Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mark Lawrence's EMPEROR OF THORNS

Jorg Ancrath, hero/anti-hero of Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns) is all grown up, and more complicated than ever in this final volume, Emperor of Thorns.

And as the title and the cover give away, he's going to achieve his ultimate ambition, of re-uniting the very post-apocalyptic neo-feudal Broken Empire (which is pretty much what is left of Europe plus a chunk of North Africa) under his rule. We've pretty much suspected this was going to happen from the beginning, because Jorg is one ruthless little monster and he always gets what he wants, even if he has to kill people he likes or loves in order to do it.

So the question has always been, not if he will become Emperor, but how. And the how has been a most tantalizing, challenging question, because the traditional way to the Imperial Throne is not unlike that to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire of days gone (very much) by; there is a set of Electors, kings and dukes and lords of the empire's constituent lands, who must come to a consensus on who is to be the boss. If they can't, no emperor. Ususally, they can't, for a number of reasons, chief of them being 1. Instead of just a handful of electors, there are 100 and 2. Since the imperial throne has been empty for over a century, the imperial court is pretty much just a big empty city of ceremony full of officials and functionaries and guardsmen (the imperial guard is the chief sink for the empire's ambitious second and third sons who don't want to become priests), leaving the kings and dukes and lords with most of the real power, which they do not want to give up.

King of Thorns dealt largely with Jorg's ruthlessly clever elimination of his greatest single obstacle to achieving his ultimate ambition, but left our man more unpopular, feared, etc. than ever before. But the Imperial selection process is pretty much a popularity contest. Oh noes!

So lots of Emperor deals with politicking, though not as much as I'd expected. And what there is is pretty indirect-seeming and circuitous; Jorg makes friends chiefly via saving his enemies from bigger and more powerful enemies, meaning ALL THE SUBPLOTS YOU GUYS, but said subplots go a long way toward seriously enriching our understanding of Jorg (again, via a whole chunk of the book taking place "four years ago", still set after all the events of the prior book, but four years earlier than the most immediate narrative of Jorg's pilgrimage to the Imperial City for the vote), who emerges as an even more complicated figure than he already was as the usual transitional events leading to adulthood leave their marks on his already very marked-up self.

The same is true of his world, about the nature of which we learn even more as we follow Jorg's progress through it; not only in terms of its geography and inhabitants, but of its nature as a post-apocalyptic feudal mess, still littered with "Builder" technology and artifiacts and, as we learned in the second novel, haunted by Builder ghosts.

And yes, by the end of Emperor, the urge to go back and re-read from the beginning is strong; you will have a completely different understanding of the driving forces of Jorg's life and character and probably have a different take on the narrative itself.

And yes, the ending is satisfying in almost all of the ways we want it to be, and the way that it isn't is just fine, really, because one of the major points of Jorg's story is the hollowness of vengeance, after all. Bad things happen; punishing the baddies doesn't make them un-happen, it just uses up a lot of your time and energy that are better spent pursuing more important goals.

Magnificent!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's YSABEL

Guy Gavriel Kay's trilogy, the Fionavar Tapestry, ended very satisfyingly and completely, wrapping up pretty much for good that realm's big story. But I'd heard there was a sequel of sorts anyway and my skeptical eyebrow shot up. Stupid eyebrow.

Ysabel is and isn't that sequel; its being a sequel only in that we get to see what became of the two Toronto characters who were the only ones of the Five that chose to return to our world after the Tapestry trilogy's events concluded. They're not super important to the plot of Ysabel, so I'm not going to name them and just avoid any chance of spoilers; I'll just say it was nice to see them again and get a bit more of what their lives had been like before and were like after those other books took place.

Ysabel takes place entirely in our own world, in the actual south of France that inspired Kay's other creation that I've loved, Arbonne, but very much in the 21st century. Which is to say that, yes, Ysabel is kind of Kay's foray into "urban fantasy" except it takes place mostly in the gorgeous French countryside and its many fine examples of Celtic and Greco-Roman ruins and holy sites. And yes, the gorgeous comes through in this book; this is Guy Gavriel Kay.

