Tag Archives: fantasy

‘Werewolf Cop,’ by Andrew Klavan

He parked in a little neighborhood near the service road. He sat behind the wheel with his eyes shut, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. He told himself that this would pass. He’d track Abend down. He’d “confront” the dagger, whatever that meant. After that, he’d be free to turn himself in or die or… do something to make this stop. Meanwhile, though…. The guilt and horror were like thrashing, ravenous animals in him. Guilt and horror – and grief too. Because he’d lost something precious, something he’d barely known he had: he’d lost his sense of himself as a good person. Even death wouldn’t restore that. Nothing word.

As you know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, I’m a confirmed fanboy when it comes to Andrew Klavan. I discovered him after he’d become a conservative, but before he became a Christian. I consider him one of the foremost thriller writers – and one of the best prose stylists – of our time.

Still, although I’ve praised all the books he’s written since then (specifically since the Weiss-Bishop novels, which I consider unparalleled) I’ve honestly thought he’s been kind of treading water, not quite sure where to go with his art.

Who’d have thought he’d hit his next home run with a horror-fantasy book? But Werewolf Cop, in spite of its William Castle title, is an amazing reading experience. Klavan has moved in on Dean Koontz’s turf, and done the genre proud.

Zach Adams is the hero of the book and the titular werewolf cop. He’s a Texas native relocated to New York City, where he works for a shadowy government police agency called “Extraordinary Crimes.” Along with his partner, “Broadway Joe” Goulart, he’s become a legend and a sort of a celebrity. He has a beautiful wife and a family he loves. But his life isn’t as great as people think it is. He’s worried about his partner, who has come under suspicion for corruption. He’s afraid of being blackmailed by a woman over a mistake he made. And he’s got the murder of a gangster by a mysterious, almost legendary European criminal to solve.

And that’s before he gets mauled by a werewolf.

I could quibble a little about the fantasy element in this story – werewolves here are pure Universal Pictures, rather than the genuine folklore article. But Klavan mines that old movie scenario for amazing psychological – and spiritual – insights. I was riveted from the first page to the last, and deeply moved at the same time.

You should be cautioned – there’s rough language, as in all Klavan’s books, and the gore element is what you’d expect in a werewolf story.

But if you can handle that, and wish to see old material raised to new levels, Werewolf Cop has my highest recommendation.

‘The Name of the Wind,’ by Patrick Rothfuss

Over Christmas someone suggested I read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, first installment in the Kingkiller Chronicles, saying that all the young fantasy fans are talking about it these days.

They could be talking of worse things.

The Name of the Wind is a fantasy, of a refreshingly original sort. It’s similar to the Harry Potter books, but more mature in orientation.

The hero is Kvothe, literally a legend in his own time. World famous as a musician, a warrior, and a magician, he has retired from the world when we meet him in this book, keeping an inn in a remote town. When the character called the Chronicler encounters him, he doesn’t recognize him at first. But when he does, he manages to persuade Kvothe to tell him his life’s story so that he can write it down. Three days are reserved for the project, and each day’s narrative forms the text of one book in the series.

Kvothe tells us of his childhood as a traveling player, the tragedy that takes his family away, his years as a beggar, and at last his acceptance at the University, the greatest learning institution in a world where magic and technology are just poles on a single continuum.

There he makes friends and enemies, reconnects with the love of his life, breaks many rules, and begins to acquire the reputation that will make him the greatest figure of his time.

Fascinating, well written, and well-charactered, The Name of the Wind is very good reading. The author may take the story in ways I don’t like in the future, but for now I liked what I read.

Generally suitable for teens and up.

‘One Bright Star to Guide Them,’ by John C. Wright

“Innocence and faith are the weapons children bring to bear against open evils; wisdom is required to deal with evils better disguised.”

You might be tempted, on the basis of its description, to think John C. Wright’s novella, One Bright Star to Guide Them, is simple Narnia fanfic. A story of four adults, who were once children who entered a magical land peopled by magicians and talking animals.

