Category Archives: death

Books about the theme of death and/or dying.

Review 129: The Day Watch

The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

The previous book left us with an unbalanced Moscow. The forces of Light gained a powerful ally in the form of Svetlana Nazarova, a potential Great Sorceress. Even before she knew she was an Other – one of that mysterious class of beings who can work magic, who can curse, bless and change their shapes – she was able to create a curse that very nearly destroyed Moscow. She, and the city, were saved through the bravery of Anton Gorodetsky and the Night Watch, who guard against the excesses of the forces of Darkness. In the end, the Light prevailed.

But this battle between Light and Dark is far from over….

Summer camp is different when Others are around

As with The Night Watch, this volume contains three books. In the first, a young witch named Alisa Donnikova has overreached herself. In a fight with the Night Watch, Alisa poured every last drop of her magical energy into supporting her fellow Day Watch members, an act of selflessness that nearly cost her her life. Burned out, she’s directed to take a break at a children’s summer camp in the Crimea. Posing as a camp counselor, she would be in a prime position to feed off the nightmares of impressionable young girls.

A word about Others and their powers. The foundation of an Other’s power comes from humans. While any Other has her own reserves to call on, she may… feed on the normal people around her. The Light Others take happiness and joy – literally. Have you ever been feeling really good, and then somehow the feeling just drains away? That’s what the Light Others do, and it powers them to no end. Much like a flowering shrub, pruning someone’s happiness doesn’t make it go away forever, and it may even come back greater, but still – in order to become stronger, the Light Others have to weaken people.

Those on the side of the Dark, on the other hand, feed off of fear and anger, but when they do, that fear and anger remain. It’s like warming yourself by the fire – as long as you keep feeding it, it’ll keep you warm. A Dark Other at the height of his power could probably super-charge himself just by going to a snowed-in airport for a day. Believe me. This stew of rage and frustration is a little too much for Alisa, however – she must subsist on the “thin broth” that is children’s nightmares.

He's a real catch, ladies!

While she’s there, however, her plan hits a snag in the form of a handsome, solid, beautiful man named Igor. Despite herself, she falls in love with him, and she falls hard.

The fact that he’s a Light Other doesn’t come up until it’s much too late.

The second story brings a mysterious figure to Moscow. Vitaly Rogoza has no memory of who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he has to go to Moscow, and that he has power – the power of a Dark Other. Despite his personal amnesia, he has no trouble ingratiating himself with the Moscow Day Watch, and soon discovers that his power appears to have no upper limits. Why this should be, no one knows. Is he some Dark magician, beyond classification? Or is he something else entirely – something new and terrible? Whatever he is, what is his goal, and what is his link to the theft of Fafnir’s Talon, a Dark artifact of unspeakable power?

The third story brings it all together – the sad fate of Alisa Dinnokova, the theft of the Talon, and the rise and fall of the Great Sorceress Svetlana Nazarova. What’s more, the greater plans of the Light and the Dark are laid bare – and changed forever.

As before this book is heavily laden with the philosophy of Good versus Evil, Light and Dark. More importantly, it addresses the issues of freedom, a central tenet to the forces of Darkness. How free, they ask, can we really be?

The Light wants to make humanity better. They believe that, given the right influences and incentives, humanity can be great. But they need to be guided. Molded. Shaped. Consequently, the Light occasionally embarks on grand, world-changing plans, few of which actually work out the way they intend.

No one ever said freedom was nice....

The Dark, on the other hand, worships freedom. Every person, they say, should be free to choose his or her own path. If that path means doing good, then so be it. If it means doing evil, well, that’s cool too. The point is that every person is capable of deciding how their lives should be led, and no one – human or Other – should be able to take that freedom away from them.

It’s one of the oldest questions there is – how much freedom do we really deserve? And it’s a question that can never be definitively answered. But in these books, it’s fun to watch it play out.

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“There are some who think that we Dark Ones are evil. But that’s not true at all. We’re simply just. Proud, independent and just. And we decide things for ourselves.”
– Alisa, of the Day Watch, The Day Watch
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The Day Watch on Wikipedia
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Filed under death, ethics, fantasy, made into movies, mystery, politics, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 128: Soul Music

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

“Music is my life.”

How many times have you heard that? From bona fide rock stars to teenage wannabes, there’s something about music that occupies us, that possesses us and just won’t let go. Even if you’re not a big music lover, there are probably songs which can ease your mind, pull you out of a dark mood, or set your heart to racing. There’s music that’ll lift your heart and make you think the world is a better place than it really is, and songs that will convince you that the dark heart of the world is just as decayed and corrupt as you always thought it was. Music has a kind of magic in it that can reach to the very core of who we are as thinking – and more importantly, feeling – beings.

That magic is dangerous enough on our world, where magic doesn’t actually exist. Imagine how powerful it would be on one where magic really was real. Like, say, to pick one out of thin air, the Discworld.

Sometimes, even more horrible things would emerge....

Of course, the Discworld has had its share of trouble with popular entertainment before. Acting troupes brought about an Elf invasion in Lords and Ladies and the Horrible Betentacled Things of the Dungeon Dimension nearly escaped thanks to the Disc’s proto-cinema in Moving Pictures. There’s just something about the arts in Discworld that leads to trouble – usually the world-ending kind.

In this case, though, the introduction of rock and roll – better known in Ankh-Morpork as “Music with Rocks In” – is only really dangerous to one person, the young Imp y Celyn. Just eighteen years old and already one of the best bards of Llamados, he wants to make something of his life. He wants to be more than just another bard, and in a mysterious shop that has only recently always been where it was, he finds his chance. Or rather, his chance finds him. A guitar-like instrument that does what no guitar should do – it whines, it growls, it sends out noises that run straight down your spine and make your nerves run with fire. It’s clearly not of this world, and it wants nothing more than to live. For that, it needs to change Imp’s fate, and by extension the fate of hundreds in Ankh-Morpork.

Soon, Imp and his band – The Band With Rocks In – are the most famous thing in the city, and the strange magic of this music is being felt everywhere. Even the wizards are helpless against it. Normally this would result in the aforementioned Horrible Betentacled Things, but in this case it’s more of a reversion to teenage years that never were. Still, Archchancellor Ridcully knows that there’s some force acting on people that shouldn’t be there, and nothing good ever comes of that.

Keith Death (art by Soulstripper on DeviantArt)

As if that weren’t enough, Death has decided to get existential and tries to figure out how he can make himself forget for a while. Why he decides to do this is not clearly explored, but it results in him leaving his duty. In his place comes his young Granddaughter, Susan, who would be great for the job if she didn’t think the whole idea of personifying a force of nature was just romantic woolly thinking. And it would be even better if she knew what her connection was to the doomed musician Imp y Celyn.

This book can be seen as a companion to the earlier Moving Pictures as an examination of and homage to popular culture. By transplanting it to the Discworld, Pratchett is able to look at rock music from the point of view of people who’ve never even thought about such a thing before, and who can more easily see the magic of it. And of course, it’s his big chance to make as many music jokes, puns and references as humanly possible, from the translation of Imp’s name (“Imp” meaning “small bud” and “Celyn” meaning ‘of the holly”) to some proto-heavy metal musicians trying to make leopard skin pants from a cat that has some severe hearing difficulties.

It’s a sort of love letter to rock and roll and all that it has brought us. From teenyboppers to punk to the horrible misuses of leather and spandex, it holds a mirror up to the way that rock music has influenced our modern culture. But it does not mock, oh no. It shows great attention to and reverence for this young art form that has done so much to change the world. To list all the references made in this book would be nearly impossible, but the amount of work and thought that went into making it is quite clear.

We're not here to judge.

More importantly, though, the book addresses some questions that are a little deeper than the simple rock and roll jokes. Like Death’s question: “WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? SERIOUSLY? WHEN YOU GET RIGHT DOWN TO IT?” Probably since the beginning of music, people have tried to find meaning in it. People have connected to music and to musicians in ways that they could never connect to other people, even family and friends. People find meaning in music, which then gives meaning to their lives, and the more you give your life to something, the harder the crash when that thing goes away. Imp discovers this in a very literal sense, but out here in the real world that is just as true.

People mourned for Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and other superstars as if they knew them. And in a way, I’m sure they thought they did. Like so much else in the world, though, music doesn’t have any meaning but what we give to it. The truly great musicians, the ones we always lose too soon, give everything they have. They manage to say to us what we’ve been saying to ourselves, but could never really figure out how to put into words. Music is the voice our emotions could use if our brains didn’t get in the way so often, and the best people lucky enough to be able to create it gain a kind of immortality.

Not the literal kind, unfortunately.

If you love music – especially rock music – then this is a book you should pick up and read. Even if you’re not a Discworld fan, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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This was music that had not only escaped, but had robbed a bank on the way out. It was music with its sleeves rolled up and its top button undone, raising its hat and grinning and stealing the silver…. It made you want to kick down walls and ascend the sky on steps of fire. It made you want to pull all the switches and throw all the levers and stick your fingers in the electric socket of the Universe to see what happened next. It made you want to paint your bedroom wall black and cover it with posters.
– from Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
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Soul Music on Wikipedia
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Filed under death, Discworld, fantasy, humor, identity, music, rock and roll, satire, Terry Pratchett, wizardry

Review 122: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

When I started in on this book, I knew there were certain things I could expect from Neil Gaiman – insight, clever twists on literary assumptions, a good perspective on the nature of our reality. And, I must say, he delivered in full. This story draws from some of the most ancient of human tales and reflects on the most ancient of human needs – the need to have a story of one’s own. It’s a book about purpose and destiny, and other very deep subjects.

Yes - this man is hilarious.

What I didn’t expect was to spend most of the book laughing out loud and disturbing the people around me.

Seriously, there were some times when the other teachers in the staff room would stop whatever conversation they were having because they’d been interrupted by my cackling. Or the staff would come over and ask what was so funny, and I’d try to explain – which doesn’t really work when you’re trying to cross languages and literary traditions. People in Japan don’t really laugh out loud at their books, and can’t quite understand why I do. But I laugh. I snicker, I giggle, I cackle, and I never expected that from Neil Gaiman.

The book was, needless to say, wonderful. While by no means a sequel to Gaiman’s previous bestseller American Gods, it inhabits the same universe. This is a world where the gods exist – they’ve been called into existence by us and, in turn, shape our lives.

The book follows the unfortunately nicknamed Fat Charlie, whose life has been ruined by his father’s death across the Atlantic. This wasn’t the first time his father had ruined his life – it had happened many times before in many terrible ways. For Fat Charlie, however, dying in the middle of a karaoke hall just seems to be a final slap in Fat Charlie’s face.

Fat Charlie isn’t his real name, of course – his real name is Charlie Nancy, which isn’t much better. Fat Charlie is only a nickname given to him by his father. He tried to shake it in his life, asking people to call him Charlie or Charles or Chaz, and he wasn’t even fat – just a little soft around the edges. But his father gave names that stuck like gum to the underside of a school desk, and no matter where he went, Charlie Nancy inevitably became Fat Charlie.

You would think this would raise eyebrows in the delivery room....

The reason for this phenomenon, of course, is that Fat Charlie’s father is a god. He is Anansi, the Spider, a trickster god who managed to steal all the stories from Tiger back when humanity was young, and who managed to trick, deceive, swindle and humiliate nearly every other god and spirit there ever was. He was good at it, and there was nothing he wanted that he couldn’t get.

Fat Charlie was, in very many ways, a disappointment. Where his father was debonair, Fat Charlie was a klutz. Where his father could command the respect of men and women, Fat Charlie was a doormat. Where his father was the embodiment of confidence, Fat Charlie was a crumbly mess. I suppose it’s normal, really, being the child of a god, and not really his fault, even if he didn’t know it until his father was dead.

He didn’t know about his brother, either. His brother is Spider, a young man who is so cool that he can convince an entire L.A. party that they can walk on water. He can do real magic, step in and out of the world with ease, and carries his own bedroom with him. When Spider comes into the picture, everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. Think The Odd Couple, except that Oscar Madison has divine powers and absolutely no sense of consequence.

The story is a lot more than two brothers who don’t know how to get along. It’s a story – about stories. In the stories of Anansi and Tiger that are laced throughout the book, we learn that once, long ago, all stories were Tiger’s stories, and they were stories of fear and blood and hunger. When Anansi took them, the stories became about cleverness and trickery and resourcefulness. So in a way, the victory of Anansi over Tiger is the story of humankind’s emergence from barbarism.

Speaking of someone whose story has been re-written over and over. Anansi would like Spidey, though....

It’s about personal stories as well, and that’s a theme that’s far more important to us as individuals. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Fat Charlie didn’t need to be the tightly-wrapped ball of embarrassment that he was. But that’s who he told himself he was, and, so, that’s who he became. Once he starts to accept his heritage and his responsibility to his family, once he starts to re-tell his own story, he changes himself. The same is true for Spider – he’s written his own story as a rake and a charmer, but he finds that that story is lacking. It’s a story that needs some editing, and he’s better off for it.

This is a funny, funny book that reminds me in places of Dave Barry, though that might be a side effect of the Florida settings. There’s also a few footnote jokes, so I suspect that Neil has been hanging out with Terry Pratchett recently. Despite the laugh-out-loud general tone of the book, there’s a lot of Meaning to be found as well – the meaning of story and song, of family, and why you should always be nice to spiders. And birds. Definitely be nice to birds.

The ultimate message of the book, though, is that you can always re-write your story. The weak little spider can become a conquering hero, and the fearsome tiger can be a timid coward. No story is set forever. So if you don’t like the way your story is turning out, get out your red pen and start editing. Anansi would approve.

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“People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers.”
Anansi, Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
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Filed under brothers, childhood, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, fathers, gods, humor, identity, Neil Gaiman, quest, sons, spiders, story

Review 120: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Well, here we are. After a long road – longer for some of us than for others – we have finally reached the end of The Dark Tower series. For some of us, it’s been twenty years in coming, so if you’ve only started reading this series recently, count yourself lucky. You don’t know how we waited for this book, the book wherein Roland would finally attain his goal, and we would see if all the sacrifices he made were worth it.

Were they? Kind of.

Art by Eredel on DeviantArt

I’ll get into more detail later, after I dutifully put up the “Here Be Spoilers” sign, but this is the book where everything gets resolved, and our heroes are given their reward for the hard work they have done. The bad guy is beaten, the world is saved, and all is well. Although “well” is a very relative term in this sense, and while the bad guy is beaten, it’s not very satisfying, and the reward that many of our heroes get isn’t necessarily the reward they would have chosen.

If I sound like I’m dancing around the story, that’s because I am. I have an aversion to spoiling books in these reviews, mainly because I know how satisfying it is to get into a good book and discover things. To see old characters appear from the past, and to witness the heroism of the characters we have come to love. To look at the journey they take and see their relentless pursuit rewarded. At the same time, I don’t want your experience poisoned by knowing the drawbacks to a book – the soft spots in the plot, the characterization problems, the disappointments and the heartbreaks. [1]

Art by lilbenji25 on DeviantArt

This book contains all of these, and if I avoid talking about them, then this review will be awfully short. So, Constant Reader, I tell you this: you can stop here. You can click away to another page, perhaps to Amazon to buy the book and read it yourself (I recommend the Kindle edition if you can – I have the hardcover and it is quite the doorstop), perhaps to put off the reading of the book for a while longer. You don’t have to learn things that will taint the journey of discovery that is reading , and you can live on with a vision in your head of how The Dark Towerseries should end, instead of how it actually does.

Would you stay, then? Very well. After this point, there is no turning back. What is learned, as they say, cannot be unlearned.

This is not the book I wanted. It is unbalanced, hard to get through, and disappointing in many ways. There are also some beautiful moments, and some interesting ideas which, upon post-reading reflection, make the whole story more meaningful. But my overall feeling was one of great disappointment. Let’s start from afar, shall we?

Art by DiosBoss on DeviantArt

The structure of this book is rather lopsided. The most climactic event in the book, the battle of Algul Siento, is quite exciting and fun in that it is what we readers expect from a climax – gunfire and death and the saving of worlds. By freeing the Breakers from their work on the Beams, Roland and his ka-tetdo indeed save the macroverse from complete dissolution. They have literally saved the world and, as we learn later, have completely thwarted the evil designs of the Crimson King. The story could end there, the characters could go on their separate ways, and all would be well.

The problem is that this occurs in the first half of the book. It’s followed soon after by a minor climax – Roland and Jake saving Stephen King from certain death by drunk driver – but even that is done a little more than halfway through the book. Stephen King is safe, the New York Rose is safe, and we find out later that not only are the last two Beams intact, they are regenerating and will probably regenerate the other four. Reality has been saved.

But the story goes on, because saving reality was never Roland’s goal. It was only, in the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, a side quest. There’s a larger quest to be resolved.

This wouldn’t be so bad if there were an even bigger climax waiting for us at the end, but there isn’t, and this is where I feel kind of betrayed. When Roland gets to the Dark Tower, we know he will have to face the Crimson King, who has been held up as the incarnation of death, evil and chaos. He has been the main antagonist throughout this whole series. His reach is long, his power vast, and his hate for Roland of Gilead is as focused as a laser and as hot as the sun. He is as close to the Devil as we can get.

Art by morganagod on DeviantArt

So, when Roland finally makes it to Can’-Ka no Rey, the great field of roses within which the Dark Tower stands, who do we see? A “satanic Santa Claus” who throws explosives from the only balcony of the Tower he’s been able to reach. He’s generically ugly, screams like a madman, and talks in villain cliches – “GUNSLINGER! NOW YOU DIE!” or “YOU DON’T DARE MOCK ME! YOU DON’T DARE! EEEEEEEE!” or “EEEEEEEE! EEEEEE! STOP! IT BURNS!” On top of all that, the Crimson King is finally defeated not by Roland’s guns or some great battle on the physical, intellectual or spiritual plains, but by a guy with a sketchpad. He is simply erased from afar. And thus ends the reign of what was supposed to be the greatest horror of all worlds.

What’s more, their meeting at the Tower was not acually the defeat of the Crimson King – he conceded defeat way back during Wolves of the Calla. We find out that, with the defeat of the Wolves, the King foresaw the end of the Breakers and thus his plan to unmake creation. So, he broke his Wizard’s Glasses, killed nearly everyone in his castle. killed himself by – for reasons I still don’t understand – swallowing a sharpened spoon, and then, undead (which I also don’t understand), rode off for the Tower.

Even then, though, he couldn’t win. In order to enter the Tower he needed either Roland’s guns or Mordred’s birthmark, neither of which he had. So he climbed up into one of the Tower balconies with all the weapons he could carry and just waited. If Roland hadn’t come to the Tower, he would have waited there forever and never harmed anyone again. By bringing his guns, Roland raises the possibility that the Crimson King could still triumph. So, by continuing his quest, Roland endangers all existence.

Art by Michael Whelan

As much as I hate to call out authors on what they “should have” done, I feel like I have to here. A hero is only as good as his villain, and the Crimson King, in the end, turns out to be a pretty crappy one. I wish King had made their meeting worthy of the image he had built up. The same goes for one of our favorite characters, Randall Flagg (or whatever name he chooses to use). He has floated through this series and others like a cancer, bringing nothing but death and pain with him. He’s a charismatic madman who revels in chaos and is probably one of the most enjoyable characters King has created. So how does he die? He gets killed by Mordred, the bastard son of Roland and the Crimson King, of Susannah and Mia. He gets killed and eaten without much of a fight. I think a lot of fans would agree that Flagg deserved better.

And while we’re on the topic – Mordred.

One of my measurements of good characterization is a question: If this character did not exist, could the story have ended the way it did? With Jake and Father Callahan, Susannah and Eddie, with Oy and Flagg and Cuthbert and Susan and Cort, the answer is, of course, No. Each of those characters contributed something vital to the story, something that no other character could have done. To reach the same end without one of those characters would have meant a vastly different story.

Art by Michael Whelan

The same cannot be said of Mordred. Of the people he kills, only two matter to us: Flagg and Oy. Flagg should have been the penultimate End Boss, the final challenge for Roland before reaching the Tower and the Crimson King. And there are many ways to kill a Billy-Bumbler – I think King could have thought of one that gave Oy the same honorable and heartbreaking death that he got trying to save Roland from Mordred. Other than that, Mordred had no impact on the story at all. He just followed Roland, Susannah and Oy, shivering and whining and feeling sorry for himself. He kept telling us that he was meant for great things, but never showed even the slightest hint of that potential. He follows Roland like Gollum follows Frodo, but at least Gollum turned out to be important.

The one thing we do get from Mordred is a frustrating bit of knowledge – that the Crimson King and Roland are both descended from the mythical king Arthur Eld. In that way, their battle is between cousins, and Mordred represents a unification of two bloodlines – demon and human. If their conflict had been framed in that context, it could have been so much more interesting when we finally got to the end.

Speaking of the end. We, like Roland, didn’t know what to expect when we finally got into the Dark Tower. And I don’t think anyone expected that the series would loop around to the beginning again, dumping Roland back in the Mohaine Desert to follow the Man in Black once more, unaware that he had already done so so many times before. It was an unsatisfying ending at first, but upon reflection, it does work, and there are two ways to look at it.

The first is that Roland is being taught a lesson, one which he still has not learned. He’s being taught to value life, to reset his priorities. From his youth, he was so focused on the Tower that he let all else fall aside – his friends, the girl he loved, and the sacred artifacts of his forefathers. He brought death with him, and passed it on to all whom he loved, and ended his quest as alone as he began it. And so, despite saving the multiverse, Roland failed his true quest – to learn how to love others and share who he was with them – and had to be sent back to start again. In appreciation of his effort, however, he was granted a change: the horn of Eld, which he had previously neglected on the field of the last battle of civilization. Perhaps it will make a difference.

The other way to look at this ending is a more metafictional one, something that Stephen King himself finds distasteful. Like it or not, though, one of the overriding themes of this series is the impact that fiction has on reality, and vice versa. To readers, a character might be more real than real people. We learn lessons from them, we have kind or unkind memories of them, and in many ways, our fictional characters possess a special reality. To a writer, this is even more true. Ask any writer and they will tell you about how their characters talk to them, sometimes appear in front of them, or even take over their bodies for a little while. A writer will discover things about a character that she never planned, as if the character himself were revealing them. The Dark Tower relies on this kind of ur-reality of fiction, up to and including fictional characters saving the life of their own writer.

So, by connecting the end of the last book with the beginning of the first, perhaps King is implicating us, the Constant Readers, in Roland’s suffering. Roland cannot rest as long as there are readers reading him, and we are all guilty of making him go through it again and again. While King may have created Roland and his quest, we propagate it, and every new reader ensures that it will never, ever end. [2]

Art by Chesheyre on DeviantArt

In the end, we have a series that started off strong, and then kind of careened to an unsatisfying end. Having been written intermittently over the course of thirty years, I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising. Ideas which seemed like good ones at the time served only to cause trouble later down the road, and loose ends that needed to be tied up took up far more time than they should have. Perhaps with a clearer vision of the journey at the beginning, King could have held it together better. And perhaps without his brush with death in 1999, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to get the last three volumes out as soon as he could.

It does, however, gift us with some wonderful characters, a rich and brilliant world, and a fictional cosmology that holds together all the worlds that King has created thus far. It’s an examination of the importance of fiction in our lives, and the way that stories can reach out and touch so many more people than the storyteller ever intends. If you are a fan of Stephen King, and you haven’t read this series yet, then you should. For all that the last couple of books disappoint, there is still much good to be found in the whole series, and the first five are generally really well done.

Art by Deviata on DeviantArt

There is more to read, if you’re interested. King’s assistant, Robin Furth, has put together an excellent Concordance, detailing pretty much everything you want to know about the series – characters, places, history, language and concepts. She has also written a series of graphic novels for Marvel Comics which detail Roland’s youth, starting with the events told in Wizard and Glass and going up to the terrible battle of Jericho Hill. So if the original series leaves you wanting more, there’s certainly more to be had.

That’s it, then. Long days and pleasant nights to you all.

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“Even when you were in the shadow of death there were lessons to be learned.”
– Jake (narration), The Dark Tower
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[1] To be fair – this book was published back in 2004. If you haven’t read it by now, I doubt you’re really going to be chuffed by some spoilers, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

[2] A third option is suggested by his short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French” from Everything’s Eventual, wherein a woman riding with her husband in a car on vacation keeps re-living a terrible accident. It is implied that she is dead, and that hell is the eternal repetition of one’s mistakes. It is possible that Roland is dead, and that this series is his Hell.

The Dark Tower on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, Dark Tower, death, existentialism, fantasy, good and evil, meta-fiction, quest, Stephen King, time travel, world-crossing

Review 119: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

A king is killed, usurped by a weak man and his overbearing wife.

A ghost haunts the castle, waiting for his son to come and avenge him.

On the highlands, three Witches hold their meeting, plotting the future of the kingdom.

I think Granny would not appreciate this image....

Sound familiar? It should. These are some of the most enduring tropes of English literature, and they’re all thanks to a singular playwright. Wyrd Sisters is Terry Pratchett’s tribute to some of the blood and gore and guts, tragedies and twists of Shakespeare’s great plays.

In fact, this book encapsulates my three favorite Shakespearean works – Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Yes, they’re all tragedies, but that shouldn’t surprise any of you by now. They plumb the depths of humanity to try to find glimmers of hope and bravery and redemption, and everyone usually ends up dead, but dead with a true sense of purpose. In this book we have, respectively, a king murdered by his own family, a woman who pulls the strings of the usurper, and a bloody great storm.

Anyone have some Purell?

Verence, the king of Lancre, has been assassinated. An accident, everyone says. He tripped and fell down the stairs, landing on his own dagger. Funny, that. But the new ruler of Lancre, Felmet, is not so steady in his convictions. He sees the blood on his hands, although he didn’t do it. He’s absolutely sure he didn’t do the deed. Anyone who says he did do it is likely to be shorter by a foot or so by morning. And his wife wasn’t there either. She didn’t hand him the knife. The point is that Verence is dead, long live the King, and now everyone can enjoy the easy life of a royal couple.

However, as so often happens in these things, complications arose. The dead king isn’t allowed to go away. He is confined to unlife as a ghost, unable to contact or interact with the world of the living – except in very small, nearly unnoticeable ways. As his murderers rule over his kingdom, Verence exercises his ectoplasm and plots a way to bring Felmet down. The king’s infant son was stolen after the assassination, you see – brought by a dying man to the home of one of Lancres witches, where he passed the infant to the three women there, and begged them to care for it.

Huh. Actors.

They did what some people would think would be the exact opposite – they gave the child to some traveling actors. As alarming as that might seem, they thought that a traveling troupe would be a much better place for a child to grow up than with three of the greatest witches of Lancre.

And that would seem to be the end of it, really. The king is dead, with no one to contradict the original version of his death. The infant son of the king is stolen, never to be seen again. By all rights, the kingdom should move on. Assassination, of course, is perfectly natural in Royal circles, happens all the time. The kingdom shouldn’t even blink.

But it does. Not only does the kingdom blink, it is furious. Not the people, mind you. The people barely notice a new king, except for the parties and the slight increase in executions. The Kingdom. As a body is an amalgam of cells, a Kingdom is the whole of its people and history. Felmet hates the new kingdom he has acquired, with its gorges and trees and people you couldn’t bully no matter how hard you tried. He hates the Kingdom, and the Kingdom hates him for it. A Kingdom, you see, is like a dog. It doesn’t care if its master is a good man or an evil man, so long as he cares for the dog. Felmet actively detested the land and its people, and in return the larger entity that was The Kingdom hated him right back.

In the meantime, Felmet’s Fool, formerly the Fool to Verence, is showing him how words have power, and how that power could help break the animal kingdom he ruled. Cutting the trees down, for example, might be called “horrible” or “terrible” by the people – and the kingdom – of Lancre. But call it, “Planned deforestation for industry growth,” and that’s a whole new story.

"Senior citizen"

Words have power, Felmet learns. The Fool eventually goes on to demonstrate the true power of words to the king.

Liar. Usurper. Murderer.

Words like that have a wondrous effect.

And then there are the Witches, who are a threat to Flemet, in his own mind. He can’t kill them, he can’t torture them. But he can change how people think about them, and so he decides that a play is the way to go….

It gets a little complicated after that, but rest assured, it’s a kicker. Felmet is insane, and his wife is worse. Their plan to destroy the witches of Lancre goes beyond what the Puritans of Massachusetts could ever have come up with – altering their very natures by altering perceptions. And fate sticks her fingers in all over the place, as the Witches try to restore a true leader to Lancre – even if the true leader doesn’t even know who he is.

Oh, what Shakespeare could have done with Granny....

Not only does this book showcase one of Terry’s best characters – Granny Weatherwax – but it takes an interesting look at the way we can alter our perception of things merely by altering what we call a thing. Words shape the world, whether we want them to or not, and the right word in the right ear can shift the balances of history. As with so many of his other books, Terry gives us a profound philosophical insight and shows it to us as something we knew all along.

————————
“Oh, obvious,” said Granny. “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”
Granny Weatherwax, Wyrd Sisters

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Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

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“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
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[1] Wikipedia

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Review 116: Song of Susannah

Song of Susannah by Stephen King

I think that every long series has to eventually include a book like Song of Susannah. It’s the weak book, the one that you have to have, but would rather you didn’t. The one that pretty much exists to get you from Point A to Point B, which resolves some earlier issues and sets up some later conflicts, but which – by itself – isn’t nearly as good or as much fun to read as the books that either preceded or followed it. I call it a “bridge book,” and I suspect that they are somewhat inevitable.

But before getting into all the heady analysis ‘n stuff, let’s see what this book is about.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Directly following the end of Wolves of the Calla, our ka-tet is split. Susannah, possessed by that strange spirit who calls herself Mia, has taken the supremely powerful Black Thirteen and used it to open a magic door to New York. It is there that she hopes to have her child and have the raising of it, before it grows up to destroy the world. Everyone else, of course, is concerned for her safety, but there is one other thing that needs to be done – the vacant lot in Manhattan and the rose that grows there must be protected. This rose represents one of the two Beams that remain to hold up the Dark Tower (and thus all of existence), so its safety is paramount.

The other Beam just happens to be Stephen King himself. But we’ll get to that….

Roland’s party splits up – Roland and Eddie go to rural Maine to find Calvin Tower and secure proper ownership of the vacant lot. Jake, Oy, and Father Callahan follow hot on Susannah’s heels to New York City to try and save her from the horrible death that no doubt awaits her there. Horrible death awaits all of them, truth be told, but one does what one must in pursuit of the Tower.

Jake, Oy and Callahan’s story is the far more straightforward one. They go to New York and follow Susannah/Mia’s psychic trail to Black Thirteen, which they dispose of in a manner that should bring a grim smile to all 21st-century Americans. They then go on to the Dixie Pig, a restaurant-slash-portal to a dimension of hell and pain, where they expect to be gunned down the moment they go through the doors. Pretty cut and dried, really.

Roland and Eddie, however, have the much more mind-bending task of meeting their maker. Literally.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

As a side-quest to securing legal possession of the vacant lot, they learn that King lives nearby and decide to pop in and pay him a visit. This kind of freaks King out, but rightfully so. To him, Roland is a character who haunted his mind, and a few pages of a manuscript that has languished in storage for years. King had given up on The Dark Tower, and never expected to pick it up again. Until, of course, its main character showed up, insisting that his story be finished.

To me, this was the most interesting conceit of the entire series. The idea of characters breaking through the fourth wall and entering “the real world” is nothing new, nor is having them ask some rather pointed questions of their creators. But it’s another thing for those characters to not only meet their creator, but to do so before he’s actually written about them up to the point where they’re meeting him.

(re-reads that last sentence)

Right.

In short, not only is King the embodiment of one of the last Beams holding up the Dark Tower, he is also an avatar of Gan, the primal force of order and righteousness in the universe. Through King, and the story of Roland and his ka-tet, Gan is trying to keep the Tower up against the forces of Discordia, as embodied by another King, the Crimson King. These two Kings – one unknowing, the other knowing – are locked in a fight to the death, with the universe at stake.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Throughout all of this, Susannah is having her own troubles in New York. Mia has gained control of her body – to the point where she is able to manifest the legs that Susannah lost long ago – and is determined to have her child. She has an appointment to keep with the agents of the Crimson King, and she believes that she will finally achieve that holy state for which she had gladly given up her immortality – motherhood. Susannah, on the other hand, knows that whatever is brewing in Mia’s belly is a threat to Roland, and will do whatever she can to stop the birth, or at least turn Mia against her chosen destiny.

Depending on the kinds of books you like reading, Song of Susannah will either be tolerably good or downright unpleasant, and this is mainly due to its rather fractured structure. The three plot threads don’t intersect directly once everyone leaves the Calla, and don’t have any kind of resolution once you get to the last page of the book. As a friend of mine put it, “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

The other volumes, like most standard-issue novels, has a resolution at the end. You can close the book and be able to tell people, “The characters achieved this, and it was fairly conclusive and interesting.” Of course, a series always has a greater conflict – the series-level conflict – that won’t be resolved until the last volume, but each individual book needs to have its own setup, conflict and resolution, with enough loose ends to get us into the next book.

Song of Susannah doesn’t really do this. The matter of the vacant lot is a fairly simple legal matter, which is not only easily resolved but also kind of dull, once you compare it to everything that has gone before. The problem of Black Thirteen is done away with pretty easily as well, which doesn’t really befit an artifact that we have been told possesses immense evil power. And while Susannah doesn’t prevent Mia from making her appointment at the Dixie Pig, she does manage to plant the seeds of doubt in the woman’s mind.

Art by Klaimko

In short, what is achieved in this book is not up to the level of what we have come to expect. The dramatic escape from the decaying city of Lud, the horrible tragedy of Roland and Susan in the Mejis, the valiant stand against the Wolves – all of these are proper climaxes and proper resolutions. The sole purpose of this volume is to bridge the gap between Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower, and the only reason it ended where it did was because, well, you have to end it somewhere.

Having said all that, I enjoyed reading this book, and tore through it at record speed. I thought Susannah’s chipping away at Mia’s confidence was well-handled and made a lot of sense. Jake, Oy and Callahan preparing for their Last Stand and their likely deaths was great, and the whole meta-fictional issue of characters meeting with their creators is just the kind of thing that really digs into my brain and gets it going. And while the book may have been less carefully focused than the other editions of the series, it must be remembered that I am a long-time veteran of the Wheel of Time series, which has so many sub-plots, side-plots, secondary plots, divided parties, prophecies, histories, secrets, societies, ancient enmities, mythical forces, Artifacts of Unimaginable Power, questionable plot elements and unanswered questions that it makes The Dark Tower look like one of Aesop’s fables.

So I do have an unfair advantage.

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“I don’t think he needs to be immortal. I think all he needs to do is to write the right story. Because some stories do live forever.”
– Roland (speaking of Stephen King), Song of Susannah
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Review 115: A is for Armageddon

A is for Armageddon by Richard Horne

You should know by now that if there’s one thing I’m really looking forward to it’s the end of the world.

At least, I was, up until about two weeks ago when an Earthquake of Unreasonable Size hit northeastern Japan, unleashing a massive tsunami which in turn led to an ongoing disaster at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Ever since then, the TV has been nothing but tales of survivors huddled in relief shelters and people all over the country scrambling to help – or to get out. In addition, there is the very real probability that more than ten thousand people have died, their bodies washed out to sea.

It’s one thing to read about the end of the world in a book or a comic, but to see it unfold on live TV is something else entirely. So right now, I’m not all that gung-ho about end of the world stories. Give me time, though, and I’m sure I’ll come back to them.

Like this, but without the leather and the anti-Semitism

I don’t know why, really. Maybe it’s for that feeling that all bets are off, all bonds are broken and you can remake yourself in any image you want. Maybe I really believe that I’ll be one of the heroes of the story, who make it through the End Times not only alive but victorious. Maybe I just long to see the world scythed clean of humanity and restarted so the squid can have a go at running things, I have no idea.

For whatever reason, I have a soft spot for armageddon stories. Whether it’s Good Omens, The Stand, Swan Song, Crisis on Infinite Earths, or any other story that promises the destruction of a world, I’m all over it. I can’t know if they’re good, but I’ll at least be willing to give them a shot. So when I saw this, I thought to myself, “I must have this book.”

The book is based on an organizational system that has gained some popularity in recent years: The Periodic Table of X, wherein X is whatever topic you want to focus on. It was originally designed to accommodate the natural elements, but if you have a hundred or so items, you can probably make your own periodic table to sort through them. You’ve got the Periodic Table of Typefaces, the Periodic Table of Beer Styles, the Periodic Table of Superheroes, and even – prepare to have your mind blown – the Periodic Table of Periodic Tables of Things.

You never had it so good, Mendeleev….

This book is based on the Periodic Catastrophic, a listing of the many, many ways that the world can end. As with the “real” periodic table, this one is well-organized to keep the apocalypses in line. There are the Acts of God, Don’t Mess With Nature, Universally Doomed, and It Was Like That When I Got Here, among other distinctions. Each disaster gets a couple of pages with a succinct explanation and an interesting or humorous illustration. Some of my favorites include:

The End of the World will be accompanied by a speed metal soundtrack

Four Horsemen Motto: Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. Direct from the Bible, the Four Horsemen of Conquest, War, Famine and Death will one day roll across the Earth, bringing down everyone in their paths. “Everyone,” of course meaning everyone. You don’t know when they’ll come, but you’ll sure know when they get here. Make sure you have your bags packed.

Ecosystem, if only for the picture of the panda strapped to a knife-throwing target. Those pandas have had a free ride for long enough, if you ask me….

You have no idea how important bees are. Seriously.

Food Chain Collapse – this is one that I find pretty plausible, as far as some of these entries go. We all get mushy and sentimental about the whales and the dolphins, but what about the krill and shrimp and sardines? Without them, we run the very great risk of destroying an entire food chain just to have something to snack on during brunch.

The Gulf Stream Collapse is another one that kind of worries me, and it’s my favorite card to play whenever someone comes out with, “Look at all this snow! So much for global warming!” canard. In a nutshell: The gulf stream brings warm water up from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic, which results in a rise in temperature for most of Europe. As polar freshwater ice caps and glaciers melt, all that cold fresh water will mix with the salt water, which could have the effect of pushing the upper end of the gulf stream south. This would mean a substantial temperature drop in Europe, and a general planetwide climate crisis up to and including a new mini-ice age.

For a brief and shining moment, we will all be T-1000s

Grey Goo is always fun, too. If we manage to build self-replicating nanomachines, which use the atoms around them to build copies of themselves, what’s to stop them from just ripping apart every solid object they see? If they don’t know when to stop eating and replicating, they could devour most of the world in pretty short order. Nasty, huh?

And of course there are sure-fire world-enders like The Death of the Universe, Sun (the death of) and the Collapse of Causality, the inevitable result of the invention of time travel.

It’s an amusing book, with some educational points to make. Strictly speaking, not every one of the scenarios that it depicts has to do with the end of the world. Some of them, like volcanoes, earthquakes, and pandemics, are just natural disasters rather than planet-killers. Others, like obesity and an aging society, are more aimed at problems facing the human race that may inconvenience us, but probably won’t destroy us.

Look, it landed on Bruce Willis! How ironic...

And then there are the ones that I suspect were put in just to fill space – in The Solar System , Horne suggests that Jupiter could one day turn itself into a second sun, with disastrous consequences. But that won’t happen – Jupiter is much too small to initiate fusion in its core. The same with Supernova – he suggests that Betelgeuse could go up (and it will), bathing us in gamma rays after “crossing millions of light years” to get to us. But Betelgeuse is only 640 light years away – much closer than “millions,” but much too far to hurt us when it goes. So it’s not so much that the scenarios are implausible – like Alien Invasion or Paradox or Satan, but that they’re inaccurately implausible. It makes me wonder what other facts he fudged or guessed on just for the sake of making something sound scarier than it is.

Can't go wrong with a black hole....

It’s got some good tongue-in-cheek humor, and is a clever reminder of all the ways that things can go wrong in this big world of ours. The pictures are very nice, often funny, and good companions to the text, which features helpful hints for surviving each scenario, as well as a guess as to when you should start to panic. All too many of them are labeled “too late.”

An interesting note: there is a lot of British English in the book that may surprise readers of American English, such as myself. I had never encountered the adjective moreish (meaning so tasty that you want more of it) until I read this book and am forced to assume it’s a British coinage. Also, some of the puns only work if you know the British pronunciation of words. Unlike the editors of Harry Potter, though, these guys did not bow to our American prejudices and re-edit the book. Kudos to them.

So, these are the ways the world ends. Now you know.

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“The only thing worse than a vengeful God is a fickle one.”
Richard Horne, A is for Armageddon

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Review 111 – Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Okay, before we get into this book, let me take a little survey: Have you ever seen The Seven Samurai? How about The Magnificent Seven?

The Three Amigos? GalaxyQuest?

If you’ve seen these movies, and any number of stories like them, then you know the basic outline of this book. Say it along with me now….

'We deal in lead, friend.' - Vin

Calla Bryn Sturgis, a small farming village on the far end of the world, is notable for a few things. Its rice, its peaceful people, and its abundance of twins. The farmers of Calla Bryn Sturgis want nothing more than to live their lives in peace, but their idyllic existence is threatened by invaders from the east.

They come from the evil town of Thunderclap, once a generation – the Wolves. Armored and cloaked in green, riding identical deathless gray steeds and armed with terrible weapons, the Wolves come to Calla Bryn Strugis to steal one child from every set of twins. They take them to their dark city, and when the children come back, they come back as damaged goods. “Roont,” the Calla-folk call them, and it’s an apt word for they are ruined indeed. Over the years, these children, whose minds have lost all of their intelligence and humanity, grow into pain-wracked giants, and then die horrible deaths years before their time.

No one knows why the Wolves come, and no one has ever even considered trying to stop them. Until now.

Word has come that Roland and his ka-tet – Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy – are in the area, and if anyone can stop the Wolves, it would be Gunslingers. If the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis can convince them to help, and are willing to fight alongside them, then they have a chance to repel the Wolves once and for all.

If only it were that simple.

'Once more, we have survived.' - Kambei Shimada

Interlaced with this this pretty straightforward tale is, of course, the larger story of the quest for the Dark Tower and the fight against those for whom the Wolves are merely agents. A new warrior in this fight is Father Donald Callahan, whom we last met way back in ‘Salem’s Lot as a broken and ruined priest, damned by a vampire king and sent out into the world to live or die as he pleased. Through his damnation, Callahan has found himself able to see things he shouldn’t be able to see, including the various classes of vampires and the Low Men – agents of the Crimson King who serve His interests in the various levels of the Tower. Callahan discovers a knack for traveling through the Americas along secret highways. In his ramblings from coast to coast, looking for peace – or death – he slips from one version of America to another, never knowing how or why.

In the end, he brings himself to the attention of forces far greater than himself. It leads to his death and reappearance in Roland’s world, but more importantly it puts him in possession of an object of great power and even greater peril – Black Thirteen, an inky sphere that could be the black eye of the Crimson King himself, and which has the power to send its bearer through a door to any point in space or time.

Roland and the others are going to need that door, too. While they’re busy planning their battle against the Wolves in Calla Bryn Sturgis, they have another fight to win, in another world. In New York of 1977, there is a vacant lot, and in this lot is a rose. The rose must be protected at all costs, for it is the other end of the Tower – one axis upon which all the worlds turn. This lot is in great peril, and it is imperative that our heroes keep it safe. By whatever means necessary.

'Oh GREAT!!! REAL bullets!!!' - Lucky Day

It’s a really good tale, and one that is actually better than I remember it being. The first volume after King’s near-fatal accident, it’s all put together very neatly, while getting us set up for events to come, even if some of them aren’t entirely clear, or seem a little random at first glimpse. For example, Roland discovers that he’s beset by the Dread Foe Arthritis. As it is now, it’s making him kind of achy, but should it spread to his precious shooting hand, then it’s all over for him. Why King decided to afflict Roland with something as mundane as arthritis isn’t entirely clear (although to be fair, Roland is technically over a thousand years old and could be considered due for a few of the ravages of old age).

Perhaps it is a sign of Roland’s encroaching humanity. In The Gunslinger, mention is made of his ability to detach himself from his body somewhat so as not to feel thirst. In that book, he is largely mechanical, only showing any kind of real emotion when he finally faces the Man in Black. Over the course of the series, Roland has become more tuned into what it means to be a person and to feel, y’know, feelings and things. This gives him the bond with his ka-tet that he needs, but it also comes with a price. Perhaps the arthritis is the first price he must pay for allowing himself to feel.

Mention must also be made here of poor, beleaguered Susannah. I mean Detta. Odetta. No, wait – Mia.

'Never give up, never surrender!' - Jason Nesmith

Out of the seething cauldron that is this poor woman’s mind, a new personality has emerged. Mia, Daughter of None is still something of a mystery to us. As far as we know, she has only one ambition – to protect the child growing in her belly. This child was not fathered by Eddie Dean, Susannah’s beloved husband, but by the cold and unnatural demon that Susannah held at bay while the two men pulled Jake from his world to theirs. Growing within her now is something horrible, something that Mia was born to protect, even at the expense of the body she inhabits. Right now, that’s all that she is, and her greater purpose is yet to be revealed.

King does a pretty good job of juggling the various plot lines in this book, making sure that we aren’t left hanging for too long on any of them. Of course, they feed into each other as well – Father Callahan’s tale interweaves itself with the story of New York in ’77, and its ultimate conclusion allows the plot to progress through this book and into the next. I actually enjoyed Callahan’s story a great deal, and thought it would have made for a wonderful stand-alone short story. Not a novel, as there’s a whole lot of “I walked around for a few years and did manual labor” in there, but the story that he told to Roland and the others would have stood on its own quite nicely. He’s an interesting, complex character, and I look forward to seeing what awful thing happens to him next.

What’s more, there’s a wonderful meta-fictional element to this book as well, and it introduces that idea of a story that is aware of itself being a story. For example, in the beginning of the book, Eddie notices that time has started up again. While it is true that time, like everything else in this world, is unreliable, I found it interesting that he should make mention of it at that point, right when their story starts up again after a break (from our point of view) of six years. From the characters’ points of view, on the other hand, the time between books is indeterminate, but Eddie notices that they don’t seem to really do anything in that intervening time. It made me wonder about what happens to fictional characters when they’re not being written about, a train of thought for which I am not adequately medicated.

Think about it....

More importantly, the impact of real-world fiction becomes painfully obvious in this book. For one, Stephen King is established as an as-yet-unseen character, which comes right on the heels of a very serious existential crisis for Father Callahan. The Wolves themselves are explicitly noted to be rip-offs – er, homages to fictions ranging from Marvel Comics to Harry Potter. Whatever else Roland’s world is, it has a very close connection with the fiction of our world, and that connection may offer important clues as to the true nature of their quest.

So, what purpose does this book serve in the greater series? Well, there are many out there who see Roland’s quest as being not so much for the Dark Tower as for redemption. After the loss of his love, his friends, his family and his homeland, Roland made himself into something that was only technically human. Over these books, he has had to learn how to re-connect, first with individuals, then as a small group, and now with a community. In this book, Roland has to come to grips with Calla Bryn Sturgis not just as a hired gun but as their leader, if only temporarily. He has to see himself as part of a greater whole, thus becoming – as I mentioned above – more human. Each book forces him to be more and more connected with those around him. The only question is if he can hold on to this new humanity before his quest for the Tower destroys him.

All in all, a good read, which moves ever-so-smoothly into the next book….

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“First come smiles, then comes lies. Last is gunfire.”
– Roland, Wolves of the Calla
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Wizard and Glass on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
Wizard and Glass on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, fathers, friendship, horror, meta-fiction, murder, quest, revenge, robots, sons, Stephen King, survival

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins