Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

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Reading The Wheel of Time: “Lord of Chaos” (Book 6)

Well, I’m charging headlong through “The Wheel of Time,” and now that I’ve finished Lord of Chaos and am on the cusp of finishing A Crown of Swords, I thought I’d take a few moments to catch up on my blog posts about the series.

In this novel, a lot happens and, simultaneously, a lot doesn’t happen. The pieces on the game board are shuffled a bit here and there, but it’s not really until the final third that the major action happens. The high point of the novel comes in the last few chapters, in which Rand is captured by Aes Sedai from the White Tower. The battle that leads to his escape is one of the most powerfully written sequences of the book (and the series as a whole up to this point), and makes the whole book worth it.

However, there were a number of important developments in Salidar, in which Nynaeve discovers that stilling can indeed be healed, and both Siuan and Leane are given back their ability to channel. Though they are weaker than they were–the idea that some things can never truly be changed is a hallmark of the series–the fact that they can be healed at all is extraordinary. And it’s hard not to feel a rush of emotion when these two extraordinary women are at last given back a measure of the life they had thought forever lost.

However, I also found this to be a challenging book for a number of reasons. First there is the sheer length of it. There is a lot that goes on in this book, but the major plot points either come quite near the end or are drowned in the sort of bickering and endless squabbling that seems to mire the characters every other chapter. I know that some people enjoy this aspect of Jordan’s writing, but for me it is its greatest flaw. (I don’t mean to suggest that he is alone in this. Almost every epic fantasy that goes beyond three or four volumes falls into this same trap).

While I’ve always appreciated the sprawl and scope of the series as a whole, there are times when I believe an editor’s ruthless scalpel could have trimmed out some of the less necessary bits. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the scope and the breadth of the storytelling; it’s just that I wish it weren’t mired by all of the parts that are so infuriating to read that I just skim them.

This is also the point where I start to get increasingly irritated with almost every main character. Perrin’s constant whining about Faile (and her equally infuriating inscrutability), Mat’s endless cursing and ranting about women, and Rand’s just general whininess, do not age well. The women come out somewhat better, though even they start to wear thin. One gets the feeling that Jordan doesn’t really understand human psychology that well, and the clunky character development bears this out.

I’ve often thought that this series would have been infinitely more interesting if Jordan had just focused on the POV of the Forsaken, who are almost always much more compelling to watch than the ostensibly “good” characters. Let’s face it. Who doesn’t love reading the parts with Graendal? Or Sammael? Or Demandred (who gets a brief cameo in the Prologue?) They reveal so much about the depth of this world’s history, and their POVs tend to not fall into the same repetitive patterns. But then, perhaps if we got more of them they would fall into the old patterns.

This extends to characters like Elaida, whose own allegiances (other than to herself) remain unclear at this point in the narrative. As hard as she is, her viewpoint chapters are always a welcome relief, and they show us just how far-reaching is the chaos that Rand has created in this world. The fact that she doesn’t even know her Keeper is a high-ranking member of the Black Ajah–and that one of the Forsaken is even now in the midst of the Tower–makes her chapters are the more intriguing.

For all of my complaints, I will say that I still very much enjoy this series, and there is much to recommend it. No one spins a complicated plot like Jordan, and the world he has created does have such a breadth and depth that it’s very easy (and pleasurable) to lose oneself in it.

Now it’s onward to the next book. Stay tuned!

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Paranor” and “Crimson” (S2, Eps. 5 & 6)

Full spoilers for the episode follow.

In a special double feature, our intrepid heroes Wil and Mareth continue their quest to bring the Warlock Lord’s skull back from the past, the politics of Leah grow ever more complicated, and Allanon must confront the reality that he is dying.

The Warlock Lord continues to loom as the series’ potential Big Bad, the force that will bring about the fall of the Four Lands and all of our noble (if seriously flawed) heroes. At this point, it’s pretty clear that we are going to see this figure return from the dead, though it’s equally certain that Wil will have to defeat him.

The Queen of Leah continues to be a compelling and deeply flawed character. Despite the fact that she does what she does–the scheming, the manipulating, the backhand dealing–she does for the good of her people, she inadvertently has set in motion the very destruction that she originally set out to prevent. In the end, she not only sees her ambitions come to nothing when Riga slaughters her retainers and Ander himself (which was both brutal and hear-wrenching), but she has also put her daughter at risk. The Crimson is a destructive force that will, it seems, make the Warlock Lord’s mission to bring the world into darkness that much easier. There is clearly a dark poison working its way through the bloodstream of the Four Lands, and one can hope that Wil is able to cleanse it before it does any more damage.

We finally learn the secrets of Eretria’s legacy, as one of those whose ancestors survived the Great Wars; as such she has the potential to be either a being a saviour or a demon. If I’m being completely honest, this feels a bit tacked-on, a means of giving Eretria something to do besides mope around after her sundry love interests. Don’t get me wrong: Ivana Baquero is probably one of the better actors in this show, and it’s that fact that keeps her character so continually interesting to watch.

For his part, Manu Bennett continues to chew scenery with abandon, but that’s part of what makes him one of the best things about the show. One thing The Shannara Chronicles gets right is the fact that Allanon is a ruthless manipulator, one who is willing to sacrifice anyone in his efforts to save the Four Lands. At the same time, we also get to see the toll this has begun to take, both physically and emotionally. I, for one, have no doubts that he’s not going to make it through to the end of the season, and that will actually fit well with the series’ clear intention of breaking apart the myth of the triumphant hero.

I can’t shake the feeling that the show-runners know that this is going to be the final season, and so they are pulling out all the stops (including showing two episodes in one night). It’s really a shame, though, since the series has taken some interesting turns. Still, I rather wish that they had chosen to adapt most of The Wishsong rather than doing a grab-bag of the various other parts of the Shannara mythos. Doing so has really short-circuited some of the season’s narrative threads, though fortunately “Crimson” managed to bring things together in the end. Still, it’s rather irritating to see the characters wandering about doing nothing consequential and then abruptly having a climactic moment that is moving but doesn’t really feel earned.

Overall, these two episodes were…good. However, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the series is verging on the edge of going completely off the rails. There are just too many sub-plots going on–time travel, sinister wraiths, anti-magic users–and the show hasn’t done a great deal to bring them all together into a cohesive whole. The time travel plot in particular feels both strange and unnecessary, and I for one am glad that that plot is done with.

At this point, I will be satisfied if the series comes to a satisfactory conclusion, with all of the sundry plot threads wrapped up. I really don’t think it would be wise to leave anything hanging (as happened last season). I guess we will just have to wait to see how things pan out.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Dweller” (S2, Ep. 4)

Well, kids, shit got really dark on this episode of The Shannara Chronicles.

(My apologies for taking a week to respond to this episode. I was out of town for a conference.)

In the fourth episode of the second season, all of the characters have to contend with a personal crisis. Bandon has to relive the trauma of his childhood when he encounters a group of Elves who are virulently anti-magic; Jax has to relive a moment of terror during his time with the Border Legion; Wil has to see his father’s dead body and relive a traumatic memory from his past; the list goes on. These characters are put through the wringer in this episode, and none of them are left unscarred by their encounters.

This episode is fundamentally about the various broken characters that inhabit this world. Bandon, Ander, Wil…all of them struggle with the realities of politics and magic. Bandon comes across in this episode as someone who really is a product of his environment: tortured and imprisoned by his family, shunned by his own people, to some degree it’s no wonder that he has succumbed to the darkness inside him. The fact that he murders a child with the mask that had once been used to oppress him is both horrifying and

If the first season fell rather predictably into the epic hero pattern, this season seems to be about the deconstruction of that mythic pattern. Ander, for all that he might seem to be an epic hero, comes to understand the terrible price that that will exact, as exemplified in his execution of his childhood friend for murder and treason. He knows that it must be done, and in the end he does it without any compunction, but we’re left to wonder just how deep the psychic wounds go and how he will continue to deal with the consequences of what he has been forced to do. What’s more, we’re left to wonder whether, when all is said and done, anyone will emerge from this whole adventure intact. Adventures, like magic, seem to have a heavy price for those cursed to go on them.

This episode really plunges into a dark vision of the Shannara world. Clearly, it is tapping into the anxiety many of us feel about the rise of the alt-right, which bears some striking similarities to the Crimson. However, it’s important to remember that Brooks’s work in many ways predicted the sort of rabid brutality that has infected the American body politic, and so in that sense the series is staying true to the books that gave it birth, showing once again just how socially engaged the Shannara novels have always been. I’m just glad that the series has chosen to tap into that vein of the mythos rather than the more optimistic one.

For all of its darkness, this episode is also about the importance of family, of carving out an identity that is part of something larger than the self. At this point, none of the characters have yet found the elusive thing that they clearly desire: Shea is tormented by the fact that his father was driven mad and had to die alone; Mareth craves mentoring by Allanon, though she insists that she does not need a father; and the royal family of Leah continues to be riven by internal conflicts that may yet lead the kingdom to ruin.

Lastly, and somewhat inconsequentially, the series continues to display a visual splendour that really leaves the first season in the shade. From the sweeping vistas to the magnificent sets associated with Leah, it’s clear that Spike gave the show a lot more money. And if I’m being perfectly candid…well, Bandon makes a very dishy villain indeed. He may be a real bastard–slaying children and all–but he sure does look good with his shirt off.

Needless to say, I am really looking forward to the next episode. Clearly, there are a lot of pieces still in play, and it remains to be seen how it will all play out.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Fires of Heaven” (Book 5)

I have now made it through The Fires of Heaven. Boy howdy, this book manages to cram a lot in. While it is a fairly brisk read, there were a few points where I was left skimming in an effort to make it through.

This is also the book where the narrative strands start to decisively diverge. We don’t see anything of Perrin during this book, and while his absence is felt, it does also help this book to retain a tighter focus than some of its predecessors. I’m a little frustrated by the addition of some characters who are ancillary to the action and who seem tangential (Min and Morgase are particularly egregious, IMO).

At this point, we also get a stronger sense of what it is the Forsaken have been up to while Rand has been developing his powers. While Sammael has seized power in Illian, Rahvin has managed to wrap Queen Morgase around her finger, though he ultimately has to cope with the fact that she is not nearly so biddable as she first appears (and this book also sees her introduced as a viewpoint character in her own right). He remains one of the most enigmatic of the Forsaken but also one of the most compelling. Too bad he exits the stage almost as soon as he entered it.

When Rahvin is stricken with balefire during his duel with Rand, it unravels his brutal (and quite shocking!) murder of Aviendha and Mat that had occurred out of the blue. While we have known that using balefire against someone burns out their presence on the Pattern and all of the effects their life has for a short time, we now know that truly powerful balefire could indeed be catastrophic were it to be used without caution. The ending doesn’t feel quite as rushed as the last several books, but one does get the feeling that Jordan was feeling the pinch of the various narrative threads that he had going and so felt the need to dispense with not one but two of the Forsaken in one swoop.

And of course, this novel also sees what is arguably the most important event so far in Nynaeve’s life: her final confrontation with the Forsaken Moghedien. There is something tremendously satisfying about seeing the Spider brought low, especially when she thought she would be the one who was subjecting her enemy to the worst sort of torture. It’s even more satisfying to know that she will be subjected to the power of the a’dam in the living world (for if anyone deserves to be used for what she knows about the uses of the Power, it would have to be one of the Forsaken). As infuriating as she can be, Nyvaeve is also one of the novel’s standout characters, the one who at last begins to move the plot forward in some significant ways.

I’m still devastated by the fact that Moiraine sacrifices herself in this book (I haven’t yet finished the series, so her final fate remains a mystery to me. Please no spoilers!) Her absence will be keenly felt during the next several books, as Rand finds himself caught up plots that he cannot entirely see. As manipulative and opaque as she could sometimes be, there is no question that Moiraine was an important resource, one that Rand will no doubt miss now that she has seemingly met her fate in her sacrifice.

Overall, the novel is both narratively rich and philosophically compelling. It continues to pose the question: to what extent are we the agents of our own lives and to what extent are we drawn along in a pattern in which we have no say? Mat for one seems completely at a loss, guided by a power that he cannot control, and the same seems to go for Rand (who may at last be falling into the dangerous pit of madness). The series continues to hold free will and predetermination in a productive tension.

I’m chewing my quickly through Lord of Chaos. Fortunately, I had re-read this book more recently than I had several of the others, so I’m confident that I will be able to finish it in short order. So, stay tuned!

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”–Part 3

The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.

Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.

He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.

Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?

He narrowed his eyes and waited.

***

            Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?

Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?

She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.

At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.

It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.

“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”

When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.

“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”

She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”

Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.

She made up her mind.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Shadow Rising” (Book 4)

I have now finished The Shadow Rising, the fourth book of The Wheel of Time. This is the book where the real intricacies of the plot begin to take shape. Unlike the first 3 books, which are rather short (by epic fantasy standards), Shadow really expands the scope far beyond what we’ve seen before. One really does wonder if Jordan, having established that he could tell a good story and sell lots of books with the first three, was finally given the leave that he needed to really go to town on his plots. I, for one, am not complaining, since it is precisely the vast scope of his work that makes it such a pleasure.

However, I will say that the seeds of what goes on in the rest of the story, both good and bad, are quite thoroughly sown in this book. The many plots, counterplots, and counter-counterplots that will occur throughout the rest of the books can be squarely traced back to Shadow, and it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened had he chosen to keep a few of those threads snipped out rather than allowing them to grow an become ever more convoluted as the series continues.

