Book Review: The Grim Company

The Grim Company by Luke Scull

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


What do you get when you cross an aging Northern barbarian trying his best to become a better man, a narcissistic youth with incredible hand-to-hand combat skill convinced of his own importance by a Truman Show caliber lifetime of lies spun by meddling wizards, and a treasonous, jeering cripple with connections to upper government in a crapsack medieval dystopia where a cabal of immortal wizards are perpetually warring for control of the realm?

The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie.

What do you get if you took exactly that, leeched it of all charm and believable dialogue, and cranked the rape dial up to 11?

Ah, now we get to the Grim Company.

I gave it two stars because the writing was sufficiently skillful that I finished the book, but Joe Abercrombie is one of my favorite authors. Even bland First Law fanfiction holds my interest, apparently.

Salazar, obviously, is Bayaz, though more openly fascist. Cole is Jezal, but with constant ridiculous Three Stooges sound effects playing whenever he falls into pig shit or steps on a rake, which is constantly and tactlessly. The barbarian whose name was almost Cole, I don’t remember it, Cohn or something, he was the Dogman, but if the Dogman were Logen instead. The personality was stolen from the Dogman and pasted into Logen’s backstory.

The barbarian’s friend, “The Wolf”, that was Sandor Clegane, the Hound. Woop, left field! Yeah, he’s foul-mouthed, perpetually snarling at everyone around him, miserable, even down to the point where he was covered in burns. It’s that opaque. He was also closet-gay coded and in love with the Dogman character; this was evinced by his being the only character in the rapey grimdark fantasy novel to ever drop the f-slur.

Now, interestingly enough, the Fenris the Feared character, the unstoppable giant in the magic armor, he was swapped out for Gregor Clegane, so he could threaten rape more frequently. This character gouges out the eyes of someone who almost defeats him, just like in that episode of Game of Thrones. He is eventually defeated by the Hound character, also just like in Game of Thrones, though they are not siblings so it doesn’t make for much of a payoff in this. Not that Cleganebowl did in Game of Thrones, either, but that’s another rant for a harsher review that GRRM will get if he ever writes again.

What other baldfaced plagiarism sticks out, let’s see. Oh! The callow manservant/apprentice who travels with the party and hides a dark, sinister secret, the suggestion that he is something more than human and everyone can kind of tell but no one is certain until the big reveal? That’s Malacus Quai. He’s called Isaac in this one, and he’s an alien instead of an Eater. Great.

I’m not sure who Sasha was ripped off from, probably Ardee West, but she didn’t have much of a personality to speak of anyway. She mostly existed to give Cole something to pine after (almost characterization), and to keep the lingering threat of a rape scene constant throughout the book.

Charmless. Gormless. Shameless. And not the good kind of the shameless, where you push the envelope and inspire others to try new things. The kind where you keep stilting situations so your most annoying protagonist gets cock-and-ball-tortured by beautiful women. “Ah, no, mistress, please stop.”

I wouldn’t be this cruel if it weren’t for the dialogue, but holy shit, it’s like he’s never heard a human being talk before. You know what it is? Anime. The dialogue is written like anime. The one character calls the other a bitch or something like that, and she responds with verbatim, “Thanks for the compliment”. I remember the episode of Pokemon where Misty said that, dude. You can just have them say “thanks”. The ‘for the compliment’ part is implied.

I talked myself out of two stars, working my way through this review. One star. It was bad. It was a pale and insulting imitation of one of the greatest fantasy works of our time. I know what Picasso said about good artists borrowing and great artists stealing, but he never really clarified what bad artists do. This, I guess.



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Book Review: Ash and Bones

Ash and Bones by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It stayed fun! My review of the first one still stands, as it was more a review of the series. In this one the various avatars of the gods collect more magic juju DBZ style, sometimes at the cost of appendages.

Who will triumph? Who will be ate? Find out on the next episode of City– of– Sacrifice!

