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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What's Geekin' Me Now: Penny Dreadful

When I first got wind of Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful, I was vaguely intrigued, but mostly skeptical.  I suspect it was still some sort of lingering hangover from the incredibly painful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, which should have been amazing, if it hadn't been determined to be so goddamned awful instead.  On seeing these new promos, I had a dual sense of both having seen this all drivel before, and also dreading how the "showbiz" would screw up the seemingly golden notion of a Victorian adventure mash-up this time around.  Since that half-hearted 2003 film debacle, the likelihood of ever seeing something approximating the pure joy of reading Alan Moore's brilliant and classic version of the League has seemed more and more improbable.

Ultimately though, I broke down and gave Penny Dreadful a fair try.  And once I started watching, I found it far exceeded my admittedly low expectations.  It's fair to say PD succeeds in nearly every way the LXG movie fails, and ultimately embodies the best approximation I've seen yet of the Savage Worlds / Cthulhu by Gaslight / World of Darkness / Space: 1889 crossover game I've wanted so desperately to play in or run myself someday.

The term grand guignol seems tailor-made to describe a very particular genre of Victorian horror, and the first season of PD more than lives up to this designation.  Through its eight blood-spattered episodes of suspense and intrigue, it consistently dances frighteningly close to the edge of my personal horror tolerance.  It's a subtle line in the sand, but one which, say,American Horror Story gleefully waltzed over a few too many times, resulting in my ultimately walking away entirely from that series, unfinished.  While hard to stomach in certain moments though, PD never quite crosses that line for me, and so  I was still able to appreciate the greater story elements for what they were.  The cinematography and pacing both seemed to complement that brooding, misty aura of dread quite well.

The Victorian mash-up motif which seemed so natural in Moore's writing was fairly butchered in the movie version of LXG.  (Tom Sawyer, wtf?)  The danger inherent in a writer shoe-horning in every famous personage he or she can think of in a project like this is fraught with danger.  In the right hands, it can be a joy to an astute reader to pick apart.  In the wrong ones, it can be like all the worst episodes of Superfriends piled atop each other at once.  ("Eh-neeek-chock!")  PD succeeds where many other would fail though, and each character addition that rings a bell does not seem gratuitously out of place.  As well, I have to admit to always having had a weakness for vampire stories.  And while that trope may be overplayed in television and movies as a whole, PD brings to it a mix of the subtle menace inherent in a Victorian horror along the lines of Dracula, but also combined with the savage terror omnipresent in Salem's Lot, one of my favorite books of all time.  To use a trite and painful pun, PD - at least in its first season - has succeeded in putting together an old-school vampire epic with teeth.

The cast is well chosen, for the most part.  I have never been a big fan of Eva Green, honestly, but as Miss Ives here, her particular brand of creepy allure (which is to say, French) is put to perfect use, and - hate to say it though I do - between PD and the last Sin City film, I find her growing on me immensely.  I'm encouraged to go rent 300: Rise of an Empire now as soon as I can manage it.  Josh Hartnett does a great job in his role as the American gunslinger, Ethan Chandler.  While he does add a needed relatability and/or earthiness to the series, his presence never seems out of place or gratuitously colonial for the sake of contrast alone.  In my opinion, though, Timothy Dalton is the true jewel of this cast.  As Sir Malcom Murray, it is a joy to see him finally inhabiting a role full of the morally-ambiguous gravitas I feel like I've always known he was capable of, but am hard pressed to think of an actual example of from his past career.  The only real weak link in the cast, really, is Billie Piper's atrociously accented hooker-with-a-heart-of-TB Brona Croft.  I have heard and produced some horrible Irish accents in my years, but her brogue is like a Belfast version of an Irish Spring commercial.  Which is, trust me, every bit as horrible as it sounds, making it sadly impossible to properly judge anything else in her performance.  I have a feeling her career will do just fine in any event.

Beyond these, the remainder of the supporting cast does an admirable job of bringing the creepy and bringing the dread.  (David Warner's all too brief appearance as Dr. Van Helsing is especially welcome, as I've been a huge fan of seeing him turn up in things ever since Time Bandits.)  In eight short hours, I have been won over and gone from cautious ambivalence to eagerly anticipating a repeat viewing.  I can't wait to see what the creators come back with in Season Two.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Of Kids and Canon: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two

If you missed the interview on Season Onecheck it out here....

So it took quite a long time, but we finally got through all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two.  There were a lot more episodes than in Season One obviously, but the quality is definitely better, so thankfully my own attitude was more "Wait til you see this one," and less apologizing and saying "It gets better" the whole time.  Anyway, on to the post-game commentary...

Me:  So tell me what you thought of the second season of Buffy.

R:  It was awesome and cool and amazing and I really liked it and I thought it was awesome.

The surprising "big bad" of Season Two?
British soccer hooligans...
Me:  How was it different from Season One?
R:  Because Angel turned bad, and there's just different things that they're doing and things that are worse than the Master coming at Buffy and I just think that's super cool.

Me:  Like what?
R:  Like how Angel turned bad.  That was actually worse than the Master.  And Spike was worse than the Master.  But it's all like changing as it goes along, because Spike is bad the whole time, and he just wont go away, and also like in the last episode he's trying to save the world with Buffy.  So there's a lot of different changes and stuff that I really like.

Me:  So it wasn't too confusing how fluid everything was?
R:  No, not at all.  It was more awesome than weird.  And its also a little sad, because lots of people died and Miss Calendar died.
What's the worst that could possibly happen?

Me:  So was that the worst part of the season for you?
R:  Yeah, the saddest parts were the worst part for me.

Me:  What was your favorite part?
R:  The whole season was my favorite part.  I didn't really have one.  But I liked Season 2 better than Season 1, that's all I would say.

Me:  Did you have a favorite episode?
R:  Well I think the last one ("Becoming") is a little bit sad and a little bit fun and a little bit unfun all at the same time, so I think that one's the favorite.

Me:  So Buffy left town at the end of the last episode.  What do you think is going to happen to her next and what's going to happen in Season 3?
"Thank you!  Thank you!  I'm here all week!  Try the stake!"

R:  Maybe other vampires are going after her and maybe she goes to a different school library and it ends up Giles moves to that library too.  So there's other different sound effects in there too that I really might like.  But we don't know what happens until it does happen.

Me:  Do you think Sunnydale is worse off now or better off?
R:  Worse off because Buffy wont be there to protect that school.   She'll be protecting other places not there.

Me:  So it was awesome when Angel turned evil, right?
R:  Not super but it was pretty cool.
Tony Fleecs rules
Me:  And the part where she stabbed him at the end, that was like extra cool right?
R:  No, it was SAD.
And not funny.  AT ALL.

Me:  I'll have to take your word for that.  So who's cooler right now, Angel or Spike?
R:  I think Spike because hes always been bad and the last episode hes just like "Buffy, I want to save the world with you... blah blah blah blah blah".  

Me:  Ok, fistbump for Team Spike.


Me:  What did you think about the non-vampire-y monsters?
R:  Awesome.  

Me:  Did you have a favorite villain that wasn't a vamp?
R:  I think it would be the werewolf because it turns out to be Oz and that's super awesome I think.  So I would vote for the werewolf.
TWIST!  It wasn't the dingoes, baby!

Me:  That's right, because you predicted in our last interview that Willow would die this season - where not only did she not die, but she got a boyfriend.  How did you feel about that?
R:  Good.

Me:  Is Oz cooler than Spike?
R:  Oh yeah.  He's in a band and everything.  But I love that Spike in the last episode just lies and says he's in a band and Buffy does the drums.  That's just funny and I love that part.

Me:  How do you feel about The Judge?
R:  Really cool and funny.  You know...  "What's that do?"  (Unintelligible laughter)

The inherent risks of omakase dining writ large
Me:  Fish people monsters?
R:  Funny

Me:  Lovelost ghosts?
R:  Sad and cool

Me:  People turning into their Halloween costumes?
R:  First I thought it was awesome but once I saw that (Ethan Rayne) was behind it I was a little freaked out.  Like how could he do that?

Me:  What did you think about Xander and Cordelia?
R:  Freaky crazy!  Who would have thought of them as a couple?

"Outpunting one's coverage":  Exhibit A
Me:  Were you mad about it like Willow was?
R:  I was a little mad about it like Willow.

Me:  How about Kendra the Vampire Slayer?
R:  I thought she was really cool but I didnt know there was going to be two slayers.  But when EVERY slayer dies a new one comes.

Me:  Principal Snyder?
R:  Not cool.  But I think its funny how in the last ep he gets all mad at Buffy but she just pulls out the sword and he's like "Uh...   I'll stop talking.."

Me:  Do you think he could be the villain in Season Three?
R:  Maybe.  It's possible he can try to kill Buffy with how much he doesn't like her...

Me:  Do you have any predictions for Season 3 before we start watching it?
R:  No I don't think yet.  Maybe next time I'll have a prediction for Season 4.  Maybe the next villain will be a werewolf-vampire?

Me:  Thanks!

It gets better.  Except for gym class.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Battlegame Book Series #4 of 20: Galactic War (Vol. 3) – Invasion Earth!

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...


For the second half of our recent double-header, we moved on to Volume 3 of the series, Galactic War.  To say that this book, not being devoted to a particular period of military history, is an aberrration among the Battlegame Books would be quite an understatement.  The first half is a brief overview of basic astronomy and cosmology and a history of the space program circa 1975.  (For the record, my single favorite part of the book is how it describes the amazing success of the Skylab program in the present tense.)  As there has not actually been any galactic war though of which we are aware (at least at the time of press), the second half of the book delves into the purely speculative "someone thinks this might be something that could happen someday" digression, including the four wargames, which are pure matinee sci-fi schlock at its best.

Invasion Earth! is no exception and is definitely chock full of wtf-itude.  The scenario revolves around an attempt by an amphibious alien race called the Ganoids (Dastardly Donny here, largely due to the physical resemblance) to conquer the Earth by planting enough breeding pods into the Pacific Ocean to spawn and overwhelm the puny humans.  As you do.

The other player (me here) takes on the role of Earth's woefully underfunded and undermanned Pacific Command, charged with the task of eliminating enough of the breeding pods as they are seeded to prevent the Ganoid invasion from achieving critical mass.

The first Ganoid craft lands off the coast of Peru
The earth forces consist of essentially four fleets:  two slow-moving submarines, a much faster aircraft squadron and a middling attack hydrofoil.  In addition, the Pacific Command controls three one-shot orbital missle satellites which "scroll" across the top of the board each turn.  

By contrast, the Ganoid player controls six "beacon" space ships, with no real movement capacity to speak of.  Each turn, one ship may be landed anywhere on the board as desired.  The following turn, that craft generates a spawning craft, while another beacon ship may be landed elsewhere.  On the third turn, the spawning craft is submerged beneath the ocean depths, and the beacon ship may depart to anywhere else on the board.  The object of the game is for the Ganoid player to get 10 craft submerged successfuly (or 8 submerged in a contiguous group, which is far more unlikely to happen), at which point humanity is overwhelmed by dripping aliens clawing up the beaches, dogs and cats start living together and...  well, you get the idea.

A submarine fleet takes out a submerged breeding pod near Vancouver, while a Ganoid beacon ship considers its next move
If at any point before the spawning craft is successfully submerged, that square is attacked by the Earth hydrofoil or aircraft, everything within the square is destroyed.  (This obviously dictates the primary Ganoid strategy, which is to spread out landing sites at the edges of the board, to delay humanity's response in best hopes to get as many pods underwater as possible.)  Once submerged, neither the hydrofoil nor the aircraft may make an attack on a spawning craft, but it is then exposed to submarine fleet attack.  Of course the two submarines move with such agonizing slowness, they are of limited usefulness and lethality, depending on where the Ganoids manage to effect their landings.

Finally, the three orbital missle satellites (or OMS's) are the Earth player's one major ace in the hole.  They track across the top of the board by one space per turn, and at a certain point each may be used to "nuke" a square in the column beneath from orbit.  Everything within that square is destroyed (whether submerged or not), and that OMS is then removed from the board.  You get three shots only.  Make them count.

The Final Positions
As we commenced the game, my initial strategy was to attack the beacon ships directly as they landed, thinking I could quickly end the game by taking out these six units asap.  Donny was quite adept at spreading my forces out across the board though, and it quickly became very unfeasible for me to reach enough of the beacons before they took off for other parts.  As a strategem for victory, it proved unlikely to be effective.

After a brief re-assessment, I began to concentrate on the spawning craft instead.  The Ganoid player has a supply of 16, and realizing the impossibility of him submerging 8 in a contiguous grouping before being attacked by my aircraft, it became a matter of simple math.  If I could destroy 7 of the spawners, Donny would be entirely unable to meet his victory conditions.  

I think I already had destroyed one grouping in mid-spawn by this point, and subtracting the three nuke hits I expected when my OSMs were lined up where I wanted them to be, this meant I had to take out just three more of the pods with my mobile units.  It was honestly touch and go there for a while...  Ultimately though, my subs were able to reach just enough of alien landing sites to tip the balance towards the defenders and victory was mine.

Here is how Invasion Earth! fared in our scoring:

                                      Donny         Brian
Quick to lean           3                  3
The rules themselves were simply stated but took a good while for us to wrap our heads around, such as the alien forces having no attack value or movement speed.  We were repeatedly confused by the human units having their attack value printed on the unit (instead of the speed), and the differentiation between which units could attack aliens on the surface or submerged was not immediately clear.

Cool factor               5                  4
I was particularly fond of the OMS mechanic.  An interestying variant would be if the satellite attacked everything in the row beneath, not just one square in the row.  (On the first read-through of the rules, that was actually my interpretation of their attack capability.)

Replayability            4                 4
This game does not just lend itself to replayability, it demands it.  We both felt it took us most of the game to get our bearings in terms of how it worked, and that it would require additional plays to fully get the hang of.

Balance                    3                 3
It was hard for us to sense any particular slant during our game, but the tips and suggestions included on the rules page suggest making the game harder for the Ganoid player after a few plays by adding OMSs, which definitely implies a biad towards the alien side in the base game.

Overall                     3.625

Some pages of Volume 3: Galactic War