Tag Archives: fantasy literature

Book Review: “The Last Tsar’s Dragons” (by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple)

Note: I would like to thank NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

I have to say that the title is what drew me to this strange but enjoyable little novella. How on earth, I thought, can one make dragons relevant to the Russian Revolution?

Somehow, mother and son team Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple weave together myth and history into a compelling tale of the last days of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, their relentless hatred of both the Jews and the peasants, and their eventual fall from power.

Several notable historical figures appear in the story, including the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, the tsarina Alexandra, the man who would later become Leon Trotsky, and a nameless functionary whose narration bookends the story as a whole.

Of these, arguably the most compelling–and repelling–character is certainly the nameless functionary whose point of view bookends the novella. He is ruthless, vicious, and utterly willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that he advances up the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy, even if that means betraying his own wife (or engage in the murder of Rasputin). He is the only character whose narration is in first person, and this provides us an uncomfortably intimate glimpse into a psyche that is fundamentally twisted and ruthless.

Though the novella is largely driven by such characters, the authors also have a gift for capturing a fascinating mix of the fantastic and the historical. One gets a sense of the political and social ferment affecting Russia on the eve of the Revolution, as various parties struggle to cope with a country–and a world–that seems to teeter on the brink of absolute collapse. Furthermore, they also manage to bring into the open the toxic antisemitism that was such a prominent part of Russia at the time (and since).

All in all, I found The Last Tsar’s Dragons to be an intriguing tale, and it was rather refreshing to see a story told successfully in the form of the novella. At the same time, however, I for one am left hungering for more, precisely because the central conceit begs so many questions. Where did the dragons come from? Were there other places that used them other than Russia? If not, why not?

Perhaps the authors will one day pursue these questions, but in the meantime, we can savour what they have provided us, a glimpse into how the real world of history might have been impacted had the mythical played a larger part in it.

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World Building (17): On Tysfan

The mightiest city in the world, home to almost a million souls, the great Tysfan has been the capital of Haranshar for almost three centuries. It is accounted one of the most beautiful and graceful cities in the world, a true marvel. The airs there are sweet and fresh, the gardens as verdant as anyone could wish, and the streets are marvelously clean. It is thus a fitting capital for the greatest superpower on the continent.

It was founded by the powerful Shah Kavastar, who wished, after a century of almost constant strife and the rise of over a dozen different shahs, to restore stability to a nation that seemed on the brink of collapse. While the site he chose was not in the center of the vast domains that he ruled–something that caused his advisers to fret–it was nevertheless a symbolic gesture. By situating Tysfan in the rough middle region of the continent of Aridikh as a whole, he hoped to send the message that he was determined to bring the rebellious lands of the Imperium under the control of Haranshar once more.

Though he did not succeed, his imperial patronage ensured that the city grew quickly, and within the first twenty years of its existence it had utterly overtaken any of the other cities in Haranshar. And, though those in the Imperium would be loathe to say it, it has also become recognized in the West as the chief seat of learning, one of the few places where a substantial number of texts from the period after the dominance of the Old Ones can be found.

The city is formed roughly of a grid, given that the Shah had been inspired by the very regular and orderly cities he had heard described by a certain adventurer who had made his way to the island of the Anukathi. It is also well-drained, and has led the way in ensuring that all buildings in the city possess indoor plumbing. As a result, disease is relatively uncommon, except in the poorer districts, and even the poorest of the city are guaranteed a daily dole of bread, and there are other measures in the city that keep them peaceful (for the most part).

There are three architectural wonders that set the city apart from others in Haranshar (and indeed from any other cities in the continent). One is, of course, the great palace of the Shah, which rears above the flat city. With its soaring arches, its walls studded with jewels, and its great dome, it is truly a wonder of the world. No other noble family is allowed to have a palace that outshines that of the Shah, and if any leader attempts to do so, they are instantly sentenced to death and a tenth of their total wealth is appropriated by the crown (in addition to the offending building).

The Great Fire Temple of Ormazdh is one of the city’s other architectural wonders. Those who visit it report being overcome with the power of the spirit that is present there, as if the great god himself had stepped into the midst of lived reality. Though it is not the holiest site for the faith–that honour belongs to another fire temple in the north–it is nevertheless the bureaucratic center of the vast Ormazdh priesthood and the seat of its foremost rulers.

The third major location in the city of the Great Library. It is here that the most ancient wisdom from ages past is stored. No location in the Imperium, even in the vaunted Peninsula, can compare to its holdings. There are books here that have been forgotten almost everywhere else in the world, including a few precious pages that date from the time of the Old Ones themselves (though, so far, they remain largely untranslated). Even sages from the Imperium are known to travel to partake in the great holdings of the Library.

