Prince of Nothing maps

I hunted around for good copies of the maps printed in the “Prince of Nothing” trilogy, same as I did for Malazan.

The US edition of the book is rather badly done, the map is printed on two pages and the central part is missing. So here are the two maps in the best resolution I could find. These are better even than the official ones Bakker provided on his site (which I think is now offline).

The Western Three Seas

Literature as a consolatory device

I took the occasion of a forum discussion to delve in some ideas I was brooding for some time. It’s again the ideal link between all the books I’ve read lately, with “Infinite Jest” as the central pillar.

The discussion about characters is the excuse to examine literature and its position in the grand scheme of things.

the soldiers are just random mouthpieces for the author, who’ll switch attitude (I cannot speak of personalities: they don’t actually have personalities) with every scene. It’s not really hard to be more powerful than that :)

Take Gardens of the Moon. On my first read I could hardly match a Bridgeburner name with the corresponding character, if I did the description of the personality of that character would still be rather limited.

I’m following Tor re-read of the same book now. With the struggle to memorize names and context out of the way I’m discovering a whole new layer in characterization that was almost entirely missing on my first read. Dialogue that was before just between anonymous masks is now consistent with the character and unexpectedly rich in nuances. I feel like I’m reading a wholly different book. Not just consistent but filled to the brim with cross-references that required the insight I didn’t have before. Things to glide over or just producing a big question mark to then move on with the reading. The last two pages I’ve read about Rallick Nom gave an introspection and depth to the character that I didn’t remember was there, written really well. The tension of Kalam and Quick Ben when they are found by Sorry, and the realization that what they thought was correct, and that it meant they would be dead. Or when they leave for their mission, knowingly reciting a number of delusions as to exorcise them. Then the scene with Whiskeyjack waiting for them with the rest of the squad, a scene where every line adds something to the characterization and true friendship of the whole squad, the dialogue between them, and then the arrival of Quick Ben who cringes in front of WJ, and WJ losing his patience. An undeniable feel that these characters have been together for a really long time, and not just since the beginning of the written page. Characters that come out of the page, with natural dialogue between them and drawn from they are, and not directed to the reader.

That scene is as great as any Black Company scene written by Glen Cook, and it’s from a book that is far from the best Erikson delivered when it comes to characterization.

The confusion and inconsistency isn’t of the characters, it is of the reader. The books pretend a reader to memorize and familiarize way more than it is possible, way more than what it is reasonable to ask, and that’s why re-reads are so revelatory in this series about both characters and plot. The confusion of the reader is undeniable because the series represents the far opposite of “accessibility”. It’s actually a big flaw the series has. It is inimical, too dense and unwieldy. But the characterization is there in that ink and it is consistent. It requires more patience than usual because you only get quick glimpses at a great number of characters, and they only become “real” characters with an adequate amount of pages and time, time that is definitely not easily available among readers who are already having an hard time getting through a so dense book and digesting Erikson parsimonious writing style.

Erikson’s characterization can be compared to an impressionist painter who only delicately dabs and sketches. It will take time to familiarize and recognize a character for what it actually is, and to appreciate the panting that at a first glance appeared as just a confusion of random colors. The forms are in the painting, but it takes time to make the eye used to them and recognize them for their value.

This opposed to a traditional type of characterization (neither better nor worse, just different) where you stay in the mind of a character for the long haul. Full-on introspection that begins giving you the context of where and how that person is living, what he feels, what he loves, his fears, his desires. A thoroughly rationalized character. That makes a reader familiarize and understand it. Identify himself and so “caring” for the personal story and feel emotional attachment and empathy.

The heritage of “modern” fantasy was not in delivering characters that are “gray”. But in forcing the reader into their PoV. We often have warring factions, but we zoom into both of them, taking both sides. All of the recent fantasy with gray characters could be turned into solid black and white by just removing the corresponding PoVs. Without motivations and alternative observation points, every story becomes polarized.

