Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019)

black leopard red wolf

Author: Marlon James

Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Format: Paperback

Pages: 620

Series: The Dark Star Trilogy #1

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” p. 3

If Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo del Toro ever had a child who was an empath with deep, abiding love for Africa and penchant for intimate, graphic violence, his name might have been Marlon James. Black Leopard, Red Wolf elicits quite extreme reactions from readers – from hate to confusion to appreciation to love – and after reading it I no longer find this surprising. It is indeed a visceral, shockingly brutal and sometimes outright nightmarish journey through atrocities and evils, real and imagined. When James writes that there are two pages in this book that his mother is not allowed to read, I feel I know exactly which two pages he talks about; and they are horrifying in the portrayal of the most intimate, vengeful violence. And yet Black Leopard, Red Wolf is also a book describing with heartbreaking detail the fleeting, protean essence of happiness; the capriciousness of fate and coincidence; the twisted, uncanny ways of human heart. At 620 pages of dense, challenging prose Black Leopard, Red Wolf is James’s absolutely stunning tour de force; a classic Bildungsroman set in the mythical neverwhen of pre-colonial Africa, where monsters prowl the land and sometimes hide behind human eyes, where humans take on animal forms, where magic is ordinary, and miracles are everyday occurrences, but where human kindness is rarer than gold.

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Adrian Czajkowski, Guns of the Dawn (2015)

First a blog-related question – how do you like the new layout? I am, I have to admit, on a fence, but it is refreshing 🙂

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And now, this:

Guns-of-the-Dawn

Author: Adrian Czajkowski

Title: Guns of the Dawn

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 658

A book bought by me immediately after it was published, read and reviewed by Ola, and now I also finally got around to reading it. Ola’s original post is in Polish, as was often the case in our early days, so I’ll recapitulate, and maybe one day she will translate the whole thing.

Ola liked it, with 9/10 I’ll say she loved it. Sense and Sensibility in Vietnam was her title, and what followed were comparisons to PlatoonFull Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. And Shadows of the Apt, obviously 😉 Conclusion is, that the book is as well written as Czajkowski’s other novels, and keeps the reader interested up to the very last page.

In general, I agree, but I’m not as enthusiastic as Ola had been.

I agree, we do have a likeable heroine, Emily Marshwick, a copy of Austen’s protagonists, a daughter of impoverished nobility trying to stay afloat in a dilapidated family manor in a society that reached early industrial age – while preserving magic and strong monarchy. She’s pragmatic, self-reliant, smart, prideful and quite a bit prejudiced. It was light, not as fresh as Austen’s prose 200 years ago, but very entertaining.

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Netflix’s The Witcher (2019 – present)

Piotrek: When I first heard the news in 2017 I was excited. Ola proclaimed:

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Now we’ve both seen the first season, meditated on it for a while, and it’s time for our verdict 😉 We both like the books, a lot, so it’s not going to be a cool review of a random genre TV show. I definitely will be measuring it against my high expectations and a clear vision of who Geralt is and what world he has his adventures in. And against one of the best computer RPGs ever.

And boy, am I conflicted… It’s good they did it, there are many great things about the show, including most of the actors, but the story is butchered in a way that simply does not work for me. That is not to say I won’t be watching next season, there’s not that much solid fantasy on tv.

The problem starts with the first important decision Lauren Schmidt Hissrich had to make, about the show’s structure. Books start with many stories, two volumes of them, concentrating on Geralt and his adventures, often shared with Jaskier/Dandelion. It’s episodic, although some wheels are put in motion that will determine events volumes ahead. Yennefer appears, but is not yet one of the protagonists. Ciri is too young to really matter. The show, by starting the story with three separate timelines, gives us two heroines that are just as important as the hero, and gives us insight into their origins that we only glimpsed at reading the saga. The idea is good, execution flawed. Before I discuss the flaws, let me tell you what I think we missed, and I would miss it even if Hissrich’s idea was executed seamlessly.