But like, in the voice of the DBZ announcer guy. You know.



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Book Review: Smoke and Stone

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


That was fun! City of Sacrifice applies that same pulse of anticapitalist revolutionary rhetoric that’s showed up in every successful YA series since Harry Potter, and that, in conjunction with all the characters being teenagers, had me shook. Fortunately, this wasn’t YA, due largely to the frequent on-screen mutilations and the liberal (though by no means tasteless) use of the fuck word.

The gods are at war, and they’re jockeying for first place in order to have their chosen avatar become King of the Human Farm where they all live, in the middle of the desert. Damnedest thing is I ran a D&D campaign with the same premise, although I swapped out the tiered communofascist dystopia for the metropolitan seaboard equivalent of Deadwood, governed by Peter Baelish. A great artist steals, I’m told.

But whereas my campaign featured such as fan favorites as Jeffostopheles, affable devil from the lower Baator, and Bango Butterbox, halfling god of… something or other, luck maybe, Fletcher draws heavily from animist and Aztec mythology and populates the stands with ominous figurous with many and ambiguous names like Smoking Mirror and Southern Hummingbird. Also, the star of the show, Mother Death, whose name and job description are more direct.

Several high fantasy orphan protagonists are chosen as representatives of the gods for their useful mental illness and pitted against each other for their ability to take enough drugs to become Animorphs or to stab people really, really well.

I loved this audiobook, couldn’t turn it off. I was going to give it four stars because I just read Beyond Redemption and that blew my mind, so it altered my expectations for Fletcher. However, I recognize that if I’d found this one first, I would’ve called it 5 stars off the bat. I don’t wanna tank his Goodreads MMR. Feels like a dick move. Five stars.



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London: The Tower of London

Thursday, September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Blind Guardian – The Bard’s Song (The Hobbit)

The Tower of London was less of a tower and more of a squat, broad fortress. I’m sure a thousand years ago, a four story building was the cutting edge of tower technology. It would’ve proved insurmountable to anyone who wanted to pick a fight with William the Conqueror, considering that your typical early Middle Ages Anglo-Saxon peasant could not dream such luxury as ladder ownership.

The tower would be repurposed throughout the ages, from fortress to prison to wife disposal and dead prince storage.

It was a beautiful old fortification. There are many who define success as a life of leisure and freedom to pursue their dreams. My own definition is regular access to a strategically defensible position. Siege warfare soothes me.

The torture room was real downplayed. They only brought in three replicas of torture instruments, and devoted the rest of the compound to largely anticlimactic British history.

Here we see the scavenger’s daughter, heralded as “totally worse than the rack” on that little info thing. You fold a dude up in it then keep tightening it down until he breaks his whole business on his whole business. Truly, we are our own worst enemies.

The centerpiece that really pulls any torture chamber together, the rack. You don’t need a blow-by-blow of the rack, do you? It’s 2019. Read a book.

There’s something to be said of simplicity. Manacles are wide, unsexy handcuffs that fasten around behind you, then a member of the Catholic church hoists you up, lifting your arms behind your back and really frigging up your whole rotator cuffs until you admit that heliocentricity is false and heretical.

The White Tower was the first building and the one for which the tower is named. It served as Willy the Conq’s main keep, and parsing these agonizingly long-winded and self-congratulatory Wikipedia articles has brought to my attention that it is the largest keep in the Christian world, and a “donjon par excellence”.

There was also what I can only describe as a raven yard in the castle courtyard. Some goofy old prophecy predicted that, should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, both the keep and the country of England would fall.

This strikes me as a very specific and arbitrary prophecy. Probably just some crazy guy yelled it once, but that was all it took. The keep’s keepers began a long-standing tradition of clipping the raven’s flight wings on one side to keep them in the courtyard, feeding and breeding these large, noisy, functionally useless creatures. For centuries.

They just keep doing things for centuries.

Dressing like this, for example. Those are the official vestments of the post. Imagine what kind of national pride you’d need to put on that outfit every day and go to work caretaking these giant, ineffectual carrion scavengers in observance of an entirely arbitrary bit of divinatory bird magic dating back over half a millenium.

Look at these Masterpiece Theater clowns trying to conscript me. God save the queen? God save bofa.

England in particular, and Europe in general, has a morbid fascination with treasure in concept that I can’t quite grasp. I went through one of the main fortifications to check out the Crown Jewels; photography was expressly forbidden, so you’ll have to take my word for it. There was a kind of cool ceremonial sword, but aside from that, it was just shiny Party City costumery.

They packed the halls with gold and jewels, an absolute Tolkienian hoard, and I breezed right past all the elderly Brits and Spaniards who were gawping like the displays were going to do tricks.

I’m an American, honey. Money is the second cheapest thing, after talk. Where do you think all that gold came from?

1d8+Dex, now we’re talking. I tried to wind it but the bastards nailed it down, presumably to prevent open insurrection. Cowards.

They set up a number of modern art knight sculptures doing cartoonishly stylized castle things throughout the tour.

There was a room about the tower’s role in World War I. It boiled down to “it was a fortress”. Wow.

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What heinous sentence construction. And that’s coming from me, compulsive preposition stacker, hamfisted infinitive surgeon, and irredeemable parenthesaiyan. I can’t believe they invented the language.

This fuckin’ guy. He just goes stomping around, to and fro. Me and the legions of Asian tourists were standing there, watching him go. To what end? Who knows?

“Hey, we need this guy to march in a circle every hour, on the other,” someone said, six-hundred years ago.

“QUITE RIGHT SIRE! ASTUTELY PROPHESIED”

The place was filthy with history, and I can’t go into all of it here because:

  1. I’m coming up on 1000 words, which is my cutoff.
  2. I don’t get paid enough.

If you want to know about the dead prince bones squirreled away in the basement, or any of the other political prisoners they disposed of, or Henry the VIII’s pro-gamer move wife trade-in, google’s got your back.

I made my way out of the Tower of London, which was simpler than you may have heard.

Are you British, or a Britain enthusiast, boiling with frumpy rage at my assessment thus far? Let’s fight in the comments below! Or, if you want to take the fight to social media, pick a link from the left. Bring your whole crew.

Love,

B.

Budapest: The Maze of Darkness

November 28, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

It’s your boy Theseus here, giving you a punctuated play-by-play of Budapest because things are too densely crowded and chaotic to do this chronologically. Today’s bit starts both in the Castle District and in media res.

I went up to the Castle Bazaar, I was under the impression that a “Bazaar” is a sweet flea market, like every bazaar in Turkey was. I’m good on palaces for a minute, but I did need some blank t-shirts so my screenprint souvenir dealies don’t immediately out me as a tourist. I know five words in Hungarian now and that’s more than enough to fake my way through two conversational exchanges. If they see me standing there in a cheap, ill-fitting Athens shirt, they greet me in English. Contemptuously.

As it happens, sometimes a bazaar just means a large, boring courtyard. This was one of those times. Disappointed and chilly, I decided to forage up lunch somewhere in the castle district, and that’s where I discovered the Labirintus.

I’m a sucker for mazes. I’ll be it has something to do with my total lack of a sense of direction, some sort of compensatory reaction formation mechanism, like closet-gay homophobes, or Catholic schoolgirls. Plus, it was a real, live dungeon, underground, where people were imprisoned and tortured.

It’s like they left me no choice.

Budapest is built on an elaborate system of caves. Ten million years ago, most of central Europe was submerged under an enormous body of water called the Pannonian Sea.

pannonian sea

Four million years ago, it had shrunk to Lake Pannon, which still covered the majority of Hungary. As the flora and fauna lived and died in the water and the ecosystem shrank down, the salts and minerals became concentrated.

