The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

September 5, 2014 at 1:53 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 3 Comments
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The Magicians coverLev Grossman’s 2009 novel The Magicians introduces us to Quentin Coldwater, a star high school student in New York who is in the process of applying to the usual Ivy League schools. Despite his academic achievement and seemingly bright prospects, Quentin isn’t happy. The world seems boring and meaningless compared to the imaginary land of Fillory, a Narnia-like world described in his favorite series of children’s fantasy novels. Something is missing for Quentin, but he thinks he’s found it when he is unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a secret college where a select few are taught magic.

It feels vaguely like cheating to start referring to influnces this early in a review, but the fact is much time can be saved by saying that yes, Brakebills is intended to be a “realistic” magic college answer to Harry Potter’s fantasy magic children’s school. It’s true that Brakebills teaches magic, but its magic takes exhausting study to learn and, once learned, isn’t really all that wondrous. In their downtime, students don’t go on adventures, they get drunk and have tangled romances. But despite its prominence in the first novel’s marketing, offering a gritty take on Harry Potter is only a side interest, almost an afterthought, and so counterintuitively Quentin graduates midway through the trilogy’s first book and Brakebills is left in the rearview mirror.

The Magicians is really about Quentin’s search for happiness. Quentin doesn’t find it in his mundane high school world, so he goes to Brakebills. Although diverting, he doesn’t find it there either and gradutes. Living as a young magician in New York City proves even less satisfactory, so he and his friends end up looking for and finding Fillory, which even magicians don’t believe is real and therefore inevitably is. But just as Brakebills was a gritty Hogwarts, Fillory turns out to be a gritty Narnia. Rather than the storybook wonderland Quentin expects, Fillory turns out to have just as much pain and suffering as the real world.

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably acutely aware that “gritty” is nothing new and is actually getting close to the cliché stage of literary development. For some of us who have read a lot of fantasy, The Magicians‘ triumphant reception from mainstream reviewers was frustrating because they didn’t seem to know the fantasy genre is more than just Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling. Certainly that seems to be the extent to which Quentin and his friends have read fantasy: they have all read the fake-Lewis “Fillory” novels and they frequently drop references to Tolkien and Rowling, but they are absolutely shocked when the real Fillory turns out to be more China Miéville than CS Lewis. Prominent as he is in the genre, Miéville is not all that well-known outside of it, but even a familiarity with George R. R. Martin would have been a big help.

Still, it’s easy to see why The Magicians made a splash. Grossman has a keen eye for character, a gift for creating amusing yet telling anecdotes, and an ability to write a whole novel without allowing the quality of his individual sentences to decay. In other words, he’s a very good writer. Although he uses the third person, he lets Quentin’s acerbic wit seep into the narrative voice, making otherwise bland passages enjoyable. Although the story becomes very predictable once you understand what he’s up to, it’s also unusually accessible since it’s a reaction to books that have all become blockbuster movies in the last decade or so.

Unusually for a fantasy novel that crosses over to the mainstream, the main obstacle to the novel’s accessibility is not the presence of magic and monsters but the protagonist, Quentin. He’s privileged in nearly every possible way and then a few impossible ones too, but he spends the novel chronically unhappy and, worse, unwilling to exert himself to make something out of his life. He’s an inevtiably polarizing character. Some people find him infuriating and completely unsympathetic while others find in him compelling echoes of either themselves or people they’ve known. To some degree this is a testimony to Grossman’s ability to evoke an unlikeable character. It may be useful to note here that in interviews, Grossman has mentioned that Quentin is suffering from depression, and perhaps this would be obvious to someone with a bit more personal experience with it, but the text never makes this explicit (about Quentin, at least—The Magician King is completely clear that Julia and her friends suffer from depression).

While I didn’t identify much with Quentin, what pulled me through the first book was an interest in the philosophical point The Magicians seemed to be making. Brakebills is magical but not special, Fillory is even more magical but still not special, it’s just another place. Fantasy is just one tool Quentin uses to escape the existential emptiness of his life. Alcohol is another, and Grossman seemed to want to make an equivalence between alcoholism and the obsessive fantasy fan. No matter where he turns, Quentin comes up empty in his search for meaning because the problem is not in the world around him but himself. Meanwhile, his dissatisfaction has hurt himself and those around him, for although he comes through his first Fillory experience more or less physically unscathed, his friends are not so fortunate. Read this way, the first book’s seemingly happy ending is actually a very bleak one where Quentin relapses into an interest in Fillory, something he’d already found held no answer to his problems.

So far so good, I thought. The hidden world of magic and the more hidden world of Fillory have both been considered and rejected as solutions to Quentin’s crisis. Now how will Grossman build off that? The advantage of waiting for series to finish is that I could proceed directly to the sequels.

The Magician KingThe second book is split between two viewpoint characters, Quentin again and his childhood friend Julia, who took the entrance exam for Brakebills only to be rejected. Julia proves to be a more entertaining protagonist than Quentin in that having decided what she wants—a place in the secret world of magic—she works tirelessly to get there. She claws her way up through the posers and fakers that line the fringe of the magical world until she finds a community where she fits in. Unsatisfied with the magic they know, she and her friends turn to religion. This isn’t a bad idea, since in Julia’s world gods are as real as magic and statistically speaking contact with the divine must be the number one source of meaning in human lives historically and even today. But Julia has made the same genre spectrum mistake Quentin and his better educated friends made: like the first book, The Magician King is closer to Miéville than Lewis, and that means gods are just as dangerously capricious as magic, if not more so. Since this is conceptually the same journey Quentin traveled in the first book, there’s not a lot new with Julia’s story, but it’s the best executed of Grossman’s several takes on the idea. Julia’s struggles are compelling, her achievements earned, and the ultimate disaster horrifying.

But that’s only half the book. Quentin’s half seems at first like another repeat: having found life in Fillory—surprise!—unsatisfying, Quentin decides to go on an adventure, apparently forgetting that the last time he went on an adventure it turned out to be miserable and a close friend died. This time, it turns out to be miserable and a friend—one who is, in truth, not all that close to him—dies. That might be an improved outcome, but it feels like the story is running in place. Worse, there’s an odd lack of self-awareness in the nature of the adventure. The old gods are going to take magic away from humanity in all worlds, we are told. This is likely to destroy Fillory, magical fantasyland that it is, and leave magicians on Earth stuck without powers just like the rest of us. The first question that comes to mind is: so what? What has magic ever done for Quentin other than make him miserable? What has it done for anyone? Alas, no one in a story full of contrarian characters questions the necessity to save magic. Then, it turns out that saving magic is accomplished by collecting some plot coupons in Fillory and then going Dawn Treader-style to the edge of the world to trade them in. Fair enough, but why do some Fillorian keys affect magic throughout the multiverse? How can a few puny mortals do anything to stop the old gods, portrayed as vast and remote? Why is Ember, god of Fillory, on the side of the humans rather than the gods? Wasn’t a major project of the first book to take special wonderland Fillory and demystifiy it, making it just one world in a teeming multiverse?

These questions are never answered. And really, one suspects the answer is that the author cared more about what his characters were feeling than what they were doing and why. The result is a trilogy where the characters—within each book, at least—are consistent, nuanced, and realistic, while the world around them feels arbitrary and two-dimensional. This problem becomes worse in the third book, The Magician’s Land, which has some very satisfying character moments—Quentin finally comes to terms with himself and the world, and previous side characters Eliot and Janet are rounded out in interesting ways—but whose plot starts out contrived and eventually becomes incomprehensible.

The Magician's Land coverThe Magician’s Land opens with Fillory once again in danger of being destroyed, this time because it just so happens that after countless centuries Fillory is nearing its destined end just a few years after the events of the previous novels. This fact is communicated through ominous portents and dire prophecies. Multiple characters ask: Why must the world end? It just does, the answer comes back. Partly the apocalypse consists of the world falling apart, things like stars falling and the moon’s orbit decaying, but there’s also an enormous battle involving all of Fillory’s magical inhabitants. Absolutely no reason is provided why this should happen. Janet, who flies around giving the reader a play-by-play account, seems to think all worlds just have to end in a battle.

What really seems to be happening is that Lev Grossman is emptying his toybox and having one last hurrah. It’s not polite to act as if we know what an author was thinking, but surely these are not books that could have been written by someone who didn’t love Narnia as a child, so he can be forgiven for wanting to have his own go at sending Fillory out with a bang just like The Last Battle. He clearly has a good time writing it, and the many readers out there who like Fillory either for its own sake or out of nostalgia are going to have a good time reading it. Dour killjoys like myself who want there to be a reason for the toy soldiers to fight are left hanging. This is just the worst manifestation of a problem that underlies the entire trilogy. Fillory is a fundamentally superficial creation, the form of Narnia without its substance. Narnia ended with a battle because it was situated within a Christian universe and therefore shared its eschatology with that of the book of Revelations. Throughout the Narnia series, Aslan leads the forces of good against evil, so of course at the climax there has to be a big battle. In Fillory, Ember and Umber are deeply ambiguous “gods” without much obvious power and even less claim to moral legitimacy, more worth fighting against than fighting for, and there’s no metaphysical villain, just an angry magician who had a bad childhood who gets disposed of in the first book.

Readers like me must simply accept that Grossman is not all that interested in cosmology, and that if we want a reply to Narnia’s underlying worldview we must turn to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which whatever its other flaws was written with an eye for philosophical rigor. The Magicians and its sequels talk about magic, keys, and gods only as stage dressing to dramatize Quentin and friends’ search for their place in the world. Taken on those terms, the final message is surprisingly mixed. After spending three books looking for meaning outside himself, Quentin finally learns to value his own feelings and emotions. The narrative makes an unusually strong allegorical connection between emotion and magic, one that renders the previous stories incomprehensible if applied at all broadly. Since most people have no ability to do magic, are they emotionless? Were the old gods trying to take away everyone’s feelings? And so on. Meanwhile, Julia, the character who seemed irrevocably scarred by her contact with a god, finds peace through…a god. And Eliot finds his purpose in Fillory, rather in contradiction to the first book’s message that Fillory was no help to anyone. If there’s a message here, it’s that different people find purpose in their lives in different ways, which is true, but also a bit tame compared to the broadsides The Magicians seemed to be taking against popular fiction.

Hopefully I’ve made it clear that there’s a lot here to like. The Magicians is a well-written if bleak fantasy that’s worth reading by anyone with a moderate tolerance for bleakness in their reading. Those who like Fillory in general or Quentin in particular should continue on to the rest of the trilogy, but everyone else can stop after the first book and feel assured they’ve gotten the message.

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Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

April 23, 2014 at 12:39 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Three Parts Dead coverTara Abernathy has a degree in necromancy from the prestigious Hidden Schools which float among the clouds, but as Three Parts Dead opens Tara’s falling out with a professor leads to a literal fall back to earth. After an unsuccessful attempt to return to her home town, she finds herself unexpectedly hired by Elayne Kevarin, a sort of high-powered necromancer/lawyer from a major firm, and thrown right in to work on a huge case. Kos Everburning, fire god and patron to the steampunk metropolis Alt Coloumb, is dead. The god’s city and church want him raised, but so do his creditors. Successfully litigating the restoration of Kos will require discovering who killed him and why, and that in turn sends Tara searching through the church’s archives with an acolyte named Abelard and the city’s underworld with an addict policewoman named Cat.

Three Parts Dead flirts with a couple different genres, borrowing courtroom scenes from legal thrillers and a huge pile of tropes from fantasy, but in its bones it’s a noir detective story. Tara reviews documents and goes to court a couple times, but she spends most of her time questioning uncooperative suspects and casing seedy bars. Judged as a detective story, however, Three Parts Dead is thoroughly mediocre. The character voices aren’t very distinctive, the setting is interesting but not very atmospheric, and although information is withheld such that the mystery is not solvable in detail, all of the twists and the eventual outcome are quite easy to guess well ahead of time. But the by-the-numbers mystery isn’t what gained the novel considerable acclaim since its release in 2012 and a Campbell nomination for its author, Max Gladstone. Some of the good press stems from something that is mostly outside the text: the cover, which in a refreshing change from the norm is unapologetic about depicting Tara as a person of color.

But Three Parts Dead has also earned much praise for its distinctive world. It starts with the relatively simple observation that if magic involves, as it does in many traditions, blood-sealed pacts and dangerous deals with supernatural forces, then it stands to reason there would be lawyers who would litigate those contracts. When viewed through this unusual lens, fairly conventional wizards, vampires, and gods feel fresh and different. Wizards become lawyers, necromancy becomes bankruptcy restructuring, and gods become corporations. It’s a clever bit of speculative alchemy that makes the novel stand out from the crowd, but it’s not actually all that successful.

A common criticism of Three Parts Dead has been that no rules are laid out in advance for the magic system, making the magical resolutions to Tara’s confrontations with her opponents seem arbitrary. This is true, but stated so simply it suggests that only the magic-as-physics approach of authors like Brandon Sanderson is legitimate. Unexplained magic can seem numinous, as in Tolkien, or capriciously dangerous, as in Miéville. Rules need not be stated, but it’s fair to say that a story with unexplained magic needs to do a better job than average convincing the reader to suspend disbelief lest events appear to proceed by authorial fiat.

On this point, Three Parts Dead‘s colorful world works against it, for while its constituent elements are very colorful, they never congeal into a consistent world. The fire god Kos seems like something out of a pagan pantheon, but its church is far more like the Catholic Church than any pagan analogues and the discussions of personal faith and individual relationships with the divine are straight out of Protestant theology. The steampunk tropes lightly sprinkled through the text are derived from the industrial age, vampires come from Eastern European legends, and the concept of gargoyles who turn from stone to flesh and back again comes, as far as I know, not so much from folklore as from the 90s cartoon show. Then there’s Keverin’s law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao which, as the structure if not the sound of its name implies, takes its organization straight from modern legal firms. Mixing material from different traditions can help reinvigorate old concepts, but things can’t just be dropped in as-is, they have to be integrated with each other.

Three Parts Dead is far from the first fantasy novel (nor the last) to deploy the familiar cadences of the Catholic Church without stopping to consider whether these things actually make sense in their new milieu, but the biggest problem here is a reliance on punchline worldbuilding. You won’t know this term–I made it up while writing the previous sentence–but you are probably familiar with the technique because it’s used extensively in the Harry Potter series. The formula is to take something familiar from our world and give it a thin fantasy veneer that makes it humorous and interesting. Harry Potter has page after page of this: fantasy candy with funny flavors, fantasy books with funny titles, fantasy sports with funny equipment, and so on. Three Parts Dead isn’t so densely packed with punchlines, but they remain the core aesthetic of the worldbuilding, giving us moments like a legal document review that involves an out of body experience and drug addicts who get high on being bitten by vampires. In both Harry Potter and Three Parts Dead this material can be fun, but trying to build a serious story on such a superficial foundation is perilous. For example, addiction is obviously an extremely serious subject, but when an addict is impaling her wrist on an unconscious vampire’s fangs to get a fix, it smacks more of satire than something real. The light, gee-whiz tone also prevents the reader from ever being concerned that Tara might actually lose. Worst of all, at least for a reader like me, humorous punchlines rarely stand up to serious scrutiny.

For an example, take the premise of wizard lawyers in wizard law firms. Here Gladstone is on to something really clever, because to a layperson the law is an occult force they can only vaguely sense, a force that manifests in ancient language and strange rituals. Someone could write a great book leveraging this alignment, but Three Parts Dead is not that book. Its Craftspeople, typified by Elayne Kevarin, are not wizard-lawyer hybrids so much as characters who sometimes act like lawyers and sometimes act like wizards. There’s a mistake here that feels fundamental. Like any stereotypical fantasy wizard, Elayne Kevarin can blast people with energy, invade someone’s mind, raise zombies from corpses, and in general wield enough power to beat back an entire army of mundane people. All well and good, but then she goes to a courtroom to argue her cases. Gladstone tries to have it both ways by having Craftspeople “argue” using magic, but the contradiction is never resolved. What seems to have been forgotten is that lawyers are not themselves powerful. True power lies with the state, the leviathan of Hobbes, that compels obedience to the law. Lawyers are only powerful because they can channel some small part of that power through their knowledge and persuasive speaking. If Elayne Kevarin can blast her opponents into submission, why does she try to beat them by arguing cases in “Craft court”? Are her clients hiring her because of her magical power, or because she understands the law? If she merely understood the law and had no magical power of her own, could she still litigate? And who is the state that enforces this law which binds gods and humans, churches and nations? There is no monopoly on violence, that much is clear given the events of the novel, nor does it seem possible there a police force or even a military to enforce the court’s judgments, since these things are explicitly said to be controlled by the litigants.

A reasonable objection at this point is that this is a fun low fantasy novel, not a relentlessly serious epic like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, and that what I think of as “serious scrutiny” is just killjoy nitpicking. To some degree that’s true. This is a matter of taste, and those looking for beach reading won’t be too disappointed (though they might still wish for a tighter narrative and more surprising twists), but Three Parts Dead invites this scrutiny when it quotes Bertrand Russell with its title and pauses its narrative to try to make serious observations about faith and law. It’s always good to see an author trying to break new speculative ground, but it’s also more disappointing when such efforts fail.

The Warrior Who Carried Life by Geoff Ryman

July 23, 2013 at 12:12 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Warrior Who Carried Life coverToday Strange Horizons published my review of Geoff Ryman’s 1985 mythic fantasy novel The Warrior Who Carried Life, newly back in print from ChiZine.

In a bit of unwelcome site news, I noticed the other day that WordPress inserts ads on this blog. Maybe this has been going on for a long time…apparently they don’t show them if you’re logged in, as I usually am. Since I’ve paid them all of 0 dollars for years of hosting at this point I can’t complain, but it was slightly alarming to see an ugly ad in my gorgeous familiar blog layout. I’ll think about my options. I’ll also think about posting more. What can I say, I’m a thoughtful guy. We’ll see if anything actually materializes on either front.

Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

February 1, 2013 at 1:48 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 5 Comments
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The Alloy of Law coverSome people have called Alloy of Law a fantasy western, but this isn’t quite right. The premise is that Wax, the main character, is coming back to the biggest city in the world after many years spent as a gunslinging lawman on the frontier. He acts like, and thinks of himself as, a good-guy sheriff, but the novel is actually a mystery set against the backdrop of industrialization. Wax isn’t just a sheriff, he’s Lord Waxillian, a previously unimportant member of an important noble house who has unexpectedly found himself running the show after some unexpected deaths. He tries to take over his family’s extensive business empire, but when a brazen group of railroad thieves start kidnapping people, he can’t help but try to take matters into his own hands as a vigilante. Making this a more attractive proposition is the fact that while he doesn’t really know what he’s doing as the CEO of a huge business, he’s an extremely effective vigilante. This owes a little bit to his hard-earned experience as a lawman and a great deal to his genetic luck, which has given him access to some rare and very useful magic powers.

From that summary it should be obvious that what we have here is not a western or a steampunk fantasy but a retro-superhero story. Wax is Batman, translated into an 1870s-analogue society and radicalized by grief in his adult life instead of his childhood. He even has a sidekick, a wisecracking deputy from Wax’s old life who has his own different but only slightly less devastating combination of magic powers and the name “Wayne”. It takes a lot of cheek to simultaneously reference John Wayne and Bruce Wayne in a book like this, but Sanderson evidently felt he could get away with it in a story that aims its tone at light, fun vacation reading. In fact, Sanderson famously wrote the original draft of the novel in a month as a way to take a vacation from writing the last three Wheel of Time books. Only someone as absurdly prolific as Sanderson (who has published 11 original novels in only seven years…and also the three gigantic Wheel of Time novels based on Jordan’s notes) would take a vacation from writing a novel by writing another novel, but the difference in attitude is unmistakable. Compared with Sanderson’s normal adult writing, the story is much shorter, much more personal, and somewhat less serious. As a superhero story, for example, it operates on what we might call a pre-Watchmen level. The idea that as one of the wealthiest people in the city Wax could help people more by deploying that wealth than running around fighting bad guys isn’t seriously examined, nor is the possibility that the police deferring to a self-appointed vigilante rich person may not be a positive step toward bringing justice to the city. In his other work Sanderson has often shown an interest in trying to reverse common tropes, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his unironic use of the traditional superhero formula here (the formula that even Hollywood understands should be taken apart, even if it usually doesn’t know quite how to do it) is likely a conscious decision to stick to telling a fun story.

There’s nothing wrong with light reading. Viewed as “just” a fun story, Alloy of Law is reasonably successful. The mystery that Wax solves over the course of the novel has a few interesting elements and the plot moves quickly between its generous helping of action scenes. Sanderson’s normal chroegraphist tendencies are on display here, showing step by step how magic is used by combatants. The novel is set three hundred years after the Mistborn trilogy, so Sanderson is able to leverage the complicated but entertaining magic systems from those books and add a few new wrinkles.

No characters return from the Mistborn trilogy, so Alloy of Law theoretically can be read first, but I’d recommend against it. One reason is that perhaps the most interesting part of the novel, and the one aspect that elevates it above the fantasy equivalent of an airport thriller, is the way it establishes the dramatic changes that have occurred in the world since the earlier trilogy. Sanderson has never made any secret about the fact he expects technology to progress in his world just as it does in ours and that furthermore he wants to write a sequel trilogy set a thousand years in the future when the once-medieval society has spaceships and ray guns to go along with their magic. In Alloy of Law the difference in technology is less dramatic, moving from the trilogy’s horses and bows to guns and railroads, but Sanderson has put a lot of thought into how an industrializing and increasingly capitalist society would make use of his magic. Because he is writing a short, fun story there’s not as much emphasis on the setting as one might expect from a fantasy book, but better too little than too much. The good news is that the ending clearly points to a sequel, so Sanderson will be back to further explore this world.

But that’s also bad news, because while immediate matters are resolved, the ending isn’t nearly as conclusive as it might have been. The bigger problem, and the real reason I would recommend reading the Mistborn trilogy instead of Alloy of Law, is that Sanderson’s strengths as a writer are best served (and his weaknesses best minimized) by long, epic fantasy. Sanderson’s characters have never been much of a selling point and this story is no exception, populated mostly with familiar types and not spending enough time with the few interesting people (Steris and Miles). The other potential selling point of a shorter story, style, is also not Sanderson’s forte. His prose is transparent at best and while he attempts to liven up the story with humor, none of those moments merit more than a chuckle and few enough get even that far. All these things are characteristic of Sanderson no matter what he’s writing, but the reasons why he’s very much worth reading in spite of these faults are his great virtues: his rigor, his control, and his discipline. By rigor, I mean he approaches fantasy with the mentality of a science fiction writer: he establishes the rules by which magic operates and then proceeds to speculate on how those rules might be used and abused by the characters of his story. A little of that is on display here, but the magic system and therefore most of its implications are borrowed from the Mistborn books. By control, I mean he is one of the greatest writers of plot in the genre, carefully tying events in the story to revelations about the world so that the end of one of his long stories is incredibly satisfying, paying off all sorts of earlier little mysteries and unexplained elements by dropping in the last missing pieces that make everything fit together perfectly. This too is mostly absent, both because the novel is short and because when not in the epic mode there’s no chance for the sweeping revisions of previous conceptions that make his stories so compelling. And by discipline, I mean that unlike many authors, Sanderson can write very long stories without letting the structure and pace of the story fall apart and he can do it in a reasonable amount of time. Few fantasy authors can say they’ve done as well on this front as he has with both Mistborn and, to a certain degree, the Wheel of Time conclusion, but while that is a rare gift in very long form storytelling, many authors can do it at Alloy of Law‘s short length.

In interviews, Sanderson says that not every story has to be a long, epic, doorstop fantasy and that with Alloy of Law he wanted to do something more along the lines of a standalone episode in a television series. That’s a worthy goal, but good standalone television works because the audience is invested in the characters and is happy to spend forty minutes with them even if the plot doesn’t amount to much. That investment is achieved first by having very well-drawn characters and, second, by putting out a lot of “episodes” so that the audience develops a strong sense of familiarity. In the genre, this technique is most commonly used by urban fantasy series, though it’s not unknown elsewhere. But this isn’t that sort of book, and all the evidence is that Sanderson simply isn’t that kind of writer. Those new to his work should start with the Mistborn trilogy, which still doesn’t have great characters but does put Sanderson’s unique strengths to excellent use. Alloy of Law isn’t a bad, especially if approached with appropriate expectations, but it’s probably best left to big Sanderson fans.

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

September 19, 2012 at 11:52 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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My review of Jay Kristoff’s debut novel Stormdancer has been published by Strange Horizons.

The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham

May 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I’m a little late in mentioning it, but my review of the third book of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy, The Sacred Band, was posted on Monday at Strange Horizons.

The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

January 12, 2012 at 1:44 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, got great reviews and was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula. As is my custom, when I heard it was part of a trilogy I put it on my “to read” list, avoided synopses, and waited to read it until the trilogy was published so I could read it all at once. This is one of those times where my all-at-once approach came back to bite me. There are trilogies that are really one story (the vast majority these days, it seems to me) and trilogies that are really what it says on the tin, three stories. The Inheritance Trilogy is an example of the latter. The three books share a setting, a few characters, and should definitely be read in the order published, but they really are self-contained. For reasons I will get into in a minute, I suspect reading them all at once wasn’t merely unnecessary but even a little harmful.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins with an interesting combination of character and setting. Yeine Darr is the hereditary chief of a small, unimportant kingdom who is summoned to the court of the Arameri, the hegemonic rulers of the world. For many centuries the Arameri have lived decadently in their palatial tower of Sky, ruthlessly destroying anyone who goes against their “suggestions” but otherwise enforcing a general peace. Yeine’s mother was heir to the Arameri throne but abandoned her birthright to marry Yeine’s father. Both of Yeine’s parents died in her childhood, but unexpectedly Yeine’s status as a potential heir to the throne is reinstated, putting her in deadly competition with two of her cousins. She has only a few weeks to learn to navigate the traitorous court politics of Sky, find out the real reason her mother left, and understand why Yeine has been recalled. But complicating all this are the captive gods.

The reason the Arameri have dominated the world for millennia is their control of the Enefadah, four gods who were on the wrong end of an ancient power struggle in the pantheon and sentenced by the triumphant Itempas, god of order and daytime, with an unbreakable compulsion to obey any order given to them by the Arameri. The Enefadah are a compelling creation: powerful enough to destroy the world but bound to obey mortals, they hate their imprisonment and especially despise their Arameri jailers. If an Arameri ever gives them a command vague enough they can interpret it as something the Arameri doesn’t want (especially the Arameri’s painful death) they seize the opportunity, making them a double-edged weapon.

Yeine ends up falling in love with one of these captive gods, Nahadoth. As the cthonic god of darkness and along with Itempas one of the three supreme gods, Nahadoth falls pretty cleanly into the romantic stereotype of the older, theoretically more powerful, alluringly dangerous, but in important ways helpless male. I can’t say I read a lot of romantic fiction but the use of this trope in Twilight has made it feel overused even to me. At any rate, you can take that or leave it, but apart from that emotional story there’s plenty more interesting material in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Yeine spends most of her time trying to figure out the truth behind the story’s four formative events: the war in heaven that resulted in Nahadoth and the other Enafadah being imprisoned, the circumstances surrounding her mother’s departure from the Arameri before Yeine was born, the eventual deaths of Yeine’s parents, and finally the nature of the ceremony by which power will soon be transferred to whoever is designated the heir. The answers to these questions more than pay off the setup, making what could have been a problematic ending still feel quite satisfying. Yeine ends up being a good deal more passive than I prefer protagonists to be and the ending relies a little too much on previously unmentioned metaphysics, but all in all The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a very strong novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

What I don’t recommend is doing what I did and reading the entire trilogy all at once. It’s not that the two books that follow are bad. I’ve heard some people say the second book, The Broken Kingdoms, is even better than the first. Personally I would put it a notch or two below, and the third book, The Kingdom of Gods, is somewhat less effective than the second. But I think I would have liked both better if I’d read them as they came out, that is to say, with months separating the experience of each book, because Jemisin has done something a little unusual with this trilogy. Although each story advances the setting both chronologically and conceptually, all three are variations on the same theme in an unusually thorough sense. Each novel is centered around a mortal / god romance. In each case, the mortal is young while the god is many thousands of years old, but there’s something special about the mortal that draws the god in that is connected in some way with the mortal’s lineage. The god is always male, always very dangerous, always paradoxically vulnerable, always inhibited, and for most of each novel there is considerable question about how much he really feels for the mortal until the end, when of course love is fully affirmed. Although each book threatens its narrator with death in very different ways, all three resolve this side of the plot via metaphysical innovation.

I’ve had to describe the similarities carefully of course, because certainly there are differences. Yeine and the second book’s narrator, Oree Shoth, are very different people, and in the third book, the god is the narrator while the mortal side of the equation is two people, a twin brother and sister. It’s also the case that various problems that affect two of the books are not shared by a third. Where the first book has a strong intrigue plot with a number of well-drawn antagonists (and one, Scimina, who is not so well-drawn but at least acts out of a very understandable desire for power), the latter two each have cackling villains bent on destroying the world. In the second book, Oree Shoth spends a good deal of time with Shiny, but in the first and the third, love at almost the first sight sparks a romance that is portrayed as a profound relationship despite the lovers never spending very much time in each other’s company (understandable on the part of the young mortals but considerably less so for the immortals).

These similarities and near-similarities make each book of the trilogy feel very much like a variation on a single theme rather than independent stories, at least when read all at once the way I did. It’s a comprehensive elaboration on mortal-god relationships in the setting, I suppose, but I can’t help but feel this sum is rather less than the sum of its parts. One issue is that I became less interested in the gods and the metaphysics within which they operate the more I learned about them. As with most fantasy gods, these are portrayed as similar to humans in thoughts and emotions but possessing supernatural powers, but while we are told most people worship them, somehow this seemingly important element of religious life is never depicted. The three central gods of day, night, and twilight are associated with and responsible for natural phenomena like their polytheistic antecedents as well as limited in certain ways by a mysterious metadivine realm, but they are also half-heartedly said to be transcendent like a monotheist God, working together to create the entire universe, which here is depicted as the mind-bogglingly large universe of modern astronomy, not the cosy Earth-centered universe of the ancients. There are throwaway references to other stars and planets, but everything important in the emotional lives of the gods is centered around the human world, as if the entire rest of the universe is devoid of life or even interest. Below them, the countless lesser “godlings” have no connection whatsoever with the natural world but seem to be associated, at random, with various concepts. There’s a godling of wisdom, a godling of war, and so forth. Not only does their aspect drive their interest, but it provides them with antitheses that can harm or even kill them. This seems all right at first, like when the godling of obligation is weakened by even the suggestion that he would break his word, but it ends up feeling arbitrary, particularly with Sieh, the godling whose nature is explored the deepest. Sieh, we are told, is the godling of childhood, but this is interpreted rather more expansively than, say, the godling of hunger. Sieh prefers and even gains strength from acting like a child: playing silly games like tag and engaging in juvenile tricks. The problem is that not only is Sieh the oldest of the godlings, he often acts like it, discussing important issues with adult humans and other godlings. He also desires and frequently has sex. Yet in the third book it turns out the idea of being a father causes him pain. I suppose you or I could come up with a tortured explanation as to why this would be, but surely it makes just as much sense that he would have no interest in sex and want to avoid it?

These concerns weren’t an issue reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where I was pulled along by the fluid first-person narration, the fairly unique feel of the gods’ captivity, and the questions and revelations about the past. The Broken Kingdoms carried on those first two virtues, but in place of the first book’s revelations it featured a narrative where almost every reader spends almost the entire book knowing considerably more about what’s going on than any of the main characters. That’s not bad, I guess, but it’s definitely less satisfying. The Kingdom of Gods didn’t have anything to do with captivity, the narration was undermined by an unlikeable and, worse, unconvincing main character, and the increasingly unconvincing metaphysics of god(ling)hood were front and center. The trilogy’s name is a reference to the fact that the four mortal characters destinies are shaped by what they inherit from their parents, but as the titles of the two sequels suggest, as the trilogy proceeds the emphasis of the story is increasingly on the gods, culminating in a conclusion that relegates its mortal protagonists and their concerns to the sideline. For those readers who remain interested in the mechanics of godhood right up to the end, I think the conclusion might prove stirring, but to me it fell flat almost to the point of being actively depressing.

The grain of salt I’ll toss on to all this is that I think both of the latter books shared some virtues with the first book, particularly the quality of writing and the setting, that I took for granted having just read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. While I am somewhat lukewarm on the trilogy as a whole, I definitely recommend the first book. If you like it as much as I did (and most people seem to have liked it even more) then you’ll be reading the next book no matter what I say, but my advice is to consider reading a couple unrelated books in between.

The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey

December 11, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments
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Long ago, the inhabitants of the world lived in peace with the Seven Shapers, the godlike rulers of the world. But eventually Satoris, third-born among the Shapers, refused to obey a command from the eldest, Haomane, and in the resulting war the world was sundered. The other six Shapers were cut off from the world and its people, leaving them alone with the rebel Satoris. In the fighting, Satoris was gravely wounded but not destroyed, the dragons who fought for him were mostly killed but not wholly extinguished, and his fjelltroll servants lived still in the mountainous west. Satoris now bides his time, building his forces in his great fortress of Darkhaven, but a prophecy says that one day he and his servants will be cast down and the world will be healed.

It has been said that all epic fantasy can’t help but be in some sort of dialogue with Tolkien, but since the practice of making shallow copies of his work finally went out of style in the mid-1990s, it’s rare for a story to cleave as closely to Tolkien’s model as Jacqueline Carey’s two book series The Sundering does. The backstory is full of equivalences to The Silmarillion, with Shapers instead of Valar, Soumanie instead of silmarils, dragons instead of balrogs, ellyon instead of elves, and fjelltroll instead of orcs. The actual story told in the two novels is likewise similar to that of Lord of the Rings, with easily discerned analogues for Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Legolas, and so forth. That’s not to say the story is exactly the same. In this story, for example, the Gandalf-analogue recruits a fellowship in order to retrieve the Water of Life and use it to extinguish marrow-fire that protects Godslayer, the only weapon capable of harming Satoris. But as in Lord of the Rings, the fellowship is eventually broken, the Frodo and Sam analogues must journey on alone into the enemy’s land, and their surviving companions go on to take a hand in the general war.

Carey clearly expects her readers to have read at least Lord of the Rings, and the point of all these close correspondences is to subvert them. The story is mostly told from the point of view of Satoris’ followers, particularly the Ringwraith analogues Tanaros, Vorax, and Ushahin, though lesser members of Satoris’ army also get a fair amount of time. Even though the world has been told Satoris is the dark lord, the equivalent of Sauron and Morgoth, it turns out he’s…just misunderstood. He doesn’t want to enslave the world, he just wants to be left alone, but the Ellyon and humans are being manipulated by the Gandalf-analogue into starting a pointless war with him.

Well, is your mind blown? The answer to that question, I think, depends on how much fantasy published in the last twenty years you’ve read. There’s no question that Lord of the Rings involves lots of relatively unimportant people accepting without question a narrative given to them by powerful elites, then fighting, risking their lives, and sometimes dying to realize the ambitions of these elites. The relationship characters have to authority in Lord of the Rings should absolutely challenged, and The Sundering does so with gusto. My only question is whether, in light of everything else that’s been going on in the fantasy genre, this was really necessary. Lord of the Rings was published in 1955, and dozens if not hundreds of stories have since re-examined its assumptions. Just to mention a few examples, the Thomas Covenant novels went after the concept of the destined hero, Glen Cook’s Black Company series considered the moral complicity of those fighting on the side of evil, and many books, most recently those of Joe Abercrombie, have rejected the good/evil dichotomy entirely. But those examples I just mentioned position their stories much farther away from Tolkien’s work and do a much better job standing on their own while still making their points about the assumptions of epic fantasy.

That said, the two novels that make up The Sundering were published in 2004 and 2005, so we can guess they were probably written while the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out and Tolkien’s story was being brought to the vast cinematic audience, most of whom haven’t read and won’t ever read genre fantasy. I’m not sure how many of those people are likely to read The Sundering, but it’s also true that Jacqueline Carey’s popular Kushiel series has earned her a following that may read more from other sections of the fantasy genre. Your mileage may vary, but for me at least, just subverting Tolkien tropes isn’t enough to impress me any more.

Unfortunately, the extremely close relationship The Sundering has with Tolkien often works against it. Whenever The Sundering introduces characters, concepts, and places that have clear Tolkien equivalents, it’s hard to resist comparing Carey’s prose to that of Tolkien. People who find Tolkien long-winded and dull may not have a problem here, for Carey doesn’t share his fascination with landscapes and tends to focus much more on the interior feelings of characters (but then again, they may still, for Carey does follow Tolkien in employing an elevated and archaic grammar, and unlike Frodo and Sam her protagonists aren’t positioned to mediate between the reader and the secondary world). Whatever you think of his style, however, Tolkien loved the world he had created, and that came through in his writing. Carey has taken someone else’s setting and filed off the serial numbers, so it’s only natural she should be more interested in the points of divergence, but the result is that she tends to tell just enough about a setting or a minor character to allow the reader to figure out the Tolkien analogue, then she moves on. The result is a world that feels like a pale shadow of the Middle-earth it constantly evokes. It doesn’t help that shifting the perspective to the other side has relegated the many fleshed out characters of Lord of the Rings to bit player status, causing their characterization to inevitably suffer in comparison to the original.

The characters who get the most time are those who are most independent of Tolkien, namely the servants of Satoris and the vaguely Arwen-equivalent Cerelinde. If there’s a main character, it’s Tanaros, who while distantly connected to the Witch-King of Angmar has a much more fleshed out and interesting backstory. Centuries ago he was the childhood friend and chief lieutenant of the human king, but when he found out his beloved wife had slept with the king, he killed them both in a rage. Fleeing justice, he was granted immortality by Satoris in return for training the fjelltroll army and leading it into battle. More than even Satoris himself, Tanaros has a villainous past to go along with his reputation as an evil servant of the dark lord, but Carey paints him in sympathetic tones as a deeply conflicted person who still feels guilty about what he did, but who has learned to love Satoris and believe in his cause.

Tanaros and the others who fight for Satoris are well-drawn characters, but they are part of a story that becomes progressively less interesting. In Carey’s world, the “good guys” aren’t bad, per se, just manipulated and gullible, while the “bad guys” are flawed but honorable. Through the first book, Banewreaker, that and some fairly large plot departures from the Lord of the Rings template make for a reasonably good story. But as the story goes on, it tracks closer and closer with the standard epic fantasy plot. Having encouraging us to sympathize with the bad guys, she lets the reader feel their frustration as the protagonists see their various strategies to stop the ringbearer-analogue and disarm the prophecy all come to nothing. Much of the tragedy of the ending stems from its predictability, but the fact remains…the ending is extremely predictable. Toward the end of Godslayer, Satoris even announces he has essentially lost interest and takes steps to get the story over with as fast as possible. If even the leader of one side of an epic fantasy war can’t stay interested, it’s no surprise if some readers feel the same way.

This plodding predictability is built into the metaphysics that Carey has constructed to replace the dualism of Tolkien. Satoris is not the evil demon everyone thinks he is, but he’s not a saint either. He occasionally does genuinely evil things, usually because he’s been driven into a rage. It seems that Uru-Alat, the one God who created the world (or perhaps is the world) and birthed the seven Shapers, didn’t just create the universe, he created an overarching story and assigned roles in that story. Satoris feels he has been assigned the role of villain and forced to play that role against his wishes. This theme plays out in all the major characters of the book, who are forced by circumstances to take on the good or evil roles of the epic fantasy story regardless of their personal desires. This theme is, finally, something that strikes me as completely unique to The Sundering, but it means that the sort of surprising ending modern readers expect would undermine the nature of the world as it has been constructed. Worse, however, this whole “forced to be a villain” business seems to me like a more problematic world view than the one she’s attacking.

Lord of the Rings doesn’t have a whole lot to say about fate beyond some vague allusions to providence, but destiny is at the center of The Silmarillion. In its mythological opening section, The Silmarillion explains that the angelic servants of Eru, the one God, sang the world into existence according to Eru’s theme. This divine music doesn’t just create the world, it creates time, and contains the entire sweep of history and the lives of every person who ever lived. Melkor, the Satan-analogue (for The Silmarillion is built off Christianity almost to the same degree The Sundering is built off The Silmarillion) wants to sing music of his own creation, music that is in discord with Eru’s theme. In response Eru changes his theme so that it incorporates and builds off Melkor’s discord, and says that though Melkor meant to twist the music into something of his own control, he has merely been a tool by which Eru has enhanced the music and made it even greater than it would have been otherwise.

The point of this summary is that Tolkien was using his fantasy setting to construct an argument about the Problem of Evil. If a good God is supreme in the world, how can evil exist? Tolkien’s courageous answer, developed throughout The Silmarillion, is that the world is a better place with evil in it. This isn’t a review of The Silmarillion so I’ll leave for another day the question of how persuasive Tolkien is on this point, but what are we to make of Carey’s metaphysics? There’s no such thing as evil, she seems to say, just people whose circumstances have forced them to play antagonist to self-appointed good guys. In The Sundering, Uru-Alat seems to be like Eru in that he has laid out the story of history, but he didn’t get his characters quite right and has been forced to jam square pegs into round holes.

I have two major problems here. The first is that The Sundering seems to say there’s no such thing as evil. Personally, I think there are people, albeit not many, who can usefully be called evil. I suppose Hitler is the canonical example. I know some people reject this, and while I’m not convinced, I understand where they’re coming from. Maybe seemingly evil people are just warped by their circumstances. But the Problem of Evil isn’t just about human behavior, it’s about the world. What are we to make of natural disasters, disease, and all the other pointless suffering in the world? If there’s no God, that’s not an issue, but once you posit an Eru or an Uru-Alat they become responsible for these things. I suppose that Carey never says that Uru-Alat is good, but there are subtle aspects of the narrative that make Uru-Alat and his plan seem good in a way that Haomane and Satoris aren’t.

The other problem is Carey’s idea that her bad guys are forced into doing bad by their circumstances, and even by the expectations of those around them. This is a seductive idea and she does a good job encouraging the reader to sympathize when characters like Satoris and Tanaros do bad things after being painted into a corner. But at the end of the day, those things are still bad. Discovering the adultery between his wife and the king deeply angered Tanaros, for example, but that doesn’t excuse murdering them. For his part, Satoris frequently complains about how he never wanted a war, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting a long and bloody war when it is “forced” on him.

This issue is best demonstrated when the “good guys” gather armies and attack Lilias, a sorceress who uses a silmaril-equivalent to unnaturally lengthen her life and mind-control people into serving her. Carey puts all her considerable skill as an author into making Lilias sympathetic and succeeds. But Lilias, more than any other “evil” character in The Sundering, is actually, you know, evil. Like Satoris, she didn’t want a war and hoped to be left to her own devices, but her own devices consist of using magic to brainwash people into serving her. That’s it. That, and giving herself eternal youth and beauty, was all she ever did with her considerable magic power, though it had many other possible uses. The active evil of twisting the wills of other people and the passive evil of not using her power to better ends make her a genuine villain, but the worst comes when the armies of humans and ellyon come to end her reign and she sends her brainwashed servants to fight against overwhelming odds. At first, she thinks she can win thanks to an arrangement she has made with Satoris, and honestly tells her defenders that they only have to hold out for a few days to win. Soon, however, she learns that due to a catastrophe elsewhere, Satoris’ forces won’t be able to come to her aid, and the fight really is hopeless. Her response? She lies about the situation to those fighting for her and lets the pointless fight continue until just about everyone who served her is dead. She, of course, is captured alive.

Why, she is asked later by her captors, did she not surrender when she learned that Satoris could not save her? She had genuine affection for her servants, so why allow them to needlessly die? She doesn’t give a straight answer. Before the armies reach her, she rejects the idea of running away on the grounds that this is her home, and if she can’t continue living there the (horrifying) way she has been, she doesn’t want to continue living. But after the armies fight, it seems she allows the slaughter to continue just because she feels like she’s a victim of unprovoked aggression and she wants to hurt her attackers as much as possible. Lilias is so contemptible when the facts are dispassionately considered it is difficult to describe just how sympathetically the narrative actually views her. Although questions about her behavior are briefly raised, her status as a victim is never given the strong challenge it deserves.

What is Jacqueline Carey trying to say with characters like Lilias, Taranos, and Satoris? It’s not clear from the text, but my best guess is she’s saying that reasonable people sometimes do things they later realize were bad, but if they acknowledge their crime and submit to the justice of others, they are accepting guilt not just for their true crimes, but also for all the false allegations that have been slanderously applied to them. As bad as Lilias is, she’s not as evil as she is said to be, and with Tanaros and especially Satoris the discrepancy is even wider. Giving in to the “good guys” means accepting their false narrative. It also means implicitly endorsing them as good guys, but they aren’t perfect either, the argument seems to run. They’ve committed their own crimes, so not only would surrendering accept too much guilt, it would help them to whitewash their own actions.

I can accept that this sort of thinking exists in the real world, but the text seems to go farther and actually endorse it. The author, English majors will remind us, is different from the text, so perhaps Carey herself thinks otherwise. She might have been trying to get the reader to understand how evil people aren’t evil in their own minds, but if so, she leaves a lot of work for the reader to do. As far as the text is concerned, these characters really aren’t evil at all. They’ve done some bad things, but they feel guilty about them, so if anything that means they’re better people than those on the side of “good” who aren’t self-aware enough to realize they also have done some bad things in their day.

The determination of Lilias and later Satoris to fight on against overwhelming odds is another theme The Sundering has adapted from Tolkien and taken in problematic directions. In The Silmarillion, the Elves keep fighting against Morgoth even though they know they can’t win. Because Morgoth is a genuinely destructive force to which there can be no possible surrender, the Elves’ fight mirrors the real human struggle against death. We can’t actually defeat death, but there’s very good reasons not to surrender either. This idea is present in The Sundering but in a very strange form. Though they don’t realize it, the good guys in the story are serving the cause of death. Each Shaper has a “gift” they can give to the mortal races. Haomane’s, for example, was “thought”, given to humans and ellyon but not to fjelltrolls. Satoris’ gift was sexual pleasure and fertility. He gave his gift to humans, but Haomane didn’t allow him to give it to ellyon, and as a result humans reproduce and become ever more numerous while the ellyon diminish in numbers. To prevent the ellyon from being crowded out, Haomane demands that Satoris revoke his gift from humans. Satoris refuses, and this is the cause of the original falling out. After the sundering, Haomane’s Gandalf-analogue (not so subtly named Malthus) incites humans into massive wars against Satoris that seem genuinely intended to defeat him, but the carnage also pares back the excess human population. When another race, the Were, actually do surrender to Malthus, they are allowed to live but are forbidden to reproduce, apparently dooming them to extinction.

There is a case to be made, then, that the “bad guys” really are fighting against death in some way and that therefore they are correct to not surrender. But no one actually makes this case, not Satoris, Tanaros, or Lilias. Whenever the question of why keep fighting comes up, the answer always seems to be pride and spite. In any case, valorizing the fight against population control is an odd stance for a modern story to take. The real Malthus was wrong about his predictions of famine, but no one disagrees with his general observation that population can’t increase indefinitely. I say no one, but The Sundering seems to say that if Haomane had just allowed the ellyon to have Satoris’ gift, everything would have been fine. It also hints that the prophesied marriage of a human and ellyon will be a mechanism for finally allowing the ellyon access to Satoris’ power, and implies that this was probably Uru-Alat’s plan all along.

Once again, this all made more sense in Tolkien’s original. There, the conceit was that Middle-earth was in our past, and so we could take it for granted that nothing would halt the decline of the Elves, since there self-evidently aren’t many Elves, if any, left in our time. What the future holds for The Sundering‘s world is anyone’s guess. Malthusian collapse as ellyon and humans populations (or a single hybrid of both) grow without bound, or else the fantasy equivalent of demographic transition, I suppose.

I like thought-provoking stories even if I disagree with a position they seem to be arguing for, but I’m afraid I can’t recommend The Sundering. The story is too predictable, the world is too derivative, and the ideas those two weaknesses were intended to serve just aren’t coherent enough to justify them. I’m glad Carey took time away from her Kushiel books to try something different, but for me this one is in the category of interesting failure.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

November 14, 2011 at 1:31 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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Tigana coverGuy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is the first of his historical fantasies. It was the novel that made me a Kay fan and, according to the mental shorthand one is forced to use to compare novels read years apart, my second favorite of his novels after Lions of Al-Rassan. I reread it recently for the third time, but the first since 2004, when I called it “a great book” with only a few reservations.

Unfortunately, on the most recent reread I liked it less. Oh, it’s a good book all right, but great? The writing seemed creaky in places, especially near the beginning, and the seams in the story were more obvious to me, giving the novel a texture like premodern writings assembled from divergent sources. Dianora’s story is a tragedy that owes a great deal to Hamlet (though it hides it well enough I didn’t notice until just now) whereas Devin and his happy-go-lucky musician revolutionaries are upbeat and optimistic despite dangerous setbacks and bloody battles. The Ember Nights and Castle Borso segments feel like they are from still a third and perhaps fourth source.

But while I don’t like Tigana as much as I used to, I find it more interesting than ever. It’s a useful book for thinking about the fantasy genre in general because it stands with one foot in the Tolkienian tradition and one foot in the modern world (and occupies a similar position in Kay’s career, between the Tolkien/Lewis derivative Finovar Tapestry and his almost completely mundane historical fantasies).

Prince Alessan certainly feels like an old-fashioned character. Much like Tolkien’s Aragorn, he’s a hero who risks his life for the common good. Not only is he intended to be a role model for readers, within the story he’s a role model for the regular-guy-turned-hero protagonist Devin. This is old-fashioned because in what I would call a modern fantasy novel, characters like this are not allowed to succeed. His closest analogue in A Song of Ice and Fire is Eddard Stark, whose sense of honor and even mercy lead to disaster both for him personally and his entire nation. In Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy the equivalent character is the wizard Bayaz, for whom virtue is a cloak for his ruthlessly self-interested motives. In Tigana, no one comes out and says that Alessan is a good person because he’s noble (they don’t even say that as the Prince’s heir he’s the only legitimate ruler of Tigana) but all the characters from the nobility are good and honorable (Alessan, Sandre, and Brandin) whereas the true villain of the novel is a rich man trying to buy his way to power (Alberico).

That much was common in the epic fantasy of the 80s and 90s, but Tigana is also old-fashioned in its strong emphasis on nationalism. The setting is based on medieval Italy and the story is centered on the effort to unite the disparate provinces of the Palm into a single nation that can rule itself rather than be dominated by foreigners. An analysis of the degree to which the modern English-speaking world is post-nationalist is out of the scope of this essay, but I would argue that for all the patriotic symbolism and rhetoric that remain in politics, nationalism is on the way out and has been since World War II. Yet Tigana, published in 1994, is unashamedly a cheerleader for national pride.

But Tigana is also at least in part a modern fantasy novel, and as such it is not at all unaware of the critiques of nationalism. Epic fantasy outside the “gritty realism” brand of Martin and Abercrombie is frequently accused, and often justly, of being counter-revolutionary, where the revolution being referred to is that of France. Whatever the results of the French Revolution specifically, few would argue the revolutionaries weren’t on the right side of history in the debate about the divine right of kings, so the unconscious monarchism of stereotypical epic fantasy tends to inspire ridicule. Anyone who writes such a novel, the thinking goes, is either hopelessly ignorant of the real conditions of life in the middle ages, or else they haven’t thought about it at all and are mindlessly following the tropes of Tolkienian fantasy. The nationalism of Tigana isn’t quite so retrograde, but on the other hand there can be no doubt that within the novel nationalism is consciously espoused, challenged, and defended.

It is a measure of how committed Tigana is to questioning its own nationalist premise that the characters do not agree about the central conflict of the novel. The saintly Prince Alessan is the last Prince of Tigana, which has been under foreign occupation for many years. At the beginning of the novel Alessan recruits the protagonist Devin by a patriotic appeal to Devin’s Tiganan identity. Since many of the other characters are also from Tigana, it would be easy to assume that their goal should be to free Tigana from occupation. Certainly his mother thinks that to work towards anything else isn’t just a bad idea but a betrayal of Tigana’s lost generation.

But that is not Alessan’s goal. He wants to free the entire peninsula from occupation, not just Tigana. Early in the novel he makes his case to men of a different province conspiring against a different foreign occupier:

“Two facts,” the man called Alessan said crisply. “Learn them if you are serious about freedom in the Palm. One: if you oust or slay Alberico you will have Brandin upon you within three months. Two: if Brandin is ousted or slain Alberico will rule this peninsula within that same period of time.

This is a pragmatic argument: the whole Palm must be freed and united or else foreign powers will dominate it. But even here it is couched in ethical language about the “freedom in the Palm”. What Alessan means when he says freedom here, and what everyone means using the word freedom throughout the novel, is different from the modern use of the word. This is not freedom spoken of in the Declaration of Independence or the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the freedom to live one’s life without the King or Congress infringing on one’s natural rights. This is a strictly nationalist conception of freedom: freedom from foreign rule.

Typically, modern stories that advocate nationalism will do their best to conflate these two meanings of “freedom” to prevent the audience from questioning the virtue of the protagonist’s cause. For example, in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart the English are shown repeatedly abusing the natural rights of the Scottish, making them unfit rulers by Thomas Jefferson’s definition rather than forcing the audience to consider what might have motivated the historical William Wallace. Tigana doesn’t take this way out and even goes out of its way to show that foreign rule has had many beneficial effects. The presence of the Tyrants has ended the chronic feuding and constant wars of the various Palm provinces, saving countless lives. The Tyrants have also nearly exterminated bandits and brigands, making the roads much safer. Their courts support musicians, poets, and other types of culture, no small concern in a novel where most characters are musicians. Why endure war and all the inevitable suffering that accompanies it just to return to what will likely be less effective rule?

It’s all the more interesting that Tigana introduces these critiques given Kay doesn’t have any intellectual answer to them. That his sympathies lie with Alessan is made clear by the novel’s two sideplots, the Castle Borso scenes and the Ember Night sequence. Alienor and Castle Borso seem to be present in the novel solely to set out an idea (clearly author-endorsed but nevertheless extremely dubious) about the effects of “tyranny” on sexual practices. I put tyranny in scare quotes because the Alienor’s relationship to her foreign overlord seems unlikely to be different in any way to her previous arrangements with the duke of her province. The Ember Night section is an ill-conceived effort to give a political revolution cosmic significance by introducing a metaphysical threat against the whole world (well, it’s a little unclear, so perhaps just the peninsula?) and dispensing with it after about thirty pages. Here again, it is the “tyranny” (i.e. foreign rule, no matter how enlightened) of the Palm that has left it open to cosmic disaster.

All of this comes to a head toward the end of the novel, when love for Dianora and lingering anger at the loss of his son spur Brandin into renouncing his home of Ygrath and acclaims himself King of the Palm. Viewed dispassionately, to modern eyes this represents the fulfillment of everything Alessan has fought for. Brandin has lived on the Palm for twenty years, surely enough time to be considered naturalized, and he’s marrying a native. Moreover, he’s campaigning to defeat Alberico and unite the Palm into a single nation strong enough to resist future invasions. Inspired by this new nationalist platform, the common people rally to his banner, so he even has a democratic mandate (not that any of the novel’s characters ever seem the least interested in democracy). Although Brandin still maintains the spell that prevents people from hearing the name of Tigana, he even removes his punitive taxation on “Lower Corte”, providing them with the same benevolent rule his other provinces enjoyed. Surely this is wonderful!

But this just makes Alessan afraid. This is exactly what he said he wants to happen, but there’s just one problem: Brandin is unacceptable to him as king. The closest thing to an explanation the novel offers for this is the fact that Brandin still maintains the spell suppressing Tigana’s name, yet Alessan previously prioritized the “freedom of the Palm” over the restoration of the word Tigana even to the point of becoming estranged from his mother. If he brings his small force into the final battle on Brandin’s side, the result is sure to be unification of the Palm, but he’s willing to jeopardize the victory over Alberico in a far less likely scheme to defeat Brandin as well. The cynical explanation is that Alessan’s true desire is that he and no one else rule the Palm, but I think the real message is that Brandin is unacceptable because he was born in Ygrath, and that while he may have spent twenty years in the Palm, he’s not a native and never can be.

This isn’t stated, because as I said, Kay doesn’t offer any intellectual defense of the critiques of nationalism. His argument on behalf of nationalism is emotional, something typical of nationalist art but less common in modern fantasy. Characters in most fantasy novels love and hate other people, but few authors are better at showing characters who love their country than Kay. In Lions of Al-Rassan he puts this talent in service of a story that shows how patriotism can put friends on opposite sides of a destructive war, but in Tigana all his efforts are put toward making the reader understand and sympathize with the characters love for the Palm in general and Tigana in particular. It is this patriotism for a province he never knew, for instance, that drives Devin to abandon an increasingly lucrative career as a singer for the life of a revolutionary, a life to which he brings no applicable skills except that same patriotism. While reading the novel, I can almost buy into the idea myself.

But when I put the book down and think about it, nationalism doesn’t seem like such a good thing. I called Tigana a historical fantasy, but it is far less connected with real history than Kay’s later books, and no where more so than the thoroughly ahistorical depiction of nationalism without liberalism. The hero of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi, was a passionate advocate of universal suffrage, land reform, and the emancipation of women. In this his ambitions were frustrated and none of these things were achieved in the reunified Italy, because the real historical equivalent of Alessan (Victor Emmanuel II) didn’t see any reason to give up the power he had risked so much to obtain. Tigana presents a much more positive and successful version of the Italian reunification (and tells a fun adventure story while doing so), but in the process it purges what to a modern observer seems like the most important goals of the original unification movement in the first place.

The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter by Brent Hayward

August 19, 2011 at 10:52 am | Posted in Elsewhere, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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My review of Brent Hayward’s second novel, The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter, has been posted by Strange Horizons. Next up for this blog is a review of another unusual book with an even longer title, How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

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