The OF Blog: April 2010

Friday, April 30, 2010

A new thing learned from re-reading Martin's A Game of Thrones

Interesting passage on Bran:

He confessed his crime the next day in a fit of guilt.  Lord Eddard ordered him to the godswood to cleanse himself.  Guards were posted to see that Bran remained there alone all night to reflect on his disobedience.  The next morning Bran was nowhere to be seen.  They finally found him fast asleep in the upper branches of the tallest sentinel in the grove.

As angry as he was, his father could not help but laugh.  "You're not my son," he told Bran when they fetched him down, "you're a squirrel.  So be it." (p. 80)

Made me a bit more sympathetic toward Bran's character after reading that.  I wonder why?

Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

Chapterhouse:  Dune (1985) is the last Dune Chronicles novel that Frank Herbert managed to complete before he died in 1986, leaving behind apparently only an outline for the final volume in this second quasi-trilogy set in the Dune universe.  Knowing this before re-reading it made for at-times uncomfortable reading experience, as I found myself detecting what I suspect were clues as to themes, plot events, and character developments that he had planned to address in the never-written seventh novel (I discount what Herbert's son, Brian, and Kevin Anderson wrote, since I suspect that they added quite a bit of extraneous material that they had invented and did not stay true to any outline, if such did in fact exist, that Frank Herbert had created before his untimely death).  However, on the whole, Chapterhouse:  Dune was one of the better "middle volumes" that I have read in some time.

The story picks up eight standard (Earth?) years after the events of Heretics of Dune.  The Honored Matres, freshly returned from the Scattering that followed Leto II's transformation/death 1500 years before, have furthered their wrathful conquest of the old Imperium.  The Bene Gesserit have been driven underground, forced to seek refuge on their "secret" planet/new headquarters of Chapterhouse.  The newly-discovered Atreides descendant/sandworm handler, Sheeana, has helped the Bene Gesserit begin the process of turning that planet into a new Dune.  On board the Ixian no-ship, which keeps prying prescient eyes from detecting him, the latest Duncan Idaho ghola, now possessing all of his serial memories, has to train the clone of the late Miles Teg, who died on Rakis fending off the Honored Matres before they blasted the planet into a lifeless shell those eight years before.  The former Honored Matre (Matron?), Murbella, is being trained to become a Bene Gesserit.  And there are Jewish refugees aboard the ship as well, a secretive remnant of the Imperium's oldest surviving religion.

These are the basic characters and plotlines that stretch across the last two novels.  As he did with Heretics of Dune, Herbert spends more time developing the characters and their precarious situations than he did in the previous four volumes.  There is a greater sense of urgency throughout the book, making it perhaps the quickest and easiest to read of the six volumes.  This is not to say that Herbert skimped on the challenging themes and ideas that were present in the earlier novels. If anything, the way that both the Honored Matres and the Bene Gesserit interact with each other and with the people surrounding them serve as prime examples for the ideas that he has explored throughout the entire series.

Early in this series, I noted that these books, particularly the first, read like "ecological novels."  I went on to explain that the complex interactions between human groups, their value systems, their economic systems, their political arrangements, their religious hierarchies, and the influences they had on the living and non-living parts of their environs and how there was also a reciprocal relationship in which their surroundings altered and affected each human interaction group - all of these formed a complex ecological web that affected events within the story.  In Chapterhouse:  Dune, it was the exploration of the survival instinct, connected with Leto II's Golden Path, that drove much of this novel's narrative.

Although I was not very fond of Herbert's application of sexual activity and bondage through sex in this novel and the previous one, he certainly brings to the fore the idea that it is within sexual interplay (not necessarily just intercourse) that the seeds of human change and desire first develop offshoots.  Why do the Honored Matres exploit sexual desires in order to control males?  What has them (and later, the Bene Gesserit) so fearful about survival?  What deaths occur within the "little death" and what futures spring forth from them?  These are some of the underlying questions that I asked myself while re-reading this novel for the first time in nearly nine years. 

What is so important about Duncan Idaho and "wild" genes?  Finally, Herbert began to hint just what Idaho's ultimate role might be.  Throughout the series, he has been a loyal (sometimes, too-loyal) supporter of the Atreides, who had originally rescued him from the Harkonnens at some point prior to the first novel.  But as the series progressed, Idaho became more than just a sort of mute Chorus for the Atreides tragedies that were unfolding.  He became a gene source that would be introduced at certain times to produce offspring that contained wild, unpredictable powers, something not always to the liking of the Bene Gesserit.  But here in Chapterhouse:  Dune, through the careful denials placed in strategic places, it seems Idaho may be akin to what the Bene Gesserit had hoped to produce before Muad'Dib appeared:  a Kwisatz Haderach, a shortener of the paths.

While I will not weigh in on the unfinished narrative arcs dealing with Murbella, the surviving Bene Gesserit, the plots of the sole surviving Bene Tleilaxu, Scytale, and the Jews onboard the no-ship, I will note that Herbert did develop these arcs just enough to make me wish fervently that he had lived to complete the seventh volume, as there are so many issues involving free will and fate that are left unresolved here that I was left frustrated when I read the final volume and came to realize just who "Marty" and "Daniel" might have been.  But life, in its complex forms, did appear to go on at the conclusion and that, I suspect, is a large part of what Frank Herbert wanted to explore in this quasi-trilogy.  A shame he didn't live to finish it, but at least this novel was as enjoyable as the last two.  Very glad that I undertook a re-read, as I find myself with a greater appreciation for Herbert's accomplishments, despite the flaws and odd world-views that I noted in previous commentaries, than I had after my initial reads in 2001.  Certainly worth the effort for any who have vacillated on reading these novels.

WoT Ten Years Later: Robert Jordan, Lord of Chaos

I've reached the halfway point at least in this series to date. Death is like a feather, duty like a mountain, and around 5000 pages of WoT is like carrying a 400 lb. woman wearing spandex and a tube top on your shoulders as you run up that mountain.  Not the most pleasant of images, true, but this book was much more of a slog than the previous book, The Fires of Heaven, had proven to be. 

When I first read Lord of Chaos back in November 1997, I even then found it to be the most difficult of the seven books to date to enjoy.  Back then, used as I was to reading cultural and religious histories in English and German, it wasn't the size of the novel that daunted me but rather how disjointed it felt.  Nearly 13 years later, that sense of disjointedness was even more pronounced.  It was a struggle at times to pay attention to what was transpiring, which might explain in a perverse fit of reasoning why I am reviewing it so soon after completing it (I finished it about an hour before I began writing this post), when I typically wait 1-2 days, as will be the case with the final Dune Chronicles volume, Chapterhouse:  Dune, when I write that commentary after this one.  Between the often-interchangeable character types (Aes Sedai, Cairhein, Aiel, Forsaken, Tairens, etc.) and the over-explanations of things that I first read about several books ago, I fear my own complaints may become just as repetitive if I don't spice them up with some actual observations.

The story begins a few weeks after the events of The Fires of Heaven.  But instead of opening with the wind blowing its way through some po-dunk village, there is a lengthy (72 p. in my MMPB edition) prologue that begins with one of the hitherto-hidden baddies, Demandred (so demonic, that), meeting up with a new baddie, an ultra-tall eyeless Myrddraal, Shaidar Haran, where some sort of ret-conning seems to be taking place about the ultimate Shadow-y goals.  Perhaps Jordan wanted the Dark Side to be seen as being more competent than the EVIL Snidely Whiplashes of the first five volumes.  Or perhaps this had been planned the entire way.  Regardless of intent, there were several times while reading this novel and reflecting back upon the earlier ones where I wondered if the real evilness was in having a Space Invaders-sort of feel, where as each EVIL level/Forsaken is destroyed, the others move faster and faster, making it more and more difficult for the Light/Good side to keep up.

For a novel of 1011 MMPB pages, Lord of Chaos felt more like 900 pages of scene description and vague foreshadowing than an actual narrative progression.  There were three main locales in this novel:  Caemlyn (Rand at times/some Aiel/later Perrin/later Min), Cairhein (Rand at other times/more Aiel/some Mat/early Egwene), and the rebel Aes Sedai base of Salidar (Elayne/Nynaeve/early Min/rebel leaders/late Egwene/late Mat).  A fourth locale, Ebou Dar, took place so late in the novel that it serves more like a non-hanging cliffhanger element than anything really important to this particular novel.  Each of the three on the surface would appear to get ample space for plot/character developments, but due to the unfortunate tendency of the author to try and elaborate over and over again how Aes Sedai X is in this camp and sniffs this way while Aes Sedai Y huffs another way and belongs to another camp while Aes Sedai Z is in a third camp and looks down her nose at uppity Accepted and/or males, the Salidar scenes felt more like hundreds of pages of wet hens sitting around while the trainees Elayne and Nynaeve "discover" some "lost" Talents that the captured Forsaken Moghedien is forced to show them.  The Rand chapters are okay, except it's more of a holding pattern there until the end, while the Egwene ones are the only ones that show any semblance of actual character development, as she gets her ass whipped for admitting to lying to her Aiel Wise One teachers.  It was a growing moment, seriously, although the nakedness and the beatings (with the nudity repeated shortly afterward in Salidar) was a bit much.

Like I said in my The Fires of Heaven commentary, the clunky prose, the repetitive and increasingly-long descriptions, and the odd breaks in scenes to follow other characters led to a sense of disjointed prose.  I feel more strongly than ever that Jordan made a mistake in giving so much space to these relatively extraneous subplots.  In trying to have several parallels among the male/female interactions, the outside cultures clashings, and other such examples of a comedy of manners occurring, the overall focus is lost.  Perhaps Demandred was laughing at the end about letting the "Lord of Chaos" (presumably Rand and his being tied down with rule rather than trying to whip Forsaken ass and strengthening the Dark One's prison) rule because in letting full rein be given to the other subplots, Jordan seems to have been inching nearer and nearer to narrative progression defeat as his purported main protagonist, Rand, is slowly seen being diverted away from plotline victory.

Shall be interesting to see how I view the next volume, A Crown of Swords, since that book was actually the first WoT novel that I read and also because I just started re-reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  But six down, five (and one prequel) to go before I have all of the WoT books reviewed here. Hopefully I can find the inner strength to continue on, as these middle volumes were much worse than I had remembered them being.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nebula Awards site interview I conducted with Jeff VanderMeer is now live

This is more of a coda than a second full-length interview, but do visit the Nebula Awards site and read the interview (and perhaps click on the link there or the one to the right under the Interviews category to read the earlier interview).

Thanks again to Jeff for conducting this, especially considering the time constraints both he and I were under at the time when we did this short interview.  In the next few weeks, there should also be interviews going live there that I conducted with N.K. Jemisin and Rachel Swirsky.

WoT Ten Years Later: Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven

As I near the halfway point of the Wheel of Time series, I find myself struggling more and more to pay close attention to all the details. The earlier novels were easier in that the number of subplots were very few and generally no more than a few chapters separated any bunching of each subplot. The narrative was relatively straight-forward and although the prose never was anything to write home about, enough interest was generated in the characters to make the first few novels at least bearable to read and on quite a few occasions, enjoyable.

However, by the fourth volume, The Shadow Rising, my interest began to waver. I noted in my previous commentary that I believed Jordan tried to cover too much, to explain more than what was vitally essential to the main plot of the series, that of the Dragon Reborn being readied for the upcoming Last Battle.  Here in The Fires of Heaven, my complaints about the previous volume probably can be multiplied by at least a factor of ten.  Although I recall enjoying this volume almost the same as the previous one when I first read it in 1997, a decade away from reading it has reminded me that time might have the ability to remove bad memories and to enhance the few positive ones that remained.  The Fires of Heaven was at times a terrible mess of a novel to wade through.

After opening with a lengthy prologue (if memory serves, each volume from here on out, the prologues end up being close in length to several short novels that were popular before the 1980s) and covering the aftermath of the Aes Sedai split (a subplot that I mentioned before perhaps could have best been combined into one shot in this volume), the scene shifts east to Rand and his motley Aiel crew lounging about in the now-open ancient city of Rhuidean.  Lots and lots of scene setting going on here.  Some developments between Rand and the spear maidens protecting him.  Some more between Rand and the now-revealed third of his prophesied three honies, Aviendha.  Lots and lots of sniffing about what men don't understand about women, carried out in much the same way as had been the case before in the previous four volumes.  Ad nauseam levels of it.  Enough to make me wonder if the author had decided trying to discuss gender differences and ways of viewing the world was much more important than forwarding the overall plot of the novel.  This is not to say that occasional examples of this, presented in various angles and guises, could not work.  Rather, Jordan's lamentable tendency to repeat the same line of approach over and over again becomes rather tiresome.

And yet the scenes surrounding Rand and those with him at the start of the novel are actually the high points of this novel.  There is a rival, the Shaido Couladin, who serves to drive this subplot forward as he invades the Westlands ahead of Rand.  Lots of slaughter, sometimes shown in detail.  The fog of war is shown to good effect here, but there were times that even with the use of Mat as "the man on the streets" things felt a bit more distant than I think Jordan intended.  But this is nitpicking, as outside the repetitive gender clashes, Rand's (and for the most part, Mat's) scenes were the best developed and had a better ratio of plot tension, character development, and some sense of resolution to a few of the obstacles that each had been facing recently.

The scenes with the female characters, however, were mostly a horror to read.  Regardless of locale or imagined culture/society, it seems every female group in this novel has to resort to demeaning physical punishment in order to teach discipline.  From swatting with nettles to having a slut's hair shorn to copious scenes of female nudity for no other purpose than for there to be some sort of female bonding, these scenes felt more like slightly watered-down versions of things that might have appeared in a Gor novel than anything approaching a realistic portrayal of how a female-led hierarchical society might be like.  Although after a while I was able to ignore it, things really weren't all that thrilling to read, nor did I feel that much in the way of meaningful character development was occurring, unless teaching a young woman how to endure physical pain as a way of toughening her up is a great way to develop character. 

This book also features the infamous circus scenes, where I believe hundreds of pages are spent following Elayne and Nynaeve as they join a menagerie to escape from one of the female Forsaken baddies.  The bickering, which had been acted out in books 2-4, pretty much repeats itself in form and pattern throughout here.  It read as little more than a plot contrivance in order to make sure that the two trainees can have a place to stay until all the rebel Aes Sedai can meet in an abandoned village called Salidar. 

Not that too much was really developed once they reached there.  A major structural problem that occurs when so much time is developed to expanding a half-dozen or so subplots is that either some are left out altogether in order to speed up their timelines (Perrin's absence being a sign of this) or others (like the Tower split) have to have their arcs divided in a haphazard fashion across several novels, often with little real advancement or perceived narrative tension.  This does not make for an exciting read for those readers who can easily keep track of all of this, but would rather that less attention be spent on repeating the same damn truisms and more time devoted to keeping a strong focus on the advancing scenes and plots to where they will (eventually) flow into the overarching plot.  It is precisely in this novel (and to a lesser extent, the previous one) where I believe Jordan made some horrible plot decisions that weakened the flow of this series to the point where the next few volumes have very little plot advancement outside of an odd scene here and there in those books (and one where not even that occurs). 

While I can understand where some of the fans are going to enjoy the first major battle scenes of the series or how others might enjoy the comedy of manners moments that take place among some of the characters, the novel felt more like a Frankenstein's monster in how ill-integrated these disparate narrative elements were intertwined.  Although some might be pardoned for thinking otherwise, I highly doubt that the WoT series' main focus is on a few somewhat amusing scenes.  Nor do I think the political machinations, handled with about as much adroitness as a staggering drunk can dance the tango, are what this series purportedly is about.  Sure, there are a few more plot prophecies thrown about to give some grist to the speculative mills of those readers who are more interested in playing "guess what plot development will occur next" than they are in how well structured and written these novels are.  After a while, all sense of a coherent rhythm to the scenes vanishes, leaving just odd enjoyable scenes here and there, as islands surrounded by an ocean of tepid plot and character development.  I read on, but the enjoyment is fading fast.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune

Heretics of Dune (1984), the penultimate volume in the original Dune Chronicles, was simultaneously the easiest and the most difficult to read of the five novels read so far.  I ascribe this to the structural and plot shifts in this novel, but the degree to which I enjoyed this novel depended upon how quickly I was able to adapt to the narrative focus shifting away from the Atreides descendants to the Bene Gesserit and the latest in the long line of Duncan Idaho gholas.  It was not the easiest of adjustments, especially at first.

For most of the series to date, the Bene Gesserit, who apparently were modeled after Catholic religious orders (I seem to recall a comment, I believe in God Emperor of Dune, where Leto II compares them, in an unfavorable fashion, to 16th and 17th century Jesuits), have been presented either as cold-hearted genetic manipulators or as active antagonists to the Atreides protagonists of the previous four novels.  It took some adjustment on my part to view the narrative here in light of their extended stage time.  If it weren't for the reappearance of the Idaho ghola and yet another Atreides descendant, I am not for sure if I would have been able to buy the shift in narrative.  Herbert certainly did not do too much to help change reader perspectives of the Bene Gesserit and, later, the other main forces in the old Imperium.

As was the case with the previous volume, Heretics of Dune is set well after the events of the previous novel.  1500 years have passed this time since the "transformation" of the God Emperor Leto II into what his worshipers on the now again-arid planet of (Ar)Rakis call the Divided God.  The pent-up frustrations that had built up in the human species under Leto II's rigid 3500 year control have exploded into a universes-expanding event called The Scattering.  Recently, some of forces within The Scattering have returned to the lands of the Imperium and led by the Honored Matres, they seem hell-bent on unleashing destruction whenever they cannot manipulate their way into control.  Only the Bene Gesserit, their untrustworthy allies-by-necessity the Bene Tleilaxu, and the military prowess of the recalled Bashar Miles Teg (whose purposeful resemblance to the old Duke Leto I plays a major role in the novel) appear to stand in the way of the Honored Matres gaining complete.  And on Rakis, a long-foretold controller of the sandworms, Sheeana, has appeared.

Although Herbert did cover these topics to some degree or another in his previous four volumes, in Heretics of Dune, the religious backstories behind the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu come to the fore.  The religious fervor of the Zensunnis and Zensufis and how each have affected some of the motivations behind the the groups' actions throughout the series makes for some fascinating scenes.  However, Herbert appears more interested, as he did to a lesser extent in the earlier novels, in the cynical manipulations of the religious orders than on the consequences of the faiths of the various groups.  I could not help but to wonder if this focus on the manipulative forces within religious communities might have contributed to the sense of cold distance that I had on several occasions here and in the earlier novels whenever there would be scenes involving religious groups.  There just seemed to be little to these faiths other than how religions can control people and shape their desires. 

The characterizations were better here, perhaps because there was not as much of an introspective bent to the narrative.  The Bashar Miles Teg and the latest Duncan Idaho ghola in particular were interesting because more time was spent showing their inner conflicts, as Herbert did not seem to rely as much upon internal monologues to drive the plot as he did in the earlier novels.  In fact, Idaho plays a much more central role to the plot here, although at first it took a while for Herbert to explain just exactly why the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu kept reviving him centuries after Leto II's sandtrout dissolution.  Having him be, even more so than was the case in God Emperor of Dune, a source of "wild" genes in the thousands of generations of genetic crossbreeding added an intriguing element to the plot, one that I'm curious to see if it will carry over to Chapter House:  Dune

I found the narrative, and in particular the prose, to be easier to focus.  As I noted in my previous commentaries, Herbert's prose often was dense at the expense of a good story flow.  Here, with the lessening of internal monologues and on showing the effects of the changes introduced in the first four volumes, everything seemed to flow better.  This is not to say that there weren't some interesting concepts introduced or explored here.  The Honored Matres and their manipulations of males was in turns intriguing and off-putting.  Having biological developments, particularly of a sexual nature, enhanced by training certainly created a looming menace to the Honored Matres, although this also had its drawbacks.  One scene late in the novel involved the Honored Matre Murbella and Duncan Idaho was a bit disjointed in how clinical a sex scene was described.  This was especially true in reading descriptions of a "pulsing vagina," which unfortunately conjured up images closer to the infamous South Park episode starring Oprah's minge.  Suffice to say, Herbert did not write a good sex scene there.

I am going to hold back on discussing my perceptions of gender roles in the latter Dune novels until the next one, since Chapter House:  Dune reads more like the second half of this novel rather than a distinct novel of its own.  I will note that despite exploring the backstories more here, Herbert certainly left much to be explored.  I wonder if Heretics of Dune was indeed conceived as the opener of a trilogy, as it had the feel of setting up situations and the chief participants more than it did as something that could be read semi-independently of the other novels.  Regardless, I enjoyed it more this time around than I did when I originally read it back in 2001.  Looking forward to the final volume, despite knowing that Herbert's original vision most likely was not fulfilled in the stories co-written by his son and Kevin Anderson.

Easton Press edition of Moby Dick and other used bookstore finds

Sometimes, little treasures can be found in used bookstores.  On my most recent trip to McKay's to trade in unwanted hardcovers and paperbacks, I decided to browse through the store (I had nearly an hour to wait for the 30 books and textbooks to be processed).  Just when I was about to turn around and go to the cashier, I saw a nice leather-bound, 22K gilded Easton Press edition of Moby Dick.  There were a couple of water stains on the inside flap (more like wet fingerprints), but for only $25, I suspected I might have something close to a bargain (in perfect condition, these can run well over $100, I found out upon returning home).

The other books are much cheaper.  I enjoyed Hansen's Chess Garden, so I though I'd give Perlman's Ordeal a try for only $4.  Finding a Turkish New Testament for $3 means it'll go with the other 12 New Testaments that I have in other languages.  Decided to give Jack Vance another shot and finding Dragon Masters for only $2.50 helped matters.  Since I'm doing this WoT re-read project, might as well get the prequel, New Spring, and at $2, it was tolerable.

Got the entire Vance Lyonesse trilogy for $6.  The follow-up to Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, called Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman I hear is nowhere near as good, but for $1, it's a risk I can afford to take.  And I got a hardcover student's edition of Calderón de la Barca's La vida es sueño for $3, so I can have a hardcover spare of that most excellent play from El Siglo del Oro.

Always been meaning to read The Tale of Genji in full and $6 for this newish edition is not bad.  I read a good short story by Thai author S.P. Somtov last year, so finding his The Riverrun Trilogy for $3 is not bad.  I finally got around to buying Mary Renault's Fire from Heaven after being reminded of it recently and $1.50 isn't too shabby, I suppose.  The bilingual Legends from Latin America/Leyendas de Latinoamérica set me back $7, but I suspect it'll be worth it.  And Le Guin's The Eye of the Heron was only $2 and I might be doing a re-read/read of a near dozen or so of her books in the future, so why not?

I seem to recall hearing a few authors whose tastes in books I respect praising Pollack, so getting her Unquenchable Fire for $2 hopefully will make it a low-risk, high-reward find.  Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark was also $2, while Sir Philip Sydney (he whom I associate with the Elizabethan Porn Smugglers from the latter days of Monty Python)'s The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia was $3.  C.S. Friedman's first Coldfire Trilogy book, Black Sun Rising was relatively expensive at $3.75, while the third volume to Michael Moorcock's Count Brass trilogy, The Quest for Tanelorn was $2.25.

Best of all, my store credit was still greater than these by nearly $8, so all I pretty much paid for these was the gas it took to drive 45 minutes each way.  Should also mean lots of good reads in the coming months, especially since I'm reducing my purchases of new books to virtually zero for the next few months.

Any of these that you've read about which you'd like to comment?

An 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room: Men and Reading

Interesting Huffington Post article from last week called Why Men Don't Read:  How Publishing is Alienating Half the Population.  After reading it, I couldn't help but to find myself somewhat in agreement with the major points stated.  While I could and would quibble about other contributing causes that do affect how males in general tend to approach reading (and particularly, the reading of fiction), there is quite a bit of truth in that piece.

More and more, reading has been pitched lately as a social experience, contrary to previous centuries' emphasis on a solitary approach.  There are book clubs, whether they be at someone's house, in a library, on TV shows like Oprah's, or online.  Then there are sites like Goodreads and Shelfari that seem to be oriented to the notion of pitching one's book collection in a nice, graphic-intensive format.  These are all fine and dandy, but...are most of these developed with men in mind?

For the book clubs, almost certainly its popularity is not due to males embracing the trend (although there certainly are quite a few men who are willing and do participate in these sorts of social discussions).  As a way of encouraging "average" readers, particularly females, to participate, book clubs have been a rousing success.  Companies provide their own "starter questions" at the back of several books that tend to be chosen for these discussions and on the whole, most everyone is well pleased with the results.  But do these appeal to the "average" male reader?

