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‘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

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Mat looked each of the five men in the eyes, nodded, and started toward the tent flap, but paused beside Talmanes’s chair. Mat cleared his throat, then half mumbled, “You secretly harbor a love of painting, and you wish you could escape this life of death you’ve committed yourself to. You came through Trustair on your way south, rather than taking a more direct route, because you love the mountains. You’re hoping to hear word of your younger brother, whom you haven’t seen in years, and who disappeared on a hunting trip in southern Andor. You have a very tortured past. Read page four.”

Mat hurried on, pushing his way out into the shaded noon, though he did catch a glimpse of Talmanes rolling his eyes. Burn the man! There was good drama in those pages!

Generally speaking I select a quote from the early section of a book, illustrating  a particularly descriptive event that captures the overall style of the book. For this latest entry in Robert Jordan‘s long-running The Wheel of Time saga I made an exception. Having passed away after a long illness in 2007 many fans assumed the series itself would remain unfinished. Then word was received that Brandon Sanderson had been chosen to complete the books. I will explain below why I chose the quote, but let me add, as I mentioned in my review of Sanderson’s Mistborn series linked to above, that I began reading Robert Jordan a long time ago.

In fact it occurs to me that I only continue to read this series because I need to know how it ends, after spending most of my early adolescence pouring over the series.

As such, a quick note on The Wheel of Time itself. Initially starting out as a fantasy novel in the Tolkien-mode, with three young men from a village being hunted by the evil forces of a satanic presence known as The Dark One, the series developed by giving greater focus to court intrigue and war. Rand al’Thor, Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon are all ta’veren, which relates to the mystical underpinning of the books, each of them capable of influencing what is referred to as The Pattern, the fabric of creation itself. Not only is Rand the most powerful of the three ta’veren, he is also the reincarnation of an enemy of The Dark One named The Dragon. Certain men and women in Jordan’s fantasy universe, like Rand, have magical powers, relating to two counterbalancing sources known as saidin and saidar.

As he has accepted the role of Dragon Reborn, Rand has been declared a messiah by some and a force of chaos by others. For the majority of the series he has been attempting to unite the various kingdoms to fight against The Dark One, who is destined to be freed in an event known as Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle.  Enemy agents, referred to as Darkfriends, monsters and religious bigots have hunted and harried Rand throughout, as well as conspiring to prevent the kingdoms from joining forces.

Sanderson ably maintains the tone of Jordan’s previous novels and concludes a number of subplots that had been dangling for some time. Rand’s grasp on sanity is becoming increasingly perilous, which he has been forced to acknowledge to some of his allies. Perrin and Mat are finding themselves pulled by the Pattern against their will to join their childhood friend as the date of the Last Battle approaches. The Aes Sedai, an order of women who practice saidar, are forced to defend their base of Tar Valon from a foreign invasion. The speed of events has certainly picked up considerably in this book.

However, I chose the above quote because that is one of the few moments when I feel Sanderson’s voice entering the writing. For the most part he imitates Jordan, who sadly had increasingly begun to rely on tiresome clichés and stock situations. There is a very slight critical tone to the proceedings, as Sanderson clears out the accumulated plot-dross of nineteen years.

The Wheel of Time has been mocked for its depiction of the battle between the sexes, its repetitive prose and inflationary cast, but I am going to finish this series despite my embarrassment at having read it for so long! The devoted fanbase has waited a long time and while the occasional rock album raised a chuckle – take a bow Blind Guardian – the Last Battle is long overdue.

Wait,  today is the Rapture? Dammit!!

I felt like I was trapped in one of those terrifying nightmares, the one where you have to run, run till your lungs burst, but you can’t make your body move fast enough. My legs seemed to move slower and slower as I fought my way through the callous crowd, but the hands on the huge clock tower didn’t slow. With relentless, uncaring force, they turned inexorably toward the end–the end of everything.

Lady, I hear ya.

It’s almost been a year since the events of the first book and Bella Swan’s birthday has come round. Turning eighteen only serves to remind her that she is growing older, while her vampire boyfriend Edward remains seventeen. And a high school senior! So things are already not proceeding that smoothly for the ‘teenage’ couple when they decide to celebrate Bella’s birthday at the Cullen family household. Then Edward’s adopted brother Jasper is sent into a frenzy at the sight of Bella’s blood caused by a small papercut. As this confirms the worst fears of Bella’s vampire swain, he decides to leave her and the town of Forks, taking his family with him to some unknown destination.

Abandoned by Edward, Bella falls into a deep depression, only surfacing when she reacquaints herself with Jacob Black, who still nurses a crush on her. She enjoys his company and so tries to insist that their relationship is simply a friendship. Jacob proves to be extremely persistent, taking her gentle refusals with good humour and puppy-dog eyes. Still she cannot forget her passionate obsession for Edward Cullen and even begins to experience hallucinations of his presence when her life is in danger. Eventually Jacob’s warmth and affection slowly wears away her resolve and she starts to think of a life without Edward. Until one day he simply cuts off all contact. Feeling lost and bewildered she wanders into the forests surrounding Forks, only to meet Laurent, a member of the vampire pack that had hunted her the previous year. He brings her a message from Victoria. They’re going to kill her and with the Cullens gone, there is no one to protect her. Bella’s fate seems sealed, but then a pack of werewolves arrive to defend her. One of them even looks familiar to her. Are there any boys in Forks that are not mythical monsters!

Are we sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin. Perhaps my description of the plot implies that this is an exciting tale of danger. Well, it’s not. Not be a long shot. There are upswings of excitement in the narrative, but they come few and far between. I hate all the male characters. I am sick of the endless descriptions of Edward’s perfection and in this book Jacob’s muscular frame also heaves into view. The only other things Meyer seems interested in are cars! There’s a major disjunct in the story after the Cullens leave, with the plot of the first book seeming to repeat itself when Bella discovers yet another clan of fantasy creatures living nearby. As for the main character, I dislike how what little description of Bella we get show her to be a clumsy clod, a ‘magnet for danger’ and completely unable to cope without a man in her life. The religious subtext of the books also bothers me. Worst of all, Bella’s rejection by Edward leaves her an automaton, focused on being a ‘good girl’ for her dad, cooking, cleaning and keeping her grades up. She never feels any anger towards the vampire, which usually helps when you’ve had your heart broken.

On the other hand… I don’t like these books, but lots of folks do, so who am I to throw the first stone? After all I just reviewed Brandon Sanderson purely to get a bead on how he would finish up the Wheel of Time series and they are terrible books. Maybe the kids reading Twilight will grow out of them and find Jodi Piccoult. Or if they’re fans of the beefcake, maybe they’ll discover Anais Nin? Also if the Volturi are a dig at the Church of Rome, well I’m not too bothered by that. Hell it reminded me of a Bill Hicks quote. So I guess live and let live is my conclusion. I’m tired of all the obnoxious complaining about Twifans, as it only led to this.

Furthermore…Team Alice? Oh Meyer, you cad!

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.

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