Sunday, December 4, 2011
What's most impressive about Paolo Baciagalupi is his ability as a writer to convey the minds and lives of people so far from his experience. His technical and scientific knowledge, while vast, is not what makes his books memorable. This is not to say that the science in his books is second rate, or that he sloppily imagines a futuristic world wherin he writes out his space operas. He doesn't. The science in his books is thought provoking, clever, and like the best science fiction, grounded in the here and now, which makes the message in his books all the more chilling.
To look at a picture of Paolo Baciagalupi is to see someone who could easily be in charge of a science research lab, or an exectuive in charge of a division of microsoft. Yet I have rarely encountered an author who so convincingly portrays the lives of beggars, societal outcasts, and the flotsam and jetsam of this world.
The world of Nailer, the teenage protagonist of Ship Breaker, is brutal. And he is one step from rock bottom. He works on a "light crew" salvaging the huge abandoned oil tankers that have run aground on the shores of the gulf coast. The great wrecks sprawl there like dinosaurs rotting in the sun. Money is to be made though from salvaging the materials on the ships and a whole economy has sprung up around it.
The work is dangerous, dirty and what is worse, Nailer may soon have grown too big to do the salvage. He will be out of a job, and forced to try to work for one of the heavy crews, where men much larger and more deadly than him will sooner stab a potential rival than try to outperform them on the job.
All of which is allowable in this world. National governments have ceased to exist, as well as any federal, state, or local police force. Corporations, however, have thrived and run rampant in a world where no legislation or legislative bodies exist to enforce standards of human decency. In an interesting twist, though the world may be post oil, it is not technologically backward. Great clipper ships, their hulls made from special alloys and their internal workings fired by complex machinery sail the seas and carry on trade. A trade, it seems, that has left the United States behind.
And here is where the author steps up his game and shows you something truly new. He takes you into Nailer's brutal, tribal world, where it is literally work yourself to death, or farm your body parts out to medical corporations so they can clone your parts, or if you have a true killer instinct, join a security force for one of the work gangs. This is a bleak world but within it the author shows characters who try to hang on to their humanity. Characters who are so oppressed, but yet refuse to let their sense of decency wither.
Nailer gets moral and ethical guidance from a local family, a woman and her daughter who exist in this world but also maintain their sense of right and wrong. When Nailer is forced to commit a heinous act, to kill to survive, the mother says "he needs to be watched. A death like that always costs something, always takes something from you."
And it is this combination of the technologically advanced with the barbarism and mentality of a tribal culture that makes the book unique and a wonder to read. Its his ability as writer to plunge you into this world, to make you feel Nailer's desperation, that grips the reader. And by extension, this makes you realize that as we speak there are people on the planet who live similar existences around the globe. Though Ship Breaker may be science fiction, and set in a future, it does the job of all good science fiction, and makes the reader understand their own world a little better.
The follow up book to Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, is due to be released in May 2012.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
(What follows is not a review but a reflection. I will, in a later post, cover the book on its merits and defaults as fiction. I was moved to write the following after a first reading and present it here as a testament to the power of the book's ability to make the reader reflect on the present age.)
The Hunger Games is not so much a vision of a world that can go wrong, but a world that reflects our own and is already going wrong. In a brilliant move as a writer she stretches boundary definitions of genre and pulls off a contemporary dystopic novel.
The great secret of The Hunger Games is not that it’s a powerful send up of the Bush regime, or that its about the way that television images of violence and reality tv desensitize us to human brutality, or that it’s a commentary on the nature of a society that has allowed its youth to daily fight to the death (and which happens on the streets of its inner cities). The great secret of The Hunger Games is that most of America is going hungry.
We have unemployment at an all time high. We are living through the worst economic meltdown since the great depression. Those jobs that are available, except for a lucky few, are those that barely pay the bills. Few are the families that can actually survive on one salary. Housing is at an all time low. Record foreclosures etc.
Go to the a Walmart in a rural region of the country. Look at the people. Look at the desperation. You see those rednecks as they come in the doors of a walmart, you see their thin bodies in wife beaters, their wives' with faces that look like rotten fruit. They are old before their time. These are the people of The Hunger Games. That is what most of America is living through.
Before I get off on too much of a rant here I will move on and look at the novel. But I cant stress this enough. The most moving aspect of the novel is not the technology, the fight to survive, the brutality that daily exists in Katniss' world, but that this is where we are as a country: we are starving, but the images on television show us nothing more than opulent wealth and power. And no one seems to care or notice. We live in a country that is supposed to be a world economic leader, and yet, most of us can't feed ourselves on our wages.
The most amazing thing about the Hunger Games is the way it gets the reader to focus on the here and now, on what life is like now, and not on how bad of a future there could be. The book is a window on the contemporary world, rather than the world of the future.
Another intriguing fact that is eerily similar to our time is that the world of The Hunger Games takes place in the former United States among twelve separate districts. Each district corresponds to some region in the country. District 12 for example, Peeta's district, is Appalachia. Whether that covers all of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia etc. though is anyone's guess because what the political regime has done is to keep the districts ignorant of the exact locations and borders of the other districts.
Again, when you think about it, not that far from reality. How many Americans have travelled to the Southwest? Or to the Northwest? Or Wisconsin? , Or to Missouri or Kentucky, or to any of the other states that do not draw huge numbers of tourists every year because of pristine beaches, or other natural wonders? How much do I as a reader really know of what goes on in South Dakota?
1984 is meant to scare the shit out of us. Its meant to make us be concerned about the future and what could happen. But Orwell is a political theorist and the world Winston Smith lives through is not as recognizeable as our own. Owrell sees dangerous currents in the political world and warns us of them.
Suzanne Collins looks at our world now, takes that from her starting point, and startles us with how what we see around us today is really just a step away from a nighmare world of political oppression.
Its also a brilliant accomplishment when a writer manages to make a dystopic novel work in a rural setting. Most dystopic novels take place in what is imagined to be the future of all human civilizations: impossibly large, overcrowded, dark and subterranean cityscapes of brick and concrete.
The Appalachia of the Hunger Games is dirt poor, poorly educated, and beset by oppressive technology.
That's all for now. Further essays on these books will include the mythic echoes and allusions in the story and how they comment on the larger narrative. The critique of a reality tv culture as well as the grounding for the technology in the book.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Dear friends,family and coworkers,
Let me start this note by saying that I love you all dearly, value your various roles in my lives, and remain confident in your continued support of my aspirations, goals and dreams. I also am grateful for your continued daily maintenance in helping me cope with life's setbacks, real and imagined, microscopic and cosmic. I like to believe that I contribute in a similar way to each of your individual pursuits of happiness and fulfillment in this world and that my temporary absence in your lives will be noticed.
What you should know is that I will not be available for the next few days. Effective 11/11/11 I will be turning off my phone, shutting off my laptop and internet access, and even going so far as to turn off my xbox live. I will also never check my facebook or goodreads accounts so please do not try to get my attention there either.
There is no major crisis, I am not suicidal, nor am I homicidal. I am not bagging work, nor am I recruiting other job options. I have no romantic liasons planned, nor am I about to start a self destructive drug habit.
I will not be going camping, nor hunting. I have no long walks in the autumn woods planned, nor do I intend to go to the ends of the earth in a vain pursuit of enlightenment and improvement.
For those of you that know me well, and to indicate the seriousness of this weekend, I will not even be lifting weights, nor do I really anticipate reading anything besides an instruction booklet.
In fact, beyond taking daily dictation from the incessant idea and fiction machine that is my brain, you should know I have no desire to really write anything. But, such is the way I'm made that though I will endeavor not to write, I probably can't stop ideas from coming, so I will keep paper and pen handy to record the memos from my creative self.
I am not going on a hunger strike for some righteous left leaning political purpose. In fact, I have amply stocked up on caffiene, chocolate, various pastries, and microwaveable food that can be ready to eat in less than five minutes. So, though I wont starve I probably wont be eating healthy. But since it will only last for the duration of the weekend, I should be ok.
The reason for this sabbatical from the known world is that Elder Scrolls Skyrim has been released and I have effectively cleared my schedule to play it.
But let me elaborate. One does not "play" Elder Scrolls. One immerses oneself in the experience and the real world is a much better place as a result. If only for the simple reasons that the world at large is free from my middling attempts to improve it, or to continue to participate in a rampant consumer culture.
For this weekend, my only goals are to level up, and slay dragons(yes, Im partially mocking you Madden fans: "score a touchdown," or "slay a dragon," you decide which sounds more baddass and sexier).
