New Malazan covers for American market

Lot’s of things I’m following off the blog. A number of Q&A sessions with Erikson and now Esslemont too on and also the usual weekly re-reads.

Today I received from the bookdepository a copy of “The Bonehuters”, American Tor mass market freshly reprinted with the new cover (UK version). This is at the moment the best mass market format, slightly smaller than UK MM and looking more solid & flexible. The interior (font, pagination) is exactly the same of the UK version (so a very good thing). At the moment only this and Midnight Tides are available in shops in this updated style (plus Dust of Dreams when it comes out next month), so I asked Irene Gallo (Tor art director) if they were going to release the books in a consistent style. Here is her reply:

We are trying to standardize the series as the older books run out of stock and we need to reprint. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen in series order.

It will take a while I guess.

I’m a bit torn about what is going to be my reading copy since I love both this updated MM but also the “UK book club” hardcover edition that is much smaller than classic hardcover. But in the meantime I should deal with The Way of Kings and The Darkness that Comes Before :)

Quick (comics) update

After Disciple of the Dog I gave reading priority to The Way of Kings so that I can vary the tone before I continue with Bakker’s first fantasy book. It will take a while even if Sanderson’s book reads quickly.

In the last couple of days I’m also reading some comics. I was a dedicated comics reader when Claremont was hot on the X-Men (so almost 20 years ago, heh, the cover here is one of the first issues I read) and I used to read pretty much everything, also because in Italy comics are published in bundles of 3 or 5 in one issue, so it’s easier to cover everything. Then I stopped for a number of years and came back when Marvel decided to go back to fancy crossovers, with Avengers Disassembled. That was in 2004.

I still think that since Avenger Disassembled Marvel produced the very best stuff ever. Fuck the golden age. There is one grand plot that waved together all stories and all series for years. It’s simply awesome but you can only appreciate this if you really read everything published and get the Big Picture. Lots of the consequences and story directions also seem a reaction to the reign of Grant Morrison on the mutant series that lasted about three years. Morrison is one of my favorite writers in comics but I also like a lot everything that happens afterward even if it tries to take apart and reset all that Morrison did before. These big cycles of construction and then dismantling are what defines the Marvel universe at the core.

With Avengers Disassembled all Marvel series started to converge. That first crossover was actually just a big test in order to oil the cogs and practice. Lots of growing pains, stories that made no sense, but it got things definitely moving. It was basically about the story of Scarlet going nut and risking to take apart everything. It ended with Magneto coming from the sky and taking Scarlet away with him. It was all just in preparation for House of M, a proper crossover that started the year after. In the meanwhile a lot of preparatory work continued, including Claremont writing a rather bad series but that at least was doing a lot of laundry work and start to put all the pieces together. That’s the destiny of Claremont in (relatively) recent years. He passes a year carefully building, then a crossover comes and sweeps away everything he had done, and then he starts meticulously rebuilding again from scratch. While guys such as Bendis or Millar write great one-shot stories and cycles, with lots of immediate punch and fun value (and little care about who comes after and has to put things back together, they just blow up stuff in spectacular ways), Claremont instead builds things slowly and long term. Sadly it seems the market doesn’t allow that anymore.

Anyway, big sweeping plot that builds up to House of M, a well written crossover that has a great ending since it brings consequences for the whole Marvel universe. It doesn’t just end, but props up nicely all things to come. The mutant series get a number of separate storylines and miniseries that are well coordinated in a big story and written really well. The more all this goes on, the more all series start to work better in the unitarian context and Big Sweeping Story. Which all leads to Civil War, probably the best handled and biggest crossover Marvel ever realized considering all its consequences and deep impact on all series. That’s more or less where I stopped reading even if it was the highest point.

One huge story that goes from 2004 to 2007. After Civil War there was the Hulk Crossover and then Bendis continues his own reign. I lost track of things so I don’t know where are things now, but I got the impression that even this cycle passed and we’re back giving each writer autonomy and detach single series from big sweeping events that require everyone to adapt.

These days instead I’m catching up from the mutant side. I wanted to read just the latest mutant crossover, but then I discover that it’s the final part of a trilogy of crossovers: Massiah Complex, Messiah War, Second Coming. So I go to the first but I discover that it has a prelude crossover: Endangered species. So I go to this one and it makes no sense because it continues some previous story about the Summers (which was connected to the bigger consequence of Scarlet’s actions at the end of House of M). So I look up that story as well and I find out I’m exactly in the place where I left. And there’s Claremont (Uncanny X-Men #466). It’s January 2006, so events that start with Avengers Disassembled in 2004 and end up in Summer 2010. Quite a nice story arc :)

Comics definitely need renovation, but I don’t think it’s in the renewals and resets. Marvel stayed actual because it tacked mature themes and made super hero comics approach things more realistically. It acquired a lot of depth. A product of modernity: they continued to say things that are actual today. Even social commentary. I think all writers did a wonderful work these years. I miss the meticulous builders like Claremont, but in the end even Bendis built on his own the premises of all he realized today (starting with Alias and Devil, that was between 2001 and 2004, so you can see how things went on for a whole decade). And all this also had very positive impact because even DC got better even if it stays more faithful to the trope of the super-hero and super stories more shielded from modernity and reality.

20 years later and I still enjoy reading comics when I have the opportunity.

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Disciple of the Dog – Scott Bakker

The pain with this book more than reading it is trying to write a review. How to frame it? It left me reeling for sure. There are a number of ideas explored that seemed to echo with some my own thoughts pre-existing the book, this further reflected toward the end of the book by a strong in and out of text deja-vu whose implications are far too tangled for me to make any sense of them (I should also try to second-guess some that Bakker did, that would bring a whole new level of complication). Just to say: the book messed a bit with my head. But that was almost expected, knowing well the kind of writer. The blending in and out of character, in and out of the book, and between facets of different characters echoing each other is a prevalent defining trait.

I’ll try to introduce things. This is a lean book, 249 pages, written in first-person by a private detective that at once fills the canon and pushes it beyond extreme. Bakker is the kind of writer that when sees a boundary pushes down on the accelerator. What’s absolutely banished and tabu is any idea of moderation or compromise. But in the beginning we have the broke and cynical private detective with his filthy office next a filthy road, who fucks his secretary and is a smartass all around. Very anti-hero. Very pulpy, very effective in positioning itself in a category easily recognizable. The story in the book will be about investigating the case of a missing attractive young woman that was caught in a religious cult of weirdos who think the world is about to end and that everyone of us is only playing a role on the stage of a fake theater. All Matrix-like (including the technology, but don’t focus on this distracting element). The catchphrase supposed to sell the book is: “Imagine being able to remember everything you’ve ever experienced.” That’s the peculiarity of our detective but, voided of its implications, only sounds as quirky and not all that potentially intriguing. I’m sure the cult’s belief is much more seductive for the occasional reader.

Coming from this perspective the core of the book is in how the two aspects feed and become mirrors of each other. We have different layers that repeat the same idea, we have parts of the books that repeat, we have characters that repeat, and we have “repeat” as an concept thoroughly developed. Having a “perfect” memory here isn’t the meta-device for the unreliable narrator, its implications are much more far reaching and pervasive. It messes with reality, it lifts a veil, it reveals what one won’t be able to endure and adapt to. It’s a door. Once you pass through the threshold there’s no way of coming back. It’s THE enlightenment:

“Psycho? What do you think happens when God – the God Almighty – lands in your brain? You think you stay sane? Read your Bible, bitch. All his vessels crack. All of ’em!”

Only that is one, of the many, false trails. One twisted mirror. A hint of truth dressed as the blatant lie. It puts in the seed of suspicion and lets it soak. This books actively manipulates you, and it does it blatantly as more subtly at the same time, without you noticing it. One consequence of having a perfect memory, the one that is the most representative of its unsettling potency, is about the perception of “people”, as I already described it:

We, “normal people”, perceive expressions and attitudes of others like something transitory, while the people themselves are real and come first. But for him, his perfect memory makes him recognize the same expressions and attitudes across different people, to the point that it’s those expressions that he recognizes and categorizes, while the people themselves become transitory. People that appear as collections of deja-vus and known patterns. People that repeat. Masks. Oblivious actors playing a role, rehashing over and over.

The perfect memory is a bug in the system. An error. A joke the nature played on him. Birth defect. As a human he simply does not function correctly. But what if this condition reveals a truth that wasn’t supposed to be disclosed? What if this truth is too painful to endure? What happens if you lift the veil of reality and watch in horror what’s beyond? What if there’s no way to pull it back down and pretend you haven’t seen anything? “All his vessels crack.”

Bakker is more known as a fantasy writer. “The Prince of Nothing” series I’ve recently started to read. Facing Disciple Manning, the cynical detective of this book, is the same as facing Kellhus, the prophet from The Prince of Nothing. In the prologue of that book Kellhus meets Leweth, a guy living a solitary life in a forest. In the short time they pass together Kellhus “lifts the veil” on Leweth’s life and makes him realize that his life was all built on lies he fabricated by and for himself. With that realization comes the death.

Ignore the Merge sign long enough, and sooner or later somebody gets killed.

Truth destroys, it doesn’t heal. Breaks you. Forgetting is healing. Even the idea that “truth” is desirable is a conceit, a lie we tell ourselves. The point is: we are hardwired to be stupid, to be hypocrite. Hypocrisy implies a certain amount of forgetfulness. To forget all those things that can’t be manipulated to our own advantage. The brain shields from truth, it has safety triggers so that we can lead a functional life. Truth instead has the power to “dislodge”. The insight you gain is dangerous and may well destroy you. Once it’s done there’s no Matrix-like blue pill that can save you. You stop working the way you’re supposed to, think out of the frame and you’re doomed. You bit the apple from the Tree of Knowledge: God hates you. (Hint: David Foster Wallace didn’t survive himself, Hal in Infinite Jest freaks out once he becomes too aware and can’t sort things anymore. People break all the time when they start seeing too much. Insomnia is the state of the mind when it works too well for its own sake.) Living with a perfect memory corresponds to see the horror, without pause. Every instant. You can’t filter, sort, select, reinterpret. You can’t find a way out that makes life and suffering bearable. You can’t find meaning, belief or excuse. There’s no place to hide from yourself.

Reading this book is like having a face down directly with Kellhus. With the difference that you do not have a Leweth playing as a filter, here Kellhus/Disciple talks directly with you and his “social commentary” will stick needles in your skin. He is an ass, he is egocentric, he is arrogant:

I sit in perpetual judgment.

But it’s through understanding that you see all the flaws as necessary and justified. Stepping back, it’s like Bakker himself is trying to pick flaws in his reasoning, try every possible perspective to find a breach, whether through cold reasoning or through defiant irreverence and constant scorn, but the result is all the same.

“The Framers” is the name of this religious cult and their belief becomes a very slightly distorted version of what Disciple represents. They have two opposite stances, him and the cult, appear as adversaries of opinions, but soon you’ll see how the two different perspectives overlap and match almost perfectly. Disciple sees people as actors and collections of deja-vu. Self-deluding machines who build their own conceits and prosper in false belief. The Framers believe that everyone is an actor with no perception of the actual “true self”. The difference is merely in context and visualization. Where Disciple stops at showing the conceit without providing answers, The Framers “dress” it and contextualize: the world is about to end and we live a dream as the only way to escape.

I’m aware that Bakker’s first effort out of the fantasy genre, Neuropath, was criticized because it was too much “theory” and not enough story and characters. As if reading like a textbook. What Bakker achieves in this book is about soaking the theory into something concrete and available as direct experience. You don’t have to chase the writer through pindaric flights that are hard to follow, everything is grounded in the matters at hand, contextualized, practical and pragmatic. This book drops all frills and decorations, all diversions and derails, it goes straight to the point. Its strength is in the lack of hypocrisy that is built-in the narrative voice. The writing is teeth and nails, it goes for the bone. It’s stripped of everything superfluous and that way it’s much more effective and searing than his fantasy series. It goes to the point in the first three pages, that work like a manifesto for the rest of the book. This to say: it can’t feel any more authentic and direct. It pulls no punches.

On the other side, the type of journey isn’t that of typical thriller even if all the elements of typical thrillers are all present, done cleverly, and fully delivered, including a number of surprises and reversals in the last few pages (20 pages from the end one feels hanging from too many threads, but they are all wrapped up neatly, while also leaving space for thought once the book is finished). It’s still heavy in introspection and the plot itself moves slowly. Most of the surprises that build the bigger block of the book are all on the very subtle side, while true surprises that bend the plot only come to enliven the finale. What drives the book and makes it so brilliant that it won’t possibly bore is the “insight”, the depth and incisiveness of observation, and, especially, the sense of humor that holds all of this together. A sense of humor that is obviously nailed on the character, so filled with cynicism, awful puns and shocking, outrageous commentary.

I’d say that this is one of the most, if not the most, extraordinary books I’ve read. Literally. Extra-ordinary. Far from whatever you may have read up to this point. You just can’t find (easily?) a book like this and I can imagine it won’t easily find its public. Not everyone likes to be punched right in the face. Many, and it’s not a fault, read to be lulled, Bakker instead messes with you and tries everything he can and then more to shake the reader. His writing is subversive to the core, outrageous and irreverent. Filled with venom. Disciples says as much: “I’m not safe. I’m poison.” And he doesn’t do this as a tease, but because it’s true: you’re warned. This book lifts a few veils, it all depends if you really want to see what’s beyond. There are risks. It isn’t fun, and it’s not pretty. There is also a dearth of answers.

God’s greatest trick was convincing the world that belief was hard.

Stonewielder, first comments & details

Pat received the page proofs of Stonewielder. The official release is 25 November and official page count is the same as RotCG, 720 pages. It’s odd because Pat says the book is 635 pages and so there’s quite a gap to fill with just map + glossary + Dramatis Personae. Someone speculated there may be an excerpt from The Crippled God, but it’s unlikely as Hardcovers don’t usually have excerpts of any kind. I estimate the wordcount at 250k.

Update: Pat also posted the map that goes with the book, map of the Korel subcontinent. I saved it along my collection of the other maps.

As usual the interesting part is about Pat’s ongoing comments on the book:

Okay, about 100 pages into Stonewielder, so here’s the first update:

Esslemont’s narrative skills have improved yet again, and he seems to be finding his voice.

So Greymane and Kyle are laying low in Delanss, where Greymane opened a fighting school. But shit happens, and it seems that Greymane won’t get to enjoy the perks of retirement. . .

Someone tries to enter the Deadhouse with a surprising plan in mind. . .

An ex-priest of Fener sets up shop in Banith, but soon finds out that he’s disturbing the established order of things. . .

And a new character with Toblakai blood is introduced. . .

There’s more, of course, but that’s about it for now.

Good start. Good pace. Better writing all around. More promising than Return of the Crimson Guard at this point. . .

Now 217 pages into Stonewielder. . .

As far as the writing is concerned, it is by far Esslemont’s best effort.

And now the plot thickens, with a lot of good shit ahead, or so it seems!

Just found out why the Korelri campaign fucked up and seemed to be on a standstill for so long. . .

Okay, I’m done with Book 2.

Stonewielder features a much better pace than RotCG, which makes for a more enjoyable reading experience. Not only has Esslemont’s narrative improved, but so have his characterization skills. In many aspects, this one reads more and more like an Erikson Malazan book.

And though one of the principal storylines focuses on the Malazan invasion, unlike RotCG, the author doesn’t feel the need to throw yet another battle scene every ten pages or so. Although this is a multilayered tale, I feel that Esslemont keeps a tighter focus on the various plotlines.

As is usually the case with a Malazan installment, this one raises way more questions than it provides answers. And the answers usually raise yet more questions.

One thing that bugs me is the timing of this one. Why the hell, when everything in the Malazan Empire is going to shit, did the new Emperor decide to renew a military campaign that went down the crapper over a decade before? Insofar as I’ve read, there is no hint as to what could possibly interest him in the lands of Fist to launch such an invasion. . .

The cult of the Blessed Lady is another enigma, or the Lady is in any case. Whoever she is, Goddess or Ascendant, it feels weird that we haven’t heard about her by now. Even with her ancient name, I can’t find anything about her. . . And given how powerful she is, I feel that more should have been hinted at. Though, to be honest, Erikson hasn’t been very forthcoming about the Korel campaign in his books. The reason why being one of the most interesting secrets about Stonewielder. . .

There is more to Kyle than meets the eye, and it has nothing to do with his blade. Get used to him because, like the Crimson Guard, I have a feeling that he will be one of the star players in every ICE Malazan books.

Can’t really say more without spoiling everything. And unless everything goes to shit in the last 200 pages or so, I’d say that Esslemont has a real winner here!

Reading On

What I’m reading:

First priority goes to one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read, and it’s the recently released Disciple of the Dog by Scott Bakker, the Prince of Nothing guy. Subversive to the core and makes every line one wonderfully crafted quote. Supposed to be some kind of thriller about a missing girl who belonged to a cult of weirdos who think the world was just a fake stage where everyone plays a role after having been hypnotized and forget reality (something like The Matrix). Only that this conceit is actually used to describe how the world actually IS. What we live every day. We have these two contrasting sides, one pitted against the other, that morph into scary mirrors.

The protagonist is built with the idea that he can’t forget anything, the perfect memory. One interesting consequence is about his perception of “people”. We, “normal people”, perceive expressions and attitudes of others like something transitory, while the people themselves are real and come first. But for him, his perfect memory makes him recognize the same expressions and attitudes across different people, to the point that it’s those expressions that he recognizes and categorizes, while the people themselves become transitory. People that become collections of deja-vus and known patterns. Oblivious actors.

Now down the priority list I continue to read Bakker’s fantasy The Darkness that Comes Before, which is excellent but obviously much more scattered and divergent compared to the book above. And then The Way of Kings which works well if I read it after Disciple so that I can actually go to sleep more relaxed ;)

I’m also reading Proust Swann’s Way. I’m italian, Proust writes in French, and I’m reading him in English. It doesn’t make sense but Penguin made this edition that seems to have a very good translation and is indeed a pleasure to read. Everyone should read some Proust, it’s maybe one of the most accessible among the literary writers. Very much evocative. It’s not one of those things that make reading feel like work and that one usually associates with the Big Names.

Besides, there’s this nice interplay between Proust and Bakker’s book. Perfect memory from a side and involuntary memory from the other. One who hopes to get away from his memories for once, and the other desperately trying to seize them while they elude him. Incidentally Bakker’s character is the biggest cynic ever, while Proust is the exact opposite: one who cares and is desperately searching.

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