“Yeah, well, getting the band back together might not be that easy, Jake.”
-Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers
Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: We’re getting the band back together: stories where groups have to reassemble for one last tour, and, as an oddly specific detail? All the chapters are song titles.
So if you like:
Joe Abercrombie, Terry Pratchett or Glen Cook’s Black Company novels.
Novels that could be confused with a Lordi video.
Dark fantasy with a dash of humor.
Fighting everything in the Monster Manual.
You might like
In a world where adventuring companies are named and treated like rock bands, Saga is re-forming for the impossible mission of rescuing their frontman’s daughter from a city besieged by monsters. Although the obvious question is: can they still bring it?
The shield was named for a rampaging treant who had led a living forest on a month long killing spree through southern Agria. Blackheart and his arboreal army had wiped out several villages before laying siege to Hollow Hill. Though a few stalwart defenders remained to protect their homes, Clay and his bandmates had been the only real fighters in town. The ensuing battle, which lasted for almost a week and claimed the life of one of Saga’s numerous unlucky bards, was the subject of more songs than could be sung in a day.
Clay himself had cut down Blackheart, and from the treant’s corpse had hewn the wood from which he’d fashioned his shield. It had saved his life more times than all his bandmates together, and was Clay’s most cherished possession. Its surface told the story of countless trials: here gouged by the razor claws of a harpy broodmother, there mottled by the acid breath of a mechanized bull. Its weight was a familiar comfort, even if the strap was starting to chafe, and the top lip kept scraping the back of his head, and his shoulders ached like a plough horse hitched to a granite wagon.
This is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. It’s well written, original, dramatic, funny, staged in a meticulously well-built world, and while there’s a whole lot going on, Eames juggles it all brilliantly to create one hell of a ride.
To just say that it’s about adventuring companies being treated like rock bands would really belittle the execution, as the book reads well on a couple of levels. If you don’t get the rock and roll references, the book reads perfectly as dark fantasy with moments of levity. If you do catch them, and there are a number of spots where I’m pretty sure I know who Eames was referencing, it’s a bit of an insight as to how the real world model may have informed the character’s development. The book has a really unique tone, in that it reminded me of the more gritty, realistic fantasy of Joe Abercrombie, mixed with the levity of Terry Pratchett’s later Discworld novels, and set in a world that felt like Glen Cook’s Black Company might be wandering around somewhere. So if you’re a fan of any of that, I highly recommend giving Kings of the Wyld a read.
Or if you like:
Douglas Adams, and specifically The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
The Eurovision Song Contest
The works of Terry Pratchett
You might like
To prove it’s worthy of survival, humanity has to beat at least one other race in a galactic talent contest, otherwise they’ll literally come in dead last.
Life isn’t difficult, it isn’t picky, it isn’t unique, and fate doesn’t enter into the thing. Kick-starting the gas-guzzling subcompact go-cart of organic sentience is as easy as shoving it down a hill and watching the whole thing spontaneously explode. Life wants to happen. It can’t stand not happening. Evolution is ready to go at a moment’s notice, hopping from one foot to another like a kid waiting in line for a roller coaster, so excited to get on with the colored lights and the loud music and the upside-down parts, it practically pees itself before it even pays the ticket price. And that ticket price is low, low, low. U-Pick-Em inhabitable planets, a dollar a bag! Buy-one-get-one specials on attractive and/or menacing flora and fauna! Oxygen! Carbon! Water! Nitrogen! Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! And, of course, all the intelligent species you can eat. They spin up overnight, hit the midway of industrial civilization, and ride the Giant Dipper Ultra-Cyclone till they puke themselves to death or achieve escape velocity and sail their little painted plastic bobsleds out into the fathomless deep.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Yes, life is the opposite of rare and precious. It’s everywhere; it’s wet and sticky; it has all the restraint of a toddler left too long at day care without a juice box. And life, in all its infinite and tender intergalactic variety, would have gravely disappointed poor gentle-eyed Enrico Fermi had he lived only a little longer, for it is deeply, profoundly, execrably stupid.
This books opens with a quote from Lordi’s Hard Rock Hallelujah (which was unquestionably the high water mark of the Eurovision Song Contest) and my only thought was “Dear God, please let this book look live up to it’s potential.” Well I gotta say this book did not disappoint, which leaves me wondering: HOW THE HELL HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE BEFORE? She’s been published since, like, 2004, has like, 8 books and a ton of other stuff. What the hell, man?
Ok, that said, Space Opera is pretty much something Douglas Adams would have written if he’d downed eight pots of coffee and condensed the smartass asides of the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy into one book. And while you’d be right for thinking that would be a terrible idea. That nobody is Douglas Adams. That those books had a whole lot of weird going on, and it’s the sort of lightning in a bottle nobody’s seen before or since, and that there’s just no way that’s gonna work. You’d be wrong.
Look, this thing is dense. And not dense in a dry concrete way, but in a chocolate torte way. There’s a lot to unpack on every page, and as ludicrous as the backgrounds about alien races are, and why they need to have this contest in the first place, it all makes a shocking amount of sense and holds together really well as punchline logic—the setup seems ridiculous, and then it all makes sense. There’s all kinds of details in here—for example I’m pretty sure all the chapter titles have been performed at the Eurovision song contest. When I’m reading a book, I’ll bookmark a couple of pages that really illustrate the author’s style, or lend some insight into the plot, or generally be useful for review purposes to provide a sample of what a potential reader would be in for, and I gotta say I’ve never bookmarked anything as much as this book.
If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams, you should definitely read this book.
Or if you like:
Strong female protagonists.
Something evil just around the corner.
You might like
Years after their band broke up and their lead singer shot to superstardom, he’s staging a comeback tour, and for various reasons, this doesn’t sit well with forgotten lead guitarist Kris Pulaski, who can’t exactly remember what happened that night it all fell apart, but she’s going to figure it out, and if there’s one thing she knows for sure, it’s that “A girl with a guitar never has to apologize.”
Suddenly, in a violent rush, Scottie Rocket had snatched the pages out of Terry’s hands and ripped them in half, threw the pieces up in the air, gotten in Terry’s face.
“Wah! Wah! Wah!” he shouted. “No one loves me! Boo hoo! Guess what? We play fucking metal! I don’t want to sing about your sad feelings! I want dragons.”
All these years later, she finally understood what Scottie meant. She needed to sing songs about something bigger than this world. She needed to play about something more than the soulless country she saw around her. The blues were about the pain and struggle of living inside Black Iron Mountain. Metal showed you a door.
She wasn’t famous, she wasn’t rich, she didn’t even have her own photo ID. She was just a musician. But you fought with the weapons you had, not with the ones you wished for.
Kris couldn’t put it off any longer. She bought a ticket to Wichita, Kansas, with everything she had, and got on the bus with empty pockets and an empty stomach, riding through the Midwest to find the one person who hated Terry more than she did, the one person she could maybe still trust.
You know, when asked to name your favorite Hendrix, I’m betting most people wouldn’t answer ‘Grady’, but then most people probably haven’t read We Sold Our Souls, his love letter to the spirit of heavy metal. Were it not for the fact that the title is a bit of a spoiler, and that the way one thing leads to another makes it difficult to say much without dropping spoilers, I’d have nothing to complain about. The pacing, the plotting, the characters, the elements of satire, and the feeling of what it’s like to be in a band, or to just love that band, is all spot on. You don’t have to be a fan of heavy metal to appreciate this, but if you’ve ever had a song speak to you, it’s definitely worth a read. Oh, and there’s some freaky stuff that starts happening about a third of the way through. Keep an eye out.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the Facebook comments, and stay tuned for my next column.