The capitol of Hungary is also famous for its thermal springs, which were long thought to possess supernatural healing powers because of their own weird mineral concentration. When the Pannonian water soaked through the soil and met with the miracle-water of the geothermal springs, it turned slightly caustic and, over millions of years, carved out a tremendous complex of caves. Tectonic shift drained Lake Pannon and the groundwater below it, and Budapest, being on the fault line demarcated by the Danube, was left with a sprawling natural cave system thought to be more than 62 miles (100km) long.

Terrible place to build a city what with all the sinkholes, but what are you gonna do.

Throughout its entire history, Budapest used the caves for strategic superiority. Buda proper was built around 1250 when King Béla IV of Hungary got tired of being sacked by Mongol raiders, so he moved his kingdom 200 meters away, to the top of a hill, and built a wall around it. Walls, being the only Mongolian weakness, effectively deterred them, and medieval Buda thrived.

citywok

From that point forward, whenever Buda was threatened by siege, the soldiers (and in the case of Fisherman’s Bastion, also the fishermen) would man the walls and the rest of the population would shuffle into the caves like mole people. The strategy worked so well that Budapest used it to survive the Soviet bombings of World War II.

The Labyrinth was divvied up into four sections. The first was a wax museum based on an opera that was, in turn, based on some drama that took place in Buda Castle. The second was the eponymous Maze of Darkness. The third was the cell where King Mathias kept Vlad the Impaler imprisoned for 14 years as punishment for eloping with his adolescent daughter. The fourth was, inexplicably, a bunch of posters describing other caves in the world.

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I did the Maze of Darkness first. You don’t really appreciate how dark it can get. All the darkness we experience in civilized society is disrupted by street lamps, refracted glare, cell phones, moon and starlight. Even when we close our eyes we have something that resembles darkness, but it’s not real, true, black-as-pitch darkness.

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The Maze was deep enough under ground that there was nothing. They left a rope running along a wall to guide you through, but that was it. Without it, it’s so dark you’re not sure if your eyes are open.

I’m a big dude. I don’t rattle. But when you’re in that kind of dark, it makes you realize that if there’s anything down there that can see even a little bit better than you, it’s over. You don’t have a chance. A chihuahua with light-amp goggles could have ended my life.

Obviously, it was too dark in the Maze of Darkness to see the realized nightmare at the end, so I took a picture with flash before strategically retreating into the Straightaway of Electric Light.

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why do it

After I stopped crying, I looped around into the fog where they kept Dracula.

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pretty sure this is a sliding floor puzzle that unlocks a secret treasure room

In getting to Dracula, I scared the shit out of everyone by accident. Nobody else seemed to want to wander around a foggy, haunted dungeon alone, for some reason, so when I’d pass couples or clusters of girls in the corridors, there was nothing I could do to warn them. I’d lumber out of the mist and they would freeze or, in some cases, actually scream, and I’d just smile indulgently and keep on goin’. Not a lot to be said at that point.

I checked out the cave exhibit but it was really sad. With Dracula at large and those horrible blue children still lurking around somewhere, I bade the labyrinth farewell, got lost three times, then found my way to the exit where I overheard a British couple discussing reading of signs.

“There, see?” the dude said. “No photography allowed. Nearly missed that one, that’s important.”

“Oops.”

So don’t tell nobody.

I emerged into the frozen Budapesti day and went to find food that would, hopefully, not be sausage.

(It was sausage.)

Love,

The Bastard

Prague: Architectural Anarchy

November 22, 2017. Prague, Czech Republic.

There are different kinds of surreal. Barcelona was a psychotropic fever dream, everything outsizedly absurd, the kind of ridiculousness that even dream logic can’t slip by you. Fifteen-foot tall matadors burst from an alley to the sound of spirit flutes and you stop and say, “Wait, this is a dream. Obviously. Okay.”

