Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Grimdark Magazine issue 4# review


    I've mentioned my fondness for Grimdark Magazine in previous articles for the United Federation of Charles. It's a delightful fanzine which contains articles, interviews, reviews, excepts, and short-stories about the darker side of speculative fiction.

    I'm particularly fond of the nonfiction side as it's introduced, at least, the first levels of scholarly discourse which will go a long way to legitimizing grimdark as a legitimate movement in fantasy fiction versus a simple adjective for describing stories where the heroes curse as well as have sex.

    The fanzine isn't perfect, at least for my discerning tastes, because I would like some more focus on the video game side of grimdark development. A regular feature of the magazine reviewing a game which shows the darker side of pixellated entertainment would be most welcome as there's no shortage of such games. I also think they should consider adding a second essay to each issue since they are, hands down, my favorite part of the magazine.

    But I'm just a reader so what do I know?

    In any case, the fourth issue catches me up at the time of August 4th, 2015, so I'll just get to reviewing what is yet another of a great magazine you should be picking up if you haven't already.

Cover 

    Yet another awesome cover from the artists at Grimdark Magazine. I like the whole scene of the skull-face-painted witch standing back-to-back with a warrior against presumed horrors to come.

    Very nice.

Nonfiction

    "The Mud, the Blood and the Years" by Ragnarok and Orbit author John R. Fultz is an awesome article which justifies the price of purchase alone. This article talks about how grimdark is the reincarnation of the old Sword and Sorcery pulps of yesteryear, an idea I've had myself. I think there's numerous differences with them, not the least that grimdark tends to be more in-depth, but the literary roots are definitely present. Great article by THE TESTAMENT OF TALL EAGLE's author.

    The Vagrant by Peter Newman gets a review here and it paints a Lone Wolf and Cub-style storyline of a mute man wandering the post-apocalypse world with a goat as well as a child. It doesn't strike me as my kind of story but the review is well-done, pointing the ups and downs of such a story.

    I really enjoyed the interview with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, Wheel of Time) as he had some really good thoughts on grimdark and why it's necessary for fantasy to spread out. It's interesting that an author not really associated with the genre had such strong opinions on the subject.

    Conversely, the interview with Peter V. Brett (Demon Cycle) talks about his skepticism about whether grimdark is really a thing or not. According to him, very few authors deliberately set out to do grimdark and a few of them (Robin Hobb was his example)being cited as examples were ridiculous.

Fiction
 

    In Brazen Dreams by Matthew Ward is about shady characters converge on a powerful relic. This has a Warhammer 40K-style feel where technology of the old world is incredibly powerful, mysterious, and full of superstition. It is also a work with a delightful twist that shows, if you're going to betray someone, you need to do right. I really liked this short-story and the twist at the end was quite enjoyable.

    Ashes by Tara Calaby is best described as a feminist grimdark retelling of Cinderella with the titular character being re-imagined as a asexual (possibly lesbian) character who finds her state as Queen to be nightmarish along with the status requests of becoming a mother as well as wife. What follows is a slow, perhaps quick depending on how you measure things, descent into madness. This story made me rather uncomfortable, as it was meant to, and I'm not sure what to think of the ending other than to say, "girl needs some serious psychotherapy."

    Redemption Waits by Mike Brooks is set in his Keiko universe (Dark Run). It is a story of a robbery gone wrong in a very unique church/casino set in the far future. I give kudos to any story which assumes that My Little Pony will be one of the few pieces of media to survive across the millennium. This was a fun little story without much in the way of consequences and intrigued me about the author's greater works.

    A Steelhaven short story by Richard Ford, The Halfwyrd's Burden, is my favorite of the magazine's contents. A man pursuing a ruthless vigilante part of a Death-worshiping cult ends up discovering that, unfortunately (fortunately?), they're not quite talking out of their ass when they say their god is real. This is probably the best story of the magazine and really-really atmospheric.

    An excerpt from Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall is a story which goes in several unexpected directions. In the aftermath of a brutal civil war, an incompetent knight and his associates journey to a distant part of the countryside to deal with some obstinate locals. Things turn out to be not what they seem. The twist really surprised me given how incompetent the main character had been treated as throughout the tale.

    The Liar's Key by Mark Lawrence has an except where we follow our anti-hero dealing with some local trouble he's found himself in. It doesn't give us much insight into the fellow but just enough that I'm intrigued enough to pick it up.

    In conclusion, this is still a great magazine and everyone should pick it up who has any love of grimdark. My biggest complaint is there's not more of the magazine but you get what you pay for (and then some) at $2.99.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Rotting to the Core review


    Rotting to the Core is the sequel to S.P. Durnin's hilariously sexy post-apocalypse zombie novel, Keep Your Crowbar Handy. It followed Jake, his girlfriend Laura, Laura's best friend Kat, and a number of other survivors stuck together in a survival shelter. Ultimately, the zombies managed to drive our heroes from their home and force them on a quest for a location where humanity is still in control of the planet.

    Also, to confront the fact they all want to have sex with each other!

    Yes, I've read a lot of zombie fiction in my time. Most of it is morbid and depressing with the obvious fact that the death of large amounts of humanity isn't exactly cheerful. There's some exceptions like the Time of Death series by Shana Festa as well as the Zombie Attack! series by Sagliani but the rule holds true.

    This series, however, is one which perfectly replicates the kind of mad fun of a video game from the hyper-sexualized characters to the awesome action sequences to the over-the-top villains. If they were ever going to do a Left 4 Dead or Dead Island series of novels, they could do worse than S.P. Durnin.

    The premise is Jake and Kat are trapped outside of their bunker, looking for their fellow survivors. They end up encountering a group which is attempting to deliberately pair off their warriors with "healthy specimens" and end up kidnapping Jake for that purpose. Which in a more lurid book which would be alright for Jake but he is desperate to remain faithful to his girlfriend even while falling in love with Kat.

    Listen, I'm all for monogamy but I think there's a few exceptions capable of being made, one of which includes the apocalypse. As long as everyone's willing, it strikes me there's not much reason to complain. I'm not even sure the girls would mind given some of the subtext dropped. Jake, however, is determined to avoid even in the hint of impropriety even as it seems he's about the only able bodied man who isn't a Nazi or cannibal within a hundred miles.

    Amusingly, despite the above fantasy elements which makes every other female ridiculously hot, I'm pleasantly surprised to say the estrogen-possessing members of the cast are well-developed. While the Double-X chromosome members of the cast all carry a torch for Jake within minutes of meeting him, they have their own histories and motivations as well as being a collection of distinct badass characters.

    It's schlocky but schlocky fun.

    The majority of the book isn't about Jake's oh-so-terrible problem of being pursued by a collection of katana-wielding badass warrior women like certain anime but numerous close-encounters with zombies. The undead are slaughtered in droves by our heroes in a variety of well-written, fun action sequences. When we're not fighting zombies, it's a matter of fighting Neo-Nazis led by Jake's ex-stripper girlfriend Nichole.

    Did I mention this is schlocky fun?

    This novel may put off some people, especially those sensitive to the kind of male fantasy elements found in your typical video game or Bond movie. There's a sense of joy in the work, however, and none of the dismissiveness which misogynist works possess about sex. No, S.P. Durnin very much loves women and hopes they love his character back. I, as a reader, could tell the difference.

    Also, the ending hit me like a gut punch. I'd been lured into a false sense of security by the silliness.

    Another trait of video games.

    Well played.

    Well played.

9.5/10

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Prince of Thorns review


    Children are cruel.

    This is an undeniable fact for anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with them. The whole idea of the young being innocent is a polite fiction of those who I, assume, either do not work in the teaching profession or have children of their own. There are no greater individuals with the potential for evil than those in the thirteen-to-fifteen-year-old range who have the selfishness of a child combined with the uncontrollable urges of developing adulthood. I can think of no potential worse dictator than a child of that age, which fits with my theory that the majority of the world's nastiest come from those who never developed beyond their early adolescence.

    Want. Take. Have.

    Kill. Sex.

    Rule.

    Prince of Thorns is about such a child. The easiest comparison to make would be to A Song of Ice and Fire's Joffrey but this is a poor one since Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath is every bit as competent as the former is stupid. If I were to choose a better candidate, for geek culture, I'd compare him to Lelouch Lamperouge of the anime Code Geass who brought down an empire before the age of sixteen or Alex from A Clockwork Orange who was as cultured as he was evil and young.

