Reading The Wheel of Time: “A Crown of Swords” (Book 6)

We come at last to the seventh novel in “The Wheel of Time,” Crown of Swords. Rand faces loss and victory in equal measure, while Elayne and Nyvaeve (with Mat’s unwilling help) find the Bowl of the Winds, and Perrin does not appear at all.

Jordan continues to demonstrate that he has a firm and thorough knowledge of his created world. I personally found Ebou Dar to be one of the more charming cities that he has created, and I was particularly drawn to Queen Tylin. There’s something intensely amusing at seeing Mat caught flat-footed by a woman who is as rapaciously sexual as he is. Indeed, it’s quite refreshing to see the ways in which the women in Jordan’s universe–for all of their foibles–have a measure of agency that they lack in many other epic fantasies of a similar scope. Say what you will, but it is rather nice not to see women be the subject sexual violence and torture all the time (I’m looking at you, Martin).

The high point of the novel, however, has to be the moment when Rand is finally able to lure the menacing and cruel Sammael to his death in Shadar Logoth. Sammael is hardly the most subtle of the Forsaken, and it is precisely his arrogance that ultimately leads to his demise. It really is a fitting punishment for a man who is willing to do whatever it takes to prove that he is better than the Dragon (though of course he isn’t). It’s only fitting that he is at last stricken by Mashadar, a malevolent spirit that is as dark and rotten as the Forsaken himself.

There is a strong sense in this novel of the tremendous toll that his destiny is beginning to take on Rand. While I’ve always found him to be a bit insufferable, I think I have a better grasp of his character. He is a man tormented by the knowledge that he has to break and save the world in equal measure. And of course there is also the fact that began life as a rather simple farmer but has no had to take on the burden of leading all of the nations of the known world in a fight for their lives. Add to the fact that he has to continue contending with the impending madness caused by the taint on saidin (as well as the voice of the former Lews Therin tormenting him in his mind), and one can see why he might retreat at times into a bit of navel-gazing.

A Crown of Swords paints a picture of a world teetering on the brink of utter destruction. It almost feels like this is the deep breath before the plunge, when all the world seems to be holding its breath, waiting for the final axe-stroke to fall. There are some truly gruesome and dark scenes, such as when the gholam attacks Nynaeve and Elayne, wounding and killing several others in the process. The attack is a potent reminder, if any were needed, that the weapons from the Age of Legends–and the knowledge that the Forsaken possess-give them an undeniable edge in this world. Sometimes, it feels as if the odds are truly too great for any of the characters to win in the final struggle, no matter how valiantly they might attempt to do so.

All in all, I quite enjoyed A Crown of Swords. It’s a more briskly-paced volume than its predecessors, and while some might fault the novel on that grounds, I actually think it marks one of the high points in the series as a whole, when we finally begin to see the end-game. Of course, there are all sorts of pieces that remain in play, but it’s smaller size means that it is able to accomplish more than the previous novel. Things are finally getting real.

I’ve already finished The Path of Daggers, so expect an update on that to be appearing here shortly. I’m also about halfway through Winter’s Heart, so I’m (finally!) on the cusp of the novels that I haven’t read yet. I have to say, I’m very excited to have finally reached this stage. So, it’s onward we go!

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How We Talk about Trauma: Gaslight and the Importance of Maintaining a Bi-focal Critical View

Metathesis

[7-10 minute read]

Recently, my coursework on Hollywood Melodrama engaged me with reading portions of Helen Hanson’s book, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film.[1] This text represents an amazing work of scholarship, connecting well-researched critical feminist histories, studies in the formation of literary and filmic genres, and close-readings of the narrative representations of heroines in Classic Hollywood films.

Hanson’s history of gothic fiction, which makes up the majority of her second chapter, related several functions of the gothic mode:

  • “In its ability to express, evoke and produce fear and anxiety, the gothic mode figures the underside to the rational, the stable, and the moral” (34).
  • “In Gothic fiction certain stock features provide the principle embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties” (34).
  • “The narratives of gothic literary fictions and films commonly deploy suspicions and suspense about past events. . . In its moves…

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Scholarship and Affect: Merging Critical and Fan Identities

More brilliant thoughts from my very dear friend and colleague Hillarie. This dragon is goin’ places, folks, mark my words.

Metathesis

[7-10 minute read]

Take an adventure with me through my affective and critical experiences with a few texts I encountered during my first year and a half of my Ph.D. program:

*****

I am sitting in the theatre in the last showing of the night for Star Wars: Rogue One. I have just come from my house where I have been drinking a bit of wine with friends. I am happily relaxed after a rather arduous first semester of Ph.D. study. It’s December, Christmas is coming on quickly, and as an early present, I get another Star Wars film.

Thirty minutes into the film, the protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), navigates through city streets on a desert planet, searching for her childhood mentor. Her companion, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), becomes increasingly agitated, and when Jyn questions him, he says the city “is about to blow.” Moments later, a…

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“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

Metathesis

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Edition: How I Misplaced my Faith

Metathesis

[5 minute read]

Last month, when teaching a Metathesis post I previously wrote about being a Catholic scholar, I felt like a bit of a fraud. My intention in using this post was to give my students a look at my research on a rare book they had examined for class. However, when one of my students immediately remarked that the book smelled “you know, like when you’re at Easter Mass, and the priest is using incense”, my response was one of disconnect, rather than recognition. Between submitting my syllabus for approval in April and teaching the content in September, I had misplaced my faith somewhere.

Somewhere, I say, but I know exactly where I misplaced it. I left it in the run-down Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York: a tiny room with a manual train schedule, a contaminated drinking fountain, and an air freshener that whined every…

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

Dissertation Days (54): Cut, Cut, Cut

Note: This is yesterday’s post. Today’s post is forthcoming.

Having received more feedback on Chapter 3, I’m charging full-steam ahead into revision mode, while continuing to keep up my forward momentum on Chapter 4.

In terms of Chapter 3, the fundamentals are there, but now it’s time to do that thing I always hate.

Yes, cutting. 

I know, I know. That’s just part of the process of writing, but it’s always difficult. Not just the cutting, but the deciding. I always find it a challenge to figure out which quotes and bits of scholarship/theory are the ones that are the necessary ones, rather than the ones that I like the most (and yes, there is often a very big difference between those two things). It was really challenging at first, but I think I am slowly getting a handle on it.

Still, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on it now, and I can see with the advantage of hindsight that there are some major branches of my argument in need of pruning.

Chapter 4, meanwhile is…coming. Today was a word vomit kind of day, as I started grappling again with what I want to say about Fall of the Roman Empire. I’m slowly groping my way forward, weeding through all of the things that have been said about it before that I want to draw upon. I know in my gut that I have something significant to say about the film, a layer of nuance that I think hasn’t been appreciated before, but it’s taking a hell of a long time to get there.

But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m really making sure that I keep this chapter lean and punchy, so hopefully that will help. I will say that, toward the end today, everything threatened to fall apart, so I knew it was time to stop working on it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back at it tomorrow in full-throttle mode.

And, much as I hate to say it, it may take a new draft (another one!) to weed out the clutter. Ugh. Oh well. Better to recognize this at the beginning of September than at the end of it.

So, tomorrow is another full day of work. However, I’ve got a plan. Now I just need to make sure that I stick to it.

I can can do this. I’ve got this.

Right?

 

World Building (7): The Great Houses of the Imperium–House Rendakis

House Rendakis is the current reigning House of the Imperium, and their sigil is a rearing stallion. Despite this, however, it is also a remarkably unfruitful House, as its only current prominent member is the Imperator herself. Her brother, as has been noted elsewhere, was slain in the midst of his unsuccessful rebellion against her, and her father, and his father before him, were the only heirs of their line.

Like the other prominent Houses, House Rendakis can trace its ancestry back to the founders of the Imperium, though it must be said that their heritage is somewhat diluted. Their progenitor Eugenios, the youngest of the nine children born to the founding monarchs, produced a line that seemed chronically unable to produce either a significant number of heirs to continue the viability of the line or to attain the power that it clearly so desperately crave.

Despite that, the descendants of Eugenios have, through careful manipulation and cunning, managed to ingratiate themselves with the other members of their family. They have become particularly well-known for occupying the position of the Chamberlain, the central administrative figure in the Imperium and the Imperator’s closest advisers. This accorded them the dignity of the purple-lined cloak, an acknowledgment of both their shared imperial lineage and their closeness to the throne. So famous were the Rendakisi for this service that the purple-lined cloak became almost a hereditary emblem of their House.

However, it is has only been in the last 500 years that they have been able to carve out a true space as one of the great power players in the Imperium. This came about because of the wily political machinations of one Sakares Rendakis, who managed to ally himself with several other noble clans to take down the reigning Imperator, Timotheos of House Diogenes. Sakares’ acumen earned him the grudging respect of his colleagues–as well as a considerable amount of money–and when the other clans could not agree to a claimant from among themselves, they elevated him, draping the purple around his shoulders and placing the heavy imperial crown on his forehead.

That was roughly 150 years before the start of that story, and at first it no doubt seemed to many in the Imperium that here at last was a dynasty that might just last for a thousand years. Sakares had 5 sons and 4 daughters, a truly fruitful branch of a tree that had already shown some very troubling signs of withering in the decades prior. There was every indication that this might at last be the royal House that would at last return dynastic stability to the seemingly chronically unstable Imperium.

It wasn’t long, however, before tragedy began to strike. It was the misfortune of Sakares to rule over the period of disease that came to be known as the Plague of Sakares. The virulence of the disease was such that it threatened to completely decimate the population of the Imperium. The Alchemists, with all of their training and lore in the arts of healing, were only able to save one out of every five victims, and there was no telling who might be struck down. The disease showed no consistency, striking down the young and the old, the healthy and the weak, the rich and the poor. Indeed, there were many among the Church, the Alchemists, and the nobility who were struck down, and there were many who felt that this might indeed be the end of the Imperium, and some even floated the possibility of appealing to the Shah of Haranshar for political and economic production.

Not even the royal family was spared, as the plague swept through the palace and consumed all but the youngest daughter of Sakares, a youth named Dominika, who would become the apple of her father’s eye and the sole hope of her entire House and all of its fortunes. As a result, she became known as “Dominkia the Deathless.” When her father was also carried away–though by grief rather than disease–she became Imperator.

However, she was deeply scarred by the loss of her family, and she inherited an Imperium that was riven from top to bottom. The common folk frequently rose in rebellion, protesting the class system that they had been forced to labour under their entire lives and demanding better wages. The Church was almost fatally weakened, as fully half of the Council of Prefects had perished and many of those who occupied the upper echelons of the hierarchy were also dead. As a result, Dominika oversaw some remarkable changes the structure of the Imperium, changes that would have far-reaching consequences, particularly as they gave the lower classes a greater presence in the lower house of the Senate (though she was careful to safeguard the interests of the nobility, for she was no fool. She knew where the real power in the Imperium lay).

Even after her death, Dominika would be remembered fondly by the common folk who, for the first time in many generations, had been ruled over by a powerful woman who seemed to have their best interests at heart. It is to her that the current Imperator, Talinissia, looks for a model (though it has to be said that there is a profound sense that she lacks the common touch that has been a key part of her family’s ability to hold on to the throne through all of the trials of the last century and a half).

Though the House’s current seat is located in the city of Aïonis (due to the fact that any House that occupies the throne claims that seat), they still maintain a traditional power-base in the peninsula, as they have for long served as Counts of Melita. This fact will come to have significant consequences for Talinissia as she faces the new political realities that slowly emerge as the Heretic’s War starts to heat up, and the world that the Imperator, as well as everyone who surrounds her, have so far taken for granted.

Time will tell whether the House itself can be saved.

Dissertation Days (46): Adventures in Research

As promised, I was back at work on the Dissertation today. I’m actually quite tremendously pleased with the work I produced today. Although I only wrote 500 words, I think that they were pretty good ones (all things considered), and that is always a cause for a minor celebration. There will, of course, be a lot of revision between the time I finish this draft and the time I turn it in, but that’s just par for the course.

This was also a surprisingly productive day in terms of research. Peter Brooks’s brilliant Reading for the Plot has been really helpful in beefing up that theoretical section. Indeed, I basically spent the entire day focused on that. Sometimes, you just hit your stride when it comes to writing a theoretical section, and you get that fiery, passionate feeling that you are really onto something important in the way that you’re phrasing and articulating your argument. That’s the feeling I live for, and this is the first time that I’ve felt it in a couple of weeks.

In this chapter, I’m really trying to get to the heart of the tension between narrative and spectacle in the epic film. These are terms that people often use as if they were self-explanatory–epics are simple narratives that overcompensate with a use of spectacle is a typical line of argument–and I want to give this the sort of detail that I think it deserves. The way I’m framing my argument, I think anyway, will serve as a nice end to the dissertation as a whole and has some important connections to the first chapter. Given how much I’ve struggled with this chapter, I’m really happy that it’s finally starting to take a shape with which I can be happy.

Given that I only have 2 more days here in West Virginia, I’ll probably take another mini-hiatus until I return to Syracuse. Then, I’ll be back at the normal schedule (as much as possible), though it might be a bit touch-and-go because of the new TA Orientation that’ll be going on throughout the second week of August. And, of course, there’s all the other stuff–articles, revisions, conference proposals, etc.–that will undoubtedly eat their way into my free time.

But, I shall persist, as I always do.

With the right amount of determination, I know I can get this done, and I can get it done well.

Onward.