Saturday, June 25, 2016

Book Reviews: End of Watch, The Emperor's Armies

End of Watch
by Stephen King
End of Watch, as the title might indicate, is the concluding volume of the trilogy King started with Mr. Mercedes, reviewed earlier here. King is one productive son-of-a-gun. An author who writes a little slower than that asked King how does he do it. There's no answer for that I guess. But whatever field you might work in, you ought to be able to appreciate King's work ethic and productivity. Very few writers can maintain his speed and quality. Anyway, that aside I enjoyed this story because I like King's voice. This wasn't King's best work but it was something that made me think a bit more about the big question which all of us will face.  As Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson said " You tell yourself it’s quick, but you don’t know. You don’t know until it’s you, and then you’ll never tell anyone." King's more recent works have been suffused with that question. What happens after death? How do you alter your life patterns once your body starts to show the inevitable wear and tear of age?  Are you going to age gracefully? Or are you going to be a curmudgeon who moans and complains with every fresh indignity or limitation? What legacy will you leave behind? 

In the hands of a different author these questions might be examined in a dry boring literary manner which would take almost forever to read. Well King is not James Joyce, and End of Watch is not Finnegans Wake. Thank God for small favors. 

I loved my high school English teachers but reading almost anything by James Joyce is illegal torture. Whatever deeper questions King examines in End of Watch are wrapped very tightly in a swift entertaining page turner. As we discussed elsewhere there are some writers who strongly believe that there are only a small number of stories. In this worldview, almost everyone (at least in the speculative fiction arena) is working off some riff of a pre-existing narrative. I don't know if I agree but when you read End of Watch you will have a deja vu feeling. You'll see many cliches and tropes. How you feel about that depends on your feelings about King and his particular talents. I thought that in the hands of a lesser writer these cliches would have annoyed me more. There's the One Last Job, Retired Cop, Ambitious Cold Woman,  Not as Dead as You Thought and many more. I have to list some spoilers from Mr. Mercedes below. 

Brady Hartsfield is the evil computer genius who ran down numerous people at a job fair in an unnamed lakeside city. Initially getting away with that crime, Brady, who had a twisted relationship with his mother, attempted to drive the investigating detective, Bill Hodges, to suicide. But Bill was made of sterner stuff. He taunted Brady and with the help of his friends Jerome and Holly, was able to track down Brady and prevent an even greater atrocity. Brady was left brain damaged in a semi-vegetative state when kind sweet Holly went upside his head with a sock crammed with ball bearings. End of Watch picks up both in the present day and the intervening years during which Brady was presumably brain-damaged. Bill now runs a investigative agency with Holly. 

Jerome is about to graduate from college. Holly, a female geek, (she's much older than Jerome but is likely a functioning autistic with severe OCD), is Bill's partner even though she still thinks of him as her boss. Bill, along with the the district attorney's people and a few media types, has continued to visit Brady, convinced that Brady is either faking his injuries or hoping that Brady will recover so that he can be tried for his crimes. 

But it appears that Brady is gone for good. He's a gork, as the nurses say.  Bill stops his visits because he gets so upset seeing Brady.  As horror afficionados know, unless you stake the vampire through the heart, cut off the head and burn the body it's not dead. When Bill realizes that some recent suicides are people who survived Brady's last planned attack, he gets the shivers. Bill's former partner, Pete, calls him in to consult informally. Bill has other worries. Bill is pushing seventy years old. He has some recurrent pain on the left side of his body that doesn't feel like a heart attack. He's had those before, and this is different. Bill would just as soon not find out what it is. He ain't got time to bleed.

King mixes together prosaic human evil with something that is a little bit more than that. This second element wasn't present in the first book of the trilogy. There are a few references to other King books in End of Watch but the big one is to The Shining, as Brady's hospital room is Room 217. The people who are dying after they escaped something evil hearkens back to the ending of Christine. I was also reminded of stories such as Dan Simmons' Carrion Comfort and H.P. Lovecraft's The Thing On The Doorstep. The plot is pretty standard but King makes most of his characters, even the minor ones, feel very real. King deliberately doesn't explain everything in this story which added to the verisimilitude as far as I was concerned. 

Although it helps to have read the first book, King sketches out the broad backstory and moves on. Thankfully, King also toned down and mostly dropped Jerome's ridiculous Ebonics jive talk. This is a book which you can read very quickly. I haven't read the middle book yet but from what I understand it was an oblique step away from the Hartsfield storyline. End of Watch is an ultimately optimistic book though the reader may not see that for a while. King dedicated End of Watch to Thomas Harris, the writer who created Hannibal Lecter. It's an apt tribute.

