Category Archives: adventure

Books that are generally exciting and would be considered part of the Adventure genre

Review 196: And Another Thing

And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer

If you pay close attention, Colfer tells you exactly what you can expect from this book right at the beginning, using a well-chosen quote from Douglas Adams: “The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying ‘And another thing…’ twenty minutes after admitting he’d lost the argument.” (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish)

As Adams well knew, the phrase “And another thing…” is superfluous. It is said by the person who just can’t let things go. It’s a sullen, resentful phrase that doesn’t add anything to the discussion that came before. In other words, Colfer is telling us, this book didn’t need to happen and you probably don’t need to read it. Which is very kind of him, I think, warning us in advance that way. But still, after a long time where I refused to give in, I finally, well, gave in and read the book.

Vogon Sociology is considered a fallback major in most schools.

It’s not as bad as I expected it to be, certainly, but it lives up to its title. If you haven’t read it, you don’t really need to. It doesn’t add very much to the overall mythos of the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, or to its characters, and while it has some entertaining moments in it, a few places where I genuinely laughed out loud, and some interesting explorations of Vogon sociology, if you give it a miss then you’re probably not missing a whole lot.

If you’ll recall, at the end of Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the trilogy, the Earth – all of the Earths – were destroyed by the Vogons once and for all. The galactic conspiracy of psychiatrists had won, with the omnipresent Guide Mark Two as their weapon of choice, and the whole business about the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was finally at an end. With the exception of Zaphod Beeblebrox, all of the main characters were vaporized, much to Arthur Dent’s own relief. If ever there was a conclusive ending to a series, that would be it, although allegedly Adams had a couple of ways in his back pocket to bring everyone back, should he need to do so.

Alas, Adams left us far too soon. In 2008, however, it was announced that there would indeed be a sixth book, penned by Eoin Colfer, of the hugely popular Artemis Fowl books. Fans across the world were both excited and apprehensive to see what would be done with the characters we had grown to love over so many years.

To his credit, Colfer wrote a very funny book. I was laughing by the first page, and he really did a fine job of capturing the tone and cadence of the Guide entries and the way that Adams would narrate the story. His depictions of some characters – especially Zaphod and Random – were spot-on, and you could see a lot of elements in the book that were nods to some of Adams’ favorite themes.

If this is how your book begins, you really need to live up to it…

In essence, what happens is this: Our Heroes are introduced to us in a stasis hallucination, held between ticks of the clock by the Guide Mark Two as the planet-destroying beams of the Grebulons descend towards Earth. They are rescued by the Heart of Gold and Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has detached his left head and is using it as the ship’s computer. Unfortunately, Ford causes Left Brain to freeze up, so they need to be rescued again – this time by one of the most popular bit players in the series, Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, an immortal being who has decided to spend eternity insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. Wowbagger reluctantly takes them aboard, and in doing so insults Zaphod to the point where Zaphod promises to find a way to kill him, a proposition that Wowbagger has no problem with. Zaphod’s weapon of choice? A down-on-his-luck thunder god who’s been slumming it around Asgard.

Meanwhile, there is a planet of human refugees that is undergoing some rather entertaining class warfare, and the solution to this is, apparently, to find just the right kind of god to run the place. And even more meanwhile, a young Vogon is having second thoughts about his Vogonity and whether or not it’s okay to destroy inhabited planets just because there is a work order on hand that says they should.

I want to criticize the book for being directionless and unfocused, but let’s be fair – that describes the first book as well. Given its genesis as a radio drama, Adams never really had a grand plan for what would happen in the beginning of the series, and wrote in an episodic fashion that had (as far as I could tell) no real end point in mind. The difference, however, is that while those books had no real direction to them, they were charged with a kind of chaotic energy that made you want to keep reading just to find out what happens next. Arthur Dent, our avatar in this universe, never got a chance to rest or even change out of his dressing-gown, and so we were dragged along with him. It was exciting and confusing and weird in all the right ways, and we didn’t mind not knowing where we were going because the trip to get there really was just that much fun.

To be fair, though, Arthur NEVER wanted to be involved…

In this book, however, Arthur really doesn’t want to be involved. He’s had an imaginary lifetime of living in peace and quiet, and seems to have outgrown the antics of Ford and Zaphod. He’s the reasonable adult in this book, and not all that much fun anymore. As I read, I was disappointed that Colfer didn’t seem to have captured Arthur’s character very well, but perhaps I was wrong – Arthur didn’t belong in this story, and he wanted nothing more than to not be in it anymore. And it showed.

Another telling moment comes near the end of the book. The narrative takes a moment to remind us that, “There is no such thing as a happy ending.” And a few lines later, it quotes a certain pole-sitting philosopher who says, “There is no such thing as an ending, or a beginning, for that matter, everything is middle.” That certainly is true of life, and you can imagine it being true of the lives of fictional characters. Louis and Rick will walk off the tarmac in Casablanca and go on to do other things, perhaps help the resistance fight the Nazis. The lives of Luke and Han and Leia have been extended far beyond their original showing on film, thanks to the Extended Universe of Star Wars. Scout Finch and her brother Jem will grow up and have children of their own; the rabbits at Watership Down will live and breed and die; Guy Montag will help rebuild the intellectual society that he was originally trying to destroy…

We know that these worlds have lives beyond the last page, no matter how thoroughly they’re destroyed at the end. There’s always going to be some thread hanging loose that can be picked up and used to continue the story beyond where it left off.

But that doesn’t mean that we should.

I applaud Colfer for taking on the project, knowing that it is better for the series to be continued by someone who knew it and loved it and who was influenced by it, rather than by someone who couldn’t show it all the love it deserves. As I said, I laughed while I read this book, a lot more than I expected to. But as the title implies, this feels like an attempt to continue a story that has been finished for a long time. Rather than breathe new life into the Hitchhiker’s franchise, it simply reminds us all the more sharply of what we once had and will never have again.

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“I do not hate myself. In many ways, I am not altogether too bad.”
– Constant Mown (Vogon)

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Filed under adventure, aliens, Douglas Adams, Eoin Colfer, gods, humor, robots, science fiction, UFOs, war

Review 194: A Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time 07)

Wheel of Time 07: A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

This review is kinda spoiler-heavy. Just so you know.

With this book, we have reached the midpoint of the series and like you might expect of a series this size, this is where things get soft in the middle.

If you look at various online reviews of this book and others at this point in the series, you’ll see comments like, “It was so boring – nothing happened.” They’ll complain about having too many characters to follow and the story getting stretched out too thinly, which I addressed back in my review of The Fires of Heaven. And as I said in that review, the critics aren’t entirely unjustified in getting frustrated – the story has been divided into several major plot threads that don’t seem to have any chance of meeting up in the near future. It seems like about four different novels that all happen to inhabit the same world at the same time.

I’ll say this much for Illian – no one else thought to put bees on their flag.

Here’s what I think is happening: at about this point in the series, Jordan started thinking of this all in terms of a much larger mega-story, rather than a series of books, with the narrative structure that would entail. It does explain a great deal, especially the rather forced nature of the climax in which Rand finally confronts the Forsaken Sammael and wins the crown of Illian. Exhausted and wounded, Rand goes into pitched battle against a stronger, more prepared enemy for no other reason than because he thinks the timing is right. Whether it is or is not is questionable, but there’s no real reason for that climax to have appeared at the end of that book.

Especially since it occurs four days after the rather exciting opening events of the next book, The Path of Daggers, a fact which we don’t even learn about until roughly halfway through that book. I get the feeling that if it had been possible to publish a single 2,000 page book as volume seven in the series, Jordan would have done it, allowing him to place the attack on Sammael and the use of the Bowl of the Winds in their proper order. But the good people at TOR know such a thing to be impossible, so a Climactic Finale was jury-rigged into this text in the hopes that rabid fans would still buy the next one.

Which, of course, we did. It smooths out a bit if you’re reading the books in rapid succession, but let me tell you – the two year wait between book seven and book eight was a killer.

