Science Fiction Classics: God Emperor of Dune (by Frank Herbert)

Now at last we come to one of the most divisive entries in the Dune Chronicles. It’s not hard to see why. After all, this is a novel that has as one of its main characters a man who managed to make himself a hybrid of human and sandworm. To be honest, when I long ago read the cover of this novel, I thought it sounded ridiculous, a far cry from how things had started out in Dune. Now that I’ve finally finished the first three volumes, the fourth does make more sense than I thought it would.

To be fair, the novel is weird, particularly in comparison to the other entries in the series. By this point, 3500 years have passed since Leto first began his transition into a human/sandworm hybrid. He now rules as the supreme authority in all of the universe, known as the God Emperor. Utterly convinced that his is the only path by which humanity can avoid catastrophe, he represses dissent in his domain. However, he has begun to lay the groundwork for his own downfall, which will come about at the hands of Siona and another ghola version of Duncan Idaho. At the same time, Leto has also begun to find himself falling in a strange sort of love with the Ixian Hwee Noree.

Despite the novel’s absolute strangeness, I found myself absolutely captivated by it. In part that’s because the character of Leto himself is so bizarre and yet so utterly compelling. This is a creature that has given up almost all semblance of his humanity in order to bring about what he sees as the salvation of humanity, and there is in his story (as there was in his father’s) a profound tragedy. This is particularly acute for the reader that remembers Leto as the child that he was in the previous novel (though of course he was never really a child, since he has had full consciousness from birth). The fact that Leto feels himself so drawn to Hwee, even though he also knows that he stands at the brink of his own death, heightens the sense of tragedy.

It’s sometimes been said of this book that it indulges too much in Leto’s own delusions about his godlike status. However, to me that rather misses the point. The novel makes no bones about the fact that this creature is, indeed, a tyrant, and it betrays a certain ambivalence as to whether his actions–which he claims were taken in order to prevent humanity from destroying itself–are really just a cover for his own desire to rule over everything in his power. To a large extent, it seems that the final determination on that particular question must lie with the reader though, for my part, I think that Leto’s strenuous command of the entire narrative–almost every chapter has an excerpt from one of his journals–definitely skews it in his favor.

Though Leto occupies a substantial portion of the narrative, the other major players are Duncan Idaho and the rebel Siona. I’ve always found it particularly haunting that Idaho, who served the Atreides so faithfully, should be endlessly replicated through the centuries. Of course, Idaho gholas have played a significant role in each of the previous two novels, but this one is different, somehow. As the last being other than Leto himself that has a memory of what things were like before, he is something of a conscience figure, for both us as readers and for Leto himself. More than any of the other iterations of the character, he is a reminder of the old system of morality and order that existed before the rise of the God Emperor and the decline of the old Imperium. It’s small wonder, then, that it is he who joins with Siona in order to bring about the end of his rule.

Whereas Duncan is the past, Siona is the future. The product of numerous generations of Leto’s select breeding of the Atreides breeding, she has been chosen by Leto bring about his end. Like so many other members of her family, she finds herself caught up in forces that she cannot control, responsible for moving history forward. In bringing about the end of Leto’s reign, she sets in motion something that will radically reshape Dune (yet again), whatever her own wishes might be in the matter. Though parts of the novel are from her perspective, she still remains something of an enigma, though it’s always nice to see a woman do something in a science fiction novel rather than just serving as window dressing.

As much as I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune, however, I also found myself wanting to understand more about the events that transpired in the three and a half millennia since the last installment of the series. In particular, I found myself wanting to know the eventual fates of the many characters that we met in the last installment, people like the Lady Jessica (always one of my personal faves), as well as the tragic Princess Irulan, and of course Leto’s own sister Ghanima. Of course, I know that sometimes less is more when it comes to these sorts of stories, but I’m also the sort of person who wants to know each and every detail about characters, particularly ones that I’ve spent so much time with. What’s more, I wanted to know more about how the Fremen have become the degraded beings they are by the time of the events of this novel, reduced to merely aping the practices of their ancestors.

For all of that, this novel is a bold and risky one. It’s the rare author who would attempt a time jump of such magnitude between book and the next, and it’s a testament to Herbert’s skill as a storyteller that we as readers are brought so immediately into this world that he has created. I’ve already begun reading Heretics of Dune, which takes place a millennium and a half after the fall of Leto. I can’t wait to share all of my thoughts with you!

Science Fiction Classics: “Children of Dune” (by Frank Herbert)

Having finished Dune Messiah, I decided to move right into Children of Dune, the third novel of Frank Herbert’s magisterial Dune Chronicles. While it still has the feel of the previous two novels, events have begun to move quite quickly, and the characters, particularly the titular children, have to move swiftly in order to keep up.

This novel has a bit of something for everyone. For those who enjoyed the political aspect of the original novel, there is a lot of palace intrigue, as various factions both within the court and outside of it scheme for power. For those who loved the Fremen and the sandworms, there’s some of that, too. And, of course, there is also a lot of philosophizing, particularly as young Leto II has to contend with the burdens placed on him by his father’s mission.

There are there tragedies that punctuate this story. The first is that of Alia, the sister of Paul and one of the key members of his regime. Since before birth she has had the ability to sense the various voices of her predecessors (and this is why she is known as an Abomination to the Bene Gesserit). Unfortunately, she proves unable to withstand the voices inside of her head and one in particular, the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (her own grandfather who died at her hand in the original novel) gradually takes possession of her, twisting her psyche until she becomes a tyrant as bad as any that occurred previously in the series. In the end, she chooses to end her life rather than continue doing the bidding of the corrupt voice in her head. It’s rather heartbreaking to see this character that we have been with almost since the beginning perish in such a way, but it’s a reminder of the terrible price that power takes in this world.

The second tragedy is Leto II. Tortured, like his father, with prescience, he has seen the future that lies in store for humanity and knows that he must make the choice that his father refused. While it’s unclear what, exactly that entails for most of the book, near the end we realize that it entails becoming one with the very sandworms that are such a key part of the Arrakis ecosystem. I’ve often wondered how it is that we get from Children to God Emperor, and now I know. I have to say that it felt a little bizarre to see a character become a human-sandworm hybrid, but within the context of the series it makes sense. Leto, unlike his father, knows that the only way to see humanity follow his path is to become a god, with all of the power, and the immortality, that such deification entails.

The third is, of course, Paul himself, who returns from his exile in the desert in the form of the figure known only as the Preacher. While the novel leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not this mysterious man is indeed Paul until the very end, in a meaningful conversation with Leto it is revealed that he is, indeed, the hero of the previous two novels, come back to condemn the excesses of the regime that he left behind. Ultimately, he returns near the end of the novel to condemn his sister Alia and her tyranny but, alas, he doesn’t even get a death that has all of the grand drama that one might desire, since he is slain on the steps of the temple by outraged priests. It’s an ignominious ending for a man who managed to remake the entire universe in his own image, and that is no doubt the point. In the universe that Herbert imagines, there is no satisfactory conclusion for those who ascend to the highest ranks of power, only death and disillusionment.

It’s easy to see why this novel marks the point at which many people quit the series. While the palace intrigue and religious ruminating are definitely part of the overall ethos of the Dune books, you can’t escape the fact that the novel ends with Leto becoming a hybrid of human and sandworm, one that is seemingly destined to rule over the universe for millennia. For some people, that’s enough to turn them off. For others, this novel is a conclusion to the Paul narrative arc and thus don’t feel the need to proceed. In my opinion, though, they’re shortchanging themselves (I’ve already started God Emperor and I love it).

For my part, I personally found this novel to be one of the most exciting (and challenging) in the series, precisely because of the fact that it breaks new ground. It has to be said, however, that Leto’s transformation, and all of its consequences, renders the political machinations of several of the characters ultimately moot. After all, a significant part of the novel deals with the efforts of the disgraced House Corrino to regain the throne that they feel is rightfully theirs. Irulan’s daughter Wensicia is, at first, the instigator of this plot, her son ultimately banishes her and is, finally, granted the position of recorder for Leto.

There are, however, a myriad of unanswered questions. What happened to Jessica? Or Ghanima, for that matter? What about Irulan, the Corrino princess who became a sort of surrogate mother figure for the two children? These were some of the more fascinating characters in the series, and I found myself feeling a little let down that they didn’t get a fitting ending (especially since God Emperor takes place three and a half millennia after the events of Children).

Like its predecessors, Children of Dune asks some important philosophical questions, forcing us to confront the nature of tyranny, history, faith, and government. Is it acceptable, or desirable, for a figure to take control of the universe if that means that it will avert the destruction of humankind? What is the best kind of government? Can faith unite people or is it doomed to divide?

It’s the engagement with these questions that makes the Dune books such an enduring pleasure to read.

Book Review: “Paul of Dune” (by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson)

It’s quite common in the Dune fandom to take potshots at the expanded Duniverse, particularly the series of prequel and midquel novels published by Frank Herbert’s son Brian and his collaborator Kevin J. Anderson. In fact, the fandom has even coined a term to refer to that part of the canon: “McDune.” It’s actually a clever bit of derision, a means by which fans can register their disapproval of the perceived downgrading of Frank Herbert’s original novels.

Allow me to disagree.

Though there are times when Herbert and Anderson’s books are a bit pulpier than their predecessors, I personally find them more accessible. What’s more, they do still address some of the weightier philosophical issues that were such a key part of the original novels’ appeal. That is certainly the case with this novel.

Paul of Dune is set between the events of Dune and Dune Messiah, as well as before the events of Dune. The two alternating timelines shed light into both the events in his adolescence that shaped who Paul became in later years as well as the struggles have faces as his Jihad fans out across the universe, costing billions of lives. In the past, his father Leto is drawn into a War of Assassins, while in the present Paul has to contend with the consequences of his Jihad as it fans out across the universe. What’s more, plots and schemes abound, as both the deposed Shaddam and the noted assassin Hasimir Fenring put their own plans into motion to reclaim the throne.

The novel moves at a brisk pace. In keeping with the format of many of the Dune novels, the chapters are usually short and punchy, moving between different characters in order to provide us with a panoramic view of the many players at work. Some classic favorites from the original novel make appearances, including the villainous Vladimir Harkonnen. By far the most interesting parts of the novel, however, focus on Hasimir Fenring, who has always been one of the more enigmatic yet fascinating characters in the canon. Here, he plots with his wife Margot to steal the throne, either for their daughter Marie (who is herself a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program) or for some other puppet that they can manipulate for their own purposes.

We also get a glimpse at the sinister and mysterious world of the Bene Tleilax, who have been undertaking their own effort to create a Kwisatz Haderach. Their creation, Thallo, is one of many such, and he’s one of the novel’s more haunting creations. Seemingly a perfect human specimen, he befriends Marie before going mad and attempting to destroy his master. Like so many other of the other times that the reader encounters the elusive Bene Tleilax, they are strange and unsettling, as well as deeply misogynist.

One of the fundamental questions at the heart of the entire Dune series has always been about the nature of humanity and, relatedly, whether it is morally justifiable to slaughter billions in order to ensure that trillions more don’t perish in the future. Here, that takes on an added edge, as we see Paul, newly ascended to his throne, struggle to hold to his vision. He’s an epic hero, certainly, but despite the fact that he can see into all possible futures, it is up to him, and no one else, to prepare humanity for the tribulations to come. His own particular burden is that he must do so while also contending with the inevitable assassinations and attempts to dethrone him. Paul Atreides was and remains one of the most fascinating and complex figures in all of science fiction.

A lot of reviews I’ve seen of the book blasted it both for its perceived retconning and for its use of Irulan as a means of justifying any future retconning. Fans of the novel will remember that Irulan, daughter of the deposed Shaddam IV and wife of Paul, set herself the task of becoming his official historian, crafting his image for generations to come. In this novel, we learn that she has already started bending the truth, that what we have been led to believe about Paul in earlier iterations of the series may not be true, but instead deliberately manufactured truths designed to further his ambitions and to make it easier for him to be seen as a god.

While this certainly does make any future creative decisions that Herbert and Anderson easier (in that it allows them to not be absolutely beholden to the established canon), I would argue that something more important is going on. Dune has always been about the deep philosophical issues, and what can be more important than the nature of history? Irulan recognizes, and in doing so forces us to recognize, that the way we look at the past is conditioned by our present circumstances more than any objective view.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Paul of Dune. It was not only pleasant to revisit some of the best characters of this universe, but also to see how events between the first two installments of the original series affected the events that followed.

Science Fiction Classics: “Dune Messiah” (by Frank Herbert)

Having finished Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, I decided to dive right in and begin the second volume, Dune Messiah. While it lacks some of the narrative richness of its predecessor, in many ways it is even more theologically and philosophically sophisticated, as Paul must contend not only with the consequences of the jihad he unleashed upon the universe, but also with a conspiracy and with the ever tightening noose of his own prescience.

The novel begins several years after Paul seized the throne. The Fremen have swept everyone before them, and Paul is now the undisputed ruler of the Imperium. However, there are those that see him as a danger that must be removed, among them a Navigator from the Spacing Guild, a Tleilaxu Face Dancer, the Princess Irulan, and a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (none other than Gaius Helen Mohiam herself). While their plan ultimately fails, it is enough to both physically blind Paul and send him wandering into the desert and his presumed death.

Given that this is Dune we’re talking about, there is a great deal of discussion about Paul’s powers of prescience. By this point, they have become more a prison than anything else, a millstone around his neck that he can’t shake off. It is, however, the one thing that allows him to prevent even greater violence and, just as importantly, to protect the lives of those that he loves (to an extent, at least). Indeed, I would argue that one of the novel’s great strengths is that it not only explores the philosophical underpinnings of prescience and its consequences but also shows how those consequences manifest in Paul’s life and his physical well-being. Paul, ultimately, is a sort of negative tragic hero, denied the fulfilling life that some might think that he deserves.

For it is also true that the novel also raises potent questions about the relationship between faith and politics. In many ways, the world that emerges in the aftermath of the Paul’s jihad is very similar to that faced by all political and military movements that emerge from religious fervor that centers on a powerful, charismatic individual. Paul has the distinct disadvantage of still being alive while the theocracy he leads is built around him, and even his prescience isn’t entirely enough to prevent the seeds of rebellion from taking root. In Messiah, as in its predecessor, Paul is simultaneously omnipotent and completely impotent, caught in an impossible position that he alone has made possible.

One of the most surprising things about this novel is how much it manages to pack into its relatively short length. In it, we not only see the birth and growth of the conspiracy that will ultimately cost him his eyes, but also the conflicted nature of his sister Alia, the conflicted loyalties of Irulan and, perhaps most importantly, the ghola Duncan Idaho, who has been resurrected by the powers of the Tleilaxu. His presence is a troubling and unsettling reminder of the powers that this reclusive group wields, in this case the ability to resurrect dead flesh. What is particularly striking here is that even though Duncan is at first distinctly not the same as he was when he was alive before, Paul is able to force his former persona to resurface. It’s a pivotal moment in the novel, positing the radical idea that there just might be memories, and fundamental aspects of who we are as individuals, buried deep within our cells. It’s a fascinating and troubling idea.

It is also a remarkably pessimistic novel. When, at the end, Paul walks into the sands of Arrakis, leaving behind his two newborn children, his sister, and his lieutenant Stilgar behind to rule his empire, it’s a breathtakingly devastating moment. This is the man, after all, that we as readers have followed since the very beginning of his journey to the top of the universe. It’s tragic, in the truest sense of that term, that he is unable to attain the rewards that he clearly deserves.

If I have one minor complaint about the novel, it’s that the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, one of the shrewdest women in the Imperium and a key part of Paul’s own rise, is killed off-screen on Alia’s orders. While it makes sense that Alia would engage in an act of retribution for the death of her brother, it seems to me that a character like Mohiam would have, at the very least, deserved a more meaningful death.

Overall, however, I quite enjoyed my re-read of Dune Messiah. While it doesn’t quite attain the epic grandeur of its predecessor, it is nevertheless a worthy successor and a compelling prelude to the many things to come.

Book Review: “Lady Hotspur” (by Tessa Gratton)

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Judging by Goodreads, this book has, somewhat to my surprise, been ill-received by those who have read it. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s literary basis, or perhaps it’s the particular type of prose that Gratton uses–which, to be sure, is at times a bit baroque, or maybe it’s just that the author is a woman and the world of fantasy can be a bit unforgiving of female voices.

Allow me to be one of the dissenting voices. I found Lady Hotspur to be by turns moving, beautiful, haunting, and terrifying. It captures what is best about the fantasy genre and, what is just as important, it manages to do all of this in one volume rather than several. While there is pleasure to be had in a sprawling, multi-volume fantasy saga, sometimes you just want to read an epic story in one go.

As she did with her earlier book, here Gratton has reimagined the plays that Shakespeare wrote about Henry IV and Henry V (primarily Henry IV Parts One and Two, as well as Henry V). In the novel, Prince Hal is the daughter of Celedrix, a rebel who has taken the throne of Aremoria for herself. Hal’s best friend and lover is the warrior Lady Hotspur, while her opposite number of Banna Mora, the one-time heir to the throne who ultimately conspires with the folk of the nearby island of Innis Lear, particularly Prince Rowan, to both seize the crown for herself and reunite the sundered realms both politically and magically.

Like Shakespeare’s play, the book is primarily about the fraught relationship between Hal and Hotspur, though though here the gender dynamics are flipped and there is no question that their relationship is intensely physical, indeed sexual. Their love for one another is one of the guiding lights of the story, and I truly enjoyed seeing same-sex love celebrated and for these two women to be given a happy ending.

Indeed, one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book was the fact that not only did it focus on women to an extraordinary degree–still a very rare thing in epic fantasy–it repeatedly emphasized that it is the relationships among and between women that are the most important in this world. Again and again, we are shown how the bonds between women are the glue that hold the various realms together. In addition to her complicated relationship with Hotspur, Hal also has a vexed relationship with her mother Celeda and with the knight Ianta (the novel’s equivalent of Falstaff), while Hotspur has to contend with her own divided nature and her torn loyalties. And, for her part, Banna Mora has to decide whether she wants revenge or justice in her pursuit of the throne of Aremoria.

History hangs heavy on this tale, as the events and characters from The Queens of Innis Lear loom in the background, a reminder of the sacrifices and terrors that have taken place in this world. Some characters that occupied that narrative come back to literally haunt those living in the present, though the novel leaves their identities something of an enigma throughout most of the narrative. However, there’s a unique pleasure to be had in trying to figure out exactly what influence the past is having (some reviewers clearly found this to be a frustrating aspect of the book, but I quite liked it).

The third major strand in the novel is the power of prophecy to determine the actions of those in the present. Do any of us have actual agency, or are our actions always predetermined by the faults in our stars? The novel seems to come down somewhere in the middle. While there are paths that we are fated to tread, and while some of those can have world-shattering consequences, we are also presented with numerous times when the characters forge their own path, when they do what they wish rather than what they are fated to do.

Now, it is true that Lady Hotspur, like The Queens of Innis Lear, can be a difficult read at times. However, I don’t think that this is primarily due to the fact that they reimagine Shakespeare for a modern audience, and there are times when the fit is an odd one. The novel also makes Hal’s shift from reprobate prince to warrior prince a bit abruptly, but that’s also one of the aspects of the original plays. It is also true that there is something slightly strange about Gratton’s prose, a slight stilted-ness that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, it is also true that she has astonishing powers of description, and the novel is a deeply sensual one.

If I have one major complaint to make about this book, it’s that it didn’t include a map. It’s not just that I love looking at maps–both real and fantastical–but because it’s very difficult to orient yourself in space while reading a book without a map to give you guidance. For the life of me, I still don’t have a firm idea of where the various countries in this book are located, and while this might be acceptable in a regular piece of fiction, for a fantasy novel that is relying on a totally made-up geography it is incredibly disorienting and frustrating.

All told, however, I really enjoyed Lady Hotspur. It is a testament to Gratton’s abilities as an author that she manages to make Shakespeare new and fascinating for a new generation. The fact that her own mother passed away during the course of her writing the book gives Hal’s confronting of her own mother’s impending mortality an extra emotional charge. While Lady Hotspur might be everyone’s cup of tea, I definitely recommend it to those who want an epic fantasy that focuses on women and that gives us characters that we can cheer for, weep with, and celebrate. This book provides all of that and more.

Book Review: “Thrawn: Treason” (by Timothy Zahn)

So far, I’ve enjoyed each installment of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy, and the conclusion is no exception. In this novel, Zahn manages to tie together the various strands that he’s woven so far. Having established himself as one of the foremost warriors in the Empire and one of Palpatine’s most reliable lieutenants, Thrawn might seem to be at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, other powers are gathering that want to take him down, and the Empire is being threatened by an outside force. Thrawn must ultimately decide whether his true loyalties lay with the Empire or with his native Chiss Ascendancy.

This novel includes fewer passages from Thrawn’s point of view than previous installments. Instead, we get a variety of others, including Commodore Faro (Thrawn’s chief subordinate), as well as Ronan, one of the chief people involved with the development of the Death Star. It also sees the return of Eli Vanto, who has been spending the past several years serving in the military of the Chiss Ascendancy. As a result of these several points of view, we get to see the various threads of power that stretch throughout the Empire and beyond.

Likewise, the novel nicely ties together the various threads that have been in play since the series began. It’s been unclear from the beginning of this series whether Thrawn has truly thrown in his lot with the Empire or whether he still serves the Chiss Ascendancy, and by the end of the novel it’s fairly clear that he still strives to strike a balance between these two parts of his identity. For him, serving the Empire is not incompatible with his loyalty to the Empire (and to the Emperor in particular), and in fact it may be that a threat to one is a threat to the other.

I actually missed seeing Eli Vanto in the second book of this series, and it was rather nice to see him back again. Like Thrawn, he finds himself at something of a crossroads, not quite part of the Chiss and yet also cast out of the safe haven of the Empire. I also enjoyed the introduction of two new characters, Commodore Faro and Ronan. The former is a very compelling character, in part because it’s always nice to see a strong woman in a Star Wars novel. Ronan, on the other side, is one of those foolish types who seems determined to let his own arrogance get in the way of doing what is right. Fortunately, he ends up getting what he deserves in the end, which is definitely one of the more satisfying parts of the novel.

Those who like their Star Wars novels to have a lot of action and fighting will appreciate Thrawn: Treason, and there are several well-written battles that occur throughout. There are fewer discussions of politics–which was a little disappointing–but the novel does continue to show us Thrawn’s tactical brilliance, including his ability to understand an enemy through their art.

Despite the fact that the also leaving enough ambiguity to suggest directions in which the series might go in future installments. Thrawn’s final conversation with the Emperor, in which Palpatine reminds him of the dangers of divided loyalties, is one of the highlights of the book. It reminds us of the fact that there are always more currents running beneath the surface than we are aware of. We, like Thrawn, are not always able to see the many ways in which the politics of the Empire are taking shape.

I very much enjoyed this book and the trilogy of which it is a part. Zahn has an eye for how to put a narrative together, how to keep us riveted to a story from beginning to end. Though I’m not sure that I understand Thrawn any more than I did when I began this series, it is precisely the sense of him as an enigma that keeps us coming back for more. A follow-up series to this one has already been announced, and while this one will, apparently, flesh out Thrawn’s back story among the Chiss, I for one am looking forward to learning more about this absolutely compelling character.

Book Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" (by V.E. Schwab)

Every so often you read a fantasy books that just sort of sweeps you up in its fictional universe, a book that’s told in such a compelling way that you feel like you literally can’t put the book down.

Such is the case with A Darker Shade of Magic.

This novel, the first of a series by V.E. Scwhab, follows two characters, Kell and Lila, as they attempt to stave off the consequences of a dreadful new type of magic that threatens to upend the fragile balance of power that exists in their interconnected worlds. In the process, they discover much about themselves and, by the end of the novel, the stage is set for further adventures with the two of them.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that I loved this book so much. Part of it, a significant part, is the setting. In the world that Schwab has created there are four connected worlds. Each of those worlds has a city named London, and each of those is named after a particular color (Red, Grey, Black, and White), and each of which has a different relationship with magic. Though it turns out that this is largely a conceit of Kell’s and not codified in any official way, it remains a useful way to refer to each of the individual locations. Red London is probably the most balanced, with magic present but not destructive. White London has a deeply pathological relationship with magic, and it is ruled over by the sadistic and monstrous twins Astrid and Athos. Grey London, the one that is our world, has almost entirely forgotten what magic is. And Black London has, in the distant past, been so overwhelmed by magic that the other Londons have resorted to walling themselves off from it.

Schwab has the stunning ability to create a richly imagined world without smothering us in detail. Much of the action of the book takes place in both Grey London and Red London, with only occasional forays into the horrifying and dangerous White London. However, the mystery of Black London hangs over the entire book, and while Kell ultimately manages to avoid having to journey there in person, there is a sense at the end of the novel that there is much that we haven’t yet seen from that place where magic has gained such power that it has burned through its hosts.

For that is one of the most interesting things about this book. Magic is not just an inactive force that some can draw upon. It is, instead, a powerful force with its own agency, and one of the gravest threats posed to this world comes when magic gains a power and a will of its own. It’s quite disturbing, really, to think of magic as something that has agency, and Schwab perfectly captures that sense of menace, as this powerful force begins to inhabit the bodies of those that it encounters, using them as its host before ultimately burning through and discarding them (given that I am writing this review in the midst of a pandemic, that particular storyline feels even more chilling than ever).

Next, the characters. Both Kell and Lila are both sympathetic and, at times, frustrating. Kell is in many ways impossibly noble, always willing to do whatever he can to protect those that he loves, including and especially his brother Rhy. Noble as he is, however, he is also rather prideful, and he takes unnecessary risks that put not only his own life in danger, but also those that he claims to care about the most.

Lila, on the other hand, is almost irritatingly unwilling to commit to anything except her own survival. By the end of the novel, of course, she has recognized that there is something more than just her own benefit. What I especially appreciated about A Darker Shade of Magic was that it didn’t go the easy route and force Kell and Lila into a romantic relationship. Though there is clearly a strong connection between them, it was refreshing to see them go their separate ways rather than committing to one another (though, since there are two more books in the series, it’s entirely possible that they might end up together by the end).

Narratively, the story is tightly-woven. Though most of the book is told from the perspectives of Kell and Lila, we do occasionally get glimpses into other side characters, particularly those who are being possessed by the darker magic of the stone. Despite those brief interludes, the novel moves along at a brisk pace, keeping us caught up in its propulsive momentum from the first page to the last. By the time I reached the end, I was almost breathless, and I was a little sad to find that I had to stop. There was so much more that I wanted to know about this world and about these characters, so much that continued to hover just out of view. But, of course, that’s precisely what makes a book like A Darker Shade of Magic such a pleasure to read. The fact that you are left wanting more is a definitive sign that the writer has done something right, that they’ve found the proper balance in their fiction.

What I really appreciated about this novel was the fact that it wrapped up all of the storylines so neatly. Though it is the first book of a trilogy–with the same characters–it still manages to be self-contained, leaving us satisfied with how things have worked out for these characters. At the same time, there are just enough hints scattered throughout the book to suggest that there is a great deal of chaos just waiting to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting residents of the various Londons.

Given how much I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, I’ve already started reading A Gathering of Shadows. I have to say, I’m enjoying it already. I can’t wait to review it!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances”

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Readers of this blog will remember that I absolutely loved the first installment of author Timothy Zahn’s new trilogy about Thrawn, the Chiss general who rises through the ranks of the Imperial military to become a Grand Admiral. As soon as I finished that volume, I went ahead and started reading the second one, and I was not disappointed. It takes the character in some new and interesting directions, while remaining true to the developments that happened in the first novel.

This novel follows two different timelines. One, set in the diegetic present, follows Thrawn and his reluctant ally Darth Vader as they pursue an unknown disturbance in the outer reaches of the Galaxy. The other follows a younger Thrawn as he engages with Anakin and Padmé as they investigate a mining operation that could seriously reshape the war between the Republic and the Separatists.

What interests me so much about this iteration of Thrawn is the fact that he doesn’t fit easily into the categories of good and evil. I’ve always thought that Star Wars is at its best when it probes what we normally assume to be the hard and fast distinctions between heroism and villainy. While Thrawn has sworn his service to the Emperor–who we are always supposed to think is the embodiment of evil–this novel shows that his motivations are complex. While he is as loyal to the Empire as he ever was, we are led to believe that his true loyalties will always lie with his fellow Chiss.

I particularly enjoy the way that Zahn manages to take us us into the intimate spaces of Thrawn’s complex mind. From the beginning of this new series, we’ve seen that Thrawn doesn’t operate according to same rules as everyone else. Among other things, he seems to have an almost supernatural ability to observe the behavior of others and to determine their actions based on what he sees. This makes him a formidable enemy, and it makes us as readers aware of just how inhuman he is, for all that he has managed to rise so high in the estimation of the Emperor.

Despite the fact that Thrawn is, of course, the focal point of the book, I constantly found myself reminded of just how tragic Anakin’s storyline is. The moments when Darth Vader ruthlessly quells his memories from that time–and the fact that he has separated his current identity from “the Jedi”–are a stark reminder of how much Anakin gives up as he plunges to his fate in the Dark Side. By the time of the present, of course, he’s given himself over completely to his service of the Emperor, so much so that even Thrawn, who knew him at both times, is for a while in some doubt as to whether Vader is in fact the young Jedi that he knew so many years ago. As I was reading the parts of the book that were set during the Clone Wars, I continued to feel saddened by what I knew was Anakin’s inevitable fall, aware all the time that his romance with Padmé was doomed to end in tragedy, that he would ultimately be responsible for her death.

I also appreciated that this book took a few risks, such as revealing that the Chiss do have Force-sensitive individuals in their number, though it manifests differently among them than it does to any of the other races that we’ve encountered.

Overall, I found Thrawn: Alliances to be a well-plotted and exciting entry in the Star Wars universe. There’s a reason, it seems to me, that authors like Zahn have managed to solidify their standing in the community. This book doesn’t necessarily break any boundaries, but it doesn’t really have to. Zahn has a strong writer’s finely-tuned instincts, and he knows what his audience is looking for and is able to provide it.

I’m very much looking forward to the third book in the series, and I have a feeling that Thrawn is going to continue finding his loyalty to the Emperor tested by his continued adherence to his own code of honor and to his people.

Book Review: “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” (by Tomi Adeyemi)

When I first read Children of Blood and Bone, I was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t just that I was excited to finally see a young woman of color writing what was, by all accounts, a stunning fiction debut. It was that this extraordinary talent had managed to create a compelling world based on Africa mythology, one that lived and breathed and drew you in from first page to last. Thus, when Children of Virtue and Vengeance came out, I rushed to the store.

I’m glad I did.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance picks up shortly after the previous novel ending, with Zélie mourning the death of her father, while royal siblings Inan and Amari each struggle for the throne in order to bring an end to the war that has already cost so many lives. The novel follows each side as they each go to ever-greater depths of darkness and violence, each side convinced that right is on their side.

One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the books in this series is the way in which they manage to combine all of the elements of fantasy in ways that feel fresh and exciting. I particularly love that the series is drawn from west African mythology and that it pays so much attention to the fact that these characters are definitely not white. Fantasy as a genre has been dominated for so long by whiteness that I’m always looking for a series that breaks out of that mold. It’s clear from the first page to the last that Adeyemi has given a great deal of thought to how to build this world from the ground up, and it’s impossible not to find yourself utterly swept up into it.

The novel keeps moving along at a breathtaking pace, and you’re left never entirely sure when the next twist will happen. There are many twists and turns in this novel, which is appropriate, given that it is in many ways about the destructive power of war and the corrosive impacts it has on even those who begin with the noblest of intentions. None of the three primary characters are angels, and there are moments when it’s possible to dislike any of them. However, Adeyemi does an excellent job of making us appreciate and love each of these characters, even as we also recognize their flaws. All of them, each in their own way, is trying to do what they think is best, and while they don’t always succeed, we’re led to at least appreciate their efforts.

Each of the three main characters finds themselves tested in ways that they never before imagined. Zélie must slowly come to terms with the fact that, whether she likes it or not, she is now a leader of the people who now wield magic. Amari must recognize that, in many ways, she has become far too much like the father that she spent so much of the previous novel loathing and trying to escape. Inan, the boy who has been thrust into a kingship that he never really wanted and is not really prepared for, must contend with the competing forces around him, from his mother’s relentless desire to eradicate magic to his own love for Zélie and desire to bring about peace.

And it’s important to remember just how young these characters are. These young people have been thrown into the midst of a war that none of them asked for, each of them caught up in the web of deceit and death and destruction that was precipitated by their parents and those who don’t have their own interests at heart. You can hardly blame them if, at times, they aren’t able to exactly meet the challenges that they face and if they make choices that are foolish and sometimes dangerous.

The novel ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and at the moment it’s unclear what, exactly has happened and what will happen to these characters that we’ve already come to love and care about. The worst part about finishing a book like Children of Virtue and Vengeance is that we now have to wait for an even longer period of time before the third volume is out! And, given how many twists and turns the first two volumes in this series have taken, I think it’s safe to say that we are about to see these beloved characters go through quite a lot before this whole thing is over. Heartache is no doubt on the horizon, but hopefully so is salvation.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn” (by Timothy Zahn)

In the annals of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, perhaps no figure looms larger than Thrawn. Originally introduced in Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” series, he subsequently became something of a fan favourite. Though only a neophyte when it comes to the Expanded Universe, I can well imagine the howl of outrage that erupted when Disney announced that all of the works that had already been published in that universe would be rendered noncanon, including Thrawn.

Fortunately, Zahn has successfully wound his beloved Chiss character back into the canon by focusing on his early years and his incorporation into the machinery of the empire. The novel is split among three different perspectives. There is, of course, Thrawn, whose tactical genius allows him to ascend quickly through the ranks. Other chapters are told from the point of view of his assistant Eli Vanto, who finds himself caught up in Thrawn’s wake as he makes his precipitous ascent into the highest ranks of the Imperial Navy. Lastly there is Arihnda Pryce, who begins the novel on the mining world of Loval but gradually manipulates her way into becoming a powerful administrator.

From the opening pages, I found myself irresistibly drawn into this narrative. Certainly, a great deal of this is due to the fact that Thrawn is just such a compelling character, capable of acts of great ruthlessness, his tactical brilliance acknowledged even by his most devout enemies. Zahn has the uncanny ability to give us just enough detail about Thrawn’s back story to keep us engaged, while also keeping enough back to make Thrawn and enigma that we want to solve.

What struck me the most as I read the book, however, was how Thrawn never truly appears evil. True, he is ruthless, and he is definitely cunning, with one of the best military minds of arguably anyone in the entire Star Wars universe. His brain just doesn’t seem to work quite like any other character that we’ve ever et, and this is no doubt due to the fact that he is also the furthest from human. This allows his mind to see the patterns–both in individuals and in collectives–that prove invaluable in his service to the Empire and the imposition of its will.

Of course, all of this allows the book to raise the deeper ethical question: at what point do we finally say enough is enough and work against the forces that we see as evil? For Thrawn, this point has clearly not come yet, for he sees the order and stability of the Empire as a necessary trade-off for the protection it provides against even greater forces of evil that lurk in the Unknown Regions. Though it’s had to imagine why anyone with a shred of integrity of morality would continue serving a creature like the Emperor, Zahn does a great job showing us what motivates Thrawn to do so.

Indeed, one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about so many of the new Star Wars novels is their ability to show us why it is that people would willingly serve an institution such as the Empire (and, later, the First Order). As it turns out, not everyone one who does so is an evil monster. Some do it because they see no alternative, others because they tire of finding their opportunities squashed at every turn. In this novel, Vanto is clearly not someone who is evil. He is merely doing what he can to survive. Pryce is a somewhat more ambiguous character who, while not entirely evil, is still ruthless and cunning and has little sense of personal loyalty. What’s more, she has no compunction about removing those who stand in her way, even if that means killing them.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Thrawn. I truly couldn’t put the book down from the moment I picked it up, and I’d probably go so far as to that it’s my favourite of the new series of books coming out from Disney.

Having finished Thrawn, I’m now diving headfirst into the sequel, Thrawn: Alliances, in which we will finally get to see the complicated relationship between Thrawn and Vader, two of the most valuable servants of the Emperor.

Stay tuned!