Saturday, July 31, 2010

Jack of Fables: The (Nearly) Great Escape

If you've read much of this blog you know that I am a huge fan of Bill Willingham's Fables comic. I'm also a bit of a completist when it comes to my book and graphic novel collections. Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges spun Fables character Jack Horner (aka Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc...) off into his own book at the beginning of the Fables collection #6 (Homelands) after the character had stolen money from the Fables, and set himself up as a movie mogul, making 2 blockblusters about himself (naturally). Sherrif Beast tracked Jack down, and after informing him that his actions had not only betrayed his own kind, but could have blown the Fables cover to the Mundane world gave him an ultimatum: take the briefcase full of money that Beast was offering, and hit the road or refuse and be arrested, and face execution for his actions. Jack took the first option and this moved him out of the parent book and into his own spin off.

The cover of the collection has a picture of a running Jack complete with briefcase and a protest of the Fables demanding he leave Fabletown, Jack is wearing a t-shirt bearing the legend: Ensemble Books are for Losers. It's typical of the wit readers have come to expect from the books.

Jack probably had to be moved out of Fables. He claims he's too large a character to be held by a book of ensemble characters, but the character is obnoxious, narcissistic, selfish, self destructive and abrasive. He tends to distract from the main story by being himself.

The (Nearly) Great Escape contains the 1st 5 issues of Jack of Fables. The opening finds him with briefcase in hand trying to hitch a lift by the side of the road. He's picked up by a van in the control of Priscilla Page, after a struggle Jack is taken to The Golden Boughs Retirement Community. For the uninitiated some explanation is required here. A group of characters known as The Literals (Fables readers who do not read Jack's book met them in the Great Fables Crossover) use their powers to control stories. As a result they have taken a number of storybook characters prisoner at their retirement community of Golden Boughs.

Although none too happy at being confined against his will once Jack's fallen into bed with Goldilocks (yes, she survived her encounter with Snow and Bigby way back in Fables collection #3 Storybook Love, and no she has not changed) he thinks it may not be so bad, but being Jack is drawn into an escape attempt masterminded by Goldilocks.

The Literals managed to prevent or recapture most of the escaping inmates, although Jack remained at large at the end of the book.

There were some wonderful new characters introduced in Jack of Fables: the old Colchester cannon; Humpty Dumpty, Paul Bunyan and his daydreaming blue ox Babe and the Literals, especially their patriarch Gary the Pathetic Fallacy, who will become important later on.

Tony Akins art is a particular highlight. If anything it is cleaner and brighter than Mark Buckingham's work on Fables, as with Fable, though, the pencilling suits the book perfectly.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Black Company: The Books of the South

Books of the South is the second omnibus collection of Glen Cook's Black Company series, it contains 3 further adventures of the mercenary company: Shadow Games, Dreams of Steel and The Silver Spike

At the end of The White Rose Croaker had been elected the Black Company’s Captain. He had split the Company up and allowed anyone who wanted to stay, he was going in search of the Company’s origins in the far south city of Khatovar. That's where Shadow Games picks up the action.

The Company has become considerably smaller, the only members left that Croaker names are: One-Eye, Goblin, Otto, Hagop, Lady (she lost the 'The' honorific when she let go of her magic) and one of the Company’s youngest members; Murgen. He seemed to be Croaker’s apprentice annalist.

As had become common from the 2nd book on there were 2 stories running concurrently. One from Croaker’s point of view as the Company moved southwar,d and the other concerning some itinerant mercenaries who had set up in the far south.

Ordinarily the secondary story has a point, this time I couldn’t see why it was there. It set up nothing that Croaker’s story couldn’t have done just as easily.

The relationship between Croaker and Lady developed into a physical one as the Company continued south and built up it’s depleted numbers.

There were two major battles; one between an army of river pirates who were going to stop the Company’s journey, and the other when the Company went up against the godlike controllers of the south; the Shadowmasters, who were not all what they seemed.

We met some old ‘friends’ and got a new magic creature in the form of an imp called Frogface. One-Eye treated him as a pet, but there was far more to the creature than that.

For the first time in this series the book ended on a genuine cliffhanger.

I have a couple of comments about this one. The world building needs some work. Cook did good descriptions of the jungles in the south, but the cities are just becoming so many names. They’re simply names on a page, with no real atmosphere or meaning behind them. I know Cook doesn’t like maps and I’m not normally a big fan of them, but I think in this case one would be helpful. The other problem is One-Eye and Goblin. I love the characters, they’re funny and they have useful talents, but their endless feud is becoming tiresome and dangerous. I can’t see any tightly run mercenary company allowing it to continue or even to get as far as it has.

There were a couple of genuine highlights in this volume. One was the fight with the river pirates. Cook always writes gripping and realistic battles and this one reached new heights. Maybe the author’s service in the navy came to the fore. The other highlight for me was a short chapter that he wrote from Lady’s point of view, he gave her a great voice and I’d like to see more from her in the future.

Onward to see if the Black Company can complete it’s journey back to it’s origins.

Dreams of Steel begins with the aftermath of the battle with the Shadowmasters, who had Taken believed long dead amongst their numbers, had hurt the Black Company. The group was fragmented. Professional soldiers like Otto and Hagop had gone missing, nowhere to be found was Croaker’s apprentice Murgen, even the indestructible wizards One-Eye and Goblin were missing in action. Croaker himself had been wounded and could even be dead. The most prominent member of the Company left on the field was Lady and even she had been hurt while trying desperately to rescue her lover Croaker.

With no other members of the Company in evidence Lady took charge of the remnants around her and proceeded to build up a new Company and mould it in her image.

There was a major shift in this book in that the first person narrative was from the point of view of Lady, not Croaker. Cook did this with skill, as I mentioned earlier in the review he writes Lady surprisingly well, although as the book went on Lady began to sound rather like a female Croaker at times, losing her own voice. As with previous books there were other stories told from different voices, although not in first person. Cook continued with the seemingly pointless story of the itinerant mercenaries in Taglios and also told readers what had happened to Croaker. I have to confess to being disappointed with the Croaker story, when not telling the story the character seems to lose a lot of his impact and aside from healing the Taken known as Soulcatcher he did not seem to have much to do until he escaped the Taken’s clutches and rejoined one half of his Company. After the battle Mogaba (one of the mercenaries who joined the Company in Shadow Games) had taken a lot of the survivors, including Murgen and set up a new Black Company.

There had been hints, mainly through the names, that the south was based on Indian culture. With references to the practice of suttee and a cult of assassin/warriors who prefer to kill their victim using weighted scarves by strangling them and worship a death goddess (who were obviously based on the thugees and their goddess; Kali) it became very obvious that this was in fact the case.

By the end of the book the Company hasn’t moved much further south, although it does eventually triumph over the Shadowmasters and free the locals from their yoke. The Company is split in two with Croaker leading one contingent and Lady leading another, there is also a major shift in Lady’s life and focus, although she has not been reunited with Croaker, I personally feel there is very little doubt that this will not happen in the future. They belong together.

The Silver Spike was a total shift from the five previous volumes. The title refers to the instrument and method by which the Company and their allies imprisoned the evil godlike Dominator at the end of The White Rose. The events in the book tie up the loose ends left in the north following The White Rose. Readers find out what happened to the deaf mute girl Darling; The White Rose, the wizard Silent, sorcerer Bomanz, former Black Company soldier Raven, his unusually and embarrassingly named Philiodenron Case and even the vilains Toadkiller Dog and the Taken the Limper.

