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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 210: Interesting Times

LL 210 - Interesting TimesInteresting Times by Terry Pratchett

There is a saying, often attributed to the Chinese – “May you live in interesting times.” Usually when this is invoked, it’s done so as a curse, the idea being that interesting times are more likely to cause you trouble than nice boring times, and perhaps that’s true. The folks in Mali, for example, are certainly living in interesting times right now. The trouble is that not everybody is able to stay alive to enjoy them.

Pictured: An interesting time

Pictured: An interesting time

That’s one of the problems with life as we know it – we long for things to be interesting, exciting and thrilling, like what happens to Bruce Willis every time he’s on the screen. When those times come, however, we realize that it’s the boring, predictable times we really want. In other words, we want whatever we don’t have at the moment, which just goes to prove that we, as a species, are messed up in the head. If we had been assembled by any rational Supreme Being, it would have made us a little more accepting of the lives we lead. This mind-set may not lead us to the advanced society we have now, but it certainly would lead us to something approaching world peace.

This book is about wanting what you don’t have, and what happens when you get it.

The central character is the wizard – or Wizzard – Rincewind, one of the oldest of the Discworld characters. He’s been with the series since the first book, The Colour of Magic, and he’s grown to be a favorite for many readers. What Rincewind wants, really wants, is to be left alone. No quests, no challenges, no one trying to kill him or otherwise ruin his day. If the world forgot that Rincewind existed, he’d be the happiest man alive.

Unfortunately for Rincewind, the world hasn’t forgotten him. He has to be sent to the far-off Agatean Empire, a place so remote that few, if any, people know anything about it. A message came, asking for the Great Wizzard, and Rincewind is the only one who fits the bill. The fact that he can’t do magic is not important, really.

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with...

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with…

When he gets there, he meets Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde – seven incredibly old barbarian heroes. Seven men who don’t know the meaning of the word “defeat,” though you’d probably have to repeat it very loudly before they heard what you’d said. Together, the Horde are headed to the capital city of the Empire, looking to make the biggest heist in their long, long, long barbarian careers.

Together, Rincewind, Cohen and the Horde find the Empire in the throes of a people’s revolution, borne of righteous peasant rage and the skillful manipulations of the Grand Vizier, Lord Hong.

Like so many Discworld books, this is a lot of fun to read. The Agatean Empire is a blend of ancient China and Japan, giving us ninja and samurai alongside blue and white Ming ceramics and an exam-based bureaucracy. And like most of the other Discworld books, this one gives you something to think about – what do you want to be?

Rincewind wants to be left alone, because he thinks he’ll be safer that way. Cohen wants to settle down, because he worries that his life as a barbarian hero might be catching up to him. Lord Hong wants to be a gentleman of Ankh-Morpork, or at least the ruler of such men. And the people of the Empire, who call themselves the Red Army, want to be free, even though they have no idea what being free means.

They're... they're TERRIFYING!!

They’re… they’re TERRIFYING!!

The only character who seems to change his life for the better is Mister Saveloy, the youngest member of the Silver Horde and the one they call “Teach.” He realized that what he thought he wanted – a life of educating young people – wasn’t what he really wanted after all. What he wanted was the certainty and simplicity of Cohen’s barbarian lifestyle, and found it rather agreed with him.

So what’s the lesson here? Perhaps this: Be happy with what you have, but don’t be afraid to change. Just remember that not all change is for the better.

—————————————————
“…I decided to give it up and make a living by the sword.”
“After being a teacher all your life?”
“It did mean a change of perspective, yes.”
“But… well… surely… the privation, the terrible hazards, the daily risk of death…”
Mister Saveloy brightened up. “Oh, you’ve been a teacher, have you?”
– Rincewind and “Teach”, Interesting Times
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Filed under adventure, China, Discworld, fantasy, humor, Terry Pratchett

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…..

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Sometimes, there were lessons in stories, if you looked for them.
– Elayne Trakand, Crossroads of Twilight
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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):
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 206: Cold Days

LL 206 - Dresden 14 - Cold DaysCold Days by Jim Butcher

Hells Bells count: 35

Be Warned: This is a new volume, so if you’re not up to date then you might want to save this one for later!

Sometimes I wonder how much Jim Butcher had planned in advance. I mean, this is book number fourteen of a series that’s been going for twelve years. Whether he’s got a giant, intricate plot map pinned up along the walls of his writing office or he’s making things up as they go along, I’m impressed. As we get further into the exciting life and times of Harry Dresden, one thing that is clear is that the series has always been moving in a very clear direction, and that the things that came before are what inform the things that come later. Jim Butcher is not a wasteful author, and that gives him the ability to do a lot of really impressive things.

As we open this story, Harry Dresden is no longer dead. He was, sort of, and had all kinds of grand fun as a ghost, but now he’s alive and it’s time for him to start paying off the debts that he incurred in the process of dying. The first of these debts is to Mab, the great and terrible queen of the Winter Faerie.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it'll do.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it’ll do.

Many, many books ago, Mab offered Harry the position of the Winter Knight – a mortal who would be the strong arm of the queen. He would be her sword, to strike where she pointed. Harry refused until he could refuse no longer, taking on that mantle in exchange for the power that would allow him to rid the world of the Red Court of vampires. And as much fun as vampire genocide is, that’s not really his job anymore. Now that he’s alive again and under no other obligations, Mab has a purpose for him. At its face, it is a terrible purpose, one that makes no sense and yet which Harry is obligated to fulfill.

On the other hand, there is Demonreach. Mab’s partner in keeping Harry Dresden’s body… let’s say viable while he was away as a ghost, Demonreach is the spirit of an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. This island isn’t on any maps, and it’s devilishly hard to find, but it represents a huge well of magical and spiritual power. This island needs Harry Dresden in order to do its duty. Demonreach is not just an obscure Brigadoon that enjoys hiding from the eyes of the unworthy – it is a guardian against powers that would ravage the world. If it is going to maintain its control and keep the peace, it needs Harry Dresden.

While all this is going on, we learn of a new force that is at play in the world. This is rather in keeping with the way the Dresden Files books have worked thus far. Every so often, our point of view is changed, and our field of vision is expanded. Way back in Storm Front, Harry Dresden was a small-time wizard investigator, not well-loved in the wizarding community but good at what he did, and that was pretty much all we saw. As the series progressed, we discovered more about the White Council of Wizards, the three Courts of Vampires, about the ever-feuding faerie realms of Winter and Summer. We went on to discover angels and demons and things that walked between them, ghosts and goblins and creatures that were just barely understandable by our mortal minds.

"KNOCK KNOCK"

“KNOCK KNOCK”

Now we take another step back, out beyond the borders of our reality as we know it. Outside our universe, there are… things. And those things want in. Why they want in is not really understood. Maybe this universe is more hospitable, maybe they’re just bored. All we know is that to let them in is to let reality as we know it die. That’s bad enough, but what is worse is the knowledge that some of them are already here. They’ve snuck under the walls, so to speak, and are carefully and busily undermining our defenses. In a game that is so intricate and dangerous, these things use great powers as pawns – including Harry Dresden – and look forward to their inevitable victory.

As with so many of the other Dresden Files books, this is a solid read, and you’ll fly right through it. Despite being vast in scope, encompassing the fate of the world as we know it, the book is still very personal, letting us follow Harry along the strange, winding path he has to walk whether he likes it or not. Harry has always been a dangerous guy to know, but now that he’s the Winter Knight, that danger is even greater. There are forces arrayed against him that he wouldn’t be able to understand even if he knew what they were, and simply being the Winter Knight is a challenge unto itself. Taking up that position doesn’t just come with awesome new powers and a direct line to some of the most powerful creatures in creation – not without a price. There are obligations as well. Rules and requirements. And, of course, dangers.

When he’s done, he’ll have more answers, and he’ll have more problems. Whatever comes next, we can be sure it will be even bigger and scarier than what has come before, and it’ll be a treat to see how he manages to beat it.

——
“I kept a straight face while my inner Neanderthal spluttered and then went on a mental rampage through a hypothetical produce section, knocking over shelves and spattering fruit everywhere in sheer frustration, screaming, ‘JUST TELL ME WHOSE SKULL TO CRACK WITH MY CLUB, DAMMIT!'”
– Harry Dresden

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Cold Days on Wikipedia
Cold Days on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under Dresden Files, fairies, fantasy, Jim Butcher, magical realism, murder, 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.

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“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
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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):
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, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry