Enter into Neth Space and you will find thoughts and reviews of books and other media that fit the general definition of speculative fiction. This includes the various genres and sub-genres of fantasy, science fiction, epic fantasy, high fantasy, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, new weird, magical realism, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, slipstream, horror, alternative history, SF noir, etc. Thoughts are my own, I'm certainly not a professional, just an avid reader avoiding his day job.
Caine Black Knife is the third book in the Acts
of Caine series by Matthew Stover which is one of those series
that is criminally under-read. Basically, if you are a fan of fantasy, particularly
epic fantasy, then you need to read these books. If you’re not familiar, take a
quick moment to read my reviews of Heores Die (Act of Violence) and Blade of Tyshalle (Act of War), not only are they some of my better written reviews
but they will hopefully help show why SFF fans should be reading these books.
Caine Black Knife picks up a few years after the events in Blade of Tyshalle (a book often lauded as one of the best of epic
fantasy, period – though there is a minority disagreement of course). Caine Black Knife tells of Caine’s
return to the place where he made his fame on earth and we see through
flashbacks the how Caine earned that fame through the slaughter of the Black
Knife tribe of ogrilloi and his improbably survival through it all. Over and
over again the reader sees that Caine is no hero, he is only good in comparison
to how bad others around him are.
Caine Black Knife is the first half of Caine: Act of Atonement, Book 1 and you
could argue that it’s only the first half of the final book in the series.
There is a full story told, but it is clearly the set-up for the book to come.
In this respect it’s rather straight-forward and linear in its approach, though
few would likely call this a linear book with all the flashbacks and parallel
writing is supurb. His characters are deeply developed and as conflicted as
people in real life – though thankfully much more interesting to actually
follow than most people typically are. Stover writes action and fight scenes
better than anyone else writing in SFF today and if there existed a photo of
Caine, that would be all that is needed for the Wikipedia page for ‘bad-ass’.
discount Stover as only the best action/fight writer in SFF is an injustice.
Because what makes that writing so good is the way in which he makes it mean
something. This book is the first part of Caine’s journey toward atonement. We
see the past, we see the present. We see the regret and the non-regret.
Everything from sacrifice to parenthood is explored, though underlying it all
is the idea of what is good versus what is bad versus what simply is. Caine is
good. Caine is bad. And Caine is everything in between. But really, Caine simply
is. As fans of this series have come to expect, he kicks major ass, he survives
and he continues to surprise any and all who find themselves on the wrong side
of Caine’s goals.
But Caine Black Knife mostly sets the stage
for the Act of Atonement, Book 2: Caine’s
Law, the final book in the series. And that book is simply the culmination
of all that is Caine and his method of atonement – and that is another story: what
Caine will be.
Since I actually bothered to look at the blog today, I figured I'd give you all a bit of update. Yes, it's been quite around here lately with only 1-2 posts per month. Let's just say work, home life and everything in between and around have conspired to sap my enthusiasm for blogging in my few free hours per week and the simple truth is that will probably continue for the foreseeable future. I have a few reviews that I plan to do, but those will probably trickle out pretty slowly over the next month or two. But I am conspiring (I like this word today) with another blogger to bring about some potentially interesting content here. Stay tuned for it. I am still around on Twitter most days, so I'm not completely silent.
Anyway, so expect more of the same, though I do hope my enthusiasm will reappear soon. I even took a break from reading at all for nearly a month. I suppose I could take a picture with the stacks of books I've received since I posted the last one. But I don't even have the energy for that and those posts were mostly filler anyway.
the usual suspects (i.e. – blogs that run in the same circles I do) and look
for any reference to ‘year’s best’ or similar, and you’ll probably come across
a reference or 5 to The Best of All
Possible Worlds by Karen Lord (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). Karen
Lord is an author I’ve been looking out for since I heard a lot of good about
her debut, Redemption in Indigo (Indiebound,
Book Depository, Amazon), and after I overcame my initial reluctance to jump on
the ‘Best of All Possible Bandwagons’, I final have gotten around to reading
I’m glad I
did – I enjoyed it a lot and can see why it’s frequently mentioned as a front
runner for various awards.
