Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Rynn's World" by Steve Parker

The 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest is now in full swing and I recently downloaded one of their presentations, which purported to break down the difference between genre literature and general fiction or literary fiction. In their view, genre fiction concentrates on plot, whereas literary fiction is about the prose and the character development.

You know, maybe they are right, but if I read a "genre" novel with poor prose I usually throw it down. It is true that we want strong plotting in our mysteries and our science fiction but we also want strong prose, well-developed characters, and emotion. I for one want to feel something and since I have been reading science fiction and fantasy fiction for over forty years I also want something new, not re-warmed beans.

I picked up Rynn's World last Thursday and since my to-be read stack blocks my view of the sun, I didn't anticipate getting to it right away. However, I decided to have a coffee at Barnes & Noble and maybe browse through my purchases, which consisted of James Swallow's Black Tide, a new edition of Robert A. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon and, of course, Rynn's World.

While waiting for my coffee, I found my interest piqued by two things in the Parker book. First of all let me say that I really like its new, larger format. It is easy to read and it just feels good in your hands. And when you are a myopic old guy, the bigger the print, the better. Second, as an amateur military historian and military science fiction fan, I appreciate the colored maps in the center of the book.

Needless to say, I found myself just peeking into the book. After a few moments, I said: a little taste won't hurt me. I will go back home and finish Abnett's Triumff this evening. Forty pages later, I said: damn this is a good book. I guess Abnett will have to wait.

Don't get me wrong, I like Abnett but Steve Parker's new novel is an exciting, bold read. It is not cluttered with a lot of tired psychology; instead, he gets to it. As we said at the beginning, genre fiction runs on plot and Rynn's World is as tightly plotted as a military campaign. There is a clear logical flow to the story and it makes sense militarily.

But it isn't just all action either. The characters are drawn carefully and fully executed.

The story concerns the Crimson Fist chapter of the Adeptus Astartes based on Rynn's World. The Crimson Fists are an off-shoot of Rogal Dorn's Imperial Fists.

The action opens en medias res with an active Waaagh! (an invasion of orks) in full swing and heading toward Rynn's World. Pedro Kantor, the Chapter master, must devise a defense for Rynn's world with his small force of space marines. With this premise, the novel promises lots of action; however, Steve Parker is a brave writer. He shakes things up early. One of the best scenes in the book concerns a sniper. From his actions a host of bad things evolve:

It was happening exactly as Captain Drakken had anticipated, and, for the first time since the ork vehicles had shown up, Mishina started to feel truly confident that everything would go according to plan.

That was when he heard Kennon on the comm-link again.

"The warlord is moving, sergeant. I can't wait any longer. I am taking the shot!"

Without giving too much away this is an exciting, well-plotted military science fiction novel about space marines. I frankly feel that the novel will appeal to any science fiction reader, irrespective of the fact that it is a Warhammer novel and that it contains the requisite amount of fluff to satisfy any Warhammer fan.

After three novels Parker seems to be a budding master of what I call a "I hear the pipes, laddie" sequence. The best way to explain this phenomenon is to refer to an old Cecil B. Demille film Unconquered, where just the sound of the pipes and drums raises the spirit of the embattled pioneers at Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War. Many times in this novel, I heard the sound of the pipes and a tear formed. Good writing, sir. Good writing.

Finally, I want to say something about Mr. Parker and orks. I think he might have the flair and the sensibility to write the first Ork novel for Warhammer. In each of his novels, he seems to reveal a little more about the culture of the greenskins. I hope that he continues to think about them and , hopefully, the warlord Snagrod will receive his due. I'm just saying.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Reiksguard" by Richard Williams

Reiksguard by Richard Williams is one of the first books in Black Library's new series-- "An Empire Army Novel"-- and as such follows like a good trooper all the requirements, tropes, fluff, and alignments necessary to fit within the parameters of the for-hire IP(intellectual property)novel. It is also a contestant in the Dave Gemmell Legend Contest.

The novel concerns the exploits of several characters; there is no one central protagonist in the novel. Instead, it is a ensemble piece, like most "military" novels. Instead, of the lone hero, Williams focuses on the group--the Reiksguard. The novel begins with a new class of inductees to the Reiksguard, an elite order of knights, based in Altdorf and led by Marshall Kurt Helborg. Williams focuses on the group of young nobles who arrive to train during a major war in the north. The enemy is bleeding the knights of their men and replacements are necessary. Consequently, the initiates' training takes on not only a sense of urgency but also one of intrigue and danger. This tension is underlined by the appearance of a vivid group of mercenaries led by the uncle of one of the major characters of the novel Siebrecht von Matz.

The first part of the book concentrates on the training of young nobles from all the regions of the empire and the petty disputes born of nationalistic prejudices that those young men bring to Altdorf. The second part of the book concerns an expedition in the south to free up supply routes choked by an infestation of goblins led by a mutant goblin by the name of Thorntoad. Thorntoad, like all great villains,almost steals the show from the Reiksguard.

The strength of the novel lies in Williams' faultless prose, his understanding of military actions and behavior, the vivid battle scenes, and the well-described world of the goblin invaders. Additionally, the novel presents a certain psychological complexity: the young nobles are purblind, obstinate, ignorant, and petty; the politicians manipulative, cunning, and cruel, and the generals (except for Helborg) foolish and ambitious. The battle scenes are well wrought and explicit. Williams seems to understand the use of his military arsenal and he describes action scenes in a facile, believable way.And finally, the novel moves organically; every action seems to grow out the scene before it, which makes for an enjoyable, seamless read.

The one problem I had with the book was the conflict or mystery concerning Delmar von Reinhardt; it was one of those problems (so common in genre fiction and the mainstay in romance fiction) that could have been solved simply by having a meaningful conversation between the parties involved.

Reiksguard is a flawless military fantasy novel that involves a well-described, interesting, ensemble cast. However, sometimes the epithet "IP" spells doom to the writer who wants to attract a larger audience; that larger audience being, of course, the general fantasy reader who desires new worlds, new monsters, and new adventures. The moniker "IP" also has a chilling effect for judges of contests like the Dave Gemmell Legend Award. However, in the case of Reiksguard, I hope the readers avoid the stereotype. Yes, the book fulfills its pedigree; it is a Warhammer novel and the fans of Warhammer will enjoy it and applaud the "fluff." However, irrespective of its setting and pedigree, the novel is also a rousing military yarn with interesting, complex characters, operating in a well-wrought fantasy universe, which qualifies it to stand with the other non-IP novels in the Legend contest.

The strength of Gemmell's novels lies not only in his settings and characterization but in his pacing and narrative; he could also describe a fight (any kind of fight--from siege to knife fight) vividly. Further, he had no qualm about letting a character face his fate. Many brilliantly wrought characters died within the narrative structure. Williams has this same talent. There is a scene late in the novel where two characters, who had been enemies, fight back-to-back to survive an onslaught of goblins. It is a touching and at times humorous scene; well executed. As I read it, I felt the Gemmell touch (influence). I think that it is this kind of emotion and execution that the Gemmell reviewers are looking for and will find in Richard Williams' Reiksguard. Because ultimately emotion is what sets the Gemmell novel apart from most fantasy literature.