Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best written character ends up being the Morrigan.

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

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

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

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

“Did we not?”

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

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

His survival depended on his refusal to accept the impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Matrix.

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

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

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

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

Futility is the defining characteristic of life.

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

He felt that he was the lodestone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As explicit as it gets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally in the Epilogue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Kingdom of Meaning Well
Fisher kel Tath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was young and still making my world.

Oh, this book. If you know me from past reviews or forums you know I’m a big fan of Erikson and his immense Malazan series, but it still wouldn’t be just enough to make me interested in whatever he’s going to write in the case it goes out of the boundary of his fantasy series. This book was published one year before “Gardens of the Moon”, the first book in the Malazan series, and it can be considered “mainstream”, meaning that it’s a story set in our world and without any fantasy element in it. That puts it right beyond my reach, because, as I explained, my interest is limited to his fantasy work. I bought it because a new version is coming out in January, revised, and I found out that only used copies were available of the old one, that also had a much better cover. It cost me just around two dollars, so it was an handful of trivial details that made me buy it on a whim, and when it arrived I started to read since it was also a nice change of pace from books exceeding 800 pages (this one being “only” 359). Just curiosity.

I was expecting to find some seeds from which the Malazan series would grow, and a style of writing yet to mature, rougher even compared to GotM, that would show the hints of the kind of writer Erikson would become later. I was expecting to find that kind of hidden talent still to blossom that you can discover when reading the early works of some important writer. Now that I turned the last page, and certain of what I’m saying, I’m bewildered because this is Erikson’s best work, and by a fair, safe margin. It’s so much better, stronger, sharper, more powerful. Despite having liked a lot GotM I’m between those believing it has its flaws. It shows promise but it’s only the spark of what comes after it. It shows a writer that has talent and insight, on the right path but still compromising a lot and finding his voice. I argue about these flaws in discussions, but I recognize they often are legitimate. Well, for me that excuse won’t hold anymore, because I have in my hands a book, published one year before, that turns those specific weakness that many recognized into its sharpest points. This book excels on those specific aspects that were widely recognized as weaknesses in GotM. The characters feeling pulled randomly out of a roleplaying game and not developed, the plot that seemed to move without cause and effect, “not caring” about was going on. Being left cold, unengaged by a story folded on itself and without showing access points to let the reader in. A cold, confusing, contrived and apparently shallow world that only a certain type of geek could find interesting.

“I didn’t care” is probably the most hurtful thing you can tell a writer, any writer. You are telling them that their work left you cold, unaffected. Unfeeling. A story that was a waste and wasn’t worth spending time reading. It means failure even if that work has been interesting in some other ways. Every reader knows of holding that weapon, and will leash out to stab viciously without a second thought. That’s the nature of the deal and I’ve often found it in discussions about the Malazan series. Even if my opinion is different, I still recognize some truth in those claims. This part of the discussion could go on about the details, but it serves me to say that “This River Awakens” turns everything on its head. So often we all suggest readers to try again, to stick with the Malazan series and go at least through the second book, because it gets so much better, the prose is better, and so many of us completely changed opinions reaching that further point. The excuse we make is that almost ten years passed between the writing of the first and second book, and Erikson improved immensely, just you see. Well, that excuse can’t hold anymore because “This River Awakens” shows a sheer talent already fully mature (you could fool me telling me this book was written -after- the whole Malazan series). It has characters I’ll remember forever and that seized forcefully my heart, and then squeezed. Books never, no matter what book, what writer, what genre, get me so emotionally that I feel the swelling of tears and a tightening inside, I don’t know why, but books don’t work for me that way. But this book breached anyway. “Not caring” here is impossible, I dare you. It kept me on the edge, turning pages with the heart tightening (and quickening) to find out what would happen. Sincerely, this book was emotionally the opposite of the Malazan series. That I love, you should know, but never gripped me this much viscerally. Not Itkovian (he’s in this book too), not Felisin, not Heboric, not Coltaine and his Chain of Dogs. This book was more.

