Monday, August 30, 2010

Community Stuff

So I'm participating in this thing called the Book Blogger Hop this weekend, in the hopes that I can get things out into the community. There are some pretty interesting blogs on here, but I'm not going to play favorites or point them out, as the best stuff is discovered by chance or accident. 

In any case, their question was "Do you use a ratings system for your reviews, and if so, what is it and why?"

I don't use a ratings system. I used to when this blog was still a twinkle in the milkman's eye, but when I started doing books almost exclusively, I dropped it. I figured I was already telling someone whether the book was bad or good, so I didn't need to put a summation up quantifying exactly how bad or good the book was. If it was good, it was good. If it was bad, it was bad. 

Double Review: Jonathan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal series

"I cheated," Cabal said evenly.
"Aha!" said Marechal. "Finally! I should have you write that out and sign it, Cabal. Everyone from the generals to the sneeriest little putzer has decided you're some sort of master swordsman and that you bested me!"
"Well, technically, I did."
- Count Marechal and Johannes Cabal, Johannes Cabal the Detective

         In last week's review, I said that I was unable to recommend the book because the people I recommended it to would punch me. This is, thankfully, not the case with these two books. Johannes Cabal, a character best described as a  slightly-Germanic version of Edmund Blackadder with a medical degree and an interest in the occult* is nonetheless an interesting-to-follow main character. While not moral in the slightest, he still seems, whether for his own good or his own ill, to do the right thing, no matter the odds. While he may not be redeemable, he is at least identifiable with in some sense.

            The first book in the series, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, follows the plot of Faust if someone allowed it to collide mid-air with the plot of Good Omens. The title character, a bored doctor who experiments in bringing the dead back to life, has traded his soul-- supposedly for the power of resurrection, or at least the secret to it. What he gets instead, due to Satan's constant interference and his own lack of a soul, is widely-varying results and the means to create a zombie army. So he packs up his bag and goes back to Hell, where a perpetually-bored Satan decides to bet him: One hundred souls signed over to Satan in one year's time. To aid him in his quest, Cabal is given a traveling carnival he has no idea how to run and kicked back up to Earth. 
            In Necromancer, Jonathan Howard does not manage to create a static setting, or give us many glimpses of Cabal's world. What he does excel at, however, is characters. The cast is very distinct, from the perpetually-peeved Johannes Cabal to his always smartly-dressed vampire brother Horst, and even the minor cast of idiot farmers and wayward carnival-goers. While not always the best sense, you get the sense that the characters are multi-faceted and have motivations beyond "necromancer" or "barker" or "avatar of Satan". Even the non-speaking crow has a personality and attitude that add to its appearances. Horst in particular seems to be having the time of his life on every page he is on, save for the more dramatic moments in the book, where he is required to be the voice of reason. When the characters are singleminded, it's usually for comedic effect-- this is, after all, a dark comedy, and a British one at that.
           The dialogue is also something to be praised. The words sound natural and keep up the rapid comic tone, and even the narration drips with wit and sarcasm. One of the characters is described as giving "a smile many a spider had run from in fright", and another passage mentions that "...if Satan had to play one more game of Cribbage, he'd scream". As previously noted, the book is very British, and the usual tone and whatnot of British authors does run throughout. It's like they all draw from a very matter-of-fact, wry smirk and sense of humor well somewhere. In particular, the by-play between Johannes Cabal and whatever current  victim the book has set out for him is very amusing, always leaving you with the idea that wherever he goes, the necromancer carries his balls in a large steel wheelbarrow. 
             However, there are equally as many bad parts as there are good. One of the most engaging lead characters gets killed off by the end, and you will see the titular magnificent bastard very quickly throw anyone he can under the bus when he finds out how close and yet how far he is before this happens. While it makes for a wrenching moment, it's ridiculously unsympathetic in context, and that drops the tone. Also, the idea that we may be watching the villains of the piece comes far too late for it to be of any use, and makes it seem like the antagonists of the story triumph in spades. While the complete narrative is sound, the choices located within begin to perplex as the story wears on. Also, Howard was a successful adventure game author, having written the Broken Sword games, and it shows in one sequence involving a garden, and some other sequences that boil down to "Use (x) on (y)". 
               Another complaint, and this is getting to be a recurring theme with me, is the problem with time periods. I know this shouldn't matter in a fantasy novel, but it's a hodgepodge of steampunk, modern influences, and other various references. In one chapter they encounter a ghost from the Great War, and a few chapters later, they're tantalizing a kid with a virtual reality simulation. In a third, they're talking about the mechanics of a steam-powered organ as if it's a fairly new invention. All I am asking for, ladies and gentlemen, is a little bit of consistency here. Stop setting books all over the place and expecting the internal logic to run freely. It doesn't work. It never works.

                The second book of the two, Johannes Cabal the Detective, has a much more unified setting. Indeed, it seems like Howard has fixed the problems with the setting, but let the characters go a little more. Johannes, in particular, seems a lot more noble than when we last saw him, his good reasons for bad behavior gone and more genuinely good (or at least not-bad) behavior replacing it. The target this time is Murder on the Orient Express, not Faust, and there seems to be less cohesion as Johannes and his on-again off-again nemesis Leonie tackle a murder on board the Princess Hortense airship. The bodies fail to begin piling up, but the book has plenty of intrigue, and Johannes spends this one being much more redeemable. Also, it's worth noting tha the first few scenes, featuring the capture, arrest, trial, and subsequent escape of Johannes Cabal are the perfect introduction to the character and the more solid setting.
              It's just not as good. Howard has amazing talent in his field, this is true. And his writing has improved, as seen in his ability to build a moment rather than cramming it full of lines and visuals. However, if there were ever a person I'd rather see tell than show, Jonathan L. Howard is it. When his details don't have anything to do with the plot, they simply distract. Where before the plot moved along at a quick clip, tossing jokes as if they were pennies along an urchin-filled street, this one builds its moments slowly and waits for the best moment to spring the joke. In the opening chapters, a simple necro job builds and builds, things slowly going wrong, until finally it explodes in a glorious moment with one of the most hackneyed catchphrases the living-dead genre has to offer. What makes it perfect is not the punchline, but the way the moment is carefully placed and the various characters reacting to it. Characterization is still Howard's strong suit, and this is no exception, giving us a fascist count, a convoluted conspiracy that all the characters become annoyed by the moment they realize it exists, and new enemies and friends to seek out. 
                The other problem with the book is that it doesn't really seem like the out-and-out fantasy the first one was. After the setup of the first novel-- a necromancer battles demons both personal and external while trying at all costs to get what he wants-- an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery that would be completely normal were it not for a few ornithopters and two raisings of the dead seems...well, it seems like a step down. Considering the wild adventure of the first book, Detective seems tame. Its bulk is spent investigating an intriguing premise with an ending that will surprise no one who has read enough detective fiction. Even the locked-room mystery has been done before, and this adds very few new elements to it.
                 Another problem is the constant chemistry between Barrow and Cabal. Mainly, they're supposed to be friendly rivals. Maybe even the best of enemies. But it seems too friendly. The chemistry is too good. When he betrays her during the last third of the novel (it's not a huge deal) it comes so far out of the blue at that point that one wonders why Howard even bothered. Yes, there was probably a reason, but it was nowhere near as strong a reason as, well, anything else in the whole book. The motivation doesn't make sense. It's confusing, and serves as a contrived narrative device. Still, once the book's over that hump, it's more fun again. 
               And finally, our old friend Mr. "Use (x) with (y) comes back. But less of him. There's only one of those sections in the book, dealing with a floor panel that would have the most seasoned of adventure game players screaming about a pixel hunt. 
                 But is this a bad book? I would have to say no. As a murder mystery, it's great, combining the light and rapid-fire dialogue of a crime novel with the stodgy pace and methodical plot of a Poirot novel. It's Sherlock Holmes if he really, really didn't care about the murder mystery and wanted to have a nice airship voyage without any dead bodies turning up. And in the end, while it isn't the classic that the first book rightfully deserves to be, it's still a whole lot of fun.

                I started this review as a double because I wanted to compare the two books as one body of work. It is, after all, a continuing story. As of writing this, I have read all there is to read on Johannes Cabal, save for the two short stories-- "Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day" and "Johannes Cabal and the Tomb of Umak-Ktharl." I did not include these as I only have access to one of them. Both books are very, very good, but I'd wait until the paperback version comes out for the second one. Or better yet, inter-library loan it and read it straight off. I will say that if you didn't enjoy the Johannes of the first book, you'll definitely enjoy the second, and vice versa. Either way, these are good reads, and certainly shouldn't escape anyone's notice one bit. 

*Check out series two or three to see what I mean. It's all over the 'net, so it'll be easy to find. Like here, f'rninstance.

Next Friday: Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott. Unless I can think of something better, in which case, that.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A note on the Archives

The archives have been hidden. If you'd like them back, just demand it. Any demand at all will bring back the Geek Rage archives, as tonally different and not in the same direction as they are.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A note about commenting

While I am running this blog, comments will be moderated but not censored. It's a measure to stop people spamming DESU or random robo-spamming about porn. Discourse and dissenting opinions, however? Completely tolerated and welcomed. Especially dissenting ones. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Private Midnight by Kris Saknussemm

                   "The Darkness is gone-- because We can see in the Dark..."
- Genevieve Wyvern 

                    Once upon a time, before the Sam Reader Memorial Book Club existed in any form whatsoever, I used to talk books with a great many people, but in particular, one person whom I will name Greg for the convenience of it. Those of you who know me probably know Greg and know his real name. Good for you. One of these books was a strange little novel called Lint by Steve Aylett. I'd read it in two days, and the next time I saw Greg in class, I told him "Seriously, Greg, you have to read this. It's fucking hilarious."
                     And read it Greg did. It took him slightly under a week, to my recollections, and he handed it back to me on a bright Friday afternoon, at which point I asked him, "So, what did you think of it?"
                     Greg paused, and then looked at me and asked, "How the hell can you recommend this to someone? How can you hand someone a book going 'I know you're going to want to punch me for making me read this, but...'"
                     I persisted. "But the book was good, right?"
                     He paused again. "Well...yeah, but it was fucking weird!"
                     The reason I mention this is because I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to review and recommend a book that I don't think many people will like. Not for any reason based on Kris Saknussemm's writing ability or anything, but because it's just too freaking weird for words.

In short, I'd press this eagerly into your hands, but you'd probably punch me for making you read it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Great Geek Rage Repurposing!

For those of you who have followed my blog through its stagnation, allow me to say this to you: Thank you. However, it has come time for me to re-design this blog for a new purpose. Many of you may notice that this will no longer be entirely about cult and culture, and take on a more pretentious air. Others of you will notice that it seems to be more about books and less about ranting. One or two of you will act like illiterate morons. To you I say, "You are morons and I want my five bucks."* The weird text colors will remain. I will swear, though there will be less of it. Hopefully, the vitriol will remain. I am going to put myself through fantasy book hell for the purposes of a more civil discourse, and the possibility that someone is going to read this.

So for all of you that this sounds okay to, welcome. To all those who got here from working through the archives, welcome. To those of you who are illiterate morons, go back to playing the fucking banjo or performing some other edifying activity (I am sure you are behind on your quota of yelling "Fag!" or equally stupid sentiments to people online) and leave me alone.

Next week (tentatively): Either a review of Private Midnight by Kris Saknussemm, Kraken by China Mieville, or Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott, depending on what I can get my hands on and finish and all that jazz. See you next Friday.

*For the three of you who got this reference to obscure British newspaper contests and memes that originated from them, awesome. For the rest of you, ( For the morons who are still here, screw you.