Sunday, November 28, 2010

Trilogies

Im currently reading Towers of Midnight and am enjoying it. I'll post a review eventually, but today though I was struck by an irony. Let me explain: most fantasy series have been organized around trilogies since Tolkien. Fantasy is still enamoured of the form, and even though writers like Abercrombie use the form to expose cliche's many fantasy novelists still work with the trilogy as a basic organizational principle. Jordan himself even admitted that the Wheel of Time began in his mind as a trilogy then "grew with the telling." While most fantasy series are limited to trilogies, how many of them actually end in a trilogy? Because splitting a Memory of Light into three books, although I understand the need given the amount of material, is essentially ending with a trilogy. A fitting way perhaps to end one of the most influential fantasy series of a generation. A series that overturned so many cliches, and broke new ground, not least of which was stretching beyond the traditional three book structure, its slightly ironic that the last three books can be thought of as a trilogy.

Just saying...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Song of Ice and Fire Reread; A Game of Thrones Prologue


A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE REREAD:
A Game of Thrones: 1/Prologue
"We should start back."
This is the opening line of the book, and of the series. In a sense it functions as the announcing of a major theme that will echo and be returned to: that things have gotten beyond our control. That we are in danger, and that despite what we thought, we have no safe haven. No place we can return.
It applies immediately to the characters Royce, Gared and Will, but in a larger sense it applies to the situation of the world of the Seven Kingdoms: there has been an uprising and revolution, the king, the ruling dynasty, the house that has governed the island for almost three hundred years, has been destroyed. The island is leaderless and may descend into chaos.
Prior to the Targaryen dynasty there were seven separate kingdoms, each with its own houses and rulers. Now they are all noble families and rule large areas of the island.
The people have grown used to the rule of one house, and of one king on a throne. That king was determined not just by blood, but by the physical appearance of the members of the targaryens: violet eyes, silverish hair. The ruling house can be said to have much in common with faerie.
So the land itself, after three hundred years of being ruled by a single house, which in its previous history was never a problem, now is faced with what to do. There sits a king on the throne, Robert Baraethen, the man who defeated the crown prince Rhaegar in individual combat.
The whole country seems to be giving sidelong glances at each other, and wondering just what is going to happen next. If a people rise up, or more properly, the ruling classes rise up and overthrow a monarch, who, as in all monarchies is supposedly the divinely appointed ruler, then has the nation as a whole opened the door for nothing being sacred.
And a note on method as well. To compare the opening with other series, and this is not a comparison of better or worse, simply a contrast in methods, notice how Robert Jordan opens the The Wheel of Time. He uses the third person omniscient voice to describe the wind and the wheel, almost like a voice over in a movie. You are alerted that what follows will be epic, sweeping, and constructed by forces that might perhaps be beyond human control.
But by announcing the theme in the voice of a character, Martin signals to the reader that the situation they are encountering is a human one(despite the presence of Zombies and other supernatural forces). Humans began this enterprise, and it is not the voice of a god or the commands of an impersonal creator or dark lord who bring the problems. It is human nature itself that launches the problems which follow. Men overthrew a king. It could be justified, and it can be argued against, but it is a specifically human problem.
Which, when you think about it, is a very unique way to start a fantasy epic series.
Men may have seen the need for the change of rulers or dynasty, but now human limitations exert themselves and the problem becomes what now. How do we fix the problems that killing the king have created?
Another major theme is announced in the story in this opening section: the conflict between nobility and peasant. Waymar, Gared and Will are at odds about the proper course of action. They are in the Night's Watch where traditional roles of Lord and Peasant are abandoned in the face of the brotherhood. But that is really not the case.
Gared, in internal monologue states he had "seen lordlings come and go." There exists a type of Vietnam Cherry situation where if they last the first six months maybe they will become trusted and friends with the other member's of the Night's Watch. But many of the Lordings die off in the first year because they are unusued to the harshness of the life of the Wall.
But the situation is not as easily graspable as that. Royce insists he needs to see the bodies for himself. Though Gared has 40 years on the Wall and Will 4, in this situation, Royce is right. "It became a point of honor," and though both Will and Gared have done good service, and their actions may be considered cowardly.
The roles are continually in conflict, and the hierarchy is not really clear. Again, this will be the dominant theme of the series, but it is very subtley reflected here.
Aside from the cool introduction of the zombie like others there is one telling detail that sticks out during the following battle: when Royce cries "For Robert!" before he plunges into battle, the others laugh.
It could be argued they are laughing at the puny ineffectual humans, but I think they are laughing at the invocation of Robert as rightful king. Again, the cosmoligical order has been knocked off its axis. The usurpation of the rightful king has placed the realm itself in danger from supernatural forces.
Thus ends my first entry. More later on the specific writer techniques that he is using here. I don’t want to put too much content in the entries and make them long winded and time consuming. I'd rather post numerous times on each passage.
Bear with me gentle reader, its going to be a long ride.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review of The Dragonbone Chair


Book Info: The Dragonbone Chair, by Tad Williams , first published in 1989. This book is the first in a four part fantasy series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

2 Line Summary: Orphan discovers noble fate and is forced to help save the world(stop me if you heard this one before).

Author Info: Tad Williams is the author of TailChaser's song as well as the otherland series.

Plot Summary:
Simon, a kitchen scullion in the great castle of the Hayholt, serves also as apprentice wizard to Morgenes and spends his days daydreaming about a great and noble future instead of attending to his lessons. While Simon loses himself in his daydreams the kingdom awaits the death of Prester John, wondering what changes will arrive when the old man, whose reign was known for its peace and prosperity, finally passes. Whispers abound as to the prospected clash between John's two sons.
Upon the death of the king the Kingdom is plunged into civil war. Simon must pick sides in the conflict, and undertake a quest to secure the safety of the kingdom from a supernatural threat.

