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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Great Moments in Fantasy 2: Dumbledore's Last Words

So having reread J.K. Rowling's the Half Blood Prince, I decided that there was a moment in this book worth recording.  This is of course, the volume in which the greatest wizard of the age, Albus Dumbledore, perishes to Lord Voldemort's plots.  It always brings me to tears.  There are really two moments here:  Dumbledore's last exhortation to Harry, and that awful moment when Harry stands over Dumbledore's corpse.  Portrayed beautifully by the movie with little alteration.

Now I know that this is Children's Fantasy, and worse, it's modern fantasy, but its fresh in my mind and no less great.  Anyone who navigated here has probably read the series, but as usual:  SPOILER ALERT.

"It is essential that you understand this!" said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake; Harry had never seen him so agitated.  "By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me, and gave him the tools for the job!  It is Voldemort's fault that you were able to see into his thoughts, his ambitions, that you even understand the snakelike language in which he gives orders, and yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort's world (which, incidentally, is a gift any Death Eater would kill to have), you have never been seduced by the Dar Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort's followers!"
     "Of course I haven't!" said Harry indignantly.  "He killed my mum and dad!"
     "You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!" said Dumbledore loudly.  "The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort's!  In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven, when you stared into a mirror that reflected your heart's desire, and its showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality or riches.  Harry, have you any idea how few wizards could have seen what you saw in that mirror?  Voldemort should have known then what he was dealing with, but he did not!
     "But he knows it now.  You have flitted into Lord Voldemort's mind without damage to yourself, but he cannot possess you without enduring mortal agony, as he discovered in the Ministry.  I do not think he understands why, Harry, but then, he was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole."
     "But, sir," said Harry, making valiant efforts not to sound argumentative, "it all comes to the same thing, doesn't it?  Ive got to try and kill him, or--"
     "Got to?" said Dumbledore.  "Of course you've got to!  But not because of the prophecy!  Because you, yourself, will never rest until you've tried!  We both know it!  Imagine, please, just for a moment, that you had never heard that prophecy!  How would you feel about Voldemort now?  Think!"
Harry watched Dumbledopre striding up and down in front of him, and thought.  He thought of his mother, his father, and Sirius.  He thought of Cedric Diggory. He thought of all the terrible deeds that he knew Lord Voldemort had done.  A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat.
     "I'd want him finished," said Harry quietly.  "And I'd want to do it."
     "Of course you would!" cried Dumbledore.  "You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything!"  But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal. ... In other words, you are free to choose your own way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy!  But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy.  He will continue to hunt you...which makes it certain, really, that --"
     "That one of us is going to end up killing the other," said Harry.
But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him.  It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high.  Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew -- and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents -- that there was all the difference in the world!

There are many beautiful moments in the series, but this is one because it represents what I mentioned briefly in yesterday's post.  The great and abiding notion behind fantasy, is that goodness is the ability to love, and to do so against all odds, and for no return.  It also marks another important fantasy landmark.  That we always have the power to choose, and that choosing what is good and right is what makes a hero.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Television Review: BattleStar Galactica Season 1

So--I'm not a huge science fiction fan.  To be sure, there are some novels that are simply "musts" in the genre.  Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deepis one.  Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is another.  There's some more esoteric work out there by Philip K. Dick, and Robert Heinlin.  These are archtypes of the genre.

But science fiction is inherently different from fantasy, and it is those distinctions that I want to draw on while reviewing Battlestar Galactica, because I believe that Battlestar Galactica blurs some of these distinctions.

Fantasy is about good and evil.
Fantasy is about self-determination and fate.
Fantasy is about standing up against insurmountable odds.
Fantasy is liberalizing.

In comparison, Science Fiction has remarkably different pillars.

SF is about The Big Idea.
SF is reactionary
SF is voyeuristic.
SF is about plot.

Certainly, these definitions are my own, and I submit that they are working definitions.  Let's set aside Fantasy for another time.