But it’s more than that. This story is a transposition of Narnia. Author Wright moves the whole concept onto a different level. It’s a meditation on the most terrible line in all the Narnia books – “Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia.” Thomas, the protagonist, is summoned to take up a new fight against a revived evil. But when he contacts his childhood companions, he finds that – for one reason or another – they are not willing to join him. So he has to test his faith alone, except for the help of their old guide, a mystical kitten called Tybalt.

One Bright Star to Guide Them is a quick read, but entirely worthy of the material that inspired it. Beautiful in places. Highly recommended.

Thrilling, Beautiful Adventure in “The Ale Boy’s Feast”

I finally got to read Overstreet’s The Ale Boy’s Feast, and I loved it. The story that appears to be about a magical rebellion to small, oppressive rulers in the first book becomes an adventure about radical reconciliation by the fourth book. It asks big questions: Can the great curse be revoked? Can a traitor return to his kingdom or be accepted in a new one? Can criminals build a new place of law and order? And more than these questions are the ones driving the narrative behind the scenes: Does the glorious beauty we see in this world point to a glorious otherworldly source? Is that beauty sewn together with love, peace, joy, and hope? Is life (in the land of these books) about rejoicing in the hope of beauty, both natural and crafted?

Blue flowerOf course, this weaves cleanly and smoothly into the biblical theology of this world, because our goodness is defined by the Lord and peace on earth will be to those on whom God’s favor rests, but that doesn’t appear to be the central thrust. Wonder and beauty as they pull us back to God appears to be what this adventure is all about. (Blue flowers are signs that magically refreshing water is nearby.)

In the third book, we learn explosive details about Overstreet’s world. The real enemies are revealed. Plots and deceptions are discovered. A new threat, a pervasive weed that lives on blood, is tunneling from its Cent Regus heart throughout the country. Cal-raven is running for his life as well as trying to discover a new home for his people, the House Abascar which is ruined in the first book. At one point, he is compelled to rescue prisoners in House Cent Regus and is broken by what he learns there and in its aftermath.

In this book, Cal-raven begins to wander, despairing of ever answering his life-long questions. In the meantime, his loyal men attempt to follow his plans for establishing a new house without him. As they go, something seems to be poisoning everything around them. This book is the fourth of a rich, complicated series, so begin with book one. There’s no other way.

In fact, the story may be too complicated. Continue reading Thrilling, Beautiful Adventure in “The Ale Boy’s Feast”

The Ale Boy’s Feast, by Jeffrey Overstreet

Puzzle, puzzle. What to say about The Ale Boy’s Feast, the final book in Jeffrey Overstreet’s remarkable fantasy tetralogy, The Auralia Thread?

I have highly praised the author’s writing skill and creative imagination, and I stand by those evaluations. Overstreet is a writer of rare ability, and he has created an unforgettable world, familiar enough to be recognizable but different enough to be exotic and evocative.

Yet the whole thing works out to a resolution that leaves me… troubled.

Maybe I’m just not smart enough to get the point.

Or maybe leaving me troubled was the point. Continue reading The Ale Boy’s Feast, by Jeffrey Overstreet

Cyndere’s Midnight, by Jeffrey Overstreet

I took longer than I intended getting to the second volume of Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia Thread, Cyndere’s Midnight. I need to make sure I don’t do that again. I enjoyed it immensely.

In the first book of the series, Auralia’s Colors, Overstreet told the story of the law-bound land of Abascar, whose queen had forbidden the people to wear any colorful clothes or own any colorful objects. This led to the persecution of the strange girl Auralia, who wove and painted colorful things out in the wilderness. Eventually Abascar was destroyed, and now, as this book begins, a few refugees of Abascar eke out a perilous existence in caves.

Now the focus turns to the kingdom of Bel Amica, whose religion is more sensitive and feelings-oriented than Abascar’s. The heiress to the Bel Amican throne, Cyndere, mourns the death of her consort, Deuneroi, at the hands of the inhuman beastmen. The loss is made more poignant by the fact that she and Deuneroi had dreamed of finding a way to heal the beastmen and free them from their addiction to the Essence, a potion that alters their shapes and their natures. Cyndere’s plan now is to add to a traditional widow’s rite of sacrifice her own act of suicide.

But other characters interfere with her plan. One is the beastman Jordam, who fell under the spell of Auralia’s colors and through the power of their memory is struggling with his need for Essence—as well as with the murderous plans of his brother beastmen. And the Ale Boy, Auralia’s friend, who follows a path laid out by the mysterious, almost forgotten Keeper—a dragon-like creature which protects him and guides him as well.

The center of the story is Jordam’s struggles—with his own devolved nature, with his brothers, and even with the humans who do not trust him when he tries to help. He takes up Cyndere’s cause for Auralia’s sake, and must protect her not only from his brothers but from some of her own people.

Jeffrey Overstreet’s prose is a pleasure to read. It’s deft and light. His fantasy world is the most original I’ve encountered, post-Tolkien. I don’t recommend the book for children, solely because of the vocabulary required, but any reader who can handle this book will come away inspired. Highly recommended.

Raven’s Ladder by Jeffrey Overstreet

Evil is spreading throughout the land of Jeffrey Overstreet’s third novel in the Auralia’s Thread series. The people of House Abascar are living a hardscrabble life in caves and losing faith in their king, Cal-raven. Some of them think he talks too much of visions and fairy tales. In the previous novel, their caves were attacked by beastmen, men in bondage to a horrible curse which hulks them out like wild, contorted beasts. Now, they worry about vines called “feelers” or “deathweeds” which appear to be spreading everywhere, grabbing men or animals and pulling them into the earth.

In the middle of this, a few visionaries, like Cal-raven, are telling their people of worlds elsewhere. They remember the vivid, almost spiritual, colors that Auralia teased out of nature. They find small spots of those colors in the wild and healing in common things like pure water. Legends, like The Keeper, an enormous dragon who seems to keep a wise, though distant, eye on them, are being revealed. Abascar has a hope beyond any they could imagine, if they can only hold on long enough to see it.

By contrast, the people of House Bel Amica seek the latest pleasures and want to be distracted constantly. They live on the coast where there is a great wealth of food and trade. The Seers rule their philosophy, urging them to pray to moon spirits and pursue their own desires above all. I doubt Bel Amicans ever urge each other to get a grip on reality. When refugees from Abascar find shelter in Bel Amica, their leaders begin to worry they will never want to leave this luxurious city.

Overstreet has created a magical world. I’m fascinated by its natural glory. When the visionary characters do marvelous things or make inspiring culture, they don’t use magic. They apply artistic skill to tease out of the natural world beauty that’s either hidden or disregarded. Though their world is dangerous, many natural elements encourage health, peace, and hope. When these elements are magnified by artists, they comfort some and inspire others to noble work. (Here’s some glasswork that reminds me of something Auralia might have made.)

Raven’s Ladder is a thrilling third part of this four-part series. The revelations that conclude the book are monumental, and there’s a story in the mid-section that appears to put this fantasy world in a new context, hinting at who the Seers are and how mankind came into this place. Noting the title, the focus of this novel is on Cal-raven, Abascar’s king. He wrestles with himself as a leader and as a man and also with his visions of a bright future in pursuit of The Keeper’s tracks. That name, The Keeper, and the faith of some of the characters may lead you to suspect a thinly veiled God-figure. You might think Aslan has been restyled as a dragon, but he hasn’t. The Keeper is a complicated animal, who appears to respond to prayers as well as act like any other intelligent beast. I could say more, but I’d rather you enjoy the mystery yourself.

The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin

Despite all of the praise I heard for The Book of the Dun Cow, I still smirked through the first few chapters. It has a great setup for a terrible challenge to the earth, even the galaxy, but the characters are farm animals. How terrifying can a story get with a proud rooster for a leading man? But then if I understood myself properly in relation to the God of heaven and earth and the fatally wounded enemy who still plots our defeat, I may think of mankind in the same way–mere animals standing between the Almighty and the Lord of the Flies.

Let me briefly give you the plot. Chauntecleer, the rooster, is lord over a patch of farmland, field, and forest. He is king and cleric to the animals who live there, crowing canonical blessings throughout the day to give their lives order and spiritual purpose. Far away, another farm and another rooster have slacked off holding the order of the day, giving a profound and powerful evil an opportunity to fight for its freedom. The animals are called Wyrm’s Keepers, though I doubt they would recognize the label. By keeping their proper order, they unknowingly keep the evil Wyrm imprisoned, so when one farm has grown tired of the cares of the world, Wyrm exploits his opportunity. Gradually, you might say, all of something breaks loose.

I love most in this story the animals leaning on their daily order, their time-honored tradition. It gave their dirt-scratching, grub-hunting, cleaning, and sleeping greater meaning and consequently greater peace. From Lauds to Compline, Chauntecleer crows through the day, usually because that’s how its done, but when their world become overcast with troubling clouds, he crows to bless those creatures he cares for. In a somewhat comical way, it’s glorious.

And there’s a good bit of comedy throughout the book too. John Wesley Weasel and Mundo Cani Dog are hilarious in their own way as is the rooster’s obnoxious pride.

I have to wonder how much of this fantasy is reality. How much or what kind of grace does the Lord give us through liturgy and the mental transformation he calls us to by meditating on his precepts throughout the day? What is robbed from us when we think of our lives and world in secular terms, when we see the planet instead of creation, when we look into space instead of the heavens? Would we keep the evil imprisoned a little more if we gave ourselves and our families lauds and vespers?

Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet

Raven's Ladder by Jeffrey OverstreetFilm critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet has written three fantasy novels in the last few years, two of which I’ve read. They are fantastic (perhaps that goes without saying). He writes this series, Auralia’s Colors, not to depict any historic people or setting, but “to capture the questions that keep me up at night.” The third one, Raven’s Ladder, is shown on the left and is being released this month.

I have found that wonderfully hopeful, powerfully redemptive, and gorgeous. His new world has an appealing natural magic which is hard to describe, like the difficulty Tolkien’s elves in Lothlórien describing their handiwork to the hobbits. It wasn’t magic to them, but the hobbits it was.

I asked Jeffrey some questions about writing and publishing these books.

1. You’ve been a critical writer for many years now.  Do you think you’ve always had the writing spirit/muse/curse?

I’m hard-wired to tell stories. When I was five years old, I already felt compelled to make books. I’d take fairy-tale storybooks and painstakingly copy the text onto piles of scrap paper. Then I’d illustrate those pages with crayon or watercolors.

Soon after I read The Hobbit – around age seven – I stopped copying stories and started writing my own. And sure, those first stories sounded a lot like The Hobbit. But they became more unusual and distinct as the years went on. My first “series” was a four-story epic set in a world that resembles Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. In fact, when I saw that movie decades later, I laughed at the incredible similarities. (Where Pixar had nasty grasshoppers, I had wicked wasps.) Continue reading Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet

Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Here’s something I meant to include in my recent review of Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings, but left out because the thing was long enough. This way I can make another whole post out of it, which saves me thinking up a new idea.

(By the way, it just occurred to me, how come it’s “Poul Anderson” and not “Poul Andersen?” He was Danish, and the standard ending for Danish patronymics is “sen.” I suppose it can be traced back to some culturally insensitive immigration official, like the one who made the Kvalevaags into Walkers).

Anyway, I wrote that I found Mother of Kings kind of dull. I gave a couple reasons, but left one out. It involves what I consider a common problem in novels about Vikings and in heroic fantasy in general.

The book was clunky. Continue reading Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson

I approached the late Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings with some trepidation. I wanted to read it because a) it’s a Viking historical fantasy, and b) I’m thinking out a book of my own in which one of the main characters in this one plays a part. But in a book about Gunnhild, wife of Norway’s King Eirik Bloodax and mother of King Harald Greyfell (and his brothers—they ruled jointly) I imagined I’d be dealing with a Marion Zimmer Bradley-esque feminist fantasy, all about what oppressors men are, how smothering Christianity is, and how real freedom is found in the worship of some Mother-goddess or other. I expected visceral, existential feminine rage.

Having read the book, I almost wish it had been like that. It would at least have had some fire to it.

Gunnhild is a character of mystery in Viking history and lore. Historians believe she was probably a Danish princess, conventionally married to Eirik Bloodax, son and heir of Harald Fairhair, who is remembered as the uniter of Norway. (Anderson seems unaware—or doesn’t care—that historians today doubt that Harald was really more than a regional overlord in the west, who may have begun the process of unification. For the purposes of this story he treats the account found in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, as literally true. I’ll admit I do the same thing in The Year Of the Warrior, but I claim in my own defense that the theory was new back then, and I hadn’t heard of it).

In the sagas and legends, though, Gunnhild is a very different character—the daughter of a Finnish (“Lapp” or Sami) wizard, a witch of fearsome power, terrible in her hatreds, lascivious in her morals, and bloody in her vengeances.

Anderson splits the difference. He imagines her as the daughter of a Norse chieftain, a girl who chooses to learn magic at the feet of two Finn wizards, whom she manages to kill off at the same time that she magically summons Eirik to sail in and sweep her off her feet. This is a promising beginning from the dramatic point of view, but sadly Anderson doesn’t sustain it. Once married to her prince, Gunnhild becomes a fairly conventional wife and queen, devoted to her husband and children. She assists them all through their lives by the use of her magical powers, but is thwarted more often than not. Her successes, when they happen, aren’t terribly impressive or lasting.

The result is that it’s hard to root for Gunnhild. She’s not good enough to sympathize with much, and not powerful or evil enough to be very entertaining. She becomes an almost passive center around which the drama of 10th Century Norwegian politics plays itself out. This is a great drama, but in this work it lacks (it seems to me) the rich hues and symphonic music of real epic. Anderson does some moments of pathos well, particularly concerning the deaths of Kings Haakon the Good and Harald Greyfell, but overall I found it pretty dry.

This is a problem I’ve always had with Anderson, and with Science Fiction writers as a group (no doubt there are exceptions). Science Fiction writers by and large (and that’s what Anderson primarily was), it seems to me, have a hard time handling human emotions, dreams and aspirations. They’re more oriented toward machines and machine-like people.

I always comment on books’ theological implications and treatments of Christianity in these reviews. Mother Of Kings provides unusual problems. Anderson is neither friendly nor hostile to Christianity, so it could be worse. Historically Eirik Bloodax ruled Norway as a heathen, but converted, along with his family, to Christianity when he fled to England and became King of York. Some of his sons seem to have been genuinely zealous in their missionary work (a point that’s largely ignored in Heimskringla). Gunnhild is portrayed here (quite reasonably) as a nominal Christian, uncertain as to what religion (Norse heathendom, Christianity or Finnish pantheism) offers the most useful magic for her exploitation. Clearly she’s a heathen at heart, but her deepest inclinations seem to be pantheistic. This can’t exactly be viewed as an argument for pantheism, though, because Gunnhild isn’t admirable enough to provide one.

Perhaps I’d have found the whole thing more exciting if I hadn’t already known the basic story. But I doubt it. I can’t really recommend Mother Of Kings very highly.

Movie Review: Beowulf

One line review: I didn’t hate it.

Long, long ago, when I was a small, unpromising child, my brother Moloch and I were given the gift of a ViewMaster for Christmas. If you’re one of our younger readers, you may never have seen a ViewMaster. It was a device for viewing stereoscopic images; pictures in 3-D. The pictures came on cardboard disks, and my favorite set of disks was the one portraying the story of Snow White.

This wasn’t the Disney version. Somebody had gone to great pains to carve and paint a number of posed character figures, and then to place them in dioramas and photograph them. Whoever did the job had a tremendous sense of composition and color, and I found the scenes fascinating and beautiful.

In a way, Beowulf is a lot like those ViewMaster scenes, with the added element of motion. I’ll confess right off the bat that I have a “gee-whiz,” little kid’s response to the novelty of watching a 3-D movie. Even when the effects take you out of the story (which, I must confess, they often do), I enjoy the ride.

The capture motion animation, in my opinion, is less successful. I think the response you’ll get from most people who come out of the film will be, “It was kind of weird.” I liked that the digital painting of the characters made them resemble the figures in my ViewMaster Snow White. And sometimes, particularly in the action scenes, I thought the animation was very effective.

But in the quieter scenes, especially, the ones that involved people interacting with each other, things were strangely off. Hands, facial expressions and body movements often seemed stilted, deformed or awkward, which is odd. If Disney was able to create elegant, naturalistic motions using drawings alone, how is it possible to make figures look less natural when you’re drawing right on top of actual filmed images?

I predict that this kind of animation will continue to be done, and will rapidly improve. Which means that Beowulf will not age well.

How did they treat the story? That’s also kind of weird, though it was far from reaching the low-end benchmark of the recent Canadian/Icelandic Beowulf and Grendel, which I reviewed here a while ago. That movie made the story a parable of European racism and imperialism, painting Grendel as the spotless hero and Beowulf as a Nazi, redeemed only by his profound self-doubts.

Beowulf treats the story with much more respect than that. The script, by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, follows the original poem in its general plot points, with the added bonus of including Beowulf’s last battle with the dragon, which most moviemakers would have omitted. In order to unify the theme, they make some major changes in the plot, though, mostly involving the character of Grendel’s mother, played (you must be aware by now) by Angelina Jolie without no clothes on. (I didn’t find this, actually, more pornographic, done in this kind of animation, than the skin-tight female uniforms so popular on recent versions of Star Trek. On top of that, Angelina J. has never been my idea of an appealing female. Unlike a dragon, she has not the least spot of vulnerability about her. Which, in a way, makes her perfect for the role. The stiletto heels, however, were a little too much; even if they were presumed to grow out of her feet.)

What intrigues me about the changes made in the story is that the authors have taken a Germanic heroic saga (in which the hero is bigger than life and essentially without fault, dying in the end merely because his fate-allotted time has run out) and changed it into a tragedy on the Greek model. The Greek tragedy centered on a hero with a fatal flaw—some weakness or appetite that compelled him to bring his own doom down upon himself. This plot pattern was eagerly taken up by Christian poets and playwrights, who recognized it as an ideal vehicle for expressing the Christian view of original sin.

This means that, in spite of the fact that most of the references to Christianity in the movie (anachronistic, by the way, as Christianity was hardly heard of in Denmark until at least a couple centuries later) are dismissive, and although the primary Christian spokesman in the movie is pictured as extremely brutal to his slaves, the writers have (probably without meaning to) essentially forced a Christian form and sensibility onto the pre-Christian story.

From a historical point of view, the costumes and sets were better than those in The Thirteenth Warrior (also based on “Beowulf,” and all in all a better film, but much debased by ridiculous, anachronistic armor), but not as good as those in Beowulf and Grendel (which tried to redeem its ruthless trashing of the whole saga by punctilious authenticity in its look). I saw some details, in helmets and swords and such things, that pleased me. But the designers, apparently, felt some compulsion to make a lot of the armor look sort of Greek or Roman (perhaps a subliminal nod to the Greek tragedy drift of the script).

I’ve never cared for bare-legged warriors. Real Vikings wear trousers (which leaves completely to one side Beowulf’s totally naked fight with Grendel).

Well, I could go on, but it all works out to the same thing. Beowulf is a bold and ambitious treatment of a classic epic. It’s entertaining and worth seeing (Leave the kids at home, though. It should have gotten a more restricted rating than PG-13).