Should my employers complain that I will not be available, I can only say that since I give you 40 hours per week, which adds up to about 2080 hours per year(not counting the overtime and training sessions I am required to do): I think that the organization can function without me for 48 hours. Our organization currently employs tens of thousands of workers in its various departments so I think you have it covered. Furthermore, since you are all so often fond of saying everyone is replaceable, then let me be replaceable for this weekend.
Think of it in these terms: would you rather have an employee who has spent a weekend problem solving, exploring wonders which will no doubt fire the soul with its archetypal imagery, and set said employee on a hero quest that is as old a need for human males as is breathing, eating, and siring a family, and emerge with a sense of accomplishment that those unbearably embarrassing "teambuilders" we perform at training sessions routinely fail to generate, or would you rather have said employee sitting passively before a television set watching endless reruns of sit coms obscenely blaring canned laughter and insulting one's grasp of reality and real world problems?
To put it another way, if this were the neolithic age I would be gearing up in my furs and hides, gathering my stone tipped arrows and spears, and disappearing into the wild with my tribe members to hunt mammoth, or saber tooth tigers. We would journey into a primeval forest, living off the land and our wits, hunting and being hunted, ridding the tribe of a threat and gathering meat and clothing for the winter months, communing with nature and at the end of said visionquest would have a deeper understanding of the world and our species role in the cosmos. Also upon returning after displaying our wares of teeth, hides, meat and tusks, we would be enthusiastically greeted by the ample bosomed, broad hipped, enormously grateful female members of the tribe who would endlessly bestow their sexual favors on us in exchange for our obviously potent dna.
Such as it is though in the modern world I must hunt via the computer screen and the only wares I will be in a position to display are the gamer points on my xbox profile. In a sense, it will announce to my "tribe" my accomplishments and prowess.
Consider this a heads up though. And think of it as me not really escaping reality, but refreshing my soul. If this impassioned plea really works we can maybe think of it as an extended retreat which in the sense of preventive health care. It might actually contribute to my greater health and well being, and make me a far more effective employee. If you accept this then perhaps we can deduct at least the cost of the game from my steep and ridiculously high insurance payments that are, as we speak, no doubt paying the mortage on some CEO's vacation home in the Carribean.
As I said, this was just a head's up.
To summarize, reiterate, and put it plainly: leave me the fuck alone for two days, Im going to kill dragons.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Blood Red Road, book 1 of Dustlands. Written by Moira Young. Published in June 2011. Young Adult, Post Apocalyptic novel.
Blood Red Road is the story of a quest undertaken by the teenage female protagonist Saba to find her kidnapped older brother Lugh. In the story's setting the United States is no more. Saba and her family live somewhere in western North America at the edge of dying dried out lake. Whether the apocalypse that has led to their hardscrabble existence was nuclear, economic, or environmental the author doesn't say. What matters is the world of Blood Red Road is without laws, rules, or any government beyond gangs and gang controlled cities.
Lugh, Saba's older brother, is kidnapped within the first few chapters of the story and Saba, in true grit style, sets out to find him. We learn she has never been more than twenty miles beyond her home her entire life. What is out there is as much a mystery to her as it is to the reader.
Saba's quest and her trials along the way seems worthy of Coen Brothers movie. But what is more compelling, and works very well for a Young Adult novel is the author's handling of themes of relations of power and affection among siblings. Though their world is far removed from ours the world of their family is recognizable. Lugh, the oldest brother (light bringer in celtic mythology) is blonde, blue eyed, and beautiful. Saba is wholly devoted to him and constantly craves his attention. So much so she is often cruel and cutting to her youngest sibling Emmi, whose birth cost their mother her life. Saba's anger at and cruetly to her younger sibling, and her fawning after her older brother make her a less than ideal protagonist but a very human one nonetheless. The story of her quest is as much a confrontation with who she is and how she relates to her family, as it is a possibly hopeless attempt to reunite such a family.
The style of the novel is engaging. A Cormac McCarthy style of minimal punctuation, and close imitation of dialect and idiom is risky, especially in a YA novel. However it does work. The story becomes that much more present to the reader and it feels less like a story in a novel than a narrated story. Which is very much appropriate for the barely literate society of the characters.
