Transported to the virtual world, part 1: ‘Log Horizon’

Transported to a new world based on a video game – this has been a recent trend in manga and anime the past few years. Multiple works deal with the issue of players being transported to the world of their game now becoming their reality. Let’s tackle one of them now – it goes by the name Log Horizon. This light novel was written and created by Mamare Touno and first published in Enterbrain in 2011. There are over 10 volumes currently written with more on the way, including multiple manga and spinf-off manga and other works. Log Horizon originally takes place in modern day Japan, where players of the old yet still popular MMORPG Elder Tale get transported into a new world which combines reality and the Elder Tales video game. Players now have to fight for survival, learning the rules of this new strange world, and trying not to let the entirety of the world fall into chaos.

Our protagonist is Shiroe, a level-90 enchanter who has been playing Elder Tales for years. Shiroe begins to assemble comrades and alliances to try and form order in the chaos that is the world they now are trapped in. The series is written in the third person, mainly focusing on Shiroe, but occasionally shifting the narrative focus to other side characters. Mainly the focus of the story is the developments and interactions between the characters. For instance, a big part of the story revolves around the group Shiroe once belonged too. These characters are introduced throughout the series, and they each have connected back stories and relationships with the other characters as they come in. The best example for the story would be if World of Warcraft players suddenly got sent to a world that was like W.O.W.

Imagine all the tensions and history that would be between the different players as they interact. These could be people who have constantly argued, people who hate each other, people who know each others’ histories and families. To further complicate matters, all transported players retain their Elder Tales character’s skills and traits. Essentially, when transported all the players have become a mashup between their real selves and their game characters. The caveat is that the abilities and skills that they have now require more technique and focus than previously. What used to just be a mouse click, now requires focus and planning. Battles and small skirmishes now are quite literally fights for their lives as the players have to learn the rules of their new world.

Besides the battles and survival aspects to their new world, the players must have to work together to keep each other safe. The issue is that people will always be people, and everyone looks out for number one. What is there to do when people only think of saving themselves? This is what the players have to deal with. Disorder, thievery, slavery, abuse and other crimes are now everywhere in this world. Shiroe and his comrades have to tame this lawless world, and they do so, or at least that is how it appears. Like in reality, fighting does not just happen with physical actions, and there are many times in Log Horizon where brain beats brawn. The twists and turns of the series are fascinating and thrilling at times.

In the end, the world of Log Horizon feels organic and relatable. While something like this happening is unrealistic – the way that the characters act are realistic in various ways. The human condition remains the same, no matter the world, and no matter the scenario. Watching Shiroe and his band adventure is a real breath of fresh air, and watching them encounter and solve problems is thrilling. This is a must read. Go read it.

‘Southern Gods’: Cthulhu sings the blues

John Horner Jacobs in his debut book Southern Gods lets us into a little known fact: Cthulhu is a blues fan. I’ve read traditional horror, I’ve read H.P. Lovecraft and I’ve listened to the blues. Never, however, I have seen all three whipped into one disturbing dish. The book was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a first novel.

However, I was willing to give it a try. So, I cranked up my Sonny Rhodes Station on Pandora and settled down to read.

While Stephen King and Lovecraft has demonstrated, over and over again, that New England is scary and perhaps those damned Puritans brought something really evil with them from Europe, the South is no bed of roses either. Edgar Allen Poe showed how scary the South is as did Robert E. Howard with his classic Pigeons From Hell.

Marvin Kay explained it best in his anthology, Haunted America “New England’s ghost stories principally were moral parables, while faintly iconoclastic laughter rang in the East, but may of the eerie tales (of the South) bear the stamp of verisimilitude, and  anyone who has traveled through the Southern United States will understand why- for preternatural foreboding lurks in the lush, dismal bayous of Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, while the lonely mountains ridges, secret forests and fresh running stream of the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee seem to hide dark mysteries in their shut-away splendor.”

