ninMy first Stephen Lawhead books were his first too. I really liked the three Dragon King books when I read when at age 10. I don’t think I would have liked them so much now. They’re made to fill the niche of “my first fantasy series” and if you have already read 500 fantasy books you need this series like a 21st century logger needs a flint axehead.

The first book tells the tale of a young man called Quentin who must save a king (and a kingdom) from an evil sorcerer called Nimrood. The other volumes find more adve(ntures/rsaries) for him to overcome and more lessons for him learn. He is assisted by supporting characters such as the knight Ronsard and the Atreyu-like Toli. I don’t recall there being any actual dragons, but there are surely enough luscious maidens to support one or two.

The books go heavy on the Christian allegorising, more than any later Stephen Lawhead novel. Quentin is meant to stand in for any Christian struggling in his faith, and it soon becomes clear that the nation of Askelon must undergo a spiritual salvation as well as a carnal one. It’s a more subtle than The Chronicles of Narnia or The Archives of Anthropos. You won’t read any one thing and think “that represents the original sin” or anything like that.

The first two books are better than the third. They feature scary bad guys and a real sense of menace. Book three resolves a few loose ends but it never really seemed particularly necessary to me. Quentin puts some seditions lords in their place, slays a resurrected (and utterly pathetic) Nimrood, and learns an Important Lesson(tm) about pride…great. Books one and two are a stag party with good friends. Book three is those same friends quibbling over the bill.

The books’ strength is their fast pace. The basic story is utterly familiar, but it moves. It goes from point to point quickly and efficiently. This is no 900 page Robert Jordan fantasy travelogue. Worldbuilding is minimal, and the characters are sketched out to the barest outline necessary to support their role in the story.

If you like imaginative fantasy you will have lots of fun with these books…using them to prop up a broken table so you can read The Song of Albion. Good for what they are, though.

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the_hellbound_heartYou’re at a swimming pool. You kick off from the wall. You feel like a rocket riding its booster stages. You’re moving so fast that you think the momentum will carry you to the other side. But it’s not to be. The water is slowing you down…slowing you down…stopping you. Now you have to start swimming. Goodbye fun, hello breastroke.

…That’s what Clive Barker feels like. The Hellbound Heart has a fascinating beginning, but then the plot collapses like a souffle and you’re left with a very unremarkable horror novel, filled with slashings and stabbings, and you read on mostly because the story was very good before and hopefully will become very good again. The Hellbound Heart doesn’t overstay its welcome, but that’s because it’s short.

The opening chapter introduces us to a hedonist whose quest for pleasure has caused him to inadvertently pick the lock to hell itself. He meets Cenobites, paladins of pain, who spirit him away to a land of never-ending agony. But he leaves part of himself behind, and thus has a small chance of being able to escape hell.

End chapter one. Things never get this interesting again. The story rapidly loses voltage.

New characters arrive. The fantastically compelling plot gets yanked back down to earth as we’re immersed in unrequited love affairs and ennui and boredom and other things that aren’t very exciting to read about. Soon the story gets a bit cartoonish and ridiculous. All of Clive Barker’s usual shortcomings gatecrash the party. The characters are as unpleasant as the ones from his Books of Blood short stories, but now we have to tolerate them for novella length. Out of the four human characters, two are reprehensible, one is pathetic, and Kirsty is a milksop. This last one is a problem. I don’t care about her. A guy is trying to murder her, and I don’t give a shit. She’s a department store mannequin. Barker hasn’t done anything to make her interesting except for some generic female angst that was done ten times better in Stephen King’s first novel.

Clive Barker completely fails to exploit his strengths: world-building and epic metaphysical fantasy. A journey to another reality where pain is pleasure? That’s the kind of thing I want to read. An undead zombie running around with a knife? I get bored of that sort of thing very quickly. Sometimes I get bored of it before I even start reading it.

The Cenobites are amazing, though. Definitely one of Clive Barker’s best creations. Obviously they feature predominately in the opening chapter, although in the last few pages they return for the most half-assed comeback since the new Skid Row album.

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bullet-headEvery time some lunatic pulls out a gun and turns a bunch of people into human swiss cheese, there’s always some shitbird saying “it’s time we had a discussion about gun control!”

That’s not always what they say. Sometimes it’s “a conversation” about gun control, or a “national discourse” about gun control, but the sentiment is always the same. I have heard it dozens of times.

I wish people weren’t cowardly, and said exactly what they wanted to say. Clearly these people don’t want a “discussion”. They want change. Why can’t they admit that? Malcolm X didn’t want a “discussion” about race relations. He had goals, he had things he wanted to see done.

Saying we need a discussion is slacktivism, straight up and straight through. It requires slightly more effort than clicking a picture on Facebook. If you want to seriously advocate for gun control, you need to do some intellectual legwork. You need to analyse statistics, construct logical arguments, and expose yourself to the return fire of people who think you are wrong.

But why do that when you can just say “we need a discussion on gun control!” There, that’s all you need to do. It’s easy. And who could disagree? Who could argue that a discussion on gun control is a bad thing?

I am! I respect people who contribute actual, real ideas. I respect the person who sees a housefire and picks up a firehose, not the person who announces “we need to have a discussion about fire safety!” and then sits down, satisfied that he has done his moral duty.

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