Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

August 6, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – a decision

Filed under: meta,rereading — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:06 am

Life has caught up with me, and I’m not going to be able to finish the project. I was initially leaving it for a few weeks, to make sure there was a decent gap between the “official” Fae Awareness Month posts and the continuation, but then of course that stretched, and since I’ve also been spending my time looking after a partner who’s been going through an ME flare-up I’ve had no energy left to write with. I decided that if I hadn’t managed to start again on the project by the beginning of August, then realistically I wouldn’t manage it at all.

I hope I’ll get back to it eventually, because it’s a book I utterly love, but it’s not like it’s going anywhere.

If you’ve been waiting for more, then please accept my apologies, and if you can keep reading without me then please let me know how you get on!

June 10, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My re-read project, over at Fae Awareness Month, is going apace:

Chapters 1-5

Chapters 6-10

Chapters 11-15

November 23, 2010

NK Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Filed under: rereading,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 5:12 pm

I first read this quite a while ago, and for some reason I was under the impression that I’d reviewed it then. However, when I went looking for the link to my review I discovered that it didn’t actually exist. Looking back on my first reading I suspect I knew then that I’d need to read it once more, with the ending in mind, before I could do it justice.

Once more was yesterday, so here we go.

This is a deceptively easy book to read—Jemisin’s style is so open and readable that it’s really tempting to rush through it, but that would be a mistake. There are enough layers and hidden motivations that so many of the story elements only reveal themselves in retrospect, and the story repays careful reading.

In some ways, it’s a classic Family Story, with the relative raised outside the Ancestral Home coming to visit, and also a classic story of survival in a Deadly Decadent Court. On the other hand, both are shown to us through a point of view that’s very aware of race & gender politics.

Fittingly, then, it’s about power structures: about the struggle for control of them, and different peoples’ perspective on them. It’s about a contest for control of the world, and two family squabbles. Nothing in this book happens on a small scale. Yeine, our half-blood protagonist, is a leader amongst the matriarchal jungle-dwelling Darr before she goes to join her pale-skinned mother’s family—the literal rulers of the whole world—in their magical palace high above the city of Sky. Once there, she has to unravel the mysteries of her own heritage and of the War of the Gods while keeping herself alive.

It sounds like a portal quest, but it isn’t, really. We don’t see Yeine leaving her homeland; the novel begins with her arrival at Sky. She’s very much the captain of her own fate—within the bounds that her heritage sets up—and the Wizard character (you know the one; the old man who knows what’s going on but doesn’t explain it properly, with potent but mysterious powers) is ambiguous at best and creepy-unpleasant at times. Incidentally, Yeine is mixed-race and nearly everyone else in Sky is so white they’re practically Tesco Value.

Instead of plot coupons and battles, the story progresses through shifting relationships, and through Yeine’s own understanding of her family history. Knowing herself subjugated, jerked about at the whim of her grandfather (significantly, the uncrowned king of the world), and stigmatized for her barbarian heritage, she allies with the family’s “weapons”—cast-down gods, bound to serve the Arameri family. Despite having the power to control and order them herself, she makes a point of not doing so.

This could so easily turn into the anti-racist Mary Sue, but it’s saved from that by a couple of important points. First, she isn’t Arameri-white; she straddles the fence between them and the brown-skinned barbarians (she uses that term herself) who are her people of birth, and so she’s neither Nobly Changing Sides nor using mixed-race privilege. Second, sometimes she fails. She does use some of the powers she’s been given, but not in the ways her family expect. Indeed, several times she has her unwillingness to do that thrown back at her—not a true Arameri—as an insult.

There’s a strict limit to how far I can evaluate the identity politics here, because I’m quite thoroughly white-male myself, but I’m getting a distinct whiff of Audre Lorde. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t at all academic or preachy—quite the reverse. Those don’t belong in fantasy, and for good reason. If you don’t know who Lorde is, you’ll enjoy this book just as much, but having that cultural context will add a layer of richness to the text in the same way that Marx does Miéville, or Rand does Goodkind.

In summary: if you read fantasy for action scenes & epic battles, this isn’t for you, but on all other counts it works well.

October 11, 2010

Meta, and the Wheel of Time

Filed under: meta,rereading — Tags: , , — Sam @ 5:55 pm

First – apologies to the lovely people who’ve left comments in the last week or two, because my mail client had started marking my notification emails as spam. I’ve had words with it, and I think I’ve caught all the comments now.

Second – I think I’m arguing myself into re-reading all the Wheel of Time books, and trying to give them a fairer shake of the whip. I don’t think any of the flaws I noticed the first and second times through are going to go away, though. Which is to say: unnecessarily prolix padding, no ability to control plot proliferation, far far too much Idiot Ball plotting, and a completely reductionist (not to say irredeemably binary, boringly naive, and inaccurate) approach to gender politics.

But Jordan’s been doing interestingly subversive things to the fantasy form, even if many of those have been done better by other people since he started, and he has been using some actual literary techniques, which puts him head and shoulders above most fantasy authors. Granted, they’re all still standing in a ditch compared to the best (Peake, Kay, Parker, Swanwick, VanderMeer, Vinge) but given Sturgeon’s Law that’s an unfair comparison. So it’s worth another look for me, at least.

February 23, 2010

Elizabeth Bear – Blood and Iron/Whiskey and Water

This is a re-read – I didn’t like these very much the first time around, but it would have been unfair for me to dismiss them on one reading. So now I’m going to dismiss them, rather more comprehensively, after two. It’s a pity; I’m immensely fond of the basic themes involved. Tradition & the supernatural vs progress and the “mundane[1]“, grace and pride and redemption, human brilliance and folly in the face of the crushing historical weight of evil and incompetence… and it has both Lucifer and Kit Marlowe in it. It also has both Sidhe and werewolves in it, but I wanted to give it a fair chance to impress me despite those.

Bear’s an immensely talented writer – technically brilliant, in fact. And I’m sure these books have a lot to say to many people, but I’m not one of them. They’re just not speaking my language.

Bear has talked about writing “comedies of ethics” – that’s a pretty fair description of these books. The thing is, though, ethics are always very much dependent on the moral gravity of the universe in which one finds oneself, and this one’s been quite thoroughly structured as a crapsack dystopia where kingship really matters, where biology is destiny, and where absolutely everything is a competition – predator and prey, and everyone is both at once. Victim and victimizer, in fact, with no space for any other mode of interrelation.

They’re also intensely American books, and intensely Eurocentric & colonial. Somehow, the Courts of the Sidhe have become some sort of paradigmatic supernatural force, accessible from all over the world (though focused on America) and apparently in charge of all the weird-shit; there are Russian horse-fairies serving them, a subcontinental assassin, and (in the second book) an Aboriginal spirit, the Bunyip, as a major villain. (Though I use “villain” advisedly; these are not books for clear-cut shades.)

I counted one reference to anything Native American anywhere in the two books, and that was a white New Age hedgewizard who tried to look like one. There are a couple of black characters; the only female one is introduced with a ridiculously lubricious passage of race-centric drooling.

[A] mask as impassive as an Egyptian empress’, lips blooming fat and sensual as orchids beneath the flat, aristocratic nose; skin red-black as the famous bust of Queen Tiy; hair braided in a thousand beaded Medusa serpents.

Others have spoken, at length, on the problematic nature of the first we see, who is a murderous cannibal rapist horse-spirit, and who is the first whom we see enslaved, so I’m not going to.

It amuses me that several of the characters – and ones who should know better – use the term “Dark Ages” without irony, and referring to something dreadful that should never be allowed to happen again. Then again, they’re all hung up on the hierarchy/kingship shite… but so is the universe, and whilst there are hints of subversion there aren’t any sensible characters to support them.

The elevation of some little local narrative to overarching global significance has a long tradition in fantasy & SF (after all, it’s what ends up happening in the real world too) but we have to be particularly careful when one author’s responsible for the lot – as has happened here, it erases any other narrative. Unlike in the real world, alternative narratives become not just invisible but nonexistent.

And it’s always the same little local narratives that get elevated. One of these days we’ll see Fairy Queens chained and leashed by the Bunyip’s divan bed, or Nyaminyami commanding djinn and talking horses, or the Workers’ Council of Naiads, Rusalka, Berehynia, and Allied Trades with their Sidhe flunkies. But so far? Not a sausage.


[1] “Mundane” is so often applied, or understood, derogatorily – especially by some particularly stupid SF fans. But consider the derivation; is there anything more wonderful?

February 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

August 18, 2009

Tigana, part 3 – Ember to Ember

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 2:12 pm

OK, so in Part 1 we had the backstory and the music-making, the lost child’s heritage and the piercing grief for a land gone if not yet dead. In Part 2 we had reluctant love and strange magics. This is Part 3, and we get knives in the dark, the murder of strangers, terrorism, sedition, poetry, hot kinky sex, drugs, and the death of innocents. Settle in; this is going to be a long post.

We have a new map, of course; this one shows the highlands of Certando (for that matter, Avalle of the Towers was in the mountains, too… there’s just something about mountain people), and part of Quileia. It’s centred on a castle, and there’s nothing much else on the map, so guess where we’re going? That’s right, Castle Borso it is.

First of all, though, we get to spend some time with Devin’s POV in a snow-filled ditch by the side of the road, and watch Baerd and Alessan murder some Barbadians. Baerd strangles a known informer; Devin wonders if he had a wife and children. Alessan kills a mercenary; the text doesn’t even tell us how. And then they take the bodies over to plant them with a second group of Barbadians, and foment discord. There’s a sleeping guard; Devin sticks a dagger in his throat. That’s our nineteen-year-old ex-farmboy singer protagonist for you. Oh, and then they burn down the mansion, and Devin’s dreams are haunted by the screams of horses because they didn’t have time to open the stable doors. Did that Barbadian guard come into the world only to provide him with that right of passage, Devin wonders? “The moment of his ending was not what defined his journey under Eanna’s lights.” This gives us a nice microcosm of the entire book, there. Entities – people, lands, cultures – have worth in themselves, and being killed doesn’t subsume their identity into the killer’s. They have their own stories.

After this, the POV shifts to Alberico of Barbadior, and he’s quite the contrast to Brandin. He takes the Klingon approach to underlings, and starts killing more of the populace too. Someone has been posting elegies to the dead Duke of Astibar around the city; Alberico has every poet he can find arrested. On the first sweep, the poets all deny everything; on the second, they all claim to have written them. Alberico lets them go, suggesting they satirise Brandin; instead, verses about Tomasso’s perversity appear, claiming that it was a deliberately chosen allegory of Astibar’s situation – “a living metaphor for his conquered, subjugated land, for the perverse situation of Astibar under tyranny”. (The Barbadians, incidentally, dislike homosexuality rather a lot.) This is probably the second clearest statement of the sex theme in Tigana there is; we’ll get to the clearest in a few paragraphs’ time! Alberico has twenty or so poets pulled out at random and “death-wheeled”; the text tells us that the author of those verses was among them.

The next part of the book deals with how Alessan and his party lie, cheat, and deceive the people of the Palm into spreading sedition and unrest, and get a lot of people killed doing it. The most notable occasion is when Catriana fakes a suicide leap from a river bridge in Tregea, clutching a copy of the proscribed verses. And into water, no less; what a surprise!

Devin’s thinking about Sandre (the ex-Duke of Astibar) and trying to imagine what it’s like to know that the bodies of everyone even distantly related to you are being death-wheeled across the province. And that, right there, is the cost of what our protagonists are doing. The text doesn’t flinch away from it, doesn’t celebrate it (none of the classic winterborn fallacy here, the idea that just because something is hard and you have to sacrifice everything for it it must be honourable and worthwhile) and doesn’t condemn it.

The next thing that happens, unfortunately, is a bit of Oddness regarding race. Sandre has disguised himself as a Khardhu warrior, with potions and lotions and a shave… and everyone buys it. So these strange dark-skinned people from the hot northern continent are identical to the natives of the Palm in every way except skin colour? I just do not buy it.

After that, on the other hand, we get another Really Cool part – the introduction of Erlein di Senzio, an old session-musician acquaintance, and a wizard. Most wizards of the Palm cut off two fingers on their left hand to “bind themselves to the Palm” for additional power; it’s the tiny glow of the magic Erlein uses to mask this that Sandre sees. And the Princes of Tigana, we learnt in the first part of the book, have the hereditary ability to bind a wizard to their will. Devin suggests that Alessan give everyone a haircut, and he uses that opportunity to bind Erlein – who is, not surprisingly, utterly furious about it. The text uses the phrase “grievously wronged”.

“What gives you the right?”
“I must use what tools I can.”
“I am not a tool!”

Sandre refuses to agree that it’s no more than the exercise of naked power, and justifies it by saying that it’s the duty of a Prince to “do what his soul cries out against for the sake of his land”. I mean, yes, this is pretty winterborn stuff, but it’s quite thoroughly problematized in the text, rather than the usual unqualified adulation for Hard Men who do Things Like That because Someone Has To.

Erlein and Sandre disagree quite thoroughly over whether Erlein was free before; this is a particular issue for him as a citizen of the neutral province, Senzio, unconquered by either Tyrant. (Of course, the Duke of Senzio did demote himself to Governor to avoid upsetting them…)

Alessan spends the rest of the evening playing songs from Senzio on his pipes. Now, from anyone else this could be a cheap manipulative trick, but we’ve seen before that Alessan has too much respect for the music to do that. This is Alessan reminding a fellow musician where the soul of the land lies, trying to awake his patriotism – and stressing the point, which he’s been making over and again in his travels, that the Palm needs to be united, and setting province against province in their pride is why they got invaded. In Devin, it rouses strong grief; “For Catriana and himself and all their generation, rootless and cut off from what they were in a world without a home. For all the myriad accumulations of loss and what men and women had to do in order to seek redress.”

Erlein, on the other hand, tries to escape, heading off into the wilderness, tying himself to a tree, and struggling so hard he passes out. And this metaphor is so anvilicious that even Devin points it out to us. Oddly, nobody wonders what would have happened to Erlein if Baerd and Devin hadn’t retrieved him; after all, tying himself to a tree in a “wild and lonely place” and deliberately making it impossible to get himself free is not exactly a recipe for survival.

Chapter 10 starts with some history. The highlands of Certando used to be a very wild and prideful place, and most of the old songs are about clan feuds and battles; and most of those feature Castle Borso. All that’s changed now, and the place is a haunt of decadence and sex, presided over by one Alienor, who gets to vamp over Catriana, give Alessan some letters – his mother is dying – and teach Devin all about switchy bondage sex.

“Is this what happens to us? When we are no longer free. Is this what happens to our love?”
“It is one of the things that happens to us. A kind of insurrection in the dark that somehow stands against the laws of day that bind us and cannot be broken now.”
“Possibly that. Or an admission somewhere in the soul that we deserve no more than this, nothing that goes deeper. Since we are not free and have accepted that.”

Alienor sends Devin away; tomorrow is the first of the Ember Days, when no fires are lit, and he won’t be able to find his way back without a candle. And since her husband died, she always sleeps alone. On the way back, Devin’s candle goes out, and he remembers a saying from the priest who first taught him music. “There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Today, the dead walk. Who are his dead? Tigana? The Barbadian he killed? He finds his way to Catriana’s room by accident, and we hear her wishing she could be more like Devin, more patient. Her passion for Tigana is mostly down to her father, who left before Second Deisa – possibly before First Deisa – and hated the memory of Tigana, wanted to keep it buried. Her mother always lit one candle on the Ember days; she and Devin discuss this. His father did the same, which he’d always characterised as pride and arrogance, but to Catriana it’s a reminder to herself, like Alessan’s blue wine. This relates to the sex thing, I think; deliberately transgressing because if you can’t have what you love then you need that reminder, that blade in your soul.

Now we’re up to Chapter 11, and this one is Weird. Baerd goes walking out, and discovers a remnant cult of sort-of-wizards who take hallucinogenic drugs on the Ember Night so they can battle an invading blight, spreading from the west (towards Tigana) and destroying the crops. In their overlay-world (Baerd tells us it feels too real to be a dream) the blight takes the form of an invading army of Ygrathen to him, but appears differently to everyone. Apparently, it’s been getting much worse in the last twenty years (since the Tyrants invaded) and the Night Walkers have to choose between opposing it, keeping it from winning even more land, and keeping their strength up to fight it again and again.

Baerd leads them to victory, and challenges the dark figure that leads (or personifies) the blight: Begone, or I’ll name you now and cut your strength apart. He does – “tyranny in a land that has been free” – and it flees towards the west, into the dead lands the blight took. Interestingly, the idea of things that have power only when they’re not named is a pervasive one. It brings up echoes of Walter Wink, which is never a bad thing – and it echoes the power given to a hidden, clandestine revolutionary movement. There’s a passage in Part 2, Dianora’s memories of Baerd in Avalle Stevanien, where the Ygrathen soldiers play a game with him by getting him to say the name of Tigana and going “sorry, what was that? Couldn’t make it out” and then he turns that back on them.

And while they’re there, Elena – the Night Walker viewpoint character, a Certandan born and bred – can hear and speak the name of Tigana. That’s the world-beyond-the-world for you; when you’re in that dreamlike nighttime state, in a TAZ, those kinds of social restrictions and careless ignorances can be bypassed. So they have sex. I’d not realised the similarities between Tigana and the Illuminatus! trilogy before.

The Important Meeting that Alessan was here for turns out to be with Marius, King of Quileia – the Golden Bough-style Oak King who got tired of beating up challengers and overthrew the Matriarchy. At the beginning of this section, we learnt that the Matriarchy had closed off the country two hundred years ago, and the Certandan highlands had withered as a result of the sudden stoppage of trade. Seeing a very male warrior-king overthrowing the female organisation who had previously been in charge is not all that good, but it seems to work in context.

Alessan and Baerd, it turns out, helped Marius onto his throne, and now the favour is to be repaid.

“I cannot give you an army.”
“I wouldn’t ask it, and don’t want to be remembered as the man who brought in a foreign army.”

Alessan asks Marius to refuse trade with Brandin for now, and ask time to think; to refuse trade with Alberico, citing Brandin’s intimidation; and to offer free & unrestricted trade with Senzio, which Alberico will of course know immediately. Trade with Quileia would be the death of Tigana, and failing to bring in prosperity through trade would be the death of Marius, but for Alessan’s sake Marius offers six months. People may not be tools, but if a Prince has the responsibility – the obligation – to use them as such…

August 14, 2009

Tigana part 2 – Dianora

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 10:45 pm

With this section, we get a new POV character – Dianora di Tigana Certando, Brandin of Ygrath’s favourite concubine – and a new map. This one’s purely political, without any more details; it shows us that Brandin of Ygrath has conquered four provinces (three on the mainland, and the island of Chiara, where this part is set), Alberico of Barbadior four, and the last one, Senzio, is neutral.

It is, of course, significant that Brandin’s made his headquarters on the island, separate from the rest of the Palm – and like most of the images in this book, it works both ways. The island’s separate, but it’s also surrounded by the ocean, and the ocean is the soul of Tigana. We learn, in fact, about the Grand Dukes of Chiara, and the Ring Dive – the Duke would throw a ring into the sea in token of a wedding, and a woman would dive for it to bring it back.

For that matter, Dianora was sent over the ocean, on a “Tribute Ship”, as a concubine for his saishan (seraglio), and became his favourite – and came to love him, despite having sworn to kill him. The saishan is attended by eunuchs, chief amongst whom is Vencel; he is “awesomely obese”, with a “dark face”. He’s from the hot northern land of Khardhun, and rather sympathetically presented. I’m assuming that the Khardhu are North Africans, Berbers perhaps. (This will become relevant later.)

In Chapter 8, we learn that Brandin ran up Sangarios, the mountain peak of Chiara, and there he encountered a riselka. I’m not sure what a Slavic water spirit is doing in an Italianate story, but it seems to work out. As we learn in more detail later, if one man sees a riselka, it’s a fork in his life; if two see a riselka together, one of them will die. If there are three, one is blessed; one comes to a fork; and one will die.

That afternoon sees an assassination attempt – the Ygrathen master-musician Isolla has manipulated Camena di Chiara, the most famous poet of the age, into shooting at Brandin under the guise of a threat to her. Dianora pushes someone else into the path of the crossbow bolt, reacting without thinking; Brandin would have died, otherwise.

He doesn’t send for her that night, and Dianora remembers her childhood in Tigana, in Avalle of the Towers, where the noble families competed to build the tallest tower until the Prince decreed that nothing could be taller than his own masterpiece. She grew up with her brother Baerd, and under the stress of the occupation they slept together for comfort – and who else would understand?

“What are we doing?” her brother whispered once. [...] “Oh, Baerd,” she’d said. “What has been done to us?”

August 12, 2009

Tigana, part 1 – A Blade in the Soul

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:19 am

To begin at the beginning, with the author’s acknowledgements. He cites a number of scholars; the three I know offhand are Joseph “Hero’s Journey” Campbell, Robert “White Goddess” Graves, and Johan Huizinga. So altogether, a nice mix of “ooh, interesting”, “hm, could be entertaining if he doesn’t take Graves too seriously”, and “oh, god, not Campbell again”.

Next we have one of the most traditional markers for Fantasy of all; a pronunciation guide. This particular one consists of “most of it is Italian”. And speaking of traditional markers, here’s the map. The Palm looks very much like Italy turned upside down; across the water there’s what looks like the edge of a continent, Khardun, and Ygrath and Barbadior indicated by arrows pointing west and east respectively. To the south is Quileia, and we have no clue what any of these places are like.

And now the text, with the Prologue. The land is lit up by two moons, and a falling star arcs across the sky. We’re in a battle camp by the River Deisa, on the eve of a war, and “the dark-haired Prince of grace and pride” is giving the boys a touch of Harry in the night. They know perfectly well they’re going to lose, against the sorcerer-king of Ygrath; but that isn’t going to stop them. “The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us.”

Part 1 – A Blade in the Soul. Chapter 1 opens in a khav room, thus proving once again Diana Wynne Jones’s adage in Nad and Dan adn Quaffy that there’s always some variant of coffee around. A bit of background; the Palm is divided between two tyrants now, Alberico of Barbadior and Brandin of Ygrath. Given the Interestingly Cryptic nature of the scenes with a particular musician, he’s clearly one of our heroes. The chapter ends on the words “he’d forgotten to ask the musician his name” – and this is, of course, a theme we’ll be seeing over and over again. It’s all about names.

The other thing it’s all about, of course, is the sea, and the next chapter opens with one Devin getting drunk in a bar by the docks. Devin is a lot smarter, more resourceful, and emotionally useful than the typical 19-year-old we meet in the early stages of Big Fantasy, and that’s a refreshing change. Apart from a bit of Golden Bough background, and an introduction to a couple of people who will later become important, that’s it for this chapter – except that we learn the name of the musician from earlier, Alessan di Tregea.

The third important theme is music, and they’re all working together – Alessan, Devin, and a young redheaded singer named Catriana who resents Devin for making it look so easy. The fourth is sex, preferably illicit, kinky, and/or socially unapproved sex – and from the text, I can’t decide whether bisexuality falls into that category or not. It’s worth noting that just about all the sex anyone has, for most of this novel, is very much for a purpose – it’s to distract someone, to get close to them so they can die, as a hopeless beacon of protest in the darkness. We’ll see more about that when we come to Part 3.

In Chapter 4, it looks like Devin’s stumbled into the intersection of two complicated conspiracies – the Duke of Astibar has taken the Juliet Drug to make sure he and a few others have time to talk unobserved by Alberico’s agents. Alessan crashes the party before the Duke wakes, and points out that getting rid of one tyrant won’t do; the other will just take over the entire Palm. So here we have yet another theme, that of compromise with the stubborn imperatives of pride. More gnomic comments about names, and then – cave! Alberico’s coming. Someone betrayed the party; everyone dies before they can talk, except the Duke’s son Tomasso. Whom, it turns out, is gay and sadomasochistic, and wears makeup, and who “would leave nor ever a name to be spoken, let alone with pride”, and who is Secretly Very Competent. What a surprise that was! Seriously, though, it’s good to see a fantasy book that doesn’t immediately jump on any of those things as signifiers of Evil.

Outside, the conspirators test Devin out by telling him a story. The map shows a province called Lower Corte; the people of that province killed Brandin’s son during the conquest. In revenge, the sorcerer took their name away, so that no-one who was not born in that province could hear and remember the name of Tigana. They can speak it, but nobody will hear.

That’s really horrible – I find it an incredibly cruel revenge, to erase the identity of a people like that, and give them no way to represent themselves to others, no voice. To force them to use another’s name for their land, and to know that their children will be strangers, foreigners, that their home is lost and will die with them. And unlike most instances, this was done to them deliberately. I’ve got a particularly strong viewpoint on this one, of course, since I’m Cymraeg. Both in my country and in Scotland, the native languages were abandoned, the English names were the “real” ones, children were beaten for speaking Welsh or Gaelic at school – and the worst, saddest thing is that we did that to ourselves, to our own children. We told them to go and be English, because it was the only way they’d get on in the world, the only way they had to be better than they were.

Devin, on the other hand, was born in Tigana and can hear the name – and these passages, again, are full of water metaphors. We hear throughout the book that there’s a special connection between Tigana and the sea, even when it’s not stated outright as it is here. “If something could be remembered, it was not wholly lost” – and that shard of hope, those few people who remember and care, is all they’ve got. It doesn’t look like much, but that’s no excuse – and Alessan, it turns out, is the Prince of Tigana, child of the prideful Prince of the prologue.

The section ends as the Duke wakes, and joins with Alessan’s band because it’s the only revolutionary game in town; and when he admits to being a wizard, and uses his powers to visit his son Tomasso in prison and take him poison. The last words are “The difference between the spoken and the unspoken ceased to matter any more.”

August 6, 2009

The Princess Bride

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:07 pm

A couple of weekends back, I was in a readthrough of the film script (playing the grandfather & narrator – probably one of my favourite characters[1], though next time someone arranges one of these I’ll be asking for Inigo) and, of course, prepared for it by reading the book. Well, most of the book; the first 30 pages are a rather tedious, maundering fact-and-fiction introduction by Goldman, to the point that I’m surprised it’s only 30. I remembered it as a hundred or so.

The book is billed as the “Good Parts version” of “S. Morgenstern’s original”, and Goldman’s scattered the text with abridger’s notes – brief descriptions of what was in the original that he didn’t include. The thing is, I want to read the original! I want the fifty-six pages of packing and unpacking scenes in Chapter 3, the forty-four pages of parties at the beginning of Chapter 6, Inigo’s six-page soliloquy on the anguish of fleeting glory, Inigo and Fezzik’s search for ingredients for the resurrection pill… and I don’t want Goldman’s interjections about what he did to the “original” text, because the author’s voice here is fundamentally unlikeable.

In theory, it’s an interesting take on the messy-unreliable-multiply-redacted-text through which actual history comes to us; but framing it as All About The Authors (real and fictional) is just precious and self-indulgent. For a far better example of this sort of framing story, I recommend Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards, written in the style of Dumas pére by an in-universe historian, one Paarfi of Roundwood, and without anyone else’s voice intruding until the “interview with the author” section at the end.


[1] “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”

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