Oh, Vampire Willow – you’re so jaded.

As for the claim that “nothing happens,” well that’s just patent nonsense. Elaida, the Amyrlin of the White Tower, has found herself under the thumb of her Keeper, Alviarin, for the sin of being extremely short-sighted and overconfident. On the move with the rebel Aes Sedai, Egwene starts to build support for herself through means that no one ever expected – least of all her – and lays the groundwork to do the impossible: attack the White Tower itself.

The Shaido Aiel have been broken and dispersed, but their leader, Sevanna, still holds dreams of leashing Rand al’Thor and becoming the power behind the Chief of Chiefs. The Aes Sedai who tried to capture Rand have been put under the attentions of the Aiel Wise Ones, and all of the Aes Sedai – from the Tower and from Salidar – have taken an oath of fealty to him. What this will mean in the long run is unclear, but until they are released, they will serve him. Until Cadsuane Melaidhrin appears, with plans all her own for the Dragon Reborn. And with Min, Rand tries to settle the rebellious Lords and Ladies in Haddon Mirk, who refuse to acknowledge him as the ruler of Cairhien, Andor or Tear. What he finds, of course, is blood, pain and death – only some of it his.

In the main plot line of the book, Mat, Elayne and Nynaeve are in Tanchico, searching for the Bowl of the Winds – an artifact which could, if they’re lucky, undo the Dark One’s touch on the weather and finally end the summer that has held the land in its grip for the last three books. What we get out of this plot line is significant in many, many ways – we learn about what happens to women who are turned out of the White Tower, and why being so very strict may have cost the Aes Sedai dearly over the last two millennia. We also get a hint as to what causes the famous “ageless” look that so many Aes Sedai have, and why the Three Oaths may do more harm than good in the long run.

No, not that kind of Green.

In fact, between the Ebou Dar Kin and the Sea Folk, it looks like the nature of female channelers in this world is going to be radically upended by the time the series ends. The White Tower, which has stood as the unchallenged symbol of One Power dominance, will no longer possess a monopoly on channelers, and this will force a great many changes not only on Aes Sedai, but on the public perception of women who can use the One Power. But all that is in the future. For me, one of the most touching moments of this part of the series is Reanne Corley’s simple line: “I can be Green.” You’ll know it when you get to it.

What’s more, there are some very significant character moments in this book, not the least of which is that Mat finally gets his thanks for saving Elayne and Nynaeve from the Black Ajah way back in The Great Hunt. Elayne asserting herself among the “real” Aes Sedai is a marvelous scene, as is Mat facing down an entire room of women who would make a king step lightly. The interplay between Mat – the rough-and-tumble rogue/general – and Elayne – the daughter-heir of a kingdom and newly-minted Aes Sedai – is highly entertaining, especially with the help of Nynaeve and her braid-tugging, and Birgitte’s ability to drink like the soldier she is.

As an aside, we also learn from Mat what must be one of the strongest – and strangest – curses in this world, given the conditions under which he utters it. I have to admit, with invectives in this series such as “Burn me,” “Flaming” and “Bloody” – words that draw glares from the more prim and proper segment of society (i.e. women), I don’t really feel the power that they should have. Made-up curse words, such as “Gorram” (Firefly), “Frak” (Battlestar Galactica) and “Sprocking” (Legion of Super-Heroes) feel more, well, curse-ish to me.

This would have been more effective.

“Sheep swallop and bloody buttered onions”? Not so much.

They have plenty to curse about, though. The Black Ajah are in Ebou Dar, too, searching just as hard for a cache of artifacts from the Age of Legends, under orders from Sammael, and a whole new danger arises in the form of the Gholam – a creature made to kill channelers. And once the Seanchan decide that it’s time to take Ebou Dar, that’s just icing on the cake.

So to say that “nothing happens” is to completely ignore everything that, well, happens. It just doesn’t follow the forms and narrative structures that we have expected up until this point, and there are a lot of threads left dangling between books. But this is the point where it becomes vividly clear that you are reading a much larger story, and you should count yourself lucky that you can go from one to the next without stopping.

This did make me worry slightly, of course, about the last books in the series. The book written by Sanderson was originally supposed to be one volume – A Memory of Light – but the narrative demands of the story led to it being split among three volumes. So my question, prior to reading them, was this: will we see the same thing in those books that we saw in this one? A hasty climax, put in the end of the book because that’s what’s supposed to be there? Or does Sanderson have a good, well-planned structure for the final three books that makes each one self-contained yet which makes the final three flow inexorably to the end?

So far so good, but there’s one more left. We shall see.

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“There are no clear paths. Only pitfalls and tripwires and darkness.”
– Lews Therin Telamon
———————————————

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
A Crown of Swords at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
A Crown of Swords at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time

Review 190: Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time 06)

Wheel of Time 06: Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

There comes a point, in a thousand page book, where one is just overwhelmed with information. I mentioned this back in The Great Hunt, but the book is so dense that you look at the dwindling number of pages towards the back of the book and think, This can’t possibly be enough to hold all the stuff I remember happening. And yet it does. The storytelling here is solid, and while there may be a lot of fat to trim, the climactic scenes are usually very well paced and keep you hanging on the whole way through.

So, what happens in this book?

A fair summary of the Aes Sedai Civil War.

As we begin, the rebel Aes Sedai in the tiny village of Salidar are waiting to know what to do. This isn’t something that one would normally say of Aes Sedai, but they are uncertain. The White Tower is the Aes Sedai family, and to think of it splitting down the middle is just as bad as seeing your own family crack in two – you would do anything to save it. While the Salidar Aes Sedai certainly want to stand up against Elaida and her barely legal takeover of the Tower, they also want their family to be whole again. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that reconciliation is not to be, and so they prepare to take the radical step of naming an Amyrlin Seat of their own. Once that is done, the Tower will truly be split, but perhaps they can bring Elaida to justice in the end.

Rand al’Thor is trying to hold together the lands he’s conquered – Tear, Cairhein and Andor – and prevent them from collapsing into chaos. There are bands of violent looters who call themselves “Dragonsworn,” following their mad prophet and razing all that stands in their path. The Shaido, a clan of Aiel who refuse to accept Rand as their Chief of Chiefs, continues to dog Rand and his allies, and are an ever-present threat. He has Aes Sedai from both the White Tower and Salidar calling on him, each trying to convince him that they are the only ones who are worth allying with. And in Illian, the Forsaken Sammael waits, his greatest ambition being to crush Rand al’Thor and stand at the right hand of the Dark One when his time comes ’round at last.

Not unlike summer 2012 in the US. Hmmm…

All over the continent, the weather has gone into perpetual summer – lands are drying up, farms are dying, as the hand of the Dark One touches the world. Elayne and Nynaeve believe they know where they can find an object that will bring the weather back to normal, but they must first get out of Salidar. Once they do that, they have the violent streets of Ebou Dar to contend with. Egwene is with the Aiel Dreamwalkers, learning how to manage the World of Dreams, not prepared for the magnitude of what awaits her with the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar. Mat, now the leader of his own army, finds himself guarding Elayne and Nynaeve, much to his own dismay.

All around them, the world falls into chaos, and everything that Rand has done is poised to be undone.

As I said, it’s a dense book, and the changes that occur from the first page to the thousandth are pretty serious. But even though all that, my interest was held and I was entertained, not the least because the characters entertained me from beginning to end.

One of the fun tricks that Jordan uses to great effect, in this book and elsewhere, is conflicting viewpoints. In the last review, I talked about how, for some readers, the profusion of point-of-view characters made the book harder to get into (and at my count, this book has 44 POV characters in it). One advantage to that kind of writing, however, is that we get to examine events and situations through the eyes of different characters, which is often informative and always entertaining.

