Fantasy Classics: “Castle of Wizardry” (by David Eddings)

And so we come at last to Castle of Wizardry, the next-to-last volume in David Eddings’ magnificent epic The Belgariad. Fleeing from the ruins of the Murgo fortress, the company eventually comes to the island of Riva, where Garion claims both the Orb and the throne. In assuming the throne of Riva, Garion has now set the stage for the final, dreadful combat between himself and Torak, a clash that will quite literally determine the fate of the world.

As the penultimate novel in the series, Castle of Wizardry spends a great deal of time setting up the actions that are to come. However, it still has that sense of breathless pacing that makes The Belgariad as a whole such a pleasure to read. Somehow, Eddings manages to strike the right balance between keeping the story moving forward at good pace while also slowing down to immerse the reader in the world that he’s created. Once again, we have the evocative descriptions of scenery and natural beauty, as well as those tender domestic scenes at which he seems to excel (I found myself tearing up while reading the moment when Garion, overwrought with the burdens placed on his shoulders, puts his head on Polgara’s lap, as he did when he was a child).

The novel, for the first time, has an extended sequence told from C’Nedra’s point of view (while there were chapters that were this way in the earlier novels, the entire last section of Castle of Wizardry is all about her). Some will no doubt find C’Nedra a rather irritating character, and it’s true that she’s not one of the more compelling female creations (Polgara, however, continues to shine). However, looked at in the right light she can be a bit charming. She is, after all, a young woman who has spent her entire life being taught that everything revolves around her, and the quest has thrown all of that into confusion and doubt. More than that, though, she also has a key role to play in the unfolding of destiny. While it’s true that she is as much of a pawn of prophecy as Garion, she does take the initiative in some important ways, and this entire part of the book is a subtle (sometimes too subtle) poke at the conventions of fantasy that have consistently sidelined women. Her manipulation of the other kings of the West in fact relies upon their own prejudices regarding the intellectual faculties of women.

My personal favourite part of the novel, however, was the confrontation between Belgarath and the witch. She’s a woman who has been cast out from the world of men because of her powers, and as a result she has taken the creatures known as fenlings (who appear to be something akin to a beaver or a muskrat) under her wing, changing them so that they are somewhere between human and animal. In one of the book’s more haunting passages, she blackmails Belgarath into granting them the power of speech, so that they won’t be hunted after she dies. He does as she wishes, and the results seem to good but, as any good sorcerer knows, sometimes the consequences of one’s actions can’t be seen immediately.

That’s the thing about so many of Eddings’ works. While they are seemingly simple stories that are a fleshing out of the basic archetypes of epic fantasy (and of just plain epic), there’s so much else going on here. He genuinely seems to have an interest in the workings of the human heart, of the ways in which people–especially young people–contend with the weight of responsibility that is put on their shoulders. In that sense, this really is a coming-of-age novel, in which Garion (and, to a lesser extent, C’Nedra), have to leave behind the trappings of their childhood so that they can enter into the world of adulthood. When Garion takes a side trip with Polgara to Faldor’s farm and, with just a glance, says farewell to Zubrette, it’s a wrenching reminder of the prince that must be paid when one leaves such things behind.

At a larger level, of course, the novel is also a rumination on the power of free well, and whether or not humans have it. Of course, the idea of a young person (usually a man) having to fulfill a destiny is a staple of epic fantasy, it gains some much-needed complexity in the work of Eddings. Here, it’s not just that the hero is reluctant; it’s that he literally has no choice about the course that his life is going to take. His sole function, so far as he knows, is to fulfill the purposes of the prophecy, just as Torak is fated to fulfill the purposes of the other great destiny. All of human time, and indeed all of cosmological time, has led up to this pivotal moment. Garion’s burden is that he has to figure out how to carry the weight of time on his shoulders without breaking. Oh, and he also has to fight Torak to the death.

Some might decry this as lazy writing, but to me it’s a compelling question, and it’s one that both philosophers and writers have struggled with for centuries, though of course it has taken on a particularly added relevance in both modernity and postmodernity. One can see in the work of Eddings a reflection of the 1980s, when the concept of a strong America was resurgent, but in Eddings there seems to be some healthy skepticism toward the idea of a superman savior, though obviously even he can’t leave such things aside altogether.

I’m not sure that I’d say that Castle of Wizardry is my favourite entry in this series, since it’s not quite as compelling as the ones that preceded it, and it doesn’t have the sense of closure that looms ahead in the final volume (Enchanter’s Endgame). However, there is a lot to to enjoy, and I’m looking forward to finishing the final volume and then moving on to The Mallorean.

Stay tuned!

