Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sharpe's Triumph, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I've decided to continue with Cornwell's much-acclaimed Sharpe series, continuing in chronological order with Sharpe's Triumph. It has been four years since the siege of Seringapatam, where Sharpe earned his sergeant's stripes, and he's been peacefully serving in the armory of the now British-controlled town. However, Sharpe's peaceful existence soon comes to an end when his old friend Colonel McCandless recruits Sharpe to help him hunt down an English officer who has deserted, joined one of the Indian princes now opposing the British, and taken an entire company of highly trained sepoys with him. Along the way they must join up with Sharpe's old colonel, Arthur Wellesley, who's been promoted to Major General and is leading the next British war in India.  In addition, Sharpe's old enemy of Obadiah Hakeswill returns with his vicious vendetta against Sharpe.

Overall I rather liked this book, much like the previous one, and I get the feeling that most of the books in this series are not going to stray too far from what's definitely a winning formula. The novels in this series are going to drag Richard Sharpe from one conflict to another in the many wars that Britain was involved in during the early nineteenth century, and along the way he's going to have plenty of interesting adventures. I'll admit it doesn't really break new ground but the formula works if you go into it accepting it is what it is and not expecting too terribly much beyond some exciting nineteenth century action. Again, Cornwell manages to capture the visceral realness of warfare in this time period and it's a bloody, messy affair, rather than something noble and glorious, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the thrill regardless.

I will admit, and this is kind of a weakness of historical fiction regardless of time period, that it kind of relies on what I like to call the Forrest Gump Principle: that the fictional protagonist who is in no way particularly special himself was in some way connected to some famous event, or knew famous people, or both. In a particularly long series it can become almost preposterous, such as the Young Indiana Jones series your protagonist may end up being on a first name basis with numerous world leaders and still somehow be just an ordinary joe like the rest of us. It is by far one my biggest peeves with historical fiction, yet at the same time I recognize that it's necessary because history is usually written just about important people and events and the little guy often gets overlooked, so if you want to talk about him he's still going to be tied to the important things. Thus Sharpe's career rather closely follows Wellington's and Sharpe, being a hero after all, will usually be in the right place at the right time.

If you liked Sharpe's Tiger or any of the other Sharpe novels I'm sure you'll enjoy this one as well. I will definitely continue to read the series, but I will probably intersperse it with other books because I do not expect terribly great variation beyond location in these books.

- Kalpar

Monday, March 24, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: Well....Okay Then.

This has been a rather....interesting day to say the least. We've made some progress in getting closer to Corrister and finally killing that bastard, but we've encountered some initial setbacks that have hindered my righteous vengeance. It's only a matter of time before Corrister learns that trying to kill me is generally not a wise course of action if you're determined to keep living.

After getting a late start in the day, having been tuckered out by the zombie horde, we continued towards the structure which Soma had noticed the day before. As we got closer we first noticed the smell of brine on the air, which was soon followed by the ground becoming incredibly marshy and difficult to traverse. It initially appeared that we'd encountered a saltwater marsh some fifty or so miles inland, which was curious to say the least. As we struggled closer to the structure we determined it was the aft end of a great ship that seemed to have been picked up and dumped, prow first, into the ground. It seemed that part of the ocean had come along with the boat, explaining the appearance of the saltwater marsh.

We eventually ran into a moat which impeded our progress towards the ship and appeared to surround it entirely. I made a makeshift leadline with some rope and gold pieces, tossing it into the moat to discover it was about twenty feet deep, making wading across an impossibility. As I drew my line back in, I noticed something tugging on the end and two gold pieces had disappeared from the makeshift weight I'd created. Not relishing the potential of something dragging us under as we tried to swim across, we decided to go around the boat and see if there were any other potential ways across the moat. At one point Tidingston and I noticed a strange light in the depths of the water and felt a strange compulsion to walk towards it, heedless of our own safety. Fortunately we were able to avert this disaster and discover that it was a corpse candle, the spirit of someone who had been sacrificed in water against their will, driven by a desire to get vengeance against the person that killed them. (That copy of Know Your Undead: A Guide For Adventurers has really come in handy for me recently.) We concluded that Corrister had killed this poor soul as well, and much to no one's surprise Tidingston was able to confirm this fact through negotiation. Tidingston further informed the spirit that we intended to kill Corrister and if it could help us at all, it'd be that much closer to revenge. The spirit agreed and brought up the corpses of two large water beetles which served as very good rowboats across the moat.

