Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Book reviews and The Last Witchking

I haven't reviewed a lot of books lately.  I haven't even put books that I'm reading on my blog very well.  And frankly, I haven't done a great job reading books lately.  I've been way too busy.  I dived into Mistborn and quite enjoyed it so far before getting so bogged down with things to do that I now haven't picked it up in at least a week or two.  I don't intend to abandon it, of course, but it may be another week or two before I can really pick it up.

It may seem odd to readers that someone who claims to be a huge fan of Lovecraft has his collections on my To Read list, and not showing as re-reads.  This is true, but also misleading.  I haven't read those collections.  Each collection has at least one piece that I've never read before.  So, I called the whole thing unread, even though I've read the majority of the pieces in each collection, many of them many times over.  This is kind of a moot point as well, as I'm now also reading a nearly complete collection of Lovecraft stories on my Kindle.  This Kindle collection does not, however, feature any of the collaborations or ghost-written stories.  At some point, when I'm done with the Kindle collection, I'll go through each of the books on my shelf and make sure that nothing is in them that I haven't read, and if it is not, I'll remove them from the to-read list.  I'll probably still have to read the ghost-written collection, or at least parts of it.  I know for a fact that I haven't read all of them, because I haven't even read Horror in the Museum, the story for which the entire collection is named.

However I also won't be reviewing any of this Lovecraft stuff.  Not only is it very old and very familiar. but it's also more difficult to review short-story and novella collections anyway.

I will, however, offer a brief review of a collection of three novellas that I recently read: The Last Witchking.  I got this for free a number of months ago when it went through one of those periodic free giveaway days which Amazon occasionally does with Kindle books (albeit I believe in this case at the behest of the author.)  I didn't read it until very recently however.  Now, reading the book with a completely open mind is a little bit challenging given all the noise surrounding the nomination of the third and final novella in the collection for a Hugo award.

For those not paying attention, the Hugo awards nominations are extremely controversial to a number of people, and a great panoply of authors and writers, industry professionals, and assorted hangers-on have made a great deal of noise--mostly ghastly wailing and gnashing of teeth--at some of the works nominated, including the story included in this collection.  The reason for this is that this collection is written by one Vox Day (which, as you probably can guess, is a pen name and a pun), an individual who has managed to score a fair bit of hate from the self-proclaimed literati of the science fiction and fantasy world, particularly those who belong to the SFWA, or Science Fiction Writers Association.

Of course, if you've been paying any attention to the SFWA lately, you'd also notice that they've made of themselves a laughing stock and an embarrassment repeatedly in the last year or two, which may mean that you'd take the object of their hate with some skepticism.  I certainly did so, but then again, I get most of my news about what's happening in the SF publishing world from the blogs of Larry Correia, John C. Wright, Sarah Hoyt, and yes, that of Vox Day himself.  So it was no surprise that the accusations drummed up against Vox Day and the reason that his nomination for a Hugo is causing so much heartburn amongst the self-proclaimed sci-fi literati is pretty trumped up in most cases, and outright false in others.

That doesn't mean that I think Mr. Day is a nice guy, by any means.  Frankly, I think he's kinda a jerk.  He's arrogant, extremely pedantic, and polemic, which means that he is perfectly happy simply messing with people for no reason other than to mess with them.  The charges of him being a hateful racist, on the other hand, are largely based simply a single comment describing a single person--a person who is a demonstrable racist, by the way--whom he called an "ignorant half-savage."  Because the sci-fi literati don't like him anyway, they've latched on to this, attached to it meaning that is well beyond the intent with which it was delivered, and used it to go for their favorite tactic; outgrouping by calling on a racist.

Of course, that tactic only works on people who desperately want to remain in-grouped, and I don't think he much cares (or at least, I see little evidence that he does on his blog, other than an interest in the decline of the genre overall.)  It also would require that the Left in America had not diluted the value of calling someone a racist.  That boy's called wolf way too many times for anyone of even marginal intelligence to really take it seriously in our society anymore.

And besides, what does that have to do with the quality of his writing anyway?  In a world in which writers can openly proclaim their bigotry and misandry by gloating and crowing that no men won a single Nebula Award this year without censure, then Larry Correia's point has largely been proven--the awards are meaningless.  What they amount to is a bunch of ideological propagandists patting themselves on the back for sticking to the narrative while both their work and the awards that they give have become completely irrelevant to any actual readers of the genre.  Personally, I thought this was so self-evident that there wasn't any need to attempt to prove it, but Larry's "Sad Puppies" campaign to get himself (and some others) nominated has demonstrated it pretty conclusively to all but the predictably obtuse.

And this is why reviewing this work based purely on its own merits is so difficult.  Most people who are aware of the story at all are either following the entire brouhaha because 1) they are appalled that any type of non-Marxist, groupthinking tedious message-fiction writer could possibly have cracked into the hallowed halls of Hugo nomination, or 2) they're on the other team, and are cheerleading the dismantling of the power and influence of the ideological gatekeepers of the industry.

You may probably infer from my tone that I belong to the latter group much moreso than to the former.  You'd be correct.  I not only find the fascist bullies and would be censors that dominate the dialog on the Left today (and in most creative/artistic industries in the West, for that matter) disturbing and even frightening, if they really are able to get their way on pretty much any issue, but I also find their messages tedious in the extreme.  That said, as always, any work, no matter who wrote it, should be judged on its own merits, not on the alleged political or social opinions of the author (unless said opinions are part and parcel of the work--one reason I will never read anything by Samuel Delaney, for instance.)  It may be hard to separate the art from the artist sometimes, but anything else is unfair to the work and frankly, kinda beside the point anyway.

So, that long introduction out of the way, what did I think of The Last Witchking, and in particular, the last story which was nominated for the Hugo?

The first, titular story was a bit of deep backstory to the setting; the Witchkings, I'm to gather, were a force for evil in the distant past, and their defeat was relatively recent in the setting of this story.  The story also offers a magical ethnogenesis story for a race of werewolf-like creatures which (again, I gather--I haven't read any of it myself) feature more prominently in other work by the same author.  As such, it's interesting enough, but it feels like merely a piece of something larger which I lack context to perceive properly, which it is.  I can't say that I loved it.  But I liked it well enough.

"The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro" was, by the author's own admission in an author's note, inspired by the treatment of Jews by the Italians during the Nazi invasion of Italy near the end of the Second World War, but told with analogs of what are obviously Warhammer orcs, goblins and hobgoblins (with the orcs in the place of the Nazis, the goblins in the place of the Italians, and the hobgoblins standing in metaphorically for the Jews.)  By his own admission, it's an old piece, and it feels somewhat crude.  I've never been much of a fan of Warhammer's attempt to speak in orkish regional dialects, and this piece does something very similar as well.  Not a bad story, but not a stand-out one either.

The final novella, "Opera Vita Aeterna" is the one nominated for a Hugo.  It's a pretty nifty story, again from a historical perspective, about an elf who comes and lives for many years in a monastery and becomes good friends with the head of the monastery.  There's a coda at the end that refers to the work he did there in near legendary terms.  It's an interesting story that addresses the question of friendship across vast gulfs of culture and xenobiological differences.  It's also somewhat subtle; where I expected a slightly more ham-handed end to the story, it didn't come, and some of the questions broached in the story--do elves have souls as do mortal men, did the elf sorcerer actually come to appreciate the theological implications of the monk's religion, etc. are left somewhat unresolved.  In the end, while I would probably have personally preferred a tighter conclusion that delivered more closure, I appreciate the subtlety of the story all the more for its lack.

The real question is, is the novella worthy of a Hugo?  I dunno.  I don't pay attention to what wins awards in sci-fi literature these days, and I haven't read anything against which its matched up.  Certainly compared to some of the works which have won Nebulas, this story fares very well indeed.  And the ultimate judgement of any work of fiction is, of course, whether it encourages me to seek out other works by the same author, or to check him off as "tried it, whatever" and move on to something else.  In this case, The Last Witchking collection was certainly of sufficient quality to encourage me to look for more.

