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!

Advertisements

Reading Tad Williams: “The War of the Flowers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading 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!