The Best of All Possible Worlds does much of what science fiction is at its
best – it’s a throwback to classical science fiction of the Star Trek variety,
though it’s framed in much more of a progressive, humanistic light. It explores
humanity through extreme ethnic evolution where humans of varying origin can
still interbred, but have evolved a wide-range of telepathic, empathetic, and
other abilities. Through this lens Lord explores such deeper ideas as
emotionally damaged people, arrogance, humility, communication, dominance, slavery,
and genocide. But all that is really a sideline.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is a romance and shame on you if your
initial reaction considers this a negative description of the book. This book
tells the story of how two individuals from very different upbringings, with large
emotional scars, come to love each other. This is not a book about sexual
seduction, but friendship building into a deep love and respect. And it’s
subtle. So deliciously subtle.
When I call The Best of All Possible Worlds a
romance, that shouldn’t mean that’s not science fiction. It is – the two are
not mutually exclusive no matter how many times I’ve read a review that suggests
it is so. Both exist in the same book. Both are well done. And the combination
is what makes this such a great book. And if you’re inclination is to not read
this book because I invoked the icky word ‘romance’, take that as one giant
reason why you should read this book.
don’t read other reviews of a book I plan to review. With so much attention
already brought to The Best of All
Possible Worlds, I made this one the exceptions. The result is that my
review is somewhat in response to what I’ve seen in several other reviews. There
is a lot more that can be said of this book – much of it positive, and some of
it negative. But I’ll let you read about that elsewhere. In short, I very much
enjoyed The Best of All Possible Worlds and
I can see why it’s talked about as front-runner for awards.
that whole business with the faerie world/elves analog. That part really didn’t
work for me at all.
Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is his
5th effort in the overall Malazan
sequence by Erikson and Esslemont and the penultimate book in the entire saga
of the two authors – excepting of course a few novellas, Erikson’s prequels, and
whatever the future brings. If that first sentence isn’t enough to convince
you, at this point these books are for the fans and those that have read all
the others. So, in many ways, this review is nearly pointless anyway…but I
ways, the writing of Blood and Bone
is the best effort yet I’ve seen out of Esslemont, an in my opinion it’s a huge
improvement over Orb, Sceptre, Throne
(my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). However, in retrospect, while
the craft was technically superior to his other work, it seems that it does
suck some of the life out of the story. When reading the book I felt I was on
autopilot – if someone had asked me what happened 10 pages earlier or even if I
cared about what was going on, I don’t think I’d have had an answer for them.
Combine this with Esslemont’s insistence on being over-subtle (which is a kind
way of saying he doesn’t fully explain what should be explained to the
detriment of the story), and the book as a whole was failure. I think the
biggest take-home lesson is that I simply prefer Erikson’s writing to Esslemont’s.
This is unfortunate, because I think thematically the culmination of the entire
Malazan saga in the final book – Assail (Indiebound, Book Depository,
Amazon) – should be spectacular. But I have zero confidence at this point that
Esslemont will be able to pull it off to my satisfaction. But I’ll read it
anyway – I’ve come too far not to.
parting note – I did enjoy how the deadly slog of slow death that soldiers
experienced in this book was through a jungle. In Malazan we’ve seen that story repeatedly in desert environs – it was
a pleasant juxtaposition to see death by jungle in this book.
Iron Druid series has become my own special
sort of cotton candy – it’s light, fluffy, I know it’s bad for me, but I enjoy
it a lot anyway. While it’s billed as series, it’s more of a serial to me – the
books have much more in common with episodes than actual novels. And there is
nothing bad about that, except that treating like a series rather than a serial
will probably mean it ends soon than it should.
Anyway, Hunted (Indiebound, Book Depository,
Amazon) is the most episodic entry in the series so far. It picks up directly
after the cliffhanger ending of Trapped
(my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and consists entirely of
Atticus and company fleeing from a few Greek and Roman gods trying to kill
them. Yes, it still has the same humor, the fun wish-fulfillment action and all
that. And of course the ending is something of a cliffhanger for the next
episode, Shattered, which I’ll happily consume when it is released.
My only real
complaint (keeping things in the context of my opening sentence), is that
Hearne does a truly terrible job of writing the point of view of Granuaile.
They read like a 13-year old girl’s private essay of life where she is trying
like hell to sound profound – or perhaps a 14 year old boy’s imagining of such.
They do not read like the point of view of a grown woman with full agency and
independence from male imagined feminine ideals. If the points of view are
going to be so bad – keep it to Atticus and the dog.
these books are nothing more than fun asides from someone who lives in Arizona
and sets events in places I’ve been. I’ll keep reading and enjoying, but keep
in mind the context of my enjoyment if you’re looking for a recommendation.
In 2006 the
world of SFF fandom was changing. As you would expect, Fandom had already
adopted the internet, however much of it was still bound up in listserves,
forums and other early communities that would feel quite dated these days.
There were plenty of review sources online, but they still felt like simple
digital reprints of dead tree products. In 2006 blogs were coming – sure they had
been around for years already, but this was the period when it was realized
that pretty much anyone could start a blog (note, my blog was started in 2006).
This proliferation of blogs at a time when the old listeserves, forums and
other communities were still relatively vibrant created a perfect storm for
viral fan mania. Enter Scott Lynch from stage left with The Lies of Locke Lamora, a fan himself quite familiar with the
online world (my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). The Lies of Locke Lamora was very
refreshing at the time – it felt new. Not quite gritty (or do I have to use the
term grimdark?), not quite humor, not quite epic fantasy, but all kinds of fun.
This was a merry band of thieves that that the 21st century could
get behind (ironically in a renaissance-inspired second world). It went viral,
fans everywhere embraced it, and yes there was fun internet controversy as a
one reviewer who was not a fan got a bit hyperbolic and fans exploded (even me).
*Note: if you follow some of those links back to posts and reviews
I wrote 6 and 7 years ago, please be merciful. I’ve come a long way.*
followed in 2007 with Red Seas Under Red
Skies (my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), which again was wildly
popular, though perhaps not as universally praised (though I found it to be
much better written). It was still clear that fans loved Lynch’s writing and he
was poised to become the next big name in genre. Fans eagerly awaited the next
book – The Republic of Thieves (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) – for this
one promised to be even bigger and better. We’d finally get to meet Locke’s
long lost love and greatest rival Sabetha. Rumors were the bondsmagi would play
an even bigger role. It would be the best yet.
passed and fans were still eager. Another year and they get restless, impatient
– comparisons to George RR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss are made (not favorable
comparisons, though it’s good company to be in). Rumors fly and the pitchforks
begin to come out. Then we learn the reason – Lynch has been suffering from debilitating
depression, he’s gone through a divorce and the death of close family members. People
are sympathetic, Lynch’s public announcements are widely praised and quite inspirational
– most of the pitchforks are put away. A couple more years go by, people are
still generally accepting, growing rather cynical, a few are dusting off the
pitchforks again, yet most are still eager. Now, it’s 2013. It’s been 6 years
since Red Seas Under Red Skies was
released and The Republic of Thieves exists
in print form for release on October 8.
question why I’ve begun a review with a history lesson (of sorts), and my
response is that it is critical to how The
Republic of Thieves will be received by long-waiting fans. Expectations are
simultaneously high and low, yet nearly universally hopeful. In the intervening
6 years, this blogger has played all of those fan roles I reference above. I
will say this now: The Republic of
Thieves exceeded my expectations and was one hell of a good read.
what I wrote above from a different point of view, that of Lynch himself, I can
see pressure, anxiety, more pressure, more anxiety, holy shit how did I get
myself into this… We fans only made this worse. And Lynch promised us the world
– he promised us the long anticipated reunion of Locke and Sabetha. The best
cons ever going head-to-head against each other. With bondsmagi. Then he
promised us a Shakespearean play to mirror it all. What was he thinking...no
wonder he was reduced to anxiety attacks and depression.
*Note, it’s not my intent to mock Lynch or anyone else’s anxiety
and depression in any way, and I apologize if it’s taken as such.*
The Republic of Thieves is very ambitious – it has stories in parallel to other stories,
flashbacks, romance, treachery, and Lynch basically wrote an entire
Shakespearean play in the middle of it all. This is the best of the best versus
the best of the best. It’s deadly serious yet Lynch still needed to maintain
that cavalier, mocking attitude that serves to lighten the load. It’s new
ground and it’s setting the stage for the next 4 books in the series. It also
has a major reveal, one that Locke (and his fans) simply cannot trust…or afford
pulls it off in grand fashion. The present of Lynch’s world mirrors the past
which mirrors the play our favorite thieves are pretending to act in. Sabetha
and Locke go head to head in a dance of cons, yet the greater dance in the
romance and seduction that underlies it all (both past and present). Who wins
the con? Who wins the seduction? Are there winners at all? Does he get the
girl? Does she get the guy? Who dies? I throw those questions out there to
entice while building up expectations to knock them down. Just as Lynch does.
Because, the most important questions may not have been asked.
writing is his strongest yet, but that’s only the start as the way he
constructs The Republic of Thieves
really brings it all together. It’s the plotting, the shuffling of scenes and
the emotions of those characters we already care about. It’s Locke, Sabetha and
Jean. And those that have (and will) die.
