The Stone Sky

November 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

skyThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

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It took me longer than expected to finish this book. Part of it was me not wanting it to end, part of it was a beginning that confused as much as enlightened, and part of it was me reading it around the 2017 eclipse weekend (I had big plans). I find that to be fitting, since the book is, in part, about reuniting the Moon with the Earth, and smack dab in the middle of it, I sat down to watch the Moon put on a show for the Earth.

Along with reuniting the Moon and the Earth, The Stone Sky is about reuniting Essun and her daughter, Nassun. Readers of the trilogy thus far won’t be surprised by that revelation (it was inevitable), but it’s a nice thematic parallel. Two years have passed since Essun’s husband murdered their son and took Nassun away, and the two have seen (and instigated) a lot of change during that time. Much of The Stone Sky passes before we see that reunion, but everything that has happened since that moment has brought us to that point, and that point is when we learn the answers to all of our questions.

The ending was surprisingly emotionless. I was so invested in both characters, hoping they would find each other again, that when it finally happened I was surprised to find it so anticlimactic. I didn’t get choked up or teary-eyed; it was just another series of events unfolding in the story. I don’t know if that’s intentional on Jemisin’s part or if I was too disconnected with the book (other reviews I read suggest I’m in the minority).

As I mentioned above, their reunion is inevitable, not just because Jemisin leads us there, but also because the story requires it. The book (and the series) is about family and loyalty, and to not bring the two characters together would be a disservice to the reader. She still surprises us, which is also inevitable; the story hasn’t developed using the usual tropes and devices seen in fantasy fiction, so why would one assume to see it end that way?

I had to think long and hard about how to rate this book. By itself, the book isn’t as effective as the first two, but as part of a larger story (which is how the author sees the trilogy), it works well. My first thought was three stars, since I liked it but didn’t really like it, but I couldn’t dismiss how much the first two books played into the conclusion. Then I waffled over four and five stars, because while the last book in the series lacked the emotional connection the first two books, the series overall came to a smart conclusion with some heavy themes. In the end, I would rate this 4.5 stars, rounded up because Jemisin did something amazing with the whole trilogy.

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The Feasting Dead

November 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

feastingThe Feasting Dead by John Metcalfe

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The Feasting Dead is another title in my Valancourt Books project, and since so many of those have been so good, I had high hopes for it. I also learned this novella is one of the books Stephen King recommended in Danse Macabre, so of course my expectations were that much higher. Like so often happens when I get my expectations up, I wound up being disappointed in the story, though I think it has a lot to do with reading the story out of its context.

Colonel Habgood is our narrator, but our main character is his young son, Denis, who makes a friend in the groundskeeper named Raoul who works at a French estate. The friendship becomes an obsession, and when his son moves back to England with his father, Raoul shows up and worms his way into their household. Shortly thereafter, Denis takes ill, and remains that way for several weeks. Meanwhile, dogs bark at Raoul, and word has it that when Denis is out with Raoul, he appears to be talking only to himself. The Colonel is left to solve the mystery of Raoul, despite his son’s protests for him to stay.

The story was originally written in 1953, and during that time, it might have been something new and original. Now, 64 years later, it feels out of time, out of place, and not nearly as effective as horror being written later. It’s not that my sensibilities are too outdated (I’m finding that the Valancourt reprints from the ’70s and ’80s are better than the stuff being published today), but what I look for in horror is a fresh perspective, either through the horror itself or in how the story is told. The Feasting Dead has its moments, but it’s nothing fresh. The characterization feels light, the atmosphere is thin, and the ending feels weak.

There’s some effectively eerie imagery in the story — Raoul’s face is such that no one can get a sense of what he looks like, and he remains featureless throughout the story; a scarecrow features in the third act, and every time the Colonel sees it, it appears to have moved — and it starts strong, but the middle portion of the story is comprised of a lot of hand-wringing that grows tiresome and doesn’t do much to move the story forward.

