Monday, January 01, 2007

Dr. Vector's Book Club

If you're looking for a good read, you could do worse than to pick up Dan Abnett's Fell Cargo.

Now, this definitely counts as a guilty pleasure. First, you'll find it in Fantasy and Sci-Fi, genres whose past, present, and likely future are rooted in escapist trash, in which even the immortal classics--Foundation, Dune, The Lord of the Rings--are, in the eyes of the Great Books Discussion Group, escapist trash. Second, it's at the tail end of the rows, past the authors whose last name begins with Z, in the section labeled "Fantasy Series". Below the fleets of Star Wars and Star Trek books you come to the gutter dregs: gaming tie-ins. Dungeons & Dragons novels flaunt their lurid covers, sickly yet appealing, like overripe fruit. Past them, past the Magic: The Gathering books, the Shadowrun books, and even the Warcraft books, at the very end of the very end of F/SF, you'll find the Warhammer books. These aren't even the high-brow tie-ins, based on RPGs or video games. Naw, Warhammer is a tabletop wargame, played with tiny painted miniatures by unwashed pimply neckbeards.

(I'm kidding, of course. Some of the Warhammer geeks can't grow neckbeards.)

My point is, even in the banana republic of F/SF, even in the slum of fantasy series, even in the ghetto of gaming tie-ins, this book is something of a pariah. What would prompt me, a young man with prospects, to pick it up in the first place?

Well, here's the dirty secret about gaming tie-ins: some of them rock. Other aspiring F/SF authors are out plumbing the universe and questing for Hugos, hoping to write the next Neuromancer, trying to predict how this month's Scientific American cover story will spin out in a century or ten. Meanwhile, the tie-in authors have a much simpler mandate: write something awesome. Their books tend to be pulpy and action-packed, the novelistic equivalent of something deep-fried and smothered in gravy.

I can hear you sneering out there, you Great Books wankers. Fess up, now: you may savor the delicate flavor of fresh toro or the fruity notes of a fine merlot, but sometimes at the end of the day you just want a cold beer and some cheese fries, doncha?

I was in Hasting's in Enid, Oklahoma, and they had the gaming tie-ins filed by author. That is, scattered among the respectable novels, m'lud. The cover art on this one caught my eye:

I didn't end up buying it, but I did look it over closely enough to pick out some serious praise for Dan Abnett. Cover blurbs are like letters of recommendation: generic plaudits count for a lot less than specific, detailed compliments. The things people were saying about Dan Abnett are not the kinds of things you typically hear said of most F/SF authors, let alone authors of gaming tie-ins.

Then a couple of days later I was in a Barnes & Noble and I found Abnett's latest in the new hardback section. I was intrigued. Few authors from tie-in world graduate from paperback to hardback. I picked it up and found an interesting synopsis and a lot more serious, specific praise. Most of it had to do with things like character development and wrenching emotion--not the regular tie-in author's stock in trade.

I started to think that maybe I should give this Dan Abnett a try. So I wandered back to the back of the back of F/SF and checked out some paperbacks. I picked up Fell Cargo because of its obviously piratical title. I gotta say, this book has maybe the best back cover hook of all time:

Long believed dead, pirate Captain Luka Silvaro returns to reclaim his ship and embark on a deadly new mission. But the high seas are now more dangerous than ever, and the captain and his scurvy crew of rogues must face pirates, curses, sea monsters and even worse foes. Can Silvaro and his allies track down the dread Butcher Ship and defeat her gruesome undead crew before they too are turned into mindless zombies?

Who could turn that down?

Well, me, for one. I couldn't commit. But I spent the next few days feeling like a pussy. Pirates versus zombies? Come on!

So I got the book. Devoured it in two days. It has a density of incident that would make Edgar Rice Burroughs blush. In 250 pages, there are four major naval engagements, each involving at least three ships and each ending in a bloody boarding action. There is a treasure map, a stowaway, a voodoo ritual, a prophetic dream, chum in the water, kidnapping, a witch, a sea serpent, a cursed mummy, and a case of hidden identity revealed at the dramatically appropriate moment. Duels of honor decided with swords, drugged wine, sharks, walking the plank, abandoned death ships, and vampire feedings (I know, wtf?) each appear more than once.

Oh, and zombies. Fighting frikkin' pirates.

Now, here's the crucial part: I read the whole book without gagging once. Years of grading student termpapers have given me an unusually low tolerance for bad writing. I suffered through Robert Jordan's Eye of the World, and Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule, but I'll go no further. I don't care what happens in the second book (or the twelfth, in Jordan's case), if I have to slog through prose that bad to find out. I didn't get more than a third of the way through Terry Brooks's Sword of Shannara before I realized that my leisure time was in the uneducated hands of a master shitsmith. As Orson Scott Card once wrote, you don't have to eat the whole turd to know that it's not an eclaire.

But back to task: Dan Abnett's writing is, er, good. That is, at no point did I wince or groan, and twice I was so moved that I intended to post short excerpts here for your edification. But, clod that I am, I forced the book on my brother today and those excerpts will have to wait.

In conclusion, you can go to bed with Fell Cargo and not feel guilty in the morning. I'm going to go read a ton more of Abnett's books, and you should, too.


1. There is one plot hole in the book. What is it?

2. What character in the Star Wars movies does Sesto most remind you of?

3. From the information provided in the book, what is the most exclusive clade of real-world animals (living or extinct) to which you can confidently assign the sea monster?

4. Do you think Roque pussed out at the end? Why or why not?

5. If you owned the Bite of Daagon, would you keep it in a golden chest or wear it around your neck on a chain?

6. Who is the shittiest writer, Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind?


1. How in the hell did Jeremiah Tusk find the Butcher Ship? There is no explanation for why the Lightning Tree sails right to the spot that only Luka and his compatriots know of. Now, you may argue that Tusk was following the storm or had some magical gizmo to show him the way, but the fact is that this miraculous event is never explained in the book. But with all the shit in this book, I can forgive one plot hole, especially in the service of a climactic battle as kickass as that.

2. At first you are probably thinking Lando, cuz he's smooth, or Leia, cuz he's royalty. But in fact it's Han. Just as Han makes the journey from piratehood to respectability out of his love for Leia, Sesto journeys from respectability to piratehood out of devotion to Luka. If you answered Padme, cuz Sesto traveled incognito, you are free to drown yourself in the toilet. I meant the real Star Wars movies, you sniveling turd.

3. You are probably tempted to say Thalattosuchia, but that's overreaching. The book says the animal has the form of a crocodile but with flippers rather than clawed limbs. Seagoing crocs have evolved enough times that Crocodyliformes is probably the best you can do.

4. Yes. He should have used his new vampire powers to kick zombie ass. Instead he pulled a big ole Lando (Cloud City Lando, not Battle of Endor Lando).

5. Chain around the neck. Duh.

6. The answer is Terry Brooks. Although I admit that was a bit of a trick question. By using "shittiest" instead of "shittier", I was implicitly asking who is the shittiest writer in the world, not just who is the shittier out of Jordan and Goodkind (FWIW, I don't think the latter question has a defensible answer).

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