Category Archives: Books

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.

I’m 35 pages from the end of The Shadow Rising and tomorrow I start right away with another “epic”: The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil.

I’ll read it on the sidelines, the same as I’m reading Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (another “hefty” 560k volume), so it probably won’t be put on my reading progress tab. I’m also reading the Italian version since I trust more the translation and I know it to be very good.

The Man Without Qualities is unfinished, though. One English version in two volumes out there is 1770 pages, but that includes a bunch of rough sketches and drafts at the end. If counting only the finished to almost-finished part (so including the galley chapters) then it’s around 520k words.

Reading the preface, I was reminded of George R. R. Martin. See if it doesn’t fit perfectly:

The extent to which Musil regarded this novel as experimental was extraordinary. He had begun work on it in earnest in 1924 and was most reluctant when the urging of publishers and worsening external conditions forced him to publish parts of it in 1931 and 1933 (pages 1-1130 in this edition). From his point of view, the entire text ought to have remained “open” from the beginning until it had all been written and he could then revise the text as a whole. He complained that partial publication removed those parts of the novel from the possibility of further alteration, as well as distorting the shape (again, a never defined, “open” shape) he had in mind for the whole work. As it was, in 1938, in less than robust health and apparently apprehensive that he would again be forced into premature publication, he withdrew the first twenty chapters that appear in “From the Posthumous Papers” when they were already set in galleys, in order to rework them still further. These chapters were intended not to conclude the novel but to continue “Into the Millennium.” Like Goethe, Musil had a strange sense of having infinite time stretching out before him in which to complete his task. One is tempted to see in his solitary and stubborn pursuit of his ideal more than a little of Kafka’s Hunger Artist.

Stubborn writers with artistic ideals bigger than life.

HA! I’ve got this one in Italy one day BEFORE official US release. Take that, and blame Amazon Europe that didn’t respect the date (and if you are in Germany they got a really low price). Usually it takes me at least one week past release to get a book.

Anyway, while I’m not a big Sanderson fan and this isn’t exactly my preferred reading, I’m still very glad of getting this book and happy to start reading it right away (at my pace). It’s been three years and a few months after The Way of Kings. Maybe I could have planned my reading queue better since right now I was focusing mostly on The Shadow Rising and I consider Sanderson and Jordan relatively similar, in that both are fairly light and leisure kind of reading, but I’ll stick with it.

This Stormlight Archive series is a big investment for Tor, in this age post-Jordan, and you could have seen it concretely in the first book. It wasn’t just a way to deliver words on a page to you, but a rather nice package that had been very carefully built to draw attention and do the best service possible to the words it contained. They wanted this book not a book, but an event.

First, it got Sanderson’s favorite artist for the cover, Michael Whelan, who actually made a really good cover, with warm and strong basic colors and an evocative scene that let transpire the book’s aspired breadth and epic range. It celebrated the scenery more than it celebrated some chosen hero. It then had a bluish hard cover with a sword-like symbol impressed on the front, and a nice texture. Then you flipped the page and there were two gorgeously colored illustrations, one with a map of the regions of the world, the other with a Tree of Life wannabe diagram with fancy symbols. Again the two full-color illustrations mirrored on the back cover, one showing some spiritual equivalent of the map, the other a variation on the Tree of Life theme (and my disappointment was that absolutely none of this was introduced or even glimpsed in the actual text). Than a two-pages acknowledgements by Sanderson telling you how this wasn’t just another book he wrote, but actually the apex of his ambition, the one true project he was really investing himself into. So up the hype.

Then you got an index. And you could see that Sanderson was using every single permutation that he had available. Fantasy books indulge with structure-related artifices, like quotes or poetry to start a chapter, frontispieces, prologues and epilogues, maps. Sanderson took everything (almost, he’s missing family trees and Dramatis Personae). He had a Prelude, sub-division into Five Parts, Prologue, three Interludes (which I enjoyed the most out of everything else in the book), an Epilogue, Endnotes and even a quick & dirty Appendix. And then he took also quotes at the beginning of each chapter, and illustrated chapter headers. But not like WoT chapters headers, with a symbol to represent the chapter. Nope, he had an arc-like thing whose sculpted faces changes as the chapters change AND an illustration within a circle to better represent the theme. And then he got illustrations. Actually good and sometimes useful illustrations. Nineteen of them. Some of which artsy, inspiring maps of cities or other regions.

So the book was overflowing with presentation-driven aids and embellishments. It wanted to make this book more than a book, an experience. It wanted to seduce you with words and colors and art. Because that’s the point: ten of these 1000 pages volumes are planned by Sanderson for this series (without even considering a wider structure to which this series is supposed to belong to). He wants you with him for the long haul. This is his, and Tor, contemporary Wheel of Time, and this time, instead of being found by success, they are planning for it. Planning big, all in.

I can at least enjoy and empathize a little bit with this hype. It doesn’t hurt and I always admire and appreciate ambition. So if I can breath some of that hype it just adds to the experience and makes me actually excited to read the book without overthinking that in the end it’s average fantasy, really. At that point the writing itself is alone to prove itself, but up to that point the presentation made sure to put the writing in the best position possible.

So the point now is: has Tor weakened its effort and marketing push in regards to this second volume? The answer: it’s about the same.

I was worried that after the big splash we’d instead get far less commitment for this second volume, but instead Tor at least made the fist volume into a canon. So this second volume is a very precise copy of what we got with the first, with maybe slightly less love overall. The new cover is rather underwhelming, and nowhere comparable with the one used for the first volume. The chosen hero is now featured prominently on the cover, in a rather cheesy pose/act. The environment is dull, the colors a sickly and drab yellow palette. It seems more like a cover for Peter Pan. The scene has none of the depth of the one in the first volume, and the lance that the character is holding could have at least given the cover some dynamism, but it’s completely obscured by the title. So a mediocre cover overall (if you told me it was made by some dude imitating Whelan’s style I’d believe it). But it retains the style and artist, so it’s the artist in this case who failed to deliver. The book itself is instead red, with a nice silk-like texture to it and another symbol/glyph engraved in the front, different but in the same style of the one in the first volume. You flip the page, but the illustrations with map+Tree of Life are gone. We get instead a two-page illustration by Whelan again with Shallan on a rock, and it’s actually far, far better than the illustration on the cover, whoever chose that one over this is a total fool. On the back cover instead we get a two pages color illustration of the map. Which is basically the same map that you get in black and white within the book. So overall the four gorgeous illustrations in The Way of Kings don’t have an equivalent parallel in Words of Radiance, sadly. A bit of slack.

The inside instead follows closely the first volume. We’ve got again Acknowledgements by Sanderson, this time two pages and half, but only because they greatly embiggened the font. Sanderson again pushes on the hype with this book that is not just a book, and also explains that writing a book is becoming a thing of teamwork, with various “consultants” to help with specific aspects of the writing, like continuity, character psychology and horse behaviors. Then the usual Index listing the exact number of illustrations that were in the first volume, and a similar smattering of Prologue/Interludes/Epilogue. Interestingly, The Way of Kings played with part two and four subtitles: “The Illuminating Storms” and “Storm’s Illumination”. Words of Radiance does something similar with parts two and five: Winds’ Approach” and “Winds Alight”, but where ‘approach’ and ‘alight’ are titles of respective parts. The illustrations appear on a individual basis less cared for compared to the first book, somewhat more perfunctory. Everything else follows the model of the first book. Thankfully We get the exact same font, size, lines on each page. The official wordcount for The Way of Kings was 387k for 1001 pages. Words of Radiance has 1080 pages, and even if I didn’t manage to get a wordcount from Sanderson & assistant, we’re likely around 405-410k since everything is the same, including the wide margins on the page. In the end 400k make for a REALLY long book, but conventionally so. There’s nothing extraordinary about that.

So overall the quality of Words of Radiance, when it comes to the package & presentation, is slightly below the level of the first book, but thankfully Tor maintained the exact same, already lofty, standard. I’m very glad they are sticking to the format, and I roll my eyes thinking that most surely at some point in the life of this series will come an overzealous editor that will start playing with font sizes, pagination and overall layout just to ruin the consistence you expect. Because it always happens.

But for now the two books are a perfect match, and look great side by side.

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.

There’s an article on commenting Donaldson’s final book in the Thomas Covenant series, but it is more a simplistic wrap-up of the series as a whole.

I have only read the very first book whereas this guy has read them all, yet I’m pretty convinced that he just doesn’t “get it”. At all. He basically writes poorly motivated insults throughout the whole article, clumping together with some humorless snark all the worst cliches about Donaldson. But he then tries to play the surprise card by saying the series is great. In italics, because italics gives so much emphasis to throw out of balance all the insults preceding it.

I’ll get to the title, but the first thing that really annoyed me is this rhetorical device of using pejoratives while still trying to write a praise. As if one’s too coy to admit liking something and so proceeds using 99% of the space just to apologize for all the bad things. Why should a reader loving Thomas Covenant books APOLOGIZE? Are we really at this point of rhetorical shame? Of utter dishonesty?

He basically starts, after slyly comparing these books to adult diapers just to set the mood you’ll find for the rest of the article, by saying the series’ theme “of self-pity, and its deeply problematic nature” is “gross”. That’s like a first and final declaration of intents: whatever happens, you won’t empathize. Which means you should already close the book. Thomas Covenant can ONLY work as long you shed your own prejudices and judgement. You have to listen. If you don’t want to, go read a different, complacent book.

The other aspect that makes me think he doesn’t get it at all is this comment about The Land:

Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder, but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence, even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash. So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work, but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness.

You can see again the rhetorical device of using pejoratives even if the point is really to praise the work, even if that’s also another coy rhetorical device whose actual point is to truly diss the work. One slap and one pet, because the true kings of judgement are always squarely in the middle, and able to discern.

Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder (bad), but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence (good!), even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash (bad!). So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work (bad!), but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling (very good!) that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness (huh… bad?).

He makes you believe that the ultimate judgement is, surprise!, positive, but leaving a so bad taste in your mouth that’s in the end you won’t dare touch the soiled diaper. And he wins! Because that was the true, unsaid purpose. The “cleverly” disguised goal.

But again, the worst thing is that he doesn’t get it. There’s already this big misunderstanding in the genre about “world-building” that seems the most important prerequisite writing fantasy. It make sense it is, but here it completely sidetracks the purpose of the work. Donaldson writes about a secondary world called “The Land”. The name already should tell you how utterly generic and inconsistent the thing is. The key element here: a writer who brands his important secondary world as “The Land” is not a bad world-builder, he simply isn’t even TRYING. Branding this world as The Land is a declaration. It is generic not because Donaldson is unable to come up with a fancier, more specific term, but because it being generic is THE POINT. This land he’s describing is specific, but it is also, and most importantly, abstract. It is a symbol. It “represents” a land more than it actually “is”. By being generic it can embrace and represent every internal imaginary landscape. It’s one cliche of fantasy world, a metaphor turned into a specific object. But still a metaphor, so abstract and generic to apply to all sort of imaginary spaces. “One ring to bind them”.

Everything else follows from there. The Land is imagined. By being imagined, and so man-made, it is meaning-full. Objects ooze sense. They ooze emotions. The emotions, that are usually seen as impalpable and metaphysical (hello Bakker, I’ll get back to you) here are made into rocks, tree and grass. As in The Matrix, where things are made of numbers, this “Land” is made of thought and feelings. It is imagined because there’s a guy named Donaldson who imagines it. And because, in the book, this device is perfectly retrieved: there’s a guy named Thomas Covenant who imagines it! Thomas Covenant, SPOILER!, is dreaming. Dreams are made of symbols, not of “things”. And dreams have, very obviously, the “intensity of feelings”. That’s the whole point, you know? So this isn’t a weird collision of good and bad writing skills, or good and bad world-building. This is a collision between this guy getting and not getting the thing. Mistaking deliberate choices in the writing, for “flaws”. And he makes sure you don’t misunderstand all the “praises” he wrote:

That’s not to say he’s a writer without flaw

And finally we come to the more controversial bit. The blatant declaration:

As with the Flashman series, you are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character, but there is no denying or mitigating it: Thomas Covenant is a rapist.

I really tried to understand what his purpose is with that line. It’s not immediately clear to me. It starts with “your are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character BUT”. Thomas Covenant is a rapist.

That’s an affirmation. He underlines the fact it is. It’s like saying “Thomas Covenant has blue eyes”, but not quite because it’s more than just an observation or description. It’s a “label”. It is meant to reverse in the mind of who reads it. A rapist is Thomas Covenant.

Thomas Covenant: rapist.

That’s the label. He’s being flagged. This is a character reduced to a single angle, one dimension. And that’s the kind of intersection that does exist in the book. You either decide to be nonjudgmental here and actually go deeper in the story, or this fact is a screen and you bounce back. The whole thing is a “test”. It is a test as much for Thomas Covenant as it is for the reader, and neither seem to pass it.

But IS Thomas Covenant even a rapist? Because things aren’t that simple, and that claim is actually not correct. In fact, the book reproduces directly within itself the boundary between “real” and “fictional”. The same barrier that seems rather problematic for some readers and that brings them to absurd affirmations like saying that if Bakker writes a book about a misogynist world then it means Bakker himself is a misogynist. Blurring constantly fiction and reality, interpretations for facts.

In the case of Thomas Covenant the character rapes a girl in HIS DREAM. Not only, but it’s one of those “lucid dreams”, so he’s also aware of the fact the world he’s dreaming is fictional, and so that all the harm he may cause is also FICTIONAL. He’s “guilty” of raping a fictional character in a dream. Making it close to accusing a writer of murder because he wrote a crime story. “No fictional characters were harmed in this book”. And it’s not just that, because Thomas Covenant never backs up from what he did. He never tries to justify himself, and so he suffers the consequences of what he has done as if it was actually real. He rapes as if it wasn’t real, but from that point onward he acts as if it was. The society finger-pointing “a rapist!” doesn’t even come close to the way Thomas Covenant is changed by the experience. And no, I’m not implying that rapists do suffer as much as their victims and we should all pity them. NOPE. The story here remains an imagined landscape that plays with that burred barrier of fiction and reality. Being an imagined landscape it means Thomas Covenant himself is the “measure”. The “society” cannot rise to judge Thomas Covenant because all this is happening within Thomas Covenant, and that includes the society itself. It’s Thomas Covenant recreating society within himself. The point of view here is authoritative, as authoritative is the fact you’re reading a written story. It is introspection. The rape and its consequences are BOTH introspection. No real girl was harmed. No fictional-real girl was harmed (since even in the book this happens within Covenant’s thoughts). Stephen Donaldson didn’t rape anyone and him and Thomas Covenant are both only guilt of introspection, and maybe wild imagination.

Thoma Covenant is not “a rapist” because that label empties the character entirely of its worth. It replaces a number of fundamental, ambiguous questions with an affirmation that is entirely false on all accounts, and so it means not engaging at all with the story at it is written. The rape in the book is never justified in any way. Neither in subtext, nor directly by Thomas Covenant. I’ve justified it here, but in the end it’s a challenge thrown at the reader. You will empathize or not, you will understand what Thomas Covenant did or not. The ambiguity, and actually difficulty in answering that question, is one of the book’s central themes. Can there be redemption when what you’ve done can’t be recovered? What will you do if you can’t go back? That triggers most of Thomas Covenant self-pity, because nothing can compensate what he did. What is sufficient compensation or punishment for rape? You throw yourself (because it’s introspection) in jail for the rest of your life? You cut the manhood, throw it in a jar and make her a present (“we are even now”)? You give her a knife and let her stab you till the end of times? You go to her and repeat “I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry!” a billion of times? The answer is that there’s no answer. So what now? That’s one of the questions.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if now someone claimed what I’ve written here is “rape apology”. Or that since I liked reading a book about a rapist then I’m a rapist too. Or that I’m saying all this because I’m “male and white”.

Nitpicking, the rape actually represents rape toward the land as a symbol and not as a sexual act. It represents Thomas Covenant lashing out against his dream and “violate” it. Soiling it in a non salvageable way. So the girl he rapes is actually just the spirit of the land that was humanized, innocent and pure. The way dreams usually work.

I got today a really nice copy of “Weaveworld” by Clive Barker. I was a fan as a kid, when I read Cabal and then proceeded to read most of the Books of Blood. Then I entered a new phase and left the “horror” genre behind. Now I’m back with my interest focused on the more “fantastic” side, Weaveworld and Imajica.

Nice copy, I said, with textured cover and seventeen black & white illustrations by the author inside. The book opens with a powerful quote:

…the spirit has its
homeland, which is the
realm of the meaning
of things.

-Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

That’s tied always to the same theme. The dichotomy. “This” side we have language, meaning, symbols, gods and mythologies. The spirit is the realm of human beings, separate from nature. The “fantasy” genre has the power to paint it more vividly. Meaning-full.

The book also contains a very interesting introduction by Clive Barker. It has a number of parallels with Steven Erikson. I’ll quote the latter part:

It isn’t necessary for a storyteller to have answers to the questions they pose, of course; only to be interested enough to ask them. Weaveworld is full of unrequited enquiries. Why does Immacolata’s hatred of the Seerkind burn so intensely? Is the creature in the Empty Quarter an angel or not? And if the garden of sand in which it has kept its psychotic vigil is not the Eden of Genesis, then where did the Seerkind arise from? There are certainly answers to these mysteries to be wrought and written, but they would, I am certain, only beg further questions, which if answered would beg yet more. For all its length and elaboration, the novel does not attempt to fill in every gap in its invented history. Nothing ever begins, its first line announces; there are innumerable stories from which this fragment of narrative springs; and there will be plenty to tell when it’s done. Though I get requests aplenty for a sequel, I will never write one.

The tale isn’t finished; but I’ve told all I can. That is not to say my attitude to the work does not continue to change. In the past ten years I’ve gone through, periods when I was thoroughly out of sorts with the book, or even on occasion irritated that it found such favour with readers when other stories seemed more worthy. And in the troughs of my discomfort, I made what with hindsight seems to be dubious judgments about fantastic fiction as a whole. I have been, I think, altogether disparaging about the escape elements of the genre, emphasizing its powers to address social, moral and even philosophical issues at the expense of celebrating its dreamier virtues. I took this position out of a genuine desire to defend a fictional form I love, from accusations of triviality and triteness, but my zeal led me astray. Yes, fantastic fiction can be intricately woven into the texture of our daily lives, addressing important issues in fabulist form. But it also serves to release us for a time from the definitions that confine our daily selves; to unplug us from a world that wounds and disappoints us, allowing us to venture into places of magic and transformation. Though of late my writing has concerned itself more and more with detailing that wounded, disappointing reality, as a reader I have rediscovered the pleasures, of unrepentant escapism: the short fiction of Lord Dunsany, early Yeats poems, the paintings of Samuel Palmer and Ernst Fuchs.

The author who wrote Weaveworld has, however, disappeared. I’ve not lost faith with the enchantments of fantasy, but there is a kind of easy sweetness in this book that would not, at least presently, come readily from my pen. We go through seasons perhaps; and Weaveworld was written in a balmier time. Perhaps there’ll be another. But its tender inventions seem very remote from the man writing these words.

Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that: though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

Nothing is fixed. In and out the, shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter, woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden amongst them is a filigree which will with time become a world.

Ah! That last line.