Grandson of the Black Sword

Certain readers said my links to this column are bad. I reprint all columns o this topic here in honor of the upcoming Dragon Award, in hope of garnering votes for Mr. Correia. 

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Review of Chapter 1-15 of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD

This is not a book review, because I have not finished reading the book yet. I am only on Chapter 15.

But I promised myself to write a blog post praising this book, because I think it is one of Larry Correia’s best, and I found out to my chagrin that he wrote a post praising my work, and so now my sense of fairness is unbalanced: he is not allowed to give me compliments I do not merit while I am silent about compliments he does.

I’ve talked to the man and like him, so take that into account when reading my non-review. This is both fanboy gushing and a friend saluting a friend, and yet, since in my own way I am as iron-hearted in justice as the hard-souled hero from this book, I speak only truth, and only what is due.

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This is the author’s first venture into heroic fantasy, or at least so far as I know. Devout fans of his usual writing will at first be taken aback at the utter lack of utterly technically accurate yet cool-for-the-novice descriptions of firearms or their capacities in this book. As first.

Then they will be drawn in by the striking vividness of a half-familiar, half-alien world, well-imagined in every detail, drawn in by clues of deeper mysteries.

If the readers are like me, they will also be drawn in, as if fascinated by the unwinking gaze of a snake, at the truly callous coldness of a hero with, at first, only one heroic quality. He has the discipline of a hero, which embraces courage and justice, but no compassion nor humanity. At first.

Then the character finds his world shattered, he realizes the world is larger than it seems. The reader begins to wonder, since the demons fell from the stars, whether this is a fantasy book, as advertised, or science fiction, or horror, or more.

The hero is Ashok, a member of the First Caste of the island continent of Lok.

His best friend, if a man so cold can be said to have friends, is Devedas, whose father’s ancestral blade broke in is hands, dooming his once-great house to weakness, irrelevance, and downfall. His jealousy of Ashok is both understandable, and tragic, because events will not permit the wound to scab over.

The two are Protectors, the member of a special order of warriors whose connection to the mysterious Heart of the Mountain grants them strength and stamina beyond the mortal norm. And these powers they need, for the seas are filled with demons, nightmarish shark-skinned and eyeless horrors nigh impossible to kill with sword or spear, reminiscent of the Aliens of H.R. Geiger. To the men of Lok, ‘ocean’ is another word for hell, and to be called a fisheater is worse than being called a casteless.

To Ashok, devotion to the law is the one and only thing in life. For him, the law has replaced the worship of any gods, who are outlawed as grotesque superstitions from the old days, from before the demons fell, and men fought wars against men.

The Law is impossibly harsh, but its cruel rigor is all that saves mankind from certain death. The symbol of the Law is the fanged beast shown on the cover, whose jaws do not relent once they close.

Mercy is as forgotten as the forgotten gods.

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Every man has his place, never to be changed: first caste rules, second caste wars, third caste trades, fourth caste works. Outside the caste system are untouchables, gravediggers and sewer workers, who are regarded as animals, non-humans

But Ashok is not only a Protector but a bearer of a black sword, an Ancestor Blade, which is a semi-living weapon of ancient power and force, which carries inside the memories and skills of countless generations of previous swordbearers. The sword selects its bearer: those unworthy who touch the blade are made to cut, or wound, or maim, or slay themselves depending on how irked the blade becomes at the touch of unworthy hand.

One swordbearer with an Ancestor Blade can decimate armies. Always before, the Great Houses would keep their swordbearers on their own lands, to quell uprising and deter ambitious neighbors. Ashok alone was sent away from his proud ancestral home with its luxuries and intrigues, to carry the black sword in the cursed lands of the sea shore, next to the seas of hell.

Ashok’s life is dangerous, but his renown is without compare. Never before has a Protector been a swordbearer, and even had he lacked these two advantages, his iron self-control, devotion, and implacable cool ferocity would have made him a wonder.

