Scholarship and Affect: Merging Critical and Fan Identities

More brilliant thoughts from my very dear friend and colleague Hillarie. This dragon is goin’ places, folks, mark my words.

Metathesis

[7-10 minute read]

Take an adventure with me through my affective and critical experiences with a few texts I encountered during my first year and a half of my Ph.D. program:

*****

I am sitting in the theatre in the last showing of the night for Star Wars: Rogue One. I have just come from my house where I have been drinking a bit of wine with friends. I am happily relaxed after a rather arduous first semester of Ph.D. study. It’s December, Christmas is coming on quickly, and as an early present, I get another Star Wars film.

Thirty minutes into the film, the protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), navigates through city streets on a desert planet, searching for her childhood mentor. Her companion, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), becomes increasingly agitated, and when Jyn questions him, he says the city “is about to blow.” Moments later, a…

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Short Fiction: “The Midwife”: Part 2

The palace was imposing, and not for the first time Siska marveled at what humanity could achieve. The sheer scale of it dwarfed anything that anyone had been able to accomplish since the time of the Old Ones, and everyone knew that they had been a mix of gods and men. Confronted with the vastness of its bulk, she was aware of her own limitations, and she shuddered.

The Immortals led her through one of the many smaller gates into the palace precinct, and though she felt mildly annoyed that she was not to be given a grand entrance in the main gate—she was about to help deliver the empress of a child—she pushed down those feelings. After all, hers was a higher calling, and it was unworthy of her to think of attaining glory.

She wasn’t entirely successful.

As Siska was led through the halls of the great palace, she felt the familiar rush of awe at the wealth that she saw on display. An entire hallway was paneled in the ebony that was one of the most lucrative exports of the fiercely independent of Ashkûm. She could not imagine how much it had cost the Shah to have it brought so many miles away from the forests. Every niche in another hall was filled with the finest sculptures from the distant peninsula of Helleneia. Though they were undoubtedly uncouth barbarians, their ability to capture the vitality of the human form in the frigid lineaments of marble was unmatched.

Yet Siska knew that if the princes outside the city were to have their way, all of this would be put to the torch. All this beauty that the Shah had taken such pains to collect, the soaring heights that the human spirit could achieve, would be destroyed in the fires of civil war. The Shah’s inability to produce an heir was his greatness weakness, and it threatened to undo them all.

The only thing standing between them and that fate was one midwife and the decision that she would make.

 

She could see at once that the queen was not going to live through the night. Her face already had the pale, waxy look of death, and Siska thought it would be all she could do to save the child. She shook her head in anger and frustration. Why was it that men always thought that the life of the mother was the least important part of child-bearing? Why did they care so little for the woman who bore it?

Now that she was here, she knew that she would do everything in her power to make sure that this child was born alive, that he would survive even when the mother would not.

But, of course, that was exactly what she had been told, in no uncertain terms, not to do.

Still, in times like this, she could do nothing but what she had been trained since childhood to do. She would bring the baby into the world, and she would face the consequences of defying the wishes of one of the most powerful men in the empire.

Bracing herself, she set to work.

 

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Great Hunt” (Book 2)

Well, I’ve now finished The Great Hunt for the umpteenth time, and I find that I enjoy it more each time I read it. While the first book set out the terms of the quest, now things get a bit messier as the full enormity of the task before Rand becomes enmeshed in a far greater set of plots and counterplots than he had ever imagined possible.

This is the first part of the series where things start to get really dark. People are brutally murdered in the middle of a fortress, a horde of soldiers with leashed Aes Sedai launch attacks on the western coast of the continent, and there is a villain that is truly evil enough to make your skin crawl (I’m looking at you, Padan Fain). This novel has all that I love the most about epic fantasy, and it doesn’t yet show the most egregious signs of repetitiveness and sloppy prose that will mar some of the later entries in the series.

So what specifically this installment so compelling and so unsettling? Well, to begin with there are the Seanchan.

I have always found the these invaders incredibly strange and alien, since they are so unlike any of the characters are cultures that we have met so far. Their collective willingness to enslave those who possess the inborn ability to channel the One Power always makes me feel gross, and this feeling is heightened by the fact that they use other women who could learn to channel to do the controlling.

There are also those aspects of the novel that make it stand out from the crowd, particularly its ability to weave together the particular pleasures of a variety of other genres. For example, who doesn’t feel a thrill of horror when Padan Fain nails a Myrdraal to a barn door or feeds one of the Darkfriends in his train to his pack of Trollocs? Who doesn’t find Fain in general to be one of the most terrifying villains to emerge in the annals of epic fantasy? Who doesn’t love the spinning wheels-within-wheels of politics as Rand finds himself sucked into the Great Game?

And of course, who doesn’t love the presence of the Forsaken Lanfear, who makes her first appearance in her attempt to sink her claws into Rand and use him for her own ends.

Lastly, there are the great characters that we meet. This is where we met the redoubtable Siuan, the Amyrlin Seat and leader of the Aes Sedai. While she plays a fairly limited role in the novel, it is still a substantial one, and it reveals a great deal about just how deep her plans with Moiraine run. They both know the enormous stakes with Rand, and they are determined to do everything they can to save him, though they might destroy themselves in the process.

And can I just say how very much I love Moiraine? She has always been, and will always be, one of my favourite characters in the whole series (and I always feel her lack once she disappears). Unlike the other characters in the series, I actually identify with her.

If I have one major complaint about this book, it’s that the pacing seems a little off. When I first began re-reading it, my memory told me that Egwene is briefly captured in the middle of the novel, but it turns out this doesn’t happen until very close to the end. What’s more, she doesn’t stay captured for very long, and so we don’t get a really in-depth glimpse of what it’s like to be a captive of the Seanchan. A similarly rushed feeling accompanies Rand’s duel with the Lord Turak and Mat’s blowing of the horn. These are two huge events, but the novel rushes through them with breathtaking speed.

I’m speeding through The Dragon Reborn, so hopefully I’ll get around to posting my update on that book in the next couple of days or so.

Cover note: I have to say, this is without a doubt the worst of the Wheel of Time covers. I’m not really sure Sweet thought he was doing, but this one is a major fail (who thinks that Ogier really look like that???)

“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

Metathesis

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly…

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Reading Tad Williams: “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” (Book 1 of Bobby Dollar)

Having made my way through some of Tad Willims’s heavier work, I turned to his lighter fare, in the form of the Bobby Dollar novels. I started at the beginning, The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Once again (as always) Williams shows that he has the uncanny ability excel in whatever genre he chooses to write.

If I were to summarize this novel, it would be to say that it is basically a cross between film noir and Paradise Lost. The entire story is told from the first-person viewpoint of the angel Doloriel, who goes by the name Bobby Dollar in his earthly guise. In the angelic hierarchy he is what is known as an advocate, an angel who spars with the demons of Hell over the spirits of the dead, and the outcome of their legal battle determines whether the spirit goes to Heaven or Hell. When the spirit of one of the departed isn’t where he is supposed to be, it sets off Bobby’s exploration of a conspiracy that goes far deeper than he had ever thought possible. In the process, he meets a lovely she-demon from Hell, who gives new meaning to the phrase femme fatale. Despite his best efforts–and despite what we are led to want–he is never quite able to bring his relationship to meaningful fruition. Her master/lover Eligor has simply too much power for her to break free, and it remains unclear at the end of the novel whether the asshole angel and the doomed demon will ever find their happily-ever-after.

Though he is very good at what he does, Bobby is a bit of a smartass, the type who is willing to buck authority when he thinks it’s the right thing to do. This leads him further and further astray from his official duties as an advocate, and through him we meet quite the variety of characters, including ghosts, other angel advocates, and a terrible demon that is seemingly determined to destroy our own beloved advocate. Through it all, though, he keeps up his steady stream of commentary about the bullshit that he has to endure, both at the hands of the demons of Hell (who are even more powerful than our worst fears had imagined) and at the hands of those in Heaven who may have it out for him as much as they do for their enemies.

Beneath the bitter, jaded viewpoint of Bobby, however, the novel does wrestle with some of the fundamental questions that always plague those who subscribe to religion. How is it possible that God, all-seeing, all-knowing, and benevolent, is willing to send his own creations to suffer an eternity of punishment in Hell? Is it possible to do awful things and yet still be a fundamentally good person? Is anyone, even one of the demons that have made Hell their home, truly beyond redemption? Heady stuff for an urban fantasy, huh?

Bobby, like all good noir antiheroes, has a great many character flaws, but the brilliance of the novel is that we learn to like him anyway. His seemingly-doomed love for the Countess of Cold Hands–the mistress of one of Hell’s most prominent lords–is oddly touching. Their emotional connection seems to provide both of them something that they lack in their respective roles, and it makes one wonder whether there can truly be anything in common between an angel who serves The Highest and one who serves the Adversary.

What’s more, we learn that Bobby does genuinely cares about the people around him, particularly Sam, one of his fellow advocates. As we learn more about the two of them, it’s hard not to feel Bobby’s sense of betrayal–deep and abiding–when he realizes that Sam has far more secrets than he is willing to let on, even to the person who is supposed to be his best friend.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dirty Streets of Heaven. It’s a quick read, but that’s a product of both the brisk pacing and the snappy dialogue. Somehow, Williams managed to bring together a complex skein of political allegiances with a tautly-woven narrative that never lets up.

My review of the book’s sequel, Happy Hour in Hell, should be along shortly. Stay tuned!

Short Fiction: “The Midwife: Part 1”

I’ve decided to be brave and start doling out a short story I’m working on in installments here on the blog. It’s set in the same universe as the “The Heretic’s War” and details the miraculous happenings surrounding the birth of Xharyush, the founder of the great empire of Haranshar. It’s titled “The Midwife.”

I hope you enjoy it. Part 2 will be released next Sunday, and for as many Sundays as it takes to finish telling the tale.

The Midwife

A pall had fallen Pasgardakh and all was quiet. Too quiet.

But then, an invading army encamped at the gates would do that to even the most bustling of cities.

The great palace of Shah Xhishmeh reared on its mighty rock above the rest of the city, a testament to the might of the King of Kings. He might be besieged like a badger in its den, but his house still announced to the world, and to the army that could see it on its rocky promontory, that here indeed was a king that could fight all the gathered princes of this world until the last breath in his body. This was a king that was the brother to the moon and stars and was second only to the sun in his radiance. This was the king of the world.

Unfortunately, he was also a childless one.

Which was why, when the cry of a mother entering her birth-pangs shattered the stillness of the night, the windows of the palace lit up with the glare of a thousand lamps, and the sounds of footsteps echoed through the empty night.

There were cries for the midwife, and two of the Shah’s own Immortals were sent to retrieve her. This woman was to hold the future of the entire realm in her hands, and thus she had to be handled with extraordinary care. After all, if this child survived the night, and if he was a boy—it must certainly be a male child, or otherwise all of this would be in vain—he would be the heir to an ailing king and the harbinger of a new future to come.

But first, he had to survive the night.

***

Siska had spent the greater part of her adulthood as a midwife. Trained by her mother, who had been trained by her mother, she came from a long line of women who had given their services to the family of the Shah. And none of them—not a one—had ever had her patient experience a miscarriage. It was a badge of pride carried by her house, a mark that suggested that they, more than anyone else, had been touched by Ormazdh. They were the ones chosen to bring the light of the sacred fire into the world.

It was therefore no surprise when she was called to the bedside of the queen who, everyone knew, had already endured a difficult pregnancy. To be called to aid this woman was the highest honor a woman like Siska could ever hope to attain, and she was not blind to it. Her people had always existed closer to the world of life and death, and she knew that she held the future of the world in her hands.

Though the usual rush of exaltation rushed through her at the thought of bringing another bright light into the world, she also could not shake a feeling of foreboding.

As she made her way through the dark streets of the city, she thought back to the fateful evening just two nights past when the Dashturi, the Shah’s foremost adviser, had come himself to her small house.

At first, she had been almost too overwhelmed to even make sense of what was happening. What would this man, this powerful man, want with someone like her? Certainly, she had delivered several babies for various nobles, but that surely did not warrant him coming here, did it?

He had been accompanied, as was only appropriate, by several Immortals, who had conducted a quick search of her home to make sure that there was no one there that would seek to do harm to the one that they had been appointed to guard.

The Dashturi was a strikingly handsome man, with his dark eyes and his glistening black hair, his sparkling white teeth and his high forehead. No one could say from whence he came, but there was no doubt that there was no one closer to the king than he was.

“You must understand the importance of what is about to happen.” When he spoke, it sounded like honey, so exquisite, so smooth, that she felt herself giving way to him, even though something about what he was saying struck her as odd.

She found herself nodded her assent, not even trusting her voice enough to say it aloud.

And then he was gone, and she was left alone.

Now here she was, making her way to the palace to deliver the child who would save the world.

Unless she did as she had been told.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Druid” (S2, Ep. 1)

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but The Shannara Chronicles has at last returned, now on Spike rather than on MTV. I admit to being a little skeptical going in, but overall I’m quite pleased with the result. This is a series that has truly grown from its beginnings and that shows a lot of potential for the future.

To enjoy this series, you have to accept this basic premise: the show is not, in any way shape or form, a direct translation of Brooks’s work to the screen. It is instead an adaptation of the various books combined, with each season drawing on various narrative threads from different books. This lends the series a vitality and energy that it might not have had were it a simple adaptation. I know that I may not be popular with the many fans of the original series, but I’m sticking to it.

This season takes us into some darker territory than the preceding one, with our three remaining leads pursuing their own lives. Eretria has settled into life with a community led by the former Druid Cogline, while Wil has taken up with a group of Gnome healers.  King Ander from the last season has begun to grow into his role as the ruler of the Elves, while Allanon continues to fight against the forces of evil that would see the ruination of the Four Lands. The stakes seem to have never been higher, and it remains uncertain who will make it out of this season alive.

The heroes are matched by two malevolent forces. On the supernatural side, the seer Bandon from the previous season leads a band of followers to the Skull Kingdom, initiating them into weapons of hate and destruction known as Mord Wraiths, all in the service of continuing the efforts of the undead Warlock Lord. In the world of mortals, the heroes are faced with the Crimson, a group determined to weed magic out of the world. Both are intent on finding and destroying our beloved Wil, and they will harm or kill anyone who dares to get in their way.

The first episode does see the introduction of some new characters that are fan favourites from the books, such as Cogline, the disgraced Druid who believes more in the power of science than in that of magic. It remains unclear what his motivations are other than his vow to Eretria’s mother , but it seems he may be a bit more menacing this his book counterpart. The other major addition is the young woman Mareth who is, to be quite honest, a total badass. If there’s one redeeming thing about this show, it’s the abundance of great female characters. Given the problematic way in which many other fantasy series treat their female characters, this is definitely a breath of fresh air.

This first episode also featured some truly beautiful scenery, including an aerial shot of a post-apocalyptic shot of San Francisco (which, for what it’s worth, is also the setting for the post-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes). The world in this season feels more fleshed-out than in the first, and we get a better sense of its contours, as well as the conflicts that will rage across it. It remains to be seen how the conflicts among the various races will take shape, with consequences that will potentially be deadly for everyone involved.

Just as importantly, the characters also feel richer and more textured, and this no doubt stems from the fact that the actors themselves have matured. While Manu Bennett continues to chew scenery as the irrepressible and indomitable Druid Allanon, both Austin Butler and Ivana Baquero have really matured as actors since the first season. This is not to say that they weren’t perfectly capable in the first season, but in that case they definitely seemed a bit more of what one might expect from MTV. These characters feel like they actually belong in the grand landscapes in which they appear; in my view, this definitely bodes well for the development of both their characters and the series a whole.

All in all, this second season of The Shannara Chronicles feels like a more mature series. I’m sure that many of the Brooks purists out there will not be pleased, but as someone who has read the books for over 2 decades, I’m pleased with it. There’s a certain pleasure to be gained from the changes, and since the series has Brooks’s approval, I’m happy to go along with it.

Dissertation Days (57): An Overdue Update

Since I realized that it’d been over 2 weeks since I’d written an update on the Dissertation, I thought I’d take a hot second and do so. Things continue apace. I’m getting ready to submit a revised version of parts of Chapter 3 to the adviser, while I continue finishing up the readings themselves.

And, fortunately, I continue to make some really good progress on Chapter 4. The writing has been coming remarkably smoothly these last few weeks, and that is a huge relief. I now actually feel like I can get this whole project done and defended in the next 7 months, and that is also a tremendous relief.

There is something poetic about writing about the lost dreams of a a powerful woman and the feeling of melancholic utopia that that generates in the wake of 2016. It’s not that everything in the world has to line up neatly with the election and its aftermath, but it’s funny how very different it feels to write this dissertation now that an eminently qualified woman and her dreams of a better future were dashed. Not to mention the fact that when I began writing about a period in which an entire country trembled before the possibility of nuclear war I never dreamt I would be living such a reality.

Such, though, are the vagaries of a project that takes a couple of years to complete. Now that I’m almost done, I can take a bit more time to reflect on those larger questions. If nothing else, they’ll make a nice anecdote with which to open or close the book (when I finally get around to changing this beast into a monograph).

Overall, I’m very happy with the way this dissertation has taken shape. I’ve worked long and hard on it, and I feel like I’ve intellectually accomplished something. There are still a few more mile-markers to cross, but I do believe I can see the finish line, over there in the distance somewhere.

I plan to continue these little updates until the very end, but they may be a bit more sporadic. I have a lot of other writing projects going on, both on this blog and in the outside world, and I want to make sure they get the attention they deserve. In the meantime, you can always check my Twitter, since I usually tweet diss updates there.

Well, I’m off.

Keep writing, my beauties!

Special Edition: How I Misplaced my Faith

Metathesis

[5 minute read]

Last month, when teaching a Metathesis post I previously wrote about being a Catholic scholar, I felt like a bit of a fraud. My intention in using this post was to give my students a look at my research on a rare book they had examined for class. However, when one of my students immediately remarked that the book smelled “you know, like when you’re at Easter Mass, and the priest is using incense”, my response was one of disconnect, rather than recognition. Between submitting my syllabus for approval in April and teaching the content in September, I had misplaced my faith somewhere.

Somewhere, I say, but I know exactly where I misplaced it. I left it in the run-down Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York: a tiny room with a manual train schedule, a contaminated drinking fountain, and an air freshener that whined every…

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