Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SPQR I: The King's Gambit

It seems like the majority of books I read are part of some series or another.  I can't quite figure out why.  Well, this time it is no different--The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts (1990) is the first book in his SPQR (standing for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the official name of the Republic) series of mystery novels set in the late Roman Republic.

The events in The King's Gambit take place in 70 BC during a fairly contentious time in Rome (was there ever not a contentious time in Rome after the exploits of the Gracchi brothers?).  The Republic (such as it was at this point) was just coming out of the nightmare that was the reign of Marius and Sulla.  Pompey, a mere Italian provincial, had been vaulted into the Roman elite after a series of unprecedented military commands.  Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and also an able military commander, was jealous of Pompey and would stop at nothing to outdo him.  Both coveted the command of Lucius Lucullus, who was off in the East prosecuting a war against the wily King Mithridates of Pontus.

It is in this climate that we find Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, a young Roman senator in charge of keeping the peace in the Subura, a rather seedy precinct of Rome.  He is called upon to investigate what at first seems like a typical murder of a freed slave.  After other bodies begin to pile up, and an arson burns a warehouse owned by a wealthy foreign merchant, Decius Metellus begins to realize that a conspiracy is afoot.  He soon uncovers a plot to subvert the command of Lucullus the East.  Needless to say, this enterprise goes right to the top of the Roman power hierarchy, bringing Decius Metellus into direct conflict with many a famous personage.

In the end, Decius Metellus does, of course, discover what is going on.  Readers that are sticklers for justice might be somewhat disappointed with the ending of The King's Gambit since the culprit essentially gets away with their crimes.  I would argue that this is a fitting ending, given that justice was in fairly short supply during fall of the Roman Republic!

The King's Gambit is a light read with several things going for it.  First, and perhaps most importantly to me, the novel is set against a historically accurate backdrop.  The majority of characters in the novel did exist (the major exception being Decius Metellus himself) and the major events portrayed unfolded essentially as described by Roberts.  Second, the character of Decius Metellus is an interesting narrator who always has some insight into Roman politics or cutting remark about an individual to share.  For example, when a crowd is gathered in the Forum to listen to one of the consuls speak about latest foreign threat to Rome, Decius Metellus wryly thinks to himself that Romans had more to fear from their own leaders than anything a foreign power could throw at them.  These kinds of lines make for entertaining reading, and I've heard that Decius Metellus's narration in the following books of the series gets even better.  I will definitely be checking out the second installment of SPQR sometime soon.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152

Mouse Guard is a delightful comic book series that I recently stumbled across.  This volume, Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, collects the first story arc (six issues of the comic series) into a single paperback graphic novel.  It is fabulous!

In the world of Mouse Guard, intelligent mice live in isolated settlements scattered throughout the land.  The mice, being small and delicious, are constantly on the alert for predators lurking within their domain.  The Mouse Guard was formed to do just what the name suggests--protect mice and their interests in the wider world.   Comparisons to the Redwall books by Brian Jacques are inevitable, but Petersen's creation can easily stand on its own.

The story picks up as the Guard is recovering after a hard fought war with the weasels and getting back to its peacetime functions--escorting merchant mice, blazing new trails, and generally keeping watch over the mouse population.  Three members of the Guard (pictured on the cover) are sent to investigate the disappearance of a merchant on a routine journey through the mouse lands.  During the routine mission, they uncover evidence that there is a traitor inside the Guard and the rush is on to save Lockhaven, the Mouse Guard's fortress home.  It is a cute, short story with fairly predictable character types, but what do you expect from a short comic pilot series?

While the story might be slightly lacking in complexity, what really makes Mouse Guard stand out is its absolutely beautiful art!  I'm not sure any description if mine (vibrant color, rich texturing, great small details) could really do it justice, so take a peek at a couple of panels:

While there is a fair amount of violence, it is not overdone. In fact, there were times that I was having some trouble figuring out who was injured in a given fight sequence.  This being said, I probably wouldn't recommend mouse guard for your really little ones due to its fairly realistic portrayals of battle.

