Category Archives: fantasy

Books that are in the “fantasy” genre.

Review 212: Knife of Dreams (Wheel of Time 11)

LL 212 - WoT 11 - Knife of DreamsKnife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

As before, things might be spoilery – I try not to get too specific, but I know how some people are. Consider yourself warned.

And finally things start to come together.

Not completely – the five story tracks I talked about before are still five tracks, and haven’t re-integrated yet. But there has at least been some resolution to some of the storylines, good progress made in others, and you can begin to see how things might eventually end up.

Let’s look at the most satisfying story resolution first – Perrin hunting for his wife, Faile.

They don't look anything like this, but it was either this or pictures of the Klan...

They don’t look anything like this, but it was either this or pictures of the Klan…

In case your memory hasn’t held out too well, Faile has been a captive of the Shaido Aiel since the end of Path of Daggers, which feels like oh so long ago. Since then, she’s been a captive – what the Aiel call gai’shain – and forced to work harder than she had ever has before. Traditionally, gai’shain are Aiel captured in battle, and represent a very important part of their philosophy of ji’e’toh – honor and obligation. An Aiel captured by his enemy will serve for a year and a day, and would never contemplate trying to run away, shirk his duties or harm his captors. It’s just how things are done. The gai’shain, while captive, occupy a curious position of honor in Aiel society.

But non-Aiel are not supposed to be taken gai’shain. Sevanna and her Shaido are perverting the traditions of the Aiel, taking wetlanders captive and treating them as little better than slaves. Faile and her followers (two of whom happen to be queens), are in danger every day, and she doesn’t know which is more dangerous – trying to escape or waiting for Perrin to rescue her.

She finally gets both. With the help of some more honorable Aiel – the Mera’din – she has a chance to get out. But Galina Casban, an Aes Sedai of the Black Ajah and a very angry gai’shain, would rather see them dead.

For his part, Perrin makes a deal with the devil, as far as he’s concerned. While the men he’s leading are certainly very capable, there’s no way they could attack thousands of Aiel without it becoming a slaughterhouse. So he turns to the only military force in the land that has even a chance of success – the Seanchan. They’re invaders, they’re occupiers, and given the chance they would overrun Perrin and his army. But they both see the danger in allowing these Shaido to stay where they are. So a bargain is struck, and Perrin devises a way to attack the Shaido and win his wife back.

Meanwhile, Mat is still traveling with Tuon, the daughter of the Seanchan Empress, and fearful for her life. It seems there are those who want to kill her – something that she has grown up with, to be honest. And they’re willing to go to any lengths to do so. Fortunately, Mat is willing to do whatever he has to in order to keep her safe – she is going to be his wife, after all….

I couldn't help but use this again. It's such a great idea... (art by minniearts on DeviantArt)

I couldn’t help but use this again. It’s such a great idea… (art by minniearts on DeviantArt)

Let’s talk about the Seanchan for a moment, actually. Back in The Great Hunt, they were introduced as being as close to villains as it was possible to get and not be working for The Dark One. They invaded the city of Falme, started capturing women who could channel, and overwhelmed the local military there. They are a highly stratified society, with a complex system of honorific behavior that was unlike anything we had seen yet in the books. We were led to think of them as unabashedly bad.

They turned out not to be, though. They saw their invasion as a homecoming, recovering the land of their ancestors from people who had forgotten the rule of the great Artur Hawkwing. Their forefathers fought against women who could channel, almost to the bitter end, until the a’dam was developed. With it, these dangerous women could be controlled. Yes, they are considered very nearly non-human (at one point, a character equates having sex with a damane with bestiality), but from the experience of the Seanchan, that is the only way these very powerful and very dangerous women could be kept from destroying their civilization.

The Seanchan are powerful and confident, but they’re not evil. The more we see them in these volumes, the more obvious that becomes. Perrin and Mat do more together to not only show us the human side of the Seanchan but to also convince the Seanchan themselves that they need to adapt to these new lands. They will never be removed from the Westlands (especially since the Forsaken Semirhage single-handedly destroyed their empire), but we are finally getting the impression that they’ll be willing to work with the natives, rather than just rule them.

Pay attention, Galina...

Pay attention, Galina…

In other parts, there are some wonderful just desserts, where we finally get to see people we have despised for so long get their comeuppance. Galina Casban is may favorite – I’m sure you’ll understand when you get there. There’s heartbreak and triumph, and more than a few moments where you just want to stop and re-read what just happened. We also get to see some very good character work, from Egwene’s war of words to win over the Aes Sedai of the White Tower to Elayne’s battle to keep her throne – and stop the Black Ajah from pulling her down. We get a real sense of growth from these characters that will serve them well in the books to come.

Reading this book, you finally get the sense that things are starting to come together. The dead are starting to walk, reality is unraveling, and no one is sure what the next day will bring. The Last Battle is coming, and everyone needs to be on board if they’re going to keep civilization intact.

It should be noted, also, that this was the last book written by Robert Jordan before his death in 2007 from cardiac amyloidosis. His passing was a great bow to his fans, and I want to extend my thanks here and now (as I will again later, I’m sure) to his widow for making sure that the world he created didn’t die with him.

———————————————-
“If we die, we will die as who we are.”
– Banner-General Kaerde, Knife of Dreams
———————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Knife of Dreams at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Knife of Dreams 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, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 210: Interesting Times

LL 210 - Interesting TimesInteresting Times by Terry Pratchett

There is a saying, often attributed to the Chinese – “May you live in interesting times.” Usually when this is invoked, it’s done so as a curse, the idea being that interesting times are more likely to cause you trouble than nice boring times, and perhaps that’s true. The folks in Mali, for example, are certainly living in interesting times right now. The trouble is that not everybody is able to stay alive to enjoy them.

Pictured: An interesting time

Pictured: An interesting time

That’s one of the problems with life as we know it – we long for things to be interesting, exciting and thrilling, like what happens to Bruce Willis every time he’s on the screen. When those times come, however, we realize that it’s the boring, predictable times we really want. In other words, we want whatever we don’t have at the moment, which just goes to prove that we, as a species, are messed up in the head. If we had been assembled by any rational Supreme Being, it would have made us a little more accepting of the lives we lead. This mind-set may not lead us to the advanced society we have now, but it certainly would lead us to something approaching world peace.

This book is about wanting what you don’t have, and what happens when you get it.

The central character is the wizard – or Wizzard – Rincewind, one of the oldest of the Discworld characters. He’s been with the series since the first book, The Colour of Magic, and he’s grown to be a favorite for many readers. What Rincewind wants, really wants, is to be left alone. No quests, no challenges, no one trying to kill him or otherwise ruin his day. If the world forgot that Rincewind existed, he’d be the happiest man alive.

Unfortunately for Rincewind, the world hasn’t forgotten him. He has to be sent to the far-off Agatean Empire, a place so remote that few, if any, people know anything about it. A message came, asking for the Great Wizzard, and Rincewind is the only one who fits the bill. The fact that he can’t do magic is not important, really.

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with...

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with…

When he gets there, he meets Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde – seven incredibly old barbarian heroes. Seven men who don’t know the meaning of the word “defeat,” though you’d probably have to repeat it very loudly before they heard what you’d said. Together, the Horde are headed to the capital city of the Empire, looking to make the biggest heist in their long, long, long barbarian careers.

Together, Rincewind, Cohen and the Horde find the Empire in the throes of a people’s revolution, borne of righteous peasant rage and the skillful manipulations of the Grand Vizier, Lord Hong.

Like so many Discworld books, this is a lot of fun to read. The Agatean Empire is a blend of ancient China and Japan, giving us ninja and samurai alongside blue and white Ming ceramics and an exam-based bureaucracy. And like most of the other Discworld books, this one gives you something to think about – what do you want to be?

Rincewind wants to be left alone, because he thinks he’ll be safer that way. Cohen wants to settle down, because he worries that his life as a barbarian hero might be catching up to him. Lord Hong wants to be a gentleman of Ankh-Morpork, or at least the ruler of such men. And the people of the Empire, who call themselves the Red Army, want to be free, even though they have no idea what being free means.

They're... they're TERRIFYING!!

They’re… they’re TERRIFYING!!

The only character who seems to change his life for the better is Mister Saveloy, the youngest member of the Silver Horde and the one they call “Teach.” He realized that what he thought he wanted – a life of educating young people – wasn’t what he really wanted after all. What he wanted was the certainty and simplicity of Cohen’s barbarian lifestyle, and found it rather agreed with him.

So what’s the lesson here? Perhaps this: Be happy with what you have, but don’t be afraid to change. Just remember that not all change is for the better.

—————————————————
“…I decided to give it up and make a living by the sword.”
“After being a teacher all your life?”
“It did mean a change of perspective, yes.”
“But… well… surely… the privation, the terrible hazards, the daily risk of death…”
Mister Saveloy brightened up. “Oh, you’ve been a teacher, have you?”
– Rincewind and “Teach”, Interesting Times
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Filed under adventure, China, Discworld, fantasy, humor, Terry Pratchett

Review 207: Crossroads of Twilight (Wheel of Time 10)

LL 207 - WoT 10 - Crossroads of TwilightWheel of Time 10: Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Once again – certain things may be spoiled here. Consider yourself warned.

This is where the series finally starts to get its legs back under it, and I think I figured out why: Jordan went about writing it the wrong way.

Let me explain: Following book six, Lord of Chaos, the series separated into five major storylines, which have thus far stayed pretty independent of each other. They’ve progressed at different rates, with different narrative structures, and have occupied different amounts of page space, and overall they synced up pretty poorly. The five major stories that I’ve spotted are these:

The plot diagram for Wheel of Time is only slightly more complicated. No need to worry.

The plot diagram for Wheel of Time is only slightly more complicated. No need to worry.

Leading the rebel Aes Sedai, Ewene al’Vere, the Amyrlin-in-Exile, has deftly manipulated her people into a war against the White Tower and Elaida, the woman who usurped the office of Amyrlin and drove a wedge between the sisters. Originally intended to be a puppet Amyrlin, Egwene has proven herself very good at managing people who are highly resistant to being managed. Her goal is nothing less than the deposing of Elaida and the reunification of the White Tower, no matter what the cost. It’s a story of politics, scheming and manipulation, all leading up to what must be terrible war.

Elayne Trakand is fighting her own political war as she attempts to become the Queen of Andor. Under normal circumstances, this would be no problem. Her mother, the former Queen, is presumed dead, which would pretty much make Elayne a shoo-in. Unfortunately, Morgase ended her reign rather badly (she was under the control of one of the Forsaken at the time, but no one in Andor knows that), so half the Great Houses in Andor who should be supporting Elayne are very reluctant to do so. She’s in a political battle which will not only decide the throne of Andor, but will also affect the world.

In another part of the world, Perrin Aybara is hunting for the people who kidnapped his wife. The Shaido, a renegade clan of Aiel who refuse to acknowledge Rand as their Chief of Chiefs, are spread out across the land, and they bring terror, blood and death with them. Faile Aybara has been taken prisoner by them, and only quick thinking and some unexpected allies are keeping her alive. Perrin is determined to find her, whatever the cost to his body or soul.

Outside of Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon has single-handedly committed enough crimes against the Seanchan Empire to earn himself a painful death many times over. He has not only allowed three Aes Sedai to escape their clutches, not only spirited out three sul’dam, who know a secret that could break the Empire, but he has kidnapped the Daughter of the Nine Moons, High Lady Tuon – the daughter of the Seanchan Empress. His ragtag group of refugees have only one goal in mind – to get away from the Seanchan. But Mat knows there are stranger fates in store for him, not the least of which is his fated marriage to Tuon.

Finally, we have the central character in this whole saga – Rand al’Thor. When last we saw him, he was cleansing saidin – the half of the One Power that is used by men – of the poisonous taint laid upon it by the Dark One thousands of years ago. This was yet another step in preparing for the Last Battle that he, as the Dragon Reborn, must one day fight. He has armies at his command, Aes Sedai sworn to serve him, three women who love him, and a madman inside his own head. His only goal is to stay sane and live long enough to save the world. Even that is looking like it might not happen….

Another Wheel of Time book? Sure, I have space for that...

Another Wheel of Time book? Sure, I have space for that…

Now any one of those storylines might make for a really good book by itself, and therein lies the solution to the sagginess of this part of the series. They’re all interesting stories, but they all move at different paces, climax at different points, and have vastly different themes and atmospheres. In order to jam them all together into the Wheel of Time books, Jordan had to play fast and loose with chronologies, often backtracking in one story so that he could catch up in another. What’s more, moving from one storyline to another was jarring and unpleasant, making it a chore to actually read the books.

What he could have done was to create five mini-series following Lord of Chaos, perhaps of two or three books each. Each series could flow at its own pace, and stay focused on one of the five major characters, with no break or interruption in the story’s flow. Each story would have been allowed to develop freely, and then they would all come back together to re-integrate into the main series, which would once again present a more unified narrative that brings us to the end.

Or even – and this is something I’m pretty sure has never been done – let the five storylines play out without ever re-integrating them. That would mean the Wheel of Time series becoming more of a Shared World group of books, rather than finishing as the series that started way back in Eye of the World. This would never work, though – it’s only in real life that people start off together, drift apart and never reconnect again, and if there’s anything I’m reading this series for, it is not its resemblance to the real world.

Temporarily splitting into five sub-series might have solved a whole lot of problems though. The reader would have been able to decide which stories interested him the most. Devoted followers, of course, would have bought them all and read them all, but if you’re not interested in watching Perrin anguish over Faile, or you rightly think that Mat’s storyline is pretty rudderless and won’t mean anything until he reconnects with Rand, you’d be able to skip that mini-series. Some clever writing would be necessary once they all integrate, but it would be possible to enjoy the Wheel of Time without necessarily jumping around five storylines every ten chapters or so.

"Don't let it overwhelm you, Artax! Only four more books to go!"

“Don’t let it overwhelm you, Artax! Only four more books to go!”

My point is that the middle of this series has turned out to be muddled and clunky, and if there’s any point where readers might just give up, it would be here. The good news is that in this book, the five storylines finally catch up to each other; the first 357 pages are describing what’s happening in the other storylines while Rand and Nynaeve were cleansing saidin back in Winter’s Heart. Once that event has passed in all five stories, the narrative flow seems to smooth out a lot, and the reading gets easier. I can’t say how long that will last, or how long it’ll take before they all re-integrate, but I know they will sooner or later.

This volume, meanwhile, has some great character moments in it – Egwene cementing herself as the true Amyrlin Seat and doing what must be done to secure her victory; Perrin discovering just how hard he can be and what lengths he will go to to find his wife; Mat’s intricate dance with Tuon, in which neither of them really knows the steps. And on the dark side, Alviarin discovers that even the great and powerful Chosen are not guaranteed victory, and Black Ajah sisters everywhere lay in wait to serve their dark master. And there’s an interesting essay to be written on the psychological position that Jordan takes in these books – Behavior molds personality, and punishment molds behavior. Something I have to mull over as I read, but when I have it set in my head, I’ll let you know.

The story progresses. Fitfully, and in five different directions, but it progresses. Stay with me, folks, and we’ll get there…..

—————————————————–
Sometimes, there were lessons in stories, if you looked for them.
– Elayne Trakand, Crossroads of Twilight
—————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Crossroads of Twilight at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Crossroads of Twilight 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, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 206: Cold Days

LL 206 - Dresden 14 - Cold DaysCold Days by Jim Butcher

Hells Bells count: 35

Be Warned: This is a new volume, so if you’re not up to date then you might want to save this one for later!

Sometimes I wonder how much Jim Butcher had planned in advance. I mean, this is book number fourteen of a series that’s been going for twelve years. Whether he’s got a giant, intricate plot map pinned up along the walls of his writing office or he’s making things up as they go along, I’m impressed. As we get further into the exciting life and times of Harry Dresden, one thing that is clear is that the series has always been moving in a very clear direction, and that the things that came before are what inform the things that come later. Jim Butcher is not a wasteful author, and that gives him the ability to do a lot of really impressive things.

As we open this story, Harry Dresden is no longer dead. He was, sort of, and had all kinds of grand fun as a ghost, but now he’s alive and it’s time for him to start paying off the debts that he incurred in the process of dying. The first of these debts is to Mab, the great and terrible queen of the Winter Faerie.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it'll do.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it’ll do.

Many, many books ago, Mab offered Harry the position of the Winter Knight – a mortal who would be the strong arm of the queen. He would be her sword, to strike where she pointed. Harry refused until he could refuse no longer, taking on that mantle in exchange for the power that would allow him to rid the world of the Red Court of vampires. And as much fun as vampire genocide is, that’s not really his job anymore. Now that he’s alive again and under no other obligations, Mab has a purpose for him. At its face, it is a terrible purpose, one that makes no sense and yet which Harry is obligated to fulfill.

On the other hand, there is Demonreach. Mab’s partner in keeping Harry Dresden’s body… let’s say viable while he was away as a ghost, Demonreach is the spirit of an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. This island isn’t on any maps, and it’s devilishly hard to find, but it represents a huge well of magical and spiritual power. This island needs Harry Dresden in order to do its duty. Demonreach is not just an obscure Brigadoon that enjoys hiding from the eyes of the unworthy – it is a guardian against powers that would ravage the world. If it is going to maintain its control and keep the peace, it needs Harry Dresden.

While all this is going on, we learn of a new force that is at play in the world. This is rather in keeping with the way the Dresden Files books have worked thus far. Every so often, our point of view is changed, and our field of vision is expanded. Way back in Storm Front, Harry Dresden was a small-time wizard investigator, not well-loved in the wizarding community but good at what he did, and that was pretty much all we saw. As the series progressed, we discovered more about the White Council of Wizards, the three Courts of Vampires, about the ever-feuding faerie realms of Winter and Summer. We went on to discover angels and demons and things that walked between them, ghosts and goblins and creatures that were just barely understandable by our mortal minds.

"KNOCK KNOCK"

“KNOCK KNOCK”

Now we take another step back, out beyond the borders of our reality as we know it. Outside our universe, there are… things. And those things want in. Why they want in is not really understood. Maybe this universe is more hospitable, maybe they’re just bored. All we know is that to let them in is to let reality as we know it die. That’s bad enough, but what is worse is the knowledge that some of them are already here. They’ve snuck under the walls, so to speak, and are carefully and busily undermining our defenses. In a game that is so intricate and dangerous, these things use great powers as pawns – including Harry Dresden – and look forward to their inevitable victory.

As with so many of the other Dresden Files books, this is a solid read, and you’ll fly right through it. Despite being vast in scope, encompassing the fate of the world as we know it, the book is still very personal, letting us follow Harry along the strange, winding path he has to walk whether he likes it or not. Harry has always been a dangerous guy to know, but now that he’s the Winter Knight, that danger is even greater. There are forces arrayed against him that he wouldn’t be able to understand even if he knew what they were, and simply being the Winter Knight is a challenge unto itself. Taking up that position doesn’t just come with awesome new powers and a direct line to some of the most powerful creatures in creation – not without a price. There are obligations as well. Rules and requirements. And, of course, dangers.

When he’s done, he’ll have more answers, and he’ll have more problems. Whatever comes next, we can be sure it will be even bigger and scarier than what has come before, and it’ll be a treat to see how he manages to beat it.

——
“I kept a straight face while my inner Neanderthal spluttered and then went on a mental rampage through a hypothetical produce section, knocking over shelves and spattering fruit everywhere in sheer frustration, screaming, ‘JUST TELL ME WHOSE SKULL TO CRACK WITH MY CLUB, DAMMIT!'”
– Harry Dresden

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Cold Days on Wikipedia
Cold Days on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under Dresden Files, fairies, fantasy, Jim Butcher, magical realism, murder, wizardry

Review 203: Winter’s Heart (Wheel of Time 09)

Wheel of Time 09: Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Just a note – you may consider this spoilery. Continue at your own risk.

We are continuing on with the series, and once again there’s a lot going on in the Westlands (which is the much better alternative name to “Randland.”). In Caemlyn, Elayne Trakand is busy preparing to become the Queen of Andor, as the world still believes that her mother, Morgase, is dead. She’s not, of course. She became a refugee after the Seanchan attack on Amador, became a Lady’s maid to Faile and Perrin, and subsequently became a captive of the Shaido Aiel, along with Faile and Alliandre, the Queen of Ghealdan. Not a good day for them, seeing as how the Shaido have become the worst that everyone expects of Aiel – murderous, thieving and vicious. Perrin is trying to rescue his wife, of course, but that rescue is not certain. Faile and Morgase will have to figure it out for themselves.

But getting back to Elayne – in Andor, she undergoes the ceremony to become first-sister to Aviendha, the Aiel woman with whom she must eventually share Rand al’Thor’s affections. It’s a great scene, that – a very simple procedure, but deep and meaningful as well. And it suggests a custom that I appreciate very much, having had friends that I consider on par with family. Under the direction of the Wise Ones of the Aiel, you become bonded with your friend and re-born, in a way. Forever after that, you are considered siblings, just as if you had come from the same mother.

Not all sisters want to make your life better.

Having a new sister isn’t going to make things all work out, though – Elayne has to cement her claim to the throne, and deal with an army of Borderlanders who really want to know where Rand is. Why, we don’t know yet. But from the looks of it, it can’t be all that good.

Meanwhile, in Ebou Dar, Mat has reappeared after the injuries he took during the Seanchan invasion. Still wrapped around Queen Tylin’s finger, Mat is looking for a way to get himself out of the city without getting himself or anyone else killed. What this ends up meaning is that he has to escape the city with three Aes Sedai who have been leashed and collared to serve as living weapons for the Seanchan – a crime punishable by death.

The Seanchan are still an interesting player in this series, even if the battle scenes in the last book were kind of dull. They are the descendants of Artur Hawkwing’s armies, vanished across the sea a thousand years ago. Through a millennium of fighting both men and monsters, they have become a formidable military force, held together by the damane – women who can channel, but who are considered less than human for all that. Controlled by other women, sul’dam, the damane are the heart of Seanchan power. No conventional army can stand up to them, and if it weren’t for Rand and his Asha’man, they would have overrun the Westlands already.

(art by minniearts on DeviantArt)

They control Ebou Dar, of course, but they do it in a manner similar to the Romans. They don’t try to change the conquered people, or break them. All they require is an understanding that they are now living under Seanchan rule. Respect the new rulers, obey the laws, pay your taxes and life need not go on any differently. Cause trouble, though, and the hammer will come down on you. Hard.

Even though their military advances are being slowed down, though, their cultural invasion is proceeding. This is not a mission of conquest for them – it’s a homecoming. With the soldiers and damane are also coming farmers and weavers and blacksmiths – normal people who want to make a new life for themselves. With the Westlands practically empty as they are, the Seanchan will have no trouble finding places to live. Right in time for the Last Battle against the Dark One, of course, but they don’t know about that yet. Regardless of how things turn out, the Westlands will never be the same after this.

Rand al’Thor is on a mission of his own, one which involves a great deal of misdirection. After the attack on his person by renegade Asha’man – in which a chunk of the Sun Palace in Cairhien was destroyed and a lot of people died – Rand has decided that enough is enough. This whole “doomed to go mad” thing that comes part and parcel with being a male channeler of the Source has got to go. So yes, he’s decided to cleanse saidin of the Dark One’s taint, but not before taking a detour into the island city-state of Far Madding, to hunt down the men who nearly killed him.

What can I say – the story advances. The plotlines being what they are, we do miss out a bit in this book. Perrin’s hunt for his wife gets cut short, narrative-wise, and we hardly see anything at all of Egwene and the rebel Aes Sedai. This was, if I remember, really annoying when the book first came out. Reading them all at once, however, it’s easier to deal with, knowing that the next book will refocus on people who’ve been out of the spotlight for a while. The parts that did get the most page-time, however, were interesting and, for the most part, exciting to read. So, a step up from Path of Daggers.

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“You can never know everything, and part of what you know is always wrong. Perhaps even the most important part. A portion of wisdom lies in knowing that. A portion of courage lies in going on anyway.”
– Lan Mandragoran, Winter’s Heart
————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Winter’s Heart at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Winter’s Heart 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, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 201: Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate sports.

I know this may come as a surprise, since I studiously avoid all but the most cursory acknowledgment of current sporting events. I finish the paper when I hit the sports section, and the sport report on the news is, for me, time to wash the dishes. I have no favorite teams of any kind, no players I look up to, and no interest in following play-offs, bowl games, championships or derbys. Hell, even with the Olympics my interest plummets after the opening ceremonies.

But I don’t hate sports.

You see, in order to hate something, you have to actually care about it. And that’s the thing about sports – I just don’t care.

There but for the grace of god go I…

I wasn’t always like this, of course. When I was a kid, I tried all kinds of sports. I tried (deep breath) baseball, basketball, skiing, swimming, sailing, soccer, tennis, golf and judo. And those were after school. In PE class we had all the usual PE things – volleyball, softball, track and field, running, archery, field hockey, dodgeball…. What it came down to was that I had no natural talent for sports [1] and, more importantly, I never had fun. I never saw the point of the whole thing, so I pretty much said “Bugger this,” and turned to other areas of entertainment, thereby sealing off the sporting world from my interest forever.

A lot of my friends do love their sports, though, so I try to keep a cursory understanding of things – you know, how many touchdowns there are in an inning, that kind of thing. I mean, there’s nothing more disappointing than trying to talk about something you love, something for which you have great passion and enthusiasm and having someone just ignore you, right?

RIGHT??

Anyway, I’m telling you all this so that you can correct for it when I tell you about Unseen Academicals, one of the latest of the Discworld books. If my attitude seems kind of lackluster or disinterested, keep in mind that it’s probably not Sir Terry’s fault.

The book, you see, is about football. Not the sissy-pants American kind where the guys are so afraid of grievous bodily harm that they wear protective armor all the time, but the good, old-fashioned British kind, wherein people get their heads cracked open by cobblestones and die on the streets. You know, fun for the whole family.

I believe the English refer to this as “a jolly good time.”

In the great and exciting city of Ankh-Morpork, footy is a tradition. It’s a lifestyle, in fact. Where you live determines who your team is, and who your team is tells you with whom you can associate and mingle. A supporter of one team wandering into the territory of another is a person asking to be beaten to death by enthusiastic and drunk hooligans. “Suicide,” I believe the police refer to it as. It’s a game that goes beyond the simple description of “rough and tumble.” It’s a substitute for war in a time where war is neither profitable nor productive. It’s a channel for long-standing feuds and grudges and aggressions, and is practiced religiously in the streets of the city every weekend.

So obviously what this grand, injurious tradition needs, then, is the introduction of wizardry.

The wizards of the Unseen University are forced, through a clause in a long-forgotten honorarium, to put together a football team and play a match. Despite most wizards having the athletic ability of an overstuffed beanbag chair, it’s either play the game or lose so much money that they’ll have to cut down to only three meals a day. So, with the help of the son of one of the greatest footballers in the city’s history, two cooks from the Night Kitchen and a young Orc who is trying to find value in his life, they put together a team and oh gods, I’m bored already.

Seriously, I couldn’t care less about football. The book’s not really even about football, to be honest. It’s about identity and self-image, two things that are inextricably tied up in sports and sports fandom. The book is a lot less subtle than usual, pretty much hitting you over the head with a mallet and saying, “You are who you choose to be!!” over and over again.

Actually, what gets said over and over again is a variation on “A leopard can’t change its shorts,” a kind of humorous eggcorn that loses its humorous value after about the fifth time it gets used in the book. But it’s pretty much the theme of the book – what is identity, and can it be changed?

How… romantic?

To explore this, we have, for example, Trevor Likely, the son of a famous (dead) footballer who has sworn to his (also dead) mother that he will never play football again after what happened to his father. He’s introduced as a young layabout, a lazy grifter who works very hard at not having to work, and desperately doesn’t want to live up to his responsibilities. Unfortunately for him , he falls in love with young Juliet, a beautiful – if somewhat dim – young woman who works in the Night Kitchen. Standing in the way of their love, however, is the fact that they support opposing teams, and her family would never allow her to see the young man if they knew.

Hmmm. Trev and Juliet. Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

Also mixed up in this is Glenda, the head of the Night Kitchen, whose identity as a below-the-stairs cook is so ingrained into her head that trying to become something else is almost unthinkable. The wizards themselves face an identity crisis as well – the Dean has gone off and accepted the Archchancellor’s position at another university, and has now come back to try and stand as an equal to Ridcully, the head of the Unseen University.

At the center of the book is Nutt, a strange young person who possesses a mysterious past. He looks a little odd, has an enormous intelligence, and harbors an unshakable desire to acquire self-worth, even if he’s not entirely sure what that means.

All of these people are trying to figure out the same thing – who they are. Some of them are surprised by what they find, others dismayed. Nutt discovers that he is an Orc, a race of creatures so hated and reviled that he could be killed on sight. Juliet discovers that her beauty is her path out of the kitchens, Glenda that her desire to control others can be focused into something productive, and Trevor that the destiny he has avoided for so long is what he always should have been.

Threaded throughout all this is the love of the game, the dedication of these people to their football. Indeed, the identity of the game itself comes into play here as well – will it remain a violent street game, wherein the only rule is that there are no rules, or will it gain a sense of purpose and order? How will the old-school, bare-knuckle footy fans deal with the changes imposed upon their game by Lord Vetinari and the Wizards?

He’s really just misunderstood.

It’s hard for me to filter through the sports aspect of this book, which is disappointing because it’s something that a lot of people will probably enjoy. There’s something about the devotion to a sport or to a team that is very important to most people that I just don’t get, and so my general lack of interest in this book is entirely my fault, and not Terry’s. I enjoyed the identity theme, of course – that’s always a rich seam of storytelling material. Watching Nutt come to grips with his identity as an Orc, or Glenda realize that her entire sense of self has been culturally imposed upon her, well, that was fascinating. It’s just that there was a whole thematic element to the book that I couldn’t identify with and didn’t care about.

It’s kind of like listening to Mozart and wishing someone would just shut all those bloody violins up.

So, if you’re a fan of Discworld, pick this up. If you like sports, pick this up. If you don’t like sports, well, you take your chances. As a Pratchett completist, there was no question about reading this book. But I don’t think it’ll be one that I come back to very often.

It’s not you, Terry. It’s me.

——————————————————————
“It seems to me that we have a challenge. University against university. City, as it were, against city. Warfare, as it were, without the tedious necessity of picking up all those heads and limbs afterwards.”
– Lord Vetinari, Unseen Academicals
——————————————————————

Now give me one of these…

[1] I think I made it to first base once in my Little League career, and actually got hit on the head by a fly ball – which, I am given to understand, are the easiest to catch. I nearly drowned myself repeatedly trying to learn how to sail. I used to knock myself over trying to kick goals in soccer, my trick ankles pretty much meant that tennis and basketball and any other activity involving quick stops and starts were out, and I got tired of being thrown to the ground real fast in judo. If there was ever such thing as an anti-athlete, I was it. I feared to shake hands with the jocks because I thought we’d both vanish in a cloud of photons.

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Review 199: The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

I have two words for you: Ninja. Priests.

There you go, that should really be enough for you to go out and buy this book. I suppose if you need more, though, there is a whole “plot” and “world” and “characters” and stuff. But even Jemisin says that the initial idea that got her started writing was ninja priests, and everything else just kind of built up from there.

Welcome, then, to the great land of Gujaareh, a land not entirely unlike our own ancient Egypt. It rests alongside a great river that floods periodically and brings great wealth and prosperity to the land. The whole world lives in the shadow of their great, striated Dreaming Moon, the perpetual manifestation of their goddess, Hananja. In this city, people live healthy, productive lives, and it is all thanks to Hananja’s devoted priesthood and their arts of narcomancy.

Not this kind of ninja priest, though…

The Gatherers of Hananja are able to take dreamstuff from sleeping people, either willingly or otherwise, and their most honored task is to take from those whom their governing council have decided need to die. The terminally ill, perhaps, or the corrupt – these are the ones whom the Gatherers visit, giving them a final dream before sending their soul into the dreaming world embodied by their goddess.

Ehiru is the best of these Gatherers, a man with a deft touch and absolute devotion to his cause. He is told to gather and he gathers, bringing back the various dreamstuffs to the temple, where the Sharers can use it to heal the afflicted of Gujaareh. Indeed, until now, Ehiru has never questioned his place in the world. But he soon finds himself wrapped in a terrible conspiracy that threatens to upend everything he’s ever believed in, and may turn him into that which he has always despised.

It’s a really neat idea, with some very powerful characters and a well-built world. Clearly, Jemesin holds this world clearly in her mind when she writes, because the detail she gives, down to the smells and the surfaces, paint a wonderful picture. That said, though, this book didn’t really come together for me until about two hundred pages in.

Or a Magic Eye picture. I hate those things. Stupid sailboat…

I’m not sure why that was. Maybe I’m so deeply mired in the Alternate Europe mode of fantasy fiction that my brain had trouble adjusting to the deliberately different world that Jemesin built. Maybe she knows the world so well that she made certain assumptions about it that the reader – or at least this reader – couldn’t readily put together. All I know is that I spent a good portion of the book trying to keep everything in order in my head. It was like doing one of those sliding-piece puzzles: immensely frustrating until you finally get a good idea of how it all works.

Before you despair, however, note that number again: 200 pages. You would think that if a book baffled me for a while, I would probably put it down, but the fact that I was willing to keep going that far through my bafflement really does say a lot about the work that Jemesin did. The characters are interesting, and their relationships are intense – none more so than that between Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri. While Jemesin states clearly that the people of her world aren’t really concerned with labeling and compartmentalizing sexuality, Nijiri is definitely gay, and he is madly in love with his mentor, to the point where he is willing to give up his life to save him.

The Prince is another good example of an interesting and complicated character. The Sunset Prince, avatar of Hananja, gives off Bad Guy Vibes from the moment we meet him. There’s something about him as soon as he appears on the page that says he’s going to be trouble by the end of the book. Despite that, you can kind of see where he’s coming from, and you see the logic he’s working from. It’s deranged, yes, but in a very specific sort of way it makes sense.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is that it presents contrasting and incompatible cultural values with a sense of honesty and truth. The formalized execution/euthanasia that the Gatherers of Gujaareh perform is considered by their own people to be the best way to handle things. After all, why suffer in agony when Ehiru can come along and drop you into a pleasant dream for all eternity?

Not unlike the Cola Wars, but with less moral ambiguity… (photo by caycowa on DeviantArt)

On the other hand, Sunandi Jeh Kalawe is of the Kisuati, and they view the Gatherer’s narcomancy as a horrible power and their “gifts” as nothing short of institutionalized murder. The characters argue over this repeatedly in the book, and the best that comes of it is a certain mutual understanding. Not an agreement, mind you – neither viewpoint is either affirmed or torn down, but they eventually get to a point where they can start to see through the other’s eyes.

So as I said, it took about 200 pages for things to really click for me, but it was worth it when they did. Also, there’s a very funny author interview at the end where Jemesin is given the rare opportunity to interview herself. Definitely not to be missed. This is a really interesting world built on unique and fantastic concepts. There are more, too, which I’ll be looking forward to reading at some point in the future.

—————–
“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange – you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.
– Sunandi, The Killing Moon

N.K. Jemesin on Wikipedia
The Killing Moon on Wikipedia
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Filed under fantasy, murder, N.K. Jemesin, religion, war