The story concerns a Canadian teenager, Ned, who is spending the spring in Provence while his world-famous photographer father and his retinue work on gathering images for the next great coffee table book. Left to his own devices, he has the amusing (but even he admits to himself not terribly original) idea to listen to Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy while exploring an actual French cathedral. Before you can say "Over the Hills and Far Away" though, Ned has met two people who are going to completely mess up his plans: a cute and geeky teenage girl from New York named Kate (hooray!) and a weird sinister stranger who says weird sinister things and leaves both of the kids way more curious than he meant to -- or than is good for them.

And thus our teens get dragged into the re-enactment of the city of Marseilles' founding myth. And I'm not talking about a LARP. It's almost Beltane, see, and every once in a while the old unquiet spirits of the region take advantage of the power such nights kick up to come back and have another go at each other. Two such are bitter lives-long enemies from the original clash of Celtic and Greek cultures that kicked off a great deal of European civilization; another such is the woman they both love, who loves them both, and over whom they fought centuries ago. All very well and good, and who wouldn't want to meet such legendary people, even if they're a bit dangerous.

Ah but there's a catch. The men can just drag themselves back by their mythical/spiritual bootstraps, but because of REASONS the woman has to possess a living woman. And a living woman, the young and spritely and very well organized Melanie, is the brains behind Ned's dad's traveling photographic circus. Oops.

The rest of the story proceeds more or less as one might expect, a bit of a disappointment after all of the surprises and turns I've come to expect from Kay after visiting Arbonne and Fionavar. I'm not sure if Ysabel was intended as young adult fiction (but no parent should be troubled to let his or her young adult read this, and hey, the kids are at the center of the story at all times), but perhaps it was and Kay pulled some punches? At any rate, it's still a good book, better than a lot of the fantasy that's out there, and still elegantly written and emotionally powerful. It's just less so. But that's all right.

I'm excited to try his sort-of-Byzantine and sort-of-Spain and sort-of-China books in the near future. Especially the former. I loves me some Byzantium.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mark Lawrence's KING OF THORNS

When I wrote earlier this month about the first volume in Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire series, Prince of Thorns, I made some comparison to Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, but said that Lawrence's grimly unlikeable antihero was a much more reliable narrator than Severian.

As I've finished the second novel in the series, King of Thorns, I find I need to retract that statement somewhat. Jorg isn't always telling the truth as he leads us through the layers of his story, but I'm not sure his intent is to deceive anyone so much as to discover himself what is true, of what he is actually guilty, whose motivations he has actually acted upon, what manner of character he really possesses. It's really, really complicated. Deliciously so.

As the novel opens, Jorg has been king of the little nation he wrested from his uncle (the guy who had Jorg's mother and little brother killed. Or probably the guy) for several years and is getting married to a slip of a girl who seems like a bit of a simp but turns out to be anything but. Meanwhile, his little kingdom is under an enormous assault, being attacked and invaded by something along the order of 20,000 men under the command of a destiny-driven knight in shining armor, the Prince of Arrow, who is an almost perfect foil to Jorg in that everybody loves him and for good reason -- he is everything a royal should be, accomplished, daring, fair, kind, good, noble, handsome, trustworthy. And prophesied to unite again the Broken Empire of 100 Kingdoms that once dominated Europe in the years between the nuclear apocalypse that turned our world into Jorg's and Jorg's own time.

Oh, and Jorg is going to have to fight off -- or bend the knee to -- the Prince of Arrow on his very wedding day. And if he fights, he only has 300 men or so. Yes, he addresses the whole Thermopylae thing. A very well-read young man is our narrator Jorg.

But don't worry! He has a plan! Only, sort of Doctor Who style, he doesn't know it! Because like in the last novel, Jorg is still beset by subtle, sneaky, nasty wizards who can manipulate men's minds as well as reading them. But he found a way to beat that nasty subtle wizardry, oh yes! He found a wizard of his own who could cherry pick and remove Jorg's memories and seal them in a little metal box that is impervious to the workings of Jorg's magical foes! Jorg can judiciously access these a little at a time, but only a little. This results in a lot of Bill and Ted type shenanigans in which Jorg and his men are constantly stumbling across amazingly helpful things by surprise as Jorg's deliciously complex and devious defense scheme plays out. Joy!

So see, much of the time we've been reading Jorg, we've only been reading bits of Jorg, because he's hidden so much even from himself, and thus from us. He's working from a heavily redacted script, and drawing many false conclusions about his role thereby. It's absolutely fascinating.

So after two novels, I'm no longer sure exactly how detestable Jorg really is. Oh, he's still plenty brutal and spends lives like Napoleon and is still hell-bent on revenge and is an amazing killing machine, but it seems that some of his most heinous deeds might not really be layable at his door. Then again, they yet may.

This all unfolds again in multiple time frames and multiple layers. In addition to the wedding day battle plot, we again follow a parallel narrative from four years before, when King Jorg hit the road with what's left of his brothers and toured his world, gathering allies here, re-encountering old foes there, losing brothers, gaining powers, and exploring in greater detail the origins of this strange semi-fantastic semi-science-fictional world of his. The careful reader will pick up lots of hints as to Jorg's deliberately-forgotten battle plans as well as develop a more complex picture of what Jorg's all about.

And then there's a scene between Jorg and his step-aunt, Katherine, with whom he has an obsession that is almost romantic but definitely sexual, most of which is part and parcel of the memories he had removed from his head and stored in his box to unfold piece by piece along with his strategy. Thus the relationship between Jorg and Katherine is also subject to reinterpretation. Deliciously so.

And then there is a narrative from Katherine's point of view, told in snippets from her diaries. For much of the book, these feel kind of unnecessary and unsuccessful, but they lend tremendous weight to the novel's final revelations as the stage is set for Jorg's run for the imperial thorne, to be detailed in the last book of the trilogy, Emperor of Thorns, which of course I'll be reading very, very soon. Deliciously so, I am sure.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's FIONAVAR TAPESTRY

This post is going to concern itself with not one but three books, because once I'd finished the first volume of Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, The Summer Tree, I immediately plunged into its sequel, The Wandering Fire, and when I finished that (in a little over a day and a sleepless night), I plunged immediately into the concluding The Darkest Road and then I had a good cry but did not wish for more because everything wrapped up so satisfyingly that I did not need more.

This pretty much never happens. Especially with epic/high fantasy, a genre for which my lack of love is pretty well known.* Hey, I'm as surprised as you are (though my love for Kay's A Song for Arbonne should have given us all a clue, I do suppose). And yet right now, I'm happily also in the middle of that Broken Empire stuff, too. It pays sometimes to ignore your prejudices, eh wot?

Anyway, I started off, a week or so ago, prepared not to like this one so much. Alarm bells started ringing right away as I settled down to read the first book, which starts off with a lengthy and detailed dramatis personae, a thing that always makes me roll my eyes because it so often suggests to me that either someone doesn't trust me enough to keep track of all the characters contained in the story such a list precedes, or someone's publishers don't think the author did a good enough job making said characters vivid and distinct enough for anyone to be able to keep track without a handy guide. Either way, my hackles go up, and yes, I had the same eyebrow raising experience the first time I cracked open Dorothy Dunnett, but her books are so damned intricate and complex that those lists turn out to be (occasionally) necessary even for an attentive reader because hundreds of pages sometimes go by between encounters with some characters in Dunnett, oh yes. But Dunnett has been an exception for me in this, as in so many regards.

Guy Garviel Kay, turns out, is another. Except I didn't need, ever, to refer to the dramatis personae, because as in Arbonne, so in Fionavar (to which I'd seen a reference in Arbonne as "Fionvarre" and had been wondering about since, to my happiness): Kay's characters, both his own creations and those he borrows from mythology and legend, are alive and distinct and unforgettable and captivating. As is their world, their struggle, their story.

The trilogy's focus is on five of them, more or less, young university students who come from our world (and from Toronto, my very favorite city), who attend together a lecture on Celtic myth by a world-famous expert and then find themselves whisked into said expert's company after the lecture under the guise of showing him a much better time than would all those dreary academics who are expecting him at their post-lecture do. But it is the lecturer, who turns out to be a powerful mage from another world named Loren Silvercloak (and yes, that name gagged me at first, as so many names in the d.p. gagged me, because I hate epic fantasy, remember?), who whisks them away -- to another world, where they are "needed" as ceremonial guests for a king's golden jubilee. By magic, he and his "source"**, a dwarf named Matt Soren, transport the five to Fionavar, the first of all worlds, kind of like C.S. Lewis' Aslan's Country, the world of which all other worlds are just sort of imperfect copies echoing its motifs and patterns.***

And then it turns out, of course, that the Five -- handsome, playful, emotional Kevin; helpful, kind, wise Kimberly; wounded, stand-offish, moody Paul; beautiful, proud Jennifer; and big, strong oddball Dave -- aren't just there for a party. There are roles and very important work for all of them to fulfill in Fionavar, if they're willing, or maybe even if they're not.

And those roles are deeply archetypal, a Jungian parade of quests and tasks and ritual enactments and sacrifices that could all get so hokey, so in-your-ribs and on-the-nose, but don't because Guy Gavriel Kay is some kind of wizard. Even someone who knows the archetypes he's playing with very, very well has surprises in store for her, reading these novels. They might not be plot surprises per se, for such a reader; the surprise is how deeply felt and emotional these developments can be, how necessary they are to make the overall story work, and how they raise lumps in the throat, make tears sting in the eyes such that one could all but short out her ebook reader. Excuse me for a moment.

And yes, the girls' stories matter just as much as, sometimes more than, they boys', and no, it's not because the girls strap on boobplates and are suddenly strong enough to wield giant claymores or because they develop preternatural skills at archery or in any way, really, do anything remotely like what the boys do. Kay laughs at the Bechdel test. Kay understands women and men and honors them both. Kay writes people. Extraordinarily.

And he writes extraordinary fight scenes, including one single battle between a larger-than-life hero and a giant unkillable demon that goes on for some ten pages and is riveting not just for the well-described action but for the scene's staggering emotional content, deft shifts of point of view, and barely-hinted at future importance. As I said over on Goodreads after finishing that scene, "Jesustitsfucksake, Lancelot!"

Yes, that Lancelot. Arthur and Cavall are in this, too, drawn in from their eternal twilight afterlife just as Kevin and Kim and Paul and Jennifer and Dave were from theirs, but not quite given their interiority. Kay knows well enough to leave his most archetypal characters as just that, archetypes, icons, who nonetheless are integral parts of this story and who interact with Kay's own characters in a myriad of ways without in any way ceasing to be icons to be regarded with awe and reverence. Neat trick, that.

 I'm still in awe myself from the experience of reading these books. And this is a trilogy with a flying unicorn in it, for Pete's sake.

Yes, boys and girls, a high fantasy trilogy with a flying unicorn made me cry. Go outside and check the skies for falling crabs and periwinkles.

And read these books, if you haven't.

*Nor are those detailed in that sonnet the only reasons I generally roll my eyes at the genre, as I'm sure my long-term readers figured out long ago, and as I'm sure I've made even more clear in this post.

**I'm not going to get into the details here, but magic in Fionavar is different, yo. As in it takes two, a mage and a second person who is the source of his energy, to do it. And the relationship between a mage and his source is a powerful one even when they are not already otherwise best friends or lovers or both or all of the above, i.e. it's quite fraught.

***Look, the trilogy is referred to as a tapestry. So much weaving/fibercraft metaphor in this. So much.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark Lawrence's PRINCE OF THORNS

Admit it. You've always wished that George R.R. Martin was gutsy enough to let Joffrey Baratheon have the odd point of view chapter. So, apparently, did Mark Lawrence. And he did something about it.

Admit it. You loved Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun in all its occult glory, but wished it had a reliable narrator, and would give bonus points if said reliable narrator was a boy psychopath. So, apparently, did Mark Lawrence. And he did something about it.

And here's the kicker -- he did both of these things in the same damned book! And thus Prince of Thorns and its two Broken Empire sequels came to be. So we have an extremely post-post-apocalyptic setting, in which civilization has been bombed back to medieval France but there is so much bizarre and inexplicable leftover technology and other phenomena about that it's basically an epic fantasy setting chock full'o'magic... and we have a boy psychopath, a prince of the blood with a thirst for revenge and a giant cauterized wound where his conscience might be, leading us through it from his perspective.

This is not a pretty book, folks (especially not for someone coming off the ravishing loveliness of A Song for Arbonne), but damn, is it a compelling one.

It does perhaps require something in the order of a trigger warning, though. Our boy, who rejoices in the name of Prince Honorus Jorg Ancrath, is truly a wicked one. Though only 13 years old when we first meet him, he's already a murderer, a thug, a manipulator, and, yes, a rapist (though the rapes occur offscreen). The book itself starts off with rape and murder and violence, as such is Jorg's origin story; when he was nine, he, his mother the Queen, and his little brother were waylaid on their travels; mama was raped and murdered; little brother was mutilated and murdered; Jorg only survived because he got tangled up in the world's wickedest briars and was held helpless and out of sight by the thorns, hence the book's title. He has scars inside and out, yo.

To make matters worse, his father the king declines to take revenge on the attackers. It's politically inexpedient. You'll understand when you're older. Be a good boy and go page through your Plutarch and leaf through your Livy and don't leave too many stiffened socks for the servants to clean up.

Wrong answer, dad.

So by the time the lad is 13 (the nine/ten-year-old Jorge we meet in judicious flashbacks), he's left home and become the head of a band of ruthless bastards. And these aren't fun, funny bastards like Scott Lynch has made us love. These are evil, violent, bloodthirsty marauders who you will find yourself a little abashed to be rooting for (more or less).

Some readers have complained that it's impossible for a 13 year old boy to take control of such a band. I'll let his friend Sir Makin answer that, as he did when Jorg asked him what he meant when he said Jorg is good: "Playing a role. Filling in for lost years with that intuition of yours. Replacing  experience with genius."

And then there is the matter of some mages. Sneaky, powerful, subtle, nasty mages, who can manipulate other people like puppets. Arguments can be made that some of Jorg's precocity, and maybe some of his ferocity, aren't entirely his own.

Maybe.

Regardless of who the baddest guy really is, though, regardless of how nasty things get, because Lawrence has presented Jorg's point of view so convincingly, so clearly, so logically, the reader winds up in some way rooting for him. Even if we find him utterly irredeemable, we love watching him go.

Yeah, you'd better believe I'm going to read the rest of his saga. With frequent showering in between chapters, but I'm going to be reading it. Soon.

Maybe I'll intersperse it with Guy Gavriel Kay. You know, just so I don't wind up hating humanity altogether 8)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's A SONG FOR ARBONNE

It's been a long, long time since I struggled so with a book as I did with Guy Gavriel Kay's wonderful A Song for Arbonne. And that's a good thing. I'd never get anything done if I went through what I went through with this one every time I sat down to read.

The struggle, incidentally, was not to finish it all in one long greedy gulp. I had to force myself to pace myself. I had to sip.

I knew pretty much right away that I'd found another favorite, you see, and I'd only have this first reading once.

A Song for Arbonne is, for me, the perfect kind of fantasy novel, which means in lots of ways it probably barely counts as fantasy. There are no prophecies, no chosen ones, no blatant manipulation by gods or immortals or wizards. There's barely any magic, and a reader can pretty much choose to ignore as coincidental or at least as a matter of interpretation what magic there is.

What's there in place of all those tiresome tropes is absolutely top-notch character drama in a world similar to our own (except in that it has two moons, one of which shines a beautiful blue in the night sky), in a period that might more or less equate to our twelfth century. The known world consists of six nations, more or less versions of regions of Europe, with the titular Arbonne pretty clearly based on Eleanor's Aquitaine, a chivalric culture of troubadours and courtly love but one in which women can actually wield political power and inherit property and you can already see a part of why I loved this book so; Kay obviously did a lot of thinking about how this could work. The central fact of this culture is that it reveres a goddess, Rian as the equal of the world's war god, Corannos, so it follows that mortal women should also be treated as equals -- at least in Arbonne's high culture/ruling classes, which are all we get to see here.

This idyllic land is uneasy neighbors with a much more traditional fantasy kingdom, Gorhaut, a male-driven culture given to sneering at "woman-ruled Arbonne", who revere Corannos only, and who have, as this novel gets into gear, recently concluded fifty years of border war with another country by ceding over a huge chunk of territory in exchange for a lot of money, thus displacing a huge chunk of Gorhaut's population and leading all eyes to look south to the ripe-for-the-taking fertility and ports of Arbonne.

Drama button!

But it's the personalities of the figures involved that truly matter. I'm not going to spoil those here, except to say that a lot of the country's fate comes down to the unfortunate choice made a generation ago by a headstrong woman who was married to a duke and cuckholded him with a troubador who later on became a duke himself, leaving a legacy of hatred that threatens to weaken Arbonne fatally. Good thing the country is ruled by a devastatingly astute and strong women (who happens to be the headstrong woman's mother) -- and that a mysterious man from Gorhaut has appeared on the scene, introducing a whole new set of consequences (and daddy issues).

Every single character matters. Every single arc matters. Everything is given its due. The construction of the narrative is flawless. The writing is nearly flawless -- like many, I found myself annoyed by the occasional slip into present tense to, I guess, heighten the drama of some scenes, usually involving the mysterious man's family in Gorhaut, but even there the prose was gorgeous.

Now I've just got to struggle with the urge to binge-read the rest of Kay's stuff. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Starla Hutchton's SHADOWS ON SNOW: A FLIPPED FAIRY TALE

First of all, let us take a moment to bask in the glory of this cover. Bask. It is glorious. The author is a graphic designer and has a whole side business in designing glorious book covers. I plan on using her myself, when I finally get some things finished and ready to publish again (soon, I promise! There will be seven. See what I did there?).

Second, let me just say that I'm pretty sure that pretty much everything that feminists and their sympathizers have ever found to hate about fairy tales in general, and the tale of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in particular, is addressed and corrected in Starla Hutchton's Shadows on Snow: A Flipped Fairy Tale. And not just because the genders of the rescued and the rescuer are flipped. Oh no.

So yes, the innocent and beautiful Snow White is, in this book, an almost ridiculously handsome prince. And he gets rescued by a princess. Dur. But wait, there's more.

Because the dwarfs, too, are gender flipped, but are also turned into something much more than mere caretakers of/providers of refuge for the hapless victim character. The seven in this tale are women. Moreover, they are magic users. Moreover, they are princesses. And the rescuing princess is one of them.

Already we're seeing fantastic levels of agency in the characters and an enrichment of the original Snow White plot that is wonderful to see. For these seven magical princesses have a deep and plot-relevant back story; the wicked stepfather (yes, more flipping. Starla flips it all, yo) has done his dirty deeds before, has a pattern of wickedness and sorcery, and these seven princesses were orphaned and exiled from their wonderful kingdom in the wicked stepfather's last go-around.

But this is all just background to the drama of the seventh and youngest princess, Rae, and her prince, Leopold, he of the skin white as snow and hair black as ebony -- but also he of considerable wisdom, kindness, martial prowess and all around quality. Snow White in the original tale is beautiful and innocent and kind, but Leopold could lead an army into war, yo. But he still winds up needing saving, because he doesn't know much about magic. Good thing for him Rae does.

But Rae also is not just a magic user. She's a fully rounded kickass heroine in the Katniss Everdine mode, with outdoor survival skills, a talent for managing horses, and believable vulnerabilities that keep her interesting even as she enacts the obvious fairy tale plot.

And this is key, when you're retelling classic fairy tales and legends. We know the story. We know the plot twists, know how it's going to end. We need reasons other than suspense to be bothered with reading the story yet again, and really, for this reader, said reasons need to go way beyond just "well, what if Snow White was a boy and he got rescued by Princess Charming."

On this, Ms. Hutchton absolutely delivers. Every character (well, except maybe the Voldemort-ish wicked stepfather, who is more of a looming threat than an actual presence in most of the novel, perhaps to the book's slight detriment, but oh well) is well-developed and unique. The novel length gives the author the chance to really explore the story's world, its politics, its history, its sexual dynamics, its humanity.

I'm pretty sure this is my favorite thing Ms. Hutchton has done. I am happily ever after.

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