Analysis:
I don't make a habit of reviewing books that disappoint me, or that I feel fail overall. The world of books is vast and time is short and I believe a primary purpose of a book blog is to help direct readers to works worthy of their effort. A book that has flaws in characterization, or plotting, or worldbuilding can still be redeemed by other aspects and leave a deep impression. For example, though I very much believe Brandon Sanderson's Elantris a novel deserving of praise and a wide readership, I do think it loses points for plot problems(a deus ex machina ending for one plot thread). Having said that though the quality of the worldbuilding is impressive as well as the characterization. The novel rewards close reading for those two aspects alone.
But I reviewed The Dragonbone Chair because it is seminal in the genre if for no other reason it heralded a new approach. There were few bedroom scenes for adults or true issues of moral choice and consequence resembling real life dilemmas in mainstream fantasy when the book was first published. Williams bravery in tackling these themes and working them into his series is to be praised. But his handling of them, and his attempt to make the work even and balanced as a result, does not succeed. For that reason I think I leave it up to the reader to determine whether it is worth the effort. For my part, I was sorely dissappointed and could not summon the effort to read the remaining books of the series. Too many pages of wanting to punch Simon in the face for his dim wittedness make me cautious before attempting to wade through the long dry passages before I find a gem of lyricism. Though I may do so at a later date.
The problem of how to make a main character kind of slow on the uptake yet still appealing to the reader is a difficult one for a writer. I can't think of many that have succeeded. In fact, a quick survey of the fantasy novels I've read thus far this year, have characters that do not fit this mold: Arlen, Kylar, Tingil, Shrike, all portrayed as if not brilliant, then they can at least be described as quick to learn. It may be that now as a fantasy reader I am used to the uber intelligent characters like Kvothe and Tyrion. And although I think Williams did a good job in portraying Simon I can't help but wonder why? Why choose this character for the narrative center? Why make the majority of events we see filtered through a consciousness that needs so much explained to him by other characters? It just seems a titanic waste of time.
Simon's not mentally deficient, just obstinate. Had Simon suffered from an abnormally low IQ, or not have the power to speak, that would have changed the dynamic of the story considerably and might make the sections more interesting(think of what Faulkner did with Benjy in The Sound and the Fury). But as it is Simon's inability as a character to grasp the significance of details the author has him register interferes with the pace of the narrative. When I as a reader am three steps ahead of the main character in foreseeing the implications of the events in the story it gets frustrating to wait for the main character to find another character to help him catch up.
Still I may end up reading the series after all. There were parts that were lyrically beautiful, such as the description of the old king falling asleep on his throne, the dragonbone chair. And the descriptions of the Sithi were well done. He makes the reader genuinely feel the sense of these characters as an alien race and culture. Their movements, their speech, the architecture they choose to surround themselves with, all vivid and lush. He also displays skill in capturing the weather, and the feel of characters moving through a landscape.
Hopefully Simon gets smarter as the series progresses.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Desert Spear review


Book Info: The Desert Spear, by Peter V. Brett, heroic fantasy, 579 pages, hardcover, published 2010.

Author Info: Peter V. Brett is the author of The Warded Man; a debut fantasy that garnered much praise for its fast pace, characterization, and magic system and worldbuilding. Prior to becoming a full time author he worked in the pharmaceutical publishing industry and has degrees in English and Art History. He keeps a regular blog at his website Peephole in my Skull. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

Plot Summary: The Desert Spear is the sequel to The Warded Man. The narrative begins by jumping back in time and relating the back stories of several major characters who first appeared in The Warded Man.
The tribes of the desert, led by Jardir, have advanced on the west and are sweeping through the independent city states and small villages. Arlen, the warded man, has been moving through the world trying to raise resistance to the demon war. He tries to distance himself from the politics of Jardir's war and focus on empowering the people to fight the demons that plague mankind.

Analysis:
I think the book more brilliant for its intention, and the genius behind the set up of the situation, than in any single aspect of plot, or characterization, or worldbuilding.
What if the only solution to averting a global catastrophe could be found by having the tribes and peoples of the middle east, Israel excluded, invade and conquer the United States. After the invasion was complete and the newly conquered territories stabilized then Americans were recruited by the new ruler to fight alongside them in a war which threatens humanity itself.
What if a renegade American rises who attempts to show the people how to fight the threat, but doesn't help them overthrow the Middle Eastern masters. He wont lead the people to do that because he believes the war for humanity's survival more important.
Would the population be accepting of the desert tribes, if they did in fact provide Americans with a more stable, and unifying power base? Imagine also that instead of one unified country at the time we had regions that existed in a cold war state: say the midwest was on friendly relations with the south but did not trust them and each side maneuvered to gain advantage in material resources and wealth over their neighbors.
That in essence is the situation Brett sets up in this series(which as far as I know from interviews and articles will consist of 5 books and the next one titled The Daylight War").
The strength of the book and the series is not just in the world building but in the culture building. The desert tribes are not a collection of cliches. They instead seem to be a living culture that has as its locus not a holy war against infidels but a daily fight for survival against the demons.
An aspect of the book that bothered me was the use of rural dialects for the western characters who inhabit the small towns and villages. Although the dialogue does sound like many uneducated country characters would sound like,and the author does capture the self righteousness of village elders and gossips, I found the repeated use of the dialect tedious. A line like "Yourn goin to kill that there demon aren't ya?" only needs to be read once or twice to get the point across that the speakers have little formal education. Endless repeated use of dialect like this and it begins to sound like the Beverly Hillbillies wandered into a dungeons and dragon game.
Again, I understand what the author was trying to do: he wants to show the immense challenge to be faced by the Deliverer in overcoming ignorance and helping these people fight to save their land. The author also does cleverly plays a double game here: will it be Arlen who shall deliver the people, or Jardir, the Desert Spear? If the former then he does indeed speak their language and can relapse into the dialect at will, but his loathing for the self righteousness of these communities makes him reluctant to offer them any aid. If the latter then how can these people overcome such a deep fear of the "other." And how can he recruit these people to fight willingly for him?
But fantasy has been plagued with this problem for decades. From the "simple sounding Shire folk, " to the "good people of Two Rivers," rurals in fantasy novels often seem a necessary evil.
At least Brett managed to put a different spin by upping the stakes.

Other thoughts:
Overall the book was excellent and held me in suspense. The Warded Man exploded onto the fantasy scene and took risks that paid off: a hero for a main character, a magic system that at first sight seemed simple but is really intricate, and a deep psychology for its characters that portrays realistically the post traumatic stress disorders that would manifest themselves in such a society where the nightly threats to life and limb are real and relentless.
The Desert Spear follows up this with excellent characterizations and intricate plotting. Sequels frequently suffer from too much addition to try to make their books intriguing. The Desert Spear doesn't add so much as reveal what was there but not able to be seen at first sight.

Similar Reads: Terry Brooks Running with the Demon series.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Books Read April, May and June


APRIL
-The Wolf Sea, Robert Low, historical novel, 339 pages
-Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson, fantasy novel, 657 pages
-Orcs: Legion of Thunder, Stan Nicholls, fantasy novel, 224 pages
-The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein, science fiction novel, 382 pages
-Dragon Age: The Calling, Daivid Gaider, fantasy novel, 444 pages
-Northlanders 1: Sven the Returned, Brian Wood, graphic novel
-Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny, fantasy novel, 155 pages
-The Guns of Avalon, Rober Zelazny, fantasy novel 181 pages
-The Praise Singer, Mary Renault, historical novel, 288 pages
-Northlanders 2: The Cross and the Hammer, Brian Wood, graphic novel
-The Warded Man, Peter Brett, fantasy novel, 453 pages
-Hikaru No Go 1: Descent of the Go Master, Yumi Hasha/ Takeshi Obata, Manga
-Hikaru No Go 2: First Battle, Yumi Hasha/Takeshi Obata, Manga
-Northlanders 3: Blood on the Snow, Brian Wood, graphic novel

MAY
-Keys to Great Writing, Stephen Wilbers, writing reference, 252 pages
-Legionary: The Roman Soldier's Unofficial Manual, Phillip Matyszak, history, 202pgs
-Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay, fantasy novel, 567 pages
-Bleach 14: White Tower Rocks, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 15: The Beginning of the Death of Tomorrow, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 16: Night of Wijnruit, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 17: Rosa Rubicundior, Lilio Candidior, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 18: The Deathberry Returns, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 19: The Black Moon Rising, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 20: End of Hypnosis, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 21: Be My Family or Not, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 22: Conquistadores, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 23: Mala Suerte!, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 24: Immanent God Blues, Tite Kubo, manga
-The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. LeGuin, fantasy novel, 180 pages
-Bleach 25: No Shaking Throne, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 26: The Masscaron Drive, Tite Kubo, manga

JUNE
-Bleach 27: Goodbye halcyon days, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 28: Baron's Lecture Full-Course, Tite Kubo, manga
-Bleach 29: The Slashing Opera, Tite Kubo, manga
-The Dragonbone Chair, Tad Williams, fantasy novel, 766 pages
-Spunk and Bite, Arthur Plotnik, writing reference, 253 pages

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny


Book Info: Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny, fantasy novel. First published in 1970.

Author Info: Roger Zelazny is widely considered a master of sff/fantasy. His output was voluminous. His work has garnered Hugos and Nebulas, and cited as influential by contemporary masters like George R R Martin and Neil Gaiman.

Plot Summary: The narrator, Corwin, wakes in a hospital bed after a car accident. He has what he believes to be amnesia and can remember very little about his past. Feeling himself in danger he slips out of the hospital and locates one of his sisters. Bit by bit, through dialogue and conversation, he discovers he is a lost prince of Amber, the center world at the core of all existence. All other worlds are merely shadows thrown by Amber, and those of the royal blood, such as Corwin, can walk the pattern between all shadow worlds.

Corwin establishes contact with another sibling, his brother Random. From him Corwin learns the car accident was no accident and he is in danger. Corwin's father, Oberon, has disappeared and the throne is now held by Corwin's brother Eric. Eric is ruthless and schemes to eliminate whatever siblings oppose his rule. it was Eric who set up the accident to dispatch Corwin.

Analysis: One of the themes of the novel is the idea of family and family rivalry. The Amber brood are as nasty a sibling set as any in a George R R Martin novel. Put them and the Lannisters in a family feud cage match and see what happens. Call it suvudu steel cage clan matches.

Do unto others before they do unto you seems the motto of the Amber princes and princesses. And the implications of that, and what it means to live in that way, is fleshed out by Zelazny through the course of the book. To extend a kindness to someone who may be plotting to kill you, and doing it to maintain your own humanity, is difficult to write, and even more difficult to believe. But the author manages it well and as a reader I found that I was hooked into the fate of the characters because of this.

Another aspect of the book that intrigued me was the implications of the parallel worlds. I don’t know enough about the sub genre to say with any authority that this book was experimental for its time, but it certainly feels that way. To handle the concept of a parallel world and to do so in such a way the reader doesn't feel like "you are making stuff up as you go along" takes a great deal of skill. The sense of wonder and curiosity of how the worlds work and their relationship to each other runs as a thread through the entire book, and I suspect the entire series.



Other thoughts: I loved this book. Reading it I had an experience I seem to get rarely when reading fantasy these days. A mounting excitement as my subconscious and conscious minds pieced out the various implications of the world building. Zelazny does a masterful job of maintaining control over the text. He knows when to hold em, and when to show em(to quote the immortal Kenny Rogers). He allows the readers partial glimpses into the world and the powers that are available to the characters. He never condescends to explain all the implications, nor does he use info dumps. Instead, he shows how the world works by the characters and their interactions.

And there is his style. At times it seems workmanlike, but that merely lulls the reader into familiarity until he blasts them with lines like: "Troubled by dreams of werewolves and Sabbats, I slept, and the full moon rose above the world." And this despcription of a ship in a storm: "We were hurled from side to side like dice in a giant's hand." And Corwin's musings on his relationship with his siblings: "No psychaitrist could cope with my family;" and "we were kin without kinship."


Similar Reads: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany. Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass(I like the think the title of the last one an homage to Zelazny, but I have no proof of this).

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review of The Wolf Sea by Robert Low


Book Info: The Wolf Sea, by Robert Low. Hardcover import, 339 pages. Published 2008

Author Info: Robert Low lives and writes in Scotland. He was a war correspondent and journalist in Vietnam, Kosovo, Romania, and Sarajevo. He spends his summers in a Viking Reenactment group, fighting in shield walls all over Britain.

Plot Summary: The year is 965 A.D. The Oathsworn, a group of Norse men bound by an oath to Odin, pursue wealth and fame in exotic places such as Constantinople, the Greek Islands, and Jerusalem.

The story opens with the theft of a sword; it is rumoured to contain metal from the spear of destiny: the spear that pierced Christ's side during the crucifixion. The Oathsworn, led by the deep thinking but young Orm, pursue the sword and its thief across the Middle East. They fight, befriend and rob peoples as diverse as the Berbers, Saracens, Greeks, and Jews. There are betrayals a plenty, as well as battles, intrigues, double and triple crosses, and fortunes stolen and lost. Renegade Christian monks, castrattii, giant Norse berserks, Islamic merchants, and Byzantine Generals all appear and influence events as Orm tries to keep his men alive and pursuing wealth.

Analysis: The most intriguing aspect of this book was the completely convincing recreation of the mindset of the Norse. They were not merely bloody minded savages, but a people steeped in myth, religion, and superstition. Strict codes of conduct, and a fervent belief in the myths and legends permeate every area of their lives. From washing and eating to how to kill an enemy and the just punishments in this life and the afterlife for betrayal and oathbreaking.

For example, to call someone a liar and that god will punish them is a very different thing than calling them an oathbreaker, and knowing what awaits them after death. Especially when the oathbreaker knows what he has done and is convinced what will happen to him. "No Valhall halls for me, or riding with Valkyries. I'll sit on Hel's benches with the rest of the nameless, nithing dead til Ragna Rok."

It is the total recreation of the belief systems and mindset of these peoples that overwhelms the reader. What the author knows about the Vikings and the world of the tenth century is impressive, but even more impressive is how he presents it. In dialogue, in narration, in interior monologue, he shows a true novelist's skill. What we think of as stories about Thor and Odin are as real to the Norse of this era as the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the assasination of Lincoln are to us.

Religion and myth are the dominant modes of percieving the world in this book. Far from being pedantic the reader feels the world of the story is a living one. And one which a modern day man would not likely last long in. I thought of Nietzsche's warning when he wrote of the Homeric Greeks: "Do not think that for a moment you could withstand one day's worth of their light, for it and the world would surely crush you."

The fight scenes are brutal. You'll flinch. And there are a lot of them. Which I think is an aspect of the realism of the book. It was violent, dangerous age. A well made sword or spear, and the skill and knowledge of how to use it, was essential to survival, not just a sport. Survive one battle today and die the next because you held your shield too low.

For example, in one scene he has the character Orm talk about men who are practicing duelling. They fright sword against sword and Orm mocks them because "no warrior places edge against edge, since a sword is too valuable a weapon to ruin in that way. Sword on shield is the way and only if you must do you block with a good edge. A warrior knows this."

Its that kind of realism and insight that made the book well worth reading. And a delight.


Other thoughts: I bought the book because of the recommendations on the websites of Richard Morgan and Joe Abercrombie. Both of whom write convincing barbarians. They both praise Robert Low's realism and I would agree. I think it a tribute to the book that the realism is so perfectly balanced with the dominance of myth and religion. Not many writers could pull that off.

Similar Reads: Bernard Cornwell's Saxon chronicles, The Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, and Joe Abercrombie's The First Law Trilogy.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Renaming the blog

New Title
I've changed the blog's title from Ludis Inventio to Riotous Reading. Why? Because, quite frankly I hate how pretentious and annoying ludis sounds. It seemed like a good idea at first, but the new title better captures my personality and goal for the blog. Let me explain.
I teach English in a juvenile correctional facility. At times it can be violent but violence rarely occurs in my classroom. I have a good relationship with my students, largely because I bring dozens of books for them, most of which are fantasy, sci fi, and graphic novels. As a teacher I have unique opportunity to turn them into readers. They come to the facility for a 6 to 9 month stay, during which there is no television, movies, or video games. Reading is their only form of entertainment. I was amazed at first at the idea that most of them, being innner city kids accustomed to a very violent and brutal lifestyle, should find spec fic so engaging. I've had students who have never read a novel finish the entire drizzt books, as well as the wheel of time series, before they left the facility. They never cease to amaze me with their perspectives on the stories, the writers, and the characters that become part of their daily interaction: True story: I almost had to break up a fight over who is the better swordsman: Artemis Entreri, or Drizzt. You would think R.A. Salvatore had settled the argument.
The name of the blog then comes from an incident that happened two years ago. The facility had several groups that on the outside battle regularly. Though the staff had done what they could, one day it erupted into violence during school. This happened on a friday, which in my room is always silent reading day. The amazing thing is you walk in my room and it is absolutley silent for forty five minutes. If someone starts to talk the others shut them down.
The riot erupted while we were reading. As teachers we often have a list of safety procedures to follow. One of which is to lock our doors and remain in a classroom should a riot occur. Do your best to keep the students from getting involved and exposing yourself to danger.
I did so. None of my students was particularly motivated to join the fray. Most of them had only a few months left and didn't want to jepordize their release date. Many of them were glad for the opportunity to sit quietly for forty five minutes and just read a good story.
I was 2/3 through The Shadow Rising. Rand had just recruited the Aiel and the world shaking consequences had me reluctant to tear myself away and deal with the real world.
So, with the door locked, we read our way through the riot. When asked by my coworkers how I kept the students contained and myself safe I replied "By reading."
My supervisors were pleased and somewhat stunned. My students took it as a matter of course. I explained to a friend any book that galvanizes your attention to the point that you can forget your surroundings so completely is a rare experience.
The riot did not last long. Maybe twenty minutes at the most. The ringleaders were shpped off to max secure settings for three year sentences, and the place went back to business as usual.
Riotous reading became a euphemism my students and I used to describe a book whose power over the reader is nearly occult. Also for the havoc it can wreak in the mind of the reader: overturning previously held beliefs, shattering expectations, and kicking a cliché's trope in the ass.
Some examples of books that became riotous reading: A Storm of Swords, The Name of the Wind, Last Argument of Kings, Tigana. Some of my students would add Exile and Sojourn but I am not inclined to agree.
So the quest for books that can conveniently fall into that category continues. Hence the name of the blog.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pat Rothfuss Signing


On Tuesday I drove down to Maryland(3 hour trip) to see Patrick Rothfuss at a Barnes and Noble in Frederick, Maryland. He gave a reading, an author Q and A, and did a signing. The following are my impressions and notes on the experience. I've tried my best to stay as close as possible to what he said. If there are any errors or misquotes they are neither willful nor malicious. I didn't want to openly take notes because I would miss most of what he said and diminish my enjoyment. As you will no doubt glean from what follows:
1) I had a great time.
2) The experience was a unique opportunity to learn and gain insight from a master craftsman.
3) Rothfuss genuinely loves and appreciates his fans and enjoys talking about his work, the writing process, and the fantasy genre in general.
I had arrived early, and taken a seat in the common area. The reading was scheduled for 7. At 6 I had my choice of seats. By 615 the most of the seats had filled. By 630 it was already standing room only.
At about 7 Pat arrived. He wore a blue sun tshirt and jeans. He made his way to the front and set down his bookbag. He greeted the crowd then took out some folders containing his readings.
He looked tired. His face was ashy. You could tell he had spent a long time on the road and the readings and trip were wearing. But his tiredness never became impatience or crankiness. He was genial with crowd and had an ease in front of the room that I suspect comes from years as a teacher. And being one of the few lucky individuals on the planet who actually enjoys his job.
Once his caffiene arrived he became more animated. He cautioned the crowd to please turn off the cellphones for each other's sake. He said that if a phone goes off while he is speaking it will distract him, but more importantly it will also very much piss off the crowd, who will not take kindly to such interruptions. And it worked. Not one cellphone went off the entire time.
Shortly after this Oot and Sara arrived. Sara wore Oot in a baby carrier with Oot facing out. A collective "aaahhh," went up from the crowd. Which was well merited because Oot is adorable.
His dad took him out and it was obvious how fond he was of his little boy. He kissed him, held him, then held him up to the crowd facing them. Some babies might have been frightened. Not Oot. The most radiant, happy, ear to ear smile lit Oot's face. I've never seen a baby laugh like that. He was so animated the crowd loved him. He loved the crowd.
Pat then gave him back to Sara and said he would wait until about 715 to begin. He was chronically late in the past so he would allow the stragglers to come in before he started. We could have a brief informal question and answer period.
The questions started. I think the very first one was: Where the hell did Kvothe come from?

Pat smiled then said there were two sources and the first he still clearly remembers to this day. He was reading Cyrano de Bergerac and cried through the last twenty pages. He said this amazing, moving character had him weeping for hours. And he immediately thought why hasn't there been a character like this in a fantasy setting? He later that day wrote the first words "My name is Kvothe."
The second he said came from reading Cassanova's memoirs. He talked about how he read the memoirs fervently. He was in awe of the man and his experiences. And that found its way to Kvothe as well.
But he had a problem. Although Cassanova's life had been interesting, it had not had a plot or a story. And as a novelist that was where he needed to invent.
He then talked about how his strength as a writer was in characters (and I would add world building, dialogue and choice of syntax) but that the structure of a book, the plot, did not come easily for him, and this was one of the things he had to work hard at. Personally, I couldn't tell he from his books that plot is not a strong point. If he had to put extra effort into the plotting of a book, it certainly didn't show. The narrative does flow smoothly.
More questions were asked about writing in general. One person said how do you know when your work is ready to be sent out? Pat said generally there are two rules to follow. First, if you think your work needs more revision, it probably does. Second, if you don't think your work needs more revision, it probably does.
Someone then asked how do you know when its finished?
Pat said Your editor will tell you.
He talked about his first attempt at fantasy novel, with the cliché'd barbarians etc, and then said he sent it out and realized later that most of the story consisted of dialogue, flashbacks and the characters generally didn't do anything except go from tavern to tavern.
And then in a humorous anecdote he described how he sent it to Neil Gaiman's agent who sent it back and he was enraged. He said he raved about how the agent hand't understood his brilliance when he received the rejection letter. Then after he took a second look he thought it over and took the advice.
At this time it was about 715 so Pat decided to do a reading. I think the first reading was a piece he wrote for his humor column about keeping giunea pigs in his dorm room. The piece was hilarious and it led to Pat talking about the role of ambiguity in writing. If the piece were completely true, or completely false, it would lose some of its power.
Then he asked the crowd if it wanted another humor column or the first page of The Wise Man's Fear. Of course Wise Man's Fear won out. It starts in the Waystone Inn, and like a musical motif touches on the themes of The Name of the Wind and puts some variations on them. All I can say is beautiful prose.
He then talked about the work he did on The Wise Man's Fear. He said he had spoken to his agent about the book's length. It had "grown in the telling." She had reassured him not to worry that it would be fine, regardless of how long it ended up. He asked her what the ceiling was for word count. She said let her do some research. She came back with a number, which she quoted as being the word count of the longest novel ever published in one book: James Clavell's Shogun. I don’t remember the word count exactly but I think it was over 400,000. She said they would try to publish under that. But that gave him quite a bit of room to work with.
I think the entire audience collectively salivated. This book we've been waiting years for was that much closer. And more significantly, for myself at least, one piercing anxiey was alleviated. I was worried about losing whole sections of the book in the editing process. The fact that its going to be this huge, and the editors and publishers are ok with that, was reassuring. I had the feeling they are not going to take this book and make it sellable(by which I mean strip it down). They believe in Pat's writing and are going to publish the novel in the form that he sees fit, however long that may be.
Think about it: a book about Kvothe the size of Shogun. WOW!!
Ok fanboy, that's enough. Calm down.
He then talked about the fantasy genre and certain cliché's or tropes he had wanted to avoid. But he said its not that easy. He said if you look at The Name of the Wind you can still spot them and asked the crowd to name a few(and here the traces of Pat the teacher came out which were pretty cool. He seems very much like the professor you have who is not a career academic, but a part time lecturer, but is fun and you learn from just because he loves the material so much and doesn't care about academic reputation). The orphan, the bully, the evil characters…he said they are there but there is something added or taken away or described that puts a new spin on them. He said that was the challenge he had in writing them. You can't avoid some things, but you can tell them in a new way.
This led into a discussion of other aspects of fantasy. He said think of wizards. What makes a wizard really powerful? Its not his ability to do magic, although that is important. He said its because of what he knows. He knows more than you can see. He illustrated what he meant by three examples: Gandalf, Merlin, and Moses. He said each of them uses magic, if at all, sparingly. But they are important to the story and characters because of what they know.
He read one more piece, a poem he wrote for Sarah. Which of course the audience loved and was actually very good. Then a few more questions. Someone asked how he felt about Kvothe doing battle with a god-lion-king. He laughed and said he enjoyed the whole Suvudu battle royale. He had even written something he posted on how he imagined the battle would go.
Then it was time for the signing. I had instant respect for the man because his first thought was of his fans and their long commutes at such a late hour. He asked the audience to allow the people who just want the book signed to come up to the front, and those who wanted longer writings in the book to go to the back. He talked and conversed with his fans and took as much time talking as they wanted. I think the store must have stayed open an extra hour or so.
He also asked that fans sign a copy of his book and feel free to write whatever they felt in it to him.
When I handed him my copy I realized something very important. My copy is old, a first edition hardback with Kvothe on the front. It is weathered, a little bit frayed and slightly dogeared. I have written annotations and comments in it. I have read it three times and counting my students it has to have been read at least fifteen times in total.
And I thought: what a great gift to give an author. His own book, that has obviously been much loved and much read.
That's pretty much all I remember. My hope is that when The Wise Man's Fear comes out he will do a coast to coast signing. His fans will certainly be legion. He was very gentlemanly and polite. He took the time put real thought in his answers to questions rather than cite cliché's because he was tired and wanted to go.
In fact, wouldn't it be cool if authors published at the same time and did a fantasy version of lollapalooza? Had outdoor readings interspersed with music performances? Maybe four or five authors on tour? Im not talking arena sized but still can you imagine if Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman, Joe Abercrombie, George R R Martin, and Brandon Sanderson toured together?
Wow.
If I made any mistakes in the above quotes or descriptions please don't hesitate to point them out and I will gladly correct them. My intention was to put something about how important the experience was for me and how enjoyable.
If you get the chance to see him, go. Lots of fun.
Now, if I could only get that review of The Last Light of the Sun finished.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Repeat after me: I will not spend money on books beyond my means on Amazon, I will not spend money on books beyond my means on Amazon, I will not spend money on books beyond my means on Amazon....

maybe if I say it a few thousand times I'll get the message.

But its money well spent. So I go without coffee for a week, what's the worst that can happen?

Actually, I should probably cut out something else. Books and coffee go together like..Quixote and Sancho, like Frodo and Sam, like...ok, now I'm babbling.

Sorry for wasting your time dear reader. Am working on a review of The Last Light of the Sun, which refuses to be a review and keeps insisting on being a critical essay. That and I'm rereading The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss. The fourth time through and the book still has its staying power. And this is strange for me because I rarely reread a book I love more than twice. What's hitting me this time about NOTW is the style. I can't put my finger on it but the sentences, their construction, the flow and the poetry. Its not a browbeating poetry either, no longwinded discursions of purple prose. Its sublte, restrained, it hovers around the edges of the sentences. How the hell does he DO that?

I never attempted a proper review of the book because I was afraid I'd never do it justice, or manage to articulate what it is that affected me so profoundly. A lesson that I should probably have taken to heart in attempting to review The Last Light of the Sun.

There's a question for reviewers I'd like to ask if I had the forum: Do you have an easier time reviewing a book you are in awe of, or is it harder? I find that with the books I truly admire I worry about doing justice to the material, and that I may be missing something. A book of great depth tends to make me think of greater depths lurking if only I had the wit to see them.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Knife of Dreams Review


Knife of Dreams, Robert Jordan, published 2005, paperback, 837 pages

2 LINE SUMMARY: You've got to be kidding. Who could summarize THIS in 2 lines? My usual flippancy has ben set to mute.

PLOT: The last battle draws closer, and the world is even more unprepared. Things have gotten worse rather than better. Egwayne struggles to reunite the tower. Rand tries to bring the quarrelling nations together. Mat still has his hands full with Tuon, but with more implications than even he knows. Perrin works to rescue Faile and control his increasing love of battle. A pregnant Elayne copes with securing her throne and the loss of her ability to channel.

ANALYSIS: The most important epiphany this book had for me was realizing how much I had underread all the previous books. Because Winter's Heart and Crossroads of Twilight seemed labored and bound up in so much incessant dialogue that felt like it was going nowhere I tended to not read very closely. Big Mistake. Here, in Knife of Dreams Jordan revealed the groundwork he had done on the characters in past books and how those characters are coming to their roles in the preparations for Tarmon Gaidon.
This book recaptured the Jordan ride. What I mean by that is when I first began to read the books I noticed a pattern in each novel. The beginnings usually opened with those long introductions with plots carefully laid and dangerous alliances formed. Then the opening chapters would situate the main and minor characters in their respective milieus. Action would occur and we would be swept along. Then in the middle of the book characters moved around, like a middle game in chess, and thought out the consequences of their moves. Then somewhere near the beginning of the second third of the book the holy shit incident or revelation would be made and I would finish about two or three hundred pages in a day; frantically reading to find out what happened next. I remember this experience most clearly from The Shadow Rising and Lord of Chaos. It seemed most noticeable a pattern in books 4, 5, and 6. Those three books seem to me the sluggers of the series. Four and Six especially made such a profound effect I recall not reading much for the next few days while I thought out the implications of the events.
Knife of Dreams had the feeling of those books. I won't give away plot secrets but I will say that the experience showed the old master at the top of his game. Things happen in Knife of Dreams that are so mind boggling in their implications that you shake your head in wonder at Jordan's narrative craft, his strategy, and most of all his planning.
Jordan as a writer is one of the most profound risk takers in the genre. He sets up this world at infinite pains and with an attention to detail that far exceeds a reader's expectations. He then destroys it all that with a perfectly reasonable explanation for the destruction that not only has a sound logic but also, in hindsight, seems inevitable. His world building is so complex, so structured, and yet so organically alive, you really feel you have no idea what could happen. As I said before, a system not culled from the pages of a dungeons and dragons manual.
In this book the characters not only grow up, they grow wise beyond their years. These are people in extreme circumstances forced to find a life wisdom that will sustain them and allow them to continue doing what they must, and what they also fear. There is the light, and the source, but there is no empty comfort to be taken in religion.
Egwene begins to develop the status of a tragic classical heroine, like an Antigone, or an Electra. Her sense of purpose in order to reunite the tower, to do whatever it takes, and her understanding of the way to heal all the damage that has been done, remind me of a female character in a Greek Tragedy. The only one who can see the right path to take, and the only one with the courage to take it, no one except a chorus to share her feelings and plans with. I wonder perhaps if this wasn't Jordan's intention. If so, translating a greek chorus to the world of Tel Aran Rihod is a stroke of genius. The chorus in a greek tragedy rarely influences the outcome of an action, it is there in a sense as a soundboard, as a way for the audience to grasp the significance what transpires on stage. So too does Egwene have that impact on select figures like Siuan who can convey her will, but there is no way for Egwene to make those in the rebel camp truly hear her. She uses Tel Aran Rihod so Siuan can grasp why she is doing what she is doing, much in the same way the Chorus asks and recieves answers from an Antigone, or an Electra.
Rand grows more powerful and dangerous. He too resembles mythic figures: Hercules and all his impossible labors, Aeneas and the crushing weight of preserving a civilization, but also I think a tragic figure in his personal life. These three women love him and he seems destined to hurt them all, make them all suffer.
The brilliant thing Jordan accomplishes as writer with Rand is making us concerned for him because of his growing madness, but not alienating the reader from their intimate connection with him. Many novels or stories show the development of madness in a character and then pull back, as in a camera shot and give the reader a little more room to feel comfortable. Jordan though chooses not to do this and he deserves praise as a writer for his choices here, and for the way he can maintain that. We follow Rand from the beginning, being inside his thoughts from the first journey he and his father take to market and meet a rider in the Eye of the World. In book one we know he is going to go insane, from the taint. Later we begin to feel his sanity slip from the magnitude of what he has to do. The more the books go on, the more Jordan shows us Rand's innermost thoughts and feelings. We are not alienated from the madness, we see its too human causes.
And the presence of Lews Therin in his mind. Jordan very sublty in this book begins to show how the affect of his inner arguing with Lews Therin spills over into the real world. Characters in Rand's retinue begin to question his sanity, begin to see signs of the developing madness.
The experience of reading the books has made me want to go back and reread the series. Now that I have seen the structure underlying the books, I realize how well constructed they are. Even when it seemed Jordan was just stretching out the series with endless dialogue and intrigues he really was working out the plot and the stories of the characters.
A fair reading of these books can't really be done until they’ve been reread. Reread and analyzed. When I began to make the connections of Rand with the Fisher King and Shiva and Arthur, Mat and Odin and Loki and Coyote and Odysseus, Perrin and Thor and Hephaestos, and saw that Jordan was not just invoking mythic figures here to deepen the affect of his books, but was in fact commenting on the myths themselves, and putting the myths in play with and against each other, I realized just how deeply I have UNDERREAD these books. The books well deserve their own websites such as the Thirteenth Depository, Wheel of Time mania, and The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia.
Throughout the series I've found Mat's sections the most enjoyable. In a world of such high tragedy and drama, with Kingdoms for a stage, Mat brings the story down to the level of the Everyman. He is a man of the people, but in a well planned and executed Joran twist he is finding that role harder to maintain. His sense of the comic and the situations he finds himself in do more than provide comic relief though. They are integral to the plot but so is his character. Mat is the trickster figure, as has been well spotted by others, but what is growing more and more curious is how the seeming buffoon and outsider to the major political players has become integral to the last battle. And it may not be in the supportive role. There may be a darker fate in store for Mat.
Jordan's grasp of the mythic is vast as are its working in his story. However his use of mythic figures is never simplistic. He never takes a stock character or archetype and just lets them in the world. Instead as with Rand himself he puts what seems like a twist a writer would throw in just to see what happened(Rand will save the world AND destroy it), and makes that work itself out in the later books to levels that could not be anticipated earlier in the series.
To conclude this lengthy ramble and fanboy gushing I think Knife of Dreams succeeds as a novel, as a piece in a series, and in renewing faith in a series. When the 11th book of a series makes you want to go back and reread the entire series the author has done something right.


SCORE: 9/10

SIMILAR BOOKS: I agree with Brandon Sanderson that the Wheel of Time is the defining fantasy epic of our generation, as much as The Lord of the Rings was of the previous. There is nothing that is so completely a world all its own and unique and a cast of thousands, but that is so tightly structured. I guess a series of a similar ambition would be A Song of Ice and Fire. But no disrespect to Martin and his accomplishments, A Song of Ice and Fire seems more of a set piece. Beautifully written, with memorable characters, it too defines a generation of fantasists in its brutally realistic portrayals of the darker sides of human behavior. But although the scope there is epic it doesn't really transcend to mythic, as The Wheel of Time does. The Malazaan Books of the Fallen by Steven Erikson(although I haven't read them yet) have a similar ambition of scope and theme. Once I finish The Gathering Storm and New Spring the Novel, I'll start them.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Checking in.


Still in the throes of unemployment and lack of internet connections. The local Mcdonalds is providing wifi, along with screaming toddlers, quarrelsome parents, arthritic seniors, and bored teenagers working at the counter. I'm reminded of Tolstoy and Faulkner who legend has it wrote in their respective village squares.
The 19th and early 20th centuries must have been......quieter.

Decided to work on my novel and will update my books when boredom and cabin fever drive me to public places to get access to the net.

On the other hand, unemployment is helping me get a lot of reading done. My goal is a book a day.

Read thus far:

Knife of Dreams

The Gathering Storm(wow)

The Last Light of the Sun

City of Thieves

The Biographer's Tale

Orcs:Bodyguard of Lightning

Peeps: The Last Days

The Uncommon Reader


Reviews forthcoming.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review Legend by David Gemmell


Review of Legend, by David Gemmell, fantasy novel, 345 pages

Legend was hailed as a classic for over twenty years when I first picked it up. It had a reputation of being a bestseller, and ground breaking. Twenty years ago I was still into large worlds fantasy which chronicled the movments and motivations of imaginary nations, empires, and races, told through multiple characters and viewpoints. So a story about a single warrior helping to stave off a barbarian invasion seemed a bit cliché'd to me and I blush to say now, underambitious.
The barbarians are described vaguely, the controlling empire as well, the weapons and battle gear and armor are all pretty much standard issue and not what you would encounter in Tolkien where most weapons have a magical otherness about them. If not an otherness then at least a history.
Legend though had a huge selling point, and that was the trope of the barbarian invasion. And in the hands of a writer like Gemmel, he knew how to really make it work. Gemmell and tolkien had not been given the same types of gifts. Whereas Tolkien's characters speak a high anglo saxon and are given to poetic turns of phrases and proper oxford school English, Gemmells characters are more likely to tell a dirty joke and kick you in the balls instead of recite poetry.
When Gemmell's characters speak you hear something different. Something real. You hear the sound of men, and women, who have been in a position to risk their lives, and who have lived through war with its attendant dangers to life and limb.
As in a movie, if one character is going to hold a main frame story line together there has to be an intriguing aspect to him. Something to distinguish his story from the rest and to make the reader desire to hear his story out. To simply to find out what happens to him.
Well, Legend has several. Gemmell fleshes out his portrait by showing us men and women whose lives by accident or fate have converged in this frontier fort. A place in the middle of nowhere. A strange, out of the way place to die.
From the backstory of the book, and all books have a backstory, in fact perhaps one of the reviewer's tasks is to explicate the back story and context of the book and in so doing draw the reader's attention to it, gemmell was diagnosed with cancer when he sat down to write this. He said he used the novel as a way of trying to work out his confrontation that was so strange and sudden at the age of thirty six, when he sat down to write it. At first glance it would seem to indicate this book is appropriate for a hallmark hall of fame presentation.
Hardly.
The book in fact is gritty and tough and Gemmell has the skill to evoke the way real fighting men talk when confronted with the possiblity of death. His book juxtaposes the Hemingwayesque apprentice with those who have acquired the skill of living.
The title takes its name from the central character of the novel, a fighter of prowess and skill and abnormal strength who has begun his decline and who himself has not long to live. Though the disease the man suffers from, whether cancer or other is not mentioned. What is certain is he will die anyway and, rather than die in his bed he goes out to defend a fort against a ramapging barbarian invasion.
All sound cliché'd and overdone but in Gemmell's hands it becomes quite different. Though normally heroic fantasy suffers from too much heroic posturing in gemmell's story Druss has a healthy air of irony and understatement about his person. He not only does not act like a hero, he acts like what he is: a fighter, whose knowledge, at once both terrible and liberating is that he was made to be a taker of lives. He does not glory in the death, just in the abilities he has and he puts his axe to the service of those that require it.
Enter the subplots, a protagonist, Rek, who havingbeen charged with cowardice turns out to be a baresark, or berserker. We find through the course of the book that a berserk, far from being a valued commodity is really just the flip side of a coward. A baresark fights not with discipline and purpose but of a rage and fearlessness born from fear itself. He is not the ideal of a warrior, simply an aberration who although tolerated for its ability to wreak havoc on a battlefield is in truth not an ideal.
The ideal of course becomes Druss the legend. But Gemmell continually questions his hero's motivations. Druss argues he would never have chosen to be more than a simple farmer if his woman were not captured and he had to set off in pursuit of her captors. Although as readers we doubt that. Part of the realism, if I can use that term when applied to a fantasy text, is the way most of the characters never really come to a true understanding of why they are defending the fort against the barbarian invasion. For some of them it’s the ability, newly acquired in the face of death, to rise to new levels of not just physical prowess but emotional and mental maturity.
Of course Druss dies in the story and its understood by the more experienced characters that was his intention all along. His death, and struggle with death, there as a role model and example for all to see, was meant to be a means to emulate the rest of the Drenai defenders that though they may die, they will have granted their lives some meaning by the manner of their death andtheir reasons for staying to defend afortress that everyone knows will be overcome.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Rest is Silence


...for the forseeable future. Due to financial pressures and lack of employment I'm going to have to shut down for a while(unless my local library suddenly fast forwards to the twenty first century and installs wi fi).

Rough year financially ahead. Teaching jobs in my neck of the woods are precious and few and budget cuts fall like rain on the just and the unjust. At least I can take some small comfort from the fact that I am by no means the only one unemployed, and that many share a similar fate.

Don't much know what they new year will bring except that I will now have the opportunity to read many books that are lying around: The House of the Stag, The Prince of Nothing Trilogy, The Godless World Trilogy, The Black Company books, and every book of the Malazaan after Garden's of the Moon(I have a rule where I refuse to read a series unless its been completed, but finances this year will dictate otherwise), and the reader's companion to the Lord of the Rings, which I mean to use as a guide to my umpteenth reading of LOTR. I also have not read the last book in the Mistborn trilogy: The Hero of Ages.

A sense of anguish as well. So many series are out now that I can't afford and desperately want to keep on reading: The Fables and Northlanders especially. Bleach, Claymore, Death Note.

Plus with my luck this would be the year Joss Whedon decides to allow novelizations to expand the Firefly universe, like Star Wars has done. Oh Well.

What really sucks is I dont imagine finding a job nearby and will have to relocate. In itself not bad, I do prefer living in cities to the rural small town environment I'm in.

What sucks about relocating is that I won't be able to take most of my books with me.

Oh the irony, I will have all this time to read and be unable to blog.

But the worst part is that I've grown used to having my favorite blogs and sff reader sites there every day. I will miss the sense of community.

Be back when I can...

Carmen