Category Archives: Book Reviews


How could you possibly look ten women in the face and ask why they had gotten you drunk and made a game of taking your clothes off and putting you to bed?

Every long series has its fan favorite volume and for The Wheel of Time it’s book four, The Shadow Rising, coinciding also with the longest, at almost 400k words and 980 pages in the edition I read. Up to this point and including this one, each book, while relatively slow paced in itself, represented a different stage in the story. So where I expected formula I instead found a well defined arc with clear development. In this fourth book Jordan tends his garden.

There. I don’t think I could summarize what I’m going to write any better. I think it’s telling that this book, peculiarly since they were always there, lacks a Prologue. The way I see it there’s no prologue here because it’s the part of the book that usually teases the point of view of the bad guys (and girls, especially) before handing over the scene to the principal viewpoints (though it’s not a so strict structure and sometime you get other viewpoints as necessary). But book four mainly represents Team Good reforming and reorganizing. I knew already before reading the book that in this one the story opened up and laid the basis for what comes after, that it was essentially a foundation of the larger arc, but it takes quite a lot of pages to get the plot moving. In general, this where Team Good is on the move and plays its hand. So it’s not the bad guys who come forth, but Team Good taking the initiative to shake things up. It’s refreshingly “proactive”, instead of falling back in the norm of defending and confronting an imminent or latent threat. Despite this, Jordan still needs the imminent threat, even a number of them, so in the first part of the book a number of plot contrivances are tossed in just to keeps things supposedly tense, but in truth it’s all silly fakery. A pretense, smoke and mirrors whose purpose is linked to a bigger and more pervasive one I’ll explain later.

From a general outlook for the first 300 pages we mainly have characters looking around themselves to figure out what happened and where they stand, and decide (and argue muchly between them) what to do next. Then another 50 or so to actually get things moving. Past that point the book is split into three main branches, where each relies on a completely separate subplot, as if you get to follow three separate stories happening in different parts of the world to different characters. One follows Rand and his “initiative”, one Perrin and his woes, and another the girls and their affairs. And a fourth, minor page-wise, that deals with stuff elsewhere. They actually never converge, or get unified as the story goes, although some of the characters cross over. So for the first time, maybe, there’s an attempt to shape a world that has its own personality, in the sense that even if everything thematically pivots around Rand, stuff starts tumbling outward and the world outside claims its role. We see the ripples. It’s about the various parts of the world taking autonomy, instead of being empty stages waiting their turn as some main character passes through and experiences adventure. This happens timidly, but at least it happens, it is set as a goal. So while the first third of the book is rather shallow and not exactly matching the expectations for “best in the series”, overall the story is well sustained and interesting.

I imagine that for the fans the highest point is about getting to know more of the mythology and events from the past. There are scenes here that are meant to shape up things in a coherent whole, unify a number of different aspects and deliver more than a few revelations (especially those who enjoy to play with puzzle pieces). That part of the book could be considered fairly generous, and Jordan’s successful attempt to give some specific flavor to his world. But again, I can’t avoid thinking this is a giant fake, and that the true heart of the book is instead that shallow first third where characters bicker and fuss over petty things, and each other. That’s where the recipe is hidden in plain sight. The MUNDANE. Boys liking girls, girls liking boys. Tea times, sleepovers. Romantic love letters. Lots of pretty dresses and cleavages, or transparent silks and implied sauciness. This is it. The actual revelation here is the inverse of what you’d expect: the “fantasy” is meant to spice up the “romantic”, not the opposite. The fantasy is context, not subject. It is flavor, detail. Some window dressing so that the love story is more passionate and epic. Truly romantic and ideal. The fantasy is meant to add the required pathos that elevates a love story to its most idealistic extreme. Made wondrous. The shepherd isn’t a shepherd, but the predestined king in shiny armor that knows how to use a sword. But not just, because the love must be cursed, impossible. Never actually consumed. The longing dominates, because love stories need to be like that, always suspended, always slipping away. The boy wants the girl (or, actually, an harem), but he has more pressing matters because he has to be manly and save the world, first. Basically: adolescence. It’s adolescence stirred up in a mythical world. Essentially poison, in a way. In the sense that it’s super-effective. And that’s how I have (perhaps disrespectfully) reduced its popularity.

“Rand al’Thor,” Moiraine told the air in a low, tight voice, “is a mule-headed, stone-willed fool of a…a… a man!”

Elayne lifted her chin angrily. Her childhood nurse, Lini, used to say you could weave silk from pig bristles before you could make a man anything but a man. But that was no excuse for Rand.

“We breed them that way in the Two Rivers.” Nynaeve was suddenly all half-suppressed smiles and satisfaction. She seldom hid her dislike of the Aes Sedai half as well as she thought she did. “Two Rivers women never have any trouble with them.” From the startled look Egwene gave her, that was a lie big enough to warrant having her mouth washed out.

Moiraine’s brows drew down as if she were about to reply to Nynaeve in harder kind. Elayne stirred, but she could not find anything to say that would head off argument. Rand kept dancing through her head. He had no right! But what right did she have?

Then you may not agree with the extent of what I described, but it’s undeniable that it’s still there. If you think about it Martin’s ASOIAF isn’t all that different. It does the same thing but for more grown-up readers. Those hooks have similar shapes, in similar places. In both cases what’s familiar is used as a breach in the heart of the reader, grasp those familiar emotions and trappings that work so well in all forms of fiction, fantasy or not. The fantasy adds spice, elevates potentials. Inscribes into epic and memorable. Gives the writer unprecedented control (and responsibility). Characterization follows suit. Jordan does go after realism, but goes after iconic. I’d say characterization is extremely detailed and always well defined. Those characters need to stand apart, become familiar in the least amount of time. On top of this Jordan has a style of writing that is very expressive and “outward”, so you don’t find ambiguity and subtlety, but familiarity is the key to understand the characters perfectly and get absorbed in their story and personal woes and cravings. It is also an aspect where a formula shows. The smoothing of skirts and tugging of braids is now legendary and much sneered at, but I kind of respect it and find it as an actual strength that adds to characterization instead of subtracting. Why? Because this bundle of gestures and other small acts are used as a kind of characterization toolkit. So much redundant, but each expressive and carrying a very specific meaning. Each character has its own dedicated package, and each is used to convey a particular mood or sentiment. It makes characterization plain and, if I haven’t repeated it enough, hence familiar. Characters immediately recognizable, near to you so that you want to share. It works and it’s never overwrought because it always serves a point. Since the gesture conveys the state of mind, it is precisely necessary and efficient.

For someone who isn’t a Jordan fan, “best of Jordan” isn’t any better, but this book at least is more consistent and interesting compared to the duller and perfunctory 3rd. Characters step out of their lull on both sides, the evil foes start getting a personality and being more defined between each other, becoming characters and so giving more actual substance to a story that up to this point was merely against the usual abstract threat of some metaphysical evil. This also gets better nailed to the ground, more tangible and familiar. The story actually gains from having more of it revealed instead of shrouded into mystery. But then when you let character make the story it can also happen that they can unmake it. Perrin’s chapters would be at least nice but the way the character behaves makes them quite obnoxious. His relationship with Zarine is jarring because of how forced it is. It’s one of the cases where characters’ stereotypes are way more powerful than any realism. It reads like the most naive fairy tale and loses all its impact. And I actually like Zarine, compared to what I perceived as widespread hostility in the fandom. Thankfully there’s always a little bit of plot movement, myth development or mystery going on with obnoxious characters’ interactions. The book is readable even if slow paced, and overall a good experience comparable to the second volume, the one I liked the most up to this point.

Despite some plot moving parts and a general decent satisfaction in wrapping up the book, it’s not like what happened is so pivotal. Most of it is set-up, and some characters that are newly introduced absolutely go nowhere. They are basically entirely superfluous and it’s very clear they represent a part of the story that will play a role later on. It is a book that builds and moves, but only to load material on the rest of the series. Very little in this book happens for the sake of the book itself, and it’s maybe a success that it still feels satisfactory despite being mostly transition.

As I’m wont to do I started reading the 5th right as I finished this one. The end of the 4th is abrupt and really one big setup. You are meant to wonder: what now? And again it’s also a success that finishing the book made me enjoy a lot reading the prologue of the 5th. If I didn’t have a substantial reading queue I’d really like to just go on. As I said, this present book feeds the rest of the story, so that not only you may had a good experience reading it, but interest is sparked about what happens next. In a way, I could say that the very best part of book 4 is the prologue of book 5. And, less successfully, the more the book stays away from the main characters, the more it actually gets interesting and fun to read.

If one isn’t at peace with what I wrote in the first part, the mundane and the adolescent context, then it’s not going to be a series that can be digested. One would just bounce back on the irrelevant fluff and characters’ contrivances. You can’t even attempt to separate all that from worthwhile myth and worldbuilding. It does feel shallow and artificial. But if one is indeed an adolescent, or at least willing to impersonate one (!), then it’s really an enjoyable, epic story that carries on one’s dreams. It is generous and welcoming, and for this reason more “aware” and extrovert compared to the archaic Tolkien. Yet, while it is built to capture a large audience and remain as a classic, I believe its naive idealism won’t survive the times. Even younger readers now are jaded and cynical, as shaped by the world we live in, and maybe there’s not so much space left for the colorful, larger than life epic tales. It’s Jordan that appears archaic compared to Tolkien.

As she danced she reduced the distinction between heath and sky. The horizon, never convinced of itself, melted. Vera was left crossing and recrossing a space steadily less definable.

This isn’t a review attempt, it is instead an admission of total surrender. I read this post on Harrison’s blog and that’s the perfect thing to catch my curiosity. I’m always for the epic: “this is my last stand, right on the edge of literature”. The idea that this story wouldn’t let go, and haunt its writer is a romantic ideal that has influence on me. So I decided to go read it. In the complete Viriconium paperback I already own this story is only eighteen pages, so it would be quick and I’d get right to the point.

I’ve read already a bit of Viriconium, the first book. I probably made past its middle point, or some sixty page of The Pastel City. I know it isn’t very much representative of what the Viriconium or Harrison’s writing actually is, but I enjoyed and grasped enough the dreamlike quality of setting, story and characters. It certainly has an unique flavor and charm, and it stands apart from everything else. At some point I’ll go back and read all the rest. This story instead, deep into “Viriconium Nights”, the fourth volume made by a collection of short stories, is what I could as well name “unreadable drivel”.

It’s not that I don’t try, but I have to admit failure when it happens. This short story seems to me as if someone took a novel, cut lines and paragraphs all through it, then reassembled them at random, and took every sentence to twist and turn it upside down. But this is not quite. The dreamlike substance that makes Viriconium is present here. This story, and its fictional world, is unstable, as unstable is the fabric of dreams. The instability itself is not perceived, because the fabric of a world defines perception itself. So the sense of wrongness (or weirdness) is perceived by the readers, but the characters go their way without awareness (or sight). Characters, and places, that seem culled from different stories, different worlds. Viriconium, the city, is the improbable intersection where these all meet. An amalgam of different cities, different places. But again it’s even more, because it’s as if the only trace left by all this is only a sort of radiation, a vague imprint. A ghost trace that is reshaped every seconds and receives afterimages from the outside. It’s like an archaeology dig site, a city that was here with its inhabitants, so long ago. Only crumbled walls, pot shards and dust are left. But instead of having the remains of one city, we have countless of them, and from different times.

So this is the structure: different places, different times, coexisting as a backdrop for a story. How would it be living in such a place? The few characters mirror that. As if characters that do not belong together, coming from the most disparate stories. It’s like an earlier movie by Werner Herzog with the actors acting under hypnosis. Characters suddenly standing up and shouting nonsense, then running off in a random direction. The prose, that I know is much praised, has no sense of flow and is actually a deliberate attempt at being clunky, broken, breaking any sense of pacing. Crooked sentences that do not belong to the paragraph they are in. The story is like an assembled puzzle where most pieces aren’t even there, only fragments forced to fit together. It flows and fades in and out, as if only very vaguely leaving behind a trail of coherence. A very weak, and always fading, link with reality.

These regions are full of old cities which differ from Vriko only in the completeness of their deterioration. The traveller in them may be baked to death, or, discovered with his eyelids frozen together, leave behind only a journal which ends in the middle of a sentence.

I guess as an art form it is quite good. It has that link of reality, it has the deliberate creation, it has consistence between style, structure and theme. I kept reading with the fading hope that it would eventually make sense. It obviously didn’t (or maybe it did, an imaginative watchman watching, seeing a story with Viriconium its theater). I can imagine the writer writing this all the while thinking about that. But I couldn’t follow, and in the end this is way more esoteric than Gene Wolfe. I have an intellectual appreciation for the aesthetic, and a respect for the writer and what he attempted. But reading this story was for me quite frustrating and ultimately annoying.

“Ajencis once wrote that all men are frauds. Some, the wise, fool only others. Others, the foolish, fool only themselves. And a rare few fool both others and themselves — they are the rulers of Men…”

World-born men, Kellhus had found, despised complexity as much as they cherished flattery. Most men would rather die in deception than live in uncertainty.

If The Silmarillion and Dune had a baby, and it had a truly dark soul, that baby would be the Prince of Nothing series. The Warrior-Prophet is book 2 in a trilogy sub-series. Another trilogy comes after whose third book is expected to come out later this year, depending on how long Bakker continues working on it since the first draft has been completed already. After that there may still be some other kind of follow-up in the form of duology or something similar, and what is important to consider is that all of this was already part of the original vision and not further extensions to take advantage of some success, since the risk here is the inverse: that the relatively narrow reach of such a work may cut its expression before it reaches the end. At least we know that the final book of the second trilogy is going to happen, and that it should lay out Bakker’s Grand Plan in its full potential, if not exhausting it. Potential new readers should then consider that this is already a satisfying work even in its current state.

Instead I’m still at book 2. This one is by far the biggest in the first trilogy, 200k words for 600 pages. Maybe not that HUGE compared to other typical epic doorstopper, but to me Bakker’s books feel so packed with ideas and tight focus that they lose none of the feel of epic breadth. More to the point, he deliberately channels with his writing style and tone the biblical feel that can make characters and events bigger than they are. I think the greater majority of Bakker’s effort when writing goes in this aspect: make every line of text the bitch of his purpose. Bakker, the writer, is a madman possessed of clear intent and indomitable determination. Nothing escapes his writing. It’s all heightened sight focused on purpose, and you could say that this, right here, is where he loses most potential readers.

Bakker’s writing is, if you let me play a bit, mono-tone. In the sense that every page sustains the same purposes and similar focus. This book has a true center in its protagonist, the nail of the revolving heavens, and there converges everything else. Mono-tone not in the sense of “dull” or “boring”, but meaning that the same obsession that drives every line also drives the story and characters. It drives the events and all the themes that smolder underneath. Other writers can have an advantage playing with a range of different tones, breaking rhythm through a different sense of pacing. Alleviating tension while building familiarity and camaraderie. But Bakker’s writing gains in integrity and consistence. Every part of the book serves its purpose. There’s no digression, no distraction. No “fanservice” to reach for a certain audience to please it. No compromises. It feels, maybe, “driven”. As driven are the people in the book blindly following their holy faith. Everything sacred and holy is what’s at the heart of the book, and Bakker approaches and seizes it with blasphemous ferocity.

And Cnaiür grinned as only a Chieftain of the Utemot could grin. The neck of the world, it seemed, lay pressed against the point of his sword.

I shall butcher.

This is not a tale conceived to be narrated to a reader. It’s more an inward kind of study and, with no compromises, can very easily drive readers away. But it is not hostile, it is not falsely pretentious or esoteric. It definitely tests a reader. It is not a test of “purity” or “worthiness”, but it’s definitely a test in prejudices and a challenge to how far you can reach, or how close you let it cut. It’s even easy for me to acknowledge some criticism against this book, accuses of misogyny and brutal violence. I do think that here and there some compromises would HAVE helped. A few things felt gratuitous and trying too hard. The very last scene could have been removed and the book would have lost absolutely nothing, and maybe gained some from it. The “Circumfix of the Warrior-Prophet” is another of those things that tips the balance over to the ridiculous, mirroring quite closely (I even suspect Bakker may have glimpsed this at some point) the scene where Achamian tells his story, thinks he’s finally reached his audience, when in the end they all burst in laughter. But it is true that Bakker would rather cut himself for playing on that edge over and over again, than back off and desist. He becomes Achamian (a kind of self-reference being played), ready even to humiliate himself just as long he stays “true” to his purpose. The other way, I’m sure, would have been easier. And this, I think, makes Bakker more like an ideal “artist”, who surrenders to art in order to serve it fully.

So “grimdark”. The Prince of Nothing is grimmer and darker than grimdark. Violence, sex, and sexual violence. Monstrosity, blasphemy. There’s filth and this book bathes in it as if the only possible and ideal place where to be. But again all this doesn’t serve a deranged appetite, only truths that are way more complex than how they appear. The horrors in this books are horrors that other books try to hide or completely deny. Like an inverted horror story where you pray the Boogie Man won’t come, but HE IS. Places where you’d rather not be. Other books are harmless, this one is not. But all this “ugliness” isn’t merely justified by some higher purpose, it is there because it is part of everything this story is. It is not simply excused to be there by the kind of setting the story uses, but it’s instead the fabric it is made of. The Inchoroi, the mysterious otherworldly race obsessed over human carnal activities and exploiting them in the ugliest way possible, are described as an “obscene race”. Magic is blasphemy, unclean because it undoes the order of reality. These themes revolving around the idea of purity and its perversion are what the book first and foremost engages with, and if it wants to reach deep it can’t recoil and filter just so the story is more palatable. It goes through an unavoidable path where absolutely no one dares going and conflating this to other books that show and exploit violence and sex is the huge misunderstanding, and the big risk this book takes without resorting to any compromise. “Grimdark” is usually used as a pejorative but it’s the greatest injustice to call this book so. The reason is that it would make this book sit in the center of a genre, but this book couldn’t be less representative of a genre. There’s nothing like it out there, especially in the fantasy genre, and even more specifically the Grimdark genre. The writing has an opposite focus, looks elsewhere. What you can identify as an “act” is instead completely different here.

If anything, Bakker tries to copy the more solemn, scriptural Tolkien (The Silmarillion), and the “vision” of Frank Herbert in Dune. The Prince of Nothing is a direct descendant of those works, maybe even to a fault. But at least it can absolutely stay up to lofty standards. Bakker is radical and takes no sides, including his own. His writing is ruthless, spares no one, carries no prejudices. Its grimdark posture is just that, what it looks from afar but that couldn’t be more alien from it. Look at the moon, not at the finger. Sadly, superficial looks is what books and their writers get most of the times. It is legitimate, and a reader is not to be judged if refusing this book. But there’s more to it than its “act”. So I can only implore, whatever you decide, to still approach this book after leaving behind all prejudices and with an open mind. You will find value, and it’s of a necessary, very rare kind.

To open a book was not only to seize a moment of helplessness, not only to relinquish a jealous handful of heartbeats to the unpredictable mark of another man’s quill, it was to allow oneself to be written. For what was a book if not a long consecutive surrender to the movements of another’s soul?

Characterization is a strong quality. There may be some controversy around this topic but I think that all characters are treated equally, whether Point of View characters or bystanders, women or men, they seem all cared for equally and very precisely characterized. Some choices could appear dubious and sometimes you don’t see the ideal arc of character development being realized, but once again the focus of this book is different and not simply about retracing those ideals. Some characters are described as trapped in their own cages and the reader expects them to eventually get free, to complete that ideal trajectory, but in this case Bakker isn’t interested in going through the standard movements. If you take someone like Martin who’s praised for his strong characterization you can see that every character is bound tightly to his own story, they “make sense” together, drawing an ideal path. There’s a sense of masterful craft in what Martin does, a search for narrative perfection and balance. But for Bakker this kind of idealism is made to be violated, undone. Bakker is an heretical voice, always subversive but never gratuitous. If Martin’s work dances on the edge between beauty and ugliness, Bakker instead explores some dark, bottomless pits where no one dares going and where it’s legitimate a reader refuses to follow. Nudity and shame. Unclean, unclean! He can show beauty too, but it’s often so vulnerable and momentous. Too exposed for the world not to spoil and devour it.

This quality of characterization surprised me not simply because it’s well motivated and coherent or consistent. But because the writer has a very fine attention for the subtler details, the very little gestures or partially hidden reactions that truly make a character into a whole. Bakker’s characters answer directly to the mantra of the book: what they are, the movement of their thoughts, depends on what came before. Who they’ve been, what and how they live determine what they become, the way they think. Being stuck in this middle position ideally constructs this “cage” that represents the universal human condition. So not only Bakker provides the finest characterization I’ve read, as true as possible to the singularity of the personal world of that character, but all this is still facing toward the core of the book, giving it power. He’s true to the small detail without ever forgetting about the sharp intent. The tone and purpose of the book, its direction. And so I admire this mastery where you notice both the sheer quality of the smallest element, yet realize how that element plays the fundamental role within the overall construction. Success on these two levels means reaching a kind of perfection in art, and I think Bakker goes very close.

Yet again this doesn’t mean universal acclaim. The frenzied, extremely lucid, but maybe self-absorbed writing style isn’t ideal to reach a wide public. And it becomes especially easy to misunderstood. Too incomprehensibly bleak and filled with unpleasantries. When Bakker does characterization the focus is on “being”, not “doing”. The cage of being can sometime, with certain characters, become intolerable from the passive position of the reader. After the accuses of misogyny and whatnot I still believe that what happens in the book and what the characters do is always coherent and necessary for this story (if not “opportune”). I do believe that women in the book are treated awfully, and if you reduce the book to this single aspect, everything becomes a catastrophic failure. But doing this is a manipulation, partial, partisan and single-minded. Because I do believe that women are treated equally to the men, it’s just that some readers decide to only see one side while obscuring the rest, and make that one part into the whole. No one is left standing, every single man is made into a pathetic fool and seen through the same lens. Bakker desecrates everything and everyone. Men and women. Offenses are taken personally.

Most, by and large, were born narrow, and cared to see only that which flattered them. Almost without exception, they assumed their hatreds and yearnings to be correct, no matter what the contradictions, simply because they felt correct. Almost all men prized the familiar path over the true. That was the glory of the student, to step from the well-worn path and risk knowledge that oppressed, that horrified.

There’s also to consider the aspect of “worldbuilding”, though I hate to deal with it as a separate thing. As it was with Tolkien, Bakker excels with it. This work is extremely well crafted and lends itself to (and is able to sustain) that type of close examination and speculation the fans love to do, much more than Malazan. Bakker doesn’t quite reach Tolkien’s levels of obsession but I really do believe that right now he absolutely has no rivals in the genre. There’s a great care for all the small details and structure that are only hinted in the background, the idea of a fully realized and consistent world, with its strong personality. And even more than Tolkien this isn’t just pointless detail, but still intricacy that contributes to an unique purpose. Motives that run deep and that aren’t simply scenery and choreography. So the attention for the little things is paid off aplenty, rewarded. For example the way magic works isn’t a “system” that is conceived to be just intriguing, but it engages deeply and meaningfully with the themes of this world, a sustaining force through it. That’s Bakker’s talent at creating a so incredibly complex, yet consistent world where none of its smallest cogs act independently or without reason. No writer I know comes even close, it’s just the way it is.

Lately I’ve heard often the expression “it’s very good at what it does” and I think it applies well to Bakker’s work. What’s most important for me to underline is that there’s no other thing out there like this. It’s epic fantasy, it can be called Grimdark, but there’s absolutely nothing in or outside the genre that does similar things or has a similar ambition (and sheer talent at craft). The only cousins are The Silmarillion and Dune, as I said, but that’s only in tone and as a search for a certain aesthetic, because purpose brings this book into a completely different territory. Bakker can actually channel Tolkien’s epic range and solemnity better than Tolkien himself, but where Tolkien’s world is all completely luminous and ideal, Bakker uses it to shatter the same holiness. To expose the ugly truth under it. The writing in this book feels extremely well measured, always sharp. Erikson can have a more varied tonal range, but Bakker loses that to gain in focus and consistence. In the next years it is likely that we’ll get more good writers in the genre, as it always happens, but Bakker represents exceptionality. Something that will stay unmatched because it goes outside every genre or trend. Books come out every year, in every genre, this is one that isn’t going to be replaced or obscured by anything else.

If you want a mindscrew here’s one, even though it probably goes against the criteria listed there and is good because of it. For once it breaks my habit of 800+ pages big volumes, A Dream of Wessex is a perfect 200 pages containing a well paced and well calibrated story with a definite conclusion. It doesn’t need one page more or less. More importantly, it is a significant milestone in the pattern I’m following, the fil rouge of this blog and post-modern spin (a pretense I put there and that is not in the book). As one could guess from the cover, it’s also not exactly a new release, though it is connected with new releases. It came out in 1977, thirty-six years ago, but with the time, even as a science fiction story, it acquired significance. It’s far more actual now than how it probably was at the time, and none of the ingenuity of old stories that try to imagine a future.

I could say it’s one of those “perfect” stories. I can hardly find a flaw in it. The writing is superb because of how it does a service to the story. Sometimes with sci-fi plots you have to fight the suspension of disbelief, as you have to try to make the reader accept the “gimmick” (I won’t use gimmick negatively here, I just mean sci-fi stories built around a specific “invention”). A Dream of Wessex is a story of the future, it has fancy technology, but the way it’s structured makes it all completely realistic and even conventional. The power of subversion and mindscrew need no fireworks, they hide behind everyday life. Christopher Priest, maybe the same as Philip K. Dick, writes in his own genre that he calls “slipstream”:

Slipstream does not define a category, but suggests an approach, an attitude, an interest or obsession with thinking the unthinkable or doing the undoable. Slipstream can be visionary, unreliable, odd or metaphysical. It’s not magical realism: it’s a larger concept that contains magical realism.

I’d add to this definition the “feeling” of slipstream, a sense of displacement from reality. As if you suddenly step through some invisible threshold and everything around you appears looking just the same, but wrong.

“Have you seen Tom?”
“Tom? Tom who?”
“Benedict. Tom Benedict.”
“Never heard of him.”
No one knew him. Later she found Allen, spoke to him.
“Did you treat Tom today?”
“I’ve been in Dorchester, Julia. Is he still ill? Who is it?”
“Tom…”
Then she found that she couldn’t remember his surname. She ate a meal with a group of the others, trying to think of it… But by the time the meal was finished she could not even remember his first name.
She felt a sense of great loss, and an overwhelming sadness, and a sure knowledge that someone she had loved was no longer there.

The power of A Dream of Wessex is not about “making you believe” in the plausibility of the gimmick. It’s not an Asimov novel (I’ll return to this). The power is to have the subversive layer of the story seep in your real non-fictional life. Like a virus, invisible before you feel its effects. It eats away your sense of reality and sends you to a sense of vertigo, as if suddenly your real self sitting on a chair and reading the book isn’t anymore as tightly bound to a concrete sense of reality. This book has a staggering power of abstraction. It’s not based on a neat, fun idea, but it feeds on some truth at the core, only disguised as “fiction”. And so it traps you through the fictional pretense and drags you on that other side.

It was odd how memory seemed to detach itself from experience; already, the sight of Julia’s boat heading out across the black, multi-coloured water seemed distant from himself. It was as if there were a false experience in memory, one given to him. It seemed that he had been walking alone through the boulevard all evening and into the night, with entirely spurious memories appearing in sequences to supply the false experience.
Memory was created by events surely?

At the bottom of it there’s no horror, but a sense of silent dread just hanging there. It plays subtly with perception, as if what you’re watching has its perspective slightly askew. A strangeness in the familiar. The plot is fairly straightforward and not too convoluted. Some fancy technology development allowed to build a virtual reality machine. It works like a participatory universe, where a number of minds are pooled together and “project” a universe. In the book this experiment has a scientific goal at its back: the imagined reality is set 150 years in the future and so it’s meant as a research on how the extrapolated future might be.

In the early days the reports the participants had made had reflected the spirit of the projection: that they were discovering a society, and speculating about the way it was run. As time passed, though, and as the participants became more deeply embedded in that society, their reports had gradually became more factual in tone, relating the future society to itself rather than to the present. Expressed in a different way, it meant that the participants were treating the projection as a real world, rather than one which was a conscious extrapolation from their own.

But there are no flying cars or A.I.s taking over the world. This imagined future is a social research and the premise is a technological stagnation that made the future not unlike the present. It turns out like a holiday resort with a hippie community living into an old castle. Being participative, this universe needs to extrapolate a coherent whole from all the minds projecting it, using the interesting property of memory (not explicitly stated in the book, but described as exactly this) of spontaneously smoothing whatever problem or inconsistency may come up. The unconscious mind spontaneously discards the parts that it can’t make sense of, unknowingly rearranging them to find coherence. Hammering down pieces that wouldn’t fit. Reality, past and present, is not static. It shifts subtly, or even more dramatically. Leaving only a fleeting impression that something is missing.

All this played out against the characters’ layer. We got here a “strong” female protagonist, really well written in my opinion. This is where the story always return and always gives a priority. Maybe I could nitpick that this woman still seems to draw her worth and strength in the way she’s able to oppose a male guy, and so she’s a female protagonist that still draws her strength from having a guy next to her, instead of just herself, as if that male figure remains indispensable. But this isn’t a problem in the book and it depends too much on a modern “bias” in the way we pretend stories should be told. Characterization here, outside of prejudices, is really solid.

I could say this book isn’t relevant for “what it says” but for “what it does”. It wouldn’t be correct, though, and that’s why it’s even better than I thought. This force that the book has and that I’ve described, does not bog the story down. Here I return to Asimov. He can write some great stories but sometimes the characters suffer. It happens often that in SF stories the characters are created to be in service of the idea at the core of the book. They are built to fit the story and to make the most out of that idea. So one could say that the characters are added to be in service to the rest. Objects more than subjects. Functions of plot. What instead Christopher Priest achieves here is that the characters remain at the apex regardless of the power of the story. When it’s all over and the power of the idea at the core already discharged, it’s the characters who remain and give a perfect (satisfying) closure. Even seen as a whole, that core idea still remains one step below of the significance of the characters, without overshadowing them. This priority is very strongly defined, and yet it doesn’t weaken the power of the idea itself.

If it was Philip K. Dick writing this he’d have probably sent the story spinning wildly out of control toward the end, in an explosion of blurred possibilities staggering the mind. Completely open to ambiguity and open interpretation. Instead Priest does the opposite. Just after the biggest charge is set off, it starts turning counterclockwise for the last 20 pages. The reader can run with the idea and give it more spin, but the book itself defines, and strongly, its “canon”. Most of the book was carefully “seeded” with small elements that Priest would then activate at the end of the book so that the many possibilities that suddenly opened would be instead suppressed. Instead of the open ended finale, for most readers annoyingly unsatisfying, this story clearly defines its official interpretation. It tries to make it as explicit as possible by expressing and then clearly negating doubts that the reader would voice. There may be a minor flaw in this, if one considers that the powerful climax comes too soon and that the last 20 pages instead only do the busywork of putting the pieces back together in a way that makes sense, but the result is that the book doesn’t lose the power of the idea while giving a definite conclusion that one doesn’t often get in these types of stories. No hanging questions left at the end, beside the haunting “slipstream” feel that stays with you a little longer.

There’s only a little door open toward the end. It reminds me the problem of “infinite regression”, or even Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the turtle. Whether you want or not, stories that deal with virtual realities ultimately fall into these cases of recursion. Turtles all the way down. What happens if while in the virtual reality you lose the link with the “true” reality. Can you lose the way back? And how do you recognize a true reality if you don’t have anymore a context where you can properly recognize the point you’re at? It’s like Wile E. Coyote using a ladder to go up, then pulling up the ladder to use it again and keep going up, even if the ladder doesn’t stand anymore on the ground. It happens in your everyday dreams. You know, viscerally, you were dreaming the moment you wake up. Like a hierarchy of dreams, you can only know with certainty you had a dream when you exit it. When you have a context to compare it to. But how can you be sure that the stage you are at, right now, awake, is the “real”, final one? Perception is one-directional, as if you are looking through a window that is transparent if you look from one side, and opaque from the other.

This is the first book by Christopher Priest I read, but not the last. Not simply because I enjoyed this one so much, but because from the start I had a plan. What I’m interested about is specifically his more ambitious and puzzling meta-verse. Some grander vision that ties together some of his most interesting works. It starts with The Affirmation and then continues with the more recent The Dream Archipelago (short story collection), The Islanders and The Adjacent, all of which got enthusiastic reviews:

This is a superb novel, written by an artist at not only the height but also the breadth of his powers.

So A Dream of Wessex fulfilled exactly what I expected it to be. An appetizer for all the good, mind-bending things to come. A teaser of one of the most genial writers out there, who still enjoys thinking the unthinkable.

“I’m talking about the death of dreams, son. About losing the big, wild make-believes that keep you going. The impossible dreams. That kind of jolly pretend is dead. For me. All I can see is rotten teeth in a killer’s smile.”

This book completes the trilogy that makes the core of The Black Company. There are more books in the series (and I’ll probably get there at some point) but they go in their own separate ways. It took me an excessively long time to read this first segment as I prefer to shift focus over different series to have the broadest vision possible. Still, it’s been five years since I’ve read “Shadows Linger” and this means that, while my memory is decent, I can’t effectively compare these books to each other and can only give a general idea.

I remember that I loved the first book especially for its structure. I thought it was a straightforward, self-contained story with an open ending, but still wrapping up most things in a satisfying way. Each chapter was a cohesive whole, telling its own story, all then linked in a neat sequence so that each contributed to the overall arc, adding some meaningful elements. It was well organized and elegant, the story grew without becoming distracting and unwieldy, with a rather big battle at the end to cap it off with a nice climax. Book two instead shifted the tone, it mimicked more the structure and aims of a local and smaller horror story, but I appreciated that it was spun differently and that this second book didn’t end up formulaic. Overall less satisfying and epic, being a more limited and focused story, but having its own personality. And finally this third. I think there are a number of things that make this conclusion even better than the previous two, the one I’ve likely enjoyed the most. But having now finished it I admit that, while the finale “works”, it’s quite anti-climactic and it left me with a bland feeling, all in the span of a few pages. It definitely does not end on a high note, as if before reaching the last 30 pages the story grew, reached a certain height and acquired an excellent speed, but then right at the final push it suddenly lost all its momentum and made a rather clumsy and awkward landing. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, or even a delusion of expectations, it actually manages to tie neatly the hanging threads, but it simply has no momentum. The final battle itself is the least interesting and inspired part of the whole book, as well of the whole trilogy. Everything cool happens before those last 30 pages, then it’s just about stuff happening in a predictable pattern, almost falling completely into cliche. There are a couple of nice touches here and there, the kind you expect from this writer, but the overall conclusion is forgettable.

This sours my impression because, as I said, this was the most fun and interesting book to read, of the three. But when you go through a relatively big arc, then an anticlimactic, predictable and bland conclusion can weaken the impression of everything that came before as well. It just sticks in your memory. So let’s talk a bit of the 90% of the good stuff that makes the book. The story jumps forward a number of years, offering again a new beginning and context. New environment, different threats, a few new characters. It serves to reestablish everything without forgetting what came before. As it develops it also serves as an in-character commentary on those events. This means that some interesting past events are slowly retrieved and rediscovered, linking them into the new narrative, and this is especially important for a last book in a trilogy. The need to look back and, hand with hand with the reader, pay homage to the times passed together. Not simply as a shallow celebration, since this rediscovery is also successfully integrated into plot. I was surprised to discover how some past events are given an interesting spin, some nice and unexpected plot twists and puzzles pieces that come together only in this book, building toward a cohesive overall arc. It’s with this third book that the story makes more sense as a trilogy, instead of just separate stories loosely linked together. I didn’t see this coming and it probably shows that Glen Cook had at least a plan to follow, whereas I thought that every new book was simply made “on the spot”, meaning that I thought he just went on writing a new book when he found some fuel, without a definite idea outside of the vague “White Rose” versus Lady/Dominator. This third book is again its own story and separate context, it more successfully links all the parts together, reproducing over the whole trilogy what the first book achieved within itself.