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

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been slowly making my way through the various books of the Dune saga. I’ve now finished the fifth book in the original series, Heretics of Dune. This is one of the entries in the saga that has a rather mixed reception among fans, and I can see why. It’s not quite as focused as some of the other entries in the series and, given that it’s the first not to include one of the original Atreides (or at least a close descendant), it takes some getting used to.

That being said, I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune more than a lot of people, but I still thought it was a rather strange book, particularly in comparison to the ones that preceded it. I mean, it’s difficult to really get into a book in which a man has allowed himself to become a strange hybrid of human and sandworm, even if he does happen to be the most powerful man in the known universe. Heretics is, in my opinion, is much more accessible by comparison. At the time that the novel begins, 1500 years have passed since Leto II was assassinated (at his own orchestration). Though in the subsequent years many humans dispersed in a phenomenon as the Scattering, they have now started to return, led by their sexually fanatical Honored Matres.

The novel largely follows three clusters of characters. One is the newest ghola of Duncan Idaho, who is being trained by the Bene Gesserit, including Lucilla, and protected by the Bashar Teg. Another group is comprised of a young woman named Sheeana, who is blessed with the ability to command the sandworms, as well as the Reverend Mother Odrade and the Tleilaxu Master Waff. The third is Mother Superior Taraza, who encounters and guides many of the other characters.

As the novel progresses, we see the ways in which the old Imperium has been shattered and rearranged in a new power-sharing arrangement, with the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, the Spacing Guild, and the Ixians sharing power. The issue is further complicated by the return of those who were dispersed, particularly the Honored Matres, who are very like the Bene Gesserit but have mastered the ability to sexually dominate men. For this reason, the Bene Gesserit (and the Tleilaxu) refer to them as “whores,” and it’s precisely this very problematic gender politics that makes parts of the novel frustrating to read. The Dune Chronicles have always had a rather vexed relationship with women, and that reaches new depths in this book.

That being said, it was actually rather refreshing to get an inside look at the Bene Gesserit in a way unmatched by any of the other books in the series. At this point, they are sole inheritors of the Golden Path of Leto II, though this gradually reveals itself to be more of a burden than a blessing. However, that’s precisely the point that the novel is making, as it explores the consequences of Leto’s actions. However, it’s only when the novel is concluded that we finally see structure in its entirety.

To my mind, one of the most enjoyable, if strange, aspects of the novel was its exploration of the inner workings of the elusive and secretive society known as the Tleilaxu or Bene Tleilax. Now, we learn that they believe their adherence to the faith to be the only true one in the universe. More sinisterly, we also learn the truth about their celebrated axlotl tanks, which are (as perceptive readers will have already guessed) women who have been turned into giant biological factories. It’s one of the series’ most horrifying revelations.

As one would expect, the characters are rich and developed, and many of them have competing loyalties. Duncan Idaho is, of course, the centerpiece of the novel, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this man who has already been resurrected so many times. Now, he appears to bear the memories of all of the other gholas that have existed, in addition to his memories from the very first Dune novel. Personally, however, I most enjoyed those chapters from the perspective of Teg and Taraza, the Bashar and the Mother Superior. Both of them seem like they could have been characters from the original novel, and they are refreshingly normal after the weirdness of the characters in God Emperor.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that so much of what transpired between God Emperor and Heretics is left in the background, and there isn’t an info dump that would catch readers up to speed. Time jumps are always a difficult writing feat to pull off well, and while Herbert did many things well, that wasn’t one of them. The novel itself is easy to follow and read, and the plot is relatively simple, but that lack of crucial background leaves the reader struggling to figure out exactly what has happened. In my opinion, this is one of those times when I wish that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson had continued their plan to write some interquels that would flesh out the events between the original series of novels.

Nevertheless, Heretics is a fascinating exploration of the power of physical desire to change the course of human events on a truly cosmic scale. For, ultimately, it is the conflict between the Bene Gesserit, with their ruthless logic, and the Matres, with their sexual intensity, that sets the stage for the conflict to come in Chapterhouse. We are also a long way from the events that took place back in Dune, and the universe has changed in remarkable ways. However, there are still elements of the old families, particularly the Atreides, swirling about, and the novel suggests that genetic lines can hold true across numerous generations, for both better and worse.

Now that I’ve finished Heretics, it’s on to Chapterhouse. I’ve found myself very caught up in the elaborate and detailed universe that Frank Herbert has created, and so I look forward to seeing both how the next volume shapes up and, just as importantly, how the final two volumes in the series (by Brian and Kevin) finish things off.

Stay tuned!

Book Review: “The Fall of Shannara: The Stiehl Assassin” (by Terry Brooks)

Note: Some plot spoilers like ahead!

When it comes to the giants of fantasy, Terry Brooks is right up there with the greats. His book The Sword of Shannara, as well as the sprawling series that it spawned, helped nudge fantasy into the realm of financially viable genre rather than an idle curiosity. Now, 40-odd years later, we are coming to the chronological end of the Shannara saga, and the Four Lands stand on the precipice of catastrophe. The Skaar have invaded and are engaged in a tense standoff with the powerful Federation. However, new Ard Rhys Drisker Arc has a plan to (hopefully) avert the all-out war that seems inevitable, but to see it to completion he must enlist the aid of the Kaynin siblings, the boy Shea Ohmsford, the warrior Dar Leah, and the Elven prince Brecon Elessedil. Even then, his efforts might yet be thwarted by the villainous Druid Clizia Porse, who wants to see the Druid Order remade under her own aegis.

The novel moves at an amazingly brisk pace, drawing you along for the ride and leaving you a little breathless at the end. For all of that, the characters (as Shannara characters always do) still have a little time to live and breathe, to bring us into their own inner lives. And, unlike some fantasy authors–who only give us the perspectives of the good guys–Brooks gives us both the heroes and the villains. And, let me tell you, he is most definitely not afraid of killing off some significant characters.

In The Stiehl Assassin we also get to see some parts of the world that have remained unexplored. With a few exceptions, most of the stories set in the Shannara universe have taken place in the Four Lands or Four-Lands-adjacent. As part of the company is sent on a specific mission to the land of the Skaar, we get to see some of the lands they encounter along the way. At this point, those revelations have been fascinating but not terribly illuminating, but I have no doubt that will change in the fourth installment (and let’s hope that we actually get to see the land of the Skaar itself!)

Now, as to the villain of the piece: not since Shadea a’Ru have we seen a villain as cunning and cruel as Clizia Porse, a woman willing to sacrifice a great deal on the altar of her own ambition. However, Brooks does a great job of showing us that, beneath the ruthlessness, there is just a glimmer that she is something more than just a villain. She seems to have an idea that, if she is given control of the Druids, that she will be able to make the world a better one than the one she found. Of course, the lengths to which she is willing to go to do that–including acts of truly horrific violence–give the lie to whatever more noble ambitions she might have.

I have to admit that the best part of the novel for me was the appearance of Grianne Ohmsford at the Hadeshorn. Canny readers will recall that she was banished to the Forbidding at the end of the Dark Heritage of Shannara trilogy. Now, it seems that she is angling to find a way back into the Four Lands from which was banished. This, I think, is an eminently good thing for, as many people pointed out at the time, having her banished to the Forbidding seemed an awfully anticlimactic way to resolve her evolution as a character. She’s always been one of Brooks’s most fascinating creations, and I very much look forward to seeing how this storyline wraps up. Considering that, at novel’s end, Drisker has been dispatched by Clizia into the Forbidding, it’s virtually guaranteed that we’ll get to see Grianne in the next book.

What really stood out to me as I read this book, however, was how Brooks has started to expand the range of issues that he is willing to tackle through his fiction. While all of his books have always had deep philosophical themes–particularly focused on the environment–in this new quartet of novels we’ve really seen him diving deep into the question of colonialism. Are the Skaar justified in their invasion, given that their own home has become increasingly uninhabitable as a result of climate change? If not, what should the residents do about it? There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions. As in the real world, so in our best fictions.

The genius of the novel lies in its ability to weave together this larger question with the larger issue of magic vs. science that has been a prime motivator for the plots of many of the previous entries in the Shannara series. Now, it might just be that it is only through a cooperation between these two seemingly opposing forces that the world as it has come to be understood can be saved. Whether it will be successful, or whether the people of the Four Lands and the Skaar will lead each other toward mutual oblivion is still very much up in the air. One thing is for certain, though: nothing about the world that we have come to know and love will ever be the same.

So, now we stand at the brink of the end of an era. While Brooks has said that he will continue writing Shannara books that are set in previous eras, “The Fall of Shannara” will mark the chronological end of the saga. I’m still not sure that I’m ready to say goodbye, but at the very least we can say that it’s been a great run, and we are all very lucky indeed to have had such a great story for so many years. Somehow, by some alchemy, Brooks has managed to do the impossible: to continue making a venerable series as new and interesting and vibrant as it has ever been. For that, Mr. Brooks deserves our gratitude.

The Madness of Queen Dany

Hey, everyone! Now that Game of Thrones is approaching its final episode and, given the very mixed reception the penultimate episode has received, we thought we’d share some of our thoughts about that “twist” in Dany’s character.

KC: Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that the fans (and some critics) have taken vehement issue with the transition of Dany from savior to Mad Queen. I know that I’ve been seeing this coming since the very beginning, but clearly others haven’t been watching the same show.

Kellen: I can understand some of the problems people have had with everything being rushed this season- it WOULD have been nice for a lot of the other arcs to have had a little more time to play out than they were given. But I feel like this is the obvious and inevitable conclusion to an arc that started way back in Season 1. I’m starting to feel like maybe I’ve been watching a different show this whole time or something.

KC: Exactly. Like, yes, it is a bit rushed but, frankly, I’d rather have things be a bit rushed than have to endure the interminable side-tracks that have really damaged the quality in the most recent two books. Because, let’s be real, both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were not, despite the retconning by some of the fans, in any sense “good.” So, if that means that the pace is a little breathless in these last two seasons, I’m personally fine with that.

Kellen: I know the fandom keeps going on and on with “subverting expectations” jokes both in reference to the way some arcs are playing out and the pace, but honestly I would have been more shocked if Dany didn’t do at least SOMETHING horrible by the end of the show. How many time has she been on the edge of something and she only gets talked down because of one of the supporting characters? And it become more and more common for her to NOT get talked down by them in the last couple of seasons- see burning the Tarlys.

KC: OMG, so much this. I’ve been thinking a lot about the fans’ reactions to “The Bells,” and I’m actually rather disturbed by the way they’ve justified Dany’s actions in prior seasons. Basically, it seems to boil down to some variant of: “Yes, it was awful that she crucified the Masters, torched one (whether or not he was innocent), burned the supply wagons, and burned the Tarlys and the khals, but they DESERVED their horrible, ugly deaths for opposing her.” I, personally, find this line of reasoning repugnant and disturbing, and I think that it reveals a lot more about how we justify violence than it does about the strengths and weaknesses of the show or its writers.

Kellen: I think if nothing else the Tarly Torching should have been everyone’s big clue if they hadn’t figured it out yet. I mean yeah, I probably would have torched at least Randyll, but 1) I know precisely what kind of jerk he is in general and how he treated Sam, and 2) I am well aware that I am not suited to being a wise and noble ruler who just wants to make everything better for everyone. Tyrion tried to tell her it was a bad idea, but it didn’t work. Which brings me to another point about her: everyone complaining Tyrion and Varys got dumber. I feel like Tyrion and Varys realized they were past a point where Dany would only listen to them up to a certain point before she executed them next.

KC: I think, honestly, that part of the reason that people are responding so violently to this narrative turn is because it forces them to acknowledge that, all along, Dany has been a cypher for what they wanted her to be, rather than what she actually was. Relatedly, I also think that her turn into Mad Queen really challenges our deeply-held desire for a hero that will save us, either in the fictional worlds that we invest our energies in or in the real one. When that fantasy comes crashing down, either in fiction or reality, the response is often anger, both at the failure at the fantasy and at ourselves for failing to see it for what it was in the first place.

Kellen: I think the big failure and the big success of both books and shows is that everyone is either grey, fallible, an idiot, or a combination of any and all of those. Sure, Dany in the books and until the last season of the show- all of her Essos parts- is the Good Guy because it’s easy to say “Well, she burned slavers. So that’s a net good.” and coming up with reasons that it’s ok that innocents also got caught up in that. Through all of that, Dany has always said she wants to break the wheel, and she feels a little bad here and there, locks up her dragons, and so on. But she does nothing to actually change these things about herself. Like, ever. She just says she wants to be a good person and goes on mucking everything up. Maybe if she had stayed in Astapor for a little while instead of just kind of dipping out and leaving everyone in the lurch, Cleon wouldn’t have taken the city over almost immediately.

KC: Right. And, speaking of breaking the wheel. It’s worth pointing out that, brutal as her actions are, the reality is that the Westerosi are reluctant to ever acknowledge anything other than brute might. So, even though her actions are horrific, the reality is that burning King’s Landing to the ground and rebuilding may, in fact, be the only way for her to start over. I think that, at least in part, is what she realizes when we get that great look at her face as she gazes at the Red Keep. While some have read it as the moment when madness takes hold, I think it may also signify that this is the moment when she realizes that nothing less than absolute destruction will ever cement her undisputed claim to the throne.

Kellen: I think it’s at least the moment when it really cements for her that what she said to Jon about people loving him and fearing her was the best she’d ever get and she completely loses what little rein she had over some good old fashioned Targaryen madness. It’s also when we come back again this season to Season 1, as it turns out Robert was right about pretty much everything. Robert has been a better prophecy than any of the actual prophecies. Dany turned out to be precisely what everyone said she would turn out to be, and no one wanted to believe it because they were the bad guys or the drunk king with no interest in ruling. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the two biggest characters to have defended Dany to others in Westeros are Ned and Jon, both of who are idiots completely blinded to anything else by honor. All the rest of the Westerosi in Westeros have been saying this exact thing would happen all along, people. Foreshadowing.

Well, it seems we’re at least in agreement about Dany! We don’t know about y’all, but we’re pretty psyched for the final episode. Stay tuned for our thoughts on that, as well as other Game of Thrones stuff!

Kellen and KC