Review: The Barrow

By Mark Smylie

I must admit being a Smylie fanboy. I fell in love with the Artesia graphic novels back when I first encountered them—high medieval warfare in a magical and engrossing setting carefully built with ideas taken from (among other things) Greco-Roman religious cult practices and starring the ambitious daughter of a witch. What’s not to like? Not to mention the art—Smylie’s watercolors are truly a pleasure to behold and different from any other comic-style artwork I’ve seen.

I really cannot say enough good things about the setting that the Artesia and Stjepan Black-Heart (the arguable protagonist of The Barrow) stories take place in. It has everything extraordinary world-building should have: beautiful maps, a complex mythopoeia that provides a basis for the beliefs, superstitions and worldviews of the inhabitants (and even a guidebook to the historical, mythological and cultural in the setting), cultures influenced by historical Earth cultures that nevertheless stand on their own, magic and grit, grand, capital “E” Evil and shades of moral gray. I daresay that I prefer Smylie’s setting to Tolkien and Martin.

To boot, Smylie worked on a roleplaying game for the setting called Artesia: Adventures in the Known World (using the Fuzion System). It’s perhaps a little more rules-heavy than I prefer my RPGs to be, but written directly by the author and it captures the feel of his setting beautifully.

Did I mention that there’s an undertone of Lovecraftian horror? It’s in the existence of the Nameless Cults that worship forbidden gods (cf. Unaussprechliche Kulten or “Nameless Cults” in the Mythos), the chapter titled “Dreams in the Witch House” and the naming of the dead necromancer as Azharad (cf. “Abdul Alhazred,” Lovecrafts “mad arab”).

So, perhaps you should take my review with a grain of salt—there’s just so much in Smylie’s works that appeals to my personal tastes that I cannot help but be biased in his favor.

With that warning, I’m going to highly recommend The Barrow.

It is, in some ways, a classic fantasy story—the quest to recover the mythic sword Gladringer from the long-last barrow of the necromancer-king Azharad, who stole the blade from the “good guys” in centuries past. But the story goes well beyond the simplicity of “classic fantasy,” the members of the “fellowship” that seek this treasure are often at cross-purposes, forced together by circumstance and as likely to kill one another Hamlet-style as to actually succeed. This is, in many ways, a combination of the epic fantasy story with the “small stories” of personal victories and survival favored by post-modern fantasy.

There is much more going on than what the reader sees on the surface of the quest, and while epic dangers may exist in the novel, it is realpolitik that connects this story to the greater world more than the object of the quest itself. Life is cheap and bad things happen; even the highly-competent Stjepan (the sister of the eponymous Artesia, by the way) is out of his element or otherwise subject to the whims of fate at times.

Story aside, the book is very well-written, descriptive and poetic in places while avoiding the prosaic and matter-of-fact when that style best suits the narrative. I read this book rather than listening to it (I’ve been listening to Glen Cook’s Black Company novels at present, with a review forthcoming) and it reminded me of the pleasure of words in print. That said, there are some noticeable editing errors throughout, mostly improper pluralization, verb tense or a similar-sounding but incorrect word written in lieu of what was intended—all understandable writing mistakes, but ones that could have easily been fixed with another round of editing. Still, nothing that rendered a sentence inscrutable or that severely disrupted the flow of the words.

The characters are, for the most part, deeply drawn and well-nuanced, enjoyable to read about without all of them being likeable. Where characters are seemingly two-dimensional (the mad wizard Leigh comes to mind), their stereotypicality is used to good effect, whether humorous, metacommentary about the genre, or a twist on expectations.

I found the story’s ending to be masterful, the kind of skillful writing that leaves the reader somewhat surprised but satisfied with the logical progression of developments that lead to the resolution.

Readers should be warned, however, that the story does contain some graphic depictions of sex acts, some of them highly unpleasant. Mr. Smylie has commented on his website about the reasons he chose to include those scenes, and I find his argument persuasive. Our American society seems to be strangely at home with graphic ultra-violence and yet extremely perturbed by the depiction of sex, even when romantic, consensual and healthy. As I mentioned above, some of the sex in this book is quite unsettling, but not everything that happens to people in this world or any fantasy world is pleasant, and I didn’t find that any of the depictions were there for their own sake or merely for shock value—they made narrative sense, and much more than the too-oft used, “you know this guy’s a bad guy because he’s a sexual deviant.” In many ways, this book is focused on outsiders, on those who are, for various reasons, either at the very threshold of societal expectations or far away from them altogether. The sex in this book provides additional development of that theme.

If you check reviews on other websites, you’ll find that the book has received generally good reviews, but not necessarily review ratings as high as I’d expect. I think that the discomfort caused in some readers by the depictions of sex in the book are likely responsible for some of the lower ratings. That’s not really fair.

There is also graphic violence in the book, but since that doesn’t tend to offend like sex does, I don’t feel a need to address it.

Overall, if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, and in particular if you’re a fan of gritty fantasy (a la Martin or Cook), you really owe it to yourself to read this book. Smylie’s short story published in the collection Blackguards is also good, but should only be read after finishing The Barrow.

I eagerly await the next book in the series.

Review: The Wendigo

By Algernon Blackwood

On a whim last night, I decided to read this short story. I’d heard much about it, intended to read it for some time (it had been languishing in my Kindle app on my iPad for months) and finally got around to it.

Glad I did.

The story takes place on a hunting trip in the Canadian wilderness at the beginning of the 20th century and was the first to introduce the mythology of the wendigo into “mainstream” (read: white) culture.

It’s a horror story, a classic. Now, I can’t say that it was the type of story that had me hesitate to turn off the lights or drove me to chills and goosebumps. For me, its horror is of a more satisfying (and disturbing) type; existential horror about the nature of man and the universe. The wendigo is unsubtly a metaphor for the uncertainty of human life beyond civilization, for what happens when, as Nietzsche says, “the abyss looks back into you.” There’s a cold reminder in this story that, for some of us, our personalities and identities are stable only because of our circumstances—that in another place and time, or just a different situation, we might be surprised or terrified by who we might become. I’m not sure that there’s any horror so horrifying as the loss of selfhood.

There’s an illusion about writers of bygone eras. The archaic feel of the language they employ, however slight in reality, gives this feeling that they write with an aplomb illusive to the modern author. This is a trick, of course, and there are in fact scores of awful writers throughout history (just as there are today; check your bookstore).

Blackwood, however, writes in a style that provided noticeable pleasure to read. His words evoke both the beauty of the virgin wilderness and its intimidating expanse and uncaringness. We are made to feel small in the vast apathy of the universe. Judging by Lovecraft’s writings from about the same time, that feeling is par for the course in the genre.

To say much more is to intrude upon the story itself, to ask you to think more about the story than to experience it. That would be a shame.

Instead, I’ll simply state that I think it’s worth reading, especially since you can likely get it on Kindle for free. It takes an hour to an-hour-and-a-half to make the journey; I don’t think you’ll find it time wasted.

Review: Pawn

Pawn by Aimée Carter

Audible Narration by Lameece Issaq

We find ourselves at some time in the near future, after the fall of the United States led to the rise of the Hart family as the dictators over an America subject to economic collapse and resource shortages. As a result, all citizens take a test on the day that they turn seventeen. The results of the test determines their number—one through six, with sevens being reserved for the Hart family—which thus determine their futures. Fours occupy the middle class, with fives and sixes serving as the administrators of the government and management of production. Threes serve as skilled or semi-skilled labor in maintenance jobs and other services needed to keep the country operating. Twos live in poverty, working those jobs too dangerous or taxing to give to anyone of a higher number. The ones—well, let’s just say that no one wants to be a one. The availability of goods and services is restricted by a citizen’s number, and those who break the law or attempt to buck the system are sent “elsewhere.”

