May 082016
 

Hero of Ages coverMonths after finishing The Hero of Ages, I still catch myself lost in thought, imagining its characters and scenes or picking my way through aspects of its plot. It is the last volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I’ve written briefly about the first and second), and I think it’s near perfectly done. Rather than going on about everything I like though, I’ll just point out three things that seem especially noteworthy.

First, I loved that each book is complete in itself. In each one, a group of characters has a specific goal that will “solve all the problems of the world” [spoken with portentous voice and reverb] and in each book the characters overcome great difficulty to achieve their goal. Yet in the first pages of both the second and third book it becomes clear that they seriously misunderstood the situation, that their solution wasn’t in fact one, and that it may have even made things worse. This is not however a case of a successful book spawning sequels that undo the work of the earlier resolution of the plot with a twist in order to create more business. Instead, by the end of the last volume, it becomes clear that the characters are learning more about their situation and that incidental chains of events running through the early books are actually essential plot points in the later ones. In a sense, the characters think are in an epic fantasy—“grow up and become the hero who destroys the material embodiment of evil before the forces of good fall”—but by book three it’s clear that they have also (an perhaps more importantly) been participating unwittingly in a mystery novel and a political thriller from the very beginning.

Second, these books are not fantasies of individual victory. Individuals succeed throughout and these small victories are meaningful and exciting. But the story also confronts the reality of their failure, loneliness and death. Characters build relationships with each other only to be separated and forced to operate independently. Alone they make decisions in with little information, hoping that their relationships are trustworthy but without having any reliable ways of discovering if what they are doing helps or even matters. It seems to me that this aspect of the books echoes (but only echoes) the notion of glory in ancient Greek epic. (And in this regard, its seems worth noting that every heroic figure in this book ultimately dies valiantly in battle.)

Finally, this series, although heavily and carefully plotted, does not trod along telling what happens. Instead, it traces its plot, indicating it rather than detailing it. All of the pieces are there. The causal links are clear. The separate lines of action intertwine. (And by the last book, major events are happening in many different locations, each separated from the other and developing independently.) But the full implications of the plot’s complications and complexity are left implicit. Enough information is given to figure out all of the connections and nothing is hidden, but they are not stated directly. As a result, the story leaves room to imagine and explore what happened after you’re done moving through the first telling.

These books have helped me remember what great fantasy novels can be like and I can’t recommend them enough.

 May 8, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 052015
 

Well of Ascension CoverThe follow up to The Final Empire offers the best second act I’ve read in a long time. Very dark, disturbingly violent and, by the end, things are bad bad bad.

This series departs from the typical solemnity of a medieval scholar’s three-part epic form, something captured in the big, Manga-style pay off of the final scenes. There Vin, the woman protagonist, drops from the sky and slices the enemy leader (and his horse!) in half with a single blow from a sword that’s bigger than she is. She then proceeds to take out the rest of the army’s leaders one by one.

This scene is spectacular and over the top, but it also feels very much of our Final Fantasy/World of Warcraft moment. This is not just another rehash of timeworn, pre-Christian mythologies, and the form of the spectacle broadcasts that.

 December 5, 2015  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Aug 282015
 

final empireAn oddly non-mythological fantasy novel that reminds me of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi (think The God Makers rather than Dune). It’s wonderfully, refreshingly good. So good in fact that my urge to read slowly and soak up everything mostly beat out my urge to race to the end to find out what happens.

Some observations:

  1. The back story and world systems (magic, politics, etc.) are effective, not exhausting. They suggest a large and fantastic world without belabouring details.
  2. The world feels human because of its limits. There’s no Marvel-style superhero healing. When people are hurt they have to heal and it takes time, leaves scars. Communications operate through mundane systems: letters, messengers. The delays and physicality involved create genuinely engaging tension and open spaces for the plot to develop.
  3. The plot is both complicated and complex but never plods as a means of suggesting scope or striking an epic pose. Instead, reversals allow an interplay between the slow and the fast that creates surprise. The war that characters are building for happens earlier than planned, off-stage and once news of it arrives, it has already failed catastrophically. (One character made a believably stupid error of judgment.) The intrigue intended as the set-up for greater intrigue later turns out to have been the real intrigue from the beginning. (The characters misjudged when planning.) Yet everything is built to and motivated. The first out-of-the-hat plot surprise that I can think of occurs in the final pages of the book and, because it’s the only one, is just great great great.
  4. The plot reaches completion. The centuries old, omnipotent despot is killed. There is no holding back, no attempt to defer across the de rigeur trilogy format.
  5. Story-wise, the book is a heist narrative crossed with a coming-of-age story and two non-sacred messiah tales. That’s a lot of story structure for a few hundred pages, but it’s all coordinated perfectly and develops with grace and clarity.
  6. The leader of the rebels insists on smiling when he can do so honestly and understands that there are always secrets behind any secrets he uncovers.  The narrator does too, and it make this book really enjoyable to read.
 August 28, 2015  Book Logs Tagged with: , , ,