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.

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.

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.