Karthanas Goes to Dinner

I’ve been taking a break from my work on the sequel to Exile to work on an as-yet untitled epic fantasy novel that has been taking shape in my mind for some time now.  You can read an early version of its first chapters here, though it has evolved a lot sense these were written.  Eventually I’ll post the updated version.

This one’s darker, racier, and decidedly not for children, so if you’ve got a problem with sex and violence, it’s probably not for you.  Here’s a (PG-rated) taste.  If you like sword and sorcery, swordpunk, grimdark, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, or Game of Thrones, I think you’ll like Karthanas the Lesser.

Karth took the seat at Louvhena’s right, next to Kornu and across the table from a man and a woman he didn’t know. The fact that they had not risen and their dress made them Peers, but not from neighboring fees. He supposed he should have acknowledged them before now, but between the confidence-sucking sight of Louvhena and the buttery spectacle that Kornu made at table, he hadn’t truly laid eyes on them yet.

The man was tall, almost of a height with Karth, with thinning gray hair and an impressive lantern jaw. He wore a thin circlet on his shiny pate, an affectation most Lanthean highlords had done away with decades ago, and a ribbed tunic in crushed velvet that looked stifling even in the relative cool of a spring night. The neckcloth tied at his throat was the color of old piss, and completely at odds with the rest of his attire.

His wife, or the woman Karth took to be his wife, was at least twenty suns his junior—hardly uncommon—but what was uncommon was the fact that she had the red hair of the barbarian tribes that peopled the northeastern part of Yora. Karth arched an eyebrow at that, but took in the sparkling green eyes and freckled bosom with undisguised interest. There’s something would be nice covered in butter.

Louvhena cleared her throat delicately, her glance like a quick cut with a rusty blade.

“Since you are late for dinner,” she said, smiling her most inviting, maternal smile at her strange guests, “allow me to introduce Lord Pevenish, Peer of Carobdown, and his lovely consort, the Lady Abraun.” No titles for the little lamb, Karth noticed. He’d pegged that one right. Louvhena seemed to realize it, too.

“Where was it that you were born, my dear?” Pevenish frowned slightly at this, taking the opportunity to cough a gob of phlegm into his linen napkin, but said nothing. The lack of titles was indication enough of her breeding, but asking after her birthplace so frankly was one step above inquiring whether the whore who’d pushed her into the world even knew the identity of her sire.

Abraun blushed, which only made her more delicious, and looked down at her folded hands.

“Carway, my lady,” she said. “I’m of the Cullisht tribe.” She answered like a young girl speaking to her governess.

“How lovely,” said Louvhena, cocking her head as if the girl had said she was heir to the Empyrean Throne and not a nameless whelp from a lawless territory unendowed with so much as Lanthean citizenship. Karth supposed she had gained that upon marrying Pevenish, but still….

“My lord,” Karth intoned, nodding his greeting. “It is my pleasure. And my lady.”

“My lord Karthanas,” Pevenish grumbled, as if Karth had kept him waiting. “I was just telling your lady mother how…pleased we are to be her guests.” He didn’t look pleased. Karth couldn’t blame him. An invitation of any kind from Louvhena was like pickled herring: you either loved it or saw it for the odorous bait that it was.

“Carobdown is in the southeast, is it not?” Karth had never heard of it, which meant it was one of the Scraps, the two dozen or so tiny fees in the southeast left after the last scion of the House of Kestren died without an heir and set every cousin, vassal, and country squire squabbling for their share of a suddenly untended feast of land. Kestren had been a great House in its day, with an eponymous fee in the form of a huge swath of arable land east of Lansium. After a couple of adjacent, powerful Houses took the opportunity to assert old claims over pieces of it, the lesser lords tore up the rest. Thus the Scraps, though the new “Houses” that grew out of the whole business hated the name.

“Yes,” said Pevenish, “one of the descendant fees of Kestren, of course.” He was phlegmatic enough about it for Karth to pin him as one of the less prickly of the Scraplords, whose sensitivity over the youth and inconsequentiality of their titles had led to more than a few border disputes that had threatened to become a region-wide problem.  But the Senat had stamped them down, as it always did; open contention among the Peerage was not tolerated. Not the kind with swords, at least.

Pevenish was clearly used to having to explain the location and history of his lands, and as he didn’t seem terribly put out by doing so, Karth went on.

“Carobdown,” he said. “Named for…?”

“Its chief trade good,” Pevenish responded.

Karth raised his eyebrows.

“Carob,” Pevenish explained, his patience wavering. “We grow carob.”

“Ahh,” said Karth. “A worthy nomenclature, my lord. A personal favorite of mine.” Karth despised the stuff. Vinerran’s head cook called it poor man’s chocolate, as the peasantry used it as substitute for that delicacy, which was beyond the means of many middling Peers. Chalky and sweet, peasants stuffed the pulp from the tree’s seedpods into pastries and breads. He couldn’t think of anything else to talk about with the man, so he determined to get him talking about his bread and butter.

“Indeed,” said Pevenish, more lively now, “a most wonderful plant. So many uses! The obvious ones of course, as flour and flavoring for pastry, but also the farmers make of it a sweet liquor….”

Karth stopped listening. It was enough to get the man talking, make him feel like he was at all interested in anything he had to say. Part of a host’s duties, and all that. He looked at Louvhena and found her watching him with wry approval. She knew what he was doing, and liked it. Damn woman. Whatever stratagem she had in mind for this bumpkin lord had nothing to do with the internal trade of foul-tasting commodities. Karth almost pitied the man: Louvhena collected sycophants, and most of them eventually realized that a gilded collar was still a collar.

Richard Morgan on ‘The Slow Death of Nuance’

Richard K. Morgan, author of Altered Carbon and The Dark Defiles, the latter of which I finished reading (and loved) recently, wrote a fantastic essay on his blog a couple of weeks ago about the dumbing down of storytelling and how it increasingly asks less and less of the reader:

Dip into the broad waters of commercial fiction and you’ll bump repeatedly into that same terror of open narrative space, of letting the reader think for themselves.  Paragraphs abound with that jerky last sentence sutured on, subtle as Frankenstein surgery, to hammer home the point the text just spent ten finely penned lines carefully implying.  One notable horror writer, a firm favourite of mine for many years, has gone so far down this treat-your-readers-as-morons-with-ADD path that I now find his books unreadable.  There is no longer any nuance anywhere in the text, no room to breathe and wonder – you’re just herded along from one big narrative signpost to the next; don’t stop, don’t think, just open wide, here comes the next big helping.  You end up gagged and bound, stifled by subtitles for the hard-of-thinking.  Never mind nuance, never mind thinking for yourself, you’re being entertained here!  Get with the programme.

And right there in your hands, reading turns from a textured, open experience full of challenge and invitation to extend yourself – like, say, rock climbing or playing a musical instrument – into a satisfaction-guaranteed sit-back-relax repeat-prescription experiential product, like being strapped into the same rollercoaster ride over and over again.

He opens by discussing the ending of Lost in Translation, and the powerful way in which Sofia Coppola uses stylistic storytelling to allow the viewer to form their own opinion as to what precisely passed between the main characters while nonetheless showing fairly clearly what actually happens.

The ending of Morgan’s most recent novel The Dark Defiles presents a deliberately inchoate conclusion to its story: the action is cut off at a point where the reader, presuming he or she has been paying attention, should have absolutely no doubt about what happens next, but the coup de grace isn’t shown.  And it’s brilliant.  Apparently not all of Morgan’s readers got it, though, which is unfortunate, because it was a hell of a lot of fun:

The Dark Defiles does not end ambiguously.  Honest.  Not at all.  There’s some space at the end, sure, but what’s going to happen in it is a pretty solidly foreshadowed and foregone conclusion.  You don’t get given blow-by-blow chapter and verse, because I figure you’re smart enough to step into that narrative space and figure it out for yourselves, sophisticated enough to enjoy that process for its own sake.

Most readers seem to have done that.

That some didn’t, and more importantly that most of those who didn’t felt somehow short-changed and even angered by the nuance and the space, continues to perplex me.

As Mr. Morgan goes on to point out, sometimes it is indeed the author’s fault, not the reader’s.  But that isn’t the case here.  If you couldn’t follow the ending of The Dark Defiles, you weren’t paying close enough attention.  It’s all in there.  Reread it.  If you still don’t get it, email me and I’ll be happy to explain it to you.

The broader point Morgan makes is well-taken: it’s unfortunate that the mainstream trend in fiction and in film is to remove all ambiguity, and thus do the audience’s thinking for them.  That’s not what art is suppose to be.  Don’t let your art talk down to you.  You deserve better.

Will HBO’s Game of Thrones Reach the End of the Story Before the Novels?

You’ve probably heard the news by now that the sixth novel in George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the incredibly popular HBO series Game of Thrones is based, will not be released in 2015, according to his publisher Harper Collins.  This was hardly a surprise for Martin’s fans, given the frequent and often massive delays between books in the series.

That being said, Chris Taylor over at Mashable took the time to do some basic math and came to the (quite reasonable) conclusion that it would be impossible for Martin to finish the series before HBO does at this point.

What HarperCollins didn’t draw attention to is that the later arrival of Winds of Winter all but guarantees that the HBO series will do what Martin has long hoped it wouldn’t: overtake the books. Here’s why. (Caution: What follows indulges in mild speculation, and includes mild spoilers if you haven’t read the books.)

Season 5 of Game of Thrones arrives in April. It is based on book four, A Feast for Crows, as well as parts of book five, A Dance With Dragons. (The producers managed to split book three into two seasons, but that was jam-packed with plot; sadly, there’s barely enough meat in Crows and Dragons combined to make for a single season.)

The HBO show is on a regular schedule; it films every fall, and screens every spring. There’s little hope of delaying Game of Thrones, especially given its large number of teenaged actors who are growing up faster than the pace of the story allows. Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran Stark, has already gone through so much pubescence that the producers have already parked Bran at the place where he arrives in book five.

The producers have made it quite clear they intend to end the show with Season 7. So we already have a clear road map: Season 6 arrives in 2016, and the HBO show will grace our screens for the last time in 2017.

Martin’s roadmap, meanwhile, involves two more novels: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. The titles were announced nearly a decade ago.

So let’s be generous to Martin, and imagine that Winter is coming in early 2016, just ahead of the TV season that will likely be based on it. That schedule is not entirely beyond the bounds of reason, given that he has already offered two sample chapters of the new book online.

What is beyond the bounds of reason, however, is that Spring could be completed just one year later, in time for Season 7 in 2017. Martin’s books are behemoths lasting between 800 and 1,100 pages each, and even the early books — when he was actually writing fast — had two-year gaps between them.

In other words, at his fastest conceivable writing speed, he would have needed to release Winter this year — and that possibility has just been taken off the table. So we can definitively say that all the long-debated secrets of the series (who Jon Snow’s mother is, who ends up on the Iron Throne, whether the dragons and the arrival of winter destroy everything and everyone) will be revealed on screen before they arrive on the page.

I’ll spare you further commentary on Martin’s writing speed, polemic about whether he’s anyone’s bitch and what, if anything, authors owe to their readers, and pointless speculation about potential differences between the TV and book endings.

What I will say is this:

1.  The TV show has surpassed the books in storytelling quality in certain areas, particularly in regard to its treatment of certain characters (Cersei, for instance) and the plot of the later books, so this isn’t as disappointing to me as it otherwise might be, given that I first fell in love with Martin’s world through the novels.

2.  Mr. Martin has stated publicly that the television show is a major motivation in hastening his work, but I have no doubt that when it becomes clear to him and his publisher, as it may well have already, that they cannot beat HBO to the punch, we’ll see an immediate return to the years-long delays ASOIAF readers have experienced with prior volumes in the series.

3.  Martin has said before that he would consider expanding the (as of now) seven-book series to eight or nine books if he needs to to tell the story.  It seems to me that if the motivation of ending the story ahead of the show disappears, so will any motivation to fit the print story into seven books.  This would be unfortunate, as the story has already gotten flabbier than it should have.

Why ‘The Hobbit’ Movies Suck

I couldn’t agree more with this comparative analysis by DBS Film Society of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies.  It’s not just that Peter Jackson artificially broke up a children’s book into three bloated films, it’s that in doing so he emphasized the superficial over the substantial.

This is what Hollywood has always done in response to a popular, critically-acclaimed film: ape its most superficial qualities in the assumption that that was the key to its popularity.  It’s a classic case of style over substance.  But they’re mistaken.  Samwise himself said it best: “…those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something–even if you were too small to understand why.”

Brilliant and well worth the watch for any Tolkien fan.

Words of Radiance

I wanted so much to love Words of Radiance; I wanted it to be the rebirth of classic epic fantasy that we’d all been waiting for (i.e., non-grimdark), a doorstopper tome that not only justified its size and its existence but that reawakened a passion in me lit by the likes of Tolkien and Tad Williams and early Robert Jordan.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  Maybe I’m simply at a different place in my life.  But as much as I liked the novel, the second installment in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, I found that I could not love it.  Not unconditionally; not the way I love some others.

It’s hard to write about Brandon Sanderson without writing about epic fantasy as a genre, as he has taken Robert Jordan’s place at its forefront: his are the novels that fans wait for, the ones that hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, the ones that form the backbone of the genre.  If there’s a fantasy mainstream, Brandon Sanderson is it.  Bestsellers of this type are rarely examples of the literary avant garde–especially when it comes to epic fantasy–but the older I get, the less patience I have with bloated series that prioritize world-building over character and story.

Words of Radiance is an exercise in excess, even more than its predecessor, The Way of Kings, and its overwhelmingly positive reception is a perfect example of the growing tendency (among fantasy book bloggers, mostly) to excuse bloated, clumsy story-telling simply because epic fantasy is supposed to be that way.  Is there an argument to be made that you shouldn’t complain about epic fantasy being too long, because epic fantasy has always been too long?  That complaining about length in a ten-book series of thousand-page novels is silly?  Yes.  But that argument ultimately ignores the fact that we have accepted this gluttonous, kitchen-sink version of epic fantasy more due to a lack of other options than because it’s what we really want.

Which is not to say that there aren’t people who want what Sanderson’s dishing out: The Stormlight Archive is fantasy that rewards the true nerd, the one who reads the wikis and follows the rumors and has theories on every possible unresolved plot point.  Much like The Wheel of Time before it, The Stormlight Archive presents world-building so complex that only the most die-hard fan is truly rewarded, the one willing to reread it until things make sense, the one willing to comb through forum posts until each and every secondary and tertiary character is analyzed and discussed, every artifact catalogued, every magic system codified and cross-referenced.  Simply put, you need a Ph.D in Sanderson to truly understand Sanderson.

It’s not just that this is a big, long series; Mr. Sanderson has spent most of his professional career linking all of his adult fiction together into the overarching world of the Cosmere, the universe in which all of his books take place.  And it’s here that we really see the complexity of The Stormlight Archive, as much of the content references or at least relates to other characters and other books.  This series is to be something of a keystone for the Cosmere, and more so than any of the series that preceded it, it requires a working knowledge of Sanderson’s larger oeuvre. Can you read The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance without having read any of Sanderson’s other novels?  Sure.  But a lot of it won’t make sense to you.  The world of Roshar is vast and complicated enough to be overwhelming to those who have read the other, connected series; Sanderson neophytes have little hope of understanding the deeper, central conflicts that the books often refer to.  Some of the interludes and all of the chapter epigraphs will be almost nonsensical, and arguably the main antagonists of these two books are quite vague and poorly defined in the absence of external knowledge.  I’d imagine the experience would be similar to watching the film adaptations of The Hobbit without having read either The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit itself, or seen the Peter Jackson Rings movies.  You could enjoy the story, enjoy the action, but the foreshadowing and allusion and most importantly the central meaning of it all would be a bit over your head.

Despite these complaints, I did enjoy many parts of this book.  The world-building is creative and self-indulgent in a way that only an experienced reader of epic fantasy could appreciate, the action is gripping, and the climax is exciting. The pacing, however, needed a lot of work.  It’s almost a cliche to say this at this point, but boy, did this book need some cutthroat editing.  The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance might have a great fantasy story inside them, but in order to get at it you’d have to combine them into one novel and cut around two-thirds of the word count like Friday afternoon math class.

A big part of the problem is geographic: the characters are all still in exactly the same place as they were in the first thousand-page novel of this series.  There’s very little physical progression.  Instead we get a lot of will-he or won’t-he waffling as Kaladin, one of three main viewpoint characters in this book, struggles with a destiny that was obvious on page one of book one, and chapters of self-indulgent, meandering thinking from Shallan.  Both are bad habits he seems to have picked up from Robert Jordan: a lot of the supposed dramatic tension in these books is very reminiscent of that of Mr. Jordan’s later Wheel of Time novels.  Otherwise serviceable plot and character arcs–such as a hero struggling with his destiny, or a character investigating a lost, ancient secret–are treated as far more mysterious than they actually are and drawn out to the point of absurdity. Remember Rand al’Thor’s internal struggle about whether he should be “hard” or try to find some humanity and laugh again?  Remember how drawn out that was, how endless and stupid it became?  This isn’t quite that bad, but it’s in the ballpark.

In the same way, Sanderson’s Kaladin takes so long to become the Knight Radiant that he obviously is (around two thousand pages and roughly 800,000 words, by my count), that the pay-off, however gripping and dramatic, was always destined to be anticlimactic.  Words of Radiance and its predecessor are essentially two thousand pages of getting a few characters into a position where they have some idea of who their enemy is and what their capabilities are. Shallan Davar, on the other hand, is essentially a lens character, one whose “investigation” in the lost city of Urithiru allows the author to infodump about the world and its backstory without it seeming like that’s what he’s doing–except when it does.

Shallan’s main purpose in The Stormlight Archive so far seems to be that she has an idea of where this city is; to that end, we are treated to hundreds of pages of Shallan bathing, and talking to her familiar-like spren, Pattern; Shallan drawing, and talking to Pattern; Shallan thinking, and talking to Pattern; and Shallan ordering people around, and talking to Pattern.  Occasionally, she gets to be precocious and do something like get trapped in a chasm or active an ancient device. Her backstory, which takes up the flashback chapters of this novel (another indulgence that only adds to the word count), is another example of drawn out scenery-chewing that William Shatner would envy.  For two books now we’ve been reading about the shocking, mysterious event that occurred behind closed doors in Shallan’s family home, the one that resulted in her desperate situation in the first book.  In Words of Radiance, you find out what it is.  Be prepared to meh. And that’s just this book.  There’s eight more of these, guys.

There are some things to love about Words of Radiance: timeless moral struggles, brave knights, honor, gripping duels, indulgent magic, conversations with gods, an admittedly thrilling last act.  But they don’t make up for the novel’s flaws. And that, unfortunately, is how I’ll continue to think of this book and this series, until and unless things get a lot more interesting from here on in: as an epic fantasy great in concept, but flawed in execution, one that could have been truly legendary but for its tendency to drown in its own excess. It kills me to say that, because I think ten years ago my opinion might have been different.  But that was before I was a writer myself. I know I’m in the minority here, both from the book’s sales and from having talked to people who have read and loved it.

The whole process of reading it and thinking about it have made me think a lot about my own relationship with fantasy.  Have I gotten too old, too jaded, too snobbish for mainstream fantasy?  Would I think some of these same things about my favorite epic fantasies if I read them for the first time at this age–if I were divorced from the warm glow of nostalgia that comes from re-reading them?  I don’t know.  I hope not. To those for whom The Stormlight Archive is that life-changing favorite book, my sincerest apologies.  But it doesn’t matter what I think.  All that matters, when it comes to fantasy, is that sense of wonder, that sense of awe.  I felt glimpses of it in Words of Radiance, and because of that I intend to read the rest of the series.  I hope it will shine through brighter there.  If you’re already seeing it, don’t let me stop you.  Shine on.

What ‘Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn’ Means to Me

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It’s been said that there are certain books you have to read at the right time in your life in order to understand them completely, novels that speak to particular age groups or circumstances.  The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace come to mind, for example; maybe The Sun Also Rises.  All great works of fiction at any age, but particularly powerful when read as an adolescent (the Salinger and Knowles novels) and as a young man (the Hemingway).  This seems axiomatic to me, and no work of fiction proves it more strongly than The Dragonbone Chair.

SF-Signal’s Larry Ketchersid recently wrote an article entitled “The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams and Its Place in the History of Epic Fantasy,” a timely retrospective on the 1988 fantasy classic written in anticipation of the forthcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard.  Reading it made me want to talk about what The Dragonbone Chair and its sequels mean to me, as their impact on my life has been significant.  Spoilers abound.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the trilogy of which The Dragonbone Chair is the opening volume, is one of the seminal works of modern fantasy, and Tad Williams, its author, has become a household name for those interested in speculative fiction.  But when I first laid eyes on a Tad Williams novel, I was 12 or 13, just about the same age as the protagonist of the trilogy, Simon, and just as lost in the world.  It was in a bookstore in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and the book in question was the paperback version of To Green Angel Tower, Part 1.  I bought it based on the cover art and blurb, under the mistaken impression that it was the first book in the trilogy.  Suffice it to say I was surprised and disappointed to learn, a few pages in, that there was a reason I didn’t have any idea what was going on.  What can I say, I was 12.  I didn’t pay too much attention to front matter.  I was even more disappointed to find out I was not going to get a second ride to the bookstore that night.  I was still fascinated by what appeared to be a very interesting story, though, and if I remember correctly, when I went back to the bookstore they didn’t have The Dragonbone Chair in stock, and had to order it.  I waited impatiently for several days, and then after school one day I finally had it.  In the car on the ride home, I entered a world that has stayed with me ever since (I am 32 now), a world that not only proved a source of personal joy and adventure but was integral to my own growing dream of becoming a writer.

Fantasy was a welcome escape, at the time: I was a chubby, unpopular kid whose parents were in the end stages of a difficult divorce.  I had just moved to a new neighborhood where friends were few and far between, to the extent I wanted them anyway.  I had discovered Tolkien a few years before, in the fourth grade, and had devoured every other bit of fantasy I could get my hands on since, mainly books with the names Brooks and Eddings on the covers.  I was in between worlds when I found To Green Angel Tower, exploring the Science Fiction/Fantasy section at the bookstore in that glassy-eyed trance that is both frustrating and exciting–frustrating because you haven’t found that next favorite book yet, exciting because you might be about to.

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That excitement was nothing compared to what I felt when I started reading.  The trend in fantasy these days is to start in media res; the prologues and long first acts of more traditional fantasy are often deemed old-fashioned and unnecessary.  But I’ve always loved epic fantasy that comes to a slow boil; I’m one of those odd people who loves the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the way it takes its time meandering through the world of the Shire and building tension.  By the time Frodo actually sets out, Tolkien has cemented the reader’s relationship with this odd little fellow, and you start seeing the world of Middle Earth from a distinctly hobbitish point of view, which is no doubt precisely what the master intended.

The Dragonbone Chair shares a similar pace during its first act.  We meet the aptly named Simon Mooncalf chasing bugs, and from that unassuming and distinctly boyish introduction to his exciting escape from the Hayholt, the seriousness and tension slowly builds until the kettle’s ready to scream–a good two or three hundred pages later.

Simon, or Seoman, is, I think, one of those protagonists who means more to you if you happened to read him at the right age.  I’m not saying he can’t be appreciated by an adult–quite the contrary–but it’s sort of like a good Pixar movie: kids see one movie, parents see another one entirely, and both come away satisfied.  As a troubled, pubescent child, Simon just made sense to me: his day-dreamy absentmindedness, his self-absorption, his raging hormones–and, of course, his well-developed sense of self-pity.  Simon’s a good person at heart, as he shows at various points, but he’s still a kid, and an immature one at that.  His quest is a coming of age that neither pulls its punches nor exaggerates the abilities or the learning curve of a 14 year old boy raised in a kitchen.

Simon doesn’t strike out on his own to find himself capable and independent, he narrowly escapes death time and time again due to a string of friends and mentor figures who take pity on his incompetence.  He survives the debacle at the Hayholt because of his benefactor Doctor Morgenes’ wit and self-sacrifice, and even then almost manages to kill himself escaping.  The reader discovers along with Simon that it’s not nearly as easy to survive on one’s own–whether you’re in a primeval forest or middle school–as it appears to be.  The adventure stories lied.  You don’t suddenly turn into Robin Hood just because you spend a few days in the woods.

The realism of Simon’s character arc was unprecedented: rather than the farmboy-cum-superhero who learns the sword overnight and discovers grand wizardly powers that save his skin, Simon discovers that he knows far less about the world than he thought he did, and survives only because of the charity and skill of others.  Even the Bagginses had the benefit of maturity and experience, however slim and narrow, by the time they set out on their respective quests; Simon, on the other hand, truly is a sheep among the wolves.  The fact of his parentage, when revealed, really only becomes relevant when Simon has proven able to endure to the end; if he’s learned anything by the end of the trilogy, it’s that keeping your wits about you, having a conscience, and listening to those wiser than yourself is more kingly and useful than any amount of gallantry or skill.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was ahead of its time in many ways.  The realism of its characters and its world presaged the gritty, grimdark imaginings of writers like Abercrombie and Martin, the latter of whom has stated publicly that the trilogy influenced the creation of A Song of Ice and Fire.  The world of Osten Ard might not be quite as bleak as Logen Ninefingers’ homeland or the Seven Kingdoms, but the politics and history are decidedly darker than the black and white conceptions of Williams’ contemporaries.  Yes, roughly speaking, it’s a quest story starring a boy who would be king, but it’s one in which neither kingdom nor quest turn out to be quite what was promised.  Erkynland, the supposed apple of Osten Ard, turns out to be more than a little rotten, built on a legacy of greed and its own in-world version of white privilege and racism, and the quest itself–for the eponymous trio of magic swords, believed by the heroes to be the key to defeating the trilogy’s big bad, the evil Storm King–turns out to be the greatest ruse of all time.  The Storm King’s rage, if not his methods, becomes increasingly understandable as the true history of the land becomes clear.

Williams’ facility, too, with taking the tropes of traditional fantasy and twisting them to his own ends foreshadows the postmodern era of fantasy we seem to be going through now.  Seeing as how Tad Williams was also responsible, with this selfsame work, for helping establish many of these tropes, it’s rather astounding that he was this far ahead of his time.  In an introduction to a new edition of the book in 2004, Williams commented on his intentions when he set out to write it:

I had wanted to write these books, this story, in part because I was so irked by all the pseudo-Tolkienalia floating around (and guess what–it’s still going on to this day!)  So why would I want to do the same thing as everyone else?

For all its ingenuity, the characters shine through warm and pure and real; there’s a simple beauty to them, even in their flaws.  The fact that the novels preserve a familiar archetypal framework makes them all the more powerful when the story strays outside of it, and allows it to serve as an excellent bridge between Tolkien and his copycats and the legion of innovators writing today.  But the reason it’s important to me is because at its core, it’s a morality play, a fairy story in the truest, most laudable sense; a celebration of choosing the right even when your choices are black and gray.  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn taught me that the question of whether or not the world is a benevolent one is less important than choosing to have faith in the idea that it ought to be.  That friendship, love, and hope can prevail over conflict, hate, and despair if we believe they can.  That life is a journey, and it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important.  It’s a story that is confident enough in its own merits to have a happy ending, a rarity these days.  Call me trite, but I think these are the things that call to us most clearly and weather the test of time the easiest.

GREEN_S

It comes as no surprise to me that experts now say that the Harry Potter books might be teaching kids empathy: I learned about loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, and courage from Tad Williams as assuredly as millions of millennials learned it from J.K. Rowling.  The Dragonbone ChairThe Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower form a tale for the ages, a story that will always welcome you home, no matter how long you’ve been abroad.  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is like a favorite chair, cushioned with eiderdown: ever comfortable, but apt to poke you in sensitive places with the sharp quills of wisdom and adventure before you drift off.

Coming to the very end of the tale, we hear the author’s voice, just audible beneath Simon’s, inviting us to come again:

“Simon gently took his arm. “Now come, please. Come and join us. Up the corridor you have a room full of friends, Eolair—some of them you don’t even know yet!”
He led the count toward the dining hall. Firelight and the sound of laughing voices reached out to welcome them.”

The Broken Empire

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Mark Lawrence writes grimdark epic fantasy the way Wes Anderson writes dialogue: with a wink and a nod.  The wink is intense and the nod grave, bespeaking a hideous sense of irony underlying the story.  It keeps you turning pages.  This isn’t to say that he can’t be deadly serious–the three novels of The Broken Empire trilogy are some of the darkest, goriest fantasy I’ve read–or that he takes his subject matter lightly–his work questions the very nature of humanity and its tendency toward violence, drags its characters through the latrine pits of the human condition, and brings them out with all the baggage you’d expect.  The horror might be knowing and darkly funny, but it’s never absurd.  Absurdity connotes uselessness, and everything that happens in these books is useful to someone, if only someone’s inner demon.  But for every horrific act his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, commits, there’s an unspoken meta-textual question.  Dare I? the author asks.  (He dares.)  Do you want me to, dear reader? (NO!  Don’t!  Yes yes yes yes yes do it, please do it.)

The first two books of the trilogy, Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns, end with explicit challenges from the narrator, who tells the story in the first person: you want reasons, come take them.  You don’t like what I’m doing, come stop me.  It’s a powerful bit of dialogue, almost Socratic in its directness.  Jorg Ancrath is the ultimate antihero–the villain, set not only on revenge but on acquiring power for its own sake, whom you root for even when he’s committing atrocities.  For every person that stopped reading one of Lawrence’s books because they were too graphic or shocking, there were three others who found themselves inevitably drawn in by the sheer, bold humanity of Jorg’s voice.  Evil is much more challenging to us when it’s self-aware: Jorg knows he’s a sinner, knows he’ll always take blood and chaos over peace and order whenever the choice is presented to him, sometimes because it’s necessary and sometimes simply because it’s his nature.

One thing that makes it all so much fun is the fact that Lawrence’s prose proves more than equal to the task at hand: these are some of the most quotable books I’ve read in recent memory.  How can you not love a man who can write “The biggest lies we save for ourselves,” or:

“I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. It’s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.”

The fact that the Hundred Kingdoms are presented as a far-future, post-apocalyptic version of future Europe, set a thousand years after a massive nuclear war, only serves to underline the point Lawrence seems to be making.  Men are violent, apt to destroy themselves.  Destruction comes in cycles.  Sometimes it takes a violent man to end a destructive cycle.

To focus too much on the violence of the story would be to miss the point, however: the final choice Jorg makes in Emperor of Thorns, however violent in its own way, is fundamentally different from all of the others.  It’s just as self-aware, but entirely unselfish.  And it’s what ultimately makes him a hero, despite his tarnished soul.

I loved these books, loved the twisted future they portray, loved the extremity of the characters and the surprising magics they wield, loved the ghosts that haunt them and unchanging humanity at the heart of it all.  Read them.  I dare you.

Why Didn’t the Eagles Take the Ring to Mordor?

lotr eagles memeThere’s been a rather silly meme going around on Facebook over the last few days that purports to offer an explanation (based entirely on the films) for why Gandalf didn’t simply call the Great Eagles in to carry the One Ring all the way from the Shire (or Rivendell) directly to Mount Doom.

There was a solid response on the Lord of the Rings subreddit by user Uluithiad that took the matter point by point.  It’s worth a read in its entirety, but to summarize, the points Uluithiad makes are:

  • Tolkien did not ignore or disregard the Eagles as a method of getting the Ring to Mordor; they were never a consideration for that task.  The books make clear that any open assault or entry into the Black Land would have been fruitless, as Sauron’s military might was too great.
  • Gwaihir (the lord of the Eagles) was already en route to bring news to Gandalf when he found that he needed rescuing on the pinnacle of Orthanc; Gandalf, Radagast, and Gwaihir had designed this plan previously.
  • The idea that the flying Nazgul were at all a consideration at this point in the story is simply wrong: Sauron had not yet revealed them; did not, in fact, until well after the Nine were first defeated at the Ford of Bruinen and the War of the Ring started in earnest.  The protagonists, Gandalf included, had no knowledge of the existence of the Nazgul’s flying mounts.
  • The idea that Saruman somehow caused the storms on Caradhras is an invention of the films; the snows they encounter on the Redhorn Pass are just that: snows.  There is some indication that the mountain itself might have it out for them, but Saruman was neither aware of their route nor responsible for slowing them with weather.
  • “Fly” simply means “flee.”

These are all excellent and accurate points, but I think there’s more to be said.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of faith–specifically, he was a Roman Catholic.  The themes and worldbuilding of his work reflect that viewpoint: the world of The Lord of the Rings, also known as Arda, is the creation of one true God known as Eru Illuvatar.  Many lesser powers (essentially, angelic beings) known as the Valar and the Maiar serve the One and act as local (for lack of a better term) “gods,” overseeing the unfolding of God’s Creation.  It was they who sent the Istari (the Wizards) to aid the peoples of Middle-Earth.

It would be a mistake to consider the question of the Eagles’ involvement with the Fellowship’s quest solely within the bounds of the immediate plot; there are higher-order reasons for why things happen in the story as they do.

First and foremost, Uluithiad is right to suggest that even if they were willing to do so, a plan based on the Eagles flying the One Ring into Morder simply wouldn’t have worked.  Sauron would likely have become aware of it almost immediately, and the idea that with all his power, both spiritual and physical, he couldn’t take down a few eagles is a bit silly.

But taking it from an entirely in-world standpoint, the meme-poster appears ignorant of the fact that Gwaihir (the Eagle who saved Gandalf) and his Eagles are servants of Manwe, High King of Arda, highest of the Valar, and lord of the air.  The Eagles are his creatures, essentially, and report to him directly, bringing him news from all parts of the world.

Which is to say, the Eagles are essentially divine messengers.  They’re servants of God (or servants of the servants of God, if you want to get technical).  They don’t often intervene directly because God and the Valar don’t often intervene directly.  Without getting into too much detail (you could, and Tolkien did, write several books on this subject alone), the Valar long ago left Middle-Earth to its own devices.  Sauron’s rise to power was in large part due to the aid and manipulation of Men and Elves, and the Valar figured that since they made their bed they could lie in it.  They didn’t leave them completely in the lurch–hence the wizards (Gandalf himself is, in truth, a Maia, one of the lower choirs of angelic beings)–but essentially, from the point of view of the Undying Lands (where the Valar dwell), Sauron was Middle-Earth’s problem.  Once the Ringbearer had completed his quest, the Eagles assisted Gandalf in saving Frodo and Sam from a fiery death.

This is consistent with the idea of agency, from a religious standpoint: God helps those who help themselves.  Mortal life, from a Christian perspective, is intended to be a learning experience.  Having God essentially do the hard part for you entirely misses the point.

Secondly, from a meta-textual point of view, the meme-poster also fails to recognize the author’s own insight and intentions into the Eagles and their purpose.

Tolkien was well aware that the Eagles were, in effect, a literary device; his collected letters contain references to this fact.  In a letter to Forrest J. Ackerman in June of 1958, in which Tolkien was commenting on a film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, he said:

The Eagles are a dangerous “machine.” I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.  The alighting of a Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains in the Shire is absurd; it also makes the later capture of G[andalf] by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape.

Apparently the film treatment, by a man named Morton Grady Zimmerman for an American film company interested in making an animated film of Rings, was not to Tolkien’s liking, for a variety of reasons that he enumerated in this letter.  One of those reasons was Zimmerman’s persistent over-use of the Eagles:

At the bottom of the page, the Eagles are again introduced.  I feel this to be a wholly unacceptable tampering with the tale. [Emphasis in the original.]  “Nine Walkers” and they immediately go up in the air!  The intrusion achieves nothing but incredibility, and the staling of the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed.

If you read between the lines, it seems likely that the film company (whose treatment Tolkien referred to as treating his work “carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about….”) was asking the same question: why shouldn’t the Eagles take them the whole way, and why not rewrite it so that they do?

As we can see from his comments, Tolkien thought of the Eagles’ involvement in the story as being very limited.  He recognized them as a “machine,” and a “dangerous” one: meaning that he was aware of the potential for just this sort of speculation and had no patience for it.  His comment about an Eagle landing in the Shire indicates his in-world conception of the suggestion: to Tolkien, the idea of an Eagle of the Misty Mountains condescending to land in a place as foreign and simple as the Shire was ridiculous.  It seems that to him, the suggestion that the Eagles should serve as chauffeurs for the Fellowship was similar to suggesting that Gandalf ought to go around the Shire using his innate wizardly powers to light the hobbits’ hearth fires for them.

It’s dangerous, in general, to apply too much modern reasoning to The Lord of the Rings.  Not only is the work itself, in its published form, almost 60 years old, it was also deliberately created it in archaic form.  Tolkien’s stated intention in writing The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings was, in part, to bring an element of mythology to English history that he found lacking.  Growing up reading the Norse Eddas and such, Tolkien was disappointed in the comparative lack of English myth.  As such, he wrote The Lord of the Rings in the style of an epic saga, an ancient song or ballad: neither the pacing, the structure, or much of the story is intended in any way to be “real” or “believable” in the modern sense.  There’s a reason that he didn’t, for instance, intercut the point of view chapters in The Two Towers: because unlike a modern novel, he wasn’t interested in building false suspense in the same way.  He told Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas’ story, then he told Frodo and Sam’s.  It was an accounting, a saga, a quest story, not a thriller.

Tolkien realized that the Eagles were, in effect, deus ex machina–almost literally–and he intended it that way.  Thematically speaking, it would be more correct to characterize the Eagles’ assistance in the beginning of the story as the kind of limited, non-interventionary guidance that the powers of the world were willing to give, and their rescue of Frodo and Sam at the very end as something of a divine reward for their struggle and self-sacrifice.

This is all academic, of course, as the poster clearly hasn’t read the books.  Read the books!


P.S.: All quotations are taken from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, pp. 271-273.  I could spend hours citing each and every one of my other assertions regarding the world and characters of Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I don’t have that kind of time.  It’s all there for the finding if you look.

 

The Top Ten Coolest Magic Systems in Fantasy

A few years ago, I posted an article titled “The Top Ten Coolest Magic Systems in Fantasy” on a now-defunct website called Geekus.net. The topic of favorite/coolest magic system came up at reddit.com/r/fantasy today, and it inspired me to reblog this here. It was by far the site’s most popular post.

Geekus

Let’s put aside literary integrity, writing quality, and originality for a moment and just focus on the superficial.  When it comes to reading fantasy, a cool magic system is often enough to hook a reader despite a cliched story, or save a book filled with one-dimensional characters.  Magic is just cool, and sometimes you’ve got to give credit where credit is due, even when a magic system is more creative than the story in which you discover it.  With that in mind, here are the top ten coolest magic systems in fantasy, by series title.

10.  The Dying Earth Series by Jack Vance

Vance created the Dying Earth subgenre with his eponymous 1950 short story collection.  In so doing, he also introduced a memorable (pun intended) system of magic.  In the far future world of the Dying Earth, magicians use spells, but only 100 spells remain to human knowledge.  These…

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Inspiration: The Angel Oak Tree

Talk about some great inspiration for a fantasy writer.  This is the Angel Oak Tree, on Johns Island, South Carolina.  It’s estimated to be between 400 and 1,500 years old.

Angel Oak Tree