Monday, January 5, 2015

Top Five (other) Sequels I Need To See Before I Die


"'Freewill', my ass..."
So, a few nights ago I had a crazy dream.  It started w/ Monster Mike & I hiking through a Yakutsk winter clad a la Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd in Spies Like Us, while being hunted by twerking wookalar trying to show us Peter Jackson's new script revisions to his upcoming Dune trilogy.  ("At the end, Maud'dib stands on the great worm and yells, 'Gotcha suckas!'")  Then, and this is the truly weird bit, I dreamed that David Lynch & Mark Frost announced finally that they planned to write and shoot a new season of Twin Peaks... a happening I've been waiting no less than 23 years for.


I know...  Totally insane dream, right?  Plus there was that guy with the cheese at the end.  What was up with that?

Anyway, while I was thinking about how incredibly unbelievable all that was the next day, I started pondering the larger theme of the "lost sequel" - the unlikely follow-up entry to that thing you love which is sometimes just imagined, sometimes promised but never delivered on, and sometimes are just a natural result of one needing more content in order to figure out just what the hell actually happened in the stuff you've already seen in the first place (i.e. Twin Peaks).  Often, living long enough to have a chance at seeing these sorts of sequels come to fruition becomes a staring contest with Death himself.  I fully believe the sheer pig-headedness of it is the only thing that keep most geeks alive past the age of 40.

So without further ado, in honor of the nuttiness of my recent hallucination of Lynch and Frost pledging to satisfy my #1 fanboy-est desire of all time,  I thought I would list and discuss entries #2-6 on my "Sequels I Am Determined Not To Die Before The Final Creation Of" Countdown.  

Drumroll please, maestro.

#6 - Firefly: Season Two, or Serenity: Re-Aiminating to Misbehave Agin'


Six is an artificially low number on the list for this classic, but it's mostly there just so we can get this no-brainer out of the way.  I mean, come on... Did anyone really think it wouldn't show up here?  
Had to buy that guy a new hat last time...

Joss Whedon hit a nerve that desperately needed to be scratched (yes,yes, I know) when he made Firefly, and the poor handling it received from the TV brass at the time earned it legendary status in the circles of geek oppresion conspiracy theory.  The amazing thing here is, though, we already got a sequel with the film Serenity.  Regardless, the fact is Whedon could make five more Serenity films and the hunger would still be out there and the fanbase would still feel as cheated out of the property by Big Hollywood as any typical Lions fan feels after watching...  well, any football game ever. 

If Whedon can put something new together for Capt. Mal and crew in his copious free time, there is no way the opening night line isn't going to stretch at least past the Area 51 console.  My enthusiasm for another installment is tempered only by the fact that my favorite character was Shepherd Book.  And well...  Sigh.

#5 - My So-Called Life: Season Two

I realize this isn't really "geek fare"and likely comes as a surprise to many reading the list, but, next to Firefly, MSCL is the ultimate example of a finely-crafted show which came at a pivotal moment in time, prepared to re-draw the boundaries of what we should expect from a television drama, only to be cruelly cut down in its prime, before being ever allowed to come to full flower.  (Which is to say, it was a show that premiered on FOX.)

Get out of my dreams, Get onto my bike.
(Billy Ocean said that.)
The sole season produced gave us questions, made us laugh and cry, and ended in true cliffhanger fashion for all eternity... with the blonde neighbor kid who looks like the Greatest American Hero sitting on his bike in a poorly lit residential neighborhood, wondering if Angela will ever get a goddamn clue for once.  I mean, who can't identify with that noise, am I right?  And all in a misty soft focus that made it seem like a nostalgic dream probably two years before it was even made...

I heard there was a spec script for a new revival of the series where Angela marries Jordan Catalano, but when he returns from the war in Afghanistan no one is sure whether he's a sleeper agent for the terrorists or not...  But that seems far too utterly ridiculous to me to ever work on TV.

(PS:  He's the Joker now.  Process that.)

#4 - Porno

Trainspotting is one of the pivotal landmarks of my personal development during the 90's and still counts among my Top 5 greatest films of all time.  It was for me a near-perfect cinema moment that encapsulated (as much as a UK movie about heroin could) the frustration of my post-college Midwest Yankee inability to break away from my old life.  Furthermore, it was my first introduction to the young Obi-Wan, Capt. Jamie MacLean, Lucius Vorenus, the Full Monty, and, not least, Mrs. Nucky Thompson, in all her fully knee-weakening Scottish-accented glory. 