That being said, it does contain some genuinely powerful moments, such as when Perrin goes home to Emond’s Field to find that the cruel Padan Fain, having manipulated the Whitecloacks, has had his family killed. Perrin’s breakdown in Faile’s arms is one of those rare moments when genuine emotion bubbles up in this series, and it’s hard not to weep. But it’s also uniquely satisfying to watch Perrin grow into his position as ruler of the Two Rivers, leading his people to a successful repulsion of the enormous army of Shadowspawn that have invaded his homeland.

In many ways, the most shocking thing about this novel is the deposing of Siuan and the election of the implacable Elaida as her successor as Amyrlin Seat. Up until this point, Elaida has mostly flown under the radar. She was there at the very beginning, when Rand made his appearance in Caemlyn, but she hadn’t really done anything of note until she decided that she needed to be the one to render the Dragon Reborn the tool of the Tower in its preparations for the Last Battle. But of course, any canny reader knows that a Red is in no position to do anything at all useful as far as the Dragon Reborn is concerned.

There is also the disturbing sequence in which Rand, having made his way to the Aiel city of Rhuidean, confronts the reality of  that people’s true history. Contrary to what they have always believed, they were not always a people devoted to war and death, but were instead serva […] We even get a glimpse of the very day when a misguided Aes Sedai–possibly Lanfear herself–drills a hole in the Dark One’s prison and unleashes the force that will come to have such a devastating effect on the entire world.

Much as I love many things about The Wheel of Time, the endings of most of the books always seem a little rushed to me (which is ironic, considering the vast scale of the story as a whole). Such is the case here, where it is quickly revealed that a seemingly innocuous and unimportant character is actually the Forsaken Asmodean, who is then forced by Lanfear to serve as a tutor to Rand so that he will at last learn how to use his powers to their full extent. This all happens very quickly, and one does wish that there was a bit more action spread more evenly throughout the book (at least as far as the Rand storyline is concerned). Still, the conflict between Rand and the Forsaken is one of the most momentous events to happen in the series so far, and it brings to an end the period when Rhuidan was separated from the rest of the world.

So, The Shadow Rising is where shit really starts to get real, and I’ve already finished The Fires of Heaven. If I keep on at this rate, I might just finish these books by early 2018. We shall see if I can meet that ambitious goal.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–Graymark” (S2, Ep. 3)

So, we’ve come to the third episode of The Shannara Chronicles. The last episode saw all of our characters in states of peril, and this episode moves the pieces in some interesting directions as each of them has to cope with an increasingly hostile and unstable world.

Wil, having been seriously injured by an thoroughly-evil Bandon, is at last reunited with Eretria. There’s no doubt that the two actors have some truly sparking chemistry. It’s not just a romantic connection–though that is undoubtedly there–but also the pressure that each character puts on the other. Each of them has their own personal demons, and neither seems quite able to reach the same level of closeness that they used to possess. Hopefully, they’ll be able to put aside all of the old wounds and scars and find the healing they need with one another. Both of them are also fiercely loyal to each other.

It’s nice to see the incredibly charismatic Garet Jax continue to appear. Seriously, I cannot tell you how much I really love the way that the series has interpreted this character. Like all good rogues of fantasy, he thinks that he will be able to remain distant from the conflicts engulfing all corners of the Four Lands, but there is little doubt that he will eventually be drawn in. In a world like this one, it really isn’t possible to stay unallied unless, of course, you want to end up dead.

I continue to be impressed by the sweeping visuals. The network clearly threw a lot of money at Shannara in the hopes that a larger scale will elevate the drama. And I have to say, I think that the gambit has paid off. This season has a grandness and a power to it that I rather felt was lacking in a lot of the first season, which was very typical of the epic fantasy quest in many ways. There is a greater emphasis on politics and scheming, and this is always refreshing in the fantasy genre.

Though she is (I think) one of this season’s villains, Queen Tamlin is still a very compelling character indeed. This is a woman who is ruthless and willing to do whatever it takes to protect her country and gain a little power for herself. She may not be the most sympathetic of characters, but there is definitely something attractive about the fact that she is so kickass.

There’s something especially ominous about Graymark, the fortress of the Crimson, with its double-headed red eagle emblem. There are clear echoes of the sort of neo-fascism that this group seems to espouse, which makes the series feel an especially relevant one for the troubled political times in which we live. Riga, for all that he seems to have a greater good in mind–averting the sort of  catastrophe that nearly saw his people eradicated with the release of the demons–has become something even darker and more ruthless than they were. There is no limit to what he is willing to do, and he is truly willing to inflict a tremendous amount of damage on Allanon in his attempts to gain the codex that will allow him to eradicate magic.

