Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

Posts tagged “Fantasy Fiction

Diversion and Distraction of the Epic Kind: A Game of Thrones on HBO

Ok, I couldn’t possibly let something this awesome go by without saying something about it. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin is one of the greatest epic stories of all time. You will notice I didn’t say fantasy epics. It is, indeed, fantasy, yet I have no reservations placing it against any epic, fantasy or otherwise.

Plus, how cool is this opening?

The HBO series has been a long time coming (though not as long as some of the books have been coming). From seeing the first episode I think it is way too early to tell it they have really captured the depth and spirit of the book A Game of Thrones but the potential is certainly there. To do it justice they will definitely need to get a few things right.

They will need to get the feel:

Martin’s world is dirty, violent and brutally unforgiving of weakness. The series seems to be off to a good start in this regard. Nobody gets a free pass in this world. Being a “Hero” means a very nasty death is probably right around the corner. Being a villain means somebody even worse is likely to soon appear. The land is equally as harsh and pitiless. For example, audience members who haven’t read the books need to understand the import of a continent spanning Wall of ice. It is there for a reason. It was built, at great effort and expense, to protect against something. What could possibly be so terrible to require such a barrier be built? Even if the characters never ask these questions, the audience should look at the Wall and absorb a feeling of dread and apprehension. You can create almost anything in CGI these days but CGI alone can’t truly convey the sheer harshness of the environment of a land where winter may last for a generation or more. That has to come from the writing and acting as well as the settings.

There are several characters that have to be right:

This is what you really can’t see by the first episode alone. The most major characters have hardly been introduced, if at all. Arya Stark is there but she says little. Sandor Clegane has one throw-away line and has yet to be formally introduced. Tyrion and Jamie Lannister have a great deal of encouraging screen time. Jon Snow is still much of a mystery as is Daenerys Targaryen even though they are probably the axis on which the series will eventually revolve (at least that is my thinking though, of course, the series has yet to be finished).

Without quality acting from these characters the series won’t fly. It is very cool that on the strength of the first episode alone, the series has been renewed for the second season / second book  A Clash of Kings (I wonder if they will change the name of the series with as each season is intended to cover the events of a single book). It makes me even more eager to get my hands on A Dance with Dragons, the newest book in the series that will hit bookstore shelves shortly after the end of the A Game of Thrones season.

I’ll need to start my re-read soon.

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On the Bookshelf: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

The Lost Gate

Book 1 of the Mithermages Trilogy

by Orson Scott Card

The way you can tell when you are reading a book by a real, master, storyteller is when the story seems to effortlessly unfold with every word. Those are the kinds of books that you can’t put down, the kind of books that you will open back up, even for a sentence or two, even when you know you will just have to put it right back down again. Books by true storytellers aren’t necessarily technically perfect, far from it. But in spite of their holes and other imperfections you just don’t care because you are caught up in the story, the pacing, the vision.

In The Lost Gate Orson Scott Card has created such a book.

I honestly can’t judge this book on its technical merits because I was too into the story to care enough to pay attention to them. First, I’m a sucker for fantasy books set in the modern world. Second, I have always loved mythology and the very idea of the truth behind the myth being revealed is a kind of magic in its own right. Third, if any author is going to write about a teenager in a way that isn’t going to be a knockoff of Harry Potter or Twilight, it is Orson Scott Card, the author of the best book about a kid that doesn’t read like a book about a kid; Ender’s Game.

The Lost Gate is the story of ancient gods made real. The main character, Danny North, is a member of the magical family that gave rise to the ancient gods of the Norse. Odin and Thor still walk the earth, though in very different ways from ancient times. They along with members of other families descended from the various pantheons of gods still constantly war among themselves, but their powers have faded and no longer do ordinary humans worship them as gods and join them as their proxies. These magical families have lost the Gate to their home and source of power, Westil, a gate stolen more than a thousand years ago by a gatemage of the North family, Loki. After Loki stole the gates, all of the families agreed that should any gatemage appear among the families, they would be killed, for they would be far too dangerous. Danny North discovers he is a gatemage and now must flee for his life as he learns to control a power lost in legend that nobody can teach him from experience to control.

Gee, another trilogy to add to my never-shorter antilibrary of books that haven’t even been published yet.

(Authors Note: In linking to Orson Scott Card’s personal website I learned that he suffered a mild stroke on the first of the year. My thoughts are with you and I wish you a speedy recovery sir.)


On the Bookshelf: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings

Book One of The Stormlight Archive

by Brandon Sanderson

 The Stormlight Archive is the latest mega-epic fantasy fiction series to hit the bookshelves. It begins with The Way of Kings. This book is a 1,000+ page monster. Seriously, it is so massively huge it has its own gravitational pull. I understand that based upon astrophysical observations of The Way of Kings, Stephen Hawking has a new theory that black holes are really caused by epic fantasy fiction novels published by alien civilizations. Even more, the world built by this series seems to place a great significance on the number ten so, you guessed it, there will be nine more volumes to follow. I need a new bookshelf!

Even at this point in his young writing career, Brandon Sanderson is already becoming known as a world-builder without equal. In The Way of Kings readers are introduced to Roshar, the setting for The Stormlight Archive. Roshar, for the most part, is a world shaped by massive storms that regularly scour the landscape. Plants have evolved to protect themselves, reaching out from rock-like pods they may retreat into when threatened by wind or predator. Great cities are built in the lee of rock formations that provide shelter from winds capable of flinging boulders. These storms also seem to provide the power for the magic of this place, energy that can be trapped in gemstones called Stormlight. It is a harsh and unforgiving landscape further shaped by repeated continent scale cataclysms known as Desolations. These Desolations seem to be part natural catastrophe  and part genocidal war that seem to occur just far enough apart that the previous Desolations are lost to myth and legend.

There are three main viewpoint characters to The Way of Kings, each of them bringing a unique perspective to this first book.

Kaladin is a young man who starts life studying to be a surgeon, becomes a soldier, and following a betrayal becomes a slave. From his viewpoint we learn much about the Shattered Plains. This harsh, broken battleground is where the armies of the ten High Princes of Alethkar and the seemingly savage Parshendi have been contesting for five years following the assassination of the Alethi King Gavilar (a spectacular fight scene at the beginning of the book). Kaladin becomes a bridgeman in the army of the Alethi High Prince Sadeas. He finds himself running virtually unprotected into the teeth of volleys of enemy arrows, carrying a bridge, so that the soldiers in Sadeas’ army can launch assaults across chasms. Bridgemen aren’t supposed to survive, but Kaladin miraculously survives run after run and comes to be the leader of his bridge crew, determined to find a way to keep his men alive and eventually to help them escape.

Shallan is a young minor noblewoman who seeks to become a student of one of this world’s greatest scholars Jasnah Kholin, a heretic and sister to the current King of Althekar. Much of how society works is revealed through Shallan. Her youth has been sheltered and now she is off on her own in one of the great cities. Everything we learn through her is tinged with the wonder of seeing something for the first time. Also, as an aspiring scholar much of the history and back story of Roshar is revealed through her viewpoint. However, the best part of Shallan’s story comes from her talent as an artist. She has an ability (though not revealed to be magical or not) to take what she calls Memories, and sketch them in incredible detail. Sort of like perfect recall but almost unconscious in its execution. Included in The Way of Kings, among its many maps and illustrations, are several pages from Shallan’s sketch book, artfully detailing some of the stranger and more interesting aspects of the wildlife and landscape of Roshar.

Dalinar Kholin, is the third main viewpoint character and, thus far, my favorite. He is uncle to the current King of Althekar and as the General for his assassinated brother King Gavilar, conquered / united the Alethi High Princes into a kingdom. Dalinar is the proverbial old-soldier. He is honorable, stiff, upstanding and stodgy. At this point in his life, even though he is recognized as a highly skilled general, a great warrior and a High Prince in his own right, people have begun to see him as out of touch. This view is furthered by the strange visions he has begun to have during Highstorms. Many, including Dalinar, fear he is losing his mind. My favorite part of Dalinar’s viewpoint is that he is a Shardbearer. Dalinar fights in what is essentially powered-armor known as Shardplate and wields a massive magical sword that he wills to appear in his hand called a Shardblade. These weapons are a legacy of the legendary Knights Radiant. They are rare, mysterious and currently (at least) unable to be duplicated. When fighting with Shardplate and Shardblade, Dalinar shows his true skill and why he is known as the Blackthorn. He is an unstoppable and ruthless killer, a juggernaut who leads his highly disciplined army from the front, slaying legions singlehandedly as the Thrill (a berserker-like battle mindset that may or may not be magical) carries him along. Even though there are several (ten if I remember right!) different magic systems in this world, Shardbearers may well become the iconic symbol for this series.

As honorable mention for viewpoint characters is Szeth, the “Assassin in White” who slays King Gavilar at the beginning of the book. While he wields a Shardblade, he also commands the Stormlight powered magic of a Surgebinder, something that may be far more dangerous. This guy makes ninja look like amateurs. In Szeth, Sanderson shows why his magic systems work so well, they are all about balance and symmetry. They also provide for the awesome action scenes that Sanderson is so good at writing.

I really enjoyed The Way of Kings and I very much look forward to the remainder of The Stormlight Archive. Starting a new epic fantasy series like this is not for the faint of heart. I know several people who have given up on The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, as they seem to drag on for an eternity. Remember people, epics are marathons not sprints! That considered, I have no fear that Brandon Sanderson will falter and leave his readers hanging with The Stormlight Archive. As I understand it, Sanderson has essentially already written the series, though it requires heavy, heavy revisions, meaning new books should be arriving with clock-like regularity between the final books of The Wheel of Time and other projects that Sanderson has in the works, or percolating in his imagination.


On the Bookshelf: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

The Left Hand of God

by Paul Hoffman

From the book description:

Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary…

In the Redeemer Sanctuary, the stronghold of a secretive sect of warrior monks, torture and death await the unsuccessful or disobedient.  Raised by the Redeemers from early childhood like hundreds of other young captives, Thomas Cale has known only deprivation, punishment, and grueling training.  He doesn’t know that another world exists outside the fortress walls or even that secrets he can’t imagine lurk behind the Sanctuary’s many forbidden doorways.  He doesn’t know that his master Lord Bosco and the Sanctuary’s Redeemers have been preparing for a holy war for centuries—a holy war that is now imminent.  And Cale doesn’t know that he’s been noticed and quietly cultivated.

Then, Cale decides to open a door.

It’s a door that leads to one of the Redeemers’ darkest secrets and a choice that is really no choice at all: certain death or daring escape. Adrift in the wider world for the first time in his young life, Cale soon finds himself in Memphis, the capital of culture—and the den of Sin.  It’s there that Cale discovers his prodigious gift: violence. And he discovers that after years of abuse at the hands of the Redeemers his embittered heart is still capable of loving—and breaking.

But the Redeemers won’t accept the defection of their special subject without a fight.  As the clash of civilizations that has been looming for thousands of years draws near, a world where the faithful are as brutal as the sinful looks to young Cale to decide its fate.”

As the first book of a trilogy it is very important for an author to lay the essential groundwork for the setting of the story. In fantasy fiction this world-building is incredibly important. My greatest complaint about this book is that its world-building is, at the very best, half-complete. I can understand that, in part, this derives from the fact that the main point of view is a young man, Thomas Cale, who has been kept locked away in what is essentially a brutally violent military academy for most of his life. Sort of like Ender’s point of view in Battle School, he only knows what his teachers tell him, and what he can infer from reading between the lines. However, Cale’s escape occurs rather early in the book and his subsequent associations with much more worldly and connected characters including Generals, Prime Ministers, Princesses and Kings don’t really add anything to the reader’s mental picture of the world. Additionally, the author also breaks one of the major rules of fantasy fiction world-building. It is almost unforgivable that at various points throughout the novel nationalities and names from the real-world make abrupt appearances, Dutchmen, Norwegians (apparently a warlike people of the north that are the conquered subjects of a very fictional empire) and, oh yes, that guy Jesus of Nazareth who had something to do with being swallowed by a whale, among others that are mentioned in passing. Each time one of these makes an appearance, as a reader I am jolted out of the story and made to wonder if this isn’t supposed to be fantasy fiction at all, but rather some sort of bizarre fictional alternate history.

Ok, complaints aside, this was a pretty good read and I will most likely read the other two books of the trilogy when they are published. Thomas Cale is an interesting character with an interesting story to be laid out in front of him. His destiny is to either save the world, or destroy it. I understand that the author probably took real historical events, in this case the battles of Agincourt and Crécy, and partially used that as his template. Hopefully, the next two books will fill in the large blank spaces on the map left by the first book and break away from real history to give the reader something new, original and exciting.