Tag Archives: fantasy

Review 201: Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate sports.

I know this may come as a surprise, since I studiously avoid all but the most cursory acknowledgment of current sporting events. I finish the paper when I hit the sports section, and the sport report on the news is, for me, time to wash the dishes. I have no favorite teams of any kind, no players I look up to, and no interest in following play-offs, bowl games, championships or derbys. Hell, even with the Olympics my interest plummets after the opening ceremonies.

But I don’t hate sports.

You see, in order to hate something, you have to actually care about it. And that’s the thing about sports – I just don’t care.

There but for the grace of god go I…

I wasn’t always like this, of course. When I was a kid, I tried all kinds of sports. I tried (deep breath) baseball, basketball, skiing, swimming, sailing, soccer, tennis, golf and judo. And those were after school. In PE class we had all the usual PE things – volleyball, softball, track and field, running, archery, field hockey, dodgeball…. What it came down to was that I had no natural talent for sports [1] and, more importantly, I never had fun. I never saw the point of the whole thing, so I pretty much said “Bugger this,” and turned to other areas of entertainment, thereby sealing off the sporting world from my interest forever.

A lot of my friends do love their sports, though, so I try to keep a cursory understanding of things – you know, how many touchdowns there are in an inning, that kind of thing. I mean, there’s nothing more disappointing than trying to talk about something you love, something for which you have great passion and enthusiasm and having someone just ignore you, right?

RIGHT??

Anyway, I’m telling you all this so that you can correct for it when I tell you about Unseen Academicals, one of the latest of the Discworld books. If my attitude seems kind of lackluster or disinterested, keep in mind that it’s probably not Sir Terry’s fault.

The book, you see, is about football. Not the sissy-pants American kind where the guys are so afraid of grievous bodily harm that they wear protective armor all the time, but the good, old-fashioned British kind, wherein people get their heads cracked open by cobblestones and die on the streets. You know, fun for the whole family.

I believe the English refer to this as “a jolly good time.”

In the great and exciting city of Ankh-Morpork, footy is a tradition. It’s a lifestyle, in fact. Where you live determines who your team is, and who your team is tells you with whom you can associate and mingle. A supporter of one team wandering into the territory of another is a person asking to be beaten to death by enthusiastic and drunk hooligans. “Suicide,” I believe the police refer to it as. It’s a game that goes beyond the simple description of “rough and tumble.” It’s a substitute for war in a time where war is neither profitable nor productive. It’s a channel for long-standing feuds and grudges and aggressions, and is practiced religiously in the streets of the city every weekend.

So obviously what this grand, injurious tradition needs, then, is the introduction of wizardry.

The wizards of the Unseen University are forced, through a clause in a long-forgotten honorarium, to put together a football team and play a match. Despite most wizards having the athletic ability of an overstuffed beanbag chair, it’s either play the game or lose so much money that they’ll have to cut down to only three meals a day. So, with the help of the son of one of the greatest footballers in the city’s history, two cooks from the Night Kitchen and a young Orc who is trying to find value in his life, they put together a team and oh gods, I’m bored already.

Seriously, I couldn’t care less about football. The book’s not really even about football, to be honest. It’s about identity and self-image, two things that are inextricably tied up in sports and sports fandom. The book is a lot less subtle than usual, pretty much hitting you over the head with a mallet and saying, “You are who you choose to be!!” over and over again.

Actually, what gets said over and over again is a variation on “A leopard can’t change its shorts,” a kind of humorous eggcorn that loses its humorous value after about the fifth time it gets used in the book. But it’s pretty much the theme of the book – what is identity, and can it be changed?

How… romantic?

To explore this, we have, for example, Trevor Likely, the son of a famous (dead) footballer who has sworn to his (also dead) mother that he will never play football again after what happened to his father. He’s introduced as a young layabout, a lazy grifter who works very hard at not having to work, and desperately doesn’t want to live up to his responsibilities. Unfortunately for him , he falls in love with young Juliet, a beautiful – if somewhat dim – young woman who works in the Night Kitchen. Standing in the way of their love, however, is the fact that they support opposing teams, and her family would never allow her to see the young man if they knew.

Hmmm. Trev and Juliet. Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

Also mixed up in this is Glenda, the head of the Night Kitchen, whose identity as a below-the-stairs cook is so ingrained into her head that trying to become something else is almost unthinkable. The wizards themselves face an identity crisis as well – the Dean has gone off and accepted the Archchancellor’s position at another university, and has now come back to try and stand as an equal to Ridcully, the head of the Unseen University.