Allanon continues to have to cope with the law of uintended consequences. Though he clearly did not intend for Bandon to become a scion of the Warlock Lord and lead the world to the brink of total ruin, that seems to be exactly what is happening. What’s more, he doesn’t seem terribly capable of getting himself out of the mess that he is created. This is an Allanon who is significantly more vulnerable than his novel counterpart, but that actually works well for the universe that the television series has created. I’m not sure the seemingly-invulnerable Allanon that Brooks originally created would fit in with our current world, where such things seem hopelessly antiquated. Who knows, though. He might just become a hero in his own right. We know that he is willing to sacrifice the lives of other’s for the greater good, which is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that this season is a hell of a lot darker than the last one. The bodies of our heroes are as subject to torture and pain as any other’s, and that allows a distinct sense of unease and disquiet to permeate the episodes so far. Let’s hope they keep it up.

I remain quite enamoured of this series, and I really hope that the network sees that this show is worth the continuing investment. If so, it could well prove to be a truly worthy adaptation of Terry Brooks’s magnificent work.

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!

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Wraith” (S2, Ep. 2)

Having escaped from the dark spirits sent to murder him, Wil attempts to save his uncle Flick from the imminent danger he faces, while Alannon leads King Ander to the kingdom of Leah to seek the aid of its queen. The Crimson continue their quest to destroy those who wield magic, and Mareth wants to find her father (allegedly Allanon). And of course the Mord Wraiths persist in their quest to destroy Wil and resurrect the Warlock Lord.

The series continues to move along at a brisk pace. For those familiar with Brooks’s novels, this is in keeping with the Shannara universe, in which the action is always tightly woven and driven by a powerful momentum, and the episode both poses several enigmatic questions about the past and the future, forcing each of the characters to confront the secrets of their identities and their histories.

Despite its brisk pacing, the series continues to ask a fundamental question: is there price that is too high for heroism? One of the characters states that “history is made by those who survive,” a rather bleak assessment of the future of these characters. Having barely recovered from a near-apocalypse, they still have to keep going, no matter how many lives are lost in the process. (Needless to say, this season is much grimmer than the last, and that is definitely a good thing).

This episode introduces us to two new characters. The first if the weapons master (and bounty hunter) Garet Jax. The other is Queen Tamlin of Leah, a formidable political player determined to make sure that she gets the best out of every bargain. Both of these characters remain enigmas, with their own murky motivations, and one of the episode’s strengths is that it doesn’t tell us too much about them just yet.

One of the things I love the most about this adaptation is its willingness to cast people of colour in roles that don’t render them as simply a fetish or a projection of orientalist fantasies (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Garet Jax truly shines in this episode and, given that he’s always been a favourite of the fan-base, I’m going to assume that people are happy with his portrayal here. I’m going to be quite honest: he’s gorgeous, and if you don’t like him, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

The Shannara Chronicles continues to showcase its obviously-substantial budget, with some gorgeous scenery and a lush colour palette that is truly a feast for the eyes. The palace of Queen Tamlin is truly resplendent, a stunning confection of gold and light. I know the series rather gaudy techno aesthetic isn’t to everyone’s liking, but I for one find it a unique take on Brooks’s imaginary world. It might not have the grandeur or dignity of some other fantasy adaptations, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable to watch.

If there is one casualty of this season, it’s Allanon. While Manu Bennett is still as badass as always, he does seem to be a bit out of his depth. When he is struck down by the Crimson and taken away, it’s hard not to see it as a sign of his growing weakness in the face of the threats assaulting the Four Lands. I do wonder if he will make it out of this season alive, and whether he will be able to defeat Bandon (who, for his part, continues to combine beauty and evil in equal measure. One wonders whether he is beyond redemption or if there is some hope for him).

Lastly, I’d like to note that one thing I particularly appreciate about this series is the way in which it plays with sexuality. This is, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, one of the most straightforwardly queer fantasy series I’ve seen on television. It’s not just that the characters entertain same-sex attraction; it’s that there is a free-wheeling play with gender and sexuality that I find truly refreshing. It feels honest rather than merely titillating.

Overall, this was another strong episode. I’m curious to see how it will continue to adapt Brooks’s oeuvre, especially since they seem to be using the vast timeline of the book series (which covers multiple generations and several hundred years) as the basic ingredients for very different stories. As a longtime reader of the books, I find this approach to be a uniquely enjoyable one; though I have an inkling as to how the entire season will end up, I am just as in the dark as non-novel readers. Truly exciting stuff!