My grandmother lived in the back hills of Louisiana in a four room shack. Let me tell you,  in those secluded hills, you could well believe that ghosts, monsters and other horrors stalked the night. It didn’t help that granny was superstitious as all get out. She’d sleep with a 38 across her chest and periodically wake up saying “Did you hear that?” Fun times.

So when I say that Southern Gods was reminded me of visiting my granny, I don’t mean it in a good way.

The books takes place in 1950. Bull Ingram, who fought in the Pacific theater is living in Memphis. He does work finding people and sometimes convincing them of the wisdom of paying their debts. Sam Phelps, who runs a record company selling this new music, the Blues, hires Bull to find a wayward salesman/PR man, Early Freeman. Early makes the circuit of the small radio stations handing out sample records. He went missing in Arkansas. “I sent Early out with a box of these here forty-fives and two grand to hit as many stations as he can. Now, he’s two weeks late getting back and his wife hasn’t heard from him for at least ten days. I’m out a good man and two thousand dollars.”

Phelps also tells Bull that he had Early also looking for a new Blues man named Rambling John Hastur. A pirate radio station has been irregularly broadcasting and playing Hastur’s music. Phelps played some for Bull. “The chanting continue, Ingram clenching his fists, grinding his jaw. He reached for his glass and downed the whiskey. He felt like the only way to make this feeling go away was kill. Phelps or himself, it didn’t really matter.”

Astute scholars of the Necromonicon will have recognized the name of this blues man. However, let Lovecraft explain it from the Whisperer in the Darkness, “There is a whole secret cult of evil men (a man of your mystical erudition will understand me when I link them with Hastur and the Yellow Sign) devoted to the purpose of tracking [elder gods] down and injuring them on behalf of the monstrous powers from other dimensions.”

Bull goes off to the wilds of Arkansas to find Early and Hastur.

Meanwhile Sarah Williams, nee Rheinhart, has left her husband back East, and has taken her daughter Franny back to the family plantation. Her mother in the long process of dying. Unpleasant when well, mother Rheinhart has become worse as the ends draws near.  The bright spot in the house is Alice, Sarah’s childhood friend, and now housekeeper.

Alice is the one false note in the book. She is the wise African-American servant-slash-friend who is closer to the mystical world.  She is strong, smart and without her Sarah would not be able to cope with the destruction of her marriage. But, not only is this a rather cliche character,  is demeaning.

Other than that, the book is a credible and fun dive into the Cthulhu mythos. Jacobs does not jump into the deep end, rather, like a languid Southern summer day, he take his time to bring the dark gods into play. However, things take a turn for the weird when he hits a backwoods blues radio station. The owner is dead on the floor, and a record on the turntable has played to the end. The record is badly scratched as if someone has racked the needle across it. When Bull moves the needle to an undamaged section, Hastur’s disturbing song is played. Even more disturbingly, the dead man rises.

Sarah meanwhile is trying to cope with the breakup of her marriage and her mother’s impending death. Franny is enjoying herself playing with Alice’s children, while Sarah tries to literally hold on to her little girl like a life preserver in the maelstrom of her life. In the plantation house’s old library, intermixed with the classics are some old and odd tomes in Latin.  Trying to divert her mind, Sarah tries to translate one work. When it becomes too difficult she locates a priest, to see if he’ll help her.

Sure, we can all see where this is going. But, that’s part of the fun.

Jacobs has done a credible job of bringing out the inherent horror to be found in the backwoods and byways of the South. The merger of Blues and Cthulhu was smart and a nice touch. I’m sure the old boy was tired of showing up in New England, the South Pole and the oceans and appreciated the lazy warmth of  a hot Southern night.