    Indeed, Alex is an inspiration for Jorg as I understand it. This makes sense as the original ending for A Clockwork Orange was expunged from both the Stanley Kubrick movie as well as the American edition of the novel. What happened in the original? Alex grows up. Yes, his selfish psychotic self was simply a sign of immaturity rather than a deep inborn malignancy we can point to and say, "that's evil!"

    Prince of Thorns, the first book in the Broken Empire Trilogy opens with a scene which is likely to turn off half of the audience which is absolutely essential to establishing the book's premise: Jorg leads his band of raiders to rape, pillage, and slaughter a village of innocent civilians. At the end of the opening chapter, Jorg reveals to both his final victim as well as the audience he is only thirteen years old.

    Already a genius.

    Already corrupted.

    Or is he?

    The setting is an indeterminate time in the future after an apocalyptic war between advanced humans has reduced humanity back to the Dark Ages. The Catholic Church has reasserted its dominance, humanity has degenerated to its most racist as well as xenophobic roots, knowledge of the Pre-War world is almost nonexistent, and Europe is divided into a hundred feuding feudal states.

    In fact, I'm not entirely sure its Europe since it could just as easily be the United States with the in-universe Rome referring to a city renamed such. The big difference is, due to reasons unknown, magic seems to be quite real with zombies as well as other other critters wandering the land.

    Post-Apocalypse fantasy settings are nothing knew as they were quite popular well before I watched Thundarr the Barbarian in my childhood. Mark Lawrence, however, avoids the fundamental cheese of the premise by playing everything dreadfully straight. This is a horrible time and it has removed almost all decency from the planet. As Wolverine says in the X-men: Days of Future Past movie, "only the worst of humanity remains."

    Mmm, grimdark.

    How I love you.

    Jorg is not exactly the kind of character you root for but I started doing so despite myself. He is a product of his environment, warped and twisted by both his upbringing as well as the tragedies of his life. This doesn't excuse his behavior, indeed, he's given several opportunities to turn away from his path (which he refuses), but it does make me willing to walk alongside him for the duration of his journey. Much like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, Jorg's admirable qualities shine despite the fact they're put to evil ends. He is ambitious, intelligent, passionate, driven, and self-aware in a world which drowns in its own hypocrisies.

    The novel follows his repulsive but interesting gang of followers as Jorg decides, after three years of failing to accomplish his vengeance against the Count who murdered his mother and brother (Jorg having decided it wasn't worth it), to return home to meet his father. This is problematic since his father has since remarried and his new wife is pregnant with a male heir. Jorg, despite his keen intellect, is still very much a boy and believes all that is required is to illustrate to his father just how good he really is (at being bad, at least).

    What follows is a dark, seedy, and fantastic adventure I quite enjoyed. Once which has a number of twists, some of which I saw coming and others I did not. Mark Lawrence's style is very-very good at getting you in the depraved-but-all-too-human mind of Prince Jorg. A figure who has no desire to be good because, well, he has only had some very-very off-kilter role-models to tell him what good is.

    This isn't going to be a novel for everyone. I normally take off a point for sexual violence in books but I'm going to forgo that for once because, for once, it's actually a vital part of the story. There is no titillation factor or attempt to generate easy hate via misogyny, only the sad reality this world is awful. Likewise, some individuals are going to loathe the racism present in the books. This is, again, meant to signal what sort of vulgar society it is. I'm kind of iffy about the presentation of one character, one who Jorg never seems to bother to learn the name of, but I also understand we're having his perception filtered through the mind of a product of the land's culture.

     I enjoyed the presentation of the world, magic, supporting cast, and the terrors which inhabited it. The presentation of necromancy is too often done in a hokey Voldemort-esque style which rarely conveys proper scares. This book rebuttals that point by presenting sorcerers who, having power over the dead, are terrifying. I also fully understood Jorg's father who is, once you meet him, a person you instantly comprehend as the kind of seed-giver who would produce someone like his son. A person so capable and ruthless that Jorg living with a collection of murderous scumbags for three years can only have improved his moral disposition.

    This is a crackling but uncomfortable read which, honestly, is something that some people like.

    Such as myself.

    Give it a try if you're willing to enjoy a hero who is anything but.

10/10

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Baptism of Fire review


    Baptism of Fire is the fifth book in the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. A big fan of the series, I've enjoyed the previous novels and reviewed them here on my blog (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4). For those unfamiliar with the series, it follows monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia awith his adoptive child Ciri as they struggle to make their way through a corrupt world where the nobility is selfish, the peasantry is uneducated, and war is horrific.

