Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “grimdark”

Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover

The Acts of Caine series seems to follow a cycle of something contained and disciplined followed by something more grand and ambitious. The first cycle of this technique, Heroes Die followed by Blade of Tyshalle, didn’t really work for me. This second cycle, with the focused Caine Black Knife followed by the unhinged and bizarre Caine’s Law, works much better. The sense of having bit off a bit more than he can chew persists from Blade of Tyshalle, but by keeping the focus firmly on the titular protagonist it avoids its worst missteps. Caine’s Law is ambitious, dazzling and genuinely unique and a memorable ending to one of the strangest fantasy series around.

Caine Black Knife ended on a series of cliffhangers; Orbek’s upcoming trial-by-combat with Angvasse Khaylock, the nature of the Smoke Hunt and, most significantly, Caine’s final arrest and removal, crippled once again, to Earth. To give any significant plot summary for this book without spoiling it feels like an impossible challenge. Caine’s Law takes place in a variety of times and places, some before the events of Heroes Die, as well as between Blade of Tyshalle and Caine Black Knife. The core theme of the novel is deity and religion; considering that at least three figures throughout the series can be said to have ascended to becoming demi-Gods, it’s a theme worth exploring and closes out the series in suitably epic fashion.

Whilst I appreciate the ambition, as with Blade of Tyshalle things fall apart a bit in the execution. I really love what Stover is going for here, but it’s a bit too opaque, a bit too dense. It’s well aware of its own confusing nature, but being aware of your own flaws don’t necessarily stop them from being flaws. The book feels like a dense weave of subplots, rather than having a core strong plot in itself. Some of these subplots work better than others, with a little bit of overindulgence in some areas. A very interesting new character known as the Horse-Witch plays a vital role, but I think perhaps a bit too much time is spent with this storyline, as well as a lot of mediation about horses in general. Still, I ultimately had a better time with Caine’s Law than Blade of Tyshalle because it continues the wise trend from Caine Black Knife in focusing entirely on its titular protagonist.

There have been a lot of unstoppable, ridiculous fantasy badasses, but Caine may be the best I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this book breaks down exactly who, and what, Caine is, to the very core. Supposedly Stover is writing another book in the setting focusing on Raithe, and despite what I’ve said earlier, I think keeping Caine out of future books, or as a supporting character, is for the best. We know him now, intimately, inside and out. A lot of the time badass characters achieve that through mystery, but we now know pretty much all we could ever want to know about this character, which makes his unique perspective and strength somehow even more compelling. Caine is to fantasy what Batman is to comics, or John Wick to cinema.

Caine’s Law is an ambitious and bizarre way to end the series. Stover doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s a lot to be said for shooting for the stars, even if you ever so slightly miss. I look forward to delving into some of his other works, although I think I might skip the novelisation of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

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Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

The previous book in the Acts of Caine series was the ambitious, but frankly incoherent, Blade of Tyshalle. It drastically expanded in scope from the first book, but at the cost of what made Heroes Die so engaging to begin with. Caine Black Knife is a simpler, more straightforward return to form for the series. Where Blade of Tyshalle got bogged down in numerous sub plots and supporting characters, Caine Black Knife is all Caine, all the time. It is a shorter, leaner and more focused book and all the better for it.
Caine Black Knife follows two timelines; one takes place a couple of years after Blade of Tyshalle, with Caine heading to the Boedecken Wastes to save his Orgrillo friend Orbek, who has fallen into trouble. The other timeline tells the story of Caine’s most notable Adventure, and the one which propelled him to massive stardom; Retreat from the Boedecken. We’ve heard this story alluded to many times in the previous books, about how Caine destroyed the infamous Black Knife Orgrillo clan and earned his reputation for stunning competence and cruelty. Caine’s actions 25 years in the past are still influencing the present, as figures from his past come back to haunt him and the consequences of his actions finally catching up to him.

Where Blade of Tyshalle covered a significant geographic range and focused heavily on metaphysics and mysticism, Caine Black Knife takes place mostly in one location and drops (to an extent) many of the elements which bogged down the previous book. It’s an exciting and tense book, with the stunning violence the series is known for still in full effect. Just when you think this series couldn’t shock you any more, Stover manages to conjure up something truly horrible. The crucial difference is that it feels less gratuitous, but also more honest. This series has long had a history of slyly satirising the fantasy industry’s propensity for grimdark violence whilst also acknowledging the undeniable visceral thrill this violence provides. The first book got the balance right and the second got it wrong, but the fine balancing act is pulled off here. Caine wasn’t so brutal against the Black Knife clan in the Boedecken because it was the clever or tactical thing to do, he did it because the audience back on Earth loved it.

There’s a sense of fun to Caine Black Knife, even in its grimmest moments. Caine is a relentlessly enjoyable protagonist, utterly loathsome but impossible not to like. There are odd cracks of sentimentality, which are usually punctuated by something unforgiveable. Removing Caine from the core of Blade of Tyshalle was a mistake, because he truly is a brilliant protagonist and this book benefits massively from keeping him as the key PoV at all times. Most of the previous supporting cast is absent, a handful of cameos aside, but the new cast is filled with interesting figures for Caine to murder or generally infuriate, both in the present day and flashback storyline.

Caine Black Knife is a fun, horrifying and deeply satisfying book. We know that Caine murdering his way through swaths of Orgrillos shouldn’t be as fun as it is and Stover never stops winking at the reader. He keeps escalating things further and further, seeing how far our sympathies will stick with Caine, with the answer being worryingly far. The sense of satire, as well as being just a damn good fantasy novel, makes Caine Black Knife a return to what made Heroes Die great.


Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

I’ve been wanting to read this series for a while and now I have a Kindle I finally can. The Acts of Caine series has been out of print for a very long time (and with cover art like the one seen below it’s hardly surprising) but has had a resurgence of attention of late. I’m shocked it wasn’t a bigger success because it really is very good, perhaps somewhat ahead of its time. As a wonderful example, and critique of, grimdark fantasy, the current fantasy market is a very sensible place for this series to do very well.

Acts of Caine takes place in two parallel worlds; one is the future Earth, which has become a rigidly caste based society controlled by the Social Police who keep the populace in line. The opiate of the masses are Adventures put out by a series of studios. Many years before the beginning of the book, an ability to travel between parallel universes was discovered. Most are too hostile and alien to support human life, but one, known as Overworld, resembles a world out of fantasy, complete with a form of magic known as flow. The studios send Actors from Earth to Overworld where they livestream their Adventures to a rapt audience. Overworld is a real place and the actions of the Actors on Earth have real consequences.

Hari Michaelson is the most popular actor in the world, known in Overworld as Caine. He is loved for his brutality and propensity for sudden, shocking violence. He has been in semi-retirement since his assassination of the ruler of Ankhara destabilised the Empire and plunged it into a bloody war of succession. When Hari is told that his estranged ex-wife Shanna, another actor known in Overworld as Pallas Ril, is in danger, he agrees to head back into Overworld to save her. The studio wants him to assassinate Mael’koth, the new ruler of Ankhara, a hugely powerful magician and charismatic leader. The studio wants to do so as he has launched a pogrom against Aktir, demons who invade from another world to disrupt theirs. Sound familiar? Caine’s motivations diverge further and further from the studio as he makes enemies in both worlds.

The whole science fiction/fantasy crossover thing is something I’m very fond of. A good example would be Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern books, which gradually revealed that what looked like fantasy was actually science fiction. I also loved the old adventure game The Longest Journey, which saw its heroine travel between the sci-fi dystopia of Stark and the magical realm of Arcadia. Hell, Iain Banks played with this concept more than a few times! Heroes Die is possibly the best expression of this idea I’ve ever read. I was worried that the framing narrative of our Earth would make the Overworld adventures feel inconsequential, but Stover sidesteps this by making it very clear that there are real consequences for the residents of this world by giving us a handful of Overworld natives’ PoVs. Heroes Die is a fast paced, action packed story which takes place in a tight time frame, only six days, and pretty much entirely in one setting. This limited focus is a good idea; presenting us a sci-fi future and a whole new fantasy realm could have been overwhelming but this is, fundamentally, an intimate story with a relatively small cast of characters. The grudges are personal, not lofty. In fact, the more epic moments towards the conclusion are arguably far less engaging than the closer relationships within. It also has one of the most satisfying and breathtakingly exciting conclusions I’ve ever read.

Heroes Die is a violent, unpleasant book, but that’s sort of the point. Caine’s audience back on Earth are bloodthirsty; when he attempts to use non-violent means early on his bosses at the Studio are furious. Caine is the most popular Actor in the world because of his brutality. There’s a grim humour to much of the violence; it’s so ridiculously horrible sometimes you can’t help but laugh. Joe Abercrombie is good at the same trick. The book is mostly in the third person, with Caine/Hari as the lead but with several other PoVs as well. However, there are several 1st person passages which represent Caine’s ‘soliloquy’, his internal monologue which is beamed back to the audiences on Earth. Watching him get more and more subversive, much to the fury of the social police back on Earth, is a joy, as is his growing contempt for his bloodthirsty audience.

Hari/Caine is a brilliant protagonist, brutal and horrifying but hard not to like. The supporting cast in general is a lot of fun, such as Count Berne, an old enemy of Caine’s who is so utterly and irredeemably awful it’s hard not to kind of like him. The hatred between Berne and Caine is one of my favourite parts of the book. My favourite character was Mael’koth, the all-powerful Emperor of Ankhara, who despite a fair bit of brutality is actually a rather good Emperor with the best interests of his subjects at heart. We’ve seen egotistical sorcerers seeking to ascend to Godhood before, but seeing one actually doing a pretty good job is a nice twist. He’s an intimidating, frightening and bizarrely likeable figure. A good mirror to the impressive majesty of Mael’koth is the simpering and pathetic Administrator Kollberg over on Earth, Caine’s boss who has tired of his insubordination.

Heroes Die is a tremendously fun, witty and self-aware bit of genre fiction. It’s not self-aware in an irritating ‘winking at the audience’ sort of way, but explores the tropes of its genres whilst also exemplifying them. Even without the frame Earth narrative, Caine’s adventures in Overworld would still be pretty fun. I’m very much looking forward to continuing with the series.


Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country is the most recent of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law spin-off books, and I’m genuinely really going to miss this world. I wasn’t convinced at first, but as has often been the case with Abercrombie’s books there was a tipping point where I realised I was absolutely hooked, with the slower ground work at the beginning being all worth it. Red Country doesn’t quite top my personal favourite Best Served Cold, but it’s nonetheless a fantastic read and certainly one of Abercrombie’s best.

Red Country takes place in the Near and Far Country, a relatively untamed frontier between Starikland and the Old Empire. There are two main protagonists. Shy South is a former bandit who has given up her unlawful ways to return to her family farm, tended by her young siblings and her step-father, the gentle and cowardly Lamb. When returning from business in the town of Squaredeal, Shy and Lamb find their farm raided, and her siblings kidnapped. Shy embarks on an epic journey across the Near Country and into the Far Country, following the trail of the kidnappers. The other protagonist is Temple, an unreliable lawyer in the service of the Company of the Gracious Hand, led by none other than infamous soldier of fortune, Nicomo Cosca. With Union Inquisitors in tow, they are entering the Near Country is search of the fled leadership of a rebellion against the Union in Starikland. After a particularly brutal sacking of an innocent town, Temple flees the Company, eventually coming across Shy and a group of travellers who are making their way across the Far Country, to the town of Crease.

There’s an extremely strong Wild West influence in Red Country, with Abercrombie playing around with many Western tropes, but without resorting to cliché. Possibly the biggest difference between Red Country and Abercrombie’s other works is that, for once, his protagonists are actually fundamentally decent people. Where the trio of Glokta, Jezal and Logen of the original trilogy were all terrible people who flirted with doing good before returning to their nefarious ways, Shy and Temple are good people who have, in their past, fallen into evil and murderous ways. Although I liked Abercrombie’s earlier characters, the relentless pessimism of the series was getting a bit wearying, so Red Country’s slightly more positive tone in welcome. Of course, all things are relative, and by most people’s standards Red Country would be a deeply unpleasant, violent and dark book, but compared to his earlier work there in a streak of good at the centre of the whole thing. Red Country is also a much more personal book than the others. The First Law trilogy and The Heroes told of vital moments for The Union, and Best Served Cold started intimate but escalated to epic. The stakes are somewhat lower in Red Country, really only the lives of two children, with a much lesser focus on massive battles. There’s lots of action of course, but it’s grittier and more intimate than the great sieges in Best Served Cold or the Battle of Osrung in The Heroes.

Red Country is just as savagely funny as the rest of the series, and Abercrombie’s unique style has been so refined at this point to being instantly recognisable. He’s not afraid to leave the typical plain prose of the genre behind, and he does an excellent job of conveying not just the appearance of his settings, but the feeling behind them as well. The cess pit town of Crease is particularly memorable and well-drawn, showing Abercrombie’s impressive world building ability.

The new characters of Red Country are great; Shy is grizzled and tough, but with a heart of gold, and Temple is witty and charming. In some ways he’s similar to Jezal dan Luthar from the original trilogy, but where Jezal was a coward to the core, Temple is a good man buried under layers and layers of a bad man. I’m always happy to see more from Cosca, the Jack Sparrow of the First Law world, and he’s as amusing and likeable a monster as he ever was. There are some very nice appearances from characters in the earlier books, some as cameos and others with more extended roles. Caul Shivers appears briefly, but is given enough time to allow his story arc which has stretched between Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country time to pay off and resolve in an extremely satisfying manner.

Now, I typically try to go fairly spoiler free in these reviews, and there’s one element of the book whose spoiler status is oddly nebulous. It’s an element which will be completely obvious to anyone who has read the original trilogy, but these books are also aimed at appealing to newcomers, and this part may give away key elements of a major characters history. I’m going to talk about that now, so don’t go any further if you’re not sure.

So, Red Country is the return of Logen Ninefingers. He’s never referred to by that name, not even the Bloody-Nine, but it’s him. Since plunging into the river following his betrayal by Black Dow in Last Argument of Kings, Logen moved south and helped raise a family, putting his bloody life behind him and taking the new name of Lamb. As the story goes on, Lamb is forced to become Logen again, and the steady stripping away of the pretence of gentleness and the re-emergence of the Bloody Nine is absolutely thrilling to read. There’s something tragic about it too; Logen had finally succeeded in putting his past behind him and building a new life, but the overarching theme of this novel is that nobody can really escape their past. I enjoyed Logen a lot in the original trilogy, but I think it’s in Red Country that I’ve liked him best.

Red Country isn’t necessarily the best received of Abercrombie’s books, but it’s certainly one of my favourites. I’m definitely looking forward to giving Half a King, Abercrombie’s new book set in a new setting, a go, but I’m also hotly anticipating Abercrombie returning to this world. It’s a good ‘un.Red-Country-book-of-2012

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Ok, I should be careful here, because last time I reviewed a Joe Abercrombie book he read it and tweeted out my comments on his sex scenes. Thankfully, I loved Best Served Cold so I pretty much only had nice things to say about it. So, for Mr. Abercrombie’s benefit…


Ok, is he gone? Cool. Well, actually, I really did like The Heroes a lot, but we don’t want it getting to Joe’s head do we?

The Heroes is the second First Law standalone book, although it’s significantly less stand-alone-y than Best Served Cold, which I imagine would have stood up pretty well even without having read he original trilogy. The Heroes feels much more like a continuation of the main series, picking up with minor characters from the original trilogy for a climactic battle in the North. Black Dow, King of the North after his betrayal of the Bloody-Nine at the end of Last Argument of Kings, has been waging war on the Union, with the two forces meeting in battle in a stretch of open land near the town of Osrung. The Heroes takes place over three days, focusing entirely on the battle itself. Our main protagonists with the Northmen are Curnden Craw, a Named Man who fights for Dow, one of the few honest men in the North, Beck, the son of the great warrior Shama Heartless who seeks glory in battle and Prince Calder, the Machiavellian son of Bethod, the former King of the North. With the Union we have Bremer dan Gorst, the King’s former bodyguard, dispatched to the North after failing to protect the King during the events of Best Served Cold. We also have Tunny, a comic relief war profiteer and Finree, the ambitious daughter of Lord Marshal Kroy.

With Best Served Cold and The Heroes, you can really see an author trying to challenge himself, to approach epic fantasy in a different way. The First Law book with the most typically ‘fantasy’ storyline was Before They Are Hanged, and in retrospect I think it is the weakest of the series that I’ve read so far. Where it’s become the norm to consciously reject Tolkein-esque tropes recently, with A Song of Ice and Fire being the most clear example, I can’t think of another author whose weaved that rejection so well into the actual structure of their works. By limiting himself to a three day scope, Abercrombie tells a different kind of story, one which doesn’t rely on the sense of epic which fuels so much fantasy, instead being significantly more grounded and gritty. This is also an extremely thematically tight book which, unsurprisingly, focuses on heroism. The question as to what makes a hero, what a hero even is and why anyone would want to be one is front and centre in this book, with every character grappling with this central question in some way.

The humour and brutal action are all there, with Abercrombie furthering developing his own vivid style. There are few authors like this in fantasy, with many going for the Brandon Sanderson approach of basic prose supporting the plot (which is not a bad thing at all, I love Sanderson), but Abercrombie is developing a voice of his own. The biggest irritation in The Heroes is Abercrombie’s slight propensity to repeat himself. There are only so many times that a character can muse on the ultimate horror and pointlessness of war without getting repetitive. Still, this is perhaps a necessary risk when writing a book as narratively and thematically tight as this one.

I really enjoyed the new crop of characters in The Heroes, as well as familiar faces from the previous books. I was particularly happy to see the return of Caul Shivers from Best Served Cold, having been a big fan of his character arc in previous books. Many of the main POV characters played minor roles in the previous books, and Abercrombie’s turnaround of these characters is fascinating to behold. The revelation that sneering bastard from the originals Prince Calder is actually quite likeable was as good a switch-around as the similar revelation George R.R. Martin made about Jaime Lannister in A Storm of Swords. Similarly, learning that Bremer dan Gorst is in fact a seething cauldron of rage and resentment was interesting as well. There is something of a lack of decent female characters, but given the setting that’s perhaps understandable. I just miss Monzacarro Murcatto, who’s seriously one of the best fantasy protagonists ever.

The Heroes is another great instalment in the First Law world and an interesting literary experiment to boot. Overall, I preferred the scale of the revenge epic Best Served Cold, which matched the epic with the intimate pretty much perfectly, but nonetheless it’s always a pleasure to dip back into Abercrombie’s brutal bloody

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