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‘Does it bother you not at all to bind ghosts?’ he asked at last. His thumb slid across the knuckles of her left hand, not quite touching the ring. ‘To enslave them? Not even spirits, but the souls of your own kind.’

‘Every ghost I’ve bound committed crimes that would see living men imprisoned or executed. You wouldn’t let a living man who tortured or murdered his family go free – why let him do such things in death?’

His lips twisted. ‘I know many torturers and murderers who walk free, and I suspect you do too. Even so, it still seems…cruel.’

Ah memories. This time last year I was still pumping out reviews every day, even during the festive season. Now I have the luxury of taking my time with my reading – too much time some of you might be thinking. Just the other week I was browsing in Kinokuniya and decided that I wanted to read a fantasy book written by a woman. Perhaps that strikes you as a strange prerequisite, but to my mind the success of Twilight and its ilk proves that there is a huge demand for fantasy literature among women, but the stereotype of the basement dwelling male fan persists. In many respects The Drowning City challenges those preconceptions of fantasy literature, a point I will return to below.

Isyllt Iskaldur is a secret agent from the kingdom of Selafai who travels openly as a necromancer to the occupied territory of Symir. Her mission is to undermine the expansionist Empire that rules the city. The Assari conquerors are resented by the native people of Symir as well as the unquiet dead and it seems all she will need to do is fund the efforts of the revolutionary movement that seeks to topple the occupiers and her task will be complete.

Complications, however, soon ensue. One of her party shortly after their arrival becomes troubled by the nature of their mission and is tempted to defect to the rebels. What’s more, there are schisms within the movement itself, with a group known as Dai Tranh favouring more extreme methods that threaten the lives of the occupiers as well as the native inhabitants of Symir. Then there is her abilities as a necromancer suddenly becoming highly in demand, as spirits are rising up out of anger at the occupation they died fighting to prevent and possessing the bodies of their descendents. Finally Isyllt encounters an imperial mage named Asheris, whom she suspects is himself a double-agent of some kind. In setting in motion the plot of her masters to cripple the Assari Empire, has Isyllt only succeeded in wiping out a city of innocents instead?

What I find fascinating about Downum‘s vision is her fusion of Sino-Arabian influences. The Assari broadly parallel the Ottoman Empire, whereas the culture of Symir is devoutly concerned with spirits and the revering of ancestors. Isyllt encounters a devouring spirit known as a ganghi, a concept similar to Chinese ‘hungry ghosts‘.

This is a welcome inversion on typical fantasy tropes founded on Anglo-European mythology and folktales. I have discussed often on this site the debt modern fantasy owes to Tolkien’s raiding of Saxon and Nordic myths. The Drowning City goes so far as to feature a climax familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings. Of course the inversion of the X-Y axis of fantasy continues with the genders of these characters, most of whom are female as opposed to the stock standard sword-wielding male bruisers weighing down the shelves in your local store’s fantasy section with their overly detailed biceps.

If I had a complaint about The Drowning City it would be that the points of view of characters chop and change within chapters quite rapidly, with nary a telltale paragraph symbol. I suppose the crests and emblems of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin have left me spoiled in that respect.

This remains a confident and fascinating mixture of storytelling and worldbuilding. The first book of Downum’s series The Necromancer Chronicles, I look forward to the continuing adventures of Isyllt. Betrayal, political intrigue, magic and fraught romance – Downum delivers it all.

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

Thou dost not know me, Holly. Hadst thou seen me but ten hours past, when my passion seized me, thou hadst shrunk from me in fear and trembling. I am of many moods, and, like the water in that vessel, I reflect many things; but they pass, my Holly; they pass and are forgotten. Only the water is the water still, and I still am I, and that which maketh the water maketh it, and that which maketh me what I seem, seeing that thou canst not know what I am.

It is always a great pleasure for me to encounter a classic adventure serial or novel and still be gripped by the narrative. Too often the trickle-down effect caused by plagiarizing and imitative creators robbing the beats of these original tales in the years since its publication lessen the impact. H. Rider Haggard has been a writer I have avoided precisely because of this. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ has appeared in different guises not only in the writer’s own sequels featuring Allan Quatermain, but the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Lady Galadriel and of course in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey.

As was the fashion of the time with fantastical adventure stories, Haggard plays up the conceit that this is an account of true events. So the story we are reading is in fact a document received by an nameless editor – the author himself – from one L. Horace Holly. The manuscript describes an incredible journey taken by Holly and his charge Leo to Africa, hoping to unravel a dynastic mystery connected to the younger man that stretches back in time to the pre-Christian era and may have led to the death of his father. Accompanied by long-suffering manservant Job, the group follow the directions left to them on a preserved clay shard , only to be shipwrecked and left stranded in a dangerous and unexplored region of the continent.

