Novel Weekends (3): Back At It

This was an eventful weekend for the Novel. I wrote a total of 5,000 words, mostly concentrated on three chapters. I also managed to revise part of the Prologue into what I think will be its final form. What’s more, I did some revision on a short story/novelette that’s set after the first novel but before the second. Not too shabby!

I also (you may have noticed) published a short essay on the history of the Church in this world, and I began another short essay on a history of the Imperium. Further, I have several more planned. So keep looking for those!

Given my own interests in history–and on using my novel to explore questions related to history–I also started reading a new book on the connected nature of the ancient world. A great deal of both the world-building I’ve done and the plot arc I have designed has been heavily influenced by the work of historian Tom Holland (in particular his book In the Shadow of the Sword), but I have a feeling this new book will also have a large impact.

As I wrote this weekend, I found myself oddly drawn to one of my secondary characters, a Korrayin named Ibrahim. I know that he is going to be a founder of a new faith, but I wasn’t aware that he would play such a big role in this novel. But then, that’s one of the most exciting things about writing; frequently, the most interesting things are the ones that you find by accident.

This week, I fear, will be a bit sparse on the novel. I have to submit a dissertation chapter this week, so that will suck up a lot of energy. Rest assured, though, that I’ll be right back at it next weekend.

Until then!

Reading Tad Williams: “The Heart of What Was Lost”

I’ve been waiting so long to finally get around to reading Tad Williams’ new novel The Heart of What Was Lost. Having immersed myself in the textured world of his trilogy “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” for the last several months, I had very high hopes indeed for this return to that world.

I was not disappointed.

I do not say this lightly: Tad Williams is one of the most talented fantasy writers out there. It’s not just that his prose is exquisite to read (though it is that), but also that he manages to craft characters who are utterly compelling and who you are led to sympathize with, despite the fact that some of them are not even human. The novel is, above all, about the relationships between and among people and among groups, about how we can make sense of ourselves as communal beings. In that sense, it is a very relevant book for our current social and political moment.

To briefly summarize: the novel takes place in the immediate aftermath of the battle that occurred at the end of To Green Angel Tower. Isgrimnur, the venerable Duke, has been tasked with pursuing the Norns and ensuring that they do not cause any more damage or harm than they already have. In his army are two soldiers, Endri and Porto, who strike up an unusual friendship, while among the Norns the Builder Viyeki strives to do everything he can to help his people make their slow and painful way back to their mountain home.

There is genuine and heart-wrenching pathos in the relationship between Porto and Endri, the two common soldiers whose relationship makes up one significant strand of the novel’s plot. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’m a queer man, but there was something emotionally resonant about this relationship that went beyond mere friendship, but that’s probably not surprising. The haunting ending, in which it is revealed that a Norn spell was able to resurrect the dead body of Endri is not just horrifying; it’s heartbreaking. It’s bad enough that Porto wasn’t able to save his friend, but to have that youth emerge from the grave and then have to be reburied is almost too much to bear.

Just as compelling, however, are the portions dedicated to Viyeki, the Norn Builder who finds himself caught at the intersection of powerful forces. While the immortals have been defeated and their plans to turn back time have been thwarted, they are far from finished. While the Queen of the Norns rests in suspended slumber, those who hold power in her stead war amongst themselves, each convinced that they know how to best preserve their way of life. As the novel progresses, we get a real sense of the conflicted loyalties that Viyeki feels, as well as the pivotal position that he occupies in the future of his people.

Indeed, one of the things I really loved about this novel was the way in which it shed light on the society and culture of the Norns. While they hovered on the edges of the earlier trilogy, here we get a much more in-depth view of them. They are a society riven by all sorts of conflicts among the powerful nobles, while the caste system enforces a rigid and repressive organization on the entirety of society. However, as the events of this novella make clear, that is all about to change, and it is even possible (indeed even likely) that the Norns may begin intermarrying with their mortal servants. Who knows where that is going to lead?

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mentioning Isgrimnur, the bluff but affable Duke who played such a pivotal role in the original trilogy. Here he is in all his glory but, I hasten to add, he’s a bit more angry and dangerous than readers may remember. But then, it’s hard to blame him for that, considering how much has been lost to the Norns as a result of the war and their further depredations as they make their way back to their homeland. As the story progresses, he gradually grows more ruthless, until he is determined to basically wipe out the Norns. It is quite striking to see this character, whom we love and remember so fondly, become thoroughly disenchanted with the war that he has been charged with seeing through to its completion. Though he makes it out alive (of course), we know that he will probably never be the same.

The Heart of What Was Lost continues a theme that was subtly hinted at in its predecessors: war, even when it is won, leaves a terrible scar on those who have participated in it. While victory is sweet, there is no question that it also involves tremendous sacrifice. Even when, at the end of the novel, the Norns are saved, there can be no doubt that their former ways of doing things has been irrevocably altered, both by the war itself and by the actions that were taken in the attempt to save themselves from utter obliteration at the hands of their human enemies. I am sure that we will see the consequences of this brought to fruition in the forthcoming trilogy. After all, Williams excels at showing us the consequences of history, and how the actions taken by those desperate to save themselves, no matter how justified they may be, can have far-ranging and sometimes devastating consequences for the future.

I don’t know about all of you, but I am beyond excited about the release of The Witchwood Crown. I’ve already bought it, so I’m just waiting for it to come out, and then I’ll be diving in at the deep end. It’s slated to arrive here on Tuesday, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to wait that long! Stay tuned for my review (as well as those of Mr. Williams’s other works, which will be forthcoming over the next several months). Once I finish The Witchwood Crown, it’s on to The War of the Flowers, then hopefully Shadowmarch. 

Stay tuned!

World Building (1): A Brief History of The Faith, the One True Church, and Heresy

To keep myself accountable on my novel (which I’m determined to finish this year), I thought I’d spend some time writing short pieces fleshing out the world, giving potential readers (who have the patience to stick with me), a glimmer of what kind of world my characters inhabit. For me as a reader, one of the things I always most enjoy when reading an epic fantasy are those parts that fill in the history of the secondary world. Since I’m assuming that there are others that share that pleasure, I aim to provide some of that detail, saving most of the plot details for other posts.

Around 2,000 years before the start of our story, the entire continent was under the aegis of the mighty empire of Haranshar. Since its founding back in the mists of time and myth, however, the empire had always been roughly split into three administrative districts. The core was Haran, wherein were located the capital of the empire as a whole as well as its chief religious sites. These were ruled over and administered by the magi, the priests of the Faith of the Flames. The lands of Korray, the mountainous region separating east and west, were a patchwork of constantly shifting alliances, with various heretical faces emerging at different periods. It was in the West, though, in the most nebulously-controlled territories, that politics and religion both came to take on increasingly rebellious tones.

While the Faith of the Flames had always been the predominant faith in the lands directly under the rule of the Shahs, such had not been the case with the patchwork of kingdoms known as Korray (who remained stubbornly tribal) as well as the western half of the continent. The vastly different administrations in these parts of Haranshar ensured that they had their own ways of doing things that often didn’t take the East into consideration at all.

The mystics who would later dub themselves the Prefects of the One True Church were, at first, relatively minor figures, hardly worth the attention of the provincial governors. Gradually, however, they began to increase their power, and they swayed many of the western nobles to their cause. As nobles have throughout history, these men and women saw in this nascent the opportunity to strike a blow at the overbearing administrative state that was a bane to their independence. As a result, they drew the mystics to them and, together, they began to forge a full-fledged revolution.

It was not long before the mystics renamed themselves Prefects, and the thirteen most powerful of them formed the core of the leadership of the new Church (or “the Faith,” as they termed it). Meanwhile, the nobles elected one of their own to reign as Imperator, a figure that would serve as a counterweight to the political might of the Shah and his nobles. The revolt was quickly far more successful, and the western provinces soon achieved full independence, while the lands of Korray remained as a buffer zone, independent of either the Imperium or Haranshar.

However, shortly after the self-described Faithful split away from the Haranshar and declared themselves part of the independent Imperium, the new faith was riven by a number of conflicts. As is almost always the case with new faiths that arise in times of conflict, once the initial breaking is done, it is hard to stop further schisms from occurring. Such was certainly the case with the movement that became known as the Arkadian Heresy.

The man who would become known to his acolytes as the Blessed Ascendant was, to all appearances, a rather unremarkable creature, certainly not the type that one would imagine starting a religious faith that would continue on in his name for a millennium and a half.

The Ascendant preached that the body was not to be transcended but instead embraced, that it was through the sacred nature of the corporeal form that one could actually attain union with the transcendent, spiritual Name. To those who had come to believe that all of the created world was hopelessly befouled, that the Demiurge, the demented spirit of creation was to be spurned and fought against, this was the worst sort of blasphemy. His words found a great deal of popularity with the poor and the downtrodden, who saw in his emphasis on the pleasures of the world a solace in their drudgery.

