Monday, May 30, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The Silver Spike

When last we left our heroes, quite a huge battle took place on the Barrowlands, where the evil Dominator was struggling to throw off his chains. Darling led the Black Company to prevent his rise, in conjunction with the Lady and her forces, who wished the same. Meanwhile Raven's reckless attempt to access the Barrow (possibly to murder the Dominator, or at least to ensure he still slept) threatened to raise him, and Raven found himself trapped alongside the physical body of the wizard Bomanz who was placed in suspended animation after his attempt to subvert control over the Lady centuries ago.

In the ensuing fracas, One-Eye managed to free Raven's spirit, while the company managed to revive Bomanz, and together with the Lady's forces, Bomanz himself, Raven and his soldier friend Case, the Company managed to subdue the Dominator, drive a silver spike through his head and burn his body, encasing his demonic will into the spike. They then drove the spike into a sapling that was the son of the great Father Tree, the god of the Plain of Fear.

Tracker and Toadkiller Dog, two demons that had been trapped with the Dominator but were accidentally freed by Raven, ended up taking two sides in the war: Tracker joined the Company but didn't survive the battle while Toadkiller Dog remained loyal to the Dominator, and while he was badly wounded in the battle, he seems determined to harry the sapling, doing his departed master's bidding.

Having their true names revealed, the Lady and Darling both end up losing their powers. The Taken are now free agents and the Company no longer has a White Rose to protect.

The Company itself barely survived the battle of the Barrowlands, Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin, Silent, Otto, Hagop, standard-bearer Murgen and three others we'd not spent time with before being the only survivors. Croaker, as the ranking officer still alive, assumes the role of Captain and decides it's time for the Company to disband. The only thing left is to deliver the annals to the mysterious country of Khatovar, where the Company began, over 400 years earlier.

Silent opts to stay with Darling, as do the three soldiers we'd not seen before, so the rest of the company heads south, the Lady traveling with them.

Their story will be told in The Books of the South, which begin in the next volume. For now, let's return to the Barrowlands and the fate of the silver spike.
Toadkiller Dog, in assumed form and true form

The idea behind driving the spike into the sapling was that eventually the trunk would grow around the spike and no one would even be aware it was there. The sapling had the same defensive powers as its progenitor, so none dared get too close. Except that old Toadkiller Dog is determined to raise the fallen Taken, the Limper, now only a head in a shallow tomb near the Dominator's crypt. While fending off Toadkiller Dog, the sapling fails to notice the gang of thieves who have come to steal the spike until it's too late.

The thieves, a pair of cousins named Tully and Smeds, along with their partners Old Man Fish and Timmy Locan, are only after riches, knowing the spike will be of value to powerful people, and they can sell it and retire off the money. That was Tully's idea, anyway, and Tully is shown to be a man who thinks small. Sure, there are people after the spike, but they're not particularly interested in paying for it. They steal the spike, but now the real trouble has begun for them.
Meanwhile, the Limper has been raised thanks to the efforts of Toadkiller Dog, but suffice it to say the process of being reduced to just a head has left him quite mad.
Raven and Case decide that only the remains of the Company can help deal with the stolen spike, while Bomanz heads off looking for Darling, thinking she and Old Father Tree are the only ones who can help. Eventually they all end up together in one group, facing the Limper, two sorceresses and the whole of the Empire's forces, all looking for the spike, or in the Limper's case, just revenge.

The Good
Three words: Old Man Fish. Man, talk about your basic badass grandpa! I wish this weren't his only appearance. He'd be an amazing asset to the Company, heck, he might be a better captain than Croaker. This is how you write good badasses. Don't make them a Mary Sue, but do make it so the reader believes in them. How he manages to turn Smeds into a respectable guy is pretty well done. He might be among my favorite characters in this series.

I also really like how Raven's story is fleshed out here. Raven has been a figure of mystery for the initial trilogy, and while Croaker always thought of him as kind of a badass, the fact is that he's got some deep-seated attachment issues. His dark side and his light side are in constant battle, and the dark side might be winning. Watching this through the eyes of Case is actually pretty revealing. While Croaker was kind of impressed with Raven, seeing only is battle skill and mysteries, Case cuts through the bullshit and reveals to us who Raven really is, and it works, even if it shouldn't.

Despite not really feeling the Bomanz chapters in the previous novel, I actually grew to like and admire the old boy here. Despite how full of doubt his inner monologues show him to be, he's pretty capable and more than once comes through where others fail. He is essentially the opposite of Raven; he has fears, but he ignores them because stuff needs to be done. Raven knows stuff needs to be done, but he ignores it because he has fears.

The Bad
Smeds is an interesting character, but there were two fatal flaws that kept me from rooting for him like I was obviously supposed to. One is that he's a pedophile. I'm not using that word lightly. When we're introduced to him he's having a threesome with two sisters, ages 11 and 12. Later he makes a date with a 14-year-old he's forced to break, thank god, but we're reminded of his tendencies when he meets Darling, who is now in her mid to late 20's, and he thinks to himself that she's fairly attractive but "too old".

I kept waiting for him to get some sort of come-uppance due to this, but that never happens. He lives to molest another day. Just because he only molests kids who are willing doesn't make him any less creepy. Seriously, couldn't it have been Tully, who we're not supposed to like, that has that quality? This is the second time a sympathetic character has revealed at least possible pedophilic tendencies, and this, I feel, gets a little close to the line when it comes to asking me to still cheer this character on. Thankfully the first character doesn't actually physically commit this crime, but Smeds does.

Also, Smeds's story has already been told in this series, and told much better. There's hardly any difference at all between Smeds's path to becoming a real man and Marron Shed's story from Shadows Linger. Heck, their names are even similar. But whereas I liked Shed and felt that the transition was natural, I did not like Smeds for the reason I stated above and felt that his transition from whiny little bitch to man of action happened too quickly to be believable.

