Category Archives: Epic Fantasy

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!

 

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”: Part 2

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

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

She wasn’t entirely successful.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Bracing herself, she set to work.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction: “The Midwife: Part 1”

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

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

The Midwife

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

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

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

Unfortunately, he was also a childless one.

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

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

But first, he had to survive the night.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless she did as she had been told.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Eye of the World” (Book 1)

So, in addition to all of the things I’m working on–dissertation, novel, short story, this blog–I’ve decided to undertake a truly mammoth project: the re-reading of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time from beginning to end. So, I began, as one should, with The Eye of the World.

Though I’ve read this novel countless times since I first started the series in around 1998, I always find something new to enjoy. In this case, it’s looking for clues that point the way to some of the plot developments that will unfold in future books. And, of course, I always enjoy revisiting one of my favourite characters in this universe: Moiraine, the cunning yet altruistic Aes Sedai (I almost said Bela the horse, but thought that would be disingenuous).

I’ve always been in awe of the way that Robert Jordan was able to craft a plot that really brings out the most exciting aspects of the epic genre. Sure, things start getting a little twisty and windy as the series progresses, but in The Eye of the World all of that is still in the future. It’s hard not to feel caught up in the breathless excitement that hurtles these young people from a backwater village into the maelstrom of cosmic events. True, it’s a plot that’s basically the definition of the epic, but somehow Jordan makes it feel fresh and exciting.

But if we’re being honest, the main characters of Robert’s books are truly insufferable and almost pathologically juvenile. While one might excuse this in the first book (I wouldn’t, but some might), that excuse starts to wear thin as you go on. The women tend to come out better in that equation than the men, which reveals a great deal about how Jordan seems to think about the world, and I will say that both Egwene and Nynaeve are both likable, particularly the latter’s tragic love affair with Lan. And of course there is Moiraine, who is arguably Jordan’s finest fantasy creation.

However, when it comes to world building there is no one who can compare to Robert Jordan. The sheer scope of the world that he has constructed is almost overwhelming in its vastness and its complexity. This is true not only of the various cultures that inhabit his world–which are less straightforwardly based on our own world’s history as, say, George R.R. Martin’s-but also the vast expanse of time that it encompasses. Rand and company are not just engaged in a fight for their world, but for time itself. Ultimately, if the Dark One is able to shatter the Wheel of Time, he might be able to remake the entire span of past, present, and future in his image.

There is, I think, something deeply horrifying about this threat. We are always encouraged to see the threats of epic fantasy as grand, certainly, but rarely are they about the destruction of time itself. That is truly an end from which there can be no redemption, for there is no escaping from the toils of time. I’m sure there’s a lot more that I want to say about the way in which the series engages with questions of temporality, but for now I’ll just say that this dramatically raises the stakes and it is this, in part, that makes this series stand out from the epic fantasy crowd.

I’ve always really enjoyed Jordan’s ability to weave in bits of horror into his epic fantasy. Both the Myrdraal and the Trollocs are truly travesties, and there is something viscerally unsettling about their presence in the novel. And while his villainous creatures are certainly the most horrifying part of this novel, there is something equally unsettling about Perrin’s newfound ability to communicate with wolves.

In the end, though, the novel is also tragic, in that it is undeniable that there is much that will be lost as these characters begin their journey toward their destiny. The death of the Green Man is just the first death of many that will afflict our heroes as they make their way through the world, confronting uncomfortable (and sometimes downright terrifying) truths about themselves in the process.

I’m going full-throttle through The Great Hunt, in which things begin to take a very grim, and even more horrifying turn, as the scope widens and the true epic quest begins. Stay tuned!

Cursory note: I have always thought that The Eye of the World has the best covers of the entire series, and I stick to that claim.

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!