Spinning the Wheel: A review of Robert Jordan’s “A Crown of Swords; The Wheel of Time Book 7.”

I have such mixed feelings about Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ saga, all present in the book. Starting with the problems.
There is a lot of detail in this series. I mean, micro-detail. The action will stop for a description of a character making tea (it’s a fantasy brew), or of a piece of furniture, or a piece of costume. Does this book need a red pen? A tin of red pain would not suffice to cut extraneous detail. Yes, it can be good for world building, but I am sure, for example, the same descriptions of e.g. military uniform occur more than once.
Then, there are dubious gender politics. I am not a prude, or pollical correctness gone mad incarnate, but in these pages bosoms heave, women are tortured tied down, naked, in spread eagled form. Women fight over the lead character Rand Al Thor and really don’t mind that he has multiple sexual partners. There are a lot of allusions along the lines of “Women eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!” In this book there is a seduction scene that is basically rape, of a man by a woman, told in a bawdy low comedy kind of way.
Then there are plot lines that are left dangling, a lot of them in this book. I have no doubt they will be resolved in future books, but I think in a work this size you need more resolution.
And everything points to a climactic confrontation that isn’t climactic, things being resolved by a shadowy third party.
But you read these works to be fully immersed in the world, and it does work. And there are some effective action set pieces in this book, and some moments of creepy horror, and some frightening villains. Jordan was a soldier in Vietnam, and you get a taste of the reality and rush of battle, at times. The diversity of characters, creatures and nations is mind boggling, a real achievement. And the characters do live in your head. Robert Jordan clearly lived and breathed this world, and so do we. It shouldn’t work. And yet it does. I’ll be there for the next one.
The narrators of the audio book are good, well suited to the work. Michael Kramer seems to read his sections with one eyebrow continually raised, the better to express the bawdy “phwwoooar, eh?” humour and descriptions. His gravelly matter of factness suits the military themes of the novel. Kate Reading is a likeable presence, and gets through her sections with dignity intact.

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A review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

For many years now our family has enjoyed the most wonderful Summer holidays in Cornwall.  And it’s at this time that my tradition is to read a book by C.S.Lewis.

Having exhausted his science fiction trilogy, and his essays and works on the Christian faith, I have now turned to the Chronicles of Narnia.  Last year it was “the Magician’s Nephew,” this year “the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

One of the best known and loved of Lewis’s works, the out-line of the story will be known to most.  Children are playing hide and seek in an Uncle’s large house.  One child, Lucy, bolts into a wardrobe and into another world, populated by Fauns. talking animals, and an evil witch who has cast the land in a perpetual Winter, and cancelled Christmas.  Lucy is shortly followed by Edmund, who meets said Queen and is turned to the dark side by a box of Turkish delight.  Then enter the rest of the gang, older children Peter and Susan.

They are befriended by Mr and Mrs Beaver, and taken to meet the land’s power for Good, Aslan.  An epic confrontation between good and evil follows.  What is also well known is how this is modelled on the Christian Gospel, with its vicarious sacrifice to pay the price for evil and treachery, and resurrection and the defeat of evil.

For my money Lewis does this without distorting or spoiling the story.  It is, above all, an engaging, fast paced, imaginative and moving story.  And I think you would feel that with no knowledge of Christianity.  For those of and sympathetic to the Christian faith it offers another level of meaning, and it is skilful how the events do parallel those in the Gospel.  As well as the main notes, we get the torment and persecution of Aslan by monsters echoing the torture and taunting of Christ, and the women watching the tomb and tending to the slain Christ are echoed by Lucy and Susan in this story in their ministering to Aslan at the stone table.  But the foundation to all this, I have to stress, is a really good story.  None of it would work if it wasn’t.

I love also the black and white illustrations by Pauline Baynes, sketches that capture the magic and wonder of the story.

Lewis’s gender politics are dated and have been a problem for many, and hotly debated.  That they were the norm when he wrote does not mean that they do not grate.  There is a line here that made me wince about battles being uglier if women fight.  No, war is ugly whoever fights, and World War One destroyed the notion of wars fought by poetic, chivalrous combat.

It is a problem, but not one in my view that should spoil the story.  We have to be sympathetic to the fact that he was writing in and of his time, and his female characters, Queen included, are so epic.  Lucy and Susan drive the action as much as if not more that their male counterparts.

A wonderful story, well written by a master story-teller.  Young or old, this is here to be enjoyed.

A review of Michael Moorcock’s “The Sailor on the Seas of Fate”

Elric of Melnibone is a self-exiled Sorcerer from his own land of Immryr, having forsaken his kin on a quest for self-knowledge and the redemption of his kind, who have grown proud, crazed and insouciant with their power and sorcery. Other nations in the ‘Young Kingdoms’ fear the Melniboneans at best, and to these Elric journeys in his quest for answers.
His is accompanied by an accursed sword called Stormbringer, possessed of its own lust for souls and blood. Elric himself is partly at the mercy of the forces he seeks to master.
In this tale, Elric finds a ship waiting for him on an alien shore under a blue sun, and a shadowy captain who invites him on a mysterious quest, and he is not alone. He is accompanied by heroes from other times. They must confront colossal demonic powers of multi-verse defying proportions. And that’s just book one.

Book two sees Elric face off against another Melnibonean sorcerer who is crazed for the love of a young woman whose spirit he is convinced inhabits the body of a young woman Elric has just rescued.

Book three sees Elric join forces with a wealthy explorer to find the lost land that Elric’s people first hailed from, and in that lost land a lost city and great treasure possibly awaits, and Elric hopes to find answers in his personal quest for identity and redemption. Instead, they are pursued by reptile humanoids on stork like legs launching lethal decapitating crescents from their club weapons, and are forced to summon (and then banish) the Prince of Hell.

This is high, nihilistic fantasy told on a vast, multi-dimension and multi-verse spanning canvas. It’s head spinning stuff, referencing H P Lovecraft with its ancient Gods and Demons sapping the sanity of those who behold them, to a range of other fantasy tropes, and at times you can almost hear the Dungeons and Dragons dice rattle across the table. But Moorcock’s creation is very much his own. Sanity and genre busting story telling, Elric may seem at times like the High Lord Emo, with his deathly pale skin, brooding and identity crisis, but he is nevertheless an unforgettable creation.
How strange then that the publishing world has forgotten him. The Elric books are largely out of print. I found this in a Church book sale. You can get them on Amazon from a range of sellers. Some are hard to obtain and collectors items.
A reprint is long overdue, in an age of conveyor belt fantasy clones of door stopping length. These slim volumes are a fraction of the length, but far bigger in ambition and originality than many.

A review of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.”

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) wrote horror, science fiction and fantasy tales in the 1950’s, worlds of rocket ships, chain smoking astronauts, Martians and the colonisation of Mars, and monsters that lurk both outside and inside our skins.

The Illustrated Man (1951) is a collection of short stories that ticks all of these tropes, book-ended by a chance Ancient Mariner style meeting (a haunted figure stops a stranger to relate a macabre tale/s) whereby a lone traveller reveals a torso completely covered by tattoos to a fascinated onlooker, tattoos seemingly animated, telling stories from the future.

And so, as our onlooker watches the story of each piece of body art, we are along the ride.

There are stories where humanity’s dependence on technology comes back to bite them, eerily prescient of our Augmented Reality and app for everything age, as with ‘the Veld,;’ whereby a Virtual Reality playground brings to the surface childhood rage in a homicidal form. Anyone who has tried to wrest their child away from some screen or other will relate to this tale.

We also have ‘the Visitor,’ which explores the notion that each world may have its own Messiah figure bringing redemption and healing and requiring faith and belief, whilst ‘the Fox and the Forest’ relate the stories of a couple on the run in 1930’s Mexico from a terrifying future and its agents.
‘The Other Foot’ shows how the racial apartheid politics of 1950’s America could play out on Mars with racial roles reversed, and ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘No Principal Night or Morning’ explore humanity’s relationship with the alienating vastness of space, with ‘the Rocket’ exploring the flip side, a longing to explore and awe at interstellar marvels.
A future of nuclear devastation beckons in ‘The Highway’ relating an urban exodus from World War Three, whilst ‘the Last night on the world’ shows the whole of humanity sharing a dream that convinces them that the end is nigh, and the comforts of routine in preparing for the end.
Elsewhere in the cosmos, men are driven mad by the incessant rain of Venus in ‘The Long Rain,’ or butchered by a homicidal city intent on revenge in ‘The City, ‘ whilst a future colony of the diseased on Mars are visited by a man with telepathic gifts to share in ‘the Visitor,’ but will they share?
‘Marionettes Inc.’ shows the human / machine master and servant relationship breaking down as mechanical slaves demand a life of their own.
An alien invasion with children and inter-dimensional aliens working together is represented by ‘Zero-Hour,’ and children feature again as a horrified father witnesses the Hellish side to children at play in ‘The Playground.’
‘Usher II’ is one of the stories that anticipated Fahrenheit 451 with its vision of a book burning future, here with one man’s recreation of the works of Poe to exact revenge on the state censors.