Poor Rand al’Thor…

Take Rand, for example. He’s an interesting character in that while has has to juggle so many different large-scale problems at once (and he’s generally pretty good at it), he’s hopeless on the individual level. In once scene, for example, Egwene comes to visit Rand. She’s determined to talk to him about the Wise Ones’ manipulation of him, but gets sidetracked into the topic of the Salidar Aes Sedai. Realizing that Rand’s nature as a ta’veren (a person whose mere presence can influence chance and fate) is about to cause her to tell him everything, she opens herself to saidar, the female half of the True Source, as a means of self-control.

Rand can sense this, and believes that she is afraid of him, calling on saidar as preparation for some kind of attack. He’s disappointed in her, of course, but this just further cements his distrust of Aes Sedai and deepens his disappointment that he can no longer trust someone with whom he had grown up. He believes that Egwene approached him in order to involve him in the Wise Ones’ plans and to stand against his own plan to give the thrones of Cairhein and Andor to Elayne.

“At least you didn’t let her see you were tired,” he tells himself after she leaves.

Egwene’s first thought upon seeing him? “He looked so tired.”

Obliviousness is a character trait that is always entertaining.

Two people see the same situation from radically different points of view, and it is their inability to reconcile these points of view that cause conflict. Storytelling 101, but done to great effect in these books. There’s another, far funnier scene later on, when Mat finally gets to Salidar and has a humorous misunderstanding as to exactly what Egwene is doing there. Like so many other characters, he’s absolutely sure he knows what’s going on, only to discover that the reality of the situation is nothing like what he expected. The characters’ willingness to make assumptions, unwillingness to say what they’re really thinking, and inability to accurately know what will happen next are a constant throughout these books, and makes them all the more human.

It is these differences of perspective – often leavened with characters who are wonderfully un-self-aware (Rand, Mat, and Nynaeve are my favorite examples) – that makes the Cast of Thousands worthwhile. For all the benefits of a single-POV book or series, there’s always more story that could be told by shifting into the head of another character. What kind of story would Harry Potter have been if we could have watched events unfold through Ron and Hermione’s eyes as well? Longer, that’s for sure, but perhaps it would have been even better.

Milton, the lowly clerk in the basement of the Stone of Tear…

Would I want The Wheel of Time pared down to just Rand al’Thor’s point of view? Not on your life. Not just because Rand is one of the less well-developed characters in the series, but I would miss the others. I would miss being in the funhouse-mirror mind of Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, or the scary thoughts of the Forsaken. I would miss knowing how Mat feels about finding himself a general, or Perrin becoming the lord of his homeland. I would miss Perrin’s conversations with the wolves (“We come” just gave me shivers. It’s in chapter 54, check it out.) I would regret losing even the minor POV characters – Sulin trying to figure out how to keep Rand safe, whether he wanted it or not. Faile working to make sure her husband becomes all that he should become. Pedron Niall and his visions of a world saved by his Whitecloaks.

While the vast crowd of characters can be overwhelming, it creates a rich world in which I can easily lose myself. Which is exactly what a good book is supposed to accomplish.

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The lions sing and the hills take flight.
The moon by day, and the sun by night.
Blind woman, deaf man, jackdaw fool.
Let the Lord of Chaos rule.
– Children’s chant of the Fourth Age
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Lord of Chaos at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Lord of Chaos at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 185: The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time 05)

Wheel of Time 05: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

One of the criticisms often laid at the feet of this series – and not unfairly – is that it is splintered.

Read any epic fantasy, and you’ll see that at some point, the author splits the party up. This is an almost guaranteed way to create more action, more storylines and, if you’re being paid per word, more money for the author. Tolkien, the grandfather of modern fantasy, did a nice job of splitting the Fellowship up into three branches at one time, and then brought them back together at the end. Since then, the technique has been a stock tool of any writer who is dealing with an ensemble cast in her work.

This pretty accurately describes the plot structure from here on out…

Jordan has taken this technique to its extreme. He used the standard method back in The Eye of the World – split the group into three, bring them all back together just in time for the climactic ending. Pretty boilerplate plot construction right there. From The Great Hunt, however, we began to see that having all of our main characters in one place at one time will be more the exception than the rule – while it starts and ends with everyone together, the beginning of The Dragon Rebornstarts us off with the party split again, bringing them all together only at the very last minute.

By my count, there are eighteen different point-of-view characters in this book, occupying four different major plot threads, only two of which actually manage to come together by the end. And it just gets more complicated from here on out. From my research, there is yet to be any point in the series where every plot thread manages to come together in one place at one time.

For some readers, this is supremely annoying, and I can’t say I blame them. You find yourself going back and forth from character to character, keeping up with storylines that are superficially unrelated, all in the hopes that they’ll pay off eventually. The circus interlude in this book is an excellent example. In an attempt to hide from the Forsaken Moghedein (whom Nynaeve seriously pissed off in the last book) and to get safe passage to the rebel Aes Sedai after the breaking of the White Tower, Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom and Juilin find themselves traveling with a circus. The logic behind this is that no one would ever look for them there, and I suppose they’d be right. I certainly didn’t see it coming.

I’m not sure why this never caught on as a dominant fantasy trope.

There’s a lot of good old-fashioned circus wackiness that goes on – Elayne puts on tights (which just scandalizeNynaeve) and learns to walk a tightrope. Nynaeve ends up being the target for Thom’s knife throwing and battles her own distaste at the skimpy clothes she has to wear versus the fact that she thinks they look pretty. Now I’m not saying that nothing important happens during the circus interlude – lots of things do. It’s just that there’s no reason they had to take place in a circus.

And there’s no reason they couldn’t, either. After all, who’s the multiple-bestselling author, Jordan or me?

As opposed to a single POV series, such as Harry Potter, where you know where the important action is and who it’s happening to, Wheel of Time requires its readers to observe a world of characters. And I think that’s the key to how these books are structured. The events that are happening here aren’t just happening to one small group of people, or one kingdom. It’s happening to the entire world, from the edge of the Aiel Waste all the way to the shores of the Aryth Ocean, from Seanchan to Shara. Rand al’Thor may be the Dragon Reborn (or the Car’a’carn or the Cooramoor, depending on whom you talk to), but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has things to do. In order for the Last Battle to be won, a whole lot of things have to happen, and not all of them are going to be centered around our main protagonist.

I’d hang out with this guy, no question… (art by Seamus Gallagher)

In this book, for example, we have two groups looking for the Aes Sedai who fled the White Tower when Elaida became Amyrlin (I hope you’ve been keeping up, otherwise that last sentence makes no sense whatsoever). Siuan Sanche and Leane Sharif, the former Amyrlin and her Keeper, are traveling with Min (a young girl who can tell the future from people’s auras) and Logain (a former False Dragon whose ability to channel was severed by the Aes Sedai.) And then there is Elayne and Nynaeve, who were both out of the Tower when the rebellion took place, but who hate Elaida more than Siuan, so they’re trying to find the rebels. These two plot threads eventually merge, but it takes fifty chapters before that happens.

At the same time, there’s Rand, Mat and Egwene, who are leaving the Aiel Waste for Cairhein, hot on the trail of the Shaido Aiel, who are murdering and pillaging everything they can find. The Shaido are a “rebel” clan, who refuse to accept Rand as the Car’a’carn (the Aiel’s Chief of Chiefs) and have decided that the best thing for them to do is to kill everyone who isn’t an Aiel. Rand and friends chase the Shaido all the way to Cairhein, where they engage in a fierce battle to save the city from being ravaged by war for the third time in twenty years. Even within this plot thread, Mat, Rand and Egwene occupy their own strands, staying apart more often than they get together.

The fourth plot thread is a thin one – Queen Morgase of Andor, who has been gulled into complacency by the Forsaken Rahvin (who is posing as “Lord Gaebril,” the queen’s lover) has finally come to her senses, and escapes from her own castle. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who will help her, but she’s intent on regaining her throne and seeing Gaebril hang. Lucky for her, Rand manages to take care of her little Forsaken problem by the end, although she’s unaware of this.

Meanwhile, the whole world is falling apart. The White Tower has well and truly split, something that the new Amyrlin, Elaida, is desperately trying to keep from the world. There is war and strife across half the continent, men who believe that the existence of the Dragon Reborn means that all bonds are broken, all social contracts annulled. The Prophet Masema – a man from the northern nation of Shienar – is preaching absolute devotion to Rand al’Thor as not only the Dragon Reborn, but as the source of all that is good. The coming of the Dragon brings not only a great battle with the Shadow, but great upheavals in civilization itself.

No, no – Wait! Don’t go! It gets better!

So, to say “there’s a lot going on in these books” is a bit of an understatement, and it’s Jordan’s fondness for creating new plot threads and then following them to see where they lead that has probably led to this series going on as long as it has. Had he just centered on Rand, it all could have been over in half the time. But it would have been far less interesting in the long run.

The characters of this world are fond of using a certain metaphor to describe life – the Great Tapestry. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” they like to say, and they believe that each person’s life is a figurative thread in a greater system. Some characters, like Rand, Mat and Perrin, are more important than others, and they tend to bend other threads to follow theirs. But you cannot make a tapestry out of only three threads, and the end of the world in this series is something in which everyone may participate. Without the actions of the myriad minor characters, Rand wouldn’t be able to be the person he needs to be, and the story wouldn’t be able to be as rich and as complex as it needs to be.

So, give this some thought. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to stick with one character or group of characters throughout a series; if you don’t like having to keep notes on who is doing what and where; if you’re not the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to note all of the different major characters, with color-coding and hand-drawn graphs…. Not that I have, mind you…. If that’s not your kind of read, then you may not enjoy this series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

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“It would be easier if this was a story.”
– Rand
——————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Fires of Heaven at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Fires of Heaven at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, death, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, identity, madness, military, quest, Robert Jordan, survival, travel, Wheel of Time, wizardry, women

Review 184: Ender’s Shadow

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

This book made me wish I could forget that I had ever read Ender’s Game.

Not because it was necessarily a better book – though it is longer – but because the two books offer different views of the same events from two distinctly different perspectives.

Ender Wiggin is brilliant and empathetic, a boy torn apart by his own doubts and fears and driven to greatness by a government that sees him simply as a means to an end. It is only his ability to understand and come to love those around him that gets him through his trials, endure his isolation, and which ultimately allows him to put together the team that defeats the Buggers. Ender seems to be more human than human, and not in that ironic Blade Runner sort of way, but in a way which makes us want to see him succeed and do well.

Bean, on the other hand, is about as different from Ender as it’s possible to get. He’s introduced in Ender’s Game as a foil, a character designed to show us how far Ender had come in the short time that he had been in Battle School. When we meet Bean, Ender is using the same techniques of isolation and constructive abuse that were used on him, making us wonder if Ender will turn out to be just a copy of the adults who were tormenting him. We learn that Bean, like Ender, is brilliant, but he is also strong-willed and ambitious and takes well to the atmosphere of Battle School. In the end, Bean shows himself to be a vital part of the team that Ender assembles to stop the Buggers and cement humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Ender’s story is all about empathy and self-understanding and his desire to be the person he wants to be, rather than the person humanity needs him to be. He has to give up some of his essential humanity in order to save the world.

Bean’s story comes from the opposite direction. More brilliant than Ender, Bean learns to find his humanity. He has to learn to see people as people, rather than a means to an end or a puzzle to solve. The hard lessons that he learned on the streets of Rotterdam as a small child were vital in preparing him to become a commander, but they have to be put aside if he’s to become a human.

Bean’s story is much bigger in scope than Ender’s, which gives the book as a whole more depth than Ender’s Game. We start out in Rotterdam, which has become a center of poverty and violence among rival gangs of street children. Bean, tiny and starving, manages to prove his worth to one of these gangs by suggesting strategies by which they can get more food and more respect. He gains the attention of Sister Carlotta, a nun who is working for both God and the International Fleet, and she is the first to see his full potential as a student in Battle School. But in the course of trying to understand Bean, she learns that his origin is one of horror, and that his future is even worse.

As a character, I liked Bean more than I liked Ender, possibly because on a scale of Complete Misanthrope to Bodhisattva, Bean and I are pretty close to the complete misanthrope end of the spectrum. To be fair, though, Bean has a lot more reasons to feel that way, and he’s a lot worse than I am. As we meet him, Bean views people as means to an end or as problems to be solved. He doesn’t reform the street gang culture of Rotterdam because it’s the right thing to do – he does it because he needs to eat. When he does experience attachment or fondness for others, he doesn’t know how to deal with it, and turns it into just another problem to be solved.

That hyper-analytical way of looking at the world makes Bean a much more aware character than Ender as well. While Ender spends most of his book wrapped inside his own head, Bean is constantly testing the world, analyzing it and trying to figure out what’s really going on. So while Ender was exploring the computer fantasy game, Bean was crawling through air ducts in the Battle School. While Ender was researching the battles of the past, Bean was learning how to spy on his teachers.

In the end, just as Ender is learning to put aside his humanity for the common good, Bean discovers a deep well of compassion that he never knew he had. Ender becomes more isolated, and Bean becomes more connected to others. The two characters come at each other from different directions and view the world in vastly different ways, giving us a kind of parallax view of the same events, to use Card’s preferred terminology.

Most interestingly, many of the revelations that were revealed to Ender in his book were discovered by Bean in this one, which creates a whole different reading experience.

And that’s why I wish I could delete my memory of having read Ender’s Game,, or at least put it away for a while. Reading this book, I constantly compare what’s happening to Bean with what happened to Ender, looking for those scenes that are shared between the books and others that we only get to see once. Whether it’s the early days of Battle School or Ender’s fight with Bonzo Madrid or the climactic end, there are enough similarities and differences to make each book worth reading.

But at the same time, I want to read each one for the first time, without knowing what’s going to happen next. I want to share Bean’s ability to see plans unspool before him without already knowing what those plans are. And then I want to read Ender’s Game the way I read Ender’s Shadow and have those wonderful moments of revelation as new light is shed on topics that were only briefly mentioned before – like Locke and Demosthenes, or the true fate of Mazer Rackham.

Card has done a difficult job very well in this book, and I can’t imagine it was easy at all. As he noted in his forward, a dozen years passed between the first book and this one, and a person changes in that much time. He learned new things and gained new perspectives, and that naturally had a great influence on how he chose to write this story.

And then there’s the enormous popularity of his other Ender books. Between Game and Shadow, he wrote Speaker for the Dead in 1986, Xenocide in 1991, and Children of the Mind in 1996. That means he had a much more solid understanding of his world by the time he got around to Ender’s Shadow in 1999, and a much larger fan base as well. Writers will always say that they write for the story, not for the fans, but every writer wants in their heart of hearts to have people love what they write. Revisiting your most famous work and exploring a popular character brings great risks with it.

Fortunately, I think Card succeeded with this book. It both compliments and contrasts with Ender’s Game, offering enough new information and new viewpoints to merit a second novel, while being faithful to the story that fans had come to love over a decade and a half. What’s more, it feels like the work of a more experienced writer. The scale is larger, the characters have more depth, and he takes more chances with the story than he did with Ender’s Game.

All in all, if you were a fan of the first, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read either, you really should. And if you start with this one, let me know how it goes.

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“Ender was what Bean only wished to be — the kind of person on whom you could put all your hopes, who could carry all your fears, and he would not let you down, would not betray you. I want to be the kind of boy you are, thought Bean. But I don’t want to go through what you’ve been through to get there.”

All images are from Marvel Comics.

Ender’s Shadow on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Shadow on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, aliens, coming of age, identity, military, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, space travel, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 181: The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time 04)

Wheel of Time 04: The Shadow Rising

This one is all about history.

One of the things that makes the world of Wheel of Time so attractive is that it is clear from the outset that Robert Jordan put a lot of work into the world of his story before he actually started the story itself. I get the feeling, reading these books, that he could tell you everything that happened here for the last four thousand years, if not more. In detail, with names and dates and places, all off the top of his head. Or at least from his copious sheafs of notes.

Your name is a killing word? Kinda hard to say your name with an arrow in your throat… (art by Jeremy Saliba)

In this book, the emphasis on history is most clear when Rand goes out to meet the Aiel. For those of you with a taste for classic sci-fi, the Aiel resemble the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. They’re desert people, and unsurpassed warriors, with a complex system of honor and obligation. There’s where the similarities end, of course – in these books there is no Spice, there are no sandworms, and no one in this would would ever think they could conquer the Aiel. Twenty years prior to the start of the series, four of the twelve Aiel clans crossed the mountainous barrier into the “wetlands” with the singular purpose of killing King Laman of Cairhien. Those four clans alone broke every army that stood against them, and only returned to their desert because they got what they wanted – Laman’s head on a pike.

No one knew why they had done this. Prior to the Aiel War, the nation of Cairhien had exclusive rights of passage through the waste, a gift that they didn’t understand, and ultimately didn’t fully appreciate. But without those rights, and without the offense that King Laman caused, and without the Aiel retaliation, this story never would have begun.

Reading this book, you start to get a better view of the historical context in which it is placed, and nowhere is that clearer than in Rand al’Thor’s trip into Rhuidean, the forbidden city of the Aiel. Any man who wants to become a clan chief, or any woman who wants to become a Wise One, may go there, but only once and twice, respectively. What they learn is their final test – the true history of their people. Those who cannot face the truth do not come back. Stronger men and women go on to become leaders, but never speak of what they saw. In order to fulfill his destiny, Rand must learn the history of the people he was born from, and by doing so, change the world.

It’s a fascinating sequence, actually – it’s the history of the Aiel from the day the hole was bored into the Dark One’s prison, through fifteen generations of the Aiel as refugees until the establishment of the city of Rhuidean itself, only told backwards. We find out why they never touch swords, why they veil their faces, and why they believe they are punished for sinning against the Aes Sedai. We get to see the incredible changes that occurred in only three or four hundred years, and then reflect that the time span we see only covers a small portion of the time that has elapsed since the Breaking of the World. We truly begin to understand how broken the world was and how hard life became, once we compare the hardened warrior Aiel to their Da’shain Aiel ancestors. It’s a fascinating and moving story, and it serves as an excellent centerpiece to the novel.

He’s not all fun and laughs.

History rests in other places as well through the book. Mat gains the memories of two thousand years, in a surprising exchange with otherworldly entities in a land beyond a twisted red doorway. We learn that the Sea Folk are looking for their Chosen One, just like everyone else, and Elayne and Nynaeve are pretty sure it’s Rand. They’re off to Tanchico to look for an artifact that could prove Rand’s undoing if the Black Ajah or the Forsaken get their hands on it first.

In fact, speaking of history, there has been a lot of speculation over the years on how the world of this book is related to our world. There are clues scattered about that suggest it is our extreme future – fairy tales about Anla, the Wise Counselor, Materese, Mother of the Wondrous Ind, and Lenn who rode to the moon in the belly of a fiery eagle (who could be Ann Landers, Mother Theresa and John Glenn, respectively). Jordan never came right out and said whether this is our world’s future or not, but a short passage in this book dropped a pretty big hint. While looking around a palace in Tanchico for the artifact that could harm Rand, Nynaeve travels the Dream World into a museum of antiquities. There, she sees many things that amaze and baffle her – fossils of extinct animals, for example often with some kind of emotional resonance. In her search, she finds this:

A silvery thing in another cabinet, like a three-pointed star inside a circle, was made of no substance she knew; it was softer than metal, scratched and gouged, yet even older than any of the ancient bones. From ten paces, she could sense pride and vanity.

If that ain’t a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, I’ll eat my library.

Over in the White Tower, history is being made as Siuan Sanche becomes only the third Amyrlin Seat in history to be deposed in a move orchestrated by the hardest of the Red Ajah, Elaida a’Roihan. And all around, the shadow is indeed rising – the Forsaken are out there, building their power and waiting for Rand so that they might defeat him before he battles their master, the Dark One.

But the best part of the book, in my opinion, is none of these. The best part centers around Perrin Aybara, the young blacksmith who was one of the original three young men to travel out of the Two Rivers on that spring night long ago.

Hi. We’re the forces of evil, pleased to meet you. Nice village you have here…

Back in The Great Hunt, the vile Darkfriend Padan Fain challenged Rand to meet him – failure to do so would result in pain and suffering brought down on all those whom he loved. Through circumstances not entirely under his control, Rand never got to meet Fain, though he did manage to cause him great inconvenience nonetheless. Fain meant to keep his promise, though, and in this book that promise is realized. The Two Rivers has been under siege by creatures from the Shadow – Trollocs and Myrddraal – and less Dark, though still not very nice Children of the Light, an army of zealots who sees Darkfriends in everyplace they look. Rand can’t go home to help – his destiny lies in the Aiel Waste – and Mat’s destiny lies with Rand. Egwene has to go to the Waste as well, to learn Dreamwalking from the Wise Ones, and Nynaeve is off to Tanchico to hunt the Black Ajah.

That leaves only Perrin, who goes back to his home to find it a very different place. He and Faile, the Hunter for the Horn whom he loves, along with Loial and three Aiel, travel back to the Two Rivers and Emond’s Field to put paid to the Trollocs and see that the people there are safe. In the process, Perrin the blacksmith’s apprentice finds himself becoming far more than he ever thought he would be.

This sequence is one of my favorites in the series thus far, and I’m including all the books that come after this one. It’s written with such depth of character, and the relationship between Perrin and Faile is built with such care that every scene between them resonates with emotion and meaning. In one book, Jordan has taken a character who had been the least interesting of all the protagonists, and made him into the one you care the most about. It’s not for nothing that Jordan gave Perrin an entire book off in The Fires of Heaven.

No matter which era we’re looking at, no one will be as creepy as Padan Fain. (art by Seamus Gallagher)

The historical insight we have gained here will help us along through the rest of the series, as we take a broader look at the world as it is in the present. Every character, not just Perrin, is changed and moved forward, if not always in likable ways, and we get the real sense that a new history is being made right now. We know that stories will be told of Perrin Goldeneyes for generations to come in the Two Rivers, that Elayne and Nynaeve will become legends among Aes Sedai, though whether as heroes or object lessons we can’t be sure yet, and that the fate of the future rests not on Rand’s back alone. He makes the Aiel face their past, and those who can survive the ordeal will be the shapers of the future.

The thousand or so pages of this volume can drag, if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. The history of Rhuidean is a good example – the first time I read it, I was really confused and didn’t really see the point of the whole thing – I wished it had focused less on the post-Breaking history and more on the Age of Legends, with its jo-cars and hoverflies, the Nym and the Ogier and the Da’shain Aiel working together. But once you give it thought – why it was vital that the clan chiefs and Wise Ones remember, and how the events of nearly three thousand years ago directly led to the birth of Rand al’Thor and the very story we are reading, it goes from being a slog to an adventure.

Still, I recommend taking notes.

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“Rand al’Thor may be lucky if the next Age remembers his name correctly.”
– Thom Merrilin
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Shadow Rising at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Shadow Rising at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, history, quest, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 179: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End by David Wong

There are really only so many things you can do with horror these days. I think we’ve all been somewhat desensitized by the ever-increasing variety and imaginativeness that has come with the horror genre in recent years, and so you know that sooner or later you’re going to find yourself yawning theatrically at someone being forced to devour their own brains with a spoon made from their still-living child’s hollowed-out sternum and say, “Seen it.”

There are always new avenues for horror…

As that moment approaches, the aspiring horror writer will need to start worrying less about the mechanics of the whole thing – the inventiveness of their devices and the goriness of characters’ ends – and more about how their story will stand out among an ever-broadening field. David Wong has chosen to use two interesting techniques in the writing of his book: comedy and wondrous incomprehensibility.

Wong (not his real name, for reasons he makes clear in the book) is a writer over at Cracked.com, a humor site on which I have spent many a good commute. Wong’s work there tends towards video games and social issues, generating columns such as, “9 Types of Job That Will Destroy Your Soul,” “5 Ways to Tell You’re Getting Too Old for Video Games,” and one of my favorites, “How Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.” He and Cracked are part of one of my favorite archipelagoes of the internet, where pop culture is analyzed with more seriousness than it deserves, and where many of the ideas that we take for granted are put under the microscope. Yes, it tends to reduce issues and oversimplify things from time to time, but they’re fun reading.

His years of writing humor have allowed him to create a very distinctive voice for the narrator of this book, also named David Wong, who is telling his story to a reporter – the story of how David and his friend John came to be able to peel the lid off the universe and peer into its dark, black, pestilent heart. Through the use of a bizarre drug that they call Soy Sauce, they are able to see through time, to communicate over great distances through unconventional means, and to observe phenomena that no one else can see.

This is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. It turns out that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that we can’t see, and most of it is truly terrifying. Forget simple things like ghosts and other spookiness. We’re talking seven-legged spiders with bad blonde wigs, tiny corkscrew insects that scream as they infect their victims, red-eyed shadowmen that remove you from having ever existed, and, watching all of this from his own adjacent universe, Korrock. And the less you know about him, the better.

The dark god Khi’kho-Ma’an is a harsh and unforgiving master.

Where you and I, having seen what cannot be unseen, might just do the rational thing and kill ourselves, David and John go along for the ride, trying to figure out where the monsters are coming from and doing their best not to become them. This universe, you see, is a fundamentally bad place, in more ways than we can really understand. But it’s only bad from our very restricted point of view, as if that really made any difference. David and John are afforded a bit of a better perspective, thanks to the Soy Sauce, but it doesn’t help much. They fight against the darkness, all with a certain rough, adolescent wit that will keep you moving forward even through the rough patches in the book.

And there are certainly rough patches. This is Wong’s first novel, and he’s chosen to make a very ambitious start of it, telling a story that is not only one of embedded, non-linear narratives and vast, hyper-real situations, but with an unreliable narrator to boot. The story straddles vast levels, from the interpersonal to the interdimensional, and it’s being filtered through someone who isn’t entirely sure that he can explain what happened. The reporter he talks to is the avatar of the reader, a hard-boiled, heard-it-all-before type who has to be dragged and convinced every step of the way before he starts believing these tales of wig monsters and doppelgangers. And through it all, Wong drops hints of the horrors to come, the fact that his story isn’t finished yet and that it almost certainly will not end well.

That kind of structure would be tough for any writer to pull off, and Wong does a reasonably good job at it. The dialogue between David and John is quick and funny, tending towards penis jokes, pop-culture references and the occasional bad pun. They play off each other in the way that only old friends can, and they help keep the reader grounded in a story that is fundamentally about being completely uprooted. And even with all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, Wong makes sure that all his promises to the reader are kept.

Well, all but one. But I won’t tell you which one that is.

This is probably one of the more normal parts of the story.

So long as you don’t take too long in getting through the book, you should be fine. I read about a hundred pages and then, for a variety of reasons, had to put it down for a week or so. When I came back to it, I realized that I had no idea what had happened before and had to start again. Much like David and John, your only good option is to barrel ahead without reservation and just hope that everything will turn out okay in the end.

And does everything turn out okay? Well, considering that Wong is hoping to write more books in this particular line, and that JDatE has been picked up as a movie, I would say that “okay” is a fair assessment. The world is still a weird, messed-up place which, if we truly understood it, would crush our fragile psyches like a peanut under a tractor tire, but it does seem a little bit more manageable.

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“Son, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”
– Marconi, John Dies at the End

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, David Wong, demons, disaster, doppelgangers, good and evil, horror, humor, madness, mystery, quest, world-crossing

Review 178: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There are times when I hate having grown up to be a fantasy fan. Most of the time it’s when I pick up a book that seems promising – maybe because it’s from a familiar author, or because you heard from a friend of a friend that it was good – but it turns out to be disappointing. Stock characters, old and tired plotlines, and a world that’s basically Tolkien with some greasepaint and false noses added on. Given the number of people who write fantasy, the odds of coming across a truly interesting world with compelling characters and a story that has some surprises is difficult indeed.

Fortunately, it looks like Sanderson has managed to pull it off.

None of them, to my knowledge, say “Hey! Listen!”

The world of Roshar is a strange and tempestuous place. The seasons come and go in unpredictable ways, sometimes bringing with them great highstorms that are so powerful that even the plants of this world have evolved ways to hide from them. It is a world filled with spirits, ubiquitous beings called spren, which pop up for almost any reason. There are the spren of nature – windspren, firespren, rotspren, riverspren and the like. There are spren that seem attracted to humans, like alespren, gloryspren, anticipationspren and logicspren. No one really knows what they are or why they exist, but they are everywhere in this world.

The greatest kingdom in Roshar is that of Alethkar, which is barely a nation at all. A loosely bound alliance of ten high princes, the people of Alethkar are a hostile, ambitious, violent folk whose first and greatest love is battle and winning. Since the assassination of their king by the savage Parshendi, they have been involved in a seemingly endless siege of revenge on the great Shattered Plains.

The greatest warriors of Alethkar – or any nation – are those who wield the amazing shardblades. Swords that seem to condense out of mist, the shardblades can cut through anything, though if they cut through a person their effects are a little more subtle. A warrior armed with a shardblade, wearing shardplate armor, can use the incredible power of stormlight to achieve feats that no normal man could survive. Bound within glowing gemstones and restored by the howling winds of the highstorms, stormlight is Roshar’s greatest treasure.

Within this world we follow an ensemble cast which, while adhering to certain fantasy archetypes, still is made interesting and worth watching. Dalinar, the brother to the dead Alethi king, is searching for a way to hold together the weak nation that his brother formed. He has been learning of the old ways, the teachings of the vanished and reviled Knights Radiant, in the hopes that they can help hold his people together.

Concept art for Kaladin. Man, I wish I had someone who’d draw concept art for my characters…

On the other end of Alethi society is Kaladin. Once a promising young surgeon, Kaladin joined the army in hopes of being able to fight on the Shattered Plains. He made it there, but not as a soldier – as a member of a bridge crew, one of the most expendable resources in the entire war. He became the lowest of the low, forced to find a reason to stay alive.

In a city far from the fighting, young Shallan Davar has fought to become the ward of the great heretic scholar Jasnah Kholin. While she has ostensibly come to learn from the woman, her true purpose is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a device which, if used properly, can turn something into something else – stone into smoke, glass into blood, a man into fire. With this, Shallan hopes to revive her family’s flagging fortunes after the death of her father. What she discovers with Jasnah, of course, is far, far more.

Then there’s Szeth-son-son-Vallano, truthless of Shinovar. Poor, poor Szeth. From a race of people known for their peaceful and easygoing natures, Szeth is the most powerful assassin the world has seen. He can harness the stormlight to manipulate gravity, making him able to do the impossible while he uses his shardblade to cut down anyone in his way. In truth, though, Szeth wishes only one thing – to find someone who is good enough to kill him, and end his tormented life.

As you may have guessed, it’s a complicated tale, and Sanderson doesn’t hold to this whole “Give the reader time to get used to it” style of writing. If you’re not paying attention from the beginning, you are likely to be very, very lost within the first chapter or so. But once everything settles down, the story turns into a fast-paced, multi-leveled adventure that takes place in a world that is imaginative and fascinating.

Seriously, you have to feel bad for Szeth, as awesome as he is…

The characters are enthralling, too, with many levels and – most importantly – flaws. While Kaladin is a brilliant organizer and leader, he has to fight continually against the despair of realizing what his life has come to. The easy thing would be to allow himself to die, but he knows he can’t let himself do that. Dalinar, plagued by visions of what might be Roshar’s ancient past, is fighting centuries of Alethi martial tradition by trying to bring the high princes together and end the war, rather than allowing it to go on. He’s pulled between the love of his nephew, the king, and his frustration that the king won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. Shallan, who left her home with a clear purpose, is finding that nothing was what she thought it would be. Jasnah isn’t an evil woman, despite being a heretic, and her plan to steal the soulcaster becomes less and less certain the more she learns.

All of these characters are at the front edge of thousands of years of history, much of it shrouded in uncertainty – legendary Knights Radiant who fought Voidbringers before giving up their duty and turning against mankind. What actually happened is unknown, and perhaps won’t ever be known. But the effects of those events echo to the present day, causing problems which our characters will eventually have to deal with.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to Sanderson is that when I finished the book, I immediately went back to the first page and started reading again. There are very few books that have inspired me thus, but this one did – especially after the cascading Big Reveals at the end, which explain a lot, and cast a new light on a whole lot more.

Definitely the climax of the book.

What’s more, I found myself wishing that I had access to an animation studio while I read the action scenes. Fights can be hard to do in written form – there’s a tendency to either describe too much or too little, and very often the reader gets slowed down trying to visualize what’s happening in the story. Sanderson is very, very good at writing action, something I first noticed in Towers of Midnight. Even when Szeth is hopping from floor to ceiling to wall, flinging people around like toys, the action was very clear in my mind’s eye, and it’s something I would love to see animated, if not done in live action.

And yes, to get back to why I hate being a fantasy reader sometimes, it is the first book in a series, which means I’m likely to be following it for quite some time. There’s nothing truly wrong with that – there are plenty of series that I’ve followed in my day – but I never look forward to the waiting game that you have to play as the author works on the next book. To be fair, though, Sanderson is busy right now finishing up my favorite series, The Wheel of Time, so I think I can give him a little latitude.

In any case, if you’re looking for a dense, fun new series to read, definitely pick this up. I plan on getting into some of his other books, mainly in order to have something to do while I wait for the next one of these.

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“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that.”
– Hoid, The Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Amazon.com
Brandon Sanderson’s homepage

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Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, family, fantasy, war

Review 177: The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time 03)

Wheel of Time 03: The Dragon Reborn

Think about this for a moment: imagine there was someone in history who was truly terrible. The stories about him tell that he was personally responsible for destroying civilization as they knew it at the time. Thanks to him, men who could wield immense power went mad and broke the world. He brought down an Age of Legends in a catastrophe from which, three thousand years later, humanity has still not fully recovered. Mothers tell their children stories about him to make them grow up right. He is known as the Dragon, the Kinslayer, and the world fears the day on which, the Prophecies say, he will return. For that will signal the End of the World and the final battle with the Shadow.

Next to this guy, Hitler is a minor-league bully.

HE WILL END US!!!

How would you feel if you found out that you were, in fact, him? In a world where reincarnation is a certainty, it’s possible to find out that you are an ancient hero reborn. Or perhaps a king, or a queen. Or maybe just Joe Peasant, who gets another ride on the Wheel. However it works out, you’ve discovered that you’ve pulled the unluckiest card in the reincarnation deck, and your future is to be hated and feared, and eventually to die in battle against the greatest evil humankind has ever known.

You might go a bit nuts. Rand al’Thor certainly does.

Not the inevitable madness of being a man who can channel, thank the Light, just the understandable mental breakdown that comes with knowing that you’re the doomed reincarnation of one of history’s greatest monsters. Rand is off to the great city of Tear, on the southern coast. In the great, power-wrought fortress that sits at its center, there is Callandor, the Sword That Is Not A Sword, and an object of great power for any male channeler who holds it. What’s more, only the Dragon Reborn can remove it from its suspension inside the Stone of Tear. By taking Callandor, Rand will finally prove to himself and the world that he is the Dragon Reborn.

His friends, in the meantime, think this is a mad plan. No army has ever broken the Stone of Tear, and the city itself hates and despises channelers. Moiraine knows that Rand could get himself killed in Tear, thus dooming the world. So, with Lan, Loial and Perrin, she chases after Rand to try and ensure that he fulfills his true destiny.

These guys will Mess. You. Up.

So it’s not for nothing that we don’t see a lot of Rand al’Thor in this book, despite him being the title character. In fact, except for occasional brief interludes, we don’t get a chapter from Rand’s point of view until chapter 55, just in time for the climactic final battle. I’m of two minds on this decision by Jordan. On the one hand, it frees up a lot of pages for the other characters in the book – Perrin gets a lot of time to shine, and Mat’s healing in the White Tower lets us get to know him a little better and get a better view of the White Tower and Tar Valon. We spend much more time with Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne as they head down to Tear to chase down the Black Ajah, and get a good look at the Aiel, who will become much more important in the subsequent books.

On the other hand, however, we lose sight of Rand during what is a very important point in his character development – coming to terms with and accepting not only his identity as the Dragon Reborn but the horrible destiny that comes with it. In those brief interludes, we see that he’s being hunted by the Shadow, and has to remain on guard against its agents at all times. If we had followed him on this journey, much of what comes after would have made more sense. As it is, by letting him off on his own, Rand’s character suffers a great deal, and the reader’s ability to empathize with him is irrevocably harmed.

But on the third hand, maybe that was the whole point. No one can understand the Dragon Reborn – not Moiraine, not his best friends, not even the reader. From this book on, Rand will always be harder to understand than the other characters in the series, which may have been Jordan’s goal all along.

Another option, of course, is that Jordan wrote several thousand words of Rand’s journey to Tear and realized that just following this one guy all by himself as he tries to keep from going nuts wasn’t as interesting as we might have thought.

So there’s that.

Google Image Search can be a tough place to search for pictures of women in fantasy….

A word, then, on a topic that is central to this series, and I figure it’s better to look at it earlier rather than later – women.

As a genre, fantasy doesn’t have a very good reputation when it comes to female characters. More often than not, women are either objects of the male protagonist’s quest, or they are hindrances to him. Fantasy remains a very male-dominated genre, and for female readers there are slim pickings when it comes to whom you can imagine yourself being. While Wheel of Time is still an andro-centric story, the roles and responsibilities given to female characters are enormous, and Jordan has created a world in which the status of women is far higher than in most fantasy worlds. It is a world where men and women are different, but equal, and neither is presumed to be superior to the other. This is neatly illustrated in the nature of the True Source, the energy that turns the Wheel of Time and thus is the engine of all creation.

The Source is divided into female and male, saidar and saidin. While saidin was horribly corrupted by the Dark One, it is repeatedly made clear that neither is stronger than the other, and that the greatest works of the Age of Legends always came when men and women worked together. Even on a non-magical scale, it is shown that the roles of men and women in this world are distinctly different, but occupying a certain stable balance that allows the world to work. In personal relationships too, there is no relationship I can recall where either the man or the woman can be said to be “in charge” (except in cases like Lan and Moiraine, where one has specifically sworn to obey the other). One of my favorite examples: Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have gone to Tear to hunt the Black Ajah. Far away, in Caemlyn, Mat learns that their lives are in danger from the Shadow’s assassins, and promises right there that he’s going to save them. Classic male reaction to a Damsel in Distress.

The women of WoT will have none of this nonsense.

Once he finds them, however, they have pretty much saved themselves – another five minutes or so and they would have done it. Mat’s entire involvement in their rescue from the unbreakable Stone of Tear and the horrifying Black Ajah was to unlock a door. He risked life and limb on a quest to rescue these women, only to discover that they don’t need rescuing. And in classic male fashion, he spends the next few books sulking about how they didn’t thank him for unlocking that pesky door. Well, not all the time, of course, but it certainly comes up again.

