Friday, 2 October 2009

Armageddon’s Children

Terry Brooks
ISBN: 978-1-84149-480-7

Armageddon’s Children sports the subtitle ‘every legend has a beginning’, but a crueller man than me might consider mentioning more suitable ones. ‘How to kill your sense of wonder’, perhaps, or ‘Leave no cash cow unmilked’. No, wait, I just mentioned them. Get your own.

This, then, is the first in the long unwaited-for trilogy bridging Terry Brooks’ The Word and the Void and Shannara series’. The knightly protagonist of the former, John Ross, was plagued with visions of the nightmarish future which awaited humanity if he should fail to defend it from demons of the Void, while the Shannara books have always hinted at the idea that they were wallowing in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Earth. In the later series’ particularly, said hints had all the subtlety of a thermonuclear exchange, and true to the trend Armageddon’s Children substantiates all those prophecies and hints with gleeful disregard for any sense of tact or, well, sensitivity.

Yet bizarrely, leaving aside for the moment the question as to whether this book needed to be written at all, Brooks for some reason cheats even those die-hard fans who really did want all their dots connected. Armageddon’s Children kicks off fifty years in the future, long after the last missile fell to Earth, and his characters are too young to remember the Apocalypse. Certainly there are good reasons to pass over the end of the world: doing so allows Brooks to avoid all the hoary clichés of apocalypse-in-motion, while giving Armageddon the attention it deserves would probably require another trilogy’s worth of fiction before this one even got started. There might be another reason, though; the authorial freedom granted by a few years’ disconnect between the impossibly complex reality of modern life and Brooks’ post-nuclear landscape. The world of Armageddon’s Children isn’t a natural evolution of the one we know, or even a decent attempt at it; it’s a cardboard cutout, flat and stale. There’s no sense of organic history, of how these terrible developments might have come about. Just same tired clichés trotted out. Walled compounds filled with semi-benevolent fascists: check. Packs of feral street kids roaming the ruined cities: check. Giant mutant beasties, made giant and mutant through the miracle of radiation! Check.

And of course the armies of marauding raiders, devoid of humanity or reason; what self-respecting post-apocalyptia would be complete without them? And in case you didn’t know about them, Brooks lays them bare before his reader in the first chapter:

The real enemies were the once-men, humans subverted not by radiation and chemicals but by false promises which went something like this: “Do you want to know what it will take to survive? A willingness to do what is needed. The world has always belongs to the strongest…”
Once they embraced the propaganda of the demons, they fell quickly into the thicket of resulting madness. (p.11)

The tragedy of what men must do in order to survive? No, it’s demon propaganda making them Bad Men. In half a page of amateur psychoanalysis, Brooks builds a ghetto fence down the centre of his book: good on this side, evil on the other. Good guys, you have your orders: kill the evil ones with impunity, and without remorse. They’re evil, after all.

It might be a genre trope of high fantasy, but in a gritty post-apocalyptic setting like this such black and white distinctions tend to erode the suspension of disbelief somewhat. And Brooks’ reductive tendencies also deftly render the once-men fairly useless as any kind of credible threat; they’re predictable, one-dimensional and boring, entirely free of suspense. And sure enough for the rest of the book they’re little more than pop-up targets for the heroes to eliminate, like some apocalyptic game of whack-a-mole.

It’s possible that my mistake is in identifying Armageddon’s Children as gritty, however; when nine-tenths of the world’s population has been wiped out and demons roam the earth, you might think you’d be justified in assuming a little grit. But Brooks’ ruined Earth is like the painted backdrop of a theatrical production; it looks the part, but has nothing to do with what’s actually happening on-stage. Instead we get a peculiarly PG-rated version of apocalyptia, where cutesy ‘Street Kids’ play baseball in the mutant-haunted ruins and even the mean and moody ghetto stereotypes refuse to swear:
“You’re out!” shouted Sparrow.
“Out!” Panther laughed. “No frickin’ way!”
“Out!” Sparrow repeated …
Panther picked up the broomstick, waved it her threateningly, and then threw it down again. “What are you talking about? That don’t count! ...”
“It hit you last, and you’re out!”
“You’re frickin’ crazy!”
Sparrow stalked over to him, brushing her mop of straw-coloured hair out of her blue eyes, brow furrowed in anger. “Don’t talk to me like that! Don’t use that street language on me, Panther Puss! Owl, tell him he’s out!” (pp.170-171)
…and so on, like some bizarre amalgam of On the Beach and The House at Pooh Corner.

But the most jarring moment comes about halfway through the book, when the narrative turns its focus on a young Elf caring for the magical Ellcrys, the tree which maintained the Forbidding which kept demonkind in check since the time of Faerie. And if you’re wondering what on earth that sort of high-fantasy language is doing in a post-apocalyptic setting, you’re not alone. It’s as though Brooks forgot which series he was writing for a couple of chapters, and slipped into Shannara without realising. Yes, this is supposed to be the series which bridges the gap between the modern world and Shannara’s high fantasy, but the change of tone is so sudden and jarring that the book never really recovers. If the world is slowly slipping into magic and wonder, shouldn’t the subtlety of the transformation be reflected in the written style? There are any number of ways Brooks could have allowed the fantastic to seep into his apocalypse; the sudden plunge into fantasy tropes we’re given here smacks of nothing more than laziness.

