I’ve switched themes to one that’s easier on the eyes. White on black is pretty to look at but hard to read, so it was time to make a switch to black text on a white background. I am going to miss the cool image in my header, though, since the new theme doesn’t support it. On the other hand, I love the wider text box, and it looks like the problems I was having with the link functionality under the old theme is gone. Hurray!
Reading Time: about 2 hours
As I stated in my review of Nine Princes in Amber, the other major influence on my reading during my teen years was Moorcock’s Elric series. My library had the fourth and fifth books in the series: The Vanishing Tower, with a giant bug on the cover, and Bane of the Black Sword, with a cool-looking, giant lich on the cover. It was those great Michael Whelan covers that sucked me in. Both books functioned well as stand-alone stories, and both immediately captured my imagination. This was a time when I was standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back, discovering Dungeons and Dragons, and playing my Intellivision game console. It was literally a time when the world felt open and unscripted to me, as if anything were possible, and my mind openly embraced the Elric novels. Not long after I read books four and five, I was able to track down the rest of the books and start from the beginning – and what a beginning it is.
Elric is the ruler of a nation called Melnibone, the Dragon Isle, in a place where we are not really sure of but is later revealed to be one of many planes of existence in the Multiverse (with Earth being one such plane). I might have been lost reading this book had I not read the latter books first, because those books included a map of Elric’s world. Elric himself is an albino, with pale white skin, red eyes, and less-than-average strength that requires drugs to sustain him and give him energy. Later plot details do not specifically state, but leave open the possibility, that Elric’s condition could possibly be the result of centuries of inbreeding – the Melnibone empire desires little contact with the outside world. There are whisperings, particularly from Elric’s cousin Yyrkoon, that his condition threatens to weaken the empire. Where emporers in the past would have executed such musings from a traitor, Elric dismisses such talk as insignificant. This is our first glimpse into what makes Elric different from his countrymen – that he is lenient and capable of forgiveness and mercy.
Another major character introduced early in the book is Cymoril, Elric’s cousin and Yyrkoon’s sister. When the book states that Elric plans to make Cymoril his emporess, you can understand where my inbreeding comment comes from. This early part of the book almost seems to be written in second person. Instead of text such as “Elric knew this and wished he could please his court as it strove to honor him”, instead you get a present tense rendition: “Elric knows this and wishes he could please his court as it strives to honor him”. It is somewhat strange to read a story written this way when you are used to first-person or third-person accounts. However, by chapter two the book reverts to a standard third-person format.
The plot revolves around pirate raiders seeking to plunder Melnibone and steal its treasures. At the same time, Yyrkoon plots against Elric because he desires the throne. When Yyrkoon’s plans are set in motion, Cymoril is put into a deep, sorcerous sleep, and Elric must go on a journey to obtain the means to wake her, and then confront Yyrkoon. It is here that Elric has his first encounter with Stormbringer, the famous soul-sucking sword, and he also meets Rackhir the Red Archer for the first time (Rackhir will appear in later books). We also start to get a feel for the vastness of the Multiverse and the creatures and powerful beings that inhabit it. The creation of the Multiverse and the Eternal Champion is truly Moorcock’s gift to fantasy – multiple worlds existing on different planes, sometimes mirroring one another, and often times intersecting with results that strain the fabric of existence itself. The Eternal Champion is one of those mirror-type elements: a hero saving the world, in various aspects, across those multiple worlds. Elric is a manifestation of the Eternal Champion concept, though that fact is not fully revealed until the next book in the series.
Moorcock’s writing is not without flaws. Most of the imagery required for the story the reader needs to imagine, as Moorcock provides enough to get the job done, but could have provided more. Also, the motivations of supporting characters could have been explained in more detail. I guess what I’m really saying is that I’d really like this book to be twice its size; 160 pages goes by far too fast and then the story’s over. This is something Moorcock corrected with later Elric novels like The Dreamthief’s Daughter.
In Elric of Melnibone you won’t find hundreds of pages of characters delivering monologue, spanking each other, engaging in lengthy introspection on their internal demons, or a description of every leaf color or market smell. What you will find is a fast-paced, action-laden adventure full of sword fights and sorcerous duels. This story embraces the “Sword & Sorcery” genre, whose modern roots were established by Robert E. Howard with creation of Conan, and who in turn derived it from Greek mythology and Tales of the Arabian Nights. The genre name was coined by Fritz Leiber in an exchange with Moorcock, who wanted a name to define the style. As the popularity of Lord of the Rings grew, by the late 80s and early 90s, Epic Fantasy had caused Sword & Sorcery to become a derogatory term. Many current authors of the “dark genre”, like Abercrombie, Lynch, and others owe some of their roots not only to Sword & Sorcery, but also the anti-hero, a character with flaws. Elric was the first character I read about with serious flaws: the weak strength, the subsistence on drugs, and a naivete that would come back to haunt him.
Personally, I feel that there is room for all these types of genres to co-exist, and I think reading only one type is self-limiting. I like taking a break between 1000+ page Epic Fantasy novels, and diving into a Sword & Sorcery book, which is typified by action sequences full of armed conflict and magic. It’s good to see releases like The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones bring back interest in the genre. Elric of Melnibone is highly recommended for fans of Sword and Sorcery, and also anyone looking for a brief respite from huge novels. I also encourage people to read this to see where the origins of current fantasy found its inspiration from.
A quick trip to Powell’s Books last night yielded a couple of new steampunk titles to add to the queue, in oversized paperback format:
Tin Swift from Devon Monk. I reviewed Dead Iron a while back and am really looking forward to this sequel and immersing myself once again into Monk’s wonderful prose.
The Affinity Bridge by George Mann. This one has been out for a few years but I kept putting it off for some reason. Liviu C. Suciu over at Fantasy Book Critic gave it high marks for being charming and entertaining, and that’s all the encouragement I need to read it. Powell’s had the sequels as well, so if I really like the book I’ll have to make another trip…
Reading Time: about 17 hours
Knife of Dreams is the 11th book in the Wheel of Time series. It is a reward of sorts, a bone thrown to those who mired through Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight. Though I still did a little skimming, I read almost all of the book cover to cover, and it is a vast improvement over the previous two installments.
In Knife of Dreams, there is a sudden shift away from menial characters, and the focus of the story returns to the characters readers love most. Rand gets a small but important section, a huge battle with forces of the dark that foreshadow the final battle. Perrin’s “kidnapped wife” storyline is finally resolved in a curious way, with another big battle, and if not completely satisfying, at least readers can exhale and say, “I’m glad Perrin can move on.” Matt also has a big battle battle, and his relationship with Tuon comes to a head. Engewe takes punishment in the White Tower but starts to make converts. Elayne attempts to claim the Lion Throne.
In each case the plot threads are compelling, except perhaps for Elayne, who continues to be one of the most uninteresting main characters ever written…her chapters are the ones that I skimmed. In other plot lines, as battles begin, and pieces start to move on the board, we are sure that Tarmon Gaidon (the showdown with the Dark Lord) is now coming soon. It is a radical departure from the two previous books and almost shocking when compared to where the series had been taken. Was Jordan feeling the heat from criticism? Or was it the fact that as his body betrayed him and his health flagged, he realized he had gone too far and the story would be left with a conclusion? Regardless of the reason, the plot advancement has been welcomed by Wheel of Time followers, and overwhelmingly positive reviews are Knife of Dreams’ legacy.
In addition to the Elayne story line, some of the usual complaints still exist. Over the years, Jordan has devoted far too many pages to spankings, which continues here and has a fetish-like feel. Almost all Aes Sedai behave the same way, so their personalities make it hard to tell them apart…the ones with Matt are just like the ones with Perrin, and so on. They do not have their own voice. And Jordan still overuses gestures such as braid-pulling and smoothing of skirts. In reality, however, these are well-established and minor criticisms that are annoying but do not harm the story.
In conclusion, it’s safe to say that the story is back on track, and as the final book written exclusively by Jordan, is a fitting end for a writer that burst on the scene in 1990 with so much promise and flair. I can’t wait to see what Brandon Sanderson has done with the remaining pieces. Highly recommended for fans of the series, or at least people who have enjoyed books one through six.
Reading time: about 9 hours
Another review, another first-person narrative. What can I say, I’m addicted to them. In this case we have the widely-heralded beginning of the Farseer series. This began as a trilogy that expanded into a second set of 3 books. There are rumors that Hobb is working on more, which is cause for celebration. I bought this paperback used in 1996, based on the cover and title, because I really knew nothing about it. I was unprepared for the excellence I was about to discover.
Young FitzChivalry is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, the heir-in-waiting to the kingdom who meets with an untimely end. As Chivalry’s only child, he soon finds himself at the royal court, cared for by Chivalry’s retainer, Burroch. Young Fitz has the Wit, a magic that allows bonding with animals and causes great fear among people, muderous fear. The Wit comes from his mother’s bloodline, but it is feared because people believe the person loses their humanity and becomes beast-like. But Fitz also has the Skill, which he has inherited from his father, a magic of the royal bloodline, that can be used for abilities such as telepathy and even killing someone from afar.
The Farseer books are very much character-driven. Though action and surroundings sometime suffer for this, the cast of characters are very well-developed. Besides Fitz and Burroch, there’s also King Shrewd, the aptly-named ruler who at times seems a little crazy; Chade, the ghost-like mentor who secretly trains Fitz to be Shrewd’s assassin; Verity, Fitz’s soldier-like uncle who is now first in line for the throne; Regal, the other uncle who despises Fitz; Galen, the Skill teacher who hates Fitz; Patience, Chivalry’s wife who should hate Fitz but does not; and the curious Fool, the court entertainer who is very close to King Shrewd and seems to know many secrets.
The intrigue behind the story revolves around the growth of Fitz from a boy to a young man. This is not your typical “boy comes of age, and uses his power to become a hero, saving the day” type of story. This is a painful story. Extremely painful. At times it seems like an exercise in exploring how much punishment a young man can take. But Fitz is strong, and finds unexpected allies, somehow managing to survive the abuse, and even something worse. The most intriguing character, however, is Fool. Although Fool does not have a huge role in this book, his importance grows in later books, and he becomes the focus of the second trilogy. In my opinion, Fool is one of the greatest characters in fantasy created in recent years, but as I’ve said, you’ll have to read further into the series to discover this.
Hobb’s prose is easy to follow and a delight to read. Much of the book is dialog, which gives a surprising amount of depth to other characters despite the first-person narrative. She is able to make you care about some characters and hate others. This is also one of those books that as I got closer to the end, I could not put it down. Events build up to a climax that is both satisfying and unsettling. There’s a little bit of deus ex machina with Fitz’s magical abilities, as he often finds a “sudden burst of strength”, but I enjoyed the story nevertheless. That’s as much as I’ll say without revealing too many spoilers. Got to love the Michael Whelan cover, too! I highly recommend this book, and the series as well; it’s one I’d definitely like to acquire in hardcover.
Reading time: about 3-4 hours
Just as Zelazny’s Amber series was important to me in my younger days, Glen Cook’s Black Company series opened my eyes as an adult. Having just left the military at the time I acquired this book, The Black Company struck a chord with me on a metaphysical level that no other book could. The new wave of gritty fiction that has encompassed the industry, from Lynch and Abercrombie to Erikson, owes at least some of its origins to Cook’s best-known work, and Erikson readily admits how influential it was.
In the Black Company, we follow a story told through the eyes of the Annalist and Medic, Croaker. The name and position of this main character immediately informs you as to what kind of sarcastic wit Cook possesses…did Croaker get his name because he talks a lot? Or is it because soldiers die in spite of his efforts as a medic? Or both? It’s brilliant and hilarious at the same time.
The Black Company, as an organization, has been around a long time. One of the Free Companies of Khatovar (and also the last), it is a mercenary faction that takes jobs and sees them through. They are not always on the winning side, and their numbers have fluctuated over the years (the outfit is several centuries old), but there is an honorable aspect to the Company. Not neccesarily in deeds, mind you, but rather in commitment. Those who join the Company are expected to fall in line with this ideal – a person’s past is irrelevant, only their dedication to the Company matters.
As a veteran myself, the cast of characters and their actions ring with authenticity. Each character is fleshed out in the form of their speech and further defined by their actions. Since the story is told first-person by Croaker, this method of characterization works well, though we often wonder what some characters are thinking about since we only have Croaker’s thoughts to listen to. Cook makes you care about these people, which is dangerous – as a mercenary outfit, becoming too attached to character is heartbreaking when they don’t make it. There’s always another soldier waiting to step in, however.
The true gem of the story revolves around two characters: One-Eye and Goblin. As the two most powerful sorcerers in the Company, their role is important. As you soon find out, there is something of a competition between them. It’s a cross between trying to one up each other, and playing practical jokes on each other. The interactions between Goblin and One-Eye deliver some of the most hilarious scenes you will find in fantasy fiction. Where some authors struggle when attempting to pull off humor, Cook delivers effortlessly. He could have written stand-alone books just about the two sorcerers, much in the way Erikson writes short stories about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, and I would have been ecstatic.
In this particular story, The Black Company is serving the Syndic of the city of Beryl, until the city starts to collapse in chaos and an ancient evil is unleashed. The Company ends up finding a loophole in its contract that lets them escape the chaos, and is then approached by a strange being that wishes to hire them. Only later does the Company realize they now work for the Lady, who is feared as evil incarnate and a powerful sorceress. Marching orders are given to the Company from The Ten Who Were Taken (or the Taken for short), a group of sorcerers twisted into psychotic beings by Lady’s evil dead husband, The Dominator, and who now work for Lady. These orders involve stamping out a rebel group led by the mysterious Whisper. The rebels are fighting Lady’s forces while trying to find The White Rose, a child prophecied to defeat Lady.
I’ll not give away any more spoilers than that. Cook’s writing is quick, similar in a way to Zelazny’s, with lots of action and quick wit. Descriptions are just enough to get the job done, but at times feel inadequate to give the reader a good image of surroundings and descriptive detail – kind of like the anti-Robert Jordan. Still, if you’ve got an active imagination, you’ll have no problem following along. In addition to the One-Eye vs. Goblin competition, you get lots of banter between the Company members, something Erikson tries for in the Malazan series but falls short in comparison…that’s not a slight against Erikson…Cook is simply an absolute master at this style of writing. It’s brilliant and engaging.
In conclusion, I highly recommend The Black Company. It captures the feel of a medieval mercenary group perfectly, and makes me wish that I had thought of it. The best part is that this is the first in what eventually stretches out into 10 books. Sadly, Cook has not written a Black Company novel since 1999’s Water Sleeps. This first book, however, contains all the hooks necessary to draw you in to the series. You can also find it as part of the omnibus edition Chronicles of the Black Company (which actually contains the first three books of the series).