As it turns out, I don't have far to look, because when I picked that one up for free on my Kindle, there were also in close succession (or maybe even the same day; I don't remember) two other collections available; A Magic Broken and Wardog's Coin, so I have those waiting on my Kindle too.  That leaves me the actual novels (which I would have to buy) A Throne of Bones and Summa Elvetica left.  And I'm tempted to do so, even though my stack of racked up novels that I own but haven't read is fairly daunting.  I suppose at the end, that's the best thing I can say about this story--did it make me want to read more?  The answer is yes.


Joshua Dyal said...

A side effect of this post is that it sent me chasing after refreshing my knowledge of the Witch-king himself of Tolkienian extraction, and his relationship to various shadowy Mannish clans that are mentioned in the annals of Middle-earth; notably the somewhat anonymous men of Carn Dum and the Hillmen of Rhudaur.

It may be odd, or even coincidental (although I don't tend to believe in that sort of thing, especially with regards to Tolkien who was very careful about such things) but Carn Dum can be translated from Gaelic to mean 'mountain fortress'; an appropriate name for the capital of Angmar. If the men of Carn Dum (forgive my lack of diacritics; they're a real pain to use when they're repeated a lot) are represented by Celtic words--something that otherwise seems to be associated with the Dunlendings, the men of Bree, and other folks who are of that same basic ethnic extraction (Middle men related to the House of Haleth, who didn't cross the Ered Luin to enter Beleriand, actually--and the primary substrate over most of Eriador and all of Gondor) then that makes the ethnolinguistic picture of Middle-earth somewhat more simplified. I have previously speculated that some of these more northerly people, in addition to the Forodwaith and their remnant, the Lossoth, might be related in some way to the Easterlings of the First Age (also known as Swarthy Men.) These people had names like Bor, Brodda, Borlach, Ulfang, etc. at least some of which are reminiscent of the names of Huns. They're physical description also calls to mind depictions of the Huns by early Germanic people. This would make them a Fourth great migratory population stock to enter the western realms of Middle-earth, but they stubbornly remain fairly anonymous in Tolkien's writings.

This Gaelic interpretation of Carn Dum, however, means that it's possible--maybe even probable--that this Fourth great stock wasn't actually so great after all, and contributed nothing other than a few Easterlings in the First Age and the nearly anonymous Forodwaith and Lossoth up into the Third. I personally prefer to see them, or at least remnants and hybrids of them, in some of the shadowy populations referred to in the North, but no such interpretation is required.

alauda said...

Hobbits of Wiccam Fensboro is just weird coming from the man who coined the term Holocaustianity.

Witchking and Opera Vita Aeterna are just complete and utter garbage.

Joshua Dyal said...

Sorry, alauda. I recognize you and know that your criticisms aren't sincere anyway. As if they were specific enough to be taken seriously in the first place, which they're not.

alauda said...

Just.. read that opening. Just read anything. Someone went through the entire set of novellas and plucked out passages.

Do you mean to tell me this is good?
“No, my lord, there is no end. You are mine and I am yours , from the beginning of time to the end of whatever lies waiting on the other side of the grave.”

Or this?
"Well, I received a rather appalling message last night from a friend of mine in Sloughsley, up near the Zothian border. He informs me that the friend and champion of our race, the Great Orc Gwarzul, has decided that we goblins are not doing enough in our own defense. He has therefore decided what we need is some stiffening , which will presently come in the form of his soldiers.”

Or this?

Diablerie, as it happened, was entirely misnamed, for demons were not devils, but merely the unwanted children of devils. The dark power of the Witchkings had its source in their understanding the significance of this difference, as they made use of the demon’s longing for their long-dead flesh to fuse the soulless with the souled. Speer himself was the product of several such unholy infusions, he had learned.


The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close . The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains . Soon Arbhadis, Night’s Mistress , would unveil herself as well.

Joshua Dyal said...

Just read my post. I read the entire book.