I know that the more I gush the less I’m credible, but this is the kind of book you want EVERYONE to read. A thing that can’t be left private and forgotten, knowing you hold a kind of treasure that is your exclusive. But you have to read this book. I imagine it must feel frustrating for Erikson having written such a masterpiece, then become popular for writing three million words in a fantasy. I’m not belittling the genre, I mean that “This River Awakens” is a book that is indispensable to read even if it can’t rely on hooks like epic wars, fireballs and dragons (though, there IS a dragon). It’s a kind of book that too easily gets lost and forgotten in that uniforming sea that is “mainstream” literature, with no stars above to help orientating. This book is a “rite of passage” or “coming of age” story like millions out there, why picking, specifically, this up, from an unknown author (as Erikson/Lundin was at the time)? You write this book, so powerful, mysterious and filled with revelations, and then you see it drift out in the ocean and sink.

And I guess it must be also frustrating, would Erikson be coming to read this I’m writing, declaring that this early, first book is better than the three millions and five hundred thousand words he’d wrote afterwards. That he wouldn’t get any better. But this I say because it’s what I’m honestly thinking, and because this book just can’t get pushed out into oblivion by that juggernaut that is his Malazan series. Admitting no distractions, or indulging outside what is already a pretty huge, even rare, commitment. This book needs to be read. Why, the book itself will tell you.

I’ve said how special this book was for me emotionally, but what it reveals is equally important. The seeds of Malazan are all there. This is a mythical book, filled with deep meaning and mysteries, as many you’d find in a Malazan book. It also shares its generosity, as everything will come together in a powerful way, revelation after revelation. The story will build, seeking a release. It will respect your intelligence and at the same time it won’t bait you only to reveal that there’s nothing behind the curtain (no magic, but permeated by sense of wonder and marvel). I need to say that, unlike GotM, there’s no struggle to get in the story. It will be measured and is as character-driven, slice of life as it’s possible. Something of its structure is shared with the Malazan style as you get to see a small village and a PoV for almost every character. This builds a system and you’ll see as the story develops how each life and action causes ripples in this sort of community, all these stories will come together, naturally, by the time the book ends. In some ways it reminded me of Stephen King’s IT (because of the four kids that make the core of the book) and Under the Dome, seeing this small system and how it develops. Only that Erikson can outmatch King all so easily, in what King does best: dealing with the monsters that brood and stalk in the shadows. These characters so splendidly written and real. If I have to find a flaw, being pedantic, is that in some lines of introspection some of that truthfulness of the characters breaks, because Erikson (as in the rest of his work) has a tendency to put things too beautifully into words, to overly articulate the thought, that is sometimes implausible when you are dealing with a thirteen years old. Even if I know to “never underestimate characters”. (though we could open a discussion here, because it may also be justified and deliberate)

If “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy won (deservedly) the Pulitzer, this book should win symbolically twice the prize. That book dealt masterfully with the father/son relationship and you’ll find some similar themes here, bereft of rhetoric. In a review on Amazon I’ve read the book described as repulsive because it contains “graphic descriptions of sick human behavior”, well, that should be a warning because it can be indeed VERY dark and reveal unashamedly the ugly bottom of human soul. It won’t flinch. Some themes may be eye-rolling inducing because already seen and refashioned millions of times in all mediums. There’s an alcoholic father, there’s domestic violence, violence on animals, a veteran from the war. But believe me that Erikson here has talent enough to veer away from that kind of rhetoric and commonplace. Not unlike David Foster Wallace, the worst of the worst characters with the depths of hell as their souls will still make you care for them. This kind of merciless and dark style of narration is never for sensationalism. But this is the kind of book that doesn’t need any excuse or guidance, just read it, I’m sure you’ll see on your own. I dare you to read it and “not care”, just try, I’ll eat my hat if you don’t. No forum discussions needed to explain why this book is a masterpiece above any genre, or demarcation of any kind.

I thought about the stranger, the one who’d once used this secret room, the one who’d sat here at this desk absorbing words and words and words, swelling, bloating and still devouring pieces of the world, until its face had become every face, and no face. The stranger, who was no more in anyone’s mind but mine. And the stranger’s secret, this room and all its books, nothing but food for the rats.

I’d tried so hard. Dragging the giant to the history in this room. Dragging this history to the giant on his bed of sticks. I’d thought it important, as if in remaking the world I’d find in my hands a gift. Of understanding, of feeling, of something other than this shivering solitude.

Some other quotes here.

This book, and series, is particular to begin with because it’s very rare to see discussed in the usual places. It could appear as some old series buried and forgotten, written by a writer that was well known at one point but didn’t quite make into the Big Names that continue to be relevant. Instead this is a series “in the making”, right now. Series’ name is “The Wars of Light and Shadow” and will be completed (it will) in 11 volumes. The 9th comes out in October of this year and usually one can look forward to a two-years gap between each volume. I tend to have quite a bit of trust in the writer as I’ve read in her forums and interviews that she never strayed from her original plan and is strongly against series that “sag or sprawl”, as well as cliffhangers at the end of the book. In fact this series is structured in five different arcs, with each giving closure to the story at hand (this is true for the first book, that makes a single arc on its own).

It wasn’t in my reading queue as I had never heard about the writer, but curiosity took over. I certainly like Grand Plans in literature, akin legendary human achievements, and the more I started to gather information the more curious I got. Especially because of what I read in a interview, about the approach to the writing and the series. The name already gives a good idea about the central conflict that builds it. A war of “light” and “shadow”, mirrored by two brothers, opposite in nature and natural magic proficiency. The 800 pages of this first book are quite focused, the two main characters are the two brothers and the PoV rarely drifts away from them. The setting is broad and sprawling (at the periphery, since only a small chunk of the landmass shown in the map is actually explored) but there are only a dozen or so characters that gravitate around the two brothers. So the story is rather railed on its way and doesn’t sprawl. After 200 pages or so the course is set and one has the idea of the type of story that is shaping up. More confusing at the beginning, there’s a short opening page written from a point “out of time” (relatively, meaning an epoch distant from the one where events take place) that already frames this primary conflict, filling it with foreboding.

The story then opens not in some isolated farm or village at the periphery of the map, but outside the map itself (with me wasting a lot of time to find the location in the almost illegible map in the minute paperback, location that obviously wasn’t there). Another world, in fact, linked by portal. Only after the first 100 pages the two brothers get exiled and actually enter the “world” where the rest of the story will take place. Here the two brothers are immediately “rescued” by the “Fellowship”, a group of seven wizards that waited for this arrival for a long time, and that have already woven them tightly into their own plans (the “free will” is an important theme here). Athera, the world they come to, is plagued by some sort of curse in the form of a mist that completely obscures the sky, keeping this world in a permanent gloom, without sun or starry skies. The premise appeared to me quite ridiculous and fancy, but this superficial level is not the deal, and there’s indeed an interesting world hidden below (the mist).

Lead by prophecies, the first task that the Fellowship appoints to the two brothers/mages/future kings is to join forces, and powers of “light” and “shadow”, against this unnatural mist, so that Athera will be able to see a clear sky again. But this also becomes the trigger for the main conflict and the origin of all woes. The Fellowship’s plans and reasons are given a full exposure. They aren’t treated like an hidden manipulative organization with shady purposes. You can see the conflict of their motivations, of cause and effect. Be there when they decide the next move. Through a sort of “mage sight” they can “scry” all possible future events, and then decide which course to take. But the Mistwraith, the mist that covers the world and that arrived through another of the world portals, is an element “outside” the picture that doesn’t follow their know rules, and so can easily avoid prediction and distort the outcomes.

That element, and quite pivotal being the seed that sparks the whole conflict, is the part I liked the least. The first part of the novel is a very good description of the conflicted relationship between the two brothers. It opens amidst war and Arithon (the “shadow” brother) is taken prisoner. From this point onward the two brothers face each other directly, and slowly come to understand each other. The conflict is eased, almost resolved. But this is only the early part of the book and one is already well aware that the rest of the series is founded on this particular conflict. That’s the problem. This precise and deep, solid characterization is taken over by an escamotage. Essentially the whole conflict is sparked again by magic possession. It’s not truly convincing and it disrupts the work on characterization that precedes it. There’s some justification of what happens that surely grounds it better, but never coming off as so convincing:

Where opening did not already exist, the creature could not have gained foothold.

…But it certainly gives the decisive shove. The fantastic element becomes strength and weakness. The weakness I already described (the conflict has its root in magic, and magical unbalance) but it is also a strength in the way Janny Wurts builds this setting. The fantastic element is always a delicate part in fantasy novels regardless of who writes them. For many readers who prefer to stay away from the genre, the “fantasy” is something that opens a wide gap and so feels not relevant. Something alien or too estranged from a reality that is actual and matters. So a way to mystify truths, an excess of decoration. A fancy dress for a trite, juvenile argument. But here also lies the difference between the greatest fantasy writers and the rest: they use the “fantasy” not to dress but to strip reality of its layers. To reveal instead of hide. To go at the root of things, to understand deeply and without hypocrisy. As Janny Wurts said:

Fantasy allows discussion of sensitive topics with the gloves off.

That’s also the aspect I tend to criticize in the work of much bigger names in Fantasy. Martin being an example, being somewhat wary or suspicious about the “fantasy” element, and so keeping it almost off the page, far at the periphery, because it would upset the natural balance of a novel. And then without really understanding it and without knowing how it can be used once the series moves in that direction (a brilliant review of ADWD deals with these aspects).

This romantic idea of a world covered in mist, the plausibility of it and acceptance of the reader, are then the purpose of fantasy. Not to embellish or narrate of worlds that do not exist. But to speak intimately about ourselves. The inner world. The fantastic element is not a decoration or a veil that hides, but the coming of the revelation, a veil that comes off to let one see. It deepens the perception. And that’s why fantasy has the responsibility to stay grounded and cling to something that has to be meaningful and necessary. Not consolatory wishful-thinking, but language that is powerful and ambitious in its purpose.

I put Janny Wurts in the wide area of Erikson or Bakker for these reasons. Writing the “pretentious”, ambitious fantasy. Writing in the genre as a strength instead of a liability. With a clear vision of what they are doing and why. Janny Wurts has a far more classical/romantic style that keeps her more apart, even if not shying away from the brutality of the fight that closes the book. She keeps all the sharp, “gritty” edges, not blunted by romantic undertones (that are still there aplenty). The book has the vague feel of the Wheel of Time, but written from an adult and “serious” perspective. It has the strong classical feel and embraces the fantasy element, but the setting is solid and realistic, perfectly nailed and one of the best described in the genre. So is the magic, I’ve never seen (or thought possible) to describe magic in a so vivid way. It’s tangible. Whereas magic is usually kept vague and abstract, only dabbed in description, Janny Wurts describes minutely the details and behaviors, managing to make sense of it and keep it consistent. Often compared to the complexity of music and its rules, that can then be analyzed through great effort and manipulated:

a loophole in the world’s knit that hinged on a theoretical blend of fine points

The Fellowship, the group of powerful wizards that take care of the world, is not kept distant from the reader. The book offers their PoV directly and so the description and interpretation of their use of magic. They even behave as you’d expect of people wielding that kind of power and awareness: by manipulating directly every event in a brutal, arrogant way, yet coming off as the “good” guys. Even if in the end their actions become self-serving, and their attempts to restore their own power triggers all sort of cascading disasters. Relatively “good”, as this is another series that pivots around the idea of “gray” characters only driven and justified by their motivations. In the same vein of “modern” fantasy that “doubles” and opposes the PoV, treating equally both sides caught in a war. In this book this is the real driving theme, as the conflict between “light” and “shadow” is driven by respective flaws. It’s a story about making hard choices, accepting compromises that imply costs impossible to tolerate, and yet taking responsibility for all of this.

