Category Archives: madness

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 179: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End by David Wong

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

There are always new avenues for horror…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheel of Time 03: The Dragon Reborn

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

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

HE WILL END US!!!

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

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

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

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

These guys will Mess. You. Up.

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

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

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

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

So there’s that.

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

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

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

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

The women of WoT will have none of this nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheel of Time 02: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This thing is no end of trouble...

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

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

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

Though not quite as much trouble as this.

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

It’s a dense book.

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

And not nearly as much as this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

Review 140: The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m going to have pick on Jack Nicholson here, but I’m pretty sure he can take it. If I get an angry email from him, I’ll let you know. I’m also going to take a couple of shots at Staley Kubrick, who is dead and can’t defend himself, although I can probably count on some of his loyal followers doing so in his stead. Basically my goal in writing this review is to encourage you to completely ignore the film version of The Shining and appreciate the book.

Thankfully, the original line - "DY-NO-MITE!" - was cut.

To be fair, though, the film and the book really are two different beasts. They share a basic story line, yes, and some characters, but they’re looking at the story from different points of view. The film did create some iconic moments – Danny running his bigwheel down the hallway, the elevator vomiting blood, and “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!” which isn’t outdated at all, of course. Note to filmmakers, no matter how brilliant you think you are: pop culture references have a short shelf life. Avoid them. But I think that Kubrick’s film kind of misses the point, which disappointed me greatly.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review. So let’s shut up about that for a while, shall we?

The book is one of King’s earliest, written in 1977, and like so many of his early works it’s one of his best. It’s a tale of a hotel that’s more than just haunted – it’s possessed. It’s a place that has been a witness to all kinds of evil, inhumanity, and malice, and the spirits that inhabit it are always looking for company. So allow me to present Jack Torrance. A once-promising writer, former teacher, and an alcoholic, Jack is man whose life is on the edge of collapsing. After being fired for beating the daylights out of one of his students, the job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel is, as far as he’s concerned, the only thing keeping him and his family from complete destitution and shame.

And let’s be clear about this right up front – Jack loves his family. He loves his wife, Wendy, even if she does get under his skin from time to time, and he is utterly devoted to their son, Danny. He knows that his own upbringing, with an abusive, alcoholic father, didn’t prepare him to be a good head of household. He knows that his own drinking problems led to the breaking of his son’s arm, an incident which very nearly destroyed his marriage. He also knows – or at least believes – that he can change. That’s why he took the job at the Overlook, in order to have some time to reset. Spend sober time with the family, finish the play he’s been working on – take a breather and get ready to rebuild their lives.

See? A cozy, family-friendly place.

The Overlook is one of the premiere hotels in Colorado. It’s a place that just exudes luxury, with a history stretching back to the early 1900s and everything a person vacationing in the Rockies could want. But because it’s perched in the mountains, it has to close down for the winter. No sane person would drive up there when the snow really got started, and so the need arose for a live-in caretaker to make sure the place doesn’t succumb to the elements. It’s a lonely and perilous job, miles away from help and civilization, but the right kind of person can probably do it.

Jack might have been able to manage, if the hotel weren’t the vessel for some evil, malevolent entity that thrived on the horrible things that men do to each other. For lack of a better phrase, the hotel is psychically charged – memories permeate it, making it haunted on nearly every level. Normal people can’t perceive this – they might feel uneasy in a certain room, or hear some strange sounds at night, but if you’re a garden-variety person, you won’t notice a thing.

Any kid who talks to his own finger has gotta be watched.

Five year-old Danny Torrance is not a normal person. He has the Shine, as it is called – a psychic ability of great and wondrous strength. He can read his parents’ emotions, he can predict the future and see the past. While his power isn’t fully under his control, he knows that he’s not like other children. His is a unique mind, and it is this power, this shine, that both dooms and saves him. (As a note to Dark Tower fans – don’t you think Danny would have made a great Breaker? I wish King had hit on that….)

The hotel knows it too. It wants to use Danny to power itself, to perpetuate its evil. But it can’t get to Danny – so it gets to Jack. It preys on his weaknesses (and Jack Torrance has oh so many weaknesses) and uses him as a tool to destroy his own family.

Truly this is a creepy book. The descriptions are careful and evocative, and when King wants you to be scared, you can be damn sure that you’ll be scared. It’s cabin fever in book form, and the longer you read it, the more you can feel the hotel pressing in on you from the pages. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the slow destruction of what could have been a good and happy family, had they not come to this place. To be fair, Jack Torrance was not a very good human being to begin with, and the odds are good that he would have ruined his family eventually. Under the roof of the Overlook, though, he never even had a chance. As you read, you realize that while it’s hard to like Jack, you can certainly understand him.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Shelley Duvall!

And that’s why I like the book better than the movie. The film makes Jack the villain. It makes him into a guy who snaps under the pressure of not drinking, not being able to write and having a wife played by Shelley Duvall, who could have been replaced with Munch’s “The Scream” on a stick to as much effect. In the end, it’s Jack who betrays his family, Jack who tries to murder his wife and son, and Jack who dies frozen in the hedge maze.

The thing is, that’s not how King wrote it. While Jack certainly isn’t redeemed by the end of the book, it is clear that the person who was chasing Danny through the halls with a roque mallet, the person who nearly bludgeoned Wendy and Hallorann to death was not Jack Torrance. He may have looked like him, but what was doing all the evil was the thing that had defeated Jack – it was the thing that had killed him. And I think that story, about a man who was just not strong enough to resist a far greater power, is more interesting than a story about a guy who just goes nuts. Jack’s character in the book is far more nuanced and deep than I thought he was in the film, and it saddened me to see him pressed into two dimensions. And again, I think Jack Nicholson – while perhaps adequate for the role as Kubrick saw it, was not the Jack Torrance that I saw in this book.

As an aside, I thought the TV miniseries was much closer to the book and, thusly, better. True, it lacked a lot of Kubrick’s more famous directorial panache, but since a) Kubrick ruined the movie and b) I’m not a big fan of his anyway, I didn’t hold that against ABC.

Jack is not that far from Homer Simpson, really....

The book wasn’t written, I think, with a lot of Deeper Meaning in mind. I’m sure King would be the first to admit that. It’s a kind of psychological study of how to turn a weak person into a bad person, and how much pushing it would require to make a man turn to evil. It looks at the bad choices we make, and how we fool ourselves into making them. Jack Torrance is a cautionary tale against self-pity and self-delusion. Jack views himself as a perpetual victim, held back by his upbringing, his wife, his alcoholism – nothing that goes wrong in his life is actually his fault (according to Jack). Had he taken responsibility for his actions and his errors, he might have withstood the Overlook’s attacks.

The big question for this book is this: was any other outcome possible? Did the Torrance family have any choice in what happened to them, or were they doomed from the moment they set foot in the hotel? I vote for the latter. While they certainly had their chances – many chances – to get out and escape the horrible future that was bearing down on them, it was clear that was never going to happen. Jack was a man who was far too weak, too selfish and too self-absorbed to let himself leave the Overlook. And so they were doomed. The fact that anyone got out of there at all was a miracle.

This is part of the Stephen King Required Reading set – if you’re going to read any King at all, you need to read this one. It’s a horror book that’ll stay with you for a long, long time.

———————————————
“The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”
– Jack Torrance, The Shining
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Review 119: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

A king is killed, usurped by a weak man and his overbearing wife.

A ghost haunts the castle, waiting for his son to come and avenge him.

On the highlands, three Witches hold their meeting, plotting the future of the kingdom.

I think Granny would not appreciate this image....

Sound familiar? It should. These are some of the most enduring tropes of English literature, and they’re all thanks to a singular playwright. Wyrd Sisters is Terry Pratchett’s tribute to some of the blood and gore and guts, tragedies and twists of Shakespeare’s great plays.

In fact, this book encapsulates my three favorite Shakespearean works – Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Yes, they’re all tragedies, but that shouldn’t surprise any of you by now. They plumb the depths of humanity to try to find glimmers of hope and bravery and redemption, and everyone usually ends up dead, but dead with a true sense of purpose. In this book we have, respectively, a king murdered by his own family, a woman who pulls the strings of the usurper, and a bloody great storm.

Anyone have some Purell?

Verence, the king of Lancre, has been assassinated. An accident, everyone says. He tripped and fell down the stairs, landing on his own dagger. Funny, that. But the new ruler of Lancre, Felmet, is not so steady in his convictions. He sees the blood on his hands, although he didn’t do it. He’s absolutely sure he didn’t do the deed. Anyone who says he did do it is likely to be shorter by a foot or so by morning. And his wife wasn’t there either. She didn’t hand him the knife. The point is that Verence is dead, long live the King, and now everyone can enjoy the easy life of a royal couple.

However, as so often happens in these things, complications arose. The dead king isn’t allowed to go away. He is confined to unlife as a ghost, unable to contact or interact with the world of the living – except in very small, nearly unnoticeable ways. As his murderers rule over his kingdom, Verence exercises his ectoplasm and plots a way to bring Felmet down. The king’s infant son was stolen after the assassination, you see – brought by a dying man to the home of one of Lancres witches, where he passed the infant to the three women there, and begged them to care for it.

Huh. Actors.

They did what some people would think would be the exact opposite – they gave the child to some traveling actors. As alarming as that might seem, they thought that a traveling troupe would be a much better place for a child to grow up than with three of the greatest witches of Lancre.

And that would seem to be the end of it, really. The king is dead, with no one to contradict the original version of his death. The infant son of the king is stolen, never to be seen again. By all rights, the kingdom should move on. Assassination, of course, is perfectly natural in Royal circles, happens all the time. The kingdom shouldn’t even blink.

But it does. Not only does the kingdom blink, it is furious. Not the people, mind you. The people barely notice a new king, except for the parties and the slight increase in executions. The Kingdom. As a body is an amalgam of cells, a Kingdom is the whole of its people and history. Felmet hates the new kingdom he has acquired, with its gorges and trees and people you couldn’t bully no matter how hard you tried. He hates the Kingdom, and the Kingdom hates him for it. A Kingdom, you see, is like a dog. It doesn’t care if its master is a good man or an evil man, so long as he cares for the dog. Felmet actively detested the land and its people, and in return the larger entity that was The Kingdom hated him right back.

In the meantime, Felmet’s Fool, formerly the Fool to Verence, is showing him how words have power, and how that power could help break the animal kingdom he ruled. Cutting the trees down, for example, might be called “horrible” or “terrible” by the people – and the kingdom – of Lancre. But call it, “Planned deforestation for industry growth,” and that’s a whole new story.

"Senior citizen"

Words have power, Felmet learns. The Fool eventually goes on to demonstrate the true power of words to the king.

Liar. Usurper. Murderer.

Words like that have a wondrous effect.

And then there are the Witches, who are a threat to Flemet, in his own mind. He can’t kill them, he can’t torture them. But he can change how people think about them, and so he decides that a play is the way to go….

It gets a little complicated after that, but rest assured, it’s a kicker. Felmet is insane, and his wife is worse. Their plan to destroy the witches of Lancre goes beyond what the Puritans of Massachusetts could ever have come up with – altering their very natures by altering perceptions. And fate sticks her fingers in all over the place, as the Witches try to restore a true leader to Lancre – even if the true leader doesn’t even know who he is.

Oh, what Shakespeare could have done with Granny....

Not only does this book showcase one of Terry’s best characters – Granny Weatherwax – but it takes an interesting look at the way we can alter our perception of things merely by altering what we call a thing. Words shape the world, whether we want them to or not, and the right word in the right ear can shift the balances of history. As with so many of his other books, Terry gives us a profound philosophical insight and shows it to us as something we knew all along.

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“Oh, obvious,” said Granny. “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”
Granny Weatherwax, Wyrd Sisters

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Filed under assassinations, death, Discworld, fantasy, ghosts, good and evil, humor, madness, revenge, Terry Pratchett, witches

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins