Saturday, December 8, 2018

Book Reviews: Elevation, Legend

by Stephen King
This is a very short novel that might more properly be called a short story or novella. It's something that could be read in a few days or even a few hours. It's a mug's game trying to determine authorial intent or meaning in fiction but this is probably the third King book in a row where King seems to be going out of his way to emphasize how important it is to be nice to each other as well as pointing out the fact that life is short. So take that for what you will. It's set in Castle Rock, Maine. There are some tongue in cheek references to other King works. 

This is not, repeat not a horror novel. There are no things that go bump in the night, sadistic demons who appear as clowns, malign intelligent eyes growing on characters' chests (or other body parts) or psychopathic child killers who serve other dimensional entities. So if you're looking for those things you won't find them here. On the other hand if you have been wary of reading King because of his general propensity to write scary stories or for that matter long stories then this could be an enjoyable venture into the short end of the pool. The story is occasionally a bit didactic but I think that most people of King's age have earned the right to share whatever wisdom they've gained during their time here. 

It's worth noting that (1) quality writing is quality writing regardless of the subject and (2) over the years King has written quite a few stories that either lacked supernatural elements or had them in only very modest amounts. So this isn't his first time at the rodeo.

Scott Carey is a divorced web designer. He makes a good living for himself; he is able to work from home for the most part. His life hasn't been great, but it hasn't been that bad either. Scott has one big problem however.

He's losing weight-often a pound a day or more. He can't explain why. Even stranger however is that Scott outwardly looks exactly the same, right down to his soft middle aged chest, love handles and more than slightly protruding gut. And what's truly scary is that even when Scott steps on the scale carrying barbells and rolls of quarters, the scale still registers his weight, not what he's carrying. 

So Scott is defying laws of biology, chemistry and physics. Scott talks about this to a friend and retired doctor, Bob. But Scott doesn't want to wind up in a research lab. At about 212# Scott figures he has some time before things get too frightening.

Scott's new next door neighbors are Deirdre and Missy, a young married same sex lesbian couple. Deidre and Missy are out and proud. Deidre in particular is well, prickly and quick to take offense, is the best description. She's irritated when Scott asks her to stop letting her dogs do their business on his lawn. She likes it even less when Scott provides proof of her dogs' malfeasance. For reasons, Scott takes a liking to Deidre and Missy despite the unpleasant nature of their first interaction. Upon learning that the two women run a vegetarian Mexican restaurant, Scott is upset to discover that the townspeople, put out by what they see as Deidre's flaunting of her sexuality, have been informally boycotting the restaurant.  Scott thinks that's wrong. He wants to help. But Deidre doesn't want any man's help, least of all Scott's. And Scott's weight continues to drop.

This is a morality play and a holiday tale all wrapped in one. Bittersweet might be the overall best single word commentary on this book. King takes a few shots at the current Maine governor and US President but these aren't gratuitous. Deidre is a runner. King makes you feel the pain and joy of running.

by David Gemmell
Back in the day Continental Europe was always getting raided or invaded by "barbarians" from the North, South or especially the East. Vikings, Huns, Magyars, Franks, Goths, Turks, Mongols, Arabs, Moors, Persians, etc. It's probably not surprising that this historical memory is often fictionalized in stories like Legend. This was the late author's first published book. I had heard good and not so good things about it over the years. I decided to give it a shot. It was okay but honestly I wasn't super impressed. 

Gemmell used many of the same tropes that we're all familiar with: One Last Job, Last Stand, The Cynic who's Really a Romantic, etc, but because most characters are very weakly drawn it was difficult for me to care when they struggle or make their final stand against overwhelming odds. In his sleep, Robert E. Howard fleshed out these kinds of stories much better than Gemmell did, or at least better than Gemmell did here.

In a world that is not too dissimilar to our own's past, the Nadir (think Mongols) have decided to conquer the Drenai (think Franks, Goths, etc). Due to naivete, poor management, and corruption in the Drenai lands, the Drenai armies have declined in numbers and fallen into bad habits. In fact, forget about the Nadir, the Drenai have trouble holding their own against the less numerous Sathuli (think Arabs/Moors). The Nadir have spurned the Drenai offer of trade deals and peace. War is what they want. And with a horde of close to half a million men the Nadir are confident that in no short time they will rape, enslave and kill as many Drenai as they want. The Nadir king Ulric is a man who lives for war.

Dros Drelnoch is the great fortress that stands in the way of the Nadir march into the center of the Drenai nation. There are fewer than 10,000 poorly armed and motivated men at Dros Drelnoch. And there are fewer defenders every day as deserters make the seemingly rational decision to skedaddle while they still can. The Drenai king has promised to send other armies to help fight at Dros Drelnoch but that could take weeks or even months. And some Drenai think that since the Nadir are sure to take the fortress it makes no sense to send more men to die pointlessly. The dying local earl thinks he only has one chance to save his fortress and the Drenai people. He sends for Druss.

Druss is a legendary Drenai warrior with martial skills that are almost inhuman. Other heroes hold him in awe. He fights with a perfectly balanced battle axe that could be sentient.  The problem is that Druss is pushing 60. He looks and feels it as well.  He's put on more weight than a fighting man should have. Druss has been hurt badly over the years. His joints ache. He gets headaches. Druss is a fighter. He doesn't want to be a general or take responsibility for thousands. But duty is duty. Druss decides to go to Dros Drelnoch, even though his dreams tell him that Death will finally claim him there. Druss is a baaaad man. If it's his time he wants to make sure he leaves the world as he came into it, standing up and talking back.

There are magical battles, resurrections, musings on the importance of farming and fighting as expressions of manhood, a rather limp romance between the aforementioned cynic and a beautiful woman, and of course long descriptions of battles and duels. Gemmell wrote this book when he (wrongly) thought he had cancer; the Nadir are a stand-in for that implacable foe. This is a passable book if you're into this genre but I've read better ones. I did like how Druss balances awareness of his own weaknesses, fears, and shortcomings against the need to project confidence and strength in order to keep Drenai morale up. Druss's true value to the Drenai is inspiration and hope.
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