Book Review: “Beren and Luthien” (by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Anyone who’s ever read anything about Tolkien knows the story of Luthien, the tale of an Elf maiden who fell in love with the mortal man Beren and ultimately sacrificed her immortality to be with him. Their sage is, of course, intertwined with those fantastic gems known as the Silmarils, one of which they managed to steal from the crown of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. Shadows of this tale appear in The Lord of the Rings (and the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen is modeled upon it), and it is told in relatively full form in The Silmarillion.

Now, however, Christopher Tolkien has brought us this marvelous book, which details the evolution of this tale from its beginnings, showcasing both its prose and poetic forms. Throughout, we get to see again how complex, and often frustrating, Tolkien’s composition process was. Given the many permutations this single narrative underwent over Tolkien’s creative life, it’s small wonder that he was never able to craft it into a form with which he was ultimately satisfied. 

Unlike other recent volumes of Tolkien’s posthumous work (such as The Children of Hurin), Beren and Luthien is not a cohesive narrative. Instead, it is more of a hybrid, part narrative and part textual history.

In it, when learn a great deal about how Tolkien’s conception of the story changed throughout its development. For example, in one early version Beren is imprisoned by a cat king (yes, you read that right). While we all mourn the excision of this fascinating character from the Beren/Luthien narrative, it does come across as being a little more whimsical than The Silmarillion proper. We also learn that Beren was not originally a Man was instead an Elf (which, as you can imagine, quite changes the dynamic between him and Luthien).

What is truly remarkable, however, is how much remains the same, both thematically and narratively. The fundamentals of the story of a pair of doomed lovers that nevertheless strive to remain together are there for the beginning, as is the profound sense of melancholy that is so much a part of the Elves’ existence. Again and again, we find them fighting against defeat and contending with the one inescapable fact of their reality: their immortality. What makes Beren and Luthien such a fascinating tale is precisely that Luthien was willing and able to transcend that immorality in order to be with her.

It is also striking–and worth noting–that in each iteration of the story it is Luthien who possesses the traits we most associate with the male hero of the epic. It is she who must repeatedly rescue Beren from his imprisonment, and it is ultimately her actions that make the claiming of the Silmaril from Morgoth’s iron crown possible. While Tolkien wasn’t always able to craft female heroes with the same sort of depth as his male ones, there’s no question that Luthien is the more compelling of the two heroes of this tale. 

I have one small quibble with the volume, and it’s the same one that I have with a lot of Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work. I’ve written elsewhere that we owe a tremendous debt to the younger Tolkien for his excavation of his father’s work, but man, does he have the most lumbering prose I’ve ever encountered. In this particular volume, this sometimes leads to a bit of repetition, as he tends to cite his work in the very volume that we’re reading. Nevertheless, when it comes to knowledge of his father’s manuscripts and the mindset behind them, no one holds a candle to Christopher.

Overall, however, I tremendously enjoyed reading Beren and Luthien. I’ve always found this tale to be one of the most profoundly moving in the entire legendarium, and it’s a fascinating experience to see how it grew and changed. While casual fans of Tolkien might find this volume a little rough to read, those of us who are a little more invested will find this a truly delightful treat. 

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What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!

The Pleasures of Re-Reading “The Lord of the Rings”

Much as I love reading (and books), there are very few works that I read more than once. I’m not really sure why that it is; maybe it’s just my relentless desire for something new, some exciting frontier to explore. There are a few books, however, that I return to again and again (and sometimes again and again). 

The Lord of the Ring is one of those.

Ever since I read it way back in…’95 or ’96…I’ve repeatedly returned to Tolkien’s magnum opus, losing myself in that fantastical world of Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and Rings of Power. Going over these familiar words and chapters is oddly comforting, a ritual of sorts that not only brings me pleasure, but also inspires to continue working on my own fantasy writing adventures. There’s just something deeply satisfying about the established patterns that I know so well that I can recite parts of it in my sleep. 

In recent years, I’ve endeavoured to do a full re-reading of LotR in its entirety, and while I don’t always succeed, I never cease to find myself experiencing some of the same emotions over and over again. I still feel the same shudder of fear when the Hobbits first hear the wail of the Nazgûl, the chill when the Ringwraiths are revealed in their spectral glory when they are attacked on Weathertop, the same sense of devastation when the Fellowship meets its ultimate end at the Grey Havens. 

I’m currently in the midst of my umpteenth reading of The Lord of the Rings, and as always I am astounded by the ability of Tolkien to evoke a landscape. No matter how many times I read it, I continue to feel that sense of wonder at the world of Middle-earth, which we encounter in the same way that the characters do. This is a world that has deep roots (in many different senses of the phrase). 

At the same time, each time that I read it, I find new things to enjoy, new facets of the history, the languages, and the lore that I didn’t fully appreciate before. As you read more of the history of the composition of LotR (courtesy of the exhaustive work of Christopher), you come to realize just how much work went into the creation of this world and everything connected to it. Sure, you can enjoy it on its own, but how much sweeter and richer and deeper is that pleasure as you see more of Tolkien’s mind and the sheer scale of his creative genius.

There’s a subtlety to this, I think, that you really do miss if you only read it once, or if you read it in isolation. I don’t want to cast aspersions on those casual Tolkien fans who have only read Lord of the Rings, but I would definitely encourage you to explore some of the other work. For those who don’t necessarily want to take the real plunge and read The Silmarillion, I would suggest instead Unfinished Tales, which contains some fascinating material germane to Frodo and Company.

I have to confess, sometimes I worry that re-reading Tolkien’s work will reveal that I’ve grown bored with it, that somehow I’ve managed to outgrow it and lost that sense of wonder and magic that I first encountered all those years ago. And every single time, it manages to cast its spell over me. Maybe some of this stems from my own tremendous emotional investment in the work, but an equal part I think is due to the power of the work itself. 

Of course, on the flip side of all of this, re-reading Tolkien’s great work also reveals some layers of complexity that are not quite so pleasurable. There’s no question that there are aspects of The Lord of the Rings that do read as distinctly racist (to take just one example). As a devoted fan of Tolkien’s, it does require a level of negotiation on my part, but to me that is one of the benefits of reading our fan objects as critically as we do anything else. 

So, no matter how many times I read The Lord of the Rings, I find new and varied reasons to keep coming back. Tolkien has taught me so much about writing and about my love of the fantasy genre, and I continue to learn from it, all these years after my initial reading. I look forward to keeping up the tradition.

So here’s to the pleasures of re-reading The Lord of the Rings.

Reading History: “The Splendor Before the Dark” (by Margaret George)

Ever since I finished Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, the first part of her two-book exploration of Rome’s most notorious emperor, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the second half. Thankfully, the wait is finally over!

The Splendor Before the Dark picks up where Confessions left off, with Nero racing back to the city Rome, now engulfed in flames. Though he does his best to help with the fire, much of Rome is destroyed. In the aftermath, he attempts to rebuild parts of the city to provide green space, but his efforts are misunderstood by the senatorial elite. Surrounded by those who would see him brought down, he eventually resorts to acts of brutality, cementing his reputation and ultimately bringing about his downfall.

George makes the convincing case that Nero never wanted to be emperor; he had the heart and soul of a poet, not a ruler. Just as importantly, she also ably demonstrates the extent to which Nero’s psyche was (mis)shaped by his family, particularly his ambitious mother Agrippina, but also by all of those other branches of the tangled Julio-Claudian tree that yearned so desperately for the ultimate position of power. Growing up in such a viper’s nest, is it any wonder that he turned at times into a monster? 

As George aptly paints it, Nero himself recognizes that darkness that lives inside him. In her telling, he sees himself as comprised of three Neros: the Nero who wants to be an artist, the Nero who recognizes his responsibilities as an emperor and leader of his people; and the ruthless shadow Nero, the one responsible for protecting the other two. It is this last that leads him to lash out at those he suspects–often rightly–of conspiring against his life, as when he strikes down the schemer Piso and his confederates, including the philosopher Seneca.

With her usual incisive eye, George peers behind the invective and myth that has shrouded Nero since at least the time of Tacitus and Seutonius. As she rightly points out, our understandings and perceptions of Nero have been so clouded by hostile Roman historians and by almost hysterical Christian narratives that it is hardly surprising that characterizations like that of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis (1951) have become so dominant. George helps us to see Nero as a fundamentally flawed person, but one who genuinely sought to make good on his promises to the people of Rome, who saw himself as an artist, yes, but also as a champion of the people and the subjects over whom he was appointed to rule.

At the same time, she allows us to see the extent to which Nero’s naiveté is his own undoing. He cannot, or will not, understand that his artistic aspirations are fundamentally at odds with what those in power believe a ruler should be. Thus, his decision to go to Greece and compete in the Games is in many ways pivotal to his undoing, as it allows those who despise him to drum up support for their own plots. 

Of course, Nero’s life is full of other tragedies besides his death at his own hand. He loves Poppaea with a passion bordering on madness, but a drunken accident results at her death at his hands, a death preceded by their unborn child. His beloved Acte refuses to return his affection, believing (probably rightly) that an open romance between them would endanger him even more. No matter how hard he tries, Nero cannot seem to find the romantic fulfillment that he desires, a tragedy that persists until the very end. 

In terms of style, George (as always) has a keen eye for period detail, and we are treated to lush descriptions of food, sights, and sounds. This is Rome at the height of its glory, when the world seems bathed in the golden light of the emperor and all of the grandeur he enjoys. Small wonder that the people of Rome were said to love him, for he was one of those figures who was truly larger-than-life. Small wonder that so many of the men (and some of the women) who surrounded him sought to cut him down to size in the eyes of those that followed.

It seems to me that The Splendor Before the Dark is fundamentally a melancholic text, in keeping with so many other recent depictions of antiquity. Nero represents something of a utopian vision of how the world might be–full of beauty, sexual freedom, and a surrender to the senses. Of course, such a world can never be fully realized, for the demands of pragmatism and of history always intercede. No matter how much we may enjoy the world of plenty and joy that Nero creates for us, we also know that it is doomed to be temporary, that it will be consigned to the ashes of history.

As important as Nero’s perspective is, George also provides us two other important viewpoints that act as something of a Greek chorus: Locusta the poisoner and Acte the freedwoman. Locusta has a keen eye and sees aspects of Nero that remain invisible even to him. Her status as someone outside of the respectable parts of society ensures that she can feel the political pulse of the world around her even if, ultimately, she doesn’t survive Nero’s fall for very long.

It is really Acte, however, who is the novel’s heart and soul. She loves Nero completely and unequivocally, and this is both her greatest joy and her greatest tragedy. It is she who remains steadfastly loyal to him, in life and in death. The novel gives her the final word, as she visits Nero’s tomb and promises him that she will join him soon. As she always does, George imbues the novel’s final words with a profound sadness mingled with a little bit of joy, a yearning that lovers separated by death might once again be reunited. 

It is this, finally, that gives The Splendor Before the Dark it’s raw emotional power. George proves once again that she truly is the grand dame of historical fiction.

Book Review: “Street Freaks” (by Terry Brooks)

I know I probably sound like a broken record, but any time that I hear Terry Brooks has a new book coming out I get ridiculously excited. He is, after all, the second author whose work I truly fell in love with (the first was, of course, Tolkien). And he’s just a great guy.

I have to admit, though, that I approached Street Freaks with some trepidation. I’m not, as a rule, a huge fan of YA, and I read far more fantasy than I do sci-fi. Still, since this was Terry Brooks, I knew that the story was in good hands.

Thankfully, I was proven correct.

Brooks has proven once again that he is one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation, able to turn his hand to any genre and draw a compelling story out of it. From beginning to end, Street Freaks is a pleasure, drawing is into this world where the order that we are used to has broken down, where the air in Los Angeles is deadly, and where some lives are deemed more expendable than others.

The story is told completely from the perspective of Ash Collins, a teenager who is forced to flee his comfortable life when his father is killed and sends him an urgent directive to go to the Red Zone of Los Angeles and seek shelter at the place known as Streak Freaks, where he meets a renegade group of misfits, all of whom have become something both more and less than humans. Together, they attempt to solve the mystery of Ash’s father’s death, as well as the secrets that might just bring the world as they know it crashing to the ground in ruin.

The world Brooks paints is not as dystopian as some–including, incidentally, his Genesis of Shannara series–but it comes close. The United States has fragmented, and the action takes place in part of what is now termed the United Territories. Though Brooks gives us only brief glimpses of the world outside of Los Angeles, the glimpses we get suggest that this is a world that is truly on the brink of total collapse. There are riots and armed demonstrations across the country.

Nor is Los Angeles much better. The air is almost hopelessly polluted, and there is a clear divide between humans and those who, for one reason or another, are deemed lesser-than. Most of these–young men and women who have been supplemented either with electronics or other synthetic material–we see in Street Freaks and its environs. It’s a harsh world, and it’s not for the weak.