Metcalfe makes the narrative somewhat difficult to read, as he chooses to write out the stammering of characters speaking under stress. Using this device once or twice would have been fine, but Metclafe uses it frequently, enough for it to slow down my pace. Also, the story is set partly in France, so the narrative is peppered with French words and phrases. Some of them are easily understood through context, and others are translated in the narrative, but there were enough that stood on their own and forced me to translate them to understand their impact that it slowed me down considerably, enough so that the novella took my almost an entire day to read, when normally it would only have taken me a few hours at most.

Over sixty years ago, this might have been an effective piece of horror fiction; today, it pales in comparison with works that came later. Writers like Poe and Lovecraft continue to entertain and chill, so I can’t help but feel like it’s more than just its era that makes it less effective. The story is fine, but it’s nothing I would recommend over, say, Michael McDowell or Bernard Taylor.

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Cold Hand in Mine

November 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

handCold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman

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This isn’t my first attempt at reading this collection. I tried it back in March of this year, read the first story, and then decided it wasn’t for me. A few months ago, I started my Valancourt Books reading project (while also working on my Dark Tower reading project and my Star Wars reading project), and saw that one of Aickman’s books was on their publication list, so I thought I’d try this one again with a fresh perspective.

The results are mixed. Some of the stories are good, others elude me, and one of them was surprisingly good. Aickman has a knack for atmosphere, which I would ascribe to the lengthy establishing scenes in his stories. Each of the stories started out with one, which helped in the long run, but was a bit of a struggle at the start, since I couldn’t quite get a sense of where the starting point of the story actually was. This is somewhat fitting, as the stories also lacked conclusive endings.

The collection opens with “The Swords”, an eerie erotic story about a man losing his virginity to a prostitute. Maybe. He definitely loses his virginity, but whether or not he loses it to a prostitute is in question. It was strangely disconcerting, not just due to the horror element, but also due to it being about sex, but reading like it was written in the 19th Century.

“The Real Road to the Church” follows, and I honestly don’t understand the point of it. My  best guess is that the soul walks a path with those who come before, but I could be wrong. I had difficulty following this one, but I see it’s a story that other readers didn’t quite get.

The next story is “Niemandswasser”, which is German for “No Man’s Water”, which is exactly what this story is about. There’s an unclaimed portion of water in the middle of a lake, where a suicidal prince has gone to grieve an ended love affair. He begins to obsess over it, especially after a friend is maimed by something in that section of the lake. There was on passage in the story that raised my eyebrows, though not for anything related to the story:

Women have no inner life that is so decisively apart. With women the inner life merges with the totality. That is why women seem to me either deceitful or elusive, or moralistic and uninteresting. Women have no problem comparable with the problem of merely being a man.

It’s a shockingly male perspective, blaming a woman for a man’s perception of her. It’s hard to tell if the passage is related to Elmo, the prince, or if this is some philosophy of Aickman’s that bleeds through. There’s a lengthy afterword written by a woman who knew Aickman, and she describes him as a jerk, even as she calls him a friend. Some people might call him “complicated”, but I’m inclined to say he was a bit of a misogynist. Luckily, this was the only passage out of the entire collection that was overtly so.

According to my research, “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” is the most well-regarded story from this collection, which is odd since it’s the most straightforward of all the stories, and least like the others in style and tone. It seems like the story is addressing class issues while being a vampire story, and there are nice touches here, like it opening with our narrator being bitten by bugs, and with the voice becoming more mature over the length of the story. It just doesn’t break new ground, either as a vampire story or as an Aickman story (limited though my experience may be).

“The Hospice” is probably my favorite from the book, and is easily a five-star slow burn of a story. A man’s car breaks down and he’s forced to find a place to stay the night. It’s easy to follow, maintains a quiet tension, and ends in an ambiguous manner. This story also shows off Aickman’s characterization skills the best.

The next story, “The Same Dog”, is almost two stories, each with its own way of spooking the reader. The first half is about our main character as a boy, and the second half is him after he’s grown up and returns to his home town. It’s a neat parallel in the story, and it also serves as a contrast to “The Hospice” in how Aickman develops character. The protagonist in “The Hospice” is relatable because he has something to lose, while the one in “The Same Dog” has already lost it. It’s interesting to see how I respond to them differently (more to “The Hospice” than “The Same Dog”), and I wonder if it’s due to those characterizations.