However, the majority of those who subscribed to the fledgeling Faith denounced the Ascendant and put him to death. He was flayed alive and thrown to the wild beasts, a truly gruesome and terrifying fate, suitable only for the basest of criminals. To the political and religious leaders of his time, however, this was only fitting, as he had dared to pose a challenge to everything they held dear.

Chief among his supporters was the man known as Arkadius, who continued to preach the word of his master throughout the Imperium. It was only when the first Imperator Yishadra and her consort Herklaios turned the full force of the state on the apostle that he was at last done away with, flayed as his master had been. Yet Arkadius had followers, and they managed to secret away some of his most cherished writings, those that spoke of the Blessed Ascendant, that described how his body had been saved from the ravages that had been visited on it so that he did indeed find transcendence and union with the Name.

Since that time, the Prefects of the Church and the Imperator have worked together to ensure that the heresies of the past do not reawaken and weaken the Imperium from within. While this has sometimes necessitated brutal and violent repression, they have undertaken these only with the gravest misgivings and with the full knowledge that what they do is in the service of the greater good. Anyone, no matter how high or low their estate, may be sacrificed on the altar of stability.

Unbeknownst to them, however, there are still many, both in the remaining lands belonging to Haranshar and in the Imperium, who would like nothing more than to see the Arkadian Heresy become the dominant faith, and who will do everything in their power to ensure that such a future comes to pass. For them, the stakes are high. The very world itself might be at stake, as they are all soon to discover.

Novel Thoughts: A Brief Synopsis

So, as some of you know, I’ve been posting for a while about my Novel. However, you probably don’t actually know what it’s about. Hopefully, your interest will be piqued enough that you will want to take a look at it in that far day when I actually finish it and hopefully see it shepherded into print.

The basic plot is this. The cleric Theadra inadvertently discovers a palimpsest that contains one of the heretical gospels that were burned and obliterated during the early days of the monolithic Church. This cannot be tolerated, and her superiors in the Church, including her erstwhile mentor Prefect Antonius and his rival Prefect Eulicia. The latter, having gained permission from the Imperator Talinissia, hires assassins to kill the young woman before the taint of heresy can spread.

Fortunately, Theadra is rescued by the woman known as the Huntress, a half-human/half-Fae youth whose real name is revealed to be Rowena. Together, they flee into the lands of Korray, and after they are captured by a sequence of chieftains, they gradually become lovers, each finding in the other the emotional fulffilment they have long sought.

Theadra’s flight threatens to reignite a long-simmering conflict between the Imperium and Haranshar, the two great powers that occupy the continent. When she flees into the the lands of the Korrayin–who for centuries have served as proxies in the wars between the Imperium and Haranshar–she disturbs the fragile balance that has been the status quo. Soon, the various chieftains, including the Poison King Ibrahim, begin feuding in an attempt to gain custody of her.

In Haranshar, the dubir Osroës, scion of one of a disgraced noble house, serves as the chief minister to the Shah. When word reaches him of the heretic’s flight, he sees in this an opportunity to at last bring the Imperium to its knees. He has long been fostering the Church of the East in the hopes that they would be able to challenge the hegemony of the Church of the West, even as many of his fellow nobles despise them as apostates from the Faith of the Flames. With the Shah’s backing, he sends a group of soldiers to collect Theadra.

In doing so, however, he ignites the flames of war, and the cold war soon ignites into a hot one, and the lands of Korray are engulfed.

This conflict gradually widens until it consumes the Imperator Talinissia, her counselor the Prefect Eulicia, and everyone else. The conniving and belligerent Duke Childerick, aided by his wily aide Count Pepin, manage to leverage their success on the Killing Fields of Korray to a popular uprising against the Imperator who, faced with the will of her people, is forced to resign in favour of her cousin the Duke. Anastatius, along with his lover Trystane, also flee into exile.

The second part of the book follows the fortunes of war and those whose lives are affected. Eulicia, now ensnared and in service to the new Imperator Childerick, helps Talinissia escape imprisonment, hopefully to find sanctuary with the Fae and possibly reclaim her throne. Osroës and the Shah, each working on their own designs, manipulate Theadra into taking up the crown of the Episkopa of the Church of the East, an elevation that strains her relationship with Rowena, who eventually leaves her.

Meanwhile, the Alchemists at the Academy reveal to Childerick that they have recovered the lost Art of Binding from a captured Korrayin and that, using an athame made from the blood iron found in Korray, they can bind the spirits of the daimons–entities of fire and air–into the bodies of human beings and thus forge a powerful weapon.

This radically changes the course of the war, but I won’t go into too much more detail. I have to leave some surprises, right?

At a larger cosmic level, the entity known as the Demiurge, long banished from the material world, yearns to return an reclaim his hegemony. He also seeks to bring together the many worlds that were shattered during the conflagration that erupted between the Name (the male and female godhead) and the Demiurge. To do so, he employs men and women known as Strangers, one of whom wanders this world manipulating those who are in power, hoping to bring the old systems and institutions crashing down into ruin, thus setting the stage for the bringing together of the shattered worlds into a terrible and primal unity.

That’s basic idea of the project. I really want to engage with the larger philosophical questions that motivate the best fantasy. How do people make sense of their historical worlds? How does the body impact one’s ability to move into another realm? Are those who are defeated really the villains that history–and often religion–makes them out to be? How do great powers that bestride the world like colossi come crashing down into ruin? How does love in all its forms–agape, eros, etc.–influence people and even gods to do things that might prove dangerous and destructive, both to themselves and others? Is there, in the final analysis, such a thing as true evil?

Of course, I’m also drawing on some historical parallels, both recent and ancient. In particular, the Imperium and Haranshar are based on the Byzantine/Late Roman Empire and Sasasnian Persia, respectively. However, to be quite upfront, this project was influenced by the 2016 elections, too, so take that for what it’s worth. Note that I’m not intending to write an allegory, but instead a reflection on what it means to live in perilous times.

More details of the project will come as I make my way through the chapters that I’ve already written. The broad strokes of the book are laid out (thank you NaNoWriMo!), and I am pretty happy with it. I envision the project a whole as a a tetralogy but, given how other fantasy epics have worked out, I’m hesitant to make those kinds of limitations.

Stay tuned for more updates as I continue working on it. Though my dissertation must always occupy the front burner, that doesn’t mean that I’m not also going to give my novel the attention that it deserves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel Weekends (2): Looking Backward and Forward

Well, I met my word goal for today, so that’s good. Started a chapter that I think is going to be somewhere close to the end, when basically all of the characters have had their ambitions thwarted in one way or another. It’s a pretty dark moment that I’m portraying here, since I’m attempting in this work to convey a sense of what it might feel like to live in a moment, a fleeting period of time, when the entire fabric of the world order unravels right before your eyes (sound familiar?)

The prose is still a bit clunky, though I do think that the more I write and the more I focus, the better and more natural it sounds. I’m revisiting the Prologue that I wrote some time ago and…it could use some work stylistically. I like what it’s doing, but I really need to make sure that the prose is more polished.

I also tend to be a bit heavy on the dialogue, but I think I’ve broken that up in this chapter from today. There’s a lot of action, since it entails a coup and the breaking down of old orders, as well as the feeling of desperation one gets when the tide abruptly turns against you. It’s one of those feelings of utter terror, when you know, you just know, that things have slipped, irreparably, beyond your ability to control. That’s what I’m trying to convey in this chapter, as well as how you cope with the aftermath of such a defeat.

Overall, I like how the novel is coming along. Its conception seems strong, but I need to continue working on its execution. That’s always the hardest part, regardless of what I’m writing.

But, I know I can do it.

I am determined.

Novel Weekends (1): Piece by Piece

Because I have found it so useful to talk about my Dissertation process daily, I’ve decided to do the same thing on the weekends, when I work on my Novel. Except this time I’m limiting myself to 300 words. Brevity and concision are virtues I have to work on.

In sum, the book is essentially a fantasized version of the war that brought about the end of the Sassanid Empire and the prostration of the Byzantine Empire before the Arab/Muslim onslaught. It’s precipitated by the discovery of a palimpsest containing a heretical tract, which ignites a long-simmering war between the two great imperial powers of this world, the Imperium and Haranshar, with the tribes of Korray stuck in the middle. There’s also a cosmic element, with an entity called the Demiurge attempting to forge a new faith among his mortal adherents and gain a new place in the material world.

It started as a NaNoWriMo project, but has been developing since then. I have an outline, and several chapters are almost done (though they’re patchy in places).

I managed to meet my Saturday goal of 2500 words today, mostly in a new chapter focused on my queer character Anastasios, along with his ally/enemy Eulicia and the scheming Count Pepin. The chapter is probably about half done, and it does some stuff to move the plot along, so we’ll see how it fits into the whole shortly.

Ultimately, I hope to be done with it by this point next year, and hopefully start querying an agent by next summer. If I can average 5K a weekend, with a final goal of 120K (standard for an epic, so I’ve heard), I can basically get a very rough version done in 6 months.

So, today was good, and tomorrow will be even better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.