I was also confused for most of the story. Who exactly are Gossamyr and Spidersilk, the twin sorceresses after the spike? I assumed they were new Taken, but the Lady never mentions them in future volumes, and neither do we get any further explanation as to who Exile is. He's a dignitary, apparently from "the Tower", but he can't be that highly placed or the Lady would have had to talk to him when she visits the Tower in the next book. For that matter, who exactly are the "Black Riders" that Toadkiller Dog devotes himself to after he decides the Limper is too crazy? This is when Cook's natural laconic voice starts to work against him. Some fleshing out of these characters and the threat they pose is absolutely necessary.

For that matter, just who's telling about half this book? Cook sets up each tale as though it's a narrative of one of the characters who lived it, now relating it to the reader. For The Black Company it was all Croaker, in his duties as Company annalist. In Shadows Linger, we got two perspectives, Croaker's and Shed's, but Croaker gets Shed's story in full and tells us he's going to be including it. In The White Rose, we're never really told who related Raven's story to us, but presumably it's Croaker again, making some educated guesses. For this book, however, Croaker is completely absent and Case only knows what he's around to witness. Yet we get perspective chapters Case could in no way have learned about or figured out. From whence come Smeds and Old Man Fish's stories? Or the chapters from the point of view of the Limper or Toadkiller Dog?

Let's also talk a little more about a wizard's one true weakness. Basically if you know their true name, you can instantly depower them. They can rebuild, but at the conclusion of the last book, once the Lady's birth name, Dorotea Senjak, is spoken aloud, she loses all her power. The idea of a wizard's power being bound up in their true self, represented by their true name, is not old, and in fact another of my favorite series uses this, which is The Dresden Files.

But in that series, it makes a bit more sense. First of all, you have to be a demon, fey or powerful wizard in order to use a wizard's name against them. And it doesn't cause them to lose their powers, it just gives you some measure of control over them. You have to know their full name, middle-names included, and you have to speak it with the same kind of authority that they would. I can't just say "Harry Dresden" and gain control over him. I would have to use his whole name and speak it in the same way he does, and even then all I likely accomplished was defending myself against his spells or perhaps momentarily weakening him.

But in this world, knowing a sorcerer's name means you pretty much end their sorcerous career. Too bad it's not applied with any consistency.

Practically as soon as he's back to health in the previous volume, Bomanz reveals that his real name is Seth Chalk. I assumed he was trying to depower himself by giving his true name out, but no one speaks it, so he keeps his powers. But here, a talking vulture from the Plain of Fear repeatedly uses Bomanz's real name, much to his annoyance, but it doesn't do diddly squat to old Bo.

The Ugly
Not to repeat myself but I'd say setting up an unrepentant pedophile as a sympathetic character is pretty ugly.

But moving on to other issues; hey, Cook, can we be done with the Limper now? Can we please never have him return? Any potential he may have had as a scary villain is 100% gone. Sure, he's a bit creepy still, being just a head with an artificial body, plus the creature he turns into at the end is pretty gross, but in no way compelling enough to make up for his chapters.

For that matter, Toadkiller Dog, too. Neither character is compelling enough to warrant several chapters from their perspective. I'm okay with never using these guys again. Any time I realized we were back to them, I wanted to put the book down.

Final thoughts and ranking: honestly, while there were some great parts of this, particularly those involving Raven, Bomanz and Old Man Fish, I wasn't as impressed this time. And it had nothing to do with this book sort of being outside the main narrative, thus not including Croaker, Goblin, One-Eye or a number of other characters I'd gotten to know and love. It was just missing something this time out. Don't get me wrong; large parts are compelling, and don't get the idea that you can just skip it. Some pretty momentous stuff happens here, including the ultimate fates of two characters that you definitely will want to be there for. Thankfully, as short as this book is, the parts I wasn't keen on didn't dominate.

Story: B-
Writing Style: B
Characters: B+
World-Building: C
Readability: A-
Accessability: B
Consistency: C

Final Ranking: B-

From here, it's on to The Books of the South and the return of Croaker and the Lady.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Robert Stanek and his Ironic Lack of Effort

Meet Robert Stanek. Or better yet, don't, but by all means google him. His story is worth your time and effort.

Much has been said about Stanek, whose name is actually William Robert Stanek, and thus, I shall refer to him as Billy-Bob for the rest of this post. Seriously, just googling his name will turn up all the relevant hits of the story, but the most comprehensive collating of all pertinent Stanek-related material is absolutely this site here. Go there. Read the whole thing. I'll wait.

To make a very long story short, Billy-Bob is a self-published author who has produced, by his own count, well over 100 books. In fact, he says over 150. He is a multi-nationally published author with over 200 million in sales to his name and a bucket-full of awards. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He is one of Amazon's top sellers. He is the next JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling (two writers he constantly compares himself to, despite the two having nothing in common). At least, that's what his website says and what he himself says a lot.

None of it's true, however. I'm not going to say that no one's ever read a Stanek book and come away thinking "that was pretty good", but then, there are dumb people in the world. I'm reasonably sure that 99.9% of the people that have actually subjected himself to his writing come away wondering  what the unholy fuck they just read. I can't really speak from experience, because I haven't read a full Stanek novel, but the excerpts I've read are enough to convince me that my last lingering thread of sanity will be fully snapped by the time I'm finished even one chapter.

Billy-Bob gets around this by creating hundreds of "sock-puppet" Amazon accounts and posting umpteen positive reviews of his own works under all these different names.

But I'm not here to discuss Billy-Bob's work or antics in detail. That's been done so many times I'm sure I have nothing new to add to it. What I want to talk about Billy-Bob's incredibly skewed focus when it comes on where to expend his energy.

Others have commented that if Billy-Bob put even half the effort into writing that he does into his unethical, and oftentimes bordering illegal, self-promotion tactics, he might have actually produced something worth reading by now. But that's exactly the problem. As far as I can see, when it comes to actually writing, Billy-Bob hasn't committed a ton of time or effort at all.

