Tag Archives: epic fantasy

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


1 Comment

Filed under epic fantasy, fantasy, Jim Butcher, politics, war, wizardry

Review 207: Crossroads of Twilight (Wheel of Time 10)

LL 207 - WoT 10 - Crossroads of TwilightWheel of Time 10: Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Once again – certain things may be spoiled here. Consider yourself warned.

This is where the series finally starts to get its legs back under it, and I think I figured out why: Jordan went about writing it the wrong way.

Let me explain: Following book six, Lord of Chaos, the series separated into five major storylines, which have thus far stayed pretty independent of each other. They’ve progressed at different rates, with different narrative structures, and have occupied different amounts of page space, and overall they synced up pretty poorly. The five major stories that I’ve spotted are these:

The plot diagram for Wheel of Time is only slightly more complicated. No need to worry.

The plot diagram for Wheel of Time is only slightly more complicated. No need to worry.

Leading the rebel Aes Sedai, Ewene al’Vere, the Amyrlin-in-Exile, has deftly manipulated her people into a war against the White Tower and Elaida, the woman who usurped the office of Amyrlin and drove a wedge between the sisters. Originally intended to be a puppet Amyrlin, Egwene has proven herself very good at managing people who are highly resistant to being managed. Her goal is nothing less than the deposing of Elaida and the reunification of the White Tower, no matter what the cost. It’s a story of politics, scheming and manipulation, all leading up to what must be terrible war.

Elayne Trakand is fighting her own political war as she attempts to become the Queen of Andor. Under normal circumstances, this would be no problem. Her mother, the former Queen, is presumed dead, which would pretty much make Elayne a shoo-in. Unfortunately, Morgase ended her reign rather badly (she was under the control of one of the Forsaken at the time, but no one in Andor knows that), so half the Great Houses in Andor who should be supporting Elayne are very reluctant to do so. She’s in a political battle which will not only decide the throne of Andor, but will also affect the world.

In another part of the world, Perrin Aybara is hunting for the people who kidnapped his wife. The Shaido, a renegade clan of Aiel who refuse to acknowledge Rand as their Chief of Chiefs, are spread out across the land, and they bring terror, blood and death with them. Faile Aybara has been taken prisoner by them, and only quick thinking and some unexpected allies are keeping her alive. Perrin is determined to find her, whatever the cost to his body or soul.

Outside of Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon has single-handedly committed enough crimes against the Seanchan Empire to earn himself a painful death many times over. He has not only allowed three Aes Sedai to escape their clutches, not only spirited out three sul’dam, who know a secret that could break the Empire, but he has kidnapped the Daughter of the Nine Moons, High Lady Tuon – the daughter of the Seanchan Empress. His ragtag group of refugees have only one goal in mind – to get away from the Seanchan. But Mat knows there are stranger fates in store for him, not the least of which is his fated marriage to Tuon.

Finally, we have the central character in this whole saga – Rand al’Thor. When last we saw him, he was cleansing saidin – the half of the One Power that is used by men – of the poisonous taint laid upon it by the Dark One thousands of years ago. This was yet another step in preparing for the Last Battle that he, as the Dragon Reborn, must one day fight. He has armies at his command, Aes Sedai sworn to serve him, three women who love him, and a madman inside his own head. His only goal is to stay sane and live long enough to save the world. Even that is looking like it might not happen….

Another Wheel of Time book? Sure, I have space for that...

Another Wheel of Time book? Sure, I have space for that…

Now any one of those storylines might make for a really good book by itself, and therein lies the solution to the sagginess of this part of the series. They’re all interesting stories, but they all move at different paces, climax at different points, and have vastly different themes and atmospheres. In order to jam them all together into the Wheel of Time books, Jordan had to play fast and loose with chronologies, often backtracking in one story so that he could catch up in another. What’s more, moving from one storyline to another was jarring and unpleasant, making it a chore to actually read the books.

What he could have done was to create five mini-series following Lord of Chaos, perhaps of two or three books each. Each series could flow at its own pace, and stay focused on one of the five major characters, with no break or interruption in the story’s flow. Each story would have been allowed to develop freely, and then they would all come back together to re-integrate into the main series, which would once again present a more unified narrative that brings us to the end.

Or even – and this is something I’m pretty sure has never been done – let the five storylines play out without ever re-integrating them. That would mean the Wheel of Time series becoming more of a Shared World group of books, rather than finishing as the series that started way back in Eye of the World. This would never work, though – it’s only in real life that people start off together, drift apart and never reconnect again, and if there’s anything I’m reading this series for, it is not its resemblance to the real world.

Temporarily splitting into five sub-series might have solved a whole lot of problems though. The reader would have been able to decide which stories interested him the most. Devoted followers, of course, would have bought them all and read them all, but if you’re not interested in watching Perrin anguish over Faile, or you rightly think that Mat’s storyline is pretty rudderless and won’t mean anything until he reconnects with Rand, you’d be able to skip that mini-series. Some clever writing would be necessary once they all integrate, but it would be possible to enjoy the Wheel of Time without necessarily jumping around five storylines every ten chapters or so.

"Don't let it overwhelm you, Artax! Only four more books to go!"

“Don’t let it overwhelm you, Artax! Only four more books to go!”

My point is that the middle of this series has turned out to be muddled and clunky, and if there’s any point where readers might just give up, it would be here. The good news is that in this book, the five storylines finally catch up to each other; the first 357 pages are describing what’s happening in the other storylines while Rand and Nynaeve were cleansing saidin back in Winter’s Heart. Once that event has passed in all five stories, the narrative flow seems to smooth out a lot, and the reading gets easier. I can’t say how long that will last, or how long it’ll take before they all re-integrate, but I know they will sooner or later.

This volume, meanwhile, has some great character moments in it – Egwene cementing herself as the true Amyrlin Seat and doing what must be done to secure her victory; Perrin discovering just how hard he can be and what lengths he will go to to find his wife; Mat’s intricate dance with Tuon, in which neither of them really knows the steps. And on the dark side, Alviarin discovers that even the great and powerful Chosen are not guaranteed victory, and Black Ajah sisters everywhere lay in wait to serve their dark master. And there’s an interesting essay to be written on the psychological position that Jordan takes in these books – Behavior molds personality, and punishment molds behavior. Something I have to mull over as I read, but when I have it set in my head, I’ll let you know.

The story progresses. Fitfully, and in five different directions, but it progresses. Stay with me, folks, and we’ll get there…..

Sometimes, there were lessons in stories, if you looked for them.
– Elayne Trakand, Crossroads of Twilight

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Crossroads of Twilight at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Crossroads of Twilight at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
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, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 203: Winter’s Heart (Wheel of Time 09)

Wheel of Time 09: Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Just a note – you may consider this spoilery. Continue at your own risk.

We are continuing on with the series, and once again there’s a lot going on in the Westlands (which is the much better alternative name to “Randland.”). In Caemlyn, Elayne Trakand is busy preparing to become the Queen of Andor, as the world still believes that her mother, Morgase, is dead. She’s not, of course. She became a refugee after the Seanchan attack on Amador, became a Lady’s maid to Faile and Perrin, and subsequently became a captive of the Shaido Aiel, along with Faile and Alliandre, the Queen of Ghealdan. Not a good day for them, seeing as how the Shaido have become the worst that everyone expects of Aiel – murderous, thieving and vicious. Perrin is trying to rescue his wife, of course, but that rescue is not certain. Faile and Morgase will have to figure it out for themselves.

But getting back to Elayne – in Andor, she undergoes the ceremony to become first-sister to Aviendha, the Aiel woman with whom she must eventually share Rand al’Thor’s affections. It’s a great scene, that – a very simple procedure, but deep and meaningful as well. And it suggests a custom that I appreciate very much, having had friends that I consider on par with family. Under the direction of the Wise Ones of the Aiel, you become bonded with your friend and re-born, in a way. Forever after that, you are considered siblings, just as if you had come from the same mother.

Not all sisters want to make your life better.

Having a new sister isn’t going to make things all work out, though – Elayne has to cement her claim to the throne, and deal with an army of Borderlanders who really want to know where Rand is. Why, we don’t know yet. But from the looks of it, it can’t be all that good.

Meanwhile, in Ebou Dar, Mat has reappeared after the injuries he took during the Seanchan invasion. Still wrapped around Queen Tylin’s finger, Mat is looking for a way to get himself out of the city without getting himself or anyone else killed. What this ends up meaning is that he has to escape the city with three Aes Sedai who have been leashed and collared to serve as living weapons for the Seanchan – a crime punishable by death.

The Seanchan are still an interesting player in this series, even if the battle scenes in the last book were kind of dull. They are the descendants of Artur Hawkwing’s armies, vanished across the sea a thousand years ago. Through a millennium of fighting both men and monsters, they have become a formidable military force, held together by the damane – women who can channel, but who are considered less than human for all that. Controlled by other women, sul’dam, the damane are the heart of Seanchan power. No conventional army can stand up to them, and if it weren’t for Rand and his Asha’man, they would have overrun the Westlands already.

(art by minniearts on DeviantArt)

They control Ebou Dar, of course, but they do it in a manner similar to the Romans. They don’t try to change the conquered people, or break them. All they require is an understanding that they are now living under Seanchan rule. Respect the new rulers, obey the laws, pay your taxes and life need not go on any differently. Cause trouble, though, and the hammer will come down on you. Hard.

Even though their military advances are being slowed down, though, their cultural invasion is proceeding. This is not a mission of conquest for them – it’s a homecoming. With the soldiers and damane are also coming farmers and weavers and blacksmiths – normal people who want to make a new life for themselves. With the Westlands practically empty as they are, the Seanchan will have no trouble finding places to live. Right in time for the Last Battle against the Dark One, of course, but they don’t know about that yet. Regardless of how things turn out, the Westlands will never be the same after this.

Rand al’Thor is on a mission of his own, one which involves a great deal of misdirection. After the attack on his person by renegade Asha’man – in which a chunk of the Sun Palace in Cairhien was destroyed and a lot of people died – Rand has decided that enough is enough. This whole “doomed to go mad” thing that comes part and parcel with being a male channeler of the Source has got to go. So yes, he’s decided to cleanse saidin of the Dark One’s taint, but not before taking a detour into the island city-state of Far Madding, to hunt down the men who nearly killed him.

What can I say – the story advances. The plotlines being what they are, we do miss out a bit in this book. Perrin’s hunt for his wife gets cut short, narrative-wise, and we hardly see anything at all of Egwene and the rebel Aes Sedai. This was, if I remember, really annoying when the book first came out. Reading them all at once, however, it’s easier to deal with, knowing that the next book will refocus on people who’ve been out of the spotlight for a while. The parts that did get the most page-time, however, were interesting and, for the most part, exciting to read. So, a step up from Path of Daggers.

“You can never know everything, and part of what you know is always wrong. Perhaps even the most important part. A portion of wisdom lies in knowing that. A portion of courage lies in going on anyway.”
– Lan Mandragoran, Winter’s Heart

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Winter’s Heart at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Winter’s Heart at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
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, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 198: The Path of Daggers (Wheel of Time 08)

Wheel of Time 08: The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Again, spoilers. Just putting that out there.

I knew I shouldn’t have left off reviewing this for a few days. I have almost forgotten what happened in this book.

Oh, I know the events that transpired – Borderland kings and queens assembling to deal with Rand in some mysterious way; the using of the Bowl of the Winds to finally change the weather – and the terrible bargain that it fulfills between the Sea Folk and the Aes Sedai; the second invasion of the Seanchan from across the sea, this time into Ebou Dar; Perrin building his army to bring the violent Dragonsworn who follow The Prophet back to Rand….

And that’s all just in the first ten chapters.

It’s not a matter of, as is so often complained about, “nothing happening” – plenty happens in this book. In fact, a lot of what happens in this book directly sets up the rest of the series, and marks some major changes not only in the plot but in the world of the story itself. The problem is that the format of the first half of the series – a reasonably self-contained book that has a clear story climax and some sense of closure by the end – has completely fallen by the wayside. At this point, Jordan is writing for the series as a whole, and has only divided it up into separate volumes because TOR can’t sell it any other way.

Yes, more on political machinations and formalwear. Please.

This does have its advantages, but the disadvantages are greater. So of all the books thus far, I’d have to say that The Path of Daggers is my least favorite. Again – and I want to keep stressing this – not because there’s nothing going on. There’s plenty going on. It’s just not all that easy to keep track of, nor is it necessarily interesting to read.

The worst example of this, I think, is the Seanchan invasion. To catch you up, the Seanchan are an empire that lives in the land across the sea. Descended from the greatest king in history, Artur Hawkwing, they have returned to reclaim their ancestral lands. To do it, they have brought an army that has been trained by a thousand years of battle, creatures that seem like monsters to do their bidding, and leashed women who can wield the One Power as a weapon. Even under normal circumstances, this would be a problem. For Rand, circumstances are far from normal. The Seanchan mark a serious complication in his quest to bring all the nations under his rule in time for the Last Battle, so he has to show them who’s boss.

Surprisingly, with a massive army and a corps of Asha’man – men who can wield the One Power to destructive ends – dealing with the Seanchan becomes a tedious chore to read. Perhaps in an attempt to capture “the fog of war,” Jordan has us jumping from place to place and time to time, from a variety of points of view. What could have been an awesome clash of armies, men and women really going all-out with the One Power in battle for the first time becomes a trial to read. Not least because Rand al’Thor has become a thoroughly unlikable character.

In the middle of the book, Sorilea, the most senior and powerful of the Aiel Wise Ones meets with Cadsuane, an Aes Sedai so formidable that she has become a legend in her own lifetime, and they agree that Rand has become too hard. “Strong endures,” Sorilea says. “Hard shatters.” They vow to teach Rand and the Asha’man to remember laughter and tears, and if you ask me they’re not doing it a minute too soon.

I’m ignoring you for your own good, baby.

Rand is doing his best to harden his heart by this point, and not without reason. He’s got armies at his fingertips, and his decisions will kill a lot of men. He’s got these Asha’man to deal with – men who will inevitably go mad from using the One Power – and he can only bring himself to think of them as weapons. There’s his issue with allowing women to come to harm. Instead of being an endearing (if somewhat chauvinistic) character trait, it just becomes tedious and repetitive. Thankfully, the Maidens of the Spear will later beat the hell out of him for trying to treat them so delicately. In this book, it is almost impossible for me to actually like Rand, and makes me wish that Mat hadn’t been given one book off to recover from having a building dropped on him.

Other than the complete mess that is Rand’s storyline, the rest of the book is actually quite interesting. Elayne has finally come home to Caemlyn and is preparing to take her mother’s place as Queen of Andor. We have the rebel Aes Sedai preparing for all-out war with the White Tower, and Egwene consolidating her hold on the rebels. In the White Tower itself, a hunt for the Black Ajah has begun as Elaida does what little she can to free herself of the influence of her Keeper, Alviarin.

Tell me Joan Crawford wouldn’t be a perfect Elaida.

A word about Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, as an aside. No one likes her, and I can understand why. I don’t like her either, as a person. She’s arrogant to the bone, impatient, self-absorbed, power-hungry, and completely disregards anything that doesn’t conform to what she already believes is true. This mode of thinking leads the White Tower towards utter disaster, from the botched abduction of Rand to the loss of fifty sisters to the Black Tower. Elaida risks being stilled and deposed should the Hall of the Tower find out about her bungling, and she would deserve it, if not more. The only thing keeping her from that fate is the machinations of her Keeper of the Chronicles, who is more than happy to put Elaida under her thumb.

Having said that, it was this book that made her into one of my favorite characters. I still wouldn’t want to sit next to her on a long airplane ride, but what happens to her in this book made me utterly devoted to finding out her ultimate fate in this series.

That pretty much sums it up, actually – taken as a whole, this book is pretty tough to get through and probably the low point in the series, despite having some of the most interesting and pivotal events take place within its pages. How Jordan managed to do this, I’ll never know. All we can do is take the long view – all of this will benefit the series as a whole, if not necessarily the book that contains it.

“On the heights, all paths are paved with daggers.”
– Old Seanchan saying

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Path of Daggers at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Path of Daggers at Amazon.com

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


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

Review 181: The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time 04)

Wheel of Time 04: The Shadow Rising

This one is all about history.

One of the things that makes the world of Wheel of Time so attractive is that it is clear from the outset that Robert Jordan put a lot of work into the world of his story before he actually started the story itself. I get the feeling, reading these books, that he could tell you everything that happened here for the last four thousand years, if not more. In detail, with names and dates and places, all off the top of his head. Or at least from his copious sheafs of notes.

Your name is a killing word? Kinda hard to say your name with an arrow in your throat… (art by Jeremy Saliba)

In this book, the emphasis on history is most clear when Rand goes out to meet the Aiel. For those of you with a taste for classic sci-fi, the Aiel resemble the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. They’re desert people, and unsurpassed warriors, with a complex system of honor and obligation. There’s where the similarities end, of course – in these books there is no Spice, there are no sandworms, and no one in this would would ever think they could conquer the Aiel. Twenty years prior to the start of the series, four of the twelve Aiel clans crossed the mountainous barrier into the “wetlands” with the singular purpose of killing King Laman of Cairhien. Those four clans alone broke every army that stood against them, and only returned to their desert because they got what they wanted – Laman’s head on a pike.

No one knew why they had done this. Prior to the Aiel War, the nation of Cairhien had exclusive rights of passage through the waste, a gift that they didn’t understand, and ultimately didn’t fully appreciate. But without those rights, and without the offense that King Laman caused, and without the Aiel retaliation, this story never would have begun.

Reading this book, you start to get a better view of the historical context in which it is placed, and nowhere is that clearer than in Rand al’Thor’s trip into Rhuidean, the forbidden city of the Aiel. Any man who wants to become a clan chief, or any woman who wants to become a Wise One, may go there, but only once and twice, respectively. What they learn is their final test – the true history of their people. Those who cannot face the truth do not come back. Stronger men and women go on to become leaders, but never speak of what they saw. In order to fulfill his destiny, Rand must learn the history of the people he was born from, and by doing so, change the world.

It’s a fascinating sequence, actually – it’s the history of the Aiel from the day the hole was bored into the Dark One’s prison, through fifteen generations of the Aiel as refugees until the establishment of the city of Rhuidean itself, only told backwards. We find out why they never touch swords, why they veil their faces, and why they believe they are punished for sinning against the Aes Sedai. We get to see the incredible changes that occurred in only three or four hundred years, and then reflect that the time span we see only covers a small portion of the time that has elapsed since the Breaking of the World. We truly begin to understand how broken the world was and how hard life became, once we compare the hardened warrior Aiel to their Da’shain Aiel ancestors. It’s a fascinating and moving story, and it serves as an excellent centerpiece to the novel.

He’s not all fun and laughs.

History rests in other places as well through the book. Mat gains the memories of two thousand years, in a surprising exchange with otherworldly entities in a land beyond a twisted red doorway. We learn that the Sea Folk are looking for their Chosen One, just like everyone else, and Elayne and Nynaeve are pretty sure it’s Rand. They’re off to Tanchico to look for an artifact that could prove Rand’s undoing if the Black Ajah or the Forsaken get their hands on it first.

In fact, speaking of history, there has been a lot of speculation over the years on how the world of this book is related to our world. There are clues scattered about that suggest it is our extreme future – fairy tales about Anla, the Wise Counselor, Materese, Mother of the Wondrous Ind, and Lenn who rode to the moon in the belly of a fiery eagle (who could be Ann Landers, Mother Theresa and John Glenn, respectively). Jordan never came right out and said whether this is our world’s future or not, but a short passage in this book dropped a pretty big hint. While looking around a palace in Tanchico for the artifact that could harm Rand, Nynaeve travels the Dream World into a museum of antiquities. There, she sees many things that amaze and baffle her – fossils of extinct animals, for example often with some kind of emotional resonance. In her search, she finds this:

A silvery thing in another cabinet, like a three-pointed star inside a circle, was made of no substance she knew; it was softer than metal, scratched and gouged, yet even older than any of the ancient bones. From ten paces, she could sense pride and vanity.

If that ain’t a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, I’ll eat my library.

Over in the White Tower, history is being made as Siuan Sanche becomes only the third Amyrlin Seat in history to be deposed in a move orchestrated by the hardest of the Red Ajah, Elaida a’Roihan. And all around, the shadow is indeed rising – the Forsaken are out there, building their power and waiting for Rand so that they might defeat him before he battles their master, the Dark One.

But the best part of the book, in my opinion, is none of these. The best part centers around Perrin Aybara, the young blacksmith who was one of the original three young men to travel out of the Two Rivers on that spring night long ago.

Hi. We’re the forces of evil, pleased to meet you. Nice village you have here…

Back in The Great Hunt, the vile Darkfriend Padan Fain challenged Rand to meet him – failure to do so would result in pain and suffering brought down on all those whom he loved. Through circumstances not entirely under his control, Rand never got to meet Fain, though he did manage to cause him great inconvenience nonetheless. Fain meant to keep his promise, though, and in this book that promise is realized. The Two Rivers has been under siege by creatures from the Shadow – Trollocs and Myrddraal – and less Dark, though still not very nice Children of the Light, an army of zealots who sees Darkfriends in everyplace they look. Rand can’t go home to help – his destiny lies in the Aiel Waste – and Mat’s destiny lies with Rand. Egwene has to go to the Waste as well, to learn Dreamwalking from the Wise Ones, and Nynaeve is off to Tanchico to hunt the Black Ajah.

That leaves only Perrin, who goes back to his home to find it a very different place. He and Faile, the Hunter for the Horn whom he loves, along with Loial and three Aiel, travel back to the Two Rivers and Emond’s Field to put paid to the Trollocs and see that the people there are safe. In the process, Perrin the blacksmith’s apprentice finds himself becoming far more than he ever thought he would be.

This sequence is one of my favorites in the series thus far, and I’m including all the books that come after this one. It’s written with such depth of character, and the relationship between Perrin and Faile is built with such care that every scene between them resonates with emotion and meaning. In one book, Jordan has taken a character who had been the least interesting of all the protagonists, and made him into the one you care the most about. It’s not for nothing that Jordan gave Perrin an entire book off in The Fires of Heaven.

No matter which era we’re looking at, no one will be as creepy as Padan Fain. (art by Seamus Gallagher)

The historical insight we have gained here will help us along through the rest of the series, as we take a broader look at the world as it is in the present. Every character, not just Perrin, is changed and moved forward, if not always in likable ways, and we get the real sense that a new history is being made right now. We know that stories will be told of Perrin Goldeneyes for generations to come in the Two Rivers, that Elayne and Nynaeve will become legends among Aes Sedai, though whether as heroes or object lessons we can’t be sure yet, and that the fate of the future rests not on Rand’s back alone. He makes the Aiel face their past, and those who can survive the ordeal will be the shapers of the future.

The thousand or so pages of this volume can drag, if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. The history of Rhuidean is a good example – the first time I read it, I was really confused and didn’t really see the point of the whole thing – I wished it had focused less on the post-Breaking history and more on the Age of Legends, with its jo-cars and hoverflies, the Nym and the Ogier and the Da’shain Aiel working together. But once you give it thought – why it was vital that the clan chiefs and Wise Ones remember, and how the events of nearly three thousand years ago directly led to the birth of Rand al’Thor and the very story we are reading, it goes from being a slog to an adventure.

Still, I recommend taking notes.

“Rand al’Thor may be lucky if the next Age remembers his name correctly.”
– Thom Merrilin

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Shadow Rising at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Shadow Rising at Amazon.com

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

1 Comment

Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, history, quest, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 178: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There are times when I hate having grown up to be a fantasy fan. Most of the time it’s when I pick up a book that seems promising – maybe because it’s from a familiar author, or because you heard from a friend of a friend that it was good – but it turns out to be disappointing. Stock characters, old and tired plotlines, and a world that’s basically Tolkien with some greasepaint and false noses added on. Given the number of people who write fantasy, the odds of coming across a truly interesting world with compelling characters and a story that has some surprises is difficult indeed.

Fortunately, it looks like Sanderson has managed to pull it off.

None of them, to my knowledge, say “Hey! Listen!”

The world of Roshar is a strange and tempestuous place. The seasons come and go in unpredictable ways, sometimes bringing with them great highstorms that are so powerful that even the plants of this world have evolved ways to hide from them. It is a world filled with spirits, ubiquitous beings called spren, which pop up for almost any reason. There are the spren of nature – windspren, firespren, rotspren, riverspren and the like. There are spren that seem attracted to humans, like alespren, gloryspren, anticipationspren and logicspren. No one really knows what they are or why they exist, but they are everywhere in this world.

The greatest kingdom in Roshar is that of Alethkar, which is barely a nation at all. A loosely bound alliance of ten high princes, the people of Alethkar are a hostile, ambitious, violent folk whose first and greatest love is battle and winning. Since the assassination of their king by the savage Parshendi, they have been involved in a seemingly endless siege of revenge on the great Shattered Plains.

The greatest warriors of Alethkar – or any nation – are those who wield the amazing shardblades. Swords that seem to condense out of mist, the shardblades can cut through anything, though if they cut through a person their effects are a little more subtle. A warrior armed with a shardblade, wearing shardplate armor, can use the incredible power of stormlight to achieve feats that no normal man could survive. Bound within glowing gemstones and restored by the howling winds of the highstorms, stormlight is Roshar’s greatest treasure.

Within this world we follow an ensemble cast which, while adhering to certain fantasy archetypes, still is made interesting and worth watching. Dalinar, the brother to the dead Alethi king, is searching for a way to hold together the weak nation that his brother formed. He has been learning of the old ways, the teachings of the vanished and reviled Knights Radiant, in the hopes that they can help hold his people together.

Concept art for Kaladin. Man, I wish I had someone who’d draw concept art for my characters…

On the other end of Alethi society is Kaladin. Once a promising young surgeon, Kaladin joined the army in hopes of being able to fight on the Shattered Plains. He made it there, but not as a soldier – as a member of a bridge crew, one of the most expendable resources in the entire war. He became the lowest of the low, forced to find a reason to stay alive.

In a city far from the fighting, young Shallan Davar has fought to become the ward of the great heretic scholar Jasnah Kholin. While she has ostensibly come to learn from the woman, her true purpose is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a device which, if used properly, can turn something into something else – stone into smoke, glass into blood, a man into fire. With this, Shallan hopes to revive her family’s flagging fortunes after the death of her father. What she discovers with Jasnah, of course, is far, far more.

Then there’s Szeth-son-son-Vallano, truthless of Shinovar. Poor, poor Szeth. From a race of people known for their peaceful and easygoing natures, Szeth is the most powerful assassin the world has seen. He can harness the stormlight to manipulate gravity, making him able to do the impossible while he uses his shardblade to cut down anyone in his way. In truth, though, Szeth wishes only one thing – to find someone who is good enough to kill him, and end his tormented life.

As you may have guessed, it’s a complicated tale, and Sanderson doesn’t hold to this whole “Give the reader time to get used to it” style of writing. If you’re not paying attention from the beginning, you are likely to be very, very lost within the first chapter or so. But once everything settles down, the story turns into a fast-paced, multi-leveled adventure that takes place in a world that is imaginative and fascinating.

Seriously, you have to feel bad for Szeth, as awesome as he is…

The characters are enthralling, too, with many levels and – most importantly – flaws. While Kaladin is a brilliant organizer and leader, he has to fight continually against the despair of realizing what his life has come to. The easy thing would be to allow himself to die, but he knows he can’t let himself do that. Dalinar, plagued by visions of what might be Roshar’s ancient past, is fighting centuries of Alethi martial tradition by trying to bring the high princes together and end the war, rather than allowing it to go on. He’s pulled between the love of his nephew, the king, and his frustration that the king won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. Shallan, who left her home with a clear purpose, is finding that nothing was what she thought it would be. Jasnah isn’t an evil woman, despite being a heretic, and her plan to steal the soulcaster becomes less and less certain the more she learns.

All of these characters are at the front edge of thousands of years of history, much of it shrouded in uncertainty – legendary Knights Radiant who fought Voidbringers before giving up their duty and turning against mankind. What actually happened is unknown, and perhaps won’t ever be known. But the effects of those events echo to the present day, causing problems which our characters will eventually have to deal with.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to Sanderson is that when I finished the book, I immediately went back to the first page and started reading again. There are very few books that have inspired me thus, but this one did – especially after the cascading Big Reveals at the end, which explain a lot, and cast a new light on a whole lot more.

Definitely the climax of the book.

What’s more, I found myself wishing that I had access to an animation studio while I read the action scenes. Fights can be hard to do in written form – there’s a tendency to either describe too much or too little, and very often the reader gets slowed down trying to visualize what’s happening in the story. Sanderson is very, very good at writing action, something I first noticed in Towers of Midnight. Even when Szeth is hopping from floor to ceiling to wall, flinging people around like toys, the action was very clear in my mind’s eye, and it’s something I would love to see animated, if not done in live action.

And yes, to get back to why I hate being a fantasy reader sometimes, it is the first book in a series, which means I’m likely to be following it for quite some time. There’s nothing truly wrong with that – there are plenty of series that I’ve followed in my day – but I never look forward to the waiting game that you have to play as the author works on the next book. To be fair, though, Sanderson is busy right now finishing up my favorite series, The Wheel of Time, so I think I can give him a little latitude.

In any case, if you’re looking for a dense, fun new series to read, definitely pick this up. I plan on getting into some of his other books, mainly in order to have something to do while I wait for the next one of these.


“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that.”
– Hoid, The Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Amazon.com
Brandon Sanderson’s homepage


Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, family, fantasy, war

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.


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):
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com


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