Category Archives: war

Books about war.

Review 224: A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time 14)

LL 224 - WoT 14 - A Memory of LightA Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

At last.

At long, long last.

I have been reading this series since it started back in 1990, and have followed it closely in the twenty-three years that followed. I haunted bookstores, waiting for new releases and pestered the employees for information they just didn’t have. I joined WoT message boards back on the old Prodigy system, and even subscribed to a Wheel of Time newsletter back in the day when said newsletters were printed on paper and sent through the mail. (kids, ask your parents) I give you that context so you know where I was, mentally and emotionally, when I started this book. As much as I love this series, I was equally happy to see it finally end.

And oh, what an ending.

We’ve known ever since day one that this series couldn’t end with anything less than the greatest battle the world had ever seen. Tarmon Gai’don – the Last Battle – was due, and simply by definition it would have to be bigger and more terrible than anything that had come before. It would envelop the world, and its ending would shape the future – or end it entirely.

Art by g-a-t-i-n-h-a on DeviantArt

Art by g-a-t-i-n-h-a on DeviantArt

As we begin the book, the first wave of this battle has begun. The great city of Caemlyn is under siege by the forces of the Shadow, and the lands along the northern borders of the world are marching to war. The Seanchan are still itching for a fight, and the Aes Sedai are finally beginning to re-assert their power and their unity. Under all of this, however, the Shadow is lurking, waiting, planning and plotting.

There is no calm before this storm. All that can be done is to prepare.

Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, is the one who will fight the Dark One itself and truly win or lose the world. There is an earthly situation to take care of, though, and he has a plan for it. By fighting a four-fronted battle, he hopes to keep the forces of the Shadow busy while he strikes at their heart in Shayol Ghul. Thousands will die, but they will give him the time he needs to penetrate the heart of the Dark One’s power.

If he is very, very lucky, he will not only defeat the Dark One, but also leave a legacy behind that will ensure some measure of peace and stability. Assuming the world doesn’t end entirely before he can win.

Really, I’ve probably spoiled enough already, and it’s hard not to go into a lot of detail when you talk about this book. There’s just so much stuffed into it – twists and turns, deaths and defeats, victories and sacrifices – that to start listing them creates the need to list them all.

Ultimately, the best that can be said for this book is that it was the right ending for the series. A lot of that can be attributed to the skill that Brandon Sanderson brings to the table, and his ability to not only keep Robert Jordan’s world alive, but to make it somewhat leaner, more modern in its execution. Sanderson is excellent at writing action, which pays off in many, many, many scenes in the nearly 200 page chapter titled simply, “The Last Battle.” Jordan may have laid the groundwork for it, but it was Sanderson who made sure its finished form made sense and had the emotional punch necessary for the end of such a series.

art by Raymond Swanland

art by Raymond Swanland

And boy, were there emotional punches. Punches galore. From the repeated attempts to destroy the horror that Demandred has become to Elayne’s stand against the armies of the shadow to Rand’s own terrible battle with the embodiment of all that is evil and wrong in the universe, the fights that go on in the Last Battle are not just physical. They are a struggle against not only physical oblivion but also spiritual destruction.

Battling the Dark One is a battle against despair and hopelessness, as Rand discovers during his own battle – a duel of realities in which he and the Dark One propose their ideal worlds to each other. Unfortunately, Rand discovers that his own vision of a world without evil is just as horrifying as a world without goodness would be. It isn’t a supernatural source that defines who human beings are, but rather their struggles against the challenges of the world that do so. Without evil, humans could not be what they are. Rand comes to understand this, and with that understanding comes the realization that good is not what opposes that Dark One. You’re not going to beat him by being nice or putting on a white cloak and smiting shifty travelers.

You defeat the Dark One by simply never giving up. It’s a maltheistic universe – when the most powerful supernatural force known is one that wants you to lay down in despair, simply the act of getting up in the morning is an act of defiance. Taking up arms against an army of monsters, an army that will almost certainly destroy you, is the greatest example of this hope that confounds the Dark One so much. For even if Rand’s forces die, they will not have been defeated.

Art by dem888 on DeviantArt

Art by dem888 on DeviantArt

Of course, given what we know of fiction, if you predict that the Forces of Goodness win, well, that’s a pretty safe bet. But how they win and what they sacrifice to win are the reason we read. There are deaths that we saw coming a mile away, and others that are surprising and saddening. There are twists in strategy that don’t seem to make a lot of sense until much later, and wonderful moments where you just want to put the book down and applaud. And, as it’s the metric of any good adventure story, there are “Oh shit” moments a-plenty.

