Category Archives: good and evil

Books about the conflict between good and evil.

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

Wheel of Time 02: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This thing is no end of trouble...

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

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

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

Though not quite as much trouble as this.

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

It’s a dense book.

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

And not nearly as much as this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

Review 171: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

As I was reading this book, a student saw me reading it and asked what it was about, I had to think for a few moments before answering.

“It’s about terrible people in a terrible place, doing terrible things to each other,” I said. And that really does just about sum it up.

The story that McCarthy tells is a complete destruction of the mythology of the Old West that Americans had come to know and love over the years. Some of the more modern Western films had begun to explore this territory when the book was published in 1985 – many of Clint Eastwood’s films spring to mind – creating a West where the “hero” is just the least bad person in the film. Even then, though, there are still undercurrents of the nobility of the cowboy, out to tame a savage land for the good of a civilization that will no longer need him when it’s done.

Next to these bounty hunters, Boba Fett is practically Gandhi.

This book features characters who are violent and vicious, thieves and murderers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. It starts with the nameless Kid, a young man who joins a group of bounty hunters riding the US-Mexico border in the years before the Civil War. They’re ostensibly looking for Apaches, bringing back scalps for gold, but they’re not especially picky. Any black head of hair ripped from the head of its owner will do, and if that means ravaging some small Mexican villages, then so be it.

The bounty hunters are led by Judge Holden, a man who gladly takes his place as the antithesis of everything that was supposed to be right and good about the old west. In both form and philosophy, Holden is barely human, and he only becomes less human as the book goes on. Insofar as the book has an antagonist, it is he.

He contrasts greatly to our ostensible protagonist, The Kid, in many ways. For one, the Judge has a name. For another, the Kid routinely disappears from the story for pages at a time, only to reappear to get to the next stage of the story. It’s actually very easy to forget that the Kid is in the book, until you see him again and think, “Oh yeah. Him.”

The Judge, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. He holds court out in the wilderness and expounds upon his philosophy of the world. He is huge and pale and clean, standing out amongst the filthy and starving band of killers that he’s assembled. Whenever he’s off-stage, you find yourself wondering when he’s going to show up again, and how much worse things will get when he does.

Kind of like this, only worse. Much, much worse.

Another image that McCarthy decides to destroy is that of the Native Americans as being honorable heroes, out to save their land from white invaders. Just as the cowboys of old were not all knights on horseback, the natives of old were not all noble savages who resorted to violence only as a last resort. The Apaches – and other native Americans in this book – are just as violent and bloodthirsty as their American and Mexican counterparts. Everyone, regardless of background, ultimately resorts to violence and savagery, throwing aside all morality in the name of either profit or survival, or simply the demonic glee of seeing things destroyed. No one comes out of this book looking good or ultimately redeemed. All are villains.

All of this made it something of a tough read for me. Not because of the scenes of horrifying violence – I can deal just fine with those – but because there was no one I wanted to like. I mean, I was fascinated by The Judge, but with that same kind of fascination that made me watch tsunami videos or that made people visit Ground Zero in New York City. It’s horror on a scale that we hope never to experience in our own lives, but we can’t look away.

Without someone to like, it was hard to care, and when it’s hard to care about a book, I find reasons not to read it. The writing was amazing, don’t get me wrong. McCarthy’s use of language was a joy to read, even if his refusal to use quotation marks got me a little annoyed from time to time, and I sometimes found myself reading passages out loud in the voice of Sam Elliott. In describing the landscapes of the West, McCarthy turns nature itself into a character, one that is every bit as violent, dangerous and hateful as the humans traversing it.

In addition, he does a very good job with the pacing of the book. The narration tends to grow as the book goes on, with sentences becoming longer and more elaborate as they unspool across the page, some taking a page or two to themselves, only to be stopped short by a single line or a rapid exchange. It’s hypnotic in places, and something I wish I knew how to do half as well.

All that aside, though, the only thing that really kept me going – other than the writing – was morbid curiosity. That, and the hope that I would figure out what McCarthy was trying to say in the book. What it all means.

So true, so true...

