Review: The Malice

First of all, apologies for being scarce on the reviews lately. I have actually been churning through a ton of books I want to talk about, but it’s been a fairly hectic month and in what little free time I have outside of reading, I’ve been prioritizing my writing. I’ll do a life blog thing later on to go into some detail.

But the most recent book I read, I really want to talk about and hopefully get some people interested in.

26160162.jpgI am talking about Peter Newman’s The Malice. It is the second book in his The Vagrant trilogy, and a wonderful book. I read and reviewed The Vagrant earlier this year and a lot of what I said about that book held true here.

I have mentioned before, but I think Newman has a gift with naming things. You would think this kind of gift would be common in fantasy and science fiction where you’re kind of making things up wholesale and need to come up with a descriptor for them, to get across certain concepts, tones and ideas to people who would never encounter them in real life. It is not common at all, and in fact I find it a major failing of a lot of fantasy in particular. Occasionally you get actual mad geniuses like Gene Wolfe spewing out beautiful prose that requires you to go digging through esoteric thesauruses to figure out what the hell he means. Elsewhere on the sliding scale you have someone like China Mieville who uses grotesque and bizarre word combinations to put uncomfortable images into your head (I will never forget reading about the limb-farms and bile-tanks of the Grindylow in The Scar).

Newman utilizes elements of both. He plays with words that don’t typically go together, and makes them work, makes you think of very disparate things and how they might physically appear or influence the tone of an object or a person.

To wit, one of my favorite things he’s come up with is a group called the Knights of Jade and Ash. I just love the taste of those words together. You don’t often find jade in the company of ash, so what on earth has drawn these two words into a singular troupe? He’s fairly sparse with his descriptions, too, so you can fill in the blanks with your imagination.

The story is a nearly textbook bildungsroman as a young girl named Vesper inherits a very dangerous weapon from her father and begins a long trek to grow as a person, a warrior and a savior (or destroyer) of a world threatened by a massive cyst in reality known as the Breach.

Honestly, a lot of the good I have to say mirrors my thoughts on The Vagrant itself, but I think this book does a bit better than its predecessor. This may be by virtue of featuring a talking protagonist, someone who has to grow and change quite a bit, instead of favoring the ronin motif of the first book. I love the Vagrant himself as a character but past a certain point you kind of knew what was going to happen; he’d be surrounded, forced into a fight, and he would decimate his foes in a beautiful, almost lyrically-written fight sequence. Vesper starts off as someone who is a bit more pure, a bit more naive in the ways of the world, but still very much willing to throw down like her old man.

I must also admit a weakness for enchanted blades, and The Malice itself is a delight. It’s explored far more thoroughly here than it was in the first book. You learn a bit about its history, its powers, its potential. It’s a scary holy weapon that will turn on you if you falter or show weakness, or will get you killed spurring you into a crusade that your body cannot yet handle. I don’t see cursed “good” swords very often; usually they’re straightforward in trading your soul, your blood or your friends for fighting prowess. Here, on the other hand, is a blade so driven to fight the forces of the abyss that it will turn you into a monster in pursuit of this divine task. The descriptions of it are brilliant too, I love the eye-pommel and the twitching wings that make up its crossguard, and the…

Well, you’ll have to read on to see what else, I hate spoiling.

All that said, definitely start with the first one. There’s a nice little catch-me-up section at the very beginning here but you’re losing a ton of context and brilliant worldbuilding if you dive in midway, even if the story will make a rough kind of sense.

Review: The Djinn Falls in Love (And Other Stories)

I love genies, or djinn, or jinn, about as far back as I can remember. I think my first exposure to them was an extremely child-friendly edition of 1001 Arabian Nights and the original Aladdin (which was set in China (written by a Muslim guy to look exactly like an Islamic city (which is how you get characters like the Sultan of China))) that kept out a lot of the more gruesome elements. Then, of course, there was the Disney version that came out when I was about 7 years old. and is one of the first films I remember seeing at the theater. In my teens I stumbled upon Neil Gaiman, who took a much more adult approach and delved into some of the background of the race.

