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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Book Review: Beyond Redemption

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A genre-defining masterpiece of grimdark high fantasy. Imagine if the Shivering Isles were a novel written in the style of an old-school hard sci-fi heavy hitters like Frank Herbert or Dan Simmons. It’s like they tailor made it for me.

Belief defines reality, and the stronger your belief, the more insistent the manifestation. As a result, those grappling with severe mental illness become superhumans with monkey’s paw reconfigurations of their delusions pushing them toward godhood. The powers come with a price, and all the slapdash combinations of German words that essentially translate to “bugshit crazy wizard” are eventually consumed and destroyed by their reality-bending madness.

Until that point, these deranged solipsists lord over the “sane”, though it’s not sanity as much as a lack of the ill-defined (thus far) demiurgic prowess that lets their delusions to manifests, driven by the maladaptive need that is the source of their power. Slavers enrapture the minds of others, making them flesh puppets in the service of their unquenchable thirst to be loved. Dysmorphics are mutated by their own skewed perceptions into inhuman towers of muscle and sinew. The narcissistic “Greatest Swordsman in the World” cheats the system by sweet-talking everyone in the area into believing he’s better with the blade than he is, and riding that egregore burst to another victory in the ring, killing another vaunted local swordsman and strengthening his legend, and so, his power.

I don’t want to go into the plot itself because the book is too good for me to spoil it in a half-ass Goodreads review. Suffice it to say, all these kooks are trying to exploit the rules of the game for personal gain (as is invariably the case with the self-obsessed), with the end goal of homebrewing a perfect god. But even before you bring insanity into the mix, “perfect god” seems open to interpretation.

A great book. Almost the best book. I can’t wait to read the sequel.



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Book Review: Elric of Melnibone

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’m a big Conan the Barbarian fan, which is unfortunate, since I never cared for the books. I’ve always loved the prehistoric aspects of the setting, the easy ferocity of the sword and sorcery genre, and the prospect that all of these ancient and unknowable Lovecraftian evils weren’t an instant sanity-breaker. Once, when men were better, we could oppose them with nothing but steel and sinew, and we could win. It’s a good message. It’s the kind of thing that pushes you to grind out the last few reps in the gym.

What kept me from successfully finishing a Conan anthology is that he’s a Mary Sue. I’m a longtime Doom franchise devotee, for many of the same reasons I like sword and sorcery, so I’ve got a pretty high threshold tolerance for masculine power fantasies, but at a certain point they get embarrassing, and Conan always did a beautiful, muscular yet supple swan dive over that particular precipice within a couple paragraphs.

John L. Howard at his typewriter like: “And then Conan, who is powerful and sexual and smells good, rippled to his feet like a hot panther who girls like and said, ‘I WILL PUNCH YOU! WITH MY FISTS!’ And the crowd roared and cheered in unrestrained delight, for Conan was so honest and handsome with the deepest squat and biggest dingaling in all the land.”

Whereas Elric of Melnibone is a slouching albino goth who maintains a high dose meth addiction to counteract his anemia and perpetual caloric deficit. He’s the emperor of his floundering, ancient, neutral evil nation, but none of his subjects understand him because he reads too many books (which makes him a contemptible nerd) and as a result developed a moral compass.

Essentially, the plot of Elric of Melnibone is if Marcus Aurelius had an autoimmune disease and became a warlock about it.

It was spectacular. The writing was phenomenal, and not even hokey! I didn’t think that could be done, considering the subject matter. It’s easy to see Moorcock’s influence on modern fantasy greats like GRRM, although it might be more fair to call GRRM a past fantasy great, as big boy is never gonna write another book.

Elric has Mary Sue elements, sure, he’s one of the finest swordsmen who ever lived and he’s also the literal emperor, but he’s also deeply flawed. He’s a brooding, melancholy drug addict. A real Sigma male. Nobody understands him and it’s not a phase, mom.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves high fantasy in general and sword and sorcery in particular. It checked all the boxes. Moorcock is a tremendous writer with an appropriate surname.



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Book Review: The Holy Sister

Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It’s an objectively good fantasy series, and this is a great installment. You feel for the characters and you get wrapped up in the DBZ-style power escalation that happens whenever the worldbuilding includes a magic system.

But I’ve seen what Mark Lawrence is capable of. Each book in the Broken Empire series are some of the best I have ever read, especially the Prince of Thorns. I’ve reread them so many times I’ve lost count and they only get better. I couldn’t do that with these. The Book of the Ancestor is good, but it’s also Lawrence punching way below his weight class.

If I’d never read Prince of Thorns, I’d probably have given this book 4 or 5 stars. It really did have everything a good fantasy novel needs, but unfortunately, I know what the man is capable of.



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Book Review: The Trouble with Peace

The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Presumably, the titular trouble with peace is its long-term untenability, and how goddamn treacherous everyone is.

A surprising number of loose ends got wrapped up in this one, which sets the stage of the third book in the trilogy focusing more on the labor disputes and the rise of the first real challengers to Bayaz’s power, the unwashed masses and their predilection for smashing the hell out of everything. As appealing as the Judge subplot is, and as entertaining as are the attempts at stick-and-poke anarchy made by all the dislocated skilled workers made irrelevant by the shiny new deathtrap machines, they don’t have anything that can challenge Bayaz’ pet demigod. No amount of rabble, no matter how roused, can overwhelm an Eater. They’ll just get ate.

On one hand, I can recognize the point of the allegory. Unmaking the foundation of society is supposed to seem like a pipe dream, no matter how broken the society might be. Bayaz is an institution unto himself, an immortal watchmaker who set the clockwork of the empire to spinning centuries ago and stops in every now and then to tune it up and sneer at the little people so they know just how superior he is. He has failsafes upon failsafes. It’s supposed to be impossible for young, morally upright idealists to try to effect change. You don’t need to be a poli sci professor to see the parallels.

But on the other, it’s a little dissatisfying. (This is the closest I have to criticism, this book is a masterpiece.) You want to root for the underdog, but the underdog is too realistic. We see the looters and rioters, warts and all, and though their cause is just, they’re nothing but warts. There’s not much character development in the Breakers and Burners, which was a deliberate stylistic choice to maintain the air of mystery around the organization. Consequently, the only things we see are them acting like animals, pillaging and raping and burning their way through the cities that have been grinding them further and further beneath their heel over the past 30 years (longer if you disregard the sudden-onset Industrial Revolution and think about the lot of the smallfolk under aristocratic feudalism).

In the third-person omniscient provided by all these perspective hops, the reader can recognize that the politics of the Empire are a Machiavellian nightmare, and the North is nothing but tribalist feuding, as the North has always been. You want to root for the peasants. You want the system to be burnt down. But the peasants are just so grotesque and fairytale-goblinoid evil that you can’t sympathize with them. Brod is okay, but only because he’s surrogate Logen, and even he can’t decide whether the uprising is the move.

All of this to say the revolution is the backdrop, with the main focal point of the story being the relationships between the main characters. I don’t want to go into it and risk spoiling anything, but it’s gripping. I can’t wait until the next one.

And Abercrombie can be relied on to pump out the next one before I die of old age. Unlike certain contemporaries I could and will name: George R.R. Marten, Patty Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch, for starters. It must be real embarrassing to be those bums, watching Joe Abercrombie, the new and unrivaled king of grimdark, just churn up an entire new trilogy in the 10-year silent expanses of time between each of their individual volumes.



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Book Review: A Little Hatred

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A tremendously entertaining book by my favorite fantasy author. I cleared the whole 20 hour audiobook in almost one sitting. I don’t even want to hear my own internal monologue for 20 consecutive hours, but everything Abercrombie writes is gold, and Steven Pacey really brings the characters to life.

A Little Hatred follows Abercrombie’s patterned precedents of graphic violence, mentally ill protagonists, a continuum of nihilist greyscale morality, and biting, acerbic wit from pretty much every involved party, dumbasses included. However, this go-around, things are much sexier, because most of the protagonists are the 20something progeny of fan favorites from the previous trilogy, rather than a collection of grizzled, belching, genre-appropriate barbarians.

A thorough explanation of the young, dumb, and full of… you know 😉 trope comes from the three male characters driving the narrative, undoubtedly due to Abercrombie’s firsthand familiarity with the idea, having been a man in his twenties. Dark days indeed, and many of us barely escaped them with our hides intact.

Leo dan Brock is a caricature of arrogant vainglory, dominated by his chessmaster mother and trying to earn his place in the world by allowing his poorly controlled emotions to steer him through straits that, quite frankly, his ship isn’t outfitted for in the first place. Despite his myriad of character flaws, women keep forgiving his pomposity, because he’s pretty, and they really do.

Orso dan Luthar leans hard in the other direction, confronting the meaninglessness through self-effacing apathy and hedonism, right up until he can’t anymore. He is utterly adrift, drinking and fucking himself into a coma and not allowing the crapsack reality to disillusion him, right up until a flicker of idealism convinces him that, well, if he doesn’t try to change the world, who’s going to?

Brock’s Jungian shadow work counterpart is the Great Wolf, Stour Nightfall. The same basic drives motivate them both, but Nightfall comes at it as conquest, less high fantasy and more sword-and-sorcery, with Nietzschean sadism and performative brutality.

These are the figureheads, the puppets that shape the play. The actual new powers coming to fruition develop in the form of the female primary characters, each in their own way.

Savine dan Glokta is the daughter of the Archlecter, the most feared man in the Union, now operating under the dismissive sobriquet “Old Sticks”, though it isn’t clear as to whether that was because of his cane or because of his withering. Savine uses her last name as leverage to catapult herself to the apex of Union high society, and weaponizes her keen intellect to get a stranglehold on all of the newly emergent business ventures that come from a civilization proceeding from the medieval to the industrial era. She doesn’t need or care about the money, but she figures it’s as good a way to keep score as any.

Rikke is the daughter of the Dogman who was, himself, a humble and goodhearted everyman. So is Rikke, although she also has the Long Eye, which allows her to see the future and makes her prone to epileptic fits and shit herself. Rikke is probably the most relatable character, operating on Northern naturalist sensibilities and the Dogman’s politesse, tempered with the advice from her friends, the mad witch Isren-i-Phail, and renown murderous spook Caul Shivers.

These five guide the flow of the future, gaining and losing influence as the events of the book unfold and banging each other like a Denny’s table full of drama club kids. (The exception being Stour, whose pathology has likely replaced sexual release with violence). In turn, they are guided by significant figures from the previous generation, though they all eventually turn from them, some more performatively than others.

I don’t want to risk spoiling it. It’s a truly incredible read. Abercrombie has a masterful command of psychology and characterization.

I profoundly hope someone kills Bayaz this go-round. I know he represents the status quo, or maybe the Illuminati conspiracy that there are unseen hands making sure everything in the world continues to suck so they can guarantee their own profit, but I think the catharsis of watching the miserable old fuck get his baldness sundered might make up for the breakdown of the analogy.



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