We entered the ship from its deck, now turned into a wall, and entered the belowdecks through a hatch. We had the option of heading either up or down through the boat and decided to head upwards. Our consensus was that the lower portions of the boat towards the prow were probably flooded and inaccessible, so we decided to try and make it towards the aft of the boat and find Corrister. We encountered a few undead, the first batch of which we quickly dispatched, finding more evidence that this was the Pathfinder mission that Corrister and Winifred had been sent on all those years ago. As we ascended we ran into another group of undead, including a couple of fear lords. I was certainly unnerved but managed to keep my calm, and Meda seemed to approach it with the same tranquility as she approached everything. Tidingston and Soma, however, fled in an absolute panic, leaving Meda and I with no choice but to withdraw.

Despite setbacks, we're at least getting closer to Corrister and perhaps finally getting off this godforsaken island. Hopefully.

- Krinsblag

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett

This week we're looking at a new-ish steampunk adventure novel, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl. Overall I am of mixed opinions regarding this book. On the one hand I found it to be an entertaining pulp adventure, which is a favorite genre of mine, and I was quite satisfied with the adventure. On the other hand, there were some very strong frustrations I had with this novel which greatly diminished my enjoyment. Good parts and bad parts balanced against each other I'd give the book an average rating, but I still feel conflicted.

The premise of this novel is that in 1890 the British Empire, ruled by Queen Victoria, controls much of the world with its massive air fleet and mechanical marvels. It even includes parts of North America, which have remained in British control since the failed revolution of 1775, although several other powers such as France, Spain, and Japan have all staked out spheres of influence. Defending this ever-expanding empire is the glorious hero, Captain Lucian Trigger, and his band of colorful companions who go on rollicking adventures to protect the empire and vanquish its foes. 

Gideon Smith is young fisherman in a village of coastal England, but his dreams of a greater life are fueled by tales of Captain Trigger's adventures. When the crew of his father's fishing boat go missing, Gideon suspects foul play and heads for London to seek the aid of his hero, meeting a number of interesting characters along the way. Gideon is soon thrust into events well over his head and finds himself engaged in his own adventure.

Overall the premise is very solid. Drawing very heavily on pulp adventures and utilizing an everyman perspective character, Barnett sets us up for a grand adventure and he certainly delivers. What is most frustrating for me is that while Barnett creates great possibilities for exploring a very different political and social landscape of America, almost all the action occurs in England where the political fabric remains the same. In a world of grand adventure, most of the action takes place in an area fairly familiar to any reader of nineteenth century literature. Yes, there are new technological marvels galore, with dirigibles and steam driven cabs in the hive of London, but politically it remains the same. When this world seems very closely related to our own, it would have been a great opportunity to see how this very different technology could have affected Britain's social, political, and economic fabric. 

The reason I say that this world seems so closely related to our own was the prevalence of certain historical characters that either served a major part in the plot or were tangentially mentioned. The historical figures of Bram Stoker, Hermann Einstein, Vlad Dracula, Jim Bowie, and Elizabeth Bathory, are tied in somehow to the plot. Granted some have a much greater role, and they are all rather changed from real life, but the novel is shaped by people we know from our own world. In addition, slight references are made to works such as H.P. Lovecraft's body of writing and the adventures of Indiana Jones, which further tie this alternate universe to ours. And this is where I get conflicted with the novel because with all these connections and webs between famous figures, it makes the world feel much smaller and like the world belongs to only a handful of special people. Yes, Gideon our everyman protagonist is a nobody from nowhere who has become elevated because of a combination of chance and his willingness to do what it takes, but it makes me feel like only a select few people can travel in the realm of heroes because they have something special about them. It makes this world of adventure feel smaller and walled off, forbidden to the majority of us. 

