Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review - Spellbound by Larry Correia

Short review: The Grimnoir Knights are framed for attempting to murder Franklin Delano Roosevelt and go on the run before rallying to attack the Office of the Coordinator of Information and fighting magical Godzilla through the streets of Washington D.C.

A failed assassin
An OCI frame up job
A giant monster

Full review: The second book in the Grimnoir Chronicles, Spellbound aspires to be as mediocre as Hard Magic (read review), and in many ways it succeeds. The book has many extended fight scenes with detailed descriptions of the weaponry everyone uses and the resulting gory, but almost always nonfatal wounds that result. The book also has a mostly identical array of two-dimensional characters living in the same fairly bland setting as its predecessor all going through the motions of a fairly thin plot. Unfortunately, Spellbound suffers from a problem common to many second books in a series: What little plot there is serves merely as a placeholder, delaying the resolution of any of the larger plot points in the series while adding almost nothing at all.

The book opens with a short interlude that amounts to something of a flashback to a time contemporaneous with the Second Battle of the Somme where an unnamed young French girl finds herself the sole surviving member of her family after a mysterious stranger slaughters them and then hunts for her. She is saved by an equally mysterious set of rescuers, who suffer heavy losses at the hands of the original interloper. As usual for this series, not much useful information is provided here, the flashback to World War I serves as little more than an excuse to have an as yet unexplained fight scene so lacking in context that the reader really has no reason to care about the outcome before the story moves back to the "present" of the 1930s and focus on the "hero" Jake Sullivan and the rest of his Grimnoir buddies.

The story proper opens several months after the end of Hard Magic, with Francis Stuyvesant and Heinrich Koenig foiling a magical assassination attempt against President Franklin Roosevelt, and Faye being grilled by the elders of the Grimnoir Society concerning her claim to have killed the Chairman at the end of the previous book. Meanwhile, Sullivan has taken up haunting libraries trying to figure out the secrets of magic. His studies in the New York City Library are interrupted by an attractive woman who he rebuffs, but later comes across outside in an alleyway where she is being menaced by a gang of robbers. Sullivan reluctantly decides to step in to help the mysterious woman out of her predicament, at which point any pretense of his being anything resembling a heroic character is tossed out of the window. It becomes quickly and readily apparent that this gang of small time toughs pose no actual threat whatsoever to Sullivan, and yet he makes sure to go out of his way to maim them - breaking bones, damaging internal organs, and so on. It seems quite obvious that Correia thinks that this is what one should be justified in doing when confronted by criminals, but what it actually seems like is as if a fully grown and perfectly healthy adult were "threatened" by a couple of eight year old children, and the adult's reaction was to pull out a knife and repeatedly stab the kids. Through the main plot of the book, the government takes some rather heavy-handed steps to regulate those imbued with magic powers, and Sullivan's vicious and thuggish behavior in this scene gives good cause as to why. This viciousness on Sullivan's part is only compounded by the fact that Pemberly Hammer, the menaced woman, essentially set up her would-be assailants as patsies in order to figure out if Sullivan was the man she was looking for on behalf of the OCI.

The primary plot of Spellbound revolves around this shadowy organization which is given the name the Office of the Coordinator of Information, which is one of the most clumsily named government agencies ever to be resurrected for the purposes of fiction, and which is also known as the "OCI". Despite the fact that the OCI seems to have tentacles of influence that extend across the country, the agency seems to have only three categories of employees: (a) the Coordinator Doctor Bradford Carr, who is also somewhat oddly described as a Senator, (b) the mentally unbalanced summoner known as Crow who can possess demonic creatures, and (c) faceless mooks who appear to exist solely to stumble around ineffectually until the Grimnoir Knights can kill them. This doesn't seem to be much of a foundation upon which to build an agency intended to rival J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation. The apparently sparse nature of the OCI's personnel isn't the only thing that seems underdeveloped about the agency - essentially Correia appears to not really know how government agencies work, and doesn't seem to have bothered to inform himself. Carr is referred to at points as a Senator, but if he is heading up an executive agency, he can't be a Senator, he can only be a former Senator as members of the legislative branch cannot also serve in the executive branch. Early in the book Crow shows up at a police station where Francis is being held due to his proximity to the attempt on President Roosevelt's life, apparently flashing the badge of the then almost entirely unknown OCI to get in to interrogate the  playboy turned industrialist. But simply throwing out an unknown badge isn't going to give anyone access to a prisoner being held by state police, let alone allow you to have a solo interrogation of them. And so on. There are a myriad of implausible events related to the OCI that simply drain the book's credibility away. And if you are structuring the main plot of your book around the bureaucratic maneuverings of your mangled federal agency appearing almost a decade too early with a fabricated mission and nonsensical organization, these are details that you should at least try to get right, because if you don't, and Correia didn't, then your book becomes unintentionally humorous.

In any event, the plot of the book can be split into three broad categories. In one vein, the Knights of the Grimnoir society are on the run, accused as conspiring to kill the President and hounded throughout the book by the mysterious and nefarious OCI. There is a lot of motion in this plot, with Faye Vierra driving cross-country through Oklahoma with a collection of new characters who seem to have been mostly introduced so they could get killed: Ian, Whisper, and Bolander, who is the first black character of real note introduced into the story. Their travels are interrupted when Crow shows up and tries to capture them all, slowly assuming a massive demonic form before Bolander drives Crow off just before he seizes Faye and at the same time kills himself with one mighty blast of electrical energy that coincidentally cures the magical blight that had caused the dust bowl. Someone who was cynical might note that the singularly notable black character introduced into the story becomes an example of the "beneficent magical black man who saves the white folk" trope, and couple this realization with the rather pronounced "yellow peril" themes contained in the story to perhaps find the whole tenor of the book somewhat off-putting. It doesn't really help matters that the reader is given little reason to care about Bolander before he dies, as he is basically a genial black man who accepts segregation with equanimity and can throw lightning bolts. As this story progresses, it becomes clear that Whisper has an ulterior motive for traveling with Faye: She had been sent to determine if Faye had somehow become the new "Spellbound", and if so, to kill her.

In the second story line, Jake Sullivan is lured from New York to New Jersey into a secret government facility where he receives a phone call from a dead man on an invention ascribed to Edison. One has to wonder why Tokugawa insists on only talking to Sullivan; after all, Sullivan had almost no role in Tokugawa's death, and only survived his fight with Madi because Madi kept having Sullivan brought back from the brink of death so Madi could beat him up some more. No matter the reason, Tokugawa informs Sullivan that the "Pathfinder" of the predator hunting the power that creates magic is on its way and that Sullivan has to warn the Iron Guard of the Imperium of the impending threat. Of course, no sequence in Spellbound is complete without gun play, so immediately afterwards government agents try to kill Sullivan, equipped with some sort of device that nullifies Sullivan's magic, although that proves to be only a modest impediment to his escape. After evading the government officers, Sullivan links up with his friends from the first book Dan, Jane, and Lance, and they head over to the Imperial embassy to try to pass on the warning. Things go about as well as one would expect, and they end up lobbing mortar shells at the embassy after Toru, an out of favor Iron Guard and second in command at the embassy, gets orders from a man who appears to be Chairman Tokugawa to kill the ambassador and the Grimnoir Knights. Oddly, even after Toru is given all of the ambassador's memories and knows that the Chairman is an impostor, he kills the ambassador anyway, and then sneaks away to join the Grimnoir Knights to help them against the Pathfinder.

In the final story line, Francis has turned his considerable financial resources to locating the manufacturer of the anti-magic device that both he and Sullivan encountered earlier in the book, eventually purchasing a company run by Buckminster Fuller, who is such a powerful "cog" that he can literally see magical geometry. The device Fuller has created, which he calls a "Dymaxion nullifier" turns out to be essentially a hand-waved device that reveals that the magic system integral to the book is basically nonsensical. Francis attempts to get Fuller to explain how the device works, and Fuller responds with a couple of paragraphs of magic-sounding meaningless arcanobabble. And soon it becomes clear that Fuller isn't going to utter any statements that are anything other than arcanobabble because Correia is not only too lazy to do any research, he's too lazy to come up with anything but gobbledegook as a framework for the magical structure that his entire book series is built upon. This sort of careless hand-waving and confusion runs throughout the book. Somehow the "Spellbound" curse got transferred from its previous holder to Faye, even though she was on an entirely different continent and had no magical powers of her own, but the exact nature of how this happened is hand-waved. Carr has apparently figured out how to drastically enhance the magical potential of people with a magical pattern imprinted on their skin, but exactly how this was figured out, and how it works is hand-waved (not to mention that none of the Grimnoir seem to think that maybe they should look into this sort of enhancement). Industrialists are depicted as both being willing to sell out the United States for a handful of gold, and at the same time portrayed as a potentially staunch and patriotic bulwark against government tyranny. This sort of sloppy, hand-waving and confusion is endemic in the story, probably because for the most part, it is fairly obvious that to the extent there is either a plot or world-building in the book, it is just to have a frame upon which to hang the bone-crunching fight scenes complete with loving descriptions of firearms and detailed accounts of how the protagonists have killed those who oppose them.

All three story lines eventually merge together, climaxing in the Grimnoir Knights launching a night-time assault on the OCI headquarters on Mason Island that ultimately results in the destruction of the entire island and the unleashing of a massive Godzilla-sized demonic creature upon the city of Washington D.C. As an aside, Mason Island is, in our world, now named Theodore Roosevelt Island, and is the site of a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt. Given the little regard Correia seems to hold for Franklin Roosevelt (and his apparent glee at casting FDR as a villainous figure), I suspect that the selection of Roosevelt Island as the site for the OCI headquarters was intended as something of an oblique insult directed at the Roosevelts as the island is magically annihilated as a result of the fracas. This also seems like a case in which Correia didn't bother to do much research, as there is a reason why no one has built an office building on the island - it is essentially little more than a frequently flooded pile of mud and sand anchored by some large rocks, and would likely be a disastrous site for any substantial construction. In any event, Sullivan and several other Grimnoir storm the island and kill off a bunch of faceless OCI guards before Crow shows up, his kind of magic being one of the few that is unaffected by the large Dymaxion the OCI uses to protect its installation. Meanwhile, Francis and Heinrich, having been captured and imprisoned earlier in the book by the OCI, manage to escape when Sullivan's team manages to knock out said Dymaxion, but not before Francis manages to inscribe a magical rune on the floor of his cell that seems to eat reality. Once the Dymaxion is knocked out, the Grimnoir gain the upper hand in the plodding and tedious fight: Capturing Coordinator Carr, seizing incriminating documents, freeing the faceless magically inclined people the OCI was holding as prisoners to experiment upon, and destroying the magical robot-men OCI had purchased as additional guardians.

But an overlong and incredibly detailed firefight involving an assault against a secret government agency and the destruction of an entire island in the Potomac River was apparently not dramatic enough for Correia's tastes, so Crow attempts to possess the most powerful demon he had ever encountered, and is mentally overwhelmed by the creature, who then proceeds to stomp around Washington D.C. like a giant Toho movie monster. This sequence adds almost nothing to the book, but does give the author opportunities to describe all of the weaponry futilely deployed against the monster. In the end, Whisper kills herself to provide additional power for Faye's abilities, telling Faye that the modest amount of additional power she was deriving from the hundreds of non-magically inclined people killed in the giant demon's rampages were simply not enough to give Faye the power needed to defeat the creature. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, as with Bolander, the reader really has no reason to care about Whisper's sacrifice, because through the book her character was developed no further than "the pretty French lady with fire powers", although the reader is given a taste of Whisper's apparent vanity in her suicide when she reconsiders shooting herself in the head and instead shoots herself in the chest so that she will look good at her funeral. Second, as far as it is explained, Faye, as the Spellbound, gets the magical power of any person who dies in proximity to her. But how is simply transferring Whisper's power to Faye supposed to improve the situation? Unless the Spellbound somehow multiplies the power (and if it does this, why not skip the step where people have to die), then this seems to be a zero-sum transaction that gains nothing. Finally, Faye's chosen solution - to transport a bomb intended by OCI to be used to kill the members of an anti-Active demonstration into the giant demon - seems like it would be less effective than the massive amount of military ordinance that had been deployed against the monster already.

In the end, the giant demon monster is blown up, but not before the reader must slog through pages and pages of tedious gun-porn in which the guns are, ironically, woefully ineffective at actually doing anything useful. Despite all of the sound and the fury in the book, the only developments of any real importance contained in its pages are Sullivan's conversation with Tokugawa, and the revelation that Faye is the Spellbound. And those are almost trivial footnotes in the book's story - despite Tokugawa's warning, almost no progress of any kind is made towards finding and stopping the Pathfinder, and not only is Faye only revealed to be the Spellbound near the end of the book, the reader isn't even told what the Spellbound is or what their significance is until a similarly late portion of the story. Everything else in Spellbound is little more than pointless wailing and gnashing of teeth that serves mostly as filler to justify having a middle book in the trilogy. As with Hard Magic, if following the exploits of a collection of characters who are less well-developed than the guns they carry through a paper thin plot set in a standard-issue fantasy world seems enticing to you, then Spellbound is a book you will enjoy. Otherwise, there's not much here worth bothering with.

Previous book in the series: Hard Magic
Subsequent book in the series: Warbound

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