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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Homeland, R.A. Salvatore, Forgotten Realms

I was always a DragonLance man, so for many years I figured reading Forgotten Realms books would be treason.  How silly is that?  Of course, they never made a DragonLance videogame worth its salt, though attempts were made on the 386!  Did I date myself or what?!

So my first Forgotten Realms experience was actually through the truly excellent videogame, Baldur's Gate (which is really a precursor to DragonAge Origins.) And I loved it.  Years later, after seeing R.A. Salvatore books on the shelf, and being suitably intrigued.  I finally decided to go for it.  If you want a phenomenal history of the Realms go to Wertzone site

Since I'm taking a break from Memories of Ice to read this, it's interesting to note the stark differences in contemporary fantasy with fantasy from two decades ago.  Salvatore did not invent the Realms.  Far from it--Ed Greenwood did.  I actually a did some research for this post, something I rarely do, but the Realms have a complex history.  And unlike DragonLance whose seminal volumes were all penned by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the Realms were created by a collective of writers drawing on the maps and notes of an accomplished Dungeon Master.  The Realms were designed to be free floating, more loose than DragonLance which took place in the middle of a continent spanning total-war.

Anyway, the point of all this is to show, once again, that good fiction does not have to be genre busting.  In fact, it can draw on cliche's so overdone as to be boring and repugnant, and still make a good yarn.

Let me say from the outset, I thoroughly enjoyed Homeland, and intend to immerse myself in the Realms, 20 years after their creation.  I have one caveat.  The book, though an absorbing and fun read, is no poetic work of genius.  It's a good romp through an interesting world.

1.)  Character.  Drizzt Do'Urden is the name of the main character for this volume.  I grew up with this cat, though I didn't know it.  I saw his picture on shiny hardcover novels all over the Barnes & Nobles of my youth.  Homeland is definitely a plot based story, nonetheless its characters are compelling.  The story begins with a race of dark elves called the Drow, dwelling in lightless caverns called the Underdark.  I've always found evil races to be an interesting study.  How can such a society function?  All societies are based on trust and cooperation--which is a flat impossibilty for the genetically evil.  And of course, this is a central conflict in Homeland.  The Drow worship the spider Goddess Lolth, who believes in corruption and greed, and encourages her priestesses to war with one another.  However, Drizzt, and his father Zak are different, possessing an inate innocence that puts them at conflict with the larger drow society.  They don't like to kill, yet both of them are singularly gifted fighters.  So the natural conflict set up here is between Drizzt and his entire race, his entire culture, and closer to home, his mothers, sisters and brothers.  Which brings us to cliche.

Mindflayer from FR wiki

2)  Cliche.  Elves, Dark Elves, Coming of Age, Dungeons & Dragons, are all cliches used by Salvatore.  Elves figure only as a distant enemy to the Drow, but as the Dark Elf cliche is built off the Elven cliche, much of the same is true about both.  Elves are long-lived, beautiful artisans, dwelling in nature, strong, yet slight, natively good, and are beautiful to look upon, and inherently magical. All this is true for the Drow, save the natively good part.  The city of Menzoberranzan is carved from stalagtites, and the buildings and temples are designed to look like spiders.  A thoroughly disgusting concept, yet one requiring a degree of skill in art and engineering to execute.  The drow live as long as elves, except for the fact that they keep on killing each other.  This means that despite the native difficulty of breeding (elven females ovulate infrequently, like every 50 years or so) a concentrated effort is made to breed, since family strength is a direct and certain route to power.  This culminates in some interesting breeding practices practiced by female drow. The drow is likewise beautiful to look upon, but they have black skin and pure white hair.  Like elves, the drow is capable of casting spells from an early age, and all drow are capable of casting certain spells, regardless of caste.  Which brings up the Dungeons & Dragons cliche.  Every single item or monster in this entire novel has a series of stats to back it up, from the adamantine twin scimitars which are Drizzt's hallmark, to the tentacular mindflayers who dwell in the Underdark.  Anyone who ever played Dungeons & Dragons knows the mindflayer intimately, even those who didn't ever have to fight one, the picture was just so frickin cool you had to look at it.  These cliche's for the most part are informative.  However, for a non D&Der, and we're dying out, some of the cliches are just obscure.  Halfling and Gnomes.  All manner of small people.  Halflings are familiar because of the Lord of the Rings, but most people are familiar with the term hobbits instead.  There are no hobbits in Dungeons & Dragons.  Just halflings.  Gnomes are another one.  We're all familiar with garden gnomes, those cone hatted, blue skirted small creatures, but just how are they different from dwarves?

3)  Scope.  The scope is immense and confined all at once.  The Realms are hard and fast.  Ed Greenwood's world is all mapped out, its creatures are decided, it's politics analyzed.  It's open ended in terms of story telling, but the world, like ours has a physics that is entirely determined by the roll of six, eight, twelve and twenty sided dice.  This makes for a very interesting fantasy setting.  Half of the joy of fantasy is discovery, does the comprehensive mapping elminate this joy?  It turns out, no.  I look at they world map, and I wonder what famous warriors have traveled to Cormyr?  Who is the greatest wizard in Waterdeep?  All this and more, after reading Homeland, I intend to find out.  Now of course, I wonder, how should I read these books?  Drizzt wasn't a character started in Homeland, far from it--he was first mentioned in the Crystal Shard, (again, hat tip to the Wertzone).  I have determined that the best way to do this is to read the books in order of publication, though I may drop off after the first ten books or so.  I always found that the splinter novels in the DragonLance series were of a drastically lower quality, and that the events that occurred in these books had no play in any of the more central literature.  Even so, the more limited scope is Menzoberanzan, the drow city.  And in this Salvatore is the acknowledged champion.

4)  Magic.  Dungeons & Dragons magic.  After having spent a lot of time with more complex brands of magic.  Sanderson's Allomancy, Jordan's The One Power, Erikson's Warrens, the system of magic in the Realms is reassuringly simple.  Most spells require ingredients, and must be memorized to be cast.  They can only be cast once or twice, depending on the sophisitcation and "level" of the wizard, and then they must be re-memorized.  Magic is important, of course, but having owned the 2nd edition Players Handbook, I know most of them already.  There is no magic to devastate an entire city here.

5)  Theme.  As stated above, this novel is no scintillating work of genius.  It's fast moving, absorbing, with interesting characters and a fun, unpredictable plot line.  It's candy, it's beach reading, even more so than most fantasy is considered to be.  That said, the writing isn't poor by any means--it's just there to communicate a story, not to edify.  There is a tone to Salvatore's writing, but its businesslike and not self-reflective.

This book is definitely worth a read, and it has definitely inspired me to read further.  Unfortunately, my wife has decreed an end to all fantasy books, and so I can't buy anymore of them unless they're grand slams.  (It's not the money so much as it is the space on our shelves)  I think I see a Kindle in my future.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Deadhouse Gates - Steven Erikson

So I finished Deadhouse Gates a few days ago, only read for the second time.  And if Gardens of the Moon is an intermission, Deadhouse Gates is a dark and tragic epilogue.  Again, Erikson chooses a variety of settings and thematic story telling tools which are genre busting for fiction, let alone fantasy.

The story briefly picks up where Moon left off.  Dujek Onearm has been outlawed, and the Bridgeburners, lead by Whiskeyjack and Captain Paran are still in Darujhistan.  However, NONE of these characters is in Deadhouse Gates.  Instead, he takes the squad assassin, Kalam Mekhar, a squad sapper, Fiddler, and sends them back to Hissar, one of the seven holy cities, just ahead of a burgeoning revolution against Empress Laseen.

Deadhouse Gates is the story of that revolution's beginning, though not certainly the end.  Soon I'm going to add another great moment in fantasy, from the final pages of Deadhouse.  I don't want to spoil too much in the first half of this review, so I'll simply say, look for it on GODSOL soon.

Like Moon, the scope of Deadhouse is unreal.  The sheer volume of characters, important factual notes that will play important roles in future volumes, the riveting detail and power of the magics used, it's all there.  While Moon's climax was limited to the city of Darujhistan, the convergence that markes Deadhouse occurs in two--if not three--places.  At anyrate.  If you had trouble getting through Moon, you'll be rewarded by Deadhouse, it answers many questions about the nature of warrens, and the mystery behind the emperor's assassination.

One last general note:  Deadhouse is a slog in some ways.  It's supposed to be, the plot of the book revolves around the empire's fighting withdrawal from the Seven Cities Region, with over twenty-thousand refugees.  It's horrible and heartbreaking.  From the very first pages.

Ok, if you're going to read the novel, STOP HERE.

One absolutely novel idea at play in the Malazan world is the idea of Ascendency.  I spoke before of this in my Moon review, but several characters actually ascend in Deadhouse.  A discussion of ascendence requires discussion of a popular fantasy trope:  innate power, often conflated with destiny.  The innate power cliche is simple, character A is born with the power to destroy evil B.  The hero in Sword of Shannara is like this, he simply is the one born to defeat evil--it doesn't mean he can, or will succeed, only that destiny has dropped this power into his lap, and he must use it.  Garion of the David Edding's series' is similar.  He has a magical power, and he's born to use it to kill an evil god.  And of course, the King of all Innate Powers is Rand al'Thor, from the Wheel of Time.  The Dragon Reborn is a character gifted with the most power of all heros, born again and again to combat the Dark One.

The Malazan Epic discards this a priori conception of power and destiny, and picks up an a posteriori one.  Ascendency, the process by which gods are made, is something that happens to people of experience.  Sure, being born with the right attributes helps.  The Son of Darkness, Anomander Rake, is one mean customer, and has always been.  But someone like Sargeant Gessler, who may be a tough dude, is still just a human marine.  The difference is that he lived through hell.  And it was those experiences that made him ascend.  This might seem like a small difference, but for fantasy this is a huge change.  The limitations of innate definitions are pretty obvious, they do not grant us power, and instead limit us to how we are defined by ourselves and others.  "I'm not good at math," is a good example.  I find math difficult and frustrating, so I give up easily, and avoid it.  That's me giving in to an self defined innate observation.  But if you were to hold my feet to the fire, who knows?  I'm getting an accounting major, that's me throwing fate to the dogs and fighting for all I'm worth. 

Fantasy, as I've written, is liberalizing.  However, older fantasies adhere to a few conservative memes like this.  The Once and Future King (all Arthurian myths of course) is a story about a boy, born to be king, and despite his beautiful assertions of using "Might for Right," his noble conceits about what chivalry and charity consist of, he's still the lucky (or unlucky) product of the Divine Right of Kings, or the Ovarian Lottery to use Warren Buffet's phrase.  Think about it--there's a prophecy that he who plucks the Sword from the Stone will be king.  And he, an urchin serving as a page to a minor knight, randomly picks up the sword to hand it to his knight who lost his sword.  But it isn't random at all.  It was fate.  The boy was fated to pick up that sword.  And so, any appearance of democratization there is a lie.  This is not the case in the Erikson world of Ascendency.  In fact, experience and hard work can make you an Ascendant, maybe, but also, sheer random dumb luck.  Not destiny or fate, like in the above example, sheer randomness.  Like life.

Another meme that takes form in Deadhouse is convergence.  See my earlier post on Gardens for more on convergences.  The convergence in the prior book was between the Son of Darkness, the Jaghut Tyrant Raest, the Malazan Empire, and various and sundry wizards and assassins, in the city of Darujhistan.  All the characters met, in one city.  But Deadhouse is different.  The climax of the novel happens hundreds of leagues away from the convergence itself.  In Deadhouse, the theory of convergence is discussed more openly.  Icarium and his compatriot, Mappo, discuss it at great length.  The God of Shadow himself, discusses the new convergence, and makes plans to subvert it. 

The open references to what would normally be a story telling device, would normally be a point of poor writing, a way to "tell" the reader what they should be shown.  However, it is my view that Erikson here is making a philosophical point here, and, of course, his books (as we'll find more and more) all make philosophical and humanistic points.  His point here?  Convergences are necessary for storytelling, but they are in fact, a social necessity, and occur again and again as focal points to human history.  The energy that brought down Mubarrak and enlivened the Arab Spring is such a convergence.  In the Great Recession, dozens of the most powerful men met in tense, closeted conference rooms, desperately trying to avoid meltdown of the world's capital.

Ok, on to the nitty-gritty.  Let's talk about Feliesin.  The pretty younger sister of the hero from the last novel, Captain Paran, Feliesin, the youngest of the noble family of House Paran starts off the novel in chains.  And her sister put her there.  We met Feliesin briefly in Gardens, and she seemed a hopeful character, a beautiful girl, who was innocent and full of life.  Deadhouse destroys her utterly.  Again, Erikson goes with his cliche busting alternative to traditional fantasy.  Feliesin becomes the cheapest kind of whore, then a crack whore, filled with the worst kind of bile and hatred.  Of course, for all her vitriol, Erikson does provide a thin, thin shield of innocence.  Though she freely trades her body for Durhang (a drug similar to hash in effect, more like heroin in consistency) and other favors, extra food at the mining camp, easier jobs, etc., she still convinces herself in the way that a young teenager would, that her principal abuser, a camp supervisor named Benneth, is actually a good man who really cares for her.  To the point where when her actual protector murders him, she hates the man, insisting that Benneth was really looking out for her.  What's the point of all this?  Well--I dislike Deadhouse for this reason alone.  I hate what Erikson did to this young girl who he created.  It repulses me.  That's a personal prejudice that I just can't get over, and inhibits my real enjoyment of the book.  But I recognize it's sheer genre busting gall, and have to appreciate it.

So remember from Gardens, the character of Kruppe, the jovial fatman who took forever to say anything, and was so verbose and ludicrous that those around him never took him seriously?  Kruppe's out in Deadhouse.  So Erikson creates a new comic, Iskarral Pust.  Interestingly, though the sappers usually fill a comedic void in these novels, here, the main sapper, Fiddler, is completely straight in Deadhouse.  And in fact, becomes a serious lead, something which continues in later novels.  Iskarral Pust, though exhibiting much of the wit and rhetoric of Erikson's Kruppe, is nonetheless very distinguishable from the lovable High Mage.  Pust is a bat-shit crazy, high priest of Shadow.  That's right, he works for Kellenved, and is very similar to the former Emperor, now God.  Pust is hysterical.  He spends half of his time speaking his thoughts outloud, transparently trying to manipulate people and succeeding by the sheer confusion he thrusts on those near him.  Pust reminds me of another famous fantasy character from the DragonLance saga, Fizban, the bumbling wizard who is actually the God Palladine in disguise.  Pust

He is always surrounded by flying-ape like characters called Bhok'arala, who dance around him, throw fecies at him, and whom he hates with an abiding passion.  What's not to love about a character like Pust?  There are many mysteries regarding the man, how much of what he says is truthful, how much pure gibberish.  And why is he so afraid of spiders?  We get a glimmer of an answer at the end of Deadhouse, but the answer only leads to a larger mystery about the presence of the Soletaken Gate.
Which leads us to the Soletaken.  We've heard about them before.  Anomander Rake, from Gardens, is one.  So what is a soletaken?  Deadhouse is good for illuminating some of these weird facts and physics of the Malazan world.  A soletaken is a shapeshifter.  It's not entirely clear yet, how one becomes a shapeshifter, but one thing we do know, the number and size of the animal is greatly determinant of the power of the soletaken.  So for example, one such soletaken, Rashan, is a gigantic polar bear.  While another is a pack of plains wolves.  With the exception of Anomander Rake, we are lead to believe that all soletaken are slightly, to very, insane.  The soletaken are awesome in general, one of the most innovative fantasy creations I've ever read.  One such baddy, named Gryllen, is a horde of rats.  Imagine a horde of rats with a single mind, dedicated to eating its enemies.  However, one failing here is that none of these soletaken are very important to the plot.  And at the end of the novel, with the threat eliminated, one merely shrugs.  Of course, the drama in Deadhouse is the rebirth of Shaik, the soletaken threat's purpose is to grow the character of the Bridgeburner, Fiddler, and Icarium.

Another point that comes up in the Malazan universe is the presence of women soldiers and warriors.  Since Sonja and Conan the Barbarian female warriors have been an important part of fantasy realms.  However, it is jarring, the sheer number and egality with which Erikson writes and treats these characters.  In this, I much prefer Martin's reality, Songs of Fire and Ice, in which the only female warrior is gigantic, and considered to be very homely.  Swords and plate mail are heavy.  Sexual dimorphism is a real thing.  It's not that women can't be warriors, its just that it would be less likely, particularly in a fantasy world, where the great equalizer of size and strength, the gun, does not exist.  Characters like Feliesin are far more likely, and Martin's fantastic character of Queen Cersei is an excellent exemplar of this.

All that said, I don't disprove.  I like his female characters very much.  Though Memories of Ice is a better exemplar of these women.  Why is this comment in Deadhouse?  Simple, the Historian, Duiker is comforted by a nameless female marine, who he fights beside at times, and who offers him simple human (sexual) comfort during the Chain of Dogs.  Erikson keeps her nameless intentionally.  The woman, after her first encounter with the Historian (a fifty year old man at the least) resists Duiker's attempts to find her name.  The woe, the inevitable death of everyone on the Chain prevents her from forming a human connection.  Commander Lull, friend to Duiker, calls it as it is.  "Foolish."

So another interesting line, a theme which resonates across all the books, and is echoed again and again by the characters, is a warning.  "Don't mess with mortals." Says Feliesin, the whore, the Shaik Reborn.  Her brother Captain Paran, says it in later books.  Again and again, we are reminded that for all the power of ascendants like Anomander Rake, half-gods like Icarium, mortals are far more dangerous, and far more dangerous than even Hood, the god of death.  I like this theme a lot.  As a non -believer I have always found myself on the side of humanism.  Fatalism, the tool of the believer, holds that disaster and depravity are god's will, the punishments for our evil ways.  Don't mess with mortals exemplifies, to me, an existential creed--the ability each mortal has to alter destiny--to change irrevocably the careful plans of those more powerful, even to that of the most powerful.  The line above, was uttered when one of the Gods of War, (yes, Erikson's pantheon has at least three) is pulled to earth, drawn back from the ascendant realm to the mortal world, where he is vulnerable to all the trials of an ordinary mortal, albeit one with immense power.  However, this exciting and novel development does not play out in Deadhouse at all.  And, to my knowledge has yet to play out in the series at all.  Very frustrating.  As a finishing thought, these words remind me of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow: 

"But now and then, players in a game will, lull or crisis, be reminded how it is, after all, really play—and be unable then to continue in the same spirit. … Nor need it be anything sudden, spectacular—it may come in gentle—and regardless of the score, the number of watchers, the collective wish, penalties they or the Leagues may impose, the player will, waking deliberately. Perhaps with Katje’s own tough, young isolate’s shrug and stride, say fuck it and quit the game, quit it cold."

Icarium's Wrath by Slaine69

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 I've mentioned it a few times already, but the characters of Icarium and Mappo are a very interesting through line for the series.  Icarium, a half-Jhag of immense power, bears twin curses.  He has vast, indescriminate rage, capable of decimating an entire continent.  And his rages, once finished culminate in complete memory loss.  A blessing and a curse, because this phenomenal killer has a great concscience and would be desolate to know the consequences of his rages.  Also interesting is this:  Icarium is over a hundred thousand years old.  That's a long time to go searching for one's memory--his eternal quest, and one his companion and friend Mappo Trell has been bequested to avoid.  The real reason for bringing up Icarium here is that the story of Icarium and Mappo is one of the most tragic of all the fantasy tales I've read.  The two companions have been friends for thousands of years, and yet, the lie between them is that Mappo must continually hide the truth of Icarium's existence from him.  When a portion of the truth is revealed to Icarium, the ensuing scene between the two is a tear jerker.  While Icarium's character is interesting, he has an interesting, though as yet incomplete role in the series.  There's something of a doomsday device about the character, and indeed, he is a device maker, a clock maker and time keeper.

Icarium's creations in Raraku by Merlkir
Again and again in the Malazan world, death and rebirth occur.  Tattersail, who was incinerated in Garden's, Hairlock, soulshifting into a Barghast stick doll.  Paran dying and reaching Hood's Gate, only to have his life returned to him by Shadowthrone.  This is a genre busting tactic--not because rebirth is alien or new in fantasy--far from it--but the sheer frequency of these occurrences is ground breaking.  In many ways, it shakes one's belief in life changing experiences, which is usually what a rebirth connotes.  However, Erikson encourages us to think in new ways.  Rather than rebirth, it is merely the transition from state to state, like a liquid burning to gas, or a caterpillar going to pupa.  In Deadhouse two rebirths occur, and one is indicated as a possibility.  The minor character of Sormo Enath, a Wickan warlock is reborn after seven crows pick his soul to pieces and gift it to a new born.  And of course, Feliesin, the noble, made whore, than reborn as Shaik the Goddess of the Whirlwind.  And last, the death of Coltaine in the novel's final chapters, is a given as one who will be reborn after death.  Interestingly, of these three, only Feliesin's transition occurs while living, though her soul is arguably damaged and damned beyond all hopes of retrieval.  Despite the pivotal nature of Feliesin's character, her transition to Goddess is fairly unclear.  This is a prime example of what I referred to in my last post about Erikson's tendency to pack sentences so densely that pivotal moments are often hidden or obscured.  Or, of course, it could be another genre busting moment.  If you expected the transition to end with a bang, Erikson is going to beguile your expectations intentionally.

The last thing that deserves discussion is that which makes this novel a real slog.  The Chain of Dogs.  Like the Chain itself, reading Deadhouse is like watching 20,000 people die over a period of a month.  Because that's exactly what we're doing.  I won't go into great depths here, my next great moment post will sum this up nicely.  The Chain of Dogs forms the body of this book, a 500 league trail of bodies from the city of Hissar to the city of Aren, with a growing army at their backs, and numerous full-scale battles between them. 

Anyway, that's all for now.  I'm re reading Memories of Ice currently, but my next post will be on something new.  Sorry for the length of the post, but these books are inspiring!