Stonewielder – Ian C. Esslemont – Cover + Prologue

Official release is: 25th November 2010

The prologue is at Malazan forums.

Whoever picks the cover for Esslemont books must be fond of boats. The cover is “ok” but otherwise unimpressive (reads as: generic, relatively anonymous).

EDIT: I read the prologue even if I’m far from the position of the book in the series. Safely, since there’s not spoilery stuff. I liked it enough but I still see the shadows of what I criticized in my review of “Night of Knives”. The first potential problem is that the characters do too many flourishes and exaggeration (the portrayal of just standard-types), and when you try to draw from real themes exaggeration is the worst enemy of truth. The other problem is that again the story is built solely by what surfaces. Lacking subtlety and real depth. For example the arrival of the priest, the description of the occupation, the plan for recruiting. All ideas ripe for development, yet they seem to be played plainly and obviously. Too much polish, lack of conflict, lack of complexity. Characters playing their roles instead of coming out as real persons. Same for the second scene, that seems so biblical that one wonders why it should deserve to be remade (people climb the sacred mountain to go speak with their goddess). Goddess donates magically-heated chest to the population that keeps cold Stormriders away. We’ve seen this already in the first book and it was a concept that lead nowhere and meant basically nothing. Hopefully this time things play more unpredictably. Seems like a soup of stories I already know but without a novelty perspective, nothing new added or cleverly played.

Also, nitpicking, before the tsunami shouldn’t the boat get sucked seaward as water recedes before rising and rushing in? The process is described, the water level goes down, yet there seem no currents affecting the boat.

“Eighteen” by Jang Kun-Jae

Once again on the purpose and role of fiction. Whether it is about a book or a movie, or whatever else.

This is the movie that won the prize at a local festival about independent and experimental movies. The translation of the motivations of the prize:

With his feature-length debut movie the young Korean director Jang Kun-jae transforms a private page of his sentimental education into a fresh, pleasant and audaciously sincere tale. The pain, melancholy, helplessness of a small amorous catastrophe narrated through the fond vertigo of a lost age, not yet removed from his memory. For the two protagonists of the story being eighteen represents the most lacerating of the seasons of life. The first act of a past that can’t be left behind. A past that one can let go through the therapy of cinema.

My comment: take “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-wai. This is an unpretentious adolescent version, extremely blunt and sincere, yet delicate. It leaves you with a similar kind of hollow, haunting feeling. Also, a real story.

Another journey in the search for meaning. These types of movies can really stab through your heart and leave it bleeding.

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Scott Bakker has a blog

Another obvious peril, it seems to me, would be exotericism, the gradual whittling down of the population communicated to. Defection doesn’t simply challenge readers, it alienates them. With every rule you choose to follow or not to follow you are either connecting or disconnecting yourself from certain populations of readers. Since humans have a hardwired appreciation of narrative conventionality, mucking with these norms is tantamount to turning your back on the greater human community, and appealing to those who happen to share your acquired tastes.

When I stand in front of crowds–even huge ones–my overriding desire is to argue and shock and unsettle. My whole life, I’ve had this perverse desire to prick bubbles wherever I go, and to make the babies blowing them cry-cry-cry.

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Night of Knives – Ian C. Esslemont

“Night of Knives” is the first novel(-la) written by Ian Cameron Esslemont set in the Malazan world co-created with Steven Erikson. It’s a much leaner book, 300 pages in the american Tor edition, compared to Malazan standard, and chronologically set between the prologue and first chapter of “Gardens of the Moon”, the first book in the series. Yet, the fans recommend to read the book only before the sixth because of some connections, while I decided to anticipate it right after the fourth, since “House of Chains” deals more directly with the matters of the Malazan empire and I wanted to approach “Night of Knives” when that strand of story was still fresh in my memory.

The content and purpose of the book fit as a retrospective: from one side we get to see what happened in the particular night Surly/Laseen claimed the throne of the Malazan empire while declaring the death of the previous ruler, Kellanved, who had been missing for quite some time giving Surly the opportunity to solidify her position. From the other, through flashbacks, we get a close-up of “The Sword”, the six bodyguards/champions around Dassem Ultor, champion of the Malazan empire, and particularly Dassem’s betrayal that was vaguely commented between Paran and Wiskeyjack in that GotM prologue.

Here comparisons between writers are impossible to avoid since we have two of them writing the same material and aiming for complementarity. So the big question is if Esslemont can match Erikson or at least stay relevant and add something worthwhile, with expectations being very high and not playing in Esslemont’s favor since it’s complicate to debut when the main series is already established and halfway through. That was also my main concern: trying to weigh Esslemont potential not just for this book, but also for the upcoming contributions. The first 50 pages were quite revelatory for me. Esslemont is a rather competent writer, the beginning of the book is well handled, solid prose, written and paced perfectly. There wasn’t anything suggesting it was a debut instead of the work of an established writer. I also thought the style was distinctive and not clashing or conforming to Erikson. Especially, I think Esslemont did a wonderful work on Malaz itself, the city. The place comes to life, the shadowy atmosphere rendered perfectly with its narrow, twisted alleys, the very quiet and suspicious people on the brink of insanity. From Mock’s Hold perched on the cliff (and the inevitable wink to Mock’s Vane), down to the sprawling ramshackle houses. It gives a sense of real place and I still now consider this the biggest quality of the novel. The town being the true real protagonist, interpreting perfectly the understatement of the conflict it gets tangled in. The true heart of the empire, yet far from the celebration of triumph or glory of a capital. It’s a haunted town everyone would get away from, sullying and miserable. So weak and vulnerable, yet caught in the eye of the storm and holding desperately. Reminds me of a place that would fit perfectly in a Lovecraft story, madness stalking behind every corner.

Speaking of tones and atmosphere, I think that, more than Erikson, Esslemont draws plenty and openly from Glen Cook. The whole novel echoes with the first chapter of The Black Company and even more with the whole second book, “Shadows Linger”. Lots of elements in common, the first chapter of The Black Company was similar to an horror story, with the company caught in an unusual situation and slowly drifting toward dread, discovering corpses everywhere while the town they were stuck in descended into chaos, the Hounds of Shadow in “Night of Knives” filling perfectly the role of the “forvalaka”. Same for “Shadows Linger”, also set in a gloomy small town, inside filthy inns and nearby mysterious places. Townsfolk involved in ominous practices that slowly escalate to a disaster. Inspiration here is not a flaw, since Esslemont uses all this competently and functional to the story he writes, without giving the impression of a diminished copy.

There are problems, though. Everything is set perfectly in those initial pages, but as the story progresses it also loses its strength. Instead of escalating it kind of folds without delivering its potential. From my point of view the problem is that Esslemont fails to switch gear when needed. There’s a moment in the story when the spooky “fairy tales” and legends descend, truly, on the real world. Kiska fits well as a POV there, because we have a naive perspective on a situation that is quickly transforming. But when hell breaks loose the story is stuck in the preceding naive tone and the dramatic intensity is underachieved or lost. Esslemont stays too much on one fantastic, dreamy level that is excused when the story is still in the build-up phase and what is to come has to feel distant, the menace being remote. But when it closes it lacks realism and the characters are still lulled by the writer, never at risk, never exposed outside their own cliche. They stay put, characters as devices, their perimeter containing them, and them carefully stepping to never dare becoming real characters. This is the kind of babysitting that never lets the story run wild and deliver. Somewhat like a cheat.

Kiska fails to become a real character, ideally she should be hammered out of her fancy fantasies (echoing Paran’s own “I want to be a soldier. A hero.”) and crushing on reality. She starts wishing to be the heroine, admirably skilled in her dreamy land, but she stays there even after. She glides over everything, undamaged, in truth, beside a few minor bruises. The kid outskills everyone else, she lives her dream in reality WITHOUT EVEN PERCEIVING THE TRANSITION. She enters and exits the novel with the exact same mindset, nothing learned. She’s lulled in her dream as the world comes to coincide with it, instead of her coming to grips with reality. She starts naive, and ends up with all her dreams fulfilled without even once confronting reality. Her role, as cliche, fits perfectly, if only at some point the cliche would be used to spring her (and the escalation of the plot toward dramatic intensity) to a whole new level. Instead the whole structure folds. We have these two levels. The low-ground perception of townsfolk, with all their superstitions, and then the crushing of the convergence, the Shadow Realm that descends on the city itself, becoming very real and tangible. The townsfolk barred in their own houses, praying the dream to end soon, the storm outside. Yet, on the level of the novel, it’s the “reality” that is lifted up to “fairy” level, with magic becoming magic, old wizened and long-bearded guys becoming wise wizards, the heroine being tested through riddles. Lots of blood, corpses everywhere, but it’s just tomato juice on redshirts, come the morning the bad guys are dead, the roads relatively filthy as usual, some fallen bricks and crumpled walls, heroes survived heroically, the heroine got her alluring, mysterious boyfriend. When do I wake up?

Erikson’s work on the series can be summarized as: “Nothing is as it seems”. Here it’s the opposite: everything is as it seems. No subtlety, no tricks on perceptions, no layers. Leading to another consideration. Esslemont’s characterization is actually well done, at least in presenting the characters if not in their development. His overall style of prose, narration and characterization is traditional compared to Erikson, but “traditional” doesn’t mean “bad”. The introspection here is “full-on” and helps leading the narrative. You get into the characters’ thoughts in a way that you never find in Erikson. This meaning that this book can be more readable and accessible, even enjoyable. Erikson’s style, being infinitely layered, prompts you to put down the book and think about implications, Esslemont is more like the page-turner, pushing the story onward, curiosity taking the lead and the reader more involved in the destiny of characters. A more emotive/empathic approach of a character-driven story. The book can be read quickly and is quite fun but it stays on that level.

Thinking of “purpose”, the story is aimed to shed some light on a crucial point of the history of the empire. The book is filled with juicy details that can please the fans of the series. Lots of “fanservice”, which is a good thing. Yet, this is not a necessary read, nor a recommended one. Concretely, it adds nothing worthwhile. It uses and consumes without creating. We see lots of details about what went on, but they all seem disposable and none really clarifying. The real deep motives stay deep and unrevealed, deliberately untouched in this book. The betrayal of Dassem Ultor is a pivot of the novel, yet absolutely nothing is added to what we knew. We see it happen, but what we see explains nothing about what happened. Another instance of “everything is as it seems”, or there’s nothing more than what meets the eyes. Another big flaw being that the more is revealed, the weaker the story. Instead of enhancing and realizing complexity, it kills it. No surprises, no revelations that open new interpretations and scenarios. The few answers that come only close some dead-ends of the overall plot without producing anything. Lots of potential when it comes to Laseen, but the character is flat and hiding absolutely nothing. She’s merely there and passive, with the lack of active presence hiding absolutely nothing: she’s really doing nothing if not what is plain. Mystery that hides nothing. Same for the confrontation between Claws and Talons, reduced to a confused ninja battle between caped figures. Shadowy capes hiding nothing. Conspirators whose conspiracy is held on plain sight.

From this perspective the book is immature. Not again in the competency of Esslemont as a writer, but in failing to cross that line between adolescence and maturity and everything it represents. The falling of myths and naive dreams, the facing of failure or helplessness. The same done by some “fantasy” (as genre) trying to come out of its stereotype as “young-adult” escapist entertainment, whether it is George Martin or Erikson or whoever else, trying to open up the genre to a more mature type of narration, more complex, layered and unbound from strict conventions and types. “Maturity” or even modernity: no more absolutes, but points of view, layers, perspectives. This book fails to cross that border. The characters are caged into themselves, being plainly what they seem to be and within their narrow stereotype or functional role in the plot. In various occasions the story directly reminds of “young-adult” tropes (here straight from “Neverending Story”):

If she did succeed in returning, Kiska vowed she would head straight to Agayla’s. If anyone knew what was going on – and what to do – it would be her. Never mind all this insane mumbling of the Return, the Deadhouse, and Shadow. What a tale she had for her aunt!

And ending with:

‘Yes, I will. Thank you, Auntie. Thank you for everything.’
Agayla took her in her arms and hugged her, kissed her brow. ‘Send word soon or I swear I will send you a curse.’
‘I will.’
‘Good. Now run. Don’t keep Artan waiting.’

“Don’t keep your boyfriend waiting”. It’s then hard to lift the plot to dramatic intensity when this distance of perception never closes. Brutal fights are witnessed, but so alien and detached (or described through morbid badassness) that they never come real. Threat never getting close if not in a fake way. Kiska never falters, no matter how unbelievable is that behavior even for a prodigious child. Every impossible action or behavior excused by mere exceptionality. Temper, the other POV, is not different. Even here the character is initially very solid and well presented. A paranoid veteran hiding from his past. But all plot points are fortuitous and convenient, and even the flashbacks recount battles between invulnerable champions with a lot of useless redshirts around them. Halfway through the character moves from a well realized one, to click into his functional stereotype. When he exits the story he’s the hero who saved the day whose deeds remain unknown. Close your eyes and shadows become monsters crawling out from under the bed. You wake up, it was a dream. Esslemont fails to play properly with this and switch tone. Everything stays up there, suspended into adolescent mythology. The mythical story described exactly as the cleaned-up myth wants. Nothing being ever threatened or compromised.

The series is not powerful for its mythology and form, but because Erikson, as a writer, instilled meaningfulness into it. Made it relevant for what it has to say and the way it challenges perceptions. But Esslemont doesn’t seem to add something of his own. He delivers the story without delivering a purpose. If Erikson writes to reach far outside mere “escapism”, Esslemont stays strongly rooted into it. The story sits on the surface level, which I guess explains why the fans of Esslemont himself are often those who judge Erikson’s book as overlong and slow. Erikson digs deep on the level of meaning, is concerned about the reason to say something, is tormented for reaching out to the reader and shake him. Esslemont fails to have a drive in this novel. There’s no “necessity” of the narrative intent. Outside the entertainment value, being said or unsaid is the same. Why reading this book? Because it’s still a good read and if you are a Malazan fan you’d want to know more and enjoy the story, but I thought that the mysteries revealed would stay better mysterious and ambiguous. Instead of being revealed so plain. It’s a fun and well executed roller coaster if you enjoy Malazan mythology, but it’s still a roller coaster.

House of Chains – Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the fourth in the 10-books Malazan series. These days, these hours, Erikson is intensely busy writing the last chapters of the last book and bring to a close a journey of staggering ambition. Reading this fourth felt like standing on the shoulder of a very tall (jade-colored) giant. As with similar(?) long series it’s interesting to see the power-game, the ebb and flow of the single book compared to the others. When I was at page 700 or so (on a total of 1000) it dawned on me that this would become, with certainty, my favorite. 100 pages from the end the story proceeded resolute with a sense of finality and inevitability. Like the dramatic ending a movie whose sound is deafened, muted, so that the intensity of what you see comes out unadulterated and with all its power. But it is immediately past this apex, in the very slight and calmer descent that follows, the remaining 30-40 pages, that the more meaningful and stronger revelations are delivered, and the characters reached down for my soul. The book had already gauged his way as my true favorite and was set for a foreshadowed ending. I only expected closure and rest, yet the book still had PLENTY to deliver, and surprise me, and offer emotions to share.

These weeks I spent reading House of Chains were also the weeks of Lost ending season (the TV series), which lead me to draw certain parallels, both thematic and about the plot. Similarities are evident even on the superficial level, and on the forums I was explaining that I was watching Lost for some of the reasons I was reading this series of books. The staggering ambition, the exponential layering, the subversion and reversals in the plot, the continuous challenge to perceptions. The difference, as I already discussed, is that Lost always left me (and many others) unsatisfied. Even the very end left the plot unresolved. With the Malazan series instead it’s a whole different deal. Reading this book, at various points, I thought that if it was to end right there, in the middle of the narrative, it would still feel completely satisfying and accomplished. Erikson as an author is far more generous and I feel that what he does is always honest. I never once felt cheated. Which also leads to the broad theme of “truthfulness”, that Erikson fulfills for me. Reading this series is not an easy task for anyone, but I know that it largely rewarded my effort. It delivers all it promises, then more, far beyond expectations that continue to rise as the story goes and branches out to embrace what you don’t think can be embraced. I am humbled because I know that this is one rare effort that won’t likely be matched anytime soon, if ever. I’m glad that I find it so close to things that matter for me, at the core, and that I seek in a book. It completes what I think and I follow devotedly because it already proved aplenty that this journey is worth all the dedication I can give to it. This to say: Erikson, especially in this book, doesn’t lull and drag you along with vane promises. He delivers, page after page. The physical shape of the book, right there, weighting far more than you think. Worlds that the written word can open, and worlds that, deep down, feed on something true.

This, for me, has nothing to do with the notion of escapism. At least if you don’t consider escapism the illusion of the discovery of something meaningful, that matters. And so the thematic aspects. I guess that this couldn’t be more misleading. “Themes” make me think of very boring books that have nowhere to go and preach on banalities or feast on rhetoric. Or the celebration of some sort of morale. I have a natural tendency to oppose and refuse these things because I always find them trite or partial. Erikson instead makes these aspects very real and makes surface their contradictions. The narrative is driven by purpose, a lucid intent, that doesn’t lead recursively to itself, going nowhere. Turning a wheel that turns and turns but goes nowhere. Those themes, taken as abstraction, are always brought back to the ground. They don’t wander on a detached level, different from the plot. They are intricately woven and matter on a concrete one. The biggest revelations can please a reader just for what they are, the fun of following an engaging story filled with unexpected twists. The last 70 pages of this book are a frenzy of plot threads that get tied and resolved one after the other. And each, if not to be carried away by this surging tide, turning the pages, would make you look back with unprecedented clarity. The thematic aspects here bind the narrative.

‘The stigma of meaning ever comes later, like a brushing away of dust to reveal shapes in stone.’

The structure of this book is slightly different from the preceding ones. It starts with about 250 pages from a single point of view instead of jumping all over the place. I think this choice is perfectly placed. It’s not easy to have the story move again after the ending of ‘Memories of Ice’. Starting from a blank point, apparently unrelated, offers the narrative the possibility to gain momentum. Especially because all we learned through three books here becomes the cipher of what is going on behind the curtain of deception. An higher level of awareness that you have, as a reader, above the level of the narrow point of view. An second-level of observation that reveals a bigger truth, as you are yourself, as reader, deceived in turn, when you thought your position let you see clearly where the deception actually was. A clever trick indeed. But again, done to understand the story on a deeper level, and bring the reader right into it, with an active role. Not so many books do this. You may think this is some ‘mental’ stuff I imagined, but no. This is why I said the book is generous. It has not the esotericism and bloated pretentiousness of Pynchon, this book BEGS you to understand it. It doesn’t hide for the simple pleasure of obfuscation, nor it lulls lathering in redundancy.

‘In any case, to speak plainly is a true talent; to bury beneath obfuscation is a poet’s calling these days.’

Now this review is coming out rather abstract and vague, yet I’ve pages of notes about specific aspects but I don’t think I can go anywhere with them. This book offers a myriad of suggestions that you can taste and elaborate any way you want. Take for example the book of Dryjhna. It’s a story that starts in book 2. This is Erikson doing his typical play on some established fantasy conventions (and in book 2 he resolves it delivering a spectacular surprise). In this case the ‘book of prophecies’. We’ve had these plot devices dealt in every possible way in the fantasy genre. Here the running joke is that prophecies are left vague because through this very quality they can be pragmatically adapted to the changes of time. A way to keep them relevant and useful for those who actually wield that power for their own secular purposes. In the end prophecies are nothing more than excuses to exploit a population. But it’s the real revelation of the truth (or better, the deceit) behind the book that makes it ultimately worth saving. The book is revealed as a fraud, but this revelation makes the book valuable for what it actually is, which consequently infuses it of the power it lost. A full circle, but, as it closes, the power of the book goes from misplaced and false, to something true and valid. It got somewhat cleansed in the process. This I’ve just explained is a very minor plot thread, almost invisible. Maybe two pages in total name it, yet, by ways of Erikson, what this book (of prophecies) represents echoes with everything else that goes on the major level. Everything intricately woven together at different levels.

There are certain plot threads, on a second inspection, after the tide of the last 100 pages passed, that seem somewhat spurious. Though this is typical of Erikson as the plot branches out to previous and following books. They are the most obvious links. But the reason why they are there is because they are part of larger loops. They are meaningful in the single book, have an impact and purpose, but the story arc isn’t brought to conclusion right there. When I finished book 3, I thought that Erikson was at his maximum possible reach. Controlling so many characters and plot threads while delivering a so huge conclusion was absolutely spectacular. House of Chains is on a somewhat smaller scale and more personal. It continues directly from book 2 and draws from the qualities found there. Yet, this smaller scale was only apparent and Erikson shows here a stronger control of plot. He still improves. Book 3 had from my point of view a more uneven quality compared to the 2nd, even if as a whole it came out far above just because of its impact and staggering ambition. House of Chains shows a tight control and a clear intent. It is lucid in a way no previous book was. More effective and straight to the point. Every aspect I can consider is overall improved. The prose itself stays terse as is typical of Erikson, and gains efficacy. No wasted words, no lingering, yet also not as wasteful as it happened in Memories of Ice. On some of my notes I wrote how in books 1-3 we saw an expansion of the plot. An exponential multiplications of different factions and factions within factions. House of Chains instead represents a kind of contraption that doesn’t reduce the reach of ambition of the plot, but that actually leads to an absorption of the various branches into an unitarian mythology. The nature and truth of many things is revealed, and this revelation draws everything together. It all makes sense and even sheds more light on previous books in a way that makes them shine even more. Following books improve the previous in retrospective, add significance. Especially in this case for book 2, that was already excellent. House of Chains is an open celebration of Deadhouse Gates, yet this doesn’t put it in its shadow in any way. They just contribute to each other.

Want one flaw? Named characters lead the story. Yes, there are A LOT of them in that “named” list, but the terse style of Erikson lacks some naturalness if you care for it in a book. I’ve pointed this out in the past. There are no slices of life scenes here. No getting used to the characters or lingering with them for the mundane. This story has momentum and moves on. We don’t get to see what isn’t strictly relevant. Yet, this also means that these plots are sometimes too neatly wrapped up. Too coincidental and convenient. Everything pivots exactly where it should, and no matter how HUGE is the landmass itself, characters that travel seem to ineluctably constantly bump into each other. Sometimes it feels as if the “real world” is missing. As if the plot was eradicated from its natural place and made an example of. I doubt you could tell such story in a different way, though.

I loved this book. Not just because it has an excellent execution, but because I loved it also on a more personal level. The biggest mystery is how Erikson is able to gather the strength and will to start again from a blank page after such a huge showdown. I’m merely a reader, yet this was exhausting in a positive way. So much was brought to a satisfying closure. No idea where this will bring me next, but I have trust in the writer that it will be more than worth it.

The last few lines of the epilogue, in italics, are probably the biggest and more powerful revelation ever. Sustaining the whole series. (hopefully enough to keep Erikson himself afloat)

Again on Ascendancy

Few more spurious quotes from the very end of House of Chains. Relatively spoiler-free.

The proportions had begun wrong. From the very start. Leading her to suspect that the proclivity for madness had already existed, dark flaws marring the soul that would one day claw its way into ascendancy.

I have walked into the Abyss.
I am as mad as that goddess. And this is why she chose me, for we are kindred souls…

This is another good example that illustrates what Ascendancy truly is and how it is regulated. Even if it’s a theme of the book making the process more blurred and defying categories, since at the core “Ascendancy” is strictly linked to the ambiguous production of meaning. Dancing on a edge to keep a fine balance.

He did the best he could – with such honour as to draw, upon his sad death, the attention of Hood himself. Oh, the Lord of Death will look into a mortal’s soul, given the right circumstances. The, uh, the proper incentive. Thus, that man is now the Knight of Death—’

Even here Ascendancy is the result of both convenience and kinship. A wicked sort of reward. The honor of failure. There’s no salvation in Ascendancy. There’s no glory.

This is why Ascendancy is symbolized by T’lan Imass. Immortality made into failure.

T’lan imass / glory & ghosts

‘The glory of battle, Koryk, dwells only in the bard’s voice, in the teller’s woven words. Glory belongs to ghosts and poets. What you hear and dream isn’t the same as what you live – blur the distinction at your own peril, lad.’

Karsa’s expression soured. ‘When I began this journey, I was young. I believed in one thing. I believed in glory. I know now, Siballe, that glory is nothing. Nothing. This is what I now understand.’
‘What else do you now understand, Karsa Orlong?’
‘Not much. Just one other thing. The same cannot be said for mercy.’

‘The heart is neither given nor stolen. The heart surrenders.’
The bonecaster did not turn round. ‘That is a word without power to the T’lan Imass, Onrack the Broken.’
‘You are wrong, Monok Ochem. We simply changed the word to make it not only more palatable, but also to empower it. With such eminence that it devoured our souls.’

The very last few words that conclude the book, in italics, deliver not only the answer to all this, but also a huge revelation that hit with all its power. Neither of the three preceding books ended on a so high note.

How to start a book? (I don’t like the first word of ‘The Way of Kings’)

It seems there’s some stir today as Tor begins to promote Sanderson’s latest and most ambitious epic. I’m enjoying the atmosphere, honestly. In spite of all the seemingly negative things I’ve written about Sanderson I still said I plan to buy the book on day 1 and read it. I also expect at the very least to enjoy it. But if it doesn’t offer something that stands apart the next volumes will probably sit back on the reading pile.

Anyway, part of the promotion are the first 50 pages or so of the book, right now. Or at least Prologue and Prelude, the rest requires some sort of registration.

I haven’t read that, and I will likely wait for the full book before commenting, but that first word is a very bad way to start a book, especially for something that is going to span 10 books.

This isn’t really criticism to Sanderson, it’s just that I always thought it’s awful to open a book with a first name. “Kakak rounded a rocky stone ridge”. Why should I care? First names are something you acquire. They are meaningful when they define someone you know. But throwing the name before everything else is like an unnatural thrust into a character that expects you to know him already. It’s like forcing familiarity to the reader without earning that familiarity.

Let’s make examples. I have recently written about Pynchon, so take Gravity’s Rainbow:

A screaming comes across the sky.

That’s a hell of way to start a book. It sets the tone and definitely lacerates the curtain to let the reader in. (I appreciate the present tense)

Another of Pynchon I have here:

“Now single up all lines!”

Yeah! Let’s fly!

Philip Roth:

She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.

I guess literary guys know how to begin their books.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake.

A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

No comment.

Gene Wolfe’s New Sun:

“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.”

It couldn’t have set the tone and eccentricity any better.

David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Well yes, I’m unfair. You can’t beat that.

R. Scott Bakker:

One cannot rise walls against what has been forgotten.

That’s Bakker. It’s him telling it’s him. “Hey, it’s me.”

Glen Cook:

There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says.

This gets a first name, but as you see the precedence is given to what is being said, which fits.

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead:

Howard Roark laughed.

OK. First name. BUT IT IS AYN RAND. If she isn’t allowed to open a book with a first name than no one else can.

Which naturally leads to Terry Goodkind:

It was an odd-looking vine.


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Everything is linked

I am onto something.

I was supposed to write this more than a week ago but never did it. Nothing really relevant, just something I enjoy. I already said I like to follow links between the most disparate things, find correspondences. I also said that in literature I look for “truthfulness” which I consider the most (if not only) relevant quality. I was actually struggling finding a definition because I was absolutely sure I found something I wanted the moment I found it, but couldn’t pinpoint what it was that some books gave to me and some other didn’t. Something more visceral like a deeper form of accord. I agreed to define it “truthfulness” since it’s strictly related to the use of language and has a well defined opposite that is “rhetoric”. Or: tell me something that is true.

It’s on the same line of a comment I wrote to Erikson’s blog:

I’ll just say that it’s also one significant strength of your series if it’s not just ambitious, staggering and broad in scope, but also personal, and so not a safe or steady, unfailing journey. Without that, its echoes would be echoes of emptiness.

It’s the reason why while reading “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, a completely different book, I arrived to similar conclusions and similar feelings coming out of it. In the end the purpose of fiction, and other forms of art, is to say something truthful. Nothing else matters. So you’re right in what you imply: your crisis feeds this narrative, and your lack of definite(-ive) answers is itself a more important truth. Lots of writers had to come to terms with their craft (or at least those who explore uncharted lands). Some didn’t survive, some other found their hands empty and just felt helpless. It’s a kind of obsession.

It’s also why “magic”, even if it makes a significant impact, never comes ahead of the narrative. In the end it is all “fluff” if it’s not somewhere and somehow deeply rooted into something “true”. Creating fictional worlds gives that type of conceit and delusion, you think you are creating something other and independent, but it would be all truly meaningless if whatever level of abstraction wouldn’t come back on the ground to feed on something true.

At some point I was convinced that “feeding on something true” means that things are ultimately linked, because if something is true, then it should also be universal in a way or another. So you dig and enjoy the discovery.

Sometimes links are fun if relatively harmless. For example this. I ordered two books. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and its companion since I read it’s good and I always enjoy to tap on more insight and have more ways to understand a text. For me, the more the better. If I enjoy a book I could as well read about the book forever, especially if it allows for this depth.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a book that should do that. Being much more staggering than its physical shape. Like Erikson or DF Wallace. Books that aren’t simply contained in this world, but that actually seem themselves to contain the world. The display of the omnipotence of literature. Actually, I don’t know if GR does this. I bought the book because I hope it does.

GR is also itself made of links. Which makes it challenge definitions and boundaries. Defy whatever limit you put in front of it. It’s “just” 776 pages, but they can sure bite your ass.

Anyway, the harmless links are to “Lost” (the TV series). This was still happening a few days after Lost finale, so everything echoed nicely. The very first page that starts with a quote:

“Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.” -Werner von Braun

Quite fitting since we were dealing with the afterlife after Lost finale. From the companion:

“I believe… that the soul of a Man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.” -Benjamin Franklin

Even more fitting, don’t you agree?

Pynchon’s depictions of technological, psychological, and paranormal research all demonstrate how modern culture secularizes that redemptive hope.

I’m actually convinced that “culture” is our true redemptive hope. And the book in question is so defined:

American Pop and material culture, the occult, varieties of pseudoscience, real science, vernacular geography


Perhaps if you smashed together the dozen best novels of Philip K. Dick you would have something that approaches it – a pulpy low-culture version of Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s tempting to say, except that not the least of Pynchon’s revolutions is how he obliterated the distinction of low and high culture, at least for anyone paying attention.

Lots of stuff, apparently un-linked. Good stuff. Coherent with what I wrote here and before. Don’t let genres and boundaries limit your perception. Reach out and enjoy something true, no matter how outrageous or absurd it appears. You are your own limit.

This should be fun.

No idea if there’s some truth, but my first thought about the rocket on the cover was that it symbolizes a… pen. The writing seen as the ultimate truly subversive or catastrophic activity.

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Hypocrisy! It’s surrounding! (on genres and categorization)

So, blogger I overall admire writes about “myopic” points of view, and to illustrate his theory he shows how myopic is himself. I can’t comment in detail because I’ve not read most of that stuff, but:

R. Scott Bakker, The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor series – Bakker is a friend of mine, and while I do enjoy his erudite take on epic fantasy, his is not (as he’ll readily admit) a story that’s going to have mass appeal outside of certain gender/age demographics and online forums.

I haven’t read Bakker in detail, and while it’s obvious that his series doesn’t have a “mass appeal”, it’s the qualification to be rather hypocrite. “certain gender/age demographics and online forums” shows some serious generalization and prejudice. Why the need to build these sharp boundaries and categories? There are surely more useful considerations to make instead of deciding in advance who could or couldn’t enjoy a particular book or writer.

Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont, Malazan books – Although each has some interesting anthropological perspectives that enrich their shared-world setting, I wouldn’t think of these books as being anything more than just continuations from what Glen Cook, Jack Vance, or Michael Moorcock has done with their epic fantasy/sword and sorcery tales.

Huh? No really. I’ve read Erikson. Saying that his books have the same intent of Glen Cook or Moorcock (haven’t read Vance enough to say) is some silly claim. Glen Cook inspired Erikson directly, he took and played with certain aspects of those books and the terse prose, and of Moorcock there’s only a vague similarity of mood. But that would be the same as every writer out there who read and was inspired by someone else. Is David Foster Wallace irrelevant or lessened because of William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon? Really? So we can roll all those writers into a generalized “Don DeLillo”? They all do the same stuff and so are not relevant to be considered on their own terms? They write a genre and are limited by it?

You really think literature is that powerless and strictly bound? You really think that those writers merely stand in someone else’s shoes? That’s ungrateful for every name I made, the same as with Erikson and those other names. For them it would probably be the biggest offense you can make.

Then there’s the link to Werthead’s article. Which is pretentious fluff:


The ‘new fantasy’ is much harder to pin down. Broadly it refers to fantasy which is either grittier and more realistic than previous ‘safe’ authors, or to traditional epic fantasy which has taken on some of the ideas and tropes of steampunk and the New Weird (a fantasy movement sparked off in 2000 with China Mieville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION but which has now more or less merged with fantasy in general). Or indeed, both.

“It refers”? You mean you stumbled on a piece of paper that had “new fantasy” written on it and you started to wonder what it may be about? Nothing refers to anything, especially “made up” words. It refers to whatever you want it to mean, and as long you persuade enough people to agree on that definition.

Here you make it sound like you gawked at the sky to discover some kind of truth pertinent to a category of books.

a number of more ‘old-school’ authors who reject some of these new ideas in favour of a solid story, well-told, are also incorporated into the movement, leading to the conclusion that ‘the new fantasy’ is nothing more than fantasy works simply published in the last few years.

The mind boggles. So you’re saying that “solid story, well-told” is antithetic to “New Fantasy”. This new fantasy must really suck if it’s qualified by a weak story badly told.

But, HEY, it seems there are also good writers that found themselves into this new genre, so I guess it’s not possible anymore to claim: New Fantasy = CRAP.

So, basically, here we learn: Beware, not all New Fantasy is crap.

The following is a list of authors who may be said to work in this movement:

“May be said”. By who we’ll never know. It must be some mythical creature who tells the writers in which “movement” they are supposed to work. And don’t dare contradicting the Beowulf, or it swallows you whole.

Follows a list of relatively well known writers and his overall opinion about them. I wouldn’t criticize this all that much because it’s supposed to just give a general idea so that a reader may then look further if there’s something that gets the attention. I could argue endlessly about what he says, for example calling Abercrombie’s first novel “very traditional” gives a very wrong idea of it. If it was “very traditional” the book would’ve never ended in my reading pile and I wouldn’t have read it and considered it excellent. Daniel Abraham gets the benefit of the longest description and a summary, probably because he’s his current “protege” that needs promotion since the first series didn’t sell enough and the last book didn’t get the mass market edition. He defines Bakker as “adventurous”, which is really perplexing. Martin is “Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE remains the dominant work of epic fantasy in the genre”. Dominant of what or who? Sales? Aren’t sales consistently lower than, say, Jordan or Goodkind? I’m really asking. I know the series sold a lot, but I don’t think it “dominated” the sales of the whole genre. Or maybe those are too old? But wasn’t “New Fantasy” the fantasy released in “the last few years”? Martin released one book in the last 10 years. I doubt he “dominated” anything at all. But in general I wouldn’t mess or argue too much with opinions. Everyone is entitled to his own and they are good for a more specific discussion. It’s when they are set as absolute canons that they are dangerous.

But the discussions on genres and classifications are ALWAYS stupid for the simple reason that it’s implied that a “genre” is a strict definition that corresponds to an objective “Truth”. So the need to define absolute canons and even a neatly organized ladder from “most relevant” writer to the least. With the illusion that this is actually something more than a very personal opinion.

We have from a side one who claims he can define objectively “The state of modern epic/secondary world fantasy”. The supreme judge. And on the other side one who criticized the first for being myopic because his view of the genre is too narrow in scope. This is not a problem of scope, this thing is stupid because these are irrelevant generalizations that have no place in reality. They represent your, and only your, limit and consequent necessity of simplification and generalization.

Hint: “genres” do not exist. They are created and used to simplify things. They are tools, not canons, to reduce the world out there to a manageable state. Like words in general, “genres” are arbitrary categories where you put whatever you want. It means that what you put in there is decided by you, not by any objective rule. There are no sharp boundaries if not those you arbitrarily make, so there’s no correct or better definition of a genre. Debating whether a book is in or out a certain genre is like debating in which bookcase of your bedroom this or that book goes. It’s the same of someone who argues aloud with himself. So if you are the one who makes the choice have at least the courage to take the responsibility of it. It’s not “THE STATE OF”, it’s “my opinion on some stuff I read recently”.

Define the market if you want, since the market follows certain concrete rules, facts and categories, but do not try to categorize and define culture. The boundaries and limits only exist in your head.

You want to make a blog about “fantasy”, or whatever definition of fantasy that is so broad that includes everything, go on. The god of Language won’t come to take its toll. I titled my own blog “Cesspit”. You can be sure that everything can fit in.

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