Prague is different. It’s cooler, more refined and lucid in its creeping abnormality. It’s easy to understand how a place like this churned out a mind like Kafka. The city carries an overtone of dread, the subtle but implacable discomfort that comes in the strange vision quests that too much NyQuil gives you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful city. It’s just, when you walk through it, you feel like it’s being made up as it goes along. The architecture is eclectic to the point of the random. You can stand on a single corner and look around a square and see three, four, five different styles of building, ordinarily separated by centuries, now jutting against one another.

That’s what’s so unsettling about Prague, I think. That’s what gives it the static buzz of a medicated dream.

Think about your last nightmare. You’re running down a hallway, maybe a childhood school or something, you get to the staircase, you run up the steps, two at a time, you throw open the doors to the roof and you’re suddenly in the middle of the woods.

It’s like that every time you turn a corner. The same jarring sense of something being wrong.

Good thing morbid absurdity is my bread and butter. I’ve been bumbling around Prague for two days now, fending off a chest cold in the rainy, 30 degree weather. I walk into a Baroque alley and come out a Gothic one. Roman churches suddenly give way to municipal buildings covered in arabesques. Down another alley, which gets so narrow that you can barely fit two people through it at once, and I walk out into an expanse of Soviet Brutalism that goes on for as long as my vision does.

I caught a snippet of an interview on a TV screen in some museum or other, a local architecture teacher was saying, “Builders just kept coming. We had some from Germany, we had some from France, we had many from Italy, from Portugal, from Spain, from the East, all these builders came to add something to Prague.”

Well, mission accomplished. It felt to me like a weird echo of the Great Bazaar, jumbled miscellany writ large and rendered permanent.

I crossed the bridge out of Old Town and climbed the hill toward Prague Castle, a standing complex that had been restored (and, in keeping with their whole theme, remodeled) since the 1300s. That’s where I found the crown jewel, a Gothic masterpiece called the St. Vitus Cathedral.

The pictures don’t do it justice. It was like a factory that mass-produces religiously themed nightmares. It’s like the Devil made a church as a joke, and it was so over-the-top that they decided to keep it. The whole big bastard looks like a 2-page insert from a gritty early 90’s Batman comic. I was so awed by it I didn’t even mind the Asian families doing noisy selfie-stick gymnastics next to me.

I climbed to the top of the South Tower. Allegedly 287 steps. Bull. 283. I counted.

It didn’t start to really suck until step 140, but that was probably just the chest cold. Probably.

I made my way back down the hill and discovered a “Medieval Tavern” with a row of blackened skulls across the door.

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Welp, my hands are tied. I went in, figuring that I’d grab something to eat here.

It was nearly pitch black inside, lit only by candles. Lots of rough-hewn stone, lots of weird haunted house decorations like skulls, chains, robed mannequins. I don’t know how prevalent robed mannequins were in actual medieval times, but I have to imagine they used more lighting and fewer bones in general tavern decor. Maybe it was a special dungeon-themed tavern. I wandered down some winding stairs into some dark, empty rooms, and then eventually into a well-lit modern kitchen, which is when I knew I’d gone too far. I wandered back up the stairs and sat at the head of a table, looked over the menu.

After maybe 10 minutes of alternating between looking at the menu and a candle, a beautiful blonde skeleton appeared and asked what I wanted to drink. The menu said “Home made beer with love”, so I ordered that. She slam-dunked it on my table on the way past and either didn’t hear my attempt to order food or ignored it.

 

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It was a porter, and it was okay. Nothing to write home about. Not particularly strong. A little light and hoppy for my tastes, but beggars and choosers; I hadn’t gotten my hands on anything darker than a lager since Ireland, and even that had just been knockoff Guinness.

Well, I finished it, and she never came back. Guess I was gonna eat somewhere else. I paid my 25 ckz (about $2) to a dour-faced young man in a shirt that was, for some reason, full of holes. Maybe it was supposed to be a peasant throwback, but the effect was ruined by the visibility of the Calvin Klein logo on his boxers.

I guess a porter is a lunch. That’s around 200 calories. That’s 2 bananas. Or 3 eggs. 3 eggs could, arguably, be lunch. I drifted through the spontaneously rendering streets calculating how much actual food could have taken the place of that mediocre beer with love when I happened upon a “Ghost Museum”. Well, those are some of my favorite things, and it had a student discount, so why not?

The upper floor was a collection of badly but wittily translated ghost stories printed on single sheets of giant fake scroll paper that was then pasted into giant fake books. The downstairs was advertised as “a walk through the ghost-haunted streets of the underground”, but was more of a long basement full of cheap haunted house decorations. I wonder if this part of Prague has a guy. Like, a Party City wholesaler, so they just wound up with all these lame Halloween decorations and went, “All right, what can do we do with this?”

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I found my way to the surface and walked the mile or so back to my hostel, then down the street to yet another pho place. I’ve been subsisting mostly on pho in Prague, partly because both hostels I booked have been in Little Vietnam (it is not that little, considering they’re a mile and a half apart), partly because pho is basically chicken soup and that’s as close as I can get to eating healthy here.

Here, let me walk you through Czech cuisine real quick.

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anywhere else it would be reasonable to assume “tatar sauce” is a typo

So far, I’ve only had the opportunity to sample 2 totalitarian classics in Prague.

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This one was right after I got off the bus, before I understood how much Czech money was worth. This was the first and last time I would pay $15 for three mouthfuls of deer meat and some tater tots.

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This monstrosity was much more reasonable, something like $7 all told. On the bottom, it’s around a half lb of chicken breast and all sorts of delicious peasant vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, the usual. And then also, giant fried potato wedges. Then cheese. It’s like shepherd’s pie without any broth, and then instead of mashed potatoes, a gallon of cheese. It was called Žižkov, after a popular student district. It was cheese fries gone out of control.

I’ve done more than I’ve written since arriving in Prague, but since everything has felt so haphazard and disjointed, that’s how I’m going to tell the story, too. I’ll tell you one thing for damn sure, though, I’ve got to find a better place to get breakfast.

This morning I opted for the $6 hostel breakfast. “English Continental”, he said.

“Yeah, but what’s in that?” I asked. “I’m from the States, When hotels say continental breakfast, they usually mean coffee and a danish.”

He looked at me strangely, possibly because he was, himself, Danish, then showed me the list. Lunchmeats, bread, milk, eggs, omelettes optional, just ask the cook. I forked over some of the Czech currency and he said, “Okay, now go outside, across the courtyard, through the gate, to the other hostel on your left, and give them this voucher.”

Uh. All right.

I did that, and the man at the door was obviously displeased to see me. That seemed to be a recurrent theme in Prague, truth told. No one has seemed particularly excited to see me, but I’m trying not to take it personally. The dining room was full of three lazy German shepherds, which I approved of for reasons more moral than sanitary.

The spread. Ah, the spread. Three types of stale bread! It was great, if you ate around the mold.

Canned eggs, served chilled. Ice-cold, perfectly circular eggs, their yolks a distressing and unnatural orange color. A pinch of parsley had been applied to the top, presumably to simulate “preparation”.

Wet tortillas rolled up with apple jelly. Just like Mom used to make, during her psychotic breaks.

Some sort of single-serving spreadable ham.

Small, sad apples, their skins all withered and pruny and generally looking like grandpa testicles.

I looked at the angry Czech men. They glared back at me, as if daring me to ask for an omelette.

I ate an entire plate of tomatoes and lunchmeat, then more tomatoes, then a quantity of bread and butter that even I found sort of alarming. Feed a fever, starve a cold? Feed a cold? Then I went back to the hostel, where the possible Dane asked, “how was breakfast?”

“Fine,” I lied, then passed out for another 3 hours. I think that was more immune system than food, though.

If I get to the Kafka museum tomorrow, I’ll double it up and tell you about my Adventures in Communism!

Love,

The Bastard