I am diving in to the Malazan series written by Ian Esslemont, finishing the first one in the series – Night of Knives – a couple of days ago. Thoughts:
- Esslemont takes a bit of a risk in this novel, especially in the light of Erikson’s series, as he chronicles just one night. It only follows two points of view, which helps, and it tells the story of the night that Kellanved and Dancer ascend, but compared to Erikson’s novels which encompass long arduous journeys and long distances it covers very little space or time.
- It has the feel of a Malazan novel, or at least it does not betray the world. It offers a few more clues to motivation than does the Erikson series…
- In particular, it gives reasons for ascension that have nothing to do with religious purity or anything else of that oeuvre – the Emperor and Dancer ascend for reasons of power, nothing more, nothing less.
- It also gave me a far different reading of Malazan, as I was trying to put the Malazan quest for empire in a context that I understood (either Rome or the USA, with implications of establishing order). There is little attempt for justice here, no just war, no desire to bring law and its rule to other folks. For the most part (and there are exceptions) Kellanved and Dancer seek empire in order to dominate and perhaps wipe out other threats from other, often non-human powers.
- Esslemont gives more narrative intervention than does Erikson, which I sort of appreciate, since I spent most of the time in the other series confused. Still, I kept reading, so that confusion clearly had a purpose…
I finished the second book in the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms. I’ll try to sort out my reactions below…
- Jemisin has created a world that feels absolutely alien and inhuman, despite all the characters being either human or divine in human form. This world feels like it should be recognizable, but the powers that all of these characters have are so dramatic and always in conflict, with mortals stealing from gods and gods trying to contain mortal power.
- She borrows characters, or archetypes, from all sorts of mythological traditions, but nothing feels immediately recognizable. I find that sort of uncanniness compelling, because the sort of approach where a character appears and I as the reader can immediately say, of course, that’s Thor, feels lazy and uninspired to me.
- It’s more than just compelling, somehow, and that’s why I’m struggling so much with analyzing a novel that I enjoyed, a lot.
- I can’t find a typical lens to read it through – it’s clearly about power, and energy, and identity, but those are not the typical fantasy lenses, and thus my struggle.
- I get a bit of a feel of the Malazan series, but without the endless deaths and cannon fodder. This book only has one major character die, but there are no minor characters – everyone in here is dangerous in some way that they might not even comprehend.
- I can’t wait for the third book to come up in rotation.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin takes up the dismantling of fantasy that Martin (and before him Delaney) and Esslemont and Erikson joyfully participate in, and the result was thought-provoking (and a great read). Thoughts:
- Jemisin incorporates different religious perspectives in this novel. Tolkien messed around with supernatural figures – Gandalf is a Maia or something like that if I remember correctly from the Silmarillion, and Sauron is a pretty direct corollary to Lucifer – but he followed Christian theology pretty closely. Martin has his characters invoke the gods all the time, but we never see their direct action. The MBOTF authors are brave enough to risk the idea of ascension for mortals, and they also pit gods against each other for reasons that appear almost petty.
- Jemisin comes at this from another perspective – what if mortals were able to chain gods and make them fulfill their wishes? Limits on godly powers certainly make for an interesting theology.
- Jemisin blends lots of religious traditions – I see traces of Greeks and Haitian (the god who rides in Yeine’s body like a loa) for a start – in a way that neatly allows this novel (and series) to think of world-building differently than we usually posit it in fantasy.
- Yeine is an interesting character, one who lives in her own head a lot. As a result, we get to live in her head too, and my guess is that Jemisin uses this limited perspective to question the foundations of world building in fantasy.
- More on this as I continue the series, of course…
Number two in the Richard Sharpe series…
This novel depicts Sharpe in the Battle of Assaye in India under the Wellesley, and features a subplot with the asshole sergeant Hakeswill. Notes:
- I still cannot figure out how the casualties and replacements worked in this time period, or how someone could be a lifelong soldier and survive these battles. The casualty percentages are insane, and I am guessing that to be wounded in most ways was a death sentence. I remember reading a German novel about Napoleon’s retreat from Russia and thinking the same thing. So many dead, in a foreign country – the British Army and the East Indian Company must have been constantly recruiting. Visions of plunder must have been what motivated young British and Scottish men to sign up for almost certain death.
- I’m channeling The Clash here…
- The fact that capitalism produces all these folks willing to go murder people in a foreign land is readily apparent. Moving from an agrarian feudal system to industrial capitalism sure created a lot of wealth, but it also seems to have the need to try to seize that wealth into a cultural trope. Cornwell (and I’m assuming that Cornwell is very close to his narrator here, unlike the approach he takes in the Arthur series with his first-person narration) makes clear that Sharpe’s survival and combat skills come from his upraising on the streets of London. He has a recurring vision in this novel about going back to the orphanage where he was constantly humiliated and beaten as an officer to show those bastards what he has become. This is his only motivation for not switching sides when he is offered the opportunity by Lt. Colonel Pohlmann, the “Hanoverian”…
- I’m also getting increasingly frustrated with the portrayal of this British invasion (done by a private company?) as being seen as simply a way for various already-warring Indian sultans to create alliances. It doesn’t take much imagination to see just how powerful and overwhelming the British forces are.
- Perhaps I’m just missing Cornwell’s larger point, which is documentation of all this?
- I almost wish the narrative point of view spent more time with individual sergeants, especially of the Scottish units. Cornwell certainly praises their ability to take casualties and keep moving forward. This view of fighting is so different from our modern perspective that it’s hard for me to imagine. I keep remembering the portrayals of union soldiers in some of Grant’s attempts to pin down and destroy Lee’s army, being depicted by journalists as pinning a piece of paper with their names to their uniforms so that they could be identified when they were dead. Ambrose Burnside feels appropriate here too…
- Is it the distance that makes this cavalier approach seem so repellent? I’m comparing this in some ways to recent war fiction, and none of it seems this intent on celebrating the carnage.
I have read most of Cornwell’s Arthur books, about the Danish invasion of Britain, and having had the Last Kingdom series recommended to me by a friend and watching a couple of them I remembered that I wanted to read this series by Cornwell as well. I enjoyed reading Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and his portrayal of Sgt. Shatoe’s dragoons – especially designed to kill cavalry, according to Shaftoe – and I knew that Cornwell’s Sharpe series was set not all that much later.
That’s a long introduction to this novel, Sharpe’s Tiger, none of which is about the novel. Thoughts:
- I struggle with the idea of Sharpe as super-hero, but I think that Cornwell is using him more as a cypher than an actual British soldier who doubles as 007. He’s not Derfel Cardan, who is based on a historical figure (even one who may or may not have existed), and Derfel felt much more believable.
- Sharpe is simply someone who Cornwell puts in the a bunch of historical hot spots in order to let us as readers see into his portrayal of what happened, and my readerly attempts to make him more are sort of goofy.
- Sharpe reminds me a bit as well of Jack Shaftoe, the King of the Vagabonds and someone who Stephenson sees as survivor much like Sharpe.
- Cornwell’s battle scenes in this series are not as personal as they are with St. Derfel, mostly because Sharpe is not simply fulfilling a cannon fodder role, whereas Derfel fought in the midst of the shield wall. This also seem a bit more cavalier and glory-bound than the series set in the time of Arthur, perhaps because that time is harder for us contemporary folks to understand.
- I remember particularly the sense of loss and fall of civilization in the Warlord chronicle, mostly because so often they find themselves in a Roman ruin that is far better than anything current Britons can build. Life is much more difficult.
- I also remember the superstitious belief in religion, which Cornwell carefully documents as a struggle between the remains of pagan religion and the newness of Christianity. Christianity looks far more appealing in this re-contexualization than it does now, offering a way forward into a brighter future rather than the nostalgic look back that Christians appear to favor now. In particular, in one scene Arthur’s druids put up a wall that consisted entirely of hexes and fetishes. That wall held their left flank until their enemy finally brought in their own druids to counter it. Not many flanks are held in the Sharpe series by religious icons.
- Cornwell starts this series before the Iraq war and what felt to me like a newfound sense among the American public about the ways that camaraderie fueled courage in combat. He’s writing from a British perspective, and the way that I have always heard British officers talked about (mostly Montgomery, but the Duke of Wellington aka Arthur Wellesley as well) is that they don’t care all that much about their men. Still, this novel is not all that concerned with the loss and grief that individual soldiers feel for each other, nor does it give the sense of individual platoon tactics that made a series like the Malazan Book of the Fallen (or even Game of Thrones) so enthralling. Cornwell did provide this sense in the Warlord Chronicles I’ve discussed above, so maybe that sense of the individual lives at stake becomes more developed as he moves forward. Still, while there is compassion for the individual infantryman and admiration for his courage, troops still pretty much feel like cannon fodder.
- On the other side, though, Cornwell works at making Indians human, pretty carefully depicting the courage and humanity of those who led and those who fought with the British. Far more than in other discussions of this time period I got a sense of the reasons why Indians fought, and they felt much more realistic than I am used to.
- The British are not portrayed as beautiful people either. The first scene with Sharpe gives a vivid description of his looting of a corpse, and looting and rape are not ignored. Blood and destruction are also pretty carefully chronicled.
- Finally, the class divides between officers and enlisted men are not glossed over. Officers actually rarely come off positively, and most enlisted men are described sympathetically. As always, sergeants hold the line between, but they are rarely seen as American, WWII-type sergeants we see in Band of Brothers – determined to keep the men under them alive – but are instead mostly disciplinarians.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen readers on WordPress (you know who you are, and thanks!) recommended that I read this, and it was worth the wait. I realized as I was reading that I had read Cook’s short fiction in the 80s, but I hadn’t picked it up since.
- Writing about a mercenary company in a fantasy novel makes most of the folks who read LOTR because Aragorn is dreamy heads explode. This is a good thing.
- The mercenaries with a heart of gold is also an interesting twist.
- The fact that the company physician is also its annalist and someone who can fight again messes with fantasy conventions.
- Our narrator is the story-teller who has been charged with writing down this story. He also tells us spots that he did not record what happened, and makes several fourth wall breaking admissions to us as readers. These things all made me smile.
- The idea that mercenaries are the only truly honorable people because we know where they stand is a sort of trope that I have to admit I like.
- [SPOILER ALERT] Who didn’t see Darling as the new White Rose?
- The mages are clearly not Gandalf – One-Eye, Silent, Goblin…
I’m looking forward to the rest…