And then, by sheer mischance, in the midst of the heat of battle, after all the regular soldiers fled in terror, as he is about to die, Ashok is saved by a stubborn and half-crazed civilian with a spear, who distracts a demon long enough, less than the blink of an eye, for Ashok to recover and prevail. But then he learns the civilian is not a true human, but a casteless untouchable, and it is against the law to carry weapons. And death is the only penalty.

Ashok is grateful, but the law is the law…

Reading this work, with its deceptively simple and lucid prose, its brief brush-strokes of characterization that are actually scalpel strokes peeling back the layers of he human soul to reveal its core to the reader, I was was dumbfounded by a very simple and trenchant thought.

It struck me that I had not read anything even half as imaginative by John Scalzi. I do not dislike Mr. Scalzi’s books. He is an amusing, lighthearted, shallow writer. He writes pastiches of the work of other men, as OLD MAN’S WAR pays homage to Heinlein, or REDSHIRTS to Star Trek. I find no fault with that; I write pastiches as well, and enjoy writing them. But there is no world building there.

There is nothing in Scalzi I’ve read even as clever yet logical as supposing a world whose seas were filled with demons would regard fish as a ritually unclean food, and ‘saltwater’ as a swearword, and would build their capital city in the central desert, as far from shore as possible.

I have seen writers like Neal Gaiman pull off little nuances as clever, such as by having elves use ‘iron nails’ as a swearword, a substance traditionally said to drive off elves. Likewise, Jack Vance, in CLARGES, a world where immortality could be had by those few able to earn it, dirty jokes would not be about sex, but death.

I have read all of the science fiction and fantasy of Jack Vance, and a healthy proportion of Neal Gaiman’s output in comics, stories, and telly and film, and yet, much as I admire those writers, I recall no character as fully realized, as flawed yet solid, as understandable yet clearly a man of foreign world, time and culture, as even the minor characters that people this book, and Mr. Correia’s many others.

Indeed, I recall a book by the famed and lauded Charles Stross, which had one of the most clever variation on a Zelazny-style multiverse story I’d ever heard, which I could not finish, nay, I could not start, because the main character girl had no personality, no drive, no nothing. I cannot even recall her name.

Mr. Stross is a more skilled writer than Mr. Scalzi, and writes at a deeper level, engaging more ideas, which are, after all, the stock in trade of science fiction. (And, again, I restrict my comments only to what I have read. If there are works of these gentlemen which make folly of my judgment of their style, so be it.) And yet I can think of nothing Mr. Stross wrote, not even his famed ACCELERANDO, which was noticeably more skilled in its world-building, character portrayal, nor can I think of anything even approaching Mr. Correia’s large-heartedness.

Mr. Correia’s writing is promoted as action adventure with a zing of horror, and so it is. But his books like people, and his books understand how human beings think and act, and so his characters come to life in the reader’s imagination. Even his nonhuman characters have a human side.

And other authors, routinely touted by loud voices as being more literate or more skilled than he simply lack this quality.

Neil Gaiman tells stories that are ironical and cool and unsympathetic and that in fact do not like people: read ‘The Problem of Susan’ and you will see an example. Perhaps some stories by Mr. Stross and Mr. Scalzi have this quality: none I have read do.

Again, I am not speaking of whether the authors themselves have or lack any particular qualities. I speak only of their books and stories and judge only what I see by what I see.

And I judge that the lauded and applauded authors widely regarded by the establishment as a best in the field are equal to Larry Correia, or inferior: and I had not noticed this before.

This blinding insight made me put down the book and write this post. I was stumped.

Why was it surprising to me to find that Mr. Correia was such a good writer on so many levels of the writer’s craft?

Then was I ashamed, and had a good laugh at my own expense. Had I actually, really, for a moment bought the bill of goods being sold by those liars of lies, the literary establishment, who poo-pooed professional work by professional craftsman on the grounds that it was not warped, distorted, dirty, blasphemous, or morally unhinged?

Did I actually think there was something about the story about werewolf-killing accountant, a gravity-hexing Pinkerton, or a sea-demon slaying Kshatriya, that made such tales in any way inferior to the noisome self-important crap the self-anointed arbiters of good taste routinely shove up the readers nose?

