Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

December 10, 2010

Jordan & Sanderson – Towers of Midnight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:42 am

I read this yesterday evening, after finding it unexpectedly in the library, and it’s let me crystallize something about the change between authors that was nagging at me. (No spoilers.)

Sanderson actually wants to finish.

I’m not saying Jordan was consciously spinning things further and further out, but I was getting the distinct feeling that he didn’t know where he was going overall. He obviously had the plot mapped out and knew what had to happen where in the story, but I can’t get any clear sense of overarching themes to it all and he kept dragging in new characters and plotlines. To me, that reads like an author trying hard to refine and direct his vision of what the series is for, especially after the explicit bait-and-switch from Book 1; everything I’ve heard on that topic is about a move away from portal-quest fantasy, but not any kind of towards.

Sanderson, on the other hand, is nothing if not workmanlike and direct, and it shows. In the two Wheel of Time books he’s written, the plot strands have been coming together at warp speed, and we get much less time-wasting. Mind you, there are still a couple of new developments that are less deus ex machina than

I’m starting to wonder if the Wheel of Time series, taken as a whole, is more of a response to Eddings than to Tolkien. It’s exploring some interesting variations on the One Ninja theory of history, given the contributions of everyone involved (though the side of the Shadow is still as hopelessly blundering as always). It could have something to say about free will, determinism, and redemption, but I honestly don’t know what.

There is always the big theme of gender relations, but Jordan & Sanderson’s treatment of identity politics is so hopelessly reductionist and naive that trying to say anything in that format is like playing patience with no hearts or diamonds and expecting it to come out.

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.

November 30, 2009

Amanda Downum – The Drowning City

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:28 pm

This was a chance discovery at the library. Let me just take a moment to explain why my local library FAILS at shelving. They’ve very carefully taken all the SF and fantasy books (a task made easier by the fact that they all have “SF” classmarks on the spine) and sorted them in alphabetically with other fiction. Crime (detective, police procedural, &c.) still has its own section; so do YA and black fiction. In all three of those sections, there are SF books. I’m not philosophically enamoured of sorting books by genre, but I do strongly prefer to have them sorted by likeness, and publishing-genre gives a good first-pass model for that. Also, the less time I have to spend wading through third-class chick lit[1] and “auto”-biographies of pop singers or models, the better.

Anyway, the book! Haven’t got it in front of me any longer, so this will be fairly brief.

The environment is basically South Asian in inspiration, but the heroine has travelled from a European-ish country. Downum doesn’t shy away from either skin colours or colonialism, and does a good job of depicting tensions between races[2] & nationalities. The magic system is well thought out and interesting.

Oddly, the author Downum reminds me of most is Tamora Pierce (I’m thinking particularly of Wolf-Speaker and Trickster’s Choice), but this is definitely not YA.


[1] I’ll happily read first-class chick lit. But it’s too rare for me to want to look through it deliberately.

[2] Actual races, not this dwarves-and-elves shite.

October 28, 2009

The Gathering Storm

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 2:52 pm

Warning: spoilers.

I’m very ambivalent about the Wheel of Time books. On the one hand, they’ve got a lot of good features.

  • They’re good, easy reads that draw me in and keep me going. That’s a really, really good thing in a book.
  • They’re long. When you read at the speed I do, that’s also a really, really good thing.
  • They’re about gender and conflict and misunderstandings caused by prejudice or poor communication. Those are fascinating subjects.
  • I have several of them with the grown-up covers.

But…

Jordan was Unsubtle in his treatment of gender issues, and he always used the same sledgehammer – he’d describe in painful detail how someone screwed up because they didn’t think, because they thought in stereotypes, and because they assumed they knew best. I mean, considered as a criticism of gender relations in the real world, this is less subtle than Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books, and that’s saying something. This just makes it all very tedious and depressing to read, because it’s completely predictable that no matter how cool the other things they do, every major character is at some point going to make a stupid assumption about someone else, forget to ask an important question, or sneer at someone’s stupid foreign ways.

Sanderson seems to be trying to row back on the Idiot Ball thing rather, and that’s good, but he’s a bit hampered by only ever sketching character with a really broad brush.

And now for comments on The Gathering Storm[1] itself. On one hand – that worked well. Egwene rocks, Verin rocks, we’ve actually resolved some plot lines (Masema dead and gone, Semirhage and Graendal gone-and-not-coming-back, the Black Ajah gone, the White Tower back together, Morgase’s disguise penetrated, Verin’s secret revealed) and we actually see some people being competent and communicative and just getting on with things. Sanderson does not do the thing Jordan did, where he kept secrets from the readers for the fun of it[2].

On the other – Sanderson doesn’t do fine shades of character, which means that a couple of the characters have turned into pretty much caricatures of themselves. Seeing Mat reintroduced with a page-long rant of misogyny, shading into “I’m married now, what’s happening to me”, and then turning into something straight out of an AD&D adventuring party with that absurd plan was a bit depressing. It’s a really good comedy scene, but it’s not a good character one.

Nynaeve, on the other hand, is improving in that regard – though frankly, that’s because she spent most of the series as a caricature. Cadsuane gets to show off her outer arrogance and inner incompetence (she seriously wanted to torture Semirhage? She thought it would ever stand a chance of working? She responds to being exiled by skulking slightly further away and trying harder to manipulate Rand, but forgetting to tell her tools not to mention her name?) and infects Sorilea with it too.

The BA-hunters in the White Tower, sadly, get unceremoniously shoved off to the side because they might risk diminishing Egwene’s glory, and all their careful, sensible work gets rendered moot by Verin’s CMoA. It may well be that RJ left notes about this part specifically, but the way she deals with it is very much a Sanderson thing – a careful technical twist to the mechanics of the story. Speaking of those, I’d been wondering how he was going to put his own stamp on the magic system, and apparently it’s by changing how the ta’veren thing works. Rand has conscious control of it now, or at least gets to convince people he does. I cannot help but wonder, Was This Strictly Necessary. (He also seems to have acquired a completely gratuitous new sword, presumably Lews Therin’s, which will with luck turn out to be relevant in some way.)

Semirhage got captured doing something stupid, then breaks to one session of mild humiliation, but at least she got to try and do something really nasty to someone we care about. Graendal, after all that setup, never did.

I’m impressed that the twin Big Denouements are both very positive ones – Egwene reunifies the White Tower and kicks Seanchan arse, and Rand reintegrates his personality by refusing the temptations of power and force, and bringing in the Old Theme of coming back for a Second Chance and that Love Is Worth The Pain.


[1] Rather a generic title, but it’s sort of safe. “Hm, this book is the Approach to the End. Something really bad (and bad-ass) is coming, but it’s not here yet. We need a sense of enormous power gearing up for something… what about a Storm? Gathering?” “Sure, boss, that’s cool. Really new and unique and distinctive – ” “OK, OK, you can put the trowel down now.” Seriously, though – weather metaphors have been going on wholesale throughout the series, but this one is sledgehammerish and boring.

[2] I don’t care who killed Asmodean, and I only barely care where Demandred is. Right now, the only way the answer could be actually interesting is if he turned out to be Perrin.

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