Also Spud.  You had to hand it to Spud, right catboy?

Shortly after this film, a rift reportedly arose between filmmaker Danny Boyle and regular collaborator Ewan MacGregor after Boyle chose to break form and cast Leo DiCaprio as the lead in his following film, The Beach.  From what I am led to understand, it's this rift that more than any other factor has prevented a follow-up from being made since.  And while they have both had remarkable careers on their own since, I for one wish they would just get their shit together and try to get along for the two hours it would take to film the damn movie.  Am I so wrong?

Author Irvine Welsh, who wrote the original book the film was based on, also penned a 10-years-later sequel called Porno, wherein Sick Boy attempts to get rich producing... well, you know.  I fully realize I could check in on the whereabouts of my favorite characters just by checking the book out from the library.  But I haven't had the nerve to try to bring it up to the circulation desk yet.

#3 - Master & Commander 2:  The Fortune of War


One A&W, neat
With the noted qualifier that I haven't read more than the first book of Partrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, in my opinion the film adaptation of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is perhaps the perfect action-adventure film, rivaled only by the likes of The Hunt For Red October or Jaws in its brilliance.  It ages well, is perfectly paced, aspires to higher ideals than the thrills it consistently delivers, and never has a missed or clunky moment.  And unlike all the other rivals in this category, it manages to pull all this off while being a PERIOD PIECE.  At sea.

Think the logistics of that through.  That's like the movie version of reciting "O Captain, My Captain" while gargling root beer and riding a unicycle.  And nailing it.  Or something.  Honestly that simile made a lot more sense in my head before I typed it out.

I've been told by those who have read the full series that the adaptation made enough of a hash of the overall timeline to make a follow-up entry problematic at best.  I will take their word for it, though it seems a seamless enough story to a casual viewer like myself.  (I guessed at the sequel title above randomly based on list of books in the series.)  Suffice it to say however, if Russell Crowe ever decides to use his Hollywood clout to demand a second installment be produced, I'll be beating to quarters opening night in a heartbeat.  No matter how wrong that sounds.


#2 - Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension is one of my ultimate guilty geek pleasures.  The brilliant cast and no-prisoners blend of 80's pulp sci fi adventure with full deadpan camp hit a sweet spot that should make it a thoroughly enjoyable and highly quotable flick for thinking people of pretty much all ages.  Except my mom's age probably.  But that's ok really.



Why?  Because they're Perfect.
At the end of the film, just after BB gets the girl and restores our faith in heroes, but moments before the catchy-as-hell end credits victory dance/walk of the surviving (and some miraculously resurrected) Hong Kong Cavaliers, we are cruelly teased with the title card "Watch for the next adventure of Buckaroo Banzai / BUCKAROO BANZAI AGAINST THE WORLD CRIME LEAGUE".  Talk about Babe Ruth calling your shots.  But as Tiffany once so heartrendingly sang to us in those same 80's, "What could've been is better than what could never be at all".  

Part of what I love about the BB property is the creators' 100% commitment to the joke in the face of any and every piece of sanity available to the contrary.  The DVD commentary of the first movie for example features fully straight-faced discussion of Dr. Banzai's reaction to the film made of his life, and the novelization expands the plot to plants seeds of the coming conflict against his true arch-nemesis, Hanoi Xan, leader of the World Crime League.  Alas, nobody else seemed to get the joke however, and so for thirty years the dream of this team of actors and creators being allowed a follow-up film to explore some even more far-fetched but shockingly brilliant insanity has been naught but a poignantly sad could've been

Damn you almighty box-office dollar.  Damn youse to hell.

Disclaimer:  

It's recently come to my attention that this last sequel (Buckaroo Banzai) may actually have recently happened in a direct-to-video feature (which strikes me as an increasingly anachronistic designation as time goes on).  In any event, I am unsure quite how to process this news, and for the time being I've chosen to follow a course of complete and utter denial until I get any better ideas.  I seriously need to think this through for a while.  

But I suppose that's not as bad as it could be, all things considered...  I mean if  Twin Peaks Season 3 actually happened, for instance, I'm relatively sure my nervous system would go into spontaneous meltdown.  My eyes would roll back and I'd just collapse limply and ignominiously onto the sidewalk to face the taunting and denigration of random passersby.  So let's be glad that one's still a fairy tale.

I wear the cheese.  It does not wear me.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The CVG Podcast and Rhythm & Blues Revue - Episode #010: Boogie Choosin'!

The ladies are all about the monocle...







































Episode Ten of The Chippewa Valley Geek Podcast and Rhythm & Blues Revue is complete and can be found here or on iTunes and Stitcher!

We're back from an accidental hiatus, and we're talking about freewill and fate in our lives and in our games!


0:00:00  Intros
0:02:02  The Up Front: On choosing to choose poorly
0:07:05  The Interview:  Author and illustrator Matt Youngmark tells us about the Choose-o-matic Book Series, vouches for the creative influence of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and takes on the Geek-del Test!
0:30:24  Payin' some bills

0:34:54  The Roundtable:  Wherein Mike and Donny fulfill their destiny by defending the fantasy that they have some control over their sad, pathetic lives.  Also, we discover a long lost classic of geek literature together!
1:52:25  A rebuttal of sorts

1:53:42  A non-calendar and a long-distance dedication
1:54:46  Outro & Credits
1:56:31  Bonus Track:    CN Woman Boogie!

What do you want from me?  I've been listening to an awful lot of John Lee Hooker lately...

Hey, how about some show notes?


Check out Matt Youngmark and the Choose-o-matic book series!
Here's a great place to get Time Travel Dinosaur!


Zork!

Choose Your Own Adventure!

Neil Patrick Harris:  Choose Your Own Autobiography!

Garycon!  Where the grognards gather...

"Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead", by Tom Stoppard!

5th Edition gives you a do-over!

The Geek's twitter!

Author and illustrator Matt Youngmark!

The Choose-o-matic book series!
Zombiepocalypse Now!
Thrusts of Justice!
Time-Travel Dinosaur!

Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North!

Free RPG Day!

The Conspiracy Friends webcomic!

Freewill, on Amazon!


Support the ASPCPC!

Experiments on the neuroscience of freewill!

LaPlace's Demon!

Shaun of the Dead!

The Casca series!

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the source of the concept of "psychohistory"!

The "Kobiyashi Maru" - a supposedly no-win scenario, and all the folks who beat it!


I6 - Ravenloft!  The original module!

Hollywood's always gotta do a sequel...  so,
I10 - Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill!

The World of Darkness!  Sorry, Jack

Star Wars and Farsight!

The Reluctant Hero!

The Dungeons and Dragons kids better feckin' knock it off...

The Hero's Journey!

John Carter of Mars was much better than you probably think!

So were the books!

Pick your Bond!

Liam Neeson has a very specific set of skills!

The Fighting Fantasy series!

Because Serenity!

Serenity now!


Hey kids, it's Summer Glau!


Area 51!

Dr. Nera Vivaldi is an actual thing...


Captain Kirk's cannon!  Again.


You have died of dysentery.  Naturally.

"The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking

This episode is dedicated to the memory of R. A. Montgomery!

The Geek's main Amazon link!

Remember you can get your own copies of the bonus tracks out at Bandcamp!


PC Stinger:  Matt Youngmark's Calavert of the Great Northern Bear Tribe


The backing sound effects used in this episode included:

-  "Melancholic Interpretation in G#", obtained via Freesound.org via a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial license.  The original file can be found here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Battlegame Book Series #5 of 20: World War II (Vol. 4) – Beach-head

Narration from a Scottish redhead...
When I was a little boy I had one of the five volumes in the Usborne Battlegame Book series by Andrew McNeil. It was called Fighting Ships (#5) and it was published in the UK in 1975.  It was chock full of pictures and helpful information on the inside, and contained four complete wargames (with pieces, rules and gameboards in the book) that could help your imagination travel anywhere in time and space. This year, I decided to (re)collect and (re)play the entire series. And we've been playing ever since...

-

So we recently had a board game night come to an abrupt and ignominious end some weeks ago, when Dastardly Donny inadvertently (or so we are led to believe) failed to understand the simple process of road movement in Conquest of the Empire, and subsequently fell for the ever-classic "Moroccan End-Around" strategy, being overrun by a sudden invasion of Egyptians swarming over the straits of Gibraltar, whilst I performed a crucial role in distracting his legions by letting them repeatedly pummel the crap out of me in Dalmatia.  Of course the guidelines and ramifications for player elimination in COTE are far more brutal than in Axis and Allies or any of the other MB wargame brethren, so this master stroke essentially single-handedly gave the game's victory to our hapless pharoah, Notorious Nick.  (I would have alerted Donny to his impending doom of course, were it not for the fact that Nick's gambit was my last remaining hope of fulfilling my ambitious strategy of "not coming in last".)  In any event, we found ourselves suddenly abruptly gameless at far too early an hour on a recent saturday eve.

Donny used this opportunity of course to slip off into the night to meet his Snuffelupagus-like "Magic" friends (which is why my suspicions to this day still linger as to the witting or unwitting nature of his pwning that night).  Left with the time and opportunity though, Nick and I chose it as a prime time to try on one of the Battlegames and see what came of it.  As this was sometime in early June, we went straight to the WWII book and delved into a selection called Beach-head.
Beach-head's starting positions
Now on one level, Beach-head is essentially the prerequisite D-Day simulation you would expect a WWII-oriented gamebook to cover.  On a deeper level though, its agenda ultimately comes off as something entirely different. The game ties into a discussion of "funny" tanks and other engineering equipment in the book, and game play seems oriented to teach the young gamer about the various obstacles Allied troops faced and the tools they used to overcome them.


Nick commands his assault
The scene is Sword Beach on June 6, 1944.  The German player (me here) defends, naturally, and begins setup by placing the heavy artillery in its designated space and then by determining which of the three possible gun emplacement positions will host the other two smaller anti-tank artillery units.  I chose to place them to the left, reasoning that the two positions were closer together and, with the heavy piece on the far right, could better support each other through overlapping fire zones and lanes of approach. 

All other defending units must enter the board two at a time down the road from the village behind the beachhead, creating scramble as the game goes on for the German player to get his units in place to properly throw up a defensive screen.  But although minimal units begin play on the board, the beach and the uplands are already covered with all nature of obstacles and seige defenses designed to thwart the Allied advance:  minefields, barbed wire, ditches, concrete walls, "dragon's teeth" tank traps, and so on.

Once the artillery is placed, the Allies land their first wave of invaders and the opening salvoes commence.  In addition to bombardment from an offshore cruiser, the Allied player places four units anywhere along the first row of squares on top of the beach each turn.  The object itself is simple enough in theory.  The Allies advance onto the board and have 12 game turns to get two tank units and two infantry to any of the squares on the far inland side of the board.
The Limeys breach the Sea Wall

Of course, while it sounds simple, it quickly becomes a logistical nightmare which is designed reward only the most organized of planners.  For each line of beach obstacles the Allies hit, Nick is provided with a specific type of unit to clear it.  The process it usually the same for all.  The "funny" most move onto the obstructed square and remain there one turn.  On the next move, that space is considered "cleared" and any unit may enter and cross it.  (Bridging units are slightly different in that they must remain indefinitely in a river or ditch square to provide access.)  Of course if the vehicle is taken out by German artillery before its task is complete, the square is remains obstructed and a new attempt must be started over next turn, meaning infantry lined up behind which had expected to cross is likely backed up on the beach and exposed to shelling.  This is even further complicated by the fact that most of the "funnies" have no weaponry of their own with which to return fire.On his initial placement, Nick committed hard to an assault on my right flank, reasoning that one heavy artillery piece would be easier to land under than two medium pieces.  He was not entirely wrong in that assumption.


The final casualty pile
Once play began,the first few turns went quickly.  His units crawled slowly up the beach while I rushed units in twos to various places along the defenses as well as possible.  For a while the only units within range of anything were the heavy artllery and the cruiser, so combat was initially light.  I had mild success in taking out some of the "funnies" as they worked, delaying his advance, but not as much as I would have liked.

