Thursday, July 30, 2009

Eric Brown's "Kéthani"

My first three impressions in reading "Kéthani" were: (1) this is a collection of short stories, written in the style of Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles"; (2) this is a pleasant, mellow read; and (3) these characters drink a lot.

Upon finishing the book my impression had not changed much, except I realized that for all of the book's genuine "gemutlichkeit," it was a serious meditation on mortality, religion, and ethics. I further realized that the Kéthani for all their apparent benevolence and understated drive, supported by an unspoken belief in manifest destiny, were sinister.

The sinister nature of the mysterious aliens and the underlying sense of danger only surface one or two times in the novel and are quickly ignored or brushed away through the characters' rationalizations. And yet, upon completion of the novel, the feeling remains that the humans have been tricked or duped in some way. In fact, our protagonist, Khalid, says in the final chapter that "I wondered whether to tell Sam and Stuart that we had been lured to the stars by an. . .an impostor." Further, in the epilogue, Khalid says cryptically that "the reason our benefactors selected us for the task was a little more complex than than we first thought." This is the extent of our illumination. At he end of the novel we know no more about the aliens than we did at the beginning. But this of course is the point because ultimately the book is a meditation on religion and life.

As Tolkien pointed out in his short story "A Leaf by Niggle," we are on a journey to death. In "Kéthani," however, the aliens interrupt that journey and substitute a possibility for immortality. Humans with their complex and innate capacity for religion are disturbed by this interruption and thereby have to re-boot. Some incorporate the Kéthani into their religious framework; others de-construct or react violently. The Kéthani could be angels or devils or simply higher sentient beings. We don't know and Brown does not provide an answer.

I recommend the novel but I do have a few reservations. First, the book feels like a collection of short stories. As a result there is a lot of repetition. This repetition arises from the fact that the author has to apprise new readers at the beginning of each story where we are each time he starts a new "story." Second, the author does not give you any answers to your questions for the simple reason that the protagonist does not have any answers. And since the work is a first-person narrative, we only know what the protagonist knows.

All in all, the novel was a pleasant experience; a welcome respite from the hardware of science fiction, with its incipient violence. In some ways the work is a throwback to the science fiction of the fifties and sixties, when science fiction was a place of ideas and we could easily compare the novel with Clarke's "Childhood's End," Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles," or the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nick Kyme's "Honourkeeper" and the post-Tolkien Dwarf

There will be dwarfs and all types of orcs and elves, too, in the post-Tolkien world but will they be good books?

There are plenty of dwarf books available. Dragonlance novels are replete with dwarfs of various types and flavors and every would-be Tolkien populates his or her epic fantasy novel with them. Some attempts are successful, others are not.

Nick Kyme's dwarf novels are the most successful exemplars of post-Tolkien dwarf-craft and dwarf-lore on the book stand.

Dwarfs, of course, are archetypal and existed before Tolkien. Whenever they appear they grab the imagination or, at least, they stimulate mine.

I have been a fan of dwarfs for over fifty years but my interest didn't begin with Tolkien. Disney's "Snow White" ignited the spark and then Wagner's Alberich and Mime sealed the deal.

In "Das Rheingold" and "Siegfreid," the dwarfs Alberich and Mime function as "shadow" characters that, through their lust and greed, initiate the events that lead to the finale.

In Wagner and in the early fairy tales and legends dwarfs are dark, primal creatures; however, in modern epic fantasy they have evolved into something quite different. Tolkien is responsible for the movement toward the light, even though he mined his dwarfs from either the "Ruolieb," a German poem of the twelfth century, or the Elder Edda, and brought them gingerly into the modern age. Perhaps, the coup de grace was Peter Jackson's version of the lovable Gimli in his film version of "The Lord of The Rings."

Nevertheless, as I said, I have always been interested in dwarfs and that interest was, of course, fanned into a white hot heat when I read Tolkien's "The Hobbit" in 1965. From that point on I wanted more dwarfs. However, I found subsequent books featuring dwarfs, not written by Tolkien, disappointing. I was particularly bothered by the dwarfs in the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realm books. What I desired was a dwarf book that could stand on its on.

A few years ago, I was working out of my Frankfurt office and I took a detour through the Hugendubel Bookshop downtown and discovered "Die Zwerge" by Markus Heitz. I thought I had found a book divorced from the Tolkien influence that tried to situate the dwarf in an epic fantasy setting. However, when I finished the first book I was disappointed. Heitz's book seemed too similar to the Dragonlance/ Forgotten Realm type; it was not serious or dark enough for my taste. The archetypal resonance of the dwarfs was fading in the light of modern publishing. I wanted a good-old Anglo-Saxon beastie that could stand square with Beowulf or the Green Knight and swing a mean ax. I yearned for a pre-Tolkien dwarf.

Nick Kyme, Gav Thorpe, and to a certain extent Nathan Long have created from a post-Tolkien model a pre-Tolkienesque dwarf. Through the combination of the Gothic background of Warhammer and its underlying mythos, a dwarf-type has arisen that I believe is close to the early renditions of dwarfs found in the English, Norse, and Germanic fairy-tales. I began to notice this trend in Nick Kyme's "Oathbreaker" and Gav Thorpe's "Grudge Bearer." However, my theory didn't gel until I read Gav Thorpe's "Malekith." In that novel, he brought the dwarfs to life through a sustained tour-de-force of what Tolkien would call subcreation. This realized dwarf world appears again to great effect in Nathan Long's novel, "Orcslayer."

