Fantasy Classics: “Magician’s Gambit” (by David Eddings)

Matters continue to race forward in Magician’s Gambit, the third volume in David Eddings’ magnificent Belgariad. The company is drawing closer to the place where the sinister Grolim Ctuchik has hidden the Orb of Aldur, and along the way they encounter both the desolate land of Maragor, site of the horrific genocide that exterminated the Marags, as well as the Ulgos, subterranean servants of the god UL. Finally, they arrive in Cthol Murgos and a terrible confrontation takes place between Belgarath and Ctuchik, which results in the destruction of the latter.

In this novel, the final contours of the great struggle taking place between the forces of darkness and light begin to emerge, as well as the powers that Garion has been born to wield. It becomes clear that he is fated to wield tremendous power, though he has yet to fully figure out how to use it. What is especially refreshing about this is that it reveals that Eddings has clearly thought a lot about how magic works in this universe. It’s not one of those cases where a simple wave of the hand one can command things to be. Instead, the Will and the World are about balance and structure and, in keeping with the fundamental laws of physics, nothing can be actually unmade. And while there are other boundaries–such as that between life and death–it turns out that Garion even has the ability to transgress that, as when he brings a colt back to life. The moment when he does so is arguably the most moving part of the book, and a reminder that new life can flourish even in the darkest of times.

The incident in the land of Maragor is a grim reminder of the darker tones that underlie the seemingly light-hearted fantasy narrative. As Eddings himself noted several times during his life, his training was in American literature, and thus he set out to write a sort of fantasy that captured the grittiness of the work of men such as Steinbeck and Hemingway. While I don’t think he always succeeds in this regard–for one thing, his characters are far too likable–it has to be said that there tends to be one moment in each novel in the series where he attains this goal. In this case, we’re shown a land that has been utterly depopulated, its population slain in a genocide undertaken by the Tolnedrans in their efforts to procure the gold that was to be found there. All that remains is the desolate god Mara, who mourns the passing of his people.

The sequences in the land of the Ulgos are also fascinating. Not only does their god UL, bear the strongest resemblance to the Christian/Hebrew God of any that the reader has yet met, he also inspires a similar sort of fanaticism in his followers. Exemplary in this regard is the man Relg, who seems determined to project all of his own religious prejudices (including those involving female sexuality) onto others. It’s a pretty pointed criticism of religious fundamentalism, and one can’t help but see this part of the novel responding to the growth of the Religious Right throughout the 1980s.

Now, it has to be said that there is a sinister racial logic at work in the world that Eddings has created. The main characters have an almost pathological disregard for the value of Murgo life in particular, and an especially scathing attitude toward Angarak culture more generally. Of course, Eddings isn’t alone in this regard, and I hate to keep bringing it up, but it seems especially glaring because of how often the company ends up slaughtering any Murgos that happen to get in their way. Had there been any indication that the Murgos, the Grolims in particular, had any sort of depth or motivation for their actions other than a sort of generic villainy this problem wouldn’t be quite so glaring. As it is, I kept wanting to get some indication that the Murgos and Grolims are motivated by a genuine belief in the power of Torak, and that it is his corrupting power that has led them to be the way they are. So far, alas, that is sorely lacking.

All of that being said, I will say that I found the portions where they make their way through the temple to Torak some of the most disturbing and yet compelling parts of the novel. How not, when they see the horrors of human sacrifice being committed time and again? Eddings has many skills as a storyteller, and one of this is his ability to capture a sense of place. We as readers feel as if we are right there with the characters, wandering through the caves below Cthol Murgos, witnessing the blood and fire that is such a key part of worship for the Murgos, and eventually fleeing for their lives as the mountain crashes down into ruin. It’s the perfect way to end this third volume of the saga, and it leaves the reader panting for more.

Narratively, what’s so refreshing about this series is that it doesn’t waste time with unnecessary fluff. This is epic pared down to its basic elements, and while some might want to see more of the political machinations that have become a signature part of much epic fantasy in recent decades, sometimes it’s a little nice to see an author really go back to basics in terms of storytelling. There’s a unique pleasure to be found in a simple story told well, and that is definitely the niche that Eddings occupies. It also helps that the characters are all very charming (though, admittedly, the witticisms do become a bit tedious after a while, but that’s a relatively minor complaint).

