The Fionavar Tapestry #2: The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay

Read: 2 July, 2016

The adventure continues for our little band of Canadians in Fionavar. When we last left our heroes, they had escaped from Fionavar in order to save Jennifer, then a captive of the generic Dark Lord. Now, they must find a way back in time to save the world where their lives have, finally, become interesting.

Every time I mention to a fantasy fan that I’m reading the Fionavar Tapestry, I get some variation of, “Isn’t Kay just wonderful?” And… I’m just not seeing it. It’s fine, but it’s certainly not great. There are a lot of ideas, but they don’t connect with each other well (the tapestry imagery, for example, is lovely, but it has little impact on the story).

The tone of the writing takes itself far too seriously. It’s going for Tolkienistic heroic myths, but it never comes down from there. Tolkien was able to make it work by more authentically following the mythic form (which includes down time and a bit of humour). The language is at least more consistent now (I had complained that the first book keeps bounding back and forth between modern speech and Ye Olde Heroic Speeche), but it’s done that by making it all bland Ye Olde Heroic Speeche.

There characters seem rather interchangeable. They each have a function, but that seems to be as deep as their individuality goes. Every single one of them is heroic, self-sacrificing, stoic, etc.

Which brings me to the problem with every character being self-sacrificing. They all stumble over each other in their rush to be the one to die for the cause, but Kay is clearly worrying about running out of characters. So as each takes their turn to die heroically, they are swiftly spared by some godly intervention or brand new rule that allows them to be resurrected. By the time we got to an actual death that appears to have stuck, I wasn’t able to care. As it was happening, I assumed that he’ll be resurrected anyway so why does it matter? When the book ends and the character remains dead, the moment has passed and it’s too late for me to feel the weight of the sacrifice.

Though it was established in The Summer Tree that all worlds connect and that Fionavar is an archetype, it didn’t really mean much. Here, Kay introduces King Arthur, who is resurrected in our world and brought to Fionavar where he is known by all. Finally, the idea that all the worlds are connected has some meaning!

Except that it lacked verisimilitude. Where does the history diverge between worlds? Why is Arthur’s true name Arthur, and known as such in Fionavar, when there’s no precedent for Germanic names there? It’s also clear that Jennifer is Guinevere reborn, which dooms here to repeat the Arthurian tragedy, but Arthur is his old self resurrected. The pattern is already broken, so there’s no reason to think that they would be compelled to repeat the pattern. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have an Arthur reborn in Canada, who then conflicts with the Arthur resurrected? Kay has a lot of interesting proto-ideas that he throws into the series, but they rarely feel thought through.

My final complaint is rather unfair: Nearly everything I like in this series was later done a little better with Wheel of Time.

Speaking of which, I’m noticing more and more similarities: The horn that wakes sleeping warriors? The mistrusted society of magic-using women (who are resentful of men in general, and particularly men who use magic)? The tapestry imagery? The people who are reborn versions of ancient people? The trapped Dark Lord who breaks free and wants to destroy all reality (not just this world, but all worlds)? But here, the ideas are hodge-podge. They don’t build on each other to form a cohesive reality. Instead, they all just… coexist. For all his flaws, Jordan did do a much better job in tying them together.

I have one book left, and I’ll read it because I’m a completionist. But I have to say that, so far, I am not impressed. For all the rave reviews this series has gotten (though I did get a few Kay fans to admit that Fionavar is “not his best work), I’m disappointed. There are a lot of interesting ideas, and I could see how they could spark the imagination for someone who hasn’t encountered them elsewhere already, but the series does not hold up.

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The Fionavar Tapestry #1: The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

Read: 12 June, 2016

Back before I had to be careful to avoid horder status, I would peruse the book section of my local thrift stores and pick up anything with an interesting cover. That’s how I ended up with three copies of The Summer Tree.

Despite circling the book in this way for a few years, it kept getting deprioritized for reading because, as the back cover puts it, it’s “an epic adventure written in the rich tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.” Has a less appealing sentence ever been written?

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy having read that sort of high fantasy. The problem is that I don’t often enjoy the actual reading of it, in the present tense. I love the ideas, I love learning the lore, but it takes itself too seriously. It’s too pretentious.

And The Summer Tree does fall into that trap, but at least it’s only for 323 pages. I can endure anything for 323 pages.

Despite the claim that the book is like Lord of the Rings, I found it reminded me much more of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Or, perhaps, it would be more proper to say that The Wheel of Time reminded me, retroactively, of The Summer Tree, now that I look up the publication dates. I wouldn’t call plagiarism, but some similarities are rather striking at times.

The tone is a bit of a weird mix. This is a portal fantasy, so you have the high fantasy thees and thous and highfalutin language, and then you get the informal modern speech of the protagonists. It might possibly be funny if the trope hadn’t already been done to death and the rest of the book didn’t take itself so seriously. But as it was, it just felt awkward and jarring. It’s hard to see what Kay might have done differently, though, once he’d locked himself into the portal plot. I think the lesson here is to just avoid the portal plot.

I did have a rough time getting into the book. Part of that might be that I was in a car (and therefore had to keep taking breaks to avoid tossing my cookies all about), part might be that I was just coming down off the very different writing of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Either way, the first fifty or so pages felt like real drudgery. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these take place in the “real world” (which, in this case, is Toronto). After that, however, I found that the characters grew on me. I was invested in them (well, some of them – enough of them).

It helped that the pacing is consistent, with the exposition mingled with action. Given just how much exposition had to be covered (and covered again, as the protagonists are rarely together and must learn the backstory separately), that’s pretty impressive.

My big complaint about the book is its treatment of women. Of the four named women who are dead before the start of the story, three died for men (one to stop her lover from doing more evil, one out of grief because her loved died, and the third out of grief/shame because her lover was exiled). The fourth’s only function in the story is to be dead so that a male character can have an angsty backstory.

Of the living women, we have a princess and future queen whose only role in the plot is to be tricked into sex in a scene played for comedy. We also have one of the five “real world” characters whose only role seems to be to get kidnapped and tortured by having her body (and, specifically, her nipples) pinched (SPOILERS: and then be raped).

There are a handful of other female characters, but their roles are nearly as passive. They do a few things, make a few decisions, but it is the men who go out and have adventures and fight the baddies and carouse. I lost track of all the women the main male characters have sex with, but the only female characters getting any action are coerced into it.

And it just seems so… unnecessary. What is the point of pushing women to the sidelines like this? Of denying them agency and personality? Of raping and killing them, over and over again, to serve the plot? Maybe these books are a product of their time, or maybe the fantasy genre’s conventions make these nasty attitudes difficult to see and avoid. I don’t know, but it’s frustrating and unappealing to see authors view people like me as not really human, and certainly not capable of being interesting. We are sprinkled in because even Tolkien couldn’t write a world that is completely free of women, but we are the mothers, the lovers, the unruly daughters – our pain matters only insofar as it causes men pain, our struggles matter only insofar as they further men’s interests, our agency matters only insofar as it threatens men. It’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing.

I will read the second book in the trilogy, and I’ll give Kay a chance to fix his thoughtless parroting of tropes when it comes to his female characters. But every book I read like this makes me less inclined to bother with male fantasy authors in future. We can do better.

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Huntress by Malinda Lo

Read: 9 May, 2015

Summer has failed to come, the land is starving, and strange monsters have begun to appear. When an invitation is received from the Fairy Queen, no one thinks it’s a coincidence.

There was so much about this book that I liked, and so much that made me like the idea of the book, but I found that it just fell flat.

For one thing, there’s the non-stock fantasy backdrop (in this case, Lo has created a classical Chinese-inspired culture). It was very refreshing to see, and would have been interesting if it had lasted for more than a few pages. As soon as the initial quest is established, the questing party heads off into the woods, leaving culture behind, and the remainder was indistinguishable from any other fantasy setting (particularly the fairy town, which had absolutely nothing of note to it at all).

The lesbian romance was a draw as well, but its development felt somewhat clunky. By the end, when Taisin had to finally make the choice between her career or her feelings for Kaede, I had trouble caring much. Perhaps because the characters never felt particularly developed.

I had some problems with the ending. (SPOILERS: The whole ending, for example. The “twist” that the Fairy Queen was actually Elowen’s real mother was not only predictable and overdone, it was also utterly uninteresting. I hadn’t been given any reason to care about either character, since they had occupied such a tiny fraction of what had been, essentially, a long walk through the woods punctuated by occasional attacks, that it felt completely unnecessary. To then send Kaede on yet another quest, apparently for no reason other than to add to the page length, felt rather silly.)

Much of the book felt rushed and unpolished. The easiest example would be the baby the travellers met in Ento. As they approach and then enter the home, the baby is first crying, then begins to cry, then is asleep and coos as it wakes. It’s hard to imagine that this sort of thing survived the first edit.

And, of course, there was the POV jumping. It was all over the place. I understand that Lo wasn’t going for a straight Third Person Limited, but the POV would sometimes jump several times a paragraph, and at least a few times I caught it jumping in a single sentence. It was too much, too abrupt, and it added little to the telling.

My final major grip was Lo’s use of the word “for.” Over and over again, we saw the following construction: “So and so did this, for they wanted to.” Two sentences in a row might have the exact same construction. And it was doubly strange because it’s something that I associated with purple prose formality, while much of the narrative tone was more informal. Which, I suppose, is a bonus complaint: the tone-hopping.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, but I was disappointed by the overall sloppiness of the writing. I’d still recommend it, if only as short, fun read, but with too many shortcomings to really be taken for anything more.

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Quest by Aaron Becker

In our nightly family readings, we’ve been moving on to books with more words and fewer pictures, encouraging our child to use his imagination to “see” what was happening. Quest is the opposite – it’s book with lots of pictures and no words.

We saw (and loved) the same thing in Owly & Wormy, but Quest is a bit different. While Owly & Wormy was something of a graphic novel, with a very defined storyline, Quest is a bit more flexible. The images, of two children brought into a magical land where they must find magical crayons to make a rainbow, are very stimulating to the imagination, and they leave a great deal room for the “reader” to add their own details. Who was the king who gave them their quest? What was wrong in the land before they made the rainbow? Why was the rainbow necessary? None of these things are explained by the book, and my son and I had great fun as I prompted him to come up with answers.

This was also the perfect book at the perfect time, as a bad cold left me without my voice for the last few days. Thankfully, with Quest out from the library, my son was able to take over the “reading” in the evenings.

The images are gorgeous, and full of detail. And, as I said, drawing them with such open ended interpretations was a great choice.

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Wheel of Time #7: A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

Read: 17 February, 2015

I was talking to a friend recently about the pacing of these stories. Like many, he felt that the pace has been progressively slowing down, becoming intolerable (or near enough) around Lord of Chaos. For my own part, I hadn’t really noticed. There’s no question that I can recall a lot more of the specific events from the first book, but I’ve actually enjoyed the pace. I’ve enjoyed plodding through, seeing what micro-adventures the various characters go on, and generally getting to explore this huge world along with them.

Because that’s the really great thing about a massive series like this – we get to see so many places and meet so many people that the world really does feel very large. And I’ve found the world building to be very compelling.

After some discussion, my friend and I concluded that listening to this series on audiobook makes all the difference. When I’m “reading,” I’m also doing the dishes, or the laundry, or playing Minecraft. I’m free to focus when it’s very interesting, and to drift off when nothing much is happening. Were I reading the books in the traditional sense, I think that my tolerance for the pace (and for the quality of the writing) would be much lower.

In this book, we’re seeing the various characters fall into their places – Rand continues his quest to be King Of Everything, Egwene settles in as the Amyrlin of the Little Tower, we see Mat leading his military band, and Elayne and Nynaeve have another side quest.

Unfortunately, only Egwene’s plot line really interested me in this book. Her struggle to take the Amyrlin seat in more than just name showed us a lot of her character, and I found it very well handled.

Rand’s plot line suffered from his emo-ness. He does some stuff, but mostly he just sits around acting like a jerk to everyone and praying that he hasn’t gone mad yet. I can understand that this is where his character is, and I know that we need to see his inner conflicts, but he’s just rather annoying.

Elayne and Nynaeve make some discoveries during their side quest, but their Stuff Happening To Page Number ratio is very poor. And while I normally enjoy their chapters (the petty fighting aside), they are much mired by Mat in his book.

Mat is where it really falls apart for me. He is unbelievable annoying. I see people talking about how “funny” he is, but how is it funny for him to just talk over women, bully women, demean women, humiliate women, harass women, infantilize women, and then, in the few breaks he takes from all that, spend his time complaining about how he just can’t understand why the women around him think that he’s a jerk? His narrative provides no new insight into the inner lives of people who think this way, it merely repeats the horribleness that women have to deal with so frequently, and it’s annoying as hell.

Worse yet, Mat gets raped by a woman in this book. The scenes leading up to the rape are terrifying, yet despite feeling humiliated and taken advantage of, the most Mat is able to consciously express about the experience is how awful it is that he wasn’t the one doing the “chasing.” There’s some indication that Jordan, at least, was aware of how Mat’s own behaviour toward women is reflected by his rape – as when Nynaeve makes a comment to the effect of how he’s getting a “taste of his own medicine” – but it’s all treated in such a light-hearted way, as though the reader is supposed to find his rape and subsequent harassment amusing. I found that whole plot line incredibly disturbing – not just for what happened and Mat’s reaction, but for the way the other characters react to it when they find out.

As with the last book, one of my greatest complaints so far about this series is that Jordan cannot write romance. He seems to view romantic relationships as some sort of battle for dominance in which the female party must learn proper submission and humility.

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Wheel of Time #5: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

Read: 28 November, 2014

In The Fires of Heaven, the narrative is largely split between Rand as he returns from the Aiel Waste and Nynaeve’s struggles against Moghedien.

I see that a lot of people didn’t like the focus on Nynaeve. She’s always been rather critical and negative, but she’s been something of a side character, so that she is only experienced through an intermediary. Here, though, we get a whole bunch of pure, unfiltered Nynaeve. That means near constant criticisms of men’s wool-headedness, abject hatred of Juilin’s hat, and her cattiness with Elayne.

Personally, though, I actually appreciated it. Because while Nynaeve is certainly very negative, her character is also growing a great deal through this book. After her victory against Moghedien in the last book, she now has to deal with the fact that a member of the Forsaken has taken notice of her and has a rather big grudge. She tries to deal with her fear and guilt by transforming herself into a meek woman, only to be brought back up by her friends and to realize that she cannot be meek if she is going to do her part to save the world.

Mat Cauthon continues his own transformation. I really didn’t like him when we first met him, but he is turning into one of my favourite characters. His constant cycle of trying to escape from his destiny only to be pulled back against his will is rather hilarious.

The pacing is slow, and I agree with the complaint that it tends to be very slow through most of the book only to suddenly speed up for the climax, making the book feel rather uneven. That said, though, I appreciate how much depth the characters have, and how much they are changed and impacted by their experiences.

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Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams

Read: 21 October, 2014

The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King

Howard Fornoy sets out to tell the story of what happened to the world – and the Messiah – in the little time he has left. I’ve only read a few of King’s works, but his voice is unmissable in this story. He sets it up early, complaining that the story deserves “thousands of pages,” but will get only a handful. As a result, much of the story is only hinted at. It was interesting and tantalizing, but I don’t think that it would have held my attention for much longer. I’m sure he would have done something interesting with more pages, but I quite appreciated that so much was left for me to fill in for myself.

Salvage by Orson Scott Card

Following a rumour of gold in the old Mormon temple, Deaver ropes his friends into helping him explore the flooded ruins. I have rather serious reservations about Card as a person, and was pretty wary of story of his putting Mormonism so front and centre. Despite this, I found it a pleasant read, and surprisingly non-preachy. Sure, Deaver is exposed to a lesson in respecting the beliefs of others (whether he learns it or not is another matter), but it worked, and it could easily have been the written from the perspective of any other faith system.

The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi

A somewhat surreal story in which humanity has been so changed by technology that they’re no longer recognizably people any more. The world is a much changed place, inhospitable to life, yet humanity has survived by changing itself. I found the story a little difficult to get into, perhaps because the people were so alien in many ways that it took me a while to figure out what was going on. Once I did, however, I really appreciated the snapshot of possible future humanity, and what it says about us.

Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert

An interesting little piece about some of the less savoury tactics used in war, and the guilt/fear reactions to refugees. It was a little more abstract than most of the other stories, and perhaps harder to see its place in the anthology, but it was well written and interesting.

How We Got In Town and Out Again by Jonathan Lethem

Two young people join a virtual reality stamina competition – the goal, as I gathered it, was to be the last person “standing.” For some reason, in this future world, it’s more entertaining for spectators to watch other people play games than to play games themselves. This seems rather odd, and especially fanciful when the author’s biography reads that this story is part of a larger series “railing against virtual reality technologies.” The characterization of the main character was quite interesting, and fairly complex for a short story, but it didn’t carry the story. Perhaps being a gamer coloured my reading, but the premise just seemed to absurd for me to take the story seriously.

Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin

A familiar enough story where off-world humans return to a destroyed earth to find a very different sort of human – in this case a subterranean one. Martin’s writing style gives this overdone plot a bit of new life, though the end twist should surprise no one familiar with his work. The story was entertaining, even if it wasn’t particularly thought-provoking.

Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias S. Buckell

Mara waits for a land-ship to take her away from an abusive home life. The story was sad, but ended on a (not uncomplicated) note of hope. I felt like there was so much more to tell, though, and it was frustrating to have the story end just as it should have begun. This felt like a kernel, perhaps an experimental hashing out of ideas meant to be used in earnest later on.

Never Despair by Jack McDevit

Chaka searches through the ruins of earth for an explanation of what was. Like Waiting for the Zephyr, the story felt like a brainstorm for a bigger piece, but, also like Zephyr, the ideas it presents carry it. It was significantly less polished than Buckell’s piece, though, as there were many questions that begged answers – how is the holograph (?) still running? Why doesn’t Chaka mine it for information when information is what she’s after?

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow

Personally, I found this to be one of the most entertaining works in the anthology. Felix maintains the internet in Toronto, and it’s a late night emergency that saves him from dying along with his wife, child, and the rest of the city when the apocalypse hits. It’s a terribly sad story as Felix roots around for ways to process the loss of his family, set against the backdrop of a bunch of techies trying to decide if the apocalypse is a time for hope or for despair. On a more personal note, I particularly enjoyed the characterization of Felix, the way he processes the changing situation. Being something of an “android” myself, and having most of my social circle comprised of Aspie STEM people, it was a joy to see such familiar thought patterns in a fictional character.

The Last of the O-Forms by James Van Pelt

A somewhat interesting “behind the scenes at the travelling zoo” story with an entertaining (and appropriate) twist ending. While not spectacular, the story was a solid inclusion.

Still Life with Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey

I’ve mentioned that a few of these stories felt more like brainstorming notes than fully fleshed out stories, and it doesn’t get more true than for this one. Still Life isn’t even a story so much as a collection of thoughts about the apocalypse strung together without narrative coherence or internal logic. There’s an image of a horse being dragged out of a pit, a brief history of the main character’s post-apocalyptic career, and a description of his living situation. That’s it. At least at barely two pages, it didn’t take up too much of my time.

Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells

In this story, Arthurian legend is tied into a post-apocalyptic scene. The main character, Faye, is finally admitted to what appears to be a city in a biosphere, sheltered from the radiation of the world outside. There, she meets Artie, a charismatic boy who forms a sort of courier service bicycle cult around a moral code. I thought the story itself was interesting, and weaving it together with the story of King Arthur made it even more so. Even better, there was a commentary there on the role of stories in the creation of social movements that really made this story stand out.

Judgement Passed by Jerry Oltion

Astronauts return to earth to find it empty, completely empty of people, after Christ’s return. Having been left behind, the astronauts must figure out what to do in a post-Judgement Day world, all without Nicolas Cage to guide them.The story was interesting, though the repetition of the word “agnostic” got a little grating (not to mention that the characters never define the term and don’t use it in a sense I’m familiar with).

Mute by Gene Wolfe

Jill and Jimmy are on a bus that takes them home, but no one is there for them when they arrive. This story threw me off a bit because of its inclusion in this collection. I kept expecting to understand what the apocalypse was and trying to beat off the rather obvious hints that the children are dead and in the afterlife (I mean, come on, they try to leave the house only go pass through the gate and end up back on the inside – if that’s not “endless fog,” I don’t know my horror tropes!). I enjoyed the story – it had a lovely creepy tone – but I’m not sure why it was included in this anthology, except perhaps because of its “empty world” aspect. But I did find that my expectations of what the story was going to be about lessened my enjoyment of what it actually was.

Inertia by Nancy Kress

A disfiguring plague leads to modern leper colonies – largely abandoned and forced into self-sufficiency. But one doctor believes that the disease may have another symptom, a beneficial one. I really enjoyed this story about minds and how our behaviour can be shaped by factors like disease. The cutesy twist gave me a chuckle.

And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear

A courier must travel through a wasteland to deliver her package. On the way, she meets Nick at a crossroads. The post-apocalyptic setting seemed rather tangential to what was really a story about dealing with the devil and redemption. The story didn’t wow me, but it was decent filler.

Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler

A disease that induces stroke-like symptoms has overrun the world, leaving many “impaired.” Rye can still speak, but she’s lost the ability to read and write. And when jealousy over lost abilities leads people to kill, she cannot even speak for fear of her life. I found this to be an interesting story about the importance of communication, the choice many people make not to communicate even when they can, and the need for human contact.

Killers by Carol Emshwiller

A community of women has survived the war that ended civilization alone, their men all gone to fight. Some men return, but they are different, savage. Then, one night, one man comes home. Killers is a short, brutal story with a rather bludegeony political message. Though it was interesting and the ending certainly fit, I felt that the twist came too fast, as though the author had gotten bored and just wanted to finish it already.

Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus by Near Barrett, Jr.

This story didn’t wow me. I felt like a bunch of concepts were being thrown at me (androids! virtual sex! insurance sales! animal hybrids! tacos!), but the short story format didn’t allow any of it to go anywhere. It all just happened and then it was over and I never felt like I had been made to care about any of it. Perhaps because the characters were so neglected in the effort to pack the setting.

The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey

An interesting piece about the powerlessness of losing a loved one. This was a different approach to the other stories in the collection, and a little more meta. It also worked well as an allegory for loss in a general sense.

A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg

A musician just wants to play the piano. This was an interesting piece, though perhaps not particularly memorable. I think the author was trying to tackle the civilization/culture relationship, and the ending fit well into that discussion. It was certainly solid filler material, just not one of the stories that will stay with me in the long term.

Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan

Jackie is eight months pregnant and running for her life with Wayne, a comic book enthusiast who seems almost to revel in the apocalypse. There was a lot going on here that was never explained – where did the flowers come from? What is Wayne’s shadow? But it was an extremely compelling story. I was on the edge of my seat, and I found Jackie’s internal struggle very interesting. The only flaw with the story was the awkward format – particularly the use of mega, multi-page paragraphs that made reading extremely difficult (especially with a child, where I’m frequently being interrupted – finding my place again in a wall of text is an exercise in futility). The weird use of bolded lines and dashes took a while to get used to, but I found that they worked well with the pace of the writing.

Overall, I found this to be a very solid anthology. There were stories that I slogged through, and there were some that were clearly filler material (though at least solid filler), and plenty of gems. I had to keep stopping as I read because I was inspired to write another short story of my own, or I needed to stop and mull over a theme.

I’m not a terribly huge fan of the short story form, mostly because it takes me some time to ease into a world. As a result, reading short stories often feels like I’m just forced to go through that awkward, confused, unpleasant stage over and over again and, as soon as I’m comfortably settled in and ready to enjoy the ride, it ends. Despite this, I really enjoyed this anthology, and I think the selections were well chosen.

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Wheel of Time #4: The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan

Read: 20 October, 2014

As per the pattern, the Goodie team splits up. Perrin and Faile head to the Two Rivers after hearing rumours of trouble; Elayne, Nynaeve, and Thom go to Tarabon to hunt the Black Ajah; Egwene goes into the Aiel Waste to study with the Wise Ones, and Rand goes along to chase prophecy; all while Min stays in the White Tower. Breaking tradition, each separate sub-committee gets their own climax rather than rejoin in time for Rand’s (though, of course, Rand’s comes last to serve as the Great Climax).

New characters are introduced, others are promoted from C-list to B-list, and the world is further developed. While it was lovely to see main characters other than Rand get big climaxes of their own, the book wasn’t terribly different from the others in the series.

There were a few issues that were largely present in previous books, but weren’t quite as explicit. For example, when some of the female characters try to help Rand learn how to channel, they describe the act as a submission for women, but an active riding requiring complete control for the men. It’s a tired stereotype of gender essentialism, and it would have been nice to see Jordan use a little more creativity (though perhaps dividing the use of the power along gender lines made it extra difficult for him to avoid evoking cultural assumptions about gender in describing difference). In this case, though, given just how much harm has come from the “power comes through submission” rhetoric, it really would have been nice for him to have tried something new.

The same gender essentialism creeps up in the relationships between the male and female characters. Rand, for example, being unable to figure out why telling his girlfriend that he’ll miss her when she leaves is a bad thing (because, in his mind, she’d already decided to leave, so what would be the point?). The image of men as hyper-rational-and-therefore-unable-to-comprehend-feels is silly and trite and hurtful. The number of times male characters shrug their shoulders and say some variation of “bitches be crazy” was absolutely frustrating. I’ve read complains about the female characters always calling the men “wool-headed” and such but, frankly, it’s hard not to understand their frustration when the male characters seem to have so much trouble understanding that the female characters are people, not members of some weird alien race.

I’m complaining a lot about the gender stuff, I know. And I want to make it clear that, so far, the Wheel of Time series has been absolutely fantastic in that respect. Not only have there been female characters, they’ve been active and powerful and have relationships between each other and their own goals that have nothing to do with the men and it’s just been absolutely fantastic. There are just these residual issues that are a shame.

And since I’m talking about relationships between men and women, let me just say that Jordan’s apparent weirdness about sex is hilarious. This is a series with a great deal of violence, with women walking around practically naked and doing sexy dances to entice men, and with a level of complexity that surely must be a perfectly adequate access barrier for the vast majority of pre-pubescent would-be readers, yet we have Mat gallivanting around town trying to find a woman to “cuddle” with.

The last thing I’d like to touch on is the Faile and Perrin sub-plot. It has its moments, plenty of them, but the stubbornness they both display is seriously testing the limits of my suspension of disbelief – even for characters who are supposed to be stubborn. Or, put another way, there is a difference between being stubborn and being idiotically childish, and this couple crosses that threshold far too often. It’s a real shame because I like Perrin a lot, and Faile has a lot of potential to be an interesting foil/companion for him. But, instead, we just get this advertisement-grade caricature of romance where the “playful establishing of boundaries” of a new relationship looks an awful lot more like mutual abuse.

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Wheel of Time #3: The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

Read: 19 September, 2014

Despite being called The Dragon Reborn, Rand gets very little narrative time. It’s an interesting choice, since he seemed to be made out as the main character in Eye of the World, and the principle character in Great Hunt. Now it seems clear that what we’ve been hearing all along – that Rand may be the Dragon Reborn, but he is not the only Ta’veren – is true. By leaving Rand almost entirely out of this book, Jordan seem to be sending a strong message that there are many main characters in this series, of which Rand is merely one (and not even, in my mind, the most interesting one).

It’s a good thing we don’t see Rand much, because what we do see of him is disturbing. He talks to himself, he attacks his friends in dreams, he even kills a group of people (who may or may not have been there to attack him) and arranges their corpses so that they are all kneeling before him. Yeah. It’s hard to imagine that he will keep any shred of sanity through the 11 books we have left.

Of the remaining main characters, Mat really comes to the forefront in this book. I think I was still too focused on finding my footing in Eye of the World to really notice him much, so the only impression he’d made on my prior to this book was the douche-canoe he was under the influence of Shadar Logoth. I didn’t like him at all, and that was intentional – the dagger had made him paranoid, temperamental, angry.

Having Mat free from the dagger’s influence here added an interesting element to the story. All the characters have changed over the course of their journeys, but Mat’s change was actually a return to a pre-series original self (or something like it, anyway).

As it was, Mat’s light-heartedness and insincere self-interest provided some much needed relief from what might have otherwise been a very angsty book.

Not to give too much away, but Egwene’s been working on her Dreaming through the book, and this becomes important in the final showdown. It seems important that her role in the events at the Stone of Tear all take place while she is sleeping. By outward appearance, she is the classic passive woman, the damsel in distress, the Sleeping Beauty. She is held captive and she is literally asleep through most of the big battle. Yet at the same time, Egwene is fighting – only her battle takes place in Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams. The contrast between her outward appearance and her actual role felt very subversive, as though Jordan were deliberately poking at expected female roles.

In both Dragon Reborn and Great Hunt, the characters are separated, scatter all over the place, and then somehow all make it back to the same place for the big showdown. This is clearly intended to be a narrative reflection of the “weaving” motif. Unfortunately, the video game-like pattern of having a boss fight at the end of each book is starting to feel a little silly. Rand hangs out, does stuff, advances the plot, then comes back to “kill” Ba’alzamon again (only, of course, to have to kill him again at the end of the next book). At the very least, I would like for Rand to stop celebrating his victory every time. The first time is plausible, the second is silly but whatevs, but the third time is just absurd and makes Rand out to be every bit as wool-headed as Nynaeve claims him to be.

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Wheel of Time #2: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

Read: 4 September, 2014

In The Great Hunt, our band of heroes separate, meet up again, then separate, then meet up while finding the Horn of Valere, then losing it, then finding it again.

I mentioned in my review of Eye of the World that the book showed a rather strong Tolkien influence. If any of that remained in Great Hunt, I didn’t notice it. Perhaps Jordan intentionally started with a Tolkien base, or perhaps it took him a book to gain the confidence he needed to go in his own direction. Either way, I’m glad the issue corrected itself so early on in the series.

Another big difference from the first book is that the characters are no longer on the run. There’s still danger, of course, but they’ve mostly turned around to face it now (some of the characters even spending part of the book as the pursuers). Changing so fundamentally the type of story helps, I think, it differentiating the second book from the first, and helps make it clear that it won’t all be more of the same through fourteen books.

I’ve mentioned in my reviews of both Eye of the World and New Spring that I really appreciate the number of female characters and their relationships with each other. They have their own goals and they have their own friendships that have nothing to do with Rand. And while it’s a little over done for multiple female characters to fawn over the male lead (because he just has that special fictional je ne sais quoi), they resolve their competition by prioritizing and reinforcing their friendship rather than drawing out the same tired old love triangle/competition.

I’ve seen some complaints that all the women are carbon copies of each other – all brow-beating and nagging, all stubborn and able to admit fault. I can see where the complaint comes from, and I do agree that it would have been nice to see a little more variety (like how George R.R. Martin included everything from Sansa the tower maid waiting for a savior, Brienne the woman who styles herself a Britomart, and Catelyn the medieval wife who is both femme and a capable leader, not to mention all the other variations of those three archetypes). That said, I don’t think that the criticism is entirely fair, as there is certainly a fair bit of individuality. Egwene, in particular, stood out for me in this book as far as her character development went.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some cardboarding going on. Siuan’s fish-themed linguistic choices could have used some toning down, for example. It could just be my faulty memory talking, but I feel like she was far spoke far more plausibly in New Spring. There are other examples of over-reliance on certain phrases (men constantly finger their weapons, Nynaeve has some sort of plait-tugging fetish, etc).

Still, I really enjoyed this book, as well as the series so far.

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