“Meeting Mr. Millar” follows, and is no easy story to read because the main character isn’t likeable. He’s stodgy and stuck in his ways, and after reading the afterword of this collection, I get the feeling this is the closest we get to autobiography in these stories. It has a lengthy build-up, which would be fine for an effective payout, but here it feels weak. It does have some eerie, atmospheric moments, but the story doesn’t support it as well as it could.

The closer of the book is “The Clock Watcher”, a story about a man from the US who takes a German wife after time spent abroad in World War II. It was a tough read, especially when I came across “There was a great deal to be said in favour of Nazis, of course, in many other ways.” It didn’t help that I read that line the Monday after the events in Charlottesville, and I almost quit the story all together, but I figured this could be a way to establish his narrator as unreliable, and persevered. It’s hard to tell, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s how Aickman feels about them. The story works in some ways (Aickman hints at the conflict to come in the same way Shirley Jackson does in We Have Always Lived in the Castle), but fails in others (I’m still not sure what happened at the end of the story). It’s decent, but nothing like “The Hospice”.

Aickman belongs in the Weird camp, even though he doesn’t write about cosmic, nameless horrors, but he also has a room in the Quiet Horror house. He’s a bit hard to place, but he has his own style. Fans of other stylistic horror authors (Thomas Ligotti and David Nickel come to mind) would probably like his stuff the best. I wanted to like this collection, but it turned out to be an OK read, at best.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “No Son of Mine” by Genesis.

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Wizard and Glass

November 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

glassWizard and Glass by Stephen King

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A few years ago, I saw a comment online where someone asked why there had been so much outrage over the ending of The Waste Lands. Sure, it was a cliffhanger ending, he said, but the next book picks right up from that point. What’s the big deal? What he didn’t know, reading the books so long after their original publication date, was that Constant Readers had to wait six years to have that cliffhanger resolved. I would have been okay with the ending had King started the next book ASAP, and we got the answer in a year, but six years? Just no.

Wizard and Glass does resolve that ending, and then gives us another glimpse at what’s happening due to the Tower failing, and introducing a (sorta) new villain to the mix through Randall Flagg, but the bulk of the story is Roland’s first task as a gunslinger, which not only defines his character, but also introduces him to the idea of the Tower itself. It’s also a love story framed around an investigation, and both parts of the story are intriguing and compelling (much more so than the framing story that is actually about the Tower). The usual King traits are there — the characterization, the easy-going style, and the plot slowly developing over the course of hundreds of pages — and if the outer bits are a bit ridiculous (The Wizard of Oz? Seriously?), the inner parts are worth the read.

The central problem here, though, is something I can’t address without spoiling this book (and the whole series), so turn away now if you’re still new to the stories.

The entire series ends by coming full circle, with Roland stepping through the door at the top of the Tower and starting his journey again, with the famous line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” It suggests Roland’s story is infinite, with him reliving the journey over and over again. Does it change? Does he go through the same process every time, or does he find new people to draw into Mid-World on his journey? Has it happened since the beginning of time, or is this his first time reliving the journey? Does he always complete it, or does he sometimes fail, and if he does fail, does it stop the cycle, or does it begin again, regardless? When word came down that The Dark Tower (the movie) would be a sequel to the series, I was giddy with the idea that we would finally get answers to these questions.

The important part of all that, though, is: Where does Roland’s story begin? Is he limited to this loop, or did he live a life previous to that opening line and the the loop begins when he pursues the man in black across the desert? If the loop is everything Roland experiences directly, then are the events of Wizard and Glass an implanted memory to make him the person he is? If so, then how much of the entire series is true, including the question: Is the Tower even under threat to begin with? If not, then what’s the point of the series and all its interconnected works, other than to support Roland’s own manias?