The Republic of Thieves is one of the most highly anticipated books in the SFF world over
the last 7 years. The biggest question is whether those high expectation will
or can be met. As I’ve said in this review, in my opinion Lynch not only meets,
but exceeds those expectations. Welcome back Scott – I can’t recall the last
time I had so much fun reading a book. So…when’s the next one coming?
follows 5 people who are destined to have the power to save humanity from both
the Tuatha de Danaan and undeniable evil of the Fomorii and their gods. Their
reluctant leader is Church (Jack Churchill) as they struggle to overcome death
and despair with the lost of their world as they knew it and the events of Darkest Hour.
this series primarily because it’s both a different sort of apocalypse and the
infusion of Celtic myth into the modern world. The way Chadbourn writes the
series makes it read sort of like a travel guide of ancient sites of power
throughout Britain. I must admit that this really appealed to me as it almost
became a sort of bucket list for my next trip to the British Isles (I’ve
visited some of these sites, but certainly not all). As such, I often would
have my British atlas open as I read. Seeing this fantasized version of how
history, myth and legend combine at these historic/pre-historic sites is
fascinating, and probably the thing I enjoyed most about the series.
struggles of the 5 ‘Brothers and Sisters of Dragons’ bring an authenticity to
events as each person has strengths, weaknesses, and flaws in their character. The
contrast of humanity and all its flaws presented against the evil of the
Fomorii and lack of humanity of the Tuatha de Danaan brings an interesting
depth to much of what happens through the series. The result is a different way
to look at the Celtic fantasy that comes in and out of fashion – it’s not romanticized
though sticks to typical fantasy format. This balance works quite well and
always keeps things interesting.
retrospect, the end of the series seems obvious and appropriate. It was one
that I think I would have figured out had I tried. But the truth is that I
would simply dive in and enjoy the writing so much that I never bothered to –
and I suppose that little bit says more about the series than just about
anything else I can say.
worlds do actually collide. While my alter-ego on the internet (who I
colloquially call Neth) is well known in certain areas of the internet, I do
have a real world identity that includes me being a trained geologist. While it’s
not the cliché that many would think, I do love dinosaurs. Neth loves what he’s
read from Michael Swanwick and when Swanwick writes about dinosaurs in Bones of the Earth (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) worlds collide.
ways, Bones of the Earth is Jurassic Park written by a much more
likeable author. They both involve dinosaurs, they both involve science fiction
(genetic engineering in Jurassic Park
and time travel in Bones of the Earth), and they are both something of a
thriller in nature easily adaptable to the likes of Hollywood. My instinct is
to call Bones of the Earth a smart
person’s Jurassic Park, though I admit
that this is likely due to my dislike of Crichton and doesn’t really reflect
what I actually thought of Jurassic Park
the first few times I read it (I loved it back in the ‘90s).
Regardless, Bones of the Earth is an intelligent
mash-up of dinosaurs and time travel where paleontologists are presented with
an opportunity to study actual living dinosaurs in their actual habitat. As
expected, it follows the rubric of presenting a few somewhat crazy ideas as
scientific possibilities in a thoroughly entertaining manner. Where Bone of the Earth does distinguish
itself is in the people. This book is as much a story of how people and their personalities
interact with others and in time – after all, time travel often presents the opportunity
for a younger self to interact with an older self. And time travel paradoxes
are always fun.
Bones of the Earth is fun and I very much enjoyed it. Swanwick is a very good author
and everytime I read his books I wander why I’m not reading more of them. The
book is probably best summed up in the simple equation below.
Dinosaurs are cool. Time travel is cool.
Dinosaurs + time travel = really, really cool.
October Gold is an alt-folk duo out of Canada that seems to be gaining in popularity and recognition around the world. Now, I'm basically a book blogger and I'm even less 'qualified' to be commenting on music than books. But October Gold has the distinction of getting much of their inspiration from Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series (my review), of which I am a big fan. All of the lyrics from their new album are taken directly from poems and even excerpts of the series, primarily from the last two books.
So when I was contacted by Kit of October Gold about taking a listen to their new album (apparently at Steven Erikson's suggestion), I was eager to give it a go. In short, I really enjoyed it. Erikson's Malazan series does a lot, but at it's heart it is an exploration of humanity, particularly tragedy and hopelessness, though ultimately hope for the future does win out. The songs that October Gold have put together using Erikson's writing capture the powerful humanity of the Malazan series, and make for some really great music.