One can read only so many meandering, mentally distorted yawnfests about moist sexual deviants, sexual deviants in Thailand, were-seals abandoning their children, or about crazy brides hallucinating about dino-revenge, or read a single threadbare metaphor about brokenheartedness turning a weak man’s world upside down being stretched to the length of a pointless short-story, before one comes to the conclusion that the self-anointed arbiters of good taste are crack-smoking crackbrained buttcracks whose only point is to promote bad taste. The purveyors of bad taste pretend that if we readers spit out the vinegary two-quid wine, our taste buds, not their talent-free vintners, are at fault.

Did I actually give the roaring lunatics of boredomsville the benefit of the doubt, or absorb some uncouth, radioactive particle of their silly snobbery into my finely-machined and perfectly balanced brain? God forbid!

No, I think was fooled, as a many fool can be, by the unexpected depths behind the most placid surface.

Mr. Correia seems at first glance to be a simple man. Not only is the Mountain Who Writes, he has recently bought a mountain, or so I heard. Maybe he bought a Martian. The message was garbled.

But he swims in the pool of Scrooge McDuck, dresses like Destro of Cobra, and paints a mean miniature. In the science fiction world, that makes him a polished and accomplished Renaissance Man.

My underestimation was surprising to me because, despite my hatred of snobs and snobbery in its every manifestation, I was fooled by the humble topic he chooses to paint, and only now paused to notice the craftsmanship of the brushstrokes.

It is a mistake I once made with Jack ‘King’ Kirby and then again with Edgar Rice Burroughs. I love action stories; I wish I could write them. I love long fight scenes, the longer the better. But I cannot do them as I’d like.

I love boy’s stories, because I think them more honest and closer to the bone of reality than grown-up stories. There is more reality in THE BOOK OF THREE by Lloyd Alexander, than in ULYSSES by James Joyce and his whole misshapen horde of modernist and absurdist imitators. Until this year, I dare not venture from the comfy swamps of grown up writing into the dangerous clefts and cliffs of juveniles, because, frankly, kids standards are too strict.

The mistake is in thinking that a simple action story or a simple sword-and-warlock epic is simple when a master take pen in hand.

A master painter could paint an apple in the bowl by a window, and show you the joy of heaven, or paint an empty crib with a black shawl draped over it, and show you a hell of desolation. A master wordsmith can do the same using a simple theme and haiku brevity.

I recommend this book with only the slight reservation that the darned series is not finished yet!

I cannot even tell you how many tugs on the fishing line of my curiosity buried clues beneath the seemingly placid surface of Mr. Corriea’s writing have tugged. The hints pull me upright, fumbling for reel and creel, eyes wide and nostrils quivering. I just read a scene where the scofflaw lunatic called Keeper of Names climbs the wall of the jail and whispers a man’s name through the window to him…

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Review of Chapter 25-30 of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD

Larry Correia is a cunning devil. There is a plot twist in every one of these chapters.

I still have not read all the way to the end of this book, because it is so good, I don’t want to reach the end. But the middle chapters here are really, really good.

Note to would be writers: if you want to make a minor character memorable, notice how to raise the stakes on the poor slob and put more of his life in the kitty so that the next turn of the card saves or dooms him. Consider two ways of portraying the same character: a man who has lost his job vs. a man with an adoring wife and new baby who lost his job. Consider a man who has lost his job, lost his clan honor, and he will never be hired again, and is unfairly and falsely accused by the Inquisition of being a traitor WHO ALSO has an adoring wife and new baby. And he thinks of a plan to find the missing cursed swordblade of the superhuman traitor who he befriended, sort of, when he was a jail warden….

Do you see how it is done? Do you see how to make what could have been a cardboard disposable character into a realist three-dimensional man, warts and all, whom the readers can cheer for and sympathize with?

Maybe you cannot see how it is done. Many a writer does not.

Mr. Correia does.

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Review of Chapter 38 of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD

Chapter 38 is really good. I’m just saying.

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Review of Chapter 48 of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD

Wow! Didn’t see that coming.
Where is the rest?
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