Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 5)

Standing in the street just outside the palace, Siska looked to the heavens. She could already hear Xaryasha’s guards, the rattle of armor and saber that would certainly mean her death if they found her. She knew that she would be hunted and hounded through the streets, and that she would never know peace. The legacy that she had cultivated for so long would be thrown onto the ashheap, and there was nothing that she could do about it.

Even her daughter, she knew, would never be able to live down the shame of this incident. She had ruined everything for both herself and her descendants.

But still, she had done the right thing. She could not stand by and allow a child of the imperial family be slain, no matter what the Dashturi had told her. He might have an intimate connection with the great god Ormazdh—she supposed that anyone who had attained his rank must have that—but that did not mean that he was the final arbiter of what was right and wrong.

She shivered at that heretical thought.

Much as she was disturbed at the thought that she had given up some fundamental part of herself by daring to challenge the man who was second to the Shah in the Most Blessed Empire of Haranshar, she had to escape.

Pulling the hood of her cloak up over her head, she made her way through the streets of her beloved city. It was fortunate for her that, as a city that had only gradually sprung up, it was as full of twists and turns as a rabbit’s warren. As she made her way to the western wall—which she knew was the least defended—she offered a prayer of thanks to Ormazdh that her younger brother had dragged her out into the streets so many times when they were children.

Finally, she came in sight of the great wall that reared over the steepest side of the great mount upon which the city of Pasgardakh was perched. While the other three walls had their own gates—each named after the creatures that had been slain by the city’s founder: the sphinx, the manticore, and the dragon—this one had only a small gate that was only lightly guarded. Siska knew that her only hope was that it continued to be so, for otherwise she knew she would be trapped in the city. She would be crushed between the invading forces of the prince and the vengeful Dashturi.

She strained her eyes, and she saw that indeed there were only two guards on duty. She fought down the feeling of disappointment. Deep down, she had hoped that the explosions that had rocked the palace would have drawn them away, but clearly they had been given their orders.

Just as she was steeling herself to move forward, the night in front of her exploded into a brightness more piercing than the noonday sun. A rush of heat and sound blasted her, and she thought for sure that she was going to die in that moment of incandescent beauty.

Ormazdh must have been looking down upon her, however, for when the light faded—leaving her vision spotty and her ears full of a dull ringing—she saw that what had been a solid section of wall with a gate was now a pile of rubble. She did not know what had happened, and she did not dare to question. Seeing that there were no invaders swarming into the city yet, she bolted toward the gap.

Already there were cries from all the other parts of the city. She did not have time.

When she reached the gap, she saw that indeed there was a steep drop to the plain far below. The only way down was a steep path that even goats would find hard to traverse.

Sighing deeply and taking one last wistful look at the city that had been her home, Siska started to make her way down.

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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Warlock” and “Amberle” (S2, Eps. 7 & 8)

Whoah. So, some major stuff happened in this week’s double episode of The Shannara Chronicles. While our old friend Bandon was able to resurrect the Warlock Lord (who appears to have taken on the guise of a twisted Allanon, due to the Druid’s blood used to resurrect him), Wil had to confront the truth of his heartbreak, Eretria confronted her own demons, and both Riga and Tamlin saw the resolution of their respective plots.

I’ll be the first to say that there are times when this show hits some bumps, when the dialogue is a bit clunky or trite, and there was definitely some of that in this week’s offering. However, there are also times when it hits you right in the gut, and Wil’s painful admittance that his love for Amberle is over is one of those moments. I truly felt my heart breaking right along with him as he finally had to come to terms with the fact that the beautiful Elf girl was a part of his past, not his present or his future. Any of us who have experienced this kind of heartbreak know that this sequence gets it exactly right.

Beneath this exchange there is a fundamental philosophical and human realization. No matter how much we like to hold onto the moments in our lives that fill us with joy (or sadness, or both), we also have to come to terms with the fact that time waits for no one. W have to leave behind our pasts, and that brings both closure and an ineffable sadness. I give The Shannara Chronicles enormous props for being able to do justice to this profound feeling.

I have to say, Austin Butler continues to amaze me this season with his growth as an actor. He’s always had a prettiness about him that fit in nicely with the MTV aesthetic, but the shift to Spike has, I think, allowed him to put that prettiness to a different use. There are moments when you can see his emotions strain to break free of his beautiful exterior, his jaw clenching with the strain. Indeed, it’s precisely his male beauty that gives this struggle its potent force and that makes us feel with him rather than just for him.

This pair of episodes forced the various characters to confront the darker parts of themselves. While Wil emerged from his testing with the Sword of Shannara intact, ready to do battle with the Warlock Lord, Eretria gave in to her demons and became…part Mord Wraith? It’s still unclear exactly what she is now, but the sense of bodily violation was certainly a potent one. It feels a bit unfair that this brave Rover girl, who has conquered so much–and endured such heartache–meet this fate. I do hope, however, that she is able to overcome.

For his part, Allanon has finally confronted the reality that his death is coming, that his actions to save the Four Lands have inadvertently set him on a path to an ending from which he will not escape. He continues to evince a harsh yet vulnerable stoicism, and he is willing to accept the fact that, if by his death he is able to bring about the safety of those in his care, then the sacrifice will have been worth it. Fortunately, he has already begun training Mareth (who has really grown into her own as a character), to take over for him. We can but hope that she is up to the task of carrying on the legacy of the Druids into a new era.

And lastly we have Bandon, who at last succeeds in his mission to bring back the Warlock Lord. Unfortunately, his new master is far more cruel and heartless than he had imagined, and one gets the sense that the resurrected creature is not at all what he had thought he might be. While Bandon ultimately seems to embrace the absolute nothingness that the Warlock Lord represents, I continue to hold out hope that there might be some redemption for him in the end.

This week also asked the profound question: can you still go on with your heroic quest when it seems that there is no hope? Wil confronts this dilemma, for the Sword has shown him what he believes to be the truth: that the  Obviously, Wil decides that the answer is in the affirmative, but who knows how true his vision might turn out to be? The fact that he goes on with his heroic quest despite the uncertainty speaks to his strength as a character and a worthy adaptation of Brooks’s original creation.

This week also saw the death of two of the major characters of the season: Queen Tamlin of Leah and General Riga. The death of the queen had an understated grace about it, as she stoically accepts that this is the price she must pay for the actions that she has taken. Riga’s death was quite a lot more graphic, as the Warlock Lord proved to him in no uncertain terms that though he has attempted to eradicate magic, his efforts have been in vain. It was quite cathartic to see this evil character at last dispensed with, and it was fitting that he suffered from the very thing that he sought so ruthlessly to eradicate.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention my thoughts about the resurrected Warlock Lord. It was quite a nice touch to have him be played by Manu Bennett, who has brought Allanon to life with such memorable scenery-chewing. This sets up an interesting doubling that will hopefully pay some dividends in the final two episodes.

All in all, this series has really grown into its own, and I really do hope that it gets a third season. Now that it’s finally proven that it can capture an effective blend of gritty and splendid (the visuals continue to stun this season), it could really go in some interesting directions.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Path of Daggers” (Book 8)

So, we come at last to The Path of Daggers. At first, I thought this novel was going to be as boring and tedious as my previous readings, but I forgot just how much happens and how many leaps it makes in terms of plot. In this novel, the Kin and the Sea Folk join with Nynaeve and Elayne to begin returning the weather to normal, Rand makes an aborted attempt to throw back the Seanchan, and Perrin has to contend with some new arrivals to his entourage (including Queen Morgase).

It was quite a relief to have the Bowl of the Winds finally put to the use for which it was intended. One gets the sense that this is an action that will have far-reaching consequences, and it is one of those moments where an action in this world does not immediately show its full effects. If their efforts are successful, it means that they will have made a significant strike back at the Dark One, whose attempts to mold the Pattern in his dark image have resulted in this unseasonable weather.

This novel also sees Rand make some substantial gains, though he also continually finds himself beset at every corner. The Seanchan continue to push against his efforts, and he even has to confront betrayal by his Asha’man, who have either begun to go mad or, more sinisterly, have been subverted by Rand’s unsteady ally Mazrim Taim. Jordan writes evocatively of these incidents, and there is a sense of breathless dread as we wait for the next proverbial shoe to drop. As much as Rand attempts to build the unsteady network of alliances that will enable him to at last face the Dark One with the world united at his back, there are a thousand forces that work to shatter that unity. The tendency of Jordan’s universe, like our own, tends toward chaos, the good always subverted by those too blinded by their own ambition to see the truth of what needs to be done.

Just as importantly, this novel makes it very clear that Rand has begun to lose parts of himself. The toll of being the Dragon Reborn–the hope and bane of his entire world, is finally wearing away at his sanity. All of this before the taint on saidin has really sunk in (as far as we know). It is this sense of crushing obligation and its heavy price that it exacts that makes him a compelling and sympathetic character, even if he is at times more than a little insufferable (particularly with his very retrograde views on women).

I have to say, though, that one of my favourite characters has to be Cadsuanne. She serves a similar function to Moiraine, though it turns out that she is vastly older than any other Aes Sedai that we have yet met. There is just something about her that stands out. She is proof that Jordan does know how to write female characters with true grit and strength, though the real pity here is that she doesn’t get more stage time. If only Jordan would allow these side characters more scenes and POVs…

If I have one complaint, it would have to be the kidnapping plot, in which Faile, Morgase, and others are abducted by a party of Shaido. To me, this felt like a tacked-on bit of intrigue to give Perrin something to do. Of the three principal characters, his own role in the Last Battle still seems ambiguous, though it will no doubt have to do with the fact that he can speak with the wolves. Hopefully, the kidnapping plot will have some sort of payoff, but I guess I will just have to wait and see.

Despite its relatively short length, The Path of Daggers manages to move the overall plot of the series forward in significant ways, while also opening up a number of new threads. If I have one complaint, it is precisely that nothing really gets resolved by the end. By this point, we can certainly see that Jordan had become somewhat lost in the intricacies of his own plot. Note that I’m not saying that there won’t be a pattern that emerges later on, only that by this point it’s very hard to see (even for the author), how to get from where we are now to the Last Battle.

Next we’re on Winter’s Heart. Stay tuned.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “A Crown of Swords” (Book 6)

We come at last to the seventh novel in “The Wheel of Time,” Crown of Swords. Rand faces loss and victory in equal measure, while Elayne and Nyvaeve (with Mat’s unwilling help) find the Bowl of the Winds, and Perrin does not appear at all.

Jordan continues to demonstrate that he has a firm and thorough knowledge of his created world. I personally found Ebou Dar to be one of the more charming cities that he has created, and I was particularly drawn to Queen Tylin. There’s something intensely amusing at seeing Mat caught flat-footed by a woman who is as rapaciously sexual as he is. Indeed, it’s quite refreshing to see the ways in which the women in Jordan’s universe–for all of their foibles–have a measure of agency that they lack in many other epic fantasies of a similar scope. Say what you will, but it is rather nice not to see women be the subject sexual violence and torture all the time (I’m looking at you, Martin).

The high point of the novel, however, has to be the moment when Rand is finally able to lure the menacing and cruel Sammael to his death in Shadar Logoth. Sammael is hardly the most subtle of the Forsaken, and it is precisely his arrogance that ultimately leads to his demise. It really is a fitting punishment for a man who is willing to do whatever it takes to prove that he is better than the Dragon (though of course he isn’t). It’s only fitting that he is at last stricken by Mashadar, a malevolent spirit that is as dark and rotten as the Forsaken himself.

There is a strong sense in this novel of the tremendous toll that his destiny is beginning to take on Rand. While I’ve always found him to be a bit insufferable, I think I have a better grasp of his character. He is a man tormented by the knowledge that he has to break and save the world in equal measure. And of course there is also the fact that began life as a rather simple farmer but has no had to take on the burden of leading all of the nations of the known world in a fight for their lives. Add to the fact that he has to continue contending with the impending madness caused by the taint on saidin (as well as the voice of the former Lews Therin tormenting him in his mind), and one can see why he might retreat at times into a bit of navel-gazing.

A Crown of Swords paints a picture of a world teetering on the brink of utter destruction. It almost feels like this is the deep breath before the plunge, when all the world seems to be holding its breath, waiting for the final axe-stroke to fall. There are some truly gruesome and dark scenes, such as when the gholam attacks Nynaeve and Elayne, wounding and killing several others in the process. The attack is a potent reminder, if any were needed, that the weapons from the Age of Legends–and the knowledge that the Forsaken possess-give them an undeniable edge in this world. Sometimes, it feels as if the odds are truly too great for any of the characters to win in the final struggle, no matter how valiantly they might attempt to do so.

All in all, I quite enjoyed A Crown of Swords. It’s a more briskly-paced volume than its predecessors, and while some might fault the novel on that grounds, I actually think it marks one of the high points in the series as a whole, when we finally begin to see the end-game. Of course, there are all sorts of pieces that remain in play, but it’s smaller size means that it is able to accomplish more than the previous novel. Things are finally getting real.

I’ve already finished The Path of Daggers, so expect an update on that to be appearing here shortly. I’m also about halfway through Winter’s Heart, so I’m (finally!) on the cusp of the novels that I haven’t read yet. I have to say, I’m very excited to have finally reached this stage. So, it’s onward we go!

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

Reading The Wheel of Time: “Lord of Chaos” (Book 6)

Well, I’m charging headlong through “The Wheel of Time,” and now that I’ve finished Lord of Chaos and am on the cusp of finishing A Crown of Swords, I thought I’d take a few moments to catch up on my blog posts about the series.

In this novel, a lot happens and, simultaneously, a lot doesn’t happen. The pieces on the game board are shuffled a bit here and there, but it’s not really until the final third that the major action happens. The high point of the novel comes in the last few chapters, in which Rand is captured by Aes Sedai from the White Tower. The battle that leads to his escape is one of the most powerfully written sequences of the book (and the series as a whole up to this point), and makes the whole book worth it.

However, there were a number of important developments in Salidar, in which Nynaeve discovers that stilling can indeed be healed, and both Siuan and Leane are given back their ability to channel. Though they are weaker than they were–the idea that some things can never truly be changed is a hallmark of the series–the fact that they can be healed at all is extraordinary. And it’s hard not to feel a rush of emotion when these two extraordinary women are at last given back a measure of the life they had thought forever lost.

However, I also found this to be a challenging book for a number of reasons. First there is the sheer length of it. There is a lot that goes on in this book, but the major plot points either come quite near the end or are drowned in the sort of bickering and endless squabbling that seems to mire the characters every other chapter. I know that some people enjoy this aspect of Jordan’s writing, but for me it is its greatest flaw. (I don’t mean to suggest that he is alone in this. Almost every epic fantasy that goes beyond three or four volumes falls into this same trap).

While I’ve always appreciated the sprawl and scope of the series as a whole, there are times when I believe an editor’s ruthless scalpel could have trimmed out some of the less necessary bits. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the scope and the breadth of the storytelling; it’s just that I wish it weren’t mired by all of the parts that are so infuriating to read that I just skim them.

This is also the point where I start to get increasingly irritated with almost every main character. Perrin’s constant whining about Faile (and her equally infuriating inscrutability), Mat’s endless cursing and ranting about women, and Rand’s just general whininess, do not age well. The women come out somewhat better, though even they start to wear thin. One gets the feeling that Jordan doesn’t really understand human psychology that well, and the clunky character development bears this out.

I’ve often thought that this series would have been infinitely more interesting if Jordan had just focused on the POV of the Forsaken, who are almost always much more compelling to watch than the ostensibly “good” characters. Let’s face it. Who doesn’t love reading the parts with Graendal? Or Sammael? Or Demandred (who gets a brief cameo in the Prologue?) They reveal so much about the depth of this world’s history, and their POVs tend to not fall into the same repetitive patterns. But then, perhaps if we got more of them they would fall into the old patterns.

This extends to characters like Elaida, whose own allegiances (other than to herself) remain unclear at this point in the narrative. As hard as she is, her viewpoint chapters are always a welcome relief, and they show us just how far-reaching is the chaos that Rand has created in this world. The fact that she doesn’t even know her Keeper is a high-ranking member of the Black Ajah–and that one of the Forsaken is even now in the midst of the Tower–makes her chapters are the more intriguing.

For all of my complaints, I will say that I still very much enjoy this series, and there is much to recommend it. No one spins a complicated plot like Jordan, and the world he has created does have such a breadth and depth that it’s very easy (and pleasurable) to lose oneself in it.

Now it’s onward to the next book. Stay tuned!

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Paranor” and “Crimson” (S2, Eps. 5 & 6)

Full spoilers for the episode follow.

In a special double feature, our intrepid heroes Wil and Mareth continue their quest to bring the Warlock Lord’s skull back from the past, the politics of Leah grow ever more complicated, and Allanon must confront the reality that he is dying.

The Warlock Lord continues to loom as the series’ potential Big Bad, the force that will bring about the fall of the Four Lands and all of our noble (if seriously flawed) heroes. At this point, it’s pretty clear that we are going to see this figure return from the dead, though it’s equally certain that Wil will have to defeat him.

The Queen of Leah continues to be a compelling and deeply flawed character. Despite the fact that she does what she does–the scheming, the manipulating, the backhand dealing–she does for the good of her people, she inadvertently has set in motion the very destruction that she originally set out to prevent. In the end, she not only sees her ambitions come to nothing when Riga slaughters her retainers and Ander himself (which was both brutal and hear-wrenching), but she has also put her daughter at risk. The Crimson is a destructive force that will, it seems, make the Warlock Lord’s mission to bring the world into darkness that much easier. There is clearly a dark poison working its way through the bloodstream of the Four Lands, and one can hope that Wil is able to cleanse it before it does any more damage.

We finally learn the secrets of Eretria’s legacy, as one of those whose ancestors survived the Great Wars; as such she has the potential to be either a being a saviour or a demon. If I’m being completely honest, this feels a bit tacked-on, a means of giving Eretria something to do besides mope around after her sundry love interests. Don’t get me wrong: Ivana Baquero is probably one of the better actors in this show, and it’s that fact that keeps her character so continually interesting to watch.

For his part, Manu Bennett continues to chew scenery with abandon, but that’s part of what makes him one of the best things about the show. One thing The Shannara Chronicles gets right is the fact that Allanon is a ruthless manipulator, one who is willing to sacrifice anyone in his efforts to save the Four Lands. At the same time, we also get to see the toll this has begun to take, both physically and emotionally. I, for one, have no doubts that he’s not going to make it through to the end of the season, and that will actually fit well with the series’ clear intention of breaking apart the myth of the triumphant hero.

I can’t shake the feeling that the show-runners know that this is going to be the final season, and so they are pulling out all the stops (including showing two episodes in one night). It’s really a shame, though, since the series has taken some interesting turns. Still, I rather wish that they had chosen to adapt most of The Wishsong rather than doing a grab-bag of the various other parts of the Shannara mythos. Doing so has really short-circuited some of the season’s narrative threads, though fortunately “Crimson” managed to bring things together in the end. Still, it’s rather irritating to see the characters wandering about doing nothing consequential and then abruptly having a climactic moment that is moving but doesn’t really feel earned.

Overall, these two episodes were…good. However, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the series is verging on the edge of going completely off the rails. There are just too many sub-plots going on–time travel, sinister wraiths, anti-magic users–and the show hasn’t done a great deal to bring them all together into a cohesive whole. The time travel plot in particular feels both strange and unnecessary, and I for one am glad that that plot is done with.

At this point, I will be satisfied if the series comes to a satisfactory conclusion, with all of the sundry plot threads wrapped up. I really don’t think it would be wise to leave anything hanging (as happened last season). I guess we will just have to wait to see how things pan out.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Dweller” (S2, Ep. 4)

Well, kids, shit got really dark on this episode of The Shannara Chronicles.

(My apologies for taking a week to respond to this episode. I was out of town for a conference.)

In the fourth episode of the second season, all of the characters have to contend with a personal crisis. Bandon has to relive the trauma of his childhood when he encounters a group of Elves who are virulently anti-magic; Jax has to relive a moment of terror during his time with the Border Legion; Wil has to see his father’s dead body and relive a traumatic memory from his past; the list goes on. These characters are put through the wringer in this episode, and none of them are left unscarred by their encounters.

This episode is fundamentally about the various broken characters that inhabit this world. Bandon, Ander, Wil…all of them struggle with the realities of politics and magic. Bandon comes across in this episode as someone who really is a product of his environment: tortured and imprisoned by his family, shunned by his own people, to some degree it’s no wonder that he has succumbed to the darkness inside him. The fact that he murders a child with the mask that had once been used to oppress him is both horrifying and

If the first season fell rather predictably into the epic hero pattern, this season seems to be about the deconstruction of that mythic pattern. Ander, for all that he might seem to be an epic hero, comes to understand the terrible price that that will exact, as exemplified in his execution of his childhood friend for murder and treason. He knows that it must be done, and in the end he does it without any compunction, but we’re left to wonder just how deep the psychic wounds go and how he will continue to deal with the consequences of what he has been forced to do. What’s more, we’re left to wonder whether, when all is said and done, anyone will emerge from this whole adventure intact. Adventures, like magic, seem to have a heavy price for those cursed to go on them.

This episode really plunges into a dark vision of the Shannara world. Clearly, it is tapping into the anxiety many of us feel about the rise of the alt-right, which bears some striking similarities to the Crimson. However, it’s important to remember that Brooks’s work in many ways predicted the sort of rabid brutality that has infected the American body politic, and so in that sense the series is staying true to the books that gave it birth, showing once again just how socially engaged the Shannara novels have always been. I’m just glad that the series has chosen to tap into that vein of the mythos rather than the more optimistic one.

For all of its darkness, this episode is also about the importance of family, of carving out an identity that is part of something larger than the self. At this point, none of the characters have yet found the elusive thing that they clearly desire: Shea is tormented by the fact that his father was driven mad and had to die alone; Mareth craves mentoring by Allanon, though she insists that she does not need a father; and the royal family of Leah continues to be riven by internal conflicts that may yet lead the kingdom to ruin.

Lastly, and somewhat inconsequentially, the series continues to display a visual splendour that really leaves the first season in the shade. From the sweeping vistas to the magnificent sets associated with Leah, it’s clear that Spike gave the show a lot more money. And if I’m being perfectly candid…well, Bandon makes a very dishy villain indeed. He may be a real bastard–slaying children and all–but he sure does look good with his shirt off.

Needless to say, I am really looking forward to the next episode. Clearly, there are a lot of pieces still in play, and it remains to be seen how it will all play out.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Fires of Heaven” (Book 5)

I have now made it through The Fires of Heaven. Boy howdy, this book manages to cram a lot in. While it is a fairly brisk read, there were a few points where I was left skimming in an effort to make it through.

This is also the book where the narrative strands start to decisively diverge. We don’t see anything of Perrin during this book, and while his absence is felt, it does also help this book to retain a tighter focus than some of its predecessors. I’m a little frustrated by the addition of some characters who are ancillary to the action and who seem tangential (Min and Morgase are particularly egregious, IMO).

At this point, we also get a stronger sense of what it is the Forsaken have been up to while Rand has been developing his powers. While Sammael has seized power in Illian, Rahvin has managed to wrap Queen Morgase around her finger, though he ultimately has to cope with the fact that she is not nearly so biddable as she first appears (and this book also sees her introduced as a viewpoint character in her own right). He remains one of the most enigmatic of the Forsaken but also one of the most compelling. Too bad he exits the stage almost as soon as he entered it.

When Rahvin is stricken with balefire during his duel with Rand, it unravels his brutal (and quite shocking!) murder of Aviendha and Mat that had occurred out of the blue. While we have known that using balefire against someone burns out their presence on the Pattern and all of the effects their life has for a short time, we now know that truly powerful balefire could indeed be catastrophic were it to be used without caution. The ending doesn’t feel quite as rushed as the last several books, but one does get the feeling that Jordan was feeling the pinch of the various narrative threads that he had going and so felt the need to dispense with not one but two of the Forsaken in one swoop.

And of course, this novel also sees what is arguably the most important event so far in Nynaeve’s life: her final confrontation with the Forsaken Moghedien. There is something tremendously satisfying about seeing the Spider brought low, especially when she thought she would be the one who was subjecting her enemy to the worst sort of torture. It’s even more satisfying to know that she will be subjected to the power of the a’dam in the living world (for if anyone deserves to be used for what she knows about the uses of the Power, it would have to be one of the Forsaken). As infuriating as she can be, Nyvaeve is also one of the novel’s standout characters, the one who at last begins to move the plot forward in some significant ways.

I’m still devastated by the fact that Moiraine sacrifices herself in this book (I haven’t yet finished the series, so her final fate remains a mystery to me. Please no spoilers!) Her absence will be keenly felt during the next several books, as Rand finds himself caught up plots that he cannot entirely see. As manipulative and opaque as she could sometimes be, there is no question that Moiraine was an important resource, one that Rand will no doubt miss now that she has seemingly met her fate in her sacrifice.

Overall, the novel is both narratively rich and philosophically compelling. It continues to pose the question: to what extent are we the agents of our own lives and to what extent are we drawn along in a pattern in which we have no say? Mat for one seems completely at a loss, guided by a power that he cannot control, and the same seems to go for Rand (who may at last be falling into the dangerous pit of madness). The series continues to hold free will and predetermination in a productive tension.

I’m chewing my quickly through Lord of Chaos. Fortunately, I had re-read this book more recently than I had several of the others, so I’m confident that I will be able to finish it in short order. So, stay tuned!

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”–Part 3

The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.

Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.

He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.

Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?

He narrowed his eyes and waited.

***

            Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?

Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?

She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.

At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.

It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.

“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”

When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.

“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”

She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”

Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.

She made up her mind.