It seems like a ridiculous waste of energy and pages to say that this is all something that never happened outside of Roland’s memories, but at the same time, King was still two years away from his near-fatal accident that inspired him to finish the series and insert himself into the book. Had he been entertaining the idea of making the series cyclical by then, or did that only come to mind after his accident? That the story comes full circle feels like a direct response to King being a character in the series, but who knows other than King? I’m not asking this rhetorically; has he ever said whether the cyclical nature of the story was always his intention?

(All of this speculation is based on my not remembering all the details of the seventh book, just the broad stroke of how it ends. Maybe these questions will all get answered along the way.)

When I first read this book, I rated it five stars because it felt so powerful. I rated it based on the central story (e.g., not the Dark Tower part of it), but I also rated it out of context with the entire series. I still find the story of Roland and Susan and Alain and Cuthbert to be the best part of the book, though I also see that readers are divided on which volumes they prefer, the personal ones or the ones that advance the mythology. I’m firmly on the personal side of that divide, so Wizard and Glass is still among my favorites of the series.

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All These Worlds

November 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

worldsAll These Worlds by Dennis E. Taylor

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From the first book in the Bobiverse, I had some qualms about the whole premise. I hadn’t planned on reading anything past that book, but the ending had enough questions left unanswered that I persevered. I didn’t find much more to like in the second book, but having come that far, I figured I should finish it out and read the third book. This is a long way of saying I wasn’t expecting much out of All These Worlds.

The books have been easy to read, and are strangely compelling, despite that they feel so distant. The stories have felt emotionless, with things happening so quickly (and sometimes off screen) that it’s hard to feel a connection with any of the characters. It doesn’t help that Bob and his progeny have this smartassery about them that gets tiresome over the course of one book, much less three. All These Worlds has the first moment in the trilogy where I felt like I was having an emotional response, but then Taylor had to go and ruin it by ending it with one of the Bobs saying “Live long and prosper.”

All of the characters in this series — even those outside of the Bobs — have similar voices. They’re all witty and sarcastic, but ultimately charming. Even the human characters who are set up as foils have these characteristics, which pushes credibility. And everyone — everyone — chuckles. They don’t titter, or guffaw, or laugh; they chuckle. For some reason, this started to annoy the crap out of me near the end of the book.

My biggest complaint with the second book was that it was so repetitious, with the Bobs constantly on the move to search and adapt worlds for human life. There’s an element to that here, too, but since most of the settlements have been established, the story focuses on the main threat of the entire series — the Others. There’s much more at stake with this book, and it helps anchor the book and give it a focus, which the previous book didn’t have. It still has several plots interacting at once (possibly meandering through time? At one point I think one of the chapters jumped back a decade or two), but the threat of the Others prevails.

There were other subplots that kept my interest, but in looking back, I realize they play little to no role in the battle with the Others. I think Taylor is trying to establish the different personalities of the Bobs by giving them a focus outside of the larger threat, but they seem useless in retrospect. The cast of Bobs has grown large (a couple of hundred, I believe; regardless, it’s large enough that Taylor didn’t bother with a family tree this time around), and Taylor clearly wants to end the stories of the most prominent Bobs that began the story, but it winds up making the book feel unfocused by comparison.

The book is fine, and has a strong ending that fits the trilogy, but it doesn’t change my opinion of the overall series. Remove the smartassery, create characters that feel more distinct, and expand on the themes of the trilogy, and this could have been a classic science fiction novel. As it is, though, it feels amateurish, despite its readability.

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Paper Girls: Volume 3

November 23, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

paper3Paper Girls: Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

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I’ve come to realize that I like the potential behind Paper Girls more than I do the actual story. This isn’t a bad thing; like Saga, it’s full of ideas that, taken to their conclusions, could be epic, but right now it still feels like Vaughan is scrambling to figure out what to do with his ideas. In this volume, the four paper girls find themselves in prehistoric times helping someone who could be a paper girl herself, if only she weren’t a few hundred thousand years before their time.

Oddly, the most compelling of all the volumes so far is the first one, when the four girls find each other, before all the weirdness kicks in. By now, I would have expected the exposition to settle, and for the story proper to begin. Instead, it feels like Vaughan is still playing out the exposition. I suppose it’s possible that we are in the story proper here, but it’s hard to determine, since we’re still getting new characters and new plot points orbiting the main characters. Plus, I’m still not sure what it is the four girls are trying to accomplish.

This isn’t to say I don’t like the title, though. The four main characters are likable (mostly), and the weirdness suggests a lot of what’s to come, but I’m beginning to lose patience with the story. I get the feeling the plot might become apparent with the next volume, but I thought that about Volume 2, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m not ready to give up on it just yet.

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The Fisherman

November 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

fishermanThe Fisherman by John Langan

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You know my quest for “good horror”? Here it is. Otherworldly, strange, unsettling, and disquieting: this novel has it all. That it also has a bit of a literary bend to it (there are multiple allusions to Moby Dick here) is just gravy, because this is the kind of story that can induce nightmares.

The story is about Abe (“Don’t call me Abraham”), a man who has lost his young wife to cancer. As part of his grieving process, he takes up fishing. The solitude and challenge of it appeals to him, and when a co-worker of his, Dan, loses his wife and two children to a car accident, Abe discovers Dan used to fish, and invites him along.

It doesn’t sound like much, but like any fisherman, there are some stories involved. The key story of The Fisherman is told to them by Howard, who runs a diner the two fishermen frequent on the way to their fishing spots. Howard begins, “Understand, I can’t vouch for any of this”, and from there we hear the real story.

The odd thing about the book is that Howard’s story doesn’t begin until we’re twenty percent of the way into the story. That’s my biggest complaint of the book. Over half of it is Howard’s story, it’s dropped into the very middle of the story, and it’s all backdrop for the story of Abe and Dan. It’s important, yes, (without it, Abe’s and Dan’s stories are less resonant), but it’s stuck into the story like a splinter in flesh. Plus, it’s written as Abe’s recollection of Howard’s story, told in Howard’s voice, so it’s an odd mishmash of events, told in the present tense even though it’s a flashback. Plus, Howard seems to know a lot about what other people were thinking, which is unusual. The structure of the story is clunky, and the characters in Howard’s story aren’t drawn as well as those outside of it. As a result, I found myself bored with Howard’s story, and I struggled to make it through so I could get back to Abe and Dan.

Furthermore, Langan writes clunky sentences, like “The tree stump Jacob’s fifty feet away from meeting bursts”, or “What I’d been too concerned with bringing the thing in to realize was”, or “I was sorry I’d pushed off as much of caring for the boys onto her as I had.” These are just a few; I noticed many, but as I saw them recurring so often, I started to jot down some examples. They stopped me cold, and though part of me wondered if this were another way Langan was keeping me off my guard, to make reading the story as unsettling as the imagery, I couldn’t help but feel like he was creating barriers for understanding.

Despite all those concerns, I still rate this four stars, because how it all comes together works so damned well. Langan touches on Lovecraftian horrors of the cosmic unknown, but makes them personal, as well. His imagery is disturbing without being graphic, and his characterization (at least in the outer story) is spot-on. It’s weird horror at its finest, which is good or bad, depending on your tastes. As one of the characters in Howard’s story says multiple times, “This is bad business”, but for fans of horror, that’s a wonderful thing.

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The Waste Lands

November 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

wasteThe Waste Lands by Stephen King

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There’s a curious thing about The Dark Tower that I’ve never really noticed before: Much of the mythology and legend of Mid-World and End-World and What-Have-You-World exists outside of the series proper. I think it started with Insomnia, which fell between this book and Wizard and Glass, and then started leaching out into everything else King wrote. As such, the books in the actual series so far touch on some of what defines Roland’s world, but the bulk of it resides elsewhere.

What’s left, then, in the series proper is to tell the stories of the main characters — Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake. We get some of Roland’s story in the first book, and Eddie’s and Susannah’s stories in The Drawing of the Three, and now in The Waste Lands we get Jake’s story. It’s hinted at in the first book, but here we learn the details of his life and what draws him to the Tower and Roland’s world (quite literally). King writes best when he writes personal stories, so these have been among the best parts of the series for me.

