Category Archives: Literature

Regarding Books

First, some happy thoughts: 

So, I visited the local library recently, which is something I do far too rarely. While there, I was delighted to find an entire section devoted to graphic novels – and even better, more than a few webcomic collections merrily displayed within. None of the suspects were surprising – Penny Arcade, Megatokyo, American Born Chinese – but still, it was a pleasant surprise.

Now, with that out of the way, follows a rant concerning a trilogy of novels entitled The Rise of Solamnia. Spoilers will Follow, regarding Books you Probably Haven’t Read, and Really Shouldn’t Anyway. This is a rant, make no mistake – criticism is there, but it is largely just me raving about some writing that left me frustrated and enraged. Read on at your own risk.

The Rise of Solamnia is written by Douglas Niles. It takes place in the Dragonlance universe, a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. Now, as such, I didn’t come into it with the highest of expectations. When I was younger, I devoured all such works without discrimination, but over the years I’ve become more discerning, and recognize than many of these books are just hack and slash indulgence on the behalf of the authors.

Oh, there are a few gems among them, most certainly, and some of them are very good hack and slash adventures – and that’s why I read them. But I recognize that odds are I won’t discover it to be any great work of literature – and as such, I’m rarely let down when my expectations, in fact, hold true.

The Rise of Solamnia let me down.

It isn’t really the flaws in the research, though that is a bit disappointing for an author so well-connected to the setting. Or the decision to add gunpowder to a fantasy world, which is almost universally a bad idea. Or the fact that villains and armies seemed to spontaneously form when needed, and despite all being manipulated by the same evil deity, seemed to constantly be working at cross-purposes.

No, what really upset me was that the main hero, Jaymes, was a thief, a murderer, a rapist and a tyrant, and at the end of the series, everyone said that was just fine with them.

In the first book, Jaymes is on the run for a crime he didn’t do. He takes some questionable actions during this time – robbing churches and killing the priests who try to stop him, cutting down without hesitation the knights who try and take him in – but I can somewhat accept it. He’s an outlaw, he’s been abandoned by the ideals he believed in, and he’s doing what he has to in order to survive.

By book two, he’s cleared his name, and all other crimes have seemingly been forgotten. Now in a position of power, and vying with rotten nobles, he decides he needs the full support of one of the book’s strongest female figures – the daughter of the country’s corrupt duke, who helped clear his name.

As such, he goes to the other strong female figure, the powerful archmage who saved his life on many occasions – and is, for no good reason, madly in love with him. He forces her to make him a love potion, with which he magically compells the love of the duke’s daughter, makes her marry him, and then runs off to shag some other widow before returning home.

Now this… this is not a nice thing to do. On the author’s behalf, this is reducing pretty much every female in the series to lovesick fools – but you know, as sad as it is to say, that alone doesn’t surprise me. These sort of novels are badly written and sexist all the time – I mean, hell, Ed Greenwood cranks out one of those a week. And simple wish-fulfillment characters, I can understand. I don’t like characters who can do no wrong – they might be one of my biggest pet peeves in webcomics, sure – but some people seem to like them, and they are more obnoxious than outright malevolent.

But when the hero of the story essentially date-rapes the female protagonist? Glorifying the act of drugging women for personal benefit? That’s a scary thing to see, especially in a book read by kids.

Nonetheless, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. At the end of book two, it looked like characters were actually recognizing some of our hero’s behavior as unsavory. I held out hope that he was being written the way he was intentionally, and would face the consequences in book three.

The third book arrived, and my hopes seem to hold true. Several years have passed, and Jaymes has declared himself the Emperor of Solamnia. He rules with an iron fist. In the first few chapters, he makes war on one of his most loyal noble, whose people can’t afford to pay the taxes the Emperor demands. When they arrived to parley under a flag of truce, Jaymes violates the truce, killing their lord in an attempt to capture him. When they try and fight back by destroying his cannons – and failing – he is enraged, and starts blowing apart their city even when they beg for surrender.

Take note that this is a nation founded on the ideals of honor and integrity, which he is throwing to the wind. Fortunately, the people notice that this just ain’t cool. His knights are upset over his behavior. When he returns to his capital, and wanders the streets in disguise, he hears the common-folk speculating on what atrocities he’ll commit next – so he has the speculators thrown in jail or exiled, and decrees it to be treason to speak out against him or his actions. His wife, now pregnant, has realized she was magically charmed, and so he has imprisoned her within her tower against her will. His best friend, a dwarf he traveled with for years, refuses to make any more explosives for him to use against those who defy him. His people hate and fear him, his allies have turned from him, and it looks as though his entire Empire will rise to overthrow him.

At this point, I’m really getting into the story. We have the set-up for an almost perfect tragic hero, as his own righteousness starts to destroy the nation he wants to save, and his own belief that the ends justify the means alienates his closest allies. This is good writing. His flaws have been exposed, and everything in the earlier books starts to fall into place – the shoddy acts of the villains seem to have almost been designed to throw him into power, as that itself would lead to the nation’s downfall. The struggle between the hero and his allies promises to be interesting, compelling, and cathartic.

And then some bad guys attack, he saves the day, and everyone forgives him.

Seriously. The same ogre warlord he defeated in the last two books somehow finds yet another army, and comes raging into town. Largely through the actions of others, the bad guys are defeated, and all his former faults seem to once again be forgotten. The son of the duke he killed forgives him. The girl he raped says that while she won’t be his lover, she understands why he did what he did, and agrees it was for the good of the nation, and she’ll be glad to raise his son. He apologizes for getting a little overzealous, and promises to be slightly less of an evil tyrant. Everyone cheers.

The end.

I suppose what upsets me isn’t that we have a character who was an anti-hero. If the author was just out to have a another amoral ‘bad boy’ warrior saving the day, without quite realizing the moral and ethical implications of the character’s behavior, I could write that off as ignorance on the author’s behalf. It wouldn’t mean I’d think highly of him – but it is far more forgiveable than recognizing that a character is a terrible human being, and then celebrating all the things he has done to make him so.

I mean, he came so close to making the novels work… and then backed out. I don’t know if it was editorial demand, or if he was simply too attached to the character. Maybe we were supposed to see it as character development, as Jaymes realizing his flaws and redeeming them – but as they say, redemption is not for everyone. It certainly takes more than simply saying, “I’m sorry.”

Anyway. Rant over, my raving is done. This isn’t the first book I’ve been disappointed in, and I’m confident it won’t be the last. In some ways, I miss my younger ability to read through such trash and still cheer at the conclusion – though not so much so that I’m not glad to be able to recognize a bad story when I see one.

There is something to be said for blissful ignorance, sure – but if I enjoyed all stories equally, how would I be able to appreciate the ones that are genuinely good?

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Remembrance

As a child, I read and reread The Chronicles of Pyrdain a countless times over.

This five-volume series is by Lloyd Alexander, who passed away last week at the age of 83. It was not surprising that I enjoyed the tales of a young boy who went from a simple kid to a hero and a king – not in the least because it wasn’t just a story of wish-fulfillment, but one of genuine growth and heroism.

I read them many times as a child – and even now, these stories are among the few that I still return to time and time again. Perhaps that is one of the defining marks of a truly good story – being able to inspire one to return, once again, to well-worn pages for yet another telling of the tale. That in spite of knowing what is coming – of knowing every little twist and reveal – every page is as enjoyable as the time before.

There are some stories out there that I’ve read several times more from necessity than desire, and these are not bad stories – the Wheel of Time is a good example of a story so overwhelmingly plot-filled that it requires a week playing catch-up every time a new volume comes out. There are more than a handful of webcomics that are similar in nature – that every so often require another trip through the archives just to know what is going on.

But there are also those precious few that present a story so solid, so enjoyable, so timeless, that I return to them again of my own volition, compelled by nothing more than memory.

The Chronicles of Prydain were among the first such stories to have stayed with me throughout the years. They will stay with me forever.

Rest in peace, Lloyd Alexander. You will be remembered.

Cereals and Serials

So I made the mistake of picking up George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire.

(Which I only just now, in looking up the title, realize is incomplete. Double damn.)

In any case, I’ve found the books exceptional, thrilling, and highly addictive… and thus, have had trouble putting them down and doing other things. So a quick post on some of my recent thoughts:

As October comes upon us, I’ve seen all the classic Halloween breakfast cereals hit the shelves – Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry. And, of course, I had to by them, inspired by numerous webcomic references in recent years that have helped bring back that nostalgia for mostly tasteless sugary foods.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember which webcomics were the culprits! Oh No Robot was sadly no help, though a google/Wikipedia search was able to confirm Something Positive as one of the guilty parties. I’m positive (no pun intended) that at least one or two other popular webcomics have references the cereals, but I can’t remember which ones!

(This will be the thing that slowly drives me insane.)

In more important news, Adventurers! has come to an end. It’s been building up to it in true RPG style, with final boss battle after final boss battle, and an elaborate epilogue that covers everyone from the main cast and crew to fellows that most readers have long since forgotten. It leaves the desire to reread back through the entire story, and that is certainly one mark of a good ending.

It was a good story, Mark Shallow, and ended well.

Thanks.

Matters of the Mind

I have a very bad memory.

I don’t mean that I forget my keys all the time, or miss following up on phone calls or ordinary chores like that. I can keep track of important dates and events. My life may not always be perfectly in order, but I am typically on top of things.

But I have trouble remembering. My high school years are nearly gone from my mind. College, only a year or two behind me now, already starts to fade away.

For quite some time I kept a studious, dedicated, and most of all boring journal of my day to day life. It wasn’t a study in philosophy or sophistication – it was merely a catalogue to help me recall those events that I knew would grow… dim.

My poor memory is, perhaps, the biggest change I would make about myself. That loss of memory, that gaping abyss of thought, is perhaps my greatest fear.

Hmm. This seems to be an awfully dismal post. I may have wandered a bit from my track, but I thought it best to set the stage.

You see, I’ve recently discovered an upside to the leaking sieve that is my mind. Well… not so much discovered, as recognized.

I am a reader. My first great love was fiction. Books, stories, and all they entailed – throughout my youth I partook of them, and read far, far more than was healthy for a boy my age.

I have a tendency, when no new material has caught my attention, to revisit previous works. And I have realized one of the reasons I am able to do so, able to actually enjoy a work for the second, third, or fourth time… is my poor memory.

It isn’t that I forget every last element of a story. Little hints may remain at the outskirts of my mind, vague patterns I may see developing in the tale.

But after a few years – and several hundred more stories crammed into my noggin – I find that I can still experience the same thrill of surprise, excitement, and entertainment as on my first read-through.

I’ve been discovering this while reading back through Tad William’s Otherland, one of my favorite works. It is one of those epic tales that actually convinced me that sci-fi fiction could be, well… serious writing, and not just hokey space-drama.

I was almost afraid to read back through it, since I had recently fallen out of sorts with a lot of writers I had been a fan of when I was younger – Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Ed Greenwood. I had recently realized that much of what I had read when I was younger was… absolute trash.

Fortunately, Tad Williams is the man, and his series remained good writing in more than distant memories. And, as this slowly meandering post is meant to tell you, I discovered that not recalling the details of the plot let me experience the work anew, which was a thrilling discovery all on its own.

Of course, the downside of faulty memory reared its ugly head as well, when I discovered I had lost my copy of the fourth volume, and had no idea whatsover what I had done with it.

But always look on the bright side, as my dear old mom used to say!

…I think.

Words, Words Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

When I was in the halcyon days of my youth, I read. A lot.

I could be found reading on most any occasion in which I had free time. While on the bus to school, during breaks between classes, while having dinner with my family. Books were my life-blood, and I lived and breathed the written word.

As time went on, I grew less attached to books – in college, while I still read, it was no longer such a vital facet of my life. I had many other activities and entertainments to occupy, and books were just one of many.

(On occasion I would fear that I would go the way of my father, an avid reader of fiction until the age of 25 – after which he never read a book ever again.)

These days are much the same – I read when I come across a good book, and generally savor the writing rather than tear through it. I have many other stories that I enjoy – comics, games, movies, etc.

Which is why I am trying to figure out what has possessed me this last week, as I have been devouring a novel a day.

Perhaps I felt a need for some works of fiction that had an element of completeness, rather than the ongoing serial nature of most webcomics. Perhaps this was in part due to a visit to a local overstock book store, with dangerously low prices on all manner of works.

And perhaps it has simply been one of those lazy summer weeks in Maryland, a mix of warmth and rain, sun and shade, and not much else to do than sit around… and read.

In any case, I suspect I have little to fear of following in my father’s footsteps. And I confess, it has been appealing to lose myself in books, as I have not done so completely in quite some time.

Sometimes a change in the usual can be a nice refresher. I suspect I’ll return to my usual pace and usual habits – but the change from the ordinary, however brief, was welcome nonetheless.

Morality Undone

So I’m right in the middle of a very enjoyable fantasy series.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar:

So the world is threatened by a god of darkness, who was cast out from his own kind for his defiance against them.

Ages have come and past, and his power has been held back every time by the combined forces of men and elves.

Once again he is a threat, and a Company goes forth to lead the Bearer into the heart of his lair, where they will perform a small task to defeat him.

Along the way the Company is split up, and the Bearer must continue on his quest with only one companion for support.

The Wizard is lost, but returns reborn as the White Rider. He rejoins the armies of men and elves, who are led under the banner of a King without a land, the last son of his line who will lead the armies agains the Enemy and usher in a new age of peace.

Only…. the Company, the Wizard, the King, and all those folks above?

They’re the bad guys.

The Sundering, by Jacqueline Carey, is an excellent story that takes place over two novels. Despite the similarities, it isn’t simply The Lord of the Rings told from the enemy’s perspective. The similarities are there, but they are superficial at best.

At its heart, it is its own story. It is filled with unique and flavorful characters, many of whom remind us of typical fantasy archetypes, but many of whom are also developed and distinct beyond that. Good and evil are turned on their head, and the reader is rooting for the ‘forces of darkness’ to prevail.

The idea of perverting darkness and light is not a new one – it has been done before, both in the extreme and in the specific.

Villains by Necessity, by Eve Forward, takes such a role to the extreme – a handful of villains must band together, as the world is in danger of being consumed by the goodness that has overtaken it, and utterly destroyed. They must fight their way to the place where the armies of evil were sealed away, and release them and restore the balance. It is a very good read, and above all a fun book – clever, humorous, and quick with the action. But at the same time, such a perversion of good and evil is much easier to handle when placed in such a light-hearted setting.

Anti-heroes, and redeemed villains, are also present all over the place – from the Punisher, a hero who murders those who do wrong, to Drizzt Do’Urden, the inspiration for countless bland ‘dark elves who have seen the light’ in role-playing games everywhere. These characters have become archetypes in and of themselves, just like the villain who ‘was just trying to do the right thing’.

And these aren’t bad characters, of course. Roles of such built-in conflict present massive potential for character development, especially when done well.

Which is why it is all the more impressive when an entire world is turned on its head in the self-same way.

The Sundering is a well-written story. It is a serious fantasy work, and a genuinely enjoyable literary read. And while many other tales have toyed with twisting the idea of good and evil, very few have done it on such a level, or done it so well. The fact that I can only recall one other such novel off the top of my head (Villains by Necessity) emphasizes this.

One of the curses that has come upon me since pursuing a career in writing has been gaining much more knowledge and awareness of books – and thus I was forced to admit that many of the books I read were not actually all that good. I am now all too aware of when I read bad writing – or writing that was put out just to cater to the masses. And in many ways I miss being able to just grab some of the random shlocky pulp fantasy works that are mass produced, and enjoy the read.

But at the same time, I am that much more able to appreciate good writing.

And regardless of what definitions of good or evil are being used, I certainly find that I can very much appreciate the work of Jacqueline Carey.