Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I bought Prince of Thorns back when it was relatively new on the market (a few years ago?). I read the first chapter, didn’t particularly care for it, put it away, and moved on to something else.

Recently I found it again in my Kindle library after I wrote that bit about the grimdark genre, remembered that I’d only read a single chapter, and decided maybe I didn’t give it a fair shot. It’s at least popular enough to have spawned two sequels, so somebody must like it.

So I went back into it using my patented “read the first sentence of every paragraph until something catches my eye” method, which is a surprisingly fast way to read, if not entirely comprehend, a book. (Then again you might be surprised how often the first sentence of a paragraph summarizes the whole paragraph. It’s a trap I fall into myself quite often.)

This time I got to Chapter 24, the 49% mark, before I reached the same conclusion as the first time I tried to read it. (Actually I had reached that conclusion at about the 10% mark but I kept skimming through it because I had nothing else at hand to read.)

It’s a first-person narrative where the narrator is kind of a bastard (figuratively, not literally). It’s set in a medieval-Europe-like setting during the “Hundred Wars” which presumably is supposed to resemble The Hundred Years War (by most accounts one of the worst times in European history). It’s heavy on dialog and light on description and exposition, so it’s a fairly fast read. The story begins with our hero (cough cough) in the middle of a rampage of vengeance for something that happened earlier.

In the interest of learning to be a better writer, I’ll try to diagnose why I don’t like the book.

I don’t mind the grimdarkishness of it. I don’t mind that our character is a bastard. The problem I think is that it’s shoved into my face so fast that there was no time to get accustomed to it. We are introduced to our main character in the first chapter and the author tells us through this character’s actions and thoughts that he’s consumed by hate, bent on single-minded, bloody revenge.

Um. Cool?

The classic story of revenge doesn’t bother me. But the author fails to give us any time to get to know our main character and develop any kind of sympathy for him before we see him rampaging. Revenge stories are supposed to start out by showing our hero being a great person who doesn’t deserve the bad things that happen to him or her. This book does not start that way. It starts out with, “Eww, this guy’s a creep.”

Compare with Arya from The Game of Thrones. She launches into a classic tale of (albeit slow-motion) revenge, too, but we root for her because GRRM gave us three-quarters of a book to get to know and like her before bad things happened to her. Compare also with that guy Glokta from The Blade Itself. He was kind of a bastard, but Abercrombie was able to make him sympathetic enough (through humor and crippling injuries) that we could turn a blind eye on his monstrous behavior.

Our main guy Jorg in Prince of Thorns is just a straight-up monster. He says monstrous things without a trace of humor. He thinks monstrous thoughts. He doesn’t struggle with the moral implications of his monstrousness. He doesn’t wish he wasn’t a monster. He just jumps up and declares, “Yes, I’m a monster, and I want things, so don’t get in my way.” Even his companions are scared of him. And not only is he a monster, but he’s a teenaged monster. (Redundant, I know.)

Now it’s true that Bad Things happened to him when he was younger. His behavior is partially a product of his time and his upbringing. (His father is also a monster.) It’s the kind of thing you might see in a supervillain origin story. In fact, the author is doing a decent job of building up Jorg as a complex villain.

Except, you know, he’s the protagonist.

Maybe that’s the whole point of these books. “What if there was a book where the protagonist is the evil villain? Ha ha! The joke’s on you, reader! Trope subverted!”

Well unfortunately it’s not really working for me. I’m all for subverting tropes but this either goes too far or it isn’t executed well enough for me. It’s not very satisfying to read a book and root for someone to kill the main character the whole time. It’s destined to end in disappointment. (Because there are two sequels.)

The worldbuilding falls a bit flat for me, too. It’s some sort of alternate Earth I guess where some things are the same (the pope, Jesu, Roma, the Hundred Wars) but some things are different (place names). I think there might be some kind of magic but it seems unimportant. It feels a bit lazy to me.

On my precisely-calibrated rating scale, I give Prince of Thorns a “meh.”

Is This The Life We Really Want? by Roger Waters

I’ve been trying to write about a movie or television show every Saturday, but I didn’t have anything ready for today. So you get an album review!

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a long-time Pink Floyd fan, so when I saw that Roger Waters would be releasing a new album, I instantly clicked that pre-order button on Amazon. The CD and AutoRip MP3s both arrived yesterday, Friday, June 2.

I was very nervous to hear this album. After all, Waters’ last album Amused To Death is a masterwork of musical perfection. It would be hard to top it. Also, the only criticism I ever had of ATD is that Waters’ voice didn’t sound that great compared to his earlier stuff, which I chalked up to the ravages of the aging process. That was way back in 1992.

Now it’s 2017, and presumably Waters has aged another 25 years. Speaking from some personal experience, that’s a lot of mileage to put on vocal cords that didn’t sound that great to start with.

I’m happy to say his voice sounds fantastic. Admittedly there’s a lot of technology available to fix vocals these days that weren’t around in 1992, but his voice doesn’t sound unnatural to me.

The album begins with When We Were Young, a sort of spoken-word prelude that sets the tone and announces that this is, indeed, unmistakably, a Roger Waters album.

Most of the album consists of quiet, simple melodic instrumentations of piano, acoustic guitar, and bass over light drums, with accents of synths, strings, and backing vocals. But some tracks venture into more electronic, trancey, Floydian territory. Familiar, topical television sound bites pepper almost every track. And as always, the lyrics are a stinging rebuke against politics and politicians and war.

I hate to compare new music from an artist against his older music, but there are a couple of tracks that really stand out as Pink Floyd-style music. Picture That sounds like it was inspired by One Of These Days. Smell The Roses has a very similar riff to Have A Cigar.

I like every track from start to finish, but the ones that really piqued my interest were: Picture That, Is This The Life We Really Want, Bird In A Gale. I like them because they sound a bit more musically experimental.

Is it better than Amused To Death? No. But it doesn’t need to be. It stands just fine on its own.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

I’m back with another book report. This time it’s SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (I have to look up the proper spelling of his name every single time), which I read sometime last year. (Hey, at least I’m writing this post this year!)

In my Cryptonomicon review, I said Neal Stephenson is hit-or-miss with me, but this time he delivered a solid hit. I loved this book.

It’s about the moon breaking up and destroying the world, and the steps taken to save the human race. I have always been a sucker for “disaster” stories so it had me as soon as I heard about it. (I can’t remember where I first heard about the book.)

The reason the moon broke up isn’t really important to the story, and in fact is never fully explained. I think there were some theories (a high-speed something hitting it in just the right way), but the characters were kind of busy and didn’t have time or resources to investigate.

The book is in three parts. The first part of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of the moon breaking up and the cold realization that all life on the surface of Earth is going to end. (Apparently all of the increasing number of moon pieces falling into the atmosphere would eventually reach a point where the air superheats and cooks everything. It sounded plausible to me but I’m certainly not an expert on exploding moons.) Part one follows the efforts of launching as many people into orbit as possible, as fast as possible, to save the human race. (They had a two-year deadline.)

The second part of the book deals with events after the “white sky” event which kills everything on Earth, and the efforts of the remaining space-faring human race (numbering about 1,500 by then) to get to a stable place to survive for thousands of years in space until the Earth is habitable again. (Remaining in orbit was still not safe, due to constant bombardments from “bolides,” a term you will understand thoroughly by the end of the book.)

In addition to all the scientific, physical, and emotional obstacles to overcome, there are (of course!) political obstacles as well. It’s all woven together in a way that I found riveting from the beginning of part one to the end of part two.

There aren’t enough words to say how much I loved these first two parts of SEVENEVES. (I am rendering the name in all caps because I think it’s supposed to be that way, because of the symmetry of the word, or at least that’s how I imagine it should be.) I was glued to my Kindle screen for hours on end, which is somewhat of a rarity for me these days. The characters were compelling, the drama was compelling, the action was compelling, the science was compelling, the politicking was compelling, the sociography was compelling. And there were robots!

Then there is the third part of the book. It begins 5,000 years later, and deals with returning to Earth. If I remember right, it started with a truly epic amount of exposition. I can’t say much more about it without spoiling things a bit.

The only criticism I have of SEVENEVES is the decision to include this third part. I don’t want to say it wasn’t good, because it was, but it was a bit of a letdown, because it’s an entirely different story and tone. It is essentially a sequel to parts one and two. You can probably guess that after 5000 years pass, none of the characters from parts one and two appear in part three.

I actually had to put the book down after part two and leave it for several days before I picked it up and started reading again. I had a very strong emotional connection to the characters and events happening in parts one and two, but when it came to part three, I was a lot more detached. It was still fascinating, but it was such a different narrative that it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. It was almost like a really long epilogue. I would have preferred to see it expanded and made into a full-blown novel on its own.

But other than that, this was a fantastic book. I rate it as … *drumroll* … great!

The Man In The High Castle, S01E01

The other night I discovered that Amazon Prime has a long list of original shows just like Netflix. I don’t know how this escaped my attention. Actually I do know: I usually find something to watch on Netflix before I click the Amazon button on my Vizio remote.