Into this situation comes “extra” (second child) seventeen-year-old Kitty Doe. She has just taken her test and had her result, a three, tattooed and scarified on the back of her neck as with all other citizens. She has orders to travel from Washington, D.C. to Denver, where she will serve in sewer maintenance for her entire life. She struggles to find a way to ignore her fate, hoping to hold out for at least a month so that her boyfriend Benji can take his test and they can figure out a way to stay together (it being expected that Benji will be a six).

By a strange twist of events, Kitty finds herself inducted into the circle of the Hart family, where she becomes a pawn in the interfamilial strife of the family’s members. As a result, she discovers that little of what government tells the citizenry to ensure their docility is true. She has a choice: fight for the people or go along with her puppetmasters to ensure her own safety—and the safety of those she loves.

Pawn is a young-adult (read: teenager) novel. As you’ve probably surmised, it bears a striking resemblance to The Hunger Games—post-apocalyptic America ruled by a dictatorship, a female protagonist with a feline-sounding name being forced to choose whether to become part of the system or struggle to end it and, of course, questions of romance and love with several potential suitors. I believe that this also coincides with much of the Divergent series, but I know too little about those works to be sure.

I would say that Pawn is slightly more adult in tone than The Hunger Games, as early in the story Kitty seeks to sell her virginity to the highest bidder at a brothel in a plan to make ends meet until she and Benji can find a more-permanent solution to her “three.”

I found Pawn to be an enjoyable read (or listen, as the case may be). Kitty and the members of the Hart family are well-developed, with complex and sometimes conflicting motivations sometimes driving them to do the unexpected. Over time, as Kitty discovers them, we learn the history and secrets of the Harts, seeing just how deep the deception, manipulation, and spite goes. The close proximity of the themes and general thrust of the plot to The Hunger Games series ultimately does not detract from the novel, as plenty of unexpected plot twists and a focus on character interactions gives Pawn a different place within the subgenre of (perhaps Feminist?) Teen Dystopian Drama that both works occupy.

The politics of the nation and the far-reaching consequences of the actions taken by Kitty and the Harts remain largely on the outskirts of the story, almost a MacGuffin to drive the more important familial politics upon which the story turns. By keeping things focused on the personal conflicts, the story manages to largely brush aside its lack of development of a believable setting.

My only other significant criticism is that Kitty’s male “love interests” (it should be mentioned that the romantic subplot of this novel provides an undercurrent rather than a central force) remain less developed than the other characters. Lennox Creed, who plays an essential role within the plot, never really gave me enough to understand him or believe his motivations. Benji proved even worse for me—Carter writes him such that he is uninteresting and of little consequence to the story except as someone who Kitty desperately wants to protect. The fact that Issaq voices him as an oafish dullard doesn’t help.

The characters of Lennox and Benji are forgivable if they are meant to serve as a critique of the writing of female characters by male authors in similar tropes of fiction (i.e., the need to save the girlfriend, who appears to be entirely helpless to take care of herself). I can’t be sure, however, that such a pointed critique was intended and that they are not simply sloppily written.

Pawn remains at least moderately interesting throughout its twists-and-turns, though I will not be spending any time on the rest of the series. For a teen audience, I think that this is a solid book that bridges the gap between the “classic” literature that most of us studied in high-school and the ultimately more interesting works of fiction we read in high school on our own time (instead of what we were supposed to be reading for class) or found in our adulthood.

Review: Under the Amoral Bridge

By Gary A. Ballard

Audible Narration by Joe Hempel

A cyberpunk backdrop of 2020’s Los Angeles sets the stage for Under the Amoral Bridge. This novella follows the exploits and misadventures of one Artemis Bridge, a former hacker-cum-fixer linking seekers with hard-to-find or not-so-legal goods and services, all the while trying to stay above any ethical quandary about his profession by never touching the goods or services directly. When a piece of information that could determine the results of the first election in Los Angeles since corporation Chronosoft purchased the right to govern the city, Bridge knows that he’s unwillingly been inserted into a game of life and death.

Bridge reminds me vaguely of Lenny Nero in the film Strange Days (one of my favorites and one of few arguably mainstream films in the cyberpunk genre). While Nero’s character gives you a man of some conviction struggling to survive an increasingly corrupt world—with a likeable personality to boot—Bridge simply is. He’s not sardonically witty enough to amuse the reader with his cynicism, too self-interested to hold our interest as an exemplum of the “man against the world” theme, and too petty for us to pay him much respect. After meeting him in the world of this novella, I find him an ultimately-forgettable example of the all-too-common lowlife hustler that appears in cyberpunk.

Had Under the Amoral Bridge been written and published in the 80’s, I would probably find it more difficult to be so hard on the story. But, the book first appeared in 2009. Coming so late to a genre so well-explored in print, film, anime, roleplaying games and video games, a modern cyberpunk book needs to bring something new to the table. I’m not saying that no one can write good cyberpunk anymore (Richard K. Morgan wrote Altered Carbon, a masterpiece of both cyberpunk and noir, in 2003), but we’re well past the point of using a plot arc known by wrote with a cardboard façade of corporate control, ubiquitous technology, topped with a healthy dose of paranoia, slapping it all together and throwing it out like it’s something special.

Looking at Amazon, the book enjoys pretty positive reviews, so I ought to defend my general lack of enthusiasm for the work. I discussed the flatness of the protagonist above, but it’s the rigid and predictable nature of the plot that really gave me fits.

Cyberpunk descends in many ways from noir: the gritty feel, the moral ambiguity, the selfish motivations of the bad guys, the protagonist who we cannot expect to succeed. This doesn’t mean that every cyberpunk story must be a mystery, although many are—again Altered Carbon comes to mind, as does Snowcrash. The best writing within a genre uses the conventions of the genre, but not rigidly, and not always expectedly.

Instead, Under the Amoral Bridge follows convention too closely, making everything feel caricatured. As I stated above, the cyberpunk background of the story feels too canned and too well-trod, coming across like an original Star Trek set piece that will topple if pushed too hard. To be fair, there are a few places where convention is toyed with: the role of the “femme fatale” (if this story really has one) is a relatively unattractive woman who only truly steps into the role when masked behind her net avatar—there’s interesting stuff about identity that could have been explored here, but the opportunity is lost. Then there’s Artemis’ bodyguard, affectionately referred to as Aristotle. He’s a large black man with a penchant for philosophizing and as much brains as brawns, both of which seem to be considerable. I can’t help but think of him being played by Ving Rhames as the story plays through my mind. Aristotle is by far my favorite character in the novella (perhaps the only one I actually liked), and his relationship with Artemis has enough nuance to break away from being a half-hearted twist on convention (as most of the other minor tweaks throughout the novella come across).

Ultimately, the story plays by the numbers, remains relatively predictable to the end, and contains plot “twists” that the characters themselves should have been able to see coming. This culminates in shameless exposition by the bad guy at the end to make sure that the reader gets what’s happened—even though it’s already painfully clear to everyone except Bridge himself.

The work leaves a bit to be desired stylistically as well. In particular, I found myself often distracted by the use of the passive voice where just a smidge of effort could have crafted a stronger sentence. That said, the craft of writing proves exceedingly difficult, and a less-skilled wordsmith can be forgiven if she tells a powerful and satisfying story. The author skilled in technique but without solid storytelling skills is not so lucky. I see a potential in Ballard to rise to the occasion, and it is quite possible that his later works prove that he has improved his technique and storytelling, but I have only read this small part of his corpus.

In full disclosure, I found that the narration of this book on Audible lacked as well, and that might have contributed to my rather harsh assessment of it. The narrator mispronounced a few words, and his accents and voices for characters failed to bring them to life, only adding to their cardboard cut-out feel.

Overall, this is not a bad book. But neither is it extraordinary in any way. With a world so full of amazing works of fiction (and more created every day) and lives so bereft of time in which to enjoy them, I have to recommend picking up something else before Under the Amoral Bridge, unless you want to continue in the Bridge Cycle (currently a four book series) in hopes that Ballard constructs something more grandiose upon this rather plain foundation.