Fortunately for him, Ash Collins is neither of these things, though he does struggle to find his way in the ruthless world of the Red Zone. Throughout the novel, Ash finds his actions directed and manipulated by those who both know more than he does and have more power in the world that he possesses. This is especially true of his uncle, a ruthless politician who has all the charm of an alligator. However, it’s bigger than that; there are corporations and governments that do things that their citizens, including Ash, don’t know of or approve. Though they are ultimately held accountable, one gets the feeling that there is still much work to be done.

In many ways, then, Street Freaks is a perfect distillation of the crisis current afflicting our culture. To what extent is any of us a true agent, truly in control of our own destiny? To what extent are we controlled by forces that are so vast and so complex that we have little to no chance of understanding them in their totality, let alone doing anything to change them or to hold them to account? The novel answers some of these questions, but others it leaves dangling, allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

The narrative of Street Freaks moves along at a fast clip, and Ash is a fairly likable protagonist (though his love for the synth Cay is a bit heavy-handed and gets irritating after a while). It’s the other characters who really stand out, however. Whether that’s Holly, whose body has been supplemented by synthetics, or T.J., who was born and bred to be a super-human warrior, these young people exist on the margins of society (Incidentally, I’m not saying that Mr. Brooks was inspired by my name to create the character, but I did meet him at a bookshop. I’m just saying).

As a result, Street Freaks also asks us to rethink how it is that we categorize some people as fully human (and thus fully worthy or respect and dignity). Brooks’ books have always had a strong social conscience–the overt environmentalism of The Heritage of Shannara quartet has always stood out to me–and that is true here as well. Street Freaks shows us how rewarding it can be when we offer a welcoming hand to those who are different, rather than either expelling them or, worse yet, exterminating them. Since it ends on a mostly high note, Street Freaks proposes that it’s not yet too late to forge a world that’s better than the world that we have found.

All in all, I really enjoyed Street Freaks. It’s always good to see Brooks stretch his wings a little and get out of the fantasy realm. While this book doesn’t have quite the same gritty gravitas as, say, Running with the Demon, it does seem to share a lot of that book’s DNA. While Brooks, to my knowledge, hasn’t said whether there will be more books following up on this one, it does leave enough threads open for that to be a possibility. I know that I, for one, would love to see more of this world, even if it doesn’t happen to be through the eyes of Ash. While we wait to see whether we’ll see more of this world, we at least have the final two versions of the Shannara to look forward.

And that’s quite a blessing, indeed.

Dear Senator Collins

Dear Senator Collins:

Like many others, I waited with baited breath all day for 3:00, wondering if maybe, just maybe, you’d come riding to our rescue with this whole Brett Kavanaugh debacle. Surely, I thought, Susan Collins, the defender of women’s rights, would find it in herself to take a principled stand against him, to tell survivors of sexual assault–particularly Dr. Ford–that they were heard, that they were believed, that their voices MATTERED.

Boy oh boy, was I wrong.

Your remarks were disingenuous, condescending, and a devastating blow for the women’s rights that you seek to champion (to say nothing of the rights of the LGBT+ community).

In your speech, you decried the influx of money from “leftist” groups against Kavanaugh. That’s pretty rich, coming from someone who belongs to a party that is in the pocket of the Koch Brothers and the Mercers. How could you stand there with a straight face and make it sound as if it were the Democrats who were the slaves to big money, rather than your own GOP, which has slashed taxes for the wealthy again and again?

In your speech, you decried abortion advocacy organizations as alarmist (indeed, hysterical). That’s pretty hurtful and damaging, coming from a senator who has spoken so often about her support for women’s rights, particularly the issue of reproductive freedom. How dare you dismiss them in such a callous fashion, acting as if their well-founded concerns were worth nothing more than a condescending dismissal?

In your speech, you decried the rush to judgment about the truth of Dr. Ford’s allegations, even as you said you believed that she had been assaulted. How can you say that you believe her testimony, and that you take the testimony of other sexual assault survivors seriously, if you are also going to simultaneously dismiss them as being mistaken? You can’t have it both ways, Senator, at least, not and sound like an intellectually and morally honest person and leader.

I truly did expect more from you, Senator Collins. Though I am not one of your constituents, I still saw you as one of those rare creatures in today’s world: a moderate in every sense of the word, someone with whom I could disagree on issues of policy but who I still respected. After that speech today, I am dismayed and disgusted, my respect for you in tatters.

Unfortunately, what you did today was reveal your true self: as a partisan who favours the party line over principle. With your speech today, you have told survivors of sexual assault, in tones that no one could miss, to not even bother coming forward with their testimony. Why should they? They now know that not even their powerful women representatives in the legislature will step up to bat for them. The power of a man in politics will always overshadow, and ultimately overwhelm, that of his accuser.

But they will come forward. They will come forward in November, and in 2020, and beyond. There is a wave coming, and nothing is going to stop it.

I guess, ultimately, I’m disappointed in you, Senator Collins. I truly hope that things change in the days and weeks ahead, that the Democrats win in November, that women become a power in the House, the Senate, and all over the country. And I hope that you see the error of your ways.

We’ll be seeing you in 2020.

 

The Unbearable Violence of Straight, White Men

Watching the hearings the other day, I was overcome with emotion watching Dr. Ford give her testimony. I felt my heart bleed when she said that it was the laughter–the uproarious laughter of two men committing sexual assault and expressing their humour at her expense–that still stuck with her these years later. Right then, I knew without a doubt that she was telling the truth. No one who has ever been the object of scornful laughter ever forgets it.

Then Brett Kavanaugh stepped up, and a true horror show was unleashed.

As I heard Kavanaugh go on and on, ranting about the alleged leftist conspiracy against him, I was reminded of why it is that I have always had a deeply-rooted fear of straight men. I was reminded of why it is that, even as a 34-year-old man myself, I still feel a fist of anxiety clutch me every time I walk past a gathering of men. I was reminded of why it is that, as a queer man who doesn’t live up to the codes of male behaviour, I always feel like straight men might attack me at any moment with the slightest provocation.

White straight men like Kavanaugh stride through the world with a privilege which they often stubbornly refuse to acknowledge, let alone do anything to mitigate. It’s not just that they occupy a different strata of society; it’s that they literally inhabit the world in a different way. Their bodies are not subjected to the same violence as men of color, women, or queer people are, and as a result they frequently don’t even recognize the differences between their being-in-the-world and that of others who don’t share their identity. What’s more, they don’t even recognize the fact that there are people whose bodies–and whose experience of the world–is shaped by that fundamental fear.

And, speaking of violence, it’s hard not to shake the impression that straight, white men are inherently violent. It may not always reveal itself at first glance, but scratch the surface just a little, and it can erupt, with devastating results. One need look no further than Kavanaugh’s histrionics to see how quickly and explosively that male rage can erupt when it is challenged. Hearing Kavanaugh veer wildly from one accusation to the next, watching him accost and gaslight Democratic senators (particularly the women), and hearing his blatant flaunting of his privilege, I could well imagine him enacting violence against a woman.

In the two years since Donald Trump was elected, we have seen this type of toxic masculinity on full display everywhere we look. Whether it’s in the vile spaces of Twitter (and its bastard counterparts), in the streets of Charlottesville, or in the halls of power, a particularly virulent form of maleness has made it abundantly clear that it is willing, able, and eager to enforce its will through violence. And any attempt to rein it is met with even more violence. More insidiously, it is met with tears and a sense of aggrievement: how dare you say that I’m violent? How dare you say that I’m a misogynist? One need look no further than Kavanaugh’s performance on Wednesday to see a graphic illustration of that phenomenon in all of its overwrought ugliness.

Let me be clear. I absolutely believe Dr. Ford’s allegations against him, and I believed them even before I saw the two of them deliver their testimonies yesterday. But Kavanaugh has reinforced my belief that something drastically has to change about the way that we talk about and to the men in our lives. The hearing yesterday further reinforced that feeling, as I listened to Senator Lindsey Graham repeatedly refer to Dr. Ford as “Miss Ford” and, in a truly disgusting form of contempt, referred to her as a victim of both the Democrats and sexual assault (though not, pointedly, at the hands of Kavanaugh).

My only hope at this point is that we vote as many men out of office as we possibly can in 2018. I truly don’t think that anything short of stripping them of their political power will cause them to get the message. If we can finally show them that their actions have consequences, then maybe they’ll start changing their behaviour.

But honestly? I wouldn’t count on it.

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.”

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!