If you’re not interested in this sort of thing, don’t bother. If you are, see it now before it becomes something we all look back at and laugh.

A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin

One line review of A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin: “I give up.”

I say that with great regret. In my view there’s only one contemporary fantasy author who bears comparison with J.R.R. Tolkien in any meaningful way, and that’s Martin. No other author in the field today comes close to him in combining fully realized worldbuilding with skillful prose and insightful character development. There’s no other contender in that weight category.

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is loosely based on (or perhaps “suggested by” would be a better combination) the English Wars of the Roses. But Martin’s wars are bigger affairs. Britain has become Westeros, a full-fledged continent, home to a dozen kingdoms, as culturally diverse as the European Scandinavia-to-the-Mediterranean range. All are under the overlordship of the Iron Throne, but the death of the king in the first volume set off a rash of dynastic wars. The wars are big. The passions are big. The treachery would put the Borgias to shame. The crimes are appalling, the heroism…

Well, no. There isn’t any real heroism in these books, which is a major part of my problem with them. People who aspire to chivalry in these books generally get cut off pretty promptly, and those who survive mostly do so by lies, murder and betrayal. The only fighters Martin seems to admire much are the female ones, of which I counted about four (it’s hard to remember) in this book.

“It’s hard to remember” is something you’ll hear a lot from Martin’s readers. His method is not to put a few sympathetic characters on stage and follow them over time and geography, in Tolkien’s manner. Martin sets out dozens of characters (all of them admirably fleshed out) in hundreds of locations, and leaves it to the reader to keep them straight (with the help of character indexes in back, without which reading these books would be impossible for anyone not blessed with a photographic memory).

And that’s only the half of it. Martin explains in a note at the end of this volume that he’s left out half the characters and action in this section of the plot, and that he’ll provide those in the next volume. Just be patient. And keep your notes at hand.

And that’s the other part of my problem with Martin. He seems to have allowed his grand scheme to run away with him. His desire to populate his books with a cast of thousands is admirable in its way, but it’s taxing for the reader. I could probably hang on to the end (whenever that comes—Martin is coy on the projected length of the series) if I thought the payoff would be one I’d appreciate.

But Martin doesn’t appear to be preparing us for any Tolkienesque “eucatastrophe.” His message, judging from what we’ve seen so far, would seem to be the old, tired (and false) one that goes, “War never solves anything.” To drive that message home, he employs the device of regularly killing off characters we’ve started to root for, and in the most unpleasant ways he can think of.

So sorry, George. I’m not going to invest the effort you demand of me just so I can watch you kill off the rest of your viewpoint characters and hear you sing, “Give peace a chance.”

It’s been a good effort. But I have other things to do with my life.

Beyond the Summerland, by L.B. Graham

Summary: The son of a nobleman journeys to a beautiful southern city for extensive training and is caught up in an adventure which appears to be the harbinger of an epic war.

Beyond the Summerland, the first of five in the Binding of the Blade series, is a fairly exciting story once you get into it. Joraiem, the son of one of the nobles who rule Kirthanin, is of the age to go to the Summerland for the political, physical, and academic training that all of the young nobility receive. Along the way, he meets several interesting people who will also be trained for leadership, the most interesting being a large warrior who carries an ancient sword and is mystically connected to a tiger. A dozen or so men and women train in the Summerland for weeks before the danger increases and all of them feel compelled to risk everything on what may be a doomed mission.

This is L.B. Graham’s first novel, so perhaps I should ignore some stylistic matters, but those matters are the reason Beyond the Summerland takes some patience. The prologue or opening chapter should be 2/3 shorter due to needless detail. Throughout the book, the story bogs down in a few paragraphs of narrative which don’t sound unnatural to me but are unneeded. For example, Joraiem may think through a situation and give the reader no more understanding than that a few story points are being made too obvious. Despite this, it’s an enjoyable story, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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