Dying of the Light Book Review

George R.R. Martin is well-known today as the mega-successful author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. With the appearance of these stories on the small screen as Game of Thrones, Martin has become a household name, not just as one of the foremost fantasy authors of America, but as one of its preeminent authors, period.

Before he became the architect of Westeros, Martin was the editor of the Wild Cards series. If you have been reading fantasy and science fiction long enough, you would have seen these popular anthologies on the shelves of your local bookstore for many years prior to the arrival of A Game of Thrones in 1996. Before that, Martin was the author of other works, one of which was Dying of the Light in 1977, recently reprinted in a new edition by Bantam Books.

Dying of the Light is a far shorter work than we have become used to with the Ice and Fire novel series. But it shows the same seriousmindedness and attention to detail that we have come to expect in Martin’s later work. Indeed, comprehensive worldbuilding is Martin’s forte, and he creates a rich and deep far future background in which to place his troubled characters.

The story begins with the arrival of a “whisperjewel” in Dirk t’Larien’s possession, sent by Gwen Delvano, his former lover. He inteprets the jewel as a cry for help, a call for rescue, and sets off to find Gwen. Gwen, unfortunately, is trapped in a relationship with a stern but noble man, Jaan Vikary, who is not quite her husband, and she is not quite his wife. The resulting love triangle (actually something of a love quadrangle, as Jaan Vikary has a male hunting and fighting companion, Janacek, whom he places above all others people) is a complete mess, and bodes no happy ending for anyone involved.

Martin shows adroitness in developing “alien” cultures without the need for non-human aliens. The cultural stance of Jaan Vikary of High Kavalaan, with its immensely strong bonds between males, but relatively weak ones between men and women, is markedly and almost unbridgeably different from that of Dirk and Gwen, who hail from a culture nearer to our own. High Kavalaan is well-developed as an alien culture, with a seemingly plausible reason given for its development as a world where men form closer relationships with one another than with women.

The setting of Dying of the Light is the fading planet Worlorn, awash in melancholy and regret. It is a world colonized by the peoples of several other planets for the short time that it drifts through space in the vicinity of a grouping of life-giving stars. That fifty-year era is now coming to an end, and Worlorn is now nearly empty of inhabitants, much like a grand old building just before its demolition.

Dying of the Light is a love story, a planetary romance, an adventure, and an examination of how cultural preconceptions make it difficult, if not impossible, for people of radically different cultures to comprehend each other. It is worth a read.

 

Marc DeSantis

Mark of Calth Review Part 2

The final three stories that I have left for this review of Mark of Calth are Calth That Was, by Graham McNeill, The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, and Unmarked, by Dan Abnett. I have certainly saved the best stories for last.

Calth That Was is the longest story in the anthology. It is in fact a novella, far longer than a short story, and is about three hours in audio length. It follows the defense of Calth after the Ultramarines were compelled to leave the planet in the wake of the star’s the massive radiation output triggered by the Word Bearers. Left behind were thousands of Ultramarines trapped on the planet, along with numerous Word Bearer enemies who were similarly stranded by the sickening of Calth’s star.

This brought on the phase known as the Underworld war, so-named because the combatants were forced to retreat into below-ground arcologies for protection from the lethal radiation. Leading the Ultramarines and other surviving soldiers is the stalwart Captain Remus Ventanus, notable already for his heroism in defending Calth during the initial surprise attack launched by the traitorous Word Bearers.

Calth That Was has an elegiac quality to it, being a mournful hymn to what the once-fertile planet was, and what it will never be again. The Chaos-worshiping Word Bearers are unsurprisingly awful, and engage in vile atrocities without remorse. Ventanus’ defense of the population centers of Calth forms the narrative core of the story, which is thoughtful and action-packed in equal measure.

The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden takes a look at the war from the other side of the hill. The story focuses upon a Word Bearer officer of the elite Gal Vorbak who, among other things, plays the host for a demon in his own flesh. If you have not already figured this out, the Word Bearers are nasty! He has, in fact, lost faith in the war on Calth that he is fighting, feeling that he has been left behind and forgotten by the rest of his brethren when they fled the Calth system to escape the star’s radiation. Years have past with no rescue or relief, and he wants out. Of course, one doesn’t just ditch an unholy war fought on behalf of the dark gods of Chaos, and the resolution to this story was worth every moment leading to it, and it surprised me very much.

The final story of the anthology, Unmarked, and my favorite, tracks the movements of Oll Persson, a strange but goodhearted man of an otherwise previously undescribed group known as “perpetuals.” The perpetuals, who have only been seen in a handful of places during the course of the two dozen or so Horus Heresy novels so far, are humans of immense age, being, it would seem, younger only than the Emperor himself, who is a virtually immortal being who has lived among men since about 8,000 B.C. To put Oll Persson in perspective, he is at least forty thousand years old, a span of time that is incomprehensible to ordinary mortal minds.

Persson finds himself leading a small group of survivors of the Calth attack via the application of an extraordinary weapon, an athame, which allows him to cut the fabric of reality in twain and step through the breach. That is remarkable enough, but even more remarkable is that this also allows him to step back in time as well as move across vast distance instantaneously, and he finds himself back on Earth in the deep distant past, with his unhappy band in tow. Dan Abnett’s Persson is a fantastic character. He is at once beyond any measure that a reader could apply to him. How can one fathom the mindset of a man who has lived for more than four hundred centuries? But he is also sympathetic as a man who can’t, it seems, die, but is fated to live forever, as the interminable years role by.

I have been greatly impressed by Black Library’s efforts in bringing the story of the Horus Heresy to print, and they have done a wonderful job with their audio anthology Mark of Calth. The universe of Warhammer 40,000 has slowly evolved over a quarter-century of development, with many, many hands involved in shaping this extraordinary milieu. The galaxy envisioned is not at all pleasant, and you would not want to visit it if you could avoid doing so. It is science fantasy of the grimmest, darkest kind, and that is how Black Library’s authors intend it. But the story is so deep, and so filled with elemental strife, that the novels, and now Mark of Calth, provide some of the best SF reading available today.

Marc DeSantis

Mark of Calth Review Part One

Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K) is a science fantasy universe with a heavy emphasis on the fantasy. Heroic Space Marines (think knights in power armor) battle against every threat, alien, human, and demonic, that the galaxy can throw at them. It is a dystopian setting in every sense of the word. The Imperium claims to rule all humanity in the name of an immortal but very much physically-dead emperor. Progress of any kind has halted, and people live lives of drudgery, superstition, and fear.

There is also an epic backstory. Some ten thousand years before the “present” of the WH40K era, or about 30,000 AD, there was massive insurrection by nine legions of Space Marines that cast their lot with the foul gods of Chaos. This has become known as the Horus Heresy, after the previously honorable and beloved Warmaster who first raised the banner of rebellion in the name of Chaos. The bright and glorious future promised by the then-living Emperor of Mankind came to a halt in a civil war of fire, iron, and blood.

One of these Traitor legions, the fanatical Word Bearers, attacked the noble and loyal Ultramarines as they mustered unsuspectingly at the world of Calth. Though the Ultramarines blunted the Word Bearer attack, Calth was left in ruins. The survivors of the battle sought shelter from triggered solar storms, along with their enemies, deep underground. The story of the invasion of Calth is told in the excellent novel by Dan Abnett, Know No Fear.

This began the so-called Underworld War, and the unabridged audiobook anthology Mark of Calth refers to the clock that the Ultramarines left running ever since the surprise attack against them. The Ultramarines know how to hold a grudge. The clock still ticks, some ten thousand years later. It also refers to the way that the radiation burns of their poisoned sun has marked the loyalist warriors still fighting for their survival on wrecked Calth.

Mark of Calth features short stories by Black Library’s best writers, and in a brilliant move, each has also been released as an audiobook of about one hour or  more in length. The readers employ their rich tones and voice changes well, and the effect is fantastic. This is such a winning combination that I can’t help but implore other SF and fantasy publishing houses to do the same with their own shorter works. It would certainly help breathe some life into the often-overlooked but vibrant world of SF/F short fiction, which deserves to be better known outside of a handful of yearly anthologies.

Publisher Black Library has an advantage, in that the success of the WH40K miniatures game, as well as several videogames, has created an eager market for such stories. This is military fiction with a strong dose of fantasy and Lovecraftian horror, and the stories in Mark of Calth deliver action and chills in equal measure.

The Traveller, by David Annandale and read by Jonathan Keeble, is a morbid, Cthulhuesque tale of a loyal subject of the Emperor of Mankind who kills heretics wherever he finds them. But has he gone too far in his pogrom against those he deems traitors? And what is the actual source of the voices that he hears?

The Shards of Erebus, by Guy Haley and read by Jonathan Keeble, follows one of the most sinister of all figures in the WH40K universe, the Dark Apostle Erebus of the Word Bearers, and the ultimate instigator of the treason that would swallow the previously loyal Horus and nine entire legions of marines. He is ever-plotting, and The Shards of Erebus follows him as he grasps for ever more power and knowledge of Chaos.

Dark Heart, by Anthony Reynolds and read by David Timson, stars Reynolds’ infamous Word Bearer Dark Apostle Marduk, who is a menace to humanity in the current timeline of WH40K. In the Horus Heresy, he is a scheming would-be apprentice of the Dark Gods. He slays his own teacher of the dark art, but can he somehow survive the retribution of both his own high command and the vengeful Ultramarines too?

Athame, by John French and read by David Timson, tells the story of a blade of Chaos, an athame, created to take life, as it winds its way through human history. In a smart turn, the story of the blade is being told to the blade itself.

So far, Mark of Calth has been extremely good, and I look forward to the remaining stories.  I would recommend it on the basis of just the stories mentioned above.  Several remain on my to-do list, however.  My consideration of Mark of Calth will continue in Part Two of this review.

Marc DeSantis

Solar System Blues

Space exploration can sometimes be taken too lightly.  Traveling through space is one of the most difficult endeavors that humanity has ever attempted.  The sheer size of the universe, and the extraordinary distances involved, even to the nearest stars, make it unlikely that human-crewed spacecraft will be orbiting alien suns any time soon.

Until then, we will have to make do with exploring our own small pocket of the galaxy – our own solar system.   This piece is a sober look at the prospect of space travel for the foreseeable future.

 

Marc De Santis

John Carter Rides Again!

If you have been reading this blog for the last few months (which is as long as it has been going) you will recall that I was very enthusiastic about Disney’s John Carter.   You may also be aware that John Carter cost a sizable portion of Disney’s movie division their jobs.

John Carter has been maligned as a bomb – but is that a fair assessment?  My best movie buddy and I watched the DVD this weekend, and we agreed that the movie was (1) awesome; and (2) flew by.  It is over two hours long but feels like a much shorter film.  This is due in large part to the fast pace.  The action never lets up.  The film’s worldwide take was an impressive $282 million.   That is not pocket change.

Here is the rub:  John Carter cost $250 million to make.  It cost another $100 million to advertise – not that this advertising was apparent in even the slightest degree to me, and I was looking forward to the film.

I can’t believe that John Carter can be called a bomb with a straight face.  A box office bomb makes little money.  John Carter made lots of it, but Disney forgot to control costs.  Any product launch (and that is exactly what a movie is) will fail if expenses spiral out of sight.

I thought that John Carter was much better than Prometheus, which I also enjoyed.  Prometheus has not bombed, but it cost only half of what John Carter did.  That is a big factor.

If you would like to help Disney recoup some its money, the DVD is available at Amazon here.

MGD

Prometheus

I saw Ridley Scott’s latest movie, Prometheus, which is a prequel of sorts to his 1979 masterpiece, Alien.  I thought that Prometheus was a good film, not a great one.  As with many other films these days, you should not tug too hard on any one of the plot threads, or it will all unravel.

Even if you don’t see Prometheus, you should check out Govindini Murty’s fantastic examination in The Atlantic Monthly of the cultural tropes and influences in it.  This might be one of the few times that an article about a film is more interesting than the film itself.

MGD