Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reading Nathan Long's "Elfslayer

"Elfslayer" opens in Felix Jaeger's father's Altdorf mansion. After twenty years, Felix and Gotrek have returned to their starting point chronicled in William King's short story, "Geheimnisnacht."

Jaeger's father has a mission for his errant son. The old man is being blackmailed by a Marienburg pirate named Hans Euler and he wants his son to retrieve the incriminating papers. Felix balks at the assignment but he finally agrees to help his father. Meanwhile, Gotrek is down in the dumps, literally, drinking himself into a torpor. As we know from the previous novel "Manslayer," Gotrek missed the evil invasion of Archaon and his chance to face a daemon.

Long quickly alerts us that this novel will be a return to old haunts and a reunion with missing friends, allies, and enemies. It is also a novel replete with Longian themes--drowning, shipwrecks, imprisonment, feckless women, jealousy, bravery, and deception.

Before Felix and Gotrek leave Altdorf, they are attacked by unknown assailants. We soon learn that an old enemy has decided to seek revenge. With the assault, Gotrek begins to awaken from his stupor and the action begins. The two travel to Marienburg pursued by assassins to meet Euler. Felix discovers another enemy in Euler and the plot, as they say, thickens. Before Felix can resolve the problem with Euler, old allies arrive. The wizard Max Schreiber, accompanied by a sorceress and an Elf, offer Gotrek the opportunity to face his glorious end. Felix is torn between serving his father or honoring his oath to Gotrek to be present at his death. He, of course, chooses to stand with Gotrek and they set set off on a quest to save the Empire with Schreiber.

The relic they seek is also being sought by Dark Elves. The action then turns to the sea. From this point, Long engages in what I can only call a melange of Jules Verne steampunk and Sabatini swordplay. He brilliantly describes an underwater city, the Black Ark of the Dark Elves, and the horrors of Dark Elf magic and ritual.

Long has concocted a nightmarish stew of villains and seamlessly presented them to us in a Sabatini-like thriller. He is one of the best writers at the Black Library and I challenge you to find a clunky sentence in the 412 pages of the novel. He ties up all of the plot threads nicely by the end but, of course, he leaves enough plot hanging that we anticipate and yearn for the next chapter of the novel.

Without giving too much away, Long convincingly presents dwarves, skaven, and dark elves. Additionally, never before have we seen a black ark described in such sinister detail.

As you might guess I highly recommend the novel. Not only is it an exciting book but I would postulate that it takes the Gotrek franchise in a new direction. Although Long is a student of William King he is refining King's themes and characters. This observation brings me to the explanation of my title for this review.

The figure in the carpet, as Henry James would say, in this novel is the seesaw. When Felix is up, Gotrek is down and when Gotrek is up, Felix is down, literally. The only time Gotrek is animated is when the likelihood of death and mayhem is near; Felix appreciates the tranquil moments, which in a Gotrek & Felix novel, are very brief indeed. However, Gotrek is the dark submerged animator of the series. It is his strength and resolve that drives the action. Long is aware of this and he consciously builds on it and structures the plot around the "humors" of the two characters in a clear and convincing way.

Finally, if you like this novel, I would suggest Gav Thorpe's "Malekith," Graham McNeill's "Guardian of Ulthuan," William King's "Trollslayer" and "Skavenslayer," and Long's Blackheart Trilogy.

I might also add, that the novels of Sabatini--"Captain Blood" in particular--might also interest you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review of Pat Kelleher's "The Ironclad Prophecy"

In Issue 142 of Hub Magazine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reading Harry Sidebottom's "King of Kings"

On February 10, 2011, I reviewed Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East (Overlook 2008). The story takes place in A.D. 255 during the dual reign of Valerian and Gallienus and concerns a siege of a city on the Euphrates called Arete. Arete is based on a real city, Dura-Europos, which was besieged by the Sassanid-Persians in AD 256, and which has been the subject of a great deal of research and excavation.The novel begins with Marcus Clodius Ballista, a former war leader of the Angles and now the Dux Ripae, appointed to defend Arete from the Sassanid and traveling by trireme to the east. As Ballista journeys from city to city, Sidebottom introduces us to the Roman world, its subjects and its enemies. The novel ends with Ballista fleeing the city after Christians betray the occupying and besieged Romans.

