Tag Archives: Fantasy

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 7)

It was on her second day out from the city that she encountered her first obstacle. She had thought that her natural sense of direction would lead her where she needed to go, but she had not anticipated the many twists and turns the road would take, and she certainly had not expected the rockfall that suddenly blocked their way forward.

Frowning, she wondered if perhaps she would be able to scale it, but decided almost at once that to do so would be the height of folly. Aside from the fact that she had not climbed anything since she was a girl stealing apples from her neighbor’s orchard, she also had the babe to think of. While he might be as calm as she could wish, he was still a weight that would drag her down to her death if she dared to try.

Just as she had decided that she had no choice but to scale or turn back, a shadow passed over the sun, and as she looked up she felt her heart skip a beat.

She knew all too well what the creature was that was above her, with that lion body and the wings of an eagle, and the eerily beautiful face. It was a sphinx.

Slowly and languidly it circled, as if it knew that she would not be able to escape but enjoyed toying with her.

She whimpered deep in her throat as the creature slowly approached, until it landed a few paces from her. For a moment it stood, but then it folded its legs until it lounged insolently, its eerily beautiful face holding her in its inscrutable gaze. She felt as if she were at the mercy of some great force, something so far beyond human understanding as to be terrifying.

“I seek passage beyond.” It was, she knew the customary thing to say to guardians of this sort. Besides, perhaps if she was lucky the creature would give her the means of getting across the rockfall.

“I can see that,” the spinx said, a trifle irritably. “Do you think that I am blind?” It narrowed its eyes. “Mortals are fools that will believe anything, ‘tis said. You may pass. But only when you have made me an offer that I accept.”

“Why should I offer you anything?” she demanded, her fear making her angry. “What right do you have to demand?”

The creature chuckled. “Because this is my domain. Did you think this fall happened on its own?” It laughed, an eerily beautiful sound. “

Siska knew that she had nothing to offer, so she said the only thing she thought might sway the heart of this creature.

“I carry a babe in arms. The laws of old say that I may pass.” It was well-known that the creatures of the hinterlands adhered to a set of laws that could not be transgressed, and that one of them was that a child should not be harmed.

Or so she had been told.

The creature laughed deep in its throat, its bronze eyes sparkling with vicious mirth. “Oh, little human woman, don’t try to use the old laws against me. The law only states that I cannot harm the child. It says nothing about you, and it certainly doesn’t say that I have to let you pass.

“You will have to do better than that, little mortal. I ask you again: what will you give me that will let you pass?”

For a paralyzing moment, Siska could think of nothing, and despair washed over her.

Then, in one of those moments of pure inspiration, it came to her.

She stepped forward, and made her offer.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 6)

Night had fallen again upon the world, and Siska was far away from where she had thought to be. The city of her birth had been left far behind—and along with it everything that had given her life meaning and value—but she knew that she had done the right thing. The forces that had sought to end an innocent life had been sent by the great darkness, and she would not give in to their wickedness.

Now that she had escaped the clutches of those who would see the young man with her dead, however, there was the more pressing question: how would they survive now that they were out in the middle of the wilderness?

After that first treacherous climb down the plateau, she had made her way swiftly through the country. She was not ignorant of the ways of the wild, and she was fortunate that this was the time of the year when the peaches and other fruits were in harvest. Of course, she had been almost attacked by several dogs, and she had heard a lion coughing in the distance, but so far she had been safe.

She wasn’t at all sure how much longer that was going to last.

After all, she had come quite a way south, into the Gashastan region, and all she had to go by was her knowledge that the boy’s grandfather lived somewhere in the mountains. She didn’t know where, exactly, but she held firm to a faith that somehow she would find a way to get there. She knew that Ormazdh would not have put this child into her path unless he intended her to be able to save him.

The mountains frowned down at them, but there was even more menacing presence. It was no secret that the mountains of Pishapur were the haunt of all manner of strange beasts: gryphons and manticores, sphinxes and other creatures that lingered on the border between human and animal.

What’s more, she could feel the chill desert night air creeping into her bones, and she knew that if she had to spend more than a few nights in this place she would almost certainly perish. She had only managed to gather the barest necessities from her foraging, and she had to pray that it would be enough to see them to the boy’s grandfather’s house.

If not, she very much feared that all of her sacrifice would be for nothing. Both she and the boy would die, and no one would be any the wiser.

With a grimace, she pushed such thoughts aside. She had not risked everything she held dear to give in to this type of fatalism.

Hitching the child higher on her shoulders, she started her trek into the mountains.

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.

 

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”–Part 3

The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.

Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.

He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.

Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?

He narrowed his eyes and waited.

***

            Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?

Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?

She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.

At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.

It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.

“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”

When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.

“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”

She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”

Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.

She made up her mind.

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.

World Building (12): The Legend of Xharyush

In all the annals of Haranshar’s long history, one figure towers above all the others: Xharyush the Great. From the moment that he founded the dynasty that would rule, in one form or another, over the vast domains of Haranshar, he became the idol toward which every Shah has aspired.

The birth of Xharyush is shrouded in mystery and legend. The most commonly believed myth states that he was born to a great king but that his birth was tainted by a prophecy that foretold that he would see his world brought to ruin. Fire and death would consume the entire continent, so the prophecy went, and so the king’s adviser had hired a midwife to smother the boy when he was born. However, she disobeyed these orders and not only saved the boy, but also determined to help him escape the city and the net that was set to ensnare him.

The midwife fled with her young charge into the wilds, desperate to escape the wrath of the vizier. Somehow, we are still not certain how, she managed to make her way through the encircling princes that had besieged the king, but she did, and she managed to make her way to the highlands of Pishapur, the homeland of the King’s queen. Her father took in the infant and and named him after his own father, and there he remained, while the civil war erupted and spread across the whole continent. Though his grandfather was of the nobility, he was not a powerful figure, but for all that he gave the boy all that he could wish for in his upbringing, training him in the arts of war and diplomacy.

From those beginnings, Xharyush was able to carve out an empire the likes of which his world had never seen. He began by solidifying his grandfather’s domains, becoming an able steward and a noteworthy soldier. Bit by bit he brought the surrounding tribes under his sway as well, until he had a formidable base from which to launch an all-out attack on the fertile plains to the east. Sweeping down from the highlands of Pishapur, he soon brought those lands under his control, forcing their rebellious princes to bend the knee. He also seized control of the several cities that had served his father as capitals, forging a chain of powerful bases from which he could, if he so chose, launch attacks against any who might wish to rebel against him. He also married several of his daughters to the most prominent of his former enemies, binding them to him with ties of marriage and blood (he also took many of their own daughters as his wives, contributing to a surfeit of sons and heirs).

The empire of Haranshar under his leadership became ever more powerful, rising to heights undreamed of. The rulers of all the lands of east and west came to pay tribute to the great Xharyush, and there were none who could deny that his was the power that now bestrode the world like a colossus. His rule extended from one ocean to the other, from north to south and east to west. It was a golden age, and to this day there can still be found statues erected to the majesty of Xharyush as far north as Svardö.

And at the Shah’s side was the man who would come to be known to future generations as Zarakh, the founder of the faith devoted to the god Ormazdh. Between the two of them, they forged an empire that was founded not just on the principle that all people were created equal (in the broadest sense), but also that all should be allowed to worship the supreme god, the one under whom all other gods were subservient.

Although the Haransharin would become known as benevolent overlords who were content to let their subject peoples continue with their own faiths unmolested, there were even in these early years signs of the discontent that would eventually sunder the continent into its eastern and western halves. Those in the west preferred to think of higher things, to devote themselves to the contemplation of things beyond this world, while the faith of the Haransharin stressed the beauties of the material. Xharyush proved this in word and deed, for her stressed that the only way to have a stable kingdom was to have effective rulers in all of its districts. Though he did not call for a radical redistribution of wealth–as some thought that he would–but he did do everything in his considerable power to make life easier for the commonfolk, and they loved him for it.

In that sense, Xharyush was indeed the one who brought about the end of the world, though not in the way that the vizier had thought. When he was at last brought before the Great King for judgment, he was spared death, but he was sent into exile. No one knows what became of him, though there are still stories told in Haranshar that he made his way to the lands across the ocean that even the Anukathi know nothing of. These, however, have never been proven.

Xharyush lived until the ripe old age of 92. When he died, the throne passed peacefully to his son. It was not long before his many other sons (and not a few of his daughters) began to plot and scheme with the disaffected nobles and priests, many of whom had grown resentful of their Shah’s continuing reforms and were even less friendly toward his son (who did attempt to impose a form of wealth redistribution). Indeed, his dynasty was to prove tragically short lived, for it came to an end under the reign of his granddaughter Veptish, who was deposed after only 5 years.

Still, his influence was vast and continues to be felt. His dynasty, though brief, is still remembered. It is enshrined even in the dating system used among the Haransharin, which measures all years from the date that Xharyush had himself declared Shahanshah (which is why everything is dated from 1 F.D., after the First Dynasty).

And, of course, there are always those who believe that Xharyush will one day return to return Haranshar to its previous greatness. And the tides may just be turning in their favour…

Film Review: “The Dark Tower” (2017)

I went into The Dark Tower feeling a great deal of trepidation. The reviews, as everyone knows, had been truly abominable, and its box office performance has been similarly lackluster. All told, I was afraid that the film adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series was going to be an epic disappointment.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. As both a fan of the series on which it is based and on the genre as a whole, I found the film uniquely satisfying. While it may be counterintuitive to say that an hour-and-forty-five-minute-long film can be epic, this more than fits the bill.

In brief, the film is about three central characters, all of whom bear a relationship with the Dark Tower, a structure that sits at the center of the universe and keeps the chaotic darkness, and the monsters that inhabit it, at bay. Roland (Idris Elba) is the last of a mystical race known as the gunslingers, and he is in relentless pursuit of Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic figure dressed in black who yearns to bring the Dark Tower crashing into ruin and to rule among the ruins. Lastly, Jake (Tom Taylor) is a boy in our world who finds himself a pawn in Walter’s efforts to bring down the Tower.

The plot is streamlined and tight, fitting into a typical feature film length of around 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is something of a reprieve from the narrative bloat that seems to have become de rigeur for Hollywood these days. I suspect that a great deal of the critical opprobrium has to do with this pared-down narrative, which I think actually works quite well for this iteration of King’s sprawling story. As anyone who has followed the books knows, things go sort of off the rails starting in the fifth book (Wolves of the Calla), and hit their nadir in Song of Sussanah. 

What’s more, the primary trio of the film–Roland (Idris Elba), Walter/The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Jake–really work well together. A lot of people have noted that McConaughey seems to chew the scenery with a sort of manic delight, but if they had read the books they would know that Walter is just that sort of character, one who delights in tearing things apart just to see how they work and who would just as soon see the world collapse into ruin than see it built up. Rather than seeing this as hammy, I see it as part of the manic energy that motivates Walter in some of his manifestations (he adopts different identities depending on which worlds he inhabits).

But the real core of the film is the relationship between Roland and Jake. Lots of shit hit the fan when it was revealed that the black Idris Elba would be playing the white Roland, but I find that the gruff, hulking figure of Elba fits quite well with the way that I have always imagined Roland to be. He evinces a world-weary strength that has always been a key part of the characterization of this seminal figure in the King legendarium, and Elba clearly has a great deal of screen chemistry with his young costar.

Is the film as rich and complex as the novels on which it is based? I would have to say: definitely not. But then, it doesn’t really have to be. What it is, and what it succeeds as, is an introduction to a wider universe that is one of the great works of modern fantasy. If you go into the film with that sort of realistic expectation, then it is quite enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; there is still much about the narrative and the spectacle that fit nicely into the conventions of the epic fantasy lexicon.

Furthermore, it’s also a telling that this film, with all of its attempts to keep at bay the darkness and chaos, ends up showing us precisely what the costs of that chaos might be. I don’t want to go so far as to say that the film is an allegory for our troubled times, but there can be no doubt that its narrative of a world that has declined (Roland’s world) and one that might (ours) that really speaks to how much some of us yearn for someone to rescue us from the chaos that seems ready to engulf everything we hold dear.

All in all, I think that The Dark Tower deserves more credit than the critics have been willing to extend it. It’s unfortunate that it was plagued with such a tortuous production history, and that it had the misfortune to debut during one of the worst box office summers in recent history. Let us hope that there is at least some possibility that the projected TV series will come to fruition and that at least a few glimmers of King’s magnum opus may yet see the screen, whether big or small.

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!