They’re fascinating to me because they are completely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in mythological studies. They’re a supernatural race that isn’t an existential threat, or an enemy of the regional god, or demigods themselves. They’re more like our half-remembered brothers and sisters. We were made of clay and dirt, they were made of fire and shadow. We were given the oases and fields, they were given the dark places and the glass palaces hidden in desert mirages. We see each other out the corners of our eyes sometimes. In many places where the djinn legends are prominent, they follow the same religion as the human cultures, complete with prayer rugs and singing. Even the most basic description of them from the old texts, men made of smokeless fire, is something I’ve always found evocative and striking.

I like that just like people, they aren’t good or bad by nature, they have free will and can choose to use it in the way they wish. You get good djinn who do bad things, bad djinn who do good things, and neutral ones who simply want to be left alone, just like you see in humanity.

51s9+SWaZ6L.jpgThe new anthology The Djinn Falls in Love manages to capture so many aspects of what I love about the dense and intricate folklore of these beings. I don’t think that such a thing could have been captured outside of a collection like this, because the djinn are so diverse that you need many stories to explore their many facets.

It opens up with possibly my favorite story of the book, a tale about a boy who stumbles into his mosque to find it inhabited by a congregation of strangers with flame-red hair who all fall through their prayer rugs at the end of the service, and goes from there. You have everything from mysteries, to love stories, to military thrillers to horror. Often these genres are mixed up and you’ll find several in the same story, which is tremendously fitting for the subject matter at play here.

It’s one of those anthologies where I liked some stories more than others, but I didn’t dislike any of them. If I were to re-read it I don’t think I’d skip around to favorites.

I was very appreciative of how accessible the stories were. There are some books I don’t recommend to friends unless they’re also into reading a lot of the weird and esoteric stuff I do, and like stories that require you to have a bit of that background. You could walk into this not knowing anything about the djinn and walk out with a good understanding of just how diverse the folklore around them is.

I also like how many new authors it introduced me to. Of course Gaiman’s story from American Gods still holds up remarkably well (and feels even more relevant in today’s world of immigrant and refugee crises), and Nnedi Okorafor’s delving into African djinn legends was fascinating, but I ended up with a big to-read list based on the entries of some authors I’d never heard of before. Sami Shah’s REAP is one of the creepier pieces I’ve read in awhile and I would read an entire novel set in the military-horror setting he’s created. Sophia Al-Maria’s Righteous Guide is equally creepy for entirely different reasons and doesn’t shy away from exploring the repression of women in many of these regions, and the interplay between the idea of djinn possession and female sexuality for some of the more superstitious. E.J. Swift’s Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice grabbed me way harder than I would have expected; space opera did not seem like a logical place to start exploring djinn magic but there you go.

Not all of the stories will make you feel good, but all of them will definitely make you think and give you an appreciation for an element of folklore and mythology that often doesn’t show up in western fiction unless it’s been scoured clean and bowdlerized beyond recognition.

Review: Torment – Tides of Numenera

You wake up plummeting towards the ground in a cocoon. It’s slowly shredded away from your body to reveal a vast crystalline dome below you and a collapsing moon above you, and you have no idea who you are or what is happening. You accelerate and black out just before impact, and reawaken on a vast platform of mirrors and obsidian, studded with glowing orbs. When you touch them, they pour forgotten memories into your mind, everything from underwater cities to ancient castles. Each new memory awakens latent skills that your body still knows even if your mind can’t make sense of them.

But something is stalking you through your own mind, a tumor made of smoke and teeth, and it’s closing in fast. Spectral figures emerge from the very landscape to try and help, but they end up as food for the creature that you only hazily remember as The Sorrow, and as it closes in on you, you manage to force yourself out of your unconscious and back into your twisted, mangled body.

You’re lying on the floor of a rotting laboratory next to a crystal sarcophagus, watched by a man covered in living tattoos and a woman surrounded by dozens of ghosts that look exactly like her. They think you might be a God.

Thus begins Torment: Tides of Numenera.

That was about five minutes. Over the next several hours it gets significantly weirder.

I love almost everything about this game. I backed it way back when the kickstarter began around 2013 and grit my teeth through almost half a decade of delays, because I played Planescape: Torment back when I was 14 and I would give anything to capture some of the awe that game inspired in me.

As the spiritual successor, with a lot of the same staff and a similar design philosophy, this game is so good. Of the recent old school RPGs to come out (Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny) this is probably my favorite.

04ad676271fd34f4cdcd4f49df31299a.jpgThe setting is to die for. It’s purestrain Monte Cook. He lists his major influences in creating it as the art of Moebius, and the writings of Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and and Gene Wolfe. It’s a world one billion years from now where eight great civilizations have risen and fallen on the bones of their predecessors, littering the dying planet with technology so alien that it’s practically magical. The Ninth Age has just hit the feudal era, and sword-wielding knights coexist alongside “mages” who can control ancient nanomachines to cast spells, and rogues who are more like cyberpunk hackers than medieval thieves. Every area you explore oozes personality and thousands of tiny details to look through. I bought the pen and paper game ages ago but the translation to video game as a medium is perfect.

This is the first game in ages where my initial playthrough hasn’t been a warrior/fighter type. I’ve been playing as a Jack, the rogue class, a literal jack-of-all-trades and homage to Jack Vance’s influence on the genre. You learn a little bit of everything and can talk your way out of practically any conflict. In hours of playing I have had one tutorial fight and managed to manipulate or sweet talk my way past any other show of arms. It’s almost like playing through a novel, with well-written branching dialogue and a ton of replay-ability evident even in the midst of my first go.

If I have any complaints, it’s that what I did see of the combat feels incredibly clunky. I don’t know that I’d enjoy a fighter character unless a large part of that was using intimidation checks to avoid fighting people, ironically enough. But the game really does throw a lot of options at you; my Jack is often presented with the ability to turn enemies against one another, or make myself into their ally, or simply misdirect their wrath somewhere off the screen. I could easily see a nano-wizard being able to scan their minds and influence them that way, or a grizzled glaive warrior scaring a bunch of wasteland scavengers off just by unsheathing his giant blade and grimacing at them.

It’s not quite as good as Planescape: Torment, but PST is honestly one of my gold standard games when it comes to writing. Even pushing aside the heady nostalgia factor, it just has a borderline-perfect cast of characters, every single action you take has weight behind it, and it works within one of my favorite fantasy settings ever. Numenera is young compared to Planescape, and this Torment game has a lot to live up to, but absolutely an A+ for effort and something I can advocate buying at full price, because if you like good storytelling you’ll probably get at least 2-3 replays out of it and that comes out to 60, 70 hours or so.

Review: The Heart of What Was Lost

51qdqrflmcl-_sy346_So, obviously, this is going to have some spoilers for Memory, Sorrow & Thorn, the story beginning just a few weeks after that series ends. If you haven’t read them, tread lightly, because they do have some good twists and you’ll want to read them before tackling Heart here.

I am actually going to be the weird guy here and say that I enjoyed this more than the original trilogy. That seems vaguely heretical coming from a fantasy fan, but I actually didn’t get into MS&T until I was in my late twenties, and at the behest of my wife. I knew that it was a good series but it was kind of relegated to the “oh god, I don’t have time to devote to a doorstopper fantasy series right now” pile and when I did have time I inevitably ended up with some new release in my lap.

I feel that Heart manages to capture my favorite aspects of the original series while jettisoning many of the parts I found arduous. Now, don’t get me wrong, I did like all four books of the original trilogy (god damnit Williams) but there were segments that you could cut out and not lose anything from the story. What I loved was the sense of depth and history that he managed to infuse the setting with, and speaking through unreliable narrators long before that became a standard trope and the basis for many grimdark series. The idea that ancient prophecies about fighting back dark lords might actually refer to genocidal human imperialists, and that they might not realize it until after they tried to fulfill those prophecies with themselves as the heroes, that’s really good stuff and you can see how it shaped the genre as a whole.

Heart takes the idea that even in a fantasy conflict there is more depth than first appears, and applies it here to an incredibly stereotypical conflict: big, burly viking warriors versus sadistic dark elves.

Except the vikings actually kind of did wipe out the elves’ fore-bearers without much provocation, and only a few members of the current leadership would consider offering mercy to even the women and children of their enemies. These are the kinds of vikings who will very literally ravish and pillage your town in the worst ways, but we are conditioned to consider them the heroes of the story through certain framing devices and juxtaposition with enemies who are far worse.

Except the aren’t.

There wasn’t very much story told from the perspective of the Norns, the darker half of the elven/fairy race in the original trilogy. Here a full half of the book explores their culture, their religion, the interplay between different state powers, and the vast web of personalities that inhabit their mountain strongholds. While they served as faceless mooks in the first books, you kind of retroactively feel awful for them here.

The story is told through three perspectives: the Rimmergard lord Isgrimnur is trying to deal with his bloodthirsty (and rightly so, in some ways) lieutenant and with an infuriatingly enigmatic Sithi emissary both at the same time, each pulling him in a different direction when it comes to approaching the siege of the Norn lands. There are a pair of mercenary warriors who find themselves very far from home and not sure how to deal with that. Finally there is Viyeki, a military engineer from the Norn homeland, serving at the behest of his elder and the leader of the engineer corps.

The meat of the story is in this last third. We kind of know what to expect of the Rimmersmen from their prominent role as shock troops in the original trilogy, but the Norn stuff is very new and incredibly interesting. Their immortality adds a certain tragedy to them; each of them has hundreds if not thousands of years under their belt, knowledge of the forgotten world lost forever in the swing of a sword or an axe. You get a glimpse at their magic practitioners, the engineers, and the military forces who consider themselves dead from the moment they pick up a blade. Each one wants a different thing out of the conflict, and is willing to sell out certain aspects of their timeless culture to bolster what they consider important. Underneath it all you come to understand that the Storm King is far from the scariest being in their wasteland home, and there’s a very good reason that they came willingly to his banner when faced with some horrifying alternatives.

I like antagonists who make me think, which is one of William’s strengths.

It’s short as well, which forces him to condense what I like instead of meandering off. There’s a certain number of set pieces here, only a couple dozen named characters, and the immediacy brings a certain vividness and urgency to the narrative. While MS&T was all about sweeping fantasy, exploring the corners of the world and forging alliances with far-flung kindred in the face of obliteration, this is about a very bad siege. For the people involved in it, the expansive world outside no longer exists, and their entire lives revolve around sapper tunnels, food, and how and when they want to die. Beyond the races, the only link to the first trilogy is that both stories deal heavily with the idea that history is not as it seems, that as a set of lies agreed upon by scholars it is subject to change and rewrite depending on who happens to be holding the biggest pen at the time.

It left me looking even more forward to the second trilogy, which this serves as a bridging novel to, The Last King of Osten Ard. I’d love to explore the depths of the Norn mountain stronghold even more fully than we got here, and I especially love the hints he’s continuing to drop about the origin of the Garden from which all the elven peoples originally sprung.

I also kind of wish more books were like this. At his best I consider Williams the master of blending elements of grimdark with epic fantasy. It isn’t a curse-laden swear-and-rapefest like grimmer offerings, but it has enough unexpected deaths, a mature approach to medieval politics and too bloody-minded a take on combat to fit comfortably among the true heroic fantasy out there. And that’s to it’s benefit, because whitewashed heroic fantasy gets very old, very fast, and I’d much rather have the best of it mixed in with deeper questions about colonization, revisionist history, culture clashes and misunderstood prophecies.

Review: The Stars Are Legion

51a7Ho628kL.jpgSo, I’ll start this by admitting some bias off the bat. I’m a big Kameron Hurley fan. I’ve been entranced with Worldbreaker Saga trilogy ever since I picked it up a few years ago after the blurb piqued my interest. I went on to grab all of the short fiction I could get my hands on, along with the essays she’d been putting out and would eventually collect in the Geek Feminist Revolution last year. I’m eagerly awaiting the third Worldbreaker book. I consider her amazing essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” to be part of my worldbuilding bible and something I go back and read in its entirety any time I sit down to start working on some new setting, just to make sure I’m not inadvertently letting important things fall through the cracks like historians have done with our own history forever.

So, you might imagine I’ve been waiting for The Stars Are Legion with baited breath ever since I first heard rumblings about it. Her take on space opera, as a big old standalone, which serves as both a love letter to the genre and a skewering of many of its less savory tropes and stereotypes.

I finished it yesterday night and I was not disappointed. It actually blew away my expectations.

I am left with the quandary of how to give it a good review and explain why I liked it without accidentally spoiling something, because the novel is packed to the brim with twists and unexpected turns in the narrative, characters dying ingloriously and without a second though, learning something and then having to unlearn it just a few chapters later. I will try to explain what really stood out to me without spoiling, but if you’re really concerned about avoiding that I’d say stop at the end of this paragraph and just go with me saying: buy it, 2017 is young but this is already in my top five for the year, it’s one of the most imaginative pieces of science fiction I’ve read in ages.

Okay, all that out of the way.

The first and most striking thing about the novel is that it’s all women. It’s not a setting where men were discarded, or killed, or rendered pointless. There’s no mention of men whatsoever. The concept of men does not exist. Masculinity is not a thing, and neither is femininity by sheer virtue of having nothing to compare or contrast it to. The romances that pop up throughout the book are both queer and not, because while they’re woman-on-woman, there’s not an alternative.

That really shouldn’t be a big thing, because I can think of plenty of space opera novels I read from the 70s and 80s where there wasn’t a single woman of note and all the speaking roles were played by men, but here we are. It does stand out and I had to make some mental adjustments; for the first few chapters every time a crowd scene is described I had to remind myself not to imagine any male faces mixed in.

Second, and arguably the most important thing about the novel, is that it’s all about pregnancy. Everything in the setting is organic. Metal is beyond rare, practically nonexistant. The ships are huge living beings, calling to mind Moya and the other leviathans from Farscape (huge points in the book’s favor, that being one of my favorite shows ever), and their inhabitants are so connected to their ships that their wombs serve as… well, replicators and engineering chambers for the ship to create new parts in. Women might give birth to fleshy, veined cogs for the great machine as easily as what we’d imagine as a baby. Women can give birth to horrible weapons, vehicles, even the things that grow into the world-sized superships that make up the fleet.

Pregnancy and birth have always been in SF/F, but usually along the lines of body horror. Frank Herbert’s got the Axlotl Tanks of the Tleilaxu people in Dune, basically women stripped of sentience and reduced to breeding machines. Other writers have mimicked or parodied that. On a separate but related vein you might have something like Alien and the xenomorphs’ whole “gimmick” basically being walking sexual assault monsters that impregnate you and then you die. I could probably come up with a laundry list of alien or weird pregnancy metaphors in science fiction, but you get where I’m going.

This is the first time where I’ve seen it play a central role and have it be equal parts horror and awe, kind of a reverence for the power of creation that isn’t positive or negative. It’s intriguing and left me wanting even more than the book gave me, which is a considerable amount. It’s like the odd child of Ursula le Guin and David Cronenberg. There’s horror there in the sense that things can go wrong in pregnancy, and mutations can occur, and pregnancy can be unwanted, but it’s a very grounded horror that does not reduce the female body to a host for us to gawk at.

This particular strain of organic, body horror influenced worldbuilding isn’t new ground for Hurley, but I feel like this is the first book of hers that made it into a central theme and created something beautiful out of it while her other books used it to sculpt the setting and accentuate political maneuvering. The closest would obviously be Worldbreaker with its peculiar blood and plant magic systems, but I always feel like the focal point of those books are more about gender roles, transgender issues, and layered ethical quandaries baked into transdimensional warfare and political intrigue. The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy also incorporates some of what we see here, set in a post apocalyptic world where technology is insectoid, but much more about picking apart religion and social norms than the bugtech (again, another stellar series you should pick up, monster bounty hunters with centipede weapons in a blasted wasteland ruled over by Islamic-inspired sects).

Overall, it really clicked with me. It brought me something new, and made it even more interesting than just the newness itself. Good characters, as I said a ton of plot twists, a world that is shown to you in brief glimpses and a history that slowly unfolds over the course of several hundred pages instead of being vomited at you in blocky paragraphs in between space battles.

Oh, and bazookas that fire homing squid bullets. Always a plus.

Reviews: Abomination, The Thousand Names, Norse Mythology

Since the weather here in Sydney, Australia can be described as somewhere between “wow, I didn’t know my sandals could melt like that” and “oh my god, I’m on the surface of the sun,” I’ve spent most of the weekend lounging in front of the air conditioner and getting some reading off my backlog.

51tk2cyu4nlAbomination by Gary Whitta is actually something that I’ve had on my kindle for over a year now but kept letting it slip off my radar as new books would come out, which I now regret. It’s a very good book and not for the reasons I went in expecting it to be. All of the blurbs talk about it melding together cosmic horror with historical combat, but truly I found it to have more in common with a really good lycanthrope story than anything else.

Just a lycanthrope story featuring things like knights templar, monstrous scarab beetles, and conflict between the Saxons and the leftovers of the Great Heathen Army in the 800s or thereabouts, featuring cameos by a variety of historical figures. Admittedly you are not going to find a lot of historical accuracy in those figures or in the years, but given that this book literally opens up with corrupted vatican officials using eldritch scrolls to transform animals into unstoppable berserk monsters, you kind of go in knowing it’s going to be pulpy alternate history. The fun comes from taking figures like Alfred the Great and trying to guess at what their reaction would be to the borderline apocalyptic events of the novel.

As far as negatives go, it has to be said that the characters are fairly stock with one or two exceptions, and you know how the PoV characters are going to react to anything well before they do. The honorable knight is going to be honorable, the tomboy girl who wants to join the elite monster hunting corps will act like a 90s movie action girl after being sexually threatened by some roving antagonists. But around that core there’s a fascinating story woven and I found the logistics of the… well, supernatural aspects, I guess, fairly compelling and page-turning. It’s a horror novel but most of the chapters are devoted to how to keep that horror contained using medieval tools and education, a combination I haven’t run into before.

It’s under a dollar this month so I’d definitely recommend picking it up if any of this interested you.


51ott4phrdl-_sx308_bo1204203200_Next, I finally got to another one, The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. Here is a book I found frustrating: I loved it, but I loved it because of the background rather than the foreground elements. Anyone who has read my blog or my writing knows that I am fascinated with the middle east and annoyed at how little it’s used as a springboard for genre fiction, and I’ve had this one recommended to me several times as Napoleon’s Cairo and Syria wrapped up in flintlock fantasy and bizarre shadow magic. Extremely my jam to the point that I put off reading it because I didn’t want it to influence some of my own mid-east fantasy works.

My frustration comes from Wexler crafting a really compelling take on fractured, fantasy Egypt, split between followers of an ancient religion, a new group of fanatics who have begun taking over, the exiled prince of the whole mess, and the everyday people who are living out their lives in the ruins. You’ve got a military divided into droves of barely-armed peasants led by singing priests, a western-style military force that had been trained by the imperialist powers during the height of the occupation, and dark forces lurking around the corners.

And then you take all of that and you wedge it into the corner and only catch glimpses of it while watching a bunch of totally-not-English/French soldiers go through the daily drama of life as an occupying force. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the hell out of Janus and Marcus as military characters who have a brain between them, Winter was great and I’m always cool with more LGTBQ representation in fantasy, Bobby is awesome, Feora is cool… but you don’t even have a single PoV character from this amazingly gripping world. There are a few chapters that tell things from the perspective of Jaffa, a neutral-ish lawkeeper in the city, and I found the three of them way more interesting than the rest of the book combined, and the hints that his chapters threw my way are what got me to go buy the rest of the series for reading later this month.

Don’t take any of that as a harsh critique, please, because I truly did love the book and kept turning pages, but it managed to push all my buttons without the payoff I was begging for at the same time. I’ve love a side-quel book written from the perspective of the auxies, the Redeemers, or anyone from Mother’s court even just going over the same events.

Also, I’m really glad I read it before getting too far into my own fantasy epic where one of the defining traits of one of the tribes is having grey-tinged skin from their close association with krakens and the tattoos they use leeching into their bodies, because I’m pretty sure it would be taken as a ripoff of the greyskins here.


515hhtyn0glFinally, the book I have been waiting on for months now is finally out and I read the whole thing in a sitting. I am speaking, of course, of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. I don’t know that I can say enough good things about this collection. It is the rare book that I can call flawless; something that I finished and wanted to read again. It is not a “Neil Gaiman book” in the traditional sense, he has tapped into an entirely different narrative voice. It addresses you as easily as some weird old one-eyed man chatting you up at a seedy pub somewhere and asking you if you’d like to hear some stories about gods long dead.

Now, I’m a giant, nitpicky mythology nerd and the Norse pantheon is about tied with the Greek one for me when it comes to myths I cut my teeth on, so I went in with a very high bar and was surprised to find it cleared with so much seeming ease. I’d honestly call it the defining take on all of these stories, having read many, many translations of each before now.

If you’re a Gaiman fan, you’ll be happy to know that in spite of this radically different narrative voice, it does feel like it slots neatly into other works of his. The Odin talked about here absolutely does show up in American Gods, in all his glory. The Asgardian squad who make their appearance in The Sandman step directly out of these pages. It’s the same Thor, the same Loki. It’s not the Marvel-ized versions of anything, even though Gaiman does acknowledge that he only ever got into these myths after devouring the old Mighty Thor comics as a boy.

Tricksy Tricksters

I saw Moana this last week, and read some very good books. I did not do this intentionally, but found that they all contained a similar thread: they were all about tricksters.

I like trickster characters a lot. I always have. I gravitated towards the Odysseus stories the most out of all the classical canon because he seemed like the thinking man’s hero who generally couldn’t rely on his brawn to get things done. He had to outwit and outmaneuver most of his foes. Out of Norse mythology I love Loki, and not just the snarky version we get in the Marvel universe. Something that has always drawn me to Native American folklore and storytelling is the prevalence of trickster archetypes over every other archetype combined. I find that as a Jewish dude, many of my own folk heroes are tricksters, be they biblical or more contemporary media. They’re a mainstay of African American literature and you could argue that the best Shakespeare plays feature prominent tricksters. They’re everywhere, and when they’re done well, I love them.

Hell, it’s the reliance on tricksters that probably drew me to Neil Gaiman’s body of work in the first place. The dude loves them even more than I do and his knowledge of them dwarfs what I would consider my above-average knowledge of the archetype in both mythology and pop culture.

They’re just so much fun. They generally never come from a position of power. They’re underdogs who have to scrap and claw their way to greatness, and most of us love stories like that. They’re regularly confronted by people who could kick their ass without breaking a sweat, and the only way to survive those situations is by wit and manipulation. Half of them are, admittedly, terrible people and not what you’d call role models, but they readily demonstrate the possibilities of lateral thought as a skill that should be cultivated.

Anyway, with that bias divulgedhere are my brief reviews.

moana-disney-accused-of-brownfacing-after-releasing-maui-s-costume.jpgMoana was brilliant. Easily my favorite Disney movie since the 90s, and I liked Tangled and Frozen. I went into it afraid that it was going to fall into some bad traps, but it avoided them splendidly. Polynesian tattoo culture was given the respect it is due as a form of familial tracking and storytelling instead of just decoration. The first and only animated film you’re likely to see that features a scene of mallet and bone comb tattooing, and they didn’t just cover the men with them. Moana’s grandmother sports a backpiece anyone with an appreciation for ink would be jealous of.

My fascination with tattoo stuff aside, it was just a fun movie. It made you feel good without being cloying about it. The music is gorgeous, even if there are points where you want to maybe pull Lin-Manuel Miranda aside and remind him he doesn’t have to do Hamilton breakdown raps in everything. The soundtrack is addictive and I’ve had it on my ipod practically nonstop since seeing the movie, particularly Jemaine Clement channeling late 70s David Bowie as a gilded coconut crab (seriously, go see this movie).

I liked that Maui didn’t steal the stage from Moana at any point. As most they were co-stars, and she did a lot of the heavy lifting without him taking the credit for it. I was really afraid that they’d downplay the trickster elements of his demigod character because, frankly, if you have The Rock in your cast as a giant muscled dude it’s probably pretty hard to fight the urge to have him blow things up. Instead he was much more reliant on his tools and magic than his brawn, because he was routinely going up against things that made him look scrawny by comparison. That was cool and unexpected. Moana is one of the most badass Disney princesses (still trying to work out if tribal chieftain’s daughter still counts) and I like that there was emphasis on her being groomed to run things on the island herself instead of being married off with the conflict coming from somewhere other than romantic entanglement, as even some of the most well-meaning Disney flicks have done in the past.

Moving on from that, let’s talk books.

519egzFQhRL.jpgFirst, I picked up Vicious with VE Schwab, a book that I’ve had on my kindle for over a year but kept failing to read, and now I very much regret that. Schwab’s narrative voice is a delight to read, frankly. She mixes sinister with funny without detracting from either tone, and the characters are all incredibly well developed for having what amounts to a couple of days together plus flashbacks to ten years prior. Victor is the definition of a good antihero in the sense that he is the protagonist, and he is going up against people worse than he is, but he’s an absolutely deplorable murderer and torturer in his own right and you kind of hate yourself for liking him. But you do like him, and you can see why his motley crew of companions stick with him beyond fear of his powers.

Speaking of which, something that scared me off reading this was someone describing it to me as Superman versus Luthor but with Luthor as the good guy, because I’d already seen variations of that in Megamind and Doctor Horrible. It is not that. It is way better than that. It has a collection of powers and a take on superheroes that you’ll be thinking about long after you put the book down. Stuff I have not seen before, and I consider myself a pretty well-read nerd on things like this. Good enough that I’ve already loaded up Schwab’s other, urban fantasy tinged novels on the ground that if they’re half this good I’ll probably still love them.

51Rcp8q7u-L.jpgFinally, I picked up the climax to one of my favorite series ever, The Fall of the House of Cabal. It perfectly caps off the prior books and short stories, wrapping up loose ends and dipping the entire knot in sealing wax to create a work of art. It’s a strong story, one that knows exactly how it’s going to end when it starts out, if that makes any sense. The problem I’m running into here is that it’s book five in a quintet, and I can’t really talk about anything I liked in it without spoiling the prior books. So, instead, I’ll talk a little bit about those prior books and why you should go read them (and this) if you already haven’t.


You guys know how I’m a gigantic Terry Pratchett fan, yes? I can’t go five feet without thinking of how Discworld applies to a situation, I quote him as often as I do Tolkien, I can’t think of a single author who shaped my worldviews as much as he did, right?

I say with my hand to my heart that Jonathan L Howard is just about the only living author I can think of who approaches Terry Pratchett’s skill, at least of the authors I read.


The Cabal series is an exploration of a certain style of literature where horror, strangeness, science fiction, fantasy and comedy are blended together and refuse to acknowledge boundary lines. There are scenes where you’ll burst out laughing and then immediately blink back tears. They’re also written in era-appropriate prose somewhere in the 1930s-1940s, channeling Wodehouse with a supernatural tinge.

They have a little something for everyone, and that’s what makes them work. Howard doesn’t stick with one genre, although he could have made it into a period piece urban fantasy if he really wanted. That would be too easy and constricting.

You’ve got Necromancer, a Faustian bargain story inspired by the same demonic carnivals that gave us Something Wicked This Way Comes but is told from the perspective of the carnival’s owner, who really isn’t all such a bad person and has his reason for ripping peoples’ souls out. Detective is a murder mystery channeling the best of Agatha Christie aboard a zeppelin midflight. The Fear Institute is a beautiful riff on HP Lovecraft and his dreamwlands setting, underappreciated and often forgotten in the cavalcade of Cthulhu ripoff stories. Brothers Cabal is every Hammer Horror trope mushed together and stewed over a low heat.

They are some of the books I go back and read again and again, and that’s before I even get into the novellas/short stories.

What I love about Johannes Cabal is that he is such a great take on the smartest man in the room trope, a beloved archetype whose social awkwardness is outpaced by his brilliance, which is such a dominant trait that people can’t help but throw themselves at him and want to befriend him (see: Sherlock, House, etc). This time it’s played straight. He’s the smartest man in the room and people generally hate his guts because he is so overbearing and unable to read others’ emotions that you want to reach into the text and slap him. It’s a breath of fresh air for a worn out character type today. He’s a perfect trickster, too, in that he often finds his necromatic powers dwarfed by the foes he goes up against – or simply by the guns he usually finds pointed in his direction when he makes one too many badly timed sarcastic remarks.

The books are all good. I think the quality of Brothers dips a little bit by sheer virtue of not being about Johannes so much as split between him and his less interesting brother, but it’s still a damned good read and head and shoulders above most books you might compare it to.