The board also became a chit-astic nightmare quickly.  While most of the Battlegame series has a fairly limited number of pieces, there is a hell of a lot going on in Beach-head.  Not only were the variety of "funnies" poorly labelled, we also needed to distinguish between those which had already used their special ability.  At least for the types of units where that was relevant.  In addition, we needed to find a way to mark which obstacles on the board had been cleared and were passable and ended up using black white scraps of paper for those.  Ultimately though, part of the logistical nightmare faced by the Allied player in organizing his advance lies in simply remembering what is what on the board and trying to move pieces without knocking four others askew.

Once the ground units got within range of each other, however, the scenario became the meat-grinder which I suspect it was partially designed to be.  Nick successfully steered clear (for the most part) of my anti-tank guns, and managed to take out the heavy artillery with a hit from his cruiser maybe halfway or 2/3 of the way through.  By that time, however, I had enough infantry and armor in place to fight tooth and nail, and, as his infantry and tanks slowly crawled up the beach, they were now under constant barrage.  It took a heavy toll.


Ending Positions, Turn 12
I used cover provided by the obstacles as effectively as I could manage, keeping myself from being totally overwhelmed by Nick's superior forces, but eventually his advance did start to wear me down, particularly as he overran the large concrete wall constituting the large center defence.  At that point it was easier for him to get units to the front line than myself (dealing with bridges and ditches behind the lines) and it was, I believed, just a matter of time at that point.

The thing is though, time being an explicit victory condition of the game and all, it was enough.  While I have no doubt whatsoever that, given a long enough timeframe, he would likely have steamrolled the meager units I had remaining, the Allies had We both looked at the troop placements at the beginning of the 12th turn and agreed there was no way he would be able to satisfy the victory condition of reaching the inland side of the board with the requisite units that turn.

Here is how 
Beach-head fared in our scoring:

                                        Nick         Brian

Quick to lean           4                  3

A conveniently-included set of stereo instructions
Nick felt the basics of the game were simple to pick up, whereas I felt the varieties of "funnies" were quite tricky to keep straight over the course of the game for both players.  I am still unable to decide how exactly I feel about the insanely arcane firing table.  While I'm appreciative of the added touch of complexity, it's on a level which is entirely out of character for the Battlegame series thus far, and it's one-pager rules paradigm.

Cool factor               3                  3
We both felt the premise was interesting, but Nick felt there was not much depth to the game and ultimately found the experience that much more frustrating after reaching the moment of truth where the Allied player realizes half his units are usless in combat.    I was somewhat less peeved by the whole process, but felt there was still far too much emphasis on making the game educational in regards to the obstacles and their various "funnies" which detracted from the overall cool. 

Replayability            3                 3
We both had mixed emotions about the replayability of Beach-head.  There are only a small variety of approaches and outcomes available to the scenario, but I still have half a hankering to see how it might play out with a different arrangement of starting artillery and the Allies landing on their right or center or across a broad front.

Balance                    4                 4
We felt the game and the forces arrayed against each other were both very balanced.  We both wondered why the victory conditions called for 2 armor and infantry units, and not just 4units of any type.  
The other question to my mind was if 12 turns is a reasonable time frame for an Allied victory at all, or if this limitation unreasonably favors the defender.  The answer to that likely lies in the amount of time spent in the first few turns on "newbie" mistakes, if any, and whether a player having experienced the game already would have had the wherewithal to press inland faster.  But that might just be like asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop.


Overall                     3.375


Some Relevant Pages from Volume 4: World War II

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Monster Mike's Geek Reads: Chronicles of the Black Company

"Darkness wars with darkness as the hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must. They bury their doubts with their dead.
 
Then comes the prophecy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more…"

----

I once boasted to Brian that "I've read pretty much everything."  And he asked me what I thought of The Black Company.

"The what?" I asked. 

"Just read it," he replied.  The word "moron" at the end of this directive was unspoken, but strongly implied.

So, I fired up my Kindle and plunged into The Chronicles of The Black Company, which is really the first three books (The Black CompanyShadows Linger, and The White Rose) of a nine novel series by Glen Cook.
(Ed. note: 10 if you count The Silver Spike.)

Let's start with some basics.  The Black Company is a mercenary force of fighters and wizards for hire in a grimdark fantasy world that has, well, issues.  Centuries before the action starts in these novels, this unnamed world was in the clutches of an extremely powerful wizard known as The Dominator.  The Dominator, his wife - The Lady, and a group of enslaved wizards known as The Ten Who Were Taken ruled the world in a way that many found unseemly.  Naturally, there was a rebellion led by a mythic figure known as The White Rose.  Ultimately, the rebels were victorious and The Dominator, The Lady, and The Taken were all laid to rest in the Barrowlands, not dead but eternally sleeping, their tombs protected by a network of monstrous guardians and powerful spells.  However, our story starts long after something happened.  The Lady and The Taken have reappeared, and have been re-establishing their empire from a stronghold in the North.  Once again, there is a rebellion.  Only this time, there is no White Rose to aid the rebel cause.

The events in all three books are narrated by Croaker, the Black Company's physician and annalist.  In The Black Company, the Company is hired by Soulcatcher, one of The Taken, to fight for The Lady against the rebellion.  But The Taken spend as much time working against one another as they do fighting the rebels on behalf of The Lady, and the Company find themselves used as a cat's paw in these conflicts.  The first book ends with a massive defensive battle around The Lady's stronghold at Charm, wiping out the majority of the forces on both sides of the conflict.

In Shadows Linger, much of the rising action focuses on a Company deserter called Raven and Darling, the deaf-mute child he adopted in the first book.  Raven and a cowardly innkeeper end up in a conspiracy to sell the town of Juniper's dead to the alien residents of a growing black castle.  A company detachment arrives in Juniper and we discover the castle is actually a sorcerous gateway to allow the Dominator to escape from the Barrowlands and rise again.  The Company and The Taken are ultimately able to destroy the black castle and its inhabitants, while Raven learns that Darling is the reincarnation of The White Rose, and flees with her again.  The remnants of the Company ambush the remaining Taken, and leave the service of The Lady to side with the rebels.

The events of The White Rose occur many years afterwards.  Raven is apparently dead, and Darling is the leader of the rebel fragments.  Through a series of historical documents sent to Croaker, we learn how The Lady came to be freed from the Barrowlands, and discover an impending doom:  flooding of a great river threatens to open the barrows, finally releasing The Dominator upon the world again.  The Lady and the rebels are forced into a truce to join forces in order to defeat The Dominator once and for all.

All put together, this trilogy creates an epic tale in a dark setting where there are few good guys, and fewer good choices.  The principal characters are distinct and memorable, and the antics of Goblin and One-Eye, two of the Company's wizards, provide some light relief to the grim atmosphere.   Through the story, Croaker's personal relationship with The Lady, a terrifying sorceress of nearly godlike power, deepens and becomes more complex.  Cook does a fantastic job of pulling the reader into the personal stories of each character.

There was a lot to like and a lot to dislike about The Chronicles of The Black Company.  Let's start with the bad and then see if we can redeem the book with the good.

My main gripe with the book was the author's use of Croaker as the sole narrator.  The reader only sees what Croaker sees, hears what Croaker hears, and knows only a little bit of what Croaker knows.  Throughout the books, Glen Cook steadfastly refuses to give the reader any kind of Gods-eye-view of the world at large.  The reader only knows that the sky is blue or the mountains lie to the east of the plains if Croaker chooses to mention it.  And for the most part, Croaker is not big on explaining any of the world's context to the reader.  This left me feeling very disoriented through most of the first book, and through the first half of the following two novels as new characters and locations were introduced.  Even though I'm a big believer in "show-don't tell" as the best way for an author to describe people and places and events, I think Mr. Cook took this concept to an unfriendly extreme.  Throw me a frickin' bone here, Glen Cook.

This disorientation made the early parts of each novel drag a bit for me.  Though the plots were interesting, the characters were compelling, the action was enjoyable, and the writing was solid, I couldn't really get into the plot of each book until about two-thirds of the way through when I finally figured out what the hell was going on.

But the last parts of those books.  Wow.  Once all the pieces come together, each book finishes with a real punch.  All of the books were hard to pick up for the first couple hundred pages, and impossible to put down for the last hundred.  As soon as I finished the trilogy, I wanted to go back and read it again so I could savor all the richness and nuance of this fantastic world that I missed on the first reading.  In spite of its flaws, I believe that The Chronicles of The Black Company deserves a spot on any fantasy reader's top bookshelf as a significant and groundbreaking contribution to the genre.