I'm certainly not a music critic, but I can't write this post without saying at least a few things that are more specific and related to my personal taste (I have no reference point for commenting on actual musical talent and composition beyond personal taste). The CD begins with "Song of the Last Prayer" which to me sounds like it's straight out of an episode of Firefly - to me this is a very good thing. And while I'd have probably been quite happy with a CD devoted to such a style, the next few songs pleasantly proved that October Gold has a wide range of styles they use to explore their music through. My favorites are probably "Song of the Last Prayer", "Dust of Dreams", "Gallan's Hope", and "Where Ravens Perch". And I simply must say, that I couldn't help but wish at times that the lead singer's voice was about 2 octaves lower because I think a Leonard Cohen-like musical narration and arrangement of these songs could be just about the coolest thing ever. But that says more about my own eclectic tastes than anything else.
So, fans of music and Malazan will want to check this out. And while I think anyone without knowledge of Malazan can enjoy this music a lot (after all, the themes are universal), I think Malazan fans are in for a special treat.
Below I have few samples of the music and info about October Gold that I was able to get my hands on. So, sample, enjoy and go get some great music if you like it.
terrible at picking a best of pretty much anything, but if I had to pick the
best book that I read in 2012, it was Of
Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht (My Review, Indiebound, Book Depository,
Amazon). Therefore, it should be no surprise that its sequel, And Blue Skies from Pain (Indiebound,
Book Depository, Amazon), was a very high priority for me to read. I feel that
these books are powerful examples of what urban fantasy can and should be – a mix
of old and new, history and contemporary, mythic and modern. Her tales of a war
between the Catholic Church, Fallen Angels, and Irish Fey set against the
backdrop of The Troubles in Northern Ireland is a great balance.
tragedy of Liam’s life and continued struggles with who he is drives And Blue Skies from Pain. The conflict
Liam has with those in his life comes to forefront – his only real friend and
partner, a priest who betrayed him the past, his long absent father and his
clan of Fey warriors, his dead wife, and those who seek to use or kill him.
Leicht’s books are more tragic than anything else – victories feel pyrrhic rather
than victorious, and a melancholic hopelessness seems to dominate through Liam.
In this Leicht’s writing feels more real and less formulaic as it distinguishes
itself from the rest of urban fantasy.
must point out that I am an American reading these, an American who has not
ever been to Northern Ireland and only has the vaguest idea of what The
Troubles were truly like. So, I think that this criticism/deconstruction of
Leicht’s The Fey and The Fallen
series (so far) is a valuable perspective. And while it is highly critical of Leicht’s
writing, I found that it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the series at all, even
though I read And Blue Skies from Pain
after I had read that deconstruction.
While I can’t
claim that And Blue Skies from Pain
had the same impact that Of Blood and
Honey did, it is a powerful sequel in its own right. Unfortunately, the
exact fate of the series is a bit uncertain with all the happenings around
Night Shade Books, but I’m confident that there will be a conclusion, and it
will be a conclusion that I very much look forward to reading.
A few months
ago I was very saddened by the announcement that Iain Banks had terminal cancer
and was only expected to live a few short months in the best case scenario. At
that time I had only read a short story or two of his and not any of his
novels, though I had copies of several and have been meaning to for many years.
Of course I reacted to the news by finally choosing to read one of his novels.
Since that time Iain Banks has passed on and now that I have finally read one
of his books I can more fully appreciate the magnitude of his loss to the SFF
I wanted to
read one of the books from his Culture series, which is less of series and more
of a setting in which a lot of stand-alone, space-opera style books are set.
And there is a good bit of dissention on which book is best to start with – Consider Phlebas (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), the first one he wrote, The Player of Games (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), or Use of Weapons (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). Each has a good case for it, though in the end I chose to
read The Player of Games, as it’s
generally recognized as one of his better books and a good introduction to the
is a large galactic civilization and a human-machine symbiotic society that is so
far advanced is essentially a utopia. Within the Culture there is tradition of
gaming and Gurgeh is one of the best there is (yes, that is one of the most
unfortunate character names I’ve ever come across). The short of it is that
Gurgeh is manipulated by government forces to represent the Culture in the
neighboring Empire of Azad where a complex game forms the pillar of its
The Player of Games is a relatively straight-forward story of Gurgeh’s trip to Azad,
his first contact with their society and his more important journey through a
grand tournament of Azad where the winner emerges as the new Emperor.
Parts of the
book could be read as a condemnation of authoritarian governments, colonialism,
and militarism. And with the gender flexibility of the Culture and the rigid
gender distinctions in Azad, additional gender issues are certainly present.
And while all of these are interesting, the real enjoyment come through simple
story of game play, getting to know Gurgeh and seeing how he changes through
this experience, and enjoying the knowledge that he’s being manipulated from
afar the whole time.
end of the story is expected, and the big surprise will likely not be a
surprise to most readers, however as I’ve indicated above, it’s enjoyment of
the journey that drives this book. Banks makes it all seem effortless, only to
make us miss him even more. So, what’s the best way to honor a SFF writer who
died before his time – read his books of course.
I’ve said it
often and I’ll say it again – I really like the writing of Charles de Lint and
I think it’s a shame that he’s not discussed more in the online circles I
follow. I find his prose to be an ideal expression of mythical feeling in the modern
world as it verges on poetry at times. De Lint’s form of Urban Fantasy is to me
the standard that all should be reaching for, and I love how it doesn’t fall
into the trap of some ‘badass’ supernatural person violently realizing their
dominance over some other supernatural entity (good or evil).
Someplace to be Flying (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is set in de Lint’s made up city of Newford and features the
interaction of Native American types of mythos interacting with the modern
world. De Lint’s approach is great – the writing at the beginning of the book
feels rather mundane and uninspired. Everything changes when the two main
protagonists come into contact with something strange and otherworldly that
literally transforms everything about their lives. De Lint’s writing shifts at
this point to a more magical, mythical and poetic prose that follows the
characters’ journey into a deeper part of world around them that they had no
Someplace to be Flying really is a journey on many fronts, possibly even an epic
journey, though it will always fall squarely in the urban/mythic fantasy
classification (for good or ill). The two main protags, one a young man from
the streets with an atypical nice side and the other a reporter who finds
herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, journey into the unknown mythic
world around them as they predictably fall in love. There are several parallel
journeys – two sisters seeking freedom and reunion, a storyteller looking to
his past and future, a trickster god seeking a power to remake the world, and
others. Through this all is the powerful theme of family and belonging, though
not in a traditional sense.
Someplace to be Flying is set in the early 1990s and it will likely feel dated in some
places, though it does have the underpinnings of modern urban life – email and
even mention of cell phones. However, most of the book takes place with a
timeless, if distinctly modern feel of the old interacting with the new.
Every time I
read a de Lint book I think that I need to read more of them. And that is the
case again here.
As promised, it's been a while since my last post. Of course a little while ago I did say I was going to stick with shorter, mini-reviews and then I went and posted a 2000+ word review of The Wheel of Time series. Oh well, don't get used to it. I hope to post one or two mini-reviews this week. If I don't get to them now, it'll be quite a while. Starting next week I'll be travelling almost full time for the next month. It'll be exhausting enough that I don't expect to get too much reading done (except perhaps on airplanes) and certainly not any blogging.
Below is a picture of books I've received in the last couple of months. It's a lot and there's even more considering a bunch of ebooks I've gotten. Conspicuously absent is one of the most anticipated books of this year that it seems that every other blogger already has and is reading (or spent all of last weekend reading). No worries - I'll get a copy soon and then I'll read it and promptly not review it for a long time (just like every other book I read these days).
Note on Spoilers: Nothing in this review is what I would consider a spoiler. Plot specific details are not revealed, however larger arcs are briefly discussed.
Setting out to write a review for a series can be daunting. When the series is fourteen books long (not counting one prequel), published over a period of 20 years, counts millions of sales, and invokes a huge range of very passionate opinions, it is even harder to review. But in large part because of the impact that this series has had on my personally over the past 19 years, I am attempting to write this daunting review, in the process opening up personal feelings, tackling some of the controversies of the series, embracing my love for the series, it’s meaning for me, and trying to not let that blind me to its weaknesses.
Please humor me while go back to the beginning – not the first book in the series, The Eye of the World (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), and not the prequel, New Spring, but the beginning of my relationship with The Wheel of Time. I’ve always been a reader, though in my youth my reading was dominated by the likes of Stephen King, spy thrillers from Clive Cussler and similar authors, Michael Crichton, and other popular fiction writers of the 80s and 90s. I was not what I would consider a big fantasy or science fiction reader, though I was exposed to some the concepts through King, Crichton, and even a Weis and Hickman trilogy. It was through the recommendation of a few of my cousins that I picked up the first Wheel of Time book in the fall of 1994, my freshman year of college. I devoured it. I burned up my meager student budget buying all the other books in the series that were available. Then I read them again. And again…
I begin my review of the series in this way for a few reasons. First, I think it’s critical to know that I am a fan, a fan who has been reading the series for almost 20 years, a fan who has re-read these books many times, a fan who regularly listens to the audiobooks for the series, a fan who has spent countless hours discussing these books in on-line forums, a fan who eventually started blogging about his love of SFF books as a result of the journey began on the first page of The Eye of the World. However, it’s also critical to understand the context of when the series began, for while it will in many ways be timeless, it is also very much a product when it was published. The early 1990s was a time when much of fantasy was dominated by clones of Tolkien, a time when fantasy was heroic, good versus evil, and not well balanced in such things as diversity and gender (there were plenty of exceptions, however these were the general trends). The Wheel of Time began by embracing the tropes of its time and then responding to them. However the series appears now, at the time of its beginning, it was something new.
At its core, The Wheel of Time is about a young man (Rand al’Thor) who destined to save the world and his journey to fulfill prophesy. Rand begins as a humble sheepherder in an isolated corner of a pastoral fantasy world that has many reflections of our own. Rand is ignorant of the wider world, scared and thrown in way over his head. The fellowship that flees a horrifying raid of monsters out of myth and nightmare include Rand, 2 of his boyhood friends, his nearly betrothed love, a village leader, a bard, a Gandalf-like ‘wizard’ and her warrior companion.
In this intentionally familiar beginning, Jordan begins to respond to the fantasy that has come before. Women hold a place of power in society and this is a world where the ‘original sin’ was committed at the hands of men. The characters reflect often (too often really) how adventure is nothing like it is in the stories and how heroes never go through what they do (such as sleeping in a haystack). And the points of view shift – they build slowly from a small handful in the first book, to many dozens of widely varying points of view throughout the series, though the largest focus remains on the core group that was present in the beginning. And, as tough as it is to see as such now, Jordan’s approach to epic fantasy was subtly subversive of most of the fantasy from the 1980s and earlier. It really was something new and fresh, less conservative and it did push boundaries.
One way in which TheWheel of Time played a large role in fundamentally changing epic fantasy is its length. The trilogy is sacred in fantasy, even to this day, but longer series are still quite common. Much of this is attributable to the success first attained by The Wheel of Time. And the length of the series is both one of its greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Through 14 books Jordan immerses the read in the world he creates. He shows the build up to an apocalyptical battle from many points of view and directions. The traditional fantasy fan who can’t get enough of such secondary worlds is rewarded by the depth of detail, the wide coverage and multitude of personalities involved. Other readers who prefer writing that is tight and focused, without a wasted world will suffer through the length. I fall in the middle, seeing and appreciating both sides. The fan craves more, more resolution, more focus on the numerous side plots. While other parts of me wish the books had received a heavy dose of editing and that the series was completed in half as many books (or even fewer).
With the length and breadth of the series, Jordan is arguably the first major fantasy author to suffer the tangle of multiple points of view. It is a trap that many fantasy authors have fallen into. It becomes a snowball growing as more points of view necessitate even more. Then the plot rambles through subplot after subplot and bringing it all back together is difficult in the very least. Some plots suffer through dragging on and on while others are forced into brevity that confuses matters. And the series grows longer, often lacking the resolution that fans crave. The Wheel of Time exemplifies these issues – and some fans love and defend the result to the end. Some readers never get through the middle of the series.
It’s tough to pick a bigger lightening rod than gender issues in The Wheel of Time. I’ll be honest, one of the things that first attracted me to the series was the portrayal of the female characters – they were real, they were not objects, and they mattered. Back in the early 1990s when I began this series, that felt new, different and refreshing to me. However, now 20 years older, a bit wiser, and a lot less ignorant, I see many of the problems in Jordan’s characterization of women. Let’s face it, the writing in The Wheel of Time suggests that Jordan has an unhealthy obsession with spanking, a warped perception of what makes women strong, a typically pornographic and juvenile view of lesbian sex, and an unrealized dream of having 3 girlfriends who are cool with that. There are issues where women are punished with rape and men not at all. But, there are women in leadership, there are women in combat, and women exist as much more than an object for men.
I believe that much of Jordan’s portrayal of women comes from being raised in the South where women of his generation often show the world one personality and release another behind closed doors. I also believe that much of the backlash that the series receives toward its female characters has been the result of young men having a dislike of women telling male characters what they should do. But, that doesn’t absolve the fact that there are some fascinating (and often horrific) gender implications throughout these books. Though it’s also good to remember that as terrible as some the gender implications are, these books were still a step forward when they first came out. In many ways the gender relations in The Wheel of Time reflect our society well – a mix of significant progress with clear examples of there still being a long way to go.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the series is Jordan’s interweaving of myth and legend throughout. In many ways the series is an exploration of the archetypes that exist across many societies worldwide where Jordan takes all the myths and legends of a huge number of societies and traditions and plays a giant game of ‘telephone’ with them before placing them back into his creation. Most readers will notice the most blatant examples of this (particularly with Arthurian myth), but it goes very deep to levels that only a few scholars (and really hard core fans) ever could appreciate.
Related to the underlying use of myth and legend to create his characters, Jordan also plays with the idea of prophesy and even predestination in his world. Prophesy is real, widespread, true and metaphorical in Jordan’s world. Rand knows that he is destined to both save the world and destroy it. He knows he will go insane and die. And we follow his journey toward and into insanity. We see how he falls into the trap of fulfilling prophesy because he knows he must. But we also are left wandering about what those prophesies mean – some are never fulfilled, some were fulfilled in ways that are not recognizable. And throughout I see a trickster at heart playing the reader with their preconceptions and what they know prophesy must mean.
Through 14 books Jordan touches on many other themes and ideas. Whether it be those discussed above, communications, lack of trust, posttraumatic stress disorder, or the exploration of a destined hero slowly becoming batshit insane. These books can be read on many levels that often become quite fascinating the deeper one explores, particularly in direction of myth and legend. Though in the last few years, it’s Jordan’s explorations of politics and political machinations that have become the most interesting parts of the books to me, even though they are quite often derided as being an over-written distraction.
Another positive product of the relatively large cast of key characters is that it gives almost every reader someone to relate to. I was 18 when I first began the series, so I was immediately relating to the Rand, Perrin and Mat, who were all about that age. As I’ve grown older, the older characters often hold more weight with me, with the younger seeming to be full of the flaws of youth. Few books offer such a variety of characters to relate to and it’s been fascinating to me to see how my relationships with those characters have matured over the past 20 years.
Much, much more can be said on various aspects of the series. Flawed characters, flawed writing, editing, portrayal of the ‘bad guys’, long baths and the washing of silk… But this is not the place for it, especially since I’ve already rambled on in this review nearly as badly as Jordan. Suffice to say, that these books do have a little bit of everything in them – and that’s the good and the bad.
However, I cannot close out the review before some discussion on the fate of Jordan himself. Tragically, he died of a rare blood disease before the series could be finished. The final three books were completed by Brandon Sanderson with the help of Jordan’s widow (also his editor) and his assistants. Again, much can be written on how Sanderson’s writing compares with Jordan’s and how the series finished. The series did finish according to Jordan’s wishes (which were dictated from his deathbed), but it was in Sanderson’s style – or at least the style Sanderson adopted to be consistent with the rest of The Wheel of Time, without seeming to exactly imitate Jordan’s style (which probably would have been a spectacular failure). But in general, Sanderson’s writing lacked the subtlety of Jordan’s, some of the characters were never captured quite right (particularly where humor was involved), and some the side plots suffered. However, the writing was often tighter, the pacing more consistent, and the end goal more directly achieved through both thematic and plot arcs. Some fans liked Sanderson’s approach better, and others will never forgive him for finishing the series. Again, I fall in between, but I will say that I think Sanderson handled things nobly and humbly as he succeeded in a near-impossible task. I’m glad someone finished the series and I think that Sanderson was the right choice for the job.
The characters of The Wheel of Time have been my companions for the past 20 years and I expect to revisit them regularly in the future. I’ve had a huge amount invested in these books and a large influence on my life. Through the series I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve shouted at the absurdity of things and thrown a book across the room. I’ve cringed and I’ve quietly put the books aside to compose myself. I’ve eagerly waited and waited for the next book in the series like a kid on Christmas Eve. I’ve debated, cursed, argued, and had drinks with fellow fans. For me no other set of fiction has had a bigger impact on my life. It is the best and worst of fantasy. I can only thank Jordan, Sanderson, and all of the many, many others who have worked to make this series what it is.