However, Kyme's "Honourkeeper" is the near masterpiece because he situates his novel in a completely dwarf world. Yes, there are elves and men but the book focuses on and is unified through his disciplined use of a multiple point of view from the major dwarf characters. Within this framework, he explores the Warhammer mythology concerning the dwarfs and their elaborate civilization. Additionally, Kyme presents a rigid and structurally sound plot. In essence, the story is simple: tricky elves deceive dwarf king into warring Norscans on their behalf. When the story is distilled, it falls into four parts: (a) meeting with elves; (b) deceived by elves; (c)war with Norscans; and(d)revelation of deceit and revenge. Within that simple plot, Kyme explores the dwarf environment, the dwarf culture, and even the dwarf language.

"Honourkeeper" transcends its genre through its seriousness. In fact, many of the new Warhammer novels seem imbued with this sense of seriousness; and, ultimately, that is what makes the Warhammer IP series so successful and readable.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Steve Parker's "Gunheads"

In Steve Parker's short story "Mercy Run," anthologized in the Warhammer 40,000 collection entitled "Planetkill," we meet Sergeant Wulfe of the Cadian 81st Armoured Regiment and the crew of the "Last Rites," his Leman Russ tank. Wulfe is a cross between Humphrey Bogart in the World War II film "Sahara" and Marvel Comics' Sergeant Fury of The Howling Commandos. He is a tough and savvy veteran, who in many instances knows more than the officers who command him.

In "Mercy Run," Wulfe escorts sisters of Sororitas to save Captain Waltur Kurdheim before Orks destroy Palmeros; however, as in all 40K novels, the Sororitas' agenda is more sinister and treacherous than immediately apparent.

Time clicks ponderously away as three tanks and the Sisters' Chimera rush across the world in panic. Death awaits them at every corner. The story is a nail biter to the final page and its end sets up the premise of the novel, "Gunheads."

In "Gunheads" Sergeant Wulfe has a new tank; he is haunted by a psychic vision, and he has a new nemesis, one corporal Lenck. This time out the 81st Cadian Armoured is dropped onto Golgotha, a death world inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Orks. Their mission is to retrieve the "Fortress of Arrogance," a battle tank that belonged to Commissar Yarrick, hero of Hades Hive. Yarrick is an Ork fighter extraordinaire and, in fact, is one of the only humans to master the Ork language.

Once again unscrupulous men and machines manipulate the Imperial Guard to achieve their ruthless ambitions. In "Gunheads," the Adeptus Mechanicus deceives both the Imperial Guard and Yarrick by dangling Yarrick's massive baneblade tank and glory before their eyes.

To achieve the retrieval of the legendary and sacred tank the Adeptus Mechanicus choose General Mohamar Antonius deVries, Supreme Commander, 18th Army Group Exolon. Imagine Henry Fonda, playing Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday in John Ford's "Fort Apache" and you will understand deVries' motivation and madness. Both men are looking for glory and they are both willing to sacrifice the lives of their men on the battlefield to get it. It is in this dynamic that Steve Parker excels. He captures the rigid, unforgiving organization of the Imperial Guard and the vagaries of the military life of the rank and file.

This ability to capture the day to day life of the military is Parker's strong suit (just as it was Ford's). However, we also know that as soon as he sets his pieces on the board of battle there will be blood.

In the case of "Gunheads," the playing field itself is dangerous. Golgotha soon begins to devour the men sent there. It is red planet, devoid of water and plants. The only life forms are poisonous and ultimately fatal to the guard. Expect good friends to die.

Additionally, just as Thursday in "Fort Apache" goes against the Sioux Nation with a pitifully small force, so too do the Imperial Guard, when they encounter the hundreds of thousand Orks inhabiting the planet. It is immediately evident to the rank and file that the guard is on a suicide mission.

"Gunheads" contains numerous set pieces of thrilling military science fiction. These scenes are the ones that make your scalp tingle. A primary example is at the beginning the novel when Colonel Tidor Storm and his 98th Mechanized Infantry Regiment find themselves surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Orks. Parker movingly describes the pathos of battle and captures the beauty of the futile gesture. That early battle scene is just one of many but it is fine piece of writing that immediately hooks the reader.

But let's not forget that this is a Warhammer novel so there must be treachery, deception, and evil. In this regard, Parker creates two stories: on a larger scale there is the deception of the Adeptus Mechanicus but on a smaller level there is the personal struggle between the luciferian Lenck and our protagonist, Wulfe. Lenck is an opportunist and a barracks rat. Wulfe immediately sizes him up and conflates Lenck with a past nemesis. Bad feelings and suspicions abound until the two clash in a final violent struggle for survival.

In concluding I want to note Parker's rendition of the Orks. Frankly, his description of the greenskins is one of the best in the Warhammer mythos (As a side note Chris Roberson has also created a realistic view in his short-story "Gauntlet Run"). In looking at Parker's oeuvre (yes I said oeuvre) to date, Orks appear again and again. They are the xeno foes of "Rebel Winter," "Head Hunted," "Mercy Run," "Gunheads," and I suspect in the forthcoming "Rynn's World."

Parker seems to be slowly sussing out the inner workings of the green brutes and in a sense I see him ultimately embracing them in the same way that Abnett has fleshed out and made real the "Blood Pact" in his Gaunt's Ghosts series.

All in all "Gunheads" is a satisfying novel with brilliantly drawn characters that convincingly present us with a dynamic rendition of military life in the far Gothic future of Warhammer 40K.

Wulfe is a strong character that could carry his own series. Let's hope we see more of him and the Orks.