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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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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The Two of Swords: Part Eight

May 29, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords8The Two of Swords: Part Eight by K.J. Parker

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Maybe I’m a little slow, but the story is starting to become clear to me. That is, it’s becoming as clear as a story about war, subterfuge, espionage, and secret societies can be. Maybe a better way to put it is my eyes are more open as to what’s really happening. I should have known that Parker wasn’t going to tell a standard story of war with The Two of Swords; I think my problem with not seeing it sooner as I’ve only read his novellas, where that moment comes a little faster.

For the record, in the Tarot set that Parker uses in his story (and I’m afraid I don’t know enough about real Tarot decks to know if it’s a real Tarot deck he’s using as inspiration, or if he created his own) twos are the wild cards. Additionally, Swords isn’t a suit in a standard deck; those are from older decks. Again, I might be slow, and this may have been obvious in earlier parts of the story, but I’m like Musen here where I’m not paying enough attention to catch the inconsistencies.

I mentioned in my review of Part Seven that the story seemed to be about something other than war, but I was wrong. The story is still about war, but it’s not about a war being fought on the fields. I mean, yes, it is, but the real story is behind all of that. This becomes clear at the end of this part, where Parker shines light on the economic effect of and on war, where one foolhardy decision can affect the outcome of future battles. The trick, like in Chess, is to force someone into a position where they have to make that foolhardy decision.

For the record, and for my own future purposes, here are the point-of-view characters and how they relate to the Tarot:

  • Teucer, from Part One, is the Crown Prince.
  • Musen, from Part Two, is the Thief.
  • Telamon, from Part Three, is Poverty.
  • Daxen, from Part Four, is Virtue.
  • Forza, from Part Five, is the Two of Spears.
  • Senza, from Part Six, is the Two of Arrows.
  • Glauca, from Part Seven, is the Scholar.
  • Pleda, from Part Eight, is … ?
  • Lysao, from … Part Nine? … is the Cherry Tree.
  • The Ace of Swords has been announced, but remains a mystery.

The real question, of course, is: Who is the Two of Swords? Though I suppose that’s why we’re reading this novel.

This entire series is showing its brilliance. It just takes a little while to get there, thanks to the puzzle-like nature of the plot.

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The Two of Swords: Part Six

May 25, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords6The Two of Swords: Part Six

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Senza Belot takes the stage to tell part of his story, following his brother Forza’s chapter. We learn more about what happened at the end of the battle in Part Five, but not so much as to get all the answers. The real question here is: Is Forza dead? If so, it could have a major impact on events; if not … well, that could also have a major impact on events. It’s important to how Senza would proceed, if he were or were not dead.

It’s cool to start seeing all the different parts begin to intersect. Teucer showed up in the Part Five, and Telamon keeps popping up, as well as Oida. We begin to see why the latter two characters keep making appearances, which raises additional questions. Hell, at this point in the story, it seems like all we have is questions. This isn’t a problem, since the story is starting to gather its legs beneath itself, ready for the jump. Right now, it keeps hinting at that jump.

One of the things I’ve liked about Parker’s books (aside from the wry style (and the endearing anti-heroes (and the borderline irreverence (it’s sort of hard to find something not to like)))) is his plots, which sneak up on you. I’m seeing evidence of one of those taking shape, which just makes me giddy. It makes me think that the story about the war is just a red herring, or else the major factions in the war are the red herrings. There’s a crimson fish in here somewhere, I guess is what I’m saying.

It took me until Part Five to see the story in The Two of Swords, and I’m pretty sure I’m hooked now. I was going to read them, regardless, but even if I hadn’t had the faith in Parker to stick it out, by now I’d be reading just for the story. The parts are getting shorter, which on the one hand is good, since I can breeze through the remaining chapters, but on the other hand, I’m just going to catch up with the end of the published parts that much sooner. I’m not sure I have it in me to pace myself to that point.

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The Two of Swords: Part Five

May 22, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords5The Two of Swords: Part Five by K.J. Parker

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This. This is what I’ve come to expect from Parker. It has good characters, human drama, a lot of detail, and a brisk pace. Yes, yes, there’s also the sardonic style and the irreverence, which we’ve seen in all of the parts up to this one, but Part Five finally got around to showing me that Parker is on form with this series.

Remarkably, this is the shortest of all parts thus far, but there’s a lot packed in here, thanks in part to shifting the point of view to Forza, one of the Belot brothers who are at war with each other. There’s a little bit of battle here, but what really takes the focus of the story is the relationship between Forza and Raico, his wife. Forza is known for being the greatest general who ever lived, but as we see behind the scenes, Raico might even be better than he is. I like that Parker populates his stories with women who are just as — usually more than — capable as his male characters. It’s not that it’s unusual to find that in modern fantasy stories, but I think it’s significant when male writers include them.

One word of caution, though: Before reading this entry in the series, make sure you have Part Six on hand. I get the feeling you’re going to want to read it right away after finishing Part Five.

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