Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Whole Bloody Thing - The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Caution - Spoilers Ahead!
When I finished The Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin, I contemplated joining the tent city on his front lawn and wailing and gnashing my teeth while I waited for the Winds of Winter to be released.  Instead, I decided to read The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.  I think it was the better choice.

The First Law kicks off in style with The Blade Itself.

On the run from a king he once served, barbarian Logen Ninefingers finds himself in the Union's capital, aligned with Bayaz, a legendary wizard long thought dead. Meanwhile, nobleman Captain Jezal Luthar trains for The Contest, a fencing spectacle, while lusting after Ardee West, sister of one of his comrades. Inquistor Glokta, crippled former swordsman, skulks around in the darkness, torturing the answers he seeks while searching for treason at every turn. What is Bayaz planning? Will Jezal bed his best friend's sister? Will Glokta be able to outmaneuver the other inquistors?

The Blade Itself reads like Terry Pratchett on the mother of all bad days. While there is a surprising amount of humor, there are also buckets of blood and gore. Abercrombie writes fantastic battle scenes, which get better and better as the saga progresses.

The strength of The Blade Itself is in the characters. While many of them fit standard fantasy archetypes, they also are far from typical. Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian that spends a lot of time thinking and being scared, guilty of a hundred atrocities. Bayaz is an ages-old wizard that looks like a blacksmith. Inquistor Glokta seems like a pretty reprehensible torturer and guardsman at first glance but there is a lot more to him than meets the eye. Jezal is a great swordsman but also a snobbish bastard. I'm also very interested in Yugei and Ferro and Logen's former band of not-so-merry men.

The second book, Before They Are Hanged, dispelled all of my fears that Crombie would suffer from the sophomore jinx.

While Superior Glokta holds Dagoska against the Gurkish, Collum West endures untold hardship in the north in the companion of the Prince and Logen's six barbarian friends. Meanwhile, Bayaz, Logen, Luthar, and Nessa head toward the edge of the world for something that should best be left buried...

Middle books in a trilogy are tricky business. While you occasionally get one the literary equivalent of The Empire Strike Back, most of them are more like Temple of Doom. This one is way closer to Empire in terms of quality. It even has an ending as shocking as "Luke, I am your father."

Where do I start? How about Glokta? Glokta is the Tyrion Lannister of the First Law trilogy as far as I'm concerned. He's crass, crippled, and very complicated. His protectiveness toward Ardee and dedication to the hopeless task of defending Dagoska against overwhelming odds won me over. More Glokta in the next book, please!

As for the other characters, I love how Bayaz keeps trickling out details of the history of the Magi, all the while not being completely trusted. The friendship between Logen and Nessa seemed fairly natural and I love what's going on with Luthar. The events in Aulcus were gripping page-turners. It was really hard to put the book down at the end of my lunch break. Qwai and Longfoot could be fleshed out a bit more but you can't have everything. Where would you keep it all?

Colonel West and the barbarians enduring the hellish Northern winter made King Stannis' march toward Winterfell seem like a breeze. West pushing the Prince off the cliff was one of my favorite parts of the book.

The ending was better than my highest expectations. I wonder how Bayaz and company will rebound from that, as well as Glokta and the mess he's found himself ensnared in.

The saga draws to a conclusion in The Last Argument of Kings.

As the Gurkish march on Adua, Bayaz schemes to defeat them, Jezel discovers his secret parentage, and Glokta tries to learn things no one wants him to know. Meanwhile, the Northmen are holed up in a fortress in the hills with Bethod's army at their gate, waiting for the Union army to arrive. Will they arrive in time? Is even Bayaz enough to defeat the Gurkish?

Apart from my Dark Tower reread of 2011, It's been a long time since I read the final book in a fantasy series. I guess re-reading the Elric books was the last time and probably Amber before that. The Last Argument of Kings, final book in the First Law trilogy, is way up in the series ender hierarchy.