This is a pacy and entertaining collection of future-shock tales that showcases the unique imaginative talents of Ray Bradbury, although for me it lacked the coherence and spiritual intensity of ‘The Martian Chronicles,’ another collection of Bradbury’s short tales.  Still an amazing read of amazing tales, though.

A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (audio-book version read by Rob Inglis).

The story of Bilbo Baggins, his unexpected party, then journey, with Gandalf the wizard and thirteen dwarves, to slay a dragon and seize it’s plunder, can give us new gifts whenever we come back to it.

If you’ve only ever seen the movies (that despite some voices are not all bad) you owe it to yourselves in this magical, compact piece of story telling enchantment.

It is a fantasy quest where not one word, not one action, is superfluous or wasted (this is why many took so vehemently against the films and their stretching the tale to three epic movies).

It’s funny, charming, thrilling and profound.   There are worlds of enchantment, and always we sense behind events the massive, coherent universe, with it’s own myths, languages and histories, that Tolkien built, exploring further in his Legendarium (including the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings).

It’s not as whimsical as you may suspect or remember.  There is real tragedy here, real horror and character development and complexities (as in Thorin’ journey and his corruption by dragon gold) and the final siege speaks to us of how our own affairs between nations can become so intangibly fixated on our own interests, sometimes noble and right (Bard) and sometimes corrupted by greed and paranoias about entitlement and ancient grudges (elves and dwarves).

For these reasons and more it is the archetypal book written for children and beloved by adults.

The audio-book version read by Rob Inglis is perfect.  He breathes his love for the tale (I suspect) into his reading.  He has rich style that balances gravitas with a lightness of touch that keeps us listening keenly. His renderings of the different characters is superb, communicating perfectly the home-bird reticence of Bilbo and his growing courage, Gandalf’s wisdom and authority, the dwarves distinct characteristics including blustering pomposity as well as courage and quick temper, and the ultimate menace of Smaug.  The songs are wonderfully performed, and I could quite happily listen to them all repeatedly.  There’s also a main instrumental theme that is entirely appropriate, that opens and closes the tale.  Other than that, any effect other than the narrator’s voice does not intrude.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s The Augur’s Gambit

This is a companion novella to Stephen Donaldson’s “The King’s Justice” reviewed on this blog here.
It’s a very different beast to that book.  Whereas that book had the pace and tone of a horror thriller, this has a more deliberate pace and is a tale of courtly intrigue in a fantasy realm, with the chief supernatural element being the predominance of alchemy and augury (the practice of ‘scrying’ through examining the entrails of freshly killed animals) in the land.
In an fortress island, Indemnie,  comprised of ruling Baronies and ruled over by a Monarchy (currently Queen Inimical Phlegathon deVry IV), her Chief Hieronymer (practitioner of Augury),Mayhew Gordian, is at his wit’s end.   A trusted confidant and often summoned to secretly observe his Queen’s audiences with her Barons, he is observing an apparently destructive and catastrophic course of action by his Queen.  As she promises to wed each Baron in turn, turning them against each other and against her, surely the only outcome can be war?  And Mayhew’s scrying has revealed a series of dooms for Indemnie with no scenarios of hope.  His Queen says he must look deeper, and this means sacrificing a child, something Mayhew refuses to do, risking his Monarch’s wrath.  In the meantime his deepening regard for Princess Excrucia, his confidant and friend, makes him more than ever determined that the key to his Monarch’s behaviour, and possible salvations for Indemnie, must be found.
This is a book that demands a bit of patience, even with its short length.  It’s a compact piece of world building, and for the most part this is what the narrative focuses on, that and the intrigue between barons and barons and Monarch.  However it builds in it’s last act to a gripping and dramatic siege by cannon armed pirate vessel.  Mayhew acts as Parley for each but he has a last desperate gamble to play, one that involves the hazard of all, and the deepest secrets of augury and alchemy.  This novella amply rewards your patience.
The characters are skilfully drawn, their dielemmas believable and compelling.  Those who knows Dnonaldson’s writing will be aware of his wordsmith talents, his Scrabble defeating vocabulary that sings from the page.

A review of Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.