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Fortress of EaglesI read the first book in this series a few years ago – I picked up my copy of Fortress in the Eye of Time at a street-side secondhand bookshop in Bombay (or Mumbai, if you prefer) and enjoyed it a lot. Although I think I knew there were successor books to it, I don’t think I thought of them as direct sequels. It was only fairly recently that I got Fortress of Eagles from What the Book? in Seoul.

The story follows on directly from what happens in the first volume – and as it’s a while since I read it, and my memory for story details isn’t that good anyway, so I was a little bit lost at first. In Fortress in the Eye of Time, Tristen is called into being – Shaped – by an old wizard called Mauryl. He apparently has lots of knowledge, and even memories of a previous life, locked away inside him, but he is pretty much a naïve tabula rasa. He befriends the crown prince, Cefwyn; there’s a big fight with a dark wizard called Hasufin Haltain; Mauryl dies (apparently), and Cefwyn becomes king.

Fortress of Eagles concerns the aftermath of these events. There’s lots of contemplation of intrigue; the courtiers of Ylesuin have varying levels of support for Cefwyn’s choices – his betrothed, Ninévrisë, is due to become the ruler of the neighbouring enemy nation, and Tristen is widely seen as an abomination, a product of sorcery who doesn’t follow the established religion.

The book is very contemplative and very talky. Until the last third or quarter, it moves at a very sedate pace with not much happening. This is a flaw, but it was a also a nice change of pace. It was never boring to read, as the two viewpoint characters – Tristen and Cefwyn – are both well realised and engaging, Tristen especially. Tristen has lots on his mind, not least of which is the nature of his own existence, and there were plenty of clues that much more would be revealed about this in future installments of the story. Cefwyn has a fractious court to balance, which is interesting enough, and one of the best characters is his adviser and military chief, Idrys (whom, naturally, I kept visualising as Idris Elba), but Tristen was always the more interesting.

Cherryh’s writing is very readable and she can write very good dialogue – which is good, because the characters have long conversations full of long paragraphs. It’s not necessarily realistic dialogue – the characters talk about things that are going on in the world and that are relevant to the story in a way that is basically infodump, but feels pretty natural – it’s the kind of thing a king would talk about, for instance.

She has also developed a particular style of writing and dialogue that somewhat mimics pre-modern writing without being heavy-handed or unreadably dense. Take this bit of banter between Ninévrisë (speaking first) and Cefwyn at a ball:

“Am I the prey tonight or is it Tristen? Policy must attend this festive mood. You are stalking someone.”

“Good lady!” He laid a hand on his breast, above the Marhanen Dragon, worked in gold. “I am suspect?”

“Today since dawn you have held close converse with the captain of your guard, the Patriarch of the Quinalt.” One finger and the next marked the tally. “Your brother the duke of Guelessar, and your brother’s priest, besides a converse again with Idrys, with Captain Gwywyn, and with Captain Kerdin – I discount your tailor -”

“Your spies are everywhere!”

“You ensconce me in this nest of women all with ambitions, all wishing to persuade me to confide in them, and wonder that I know exactly the object of your inquiry, who was riding to Drysham today -”

“Cressitbrook. You don’t know everything.”

“- with his guard. It is he, is it not? Has Tristen done something amiss?”

“Tonight,” he said with a glance at the women in the distance, and with his voice lowered.

“I hear it all, you know. The Warden of Ynefel [Tristen] is out spying on the land. He converses with the horses, quite dire and lengthy discourses, and likely with the sheep. His birds fly over the land and bring him news from every quarter …”

The writing style may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think this is almost exactly how fantasy novels should be written. There is absolutely no reason for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures of centuries past to talk like people from the 21st century, still less for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures from before the colonisation of the Americas to talk like 21st century Americans.

C J CherryhIn the last section of the book, a lot happens – and although it’s very clear how this fits into the overall scheme of things in Ylesuin, it also comes as a bit of a surprise, given the slow pacing of the earlier part of the story. For 450 pages, I did feel that more could have happened; as a result the book feels very much like an episode rather than a self-contained story. You get the feeling that the arc story is just getting started.

Despite this, Fortress of Eagles was a great pleasure to read, and I hope it won’t be long before I secure a copy of Fortress of Owls.

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The Fellowship of the RingI’ve been pretty lazy when it comes to my blog lately, so it’s been a while since I finished reading this – and an even longer while since I started reading it (which is a logical necessity, when you think about it). We read The Lord of the Rings in my friend Steve’s Tolkien and the Inklings group in Seoul; it was the culmination of a year of Tolkien reading. In fact, it was most of the Tolkien reading as we read it one book at a time for our monthly meetings and the novel is divided into six books (but often published in three volumes). So this review is pretty much a year in the making – and, as I don’t have the books with me right now, it will probably end up being rather vague.

I read The Lord of the Rings first when I was a teenager, I believe – during that period of my life when I often visited Shopping City Library. I don’t have any particular memory of it though – so I actually may not have read it then at all. I did read it (again – or possibly for the first time) when I was at university in my mid-twenties. This was the time when Peter Jackson’s films were coming out; I picked up a nice boxed set with the whole thing divided into seven volumes – one for each of the books and one for the appendices. I remember being impressed by the invented world and history and the rather post-modern structure, and less than impressed by the writing style.

In particular, I remember reading the very end of the story in a gazebo next to one of the ponds at Bath Spa University and pretty much breaking down in tears at the sadness of the conclusion.

All throughout the months of reading it this time around, I wondered if it would affect me quite as much. It didn’t.

The Return of the KingOne of the great attractions and flaws of The Lord of the Rings is its simplicity. The writing is quite naïve; none of the descriptive writing is especially literary or challenging by mondern standards. The characters are generally quite two-dimensional – with the exceptions, perhaps, of Boromir and Frodo (one of whom dies a third of the way through, the other is not present on page for large portions of the rest of the novel). This makes the story seem a little less like the struggle of individual characters than a dance of paper dolls.

But, of course, Tolkien wasn’t trying to make something comparable to modern literature – he was writing a fairy tale, a myth. I remember thinking, when I read the story in the 2000s, that the childlike simplicity of the text allowed it to somehow slip through the reader’s critical defences, to operate on a more primitive level. I didn’t necessarily feel that this time – I found it more of a constant distraction.

Probably one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so popular is because it is not at all challenging, literarily or morally. It’s a bit like a warm, unconditional hug from a parental figure. Nature and rural life is unconditionally good and meet and beautiful; the good guys are always ultimately good – even if sometimes troubled or tempted – and all their actions turn out for the best; evil will always be defeated.

The Two TowersThe Lord of the Rings is too important and influential a book – personally and globally – for me to dismiss it. There is much that is genuinely beautiful about it. In particular, the sense of a world changing, becoming less than it once was, personified exceptionally in the age-long melancholy of the elves and their eventual passage to the West … and less exceptionally in the industrialisation of the Shire. Gandalf is a wonderful character – a wise and benevolent, yet reluctant leader, who, despite his utter trustworthiness, still has his secrets and is not a stranger to losing his temper (‘Fool of a Took!’).

The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the novel. The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring is the most conventional part, but thereafter it alternates, book by book, between focussing on Frodo and Sam on the one hand and the rest of the characters on the other. This works very well for building suspense about what is happening to Sam and Frodo – especially as Aragorn, Merry, Pippin et al have no idea how their friends’ unlikely quest is proceeding. There are a couple of parts where first Merry and Pippin’s adventures and later Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s are glossed over in flashback (the sacking of Isengard by the Ents and the ghost army’s routing of the southern corsairs) somewhat unsatisfactorily – but that may just be because we’ve already seen these things in the films.

J R R Tolkien

There is more that could be said – and we discussed a lot of these issues and more in our book group over the months we were reading The Lord of the Rings – but I would rather this review stayed reasonably concise. In short, many of the core elements of the story are archetypally powerful and it’s a masterpiece within its own terms. In the contexts of twentieth century literature and contemporary fantasy, it’s a little lacking. I couldn’t help thinking many times what it might be like if the same story were written by a more ‘grown-up’ writer like Stephen R Donaldson, George R R Martin or R Scott Bakker (fantasy writers having an ‘R’ initial in their name is a old charter or a tradition or something). Nevertheless, I’m sure this is far from the last time I will read The Lord of the Rings.

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This is, of course, the long-awaited fifth book in the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and it takes up the story of perhaps the three best characters: Jon Snow (not the newscaster), Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. These characters were conspicuous in their absence from the equally long-awaited fourth volume, A Feast for Crows; much of Dance is therefore contemporary with its predecessor; towards the end, however, the timelines of the two books merge and other characters, such as Jaime and Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark, make appearances.

It’s a long book – this is epic fantasy, after all – at a little under a thousand pages. You’d think that, after five years of writing it and such a bloated page count, a lot would happen in this fifth of a promised seven books. Stuff does happen of course, but nothing hugely momentous, really. Jon manages men on the Wall; Daenerys does much the same in Meereen; Tyrion has the most interesting narrative, but he doesn’t have much control over it, being passed from pillar to post. Theon Greyjoy also has a fairly prominent role, but he gets faded to the back of the mix as the book progresses; ditto Bran Stark.

Minor characters also crop up along with the aforementioned major players who rejoin the narrative near the end. Each has minor character that gets a viewpoint character necessitates several pages of exposition detailing their backstory; such infodump is, I find, acceptable at the start of a book, but, at the end, it just bogs things down and dilutes the sense of a rising climax. I wonder how necessary they are, as well, being fairly small links in an already mighty chain.

An important new character emerges in this book – another Targaryen, and yet another claimant to the Iron Throne of Westeros. Unlike Daenerys, he actually leads an initially successful invasion of the western continent, leading me to think he’s fulfilling Daenerys’s narrative purpose since the Mother of Dragons lost her way occupying the slave city of Meereen.

Most frustratingly of all, pretty much all of the plotlines end in cliffhangers that probably won’t be resolved for another five years.

Also most frustratingly – if you’ll grant me the contradiction – are some frequent problematic lexical choices. Firstly, Martin often uses the word ‘oft’; a word that is described in dictionaries as being ‘poetical’ or ‘literary’ – which basically means ‘pretentious’; it’s oft-used here, and grates consistently. Worse than this are two equally over-used words that are actually incorrect. ‘Wroth’ is an adjective that means ‘angry’ or ‘wrathful’; however, Martin uses it repeatedly to mean ‘wrath’, which is a noun. Presumably, he’s confused by the British pronunciation of ‘wrath’, which is ‘roth’ or ‘rawth’. He also uses the word ‘mayhaps’, the etymology of which Wiktionary defines as ‘A misconstruction of mayhap after maybe and perhaps.’ This particular lexeme isn’t even listed on Dictionary.com.

On the whole, then, it seems that I didn’t really enjoy this book. On the plus side, it’s quite readable. There are a couple of notable scenes where very striking events take place – particularly one involving Daenerys and a dragon – but they’re not really followed up in this volume. The titular dance with dragons is a ponderous affair, and the dragons themselves are sorely under-used – no doubt because of the quite logical problems one would have in dealing with a fire-breathing wild animal. This book is very much a chapter in the overall story. It’s not quite as pointless as Robert Jordan’s Crossroads of Twilight, but it does seem to highlight many similar issues that afflict writers, and, consequently, readers of epic fantasy – namely the risk of sinking in a morass of plotlines.

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This is the third book in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and the ninth – and penultimate – Thomas Covenant book overall. It follows on directly from Fatal Revenant, where – look away now if you don’t want to know the result – Thomas Covenant, having died ten years previously his real world and three millennia ago in the world of the Land and become part of the Arch of Time, was resurrected by his lover Linden Avery, thus rousing the Worm of the World’s End and dooming the world to destruction and ensuring Lord Foul the Despiser’s swift release from his imprisonment within the Arch of Time.