Anyway, scrolling through the Amazon Originals list I spotted The Man In The High Castle, which is a show I’ve heard about often but never realized it was an Amazon show. I don’t know where I thought it was. I just assumed it was on some channel I didn’t have, like Showtime or Starz or something.

I also never realized it was a show about an alternate timeline where the Axis won World War II, based on a Philip K. Dick novel. I always thought it was some kind of generic spy show, maybe like The Americans.

The point is, I finally watched the first episode. My expectations were fairly high, but unfortunately I didn’t really get into it.

I had one big problem with it, and it’s a really nerdy, nitpicky detail that I shouldn’t have in a show that is obviously fiction and not even about this: They didn’t adequately explain to me how the Axis could possibly have won World War II and go on to invade America. I wanted to see a historically accurate, plausible explanation, with all the logistical details of how they replaced the U.S. government with a German government, but all I got was: They used the atomic bomb first, and they invaded Virginia Beach.

That’s what I was waiting for through the entire first episode: The explanation. Some explanation. Any explanation. I guess I did get “any” explanation, but it was rather disappointing.

I’m not an expert on WWII, but I know enough to know that “Germany dropped the A-bomb first” is not a good enough explanation to overcome historical facts. I mean, the Normandy beach landings across the English channel were a logistical nightmare, how did Germany pull off an invasion of Virginia Beach, across an entire ocean?? Where did Germany even get the manpower to pull off such an invasion?? Presumably they wouldn’t have dropped their A-bomb(s) until late in the war, at which time they were utterly devastated as a country and an army. The only way any of it makes sense is if they drop their A-bombs on Day 1 of the war, before they got the bright idea to invade Russia. And yet nobody had A-bomb technology on Day 1 of the war, so how do we explain that little detail? (This is why I don’t write historical fiction. Too many details to pick apart.)

That’s the kind of stuff I kept thinking about while I was watching the episode.

The things that the characters were actually doing on screen seemed unimportant to me in comparison to figuring out how they arrived at that time. As the show went on, I got the impression there is some kind of time-travel element, because that woman had tapes of the “real” outcome of World War II. That was a bit of a disappointment, too. Not only did they not give me a plausible explanation for the Axis winning, they weren’t even committing to it! They are saying that the events of this show are happening in the “wrong” timeline, and presumably our heroes will be spending the show trying to fix things. Or–even more preposterous–the war turned out the way it was supposed to, but something happened after the war to allow Germany and Japan to take over America, and it was all covered up to the point that nobody knows about it.

Given that I didn’t see anything better on Amazon, I guess I’ll watch some more to see if I can resolve some of these mysteries, but I’m probably not going to be glued to the television while the episodes play.

I rate the first episode a “meh.”

P. S. The second episode did not draw me in either. It occurred to me that Nazi bad guys are such a cliche now that seeing actual Nazi bad guys in an appropriately Nazi setting seems like more of a joke than a serious dramatic element. Especially since they are playing them up as stereotypical Nazi bad guys instead of complex characters who happen to be Nazis.

Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Today’s writing topic is: Chris Cornell, who sadly committed suicide.

I might be a smidge older than some of the other folks reminiscing on Twitter about Soundgarden and Chris Cornell in the wake of his recent death. My memory of Soundgarden is limited to exactly two songs from 90s radio: Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. I liked both songs, possibly even loved Spoonman. I remember vividly where I was the first time I heard it, actually. It’s an enthralling song.

But I was never a “fan” of Soundgarden per se, and I couldn’t name or hum a single other song they did. I never bought any Soundgarden CDs. I didn’t know Cornell by name back then.

Overall I never got into grunge music in the early 1990s. I liked the “sound” of it, particularly those heavy guitars, which I often tried and failed to replicate, but I never felt it as a social movement like others did. Looking back now, I think I held a little bit of a resentment toward grunge, because they pushed all of “my” familiar rock music from the radio.

It was also around that time that I discovered the progressive rock of Queensryche, and I had also begun to write my own music. I was also working at home trying to make an Amiga software development business work, so I was pretty busy. It wasn’t until years later that I really started to appreciate the grunge movement. (I was always partial to Stone Temple Pilots, though, particularly their second album Purple, which I still think is a masterpiece.)

Now I want to fast forward to around 2002 or 2003, when I heard a little song called Like A Stone. I cannot even tell you where I heard it. I certainly wasn’t listening to FM radio in 2002, and MTV and VH1 were long gone. Even Napster was gone. It’s possible I heard it on a Winamp “Internet radio” station, because I remember playing around with that for a while.

