the rugged individualists of Howard, but it also has some of the irony of Moorcock. He is very much an author worthy of having his name attached to an award.

The David Gemmell Fantasy Awards, now three awards, have released the list of this year's nominees. It is a list full of very good fantasy by talented authors. You can see the full list below as well as in the embedded video.

Of all the nominees, I think that Graham McNeill's Empire (Time of Legends: Sigmar Trilogy) (an excellent media tie in novel set in the Warhammer universe) and Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold are the two that fall most within the Sword and Sorcery tradition, but I am a fan of Brandon Sanderson's fantasy and am glad to see that he received two nominations.

Please read this year's nominees, but if you haven't read any Gemmell do give Legend a try.