Enter ‘Gardens of the Moon’ to get through ‘Game of Thrones’ withdrawal

If you are starting to get panicked that A Song of Ice and Fire (that’s Game of Thrones to the folks who only watch the series) is coming to an end, cheer up. The next big thing is here, and in fact has been here since 1999. I’ve talking about Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

First, let me burnish my George R.R. Martin fanboy creds. I have been a fan since the early 1970’s when he was publishing short stories in Analog, Fantastic, Amazing and other SF magazines. I read A Song for Lya, Sandkings, Windhaven, and my personal favorite The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr on their first publications. I read GoT in 1996, when it was first published as well as the other books in the series.

So, when I am touting Erikson it is with respect to Martin, and I’m not making comparisons, or for that matter rating one over the over. My point is that A Song of Ice and Fire is a complex epic fantasy with a deep fictionalized historic backdrop, and numerous supporting characters woven into a detailed tapestry. This is unlike, say the Conan or the Fafrd and Grey Mouser stories, which were one off adventures.

Like Martin, Erikson has created a richly textured world. Gardens of the Moon is the first in the 10 book series. The world was created with fellow gamer, Ian Esslemont as a backdrop for their role playing hobby. What makes their world different is that Erikson is an Anthropologist and Archaeologist, and Esslemont is an Archaeologist. Therefore, these two know a lot about history and societies. They brought their strengths to the fore in the creation of the world of Malazan.

Interestingly, Erikson did 10 books in this world and Esslemont wrote six books as well. Though they didn’t collaborate on the individual novels, they did on the overall timeline. The two series intermix the chronologies of the other.

The prologue in the Gardens of the Moon opens several years before the main events of the novel. We are introduced to the Malazan Empire, newly created and very aggressive. Paran is a young noble dreaming of being a soldier and meets one of the Emperor’s great generals, Whiskeyjack, as well the Empire’s Claw, Surly. Years later these characters’ fortunes have changed. When the main book opens, Leseen has killed the Emperor and seized the throne and, as part of the purge, has reduced Whiskeyjack to a sergeant, whom she can’t openly kill, yet. Paran has achieved his goal, and found that it is not what he hoped for.

The focus of the story involves Leseen’s desire to crush the City of Darujhistan, the last free city on the continent of Genbackis. Erikson has created a host of characters with competing and conflicting alliances and at times you need a whiteboard to sort them out. There are at least three sides, and more hinted at, in this conflict, not counting the gods who are playing their game. There is rebellion, betrayal, venality as well as loyalty, friendship and bravery.

The action shifts between the various sides and points of view, until the reader is less concerned about the big picture than the fate of the individual characters, as soon as you can figure out who to root for. Considering the background of the author this makes sense. While wars are the big events which drive history, it is made up of moments of actions of individuals. Here, there are many such moments.

Mind you, this is no light Sunday afternoon reading. Like the A Song of Ice and Fire, this is an investment of time and energy. However, if you like your fantasy rich, detailed and complex, this series will get you through your withdraw when George R.R. Martin draws down his curtain.


Read Gary’s review of Larry Correia’s ‘Hard Magic’


 

‘Hard Magic’: Larry Correia channels his inner Mickey Spillane

Urban fantasy is not merely about bringing the supernatural into the modern world, but reimagining both the hardboiled world of Black Mask Magazine with the fantastic. The purveyors of this genre channel their inner Raymond Chandler to create noirish worlds inhabited not merely with corrupt politicians and bent cops, but werewolves, vampires and other denizens of the night.

Chandler and Dashiell Hammett constructed world weary heroes who, while not exactly Knights in shining armor, had a strong sense of morality. That’s why Mickey Spillane‘s Mike Hammer was so different and controversial. Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade would not intentionally kill someone for revenge. They’d only kill in self-defense. As brutal as their world was, they tried not to allow it brutalize them. I, Jury opens with a friend of Hammer’s being gut shot and then dragging himself across the floor until he died. Hammer vows to the do the same to the killer, and in the end he does.

Spillane was not unaware of the furor regarding his brutal take on the PI. He told that in one novel Hammer “killed 100 commies with a machine gun.” His editor thought that the scene was too violent, so Spillane cut the number down to 50.