At the center of the book is Nutt, a strange young person who possesses a mysterious past. He looks a little odd, has an enormous intelligence, and harbors an unshakable desire to acquire self-worth, even if he’s not entirely sure what that means.

All of these people are trying to figure out the same thing – who they are. Some of them are surprised by what they find, others dismayed. Nutt discovers that he is an Orc, a race of creatures so hated and reviled that he could be killed on sight. Juliet discovers that her beauty is her path out of the kitchens, Glenda that her desire to control others can be focused into something productive, and Trevor that the destiny he has avoided for so long is what he always should have been.

Threaded throughout all this is the love of the game, the dedication of these people to their football. Indeed, the identity of the game itself comes into play here as well – will it remain a violent street game, wherein the only rule is that there are no rules, or will it gain a sense of purpose and order? How will the old-school, bare-knuckle footy fans deal with the changes imposed upon their game by Lord Vetinari and the Wizards?

He’s really just misunderstood.

It’s hard for me to filter through the sports aspect of this book, which is disappointing because it’s something that a lot of people will probably enjoy. There’s something about the devotion to a sport or to a team that is very important to most people that I just don’t get, and so my general lack of interest in this book is entirely my fault, and not Terry’s. I enjoyed the identity theme, of course – that’s always a rich seam of storytelling material. Watching Nutt come to grips with his identity as an Orc, or Glenda realize that her entire sense of self has been culturally imposed upon her, well, that was fascinating. It’s just that there was a whole thematic element to the book that I couldn’t identify with and didn’t care about.

It’s kind of like listening to Mozart and wishing someone would just shut all those bloody violins up.

So, if you’re a fan of Discworld, pick this up. If you like sports, pick this up. If you don’t like sports, well, you take your chances. As a Pratchett completist, there was no question about reading this book. But I don’t think it’ll be one that I come back to very often.

It’s not you, Terry. It’s me.

——————————————————————
“It seems to me that we have a challenge. University against university. City, as it were, against city. Warfare, as it were, without the tedious necessity of picking up all those heads and limbs afterwards.”
– Lord Vetinari, Unseen Academicals
——————————————————————

Now give me one of these…

[1] I think I made it to first base once in my Little League career, and actually got hit on the head by a fly ball – which, I am given to understand, are the easiest to catch. I nearly drowned myself repeatedly trying to learn how to sail. I used to knock myself over trying to kick goals in soccer, my trick ankles pretty much meant that tennis and basketball and any other activity involving quick stops and starts were out, and I got tired of being thrown to the ground real fast in judo. If there was ever such thing as an anti-athlete, I was it. I feared to shake hands with the jocks because I thought we’d both vanish in a cloud of photons.

1 Comment

Filed under Discworld, fantasy, identity, sports, Terry Pratchett

Review 199: The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

I have two words for you: Ninja. Priests.

There you go, that should really be enough for you to go out and buy this book. I suppose if you need more, though, there is a whole “plot” and “world” and “characters” and stuff. But even Jemisin says that the initial idea that got her started writing was ninja priests, and everything else just kind of built up from there.

Welcome, then, to the great land of Gujaareh, a land not entirely unlike our own ancient Egypt. It rests alongside a great river that floods periodically and brings great wealth and prosperity to the land. The whole world lives in the shadow of their great, striated Dreaming Moon, the perpetual manifestation of their goddess, Hananja. In this city, people live healthy, productive lives, and it is all thanks to Hananja’s devoted priesthood and their arts of narcomancy.

Not this kind of ninja priest, though…

The Gatherers of Hananja are able to take dreamstuff from sleeping people, either willingly or otherwise, and their most honored task is to take from those whom their governing council have decided need to die. The terminally ill, perhaps, or the corrupt – these are the ones whom the Gatherers visit, giving them a final dream before sending their soul into the dreaming world embodied by their goddess.

Ehiru is the best of these Gatherers, a man with a deft touch and absolute devotion to his cause. He is told to gather and he gathers, bringing back the various dreamstuffs to the temple, where the Sharers can use it to heal the afflicted of Gujaareh. Indeed, until now, Ehiru has never questioned his place in the world. But he soon finds himself wrapped in a terrible conspiracy that threatens to upend everything he’s ever believed in, and may turn him into that which he has always despised.

It’s a really neat idea, with some very powerful characters and a well-built world. Clearly, Jemesin holds this world clearly in her mind when she writes, because the detail she gives, down to the smells and the surfaces, paint a wonderful picture. That said, though, this book didn’t really come together for me until about two hundred pages in.

Or a Magic Eye picture. I hate those things. Stupid sailboat…

I’m not sure why that was. Maybe I’m so deeply mired in the Alternate Europe mode of fantasy fiction that my brain had trouble adjusting to the deliberately different world that Jemesin built. Maybe she knows the world so well that she made certain assumptions about it that the reader – or at least this reader – couldn’t readily put together. All I know is that I spent a good portion of the book trying to keep everything in order in my head. It was like doing one of those sliding-piece puzzles: immensely frustrating until you finally get a good idea of how it all works.

Before you despair, however, note that number again: 200 pages. You would think that if a book baffled me for a while, I would probably put it down, but the fact that I was willing to keep going that far through my bafflement really does say a lot about the work that Jemesin did. The characters are interesting, and their relationships are intense – none more so than that between Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri. While Jemesin states clearly that the people of her world aren’t really concerned with labeling and compartmentalizing sexuality, Nijiri is definitely gay, and he is madly in love with his mentor, to the point where he is willing to give up his life to save him.

The Prince is another good example of an interesting and complicated character. The Sunset Prince, avatar of Hananja, gives off Bad Guy Vibes from the moment we meet him. There’s something about him as soon as he appears on the page that says he’s going to be trouble by the end of the book. Despite that, you can kind of see where he’s coming from, and you see the logic he’s working from. It’s deranged, yes, but in a very specific sort of way it makes sense.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is that it presents contrasting and incompatible cultural values with a sense of honesty and truth. The formalized execution/euthanasia that the Gatherers of Gujaareh perform is considered by their own people to be the best way to handle things. After all, why suffer in agony when Ehiru can come along and drop you into a pleasant dream for all eternity?

Not unlike the Cola Wars, but with less moral ambiguity… (photo by caycowa on DeviantArt)

On the other hand, Sunandi Jeh Kalawe is of the Kisuati, and they view the Gatherer’s narcomancy as a horrible power and their “gifts” as nothing short of institutionalized murder. The characters argue over this repeatedly in the book, and the best that comes of it is a certain mutual understanding. Not an agreement, mind you – neither viewpoint is either affirmed or torn down, but they eventually get to a point where they can start to see through the other’s eyes.

So as I said, it took about 200 pages for things to really click for me, but it was worth it when they did. Also, there’s a very funny author interview at the end where Jemesin is given the rare opportunity to interview herself. Definitely not to be missed. This is a really interesting world built on unique and fantastic concepts. There are more, too, which I’ll be looking forward to reading at some point in the future.

—————–
“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange – you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.
– Sunandi, The Killing Moon

N.K. Jemesin on Wikipedia
The Killing Moon on Wikipedia
The Killing Moon on Amazon.com
N.K. Jemesin’s homepage

Leave a comment

Filed under fantasy, murder, N.K. Jemesin, religion, war

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

2 Comments

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

Review 190: Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time 06)

Wheel of Time 06: Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

There comes a point, in a thousand page book, where one is just overwhelmed with information. I mentioned this back in The Great Hunt, but the book is so dense that you look at the dwindling number of pages towards the back of the book and think, This can’t possibly be enough to hold all the stuff I remember happening. And yet it does. The storytelling here is solid, and while there may be a lot of fat to trim, the climactic scenes are usually very well paced and keep you hanging on the whole way through.

So, what happens in this book?

A fair summary of the Aes Sedai Civil War.

As we begin, the rebel Aes Sedai in the tiny village of Salidar are waiting to know what to do. This isn’t something that one would normally say of Aes Sedai, but they are uncertain. The White Tower is the Aes Sedai family, and to think of it splitting down the middle is just as bad as seeing your own family crack in two – you would do anything to save it. While the Salidar Aes Sedai certainly want to stand up against Elaida and her barely legal takeover of the Tower, they also want their family to be whole again. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that reconciliation is not to be, and so they prepare to take the radical step of naming an Amyrlin Seat of their own. Once that is done, the Tower will truly be split, but perhaps they can bring Elaida to justice in the end.

Rand al’Thor is trying to hold together the lands he’s conquered – Tear, Cairhein and Andor – and prevent them from collapsing into chaos. There are bands of violent looters who call themselves “Dragonsworn,” following their mad prophet and razing all that stands in their path. The Shaido, a clan of Aiel who refuse to accept Rand as their Chief of Chiefs, continues to dog Rand and his allies, and are an ever-present threat. He has Aes Sedai from both the White Tower and Salidar calling on him, each trying to convince him that they are the only ones who are worth allying with. And in Illian, the Forsaken Sammael waits, his greatest ambition being to crush Rand al’Thor and stand at the right hand of the Dark One when his time comes ’round at last.

Not unlike summer 2012 in the US. Hmmm…

All over the continent, the weather has gone into perpetual summer – lands are drying up, farms are dying, as the hand of the Dark One touches the world. Elayne and Nynaeve believe they know where they can find an object that will bring the weather back to normal, but they must first get out of Salidar. Once they do that, they have the violent streets of Ebou Dar to contend with. Egwene is with the Aiel Dreamwalkers, learning how to manage the World of Dreams, not prepared for the magnitude of what awaits her with the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar. Mat, now the leader of his own army, finds himself guarding Elayne and Nynaeve, much to his own dismay.

All around them, the world falls into chaos, and everything that Rand has done is poised to be undone.

As I said, it’s a dense book, and the changes that occur from the first page to the thousandth are pretty serious. But even though all that, my interest was held and I was entertained, not the least because the characters entertained me from beginning to end.

One of the fun tricks that Jordan uses to great effect, in this book and elsewhere, is conflicting viewpoints. In the last review, I talked about how, for some readers, the profusion of point-of-view characters made the book harder to get into (and at my count, this book has 44 POV characters in it). One advantage to that kind of writing, however, is that we get to examine events and situations through the eyes of different characters, which is often informative and always entertaining.

Poor Rand al’Thor…

Take Rand, for example. He’s an interesting character in that while has has to juggle so many different large-scale problems at once (and he’s generally pretty good at it), he’s hopeless on the individual level. In once scene, for example, Egwene comes to visit Rand. She’s determined to talk to him about the Wise Ones’ manipulation of him, but gets sidetracked into the topic of the Salidar Aes Sedai. Realizing that Rand’s nature as a ta’veren (a person whose mere presence can influence chance and fate) is about to cause her to tell him everything, she opens herself to saidar, the female half of the True Source, as a means of self-control.

Rand can sense this, and believes that she is afraid of him, calling on saidar as preparation for some kind of attack. He’s disappointed in her, of course, but this just further cements his distrust of Aes Sedai and deepens his disappointment that he can no longer trust someone with whom he had grown up. He believes that Egwene approached him in order to involve him in the Wise Ones’ plans and to stand against his own plan to give the thrones of Cairhein and Andor to Elayne.

“At least you didn’t let her see you were tired,” he tells himself after she leaves.

Egwene’s first thought upon seeing him? “He looked so tired.”

Obliviousness is a character trait that is always entertaining.

Two people see the same situation from radically different points of view, and it is their inability to reconcile these points of view that cause conflict. Storytelling 101, but done to great effect in these books. There’s another, far funnier scene later on, when Mat finally gets to Salidar and has a humorous misunderstanding as to exactly what Egwene is doing there. Like so many other characters, he’s absolutely sure he knows what’s going on, only to discover that the reality of the situation is nothing like what he expected. The characters’ willingness to make assumptions, unwillingness to say what they’re really thinking, and inability to accurately know what will happen next are a constant throughout these books, and makes them all the more human.

It is these differences of perspective – often leavened with characters who are wonderfully un-self-aware (Rand, Mat, and Nynaeve are my favorite examples) – that makes the Cast of Thousands worthwhile. For all the benefits of a single-POV book or series, there’s always more story that could be told by shifting into the head of another character. What kind of story would Harry Potter have been if we could have watched events unfold through Ron and Hermione’s eyes as well? Longer, that’s for sure, but perhaps it would have been even better.

Milton, the lowly clerk in the basement of the Stone of Tear…

Would I want The Wheel of Time pared down to just Rand al’Thor’s point of view? Not on your life. Not just because Rand is one of the less well-developed characters in the series, but I would miss the others. I would miss being in the funhouse-mirror mind of Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, or the scary thoughts of the Forsaken. I would miss knowing how Mat feels about finding himself a general, or Perrin becoming the lord of his homeland. I would miss Perrin’s conversations with the wolves (“We come” just gave me shivers. It’s in chapter 54, check it out.) I would regret losing even the minor POV characters – Sulin trying to figure out how to keep Rand safe, whether he wanted it or not. Faile working to make sure her husband becomes all that he should become. Pedron Niall and his visions of a world saved by his Whitecloaks.

While the vast crowd of characters can be overwhelming, it creates a rich world in which I can easily lose myself. Which is exactly what a good book is supposed to accomplish.

—————————————————-
The lions sing and the hills take flight.
The moon by day, and the sun by night.
Blind woman, deaf man, jackdaw fool.
Let the Lord of Chaos rule.
– Children’s chant of the Fourth Age
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Lord of Chaos at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Lord of Chaos 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, good and evil, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 189: Men at Arms

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

When last we left our intrepid Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, things were looking up. This is a nice change from the gutter’s-eye-view we had at the beginning of Guards! Guards!. Things have changed in the time between books. The Watch has a new headquarters, much nicer than its old one, thanks to Lady Sibyl Ramkin, the fiance of Captain Sam Vimes. She comes from an ancient and respectable family, has more money than anyone else in the city, and loves Vimes despite his deep-seated curmudgeonliness, if that is a word.

What’s more, the Watch is taking on new recruits, as ordered by the Patrician. Ankh-Morpork is a city with a very diverse population, and the Patrician believes that the Watch should reflect that diversity. Now we have a Watch open to anyone – trolls, dwarfs, the undead, apes, women – who wants to join, or who doesn’t want to get their heads beaten in. Carrot Ironfoundersson has become a beloved figure in the city – he knows everyone and everyone knows him. All in all, things are looking up.

But there are those who are of a mind that things would be better if only Ankh-Morpork had a king….

Of course, some kings only make things nightmarishly worse…

This is a recurring theme in the early Watch books – the irrational need for royalty. Although, that’s not entirely accurate. Pratchett is a British writer, of course, and he’s got the Queen to look up to, but she doesn’t have all that much real power. Certain people in Ankh-Morpork are looking for a sovereign – not to wave at them and make a Hogswatch speech, but to actually take over their city. They hope, in their hearts, that a king will solve everything. In that way, this recurring theme is not so much about royalty versus populism, but rather the ability to control one’s own life versus allowing someone else to control it for you. The idea that one has responsibility for one’s own actions and well-being is dominant in the Guards books, no more so than in this one.

There is a man named Edward d’Eath, and he has a vision. He is the last of an aristocratic line whose power has declined in this age of guilds and merchants. He looks to the past and sees it as better, brighter than the future. He knows that, if he can just do one little thing, Ankh-Morpork – and he – will be restored to glory. That one little thing, of course, is to put a king on the throne.

Not just any king, of course. The fools who thought to use a dragon to set up a puppet king showed how ineffectual that would be. No, this would only work with a real king, a descendant of the ancient kings of Ankh-Morpork. Find him, put him on the throne, and everything will finally be set straight.

I like to imagine it looks like this.

Of course, that doesn’t work out nearly as well as Edward hopes. He steals a mysterious artifact to set his plan in motion – the Gonne. It is a weapon created by one of the most brilliant minds on the Disc, a man kept peacefully imprisoned by Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician. It is a device that should have been destroyed, but was instead put on display so that the Assassins, the bringers of death, could look at it and say “Beware this thing.”

Like I said, this book is all about making choices in life. Vimes is engaged to be married to Sybil Ramkin, and thus his days as the Captain of the Watch are numbered. He may be in a better position than he was in the last book – having someone try to kill you is always refreshing, after all – but he knows that the life he’s giving up, with all of its pain and trouble and heartache, is the life that he needs to live.

Corporal Carrot needs to choose how best to serve the city of Ankh-Morpork. He is an excellent policeman, probably the only man on the Disc who could get in the middle of an incipient troll/dwarf race riot and shame them out of killing each other. People do what he says – he is, in his own words, “good at being obeyed.” If he wanted to, he could run the city and the city would be glad to let him do it. But is that the best thing for the city?

How could you not trust a chin like that? (art by Simon Lissaman)

The troll Detritus and the dwarf Cuddy both have choices – will they conform to the ancient animosity that stands between their two races, or will they overcome it for the common good?

And then there’s the Gonne itself. As a weapon, it is frighteningly powerful – much more so than the standard-issue crossbow – and as a firearm, however primitive, it represents a vast escalation in the way violence is done. What’s more, since this is a fantasy novel, the Gonne has something of a mind of its own. Its wielders hear it talking to them, convincing them that the only thing standing between them and what they want are a few simple deaths – something the Gonne can easily provide. It even uses the old NRA saw verbatim – Gonnes don’t kill people. People kill people.

But people have a choice, perhaps more of a choice than the characters of these books do. The Gonne controls them, the trigger practically pulls itself, and when you’re holding it, you can easily understand how a simple shot, one simple thing, could change the world. For the better, of course – always for the better.

Pratchett’s views on guns and their efficacy aside, it’s a very gripping book. There’s the mystery of it, of course – who has the Gonne, and why are they using it – but it’s also a story about characters and the choices they make for themselves. My absolute favorites in this are Detritus and Cuddy. Trolls and dwarfs have a famous antagonism, stretching back to the ancient battle of Koom Valley (the only battle in the multiverse where both sides ambushed each other) and it would be very easy for them to fall into simple, culturally conditioned roles.

They’re better buddy cops than you’ll likely to see in the movies, anyway.

While it may be a cliche to say that they found common ground, learned to look past their own prejudices and learned to respect – nay, to like one another, that’s exactly what they did. It is due to Pratchett’s skill as a writer and as a creator of characters that we come to deeply care for this relationship, investing a lot of hope in it. We know that if Cuddy and Detritus can become friends, then maybe there’s hope for everyone. This emotional investment pays off, and Pratchett reaches deep into our hearts at the end, showing that just because you start with a cliche, it doesn’t mean it can’t have depth.

Of course, if you’re not quite as analytical as I am, you can still enjoy it as a good murder mystery. Watching Vimes and company piece together the crime is always fun, because there’s always a twist somewhere that you never saw coming. And Vimes really is one of my favorite Discworld characters – he’s cynical and world-weary, but he still has enough idealism within him to carry him through those times that look like they’re trying to kill him.

All in all, a great book and one that’s highly recommended. The earlier Discworld books are largely stand-alone, so if you’ve never read any of the series before, don’t worry – you can pick this one up and you won’t really miss anything. You may, however, find yourself driving back to the bookstore to get as many other Discworld books as you can. I’m just saying….

—————————————————
Generally, I meet people before they’re buried. The ones I meet after they’ve been buried tend to be a bit over-excited and disinclined to discuss things.
– Death, Men at Arms
—————————————————

Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Men at Arms on Wikipedia
Men at Arms on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s homepage

Leave a comment

Filed under choices, death, detective fiction, Discworld, fantasy, friendship, guns, humor, murder, mystery, police, revolution, society, Terry Pratchett

Review 185: The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time 05)

Wheel of Time 05: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

One of the criticisms often laid at the feet of this series – and not unfairly – is that it is splintered.

Read any epic fantasy, and you’ll see that at some point, the author splits the party up. This is an almost guaranteed way to create more action, more storylines and, if you’re being paid per word, more money for the author. Tolkien, the grandfather of modern fantasy, did a nice job of splitting the Fellowship up into three branches at one time, and then brought them back together at the end. Since then, the technique has been a stock tool of any writer who is dealing with an ensemble cast in her work.

This pretty accurately describes the plot structure from here on out…

Jordan has taken this technique to its extreme. He used the standard method back in The Eye of the World – split the group into three, bring them all back together just in time for the climactic ending. Pretty boilerplate plot construction right there. From The Great Hunt, however, we began to see that having all of our main characters in one place at one time will be more the exception than the rule – while it starts and ends with everyone together, the beginning of The Dragon Rebornstarts us off with the party split again, bringing them all together only at the very last minute.

By my count, there are eighteen different point-of-view characters in this book, occupying four different major plot threads, only two of which actually manage to come together by the end. And it just gets more complicated from here on out. From my research, there is yet to be any point in the series where every plot thread manages to come together in one place at one time.

For some readers, this is supremely annoying, and I can’t say I blame them. You find yourself going back and forth from character to character, keeping up with storylines that are superficially unrelated, all in the hopes that they’ll pay off eventually. The circus interlude in this book is an excellent example. In an attempt to hide from the Forsaken Moghedein (whom Nynaeve seriously pissed off in the last book) and to get safe passage to the rebel Aes Sedai after the breaking of the White Tower, Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom and Juilin find themselves traveling with a circus. The logic behind this is that no one would ever look for them there, and I suppose they’d be right. I certainly didn’t see it coming.

I’m not sure why this never caught on as a dominant fantasy trope.

There’s a lot of good old-fashioned circus wackiness that goes on – Elayne puts on tights (which just scandalizeNynaeve) and learns to walk a tightrope. Nynaeve ends up being the target for Thom’s knife throwing and battles her own distaste at the skimpy clothes she has to wear versus the fact that she thinks they look pretty. Now I’m not saying that nothing important happens during the circus interlude – lots of things do. It’s just that there’s no reason they had to take place in a circus.

And there’s no reason they couldn’t, either. After all, who’s the multiple-bestselling author, Jordan or me?

As opposed to a single POV series, such as Harry Potter, where you know where the important action is and who it’s happening to, Wheel of Time requires its readers to observe a world of characters. And I think that’s the key to how these books are structured. The events that are happening here aren’t just happening to one small group of people, or one kingdom. It’s happening to the entire world, from the edge of the Aiel Waste all the way to the shores of the Aryth Ocean, from Seanchan to Shara. Rand al’Thor may be the Dragon Reborn (or the Car’a’carn or the Cooramoor, depending on whom you talk to), but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has things to do. In order for the Last Battle to be won, a whole lot of things have to happen, and not all of them are going to be centered around our main protagonist.

I’d hang out with this guy, no question… (art by Seamus Gallagher)

In this book, for example, we have two groups looking for the Aes Sedai who fled the White Tower when Elaida became Amyrlin (I hope you’ve been keeping up, otherwise that last sentence makes no sense whatsoever). Siuan Sanche and Leane Sharif, the former Amyrlin and her Keeper, are traveling with Min (a young girl who can tell the future from people’s auras) and Logain (a former False Dragon whose ability to channel was severed by the Aes Sedai.) And then there is Elayne and Nynaeve, who were both out of the Tower when the rebellion took place, but who hate Elaida more than Siuan, so they’re trying to find the rebels. These two plot threads eventually merge, but it takes fifty chapters before that happens.

At the same time, there’s Rand, Mat and Egwene, who are leaving the Aiel Waste for Cairhein, hot on the trail of the Shaido Aiel, who are murdering and pillaging everything they can find. The Shaido are a “rebel” clan, who refuse to accept Rand as the Car’a’carn (the Aiel’s Chief of Chiefs) and have decided that the best thing for them to do is to kill everyone who isn’t an Aiel. Rand and friends chase the Shaido all the way to Cairhein, where they engage in a fierce battle to save the city from being ravaged by war for the third time in twenty years. Even within this plot thread, Mat, Rand and Egwene occupy their own strands, staying apart more often than they get together.

The fourth plot thread is a thin one – Queen Morgase of Andor, who has been gulled into complacency by the Forsaken Rahvin (who is posing as “Lord Gaebril,” the queen’s lover) has finally come to her senses, and escapes from her own castle. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who will help her, but she’s intent on regaining her throne and seeing Gaebril hang. Lucky for her, Rand manages to take care of her little Forsaken problem by the end, although she’s unaware of this.

Meanwhile, the whole world is falling apart. The White Tower has well and truly split, something that the new Amyrlin, Elaida, is desperately trying to keep from the world. There is war and strife across half the continent, men who believe that the existence of the Dragon Reborn means that all bonds are broken, all social contracts annulled. The Prophet Masema – a man from the northern nation of Shienar – is preaching absolute devotion to Rand al’Thor as not only the Dragon Reborn, but as the source of all that is good. The coming of the Dragon brings not only a great battle with the Shadow, but great upheavals in civilization itself.

No, no – Wait! Don’t go! It gets better!

So, to say “there’s a lot going on in these books” is a bit of an understatement, and it’s Jordan’s fondness for creating new plot threads and then following them to see where they lead that has probably led to this series going on as long as it has. Had he just centered on Rand, it all could have been over in half the time. But it would have been far less interesting in the long run.

The characters of this world are fond of using a certain metaphor to describe life – the Great Tapestry. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” they like to say, and they believe that each person’s life is a figurative thread in a greater system. Some characters, like Rand, Mat and Perrin, are more important than others, and they tend to bend other threads to follow theirs. But you cannot make a tapestry out of only three threads, and the end of the world in this series is something in which everyone may participate. Without the actions of the myriad minor characters, Rand wouldn’t be able to be the person he needs to be, and the story wouldn’t be able to be as rich and as complex as it needs to be.

So, give this some thought. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to stick with one character or group of characters throughout a series; if you don’t like having to keep notes on who is doing what and where; if you’re not the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to note all of the different major characters, with color-coding and hand-drawn graphs…. Not that I have, mind you…. If that’s not your kind of read, then you may not enjoy this series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

——————————————————–
“It would be easier if this was a story.”
– Rand
——————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Fires of Heaven at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Fires of Heaven at Amazon.com

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

1 Comment

Filed under adventure, death, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, identity, madness, military, quest, Robert Jordan, survival, travel, Wheel of Time, wizardry, women

Review 182: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Huh? Oh. Oh, man. Wow.

I just had the weirdest dream.

There was this little town, right? And everybody had, like, the same two names. And there was this guy who lived under a tree and a lady who ate dirt and some other guy who just made little gold fishes all the time. And sometimes it rained and sometimes it didn’t, and… and there were fire ants everywhere, and some girl got carried off into the sky by her laundry…

Wow. That was messed up.

I need some coffee.

That was roughly how I felt after reading this book. This is really the only time I’ve ever read a book and thought, “You know, this book would be awesome if I were stoned.” And I don’t even know if being stoned works on books that way.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which is such a fun name to say) is one of those Writers You Should Read. You know the type – they’re the ones that everyone claims to have read, but no one really has. The ones you put in your online dating profile so that people will think you’re smarter than you really are. You get some kind of intellectual bonus points or something, the kind of highbrow cachet that you just don’t get from reading someone like Stephen King or Clive Barker.

Marquez was one of the first writers to use “magical realism,” a style of fantasy wherein the fantastic and the unbelievable are treated as everyday occurrences. While I’m sure it contributed to the modern genre of urban fantasy – which also mixes the fantastic with the real – magical realism doesn’t really go out of its way to point out the weirdness and the bizarrity. These things just happen. A girl floats off into the sky, a man lives far longer than he should, and these things are mentioned in passing as though they were perfectly normal.

This is not a recommended way to read this book. That’s not to say it doesn’t work…

In this case, Colonel Aureliano Buendia has seventeen illegitimate sons, all named Aureliano, by seventeen different women, and they all come to his house on the same day. Remedios the Beauty is a girl so beautiful that men just waste away in front of her, but she doesn’t even notice. The twins Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo may have, in fact, switched identities when they were children, but no one knows for sure – not even them. In the small town of Macondo, weird things happen all the time, and nobody really notices. Or if they do notice that, for example, the town’s patriarch has been living for the last twenty years tied to a chestnut tree, nobody thinks anything is at all unusual about it.

This, of course, is a great example of Dream Logic – the weird seems normal to a dreamer, and you have no reason to question anything that’s happening around you. Or if you do notice that something is wrong, but no one else seems to be worried about it, then you try to pretend like coming to work dressed only in a pair of spangly stripper briefs and a cowboy hat is perfectly normal.

I’m not saying this happens in the book, but I’m not claiming it COULDN’T.

Another element of dreaminess that pervades this book is that there’s really no story here, at least not in the way that we have come to expect. Reading this book is kind of like a really weird game of The Sims – it’s about a family that keeps getting bigger and bigger, and something happens to everybody. So, the narrator moves around from one character to another, giving them their moment for a little while, and then it moves on to someone else, very smoothly and without much fanfare. There’s very little dialogue, so the story can shift very easily, and it often does.

Each character has their story to tell, but you’re not allowed to linger for very long on any one of them before Garcia shows you what’s happening to someone else. The result is one long, continuous narrative about this large and ultimately doomed family, wherein the Buendia family itself is the main character, and the actual family members are secondary to that.

Colonel Aureliano Buendía could have made his fish from ice and saved a lot of time…

It was certainly an interesting reading experience, but it took a while to get through. I actually kept falling asleep as I read it, which is unusual for me. But perhaps that’s what Garcia would have wanted to happen. By reading his book, I slipped off into that non-world of dreams and illusions, where the fantastic is commonplace and ice is something your father takes you to discover.

——
“[Arcadio] imposed obligatory military service for men over eighteen, declared to be public property any animals walking the streets after six in the evening, and made men who were overage wear red armbands. He sequestered Father Nicanor in the parish house under pain of execution and prohibited him from saying mass or ringing the bells unless it was for a Liberal victory. In order that no one would doubt the severity of his aims, he ordered a firing squad organized in the square and had it shoot a scarecrow. At first no one took him seriously.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
——

Gabriel García Márquez on Wikipedia
One Hundred Years of Solitude on Wikipedia
One Hundred Years of Solitude on Amazon.com

2 Comments

Filed under family, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, magical realism