Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.

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Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Dragon Reborn” (Book 3)

Now that he has acknowledged that he is the Dragon Reborn, Rand must make his way to Tear and claim Callandor, one of the most powerful sa’angreal that were created during the Age of Legends. Meanwhile, Nynaeve and Elayne must seek out the Black Ajah, and Perrin, Egwene, and Mat have to accept their role in Rand’s destiny.

I’m going voice what will probably be an unpopular opinion. Both Rand and Mat are the most insufferable characters in fantasy literature. I mean, I know that Rand is supposed to be the reluctant hero and all of that, but he’s not only unwilling, he’s stupidly stubborn. The only other character I can think of that is nearly as annoying is Jon Snow, whose character also suffers because of a certain lack of competency on the part of most fantasy writers to create central characters who aren’t infuriating.

That being said, there is a lot to like in this novel, particularly the (for the most part) well-organized plot that sees several different strands converge at the end in the climactic moment when Rand claims the sword for his own and announces to the world his status as the Dragon Reborn. What’s more, this novel really gives a great deal to Perrin who, among the three male leads, is definitely the most sympathetic (and the least insufferable). Though he won’t really come into his own until The Shadow Rising, the seeds are already set for his starring role in that book.

The novel also includes the perspectives of several of our other favourite characters, each of whom starts to develop a true mission of their own. I particularly enjoy the plot in which Nynaeve and Elayne are sent to track down the Black Ajah, particularly the malicious Liandrin and her fellows. These are truly some of the most sinister characters in the series, women who have no intention of doing anything other than leashing Rand for a service to the Dark One. The fact that they elude the justice that they so richly deserve is frustrating, but it does give us something to look forward to in the next novel.

Like it’s predecessor The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn is briskly-paced, so that we move through the various stages of the plot in a relatively short book. I would actually argue that the first three books of The Wheel of Time are in many ways a springboard for the vast tapestry (a Pattern, if you will), that will consume all of the subsequent books. In fact, this is the last book for quite a while that will have a narrative that is actually contained and leads to a meaningful fruition. From this point on, we’ll get more POV characters and more plot-threads, but given that the sheer scope is part of the pleasure of this series, I’m not going to complain too much.

There are still some nagging bits of inconsistency in terms of pacing, particularly Moiraine’s ability to kill Be’lal with seemingly little resistance on his part. Sure, it seems like she is able to get the jump on him, but it really makes one doubt the power of the Forsaken if they can be so easily dispatched. But then, the Forsaken, for all of their vaunted strength and prominence in the Age of Legends, seem a bit off their game in this new world.

Overall, though, The Dragon Reborn is a truly entertaining and thrilling read. It is probably the last book in the series in which Jordan is able to restrain his worst impulses. From this point out, the plot will start to meander and hundreds more characters will make their appearance. In addition, the characters will begin to engage in their endless refrains that will become infuriatingly repetitive the longer the series goes on.

I’m very much enjoying my re-reading of The Wheel of Time. I am sincerely hoping to have it finished by sometime in early 2018, which is a bit ambitious, but I’m sure I can do it. I’ll be honest. I’m sort of skimming the volumes that I’ve read several times, but I hope to slow down and savour the last four.

With that, onward we go!

Reading Tad Williams: “The War of the Flowers”

Having finally found a bit of breathing space in the midst of frantic Dissertation, I thought I’d pop in and write a quick review of Tad Williams’ excellent one-volume epic The War of the Flowers. 

In the tradition of other epic fantasy writers who turn to something a little more whimsical than is usually on offer with the genre of the epic, The War of the Flowers is narrated from the perspective of the 30-something, mostly-washed-up musician Theo Vilmos. One night, he finds himself attacked by an undead creature and is saved by the foul-mouthed sprite Applecore. Whisked into the realm of the Fairies, which exists alongside our own (and to some extent mirrors ours), he soon finds himself embroiled in a long-simmering war between the various great houses of this world, some of whom wish to co-exist with humans and others that want to obliterate them. In the process, he learns a great deal about himself and solves a troubling mystery about his own heritage.

It’s not everyone who can manage to write a single-volume epic fantasy, but as always Tad Williams shows himself a master of whatever genre he turns his hand to. The pacing is, for such a large novel, quite brisk, toggling effortlessly between brisk action set-pieces and the more arcane political machinations that one always expects from the best sorts of epic fantasy. There are characters from every walk of life in this mysterious fairy world, and there are family loyalties, class warfare, and all of the other trappings that make this genre one of the most complex and fascinating in contemporary literature.

The characters are fully-drawn which means that they are often quite awful and difficult to like. This goes for Vilmos as much as it does any of the more magical creations, for Theo is the epitome of what might be called privileged white manhood. He sometimes can’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that he is not entitled to an easy answer to all of his questions, and that sometimes one is caught up in events that sweep us along. The fact that, as a rather entitled man, this lack of agency comes as a shock, reveals a great deal about how the men in our world think about the way that they inhabit social spaces. Williams has a keen eye for the insufferable nature of this sort of behaviour, and he’s not afraid to allow us as readers to get quite annoyed with Theo throughout the novel.

Of course, this being Tad Williams, there is more than a little social commentary going on throughout the novel. The higher forms of fairies are notoriously cruel, unthinking, and exploitative, and they care little (or nothing) for the lives and well-being of their fellows. They ruthlessly exploit them to power their scientific (magical) advancements, but in doing so they inadvertently sow the seeds of their own eventual downfall. The War of the Flower makes it quite clear that so many of things that many people take for granted, both in the fantasy world that Williams has created and in our own, are built, from the foundations, on the exploitation of others. It’s a troubling realization, but that is part of the brilliance of this novel.

Though it was written in the early aughts, The War of the Flowers feels even more relevant today. Button the Goblin could just as easily be a stand-in for the incendiary politics of Bernie Sanders, and the wanton cruelty of Thornapple and Hellebore bear a surprising resemblance to certain nefarious parts of the American political system of 2016 (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon). When, at the end of the novel, everything in the world seems to have fallen into ruin and chaos, there is still a glimmer that a new, more just political order might emerge from the ashes of the old. That, ultimately, is a very optimistic view of the world that it is nice to see in epic fantasy.

All in all, I enjoyed The War of the Flowers quite a lot. I’ve always admired Williams’ ability to combine thickly layered plots with lush description, and both of those tendencies are on full display here. He has definitely earned his place in the pantheon of great epic fantasy writers of our generation, and I very much look forward to my continuing journey through his oeuvre. 

Next, it’s on to the Bobby Dollar series, which I like to think of as film noir meets John Milton. Stay tuned!

Reading Tad Williams: “The Witchwood Crown” (Book 1 of “The Last King of Osten Ard”)

Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

At long last, I have finished The Witchwood Crown and let me tell you, dear readers, this is one hell of a book.

The story takes place roughly thirty years after the end of To Green Angel Tower, and Simon and Miriamele have successfully ruled as the High King and High Queen of Osten Ard. However, not all is as peaceful for it seems, for there is unrest throughout the human kingdoms, and the Norns have also begun to re-emerge from a long period of dormancy. Beset with problems both domestic and political, and joined by numerous new characters, Simon and Miriamele must contend with yet another grave peril to their beloved kingdom.

There is something uniquely pleasurable about seeing the characters that we loved so much in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. All of them, of course, bear the burden of the intervening years, Miriamele and Simon most of all. They have governed well, but already there are disturbing signs that all is not as well as it might appear. Fortunately, there are still those that are able to aid them, such as the doughty but aging Count Eolair, as well as the lovable and eternally loyal troll Binabik. There is something equally sad about learning that some of our favourite characters–Rachel the Dragon, Father Strangeyeard, etc.–have already died. And if you don’t feel a tear come to your eye at the death of dear old Duke Isgrimnur, then I don’t think that you are really a human being.

While Simon and Miriamele were the central characters in the preceding series, it seems that now they are on the fringes of the narrative. Their actions are important, certainly, but it’s hard not to feel that events have begun to slip beyond their grasp. Having faced the death of their only son, they now have to contend with the fact that his son has become something of a wastrel. Williams does an excellent job conveying their maturity, as well as the sinister fact that even their most seemingly loyal councilors–such as Pasavalles–may have motivations that are not in the best interests of the monarchs.

As with The Heart of What Was Lost, one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was the portrait that we get of the inner workings of Norn society. This is a rigid culture that has very set ways of doing things, and while many of them believe that this is the way that it should be, there are significant nodes of resistance among even the highest of them. Viyeki, now a Magister, is one of these, and the parts of the book devoted to his viewpoint are always compelling, in no small part because he, perhaps more than any of his countrymen, realizes that the Queen and her chief adviser Akhenabi may not be as wise or as infallible as the Norns have come to believe.

Most of the new characters are likewise compelling, though Morgan, the grandson of the king and queen, is quite insufferable (for all that we sympathize with him in some ways). Nezeru, the daughter of Viyeki and the mortal Tzoja; Unver the Thrithing; and numerous others make appearances that show that this novel is comprised of a number of moving parts. Everyone has their own motivations, some noble and some not, and that is part of what makes The Witchwood Crown such an utterly consuming read.

At a deeper philosophical level (which is always one of my favourite things about Williams’s work), the novel forces us to confront one of the uncomfortable realities that simmers beneath the surface of a great deal of epic fantasy. While the endings of so many epics suggest that the evil has been banished once and for all, that is almost never the case in the real world. The story goes on, the cycle of history repeats itself, and those who are caught in the gears of it have to fend for themselves or learn to navigate as best they can. While Williams’ books tend to not be as ruthless as those of, say, George R.R. Martin, I am beginning to wonder if we might not see the end of some of our most beloved characters (after all, the series is titled “The Last King of Osten Ard”).

At this point, it’s still rather difficult to see the endgame of the series as a whole. Clearly Utuk’ku will stop at nothing to reclaim the world that she thinks has been stolen from her and her people by the mortals. What’s more, most of the humans seem to be so caught up in their own pettiness that they fail to see the forest for the trees. Even after the carnage and destruction of the Storm King’s War, humanity seems chronically unable to hold itself together long enough to be able to actually build a more just, stable world. This series seems like a slower burn than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and in that sense it seems to have more in common (pace-wise) with the Shadowmarch series. For someone like me who likes a plot that only gradually unfolds–with, of course, a tremendously satisfying conclusion–this is right up my alley. And, in my humble opinion, it is one of Williams’s greatest strengths.

Overall, this new adventure in Osten Ard seems a bit darker than its predecessors, a product, perhaps, of the very different sociocultural milieu in which Williams is now writing. There are even more grey areas than there were before, and even some of the characters whose minds we inhabit are far murkier than we might have thought possible. There are great forces at work, and it is entirely possible that the things that everyone has taken for granted in this world, perhaps even the very substance of the world itself, may come crashing down into ruin. I have already begun bracing myself for what’s coming next.

The only problem is…how long will I have to wait for the next volume?

Book Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations” (Greg Keyes)

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reading Greg Keyes’ movie tie-in novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm, which detailed the efforts of the chimpanzee Caesar and his fellow apes to evade the attempts by humans to eradicate them. Now, Keyes is back with a novel that serves as a bridge between the events of Dawn and those of the forthcoming War, entitled War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations. 

The novel narrates the events that immediately precede those in the forthcoming film, in which the human forces (led by Colonel McCullough) come to San Francisco and have to confront the reality of the ape presence. Meanwhile, Caesar and his apes must contend with both the increasingly brutal human military force and dissent from within their own ranks.

The novel switches frequently between several viewpoint characters both major and minor, but it pays the most attention to Colonel McCullough, Ray the orangutan, and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s eldest son and putative heir. Other characters include Cornelia (Caesar’s wife and, in her brief time in the novel, a true badass), John (the Colonel’s son), and of course Caesar himself. All of them increasingly find themselves caught up in the increasingly large-scale conflict between the human survivors of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s apes.

Of course, nothing is easy for either side. Caesar must continue to deal with the fallout from Koba’s rebellion, including a number of apes who harbour resentment toward him, including both Red and Silver (the former of home will come to play a large part in the upcoming film). The Colonel, meanwhile, is depicted as a man of honour but also as a brutal military mastermind who is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his actions. Steeped in the military traditions of the past–he references The Iliad, Beowulf, and numerous other texts–he sees in the conflict the stage for both the salvation of humanity and, just possibly, his own chance at greatness.

One of the most fascinating things about this novel is the extent to which it shows us the gradually-evolving consciousness of its ape characters. Many of them still remember a time before the awakening, when apes still inhabited a consciousness that was powerful but qualitatively different than their human counterparts. Keyes has a remarkable ability to allow us to inhabit the minds of the non-human characters, particularly Ray and Blue Eyes. Ray has a desire to move beyond the limits of the corporeal, and he is clearly something of a mystic, someone who sees something that others do not. Likewise, Blue Eyes has the makings of a great leader, if he is able to overcome his own sense of inferiority and embrace his inner strength. Both must also contend with the fact that the world is not nearly as simple as they would like it to be, that there is much about politics, life, and death that they must contend with as they move inexorably into adulthood. The world that they inhabit is a dangerous one, and it is likely to grow more so as the years progress and humanity struggles (probably vainly) to rebuild its vanished civilization.

More importantly, it also suggests that the war that is about to unfold between the brutal colonel and Caesar and his allies is one that will determine not just the fate of the two species, but also the future trajectory of history itself. Both leaders, in their different ways, recognize the stakes of what are about to unfold, but they have very different outlooks on what the future will be like. The Colonel, in keeping with his repeated references to the wars and soldiers of the past–the heroes at Troy, his ancestors who fought in America’s conflicts, etc.–sees life as a brutal battlefield with winners and losers. Caesar, while recognizing the need for battle, is deeply wounded by the knowledge that such battle will mean the death of many of his apes. He bears the scars of leadership, and he knows that the confrontation with the Colonel will be the one that determines the future of his people, possibly for decades to come.

Despite the fact that the outcome of the larger conflict is, to some degree already known, what remains to be seen is just how many tribes of apes will eventually split off from Caesar’s original founding colony. There is no question that there are many who still see their first leader as ultimately a failed effort to co-exist with humans. Perhaps there will be a series of peaceful revolutions, but it is far more likely–given the path that many apes have already taken–that there will be as many violent confrontations between apes and others apes as there are between apes and humans. These apes are very different from humans in some ways, but in others they are far too much like us for comfort.

Revelations gives us a sense not only of the brewing conflicts that will probably take generations to resolve but also the various tribes of apes that are already taking shape at this early stage. While the chimpanzees and bonobos emerge as the clear leaders in this universe, the orangutans (as characters such as Maurice and Ray make clear) are the philosophers and the gorillas, for better or worse, are the muscle (they even refer to themselves as the wall that protects the village). I greatly appreciated the fact that Keyes had clearly done his research into ape behaviour, and it is this level of research that gives all of his ape characters such a profound sense of depth and individuality. Each of them represents a possible path forward for the heterogeneous ape culture, and it will clearly be a struggle–though a worthwhile one–for them to find unity in their difference. As Caesar himself would say, “Apes together, strong!”

I don’t know if Keyes plans on continuing to write books within the Apes universe, but is my fervent hope that he does so. He is one of those rare authors of tie-in fiction who actually knows how to write a taut, compelling story that nevertheless breathes and sighs with at-times lyrical beauty. If anyone is capable of ensuring that the stories of Caesar and his descendants are given the justice they deserve, it is surely Greg Keyes.

Book Review: “The Black Elfstone”(Book 1 of “The Fall of Shannara”) by Terry Brooks

It’s a rare thing that I finish a book in three days, but that is just what happened with fantasy maestro Terry Brooks’ most recent book The Black Elfstone, the first in a planned tetralogy titled The Fall of Shannara. Set roughly two hundred years after the loosely connected Defenders of Shannara series,  this novel sees the Four Lands under assault from a mysterious invader, one that possesses a form of magic that stymies even the Druids. These mysterious invaders, led by a powerful young woman, overcome anyone who stand in their path, including a Druid delegation. As a result, they threaten the very stability and order of the entire Four Lands.

The exiled Ard Rhys Drisker Arc, one of the story’s four protagonists, gradually finds himself drawn into this conflict. At the same time, he also takes on an apprentice in the form of Tarsha Kaynin, a young woman blessed (or cursed) with the power of the wishsong, who desperately wishes to tame its power so that she can save her afflicted elder brother Tavo. Meanwhile, the High Druid’s Blade Dar Leah has to contend with a Druid order that appears poised on the brink of chaos. All of them, in one way or another, will clearly be drawn into a conflict that might well bring to an end the entire world that they have so far taken for granted.

The pacing in this new novel is as breakneck as anything that Brooks has written, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the pace of the events unfolding. While we are only given tantalizing glimpses of the invaders that seem poised to conquer the entire Four Lands–and while the many schemes and plots, particularly those undertaken by the Druids, are still only half-glimpsed–that only makes the novel that much more tantalizing. Brooks has always been a master at plotting, and this novel proves to be no exception. While some might complain that he always ends his books on a cliffhanger, I personally find that that heightens the anticipation for the next novel (at least we don’t have to wait more than a year for the next installment).

Some have criticized Brooks’ recent work for being repetitive, but I tend to see this as a deliberate attempt on his part to show the ways in which history, and those caught up in it, often can’t help but repeat the mistakes that came before. This is most clear with the Druids, who once again seem so entangled in their internal squabbles and power-plays that they can’t see the larger threat that may sweep them away in its wake until it is too late. The ongoing tale of the Shannara bloodline reveals the brutally cyclical nature of history. Just as humankind seems to have lifted itself out of its own petty squabbles and achieved some measure of stability, its own folly and desire for destruction seems to plunge it right back into its darker nature.

While the Shannara books have always been marked by a fair measure of violence, Brooks looks to be striking out on some new territory here, showing us that the Four Lands have become an increasingly dangerous and unstable place. The Elves have retreated, once again, into their own enclaves, content to let the rest of the world succumb to its own folly. The border city of Varfleet is as seedy as ever, and there are entire guilds devoted to nothing but the taking of human life. This is not a world for the faint of heart.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that this kind of world produces some very broken and troubled characters, chief among them Tarsha’s brother Tavo. Unlike his sister, for whom the wishsong is a blessing, for him it is a curse, a titanic force that he cannot control and that slowly drives him mad with rage and bloodlust. While they are disturbing, the chapters devoted to his perspective are some of the most compelling in the entire novel. He is a person who is fundamentally shattered in his psychology, misunderstood by his parents and tormented by practically anyone else. Is it any wonder that, in his fractured state, he should see his sister as his enemy? We don’t know yet what his part will be in the climax, but my guess is it won’t be pretty. I do hope, though, that he is offered at least a measure of salvation or redemption.

The writing here is lean, and Brooks tends to not spend too much time describing meals or clothing (a foible that sometimes bogs down otherwise quite compelling works of fantasy). However, no one has quite the ability to describe a landscape as he does, and the Four Lands remains one of the most exquisitely described landscapes in the history of epic fantasy. These are lands that have outlasted many of the characters that we have grown to know and love, and so there is something both comfortingly familiar and yet strange about them.

While I’m sad that Shannara is coming to a chronological end, I’m glad that Brooks is doing it on his own terms, and I am supremely glad that it is off to such a strong and stirring start. As someone who has grown increasingly irritated with George R.R. Martin’s chronic inability to produce a volume in anything resembling a reliable manner (and as someone who has been disappointed with the declining quality), I find Brooks reliability to be a great boon. What’s more, he has also stated that this won’t be the end of Shannara altogether, as there are still several bits of history that he may flesh out. Presumably, this means that we may yet get to see the formation of the First Druid Council under the Elf Galaphile, along with a number of other stories.

Still, I know that I will be shedding more than a few tears as I make my way through this chronological end of one of epic fantasy’s greatest sagas.

Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 2” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

Well, I finally finished the concluding volume of Tad Williams’ magisterial trilogy “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.” In this final volume, the conflicts that have so far raged come to their stunning conclusion, as the various characters all make their way to the Hayholt in time to witness the fruition of the Storm King’s desire to turn back time and return to the world of the living. Ultimately, of course, the plans are foiled, but much is sacrificed in the process.

This novel is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest works of epic fantasy. It’s not just that it engages with giant philosophical questions (though it does that), but that it also manages to dig down deep into the psychologies of its various characters. It allows you to understand what motivates them, even if you may find them a bit maddening at times. These are men and women that you have grown to love, and you feel their pain, both emotional and physical. You also feel your heart break when you witness their sacrifices, both major and minor.

It is thus tremendously resonant to see Simon and Miriamele at last consummate their love and take up their roles as the King and Queen of Osten Ard. Of course, Simon’s ascension is only possible because it is revealed that he is descended from the Fisher King, the founder of the League of the Scroll and the actual slayer of the dread dragon Shurakai (not, as had been long held, the High King Prester John). While their political fortunes are satisfying, it is the long-awaited romantic fulfillment that is the most powerful and evocative part of this novel. To Green Angel Tower shows us the rich emotional lives of these characters, allowing us to feel not just for them, but with them.

This is true for many of the “villains” of the story as well, particularly the misguided High King Elias, driven by a desire to resurrect his dead wife. Even Ineluki, the Storm King, is a figure that ultimately emerges as one of pity rather than absolute hatred. He was, after all, a young prince attempting to save his people and his home, and it was the actions of humanity that led him to call down the curse that destroyed his home and sent his spirit howling into the wilderness. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t still a danger that will destroy the fabric of the world itself, but it does render his actions at least understandable.

There are some characters, however, whose deaths are extraordinarily satisfying, chief among them the dark wizard Pyrates, whose actions have triggered this entire sequence of horrific events. It is truly poetic to see him brought down by the very forces that he has sought to unleash, burned to death by the Storm King after he attempts to control his erstwhile ally through magics that he can barely understand or control. His death is a reminder that sometimes cruelty and evil do indeed receive their just desserts.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other two minor characters whose arcs are truly satisfying. The first is the reprobate monk Cadrach, whose sacrifice ensures that Simon and company can escape to safety, his final brave act a redemption for his misdeeds in the earlier novels. Still, there is much about his backstory that remains a mystery, and perhaps it’s better that way. As with any great epic, there are things that you are just not fated to know. Likewise, how can you not love Rachel the Dragon, the Mistress of Chambermaids who finally emerges from her hiding place in the Hayholt to find herself rewarded for her loyalty and steadfastness. I won’t lie, I got a tear in my eye when she was at last reunited with Simon, whom she has long presumed to be dead.

Naturally, considering this is an epic, the larger questions are not ignored. Indeed, the novel has a great deal to say about history, about how the actions of a few can impact the forces of many, as well as how those individuals often feel powerless to fight back against the forces that sweep them along. Just as importantly, however, To Green Angel Tower shows just how destructive the great events of history can be, leaving behind the bodies of the dead and the injured. For most of the characters, there are wounds that simply cut too deeply to ever be healed.

For Simon, those wounds are physical and emotional, as he has plunged into the darkest realms of pain and emotional damage.  As sorry as one might feel for Simon, however, it is Miriamele who is in many ways the true hero of this book. It is her dreadful decision to end her father’s suffering that breaks your heart and while she does get a happy ending, it’s hard to shake the feeling that her decision will haunt her for the rest of her life.

