Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Review -- THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS by Poul Anderson

In 1953 a novella was featured in F&SF magazine about a Danish engineer who was knocked out during a battle in World War II against the Germans and awoke to find himself a famous and legendary knight errant in a fantastic version of medieval Europe. It appeared sixteen years after J.R.R. Tolkien had published The Hobbit, and one year before The Fellowship of the Ring. It was later given the full treatment and published as a novel in 1961.

This work is considered highly seminal in the development of 20th century fantasy. It is credited with having had a very heavy impact on E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, designers of role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, inspiring the character class of paladin, the D&D alignment system (especially the original Law-Chaos dichotomy), and the D&D regenerating troll that can only be killed by fire.

Anderson structures his plot in a manner similar to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, with the man-out-of-time-and-place being whacked into a mythic world. He frames the tale as being related by a third party and acquaintance of Holger Carlsen (the protagonist). This frame only really matters in the very beginning and very ending, and the Holger's friend slips into the role of the typical limited subjective narrator. And much like Hank Morgan, Holger's modern scientific know-how gets him out of a few tight jams and saves both himself and his companions--a dwarf and a swan-may with Scottish accents.

All-in-all, the book isn't terrible, but it isn't amazing. Anderson's prose is, I guess, the Asimovian "clear-as-glass" style that so many modern fantasists and science-fiction writers employ. The overall effect is alright, but nothing to write home about. Holger is a pretty consistent character--his earthly experiences have certainly tainted his view of life and events in the fantasy realm in which he finds himself. He's torn between his earthly pragmatism and scientific skepticism as an engineer, and the faith and religiosity of the crusading knight. I can see how he was Gygax's inspiration for the paladin class (people ask him to lay hands on them, for example), but Holger's "lawful" behavior is a product of his earthly training in scientific methodology, not any sort of theological certainty. Indeed, Holger never struck me as a very faithful and virtuous character--just a man who was trying to get home. His courage and bravery, as well as his moral fiber, aren't the stuff of legend, but much more earthy and practical--this makes Anderson's story quite enjoyable and a tad subversive, but again, I see some strain between Holger's character and the paladin of Gygax and Arneson's D&D. Holger's no saint--he's horny and he is a tad unscrupulous, but overall he's honest and a definite do-gooder.

Anderson's channelling of epic medieval romance is excellent. His portrayal of the elves and fairy, his reminder that iron is anathema to them, and the sense of timelessness and chaotic transistasis that the fair folk inhabit is rendered quite well, and helps to create a wonderful sense of atmosphere. Readers should expect lots of magic, enchantment, monsters, spellbound castles, alluring sorceresses, and lots of other staples of romantic medieval adventure.

The ending, however, is a huge let-down. There's all this buildup, but it really doesn't amount to much. The book reads more like the beginning of a saga, which Anderson simply resolves rather swiftly with a brief, forced, and disappointing summary. There's little payoff, and it all comes off as depressingly anti-climatic. What the book really needed was a cliffhanger ending and a sequel where Holger really comes into his own, but we're never given that. All this development takes place throughout the book, but it leads nowhere in the end. Perhaps we're supposed to feel the lurching displacement that Holger himself feels in the end, but I'm not so certain, and I don't think it really works.

Overall, the book is quite enjoyable. It's not very original, it doesn't exhibit breathtakingly epic prose, and the characters (except for Holger) are not especially deep. It's not an incredible piece of fantasy, but it definitely has some value and deserves to be read at least once. I certainly liked it well enough to recommend it.

Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson
Style B-
Substance B-
Overall B-

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review -- THE DYING EARTH, by Jack Vance

Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed, isolated system temperature, pressure, and chemical potential will eventually achieve equilibrium. All of the energy tends to even out throughout the system. Sometimes, this is referred to as entropy. When we think of entropy, we usually imagine loss of energy, not necessarily energy equalization. But something is lost when energy is equilibrated. What's lost is vitality, motion. The imbalance of energy permits action, transfer and conversion of energy convey motion and collision. When elements within a system bleed energy off to form that equilibrium, those elements seem to die.

It is this sort of energy death that Jack Vance explores in The Dying Earth. I recently reread my 1960s Lancer SF Library edition of this seminal work of its eponymous genre during school vacation. It's not very long, only 160 pages. Within are six stories set on an unnamed continent in a far, far distant future when the sun has grown dim and the inhabitants of the weary Earth imagine that it will one day gutter and flicker out like an exhausted flame.

Through these tales, Vance explores the theme of innocence--an ironic topic considering the setting is a far distant future where everything is slowly dying. However, through her old age, the Earth has regained a shred of her own innocence, as magic and myth have resurfaced, albeit mixed with science and technology. Vance's language invokes that same sense of the legendary and mythopoeic that Tolkien, Dunsany, and Howard possessed, although instead of dwelling in some mythic past when the world was young, he places his era of legend in a dreamlike future full of nostalgia and misty exoticism.
It was night in white-walled Kaiin, and festival time. Orange lanterns floated in the air, moving as the breeze took them. From the balconies dangled flower chains and cages of blue fireflies. The streets surged with the wine-flushed populace, costumed in a multitude of bizarre modes. Here was a Melantine bargeman, here a warrior of Valdaran's Green Legion, here another of ancient times wearing one of the old helmets. In a little cleared space a garlanded courtesan of the Kauchique littoral danced the Dance of the Fourteen Silken Movements to the music of flutes. In the shadow of a balcony a girl barbarian of East Almery embraced a man blackened and in leather harness as a Deodand of the forest. They were gay, these people of waning Earth, feverishly merry, for infinite night was close at hand, when the red sun should finally flicker and go black.
Countries have strange names, such as Kauchique, the Cape of Sad Remembrance, and the Land of the Falling Wall. We read of "orange-haired witches of the Cobalt Mountain; forest sorcerers of Ascolais, white-bearded wizards of the Forlorn Land," and silk-clad princes of "Cansaspara, the city of fallen pylons across the Melantine Gulf." Vance's prose infuses his perpetually twilit world with a sense of storied history.
The ground rose, the trees thinned, and T'sais came out on an illimitable dark expanse. This was Modavna Moor, a place of history, a tract which had borne the tread of many feet and absorbed much blood. At one famous slaughtering, Golickan Kodek the Conqueror had herded here the populations of two great cities, G'Vasan and Bautiku, constricted them in a circle three miles across, gradually pushed them tighter, tighter, tighter, panicked them toward the center within his flapping-armed subhuman cavalry, until at last he had achieved a gigantic squirming mound, half a thousand feet high, a pyramid of screaming flesh. It is said that Golickan Kodek mused ten minutes at his monument, then turned and rode his bounding mount back to the land of Laidenur from whence he had come.
We may only spend a few pages on the Modavna Moor, but that brief description of Golickan Kodek's ride from Laidenur gives the location weight and feeling, and makes it seem a real and actual place. Though Prince Datul Omaet is only mentioned in passing, the fact that he exists, is a sorcerer, and comes from a city of "fallen pylons" from across a sea makes Vance's world just a little bit richer and more fascinating. Vance doesn't flesh everything out with the thoroughness of a Tolkien, but rather keeps his world open and unmapped like Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith, enabling him to broaden and expand it at will.

Though the setting has great potential for nihilistic pessimism, Vance avoids that. In a sense, the decay and imminent death of the Earth is an opportunity to rediscover a romanticism. Though the Earth cannot be saved from its ultimate fate, maybe it could be spiritually redeemed through heroism, sacrifice, bravery, and intelligence. Indeed, there's a great strain of optimism that runs through the entirety of The Dying Earth and defies the sun's exhaustion. The mythic lyricism of Vance's prose is very much a return to an older form, and though he's not the master that Dunsany or Tolkien would be, he does a decent job of it nonetheless.
"Far in the past, far beyond thought, so the legend runs, a race of just people lived in a land east of the Maurenron Mountains, past the Land of the Falling Wall, by the shores of a great sea. They built a city of spires and low glass domes, and dwelt in great content. These people had no god, and presently they felt the need of one whom they might worship. So they built a lustrous temple of gold, glass, and granite, wide as the Scaum River where it flows through the Valley of Graven Tombs, as long again and higher than the trees of the north. And this race of honest men assembled in the temple, and all flung a mighty prayer, a worshipful invocation, and, so legend has it, a god molded by the will of this people was brought into being, and he was of their attributes, a divinity of utter justice.

"The city at last crumbled, the temple became shards and splinters, the people vanished. But the god still remains, rooted forever to the place where his people worshiped him."
Magic plays an enormous part of the setting--both in its romantic nostalgia and in its entropic decay.
At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses, and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam--Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East--swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated--though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Ponticella the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed, and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city of Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man.
The spells are described as "so cogent" that characters can only fit a limited number of them into their brains at any given time. Upon casting of these spells, the release of magical energy wipes the formulas from the sorcerers' minds. This is exactly what role-playing-gamers describe when discussing "Vancian magic" in games like Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, E. Gary Gygax and David Arneson were directly influenced by Jack Vance's setting when they were designing D&D, and elected to try to capture the feel of Vance's magical system in their game. This is obviously how Vance's The Dying Earth found its way into Gygax's heavily influential Appendix N.

This interesting mixture of innocence and romanticism amidst decay and entropy is combined with another major theme that runs through his books--justice and redemption. Characters either surrender to their base desires and lusts for power, or they can achieve a sort of moral epiphany and seek to do right. Such characters as T'sais, Turjan of Miir, Etarr, through love, sacrifice, bravery, and loss manage to achieve redemption and have their courage recognized. Other characters, like Liane the Wayfarer and Mazirian, get a satisfying comeuppance. Though Vance's world is dominated by decadence and dark forces, the just, good, and brave can definitely make a positive difference in the world, and Vance's stories are of those exceptional people who manage to overcome obstacles both internal and external.

One may say that all of these good deeds are for naught, since the sun is fading and eternal night is immanent, but the tenor and texture of the narratives do not suggest that this was Vance's aim. Rather, the author seems to feel that his protagonists really do matter and that their actions truly have a positive impact in spite of the looming heat-death of the world. Though cities crumble to dust and the sun continues to fade, magic and wonder still persists, and the world can still be enchanted, right up to the very end.

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Style B+
Substance B
Overall B+

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review -- A FEAST FOR CROWS, by George R.R. Martin

With all this talk about nihilism in fantasy, even Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation had something to say about it in a recent video game review. The inexhaustible banter between various sides has actually left me a bit in the lurch, torn between a rollicking good time reading gratuitous sex and violence on a medieval scale and the demands of decent taste. Well, instead of launching forward discussing the state of fantasy fiction any further, I'm taking a break from reading Takami Koushun's teenage slaughterfest Battle Royale to belatedly put down my thoughts on George R.R. Martin's fourth novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Feast for Crows. (For my earlier reviews of the preceding volumes see A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords).

Understanding why and how this novel was written is key to understanding the novel as a whole. Martin claims to have never really intended to write this novel, nor the upcoming A Dance with Dragons, until he realized that he couldn't simply jam everything he felt needed to be conveyed through flashbacks in the upcoming novels. So, he originally intended to write a single novel to bridge the gap between A Storm of Swords and the fifth book. However, book four ended up becoming so large that he had to split it in half, and so A Feast for Crows is only half the bridge with the upcoming A Dance with Dragons covering all of the character perspectives that weren't covered by book four.

Thus, A Feast for Crows is interesting from the standpoint of character development, but in terms of plot development, we really don't get anything until the end, and that end is more of a setup for events that will take place in book six. Given the length of time between book releases lately, it will be a wonder if Martin will ever finish this series. However, I'm hoping that the sixth novel comes out much quicker, since the bridge part of the story was something that Martin wasn't as interested in telling, but he certainly felt it needed to be told.

And that's pretty much it. The entire book is a setup for the events that will take place either during or after the winter. By the novel's end, winter has begun, and it wouldn't be surprising if things basically slowed to a complete stop. Almost all of the characters have been placed in positions where Martin can easily pick them back up years later down the timeline. A number of very satisfying conclusions have occurred for several characters. But other characters seem to be hanging by a thread and their fates are uncertain. It's not a bad read as books go, and it isn't really filler in a Jordanesque sense, where characters simply sit around plotting and those plots never come to fruition until three 1,000+-page novels have been completed. There's storyline payoff, but those payoffs are weak compared to what Martin could have done.

I don't feel like Martin is stretching his story out on purpose. Instead, I get the impression that he's not certain how to cram everything in that he wants to. We get precious little of the Ironmen storyline, or of Arya Stark's development, with the lion's share of the book going to the Lannisters (Jaime and Cersei) and Brienne. Samwell's thread and the events in Dorne get a pretty fair shake. However, its the brevity with which Martin handles Arya's, Sansa's, and the Greyjoy's storylines that make them so strong and inspiring. It's easy to get sick of the constant plotting and scheming of Cersei Lannister throughout the novel, although Martin does give us a pretty satisfying conclusion to her storyline at the end of the novel.

When compared to previous volumes, this one is definitely a bridge, and it feels like it, too. The real situation was wrapped up in A Storm of Swords. In A Feast for Crows, Martin is simply prepping us for whatever happens after A Dance with Dragons. As ever, his characterizations are believable, his grasp of character psychology thorough. There's plenty here to keep a reader going. Seeing how Samwell Tarly, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, and Arya Stark all evolve as characters, how they face their individual challenges and quandaries. Sam continues to find inner reserves of strength and bravery, Jaime is forced to deal with the realities of his sister's ambition and ceaseless plotting and struggles with his own ethical and moral compass that is often in conflict with what other men consider honor, Brienne struggles to fulfill the many (and sometimes contradictory) oaths she's made, and Arya begins to detach herself from her past and become something new. These threads are the best parts of the novel.

Martin has, perhaps, given hints as to where, finally, he intends to take this series of his at the end. But a lot remains to be seen. A large number of characters are not to be seen in this novel, but their shadows still loom heavily across the plot's landscape--especially Daenerys Targaryen. I wouldn't suggest that this book is nihilistic as others claim. Oaths and oathbreaking dominate this book, as does plotting and conspiracy. There most heroic characters--Jaime, Brienne, and yes, Sam--struggle with oaths and honor alike. The storylines of Cersei, the Dornish, and Sansa are all hotbeds of intrigue, and Petyr proves himself to be a master politician in contrast to Cersei or the naïve, quasi-heroic intrigues of the Dornish princesses. This book is nowhere near as sluggish and filler-laden as it is reputed to be. Its only in comparison to the previous volumes that A Feast for Crows really seems to be lacking anything.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
Style B
Substance B
Overall B

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Review -- THE BLACK COMPANY by Glen Cook

In May of 1984, The Black Company emerged on the fantasy scene, telling the story of a mercenary company with a long legacy from the perspective of that company's historian. The author, a certain Glen Cook, would go on two publish two more novels within the next year, to create a trilogy entitled The Book of the North, a record of the Black Company's exploits on the northern continent of Cook's fantasy world.

Cook's company is a fully realized unit of hardened veterans. His characterizations are accomplished through action and behavior, all of which is observed and relayed by Croaker, the company physician and keeper of the annals. They're a group of misfits, ne'er-do-wells, sellswords, and thugs that are united in a brotherhood of arms and a code of honor.

This sounds rather generic, but it is in Cook's description of the characters' actions and behaviors where the multi-faceted personalities really assume multiple dimensions. Some of the characters get short shrift, such as the Captain, but others are very-much realized, like One-Eye, Goblin, Elmo, and Raven. But the real protagonist of the story is the Black Company itself. The company is a sort of refuge and home for those who would otherwise have no place and belong nowhere. Each character that joins the company fits into the group and belongs there. By creating this company, Cook is creating a kind of brotherhood of soldiers and exploring the camaraderie that develops between the men.

This isn't necessarily unique, as a multitude of novels have been published outside of the fantasy genre that explore these sorts of themes. Where Cook is innovative, however, is with the nature of the Company's moral and ethical dilemma. The opening finds them trapped in a contract that they are bound to fulfill, and honor demands that they complete it. The populace of the city that they are garrisoning resents their occupation and violently take to the streets against them. In order to get out of their contract without breaking it, the Captain signs the proverbial pact with the Devil and commits the company to the service of the Lady--a resurrected sorceress from an earlier age who seeks to rebuild her Domination over the entire northern continent. The Company, apparently, has gotten more than they bargained for, since now they are not only caught within the web of political machinations and backstabbing among the Lady's powerful sorcerer-generals, they also realize that they are on the wrong side of a war--they are fighting for the bad guys.

In this manner, Cook peers into the hearts and souls of those forces whom the average fantasy reader finds him/herself cheering against, and makes us cheer for them. It's a pretty slick subversion of the genre. The characters aren't the wonderful heroes that we are used to in fantasy.
"You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realize that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, violent, and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruelest fantasies, their behavior tempered only by the presence of a few decent men. I do not often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin. The old lessons die hardest."
Later, the narrative continues.
"I was my usual charming morning self, threatening blood feud with anyone fool enough to disturb my dreams. Not that they didn't deserve disturbing. They were foul. I was doing unspeakable things with a couple of girls that could not have been more than twelve, and making them love it. It's disgusting, the shadows that lurk in my mind."
The protagonist, Croaker, often puts himself up as an example of the sort of decadence and perversion that is common in the Black Company. Yet Croaker's honesty and his guilt are his redemption. He refuses to report on the sins and excesses of his brethren, although he's not afraid to convey his own misdeeds--even those in his dreams. Croaker, at heart, wants to do the right thing, and his own personal struggle--service to a dark sorceress, is inextricably linked with the Company's own ethical dilemma. Croaker is the quiet conscience of the Black Company, the small spark that redeems his fellows not only in the pages of the Annals, but also in his deeds and decisions throughout the book.

Croaker's own struggles embody the struggles of the Company as a whole, and as his connection to the Lady grows throughout the novel, so does the vital role that the Company will play in her plans. They become the focal point for everything, and Croaker becomes a focal point for the plot. When he is faced with the reality that evil is everywhere, it reflects the situation the Company has found itself in.
"'I know you, Annalist. I have opened your soul and peered inside. You fight for me because your company has undertaken a commission it will pursue to the bitter end--because its principal personalities feel its honor was stained in Beryl. And that though most of you think you're serving Evil.

"'Evil is relative, Annalist. You can't hang a sign on it. You can't touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger. Where you stand now, because of your oath, is opposite the Dominator. For you he is where your Evil lies.'"
Croaker, like the Company, is confronted with a few uncomfortable truths. The real struggle of the novel is whether Croaker can maintain his moral center or if he succumbs to relativism and/or nihilism and simply sides with the lesser evil. Croaker's struggle inside is a microcosm of the struggle of the entire Black Company.

This novel was obviously quite influential on Stephen Erikson's Gardens of the Moon. Indeed, the Bridgeburners of the Malazan Army seem to have been modeled on the Black Company. There's no direct analogy, but naming conventions (Mallet, Hedge, Fiddler, etc. of the Bridgeburners compared to Goblin, Three-fingers, Jolly, Silent, etc. of the Black Company) show definite similarities. These are obviously not birth-names, but names assumed upon enlistment--a kind of eschewing the past along with one's old name in order to begin a new life with the unit.

Cook successfully meditates upon the life of the rank-and-file soldiers of the fantasy antagonist without descending into grandiose levels of angst and pessimism. He handles the ethics of the Black Company and its dilemma with enough finesse and doesn't hammer us with long, winding passages of introspection, keeping Croaker's soliloquies elegantly brief and allowing us to internalize the Company's dilemma more effectively. The worldbuilding isn't incredible, and simply screams "generic medieval fantasy setting" at the top of its lungs. But it isn't worldbuilding we're here for. We're here for the Company--Croaker and his brethren--and their heroism in a war in which they're on the side of evil.

As a side-note, it should be mentioned that the Black Company's name originated with the racial composition of the unit during its formation--the first roster drew almost entirely from the black-skinned natives of the southern continent, and only One-Eye and Tom-Tom (who are wizard-brothers) remain from that levy. The remainder, it is implied are likely dusky or olive-skinned Mediterranean types with dark hair. This is very interesting, because fantasy has always been one of those genres that is extremely ossified when it comes to race. I personally believe that the racial makeup of most fantasy novels is a holdover from older European folk tales and stories, so it would figure that Caucasians would figure so prominently in the tales. But it is interesting to mention that black characters not only made it into this novel, but indeed are more than simply stereotypes (at least so far as One-Eye is concerned).

The Black Company by Glen Cook
Style B
Substance B
Overall B