I lost count of the number of stories Cook had running here at times, I think it eventually settled for four major storylines. One was from a first person point of view and this time it was Case. The others were written in third person. One concerned Toadkiller Dog and his attempts to resurrect The Limper. Another was Bomanz's efforts to rejoin with Darling and her group on the magical plain that was the setting for The White Rose. The fourth story concerned itself with a small band of reprehensible treasure hunters from the city of Oar who set out to retrieve the Silver Spike and in doing so set off a chain of events that will culminate in the near destruction of Oar and bring about the end of an empire.

The stories all collided and melded into one in the last 100 or so pages of the book.

I liked Case's voice, he was very different from Croaker, rawer and less polished, he had a wry sense of humour. One annoying habit that Cook gave him were regular disparaging references to his former life as a potato farmer, it became tiresome. Case didn't like farming potatoes, I got the message the first four or so times he said it, I didn't need to keep being reminded of that fact.

I was reminded of Cook's military experience in what for me was a very effective sequence where Case and one of the treasure hunters; Stahl Smeds, find themselves conscripted into the Imperial Army and being trained how to fight with a spear. Parts of this sequence reminded me of Prewitt's hazing in From Here to Eternity when he refuses to box for the company and other things recalled the kick boxing fight in An Officer and a Gentlemam between Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) and Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jr).

It was an unusual change of direction, but still very enjoyable. I'll be interested to see where Cook takes the Company in the next omnibus.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Master And Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov was a Russian playwright and novelist, best known for his posthumously published work The Master and Margarita.

To understand the work it helps to know something about its author. Being born in 1891, and having grandparents who were involved in the church, he saw the old deeply religious Russian empire and the new atheistic Stalinist dictatorship firsthand. He began writing The Master & Margarita in 1928 and did not complete it until just before his death in 1940 (he was in fact still working on the 4th version of the book at this point, so it may actually be regarded as incomplete). The first version was burned by Bulgakov in 1930, as he saw no future as a writer in the Soviet Union.

The book is set in 1930’s Moscow, where the devil in the guise of a ‘master of the dark arts’ called Woland comes to visit. Accompanying him are his assistants: the personable Koroviev, the fang toothed thug Azazello and the anthropomorphic gun toting tomcat Behemoth. The first part of the book mostly concerns itself with the havoc Woland and his cohorts cause in Moscow; predicting deaths and ‘outing’ members of society, having them investigated and in some cases ‘disappeared’ by the authorities seemingly just because they can. One person who unfortunately crosses paths with them is the atheistic poet ‘Homeless’. After witnessing the death of his literary patron; Berlioz, Homeless is institutionalized, where he meets ‘The Master’; a young writer who is in the institution for unspecified reasons.

The Master may be a vaguely autobiographical character, he’s a writer, and he was working on a manuscript that he burned before turning his back on society and being locked up. The Master’s manuscript; a version of the encounter between Christ and Pontius Pilate, also appears at various points of the story.

The second book concerns The Master’s lover; a spirited and beautiful, somewhat hedonistic lady, called Margarita. Bulgakov based her on two of his wives, although I rather fancied there were some parallels between her and Mary Magdalene, possibly influenced by the subject matter of her lover’s novel.

In the search for her lover Margarita encounters Woland’s associates, is given unearthly magical powers and taken to meet the devil himself. For me the book’s standout chapter is The Great Ball At Satan’s. Margarita seems to be the guest of honour and at a magnificent dreamlike ball held in the fifth dimension she meets all manner of characters, all sinners, but all so wonderfully portrayed in this one sumptuous chapter.

While The Master and Margarita are eventually reunited and the readers get to see the end of the writer’s story about Pilate I found the ending somewhat unsatisfactory, possibly because Bulgakov never really got to finish the book to his own satisfaction. It probably went on a chapter or two too long for me and I found the epilogue completely unnecessary, I didn’t require explanation of what happened to the many people whose lives Woland and his associates manage to so neatly ruin, it was implied at the time. I found the entire Pontius Pilate story dry and over long, not to mention wildly at odds with every other report of the events.

Bulgakov’s frustration with the regime he was forced to live under and his deep affection for the city in which he lived was evident in the narrative. Given the frank nature of the book and the subject matter it was unsurprising that it was not widely published until long after Mikhail Bulgakov’s death. It was circulated in a serialised and heavily censored version within Russia, but was not published in novel version or translated into English until the late 1960’s.

The Master and Margarita is well worth reading, even if only for that one marvellous chapter about Satan’s party. It will certainly make you think deeply as you’re reading it. I haven’t read anything quite like it previously, although the first part of it often brought George Orwell’s 1984 to mind and the second part with Margarita quite frequently recalled Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Lost City of Z

Before reviewing The Lost City of Z one needs to know a little about it's central character; explorer Percy Fawcett.
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett (PHF to family and friends) was one of the last great explorers. Following a stint in the army stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Percy Fawcett decided to become an explorer and trained at the Royal Geographic Society. His area of expertise became South America, especially the almost completely uncharted Amazon rain forest. Fawcett was a successful explorer and was well known in Britain for his lectures, he was friends with the writer Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) and in fact was the basis for Lord Roxton in Doyle's fantasy adventure novel The Lost World. He was also believed to have been one of the models for Indiana Jones.

The book is the story of Fawcett's last great exploration in 1925, an attempt to find a lost civilization in the jungle, he christened it the City of Z. In 1925 Percy Fawcett, his son Jack and Jack's best friend Raleigh Rimmell went in search of Z and were never heard from again.

In 2005 New York based reporter; David Grann, heard about Fawcett and decided to see if there was anything to the story. Eventually he went in search of Fawcett's final fate and to see if he could locate Z.

The book is largely 2 stories. One is about Fawcett, his interest in exploration and South America and his obsession with locating Z and how it eventually destroyed him, his family and friends. The second of the stories is Grann's search for Fawcett, the man and the quest. Both stories are told in an entertaining manner and have the feel of a historical adventure and detective story rolled into one. The stories of Fawcett and Grann are peopled with interesting episodes and larger than life characters. It's not hard to see why Brad Pitt's production company has optioned the book as a possible future movie project.

The contrast between the hard as nails, indestructible turn of the century soldier/adventurer cum explorer and the 21st century reporter who lives in a city and enjoys his creature comforts was pronounced and at times amusing.

Although Grann never really finds out what really happened to Fawcett and his party he does eventually locate what he believes to be Z.

This was an enjoyable and compelling read and I heartily recommend it. It would be a hard to please reader who wouldn't get something out of The Lost City of Z.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Accurately Inexplicable

Faced with a demand to tell the truth, Astoria states her belief that Tarim is called Terim and is female, not male as believed by the Church of Tarim. Even Powers is reciting the words along with her until he realises what he is saying and screams accusations of heresy at Astoria.

Scenes of Astoria talking are intercut with the messenger pigeon soaring on the night skies.

As Astoria speaks about the futility of a patriarchal religion Cerebus' perspective changes. He and Astoria swap places. He is the bound prisoner awaiting sentence and she is the Pope with the power of life or death over the accused.

Cerebus agrees with Powers that what Astoria has done to him is sorcery and there is only one sentence for that: death by flames.

Again there was a filmic quality to this, with the panels focussing on a single image, whether that was the speaker or just a scene outside of the cathedral, it was like a court room drama. I'd never been aware that a comic could create so much tension. I sometimes wonder if Dave was really aware of what sort of a masterpiece he was creating with this work.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Trial

Back to Iest. Church & State II continues.

It is time for Astoria's formal trial, although the word formal has to be used rather loosely when dealing with a church of Tarim that is headed by Cerebus.

It begins with Cerebus dressed in his formal papal robes in a cavernous room making his way to the ornate altar. The big difference with the formal robes are a large, ornate mitre, that is also quite heavy and really looks stupid. Cerebus appears to be wearing a cruise missile on his head. Then there is the robe's train, ridiculously long, the fact that Cerebus is only 3 feet tall doesn't help. Cerebus is attended by a tall, cadaverous, unnamed priest, whose chief duties seem to consist of holding up the train.

A shadowy figure watches the window of the cathedral from somewhere nearby and sends out a messenger pigeon into the night.

Powers and Posey are assisting with the trial. Posey is his usual nervous self and it's apparent that Powers doesn't like him any more than Cerebus does, in fact it's probably less. Powers doesn't like anything, except for Spike.

Most of this until Astoria begins to speak in her defence is a power struggle between Cerebus and his bishop. By due of his position Cerebus wins the struggle, but I can't think Powers will allow it to continue and wonder if the aardvark isn't pushing the cleric too far.

Astoria's defence is that after Cerebus ran past her to destroy the false pope she blacked out and woke up in a room with a dagger. She felt compelled to take the dagger and stab the Lion of Serrea. The Lion's last words were that he would go to hell, they were also Weisshaupt's last words. The entire time Astoria is talking about the moment she assassinated the Lion Cerebus has an image of the dying Weisshaupt in his head.

Powers screams that Astoria has to be executed, but in a rare moment of courage Posey says that if she was not in control of herself when she committed the deed then the law is on her side and she cannot be executed. The trial continues next chapter with Astoria giving Cerebus the truth.

This chapter was both amusing and interesting. It also made full use of Gerhard's awesome backgrounds. The interior of the cathedral is at times simply stunning.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


I've belonged to a few forums and I always thought moderators were there to ensure that things didn't get too out of hand. Not quite so over at George Martin's unofficial fan forum Westeros. This is a link from blogger Slynt, he's interrupted his reread of A Game of Thrones to muse on why he was banned from Westeros:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Chronicles of the Black Company

The Black Company is the first of the fantasy series of the same name, written by Glen Cook and published in 1984. While Glen Cook did not start what is known as ‘gritty’ fantasy, The Black Company is one of the first examples of the sub genre which has now been introduced to the current generation by writers such as Joe Abercrombie.

The Black Company is the story of a campaign undertaken by a mercenary company in a magical war. It is told in first person and narrated by the company’s medic and annalist; Croaker. Croaker gives the impression that the Black Company is quite a large concern, but readers only get to know those that he associates with most closely. Men such as the wizards: One-Eye, Goblin and Silent. The competent sergeant Elmo. The mysterious Raven, and the Company’s two officers: the Lieutenant and the Captain. The officers are never given names, but are known only by their rank. There are only two female characters of any note: the Lady herself and a mute war orphan called Darling who is taken under Raven’s wing.

The Company are in the service of a godlike woman who is known simply as the Lady. The Lady is currently battling with a group called the Rebels in search of the reincarnation of their own saviour The White Rose. Both sides have the services of immensely powerful sorcerors often referred to as The Taken. Croaker faithfully relates what happens to the Company and it’s members in this war, it is often brutal and made more so by the matter of fact way that Croaker sometimes records the facts. This is not standard fantasy for the time, no elves or dwarves here, but there is magic. Some of the humour is created by the magical battles between the cantankerous One-Eye and the practical jokester Goblin.

It’s a well told story and readers get a sense of the rough camaraderie shared by the Company and the trust they have in each other as they put themselves into deadly situations to earn their pay. Cook doesn’t shy away from giving a warts and all depiction of a land torn apart by a senseless war, he’s also not afraid to kill major characters. One character who I thought would play a major part was dead before the end of the first chapter, he had been so well created in such a short time that I was little annoyed he was killed so early, because I’d grown to rather like him. It’s no surprise that Cook was in the US military (the Navy) or that the books are very popular amongst serving members of the forces or veterans. I was often reminded of Leon Uris’ Battlecry (the story of a WW II regiment from boot camp to the grim aftermath of Guadalcanal) when reading The Black Company.

Something else that Cook does very effectively in this book is drop the reader straight into the middle of things. This cuts down on the intricate world building and allows the reader to discover the world and explore the characters themselves, rather than have everything neatly explained for them.

I’m now kicking myself I didn’t read these earlier, because they’re a ripping read and I’ll be following the adventures of the Black Company from now on.

Following the success of The Black Company Glen Cook released a second tale of the mercenary company’s adventures; Shadows Linger.

Cook decided to flex his writing muscles a little with his second novel. It was actually two stories. One was from Croaker’s point of view as the Company continued their work for the Lady. The second story was told in third person and mostly concerned Raven, who had deserted from the Company at the end of the first book. Readers got to meet some more members of the Company; Pawnbroker and Kingpin. The character of the weak willed, cowardly tavern owner; Marron Shed, became the focus of the Raven story.

At some point both stories were going to have to collide and they did as the Black Company was sent to the city of Juniper to investigate a disturbance which had been caused by Raven’s activity. For a long period Cook continued to tell the story from Croaker’s first person viewpoint and also followed Shed in third person.

The final part of the story was all told from Croaker’s point of view and was an important part of the development of the series as the Company parted company with the Lady and actually became their former godlike employer’s enemy.

Partway through Shadows Linger I became aware of how much Cook had gotten me into this story. A sinister money lender in Juniper decided to have a run in with Raven. I read it smiling, thinking to myself: ‘You really don’t know who you’re going up against.’ At other times during fights I was hoping certain characters wouldn’t be incapacitated or even killed.

This is turning into a really enjoyable series and I’m looking forward to the third installment.

Like Shadows Linger, the third volume of the series; The White Rose, runs more than one story concurrently. The major story follows Croaker and is narrated by the annalist as previously. The two secondary stories concern a scavenger cum wizard by the name of Bomanz and the final thread is about a mysterious and dangerous character who is known as Corbie.

I had problems with the two secondary story lines for different reasons. I could never really get into the Bomanz one. I could not see why he was even there for most of it and it didn’t really seem to fit into the series anywhere until the end. I kept being pulled out of it because as I’ve said before I believe Joe Abercrombie was inspired by the Black Company and the magus; Bayaz, in his First Law trilogy, seemed very similar to Bomanz in name and appearance. The Corbie story ceased to have impact as due to the name I very quickly worked out that Corbie was in fact the former Black Company warrior Raven.

The setting for most of Croaker’s story before it converged on the other two was a desolate and magical plain. The White Rose and the Company had holed up there to combat the Lady. The plain itself was a great setting and very well imagined. It was the most magical thing I had seen in the series. It was sparsely populated with large flying creatures such as Windwhales and lightning shooting Mantas, on the ground were formations of land coral, walking trees and talking menhirs.

In the course of the narrative The White Rose and the Company come to realise that they and the Lady were battling the same enemy; the Lady’s former husband, the Dominator. Prior to them deciding to pool their resources the Company went up against the Lady’s most powerful weapons in the Taken. In the previous books I had always looked forward to the arrival of the Taken, because it usually meant that the odds would turn in the Company’s favour. In this book it meant the opposite. One-Eye and Goblin confessed that their skills really weren’t much above those of a carnival illusionist and that Silent was the only wizard they had who stood a chance against one of the Taken. Despite that One-Eye provided one of the most amusing moments when an over zealous city guard attempted to torture him.

We saw another side, a human side to the Lady when she and Croaker came to the realisation that the only way they could defeat the Dominator was to work together. Before this we’d never seen much of a system to the magic in Cook’s universe. It just worked without any explanation as to why. In the case of the Lady and the White Rose the magic seemed to be based around their true names. This isn’t new or revolutionary, but it was effectively done.

There was a definite ending to this sequence and this episode in the history of the Black Company, which is why it was issued in an omnibus. Overall I have to say I enjoyed it and will read more of their stories, but maybe not all in one go next time. The last story was at times a bit of a slog.