Nonetheless, it’s a change that even the more grounded characters seem to accept with little more than token protest. Witness the baffling moment when Angel Perez, paladin of the Word, is sent off in search of an Elfstone:

Angel scowled, angry now. “Elves created it? You’re saying there are Elves out there? What does that mean? Look, I don’t know what any of this is about. I don’t know anything about Elves and their stones. I’m a barrio girl, a street girl, never even been this far north before in my life, and this Elf stuff is just words that don’t mean anything. You want to tell me what you’re talking about?” (pp.232-3)

Thanks for explaining yourself so thoroughly, Angel. But one short burst of expository dialogue later, she’s quite at home with the idea:

Well, she thought, if you’d accepted that tatterdemalions were real, how big of a jump was it to believe in Elves? (p.233)

How big of a jump indeed? Again, it’s a difficult line to walk; the conversion of the sceptic is a hoary old cliché of contemporary fantasy, and it would have been hard to do it well. But even retreading old ground would have been preferable to the writer’s fiat Brooks employs again and again in Armageddon’s Children.

Better to have left the genesis of Shannara alone than do it badly; at least that way fans of Brooks’ earlier work would still have a mystery to hold onto, to wonder and to talk about. But Brooks has taken that raw potential, that untapped possibility which excites the imagination, and wrung it dry to produce a very ordinary book. Which is such a shame.

This review was originally written for

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Star Wars: Dark Lord - Rise of Darth Vader

James Luceno
Ballantine Books

At the height of the Clone Wars, as Jedi are betrayed and the Emperor’s dark new order rises from the ashes of the Galactic Republic, Jedi Master Roan Shryne and his companions manage to escape the clone troopers seeking their deaths and go on the run. But there is one thing they could never account for – the Emperor’s sinister right-hand man, Darth Vader, assigned to hunt down those few Jedi to escape the massacre. Yet that mysterious black-armoured warrior, once the brightest star of the Jedi Order, finds himself struggling not only with the task at hand and the crippling injuries sustained in his last battle with his former master, but also with the burden of guilt at the betrayal of his friends and colleagues.

Unfortunately Anakin Skywalker was no less petulant and self-pitying at the end of Revenge of the Sith than he was at the beginning. Where was Star Wars’ malevolent, implacable crusher of throats? If ever there was a character in need of a good smack around the back of the head it was Anakin, and for all its melodrama Revenge just didn’t deliver. James Luceno’s unenviable task, then, was to polyfilla over the gaping plot holes George Lucas left and give those few Star Wars fans not yet choking to death on their own bile a decent emotional through-line. The mutilated, snivelling manchild still had to become Darth Vader, dammit!

And to give Luceno credit, he does an adequate job. The self-pity that Anakin wallows in at the novel’s opening quickly dwindles in the face of the Emperor’s emotional manipulations, and the decapitated heads of Jedi mark the excision of each scrap of humanity like morbid milestones. Vader’s hunt for the fugitive Roan Shryne is interspersed with periods of emotional self-interrogation which show quite effectively, if a little heavy-handedly, how the headstrong boy grew into a monster.

Just about the most interesting part of Dark Lord is the way Luceno balances Vader’s emotional development with that of his nominal hero, Roan Shryne. Vader’s star might be rising, but at the novel opens Shryne doesn’t even have one. He’s lost his faith in the Force, and feels inadequate to the task of training the bright-eyed Padawan he’s inheriting from a dead friend. The near-extermination of the Jedi order is just another crushing weight on his shoulders, but Luceno develops him with just the right lightness of touch. And the way the fortunes of Vader and Shryne seem to intertwine, their emotions and decisions forcing the other character off in new and unexpected directions, makes for an interesting and dramatically narrative – and a surprisingly tense climax, considering the inevitable survival of one participant.

For those looking for something a little more space-opera and a little less introspective, there’s all the usual furniture of a Star Wars novel – sleazy space-bars, heroic smugglers, unnecessarily complex sub-plots, exotically themed planets and the cross-eyed marksmanship of stormtroopers. It’s decent enough diversion, and the description of the Wookie homeworld is powerful enough to almost redeem the fact that it allows bloody Chewbacca to be shoe-horned into yet another Star Wars novel. All the standard parts are present and correct, and trotted out with the regularity of somebody running their way down a checklist. Yet I feel I’m missing something…

Ah, of course. The lightsaber battles. Well, there are lots of them.

But the problem with swordfights, particularly ones involving improbable laser-based weaponry, is that they look better on screen than on the page. Without a first-rate writer to make something fresh of the action, it’s about as interesting as reading a kendo manual. So it is in the case of Dark Lord – dry description of slashes and parries doesn’t mean very much unless you can visualise what’s happening. It’s a knack, and James Luceno doesn’t really have it. Instead he’s made the common mistake of confusing dramatic conflict with physical violence, the result of which was me skim-reading over the fight scenes in search of something more substantial.

While there is meat on these bones, particularly in the parallel development of Vader and Shryne, overall Dark Lord isn’t the richest of feasts. It’s a diverting few hours, but that’s time which could be better spent. Read Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith novelisation instead, if you haven’t already; James Luceno’s offering just isn’t quite convincing enough to lift it off my ‘Star Wars by the numbers’ shelf.

This review was originally written for