But wait! Isn't this the guy with over 100 books to his name? Well, yes. And no. Let's blow one lie away right now; Billy-Bob Stanek has not written over 100 fictional novels. In fact, even that page I linked to is misleading, because Billy-Bob habitually re-releases the same books over and over again with different titles. Including some that blatantly rip off other, better authors, possibly pulling an Asylum Films act here, hoping that you'll buy these books believing them to be the ones you've been hearing about.

On that goodreads page, notice how the covers for his This Mortal Coil and After the Machines series look identical? That's because it's the same series, listed twice, for some reason. Same with Cards in the Deck, a single novel split in two. He does that a lot, also.

In fact, This Mortal Coil or After the Machines or whatever you want to call it is also just one novel, split into several novellas, averaging about 70 pages each. Keeper Martin's Tales, Ruin Mist Chronicles and Ruin Mist Tales are all the same book. And yes, they're just one book. And I don't mean they're different versions of the same book; I mean they are literally the same book.

As near as I can tell, his Ruin Mist series contains four novels: Keeper Martin's Tale, Kingdom Alliance, Fields of Honor and Mark of the Dragon. It's impossible to tell, though, because he keeps splitting them each into two volumes (so, eight very short books) and retitling them. In addition to this series, he's written This Mortal Coil, Cards in the Deck and two duos, The Magic Lands (real inventive title, there) and Dragons of the Hundred Worlds, both of which contain two books each, each of those books being just over 100 pages. Literally everything else is either his Bugville Critters books, which are apparently close to text-free, and his non-fiction.

Now, I can't really speak to his non-fiction, because I understand that most of it consists of computer manuals that he actually is paid to write. There's no question he includes those books in his 100+ count, however. He also apparently has written some non-fiction novels about the military, and apparently does have some military experience, and personally I don't care if this is true or not, but it wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't. Crying wolf, and all that. It's hard to pin down how much non-fiction he's written, but he also doesn't spend much time trying to promote it, so I won't really focus on that so much.

So, totaling up Billy-Bob's fiction (and discounting Bugville), that's ten novels, all together. Ten. Four of them are really more like novellas, and the others aren't much longer, if goodreads can be believed, and I'm sure they can. As I can't really tell which listings for his Ruin Mist books are the full novel and which aren't, I can't really pin down how long those books are, individually, but we'll give Billy-Bob the benefit of the doubt that they're all novel-length.

So compared to his hype about how much he's produced, it's ultimately very little when you really examine it. I'm not a published author, and I am not sure if I ever will be, but I know I've written more than he has in terms of sheer word count. I am forced to conclude that Billy-Bob doesn't like to expend much effort when it comes to actually writing.

In fact, as he's been re-titling and re-releasing the same 10 books now in various forms for the past decade plus, one wonders just how long ago he wrote them, or how long it's been since he's sat down to write anything recently. You can't do the same thing for years and not get better at it, even just a little. Can you? Actually, maybe not, so forget I said that, but really, if you listen to Billy-Bob, the impression you get is that he's passionate about his writing, that he really wants to reach out to the world through his writing, that what he's produced is transformative, and educational, even producing "study guides" that he tries to hawk to libraries and schools.

But his actual output is, when you stack it up, pathetically small. It only looks bigger thanks to Billy-Bob's tricks. In fact, Billy-Bob spends most of his efforts doing just that; trying to trick you.

Instead of writing more books, Billy-Bob has spent countless hours attempting to look famous and revered. That is where his entire focus is; on trying to get people to believe that he's well-known and well-loved. He yearns for the prestige of a JK Rowling, or JRR Tolkien, or George RR Martin, but he doesn't want to do any of the actual work required to reach such heights.

This is indicative when you consider how much he's changed his approach in recent years. He used to continually refer to himself as "professionally published", and talked endlessly about how authors such as Martin and Patrick Rothfuss apparently considered him a threat to their sales. He accused them of using friends and family members to attack him. I'm not kidding. I won't link to it, but google enough and you'll find the story.

What he clearly wanted you to think was that he was this big-time best-selling author who was so good that name authors at the top of the genre were afraid of him knocking them off their perch (not, of course, that this is how big-name authors actually behave).

Nowadays, his approach is a bit different. In the last five years or so, independent publishing (or self-publishing) has actually started to get noticed. Self-published authors like Hugh Howey or MR Mathias have actually earned enough self-publishing their material that they refuse to "go label", as remaining independent is earning them plenty of cash and allowing them to maintain total creative control over their brand. Authors like Michael J. Sullivan, Anthony Ryan and David Dalglish have had gone from self-published to professionally published over the strength of the material they were producing. There's even a Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, hosted by author Mark Lawrence, that deliberately sheds light on the best of self-published fantasy fiction of given years (and I haven't even mentioned self-published fiction from other genres, but I can guarantee you've heard of some of it).

Of course, Billy-Bob had to get in on that, so he fashioned a new blog for himself, now titled "ReadIndies", and with the tag line "Discover self-published authors". This is an honorable goal, and for the first couple of years he was at this, it seemed that, in fact, the goal of the site was to promote indie authors. And yes, shockingly, not just himself! Of course, he never compiled a list of "best of" that didn't include one of his books on it, and spent a lot of time talking about himself and all he's done in the world of independent publishing.

But, of course, it wasn't long before he started talking about his "haters", unethical practices within the publishing industry, other authors he accused of gaming the system, either by writing their own reviews (irony of ironies) or buying good reviews, or who knows what else. He would talk about these authors by name, and of course, would produce no proof whatsoever of his accusations. Not only that, but he would also call out his "haters" by name, including many professional authors like Patrick Rothfuss, David Louis Edelman, Jim C. Hines and Melissa Foster. He also attacked Hugh Howey (in a series of over-the-top accusations launched at him) and, elsewhere on the web, David Dalglish. You'd think that if his goal was to promote indy fiction, he'd embrace those two as brothers.

In other words, he kept pulling the same crap he pulled back when he was claiming to be a leading best-selling professionally published author. Only now it's worse because back in the day he wasted time attacking people that were likely completely unfazed by it (I doubt George RR Martin lost a single sale thanks to Billy-Bob's ranting). Now he's attacking people who really are just getting started in the industry and just beginning to see real success.

Honestly, just going through his blog and selecting any post with a whiny-sounding title digs up some pretty awful behavior on Billy-Bob's part. It's quite sad that he reprints emails he's sent in full, harassing people and accusing them of all sorts of crimes they are of course in no way guilty of. I mean, it's his website and he's showing us his juvenile, borderline illegal behavior and expecting us to be on his side. It gets worse the more you plow through it; accusing the New York Times of maliciously editing their best-seller lists to keep certain titles off of it (I presume in hopes that we'll say "Oh, that's why we never see his name on best-seller lists! It couldn't be because he's not really a best-seller!") and launching personal attacks, again, by name, against many people, some of whom are not actually rich, famous or in any way able to protect themselves. He has a whole post about arguing with a small-time blogger trying to force him to remove his negative review of Keeper Martin's Tale from goodreads. The ironies continue; he bemoans authors who "trash competitors" and repeatedly acts as though it's others who write phony reviews, then accuse him of doing it. And not a shred of proof, or even evidence, anywhere.

Billy-Bob is obsessed with the idea that writers like Foster, Edelman, Hines, Rothfuss, even Martin, etc., view him as a competitor and are threatened by how well he's doing. Of course, this isn't how it works, and never has been. Writers who are doing well enough to make their living writing generally don't obsess about other writers who might be doing better, or becoming more popular. They understand that readers can buy their books and other books as well. My bookshelf, both the real one and the virtual one, has many, many different names on it (and we'll be getting to most if not all of them in due course). It's not a competition. No writers who get into the game do so in hopes of unseating other writers in terms of sales and acclaim.

Nobody except good ol' Billy-Bob.

So, again, it's just sad how much time and effort Billy-Bob has put into:

  • Creating fake Amazon accounts and posting glowing reviews of his own work, and/or posting reviews of other work, comparing it to his own, in an effort to have his book show up under "also recommended"
  • Brazenly lying about his sales, reviews and awards (of which he has none)
  • Re-titling and re-packaging his books in order to look like he has more output than he really does
  • Attacking anyone he finds speaking negatively about him online, often accusing them of horrible crimes in the process
  • Accusing other authors of unethical practices that he himself is actually guilty of
  • Spamming various websites like and Wikipedia in an effort to make himself and his work look important
  • Accusing the publishing industry of deliberately trying to stop his allegedly meteoric rise all because they're threatened by indy writers
  • Attacking other indy writers who are doing better than he is and/or have managed to sell their work professionally
  • Attacking bloggers (most of whom don't earn a cent with their blogs) who have posted negative reviews of his work and accused them of slander, even saying they're harassing his readers
  • Whining about how all the people he's attacked are actually the ones ganging up on poor widdle him
But the comparative amount of effort he's put into actually writing seems, by and large, pathetically small. This likely explains why he's never gotten any better, which can also be explained by the fact that Billy-Bob also thinks of himself as perfect already and can't handle even the most constructive of criticism. Many blog posts "attacking" Billy-Bob have, in fact, offered advice on how he can improve, but, naturally, Billy-Bob accuses them all of being "haters" who are slandering him and harassing his readers.

It's just sad. Clearly, Robert Stanek is capable of great effort. He's just applying entirely to the wrong end of things. He doesn't care about actually being a good writer. He just wants the fame and glory, without doing any of the real work.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The White Rose

And so we come to it; the final volume in the initial Black Company trilogy.

I guess I didn't make it more clear that Glen Cook divvied up the books in this series. While there are ten volumes in all, the first three make up the trilogy called The Books of the North, and are followed up with a "stand-alone" novel that serves to wrap up the loose ends for some of the characters from that first trilogy. Then there's The Books of the South, in which the Black Company tries to return to its roots, and then The Books of the Glittering Stone, which I know little about. We'll see what those are like when they get there.

But with this book, The White Rose, we officially cap off The Books of the North.

First, a recap. Again, spoilers from Shadows Linger will be many, so please don't read further if you have not read that volume unless you just don't care about spoilers.

Shadows Linger ended with the Company aiding the Lady and her bound sorcerers, the Taken, in their effort to ensure the Lady's former husband, the Dominator, was unable to break the bonds of his prison-like tomb. The "Black Castle" turned out to be a portal powered by human bodies (both freshly dead and alive) that would serve to allow his escape, and Raven had been unwittingly aiding his rise by selling dead bodies to the creatures from the castle that served the Dominator. He only needed money to get a ship so that he could take his ward, Darling, who was the reincarnation of the White Rose, far from where the Lady could get her hands on her, but in the process was bringing forth one who makes the Lady look like a Care Bear.

To make a long story short, the Dominator was prevented from rising, thanks to the combined efforts of the Company and the Taken, but as soon as the battle was appearing won, the Company got some strange orders that they knew meant they were about to be herded up and disposed of; they simply know too much at this point.

Breaking away from the city of Juniper and fleeing the Taken, the Company is reunited with Darling, learn that Raven is apparently dead, and devote themselves to the White Rose.

Old Father Tree protected by his minions
Now the Company, serving as the White Rose's personal guard and strike force despite there only being about a hundred of them left (there had been hundreds upon hundreds before), are holing up on the Plain of Fear, a stretch of land that needs to be seen to be believed. Populated by strange, otherworldly creatures like "Wind Whales" (which are just what they sound like", flying mantas, walking trees, backward centaur-like creatures and talking stones, the Plain is ruled by Old Father Tree, a mysterious guardian from ages past, and afflicted by "change storms" that...well, just read it.

The creatures of the Plain have formed a temporary alliance with the Company, and all are protected by Darling's magical null. See, what makes Darling the White Rose is that her mere presence prevents magic from being affective. When she was a little girl, it protected only her from magical attacks, but as she's grown, so has the null, which now extends around her in a miles-long radius.

The Taken have been skirting the Null's edges, trying to strike at the Company where they can, while the talking Menhirs of the Plain keep watch for intruders, and repeatedly warn Croaker of "strangers on the plain". Most of the strangers are couriers bearing mysterious letters for Croaker, informing him in a very dramatic manner just how the old wizard, Bomanz, managed to contact and raise the Lady and her Taken all those centuries ago.
But they talk.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Corbie (yeaaaah) has arrived in the Barrowlands, moved into Bomanz's old house and begun piecing together the Barrowland's history and Bomanz's place in it. You don't get any points for guessing who this really is, or that he's the one sending Croaker all those messages.

Meanwhile, realizing that the Taken have regrouped, added to their numbers and retaken a lot of lost ground since the Company took to the Plain, Darling decides the time to strike has come, and organizes a raid. The Company is aided by a mysterious traveler named Tracker and his pet mutt, Toadkiller Dog. Also, once Croaker lets Darling know about the letters he's been receiving, she sends him to the Barrowlands to discover their source.

The Good
Dangit if Glen Cook hasn't addressed my primary concerns yet again. I wasn't happy with the way the last book ended, mainly because I knew Raven wasn't really dead even before I knew it, and I didn't think it was in character for him to abandon Darling like that. Well, the answer as to why he did it is in this book, and it is heartbreaking. It reveals so much about two characters, and I love how it was handled. This is one of the reasons why I feel like even with Cook's laconic style, he still ropes you in. You care about these characters. And you're justified in doing so. Maybe Cook won't address all your concerns in one book, but he hasn't let me down once yet. I admire that.

I also enjoyed the Plain of Fear. There's enough weirdness going on here that it's practically ready for a story of its own. I can even see the cover art in my mind, like something by Robert E. Howard: "Conan and the Plain of Fear". And don't worry; Cook lets you know what's up with it. I like that he answers the mysteries of the plain by introducing another mystery and leaving it mysterious. Somehow that's even more satisfying.
Wind Whales and flying Mantas!

And here's something I've been waiting for since the series began; the Lady actually gets a great bit of face time in this story, and we learn a bit more about what she's really like. There are discussions on the nature of evil, whether or not something like true evil can exist, and whether the Lady matches that description, but now that we're spending some time with her, it becomes clear that she's not even sure what her motivations are anymore, and finds this entire conquest to be exhausting. I enjoyed this humanizing of a character whom we've spent two books fearing. I already knew that she couldn't be as brazenly evil as Sauron, but I was wondering myself what her end goal is. Turns out she might be doing all this conquering because that's all she knows how to do.

And the ending is great. That's all I'm gonna say since I won't include spoilers until my recap in the next review. But I really was moved to tears. I never thought this series would do that to me, but it did.

Finally, I like that we're getting more POV's as each book goes on. The first was entirely Croaker's POV, while the second book added Shed's, and this one splits between three: Croaker, Corbie and Bomanz. That said, it did lead to some issues...

The Bad
For one thing, I began to wonder as of this book why Croaker's chapters are the only ones that are first-person perspective. In the first book it made sense, and in the second, it also did, because Croaker mentions putting Shed's story in full in the annals. But here, I don't think he was given Raven's whole story, nor does he mention deciding to include it if he was. I can understand why he included the Bomanz chapters, but then, that's another issue.

I couldn't really get into the Bomanz chapters. I don't know why, but they just weren't all that interesting. There's a lot of family squabbling, some conversations with the guardian of the Barrow, a twist ending that actually was sorta cool, but not cool enough to spend all that time with him. We're not done with Bomanz, by the way, which isn't much of a spoiler, but let's say I enjoy him better later.

I also was not keen on the characters of Tracker and Toadkiller Dog. They added nothing to this story whatsoever, and their endings didn't make much sense, in my opinion. Even knowing what happens in the next book didn't make me think they needed to be included at all.

Finally, it's been mentioned in the other books, but here it comes to light just how silly a wizard's one weakness is. More on this in a future post.

The Ugly
I'm starting to wonder what the point of the Taken are. Not the originals, who were interesting (and maybe not 100% written out, either), but the newer additions. Whisper, Feather and Journey, expanded upon in the last book, barely appear here at all (Feather is already gone) but at the beginning of the book, a scout tells the Company about the newest members of the taken, and they seem like they could be interesting...if we ever even once got to meet just one of them.

And no, I don't think we're ever going to. I'm midway through book 5 right now and there's been no mention of them since book 3. Kinda pointless to bring them up if you're not going to use them. Chekhov is very angry with you, Mr. Cook.

Final Thoughts and ranking:

If you muscled your way through The Black Company and enjoyed Shadows Linger, as I did both, The White Rose will not disappoint. It's a fitting and moving conclusion to The Books of the North. And it still keeps you interested enough to move on to the next collection. Aside from a couple of smaller problems, this one's a winner.

Story: A
Writing Style: B
Characters: B+
World-Building: B
Readability: A-
Accessability: B+
Consistency: C+

Final Ranking: B+.

I'm truly enjoying my journeys with the Black Company, and I hope you are as well.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Shadows Linger

I'm really burning through this series, for me, anyway. Reading is often a slow process for me because I have to be able to see and hear what I'm reading. Character looks and voices must be securely in place. I need to be able to see a scene in my mind. I need to see it as it plays out. I find that people who read quickly often come away with the wrong impressions of what was really going on, or don't accurately recall what certain characters, said, did, or looked like.

I finished this one several days ago, and I'm nearly finished the third in the series. I wanted to get ahead of my reviews for a bit so that I could be a bit more knowledgeable about where this series was going. I should warn you that spoilers from the previous volume may come up here, so if you haven't read the first, please do so before you read this review, unless, of course, you're the type that doesn't care about spoilers.

First, a bit of a summary. The ending of The Black Company found our main character, Croaker, and his titular company, still in the service of the Lady, a diabolical sorceress of great power whose goal is to conquer all of humanity. She tried once, centuries earlier and for her reward was defeated by a woman known only as the White Rose, and entombed in a deathless sleep until she was woken by a curious wizard.

The Black Company, the last mercenary company from the southern continent of Khatovar, was contractually bound to serve the lady at the start of the first book, and there they are, still stuck in her service despite the fact that the Rebel (the name Croaker uses to refer to those who are fighting back against the Lady's rule) is all but beaten. Raven, a mysterious man who enlisted with the company in the previous book, and Darling, a young girl he rescued and became fiercely devoted to, desert the company and go on the run, and Croaker realizes that this is because Darling is, in fact, the White Rose reincarnated, and as Raven will do anything to protect her, he decides running from the Lady, and thus, the Company, is the only option.

Raven is now in a city called Juniper, a northern shithole built upon worshipping death, and as such, is now falling apart. Juniper is a strange place. Above the city is a huge black fortress known only as the Black Castle. No one knows why it's there, who's in it (and there is someone in there) or where it came from, and they don't want to know. But it's there, and it's growing. Legend says it began as black chunk of rock, and grew from there.

Marron Shed, an inkeeper and bartender, doesn't know or want to know what's up with the Castle. He just wants to be able to survive the coming winter, keep his place and keep his aging, blind mother safe, but that means he needs wood to keep his fire going and food, but how's he to get that when he's in debt up to his eyeballs? A mysterious customer named Raven might be able to help there...

Meanwhile, Croaker and a few other Company members, including the forever-squabbling wizards One-Eye and Goblin, are sent ahead to Juniper, after a request from its governor comes to the Lady. They're tasked with figuring out what's up with the Castle, and partly the way they'll find out is by tracing old coinage. See, someone's been delivering bodies to the Castle, and being paid handsomely for it, in coins that are still legal tender, but quite old. And then there's Croaker's visits from the Lady, who tells him that the Castle has its roots in the Barrowlands, where her husband, the Dominator, still lies restless in his crypt, looking for a way to break free. And as bad as the Lady is, the Dominator is far worse.

The Good
Nearly all my complaints from the first book are redressed in this one. I wanted at least one other point of view than Croaker's. About half the chapters take place from the perspective of Marron Shed, and he's a surprisingly relatable character who, though incredibly flawed, sort of takes us on a journey of what it means to be human. I wanted the narrative to slow down a bit and let us catch up. It definitely does that here. I was still somewhat mystified as to what exactly was going on at the conclusion to The Black Company, but felt I was really learning about this world, these characters, and this story in this book.

One thing that made the first volume hard to read was how bloody long the chapters were. In a book that is over 300 pages, there were only seven chapters. Seven. Think about that. It almost felt like I was reading a series of novellas that had been welded together. Cook completely reverses course on that score. The chapters here are much, much shorter, some only a page or two. They gradually grow longer as the book goes on, and as the reader grows more involved. Because there are alternating points of view, that also makes it that much more readable. I like Croaker, and I was glad to get to spend more time with him and get to know him and his fellows better, but I also liked the Shed chapters. Neither one kept up too long or made me want to put it down. Instead, they complimented one another and made me all that much more eager to keep going.
The Black Castle

Then there's the under-representation of the fairer sex. In the first book, the Lady, her minion Soulcatcher and the young waif Darling were the only female characters that we spent any real time with. Darling was a deaf nine-year-old child, Soulcatcher spent a majority of the book pretending to be a man, while the Lady doesn't really take an active role in events until the book is nearly over. Here, the Lady has a bit more to do, and her minion Whisper (a wordless cameo in the first book) gets quite a bit of page time. Also, Shed's barmaid, Lisa, plays a pretty large, important role, and Darling, now 18 (yeah, these books time-jump between volumes), gets a bit more to do, or at least we're further educated on how important she is.

The chief difference between this volume and the first is that Cook lets us in. With this volume, he wants to let the reader see, feel and experience his world, while still not betraying Croaker's thinner narrative. And it works so much better. If you've read the first novel and struggled through it, this one makes it all worth it.

The Bad
Despite this novel being more accessible, the simple fact is that Cook still sticks quite a bit to his "tell, don't show" style of writing. This shows up the most often when the wizards start working magic. I've said before that because Croaker is our narrator, we primarily get his perspective on magic, which is that he doesn't understand it, and doesn't care to, but accepts it as part of his world. This means that some vital questions about magic just aren't answered, or even addressed. One-Eye and Goblin are supposedly not all that powerful, Silent is a bit more so, the Taken blow them all away, but what are magic's limitations? What can it not do? What does it cost the user? These and other questions need to be asked if you're going to include magic as a large part of your story. Every now and then Goblin or One-Eye will inform Croaker "I can't do that!" but they never explain why. When we've seen them do something amazing, and Croaker asks them to do something that seems borderline mundane by comparison, why can they not do that?

There are also times I wish he'd slow down a little. There's a joyous reunion in this book that he takes less than half a paragraph to describe. Yes, I know that's just Croaker's terse writing style, but I could have used more emotion in that scene. The chapters from Shed's point of view do seem a bit more descriptive than Croaker's, even though he allegedly wrote those, as well.

There were also a couple of characters I wish had not died. They died just as they were getting interesting.

The Ugly
Well, mainly the cover art. Look at it up there. I said look at it!

Seriously, though, if I have to mark anything as ugly, it's how Raven is treated in this story. As before, he never gets any point of view chapters himself, but we're now two books in and we still have next to no idea who he is or what makes him tick. This book has him take some pretty seriously dark actions, all in the name of protecting Darling, only to do something crazy out of character that I suppose we'll have explained in a future volume (I'm nearly finished the third novel and his motivations still seem unclear). The way it leaves his arc is so blatantly a red herring that I'm sure no readers were fooled even then.

Final thoughts and ranking:

This is a major step up for the series, and despite the continued uber-modern style of dialogue and the often stilted prose, I recommend this one heartily. This made me see why this series is so loved, and I think if you're a reader of fantasy, you'll love it as well.

Story: A
Writing Style: B-
Characters: B+
World-Building: B+
Readability: A
Accessibility: B
Consistency: A

Final Ranking: B+.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Wheel Weaves as the Network Wills

Welp. It's happening, apparently. We all knew it. The only question was when. And the answer, it would seem, is soon.

Of course, I'm talking about Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time being adapted to television. In the wake of Game of Thrones, there have been umpteen period costume dramas and/or fantasy series adaptations headed to television, including Spartacus, Camelot, The White Queen, Vikings, The Bastard Executioner, The Last Kingdom and on the lighter end, The Shannara Chronicles. Similar in tone, if not setting, is the pirate series Black Sails. Networks have been accused of all wanting their own Game of Thrones, though in some cases I think the intent was to ape the sumptuous costume dramas of Showtime, such as The Tudors and The Borgias.

The Wheel of Time is probably one of the more well-known and rather infamous epic fantasy series to exist, and unlike most of what we're covering on this blog, it isn't really all that dark. It sorta straddles the line between adult and young-adult fantasy, in fact, and the darker aspects are more hinted at than really explored. It's a classic good-vs-evil tale, very much in the vein of The Lord of the Rings, if also different in a lot of ways.

It tells the tale of a world where magic (referred to only as "the One Power" or just "the Power) is split in half based on gender. The Dark One (yes, that's the level we're on here) and his minions, the Forsaken, were bound in an eternal prison by Lews Theron Telamon a powerful figure known as the Dragon, a male channeler of the One Power and a member of the order known as the Aes Sedai. In retaliation, the Dark One managed to taint the male half of the One Power, causing anyone who uses it to gradually go mad and eventually destroy themselves. This happened to Lews Therin, who went out in spectacular fashion, creating a giant mountain known as the Dragonmount. A prophecy would later foretell that the Dragon would be reborn on the slopes of the Dragonmount, and that he would destroy the Dark One and save the world, but in the process would destroy himself.

Flash forward to the main timeline, wherein the Aes Sedai is now a female-only organization, the world distrusts One Power users in general and the seals on the Dark One's tomb are weakening. Already the Forsaken are free and they're working to help the Dark One rise.

In a tiny village in a remote part of the world, a shepherd named Rand and two of his friends, gambler Mat and blacksmith Perrin, are found by a mysterious member of the Aes Sedai named Moiraine, who has determined that one of them must be the Dragon Reborn.

That's how it starts, and if you want to know more, the internet pretty much will tell you the rest. The books themselves are among the only series you could probably find on book store shelves in their entirety even today. Really, unless the series is less than two years old, it's pretty hard to find complete collections on modern-day book store shelves, and especially so if the series is very long, which this one is. The only series 20+ years old that you can still find whole these days are pretty much limited to the Middle-Earth books, the Shannara books, the Sword of Truth books and the Wheel of Time. There are 14 volumes and a prequel novel. There's also a graphic novel set that covers the same ground.

To be perfectly blunt, this is one of the more divisive series out there. There are people who love it, people who hate it, people who admit it has a lot of problems but love it anyway and people who hate to admit the series' many glaring flaws. And oh, yes, it has them. In spades. For one thing, it's way too long. I'm all for series with intricate, multiple plots building on each other, and umpteen characters, but a great deal of what happens in this series is pure padding. If you trim the fat from this series, you might get three to five good novels out of it. There are numerous other issues with it, and I don't particularly want to go over all of them as it will take forever and that is not the purpose of this post.

Now, this is one of the first fantasy series I ever read, I was pretty much smack dab in the middle of the target demographic (early 20's) when I started and I also got swept up in the thousands of fan theories the plot generated. One could almost say I grew up with it, but that's not entirely true because I was already an adult when I read it, if still quite a young one. Still, it was one of my introductions to fantasy, and I know it was for a lot of other readers as well, and thus, we forgive a lot about it due to our fondness for it. And personally, I still think the main story is pretty good, and I like the characters, especially some of the supporting cast.

So, would I watch the TV version? You bet I would, and so, I'm willing to bet, would countless others.

But as I tend to do, I'm overthinking this one. How to make this good and not a bland rehash of The Legend of the Seeker, and how to avoid turning it into teeny-bopper silliness like The Shannara Chronicles?

My first thought would be to put Steven S. DeKnight and his production crew behind this one. They're the ones responsible for Spartacus, and while that show could get silly, I think it looked absolutely superb, like the movie 300 brought to television. This would help set The Wheel of Time apart from both Game of Thrones and The Shannara Chronicles early on. After all, it's going to be accused of aping both shows; why not make it as stylistically different as one can?

Michael Hirst I'd like brought in as executive producer and co-head writer. He can bring in his costume designers from The Tudors, because if there's one thing this series is definitely going to need, it's amazing costuming.

Because this series doesn't overdo it with the blood and sex, it doesn't have to air on a cable channel like HBO or Starz, but I like the idea of Showtime, because while Showtime doesn't insist on copious nudity, it also doesn't mind when shows do engage in it. The Wheel of Time has several scenes of nudity, and while Jordan doesn't describe them, it also has quite a bit of sex. Our central hero has three lovers. At once. Hirst and DeKnight both have a history with such material, and will likely show us what Jordan only hinted at, which isn't all that bad because one of the umpteen issues readers had with this series is Jordan's attempts at including sex and sexuality with a kind of blushing, "aw, shucks, they're kissing" mentality.

Other thoughts; age the characters up. A majority of the lead characters are somewhere around 18-20 years old. Not as young as Jon, Robb, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys and others were in A Song of Ice and Fire (which is the name of the series Game of Thrones is based on) but still fairly young, and in the early books, they act even younger. Screw that noise. Just make them somewhere in their 20's and cut all the blushing and immaturity. While the interplay between genders (another issue readers had) can be mostly be kept, particularly the idea that men and women continually frustrate each other for similar reasons, the idea that Rand, Mat, Perrin and others have a hard time talking to women at all should be cut, and while these books often do pass the Bechdel Test, too many of the female characters act like love-struck tweens, and that should be toned down as well.

