I’ve found few fantasy series worthy of a re-read, but Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen is one, and after finishing The Crippled God, I’m now done.
- Erikson (and Esslemont) take several non-fantasy-conventional approaches in this series, and the use of the undead is just one. I’m still trying to puzzle out what it means, but the undead in this series are not mindless zombies intent on eating human brains or ghosts incapable of affecting the real world or even super-ninja warriors spurred on by the Night King – they have agency of a sort, and have agendas in the real world, ones sort of based on their previous lives.
- They also can cross the border of the land of the dead, not all the time or without consequence, but they can, and the rules by which they do so seem to be ones that they can bend or even create.
- There’s much more talk about Burn and the idea that this world might all be just a dream in this novel, or at least I recognized it in this one. That’s not a dodge on Erikson’s part, I think, but a look at where dreams and conscious lives being and end, and an attempt to think about fantasy in the context of other cultures where the dream world is not a wholly separate land, one to be analyzed for what it says about the conscious world rather than a realm all of its own.
- As is apparent, I’m fascinated by how the idea of borders work, in all sorts of texts and not just this one, and border crossings are a key element of the MBOTF world. In some ways this novel lives in liminal spaces, ones that are mostly uninhabitable – the Glass Desert, Raraku the Holy Desert, and all the warrens and holds are just some examples.
- These landscapes have in most cases been destroyed by conflicts among sentient races, devastating ecosystems that used to be balanced, and although this series does not preach about the evils of climate change and global ecosystem destruction it shows the consequences of such.
- The central conflict – if the Otataral dragon regains her place in the world then magic will be gone forever – strikes me as a look at fantasy as a genre, especially its assumptions. One of the joys of fantasy is in the way that brilliant wizards can outfight legions of warriors with the power of their minds alone – even in a series like A Wizard of Earthsea that features almost no battles one of the best things about Ged is his ability to use the intellectual powers he can call upon.
- The MBOTF has powerful wizards, of course, but the fact that magic may no longer exist and that that lack is not necessarily a bad thing is a fundamental rewrite of a central premise of fantasy – LET THERE BE MAGIC.
- It’s also a premise that ASOIAF takes on, in a bit different format, and if I re-read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant I’m guessing I will see some of the same aims.
- This makes me think that I need to look at generic anxieties in the same way I look at cultural anxieties…
I finished my reread of Dust of Dreams, and, well, all I can say is thoughts are below…
- I’m trying to understand the Warrens and their use, and part of what I’ve come to believe them to be seems very oriented towards the way I understand physics (and not the way that actually is described by real (quantum) physicists). Magic flows along channels, channels that in this series are also the veins and arteries of gods, and various entities can tap into those channels and form the magic in ways that are both creative and destructive.
Adjunct Tore – image from deviant art
- Destructive seems to be the most popular choice though.
- All of this has to do with materializations of energy and power, of which the border between seems chaotic and constantly shifting (and perhaps not a border like I think of them at all).
- The tapping into (along with the image of blood flowing through veins) makes them seem like flows in ways that don’t fit the reality of the world of Malazan. When characters step into a warren, they recognize the landscape (for the most part), and they’re underwater or in a river of energy or anything like that.
- They seem to be places where characters can survive, although perhaps not on a long-term basis. The feel to me almost like Dali paintings but darker, seen through the lens of Escher perhaps, twisted and surreal.
- And maybe thinking of them as surrealist connections to the world of Malazan makes as much sense as anything else.
- The other component of this novel that struck me was the Snake, an animal consisting entirely of children who eat insects and each other fleeing from the changing climate and the Forkrul Assail.
- I want to read fantasy as a way to think about our current times (and our relationship with history), and this is Erikson at his darkest – the adults have utterly failed, and children have banded into an animal of their own, taking the role of refugee, another trope of human history that rarely fits into fantasy.
- If I remember correctly, the discovery of the Snake by the remnants of the Bonehunters in the Glass Desert finally breaks the last Malazan army, a fitting ending for a series that understands that the one thing that humans are really good at is killing each other, but the one thing that should bring them together are children.
- I think upon the first read this was the first in the series that made me think that A Song of Ice and Fire wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, and that Erikson and Esslemont had created a truly unique world that despite having almost no connection to our own fit within what we understand as reality perfectly.
Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo features a protagonist, Paama, who goes toe-to-toe with Chance in order to retain the Chaos Stick. That she [SPOILER ALERT] willfully gives it back to him, and that both she and Chance learn something along the way is just one of the ways in which Lord’s novel messes with generic expectations. She ends up happily married to a younger man, after burying her first husband who ate himself to death.
- My synopsis does not do this novel justice. Paama is the antithesis of those sorts of supposedly genre-bending young female heroines that are featured in much current YA lit – she is married to a man she does not love but cannot hate, she is a great cook, she has no desire to learn how to wield the power she has been given, and she acts with compassion and empathy even when the results are not what she would like.
- Lord’s narrator is lively, self-aware, and interested in engaging us in a conversation, even if it constantly defends itself from charges of defying what it feels our expectations will be. The narrator is far different than Paama, and often asks us not to judge her or other characters at surprising points in the novel – the one that struck me most was when Paama goes back to nurse Ansige, her first husband, as he dies from the consequences of over-eating. Ansige is set up as entirely unsympathetic, and yet Paama knows that her duty is to be with him until he passes. This is territory not often covered in this genre.
- In that sense this novel comes directly from the land of folk tales, written with a postmodern sensibility and an eye towards redeeming our relationships with each other and with the forces in the world that causes things to happen that we do not understand. The narrative voice helps with this redemption with its energy and desire to always keep us looking outside the text.
- The natural forces in this novel are definitely not supernatural, and are also not aligned along a good-evil binary. Again, it is very unlike lots of YA fiction that’s out now, with barely-disguised good and evil aligned along metaphoric lines. I admire the effort that some of that fiction makes, but killing off characters does not necessarily make a novel complex, even when that plot-level action defies generic expectations. What makes ASOIAF complex is not the fact that Ned Stark dies early on, but that GRRM (at least I though he was, before the teevee series) is looking at issues of planetary balance and the appearance of science in the Enlightement. Defying generic expectations does not necessarily equal complexity.
- Part of the joy of Gaiman’s Sandman series was the ways in which entities simply operated in their own best interests, with complex understandings of how those interests meshed with those of other entities. Lord’s novel adds the idea of duty to that mix.
- This binary allows her to comment on humans and their needs through her narrator (which isn’t exactly human, but not exactly a djombi):
Humans did not hold such power within themselves easily; they had a deep-seated need for symbols, talismans, and representations. (61)
- Her epilogue continues the feisty narrator theme. I cannot tell if she’s chastising academics or those who read for escape – I think it’s the latter, but I’m not completely sure. Representative of this trope from the many pieces of advice we get from the narrator is this one:
For others a tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute. (157)
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…
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.
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.
In my recent spate of fantasy novel reading I finished Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Some thoughts:
- Although the characters fit into some sort of configuration of what Western fantasy usually consists of, they were also pretty dramatically different. I got that Freudian sense of the uncanny as the novel helped the familiar be just strange enough.
- I would not quite call the space liminal, if by liminal we mean a space no longer familiar but for which we have no ready answers. In a good sense the novel sort of put me there, especially with the renegade Prince who seems to be far more in contact with the Khalif then seems possible…
- The reason, though, that the space isn’t completely without answers is because Ahmed neatly provides some answers, all of which feel appropriately set in this culture…
- There are no piles of corpses in this novel. The world saviors are the only ones we see at risk, and they have all taken the risk either willingly or through a sense of duty. That is definitely a change from recent fantasy like ASOIAF and MBOTF in which soldiers are asked to die in that most 20th century way, for objectives that even their commanders cannot articulate.
- The trio of heroes (helped by an alchemist couple) consists of the profane (in multiple ways, including his body and choice of mate), the pure (a dervish fighter, one sworn to purity), and the abject.
- Each is given enough point of view to enable me to take them seriously.
- The source of evil is also interesting – as much as the novel willingly invokes religion, the evil ones are humans who have sought to extend their natural life limits, and to transcend natural borders by entrapping natural, primal forces (wind, water, etc.) in service of their own needs.
- I enjoyed the Doctor (who is a combination of a wizard, a holy man, and a flawed individual) as a protagonist, but the most interesting characters are the dervish and the shapeshifter. Their sacrifices and sense of honor are interesting cross-currents in the genre, especially as someone like George RR Martin calls into question just who sacrifices really benefit, and how convoluted honor can be.