Another positive aspect is that, again as it was the case of book two, the structure of the book feels fresh and far from being just a retread. It pushes even more to the front the story within the story format, running it in parallel with the main one. This secondary a story happens in the past but is told as if it develops in the present, adding mysteries and interesting details that feed directly the main thread. It works like a PoV switch and it’s rather well handled by Cook, keeping the tension on both sides. This dual story progression goes on for most of the book and is probably the most successful part because after the cat is out of the bag everything starts to develop in more predictable ways and that’s where the story loses some of its spark. Structure-wise I’m rather satisfied, with the exception of the ending, that I’ve already commented. The context of the story is also something I enjoyed a lot. A Black Company that for too many years has been on the run and now is tired and battered, giving an even more sharpened edge to that world-weary and cynic style that is typical of Glen Cook (the quote at the top is an example).

I should mention the writing style. As usual Glen Cook has his own recognizable voice. The terse but straight to the point prose. This time I thought that a characteristic of this writer is that he doesn’t weaver. He’s not struggling and wrestling with the language in order to reach some height, or produce some intended effect in the reader. Every sentence is like a stone being placed. It is precisely what it is. One step after the other. There’s no stumbling or dragging. While most writers always oscillate between genius and failure, it’s like Cook is squarely in the middle. He knows exactly who he is and never falters. It gives a sense of self-control. And in this series it matches perfectly, or it fits perfectly, the personality of the narrator, Croaker. Who is, hearing what other readers usually say, what makes this original trilogy truly shine over the rest of the Black Company series. They just fit so well together, Cook and Croaker, that this makes the story even a more personal and authentic affair for the reader: because one connects to that voice and so shares the experience.

That style is also once again what makes the rather quirky setting “work” and feel at least somewhat plausible. This time it seems Cook just wanted to have fun, so we have (slowly) walking trees, teleporting menhirs, flying whales, and a few other non conventional fantasy elements. All this is described in that typical Cook style that means that stuff just is as it is, grounding those fancy elements as if there’s nothing peculiar about them (though he also provides an explanation for what is going on and why). You end up not thinking much at the absurdities, as they are part of the context as every other thing. Haven’t you seen enough weird stuff already?

Considering the trilogy as a whole, and the way this third book fits in, I’d suggest another reader to not follow my example and instead read it all in a relatively shorter time span. That would probably allow one to appreciate more how the story develops and the relationship with the characters, and maybe even enjoy the ending more than I did. The good thing about Glen Cook is that if you appreciate the kind of writer he is and the kind of stories he narrates, then any of his books will deliver on those expectations. A Malazan fan can also dig out an incredible number of influences and little things, and you can feel how much Erikson loved his work. As for me, I’ll likely continue at some point with the “Instrumentalities of the Night” series that, while requiring a greater effort and dedication, I still find more interesting and spinning things in a more original way.

She sighed. “Thufir, I want you to examine your own emotional involvement in this. The natural human’s an animal without logic. Your projections of logic onto all affairs is unnatural, but suffered to continue for its usefulness. You’re the embodiment of logic –a Mentat. Yet, your problem solutions are concepts that, in a very real sense, are projected outside yourself, there to be studied and rolled around, examined from all sides.”

“You think now to teach me my trade?” he asked, and he did not try to hide the disdain in his voice.

“Anything outside yourself, this you can see and apply your logic to it,” she said. “But it’s a human trait that when we encounter personal problems, those things most deeply personal are the most difficult to bring out for our logic to scan. We tend to flounder around, blaming everything but the actual, deep-seated thing that’s really chewing on us.”

Reviewing a book that is almost fifty years old is not so easy since it’s even harder to find something interesting or original to say. But again I follow my own patterns and it seems that what interests me isn’t what other people seem to enjoy discussing. It’s curious that I’ve had a copy of “Dune”, in my own language, for more than a decade but decided to start reading it only a couple of months ago, after having re-bought it in English (and a very nice, used since it’s out of print, 1979 Gollancz hardcover omnibus that at 912 pages collects the first trilogy cycle: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune). After MCN wrote about it on Twitter enough to spark my interest, what pushed me to buy the book and place it on top of my reading queue was all the complaints about the dense philosophy and mythological or religious themes in the books. As with Tomas Covenant, what interests me here isn’t Dune, the popular book, but the cycle, the overall arc. One single line in a review won my enthusiasm:

“Listen carefully, Feyd,” the Baron said. “Observe the plans within plans within plans.”

That line becomes a formula, I found “a feint within a feint within a feint”, “tricks within tricks within tricks”, “treachery within treachery within treachery”, till the much more poetic and meaningful “blue within blue within blue”. Or the most generic “wheels within wheels within wheels”. What’s important for me is recognizing this not as just a trope, but a rather telling hint of the deeper theme that runs through this book and that held my attention all the way through. While reading I kept wondering how much Herbert was conscious about what he was dealing with, or if he was simply tailing after an idea without fully grasping it. Wether he knew with clarity the answers, or if he was also searching for one himself. That pattern is one I recognize in other aspects even if it’s not explicitly quoted as in the formula:

“I was a friend of Jamis,” she said. “When the spirit of spirits within him saw the needs of truth, that spirit withdrew and spared my son.”

“Spirit of spirits within him”. Two aspects give enough power to this repeated pattern. And I’m certain that this represents the core of the book instead being just my own bias reading it (like a skewed interest to minor aspects) because it becomes more and more explicit in the book, becoming absolutely evident and dominant. The first is that the plot itself is built around a (post-modern) play with different frames. Mixing, maybe with too much freedom, between generic dichotomies like system and ambient, or more in general: inside and outside (internal and external, familiar and alien). The second aspect is about the reflexivity. The “spirit of spirits within” refers to a level of “meta-history”. In Jungian terms you can call it “collective unconscious”, or, if you don’t like the metaphysics in it, just the ultimate direction of evolutionary life, experimenting constantly, finding better solutions. The “meta-history” is that part of history that can’t be seen, the overall flow of life that isn’t lead by a consciousness. While the reflexivity of this machine makes me think to consciousness itself, whose most defining property is reflexivity. Reflexivity that is itself a play with system and ambient, observer and observation. The “strange loops” described in “Gödel, Escher, Bach” (the first quote up there in this review refers to this).

THIS is what Dune is about, yet you don’t usually see anything resembling to this mentioned in reviews of the book. It’s the undercurrent that runs through it, gives it its life force. Everything else is a metaphorical surface level, coalescing into “plot”. Interesting characters, politics, villains, battles of wits, wars for power, until the resolution at the end. Even without grasping that undercurrent the book can be enjoyable and read without feeling you’re missing the point. The philosophy dictates the structure while still being “optional”. But nowadays the book probably lost its polish about innovative ideas (or what we horribly call “worldbuilding”) or even about the well paced and surprising plot.

In a recent discussion on the forums I noticed many readers complaining either about the writing style or about the characters. The writing mostly because Herbert goes “against the grain” of what nowadays is the established convention, the third person limited perspective where you see a whole scene through a single PoV. Whereas Herbert smoothly switches PoV, without indentation, many times within the same scene. So one line you can be in the head of some character, with focus on its own peculiar biases, and the line after into another head, with its own bias. So this could be a problem, even if I personally had no problems with this stylistic choice and I think it serves the point since Herbert wants to enhance the contrast of those PoVs, putting emphasis on each respective bias. Then there are the complaints about characterization. My opinion is that the novel is filled with characters whose role in the plot can be stereotypical, but that become quite interesting. It’s no superficial characterization and the psychology is filled with very subtle details that play important roles. They have depth and a type of complexity that is very specific to this book, especially in the way small details influence reactions of other characters, so there’s so much attention describing tones of voice or postures, for example, always in a meaningful way instead of superfluous incidental detail. But the major complaint that many readers have is in general about characters that feel distant and alien, especially about the protagonist and his mother. Again this is more a personal reaction and bias, because I’d say it’s a fault if the writer aimed for the opposite effect, but those characters ARE MEANT to be alien (“the Voice from the Outer World”). Paul Atreides becomes what I consider indistinguishable from god, and his mother has also access to these sort of metaphysical powers that return to the undercurrent I mentioned above.

