Books

Saturday 9, October

Stonewielder, first comments & details

Pat received the page proofs of Stonewielder. The official release is 25 November and official page count is the same as RotCG, 720 pages. It's odd because Pat says the book is 635 pages and so there's quite a gap to fill with just map + glossary + Dramatis Personae. Someone speculated there may be an excerpt from The Crippled God, but it's unlikely as Hardcovers don't usually have excerpts of any kind. I estimate the wordcount at 250k.

Update: Pat also posted the map that goes with the book, map of the Korel subcontinent. I saved it along my collection of the other maps.

As usual the interesting part is about Pat's ongoing comments on the book:

Okay, about 100 pages into Stonewielder, so here's the first update:

Esslemont's narrative skills have improved yet again, and he seems to be finding his voice.

So Greymane and Kyle are laying low in Delanss, where Greymane opened a fighting school. But shit happens, and it seems that Greymane won't get to enjoy the perks of retirement. . .

Someone tries to enter the Deadhouse with a surprising plan in mind. . .

An ex-priest of Fener sets up shop in Banith, but soon finds out that he's disturbing the established order of things. . .

And a new character with Toblakai blood is introduced. . .

There's more, of course, but that's about it for now.

Good start. Good pace. Better writing all around. More promising than Return of the Crimson Guard at this point. . .

--

Now 217 pages into Stonewielder. . .

As far as the writing is concerned, it is by far Esslemont's best effort.

And now the plot thickens, with a lot of good shit ahead, or so it seems!

Just found out why the Korelri campaign fucked up and seemed to be on a standstill for so long. . .

--

Okay, I'm done with Book 2.

Stonewielder features a much better pace than RotCG, which makes for a more enjoyable reading experience. Not only has Esslemont's narrative improved, but so have his characterization skills. In many aspects, this one reads more and more like an Erikson Malazan book.

And though one of the principal storylines focuses on the Malazan invasion, unlike RotCG, the author doesn't feel the need to throw yet another battle scene every ten pages or so. Although this is a multilayered tale, I feel that Esslemont keeps a tighter focus on the various plotlines.

As is usually the case with a Malazan installment, this one raises way more questions than it provides answers. And the answers usually raise yet more questions.

One thing that bugs me is the timing of this one. Why the hell, when everything in the Malazan Empire is going to shit, did the new Emperor decide to renew a military campaign that went down the crapper over a decade before? Insofar as I've read, there is no hint as to what could possibly interest him in the lands of Fist to launch such an invasion. . .

The cult of the Blessed Lady is another enigma, or the Lady is in any case. Whoever she is, Goddess or Ascendant, it feels weird that we haven't heard about her by now. Even with her ancient name, I can't find anything about her. . . And given how powerful she is, I feel that more should have been hinted at. Though, to be honest, Erikson hasn't been very forthcoming about the Korel campaign in his books. The reason why being one of the most interesting secrets about Stonewielder. . .

There is more to Kyle than meets the eye, and it has nothing to do with his blade. Get used to him because, like the Crimson Guard, I have a feeling that he will be one of the star players in every ICE Malazan books.

Can't really say more without spoiling everything. And unless everything goes to shit in the last 200 pages or so, I'd say that Esslemont has a real winner here!

Saturday 2, October

Reading On

What I'm reading:

First priority goes to one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read, and it's the recently released Disciple of the Dog by Scott Bakker, the Prince of Nothing guy. Subversive to the core and makes every line one wonderfully crafted quote. Supposed to be some kind of thriller about a missing girl who belonged to a cult of weirdos who think the world was just a fake stage where everyone plays a role after having been hypnotized and forget reality (something like The Matrix). Only that this conceit is actually used to describe how the world actually IS. What we live every day. We have these two contrasting sides, one pitted against the other, that morph into scary mirrors.

The protagonist is built with the idea that he can't forget anything, the perfect memory. One interesting consequence is about his perception of "people". We, "normal people", perceive expressions and attitudes of others like something transitory, while the people themselves are real and come first. But for him, his perfect memory makes him recognize the same expressions and attitudes across different people, to the point that it's those expressions that he recognizes and categorizes, while the people themselves become transitory. People that become collections of deja-vus and known patterns. Oblivious actors.