King of Kings (Penguin Books 2010), the second book of the series, continues the narrative from Ballista's escape and his flight across the Syrian desert. The prologue of the novel demonstrates Sidebottom's ability to tell a rollicking tale. However, as we enter the action of the second novel it becomes apparent that Sidebottom is writing a series, similar to Bernard Cromwell's Sharpe series, not a trilogy As a result, my expectations as a reader diminished. Writing a series is a marathon; and, as a result, the reader must sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride. The ride will usually consist of a a long narrative arc and a shorter, internal arc to be resolved in each novel. And so it is with King of Kings. The grand narrative arc in Sidebottom's series, entitled Warrior of Rome, involves the life of Ballista and his familia as they struggle in the East during the dual reign of Valerian and his son Gallienus. This arc consists of a mixture of fact and fiction;Ballista and family being the fictional aspects interacting with the history of Rome. In regard to factional accuracy and historical verisimilitude, Sidebottom is superb. As I ask in my earlier review: Has there ever been a man better trained to write a historical novel about Rome in A.D. 255 than Harry Sidebottom? He is a Fellow of St. Benet's Hall and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford, author of Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2004), and an avid student of historical novels.

The action of the second novel divides into three distinct stories with the overarching and nefarious dealings with the emperor Valerian and his aid, Macrianus, serving as the glue. First, Ballista is sent to relieve a siege on Circesium, only to be undermined by arrogant aristocrats who look down on the barbarian general. Second, returning to Antioch the Emperor sends Ballista to Ephesus to rid the city of the Christian atheists but Ballista finds persecuting Christians distasteful and fails. Third, in disgrace and demoted, Ballista accompanies the legions on an ill-fated battle against the Sassanids. Each section of the novel are well-researched and exciting.

In some ways, I found this novel better written than the first, although the three inter-connected stories detract from the continuity of the novel. In the first novel, shifting points-of-view disturbed me; and, although there are fewer abrupt breaks in this novel, the few sudden shifts of POV shatter the narrative spell. Nevertheless, Warrior of Rome is a strong series: well-researched and well-told. The fact that it is a series, however, creates certain logistical problems that distracts from the ultimate strength of the novel. But it is clear that Sidebottom wants to entertain and he accomplishes his goal.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reading Richard Williams' "Imperial Glory"

Richard Williams' Imperial Glory (Games Workshop Limited 2011)satisfies with its strong character development and slam-bang action sequences; however, the ride is rough and sometimes bumpy because of a disjointed plot structure that could have been easily remedied by focusing on a linear story-line at the beginning. An easy fix would have entailed either deleting late-development Ork-POV chapters or moving them to the beginning of the book. Nevertheless, because of the characters' roundness and depth and the thorough world-building, the plot flaws are soon forgotten or excused. Overall, Imperial Glory is a worthy entry into Black Library's Imperial Guard canon.

The novel chronicles the final battle of the last regiment of the Brimlock Dragoons and three of its members: Major Stanhope, a drug-addled survivor of his entire regiment's decimation, Lieutenant Carson, a swash-buckling duelist, and Private Blank, a man with no memory and no history. In addition, as with most Imperial Guard novels, there is a dozen secondary characters, comprised of the usual suspects: ambitious generals, cowardly officers, sergeants and medicaes. And, because this is a 40K novel, there are commissars, ogryns, Navy Pilots, orks, and cool equipment galore.

The structure of the novel seems to allude to Cy Enfield's brilliant military film Zulu(1964); Zulu chronicled the battle of Rorke's Drift (Ork's Rift), where the defense of the mission station of Rorke's Drift, under the command of Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, immediately followed the British Army's defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879. The allusion is furthered through the description of the Voor populace, Afrikaner-like farmers, who have colonized the planet and established a feeble toe-hold. An Ork spacecraft crash lands in the jungle and new orks arise from the spores of the dead creating the exciting force.

The 11th Brimlock is sent in to destroy the orks and remain on the planet, because, once a planet has been infected by ork spores, the threat of contagion is forever present. The pacification proceeds apace but a wild card enters the fray late and complicates the end game. It is this late complication and a flashback to a year before that throws off the rhythm of the novel; however, Williams overcomes the structural stumble and powerfully concludes the novel.

Williams is a strong writer who focuses on character but who also writes thrilling action sequences. His description of the rise of the orks from the crash of their spacecraft and the Imperial Guard's effort to squelch it is evocative and convincing.

For further reviews of Richard Williams' work see my review of his Reiksguard here: