Category Archives: philosophy

Books about philosophy.

Review 214: Harry Potter and Philosophy

LL 214 - Harry Potter and PhilosophyHarry Potter and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham

When a co-worker of mine noticed the title of this book, his response was distinct and dismissive, something along the lines of, “Huh. I don’t think she went in putting anything philosophical in those books.” The air of disdain was palpable, and while I didn’t have a chance to continue the conversation, I got the distinct feeling that he was not one of J.K. Rowling’s biggest fans.

However, he may have had a point, one which mildly threatens this whole series of popular culture and philosophy books that I enjoy so much: how much of what these pop culture philosophers talk about is really there in the text, and how much are they just spinning from thin air? When Rowling wrote these books, was she consciously thinking of Aristotle and Plato, of the reasons why Harry Potter’s decision to embrace death was so similar to that of Socrates? Was she asking herself questions about the difference between the Greater Good and the Common Good, about whether her writing was more aligned to radical feminism or liberal feminism or feminism at all? Did she set out to create a world where the concept of a soul made sense, to determine the true nature of love, or to decide what makes for a great leader?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid's beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid’s beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

Probably not. Like many writers who are not philosophers, Rowling probably just set out to write a rollicking good tale. That tale, however, is necessarily supported by some of the most important issues in western philosophy, so whether she wanted to address them or not, they showed up in her work.

One interesting question that was raised in this book – and there are plenty – is the question of identity and agency. By looking at Sirius Black as a case study, Eric Saidel explores what it is that makes us who we are – is it that thing we call a “mind,” or is it something else? Sirius black is a man, who sometimes looks like a dog, and when he’s a dog he sometimes acts like a man. When he’s not doing that, he’s acting like a dog. Is there any reason why this should be so, why a man should be a man sometimes and a dog others? Who – or what – is making those distinctions for him? It seems like a trivial question, one that can probably be chalked up to Rowling’s dire need for an editor as the series went along, but for Saidel it poses an interesting thought experiment. Is there an “essential Sirius Black”, regardless of the shape he’s in, and what influence does that shape have on him?

And as long as we’re talking about matters ephemeral, what of love? Throughout the series, Harry is told that his mother’s love is what protected him from death at the hands of Voldemort. Indeed, the love that Harry feels for his friends is actually a potent protection against the Dark Lord’s evil. What is it about love that makes it so powerful, and what has Voldy done to himself that makes it so dangerous to him? Catherine Jack Deavel and David Paul Deavel explore the topic of love and its mysteries by looking at three characters that are far more similar than they might appear – Voldemort, Harry, and Snape. Three “lost boys” who grew up very differently and whose lives were drastically shaped by love in one way or another.

Really, I can't imagine how no one took her seriously...

Really, I can’t imagine how no one took her seriously…

Moving on to matters that are bigger than the human heart, Jeremy Pierce explores issues of destiny and prophecy in his chapter, “Destiny in the Wizarding World.” We all know that prophecies exist in the world of Harry Potter, rare though they may be, but what does it actually mean for an event to be prophesied? The slightly batty Professor Trelawney has had only two accurate foretellings in her otherwise fraudulent career – the first being the one that put Voldemort on the trail of Harry, and the other about Voldemort’s return. But how do we judge a prophecy for its accuracy, especially once we’ve heard it? Is there any way to stop it, or does the very nature of causality mean that hearing the prophecy necessarily forces it to happen? Pierce goes back to Aristotle on this one, and tries to untangle all the different ways that a brief glimpse at the future could be revealed without ruining everything.

There’s something for the political types as well. Andrew Mills looks at the issue of patriotism – what is it, and is it actually a good thing? How is the loyalty of a Hogwarts student to her House morally different from the loyalty of a Death Eater to their Dark Lord? Is patriotism morally acceptable in any way, and if so, how? And what about Dumbledore? His “hands-off” approach to dealing with the school has caused some people to hold him up as a model of Libertarian governance. He doesn’t meddle in others’ affairs, allows Harry and his friends all the freedom they need, and generally tries to govern as little as possible. But is he really a Libertarian? Beth Admiraal and Regan Lance try to figure that out. And what makes him worthy of the power and influence he has, anyway? Is this the sort of man who should be a leader? David Lay Williams and Alan J. Kellner hark back to the story of the Ring of Gyges and Plato’s assertion that the one best suited to lead is the one who wants it least.

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Things even get a little meta-fictional, too, if you like that kind of thing. In 2007, after the series was finished and in the hands of the fans, Rowling announced that she’d always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Some fans loved the idea, and others utterly hated it. But there were some fans who refused to grant her the right to make that declaration ex libris. As she hadn’t put it in the books, the argument goes, it’s not really true. So, Tamar Szabo Gendler undertakes the very challenging task of trying to figure out how we can determine what is “true” in a work of fiction.

Rowling probably didn’t write this series with the intention of scoring philosophical points, but the fact that these philosophers can do it is a testament to the care and thought she did put into her writing. She not only took from hundreds of years of fantasy literature, but also drew on some of the most fundamental aspects of being human – the need for love, the desire for power, the fear of death – and made them the centerpieces of her books. And, as luck would have it, those are just the kinds of things that philosophers love to talk about.

So, if you’re a fan of the books and a fan of philosophy, give this one a read. Then go back and read the books again, and see what else you can get from them.

——-

“Doing what we want to do may be necessary for freedom, but it’s not sufficient; we must also have the freedom to do otherwise.”
– Gregory Bassham, “Love Potion No. 9 3/4”

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Filed under fantasy, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, philosophy

Review 195: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, on the meaning of life, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Frederich Nietzche said, “If we possess a why of life, we can put up with almost any how.” And Stephen King wrote, “Life sucks, then you die.”

It’ll take a far better philosopher than I to really look at this book from an existentialist viewpoint, but I strongly suspect that it would be a lot of fun to do. After all, one of the major questions that philosophy – and existentialism in particular – tries to address is that of why we are here. What is our purpose in life? What, in the end, does it all mean? For us out here, that’s a question we can’t really know the answer to, and thus a whole branch of philosophy exists to tell us that it doesn’t really matter. That maybe we don’t have a purpose imposed upon us from outside, but that’s okay. We can create our own. We can contribute our own verses to the powerful play of life, as Whitman would have it, and in the end we are responsible for our own lives.

For this guy, going out of existence is probably more important…

But what if we weren’t? What if there was a being that orchestrated our lives, willing them into – and more importantly out of – existence? What would you do with the realization that your life is not entirely your own? And even worse, the realization that the person in control of it doesn’t really care all that much about you?

That is the problem faced by Ensign Andrew Dahl of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid. It is the 25th century, and things couldn’t be better. He has a chance to see new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go… Well, you know the rest. Dahl is at the frontier of science and exploration, and is determined to make the most of it.

If he survives.

Alone among the ships of the UU, the Intrepid loses crew at an alarming rate. Dahl soon discovers a fact that has been known for years by those crew members who are bright enough to spot the pattern: people who go on away missions with the command staff will, almost inevitably, die. Toxic gasses, killer machines, Borgovian land worms – these are just a tiny sampling of dangers that have done in ensigns and miscellaneous crew for years, and no one seems to know why. All they can do is make sure they’re not in the room when the Captain comes in, looking for someone who’ll pop down to a planet’s surface to find out why that mining colony hasn’t reported in recently.

Nope, he’s going to die too.

Dahl, of course, just can’t let himself and his friends die, so he begins digging into the true nature of their lives on the starship Intrepid. What he discovers is a truth almost too mad to be believed: their lives are not their own. A greater power is directing events on the Intrepid, dictating who lives and who dies, and that greater power doesn’t seem to be very good at what it does. So Dahl and his friends have to bet everything on the power of the Narrative, meet their makers and try to find a way to secure their freedom. Or, failing that, a way to see to it that their lives have more meaning than they had before.

As always with John Scalzi, I recommend picking this up. It’s a very fast read – I finished it in under a day – and it has the tight combination of humor, thoughtfulness, and genuine emotion that I have come to expect from his work. From a premise that is incredibly simple – “The crew of a starship realize they’re doomed if they go on away missions and try to change their fate” – he’s built up a multi-layered exploration into the meaning of life and death. The universe he’s given to us is one where people are denied the ability to give meaning to their own lives, and have to rely on an unseen force to do it for them. The fight, then, is to acquire that ability to decide. To gain agency, as it were. They want to be able to control their own existence so badly that they risk their existence entirely.

The corollary, then, is very simple: what are you doing with your life? We, the readers, have that agency. We can make decisions for our own lives and our own purposes. If we succeed or fail, we can do so knowing that we made those successes or failures possible. [1] In a sense, we don’t know how good we have it, something that is brought up in the second of three codas to the main novel. We can choose. We can create meaning in our lives without hoping that some higher power will do it for us. So why don’t we?

For a book that presents itself as a quick, fun read, there are certainly layers upon layers of meaning in it that could be a lot of fun to explore. The only complaint, really, is that it wasn’t long enough. And I don’t mean that he skipped essential scenes, or that he should have opted for a Tolkien/Jordan/Martin-esque style of describing every goddamn thing that showed up on the page, but there were points where I just wanted him to slow down a bit and let us appreciate the moments for what they were. There’s a scene in chapter 21, for example, that should be really emotional and meaningful, but it’s almost entirely dialogue. Good dialogue, yes, but I wanted to linger over it a bit, and that’s true for a lot of scenes in the book. Scalzi writes wonderful banter, and makes his characters sound real, but I want to see things as well as hear them.

Also, to be honest, I expected the last page to just be a picture of Scalzi at his computer, turning to the camera and winking. It would have been hilariously meta, but I guess he’s not as gimmicky as that.

Buy the book and enjoy it. If you’re a fan of Star Trek – which was, given the title, a huge inspiration for the story – you’ll no doubt appreciate it more than most. Even if you haven’t watched every episode of the original series, though, the Red Shirt character is one that has permeated all levels of fiction, and has died many times in order to advance the plots that you love so well. He even has one poor guy who’s not only a Red Shirt, but nearly at the end of his tour and about to get married. There was no way he’d survive. Take some time out for these poor, expendable bastards and give them a chance to shine.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with the song that Jonathan Coulton wrote for the book. Quiet, poignant, and touching. But also really funny.

—-
“The [Borgovian Land Worms] were in a frenzy. Somebody was now likely to die. It was likely to be ensign Davis.”
– from Redshirts by John Scalzi
—-
[1] There are plenty of external, uncontrollable factors, of course, which can all be lumped together under the term “luck,” but you know what I mean.

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Filed under existentialism, humor, John Scalzi, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, space travel, story

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.

———————————————
“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.

—————————————————-
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 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