My other big issue was how Maria, the titular Mechanical Girl of the novel also gets treated. I wish to avoid spoilers for my gentle readers, but let us just say that poor Maria suffers from quite a few frustrating and institutionally sexist tropes as a character. I certainly would not claim that this was any overt attempt of the author, as I have pointedly said at various points in previous reviews, but I continue to be frustrated that such tropes continue to circulate within the medium of fiction.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is certainly a well-written adventure and quite enjoyable, but as I said there are certain issues which make the book feel much smaller than a world of grand adventure and unfortunate usage of harmful tropes. The ending was left very open and the possibility of a sequel is certainly there, with the tantalizing promise of a look at a changed America, but that will remain unresolved for now. If you're hard-up for a steampunk adventure than you could certainly do worse, but I'm sure you could do much better as well. 

- Kalpar 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: All Aboard the Pain Train!

Things have actually continued to get better for our party, despite the loss of Grovetender and his druid companion. After a night's rest in the village Soma announced that he had developed a new plan for taking down that thrice-damned tree in the graveyard and demanded that we go back. We were initially pessimistic, believing we simply did not have the resources to tackle such a challenge, but Soma's plan proved to be a stroke of absolute brilliance and was executed flawlessly. Soma had improved his levitation spell which allowed him to fly, and had deduced that his acid attacks would in the long run be more devastating to the tree than anything Meda, Tidingston, or myself could throw against it. Taking to the air once again, Soma soared well above the reach of the tree and unleashed a torrent of acid down upon it, much to our amusement.

It seems to have worked because very quickly the leaves began to wither off of the tree and after a few minutes the tree had decided it had had enough and ran away into the forest. Meda was strongly in favor of pursuing the tree and killing it, but Soma decided to let it go in favor of looting the treasure underneath the tree and getting the hell out of there. Tidingston and myself, being utterly incapable of doing anything beyond slightly tickling the tree, agreed it was better to just grab the loot now. A little bit of digging unearthed a chest containing a decent amount of gold and six enchanted headbands, which we distributed amongst ourselves before heading back out of the graveyard. As we had obtained the loot promised to us by Deris in exchange for us returning his body to its proper grave, I proposed that we keep Deris a ghost trapped in the ruins of his town as punishment for him failing to inform us about the incredibly dangerous tree on two separate occasions. Tidingston suggested that we demand more recompense for the return of his body to its resting place and if Deris refused, then we leave him stuck as ghost. While I certainly relish the prospect of wringing yet more money from this bastard, I'm not exactly hopeful.

While Soma had been flying around above the treetops he had also managed to get a very good view of the countryside, noticing how the Blight seemed to increase or decrease in magnitude in certain areas. Soma said that he had noticed a strange structure several miles away and the Blight appeared to grow stronger in that direction. It seems my initial conclusion that Corrister would be at the center of the Blight where it was strongest was correct, although to be fair it didn't take a great amount of mental arithmetic to put two and two together. (I still wish we had gone directly into the Blight to take Corrister out about a week ago. It would have saved us considerably more time. But if wishes were horses we'd all be eating steak.) We decided to begin our trek towards the structure in the remaining daylight, setting up camp just outside the edge of the forest, about two miles from the structure.

As we were rather deep in enemy territory, we decided to keep watch for the night while our casters got their required eight hours of sleep. I volunteered to take first watch and everyone else settled down to get what sleep they could. Soon the moon had risen and gave me a fairly good view of the surrounding landscape. Eventually I noticed the sound of a child crying coming from across the plain and I immediately drew my sword because there was no way in hell that was a regular child. Eventually I noticed a small figure in the distance that strongly resembled the gnome child I had befriended in No Fun, who I had last seen getting crushed by a demigod. He soon spotted me and waved, gesturing for me to follow him. As I'm not a moron I refused to follow him into the blatantly obvious trap and quickly woke Meda, believing that the two of us might be able to handle the problem without the casters. My suspicions were quickly confirmed when the child came closer and I was able to identify it as the same as some of the other creatures that had taken a big bite out of Meda's face when we first met Corrister. I attempted to fend him off with my sword but he ducked under my guard and managed to take a decent sized bite out of my leg. The struggle soon woke Soma and Tidingston and we quickly dispatched the monster, although not before Tidingston accidentally dropped one of his grenades on me. At least it cauterized the wound...

After we had dispatched the cannibal child, the sound of zombies soon assaulted us and a group of twenty or so undead shuffled into view, lead by four corpse lords. Although the odds did not seem in our favor, we made ready and prepared to kill all sons of bitches. And by Gorum, it was glorious. Tidingston threw bomb after bomb into the horde, engulfing them in a wall of flame, while Meda picked off survivors with her bow. Soma ran around the battlefield, using his magic for crowd control and to aid our efforts. My favorite was when he magically made me grow twice as tall, creating a veritable wall of flesh and steel against the undead horde. Although I took a great many wounds, I drew most of the horde's attention and kept them from attacking my less beefy companions, while also getting in quite a few good hits of my own. When the last zombies had been engulfed in one of Tidingston's bombs we managed to come up with quite a bit of loot and burned the bodies in a merry little bonfire as a precaution. With that we rested for the night, secure in the knowledge that with this horde defeated, we would not be attacked again until day.

- Krinsblag

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, A Novel, by Susanna Clarke

This week I've decided to tackle the interesting novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's first book. As a first novel from an author, this book is incredibly well put together and the sheer amount of work and effort that went into it really comes through. It's an odd book for sure, and by nature seems to defy classification into a genre, but it's good because of its peculiarities. I think it would be hard to pin down what sort of audience would like this book, as even the description in the book flap failed to do this novel proper justice. However, if you're interested in fantasy, magic, and the early nineteenth century, I think you'll enjoy this book.

This novel is set in an alternate history version of England where northern England was ruled for three hundred years by a powerful magician called the Raven King, who also ruled kingdoms in the realm of Fairie and beyond Hell itself. However, the Raven King disappeared and magic slowly began to fade from England, until by the early 1800's it is only a historical curiosity, studied by gentlemen scholars with little else to do with their time. That is, until the arrival of the magicians Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. Together they begin performing practical magic to help the government of Great Britain succeed in their war against Napoleon and spark new national interest in a largely forgotten art.

One of the things I was really impressed with was the extensive body of lore that Clarke has created for her alternate history of England. A large body of footnotes provides the reader additional details about the magical history of England and how it shaped the country, including such tidbits as the fact that in the English constitution George III is only steward of Northern England in the Raven King's absence and shall surrender it to him if he should ever return. It's little details like that which make the world so much richer and more believable to the reader, especially to a historian such as myself. The fact that certain characters sought to make the Raven King no more than a myth made it possible to believe that this story happened in our own world, although later events in the novel clearly separated it from our own. The extensive details made the book feel extremely grounded and magic seem almost a mundane fact of life.

The other thing that really impressed me about this book was how Clarke managed to imitate the style of nineteenth century novels extremely well. Obviously I am no expert of nineteenth century literature, and I find many older books rather challenging to read, but Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell seemed to capture many of the qualities of older novels. The overall plot meanders back and forth and can be a challenge to keep track of at times. Characters are introduced or disappear with little ceremony and little explanation of what role they'll play in the larger plot. In many books I'd see this as a weakness, demanding a tighter, more focused plot and better use of its characters, but somehow Clarke manages to make it work in her book. The style so perfectly matches the setting of the book that, coupled with the extensive lore created for novel, it makes you believe this could be an actual Victorian novel written about recent events for the delight of an English audience.

The biggest feeling I got after finishing this book was I felt like there were larger events going on and the characters we fulfilling roles in these events without even realizing it. None of the characters ever got the full picture and we the readers only got a slightly more complete picture. Something definitely happened and there was a definite change in the world of the book which we can perceive, but the full implications of that change are beyond both our and the characters' understanding. Again, this is something that would bug the heck out of me in another book because I like knowing everything when I finish a book and fully understanding what's happened. In this case, it again works and I feel like it's very intentional on the part of the author. The characters aren't fully in control because they simply aren't aware of the larger forces at play in their lives and fulfill roles provided to them without them even being aware. If anything, it leaves me wondering what the return of magic means for an England that has just become the world's greatest power and how magic will mesh with industrialism. Rumors of a sequel bring promise that such questions will be explored in a later novel.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind, Issues #1 & #2, by Dark Horse

As my fellow Browncoats probably know already, Dark Horse Comics is releasing a miniseries of what my sources tell me shall be six issues called Leaves on the Wind. The miniseries will follow the adventures of the crew of Serenity about eight months after the movie that tied up all the loose ends from the TV series. Well, most of them anyway. The first issue came out in late January this year and the second issue was released this past week. Dark Horse is planning to release the third issue late this March, but I am aware it could be released a few weeks later.

The first issue works on establishing the setting for the miniseries. The grip of the Alliance after the events of Serenity has been weakened and a revival of Browncoat resistance has occurred, but the Alliance is still very strong and working very hard to keep a handle on the rapidly deteriorating condition. Malcolm Reynolds and the diminished crew of Serenity are on the run, hiding out in the middle of nowhere until things settle down, but diminishing supplies mean they may have to come out of hiding sooner than they'd anticipate. We also are introduced to Bea, a new character and a leader of the New Resistance against the Alliance, as well as some antagonists who desperately want River safely contained. While the secret of Miranda may be out, there are plenty more Alliance secrets inside her head.

Issue #2 starts the main conflict as Mal and crew are forced out of hiding and the hammer of the Alliance comes down fairly quickly, forcing them to react. I will admit that I've begun to get a little worried at this point because I get the feeling that the comic is starting to just retread old ground rather than introduce new ideas. With only four issues left I'm hoping we can see that there is still some more potential for the Firefly universe rather than a rehashing of the same old plots. I will admit that while Better Days, one of the previous comics set in the middle of the TV series, was not my favorite, it at least explored some new ground and gave some greater depth to characters we already knew. With Leaves on the Wind, I'm really hoping that we'll see some progress with the overall plot of the 'Verse and maybe get to see the Alliance actually on the run for once, faced with a power they can't contain or control. Hopefully things will improve in the next few issues.

- Kalpar

Monday, March 3, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: Alas, Poor Feron

Fortunately for us, the path to the graveyard was not choked with more assassin vines and we soon arrived to a clearing outside the graveyard. What little we could see showed a very large tree in the center of the graveyard, as well as a stone wall surrounding the cemetery covered with yet more vines. Having just fought a number of vines that sought to eat us, we were naturally suspicious of practically any and all plant life that wasn't Grovetender. Feron approached the vines in an attempt to negotiate with them, but the results were less than hopeful and we convened a safe distance away to determine the best course of action. Soma decided to summon an earth elemental to attack the roots of the vines directly, ensuring a clear avenue of escape, however he had greatly overestimated the efficacy of his elemental and the vines soon became rather hostile, releasing four zombies to attack us.

The zombies were...well interesting and strange as words do not fully describe their actions, but they seem the most accurate. The zombies, of course, shambled towards us and began trying to attack me but one of them decided to turn instead and attack its fellows, which came as a surprise to the other zombies as well. Between fighting amongst themselves and the sheer killing power the entire party the zombies did not last particularly long. The vines, however, proved a greater challenge and even Meda's archery and Whitmore's bombs could only take down one before the other decided to burrow underneath the ground and disappear. We quickly reformed the party, worried that the remaining vine would come back and try to seek its revenge, but it must have decided it enjoyed living more and we've seen no sign of it since.

As we entered the cemetery Soma and Feron noticed that the tree which dominated its center was a gallows tree, a nasty plant which turns any corpses around it into little meat puppets that hang from its branches. Although we didn't like the look of it, we decided Feron should at least attempt to negotiate with the tree so that we could investigate the cemetery in relative peace. I will never know exactly what Feron said to that damn tree but it must have pissed the tree off because it killed him just moments after he walked up to it, smashing him into a very fine pulp. Grovetender quickly gathered up what little was left of Feron and ran back into the woods, much to our dismay because as frustrating or annoying Feron was, we all had taken a liking to Grovetender. Probably because he didn't talk as much. Confronted with certain death if we continued into the cemetery, we decided to head back to the town and see if Deris could give us more information.

Deris seemed somewhat surprised about the tree and despite our protests still wanted us to investigate the graveyard. We asked him if there was anything he could do to help us take care of the tree, and he said he could write some spells down on a scroll, but Soma concluded none of the spells would be of much help. The great age and strength of the tree meant that Whitmore's bombs and chemicals would be of limited help, and while I could certainly attempt to cut down the tree with my sword, it seemed unlikely that the tree would let me live long enough to accomplish anything significant. Meda, however, had a skyhook that could leave her suspended in air, well above the tree's clutches, and she could sit all day flinging arrows at the tree until it finally expired. As this seemed the best plan with our limited resources, we decided to begin Operation Skyhook the next day.

Despite a promising beginning, Operation Skyhook proved to be extremely unsuccessful, much to everyone's regret. I did find it rather entertaining to watch a dwarf be lifted a hundred feet in the air and then stay there while she launched arrow after arrow towards a giant tree, but after a few minutes it became apparent that Meda was doing little more than scratching the bark of that damned tree. If it had been almost any other creature our plan might have worked, but the tree's thick bark meant most of Meda's arrows clattered uselessly around its roots. While she was suspended a hundred feet in the air, though, Meda did notice that thirteen of the graves in the cemetery had been defiled. Determined to prevent this trip from becoming a total loss I carefully entered the graveyard and skirted the edges, staying well out of the maiming radius of the tree. Although unable to investigate all of the graves, I was able to discover (much to no one's surprise) that twelve of them were child-sized graves and one of them was adult-sized. Presumably Corrister had stolen the corpses of Deris and his students for some nefarious purpose. With no other options available to us we decided to return to the town and inform Deris about the developments.

It was at this point that we started debating if Deris was either useless or trying to dick us over because the argument could be made very strongly either way. Apparently all Deris needed us to do was confirm that his grave had been desecrated, something which he had already concluded from available evidence but could not prove. Furthermore in life Deris had been a verdant sorcerer which meant he had planted the tree in the center of the graveyard with the intent that it would help protect the cemetery and prevent any desecration of the corpses. I was very quick to inform Deris that the tree had very clearly failed to do its job, and he could have very easily told us about this tree before we left for the cemetery the first time. Or even the second time after we told him a giant-ass tree had killed Feron but still wanted us to go into the cemetery and investigate. Furthermore, rather than wasting our time with confirming something he already knew, Deris could have just told us to go find whoever had stolen his body so that it could be put back to rest, which is what we're now going to have to do. Either Deris completely forgot to mention all of this relevant information until we reminded him of it, making him utterly useless, or he selectively omitted information because he's planning to dick us over at some point, possibly with the tree. Not even the promise of treasure (of course buried underneath the tree) is able to make the more mercenary of us eager to perform this task. I'm left with the suspicion we should have just hunted down Corrister in the first place, which would have saved us a lot of trouble.

- Krinsblag