All in all, I very much enjoyed Magician’s Gambit. It’s a reminder of the types of fantasy that were popular in the past, and for that it should be treasured. I’m not making my quick way through Castle of Wizardry, so stay tuned!

Fantasy Classics: Queen of Sorcery (by David Eddings)

Queen of Sorcery picks up where Pawn of Prophecy left off. Garion is still in the company of the sorcerer Belgarath and his daughter Polgara, as well as sundry other characters, including several new additions, most notably C’Nendra, the daughter of the Emperor of Tolendra who joins them after she runs away from home. As the novel progresses, we visit more of the lands of Eddings’ fictional world and get a firmer view of the politics at play, including the never-ending conflict between the Mimbrates and the Arendians, as well as the machinations of the Nyissans, led by their snake-like Queen Salmissra.

As with its predecessor, there are the familiar epic beats as it becomes clearer that Garion is not just a young boy brought along to keep him safe but is, instead, pivotal to the workings of prophecy itself. What’s more, it’s revealed during the course of the story that he, like his aunt and his grandfather, has the power of sorcery. For better and for worse, it’s a burden that he has to bear. The fact that he is going to be responsible for the functioning of prophecy just makes his responsibilities all the greater, even as he wishes that it weren’t so and that he could go back to living the simple life on Faldor’s farm that he was forced to leave behind.

Some people make the claim that Garion is a bit of a brat in this series, but I think that’s a bit of a misreading. True, he does seem to struggle unnecessarily against the changes that start to overtake his life, but who wouldn’t, in his position? After all, in a relatively short period of time everything about his life, his family, and his destiny have all been turned upside down, so it’s only natural that he would experience moments when he doesn’t want to do as he’s told, particularly since neither Polgara nor Belgarath seem particularly eager to tell him any more than they think he needs to know. And besides, there’s just something charming about his character that makes him impossible to dislike.

It seems to me that Eddings doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his ability to imbue his narratives with powerful feeling. In one particular instance, the company rides through a land that, as Garion is informed, has been the site of numerous conflicts between the Mimbrates and the Asturians. It’s a haunting moment, as he realizes that the land over which they are walking is literally filled with the graves of those who have given their lives to a conflict that seems to have no resolution. In fact, the entire conflict between these two powerful groups (which are very similar to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans), is one that seems to have so thoroughly ensnared both groups of people that neither of them can see any way out of it.

This is also the novel in which Garion does the seemingly unthinkable and kills someone with his newly-found powers of sorcery. The fact that it happens to be the man who murdered his mother and father only partially cushions the blow that this has on him and on us as readers. It’s a scene described in almost painful detail, as Asharak the Murgo confronts them and threatens the life of everyone that Garion cares about. Unable to control his anger any longer, he unleashes fire and burns the man to a crisp, even as his victim begs him for mercy. This incident is the most important thing that happens to Garion in the entire book, and it is a reminder of the tremendous burden that his power entails, as well as the tricky nature of revenge. While he might have finally attained the vengeance that he sought for the murder of his parents, it leaves a scar on his psyche, one that will take quite a while for him to overcome.

It’s also an incident that reveals how ruthless Polgara herself can be. Ever since I first read this series when I was in high school, I’ve loved this character. In this book, she also gets one of her best speeches, when she reprimands Garion for his childlike behavior, pointing out that she has, in fact, suffered a great deal in order to make sure that he survived to fulfill his destiny. There are glimpses in this speech of the life that Polgara has led, of the many things that she has endured in her millennia-long life (many of which will be explored in her own novel, Polgara the Sorceress). It’s a reminder that there is much about this character that lies beneath the surface, and it’s precisely this texture that makes her so fascinating.

Queen of Sorcery also contains one of Eddings’ enigmatic creations, and she is, of course, the titular character. The novel clearly intends Salmissra to be seen as evil, and in many ways she is the id of the story, the dark woman of seemingly bottomless appetites that Garion must overcome in order for him to move into the next step of his maturity. This is, admittedly, a rather regressive way of looking at female sexuality, but it’s in keeping with fantasy conventions and pop psychology (upon which Eddings is surely drawing in the way that he constructs his character and his narrative). It’s also no accident that her inability to restrain her emotions and her desires are in marked contrast to Polgara who, as it happens, transforms her into a giant serpent as a punishment for her attempt to kidnap Garion and enslave him. However, for all that the novel wants us as readers to be more than a little horrified at this snake-woman, the fact is that she is a very compelling character. Like so many of the femmes fatales that have preceded her in literature, she exerts a powerful allure that the narrative (and, for that matter, Polgara herself) cannot quite control or contain.

I’m already making my way through the next book in the series, Magician’s Gambit, and I am looking forward to sharing all of my thoughts with you!

Fantasy Classics: “Pawn of Prophecy” (by David Eddings)

Sometimes, you just want to read a book that hits all the right notes of its chosen genre, that doesn’t really try to be something it’s not. So, when I decided that I wanted to read an epic fantasy in a style that isn’t quite as popular that it once was, I dug out my omnibus copies of The Belgariad and The Mallorean and decided to give them a re-read.

I’m glad I did. From the moment that I started reading Pawn of Prophecy, the first installment of The Belgariad, still retains much of the charm that drew me to it when I was an adolescent in the late ’90s, always looking for my next fantasy adventure to lose myself in.

The novel follows a young boy named Garion, who’s been raised on a farm in the practical kingdom of Sendar. Very soon, it becomes clear that he is part of something much vaster than he originally thought, and that his “Aunt Pol” is in fact the powerful sorceress Polgara, while the vagabond that he’s known since he was a child is Belgarath, Polgara’s father and a powerful sorcerer in his own right. They soon set out on a quest to recover the Orb of Aldur from a man who has stolen it, picking up several companions along the way.

It’s clear from the outset that this is going to be an epic adventure story in much the same mold as those that preceded it (most notably, perhaps, both The Lord of the Rings and the Shannara books by Terry Brooks). The book doesn’t take many risks when it comes to plot, and the reader is well aware from the first page where all of this will end up, particularly since the book begins with a young boy struggling to find his place in the world. The characters that appear are the archetypes that one expects from epic fantasy: the orphan hero, the wise old man, the rascal, the warrior, etc. And the plot is somewhat episodic, as they make their way through the lands of this world, foiling several plots along the way.

Don’t get me wrong. Though Eddings’ plot might follow the traditional beats of an epic fantasy, there are some moments of unique beauty here. The bond between Polgara and Garion, in particular, is one of the most affecting parts of the entire novel. The idea of the orphan as the epic hero is one that seems baked into the genre, but Eddings’ skill as an author allows us to see the negative impact that this status has on Garion’s sense of self, particularly after he comes to realize that Aunt Pol isn’t really his direct aunt (though, as it turns out, she is his many-times-great-aunt, just as Belgarath is his many-times-great-grandfather). Given that she has been one of the most constant aspects of his life, it’s very disconcerting for him to find that she isn’t who he thought she was. The moments when Polgara embraces him and Garion responds to her kindness are incredibly heartwarming, and they are a reminder that the family is as important to the genre of the epic as the more adventurous aspects.

Eddings’ skill as a storyteller is that he manages to keep his book light and breezy, even as he explores some of the darker, more sinister aspects of the epic form. There is a lot of violence in Eddings’ world. Even when the characters are joking with one another, it’s clear that theirs is a very unstable world, one in which politics can lead to bloodshed in the blink of an eye. There are some elements of grimdark here, to be sure, but Eddings prefers to keep things from getting out of hand.

Now, it has to be said that Eddings’ work is problematic in at least two regards. First, there is the question of gender. Unsurprisingly, most of the main characters are male, with the important exception of Polgara. However, while some have said that her inclination to perform domestic tasks takes away from her power, I’ve always thought that she was one of the best characters in the book. Though she might look like someone who’s content to simply do her work in the kitchen, she makes it pretty consistently clear that she’s as formidable as her father Belgarath, and that her choice to work in the kitchen is just that, a choice. (It’s also worth noting that, several years after this book was published, she would get her own volume exclusively about her life and told from her perspective).

The more glaring problem is Eddings’ tendency to associate “west” with “good” and east with “bad.” Of course, Eddings isn’t alone in this tendency, since it crops up literally everywhere, including in The Lord of the Rings itself. More importantly, he has a tendency to associate the races of his fictional world with certain (seemingly immutable) characteristics. Thus, those peoples that inhabit the west and north tend to be associated with goodness and justice (even if they are sometimes a little dense) and those from the east and south with sinister purposes, guile, and often just plain evil. Again, this isn’t exclusive to Eddings, but it’s one of those aspects of epic fantasy that has definitely come under significant (and well-deserved) scrutiny and criticism in recent years, and it’s one of the things that really dates this particular effort.

That being said, there is quite a lot to enjoy in Pawn of Prophecy. While the genre of epic fantasy seems to have moved on from some of its most basic conventions, for better and worse, there’s still something to be gleaned from these earlier examples of the form. I’m already making my way through the second volume of the series (like I said, it’s a quick read), and I’m still amazed at how powerful this story remains.

I can’t wait to share my thoughts on the books of this series, as well as Eddings’ other work, with all of you!

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!

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.

Science Fiction Classics: Dune (by Frank Herbert)

I’m not sure what prompted me to go back and reread Dune, the science fiction masterpiece by Frank Herbert. I’ve read it several times now, but something just keeps drawing me back to it. Part of it, no doubt, is the fact that it is basically the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, and it focuses more on politics, philosophy, and religion than it does on science. Part of it also has to do with the fact that it continues to be a part of the cultural conversation, both because Herbert’s son Brian (along with his coauthor Kevin J. Anderson) continue adding to the series and because there is a hotly anticipated new film adaptation coming this fall.

For those who haven’t read it, the novel focuses on Paul, the heir to Duke Leto Atreides. When his family is betrayed and his father killed, he flees into the desert of the planet Arrakis with his mother, the Lady Jessica. Ultimately, Paul learns to live among the Fremen and ultimately leads a revolt against the Emperor Shaddam, after which he claims the throne for himself.

What I found most fascinating about the novel is the way in which it manages to give us insight into the science that makes the planet of Arrakis work as well as the politics that surround it. In the universe that Herbert has created, the vast edifice of the Empire rests on spice, without which nothing can function. The entire novel is, in some ways, a potent warning about the dangers of an entire society building its fortunes and its most fundamental structures on one resource. Indeed, the various powers come to realize that they have been very foolish indeed to not only rely so much on the spice but also to underestimate the Fremen, who end up being key to Paul’s bid for revenge against his family.

Yet it is just as much a rumination on the power of biology and destiny to shape our lives. By the end of the novel, Paul has come to accept that the jihad that he has attempted to keep from happening will in fact spiral out of control no matter what he does. Like so many other epic heroes that have emerged in literature, Paul is in the unenviable position of being a super powerful figure–his very existence is due to a generations-long genetic experiment by the group of sorceresses known as the Bene Gesserit–that is nevertheless helpless to really change the course of events that surround him. Though the full extent of this powerlessness won’t manifest until Dune Messiah, even in these early days it is clear that Paul will ultimately become the victim of his own success, a figure that has both extraordinary power and yet none at all.

There are, of course, a whole host of other characters that are equally if not more compelling than Paul, foremost among them his nemesis the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is, without a doubt, an absolutely fascinating figure, precisely because so much of him remains unknown (though more is revealed in the prequels published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson). Equally interesting is the figure of the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, who is a testament to the ability to science fiction to feature strong women.

Re-reading the novel, I was struck by how neatly it cleaves into two separate parts. The first part is the well-developed one that shows the complex web of politics and scheming that brings the Atreides to their knees, as well as showing how Paul gradually finds himself drawn into the world of mysticism and foretelling that will shape so much of his future destiny. The second half occurs after a time jump and, to be honest, still feels a little less-developed than the one that preceded it. Even now, it feels as if the climax of the novel is a bit rushed.

Admittedly, there are some things about the novel that don’t age particularly well, chief among them Baron Harkonnen’s penchant for young boys, which falls far too neatly into the pernicious stereotypes that evil people must be sexual perverts. Though one rather expects this sort of lazy storytelling from others, one would think Herbert would be above it.

All in all, though, I loved Dune just as much this time as I have in my previous readings. It’s one of those rich and textured works of literature that is both infinitely accessible and yet continually full of new meanings to be explored.

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!