Katherine Addison: The Goblin Emperor

[given that my computer is still out of order, the other texts from my HD are still on hold. I’ve written small pieces here and there. This is one of them.]

Addison, Katherine (2015), The Goblin Emperor, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-6568-2

goblin 1So when I read books in my non-PhD work, I tend to read them with a goal to maybe review them, and sometimes I just have these palate cleanser books that won’t turn up as a review or in a bibliography; at best they will make an appearance on Twitter. Especially comic books or fantasy novels – I’ve written numerous reviews of both genres and at some point one worries about repeating oneself. I don’t have something interesting to say about every book I read. Sometimes it’s just a shrug and a thumbs up or down. Brian Posehn’s Deadpool run? Very nice. Jan Peter Bremer’s Döblin Preis winning novel? A bit dull. Bryan Frances’s book on relativism? Very nice (but nonfiction that doesn’t fall into either category isn’t reviewed anyway). So when I started to read Katherine Addision’s “debut” novel The Goblin Emperor (I’ll explain the inverted commas in a moment) I didn’t expect it to end up here with its own review. However, as I thumbed through its last pages yesterday, I found myself intrigued enough by the book that I wanted to talk about it. So first things first: The Goblin Emperor is, as far as high fantasy goes, a fairly unique, very interesting book, that upholds many flaws of the genre, but, like The Copper Promise (see my review here), provides a very welcome light addition to fantasy that does not run the grimdark gamut. It’s a bit tedious in stretches but overall it’s a light and very enjoyable read if you like court intrigues in a very lightly steampunk setting. It has some of the nicest and most well rounded characters I’ve encountered in fiction in a while, but it relegates most of its truly intriguing characters and character developments to its fringes, whether that’s spare appearances or mere mentions. Look, if you like court intrigues and high fantasy and don’t need it to be “dark” or “realistic”, go for it. The world building in this book is fantastically accomplished, without the usual crutches. Everything that went into this book feels necessary to the structure and plot and doesn’t just add picturesque details or pretty mountains on one of those notorious epic fantasy maps. Despite the book never really leaving the confines of the capital city, we are made aware of the larger world around it. And the best aspect of the book is the way its narrative is restricted to the point of view of its barely-adult protagonist, it never falls into the trap that so much high fantasy falls into, of endless, helpless ruminations. The narrative is tight and the prose is perfectly adequate for its goals.

Fancy map, terrible book. The not-so-mysterious case of Robert Jordan

Fancy map, terrible book. The not-so-mysterious case of Robert Jordan

In fact, the book is so accomplished that it’s hard to believe it’s anyone’s debut novel. And despite the coy author’s bio inside, Katherine Addison is really Sarah Monette, a more seasoned author, with 6 previous novels to her name, two of them co-authored with genre heavyweight Elizabeth Bear. So The Goblin Emperor doesn’t come from nothing, but that would have been hard to believe anyway, given the extraordinarily controlled style and environment we are offered by this twice-named author. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the “epic fantasy maps” that are so ubiquitous in the genre and which work as crutches for us as readers to not get lost in the multitude of names and places and things. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing and in fact, for many years I (raised as I was on the conscientious cartography of JRR Tolkien and D&D campaigns) thought that the miserable incompetence of Terry Goodkind’s terrible fantasy novels was prefigured in the poor and simple maps of Wizard’s First Rule. Many years of reading fantasy later I find that terrible books can sometimes come with very nice maps. While completely mapless, Addison/Monette’s book does come with a glossary and a brief morphology of names and titles, and while we can do without the maps, it’s hard to do without those things in a book like this. The Goblin Emperor feels like I’m told reading classic Russian novels feels to many readers: we are overwhelmed by an unbelievably large amount of names that all seem somewhat similar. More than once I had to browse earlier chapters to remind myself of who a person was exactly. That’s because, just like Russian novels can be disorienting due to their sheer amount of patronymics, Addison/Monette leaves us right in the thicket of a wealth of honorifics, family names, gender suffixes and much more. There’s no big infodump in the book that tutors the reader – instead, the author serves up a wholly realized world, and just expects us to find our way around all the strange words and names as we tag along with the story. In fact, for all that the world building is meticulous, the lack of maps and the elaborate nature of the names and terminology point to a world building that is based more on philology than topology, a point subtly driven home by the author when, during the course of a formal dinner party, we are allowed to eavesdrop on an actual philological debate between two minor characters. Yet even more than a clever way to deal with world-building, the dearth of explanation that happens in much of this has another effect.

Different beginning, different airship, same steam punk plot device

Different beginning, different airship, same steam punk plot device

The book’s protagonist is the youngest son of the recently deceased Emperor. Addison/Monette borrows from the stock of high fantasy races and has the main race of inhabitants of the capital city be elves. Maia, the protagonist, however, is half elvish and half goblin, being the offspring of the late Emperor’s ill-fated political marriage to a goblin princess. Despite being of doubly royal blood, Maia had been exiled to a faraway province where he lived a tranquil but unhappy life. The sudden death of his father, whose steam powered airship was the target of a political assassination [as an aside: what’s with crashing steam powered airships as a plot starting device?], as well as of everybody else that could have a better claim on the throne than the 18 year old half goblin, forces Maia to return to court where he hasn’t been in ten years and where he has never lived to begin with. As Maia arrives, he is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people and riches around him, not to mention the court intrigue and responsibility. A boy who has lived all his life on what basically amounts to a farm is now thrust into the hot cauldron of a vast empire’s capital city. And yet. we never despair for him, we are not scared or worried. This is because the author has set up her character with just the right amount of knowledge and, more than that, what they call “a good head on his shoulders”. We have all read these books narrated by less than bright characters, as readers most of us remember the anguish that comes with following a narrative of bad choices and impending tragedy or tragedies narrowly averted. Maia, in contrast to these books, has had very solid training and has developed fine instincts for how to relate to people, how to act when under pressure and how to deal with one’s fellow man. He manages to survive the first turbulent days and get himself crowned emperor (no spoiler here, it’s the title of the book). Now, whenever he is explained a fact about court, we are explained the same fact at the same time, so as he grows and learns, we do too. As readers, we cannot, however, duplicate his bewilderment when faced with the plurality of people, objects and the vastness of space that Maia has to traverse, inhabit and command. We are told he is bewildered, but we cannot share that feeling – which is where the author’s insouciant use of names and terms comes in. As a native speaker of the language, these are not things bothering Maia. but for the reader they are a kind of crutch that helps us approximate his confusion.

abdel fattahThis is important because, at least through the first third of the book, I thought that the novel does an extraordinary job of being not a book about elves, goblins and court intrigue, but about foreignness, and isolation in a new culture that is not your own. Being myself “half Goblin” (well, half Russian), I found this part truly well executed. But not in the way adult books about foreignness are usually executed (say, Roth’s Call It Sleep) and more the way kid’s books work (say, Abdel-Fattah’s Does my head look big in this?). In many ways, the book feels as if its audience is young adults, more than with other fantasy novels, even though it is, as far as I can see, not categorized that way by author or publisher. But the kindness of the book, the way it takes its reader hy the hand and helps him understand the protagonist’s state of mind, as mentioned in rhe previous paragraph, it adds up to an impression of the author being as patient and careful with her readers as Maia’s tutors and new friends are with him. There are no pitfalls, as readers of the recently popular [I’m using the word recently as old people like me are wont to do. Not necessarily the dictionary definition] “grimdark” variety of fantasy writing would expect. Characters that seem trustworthy are trustworthy. The characters that seem like they have something bad up their sleeve, are generally bad news. This is not just us seeing the world through the eyes of someone with good instincts – this is a fundamentally balanced world. I mentioned The Copper Promise earlier. In a much different way, both books offer a genuine kind of escapism, a way of reading without your guard up. Everything is as it seems. It doesn’t make Maia’s life easy, and, in fact, the book doesn’t skirt dark moments, including executions and the weight that comes with having power over life and death. But at the same time, parts of this are worrisome. The world of The Copper Promise felt mostly democratic, despite one of its characters being a lord. Its main protagonist is a poor mercenary and her triumphs and losses are those of everyday people. Not so with The Goblin Emperor. Politically, it’s a very odd book. All that balance I mentioned? It’s balanced around a center and that’s Maia, the benevolent king.

inheritanceAll the concessions, all the niceness. all the emotions, they are all granted by this king. Maia is told to pick a wife, and that woman has to agree to marry him. And while he’s very nice and shy about it, it still happens that way and a woman who is clearly reluctant does end up marrying him. Many of the emotional bonds Maia shares are bonds with his servants and some of the emotional high points highlight how gladly and absolutely his close servants serve him. There are mere glimmers of their private lives and of lives in general that are not like Maia’s. One of Maia’s aunts lives with a wife as a Sea Captain somewhere and we know barely more than that, it’s just something that comes up in conversation. There’s also a gay couple at a dance one night, and that’s almost all we learn about that. In fact, while I enjoyed the first third as a very effective disquisition about alienness and migration, the longer I followed Maia’s narrative the more irritating I found the fact that racial difference is encoded in terms of elf and goblin. Political change, it’s implied, can only come from the top rungs of a hierarchy. Indeed, the novel is very careful to include a picture of revolutionaries that makes sure to have us understand that they are ruthless and maybe a bit insane. All of this is much more unpleasant by the overall didactic, balanced tone. I will say that part of my unhappiness with the way politics, race, gender and difference is handled in the second half of the novel is influenced by me having read as excellent a work of fantasy as N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books (review), both of which show the potential of this genre. I will say: this is my main complaint about the The Goblin Emperor (and it’s something many other books in the genre do, as well), which in most other ways, is very accomplished and a truly enjoyable read, if this be your genre.

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China Miéville: The City & The City

Miéville, China (2009), The City & The City, Macmillan
ISBN 978-0-230-74191-1

The City & The City, China Miéville’s seventh novel, is a well-nigh perfect work of literature. We all know Jarrell’s adage that a novel “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”; true to form, there are problems with Miéville’s book, as well, but the overwhelming success of the books as whole, the staggering originality of its ideas and the success in pulling the whole thing off, this lifts the novel far beyond many of its contemporaries. Like much of Miéville’s work, it displays a firm commitment to genre, but it’s hazy about the kind of genre that is foregrounded here. At the same time it’s a police procedural, a hard-boiled thriller and a fantasy novel, with links and allusions to science fiction (without every really becoming a SF novel), and it uses the advantages of each of these elements to their fullest, to create an insightful work of art that is too complicated, ultimately, to be reducible to a message or a simple resolution; the latter being its main flaw, by the way, but we’ll return to this. Suffice to say that I urge you to read The City & The City, even if (maybe especially if) you have not been able to take to Miéville’s work before despite the prodding by friends or literary critics. China Miéville, the only three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award so far, shapes up to be the most dominant writer in the field of speculative fiction, and despite the fact that The City & The City is smaller in scale than most of his other novels, it is a great example why he is so important, so well-praised and so extraordinarily successful. He proves himself to be as adept a creator of original concepts, as he is an insightful reader of other texts. His texts, and The City & The City maybe more than the others, appear to be the result of what Emerson called “creative reading”, on the one hand, and a careful, aware and thoroughly critical reading on the other. The City & The City is not Miéville’s best book, but it is a masterpiece, and not a minor one, and China Miéville is a masterful writer.

Personally, in fact, I consider China Miéville to be one of the best living British prose writers. If you haven’t heard of him in these terms yet, it’s maybe because he’s primarily a writer of what we refer to as genre fiction. His work does not have the explicit and heavily theoretical slant of Samuel R. Delany’s 70’s and 80’s fiction, but Delany’s work is certainly part of the tradition Miéville built on; but Miéville is indicative of a larger phenomenon: I think we are currently witnessing among younger writers a renaissance of the kind of genre fiction Delany represents. I think these young writers are part of a resurgence of the energies and inspirations that fueled the New Wave writers in the 1970s and after, as recent high profile publications by Gwyneth Jones (Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant, 2008) and Geoff Ryman (Air: Or, Have Not Have, 2005) amply demonstrate; Jeff VanderMeer notably suggested that some of them, Miéville and himself included, might be labeled as “New Weird”, combining “New Wave with other elements. Miéville’s kinship with Delany rests on more than just a similar critical awareness, care and concerns. From Delany’s wooden beginnings in Fall of the Towers (1963-65) to the sleek efficiency of Triton (1976) and the mysteries of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), he has always focused on language as an object in his genre fiction. For him, the writing itself is subject to the same care, deliberation and charged with the same intellectual energies, as is the story, the characters and the broader ideas. In fact, for Delany, writing is more than making use of words to tell a story; I’d say that writing for him means having ideas about language, that can tie into the broader concerns of the rest of the book (as they do in Babel-17 (1966)) but don’t have to. By and large, Miéville does the same thing, to an extent that is actually rather rare, even in these post-post-modern times. His work evinces both a meticulous attention to details and a knack for creating a cohesive, fluid fiction that does not, as Delany’s does, burden the reader with its philosophical preoccupations.

The City & The City starts with a murder and contradictory hints as to the identity of the perpetrator of the crime and his or her motives. Detective Tyador Borlú, police officer in the old city of Besźel, is called upon to solve the crime but as it turns out, the deeper he gets involved in the inquiries, the deeper he and his role, and his conventional ideas about how to handle the everyday playacting of being a citizen, are called into question. A similar impulse propels the narrative of Miéville’s latest masterful novel Kraken (2010) but unlike that novel’s protagonist, Borlú’s understanding of the world is not so much unmoored, confused and obscured, as sharpened, and brightened. For Borlú, the world doesn’t need to be explained, it hasn’t changed, his basic assumptions of agency, cause and effect remain intact throughout the book. What does change is his vision of it. His journey is not one of learning new things, of acquiring knowledge, nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s about learning to see, to evaluate. Borlú’s education in The City & The City hews close to Kant’s famous definition of Enlightenment: sapere aude! Dare to know! Kant’s exhortation to his fellow citizens to use their brains and the knowledge already in them is relevant in other ways, as well. Often overlooked are his contextual restrictions: while one should always think, it does not necessarily follow that one should always tell people about the results of said thinking. Some order is worth being preserved, even at the expense of freely speaking one’s mind. If your thought flies in the face of conventional order, and by speaking out, you violate your duties to that order, you had better keep quiet. There is a difficult tension between these two assertions, the one to think and the other to preserve order, and in The City & The City, Miéville recreates just that kind of tension: his novel vacillates between stasis and progress, between seeing freely and living in the bounds of established order.

Now, it’s quite impossible to explain in any detail how the concept of the two cities works without creating problems for the prospective reader. The blurb on my copy tells us that Borlú has to travel “across a border like no other” and that is both fitting as well as the full extent of information that you can impart upon an unaware reader without spoiling the book for him. Reading the book is like unwrapping a present: with an impressive deftness, Miéville manages to peel off the layers of Besźel order one by one, chapter by chapter without ever boring us. The concept itself is strange and adventurous but only slowly do we realize how thoroughly, really, it’s planned and executed. Details of how the world of the The City & The City is constructed keep coming up, and this stream of revelations (that get ever smaller, with the largest ones naturally in the very beginning) is one of the reasons for The City & The City‘s enormous readability. If you know how the two cities, Besźel and its neighboring city of Ul Quoma, work, the book will no longer be as enjoyable. It is no spoiler, however, if I tell you that both cities are modeled after a surrealistically heightened image of an old, large East European city. Many descriptions, names, places and even the odd phrase now and then, contain a mixture of languages and cultures such as Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Croatian and others. There is a constant sense of decay, especially in Besźel, which is the poorer of the two cities. The precariousness I mentioned earlier is not only due to the unique situation of Besźel, but also to the morbidity that oozes from the old battered walls of the city. Besźel feels almost claustrophobically small, and its citizens’ purview seems small and provincial as well. Miéville’s language is instrumental in creating this impression.

Unusually for Miéville’s work, the language in The City & The City is largely lean and spare, but the unmarked, quiet nature of the narrative voice is the perfect backdrop for the names and terms used. Instead of creating a slightly fantastical oddness, this method hammers home the East European setting, creating a very believable sense of place, and an authentic voice for Borlú, who is the protagonist. There is enough exoticism in the names and the concepts, so Miéville opted for a voice that is sober, elegant yet conversational. He doesn’t speak like someone translated, or with an unbelievable eloquence, he speaks like ‘one of us’, in a register and vocabulary that is carefully tailored to reflect a whole tradition of hard-boiled writing without lapsing into straight pastiche. The balance between the cities is thus reflected in the language of the novel, and vice versa, in its balance between exotic names and plain vocabulary, between sharp thinking and a fluid conversational quality in the writing. Additionally, the way that names and writing clash, this transports a strangeness, which is in line with the strangeness that exudes the two cities. Miéville knows very well how central language is to early 20th century pulp, how in novels by Hammett or Marlowe, the language is simple and visceral enough to keep readers hanging on, keep them reading, while injecting a certain, palatable amount of oddness into the work, thus creating yet another balance, hiding the complexities behind the dirt and the grime. It’s a tradition that has continued in excellent hard-boiled novels. But The City & The City is not, in fact straightforward hard-boiled pulp. Beside borrowing from the police procedural, bestselling thrillers and SF, it’s quite clearly a fantasy, and fantasy novels quite regularly strain for effect, for writing ‘high register’ prose. In cases like David Anthony Durham’s Acacia novels (2007 – ), it’s almost painfully inept, while for writers like George R. R. Martin it works like a charm. The pretension to offer something else to readers, a different world, yes, but also a different feeling for that world. Even Martin’s brutal, blood-soaked, disillusioned knights feel medieval, and his language is the main reason why.

In The City & The City, Miéville’s language supports no such pretensions (it’s different in his other prose) and in its precise rendering of incredible events and places, it’s close to Czech writer Franz Kafka. Kafka is one of a long list of writers mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, and the way that Kafka keeps his language clean, organized and careful, even while telling us brutal stories about cats and insects is indeed an important reference here. However, Miéville’s accomplishment becomes more evident if we consider another writer mentioned as well in the acknowledgments, Alfred Kubin. Alfred Kubin’s opus magnum is the 1909 novel Die Andere Seite (translated into English by Mike Mitchell as The Other Side, published by Dedalus Press (highly recommended)), a towering achievement of early expressionism, endlessly influential. Kubin’s novel tells of a married couple’s journey into a dream country somewhere between Europe and Asia, which promises to free the traveler from the turpitude of modern progress. It’s a land of uncertainty, but doesn’t at first seem anything except dreamy to the husband while the wife succumbs to fear and eventually dies. At this point a crazy war between an invasive American industrial tycoon and the lord of the dream country sets in that leads to the total destruction of the realm of dreams. The “other side” is a place where good dreams and fears coexist, a place that can be both dangerous and soothing, but a hazy, imperiled place, unable to withstand an outsider’s violent pressure. Kubin’s language is fanciful. It retells a feverish dream in an exceptionally wild language that carries the seeds of Alfred Döblin’s mad epics published ten years later. As the story gradually disintegrates into comic madness, the reader is afloat in the midst of it, because Kubin’s language is part of that whole stampede of crazy. Miéville has taken up this idea of the other side, and turned it into a Chinese box of otherness, tempered by a clean, yet popular language.

Kubin takes an outsider and has him witness the story in our stead, a narrator with our values and traditions, who can convey an impression of the place that would mirror ours. There is no such normative stance in The City & the City, where the meaning of being on ‘the other side’ keeps changing dramatically, without blurring the issues for the reader. The simple juxtaposition of dream as a place of ancient truths and submerged knowledge with reality as a harsh, violent voice, and modernity as a place of decay and sheer concrete both, it doesn’t quite work like that in Miéville’s book. Miéville’s focus is on the power of fear, of the “obedience reflex”, to shape people’s behavior and even their perception. The language is his tool to let us, his readers, see it too, shorn of the illusions of pretty writing. The formal clarity of a police procedural, which structures the whole novel, conforms to the writing and has us not only descover the murderer, the political reality in Beszel but also the import of the events for our world. At the same time, it’s all greased with dirt and ambiguity. One startling fact is that Borlú, contrary to expectations is shown to be consistently conservative and protective of the Besźel status quo. In Kubin’s book, dream and reality merge in a final showdown, as Kubin questions our daily priorities. Miéville also looks at daily life, but his novel suggests a precariousness to the roles we play. Ultimately, The City & The City seems like a plea for more awareness, not for rejecting our roles, but looking at them honestly, and assuming them, if at all, with full, honest acceptance. The illusions of pseudo-scientific hogwash to explain prejudice, or of necessity to explain violence and callousness, these, to Tyador Borlú, Miéville’s protagonist and narrator, are not acceptable. That the book manages to suggest all this without ever becoming preachy, without forgoing ambiguity, indirectness and uncertainty is no mean feat. He has used the destabilizing force of fantasy writing before, but in The City & The City precariousness co-exists with balance and order. He uses fantasy to tear his readers from their own conventions, and as their eye adjusts to the new world, they are made to see similarities. At the same time, it’s also a crime novel, as I mentioned befor, and much of its power (and its flaws) derive from this fact.

Reading Miéville often means reading a writer who displays an invigorating joy in the act of thinking. He doesn’t supervise or admonish his readers as much as involve them in his own mental peregrinations. The writing is by no means undisciplined, but his interests clearly diverge from the demands of straightforwardness and effectiveness now and then. The tools of plot and suspense can sometimes can slip from his grasp and create an odd disharmony. This, incidentally, is also the one major flaw of The City & The City: the ending is extraordinarily dissatisfying, so that we as readers feel almost robbed. However. the ending of a novel of suspense and mystery is, I’d argue, always a delicate affair, an extremely difficult task and most writers do tend to bungle it. Like them, Miéville also fails to deliver: in one single cataclysmic scene he attempts to wrap up and explain and contextualize a whole novel’s build-up of mystery, intrigue, of sabotage and murder. Almost predictably, he fails. The rest of the book does work well. Indeed, for the most part, The City & The City is genre fiction at its best: effective, well-structured, insightful, and utterly readable. The overall style is taut and concentrated on fully conveying the necessary details of plot and place, both of which are a bit complicated and not all that easy to understand. If you have read other reviews at this site, you’ll know that I consider it a great achievement to write and succeed in writing a literary novel that is a success as a genre novel and despite Miéville’s problems with the climax and ending of the novel, The City & The City is just that: a successfully executed crime novel.

The crime novel, whether police procedural, hard-boiled novel or something else, generally works predominantly with revelations, some of which are gradually imparted to the reader an/or the protagonist through their encounter with the place the book is set in, and the inhabitants of the place in question. There is a sense of epistemological closure to, especially, the ‘clean’ crime novel (like a regular detective novel or a police procedural), which, unlike many others, seizes places as objects, and looks inside, closing them off to the outside, like small criminal biotopes, squeezing them for information. There is a certainty in this kind of search, because chaos is always contained within the confines of time and place. The hard-boiled novel, on the other hand, is much less concerned with this kind of certainty. In fact, much of the violence and depravity often ascribed to hard-boiled novels is due to the fear of the unknown. These novels often have their protagonists work through their fears to achieve a result, often gyrating through an unfathomable world with obscure rules. Fear, anger, violence, sarcasm, and a hard-won common sense supplant clear knowledge and sober decision-making. This process, this journey through obscurity and confusion, paradoxically, often leads to a much clearer depiction of the actual forces at work (as opposed to the consensual, polite rules, the agreed-upon roles). In the regular, ‘clean’ crime novel, consensual order is often briefly knocked off balance by the fierce, destabilizing force of violence, with the authorities called upon to rectify this unacceptable change. In the hard-boiled novel, order is (or seems to be) perpetually off balance and no amount of gumshoeing will change that. Given this juxtaposition, it’s fitting that in The City & The City, Miéville has constructed a wholly new world, one that is not only normally balanced, but whose very existence is a realization of the idea of balance, which aligns his novel with crime writing and true to the hard-boiled elements in it, all spaces in the novel, the different balances, they are all constantly endangered. The novel is swamped with a dark precariousness, with uncertainties, but we as readers only learn this bit by bit, as Miéville, like a master showman, reveals his world to us, selling us his idea chapter by chapter.

The concept of the two neighboring cities reflects the closing off of a clean police procedural, and Borlú’s way of dismantling the cities in search of the culprit or culprits shows that he reads his own world as finite, as a closed system where all signs can only point inward, to places and people within, acting strictly according to the rules of the place. But Miéville does not lend him a hand in his endeavor, instead he continually undermines basic assumptions, ultimately creating a perennially open world which is in constant danger of slipping away into historical and cultural oblivion. The weak ending, too, seems to provide closure, but here, once again, we are led to believe that it is delusional. The last, ridiculously conciliatory paragraph of the novel reads, in the larger context of the book, like soothing words whispered into an oncoming storm of arbitrariness and violence. Thus, in a way, The City & The City seems like a black hard-boiled wolf stitched into the sheep’s skin of the clean procedural. Borlú never sheds his basic assumptions, the world doesn’t force him. But in the focus upon sight and the use of one’s own brains, it gave him a choice. In a way, Miéville’s decision not to commit to a clear position is the final validation of the book. I disapprove of readings of books that raise weak writing onto a pedestal if it potentially reflects weaknesses in the characters. I have had a few discussions with Auster fans who, desperately trying to defend the smoky-eyed Brooklynite, keep bring up this kind of hogwash. I think it’s lazy, but in the case of The City & The City, it’s tempting. However, even agreeing that the ending is weak, and seems forced upon the author by his commitment to genre and his wish to tie off the book without breaking that mode of writing, the noncommittal end has interesting implications for the rest of the book. A novel that seems so like fantasy, with an improbable scenario, it turns out to be a kind of realism. In fact, by handing its readers a concept that seems like an allegory of sociological ideas, it seems to capture reality far better than novels that use the conventions of what we call realism. The book, as a whole, is a kind of tantalizing hyper-realism, complex in its implications and references, a book that no other writer could have pulled off and that even Miéville may have trouble topping in the nearer future. As a reviewer, I must admit that it challenged me like no other book I have ever attempted to review, and the innumerable flaws of this review are in part witness to the difficulties I had to even attempt to do justice to a book like this. Do not let the review dissuade you from reading the book. Unless you have a strong aversion to the genres I mentioned, you cannot not read The City & The City.

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Sword, Sorcery and Business Meetings

Donny at his excellent new blog, reviewed Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn here:

I must admit I was compelled to stop reading several times early on in the novel. It wasn’t so much that the novel was incredibly badly written, it’s just the initial tedium of the prose and the clumsy scenes. There was one near the start where the thieving crew leader has a honest-to-goodness meeting that features perhaps the only medieval brainstorm session in literature (complete with a meeting secretary to take minutes!) to discuss ways to take down a ruling regime in place for thousands of years. The action items from this meeting was so open-ended and, in corporate parlance, ‘high-level’ that I literally laughed out loud. I have been party to many a corporate meeting, and having to read about one in a fantasy world is just wrong.

For my own review click here.

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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Robert Jordan dies at age 58. Why do I care?

It’s truly astonishing the amount of sexism one is prepared to stomach sometimes when you want to be entertained. There’s Ally McBeal of course, which isn’t all that clear cut a case but I suspect she will come up again on this blog. And there’s the pain in the ass of High Fantasy. The lesser the writer the ranker his sexism. The Peakes, Miévilles, Delanys or LeGuins are few and far between. Most of the High Fantasy novelists write fiction like boys who don’t talk to girls or rarely. This includes (and why shouldn’t it) women writers. The best of this group of writers rise above the mediocre rest by mastering the art of crafting powerfully escapist novels. For example, in Robin Hobb’s oeuvre you won’t find complex structures, great ideas or multi-layered characters. But inevitably, by the second volume of her small cycles, you will be hooked. This Sunday, Robert Jordan died. Why do I care? Robert Jordan is the best bad writer of his genre. Stylistically, he’s clearly worse than many of his collegues, he only narrowly escapes being worse than Raymond Feist, stylistically. His storytelling has become increasingly tedious and increasingly sexist. However, the world he created was large, populated by an innumerable host of characters. It was, I’ll grant him that, addictive. Addictive enough for me to have read every single novel of the twelve (including that damn prequel) that he’s written. He was only one novel away from finishing. And then he died, that cheeky bastard. Looking at the long and colorful row of Jordan novels behind my shelves (no place for him ON them) I marvel at my boyish anger. And even more, I marvel at the fact that I have been reading his novels for over ten years now, and they have become more and more sexist at a steady rate and I have not destroyed them or given them away, I haven’t even stopped buying them, reading them, for Christ’s sake. Maybe this was an accomplishment of his, to make his novels -if not entertaining- addictive enough to keep me, hell, US, reading, for so many years, through so many bad books, up to the end, which -poof- suddenly disappeared. It feels as if he’d done it on purpose, inspired by the Sopranos maybe. Twelve books of teaser and then – blackout.
Maybe that’s genius.