Whose cause took priority? In this world of divisive cultures and shattered loyalties, no single foundation of rightness existed.

But beside all this, it’s really a weird book and not one that I can easily recommend. The prose is an aspect I left on the sideline but that is the most important when it comes to decide whether or not to read this book. It is so lush and thick that it’s almost impossible to extricate (feels like work). I can’t even imagine how it can appear to those who use to “skim read”. It requires a lot of attention to keep track of things and there’s the constant risk that the eye glazes over, so you always have to keep that control and not sink whole in the prose. Beautiful, beautiful prose, surely, lush descriptions and minute, chiseled characterization and psychology, but it requires an effort.

Amid that graveyard of ravaged splendour, of artistry spoiled by war in a cataclysmic expression of hatred, arose four single towers, each as different from the other as sculpture by separate masters. They speared upward through the mist, tall, straight, perfect. The incongruity of their wholeness against the surrounding wreckage was a dichotomy fit to maim the soul: for their lines were harmony distilled into form, and strength beyond reach of time’s attrition.

A prose that soars, but in a way that often risks to become a huge yawn. The reader is only human, and attention has always the tendency to slip off. Not all that much brisk dialogue that feels like a chilly breeze. You often have to wade through beautiful, but thick, paragraphs of intricate description (of both psychology and landscape, treated equally). And yes, the book is SLOW. There’s a point where I draw the line, though. I don’t feel that the book meanders or overindulges in description of stuff that is not relevant. This prose is not opaque or rhetoric or redundant. Under there there’s some impressive characterization and masterful control of storytelling. As I said: it’s not a fun, brisk pageturner and it demands and clear, focused mind, but the purple prose is not superficial decoration and has always the root into something meaningful. Which is why, despite the effort, I also kept the determination.

Oh, and the fanciest of sex scenes:

In the sunwarmed air of their sleeping nook, he allowed her quiet touch and hot flesh to absorb his bitter brew of sorrow.

Another potentially problematic aspect is that despite a neutral approach to the characters, it’s Arithon to lead the way. He’s the one who retains a certain awareness, and the one that is most sympathetic. But he’s also the one with a supernatural sensibility and comes off as the “emo” type. Maudlin, always contemplative, with a Christ-like spirit of sacrifice (that brings its own flaws). You share with him all his thoughts, psychology and development, and this also takes its toll if you don’t like to indulge in this kind of analysis. On the other side Janny Wurts writes this kind of character splendidly and never falls into a boring or redundant cliche. It brings back to the essence of the writer, that is: to care. The quality of being born many times, and so become different characters. Be in their place. To feel. So this book demands a similar care and patience.

This makes a kind of slow, contemplative writing that is not for everyone. What I’m saying is that this “mist” or noise is still well rooted into something meaningful that made the effort worthwhile in my case. I’m looking forward to see the story open up and expand, less constricted by a relatively formulaic first book that is only the spark that sets the fire. From the first pages of book two (that opens the second cycle) it seems that there’s a gap of at least five years, so the story will surely grow from its premises and I’m curious about where it will go since the writer has said that every step has a point in the Grand Scheme of Things, and everything will converge for the closure of the series.

Bonus, the french covers. That are both beautiful and pertinent to the content of the books:

This is a controversial book. One that does not play safe or is written for comfort. It’s a vertical climb, it is ambitious and audacious. Especially, it shrugs off everything that doesn’t belong to these adjectives. After all the recent discussions about nihilism and the lack of strong, edifying moral messages in Fantasy, what’s written in this book ridicules and disregards the simplicity of the framing of those passing judgements. It goes beyond. The fabric of this book is made of “delusions” and “revelations” locked together in a system with no end: a revelation only becomes set-up for a much bigger and crushing delusion. It’s when one thinks of leading that he’s only lead on a leash.

The basic idea is contained in the title: The Darkness that Comes Before. It’s this concept that originates the locked cycle. It creates a pattern that can then be recognized in different themes. The first described in the book is an anthropological idea. Men create their belief systems, their gods. Before/after signify a position of cause/effect (“what comes before determines what comes after”). If gods are man-made, it means that men “came before”. Like a tool created for a purpose, the tool comes “after”, is built/created by someone. But the complexity of the world is unattainable, so men created the gods in order to frame and explain what was beyond their grasp. They created the gods and put them “before”. They confused what came after (the gods they created) for what came before. This is the first way to interpret that title, the “darkness” is the unknown, the unrevealed gods that created the world and everything else.

This same pattern then “returns” in a context that is more unsettling, because it is far less impersonal as it tears down the barrier of “fantasy” that keeps these stories away, and us safe on this side. It’s about every one of us: if a man is the movement of his thoughts (so the fact of being “conscious”), but what he thinks and does is not cause, but consequence of a myriad of influences, a chaotic complexity beyond his grasp, how can he be certain that his thoughts are his own? Hence the “darkness” again, coming before. Because we have only the illusion of control of ourselves, while in truth we are being moved, like puppets caught in winds. Mockery of conscience. The “delusions” are not one of possible conditions, but the true space we live. We sleep.

This is not the first book of Scott Bakker I read, but the founding idea returns even when he does not write Fantasy. It is not repetition or redundancy, but, not unlike Erikson, it becomes a study, the same idea seen always from different angles. It’s the major theme Bakker writes about and it reminds me a similar obsession and desperation for the need to cling to a sense of awareness that can be found in David Foster Wallace work. Only that Bakker’s revelation is that there’s nothing to cling to, as we live entirely within the illusion, and there’s only horror in the realization. You can’t stay “aware” because you can’t wake up, or see through.

Yet what drives the writing is a desire to show. To awaken. As for “Disciple of the Dog”, Bakker tries to shake the reader, address him personally (metaphorically) so that the book won’t leave one indifferent. It tries to reach through the page, grasp you by the throat, and pull you down in. It’s not the comfortable, lulling, immersive experience of traditional Fantasy, which is why you should read this book. At 577 pages in a large font it is far more “concise” than other epic Fantasy. It is an important trait because this book is extremely focused, determined, ruthless and brutal. While the plot has an “epic” range, it doesn’t sprawl at all. There’s no decoration or elements that aren’t strictly necessary. Worldbuilding is usually seen as a basic and important characteristic of epic fantasy, this book can stand proudly among the very best, yet basically nothing is there to add detail and flavor. Necessity drives every word.

I’d say, thematically it covers a similar space of the Malazan series. It also has a similar approach, mindset. I’ve even read that some readers consider Bakker a “subset” of Erikson to the point that they consider him (Bakker) superfluous to read. This is true to an extent, as I said that they have areas that overlap and do some similar things, and it’s also true that Erikson has more tonal variety in his writing, plays with humor and the song is usually “richer”, with more notes and ranges, a far more vibrant palette. But to me, for my preference, they stand equal. And I wouldn’t do with just one or the other, meaning that reading both actually ADDS to my satisfaction. Bakker is more extreme and ruthless than Erikson, in a few cases outclasses Erikson in what Erikson does best. If one is richer and has more range, the other can thrust deeper.

That was thematically, what the books are about, how they feel, what they want to say and how (and why). Instead stylistically, meaning how they are written, Bakker is at the extreme opposite of Erikson and much closer to, say, Martin. It means that one doesn’t really need to adjust to the style, which is more traditional and accessible. A good (but occasionally over-dramatic and “turgid”), flowing, descriptive (but without any redundancy) prose. In the first 100 pages only an handful of characters are introduced, and even less PoVs. You have only what is sensible of the story, and time can pass without describing every move of the characters (it’s not Jordan). Beside a few occasional pages, there are five or so major PoVs that drive the narrative. The structure maybe resembles more to “The Way of Kings”, meaning that these PoV don’t regularly alternate, but follow more directly the need of the story, so a PoV may hang suspended for more than a hundred of pages. Thankfully without resorting to cliffhangers, so when a PoV closes it usually doesn’t frustrate the reader and leave him wanting.

