March 30 2012

A Path to Coldness of Heart

A Path to Coldness of Heart by Glen Cook is the final volume of Cook’s epic Dread Empire series.
The books in the Dread Empire are:

  • A Shadow of All Night Falling (1979)
  • October’s Baby (1980)
  • All Darkness Met (1980)
  • The Fire in His Hands (1984)
  • With Mercy Toward None (1985)
  • Reap the East Wind (1987)
  • An Ill Fate Marshalling (1988)
  • A Path to Coldness of Heart (2012)

As you can see from the list, the previous volume, An Ill Fate Marshalling was published in 1988 and so, I had a 24 year wait between volumes. An Ill Fate Marshalling has a bit of cliffhanger(s) ending and so I would check with Glen every now and then when I saw him at a convention to see if any progress had been made. The story behind the gap is twofold. First, Glen had written most of what would have been the sequel (tentatively titled “The Wrath of Kings”) when it was stolen from his home by some “fan” at a party. Said “fan” should be slowly roasted if ever found. The second part of the story is that the books hadn’t been terribly commercially successful. I’ve never understood the second part as I think they books are brilliant.
Eventually, Nightshade Books bought up most of Glen’s backlist and has been republishing it. They asked him to provide a final volume for the series. A Path to Coldness of Heart is that volume.
In the summer of 1986, I had just graduated from college and was mostly relaxing while waiting for grad school to start. Part of that relaxation involved a road trip to the US Fencing Nationals in New York with my friend Gary. I had been trying to find a copy of A Shadow of All Night Falling for awhile, but was having no luck in Ames, IA. Surely, I reasoned, there would be one in New York. So, we spent some of our time in NY in an epic book quest through the bookstores of Manhattan. While we found many interesting things, we didn’t find a copy of any Dread Empire books. Later that summer, I managed to find a copy in a small Des Moines book shop and the proprietor managed to get me the rest. Yes, you used to have to (pre Amazon & EBay) have to actually look around for books.
I guess all of this is to say I have some history with these books.
A Path to Coldness of Heart covers the events after An Ill Fate Marshalling and covers the territory that Glen had originally mapped out for four volumes. We get to see what happened to Bragi and Haroun and we get to see quite a bit of Varthlokkur. A fair amount of action takes place in moving the various characters back together and in settling down some political happenings. How to deal with the Star Rider and his constant meddling in the affairs of the world provides the central conflict.
Varthlokkur is probably one of the most interesting characters in epic fantasy (in my opinion). An ancient sorcerer (known as the Empire Destroyer), he is mythic and grounded at the same time. Intriguing and very well done.
The Dread Empire books are easily available now–no need to go on an epic quest to find them. If you haven’t read them, well, you really should.

March 20 2012

Red Harvest

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett is the first of five novels Hammett wrote. It was published in 1929, about seven years after he started getting his short stories published.
Like many of his short stories, Red Harvest features an operative of the Continental Detective Agency, known only as The Continental Op. Hammett himself had worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to February 1922, with time off to serve in World War I.

In her memoir Scoundrel Time (1976), Lillian Hellman said that Hammett, refused an offer of $5,000 to kill union organizer Frank Little during a mining strike in Butte Montana while Hammett was with the Pinkertons. Little was later lynched by an unknown group of men. According to Hellman,

“Through the years he was to repeat that bribe offer (to kill Frank Little) so many times, that I came to believe, knowing him now, that it was a kind of key to his life. He had given a man the right to think he would murder, and the fact that Frank Little was lynched with three other men in what was known as the Everett Massacre must have been, for Hammett, an abiding horror. I think I can date Hammett’s belief that he was living in a corrupt society from Little’s murder.”

This episode (and others) soured Hammett on the Pinkertons and formed the basis of Red Harvest. In Red Harvest, the Op arrives in the town Personville (referred to by its residents as Poisonville) having been hired by the editor of the local paper. The editor is murdered within hours of the Op’s arrival and the Op finds himself embroiled in a power struggle between the viscous criminals of the town and the corrupt police and business leaders. The paper’s owner (Elihu Willsson) and father of the murdered editor (but no angel) hires the Op to find his son’s killer and clean up the town. The Op pursues this mission with a passion–whether or not Elihu likes the results.
The Op finds himself getting a bit too involved as the bodies begin piling up he says:

“If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood simple like the natives,” says the Op. “I’ve arranged a killing or two in my time, when they were necessary. But this is the first time I’ve ever got the fever”

I enjoyed this book quite a bit as I read it. It took me a little bit to get used to Hammett’s style. He is fairly spare in his prose, but uses it to great effect. The plot proceeds at a breakneck pace with plenty of action and twists galore.
There appears to be quite a bit of contention between fans of Chandler and fans of Hammett out on the net. Chandler certainly seems to have admired and acknowledged Hammett’s work and I would say that there is definitely room to like both.1 I would say that Chandler’s prose is the more lovely of the two but Hammett has a certain spare beauty of his own:

It was nearly seven o’clock when I came out of the nap. I washed, dressed, loaded my pockets with a gun and a pint flask of Scotch, and went up to Dinah’s.

Hard drinking, hard boiled fun–from the very start of hard boiledness.
Now that I’ve read another of Hammett’s books (The Dain Curse) I am finding myself liking this one less in retrospect. There are some stylistic problems that I was willing to forgive in a first book and was hoping that the good parts would emerge while the bad ones sank. The opposite trend seems to be happening however. Thus, I am changing my opinion to be much more firmly in the really liking Chandler camp and much less in the Hammett camp. Hammett certainly deserves some praise for forming many of the idioms of the hard boiled detective, but prose-wise, well Chandler has him by a mile.

March 1 2012

Midnight Tides

Midnight Tides is the fifth volume in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. With this volume Erikson continues his trend of both opening up the complexity and vision of his tale and of answering questions from previous volumes–some of which readers might not even be aware they had.
When I first began reading Midnight Tides I wasn’t that entranced with the idea of a whole book about Trull. The book, however, pretty quickly swept me in with its details and characters. Trull becomes a whole lot more interesting than we saw him in House of Chains. In addition to filling in details, the book is about opening up possibilities. We get Tehol & Bugg and a whole cast of new characters brimming with potential. Midnight Tides just gets better every time I’ve read it.
Each book so far has added a bit to a vast wide angle pull back shot that makes up the overall story. As Amanda mentioned that is one of the very cool things about the story. Where is it going? What is going to happen? The possibilities are endless at this point in the story. Contrast this to say “The Lord of the Rings.” LotR is a fantastic journey but the end is pretty much pre-determined. What’s the end at this point–could be anything, but you can be sure it will be cool.