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.

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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…