Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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…