The most engaging aspect of the book for me though was the use of superstition, mythology and astrology. It is not easy for an author to tread the line between showing simple people with their folk beliefs, but also showing how said beliefs in the mouths of uneducated characters can still have weight and influnce and reveal aspects of human nature. Kudos for that accomplishment.
My only complaint about the book was the end, a huge western shootout and gunfight: which seemed too Hollywood and seemed to be screaming "Make a movie out of me."
Despite that the end left more questions than answers. What will happen to the characters? What led to this state of existence? What happened to the U.S.? Are there any larger movements to organize the world? And most pressing of all, in a world of such continual violence and war of all against all, what is the next threat to the main characters and where will it come from? What allies will they find? And what will be the cost?
I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to the next installment.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak, YA historical fiction/magical realism, 552 pages, published 2005.
How can you not love a book that teaches you to curse in a new language? This one improved my vocabulary immensely. Aussloch: ass licker. Saumensh: pig person; Sheisskopf : shithead.
For a story about nazis, air raids, jewish people hiding out in basements, collective brutality and destruction of life, the impact of the holocaust on the everyday population of Munich, and the destruction of war caused on a cosmic scale, it was good. What made it even better were two factors:
1) It is narrated by death himself.
2) It is not just funny, but truly comic, and by that I mean the real comedy that is somehow inextricably entwined with the tragic. A good writer knows one balances out the other: think Osric in Hamlet. Think of the imagined death of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. Think Yossarian in Catch 22. It helps us look away from suffering and misery for a while to see the other side of human existence, the laughter which eases our pain, and allows us to see love.
Death, the narrator, gets all the best lines in the book. He has the absolutely best one at the end: “I am haunted by humans.” And strangely enough though he comes across as tired beauracrat going through the endless gathering of souls, we get a glimpse of him occasionally charmed by human beings.
He meets the main character Liesel when he stops to pick up her brother. The girl goes into a foster home and never sees her real mother again. She gets a new family. A well meaning father Hans Huberman and his wife rosa: a foul mouthed square shapeless woman who likes to curse and oddly enough, is how she shows her affection.
We come to love all the characters because they are smaller players in a larger world. We see them suffering the war and the nazis like anyone else. We see them sent on missions they hate.
But most of all we see them suffer the consequences of death appearing in their lives, and death himself is impressed by the ways they come up to deal with him.
In a truly ironic and brilliant twist, the other survivor of the war besides Liesel is Max, the jew who hides in their basement for months, and who ends up going to dachau, yet manages to survive. Max is a fist fighter who wants to one day “punch death in the face when he sees him.” How can you not like someone like that?
You will love this book. You will love its outrageous typescript and formatting. You will love the artwork. You will love, most of all, the author for his faith in humans, and his ability to show you things about human nature you never believed possible.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
The world of the The Dragon's Path is a world in transition. The old ways of honor won on a battlefield and lifelong service to a liege lord are being swept aside. Kings and nobles play the game of thrones, but ancient pagan religions and the emerging wealthy class are the new players changing the nature of the game. Banks are rising in the background, the hidden movers behind the world's politics. A forgotten ancient religion with dark powers and an even darker will makes a bid to sieze control.
In this setting we encounter 4 characters who are caught up, sometimes unknowingly, in the vangard of change sweeping through their world. Geder: the bookish son of a minor nobleman. Marcus Wester: a duty plagued captain with a tragic past. Dawson: a nobleman dimly aware of the true forces reshaping his world. And finally Cithrin: a young woman raised as the ward of a counting house, with a razor sharp mind for money and financing.
What strikes a reader of The Dragon's Path is the skill at the portrayal of the 4 major characters. The author shows us 4 very different individuals in detal, and with a depth of insight rarely encountered in epic fantasy. Too often in a modern fantasy we read of type cast characters: the barbarian, the ranger, the scholar, etc. Or we read of characters deliberately drawn against type: instead of a heroic barbarian we get a lethal teenage girl, or instead of a bastard for a nobleman we get a bitch with imperial ambitions. All of which can at times feel fresh and a welcome change. In the Dragon's Path though the characters are portrayed from inside their own consciousnesses, and from outside by other characters and form a rounded picture of what individuals in this setting and faced with these changes would be like.