There are very few novels out there that can truly make me cry, but this is one of them. At times, I found myself profoundly saddened by the terrible events that have swept so many of these characters into the darkest of suffering, but I was also swept up in the heights of triumph. But do you want to know what made me cry the most? The friendship between Binabik and Simon. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful friendships in fiction, bar none.

Like the best fantasy novels, Williams manages to paint a world that feels like a real place, one riven by the same conflicted loyalties that always characterize our lived experiences. The world is full of conflicted loyalties and deep histories, and there are not always endings that end happily for everyone. The conflict between humans and Sithi is one that may never actually be healed, despite the fact that the latter helped the former defeat one of their own. And that, ultimately, is one of the most bittersweet things about the novel and thus one of its most noteworthy features.

Now, I’m making my way through the slender volume The Heart of What Was Lost. Keep your eyes here for my forthcoming review. I’m almost finished with it at the moment, and let me tell you, this is an amazing book. I can’t wait for The Witchwood Crown!

Reading History: “Mary, Called Magdalene” (by Margaret George)

Since finishing The Confessions of the Young Nero, the most recent literary outing from historical fiction author Margaret George, I’ve found myself possessed of the desire to re-read her entire oeuvre, beginning with the two novels of hers that I haven’t read. So, I started with Mary, Called Magdalene. 

In another life, I was passionately interested in the history of early Christianity, and I even entertained the notion of pursuing graduate work in that field. Since I opted out of that, I am very happy to see that works like George continue to bring to light the lives and experiences of those women who have been largely left out of the larger historical narratives concerning the genesis and birth of Christianity. Fortunately for me and those like me, Margaret George is right there to bring to light what it might have felt like to walk in the shoes of one of Jesus’s earliest converts.

Having combed through both the canonical gospels as well as numerous other ancient sources, George has managed to construct a plausible idea of what Mary’s life must have been like before, during, and after her membership in the circle of disciples that follow Jesus. While she begins the novel as a traditional Jewish wife and mother of the 1st Century CE, things begin to change when she is possessed by a number of demons, vengeful spirits that have grown angry at their dispossession. Ultimately driven nearly mad, she is only saved when she encounters Jesus at the River Jordan, after which she joins his ministry, following him until his death and even afterward.

George ably captures the contradictory position that women occupied in ancient Israel, and Mary consistently chafes at the limits imposed upon her by both her own family–who constantly criticize her for her willfulness and ultimately disown her after her decision to follow Jesus–and even by her fellow disciples. In refusing to bow down to the imperative of respectability, she also sacrifices her place in society. While this means that she must also give up her access to her daughter Elisheba–a sacrifice that haunts Mary throughout the novel–she never regrets her decision to follow Jesus and subscribe to the dictates of his ministry.

George also ably demonstrates the troubling sense of doubt that Jesus’s disciples must have felt as they struggled to accept a message and a man that went beyond anything that they had been raised to understand. All of them see in Jesus and his message something that helps them make sense of the world, and it is precisely in this multiplicity that George situates Mary and her own interpretation of Jesus. She sees in him both a possible romantic connection (ultimately dashed) and something more, something that is a message that is not based in empty ritual but instead on spiritual fulfillment. She sees in Jesus not a political messiah but instead someone who can, indeed, bring about a very different kingdom, one of the spirit rather than the flesh.

The world that George paints is one poised on the edge of a great conflagration. Increasingly embittered as a result of their subjection under the yoke of Rome, the Jewish people yearn for someone to deliver them. For some, Jesus promises an escape from their dilemma, while for others–most notably the leaders of the Temple–he represents a very real threat to their political alliance with Rome. Mary, as a prosperous Jewish woman, finds herself caught up in this conflict, even as she attempts to understand Jesus’ message and her relationship to it.

The novel is peopled by a variety of characters from all walks of life, from fisherman to tax collectors to zealots, all of whom see in Jesus something slightly different. It is for this reason that Mary fits in with them, though she does have moments of conflict. Most notably, she finds herself in several terse interactions with Judas, who is both the most like her and the one most prone to his own inner demons and despair. She also finds herself in something of a competition with Peter, with whom she vies for the position of being closest to Jesus.

While the entire novel is compellingly readable, it’s the last portion that I found to be the most moving. Here, we are given a close-up perspective of the gospel that Mary has begun to compose, for she comes to understand that Christianity as a faith increasingly diverges from its Jewish origins and that there are those in the fledgeling communities who desperately yearn for the words and testimony of those who were with Jesus while he still walked the earth. As time continues its inexorable march forward, Mary finds herself a key part of the history of a religion.

Yet the most heartbreaking thing is the fact that Mary is not reunited with her daughter until it is too late, after she has died as a result of injuries she sustains as a result of her casting down of idols in the city of Ephesus. It is only then that her daughter finally comes to see her, and she erects a memorial testifying to her affection. This sense of being too-late adds a further layer of emotional resonance to Mary’s story.

The core of Mary’s narrative and personal dilemma is her awareness and recognition that despite his earth-changing message, the historical world moves on, even though her own life has irrevocably changed. Tormented by the visions that she has of the future, she bears the heavy weight of historical and spiritual responsibility. With its privileging of her perspective–almost the entire novel is related either in third person limited or first person–Mary, Called Magdalene gives us a unique perspective on the presence of the feminine at the root of Christian thought and history.

Currently, I’m hard at work on George’s other novel about a famous Mary, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It’s quite a large work, so it will take me quite a while to finish but worry not. Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on that book as well.

Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 1” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

I must apologize for taking so long to finish up this post. I have been on the road quite a lot that past couple of weeks, and have just now (finally!) finished the first half of To Green Angel Tower  (yes, I still have the mass market paperback, which split the final volume into two halves). Having done so, I can now offer a few remarks on what constitutes one of the greatest works of fantasy of the latter half of the 20th Century.

First, a brief word about the artwork for the cover. From the moment I bought these books at Waldenbooks all those years ago, I have loved the cover. There is just something piercing and perfect about Michael Whelan’s renditions of Miriamele and Simon, paired with Jiriki and Aditu. It is very rare that I find a cover that captures my own mental image of a character, but this one seems to capture the world-weary mortals and the continuing intensity of the Sithi. I would even go so far as to say that this is my favourite cover of a fantasy novel, showcasing the best of Whelan’s always-extraordinary talents.

I won’t spend too much time reciting plot summary, other than to note that the novel starts bringing all of the characters together. While the Sithi finally ride forth and return the control of Hernystir to its people, Simon, Binabik, and the others overcome significant obstacles to cement Josua’s position of strength, while Miriamele, Isrgimnur, and Camaris finally make their way to the Stone of Farewell.

This novel, perhaps more than the ones that preceded it, shows us in full measure the powerful sweep of historical events that often pick humans up in their midst and hurl them against the rocks of fate and chance. All of the characters, both major and minor, bear the scars of their travails, and it’s hard not to feel at least a stab of pity even for Elias, whose own folly and poor judgment have led his father’s kingdom and all of his accomplishments to the edge of ruin (and perhaps beyond). They are all of them, even the Storm King and his ally Utuk’u, bound by historical forces that they cannot quite control or name. The true tragedy, to my mind, is that so many of them can’t even recognize the limits of their own agency. History is a prison from which none can ultimately escape.

For all of its attention to the grand sweep of history, however, it is at the level of the personal that the book truly succeeds. Williams has a deft and deep understanding of what makes people work. Both Simon and Miriamele have been through some of the hardest and most trying encounters a human being can endure, and while they clearly have feelings for one another, they do not yet know how to express them in a way that is mutually satisfying. Each of them remains locked in an emotional prisoning not entirely of their own making, afraid to really render themselves vulnerable to one another and thus express their love.

Other, more minor characters also have their own tragedies. The princess Maegwin has become trapped in her own mind, wandering the lonely roads of madness, while Count Eolair, the man who loves her and whom she loves in return, can only look on and hope for the best. Like Simon and Miramele, the seemingly grand history in which they are caught up has begun to take a tremendous toll on both their physical and emotional well-being, and in staging this drama Williams manages to show us the costs of history, the way in which it affects the lives of those who, so we might think, are those who are in the middle of the story.

However, while the younger heroes are of course the center of the narrative, it is also worth pointing out that Cadrach, at least as he is revealed through the eyes of the princess, is also a tortured and mutilated soul. He struggles against the darker and baser parts of his nature, and yet he always manages to come up short. It is hard to know precisely what to make of him, considering that the only access that we as readers get of him is what Miriamele thinks and believes, but even that is enough to tell us that he cannot escape his deeds in the past. While the full extent of his complicity remains something of a mystery, enough has been revealed to show us that, in some way, whether large or small, he has been pivotal to all of the events that have unfolded.

Though the entirety of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is, of course, an epic, it is also, I would argue, an embodiment of the highest aspirations of the tragic mode. The great schism between the Sithi and the Norns is one of the great and terrible events of the series, and while it lies back in the mists of time for humanity, it is one of those signature events that still dominates the fortunes of those living in later days. Indeed, had the two families not been sundered, it’s possible that the events that are even now taking place might have been prevented, and a great deal of bloodshed and brutality avoided. And yet that is precisely what makes the events of the novel so heartbreaking. So much pain might have never have happened, so many lives could have been saved if only certain events had not transpired. And yet, like all tragedies, the events keep us moving ahead, helpless to stop what is about to happen.

I’m currently hard at work reading the second part of To Green Angel Tower, so I’m hoping to have my thoughts on that ready for public consumption by the end of April. I have to say that I’m really enjoying both re-reading these novels that played such a large part of my youth, as well as sharing my thoughts about them with those of you out there in the dark. As always, I invite you to comment and reflect on your own reading encounters with “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.”

Reading Tad Williams: “Stone of Farewell” (Book 2 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

Today, I continue with my reviewing of the corpus of the fantasy author Tad Williams, and today’s entry focuses on the second volume of his series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” Stone of Farewell.

The book begins where its predecessor left off. Simon and company are held by Binabik’s fellow trolls, with Binabik himself and the Rimmersman Sludig under a sentence of death. While they are eventually released, their trials and tribulations have just begun. Gradually, the pieces begin to move in their necessary directions. Josua and his band of survivors make their way to an old Sithi place named the Stone of Farewell, where they are joined by Binabik and Sludig. Simon, having been separated from his companions, finally makes his way to the Sithi stronghold of Jao e-Tinukai’i, where he is reunited with his old friend Jiriki and encounters the ancient Amerasu. Unfortunately, the Norn queen Utuk’u sends the hunter Ingen Jegger to kill her, and he succeeds (though he dies in doing so). Simon is permitted to leave and rejoins his friends at the Stone of Farewell. Meanwhile, Tiamak struggles with his own quest, Miriamele falls prey to the predatory Count Aspitis, and Maegwin tries to lead her people in exile.

By the end of the novel, the pieces are in place for the final throws of the game, in which the outnumbered Josua, the League of the Scroll, and their scattered allies must begin their attempt to beat back the vengeful plot of the Storm King (the full extent of which is still unclear). The novel is, unsurprisingly, full of Williams’ lush and often heartbreaking prose–there were several points where I actually shed a tear–and the characters manage to persevere through some of the worst trials imaginable. Indeed, their wanderings bear more than a striking resemblance to those of other heroic figures in epic literature, ranging from Odysseus to Aeneas. Their wanderings and setbacks allow us to get a stronger sense of the stakes of their struggle, and the growing conflict between Miriamele and Aspitis in particular reveals the subject position that many women occupy in this world. However, she also reveals her strength and her ability to persevere through trials that would break a weaker person.

As compelling as Miramele is, however, she is not, in my opinion, the strongest and most powerful of the novel’s female characters. This honour belongs to Amerasu, the eldest Sithi still living. While she is only ever glimpsed through Simon’s eyes, Amerasu emerges as one of the novel’s most tragic characters. Hers is a terrible burden, for she must choose between bringing about the utter destruction of the being who was once her son and the choice to preserve the world that he will stop at nothing to destroy. This is itself part of the larger tragedy faced by the Sithi as they attempt to determine whether they should partake in the coming conflict or hunker down and hope that the storm passes them by. After all, in many ways they have more in common with their cousins the Norns–who are, after all, leading the charge in the destruction of humankind–than they do with the mortals who have been responsible

One of the most distressing and heartbreaking scenes comes during the council that the Sithi hold, in which Amerasu states that she will reveal to those gathered the designs that she believes that the Storm King has in mind in his efforts. When she is ruthlessly slain by Jegger, it is hard not to feel that something has been irrevocably lost as a result of the vengeful spirit that has begun to sake shape in the North. It is rendered all the more tragic in that she is stopped before she can give the gathered Sithi the vital information that they can use in their battle against one who once belonged to them. Knowledge has once again been denied the very people who could use it most.

Similarly, it is hard not to feel the potent tragedy of Elias. While we have yet to learn what he was promised by Pyrates that led him to this dreadful pass, there is nevertheless something almost despicable about it. We get the feeling that Elias would not have done the things he did without the malignant influence of the red priest. Further, through the eyes of his Hand Guthwulf, we are led to believe that Elias has even begun to tip over the edge into outright madness. We also get the sense that, for all of his personality flaws, Elias might have been a decent king had he not let himself be led astray. He would not, perhaps, have been as wise or as great as his father (and neither would Josua, who is as moody and tormented as any Romantic hero), but he would at least have been able to hold the kingdom together and would not have sacrificed the well-being of his people.

Like many middle volumes, Stone of Farewell shows that the tides of evil are cresting while those of good have seemingly been pushed to the very cusp of defeat. We are consistently led to feel a sense of powerlessness each of our heroes struggles to overcome events and powers that are so much greater than they are. These are, after all, conflicts that are centuries in the making, and the power of the Storm King in particular is such that it seems that nothing short of a miracle can bring hm low. Yet that is precisely the pleasure of the epic genre, is it not? The sense that the powers of evil–and whether they can be so easily defined–is one that Williams is adept at articulating. However, we also know that, eventually, the forces that we have come to identify with shall eventually triumph, though the cost they pay may be very high indeed.

I’m currently making my way through the first half of the next and last novel, To Green Angel Tower. Stay tuned to this space to my review!