The thing Erikson successfully or unsuccessfully tries to realize with his characterization is about starting to show that “stories” exist with the characters, but also in spite of them. The real world chews characters and spits them out, is disdainful of personal stories. A book can usually follow the life of a character through an ideal arc, whose premises define its conclusion. But that’s the nice trick and deceit that traditional literature does to the real world. The illusion that there is “sense” and “meaning”. Beginnings and ends. Justice. Retribution. Payoff. We create “meaning” out of a meaningless, unjust world. Lives are cut short and no one actually dies only once he solved his issues. Flaws, imperfection, lack of meaning and especially the lack of understanding of others are the things that are always true. Humanity is about the damnation of the deceit of seeing “meaning” where there is none. It’s a tragedy, and the Malazan series is written as a tragedy. It’s not “fantasy”, it’s a 1:1 copy of this world, a reflection on a only slightly misshapen mirror.

To grieve is a gift best shared. As a song is shared.
Deep in the caves, the drums beat. Glorious echo to the herds whose thundering hoofs celebrate what it is to be alive, to run as one, to roll in life’s rhythm. This is how, in the cadence of our voice, we serve nature’s greatest need.
Facing nature, we are the balance.
Ever the balance to chaos.

“in the cadence of our voice” means a written page. Language. Or what only separates humanity from the rest of life forms. (I am a man. I stand apart from these things.) Nature is the chaos from where we desperately scrape meaning.

With that lacerating truth in mind, Erikson realizes characters whose story (and characterization) is shred and tattered. Suspicion and opaqueness are traits that are true in our world. And if a foe suddenly turns into a possible ally it’s not “inconsistency”, it’s understanding. Full-on introspection doesn’t work like that even for ourselves. (Foster Wallace attempts “true” full-on introspection with the result that it generates a tremendous annihilating whirlpool that either sucks you in or hurls you away) We don’t have the privilege of a personal writer who overlooks what we do every day and inscribes meaning and finality into our lives. We are opaque and uncertain even to ourselves, even less to one that merely observes. Meaning is not “found” outside, it is created within. The story of the Malazan series is unmindful of characters, it’s up to the characters to find their path, only to see it end abruptly. And up to the reader to decide what to do with them.

The only journey that lay ahead of him was a short one, and he must walk it alone.
He was blind, but in this no more blind than anyone else. Death’s precipice, whether first
glimpsed from afar or discovered with the next step, was ever a surprise. A promise of
the sudden cessation of questions, yet there were no answers waiting beyond. Cessation
would have to be enough. And so it must be for every mortal. Even as we hunger for
resolution. Or, even more delusional: redemption.

Now, after all this time, he was able to realize that every path eventually, inevitably
dwindled into a single line of footsteps. There, leading to the very edge. Then… gone.
And so, he faced only what every mortal faced. The solitude of death, and oblivion’s final
gift that was indifference.

The Malazan series is not consolatory, it is about compassion and reconciliation.

The beauty that stilled

I couldn’t wait anymore to start reading R. Scott Bakker so I’ve taken The Darkness That Comes Before from the shelf even if I still have to finish The Red Tree, and before Sanderson’s Way of Kings flies over here. After being engaged deeply with Erikson, Bakker’s themes appear as a natural extension of what I’ve learned to appreciate. There’s some sort of dialogue between these books and I’m intrigued by what will come out.

What comes before determines what comes after. Dûnyain monks spent their lives immersed in the study of this principle, illuminating the intangible mesh of cause and effect that determined every happenstance, and minimizing all that was wild and unpredictable. Because of this, events always unfolded with granitic certainty in Ishuäl. More often than not, one knew the skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves. More often than not, one knew what another would say before he spoke. To grasp what came before was to know what would come after. And to know what would come after was the beauty that stilled, the hallowed communion of intellect and circumstance – the gift of the Logos.

See how this excerpt, from the prologue of Bakker’s book, will tie nicely with my next post.

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First and Only – Dan Abnett

This is a lean book that took me to read way more than expected, mostly because it fits the “other read” while I was engaged with more meaty books. A debut, as a writer writing books instead of comics, and first in a rather long series made of standalones. This is where Dan Abnett started writing Warhammer 40K, accordingly to the internet not his best effort in the field, but a decent and solid one still. Optional as a starting point since one could start right with Eisenhorn or the multi-writer crossover of the “Horus Heresy” currently being published. Instead this specific series, whose opening volume is “First and Only”, is made of twelve books already released with more planned, but the number shouldn’t discourage as the story moves either through standalone stories or story arcs that are over in three or four books. There are also these nice & cheap omnibus that pack together those arcs in mammoths of 800-1000 pages, so you’re not chasing in frustration a conclusion that never comes. You can satisfyingly read just one and stop, or go on as far as you want, guilt-free.

Genre is military sci-fi. Common theme to the series are “Gaunt’s Ghosts” a specific regiment in the Imperial Guard faction and the ongoing campaign on Sabbat Worlds, whose name correctly implies dealing with Chaos and defining Abnett’s own playground. Gaunt being the name of their leader and main character/hero, Ghosts being the nickname of said squad (the story will give some insight into the choice of the name and origin). It’s effectively tie-in fiction, and so branded with prejudice, but the fact is that Abnett is a competent writer who can stay perfectly within the canon, know what his public wants, and deliver a successful product. There’s nothing bleeding edge, innovative, or breaking the boundaries of the 40K setting, but the execution is good and the book delivers what it is meant to. Abnett can understand and squeeze out of the setting all the specific tropes that make it interesting and fascinating, and can write it so that it doesn’t feel plain and spoiled by the game it’s based on. Meaning that the “canon” successfully empowers instead of trivialize and conform. That’s always the gamble, knowing the canon and so knowing the “range” of the possible story, tiptoeing within the strictly defined perimeter. Abnett proves then that you can have fun with those toys instead of creating new ones, that there are qualities within to exploit.

Writing a good book here pairs with giving a specific audience “tied-in” the canon what it wants. I’m not really familiar with the setting so I can’t comment if the picture Abnett gives is a faithful one, but he definitely seem to get the basics that make it work. WH40K is an apocalyptic setting about excess and exaggeration, but also about human traits and artifacts brought to the extremes. The potential for drama is high, but also the potential for something spectacular and epic and ultimately fun. In this book Abnett bundles epic infantry warfare with military/political intrigue, so while the plot goes through a number of setpieces/key battles on various worlds, there’s also an overarching story that links and gives meaning to these battles, leading to a culmination where the import of all happened before is finally revealed. Both of these story threads are handled well through a structure that alternates the main battles with flashbacks from Gaunt’s life that slowly build the character and plot, and why the reader should care about them. Every “block” adds a piece, chunking the story in an episodic way, in which each battle/chapter is brought to a conclusion, and then linked to the specific arc that starts and ends within this lean book (vaguely similar to the first Black Company book). This results in a tight structure and plot where nothing is superfluous and where the pacing doesn’t slow down. The aim is set from the first page and the pacing is resolute and constant. The “fun” is there on plain sight, the action scenes equally distributed, and you don’t have to wade through weak parts to get to it. If you enjoy the ride you’ll enjoy it on every page without being let down.

Daylight rolled in with a wet stain of cloud, underlit by the continued bombardment. The lightening sky was streaked and cross-hatched by contrails, shell-wakes and arcs of fire from the massive Shriven emplacements in the distant shrouded hills. Lower, in the wide valley and the trench lines, the accumulated smoke of the onslaught, which had now been going on for just about twenty-one hours, dropping two or three shells a second, curdled like fog, thick, creamy and repellent with the stink of cordite and fycelene.

Abnett is rather good at writing what takes the stage the most: action scenes and some spectacular setpieces. There’s a sort of unintended anticlimactic effect since the battles escalate in size and impact, but the first one is the most successful because it mimics some aspect of WWII, with infantry moving through trenches and trying to survive heavy bombardments. The perspective of those men caught in the mess just works and resonates with the real scenes one is already familiar with. Some acts of desperate heroism, some unlucky sudden deaths, sudden change of plans, last minute saves. You can see some canonical situations taken from a number of movies that are here reinterpreted in the new setting, all the while, but without pushing too much, trying to give a name to those soldiers, slowly learning their roles and a couple of personality traits for each. The recipe is well known, after all. At the end of the book I was still struggling recognizing who’s who and there’s no character that delivered substantial depth or anything more than two-dimensional, but I also don’t think the book tried to go in that direction. It’s relatively unpretentious and focused on the fun things. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it is not even shallow. Characterization is proportional to its use and purpose within the scene. Some characters are even made for just one or two scenes, to then step out again (often dead). Fun, fast paced, straightforward, and with characters that are good enough to fit the situation and make it work. No more, no less.

The prose is functional too. It’s not bloated and at the same time it gives some impressive and effective imagery. Battles on a big scale are a complicate thing to deal with, especially battles that have so strong fantastic elements. Abnett deals with all this with ease and familiarity, not betraying the fact the book is a “debut”. Action is crystal clear, never confused and keeping a pace that doesn’t disrupt the flow. I guess that’s the most important aspect in writing this sub genre of military sci-fi. With the plot filled with surprises and the mysterious aspects being well managed, the book is quite successful all over. The only quirk in the prose I don’t personally like is that it can be way too pompous and rhetorical, including the metaphors used and the uncompromising manly men described. “Subtlety” is something banished here, everything is upfront and direct and explicit.

Fire patterns winked in the russet darkness. Yellow traceries of venomous death.

The turret guns screamed into life, blitzing out a scarlet-tinged, boiling stream of hypervelocity fire.

The plasma guns howled phosphorescent death into the void.

One has to wait the final battle develop to get the big revelation about what it was that Gaunt and his Ghosts chased for all the previous pages. While I said the structure of the book is solid and well executed, this can also be a problem because it’s as if the import and meaningfulness of what happens is left hanging and undecided till the end. It’s hard to trust the book because one can’t say till the last 20 pages if it’s going to be worth it or if it will be an hoax. The pre-finale, after the big revelation is dropped, is painfully predictable, but there are a number of pages left and even if the plot seems to have exhausted its fuel, it keeps going on and keeps surprising, tying together every small subplot even too neatly, including a nice bow. The surprises continue to come till the very last line, so even if the whole conclusion is made by a number of scenes that all feel somewhat trite and cliche, the overall result is fun and convincing thanks to the good execution of those traditional elements and scenes. Like an action movie that doesn’t disappoint.

I haven’t read any military sci-fi before this book, so I can’t gauge how it may compare. I think it is well executed and its strength are in its deliberate focus on action and intrigue, making a reckless and fun journey. The battles excellent and varied, from huge showdowns of thousands of men to chainsword duels, described in vivid gory detail. The downsides are built-in the model, many of the elements that compose both the story and characters are cliche and drawn/taking inspiration from the multitude of books and movies that have something in common with the genre, but I wouldn’t point this as a “flaw”, since the use of these conventional elements is competent and well realized. Even if dipped in predictability in various points I wasn’t bored by the plot and the pacing was perfect. I only faltered about the trust in the book, since as I said the stakes are only revealed at the very end and so the reader is kept in the dark about some major motivations. Also consider that this is a starting point and, accordingly to other readers’ comment who read more than me, Abnett only gets better. Truly recommended for those who look forward to some pulpy military sci-fi with a fast paced plot and epic battles that rock whole worlds.

Recommended Anime: Arakawa Under the Bridge, Kimi ni Todoke

I’m following Anime and quickly commenting them on Twitter. Anime in Japan are divided in the four seasons, each season corresponding to about 12 (weekly) episodes. Most anime are usually made of 12 or 24 episodes in total. The great thing is there are no “vacations”, so you get stuff to watch along the whole year with no summer or winter or spring breaks. There are about 10-30 brand new series every season. No scarcity of great stuff then.

So in the last year and half I tried at least to watch the very first episode of every new series. It’s fun and I got to sample some absurd stuff across all kind of genres. Anime can be quite versatile.

Making a list of the good stuff takes too much time because I can enjoy the most disparate things for a number of different reasons, so I’ll point just two that maybe aren’t even the best, but that are unique in their own way.

Arakawa Under the Bridge

Nino is just a too wonderful character and I’m in love with everything SHAFT (the animation studio) does. This is filled with quirky, bizzarre humor in a way that only Japanese can achieve. Completely batshit crazy with a wonderful direction and SHAFT-typical outrageous experimental stuff. Everything is excellent here, art, voices and songs.

Get it here:
(and make sure to switch to Nutbladder subs)

Kimi ni Todoke

This is instead school romance. But done in a way that makes it excellent and not trite. If you still have an heart somewhere you should watch this. It is also somewhat subversive in the way very typical situations are developed. It is made of win. Excellently done. Great characters. Also unbelievably immune to drama.

A batch is here (24 episodes total, for now):

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The Malazan Book of the Fallen closes at 3 Million 310 thousand words

While on other blogs the cover blurb for The Crippled God is being posted, I asked Hetan if she could provide the wordcount for this last novel in the series, and she did.

Being myself at the 5th book yet to start, the internet is now filled with spoilery perils, including that synopsis. Hopefully I won’t stumble on something that ruins my own reading in the next months and years. I have to hone my dodging and skimming skills.

So, this wordcount that Hetan provided is still tentative since the book is currently in the editing phase, but it should give a decent approximation of what to expect, and then sum up with the rest for the final count of this staggering (on all levels) achievement.

We’ll now wait for the cover and official release date. The tentative one is 20 January 2011

Here’s the summary:

Malazan Book of the Fallen – Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon: 209k
Deadhouse Gates: 270k
Memories of Ice: 351k
House of Chains: 306k
Midnight Tides: 271k
The Bonehunters: 365k
Reaper’s Gale: 386k
Toll the Hounds: 392k
Dust of Dreams: 382k
The Crippled God: 378k (tentative)

Total: 3M 310k

other wordcounts

Lost “true” finale

Even if the DVDs are supposed to be released later this month (I think) the 12-minutes extra with the new scenes is already all over the internet. It’s also brilliant.

I just didn’t expect the writers could be so shameless and brave. In 12 minutes they cram not only long-sought answers, but dialogue that is filled with mocking and teasing directed at the public.

The bad idea was to not include this right into the finale.

– There’s a new man in charge, he sent me.
– Sent you to do what?
– We’re closing this place down. So, you’re free to go. Before you leave, please lock the doors, turn out the lights.

– Wait. You can’t just walk out of here. We deserve answers!
– All right. Before I go, I’ll let you ask a question. But just one. So, make it count.

– How is there a polar bear on a tropical island?
– You guys have a DVD player?

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GotM quote

I’m re-reading some parts of Gardens of the Moon to follow the Tor official re-read and I’m amazed/dismayed to realize that most of the flaws I had noticed in the book, some of which even pointed out in my review, were only due to my lack of attention and familiarity with this series. The book is really incredibly dense with details I couldn’t pick up, so leading to call for apparent mistakes when it was just this reader who wasn’t being smart enough to catch the nuances ;)

Anyway, I just opened the book on a random page and found a nice Kruppe quote:

That one’s own skull is too worthy a chamber for deception to reign – and yet Kruppe assures you from long experience that all deceit is born in the mind and there it is nurtured while virtues starve.