Regardless of how I heard it, I thought the song was amazing. It was such a simple piece with a lot of powerful, evocative, almost religious lyrics. And then the lead guitar started and it just floored me. What was this alien sound and how the holy hell did they get a guitar to make this sound?? (I still don’t know but I assume it was some kind of pitch shifter pedal, possibly that DigiTech Whammy pedal.) I made a mental note of the band named Audioslave.

Not much later, I heard another song by Audioslave called Show Me How To Live. It had a lot of the same qualities as Like A Stone, but it was more of a rocker.

(It’s weird watching those videos now… I’ve never seen them before.)

At that point I’m pretty sure I got Audioslave’s first album. I don’t remember if I heard it first, then bought it, or if I just bought it based only on those two songs. It’s sort of unusual for me to buy a whole album based on only two songs, though. At that time I was into what I think the local rock stations called “buzz rock” and Audioslave fit perfectly, although it seemed to me that it rose considerably above the median.

Every song on that first Audioslave album is amazing, if you ask me. Most every song on the second and third album is amazing, too. That was when I learned the name Chris Cornell, and found out he used to sing for Soundgarden. (I knew his voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.) I was very surprised to learn that the rest of Audioslave used to be Rage Against The Machine, whom I had heard now and then but never cared for.

That’s how I’ll remember Chris Cornell… as the frontman for Audioslave.

“I’ve been wandering sideways
I’ve stared straight into the sun
Still I don’t know why you’re dying
Long before your time has come”

- Chris Cornell, Your Time Has Come

 

Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson

I wrote this pseudo-review sometime in 2016.

I finally got around to reading Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson, which had been sitting in my Kindle library for years. I knew basically nothing about the book, except that it was one of those books that comes up a lot in geek circles, so I felt like I was obligated to read it.

Neil Stephenson is a hit-or-miss kind of author for me. Snow Crash is the only other book of his I’ve read. I only read that one because, again, I felt like it was one of those books that a modern nerd simply had to read. I remember almost nothing about the story now, but I remember enjoying it up to a point about two-thirds of the way through, when it took a weird turn and/or ground to a complete halt and I lost interest and put it away.

I went into Cryptonomicon expecting another cyberpunk kind of story, but it’s not a cyberpunk story at all. The book is really two stories: It follows characters in and around the field of cryptanalysis during World War II (Bletchley Park, etc.), and different-but-related characters in the 1990s starting up a telecommunications business in the Philippines. It’s one part World War II war story, and one part modern techno-drama. (Not techno-thriller, because there wasn’t any action.) Personally, I greatly preferred the World War II parts of the book and felt like most of the 1990s story was uninteresting. (Seriously, how can you possibly compare the drama of freakin’ World War II with the drama of … starting a company?)

I enjoyed some chapters, while others felt like studying for a security certification. (I have literally studied for tests that encompass cryptography material similar to some chapters of Cryptonomicon.) This is what I mean about the hit-or-miss nature of Stephenson’s writing. Sometimes I find myself riveted to the page, soaking up the text, while other times I feel like I’m reading a technical manual and wondering why I’m wasting my time. I skipped whole sections of text in this book to get past them. I don’t care how interesting cryptography is, it’s not even remotely dramatic.

My biggest criticism is that I thought the book ended rather abruptly. Throughout the book, I kept wondering, “Where is this book going? What are these characters after? What is the endgame?” That was a large driver in what kept me reading, to be honest. (Also, boredom.) I kept expecting a revelation that would tie both time periods together and allow everything to make sense, but I never got that. The book just … stopped.

In the afterword I got the impression that the author planned followup books, which I suppose explains why it didn’t have an ending. I would rate this book somewhere between “okay” and “good” in my patented overly-indifferent rating system. (The ratings are “meh”, “okay”, “good,” and then “great.”)

Accountant, Bourne, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Last weekend I rented The Accountant on Verizon VOD. It was decent, but not quite good. I felt a pretty strong connection to Ben Afleck’s character because I can identify with many of the symptoms he reeled off about “high functioning autism.” I’ve never been diagnosed but I’ve always assumed I’m on the Asperger’s spectrum somewhere, enough to be recognizable, but not enough to be debilitating. The plot that went on around him, though, wasn’t all that interesting to me (corporate accounting woohoo). Still, there were good performances all around.

Saturday night I watched Jason Bourne on HBO. I didn’t care for it. With the exception of a 10 minute car chase near the end, it was rather boring for an action movie. I’m not a diehard fan of the Bourne movies, but I at least enjoyed the first three. This one was a whole lot of “meh.” It seemed to re-tread the exact same ground as previous movies (“Bourne is looking for something, but we need to stop him before he finds it.”) Most of the movie consisted of shots of people looking at computer screens. I think they were ultimately trying to make a movie about personal data privacy versus government law enforcement, but jammed Bourne into the middle of it.

Sunday evening I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane on Amazon Prime. It was good. Far better than I expected it to be. I had the vague impression that it hadn’t been received very well when it was released, but I thought it was a very tense psychological thriller with some really good, believable performances and more than a few surprises (and not the ones you might think, if you’ve seen it). I don’t remember Cloverfield very well but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. I think I would rate this one better. (The two movies are unrelated, though.)

Grimdark

Grimdark TMNT from 1d4chan. Artist unknown.

A tweet caught my attention Friday and I thought about responding, but it was a topic that would fill a lot more than a couple tweets and I was looking for something to write about anyway.

The gist: Why do people keep making that icky grimdark stuff? Nobody likes that crap!

My first thought was a somewhat defensive, “Well, I like it.”

Then my followup thought was a more pragmatic, capitalistic, “People probably keep making grimdark because other people keep buying it.”

Then my third thought was, “I’m not sure I could describe exactly what grimdark even is.”

When prompted to describe grimdark, @Runesael suggested shows like American Horror Story, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I wouldn’t have described any of those shows as “grimdark.” Amercian Horror Story is, well, horror. True Detective is a police procedural drama, and Breaking Bad is … I don’t know … drama I guess? If I had to lump those three shows together I would just call them serious dramas. (Although personally, I thought Breaking Bad had a ton of laugh-out-loud funny moments mixed in with the seriousness. I mean, the very premise of the show is absurd.)

When I think of grimdark I think of settings like the one in Dark Souls. A place where death is fairly common, and maybe even UN-death is common. Places of dark magic and ritualistic sacrifice, where people struggle to survive. Places where the society and culture and civilization that we know has broken down or never got started.

Now let me look up how Wikipedia describes grimdark:

Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.

How delightfully vague and unhelpful. I guess I was close. Upon further reflection, my definition above is probably more in the area of “dark fantasy” and/or “sword and sorcery” than “grimdark.” Among the many different competing definitions of grimdark, one common thread seems to be realism, which sort of precludes dark magic and the undead. And yet magic and undead are obviously allowed in grimdark because George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is often held up as the progenitor of the grimdark movement (or at least, the first commercial success).

Anyway, for myself, I never felt ASOIAF or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series were abnormally dark or excessively violent. They are unremittingly realistic though, at least in terms of portraying a medieval society and how real, flawed people might behave in stressful medieval-like situations. I suppose they also share common traits of eschewing the idealism of high fantasy (and, I guess, old westerns), where the heroes wear white and the villains wear black and good triumphs over evil.

Now I want to see if I can answer the question, “Real life is already so grim, why add to it?”

First and most amusingly, that sounds disturbingly similar to a comment my mom made about one of my earliest short stories, way back in high school.

Secondly, everyone has a different view of life. All of us live in a world where I daresay most other people are not like us. (This is something I wish more people could wrap their heads around, particularly since the 2016 elections.) Your world might be grim and horrible, and if it is I’m truly sorry, and I completely understand wanting to avoid grim stories.

But my world right now is fairly banal and uneventful. During the course of my average day, there’s very little drama; I don’t have to make any life or death decisions, there is no difficulty finding food and water, there are no monsters trying to drink my blood (except ticks). I get up, go to work, sit in a cubicle all day, come home, and repeat the next day. The most exciting part of my day is turning left onto a busy highway each morning (I suppose you might call that a life or death decision). By the standards of most of history and the world, I live in a Utopian paradise like a king. (Lately it has become a bit grim, though, to be honest, but it’s mostly my own perception.) The point is, from my perspective, a grimdark story is just as much of an escapist fantasy as a fairy tale about frolicking pixies and prancing unicorns banishing evil with chocolate milk and love. (That was the most anti-grimdark thing I could think of.)

I don’t like grimdark stuff all the time, and I don’t like all grimdark. Grimdark just for grimdark’s sake is not enough to capture my imagination. Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns is a good example of how not to do grimdark–I don’t particularly like it because I can’t care about the main character’s vengeance unless I care about the character first. I don’t like ASOIAF because it’s grimdark, I like it because it’s a compelling story about compelling characters, written well.

Here’s a thought I just had: I wonder if “regular” fantasy consumers have an aversion to grimdark because of a lack of exposure to the horror genre. I started with science fiction and fantasy books, then sort of went exclusively into horror books for a long time, and then opened up to a broader range after that. Reading one of these so-called “grimdark” books is not too different from reading a horror book for me. They share some traits, like flawed characters and a grounding in reality.

Well, I’ve lost my train of thought now and don’t know where else to go. Let’s just pretend that I’ve made a great point and eloquently summed it up here.