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.