Hard(boiled) Magic: An Appreciation for Warbound and the Grimnoir Chronicles

Warbound, the third book in Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles, is currently up for a Hugo, and rightly so. Given the remarkable diversity of this year’s nominees in various categories—among others, the entirety of The Wheel of Time series, essays and blog posts, and of course, some Tor.com entries—it makes perfect sense to me that that a magic-infused, high-stakes, and genre-mixing-in-the-1930s tale like this one is a contender for Best Novel. And why not? It’s the bee’s knees.

Like The Return of the King or A Memory of Light (though resembling neither), Warbound isn’t a stand-alone story; it’s the culmination of everything leading up to it: in this case, the three books of the Grimnoir Chronicles. This one in particular demonstrates what seem to be the strong points in Correia’s wheelhouse: every goddamn thing.

Seriously, genre fusion is clearly his talent—the blending of epic, global events with fast-paced battles and thoughtful character development, which he somehow manages to not make a thousand pages long. Warbound has contrasting story elements that sound absurd but turn out not to be. I’m not kidding, this series has pirates, ninjas, and zombies, yet none of them are quite like you’ve seen before. And somehow they fit into the same setting.

When you go see big summer blockbusters—your high-action, big-budgeted Transformers and Godzillas—you certainly expect to have fun. And maybe that’s all. You know they’ll be entertaining, but not great. You lower the bar. The CGI might be impressive and the sets amazing, but the acting (even with big names) may be subpar, the characters two-dimensional, and the plot riddled with holes.

With that in mind, the novels of Larry Correia are just like those high-action, big-budgeted films… if they were driven by (1) the smart writers that Hollywood seldom employs and (2) plots that have actually been thought through and masterfully rendered. They’re cinematically paced and they come with all the fixin’s: explosions, helicopters, chase scenes, people on fire, robots, monsters, gun fights, doomsday devices, and one-liners. But those one-liners are witty, the stories are compelling, and the characters engaging. It’d be like the Expendables movies turning out to be amazing rather than just goofy fun. Would that even be allowed?

The Grimnoir Chronicles are an admixture of alternate history, pulp noir, and hardboiled, urban fantasy with just a dash of steampunk. The backdrop is straightforward: back in the mid-1800s, supernatural forces inexplicably appeared on Earth and infused a relatively small percentage of the population with varying degrees of magical power. Most of them are Passives, able to exert minor abilities only reactively. The remainder are Actives, whose greater abilities can be utilized on command, and who are appropriately capable of exceptional heroism or villainy.

In some ways, Actives are like the X-Men. People possessing these powers are feared, marginalized, and at times, lauded. Unlike the X-Men, each Active has a very specific power from a fairly-fixed list. For example, some are Brutes (possessing great strength and toughness), Travelers (able to teleport short distances), or Mouths (able to influence with the power of their voice alone). There are about thirty such powers and all manner of cultural nicknames for them. Cracklers, who are sometimes called Edisons, can harness and control electricity, while the much-desired Healer has the opposite powers of the much-maligned Pale Horse.

Chief among the protagonists is Jake Sullivan, a World War I vet, ex-con, and private-eye (I did say this was pulp noir) who just happens to be a Gravity Spiker, aka Heavy—meaning he’s an Active with the ability to manipulate gravity locally and to deadly effect. He’s our tough-talking, cigarette-smoking, tough-as-nails hero, but he seldom upstages the remaining cast of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains, who come and go, one by one, throughout the series. And each of them manages to steal their chosen scenes on their own good time.

As you’d expect, the presence of nature-defying magic changes the climate of world events to some extent, but not drastically History as we know it continues to run its general course, and there are some pointed deviations. The series takes place in the era of the gumshoe, the mobster, and the speakeasy. The First World War is full of accounts of Active soldiers like Sullivan using their powers in the war effort, and by second book, FDR is in office pushing legislation to get to get all magic-using citizens registered (and controlled). Of course, criminals with magic are a definite problem, but every faction—and military force—has its own Actives so things balance out. One such organization, though, is a real problem: the Japanese Imperium, governed by Okubo Tokugawa, aka the Chairman. He’s a nigh-immortal wizard, the first and most powerful Active.

Hard Magic Larry CorreiaThe only group who perceives the threat and opposes the Chairman and his goal of world domination is the Grimnoir, a secret society of Actives that has become a shadow of its former self, operating as a skeleton crew. For that reason they’ve got to be tough. In Hard Magic, Book I, American Grimnoir knight Lance Talon puts it simply: “Being Grimnoir means that you hold the line. It’s learning how to fight, how to tail somebody and be a good spy, how to shoot, all the tricks of the trade. It takes a lot of practice and hard work.”

Anyone who knows anything about Larry Correia knows he’s politically assertive, and while the Grimnoir Chronicles certainly get political, they do so contextually, in a world where the magically corrupt try to dominate the world and horrid, extradimensional creatures threaten everyone. Yet amid all the explosions, dismemberments, and gunfire, this is also the surprisingly touching (and often humorous) tale of another protagonist: Sally Faye Vierra, an uneducated young Oklahoma farm girl with the signature gray eyes of a Traveler, the naiveté of a child, and a delightful character arc that, mapped out, would look like a crazy straw.

Honestly, it’s that juxtaposition of what you expect and what you get that I personally enjoy about Correia’s novels. The series is brought to us by Baen Books, a prolific publisher of speculative fiction with a decided emphasis on hard military sci-fi, and it shows. Still, the emphasis never feels heavy-handed. Correia is a real-life firearms instructor, but his writing never talks down to the layperson. Rather, his enthusiasm shows in his characters’ expertise and appreciation for weaponry. In fact, one of the recurring characters is Grimnoir knight John Browning who, like his real world counterpart, is a firearms inventor and pioneer.

All in all, I find there’s a lot to recommend the Grimnoir Chronicles. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The heroes aren’t all American. The Grimnoir society is thin but global. Easily my favorite character is Heinrich Koenig, a German Fade (an Active who can pass through solid objects) who grew up in the ashes of the zombie-plagued Berlin. I love this guy. Why the heck isn’t he the main character? He at least deserves a spin-off series.
  • Likewise, the villains aren’t all foreign nationals. Some of the worst are homegrown Americans, and some aren’t…well, human at all.
  • Morality gets murky. Although we know who the good guys are, the bad guys aren’t always so perfectly defined. And that’s fantastic. Some of the villains possess a sympathetic sense of honor and faith. Even the vilest among them have plausible worldviews. It’s freaky at times. One of Jake Sullivan’s fiercest opponents in Spellbound, Book II, becomes one of the heroes of Book III even though he’s still at odds with the good guys. And he’s got a tetsubo.
  • Women play a big part. It’s the 1930s and the sexism of the day is real, but not so much in a society that includes dames who can lift and throw cars or set things on fire with their minds.
  • Correia sure beats the hell out of his characters. The good and the bad. It’s as amusing as it is painful to read.
  • Magic isn’t just an element dropped in to add flavor to alternate history. The secret of where it came from, why some people possess it, and what it’s final fate will be becomes more central to the plot with each turn of the page.
  • Two words: demon ink.

Spellbound Larry Correia

Each chapter opens with a historic transcript, newspaper excerpt, or choice quote from one of the one of the characters that paints a broader picture of the alternate reality. Many of which Larry Correia has posted publicly on his blog.

Case in point:

… And on this momentous day, let us remember the brave sacrifice of Junior Assistant Third Engineer Harold Ernest Crozier of Southampton, who was lost after an ice collision on our maiden voyage. His natural magical gifts, combined with his great moral fortitude, enabled him to control the incoming waters before there was any other loss of life. He was a credit to the Active race. We shall now have a moment of silence for Engineer Crozier.

—Captain Edward J. Smith of the RMS Titanic,
on its fifth anniversary cruise, 1917

These snippets are as fun as they are informative. What did Darwin have to say about magic? Or the Active/baseball player Babe Ruth? How about Abraham Lincoln, or Adolf Hitler?

Oh, that’s right: Hitler. In this version of our past, he’s no problem. The mention is brief, but you learn that he got his comeuppance in 1929. So that settles that!

I hope Warbound gets the Hugo—if for no other reason than maybe it’ll someday catch Hollywood’s eye so that Guillermo del Toro can make the film. But if not, Larry Correia will keep doing what he does: blowing things up with style. He’s as stubborn as his protagonists, and in the end, no, Correia absolutely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe that’s because he’s not tea—he’s Red Bull mixed with Pop Rocks and shaken real hard. But if you figure he’s all fights, big-muscled brutes, and gung-ho firepower—a reputation well earned, to be sure—you’ll still be surprised.

And while this recommendation may seem like an afterthought, believe me when I tell you that the audio books for the Grimnoir Chronicles are preposterously awesome. Narrated by Bronson Pinchot—yes, him!—they turn the already gratifying series into the cat’s pajamas, bordering on radio drama, with all the grunts, raspy voices, and stylish lingo. And hot-damn can that guy do accents! Seriously, don’t be a sap, piker, or wack: at least go listen to the sample for Hard Magic on Audiobook.

Jeff LaSala usually minds his own beeswax and sometimes writes a fantasy novel, a bit of cyberpunk skulduggery, or slice of D&D baloney. That yarn about him being on the lam? Horsefeathers! Everything’s on the up and up.


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