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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Path of Daggers - Robert Jordan

So, I've been wanting to review a Jordan book for some time. At the time of this review, I began my reread for the last novel, while also reading George R.R. Martin's Dance with Dragons and Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings. So I got pretty far before I could begin taking notes. So, I decided to start my reviews where I remember the series beginning to really slacken. Note that as with my Erikson reviews,  I am not going to follow the usual format of the fantasy five. The characters of this series and the world itself are too far along, too deeply established and writing a critique of that nature would be critiquing the entire series, something that i am not yet prepared to do. So be aware that if you havent read it, and hate spoilers, this review is probably not for you. Note, that this was written before my reread progressed past PoD, and certainly before reading Memories of Light.

The novel previous to this one was a Crown of Swords. And while not as strong as Eye of the World, the Dragon Reborn, or Fires of Heaven, it was still pretty entertaining, and the series moved along well, one more Forsaken killed, and another entire kingdom subjugated. But in Path of Daggers, we begin to lose the thread.  And it starts with the name:

One of the objections I have to modern fantasy naming conventions is that the titles of books are becoming more and more mainstream, more generalized. In the 80s and 90s that made sense, no one wanted to be caught dead reading fantasy.  George R. R. Martin is the worst for this: Game of Thrones (a story about playing musical toilets), Feast for Crows (anything dead), Storm of Swords (History of the War of the Roses). Erikson is also bad for it, I mean Gardens of the Moon? (a light hearted romp about star crossed lovers) These names tell you nothing about the novels, and a title should, at least for a genre specific fantasy book. Robin Hobb's books are well named: Ship of Magic, you knew exactly what that one was going to be about. Assassins Apprentice, there again. I feel that Jordan sort of opened this Pandora's box. That said, the titles, while they could have been the titles of mass market fiction books (Eye of the World, three teenagers get trapped on a tropical island with a deadly secret. Or Fires of Heaven, a business executive learns that his company is selling a defective product and gets blackmailed when he tries to blow the whistle) they do actually relate, even though the connection can be subtle. Crown of Swords is the name the Laurel Crown of Illian takes after the siege is over (the crown is actually laurels interwoven with daggers) so the title is relevant, even if you don't learn why untill the last chapter. Path of Daggers, well, it didn't become clear to me until now what the relevance was, which after eight reads, shows the connection was indeed subtle.

Path of Daggers, here the spoilers start, is about the return of the Seanchean. And the connection, is a reference in an earlier novel to a Seanchean saying, "on the heights, the paths are paved with daggers". That's it, that's the relevance. There are no special daggers, or special paths, just a saying that appears once in the series, and could be attributable to anyone, much less the Seanchean. This was not a good title, and few indeed must have been the readers who caught it. I'd also like to note that, the action with the Seanchean doesn't even begin until around page 500. That's a long time to wait for a title reveal. However, I have to say that all the Seanchean chapters are excellent, in all the books. My wife would say that the Seanchean people are probably a play on an unfortunate Orientalism, as many of the traits of the Seanchean (not physically, Jordan makes that clear, but their armour, ritual head shaving, systems of honour, etc.,) bear a small resemblance to various Asian cultures. Orientalism is the viewpoint, the western visitor looking in on a baffling and strange culture. They remind one a bit of Raymond Feist's Empire Trilogy, or Magician: Master, where Pug, a young western lad is enslaved in fruit groves on another planet whose denizens have an Asian bent. Still, it's the outsider looking in perspective that makes it so enjoyable, so I don't feel the slightest bit of guilt for really enjoying the culture of Seanchean.
It is through these sequences that we see the next great battle, which is Rand skirmishing with the foreign invaders in the mountains north of Illian. Have I said Jordan writes a good battle? Because he does. I think the key of drawing a great battle on a page is the acknowledgment that you can't describe the whole thing. Battalions and divisions get separated, friends in the same troop might end up miles apart by the end. So there are gaps, but enough perspectives exist to do it justice. Even the chapter title acknowledges this fact, "fog of war"

Moving on, the prologues to the Wheel of Time are usually pretty good. You get a glimpse of what the enemy is doing, what new things are afoot, what could possibly be the main action for the novel. That's what a prologue is for right? So why on earth were the border lords introduced? At least ten pages were devoted to describing in detail the look and feel of the lords of Shienar, Arafel, Kandor, and Saldea. And for what? They are never mentioned again in this book. Poor choice. And, frankly, when they are mentioned again... In a series that has lost many adherents for being far too long, why was this subplot even necessary. I agree that all the lords of the continent must acknowledge the Dragon Reborn, and that most of the battle against the shadow should happen on their lands, but why this useless way? We have no answer in Path of Daggers.

One good thing about the prologue, is that the Brown Aes Sedai, Verin Mathwin, who we've been wondering about for thousands of pages, finally begins to show some of what makes her freaky. We find her weaving Compulsion, a forbidden branch of the art of the One Power. So a mark against her, but we don't yet know why, and as it becomes clear, it's use appears to help Rand. The reveal, which doesn't occur until Sanderson takes over, is worth it, even if it took 13 books to reach.

Verin, By Benjamin Rogue at Kindling Little Passions
Around this time, and for the first time really in Crown of Swords, we learn that the Dark One can actually bring people back to life. This is a dangerous line to cross in fantasy, though some authors cross it with impunity. Immortality is one thing, being hard to kill, is one thing. Dying and brought back, that can lead to story integrity problems. Chief among them, is the lack of consequences. If characters who die can willy nilly be brought back to life, the drama in a piece of writing begins to unravel. When Whiskeyjack and Hedge die in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, you weep for them, and for the loss their friends must face. But both come back, and, while Erikson's epic is masterful, I'm not sure this was a great ploy. Our grief over Whiskeyjack's death becomes expectation and anticipation for his rebirth.  While this itself is dramatic, it may not have been the strongest choice.  In one of the most recent books published, Anomander Rake, the wielder of Dragnipur, is killed. It's heart wrenching, but at the same time, I don't really know that he's actually dead. And until the series is over, I won't know. This can be a useful ploy, hell look at Christ. Or his fictional cousin, Gandalf. But at least in Tolkien's epic, no body was ever found, it's just assumed that any dude who falls down a never ending chasm with a Balrog is going to die.

But Jordan has supplied the background for this possibility to work, in the very first book no less, and because of that I think it works. Also, as book Fourteen was finally just published, it allows for more villains to be created without having to, at page twenty-thousand, suddenly introduce a villain who is even a badder bad ass than the twelve other bad asses we already saw die.
The Forsaken, uncredited, but I think Saliba
In this case, the ground work is the premise of the series: the Dark One, imprisoned by the creator for all of time, because he wants to regain his freedom and break the wheel of time thus unhinging all of reality. way back in book one, Ba'alzammon, the original bad ass, told us that this battle against the Dark one had occurred countless times, and that the Dark One was The Lord of Death, and that he could bring Lews Therins wife Ilyena back to life if he swore forswore the light. Well, he wasn't lying.

And at least two of the forsaken were returned to life. They have new bodies, I guess the dark one can't regenerate human flesh, but he can siphon a human soul into a human vessel. We don't know who they are, but we know they can't have been killed by balefire, that includes Ravin, Sammael, and Belal. But who are they? One we know was a man, returned to life as a woman. Interesting choice that, interesting for fantasy. They are, Orangar and Arangar. The other, is clearly insane, reborn also as a male, but with a whole face. My guess is that these two were the original forsaken that Rand killed in book one, Aginor and Balthamel. Don't google search that info as I just did, they make no bones about spoiling identities there. Particularly because Aginor was known to be insane. It was as he who created the Shadowspawn, trollocs, myddraal, etc. His revival leads to the possibility that he could create new and better Shadowspawn.

Then there is Moridin and Cyndane. Or, to use the old tongue meanings of those names, Death and Last Chance. Morridin takes a larger role in Path of Daggers, and is shown to be in charge of Moghedien, Cyndane and Graendal. I believe he must be Ishmael reincarnated. The real mystery to me is Cyndane, my first thought is that she must be Lanfear. She is reincarnated as a beautiful woman, but Lanfear wasn't just beautiful, she was breathtaking, astounding, so naturally she's pissed she didn't get her old body back. That said, Lanfear's obsession was Lews Therin, and we see little of that obsession in Path of Daggers.
By Seamus Gallagher, is Cyndane Lanfear reborn?
Ok, one of the things that makes this series suck until Jordan died is anything to do with Elayne Trakand, the Daughter Heir of Andor. This is compounded with frustrating and annoying sequences with the Sea Folk, and the Kinswomen. I just don't care. I don't know why Jordan spent so much time on the Sea Folk. The entire story takes place on one gigantic landmass, one continent, the sea folk are periphery at best. And once Traveling is invented, they are made completely redundant. They have fast ships and they have foug the Seanchean. Once Semirhage singlehandedly destroys the nation of Seanchean, in later books, the Aryth Ocean is entirely unnecessary. They're utterly annoying, and a complete waste of time. And in the thousand pages left in the series that I have not read, there is no way short of the entire nation of Sea Folk getting sealed up with the Dark One that can justify the sheer number of pages spent on detailing them. I have a feeling that Jordan wanted to balance out the Aiel, Jordan is big on balance, one of his principle cliches: Maintaining the Balance. Aiel dwell in the desert, and they have a prophecy that involves the Dragon Reborn. Therefore, there just be a race of sea dwellers with a similarly structured prophecy. But, it's too late in the series, and, as I said, the battleground for this conflict is landlocked. They are utterly irrelevant.

Ok, I lied, they can do one important thing. They know how to manipulate the weather with the One Power. And in the early pages of the Path of Daggers, they use the Bowl of Winds and alleviate the Dark One's touch on the weather. That was a good bit, but he could have tied up a story end right there and sent the Sea Folk on their merry way. One thing I thought regarding the Bowl of Winds: visually the scene was spectacular, and I very much enjoyed how each group of One Power users over the entire continent had a different theory on what had taken place. But. Jordan didn't really explain the how of it. This is one thing that I feel Sanderson could have explained better if he'd written this portion. Sanderson is great with describing the how and why of magic.  I suppose that it could have been done very poorly, but weather magic could be cool. After all, temperature and pressure are almost magic already, and requires a large understanding of science to understand. At any rate, it was adequately done, so I can't complain.
Elayne, Aviendha, and Nynaeve using the Bowl of the Winds
I never wished for this series to be smaller, but here at the end I wished that more time would have been allowed for the actual Last Battle. For Tarmon Gaiden. So much great material is hinted at about the War of Power. Entire cities destroyed with balefire, the madness of the male Aes Sedai, one who executed a singing ring of Aiel a thousand people strong, while the rest of the citizenry evacuated. The betrayal at the Gates of Hevan, how Aginor tested the Myddraal ability to sink into shadows to the destruction of over twenty of the horrid creatures. Jo cars, shocklances, the opening of the Bore into the dark ones prison and the destruction of the Collam Disaan. Thats what I want to see more of, who are the new dread lords? What city will fall first? Not this tiresome succession in Andor, and these idiotic windfinders who have their panties permanently knotted.  By the way, if you haven't gotten your Age of Legends fix, read Bob Leeman's fanfic here, it describes some excellent, and well researched Age of Legends stories.

And if this load of wind finders weren't enough there are the Kinswomen, this secret organization of women that take in White tower runaways and wilders. Much is made over their age, that Aes Sedai used to live longer, and that these Kinswomen somehow do live longer, several hundred years longer. Well, so what? A lot is made of it, and I'm not sure why. Possibly it has to do with Egwene's desire to do away with the Oath Rod, which she believes, shortens the lives of those who wear it. Is this getting us anywhere nearer to Tarmon Gaiden though? Is it?
Egwene holding Vora's Sa'Angreal
The second reason Jordan has the Kinswomen around is for their numbers, apparently they number well over a thousand of them, all unaffiliated with the tower. The White Tower, has "known" of the groups existence, but assumes the group is at best forty to fifty women deep. Of course, at the rate of say ten washouts a year, including runaways, simple addition would place their numbers at large enough to take on the tower after 400 years. No matter, what matters is that Egwenes wants to mobilize them. Now, if the point of the book series were the history of the White Tower, maybe this would be useful or important, nut as it stands, given how contentious the lot of them are, and how snooty actual Aes Sedai are, the task of bringing them in seems monumental, and worthy of a series of its own. If. If Jordan didn't do such a shitty job of writing women.

It took me a long time to come to that realization. And not all the women characters are poorly drawn, but they do adhere to some egregious stereotypes, and comparing his women characters to Martin's provides some great examples. However, I am going to save that comparison for another post. Suffice it to say Kinswomen, are another terrible waste of space.

Just skip the chapter "A Pleasant Ride." You'll miss absolutely nothing of importance.

On the subject of character change and growth, a comparison between Rand and Perrin is warranted.  Rand, who is the story's seminal hero, has been the only one to experience dynamic character change. On the other hand, stolid Perrin, slow to anger, deliberate, thoughtful, and duty-bound provides a much subtler character change. Subtle, because at first I really didn't think he experienced any change. Initially, his struggle, to choose between the axe and the hammer (obvious foils for war and peace,) is still ongoing eight books after it was introduced. That said, when your story is twenty thousand pages long, I suppose you have to play the long game for character development. The problem though is that Perrin will never choose the axe, or at least he will only choose it to uphold duty, not because he is a brutal killer. We've known that since book one. 
Perrin, by Seamus Gallagher
So is the struggle really a struggle? I'd say that this hasn't been the operative character change in several books.  What's going on now, is indeed much more subtle.  Perrin is adjusting to married life, and coming to embrace his latent powers as part-wolf.  The former is an interesting, though frequently sexist thread; the rather hackneyed combat between the sexes that Jordan frequently indulges in.

In this case, stolid, loyal Perrin, has a flamboyant and extremely jealous wife in Faile, such that the magnificent Berelain, probably one of Jordan's unintensionally most brilliant female characters, causes undue strife in Perrin's marriage. Not because the beautiful Berelain is a temptation for him, quite the opposite, but because Faile refuses to believe that he is not, was not, and could never be tempted. So the character change is actually somewhat brilliant in that Perrin learns to have an adult relationship with a woman. I myself took years to learn the ettiquette of relationships, and in particular, living with a woman. That said, while these musings are the benefit of hindsight, this Berelain/Faile thing, amusing in book four, drags by book 8. Particularly when, after Rands abduction, all I want to hear about is the main action, and instead we are dragged through a long sequence of Perrin's attempts to flee Berelain. What makes it all the more useless is that Min predicted in book 3 or book 4, that she was going to fall for a perfect man in White. Obviously, Galad.

One nice thing in PoD, is that one storyline is, if not tied up, the finally tethered to the man plot. the exiled Queen of Andor, who has been held captive in Amador, is finally sucked into Perrins ta'veren whirlpool. The scenes are neat, well done, and exciting. However, one wonders why Jordan just didn't tie up that thread. If Morgase had just told Perrin that she was the Queen, we could have avoided the awful slog in Winters Heart and Crossroads of Twilight. I get that he must be leading to a very specific reveal, but for a very minor character, it seems like a poor choice to drag this out. I don't much like the ending of this book, and part of that is Faile and Morgase abduction by the Shaido, but that reveal wouldn't have changed the next book all that much. It would just make grtting those two women back, that much more important.
Queen Morgase, another by Seamus
While we're on the topic of Morgase, for someone lauded as a good, fair, and wise ruler, her character is just as headstrong and idiotic as her daughter, and just as irritating. I liked her coming out from under Ravin's Compulsion (Compulsion being a forbidden use of the One Power, because of its obvious, slave inducing potential). I liked her discovering Sebban Balwer in Amador after Nialls assassination, her emotional state after Valda rapes her, but everything else was, well, dumb.

While we're on the topic of Andor, can I just say that the Trakands (mother and daughter) insistence that Rand cannot 'give' Elayne the throne is incredibly frustrating? Ladies, I'm sorry, but the Dragon Reborn effectively conquered your nation in a relatively bloodless coup. That he was willing to cede its rulership to the rightful heir is a gift. Moreover, as we discover to our woe, Elayne's claim to the throne is far from secure because of how her mom pissed off everyone, so, it really isn't her "right" after all. But the amount of ink spilled on Elayne all in a dither about Rand's proclamation is really just too much.

Of course, the problem with a series of novels with thousands of characters and that took 23 years to complete is that there is an open editorial question on how to write it. In every book series that I've ever read, the author, and likely his editors, always reintroduce certain facts and characters. So that the reader, who just bought book six after starting the series seven years before (or more!), doesn't have to reread the previous five books to understand what's going on. I suspect that there are two arguments for this, 1) for the readers benefit and 2) for the publishers benefit. I've put off buying Memory of Light for almost half a year because I'm waiting to finish my re read. The novel will be in paperback by they time I get there. But for us rereaders, the constant character reintroduction and reaffirmation is an utter waste of time. The European version of these novels, at least the French version, has a plot synopsis at the start of every novel for just this reason. But, for all of that, this could just be Jordan's plodding writing style. Certainly, the reintroductions should be done by page 100, and these repetitions, are still occurring well into page 300 to 600.

Other nits and observations: the Aiel clan, the Shaido, first of all, the name? Um, what shall I call the evil clan? Can they wear evil looking hats? Secondly, why do their numbers seem three or four times the amount of all the other clans combined. If that were the case, and it isn't really clear that it is, then you'd think Rand would have made more of an effort to bring them to his camp. Instead, book after book, a wandering army of lethal Aiel, between 60,000 to 200,000 large continues to be a major annoyance to the Dragons forces.
From the New Spring Comic, the Aiel Horde
I mentioned Egwene earlier, Jordan's chapters with her and the rebel Aes Sedai are quite exciting. I don't like Egwene. Something about twenty year old girl's running large organzations with almost zero training and life experience sort of irks me. Even so, these chapters have enough going for them plotwise that I can overlook that. I guess that's the problem with a book series that takes a decade to complete, I probably wouldn't have minded that fact when I started reading it.  One nice thing about Jim Butcher's series, Codex Alera, is that two years elapse between each novel and the main character, a 15 year old boy, is a man by the time the series ends.  I'm guessing Butcher was probably irked by Jordan's progression as well.

Still, Jordan has a nod toward experience. By making Siuan Sanche, Egwenes advisor, we get a really excellent passage about the three oaths. Egwene is a headstrong girl, and she tells Siuan that she thinks the three oaths are bunk, and now that she is in charge she intends to revoke them. They are 1) that they cannot lie, 2) that they shall make no weapons, 3) that thy shall harm no one save shadow spawn, unless it is in defence of her life. Of course, Egwenes really just wants the ability to lie, to use as a tactic. Anyway, I will reproduce the Siuans response below.

"The oaths are what make us more than simply a group of women meddling in the affairs of the world. Or seven groups. Or fifty.  The Oaths hold us together, a stated set of beliefs that bind us all, a single thread running through every sister, living or dead, back to the very first to lay her hands on the Oath Rod.  They are what make us Aes Sedai, not saidar.  Any wilder can channel.  Men may look at what we say from six sides, but when a sister says, "This is so," they know its true, and they trust.  Because of the Oaths.  Because of the Oaths, no queen fears that sisters will lay waste to her cities.  The worst villain knows he's safe in his life with a sister unless he tries to harm her.  Oh, the Whitecloaks call them lies, and some people have strange ideas about what the Oaths entail, but there are very few places an Aes Sedai cannot go, and be listened to, because of the Oaths.  The Three Oaths are what it is to be Aes Sedai, the heart of being Aes Sedai.  Throw that on the rubbish heap, and we'll be sand washing away on the tide.  Give up [the Oaths]?  I will be gaining."

Siuane Sanche, Seamus Gallagher

I felt this was really inspired, and made me wonder about Jordan himself. He was a militrary man, and of the older class, a military school grad and southern gentleman. So, I feel you can really hear the author's voice in that statement. Personally, I felt it was an excellent vindication of the role of the Aes Sedai from page 1 of the entire series. From the start, Aes Sedai were not to be trusted, they could not lie, but speaking broadly and with many layrs of meaning, they could effectively manipulate. This is one horse that Jordan kicked to smithereens. But, Siuan recalls the ancient honour of the profession of Aes Sedai, which meant in the Old Tongue, Servant of All, and restored it to some dignity.   The scene also allows Egwene's character to finally grow up, at least a bit.

The chapter "The Law," is not to be missed, it's the conclusion of the Aes Sedai story for this book, and it's a doozie. The title is a reference to an obscure branch of Aes Sedai statute, called the Law of War, which effectively makes the Amyrlin Seat a unilateral power. And Egwene, uses it to establish her power amongst the Aes Sedai rebels. This brings up another issue, something troubling. By and large, I think the Wheel of Time is a liberal series. It's central ideas are humane ones: kindness, respect, justice, tolerance. And yet Jordan feels perfectly comfortable making Egwene a dictator by declaring war. I don't know Jordan's politics, but he was a southerner and a soldier and that could make him a conservative. However, it is a common belief among those with military training, that a war must be prosecuted by a single man, and his counsels of course, and that war governed by Democratic bodies are doomed to failure. There might be some sense to this, but it made me feel a bit uncomfortable, and I thought it worth noting.

Lan al' Mandragoran makes his first appearance after disappearing after book six, the Fires of Heaven, when his Aes Sedai, Moraine, perishes battling Lanfear. Lan was always a hard character, and served as a an excellent martial foil, to the three inexperienced boys who left Emond's Field. And when Rand and the others earned his grudging respect, and received his gruff "tai shar Manatheran" we crowed with delight. And when we learned about the broken crown and the seven towers, and the dead nation of Malkier, we understood his stony face and loved him for it. And even though he ends up falling for another of Jordan's ridiculous female characters, Nynaeve, we were glad for him. However, if I hear once more about the darkness in Lan's eyes, the smile that never touches his eyes, etc. etc., I will literally throw the book across the room. It's not that it is so tiresome, it's just that its untrue. The man is constantly smiling! He's laughing at Rand's jokes, Nynaeve's foibles, Morraine getting humbled, Mat Cauthon's attempts to flee. The man smiles and laughs almost more than any other character. Sigh.
I'm laughing on the inside, Seamus Gallagher
Which brings to mind an interesting point about Jordanian humor. All books must have a humorous twist, something to lighten the mood, even if its very rarely. Erikson uses his bizarre marines with their gallows humor, also his pixie like characters, Kruppe and Pust. Weiss and Hickman had the kender character as well as the fumbling wizard/god Fizban. Jordan frequently uses Mat Cauthon, womanizing, and fleeing from responsibility, dicing and drinking to add humor. He also uses the antics of his female characters for his highly sexist type of humor. And occasionally, Rand himself will crack a smile after being humbled by a woman. With all that though, it must be said, that Jordan is not a funny author: moments of levity are barely humorous at all. It's not a bad thing, the apocalypse deserves serious treatment, but it is regretful.

As we get in in the book, it becomes less and less apparent, where we're going. And the reason for that, is that the story's main hero is completely opaque, and has been since book three, The Dragon Reborn. We never know Rand's plans, not until we find out, usually on page 600, what his various comings and goings, his cryptic messages to his Asha'man, all meant. On the one hand, this is a useful story telling technique, as it allows Jordan the freedom to still surprise the reader 14,000 pages in. On the other hand, Rand is our favorite character, the story's most pivotal character. By removing him from the center, Jordan makes it just a little harder for the reader to bear with all the boring tropes and repetitions that so characterize his style.

One of those boring repetitions is an insistence to detail the nobles from each of the countries Rand conquers. At first I was highly resentful of having to read about page wasters like Lord Weiramon, Aracome, Semaradrid, Colavaere, etc. ad nauseum. But, after a great deal of thought, I don't think the series could have been written without them.  This is essentially a story about world war, if Jordan had ignored the existence of the landed gentry the story would have come off as false and shallow. As it is, he makes the vast majority of them into utter fools, like Weiramon, whose idea of strategy is "the charge". There are the really small characters like Lady Estanda, and Lord Tedosian, all completely inconsequential, who scheme against Rand, and mutter idiocies under their breath about being ruled by a commoner. But, if he doesn't explain the infrastructure of the nation of Tear, or Cairhien, or Illian, at least the inclusion of these idiots is a gesture at describing how day-to-day life is administered. Then there are the few nobles who are really great characters who get short shrift page wise. The loyal Lord Dobraine Taborwin, the rebel Lord Darlin Sisnera and his paramour, the Lady Caroline Damodred. I'd really like to see more with all of these characters, and in fact, I've written a fanfic about Lord Dobraine (if you want a sample of my own writing skilz). And, gasp, it sounds a lot like Weiramon is a dark friend! So on the whole, I'm glad Jordan spends so much time detailing the nobility. I'm also glad that on the whole, they are foolish, ignorant, and greedy.  They were, and continue to be that way in real life.

At long last we get to the ending. In my notes for this post, I dubbed it "surprising and weird." If my hypothesis about the main thrust of the novel being about the Seanchean were true, well, that was tied up about 100 pages from the end of the book. Instead, we have several Asha'man turn traitor, Torval, Rochaid, Dashiva and others. We have suspected Taim's under lieutenants for some time, but after the assassination attempt fails, Taim appears, confusing the issue and promising to find the traitors. I understand that Jordan wants to keep the divisive and interesting character of Taim, who, even before we learn he's either a dark friend or a forsaken, was always going to turn on Rand. But again, we are so close to the series finale, why not just allow this to be the end of Taims cloak and dagger routine? In addition, the hint is dropped that Taim, is not actually Demandred, something we have been wondering. And if that is true, then where is Demandred hiding?  Let me make a shoutout to one of my fanfic writing friends, who has a crush on Mazrim Taim and has written not one, but two amazing stories about him.

But back to surprising and weird. While its true that something like this really should happen, none of the characters have really been developed. Torval sneers a lot. Rochaid is an asshole. That is about all we know. And to have this be the exciting conclusion, it was a disappointing ending to what was otherwise, a pretty good installment.

A sad note further confuses what is already a very confusing ending. At the exact time that some of the Asha'man turncoat, another, a young man named Fedwin Morr, also an Asha'man, but a good one, goes insane. Being Ta'veren bends chance around Rand al'Thor, but having Morr lose his grip on sanity at the exact time that the others attempt to assassinate Rand, was a poor choice. It just made for a confusing, nonsensical ending. Despite that, the death of Fedwin Morr is very sad. Morr who is always connected to being very young, regresses to the mind of a four year old, and attempts to secure Min, by building a wall around her. By taking the building apart. Rand slips something in his drink and the young man dies in his sleep.

In almost 15,000 pages, that is the very first death of a good guy, and his character is a bare footnote in the series. Something is wrong with that.

What makes Path of Daggers so frustrating is that the end is a total cliff hanger, and worse, one that does not seem to further the plot. Up till now, most of these novels have had real endings, and though we are left with much to ponder, the ending satisfied some itch, usually with the removal of one of the bad guys. But not here.

Let's tie things up. Much occurs in Path of Daggers, and some of it begins to tie up some plot lines. For instance, Morgase is tied to Perrin, and then to Sevanna and the last of the Shaido. The Prophet, who has been wandering Ghealdan causing trouble, is connected to Perrin as well. The return and clash with the Seanchean. All good. And yet, so much new, half a dozen new Aes Sedai introduced in the Tower, plots to uncover the Black Ajah. The army of borderlanders in Andor, this subplot with the traitor Asha'man. At this stage in the game, the addition of new plot twists should only be introduced as a method to start tying together old plot twists.

So, all in all, I really did like Path of Daggers, up until the last 100 pages. They don't ruin it for me, but it's why, in my memory's eye, I recall the series starting to sag around here. Still, I want to make it crystal clear: Robert Jordan's work is seminal fantasy reading.  If you dig the genre, the entire cycle is required reading, even the lesser volumes.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Women in SFF recently sent out their weekly email with its attendant blogs, stories and news.  And Liz Bourke wrote an interesting column and interview following a piece I did not read.  There seem to be several points to her post, and the one previous, which I will first sum up.

1) There is a bias against female SFF writers
2) There are fewer new female SFF than male authors each year because of it
3) There is a bias amongst reviewers that indicates the same
4) Does it matter?

I wanted to add my own two cents here.  I'm going to make a little list.

My feelings:
  1. If I am guilty of reviewer's bias, it is certainly not a conscious one.  Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any less of a bias. 
  2. I certainly am guilty of reader's bias.
  3. I like central male characters, a bias that has nothing to do with the sex of the author, but my own preconceptions about viewpoint have, in ignorance, played to that point.
  4. Publishers have to play to their audiences.
  5. Yes, it matters, and yes we should at least make the occasional effort to expand our horizons.
1. To start, that there is a bias amongst reviewers clearly holds with me as well.  I have reviewed only Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey, and Azure Bonds, by Kate Novak and Jeff Grub.  Both of which are at least twenty years old.  So, keep in mind, I don't review "new" titles.  My reviews are long-winded, seldom read, and I have no particular following to keep up with.  When I find a book particularly bad or good, or thought provoking, I write a review.  If I have time.  Publishers don't send me books hot off the presses (please do publishers! I've been using the friggin' Library for the past six months!) The selection process is random at best, and stilted, heavily leaning to books already in my collection at worst.  So I don't have the same kind of operators that Stefan Raets, or Renay, neither of whom I had ever heard of before today.  As all three of the bloggers, Raets, Bourke and Renay point out, the fact that I'm not consciously choosing titles according to author sex is still a bias, and a grievous one.

2.  I had to think, in my history, what else have I read by female fantasists?  Certainly almost the entirety of Margaret Weis's collection.  Raistlin Majere is certainly one of my favorite fantasy characters of all time, and he was her creation.  Recently, I read Robin Hobb's series, Assassin and Magic Ship, and Fool, or whatever the three series are called together.  And, I just found out that C.S. Friedman was a female, and I loved her Coldfire Trilogy.  All three of these women wrote incredibly strong, very detailed, and very interesting male central characters.  Did I think them less genuine because of that?  Not at all.  I was impressed by Robin Hobb's epic, but I confess, it wasn't my cup of tea.  I don't know if that had anything to do with the sex of the author.  It was a problem, or question of the theme.  I just left feeling somehow disastisfied.  I also read some C.J. Cheryh back in the 90s.  That's about it.  As I confessed years ago, I typically pick out books by the covers.  So if the publisher laid out for a good bookcover, and the book was at least four-hundred pages... there was a pretty good shot I'd try it. 

3.  Even though I quite like Jim Butcher's Furies series, I find the parts with Amara and her husband Bernard saccharine to the point of distaste.  I am a man, and the story has to appeal, find common ground with me.  I know a number of people who hated Rand al'Thor and the Ta'veren Trio, but his story always had a great deal of appeal to me.  Particularly as the 'nice' boy began to fade, and rage began to consume him in the ladder half of the series.  And I've spoken to some female fandom who find all three of them, Rand, Mat and Perrin inherently boring.  Still given what I pointed out above at the capacity of female authors to write excellent male characters, I suppose this bias really must end.

4.  I had this conversation with a female anthropology professor (not my wife) once, regarding the sexualization of female body parts in comic book characters.  And she showed me this image:
It is a pretty funny image, but she looked thoughtful when I told her that most of the readership of comic books are men, and that they wouldn't sell much if their characters all had bubble butts like this!  I also said, to say that male characters aren't over sexualized is ridiculous.  They don't frequently have gratuitous butt shots like those above, sure, but they all have tight abs, large shoulders, strong chins, cheekbones, large packages, and let's not forget, tight asses.  Interestingly, that's not to sell to women.  That is to play to men's insecurities about our own bodies.  I told her that if she were to look at any of the comicbooks from the eighties, their pages are filled with ads for muscle enlargement, how to get women, etc.  Their consumers were skinny, weak white dudes, and that was why you saw covers like this!  Still though, if you don't know about the HawkEye Initiative, check this out.

To apply that to fantasy authors, I honestly don't know what the breakdown is.  I was told about five years ago that men are reading less and less.  That was true then, of the overall market.  But SFF is a genre, and can the same be said?  If the majority of the consumer market is male, than publishers and reviewers choosing titles that best reflect their clients needs, is pretty if not fair, than standard practice.  I have lately seen more women than men reading in the genre, but that might also be a product of a completely different bias.  I didn't have the courage to be seen reading a fantasy book all through Highschool.  I kept them in my bag, and went off to secluded corners of the library to read them.  I frequently had my books stolen and ripped up.  I even had to chase them through the cafeteria from time to time because it just wasn't cool.  I'm not sure women and girls had to face the same bias in fantasy, though they certainly had to face a number of other ones.

5.  None of that matters.  The critics are right.  An effort must be made, it is simply the right thing to do.  I have three library books in my possession right now, all male authors.  But my next review, I promise will be by a female author.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Furies of Calderon - Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is a name that has haunted me for some time, his Dresden series has been out for almost two decades, but I was not the target audience. Not so the Alera Codex.

So here it is, Book One, the Furies of Calderon

1) Character. Butcher's characters are well drawn, if a trifle hasty. Hasty? Well from page one, this book has been an action thriller; and while the characters are intelligent, believable and deep, in between fighting, fleeing, flying and furycrafting (the four Fs of the Codex) there really isn't much time for in depth character analysis. What a comparison to my last review of Way of Kings, which plodded between boring character soliloquies. That said, I would have preferred a slower build. The character which is probably the most complete is the young Cursor Amera. A Cursor, somewhat unusual for a fantasy novel, is an intelligence agent with a license to kill.  She is finishing her years of study and graduating what amounts to spy school. Her mentor is another excellent character, the masterspy and cold-hearted killer Fidelias. Fidelias is an unusual type of villain, and it is to Butcher's credit that all three of the evil usurpers top mercenaries are, if not always like able, certainly understandable. Of course the central character is a 15 year old boy named Tavi. Tavi's character is at once the most interesting and the most unbelievable. Making an unusual choice, what makes Tavi special is that he is the only person in the kingdom to not have a Fury. More on what that means later. Suffice it to say, what makes Tavi special is his ordinariness, and that he must rely on his wits, curiosity and courage, where others can simply use magic. Sometimes though Tavi's courage seems enough for ten men, and this is what makes his character just a tad hard to believe. Still, you want to believe in him, and as one of the story's main voices--it isn't hard to do so.  Fantasy novels are often built initially on a gimmick.  And though the choice to make Tavi the only non-magical being in the kingdom is unusual, it is not entirely without precedent.  Still the choice feels very much like a gimmick.  I can see Butcher in a coffee shop, pencil tapping his chin.  What about a magical land where everyone had special powers but the main character?  That said, and this is a big "that said," I absolutely do not have a problem with a good gimmick.
Tavi and Kitai, by Dystopiaworld at Deviant Art
2) Cliche. So the most obvious cliche, continuing with Tavi, is the Coming of Age cliche. Young Tavi starts the action by ignoring his duties to get a kiss from a girl. This is a truly great fantasy cliche, and almost every book uses it. Boy, small and ashamed, faces fears, adult terrors, great extremities and becomes a man. Interestingly, I'm not entirely sure that Tavi does grow, or at least his growth is well contained. It is after all book one, and he is only 15. Another cliche, less seldom used in fantasy is The Ugly Duckling. Amara is described as a girl with golden skin and golden hair, faintly boyish with a face somewhat severe. When her arc begins she considers herself unattractive, but by the end, she has found a man who thinks she's beautiful and indeed, many men have always thought so. The ugly Duckling cliche is unfortunate some of the time and disingenuous the rest of it. It would have been better if she'd actually been ugly, or actually pretty and aware of it.
The unbeautiful beautiful Amara, Sandara at Deviant Art
As for typical fantasy cliches, though it receives little note in this volume, there is a Shield Wall, very reminiscent to George R. R Martin's wall in that a group called the Icemen dwell beyond it. That said, they are not the overwhelming enemy-at least not in this volume. Another cliche used by Butcher is the Innate Power Cliche. This is such a common fantasy cliche that it needs little explanation. Think Aes Sedai and their ability to use the One Power, think Raistlin of DragonLance, or the Will and the Word of the Eddings books. The idea is simple, magic is innate. Some people are special some people ain't. Of course the foil for these powers, at least in traditional fantasy is that those who were physically weak could use the occult powers to even the playing field. There is also a cliche for long lived people, but they don't live hundreds of years. They are the magic users who bonded with water elementals and as they are the worlds healers they preserve and regenerate their own bodies as a matter of course. There is one fantasy cliche that Butcher employs with a broad brush. Magic is divided into the standard four elements, Fire, Earth, Wind and Water, with some unusual additions. While that sort of cliche is a little tired, Butcher does some novel things with it. But more of that in magic. No elves or dwarves, but there are giant spiders!

3) Scope: so when I first heard about Jim Butcher it was with all the gushing excitement of a thirteen year old on the Tor website. They made it sound like he was the second coming of Robert Jordan. I was skeptical, but figured I'd get around to him eventually. My skepticism has proved well founded. What made the worlds of Jordan, Martin and Erikson so remarkable was their scope. This is why scope is a signal element to a great fantasy. When you step into a world of someone's making and, to your delight, find it every bit as detailed as your own--it's exciting on a level so deep that every chapter almost throbs with life. How does one achieve it? To be honest, I am still working on that. It's not the number of books, or size of the words on the page, its not a world map with continents of people. It's not the number of characters-though that has something to so with it. It's not the number of political parties, or factions or world destroying g forces. It's literally about how the book is written.

Jim Butcher's world is large, and I already took the next two books out from the library. But the scope... Is merely pedestrian. I wrote a scene recently in a Jordan fanfic that I work on, and in it I have described in detail the vintages of wine from Tear, Cairhien and Altara (three separate nations in the Wheel of Time) I also described three works of art from no less than three different Ages. I'm not tooting my own horn, Jordan's world supplied the framework for this level of detail. I could create the same in Butcher's world, but it would be of entirely my own creation, and it would be a desecration of his work to add such detail. But Jordan's world is different, from book one we were provided tantalizing glimpses into the history of this continent, glimpses from time periods as disparate as twenty years prior to a thousand years before the present! That is depth.

Butcher chose to begin these tales in medias res. and it works, the book is a fun, fast read. But starting a political drama at the center of a world leaves little room to grow. We know that the present King is old and heirless, we know that there is much unrest, and that there are "many" people trying to take advantage. But the plot, SPOILER, is based on just one Lord's efforts to unseat the crown. After book one of Game of Thrones, you knew Cersei was a bitch, but you had no idea that the next book would detail the first year of the War of Five Kings.
Gratuitous picture of Queen Cersei by Teilku
There just isn't the level of detail necessary in the Codex of Alera to do that, not in book one. Which leads me to your next objection. You say, but surely scope must be in some way dependent on size, book two and three will add detail. True, but without the proper set up, you run into what I call the Wizard's First Rule Problem. Terry Goodkind's series was very successful, but when a friend once told me that you could either be a Goodkind girl or a Jordan girl, but not both, I was offended. Both men's first novels were designed to be stand alone books. Both morphed into ten book series. Only the smallest part of Jordan's world was explored in that first book, but much was alluded too. Goodkind's kingdom and its Big Bad Lord Rahl were dealt with in that first book, to fix the error he had to invent a threat from a whole other continent. A place that had simply not existed in that first novel, it wasn't until the second novel that he layed down the seeds for a saga. The device lacked the cohesive foresight of WoT. Butcher has indeed left room to grow, the mystery of Tavi's parentage, the mystery behind the slave Fade, the First Lord's wife (SPOILER) having an affair with Lord Aquitane, etc.  Clearly there is much going on, and I am excited to continue reading.  But as of now I have no desire to visit Alera.

An Earth Fury by MctChapman at DeviantArt
Magic: where would we be without it? The source of magic in Alera at least for the local humans are elemental spirits that bond with them. These spirits or furies, vary in strength and some furies have physical manifestations, while others are more ephemeral.  The stronger a fury, the higher in the caste strata a man can rise.  That said nobility remains patriarchal and passes on from generation to generation.  An interesting point is that power over Furies does seem to be hereditary.   The Furies are divided up into the standard element cliche, Fire, Earth, Wind, Wood, Water, and though there doesn't seem to be a physical fury for Metal, they seem to exist in many people, particularly in blacksmiths and swordsmen. Likewise a man can be bonded to more than one Fury. So Wood and Earth furies are common in at least two of the main characters. Unusual for the genre, Butcher doesn't spend too much time describing his system of magic, which provides solid evidence against one of Sanderson's guiding fantasy principles. Namely that magic must be rigorously standardized and adhere to its own rules. Butcher's furies are capable of new and novel things and the lack of explanation doesn't truly inhibit the power of the story. So Woodcrafters can move the forest to cover their tracks. They can guide arrows to targets. Earthcrafters are strong but they can also sense things both above the ground and below it, they can build walls and roads. Windcrafters can basically do all the things that the X-man Storm could do, fly, cause storms, lift targets, etc.  One neat thing that Butcher uses to enliven this cliche is that the elements can combine in natural and intelligent ways. A windcrafter can't start a fire, but as fire requires air, she can propel one a long distance or make a fire into a conflagration. A watercrafter is a healer, and unlike most magical healing, that merely binds wounds, eliminates viruses or bacterial infections, etc. it can actually restore lost limbs. Another trope that Butcher breaks is that healers can't heal themselves. In Alera, healers heal themselves first.  In fact their furies do it without conscious effort, and thus Watercrafters can live for one to two hundred years. As I said earlier, the furies are somewhat undefined. They exist as beings that bond to people but, it is revealed in the second book that many humans do not bond with individual furies, or at least that the ones they bond with contain little individuality. City folk furies are like this, country folk name their furies and seem to have a relationship with them. Inconsistencies abound in the Fury lore, but while this was somewhat irksome to me at first, I sense that one of the overall plot devices for the trilogy will unravel some of these mysteries. Suffice it to say, it is a clever use of a cliche, and a novel new form of magic.

Theme: last and hardest to define. Butcher's world uses slavery. I'm not sure why slavery has become endemic to modern fantasy writers, Sanderson's new story uses it, as does Butcher's. Slavery existed in medieval Europe, but it existed as serfdom, which was different. Serfs were the lowest of the caste society but they were still part of the society. Slaves are not part of the society, they are alien and not accorded the basic rights of humanity. They exist outside the social structure which is why their rights can be restricted in ordinary men's minds. It adds a dimension of darkness to any realm. That said, while Butcher's world contains dark elements such as sex slavery, it doesn't feel dark. This is in part because of the main character Tavi. Tavi represents what is perhaps the ultimate fantasy cliche, he is Good. And he's smart, which makes him much more likeable than say Sam or Frodo who just seemed too saccharine and idiotic to be more than patsies. But Tavi, like The Ta'veren Trio, is good and pure in a way that makes every chapter in which he belongs a delight to read. There is one thing, a nit really, but it does alter the theme. There is sex in this novel. I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that. Without getting gross, let me say, I love sex, and eroticism. But I can't square the circle of seeing it in my swords and sorcery. I don't know if it's because it's too "sweet" or that it seems disingenuous, but I just don't feel it. Here or elsewhere. I guess it adds a component of adulthood to the text, which reminds me to warn you that there is a brutal rape scene. It added little to the story but did at the very least demonstrate the depths of depravity of slavery.

Suffice it to say: the Theme of Calderon is entirely wrapped up in the viewpoints of its three largest characters: Tavi, Isana, and Amara. All three of whom believe in what is good, what is kind, what is right, and the importance of the rule of law.  And those themes are good enogh for me.

Do yourself a favor, get the first four books altogether.  It's hell trying to wait until I can get my hands on a copy of the fourth book.

Marat, by Sandera at Deviant Art, a beautiful illustration of the Marat horde moving toward Alera.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings

My review of The Way of Kings, must start with certain caveats. First, I must cop to a certain envy of Brandon Sanderson, a man younger than myself, who is incredibly prolific, and talented, and successful, and... hand picked by Harriet Jordan to complete the Wheel of Time. My own attempts to start my career in fantasy have been thwarted mostly by myself. So, it is important to view my criticisms of his writing through a slightly jealous veil.

That said, I do have certain valid criticisms, of his writing style, and his view of fantasy. Also, looking at his essay on magic, though well intentioned as a guide to young writers, it doesn't quite fit the facts of some very successful sagas.

One thing is undeniable, Sanderson is a formidable story teller. I have read several of his Mistborn series, and Elantris, and each book is a well laid out, truly engrossing story. The same must be said for Way of Kings. And though his writing may not be my cup of tea, I certainly intend to finish the series, unlike Mistborn, which I did not complete.

I think I must state outright that, I think his writing lacks the sophistication of Martin, the breadth of vision of Jordan, the complexity and sublety of Erikson, the familiarity of the Eddings team, the cohesiveness of Weiss and Hickman. Any reader should know that going in to one of his stories. But maybe, Sanderson doesn't need to do that, he's made his own place in the starry sky of modern fantasy.

Let's go to the fantasy five.

Character: this is one of the things that I think Sanderson falls down on. The hero of this epic is a young soldier/slave named Kaladin. The book is over a thousand pages, probably 20% of that is given to describing Kaladin's state of mind, chiefly his depression. As Kaladin is as deep as a teapot, this makes for some boring reading. My wife has a saying that she used to describe certain boys when she was on the market: "darkness is not depth: do not mistake depression for intelligence, charisma, wisdom, or introspection". Kaladin has some decent reasons for being down, but for whatever reason, the constant vacillating on his state of mind, really just bores. That said, I found Dostoevsky's  Underground Man similarly irritating, and Notes from the Underground is considered to be one of his seminal short stories. In Way of Kings, even on page 600, Sanderson has Kal again teetering on the brink of his boring depression. Again. I don't have anything against depression, and for all I know the writer himself may have struggled with it, but it does not for concise story telling make, and Way of Kings would be a better book if it were about 200 pages shorter.
A beautiful illustration of Kaladin with Syl, by Dixon Leavitt,

Kaladin's history is told in increments through out the novel, culminating in the secret reveal in the last 100 pages. Several secrets revealed. One of which was worth it, the other of which, the reason for his depression, was, frankly not.

However, I am an optimist, and I do like Kaladin. And it was his story, not Shallan's, not Dalinar's that made me want to complete this novel.

Shallan's story, told in a different country of the same world was almost useless. I won't waste too much breath on Shallan. Much was made of her wit, by Sanderson, but to me, her wit was a slug-like thing next to the satirical utterances of Tyrion Lannister, or even Jaime Lannister. For some reason, Sanderson's editors at Tor (I love you darling people, so don't hate me for saying this) thought it was a good idea to keep the entire length of a poorly written essay by Shallan in the text of the book. It was not. It is a bad essay, and any non creative writing professor, and a few of them as well would have reduced it, and Shallan to shreds.

One neat note: I suspect Sanderson is an artist, because he describes the process of drawing, in so far as it works for me, very well. And all of the book's illustrations are quite good, though I haven't bothered to find out if they are his or not.

The other epic hero is Dalinar, who, interestingly is a much older man than usual in fantasy. He has to be about fifty, with a 20 year old son. That's good. As a man getting older myself, I find myself frustrated by the fact that say, all of Jordan's central characters are between the ages of 18 and 22.  Rand al'Thor frequently acts impossibly mature for his tender 22 years.  However, Dalinar suffers from the same problem that all of Sanderson's characters do, he's one dimensional.

You can get an idea of what I'm talking about from a casual sampling of his "extras". Sailors are crude but happy, blacksmiths are big and jolly, priests ingratiating, standard nobles are feckless, you get the picture. As I've written ad nauseum, tropes are a necessary part of writing, yet... It doesn't work for Sanderson. His characters are Saturday morning cartoon versions of what ought to be a made for HBO series.

Cliche: Sanderson is not a believer in the use of standard fantasy cliches. I don't have a problem with that necessarily. There are no dwarves or elves, and the magic, which I'll discuss in depth, seems to be original. However, as I've suggested, Sanderson's lack of character depth means that the central characters all rely on the bad sorts of cliches, the types that are unintentional and indicative of bad writing.

Sanderson breaks with standard cliches in the following ways. There seems to be no central awful evil one, not by the end of the first book at least. We know that there were, thousands of years ago, crazed beasts called the Voidbringers, which sounds a lot like the beasts that destroyed the land of the Never Ending Story, the Nothing. The races that populate this world, are nothing like the other races we have come to love, they are different colours, but carnival colours. Class and caste are determined by eye color. Size differences are slight, and poorly delineated. The biggest cliche that Sanderson dispenses with is the simple air and water his characters live on. The continent in which the action takes place, is like the ocean bed from The Little Mermaid. I kid, but Sanderson's imagination runs wild with this world. This was truly inspired. A funny example is that there are chickens in this world, but they are rare and exotic. People eat crustacheans only and grow seaweed from rock pods. Pretty neat, though it trends toward science fiction. 
A Warg from the Never Ending Story

As I wrote, Sanderson is invested in some cliches, standard story type cliches, thus sloppy writing cliches. It's one thing to call to mind a sailor with his lewd mouth and ruddy complexion, it's another thing to make him act like an after school special, version of himself. I think that's one way other writers successfully use cliches. The Belgariad's Durnik, was exactly the sort of man you'd expect to be a smith, as is Perrin from the Wheel of Time. Yet, each of these characters had a subtle sense of originality. durnik's heartbreaking devotion to Polgara, Perrin, slow to rage, yet given to his wolven nature of blood frenzy.

Speaking specifically about the story's main hero, Kaladin, SPOILER ALERT, I mentioned the Coming of Age cliche, and the Hero's Redemption, cliche. I think one of the greatest examples of the Hero's Redemption is Mad Mordigan from the film Willow, whose first appearance is having been locked in a cage and left to rot. The first time we meet Kal, he is a proud and strong soldier, a few years later he is an escaped slave, recaptured and bitter, but not broken. Gradually we see him enliven, and boy do I mean gradually.
Mad Martigan from Willow as we first see him, in chains like the scoundrel he is.

Another familiar cliche, The Am I Going Crazy cliche, is used for the story's older hero Dalinar, the old warrior who begins to have prophetic visions. I think this works rather well for Sanderson, even if it is somewhat tired, and the answer to the cliches question, is simply "no". When Jordan used the Am I Going Crazy Cliche in Lord of Chaos, it was to describe The emergence of Lews Therin Telamon in Rand Al'Thor's mind. Jordan showed his depth with that one, and the answer was much more complicated than simply yes or no. Still, the novel is already too long, and even more boring soul searching would have further dragged the novel down.

Scope: The best thing Way of Kings has going for it, are its magic and its scope. Little Mermaid with gigantic swords, is actually a great start to a story. And the book is full of interesting little details, for example, the female nobility of Alethkar, keep one hand, their "safe hand" hidden as is only proper for a lady of good breeding. Men and women have acceptable norms for behaviour. Men should study war and be fighters, women, should study music and reading and writing. In fact, men are intentionally illiterate, typically having their wives scribe for them, reading books aloud, or writing messages out for their husbands. I like this, not because I don't like equal rights in my fantasy, but because sexual dimorphism is a real thing. I am constantly surprised by the number of really powerful women fighters in Steven Erikson's novels, and he is an practicing anthropologist! I don't mind the idea of it, but if you have them, then they can't allbe thin wisps, most of them would have to be like Martin's Brienne of Tarth, big, or ugly, and literally built like a man. Swords are heavy, armour is even heavier.
The Maid of Tarth, played excellently by GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE, who happens actually to be quite pretty in real life.

But i digress, the scope of this planet is large, and you get the feeling that Sanderson spent considerable time developing it. that said, it isn't deliverd particularly skillfully. One of the things that made the world of the Wheel of Time so compelling, was that it started out small, in a small village called Emond's Field, far from anywhere else. But Jordan didn't declaim as Author, "the people of this subcontinent eat fillet of fish," or "the people of this continent only eat fried bugs," what we learned, we learned through the omniscient story telling voice of whatever characters were central at that time. The villagers of Emond's Field knew that far to the south, a city named Tear existed, but they wouldn't have been able to tell much more than that. Jordan made damn clear, almost annoyingly so by page 7000, that people learn by rumor, by word of mouth, and even the omniscient voice was frequently wrong about the facts.
Emond's Field, the cover of the Wheel of Time's first installment, The Eye of The World
All of which to say, Sanderson throws a lot at you at once. It is nice that the action takes place in several kingdoms at once (though I would have nixed Shallan as a character altogether) but, at this early early stage of the game, it's sort of unnecessary and distracting. The main story is about Kaladin, and that takes place on the Shattered Plains, where Chasm Fiends roam like giant lobsters. With flashbacks to his homeland, just over the border. Kaladins fellow slaves are from all over the world, and are thus incredibly diverse, showing just how much Sanderson has in store for us. And yet--I don't buy in.
A beautiful rendering of a Chasm Fiend, by Mighty5cent, and courtesy of
It takes a singular talent to make new races, new peoples, and to introduce them in such a way as to hold to the reality of the world. Because that is what we are talking about ultimately with fantasy. The world bends or breaks the laws of Earth, and the Galaxy in general, but it must adhere to its own rules. Sanderson knows this, indeed a portion of essay on magic systems stems from observations bout internal consistencies. Sanderson is rigid about making sure his system works, and I commend his outstanding creativity.

The world of Way of Kings is truly ground breaking. Still, it might have been nice for him to explain some of its intricacies through the characters, and not through bland references to far away kingdoms and customs. A good example of this idiot tactic, is Kaladin's blithe reference to Corinne's slave rules.  I guess there is some nation named Corinne, or person, or state, where they've established laws that govern slavery.  While it is absolutely fascinating, and a worthy endeavor to detail such laws, that's not what Sanderson did, he threw this supposedly obscure reference in to add depth, I know its bad writing because I do it myself.  It just comes off as amateurish.  When Jordan does the same thing, a good example would be Birgitte Silverbow, who has lived countless lives as she is attached to the Wheel of Time as one of its greatest heroes.  She makes fun passing analogies, like, "Elayne's always looking down her nose like some Tovan Councilor."  But the context for Birgitte has been established, she has lived dozens of times, and each time she was born and died a member of a different nation, in a different land, it's only natural for her to mention names we've never heard of.  And, even better, Jordan will bring up those references, miniscule as they are, later when we find out hundreds of pages further along that a Tovan Councilor is a really snooty elder from a nation that died during the Trolloc Wars.  I sincerely doubt that we will ever see reference to the Corinne Rules again.  That is not to say he doesn't always get it right.  He did do a neat job with describing chicken. Naturally, these crustacean devouring Alethkari, think it the most exotic food, and, he even includes a random trading scene where chickens are acquired (somehow relevant to the plot, but I can't say how.)
image by quargon

Magic: not to be out done by his own system of allomancy in the Mistborn saga, the Stormlight Archive, the proposed name for the saga Sanderson hopes will be his opus, uses several systems of magic. There are Sheardbearers, men who wield gigantic swords reminiscent of he blades from manga comics. The swords are magic and weigh little to their owners. I must say I enjoy this particular brand of magic, a child of Dungeon and Dragons, and Final Fantasy video games, I am much enamoured of magic swords, and they are not as common as you might think in contemporary fantasy. It was the openings scene of this novel, which I read in a Tor newsletter sample over two years ago that made me want to purchase this novel two begin with. That opening scene featured a dozen of these gigantic blades rammed into the ground after a megalithic battle. That opening had real promise, sadly, the book itself has not measured up to its glorious beginning.

But I digress again, there are other forms of magic: Stormlight, soul casting (which is creating matter out of thin air) and some power called Lashing, that uses Stormlight (Sanderson's source of Magic are these massive high storms that pass through every week or so. The power gathers in gems, which powerful people use to power their magic items). Lashing uses some of the facets of Allomancy, namely, the push me pull you method of moving. It is a singularly scientific manner of creating a system of magic, people who are flying aren't defying gravity, so much as using methods of force and trajectory, with the allocations of various elements. In Mistborn, allomancers use different kinds of metals to perform different actions, and the metal "burns" during use, such that it disappears. Because magic always has to have limits. Similarly, gems lose their light after infusing the caster with Stormlight.  Interesting that Sanderson's opus uses such a similar method of magic, Stormlight, as his last trilogy. It harkens to another fantasy cliche, Fire and Ice. In all final fantasy games, and in many manga epics, including Naruto, the earth is divided into elements that complement each other: fire and ice, earth and wind, lightning and water (much as that ancient Greek philosopher Thales did). I don't think this was intentional, but the magic system of Mistborn clearly was "earth" while the magic of Way of Kings, is "lightning". As I've said dozens of times, I see nothing wrong with the use of cliche. It enhances a story, it says without saying, implies without utterance.  In this case, I think it novel.

One of the things at which Sanderson excels, is his technical treatments of magic and battles. The second prologue in Way of Kings, (I call it a prologue, because it proceeds the main action of the story by five years, not because Sanderson designates it as such) has a fantastic scene during which a minor but pivotal character, the Assassin in White, is introduced. It is a phenomenal battle scene, and reminds me about of some of the battles in the science fiction epic, Enders Game, where gravity and perspective are thrown to the four winds. Good work Sanderson, good work.

Last...we have Theme. As usual it is the hardest to define, and the most important piece of the puzzle. Oftentimes, We know what we like, the second we see it. Sometimes, we have to do a thing, or see a thing many times before we know that. What is the difference? Does it matter? I knew I liked the Wheel of Time immediately. A song of Ice and Fire, (Game of Thrones) I hated at first, because I was young, and having my favourite characters killed was awful. But successive rereads over the years have made me love Game of Thrones dearly. I did not like Harry Potter at first,  I thought the writing childish and simplistic (and its teenie bopper lit, so that's not wrong) but the cleverness, and growth of the characters in successive books made it well worth it. I knew the second I cracked the cover of The Black Company that it was awesome.

 But where does Way of Kings fit in all of that? I look forward to the second book, published in a matter of days I believe. But... as you may have guessed, I'm not a Sanderson groupie. There is just something about the writing that puts me off. In Fires of Heaven, when Rand al'Thor stares off into the mountains and asks Asmodean if he knew what those distant ruins were, Asmodean shrugs and says he doesn't know, that the world has changed too much. But I believe Jordan knew. Or, if he did not, he could have fit those nameless ruins into his epic without upsetting the story, or world history. I do not have that same confidence with Sanderson. Nor did I with Goodkind.  If I had to define Sanderson's theme, it might be, I see him as a fantasy cover artist who had a gift with words, who can visualize and depict incredibly intricate worlds, but does not have the depth of a great game changing writer. And he definitely tries, there's enough, faux pholosophy and character analysis to indicate that if he could do it, he would have.  He is the John Grisham of his genre, that's not too cold I don't think. Grishams novels are vastly entertaining, and they will keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what happens next, but they won't educate you, they won't enlarge your experience, and they won't make you a better person. And sadly, I think that must be true of Way of Kings as well. Which is sad, because the title of the book is named after a book that was aimed at doing precisely that.