This is a bit of a stretch but as I read The Dragon's Path I couldn't help but feel like Balzac wrote a fantasy novel. A fantasy novel complete with wizards, sword fights, and epic battles, but which also shows how money permeates even that world. He shows characters who scheme to get money, characters who see money as a means of control, and who pursue money and financial gain regardless of the human cost. He also portrays a humane aspect to money, to people who use it to help those a feudal system care little or nothing for. What Balzac did in many novels in The Human Comedy was to show his fellow Frenchmen the way money changed the old order and old value systems, is very much what Abraham is doing here. He cites in interviews one of his favorite books is Medici Money, by Tim Parks and here he uses that and his self professed fascination to show what happens in a world of honor and glory when money enters the picture.
And the result is fascinating. And truly different without deliberately writing against or with cliché's.
The fantasy elements in the book are done with skill and restraint rare in the genre. There are wonderfully descriptive details that hint at an older mythic world. For example: the Dragon's Path itself, a highway/road made from Jade. The characters know little about its construction, just hints and legends. There are also multiple races but the reader quickly gleans that these races have all existed together for some time, because when a character encounters another member of another race there is apprehension, wariness, but not really surprise at their existence.
The Dragon's Path is subtitled Book 1 in The Dagger and The Coin(itself, a wonderful tool for characterization and which provides a main theme for the novel). Whether this indicates the book is going to be part of a trilogy or a multi volume epic the author doesn't say. Either way I look forward to the next installment.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
This book opened my eyes. It made me see that a creative mind, unfettered by social convention and stereotypes, can produce something so uniquely human in a place(comics) we would least likely look for it. Grant Morrison is fearless, visionary, and brings to the world of superheroes something I never would have understood before reading this book: the idea of superheroes is part of human evolution. He brilliantly explores the history of superheroes from their earliest days in the 30s and shows how they were created out of a deep need in human nature to reach beyond ourselves and face the threat of global extermination(from economic forces, world war, and the atomic threat). Intertwined in this is his personal story of involvement with the genre and what they have added to his life. He has lived the life of a rock star but never lost his sense of purpose. In fact, the book very much reminded me of the Jim Morrison bio No One Here Gets Out Alive. Grant Morrison's bio is just as intellectually stimulating, challenging, and will have your head thinking outside whatever cultural or educational limitations you may have acquired in life. Think of Grant Morrison as a Jim Morrison who never lost his sense of purpose or his vision but continually went and like a Prometheus recreated and recreated. Also, this book has one of the most touching parent-child scenes I've ever read or heard about. At 18, graduating from high school with little or no prospects, money or a chance at college he comes home from meeting with his guidance counselor and encounters his mother who tells him she and his father bought him a present and its in his room. He goes in there and finds a typewriter and on it is the following message from his parents: We love and believe in you. The world is waiting to hear from you. Morrison is mystical, visionary, but also as down to earth and hard nosed about real world problems and politics as you will ever encounter. Dont miss this book, whether you may have read a comic or two, or are a rabid fan, you will see them in a whole new light.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Colours in the Steel, K.J. Parker, fantasy novel, first published 1998, Orbit Books.
Imagine a world where legal disputes are settled by fencing duels. Lawyers are not lawyers but fencers for hire in civil cases. As in a medieval trial by combat, the victor of the fencing match is the winner of the legal case.
Disputes over improper accounting practices, late deliveries on purchased items, and tax evasion are all settled by two opponents hacking at each other with swords.
This is the premise of K. J. Parker's Colours in the Steel, book 1 of The Fencer Trilogy.
In a sense, its like reading a Kafka novel with an obvious sense of humor. Its nice, in a fantasy novel, to see that the usual cannon fodder, Orcs, have been replaced by a much more satisfying victim: lawyers. If that isn't sufficient motivation to read this novel, then there are numerous selling points.
The characters are portrayed as peevish, narrow minded, petty, cynical and occassionally suffering from brief interludes of insight and empathy. What can be said of George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie, that they write fantasy for grown ups, can also be said for K J Parker.
She writes about a world stripped of gods. Not because some divine lightning hurler defeated another immortal unstoppable fire thrower, but simply because of apathy. Life for Permiadeia, famed Triple City and center of a mercantile empire, grew comfortable then grew luxurious, and people stopped needing to pray.
Perimadea is one of the blandest cities in fantastic fiction. Not because of the author's lack of skill. Quite the contrary, the city is purposefully portrayed as strictly an ecomnically driven, whith merchants who wear the offices of government but really never shed their purses or the interest in expanding their purses.
Permiadeia grew successful, prosperous, and then nothing changed for a thousand years. No gods grew pissed off because of a lack of devotion. The people made money. The city grew in fame and fortune. No one cared.
Enter the barbarians. A peace loving migrant band of plains peoples. A million strong but still, they have no interest in settling down and hate the idea of living within walls.
The author skillfully navigates this cliché. The barbarians do not eye the fantastic wealth, or the glories of its architecture. For the most part they couldn't have cared. Except of course they were provoked.
One of the cities more famous generals Maxen, leader of Maxen's Pitchfork, waged a relentless war on the plains peoples. Why? Well, because they were there, the author seems to be saying. The city needed an enemy. Maxen needed a way to become famous.
The barbarians don’t invade because the gods abandon protecting Perimadea. The barbarians invade because they were just smarter at exploiting the cities weakness and made technological advances in their own methods of warfare.
All of which sounds like the beginning of an existential historical novel. But there is a wrench thrown into this world and that is that magic works. The cool part is that no one really understands it. Generations of scholars and devouts have worked on exploring magic, the guiding principles behind it, how to use it, etc. And schools of philosophy have battled for years over the precise nature of the "principle." The principle "Cannot heal the sick, turn your enemies into frogs, or perform miracles. It can be used for offense or defense. A sword or a shield. That is all." This comes from the Patriarch, the highest authority regarding the principle. His opening lecture to the students of the Academy is designed so that "he'd be rid of half these young fools before the term ended." A teacher who can't stand his students and wants to get rid of them. Again, very close to the real world on this one.
K.J. Parker writes fantasy novels that feel like they have imported people from the real world into them. But as in the real world, people can surprise you. Though the ending of the novel, and Peridamiea, felt inevitable, she manages to throw enough plot twists and revelations that it still somehow managed to avoid feeling predictable.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Towers of Midnight(The Wheel of Time Book 13), by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan, 843 pages, fantasy novel.
In the last third of Towers of Midnight there is a shocking scene. Morgase and Elayne, reunited at last, discuss Perrin and his army. Perrin has become a problem and Elayne is frustrated because she doesn't know what to do with him. The thought flashes through Elayne's mind that the easiest thing to do would be to find him and execute him.
With that statement we are a long way away from the bright eyed young adventurers we met in The Eye of the World.
Later in the book Elayne (and Morgase, as advisor) meet with Perrin and Faile over what to do about Perrin, his army, and the "threat from Two Rivers." Elayne begins the meeting with "Explain to me why I should not have you both executed as traitors."
Elayne is a proper queen: she is politically savvy and cunning, but does not hold back from the threat of violence or open war if her demands are not met(specifically the illegality of an army within her borders). She argues with Perrin and his people about the need to show the world that "a man may not declare himself a lord and raise an army to support his claim within my kingdom."
Perrin, ever the well meaning but tough minded common man, points out that there was no support from the crown for the people when they faced a trolloc invasion. They were left to defend themselves without troops, financial aid or supplies that as a province of Andor they had the right to expect. The army he raised (or more accurately was raised around him) was for the purposes of self defense, not insurrection.
Elayne needs to quell this "rebellion." She has plans on invading Cairhein. It will secure her power base and accomplish other dark political motives. All in prepartion to the last battle.
Perrin too readies for the last battle. He knows his role will be significant, and though he is ta'veren, he knows that he must do his best to work his way through the mess that is the state of the world, after the dark one has so thoroughly touched it.
The above example is meant to highlight several impressions about this book: First, the characters have not grown up, as in some YA coming of age story. Rather, they have grown deadly, as the world of their story has dictated they must. Towers of Midnight drives home this point repeatedly. These characters are playing for keeps.
Second, this book is very much Perrin's book. Wheras in the past we have seen Perrin simply mope about when Faile was being a bitch, and then mope about when Faile wasn' t there because she had been captured, and then finally fight to reclaim her, here he and Faile are very much a couple and this book is the story of their uniting, of rebuilding their lives after the losses of the past. It is, in a very strange way for a fantasy text, about marriage, and what it means to be married. The understandings, the confrontations, the arguments, the adjustments and finally the acceptance of one's choice of mate. The book is also Perrin's suprising story of coming to terms with his frightening and almost always out of control, wolf nature. The truth about it, and him, was a true holy shit moment.
Finally, it is about how one time friends supposedly all working for a common goal can find themselves facing each other across figurative and literal battlefields.
The state of things in the world of The Wheel of Time Book 13: Towers of Midnight is what we have come to expect: the barbarians are at the gate, and the various factions vie for power. Human nature being what it is, Jordan seems to say, the real trick is not will the Dark One be defeated (though how Rand plans to solve that is mind blowing as well), but will humans defeat themselves first?
Structurally the book was a bit unbalanced. Though the storytelling elements of a wheel of time book we as readers love(suspense, plot complications, the fight scenes, love stories) are all there, there is a sense in which the book was too dominated by Perrin's story. There were plenty of scenes with Mat, Rand, Egwene and Nynaeve. Even Lan and Thom. But there wasn't one other major plot figure who shared the book with Perrin.
The narrative of The Gathering Storm was dominated by Egwene and Rand. There was a balance of their characters working out the major arcs of their story: their issues, their duties, and trials. Rand struggling to unite the land and hunt the Forsaken. Egwene trying to undermine Elaida and unite the tower. Towers of Midnight didn't have that. Towers of Midnight is essenially Perrin's book, with other subplots thrown in. All still important to the larger frame of the story, but with no other character essentially taking center stage besides Perrin. It is as if in this book what happens in the last battle will very much depend on how or if Perrin works through the choices and difficulties presented to him.
Surprisingly, the other characters whose main plot lines feature in the novel are not major characters. Galad and Gawyn, Elayne's half brother and brother, have their respective arcs. Their character development, and the situations they find themselves in, seem to take up much of the narrative.
Galad, fighting to control and redirect the Whitecloaks as well as work out his misguided and complicated ideas of right and wrong, does provide a satisfying narrative of a human struggling with the consequences of a perspective that refuses to see anything but black and white issues. Galad grows a great deal in this book. Which is surprising because for so long he has been a one dimensional character. Not through any fault of the author, but because of Galad's own moral code that reduces all situations to a simplistic right and wrong. Galad, the character who throughout the series has seemed the least likely to grow and change, is also the one who most convincingly changes.
But he too has not just grown up, he has also grown deadly. Firm in his belief that Perrin is responsible for his step mother Morgase's death he pursues Perrin with his whitecloak a army, determined whatever the cost to bring him to justice. In Galad's terms though justice means execution. He also orders death for several characters believed to be part of a whitecloak insurgency. Death, at his hands, is also a real possiblility.
Gawyn, one is tempted to say, does not share the deadliness of the other characters. But if this is so its because his energies have been placed in chasing Egwene. In this novel she firmly tells him she has more important things to do than steal kisses behind tapestries. She has the White Tower to run.
But Gawyn has always been lethal. His skill as a swordsman is unsurpassed. He holds the mark of heron blade master but has limited experience of fighting to the death.
Until now. Assassin's in the white tower have necessitated his watchfulness for Egwene's safety. He is put to the test and we become aware of his deadliness. A deadliness that could, if he faced Rand in combat, kill him. He hates Rand for what he imagines he has done to his sister so the idea that this fearsome blade be turned upon Rand is not idle.
Mat, my favorite character in the series, fulfills his promise and goes to the Tower of Ghenji. I won't spoil the end, but I will say that any lingering doubts I had as to whether Mat was meant to be an homage or invocation or avatar of Odin have been put to rest.
I think it significant in this series that the characters we would normally assume to be heroes fighting against evil we see squaring up against each other: Elayne vs. Mat. Elayne vs. Perrin. Perrin vs. Galad. Gawyn vs. Rand. All part of Jordan's plan I assume to illuminate a part of the human condition. Specifically our own heroic self interest which rears its ugly head even when unifying is meant to overcome the obliteration of our species.
Though its been said that Brandon Sanderson is a darker writer than Robert Jordan, in this book I think he has succeeded in writing what would have been Jordan's book. Perhaps not in form, because as I wrote earlier I think the book somewhat unbalanced, then at least in its themes and exploration of the human condition. I feel that he has chosen rightly. His characters to my mind are still Jordan's characters, and the plot is essentially still Jordan's.
I am genuinely looking forward to the publication of A Memory of Light. I feel confident that it will be well written, and as close as we could have to how Jordan himself would have ended it.