I just finished devouring two important fantasy series!

I recently reported reading Book One of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I reported that I had started Book One of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. Now I have finished both series, and I find they make an interesting contrast. They are very differently-conceived, differently-written fantasy series. But both have one very interesting point in common. Each envisions a world-wide cataclysm precipitated by hubris and misuse of knowledge.

Back in 1982, anti-nuclear activist Jonathan Schell wrote a series of articles for New Yorker magazine. These articles subsequently became the basis for his acclaimed book The Fate of the Earth.

Find the book on Amazon and other bookstores and sites.

Schell made a telling comment about the threat of nuclear holocaust, which will surely be an extinction event, at least where humanity is concerned (among many other species caught up in the collateral damage): “We live, then, in a universe whose fundamental substance contains a supply of energy with which we can extinguish ourselves. We shall never live in any other. We now know that we live in such a universe, and we shall never stop knowing it” (p. 106). To use a cliché or two, the genie is out of the bottle, the cow is out of the barn. We may be able to restrain ourselves from using this knowledge for a while, or even suppress the knowledge, but over the course of human history it will eventually come back at us, and eventually it will get us, because no control system is perfect and no society, growing and changing for good or ill as it does and will, can ensure perfect restraint.

Both of these fantasy series play with such an idea–not nuclear war, but a fantasy equivalent, and in the case of Abercrombie’s fantasy world, a pretty close equivalent. In other aspects, the two series couldn’t be more different.

Abraham’s Long Price Quartet presents a unique fantasy world and a unique take on fantasy.

Find the books on Amazon or other bookstores and sites.

This extended four-book saga (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, The Autumn War, The Price of Spring) portrays the life of a reluctant hero, Otah, born into royalty, sent away from his family in childhood to become a poet. He rejects both roles and chooses anonymity in a variety of menial jobs: dock worker, fisherman, courier and member of the “gentleman’s profession” of low-level espionage, among others. Throughout the course of the saga, his background catches up with him. He is a compelling character, and the other major characters in the novels are equally well-drawn. For interesting characters alone, this series has much to offer the reader of fantasy.

The premise of these novels is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered in the genre: what if the creations of poets control the political and economic fate of societies? What if a society weaponizes the handiwork of its official poet to use against another society? What if such a poet goes rogue? What if the misuse of the poet’s creation results in widespread havoc and damage?

The creations of the poets in Abraham’s world begin, as poems do, in carefully considered language. But then they come alive in the form of andats, the embodied spirits of the creations. So, for example, Seedless the andat is the carefully controlled work of a poet who has employed language to explore the idea of generation and germination–the idea of the seed, and how to manipulate it. Using Seedless, the poet is able to remove the seeds from cotton fibers, an arduous, labor-intensive task. The society controlling Seedless thus controls cotton production for the entire world, and has grown prosperous. But Seedless’s removal of the generating principle, the seed, might extend to other, more sinister uses.

In addition, controlling Seedless–or any other andat–becomes the life’s work of the poet who has evoked him. This task takes tremendous concentration and tremendous effort of will, not least because the poet, as creator of the andat, has inevitably incorporated his own weaknesses and fears into his creation. Seedless (a fascinating character in his own right, if you can call him a “he,” eerie and beautiful) becomes the tool of sinister forces. And Seedless, like any other andat, yearns to be free of his creator–in other words, he yearns not to be at all.

The struggle of Seedless for his freedom, and of sinister conspirators to misappropriate his powers, are just the beginning of the long price humanity must pay for relying on such creatures and foregoing the chance to use other kinds of ingenuity to solve problems. A society that understands how to train poets to create and control the andats possesses a huge advantage over those who do not, and Otah’s society, comprised of prosperous city-states with a sort of Southeast Asian and Asian flavor, is the one that wields such a powerful weapon. (The setting, especially in A Shadow in Summer, reminds me a lot of Abraham’s amazing short story, “The Meaning of Love,” anthologized in Rogues–the story that led me to his novels.)

Meanwhile, a warlike neighboring society that does not possess the secret of the poets and andats conspires to gain the closely-held knowledge of its rich rivals and overturn the dominant city-states. This economically and politically lesser society has its own powerful weapon: deprived of the shortcuts that the andats can grant, the other society has developed ingenious machines that provide their own, different type of power.

And so the conflict builds, with Otah caught in the middle of it all.

What a premise. Be warned. If you think these fine points of economics and political in-fighting sound drab, they are anything but. Put aside any prejudices you might have about them, but prepare yourself for some quite intricate plot twists and turns. They are well-worth your concentrated attention as a reader, at least in my opinion. Something else is going on here, too. These books acknowledge the deep and powerful way that words shape us, and maybe a caution about losing control of words; about the inherent danger in words, especially words misused; about words dissolving into airy nothings.

For me as a fantasy reader, a fascinating premise and fascinating world-building are great but not enough. They must be matched by great characterization and great writing. These books have all those qualities. And, of course, the requisite fascinating little map at the front of the volume!

 The other series I read, equally absorbing but in entirely different ways, is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. The three books of the trilogy, The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, gives the reader an extended view into a violent and pretty terrifying society. This is grimdark fantasy at its best, and is it grim. If you don’t like such stuff, beware. It is bloody, it is morally troubling, it is dark, dark, dark. I loved it.

Find all three on amazon.com or other bookstores and sites.

Each title has a sinister meaning. “The blade itself” (Book I) is a quotation from Homer, Book 16 of the Odyssey, when the hero Odysseus advises his son Telemachus that weapons themselves, if they are left lying around, are a powerful inducement to violent acts. There are plenty of blades lying around in Abercrombie’s Book I to do exactly that, especially in the hands of Logen the Northman when his usually philosophical temperament escalates into terrible irrational rage, striking friend and foe alike, sometimes–not just here but throughout the trilogy–with tragic results. (Think Lancelot killing Gareth and Gaheris in Malory’s Morte Darthur, and the bloody consequences.)

“Before they are hanged” (Book II) comes from a cynical statement by the German poet Heinrich Heine: “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”  Apparently Heine said this, or something like it, in Gedanken und Einfälle (sometimes translated Thoughts and Ideas or Aphorisms and Fragments), maybe in 1848, but these aphorisms are apparently difficult to date. The real quotation says something like, “I’m a peaceful man, but God would make me really happy if He could show me six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees over there.” Heine’s quotations all over the internet have become something like Mark Twain’s–maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t, and if he did, maybe not exactly that way. But no matter. The quotation as it stands at the beginning of Abercrombie’s novel sums up its attitude perfectly, especially the attitude of the twisted and horribly damaged Inspector Glotka, one of the most intriguing, unpleasant, fascinating, and endearing (yes! he is! I stand by that!) characters in all fantasy literature.

“Last argument of kings” (Book III) was apparently engraved on Louis XIV’s cannons, might making right and all that. Interestingly, the reader doesn’t see the quotation until part II of this novel. Part I begins with an equally apt quotation from Paul Gauguin, “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.” Abercrombie’s vision is, at least here, of a dog-eat-dog, nature red in tooth and claw kind of world, and we shudder at it.

But it doesn’t appear to me to be violence for the sake of violence. Abercrombie seems to have a somber view of human nature, but it’s a human nature shaped by the long-ago actions of the mages, and now these terrible actions have come home to roost. One of the most sympathetic of all the characters (no spoilers here) is left in a dreadful state because of the hubris of these powerful sorcerers. Bayaz the mage, who begins the series fairly sympathetically, grows into a kind of monster, by the end. He strives to unleash mighty powers that might best be left alone.

Many of the characters are monstrous, in fact: Logen, Bayaz, Ferro, Glotka. But they are real. They suffer and bleed. They have horrifying scars and injuries. They are imperfect. They grow and change. What, in a novel, is better than that? Some characters aren’t as successfully drawn, though–the hapless, vain young noble Jezel, for example. But the kick-ass female characters, and the general kick-assity of the entire trilogy, more than make up for a few pallid Jezels in the mix.

I must admit, I struggled at the beginning of the trilogy to feel much interest in any of the characters, except probably Logen. That’s because the first book hops so abruptly from character to character. Just as we got to know one character, we suddenly found ourselves having to get to know a new one.

But the sweep of the fantasy world Abercrombie builds is pretty vast, so we need to be introduced to the main characters fairly rapidly. As the series went on, I settled into an absorbing involvement with each of the main characters (well, except for Jezel).

One of the great joys of this trilogy is its action scenes. Abercrombie’s pacing is superb. The scenes come across as near-cinematic (not in that bad way some authors have), yet they have all of the advantages that a print medium gives, as well. Wow.

The writing is very good, although too full of comic-book-style aarghs and ooofs and urks–for my taste, anyway. But the writing made the violence feel real, never soft-pedaled, never romanticized. Abercrombie never lets us look away.

The characters are real, too. How did I feel during the few moments when Inspector Glokta reveals a softer side, though? Maybe a bit uneasy. Then again, that’s what he does. Makes us feel uneasy.

So do these books. They do, and they should. The world they depict, like the world of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, is an uneasy place, poised on the brink of destruction. That’s our world. Fantasy at its best uses strange, dangerous worlds to reveal our familiar world to us in all its underlying strangeness and danger, and that’s what I think both of these authors do for us.

Thanks again for the great recommendation, Feenix!

MMORPG Pioneer Brad McQuaid Dies

McQuaid, aged 51, died on November 18, 2019.

McQuaid pioneered the MMORPG gaming format for the personal computer with the popular Everquest masssively multiplayer online role-playing game, published in 1996. Although not the first MMORPG (I think Ultima Online came out before Everquest), EQ quickly became the most popular. McQuaid’s company, Verant Interactive, was then acquired by Sony Online Entertainment (SOE). McQuaid was instrumental in creating a sequel, Everquest II, for SOE, utilizing more advanced graphics. Both games still have their rabidly-loyal player bases over a decade later, in spite of later games, such as World of Warcraft, that used simpler gaming and graphics (able to be played on less-powerful computers) to attract a much bigger audience–and also in spite of console games played on dedicated equipment such as XBox and PS4.

McQuaid went on to develop the excellent but ill-starred MMORPG Vanguard. He was working on the crowd-sourced Pantheon, Rise of the Fallen, at the time of his death.

RIP Aradune.

I have been reading some great fantasy recently!

But I have sorely neglected this blog. That’s because I’ve been busy trying to finish my own nine-book fantasy series, three interconnecting series, actually: The three-book prequel series, Stormclouds, which is fairly dark and adult; the four-book Harbingers series, which tilts more YA/NA; and the two-book companion series, Betwixt & Between. More on that later.

Here’s what I’m reading right now:

The Shadow of Summer, the first book of Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet. I will review it as soon as I finish it, but I have to say, this writer’s fantasy world and his entire take on fantasy is unique.

And then there’s:

The Blade Itself, Book I of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy

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I enjoyed this book very much and plan to read the other two in the trilogy. The action scenes are just great, and I really liked many of the characters, especially Logen the Northman; Glotka, the horribly damaged inquisitor; and Bayaz the mage; as well as several truly kick-ass female characters. These characters suffer and bleed. They have horrifying scars and injuries. They are imperfect. They grow and change. I love that in a novel.

Some of the characters struck me as useless and annoying, though. Maybe the sequels will let me know why they are important enough to spend my time on. Jezel, the vain young noble, is especially annoying. I found myself resenting every word my brain had to process on him. Get back to Logen! Maybe Jezel was there to give us a stark contrast to Logen, but if so, I could have done with a bit less.

Also, especially in the beginning, the novel hopped from character to character. Just as we got to know one character, we suddenly found ourselves having to get to know a new one. As a writer of fantasy myself, I have had my own struggles with this problem. A big fantasy world needs a fairly vast sweep of characters. So I’ve worried about this very thing quite a bit, and I think doing something like this can be hard to pull off successfully.

For me, though, the writing is everything–in fantasy, in sci-fi, in literary fiction, in whatever I happen to be reading. I liked the writing here, but it’s a bit too comic-book for me. Too full of aarghs and ooofs and urks. (Other readers may like this aspect of Abercrombie’s writing just fine). I could have also done without every pause in the characters’ conversation getting signaled with “uh,” “erm,” and the like.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the world that unfolds here and many of the conflicts in it. And I think this writer crafts a fantastic action scene. I am in awe of these action scenes. Because of them, and because of the wonderful characters (and in spite of the annoying ones), I know I will go on to read the rest of the trilogy.

Thanks for the great recommendation, Feenix!

All three of the completed books in Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series

   

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The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of those fantasy books that is such fun you’ll return to it, at least in your mind, again and again. (Or if you’re like me, the person who finished The Name of the Wind and then after ending on page 700-and-something turned right back to page 1 and read it again–you might literally re-visit it.) Locke is a wonderful rogue, and his close friendship with his buddy Jean turns this novel (and the series) into one of those unforgettable Butch-and-Sundance, Odd Couple pairings (we could go on. . . Men in Black, Midnight Run, etc etc etc) that delights and thrills.

Here’s the thing about these books, including sequels Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves: these two fascinating characters, and their relationship, do not remain static. They age. They learn from their mistakes. They lose trust. They regain trust. They fail. They flaunt their successes, and then they fail again. In other words, I believe these characters.

I read a blog post about one of the sequels that expressed annoyance about these books’ signal trope: Locke and Jean are incredibly clever and resourceful (and amoral–although they have their own code, which comes out in touching ways), and they have big plans for the big score to end all scores–and then everything comes crashing down. Repeatedly. The blog poster (forget who now) said, sourly, I thought, that this gets boring. Not so. It never gets old! This is why the series is such fun.

I’m making this series sound merely frivolous. It’s not. It has some serious things to say about depression and loss, I think. Some serious things to say about identity, loyalty, family.

The writing is good, too. I hate Ye Olde Fantasye Speake, and these novels have none of that. Some people may think they’re a bit too contemporary-sounding, but for me, they were just the right mix of real speech by real people, and real speech by real people inhabiting a completely strange world.

Speaking of which: the world-building is exceptionally good in these books, too. These characters inhabit a complex world made up of a variety of cultures and societies inhabited by people who don’t all look and sound and behave the same. The world is not just exotic window-dressing but materially contributes to plot and the motivations of character.

My only criticism comes in the last book, which I suppose most reviewers find the weakest. I should mention one problem that the writer had no control over: the political corruption depicted in The Republic of Thieves is tame in comparison to reality (U.S. writer/U.S. reader here). It reminds me of the previously brilliant House of Cards–but then reality overtook it. Sheer bad luck. (also horrifying, considering reality, but luckily my blog is not about that. . .)

Two things go wrong in this novel, at least in my opinion. One is the Denna Problem. I refer to the main female character/love interest in Patrick Rothfuss’s novels. A woman who is much, much more fascinating to the protagonist than she is to the reader, who might actually grow to hate her because she’s such a male-fantasy-zero of a woman. Sabetha, the woman Locke loves, is not as annoying as the woman Kvothe loves, but she comes a bit too close. Luckily she’s only a painful memory in Locke’s head until that third book, so she’s not a problem in the first two novels of the series. And anyway, I didn’t believe a word of the sex in The Wise Man’s Fear (the sequel by Patrick Rothfuss to The Name of the Wind–read them both! I’ve never before read two books that really shouldn’t work and do so brilliantly anyway. . .but I digress). Still, I think in spite of my misgivings about Sabetha, the passages about Locke’s sexual relationship with her work very well, even though we have to sit through The Dance of the Seven Veils to get there. I think writing sex scenes is really hard to do, too.

The second problem in Republic of Thieves resides in the novel’s use of a play as the main ruse in a scam that Locke, Jean, and the gang are running. They pose as actors in order to infiltrate a city’s corrupt political apparatus. That’s okay, but the novel insists on giving us a lot (too much? pretty much all?) of the dialogue of the play, and it all sounds like it was written by Shakespeare’s dim-witted not-so-talented cousin. I think a couple of lines of dialogue to suggest the general tone of the play would have been plenty.

Some readers have objected that the second book in the series, Red Seas Under Red Skies, suffers from a similar problem. They think the detailed descriptions of nautical matters are over the top in that novel. I really liked them. I’m a committed Patrick O’Brian fan, though. Rabid, even.

A final thought about these books: I too can hardly contain myself in the wait for the next Scott Lynch book, the next installment of Locke’s adventures–just as some can hardly contain themselves in their wait for the next J. R. R. Martin book (not I) or some (me! me!) can hardly contain themselves in their wait for the next Patrick Rothfuss book. But really. Give this poor writer some space, please. He’ll write it in his own good time. Or not. I’m glad to have read the ones I’ve read.

Four of the vampires/witches novels by Deborah Harkness

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I started out by reading A Discovery of Witches, the first in this writer’s All Souls Trilogy. I liked parts of it. I very much enjoyed the ideas she developed about vampires and vampire culture. The witches aspect–not so much.

I suppose what grabbed me about these novels and led me to read more of them was the background information–all of the interesting stuff about alchemy and whatnot. This may simply be because it fits pretty closely with my own academic background and interests.

The characters and writing, though, sounded too much like a slightly-better written Twilight. Until I read (I had to! I was on a panel!) Fifty Shades of Grey, I had never read anything commercially published that was that poorly written. So I’m mentioning a very low bar here. (UPDATE: one of my blog-readers remarked that she came away from this blog post thinking I am equating Harkness’s writing with the writing in Twilight or Fifty Shades. I suppose I am, but “slightly-better”? A lot better, really. Just not all that great. Only my opinion, of course.)

Why, oh why, did I continue with this series, you ask? I ask myself that, too. Shadow of Night, Book 2 of the All Souls Trilogy, continues the saga of a witch’s forbidden love for a vampire. I suppose I read it because the background of the story is exactly in my area of academic interest. It is set in 1590s England, the England of the publication of the first three books of The Faerie Queene with the next three still to come. Of the first performances of Romeo and Juliet. An England where Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia has been the rage among a certain coterie of readers for over a decade; a time when Sidney lies dead but his sister the Countess of Pembroke is still writing. An England where the scandalous School of Night flourishes, including such luminaries as Sir Walter Ralegh, George Chapman (“On First Looking Into Chapman’s” etc), Christopher Marlowe–and Matthew Royden, whom Harkness fictionalizes as her main vampire character (Marlow is a demon). I had a terrible suspicion that this book would resurrect the evergreen and supremely silly conspiracy theory that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, but luckily it doesn’t. The novel makes him sound like a lesser light and stealer of ideas–fair enough.

The characters and writing in this novel, though? They did not grab me. Except for the vampires.

So then, why Book 3? I suppose I wanted to see where it would all go, so I suppose that’s a tribute to the strength of the overall story arc. The Book of Life, Book 3 of the trilogy, was pretty lackluster. Except for the vampires.

I did read Time’s Convert, set in the same world with the same characters, because as a U.S. reader, I wanted to see what would happen to this fictional world in an historical setting taking place during the American Revolution–and other events of the time. One of the vampires, see, was an American Revolutionary soldier back when he was human, and then things happen, and then. . . This novel was pretty bad. At the point I finished trudging through it, I decided: enough. Not gonna read any more of these. Somewhere in there (this book? book 3 of the trilogy?), you can read a whole chapter or so devoted to a July 4th party, complete with witch-conjured fireworks. Wha???  This novel did lead me to search out a nonfiction book about the horrifying yellow fever epidemics that swept 19th century America, and read that. It was pretty bad, too, but the information was very interesting.

Now this blog post has gotten very long. More later. I’ve been doing, as I say, a lot of reading!