Trail of Lightning is the first book in Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, and I will read more as they appear. Roanhorse is Native American and re-envisions the border between the supernatural and natural worlds in a fascinating way, and I had trouble putting it down. Thoughts:
- The climate apocalypse has happened (it’s called the “Big Water”), and the Dine nation has survived, even if barely. There are no direct descriptions, but the fact that the Navajo live in the high desert was probably a distinct advantage.
- The protagonist is Maggie Hoskins, and I liked her as much for her attempts to deal with the damage she has suffered as for her ability to deal damage. Her damage comes from her identity – she’s not Harry Potter, with his orphan status both oppressing him and providing him the means to take on the oppressor, nor is she Buffy (although her kickassery and her sarcasm brought her to mind several times) with her culturally accepted blonde good looks providing the platform from which she shows that young women can be bad asses.
- Instead, Hoskins has to deal with what’s left of the natural world that has been the Dine’s ancestral home, what that’s done to her people (who seem to have been splintered and who have built a huge wall for protection), and the ways that her people’s pantheon has suddenly become flesh (of a sort).
- And these hits damage her in ways that affect how she interacts with her fellow humans (and superhumans). She’s a killer by clan, and that identity is not some cool sort of ninja or assassin thing but instead something that she to come to grips with in a way that allows her to return to her community.
- In initially finding this series I read a review by Katharine Coldiron on Medium, and her description of Roanhorse’s “generosity” as a Native American writer felt particularly compelling. Roanhorse does just enough explaining of her culture to allow me to feel the I had at least begun to understand the rudiments of her culture in ways that she doesn’t owe me as a straight white guy.
- I do however know a little bit about the area she’s from, and her descriptions kept evoking it in ways that felt almost painful. That region is simultaneously painstakingly desolate and beautiful and fragile and unforgiving; Trail of Lightning used all of those characteristics in creating this world.
I should probably be embarrassed that I have to read these texts twice, but the Malazan Book of the Fallen is worth the second read. Thoughts below, although they take a bit of a whole series look and are very much inside baseball if you haven’t read the series:
- Power is embodied, channeled, and somehow tapped into by mages, shaman, and warlocks. It’s also accessed by warriors, card-game players, and gods who were both created that way and ascended.
- I create this list because I’m struggling trying to understand the mechanism by which anyone interacts with all this energy. Do some folks have some sort of physical, biological connection? Do some of us have a wifi brain stem, one that is stirred by concentrating intensely (thus the physical exhaustion)? Are they somehow sending out a radio signal, perhaps from sort of transmitter organ or brain stem?
- And the warrens are a channeled form of older energy – Kron provides the structure, the channels, as somehow part of his body
- So what the Crippled God is trying to do is not destroy the magic in the warrens, but to destroy the warrens themselves, releasing the chaotic energy in its more original, primal form.
- Essentially, the Crippled God has been called to this world by warlocks/mages, came unwillingly, and has since been crippled and chained. He lives in constant pain, and will not heal (I guess).
- So his motive is burn it all down, tear everything apart…
- Finally for this entry, I’m curious about the Azath as well. I think they’re almost like growths, organic or mineral, that have arisen naturally (based on the laws of the world) to trap or hold chaotic, world-destroying energies…
- In this context, Iscarium becomes clearly a metaphor (and the uber-Jaghut)
- and dragons are scary, terrifying, and still incredibly dangerous, but they’re not nuclear bombs, as we see a couple of them get killed in this book.
- I wonder if that’s what the fall of the Eleint is about, as Soletaken (shift-shapers) stole dragonly powers…
- esp. since we see so many of them wounded and chained…
My re-read of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series continues. At points I’m so overwhelmed by the enormity of the creation that I get a bit starstruck – I’m pretty sure that I have very little critical distance, with my occasional frustration when Erikson gets preachy. Still…
- Tehol Beddict and Bugg are wonderful characters, and the work they do (Beddict in bringing down the economy in order to redistribute wealth to those who have screwed by the system, Bugg (Mael) in his support role for Tehol while playing the long game in the war with the Crippled God is spectacular. I am most fascinated though by how damned consistently funny they are. Their dialogue is a never-ending series of moments in which Tehol feels like a complete moron and Bugg is the long-suffering servant, and yet all the while Tehol is working his magic.
- Brys Beddict’s death still makes me sad.
- Rhulad’s growing insanity fits neatly with the Crippled God’s own mental instability. The premise that his horror is caused by a group of mages who try to add an alien power to defeat their enemies and muck up the process is unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy.
- I also don’t always know what to do with the epigraphs to each chapter. Ranging from poems to epistolary sections of historical texts, their connection is not always clear, and often make me think way harder than I’m used to doing in fantasy novels.
- The heart of the novel remains the Malazan army, this time the 14th, and with Dujek dead, the Adjunct’s rise (and threat to the Emperor) to challenge Rhulad and Lether (at the end) feels quixotic to the extreme.
- I’m not sure I’ve ever had as profitable a second read of a series as I have had of this one.
- If only Martin could be as prolific as Erikson – maybe he should have played ASOIAF with a friend before sitting down to write…
- And at times I struggle with what I feel are the almost overwhelming sorrows that this series provokes. The intensity of the suffering feels more powerful, I think, because there is very little to hate as all are simply striving to survive in a world that is constantly being less inhabitable. Even Raraku has become an ocean rather than a desert – at least as a desert there were tribes who survived in it, but as an ocean it only holds ghosts (hi Hedge!)
What to say about a writer who dares rework Homer? Madeline Miller does just that in The Song of Achilles, and, uh, she’s got huevos is all I can say. Thoughts below:
- She uses Patroclus as first-person narrator, even after he dies (!). That enables her to use the narrator’s tone (humble, self-effacing, insecure) to make what seems like a relationship that makes little sense – Achilles is the greatest warrior of his time, and Patroclus is a nobody who has been exiled from his home, so why exactly does Achilles for him?
- Their love becomes easily the best relationship in the story, with only Odysseus and Penelope coming close.
- Miller makes a point of noting that Odysseus’s love and respect for his wife was abnormal, so Achilles and Patroclus are even more revolutionary.
- I doubt I will ever get a good explanation of this, but ten years at ten casualties a day is a lot of dead Greeks and Trojans.
- I know, I know, we don’t read Homer for depictions of military conflicts.
- That said, the power of the hero in ancient Greek culture is fascinating, and Miller’s focus on the tragic part of heroism (we get a litany at one point that includes Herakles killing his wife and family as part of the typical fate of Greek heroes) – a bit different than the always-triumphant heroes of the US.
- I also found her depictions of the gods and goddesses compelling. Greek gods were best propitiated; calling attention to yourself was risking humiliation and worse, as the gods were certain to reinforce the hierarchy of mortal/immortal, and brutally.
- This conception of the supernatural always felt to me to be spot-on, and always made me realize what a radical Jesus and the Buddha are. In my mind, the capricious qualities of life favor a view of the divine that seems at best indifferent and at worst outright hostile. To be able to conceive the divine in terms of what now seems clearly to be the best of being human takes a special sort of disruption.
- Miller is a high school teacher, and I’m guessing she at least partially has that audience in mind as she writes, but I would have trouble assigning this to a high school class. She’s accurate in her portrayal, but the prevalence of sexual violence is very high in here, and would have multiple trigger warnings.
- Achilles and Patroclus have the most clearly loving and mutually satisfying sexual relationship, which would probably make some heads explode.
The Corpse Rat King is an interesting take on the hero’s journey. I have no idea whether Battersby has even heard of the hero’s journey or Joseph Campbell, but his hero mimics the journey that Campbell describes in interesting ways…
- The narrator is Marius don Hellespont, and his class standing enables Battersby to make this a story about class as much as it is anything else. I’m guessing that Hellespont’s journey to find the dead a new king invokes several class levelers (the narrator gets left on an island, made homeless, forced to pose as a eunuch and to become a prostitute, among a whole series of situations) because part of Hellespont’s world-building involves a medieval world that also, I think, provides a look at how structures of rich and poor develop.
- He’s not critiquing capitalism in this necessarily, but by depicting a rich man’s son who is so desperate for a world that feels more real than what he grew up in that he becomes a con man, Battersby satirizes the collection of wealth as a means in and of itself.
- The boon that he brings back to the world of the dead, then, is of course the king, but I don’t think that the dead necessarily felt the need to be ordered about. Instead, the king seems to a stand-in for the state of death itself, an ontological metaphor that grants them a sort of peace that they don’t otherwise seem to have.
- The granting of community status to the dead feels righteous somehow, in a vaguely non-threatening way. We all will be there after all…
Narratives voices in songs? Who would have guessed? Even as a highly-trained literary scholar (yes, my tongue is in my cheek), I remember first thinking seriously about this idea in pop music when Killer Mike identified the racism that makes folks think that his songs are autobiographical while Johnny Cash can sing about a killer and be celebrated as an artist. So I’m not surprised that it took me longer than the average bear to think seriously about how these things work.
In particular, I’ve often been troubled by what I thought was my misreading of a song. I thought that perhaps the songwriters were confused, or I was confused, or something odd was happening. The song – “Man of Constant Sorrow,” best known as being the “hit” song that spurs the Soggy Bottom Boys to pop music stardom in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou?
As I was listening to the Mountain Stage (on NPR of course – all you heathens should check it out) while driving through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia when I realized my mistake. “Man of Constant Sorrow” gently mocks the first-person narrator who tells the audience his story. It’s not some jaunty (man that word feels so 19th century), happy music used to describe a man’s life as he describes the problems – it’s more a tongue-in-cheek poke at a guy who doesn’t realize that his problems are of his own creation. Even as he sings that he has no friends, his friends in the chorus repeat the line, either proving him wrong or perhaps proving just why he, uh, has no friends. As he sings of his own constant sorrows and all the trouble he’s had, he merely complains, offering no evidence, again allowing the narrator to allow us as the audience to identify the true source of his troubles. The shame he feels (actually, he doesn’t) clues us into just how we are supposed to view the story that he’s telling and his own lack of self-awareness.
A crafty narrative voice? Identifying but not identifying with the first person who is telling the story? Well-played Soggy Bottom Boys, well-played…especially as we examine the ways in which the myths and legends of these United States get crafted, a post for another time.
This is book two of her Broken Earth series, and she’s not kidding about the title of the series – the earth is definitely broken. Unlike many of the fantasy series I’ve read recently this one takes place in a sort of identifiable earth from thousands of years in the future.
- This novel slowed down the action a bit from the first in the series (The Fifth Season, which I seem to have forgotten to review). Whereas the first one went dizzingly fast, not worrying about readerly comfort, this one took a second to allow us glimpses of the past in order to explain (ew) why the planet is so broken.
- It’s broken because of us, of course, but rather than make this series a dystopia Jemisin simply shows how she imagines humans (as well as the rest of the planet) evolving to meet these changed conditions.
- One of the ways that humans have evolved is that some of us (an important distinction) have developed another central nervous system stem, something she calls the sessinapae (it’s always italicized in the novels). This new organ is not exactly explained, but it has a mystical function – it enables those who have it to manipulate earth’s energies directly. The orogenes (the name for those who have this organ) can use these powers for good and protect human settlements from the earthquakes and other massive shakes of the earth’s crust that happen constantly.
- As with all human powers, of course, they’re also used for not-so-savory purposes – control, revenge, and so on.
- These unsavory uses are at the heart of the plotline, as characters try to focus their powers in ways to protect their kin.
- Jemisin neatly doesn’t focus much on the ways in which the planet was broken – this series is not a morality play. We do get the history in bits, though, and as one might expect it’s not pretty.
- It seems that climate change got increasingly more devastating (there are hints of gaia theory here, as the planet tries to shake off us human fleas), and we tried to mitigate its effects in increasingly more drastic ways. The final way we as humans tried to make the planet inhabitable despite these effects involved us somehow moving the moon (I guess in order to eliminate tides, which had probably grown into tsunami-sized events).
- This triggered the advent of the fifth season (the name of the book in the series), a devastatingly long disruption of the sun caused by volcanic ash and featuring toxic air being released from the earth’s crust.
- There are hints that all of this is intentional, but they are just hints, and the agent is the planet itself.
- The communities that survived did so barely, and often had to practice cannibalism to do so, so much so that while the characters talk about the practice with distaste it’s definitely not taboo.
- The orogenes come about because humans tried to adapt to the fifth season. Animal and plant species either died out or adapted in their own ways, and human evolution did the same thing. Our evolution, of course, is far less balanced.
- This is getting way too long, but there’s tons going on here, in addition to being a page-turning read. Jemisin is also offering us a look at how our lizard brains continue to want to divide us into tribes and constantly thwart our best, most idealistic impulses, and she posits a couple of different ways that humans can adapt (including beings called stone eaters that I don’t completely understand, as they seem almost god-like).
- There are also lots and lots of deadciv ruins that are often deadly and that current humans mostly leave untouched.
- I will be talking about this series more – it’s brilliant and fascinating.