    The series started more funny than grim with Geralt living through several fractured fairy-tales such as the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White. Since Blood of Elves, however, they have been their own original fantasy epic which followed Geralt dealing with countless forces out to seize Ciri for the purposes of fulfilling a prophecy even they don't understand.

    When last we left our heroes, Geralt had been beaten within an inch of his life by the cruel mage Vilgefortz while Ciri was forced to flee through an unstable portal which dumped her in the middle of a Niflgaardian desert. Adopted by a murderous band of highwaymen, Ciri has begun an unhealthy relationship with bandit Mistle due to her desire to not be left alone. Likewise, the North is being savagely looted and burned by the Nilfgaardian Empire due to the failure of its nobility to do anything to check them.

    Geralt, finally recovering from his wounds, is spurred to action by a dream of Ciri which lets him know she's alive. Unwillingly attracting a collection of oddballs, misfits, and badasses every bit as much so as himself, Geralt sets out to rescue his daughter from whoever might be threatening her. Ciri, meanwhile, degenerates further into insanity while we finally find out what happened to Yennefer and why she hasn't been looking for Ciri herself.

    So what do I think of this volume?

    Eh, it's pretty good.

    There's nothing wrong with Baptism of Fire, don't get me wrong, but it's very much a road story which doesn't get to its destination by the end of the book. Geralt and his oddball collection of traveling companions get to know each other, have some adventures, and they get slightly closer to their destination of meeting with Ciri. I can't say it's my particular favorite in the series. I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a book of filler but I can't help but think Sapkowski could have inserted an actual plot too.

    Newcomers to Geralt's "hanse" (or friends who travel and fight together), are Zoltan the Dwarf, Milva the Huntress, Cahir the renegade Nilfgaardian soldier, and Regis who is very-very obviously a supernatural being disguised as a human. Aside from Dandelion and Milva, none of these individuals really have a reason to help Geralt but agree to journey across the land facing immeasurable dangers for a girl they don't know. Indeed, they practically force their help on Geralt who makes several attempts to get away from them. I'm not sure it's not meant to be a parody of traditional fantasy given it seems more or less like a stereotypical Dungeons and Dragons game, "You guys all meet, now here's the adventure."

    Despite this, I can't be too hard on the book due to the simple fact it's so damned fun. All of the characters are interesting and unique, perhaps too unique, and they play off of each other well. I'm also impressed Sapkowski actually has Ciri go crazy, for lack of a better term, due to her experiences which would have broken most people and does, well, her. The fact the relationship with Mistle reverses its power dynamics, starting with Ciri's rape, only to switch to Ciri when she realizes Mistle is a broken scared girl herself is quite clever (if horrifying).

    Another thing I liked about this volume is it deconstructs the Chosen One narrative a great deal. Ciri is portrayed as the product of a centuries-long genetics experiment which only got lost because, well, it wasn't working, and only started to work by accident. This doesn't make Ciri the kind of person who can save the world but the subject of a dozen or more schemes to forcibly impregnate her or dissect her or marry her. Worse, all of the enormous power she was supposed to wield has been sacrificed due to a magical accident last volume. In short, she's a Chosen One who cannot actually be the Chosen One and her life is being ruined by it.

    Good writing, that.

    Overall, Baptism of Fire is a dark and entertaining but ultimately kind of meandering volume which I recommend for fans of the series but note isn't perhaps the best volume Sapkowski has done. I'd give it a lower score but it's still pretty damned enjoyable and mostly just suffers in comparison to its predecessors.

9/10

Friday, July 31, 2015

What is Grimdark?


    Grimdark is in the eye of the beholder.
No, not that kind of beholder.

    On a more simpler term, grimdark is a term which was initially bandied about by the gaming community of science-fiction and fantasy as an insult for books which were "trying too hard to be taken seriously."

    The term originally comes from the over-the-top hardcore dystopian science-fiction/fantasy setting Warhammer 40K. However, something (black) magical happened when a lot of fans who enjoyed the titles so referred started to use it as a positive descriptor of the fantasy they like.

    Grimdark, to the horror of grimdark hipsters everywhere, became mainstream.

    Worse, a compliment. And yes, I just said, "grimdark hipsters." Which, if you know anything about grimdark and its fandom is both deadly insulting as well as completely accurate. Because, really, no one hates hipsters more than other hipsters.

     Unfortunately, the fact is undeniable that grimdark is now everywhere. Superheroes used to be considered a childish pastime taken seriously only by a handful of overgrown kids. Well, now it is considered to be a license to print gold with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and should have been so since the 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton. Grimdark fantasy has taken over the television set with HBO's Game of Thrones, AMC's The Walking Dead, and DC comics' horrifically misguided attempt to make every superhero movie darker and edgier than Batman Begins, starting with Man of Steel.

    Dark is in, baby. Not that it was ever out, per say. Especially amongst geeks.

I liked grimdark before it was cool.
    So what is Grimdark fantasy? Well, if someone needs to define it then it might as well be the memetic sex god and author supreme that is myself. Well, maybe Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire Trilogy, Red Queen's War), as he defines here, but why would you listen to him? In any case, I'll define it as, "Gritty, adult, dark science fiction and fantasy."

    See? I put gritty, adult, and DARK in the definition. That's THREE adjectives to EMPHASIZE.HOW.HARDCORE.IT.IS. *fist pump* Extreme, baby. Grognard (which if you get, you're not only a gamer but an old gamer). Some individuals may find this definition unnecessarily broad but, let's face it, that's kind of the attitude which gave rise to it in the first place. Grimdark was adopted by its fans as a term to set its readership apart from those who preferred more safe, conventional fantasy.

    I'm not sure who these fans are because I don't think they actually exist. The father of grimdark fantasy isn't George R.R. Martin, in my humble opinion, but John Ronald Reuel Tolkien when he looked around and said, "Dammit, people, why the hell does everyone keep thinking fantasy is for kids? It's hardcore, baby, hardcore!" Okay, he didn't quite say that, but the sentiment was there. He wrote the Lord of the Rings because he was sick and tired of fantasy being dismissed as children's stories. Then he went on to write the greatest children's book of all time in The Hobbit but irony is a female warg.

A Space Marine because why not?
    Fantasy has always been gritty and dark, really. J.R.R. was so upset about it being regulated to children's fiction because he had a classical education as well as the ability to walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. The Epic of Gilgamesh was full of sex and violence as the primary fuels, which passed onto The Illiad and The Odyssey. The unsanitized versions of Arthurian myth aren't what you hear about usually either. Hint: infanticide is not normally associated with noble and just kings. Beowulf is a poem which includes a lengthy dissertation on why marriage alliances are a stupid way of making peace. Not exactly something meant for the kids.

    The fathers of science fiction like Jules Verne and Wells wrote for adult audiences with books against militarism and imperialism in a way designed to slip past the cultural censors blind to the nasty critiques things like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea really were. Certainly, teenagers were the primary audience of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy's articles but they were written by adults who went on to write for themselves. It's just we keep need to learning the lesson because someone, I don't know who, tries to believe escapism isn't for anyone over the age of fourteen. We might have that man finally beat but I wouldn't count on it.

Shameless plug.
    Really, any escapist work can be grimdark depending on where you stand and what you compare it to. My urban fantasy novel, Esoterrorism, is grimdark compared to the Dresden Files but positively light and fluffy compared to the Clandestine Daze series or Hellblazer. The Rules of Supervillainy is grim and gritty superhero fiction next to Wearing the Cape and Confessions of a D-List Supervillain but my depraved imagination has got nothing on Sad Wings of Destiny.

    It is, however, a rallying cry for making things harsher and more intense. In short, grimdark is a direction rather than a state. There is no maximum saturation point that makes a work grimdark or not, it's simply if the reader thinks, "this is darker than my usual fair. I like it/don't like it because of that fact."

    To be frank, you don't need to be a grimdark aficionado to appreciate the genre for what it is. As much as grimdark enthusiasts prefer to think of themselves as auteur fans pushing the envelope, let's face it that we lost that descriptor the moment millions of people turned in to see Ned Stark discover he wasn't in "that kind of story." You can like Joanne Rowling AND Joe Abercombie. Hell, Voldemort is the subject of children's nightmares for a reason.

    There is a yearning inside just about every child, teen, and adult to not be talked down to by the author. We see all manner of injustices, failures, horrors, and problems in our life which point to one inescapable conclusion--life is not fair. We like when our heroes stand up to this truism of life but there's a reason people relate so strongly to Spiderman, because his life sucks. Heroes can and should be able to achieve victories in life but we all, to the man I believe, know that life shouldn't and almost never does make it easy.
I am edgy and deep!

    Still, if grimdark really is just relativistic then there's no point in using it as a term, right? Not quite. There are quite a few examples of fantasy and science fiction which serve as excellent leaders in the field of, "heroes living in crappy worlds, trying to survive because making them better isn't going to be happening." If grimdark is the Land of Oz then they were the inhabitants of its Emerald City.

    Pre-Grimdark authors are ones I term to be the spiritual roots of the genre. They are the creators of Pulp Horror and Sword and Sorcery fiction. Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and basically every one else which Gary Gygax liked so much he combined together to create Dungeons and Dragons from. J.R.R Tolkien isn't what people think of when they think grimdark but, we'll be honest, he's the batter which is drawn from whenever people bake a cake in fantasy. He's the flour of fantasy and you can't make a cake without flour.

    Early Grimdark appears right around the time of the late seventies and early to mid-Eighties. This is when the fourteen-year-old-boy market was recognized as the bloodthirsty collection of little psychopaths we were. Terminator, Robocop, Alien, Aliens, Conan the Barbarian (1982), Heavy Metal magazine, Predator, The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and other hard-R material which made us crave more. That's just America's grimdark output too. Across the pond there was Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and their bastard love-children Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. The last is our genre namer as mentioned above. Say it with me, folks, "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war."

    The Golden Age of Grimdark was anything but the Nineties was where grimdark really became a fad for teenagers across America. The Iron Age of comic books made it so every single superhero was a gun-toting psychopath with too many pockets (in other words, like British heroes were a decade earlier), Goth was now a "thing" found in malls across America, White Wolf games had replaced D&D as the thing for edgy gamers to play, and in 1991, George R.R. Martin first put down his pen to create A Game of Thrones.

    It wouldn't be until 1996 that said novel was released but the public was ready. In a hip, post-modern world where nothing was taken seriously, George R.R. Martin wrote of a fantasy world where things were pretty damn serious. Robin Hobb wrote the Farseer Trilogy almost simultaneously. In Europe, Andrzej Sapkowski released The Witcher series, which was every bit as dark and depressing as well as AWESOME as George's series.

*hypnosis voice* Mentally conflate this book with mine.
    The writers of grimdark were initially greeted with the pejoratives of, "this is awful fantasy." Not in terms of quality but content. Sapkowski and Martin didn't shy away from the horrific nature of war, the pointlessness of feudalism as anything but a protection racket for the nobility, and even crimes against women. They were bloody, dark, and excellent.

    Science fiction produced some truly great geniuses as well with my favorite of the time period being Matthew Stover. I checked out his works during this time due to his, I kid you not, Star Wars novels which were unusually well, grim, for the genre. His non-licensed work proved to be an eye-opener for what was possible in galaxies-far-far-away in terms of sheer cynical badassery. These authors were hardly alone, though, but created a template which fans could point at and say, "We want more of this."

    The Modern Age of Grimdark has begun with those authors who have taken advantage of the Renaissance of all those Goth, wannabe rebel, angsty teenagers turned adults (i.e. people like myself) who now are in the market for the kind of books they couldn't write themselves but are like their favorite as teenagers--only better written.

    The relatively young medium of video games became a place for gamers to be able to enjoy grimdark's appeal. The Witcher trilogy of video games by CD Projekt Red has brought Sapkowski's magnum opus to the small screen, the modern Fallout video games were a great deal more serious than their predecessors, the Metro games one-upped them, and Dragon Age: Origins proudly proclaimed itself "dark fantasy." That's not including the literally thousands of video games where you find humanity has been all-but-wiped-out by zombies.

    The aforementioned HBO's Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and various knock-offs are the rallying cry on television but books have changed as well. With the downfall of the big publishing monopolies and rise of the indie scene, hundreds of new titles for every medium have arisen to revitalize the speculation fiction market. Some good, some bad, most in-between. Okay, mostly bad, but a LOT of good.