Since it is difficult at best to define what constitutes the "average" male reader, the only data that I could even think of analyzing would be the books purchased for these book clubs and who they are marketed towards.  As the Huffington piece notes, due to market perceptions that males don't read (especially fiction, if one takes the NPR piece linked there at near-face value), there really isn't much pitched to males.  There are very few Louis L'Amour types out there today.  Maybe Cormac McCarthy could be marketed as such, but pay closer attention to how even McCarthy has been pitched in recent years and questions may arise about how he's been marketed as well.

Speculative fiction, along with comics/graphic novels and some historical fiction, may be one of the few genres of fiction remaining today where there is a near-representative ratio of female and male readers.  Yet look at what gets discussed as an aggregate.  The majority of the blogs on my blogroll are edited by male readers.  It is a bias of which I am acutely conscious, but part of that reason is that despite the hundreds of wonderful female authors that I have read and reviewed in recent years, I find myself not being drawn to several of the discussions and books reviewed by some female bloggers on their sites.  I am not saying that those books or those bloggers are inferior, but rather that the books being discussed, particularly the "new" urban fantasies (define that as you may) with the paranormal romance elements, are not intended for readers such as myself.  Just as I would not expect (hope, perhaps, but not expect) for the majority of female readers to enjoy tales where males struggle to find themselves in a strange world, it is difficult, it seems, for the majority of male readers to understand the appeal of female coming-of-age stories and romances.

It's perhaps a lamentable trend in literature, these divisions into "male" and "female" spheres.  But as more and more of the book buyers are women and more and more of the marketed is oriented toward females, where does that leave the male reader?  Should males have to adapt in some fashion to the changing socio-cultural climes?  Perhaps.  Should there be more "outreach" done to keep males interested in what's being published? As around 48% or so of the global population, one would hope that might be the case.  Is this trend part of a more global trend when it comes to educational rates and feelings of happiness and security?  A plethora of polls over the past decade would seem to support this assumption.

But it'll never be easy to change all this.  That 800 lb. gorilla is still in the room, breathing down our necks.  What should we do about it?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

An open letter to blogs who are too bright and full of distracting images

So I'm glancing through a few blogs, some that appear on my blogroll and others that do not, and I kept finding myself being a bit distracted.  Although most of the content differed in some particulars between these blogs, what I finally realized was that on each and every one of the blogs that irritated me was a (for me, at least) too copious use of bright colors and scads of images.

I'm not a very visual person.  I struggle to remember specific images, such as even my own relatives' faces.  I don't like bright colors and I find a more spartan design to be easy on my eyes when I read.  Yet I've noticed that quite a few book blogs seem to be more "book cover" blogs, with about as much space given to displaying images of covers approved, covers despised, covers of forthcoming books, covers of blasts from the past, covers of dogs humping get the picture (even if I can't envision it).

I feel like I'm getting in touch with my Inner Andy Rooney here (God help me if I develop eyebrows like his!), but whatever happened to there just being mostly words and a small scattering of images?  I don't care, after a while, to read five different blogs that over the course of a day cover the exact same cover.  I couldn't care less what societies you belong to or who gave you a sparkly.  It gets distracting after a while.  There are some blogs that I can hardly read because the garish color schemes and the plethora of images that appear there.  Apparently, those blogs aren't friendly for my eyes and I guess I'm just not part of that blog's intended audience.

But yes, I am indeed sounding like a grumpy 80 year-old man here.  But for the love of God, Montressor, please consider those few readers who like simpler designs and who prefer to read about something rather than just seeing a bunch of pretty pictures.  A few like myself might appreciate it.

WoT Ten Years Later: Robert Jordan, The Shadow Rising

In my last commentary, I commented about how one of the major reasons why I decided to do these re-reading projects was to learn more about myself as a reader and critic and to explore how my takes on various novels had changed over an intervening period of several years. For the first three WoT novels, my overall attitude had shifted only slightly.  I still liked the first book, The Eye of the World, better than the second and third volumes, The Great Hunt and The Dragon RebornWhat I liked and why, however, had changed, sometimes drastically. 

In particular, I found even the first three volumes to contain several annoying features.  Among them, average, pedestrian prose, laziness in using quirks and invented stereotypes to describe characters and imagined cultures, and the beginnings of what author/critic Adam Roberts has referred to as "decor-porn."  Despite these annoying narrative features, I was able to enjoy those three volumes as long as I focused on viewing the books as a sort of quest narrative.  If I had devoted more time to looking at the numerous "prophecies" and their ilk and tried to predict as-yet-untold events rather than concentrating on the story at hand, I suspect I would have grown bored quicker than I have.

The fourth volume, The Shadow Rising, marks a pivotal change in the WoT series.  This is the place where, for better or for worse (and I'm more inclined to say for the worse), Jordan decides to expand the narrative beyond what had first appeared to be a bog-standard epic fantasy quest to defeat the heinous forces of EVIL.  It is here where elements of court intrigue and political manipulation are grafted onto the original quest narrative tree.  The resulting mixture is a nearly 1000 page (MMPB) Frankenstein's monster that contains more splitting narratives and fewer resolutions than was found in the first three volumes.

When I first read this book back in November 1997, it took me a while to get into the story, largely because there are nearly 300 pages of setup and awkward character interactions before the young folk gathered in the Stone of Tear split into three groups to go on their not-quite-so-merry ways.  I have remarked before on the unfortunate tendency of Jordan to overdescribe his characters and settings.  I found this to be the case this time through, almost to the point of me being tempted to skip whole sections and even chapters.  That old adage of sometimes less being more fits this series and particularly this novel nicely. 

Perhaps it is due to my advancing age, but at 35, I found myself not relating to these characters as much as I perhaps had done (to a degree, that is) when I was barely 23.  A sniff here, a puzzled frown there, all sorts of confusions about what the other gender might mean by their comments and gestures.  While doubtless this was intentional in part, perhaps to try for a sort of comedy of manners routine, the repetitiveness in the types of responses to these situations quickly made those exchanges tedious to read.  Although the frequency decreased after the characters split up to go on their own subplot ways, it still left me asking myself if I were reading some sort of bad reworking of Sweet Valley High in an epic fantasy setting.  Maybe there is indeed something to the belief that people will interpret events differently as they age.

Besides the love trysts and sniffs, the dialogue was at best serviceable and at worst, utterly atrocious.  Jordan rarely is considered to be an even average prose stylist, but in this book, with its attempts to cover four subplots (the three branching off from the Stone of Tear and the other from the Aes Sedai stronghold of Tar Valon), most everything felt forced.  The scenes in the rural Two Rivers district, where the three main male characters were raised, felt at times as if I were reading a sort of fantasy Braveheart, with the appearance of an unlikely leader, Perrin, to rally the villagers to protect their homes.  Although I can understand why many readers would enjoy such scenes (the excitement, the fighting, the feel-good ending), it just didn't work well for me at the end.  It just felt clichéd in its approach toward both Hero (Perrin) and villagers and the author's decision to have large chapter chunks devoted to the four separate subplots often left too much of a space between developments in these subplots.  The Perrin subplot in particular suffered from this herky-jerkiness in the switching from locale to locale.

The main subplot, that of Rand's journey into the Aiel wastelands, was better done.  For those readers who prefer to immerse themselves in an author's imagined setting and "history," the chapters devoted to Rand's discovery of who his ancestors were and why the Aiel were where they were doubtless were major draws.  Although at times I thought the made-up history lessons were a bit much, they do serve to set up so much of what happens afterward when Rand is proclaimed the Car'a'carn, or Chief of Chiefs (but not the God of Thunder and Rock'n'Roll, although considering a pivotal scene late in the novel, even that august title could have been applied to him).  This was perhaps the best subplot in the novel and maybe even in the series to date, although it too was weakened somewhat by the need to switch to the other subplots.

The third subplot involving one of Rand's squeezes, the princess/Daughter-Heir Elayne and the former Two Rivers Wisdom Nynaeve (I want to pronounce her name as "naive," but it's NY-nehve, or something like that) felt more like a Scooby Doo mystery investigation or perhaps a Nancy Drew comparison might be more apt.  They are off to the west coast to catch some waves and to track down the 11 missing members of the EVIL Black Ajah, the quasi-secret part of the Aes Sedai  who worship the Dark Side.  This subplot was weaker than the first two, not just because of the fissured narrative, but also because it felt much less complete than the other two.  Yes, they accomplish part of their task, but the lack of a true resolution left this subplot feeling more as though it had ended in the middle rather than pausing at an appropriate point.

The final subplot, the barely discussed White Tower one involving the second of Rand's ladies, Min, and the Aes Sedai, perhaps should have been left out of this novel altogether, as less than a handful of chapters were devoted to narrating Min's arrival and the subsequent division of the White Tower.  I suspect this could have been shifted over to the fifth book and a more complete narrative could have been established there.  As it stands, these chapters were quite annoying, as they basically served to break up the flow of reading one of the other subplots.

When I finally finished this mammoth book, I found myself musing that the overall effect was much less than I had recalled it being.  In the decade-long interim between my reads of this book, I have shifted away from being someone who reads just for content and more toward a reader who values style and presentation just as much.  For readers who want to read an epic fantasy mostly to lose one's self in the created history and perhaps in the speculations that can be generated from "prophecy" foreshadowings, The Shadow Rising may be like manna from heaven.  For those who like a limited number of subplots and PoV characters, this book may be slightly frustrating.  For those, such as myself, who want well-presented prose and dynamic, well-drawn characters, this book probably will be a disappointment.  But I soldier on, fearing the Circus scene that I vaguely recall being in the next volume, The Fires of Heaven.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

God Emperor of Dune (1981), the fourth volume in Frank Herbert's Dune Chronicles, is the oddest of the series to date to place.  Set 3500 years after the events of Children of Dune and 1500 years before the events of the fifth novel, Heretics of Dune, it is a bridge novel that somehow also ends up feeling as though it were as separated from the fictional "past" and "future" of the series as the titular character, the transformed pre-Sandworm/human Leto II Atreides, appears to those around him.  This perhaps might be the most difficult of the series to categorize and to analyze briefly.

The structure of the novel differs significantly from the previous three.  Although Herbert still utilizes chapter epigraphs to provide thematic content related to plot developments inside the novel, the voice of these epigraphs shifts away from distant observers toward Leto II himself, via the use of "stolen journals" and official recordings. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Herbert originally had envisioned this novel being told exclusively through the voice of Leto II; it certainly feels like there are vestiges of that in the way that epigraphs and several of the dialogues between Leto II and others are constructed.

When I first read this book back in late 2001, it was, along with the first book, my favorite in the series.  In re-reading it, I found myself remembering why I had held this book in high esteem, although I also noticed several structural elements this time that I had either downplayed or ignored in my initial read.  Depending on how one takes Leto II's personality (-ites?) and the observations that Herbert makes through his titular character in regards to human motivations, sexuality, religious practice, etc., this book either will be a thought-provoking read or a horrid mess of a didactic dialogue that needs to be expunged from the reader's mind. 

The story begins as Leto II is approaching the final stages of his transformation into a full-blown Corialis sandworm.  Due to the environmental changes begun in the first three volumes, Arrakis is no longer an arid planet.  The precious spice melange stopped being produced with the last death of the sandworms.  Leto II controls all of the spice supplies necessary to keep the constituent parts of the old Imperium barely functioning.  He is worshiped by some, such as the Fish Speakers he created out of elements of old Terran myths, and reviled as the Tyrant by others.  Leto II's life is the tragedy of those who never have been allowed to be fully human and that is the starting point of this novel.

Leto II's Golden Path, the planned future for humanity envisioned by him and his now long-dead sister Ghanima (and earlier rejected by his father, Paul Muad'Dib) that is to save humanity from a cataclysm called Krazilec, is progressing at a horrible (and predicted) cost to human impulses.  Leto II has seized control of the Bene Gesserit breeding program and he has introduced new elements into the human genetic pool, elements that add quicker speed, endurance, reflexes, and ultimately, in the form of Siona Atreides, protection against prescient powers such as Leto II himself.  It is a project that has taken a huge toll on those involved, particular Leto II himself, and it is this cost and how others around him fail to understand it that becomes the core of God Emperor of Dune.

In shifting the focus inward to Leto II, Herbert appears at first to de-emphasize the complex interactions of people, their political, religious, and social structures, and their physical environments.  However, upon further consideration, each of the issues introduced in the first three volumes finds fruition here, in Leto II's manipulations of each of these ecological elements.  Although Herbert's interpretations of the origins and uses of certain elements (such as the nature of warfare, his take on utility of homosexuals, view on how the genders vary, etc.) are a bit questionable at times (the Jungian interpretation that Herbert gives, through Leto II and later Moneo Atreides, of the juvenile nature of homosexuality is pretty much discredited today), those elements do contribute to the story's focus on the terrible cost Leto II is enduring to protect the human species from extinction.

Although as an intellectual exercise God Emperor of Dune might be above-average, as a novel it is stylistically a mess.  Herbert rarely showed an ability to write evocative passages revolving around strongly-drawn characters and in this novel, outside of Leto II, the other characters, from the latest Duncan Idaho ghola revival to the descendants of Leto II's sister to the religious/military orders now existing in the Imperium, are all little more than ciphers who appear to exist more to serve as the foil for Leto II than they do to create a vivid story.  While doubtless Herbert's concerns were more with the exploration of the consequences of human genetics and their actions and mistakes, the lack of a strong discernible plot and dynamic characters to develop both plot and themes renders several stretches of this novel almost as bone-dry as the Saheer desert that exists as Leto II's training area and nostalgic stomping grounds.

At this point in my re-read of the series, I am resigned to the fact that Herbert's style does not appeal much to me.  The faults that I've noted in previous commentaries are again reflected here, as the tendency to have internal monologues to show the narrative and character tensions gets rather tedious after a while.  Yet there is something compelling about the story despite the problems I have had with the prose and characterizations.  It is Herbert's vision of humanity and its possible futures that intrigues me, even when I disagree with his assessments of specific elements.  God Emperor of Dune was a slog for much of the time, but despite this, I am more curious than I was before to re-read the last two volumes and see how the consequences of the actions here play out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

WoT Ten Years Later: Robert Jordan, The Dragon Reborn

So I just finished re-reading the third The Wheel of Time book, The Dragon Reborn, for the first time in ten years.  One of the interesting things about this re-reading project of mine is discovering how I have changed as a fiction reader and, to a lesser extent, as a critic over the course of the past decade or so.  As I remarked in my reviews of The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, some of the elements that used to irritate me greatly were not as noticeable this time around, while other plot and characterization issues that I had dismissed during my first few reads of the series seemed to be more visible during this current re-read. 

One thing that I focused on as soon as I began this re-read was the notion that this massive twelve-volume series (and counting) could be divided into distinct narrative arcs.  In particular, I was curious to see if the first three volumes might differ in their plot structures and presentation from succeeding volumes.  To an extent, there is indeed an interesting interplay between these three early novels that I have not seen during my current re-reading of the fourth volume.

The Dragon Reborn opens several weeks, if not months, after the Battle of Toman Head that concluded The Great Hunt.  Rand al'Thor, who has now successfully fought off the EVIL Ba'alzamon, the presumed Dark One in this Manichean-style cosmos, twice in the previous two volumes, is still struggling to deal with the revelations of the past year.  Born gifted/cursed with awesome power that is tainted for males, Rand constantly frets in the early chapters about his "destiny" as the reincarnated Dragon Reborn and the belief that the apocalyptic Last Battle was drawing nigh.  Although Jordan continues to lapse into lengthy descriptive passages that fail to let the characters illustrate their conflicts through their actions, I found myself being more drawn into Rand's plight that I ever remembered being when I last read this book a decade ago.  Seeing him struggle to fight for control of his double-edged magical powers through his actions and failures more than through his internal monologues was a refreshing change. 

But although the book's title would lead the unwary reader to believe that the book will feature the Dragon Reborn prominently, Rand appears only in flitting scenes for three-quarters of the novel.  Yet this was a wise decision by the author, as this allowed Jordan to explore the effects that Rand's appearance at Toman Head had on the world around.  Sometimes, instead of just rattling off paragraph after paragraph detailing what the central protagonist is to accomplish via mysterious prophecies, it might be best to let the überpowerful character take on the aspect of the looming 800 lb. gorilla in the room rather than dominating all of the proceedings.  Jordan's decision to switch the narrative focus away from Rand and toward those following him after his flight/quest to the city/state of Tear allows for a greater understanding of the events that are transpiring as a result of the destiny-bending powers of Rand and his two childhood friends.

The basic structure of this novel is that of a classical epic fantasy quest narrative, except there are four main strains of quest being interwoven here.  Besides Rand's quest to discover for himself if he is truly the Dragon Reborn (to be proven by seizing the Arthurian-like Sword That Isn't a Sword, contained within the Stone of Tear), there are the quests of Rand's companions to track him down in time to protect him, the one involving the three young female trainees trying to sniff out the traitors in their midst, the conflicted desire of the previously-infected Mat to escape from Aes Sedai manipulation and to help his friends, and that of the fiercesome badass ninja-warriors, the Aiel, to track down their prophesied leader/destroyer.  Unlike in The Great Hunt, where I felt the disparate narrative strands were not integrated well, here there is much more balance between these quests.  Those of Rand and the Aiel are kept brief and fleeting, as befitting the characters of their quests.  The ones involving Moraine/Perrin, Mat, and the three trainees receive more space, but none of these receive more than perhaps three chapters at a time, creating the sense that the action is moving swiftly and decidedly toward a resolution.

It is in this novel that the quest narrative structure that had dominated to date begins to shift.  More is seen of the setting's environs and particularly the increasingly bad situations that the common people experience.  Jordan is often (and rightly) criticized for taking too much of a "theme park" approach to his setting.  The characters move from locale to locale, see a few of the local monuments, interact with maybe a couple of locals, fight off a group of baddies and then they move on.  But here, and this is especially true in Mat's later scenes, more detail is given to the "outside" world.  Short passages such as the one involving the refugees at a local port and their desperate cries for food and other supplies is touching, as this is one of the few times that I recall in the series (perhaps I'll remember more as I re-read the other volumes) where the human suffering is shown rather than told in passing by a character.  The turbulence brought by Rand's emergence and by the nefarious counterstrokes of the EVIL opposition are shown to good effect here.

However, this should not excuse several problems that I noted in this book.  First, the prose continues to be pedestrian.  Often, too much description is wasted on minor characters and not enough attention is given to the dialogues.  In particular, the EVIL Forsaken and their servants sound more like caricatures of movie villains than anything resembling a well-rounded, complex character.  The usual complaints I've heard over the years from other readers about the repetitive physical tics (sniffing, braid tugging, and the like) would apply nicely to a few scenes here.  It is unfortunate that the author failed to develop other ways to express his characters' emotional states, as after a while, the repetitive complaints about how X "knows women better than I do" or "Men!" or any other similar expression tends to numb some readers (or at the very least, this reader), leading to several dull moments within what should be a rollercoaster-style narrative.

Although these complaints really are endemic to the series as a whole, they do not affect my enjoyment of The Dragon Reborn.  In fact, I would have to say out of the three novels read so far, my opinion of this one improved the most.  It still contains several annoying flaws, but these don't impede the narrative flow and plot developments as much as I fear future volumes might (again, based on faint memory).  It wouldn't surprise me to learn if it was around this point that several readers became ardent fans of the series, as there are enough intriguing developments that begin to veer away from the traditional quest narrative as to make me curious about how I'll receive the next three, mammoth volumes.  No waning in interest so far.

Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

Children of Dune (1976) serves as a mini-resolution of sorts for the Dune Chronicles novels.  In this third volume, several of the thematic and plot developments of the first two novels, Dune and Dune Messiah, come to a head, as author Frank Herbert continues his exploration of the complex ecological relationships of humans; their (anti-)heroes; their hierarchies of politics, social networks, and religions; and the ways that his imagined worlds affect and are affected by their physical, social, and moral environments.  It is not an easy novel to read, however, as I found out in my first re-read (and second total read) since 2001.

If Dune Messiah served in part to illustrate the corruptive aspects of (prescient) knowledge and power (as embedded in Paul Muad'Dib's struggles to rein in the Jihad done in his name), then part of Children of Dune's attraction for readers drawn to the political/moral elements of Herbert's first two novels will be the application of this insidious corruption to Paul's younger sister, Alia.  However fascinating it was to see her descent into depravity at the hands of an ancestral element within her, what I valued most about Children of Dune was how Herbert inverted some of the plot elements introduced in the first novel.

Set nine years after the concluding events of Dune Messiah, Children of Dune revolves in large part around three members of the Atreides family, the above-mentioned Alia and Paul's two young twin children, Leto II and Ghanima.  and how each deals with the ancestral memories that were awakened in them before their physical births.  Much of the narrative tension deals with how Alia succumbs to the malevolent guiding of one of her ancestors, while the two twins struggle to learn how to cohabitate with these ancient memories/personalities.  It is this narrative tension between the choices that these three characters make that I found to be one of the more fascinating parts of this book, especially as Leto II becomes more and more cognizant of that terrible prophetic future that his father tried so desperately to avoid during the course of the first two novels.

Surrounding this narrative core are several peripheral conflicts that resonate with earlier events - the scheming of House Corrino to retake control of the Imperium, the mysterious and nefarious legend of Jacuruku and what that might portend for Arrakis's present and future, the runaway effects of the windtraps and other measures to reverse Arrakis's desertification, and the moral outrage, as embodied in the mysterious blind prophet The Preacher, against the deleterious effects that power and ready water have had on the Fremen in the quarter-century or so since Muad'Dib came into the desert.  The complex interactions between these several subsidiary conflicts quickly come to a head in ways that I found both intriguing and very frustrating.

It was at times difficult to remain engaged with the text.  As noted in my earlier reviews, Herbert was not as much interested in the characters for their own sake, but instead for the ideas and symbols that could be expressed through them.  The passages involving Lady Jessica and the Corrino heir, Farad'n, were at times tedious to read, in large part due to the sense I got that their repartees were more to explore ideas than to explore their characters.  It is a weaknesses of mine, I suppose, to lose interest when characters become more symbols of ideas than actual dynamic personages, but one of the difficulties I had with this novel was the overly didactic nature of the character interactions.  While at times these type of exchanges were necessary and occasionally were even entertaining (such as the talk between Ghanima and Leto II before their decision on the Golden Path was made, or the conversation late in the novel between Leto II and The Preacher), on the whole, the dialogue in Children of Dune was the weakest of the three for me in terms of there being a natural ebb and flow.  Stilted dialogue, compounded with a near surfeit of chapter epigraphs spelling out certain plot/theme elements, can lessen enjoyment after a while.

However, much of these deficiencies were counterbalanced by the evolution of the ecological element of how humans adapt to/are adapting their environs from a planetary level to a more universal one that encompasses the moral, spiritual, social, religious, and political subsets of human sociology.  I am intrigued with the implications of Leto II's Golden Path and the reasons why his father had rejected it.  There is a lot of foreshadowing in this book of elements that I believe Herbert addresses in much greater length in his final three volumes (and which he probably intended to address in the never-completed Dune VII), especially in regards to the apocalyptic Kralizec, or the Typhoon Struggle.  Herbert devotes much more space here to concerns of how lax and complacent humans have become in the ten thousand years or so since the Butlerian Jihad and how fragile their continued survival as a species truly was despite their control of the hundred planets or so of the Imperium.  Very curious to see how he develops these points in the remaining novels.

So while I did not enjoy Children of Dune as much as I did the first two novels, I did find it to be a valuable part in broadening the narrative to encompass concerns about human survival and evolution.  Although Herbert's prose was again not very appealing to me, he does manage to set up quite a few intriguing conflicts that play out over the course of the book, as well as developing the seeds of future conflicts.  As a "bridge" novel, it does its tasks competently, although not spectacularly.  Mild recommendation at best, but mostly for those who were fans of the first two novels.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

More re-reading plans

Hoping to have reviews of Frank Herbert's Children of Dune and Robert Jordan's The Dragon Reborn up either tonight or sometime Thursday.  Some interesting re-evaluations are taking place with both of these, but more on that in the actual commentaries.  Enjoying this much more than I had expected, especially since these have served as needed breaks between a whole host of activities, some of which are still in progress.

In fact, I am going to extend this re-reading/commentary a bit more to encompass a few more in-progress epic fantasy series that I've either never reviewed here at this blog or I have not re-read at all in several years, or both.  Right now, I think I might start commentaries on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series after I finish the six original Dune Chronicles books, since a) I've never written any sort of review of any of the books, and b) I haven't read one of the novels in full since late 2002.

And if I have the energy after that, I'm considering doing re-reads/commentaries on R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing trilogy (no re-reads since 2006) and possibly Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen (I only reviewed the last two volumes, and perhaps my takes on the others will have changed in the interim).  And I think after that, there really wouldn't be any epic fantasies that I haven't already reviewed that I would want to (re)read/review in full. 

Of course, this is not neglecting other fictions that I shall be reading.  I have temporarily abandoned that plan of reading/reviewing a book a day due to other duties, but I do hope to return to reviewing several of those, if not every single one.  Plus I have the new Gene Wolfe to review sometime.  And a Spanish-language novel or two as well, if any are interested in any of those.  Plus I do have a long-delayed spotlight article to write about one of Portugal's leading fantasists, David Soares.  I meant to have that posted by mid-February, but job problems and other personal issues led me to keep putting that off, but I do owe some people my reflections on two of his novels.

More later.  Would like to nap some more.  Regular sleep seems to be a thing of the past, unfortunately.

The Battle of (Fantasy) Evermore?

While I am not yet going to compose an essay along the lines of "What is Fantasy?" (I'm saving that for another time and probably another locale), it is interesting (well, at first, before tedium sets in) to read others' thoughts on the marketing category of Fantasy and how it relates (or doesn't) to the narrative modes of fantasy.

For those who have not read the UK newspaper The Guardian's online article, written by author Damien Walter, entitled "Fantasy Fiction:  the battle for meaning continues," I would suggest that you do so now, particularly since Walter discusses a perceived divide between category Fantasy fiction and the type of contemporary fantasy that is not limited to a single category or shelves in a bookstore. 

I read two interesting takes on Walter's article.  The first is by James Long of Speculative Horizons.  As befitting someone whose post last week questioning the usefulness of the Gemmell Awards generated a discussion that Walters references in his article, James spends quite a bit of time focusing on those elements of Walter's article that relate to his previous arguments about the potential harm of having an award that might only reflect the quality of the marketing and lowest common denominator reader tastes and not highlight the better-written and "original" fiction of a fantasy mode.  While there is nothing much that I would argue against his stance, I would just merely note that in his rush to point out how someone else agreed with his points, James forgot to mention at all a substantial part of Walter's argument, namely just which authors are writing fantasy narratives that ought to be considered alongside those market category bestsellers.

Paul Charles Smith, of the excellent new blog Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream (which I just added to my blogroll, on the basis of several excellent essays and reviews I read there just now) interprets Walter's article differently.  Instead of focusing over much on the commercial aspect of the divide (which James did), Paul instead explores how the "non-commercial" fantasies that he has read recently reflect his own tastes as a reader and how the ideas and narrative approaches contained within stories by Michael Cisco, for example (who is an outstanding writer, I might add), appeal to him as a reader.  Although he hardly dwells at all on the perceived divide within the genre(s), I found his essay to be the more powerful of the two responses because of how deftly he ties Walter's comments into his own view of the stories out there and the things he has taken from the fictions he has read.

As for myself, Walter's article is a nice restatement of arguments that I've heard several times over the past few years.  I am quite familiar with the authors he cites and I, with scarce an exception, enjoyed those works much more than I tend to enjoy the more "commercial" fantasies.  However, I would add that it is not quite as stark of a divide as Walter presents it.  There are some authors within the "commercial" field (epic fantasists R. Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson being two that come to mind immediately) who do try to work in some elements into their narratives (more devotion to prose, thematic representations of alienation and the occasional "weirdness" that causes the reader to pause and think about the imagined settings, etc.) that might be associated more with the "non-commercial" than with the "commercial" (and considering their relative sales ranks, perhaps they are not as "commercial" as some might believe).  Even within the most technically unambitious series, such as Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series (which I'm currently re-reading), there occasionally can be found the odd nugget of interest that raises such works above standard derivative product.

But it is the degree and kind of differences that separates these various fantasy narratives.  And in that, sometimes it's more a matter of finding readers who are more inquisitive and matching them with authors who reflect that curiosity and whose narratives don't travel far down beaten paths. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tor announces new three book deal with Terry Goodkind

Tor Press Release:

New York Times bestselling author returns with a new Richard & Kahlan novel

New York, NY – Monday, April 19, 2010 – Tor Books is proud to announce the return of New York Times bestselling author Terry Goodkind to their list. The first book in the 3-book deal will be a new Richard and Kahlan novel, due in early 2011. Richard and Kahlan are the principle characters from his previous New York Times bestselling books.

“We are excited to publish Terry Goodkind again,” says Tom Doherty, President and Publisher of Tor Books. “Millions of people delight in the novels of Richard and Kahlan and eagerly await the continuation of their story.”
Twenty five million copies of Goodkind’s 12-book series have been sold worldwide and have been translated into more than 20 languages. A television series adaptation of the novels, titled Legend of the Seeker, produced by ABC Studios and broadcast via syndication, first aired on November 1, 2008 and is now in its second season. The Sword of Truth is one of the most successful series ever published in the fantasy field.

Said Goodkind, “I’m thrilled to be back with Tor to tell more stories of Richard and Kahlan.
Interesting, considering the book deal Goodkind had signed a couple of years ago with Putnam.  I wonder if this means there'll be alternating books to fulfill both contracts, or if Goodkind has been released from his Putnam deal.  Not that I'm a fan of Goodkind's writing/personal philosophy (quite the opposite), but it is an interesting mistake (or pun) to see reference to "Richard and Kahlan are the principle characters."

Let the speculations and trashing commence!  Release the krak...err, Namble!

WoT Ten Years Later: Robert Jordan, The Great Hunt

Last week, I prefaced my commentary-like review of the first WoT book, The Eye of the World, with explanations as to why I was embarking on this re-read project after a decade-long break.  It would be redundant to repeat all of that, so if you have not yet read the original review, I suggest you start with that before reading this second, shorter review of the second volume in the series, The Great Hunt.

When I first read this book back in November 1997, I found it to be a major step backwards from the first novel.  In the few re-reads I did between then and the autumn of 2000, I recall that my opinion of the book (and the third volume, The Dragon Reborn) did not improve at all.  But what impressions would I take after reading it nearly ten years later?

On the whole, I would still argue that The Great Hunt was a less enjoyable reading experience than was The Eye of the World.  Several of the same problems that I felt plagued the first volume (too lengthy personal descriptions of minor characters, an uneven pace to the plot(s), the thin characterizations of the major characters and even more importantly, the enemies, the rather pedestrian prose) were pretty much repeated in this second volume, with a few curious additions. Yet despite this, in some ways, this story was more enjoyable than I had remembered it being a decade ago.

The story picks up roughly one month after the conclusion to the first novel.  Rand al'Thor, one of three adolescent males from the backwater village of Emond's Field, has discovered that he can touch the magical, tainted male side to the magical One Power (which runs the universe, in a way that I wonder might be analogous to the "dark matter" that makes up most of the universe's mass).  Furthermore, he may be the reincarnated soul of the dreaded Dragon Reborn, who in madness helped destroy civilization after a ten-year battle with the forces of evil.  Rand is the hero (villain?) of prophecy, a mantle he does not want and makes quite clear, in both internal monologues and in conversations with characters, on numerous times.  As I was reading this, I kept wondering to myself if perhaps the author went a little overboard with utilizing repetitive comments to reinforce the centrality of Rand's conflict.  It felt a bit forced at times to me and I cannot help but to speculate how differently (and perhaps, how much more powerfully) a reduction in the times Rand (and to a lesser extent, the other character and their own personal crosses which they bear quite vociferously) has to put voice to his conflicted thoughts. 

One problem I vaguely remembered from this book in particular dealt with the volume of prophecy-spouting, infodumping commentaries.  While it is understandable that in the second volume of a rapidly-expanding series (I believe at this time, the goal was to shoot for around six-seven volumes) that plot foreshadowing and scene explanations were inevitable, it seemed rather clunky and intrusive to have characters who ought, considering them as being within the narrative and not speaking to the fourth wall of the reader, to know most, if not all of what is being shared.  It is one thing when inexperienced country bumpkins might need customs and traditions explained to them, but it is another matter when two or more members of the same society feel the need to explain at length matters that the other character ought to have had the experience to already know and understand.

But the character interactions were not always poorly-done.  I found, in light of information released in the most recent novel, The Gathering Storm, one character's motivations and actions to be more relevant and interesting than I had at the time.  Likewise, viewing one of the young female character's interactions with a few of the initiates of the Aes Sedai organization through the lens of what transpired in the latest novel made that character a bit more interesting than I had found her in previous reads.

Regrettably, Jordan still seems to have any desire to have his main villains, the Forsaken, be anything more than tissue-thin characters.  Evil for the sake of EVIL is fine enough for certain types of stories, but having more complex motivations than takes on the Seven Deadly Sins I believe would have added more believability to several of the scenes here involving two of the main evil group.  Laughing manically and destroying the odd evil peon may look and sound impressive at first, but after a while, it becomes rather trite and boring.  He almost showed some development with one of the female baddies, but this appeared to me to be undone by hinting rather broadly that there is indeed no fury like a woman scorned.  Again, would have been nice to have seen more rounded characters on the baddie side other than the one (two?) who appear in this novel.

The plot, namely the recovery of the stolen Horn of Valere and the dangerous dagger that Mat had found (in addition to dealing with a matter of prophecy and the arrival of a certain wild card group), was not as disjointed as I remembered.  While there wasn't quite the sense of urgency that I found in the middle chapters of The Eye of the World, there certainly were a few moments that seemed to hold a more mysterious cast to it than I had recalled.  Furthermore, the subplot involving the young female trainees was not as inane and distracting this time as I had remembered, although there were a few times that I found myself wishing a chapter or two of their story had been cut out in order to help with the overall flow to the story.

One of the weaknesses I noted before about Jordan's stories is the rather average prose style.  At times, he gets a bit too ornate with the physical/clothing descriptions, yet there is not a corresponding examination of character and motivation.  Several times, I observed to myself that if some of the descriptions had been omitted, the story would feel less sluggish.  I also remarked to myself (not out loud, since I don't talk to myself like that) that the level of narrative fails to match the type of story being presented.  For a story that purportedly revolves around the reluctant reincarnated hero, the repetitive use of internal monologue to show the hero Rand's reluctance did not reinforce and deepen this thematic element, but rather it seemed to weaken it.  The same holds true for lesser characters - too much repetition of the obvious and not enough exploration of those conflicts within them.

Yet despite these faults, the questing nature of this novel was still of interest to me.  If anything, the comments I made can be construed as being the critiques one might give a solid story, in hopes that it could be improved later on.  For other readers, the very repetitiveness that I lament may actually have served to generate a rhythmic quality that perhaps pulled them deeper into the story.  But for myself, it is only a solid, mildly enjoyable story.  The author could and perhaps should have striven to make this a more compelling early volume in a very ambitious project.  But failing to achieve several of these ambitions does not mean that The Great Hunt fails to be a good, solid epic fantasy read.  It just means its promise was not fulfilled to its full extent.  Interest is still high in re-reading the next volume, The Dragon Reborn.

Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

Before I begin discussing the second Dune Chronicles book, Dune Messiah, I want to note something from my earlier review of Dune that I purposely neglected.  Those who are familiar with the series might have wondered why in that review there is very little to no discussion of the religious and political elements of that novel (certainly, there was a round of discussion regarding this on a forum where I posted a copy of my review).  There are two main reasons, some of which I explained at length in the link above.

The first is due to the way the story was structured, much more emphasis was put on the influence that a person's ecosystem has in shaping that person; ecology is not just the study of how humans influence the environment but also how environmental pressures shape humans and their perceptions of the world around them.  I realize this is a highly debatable point (and the amount of discussion on this point in that linked thread bears this out), but it is a key element, if not the key element I took from the novel.  The second reason is that despite Dune ending with the ascension of Paul Atreides/Muad'Dib to the throne of the Padishah Emperors, the ending to that book clearly indicates that the overall story of Paul, his Fremen, and the complex issues raised in the first novel are far from complete.

Indeed, looking at Dune Messiah as being both sequel and complement to Dune has some merit.  Despite taking place twelve years after the final events in Dune, Dune Messiah takes several of the thematic elements present in the first novel and explores them at greater depth.  Sometimes, this deeper exploration into elements such as the character of Paul may be a bit off-putting for certain readers desiring a story that has more of the surface structure and tone of the first novel, but when I re-read this book for the first time in nine years, I found myself enjoying it much more.  In a few ways, Dune Messiah may be a better story than its predecessor. 

As the story opens, Paul's jihad (whether or not he wishes to claim such is beside the point) is nearing fruition.  Sixty-one billion people, according to Paul's own calculations, lie dead in the aftermath of the conquest/jihad launched by the Fremen Naibs.  The traditional powers of the Imperium, the Bene Gesserit, the Guildsmen, and the mechanistic-oriented Bene Tleilaxu, have begun conspiring on how to cause Paul's downfall.  But how does one remove a ruler who has near-complete prescience and is aware of so many possible futures?

Paul in turn is besieged by doubts and worries.  He is revolted by the violence done in his name and the deification that others wish to see in his body.  Yet his visions show that there are far worse futures than the blood-soaked present his followers are enacting.  And yet despite his awesome powers, Paul finds himself more and more trapped by the futures he beholds and the steps he has to take in order to avoid the worst of all possible futures.  But at what cost does this avoidance take?

In some aspects, Dune Messiah is a relatively simple, linear novel.  Making up less than two-thirds the length of the first novel, Dune Messiah is the shortest of the six novels written by Frank Herbert.  Yet in its compactness, there is a far clearer sense of the issues that Herbert wants to emphasize.  While there are still a few occasions where Herbert abuses the use of internal monologues to drive the action, on the whole, he does a much better job developing the characters, particularly those of Paul, Irulan, and the restored ghola-form of Duncan Idaho, the loyal Atreides retainer who died to protect Paul and Paul's mother, Jessica, in the first novel.  These characters and their conflicts feel much more immediate than they do in Dune, making for a more pleasant re-read than I had anticipated.

If part of the original novel was devoted to the tragedy of a Duke that everyone knew was sentenced to die through political betrayal and manipulations, that tragedy finds its reflections in the religious aspect of Paul's rule.  How does a man prevent others from viewing him as a god?  How does a person who is blessed/cursed with prescience going to handle knowing so many possible outcomes, most of which would have disastrous results?  Herbert's treatment of these important issues, as reflected in how conflicted and confused Paul becomes over the course of the novel, is handled much more adroitly than I felt was the case in the first novel.

This is not to say that there are not any deficiencies.  Despite being more focused than the original novel, Dune Messiah still at times has a sluggish pace, where often it appears that machinations introduced toward the beginning of the book take overlong to develop, leaving scenes like the penultimate one with the twins to feel somewhat rushed and underdeveloped.  For those who value the planetary aspects of ecology, this novel does not focus as much (or rather, it focuses very little on the natural aspects, but much more on the human aspects) on how environment and humans shape each other.  This is very much a novel about humans and what motivates them to betray and to swear allegiance to a higher goal than their self-preservation.

The conclusion is rather ambiguous, setting the stage for the third volume, but leaving unanswered several of the questions I noted above.  But perhaps that is the point, to leave thorny issues for the reader to consider long after the final page has been turned.  All I know is that I took far more out of this re-read than I did from my initial 2001 read. 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mid-April Book Porn

Five review copies here, including the second volume of a Glen Cook reprint trilogy that Night Shade Books is releasing this year.  I certainly shall be reading the Cook in the near future, likely with 1-2 reviews to follow.  Might read the Grant and Bacon-Smith books.  Will at least skim through the DAW anthology of the month to see if any stories are suitable for BAF.  Don't know about the McConchie, to be honest.

The Leiber story collection will certainly be one that I'll read in a month or two, after I have a bit more time free to read non-BAF short stories.  The Beamer is an intriguing debut novel.  Don't know if I can read the Cherryh, as I don't have the volume before it.  The Neumeier is a possible read later one.

These are all purchases made within the past two weeks.  The Wolfe I started reading, then had to postpone it because of a mixture of re-read projects and other, paying projects.  The Roberts I've been meaning to buy for some time and finally got around to it.  The Pelevin is for an online Russian Book Club.  The Ali is because I've heard many positive things about his stories.  And do I need to explain again how much I enjoy reading Zoran Živković?

These were purchased at a local used bookstore today.  The two Martin books are replacements for older editions that I gave to a Salvadorean friend of mine a year or so ago.  I've read a borrowed copy of Moorcock's book before and I knew I'd want a copy of my own at some point.  The Banks is a stab to see if one of his Culture novels can appeal to me.  Third time's the charm, right?

The two Spanish-language books were earlier online purchases, being read slowly as models for certain types of stories.  Also found in the used bookstore today the first 2/3 of another Moorcock series, this one a continuation of the Hawkmoon novels.  Finding three French-language works by three masters is a stroke of luck, especially since the three together barely cost $2.  Bargain indeed.

Any books from these pictures you wish you could own or at least read?
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