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.