A Taste of Honey

This fantasy novella recounts a gay, interracial, intercultural love story. Two young men — one the son of a low-ranking aristocrat, the other a soldier accompanying an imperial delegation — secretly begin a sexual relationship and fall in love over the course of eleven days. The story is set in a place where gay men are impaled alive and left on display. So when the two are found out by the aristocratic youth’s older brother, he is held captive by his family until the soldier leaves to return home.

The story of this brief relationship is told in alternating sections with the story of the young aristocrat’s later life as the husband of the king’s daughter, a life in which he seems to have chosen to live in hiding by passing as a straight man. However by the book’s end, it is revealed that the technologically advanced geneticists worshipped as “gods” have, as a favor to his wife, erased his memory of the eleven-day love affair. In other words, the man has not passed; he has been trapped in self-ignorance and been made incapable of discovering the reason for the sadness and loss he feels throughout his life.

Combined these two stories are pretty bleak: the beautiful moments seem designed to set off the cruelty and ugliness of the surrounding culture. This is of course a political effect, and point taken. Homophobia sucks, especially for people born in a place dominated by its most overt and violent forms.

However, this clarity is thrown into chaos by the novella’s completely unexpected final pages. There, in a surprise twist of the sort I always dislike, the curtain is pulled back, revealing that nothing except the first ten days of the men’s relationship is true. What actually happened, is that at the end of that day, the two men fled to safety together. In the decades since, they have lived in what amounts to a loving marriage that includes family. The terrible homophobic story we’ve read, is just a vision of an alternate life, a “what if” offered up by a magical/advanced-tech being who is responding to a question posed by the curious and no-longer-young aristocrat.

This feels like a cheat. If the tragedy of the protagonist’s life isn’t real, why wallow in its ugliness rather than showing me the happier world he built with his lover? Erasing the cruelties of a terrible world with the narrative equivalent of “Surprise! Just kidding!” seems dismissive of the very real resonances between this fantasy’s horrors and the real world of some readers.

But perhaps, that’s me being dogmatic. And in the days that followed, I did see how if you’re a geeky queer kid reading the book from inside a situation that looks like the world of the young aristocrat, it might be liberating to discover after a long gaze in the book/mirror that this/your world is just “an alternative.” And perhaps focusing on the bleak world and leaving the geeky kid to imagine what a alternative might look like is empowering. Or at least, I can see how this might have been the case for me if I’d read this book in my early teens when I was dreaming (for reasons I couldn’t quite understand) of someday living in Atlanta or New York.

Whatever the case, the flipping narrative makes this book a complicated piece of writing that I have trouble deciding what to do with. Theoretically that complication is a good thing, but in practice and given this story’s chosen stakes, it doesn’t sit well with me.

UPDATE: or maybe the audience is non-queer fantasy fans, giving them a picture of how crummy the traditional world can look to the queer kids they live with (even if they don’t know they live with them)? In which case, that final twist shows that things can be different, that there are alternatives, and that maybe they could help makes changes?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The Half-Blood Prince ended in tragedy and the first full-scale battle in the war that’s been brewing since The Goblet of Fire. This book picks up with a brilliant set piece: an elaborate plan aiming to move Harry to safety at the exact moment his protections there fail and he is able finally to move secretly because of his age. The chase that ensues is frightening and exciting. The patronus that drops from the sky only a few chapters later, interrupting a wedding and sending Harry, Hermione, and Ron into hiding sets the pace (breakneck) for the double quest that will follow: find the horcuxes and find the hallows.

Because it’s the final book, I was ready to make judgments as I read and they came fast and fiercely. I don’t like Ron: he’s a brat and the fact he turns out okay is because his family is great and that sticks. I also find it very hard to like Harry: he pouts and is too quick to judge and I kept feeling like he’s a bit like a best-case-scenario jock who could easily go wrong. What saves him is that he loves his friends and tries (when he’s not pouting) to do right by them, even when it costs him dearly. Hermione is my hero and I love her through and through. Ron should count his lucky stars she even puts up with him, much less loves him.

Snape is a genuinely noble and tragic figure, damaged by the angry emotions and choices of youth, marked by them (literally and figuratively), but strong enough to see those choices through to the end, and he saves the day because of it. Dobby, the free elf, risks everything to save the boy who set him free, dying for it, but also saving the day. And then there are Neville and Luna, my two favorite of the students at Hogwarts: when Neville, in an echo of the Chamber of Secrets pulls the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat and destroys the final horcrux—like Snape and like Dobby, saving the day—my heart sang.

So now the series is done, and I feel like Harry in the final chapter: older and apart and looking back on a past time. (Incidentally, the bit-like-a-jock Harry didn’t go wrong, he went bourgeois-boring. Which is fine. But still, surprising.)

All said, it’s a genuinely great series of books and I’m really happy to have read it simply for the pleasure of it. But I’m also glad because I’ve discovered that most of my students have read them as well and they love them and so we now share a wealth of references and analogies that we can use to discuss and make sense of things in class. And most importantly, because my students read the books as kids, references to them don’t read as “teacher trying (and necessarily failing) to be cool.” They are simply a shared, fun and useful reference allowing better communication.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry and his friends grow up and become part of a larger world’s story in the way they had not been up to this point. The shock of this damages Harry, and he’s angry and difficult to be around this book. Other characters step to the foreground, especially Hermione, my favorite of the “Golden Three.” Of the others, I love Neville, and I keep rooting for Snape, even though he makes it very hard. (But then, Harry makes it hard as well, so I can make the effort for Snape.) Ron continually gets on my nerves.

The plot here is dark and menacing and operating on a level larger than Dumbledore’s Army seems to understand or to be able to handle. I read in constant fear of discovering who would be next to die, hoping all the while that it would not be Neville. (Please not Neville. Please.) By the final scenes in the Ministry I was reading fast enough to feel my eyes ache from the strain. The words were gone and I was there. It was that good.

Still, reading the book exacted an emotional toll. I work with Dolores Umbridge, and there were days I could only read a few chapters before I had to put the book down and do something else. I’m not a fiction writer in part because I can’t imagine, understand or bear evil in the everyday. I’ve tried. And so petty meanness and casual sadism catch me unaware over and over and hit me with a kind of fresh hurt that I’ve never been able to grow numb to. So the horror of finding it here in Hogwarts was a shock over and over again and it gave me nightmares if I read too much at a time.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and word is that he’s out to get Harry. In school, there’s the usual competition around the house points and the Quidditch Cup and the kids are learning real magic now (“Expecto Patronum!”). But bubbling throughout is the other stuff: a prof keeps foretelling Harry’s death, Malfoy’s working to have one of Hagrid’s hippogriffs executed, Dementors are conjuring up Harry’s memories of his parents’ death and, worst of all, Ron, Harry and Hermione aren’t getting along.

In the final chapters, everything swirls together so quickly my eyes hurt from trying to read fasterfasterfaster. Scabbers—who I spoke about over and over with my brother, always in admiring, loving terms—is a traitor! Sirius Black, after spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is after the rat—seeking vengeance, yes, but also to protect Harry. The new Defenses Against the Dark Arts teacher, appropriately named Lupis, is a werewolf. He’s also a friend of Sirius and of Harry’s father, and he’s also out to catch the traitorous rat. In the final scenes, Hermione and Harry step back in time, saving Sirius, saving Hagrid’s Hippogriff, and saving Harry.

These books are plotted like steam engines, but what makes them come alive are the characters who feel like flesh-and-blood creations. Snape especially remains a mystery. At this point, I can’t see him being any good at all, and yet, I’m rooting for him.

Don’t be evil, Snape.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Two thoughts.

Despite what I wrote earlier, I remember skimming the first two books in this series over the course of a couple evenings in a friend’s home the summer of 2000. I also saw the first two (or three?) movies. Reading this book, I remembered a couple of the scenes. But now that I’m done and starting the third book, I’m excited. The rest are all new.

That matters because, second, Rowling is a good writer! In these first two books a world has been created, a deep problem set-up (which I can figure out nothing about beyond Voldemort is bad and is coming back), and a whole host of living and likable characters have been introduced. I like Harry, Ron and Hermione. I like Dumbledore and Mrs. McGonagall, and like disliking Snape and hope he won’t be a bad as he seems. Most importantly, the children here are doing their best and their blind spots are real, their fears understandable, the courage they find believable.

So I’m looking forward now to reading fresh for real. It’s exciting.

The Shades of Magic Trilogy

I read the first of these books, A Darker Shade of Magic, a few years ago on a plane going somewhere. I loved it—and was unexpectedly horrified by the cruelty of life in White London—but I was also very much in the throws of my initial struggles with reading fantasy and science fiction. (More on that soon probably.) So I read it, loved it, put it aside and left the trilogy unfinished.

Eventually, maybe the following summer, I checked the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, out from the Bibliotheque Nationale and began reading it by the river. Its scope and focus had changed, the world and the problems it faced had become orders of magnitude larger and its opening chapters were near perfectly constructed. My own problems were, however, still frustratingly similar: 120 pages in, I decided that summers were better spent reading books I didn’t have the time for in winter because of the concentration they required and put aside this book unfinished. This on its own amounted to clear evidence of foolishness, stupidity and a deep illness of the mind and soul, but (or perhaps thus) it took time to work through and get over it.

When I did finally tear up the hedge—sowed and cultivated in grad school and then carefully tended during those tense years before tenure—that kept the science fiction and fantasy novels I loved out of the wondrous garden of Literature, the final two novels in the trilogy were near the top of the list of books I set out to read.

I loved the series. The world is complex but appealing, and the magical tournament of the second book was great. There is darkness running through everything though—literal and metaphorical darkness—and the costs of surviving it are high. People lose things and people are lost. By the end, I was sorry to be done.

Here’s the important insight that sorrow left me with though: the sorrow was about the people and their relationships. The characters had been sketched out in a combination of realist description and of magical traits and action that were at root metaphorical and the portraits that emerged were not simple cut-outs. Two men enter the story in love by divided by a break-up one doesn’t understand. Both are powerful and confident (but for different reasons), both are confused by the actions of the other, both need each other and try ineptly to find their ways back across their broken hearts and very concrete social situations. And their friends and family, good people but none of whom understand (or in some cases know) what has happened between them, wind up part of a fight and making things harder. When the two earn their relationship back, it was glorious and felt real. And this relationship was very much a side plot until the last book.

The other relationships were just as rich, just as complex and, in their variety, they what make the novel work, not the magical rivers, the overlapping Londons or bleeding but badass wizards. These relationships can be amorous. They can be friendly. The one between the two male leads is fraternal: a sad and ruined older man finds himself a villain, first against his will but then freely in order to do good, but in his rough and brutal way takes care of a younger man, equally powerful but naive, helping him grow to the point where he can survive after they have saved the world. And there are so many more people and relationships in this book. This is great writing and great imagining and I loved it from first to last.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The world doesn’t need me to say anything about the Harry Potter books. In fact, when I mentioned to my brother that I was going to read them along with my twelve-year old niece who is right obsessed with them, he suggested I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t yet. When I told him I hadn’t seen the movies after the first two, I’m not sure he knew what to say and just told me the third was his favorite.

All of which is to say that I’m reading these books more-or-less fresh and without much to influence the experience other than ambient cultural knowledge. So what do I think?

This first book is definitely for children, which makes it a quick read, but the characters are well done and the tone genuinely happy. I laughed aloud more than once. So it’s good, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.

Johannes Cabel: The Necromancer

It’s been awhile since I’ve read something, liked it for the first few chapters, but then chapter by chapter liked it less and less. This book is like that.

Johannes is not a pleasant or endearing character. His brother is, but he’s very much off-stage for long stretches of the action. And story-wise, the book is essentially a series of self-contained “bits” or set pieces that are wrapped up in the end with a few long final chapters suggesting just enough character growth to justify a happy ending.

None of which is necessarily a problem. Lord knows I like plenty of deeply risible claptrap. And this book is better than that.

It’s just that it’s a book that plays to a particular taste. You’re either going to eat up the constant winks, nods, puns and, most importantly, Johannes’s Victorian Gothic posturing or you are going to find them dropping like bricks, one by one and page after page, onto your last nerve. 

The Obelisk Gate

The second book in The Broken Earth trilogy shifts the narrative in ways that I found disorienting for the first half of the book.

In part this was because—as was the case in The Fifth Season—narrative point-of-view is so central to the effect the book is aiming for. Again the principal point-of-view is a disorienting second person and it’s used to put identity—who is speaking? to whom?—and my efforts to “identify with” on centerstage as questions. By the end of the book, I’d finally clued into the fact that in being constructed as challenges, these concepts were also being thematized.

I was also slow to catch on to the new narrative stakes. Narrative lines established in the first book seemed to have faded into the background here without me having a good sense of what was taking their place. With the point-of-view holding me at arms length from the characters, my uncertainty about the direction of the story initially made for shaky (pun intended) reading.

Only once I was past the mid-point had I settled back in enough to catch on to the true source of my problems: the scale of the story had changed dramatically. What I’d understood as a of coming of age fantasy—a young country woman is brought to town, educated, discovers she’s important—wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t simply that familiar story and resemblances to it were a distraction. The stakes here were social, historical and philosophical and the narrative was reaching for and attempting to establish the cultural resonances that support strong allegory.

I’ve already read The Stone Sky as I write this, so I should probably go ahead and admit that this second book in the series remains my least favourite. But seeing how successfully the final book arrives at the deep allegorical force this book is building toward makes me admire this one for all the work it does to make that final triumph possible.

The Fifth Season

I read this book in a rush, caught up in the world and the characters. This is great fantasy writing.

I also really like that nothing here is a revamping of Germanic or Nordic mythology and that this isn’t a world of wise, white men helping young white men discover themselves and save the world. That’s a shift from the norm and it feels right.

Narratively, this book takes all kinds of risks with point-of-view and plotting. Yet somehow, by the end it pulls everything together. It’s a feat of strength and makes the book extremely satisfying.

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Sunday wasn’t a great day, and as the afternoon wound down, I flipped over to Netflix to see if anything would catch my eye. For some reason, I clicked “play” on this movie which had never before tempted me in the slightest.

Looking back now, it’s hard to reconstruct exactly how it happened that I sat through it to the end, but I did, and as a result, I can say without reservation that Mortal Instruments is the biggest mess of a movie I’ve seen in ages. It’s gasp-inducingly bad.

And yet, there is Jonathan Rhys Meyers in black leather and rat tail braids. There is Lena Headey doing nothing but lying there asleep in scene after scene without ever getting a chance to wake up and kill her kid or fuck her brother. And there is Godfrey Gao in briefs and a dinner jacket mixing and mingling at a party. And there he is again striding smartly across an empty set in a fitted black robe with a cavernous hood that isolates and sets off his perfect profile. Also, there are vampires

These things alone should, by all rights, have made this movie wonderfully “bad” and carved it out a place in my magical gallery of guilty pleasures, regardless of what else was going on in the dreadfully silly (and terribly cast) main plot. Yet they don’t, they can’t, the rest is just too awful.

Which is tragic.

Game of Thrones, Season 1

games-of-thrones-i

I’d seen this season a long time ago and was uncertain about whether to continue watching the show. But by last Spring, I’d accepted that it had become a cultural phenomenon and that I should make an honest effort to see what it was about.

Because a friend had given me all of the books when he’d moved a few years ago and was cleaning his shelves, I decided that I’d read them over the summer rather than bothering with the adaptation. This plan was a bust. The books are well-written but, to my eye, are detailed beyond all reasonable bounds. Halfway through the first one, I realized that reading them would take all the effort and energy required to puzzle together a history of medieval England, but without the payoff of being true. So I dropped the series without regrets and without any nagging curiosity to pull me back.

I did have the first two seasons on my computer though, and so at the end of summer, I decided that I would start from the beginning, watch them both, and see what I made of them. And I’m glad I did.

The first season is much better than I remembered, and with the knowledge of the half of the book I had read providing context, I saw the places where the writers are making very clever choices about the adaptation. The omissions and elisions make the television series reasonable in a way the books struck me as not being. So absent a drastic change that pushes me away, it appears I’ve lined up my TV viewing for the coming winter.

Warcraft

My brother, my sister and I have played World of Warcraft for years. It’s fun, but it’s also a way for us to find time to talk and to hang out despite living thousands of miles away from each other. So when the release date for Warcraft was announced, we knew that there was really no way we were not going to see this movie, reviews be damned. And yes, the reviews were absolutely awful.

Here’s the thing: watching the movie I understood the complaints of every single reviewer who found themselves sitting in a dark theatre watching the silly portentousness of it all. Their suffering must have been real and was surely terrible.

But the movie wasn’t for them. It was for me and my brother and my sister, who laughingly compiled our list of all the very cool (but yes, if you want to be a killjoy, also very silly) things we hoped we’d see. And I’m happy to report, almost everything was checked off our lists, including a sheep. Even better, we got to see a major scene near the film’s midpoint echo one of our favorite moments from the early storyline of the last expansion. So for us, this film was a complete and total win and we were ecstatic.

But once it was done and I was home, the film got me thinking about a couple things. The first is that, despite its budget and blockbuster sheen, Warcraft was a small film in the sense that it aimed to be nothing other than a niche product appealing unashamedly to the specific segment of filmgoers who were ready to enjoy it for what it was. And in this way it reminded me of Krull, my go-to example of an amazingly effective stab at pure-fantasy filmmaking.

And that target audience? They turned out and bought tickets to watch it. My theatre was full of men and women of all ages, all of them clearly gamers, all of them laughing and having a good time together, and all of them clearly chill (except for the Fury Warrior sitting two rows up with a snack ready to go in each hand). It was a great crowd, and crazy as it sounds, I kinda felt like, once the end credits were rolling, that we should all share our specs, guilds and realms so that we could hang out afterwards. I was attending a WoW party in my hometown, and I was a bit sad when we all got up and disappeared back into the world.

Second, I realized that this film does something at the level of production that was different from what I’d seen before. Films with product tie-ins or that adapt popular stories or properties are as old as cinema itself. So it’s easy to mistake Warcraft as more of the same. But I really don’t think it is.

Now I haven’t dug around or done the necessary research—so consider this bar talk slash intuition translated into print—but in every other example of a non-incidental tie-in or adaptation that I can think of, the Hollywood film operates as the hub of the cross-media and licensing strategies. In those cases where the non-Hollywood properties have seemed to have some level of independence and this hierarchy has begun to blur, I can’t think of one where either 1) the film didn’t flop terribly; or 2) a studio or conglomerate didn’t buy the property (or its owner) outright. In both cases, the priority of the film and studio in the cross-media story world is clearly reestablished.

Warcraft has not followed this pattern. Despite frenzied accounts to the contrary, the film did not flop and there will be sequels. But neither did it shift the story focus to a new film-driven franchise. Blizzard intended Warcraft primarily as a means to develop and to support the core game by providing backstory for the recent Warlords of Draenor expansion. They also aimed to support and generate interest in the next expansion, called Legion, by reintroducing ideas and themes from earlier expansions that the new game content would build upon. In support of these goals, Blizzard appears to have insisted on controlling the film’s narrative and its presentation from script development forward even though doing so reportedly put the project at risk more than once due to studio objections to their demands.

To my eyes, the film that came out in theaters this summer looks like the movie Blizzard wanted to make. It supports the emerging game story and fits seamlessly into the cross-media collection of supporting works being issued as book series and animated videos that develop and introduce that story to various audiences. The film is larger in scale than these other works, but in terms of narrative, it seems to be on equal footing with them.

Stated differently, the game and not the film remains the hub of Warcraft‘s story world, which means Hollywood is not in charge of this story machine; it is just one of the gears. I think that makes this situation something new and very much worth watching as it develops.

Phoenix

Phoenix CoverIt was a dreary day and the seriousness of life was getting to me and I just wanted to get away. Phoenix was on my shelf. I grabbed it, settled in and tagged along as Vlad had adventures.

I have history with Vlad. I’ve known him since university. He can be difficult and has rough edges, even some anger issues, but his heart’s in the right place and he takes care of his friends. He also keeps a sense of humor even when things get rough. I like him.

I also like Steven Brust, or at least, the man I imagine him to be. A talented writer with a light touch and the power to be funny and enchanting, and also, on this particular night when things were getting me down, a steady voice telling me a story, pulling me out of my bubble and making things better.

I don’t think I can have enough books like these on my shelves.

Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

Hero of Ages cover

Months 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 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 plod 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.

The Well of Ascension

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.

Mistborn: The Final Empire

final empire

An 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:

  • The back story and world systems (magic, politics, etc.) are effective, not exhausting. They suggest a large and fantastic world without belabouring details.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Cry of FreedomIt’s hard to comment on the explicit content of an 800 page history of the Civil War. What I’ll say instead is that I read it as a follow-up to What Hath God Wrought, that it was a page-turner and that I was fascinated.

Why did I not have a better knowledge of the Civil War from school? I was a talented student, industrious and eager to know everything, and yet, here I am reading this book and realizing I knew next to nothing.

On a separate note, reading this book, I had an odd thought: epic fantasy it seems to me is oftentimes something like mythologized, military history for people who want to imagine a world rather than know the past. That sounds like a judgment, but I don’t mean it to be. I’m just noting that formally, the narrative of Battle Cry and the narrative of something like the first Shannara book have a lot in common, even if the latter is much less complex.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Hobbit- The Battle of Five ArmiesThe Hobbit movies all fail but this is the best of the three. (The first was awful, the second left me indifferent.)

Jackson’s early films were funny and were clearly works of enthusiasm and joy. The Lord of the Rings changed that register but their stretch matched the breadth of the material and the results were genuinely compelling cinema.

I may be imagining things, but in this last instalment of The Hobbit series, I felt like Jackson was fed up with the machine he’s built and even maybe wanting to laugh a bit despite the epic pretentiousness. It was subtle and maybe I was just projecting, but by the end, I found myself hoping that, finally free, he would go off and make something as brilliantly oddball and offensive as Meet the Feebles or Dead Alive.

A Wise Man’s Fears

A Wise Man's FearsI’ve tried three times, and I can’t get through this book. It’s the sequel to The Name of the Wind, which I liked quite a bit, but this time around I’m not feeling the love. There’s just too much business and too many words for too little pay off. Hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of pages in and the story is more-or-less exactly where it was a few hundred pages before the end of the first book.

Actually I’m not sure at this point what the story is supposed to be about: I thought it had to do with some murderous beasts of legend, maybe a king that had to be killed, but there’s none of that in sight right now. Instead, it’s endless open mic nights and homework assignments and not very much else. (Think Harry Potter at uni playing a lute.)

My thought: the book seems to be working toward an odd kind of anti-heroic realism despite casting itself in the framing narrative (and through its choice of genre) as a heroic fantasy. It seems to me that this kind of conflict between story and genre could be exciting, interesting. But here it’s not, or at least not right now: it’s just cancelling out all the momentum and dragging the story to a halt.

Maybe someday, I’ll give it another try, but for now I’m done.