And that, friends and neighbors, is one of the pitfalls of being an English teacher. Always looking for meaning in things, for the bigger picture, the author’s Big Message to his readers. And as far as I can tell, McCarthy’s message is that man is a savage, terrifying animal, capable of cruelties that the average book-buying person cannot even begin to contemplate. The horrors that are depicted here are so brutally displayed and so viscerally described that we eventually become numb to them – which is a new horror by itself. There are things depicted in this story which should evoke nothing less than absolute moral condemnation, a rejection that such things should be possible to contemplate, much less carry out.

So when you find yourself glossing over these horrors as though they were mundane, it’s jarring. As you read, you want to keep a distance from the monsters populating the book, but isn’t ignoring their evils a kind of acceptance? And do you really want to be the kind of person who accepts these things? At the same time you’re trying to convince yourself that real people shouldn’t be capable of the acts you’re reading about, you end up accepting them.

Maybe that was what McCarthy wanted all along – for the readers to look at how we view violence and what our understanding of it really is. To force us to re-assess the limits of what we will tolerate and why. To make us look again at our heroes and villains and try to figure out exactly what the differences are, and whether we are really that far removed from them.

Or maybe McCarthy just really likes writing this kind of thing.

Either way, it’s a fascinating read, one that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the book.

————————–
“In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of a few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, neither ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

Cormac McCarthy on Wikipedia
Blood Meridian on Wikipedia
The Cormac McCarthy Society
Blood Meridian on Amazon.com

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Filed under Cormac McCarthy, death, dystopia, fiction, good and evil, morality, murder, survival

Review 168: Eye of the World (Wheel of Time 01)

Wheel of Time 01: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Epic fantasy isn’t for everyone.

This kind of literature demands a lot from a reader, time and money foremost among them. More than that, though, it demands a great deal of trust, patience and tolerance for what is a very chancy genre to get into. Get into a new series and you run the risk of great disappointment. The characters you loved in the first book become stale and boring by the third. The world that was so interesting on a small scale doesn’t hold together on a large one. The cliches begin to grate on you – the Chosen One, the Monsters Too Horrible to Behold, the prophecies and Adversaries and lost treasures that may just save us all. And the plot holes are sometimes big enough to drive a whole fist of Trollocs through.

All this being said, there were never any midnight release lines for WoT. At least none that I knew about...

I’ve stuck with Wheel of Timesince the beginning because I think it’s a really good story. I like the world that Robert Jordan created, and the characters he gave to us, and for that reason I have spent the last twenty years of my reading life following this epic. It hasn’t all been roses, no – there were the slow parts, the bits that could have been cut out, and the characters I just wanted to throttle within an inch of their lives, but on balance it’s a world that I want to revisit, and look forward to revisiting every time a new volume comes out.

Having said that, if you start reading this series and decide that it isn’t for you, I understand – I’ve known many people who thought the same way, and while I do feel sad that they’re not going to Fantasy Heaven when they die, I hope their eternal torment in the afterlife isn’t too bad. I just hope you’ll trust me that I think you’ll enjoy it.

Our tale begins in a small, isolated village, where the people are generally kind and honest and have no need of the rest of the world.

Well, no, not really. Our tale really begins three millennia ago, in a time of terrible upheaval and destruction. The very earth itself was being rent apart by madmen who wielded the fundamental driving force of creation.

Actually, the story begins even before that, in an age of wonders and legends, where no one wanted for anything and there was nothing people could not do. It was an age of miracles that people thought would last forever.

As it is written at the outset of each book, there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it is a beginning.

I suppose "idyllic and peaceful" is better than "hiding a horrifying secret" or "about to be torn down and made into a Wal-Mart."

In this little village there lives a young man, Rand al’Thor. He’s lived his whole life in Emond’s Field, with no real ambition but to follow in the footsteps of his shepherd father. He has friends, of course – Mat and Perrin – and a girl, Egwene, who he figures he’ll probably marry someday. It’s idyllic and peaceful, a little predictable and dull, but its all he ever wanted.

The night before the spring festival of Bel Tine, the peace of the village is shattered. Monsters from legend – Trollocs and Myrddraal – leap out of the darkness to hunt Rand and his friends. It is only through the intervention of the Aes Sedai named Moiraine and the power she wields that the village survived. She knows that there are dark forces hunting Rand, Mat and Perrin, and vows to take them to the great city of Tar Valon, where they might find safety.

Of course, safety is not theirs to have. They are assaulted from all sides as they journey – split up, brought back together. They meet new friends and old, familiar horrors and things unimaginable, all on their way to their destiny at the enigmatic Eye of the World. What they’re fighting for is nothing less than the salvation of the world from the horrors of an unnameable Dark One. For thousands of years he and his most powerful acolytes, the Forsaken, been imprisoned. But now that prison is weakening and the Dark One’s touch can be felt on the world once again. Should Rand and his friends fail, the world will fall into the Shadow forever.

Moiraine would whip Gandalf in a runway battle. Of that much I am sure. (art by Westling on DeviantArt)

The book starts very familiarly – in fact, Jordan said that he specifically modeled the opening of the book on Lord of the Rings so as to give new readers a recognizable place to start before he threw his entire world at us, which was probably a very good idea. And it is very LotR-ish at the outset: a small group of naive young people who discover that the fate of the world is in their hands whether they want it or not. They’re led by a mysterious magic-user, whose true motivations are unclear, and a world-hardened warrior who just happens to be an uncrowned king of a far-off land. There are horrible monsters who think of nothing but killing and death, and mysterious riders in black who are frightening just to behold.

There are some loaded names, too, both of places and people – the Mountains of Dhoom and the true name of the Dark One, Shai’tan, are both pretty obvious choices. Just once I’d like to see an ultimate villain named Ricky who lives in the Land of Glimmering Sunshine and who rides a beautifully groomed pony named Horsefeathers.

Anyway, all that similarity is just enough to get you comfortable in the story. As the book progresses, you get the inescapable feeling that we’re balanced on top of a vast and complex world, much more so than the one Tolkien built. This place has diverse cultural, political and philosophical forces at work, some of which we can only glimpse the barest edges of right now. But we know they’re there, and we know that they’ll be very important in the volumes to come.

What’s more, this book sets a very different mood from the world of Tolkien. This world is old, and it’s barren, and you get the feeling of centuries of change just waiting to be discovered. We hear about the Age of Legends and the Trolloc Wars, the reign of Artur Hawkwing and the tremendous Breaking of the World. As our heroes travel in a vain attempt to find shelter and help, it’s clear that they live in a place that is overwhelmingly empty of human habitation. But that it wasn’t always so. The characters, like we, know very little of the world and how it works, so by their hard-earned education, we also learn. And yes, there are some exposition-heavy scenes that skirt the edge of ponderousness – Moiraine’s first big speech about the sad fate of Manetheren comes to mind – but the images and the stories are vivid enough that the unreality of the moment isn’t so important.

Spoiler: Rand, Mat, and Perrin become awesome. (art by dem888 on DeviantArt)

As for the characters themselves, I have to admit that they’re painted with a fairly broad brush. Jordan has chosen a certain attribute for each of them, from which they don’t usually stray very far – Rand is the stubborn but noble farm boy, Mat is the Trickster, Perrin is the big-but-thoughtful blacksmith’s apprentice. Nynaeve can barely hold on to her temper, Lan is stony and all business, and Moiraine always knows more than she’s telling. Their actions and interactions are, broadly, variations on those themes throughout this book. That doesn’t make them bad characters by any means, and if you compare, for example, Perrin from this book with Perrin in the most recent, you’ll see a stark difference between them. The moments of character growth aren’t punctuated heavily, and often don’t come to fruition until much later. For right now, though, they are fairly simple to understand.

I remember getting this book from my father, looking at the cover art (which, in my opinion, has never been all that great – not a big Darrell K. Sweet fan and I hope they go with another artist when the inevitable Complete Collection comes out after the close of the series) and thinking, “Well, I’ll give this a try.” Soon I was completely wrapped up in the story, and I looked forward to the next book with both frustration and joy. I even joined a fan club that was so Back In The Day that they actually sent newsletters by mail. You hear that you whippersnappers? No web forums, no listservs – just a Prodigy bulletin board and a lot of patience.

When I read it again, I get a glimmer of what I felt when I was sixteen, and that’s enough to keep me coming back, year after year and book after book. If you can feel that too, then I think you’re really going to like this series. And it’ll be my pleasure to guide you through it.

—————————————————-
“The Dark One and all of the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time. The hand of the Creator shelters the world, and the Light shines on us all.”
– Catechism of the Light, Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Eye of the World at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Eye of the World 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, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time

Review 144: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

It ain’t easy being Super.

You might be a hero, like Fatale. She is the latest in cyborg technology – a woman who was nearly destroyed in a freak accident, rebuilt by a mysterious corporation and made into the perfect living weapon. She is fast, she’s strong, and for a while she was one of the U.S. government’s best operatives. But now she’s on her own, and life is tough as a cyborg. You have parts to deal with, the need to keep your power source going, and of course it’s hard to enjoy a night out when everyone keeps staring at the half-metal woman in the booth near the window. Fatale wants to be a hero, though, and the re-formation of the Champions is just what she needs. If she can prove herself to this team, she can find a new purpose to her life.

A different, though equally self-aware, Evil Doctor.

If not a hero, you could be a villain. Doctor Impossible has certainly lived up to his name. In his many years of villainy he has come up with just about every nefarious scheme an evil, quasi-invulnerable genius can cook up in his twisted, malevolent brain. He’s been to the past and the future, he’s swapped brains with the greatest heroes of his age, he’s escaped from inescapable prisons more than once. Of all the would-be conquerors on Earth, Impossible is the one who would be voted most likely to succeed. And yet he isn’t happy. His life isn’t what he thought it would be, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that Doctor Impossible has a few problems that even his great genius cannot solve.

When Impossible breaks out of prison – again – the Champions re-form to hunt him down. With old and new members joining together to keep the flame of heroism alive in their world, the Champions are determined to find Impossible and shut him down for good. The only problem is that the person who has always succeeded against Impossible, a hero who calls himself CoreFire, is missing. Without him, their chances are greatly diminished. Against an evil genius like Impossible, who can defeat the team armed with little more than his wits and a false tooth, you want to throw everything you can at him. What’s more, the internal tensions pulling at the Champions may defeat them before Doctor Impossible even gets the chance to try.

This book, like so many other modern renditions of super-heroes, has its roots in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. While he was not the first to make his superheroes less than super, he was certainly the best, and his work is well-remembered for that. After Moore was done, it was hard to think of superheroes as entirely pure, good and noble. We could see the tensions between them, the neuroses that drive them to do what they do, and we began to understand that our heroes were just like us, only moreso. Ever since then, writers have been trying to de-super the superheroes and make them into regular people who just happen to be able to shoot lasers out of their eyes, break the laws of thermodynamics, or bend steel in their bare hands.

Not pictured: Impotence

Grossman has taken full advantage of the work that has gone before him in this novel. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Doctor Impossible and Fatale, and proceeds to deconstruct both the heroes and the villains in visceral, raw detail. What is it like to be a cyborg, something halfway between human and superhuman? And how can you join a team like the Champions, a team of legends among legends, and feel up to the task? What happens when you realize that the heroes you looked up to are just as human as you are? Or at least, as you used to be. On the other side, what makes a villain what he is? What happened to Doctor Impossible that put him on the ever-unfulfilled path to world domination? Was he destined for it, or was it a series of choices, insignificant at the time, that led him to where he was? How did his genius get turned to evil, and what, if anything, keeps him going?

The problem with deconstructing superheroes is that once you’ve deconstructed them, there’s really nothing left. Being a superhero is a fundamentally irrational career choice. Watchmen hinted pretty heavily at this, since all the heroes in the story had been pretty well messed up by their days in tights. There are so many problems that crop up once the spandex and mask are put on that you may find it’s not worth the effort. Legal issues, financial problems, time constraints and unstable relationships aside, what does this choice say about your state of mind? What kind of person can take up the job of costumed hero and stay sane? When you come right down to it, even if you have superpowers there are so many other ways you can use them that are less risky and more beneficial to humanity than getting into fistfights that destroy city blocks.

Lex, we... we think you may have a problem.

The same goes for villainy. So often you see bad guys with technology that is honestly amazing in its scope – Captain Cold’s freeze ray, for example, would make him rich if he patented it and licensed derivative technologies. Much richer than if he ever succeeded at using it to rob jewelry stores. Doctor Doom builds machines that are so far beyond current science that he could rule his own country – oh wait, he does – instead of single-mindedly trying to destroy Reed Richards. Lex Luthor would be grinding his teeth in envy over the power that Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or even Rush Limbaugh have. And none of them have a would-be Kryptonian conqueror to spur them on, either.

That’s the secret heart of superhero stories – they rest on fundamentally irrational choices. Take away those urges to help or harm and you are left with simple absurdity. And that’s kind of where this book falls down.

There’s plenty of navel-gazing and deconstruction going on in this story, from all angles. Between Fatale and Doctor Impossible, they pretty much reason away any good reasons for getting into the game as a hero or villain, and yet – there they are. Impossible is the worse of the two, really. His narration shows him to be an insightful, intelligent, and fairly well-grounded man who probably could become one of the most powerful men on earth through conventional means. And yet, even knowing that it’s probably a waste of time, he continues with his grand scheme – in this case, gravitationally manipulating the distance between the moon and the Earth so as to hold the Earth hostage. He knows he’s going to lose. He knows there are better ways to be effectively evil that don’t involve a metahuman punch to the face. He knows when he’s acting in a stereotypically villainous way. And yet he persists, usually in the most cliched way possible. He spouts comic-book-villain monologues and even has an island fortress from which he operates.

"But right now Darkseid's stories are on."


Neither Fatale nor Impossible – nor any of the other good or bad guys we meet – seem especially happy doing what they’re doing. And what’s more, they know they’re not happy. Doctor Impossible even goes so far as to state it explicitly during his moment of triumph – “For a second, I find myself at the fulcrum point of creation. God I’m so unhappy.”

Well, if you’re such a genius, perhaps you would be able to make better choices than this.

Therein lies the paradox of this book. The more human you try to make these characters, the less believable their story becomes. You can’t be both human and superhuman at the same time – it takes a very skilled writer to pull that trick off, and I don’t think Grossman is there yet. He tells an entertaining story, full of pretty much every comic book trope you can think of, which entertained me to no end. The problem is that by the time you get to the finale the unstable foundation of the story starts to show. How much you’ll enjoy the story depends on how good you are at filtering out the deconstruction that’s going on, which means missing the point of the whole book – that the only way to really enjoy superheroes is to accept them at face value and avoid deconstructing them.

So yeah, good luck with that.

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“When you get your powers, you learn a lot about yourself. My professors called me mad. It was time for me to stop punishing myself, and start punishing everybody else.”
– Dr. Impossible, Soon I Will Be Invincible
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Austin Grossman on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible homepage
Soon I Will Be Invincible on Amazon.com

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Review 137: The Last Watch

The Last Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is acceptable to the forces of Light. – The Night Watch

This review is acceptable to the forces of Darkness. – The Day Watch

When I finished The Twilight Watch a couple of years ago, I thought that was it. Night, Day, Twilight, done. But when I announced that I would be doing the Night Watch trilogy as my end-of-month podcast, I got several emails from listeners who were quick to correct me. The series is not a trilogy, they said, but rather a tetralogy (okay, no one actually used this term). There is a fourth book out there, and I had no idea it existed!

Also thanks to modern technology, I can recycle images! Everybody wins!

Thanks to modern technology, I was able to get the final (as far as I know) book, The Last Watch on my Kindle and get myself up to speed.

Much like the previous volumes, this one is divided into three novellas, which all tie together into a greater plot. In the first, we are once again introduced to Anton Gorodetsky, an agent of the Moscow Night Watch. Due to the events of the last book, Anton is now a Higher Other, having been elevated by the use of the fuaran a mystical book that can create or raise Others. His abilities are far beyond most, and that makes his responsibilities that much greater.

He is assigned by his boss, Gesar, to investigate a mysterious killing in Edinburgh, Scotland. A young man, the son of a Russian magnate, has been murdered, and it looks for all the world like a vampire – a Dark Other – has done the deed. The pact between the Dark and the Light expressly forbids such actions, and the violation of treaty could lead to terrible consequences for all.

You'd think a Scottish vampire wouldn't be so hard to find....

Problem is, the Day Watch has no idea who or what killed the young man, and they’re just as hot to find the killer as Anton is. And of course, the clues don’t add up. The method of the murder doesn’t fit the M.O. of your standard vampire, and the place where the murder occurred – a horror funhouse in the middle of the city – has its own mysterious properties as well. Anton knows he’s on the right track, though, when someone tries to kill him, and he ends up fighting his way through the Twilight to get his answers. What he finds, however, is evidence that the mythical Merlin had left something in Edinburgh for safekeeping. Something truly terrible, no matter whose hands it fell into.

In the second story, Anton is sent out to Uzbekistan to find one of the greatest Others who had ever lived, a man by the name of Rustam. Almost a legend among Others, Rustam is probably the only one who can come even close to figuring out what Merlin hid, and why. But he won’t be easy to find. Anton not only has to deal with the Watches of Samarkand – which are far less efficient and well-staffed as others in Europe – but there’s still someone out to kill him. This time, though, they’re using ensorcelled humans to do the job, something that is also expressly forbidden.

It soon becomes clear that there is a small conspiracy of very powerful Others – one Dark, one Light, and an Inquisitor, who serves neither – who are trying to recover the artifact that Merlin left behind. Their reasons are unknown, but they’re willing to destroy anyone who poses a threat to them. Including, of course, Anton.

It is in the third story where the whole plan finally comes together. That three-person conspiracy is determined to get their hands on Merlin’s power, to collapse the Twilight and fundamentally change the world. If they have to kidnap Anton and threaten Moscow with a nuclear warhead to do it, then so be it. Their ends are, in their minds, wholly justified. It is up to Anton and his allies to avert this tragedy and see to it that the power they seek is never wielded by anyone ever again.

As with the other books, the great supernatural action hides a greater exploration of the fundamental differences between right and wrong, good and evil. As terrible as the Last Watch are, they are doing what they believe to be right, and even Anton can come to understand their motives at one point. But they way they go about it, through dark magic and darker murder, doesn’t nearly justify their aim. And so we see that evil done in the pursuit of good merely produces more evil.

Or how you define "Eeeeeevil."

Depending, of course, on how you define “evil.”

What’s more, there’s quite a bit of metafiction in this book. It’s clear that Lukyanenko is a fan of fantasy – he references Tolkien and Pratchett, just to name a couple of great authors. But he also knows the tropes of fantasy that have survived for so long, and makes sure his characters know them as well. When words are written on the walls, when people go in search of a great object of power or an unwinnable quest, chances are that one of the characters has read something like it in a fantasy book.

Go ahead. Write a 5,000 page epic fantasy about these guys.

At one point, when talking about how there are Others who would like to rule the world, the Inquisitor Edgar notes that it’s what people really want. It’s why fantasy is so much more popular than science fiction, he claims, because everyone dreams of being the magician or wielding the magic sword. It all makes sense, in a way that science fiction doesn’t. Anton, of course, doesn’t buy this, noting that most people who live in a Medieval Thaumocracy would be just like the peasants of long ago – poor, dirty, and dead by forty. So even in a world where magic is very real and very important, the characters know the difference between fantasy and reality in a way that we can relate to. I just find that fascinating.

It’s good fun, and a nice way to close out a very imaginative series. It’s exciting and heartbreaking and funny – with a nice hat-tip to the Night Watch movie thrown in near the beginning. What’s more, it’s a well-built magical system and society that allows for a great variety of stories and characters. Honestly, I would love to see Lukyanenko expand on this universe, or even open it up for others to play in.

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“There is very much in the world that is bad. But usually the attempt to defeat evil engenders more evil. I advise you to do good; that is the only way to win the victory!”
– Rustam, The Last Watch
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The Last Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Last Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, apocalypse, death, detective fiction, fantasy, ghosts, good and evil, morality, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry, world-crossing

Review 127: The God Engines

The God Engines by John Scalzi

There is not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of theological science fiction. Madeleine L’Engle’s books may qualify, but to be honest, it’s been years since I read them so I don’t know. The Golden Compass books, too, but they struck me more as fantasy, seeing as how there were no spaceships. My only successful foray into National Novel Writing Month produced some theological sci-fi, but it was questionable at best and is still fermenting on my hard drive somewhere.

In any case, that is what John Scalzi has given us, and if you’re a regular reader of his blog and his other books then you may find this one to be a little… off. You see, like many accomplished writers, Scalzi has a Voice, a way of writing that is immediately identifiable as his own, and which a lot of his fans have gotten used to. There’s no single thing I can point to that really illustrates what this is, but trust me – it’s there. A certain whip-quick sarcasm, a way of looking at old questions from a new angle and the ability to cut through the requisite fuzzy thinking that seems so endemic to the human race.

Not quite like this... but kind of.

In this book, he tries on a new voice, something that sounds kind of like his, but at the same time like he’s trying on something new. It’s as if Jonathan Coulton started doing Manowar cover songs. It’s not bad, it’s just something that takes a little getting used to.

Captain Ean Tephe is the commander of a great starship, the Righteous, one of the many ships in the fleet controlled by the Bishopry Militant. He and the other captains in the fleet are charged with carrying out missions for the Bishopry in the name of their God, a being of immense power who uses the faith of millions to rule them. Their Lord is a powerful and active god, one who brooks no dissent from His followers and who will suffer no challengers to His dominion. Long ago, the Lord battled countless other, smaller gods, and won, chaining them to his will and turning them into the engines of the great starships that carry His people out into the universe.

Some gods are less tractable than others. (art by Evolvana on DeviantArt)

The god that powers the Righteous, however, is not cooperating. Some ships’ gods are quiet and obedient, others chatty, some cowed into good behavior by fear. The god on this ship is defiant, despite the prayers of priests and acolytes, and the horrible whip that the captain wields to compel obedience. This god soon reveals itself to be part of a greater plan, one which enfolds both Tephe and his crew and reveals a truth about their God that is enough to drive men mad. It is a test of faith for the men aboard the Righteous, and if they should fail, their lives will end in short order.

It’s a very cool concept, really, one which I haven’t seen done before. Scalzi has powered a civilization by faith, quite literally, in a God that not only exists, but it quite active in the lives of His worshipers. His high priests exert complete control over a population that rightfully fears for their souls, and manage to channel the God’s power into various science-like applications. Through the use of amulets called Talents, the God facilitates communication over great distances, compels obedience, and opens gateways. He has a civilian population whose faith nourishes Him, and a military arm that travels the galaxy spreading His word and destroying His enemies. And it all makes sense.

As cool as the idea is, though, the book itself felt like a rough sketch rather than a fleshed-out novel. It’s quite short, as novels go, and we are introduced to a lot of concepts and characters in a fairly brief amount of time. The Bishopry Militant, for example, sounds like a great place to see intrigue and double-dealing, lies upon lies that somehow manage to get things done, and we do see a bit of that when Captain Tephe gets a secret mission to a new world. Scalzi showed us in The Last Colony that he can handle this kind of multi-layered politicking, and I think it would be even better in a place like this. Add to that the Rookery, a kind of church-sanctioned brothel/therapy center aboard the ships, where the women who work there have nearly as much power and influence as the Bishopry itself. What would happen if these two institutions came into conflict, and what weapons would they wield?

This god has some opinions he'd like to share.

The chained gods, too, are a wonderful chance to explore a lot of ethical questions. They are undoubtedly sentient beings of great power, enslaved by a God that is stronger than they. Is this kind of slavery justified? Would it be possible for a ship to work with its god-engine, rather than compelling it with whips and prayers. What do these gods know, and how reliable are they? The god powering the Righteous seems to know a lot about how this universe works, including some terrifying tales about the God that Tephe follows, but how much of what it says can be trusted?

And what are the powers and limitations of a faith-powered science? Much in the way that engineers and scientists in our world manipulate a few basic laws of nature to achieve amazing things, what could be done in a world where prayers have power and where a high priest’s whim can decide the outcome of an entire mission? How do you creatively solve problems in a reality like this one, where they deal in belief and faith, rather than wavelengths and mass?

So yeah, there was a lot that I wanted from this book once I figured out what Scalzi was doing with it. After a great opening line (and a third line that just left me confused), the learning curve was a little steep. Once you figure it out, though, the possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, the book itself ends rather sooner than it should.

The less said about this album, the better.

It’s not my favorite book by Scalzi, not by a long run, but since he’s said he’s going to lay off the Old Man’s War universe for a while, I should be thankful that he is willing to experiment and try new things. As many music lovers know, it’s sometimes very hard to accept that an artist you love wants to try to do things that are new and different, rather than keep doing the things that made you love them in the first place. I remember when U2 put out Achtung Baby and my friends who fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were almost personally offended. Zooropa, of course, was not to be mentioned aloud in their presence.

That kind of experimentation and risk-taking, however, is ultimately what helps an artist grow. You may not like what comes of such experimentation, but that’s tough – it’s not about you.

I don’t know if Scalzi will return to this universe or not, but I hope he does. If he does, I hope he lingers longer than he did in The God Engines, and brings forth another wonderful and complex universe.

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“Faith is not for what comes after this life. Faith is for this life alone.”
– A God, The God Engines
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s Blog

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Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

Imagine a world where magic is real. A place where people known as Others are born with powers they don’t understand. Their destinies are unwritten until that fateful day when they first become an Other – when they discover the strange, shadowy and powerful world known as the Twilight – and have to make a choice: will they stand with the Light or with the Dark. Will they dedicate their lives to Good or Evil?

Maybe it ain't what it used to be, but it's still dramatic.... (art by mirerror on DeviantArt)

It’s not an easy decision to make, by any means. Joining either side has its limitations and its rules, for the battle between Good and Evil isn’t what it used to be.

Long ago, it was simple – Good fought Evil, Dark fought Light, and blood was shed on both sides. It was a vicious, unending war that threatened to decimate the world. Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. A Treaty, well deserving of the capital letter. There would be a truce between the two sides, a balance that would be maintained at all costs. Any act of evil would be balanced by an act of goodness, and vice versa. Neither side is to have an advantage.

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

Making sure the peace is kept is the job of the Watches – the Night Watch, staffed by elites of the Light to guard against advances by the Dark, and a Day Watch, staffed by the elites of the Dark to guard against excesses of the Light. We begin our look at the Others of Moscow with a young adept named Anton Sergeeivich Gorodetsky, a wielder of magic and an analyst forced into the more exciting realm of field work. His job is to find out who a pair of vampires are illegally attempting to seduce and stop them. In the process of doing that, and saving the soul of a young Other named Egor, he stumbles upon something that threatens the entire city of Moscow, if not all of Russia. A young woman has a curse upon her head, so horrible and so powerful that the forces of the Light may have no chance to disperse it. If she dies, the city will die with her. If she lives, even worse may befall the world.

There are three stories in this book, somewhat independent but entirely connected. The first details the discovery of Egor and the cursed Svetlana. In the second, an Other of the Light, a maverick who doesn’t know about the rest of the Others, or the Treaty between Light and Dark, is murdering Dark adepts. Somewhat alarmingly, Anton is being framed for the murders. In the third book, Moscow is gripped in a heat wave. In the midst of this, the leaders of the Light are attempting to change the world. Whether it ends up being for the better or the worse, no one can know. But Anton is convinced that it must not come to pass….

Team ANTON!!!!!

It’s a gripping fantasy, in a very complex world. It’s compared to Rowling’s work, and justly so (although I don’t think there’s much of a case to be made for an attempt to ride on Rowling’s coattails – Night Watch was originally published in 1998, only a year after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). There are substantial differences, of course, making Night Watch a much more adult book than the Potter series. There are very few children, and the few that are there are not in very substantial roles. There’s far more drinking, smoking and sex in this, of course. But the world that Lukyanenko has created is every bit as deep and complex as the one Rowling has made. There are any number of roles that could be played, and an almost infinite number of situations that could be built on the fairly simple rules that are set up by the Light-Dark Treaty.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the complexity of the world. Rowling’s world is fairly definitive in its divisions between good and evil – there is good, there is evil, and there is no question of which is which. The evil characters are definitively evil, and the good characters are definitively good, and the reader doesn’t have to worry too much about who’s on which side, Snape notwithstanding.

The Others of Moscow, however, are not nearly so clear-cut. Yes, the Light is trying to do the work of the Good, to make the world a better place. But their machinations and their plots don’t always go as planned. See the Russian Revolution and World War II for examples why. They ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the horrors it can unleash. By trying to do Good, they unleash great evil upon the world.

He's just a big softie, really....

And how about the Dark? Yes, they’re populated by werewolves, witches and vampires, but they are advocates of utter and total freedom. They do not destroy for the sheer joy of destruction, but because they want to increase the personal freedom of the world. They’re not interested in making humanity “better,” or making a better world. They simply want to live in the world as it is, free from restraints – both internal and external.

While it may be pretty clear who is on the Light and Dark side, it’s not entirely clear who is doing Good or Evil at any given time. And, more importantly, it is almost impossible to know who is actually right.

It’s a great read – full of anguish and self-doubt and torture, like any good Russian novel should be. Anton knows that the Light doesn’t live up to the standards that it preaches, but he knows that he needs to be on the right side. He picks apart the intricate, decades-long plot of the Night Watch and very nearly figures out how to foil it. But even in revealing the truth, he does not manage to save the world from the doom of the Light.

Or does he?

We’ll have to read the next book and find out….

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“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
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The Night Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Night Watch at Amazon.com

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