Jake’s story only takes up half of the book, with the second half comprising their journey to and through Lud to find Blaine the Mono. This half was much less interesting than the first half, because we go from the personal to the journey, and I was surprised that, before re-reading the series, I had forgotten about this part of the journey to the Tower. I had expunged this part of the story from the chronology all together, putting the trip across the bridge right up next to the ka-tet boarding Blaine. I remembered it all as I was re-reading it, but it was such an unmemorable part of the story I had blocked it, partly because it has nothing at all to do with the Tower.

By now, we understand what the Tower is, and what it means to protect it, but so far the story hasn’t been about the Tower, save to establish its importance. All the journey through Lud does is support the idea that the world has moved on, and that it shares some similarities with our own world. King has already suggested this, but here he drives the point home with the George Washington Bridge and “Velcro Fly” by ZZ Top (which, unfortunately, dates the story quite a bit).

I’ve been making a concerted effort to keep each book in the series in its place in King’s ouevre, seeing how it sits in context with this other works, and I see this volume was published a year after the revised, uncut version of The Stand. It shows,  because his inclusion of the Tick-Tock Man suggests some similarity to the Trashcan Man, in name if not in character. Sure enough, King uses this book to introduce the idea that Randall Flagg exists here, too, though this is before King retcons the story to make him Walter, too (though I expect it was on his mind by now).

So far, my ratings now reflect my ratings from when I last read them. I suppose this is good, since it suggests the stories have held up well, but I’m starting to see some of the holes in the story. Reading the first book strongly suggests King didn’t have a firm idea of where he was taking the story (even without his afterwords in all the books telling us, it’s clear when you look at it in context to the entire series), and I expect the further I read, the more I’ll find his other books encroaching on the story. I know I’ll see further connections to The Stand in Wizard and Glass, and to ‘Salem’s Lot in Wolves of the Calla, and the concepts of the Crimson King and the Breakers will come from Insomnia and Black House, respectively. I’m not wild about the series being so dependent on books outside of it, but I’ve accepted it.

Despite all of that, The Waste Lands comes from King’s best era, and it shows. It wasn’t until The Dark Half and beyond that it started to feel like King was writing without a destination, and the start and finish of The Waste Lands surrounds that point. In that way, the book is a perfect balance of his two styles, for better or for worse.

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Dark Forces: Jedi Knight

November 20, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

knightDark Forces: Jedi Knight by William C. Dietz

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As the title suggests, Jedi Knight is a retelling of the events from the LucasArts video game Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. This isn’t bad, necessarily (the story was praised during its release), but for anyone who already knows the story, it’s a bit redundant. I’m a mix of both audiences, really; it’s been so long since I’ve played the game, I don’t recall many of the details.

The thing is, after listening to the audio presentation, I still don’t recall many of the details. I think this is because the stories in most first-person shooters are just a means to give the player purpose, with the central focus of the story being on the player guiding the game. Jedi Knight may have been somewhat ground-breaking for its story, but that’s not to say it can stand on its own.

Kyle Katarn is now a Jedi, still on the tail of Jerec, the dark Jedi who murdered his father. His pursuit takes him to the Valley of the Jedi, where a great battle took place over a thousand years ago and trapped the souls of over one-hundred Jedi and Sith. What’s cool about the reference is that, having read the books in chronological order, I already know about that battle. It featured in the Darth Bane trilogy, even though the story of Jedi Knight came out almost ten years before.

One of the key elements of the game was the ability to develop Force powers, either light or dark, which played into how the game progressed. The ending of the game split between the two, so playing the light side would grant one ending, while the dark side revealed another. Here, the writer(s?) decide to go with the light side ending. I’m fine with that choice (I imagine that’s how the game designers wanted to steer the players), but having this story told with that choice in place limits the potential of the story from the game. I don’t see a way out of it, unless the writers went with a Choose Your Own Adventure or Clue style to the story.

