Category Archives: quest

Books about quests.

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

Wheel of Time 03: The Dragon Reborn

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

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

HE WILL END US!!!

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

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

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

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

These guys will Mess. You. Up.

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

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

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

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

So there’s that.

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

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

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

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

The women of WoT will have none of this nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheel of Time 02: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This thing is no end of trouble...

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

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

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

Though not quite as much trouble as this.

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

It’s a dense book.

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

And not nearly as much as this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy.

———————————————-
“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 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 163: New Spring (Wheel of Time 00)

Wheel of Time 00: New Spring by Robert Jordan

If you’re new to the Wheel of Time series, don’t start with this book.

Okay, technically it is Book Zero, as it takes place about twenty years before the events of the first book, Eye of the World, and it provides an enormous amount of backstory which a reader would only otherwise get later on. I mean, if you read this, and then go on to EotW, everything that happens in the first few chapters is so much more heavily weighted. Things that Moiraine says and does, knowing what we know about her, are completely different. I’m not saying that they’re better or worse – they’re just different. And perhaps because I treasure my experiences with books, I cannot imagine the story being as good if we knew so much.

"Honey, put the coffee on. This'll be a while."

The Wheel of Time is an immense example of Epic Fantasy. The first book was published in 1990, and it still hasn’t found its way to a conclusion. The end is in sight, of course – following the death of author Robert Jordan, the series is being finished by Brandon Sanderson and the final volume is expected to come out at the beginning of 2013. Still, that’s a long, long time for the faithful to stick with a series. More than a few people have dropped out halfway through, and I can’t blame them. The series so far consists of nearly three point eight million words (that’s nearly five Bibles), more than 11,000 pages and 635 chapters so far (thank you, Wikipedia). There are more characters than I think anyone can accurately count, over three thousand years of history, prophecies, politics, religion, love, hate, magic, mystery….

It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you stick with it, the series will pay off. It’ll take up a piece of real estate in your head that you keep coming back to – questions, wonders, worries. It’s no surprise that a fan community has built up around this series that has devoted itself to knowing and cataloging every detail, right down to the chapter icons and their relationship to the content of that chapter. If you’re not wondering what Ajah you would be in by the end of the first book, then you need to slow down and enjoy it a little more because something’s not sinking in.

If I sound kind of evangelistic, it’s because I am. I have devoted nearly two-thirds of my life as a reader to it, sticking it out even when other readers got bored or frustrated, and I want other people to love it too. That is, after all, the entire reason I do these reviews – to share the books I love.

Anyway, on to this actual book.

She's small, but she will END YOU.

As I said, it’s prequel to the series proper. Its first incarnation was as a short story in the “Legends” collection back in 1999, and was published as a novel between books ten and eleven of the series proper. It focuses on two of the prime movers of the early books – Moiraine Damodred, Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah, and Lan Mandragoran, the uncrowned king of Malkier, a land that was swallowed by the Blight when he was but an infant.

See, that sentence right there would require pages of back story just by themselves if I were to try and explain them properly.

Moiraine and her best friend Siuan are Accepted in the White Tower, home of the Aes Sedai – a society of women who can channel a powerful force called saidar. For thousands of years, the Aes Sedai have used their powers to try and protect the world. Soon, Moiraine and Siuan will become full-fledged Aes Sedai, with all the power and responsibility that involves. At the moment, that looks like taking part in a great war – the mysterious Aiel have come out of their desert to attack and destroy everything they can find, and no one knows why. The war has come to the very shores of Tar Valon itself, the home of the White Tower.

Amidst all this, Gitara Moroso, an Aes Sedai of high rank and power, has a Foretelling: The Dragon is reborn. He who broke the world has come again, and the Last Battle is upon us. She Foretells the end of the world, and that foretelling kills her.

With that, a search begins for the boy who would one day grow up to be The Dragon, and Moiraine and Siuan are at the forefront of it. But they aren’t alone. The Amyrlin Seat, leader of all Aes Sedai, sent out her best to find the boy. Unknown to them, the Black Ajah, Aes Sedai dedicated to the primacy of The Dark One (and I shouldn’t have to tell you who he is), are also looking for the Dragon Reborn. Without him, their master will emerge from his prison and remake the world in his image. It is up to Moiraine and Siuan to find the boy before the Black Ajah do, and not get themselves killed in the process.

Confused yet? I would be, if I hadn’t read this series prior to this book. Damn near everything I’ve said up there requires a ton of explanation and back-story, pages and pages of it. Which is, of course, what the series proper is all about. When this novel was released, readers of WoT had already gone through ten books, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure on Jordan to explain everything in absolute detail. For a devoted fan, it’s an excellent nugget of series history and an illuminating look at some of the most important and mysterious characters in the series. For a new reader, it’s probably somewhat confusing.

The island of Tar Valon

This book gives us a good, strong look at the White Tower and the life inside it – the intricacies of the Ajahs, the trials that are required of the Novices and Accepted, and the history that surrounds it all. It’s a lot of information, but it’s wrapped inside a good story, so you don’t really mind. Well, I don’t really mind – very little of this is new to me.

In all honesty, I could be wrong. I first read this with years of the series under my belt and breezed through concepts and references that I didn’t need explained. But even if it is accessible to the new reader, I still recommend holding off until you get to a point where you’re pretty sure you know everything you need to know.

Why? Because it’s not how the series was written. A new reader, cracking open Eye of the World for the first time, knows nothing, which puts you pretty much at the same level as the series protagonist, Rand al’Thor. With Rand, you learn about the world at a steady pace. It’s a little overwhelming, sure, but it’s manageable, and what’s more – it’s interesting. This world (nicknamed “Randland” by fans) has an intricate and mysterious history, as do many of the characters. To have so much information before starting the series feels to me like… cheating.

I'm guessing the series is somewhere in the blue-green area...

If I could, I would remove my memory of the rest of the series and read this one as if it were all new. I would love to come at this story from a different angle and then compare the two experiences – kind of like with Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. Alas, I cannot, so I go into this book not knowing what I’m not supposed to know.

If you’re new to the series, though, it’s ultimately up to you. I think holding off on this book will make it better, but I can’t tell you what to do, right? All I know is that it’s where I start when I re-read the series, and it’s not a bad beginning. And I know that I started the series a long time before this book came out, and that was fine too.

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“He is born again! I feel him! The Dragon takes his first breath on the slope of Dragonmount! He is coming! He is coming! Light help us! Light help the world! He lies in the snow and cries like the thunder! He burns like the sun!”
– Gitara Moroso, New Spring
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
New Spring at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
New Spring 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 epic fantasy, fantasy, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 155: Otherland 4 – Sea of Silver Light

Otherland 4: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

At last we have come to the end of our journey, when all will be explained and all will be resolved.

As the book opens, the Other – the operating system for the Grail Brotherhood’s mysterious plan for immortality – has been defeated, overcome and overpowered by the truly evil assassin Dread. With his mutant ability to manipulate electronics, Dread has taught the Other how to feel true pain, and now has nearly complete control over the Otherland network. With a nearly limitless number of worlds to choose from, Dread allows his sadistic madness to run wild. But no matter how many worlds he rapes and plunders, there are still those he truly wants to destroy – the Otherland explorers sent by the mysterious half-human Sellars.

While they are successful, none of them look this cool.

But those explorers themselves face greater dangers than Dread. Half of them have been thrust back into the twisted realms of Otherland, where the horrors and dangers that had been built into it have mutated into unrecognizable terrors. The other half… they ended up in the heart of the Other’s secret dreams. There they must face the eventual death of the network and survive it, if they can.

Offline, Sellars has brought all of his players into position. Lawyers, children and old women are his army, and together they will uncover the horrible and heartbreaking truth about the nature of the Other and the evil that has been done to it.

I really love this series. As it moves towards its ending, which does involve a lot more explaining than most other books do, it’s easy to get swept up in the sheer scale of the narrative. There’s a lot to take in by the end of the series, a lot of loose ends to tie up, but it all wraps up rather nicely. More or less. There is a rather major revelation that comes near the end that just kind of… gets written off. I have a sneaking suspicion that Williams might have been able to stretch this series into a fifth book, but it probably would have suffered from Rowling Syndrome – a lot of unnecessary padding in between the important bits.

The important thing is that, by the end of the book you really do feel invested in the world that Williams has created. You care about the characters, and you want everything to turn out all right for them. For the good ones, at least. For the bad ones, you want them to get their just desserts, to see them suffer as they have made others suffer. You even find yourself feeling for the Other, which we – and the protagonists – have always believed to be the main villain of the story. It is not, as we find out, and the scope of the villainy that has been done to it is truly astonishing.

Good news, honey! The new Tad Williams book is out!

In his forward to the second book, Williams apologized to his readers about the cliffhanger ending to the first. This isn’t really four books, he said – it’s one giant book that had to, for various reason, be split into four. The main reason, of course, being that no one would print or buy a 3,500 page hardcover, even if the fine folks at DAW Books were willing to try it. He is right, though – it is one very long story, and thus you can extract a great many things from it, if you want to.

There’s no one thing that I can say this book is about. In one sense, it is an exploration of the future of the digital world and what it might mean to people. The virtual net of this story would be as alien to us as the internet would be to our grandparents. It has become the sea in which our characters swim, and their main way of interacting with the world. It is only when their ability to go offline is taken away from them that they truly begin to value the world and the identity they’ve left behind. What’s more, it explores how we connect with each other – looking at both the relationships we build in virtual space and the ones we build in the real world, and finding complete validity in them both.

There are issues of identity, best shown by Orlando, whose towering Thargor the Barbarian character hides a young teenager with a crippling illness that will kill him long before he’s old enough to vote. His best friend has a slightly less unfortunate secret to share – that behind those big, muscular sim bodies, Sam Fredericks is actually a girl.

The story explores issues of family – how Renie deals with her father, Long Joseph Sulaweyo, or how little Christabel Sorenson’s family react when they find out that their young daughter has been drawn deep into Sellars’ conspiracy. And the bonds between mother and child that can never truly be broken.

Not only am I still human - I'm SEXY.

And there are even issues of the very definition of the word “life.” If your mind is perfectly copied into a computer, with all its memories and personality intact, is it still you? Are you still human? Are you even alive, in any real sense? The Grail Brotherhood certainly believed so, or they would never have started this project in the first place. But in a system as broad and complicated as the Otherland network, who knows what else might arise to test our definition?

The story is about heroism and history, about love and hate, about the unshakable bonds of friendship and the tenuous reliance on people you despise. It’s about the lengths to which fear will drive you and the extremes you will encounter when you test that fear. It’s about science and faith and looking at the world in ways you never imagined. It’s about good, it’s about evil.

It’s about life, really, and what it is about life that makes us want more of it.

Now I’m just waxing philosophical. To sum up: this is probably one of my favorite stories in my library. I highly recommend you pick it up, set some time aside, and enjoy it.

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Christabel was beginning to learn a scary thing about grown-ups. Sometimes they said things would be all right, but they didn’t know they’d be all right. They just said it. Bad things could happen, even to little kids. Especially to little kids.
– From Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Sea of Silver Light on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, existentialism, family, fantasy, friendship, internet, philosophy, quest, science fiction, Tad Williams, technology, transhumanism, virtual reality

Review 151: Ghost Story

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Hell’s Bells count: 27

In the acknowledgment section of the book, where Butcher very kindly thanks all the people who helped it come into existence, he clarifies something very important: the end of the last book, Changes, was not a cliffhanger. Absolutely not, no matter that it really, really looked like one, smelled like one and felt like one. After all, in that last scene, Dresden is on a boat, and then shot through the chest by a sniper of some sort. He drops into the cold waters of the lake and sinks and, as far as we know, dies.

Noooo! You've gone too far, Harry!!

In order for it to be a cliffhanger, then, Butcher would have to reveal at the beginning of this book how Dresden got out of such a terrible situation. Maybe he could call on some last reserve of magic or be saved by merpeople or something, but the strictures of the cliffhanger would demand that Dresden, once the next book began, not be dead but saved by some unexpected, yet still believable, means.

So, yes, Butcher is right – it’s not a cliffhanger. Dresden is, indeed, dead. He did not escape, he was not rescued. He is dead.

Now in most series (comic books excluded, of course), the death of the main character would be something of an impediment to continuing the series. But The Dresden Files is not most series, and Harry Dresden is not most main characters. He has done too much and is far too important to be allowed to do a silly little thing like die. Harry Dresden is necessary to a great number of plans and schemes by a great number of people. What’s more, his death wasn’t exactly fair, insofar as such a thing is possible.

And so he is brought back by the Powers That Be in order to balance the scales and set things right, which is ultimately what Harry Dresden has been doing all along. He’s to go back to Chicago and find his murderer, lest terrible things happen to those he loves.

Fortunately, while there are meddling kids, Harry wins them over, and the giant ridiculous dog is on his side.

The catch, of course, is that he has to come back as a ghost. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that doing a murder investigation is substantially easier when you have, well, substance. It’s hard to punch someone in the face when your fists just go right through them. So Dresden first has to figure out how to make himself known to the living world, in addition to coming to grips with his limitations as an untethered spiritual entity. Once he’s figured that part out, he has to not only solve his own murder, but keep a body-hopping necromancer from becoming indescribably powerful, save the only man who knows how to deal with being a ghost, try to redeem a bunch of street kids who are under the influence of a minor sorcerer, and figure out what to do with the real mess he made when he died.

You see, Harry’s death, and the events that led up to it, created a power vacuum – not only in Chicago, but all over the world. With the destruction of the Red Court of vampires, the magical rulers of the world are fighting tooth and nail over land and resources, and what has mostly resulted from that is bloodshed. Forces all over the world are converging on Red Court territory, each one determined to claim what they can.

This was the very first Google Image result for "Ragged Lady." The book is forever changed for me...

In Chicago, the news of Harry Dresden’s death invited all sorts of new power players into the city, who were previously smart enough to stay out. Harry never truly understood the reputation he had until he sees what his friends have to do to match it and keep the city safe. Now that the Great and Powerful Harry Dresden is out of the picture, a newer and more terrible protector has emerged to keep away those who would do the city and its inhabitants harm. The Ragged Lady is all that stands in the way of the Chicago that Harry knew being overrun.

Mix in the Faerie, a new group called the Formor, the mob, and a few representatives of the afterlife, and you have a confusing and volatile situation. Which is pretty much where Harry Dresden is most at home.

As with the other Dresden Files books, this is a lot of fun to read, mainly because it looks at Harry and his friends from a new point of view – the outside. In the six months that he’s been “away,” the people he loves have had to go on without him, and even in that short time they have become different. They have had to make choices that they wouldn’t have made while he was there, and they certainly don’t interact with him the same way they once did. Harry has to re-learn who these people are, with the understanding that his decisions did not change their lives for the better.

Then again, showy violence can be pretty cool sometimes. (Art by Dan Dos Santos)

In addition, we learn more about Harry’s past and what made him the way he is, and we finally see him start to think about whether being the person he is is really a good thing all the time. He excels in showy violence, hitting first and asking questions later, without taking a more nuanced view of the situation. Well, now he can’t hit, at least not in the ways that he’s used to. He has to look at his old ways in a new light and figure out how to get what he wants through other means.

Really, if you’ve read this far in the series, you’ll enjoy this one. Butcher continues to do a good job in giving us what we want, while at the same time showing us things that are truly unexpected. There are some wonderful moments in the book, a few exposition-heavy moments while Harry is filled in on the situation, and a good mystery to be solved. Enjoy.

——

Death should be a learning experience, after all, or what’s the point?
– Leanansidhe, Ghost Story

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Ghost Story on Wikipedia
Ghost Story on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under afterlife, death, detective fiction, Dresden Files, fairies, fantasy, ghosts, Jim Butcher, murder, mystery, quest, wizardry

Review 150: Otherland 3 – Mountain of Black Glass

Otherland 3: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

This is easily my favorite book in the series, short though the series may be.

Otherland is a strange story, really – it’s like a hybrid science fiction/fantasy tale in that you can easily forget which genre you’re in. It’s clearly science fiction, in that the whole thing is taking place in a massive computer simulation, but on the other hand, it owes a lot to fantasy – especially the world-crossing aspects of it.

Our Otherland heroes have been trapped there for some time now, running through the system with very little understanding of where they are or where they’re going. The whole thing is run by a cabal of the world’s richest men and women in an attempt to foil Death itself, and was built as their eternal playground. Thus, there are countless worlds to choose from. There are places where you can re-live entire historical epochs, where you can fly in rivers of air or play in a cartoon kitchen. You can be a cowboy in the Old West or a Knight of the Round Table or anything that your mind can conceive – and your programmers can work out.

Not every virtual god is a good one, of course.

The complexity of this system is such that it is indistinguishable from real life. It is multi-sensory, so you get the full experience of actually being there, with none of the obvious CGI cues that we’ve come to expect from the virtual world. What’s more, the owners of the system have nearly godlike power within it. They plan to not only live forever, but have absolute power while doing so.

Two of these simworlds – one original, one derivative – are the reasons why this is my favorite book of the series. The original simworld (not based on any well-known work or historical event) is the House. After being betrayed by the assassin Dread, who has been masquerading as one of their number, Renie, !Xabbu, Martine, Florimel, T4b and Emily are stuck in a kind of… unfinished world. It’s a place where the programming hasn’t really been settled, and where the unreality of the whole thing can be deadly.

They manage to escape by following Dread to a new simulation – a great House that is, in itself, a world. It goes on as far as anyone knows, but is home to countless tribes and nations. Our heroes meet runaway lovers – a cutlery apprentice and a girl from the linen cabinets. They are aided by the Library monks, whose expertise encompasses everything from House history to the minute details of plasterwork. They are nearly killed by attic bandits and hunted by nomadic bands of steeplejacks.

You get them abducted by aliens, of course.

Aside from imbuing the House with a deep sense of history and complexity, Williams raises an important point that anyone who has ever played “The Sims” can recognize: what do you do when you start to empathize with a computer-generated being?

During their time in the House, they meet people who seem to be genuinely good, perceptive, interesting people, qualities that we don’t know how to confidently imbue in real humans, much less coded simulacra. The residents of the House have passions and dreams, they love and hate just as “real” people do. They can’t be written off as “just code,” because they don’t act that way. They help and hinder our heroes just as people out in Real Life might.

I don't know the answer, but this young... man seems interested in finding out.

This brings up an interesting ethical problem: while they can’t be sure what their ultimate goal will be, our heroes are pretty sure that the system will eventually have to be destroyed – as far as they know, it is the Otherland system that is keeping them trapped, and their loved ones in comas. Will doing this be, in essence, genocide? By shutting down the Otherland network to save the children in comas, and to save themselves, will they be condemning thousands – perhaps millions – of coded “people” to extinction? Are these “people” really people? After all, the Grail Brotherhood was planning to become immortal code themselves – would they be any less alive than their meat incarnations?

