Sometimes, pure escapism is all I ask from a book. When The Last Garrison by Matthew Beard arrived at my doorstep, I knew this was what I needed as aSometimes, pure escapism is all I ask from a book. When The Last Garrison by Matthew Beard arrived at my doorstep, I knew this was what I needed as a brain break from the difficult texts I was reading for my MA degree courses. So I set to reading it in my few spare moments. One the one hand, I was pleased the book asked little of my over-weary brain. On the other, I was able to see how the straightforward story may disenchant a reader in a day and age when Game of Thrones is the bestselling fantasy novel.
Beard’s debut novel is a sword and sorcery set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. In the tale, the reclusive town of Haven is besieged by kenku (raven-man) marauders. Formerly protected by an ancient magician known as the Old Stargazer, the town had known no strife for centuries. But the old man’s powers are weakening and the kenku are attacking and killing villagers. The town council, sensing the danger, sends a small band of adults and young people to recruit defenders. They do so, heading into the city down the mountain from their village. Successful, the town representatives bring the adventurers home. The story culminates in a final battle between the kenku, the adventurers and the townspeople.
The Last Garrison reads like (and probably is) a novelization of a D&D adventure for which Beard was dungeon master. For characters, we have a clear cut evil villain, whose perspective we read in hints and asides ready and waiting for the hero of the hour to take on in hand to hand combat in the final battle scene. There is the ostracized orphan boy, Nergei, servant of Old Stargazer; Kohel, a bully, son of the chief of the village; Luzhon, the almost-raped love interest and battleground for the aforementioned boys who discovers her warrior femininity over the course of the novel; the aging warrior and his companion dwarf; a female monk-warrior-artist; a mage and his archer sister; and a giantess they pick up when returning to Haven. Beard perhaps bit off a little more than he could chew with so many characters and their corresponding perspectives. None of the characters gets more than a cursory back-story, and each follows a predictable, stereotypical path that their natures and their occupations destined them to from the moment the reader meets them. Nergei, Luzhon, and Kohel are ostensibly the characters the reader is meant to identify with, but Beard only relies on tropes instead of storytelling depth to gain audience sympathy for the characters and so ends up with caricatures rather than real people.
For plot, the story is clear-cut. From the outset, the goal of the characters is to protect the town of Haven from a threat the like of which they have not seen for centuries and, if lucky, find out who is responsible for setting the kenku onto the village in the first place. Though I found the characterization to be flat, I did enjoy this aspect of the tale for its ease of reading. As I mentioned before, I was working on MA homework, and so reading Beard’s simply constructed plotline was a welcome relief in the hours before sleep. However, in the clear light of day, I can observe that such a simple plot will likely deter readers. I will mention, however, that there is a plot twist at the end, not wholly unexpected, but it does make for some good battle scenes after the reader thought Beard had already entered the dénouement. I have to say I liked it, even if the characters were a little flat and the writing workmanlike.
And the writing is workmanlike. Beard has obviously worked hard to write this novel, and I would not gainsay the achievement unreservedly, but the flat characters and straightforward plot coupled with a tendency to overuse passive voice in an attempt to sound mythic gives Beard’s writing a stodgy quality. Beard uses the traditional third-person for telling most of the story (some perspectives do fall into first) and likes to construct his sentences to ensure the story feels suitably mythic. For example, take this early scene the introduces the three primary characters:
Kohel was afraid, something he never was inside Haven; where his father reigned over everything important; where, by his father’s hand, Kohel ruled over everything else.
Nergei allowed himself a smile at his bully’s shame, but his happiness was short-lived, the smile fled his face, the feeling turned to skin-crawling fear when from behind him he heard Kohel’s voice.
And in front of him he heard the voice.
And from the east, and farther off to the west.
And from above, in the treetops, where he could not see. Kohel’s voice surrounded them, hemmed them into the clearing in a way that a dozen real Kohels never could have.
Luzhon cried out, begged Kohel to explain what was happening.
Notice the overuse of commas and semicolons to combine sentences. Sure, this is something any good writer should do on occasion, but Beard does it all the time. Entire paragraphs are made of just one sentence. Notice also the past tense forms of the verbs. Beard uses “begged” instead of “begs”, “never could have” instead of “could not.” The lack of active verbs, while initially great for getting the mythic tone of the novel, eventually began to grate on my nerves. The whole story read one of those scenes in a movie where the story segues into sepia, a device meant to indicate some past event that is outside the primary plotline. Give Beard props, he is consistent in his use of this style, and as a gamer playing D&D this is exactly the way I would want my dungeon master to relate the tale, but in a novel form, it frustrates after a while.
Thematically, the The Last Garrison is as you might expect. It is a story of bravery against overwhelming odds, a young girl finding her true calling as a warrior apart from men’s influence, the dangers of magic, and the heroism of an orphan boy. Nothing new here, just the good old comfort food.
Overall, I cannot recommend The Last Garrison except as shallow escapism. The story has potential, as does Beard as a writer, but it and he are not quite there yet. This had all the potential to be a really exciting story that uses familiar tropes and themes with just enough of a twist to be really entertaining. But the overuse of mythic tone, coupled with lack of depth in characters and plot make for a easy-to-read but mostly dull novel. Had Beard pared down the number of characters, given the story a more active voice, and added a few more twists and turns to his plot, he would have had a really good novel. As it stands The Last Garrison is decent reading for after you have turned your brain off for the day. At any other time, it is just annoying....more
Copied in full from my blog Grasping for the Wind[return][return]When John Joseph Adams, editor of the apocalyptic short story collectionWastelands aCopied in full from my blog Grasping for the Wind[return][return]When John Joseph Adams, editor of the apocalyptic short story collectionWastelands and Slush God for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction offered readers of his blog the opportunity to read and review an ARC e-copy of his newest collection Seeds of Change, I jumped at the chance. Adams has proven himself to be an editor worthy of comparison to Gardner Dozois, Martin H. Greenberg, and George R. R. Martin. And this antholgy once again proves that Adams is an editor of high skill.[return][return]The first story, by Ted Kosmatka, is a story called "N-words" about the relationship between science and racism. The "n" in the title stands for "Neanderthal" as supposed secondary race of humans long since died or bred out. When the scientists of Kosmatka's future bring them back from the grave, there are significant consequences for homo sapiens. Kosmatka tells the story through the eyes of once of our subspecies of humans who is sympathetic to these neo-Neanderthals. It makes the tale extremely intimate. Kosmataka's story ends on a dire note, serving as a warning against unbridled science and the more evil instincts of humanity's nature, particularly its tendency toward racism. This story has to be my favorite of the anthology.[return][return]Jay Lake's contribution reminds me of the movie version of The Saint with Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue. "The Future of Degrees" is about a scientific breakthrough in waste heat management. A brave salesman, Grover, must rescue this breakthrough from being stolen by an evil government seeking to suppress it. Unfortunately, while Lake's contribution is tightly written and interesting to think about, it is so close to the exact same plot of the aforementioned movie, that it ends up being interesting only for its concepts, not for its story. It ends up being unoriginal in that respect. Still, it is worth thinking about whether technology should be in the hands of the people, or the hands of its government.[return][return]When I say the title of K. D. Wentworth's "Drinking Problem" the first thing that came to mind was the scene in Airplane! where Ted Striker has a "drinking problem" that causes him to spill his drink off to the side when he raises a cup to his lips. Wentworth has continued that tradition to write a humorous story about the consequences of adopting innovations without thoroughly vetting them. The poor unfortunate hero of the story, a frequent denizen of a local bar, is forced by law into owning a sentient bottle that is genetically coded to an individual, and that is infinitely reusable. The "Smart Bottle" was supposed to help reduce filling of the landfills with glass and cans, but ends up having farther reaching social implications than its makers intended. Wentworth's story helped lighten the mood of the mostly serious collection. This story ends happily, and ends up being a quite hopeful. This a rarity among science fiction that also provides social commentary, and for that alone "Drinking Problem" is a worthy read. Wentworth's story will also resonate well with any reader in a deeply committed relationship that has struggled, but still has hope for survival.[return][return]Blake Charlton is a brand new, unpublished writer (who has a three book deal with Tor, with the first novel coming out this year), who is also a medical student at Stanford. His story, "Endosymbiont" draws on his knowledge of the medical field. The story thinks about the idea of the ability of a human mind having he ability to be downloaded into a machine. Would such people whose minds were downloaded remain human? If not, what would it take to help them retain some semblance of humanity? What would the government of the people do about such a technology? Charlton's story has immediate implications even now, in an age where disease ravages a body but leaves a mind whole, or Alzheimer's destroys a mind but leaves a body whole. Some readers with a personal history of such diseases may find this tale painful so some caution is warranted. However, it is too well constructed to miss. The primary character is a sympathetic, cancer ridden fourteen year old girl, and the story's tale of personal sacrifice is hopeful and deeply saddening. There are some technical terms interspersed throughout the story that some readers may not be familiar with, but ultimately they are not distracting. Charlton very likely has a fruitful career in writing as well as the medical profession, and I look forward to more from this debut author who donated all the proceeds from the sale of this tale to the American Cancer Society.[return][return]Ken Macleod writes a tale that echoes the ancient Gaelic ballads. "A Dance called Armageddon" is an extremely pessimistic tale the end of Western tradition. Macleod's tale is short, but in it we learn about the music of defeat, and the strange pride that the Scots and their kin take even in their many defeats. Macleod recognizes the strangeness' of the tradition of the Irish and Scottish people's preoccupation with stories of sadness and loss. What comes from Macleod's pen is both a celebration and a resignation and that strange juxtaposition makes for a powerful tale.[return][return]"Arties Aren't Stupid" by Jeremiah Tolbert, is a story about art and its ability to effect societal change. The arties of Tolbert's tale manage to find a way to meld art and science, and in doing so, create a brave new world. The story takes a little work to understand, as Tolbert creates slang for his ragtag band of arties, but that just adds to the otherness of his world. Though less thought-provoking than others in the anthology, the story is well-written, and is descriptive of the effect art can have on a society.[return][return]Prosopagnosia is a condition where a person is incapable of seeing faces to a defection in the mental faculties. Mark Budz uses this as the primary motivator in his story "Faceless in Gethsemane". The narrator must deal with a sister who voluntarily makes herself a sufferer of prospagnosia. This story was perhaps the hardest to understand. Budz is making a comment on racism and the concept of being colorblind in regards to people, but the concept and the story didn't seem to mesh. Up until the ending of the story, what Budz relates makes sense, But his ending left me confused, as I cannot seem to understand its relationship to the rest of the story. Budz's story was strong on concept, and only fair on execution, though that concept is very interesting to think about.[return][return]Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu writes a story set in Nigeria, in a small town that has an oil pipeline through its backyard but that reaps none of the benefits of the oil production. This a story all to common in today's Africa, and it is in this setting that "Spider the Artist" tells us of a young woman, a musical artist, who encounters a machine designed for the preservation of the oil pipeline that has intelligence. Okorafor-Mbachu's is a modern folk tale that draws on Africa's rich oral tradition. Its story is disheartening, especially when the reader realizes that many of the specifics the author describes are present day reality for many people living in oil-rich Nigeria. The story ends of being a call to action for complacent Westerners, and a tale of hope for the people of Africa, if both set aside their antagonism and realize that though they maybe different in many ways, music can transcend this, as it does for the narrator and the robot of "Spider the Artist".[return][return]The final story of the collection comes from one of my favorite authors, Tobias Buckell. "Resistance" gives another story to the character of Pepper, the favorite creation of Buckell's fans. In it, an asteroid colony's government has been overthrown and a dictator has taken its place. The resistance movement has brought Pepper in to help them destroy the dictator. Things do not go according to plan. Buckell uses this story to make a comment about democracy, and those democratic governments that seem to be chugging along well, only to be overthrown in a coup and replaced with a dictatorial government. The conclusions that Buckell draws will be surprising to many. Fans of Pepper should be warned that although Pepper appears, he does not exhibit his fighting skill a great deal in this story. Buckell has not written an action story in this case. "Resistance" is about the nature of governments, particularly democratic governments and the will of the people who comprise them. For all that, Buckell still writes entertainingly, and it was a good choice for the closing story of this anthology.[return][return]Seeds of Change continues to exemplify Adams ability to pick short stories of distinction. These nine stories of, in Adams words, "paradigm shift - technological, scientific, political, or cultural" are thought provoking without being didactic, asking the reader to think deeply about issues of today through the stories of the future. Conclusions are not drawn by these authors, avoiding the giving of answers. Even though I took some issues with a couple of the stories, they are all still worthwhile reading. This is the sort of writing the speculative fiction the genre was meant to produce. Readers should be pleased with the results of the contributors' and editor's efforts....more
Full Review at Grasping for the Wind[return][return]Crystal Rain is a strong debut. Tobias Buckell has taken the lost civilization genre of science fiFull Review at Grasping for the Wind[return][return]Crystal Rain is a strong debut. Tobias Buckell has taken the lost civilization genre of science fiction and created a wonderful story. The characters are mysterious and compelling, and John deBrun cuts a dashing and heroic figure whose own personal worries give the reader and emotional connection. But the characters are not deeply emotional. There is some philosophical discussion, but it is mostly surface level. Mostly, this story is an adventure story, with a mystery of space and time providing cohesion to the plot.[return]...more