Sapkowski’s short stories, stories I value more than the novels, introduced his world in a pretty comprehensive way. Culture, history, religion, politics, prejudices, brewing conflicts that will later erupt into wars. Nilfgaard is mentioned, but not visited, and we get to see the shades of moral grey of this universe before we’re told to hate the big bad. Sapkowski created a post modern cycle, where the bigotry of our own world was the main target. Here we got a cliche about the coming Nazis. I’d argue it’s because there was no time to get to know “our” side. One of the victims of that simplification is Cahir, reduced to a stereotypical Hitlerjugend officer. Whatever you think about the later seasons of the GoT, it’s early episodes showed how to present a complex fantasy world on screen with depth that is simply missing here. Ola?58-Copy

Ola: That’s one mighty rant ;). And an unfortunately justified one, I might add.

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Jonathan French, The Grey Bastards (2015)

The Grey Bastards

Author: Jonathan French

Title: A The Grey Bastards

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 386

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?

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Glen Cook, Soldiers Live (2000)

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Author: Glen Cook

Title: Soldiers Live

Series: The Chronicles of the Black Company

Pages: 566

Format: Paperback Omnibus Edition

 Soldiers live, and wonder why.

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.

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Glen Cook, She Is The Darkness (1997)

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She Is The Darkness is the seventh installment in Cook’s acclaimed Black Company series. As Bleak Seasons was all about surviving a siege from within the besieged walls of the city of Dejagore, She Is The Darkness is all about laying siege to an impenetrable enemy fortress, Longshadow’s Overlook. And once again, in She Is The Darkness Cook delivers a gritty and very realistic picture of war seen from the perspective of regular soldiers – in short, a mudslide of exhausting boredom interspersed with short, intense moments of terrifying action. Put it all in the harsh, heady limelight of well-earned paranoia, mistrust and second-guessing, schemes upon schemes, intended lack of communication between regular soldiers and the leaders, and internal divisions of the army, and you have a very accurate psychological portrait of most of the prolonged conflicts in the history of human warfare.

She Is The Darkness, fully in line with the other books in The Black Company series, deals with the Western, highly romanticized view of soldiers as impeccable, heroic and virtuous heroes of ages, geniuses of strategy and masters of killing arts. Lots of fantasy books actually ascribe to that stereotype, with increasingly unconvincing results. Cook gives us the opposite – a book which, at least on the psychological level, could be a war memoir of a Vietnam vet. His characters, nearly all of them soldiers, are human, prone to human vices and weaknesses, frequent changes of heart, emotional upheavals and displays of casual pettiness, which Cook so aptly – and ruthlessly – depicts. At the same time, however, his characters are able to rise above the routine mediocrity from time to time – especially when it matters the most – to empathize, understand and comfort each other, showing equally human kindness, loyalty and even wisdom which allows them to remember why they went with the Black Company in the first place, which is the biggest question of the whole series.

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Robert Jordan (1990-2005), Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (2009-2013) – The Wheel of Time

The text below is partially a translation of one of the early, Polish posts, and uses two of my mini-reviews from Goodreads. I re-post it in a slightly expanded version to reiterate my dislike of the series that remains, for some reason, very popular 😉 People often wonder – is it worth one’s time? With 15 books and 12K pages (!), it’s not an easy decision, especially if one is a completionist. I’ve suffered through it all, and it took all of my willpower to get to the end. After that, I not only refused to acknowledge the greatness of Jordan, but also to read any more Sanderson. Well, the second rule I broke last year with Elantris, but it won’t happen again any time soon.

I’ve undertaken the task of reading – or, rather, listening to, and for hundreds of hours, The Wheel of Time, to familiarize myself with one of the most famous series in the world of epic fantasy. Also, with my new Audible account, I wanted to spend my credit-a-month on the longest books available 😉

According to Wikipedia, with 80 million volumes sold, it’s the second most popular fantasy series after Tolkien, and, at least in 2016, GRRM was still trailing behind with 70 million. Published 1990-2013, after Jordan’s death it was finished by the young and talented Brandon Sanderson. And it sounded interesting – long, complete series, no risk I’ll have to wait years to see the conclusion… with a series of heroes I was told I’ll be able to follow from farm-boys to rulers, and even accompanied by a nice soundtrack.

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