Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings

Pawn of Prophecy

Attending a fairly restrictive religious school in my youth meant there were few options for good, fantasy escapist literature, and Narnia and Lord of the Rings were the status quo for fantasy, with their clear delineation of good versus evil.

Imagine then, my glee at finding the oasis that was Pawn of Prophecy in this barren landscape, and my subsequent devouring of the series which followed. Of course, we all know that revisiting the loves of one’s childhood can be disastrous… but this is what I have done.

Pawn of Prophecy is a fairly stock standard heroic quest. Garion, feckless farm boy, departs on a journey fraught with perils accompanied by a grocery list of character tropes gathered from across a series of quasi-medieval kingdoms, in order to reclaim the One Ring (sorry, sorry, the Orb of Aldur), and battle the one-eyed, crippled god Sauron (apologies, it’s Torak), and reclaim his ancient, hereditary kingdom as King Aragorn (my mistake, King Garion).

Which is a fine, time-honoured storyline, if unfortunate that most of his subsequent novels follow the exact same format.

Where the novel deviates from default narrative (historical) sexism (and more here) to achieve actively pursued sexism is in its portrayal of female characters.

Garion’s Aunt Pol, who works in the kitchens of the farm where he grows up, is beautiful and regal, with permanently soft, white hands (apparently a side effect of daily hard kitchen labour. Who knew). Fulfilling the Trinity character trope, she is an incredibly powerful, autocratic commander, obeyed by all she meets – unless they are men and decide to ignore her, at which point she… does nothing. Usually, Aunt Pol simply glares and retreats from the field of battle, uttering a comment as she goes. Acidly. It’s a recurring descriptor. Her bossiness and vengeful punishments are a subject of much mirth amongst the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring (sorry. The quest group as it consists of all other men).

Meanwhile, other female characters are either seductive minxes, out to entrap the young hero with fecundity; baby-obsessed breeders who infantilize their husbands, allowable in this context by the man himself not being masculine enough to warrant anyone’s respect; coldly dutiful wives who hate their husbands but endure marital rape as their husband’s due; the occasional repulsive ancient witch, who gets her comeuppance; or enthusiastic-yet-barren wives, who desperately want to prove their love by popping out babies.

It is a horribly simplistic worldview – there is literally no occupation for women in this world other than wife, cook, or professionally chaste mystic, who is also (in one case) a cook, and later becomes a wife. Insulting, but it gets worse when one considers that these tropes are applied to literally one of the most powerful human beings on the planet. Aunt Pol (Polgara the Sorceress, daughter of Belgarath the Sorcerer and mumble-mumble-cough) can remake the fabric of reality on a whim, yet is dependant upon a grumbling, entitled boy to save the day because Prophecy.

The laws of physics? Conservation of matter? What laws? Polgara can create matter from nothing, transform herself, read minds and is effectively immortal, yet her narrative contribution consists of raising and nurturing the hero, and she is recognised mainly for her awe-inspiring beauty… and her fantastic cooking ability.

And literally, all these Bechdel-test-failing female characters do when they get together alone is to talk about Garion, men and babies – and their menfolk, in turn, assume they are simply discussing clothes and hair, in the midst of crises of end-of-the-universe proportions.

This is all even more disappointing when you discover that Lee Eddings, David Eddings’ wife, is coauthor or consultant on all his works. Clearly the Edding duo subscribe to the belief that Simone de Beauvoir expressed as “Man is the measure of humanity. Woman is other.”

Looking back critically, I can understand how this underwhelming series made it into the rigorously policed library of my adolescence. Its like the patriarchy and Lord of the Rings (no, there’s not a difference, aside of the deniability of Lord of the Rings being a product of its time) had a child made of narrative sexism and pseudo-plagiarism. And I say that with the full knowledge that I’ve written and self-published a mashup.

Some of their ideas are good, and some of the dialogue is witty when it’s not being dismissive and sexist, or describing national identities which border on racist. But the books themselves are overwhelmingly sexist, and so…

…K.L gives Pawn of Prophecy 1 out of 5 hamstrung sorceresses.

 

Clariel – Garth Nix

Clariel

Clariel

Beyond the safety of the Wall, in the Old Kingdom, the ravenous dead walk, Free Magic creatures roam, and necromancers seek to pervert the Charter. The Abhorsens, the royal family and the Clayr fight to keep the charter strong, protecting the inhabitants of the Old Kingdom.

Nix’s previous novels, Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, take place in a time when the royal house has been all but extinguished, and necromancers roam the Old Kingdom freely. It is a dark, primitive post-apocalyptic world, roaming from the rivers of death to the crumbling ruins of Belisaere, the adventures of the title characters mesmerising and addictive.

Clariel takes us back six hundred years to just after the peak of the Old Kingdom’s power, where a mad king refuses to rule, and corrupted Guilds are steadily taking hold of greater amounts of power and wealth. The heir-apparent has been missing for over a decade, presumed dead, and there is a Free Magic creature roaming the streets of Belisaere. Young Clariel has been brought to the capital to be appraised, apprenticed and married by her parents, whilst she pines for the solitude and forests of her childhood.

Despite this promising start, Clariel failed to grip my attention in the same way as its predecessors. The setting of Belisaere was reminiscent of an overripe Roman Empire,  a somewhat cynical representation seeming to declare that crumpling from the weight of ones’ own excesses and corruption into obscurity is an inescapable aspect of any society. The character of Clariel was mildly interesting, but aside of a few peccadilloes, she fell rather neatly into the character of ‘disaffected, sullen teen outcast.’ She also seemed a little too readily corruptible in the realms of Charter Magic vs Free Magic – her transition resembled nothing so much as a rapidly burgeoning drug addiction, pursued at the cost of family, friends and logical thought.

Regretfully, I do not consider Clariel a particularly re-readable novel, as much as I loved it predecessors.

K.L gives Clariel 2.5 out of 5 broken Charter Stones.

 

 

Like reading? K.L. has published her first novel, The Fall of Peter Pan. Be entertained!

Like poetry? K.L. has also published a collection of poems, The Loaded Brush. Find it here. I promise not to make you search for metaphors.

The Crippled God – Steven Erikson

TheCrippledGod

The Malazan Book of the Fallen series (10 books in total) has, to be honest, been on something of a hiatus on my reading horizons this last year. Book 1, Gardens of the Moon slapped me in the face with an uncompromisingly complicated plot, and a complete lack of exposition. Who were these people? Who were these other people? What were they doing? How were they linked? Why were they fighting?, and etc.

Having been spoon-fed the backstory on a number of recent reading endeavours, it was refreshing to find an author whose basic version of narration was ‘sink or swim’ and didn’t appear to give a damn which way the readers went. That said, I soon gave up trying to swim against the current, and simply let the stories carry me along, a result of which was not remembering many names, and instead picking the characters by the context of the narrative thread in which they roamed.

The scope of series is geological in its timescale, and roams at will through worlds and warrens (magical semi-universes, accessible only by using that particular branch of magic). Some characters have existed for millennia; others have been created freshly from the traumas of war. Gods can be killed, and mortals can ascend to deityhood. A sword is simultaneously a gigantic cart, to whom are chained the souls of its victims; they drag the device on, in an endless toil to escape the forces of chaos which eat away at their heels.

 

It is an amazing series, and owes more of its influence to fantasy roleplaying games than to Tolkien’s ilk. Unfortunately – or fortunately, for the craftsmanship of the novel – Erikson shows a positive fondness for making one fall in love with a character, and then, one book or five later, killing them. A sense of despair and pathos imbues the otherwise workaday scenes of battle with the angry futility of a veteran, orphaned by the vicissitudes of war.

As a result, I only just returned to complete the tenth book, The Crippled God. It was everything I hoped for; some of my most recent favourites even survived the novel, and I witnessed the return of the Master of the Deck of Dragons, whose company I had missed for the preceding few novels.

 

True to reality, the final battle of The Crippled God simply meant the end of war for some of the characters; they are left to find their own happy endings, but a vignette with one hoary old Bridgeburner at the end reminds the reader that there is always another war brewing, and another young fool yearning to die for glory. It was a difficult series to understand, because it really is one constant, dragging, battle from start to finish.

Possibly the best way to visualise it is this: imagine a fantasy boardgame. Populate it richly, with fantastic cultures and creatures. Give the armies names. Then, using many-sided dice, march them across the world you have created, and write down every battle fought, the death tolls from fighting and from forced marches through deserts or rents in the fabric of reality. Repeat this process six or so times. And then layer them atop one another, and create Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Simple, really.

 

 

K.L gives The Crippled God 4 out of 5 well-drawn world maps.

 

 

 

 

SPOILER ALERT! DANGEROUS WORDS AHEAD!

 

I’m sorry. I’m just so excited. Tehol survives! Brys survives! Udinaas survives! Onos T’oolan gets his family back! Yaaaaaaaay!!

But really. I’m still pissed. How could you kill Anomander Rake?! I’ll never forgive you for that, Erikson.

 

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1Q84: books one and two – Haruki Murakami

1Q84

Aomame is stuck in Tokyo traffic on the Metropolitan Expressway, on her way to a meeting she cannot miss. When she leaves the taxi to climb down a partially-blocked emergency exit, Janacek’s Sinfonietta is playing (it is to be a recurrent theme), and the taxi driver tells her, “remember: things are not what they seem…but don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

Leaving the expressway, Aomame sees a policeman in new uniform, with a new gun, and is informed that the changes occurred after a violent gun battle in the mountains, two years previously. And then she notices that there are two moons in the sky. Aomame is no longer living in 1984, but in the alternate year of 19Q4, where both history and the rules have changed – possibly enough to threaten her life.

 

Tengo is a part-time tutor in maths at a Tokyo cram school. He writes short stories, meets his married lover once a week, and has no friends. His editor, Komatsu, convinces him to take part in an audacious deception: rewrite a potentially brilliant short story by 17 year old Fuka-Eri, and enter it in a prestigious literary competition, where it is guaranteed to become first famous, and then a bestseller.

 

From here, events slowly spiral out of control. It becomes apparent that Fuka-Eri did not write the novel herself – she is dyslexic – and she did not submit it to the competition. She escaped from the Takashima commune seven years previously, and has not heard from her parents since.

As curiosity mounts about the best-selling novel’s reticent young author, Aomame accepts a task. She must deliver retribution to a man who has been abusing small children in the name of enlightenment. The Leader of a militaristic commune, deep in the mountains, similar to the subject of a short story recently published about mystical beings known as the Little People…

 

The tale of 1Q84 unwinds languorously, referencing its namesake, Orwell’s 1984, in the interpretation of thought crimes, and the use of controlling, omniscient authorities in a society for whom the notion of a Big Brother has become blasé and disinteresting. Musical and cultural references link the two separate characters, drawing together a story which might otherwise become dislocated.

 

Characters are interesting, and the reader is drip-fed facts as they become relevant; there is no overwhelming deluge of exposition here. You will crave it, for the entire story, but Murakami dispenses it carefully, keeping you thirsty until the very end.

 

Having read it, I am very keen to move onto Murakami’s unexpected sequel, 1Q84: book three. My only objection to 1Q84 is that I think it moves past the institutionalised abuse of the children within the cult a little too quickly, but that in itself works well as the lens of narrative shifts focus.

 

K.L gives 1Q84 4 out of 5 oddly recurrent themes.

 

 

 

SPOILER ALERT! DANGEROUS WORDS AHEAD!

 

I don’t know. You’ll finish it, and you won’t know, either. It’s why I have to read the third book… Murakami’s mind control is working well.

Etiquette & Espionage – Gail Carriger

Etiquette and Espionage

A delightful lark. Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Angelina Temminnick has driven her mother to the end of her manicured wits.

After an unfortunate incident involveing a sabotaged dumbwaiter, a plate of trifle, Mrs. Barnaclegoose’s head, and of course, Sophronia as Exibit A, The Condemned, she is packed off to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

It is not the fate worse than death that Sophronia expects. Firstly, the Academy is a vast dirigible which floats its way across the moors of Dartmouth, rather than being sensibly anchored to the ground, and secondly, its students learn not merely the arts of flirtation, dance and household management, but also espionage and assassination. Their shadowy agents have been watching Sophronia for some time, and her predilection for investigation and chaos have resulted in her becoming covertly recruited to join the academy.

The normal pace of lessons aboard the flying academy is somewhat unhinged when Sophronia arrives, accompanied by resident mean-girl, the beautiful Monique de Pelouse. Partnering up with Dimity, who brother Pillover is in training to become an evil genius, Sophronia must discover what Monique is hiding from the Academy, before her actions ensure its destruction by dastardly Picklemen, who will stop at nothing to obtain The Prototype.

Set in a Steampunk 1800’s England, Etiquette & Espionage is fun, well-paced, with interesting and lively characters. The references to ladylike behaviour and dress seem to be refreshingly tongue-in-cheek, and Sophronia’s chracter is intelligent, curious, and shows no qualms about breaking stuffy rules to achieve her goals.

I look forward to reading the sequel when it comes out.

K.L gives Etiquette & Espionage 3.5 out of 5 werewolves in top-hats.

The Witch Sea – Sarah Diemer

The Witch Sea

A lesbian short story, about a young woman tasked by her mother and grandmother with keeping an ancient and malevolant sea god chained on land, to prevent him from destroying humanity.

The sea god keeps sending emissaries to plead for his freedom, sea creatures who have been transformed into humans. Once an animal breaches the barrier between him and the ocean, it is transformed into a human being to keep him company in exile. Each night, they make their way to the edge of the bay, and stare out longingly at the ocean that Meriel and her maternal line have denied them.
Eventually the protagonist, Meriel, falls in love with one of the emissaries, a shapeshifted seal named Nor, and questions her role in imprisoning the god and his minions, who suffer continually because of her actions.

Ultimately, it failed to attract and maintain enthusiasm I felt for the premise. I felt like the backstory could have been fleshed out more fully; that it did not, lost The Witch Sea an opportunity to develop interest and depth. There were large logical holes – if the witches were so powerful as to deny a god his freedom, why were they living in poverty and solitude in a lighthouse on a tiny island? Surely they could think of better things to do? As the only human around, constantly casting magic to keep the god chained, where did Meriel obtain food and necessities?

K.L gives The Witch Sea 1 out of 5 fish trapped in bowls.

 

SPOILER ALERT! DANGEROUS WORDS AHEAD!

Meriel eventually sets the sea god free, watching her love transform and leave her forever. The lack of structure to the tale makes me wonder: what does she do next? There is no future hinted at here, and no future direction provided without the context of a town full of imprisoned people.