It’s not feminist lit by any means – Jordan tends to resort to behavioral cliches more with his female characters then male; women glare or sniff or tug their braids as a kind of neon sign that says, “THIS CHARACTER IS ANGRY NOW.” But I imagine that female readers of this series will have less trouble finding a character to identify with than they would with, say, Lord of the Rings, which has only one female character of any note (Eowyn – Arwen is barely in the books at all). And there’s a lot of “I guess I’ll just never understand women” talk from a lot of the male characters, while the female characters tend to hold themselves in slightly higher esteem. But for all that, I imagine there were plenty of female readers who saw themselves in these books, and who spent more than a little time wondering which Ajah they would choose, if only they could be Aes Sedai.

Of course, I am a man, so I could be completely wrong.

—————————————————-
“Men fight when they should run, and fools fight when they should run. But I had no need to say it twice.”
– Zarine, The Dragon Reborn
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Dragon Reborn at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Dragon Reborn at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, madness, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 172: The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time 02)

Wheel of Time 02: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

Excerpted from the White Tower Guide to Channeling, Section Four: So You’re a Man who can Channel:

There comes a time in every young man’s life where he begins to notice some changes – maybe you have new feelings about the Girl Next Door, or you may want to spend more time away from your parents. And there will of course be changes in your body, that’s for sure. Yes, it’s all part of a young man’s journey into becoming an adult!

Some of these changes might be a little embarrassing – acne, wet dreams, or, in some cases, channeling the One Power.

Yes, some unlucky boys may find themselves able to move objects without touching them, light fires with their minds, or make the very earth under their feet shake and crack. If you have experienced unusual happenings, followed by feelings of sickness, euphoria or general unease, you may be able to channel the tainted saidin that drove Lews Therin and every male Aes Sedai of the Age of Legends horribly insane. If left alone, your future does not look good.

This is Jimmy. He started channeling when he was eighteen years old. He didn’t want to, and he tried to stop, but the Wheel Weaves as the Wheel Wills, and in one night he killed everyone in his village with a raging firestorm. Unfortunately, the Aes Sedai couldn’t get to him in time, and he hanged himself before his twenty-first birthday.

This is Freddie. He started to channel when he was twenty, and managed to hold it off for five years. Then the wasting disease set in. We would show you the other side of his face, but trust us – it’s not a pretty sight. If Freddie had gone to Tar Valon earlier, he might have avoided this terrible fate.

Billy here was one of the lucky ones. When he started to channel, he was quickly found by the diligent sisters of the Red Ajah. He was rushed to Tar Valon where he was gentled, making him a threat to society – and himself – no longer! Put on a happy face, Billy! You’re a productive member of society again!

So if you’re a young man experiencing the dangerous thrill of channeling saidin, rush to the White Tower today! Your life – and the lives of those you love – may depend on it!

Unless, of course, your name is Rand al’Thor and you happen to be the Dragon Reborn. In that case, you have a lot more to worry about.

Rand is caught in a bind. After the events in The Eye of the World, he has discovered that he’s able to channel saidin, the male half of the One Power that drives the Wheel of Time and thus underpins the universe. Unfortunately for him, saidin was tainted many years ago by the Dark One, as a final revenge against those who trapped him in his prison. The result is that any man who channels saidin is doomed to go mad, waste away, and die.

This thing is no end of trouble...

But Rand is not just any man. He is the Dragon Reborn, the man who is fated to face down and defeat the Dark One during the Final Battle. He is the reincarnation of one of the most powerful Aes Sedai of the Age of Legends, Lews Therin Telamon, the man who led the mission against the Dark One that ended in the Breaking of the World. If he were to go mad, it would be a Very Bad Thing, thus all the Capital Letters.

He loves his friends, but fears for their safety. He wants to leave the keep at Fal Dara along the border of the Blight, but he can’t. He wants to be free of Aes Sedai, but he soon finds himself before the Amyrlin Seat, the woman who leads all Aes Sedai. He cannot stay and he cannot go, and the pressure is starting to get to him, to the point where he tries the classic trick of trying to distance himself from his friends by making them think he doesn’t like them anymore. Mat and Perrin know something is up with their friend, but they don’t know what. As for as they know, Rand is just putting on airs and letting the fame of finding the fabled Horn of Valere go to his head. If their disdain is enough to protect them, of course, then Rand is willing to encourage it.

All of this is put on hold, however, when Padan Fain, one of the darkest Darkfriends in the world, escapes from his cell in Fal Dara’s dungeon and steals both the Horn and a cursed dagger that is linked to Mat’s soul. Without it, Mat could die within weeks. So, they go off on a great hunt for Fain and his co-conspirators, hoping to find the Horn before it is blown and the spirits of the greatest heroes in history are forced to serve the Shadow.

Though not quite as much trouble as this.

Elsewhere, Egwene and Nynaeve, two women from Rand’s village, are on their way to Tar Valon to start their training to become Aes Sedai. There they meet Elayne, the daughter-heir of Andor, and become entangled in a plot by the Black Ajah – a fervently denied secret group of Aes Sedai that serve the Dark One. The women find themselves in the coastal city of Falme, where they face an army of nightmares. The Seanchan have come from across the sea to reclaim the rights of their ancestors, and any woman who can channel the One Power is forced into horrible slavery.

It’s a dense book.

There were several times during the book where I looked at the diminishing pages in the back and thought, “Wait, isn’t there more that happens here?” The answer, of course, is yes, but what takes up comparatively little space in the book looms much larger in my mind. The events at Falme, for example, with Egwene’s captivity and the plot to set her free, to say nothing of the Seanchan occupation itself and Rand’s rematch with the horrible Ba’alzamon, only take about 120 pages. The ramifications of those events, and their importance to not only this book but the series as a whole, seems to overshadow the brevity with which they’re told. And so I found myself surprised that so much happens in so little space, without it feeling horribly rushed.

And not nearly as much as this.

That’s a common feature of these books, which usually – but not always – comes off without a hitch. Jordan jumps between character groups, spending a few chapters here and there so that we never forget who’s doing what, and with whom. There are the occasional interludes to show the wider world – in this case, the activities of the Children of the Light, a fanatical, quasi-religious group that are a classic example of how people can do evil in the name of goodness. But the information is laid out very carefully, so that once you get to the climax of the book, you know everything you need to know so that the action can move as quickly as possible.

Of course, our world starts to expand as well. We not only get to see a few new places – Cairhien and Falme in particular – but we get a look inside the way the White Tower works, with Nynaeve’s test to become Accepted and Egwene’s new life as a novice. We get to see more of the Whitecloaks, who will do anything to preserve what they believe to be The Light. And we get a new view of history, especially with regards to Artur Hawkwing, one of the greatest rulers of the world after the Breaking, who is a constant presence throughout the book, even if he only shows up at the end.

The overarching theme of this book, at least as pertains to Rand, is leadership. As the Dragon Reborn, Rand is going to have to lead the nations of the world in the last battle against the Dark One, something he doesn’t feel particularly confident about. But that’s destiny for you, and what he wants doesn’t really have anything to do with how he’s going to end up. So this book is about Rand coming to terms not only with his identity as a leader of men, but also as the man the world has hoped for and feared for so long – the Dragon Reborn.

And the less said about this, the better. Even the Dark One pauses...

If you’re reading the series, then you don’t need my encouragement to go pick this up. If you’re still unsure if you want to commit yourself, however, be assured that this book does exactly what it should do – it propels the story forward, keeping the energy of the first book and giving us more questions than answers. It ends with what turns out to be a surprisingly emotional sequence. As many times as I’ve read it, I’m still moved by Egwene’s rage, Rand’s determination and Ingtar’s redemption.

For as much as this is Epic Fantasy, which isn’t so much about the characters as it is about the world in which they live, Jordan has created great characters here. People you want to know better and feel for as you read. You fear for their safety, not just physically but the safety of their very souls. When they triumph, you share their joy, and when they fail, you share that too. As big a story as this is, it’s all about the characters at this point, which makes for excellent reading.

Enjoy.

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“Rand al’Thor. It does not sound like a name to inspire fear and set the world on fire.”
– Siuan Sanche, The Amyrlin Seat, The Great Hunt
———————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Great Hunt at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Great Hunt at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, madness, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry