Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Howard of Warwick's THE GARDROBE OF DEATH

One extremely common, perhaps even required, element of the historical mystery genre, at least since Caleb Carr took it on, is that of a particular kind of skepticism about the detective/hero's newfangled ways. Usually it's a matter of whatever science is cutting edge at the time, as Carr's hero is an early adopter of things like fingerprinting, at which the establishment still scoffs. Sometimes this is played for laughs, sometimes it is not.

In Howard of Warwick's Brother Hermitage series, it's played for laughs. Big, loud belly laughs that shake chairs and startle dogs. Because the newfangled science employed by Mr. Of Warwick's hero is reason itself, and the simple peasants, soldiers, servants and nobles of early Norman England* are such complete strangers to it that, well, let's just say if a woman weighed the same as a duck they'd try to build a bridge our of her.

The Gardrobe of Death , the second novel in Mr. Of Warwick's series, is thus already guaranteed to be pretty damned funny, just like its predecessor, because, in my book, horrible reasoning never stops being funny, but then there's the book's premise: in England's crappiest castle, surrounded by the least competent band of "guerrillas" the Saxons have to offer and ruled by the Normans' very worst specimen, a murder takes place in the crappy castle's crappiest place: its crapper. Or in the parlance of the day, its "gardrobe", a room that usually juts out from a high tower over a pretty good slope, to let the crap that emerges from its holey seats roll downhill.

Only this crapcastle's builders didn't understand that, so just put some seats with holes in them above the holes in the floor, so all that is produced there just plops down into the room below. Where the castle's priest lives. Or lived until said priest realized what had happened.

The priest hasn't lived in that room, and it hasn't been cleaned out or even opened, for years, by the way. Yeah.

And in said masterpiece of sanitation, late one night, a visiting Norman V.I.P. is murdered. By taking an arrow right up his poop chute. Insert Tywin Lannister joke here, I suppose, but I reckon this murder is way worse in every way. 

And funnier.

So yeah, in addition to the relatively highbrow yuks of reading the dialogue of characters with absolutely no grasp of abstract thought or language (or are just really stupid as when, for example, the Lord of the Manor first sees the victim and says "My god, no wonder he's dead. How on earth did he eat a whole arrow?" and then is flabbergasted when someone suggests that the arrow is on the way in, not out), we also have literal yucks. Lots of them.

This is not a book for people who get easily grossed out, is what I'm saying.

But if you can handle all the poop humor, this is another delightfully silly read, as well as being the ultimate Locked Room mystery. Think about it: with the room situated as I've described, how did someone shoot an arrow right up the bunghole of someone hunkered down on the seat of ease? Who could possibly solve such a disgusting mystery?

Only Brother Hermitage, the lowly monk with an eye for detail and next to no clue about social interaction, and his sidekick Wat, who as a dealer in pornographic tapestries is maybe the only person in Norman England with any social mobility at all.

It's tightly plotted, it's gross, it's shameless, it's ridiculous, and you'll absolutely love it. If you can handle the nasty, smelly truth of it. And if you can't, what are you reading historical mystery farce for?

*We're taking very early, like right after William the Bastard hopped the English Channel and changed his name to the Conqueror.


If your favorite bit of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was phrases like "the ships hung in the sky in exactly the way that bricks don't", have I got a book for you.

If you love the Blackadder series but don't think it was quite farcical enough, have I got a book for you.

If you love the History Channel's drama Vikings but think the characters depicted aren't stupid or violent enough, have I got a book for you.

If you love The Hallelujah Trail but wish it could have been set in the days of the Norman Conquest of England, have I got a book for you.

Howard of Warwick, famed for the Brother Hermitage books, a series of comic medieval mystery novels I'm definitely going to have to have a look at sometime, is your man, and The Domesday Book (No, Not That One) is your book. Set in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings and featuring a ridiculous cast of historical and made-up figures, it's a deeply silly read that can easily be described in one choice excerpt:
From the north of Wisbech a cart load of Vikings. From the south a cartload of Normans. In the middle a band of wounded Saxons riding hell-for-leather. Well, riding as fast as most of their injuries would allow, which was actually pretty slow.
The Vikings have been dispatched on, of all things, a rescue mission; the Normans on one of capture; the Saxons, including a man of high repute wounded in the eye-or-thigh, are the targets of both. Because, you see, the knight who triumphantly brought King Harold's body to William the Conqueror's tent after the Battle of Hastings brought the wrong body, but this was not noticed until a lot of crowing and woofing had been done, and now the demented and homicidal William is demanding the real thing, loudly and violently... but in complete secrecy. Of course.

The story is mostly told from the points of view of two Saxons, Mabbut, drafted to act as a local guide for the Normans even though he's not really ever been to England, having grown up in France in the mistaken belief that his family are hostages (actually, his parents just like France better); and Siward, a village idiot and "filth man" kidnapped by the Vikings for the same purpose, even though he's never been a mile or two from home. Hilarity, mostly in the form of death threats and impatience with ignorant rustics, ensues in both storylines.

It's all deeply silly, though not quite in that Monty Python way you're probably hoping for. There's fun to be had here, but the fun is mostly for history nerds, I suspect.

I am one of those, so I laughed, often.

Monday, June 27, 2016


So for those of you who have been dying to know what would happen if Thursday Next and Doctor Who had a baby (perhaps, just for fun, midwived by the Librarians and maybe Connie "Oxford Time Travel" Willis), your wait is over! And your reward cup runneth over, cuz this is a series that is growing, Dark Tower/Expanse style, in all directions. As in later books/stories/novellas get decimal points and wedged in between existing books in series order and stuff.


I'm not 100% sure that I'm along for that whole ride, because cool as the premise of this series "The Chronicles of St. Mary's" is, there are a lot of problems in its execution that make me hesitate. But I'll get to those. What's up with THIS book, right?

Just One Damned Thing After Another*, the first book in the series, starts off with our heroine fresh out of graduate school and still scarred from a very bad childhood that she's managed to overcome mostly, it seems, by ignoring it except when it's convenient to use as an emotional shield to Keep People At A Distance. She is a historian, and soon to be a Historian; she is recruited by what seems to be just another adorably ramshackle and barely-organized English think tank but is actually the most amazing historical research institution in the world because they have time machines! And they want our girl, Dr. Miss Lucy Maxwell (since everyone there has at least one PhD she soon drops the "Dr.") to do research for them! By which they totally mean travel through time and watch stuff happen and clear up nagging questions about fact versus fancy! Who wouldn't want to do that?

But so soon complications emerge. St. Mary's is a perfectly straightforward and innocent outfit, but it turns out there are other parties with time travel capability who are not, and they're amuck in History performing various nefarious deeds that usually tend to involve active threats to the lives and limbs of members of Team St. Mary's. Hmmm! And some of the people in the (staggeringly long and detailed) dramatis personae (except the author calls it Dramatis Thingummy because she's trying to be arch and  cute and funny and Douglas Adams-ish**) are Not Who They Seem.

And of course, our Miss Maxwell is way more important than we at first thought.

All of this should be, and sometimes is, awesome. Lucy's first real assignment, for instance, is genuinely exciting and interesting and moving. She and some teammates are trained up to impersonate nurses and orderlies at a French chateau/hospital in France circa WWI's action in the Somme, there to clear up once and for all exactly whose fault it is that the complex was destroyed with great loss of life and morale and property. This is good stuff, written, paced and felt extremely well, even as it introduces several elements of the larger plot quite elegantly. It's only the hope of more stuff like this that I consider continuing with this series at all.

But then there's the other stuff. The soap opera/softcore porn stuff. And the fact that most of the male characters are pretty sloppily developed and often exhibit behavior wildly at odds with their established personalities. We're to believe, I gather, that this is because of stress, but I dunno. And just to spell it out and maybe also issue a Trigger Warning, there's a surprising amount of attempted/implied sexual assault in a book that otherwise comes off as a light-hearted romp. And no, it's not historically rapey types being historical and rapey.

And these unpleasant scenes jangle unpleasantly against the fair amount of eye-rolling romance novel dialogue ("I just want you to say you love me sometimes" "I can't do that because I love you all the time" HURL) that is shoved into this novel in places.

But as I said, that crap is very nearly the excellent mission material. This is time travel the way you and I would do it. Not let's kill Hitler, but let's save knowledge! And find out for certain whether dinosaurs had feathers! 

So, in short, this book is a bit of a hot mess, with as much to hate as to love about it. I'm probably going to have a look at the second volume sometime, just in the hopes that ultimately this settles down and becomes the awesome time traveling white hats vs black hats silliness that it really wants to be, instead of a coverall-ripper. But since this first book was pretty much half-and-half, with a pretty generous helping of Mary Sue*** in our main character, I'm not going to rush right into Book Two.

*The title is taken from an Arnold Toynbee quote, in which he describes history as "just one damned thing after another."

**And to be fair, sometimes she succeeds at this. Sometimes. But she's no, say, Howard of Warwick.

***I dislike this gender-specific, often misapplied and definitely overused term, but it kind of applies here, I'm afraid. She's adorable! She's important! Everybody wants to "get in her knickers"! She totally saves the day a lot! She finds the organization's True Purpose! And the guy in charge (well, I guess he's the second in command, because there's one guy they call "Chief" and another they call "Boss" and he's the Chief) is her One True Love! So yeah, a bit Mary Sue. A lot more so than, say, Rey Skywalker/Solo/Kenobi/Whatever is, anyway.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Paul Elard Cooley's THE BLACK: OUTBREAK

In The Black: A Deep Sea Tale, literary horror author (and good friend of Your Humble Blogger) Paul Elard Cooley sic'd an ancient and mysterious and unique monster on a too-enterprising crew of roughnecks and scientists on an offshore oil rig. In The Black: Arrival, Cooley began exploring the implications of this entity's arrival on the mainland as it wreaked havoc on the testing laboratory to where the first novel's crew sent samples of oil that happened to also contain that entity, which results as harrowing and disastrous as those on the rig.

In this third novel, The Black: Outbreak, Cooley now shows us what happens when the entity, mistakenly treated as a disease organism, becomes the problem of a nearby hospital, the Centers for Disease Control, and members of Houston PD's SWAT. This means the reader is being asked to invest in a whole mess of new characters, and Cooley as usual does a fine job of deftly sketching them in, so a few words conveys a whole lot of information about who we're following through his labyrinth of nasty doom. But we've learned, we have, that more than half of these people are basically just monster chow.

Confession time: I found this one a tough slog compared to the first two. The middle of the book is basically just a long round of set 'em up and knock 'em down, as character after character succumbs to the basically unstoppable Black even as an isolated hero in the CDC mobile command unit finds the entity's weakness. It got a bit repetitive, there for a while, but then the tension (will the (very few) survivors be able to implement the solution in time? Especially since The Black has knocked out all of the hospital's utilities, even unto the backups?) between plight and solution kicked in to regain the book's momentum.

The ending is basically satisfying, even (bizarrely, for a Cooley novel) hopeful, while still setting up another sequel. And this one should have some character continuity, which makes me happy because I've grown attached to a few of the characters in this one.

I'm sure I went regret that at ALL.