Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence; ACE

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence was first published in 2011. It’s book one of The Broken Empire; I actually don’t know (yet) how long the series is. I would assume a trilogy, but then A Wheel of Time reminds me that some series can go on forever.  I feel like there has been a pile of new fantasy novels/series that have been released in the last two or three years. I have been in the middle of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007) for about a year and a half. I’m also stalled out in Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (2008).  However, I did finish Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man (2009) and I absolutely loved that one.   The point is, I feel like I buy and am interested in reading a lot more fantasy novels than I actually sit down and read.

Part of the allure of this novel was that it was “short.” 319 pages is something a bit rare in the fantasy novel world. But look, it works; because I finished the thing in two weeks and am writing a review of it now!  The cover helped, too, because this piece by Jason Chan looks interesting. It’s not too busy and it works well for the story.

From the back cover:

When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…
It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him—and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic.

The back cover blurb gives a sense of a young kid on a revenge mission. He seems ambitious and intense.  Also, there is not a heavy emphasis on magic or the traditional fantasy elements.  This sets the novel a bit apart from some of the more overtly magic-driven, demon-involved epic fantasy novels.

It’s told from the perspective of the main character, Jorg.  We meet him on the road with his band of brigands and rabble as they are burning a village. And right away the reader discovers that this kid is mean as spit.  I lost track of just how old he was, but from 12-15 years old, he really does wreck havoc on the land. Seems really unlikely, right? How does a young teenager garner the loyalty of thugs, soldiers, and criminals?  How does he have such great strategy, luck, and skill?  Well, he is definitely a unique character – even if these obvious questions run through the reader’s mind while going through the book.  And the author gives us hints and options for how Jorg operates and why throughout.  At the end the question is almost answered. It’s better to say that an answer is provided, but the answer is only a sufficient cause and not the sole cause.

The author writes very well.  This is not high literary stuff, though.  Direct sentences, never any purple prose, no overworking of anything.  The writing style suits the ruthless and direct manner of the main character perfectly. However, it can be a turn off for any readers who enjoy descriptive paragraphs, developed settings, and poetic renderings.  The writing style is crisp and clean and means business. There are plenty of killings and pillagings in the novel – and you read about them hard and fast just like they happen.  Because I think the best part of the author’s main concept for the novel is the de-pretty-ifying of epic fantasy and medieval combat. (Crossbows are cool!)  If you want to read about glorious battles and the conflicted hearts of heroes there are dozens of other novels that can provide that. Here, the author (by way of Jorg) keeps it real.  Jorg does not mince words, he doesn’t second guess, and he does not fall prey to all of those annoying flaws in characters like:  didn’t completely kill the bad guy or is indecisive and lost. Jorg handles his business – and it’s rarely pretty.

Although the impetus for the character is the deaths of his mother and brother followed by the cavalier attitude of his father (the king), the reader will not be swept up into any moping overemotive wallowing by Jorg.  There’s no demand placed on the reader for sympathy/empathy.  Simply, Jorg is a mean little snake and he is not asking for any pity or compassion – because he sure won’t show any, either. All of this is. . . .  “refreshing” . . . in a fantasy novel. I suppose refreshing is a bit of an odd word choice to describe this ruthless little kid, but this novel is refreshing because it never ever gets bogged down in emotive turmoil and meandering indecisive characters. Jorg, for better or worse, makes things happen. He will always think it’s better to act than to do nothing – even if the act is extreme.

There is some language in the novel that some sensitive readers may not approve of. Not cussing or gory graphic words, but the characters are somewhat sacrilegious and blasphemous. Readers who dislike this should take note before buying, because I can see where some people would not like this aspect.  But a cool thing about what the author is doing is that the world of Jorg is like ours – like an alternate reality. For example, there is The Church with a Pope (who is female). Jorg, as a youth, studied the philosophers (to include Plato, Plutarch, Russell, Nietzsche, etc.) And it’s really surprising and odd when you find that the author has worked in real elements of the real world into his fantasy novel.  Especially for me, a philosopher, to read about a character who references philosophers. It’s cool and I am actually surprised at how well it works and that it has not been done more in other books. Thumbs up, Mark Lawrence!  Overall, I can see this book being either two stars or four stars depending on your views toward the writing and the language. I am giving it four stars for uniqueness, surprising-ness, and brevity. Book two is available currently in hardback . . . .

