Tough Travelling: Immortals

 

As per last week, I’m following along in Nathan’s footsteps as he wanders through his copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. This week: Immortals. The Guide splits this into three subtypes: Gods and the like (who cannot die unless people stop believing in them); Elves, Dark Lords and so forth (who cannot die unless they are killed); and immortal humans.

Since there are just so many immortals in genre novels, even in the relatively small number that I’ve read (and the smaller number that I remember), I think I’m going to do three lists, one for each of those categories. Even then, the second and third lists may be a little long…

Oh, and last week someone said that my picks were a little eclectic. I’m hoping to continue that theme!

 

So, let’s start off with ‘Gods’. I’m including here anything that can’t be killed, and that is in some way a fundamental part of the world (i.e. not just an invulnerable human). Here’s my slightly recondite five:

 

1. K’z’k – Sluggy Freelance (Pete Abrams)

K’z’k’s status is somewhat unclear: perhaps a mere world-ending demon, perhaps the quintessential embodiment of destruction itself. What does seem clear (although that may change in the coming days, thanks to timing…) is that he/she can’t be killed. The annoyingly cheerful bug-monster just sort of seems to shatter into pieces, lodged in texts or in people’s minds, waiting for a chance to rise again, piece by piece. Some of those pieces are themselves sentient, so I suppose theoretically there’s a whole bunch of K’z’k’s wandering around at times. Anyway, despite being found in the lowly and disreputable local of a mere webcomic, K’z’k deserves to be on this list both for the hydra-like mechanism of his/her immortality and for her/his sheer force of psychotic personality – Abrams manages to make his Big Bad into something inhuman, funny, monstrous, strange, and really irritating in a creepy way. The fact it can raise hordes of the undead helps too.

2. Odin – The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul (Douglas Adams)

Lots of books have the ancient gods living among us, either in some sort of tangential world that intersects with ours, or else surviving in some hidden places. Sometimes those gods are powerful; sometimes, they’ve fallen on hard times. In Adams’ book, however, Valhalla is St Pancras Station, and many of the Norse gods live as tramps. The patron of that clan, the all-wise, all-knowing Odin, is currently residing in a nursing home, where he sleeps 22 hours a day, and while he may think he’s still got his wits, it’s not entirely clear that he’s up for dealing with all the complexities of the modern world – such as lawyers.

3. Tzadkiel – The Urth of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe)

What is Tzadkiel? Who knows. I think it’s probably some sort of interdimensional angel-robot constructed by a doubly-ascended ‘earlier’ iteration of humanity, but your mileage may vary. Whatever it is, it’s able to reside is the superdimension of Yesod and as the power to judge humanity, and control major astrophysical parameters. It’s also something that exists in many fragments, at least one of which has been banished (by itself? who knows?) to a place beyond (or between) realities. It may also be a boat. It’s a Gene Wolfe novel, what do you expect, clarity?

4. The Lady of Pain – The Planescape RPG setting (various)

The Lady of Pain has a very spikey face. She may or may not be a god. At some point in the past, she arrived in the toroidal portal city of Sigil (which floats at the top of an infinitely tall spire), and quickly disposed of the god that previously ruled there. Since then, she’s ruled with an iron, and very spiky, but somewhat absenteeist, fist. Humans get on with their own business, and as long as they don’t cross certain metaphorical lines, she gets on with hers – whatever that may be. In a setting, and a city, where gods and archdevils wander about the streets getting in drunken brawls, it takes a lot to be mysterious and aloof, but the Lady certainly is. Those who cross her – by molesting her mindless ‘dabus’ servants, for instance, or worst of all by praying to her – come to unpleasant ends. I believe flaying alive has been involved on some occasions. What she’s most famous for, however, is the punishment of ‘mazing’ – teleporting an enemy to a small personal prison-dimension from which escape is almost impossible. Yes, the Lady may be a plot device, a virtually omnipotent dea ex machina, but she’s a memorable one, and her inscrutable danger and strange appearance perfectly set the tone for the magnificently baroque setting.

5. Counter-flow – Interesting Times (Terry Pratchett)

When you say ‘gods who don’t die unless you stop believing in them’, everyone will think of Pratchett. And it’s tempting to include Om, or Angus (the personal god of one mad stylite), or P’tang-P’tang, or Offler the Crocodile God, or the Verruca Gnome, or Teg the Horse-Headed God of Agriculture, or Fate and the Lady, Death, Myria St Jean, or Mr Safe Way. Gods and immortals are everywhere in the Discworld. But that very ubiquity is why these more famous deities don’t capture the essence of Pratchett’s setting. Instead, I’ve gone for one of the most obscure, demonstrating just how omnipresent immortality is in this world: a round of applause if you please for Counter-flow, one of the Four Dread Horsemen of Public Holidays!

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Now, how about elves’? In this category I’m including everything that doesn’t naturally die, but that can be killed – things that start out immortal, not that become so in some way. Here are five examples:

1. Artanis – assorted works (J.R.R. Tolkien)

We can’t talk about elves without mentioning Papa Tolkien. So which elf should we pick? Feänor has the most personality, I think. Or perhaps the continually overlooked Cirdan, oldest of the elves in Middle-Earth? But I’ll go with Artanis, who in The Lord of the Rings is known as Galadriel (a translation of the ‘pet name’ her husband calls her by). Artanis is fiery and headstrong from the beginning, friend and kinswoman to Feänor – the Silmarils are apparently inspired by the way her hair caught the light of the Two Trees. It’s not made explicit whether she participates in the fratricidal massacre Feänor carries out, but she does leave Valinor with him – true to her strong will, she picks a middle course, refusing to abide by the will of the gods, but also refusing to swear oaths to Feänor or to his quest for the Silmarils. If Feänor is an image of Lucifer (the brilliant light-bringer who falls through his own pride and is exiled from heaven), that makes Artanis the elven equivalent of (some versions of) Mephistopheles, the not-fully-aligned ambassador of Lucifer. Artanis largely ignores the whole ‘battle for the fate of existence’ thing going on in the Silmarillion, instead settling in the isolationist kingdom of Doriath, where she picks up a somewhat weak-willed boy-toy, Celeborn, and settles down into marital bliss. When Morgoth is defeated and a general amnesty is handed out to the exiles, Artanis, despite not having done anything particularly unforgiveable, refuses to accept the pardon of the Valar (which would mean accepting that they had authority over her), and instead stays in Middle-Earth. Eventually, as wars gradually kill off almost all the great elves, she’s left as one of the most important, and finally decides to take matters into her own hands, taking the ring Nenya and migrating to the forest of Lorinand, where she appoints herself as queen (dragging Celeborn along with her for company) and sets out to create her own imitation of Doriath. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, Artanis is apparently the being in Middle-Earth closest in power to Sauron and most dangerous to him – which given that she’s competing against a bunch of demigods (Gandalf, Saruman, etc al) is saying something. Her story reaches its turning point when she is offered the One Ring – if she accepts, she will be able to achieve her ambitions, destroy Sauron, and set herself up as Goddess-empress of the world, turning the whole of Middle-Earth into a fascistic garden-state. By now, however, she has come to doubt her own wonderfulness enough to realise that she doesn’t have the wisdom (or just plain niceness) to rule creation benignly (interestingly, her relationship with Celeborn is an inversion of expectations not just because she’s more powerful than him, but because he, ‘the Wise’, is there to flatter her and give her sensible advice in private, while she’s the one who does all the ruling, fighting, and general decisioning), and turns it down. Instead, she uses her power to purify the Necromancer’s fortress at Dol Guldur, and then swallows her pride and returns to Valinor.

2. Leonardo – the Shadowrun setting, and particularly the novel Black Madonna (various, and particularly Carl Sergeant and Marc Gascoigne)

Shadowrun, like Middle-Earth, is packed full of elves. Some of them have been born recently. Some of them are mutated humans. Some of them were freaks born before magic returned. Some of them are very, very old. One of them is Leonardo da Vinci. Black Madonna begins with Leonardo, now the world’s greatest computer hacker, causing attention-getting mayhem; the novel then follows a team of mercenaries as they attempt to unravel da Vinci’s code, both in the current day (i.e. a magic-infested corporate dystopia in the near future) and through understanding his art works (particularly some strange features in his painting of the Last Supper) – a trail Leonardo has cunningly left to lead them to a theological truth about Jesus, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene. A truth the Vatican don’t want anyone to know – leaving the mercenaries dodging the attentions of both the Jesuits and the Priory of Sion (both of whom use magic and heavy weaponry). You know, I suspect that if somebody were to flagrantly steal the plot of this novel and then re-write it in a less bizarre, non-elfy setting (say, the real world), it could be a real publishing success. Anyway, Leonardo da Vinci as an immortal elf who is also a genius computer hacker, a cult leader with a secret compound, a wizard, and a heresiarch archnemesis of the Vatican… that’s an immortal who sticks in the memory!

3. The King of the ElvesLords and Ladies (Terry Pratchett)

Most of the beings in Pratchett are derivative of fantasy tropes; his elves, however, are an intentional inversion – psychotic, animalistic, predatory. The easy pick here would be their Queen, a fairly straightforward moustache-twirling villain; but I’d prefer to acknowledge her husband. Where the Queen and her court are reached through open-air healthy-womanhood-ritual-hosting stone circles and reside in a cold but elegant world, the King’s retinue are reached through the sweaty, dark, hot recesses of underground barrows. The King is basically a deus ex machina, and it takes quite something both to make that role feel justified and to make him seem up to the task: Pratchett does it with very few words by tapping into something primal, making his Elf King an admixture of devil, pagan god, and folk tale spirit – something at once powerful, malevolent, familiar, and strangely pitiable.

4. R. Daneel Olivaw – various novels (Isaac Asimov; also Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, David Brin, and possibly others)

We first meet R. Daneel (the ‘R.’ stands for ‘robot’) in a future version of earth, playing the by-the-book half of a buddy cop pairing in a murder mystery; but even then, it’s clear that the robot has much more intelligence and individuality than we might first assume. We last meet him… well, let’s just say it’s a long time later, in a very different role. I’m not sure whether he’s officially immortal, but his ability to replace parts of himself to prolong his lifespan, and to continually improve himself (he’s basically the entire Singularity in one person) make him effectively so, unless somebody manages to kill him. But to do that, they’d have to find him…

5. Ungoliant – The Silmarillion (Tolkien)

It’s probably cheating to include two by the same author, but this one really isn’t an elf… in fact, nobody knows what she is. She may be a Maia (a lesser goddess, effectively), or she may be an incarnation of absolute and primal darkness and nothingness who predates Creation itself. Either way, she’s a great big spider. Ungoliant kicks off the main events of the Silmarillion by smuggling Melkor into Valinor and, with his help, devouring the light of the Two Trees and of the Wells of Varda. Her insatiable hunger, however, leads to some conflict with Melkor, as she’d really like to eat the Silmarils. By this point, she’s become so dangerous that she’s on the verge of killing and eating Melkor himself, before his henchgodlings show up to help him out. She spends the rest of the book birthing monstrous spiders and generally terrifying people in her chosen nesting place, before fleeing to other parts of the world. One theory has her killed by Eärendil, but the official text leaves her fate unspecified, so she may still be around. Alternatively, it’s suggested that she eventually becomes so hungry that she dies… by eating herself. One of her great-great-(etc)-granddaughters is Shelob, who we meet in The Lord of the Rings.

6. Turiya The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (and sequels) – Stephen Donaldson

Donaldson’s covenant books have a lot of problems, but they also have some fantastic elements. Turiya, along with his brothers Moksha and Samedhi, collectively known as the Ravers, are among the best. Essentially the Nazgul to Lord Foul’s Sauron, they’re much more memorable and frightening than the originals: they’re not just supernatural psychopaths, they’re also body-snatchers, able to enter into the minds of lesser beings and control their bodies. This means that pretty much anyone can be a Raver, and Donaldson plays up the horror both of their power as fifth column traitors and of their power of possession (which I remember being fatal, although perhaps there are exceptions). Turiya (also known as ‘Herem’, ‘Kinslaughterer’ and other things) and his brothers are generally behind everything horrible and inhuman that happens in the books, and given how dark Donaldson goes at times, that makes these three some seriously unpleasant villains. It’s not even clear whether it’s possible to destroy the brothers (who have existed since time immemorial, and have a peculiar hatred of trees), although they can be rent into incoherent shreds… possibly.

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And, finally, humans. OK, so ‘human’ can be a relative term in genre, but I’m going to use it to mean anyone who starts out mortal and ends up immortal, but excluding those who end up gods. Turns out there are still plenty of those.

1. Zifnab – The Death Gate Cycle (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman)

Although it may be tempted to think that Zifnab, a seemingly derranged old wizard, is the same person as Fizban, a seemingly derranged old wizard who is secretly the ultimate god of good in Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance novels, it may alternatively simply be the case that he’s a really old, really geeky guy from Earth’s 20th century, who likes making allusions to D&D, and Merlinesque anachronistic references. If this is the case, given the setting, he’s probably immortal.

2. Vecna – various works in the Greyhawk and later Ravenloft settings (various authors)

D&D’s lich king. I think he may end up a god at some point, but until then he’s just a guy who really hates the thought of dying, so turns himself into an undead abomination. He’s not nice. Of course, D&D, and particularly Ravenloft, is crawling with undead. I was tempted to to suggest Jander Sunstar, the trying-to-be-good vampire elf who first introduces us to Ravenloft, or Count Strahd von Zarovich, the setting’s admirably no-nonsense Dracula clone and hero of two volumes of his own vampire-autobiography, or Azalin, his lich archnemesis. In fact, I think all the Dreadlords of Ravenloft are immortal, even those who are theoretically human – so perhaps Dominic D’Honaire, the mind-controlling Darklord of Dementlieu, or obscure Thakok-An, High Priestess of a sleeping dragon-god in Kalidnay. But no, despite my affection for Ravenloft, it has to be Vecna, on the strength purely of the names of the three main Greyhawk adventures in which he appears: the excited Vecna Lives!, the cautious Vecna Reborn, and the furious Die, Vecna, Die!, a title which, if any does, surely deserves to be shouted. Incidentally, if you didn’t like third edition D&D, blame Vecna – apparently his conflict with the Lady of Pain (see above) is what caused the changes between editions…

3. Lazarus – A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.)

Miller’s post-apocalyptic analysis of religious faith is set in three time periods, spanning more than a thousand years; yet in each one of them, a ragged, wandering Jew appears, all three very similar in appearance. The strong suggestion is that the three are the same man – perhaps even the Leibowitz of the title. No reason is given for why he might be immortal.

4. Oasis – Sluggy Freelance (Abrams)

I know it seems excessive to have two characters here from the same webcomic (even if they do feel like they’re almost from different worlds, given how varied the comic is), but I can’t address this topic without mention Oasis, the mysterious brainwashed gymnast-assassin. The details of her nature remain shrouded in mystery; but we do know that, as well as being astonishingly good at killing people, she’s received clearly fatal wounds on several occasions – including being shot in the head. Nonetheless, the girl keeps coming back. Does she have incredible powers of regeneration? Is she some sort of possessing spirit that turns people into more of her? Is she only one of an army of clones, with her personality and memories continually being uploaded into new bodies? Is she perhaps some sort of deity in a disguise so good she’s fooled herself? We shall see.

5. Zedar – The Belgariad (David Eddings)

Zedar is the proximal villain of the seminal YA fantasy saga (his master, the evil god Torak, being out of sight for most of the time), but he’s played more as a victim of the universe. Zedar begins as a disciple of Aldur, the wise god who is the patron of the good sorcerors, only to turn to the dark side later in life (having by this time already achieved immortality); that doesn’t mean he has anything more than contempt for most of his new allies. As the spiritual brother of the lead good guy, he is essentially the Judas of the series, and Eddings allows us to ponder similar questions to those surrounding Judas: given that this is a world with binding prophecies, and that Zedar is never much more than the tool of far more powerful forces, how much free will does he really have in his betrayal, and what does that mean for how the reader feels about him? He even seems to regret causing any pain to the heroes. That, however, doesn’t do him any good in the end. Because, SPOILER: the reason he merits inclusion on this list isn’t his moral ambiguity or his standard-issue magic-user immortality, it’s what the good guy does to him: pushes him into a rock. Zedar gets to spend the rest of his immortal eternity trapped forever, completely immobile, in a stone. There are downsides to not dying…/SPOILER

6. Winston Rumfoord The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut)

Winston Rumfoord, and his dog Kazak, have no magical powers. They just happen to have an unfortunate encounter with a chronsynclastic infundibulum – which, naturally enough, means that they now exist through all of time, but only in a very thin ribbon stretching between the Sun and Betelgeuse, only briefly visible to anybody else when the earth happens to cross their path. They are therefore immortal, because there isn’t any time when they aren’t – although there are times when they are not observed.

7. Robert Gadling – Sandman (Neil Gaiman)

A veteran back from the Hundred Years War gets drunk in a tavern one day and has an argument with his friends, in which he suggests that death is just a habit: “The only reason people die, is because everyone does it. You all just go along with it. It’s rubbish, death. It’s stupid. I don’t want anything to do with it.” Fortunately for him, Death herself is listening, and grants him immortality. He also meets her brother, Dream, and agrees to meet up with him once every hundred years. We see him throughout 600 years – the first and last meetings both featuring gripes about the recently-introduced poll tax…

8. Wowbagger the Infinitely-Prolonged – Life, the Universe and Everything (Douglas Adams)

Hobb Gadling wants immortality because he doesn’t want to die; and so far, he still hasn’t regretted it. But not all immortal characters are quite so pleased with themselves. One of those is Bowerick Wowbagger, who gains immortality in an unusual accident involving elastic bands. Driven to the point of madness by his inability to think of anything interesting to do on Sundays (an allusion to the famous quote on the subject by Susan Ertz), he finally decides to express his anger at the universe in the most absolute, yet pointless, way possible: he resolves to visit every single living being in the universe and insult them, one by one. Well, it’s something to do, innit?

 

Tough Traveling: Hidden Kingdoms

Ah, what the hell.

