The Curse of the Mistwraith – Janny Wurts

This book, and series, is particular to begin with because it’s very rare to see discussed in the usual places. It could appear as some old series buried and forgotten, written by a writer that was well known at one point but didn’t quite make into the Big Names that continue to be relevant. Instead this is a series “in the making”, right now. Series’ name is “The Wars of Light and Shadow” and will be completed (it will) in 11 volumes. The 9th comes out in October of this year and usually one can look forward to a two-years gap between each volume. I tend to have quite a bit of trust in the writer as I’ve read in her forums and interviews that she never strayed from her original plan and is strongly against series that “sag or sprawl”, as well as cliffhangers at the end of the book. In fact this series is structured in five different arcs, with each giving closure to the story at hand (this is true for the first book, that makes a single arc on its own).

It wasn’t in my reading queue as I had never heard about the writer, but curiosity took over. I certainly like Grand Plans in literature, akin legendary human achievements, and the more I started to gather information the more curious I got. Especially because of what I read in a interview, about the approach to the writing and the series. The name already gives a good idea about the central conflict that builds it. A war of “light” and “shadow”, mirrored by two brothers, opposite in nature and natural magic proficiency. The 800 pages of this first book are quite focused, the two main characters are the two brothers and the PoV rarely drifts away from them. The setting is broad and sprawling (at the periphery, since only a small chunk of the landmass shown in the map is actually explored) but there are only a dozen or so characters that gravitate around the two brothers. So the story is rather railed on its way and doesn’t sprawl. After 200 pages or so the course is set and one has the idea of the type of story that is shaping up. More confusing at the beginning, there’s a short opening page written from a point “out of time” (relatively, meaning an epoch distant from the one where events take place) that already frames this primary conflict, filling it with foreboding.

The story then opens not in some isolated farm or village at the periphery of the map, but outside the map itself (with me wasting a lot of time to find the location in the almost illegible map in the minute paperback, location that obviously wasn’t there). Another world, in fact, linked by portal. Only after the first 100 pages the two brothers get exiled and actually enter the “world” where the rest of the story will take place. Here the two brothers are immediately “rescued” by the “Fellowship”, a group of seven wizards that waited for this arrival for a long time, and that have already woven them tightly into their own plans (the “free will” is an important theme here). Athera, the world they come to, is plagued by some sort of curse in the form of a mist that completely obscures the sky, keeping this world in a permanent gloom, without sun or starry skies. The premise appeared to me quite ridiculous and fancy, but this superficial level is not the deal, and there’s indeed an interesting world hidden below (the mist).

Lead by prophecies, the first task that the Fellowship appoints to the two brothers/mages/future kings is to join forces, and powers of “light” and “shadow”, against this unnatural mist, so that Athera will be able to see a clear sky again. But this also becomes the trigger for the main conflict and the origin of all woes. The Fellowship’s plans and reasons are given a full exposure. They aren’t treated like an hidden manipulative organization with shady purposes. You can see the conflict of their motivations, of cause and effect. Be there when they decide the next move. Through a sort of “mage sight” they can “scry” all possible future events, and then decide which course to take. But the Mistwraith, the mist that covers the world and that arrived through another of the world portals, is an element “outside” the picture that doesn’t follow their know rules, and so can easily avoid prediction and distort the outcomes.

That element, and quite pivotal being the seed that sparks the whole conflict, is the part I liked the least. The first part of the novel is a very good description of the conflicted relationship between the two brothers. It opens amidst war and Arithon (the “shadow” brother) is taken prisoner. From this point onward the two brothers face each other directly, and slowly come to understand each other. The conflict is eased, almost resolved. But this is only the early part of the book and one is already well aware that the rest of the series is founded on this particular conflict. That’s the problem. This precise and deep, solid characterization is taken over by an escamotage. Essentially the whole conflict is sparked again by magic possession. It’s not truly convincing and it disrupts the work on characterization that precedes it. There’s some justification of what happens that surely grounds it better, but never coming off as so convincing:

Where opening did not already exist, the creature could not have gained foothold.

…But it certainly gives the decisive shove. The fantastic element becomes strength and weakness. The weakness I already described (the conflict has its root in magic, and magical unbalance) but it is also a strength in the way Janny Wurts builds this setting. The fantastic element is always a delicate part in fantasy novels regardless of who writes them. For many readers who prefer to stay away from the genre, the “fantasy” is something that opens a wide gap and so feels not relevant. Something alien or too estranged from a reality that is actual and matters. So a way to mystify truths, an excess of decoration. A fancy dress for a trite, juvenile argument. But here also lies the difference between the greatest fantasy writers and the rest: they use the “fantasy” not to dress but to strip reality of its layers. To reveal instead of hide. To go at the root of things, to understand deeply and without hypocrisy. As Janny Wurts said:

Fantasy allows discussion of sensitive topics with the gloves off.

That’s also the aspect I tend to criticize in the work of much bigger names in Fantasy. Martin being an example, being somewhat wary or suspicious about the “fantasy” element, and so keeping it almost off the page, far at the periphery, because it would upset the natural balance of a novel. And then without really understanding it and without knowing how it can be used once the series moves in that direction (a brilliant review of ADWD deals with these aspects).

This romantic idea of a world covered in mist, the plausibility of it and acceptance of the reader, are then the purpose of fantasy. Not to embellish or narrate of worlds that do not exist. But to speak intimately about ourselves. The inner world. The fantastic element is not a decoration or a veil that hides, but the coming of the revelation, a veil that comes off to let one see. It deepens the perception. And that’s why fantasy has the responsibility to stay grounded and cling to something that has to be meaningful and necessary. Not consolatory wishful-thinking, but language that is powerful and ambitious in its purpose.

I put Janny Wurts in the wide area of Erikson or Bakker for these reasons. Writing the “pretentious”, ambitious fantasy. Writing in the genre as a strength instead of a liability. With a clear vision of what they are doing and why. Janny Wurts has a far more classical/romantic style that keeps her more apart, even if not shying away from the brutality of the fight that closes the book. She keeps all the sharp, “gritty” edges, not blunted by romantic undertones (that are still there aplenty). The book has the vague feel of the Wheel of Time, but written from an adult and “serious” perspective. It has the strong classical feel and embraces the fantasy element, but the setting is solid and realistic, perfectly nailed and one of the best described in the genre. So is the magic, I’ve never seen (or thought possible) to describe magic in a so vivid way. It’s tangible. Whereas magic is usually kept vague and abstract, only dabbed in description, Janny Wurts describes minutely the details and behaviors, managing to make sense of it and keep it consistent. Often compared to the complexity of music and its rules, that can then be analyzed through great effort and manipulated:

a loophole in the world’s knit that hinged on a theoretical blend of fine points

The Fellowship, the group of powerful wizards that take care of the world, is not kept distant from the reader. The book offers their PoV directly and so the description and interpretation of their use of magic. They even behave as you’d expect of people wielding that kind of power and awareness: by manipulating directly every event in a brutal, arrogant way, yet coming off as the “good” guys. Even if in the end their actions become self-serving, and their attempts to restore their own power triggers all sort of cascading disasters. Relatively “good”, as this is another series that pivots around the idea of “gray” characters only driven and justified by their motivations. In the same vein of “modern” fantasy that “doubles” and opposes the PoV, treating equally both sides caught in a war. In this book this is the real driving theme, as the conflict between “light” and “shadow” is driven by respective flaws. It’s a story about making hard choices, accepting compromises that imply costs impossible to tolerate, and yet taking responsibility for all of this.

Whose cause took priority? In this world of divisive cultures and shattered loyalties, no single foundation of rightness existed.

But beside all this, it’s really a weird book and not one that I can easily recommend. The prose is an aspect I left on the sideline but that is the most important when it comes to decide whether or not to read this book. It is so lush and thick that it’s almost impossible to extricate (feels like work). I can’t even imagine how it can appear to those who use to “skim read”. It requires a lot of attention to keep track of things and there’s the constant risk that the eye glazes over, so you always have to keep that control and not sink whole in the prose. Beautiful, beautiful prose, surely, lush descriptions and minute, chiseled characterization and psychology, but it requires an effort.

Amid that graveyard of ravaged splendour, of artistry spoiled by war in a cataclysmic expression of hatred, arose four single towers, each as different from the other as sculpture by separate masters. They speared upward through the mist, tall, straight, perfect. The incongruity of their wholeness against the surrounding wreckage was a dichotomy fit to maim the soul: for their lines were harmony distilled into form, and strength beyond reach of time’s attrition.

A prose that soars, but in a way that often risks to become a huge yawn. The reader is only human, and attention has always the tendency to slip off. Not all that much brisk dialogue that feels like a chilly breeze. You often have to wade through beautiful, but thick, paragraphs of intricate description (of both psychology and landscape, treated equally). And yes, the book is SLOW. There’s a point where I draw the line, though. I don’t feel that the book meanders or overindulges in description of stuff that is not relevant. This prose is not opaque or rhetoric or redundant. Under there there’s some impressive characterization and masterful control of storytelling. As I said: it’s not a fun, brisk pageturner and it demands and clear, focused mind, but the purple prose is not superficial decoration and has always the root into something meaningful. Which is why, despite the effort, I also kept the determination.

Oh, and the fanciest of sex scenes:

In the sunwarmed air of their sleeping nook, he allowed her quiet touch and hot flesh to absorb his bitter brew of sorrow.

Another potentially problematic aspect is that despite a neutral approach to the characters, it’s Arithon to lead the way. He’s the one who retains a certain awareness, and the one that is most sympathetic. But he’s also the one with a supernatural sensibility and comes off as the “emo” type. Maudlin, always contemplative, with a Christ-like spirit of sacrifice (that brings its own flaws). You share with him all his thoughts, psychology and development, and this also takes its toll if you don’t like to indulge in this kind of analysis. On the other side Janny Wurts writes this kind of character splendidly and never falls into a boring or redundant cliche. It brings back to the essence of the writer, that is: to care. The quality of being born many times, and so become different characters. Be in their place. To feel. So this book demands a similar care and patience.

This makes a kind of slow, contemplative writing that is not for everyone. What I’m saying is that this “mist” or noise is still well rooted into something meaningful that made the effort worthwhile in my case. I’m looking forward to see the story open up and expand, less constricted by a relatively formulaic first book that is only the spark that sets the fire. From the first pages of book two (that opens the second cycle) it seems that there’s a gap of at least five years, so the story will surely grow from its premises and I’m curious about where it will go since the writer has said that every step has a point in the Grand Scheme of Things, and everything will converge for the closure of the series.

Bonus, the french covers. That are both beautiful and pertinent to the content of the books:

The Darkness that Comes Before – Scott R. Bakker

This is a controversial book. One that does not play safe or is written for comfort. It’s a vertical climb, it is ambitious and audacious. Especially, it shrugs off everything that doesn’t belong to these adjectives. After all the recent discussions about nihilism and the lack of strong, edifying moral messages in Fantasy, what’s written in this book ridicules and disregards the simplicity of the framing of those passing judgements. It goes beyond. The fabric of this book is made of “delusions” and “revelations” locked together in a system with no end: a revelation only becomes set-up for a much bigger and crushing delusion. It’s when one thinks of leading that he’s only lead on a leash.

The basic idea is contained in the title: The Darkness that Comes Before. It’s this concept that originates the locked cycle. It creates a pattern that can then be recognized in different themes. The first described in the book is an anthropological idea. Men create their belief systems, their gods. Before/after signify a position of cause/effect (“what comes before determines what comes after”). If gods are man-made, it means that men “came before”. Like a tool created for a purpose, the tool comes “after”, is built/created by someone. But the complexity of the world is unattainable, so men created the gods in order to frame and explain what was beyond their grasp. They created the gods and put them “before”. They confused what came after (the gods they created) for what came before. This is the first way to interpret that title, the “darkness” is the unknown, the unrevealed gods that created the world and everything else.

This same pattern then “returns” in a context that is more unsettling, because it is far less impersonal as it tears down the barrier of “fantasy” that keeps these stories away, and us safe on this side. It’s about every one of us: if a man is the movement of his thoughts (so the fact of being “conscious”), but what he thinks and does is not cause, but consequence of a myriad of influences, a chaotic complexity beyond his grasp, how can he be certain that his thoughts are his own? Hence the “darkness” again, coming before. Because we have only the illusion of control of ourselves, while in truth we are being moved, like puppets caught in winds. Mockery of conscience. The “delusions” are not one of possible conditions, but the true space we live. We sleep.

This is not the first book of Scott Bakker I read, but the founding idea returns even when he does not write Fantasy. It is not repetition or redundancy, but, not unlike Erikson, it becomes a study, the same idea seen always from different angles. It’s the major theme Bakker writes about and it reminds me a similar obsession and desperation for the need to cling to a sense of awareness that can be found in David Foster Wallace work. Only that Bakker’s revelation is that there’s nothing to cling to, as we live entirely within the illusion, and there’s only horror in the realization. You can’t stay “aware” because you can’t wake up, or see through.

Yet what drives the writing is a desire to show. To awaken. As for “Disciple of the Dog”, Bakker tries to shake the reader, address him personally (metaphorically) so that the book won’t leave one indifferent. It tries to reach through the page, grasp you by the throat, and pull you down in. It’s not the comfortable, lulling, immersive experience of traditional Fantasy, which is why you should read this book. At 577 pages in a large font it is far more “concise” than other epic Fantasy. It is an important trait because this book is extremely focused, determined, ruthless and brutal. While the plot has an “epic” range, it doesn’t sprawl at all. There’s no decoration or elements that aren’t strictly necessary. Worldbuilding is usually seen as a basic and important characteristic of epic fantasy, this book can stand proudly among the very best, yet basically nothing is there to add detail and flavor. Necessity drives every word.

I’d say, thematically it covers a similar space of the Malazan series. It also has a similar approach, mindset. I’ve even read that some readers consider Bakker a “subset” of Erikson to the point that they consider him (Bakker) superfluous to read. This is true to an extent, as I said that they have areas that overlap and do some similar things, and it’s also true that Erikson has more tonal variety in his writing, plays with humor and the song is usually “richer”, with more notes and ranges, a far more vibrant palette. But to me, for my preference, they stand equal. And I wouldn’t do with just one or the other, meaning that reading both actually ADDS to my satisfaction. Bakker is more extreme and ruthless than Erikson, in a few cases outclasses Erikson in what Erikson does best. If one is richer and has more range, the other can thrust deeper.

That was thematically, what the books are about, how they feel, what they want to say and how (and why). Instead stylistically, meaning how they are written, Bakker is at the extreme opposite of Erikson and much closer to, say, Martin. It means that one doesn’t really need to adjust to the style, which is more traditional and accessible. A good (but occasionally over-dramatic and “turgid”), flowing, descriptive (but without any redundancy) prose. In the first 100 pages only an handful of characters are introduced, and even less PoVs. You have only what is sensible of the story, and time can pass without describing every move of the characters (it’s not Jordan). Beside a few occasional pages, there are five or so major PoVs that drive the narrative. The structure maybe resembles more to “The Way of Kings”, meaning that these PoV don’t regularly alternate, but follow more directly the need of the story, so a PoV may hang suspended for more than a hundred of pages. Thankfully without resorting to cliffhangers, so when a PoV closes it usually doesn’t frustrate the reader and leave him wanting.

The structure of the plot may remind of Lord of the Rings. The wider frame of the narrative, not the content. There was a big war (the First Apocalypse) some two thousands years before the current events, only leaving the trace of a lingering legend in present times, like something remote and unreal, basically forgotten (which from this broad level can be considered a trope of the genre). Then patterns that re-emerge, hinting that something on that scale is coming again. “The Mandate” in this book fits a similar role of the “Night’s Watch” in “A Game of Thrones”, with the difference that Bakker thrusts deep in the mythology to drive the full impact of his themes. As the plot develops more layers are revealed and what is set into motion is obviously going to gain momentum without endless delays. What I mean is that there’s a sense of being right in the heart of the whirlpool of the events, instead of edging indefinitely at the periphery, waiting for something “big” to happen as can be typical of the genre. In this first book you are already there. It’s still the first of a trilogy, also letting you see where things are moving, but it didn’t give me the impression of waiting for something else.

Characterization, another of those fundamental axis that one typically uses to judge these books, is the best I’ve seen. From my point of view Bakker has no contenders. His characters are very distinctive without losing anything of realism and plausibility. They are defined extremely well and viscerally, in a way that respects them, while also using them for the purpose of the story. There’s far less “wishful thinking” than in Martin’s work. Which is also a problem when it comes to accessibility and reaching out to a wide public. Martin’s books have a wide appeal because there are plenty of hooks for a reader. Even if the characters are complex and not “pegged” into roles, they still exploit and rely on the sympathy/empathy of the reader. Bakker instead seems to take no prisoners and not look in the face of anyone. There are no easy and ready “access points”. I said he’s ruthless, and uncompromising. This means that his characters aren’t done to win the reader the easy way. They are not sympathetic and in some cases even those characters that are the hinges of the book seem to spit right in the face of the reader. Another aspect of characterization to point out is that part of Bakker’s style is the habit of “undoing” characters, of unfolding them. Usually writers keep a mystery and “magic” that helps the identification, as we chase after our feelings without truly grasping them. Instead Bakker disassembles some characters directly in the text, also meaning that sometimes they appear “broken”, non-functional, showing the cogs inside and provoking more a sense of pity than sympathy. Maybe even shame. The book is challenging and defies who’s reading. The very opposite of accommodating. You’d risk of dozing off, while Bakker wants that you wake up.

In the end this is the true value of this book. I have this contradicting habit of delaying the best stuff. I read this book after years I’ve bought it, left the best last. Expectations were met. For me Bakker and Erikson both are the APEX that Fantasy has to offer, and between them and all the rest there’s a certain gap. Neither of them are easy to recommend and and to enjoy. Both are challenging for different reasons, and due to completely different writing style it’s also possible that one could hate one but enjoy the other and vice versa. If you read this is because you want to explore or even breach a genre instead of being caged within it. You don’t read this book because you’re looking for more of the same. That’s what it offers, something challenging and uncompromising. Something that cuts deeps and that can’t leave one indifferent.

The problems are choices. There’s not a trace of comedy or lighter, relaxing scene (or none that stick out). The only humor is through a harsh and cynical perspective. Abrasive and scornful. No kind, loving words, if not ones that are meant to deceive. The book is brutal, there’s violence and sex, most often without any romance in both. There are no filters or censorship about what is “proper” to show and what to leave unsaid. You have to come without prejudices of any kind, or the book refuses you (metaphorically speaking). But it is important for me to underline that violence and sex in this book do not have a “pornographic” intent. They aren’t artificial stratagems to be edgy and gritty, or to titillate. Or to shock and gross the easy way. They are part of the nature of the story, which you have to trust. It’s not entirely grim and monotone, though. There are exceptions that are meaningful as they shine so much in the rarer occasions when sentiments are true and without hypocrisy.

EDIT: A follow-up.

The Tyranny of the Night – Glen Cook

I have the habit of reading some pages of the new books I buy even if they still aren’t part of the reading queue. I started to read this one just to have an idea of what it was about and how it would differ from “The Black Company”, but then it took me more than 60 pages to form that idea, the book was incredibly complex, and so I ended up reading it all. The reason why I made this purchase in the first place is because from what I was reading it was part of a series of four books (The Instrumentalities of the Night) with a dense and intricate tangle of plot, quite ambitious and reminding closely Erikson’s own work. It was interesting to see Glen Cook being inspired by who he himself inspired, and see what came out of that.

Even more so than other Black Company books, it’s not one to mindlessly recommend. I was definitely surprised, almost amazed: Erikson’s first book, Gardens of the Moon, is often criticized because how hard it is to get into it, but Glen Cook here pushed the same to hardcore levels. It doesn’t suck you in easily, it makes a very, very hard and steep climb. This book mocks whoever thought GotM was mildly hard to read. It’s nothing compared to this. Right from the start it buries you under layers of politics, names and a number of factions. You’re caught in a flurry of info all stacked up, and not helped by the terse, to the point of being barren, prose. At the same time, obviously, all this fascinated me and became a reason to trudge on more than a barrier. But that’s how I work, and why I’m not so easily recommending the book to any reader. The overall context is not too complex to grasp, the setting is like historical fiction, almost faithful, infiltrated by sorcery at key points. We have Europe at the time of the crusades against middle-eastern infidels. Cook took (well, sorry for that) a detailed map of medieval Europe and went to change all the historical names with fictional ones. The problem is that he did not annex that map to the book. I’m not one to complain about lack of maps in fantasy books, but believe me (and all other reviewers who will certainly complain) that in this case the lack of map is THE major hurdle you’ll face. Medieval Europe is a mess. Tons of different states, cultures mixed together, and cities. You’ll have constant name dropping of people and places through the whole book. Without a sense of geography and without generous exposition (Glen Cook gets irritated if something requires more than two lines of text to be explained) you’ll end up with an insane number of scattered mental notes and no idea how to pull all of this together. A trip to the wikipedia to link at least some important places to their historical match will definitely help, and after 100-150 pages the vague shape of plot and direction will start to come out. After that, as long you found the challenge intriguing, it gets fun.

I lack the historical knowledge to know what Glen Cook made up and what is only a slightly twisted, refracted projection of history. There are some climatic changes, such as the incoming ice age that is closing around known civilization, and the fact that the sea is slowly evaporating. This has not a significant role in the plot, at least in this book, but it seems to close the perimeter and focus on the scene, like a spotlight that erases everything outside its sight. I don’t know how much Glen Cook toyed with historical facts and figures but either way it helps giving a representation that feels authentic and believable. The subtlety of magic not disrupting it and being one element that the writer already demonstrated to handle perfectly in the Black Company. The other element that makes this picture so vivid is the usual pragmatism and terseness of prose that one can find in all his books. Here even to an extreme since the context is overly complex, with a tangle of politics that involves various places and various figures fighting each other even inside the same faction. Religious infighting about local heresies, or about grasping the power at the top, winning or fighting support of the King, of the most powerful merchants and families. Temporal power ruling over spiritual one, and all the bigger powers and influences dragging in their plans the lives of everyone else. Glen Cook won’t explain anything twice, sometimes not even once. It’s all there, working flawlessly and expertly woven, but you either sharpen your attention and intuition or most of what goes on will be missed. Glen Cook isn’t ashamed of culling everyone who won’t put an effort to follow this intricate story.

Characterization follows a similar pattern. I am in awe about what he can do, but again characters aren’t described and defined up front. You read about a number of vague shapes, then after a while, magically, you realize they became very strong and sympathetic characters. It’s impossible to know when the transformation took place. There are no changes in style, it all falls in smoothly and naturally, and some of those vague shapes will become quite memorable. The main protagonist, Else Tage, reminds me of Croaker, the main character of the Black Company. He has a similar attitude and philosophy of life, a similar air about him I can’t define exactly. Initially he seems a rather cold and detached character, but it soon develops a certain aura of charisma and competent authority about him, even more deserved because he does absolutely nothing to earn the favor of the reader. The narration sits always impartial, cold and unaffected. I’d say “cynical”, since that is what colors essentially everything Glen Cook writes. Cynical but always honest, never preaching or rhetorical. And if one read what I wrote about other books, for me the lack of rhetoric and hypocrisy is the first and foremost requirement when I read. There’s even a certain philosophical air that reminds closely of Erikson, it fits perfectly with the religious theme and is often truly inspired, but it doesn’t fight for space and often it starts and ends within the same lapidary line. This mixed with a similar deadpan sense of humor or veiled irony that sometimes is so subtle that you can miss it entirely. Glen Cook has a very sharp eye, but as I said he doesn’t overindulge in explanations.

Now that I think about it, there may be a certain symmetry between what happens in the book and the relationship of Glen Cook with his readers (the amusing impression I get is that he doesn’t give a shit). Let’s try to contextualize the plot as briefly as possible: Else Tage is one of the middle-eastern infidels, sent in Europe to infiltrate as a spy and try to go as high in the ranks he can get, and from the vantage of that position stir a mess as big as possible so that the western empires will be too busy fighting each other to launch a crusade on the east. Earlier in the book Grade Drocker, a powerful sorcerer, is established as what looks to be the Big Nasty Foe opposing our hero. Yet soon Else Tage finds himself working, under multiple disguises since he’s a spy, right next or even for his closest and most dangerous enemy, reminding The black Company since right in the first chapter of that book the Company is being hired by the wrong side, the Taken (Soulcatcher precisely). In this position, Else Tage develops a certain unspoken respect, esteem almost, for Grade Drocker. Making that competency and pragmatism a trait they share, that makes them kindred souls in a world filled of inepts. Mirrored by a similar reaction of the reader since Grade Drocker, even if never presented under a favorable light, is always competent and unyielding, above the level of abjection and corruption in the clergy and all the positions of power. Even if not losing any of his nastiness and cruelty. A reader will never completely sympathize or approve him, same as Else Tage since for him he remains a threat, but it will trigger that air of respect (with which Glen Cook will amuse himself toward the end of the book). So the similarity with Glen Cook and his readers is that he won’t try to win your sympathy and be generous with his narration of the story, but if you tag along you end up developing a certain esteem and appreciation. It doesn’t have to be expressed through flourishes, because it’s there and it is sincere.

The story is densely woven around political moves driven by greed, opportunity or convenience. There are a number of fights and bigger wars all sharing a common trait. There’s no heroism at all. The cynical eye cuts entirely the spectacularization and victories are solely a matter of opportunity. Often the results are entirely due to botched logistic or other miserable circumstances. The force that hoards more kills throughout the book is dysentery. The war is shown as ugly and lacking even the slightest trace of romanticism. Take this example of exciting soldier life:

The soldier’s life consisted mainly of waiting, or of marching somewhere in order to wait. Siege work meant concentrated waiting. Else found himself growing impatient. But never so impatient that he lost sight of the fact that impatience was the mother of stupid decisions.

Or how an anticipated conquest takes place:

There was no resistance. The Connected and Direcians from Shippen encountered only those complications of conquest posed by distance and numbers. Towns surrendered as fast the invaders could hike.
King Peter was restrained only by the fact that he did not have troops sufficient to garrison all the territories willingly to throw themselves at his feet. He considered enlisting Calzirans but he had no money to pay them.


“Sounds like knives in the dark time.”
“Some of that may be necessary. But murder alienates people. Persuasion, arm-twisting, creation of mutual objectives work better.”

Or this wonderful distillation of political essence:

Svavar wondered who was poking it to whom in the romance between Johannes and the Patriarch.

All this usually set up by some high power nested safely far away, meaning also without the slightest clue of the world outside and so often representing the first threat to the feasibility of their own plans. And so the need to rely on competent fellas, like Else Tage and Grade Drocker, who can make things move even when ensnared by the incompetency and complete blindness of the high powers.

There’s a kind of convergence toward the end of the book, and after a big battle there are enough pages left to make a long epilogue that shows the consequences of all that happened, setting up the context for the following book but also wrapping up rather well all that happened in this one. So I’d say it makes for a satisfying read even if it’s the first on a series of four (three if which already out there). I’m sure there are a number of reviews about this book that criticize how the prose is too fragmented and terse even for its own sake, how it can actively drive readers away, and it is true, a factual observation, but all of his falls within the author’s specific style and it is part of the merits of this book, this razor-sharp, uncompromising narration.

Glen Cook’s own words also define this and his other works:

You just write stuff the way it is instead wishful thinking.

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Curiously enough, my reaction to this book reflects the palindromic structure that defines a powerful form of poetry called “ketek” used in the book: I did not like at all the first and last 50 pages, but thankfully enjoyed enough everything in between (that for a book of 1000 pages is quite enough). I wrote already about some of my concerns about the writing in the Prelude/Prologue, while what I didn’t like about the last 50 pages was more structural. 150 pages from the end of the book I already know the ending was going to disappoint me, in fact it did, for the reasons I had envisioned, but that last chunk was worse because it makes me reconsider critically the whole thing.

Without spoilers, I can say the Epilogue questions the true value of art. It reads somewhat like a “meta” discussion on the genre, and implicitly Sanderson’s role as a writer of Fantasy:

“In this,” Wit said, “as in all things, our actions give us away. If an artist creates a work of powerful beauty – using new and innovative techniques – she will be lauded as a master, and will launch a new movement in aesthetics. Yet what if another, working independently with that exact level of skill, were to make the same accomplishments the very next month? Would she find similar acclaim? No. She’d be called derivative.

“So it’s not beauty itself we admire. It’s not the force of intellect. It’s not the invention, aesthetics, or capacity itself. The greatest talent we think a man can have?” He plucked a final string. “Seems to me that it must be nothing more than novelty.”

So it’s “novelty” to be the heart of art, but that’s only the partial answer, because then the Epilogue goes further to suggest the ultimate one:

“What is it we value?” Wit whispered. “Innovation. Originality. Novelty. But most importantly… timeliness.”

Now… Am I too naughty if I just can’t avoid thinking this last line as a prank on Sanderson’s own doings? If “The Way of Kings” can’t be innovative, original or novel, then maybe it can still be used fruitfully if it’s at least “timely”. And what’s more “timely” than launching your own 10-books series right amidst the release of the very end of the Wheel of Time, when the interest in said writer is at the highest peak? The Way of Kings is indeed quite timely. Well, I don’t understand what Sanderson wanted to do with this Epilogue, but I doubt very much he wanted it to be interpreted like this.

A step back. This is the first book of a 10 book series and Sanderson’s most ambitious effort. And not only since he already hinted at an even much bigger structure (especially “Hoid”, a mysterious character that transcends what happens in this book) of which this whole series is only a part. This doesn’t discourage me at all since I enjoy insane ambition and I also, contrary to most readers, prefer to read books in a series spread out instead of in quick succession. So I start here and expect to follow along whenever Sanderson will finish the next book (it will be a while and the wait will likely renovate my interest). But it should be said that, as it is now the habit, the book does a nice job offering a storyline that is concluded in a satisfying way within the book, while hinting more about what is to come. It means that one shouldn’t be discouraged by the fact it’s only one book, with the following one not coming out for a couple of years.

Can’t say anything how this book stands compared to those the author already published since this is the first thing I read of him. The writing style of the Prologue was for me so awful that I wondered if I could go on, but then those issues vanished from the first chapter onward. Partly because I was drawn more into the story and characters, easing to the writing style and so not using up all my attention nitpicking, but also because those aspects I dislike were more diluted and less prevalent. There’s something in the style of writing that works at the same time as a strength and weakness. I’d define it as overall “didactic”. Not a bad word, but it could be seen as problematic in this context. Sanderson is very good at explaining stuff, teaching somehow. For a first book in a series this is a strength because there’s a lot of attention in giving the setting a distinctive sense of place. The nature of the world demands that details like plants and atmospheric interaction with these plants are strictly involved with what is going on in the story, so the book carries the reader along in a learning experience about this world, letting all (important, not simply incidental) details being slowly absorbed. There’s some redundancy involved, that at times feels excessive and giving the idea that the writer doesn’t trust enough the receptiveness of the reader, but there’s more to it that can’t be dismissed. The book, on a higher level, is “curious”, and stimulates curiosity in the readers. This is why exposition or “infodumps” that take a significant part of the book aren’t detrimental or heavy. The recipe, I think, is the most successful part of the book. You have a very manageable number of characters, well defined, easily understood, and you borrow some of their positive traits, including the curiosity for the world. Constructive, well measured. An aspect I noticed that is linked to this overall “didactic” writing style is an excess of question marks. There are questions crowding every single page. Many questions. The question is the most significant foundation the characterization relies on here. The effect is that the main characters that drive the book are very transparent to the reader. Every thought is introduced by questions, explained, rehashed. Open books. Characters whose totality is easily grasped, so easing the identification and understanding of actions. Even in those few cases where characters have some secrets (Kaladin’s past and flashbacks through the book) you are only forbid the premises, but you still see clearly the consequences and left wondering what caused them. It tickles the curiosity without making characters act unpredictably. You know exactly who’s doing what and why, and this usually leads to a decent characterization.

Everything I said leads to another problem, though. The micro and macro levels, about which I’m more critical. What I mean is that the book works on two levels, as an overall structure. In general all long epics rely on a similar structure. The “micro” level is the single character PoV, his own plans and actions, his range of troubles and expectations. The “macro” level is the higher level of the plot, the overarching structure of greater import that links all characters and make them face much bigger scenarios. The fate of a world VS the fate of a character. It’s like a shifting level of detail: you can zoom in closely on a character, get carried on with his daily life, slice of life. Character’s stories on a personal level. A fantasy world is like a huge container of millions of lives and millions of stories, so you can ideally always zoom in and find something personal that is worth narrating and that will catch the attention. Kaladin and Shallan are the two main characters in this book that carry the most this “micro” level. The interest is focused on the immediate troubles and their potential solutions. The various chapters are neatly organized to drive the reader on, ending up teasing for more. Then there’s a macro level that defines where these and more characters stand in the greater scheme of things. The book does not hide one level from the other and makes the macro level very visible right from the start. You always have the idea there’s more at stake than what is immediately close, the larger horizon. But this is where for me the book didn’t quite reach. What I anticipated through the book didn’t happen within the book and I’m not even sure of how late it will come in the series. There’s a very long and large build-up, both macro and micro. The micro works (with reservations I’ll explain), but the macro is entirely undelivered.

In the end, having read the whole book, the structure feels too much like ASoIaF: imminent danger coming from a side of the world (east, this time), but the kingdom is divided and not prepared. And, as in ASoIaF, this is the situation at the beginning of the book, and it is the exact same situation by the time the book ends. Nothing moved on the “macro” in a sensible and significant way. Even worse, the end of the book gives a strong idea of sweeping changes that to me look like blatant illusions thrown at the reader. I fear that book 2 will show how nothing at all changed and we’ll be plunged for another 1000 pages in minor character squabbles, only to arrive to the last 50 pages and have again sudden hints of major plot twists that in the end consolidate to almost nothing. Too much set-up and too much economizing on this level. It feels very drawn out.

On the micro it works much better. There’s plenty of payoff, lots of plot twists and unexpected surprises, all cleverly handled and satisfying. It works on these details, but I have some reservations. The first is that with a slow moving, carefully detailed plot, you can see where things are heading sometimes HUNDREDS of pages before they happen. While this micro level is fun to read, this kind of predictable horizon can cast on it a negative shadow. You know where things are headed, even if you don’t know the specifics of how it will be done. These specifics are well built and receive a significant care from Sanderson, but if you know where they are going then you also have a jaded and tired reaction, and it detracts from building momentum and make for a fast, satisfying read (what other readers call “the book could lose another 200 pages”). The other reservation is the odd structure. With three or so major viewpoints one expect the chapters to alternate regularly, but not here. Kaladin is basically the only one constant through the book, alternating with whoever is on stage at that point. Shallan viewpoint is a significant presence for half the book, but then it vanishes in the middle only to reappear in the last 100 pages. Similarly, Dalinar arrives late, then vanishes for 300+ pages before resurfacing again, and it wasn’t something I enjoyed much since it was my favorite to read. Obviously there are good reasons why this uneven structure is used, but it adds to the negative feel of plot moving slowly (not exactly, I explained in this same paragraph what I mean) when you consider that these viewpoints depart for hundreds of pages before they can lead to something.

Another concern I have comes out in the latter part of the book and has to do with the plot being too clearly driven by hand. While Sanderson does a very good work explaining characters’ motivations and actions, so making a reader accept the number of fancy elements of the plot, giving it an idea of coherence and credibility (worldbuilding included), in the latter part things are drawn together in a very blatant and obvious way that makes everything fit in place for the intended effect. Said intended effect predictable in a number of cases. Too much straight heroic, a bit trite. Also by the end of the book Kaladin still is the recalcitrant hero he was at the beginning, and that side of him was getting particularly annoying. I had expected to see him changed in a more significant way beside the superpowers. And feels too much like another Rand, on this level.

Instead I liked what was going on the political level and liked particularly the conclusion on the micro level here. I felt like this book somewhat “healed” a wound open since “A Game of Thrones”. As if Sanderson wanted to tell that story in his own way. I think it worked well and I enjoyed it. Obviously I can’t tell anything more without spoilers, but, even if this book won’t challenge Martin’s, I still liked Sanderson’s take. The politics and internal struggles are far more simplified than in A Game of Thrones, not actually the focus, but the interplay is well done and well built. Well connected with the worldbuilding related to it.

Not surprising that Sanderson is not between my favorite writers, I didn’t come with that kind of expectations. But I enjoyed the book even if I expected something more significant to happen before it ended, something more bold in exposition (and a number of suspicions I had stay unconfirmed since the book didn’t provide answers for most those questions I thought intriguing). It’s an accessible book that can be easily recommended to readers who enjoy lingering with characters and feel immersed. It has many qualities on its own, but I think it misses something like a major draw for the public that the Wheel of Time has. Sanderson will have to work harder if he actually aims at excellence. For now he has a nice following and in the end I think he deserves it. He’s a good guy, clever enough to be interesting to read, and would make a very good teacher, actually. He’s one of the “caring” guys, or at least it’s the impression I get from reading the book.

Couldn’t fit in the flow of the review, but my favorite parts of the book were the interludes, especially Axies who reminded me a bit of Malazan’s Heboric, and chapter 33 “Cymatic” with Shallan, for how it engaged with the macro level and was quite interesting to read.

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.

The Red Tree – Caitlín R. Kiernan (revised version)

Another attempt at polishing the review I’ve written. I usually adjust a few things after I post one but in this case I was less satisfied than usual because I gave too much importance to certain aspects and almost ignored others that I think are more important. The biggest problem was that I wrote my comments just an hour after finishing the book and I started to understand the book better while writing those comments, which caused them to be even more rambling than usual. So I’ll do some cut & paste and restructuring.

The framework first. “The Red Tree” is a supernatural, horror, psychological journey that borrows heavily from the long and solid tradition in the respective genres and whose best parallel in themes, atmosphere and development is Lovecraft. It is not conceived or delivered as an homage or imitation, it’s not a book existing in a “shadow” of something else, nor it is one that uses conventions to break out of their prison and open on a new, “modern” world. What it achieves is about recovering the deeper and most powerful elements of that tradition and reveal that they are not dusty, opaque and antique, but still alive today, relatively uncompromised. The book is structured in a way similar to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, with nested texts, stories within stories, and dreams that leak into reality. So it’s up to the reader to take an active role and second-guess and interpret/rebuild what is going on. The basic form is the diary so everything comes through an unreliable narrator and a fragmented narrative that can leave gaps of days and then only re-interpret and fictionalize what happened. Without another authoritative point of view the reader can only cling to the voice of the diary, trust it, and go through the most unnerving parts as in a first-person narration, making it quite effective. All this is at the same time simplified and complicated by a strong meta-narrative. If one gives a look online (and yes, you’re supposed to, I’ll explain why) would discover that Caitlín R. Kiernan has more than a few analogies with Sarah Crowe, the fictional writer of the book. Both are lesbian writers who had to deal with the death of their partner, both suffer from epileptic attacks that add another dimension of precariousness to the story. I don’t want to delve further because I feel like invading a personal space and the boundary between reality and fiction is best left blurred. Yet I think a reader should be aware of this layer as it offers a way to better understand the implications and the origin of the book. No book prescinds from its writer, and here this fact is particularly important.

The semi-autobiographical story is about this alter-ego fictional writer, Sarah Crowe, who is fleeing from her former life in Atlanta to rent an house in the countryside of Rhode Island. Without the motivation or the focus to start writing a long postponed novel, she begins instead keeping a diary mostly to describe some weird, unpleasant dreams that are haunting her. After exploring the basement of the house she discovers an incomplete manuscript next to an old typewriter. The manuscript is written by “Dr. Charles Harvey”, a name she’s never heard, so she “googles” it and finds out it belongs to a professor who “was on an extended sabbatical from the university, supposedly writing a book on the evolution and propagation of fakelore”. A professor with “an interest in urban legends and occultism” who lived in that house for three years, and died in the property by hanging himself. The title of his manuscript and research is the same that is shared between these three layers, “THE RED TREE”. Title respectively of Kiernan’s book, of Sarah Crowe fictional diary, and of Harvey’s unfinished manuscript. Soon the bits of legends Sarah reads seep into her reality and slowly build an estrangement from the “real” world. This red tree being a huge oak tree not too far from the house, becoming Harvey’s former and Sarah’s current obsession. One doesn’t even have to speculate the woman will likely share the previous tenant’s fatal destiny as that is already spoiled right in the introduction of the book. It’s a descent into madness when the solid reality under one’s feet starts to crack and give way. The “abscess” that opens and swallows, and that one’s too frightened to look into.

The ideal spook story would then end with a plausible rationalization that explains everything but with the supernatural element still very possible and not completely fended off. The reader left wondering if it was all true or not, and so the resulting haunting ambiguity. All this stays true to this book. While I was reading I kept waiting for some reversal of canons that would bring novelty and would justify the great praises the book received, but that didn’t come. Or it didn’t come from the direction I was expecting it. The story stays well within the canons, it’s not a “modern” interpretation in its structure. It doesn’t drop some classic conceits: it appropriates the canons. And that is where it hits. It’s about looking straight into the darkness and understanding it. The horrors of the book are always perceived and off the page, just out of the corner of the eye, never completely undeniable. The idea of movement, of sounds, of impossible perspectives. As a teenager I fed so much on the horror genre that nowadays it hardly has anything to offer. The “psychological” horror is a concept that I know quite well but it is how it is used to determine its power. Whether or not the “roots” feed on something true or just a weak conceit. The strength of this book is about knowing those roots and, instead of obfuscating, reveal the original darkness that can’t be defeated by modernity. That it’s still not even notched today. Whether it’s written by Lovecraft of Kiernan, the source is the same and ageless.

I try to avoid spoilers and I’ll say that by the end of the book I was busy trying to put together the pieces of the puzzles. Turning the last page doesn’t mean closing the lid. The book won’t be done with you and will continue to haunt. You’ll have to deal with contrasting interpretations and contradictions, with pieces that don’t fit or that you can’t place. Maybe, if you like me have a necessity to strictly define a space, feel frustration because the story defies control and because rationalization is here antidote to comprehension, as it would be in a dream. The book requires and forces a certain readjustment to be understood. But it is important to say that these details of the plot are just a surface. The desire to pin down even the smallest thing. The overall purpose, I think, would be clear. The real explanation is one that contains the different ones within, because at the core there’s the human soul, and the darkness within. What one does or doesn’t make of it. What you can’t push down and deny or forget.

Sarah’s isn’t alone in this journey, and of this I was thankful since it would have risked of making the story too oppressive and hostile. The wonderful strength of the writing is to be appreciated the most in the description of human relationships, and all the meaningful complexities that come out of them. Constance, a character sharing certain sensibilities with Sarah while also being almost her opposite, will soon join her in the house and the relationship building between them is maybe the best aspect of the book. A relationship devoid of idealization as Sarah’s character is cynic and caustic, often her attempts to reach Constance leading to both of them getting hurt and further apart in spite of necessity. Sarah and Constance won me before everything else and I was wondering how the book would proceed if I continued to be so weirdly biased toward the mundane while having very little interest for the supernatural aspect. I think that this effect was intended because it’s from those relationships that the meaningfulness of the story is entirely derived. Consequences. On the foreground stay these characters, their relationship, their truth. There’s some sex, written well for once, not too graphic and yet not embellished or mystified as it always happens. It should be better to say that there’s honesty, and that sex is part of that honesty, and, being that, it becomes extremely important. The language is modern and tight, the voice surprisingly authentic. There’s no use of classical language or rhetoric or fancy flourishes. It doesn’t read like a dusty old tome. This even affects the plot, while Sarah can be seen as the typical solitary character stranded in a mysterious house, she still has internet, looks up things she needs, goes back to the town and library various times, receives calls from her editor who asks if she’s well and is progressing with her book, travels on a car for a couple of days with Constance. There are no artificial boundaries to contain Sarah’s story, if not those entirely made by herself. I even interpreted this “freedom” of breaking through certain rules as a hint to the reader: explore, look things up online if you feel like missing something. The book can be as well enhanced by what’s outside. Do not worry to step out of the page. The darkness will be kind enough to follow you.

The supernatural aspect comes up with more strength toward the end of the book, obviously, but it does so in an unexpected way. It’s the mundane to become horror, and it’s one own feelings to open on the pit no one dares look into. The darkness is the human being. Or, to quote Bakker, the darkness comes AFTER:

It’s only after that we understand what has come before, then we understand nothing. Thus we shall define the soul as follows: that which precedes everything.

Superstition. Everywhere and in everything, Leweth had confused that which came after with that which came before, confused the effect for the cause. Men came after, so he placed them before and called them “gods” or “demons.” Words came after, so he placed them before and called them “scriptures” or “incantations.” Confined to the aftermath of events and blind to the causes that preceded him, he merely fastened upon the ruin itself, men and the acts of men, as the model of what came before.

But there’s obviously some ambiguity, embraced by alternative interpretations and whatever you decide it to be. The darkness comes “after”, produced and shaped by men. Belonging to them. As well its opposite, the darkness comes “before”, something inhuman, eternal, absolute. Universal. Ageless. Meaning that Sarah’s hallucinations were real and used her as a vehicle. But at this point the journey has already become so personal for the reader that even the last answer becomes entirely personal. The descent into madness is proportional to clarity and self-awareness. That’s another unconventional and unexpected aspect of the book. The “unreliable narrator” is a device presented in a self-aware way, used to give the text that ambiguity that keeps the disparate interpretations plausible at the same time. But toward the end this unreliable narrator becomes the only authoritative guide. One assumes that madness corresponds to a loss of contact with truth, but here the whole meta-narrative becomes clear in the mind of the character and she even seems to mock herself for it, and maybe it’s this to provide a way to escape madness by sacrificing an envelope to it.

It’s quite an awesome book that should be read even outside its genre. I enjoyed the characters and the style of writing so much that I would have loved it with or without the supernatural aspects. I love how painfully truthfully it is written. A kind of desperation that destroys any attempt for embellishment or rhetoric. Even WITHIN fiction:

I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That’s the paradox of me. And having lied, it doesn’t mean that I was necessarily dishonest.

A book whose stronger aspect is, paradoxically, the demystification. And, maybe, literature as a form of therapy. One of the most emotionally involving and authentic novels I’ve read.

The Red Tree – Caitlín R. Kiernan

(the cover shown here IS NOT representative of content. Buy the book with your eyes closed, if you have to)

I don’t know what to write here. I was hoping the last 120 pages of the book would offer me a better direction for my comments but I’m even more troubled now that I finished the book. I also read a few things online about some suspects I had and, finding them true, I blame myself for having doubted of their relevance. So I have this whole new point of view and interpretation that should have been there from the beginning.

Let’s put down the framework first. “The Red Tree” is a kind of supernatural, horror, psychological journey that borrows heavily from the long and solid tradition and that recovers and updates what made Lovecraft “work”. Not an homage or imitation, but the revelation that what built those genres is still well alive and relatively uncompromised. It’s the first book I read of Caitlín R. Kiernan but I soon discovered I had also read some comics written by her so many years ago that I don’t remember anymore anything specific about them (The Dreaming). The book is structured in a way somewhat similar to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, probably far less convoluted and pretentious, but the aspect I think is more relevant is the game of mirrors. Trivializing a lot: a lesbian writer writes about a lesbian writer who writes a diary about herself. (and I should mention that I have a particular love for meta-narratives) Then at some point the mirror shatters and we have her discovering a short story about herself that she doesn’t remember to have written at all. As well more mirrors of herself and her dead lover coming from the past, and maybe the future.

But that’s misleading as the story is the one of this alter-ego fictional writer, Sarah Crowe, who flees from her former life and rents an house in the countryside. She begins to write her diary when she discovers in the basement of the big house the incomplete draft of a research written by the previous tenant (now dead), about a nearby oak on which converged a number of legends. The framework and execution, at this level, is made of the solid tradition I mentioned above. Soon the bits of legends Sarah reads seep into her reality and slowly build an estrangement from the “real” world. The researcher’s obsession becomes the Sarah’s own, and one doesn’t even have to speculate the woman will share the previous tenant’s fatal destiny as that is already spoiled right in the introduction. It’s a descent into madness when the solid reality under one’s feet starts to crack and give way. The “abscess” that opens and swallows, and that one’s too frightened to look into. The ideal spook story would then end with a plausible rationalization that explains everything, but with the supernatural element still very possible and not completely fended off, and the reader left wondering if it was all true or not, and so the resulting haunting ambiguity.

All this stays true to this book. While I was reading I kept waiting for some reversal of canons that would bring novelty and would justify the great praises the book received, but that didn’t come. It didn’t come from the way I was expecting it. The story stays well within the canons, it’s not a “modern” interpretation. It doesn’t drop some classic conceits: it appropriates the canons. And that is where it hits, but also the part that gave me some problems and so I’m not too confident to wrap up and be done with it. The problem being that I’m not sure I have interpreted it in the right way, or in a way that can be reasonably considered complete or accurate. Too many aspects that I can’t place correctly in the frame, and also the feeling I don’t have any hope to eventually figure it out. A bit frustrating.

The whole context is of the kind that puts me off balance. I prefer much more to have things stated bluntly, so that I can get to the nuanced aspects once I get the perimeter well defined. While I have a really hard time to start from the nuances and relate to a perimeter in-the-making that is never quite set and solid. You know, punching holes into certainty. Rationalization as the antidote to comprehension. These habits and mindsets of mine don’t really help here. Now excuse me the following utterly sexist and horrid sweeping generalization. It’s like I’m gaping into the mind of a woman, feeling slightly intrigued, slightly amused, then set the thing down and walk away shaking my head, thinking: “What a fucking mess”. But then I don’t think I’m a sexist and so I come away just feeling I’m missing a whole lot and don’t have what it takes to figure it out.

I should say that these “problems” are entirely my own and that I do not recognize in the novel itself. I just have to deal with writing an incomplete “review” and the feeling I can’t leave the thing behind in a satisfying way. Yet do not worry, because even if you share my own shortcomings there’s still plenty to appreciate. The book is really well written and gripping, a personal journey you will remember, and I think that even if I wasn’t able to formulate a final explanation (or one that isn’t so simplistic that I dismissed it right away), I was still able to grasp a core of meaning. The same core of meaning that builds the “worth” of this book.

The only beacon I had is self-fashioned and about the whole argument of “truthfulness” in literature that i discussed in the past. For most of the book I was trying to “get” it, but already from the first pages I noticed and appreciated the style of writing. I said the book stays well within the canons, but this doesn’t apply to the writing style. There’s no use of classical language or rhetoric or fancy flourishes. It doesn’t read like a dusty old tome. The language is modern and tight, the voice surprisingly authentic. It’s the writing to surface and shine instead of the story, and I was captured by the mundane long before I started developing interest in the supernatural aspects. Sarah’s character won me before everything else and I was wondering how the book would proceed if I continued to be so weirdly biased toward the mundane. I thought it was my own problem since as a teenager I fed so much on the horror genre that nowadays it hardly has anything to offer, but now I think that this effect was somewhat intended. The supernatural aspect comes up with more strength toward the end of the book, obviously, but it does so in an unexpected way. It’s the mundane to become horror, and it’s one own feelings to open on the pit no one dares look into. The darkness is the human being. Or, to quote Bakker, the darkness comes before, and AFTER:

It’s only after that we understand what has come before, then we understand nothing. Thus we shall define the soul as follows: that which precedes everything.

Superstition. Everywhere and in everything, Leweth had confused that which came after with that which came before, confused the effect for the cause. Men came after, so he placed them before and called them “gods” or “demons.” Words came after, so he placed them before and called them “scriptures” or “incantations.” Confined to the aftermath of events and blind to the causes that preceded him, he merely fastened upon the ruin itself, men and the acts of men, as the model of what came before.

I still clearly haven’t reconciled with this, as I am sure that the book reinforces this idea that the darkness comes after (so a man or woman create and shape it), as well its opposite, that the darkness comes before and that what was discovered was indeed out of time and true. Inhuman, absolute. That those hallucinations were real. And I’m even more fucked if I think my whole interpretation (the darkness that comes after) is only due to me reading Bakker, and so completely uprooted from what “The Red Tree” wanted to show. What a mess, indeed. A few hours ago on twitter I sent a comment to Caitlín Kiernan since she tweeted she didn’t want her works to be classified as “urban fantasy” so I suggested Mark Charan Newton fancy definition of “Rural Fantasy”. She replied directly and seriously to what was intended as just a transitory joke, but after finishing the book this offered, and confirmed, the different perspective. She wants it called “dark fantasy”. And that darkness is maybe entirely within, and not outside.

In any case, there are elements of the plot I can’t place at all (like the seven paintings and corresponding messages, I couldn’t make anything out of them) and so the proof that even if I may have gotten something framed correctly the whole picture is still far away…

I should also mention that the descent into madness is also proportional to clarity and self-awareness. That’s maybe the most unconventional and unexpected aspect of the book. The “unreliable narrator” is a device presented in a self-aware way, used to give the text that ambiguity that keeps the disparate interpretations plausible at the same time. But toward the end this unreliable narrator becomes the only authoritative guide. One assumes that madness corresponds to a loss of contact with truth, but here the whole meta-narrative becomes clear in the mind of the character and she even seems to mock herself for it, and maybe it’s this to provide a way to escape madness by sacrificing an envelope to it.

I consider it quite an awesome book. In spite of these themes surfacing, I still personally enjoyed the characters so much that I would have loved it even if it removed all the supernatural parts and layers. I mean, I was loving that character with or without the darker side exposed. I was loving the unforgiving way Sarah saw herself, the nihilistic aspects. Her relationship and how painfully truthfully it is written. A kind of desperation that destroys any attempt for embellishment or rhetoric. Even WITHIN fiction:

I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That’s the paradox of me. And having lied, it doesn’t mean that I was necessarily dishonest.

A book whose stronger aspect is, paradoxically, the demystification. And, maybe, literature as a form of therapy. One of the most emotionally involving and authentic novels I’ve read.

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.

The Gunslinger – Stephen King

I began to read the book almost a year ago but got sidetracked after about 70 pages, so when I took it again a couple of weeks ago I had to restart from the first page since I had a very vague idea about the part I had read. Not that it got so much better the second time through, the story defies control and one has to struggle to distill from the book some form of logic progression. Reading this, day after day, feels like you never make any progress, which I guess is the point. There’s a direction, a sort of abstraction of the concept of the “quest” in its most absolute form. The endless, ultimate journey toward something that is perceived as the definitive “Truth”. Or better, this is the conceit, the Mac Guffin. Roland, the Gunslinger, on his journey toward a mythical, capitalized Dark Tower. Only that this is one book, part of a series. So for this single instance Roland is chasing after another Mac Guffin, the “man in black”, who, when caught, would hopefully point Roland in the right direction.

The starting point is not present. We see this chase when the chase has become a consolidated reality that seemed to go on forever. The beginning is a blur, a movement whose beginning was lost. It starts with a desert that represents the absence of a definite space and time. An infinity whose confines are misty and dream-like. The quest is a journey, but here it seems trapped in a stasis: the longing for something that can’t be achieved, the distance that never closes. I’d say it doesn’t even work as a “tease” because we can’t grasp anything meaningful of Roland himself or the object of his longing. Merely an assumption. You witness obsession without motives. One has to reach the very last few pages of the book to have at least a glimpse of what the tower represents. The story is not one built to entice the reader and follow along. The place is haunted and inhospitable, but it’s maybe in these traits that someone may find some fascination.

The introduction written by King himself is the most revelatory part. It explains the origin of the idea, especially its naive ambition. The rest of the book is, at the same time, talented, immature and pretentious. All together in a mix that represents the real quality to find here. There are no restraints typical of the established writer, no control of the parts, but this has the consequence of “freeing” the creativity and let it go wild and uncaring. The writing is powerful as it is naive. A core of talent as wordsmith mixed with the pretentiousness, egocentricity and impudence of the young. It takes itself so seriously that it builds a wall of detachment, not reaching out to the reader or gaining his sympathy or empathy. The place is haunted, all characters being like phantoms of momentary conscience, fading in and out, being themselves lost too and living aimlessly. There’s everywhere, on the characters and the places, a sense of nostalgia. Something missing or forgotten that can’t be pinpointed. Even if nostalgia should be a thing of memory. Everyone is missing something but without being able to remember what it was. Nostalgia of the future. A suspended and undefined state of agony.

The scenes are all dream-like, evanescent. Their symbolic meaning more important than the factual one, but at the same time esoteric and impenetrable. The book is filled with symbolic myths but nothing at all is explained or even placed into context. These are shattered lives, like glass whose pieces do not connect anymore. I guess the purpose is to to establish this mythology that will only start to make sense later and in retrospective, when the story will loop on itself. There’s already here the impression that the pattern has been repeated, that these characters are themselves victims that follow trails that are merely their own. Condemned to retrace themselves, only to forget again. It sounds, and is pictured, like a torture.

If anything, Roland is the only character who seems to have maintained some tangibility. Of self-awareness. Other characters are all hopelessly lost, unrecoverable. Roland seems the only one who produces a difference, sometimes catastrophically, but still a change or a disruption of that agony. When he exterminates a small town the feeling is one of gratitude for having put those ghosts out of their misery, but at the same time he certainly doesn’t win a sympathy in the reader. Roland is himself haunted and hallucinated way beyond any hope of recovery. We have no insight and so one cannot sympathize or understand. This first book works merely as a framework and I’m sure the character will grow toward something more human later on, in this first he stays obscure and maybe for this reason vaguely fascinating. A twisted, black anti-hero that plays maybe too much with being against the convention. A kind of anti-stereotype that is itself a stereotype.

In the end this book taken as a single entity is not generous and rather opaque, I didn’t get much out of it beside the fancy, dislocated atmosphere. Abstraction without substance. It closes, before setting up the sequel, with a trippy space journey taken straight out of ‘2001: A Space Odissey’, but here the meaning is painfully obvious and plain, revelatory of the fraud hidden behind. Containing just a promise of something more meaningful to be revealed later on, coinciding with the promise of the Tower and the conclusion of the series itself. It dresses itself as wise and resourceful but the conceit is evident. As Roland, I have no solid motivation to carry on with the hopeless and insubstantial chase. You need to entice me with with something more than mystical mumbo-jumbo and esoteric made-up terms. What’s actually there? A boy being sacrificed for ludicrous reasons, largely foreshadowed but delivered in a way so forceful that it defies every purpose that part of the story may have had. Follows a host of prophecies again grounded on nothing, neither abstract nor concrete, if not in offering bland hooks to the following book. Instead of building curiosity for the mysteries set within a context it may easily lead simply to irritation, with the man in black representing perfectly that feeling. Inhuman, inconsistent, pretentious and ridicule. His display of powers does not impress anyone and that part of the story is so inconsequential that it’s like watching animated puppets play a trippy script whose pages were thrown into the air and scattered.

What is good? The sheer talent and creative pretentiousness. The lack of restraints. The outrageous metaphorical descriptions filling the pages. ‘The artificial glow from the wet rock was suddenly hateful’. All this being not only something glaringly obvious in the text, but it’s King himself explaining it. “On being nineteen”. And the book has to be appreciated in regard of this creative, unhampered recklessness. The ambition and courage that coincide with carelessness. It becomes then, in potential, a strength if one considers the series as a whole. With the latter books representing a conciliation of all this with the wisdom and moderation that one can legitimately expect to come with the mature, more broken King. Coming to terms with his own creation and trying to tie loose ends in some sort of coherence and meaningfulness, maybe.

The rest is magic, or sleight of hand.