    Rising stars in the grimdark business mainstream like Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Richard K. Morgan contrast against rising indie leaders like Tim Marquitz, Rob J. Hayes, the good folk at Grimdark Magazine, and hopefully me if you obey my hypnotic commands. Not everyone who is called grimdark is an actual grimdark author. Many authors who claim it are just going for the attention (I say because I am an angtsy hipster) and many authors who are called it deny it because they only wrote what was in their heads--and refuse to acknowledge, like me, said place is a horrific Chaos-fueled place of horror and madness.

    In short, though, grimdark is everywhere.

    Which may lead to one inescapable conclusion.

    We all have a little love for the dark in our hearts.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Game Of Thrones: Episode Five: A Nest of Vipers review


    The penultimate episode of Telltale's adaptation of the Game of Thrones series is the shortest one released by Telltale, clocking in at about an hour and a half rather than the usual two hours. I don't really mind this as I'm more than willing to pay five dollars for that amount of gaming experience.

    Telltale's version of George R.R. Martin's setting is a good deal toned down from the original source material, which is saying something given the number of bodies dropped left and right in this game. Still, I'm actually pleased to say they've managed to insert a (possible) sex scene into the game as well as kill enough of the cast that it can officially qualify as part of the GRIMDARK subgenre.

    The good kind.

    This retroactively applies to all previous episodes as well. Which means that it is going to be listed under the Grimdark section of my Labels from now on. Congratulations, Telltale! Either way, this is a fairly dark episode and one which left me feeling pretty kicked in the guts after the relatively upbeat and triumphant Episode Four: Sons of Winter.

What they're looking at is horrible.
     The premise of this episode is the Foresters have all of their triumphs from the previous episode reversed in a fairly staggering short-order. Ramsay Bolton slaughters a likable character from a previous episode, Gryff is freed by the traitor, you may have to murder someone for a crowd's entertainment, one of your supporters is revealed to be a monster, there's another potential supporting cast death which you can't prevent, and there's a moment which rivals The Walking Dead for sheer sadism.

    But you can sleep with Lady Glenmore.

    So there is that.

    Oh and you can hunt some rabbits with your friend's kid-sister, who may be flirting with you but I hope not because while Westeros girls are considered adults early on, I don't roll that way and hope Gared doesn't either.

    Then zombies attack.

I hope she's not meant to be Gared's Ygritte because she looks about fourteen to me.
     Honestly, this episode is probably going to be very controversial with fans and for good reason. The traitor has been teased and hinted at since Episode One but the revelation is bound to be unsatisfying and feel more than a little arbitrary (because it is arbitrary). Given the way I bonded the revealed character, I found his betrayal unbelievable.

    The fact I know it purely depends on a decision made in Episode One rather than more coherent well-reasoned motivations. The weird thing is the traitor continues spouting he's doing it all for House Forester to the bitter end, despite the fact the consequences of their action are catastrophic. I really would have been happier if the traitor had revealed they were doing it for money or position because, at least, that would have made sense.

    Cold-blooded? Yes. Despicable? Yes.

    Understandable? In Westeros? Yes.

    You win or you die.

    I buy a man deciding to cash after being on the losing side. I don't buy a man who, because of a relatively minor decision, throws the family under the bus and tells me to my face it was for their own good.

    That takes Ramsay Bolton levels of self-delusion.

"ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?"
    The episode also relies heavily on action, more so than any previous episode. Indeed, you could summarize A Nest of Vipers as, mostly, "Gared fights some dudes, Asher fights some dudes, Roderick tries to fight Ramsay but fails, Roderick and Asher fights some dudes, and Mira does some talking." While I'm usually very forgiving of Telltale's quick-time events, I can't help but think there were too many this time around and they existed for stretching out a story which could have been only five episodes long.

    In a weird way, I think the game glosses over a lot of stuff it should be covering while also feeling padded. A good section of this episode introduces Asher to a bunch of murderous pit fighters and gladiators which are now, due to Daenerys taking over, out of work. They have an interesting leader, a former friend of Beskha (possibly lover), and a lot of complicated history which gets completely shoved aside so Asher can jump in the pit to get some Russel Crowe's Gladiator going on.

    The illusion of free-will thing also shows up again in the game. Telltale is not very good at making one's decisions matter but there's some exceptions this time around. They may simply be whether or not certain characters die but, at least, that's consequences. Besides, the final choice will, hopefully, not be suddenly rendered moot in the finale of the game.

    But I'm not counting on it.

Peter Dinklage doesn't phone it in like in Destiny, so I'm grateful for that.
    There are some frustrating moments in this episode, despite its many pluses. For example, during one scene, you are trying to talk to someone without alerting a guard who is listening. When the individual asks you an incriminating question, you have to either lie to them or answer truthfully, which will endanger you. There's no option to, I dunno, NOD YOUR HEAD which seems like a rather glaring omission.

    I will say A Nest of Vipers has successfully gotten me pumped for the finale of the game. I don't know how they're going to resolve all of the outstanding plot issues but the writing has been good enough that I'd like to see them try. Unfortunately, this episode substitutes action for characterization and a few of the characters behave in a wholly unbelievable manner. That hurts a game which relies so heavily on its supporting cast.

8.5/10

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Blood War Trilogy: Requiem review


    I was a big fan of Tim Marquitz's Dawn of War (reviewed here) and its follow-up Embers of an Age (reviewed here). The premise of the books is a Deconstruction of the traditional bloodless epic fantasy where a bunch of mindless, brutal killing machines like orcs or goblins assault a pure and good fantasy kingdom.

    Here, we see just how horrifying a race of completely evil monsters would really be as well as how the nature of war would cause terrible changes even in supposedly good heroes. The books aren't the grittiest of grimdark fiction but they're full of intense action, harsh consequences, and enjoyable characterization. Requeim finishes up the trilogy with the bang, leaving very few loose ends but leaving room for a sequel if Tim Marquitz ever decides to visit the setting again.

    Albeit, just barely.

    I'm not kidding when I say harsh consequences.

    The book opens with the genocidal battle between the wolf-men analogues for orcs, the Grol, versus the Tolen and Lathah people. Having driven the Lathah to almost extinction, the latter have decided they are going to wipe out the Grol in the same manner they were targeted to be wiped out. The Tolen, the race of wolfmen the Grol descend from, are only too happy to aid them in this revenge-motivated war crime.

    While I normally hold these sort of developments in fantasy in disdain, genocide is genocide whether against Daleks or not, I think Tim Marquitz avoids the uncomfortable undertones of this trope by presenting it as the Lathah's brutal desire for vengeance coupled with the Tolen's own racism. I would have appreciated someone in the books commenting on the horrors of the plan but also understand this isn't the kind of book where everything works out fine for our heroes and no one gets lost in the bloodshed.

    Quite the opposite.

    We also, finally, get an answer for Sultae's motivations for arming the most destructive and violent of cultures to destroy the land's peoples. It's not a particularly intelligent or well-thought out rationale but it is the kind of one which a child exiled from her parents into the woods to die for being infected with a disease would.

    She's created an entire mythology in her head to justify an unforgivable act against her. The fact the Sha'Ree can't reach her is good because that kind of self-justification does exist in real life, born from emotion and pain rather than any kind of logical thought. Some readers may dislike that Sultaae is not a more cold and calculating villainess but I think rationality goes out the door when you begin with, "exterminate all other races but your own."

    The final resolution to Arrin, Malya, their children, and King Olenn is handled in a dramatic manner which goes in a surprising direction. I, admit, had expected something conventional like Malya's husband dying so they could reunite or Arrin starting a relationship with Kirah. In fact, the story ends just about the only way it could have and I like it. I also like how Olenn's obsession with Malya and Arrin is his undoing in a most unexpected manner.

    For a decade and a half, he's struggled with them being the two most important people in his life, so much so that it has dominated his thinking during the war. There's a truly great moment where Olenn ends up having to deal with people who don't care about any of his issues and willing to make the kind of sacrifices to deal with a perpetual hostage taker as well as threatener like him. Olenn's breakdown when he realizes he doesn't know how to deal with people like that is a glorious thing to read.

    The real stand-out star of the book is Braelyn, who I didn't think much of as a protagonist when she was first introduced in Dawn of War but who has come into her own as a major star of the series. Braelyn takes center-stage as the leader of humanity and, perhaps, the last best hope for the nations of Ahreele as the island continent starts to break apart under the stress of the magics being unleashed. The fact she's a middle-aged woman, mother, ship captain, badass warrior, and antihero make her almost unique in fantasy.

    In conclusion, Requiem is an awesome end to the Blood War Trilogy and probably the best book in the series. Tim Marquitz resolves all of the major plotlines, most of the subplots, and ends things in an apocalyptic but satisfying fashion.

10/10