The city serves as the ceremonial, political, and religious center of the entire empire, and it is the responsibility of the various great families in the realms to send representatives at least once a year.

Tysfan is notable for two other features. The first is a prominent community of Yeshurites, who are a mixture of Korrayin and others who have converted to the faith. This group is responsible for the collection of the great books of that faith, and this community of elders is acknowledged as the spiritually superior to anything in Korray (though that is hotly disputed by some). The other is a community of those who call themselves the Church of the East but are roundly and heatedly condemned by those in the West as nothing more than the worst sorts of heretics. They are seen by many in Haranshar as a potential source of unrest, as well as a potential weapon against those in the West.

This city will prove crucial in the great battles to come.

World Building (15): The Duchy of Ioliérs

Historically, the Duchy of Ioliérs has existed in a somewhat contentious relationship with its neighbors to the west over the Pireña. There are a few territories that straddle this natural boundary that both countries lay claim to, and there have been a few border wars that have escalated to the point that the Imperators have had to intervene.

Economically, the duchy is known for its wines and for its mines (located in the mountains). A cluster of blood-red grapes are in fact the sigil of the current reigning ducal House d’Vais.

The duchy is the site of several significant cathedrals and other holy sites in the history of the True Faith, and the Church’s presence is particularly strong here. However, the Deacons of this region have also been known to indulge in some practices and beliefs that dance along the edge of heresy, and for this reason the Council of Prelates has kept a very close eye on them. The universities, however, have been responsible for some of the most learned interpretations of the holy books, as well as significant discoveries in terms of philosophy, science, and agriculture.

As was the case with many of the other duchies, there once existed a powerful local nobility and people, known as the Rikarians, a largely-tribal people who had resisted the efforts of their Haransharin overlords to keep them in line. They largely continued to worship their own deities. While there had been some contact between these people and the powerful duchy of Alusium in the south (which even before the uprising that led to the forming of the Imperium had been exerting influence), for the most part they remained stubbornly out of tune with the rest of the other countries that would become the Imperium.

When the first Imperators solidified their power in the region by marrying their daughter Irene to one of the many local dynasties, she served as a bridge between the hybridized Alusine/Helleneian culture of her parents and the local culture of the Rikarians. So beloved was she that she would become almost a goddess among the common people and, despite the strict ban of the increasingly powerful Church on the veneration of anyone who was not formally recognized as a saint, she has remained a pervasive presence to this day.

The fusion of these two cultural traditions, combined with the relative peace and prosperity of the region, has given birth to a place where beauty, love, and the arts are the highest aspirations. For the Rikarians, despite their quarrels with one another, possessed a poetic soul, and their tales were filled with stories of chivalry, courtly romance, and the sweet things of life. This melded easily with the deliberate (and sometimes) cold approach to such things favoured by the newly-arrived Helleneian and Alusine noble class. The rash of intermarriages that occurred, not just among the upper classes but throughout the culture, ensured that within a few generations the process was largely complete.

The current Duchess of Ioliérs is one Blanche d’Vais. As one of the blood royal, she claims a seat on the highest tear of the Senate of Nobles. She has so far proven to be one of Talinissia’s more supportive allies in the Senate, though in recent years she has withdrawn to her own estates in her duchy to be with her grandchildren. She has five children, three sons and two daughters. (She maintains a very large network of spies and informants in both the capital and elsewhere, however). Her heir is Lord Imael, who has so far shown that he is content to rule his domains and not interfere with Imperial matters more than necessary.

Blanche d’Vais is also well known for her support of the Academy in Aionis as well as the one located in her own capital of Viente, and she has long been rumoured to be particularly enamoured of the more arcane branches of knowledge that are typically considered out of bounds for one of her station. In the more sinister whisperings, she is even supposed to have engaged in the forbidden dark arts of blood sacrifice, particularly as these might grant her the youth that seems to be slipping away from her (at the time of the events of the series she is nearly 70).

In terms of historical analogues in our own world, Ioliérs is similar to the courts of Navarre and of the courts of love in Aquitaine.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Shadow Rising” (Book 4)

I have now finished The Shadow Rising, the fourth book of The Wheel of Time. This is the book where the real intricacies of the plot begin to take shape. Unlike the first 3 books, which are rather short (by epic fantasy standards), Shadow really expands the scope far beyond what we’ve seen before. One really does wonder if Jordan, having established that he could tell a good story and sell lots of books with the first three, was finally given the leave that he needed to really go to town on his plots. I, for one, am not complaining, since it is precisely the vast scope of his work that makes it such a pleasure.

However, I will say that the seeds of what goes on in the rest of the story, both good and bad, are quite thoroughly sown in this book. The many plots, counterplots, and counter-counterplots that will occur throughout the rest of the books can be squarely traced back to Shadow, and it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened had he chosen to keep a few of those threads snipped out rather than allowing them to grow an become ever more convoluted as the series continues.

That being said, it does contain some genuinely powerful moments, such as when Perrin goes home to Emond’s Field to find that the cruel Padan Fain, having manipulated the Whitecloacks, has had his family killed. Perrin’s breakdown in Faile’s arms is one of those rare moments when genuine emotion bubbles up in this series, and it’s hard not to weep. But it’s also uniquely satisfying to watch Perrin grow into his position as ruler of the Two Rivers, leading his people to a successful repulsion of the enormous army of Shadowspawn that have invaded his homeland.

In many ways, the most shocking thing about this novel is the deposing of Siuan and the election of the implacable Elaida as her successor as Amyrlin Seat. Up until this point, Elaida has mostly flown under the radar. She was there at the very beginning, when Rand made his appearance in Caemlyn, but she hadn’t really done anything of note until she decided that she needed to be the one to render the Dragon Reborn the tool of the Tower in its preparations for the Last Battle. But of course, any canny reader knows that a Red is in no position to do anything at all useful as far as the Dragon Reborn is concerned.

There is also the disturbing sequence in which Rand, having made his way to the Aiel city of Rhuidean, confronts the reality of  that people’s true history. Contrary to what they have always believed, they were not always a people devoted to war and death, but were instead serva […] We even get a glimpse of the very day when a misguided Aes Sedai–possibly Lanfear herself–drills a hole in the Dark One’s prison and unleashes the force that will come to have such a devastating effect on the entire world.

Much as I love many things about The Wheel of Time, the endings of most of the books always seem a little rushed to me (which is ironic, considering the vast scale of the story as a whole). Such is the case here, where it is quickly revealed that a seemingly innocuous and unimportant character is actually the Forsaken Asmodean, who is then forced by Lanfear to serve as a tutor to Rand so that he will at last learn how to use his powers to their full extent. This all happens very quickly, and one does wish that there was a bit more action spread more evenly throughout the book (at least as far as the Rand storyline is concerned). Still, the conflict between Rand and the Forsaken is one of the most momentous events to happen in the series so far, and it brings to an end the period when Rhuidan was separated from the rest of the world.

So, The Shadow Rising is where shit really starts to get real, and I’ve already finished The Fires of Heaven. If I keep on at this rate, I might just finish these books by early 2018. We shall see if I can meet that ambitious goal.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”: Part 2

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

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

She wasn’t entirely successful.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Bracing herself, she set to work.

 

Short Fiction: “The Midwife: Part 1”

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

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

The Midwife

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

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

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

Unfortunately, he was also a childless one.

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

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

But first, he had to survive the night.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless she did as she had been told.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Tad Williams: “The War of the Flowers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel Weekends (11): Progress

The novel has taken a bit of a backseat this past week, as I’ve geared up to get some hardcore dissertation writing done, but I was bit by the writing bug this weekend and feeling a bit disenchanted with academia (a rejection from a journal will do that), so I wrote quite a lot in my little fictional universe.

I am now in the midst of Chapter 7. The preceding chapters are in various stages of completion, but I hope to get them into shape relatively soon. After that, I’m going to charge full-steam ahead.

So far, I’ve written chapters focused on the POVs of 5 of my principals (Theadra, Eulicia, Arshakh, Talinissia, and Antonius). I have one more major character to introduce and a couple of minor ones, and then the full cast will be there. I’m still not sure if any of them are villains in the typical sense, but I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one character who’s unpleasant, but that’s not quite the same thing.

I also really enjoyed getting to know my character Arhsakh this weekend. He’s a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. He’s a survivor, and a schemer, but he also has weaknesses and foibles, just like anyone, so we’ll see what happens to him. I see a bright future for him, but that could always change.

All in all, I’m happy with both the progress I’ve made and with the general trajectory of the plot. I think I have an interesting story to tell, and I think my story does and says something, so I think that’s a pretty good basis. It’s very easy to write shitty fantasy, but I like to think I’ve at least hit mediocre.

So, with that happy note, I’m off.

Until next week!