The Emperor's Armies

By Chris Wraight
Warhammer is a boardgame, a fantasy role playing game and a shared story setting. The highest human technology in this fictional world is similar to 15th-16th century Europe. The dominant human nation is the Empire, which is broadly similar in culture to the Holy Roman Empire. One difference is that there are also a number of non-human races extant, some of whom are wholly inimical to humanity. Magic is real and so is the primary force of evil in the world, known simply as Chaos. Chaos actually controls land in this world and does its best to control, warp or destroy humanity. Chaos may work thru brute force, appeals to pride or lust, greed or any of the other ways to a man's or woman's heart. Chaos never ever stops. The fact that Chaos is evil doesn't necessarily mean that all of the forces opposing it are good. The Witch Hunters are trained and tasked to discover and root out those humans who serve Chaos but of course many of them just like the idea of being able to accuse and abuse people without much effective oversight. Some Witch Hunters are just as cruel and sadistic as any Chaos agent. For most people, contradicting or challenging a Witch Hunter is virtually signing their own death warrant. There are other forces who oppose the Witch Hunters and for that matter the Empire itself, who are not in league with Chaos. The Emperor's Armies is a 900 page collection of related stories set in the Old World of Warhammer. There are two novels  contained within, Sword of Justice and Sword of Vengeance, along with two short stories, Feast of Horrors, and Duty and Honour. Each novel is probably too long by about 200 pages. Feast of Horrors is a perfect example of a short story that gives you just enough to hook you in and then punches you in the gut with an ending that was in hindsight, predictable but nonetheless surprising and worthwhile. A Champion of the Emperor sits down to a strange dinner with nobles. Feast of Horrors was the best story here. Duty and Honour was probably the story I liked the least because it was all too predictable. A warrior fights for honor but a soldier does his duty. The two novels make up the meat of this omnibus. Sword of Vengeance is the sequel to Sword of Justice. I thought that each novel was a good example of a fine mix between the military action genre and the mystery genre. The supernatural links these two elements together but each novel jumps regularly back and forth between a "Whodunnit" motif and a "We're surrounded, outnumbered and far from home but we never surrender!" one. I actually enjoy both of these types of stories but some people may find the supernatural elements a bit much. It's also important to point out that in these novels at least cynical anti-heroes don't exist or if they do are certainly not the protagonists. In a world where people can literally see the workings of good and evil, there's not much room for snark, doubt or cynicism. For some readers this may mean they find the characters a little flat. Characterization isn't really the point of these novels. Plot is what carries both novels.

The Emperor, Karl Franz, has noticed that one of his cities, Averheim, has refused to seat a new elector. The top two candidates, Grosslich and Leitdorf, are almost equally matched, but keep finding reasons to put off the election. The Emperor can't have this. He sends one of his personal champions and military leaders, Schwarzhelm, to convince everyone to buckle down and have the election or failing that to pick someone himself. Schwarzhelm and his devious assistant Verstohlen find that something is subtly wrong in the city of Averheim though neither can put their finger on it. Meanwhile at the frontier the Emperor's soldiers are fighting against orcs who are more numerous and better armed than before. Some of the orcs inexplicably have human weapons and gold, which doesn't bode well for the Empire. When a series of unfortunate events occurs, Schwarzhelm is forced to deal with the Emperor's other top champion and war leader, Helborg. The two soldiers' intense dislike for one another is never far from the surface. It threatens to boil over into something that could not only destroy their fragile relationship but the Empire itself. Verstohlen is adding 2 and 2 and coming up with 5. He's trying to watch Schwarzhelm's back while digging into the mysterious events in the city. Meanwhile something or someone is watching Verstohlen from the shadows and pulling strings. As I said this is a fun read for genre fans: the Empire's equivalent of the Pope leads a grim do or die assault on the ancient enemy when all seems lost. We get a front row view of the dangers of infantry combat. Verstohlen's investigations and mistakes are appropriately suspenseful. But as mentioned the characters are not all that deep. Everyone has very simple motivations. And each novel ran on a bit long. But fun was definitely had in reading. And that's all you can ask for ultimately. I'm going to keep a look out for other work by this author, in and outside of the Warhammer franchise.
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