Category Archives: Book Reviews


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 ;)

“No point crying about it. You have to be realistic.” -Logen Ninefingers

I admit I read this book probably in the worst possible conditions. It’s been too many years since I finished reading “The Blade Itself” (the first in this trilogy), and too many months since I started reading this book. My impressions have suffered for this excessive stretching out and this series is best read in a compact amount of time. Too much time passed for me, but not because the first book made a bad impression on me. On the contrary, I loved that book and I still remember it fondly. The reason is that I knew what to expect in a sequel, I had a good idea of Abercrombie’s writing, and so kept delaying the rest of the trilogy in favor of books that were more mysterious and novel. In fact “The Blade Itself” marked the second or third book in my rediscovery of the fantasy genre after many years. That’s one reason why I prefer to reach out for what’s different than reading deep into a single series. And I have to admit that reading now “Before They Are Hanged” is different from a few years ago. I know much better all the different flavors the genre offers and Abercrombie for me doesn’t feel as fresh and innovative as it was at the time.

Another reason why I kept delaying the reading of this book is that it was widely acknowledged that this was a trilogy of increasing success. The consensus (that includes the author) was (is) that each book is better than the previous and now Abercrombie is not anymore the new writer fighting to find space in the market. He’s actually one of the strongest names, and has arguably surpassed both Rothfuss and Lynch, whose production was severely limited (personal choice in one case, uncontrollable events in the other). Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Lynch, the three bigger new names that, some years later, continue to monopolize the same space (well, Lynch put himself out of the picture, at least for the time being) and have not yet been replaced by anyone else (beside Sanderson, who picked a different path to success). All of this oddly diminished my interest, since there wasn’t much else to unearth. It was a safe bet. I knew the style, I knew what kind of stuff these books were made of. The group of fans was growing and it didn’t need another to repeat how cool Abercrombie was.

I said that my impression of this book changed a lot now that I have read so much more stuff than what I knew at the time, but not my overall appreciation of Abercrombie’s writing strengths. This series and this book remain for me the easiest to recommend in the genre, along with Martin. A type of work that has a wide accessibility and can be appreciated by a different, broad public. That it is generous and that repays the reader’s attention with fun and charisma, page by page. If we consider a type of work that has to be widely accessible and enjoyable, Abercrombie is probably one of the best choices (if not the best, since it’s less heavily handed, literally and figuratively, than Martin), matching that accessibility with cleverness and a modern, fresh style of writing. It’s perfectly balanced, and at the same time it’s sharp and lively. Nothing of the dullness of conformity that often comes with broad accessibility.

I also think, though, that it doesn’t reach very far when it comes to “ambition”. This is probably the one aspect where my idea of this book is different than what the majority thought of it. While my memories of the first book aren’t crystal clear, I found this sequel a bit less lively and creative. Maybe too polished, because I often felt that the characters and events were on a leash. Forbidden to stray in order to tightly lock with a predetermined plot. The story felt more like a funnel than a natural expansion of the events of the first book, and I think it was too restrained and more limited. Some of that spark of positive foolishness was kind of missing in this book compared to the first, and some characters painted too plainly as caricatures to be thought fondly of or appreciated.

Even in the first book Abercrombie’s writing was emphatic, especially in how it handled characterization. But the parody worked because it was balanced by a sharp vision. As if the superficiality was in fact superficial. While in a few occasions in this book I thought things were handled superficially and as a “best effort” that didn’t exactly shine in execution. This is even more evident for me because Abercrombie always tries to entertain in every page and every scene. Always try to add a clever spin even if describing a mundane situation, and in this case sometimes I felt as if he was trying too much, as if the effort was stronger than its efficacy. Then I think this may be also due to the fact I was reading Glen Cook at the same time, whose prose falls at the opposite of the spectrum, and so highlighting the emphatic features of Abercrombie’s writing. This emphasis can feel as somewhat fake, fabricated, but for me this was compensated by characters that are plenty of fun to read, written cleverly, but that specifically in this book suffered from some predictable development (and Glokta is Too Much Tyrion), following events that, as I already said, were more driven by hand than developing in an organic way.

So this time I’ll be the voice out of the chorus. My appreciation of Abercrombie didn’t fall after these years, what I think of his work is essentially unchanged, but I wouldn’t rate this book better than “The Blade Itself”. Too controlled, “stifled” and predictable, less creative and lively, contrasting with the promise full of possibilities of the first book. What was carved out of all that potential fell a bit shorter than the hinted picture. Too much time passed for me to compare directly the writing in that book and this one, but this time the result was for me less effective and engaging. I’ll continue to remember “The Blade Itself” fondly, and this book just a step lower. Beside these issues “Before They Are Hanged” remains a pleasure to read. The different PoVs are organized so that they walk in line, build-up matched by build-up, so that every change of scene isn’t interrupted by a lapse in the tension. The banter remains excellent, mixing the witty with the serious. I’m a bit puzzled about the point where Abercrombie decided to close this second chapter, it’s a bit off-putting even if probably intended, but as a whole I think it works and the problems in the flow of the story I perceived are probably more due to my irregular reading than the nature of it.

It would be silly to conclude these comments with hyperbole since I think specifically this book was one step lower, but at the same time I focused on what I felt was different, which in this case was all about negative aspects. Abercrombie does remain in my opinion a perfect representation of a modern take on the genre that isn’t so subversive or revolutionary, that doesn’t fight for “literary” space, but that is still plenty fun to read while keeping a high qualitative level. An excellent compromise that retains plenty of qualities, and that deserves to be recommended. Good enough to make a strong impression, and not too pretentious and demanding to be condemned to a smaller niche (and that, in my opinion, deserves exactly the success it got).

Hopefully it won’t be too long before I finish the trilogy and move to the other three books he wrote (that I already own).

“The point is, Mrs MacDonagh, that the universe is exactly the size that your soul can encompass. Some people live in extremely small worlds, and some live in a world of infinite possibility.”

As mentioned in the previous post I appreciated that roundtable between Pat Rothfuss and the three other “urban fantasy” writers. The genre doesn’t appeal to me all that much but in the end they convinced me to read one that belongs to none of those participants to the roundtable, but that all seemed to agree was a fresh and worthwhile entry. Actually Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is quite often mentioned and recommended by Malazan readers as some material to chill off and relax between those big and demanding books. A kind of “sit back and enjoy” without any heavy lifting. While these days this Iron Druid series, that’s already at volume number 5 and has one coming out every six months, on average, is often recommended in the Dresden Files forum threads. So after looking online at some of the recommended series this one was the one that sparked my interest, with its focus more on the mythical aspects than the defused horror story in urban setting.

That’s exactly what I found and I can say this is a book that is easy to recommend. After I mentioned on another forum I was going to read this book (after a careful search and selection of what the genre had to offer) a few other readers that already read it commented on it positively, and then more readers picked it up and commented favorably. That was already a nice cascading effect that tells me that this book goes down easily. Maybe you won’t think all that much of it, but you’ll hardly think it overstayed its welcome. It’s relatively unpretentious, or at least it is if you don’t count its “all in” approach that pulls out all the stops. It doesn’t have to bargain at all with reader’s expectations since it knows exactly what it is, and puts it on full display like an shameless exhibitionist. This book is like porn. But it is quality porn that is deeply self-aware, bared of pretentiousness, shrugging off all baggage and just having the best of times. This porn works because it’s positive, guilt-free and filled with pride. Maybe even a lesson on positive-thinking. And even if I could see someone feeling horrified at this description I’m making, I do think this book can only do good in the world. I am certain it’s from one of the good guys.

So I guess in the end this book worked for me because of that trust relationship it built with me. The first note I’ve written down, shortly after beginning to read, is just a world: ridiculous. And that’s precisely what I thought through the whole of it: this book is utterly ridiculous. But, oh, it works. What is to admire here is the fragile balance, the clever brilliance of genius from a side, and the complete ridiculousness from the other. It tiptoes on that thin balance line and makes it appear as it’s the easiest thing in the world. Which is the other big quality here. The sure footing of the writing. This troubles me a bit because that certainty in writing is usually a Bad Thing, but here it works out because a number of preconditions are checked. The writer is constantly smarter than what he writes, but he never underestimates or under appreciates what’s he’s writing. If there’s a recipe-for-success in this book, I think it’s that one.

“It should be clear to you that Wikipedia knows nothing about what a real druid can do.”

All the premises are ridiculous. A millenarian, immortal druid chilling out, off the records, in Arizona working at a book store specialized on the occult, but getting constantly pestered by invasions of fae beings (?) and gods meddling with and around him. The type is: the reluctant (anti-)hero. Skillfully thrust in modern days, hands-down in internet memes, puns and modern geek jokes that keep every page alive with laugh out loud moments. It’s that kind of book where events move at a brisk pace. It doesn’t even specialize on a mythological subset. It’s not about werewolves, vampires, faes or witches. It’s about ALL OF THEM, all in the bigger bowl of gods meddling in both the mortal and immortal world. The quote I put at the beginning pretty much sums up the canon here. Everything works (though coming at a price) and every belief is real. Malazan-like if you want.

In 300 pages the writer makes it work by introducing a number of elements that tangle rather well and deliver a proper conclusion. It picks a selection of Celtic gods playing their game, and it works out because of the druid pragmatic and unfazed attitude. It’s even quite original because you get the exact opposite of the clueless protagonist that slowly discovers a new world. Here the Iron Druid knows it all. Has essentially seen (and participated to, even if he’s more of a neutral, “stay out of my lawn” kind of character) all history and knows extremely well how to cover his ass and stay alive, considering he’s the last of these druids and was able to stay alive for so long. And it works again because the first person narration gives the reader everything that is needed to transform what is potentially a really weird and confusing story into something that couldn’t be more straightforward and traditional, at least in the patterns it follows. The plot is indeed quite conservative and same-y, but it stays fresh because it’s written well and because there’s plenty of clever invention all around it. Keeping it fresh and alive, instead of stilted and redundant.

When you write these kind of stories filled with absurd and ridiculous elements it all depends on the grasp on reality, and there’s a good one here. I think the writer is honest to his characters, and it’s part of why I said I “trusted” the book, so making it work. There’s a coat of “make believe”, but I could feel that these characters were written with respect. So I applaud to that. Is it comfort food? Yes it is, but as I said there’s sometimes more to it, even if it isn’t smashed against your face. When the writer flexes his muscles is always effortlessly and behind the scenes, not demanding attention. I enjoyed the book, have a positive opinion of it. I actually do like things that are more pretentious and elaborate. I can’t say this was a pageturner for me, if it wasn’t for the good pacing that makes it not boring. I’m not entirely interested in what this genre specifically offers. But I can give thumbs up to this entry. While I haven’t read anything else in the genre, I am at least convinced that I couldn’t have picked a better one.

The best written character ends up being the Morrigan.

[The book] was still open to a page which had had an entirely different meaning to him just four hours ago. It said, “…modelling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task a man could undertake…” And on another page it said, “…the dreams of men belong to God…”

Reading Thomas Covenant wasn’t in my plans but back in January I decided to order the nice UK paperback that contains all three books, the first trilogy, wrapped up together in a hefty volume of 1152 pages (some 500k words), and when a package arrived at my house about a week later I was quite disappointed to discover it contained “Orb, Sceptre, Throne” (part of the Malazan queue, and so to read some time in the future) instead of the eagerly awaited Donaldson. It went from zero interest to topmost priority. This change was caused by a visit to Donaldson site, where he had announced he had just completed the first draft of “The Last Dark”, the fourth and last book in the third series. Still a year or two from actual publishing, but it changed my perspective. I took it as a sign that it was time for me to start from the very beginning. My interest is very specific, and about what Donaldson has done with the whole arc of three series. I know that each of the three had been planned separately, considered conclusive. Yet Donaldson decided to return, the second time just a few years after the first, and the third time twenty years later after the second. This makes a very interesting scenario because I’ll be able to see not only how he planned each act, but how he himself observes it, how he comes to terms with it, re-enliven it, return to it with new eyes. It is not only witnessing an arc across a writer’s activity, but a process of self-reflection on one’s own work. That self-reflection alone is the single element that made me want to embark in this epic journey (some two million words by the end of it). And very long too considering my usual pace moving through series, so it will take quite a while before I reach my goal.

“Lord Foul’s Bane” is actually the last fantasy book I read about 12+ years ago, before returning to the genre in 2007 (so I was fantasy-free for about 7 years). I didn’t manage to finish it back then, probably I couldn’t even reach page 100 because I couldn’t find anymore the book after I moved to another room, and at the time my reading pace was even slower. But I liked what I read quite enough, in particular how Thomas Covenant actively fought the typical fantasy narrative that wants the lead character as a hero. Now that I return to the same book so many years later I noticed that my approach completely changed. At the time I considered the beginning of the book set in the “modern, real world” as something to endure so I could get to the “fantasy”. The fantastical side was real to me, and the real part a “gimmick”. While today the situation is inverted. I see clearly Thomas Covenant as a character rooted in the real world, with the fantastic side to be taken as an hallucination, a product of a double, existing entirely within himself. My readings of the character followed these approaches. Back then I was silently pushing TC to accept the fantasy world, to live it because it was so obviously real. I was seeing clearly that the more he resisted it, the more time he wasted with that silly stubbornness. Now instead it is so clearly an hallucination that asserting control over it and never abandon that certainty about reality is the real priority. Both these approaches are equally sustained in the book, in a way that now reminds me directly of Awake.

“Come on, old man,” he said. “We didn’t make the world.”

“Did we not?”

I am watching Life on Mars (another TV series), reading “A Dream of Wessex”, have seen Another Earth, even the Mhybe sequence in Memories of Ice can fit (though Erikson pushes things even further than Donaldson, with the “anthropomorphic world”). This game of framing reality like a painting. It seems I’m more or less consciously following a pattern. That I find quite powerful, life and dream, reality and fantasy, representing a dualism that is at the foundation of the act of writing: an interpretation of that conflict between the inside and the outside. So, in the pattern itself, the self-reflection. Fiction and fantasy as ways to reach inside, instead to outer worlds.

That pattern is the cypher I used to read this book, that made me enjoy it and find in it plenty of things I would have completely missed if I kept my old approach. Already David Foster Wallace in his own “epic”, “Infinite Jest”, played with self-reflection in all its possible forms, including the curious constructs of “double-binds” (themselves a variation of the “strange loops” within “Gödel, Escher, Bach”). And here the interpretative foundation of the reality/dream duality is also expressed and summarized in a sort of double-bind:

His survival depended on his refusal to accept the impossible.

Reiterated then in the refusal to accept his role as the savior of the fantasy world, and refusal of the possibilities within that world, including the hopes that all the people he meets have in him. His condition (leprosy) is his cage, but also his possibility to survive as long he faces it as an inescapable reality. The only Truth.

He could not afford to have an imagination, a faculty which could envision Joan, joy, health. If he tormented himself with unattainable desires, he would cripple his grasp on the law which enabled him to survive. His imagination could kill him, lead or seduce or trick him into suicide: seeing all the things he could not have would make him despair.

An illness that entirely gets to represents his only identity (left), and the truth of the impossibility of hope. In that condition he viscerally knows his harsh reality, and he knows that delusions come in the form of fantastic narratives. Fantasy landscapes where all illnesses can be healed, a natural world manifesting itself as pure beauty. With his feet in these two radically different and opposite worlds, he is lacerated. Torn from the inside. And he leashes out with pure anger because he’s painfully aware of how these delusions of hope and health are mocking his true condition. If you, the reader, go into the story, then it’s the fantasy world coming alive and being real. But if you instead take this story out and make it true, then you feel how powerful it is, and how much unsustainable pain it delivers.

Reading the book I thought that TC reminded me of Felisin in Deadhouse Gates. Despite being completely different characters in different situations, they have in common the fact that when they appear in the story they are already broken. The point of no-return is reached and passed before you get to the first page. No redemption, no hope, no healing granted. They are both shattered characters whose pieces can only get broken further, hurting whoever comes close. Both filled with spite and anger, lashing out at everyone and everything, struggling to keep themselves away, secluded from the world. The most famous scene in this book is probably the controversial one some 80 pages into the book. The rape. For many readers this is the breaking point, where TC is fully recognizable as an unlikeable character that has none of the typical qualities and narratives that belong to the hero, or even the main character of a story. But through my different approach to the book that scene felt the most “truthful” and fitting. Plausible for what the character is and why. The way he behaves. TC had just made the transition to this fantasy world, went through a literal reawakening of the senses, previously deadened because of leprosy and lack of hope, that inward retreat. He viscerally knows that this consolatory narrative he’s dreaming about, this fantasy world, is a delusion. And so the promise of hope, of health, even of sexual attraction, all become a form of taunt to him. A torture borne by his brain. The rape is the moment TC loses control of himself and succumbs to instincts. In his perception he’s not being violent to another human being, as he firmly believes that he’s trapped in a hallucination. He’s lashing out with rage once again, this time by losing control of his desires. It becomes a pivotal scene because it strengthens TC “belief” that he’s no hero, and whenever he becomes the repository of hope he knows he’ll only corrupt it. He himself is the threat to the beauty of the land, its antithesis. Ill and broken in a world beautiful and whole. Hence the inward retreat that can upset some readers. TC doesn’t become a more likeable character through the novel as long you can’t connect with what he is and why.

He endures his journey through The Land as torture. He desperately clings to the only thing that makes sense to him, his illness. Think about hurtloam. It’s a type of loam that can be found naturally (the term isn’t even capitalized it’s so common) within the fantastic world that, rubbed on a wound, no matter how severe, can heal it overnight. Think about having it, the hope of curing all diseases right there in your hands. Then consider being consciously aware that it’s a delusion fed through a dream, that when you wake up you’ll know nothing of this exists. From THERE originates the pain, the unsustainable condition, that then turns in TC into rage and hate. And it is by facing those consolatory delusions and refusing them that you can live. Yet the more vehemently TC rejects all this, the stronger the Land impels him to commit by not giving him other choices (he can’t escape the dream in any way). It’s a siren’s song that persists even when refused, that TC is forced to listen, defenseless. It’s torture. A man forcefully thrust further down the pit of madness and pain.

He enters this world within, if we accept the thesis that he’s dreaming, through a transition that is clearly an inversion:

And now the background asserted itself, reached in and bore him down. Blackness radiated through the sunlight like a cold beam of night.

Maybe it’s because I come to this book with that strong bias I explained above, but the meaning of this inversion (black sunlight) appears to me very clearly as subconscious “taking over” consciousness. That blackness of thought that happens outside the light of awareness. Those lines precede TC entrance into the fantasy realm, and his dream. The inversion is about projecting the inward world, what he has within himself, outside. Make it Real.

Enter the Matrix.

The Land, a so generic name as if a placeholder for whatever fantasy realm a man could conceive, evoking an archetype, is made of a substance different than reality. The health of the environment and of the people is visible and tangible. TC notices how his senses adapt to these new perceptions and he’s able directly to feel nature around himself. At one point a giant he meets begins to sing, and this is how it is described:

A song with a wave-breaking, salty timbre like the taste of the sea.

Now, can you imagine how a “salty” timbre would sound like? Is TC on acid that he confuses one sense with the other? This happens so much, especially in natural descriptions, that it’s not a writing quirk, but very deliberate. I interpret it as a Matrix-like breach. Do you remember when in the movie the fabric of the matrix tears apart and shows itself for what it truly is? The columns of characters and numbers coming down, as the true fabric of that world revealed. This is the same. You see the inward/dreamworld working the way it does: through symbolic representations. Metaphoric in perception the way every dream is. Meaning-full, as every anthropomorphic world is.

At the very beginning of book 2 he’s back in the real world, and we have:

Futility is the defining characteristic of life.

Let’s make it “of reality”. But while he was still trapped in the dream, we have this:

He felt that he was the lodestone.

And, deliciously metalinguistic (the way I love it), the giant who sang above also proclaims:

“But you must understand, Unbeliever, that selecting a tale is usually a matter for deliberation.”

You can take it out of the story, and apply it to Donaldson, since this is the real deal. This is the story he selected, and that comes out, at least in part, of his deliberation. What does he want to tell us?

I think that an important part of its purpose lies in message that TC is given by a mysterious man before he enters The Land. And since I have not grasped the whole of it, I suspect that this theme will develop across the three books instead of just one. So I’ll have to wait. The message is a bit long, so I’ll quote just the relevant part:

The man refuses to believe that what he is told is true. He asserts that he is either dreaming or hallucinating, and declines to be put in the false position of fighting to the death where no “real” danger exists. He is implacable in his determination to disbelieve his apparent situation, and does not defend himself when he is attacked by the champion of the other world.

Question: is the man’s behaviour courageous or cowardly? This is the fundamental question of ethics.

As explicit as it gets.

That I was able to catch a so rich subtext filled with so many ideas is a testament to this book’s modernity. I was not only surprised to find this type of story in a book that is an old classic of fantasy, but also that Donaldson wrote this before his thirties. Ahead of his times in more ways than one. Every page is permeated with TC’s internal struggle, as well this anthropomorphic projection of The Land. It’s filled to the brim. Yet the weakness is in the straight plot, or classic fantasy narrative, if you take it out of the very specific context (like as I read it the first time I got the book many years ago). This appears as a very standard “quest”, that has the finding of a magical artifact as its goal, after going down into a black mountain. This plot, throughout the book, follows the trope as closely as possible. It’s obvious that on this level the book has none of the maturity of modern fantasy, and it is where it feels a bit dated. It’s formulaic and convoluted, not particularly exciting or surprising.

Quite the inverse of what one could expect. You come to a classic of fantasy thinking it would have a good adventure, but weak on subtext and themes. Instead I find an extraordinary work that plays competently with its big ideas, while it gets predictable and plain when leaning on the basic conventions of the genre. At the time the book sold a lot, and it was sold mostly as one of those clones in the trail of LotR, like The Sword of Shannara. I have no idea what all those readers thought when they read it, but it was still quite successful. I wonder if today I’m reading a different book, and if mine or theirs is the right one…

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Don’t be fooled, the quote above may have a likeness to Malazan, in theme, but is not written by Erikson. It’s Shakespeare. Now, beside the brashness of putting these names together, I have a point. I mentioned in the blog that I’m reading “The Wayward Mind” by Guy Claxton, and it works like a handy manual to the Malazan world. That quote from Shakespeare also comes from this book, exploring the mystery of unconscious along the centuries, in philosophy, science and literature. This has been a key to Erikson’s series and its mythological forms I’ve held long before reading Claxton or Midnight Tides. “The forms of things unknown” is at the same time defining possible mythology, as well the hidden things that lurk in the darkness of the human soul. What stands well lit on the page, defined by consciousness, and what lies deeper, unseen. The outward, “explicit” projection of that darkness within is essentially the theme of human unconscious, as well the manifestation of a mythological world where gods are very real. That’s why I see “Midnight Tides”, the title of the book, as a suggestion to what hides below, a force unseen, lingering just below the calm level of consciousness. I’m not even sure I interpret this correctly, as I can’t grasp the whole of it, or what Erikson intended. In the past I’ve been right as much as I’ve been wrong. Yet this theme is powerful through the whole book, so I’m sure there’s at least some truth in the ways I intuitively see it. In particular there’s a page, right at the beginning of the book, but coming after the Prologue, so as part of the specific story and not of the larger arc, that is extremely evocative and hard to pinpoint (I quote only a fragment but all of it needs to be read). Making it fit perfectly with Claxton’s description of symbolic language as used by the Romantics and Shakespeare before them, the “multiple layers of resonance beyond explicit comprehension” and the “hint at buried complexities”.

Between the swish of the tides, we will speak of one such giant. Because the tale hides within his own.

The theme echoes through the rest of the book but it is especially strong in one of the last pages:

For such was the rhythm of these particular tides. Now, with the coming of night, when the shadows drew long, and what remained of the world turned away.

For that is what the Tiste Edur believe, is it not? Until midnight, all is turned away, silent and motionless. Awaiting the last tide.

And finally in the Epilogue:

And it is this moment, my friends,
When you must look away,
As the world unfurls anew
In shapes announced both bright
And sordid, in dark and light
And the sprawl of all existence
That lies between.

This lingering, shifty theme runs like an undercurrent, a midnight tide proper, since what “surfaces”, with light (attention) shining brightly on it is the central plot about the Lether empire, ever expanding, and on the move to conquer the Tiste Edur tribes in the North of the continent. An avid empire founded on the myths of money, progress as destiny, and dominance as an intrinsic vocation. Versus less “civilized” tribes that have still not resolved their relationship with their past history, bound to a more static and ancient vision of the world and way of living. One could very easily read this like a direct metaphor of modern times and western capitalism, but Erikson has clearly pointed out that he was more interested in catching the wider form of it, and its constant repetition through the whole of human history (he says: “one thing Midnight Tides taught me was that once a certain system of human behavior become entrenched, it acquires a power and will of its own, against which no single individual stands a chance”). So already two levels embedded in the whole arc of the book, to which another is added: the characters themselves, and especially two sets of three brothers. The Sengar and the Beddict, representing the two sides, the Edur and the Letherii. Each of these brothers quite different from the other, providing a different viewpoint. Six mirrors carefully placed to reflect each other and the world around, so let the game of light and shadows begin…

I won’t even try to attempt a careful analysis because it’s beyond my skill and what I’m supposed to do with a review. I’m just proceeding in general terms. This book is the fifth in a series of ten, whoever may read this review will likely know what it is about and maybe it’s more interesting for me to say of my personal reaction to it, and how it fits in the larger context of the series. I’ve said before that I considered each volume better than the previous, up to the fourth one, that I liked the most for a number of reasons. I know that Midnight Tides is ambivalent for many readers, either being the favorite or way down the scale of preference. This is mostly because the context of the story is momentarily separated from the rest. It’s set on a secluded continent away from the rest of the story of the previous four volumes and with an almost completely new set of characters. A relatively blank state that carries the obvious risks. The familiar characters and context abandoned to “linger” on something new, and so having to win once again the attention and willingness of the readers. In my personal ladder of preference I’d decidedly put MT behind the previous three volumes, and only above Gardens (the first). But not because of lack of familiarity or unease with new characters and stories.

My problem and criticism sits mostly in the execution. I’ve only admiration for how Erikson sets things up and the power of his vision at all the levels he engages with. What instead I found lacking and not quite fulfilling its task in this book is what goes on page by page. Something not quite reaching in the writing and execution of the single scenes. I’m not pretending to know better, but it is simply my reaction to the book, limited as it is. I found a certain legitimacy to the criticism leveled at Erikson, in particular about the characters. The problem is not that Erikson can’t do good characterization, but I believe he was here too brazen in the way these characters are made into “devices”, carrying a message. Erikson is honest to the message, he is not unsubtle and never facile, but he seems to reduce these characters to what they represent. What I’m trying to say is similar to a problem that Pynchon recognized in some of his own work: fist coming up with a theme or an idea, and then shaping a character around it, following with the plot and everything. Characterization well done, but coming after.

There is so much, many levels embedded in this book, that Erikson plays with (or could have played, since I always find so much in his novels that is untapped). But there’s also a feeling of scarcity. In the prose especially, but carrying over to characters, plot and setting. In the greater arc this is almost a blank state, so requiring more attention than usual to shape up things again. Pour life into this continent and the people living on it. It needs to be made “true”, to feel true. Become visceral and, so tangible. Linger with the characters and their lives, so that they acquire that true life, in the eyes of the reader. But Erikson steams on and only indulges in deep, solitary introspection, that doesn’t help shaping up these characters. It carves them inside, like tunnels down their personality and feelings, but lacking a certain “outward” development (see how I described it here). Too much bone, not enough flesh. It’s too pared down to the essential, to characters playing their complex thematic roles, in a complex thematic plot. Carrying along meaning heavy with implications but lacking the simplicity of a life and external relationships. I even felt a lack in descriptions, something quite rare in this genre. I’m used to Erikson’s style, but maybe I felt like he needed to shape things more fully, more all around, in this brand new context. Instead he only, selectively shaped what was immediately meaningful and relevant, without offering the illusion of this world existing and continuing just off the page. It felt so surgically precise and deliberate and purpose-full that it was cut off. Barebone, all too naked and dismaying in the way it seemed to carry little import.

At other times I narrowed down this problem to the blatant lack of “slice of life” type of narration in the Malazan series. Every character is a major player, or becomes one. Normalcy seems almost completely banished. And so characters sit more as plot devices, or thematic devices, or viewpoint warping, than some real people whose life you start believing in. That, for that reason, I’m able to follow and appreciate, but from the distance (the opposite of my reaction to This River Awakens). Another, shallower, problem is also born of something I started noticing in previous books, especially in the writing of the action scenes. It’s in these cases where I need the power of descriptions the most. The need to visualize and make tangible so that I can believe (I guess I’m also describing a failing of my imagination here, by voicing this). Erikson can write some powerful and evocative descriptions, but he always does this in very broad strokes, plus a tendency to “accelerate” the prose to match the action, so that the lines get shorter and just indicative. I find this counterproductive, as it achieves (for me) the opposite effect. Dramatic intensity is lost, because stuff happens without “weight” in the text. Being so succinctly described it is trivialized, quickly outpaced, moved off the page, so losing the staying power it requires (I’m also thinking at how modern movies tend today to do all action scenes in slow motion). And then I also get very easily confused by what is going on that quite often I have to read a scene two or three times to be really sure I understood what happened. So the whole point is defeated (acceleration of prose, I guess, to drive momentum, and dramatic intensity). Whenever I felt that the prose had to step up in the execution, Erikson instead seemed to withdraw even more. Become even more stingy with the prose, making it more perfunctory.

That’s mainly the nature of my criticism on this book. Descriptions are about the “action”, as much having in common that “lack” I lament about the characters and “life” around them. At some point there’s a scene, I think from Seren’s PoV, where she overhears some men talking about Hull in a tavern. I was almost surprised at the odd feeling of characters (Hull in this case) actually existing, written in the world. Because I usually get this feeling of them being so secluded in their own dimensions, like independent pockets. And I have a similar feeling about the rest of the book and the story. As if made of chunky bits, ably aligned, but not smoothly flowing and feeling connected.

Once again I should point out that, yes, Erikson is my favorite writer in Fantasy, but I am nitpicking. Being far less indulgent in writing a review of his book than how I’d be with any other writer. It’s because Erikson is my favorite writer in the genre that I expect the most, and more. And maybe the silly desire to see Erikson legitimately seen by other readers above other writers (or in as high regard), and so my implicit attempt to “flatten” his personal style to certain set of expectations I project on him (which would mean that all I wrote here is bullshit, a realistic possibility).

Putting all this aside, there’s still so much to admire in this book but that goes unmentioned because it is implicit in Erikson’s work and part of his specific set of expectations. I have admiration for his recklessness, as he always sets impossible high goals and then gets measured on those, even if the attempt itself is of mythical proportions. I was surprised that Theol and Bugg being so well received by readers in general, because it’s a kind of quirky humor based on wordplay and nonsense that is not a so safe bet. Their scenes work rather well and help to balance the other side of the novel, with the Sengar brothers, that is instead more moody and serious. I’m instead more doubtful at the end, where these two sides join to deliver the convergence and conclusion, the two different tones, humorous and bleak, clashing a bit together and giving me a sense of unbalance (that may as well be deliberate). The scenes at the Azath, through the book and especially at the end, never seem to come out of comic parody. The introspection, that I briefly discussed above and that is sometimes criticized by readers for burdening the text too much, is actually what I enjoyed the most, and considered the most inspired in the writing. It’s true that maybe it could have been spread more uniformly across the book, especially if there was an equally developed outward aspect. A character I was dissatisfied with was Ruhlad, because I felt his possession disfigured him too quickly, one moment going through unbelievable horror, the next already fixed on his task. He was misshaped, but not broken as I expected him to be. A too sudden transition where the character almost completely disappears into his functional role. Some characters, like Mayen, have a meaningful arc, but it’s so selective and surfacing only at times that it is quite hard to follow as a whole. You are forced to piece it together off the book, on your own. Sometimes these transitions are lost and feel sudden or disconnected. As if a lot of the quality of those characters stayed too submerged in the text, failing to surface and being fully appreciated.

I’ve said that the conclusion has an odd mix of tones, but it also carried a problem of being so sudden. As if you’re 50 pages from the end knowing it’s absolutely impossible that there are enough to make sense of all that is going on. As if the momentum that the plot gained would punch right through the back cover. When it comes to this Erikson is rather good at tying so many loose ends and give a number of character some kind of wrap up. In fact the ending definitely gives a sense of closure pretty much to everything. Satisfying. But it’s in going through the book again in my own mind that I wondered about a million of little things that seemed to go off stage without a mention. I thought there were in this book a number of Chekhov’s guns that did not fire, or misfired, completely subverting the expectations on which they seemed to be built. While in many cases the answers are explicit and right in the book, only requiring me to be more mindful and perceptive than how I was able to be (hence rereads being recommended). And others again being deliberate loose ties because intended to latch on following and previous books, to the greater arc of the Malazan series. I closed the book and more questions popped up at that moment than while I was reading it, but at least without undermining the experience (bad would be the opposite scenario: that the book provides all possible answers while still feeling unsatisfactory).

This also being the last of the “short” books in this series, at 270k (wordcount). From Bonehunters onward it will be about veritable doorstoppers, and I’m curious about the reaction I’ll have about the rest of the series, since I’m the one absurdly complaining that Erikson’s prose is too parsimonious. It took me an unbelievable amount of time to read this book, even if not because of its quality or enjoyment. But maybe this extremely drawn out experience I got of it also affected my opinion and the criticism I wrote here.

I wanted to conclude quoting a poem in the middle of the book whose message comes out with a particular clarity, so a nice contrast with those more heavily symbolic and hard to pinpoint. It also describes well a theme of the book, bringing it down to the most direct and explicit level.

The man who never smiles
Drags his nets through the deep
And we are gathered
To gape in the drowning air
Beneath the buffeting sound
Of his dreaded voice
Speaking of salvation
In the repast of justice done
And fed well on the laden table
Heaped with noble desires
He tells us all this to hone the edge
Of his eternal mercy
Slicing our bellies open
One by one.

In the Kingdom of Meaning Well
Fisher kel Tath

“There is no magic. There is only knowledge, more or less hidden.”
(…)
“That is the wisest of all the books of men,” the Cumaean said. “Though there are few who can gain any benefit from reading it.”

The Claw of the Conciliator is the second book in the New Sun tetralogy. Or second of twelve if one considers the “Solar Cycle” as a whole. Since it takes me so long to finish a book, and since I don’t write about all books I read, I prefer to stick to the smaller unit available and comment as I move through. But, since I keep getting interested in other writers and series, it happens that quite some time passes before I return to something I begun (and these loops keep getting larger). So, looking at my blog, it’s been more than three years since I read the first part, The Shadow of the Torturer.

Most of what I have to say about this book is part of a general thought about Gene Wolfe. More than once in forum discussions I have defined him “esoteric”, in the original definition of the term. I tend to lump all writers in two groups: esoteric and generous. The difference is about the “intent” of the writer. Esoteric writers write books that are only accessible for a selected minority of like-minded, or sharing a certain status or cultural education, whereas generous writers are those that desperately try to make “communication” happen, whatever it takes. Generous books could retain all the complexity and ambition while taking time to teach the reader how to approach and extricate the work they are reading. They usually reward patience, but ultimately they reward it by letting you reach in and grasp their core. It’s not a matter of complexity, but of offering ways to access it. Esoteric works instead are “hidden knowledge”, they have high walls surrounding themselves and only those who have the password or know the secret sign are let through. Otherwise you’re left outside desperately trying to see through the wall and sometime feeling like you’re seeing some vague shape of what’s beyond. But you’re wrong.

Wolfe embodies this esoterism to its full symbolic value, to the point that what I described here with a rather negative connotation, becomes a positive one. This because, like the best works, the reader (and his re-action) is part of it. One thing that this work is doing is putting the reader out of balance and warp the space around him. It’s a dislocating effect, but not of the kind that prepares entering another world. Here the dislocation is the point, the message. Time, especially, collapses on itself, as if at the end of the world, before the New Sun arises, everything appears simultaneously.

This is relevant, specifically, to this book I was reading. It’s a kind of book that I loved and at the same time I wanted to hurl at the wall. Frustrating at the point of rage, but also possessing some brilliance that is right out of the corner of your eye, but that you absolutely know is not the kind that /just/ deceives. Imagine a calm sea in the night, the New Sun series is wholly contained below the surface. You see nothing. That’s my reaction starting to read it again from the first pages. On the surface there are characters, things happen, then you finish a chapter, begin another and there’s a new episode that seems to be only vaguely related to the one you just read. One uses to review books through certain patterns, so we examine characters, plot, pacing. But doing the same with the New Sun would end up in disaster. From my point of view and direct reaction while reading, this book has no sense of “plot”, or cause and effect. If one complains about arbitrary interventions (deus ex machina) here he could find them more than once within a single chapter, almost the sole force driving the plot. Characters do things seemingly without motivations, say things that make no sense, hypnotically dazed as in a movie by Werner Herzog. The scenes change from chapter to chapter as if part of unrelated episodes. This would really be a disaster, if it wasn’t that the problem is not in the material, but in the categories used on it.

Similarly, Severian is not the prime example of a character you can sympathize/empathize with. Quite the contrary. In fact I was thinking he may be the most horrifying character I’ve ever encountered. Early in the book there’s an episode where he has to perform a public execution. The horrifying part is not the execution per se and its gruesome description (“To be candid, it was not until I saw the up-jetting fountain of blood and heard the thud of the head striking the platform that I knew I had carried it off.“), but the reaction Severian has (“I wanted to laugh and caper.“). He GLOATS and parades grotesquely on the scaffold, showing proudly the severed head as he feels so happy that he was able to perform a tricky move with his sword. He continues to gloat even when it is revealed that the woman he just executed was innocent, victim of a machination. This gave me a profound feeling of amorality, of cold, alien detachment. Something entirely inhuman. It is horrifying but it also adheres to Severian the character, with his pragmatic, weightless mind that feels so alien to me. What is done is done, and very professionally from his perspective, everything else is simply not affecting him. He doesn’t even consider any other perspective. Which brings to a sort of salvation. His mind is so bent inward that he’s neither “good” nor “bad”. He seems unaware and unable to have a real, human existence because he has no experience of anything else. And so he’s also without guilt since he’s utterly naive and unable to make a choice (making him the embodiment of a pawn).

Wolfe demands a different approach from the reader and different ways to carve “meaning” from it. The most important rule is the “dream” (and Neil Gaiman featuring on all covers and introductions isn’t casual). What is narrated in this series has the “dreamlike” quality. That’s why everything you “see” (surface of the water) is “not the point” and apparently doesn’t seem to make sense in a strict, logical way. Every image or character is symbolic, and its symbolic weight has priority on superficial appearance. As in dreams scenes change with a loose sense of connection and everything goes to build this eerie, magical and ephemeral atmosphere (and as in dreams “time” collapses on itself). Words carry not meaning, but fascination and hidden construction. Giving a sense of dizziness and, as said, dislocation. Not toward a different “environment”, but toward a different “fabric” of reality. That in this case is the fabric of the dreams, and the world built through this symbolic projection of hidden and obscure powers and mythological beings. Lovecraft’s monsters made into pure ideas.

The problem, if a “problem” exists, is in the consequences. Reading page by page that’s the way I was feeling. Understanding clearly that there was “more” to what I was reading, that Wolfe was describing factually an episode but “doing” something else, hidden. Neither showing, nor telling. He hinted and teased, keep luring you. Deceiving. The problem of the esoteric work is when you hit the wall, again and again. Feeling that there’s more to it but without ways to get through. So I’m very critical about “how” Wolfe does things, because I feel he WANTS to keep me away, he WANTS to bait me in this malicious game and its hidden, obscure rules. It’s like in the myth of Theseus and the minotaur (a myth he specifically uses in this book), with Theseus going in the labyrinth from where no one returned alive to kill the minotaur. You are Theseus, Wolfe is the minotaur. The problem is that in the myth Theseus is told how to get out of the labyrinth (he’s given a ball of thread), while you, the reader, are left to the Wolfe/minotaur’s mercy.

I am in the presence of a practitioner whose moves I cannot follow; I see only the same illusions that are seen by those outside the guild [of writers]. I know the cards are up the sleeves somewhere, but there are clearly extra arms to this person.