Given that this is the pilot series, I can forgive the light plot--the artwork more than makes up for it.  Did I mention how good the art is?  I am now an affirmed Mouse Guard fan and can't wait to read the second volume which covers the events of winter 1152.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Gunslinger

I was so excited by the news this past week that a trilogy of movies (not to mention two TV series!) based on The Dark Tower novels is being produced that I ran to the bookshelf to set about rereading one of my favorite (science fiction-western-horror-fantasy) series of all time.  Not a task to be undertaken lightly since all told the series runs several thousand trade paperback pages!

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Great first line, eh?  So begins The Gunslinger (1982), the first installment in Stephen King's epic seven book Dark Tower series.  In it we meet Roland Deschain as he travels across a desolate wasteland in pursuit of a mysterious sorceror.  This episode is only the latest trial in a life-long quest to reach his ultimate destination:  the enigmatic Dark Tower.

Roland, thin and tough as a piece of old leather, is the last surviving gunslinger. In the baronies of Roland's homeland, the gunslingers were an honorable lot and acted as a sort of peace keeper and diplomat combined into one. Under increasing pressure from malevolent forces, the gunslingers (and, indeed, civilized society itself) eventually collapsed in the wake of a monumental struggle with said forces.  Roland now stands (or more accurately, wanders) alone and has sworn a vow to seek the ultimate source of creation, the Dark Tower. This quest puts him directly at odds with the aforementioned malevolent forces who seek to destroy the tower for their own nefarious purposes.

The world which Roland inhabits is strangely reminiscent of our own and, indeed, contains many familiar elements. There are remnants of technology strewn about the desolate landscape, though Roland professes to not understand many of these devices.  Moreover, some cultural references (for instance, the song 'Hey Jude') are shared with our own world.  These elements suggest that the setting of The Gunslinger is a strange sort of parallel universe or perhaps lies somewhere in the distant  future of our own reality.  Roland claims that his world has "moved on" and hints that this might be caused by straying away from the ancient ways of magic. The odd incongruities between Roland's world and our own set up a kind of disoriented feeling in the reader and nicely enhance the overall mood of the novel.

The Gunslinger recounts Roland's pursuit of Walter, the mysterious man in black (though you may know him as Randall Flagg from The Stand), across the nameless desert.  Along the way he encounters a number of situations that reveal themselves to be traps placed in his way by Walter to test his resolve.  In one encounter, the town of Tull is whipped into a religious frenzy and attempts to lynch Roland.  The townspeople ultimately learn what it is like to be on Roland's bad side (i.e. at the end of his gun--he doesn't have the title gunslinger for nothing).  Roland survives the tests, though not without some serious psychological pain.  Not surprisingly, the climax of the novel comes when Roland does, in fact, catch up to Walter.  Instead of a titanic showdown, some serious philosophizing ensues, predictions about the future are made, and Roland is left alone next to a great sea to ponder how to proceed with his quest.  [PLEASE NOTE:  I'm intentionally glossing over the plot here...I don't want to reveal too much.]

It was interesting to reread this novel after gaining some perspective by reading the rest of the series.  The novel was genuinely more enjoyable.  In particular, there is a fairly stark contrast between the Roland of The Gunslinger and the Roland presented in the later novels.  In this novel, he seems to be fairly flat and nearly void of emotion (at least on the surface), and his actions in The Gunslinger certainly reinforce this view.  It takes some time for the reader to become sympathetic to Roland's cause.  After my initial reading of the book, I was fairly unenthusiastic about continuing to follow what, at the time, seemed a flawed, unlikable character.  It is not until such time that his ka-tet has been formed that the true character of Roland is revealed (and after the events chronicled in Wizard and Glass, I don't think anyone in their right mind could not help but sympathize with Roland).

Remember that The Gunslinger servers as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythos and really only begins to scratch its surface.  The novel is carefully constructed to lay the groundwork for the epic story that follows in the later novels.  Taken on its own, I would call it only a passable effort for a novel--there are intriguing parts but not a fabulously enjoyable read (hence the mediocre hamster number).  When viewed in the context of  the rest of the Dark Tower story, however, it is a fitting start to a truly grand (science fiction-western-horror-fantasy) adventure!

[I finally got around to creating a graphic to indicate half steps in the hamster rating scale.  Please do not be alarmed--I want to state categorically that I do not condone violence toward hamsters!]

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom

Chung Kuo:  The Middle Kingdom (1989) is the first volume of David Wingrove's massive Chung Kuo science fiction series.  I read most of the series a long time ago and recently decided to revisit the novel(s).  After reading it the first time, I was fairly amazed that the series as a whole has gotten so little attention from scifi readers.  After this read, I find it to be nearly as good as I remember--not a literary novel by any means, just solid, shoot-from-the-hip adventure and intrigue.  I would rate it 3.5 hamsters if my silly system allowed me to do so!

The novel is set in a future Earth where China (or at least Chinese culture) dominates the world.  The events leading to this massive shift in world culture have not been made clear (though a prequel novel to be released soon might shed some light on how it originates).  At any rate, the continents of Earth are ruled by a council of seven T'angs, who are akin to Chinese emperors and have absolute control over the life and death of the populace.  The family of Li Shai Tung, the T'ang of Europe, is at the heart of the plot in Chung Kuo: TMK.

The entire population of Earth lives in a 300-story structure made of a super plastic material known only as Ice.  Success in Chung Kuo (which is, incidentally, the ancient name for China itself, meaning 'The Middle Kingdom') is measured by where you reside in the structure:  residents of the highest levels are those with the most power, while lowborn citizens are confined in the dirty, chaotic lower levels.  Underneath Chung Kuo lies 'The Clay', where packs of humans live feral lives at best.  The world-building in the novel is absolutely fantastic; Wingrove's Chung Kuo provides a wonderful setting in which the plot unfolds.

When we pick up the story, the T'angs are coming under increased pressure from a faction of wealthy industrialists and their political allies (known as the Dispersionists) for reforms.  As seems to be the case with just about any entrenched ruler, the T'angs seek to avoid loosening their grip on power at any cost.  They are particularly loathe to allow any sort of Western influence to work its way into society.  This conflict in ideoology eventually leads to a bitter clash known as the 'War of Two Directions' for control of Chung Kuo and, with it, the population of Earth.

The novel tells the story from the viewpoints of a number of characters as they are swept into the unfolding  struggle for power. As a result, we get a view of Chung Kuo society from the absolute top (the leaders of both factions) down to the lowest of the low (a Clay-born boy).  There are a TON of characters in the novel and a lot of them have Chinese names.  It is somewhat overwhelming at first, but the book has a handy cast of characters section to help readers keep them straight.

To be clear:  Chung Kuo: TMK  is not without its faults.  Wingrove most definitely falls prey to a good dose of Orientalism every now and then (a definition from wikipedia: preconceived archetypes that envision all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to "Western" societies).  Hmm...sounds a lot like the whole plot of the book, doesn't it?  While the menace was always looming close, I feel like Wingrove only grossly fell prey to it on a few occasions.  The reader will have to decide if this taints the whole novel--I don't think it does.

If you go to any book website and read reviews of Chung Kuo: TMK, you will see that much has been made about its violence.  In fact, the most strident objections are raised over one sexually explicit scene in the book that lasts for maybe five pages.  As with most anything you read on the internet, take these rather strangely impassioned reviews with a grain of salt.  Yes, the scene is explicit.  Yes, it is uncomfortable reading.  BUT:  the scene is not gratuitous and does serve a purpose.  Namely, to cement in readers' minds the evilness of the leader of the Dispersionist faction, who, up until that point, may have turned out only to be an ideological hardliner.  Who knows how many people have been scared away from reading what is a fairly good novel because of these reactionary reviews?

Despite some flaws, Chung Kuo: TMK is a great start to what can only be described as an epic science fiction series.  As I said in the introduction--if you are looking for a deep book, put down Chung Kuo immediately and pick up the likes of Hyperion instead.  Instead, if you go in expecting a well-written series with plenty of interesting characters and adventures, you won't be let down!