4 stars

H. P. Lovecraft – Part One

I finally got around, prior to Thanksgiving, to picking up a Complete Fiction Works of H. P. Lovecraft.  And I am slowly working my way through the book.  The book comes in at around 1100 pages, so after reading to page 222, I decided I had better break the review(s) up into parts.  I don’t want to review in detail each and every piece in the book, but I think that there’s a lot that can be said and it needs to be partitioned like this.

cat hpl

My cat reading HPL

So far I have read (and the rating I gave each work):

  • The Tomb – 4
  • The Call of Cthulhu – 5
  • Dagon – 3
  • The White Ship -4
  • The Doom that Came to Sarnath – 3
  • The Statement of Randolph Carter – 3
  • The Terrible Old Man – 4
  • The Tree -2
  • The Cats of Ulthar – 4
  • The Temple – 3
  • Celephais – 2
  • From Beyond – 2
  • Nyarlathotep – 3
  • The Picture in the House – 3
  • The Nameless City – 3
  • Polaris – 3
  • The Quest of Iranon – 4
  • The Moon-Bog – 3
  • The Outsider – 5
  • The Other Gods – 3
  • The Music of Erich Zann – 4
  • Hypnos – 3
  • What the Moon Brings – 1
  • Azathoth – 1
  • The Hound – 2

That equals 25 pieces from the book.  I skipped a few that I just was not interested in and did not have any desire to read whatsoever. I am not thrilled about skipping, but I just didn’t want to read some of the pieces – for whatever reason. Now, before reading any of these I was only familiar with H. P. Lovecraft in a very basic sense. I don’t really think I had read anything by him before, but this isn’t really something I would bet on. I’ve read a lot and who knows what I read in school?  Further, I haven’t read any secondary texts on HPL; so any conclusions or discoveries I came to were my own and not something I was looking for because I read it first in a critical analysis.

After reading a few of the stories, the themes that HPL works with become rather obvious.  Dreams and sleep, the dead and tombs, water and sky (derivatively, fish and birds), and sound.  You would have to be a blind nincompoop not to figure out that HPL wrote much of his work from his dreams and that he is terrified of water – particularly large bodies of water.  Knowing just this much, it should be easy to see the challenge in putting HPL’s works into a specific genre.  I don’t really think it qualifies as science fiction (under my as-yet-unwritten definition).  It probably does qualify as fantasy, but perhaps it does have elements of horror.  The reason I placed fantasy ahead of horror is because the stories are not gore and vampires and such.  The whole edge of HPL’s “horror” is the concept of the unknown. And this is usually beyond reality – therefore, fantasy.  The term “weird” has been bandied around and I suppose that works as well as anything I could come up with.  All of this is to say that none of these works fit perfectly into some genre and anyone interested in science fiction, fantasy, or “weird” tales would enjoy some of HPL.

When I got the book, I could not help myself – I opened directly to The Call of Cthulhu and read it through – and loved it, naturally. And I came to the text without any preconceived notions or biases. I just read and enjoyed. However, enough has been said about that text the world over, so I do not really want to focus on it.  I want to actually select (of those 25 works) the ones I think that strong readers should read. In other words, the must-read HPL list that those who do not wish to read the whole of 1100 pages can look for and read. The second text I read was The Tomb – after I read it all I could say was “wow”.  I do not recommend The Tomb for everybody.  It is truly twisted and horror and scary. So, if you are really more into the fantasy and less into the horror – skip The Tomb. I still have lingering creepies from it. . . .

The key texts, I feel, are Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris.  If you need to get the basics of HPL, these three works should be read because I think they contain in an obvious way the method HPL uses when dealing with his preferred concepts/topics.  Dagon is short but I think it is the genesis of the Cthulhu concept.  Like many of HPL’s works, the story is really a written narration in the first person of an adventure/experience. The story is “hastily scrawled pages” written under “appreciable mental strain.”  And this is all in the first paragraph.  Generally, this gets to be a familiar paradigm within HPL.

The second paragraph directly presents one of the main themes in HPL:  “It was in one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific. . . ”   Immediately, we are thrown into the story that the narrator is writing.  That’s actually one of the nice things about HPL; he does not waste time with telling us how we got wherever or showing us each little step.  Paragraph four starts: “The change happened whilst I slept.”   And this phrase (or something like it) frequently appears in HPL stories.  It presents the method by which HPL’s stories access the fantasy/weird concepts.  HPL often mentions some “change” or catalyst and it is frequently connected to sleep and/or dreams.

Anyway, the story itself is not really scary or horrific – especially not in 2012.  But it was written in 1917 and we knew a little less science back then. Now we have Wikipedia and I daresay humans have cataloged the globe.  In 1917, the unknown of the ocean was probably a fascinating and terrifying thing.  Anyway, the “thing” that happens to the narrator is not exactly horrific. A sea-creature rises to the surface and, basically, hugs and howls at an altar/statue. It’s kind of funny, actually. But the horror of the story is not the point – it’s that the reader can feel/touch/empathize with the narrator’s feeling of horror.  It’s not so much that readers should judge whether or not the scene was horrific in an attempt to validate the narrator’s madness, but rather the reader can understand the ordeal that the narrator is explaining.

Polaris is another key text of HPL’s.  There are three main themes that make this story important. HPL’s narrator accesses another reality – very much akin to something PKD would have done/written.  The narrator enters into the alternate reality via sleep/dreams, as one expects.  However, this little story is neat because after reading it, one can really see how the blurring of the line of demarcation between reality and supra-reality drives the story.  And this is the “weird” part of the work, which is done really well in Polaris.  Another theme HPL uses here is that of the sky. The title is, obviously, of the star Polaris. But throughout the text are peppered names of constellations etc. that demonstrates HPL’s interest in astronomy.

The last theme in Polaris is that of a frustrated, impotent helplessness.  This occurs in several ways, one of which is the narrator unable to accomplish his tasks in his dream and experiencing shame and sorrow for his inability to function as a watchman in his social group.  The second is that of the star Polaris itself, which the narrator tells us has been struggling to convey a message, but yet is only able to know that it had a message and nothing more.  This weird anthropomorphization of the star is trippy and the fact that the star struggles to give a message is a truly weird and paradigm-shifting concept.  Ultimately, the narrator (and therefore the reader) are left questioning – which is the dream world and which is the “real” world; very much like some of the efforts of PKD.  And once again, the horror is not graphic or ghastly, but it’s in the very unknown and weirdness that the narrator’s feelings of horror are presented.  This is actually a really good story- judging it on a conceptual scheme.

The last text that I want to mention briefly is The White Ship. Finally, we are given a story in which the main character (narrator) has a name:  Basil Elton.  He is the keeper of a lighthouse like his father and grandfather before him.  Straightaway in paragraph one HPL is telling us about majestic seas.  There are “far shores” and “deep waters of the sea” in the following paragraphs.  And at this point the reader should be familiar with HPL’s method.  Weird stuff happens under, at, on, near the sea.  Anyway, when there is a full moon, the White Ship glides up near the lighthouse. And it does this for a long time, until one night Basil notices there is a bearded and robed man on the deck of the ship.  And thus begins the weird. . . .

Basil walks out to the ship from the lighthouse via a bridge of moonbeams (who didn’t think of Thor and the Rainbow Bridge at this?).  The man welcomes him and they set sail. The ship goes to a variety of different places and the robed man is Basil’s guide (Cp. Virgil in Dante).  I think this story is HPL’s attempt at world-building; that is, cartography in a fantasy realm.  The story gets a little dull, but the descriptions and imagery are worth reading. Sometimes it seems a bit overwritten, but if you actually try to picture what HPL is describing, it’s quite vivid and a worthwhile read. I would love for some enterprising fantasy author (e.g. Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson) to flesh out and develop this world. It’s interesting and has a lot of potential. I want to spend more time exploring and so forth.

Anyway, the ending is another appearance of the familiar dream theme that HPL uses.  Basil says: “…I went within the tower, I saw on the wall a calendar which still remained as when I had left it at the hour I sailed away.”  In other words, all these marvelous places the ship went and all the time Basil spent exploring was outside of time or he was dreaming – or both.  HPL’s usage of the dream/reality concept is really prevalent in the stories I read and I think by reading Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris one can really get a grip on the tools HPL uses and how to navigate his writing.

Now, you may have noticed that I chose to comment on the texts that I felt were important key works and not on the ones that I liked the best.  The Terrible Old Man, The Cats of Ulthar, and The Quest of Iranon are actually my favorites in this batch of 25 stories.  I felt they were unique and heartfelt and resonated more with me than some of the other stories.  However, I recognize this is personal preference.  I still think these are great stories – but I think students of HPL need to be familiar with the stories I talked about, readers who want a good story should read both the three I mentioned and my favorites.

3 stars (the average for these 25 works)

Fulgrim

Fulgrim

Fulgrim – Graham McNeill; Black Library

Fulgrim by Graham McNeill is the fifth novel in the Warhammer 40k Horus Heresy series.  It’s also the largest of the first five – running just over 500 pages.  It was published in 2007 and the cover artist was, again, Neil Roberts.  McNeill is the author of the second Horus Heresy novel as well as a few others in the Warhammer 40k collection.

The Warhammer 40k universe is one of my favorites. I am an absolute sucker for science fiction, fantasy, and battles of good versus evil. I like vast armies, huge dramatic storylines, and futuristic settings. A lot of “classy” readers probably would disdain most of Warhammer 40k because it isn’t great literature and is usually derivative of any number of archetypes in the genre.  However, I just love the universe and the characters and the stories.  It’s fun and interesting.  And yes, it is melodramatic.  And yes, in some books the writing is somewhat more juvenile or action-descriptive.  But it’s so much dang fun!

I’m obviously a science fiction fanatic.  And I love reading the classics of science fiction – good, quality, heady stuff for sure.  But really nothing is so deliciously engrossing as a Horus Heresy novel.  I am a big proponent of readers enjoying the books they are reading. If I am reading for entertainment, I want to be entertained.  There is also plenty of room for thought-provoking or challenging. Alter the paradigms, show the parallax, explore conceptual edifices – but let me still have my fun!

Fulgrim is not the best of the first five Horus Heresy novels. I do think in some places the story stalls and the characters chase their tails a bit.  In other words, yeah, this novel could have been whittled down to, say, 420 pages.   And while some novels desperately need to be chopped and halved, since this is Warhammer 40k and I am insanely in love with it, I do not really mind the stuffing.  The first two books of the series were awesome. Without a doubt.  Books four and five kind of circle back around to the events in book three – showing us the events from a different perspective, involving different characters, etc.  Some readers might not like this re-telling of events.  However, in both books, the storyline does move forward.  In Fulgrim, the last quarter of the book deals with the situation on Isstvan V – where the primarchs and their legions engaged in knowing, violent combat over the purpose and goal of the Great Crusade.

In the first half of the novel, the reader learns about the Primarch Fulgrim.  I like learning about each of the primarchs, though Fulgrim himself is not one I’m a real fan of.  He is so prissy and fancy.  He is still a formidable warrior, but his obsession with the concept of perfection and the appearance of his legion is obnoxious.  In other words, it’s easy to hate him and easy to see how he was pulled into the Horus Heresy. There are several neat things that the author does to this character to demonstrate the changes in him and how it affects the Emperor’s Children (his legion of space marines).  Most of them are interesting and reasonable grounding for the character’s actions.  Some are just a little flat or perhaps they are a little too obvious.

Fulgrim – the book and the character – develops from the author’s usage of concepts of aesthetics.  Art appreciation, perfection in art, working to create art, etc. Some of this might seem a bit silly to readers who want warfare in the distant future, but actually I was impressed that the author chose to utilize this stuff.  For example, I really do encourage any fans of the series to read William Blake’s The Book of Urizen either before or after reading Fulgrim.  It’s interesting and contextualizes. It’s also kind of fun to see Blake-ian concepts utilized in pulp science fiction!  I haven’t read The Book of Urizen since…. 1997?…. so I am actually looking forward to just flipping through that again.

Of note, Fulgrim contains some of the more “graphic” scenes in the series so far.  There are not any “bad words,” but the imagery can be a bit intense.  So, if you are really drawn into the book and have a good imagination, the latter half of the book has some scenes dealing with xenos/chaos forces that might be a bit ugly to imagine. The descriptions, though, do border slightly on the purple prose sort of structure in places.  It is not necessarily there for shock value – it does play into the plotline.  Either way, be advised to expect this. I liked elements of this section and disliked elements, as well. For example, there is something both really cool and really silly about the concept of auditory chaos, discordance, and atonal effects being used by/on space marines.