The group are rescued from certain death at the hands of a hidden civilization of man by the wise and venerable Bilali. Holly and Leo manage to communicate with the old fellow via a corrupted modern day version of his language and are informed that ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, the white-skinned ruler of these people desires to see them. What unfolds is an adventure that becomes increasingly perilous for these proto-Indiana Joneses – being Cambridge academics that are also a dab hand at fighting off a multitude of opponents when the occasion arises – and one that may cost the young Leo his very soul.

My edition of She comes with an introduction from Margaret Atwood, lampshading the present-day relevance of the book by claiming Ayesha as prefiguring feminism. This feels unnecessarily shallow. The quotation I opened this review with comes from the most interesting section of the book, wherein Haggard flirts with the anti-Christian substance of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha is fascinated by Christ’s message of peace, because in her eyes this is a typically weak and perilous philosophy for the cruelties of existence. It is a fantastic scene, because Holly is of course merely spouting the party line of what Christianity represents, as opposed to the realities of conquest, occupation and oppression that empowers the Church as an institution.

In that sense Ayesha in fact prefigures the secularist critique of Christianity, albeit in a fantastical way.

Haggard work is of its time, so there remains issues of chauvenism, racism and anti-semitism (towards both Jews and Muslims) in play here. If the modern reader can accept these caveats, the book can be enjoyed as an adventure story with ambitions beyond its seeming rip-roaring escapism.

She by H. Rider Haggard

‘It was on this precise spot, as I remember it, that Calica stood to address the senate, urging caution in the Empire’s eastern expansion. It was down there that Juvens replied to him, arguing boldness, and carried the day. I watched them, spellbound. Twenty years old, and breathless with excitement. I still recall their arguments, in every detail. Words, my friends. There can be a greater power in words than in all the steel within the Circle of the World.’

‘A blade in your ear still hurts more than a word in it, though,’ whispered Logen. Jezal spluttered with laughter, but Bayaz did not seem to notice. He was too busy hurrying from one stone bench to another.

A few months ago I came across this very interesting discussion by Joe Abercrombie. I had become a fan of the writer since my review and his account of how he was unfavourably compared to J.R.R. Tolkien by Leo Grin raised a grin. This notion of moral relativism in fantasy is quite an amusing one, particularly since the last thing The Lord of the Rings is about is righteousness (Hobbits being made of much softer stuff than warriors and kings, yet in the end winning the day). The comparison was playing on my mind when I began reading this book though.

After the events of the previous novel, Logen Ninefingers finds himself trekking into the wilderness in the company of a legendary wizard, Bayaz First of the Magi, chasing after a long-lost weapon. Colonel West has been handed the unenviable task of ensuring the foppish Crown Prince Ladisla achieves a safe military victory in the Northern territory of Angland. To the south Inquisitor Glokta has been assigned to protect the city of Dagoska from an implaccable foreign army. His mission is hopeless, but he is spurred on by his hatred for the people who broke his body under torture, leaving him a bitter and twisted shell of a man with a razor sharp mind.

With the business of introducing the cast of this series done by The Blade Itself, Abercrombie concentrates on delivering sizable conflicts on a grand scale. The siege of Dagoska in particular is horrific, with Glokta using every trick he can think of to stall the Gurkish army in their progress. West finds himself in the centre of a rout when the arrogance of the Crown Prince, and a peculiarly wily enemy who outmaneuvers the main body of the army, forces him to flee a devastating assault. In the company of a motley gang of Northmen exiles he desperately tries to hang on to his civilized bearing and perform his duty in protecting the life of Ladisla. Unfortunately nothing would make him happier than to take the selfish prig’s life.

To all intents and purposes it is Logen’s sections of the series that supposedly describe the central narrative. Abercrombie gives us a sense of scale with the different outbreaks of war, but Ninefingers and his fellow adventurers are evidently on a quest, of the sort most common in fantasy novels. This is where I began to think of the comparison made by the uppity Grin. As it happens much of the material was disturbingly familiar. Bayaz is a flawed and occasionally unreliable magus, much in the way of Gandalf the Gray. The group visit the devastated city of Aulcus, which reminded me a little of Moria with its ominous shadows and incredible grandeur gone to rot.

My worry is that fantasy novels invariably begin to plough the same furroughs. I could mention that Robert Jordan also echoed Moria with his Shadar Logoth, yet another haunted city. Just how many wizards and weather-beaten warriors have traipsed before our eyes on the page over the years. The author here has a running joke that the magi all speak in riddles and circumlocutions, which few of the other characters have any patience for, a welcome criticism of the genre.

Abercrombie’s theme though is that the characters in this series The First Law Trilogy are in effect all monsters. Some are simply better at hiding it than others.

Perhaps the material is familiar, but Abercrombie still invests his writing with far more bite than most out there. Plus these books are very entertaining and deliciously black humoured. I cannot wait to read the next entry.

Before They Are Hanged Joe Abercrombie

“I didn’t believe her when she told me stories of the wood, what a strange place it is – but she’s gone there, and she’s gone for good. Four days ago she went away. She won’t come back. And I’m a dead man, as good as. I’ve seen what’s happened to her”

“She’s been gone for a year and a half, Jim. She was gone a year when you turned up again.” Richard felt awkward. “You were gone for a year yourself…”

As the much harassed cat in Pépé Le Pew cartoons used to exclaim “Le Sigh”. Folks, some days are tougher than others. I never expected to still be doing this on the cusp of December, with Christmas only a short few weeks away. When I resigned from my job back in Ireland, just before we took off for our new life here in Australia, I fully expected to have found myself new employment by now.

But here we are and I still have not heard anything about my status. Tis wearying.

That’s probably why I was in such a bad mood while reading this book.

Richard Bradley came home one rainswept evening to witness a woman leave his family’s home, carrying what looked like a bow and running off into nearby Ryhope Wood. This is only the first of a number of strange events that effect the Bradley, all appearing to centre around Richard’s precocious son Alex. After a school stage production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the family’s car nearly runs over the presumed dead James Keeton, wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Mysteriously Keeton has been missing for over a year. He disappeared shortly after his daughter Tallis, a close friend of Alex’s, also vanished. Yet Keeton shows no signs of having aged. Even his bathrobe is almost brand new, not the tattered rag it should have been after a year of sleeping rough.  What’s more he claims he has only been gone for several days.

The wildeyed Keeton whispers to young Alex cryptic babble about his missing daughter, insisting that she is still alive, but elsewhere, in another world. During one of Alex’s visits to the hospital Keeton is seized by a vision of his daughter, now old and dying in this other world and dies, with the boy left in a near catatonic state by the experience. Soon Richard is forced to commit his son to the same son Keeton was recovering in. Then he too vanishes.

Unable to comprehend what has happened Richard retreats into himself, having accepted as the years pass that Alex is dead, refusing to dwell upon the uncanny circumstances of his disappearance. Then a team of explorers studying the nearby wood attempt to recruit Richard. They claim that Alex is still alive and living within the wood itself, but refuse to divulge any more than that. Also the woman he saw leaving his house in 1959 is among them, but she has no memory of this event.

What follows is a journey into the collective unconscious of Britain, the wood itself housing a number of archetypes from British mythology, including a shapeshifting ur-Jack The Giant Killer, a trickster god similar to the sylvan Puck and Robin Hood. When the team reveals they are following the notes of a researcher of the wood named ‘Huxley’, who was a contemporary of Carl Jung’s, this information being relayed to Richard by a Frenchman named Lacan, I have to admit I let out a groan. It turns out the explorers are not so much interesting in the Bradleys out of sympathy for their plight, but because the mind of Alex has begun to manifest new elements, or ‘mythagos’, within the wood. In effect, they see the child as a corruptive influence on the dreamworld Huxley studied.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has a lot of writing about trees. Of course, he saw his books as an elegy to an England lost, with both its mythology and countryside overrun by the modern world. Holdstock seems to be attempting a similar project and while I applaud its sincerity, I found it too derivative. Revealing that Jason and the Argonauts are actually a bad bunch of boyos is I guess meant to be shocking, but the idea that childhood heroes are actually too good to be true is hardly original. What’s worse it undercuts the pretense of Jungian themes.

Overall I found this book dull and pretentious.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’.

One hundred books! Oh my eyes are tired. To celebrate I chose to re-read for the umpteenth time the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit and then its larger sequel while I was still in school towards the end of the 1980’s. In many ways the experience defined my taste in reading ever since, so I felt the choice for today was appropriate. What’s more returning to this book I find much that is familiar; but also many elements of Tolkien’s writing that I did not notice before.

As this is a sequel to the popular novel The Hobbit, Tolkien begins by returning to the Shire, where a race known as hobbits once lived centuries ago during a time known as Middle-Earth. Bilbo Baggins the hero of that book is celebrating his 111th birthday and has chosen to travel once more on the open road, leaving his home and possessions to young Frodo Baggins. His old friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, arrives in the Shire to see him off. Before Bilbo leaves the wizard asks that he bequeath his magic ring to his heir, won during his adventures in a contest of riddles with the creature Gollum. At first the old hobbit refuses, shaking with anger, but he eventually relents. He leaves the Shire, suddenly feeling as if he has been unburdened.

Years pass before Gandalf returns to Frodo’s home in Bag End, revealing that the magic ring hidden for all this time is in fact The Great Ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron to command all the races of Middle-Earth. Frodo decides to flee the home he loves so well, knowing that as long as he stays all his friends are in danger. Gandalf encourages him to leave in secret, for there are spies from the east, the land of Mordor, abroad looking for news of the Ring.

