Tuesday, May 15, 2012

B.B. Griffith - Blue Fall

Released in 2011 by the author's Griffith Publishing, Blue Fall is the opening to a series of books centered on the explosive and barely containable world of the Tournament. I had issues with Griffith's pacing and world building, but the action scenes at the book's center are damn good and strong enough to keep the reader charging through the book's pages.

The Tournament is at the novel's very core, and the characters' varying takes on it are fascinating. To some, it's a sport, a World Cup of team shooting (p. 297). A refuge for competition without limits. (p. 392) To others, it's a hive of luxury and decadence, a plaything of the rich, the product of fabulously wealthy men and women who had been born in the wrong era and yearned for the days of the gladiator and the Coliseum. (p. 239) Some view it as a chance to mean something, to avoid dying in some little duplex without anybody giving a good goddamn." (p. 500) And, to others, it has the challenge of the first of those, the significance of the second, and the height of the third. It's a return to the days when whole nations, entire races of people, pinned their hopes and futures on individual warriors. Whole wars were won and lost on the outcome of a single battle between heroes. Entire countries were moved. Empires rose and fell. (p. 475)

Unfortunately, the Tournament's actualities are just as hard to pin down as its purpose. We hear that no one on earth was out of their [the Tournament's] reach (p. 443). But that doesn't seem to make sense. Who and what is this Tournament? For an all powerful organization, one has to wonder why they seem to have only a single worthwhile courier and why, for all the mentions of their security forces, they're unable to control their players in any way. More important than the makeup, though, is the question of secrecy. It makes absolutely no sense that the Tournament wouldn't be found in about three days. Why? Because its fights are in broad daylight. In hotels and streets, subways and highways, and worse still. Because its battlegrounds are packed with civilians, and because the organization seems wholly incapable of containing any amount of information at all. Admittedly, the ferocity of the round that we see is constantly remarked upon. The Tournament is growing more visceral, harder to contain. It's turning into a war (p. 297). But that doesn't quite explain it. The players marked as psychotic aren't the only ones that are careless. Even those that seem comparatively sane have no problem with logic like: If the madmen of Black can destroy a dance club with impunity, then we can certainly make a bit of a stir on a runway. (p. 263) Positing no greater media or security presence at an airport than at a dance club is simply mind boggling in our post 9/11 world. Besides which, I just want to point out that any organization so focused on secrecy should avoid making a uniform for itself, let alone something like dark jumpsuits emblazoned with a white letter T. (p. 464) Real inconspicuous, guys.

We first learn of the Tournament from Frank Youngsmith, an everyman and a nobody, an investigator of insurance claims. In the novel's first third, he follows the oddities in a case, stumbles across something that doesn't seem possible, is warned away, and then seems to disappear altogether. His neighbor enters his apartment and finds him gone, the place searched. At the end of the book, a Tournament official tells him that he somehow managed to find and make public more about our work than anyone in the history of our organization. (p. 498) How he did that sounds like an interesting story, right? Maybe even one you'd like to read a book about? Well, Blue Fall is not that book. I don't mean, mind you, that Frank's story is badly told here. I simply mean that it's not here. At all. Frank vanishes entirely from the book for hundreds of pages, and everything from just before his quest's beginnings to its conclusion is entirely absent, an omission as striking as if every third chapter had simply been cut from the novel.

For the characters who are actually present, characterization here is of two halves. During the actual matches, things are too fast moving for in depth portraiture, but Griffith successfully throws in details, emotions, and dialogue to give us vivid, larger than life players that are, in their own ways, flawed. Unfortunately, Griffith seeks to broaden his characters beyond their sport. Of course, I'm not saying that characterization beyond the boundaries of plot is a bad thing. But it doesn't work here, because the entirety of the novel's plot is within the Tournament's framework, leaving the rest of the burden of characterization to chapter long backstory-discharging info dumps that cover the players' lives before they were recruited. Griffith's writing is compelling enough to prevent these from growing truly boring, but they never grow interesting, either, and our real questions (why are these seeming nobodies chosen for the Tournament rather than, say, Special Forces officers?) remain unanswered. These flashback chapters don't add much in the novel's early stages, when the characters are first getting introduced, but the two or so that follow the Tournament's commencing are annoyingly intrusive breaks in the action.

So, okay. We're a fair few paragraphs into this review, and I've been pretty hard on Blue Fall. But it has a redeeming feature, and it's a pretty big one: Blue Fall is a damn fun book. Once it gets going, Blue Fall starts picking up momentum and never stops. Before long, it's a speeding vehicle filled with gunfights, bravery, and set pieces that can be best summed up as awesome tumbling about in the backseat. Alright, that metaphor kind of crashed and burned. Nonetheless, watching the Tournament unfold in all its mayhem is glorious. 

Griffith's writing is always clear and capable of some very good lines (In the interims between dinners, time seemed to physically beat upon him. (p. 246)), but it's in battle that it gets great. Firing off multiple match ups at once allows Griffith to flip between them fast enough to keep the tension sky high up for chapters on end. More impressive still is how, in a novel with numerous teams and even more numerous players, Griffith keeps it all from blending together into gunfighter stew. No matter how many fights are going on at the moment, and no matter how many different tactics are about to succeed or blow up with explosive glory, it's always perfectly clear where each team member is and what their goals are. Furthermore, those set pieces I was just talking about aren't just window dressing. Players successfully and not so successfully make use of every part of their environment, giving us scenes like deafening gunfire mingling with still louder music in a dance club and traffic jam-trapped motorists being tricked into becoming distractions by the players. Like I said before, I have no idea how even one of these messes could ever be hushed up, but their creation's a joy to witness.

Blue Fall is dedicated to anybody who's "been known to open up a book simply to escape," and what a nice escape it is. While elements of Griffith's world building don't seem wholly plausible, and while the pacing of the exposition can be clumsy, Blue Fall is still a powerful read, one propelled forward by the strength of the combat at its center. Despite my issues and reservations, I will be reading the next volume in the Tournament series.