Overall, four stars – because I am a Warhammer 40k fan addict. Three stars if you are judging based on everything else. (Again, my blog, my prerogative!)

4 stars

October the First is Too Late

October the First is Too Late

October the First is Too Late – Fred Hoyle; Fawcett-Crest, 1968.

October the First is Too Late by Fred Hoyle was first published in 1966.  The edition that I have is the Fawcett Crest 1968 edition. I do not know who the cover artist was – but this is one of my favorite pre-1980 science fiction book covers. Fred Hoyle is the British astronomer and mathematician (1915 – 2001) who was knighted in 1972.  Sir Hoyle was also one of the scientists who were outspoken regarding the “big bang” theory.

October the First is Too Late is not a good read by any standard. Really.  However, Hoyle warns us about this in the brief “To The Reader” paragraph at the beginning of the book. He writes:

The “science” in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of the time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious, as also the contents of chapter fourteen.

Hoyle was a good scientist. He had good schooling, studied well, published actively.  Although his positions on major natural science arguments may have been unpopular, I like that he defended his position and stuck to it. Also, I want to mitigate some of his stubbornness because he was of an older generation of scientists that had to confront a great deal of speedy advances in technology and science. He was born a few years after my grandparents – and frankly, I cannot imagine them ever having adapted quickly or smoothly to the technology of even the 1950s, much less the 1990s.

This book is a first-person narrative, told to us by a musician. The musician is good friends with a Nobel Laureate named John Sinclair.  Because of this friendship, the musician gets involved in matters by association. For example, he meets the prime minister, he travels with the Navy, he hangs out with scientists, etc.  On his own, however, he is admittedly a bit unschooled in natural science and he does not really offer anything else other than musical skill.

And I appreciate Hoyle’s understanding of music.  Each chapter is subtitled with musical terminology; for example: fugue, tempo di minuetto, andante con moto, etc.  The main character is a pianist of some standing and throughout the book he plays the piano.  In fact, this is one of the more absurd moments in the book:  he drags a piano to Ancient Athens. A piano.

See, the world has shifted in such a way (something to do with a pseudo-beam of light a la PKD’s VALIS) that multiple points of time are existing in various places around the globe.  So, it is 1966 in Great Britain, but it is WWI in France and Germany. Russia is very nearly the end of the world – where the surface of the earth is nothing but hardened, featureless glass.  Greece is in the age of Pericles and North America is wilderness.  There’s the science fiction in the novel. It all starts because of a birthmark – which Hoyle does tie in to the conclusion – yet I can make no real sense of what he was trying to do with this little plot device.

But while this concept would be really cool to explore and in the hands of a good author would really be a heck of an adventure, Hoyle just plods along with our somewhat dreary and banal main character. Who brings a piano to ancient Greece?! Farcical!  So, instead of being a wicked time-space mashup, we get long-winded thoughts regarding music theory.  But it’s serious music theory – it helps if you are familiar with Schubert and Chopin.  And here when I say “familiar,” I mean you can actually recognize their work.  I liked Hoyle’s explanations of notes/tonality – it gave me more to think about. Music theory can be difficult to understand – because of the jargon. This explanation made me want to listen to Arnold Schoenberg and see what I hear after having read this novel.

At 160 pages, this should be a fast read. However, it was incredibly boring and absurd. Not a good absurd either.  It was pathetic at points in terms of novel/literature/fiction aspects.  Basically, if you are reading this for exciting science fiction – forget it, you will be completely and certainly disappointed. Maybe even annoyed.  However, if you want a semi-interesting read about music, this book might interest you.  I have to praise chapter twelve because it was, for me, the only interesting and exciting chapter in the novel.  It has a lot of interesting ideas and can conjure some fun images – if only this chapter were expanded and by a better author.

The chapter fourteen that Hoyle mentioned above depicts a very dismal and wretched human history that is doomed to repeat itself.  Apparently, humans are miserable and are meant to live in discord and violence.  We learn about the history of the earth and how cataclysmic human-initiated events devastate the earth and the animals (including humans). Eventually, the last chapters depict the “final humanity” which is resigned to it’s fate:  that of not even trying to learn from mistakes and avoid catastrophe, but willing to simply live until they are no more.  I read some dystopian stuff – but the last chapters in this book are probably some of the most dismal and despairing ever. So, it leaves the reader with a dismal feeling after having read a rather poor novel.

2 stars

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