The book is not without its flaws, certainly, and every reader will find something that didn’t meet their very, very high expectations. But you know what? That’s just too damn bad. That’s the way the series ends, and perhaps after some time and some distance, some of the choices that Jordan and Sanderson made will be a little more palatable to us.

The unanswered questions that the book leaves us with, however, may not. From the identity of the mysterious Nakomi to the fate of Elayne’s twins to exactly how Rand lit his pipe at the very end – these things may never be explained. And that, too, is something we’ll just have to live with.

The way I see it, this book was best ending we could have hoped for. There were so many ways that it could have gone wrong, that it could have been so terribly disappointing – to say nothing of simply not existing at all – that to have the book be as good as it is is something we should all appreciate. If we nitpick, if we call attention to some points that didn’t make us perfectly happy, well, that should be done knowing that we still have an excellent final volume. One that many of us have waited a long, long time for.

There are no endings to the Wheel of Time, really. But this is an ending. And it’s a good one.

—–
“You’re welcome in my house when this is over. We’ll open a cask of Master al’Vere’s best brandy. We’ll remember those who fell, and we’ll tell our children how we stood when the clouds turned black and the world started to die. We’ll tell them we stood shoulder to shoulder, and there was just no space for the Shadow to squeeze through.” – Perrin Aybara, A Memory of Light

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
A Memory of Light at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
A Memory of Light 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

Leave a comment

Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 220: Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time 13)

LL 220 - WoT 13 - Towers of MidnightWheel of Time 13: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This is it, folks. We’re nearly done. Hang in there….

I’m finding this book tough to review for a few reasons. Firstly, reviewing it is kind of like preaching to the choir – if you’ve read this far into Wheel of Time then you really don’t need me to tell you that you ought to read this book. You probably already have, maybe more than once. If you haven’t started the series, there’s so much information you need to know in order for this book to make sense that this review will have no real significance for you. So I’ll just have to tell you what I thought and hope that’s enough.

Be warned: Spoilers ahead. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but they’re there.

As with all the Wheel of Time books, a lot happens in this volume. Some of the events have been anticipated by the fans for more than a decade, others are wonderful surprises. Either way, they’re setting us up for what I expect to be the Mother of All Finales when A Memory of Light comes out.

They do say Two Rivers folk could give lessons to mules in stubbornness, so...

They do say Two Rivers folk could give lessons to mules in stubbornness, so…

Let’s begin with Perrin, since he gets the most page time in this book. He has rescued his wife from the Shaido Aiel, along with a city full of refugees and former prisoners. Despite what he wants, these people look to him to be their leader, something he wants no part of. He just wants to send everybody home, forget that he was ever called the Lord of the Two Rivers, and go back to leading a normal life. But the Wheel won’t let that happen. Perrin Aybara is ta’veren, one of those individuals who both shape and are shaped by the Pattern, and what he wants doesn’t much figure into it.

One of the issues I’ve had with Perrin, actually, is this steadfast, stubborn ignorance of what and who he truly is. For many books now, he’s been going through this whole “I just want to be normal” phase, when it’s obvious to everyone else – his wife, the people traveling with him, the dead wolves he talks to, to say nothing of the readers – that Perrin can never lead a normal life again. As with real people, it’s frustrating to see them deny what’s so clearly true, and that was one of the reasons why Perrin has never been my favorite character.

He turns around on that in this book, however. He does finally start to make peace with who and what he is, and understands his duties to the people who follow him. With that understanding comes strength – the strength to win over his greatest enemies and to master the abilities available to him in the World of Dreams. Perrin is finally coming into his own as both a leader and a warrior, and it will be good to see him look forward to the future instead of long for a past he can’t have anymore.

At this point, Mat would probably say, "It's all part of the plan!!"

At this point, Mat would probably say, “It’s all part of the plan!!”

Mat is another who has been getting under my skin. While I love the way that Sanderson writes him – much funnier, more sarcastic, more modern than Jordan wrote him – he also wants nothing more than to opt out of the role that fate has decreed for him. Through his travels, he has been granted centuries of knowledge about battle and war, he has gone toe-to-toe against creatures that literally defy human understanding, and has a power over luck and fortune that has saved him more times than he can count. Yet he still resists the destiny that is clear to everyone else – to be a leader in the Last Battle.

And that battle is definitely coming soon. Vast armies of Shadowspawn are overwhelming the northern defenses, turning whole cities into killing grounds. Food is rotting at a rapid rate, sometimes as soon as it is prepared. The very fabric of space and time is twisting, moving things around randomly. Rooms, streets, entire villages might shift and vanish in the night. The Dark One is nearly free, and there are very few options open when it comes to stopping him.

Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, has one idea – to break the seals of the Dark One’s prison so that it may be re-sealed. Rand’s opinion, however, is not very well regarded at the moment. Despite being the prophesied warrior on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests, he’s been kind of an unpredictable nutjob of late. In an attempt to be ready to save the world, Rand tried to distance himself from all emotion, all ties to the world, so that he could be hard enough to do what must be done when the End Times come. He has done terrible things in the name of What Must Be Done, which has led some to fear that the world would be doomed regardless of who won the final battle.

He’s feeling much better now, though. He has come to a state of understanding that should allow him not only victory against the Dark One but also peace. Unfortunately, it’s going to take some time to convince others of that, especially Egwene – formerly the Girl Next Door, now the Amyrlin Seat, leader of all Aes Sedai.

This is gonna be AWESOME! (art by dem888 on DeviantArt)

This is gonna be AWESOME! (art by dem888 on DeviantArt)

Having ended the internecine feud within the White Tower and begun the process of reconciliation, Egwene finds herself at odds against Rand and those who follow him. She agrees with his ends – victory over the Dark One – but not his means. If necessary, she will stand against the Dragon Reborn all the way to the end of the world.

There’s so much more, too. There are action scenes between Mat and the vicious gholam that made me wish I had an animation studio at my disposal. A heartbreaking reunion between father and son. A terrible vision of the future of the Aiel, should things continue the way they are. Ragtag armies barely holding their own, people who we thought were dead revealed to be alive, sons reunited with their mother, battles against the forces of darkness, mislaid messages, a daring rescue, a growing army, and so, so much more.

The complexity of Wheel of Time is understandably off-putting for a lot of new readers, but I think Sanderson is doing a very good job at putting all the pieces together. We are now on the brink of the end, ready to dive into the Last Battle and the much-anticipated Fourth Age. Questions will be answered, people will live, nations will die, and the Wheel of Time will turn.

Stick with me folks, it’s only going to get better.

——————————————————————-
“After what we went through together, it turns out that she’s Morgase Trakand. Not just a queen – the Queen. The woman’s a legend. And she was here, with us, serving us tea. Poorly.”
– Alliandre, Towers of Midnight
——————————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Towers of Midnight at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Towers of Midnight 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

Leave a comment

Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 216: The Gathering Storm (Wheel of Time 12)

LL 216 - WoT 12 - The Gathering StormWheel of Time 12: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Yes, of course there are some spoilers. Fewer than usual, perhaps, but still – do you want to take that chance?

Imagine you have a favorite band, and for one reason or another – accident, death, Yoko Ono – they break up. There will be no more music from them.

But it is decided that, regardless of what fate wants for the band, their music is too well-loved and too important to be allowed to stop. So a new band is formed, and they spend years poring over the original music. They get every recording, every bootleg, every interview about how and why these musical giants did what they did. They collect the original instruments and reproduce how the songs were recorded. They do everything in their power to understand that music as best they can. And then they start to make new music.

No one can ever replace you, Sonny...

No one can ever replace you, Sonny…

When you hear it, you can tell that it’s not the original group – maybe there’s a lyrical choice that the old band wouldn’t have used, or perhaps a certain favoring of chords that’s different – but if you sit back and relax, and let yourself just enjoy the music, you can almost believe that it’s your favorite band, come back together to make new and wonderful music again.

That’s kind of what it was like to read this book.

In his introduction, Sanderson says that he’s not trying to replace Robert Jordan – he’s not going to try and copy Jordan’s style or techniques. “Instead, I’ve adapted my style to be appropriate to the Wheel of Time. My main goal was to stay true to the souls of the characters.” This is certainly evident as you read the book – there are techniques that Sanderson uses that Jordan never did – especially in terms of narrative style, dialogue and thematic unity.

Sanderson is a generation younger than Robert Jordan, and this difference in age is reflected in the style of the book. While he certainly does his best to make it look as much like its predecessors as possible, for Sanderson to simply try to ape Jordan’s style would have been a disaster. The narration seems to have a lot more rhetorical commentary than in previous books – the introductory paragraphs of chapter one are a good example, where the narration itself is commenting on the fallen state of Tar Valon, asking “Where was the White Tower, the law?” This technique of the narrative asking questions of the characters is peppered throughout the book.

Having Mat end every chapter with "YOLO!" was perhaps a little TOO contemporary...

Having Mat end every chapter with “YOLO!” was perhaps a little TOO contemporary…

The narration seems a little tighter, more concise than Jordan’s style, which was long criticized for being somewhat superfluous in its verbosity. Again, this is probably a reflection of the generational difference between writers – Jordan probably grew up reading Tolkien, and Sanderson grew up reading Jordan. Each generation seeks to take the good from the previous one, while simultaneously trying to improve upon it. So by and large, the storytelling itself feels more contemporary than other books.

This is also true for the dialogue. There are more rapid-fire exchanges than usual, a sure sign of a younger author, and most of the time this works very well – he actually uses it in a few places to drop significant revelations about characters, so it seems he’s aware of what the quick back-and-forth can do. Each character has retained his or her original voice – with the possible exception of Mat Cauthon.

It became pretty clear as I read this book that Mat must be Sanderson’s favorite character, because he gets all the best lines. One thing that Jordan never did (and I don’t think he really cared to try) was make me laugh. On the other hand, nearly every chapter with Mat in it elicited at the very least an audible chuckle if not an outright laugh. Of all the characters in the book, Mat’s dialogue has become the most unique and, at the same time, the most contemporary, including, but not limited to, verbing a noun:

[Verin] reached into a pocket of her dress, pulling out several pieces of paper. One was the picture of Mat. “You didn’t ask where I got this.”
“You’re Aes Sedai,” Mat said, shrugging. “I figured you… you know, saidared it.”
Saidared it?” she asked flatly.
He shrugged.

Now for some readers, I have no doubt that this will be an intolerable change in a character’s voice. They’re going to go into paroxysms of rage that their favorite character has been turned into a Buffy guest star. And that’s a valid criticism, I suppose. I loved the change. Mat has always been the most rogueish of the characters, dicing and drinking and flirting, and you would expect that kind of person to be of a sharper form of wit. Sanderson’s decided to let Mat meet that potential, and I applaud him for it.

Even Liam Neeson called to tell Rand to lighten up  a little.

Even Liam Neeson called to tell Rand to lighten up a little.

By and large, though, the characters mostly sound like themselves. In some cases, more so, if that makes any sense. Rand, for example, is a lot more thoughtful than we’ve seen him before. For a long time, Rand was really a difficult character to get into. We were not often presented with those moments of sympathy that allow you to imagine yourself in that character’s skin, and perhaps that was a conscious choice of Jordan’s. Sanderson’s done a good job at letting us see what being the Dragon Reborn has done to Rand since he left Emond’s Field, and the path to disaster that he’s on. Rand has decided to become hard, as hard as he has to be so that he can live until the Last Battle, and we finally get a good look at why he thinks this is necessary. What’s more, we fear for him – there was one moment near the end of the book where, reading what Rand was about to do, I found myself saying, out loud, “No. No! Nonononono!” You’ll know it when you see it.

One other aspect of the work that Sanderson has focused on is thematic unity. Different characters experience similar situations that serve to reflect a certain theme of the work. Egwene’s trials, refusing to submit to the will of Elaida, are reflected in Aviendha’s increasingly ridiculous “punishments” by the Wise Ones, and bolstered by the appearance of Shemerin, an Aes Sedai who was, against all tradition, demoted to Accepted. They all serve to support the theme that you are who you say you are, and once you submit to another’s opinion of you, you lose. Egwene already knows it, Aviendha has to learn it, and Shemerin learned it too late.

The difference between being hard and being strong is another theme, this time balanced between Rand and Egwene. Rand, who has to unify the world under him before he fights the Dark One, has chosen to become hard. Not just steel-hard or rock-hard, but cuendillar-hard (a substance from the Age of Legends that is unbreakable by any known means). It is only by crushing his emotions, severing himself from others, and by doing whatever has to be done – up to and including mass murder – that he believes he can prepare for the inevitable confrontation.

Egwene - Keep up the good work! - HC

Egwene – Keep up the good work! – HC

Egwene, on the other hand, has to unify the White Tower before it’s too late. To do so, she must endure immense physical and emotional punishment at the hands of the very people she’s trying to save. She knows she’s right, of course, and the refusal of others to take her seriously would make it easy for her to just give up on the White Tower Aes Sedai. Leave them to their inevitable doom and build a new society of Aes Sedai loyal to her. But she doesn’t do that. She endures the pain, she controls her anger and her impulses, and constantly reminds herself why she is doing what she’s doing. In the end, this makes Egwene stronger, whereas Rand nearly shatters.

Overall, I was very happy with this book. Like many Wheel of Time fans, Jordan’s death worried me greatly. I worried that the whole story would just never be finished, that Rand would never find peace, the Tower would never be united, that Perrin would never have a quiet place just to be himself or that Mat would never be able to live a life with the responsibilities that he chooses. When Sanderson was announced as the author who would finish the series, I worried again, having never read his work. Would he be able to handle the task of finishing this series? Would he be able to pull together all the plot threads that were flying around and bring us to the conclusion that Jordan had known from the start? Would I, in other words, be utterly heartbroken?

I am very happy to say that I’m not worried anymore.

This was pretty much how I spent most of the book.

This was pretty much how I spent most of the book.

—————————————————-
“We can’t go back, Mat. The Wheel has turned, for better or worse. And it will keep turning, as lights die and forests dim, storms call and skies break. Turn it will. The Wheel is not hope, and the Wheel does not care, the Wheel simply is. But so long as it turns, folk may hope, folk may care. For with light that fades, another will eventually grow, and each storm that rages must eventually die. As long as the Wheel turns. As long is it turns….”
– Thom Merrilin, The Gathering Storm
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Gathering Storm at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Gathering Storm 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

Leave a comment

Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 215: THUD!

LL 215 - THUDTHUD! by Terry Pratchett

I love Discworld. I knew that already, but I thought I’d put that back out there. This book didn’t diminish my love of the Discworld by a single whit, though it didn’t inflame it either. It merely reinforced my feelings. Shored it up, say, like timbers in a mine shaft….

Sorry – there’s a lot about Dwarfs in this book, and it kind of gets to you.

In fact, Dwarfs play a pretty huge role in a lot of the stories that take place in Ankh-Morpork, the great cosmopolitan city of the Disc, mainly because they’re a race that, to humans, seems mysterious and difficult to really understand. The dwarfs have their ways, which they don’t share with outsiders, and find it difficult to reconcile living in a socially diverse city while still retaining their essential Dwarfishness. Through the Dwarfs, Pratchett is able to deal with an issue that most modern countries are struggling with in the 21st century – immigration.

But why, Colonel - WHY?!

But why, Colonel – WHY?!

Take it from me, it’s tough to live in a foreign country. You grew up with a whole set of rules that worked for you and made sense to you, but you now find yourself in a place where those rules no longer apply. And the new rules you have to play by make no sense and, in some situations, may actually seem downright wrong. The difference between the culture in your head and the one in your life is what we call “culture shock,” and there are several ways of dealing with it.

The first is to simply accept it. You’re in another country – they do things differently here. Accept that you’re going to have to play by the house rules, no matter what things were like where you came from. It may feel strange or uncomfortable, but it’s your job to adjust – the world will not change to make you happy, therefore you must change to be happy in the world.

Obviously, this is the option that I believe to be the best one.

Your second choice is to simply leave. If you can’t cope with the new culture, there’s no shame in that. Not everyone is flexible enough to do it. So you gave it a try and it didn’t work. Go somewhere more familiar, someplace where you won’t have to give up so much of what you hold dear.

Obviously this is not an easy option, especially if family or work are involved, but it is an option.

And then you can take your country back!!

And then you can take your country back!!

Third, you can pretend that the host culture is inferior to your own and totally disregard it. Band together with your countrymen and form enclaves, miniaturized versions of your home culture where your rules still apply. Isolate yourselves from the surrounding culture, and do whatever is necessary to keep it from wearing yours down.

This is popular among the more isolationist cultures – in this book, certain segments of Dwarf society. The problem is that sooner or later, the host culture and yours are going to come into conflict. And odds are, you’re going to lose.

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork. A Dwarf has been killed, and they’re ready to blame their ancient enemies, the Trolls. It’s coming up on Koom Valley day, you see, the day in which trolls and dwarfs remember the only battle in the multiverse where, according to the stories, both sides ambushed each other. Trolls hate Dwarfs and Dwarfs hate trolls – that’s how it’s always been, so the logical murderer must have been a Troll.

The problem is that the Commander of the City Watch, Sam Vimes, isn’t so sure. I mean, yes – it’s obvious, but it’s a little too obvious. The Deep Dwarfs, the ones who never come above ground, believe that the murder is beyond Vimes’ jurisdiction, and therein lies the conflict. By trying to keep him out of it, they pretty much ensure that the Watch will investigate this murder, and in the course of doing so, help to uncover a secret that the Deep Dwarfs would do anything to keep from getting out.

I can't help but imagine Vimes played by Bogart...

I can’t help but imagine Vimes played by Bogart…

This one, THUD! is one of the Vimes Books, which puts it very high in my estimation. Of all the characters he’s written, I like Vimes the best. Granny Weatherwax comes a close second. Basically I really like the old, cynical, take-no-shit characters that take the world into their own hands to do the Right Thing, no matter the cost to themselves. The reason why Vimes tops Weatherwax is that, of all the characters on the Disc, Vimes has had the most growth. In his first book, Guards! Guards!, he was a drunk and a failure, the nominal chief of the shadow of a night watch. Enter Carrot Ironfoundersson and a dragon, and Vimes’ path was set.

Now he’s a Duke, Commander of the Guard, married to one of the richest women in the city and the proud father of a toddler. He has everything. In fiction, this is never a good place to be….

The themes of this book are varied. There is, of course, the theme of culture clash – how much should one be allowed to keep the culture one grew up in? How many concessions must you and society make in order to keep everyone happy? The answer, in case you were curious, is hard to pin down, but it is most certainly not “none.”

Where's My CowIt’s also about fatherhood, though that’s more of a character-building theme for Vimes. He has a son now, and he has dedicated himself to his boy. Every night at 6:00, he reads their favorite book, Where’s My Cow to his son (a book that you can also buy, coincidentally enough). He cannot – must not be late for this. Not even by a minute, and certainly not for a good reason. Because if you’re willing to break a promise for a good reason, pretty soon you’ll be breaking it for a bad one. And it is this kind of personal, rock-solid integrity that keeps me coming back to Vimes.

If you’re already a Discworld fan, you don’t need my urging to pick this one up. It’s not the best of them, but it’s certainly a good read.

——————————–
“For the enemy is not Troll, nor is it Dwarf, but it is the baleful, the malign the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good.”
– The Diamond King, THUD!
——————————–

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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, peace, Terry Pratchett, war

Review 213: Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera 1)

LL 213 - Alera 1 - Furies of CalderonCodex Alera 1: Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

As you probably have noticed by now, I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The books are fun reads – fast-paced, gritty and realistic, while still maintaining that tarnished patina of fantasy about them. They have a great narrative voice and I could read them the same way I eat a bag of Doritos – all in one sitting, unsure of how it happened, but with less orange Cheez ™ on my fingers. I know for a fact that as long as Jim Butcher continues to write The Dresden Files, I will continue reading them.

At a certain point, I became aware of his Codex Alera series, mainly because he talked about them in author’s notes in the backs of the latest few Dresden paperbacks. I didn’t really read through the notes, usually because I was far too impatient to get into the next book, but I knew they were out there and that I would, sooner or later, have to read them. I also knew that they would be a different beast from what I was used to.

Not every story can be as inspiring as others...

Not every story can be as inspiring as others…

This series is Butcher’s real baby, as he tells us. From his childhood, Butcher was fascinated with high fantasy, the kinds of epic journeys that were made famous by people like Tolkien and Eddings, Zelazny, Brooks, and Weis and Hickman, to name a few. So, when he decided that he wanted to be a writer, it was on that kind of world-spanning, epic fantasy that he set his sights. He found what a lot of young writers find – that this kind of fiction is viciously hard to do well, and is really suitable only for writers who have either mutant-level innate talent or who have spent many, many years honing their skills.

Out of the process of working on his craft, of course, Butcher gave birth to Harry Dresden, which has certainly made the world a better place, but he never forgot his dream of writing an epic fantasy series. After much hard work, and what was no doubt a series of terrifying decisions to let it go public, Butcher published The Codex Alera, his contribution to the Sword-and-Sorcery genre.

It introduces us to the nation of Alera, an old and massive country build on swords, intrigue, and the strange talent possessed by most people to shape and control the very elements themselves. Within the very earth itself, in water and air and fire, trees and metal and stone, there are furies – spirit beings that can bend these elements to their will. The furies, in turn, link to a human, who gives them direction and purpose. A human in control of a fury is a force to be reckoned with, whether they are just bending a water fury to tell if someone is telling the truth, or compelling an earth fury to raise great walls in defense of a population. Most everyone has one or two furies at their command, and some of them have more. Young Tavi, living in the frontier region of Calderon, has none.

"We don't owe nobody nothin'..."

“We don’t owe nobody nothin’…”

Despite his disadvantage, however, Tavi is surrounded by good people. He’s been raised by his uncle, Bernard, who is the leader of their community at Bernardholt, and Bernard’s sister, Isana. Like all people on the edges of empire, the people of Bernardholt have learned to be tough and live without the security of armies or the support of central government. They take care of their own matters, thankyouverymuch, and don’t need a lot of interference from the rest of Aleran political society.

Unfortunately, of course, what they want doesn’t really matter. They soon find themselves at the heart of a violent coup, a plan to overrun the empire and topple its leaders. With the help of the inhuman Marat, the traitors to the First Lord are willing to sacrifice everything in order to save what they believe are the best parts of their nation.

Of all the themes that kind of got lost in this book, that last one is the one I wish had gotten more play – that sometimes people do horrible things for reasons that they believe are not only defensible, but actually good. The main antagonist, a man with the hilariously ironic name of Fidelias, starts out as a wonderfully conflicted character. He tricks his apprentice, the Cursor Amara, into traveling with him to the rebel camp. He makes an attempt to convert her to his way of thinking, and when she rejects a place in his coup, he reverts to Villain Pastiche – the former teacher who is very, very disappointed with his student, to the point where he just has to kill her so she won’t give away the plan. Fidelias travels with a sword-happy knight, Aldrick, who is almost invincibly good at what he does, and the knight’s lady-friend, a semi-psychotic water-crafter named Odiana.

He's an archetype we just can't quit.

He’s an archetype we just can’t quit.

It’s kind of unfortunate, really – I really wanted to be uncertain as to whether Fidelias and his crew were actually good guys, but I was pretty much convinced of their alignment within a few chapters. If I had one wish for this book, it would be that Butcher had kept me wondering throughout the book. I mean, it’s not impossible that the First Lord was deserving of being toppled, and that Amara had given her loyalties to the wrong man, but I stopped questioning that pretty quickly once Fidelias reached mustache-twirling levels.

In general, there were some parts of the story that I really liked, some that left me cold, and a lot that had me playing “Spot The Fantasy Trope” drinking game. Some of the best scenes were fast-paced and full of action, scenes that Butcher has always been good at. Whether it’s Tavi being chased by giant, heat-seeking spiders, or an all-out assault on a semi-impregnable fortress, Butcher does a very good job at controlling the action and making sure the reader knows what is going on where.

On the other hand, a lot of the narration itself, especially in the beginning, is way too talky. Probably one of the hardest things for any epic fantasy writer to do is to introduce his or her world to the reader in a way that is not only clear, but that also makes sense from within the story. Often characters spell out details of history and culture that they already know, and really don’t need to recap.

"As you know, the daily rotation of the Earth - the planet on which we live - makes it look like the firey ball of gas in the sky is rising."

“As you know, the daily rotation of the Earth – the planet on which we live – makes it look like the firey ball of gas in the sky is rising. In the east, no less.”

It would be as though I called my friend back in the United States and said, “As you know, President Obama, who was democratically elected by the people -” “Yes,” my friend says, “in a process that was established over two hundred years ago!” “Indeed,” I say. “President Obama – who is African-American – is thought by some to be Muslim!” “But he isn’t! He is a Christian!” “That’s right, a follower of that ancient religion founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ….”

It would be weird. But writers do this all the time, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction. And you have to feel a little sorry for them – they have all this information to give us, and no natural way to do it, because the residents of that world already know it. That’s why so many epic fantasies (this one included) tend to start in backwater, isolated regions, where people haven’t seen a tax collector in generations, and why the protagonists tend to be young, working-class people. They are the only ones who would need this kind of history recap. It’s one of the most common ways of filling the audience in, from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Star Wars, and Butcher is not an exception.

There is a lot of potential here, though, shining through all the weight that the first book of a fantasy series always has to bear. There’s a complicated political system that we have barely begun to explore, and the way that people and furies interact is shown to be very flexible and creative. As we follow Tavi through the rest of the books, we’ll get to see how someone without the ability to call on a fury might make his way in the world.

Also, I look forward to seeing Tavi grow out of his awkward mongoose stage...

Also, I look forward to seeing Tavi grow out of his awkward mongoose stage…

Incidentally, that is a place where I have to give Butcher credit. I seriously expected Tavi to finally gain his furycrafting powers in a big way at some point in the book, but he never did. For all intents and purposes, Tavi is a cripple in this world, and that is going to be a serious obstacle in his future endeavors. It looks like Butcher’s going to allow the boy to stay disabled, which makes for a far more interesting character in the end.

Anyway, out of loyalty to an author I really like, and in the hopes that he will be able to break the shackles of the Fantasy Formula, I will continue with this series. Don’t disappoint me, Jim….

—————————————————————–
“Two days ago, I had a lot more sense….”
– Tavi, Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
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Filed under epic fantasy, fantasy, Jim Butcher, politics, war, wizardry

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

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

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

And finally things start to come together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay attention, Galina...

Pay attention, Galina…

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

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

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

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“If we die, we will die as who we are.”
– Banner-General Kaerde, Knife of Dreams
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Knife of Dreams at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Knife of Dreams at Amazon.com

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

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 208: A Canticle for Liebowitz

LL 208 - A Canticle for LiebowitzA Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This has probably been noted by many better thinkers than I, but the way I see it is this: history takes a long time to happen.

I know, I know. Mind: blown.

We are lucky in this day and age that we have so much information available to us about history. Go to any of your better museums and you’ll see artifacts of a bygone age, books and clothes and various objects carefully displayed under glass. Through the meticulous work of historians and scholars throughout the ages, we have created an unbroken chain of knowledge through the centuries that is so thorough and so strong that we feel like the days of Shakespeare, of Charlemagne, of Pericles all happened just the other day.

But what if that chain were broken? What if something so big, so terrible were to happen that we had to rebuild history from scratch, using oral tradition and whatever pathetic scraps of memorabilia we could find? Whom could we trust to keep it and put it all together, and then what should we do with it in the end?

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

These are the questions that humanity is forced to confront after the Flame Deluge – a nuclear inferno that claimed the great nations of the world near the end of the twentieth century. All would have been lost if not for the work of Isaac Liebowitz, an engineer-turned-monk who dedicated his life and the lives of his brothers to the preservation of knowledge. Over the centuries, his part of the Albertan order would become the caretakers of a bygone age, guardians of history itself, and would play a key role in the future of humanity, for good or for ill.

A Canticle for Liebowitz is a novel in three parts, spanning over a thousand years of future history. It begins in the 26th century, where the inhabitants of what was once the United States are bound into roving tribes and insular city-states. There, the young monk Francis makes a startling discovery from the life of his patron, the soon-to-be-sainted Liebowitz, a discovery which changes his life and the lives of everyone in his order. Through chance, or perhaps divine intervention, Francis finds an underground bunker, a shelter from the Fallout demons of old. He rummages around the cluttered remains of whomever had sealed themselves inside, and happens upon a strongbox, within which are handwritten pieces of paper, including a blueprint for an electrical circuit designed by Leibowitz himself. Suddenly, Francis’ vocation was clear. Or at least clearer than it had been before.

Then the story jumps forward to the 29th century, an age of discovery and renaissance. The learned both inside and outside the Church are beginning to rediscover science, and apply it to rebuilding some of the technology that was thought to be lost so long ago. At the same time, local leaders are vying for power, and trying to ensnare the monks of St. Liebowitz in their plots. The world is changing, progressing, and not everyone is comfortable with this change.

36th Century - so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

36th Century – so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

The third part of the story propels us into the 36th century, an age undreamed-of by even those who lived before the world was cleansed by fire. Humanity is traveling between the stars and giving life to their machines, making full use of knowledge both new and old. Unfortunately, mankind may succumb to the same pride, the same flaws that nearly destroyed it a thousand years before. On the eve of self-annihilation, a desperate group of pilgrims is sent out to the stars to try and keep some spark of humanity alive in the cosmos, despite humanity’s nearly unstoppable urge to destroy itself. And at the center of all of this is the Order of Leibowitz, holding on to old works and memorabilia, waiting for either the right hands or the wrong ones.

The book sounds depressing in its nature, but it isn’t. Yes, mankind makes the same stupid mistakes over and over again, not remembering the horror that befell them the last time. But despite that, there are still good people and there is still hope. You turn the last page knowing that the world, and humanity, will go on in one form or another. Even with our propensity for self-destruction, we are equally capable of brilliance and discovery.

In a larger sense, too, this book is one long journey into philosophy, bringing up some questions that are truly fundamental to who we are as a species. For example, the book addresses the topic of euthanasia in one section, with the Abbot of the order violently opposed to the Mercy Camps that the government is building. Is it better to make the sick and injured live in their sickness, or should we give them a way out? Is suicide – assisted or otherwise – ever permissible? The characters that debate this topic each have a clear and rational reason for thinking the way they do, and yet they come to no agreement. The characters, for the short time we get to see them, are fascinating. You feel sorry for them, hopeful for them, and afraid for them, because Miller has written them as human beings. We don’t have Interchangeable Scientist A and Interchangeable Scientist B arguing opposite points. We instead have scholars and religious, each desperately trying to protect his point of view.

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Or what about the nature of technology itself? The monks are charged with being the memory of mankind, yet when people start trying to recover the lost sciences, the abbot feels uncomfortable with the whole idea. After all, their predecessors in civilization followed the path of science, and look where it got them. Might it not be better to just let things stay as they are? Hard, yes, and certainly not a perfect world, but when you don’t even have electricity, blowing up the world is hard to do.

What I also found interesting was how Miller placed the Catholic Church at the center of this story. In the world after the Deluge, the Church is the only organization left, and it fills the power vacuum nicely. Through its system of priesthoods and orders, it remains the last island of civilization in a world that’s turned to chaos. I’m not a big fan of the Catholic Church for many reasons, but he really made it into an establishment that I could appreciate. It represented continuity and caution, as well as taking up the guardianship of human history. For all its faults, if the Church could keep humanity from failing utterly, I would be grateful for it.

It’s intellectual science fiction at its best, really, exploring the kind of big ideas that science fiction is meant to do. Miller has sung a song – a canticle – not just for the fictional Liebowitz, but for humanity as a whole, and asks his readers to sing along with him.

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“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”
– Thon Taddeo, A Canticle for Liebowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr. on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz at Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, history, religion, science fiction, technology, war