Over on fantasyreviewbarn.com, Nathan’s doing a post per week giving examples of the tropes listed in Diana Wyne Jones’ “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland”, and others are joining in as well. Normally I just read what others have to say and then throw in a comment or two, but this week people seem to be finding the topic tough, whereas I’m brimming with examples – enough, in fact, to make my own list of five. Or more. I don’t think I’ll be doing this every week, but for once, why not?

Here’s the topic of the week:

Hidden Kingdom.  Usually reached through CAVERNS or after an arduous trek into the heart of the central masssif, this is often the object of the Tour QUEST…

 

Well let’s have a go, shall we?

 

1-2. Cyrga and Delphaeus: ‘The Hidden City’ (David Eddings)

The fact that there’s somewhere hidden in the final volume of Eddings’ ‘Tamuli’ trilogy should be no surprise, given that it’s in the name. But it’s a slight surprise to discover that there are two of them! Delphaeus is the lost city of the Shining Ones, the hyperevolved flesh-melting superhumans everyone else thinks of as the equivalent of vampires or bogeymen. Surprise surprise, they may be hyperintelligent glowing shapeshifters, but they’re not a myth after all – their city exists, in some hills somewhere, but shielded by their magical powers from prying eyes. Cyrga, on the other hand, is the capital city of the desert kingdom of the Cyrgai, and is protected not by deception but by force: the gods of the other races have erected a barrier around it to shield the world from the megalomaniac military prowess of its inhabitants. Needless to say, this doesn’t stop it from being the ultimate destination of Our Hero’s quest.

 

3-5 (/55?). Various places: the Foundation novels (Isaac Asimov)

OK, you might say that this is SF rather than fantasy, but functionally I don’t think it’s an important distinction for these book – the latter half, where these kingdoms show up, is basically fantasy with spaceships instead of caravans (although the earlier works are more sciencey). And where have we got? First off, there’s the Second Foundation. This is an ingenious hidden kingdom, in that the ‘kingdom’, the Foundation (a secret civilisation of telepaths trying to control history) is hidden in plain sight in the middle of a different civilisation. Several books are dedicated to the quest to find it. In a similar vein, there’s the magical god-planet of Gaia – technically it’s only half-hidden (the name is on record but very few know the co-ordinates), but nobody goes there and nobody realises it’s actually magical god-planet. Next up, there’s the Spacer Worlds. These start out in Asimov’s other books as perfectly normal colony planets, but in the thousands of years between then and the Foundation novels, their location has become lost. Potentially, there are at least fifty hidden kingdoms here, assuming they haven’t founded any more colonies in the interim. The characters only visit the worlds of Aurora, Solaria and Melponome, and only find one hidden kingdom among the three (and tibetan monks ain’t got nothing on the secret powers of THOSE people!), but who knows which other worlds may still be inhabited? Next up, there’s Alpha – an idyllic island world of general good humour and toplessness, a primitive population forgotten by the rest of the Galaxy and trapped on one small island on a great global ocean… or is there something less obvious about them, not immediately apparent? Finally, there’s Earth itself. OK, it’s been desolated by nuclear armageddon, but it’s not COMPLETELY abandoned… I’d say three planets definitely fit the ‘hidden kingdom’ idea, and maybe more.

6. Ra-Khati: the Forgotten Realms (various authors)

D&D settings are lousy with hidden kingdoms and lost cities. Ra-Khati, however, is pretty much exactly what the Tough Guide is talking about – a hidden kingdom in the high Katakoro mountains – people do find it, but they’re not allowed to leave. I don’t think there are any novels set here, but there are adventures and sourcebooks that describe it.

7. You Know Where: ‘Ash: A Secret History’ (Mary Gentle)

This one’s kind of a spoiler, but at the end of Ash it’s revealed that…. oh, I’m not going to tell you. If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember, and if you haven’t, then you should. It’s an interesting version of ‘hidden’, though.

8. The Realm of the Faeries: ‘Little, Big’ (John Crowley)

The whole of the book is about a peculiar American country house and its portals into the world of faeries – not so much a different world as a place in ours that can only be accessed by travelling in an unusual direction. Sort of.

9. Underland: ‘The Silver Chair’ (C.S. Lewis)

What it says, really. A hidden kingdom lying underneath the Narnian world that we’ve been exploring for the last five books.

10-13. Nargothrond, Gondolin, Doriath, and Lothlorien (J.R.R. Tolkien)

The ‘original’ hidden kingdoms. Doriath, and later Lothlorien, are hidden kingdoms in that nobody can enter them unless the ruler wishes it – Lothlorien can be entered by Sauron himself, but even he couldn’t get into Doriath. Those not wanted are simply lost in the woods, unable to find a way in. Doriath is known as ‘the Hidden Kingdom’ and Lorien as ‘the Hidden Refuge’.

Gondolin and Nargothrond are hidden in the more literal sense that people don’t know where they are. At least, that’s the plan. The caves of Nargothrond end up having far too much publicity, so don’t stay hidden for all that long, unfortunately; the Hidden City of Gondolin, protected by poor map-making, magical enchantments, a paranoid totalitarian government AND an impassable mountain range does rather better.

Needless to say, however, since this is Tolkien, it’s not much of a spoiler to point out that everything fails, everything hidden becomes known, and everybody dies, usually horribly. Except Lorien! Which is merely abandoned and left to go to ruin.

 

City of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

City of Dragons is #3 in the Rain Wild Chronicles, and #12 in the overall Realm of Elderlings cycle. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that, just as Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven are essentially two parts of a single novel, City of Dragons is (the beginning of) a sequel to that novel, rather than a book organically conceived of as the third part of a tetralogy. So, just as the first two books are related more tightly than most books in a series, so too, in reverse, this third book is rather more loosely tied to the preceding two than would be expected. In particular, although this is a sequel set very shortly after the end of the second novel, and continued the storylines of the main protagonists, it also feels like much more than a continuation of their story, with more POVs introduced and a significantly broader scope, in terms not only of geography and plotlines but also thematic content.

I’m not going to say too much about this. There’s a limit to what you can say in book 3 of 4, let alone book 12 of (so far) 13, especially as I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Moreover, I was a bit stung last time around, ending up not writing a review for Dragon Haven, just because it was so much a continuation of Dragon Keeper that I wished I waited and written a joint review of both. Well, this time I’m not exactly doing that, but the plan is relatively short comments on each.

What I do have to say – and a big part of why I’m saying anything at all rather than waiting until I’ve made it through the concluding (as though anything in Hobb’s world is ever concluded!) volume – is that a lot of my concerns in the first two books were addressed here. In my opinion, City of Dragons is a substantially better book.

 

But a truly terrible cover. There are lots of reasons I'm glad I don't live in the US, but the terrible American covers for Robin Hobb novels are surprisingly high on the list.

But a truly terrible cover. There are lots of reasons I’m glad I don’t live in the US, but the terrible American covers for Robin Hobb novels are surprisingly high on the list.

I didn’t think so at first. I’m not going to give away too much, but it’s fair to say that one thing I’ve always disliked with Hobb is the way she likes to create blacker-than-black villains. The one exception to this is the Liveship Traders trilogy, where the central villain is nuanced and many-hued, and even with the more simplistic secondary villain you can sort of see their warped but fundamentally benign motivations underneath. This is a big part of why I feel Liveships is probably the most satisfying of her works as a story, even if she was not quite as technically proficient as in her later works, and even though it is perhaps less emotionally powerful due to the more remote and flawed characters. Well, at the beginning of City of Dragons, we’re right back in cheesy villain territory.

But that aside (and it’s a minor quibble in terms of how much of the book it actually affects), it’s a great book. If I had a complaint, it might be that it’s a bit too ambitious for its wordcount. It does feel sometimes as though it’s trying to keep hold of too many story threads at once – it never loses control exactly, but some bits end up getting too little attention (or perhaps too much – one storyline in particular I thought was entirely superfluous to the plot and should either have been dropped or else expanded to be more valuable in its own right). Indeed, it wasn’t until the opening, catch-up chapters of the final volume, Blood of Dragons, that I realised how many characters I’d been allowed to entirely forget about during the events of City of Dragons.

So why is it a success despite that? I think there are four key reasons. Firstly, the introduction of a returning POV from the Liveships novels is not only enjoyable in its own right, and a nostalgic pleasure, but also helps to tie the story in to the wider world-story with which the readers have become invested over so much time. Indeed, where the first two books in the series felt rather isolated, rather all-to-themselves – like a novella set in the world of the books, rather than a full part of the narrative in their own right – this one works well in using both its scope and its plot to make it feel a more integral part of the world. In particular, I, and no doubt other, fans adored a surreptitious but completely logical (indeed inevitable) callback all the way to a minor scene in the Farseer novels, written a decade and a half earlier, which really helped the novel demonstrate its place in this mythos. Secondly, the broader plot and scope accompany a broadening of theme – this not only gives more to offer to readers not fascinated by the concerns of the first two volumes, but also helps, in my opinion, all the themes stand out better, allowed to breathe and interplay rather than being hammered home. In all respects there is a much less claustrophobic feel to this book. Which ties into the third reason: while the first two novels, despite the dragons of the title, dealt with a pretty prosaic matter, this third novel is given freer reign and allowed to introduce far more tantalising and enthralling fantasy elements.

But the fourth reason is simple: it’s more exciting. The first two books were pretty much devoid of serious long-term peril: danger was short-term, while the long-term threats were more problems that might have danger attached perhaps at some point in the future. Here, at least for some characters, there’s real and present threat, in a coherent and lingering way, and that adds much more tension to the novel. It also gives us more of Hobb’s sparsely-used and underestimated, but very strong, action writing, and in particular it gives us perhaps the most… I’m not sure what the word is even. I’d say grimdark, but while it doesn’t have the hopelessness or cynicism I associate with that; perhaps brutal? I’m tempted to just sound a bit teenage and say hardcore, with the caveat that I’m talking about authors and character actions, not about eroticism. So, this book gives us perhaps the most pure hardcore brutal scene I’ve ever read – sure, I’ve read bloodier passages and passages that liked to trumpet their ‘maturity’ and sophisticated darkness, but this one just spits in their face and calls them out for the adolescent fantasies that those scenes mostly are. If Robin Hobb’s books were walking in a dark town at night and were suddenly accosted by some leering grimdark novels in a dark alleyway and told in horrible detail what would happen to them if they didn’t do exactly what they were told because look, they’ve got a knife, this would be the scene where they grinned slightly dementedly and reached behind themselves for something and then said “you call that a knife? … …THIS is a knife!”

I really can safely say I never expected to read that in an epic fantasy novel.

[And now a little bit that should really have been in the review of probably the second book rather than the third, but it still sort of applies: why is everybody gay here? Hobb regularly deals with sexuality, particularly female sexuality, and has touched on homosexual behaviour among men both in Liveships and in Tawny Man (I use the ungainly term ‘homosexual behaviour’ because, particularly in the former novels, it may not be accurate to consider the behaviour to be the result of an underlying homosexual orientation in this case). I have no problem with this – indeed, it very much fits into the general atmosphere and ideology of her books, and it also fits the themes in this tetralogy. In a story about exclusion and difference, it seems very natural to include homosexuality. But I do have a few problems with how it’s shown here:
a) at least 50% of the sizeable male cast is gay (compared to 1%-7% in reality)
b) nobody seems to feel that this is an unusual coincidence
c) gay characters are completely and unambiguously gay. Nobody’s (except briefly in flashback) unsure, ambivalent, curious, open-minded, complicated, changeable, or just plain bisexual. (in reality, bisexual men are a significant proportion of non-heterosexual men, and both bisexuals and homosexuals are themselves outnumbered by those who declare themselves uncertain or hard to define)
d) despite 50% of the male cast being gay, there’s still not a single lesbian (or otherwise non-completely-and-unambiguously-heterosexual woman), just as there hasn’t been in any of the previous books – fair enough by itself, of course (see note above about numbers), but coupled with the prominence of male homosexuality (for the third series running) it looks a little odd
e) several characters, both gay and non-gay, appear to have perfect ‘gaydar’. This despite the fact that this culture seems to lack a clear gay male stereotype to conform to, the gay characters are very different from one another, and the culture actively condemns homosexuality forcing gay men to hide their sexuality… yet somehow people can still tell instantly? Do they sparkle distinctively in twilight or something?

I don’t have a political problem with all this particularly, though I can see how somebody could (I suspect a male author writing about lesbian casts in this way would garner much more criticism). Rather, it just seems to be getting rather silly…]

 

Now that's a cover!

Now that’s a cover!

Anyway, that’s probably enough for me to have said this time out. I’ll be back in the near future with a review of the final installment…

For now, scores (with little in the way of commentary, maybe more next time):

Adrenaline: 4/5. Not an out-and-out thriller, but a good pace and some effective peril.

Emotion: 4/5. Mostly from only one plot thread, it should be said…

Thought: 4/5. Getting really interesting, with the way Hobb sets up competing interests against a background of the inevitability of change. There’s never really a ‘right answer’ or a ‘happy ending’.

Beauty: 3/5.

Craft: 4/5. I just feel the outright villains are a bit TOO crude, and a bit too convenient.

Endearingness: 4/5.

Originality: 5/5. At that stage in a series where everything is unique, as no other book is likely to deal with these situations, but Hobb goes above and beyond that in crafting a personal vision.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Not only the best in this series so far, but one of the best novels by Hobb that I’ve read.

 

P.S. on covers: I wish publishers would let us have matching series. That is, I get why they want to reskin them every now and then, particularly series like this that come out over decades, but I wish they still produced matching covers for the later books. I’m going to end up with nine volumes of Howe covers, four volumes of this set of Morris covers, and then the next trilogy in another set of Morris covers. And while the new ones (the only ones that the entire series will be in) are good, they’re my least favourite of the three! Honestly, if I could get complete sets in both these Morris designs and in the Howe designs, I probably would buy them all (eventually). But as it is, if you want a complete set you need to wait until the author dies before you buy anything, to make sure they’re not going to write any more books with a different cover design…

 

P.P.S. still pissed off that my ISP periodically bans access to WordPress.

The Ruby Knight, and The Sapphire Rose, by David Eddings

The strengths and weaknesses of The Ruby Knight and The Sapphire Rose are more or less the same as those of The Diamond Throne, and to be honest they aren’t fascinating books in any case. I’m not going to give a full review of each of them, therefore. However, some general notes are in order, I think.

First off: if The Diamond Throne was impressively willing to depart from a succesful formula, its sequels are willing to completely blow that formula up. I’m not sure any pulp fantasy book before or since has devoted half its page count to the minutiae of an electoral procedure the way The Sapphire Rose does, complete with updated vote counts every few pages and discussions on quorums and supermajorities and the legislative conventions regarding points of order. Sure, there are mangonels and conspiracies and mass-murder and howling fanatics and whatnot, making it different from most elections, but it’s still basically half a novel about an election.

More generally, Eddings is still willing to push his proto-grimdark line. The Elder God Azash and his unspeakable servants inject a strongly Lovecraftian scent into the epic fantasy, and some of the darker elements in this vein are succesfully creepy. That not being enough for Eddings, there’s a sharp right turn into Hammer Horror in the middle of The Ruby Knight, an interlude (terrified peasants, ill-aspected wood, sinister castle, travellers in the night, etc) that feels narratively and tonally out of place, but that actually both works well in its own right and fits surprisingly well into the whole – out of place, perhaps, but in a complementary way.

And if anyone’s doubting his grim and dark credentials, there’s even an explicit lesbian torture-snuff-cannibalism scene in there. [Reminder: I was about eight when I read this. Re-reading it was the first time I think I’ve ever read something in a book I first read as a child and thought “oh, that’s probably not appropriate for children”. Having gotten past the icky moment of it, I’ve reconsidered somewhat – children are pretty good at not being traumatised by the written word – but it’s still a bit shocking that it’s there, given that the writing style is clearly aimed at young adults at the oldest]. The scene rather demonstrates that weird taboo imbalance that we (and in particular conservative Americans) have: the heroes can wade through blood (a phrase he actually uses) and brutally and graphically torture and murder people, as can the villains, but anything vaguely sexual requires a grin and a wink to the reader. There’s nothing wrong with the author being coy about things, and nothing wrong with them being graphic – but the combination of coyness in one respect and graphicness in the other comes across as at best maladjusted and at worst (since the violence is never really serious, even when it’s horrible) exploitative.

Edding’s greater achievement as grimdark, though, is in realising that the depressing can be more important in setting tone than the graphic and the horrible. Eddings is able to inject negative mood into his story when it’s needed, particularly by turning his band of heroes to bickering – a bickering that may not initially be noticed, but that sets the mood of the scene very effectively, whether that’s to build apprehension before something bad or to to be relieved by something good. The ending of the trilogy is also notable in that regard, for the way that it focuses on the emotions of both the characters and the reader, rather than just on the plot – although unfortunately it’s so overshadowed by the climax of the plot that it’s easy to try to skim through it. I suppose you could say that this is his ‘Scouring of the Shire’ attempt, although the plot-line is very different from Tolkien’s.

And one last reason to praise him (beyond, it should be said, some good scenes and some very interesting ideas): he has a degree of self-awareness that many writers don’t possess. He knows he’s writing with a bunch of tropes hanging in the background, and he’s not afraid to mess with the reader by subverting those tropes or overtly lampshading them. Sometimes he’s even quite clever about it. Particularly audacious is his use of a prophecy… which isn’t actually mentioned until right at the end of the trilogy, when it’s basically already been fulfilled. It’s like reading Wheel of Time and only finding out that Rand is the Dragon Reborn in the final chapter, when nobody has ever mentioned the whole ‘Dragon Reborn’ concept until that point – it’s a delightfully strange moment.

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And yet… these really aren’t very good books. And a big part of that has to fall into a general “Eddings isn’t a great writer” black hole of useless analysis, but on reflection I do think there are three big, important flaws underlying a lot of what goes wrong in this book.

The first is the dialogue. Now, the problem isn’t that the dialogue is bad. It’s not good, sometimes it’s bad, and it’s always rather repetitive – in particular, it keeps finding itself in a rut in terms of mood, with far too much flippancy and smugness. But no, that’s not the problem. The problem is that there’s just too much of it. I’m not sure why I didn’t realise this at first. Perhaps just because I’m so used to the problem with fantasy novels being a surfeit of descriptive passages. I think one reason why Eddings was so overwhelmingly popular in his day was that he broke away from the description and had a lot of accessible dialogue between recognisable, modernesque people instead. But it’s also where he falls down. I said in my review of The Diamond Throne that there was too much plot stuffed into too few pages: well, a big part of why that’s a problem is that when he’s rushed, Eddings turns to dialogue. There’s endless sequences of people explaining things to other people, planning things with other people, describing things to other people, having witty banter about things with other people. To be sure, Eddings mostly avoids repetition of content, but that just means an endless number of “he explained” and “she briefly recounted” and so on. Even when it’s not on the page, it’s still talking. And that automatically takes us one step away from the action. It’s all “they quickly massacred the racially inferior simpletons”, and then two pages of banter, regret, analysis and so on. We don’t get to be there in the middle of the action, we just get to float over the action listening to what people think about it. Put it like this: it feels at times like epic fantasy for the radio. Now, of course having lots of dialogue can work: but it shifts the drama from the events to the characters. And that’s a very bad idea for Eddings, because his strength lies in the drama, and absolutely not in the characterisation, which for the most part is utilitarian at best, and downright empty at worst. And yet in a way that too is a shame: Eddings can do character. There are times when he does it effectively, even when he introduces some interesting and unexpected notes – particularly when he sees how theatrical and one-dimensional some of his characters are and turns it on the reader by inviting us to see the simplistic surface as hiding something more complex beneath. He can do character – but he doesn’t. For all the dialogue, he rarely uses it to actually build character in more than a superficial way – instead, the dialogue is all devoted to the plot, and character-building, where it occurs, is a happy bonus. Now, if he had used dialogue to create character, it would have been a slow and meditative trilogy, but fascinating. If he had used description to create plot, it could have been exciting and dynamic and satisfying. Instead, for large chunks of the story, he uses dialogue to create plot: the wrong tool for the wrong job, and the result is emotionally distant and tonally monotonous.

And that’s a great shame, because he’s so clearly at his best when he steps away from the plot-furthering dialogue and gives us some incidental detail of scenery or psychology – at those times, he’s a solidly mediocre writer with some genuinely effective moments.

The second problem is the author’s simplistic conservativism. Now, I’m not normally someone to judge a book by the politics of the author. Probably my favourite poet, for instance, is E.E. Cummings – but I couldn’t disagree more with a good half or two thirds of what he (in such passionate and opinionated ways) says: the anti-intellectualism, the lecherousness (some of his sex-poems are beautiful, but his obsession with sex and prostitutes does sometimes go over into ickyness), the misogynistic suggestions, the devoutly McCarthyite hatred of anything even vaguely left-wing, now and then the religious fire-and-brimstone. I love the kinetic fury of a poem like “F is for foetus”, for instance (a violent excoriation of FDR), even if I disagree with its sentiments.

And when it just the character complaining about the size of the government bureaucracy or the level of general taxation, I’m fine with it. I don’t mind the author having those opinions, and I certainly don’t mind the characters having those opinions. No, the problem isn’t so much the political conservativism, as the social conservativism. Part of that is the inherent racism – which is partly the author and partly the characters, but I wish it was clearer which part was which – and part of it is the confused attitude toward female sexuality (in which prostitution is treated smirkingly and whores (with one exception) are always happy nymphomaniacs, but promiscuity in a respectable woman makes her irredeemable filth, and evil besides – a fair enough attitude for mediaeval characters to hold, I suppose, but again I wish it weren’t so easy to believe it’s the author’s view too), and part of it is the totally classist view, in which the noble peons exist only to be well led. A small but sharp part of it is the frankly disturbing view of pseudo-incestuous sexual relationships in which pre-pubescent females are cast as predators ensnaring adult men – and this is presented as a positive thing. Hell, the central romantic quest springs from the sexual/romantic love between a middle-aged man and his surrogate daughter, presented as such a perfect match precisely because he created every aspect of her personality and more or less (accidentally) groomed her to love him from birth, while in return she set out to sexually entrap him from early childhood. Now my problem there isn’t that that’s a seriously disturbing incestuous relationship – no, that would actually be a really interesting relationship to explore in more depth. It isn’t even exactly that this relationship is there and unexamined, its creepiness left hidden in the corners under a gauze of romanticism. It’s that there’s at least two of these relationships, and iirc definite suggestions of a third, and hints of others: it’s the way that young girls are presented more or less as by default sexual predators, and as needing ‘taking in hand’ by their father-figures, sexually, as a matter of course. Not as a few weird relationships that spring up or as a few unusual characters with unusual life-histories, but as something perfectly normal and not needing to be explored, just the way women and men are. Now again, this is a small thing: all the explicit mentions along these lines would take up no more than a paragraph or two if combined together; but it’s a striking, and in these clumsy hands somewhat offputting, note.

[Perhaps it is worth mentioning here, again, that these books were probably co-written by the official author and his wife, which I suppose ought to count for something when considering the portrayal of women and of relationships]

Sapphire_Rose

But the big part is the ideology of force. To put it simply: bullying is good. And goodness is bullying, the two are the same. The cure for troublemaking is bullying. It can be a benign form of bullying, like beating naughty children thoroughly enough until they love you and become good people. Or it can be a more sinister form of bullying, like brutally murdering somebody because they were rude to you and didn’t realise you were better than them. Evildoers rebel against authority, and goodness is reimposing that authority through violence – which might be less troubling if it applied to the good characters too. But of course, heroes are super-men, not bound by conventional rules and customs and the soulless stupid apparatchiks who enforce them. Superior men don’t have to do what they’re told – indeed it’s their duty to murder (if men) or manipulate (if women) everybody else to get their way, because their way is good. And you can tell they’re superior because they do murder and manipulate. The real difference between the good and the evil (as opposed to the mass of unthinking sheep inbetween who need a good thrashing) is that the evil people are cowards who hide in shadows, and the good people are brave and perfectly open about their superiority. Except when they’re not, but that’s OK because they’re the good guys.

Of course, I’m extrapolating and exaggerating. Eddings’s books aren’t a political screed, and he doesn’t beat the reader about the head with this. And there are times when Eddings hints in the direction of suggesting his psychopathic heroes may not be entirely morally unimpeachable. But the core conviction that might is right is always there. I’m left unsure whether Eddings is intentionally toning down his views to let them slip more insidiously into the reader’s mind without questioning, or whether he’s genuinely unaware of this authoritarian streak in his basic assumptions about the world. Either way, that’s a problem not just aesthetically but structurally. Because might is right, the good must triumph through force and violence. Sure, the occasional hoodwink of the the bad guys is allowable in the details, so that we can point and laugh at how stupid evildoers are, but fundamentally conflict must be resolved through the righteous crushing the unrighteous through violence, preferably with a lochaber.

And that can be satisfying. Few things are more satisfying in the moment than the good guys righteously kicking ass. The problem is, that means they must have the ability to kick that ass, so they must be stronger. But the whole plot can only exist because the enemy is stronger than the good guys – much, much, much stronger.

Which means that the plot comes down to an endless series of deus ex machina moments, where everything just happens to go perfectly well at all times for no particular reason, levelling the playing field so that good can win without having to really try. And failing that, the bad guys will just have to be rubbish without any good explanation given whatsoever.

[Another tangential thing worth mentioning: although Eddings’ career took flight at broadly the same time as the baby-boomer fantasists, he was born a good fifteen to twenty-five years earlier, way back in 1931. If he sometimes seems a little more old-fashioned than most of his ‘contemporaries’, this may be partly why. Writers like Martin, Jordan, King, Brooks, Donaldson, Pratchett and so forth were all teenagers in the early sixties… Eddings was born in the Depression and was a teenager during WWII and its immediate aftermath. He was also, incidentally, the only one of the big fantasy authors of the eighties and nineties not of an age to read Narnia and the Lord of the Rings in adolescence]

And that’s where we come to the third big problem. Because one way in which the playing field can be levelled is through magic… and Eddings has created a setting where ultimately everything comes down to the author deciding on a case by case basis what magic will or won’t do.

This could work. The magic system is prayer-based – every ‘spell’ is actually a request made of a god (although the gods also use spells, so I don’t know what’s going on there), which means that magic is really pretty fickle and incomprehensible. And that could be a virtue, if the books were willing to embrace that fickleness in all its frustrating terror. Or if the books were willing to reduce the fickleness through a thorough religious examination, where the characters were thinking all the time about what would or wouldn’t please their gods. But neither of those things happens, because basically the heroes have a pet god on their side and the fickleness and/or previously undisclosed kryptonite issues only arise when the plot dictates. The power of the heroes therefore fluctuates between omnipotence and helplessness, and there’s rarely any more explanation than “you wouldn’t understand” or “the gods don’t like doing that” (and then nobody worries about it or gets pissed off or anything): all we know is that the gods will help out just enough to ensure victory at relatively little cost, but just little enough to draw the plot out into three volumes.

Eddings makes it obvious that every obstacle will be overcome by hitting it with a big enough axe, and then he lets us know that the size of the axe available will always and only be determined purely by the demands of the plot. This takes a lot of the tension out of the conflicts.

What we get in the end, then, is a frustrating vision of what could have been an epochal fantasy series, the moment when mainstream fantasy, from the world’s biggest fantasy author, turned in a much darker and dirtier direction. That turn into darkness would have been supported by some strong ideas, some bold decisions in pacing and plotting, and some powerful moments. Unfortunately, Eddings’ general weakness as a writer, his decision to cram in plot while minimising both character-building and immersive description, his inability to avoid a certain over-flippant tone, and his refusal to abandon his simplistic, cartoonish, deus-ex-machina-requiring depiction of force as resolving all conflicts, in favour of a more nuanced and satisfying mechanic that would have complemented his turn to more adult background material, all conspired to hamstring the project, rendering it neither one thing nor another, neither fully satisfying pulp entertainment nor more mature reading.

As a result, this isn’t a must-read for anyone other than students of the genre’s history. That said, those with time on their hands and a high tolerance for the genre may find it interesting enough to be worth the read. There is, after all, something compulsive about frustration.

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Adrenaline: 3/5. At times a 1 or a 2, but at other times Eddings is able to deliver effectively tense and exciting scenes.

Emotion: 2/5. Characters too thin and too distant to get too emotionally engaged with them.

Thought: 3/5. Although to be fair a large part of that is thought about how the same books could be re-written so much better.

Beauty: 2/5. There are occasional pretty moments of description. But mostly this is ugly – both intentionally, in its darkness, and unintentionally, in its ungainliness on the page.

Craft: 2/5. There are moments of competence – even, frustratingly, moments suggesting some talent on the part of the author, if only he’d played to his strengths. But there’s a lot wrong here.

Endearingness: 2/5. It can be a slog at times, speckled with little nuggets of objectionable sentiment.

Originality: 4/5. Yes, some elements are still extremely formulaic. But I think that if you started at the beginning of the second book at tried to predict the shape of the next two volumes, you’d be a long way off what actually happens. Plus, Eddings does make his setting distinctive, and there are a few scenes I wouldn’t expect to find elsewhere.

OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. To be honest, ‘not bad’ does feel like a bit of a charitable answer, after writing the review – but to be fair, I was enjoying it substantially more when I was reading it. And although the flaws in the series became more and more clear as I went on, I do think these two books are a step up from the first in the trilogy, and although the flaws are glaring, there are virtues here as well to balance them out – it’s a work with a distinctive feel, easy to read, moderately fun. And the fact that it’s so frustrating in its failure to be what it could be is itself a sign that there is something there to provoke that frustration. Which is more than many books have.

Actually finished something…

Yay! I finished writing a short story!
This is yay-worthy because a) I haven’t been really writing for a while, and b) even when I was writing regularly, I was always terrible at actually finishing anything.

Unfortunately, not only is it a story that isn’t that great in many ways, it’s a story that’s intentionally ‘bad’ in some ways, so if anything writing it will have made my writing skills worse, not better, and helped inculcate bad habits. On the other hand, it’s a story I’ve wanted to write (and have written many uncompleted versions of) for years now, so I’m pretty pleased about it. [Not to say I won’t write more versions of it in the future, of course, but this one will do for now, I think]