If Harry Dresden is the urban fantasy homage to Marlowe, then Larry Correia’s Jack Sullivan is the homage to Mike Hammer. Hard Magic, which introduces Sullivan, has all the brutality and hard lines of a Mickey Spillane story. Correia has reimagined the end of the 19th century and into the 1930s with the emergence of magical talents. A person can have one talent, healer, strength, telekinesis and the like with varying degrees of power. This has created a world somewhat different by 1930 then we are used to.

Germany lie is ruins having been devastated by a magical weapon created by Tesla during the Great War. The Japanese Empire is run by the “Chairman” who has learned the secret of the new magic and is using that knowledge for world domination. Americans have an uneasy relationship with the gifted, known as “Actives.” While willing to use them in the Great War and some areas of industry, they face discrimination and envy from the public at large. Like the X-Men, Actives in America are barely tolerated, if at all. The Chairman has been stoking that fires to encourage the alienation, as he doesn’t want America to use its actives, while he himself is recruiting them. The Chairman while recruiting Actives for this new world order, engages in a psychological operations to stoke the fires of distrust between Actives and Normals. This ensures a steady supply of recruits for these plans.

Only the Grimnoir, a shadowy world-wide organization of Actives stands in the Chairman’s path. But, according to American Grimnoir leader, General “Black Jack” Pershing they are too timid. Perishing is one of the many historical characters running around this series.

Jack is a Heavy. His talent allows him to alter the gravitational field for himself and others. This results in him being a big and strong man. Through, he is wrongly mistaken for slow, when he is in fact a very deep thinker. Jack just finished a stint in prison for killing a sheriff who was hassling a young Negro Active in New Orleans. Now, he is being used by J. Edgar Hoover to track down rogue Actives. As a condition of his early release he is required to help arrest five actives. Things go wrong when he is supposed to capture his old flame, Delia.

Jack soon finds himself caught up in the Grimnoir’s struggle against the Chairman. It also turns out that Jack’s older and more brutal brother, Matty, is now the Chairman’s number one Iron Guard. The Chairman is searching for the pieces of a superweapon built by Tesla which could level half a continent. Jack joins the Grimnoir in trying to stop him.

Demons, zombies, powers from beyond the stars, and lots of gun battles. If you love the old pulps, a good story with villains, monsters and a high body count, this is dark urban fantasy this is for you.

A Review of Max Allan Collin’s Seduction of the Innocent

seductionMax Allan Collins in addition to being an outstanding mystery writer who was Chester Gould’s handpicked successor to write the Dick Tracy newspaper comic, has written for Batman, rewrote Jason Todd’s origin after the Crisis, created the comic Mike Danger with Mickey Spillane, created Ms. Tree and of course The Road to Perdition.

When wearing his mystery writer’s hat, he likes to insert murders into real historical events, such as the Titanic’s sinking, the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

With his Jack and Maggie Star books he brings his three loves together: mystery, history and comic books. His protagonists Maggie Star and her step-son Jack run a comic book publisher in the early 1950’s just before the bottom dropped out of the market.

At present there are three books in the series. The first, A Killing in the Comics, is a murder mystery wrapped around the dispute over the ownership of Superman. The second, A Strip for Murder, is a fictionalize account of the Al Capp (“Li’l Abner”) and Ham Fisher (“Joe Palooka”) feud. The third, published in 2013, Seduction of the Innocent, is a fictionalized version of Frederic Wertham’s misguided crusade against comic books.

In Seduction of the Innocent, Collins takes us back to a dark time in the history of  comics. When the 1950’s started, Captain Marvel was selling over a million copies a month. EC Comics was the undisputed king of horror. By the end of the 1950’s very few comic book publishers were left standing and EC dropped all their titles but one, Mad Magazine. And while television helped almost kill off comics, it was the work of Frederic Wertham which set off the fire storm which engulfed the industry.

Wertham claimed that comics led to violence and gasp, shudder, homosexuality. To back up his claims, he asserted that 95% of all children in reform school read comics. He failed to mention that 100% wore shoes. Clearly, there was a greater correlation to the wearing of shoes than to the reading of comics. He also used, as it later turned out, false anecdotal stories of children being led into crime and sexual perversions because of comic books.

But, it was not the shoe manufacturers but the comic book publishers who were hauled before a Congressional Committee. The upshot was that many companies disappeared and the voluntary censorship board, the Comic Code Authority was born.

Collin’s fictional account opens with the firestorm in full swing. Maggie and Jack are trying to manage as well as weather the crisis. All of the characters in the book, unlike his disaster mysteries, are fictionalized stand-ins for real people. Part of the fun is pulling off the masks. I’m pretty sure I got most of them, though some like the M.C. Gaines stand-in was too easy.

Strangely, Collins is far more sympathetic to his Wertham stand-in. Perhaps it would have been too easy to paint him as a fool or an outright charlatan. Instead, “Dr. Werner Frederick” is depicted as an earnest but misguided man. Both the fictional character and real man wrote about the devastating effects of segregation. In fact, Wertham’s writings were used as evidence in the landmark case of Brown v. The Board of Education, which made segregation illegal.  In his book the Mark of Cain, he wrote about the medical professions complicity with the Holocaust.

Since this is a  murder mystery, someone has to die, and no surprise it’s Dr. Frederick. When it looks like someone in the industry killed him, it’s up to  Jack to quickly find the killer in order to protect the industry from any further problems.

As a mystery, this is a fine read. But, for people who are curious about the circus atmosphere Wertham created, this book is a treasure. For further reading check out Professor Carol Tilly’s demolition of Wertham’s book in her 2012 paper, Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics Information & Culture: A Journal of History, Volume 47, Number 4,2012, pp. 383-413. The University of Illinois published an interesting article on Tilly’s research. Turns out that Wertham, perhaps in a misguided effort to make his case, deliberately lied and falsified data.

In the end, Wertham, who died in 1981, was disgraced and we can take satisfaction at how horrified he’d be if he could see today’s comic book offerings.

 

Mieville’s The City and City: A Commentary on Willful Ignorance

9780345497529Yesterday, I discussed the mixture of fantasy and police procedural novels. But there is more to fantasy that wizards and warlocks.

“New Weird” writer China Miéville has melded non-magical fantasy and the mystery genre to produce the incredibly original and inventive book, The City and The City. It tied for the Hugo award in 2009, won the Locus award for best fantasy novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, World Fantasy Award, BSFA Award, was nominated for the Nebula award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In other words, this is an amazing book.

Miéville wrote it as a gift to his terminally ill mother. She wasn’t a fan of fantasy but loved mystery novels. Mieville, though, didn’t want to disappoint his fans. The result is this perfect marriage of the two genres.

The premise is both fantastic as it is relevant. Two ethnic groups inhabit a modern central European city state. Born out of a past of violence and mutual attempts at genocide, they settled on a bizarre solution. They pretend that there are two cities, each occupied by only one ethnic group. The protagonist Tyador Borlú lives in Besźel, and works for the Extreme Crime Squad. The other “city” is Ul Qoma. Each city has its own government, language and culture. In areas occupied exclusively by one ethnic group the illusion is easy. But, there are areas of the city which are “cross-hatched” meaning that both groups live and work side by side. The solution is that from an early age, children are trained to ignore the other city. This “unseeing” involves people, buildings, and even cars. The social protocol is strictly enforced by a shadowy agency called “Breach”. If someone sees what should be unseen, they are spirited away. Breach is also a metaphor for the intersect between the two cultures.

Miéville’s description of the two cities and how they co-exist is stunning and compelling. Without uttering a word of direct criticism, he provides a damning social commentary on the ethnic lines which fracture the human family.

Belgium as country resembles Mieville’s dual cities. On one hand there is Flanders, the Dutch section, and Wallonia, the French. In Flanders there is social convention to treat Belgium as if it doesn’t exist. There is only Flanders. Belgium, like Mieville’s city, is a single country divided by language and culture.

The plot of the book involves Tyador investigating the murder of Mahalia Geary, an American archeology student who was found dead with her face disfigured on a Besźel street. His investigation leads him not only to the sister city of Ul Qoma, but into the heart of the relationship between the two cities. Both the motive and solution are inextricably tied to this marvelous duel-city construct.

As Tyador moves between the cities, Miéville manages to  convey a sense of both strangeness and the mundane. For the denizens this absurd solution to their racial hatred is both logical and very ordinary. Perhaps the best way to describe this work is that of political surrealism. Miéville posits that people will allow themselves to experience the most complete delusions to protect their fragile world views. Unfortunately, both history and current events have proven him to be right.

Red Hot Steele, or Law & Order: Middle Earth

51QEhLvDO5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_The novel Red Hot Steele by Alex Berg is part of a subset of urban fantasy which I call police procedural fantasy. In the standard urban fantasy, a Marlowesque character dives into the seamy underside of some modern city’s supernatural population. From Mike Resnick’s fun romp, Stalking the Unicorn, to the darker works of Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake series, to the Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, which falls between the two, urban fantasy is vastly popular.

Fans have eagerly responded to the noir-ish PI prototype duking it out with vampires, werewolves and witches. The cynical, world weary hero is the 20th century’s answer to the Cowboy, another mythic figure ingrained in the American psyche.

Police procedurals are different. The cop is a “company” man, who follows the rules, unlike Mike Hammer who in I, Jury shoots the murderer in the gut to die slowly. Joe Friday of Dragnet is the patron saint of this school of mystery. In the realm of novels, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct was the greatest example of this form. While these are also a popular genre, rarely has been it blended with fantasy.

One of the reasons is that mysteries and procedurals in particular rely on rules and, when science fiction is added to the mix, there is a temptation to cheat. In a column written in the New York Times Review of Books in 1969, Allen J. Hubin explained the problem as “avoiding the temptation to solve a baffling crime by whisking a batch of hypothetical science from under the Venusian carpet.”

Similarly, with fantasy it’s cheating if the murder in the locked room was performed with a teleportation spell.

The late Randell Garrett figured out how to perform this delicate balance with his outstanding Lord Darcy stories. He constructed a logical world, based upon logical laws of magic. Because magic works, Garett realized that history would be different and so his England bears only a passing resemblance to the real one.

Alex Berg meets with mixed results.

I did like Red Hot Steele. Berg set out to create a breezy, fun read and he fully succeeded. I blew through the book in two sittings. The first book in the series has promise and hopefully Berg will successfully hone his craft.

Berg’s world is not that of the modern urban fantasy. He has constructed his own city in an alternate universe. It feels like mid-19th century New York, and a sly reference to the 7 boroughs only reinforces that perception. The main character is Daggers, a city detective who covers his empty life with work, inappropriate humor, food and alcohol. His partner of twelve years and whom he barely knew, has retired and the captain has saddled him with a newbie, a booked-learned, half-elf female detective named Steele. Berg does not do this with a straight face.

The problem with any mystery story these days is that it is very hard to avoid cliché. Berg goes the other way, by openly embracing the cliché with a smile, he lets us know not to take this seriously.

The new partners are faced with a murder of a socialite at a charity event. Their investigation takes them from the mansions of the rich to dwarf drug dealers in the slums. Murder, blackmail, embezzling and con games litter the path to the solution.

Berg is having fun with his characters and so will you.

My only gripe is that the magical trappings are unnecessary. Berg could have told the same story without elves, dwarves or magic. I can only surmise that he loves fantasy worlds and thought it would be neat to play  to play in one.

This, however, is a minor gripe. Red Hot Steele is not great literature but it is a light and entertaining diversion.