Weekly Read: Kings of the Wyld

It’s a fairly standard setup for a fantasy story – a gang of unruly characters get together to journey across the land in order to fulfill some quest. But what if the gang is a band? I mean, what if a group of fantasy mercenaries was treated like a rock and roll band? That’s the great conceit of Kings of the Wyld.

The band, in this case, is called Saga. When the book begins the band has been broken up for a while and Clay is making ends meet as a city watchman, married with daughter. That all changes with Gabriel shows up in desperate need – his own daughter, now a mercenary herself, is stuck in a city besieged by various beasties and baddies on the other side of the world. He needs to get the band back together to save her.

What follows is a pretty fun read, although it comes off a little shallow. Part of the fun is that is that Nicholas Eames really leans into the “group of mercenaries as a band” idea. A lot of the names are references to music in our world – the wizard named Moog, the axe called Syrinx (a Rush reference, I’m guessing), and even Saga itself, which I think is a reference to the Canadian semi-prog band  The characters also play the parts. Moog is the keyboard player stand-in (naturally), weird and aloof and always in flowing robes (not capes? Rick Wakeman weeps somewhere). Gabriel is the nominal front man, the once pretty face up front. Clay plays the bass player roll, holding everything together. The bands also relate to each other like musicians, equal parts jealous of the others’ success and impressed by their prowess. Plus there’s a whole thread about how in Saga’s time bands had to go real feats of heroism, not empty, showy displays in huge stadiums. There’s even sleazy managers! That all works really well.

The actual plot doesn’t fare quite so well. It at times feels like an overgrown Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with the crew moving from one adventure to the next without any real weight to them. Characters change from friend to foe and back again because the plot requires it. At one point a character loses a limb, but then regrows it. There aren’t really any harsh consequences to face. Add to that the fact that the object of the quest – saving Gabriel’s daughter – seems painfully far away for most of the book, until suddenly it isn’t. To be fair, the book wraps up the story and doesn’t leave us hanging, but it comes off as rushed.

But the biggest issue, for me, is that the story sets up as a story of old guys getting back together to relive their former glories, but very few of them act like it. Nobody’s really lost a step when it comes to fighting, everybody heals quickly when needed. It’s a lost opportunity, since aging heroes aren’t often the main course in a fantasy epic.

All that being said, Kings of the Wyld is a fun read. The episodes themselves, while they don’t add up to much, are well done in and of themselves. The dialogue is quick and funny. And Eames manages to work in a staggering array of creatures and beasties for our heroes to interact with. It verges on overload, but it doesn’t cross the line. So if you’re a fantasy fan and want a familiar tale with a twist, this one’s for you. Sometimes it is good to get the band back together.

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Ideas Will Always Be Free Range

I have a file on my computer that’s full of “what if?” ideas that occur to me from time to time. Most of them will never find their way into an actual story – there’s a fair gulf between “cool idea” and “cool story.” In light of that, it can be cool to see one of those ideas show up on the big screen completely independent of your having it.

The Australian film OtherLife is based on a nifty “what if” question – what if, via a process involving programmable biotech (don’t call it drugs) dropped into a person’s eye, that person could experience rich and full “memories” of experiences in the blink of an eye? Think of the ability to cram an entire vacation into a few seconds! Actually, that sounds kind of shitty and easily manipulated, but it’s still a cool idea.

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In the film the tech’s creator, Ren, is having problems with the system as it gets ready to go public. To help the company with funding, her partner wants to explore a Government-proposed use of the tech – to make criminals experience a long time of confinement without actually having to incarcerate them. Ren is furious (since her motives are purely altruistic and personal) and balks at the idea, of course. Things spiral out from there to a not all that interesting conclusion.

Mostly because that idea – of incarceration by memory – is a really interesting one. You may have guessed by now that’s the one that I wrote down in my “what if?” file years ago. But the film isn’t really interested in exploring the ideas behind that setup, instead using it to jump start the plot and put Ren through a very weird experience. It’s interesting enough to watch, but doesn’t really stick with you for very long, putting thrills and twists ahead of deep thought and head scratching.

Newbie writers sometimes worry about either not having an “original” idea or that if they discuss their own idea in public it will get “stolen.” Fact is, neither of those things is a problem. Ideas are only the beginning. It’s what you do with them that matters, how the characters you create are affected by them. OtherLife takes the “memories of punishment” idea and does one thing with it. If I ever get back to it I’ll do something very different. The world’s big enough for both (and more!) and all the richer for it, too.

Which is funny, because watching Otherlife gave me another neat idea! It has to do with people disappearing and then reappearing and what that does to them and those around them. It’s now sitting in my “what if?” file, quietly tucked away. Maybe one day it’ll become something worth developing.

Weekly Read: The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist

There’s a long-running thread on one of the writers’ forums where I hang out about “books you’ve thrown across the room with force.” The examples are most books that are badly written, not otherwise infuriating. That being the case, if I actually had a copy of Radley Balko’s The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, rather than the Audible file on my phone, I’d definitely have thrown it across the room a few times while reading it. As it is, I can’t afford the new phone, so I just had to grin and bear it.

From the main title you’d think this book might be one of the nifty mysteries where a pair of mismatched souls find the killer in the end. The subtitle dispels that: “A True Story of Injustice in the American South.” The spine of the book is the story of two men wrongfully convicted of murder in Mississippi and what it took to reclaim their freedom. It’s a story with a pair of clear bad guys, but the lesson of the book is much broader than that.

Said bad guys are the ones mentioned in the title. The “Cadaver King” is Steven Hayne, a medical examiner who at one point was doing 4 out of every 5 autopsies in the state (plus others in Louisiana and some in private cases, too). He did so much work for a couple of reasons. One is that, for decades, the death investigation system in Mississippi was completely fucked up. It was left in the hands of local coroners (elected officials, not necessarily medically trained – the history of the office is fascinating and has little to do with death investigations), who then contracted with actual doctors to do autopsies. The other is that Hayne told prosecutors what they wanted to hear, pushing well past the bounds of what science could say to provide clinching evidence that whatever person the state charged was guilty of the crime.

Bad as Hayne was his sidekick, “Country Dentist” Michael West, was even worse. West started out as the purveyor of a an always sketchy and now debunked field of forensic practice that allowed someone to match bite marks they way others might match fingerprints. With Hayne an expert at finding bites on corpses, even when it made no sense, West could be another link between a suspect and a conviction (why nobody questioned the rise in murders that involved biting is a mystery. As the years went on he developed other skills so that, before his eventually unraveling, he was basically a one-man CSI.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Hayne and West get their comeuppance (West is finally pinned down during a deposition about his magical testimony by an Innocence Project lawyer named – I shit you not – Fabricant) and that two innocent men are freed. But that’s far from a happy ending. There are almost certainly others similarly situated in Mississippi and what makes the book so infuriating is that the entire system is setup to keep them in prison. I’ve had to explain this to clients before – once you’re found guilty, it’s next to impossible to prove otherwise. Finality reigns supreme. The system simply doesn’t care if that might not be the truth and most people don’t want to know (one revealing anecdote is how the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi got pushback initial because people feared it might suggest some alumni had gotten the wrong people convicted). As Balko puts it in the book, “[w]hat you’re about to read didn’t happen by accident.”

That’s bad enough, of course, but when politics and perverse prosecutorial incentives are thrown into the mix it practically guarantees bad outcomes. That’s mostly because politicians have been so good at weaponizing fear of crime (even as crime rates drop to historic lows) and most prosecutors are elected. You’ll rarely lose an election for being too tough on crime, but go the other way and better start planning for another career. And, as Balko points out, this is a bipartisan problem. When a blue-ribbon federal panel issued a report calling into question large swaths of forensic evidence, the Obama Justice Department dismissed it. Truth is, people rarely care about the details of the criminal justice system unless they or someone they love get caught up in it.

But that only works they way it does because, at bottom, the modern American criminal justice system doesn’t place any priority on determining what actually happened in any particular case. Prosecutors want convictions. Defense attorneys want the best results for their clients, which may be at odds with the actual truth of the situation. Defendants, sometimes facing long potential sentences and no real option of winning in court, plead guilty to things they didn’t do. And, as I said, once that verdict is in, the system is not designed to examine it again.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is a good read. It’s engaging and compelling, frightening and maddening. “If you’re not outraged,” the saying goes, “you haven’t been paying attention.” Pay attention. Read this book.

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