Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review - Warbound by Larry Correia

Short review: Jake sets out with a small crew of Grimnoir Knights and pirates to take on the whole Imperium. Meanwhile, Faye figures out the secrets of magic. Then everyone starts shooting each other and Faye saves the world.

A pretense of death
A pirate expedition
Lots of explosions

Full review: The mediocrity of The Grimnoir Chronicles plods forward to its explosion-filled but still fairly pedestrian conclusion in Warbound. All of the now familiar characters - Jake, Faye, Francis, Heinrich, Toru, and so on - all return to fill their now familiar roles in a thin plot that, as with the previous books, appears to exist solely to give the author an excuse to write fight scenes in which every gun that appears is specifically identified. After basically screwing around for most of Spellbound (read review), this motley collection of characters fund and embark upon an expedition intended to foil the approaching magic consuming Enemy that had been hinted at in previous volumes. This being a Larry Corriea book, it should come as no surprise that their planned method of accomplishing this aim is to attempt to kill the leader of the nefarious Imperium and then shoot, burn, freeze, and club the Imperium's soldiers until they come around to the Grimnoir's way of thinking. Given this, no one should be surprised that the book, and the series, culminates in about seventy pages of near continuous fight sequences.

The first question that must be asked, given that this novel was essentially the flagship work of Correia's somewhat controversial "sad puppy" Hugo nominating ballot, is this: Is Warbound worthy of a Hugo Award? My answer is clear: No. This novel is simply not good enough to win a Hugo. In fact, I don't think it is good enough to deserve to be on the Hugo ballot. This isn't a bad book. It is, when one scrapes away all of the politicking that surrounded it, a competently written, fairly cartoonish adventure tale with a small amount of juvenile-level politics mixed in. The book's plot isn't particularly compelling, the writing isn't more than merely workmanlike, and there aren't any of the kinds of big ideas that one would expect from a Hugo nominated novel. When one reads it alongside its competition for the honor, the book's relatively weak plot, feeble world-building, and poor character development are painfully apparent.

The story in Warbound picks up shortly after the events in Spellbound, and proceeds along three paths. In the first, and most truncated, Francis, Dan, and Jane hold down the home front for the Grimnoir assisted by freshly minted Bureau of Investigations agent Pemberly Hammer. Francis butts heads with President Franklin Roosevelt, who demands that Francis' company turn over all of the Dymaxion Nullifiers in their possession and the plans to make them to the government, a demand that Francis refuses. Roosevelt also pushes for laws requiring Actives (as those who have identifiable magical powers are called) to wear identifying armbands and promotes building special communities for Actives to live in. All of this offends Francis, who decries the "collectivists" in government who want to steal his hard earned (or more accurately, completely inherited) wealth. This perpetual rallying cry of adolescent libertarians everywhere seems to be Corriea's latest salvo in an attempt to draw a nomination for a Prometheus Award, an effort that has proven unsuccessful thus far. This thread doesn't really add much to the story other than to explain where several characters who had appeared in previous books are spending their time in this one, but it is shunted aside and ignored for the bulk of the book. This is something of a disappointment, because if handled reasonably well the political maneuverings seem like they could have been an interesting part of the story.

In the second story thread, Faye Vierra, who was revealed to be the "spellbound" in the previous book, and who everyone still thinks is dead, heads to France to witness Whisper's funeral and find the torch's former mentor the Grimoir elder Jacques Montand. She introduces herself to Montand in the manner that so many of the various characters in the series do: At the point of a gun. They eventually come to a truce and Montand sets about teaching Faye about the previous spellbound Anand Sivarim while alternatively urging Faye to kill herself and agonizing over whether to poison her. Eventually he takes her to Berlin so she can consult with a zombified seer about the shape of the future. After she collects a pile of the seer's artwork, she follows the cryptic clues therein to the Russian countryside where she confronts and kills Rasputin - who is a servant of the Enemy in addition to his unpleasant historical personality quirks. Rasputin turns out to be an Active, apparently with the power of a "Boomer" to make things blow up, but his powers seem to have been enhanced by his alliance with the Enemy such that he has the ability to disassemble matter at the molecular level.

This quasi-physics explanation of Rasputin's power, along with other elements of the story, does raise some questions that are never really answered in the book. In many parts of the story, Correia appears to be trying to create a kind of warped physics explanation for how magic works. "Heavies" can manipulate gravity. "Massives" and "fades" can manipulate density. "Iceboxes" can reduce temperature. And so on. Correia even uses this sort of warped physics as a means by which Fuller and Vierra are able to throw out some arcanobabble to unmask the Enemy and save the day in the climatic battle at the end of the book. But the quasi-physics breaks down when one looks at it in anything more than a perfunctory manner. If a "fade" is able to reduce his density to pass through things, and raise his density to solidify again, why is he unable to raise his density like a "massive" as well? Given that a "heavy" can both raise and lower the intensity of gravity, why can an "icebox" reduce temperature but not raise it? How do the powers of a torch fit into this at all? Fire is just the rapid oxidation of combustible materials - a simple chemical chain reaction. If a torch can manipulate that, why can't they manipulate other chemical reactions? It seems that Correia wants to have his cake and eat it too: Positing at times a set of magical abilities that kind of fit together into a warped but somewhat recognizable version of physics, and at others a hodge-podge of random powers that seem to follow no underlying principles at all. This sort of lackadaisical approach to world-building is apparent throughout the series, and underscores the fact that everything about The Grimnoir Chronicles exists pretty much entirely to provide a perfunctory framework upon which the many pages of fight scenes can be hung.

This brings us to the third thread running through the book, which follows Jake Sullivan as he gathers some Grimnoir Knights, Pirate Bob's crew, some Stuyvesant employees, and a paroled sociopathic psychologist and heads out looking for trouble in the most advanced airship that Francis could provide. The crew that Jake has selected for this expedition is described as being almost exclusively male, with the only female member being Pirate Bob's long time crew member, the torch "Lady Origami". This exclusion of female members from the crew seems to be out of some sort of sentiment that manly men go to war and women are to be shielded from this sort of activity. But in a world in which magical abilities exist, this seems to be a kind of false chivalry as there is no question but that there are female characters in the Grimoir universe that have skills that make them more than a match for any man, and probably more valuable than many of the men that Sullivan takes along. The expedition brings a healer along, but he gets killed in the early going, leaving the force without medical assistance, which raises the question of why Jane was not brought along as a second healing option. When the mission needs to interrogate prisoners, or deal with underworld figures in Shanghai, or even those Grimnoir native to China, a number of trust issues crop up, a situation in which Pemberly Hammer would have been exceedingly valuable. In short, by chauvinistically excluding most women from his crew, Sullivan seems to have caused himself a fair amount of unnecessary trouble. If one were feeling charitable, one might think that this is an attempt to show the downside of sexism in this world, but given that Sullivan is repeatedly described as being always right, this seems unlikely. The real problem is that even though it seems fairly obvious that Sullivan is supposed to be completely correct in choosing an all-male crew, this sort of attitude doesn't make any sense in a magical world. After all, the existence of someone like Delilah in the first book, Whisper and Hammer in the second book, and Lady Origami in this book, as well as the presumably numerous other people like them would make it very difficult to argue that women are the "weaker" sex. Unless one were to posit that magical ability is unequally distributed by sex (and given the characters who populate these books, that seems to be a possibility, although that would pose an entirely different, albeit no less problematic, set of questions), then the persistence of an attitude such as that displayed by many of the male characters in the book seems to be an instance in which the author simply didn't bother to think through the implications of his setting.

In any event, Jake's expedition takes up the bulk of the book, with the other two previously mentioned story lines providing a sprinkling of variety at the edges. First, Jake heads for an Imperial installation in the Arctic Circle so that there can be a fight scene showing the Grimnoir slicing up their opponents before they recover a MacGuffin and Toru can sneak off to try to tell the Imperial pseudo-Chairman that the "Pathfinder" - the advance scout of the magic-consuming Enemy - is on its way, an effort that backfires. On the other hand, the pseudo-Chairman's response to Toru's efforts provides an assist Buckminster Fuller's arcanobabble-laden efforts to unravel the characteristics of the Enemy, making this something of an own goal on the pseudo-Chairman's part. After using the MacGuffin to determine that the Enemy is spread across the globe, and has infested the Imperium, Jake and his cohorts decide to do what they had planned to do from the start: Try to kill the pseudo-Chairman and get the Imperium to return to its original purpose as the "Dark Ocean" to destroy the Pathfinder and prevent the Enemy from coming to Earth and consuming the creature that bestows magic on humanity. Given that their sojourn in the Arctic didn't really change anything they planned to do, one wonders exactly why they went there other than to surprise and slaughter some Imperial soldiers. So after their Arctic encounter, the expedition heads to Shanghai where they sneak into the city, link up with the Shanghai Grimnoir Knights, make a deal with some underworld gangs, send Toru around town to kill a bunch of people in very public ways, get betrayed by one of their own, and have a huge fight with the Shadow Guard in which Lance Talon has a heroic death and Toru gets captured. And then the book moves on to the final set of fight sequences, which, of course, are the entire point of the series.

Around about page 480, the final conflict starts, and between that point and about page 550, the characters are all pretty much continuously fighting with very brief asides to resolve a handful of plot points. Toru fights in a staged contest with the pseudo-Chairman. Pirate Bob takes his airship to the upper stratosphere so that Buckminster Fuller can use his freshly created arcanobabble-driven device. Faye shows up just in time to join in the fracas and promptly destroys the Imperial flagship on her own - carrying a sizable bag of firearms that she cycles through mostly, it seems, so that Corriea can specifically identify each and every one of them. Eventually an armored Jake Sullivan and an armored Toru team up to fight enormous numbers of Iron Guard and Shadow Guard, who seem to fall in front of them like so many sheaves of wheat, which seems like something of a precipitous fall for the previously vaunted elite warriors of the Imperium. In Hard Magic (read review) the reader was told that the Grimnoir only take on members of the Iron Guard when the odds are at least five to one, and Sullivan's mostly single-handed defeat of one is considered to be a spectacularly amazing feat. Now, Toru and Sullivan armor up and take on a hundred of them plus a sizable number of Shadow Guard and hundreds of regular troops, all at the same time. Granted, Sullivan is supposed to be magically enhanced by the magical tattoo used by the OCI in Spellbound, but when he is cutting down Iron Guard by the dozens, the book moves from over the top to ridiculously silly.

And the somewhat odd thing about this bloodbath is that it was not only probably not necessary, when one begins to poke at the ultimate resolution of the plot, it was actually counterproductive. It turns out that the Enemy needs a sufficiently large concentration of dead Actives to be corralled by a sufficiently large number of Pathfinder minions to receive the signal to move in to feed on the Power. This, at first glance seems like a result to be avoided, and Sullivan's strategy of attacking the pseudo-Chariman in Shanghai and Faye's efforts to hop about the world preventing massacres of Actives are aimed at preventing this outcome. Of course, Faye misses one concentration and the Enemy launches itself towards Earth (through space it turns out, which kind of makes the Enemy seem like a cosmic Galactus and less like the trans-dimensional entity it and the Power were described as in earlier parts of the series). Faye intercepts the creature and, using the insight she gained from looking at an origami creation, sets a trap for it that results in the Enemy being permanently vanquished. But if the Grimnoir had been successful at foiling the Pathfinder, Faye could have never defeated the Enemy because it never would have begun its final approach. Which means that most of the actions taken by the Grimnoir in this book were at best pointless, and at worst, a hindrance that only made it harder to actually defeat the Enemy. In the end, of course, Sullivan is made an elder of the Grimnoir because "they should have been listening to him in the first place" despite his advice actually having not been particularly useful when one stops and thinks about it.

The novel has some other issues - for example, despite the fact that magical powers would presumably be a worldwide phenomenon and the Power has no reason to discriminate on the basis of geography, there isn't a single character in the book from either Africa or South America. Unless one of the English characters like Ian is supposed to hail from Australia, there isn't any "Active" from there in the book either. In fact, neither Africa or South America rates any kind of mention at all in the book. With the exception of a couple of Pacific Islands, the Southern Hemisphere as well not exist in the Grimnoir universe, and this is, yet again, an indication of how little thought was put into the world-building aspects of this story. While there are dozens of male characters running about the story, there are only four female characters in Warbound, and two of them, Jane and Lady Origami (or more accurately, Akune), exist mostly to be a wife or lover of a male character. And so on. In the end, the ultimate question is this: After upwards of 1,700 pages, are the Grimnoir Chronicles worth reading? I guess that depends on whether you are interested in reading an over the top comic book transformed into a novel filled with lots of two-dimensional characters, a facile plot, a lot of guns, and heaping helpings of fighting. If your answer is yes, then these are the books for you. If you care about things like world-building, well-developed characters, and a plot thicker than paper, then you should probably give them a pass.

Previous book in the series: Spellbound

2014 Hugo Award Nominees

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