The structure of the plot may remind of Lord of the Rings. The wider frame of the narrative, not the content. There was a big war (the First Apocalypse) some two thousands years before the current events, only leaving the trace of a lingering legend in present times, like something remote and unreal, basically forgotten (which from this broad level can be considered a trope of the genre). Then patterns that re-emerge, hinting that something on that scale is coming again. “The Mandate” in this book fits a similar role of the “Night’s Watch” in “A Game of Thrones”, with the difference that Bakker thrusts deep in the mythology to drive the full impact of his themes. As the plot develops more layers are revealed and what is set into motion is obviously going to gain momentum without endless delays. What I mean is that there’s a sense of being right in the heart of the whirlpool of the events, instead of edging indefinitely at the periphery, waiting for something “big” to happen as can be typical of the genre. In this first book you are already there. It’s still the first of a trilogy, also letting you see where things are moving, but it didn’t give me the impression of waiting for something else.

Characterization, another of those fundamental axis that one typically uses to judge these books, is the best I’ve seen. From my point of view Bakker has no contenders. His characters are very distinctive without losing anything of realism and plausibility. They are defined extremely well and viscerally, in a way that respects them, while also using them for the purpose of the story. There’s far less “wishful thinking” than in Martin’s work. Which is also a problem when it comes to accessibility and reaching out to a wide public. Martin’s books have a wide appeal because there are plenty of hooks for a reader. Even if the characters are complex and not “pegged” into roles, they still exploit and rely on the sympathy/empathy of the reader. Bakker instead seems to take no prisoners and not look in the face of anyone. There are no easy and ready “access points”. I said he’s ruthless, and uncompromising. This means that his characters aren’t done to win the reader the easy way. They are not sympathetic and in some cases even those characters that are the hinges of the book seem to spit right in the face of the reader. Another aspect of characterization to point out is that part of Bakker’s style is the habit of “undoing” characters, of unfolding them. Usually writers keep a mystery and “magic” that helps the identification, as we chase after our feelings without truly grasping them. Instead Bakker disassembles some characters directly in the text, also meaning that sometimes they appear “broken”, non-functional, showing the cogs inside and provoking more a sense of pity than sympathy. Maybe even shame. The book is challenging and defies who’s reading. The very opposite of accommodating. You’d risk of dozing off, while Bakker wants that you wake up.

In the end this is the true value of this book. I have this contradicting habit of delaying the best stuff. I read this book after years I’ve bought it, left the best last. Expectations were met. For me Bakker and Erikson both are the APEX that Fantasy has to offer, and between them and all the rest there’s a certain gap. Neither of them are easy to recommend and and to enjoy. Both are challenging for different reasons, and due to completely different writing style it’s also possible that one could hate one but enjoy the other and vice versa. If you read this is because you want to explore or even breach a genre instead of being caged within it. You don’t read this book because you’re looking for more of the same. That’s what it offers, something challenging and uncompromising. Something that cuts deeps and that can’t leave one indifferent.

The problems are choices. There’s not a trace of comedy or lighter, relaxing scene (or none that stick out). The only humor is through a harsh and cynical perspective. Abrasive and scornful. No kind, loving words, if not ones that are meant to deceive. The book is brutal, there’s violence and sex, most often without any romance in both. There are no filters or censorship about what is “proper” to show and what to leave unsaid. You have to come without prejudices of any kind, or the book refuses you (metaphorically speaking). But it is important for me to underline that violence and sex in this book do not have a “pornographic” intent. They aren’t artificial stratagems to be edgy and gritty, or to titillate. Or to shock and gross the easy way. They are part of the nature of the story, which you have to trust. It’s not entirely grim and monotone, though. There are exceptions that are meaningful as they shine so much in the rarer occasions when sentiments are true and without hypocrisy.

EDIT: A follow-up.