Sunday, August 28, 2016

Yo, the Marines! A Review of Mary Gentle's Grunts

When it comes down to it, books about orcs are anything but gentle, and Grunts is no exception.

I make no secret of loving the monstrous races. orcs, goblins, troggs, trolls, and my own grenndrakes. So when I see an orc on the cover of a book, and come to learn that he's the main character I'm pretty predisposed to reading it.

Grunts is the story of Ashnak, the leader of the Man-Smart Agaku in the days leading up to the last battle. On orders from his master, the Nameless Necromancer, he infiltrates a long-dead dragon's horde to find a cache of weapons and equipment kept in the the dragon's collection of artifacts from across time and space.

The contents of this cache will be immediately familiar to fans of Vietnam era movies. M16s, M60s, humvees, Hueys, and an assortment of odds and ends from the 1960's era US army. Capable of shrugging off magical defenses, the Nameless Necromancer's hope is that these weapons will give Ashnak and the orcs the edge against the forces of Light in the coming apocalypse.

But things aren't quite so simple. The weapons carry the dragon's curse, that only those steeped in the training and attitude of the gear's origin are capable of employing it. And so very quickly, the orcs begin to take on the qualities of cinematized Vietnam Era Marines.

Naturally this is not without a great deal of hilarious juxtaposition between the high fantasy and modern military tropes expertly jumbled into a great genre mashup. The book is deliberately and successfully funny, playing off genre stereotypes and expectations to great effect. It's very easy to fall in love with Ashnak and his varied and versatile orc compatriots, but they will very quickly remind you of what they really are. This book is not for the young'ns. Gore, profanity, and even some sexual violence abound in this story about Orcs being the leanest, meanest forces of darkness around. It's all handled in a very cavalier and casual attitude that completely honestly made me a bit uncomfortable at times. But I do not consider that a strike against the book in any way, shape or form. Rather, I feel it was the intent. Despite the light-hearted tone of the book, there is some very dark subject matter to be aware of going into the experience. But it's an experience I wholly recommend. I have never read a book quite like Grunts, and to say I devoured it would be something of an understatement.


Read this book if you like: Rooting for the bad guys, orcs, Apocalypse Now, genre mashups.
Avoid this book if you do not like: Extremely dark subject matter, classic tropes.

And as always, feel free to let me know your thoughts on the novel as well. I greatly enjoyed this book and I think you will to.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Review of Goblins Know Best, by Daniel Beazley

Every so often a book comes along so in-tune with itself that it helps define the very genre that would try to label it. Goblins Know Best is just such a book.

Goblins Know Best: the Trivial Trials of Bogrot and Gorag by Daniel Beazley is a Fantasy novel told from the perspective of a Goblin chef named Bogrot Blistertooth. Raised in Gert’s Kitchen of the city of Kentai (A city so prone to earthquakes that it holds no permanent structures) Bogrot is a budding chef in his own right, driven to become one of the finest cooks in the land. Often drawn away from his kitchen for errands, adventures, and other misfortunes, he travels in the company of his best friends: a ravenous and rambunctious Orc named Gorag and a talking pony with a victim complex, Mona, acquired after he cooked and ate her brother.

The novel is laid out as an anthology. Rather than chapters each section of varying length is a self-contained story set in chronological order that might contain anything from Bogrot sneaking into an orc gathering to cut a double-crossed Gorag loose from his backstabbing brother, to traveling deep into the swamp for rare slugs that have become the mainstay ingredient in a popular curry. Along the way the pair meet and explore the wildly varied and interesting population and landscapes and play host to a collection of bizarre and genuinely endearing and funny encounters. Following the adventures carves out a world that while still having all the trappings of traditional fantasy tropes manages to feel like an incredibly unique experience that not only subverts the Fantasy genre, but is possibly the best example to date of emphatically non-epic fantasy by way of its focus on the humble goals of its protagonists and the intimate natures of the conflicts. Even minor characters are believable, with their own hopes, goals, ambitions, and shortcomings. They’re not allies or enemies of Bogrot, but they share his world and understand his challenges. Goblins Know Best is an excellent example of character study due to being so far removed from the epic struggles that dominate the genre that it allows you to see these characters in their natural state with their usual struggles. The subtitle ‘Trivial Trials’ perfectly encapsulates not only Bogrot and Gorag, but also our look at each individual character in their world just trying their best to get by.

I make no secret of enjoying works with the classic Tolkien races that so many modern authors try to avoid, or even for having a preference  for Orcs and Goblins in general (probably thanks to Warcraft). But with that said I feel comfortable with the claim that Goblins Know Best is by far my clear favorite out of all the books I’ve read this last year, and the entirety of my read-through was an absolute joy.

You should read this book if you enjoy: Collections of shorter works, Greenskins, copious tongue-in-cheek humor, self-aware writing, genre subversion, and first person perspective.

You should avoid this book if you dislike: Pun names, phonetic spelling of accents, traditional fantasy races (elves, orcs, goblins, trolls, gnomes, centaurs and others all make appearances).

Monday, March 28, 2016

On the Importance of Death

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Malazan and Harry Potter.

Writing in fantasy gives authors a unique opportunity to skirt the effects of death by occasionally bringing a character back from beyond the mortal coil.

But should we?

One thing common theme amongst almost all other genres (unless it's the focus of the work) is that death is permanent, the end, full stop. Death can be used as an inciting action, climax, and resolution. Characters spend entire novels getting over the death of a loved one, or coping with their own impending death, or investigating the death of an innocent. And because of its permanent nature it's used to make a powerful statement. Characters die for a reason, or they die for a cause, or they die to show that sometimes death has no reason or cause which is a statement in and of itself. But the idea is death always makes a point one way or another, and it's the sharpest and most permanent statement that a character will ever make. But when death becomes a gray area, it begins to lose some of that poignancy and begins to lose some of the drama. Let's compare two examples of series that handle death differently and what it does to the narratives.

Let me start out by saying that Malazan Book of the Fallen is arguably my favorite series of all time. The story sprawled over a dozen volumes and followed the adventures of over 100 characters in an epic battle to save or destroy the world depending on which POV you're currently following. These are characters you know and love, and become attached to through battle and mundane activity and you feel their struggles. When they die, you feel that too. Never have I been so attached to a character as I was to a certain Malazan sergeant that met his end somewhere in the middle of the series.

The only problem was, by this point in the saga as many as a half dozen characters had already died and survived the ordeal through magical means. Well ok, so what does that mean for my favorite character's death? Well, it reduced the impact significantly. It blunted the point on the statement his death made, because the finality of death had been reduced to a gamble. Whiskyjack is dead, but would we see him again? Death in Malazan becomes less like the cover slamming shut on someone's story and more like going directly to jail in Monopoly. If they can manage to roll doubles, they're back in the game. And the more you think about it, the more you realize that this uncanny room for posthumous plot armor lessens the inherent risk any character faces when they enter a life-threatening situation. The drama dulls. Instead of life or death, we're presented a third option of 'Death, but then...'.

Now let's look at Harry Potter, and sure we're comparing a young-adult modern urban fantasy to a sprawling quasi-medieval epic fantasy. Why not?

Death is a huge deal in Harry Potter. The entire series is incited by the death of Harry's parents at the hand of Voldemort, and Voldemort also happens to be the only character to successfully come back from the dead. And it takes him 4 whole books of the 7 book series to manage it. This sort of thing is what makes him the dark lord, makes him so feared in the wizarding world, the fact that he's literally the only one that can break the rules. With the exception of Harry Potter himself.

But the rest of the cast? Mortal, pure and plain. When they die, they stay dead or they occasionally return as ghosts, but they never return to the life they had before. And there are a lot of good guys that die in Harry Potter. The big one everyone remembers is Harry's godfather, Sirius Black. Fell through the veil into the realm of death. Sure there was some ambiguity, it's a gateway right? Gateways have two sides.

But ultimately, JK's most powerful decision wasn't killing Sirius, it was letting him stay dead. She could have brought him back. The option was there, the fans wanted him to still be alive, and enough mystery surrounded the circumstances of his demise that even though we knew in our hearts that he was gone there was still some glimmer of hope. But because he stayed dead, the statement he made with his death was powerful. The statement of 'The boy who lived must continue to live, and that goal is worth dying for'. It showed how far the Order of the Phoenix was willing to go in order to keep Harry safe because they knew he was the only hope they had against Voldemort.

And because Sirius Black stayed dead, it made the statement of his death more effective than all of the deaths in Malazan where the character rolled boxcars and found their way back to the fight.

What are your thoughts on death and resurrection in fantasy? Let me know, I'd love to hear your opinions.

Scott Warren

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A review of Brandon Draga's The Summerlark Elf

It’s no secret that I tend to prefer more consumable, serialized works of fantasy when compared to the meganovels we saw as the industry standard for many years. I believe the genre is finally starting to move away from the 400,000 word entries in sprawling 10-book series spanning across decades. Embittered fans of these works that feel spurned by multi-year gaps between entries are starting to look towards smaller, more contained stories to fill their time. My own books trend towards this philosophy and I look to newer authors as siezing opportunities left by giants of Fantasy.

The Summerlark Elf feels like just such a story. At its heart, The Summerlark Elf is a story about the importance of family, whether by blood or circumstance, and it tells it with genuine warmth and a modest cast of characters whose motivations are clearly expressed over the length of the novel. Fans of traditional fantasy or Dungeons and Dragons will feel right at home among the varied and diverse people of the 4 Kingdoms. All the traditional trappings are here: Elves, dwarves, halflings, thieves guilds, and dark plots that tangle and entrap the heroes of the story and force them to change and adapt to overcome each challenge.

The story itself primarily focuses on Enna Summerlark, an orphaned elf adopted as an infant by a merchant and his wife in a kingdom where fey creatures are persecuted by a king living in fear and his oppressive archmage advisor. Enna is unaware of her mystic origins, whose manifestation lands her in trouble and launches the primary conflicts of the story. For reasons unknown, nefarious powers are interested in Enna, and have dispatched agents to collect her. Don’t expect too many details to be revealed, as this plot hook serves to set up the following volumes in the series.

All in all, The Summerlark Elf feels like a great introduction to the 4 Kingdoms Saga, establishing the world, the cast, the political climate and the culture. It’s reminiscent of the first book of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, in that it serves as a launching point for the other entries in the world of Enna Summerlark and her companions.

You should read this book if you enjoy shorter works of fiction, traditional fantasy trappings, books about familial ties, and earnest adventuring.

You should avoid this book if you prefer longer or self-contained works, more esoteric and unfamiliar settings, and fantasy where magic and the supernatural are kept to a minimum.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review - The Hunger: Rotting Frontier

I recently finished reading Rotting Frontier by Dave Atwell. At just a couple hundred pages it's an easy read, and without the heavy commitment required by many modern Fantasy mega novels.

It chronicles the attempt of a family torn and tired of the American Civil War to move west by covered wagon, away from conflict towards the Bozeman trail in hopes of profiting off the gold rush. Along the way they get caught up in the fight between the survivors of a small town and men under a curse called The Hunger that makes them crave human flesh.

Mind you, these aren't zombies. They have similar trappings, but these people retain their senses and faculties as long as they feed, though they become more zombie-like if they allow the condition to progress. Don't go in assuming everything you know about zombies can be applied here. While The Hunger and zombies live in the same house, they aren't related.

The pacing goes back and forth between aspects of day-to-day frontier survival and frenetic action as the members of the troupe deal with clashing personalities and the dangers surrounding the town. It can, at times, get a little monotonous with extended expositions about what each of the dozen or so survivors is doing at any given time, but these sequences tend to end before they wear out their welcome. The characters themselves have realistic flaws and values that drive the drama, to the point where you may get frustrated with the motivations of some of the less appealing personalities. But differences are forgotten when revolvers, rifles, and tomahawks start telling a more action-oriented story as the town comes under attack. Before I knew it the novel was over, and I'll have to look towards the second volume for the continuation of the story.


Fans of Weird West, Civil War era fiction, Zombies, and Powder Fantasy would be remiss on passing up Rotting Frontier. Pick it up if you enjoy any of these things.

Avoid Rotting frontier if you dislike books with violence and some harsh language, character driven stories, and bleak settings.

If you read Rotting Frontier I'd love to hear your comments on it, feel free to post or send me a message.
Scott Warren