This climactic scene takes place within the numinous region of Andelain, where the dead are able to appear to advise their living friends, and continues into the next book – for five long chapters – as the assembled heroes of the Land’s past and future debate what to do. In addition to debating what to do, Covenant in the first chapter and Linden in the succeeding ones agonise over the consequences of their decisions and their inability to deal with them. This agonising is a huge feature of Donaldson’s work, especially in these Last Chronicles, and, while I love Donaldson’s work in general, has been a big stumbling block to my enjoyment of this book and the first in the series, The Runes of the Earth. It starts off tedious and doesn’t let up much.

Fortunately, once Linden makes up her mind what to do, there is also a fair amount of action. Strangely, though, given that the world is going to be destroyed in a few days as the Worm of the World’s End ravages its way across the Earth devouring Earthpower, the characters all acknowledge their inability to do anything about it and instead concentrate on rescuing Linden’s adopted son, Jeremiah, a boy without volition or speech but with the mysterious ability to construct, um, constructs that open portals to other places. Against All Things Ending is really his story – even though he isn’t present for a large portion of it, and is unable to do anything because of his mental state and other factors.

As with the other books in this series, the volume is divided into two parts, and each one is very similar in terms of pacing. Each begins with a long section of discussion and inner turmoil and ends with with some profoundly momentous questing and action. By the end of the book, although certain obvious things have been achieved, there are still the same potent dangers looming in the immediate future – this volume even adds another, as if the Worm, Lord Foul, Kastenessen and his skurj Roger Covenant (Thomas’s evil son), two ravers, a pack of semi-evil sandgorgons roaming the Land etc weren’t enough to be going on with. This means that there are an awful lot subplots to be drawn together in the last book – The Last Dark.

A another major feature of Donaldson’s writing is the near-purpleness of his prose, which relies on recondite verbiage and synaesthetic similes. It’s intense and stylistic, and a little annoying, bemusing, even amusing. The January edition of David Langford’s sf and fantasy newsletter, Ansible, had something of an Against All Things Ending special in its column Thog’s Masterclass (a selection of humorously badly written quotes from genre novels). Quotable (or, indeed, unquotable) quotes quoted therein include:

Infelice shed distress like damaged jewels.

Wreathed around her limbs, her bedizened garment resembled weeping woven of gemstones and recrimination.

At once, Infelice fled like a wail from the hollow.

Around Linden, the wan glitter of starlight lay like immanence on the friable crust.

Cold and scalding as congealed fire, the flat wilderland ached towards its illimitable horizons.

While I admire Donaldson’s determination to write something that is dense and difficult – qualities that are reflections of the density and difficulty of the characters, story and world they describe – his lexical tapestry in this series does verge on the ridiculous.

These two massively important elements of The Last Chronicles – the endless inner turmoil and torment of Covenant and especially Linden (who is the much more prominent character in the three books), and the complex and grandiloquent language – both tend to detract from the emotional impact of the work. And these books should have vast emotional impact: Linden is trying to rescue her son and, in doing so, in trying to follow cryptic advice from Covenant and others, in trying to balance the needs of her companions, she dooms the world to destruction. The inactivity of the characters for large portions of the book – in the face of imminent death – is also annoying.

Still, the uniqueness of the series and the author’s style of writing in the series are things that should be savoured. This is not literatures for juvenile minds, it’s not intended to be a happy jaunt through fantasy land, but is supposed to be difficult, harrowing, challenging. Instead of a plastic, superficial attractiveness, Donaldson is attempting to create something of lasting and genuine beauty. It’s just a shame that he seems to overdo it so much.

I still enjoyed Against All Things Ending, but it wasn’t as good as the preceeding installment; I found it on a par with The Runes of the Earth. Only three years to wait for the last ever Thomas Covenant book.

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