It’s curious because the book couldn’t be more actual with the stuff that is getting my attention recently, like the Blind Brain Theory that Bakker is developing and writing about on his blog, and broader considerations about mythology, religion and how human consciousness relates to all this. And again, this is a book, and a series, that shares very similar patterns with what I said about Thomas Covenant. Again there are two levels to the story. Again there are Matrix-like constructions of revelations and simulated worlds. Epiphanies that drive the narrative more than straightforward plot. Most of it, in fact, could be considered sloppy since most of the heavy lifting is caused by “magic” powers. If you don’t engage with the philosophical level, the plot may appear as rather artificial and “deus-ex-machina” driven, with frequent external interventions that nudge the plot in strategic and convenient directions. But it’s, ironically, the point. Not an unintended effect, Paul is exactly, literally Deus-ex-machina. Or, if you let me, Deus In Machina, since it’s a god right into the machine. What I mentioned above about the play with different frames, turning around inside and outside, the exquisitely post-modern defiance of boundaries of any kind, fourth wall and everything. All this is Paul. It’s what happens when a god is subject to his own story. A god that is at the same time “inside” his creation, and “outside” it, looking in, continuously manipulating.

On this “violation” of rules is built the whole structure (the ideal of a book, any book, is, like the physical universe, a closed system, without a God who can constantly tamper with it, which is also the canon of a “good” story). It’s brilliant and extremely interesting, but it can also be clunky because then Herbert had to put an artificial limit, maybe not fully understanding or being able to deal with this otherworldly thing. There’s a limit to Paul’s prescient abilities in order to not completely destroy the story. Limits that are clumsy, not so well described and defined. Paul can see all possible futures, but sometimes they aren’t very clear, sometimes they shifts in deceptive ways, and sometimes there are pivotal moments that center on him, that he can’t predict, and so restoring some suspense and uncertain outcomes. It’s a so ambitious goal dealing with these themes, but it also isn’t extremely convincing in the end. As far as I know the pretense of science only stays as a pretense since Paul’s powers become more magical and metaphysical than something plausible. His prescience doesn’t seem limited by what makes sense (aka: the range of information he can plausibly have access to) while at other times he’s able to foresee futures that should be completely out of his reach. It’s prescience (that wants to be) generated by strict calculation. So it shouldn’t be magical, but just access and ability to process an inhuman amount of information. Yet he seems to see stuff that simply he shouldn’t be able to from his perspective, even with his calculation powers. So what he can or cannot do sometimes follows more the necessities of the plot, than something that makes sense.

As I said I was going to write about aspects of the book I don’t see discussed often, and yet they aren’t sidetracks, but represent the real life force that I suspect comes even more to the surface with the rest of the series. But I also wanted to mention another curious aspect I noticed and that is about how much of the core plot in the Wheel of Time is ripped out straight of “Dune”. I already vaguely knew about this but thought it was mostly limited to the analogies between the Aiel population in WoT and the Fremen of Dune, but that’s almost a trivial detail compared to the rest. What WoT copies as its own core and adjusts is the whole deal with the Dragon Reborn, Kwisatz Haderach. Most of the elements running around that idea return, adapted in different ways, in the WoT. The order of the Aes Sedai mimics the Bene Gesserit, including their shadow government and long term manipulations. The breeding program in Dune is adapted in a form of reincarnation in WoT that retains a similar level of meta-story, as well as the powers of the Dragon Reborn / Kwisatz Haderach that can bring salvation or destruction, that become the very nexus (Ta’veren) of the weaving of time. The relationship between Paul and his manipulative (but not uncaring) mother Jessica at least partially inspires the struggles between Rand and Moraine. And then even the split between genders and its relationship with the magic/metaphysical aspect. Aes Sedai, as Bene Gesserit, are only females, and the Bene Gesserit task is to find/produce a “man who can channel”, or, rather, sharing Bene Gesserit predictive and controlling powers. Initial reactions of Rand/Paul to the cage of his destiny are also similar: “I’m a monster! He thought. A freak!”, and share similar risks: the threat of going insane. You can dig as much as you want and find plenty of analogies. The difference is that Jordan pushes things to the surface, makes them more accessible, but also less meaningful and more hollow, so that the strongest themes remain only pale ghosts. Dune is to my eyes a much more complex, adult and mature version of those themes, without getting too enamored of trivialities, but that’s also where WoT gets its more familiar and likeable characters, and more directly engaging plot.

Sadly now this series joins my already unmanageable reading cycle. For me the fun begins now that Dune is over. I know that most readers find all the other books far less interesting, but as you can see my attention seem to go in completely different direction than the norm. But I have a gazillion of series in “medias res” that now have a priority, even if I wanted to start reading Dune Messiah right away (I actually started but I’ll force myself not to read more than 30 pages, also because it’s the book that has only about 150 in total).

P.S.
The third Appendix, “Report on Bene Gesserit Motives and Purposes”, is troubling since it reads like a list of plot holes. As far as I know (and I may be wrong) Herbert wrote Dune as a standalone and only later returned to it. This appendix is still part of the first book. So did I miss something in this book, or is this the hint that Herbert had a much larger plan already in his mind, or is it meant as just a pretense that there are larger, hidden motives but that actually don’t become manifest? Does he have the answers or is merely pretending to have them?

And now I fear that I am not unusual, not cursed into some special maze of my own making. I fear that we are all the same, eager to make strangers of the worst that is in each of us, and by this stance lift up the banners of good against some foreign evil.

But see how they rest against one another, and by opposition alone are left to stand. This is flimsy construction indeed. And so I make masks of the worst in me and fling them upon the faces of my enemies, and would commit slaughter on all that I despise in myself. Yet, with this blood soaking the ground before me, see my flaws thrive in this fertile soil.

Reading this book was for me a stimulating experiment. “Forge of Darkness” is the first tome in a prequel trilogy, to a series that is ten books wide. Naturally it would be read by fans who went through all the ten, huge books building the Malazan series. I’m one of them, but I read at my own pace and I’m exactly halfway through that series, ready to pick up “The Bonehunters”, the 6th volume. I decided instead to read this one first. It was an occasion to read the book when it came out (or at least within a few months) and to make a contrast between books that shared themes but separated by some meaningful years. So that I could see more clearly how Erikson’s writing changed and if that direction was one I “approved”. About a year ago I read “This River Awakens” that, while not Malazan, I considered his best book, and it was written years before even the first volume in the Malazan series. It was not exactly an encouraging perspective. So I’m glad to say, bluntly, that in my personal Malazan ladder, this book comes first, above the other five in the main series that I’ve read (it goes like this, for those who recognize these codes: FoD > HoC > MoI > DG > MT > GotM).

I read the book holding some kind of three-way perspective, which was not forced. Usually when I try to write down a review my goal is to give a sense of that book, especially about why one should read it, instead of millions of other books out there. Like a sense of urgency. What sets it apart and gives it its uniqueness of flavor. In the case of long series there are three perspectives. First there’s my own, the very personal and emotional response that rises spontaneously and that one has then to struggle to rationalize in clear patterns, then there’s the perspective of readers who know well if not the book, at least the series, author and setting, and finally readers who are completely new. In the case of this book all three are particularly interesting since it’s a prequel, and so, already in the intentions of its writer, a possible starting point for brand new readers (as well veterans who still have not finished the main series).

Is “Forge of Darkness” a good starting point for readers who have yet to pick up the Malazan series? Initially I thought it was. The writing is measured and careful, so easy enough to follow without feeling lost. The problem is that from the middle point onward there are a number of mysterious scenes steeped in myth that were confusing even for me, who ravel in that kind of thing. So I would say that reading this book first is definitely possible, even recommended, but it comes with some conditions. It is not an easy book. It is extremely demanding. From one side it will make understand a reader what’s the (real) deal with the Malazan series, whereas “Gardens of the Moon” is nowhere as clear about what is that sets this series apart from everything else. But from the other it could discourage a reader even more than GotM because it’s a steep climb that demands a lot from the reader, and to engage with it deeply. The story has better hooks and it can be more seducing, it isn’t baffling, impersonal and confusedly crowded as GotM was, but it also lacks the lures one expects in epic fantasy: the journeys, visiting places, meet peoples, big setpieces. All these do exist, but are twisted in the unique Malazan way.

Erikson said that, as the Malazan series was conceived as an homage to Homer, the seed of epic fantasy, these prequels would be another homage, but to Shakespeare, the bard. Pretentious claim, everyone would say. Whether deserved or not, I recognized this particular air (and the setting is also particularly suited). The PoVs and scenes in this book have a perceivable theatrical quality. Sometimes I perceived that “enter” and “exit” lines that built a scene, characters coming on stage, facing each other. Erikson always used this style, this time slightly different because often the next scene follows logically the one before, and so reducing the jumps in context typical of Malazan, but this time it gives a sense of a play and contained space. These scenes remain intimate, usually not more than an handful of characters interacting. Malazan was more sweeping wide, panoramic and movie-like.

This time things are personal and stay lodged tightly with the characters even if events have a big import. “Worldbuilding” is interesting because built in a false way. This is not a typical fantasy backdrop, here less than Malazan proper, that objective world that is stated with certainty. The fantasy, secondary world built as an independent, whole thing. One of the lures of reading fantasy can be this escapism, the seduction of a different, fascinating world finely detailed and precisely described. Instead I call what Erikson does “false worldbuilding” because it stays on the characters. The world shifts and blurs, is shaped and defined by the characters who live within it and that observe it. Things either have subjective value and meaning, or do not appear. And it is only in the opposition of the many PoVs that you can perceive it as something whole.

It is in my nature to wear masks, and to speak in a multitude of voices through lips not my own. Even when I had sight, to see through a single pair of eyes was a kind of torture, for I knew – I could feel in my soul – that we with our single visions miss most of the world.

The value in what Erikson does, compared to other Fantasy writers who don’t always have it in focus, is in the “metaphor made real”. This could become just a tiresome trick on its own when simply repeated, but the strength is about knowing what you write about. The reason why it’s so important is that it builds a true resonance with what’s meaningful. A story grips a reader when it builds a bridge, between what happens on the fictional side and what’s deep in the reader (and that’s also the distinction with escapism, wish fulfillment and all that). You could fashion clever magic systems and cool looking demons, show epic battles, but those demons only have true power if they come deep from one’s true soul. In this book even more effectively than anything else I’ve read, Erikson turns the human being inside out. What is shown is the dark side of the human landscape. Those true demons. Those that truly scare you and won’t go away, ever, when you turn on the light or when you grow up. It is done without rhetoric and embellishment. Without spectacle and complacency. From my point of view, this is Erikson at his apex.

Erikson at his best, excellent prose. Filled to the brim with beautiful and meaningful lines. It is a pleasure to read, but it also rather dense and can discourage readers who do not engage on this level and prefer something that has a brisk, lighter pacing. Or something that doesn’t take itself so seriously. Erikson is known and often criticized for heavy-laden introspection and one either has interest in it, or this book can be incredibly daunting and tiresome (especially with it moves toward the cosmogony of myth, which is a theme of this book I simply love and find, oh, so incredibly interesting). I’d also say that this is the one that the most gets close to the work of Gene Wolfe (without any of that artificial affection that I see in Wolfe), also admired for beautiful, meaningful prose and criticized for lack of ease of access and flow of plot. Lots of interesting, pivotal things happen, but as I said this is colored by what the characters see and their thoughts. The landscape has a dream-like flavor and also gives it an haunted atmosphere.

Many times Rise Herat had seen a face stripped back by the onslaught of loss, and each time he wondered if suffering but waited under the skin, shielded by a mask donned in hope, or with that superstitious desperation that imagined a smile to be a worthy shield against the world’s travails. These things, worn daily in an array of practised expressions insisting on civility, ever proved poor defenders of the soul, and to be witness to their cracking, their pathetic surrender to a barrage of emotion, was both humbling and terrible.

It is not an easy book because it’s often, always, a punch in the gut. It is not simply bleak to the point of being mono-tone. As usual Erikson shows the full range of emotion and there is humor and lighter scenes. But that human warmth and friendship is always a very narrow ledge that opens on a Abyss of miasmatic chaos, always eroded. A frightful thing. Like a candle light in a forest of darkness. There isn’t (anymore) any conceit about what Erikson does with his writing, and no attempt to reassure the reader after an hard experience. Those decorative curtains are torn away. Reading this book is like drinking wine on a empty stomach. There’s is lots of beauty, but it’s also mean and bewildering. This is thick and heady wine, the kind that takes quite a toll.

I’m still answering that question, the answer is: read it if you dare. Expect an exhausting book. The reward is an unique one because I’m simply not aware of another writer who achieves as much. Simply. You think it’s “hype”, for me it’s being honest. What Erikson writes contains the breadth of the world. Any world. And as far as I know no one has ever attempted to do the same. What Tolkien did was incredible, especially in the latter part, post-LotR, and Erikson indeed sits on the shoulder of giants, but he sees further away and describes that he sees better than anyone else. This book is a distillation of all the qualities the Malazan series possesses (and none of the flaws and growing pains I recognize in it), by a writer who’s now probably at the very top of his skills and is no more struggling to find his voice as he was in “Gardens of the Moon”. If you want to know right from the start what Malazan is about, then this book is ideal, but if you want to take it easy without being plunged on the very deep end, then start from the beginning of the series.

P.S.
I also believe, contrary to what everyone would say, that this book is perfectly self-contained and doesn’t necessarily need the two upcoming books that will complete the trilogy. Some (most?) PoVs are left hanging, but but not in a frustrating or dissatisfying way, and the book has its cohesion.

Suggested reading:
- Larry’s review of the book, because he did this time a so much better work than me, whereas I always try to be spoiler free that my own end up being so generic and bland.
- This on Tor site, because it’s a newcomer perspective (even if plagued by way excessive retconning to familiar canons, which doesn’t help at all understanding Malazan) and because I like “The Silmarillion as told in the style of A Song of Ice and Fire”, only that Erikson ends up writing better than both of those writers ;)