The effects need to be amazing. The Trollocs, Myrdraal, Ogier and others need to enthrall us, not take us out of the story.

Then there's the story and characters themselves. Game of Thrones started out pretty faithful to the books but moved a bit further onto their own path with each season. I think this series should start out being only about half-way faithful. Use the major story landmarks, obviously, and keep our main characters mostly as they are (again, older and with more maturity), but streamline the plot, do away with all the needless side-trails and please, please use composite characters. You think A Song of Ice and Fire has too many characters? This series will drive you nuts.

Do all of that and I think you've got a great show. But I know the question you're all asking, assuming you've read the books: who's going to play Rand?

Well, wonder no more. I've taken the liberty of casting the major characters for the first season. I actually did this a couple of years ago, but several of the actors have aged out of the roles, a few aren't available anymore, and a couple have died. I also have an eye to the idea of making this series more racially mixed. So, the main roles I have changed from my old list.

Here is my cast for The Wheel of Time, Season One.

Matt Milne as Rand al'Thor
Rand is a very hard role to cast because his lineage is important, so whoever plays him has to be red-headed (or easily made so) and very tall. Rand is about 6'6". He'd also have to be the right age and still look handsome and innocent, and a lot of very tall actors either too old or too fierce-looking, or both. Downton Abbey actor Matt Milne is the perfect blend of young, handsome, innocent-looking and almost exactly the right size, at 6'5". Initially I had Black Sails actor Tom Hopper in the part, but Hopper doesn't look like he'll be available any time soon and is close to being too old.
Rosie Day as Gwen al'Vere
First thing to note is that I've changed this character's name. There are already two prominent female characters on this show whose names end with "aine", and "Egwene", this character's name in the books, is actually pronounced "ee-GWAINE". Considering that's just too many "aines", I changed her name to Gwen. Gwen is pretty, but kind of haughty (and only grows more so), so I wanted someone who kinda looked like her shit don't stink. That's why I picked Day, who is also the youngest of the main cast.
Andrew Simpson as Matrim "Mat" Cauthon
Mat Cauthon will be a difficult role to pull off, because he's a gambler and trickster who seems to be pretty knowledgeable of the world despite coming from the Two Rivers, a place few people ever travel from. Andrew Simpson looks so close to how I pictured him that I had to pick him for the part.
Matthew Cheetham as Perrin Aybara
Perrin is also hard because he's supposed to have huge shoulders and look kinda like a football player. I found this guy on an Australian actors' union site, and it doesn't look like he's had much work, but he does have a showreel which shows that he's a pretty good actor and absolutely could play the strong silent type that is Perrin. His broad shoulders also work for the character, though he'll probably have to work out to turn his bulk into muscle.

Anna Julienne as Nynaeve al'Meara
There's got to be some nuance to this character when adapted to the screen. In the book she's kind of a bitch who can't wrap her head around the idea that the world outside her home doesn't work like she's used to and that's not a bad thing. But she also falls in love with a man whose heritage couldn't be more different from hers, so I'd like to see the actress who plays her bring more layers to her.
Antonio Te Moaiha as al'Lan "Lan" Mandragoran
One of the most popular characters from this book, Lan the fierce warrior with the secret heritage is a man of few words who prefers to let his fighting skills talk for him. The actor will need to be skilled, as much of his acting will be with his eyes, and he'll need to be very tall and look like a warrior. That's part of why I chose Te Moaiha up there. Another reason is that the northerners in this world have a culture based somewhat on ancient samurai but don't look Asian. I figured getting them all to be played by Maori actors would be a neat way to introduce some racial mixing.
Jade Anouka as Elmindreda "Min" Farshaw
More racial mixing! Written as a white woman in the series, Min doesn't really delve into her past much, so there's no reason she can't be a runaway Sea Folk (African-like sailors) or something. Min's chief characteristics from the book are that she has visions, prefers men's trousers to dresses and is the most blatantly seductive of Rand's three lovers. Anouka could add something to this role.
Mary McCormick as Elayne Trakand
I'll be honest; much like Egwene, there's not a lot to the part of Elayne, or at least, not much. In both cases I can think of little that sets them apart from other fantasy heroines. Elayne is a princess, and red-headed, and about the same age as Rand. So I picked a New Zealand-based actress that matches that description. She'll do.
Neil Fingleton as Loial
Loial the Ogier is much larger than most humans, to the point where there almost aren't any actors tall enough. Enter Neil Fingleton, England's tallest man, who has gotten into acting of late. At 7'7", he's just about the right size for a short Ogier, and wouldn't need more than make-up to complete the illusion. He's pretty used to being covered in make-up. I am not certain if I would want Fingleton is a good enough actor to pull off this part (pretty much all his roles have been silent thus far) but I did see that he's been taking lessons, so I think he could pull it off.
with Peter Capaldi as Thom Merrilin
Christopher Lloyd was always my Thom throughout the years. As he's still (kinda) acting, I kept thinking he should just go ahead and be cast. But he's now 77 years old and not looking like he's in great health. But I just wasn't sure who else could do it. Every other suggestion is lacking in some way. Sam Elliot is the one I see the most often, because he has the white hair and long mustache already, but he also has a heavy southern drawl that he can't get rid of. So he's out. Then I decided to look for actors who were also musicians and see who fit the bill the most. Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, former rock star who still shreds on a guitar, is perfect. I mean, he's just perfect. He's got Thom's litheness, his projecting voice, the eyes. Ooooh, the eyes. So perfect. And with hair dyed white and a long white mustache, he looks the part perfectly. Now, of course, right now he's the star of one of the biggest sci-fi series in Great Britain the world, but there's two reasons that might not be such a big issue. Partly it's because Doctor Who doesn't film throughout the year, so he'd have time to do two shows, and also he's been talking about leaving after his third series in the role, so he might have open availability.
and Maggie Q as Moiraine
Height? "Ageless" face? Mysterious, cool facial expression? There's no question Maggie Q would make a great Moiraine. I also picture Cairheinin looking slightly Asian, so that fits as well.