Monday, June 29, 2009

Before They Are Hanged Commentary

6/29/09 pg 387. I started this book and then got quickly caught up in the pace of it. It moved too fast for me to take a moment to write about it. I really didn't want to tear myself away from the page to stop and think. But with over half the book done now I have to stop and catch my breath and write something otherwise I miss out on the whole experience.

First off I have realized something. Joe Abercrombie is the Quentin Tarentino of fantasy. Or, for my fellow English Majors out there, the John Ford. Im sure this is conscious on his part. He has spoken of Tarentino's films informing and contributing to his work and overall outlook on life. His work, like Tarentino's, definitely has overtones of the moral ambiguity inherent in violent acts and a violent life. A character like Logan is never really sure of the effects of his violent lifestyle on his own life or the lives of those he has been around. He is not proud of what he is, but then again, he is not entirely ashamed. His toughness and hard outlook on a hard world has made him able to help the likes of Jezal and Ferro, so he cant be categorized as simply good or bad.

This poses a bit of a problem for me because I don’t really like Tarentino's films. With the exception of Reservoir Dogs which, with its long shots, fuck you dialouge, and complete and total oh no you didn't plot twists, made me take notice that something truly different had appeared on screen. Pulp fiction, which was praised for its fragmentation of chronology to emphasize the arbitrariness of modern existence and violence (havent any of you people read Faulkner?) didn’t strike me as a comment on gratuitous violence as really just being gratuitous violence.

Kill bill 1 and 2 were…well, still more gratuitious violence.

But Before They Are Hanged takes our characters even deeper into the moral no man's land that rules their world. I said in my end notes last time that I was impressed by how much the characters had changed through the course of the book and I was pleased to see that the changes are still in effect. Jezal, though still whiny and self centered in the beginning of the story, does at least retain the ability to empathize. Glotka more than ever asks himself why he does what he does and recieves less and less assurances from the dark corners of his mind as to his motivations. All of which prompts him to commit some serious faux pas in the torturing world(I'm quite sure if there were a torturer's handbook rule number 1 would be "don’t let anyone escape on purpose").

Logan is sick of violence and fighting for the sake of fighting. He wants to find a reason to go on beyond just fighting to survive. Ferro still just wants to kill people.

What really impressed me thus far though is the way Abercrombie builds on the growth in book one and makes the characters continue to grow in self knowledge. Its almost as if he were saying look, avoiding violence may just not be possible in the real world, but avoiding self knowledge is an even worse fate than violence. Violence, and the threat of violence may be bad, but it has this quality of making what's important in the world leap out.

And understanding leaps out at the major characters with a viciousness. For Jezal it takes the form of a mace to the side of the jaw and some broken limbs. (I was impressed here with Abercrombie's technical knowledge. A medieval soldier wielding a mace would have struck his downed opponent a few more times and inflicting further injuries like those described to Jezal).

The merry band of adventurers are heading for a city in the middle of nowhere. Mostly they all hate each other at the start and through much violence and several attacks they learn much about their fellow adventurers and acquire a measure of respect about each of them. Though they primarily still hate each other.

At this point in the novel Logan and Ferro have fallen into a pit, Jezal's face is healing nicely(for nicely read his jaw and mouth are at a weird angle and he looks f'd up), Bayaz is withering away, Glotka is trying to escape a city he was sworn to defend(and signed his life away for). and the dogman and his crew are trying to protect major west who has just committed a treasonous act.

There was a well done battle scene earlier in the book which conveyed the sense of futility as the untrained troops of the union fought against Bethod's barbarians(sound's like a football team name). Abercrombie did an ok job of describing the noise and confusion of war but not as well done as say Suzanna Clarke did describing a battle in Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. Still impressive though. In the Clarke book I had a palpable sense of dread as I read the battle scene. It made me squeamish(much like the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan). In the Abercrombie book the battle scene was more of pathos and loss at the wastefulness.

One hundred plus pages to go.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Commentary on The Blade Itself, End Notes.

June 20, 2009 Running Commentary on The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. End notes. I finished the novel a few days ago and now have to write from strictly memory. I lent the novel to one of my voracious, book rabid students. I couldn't very well make him wait. He's locked up for the first time and is turning to books to entertain himself and make the time pass faster. A wonderful side effect is discovering his own imagination. He's been with us for three weeks and has already read five books. On the outside he never picked up a novel.

In thinking about books I sometimes like to go back to the exercises I learned as an undergrad to provoke thoughts. Sometimes the exercise can be as mundane as what was the theme, or symbol hunting, or in this case list the characters that changed, and the characters that didn't, and why and how.

Logan, Jezal, Glotka, all change in the course of the book. Or strictly speaking, some of the them change, and then because of their circumstances, their history, and their surroundings have to revert to being the characters they were in the past. Logan wants to stop living such a pointlessly violent life. He's witnessed first hand the arbitrary nature of power. He's gone from fighting against Bethod to fighting for him to fighting against him. He's teamed up with enemies and made enemies of friends. He's witnessed the first rule of power politics, hold on to your own power base regardless of the consequences. He takes a good look at himself, his life, the death and destruction and sees it all as absurd. He wants to break the cycle of violence but doesn't quite see how he can.

Jezal changes from a pompous rich spoiled brat to at least being capable of empathizing with another human being. For the first time in his life he realizes he has to prove himself and to the people around him he is worth something other than just being the spoiled son of a noble. And once decided on his quest to change he pursues it nobly, without whining. He fights hard and wins but in a masterful stroke by Abercrombie he ends up winning not under his own power, but with supernatural aid. He still believes he won under his own power and this boosts his self esteem. What will happen in the second book in the series when and if he learns he really didn't do it on his own?

The aspect of Jezal's change that I liked was the way he finally understand the trials his friend West went through. His hard work and sacrifice, his struggle to get better. All of which made Jezal feel like the super shit he is. Or was.

And Glotka. Did Glotka change? Maybe not, maybe its too late. But there is a glimmer there that possibly he can change. When he realizes West came to see him after he returned home from being tortured, but that Glotka's mother sent him away two times because West was "low born," he understands though the world may be bad through and through, there may just be things like real friendship in it, and loyalty, and last but not least, empathy.

The questions to be addressed in the next book is: have they changed, are the changes permanent, or will they revert back to their old selves?

But first The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. For some reason, I seldom like reading trilogies straight through. I don’t know if its I don’t like being stuck in another author's style, or I get claustrophobic with the characters, but I find a book in beween keeps me fresher.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

6/14/09 Running Commentary on The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

I'm almost finished with this novel and wanted to record some thoughts. I find that daily writing about what I'm reading sharpens my perceptiveness and prevents me from saying embarrasing and stupid things in reviews (uhm, yeah, I remember the part where Frodo, Sam and Pippin have dinner at Farmer Maggots, sure do. Just because I failed to mention it in a review doesn't mean I didn’t' remember it. That one took a lot of creativity to get out of). There are spoiler's here and I don’t feel the tiniest bit guilty about it. I see this blog as more of a reader's journal that is made open for those who want to share and compare. I just wish I had thought of the idea of daily posting commentaries on what I read before I actually started this book. One of my professors used to say that reading without written reflection is like sex without the orgasm. You can have a fun old time doing it but you're missing out on the complete experience. (I think she might have had issues, she used this joke a lot)

I'm at the part of the book where Glotka, Jezal, Bayaz, and Logen are standing before the Maker's tower. They've just inserted the lock into the door and its working. The lock of runes is spinning like a roulette wheel gone insane and even the cynical Glotka can't help but wonder what's next. Intriguing place to stop I know but I have papers that needed grading. I wonder sometimes why it is that other people' education so often interferes with my own. Society expects me as a teacher to be well read and well spoken but never seems to want to allow me the time to pursue these things.

I like the characters, I like the story, I also like the cynical and smart assed handling of it all. In the interviews I've seen on Abercrombie he cites George R R Martin as an influence. And I can see it. The heroes are trying save a world in which the wealthy and affluent don’t really give a shit. They could care less whether the world is destroyed as long as they hold on to power.
If there were one overriding theme of the fantasy novels that I've read this past year I would say the theme of holding on to power for the sake of power itself seems to be a major one. Beauracratic monopolies on power that are based on privilige and wealth rather than talent, ability and a solid work ethic are a central concern to most fantasy novelists. Brandon Sanderson uses this in Elantris and the Mistborn books. Patrick Rothfuss does it in The Name of the Wind, with sometimes nail biting and teeth gnashing results. Martin of course is a master at it. The barbarians are at the gate and all Cersei cares about is getting the oafish and disgusting Joffrey on the throne.

Whence comes this? Methinks we need look no farther than Messers. Bush, Cheney and company. True, beauracracies have always been with us but since when have they been this lethal, self centered and downright inept(FEMA, 911, the Iraq War, Gitmo).

Still, Abercrombie handles it well. One of the differences I've noticed between this series and Martin's series is that A Song of Ice and Fire tends to focus on characters that are the center of power. There are minor characters but they are seldom peasants or even small land owners. Most of the characters are in some way or other among the major players for power and the throne.

In Abercrombie's book though, and granted, I'm only partway through it, the characters exist on the periphery of the central power locations. Jezal is nobility but has a snowball's chance in hell of gaining a throne, and would hardly know what to do with it if he attained it. The only thing on his mind is getting laid and fencing. Logan knows too much about power politics and is sick of that life. He wants nothing to do with power but is close enough to it that he is understands the inner workings of the barbarians power systems. Though here too he is unlikely to ever gain complete control, should he even desire it. Glotka is in too much pain to want control, and is unpopular enough that he will be continaully passed over for it. Out of all the characters his world weariness is most paplable. And Bayaz. Well, he seems to already be in power, but only in the wizard or cleric way. He handles power differently than the court officials and nobility. He uses it for a purpose, to keep peace, for protection, to serve. He does not seek to eliminate those who pose a threat to him.

If I have one criticism of the book so far it’s the myth system requires checking and rechecking to understand. J.A. seems to have a healthy fear of info dumping but I think he takes it to an extreme. I think readers will tolerate info dumping or even a glossary so they can be clear on what the mythic allusions the characters discuss constantly are about. He does do a good job as an author as making the mythic references embedded in the dialogue and internal monologue of the characters. But with so much else going on in the story it becomes tedious to flip back through the book to find the conversation which explans for example, just who juvens is and what the maker did.

I think of J.K. Rowling and how she never had a glossary but also she had written the books for a character who is learning about his world from the start. Each new piece of info he gets on his world and his story is part of the narrative, the narrative of his education in the wizarding world.

That, and there were dozens of websites devoted to the background info.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review of Mistborn

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson, Fantasy novel, 643 pages.

Mistborn is unconventional. Instead of knights, dragons, and damsels in distress we have metallurgists, kung fu fights, and factories. Sanderson believes in bending and changing the heroic fantasy genre, as was shown in his debut success Elantris. Every book he writes pushes past stereotypes to create strange yet familiar worlds peopled with memorable characters. The sheer inventiveness of his world building makes readers stop and simply ponder the enormous effort of invention that went into the creation of his backgrounds.

Mistborn, the first book in his first trilogy, gets high marks for sheer effort. Sanderson abandons the tropes of fantasy like swords, witches, wizards, and orcs and creates a world that seems to have more in common with the Russian Revolution than the medieval backdrop that is the common setting of heroic fantasy.

If world building were his only talent he would still be read avidly. But his characters, and their unique situations and conflicts, add a further layer of not just verisimilitude, but the simple unexpected joy we find when a novel hooks us and we "just want to find out what happens to this or that character."

Sanderson creates characters whose web of relationships are reminiscent of the high Victorians: George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, and Dickens. In Sanderson's novels family and the lack of it are as much a catalyst for the plot as the magic systems.

The main character of the series, Min, is reminiscent of the waif's found in Dickens novels. Self consciously so I believe. It is as if Sanderson were asking: What if Oliver Twist woke up one day and realized he could toss Fagin, the Artful Dodger, or Bill the murderer around the room without even lifting a finger. Of if he could pick a pocket from a mile away? Imagine what would happen if say Little Nell, or Little Dorritt, were given the power to kick the living shit out of the bullies and hypocrites that have plagued her life. How would life change if she could fly through the night, enhance her muscular strength to ten times that of a normal human, and have her senses sharpened to the point she could perceive conversations and faces from miles away. What would the story be like if she also learns she has been born with the kind of power that comes along once in a millennium? Commoners speak her name in whispers and even emperors secretly fear her.

What if she was trained like Oliver Twist to pull off heists and capers. She has these amazing powers, but before realizing them she worked her way up a heist gang to become a proficient burglar. She could become rich beyond her wildest dreams and not need anyone's help.
Along with her newfound powers she has a severe case of Reactive Attachment Disorder from life on the streets. Whenever Min finds herself getting close to someone in the novel she pulls away to avoid getting hurt. Or her powers flare and she finds she hurts people without meaning to.

The novel opens with Min serving as the low person on a gang of thieves in an industrial city. A scarred stranger recruits her to the revolution forming against the Lord Ruler, a being whose reign is repressive but who, we learn along the way, may simply be the lesser of evils plaguing the land. Killing him may do more harm than good.

Min is slowly drawn into the circle of the revolutionaries(who at one time were professional heist men) and the story begins to resemble ocean's eleven. She is expected to fulfill a minor role in the plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler but her co conspirators learn more about her power along the way and her importance in the novel grows from least likely to survive, to most likely to actually kill the Lord Ruler.

If Sanderson has one fault as a fantasy novelist it is that he is too good at world building. His worlds are rich and filled with complex, yet never boring, histories where the past is not just the past, it is the here and now. Events have as much bearing on the present as they did on the day they occurred.

Unfortunately for a reader this means that you find yourself following a plot line and the movements of characters but want to stick around and listen to the rest of the story. Its like when you went to the natural history museum and your parents pushed you through the exhibits but you gleefully wanted to stay and hear the whole story of the cro magnon man and his mate while your parents looked at their watches.

The ending of Mistborn left me with wanting more. And Sanderson does the professional novelist's job of using this book to sell the next book. You do want to find out more about the characters fates, you are emotionally involved with a child who should not have survived but seems to have done so not due to chance but to fate. And in the final pages of the novel you learn, much to your surprise, these characters and their fates have much to teach you about your own.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Books read in may

Decent month for reading. Having a week off in the middle of the month did wonders for my biblioaspirations.

Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maas, Writer's Reference

The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson, Fantasy Novel

Freddy's Book, John Gardner, Fiction

The Trojan War, Barry Strauss, Classical History

The Silent Blade, R A Salvatore, Fantasy Novel

Soldiers and Ghosts, J E Lendon, Classical Military History