Rating this trilogy is difficult.  I give it one star for frustration, and five stars for its ultimate vision.  So I'll split the difference and give it three.  Browsing through the reader reviews on Goodreads, it seems that this series draws a bimodal response from readers in the wild.  People either love it or hate it, and chances are, you will too.




Editor's Afterword:

Hey folks, Brian here.

While, generally, I want Mike's reviews to be able to stand on their own with minimal befuddlement or meddling from my end, I also felt a responsibility to butt my own 2 cents in here (yes, I know), and offer an afterthought to this particular review. 

Glen Cook's Black Company series, and particularly the first of the books, The Black Company, are among my most beloved fantasy novels, and it was something of a foregone conclusion that when we were first discussing the idea of Mike's Geek Reads appearing on the CVG, it was be the first candidate to pop into my head as a recommendation deserving a review.  I myself first read it some 4-5 years ago, and to say that it blew my mind at the time would be a vast understatement.

I generally consider myself to be a pretty intelligent person and an astute reader.  In fact, I'm sure I suffer from that all-too-common geek epidemic of usually believing I'm the smartest person in the room most of the time.  (So far in my experience, Monster Mike is the only geek I've met firsthand who would ever be consistently right in that belief.)  The Black Company, though, crushed that illusion for me utterly from the very first word. 

And I do mean that literally: the very first word. 

"Legate".  I had to look it up.  I can't remember the last time a novel made me go look up a word, let alone a fantasy novel.  I knew right away I was in for one nutty ride (™ Vernon Hardapple).

It was more evident as I read on, these books were clearly far, far smarter than me.  I for one loved that challenge.  I glanced through the reviews on Goodreads for example on MM's recommendation in his review above, and found there a good deal of teeth gnashing about how the narrator never stops to explain the world (as per the first chapter of every Encyclopedia Brown book ever).  The reader is expected to pick it up as he or she goes along as though he or she were already part of the world being describe,d and already had the context to understand the perspective of the Chronicler .  It's a fair criticism and TBC uses this style of narration to a merciless extreme.  There were often chapters I had to stop and go back to re-read entirely because the proverbial penny as to what was really going on in a particular scene only dropped at the very end of what I had just read.  These are not easy books by any stretch of the imagination, and they do make you work for it, on nearly every page.  If you're looking for a bit of light reading, or something on par with the Dragonlance novels level of fantasy (as a random example), you will be frustrated and annoyed by the entire endeavor.  I personally was thrilled and delighted in a way I hadn't been since I got through Nabokov's "Ada ,or Ardor" alive and in one piece.

I loved the strange juxtapositions of this setting -- the grimdark world, where there are no good choices for a ragtag team of "heroes", just trying to get each other through alive, as well the arcane semi-familiarity of the world, the oddly incongruous place names (Charm, Oar, Roses), the unique and fascinating approach to how magic works…  The world under the thrall of the The Lady's legions always seemed so close to being understood, but also tantalizingly just out of reach.

And the description…  Holy cow.  From epic battles that would put the Pelennor Fields to shame (like the rebellion's final assault on the fortress at Charm), to the small scale unit actions peppered throughout the books (which at once deftly encompass both extremes of the brutal and the absurd), one gets the impression this was written by someone who knows what he is talking about.  He's been "in the shit", and that lends a whole level of authenticity to the action and the shorthand characters speak with, which a shlubby geek like myself could watch in awe but never hope to emulate.  One of the blurbs on the back of the omnibus refers to the books as "Vietnam War fiction on peyote" and it's not a moniker I could argue with in the slightest.


In any event, this brief "afterword" has evolved into a length far beyond what I originally intended.  I will wrap up simply by stating the notion I've had on multiple occasions that if Showtime or AMC were looking for a fantasy-oriented serial to convert into a TV show to combat HBO's Game of Thrones domination, they would be hard pressed to pick something more full of awesome than The Chronicles of the Black Company.  But hey, what do I know… I'm no TV executive.  I'm just some poor geek who keeps giving Glen Cook all my money.  *

Gamers!  Be sure to check out the The Black Company - OGL Campaign Setting From Green Ronin's Mythic Vistas series!

*  Seriously though.  I have notes for any network who wants to reach out to me. 
Let's do this.