Accompanied by his trusty man-servant Sam, and friends Merry and Pippin, Frodo leaves the Shire just in time. The party of hobbits have several close escapes from mysterious Black Riders hunting them, even at one point seeing one sniffing the ground like an animal. They are also faced with other dangers during their journey, such as the powerful Old Man Willow and the dread Barrow-Wights. Eventually they meet a ranger who is known as Strider, who offers to help them travel to the safe haven of Rivendell. Only after a terrifying chase do they make it to the house of Elrond Half-Elven. There a final council is held to decide what to do with the Great Ring and Frodo realizes he has little choice but to bear it into the kingdom of Mordor itself. Only there at the volcano where it was first forged can it be destroyed.

In my opinion The Fellowship of the Ring is the best of the three published books that make up Tolkien’s epic story The Lord of the Rings. For one it bridges the charming tone of The Hobbit with the increasingly more grandiose quality of its sequel. The Shire is shown to be sheltered from the greater dangers of Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s love of the bucolic lifestyle of hobbits is unfeigned. Years after reading this book I discovered a painting by Pieter Bruegel The Land of Cockaigne, which perfectly captures this contrast.

This almost childlike innocence of Frodo and his friends is threatened by the malign evil of the Black Riders. They appear in each of the three books, yet I never found them as frightening as when they were chasing hobbits down country lanes. Evil is a great concern of Tolkien’s, here identified as the corruptive influence of power. Sauron exists to pervert life and cheat death. The Christian subtext in the novels favours the worthiness of innocent hobbits over mighty warriors.

It is also a book about the passing of things, representing Tolkien’s idyllic vision of his childhood. Repeatedly he describes how magic is leaving the world of Middle-Earth, leaving the world of men behind.

Like a warm blanket, I enjoyed sinking into it for a day.


The two men shared a look. Finally Breeze spoke. “Lord Ruler knows, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. But, Kell, I do question your reasoning. Are you sure we can do this?”

“I’m positive,” Kelsier said. “Previous attempts to throw down the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen – and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task.”

I should explain how my reading speed works. Basically, I need to be interested in the book I’m reading to finish it quickly. For example, the book I have had the hardest time finishing in time for review on this site so far has been Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It bored me silly and I just managed to get my piece published in time, despite it being quite a slim book. So why am I reviewing a book that is over six hundred pages long? I am very interested in Brandon Sanderson. See this is the fellow who has been handed the unenviable task of wrapping up Robert Jordan’s overlong and unwieldy Wheel of Time series. Which I first began reading in 1992. I grew out of the books, but I just want the series to end, so I can find out what happens. So I tackled one of Sanderson’s own books, to see what kind of writer he is.

The story begins with a land shrouded in mists and covered in black ash. The Lord Ruler controls the lands of the so-called Final Empire, his reign over a thousand years old. The people his armies enslaved long ago are known as skaa and they believe him to be nothing less than a god. One night in a regional settlement the cries of a young girl are heard as the provincial lord’s men drag her away. The skaa do nothing. Tired and frightened, they accept that this is the way of things. A stranger who has recently arrived goes out into the night in pursuit. When he does not return the people assume the men who kidnap their daughters killed him as well as the girl. In the morning they awake and find the young child they thought lost returned. The castle has been burned to the ground, the soldiers defending it dead and their lord stabbed to death by the stranger. His name is Kelsier and he is what passes for a hero in these times.

The Lord Ruler’s capital is known as Luthadel and for most of Vin’s short life she has lived on its streets, stealing to survive. Her brother is gone and she is utterly alone. Until Kelsier, the man referred to by the skaa as The Survivor finds her. He invites her to join his crew of thieves, men who work together and even seem to trust one another. What makes her special? Vin, like Kelsier, is a Mistborn, capable of drawing power from diluted solutions of metals and alloys. Allomancy is an ability restricted only to the nobility who serve the Lord Ruler. Any who hide among the skaa and practice these powers are hunted down and killed by the agents of the Final Empire, known as Inquisitors. All of Kelsier’s men have some ability with alomancy and he has a plan. They’re going to pull off the biggest con of all. Collapse the Final Empire itself.

As I was reading, I had this niggling sense of familiarity. A crew of thieves with special powers? A long-con designed to financially cripple a powerful enemy? A hero with a tragic past and a precocious young women with amazing abilities….this is the fantasy version of Inception!(which you can read me kvetching about here and here).

It’s also a post-nationalist fantasy, something of a constant since the time of Tolkien. The setting is mostly urban, you have morally gray heroes and a fantastically bleak premise (the jacket reads ‘What if the Dark Lord won?’) – Sanderson has, unwittingly or not, become a torch-bearer for Moorcock’s revisionist take on the fantasy genre.

Well developed characters, interesting concepts and a climax that actually delivers (this is the first book in a series), I am impressed.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

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