The manure hits the windmill in a serious fashion in this volume. Several pretty important characters die. The rest of them have their lives change in real ways. Who would have Jezel dan Luthar and Logen Ninefingers would wind up kings? Or what would happen after they did?

Glokta and Bayaz were by far the most captivating characters in this volume. Glokta shocked me time and time again and I'm still not sure if Bayaz slew his mentor or not, only that he has his fingers in most of the pies in the bakery. All the revelations toward the end blew my mind.

There are so many things I want to gush about in this volume, like Bayaz using the Seed against the Eaters, Glokta marrying Ardee West, and the fight between The Bloody Nine and the Feared. I knew the confrontation was coming as soon as the Feared was introduced and I was pretty sure of his weakness. I just didn't picture the battle to be so brutal.

The character development over the course of the three books was pretty damn amazing considering where Jezel, Logen, and the rest started. The ending was the icing on the cake.

Like I said, people compare these books to George R.R. Martin but they aren't that similar other than the brutal deaths. The First Law is way more like Pratchett. This particular volume reminds me of Watchmen quite bit when the heroes find out just how thoroughly they've been jerked around.

Closing Thoughts - Why I like The First Law Trilogy better than A Song of Ice and Fire:
  1. It is finished. 
  2. There are more than three likeable characters
  3. The books aren't large enough to club baby seals to death with.
  4. Joe Abercrombie can write a bloody battle like nobody's business.
  5. Abercrombie's depiction of war is both brutally realistic AND not a slog to read.  How long as Stannis Baratheon been marching on Winterfell?

Bentley Little

Bentley Little: subverter of iconic institutions. While other authors with equally prolific tendencies are often content to jump from creature to creature, Little not only re-visits both well-known and more obscure threats (in addition to haunted houses and vampires, his topics include maenads and an invisible man)... but he will often make a point of satirically locating many of his horrors in the most everyday of places. His various banal loci of evil have included department stores, resorts, the postal service, universities, and the insurance industry.

If the western is the most conservative of genres, then horror is surely the most reactionary. Both genres leave themselves open for regular deconstruction, but for some reason the western has gained acceptance as a serious genre, while horror still struggles. On the one hand, it is hard to see why: both genres have their critically respected authors who sell a lot of books (Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King) and both genres have thousands of paperback examples of dross that is easily available in all chain outlets – so why is the western seen as classic, while horror is seen as disreputable, an embarrassment? But on the other hand, it is very easy to see why. Horror is not a respected genre when viewing it as the embodiment of reactionary tendencies within human nature. These are tendencies that are in some ways shameful – a fear of sex, so sexuality is made horrific; a fear of violence and the unknown, so violence becomes both a threat and an object of fetishization. It is somehow less embarrassing to discuss the embodiment of conservative values in the traditional western or the deconstruction of those values in the atypical western, than it is to discuss the straight-up enjoyment of things that no supposedly healthy person should be considering for too long. Themes such as "Sex As A Threatening Disease" or "Violence As A Passion Akin To Sex"... are perhaps rather awkward to discuss for the person who has a vested interest in not appearing to be rather creepy.

Bentley Little is that rare example of the horror writer who doesn’t exist within the typical fear-of-sex, fear-of-violence continuum of most within the genre; his fears do not appear to be primarily based around the potential of violence visited upon the traditional family unit or around fear of sex/fear of the body. Although those threats are often present, they don't feel like the actual point of his tales; instead, Little prefers his horror to explore the discomfort of all the institutions that surround and support us.

The Store

Little established himself as the premier expert of institutional deconstruction with The Store. This is a smart and fast-paced novel, and its attack on corporatization is so obvious yet so smoothly encapsulated within traditional horror tropes that the genuinely sharp critique - the entire reason for this novel's existence - may pass almost unnoticed by the frequent and possibly jaded horror reader. But his critical thoughts on consumer culture are clear: the protagonist hates it and so does the author. 

As usual, his writing is straightforward, almost transparent. The plot moves quickly but inexorably, the characters are simply depicted and all the more real for it. The central idea of dehumanization, the kind that is a frequent by-product of consumerism, blazes off the page, vivid and furious. I don’t usually expect that kind of lucid renunciation of capitalism from this most reactionary of genres.


University posits a reality where universities are actually sentient beings, with each student and staff member acting as just one cell of a greater organism. Unfortunately for the novel's cast, the particular organism that they're a part of is deeply psychotic. The idea is an interesting one and creates many democratic opportunities for both horror and irony, as the mindlessly reactionary, the complacently liberal, the tediously conformist, and the superficially rebellious are all enjoyably skewered throughout the novel. 

Characterizations are shallow but sympathetic and the narrative is built on a sometimes too-wide canvas. As always with the author, sex - whether as an act of love, lust, or horror - is presented in such a matter-of-fact way (far removed from the gloating, juvenile lasciviousness of Edward Lee or Richard Laymon), that the act itself carries about as much mystery and complexity as eating or sleeping. It is a surprising and refreshing perspective. Little is a surprising and refreshing author.

Bentley Little

Go get 'em, Bentley. Take down the establishment, one institution at a time!

William Landay

Delacorte Press
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney in his suburban Massachusetts county for more than twenty years. He is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife, Laurie, and son, Jacob. But when a shocking crime shatters their New England town, Andy is blindsided by what happens next: His fourteen-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student.

Every parental instinct Andy has rallies to protect his boy. Jacob insists that he is innocent, and Andy believes him. Andy must. He’s his father. But as damning facts and shocking revelations surface, as a marriage threatens to crumble and the trial intensifies, as the crisis reveals how little a father knows about his son, Andy will face a trial of his own—between loyalty and justice, between truth and allegation, between a past he’s tried to bury and a future he cannot conceive.

Award-winning author William Landay has written the consummate novel of an embattled family in crisis—a suspenseful, character-driven mystery that is also a spellbinding tale of guilt, betrayal, and the terrifying speed at which our lives can spin out of control.

My Review: Courtroom legal thriller. Nothing new there.

Redeemed from two-star basement by two things: The ending, which I am surprised to say I didn't see coming. It was a gut-punch.

And also two quotes, things I closed the book and nodded sagely after reading, things that were So Well Said I had to take a pause for absorption:

It was as if there was a place called After, and if I could just push my family across to that shore, then everything would be all right. There would be time for all these "soft" problems in the land of After.
Yes, yes, anyone who has ever lived through A Tragedy knows this feeling intimately, knows how this sentence encapsulates the aching need to be normal and better and fixed...that never comes....

And this:

At some point as adults we we cease to be our parents' children and we become our children's parents instead.
Anyone who has read some of my more dyspeptic posts on Facebook will realize how little I think of the adolescent exceptionalism that pervades our adult culture. You don't have a *right* to own a gun, unless you're in a "well-regulated militia," you have a stupid-ass paranoid fear that results from imaging They are out to get you. It's a symptom of a brand of stupid arrogant vanity, a sense of self as Uniquely Valuable, that is ridiculous and borderline mentally ill.

No one is so damned important that They are Out To Get You. And that sentence, that piece of Landay's wisdom, explains why it should be okay to say "Oh just STFU and grow up!" to more people more often.

Anyway. Up from a rocklike two all the way to three and a quarter stars. An enjoyable read redeemed by surprise and wisdom...helluva job, Landay!

The Devil Is In The Details

Roger Hobbs
Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by Kemper
3.5 out of 5 stolen stars.

Summary: A professional thief who is a master of disguise tries to track down the missing loot from a robbery gone bad in Atlantic City.

The main character from Ghostman  makes some toast:

I went into the kitchen and put two pieces of sliced sourdough bread into the toaster.  You can use any type of bread to make toast, but I prefer sourdough. Other professional toast makers use whole grain or even raisin bread, but I like the taste and consistency of sourdough when toasted properly.  Only a fool or an amateur would use white Wonder Bread.

I was using a Proctor Silex 22605 Cool-Wall 2-Slice Toaster with white plastic sides and chrome top.  I put the bread in the slots and pressed down the handle which activated the contacts and applied power to the circuit board.  120 volts of power ran through the contacts to the nichrome wires at temperatures exceeding 300 degrees to toast the bread.   When the capacitor reached a certain voltage, it cut the power to the electromagnet inside and allowed  the spring to pop the toast up.  

If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to burn the bread, or not have it toasted enough, but I had practiced with the Proctor Silex enough to have the settings memorized. Some may use fancier toasters capable of holding four slices, and a real showboat might have one of those fancy bagel toasters.  The Proctor Silex had always gotten the job done for me.

So that’s the deal with this book.  You’re going to learn a whole lot of shit about every single piece of hardware or procedure involved. But since I’m a junkie for heist novels, I still liked it.

Jack is a ‘ghostman’, a professional armed robber who lives off the grid and is a master of disguise.  After a hit on the money delivery from an armored car to an Atlantic City casino goes horribly wrong, the guy who planned the job, Marcus, calls Jack in to track down the missing cash and heisters.  Jack ordinarily wouldn’t touch something this messy, but he owes Marcus a debt for a job that went sideways in Kuala Lumpur.  Besides, he’s bored.

There was a lot about this debut book from Roger Hobbs that I loved.  In the early chapters from the armored car robbery through our introduction to Jack, it seemed like we may be getting a new version of Parker for the digital age.  The action and pace are brisk, the plot makes for an original page turner filled with all kinds of underworld types, and the flashbacks to the botched job in Kuala Lumpur added another layer to it.

I especially liked that Jack was kind of a slippery character to the reader, too.  He shows himself capable of decisive and cold blooded action.  When he threatens others and boasts of a nature that seems to delight in bloodshed and misery to avoid boredom, you’re not entirely sure how much of that is true.  It makes him an enigma and that’s a nice way to handle a main guy when we don’t even know his real name.

However, what dragged this one down from 4 to 3 stars was that Roger Hobbs didn’t know when to just say, “I made some toast.” instead of elaborating on every detail like I spoofed at the beginning of this review. From the interview I read with Hobbs here on Goodreads, I get the feeling that he got so caught up with his research and invention of criminal procedures that he didn’t know when to stop.  So we get a whole lot of info-dumping.

For example, with every gun that makes an appearance in the story, we also learn the magazine capacity, caliber, muzzle velocity, etc. etc whether it gets fired or not.   I’d chalk that up as gun porn, but Hobbs does it with everything, not just guns.  So when Jack confronts a shotgun wielding thug, we get treated to a graphic description of the type of shells in the weapon and what they would do to a fleeing person.  (Which also begs the question how Jack would know what type of ammo was loaded into the gun without some kind of x-ray specs.  For all he knows, it could be rock salt or bird shot in there.)  Then minutes later he breaks down all the reasons why a shovel makes a terrible weapon.

When he provides details critical to the story, it’s fascinating.  The idea of booby trapped federal reserve money is great not just because it’s awesome Gee-Whiz tech, but because it’s critical to the story.  But Hobbs doesn’t discriminate.  At one point, Jack finds an apartment that has been broken into and the lock on the front door was splintered where it was pried open.  He notes that the police wouldn’t enter like that so he knows someone else was there, but then he goes on to detail all the ways that the police would access an apartment from getting a pass key to using a battering ram. Why? It has nothing to do with the story. All he had to say was that the police don’t break into places like that.  We didn’t need a laundry list of how they would do it if necessary.

I probably got more hung up on these details than I should have because I was so interested in the main story that I resented deviations from it.  Still, I hope that Hobbs continues to refine what he did here and delivers some more crime novels in the future because he’s got a lot of very cool ideas and a helluva readable style.  He just needs to learn not to tell us everything he learned in one book.

Also posted at Goodreads.