Jen Williams: The Copper Promise

Williams, Jen (2014), The Copper Promise, Headline
ISBN 978-1-4722-1112-5

Wiebe, Kurts J.; Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781607-069454

DSC_0171So through the years I have reviewed quite a few fantasy novels on this blog, but I am still looking for recommendations, and trying to understand contexts and history of the genre. As far as I can tell, the big caesura in the genre was JRR Tolkien’s entry on the stage of epic fantasy. A lot of what followed copied the structure of Tolkien’s books pretty closely, with some changes here and there. The most recent style of fantasy is “gritty” fantasy, which is now pretty much the predominant genre. Gritty means a certain amount of soi-disant “realism”, which mostly means more sex, way more violence and intential cruelty. Some writers have done interesting things with this, and people like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, David Anthony Durham and the mercurial talent N.K. Jemisin have taken the genre in new directions, mostly by offering a more sophisticated understanding of social issues. Jen Williams, a debut novelist, opts for a slightly different path in The Copper Promise and that is best summarized by the word “fun”. She is not interested in grit, not in realism, not in carefully constructed portrayals of nations and cultures. Honestly, the main instinct for me as a reviewer here is to squeal about the fun I had reading this book and how much fun I suspect the author had writing it. The other book I want to mention here is Rat Queens, written by Kurtis Wiebe with artwork by Roc Upchurch (pencils, ink and covers). The first trade, “Sass and Sorcery” has been out for a few months and it’s an equally joyful celebration of fantasy, yet also cognizant of gender issues and narrative holdovers from tradition.

DSC_0194Another distinction I should have made in my first paragraph is the one between epic fantasy and the sword and sorcery line of fantasy, which mainly inspired Jen Williams. More accurately, she appears to have been inspired by Fritz Leiber’s legendary novels featuring his heroes Fafhrd (not a typo) and the Gray Mouser, called the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers” by Raymond Feist. Epic fantasy tells us stories of nations and cultures. It usually contains stories of adventurers embedded within, but the stakes are a bit higher, and these books tend to offer elaborate maps in the back. In George R.R. Martin’s increasingly lackluster work we even find whole lists of ‘houses’ and their living and deceased members. None of this for Williams. The world is small enough to traverse with a dragon in a short amount of time, it contains roughly four recognizable areas or nations and the narrative tends to just “switch” areas to tell different stories in different places. Her tradition is that of Leiber (and Burroughs), of intrepid adventurers in a world full of wicked people and magic and strangeness. At the same time, she takes that tradition and spins it cleverly. But it’s not an intellectual exercise. This book is a big steaming cup of fun. If you like fantasy, but are bored by the epic fantasy line of writing and/or the ‘gritty’ type of fantasy, read this. In fact, if you like fantasy, read this. And if you like both fantasy and comic books, I implore you, read Rat Queens.

DSC01517The main characters in The Copper Promise are a pair of mercenaries, Wydrin, a female slender thief and Sebastian, a disgraced former soldier, a burly but conscientious man. The story uses Wydrin as a focal point although it is a third person narrative. As the book progresses, a wizard of sorts joins the two, as they endeavor to stop a gigantic dragon/god and her army from burning the whole world. The narrative moves us briskly along, and while we are never really surprised by the events, we are also never bored. The basic structure of the story is old fashioned in the best sense, a novel thoroughly happy with storytelling in the pulpy sense of the word. At the same time, the writing is always solid. Humorous, light and precise, a perfect storyteller’s tool. No fake archaisms, no purple descriptions of emotional agony or orientalist interiors. And this is not gritty. There’s none of the cheap glee many contemporary fantasy writers have in killing off or torturing ‘good’ characters. The story is paramount, not the self-regard of the writer. Have you seen Martin on a talk show, laughing his odd laugh when people ask him about all the characters he has killed off so far? He enjoys being that person. And increasingly, that shows in his work. Fritz Leiber’s tradition is different, a tradition of having fun telling a tale.

DSC_0172The basic setup of The Copper Promise already suggests similarities to Leiber’s work, but the connection goes further. On a superficial level, Jen Williams’ thief is nicknamed Copper Cat and puts stock in naming her knives, and not only is that also Mouser’s habit, but additionally, one of Mouser’s knives is called “Cat’s Claw” (and Mouser himself is “on the cat’s path”), as we learn in “Ill met in Lankhmar”, an early novella/story. There’s more, however. Fritz Leiber’s main audience were adolescent boys, and so there are women as decoration and the occasional odd sexually charged story. Moreover, Leiber’s stories, as far as I have read them, have a recurring interest in fatherhood, or more broadly, in the lasting ties created through sex, whether that would be offspring or families or tribes. A lot of his well known stories prominently feature these elements, from “The Snow Women” to “Lords of Quarmall”. In contrast to Leiber, Jen Williams’ audience are not adolescent boys, or not just, and her novel uproots many of the assumptions behind the use of those elements while keeping the elements themselves. She changes Leiber’s virile barbarian into a religious, conscientious soldier who gets the boot from his order due to his sexuality when his love for men is discovered. She gives the role of the irreverent thief with a big appetite for money, food and men to a female character. And while I can’t give details on this short of spoiling a major plot point, she offers a particularly inventive spin on the idea of masculinity and procreation. In fact, I enjoyed that part of The Copper Promise so much that I felt it got a bit short shrift. That’s the only real mark against the book: as you’d expect of a debut novel, it’s not extremely well balanced. Some parts are much longer than they’d need be and some interesting developments are handled in only a handful of pages.

DSC_0174Another aspect of the book is its love of telling stories. It’s not openly metafictional, like Rothfuss’ book with its framework is, but it offers an impassioned plea for the magic of words, and its more than just having magicians in the book, and magic words and scrolls etc. No, she offers us a take of personal awakening, a set of characters and their journey to discovering their identity, all of which happens through the act of reading words, discovering language as a thing in the world. Language, ordinary language seems so new, so magical to these characters that they start using it in lieu of names, picking new names out of the dictionary. This fascination with words and storytelling does not seem to me to be accidental. Indeed, Leiber is such an interesting choice for a young writer to pick up these days and signals an interest in the art of telling a plainly fun story. Interesting not because he is so unknown – in fact, there seems to be a kind of Sword and Sorcery renaissance in recent years, from movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars books to new Conan comics (with art by the fantastic Becky Cloonan, so you might want to have a look at those, too). No, interesting because the question of the value of “pure” storytelling is part of a public debate that featured most prominently one of America’s leading ‘serious’ novelists, Michael Chabon. In between his major novels, Chabon has consistently been publishing smaller texts, some of them nonfiction, some explorations of genre. One of them is Gentlemen of the Road, a historical novel set roughly in 950 AD in the Khazar empire. As Chabon explains in an afterword, he went off “on a little adventure” in it. He also explains the joy and importance of storytelling, of going beyond the confines of what he calls “late-century naturalism”. I feel a lot of fantasy in the “gritty” school of writing tries to defend itself by injecting that naturalism back into a genre literally meant to be fantastic. Chabon’s book is not a fantasy, and his stakes are much higher. His is a novel clearly written after the Shoah, offering a debate on Jewish identity that he would continue in what I think is his best novel so far, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But the discussion about “adventure fiction” and the appeal inherent in the form, it also applies to The Copper Promise, which stakes out a place for itself as fantasy adventure fiction, both smart and joyful.

Drakensang

Screenshot is not actually of one of the games I mention, but it’s a CRPG and it’s me playing a female protagonist, so there.

Another tradition that I found applicable, but that might not be intentional at all, is a much more recent one. Video games. More precisely computer role playing games, CRPGs, in short. Don’t look at me like that. I have played a few of them without being what they call ‘a gamer’- I don’t own a console and my laptop is rather old, that imposes inherent limits. But the new tradition of CRPGs gave role changes and especially stories involving women more of a push. Despite all the misogyny that is so rampant in today’s ‘gamer’ scene, the fact that these stories are more interactive, written by multiple authors and have to appeal more directly to an audience interacting with the game opened a large array of possibilities. In the arguably best CRPG ever published, Baldur’s Gate II, you play with a group of people, a group that you can staff with a large amount of female characters. Other, more recent games like Mass Effect, a CRPG in a science fiction setting, or Dragon Age, in the usual fantasy/middle ages setting, even allow you to pick a female protagonist or have a same-sex romance. All this is to say that I think video games, as much as they have supported and developed a new strain of misogyny among young men (recent events have been especially appalling), also have opened up vistas of action and thinking about things differently. The tradition Williams holds on to may be the Leiber kind of writing and I may be a horrible philistine here, but as I read the first 100 pages, my brain kept seeing the events in action, I kept translating them in my head into the familiar images of computer role playing games. And that’s not a bad thing. If you have ever played a classic CRPG, like the aforementioned BGII or Planescape Torment, what you come away with is a world alive with stories, and with humor and sadness and all the ingredients for a fun story. A lot of gritty fantasy has lost that by focusing on ‘serious’ stories, and I am not criticizing that. All I’m saying is that some writers, like early Robin Hobb on the epic fantasy side, and Jen Williams on the sword and sorcery side of fantasy, have a place in all of this too.

DSC_0170As do the Rat Queens. Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch collaborate on a story that is about mercenaries killing trolls, having sex with Orcs and generally getting up to all kinds of shenanigans. The fights are frequently pretty bloody and the jokes can be a bit bawdy. What makes the story special, apart from the general excellence of the art and the clarity and humor of the writing, is that Wiebe and Upchurch took a story that generally uses women as decorations and moves them into the foreground. The four main protagonists are women, although not all of them are human. We are offered hints of complicated backgrounds and intrigues, although the first trade does not go beyond hints. First trades are, after all, rarely more than exposition. But there’s enough for us to become invested in the inner lives of these female mercenaries. A group of vividly drawn and varied female characters as the main focus of a comic book is not a frequent sight. What’s more, Rat Queens is much more clearly indebted to and comments on the video game genre. The story is placed before a background of routine “raids” of troll caves and other cliché targets, mimicking the ubiquitous “tasks” in role playing games. The first half of the book’s arc plays fast and loose with its references and the various traditions it finds itself in. It’s an exuberant kind of book and that has an effect on its readers. It’s been a while since I had quite this much sheer fun reading a comic book. Comics, as well as fantasy novels, have become “gritty”, telling their stories in literal and figurative darker colors. Frequently, haunted male protagonists have to deal with a violent and brutal world. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that kind of writing, but it’s such a relief when we find books like Rat Queens (or Kieron Gillen’s short lived arc on Young Avengers) that are much more invested in telling a colorful story. It’s a good time for fantasy and comics and both Rat Queens as well as The Copper Promise are excellent examples of that. And while Wiebe is already an established writer, there’s no telling where Jen Williams could go with her next books.

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David Anthony Durham: Acacia

Durham, David Anthony (2008), Acacia: The War with the Mein, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-385-72252-0

David Anthony Durham is one of a flood of new fantasy novelists, one of those who, like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch, has been able to command a great deal of attention. Praise for Durham and his fellow fantasy rookies often revolves around the changes they made to the familiar fantasy formula. It is indicative of the low expectations in the genre that a divergence from a tired old formula is not what is expected of all decent writing, but is seen as a hallmark of excellence. This does not, of course, diminish the quality of Rothfuss’ or Sanderson’s books (cf. my review of Rothfuss’ book here, and of a Sanderson novel here),where the departure from fantasy stereotype is a sign of larger visions and ideas than lesser writers like Jordan can boast of, as well as of a more complete understanding of what use the underpinnings of the fantasy genre really are. Changing the formula, in their case, is part and parcel of a more intelligent or more aware kind of writing. In this context, Durham is an odd writer. On the one hand, in Acacia: The War with the Mein, the first installment of the Acacia trilogy, Durham conjures up a ravishing world, one that is very different from the usual fantasy worlds in many ways and that displays the awareness of a writer who has, so far, primarily written historical novels dealing with North Africa. Fantasy novelists’ worlds are too often infused with one of two sets of imagery: either a middle European medieval scenario, or, often used by way of contrast, a world based on a vaguely East Asian image. In my reading experience, the varieties of African cultures have been severely underrepresented. Durham’s world is convincing in the way that it offers a multitude of non-European images and cultures, without losing the feudal, medieval charm of mainstream fantasy.

In fact, this is what makes this book such a curious experience. The setting, and the thoroughness of his use of setting (including discussions of skin color, race, and non-European concepts of magic) clashes with the gentle acceptance of almost every other aspect. This book is as harshly androcentric and vaguely misogynistic as Jordan’s multi-volume epic of tediousness is, and Durham’s take on feudalism and courtly intrigue, as well as his take on warfare and the individuals in it, are similarly unreflected and simplistic. Durham’s heroes are of royal blood, and he treats them like Gods, in the sense that the welfare of the people of his populous country is entirely up to them and their moods and their virtues or flaws. A general’s mistake leads to millions killed, a king’s cowardliness leads to their enslavement. The contrast to even as generic a book as Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is stunning. Sanderson combines popular uprisings with courtly intrigue, he roots his magic in the earth of his world, connecting nobles and the poor through magic as a common element. Durham’s magic is written magic, the magic of the word, and by hiding a book away one can restrict access to magic and eventually remove magic from the world. The world of Acacia: The War with the Mein is extremely hierarchical, and there’s no signs of change and no real criticism of that fact (what’s debated are merely different varieties of feudalistic hierarchies). Instead, he endows two royal families with attributes (bravery, jealousy, faith etc.) that will determine the fate of the people of Acacia. There is something extremely unpleasant about this, an unpleasantness that is exacerbated by the fact that hierarchies include those of gender. Not in the sense that the society is misogynistic, as the broadly medieval setting would well explain this.

No, in creating his protagonists, Durham has recourse to archaic stereotypes, which makes for extremely accessible reading. There is the brave, bold and innocent hero, there is the scheming, mean anti-hero, and so forth. Needless to say, the brave warriors are all men, except for one woman, whom we are introduced to as a kind of Joan of Arc, a warrior-priestess, a permissible mode. The scheming, sneaky good guy-turned-bad is a woman, of course, who, as the book proceeds, turns from whore to assassin and scheming queen. Additionally, Durham cannot muster enough interest in his world to explore it to any degree of thoroughness. All descriptions, all the elements feel superficial, random, cursory. The plot as well, based as it is on various heroic and gender stereotypes, seems to run on automatisms. The changes that George R.R. Martin brought to the table, the way that Martin’s heroes die left and right, and not in glorious duels, but in ignominious arrow hails, the way Martin thought about the inner workings of feudalism, his deep commitment to heraldry and other geeky subsets of writing about a medieval world, none of that appears to have brushed Durham’s mind when he conceived his books. Durham writes in a way that is easy on the mind and heart, a fantasy that is comfortable because there are no surprises, nothing to jolt or excite the mind. Reading Durham is fun, but only for fantasy loyalists. I happen to have a sweet tooth for this brand of writing, and if you have similar predilections, you will have a great deal of fun. Durham’s world is sumptuous, his story is epic, and filled with magic and mystery. If you want more from your fantasy (or literature in general), you should give Durham a pass. Unlike Rothfuss, Martin, or even Sanderson, this is not for outsiders. This is fantasy for fantasy/romance fans. As such, it works well, and I highly recommend it for these purposes. It is an engaging, escapist read of war, intrigue and love in a warm climate.

What it’s not, is well written. Granted, great writing is rare in fantasy, even good writers like Rothfuss are not stellar stylists. But for whatever reason, Durham under-performs, even given the poor expectations of the genre he chose. The main problem is that he decided to at least partially imitate a high, elegant, epic register in his writing. Especially the first third of the book, while the reader is trying to get used to the language, Durham’s poor imitation of Renaissance English grates. Inversions, awkward rhythms and courtly circuitousness are but a few of the stylistic jinks employed by Durham to make the language of his book sound as epic as the story it helps tell. It’s hard to tell whether this annoying attribute is due to his past writing of historical novels, or whether it is an attempt to achieve what Martin and Tolkien did with their use of language. It’s likely he didn’t read Martin or didn’t read him well, because I always admired the way Martin constructed a sturdy yet old-sounding language that contained just the right amount of anachronisms to fit the setting; yet his language was always simple and strong enough not to seem more literary than it needed to. What Martin recognized, and Durham should have done, as well, is that Tolkien’s example is a tough act to follow. The readability of Tolkien’s work and the immediacy of his story hide the literary complexity of his writing. Like him or not, Tolkien was no mean writer and fantasy novelists who want to copy the effect without having the literary acumen to back it up, are bound to fail. And if, as in Durham’s novel, the result is primarily annoying and distracting, it’s arguably worse than if the writing were just simply bad and pulpy (insert random Lovecraft comment here).

However, the mediocre writing is symptomatic of a larger malaise in Durham’s book. Durham is a stylist, not in the sense of a writer with a good or remarkable style, but in the sense that he is heavily invested in style, not just (or even primarily) literary style. The interiors and landscapes of the book are polished, gleaming, well, stylish. One feels, as a reader, that this, his first experiment at constructing a world, has led him astray. I would not be surprised to learn that he had watercolors of the landscapes and cities made to flesh out his vision. Acacia is not an actual country and nothing in the way that the book is told suggests to us that it might be one, there is no sense that this may be a conflicting, opposing or in any way relevant reality. Durham has created his world as an object, as a location wherein to put elegant furniture and epic heroes. There is a chapter where he appears to try and slip out of this view of the world, by introducing a drug-addled ex-soldier, getting by on the streets of a country ravaged by war and a devastating plague, yet that chapter sticks out like a sore thumb (and it doesn’t work). It’s a testament to Durham’s qualities as a storyteller that the book as a whole nevertheless does work as a piece of escapist literature. But the distanced, artificial world Durham builds has severe consequences for other aspects of his novel. Durham is a smarter writer than the book shows him to be, and we as readers can see how he, time and again, attempts to inject interesting ideas into his story, social concerns, even allusions to contemporary politics, but the clean, non-stick surface of the book precludes any success in this endeavor. One hopes that the second and third volume blow the world of the book open enough for the ideas to take some hold in the flesh of the world and the book, instead of staying surface phenomena.

The story itself focuses on an invasion of the barbarians. Yes, that is a very common motif, but while other writers tease their readers with the imminent threat and start with skirmishes, Durham wastes no time in confronting the ruling people of the Known World, the Acacians, with the brutal invaders from the north, the Mein. Hanish Mein, the leader of the barbarians, soon proves himself to be a crafty and courageous enemy, smashing the Acacian army to bits and taking over the Known World. Durham is not interested in the things that happen to ordinary people and the minutiae of warfare is also of lesser interest to him. Instead he focuses on a few climactic events and then just briefly summarizes what happened. People die, the bad guys win, end of story. But while he is not interested in ordinary people, he lionizes epic heroic characters and who could be more heroic than a king and his brood. In fact, the whole book is narrated with a focus on the four children of the Acacian king. The king, killed in the brief war (dare I say Blitzkrieg?), has left instructions to send his four children, two girls and two boys, to the four corners of the Known World, to provide them with save havens and the opportunity to learn something about the land that their family has ruled for such a long time. That “Known World” is basically one long continent which contains all manner of vegetation and all kinds of peoples. A few scattered islands near the coast complete the Known World. It is contrasted by the Other Lands, an unknown country or continent beyond the sea. The king and his dynasty has been involved in shadowy dealings with the Other Land for generations, although they never dealt with them directly. Instead, they chose to trust the League, a group of merchants who watch over the commerce between the two continents. That much is not shadowy, but the goods that are dealt in are.

The Acacians buy a drug called “Mist” from the Other Land, and in return they pay with children. I’m not kidding. This is a country that knows not only enforced child labor in mines, but that also pays with children to acquire drugs. Drugs, moreover, that are not used to pleasure the decadent ruling class, but to keep the populace quiet and peaceful. Mist is literally an opiate for the people. The Acacian rule does not need religion, in fact, one of the most important kings of the dynasty, a consummate magician, has banned all magic from the kingdom, leaving him the only powerful magician in the realm. Subsequently, all knowledge of magic and the associated religion, was purged from the world. The fact that this family, who traffic in children, drug their populace and crack down on unwanted knowledge, that these are the good guys of the story, that was a brilliant idea, and one that deserved a better payoff. The bad guys, the barbarians from the North, were sent there by the same evil magician/king who purged his world from magic. Given the historical cruelty inflicted upon them, their return could seem morally justified, but in Durham’s book, they stay bad guys all the way through. And this is the problem. Durham had a brilliant idea but his decision to keep things simple and palatable, he is unable to divest himself of simple oppositions, and so he compartmentalizes, by killing every member of the dynasty except the children before the book begins, allowing him to use them as positive, innocent heroes, with royal (read: heroic) blood, but no evil past. The good children, the scheming woman, and the bad (but not really evil) barbarians, this reminded me a lot of the Song of the Nibelungs. Especially towards the end of Acacia: The War with the Mein, as power shifts, the book carried strong associations to the classic text.

But this association also makes one of his strengths visible. Because the landscape and the cultures of his book are so original, and diverge so much from the usual fantasy fare, his barbarians are fascinating creatures. Many fantasy books feature attacks from the north, but Durham is adamant that races exist, if they do, because people migrate somewhere, races evolve, and they can adapt. The Otherness, encoded in the Song of the Nibelungs through the Huns, is displaced here, and relocated. The Barbarians are not Other, they are victims, and fundamentally similar to the Acacians. However, the unknown and unseen population of the Other Lands is quite literally ‘other’. However rough he treats other details, he is very careful with that place. Even calling one continent “Known World” is enough to make any reader think of European explorations other countries and the imperialism it led to. The regime of Acacia is already far more evil than any monarchy in Europe was when explorers uncovered the unknown, and subjugated peoples on all continents. Yet in Durham’s world, we are led to believe that the Others are more rich, more powerful and far more dangerous than Acacians can imagine. Since Acacian culture appears to be a version of various African cultures, this turns the table on obvious assumptions as who ‘we’ are and who ‘the Others’. Most contemporary fantasy works with invaders who seem stronger, but aren’t really, who are mostly strange. With these books he shares a tendency to portray the Others as vaguely menacing, but the cultural parameters are different. This is part of what makes reading the book such fun.

I repeat: this was a very enjoyable reading experience. It has obvious flaws that might make reading the book for people who are not either fans of epic fantasy or fans of romance a less joyful event. But for me, the 750-something pages just flew by. Durham is a marvelous storyteller, not a smart or thorough one, but still an excellent craftsman. The suspense is built perfectly, as we move from one event to the next, his heroes are positioned perfectly. I said he relies heavily on typical elements. that’s true, but on the other hand, he has utterly mastered them. Acacia: The War with the Mein is not a good book, but I had so much fun reading it, that I cannot but recommend it.

Brandon Sanderson: Mistborn

Sanderson, Brandon (2007), Mistborn, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-5038-1

mistborn 1The speed and quality of fantasy writing is quite notorious. Fantasy writers are expected to crank out thick, brick-sized books, in remarkably brief periods of time. Remarkable novelists, such as Patrick Rothfuss, whose last novel had been published in 2007, and George R.R. Martin, whose last novel of his celebrated “Song of Ice and Fire” series had seen publication in 2005, have had to defend themselves against the ire of impatient fantasy fans. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, has kept, so far, on the good side of his fans, publishing more than one new book per year, ever since debuting with the standalone fantasy novel Elantris in 2005. Since then he has not just released a trilogy of fantasy novels starting with Mistborn (2006), and continued with The Well of Ascension (2007) and The Hero of Ages (2008), but also another standalone novel called Warbreaker (2009) and he has written, from Robert Jordan’s notes, The Gathering Storm (2009), one of three projected sequels to Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, and is due to publish the second of them this year. This is an incredible amount of writing, but what’s more surprising, to be honest, is the quality of the resulting output. Mistborn is not on par with George R.R. Martin or even Rothfuss, but is still an above-average achievement, a smooth, smart novel that fuses literary, genre, religious (Mormon) and mythological inspirations to produce a great read. Nothing more but also: nothing less.

warbreakerFantasy fans have very specific expectations, and they fall, I think, into one of two camps these days. There are more traditional fans, grown up on a steady diet of Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks or Dave Eddings. They (a gross and unfair generalization, I’ll admit) enjoy books with swords and magic, orcs and elves, and an very clear set of roles and rituals. Whether it’s Goodkind’s Ayn Rand-inspired penchant for S/M-style sexuality, Tolkien’s Catholic sense of order, or just Jordan’s rank misogyny and elitism, these writers’ attitudes to power and class can be described, euphemistically, as traditional. The other camp contains writers like Martin or Rothfuss, who play with the elements of their genre, introducing a gritty realism (Martin) and even a careful consideration of class (Rothfuss). Mistborn doesn’t really belong to either camp or rather: it belongs to both, but doesn’t excel in either mode of writing. Neither Sanderson’s tepid realism, not his slouching use of the epic fantasy order is really fully convincing. This in-between nature of the book is probably its biggest problem, opening it to criticism from both camps. However, structure, original ideas and the heavy religious inspiration endow it with a very specific, unique feel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy now and then. It’s on the strength of Mistborn that Robert Jordan’s widow approached Sanderson, asking him to finish her late husband’s unfinished series, and we can easily see why. Jordan’s main problem wasn’t his ideology. It was the terminal dullness that the books developed after a short while.

well ascensionWith a finite amount of authorized notes and ideas, Jordan’s widow needed a writer able to develop a plot quickly and satisfactorily, with effective and quick characterizations, yet with enough originality not to simply write a pastiche of Jordan’s style. Sanderson possesses all of these qualities in abundance, as Mistborn demonstrates. It’s rare for the first book of a sequence of fantasy novels, no matter of what length, to have a satisfying ending that isn’t at best a cliffhanger, wetting readers’ appetites for the next novel. The exasperation that fans feel with Martin and Rothfuss has, in part, its roots in the fact that they have offered no closure, the stories are in suspension, open ended. This is true for a great many writers, but not for Sanderson. As we finish Mistborn, we have been granted closure. The main story seems to be finished, almost all the open threads have been tied up and almost all questions answered. Within one book, Sanderson has told us the story of a rebellion against the Lord Ruler of the Final Empire, who appears to be God or at least God-like, he has, in deft strokes, introduced us to a wealth of characters, and sketched the history and culture of a whole new world, without any orcs or elves and with a very original, very interesting system of magic. His characters are so well sketched, so believable, that, as we pick up the second volume, The Well of Ascension, to enter a radically changed political landscape, and end up, almost directly, in an action-packed fight, we immediately recognize the characters from Mistborn. These are people we know, and due to Sanderson’s skills: people we know well. Sanderson does not, however, escape the trap of cliché in his depictions of both the characters and political machinations.

way of kingsThe hero of these kinds of books is often a young man, with the mind of a teenager and the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Vin, Mistborn‘s protagonist, is a woman, a teenager, with the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Oh, I exaggerate a bit, but not much. The one change here is significant and interesting, yet it also displays the full extent of the timidity of Sanderson’s realism. The story about (young) male heroes often turns around questions of heroism and masculinity. Stephen R. Donaldson’s cynical and arguably cowardly Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Robert Jordan’s trias of heros (exemplifying three facets of male adolescence and early adulthood), or “the Fool”, Robin Hobb’s fascinatingly glittering character from her two trilogies focusing on Fitz Farseer, are cases in point. Any change or departure quickly becomes part of this discussion. Whatever changes are made to the almost inevitably male hero, are just that, changes that reinforce the main template. Female heroes do turn up in number, though, especially in more recent years, but the context of their appearance is subtly (or not so subtly) different. Robin Hobb’s excellent Liveship Traders trilogy is a great example. Her heroine, Althea Vestrit, doesn’t get to be a heroine in the sense that the male heroes are. Her story is connected to female tropes, starting with water, to a very interesting communion with (some) living but (usually) inanimate objects. The focus is on questions of intuition, care, and fertility, rather than on discussions of power, violence, and strength. Even in Hobb’s able hands, these questions are channeled through and resolved by the still male characters. The same applies to Mistborn‘s Vin, although Brandon Sanderson goes further than Hobb.

rithmatistImpressively, Vin’s story is largely a very masculine one. She is quietly belligerent and the way she resolves problems is through seeking controversy and fighting her way through it. Through her use of magic she’s stronger than most men, and throughout most of the book, the only other person we know possessing this power (apart from the evil Inquisitioners and the Lord Ruler) is a man, modeled on the typical male hero. This may not sound like much, but it’s extraordinary, really. So much so, that Sanderson uses additional elements to weaken his heroine in other ways. Not only does she turn into a stereotypical little teenage girl as the book progresses, head over heels in love with a a mysterious and handsome young man, who softens her mistrust towards others. She also starts to wear dresses, going to balls, and enjoying the whole ladylike lifestyle. As if to ram the tedious point home, Sanderson has her defend ‘her man’ against another woman (possessing the same powers) in what feels uncomfortably like a catfight (though it is a fight to the death). Political power, meanwhile, is still elusive to women. It is debated and decided by men, all the important offices are held by men and all the planning is made by men. In fact, Vin (and the woman she fights) is the only noteworthy woman in the whole book. To Sanderson’s credit, however, she doesn’t become a stereotypical sorceress, queen, or mother at the end of the book. The usual fate of strong female characters, which sidelines them into the nooks and crannies of narrative, is spared her. She stays a fighter, soldier, assassin. She is and remains the strongest fighter in the book.

steelheartThis to and fro as regards Mistborn‘s attitude towards gender runs parallel to other instances of indecision on Sanderson’s part, such as his use of realism and originality. World-building is often considered one of the main tasks of speculative fiction: the invention of a world, distinctly different from ours, with magic, religion, science and, preferably, language newly invented or adapted for this new world. One of the predecessors to this kind of expectation is Tolkien, who invented a completely new language, elaborate mythology and history for his stories. In fact, by far the majority of his writing deal with mythical and historical stories, fleshing out the hints and allusions in his two main works of fiction. Sanderson’s approach is careful. He uses a well-known template, a simple medieval setting, he uses a generic understanding of roles and rituals (Vin is an exception), but he is also very inventive. His two main invention is his system of races and the kind of magic used in his world. In Mistborn, we only learn about two or three basic races. The Skaa, humans and Terrismen. Now, most of us remember China Miéville’s trenchant observation that no writing is innocent, not even fantasy writing. In our use of races such as orcs and elves, we don’t invent something out of the blue. Instead, we draw on stereotypes and images that we already have in our language and our cultural reservoir. Miéville asks us to be careful, to consider what the subtext is of using humanoid races like orcs, who are slow, big, and usually, with gnomes and goblins, the only non-white characters in books. Sanderson does not need such admonishment.

inheritanceHis races are, although I’m not sure about Terrismen, not necessarily racially different from one another. That racial difference exists in the heads of the occupants of Sanderson’s world, but we soon find that race in Mistborn is a signifier of class lines, so that humans are all noblemen, and Skaa are poor people, for example. The ability to use magic is hereditary and runs only in Noblemen, but not all Noblemen are able to use magic and any progeny of Noblemen and Skaa might be able to use magic, too. In a very deft move, Sanderson has found remarkably precise metaphors for racial and class tensions in our world. He also manages to anchor his magic in the earthly, bodily parts of his universe. They are not the amorphous weavings of Jordan’s Aes Sedai. In order to use magic, one needs to ingest metal and then ‘burn’ it. No metal – no magic. This dependance upon both the bodily process of digestion and the resources of the earth is laudable and quite unique. It’s quite saddening to see all these good ideas in a mind that isn’t able to put them to full use. Just as gender differences, on a deeper level, remain intact and problematic, so are questions of hierarchy and power affirmed in a traditional manner. The latter half of the book is infused by a deep mistrust of the common people. A people’s revolution is shown to be inevitably a brutal, rag-tag affair that will plunge the world into chaos. The people can revolt, but they need an authorized, upper-class leader to shape their anger into a politically sound result. This is what ails other instances of realism and originality, too. Sanderson’s take on a magically endowed thieving crew bent on overthrowing the empire eschews cliché depictions of ‘hard criminals’, so much, indeed, that this lack of grime has been criticized a lack of realism.

DSC01516I think it is an attempt to be more realistic, open, and humorous, but this doesn’t quite work, for one simple reason: Sanderson is a horrible writer about people. His mistrust of ‘the people’ translates into an unhealthy distance to them. Any decision to forgo cliché needs, I think, to be balanced by a strong alternative idea of how human beings behave, an idea which Mistborn severely lacks. Make no mistake: the characters themselves are believable, but their interactions and motivations rarely are. This is why the book so frequently feels lukewarm and a bit flabby. Too much of Mistborn feels conceptual without the sternness and consistency that good conceptual writing depends on. The concepts are partly the metaphors and structures I mentioned, but there is one other important pillar that they rest on: Sanderson’s Mormonism. Like many Mormon (and Catholic) writers, Sanderson’s religion heavily influences his writing in more than spirit. The most famous and popular Mormon writer, who leaves ample, obvious and specific traces and references to her particular religion (as opposed to a general Christian attitude) is probably Stephenie Meyer, the best one I know of is Brian Evenson. Brandon Sanderson, who teaches at Brigham Young University, is yet another one. Without attempting a thorough analysis, there are a few things especially that have a ring of Mormonism to it. The godliness of the Lord Ruler, specific basic properties of his magic and the “Well of Ascension” in particular evoke associations to LDS concepts such as the exaltation (actually, its hard not to read the three volumes as the three stages of theosis, but exaltation is a similar concept). Joseph Smith taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” Through exaltation, we can all become ‘gods’. The Christ-like martyrdom of one of the book’s main characters adds an other layer to this.

DSC01322Finally, a catastrophe in the Mistborn universe that happened a few centuries ago, destroying many of the Terrismen, who are priest-like keepers of stories, history, religions and other knowledge, carries echoes of the Mormon doctrine of the “Great Apostasy”, which is a very particular version of a doctrine that many Christian churches teach. These specific references and allusions add a salvational urgency to Mistborn‘s narrative, which smoothly ties into the generic epic character of the story, but endow it with a more original power. As a whole, however, and despite all the specific changes and ideas that Sanderson brings to the table, there is an enormous amount of generic elements in his book, the worst of which is the actual writing. Without dropping to the abysmal lows of Terry Goodkind, his writing is at best serviceable, at worst dull, repetitive and, well, generic. He also displays the waste of spaced typical of his genre. While novels in other genres can describe a city, town or world, plus a set of full, believable characters in under 300 pages, many fantasy novels take twice as long without delivering twice the content. George R.R. Martin, who packs every page with action, intrigue and important observation is the exception here. More often than not, we are faced with page after page of ruminations, written in a laggard style and not serving any reasonable purpose, apart from helping to fill pages.

Still, at the end of Mistborn, lots of things have happened, and the reader has been swept away by the tide of events. It is, despite its faults, a very readable book, at least if you happen to like the genre of high fantasy. This is not one of the books that will appeal to those who dislike fantasy, but if you enjoy this sort of writing, Sanderson is a safe bet. He is an enjoyable, reasonably original and prolific writer who I very much look forward to reading more of in the months to come.

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Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind

Rothfuss, Patrick (2008), The Name of the Wind, DAW Books
ISBN 978-0-7564-0474-1

Once every few years, a new star rises from the murky depths of the fantasy mainstream. His or her work is subsequently hailed as original, new, groundbreaking, mostly inaccurately. In 2007 the rising star was a young man named Patrick Rothfuss. His debut novel The Name of the Wind made a deep impression upon the scene and had success far beyond the usual circle of fantasy readers. However, while the book is certainly an outstanding read, a huge amount of fun, and quite smart, much of the hype that has aggregated around Rothfuss’ novel, the first in a projected series of three (we know how that usually works out…), is not due to any specific excellency of his but to the dire and formulaic writing that dominates this genre. Even writers such as Tad Williams, who have a lot of talent, a great imagination and energy to spare, spend much of their time coasting along on the gentle waves of a genre the closeness of which to Romance writing (I’m currently making myself read a Sandra Brown novel, hence, perhaps, the association) betrays the conservative bent of the thinking that fuels much of it. Writers like Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville are the exception, not the rule in the field. Before embarking upon the proper review, let me tell you that Rothfuss does not break much new ground, if any. He does, however, rise above many of his colleagues, since his is a smart and self-reflective take on well-worn material.

The protagonist, a man by the fetching name of Kote, runs a bar in the middle of nowhere, as we enter the book. Strange things happen the origins of which are not explained (yet), but in the course of which we learn that Kote is anything but a measly barkeep. He has certain powers. When a man who calls himself Chronicler, apparently a, well, a chronicler, a collector and teller of tales, turns up at the Waystone Inn, Kote’s auspiciously named bar, we find out that Kote used to be a hero and a legend that went by the name of Kvothe, or to give his full name: Kvothe the Bloodless. Kvothe vanished and Chronicler hunted him down to write down his story. Kvothe demands full control over the result and subsequently dictates his life story to the writer. They agree to take three days for this. Hence the full title of Rothfuss’ novel: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One: The Name of the Wind. The present, wherein Chronicler and Kvothe and a mysterious friend of Kvothe’s sit and create stories, keeps butting in, providing commentary but mainly disrupting the reading in a most pleasurable way, drawing attention to the telling. That is, generally speaking, something the book keeps doing, in different ways. It’s quite remarkable how consistently Rothfuss flaunts his concern with signs and narrative and how much this dominates the book. Basic genre assumptions of telling and authority are thus interrogated, if in a nice and gentle way. Rothfuss makes it easy to overlook many of these things by making them basic construction principles not objects of debate, but any good reading of the book would need to focus on these things, I think. His world is completely and utterly convincing, even now as I think back on it the smells and sounds and looks of his world rise before me. This is because he owes a large debt to Dickens, I think, at least as much as to his fellow fantasy wroters. But we’ll return to that.

Now we’ll return to Kvothe and the Chronicler. The full control Kvothe demands is not easily granted. Chronicler is used to be the storyteller, the shaper, the framer of stories, the man who writes and in writing constructs, creates an artifact that contains the basic, the salient facts of what people tell him orally. In Rothfuss’ vaguely medieval world, writing and reading is still a province of a few elite scholars, stories are proliferated by storytellers and singers. Songs especially are important. The connection between fabulation and truth-telling is a close and interesting one here. Rothfuss far exceeds most of his colleagues who, like him use songs both as described objects and as reprinted songs in the books, but, unlike him, use them for decoration mainly. Yes, Rothfuss uses them as decorative elements as well,but songs have a deeper significance, too. Most revealingly in a section early in the novel. Kvothe is part of a traveling troupe, a highly decorated and accomplished one; at the same time he is of a people called the Edema Ruh, who are but a thinly veiled allusion to Roma. All this is related in a series of nice vignettes, anecdotes, it’s all rather cozy and nice to read. Until, well, until Kvothe’s father decides to find out the truth about the Chandrian, a mythical figure that’s said to cause senseless massacres now and then. No one knows why exactly. Thousands of stories and songs about the Chandrian exist and Kvothe’s father listens to a slew of them in each village or town they pass.

He’s like a one-man Grimm brothers, but he is just interested in the story. By and by he assembles a mental library of tales and starts reading them closely, applying hermeneutic methods to these texts (which are at no point actual texts) and extracts from them a version of the truth which he then starts to turn into a song. The proof that the song is actually and emphatically true is in a gruesome event that ends Kvothe’s happy childhood. The Chandrian appears and murders the whole troupe, only Kvothe’s life is spared. Don’t come running and complain about spoilers. It is one of the book’s most interesting aspects that it constantly tells you what’s about to happen, its suspense is of a different kind. So, early in the book, Rothfuss rubs our noses into the fact that in his book, legends, fairy tales and songs can be made sense of within the limitations of truth-telling. Clearly, it suggests a similar reading might be applied to The Name of the Wind, too. I’m a bit befuddled tonight so the only thing that directly occurs to me is the Sinti and Roma tangent. See, traveling people such as the Roma always had a hard time, and today it’s getting worse again. Stories are told by all sorts of people but they are written down and kept and filed by authorities and in turn they help stabilize and reinforce them. The Edema Ruh just as the Roma do not get to write their stories, they sing songs, but when they die the songs die with them. Kvothe’s father’s song is forever lost. He was able to raise his voice but not to record it. So when Chronicler turns up at Kote’s bar and expects to exert full control over the material that Kvothe has to offer, Kvothe, with a lifetime of experience, stops him in his tracks and turns him into a tool. He’s using the writer, but controls him, checks what was written and decides what will be told and what won’t. His song will not be lost. His is a tale of disenfranchisement and of rising to the top despite of that. And it’s not just or even primarily about race, it’s also to a large extent about questions of class and power.

After his parents are killed, Kvothe travels to the next town where he lives on the street for the next three years, living the life of a street urchin. Far from having Gavrotte’s sunny demeanor, his experience in the streets is darkly Dickensian. This episode and much of what happens in the academy later is ‘realistic’, but in a critical manner. These early episodes of living on the street are about fear, first and foremost, about relearning one’s place in society. The trope Rothfuss is using to exemplify that are Kvothe’s feet, which he cut up during his first weeks and months, but which healed and grew thick and strong, sturdy enough to serve as shoes in the absence of money for those. Rothfuss’ gift is visible in the fact that he doesn’t merely use the trope to show Kvothe’s process in his time on the street, to be abandoned once shoes become affordable again. No, he returns time and again to his trope, refining it, proving it to be an apt metaphor for adaptive development. In fact, Rothfuss seems to use the three years in the wet and the cold, hunted by policemen and fellow urchins, sleeping in cellars and on roofs, as a launching point for his exploration of class. As I said, Rothfuss is rather mild-mannered about these issues, but his world isn’t Jordan’s where class is used a decoration, at best. The Name of the Wind returns to class as a factor in answering the question of What will I eat? Where will I sleep? Who will listen to my story? Most impressively in the events after Kvothe leaves the town that has raised him and decides to enter the academy to become what other colleagues would have called a wizard.

A school for people who want to become proficient in magic? Right. J.K. Rowling’s books clearly must be part of the frame of reference here. Harry Potter‘s become so inordinately famous that it needs to be considered and it’s the closest comparison that I could come up with. Usually arcane academies are less hands-on, contain less descriptions of what we would consider normal school routine. What’s more ,a comparison would be profitable, because Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts is so thoroughly different from Rothfuss school, and the main difference is probably this: Rowling’s books, especially the first one, are a paean to consumerism. Without being the least bit critical, she provides, more or less, a series of low-key fantasy examples for what Marx called the Warenfetisch, and constructs a consumerist wonderland. Yes, even in Harry Potter, there are poor people such as the Weasleys, but their poverty is exoticised, it’s cute and all in good spirits. They are jolly people who can’t always afford new brooms so younger kids have to take older siblings’ old brooms, etc. even though it’s a horribly outdated model. Compare this to Kvothe’s bloody feet. No-one, to my knowledge, is really threatened with having to leave Hogwarts on account of poverty, and is thus barred from knowledge. This, however, is the constant threat that hangs over Kvothe’s head and the academy takes steep rates, and is not in the habit of handing out scholarships, thereby ensuring that the skills and the arcane knowledge that can be gained in the academy stays in a certain circle. Kvothe has to fight and scramble to stay in the university and not starve. It’s just as realistic as necessary, but it is fantasy, after all. The mixture makes for addictive, sumptious reading. Kvothe’s struggle dominates the rest of the book, which also contains his quest to find out what exactly happened to his parents, the first beginnings of his legend.

Kvothe is a hero, as exceptional (compared to the common man) as any within fantasy. He’s almost supernaturally smart, agile and talented. But here’s exactly where he differs from the Rand al’Thors (and Harry Potters): his main superpower are his smarts. Rand al’Thor is thick as a brick basically and so are Goodkind’s and a good deal even of Hobb’s heroes. Kvothe is a born scholar, able to hold incredible amounts of knowledge in his head and break a cypher within minutes. He is more brain than brawn, although he fares well on that as well. But there, again, not something that he was born with (one of the most problematic constants in fantasy) but something that he acquired through his family business first and fighting for survival in the streets later. With this, Rothfuss cedes to a demand of the mainstream of his genre, as he frequently does; not without putting a twist to it. Rothfuss, as I mentioned before, is adamant in handing us key pieces of the plot beforehand. We know what will happen to the hero. He channels the reader’s suspense into his curiosity about the world, about its secret, its workings. To do this, one the one hand he uses and repeats certain tropes; on the other, he sends his hero off on a search for the Chandrian, fattening up the narrative with mysterious children’s songs like this

When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to o?
Run outside. Run and hide.

When your bright sword turns to rust?
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing Stone.

See a woman pale as snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian.

Just as this song, the book as a whole is rather simple, it wears its complexities lightly, it’s first and foremost a good fantasy read. I read it in all of two days, and enjoyed it every step of the way. Rothfuss writing is not remarkable in any way, not in a bad, as in Goodkind’s case, or in a good way, as Miéville’s. The book is a solid read, but Rothfuss proves himself a smart writer, who is aware of many undercurrents of his genre and turns that awareness into constructing devices of his book. If you like fantasy, you can’t really bypass this book. If you don’t, I guess you could be unhappy with many genre trappings that Rothfuss kept and reproduced. The Name of the Wind is, perhaps, not a very good book, but a very enjoyable one. It’s very much worth reading. I hope this review has made a good case for that.

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