So, how about that Vox Day?
I will not summarize the controversy over everyone's favorite SFWA-taunting crank again. But for those not in the know, Vox Day is the pseudonym of Theodore Beale, who is somewhat notorious. This year one of his novellas (okay, "novelettes" — I hate that term; how many different gradations do we need between "novel" and "short story"?) was nominated for a Hugo, which has a lot of people not happy. What followed was an online ragestorm about how Vox Day is a terrible writer because he's a terrible person, which makes it rather hard to find reviews of his fiction that don't seem to be written either by kneejerk haters or obsequious fans.
I'd already downloaded several of his ebooks and had them sitting in my reader, but since this year I'm actually voting for the Hugos, it seemed an appropriate time to get around to them. Strictly speaking, I was only obliged to read the Hugo-nominated novelette Opera Vita Aeterna, but since so many people talk about Vox Day in bombastic terms having little to do with the merits of his fiction, I wanted to get a fair opinion of his writing beyond a single 9500-word novelette.
The three books I am reviewing are collections of short stories set in the author's world of Selenoth. This is the setting of A Throne of Bones, which is the first volume in what is apparently intended to be a massive epic fantasy series. I have not read A Throne of Bones (and probably will not any time soon — I'm already wading through Brandon Sanderson's doorstoppers, plus I'm reading the first volume in the Wheel of Time), so I approached them as stand-alones. I gather from other reviews that some of the stories tie into events and storylines in the series, and may be more meaningful to someone who is familiar with the world and the characters from reading A Throne of Bones, but I figure particularly for a Hugo-nominated story, they should stand or fall on their own.
The following reviews are listed in the order I read them; I don't know if this is the order in which they were written and/or their chronological order within the Selenoth timeline.
The Wardog's Coin
The Wardog's Coin consists of two stories set in the epic fantasy world of A Throne of Bones. The title story is about a human mercenary company which finds itself in the employ of an elf king. Outnumbered and under attack from an army of orcs and goblins, the Company discovers it is no longer fighting for pay, but for survival. The second story, Qalabi Dawn, features a young tribal chieftain, Shabaka No-Tail, who seeks to find a way to unite the fractious tribes of The People before the implacable legions of the Dead God invade the desert to carry out their crusade of total extermination.
As the publisher's blurb above indicates, The Wardog's Coin consists of two short stories. The connection between them is tenuous; aside from a few casual references, one might take them to be occurring in completely different settings.
The Wardog's Coin, the 17,500-word title story, is a basic military fantasy yarn about a mercenary company contracted to fight a bunch of orcs. As I began reading, I felt myself groaning — orcs, elves, "King Everbright," a first-person protagonist speaking in affected dialect, joking with his "Capitaine" about "futtering whores" — it was like one of those short stories you read in fanzines in the 80s, where some 19-year-old was trying to turn his AD&D campaign into the next Sword of Shannara. Tolkien by way of Gygax.
King Everbright don't have nothing in his army as can stand against a charge from three hundred of those monsters, except for the Company, and to be honest, even we can't expect to do much more than get run over. The blue-bloods of Savondir and their men-at-arms might laugh at the boar riders before skewering all their mounts on lances and throwing them on the firepit for dinner, but us wardogs don't have lances. Or plate. Or pretty warhorses.
And yet... as I kept reading, I kind of forgot about its derivativeness, and even the sometimes laughable dialog no longer bothered me. It was entertaining. The style is straightforward storytelling and the story moves along at a fast pace with plenty of action, which is just what a story about a fantasy commando raid should do.
The main character gets drafted into a suicidal mission in the hopes of evening the Company's odds against the enemy. This involves elves riding giant eagles dropping him into the middle of the orc camp, where he's supposed to plant magical explosives.
I liked the description of the war pigs; the idea sounds funny at first, but they're actually pretty fucking scary if you think about how nasty real boars are and then picture fantasy giant boars being ridden by orcs. What follows is a bloody, descriptive battle between fantasy armies — dual-sword-wielding elves and humans vs. boar-riding orcs and goblin spear-carriers.
You can't help seeing painted miniatures advancing across a hex-mapped landscape as you read, but the characters were individually interesting enough to make it a decent war story. Anyone who likes Warhammer or AD&D novelizations would enjoy this story. It did not immediately convince me of Vox Day's writing prowess, but it kept me reading.
Qalabi Dawn, a little shorter at 11,600 words, takes place elsewhere and possibly elsewhen. Like the first story, the climax is a fantasy army battle, but this time it's fantasy Romans vs. shapeshifting lion-people in a vaguely Africa-like setting. There are more politics in this story, as we get the POVs of both Quintus Cassianus Vopiscus, the
At this point, I have to concede that one of the most common criticisms you'll see of Vox Day's writing, in the much-circulated-and-mocked opening paragraph of his Hugo-nominated story (more on that below) is entirely true: he sucks at openings.
Shabaka watched impassively as the carrion crows descended upon the scanty remains of the morning's kill. The heavy fullness in his stomach made him yearn for the shade of a Kuruku tree, but he could not yet allow himself to stretch out for an afternoon nap. The kill had been a good one, but costly, and there were decisions to be made. The pitiless sun was nearing her apex, and before she disappeared into the purple darkness, his path must be determined.
This sort of bloated, purplish description, usually involving weather and/or the time of day, seems to be common in his writing, and it's a bad habit. That said, it's also common in the writing of a lot of published fiction and was pretty much how all derivative epic fantasy used to be written. (I am currently wading through The Eye of the World, and to any Robert Jordan fans who think Vox Day's writing is turgid, all I can say is L.O.L.)
The Wardog's Coin is mostly pure action. Qalabi Dawn gets bloody at the end, but the first part of the story is about the outcast Shabaka No-Tail proving himself fit to assume the mantle of leadership, treading another well-worn fantasy trope, and doing so with regretful but ruthless calculation. Meanwhile, Quintus Cassianus Vopiscus proves to be a rather lazy and venal man who figured an expedition to stomp on these cat-people savages would be just the thing to elevate him to the Senate, whereupon he could retire to a cozy villa and get fed grapes by slaves for the rest of his life. Things don't go the way he planned.
I thought the second story was somewhat better than the first (prose notwithstanding) in that it displayed a bit more creativity in worldbuilding. Neither is enough to give a sense of whether the world is actually more than a fantasy map upon which various arbitrary kingdoms of AD&D races and pastiched historical empires have been plopped down, and the writing wasn't impressive, but the two stories are entertaining enough if you like traditional fantasy.
A Magic Broken
A Magic Broken is a fantastic tale of ruthlessness, courage and deceit. The novella tells the story of Captain Nicolas du Mere, an exile fleeing the death of his rebel lord, and Lodi, son of Dunmorin, a brave dwarf seeking to rescue his fellow dwarves from slavery. Their dangerous paths meet, but in a manner that is anything but predictable.
This ebook is a single 19,500-word novella. Once again, we have traditional fantasy races in a traditional fantasy city, beginning with Vox Day's traditional fantasy weather report:
The sun broke without warning over the mountaintops to the south, spilling much-needed warmth over the camp of the traveler. It had been a hard night, a cold and cheerless one in their rude, makeshift shelter, but he took solace in the knowledge that it would be his last night in the wilds for the foreseeable future.
This time, we are going to Malkan, a wealthy trading city in the mountains ruled by banking guilds. There are two main characters; one is Nicolas, a mage whose true purpose is not revealed until the end, the other a dwarven warrior named Lodi. Their paths cross when they both wind up rescuing an elven princess.
Human wizard, dwarf fighter, elf princess. Seriously? Once again, my initial impression was that the whole thing was very AD&Dish. There's nothing in the story that a competent GM couldn't bake into a quick quest. I still liked it, as there was just enough complexity in the motives of Nicolas and Lodi to make them interesting to read about; the by-the-numbers "rescue the princess" story has been seen in every AD&D tournament ever, but the storytelling was again competent enough to keep me reading.
There are ye olde Dark Forebodings at the end, which hint at a larger story arc which I assume ties into what's going on in the main series. A Magic Broken was a quick read, but being longer than the stories in A Wardog's Coin yet not particularly better, I thought it was a somewhat weaker sample.
The Last Witchking
This book consists of a novella and two short stories set in the epic fantasy world of Selenoth. The title story concerns the hidden heir to a fallen race of magicians, who learns his father's dark lore as he pursues vengeance against those who destroyed his people. The second story, The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro, is a tale of survival and the triumph of simple human decency in the face of brutality and defeat. The third story, Opera Vita Aeterna, tells the story of an elven sorcerer and a religious monk, and how they discover that the transformational power of friendship can be the highest and most potent magic of all.
The publisher's blurb tells you what's in the book. I found this to be the most interesting of the three collections, as the tone varied more between stories and they weren't just straightforward quests and battles.
The Last Witchking
This is a 17,000-word novella about the last of a fearsome race of dark sorcerers called (duh) the Witchkings. Apparently the Witchkings are a big deal in Selenoth's history, and from reading other reviews, I think this story is meant to take place some time before most of the other stories.
The Last Witchking, at least, does not start with a weather report. It starts with a prologue.
"Do it," she murmured, her face pressed against his chest. "Do it now, my love."
"How can you ask it of me?" His voice was filled with anguish. "Why did you not let me send you away with them?"
"He will be safer without me. They would know. They would break me."
"They cannot break what they do not find."
"They know I am yours. They would hunt me down. And besides, I will not live without you!"
He pulled away from her, looked down at her, stroked her long, pale hair. Tears filled his eyes as he smiled at her. "How fierce you are. How beautiful."
She looked up at him and returned his smile. Her eyes were dry and fearless.
"Have courage, my lord. I regret nothing. Not a single moment."
He wiped at his eyes. "The dream is dead, but it was glorious indeed."
"Then you must give me a glorious pyre, my love. My body cannot be found. They must never learn I bore you a child."
"Not a child, my love. A son. Our son." The man nodded and caressed her cheek. "They will love him. They will raise him as their own. But he will learn the truth in time."
"Blood will tell," she agreed. "Blood will always tell."
Uh, yeah. That dialog.
So Speer, the protagonist, is the anti-Rand al'Thor. He's a Farmboy of Destiny, except his destiny is to become Sauron.
The author does a lot more worldbuilding here, and I was glad to finally see some magic and fantasy creatures that weren't right out of an AD&D manual. This is a tale of how power corrupts, and Speer gets corrupted pretty quickly, soon cavorting with concubines, consorting with demons, and conspiring against his loyal mentor.
Once again, it was entertaining, but I was prepared to label it yet another trite knock-off of the same story done many times before. However, there is a twist at the end which subverts the "Chosen One" trope, and I admit I laughed and gave the story an extra star for that.
The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro
This story, a little over 10,000 words, is an allegory, as the author admits explicitly in the notes at the end. Bextor Fenwick is the goblin commander of the militia of Wiccam Fensboro, an unremarkable goblin community at the edge of a swamp. Then a troop of orcs (and not just orcs, but elite orcs called Slayers) march into town and announce that they're here to help their goblin "allies" defend themselves against their enemies, the trolls. Oh, and by the way, all those "hoblets" who live in town need to be exterminated. The goblins don't particularly like hoblets, but they don't particularly have anything against them either. When the orcs begin rounding up hoblets, some of the goblins turn out to be enthusiastic hoblet-haters, but Bextor and his companions do their best to hide the little fellows from the orcs while preventing their town from being razed in retribution.
As an allegorical fable, the story was rather more uplifting than the others; Bextor is a plucky fellow who is both bumbling and brave, and the ways in which he engineers frustration for his orcish commandant has elements of comedy despite the dark overtones.
The problem with the Nazi allegory is that the goblins and orcs behave entirely too much like their human analogs; the point was stretched until I no longer really believed I was reading about goblins and orcs.
They also do not conform to what I read about goblins and orcs in Vox Day's other stories, in which they are pretty much the rapacious Always Evil savages of Tolkienesque tradition. The author also admits in his end notes that the story doesn't really fit neatly into Selenoth continuity for that reason.
This story seemed more like a writing exercise inspired by a plot bunny. But if Vox Day wrote more goblin stories, he could collaborate with Jim C. Hines. Heheheh.
Opera Vita Aeterna
So, at last, we get to the Hugo nomination, which is available for free.
Let's start with the weather report. Sigh.
The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or penetrate the northern winds that seemed to gather strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night's mistress, would make herself known as well.
I was really trying to give the author the benefit of the doubt here, but that writing is... not good.
But persevere I did, having found the previous stories also to be afflicted with cringe-worthy openings but nonetheless worth reading. Opera Vita Aeterna is no exception — though I twitched when I reached a later paragraph that described an "insipid sun."
There have been references to the Church in the other stories I read, but here it assumes a central role. The Church in Selenoth is explicitly a Christian one, very much modeled after the Roman Catholic Church. This novelette is about an elven mage who becomes intrigued enough by the "dead god" carved on a cross that humans worship that he seeks out a monastery to go looking for answers.
I believe the author considers this to be a bit of a Thomas Aquinas parable. The exchanges between the elf, Bessarias, and Father Waleran are meant to be the intellectual heart of the story, though the theology is pretty rudimentary.
"Can one could truly call that which is fallen 'incorruptible'?" The abbot smiled, knowing he couldn't expect the observant elf to miss his devious exchange.
"You know very well that is not the sense in which incorruptible is meant." Bessarias dismissed the sleight of tongue with a wave of his slender hand. "The point is that if there are incorruptible things to be found in the world, and you agree that there are, those things clearly cannot predate the world in which they are found. Therefore the world did not begin to exist, because it could not have a beginning while simultaneously playing host to incorruptible things that did not. That do not."
Waleran raised his finger in an admonishing manner. "That may be, but you must first note I have agreed to nothing of the sort. It is true that whatever has the power always to be, from the fact of having that power, cannot sometimes be and sometimes not be. But there is no reason we cannot state that, before it received that power, it did not exist."
"So you deny the existence of the incorruptible?"
"Not at all. It is not necessary to prove that incorruptible things never began to exist, only that they did not begin to exist by means of the natural mode whereby things are generated and become corrupted. And, I must say, I find it amusing that you should seek to appeal to the incorruptibility of an object the existence of which you consistently deny."
"A mere rhetorical device."
This is all set-up for the historical epilogue in which we never do find out whether Bessarias ever found merit in Waleran's god, but there's a somewhat touching postscript to his time among the monks.
To be honest, I thought that among all the above stories I read, Opera Vita Aeterna was one of the weakest both in prose and in execution. But I can understand why it's the one Vox Day's fans chose to nominate, because alone among them (except maybe The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro, which is just too heavy-handed and dissonant in tone), it aspires to be more than just a traditional fantasy tale. Mixing real-world theology with epic fantasy is an ambitious undertaking, and if pulled off, would be an impressive achievement in a 9500-word novelette.
Opera Vita Aeterna is not terrible. It's also not what I'd call really good. I enjoyed it, but I can't say it really impressed me. I cannot overlook the amateurish prose when I'm considering how to vote, so while I haven't read the other nominees for best novelette yet, if they are not better-written than this, I will be vastly disappointed.
That said, the people claiming that Opera Vita Aeterna is so terrible that its presence on the ballot is an affront to the Hugos are wrong. I've read much worse. Nor do I believe that it was nominated solely to piss off fandom — I can see why Vox Day's fans, disdainful of secularism and "pink SF," would consider this a worthy alternative. Though they are certainly enjoying the fact that it's pissing off the fandom.
If you're a Hugo voter, vote how you will, but I do think you should at least read the story.
I'm probably going to vote for whichever novelette I actually think is best, followed by Opera Vita Aeterna, followed by "No Award." Because I'm kind of enjoying seeing the fandom pissed off.
Verdict: I've now read three ebooks by Vox Day so you don't have to. But seriously, they weren't bad, and they were better than I was expecting. Whether VD and his fans believe me or not, this review was an honest effort, in which I did my best to avoid letting my opinion of VD's persona affect my opinion of his writing. (If anything, I was probably more generous than I would otherwise have been.) So yes, I honestly liked them; Vox Day is a fine if not original storyteller. I'd enjoy reading him a lot more if he could improve his dialog and stop describing pallid and insipid suns. I am not prepared to dive into A Throne of Bones yet (see above, I can only handle so many epic fantasy horse-chokers of dubious quality at a time), but I probably will try out his SF novel, Quantum Mortis, and see if he does better in that genre, since I generally prefer SF to fantasy nowadays anyway.
My complete list of book reviews.