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…
So, I finished The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Holy shit, even though it sort of ended as I suspected it might. Some thoughts:
- The series encourages you to read as if boundaries of life and death do not matter to readers. They matter to characters: even though several return from the dead, they are never what they were, never having the same feelings they had when alive. The seeming permeability of the boundary between life and death, though, means that readers are never sure if a beloved character will disappear forever or not. Characters are kept alive in communal memories, and they are returned from the dead for specific purposes, and they suddenly wake up in a sense only to find themselves in something a Christian might call hell. The mechanism of how this works is not explained to us.
- The specifically purposed returnees are routinely bizarre: suddenly communal and weirdly humorous Jaghut, the Bonehunters with their captain now charged with guarding Death’s gate (clearly unsuccessfully), and so on…and of course one entire race chose to kill themselves (I guess) and become undead in order to ‘survive’ an attack on the Jaghut.
- I felt the most compassion for Toc and Onos T’oolan, because they were both given such huge tasks as undead.
- The sense that armies and professional soldiers engage in a profession that has a short life expectancy willingly permeates the series, and all sides spend a lot of energy trying to justify why they’re engaging in war. Part of that reasoning comes from folks who like killing (Smiles is the best example) for some not very healthy reasons, some of it comes from the Malazan desire to impose law and order rather than despotic rule (something they also fail at), and some of it comes from the lust for imperial glory (which is torn apart in the torture that poor Rhulad Sengar goes through as he dies a thousand deaths).
- In this way MBOTF feel particularly 20th century – wars fought for vague or ill-explained political reasons, with soldiers who mostly are conscripted in the worst sort of ways (I think as well of the cannibal hordes of the Pannion Dominion). The piles of war dead don’t help.
- In this book, the Malazans are talked of with a sense of fear and loathing in ways that I wasn’t sure I liked.
- I still like the sense of humor evident in humans, something no other race seems to possess.
- In odd ways this felt like the only novel that is sort of preachy. I’m not sure what to do with that either.
Hah, just when I think there’s not a grand narrative, a grand narrative of sorts emerges…this world is constant conflict between enormously powerful forces, of which humans are just another part…the Malazan Empire is an attempt at ordering this world in a way that allows humans to not destroy each other…it (the series) is not concerned with the planet, necessarily, but it is very concerned with how humans find power in a world in which they are not the most powerful entities unless working together…
I am not sure what to do with this, or its accuracy, but these insights came to me with Erikson’s introduction of the motives behind the Forkrul Assail. The FA seek to cleanse the planet of humans because we are so destructive, and they are formidable as well but seem to be not very self-aware of their limits. This portrayal could be read as a critique of Gaia theory, I guess, but I think it’s not very productive or accurate to read anything in this series as a critique of any specific ideology. In my mind this series works subtly as a general look at how fantasy works, and thus larger cultural critiques fit as critiques of how fantasy does those sorts of critiques.
So the grand narrative that I believe is being proposed is that grand narratives are useless? Needs some work…
I’m finishing up Dust of Dreams, Book Nine of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and I had two quick thoughts that I didn’t want to wait to write about:
- Cause and effect in the spiritual set up of this series is troubling me…this thought first came to the top of my head as I read about Sechul, Errastas, and Kilamandaros walking towards what I think will be the city of Kharanos, for some sort of confrontation between young gods and old (772).
- Sechul tells us narratively how K wants destruction, hates creation, and hates humans. K is a chaos god of the sort that lots of religions have.
- if religious figures embody or make manifest themes or forces, whether primal or cultural or some mix, then in this series the cause and effect gets troubling – it feels as if the gods cause the theme or force, not the other way around…
- I wonder if there would be chaos, for instance, if Kilimandaros somehow didn’t exist…
- This series also points out how privileged the idea of balance is. Creation, if properly balanced, requires destruction, and that balance means that someone will feel pain. We often speak of balance as some sort of unabashedly good goal, and I think that Martin in ASOIAF feels the natural world is out of balance because of humans, and thus perhaps needs to be rebalanced (the long winters in particular, with the implication that the seasons are wack, makes this lack of balance feel particularly troubling), and privileges the idea of harmony and balance.
- Reminds me of reading the medieval play “The Pearl,” which depicts a heaven in such perfect balance that I don’t see how anyone stays awake…