Like the previous audio dramatizations, the voice acting is sub-par, the dialogue is cheesy, and the events move too quickly. It gets worse when the Bouncers hit the stage, sounding like Pee Wee Herman on helium. Again, part of me wishes I had read the graphic novels instead of listening to these productions.

The story here isn’t terrible, but neither is it memorable. I get that Dietz wanted to delve more deeply into the story of Kyle Katarn, but the whole arc, from his days with the Empire to his confrontation with Jerec, don’t resonate with the same kind of importance as that of any of the other central characters from the Expanded Universe. In the end, it’s that resonance that has made the other stories so timeless, and that characteristic is missing here.

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The Drawing of the Three

November 17, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

threeThe Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

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The world has moved on, but King is still there to tell us its story. Mostly. Because for a book that’s supposed to be part of an epic fantasy tale, it spends a lot of time in 20th-Century New York City. Yes, he flips back and forth between that city (in three different times, no less) and Mid-World, but most of the story is set in familiar places; much more familiar than that of Mid-World, at least.

Don’t get me wrong: I like this book, and I like it more than The Gunslinger; King had been on a string of very successful and well-regarded books by the time he published The Drawing of the Three, and it shows. His characterization and plotting skills are on point, and the book winds up being much more readable and relatable than the first book. Plus, it’s a singular story, not a story broken out over three short stories, and by this time King was getting more of an idea of what he wanted this story to be.

The story is told in three parts, each one devoted to the character he draws from New York back into Mid-World. First is Eddie, a junkie who’s been sent to mule some cocaine back from the Bahamas. He’s not the most inspiring of characters, but he is smart, and as Roland notes, he’s a natural gunslinger. The second is Odetta Holmes, a successful black woman from the 1960s who has a second personality, Detta Walker, who’s as profane and aggressive as Odetta is not. The third is a character called “The Pusher”, for reasons that would give too much away. Needless to say, he’s critical to the other two characters who are drawn into Mid-World.

(I should note that at this point in the story, this place isn’t called “Mid-World”. It’s yet another name that won’t come until later in King’s development of the story. In addition, the notion of ka and the ka-tet are first mentioned in this book.)

Another reason I find this to be a better book than The Gunslinger is due to how King creates his characters. He’s known for (and deft at) creating everyman characters, ordinary people put into extraordinary situations, and that’s where he puts his focus for this book. Eddie and Odetta are regular people, but Roland is an extraordinary person just doing his thing. It makes him less relatable, and when he’s the focus of the story, as he was in the previous book, it’s less interesting and less convincing. The way I remember these books is that Roland becomes more relatable, and now I wonder if it’s because he begins to acknowledge his faults. I’ll have to look for that in the later books.

I have problems with the character of Detta Walker. She’s supposed to be offensive, intended to be caricature of what white people think of black people, but it makes me wonder what modern black people think of her character. King doesn’t just make her a psychopathic Mammie character — he makes sure we understand her, even if we don’t agree with her — but it’s uncomfortable. Certainly that’s the point, but her presentation is a little more making-that-face-at-a-party-when-your-drunk-uncle-starts-talking-about-“those people” and less I-want-to-make-you-squirm-a-bit-and-face-your-own-prejudice. I don’t remember thinking much of it when I first read the book (nor when I re-read in the early 2000s, now that I think about it), but I wonder how she comes across now, when people are more “woke” to other cultures.

For an epic tale, the stories of The Dark Tower so far have been intensely personal. I feel like we’re still in the exposition stage of the larger story, so I’m willing to give it some leeway, but for something that’s considered to be King’s magnum opus, it’s not as widespread as it suggests. I’m starting to wonder if the reason it feels more significant is because of the way King expanded the themes to the rest of his books. Is that where the epic feel comes from? Or am I just not remembering the details from the other books as well as I think I do?

Either way, I look forward to The Waste Lands, where Jake becomes a part of the ka-tet. I have fond memories of all the books up through Wizard and Glass, and so far the stories have held up to them. I think it’s going to make a big difference once I get out of the books I read from high school and college, though, where the nostalgia has been replaced with the cynicism of age.

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