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!

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.

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!

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.