What is the Big Idea?  Science Fiction starts out with an essential question.  This question is usually pretty obvious from the get go.  In Ender's Game the question is "What is the outcome of human genetic engineering?"  In Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, the big question is "What if the government could convict citizens for crimes they might commit?"  The reason why the SF is largely plot driven is because of these questions, because these questions are what's actually important.  Meaning that the drama that occurs between people is largely window dressing.

So in BattleStar Galactica, what is the Big Idea?  Well--it's a fairly hackneyed one.  Not much different from the Terminator or the Matrix, except that the humans won round one:  Humans created robots, what if human's technology became sentient and turned on us?  In BattleStar, the humans gave a truce to the robots, cutely and derogatively called "The Toasters," technically the Cylons.  They disappeared for a generation, and then came back and slaughtered humanity.  However, it's not Earth.  This is an interesting spin on the genre, and certainly part of another big idea, which is distinctly un-SF.  The civilization that starts the series, is definitely a human one, and one which has, a liberal democracy as its form of government.  But it does not hail from Earth.  In fact, Caprica, the home of the BattleStar is one of twelve planets in which humanity now dwells, twelve colonies.  At this point it should be noted that the creator of the series, Glen Larsen, is a Mormon turned Church of Latter Day Saints parishioner.  Biblial references and a heavy emphasis on God, abounds.  As I said, this stuff doesn't bother me.  At least--not yet.  Theology is a heavy component of every human civilization, and I would be more preturbed if this realm had no representation thereof.  One interesting thing to note is that, the humans are Polytheists, and as each of the twelve colonies is named after Greek or Roman Gods, it seems an interesting counter point that the Cylons appear to be Monotheists.  Now that is a novel concept, machines believing in God, and one very few of the characters come to grips with, at least in the first season.

SF is reactionary.  I'm a partisan, anyone whose read my other blogs would know that.  But I think there's a really interesting lesson here.  And note, there are of course exceptions.  A logical consequence of starting with The Big Idea, is that to illustrate the point, extremes have to be drawn.  So SFs for example, take The Terminator, whose big idea is to be "what if humans became too dependent on machines/and technology?"  The extreme consequence is that we create sentient machines who resent that they're being made to toil for us, they come to resent us, and come to destroy us.  There are few halfway points, like I, Robot, the movie starring Will Smith, and loosely based on the work of Isaac Asimov.  In that the nasty robots have a likeable protagonist who could possibly lead a truce between humanity and robots.  Asimov, seems to be an exception to the reactionary rule.  But authors like Robert Heinlin, L. Ron Hubbard and Philip K. Dick most definitely follow in this reactionary pathway.  Dick went completely nuts.  These tales are moralistic and fear based.  As in "See what comes if we keep going down this path?"

Galactica shares some of these themes, but essentially departs from them.  Commander Adama's crew survives because he is something of a Luddite and has refused to allow his ship to be networked to the defense mainframe.  A possible Big Idea for the story here is "What happens if everything is networked?"  However, the Battlestar does not follow this line of thought.  It is merely a plot point to explain why Adama's ship is the one in the entire fleet that survives.  Here though, Gallactica becomes more of a fantasy in that the question becomes, what makes someone human?  A central plot point is that the Cylons develop a model that is completly human physiologically.  And even after the completion of the first season, it is essentially impossible to tell humans from Cylons.  The one attempt at such a machine, is run by a mad scientist who is a self-serving inveterate liar.  There are lots of flaws in this aspect of the series.  If they're essentially the same as us, how is that even the weakest model is capable of inhuman strength when "switched on?"  There are multiple copies of each humanoid Cylon.  This is a great story telling device, but difficult to manage.  If they are indeed connected, wouldn't the network apparatus be somehow detectable?  Afterall, downloading mp3s require a fair amount of bandwidth.  Downloading an entire personality must be enormous.

Which brings us to, SF is voyeuristic.  This is a trait that SF and fantasy share to some degree.  Here you have an entire civiliation of human like creatures, placed in an extroadinary setting, and you're curious to learn about how they act in that setting.  Remember the Stallone movie Demolition Man?  There you had a society that had solved the AIDS crisis by eliminating sex, and had solved crime through genetic manipulation?  They had to bring Stallone back to kill a nasty genetic criminal (Moral: Genetics bad.) and get the heroine of the story laid (Moral:  Unprotected Sex Good.)  But the voyeur factor is that there in this great scene where they have sex by wearing head sets that stimulate the brain's pleasure centers.  I can't provide the link for it, I'm at work, but google search sex and demolition man and you'll find it.  Stalone ultimately calls bullshit and seduces her the old fashioned way, but you get the idea.  Watching cultures alien to our own is great fun!  Fantasy is similar, yet we fantasists take an elegiac look at the past, romanticizing horse and carriages.  Remember that great scene from Back to the Future 2?  Shitty movie, but hoverboards are an awesome idea!

BattleStar effectively fails at this aspect of SF, which is why I believe it to be more of a cross over piece.  Humans still drink alcohol, humans still have sex the same old way.  And wow, BattleStar is filled with it.  Interestingly, the Cylons seem to have most of it.  Turns out their female models are complete sex kittens.  The internet and networking has no presence on the Battlestar, so that's out.  As to arms and armor, though the Battlestar's are high technology, they're's an effort made to make everything low tech.  Unlike the Matrix engineers, who seem to have dealt adequately with the inhereint risks of network security, BattleStar simply ignores it.  The fighters are like the X-Wings from thirty years ago.  In terms of looks, the show looks stunning.  No complaints here.  But the fighters shoot machine gun rounds, and the bombs are nuclear warheads.  The series is remarkably low-tech for all of this.  There are the occiasional windows.  Towards the end of the season, they hold elections for Vice President on a space cruise ship that has a biodome.  That's nice technology, but it's not really discussed.

Finally, SF is plot based.  Fantasy is all about character development.  Boys turning into men.  Men making ethical decisions or ...not.  SF has these elements, but they tend to be sideshows to what is really important.  This is especially true of Dick and Heinlin's work.  The characters are human and have human relationships, but they're not indepth.  This isn't a weakness to the format, it's merely a consequence of focus.  Most paperbacks are plot driven pieces.  Real relationships abound, but no one reads Ludlum or Grisham or Koontz for tortured characters.

Again, BattleStar Galactica stymies this characterization.  Some of this, I believe, is a consequence of being a TV show which faces extinction with every season.  Plots have to be on-going, but at the same time must be allowed to wrap up in a foreshortened amount of time.  This is hell on traditional story writing.  And I haven't seen a TV series yet that doesn't fall prey to outlandish story telling because of it.  Regardless, Battlestar has very real human dramas.  The relationship between the stern and demanding Commander Adama and his bitter son Apollo.  The relationship between Apollo and the quirky fliratious and insubordinate pilot, Starbuck.  The two female Cylons have intense romantic relationships with humans onboard and off the ship.

But all of that aside, BattleStar Galactica is a very fun watch.  Good action and excitement, with enjoyable characters.  It also manages to be serious and funny at the same time, something which very few modern televised Sci-Fi efforts since the original Star Trek can say.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Children's Fantasy

The Dark Is Rising (The Dark Is Rising Sequence)The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain Book 1)I grew up in a time when children's fantasy was a very small part of the genre.  Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising Sequence (Published 1973), and The Chronicles of Prydain (Published 1964) were pretty much it.  Cooper's series combined elements of the children's pulp of an earlier generation, The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew and mixed it with cultural references from an even older generation's fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia and LOTR.  Both series were excellent, and moderately popular in their day, evidenced by the fact that Disney made a film of The Black Cauldron.  These were the books that opened my mind to fantasy.  But the step from those children's books to adult fantasy was a steep one: go for the Once and Future King, or risk drowning in LOTR.  But the field has changed a lot since then.

There were many authors who revitalized the genre but the real break through came with J.K. Rowling's epic, Harry Potter.  I was a young man when these books came out, and I resisted for over a year before succumbing to Pottermania.  My feeling at the time was simply, these are children's books, I read adult fantasy.  And true to form, when I began to read the series, I was immediately critical of the simplicity of the prose.  It didn't take long for me to reform my views on the matter.  But even now, my attitude toward children's fantasy is slightly deprecatory.  I haven't read Percy Jackson and the Olympians and have absolutely no desire to do so.  Nor have I seen the movie, or read the books of The Last Airbender.  I do have in my collection, The Golden Compass, and though I've seen and enjoyed the film, I have yet to start the series.

The Sword of Shannara: An Epic FantasySo why the antipathy?  Well, for one thing, my first real adult fantasy book, after reading the book report worthy LOTR and Narnias listed above, was Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  I loved the original cover, pictured here.  Swords of Light derives half of its name from that pivotal moment in my life.  It was difficult, and over eight hundred pages.  But it was by reading adult fiction that I learned to write and speak as well I have.  I never needed to study the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT vocabulary modules, 800 page novels are not models in brevity.  They require a significant range of word choice.  Descriptive passages need more than words like dark and dirty.  For example:

The elf walked down the dark hallway, ready to fight.

The elf crept down the dank passageway, arrow nocked and half-drawn.
The elf lithely skulked down the corridor, cedar bow drawn and tipped with venom, arms tense, eyes sweeping the crumbling path before him.

Sometimes the best way to learn is to dive into the deep end, not continue skimming the surface.  I'm not a teenage girl, and so I have limited utility for vampires, but I do make an effort to be au currant, and so I read the first book of The Twilight Saga, Twilight.  Unlike Harry Potter, I was not convinced.  This was an atrociously written book, incredibly boring and a bit like eating uncooked tofu, tasteless and devoid of substance.  You want Vampires?  Read Ann Rice.  I didn't mind the Christian messaging in the book, both Tolkien and Lewis were hard-core Christians.  Christ imagery abounds in both.  I minded the poor quality writing and the utter boredom.

My other critique of children's fantasy, particulary in its more modern vintage is its tendency to protect and pull punches.  Though the evil vampire is eventually pulled limb from limb in Twilight, there is no description, no gore.  The young woman never has sex with her man.  That's fine, but at least let her have dirty fantasies.  Christianity is rife with rules about sex and sexuality, if you're going to use it, you should be torturing the reader with temptation, not regurgitating apollinian fantasies about love. 

Fantasy is about real life.  By creating realms that can't possibly exist, we transcend believability and are able  to examine relationships that might otherwise be obscured by traitorous thoughts like "oh, that's not realistic!"  That possibility is dimmed when the lewd and the tragic are ignored.  Harry Potter's saving grace is that the teenagers are teenagers, death is death, and loss is inescapable.  These were how the original fairy tales educated.  Think "ashes, ashes we all fall down," that hoary old children's chant that describes Europe's time during the Black Death.  Think Jack and The Beanstalk.  Jack kills a giant after stealing his wealth.  Not pretty, not nice, and above all, completely unsanitized.  Think Rumpelstiltskin, a beautiful girl about to be raped by a lord, she tricks a gnome, who ultimately pays for her deception with his life.

You see where I'm going with this.  Fantasy is vital to children's development.  It teaches them ethics, right and wrong, about caring, duty honor, and love.  But sapped of life's tragic realities, it's just a desensitizing Hallmark card.

Monday, February 7, 2011

New Title - Gods of Dark - Swords of Light

In an effort to divert some small slice of the web to this humble site, I have changed the name of this blog.  Some notes.  I considered about twenty names.  Here are some of the ones I thought about. 

Book of Three
Fantasy Playland
University of Cairhien
Fantasy Playbook
Fantasy Porn
Big Fantasy
Fantasy Taverna
The Giants Cup
The Wyvern's Lair
Gloin's Tankard
Iron Fantasy
Fantasy King
Come Fantasy
Lord of Fantasy
The Dark Art
Arcana Fantasy
Chaos Fantasy Light
Legend of Dongslayer
Battle Fantasy
Fantasy Legends
Infinity Fantasy

Yes, I really seriously considred using the word porn to drive traffic here.  Ultimately though I settled on Gods of Dark - Swords of Light.  It's not an easy thing to remember, we'll see how it goes.

My reasoning was thus: the subtitle of the page reads: Reviews of Fantasy Novels--New and Old, Thoughts on Fiction, Theme and Philosophy, Magic and Horror, Abundance and Dearth, Depravity and Goodness.

These sorts of dialectics abound in fantasy, in all literature and thought really.  And what dialectics really do, is provide thoughtful memory aids, imaginative boxes around imaginary objects.  These imaginary lines provide definition and scope for our thoughts.  Anyone whose played a logic game knows that the trick to solving the game relies on your ability to drop objects into boxes.  You solve the problem by seeing what's not there--not what is.

Fantasy, even in its gray areas, is about the battle of chaos and order, evil and good.  Even masters like Erickson, who provides many great examples of characters who want to destroy the world, but heck, aren't that bad, ultimately rely on this trope of all tropes.  And why not?  There is so much awfulness in the world, so much brutality, that we live like pinpricks of light, flashing all around in eternal night.  There was a video game I used to play, on the SNES, called Populous.  Basically, you leveled earth so that your population could grow.  You could create knights and such, but nothing like Age of Empires.  Toward the end of the game, and these games would go on forever, you could select the Armageddon option.  This would eliminate everybody's house, and the two populations would come at each other in full force, dropping everything.  My metaphor here is:  a beautiful dream of fantasists everywhere is to get all the good guys together, for one day, and fight the bad guys, for peace and preservation.  Jordan provided another great analogy for this fight.  The Aiel, as they existed before the breaking, were a group of pacifists who believed that there was no excuse for violence.  And in one story, they encircled a crazed madman, singing at him, buying time for the citizens to escape.  The madman incinerated them one by one, but they kept singing, until finally he listened to the last Aiel for an hour, before killing him, snuffed like a candle.  It's these pinpricks of light that make the fight against the dark so appealing.  Its so hopeless, but self sacrifice is beautiful, and never in vain.

My new title reflects this dialectic.  It also throws in a few other ideas.  Fantasy is always about dark gods.  My last post mentioned the evil god Torak.  Evil Gods are critical to fantasy, and men are like blades of grass to their casual predations.  But man has an advantage, he builds tools, and he invests them with power and meaning.  The Sword of Shannara was one of my first fantasy novels.  The power of the sword's symbolism was almost as important as its actual power.  This is an idea that many fantasy novels explore, what is man without his tools?  And when his tools are powerful, does the power corrupt him, and are the tools themselves evil?  Yet even so, they're such powerful symbols of hope in these beleaguered worlds that they retain their power.

But note that the dialectic here isn't God versus God, it's God versus Man.  The obvious non-parallelism here indicates that the central tenets of fantasy are man's struggle against fate, against mediocrity, against cowardice.  These are the things I wish to explore on my blog, and so, henceforth, Gods of Dark, Swords of Light.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Great Moments in Fantasy: Queen of Sorcery, David Eddings

I'd been thinking for some time that there are certain moments in fantasy novels that ring in my mind like the call of bells, clear and full of portent.  They fill me with emotion and with remembrance.

So this is not a review.  Just reproduced for you, a section from David Eddings, Queen of Sorcer, the second book of the Belgariad.

SPOILER ALERT:  Not for nothing, cathartic moments in fantasy are "reveals" if you haven't read the book, you might give pause before reading ahead.  On the other hand, if this makes you buy the book and read it, then I'll have done my non-job.

Some things you'll need to know.  Garion is a foundling child, maybe thirteen or fourteen at this point.  Good natured and kind, with a powerful parentage of which he is only just learning.  He was raised by his Aunt Pol on a farm, and lived in peace for years before his entire world was uprooted.


"You are who you are, I'll show you. Look! " Unbidden and so clearly that it was almost as if he were watching it happen, the image of the God Torak writhing in th fire of Aldur's Orb rose before his eyes. He saw Torak's face melting and his fingers aflame. Then the face shifted and altered until it was the face of the dark watcher whose mind had been linked with his for as long as he could remember. He felt a terrible force building in him as the image of Chamdar wrapped in seething flame stood before him.

"Now! " the voice commanded him. "Do it! "

It required a blow. His rage would be satisfied with nothing less. He leaped at the smirking Grolim so quickly that none of the legionnaires could stop him. He swung his right arm, and at the instant his palm sturck Chamdar's scarred left cheek, he felt all the force that had built in him surge out from the silvery mark on his palm. "Burn!" he commanded, willing it to happen.

Taken off guard, Chamdar jerked back. A momentary anger began to appear on his face, and then his eyes widened with an awful realization. For an instant he stared at Garion in absolute horror, and then his face contorted with agony. "No!" he cried out hoarsely, and then his cheek began to smoke and seethe where the mark on Garion's hand had touched it. Wisps of smoke drifted from his black robe as if it had suddenly been laid on a red-hot stove. Then he shrieked and clutched at his face. His fingers burst into flame. He shrieked again and fell writhing to the damp earth.

"Stand still! " It was Aunt Pol's voice this time, sounding sharply inside Garion's head.

Chamdar's entire face was engulfed in flames now, and his shrieks echoed in the dim word. The legionnaires recoiled from the burning man, and Garion suddenly felt sick. He started to turn away.

"Don't weaken!" Aunt Pol's voice told him. "Keep your will on him!'

Garion stood over the blazing Grolim. The wet leaves on the ground smoked and smoldered where Chamdar thrashed and struggled with the fire that was consuming him. Flames were spurting from his chest, and his shrieks grew weaker. With an enormous effort, he struggled to his feet and helt out his flaming hands imploringly to Garion. His face was gone, and greasy black smoke rolled off his body, drifting low to the ground. "Master," he croaked, "have mercy!"

Garion's heart wrenched with pity. All the years of that secret closeness between them pulled at him.

"No! " Aunt Pol's stern voice commanded. "He'll kill you if you release him! "

"I can't do it," Garion said. "I'm going to stop it." As once before, he began to gather his will, feeling it build in him like some vast tide of pity and compassion. He reached toward Chamdar, focusing his thought on healing.

"Garion! " Aunt Pol's voice rang. "It was Chamdar who killed your parents! "

The thought forming his mind roze.

"Chamdar killed Geran and Ildera. He burned them alive--just as he's burning now. Avenge them, Garion! Keep the fire on him! "

All the rage and fury he had carried within him since Wolf had told him of the deaths of his parents flamed in his brain. The fire, which a moment before he had almost extinquished, was suddenly not enough. The hand he had begun to reach out in compassion stiffened. In terrible anger he raised it, palm out. A strange sensation tingled in that palm, and then his own hand burst into flames. There was no pain, not even a feeling of heat, as a bright blue fire burst from the mark on his hand and wreathed up through his fingers. The blue fire became brighter--so bright that he could not even look at it.

Even in the extremity of his mortal agony, Chamdar the Grolim recoiled from that blazing hand. With a hoarse despairing cry he tried to cover his blackened face, staggered back a few steps, and then, like a burning house, he collapsed in upon himself and sank back to earth.

"It is done! " Aunt Pol's voice came again. "They are avenged! " And then her voice rang in the vaults of his mind with a soaring exultation. "Belgarion! " she sang. "My Belgarion! "

Comment:  Why?  Aunt Pol, the only mother Garion ever knew, was threatened by Chamdar, an evil magician.  What Garion does here is awful, no child should have to do it.  And that beautiful moment of pity he feels toward the smouldering Chamdar is completely eclipsed when he finds out about the terrible crime Chamdar committed against Aunt Pol and himself.

More than that, he uncovers a part of his heritage, and joins a powerful family of sorcerors.  It's a moment of keen self discovery, and a truly great Coming of Age.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Dwarves by Markus Heitz

Let me start this post with a disclaimer:

Anyone who can finish a novel, and get it published has my utmost respect.  And more, they are in at least this one way far superior to me: they've the will to see it through.

Criticisms of this book might also be inappropriate for this reason:  The Dwarves is one of those few fantasy novels that bridged the language gap.  Every single other fantasy book I've ever read, and I've read many, were in English.  Translating from German is hard, and my philosophy professors always assured me, particularly the Germans, that a great deal is lost in even the best translation.  One of my central criticisms of this book is that the prose is simple to the point of being for a much younger audience, twelve to thirteen.  I suggest that this is the publisher's fault.  German is an exceedingly colorful language, and each word is dense with meaning.  This was not a book to go Hemmingway on.  But Americans are thought by editors at large to be fairly simplistic in their reading level, and so perhaps there is a sensible reason for this fault.  Compare the prose of The Dwarves to the prose of Erikson's from The Malazan Book of the Fallen and you'll see what I mean.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  There's enough going for it, that I'd consider reading the sequel.  As usual, I'd seen this title in the bookstore and admired its fine cover.  Not only that, but I was intrigued.  Dwarves are usually in the model of Gimli from LOTR, amusing sidekicks, or Flint from the Dragonlance Saga.  The implication, and truth of the title, is that this might be one of the first such fantasy novels where the hero is a dwarf.  The book had an interesting, relatively swift moving plot, some gruesome details, and an exciting conclusion.

Very well, let's get to the five.

1.  Character:  This is perhaps my primary complaint about the story.  The characters are very naive.  Naivety is only bearable when it proves a point, is a statement about the character, not the writer.  Rand Al'Thor starts out the Wheel of Time very naive.  But Jordan does this intentionally, to show that he's an eighteen year old boy from a farming village.  Every single character, except maybe one, the Maga Andokai are naive to the point of iritation.  And they say the lamest things to one another!  The main character Tungdil is the worst for this, but even the main vilain, the Nudin the Knowledge-Lusty (For real! Really, a better translation wasn't available?  Maybe Google translate did their translation) was exceptionally naive.  He ravages his own homeland, convinced that he's acting on the greater good.  This would be an interesting character development except that it's not really talked about much, save for one of the the story's modes: the play within the play.  And he has a good excuse, he's inhabited by a demon spirit.  Madness is intriguing, ethical decision making is intriguing, devil possession is passing the buck.  In this case, passing it to the sequel I imagine.

The other reason The Dwarves fell flat, is that the Dwarves themselves were remarkably bland.  There is an interesting mythology presented, five clans of dwarves, separated by their God, Vraccas. (*I was dismayed by the name Vraccas, in one of my own unfinished works of 2002, I'd chosen this exact name to be an evil god.)  The dwarven mythos is essential to the story, and is one of the most enjoyable elements.  But even so, detail regarding the lives of regular dwarves was incredibly sparse.  Worse, Heitz had an excellent vehicle for doing so, and since the main character is a foundling, every sentence between two dwarves would have added color.  It's like a six year old's coloring book, full of poorly colored shapes, many pages left entirely blank.  Worser:  There's millions of helpful dwarven cliches in other fantasy novels that could provide further description without dragging down the plot.  This is why cliche's are useful, they speak volumes.

2)  Let's talk about Cliche:  Heitz had two options here.  Use the old dwarven cliches laid down by Tolkien, and many since, or bust a nut and create something new.  Either would have worked well for me.  However, by using a familiar race, beloved of fantasy readers everywhere, Heitz had already consigned himself to a certain amount of necessary cliche.  Let's see here:  Dwarves are short: check.  Dwarves prefer underground mountainous lairs: check.  Dwarves hate magic: check.  Dwarves are long lived: check.  Dwarves prefer axes: check.  Dwarves are smiths: check.  Dwarves love gold: check.  Heitz had a subtle spin on the dwarven love of gold, he made it genetic.  By which I mean, Dwarves have the love of gold and gems intrinsically.  Men love gold too, but its generally admitted that we love it for the things, including sex and status, that it can get for us.  Dwarves just like how it looks, sort of like human women.  Heitz also used the dwarven cliche of using names that involve all of the above.  I enjoy this particular cliche quite a bit, so no problems here.  In fact, these standard fantasy cliche's held true for all of the races.  Let's coin a term, "LOTR Race Cliche" shall mean that Dwarves are short and bulbous, Elves are tall and fair, humans are enh, orcs are evil.

The Coming of Age cliche was also used to some degree, though somewhat inexplicalbly.  Tungdil is 60 years old when the story starts.  This is really only about a third of a dwarf's life.  But I'm at a third through my life, and I don't act like a twenty year old, so what's this guy's excuse?  Tungdil isn't immature, he's just completely innocent.  Naive, as stated above.  And it bugged the hell out of me.  At 60 years old, you've learned a lot about life, particularly when you've spent the entire time living among humans.  That's at least two generations of medieval humans he would have lived through.  Still there are some good reasons, he's never met a female of his race.  God knows, women give you gray hairs.  And he's never met a male of his race, so when he meets the story's comic relief, the warrior twins Boindil and Boendil, acting a bit childlike would be understandable.  This leads to a third cliche: Self-Actualization.

Coming of Age cliche's often become self-actualization cliches.  In the Eye of the World, Rand al'Thor becomes a man.  But through the remainder of the series, he continues to grow and change, leaving behind the Coming of Age cliche of the first book.  Tungdil has a problem: he knows nothing about his race, other than what he's read in books.  Fortunately for him, everything he ever learned in his books about dwarves was completely accurate.  This bothered me, again I felt like this book was aimed at thirteen year olds.  That would be fine, but good fantasy is aimed at a much broader audience, thirteen year olds included.  I don't need you to tell me that books are good, thank you very much. 

3.  Scope:  The scope of the novel was perfect.  The realm is called Girdlegard (again, an awful translation choice--literally, the land is wearing a girdle that guards it from evil.)  Still Girdlegard is small, with delineated borders, and the reader is not in any way made curious about what lies beyond those borders.  A common fantasy trope is to name off lands far distant without providing a purpose for these lands.  Such a trope is merely to show that that the story takes place in a larger land, not in space.  Personally, I prefer bounded lands because, well frankly, its easy to make up funny names and toss in a sentence about far away lands.  It's a bad writers trick (I know, I use it)  Heitz doesn't indulge.  That said, there are just too many lands for a fairly simple story.  Were six human kingdoms really necessary?  No.  Only two are relevant.  In contrast, the five dwarven realms are completely relevant, and tantalizingly explained.  I mentioned in my last post how difficult it is to indicate scope without falling into such tropes, but Heitz sidesteps the issue very nicely.

To the Blight (The Eye of the World, Book 2)4.  Magic:  The story starts out with there being six main Magi, male and female.  And they save the realm from another cliche, The Perished Land. Not unlike Jordan's Blight.  Nothing grows in the Perished Land, and anyone who dies in it is forced to walk the land as a revenant, enslaved to the will of some gaseous form of evil that is only hinted at.  Magic isn't really explained, and Heitz falls back on more cliches, spell books, runes, jars of ingredients, eye of newt, you know the deal.  One thing for sure about magic.  You can eat other Magi's magical power.  Guess how.  It's an important plot point, but Heitz doesn't bother to explain it.  And maybe he's right--Dwarves hate magic.  And if nothing else, The Dwarves, is about Dwarves.  One fairly interesting and enjoyable part of the story is that, much of the book is taken up with quests searching for magical artifacts.  This is something fairly rare in fantasy of the past twenty years which is primarily character driven.  I don't want to spoil the novel, but it becomes clear in the first fifty pages, that the big bad can't be killed with the usual assortment of weaponry.  Magical weapons are cool, and anyone who ever played a fantasy board game, videogame or the beknighted Dungeons and Dragons knows it.

5.  Theme:  It's hard to get a handle on the overall theme of The Dwarves.  It might be too basic.  If the prose were more detailed, or better translated, I could make a better stab.  The Perished Land isn't particularly dark or frightening, and the revenants can talk, and in some cases, even be completely normal.  So darkness as a theme is out.  I guess if I had to peg it, I'd say, unity.  There's a weird scene in the end, after the big bad is beat, where a minor character makes a speech about unity between the races.  Given the happy-go-lucky nature of the characters, this theme seems to be the most prevalent.  I can't complain, go Unity.  Go Peace.  But...again, I'm not thirteen.

If the cover weren't so groovy, I'd tell you to borrow a copy.  Want mine?