Even in forum discussions one tries to get help figuring out this and that, but in most if not all cases it seems like one only gets evasive explanations that stack together in some kind of misshapen structure, but that do not seem anchored anywhere. It’s always a game of smoke and mirrors (mirrors that play a symbolic part in the books). And it’s frustrating because at some point you begin squinting so much that you get the illusion of seeing something, with the omnipresent doubt that you’re only imagining it. Being so ephemeral and deliberately obfuscated, it encourages speculation, but one has to know that it only goes to feed the minotaur.

This is my opinion of the book. If I decided to read the whole cycle of 12 books (eventually) is not because I expected a fun, enjoyable adventure. It is instead because I’m interested in that “underworld” of meaning, hidden just below the surface. My problem with it is that Wolfe builds walls that I can’t get through no matter how hard I could try, and this leads to a frustrating experience. He isn’t interested to let me in as much as in throwing puzzles and riddles at me to solve, without giving me nearly enough pieces so that the solution is even possible. The whole paradigm is a paradox. It carries over to the prose style as he uses often a pattern of inversion. Things that are or behave inversely than how they appear. You are left solving a malicious, impossible puzzle that reassembles itself whenever you get close to something. And this would be indeed a “problem” if it wasn’t also part of the point.

The Book of the New Sun is too complex a work to evaluate on one reading. It will undoubtedly be considered a landmark in the field, one that perhaps marks the turning point of science fiction from content to style, from matter to manner.

I wonder if going from “content” to “style” is a worthwhile mission. Wolfe indeed has a dense, ornate and convoluted, I’d say elegant prose style that is often dull and hard to follow. It’s also not banal, so it keeps the attention on what he’s doing and how. It requires certainly a constant attention, similar to some eastern non commercial movies, where the pivotal moment can be one where no characters speak, not highlighted in dramatic music at max volume. You let go your attention in a moment that appeared as a mere transition nested between two more important scenes, and you miss everything.

The “underworld” is certainly intriguing. It’s a big tangle of erudition, Wolfe taking all sort of mythic, religious and scientific notions from all known cultures, then removing their context and merging and transforming them till they become unrecognizable. A “decontextualized apocrypha”. But doing this he also realizes the transformation of culture through the ages, how the original meaning is lost forever, prompting something new. Many of these ideas touch cosmological arguments that I’ve hinted here and there on the blog (before I started to read this, it’s just stuff that intrigues me). There’s more than one reference to the Kabbalah and it’s interesting to track what Wolfe is doing with it since it’s what gives the larger framework. But he also leaves me with the impression that it’s all an elaborate labyrinth of misdirection. With mostly dead ends. For example when I read Erikson I can see the themes surfacing, reflecting on different perspectives, returning from different angles. But Wolfe is so busy hiding all meaning that he can’t also offer a discourse. He leaves things uncommented, simply stated or hinted, but never faced or directly experienced.

The gulf between plot and story, between the apparent and the real, alerts the reader to the fact that Wolfe is playing a complex and contrived textual game.

It’s a floating cathedral of meaning. It’s built on a artifice, risking of remaining detached and, so, irrelevant. But it’s from there that it also draws its undeniable qualities. The reader is a deliberate part of this game. The “purpose” of the series is not directly in the hidden message that keeps frustrating and irritating me, but in its effect on the reader. It’s strictly in the bleeding to death in front of the minotaur:

Rather, by effectively concealing his narratological sleight of hand and constructing a puzzle for his reader, Wolfe attempts to alert that reader to the level of perception required. Hence, The Book of the New Sun does not invite the reader to marvel at how clever Wolfe can be, but to marvel at his or her own intelligence in perceiving one facet of the elaborate textual game the author plays. In this sense, Wolfe’s tetralogy is a masterwork in that it can be read as a paraliterary fantasy but demands to be read as a comment upon, and a reaction to, such narratives. In effect, it is a coolly intellectual denunciation of passive reading practices, a clarion call to readers dulled by formula fiction.

It is only by observing how s/he has been deceived and cajoled that the reader comes to appreciate more fully Wolfe’s vision of humanity as a helplessly subjective species attendant to the whim of manipulatory forces. This observation is encouraged by the self-conscious stress on deception, artifice and artificiality that permeates the text and which emblematises Wolfe’s textual game with the reader.

From his other fiction, it apparent that Wolfe perceives the world as an ambiguous round of perceptions and misperceptions in which the individual struggles, and ultimately fails, to apprehend the precise nature of existence.

You try to understand, and the moment you feel like you can do it, taking up the challenge, is the moment you give the minotaur the vantage point to slay you.

What I continue to criticize, in opposition to that quote, is the fact that this game IS indeed indulgent, self-focused and self-serving. Sophistication bordering on narcissism. It is not a case that those who are passionate the most about this series are those that ascribe to it “literary” value, putting it one step above all other works of fantasy and Sci-fi (and so reiterating the same pattern). This “pretense” is for me very visible in the books and its style, not just its readers. And in the way it actively selects its readers, while rising barricades to those not “erudite” enough. The cold disregard. It’s not as much as being “sincere” and faithful to itself (“I thought them [the complex jargon] the best ones for the story I was trying to tell.”), as it is a deliberate will to create its elitist, esoteric group of like-minded who can properly perceive the subtext and savor the complex fabric. It’s the practice of literary snobbery and sophistication, secluded and removed. It doesn’t work by making the reader “feel” that complex experience, but actually failing at triggering ANY emotion, as long one is rejected and can only glide hopelessly on the surface. More often than not that’s the reader’s experience, and it will only be enjoyed by that selected elite that can ridicule that reader that tried to get in and failed miserably. Wolfe transforms the patient reader in one that can and should be taunted and laughed at.

So while there’s certainly a great value in this work. It is surely also very pretentious and written to gratify a certain public. A narrow public carefully selected to appreciate the sophistication, and that Wolfe had precisely on his mind when he wrote these books.

(if you’re interested, there’s a lengthy forum discussion that precedes this I’ve written here)
(and this is instead the insightful review that I quoted in mine)