While this is not a problem that we have to grapple with yet, it’s one that may come up eventually. Tad Williams has done a very nice job in this series of predicting technological advancement, so he may have seen forward on this one, too.

The other simworld that makes this my favorite book is a derivative one. This means that it is based on an extant work, much like the Alice in Wonderland world that Paul Jonas goes to, or the bizarre cartoon kitchen from which Orlando and Fredericks had to escape. This world is one of the oldest stories there is, and was the first simworld to be created when the construction of the Otherworld began.

It is The Iliad.

Somehow, I don't have a Sim of Achilles. (Art by NegativeFeedback on DeviantArt)

I’ve read the original poem a few times, and I’m impressed with it every time. It’s a massive story, full of heroes and villains, bravery and treachery, and death. Lots and lots of death. It’s an epic poem, and it deserves the title, as it pits nations, men, and gods against each other in what is ultimately a tragic and terrible ten year war. For Tad Williams to use this as the climax for a novel is nothing short of audacious, but he pulls it off wonderfully.

Not only does he manage to keep hold of the terrible horror of war that Homer put throughout his poem, Williams integrates his characters into the story, putting them in the roles of key figures such as Achilles, Patroclus, Cassandra and Odysseus. They all want to get into Troy so they can find their way to the Black Mountain, but to do so they must go through the war that has served as the archetype for human conflict for the last few millennia. Their choices, freely made, reflect the choices of the characters they inhabit, which are themselves models for heroes of fiction throughout literary history.

In one wonderful scene, Sam Fredericks, who is inhabiting the character of Patroclus, is wondering what to do about her sick friend, Orlando Gardiner, AKA Achilles. He cannot fight, but the Argives need him, and throughout their long friendship as online gamers, it was always Orlando who was the hero. Sam was the sidekick, the buddy, but when you made the movie poster, Orlando’s character would always be in the middle of the shot.

But much like another Sam in another story, Fredericks knows that heroism isn’t just muscles and swords and snappy dialogue. It’s about doing what has to be done, even if you don’t want to do it. Nearly crippled by progeria, a debilitating childhood illness, Orlando has nonetheless continued to fight on in the Otherland. Now the hero cannot fight, and Sam realizes it’s the sidekick who has to pick up the burden. Thus, Sam unknowingly fulfills the destiny of the character she is portraying, puts on the shining armor of Achilles, and goes out to inspire the Argives to fight so that she and her friends might live.

Chocolate! It's full of chocolate!

The entire Troy sequence is amazing, and every time I read this book, I feel compelled to read The Iliad again.

But the series doesn’t end there, of course. Suffice it to say we hit a major climax by the end of this book. People are in danger, secrets are revealed, battles are fought… and one of our brave heroes makes the Ultimate Sacrifice. We are brought to the heart of the operating system, the Black Mountain which entombs the Other. The Grail Brotherhood sets their immortality sequence in motion, and the amoral killer Dread makes his bid for virtual godhood. Setting us up for the final book, we are left with our heroes in disarray – divided and lost, dropped into an entirely new environment that is beyond their understanding and forced to cooperate with their gravest enemies for their survival.

You may look at this book and think, “Holy cow. 924 pages. There is no way I’m reading 924 pages.” But you will, and it’ll go a lot faster than you think. Williams has done a great job of making a multi-layered, fast-paced story that you can enjoy on many levels. You can revel in the action and the mystery, you can ponder deep philosophical problems, or you can comb through the great attention to detail and see how much work he must have done to get the Trojan War sequence right.

Hats off to you, Tad Williams.

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“Jesus Mercy. There have to be easier ways than this to save the world.”
– Renie Sulaweyo, Otherland: Mountain of Black Glass
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Mountain of Black Glass on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, existentialism, fantasy, friendship, Homer, internet, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, story, Tad Williams, virtual reality, world-crossing