Savage Season

June 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

seasonSavage Season by Joe R. Lansdale

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I first read Savage Season about twenty years ago. True to form, I remembered almost nothing of the book before re-reading it; I did, however, know the story, since my wife and I tore through the entire first season of Hap and Leonard on Netflix over the weekend. I also met Joe Lansdale last week at a speaking/signing event, so between the series and the signing, I had him on the brain, and figured this would be a good time to revisit the series.

The story is typical Lansdale, but, curiously, a bit tame when compared with the remaining Hap and Leonard books. That’s not much of a surprise, I guess, since I learned at the signing that he never intended for the characters to become a series, but it was missing some of the oddness that’s become a part of the later books. It’s also the introduction to the characters, so there is a bit more backstory for the two of them than is typical in the rest of the books. Still, Lansdale gets right into the action from the start, bringing in Hap’s ex-wife Trudy to lure him in to a scheme to make all of them some money. Lansdale also populates the story with a handful of strange characters — Trudy’s other ex-husband, an old hippie with plans to use the money for social change; Chub, a fat man who believes himself to be a therapist; and Paco, a bomb-scarred leftover from a sixties revolutionary group — but they’re not quite on the level of who he uses in the other books.

There are differences between the book and the show, which is to be expected, but most of them are fairly minor (instead of a sunken car, for example, they’re looking for a sunken boat). In the show, Trudy seems to want to make amends with Hap, but in the book, she’s just manipulating him for her own gain. That’s probably the biggest change, that and how the two formats portray Angel. She’s about the same, personality-wise, in both the book and the show, but the producers of the show made her much more memorable. Plus, the show introduces us to Angel and Soldier much earlier, so we have time to see how cold-blooded they are. Lansdale doesn’t need that much space to portray them that way, but we do get to see Jimmi Simpson and Pollyanna McIntosh thoroughly enjoy their characters.

(Of particular note: Pollyanna McIntosh also played the pivotal role in The Woman, a movie written in conjunction with a Jack Ketchum novella. Lansdale and Ketchum, and now The Walking Dead: she’s setting a trend for playing some dark, dark roles.)

My favorite part of the show, though, is Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard. James Purefoy is a fine Hap, but after seeing Williams play Leonard, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He doesn’t just play the part; he owns it. Still, this is a review of a book, so I suppose I should get back to that.

A few Lansdale reviews back, I mentioned that he is a dependable writer, one you can count on to tell a good story, tell it well, and make it memorable. Savage Season is a dependable story, at least for already-fans. They’ll see a lot of the groundwork for the rest of the series, and see a hint of the style that would later define not just the series, but also all of his later fiction. Folks new to the series have a great place to start with this book, and those of us who already know it will have fun revisiting the start. I do wonder how people who started later in the series feel about this one, in comparison.

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Aftermath: Empire’s End

June 15, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

endAftermath: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

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Before starting this book, I intended to refresh myself on what came before by reading the plot summaries on the Wookieepedia. This was a mistake. I barely had the patience to get through the summary of Part One of Aftermath, because the entire summary is 4,819 words. Take that and add it to the length of the summary for Life Debt (3,954 words), and you have enough words for a novelette. It’s pretty clear: lots of stuff happens in this series.

For all that happens, though, reading the series is a tremendous chore. There’s so much happening, and there are so many characters, it’s hard to keep up with the plot. The interludes don’t help, since Wendig feels the need to cram as many characters into this story as he can. He even brings Jar Jar back into the story, and I hear that the new canon is trying to distance itself as much as possible from the prequel trilogies.

The book ends the trilogy that’s intended to bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, but it only takes us a little of the way toward the latter story. It sets things in motion, but the real focus of the trilogy is to show how the Empire doesn’t just fade away when the credits roll at the end of Jedi, and how much it takes to actually eliminate the threat. Along the way, Wendig introduces us to new characters with their own trials, and those trials come to a close in the book.

The biggest event of the book is that we finally get to Jakku to see the battle between the Empire and the New Republic. We get to see why there is so much debris on the planet, and what made it important to the Empire overall. I have to give credit to Wendig for writing some engaging action scenes involving this battle. I went into this book expecting to be disappointed, and I think it helped me appreciate the story a bit more. I’m not going to seek out Wendig’s other books, mind you, but I at least was able to recognize that he could get a few things right.

Character names, however, are not one of those things. I’m used to character names in the Expanded Universe sounding like they were made by shaking a box of Alpha-Bits, but Tolwar Wartol? Come on. This smacks of just giving up on creating a new name. Near the end of the story, Wendig tries to make a joke out of it, but it’s a little too late, and if he’s trying to be sly, instead it comes across as being obnoxious.

Wendig doesn’t give us the whole picture of his story, even when it doesn’t affect the narrative for him to do so. There’s an important scene near the middle of the book where it feels like the entire plot has fallen apart, but then fifty pages later, it’s revealed that it wasn’t the end of that particular point, and it’s told to us in an “Oh, didn’t you already know that?” sort of tone. It’s like we’re learning to play a game from Wendig, but he only tells us the rules we’re supposed to know when we come across a situation where they benefit him the most.

I powered through this book only because I committed to reading everything in the EU. After the painful experience of reading Aftermath, and then following it up with the even worse Life Debt, I would have passed on this book all together save for that commitment. I do think this is the best book in the trilogy, but this is sort of like saying The Phantom Menace is the best of the prequel trilogy movies; it may be true, but that’s not to say it’s going to win any major awards.

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Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium

June 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

soulsTortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium by Clive Barker

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With Clive Barker, I’m a take-it-or-leave-it reader. I used to read his stuff as religiously as I did Stephen King’s, but over time, I lost interest. I’m not sure why; the man still has a vivid imagination that goes into some dark, dark places, and every time I read another work of his, I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have read this novella, except for the fact that it was part of the Subterranean Press Humble Bundle.

Only, Tortured Souls isn’t really a novella. It’s a collection of six short stories Barker wrote to promote a series of figurines he produced with Todd McFarlane. It’s easy to tell from the stories which figure is the focus of each story, but it starts with Agonistes, a being who can take mortals and make them into nightmares. The book begins with his legend, and then moves on to two characters whom he recreates into something to take revenge. Seeing as this is Clive Barker, this isn’t just a pop-’em-in-the-back-of-the-head kind of revenge; it’s much more torturous and graphic.

By themselves, the stories suffer because Barker doesn’t do much to describe the creatures in each story. Each chapter is prefaced with an illustration, but not all of them are descriptive, and it seems like Barker was relying on the figures to serve as the description. In their original release, this would have been fine, but in a collected book format, we needed more than what he provided. Pictures of the figurines would have been ideal, but I suppose there’s copyright interfering with that possibility.

Also, the stories were written to be standalone, inasmuch as they were released individually with the figures, so a few of them give a summation of the stories that precede them. Again, this makes sense, given their original release method, but as a standalone collection being marketed as a novella, it’s redundant. I’m not sure why the author or an editor didn’t clean up parts like that to make the story flow better.

Finally, for as much as the story is about the two main characters, there wasn’t much connection to them. The stories read more like vignettes, even though they all together made up a larger story, so we don’t get much of an insight into what makes them tick. The characters are who they need to be, no questions asked. Sure, it keeps the story moving forward, but it doesn’t make the reader empathize with what’s happening to them.

The overall story here is interesting enough, and the imagery is memorable, but there’s not much here to recommend it to readers outside of his hardcore fan base. It’s a quick read, certainly, but there are better Barker books to read for people who are unfamiliar with his style. Imajica or Weaveworld would be better places to start for casual readers, though anyone into dark fiction would do better to start with The Hellbound Heart or The Damnation Game.

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Beast in the Basement

June 13, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

beastBeast in the Basement by Jason Arnopp

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Before starting this book, I knew there was going to be a twist in it. I hadn’t heard of the author before, so when I saw something suggesting this was a good, tight read, I checked a few reviews to see what they had to say, and nearly all of them talked about the shocking twist. So, yes, I was predisposed to expect it, but I think even if I had gone into the story blind, I would have been expecting some kind of twist. It was evident the way Arnopp wrote the story that something wasn’t all that it seemed.

To his credit, Arnopp did surprise me. Despite expecting the twist, I didn’t figure it out before its reveal. It wasn’t even a cheat, either, since the story as he wrote it supports the direction it takes. It reminded me of the twist in Shyamalan’s The Visit, not that it’s similar in any way, but in the way it takes you by surprise, and in the way it doesn’t conclude with that twist, but instead takes you a little further into the story once it’s revealed.

For all that, though, the twist seemed a little ridiculous. I’m not saying it’s implausible, or unsupportable, but it didn’t have the kind of impact I expected, given how well Arnott sets up the tension of the story. It was a kind of “That’s it?” moment, and then a shake of my head as it concluded. Like Stephen King’s reveal of Pennywise’s true form, the truth of this story didn’t live up to the setup.

There’s really just one main character in the story, though Arnopp brings in a potential love interest for him. She’s barely defined, and not much of a character, despite being necessary for the main character’s development. It would have been different if he had realized her character more, but as it is, she’s there simply as a means to motivate the main character, and winds up being window dressing.

Arnopp’s previous credits include several screenplays, which shows in this novella. He tells more than he shows, and the pacing is a bit clunky, as it seems to progress too slowly at first, though it does pick up near the end. In fact, I think this story would work well as a short movie, since plot-wise, the story succeeds fairly well.

Ultimately, the story is all plot, without sufficient character development. In some cases, this is OK (Dean Koontz’s Icebound is one of those stories, and I remember tearing through that book in one sleepless night), but here, it feels like a detriment. It’s not a bad story (judging by the number of four- and five-star reviews, it certainly isn’t), but maybe I’m not the right audience for it. Still, it was only 99 cents, and I’ve read a lot worse than this for more money than that.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen

June 12, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords15The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen by K.J. Parker

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This installment of The Two of Swords — the last one to become available — was published in April 2016. According to Amazon, the next installment won’t be available until June of this year. That’s over one whole year that’s passed since Parker last released a chapter of this story. I can’t imagine waiting that long for it; heck, I’m impatient to wait the four months until then! The good news is Parker at least brought the story to a good stopping point before taking that hiatus.

For one, we finally learn the ultimate goal of the Lodge. I’m not going to tell you what that is, but rest assured, we do get an answer. (Maybe. Lord knows, Parker hasn’t been playing us completely straight this whole time, so who’s to say he’s not throwing us another red herring?) We also get a few new characters, revisit some we’ve seen before, and start to see how all these various plot points are coming together. As it is, if Parker had to break the story at a point before taking some time away from the story, he picked the right place for it.

There are actually two chapters to this installment, which was odd, but makes sense, since the second one was only about twelve pages long. It was weird seeing them break within the same ebook, but I understand once this is complete, it will be published as a single volume, so if nothing else, this setup gives us a taste of that. Plus, this isn’t the first time Parker has put two chapters in one installment; it’s just the other one was only three extra pages.

So, I’m kinda bummed that it’s over, but I’m looking forward to what remains. Part Fifteen wraps up some of the loose ends, but we still have a lot of frays that need mending. As good as this first half (?) has been, the second half should be mighty impressive.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen

June 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords14The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen by K.J. Parker

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It seems a little late in the story to be bringing in new characters, but Parker does exactly that in Part Fourteen. Chanso, the archer who shot Corason in the last chapter, becomes our point-of-view character, through which we get to see the devastation of war (again), along with some insight into the Lodge. The Lodge has been presented to us as a well-meaning, duplicitous-yet-honorable group that (maybe?) wants what’s best for everyone at the end. The problem is that the ends justify the means, as we see in this installment.

As the story began, I had reservations, since we were dropped into a new group of people, and had to learn about them for most of the chapter. It seemed like a bad time to be bringing in new characters, since the main story felt like it was nearing a pivotal moment, but of course I should have trusted Parker. This chapter, like the Lodge’s actions, was a means to the end, which was to give us further insight into the war and its history. Parker does a great job of showing us complex events through the eyes of people who have only a tenuous grasp of the larger picture, and Chanso is another of those characters.

The good news is the chapters are getting longer again, so it feels like we’re making progress; the bad news is there’s a lot of new exposition to wade through to get to that progress. Whenever I start to question the relevance of where Parker’s taking us, I try to remember that I’ve trusted him this far, and that my trust hasn’t been misplaced. I need to keep moving forward, knowing that Parker is going to give us what we want, even if it’s going to be a little longer getting it than we would like.

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Two Serpents Rise

June 7, 2017 at 1:12 pm (Reads) (, )

serpentsTwo Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

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I may have waited a bit too long between finishing this book and reviewing it, as already I feel like I’m losing some of the details from the book. On the other hand, good books tend to linger in your mind, so maybe the fact that I’m already forgetting parts of it is a bad sign. It definitely didn’t have the same kind of punch as Three Parts Dead, which might be due, in part, to much of the world-building already having been done. It didn’t feel as interesting, either, which is the main source of my disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of cool stuff here. The water demons are especially memorable, and I think it’s a great idea that a world that trades in magic uses parts of their soul as currency. Plus, Gladstone draws on Mayan and Aztec culture to populate this city, which is something not seen often in fantasy fiction. He even adds a living skeleton as the CEO for one of the companies in the book, which was cool, except I’m a reader of The Order of the Stick, so I kept getting Xykon stuck in my head whenever he appeared in the story. I can’t fault the author for that, though. The biggest problem for me is the main plot is mostly a love story, when all of the other subplots in the book would have made for a better focus.

Caleb, our main character, works for a company that supplies water to a desert region, so it’s a big deal when he’s called out to investigate the possible poisoning of one of their reservoirs. Once there, he encounters a female runner who catches his attention, and, by all rights, is likely responsible for the poisoning. Smitten, Caleb proceeds to make a bunch of stupid decisions that prolong the investigation, simply because he’s convinced she couldn’t be involved. The story is still engaging (possibly more than Three Parts Dead, just because a large part of the world-building isn’t required here), and the plot is complex without being complicated, but I feel like Gladstone was aiming for a younger crowd by zooming in so much on that relationship.

What I like most about this book — and the series overall — is that it’s so different from Three Parts Dead. Instead of writing multiple books about the same character, Gladstone instead creates an entire world where each book can stand independent of the rest, because there’s so much possibility there. I wasn’t so disappointed in Two Serpents Rise that I was ready to give up on the entire series, but the fact that Gladstone’s universe is big enough to support a variety of possible stories gives me more of a reason to keep reading. That the story is about a water management company, and is still interesting, is a feat all by itself.

I’m taking a break from the series for a book or two, not out of lack of interest, but because I have a couple of new books I’ve been wanting to read. After that, I plan to return to Gladstone’s world and see what else he has up his sleeves. So long as he stays a little further away from the romance in them, I expect to like the rest of them as much as I liked the first.

 

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The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen

June 6, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords13The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen by K.J. Parker

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True to form, Part Thirteen picks up immediately after the end of Part Twelve, as Corason rides out of town. Immediately, Corason picks up someone trailing him, who he ultimately learns is Eudaemonia Frontizoriastes. She wears a veil, which put me in mind of Lysao, from Part Eight, but it turns out she’s someone different. She’s from the East, where women can be ordained as agents, so maybe that gives us an additional clue regarding Lysao? Possibly. It’s Parker, so we’ll have to guess until we know for sure.

This is a short chapter (24 pages!), but that’s probably for the best. Corason is annoying, and while Eudaemonia is more interesting, their banter is a little tiresome. What redeems the chapter is what we learn about the war. Something curious is going on, which could mean that Forza is still alive (no one seems to believe he is, but Parker hasn’t shown us a body yet, either), or it could mean something else. What that something else could be, though, is still a mystery. Maybe. Parker writes in such a way that he doesn’t give you all the answers explicitly, though all the answers are in the story. I’m not paying close enough attention to get it all.

I’ve seen people complain about the price of each chapter, and with Part Thirteen, I can begin to understand it. I mean, if this book runs 23 chapters, I will have paid $22.77, which is still cheaper than a lot of hardcover books, but to pay the same price for 24 pages when the other chapters run 50-70 pages, I can sort of understand it. Of course, this far along, I’ll keep paying for them as they release them. I can’t deny that it works as a marketing ploy.

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The Two of Swords: Part Twelve

June 5, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords12The Two of Swords: Part Twelve by K.J. Parker

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So, we get another look into the Musen/Axeo relationship, though it doesn’t start off that way. These guys aren’t my favorite characters in the series, so it’s hard to muster up a lot of interest for them, though the story (such as it is) keeps me interested. The chapters now seem more about individual adventures, which is good for the chapters, but less for the overall story. It seems like it’s ticking along slowly, though the more we see of the other characters in the story, the more we learn of the Lodge and its machinations.

As usual, Parker’s style and narrative carries the chapter, as the banter between Musen and Axeo is sharp and witty. We see the relationship from Musen’s viewpoint this time, which is nice, since he’s such a quiet character. We also learn more about his loyalties, to the Lodge and to other interests, which is a nice aside, since Musen has come across as such a selfish, self-interested character thus far. That could be why he’s not one of my favorite characters, but with what we learn here, he becomes a little more sympathetic.

Part Twelve is a bit lackluster, but it keeps the larger story moving along enough to keep my interest. I’m winding down to the last of the available chapters. I feel like I should start pacing myself, but it’s hard, when the end (for now, at least) is in sight. It looks like Part Sixteen won’t be available until June, so I’ll have plenty of time to let the story settle before picking it back up again.

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The Two of Swords: Part Eleven

June 2, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords11The Two of Swords: Part Eleven by K.J. Parker

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According to my notes, I’ve read 650 pages of The Two of Swords. That seems a bit high, considering I’m not even halfway through the entire series, based on the 23 parts that are currently available for purchase or pre-order. Then again, maybe this is Parker’s version of A Song of Ice and Fire.

(I’m fine with that, by the way. As much as I like Martin’s epic, it takes itself so seriously that it could use a nice foil like The Two of Swords. Parker’s story is just as serious, behind the scenes, but it’s awfully fun reading his style over his own kind of epic tale. It’s almost like it’s poking fun at the genre while being an homage at the same time.)

In Part Eleven, we return to Axeo, Oida’s brother (is it a return? I get the feeling we’ve already met Axeo, but I can’t recall. It’s times like these I wish the series had its own Wiki so I could keep up with this stuff), and even watch the story pick up from the moment Part Ten ended, when Frontizo was preparing to write a letter to Axeo. Oida’s brother is paired with Musen, the thief who featured in parts one and two, among other chapters, and the two of them are on a mission to retrieve something for the Lodge. The two men can only barely tolerate one another, so much of the story involves their banter, though “banter” is a generous term when Axeo is pretty much the only one carrying on the conversation here.

As the story progresses, it’s becoming clearer that the Lodge is a major force in Parker’s world, and it makes me wonder if, by the end of the story, we’re going to realize that everyone in this world is a Craftsman. The story has also referenced Saloninus, the genius who featured in both Blue and Gold and The Devil You Know, so I now know for sure that this book is in the same world as Parker’s other novels, and I wonder if the Lodge has been referenced in those books. It makes me regret not reading this series in order of Parker’s other works, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it now.

(Also, it’s somewhat confusing to read this series while also reading Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. There are Craftsmen in both, and I keep having to make a mental note to shift gears as I settle into one story or the other.)

The endings of the chapters are becoming more and more cliffhangers, which could be Parker trying to keep us more interested in reading the next installment of the novel, but now that the story is really underway, and we’re seeing the intricacy of the characters and the plot, it might just be that this is the best way to tell the story. Moving from one chapter to the next as I’m able to do now is helpful, but this won’t always be the case. Maybe I’ll feel differently once I have to take a seat on the waiting train, too.

I didn’t like this chapter as much as the others, since it didn’t reveal much more of the plot or the characters. There’s a good chance that it will have more relevance in later chapters, but I told myself I was going to rate these installments on their own, or at least in context of everything that preceded them. I trust Parker to keep the story interesting, but as a standalone adventure, this one lacked much of what the others had.

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