The Grey Bastards, French’s first installment in the Lot Lands series and the winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016, has been steadily making its rounds around the blogosphere for a while, and became especially popular after the publication of the second installment, The True Bastards, earlier this year. The covers of both installments are really neat (I’d say “pretty” but somehow that word doesn’t seem to really fit fanged half-orcs) and give the reader a fair taste of the content. Which is, contrary to the expectations of some, less a story about nasty old pensioners, and more a curious mix of biker gang lore, bastardized Tolkien setting (well, I couldn’t resist) in a RPG-derived form, and some solid wordlbuilding.
The Lot Lands, previously called Ul-wundulas, are a domain ravaged and scarred by a war. The terrible orc Incursion into the greener and more fertile lands of the Hispartha kingdom a generation back had several unintended consequences: a swath of land between the kingdoms of humans and the domains of the orcs had been razed and destroyed, leaving it all but empty – a no-man’s land, vulnerable to another incursion and liable to start another war. In the wake of Incursion, the half-human, half-orc slaves of Hispartha had been freed and allotted a part of the empty lands, under the condition of protecting the border. Divided into several “hoofs”, a cross between a tribe, a warrior-group and a gang, they share the Lot Lands with insular and dangerous elves, unlucky and demoralized soldiers banished from Hispartha to the ungrateful task of manning the castilles along the border, religiously-minded Halflings defended by the world’s Tartars(!), called Unyars, blood-crazy centaurs, and Sludge Man – a dangerous demon inhabiting a fetid marsh and controlling moving masses of black, sticky goo.
Grey Bastards are one such hoof, consisting of several seasoned riders tasked with a double duty of patrolling the lands in the vicinity on the backs of great war hogs and with protecting a village of women and orphans which had symbiotically grown under their fortress. In this world, another conflict seems inevitable – and the protagonists of The Grey Bastards are in the middle of it all. Intrigued yet?
The other science fiction franchise. Or the science fiction franchise, if we christen Star Wars science fantasy. Where George Lucas took Campbell’s ideas and put the eternal myths into a space adventure story, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a better future for spacefaring humankind. He created a vision of an utopia, in which more enterprising, unruly individuals join the Starfleet in order to find adventure, because in the post-scarcity Earth society there’s not much of that. In Starfleet, they travel across the universe, to meet exciting new people and… not shoot them, unless absolutely necessary.
Piotrek: I’ve always been more of a Babylon 5 guy, but I appreciate Star Trek more and more. As a kid, I’ve seen a random selection of mainly The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, and there was not enough large-scale conflict for my taste. I generally liked it, but John Sheridan was my space captain. So, my introduction into the world of Star Trek was pretty chaotic… but I always liked the idea of trekking through galaxies in a big spaceship, and in time I came to also appreciate stories about (relatively) peaceful exploration.
Ola: My own acquaintance with Star Trek was no less chaotic, I must admit. I watched nearly all episodes of The Next Generation as a pre-teen kid, and for years Picard was the only true captain of the Enterprise 😉 I waited with bated breath for each episode, and while some of them were rather convoluted for a six- to eight-year-old, it was still a great adventure. Fantasy worlds, various races with distinct cultures, drama on the ship, imminent danger… What I liked about Star Trek then and value even more now was the nearly non-violent approach, so rare in modern pop-culture. Differences were abundant, conflicting interests as well, but more often than not a peaceful resolution could have been – and heroically was – achieved. Exploration and understanding were the key values of the Star Trek universe, and inspired countless SF visions since. As for the liberal vision of future military, with its weirdly relaxed and convoluted structure, the red- and mustard-colored uniforms and the variety of ranks coupled with a nearly total lack of discipline, back then I didn’t even bat an eye 😉
Soldiers Live is the final installment in Glen Cook’s Black Company series. I’ve read it over a year ago, but somehow couldn’t force myself to write down a review. Mostly, I think, because Soldiers Live is an elegy to Black Company so heartfelt and bittersweet and true – to its own history, sentiments, internal logic and the author’s worldview – that I found the necessary return to it surprisingly tasking. Over time this book came to resemble a tender spot one only gingerly agrees to touch, for it is a reminder of a past encounter with unyielding reality. What remains – a wound, a bruise, a slowly healing scratch – whatever the case, it’s a sign that reality won despite our best efforts of will 😉
And so it is for the Black Company. It still goes on, united by a common dream, but in nearly forty years of its history told by Cook over the course of nine books it has changed so profoundly it’s hardly recognizable for what it once was. And the crucial change is, obviously, its people. There are almost none of the old guard left, and whoever lives still, bruised and battered and exhausted by the constant struggle, has not much time left.
Sometimes we go a bit outside genre, and it’s not always politics 😉 This occasion, however, definitely merits this little jaunt beyond our usual hunting grounds.
Piotrek: Well, it is election day in Poland, and the stakes are high, but it’s against the law here to discuss politics on election weekend. Lets just say, I’m depressed and did not prepare any champagne for the evening. Looks like four more years of catho-national populism.
Good things do happen, though, and last Thursday a very distinguished Polish writer got a Nobel for 2018. Who is she? A dreadlocked feminist winner the Nobel needed, claims Guardian, and I very much agree. I’m not always happy with Swedish Academy’s choices, but this time I am, and not because she’s Polish (who cares) and only partially because of her political views (which tend to be pretty close mine, the regime hates her 😉 ). I see her books as both insightful, very up to date – but rooted in the troubled history of our region – and extremely readable.
Right in time for October spookiness, Gaiman’s cheeky and heartfelt tribute to both Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft is a lovingly crafted mystery clad in horror. Gaiman’s short story won 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the 2005 Locus Award for Best Novelette, and had been adapted to the comic book medium by Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone, and Dave Stewart over a decade later.
I must admit I did read the short story back in the time, but the comic book adaptation somehow made a much greater impression on me. Maybe it’s the Lovecraftian vibes, which so greatly lend themselves to the dark, shadowy frames filled with menacing tentacles and splotches of vivid green, or maybe it’s the structure of the story, beautifully misleading the readers, throwing red (or rather emerald) herrings left and right, only to reveal its true nature to the careful reader (and indeed, half the pleasure from reading Gaiman’s take on the world’s best detective stems from knowing all necessary facts about Sherlock Holmes ;))
With my current rate of reading I’m suffering from overabundance of books to be reviewed. This apparent luxury becomes something of a curse instead of blessing, a bit like Midas’ touch, for I’m torn between different genres, authors, series and books every time I sit down to write a review. This particular review comes a surprise even to me, as I haven’t reviewed yet the second part of the series, The Line of Polity. However, as Brass Man has as much in common with Gridlinked as it has with its direct predecessor, and I’m careful to avoid spoilers, I hope I will be forgiven this slight desynchronization.
The reason for such a jump will soon become obvious, as it has more to do with my reflection on the underlying philosophy, or worldview, of Asher’s work, than with the story itself. But before I focus on this aspect of Brass Man, an introduction to the plot is required.
Following the discovery of active alien technology (alien in the meaning ascribed to something from beyond known universe, which in the world of Polity has become quite substantial, and active in the meaning that its remains, once thought long – some 5 million years – dead, suddenly appear quite aggressively lively) in The Line of Polity, Agent Cormac must once again pursue his once-human nemesis, Skellor, now a terrifying hybrid of AI, human, and the alien Jain, and, not coincidentally, his other nemesis – the Dragon. The whole crew from Gridlinked comes back together for this adventure: the nearly indestructible Sparkind Golems: Gant and Cento, his Sparkind human companion Thorn, Life-coven biophysicist Mika, and of course, Horace Blegg, still as infuriatingly mysterious as ever. They are accompanied by AIs of different levels of sophistication, some of which – such as the infamous warship Jack Ketch and his unruly offspring, as well as Jerusalem, capable of bending the laws of physics – become fully fledged protagonists in their own right.
There are many great stand-alones in fantasy, but, arguably, the genre is built on series. I guess, when you create an entire new world, just to place your story there, you’re tempted to re-use it 😉 And it pays better, and readers expect it. So, while Tolkien started with trilogy (that he is quoted to think about LotR as one book), his successors published longer and longer series or various length, renown and quality. For me, Belgariad and Dragonlance were gateways into post-tolkienian fantasy, and, after ca. 25 years of reading fantasy, there are still more huge – and reportedly great – series on my TBR.
Recently, I found myself on an extended business trip abroad, with only one book in my luggage (a 900-page one, but still 😉 ) and I visited an excellent second-hand bookshop that offered a pretty complete collection of one of the longest-going fantasy sagas, L.E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluce. While not featured in most of the top tens, it’s often mentioned as an interesting series of novels, with carefully thought-through magic system and an innovative approach to the issue of chaos/order balance. I’ve always been interested by this last issue, as a huge fan of Zelazny‘s Amber. I bought the first four volumes, and now, after reading the first two, I reached a preliminary verdict.