Reading Tad Williams: “Shadowrise’ (Volume Two of “Shadowmarch”)

I know I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I’d just like to say again how much of a pleasure it is to read Tad Williams. The man simply has a command of language, plot, and character that really does surpass that of most other people writing in the genre. Somehow, he manages to make the familiar elements of epic fantasy and make them into something new. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s extraordinary enough to produce one fantasy epic that has become canonical (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”), but it’s even more so to write yet another popular fantasy cycle unconnected to that one.

Shadowrise opens with all of our beloved characters scattered to the winds. Briony is in exile from her beloved Southmarch, which is now under the control of her sadistic cousin Hendon Tolly. Barrick and his companion Ferris Vansen are now trapped behind the Shadowline, condemned on a mission to go to the Qar stronghold. And Qinnitan has found shelter of a sort in the vast city of Hierosol, though it seems that she is not safe even there, for she is hotly and doggedly pursued by the soldier Daikonas Vo.

Some reviews I have read have complained about how unlikeable characters are, but I personally found that to be true only of Barrick who, though he has a tortured soul, is often insufferable, cruel, self-pitying, and needlessly cruel. That aside, I find the other characters quite enjoyable, though it has to be said that Chert Blue Quartz, with his homely wisdom and his obvious love for both Flint and Opal, makes him one of the novel’s (and the series’) most relatable and enjoyable characters to read.

Indeed, it’s always the seemingly small and insignificant characters in this world who have the greatest impact on what is to come. The royal and powerful may seem to hold sway over the political realm, but as the action unfolds it becomes more and more clear that they are themselves but pawns in a much larger game, one that may have consequences so vast as to dwarf human understanding.

I have to say, though, that probably my favourite part of the novel was the appearance of the goddess Lisiya, who thankfully appears to help Briony just when all hope seems lost. Lisiya may once have been a powerful deity but she, like so many of the other gods, has found herself subjected to the forces of time, and though she is able to give Briony the aid she needs to survive her terrible time in the forest, it clearly costs her a great deal to do so. The gods have fallen very far from the world that they once ruled.

In an interesting parallel, Lisiya is not the only godlike being who continues to eke out a living among mortals. However, while she has devoted her life to helping the forest (and the occasional wanderer) the mutilated and mad demigod Jikuyin is something else entirely, a creature determined to gain power so that he may perpetuate cruelty on destruction on all those he believes have wronged him. If Lisiya represents what happens when a goddess commits her life to the service of others, Jikuyin  is the opposite: a creature who thinks only of himself.

Indeed, it is precisely this nuanced and unique cosmology that sets this series apart from its predecessor (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”). In this world, the gods were very much alive and part of human affairs, though they were (and are) so vast in power that they dwarf humanity’s ability to fully comprehend them. Because of that, they are far more frightening than they are beneficent, at least for those who live in the shadow of their departure. In that sense, they are very similar to the pantheon of the ancient Greeks, where the gods and goddesses (as well as their numerous offspring) were as corrupt, brutal, and petty as their mortal counterparts. And, as with the ancients, there is something both reassuring and terrifying about the idea of gods being fallible, for while that brings them closer to humankind, it also means that they bring wreck and ruin in their wake.

Of course, no discussion of this book would be complete without a mentioning of the raven Skurn. From his first appearance to Vansen and Barrick, Skurn threatens to steal the show, with his idiosyncratic speech and amusing commentary on the folly of humans. It’s very difficult (I think) to write nonhuman characters who don’t become caricatures, but somehow Williams does it with Skurn.

On the other edge of the spectrum is the warrior Gyir who, while denied a viewpoint of his own in the novel (our impressions of him are conveyed through Barrick and Ferris), nevertheless becomes one of the most heroic and tragic figures in the Williams’ oeuvre. While absolutely committed to his mistress, he begins to see that perhaps, after all, humans aren’t all that bad. In the end, he’s even willing to sacrifice his life so that the others may escape and find some measure of freedom.

All in all, Shadowrise has all of the good traits of a second novel in a series without the negative ones. Here we have characters scattered to the corners of the world, but rather than bogging us down, it allows them to really grow into themselves, to determine what it is that sets them apart and what makes them who they are. By the end, events have begun to move forward, and the final cataclysm that will forever change their world has been set into motion. All that remains to be seen is how each of these characters will manage to survive what is to come and, indeed, whether there will be anything left of the world that they have fought so hard to rescue.

Stay tuned as I finally catch up to the last two volumes in this magnificent series, before I head on into the territory of “Otherland.”

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Queer Classics: “The Song of Achilles (by Madeline Miller)

For some time now, I’ve been putting off reading Madeline Miller’s debut novel The Song of Achilles. Not because I didn’t want to read it, but because I wanted to make sure that I was in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it. This was one of those books, I thought to myself, that needed to be relished and savoured, not rushed through at breakneck speed.

When I finally settled down to do the deed, I was not disappointed. In fact, I found my instincts completely vindicated. This is one of those novels that deserves time and attention, not a skim. In other words, if you’re going to read it, make sure you give yourself time to fully immerse yourself in the experience, to savour the rich feast that she has prepared for you.

Told from the perspective of Patroclus, the companion to Achilles, the book details the deep relationship that springs up between the two men after Patroclus is sent to live with Achilles at his father’s court. They quickly form a bond far deeper than they share with any other people in the world, and this bond endures even after they are both dragged into the toils of the Trojan War. While their experience there is tainted by tragedy (as any reader of The Iliad knows), it also reveals the brutal grace of the war and its heroes.

Truly, Miller is an author who has the power to make words sing. Miller has said that it took her ten years to write The Song of Achilles, and it shows. Each word, phrase, and sentence seems to have been weighed, measured, and evaluated to make sure that it fits into a seamless hole. As a result, reading this book is one of those truly transcendent experiences that only rarely happens (to me, at least). It’s not just the subject and the story that excites; it’s the way that the story is told to us. If anyone has managed to capture a bit of the brutal beauty of the ancient poets, it would be Madeline Miller.

It’s more than just the exquisite, almost painful, beauty of the prose that makes this book such a delight, however. For me, what really made this an emotionally wrenching (yet satisfying) experience is the way that Miller manages to capture the visceral and intense nature of same-sex desire between men. Even now, when queer representation is better than it has been in ages past, there is still something uniquely powerful about reading a book that really seems to get it. It’s not just the emotional part either (though Miller is quite good at conveying the richness and depth of their love for each other), but also the echo in the flesh that happens whenever I read about the unique mix of the physical and the transcendent entailed in male/male sexuality.

The fact that Miller chooses to depict their relationship as a physically sexual one is especially satisfying given the reticence of some recent attempts to adapt this myth for contemporary consumers (see also: Troy and the bastardization of Patroclus into Achilles’ “cousin”). Miller’s novel dispenses with the prudery and latent homophobia that has so frequently robbed these two men of their true passion for one another.

Indeed, as Miller makes clear, Patroclus is the one character in all of the book who loves Achilles for what he is rather than what he signifies. Thetis, his vengeful and dreadful sea-nymph mother, selfishly tries to keep Achilles away from his lover, for she fears that he will corrupt her son’s powers. Agamemnon sees him as an impediment to his own desires for glory and plunder and power. And the Greeks as a whole are more than willing to use up Achilles’ life so that they will find their own ambitions satisfied.

The world that Miller captures is one of those that sits at the crossroads of myth and history. This is a brutal but also beautiful world, where the gods still touch the world but are, for the most part, hovering offscreen. This is a world where the actions of great men change the world that surrounds them; they bestride their world like great colossi. Patroclus is more than a little out-of-place in this world; his soul is too sensitive, his emotions too rich. Perhaps it is precisely because he seems ill-suited to the archaic world of the Trojan War that he comes across as so compelling as a narrator. We feel what he feels, we experience with him the rush of joy and pleasure when he discovers love, and we watch with him, powerless, as the strands of Achilles’ fate ensnare them both.

While I won’t spoil the ending of the book, let me just say that after I read the last word I simply sat in my chair, overcome with feeling. I don’t yet know exactly what those feelings are, but…wow. They were something. Even now, I still can’t quite over how intense a reading experience The Song of Achilles was for me.

This, in sum, is one of those books that will really break your heart upon the rocks of its beauty. There are very, very few books that I think really accomplish this, that can strum the strings of our innermost selves–Mary Renault could do it, Anne Rice can do it, Tolkien could do it–and Miller has joined that exalted pantheon of great writers. While it fits squarely into the tradition of historical fiction, I also think that Miller’s work transcends that; I would go so far as to say that she has made a book that will become a myth in its own right. She shows us that the old stories of gods and heroes, mortals and immortals, love and hatred, still have the power to move us in new and exciting ways.

In the end, The Song of Achilles is about the power of love to move us, to frighten us, and to show us a world beyond our own limitations. As one reviewer put it, “Mary Renault lives again!”

Reading History: “Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen” (by Alison Weir)

If Anne Boleyn has gone done in history as one of England’s most notorious, and thus documented, queens, her successor Jane Seymour has done the opposite. She hovers in the background of Henry’s reign, remembered largely for her success in bearing Henry the son that he had long desired.

Alison Weir’s new book, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, seeks to rescue Jane from this bit of historical amnesia, giving her a chance to tell her own story. We meet Jane in her youth, as she navigates the fraught waters of her deceptively simple country family and struggles with whether she should join a nunnery. She is gradually drawn to the world of the court, however, where she serves first Katherine and then Anne, before herself becoming the queen of Henry VIII. Though she succeeds in bearing him the son he has so long desired, she dies soon thereafter.

Now admittedly, Weir is not the most graceful of fiction writers. As with her nonfiction, Weir aims for workmanlike sentences over sophisticated ones. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this as much had I not just been reading several other historical fiction authors who do have a true gift with language (such as Madeline Miller and Mary Renault). However, Weir does have a remarkable eye for period detail, and one does often feel a sense of immersion in this darkly beautiful and dangerous world.

Furthermore, Weir manages to let us as readers have a keen look inside Jane’s mind, what motivated her as she attempted to survive in the cutthroat atmosphere of Henry’s court. We are left in no doubt as to the fact that it is Henry and Henry alone who has the power, even as there are many around him–Cromwell, Anne, Jane’s family, and even Jane herself–who try to manipulate him into doing their bidding and granting them the power and influence they so desperately crave. Jane, like her predecessors, must learn the craft of trying to maintain her own persona in the face of the various forces around her, without falling victim to the fall from grace that sent Katherine into exile and Anne to the headsman.

Throughout the novel, two things dominate Jane’s sense of herself and her role as Henry’s queen. First is her absolute love and devotion to Katherine. It is precisely this loyalty that enables her to be a participant in Anne’s downfall (though she later expresses regret at her complicity). The second, equally important component of her personality is her commitment to Catholicism. Not for Jane the Reformist sentiments of Anne Boleyn (or her brother). Indeed, Jane is particularly vexed and saddened by the fate of the monasteries, which are in the process of being dismantled by Henry and Cromwell. She desperately wants to keep Henry from continuing in this vein and does whatever she can to convince him to change his course.

Unfortunately for Jane, even she cannot quite escape the power that is Henry VIII. Though he feels more affection for her than he does for Anne, he only does so as long as Jane is willing to submit to him. This she does, though she is always aware of just how much it costs her to do so. Weir does an admirable job conveying the many conflicts of conscience that Jane experiences as she tries to survive the reign of this king who sees himself as the absolute center of the universe and will brook no opposition to his will.

All in all, I’d say that Weir does justice to one of Henry’s most enigmatic queens. She may not have been as flashy and independent as Anne, nor as stalwart as Katherine, but it is important to remember that she lived in a very dangerous time indeed (as her untimely death attests). Can we really blame her if, confronted with the dreadful examples of her two predecessors, she opted for a third way? Weir allows us to experience with Jane the sense of impending doom, the possibility that at any moment she might go the way of her predecessors. The Tudor court was a place of exquisite beauty, but it was also a place where the wrong word or gesture could lead one down the beginning of a path that would end on the block. Or worse.

One can’t help but wonder, however, what might have been had Jane lived. Would she have produced more children to add to the Tudor dynasty? Would Elizabeth–and the magnificent reign she produced–have ever happened? Would Henry have tolerated her independent streak after she produced the longed-for son, or would he have instead found some way of getting rid of her as well? The very unanswerability of these questions continues to structure the myth of Jane.

Thank goodness we have Alison Weir to shed light on these for us!

Reading Tad Williams: “Shadowmarch” (Volume 1 of Shadowmarch)

At long last, I’m finally getting back into the swing of blogging. It’s been a hectic month and a half (and even longer, actually), but I’m starting to feel like myself again, and the writing bug has well and truly bitten me.

Anyway, I’ve also gotten back into reading Tad Williams, who continues to be one of my primary fantasy inspirations as an aspiring author. I just finished the first volume of his “Shadowmarch” series, which I’ve actually read before but wanted to re-read. As always, I’m glad that I decided to plunge again into his works, as there is a distinct pleasure to be gained from reading books that you already know.

Though similar in some respects to his earlier fantasy epic series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” “Shadowmarch” is a different creature and asks different questions through its narrative and its characters. This is a world that lives in the shadow of the gods and must contend with their foibles and their legacies, even if the gods themselves exist in a world beyond the flesh (for the moment, anyway).

As the story begins, the royal twins Briony and Barrick Eddon, along with their elder brother Kendrick, struggle with the absence of their father Olin, who has been imprisoned by the robber-baron Lord Protector of Hierosol, Ludis Drakava. After the murder of their brother Kendrick, matters in the kingdom begin to unravel quite quickly, particularly since the Qar, the immortal enemies of humankind, launch an attack on the lands of humans. To the south, the Autarch takes the young woman Qinnitan as his wife, but she eventually escapes. By the end of the novel, all of the various characters have been cast to the winds.

Though sprawling, the novel has a strong pacing to it, alternating between periods of breathtaking action and quiet contemplation. As he always does, Williams imbues his narrative with several mysteries, some of which are resolved by the end but many of which (particularly the larger, cosmological ones) remain hovering in our consciousness until the very last page. It’s these enigmas that give even the novel’s quieter moments a peculiar energy that keeps the reader coming back for more.

However, there is also a darkness running beneath this series that wasn’t as obvious in “MST.” This is a world poised on the edge of absolute destruction, but not in the way that most epic settings are. There isn’t the sense that this catastrophe can (or should) be averted by the actions of mortals; instead, they must simply weather the storm as best they can and hope that at least some part of their world remains intact. Though many of the gods may have been banished from the world in a great theomachy, their influence is still felt among their feuding descendants and adherents, none of whom seem able to grasp the enormity of the cosmos in its totality.

What really makes this book shine, however, are the characters. Here are Chert Blue Quartz, a member of a race of miners and craftsmen known as the Funderlings. There are the royal twins Briony and Barrick, the former chafing at the restrictions placed on her sex and the latter tormented by the possibility that he may be afflicted by his family’s hereditary madness. There is Ferris Vansen, a guard captain devoted to a hopeless love for his princess. Lastly, there is Qinnitan, a lowly priestess in the great city of Xis who has the (mis)fortune to be chosen as a wife for the mad despot the Autarch. And there’s even a debauched musician and poet made Matty Tinwright.

All of these characters, both the high and the low, are drawn with depth and care. Though they are not always likable or sympathetic, and while their actions are sometimes infuriating, that’s precisely what makes them human. As he always does, Williams manages to capture how it feels to be caught up in events so large that they defy mortal understanding. It’s small wonder that they sometimes act in ways that defy logic and rationality. Who wouldn’t act in that way, when confronted with a world turned topsy-turvy?

Like all good initial entries in a series, this book ends in a state of suspended crisis. By the end, we’re not sure just how these characters will manage to extricate themselves, and we’re left with the unsettling sense that it just might be that there is no truly, unalloyed happy ending for them. And that is a very unsettling possibility indeed.

Queer Awakenings: Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles”

Once upon a time, there was a queer boy in West Virginia who thirsted for a piece of fiction that captured in words his own sense of alienation, his experience of loving others who could never return his affections. Who thirsted, as it were, for something he couldn’t quite articulate in words.

Then he discovered the author Anne Rice–the reigning queen erotic horror–and his entire life was changed. Suddenly he was inundated with a world of blood-drinking creatures that loved and hated one another, a world of salty flesh, gushing blood, and the perilous tides of sexual desire.

Perhaps I hyperbolize a bit, but it is true that Anne Rice’s work was really influential for me at a key stage of my development as a queer person, something that has really come home to me as I’ve started re-reading her books after over a decade away.

When I first dipped into Rice’s work, I actually began with The Mummy. Growing up in a small town with not a lot of exposure to queer culture (let alone queer literature), I saw in this book an explicit depiction of same-sex desire that was like a glimmer of light. It helped that Rice is a genuinely good writer, her books full of a lush, decadent prose that really spoke to me. I’m not sure what possessed me, then, but I decided that I wanted to read some of this author’s other work, to see what all the fuss was about.

Though I had really liked The Mummy and its queer characters, it was only when I read The Vampire Armand, however, that I really began to see in Rice’s books an articulation of my own queer desires and feelings that I had never even knew I needed. There was something about the tortured, melancholy vampire with the face of a Botticelli angel that seemed to call to me, something about the ways in which he moved through the world–so tormented, so agonized, so alienated–echoed my own experience as a queer person growing up in Appalachia.

Weirdly enough, I decided, after finishing Armand, to go on to read The Vampire Lestat. If Armand resonated with my own moody, self-indulgent impulses, then Lestat was the brat prince that I wanted to be. Lestat lived and loved in an open way that was everything I knew I couldn’t be (at least, not until much later in my life). Sure he was selfish and conceited and hopelessly irresponsible–and, to be honest, I was none of those things, at least not to the same degree as Lestat–but those were exactly the things that made him so appealing to me as a closeted queer teenager.

By the time I came to Interview with the Vampire, I found Louis quite tedious, though as I re-read it recently I did see something of myself in Louis, and indeed in the vampires as a whole, who have such a unique perspective on the nature of time. Though they are creatures condemned to live until the end of the world–or until they meet some rather unsavoury fate–vampires are surprisingly aware of the passing of time, of the burden of temporality. As most of you no doubt know, I’m a little obsessed at times with the pressures of mortality, so it’s small wonder that I’d see more than a little of myself in Rice’s most tormented immortal.

As philosophically rich as Rice’s vampires are, it’s really their desires that have been their chief appeal to me. Somehow, through language, Rice has managed to capture the complexities, the agonies, and the ecstasies of desire. Sure, her creations are immortal vampires, but the things they want and crave–intimacy, the loss of identity in the body of another–are the things that many of us secretly want. Her brilliance is in being able to capture these within words, to take us into a world that we never knew existed.

Or am I projecting a bit?

Of course, it helps that so many of Rice’s vampires are explicitly attracted to those of the same sex. Though they don’t have sex in the same way as their human counterparts, they nevertheless feel the inexorable pull of sexual passion. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that no author in the modern era is as able to capture the exquisite pain of sex better than Rice. Vampires such as Lestat, Armand, Louis, Marius and the rest are constantly caught in the pull between their desire for eternal companionship and the inevitable bitterness and envy that tears them apart.

These days, it’s hard not to read Rice’s work through the lens of camp, and not always the queer kind. The explosion of trashy vampire fiction in the last 20 years or so–much of it pale imitations of the glories that Rice attained–have unfortunately stained her legacy. It’s important to remember, though, that there was a time when vampires actually meant something. Somehow, Anne Rice managed to take this staple of horror film and render it into something achingly beautiful.

Now, almost 20 years after I began my first foray into the decadent and erotic world of Anne Rice, I’ve decided to return to it. There are now rumours that, once again, The Vampire Chronicles will be adapted for the screen, though this time it will be on television. I’m hoping that, since the series is being made for Hulu, that they can give Rice’s work the rich adaptation that it deserves. After the absolute trainwreck that was Queen of the Damned, anything would be preferable.

If this new adaptation reaches its potential, however, it stands a good chance of introducing these amazing books to a whole new generation of queer viewers. Sure, things are certainly better when it comes to popular culture and queerness (sort of, anyway), but there is still a lot of room for the sort of subversive, lush, sensual type of eroticism that Rice manages to capture.

As always, I’m optimistic. Let’s just hope that Hulu doesn’t let me down.

World Building: On the Founding of the Aionian Empire

The following is a summary from The Aionian Empire: A History, by Feas Mayoros, Court Historian to Imperator Konstantian IV. The full text of that book has been lost, though fragments (including this one) are found in Marike Stratenes’ Chronicles.

For a thousand years after the fall of the Old Ones, the continent of Aridikhos was in turmoil. Everywhere one looked there was violence and bloodshed, civil war and chaos. Within a decade there were none of the Old Ones left, their bloodlines scattered and diluted almost beyond recall.

At last, however, in desert lands of what is now the west of Haranshar, a child was born in the city of Pasargadakh, the mountaintop fortress-city of Kavash, the last of a long line of priest-kings. He sent his son, who would come to be known as Xharyush, to safety with his father-in-law before his own death at the hands of several rebellious princes. When the young prince learned of his legacy, he set out on a quest for vengeance that led him to not only kill his father’s murderers but also set him on a path of conquest that would end with the entire continent of Aridikos under his possession.

For another thousand years the Haransharin held sway over the entire continent, from the lands that are now known as the Western Duchies of the Imperium to the plains and mountains of the east. Admittedly, the east was always more firmly under the control of the shahs and their satraps than the west, but it was undeniable that even those barbarian men living in the north owed their allegiance to the shah in Tysfan.

Along with the political domination, the Haransharin overlords brought their powerful faith known as Ormazhdism, which they enforced with a brutal efficiency wherever they could. Fire temples were erected from one corner of the west to the other and, when the populace resisted, they were often given to the flames.

It remained a troubling inconvenience for the shahs that the three regions of the west that were hidden behind mountains–what we now know as the Northern Kingdoms, the Western Duchies, and the Peninsula–remained stubbornly resistant to their attempts to enforce at least a measure of political and cultural hegemony. The shahs, particularly those that preceded the unfortunate Artashuar X (the reigning shah during the secession), had decided to invest their financial resources elsewhere. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that the rebellion started in the Peninsula, particularly in the city of Alusium and in the feuding city-states of Helleneia. The Shahs in Tysfan would have cause to regret that they had let these troublesome territories have so much control over their own affairs.

The seeds for the rebellion were actually sewn in the academies of the city-states of Helleneia, where a school of philosophy began emerge that argued that the material world was hopelessly and irretrievably corrupted. Though this began as a mere philosophy, it very quickly morphed into a religious doctrine, since a religion, particularly one so at odds with the dominant Ormazhdian Faith. Politics and religion are always intertwined with one another.

According to these new thinkers, there were two opposed forces that governed the cosmos. On the one side was the Name, two essences–one male and one female–conjoined in eternity. Theirs was the essence of pure spirit, and in the tenets laid down by the coalescing faith, they were to be associated with the purer elements of fire and air and, especially, of the mysterious fifth element of aether. On the other side was the creature known as the Demiurge, the monstrous, twisted creator god who had fashioned the physical cosmos from the corrupted elements of water and earth, using his own share of aether to endow with a terrible vitality.

Unsurprisingly, the Archons of many of these city-states (for so the rulers were called), saw in this new faith a means of establishing independence from their Haransharin overlords. Likewise, did the Imperator of Alusium, the strongest power in the Peninsula, declare his support for this nascent faith. As such things go, it didn’t take long for the True Faith–as it now proclaimed itself–to begin to organize itself into a Universal Church. It was decided that each city-state and the cities of Alusium, Millani, and Enniccio would be granted a Prefect, bringing the total number to 13, a number that continues to this day.

Immediately thereafter, however, fights and disagreements began to break out, since it was not at all clear who would now lead this growing coalition, and indeed whether the other countries of the west would join them. At last, it was agreed that Honorius of House Aelius (the Imperator of Alusium) and Eurydike of House Paiolos (Archon of the city-state of Athenais) would lead. With these two formidable personalities in charge, it was only a matter of time before the rebellion began to spread outwards, as first the rich grainlands (now known as the Central Duchies) joined and then everyone else did as well. Soon it had even spread to the lands of Korray.

In these years, the satraps were thrown down, the fire temples destroyed or converted into churches, and the people flocked to this new faith that promised them an escape from the world through an attaining of the ecstasy of the spirit. The shah responded with brutal absolutely brutal repression, sending army after army to bring these rebellious provinces back under the suzerainty of Tysfan. However, the territories were too far-flung, the armies of Haranshar too stretched out, for their efforts to be successful. Still, the death toll on both sides was tremendous.

At last, after almost a decade of war, the Aionian Empire was founded. Honorius and Eurydike were crowned by one of the Prefects, Koriana, in the new Citadel of the Universal Church, which was itself located in the newly-founded city of Aïonis. Also in attendance were all of the numerous members of the new Royal Family, as well as representatives from every corner of the new Aionian Empire. In those days, the territory of that new entity encompassed even vast parts of Korray, though subsequent events would prove that those territories would gain their own independence.

For its part, the city was a truly magnificent structure. It was comprised of two parts: the Mount, upon which are located the numerous palaces belonging to the Imperator, the extended members of the Royal family, the various dukes, counts, and other nobles, the Academy of the Alchemists’ Guild, and religious authorities, as well as the Citadel and the Prefectal Palace; and, spreading out on both sides the rest of the City. Within a few years it had become one of the two greatest cities in the world, rivaled only by Tysfan in terms of size, influence, and wealth.

As has been recorded elsewhere, in those days the Art of Binding was still practiced everywhere in the Empire, and indeed it was used to construct the great land walls that surrounded the city, as well as all of the major buildings just described. The same was true of all of the other major cities of the Empire. Even after Binding was suppressed, its influence was still felt from one end to the other.

Though Haranshar finally had to accept defeat, for the entire thousand years of its existence the Empire has had to fend off attacks from the east, these two titans locked in eternal conflict, with Korray in between. And so things remain, to this very day…

Screening History: “That Hamilton Woman” (1941)

If there’s any genre I love as much as the epic, it’s the costume drama. With all of its sumptuous decor, its melodramatic excess, and its focus on women, it’s a genre tailor-made (it would seem) for the discerning homosexual.

Such, indeed, is That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 film by Alexander Korda, starring the radiant Vivien Leigh and the dashing Laurence Olivier.

Vivien Leigh plays the titular role of Emma Hamilton, a commoner who becomes, first, the wife of the British ambassador Naples and, later, the mistress of the famous admiral Horatio Nelson. Their affair is the scandal of society, and ultimately Nelson must choose between his love for Emma and his duty to his country as the admiral and she, likewise, must decide whether to continue weaving her net about him or to let him go. The two of them must repeatedly confront the essential conflict between their personal love for one another and the responsibility that Horatio has to his country, given that he is one of the few commanders who stands between Napoleon and global domination. In the end, she sends him off to his duty, even though it means the end of their love.

At the beginning of the film, Emma has fallen on hard times, her once-great beauty diminished by years of penury. Yet even the makeup and bedraggled clothing cannot entirely efface Leigh’s exquisite beauty, which radiates outward rom the screen, limned by the dim light coming from outside her prison cell. Indeed, Leigh is one of those talents of old films whose face was made for the camera. With her fine cheekbones, full lips, and slightly-wide (and incredibly expressive) eyes, Leigh’s Emma frequently gazes off into the distance, her luminous eyes seeming to gaze into a future that can never be realized. Even when she sits in a jail cell, she seems to command our gaze.

Indeed, it is precisely Leigh’s performance that endows Emma with her tremendous presence, as a woman whose desires motivate the narrative. Given that the entire film is told as a flashback, I would argue that it is Emma’s perspective that dominates the entire film. In other words, through her perspective that we understand world-historical events to have another element besides the doings of great men on the stage of history. As such, Emma also comes across as a woman determined to see her desires fulfilled, even if that means that she goes against the strictures that society has placed upon women and their sexual behavior.

Emma’s great misfortune, however, is that the world she lives in is utterly incapable of seeing her as anything other than “that Hamilton woman,” an epithet always delivered with contempt, pity, or vituperation. And while she believes that love is the only thing she needs to sustain herself, a series of events have clearly brought her to the point that she is living on the streets, subject to the uncaring justice of the state. Through it all, however, Emma radiates strength, grace, and beauty.

Olivier as Nelson is a bit more unrestrained than one usually sees, and sometimes his performance veers dangerously close to scenery-chewing. However, this seems appropriate, given that he’s playing a man noted for his relentless energy and naval brilliance (it wasn’t every commander, after all, that dared to go after Napoleon Bonaparte). He certainly bears with him that signature Olivier scowl.

The film’s visual design is truly opulent, amply conveying to a jaundiced modern eye the splendour of a bygone era, when countries and individuals bestrode the world like ancient colossi. Despite its grand themes and historical concerns, That Hamilton Woman is equally adept at conveying the deep personal and emotional currents that have an impact on the actions of the great. For the film, Emma’s love of Nelson is true, rich, and deep, which makes its demise with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar all the more wrenching, for we know that Emma will be left with nothing except his illegitimate daughter.

The film’s final tragedy is that it denies us as viewers a view of the events that led Emma from being the mistress of one of the most powerful men in England to a beggar wandering the street. We are left yearning for what it is that fills in that lacuna, even as we also know that to see it would shatter the magnificent illusion that it has already spent so much time constructing. In refusing to grant us this image of her degradation, Emma retains her control on her own story until the very last, he weary countenance gazing into a past that can never be recaptured and a future devoid of even the remotest possibility of joy or love.

Rousing and resonant, That Hamilton Woman is a visually stunning exploration about the ways in which women are forced to maneuver the halls of power. And the punishment that often greets them when they do.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950)

I’ve been on a bit of a grand dames of Classic Hollywood lately (inspired in part by the book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and so, when I saw that this film starred Joan Crawford, I knew I had to check it out.

Personally, I’ve always been more of a Bette Davis acolyte, but like any self-respecting homosexual, I’ve also had a longstanding respect for Joan Crawford. All of her considerable talents–as both an actress and a star–are on dazzling display in The Damned Don’t Cry.

Crawford stars as Ethel, a woman unhappily married to a brutish laborer (Richard Egan). After the unfortunate death of their son, she finds that she yearns for something more than the life of a housewife, and so she sets out to achieve that. Beginning as a model, she gradually gets sucked into the sinister world of organized crime, falling in love with an abandoning milquetoast accountant Marty ( ) in favour of crime boss George Castleman (David Brian). When he sets her on one of his underlings who is planning to overthrow him, the stage is set for a final, heart-rending catastrophe.

The Damned Don’t Cry sits at the confluence of two important postwar phenomena: the growth of film noir as a body of films and the height of Crawford’s talent in Hollywood. One sees the influence of the former in the film’s interest in Ethel’s plunge into the world of crime, wealth, and sin, and the latter in the shadows of Mildred Pierce that hover in the background of the film. Like Mildred, Ethel cares deeply about her son (for the brief time that he’s in the film), but also like Mildred she yearns to better herself. We cheer for her, even as we know that she’s heading for a fall.

In no small part our affinity for Ethel stems from Crawford’s performance and her presence as a star. There’s just…something…about Joan’s eyes that seem to capture the camera. They just seem to dominate her face, conveying the anguish and conflict that Joan’s heroines seem to so insistently suffer. The Damned Don’t Cry is no exception, as Ethel attempts to carve out a destiny for herself, even in the face of the many men who attempt to put her in the box they think she belongs in.

If Davis managed to own the latter half of the 1930s and early 1940s and all the female empowerment that came with that era, Joan could be said to embody the contradictions of postwar femininity. On the one hand, she is a woman of extraordinary strength, able to manipulate and command the men around her. On the other, she is extraordinarily vulnerable, yearning to do almost anything to out of the prison of domesticity. As a result, she stands as the exemplar of what happens to a woman who dares to desire a life outside the home, even as she also represents and makes visible the very allure of that escape.

Of course, Crawford’s star shines all the brighter because she’s surrounded by men who are either cold and unfeeling (her husband and her father) or rather hapless and ineffectual (Marty, the CPA who falls under the sway of her feminine charms). She’s the type of woman who can convincingly stare down and emasculate even the most sinister of crime bosses, holding them in that stony gaze while she rains down insults and cuts through the bullshit with which they surround themselves. As a result, she becomes something of a composite of both the femme fatale (that reliable staple of the noir world) and also the hard-boiled noir hero, full of steel and smart remarks but with a good heart that allows her to be led, almost despite her will, into the darkness.

The Damned Don’t Cry is a very strong noir. It manages to do some new-ish things with the noir formula, while also making the most out of its star. True, the male members of the cast are mostly window-dressing, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially when you have someone like Crawford. The dialogue is also quite snappy, though it lacks the electric charge of other noir films.

So check out The Damned Don’t Cry. You’ll be glad you did.

Book Review: “The Fall of Shannara: The Skaar Invasion” (Terry Brooks)

The release of a new book by Terry Brooks is always a cause for celebration in my house even if, as is the case here, it’s the second volume of what is intended to be the concluding tetralogy of the Shannara saga. I have yet to be disappointed by an entry in this series.

As The Skaar Invasion begins, the Four Lands are reeling from an assault by an advance force of a mysterious people known as the Skaar, adventurers from across the ocean who have come bent on conquest. The Druids–except for Drisker Arc and his nemesis Clizia Porse–have been eradicated. Dar Leah sets out to do what he can to save Drisker and find Tarsha Kaynin, who remains tortured because of the madness of her brother Tavo. And Ajin d’Amphere, the captain of the Skaar, struggles to prove her mettle to her father across the ocean. Meanwhile, the street urchin Shea Ohmsford finds himself drawn into the orbit of a stranger who reveals to him the existence of a machine that could change the very world they live in, a machine that can control and change the weather.

Brooks, perhaps more than any of the other premier fantasy writers out there, knows how to keep things moving along a brisk clip. There is never a moment when the action lets up in this book, never an instant when the action lags long enough for us to feel bored. We move from set-piece to set-piece in this lean, tautly woven yarn, as the Four Lands move toward the cataclysm that will utterly reshape the destiny of all of the Races. The reader, like the characters, finds herself caught up in the course of events that are impossible to slow down, and there is something more than a little terrifying about that.

If anything, sometimes I feel a bit breathless when I finish one of his books, as if I’ve just sprinted through some terrifying yet exhilarating adventure. If I have one complaint, it’s that we don’t always get as much development–either in terms of character or plot–as I might like to see in an epic fantasy of this scope. The political machinations, particularly of the Federation, feel a little rushed in comparison to the adventure components, almost as if Brooks gets a little bored when bogged down in the minutiae of politics. Still, these sequences are effective in demonstrating how sundered the peoples of the Four Lands remain, despite their many years of shared struggle. Indeed, it might be their inability (or unwillingness) to join together as a united front that could spell their doom. The Federation and the Elves continue to squabble, and even the Druids, who should be the one entity that can bind the peoples together, remain as splintered and fractious as always.

Indeed, what I particularly enjoyed about this novel was the ways in which the centuries-long history of the Four Lands has begun to bear down on those living in the present. The Ohmsford legacy hangs on by a bare thread, embodied in the tortured siblings Tarsha and Tavo and in the street urchin Shea, who struggles to make a life for himself in a world that cares little for the small and the insignificant. Just as importantly, it’s something that they find it almost impossible to live up to, so diluted has it become in these waning days.

The real star of the novel, though is the Druid Drisker Arc. Though he may not attain the levels of depth and greatness attained by such High Druids as Walker Boh and Grianne Ohmsford, Drisker is still a fascinating character. He, like so many others, feels a tremendous sense of responsibility and even guilt, his time trapped in limbo giving him the opportunity to look at his choices and finally agree to shoulder his responsibility to both the Druid Order and the Four Lands. He eventually recognizes that he cannot run away from the burdens of history; he must shoulder the burden of being the High Druid and do whatever it takes to preserve all of the people from the conquest that is about to fall upon them.

Speaking of those conquerors, I also enjoyed the ways in which Brooks shows the Skaar as not merely a faceless, abstract force but a people desperate to save themselves from what is clearly described as climate change. Ajin takes her place among the many compelling female hero/villains that Brooks has created over the years, women such as Grianne Ohmsford, Brin Ohmsford, and so forth. She is driven by a desire to prove herself to her father and, just as importantly, to save her people from the destruction that is clearly bearing down upon them. The sequence where Drisker has to confront the reality of his duty is one of best in the entire novel, elevating it to the heights of earlier entries in the series.

Lastly, can we talk about the appearance of the renegade Druid Cogline, one of the best characters Brooks has ever created? While many of the other Druids have completely disappeared, it would seem that part of that crusty old rascal remains a part of Paranor, not content to go quietly into that good night. As he always does, Cogline is a bit of a conscience to a reluctant Druid, telling Drisker just enough to keep him moving on his journey of self-discovery.

All in all, I think that this quartet is shaping up to a great finale of a series that has been going now for over 40 years. The final confrontation between magic and science that has been brewing for the past several installments of the series is getting ready to explode, and one gets the sense that the development of a machine that can control the weather will be the thing that sets it all off. One can only hope that, regardless of which side comes out as the ultimate victor, that the Four Lands might at last know a measure of peace.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Star” (1952)

This film follows in the tradition of such films as Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, movies that expose the terrible toll that Hollywood stardom takes on those enmeshed within the system, particularly female stars. This film sits at the confluence of several important influences: Davis’s star text, competing and sometimes overlapping genres (the “star” film, the maternal melodrama), and the impending decline of the old studio system.

The film follows Margaret Elliot (Davis), as she struggles with the reality that her once-bright star has quite thoroughly faded. After a drunken night on the town, she is saved from her downward spiral by an old co-star, Jim (Sterling Hayden), and she sets out to reclaim her stardom. Upon realizing that Hollywood has no place for her other than as an object of pity and scorn, she ultimately goes back to Jim and the happy domestic partnership he represents.

Davis is the sort of star who evince hardbitten strength and heart-wrenching sadness in quick succession, and for that reason, I think, dwell deserves her reputation as one of the finest actresses to have ever graced the silver screen. Margaret Elliot seems a bit of Margot from All Above Eve (the names are eerily similar), Charlotte from Now, Voyager, and even a bit of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Like Norma, she loses sight of what is by focusing on what was (as Jim bluntly tells her). Beset with her failures as a star, she lashes out at everyone around her, her view of the world coloured not just by her previous persona, but also by the films in which she starred.

Margaret’s fundamental crisis is, of course, that Hollywood has no place for her, now that her youthful innocence has been worn away by the years and a film industry that is always in search of the next new thing, the next youthful visage to display on the big screen. The only parts available to a woman of her age are either spinsters or harridans, both of which will subject her to the scorn and pity that she loathes (rightfully) with a vengeance.

There’s a certain sparseness to the film’s design that renders Davis’s performance so heightened as to verge on the histrionic. She knows the part she is to play, and she does it TO THE HILT. This isn’t a bad thing, actually, since this film lacks the baroque opulence of a Sunset Boulevard or the corrupt decadence of All About Eve. Instead, we are treated to the cold, rather sterile and stifling spaces of the prison and the department store, spaces in which Margaret is well and truly lost. Ultimately, she finds that she cannot endure the sort of abuse and folly that she encounters from two surly customers at the department store. Confronted with this brutal world, it’s small wonder that Margaret periodically bursts out in fits of rage and frustration.

The Star reveals the extent to which Hollywood as an industry remains dominated by the men–studio heads, agents, directors–even as it is the female stars who continue to draw in the audiences but have no real power or longevity. Like so many films of this type, The Star ultimately comes across as a conservative text, one which reminds women of the domestic imperative, of the inevitable price that women must pay as they age if they choose the world of a professional rather than as a domestic goddess.

At the same time, however, it also threatens its own ideological coherence. It is Bette Davis, after all, who dominates the screen, pushing her co-stars (especially Sterling Hayden and Natalie Davis, who plays her daughter) into near-irrelevance. This might not be the best movie Davis ever starred in, but she plays the part so fully and completely that she more than deserved her Oscar nomination. Unlike her character, she wasn’t afraid to play an aging woman who was the victim of scorn and pity, but her genius is that she imbues that role with pathos and a human dignity that a lesser actress would never have been able to attain. In doing so, she helps to lay bare the hypocrisy and fickleness of Hollywood and proves, once again, that she was a star indeed.