Now down the priority list I continue to read Bakker's fantasy The Darkness that Comes Before, which is excellent but obviously much more scattered and divergent compared to the book above. And then The Way of Kings which works well if I read it after Disciple so that I can actually go to sleep more relaxed ;)

I'm also reading Proust Swann's Way. I'm italian, Proust writes in French, and I'm reading him in English. It doesn't make sense but Penguin made this edition that seems to have a very good translation and is indeed a pleasure to read. Everyone should read some Proust, it's maybe one of the most accessible among the literary writers. Very much evocative. It's not one of those things that make reading feel like work and that one usually associates with the Big Names.

Besides, there's this nice interplay between Proust and Bakker's book. Perfect memory from a side and involuntary memory from the other. One who hopes to get away from his memories for once, and the other desperately trying to seize them while they elude him. Incidentally Bakker's character is the biggest cynic ever, while Proust is the exact opposite: one who cares and is desperately searching.

Tuesday 28, September

"Gardens of the Moon" (on hope, salvation, redemption, consolation)

Why the title in quotation marks? Because we're talking directly of the title itself.

There was a recent reply of Steven Erikson to some provocations of mine on Tor.com re-read. Lots of interesting topics that are relevant to the genre at large. One was about the use of "magic" in fantasy (a rather broad argument that Erikson handled brilliantly in that reply), another was about the title of the first book, "Gardens of the Moon".

This is what he said specifically:

Before I get to the matter of DEM's and all that ... now that the series is done, and now that I've already said elsewhere that Toll the Hounds provides the cipher for understanding the series, it probably does no harm to reveal what was going on in my mind during the writing of Gardens of the Moon, and how my reality (and sense of it) shaped what I wrote, and gave me the reasons for writing it the way I did.

As any beginning writer well knows, the future is filled with soaring hope and crushing despair. Yes, there are bestselling writers out there making a decent living (or even filthy rich), all happily writing full-time. But they are a minority; and most even published writers need to supplement their habit with 'real work.' So, you hope and you fear. You want but you also need to be realistic. And in the bookshops you pick up titles and read a little bit and wonder how in hell did this ever get published? Or you think, ah, here I am in good hands.

And you daydream. A lot. These days they call it visualisation. So, there we were, living on Saltspring Island, unemployed and on welfare (starving in paraidse, we still call that phase of our lives). A baby about to arrive and scant prospects on the horizon.

But I kept looking at those books in the stores, trying to work out why some ever made it into print; trying to figure out the rhyme or reason of publishing. It looked like the biggest crapshoot imaginable. Seemed to me that luck played as big a role as talent. Who you knew, that kind of thing.

Luck. I sat down to write this fantasy novel, thinking about chance and mischance. Thinking about a life in anonymity and a life that wasn't (refer if you will to Circle Breaker in the epilogue and the novel's last line). Thinking about writing a tale filled with magic, high adventure and a wild, if not insane, climax. And dreaming of getting it published and actually making a living as a writer.

Lots of dreams went into Gardens of the Moon (hence the title, too, and the invented mythos surrounding it), along with ambition. And the writing thereof became on one level a dialogue with myself (as is the entire series).

At the same time I spotted on Malazan forums a comment written by a reader that not only is coherent with what Erikson wrote there, but also drags it more to the surface:

I'm going to nod my head to the genius of the title, "Gardens of the Moon", for as perverse as it seems to name a book after a seemingly obscure reference in a single conversation, that reference encompasses a theme of enormous importance in the book and the series.

1. The story of the 'gardens of the moon', as told by Apsalar, offers the hope of future bliss. More broadly, you can read redemption or salvation for bliss.

To all those struggling in their day to day lives with the seemingly eternal problems of societies (war, injustice, tyranny[1]) and personal existence (heartbreak, illness, hunger), any hope of future salvation and bliss is obviously of enormous appeal. Readers of later books will recognise where this idea goes. The Chained God's apparent doctrine to mortals (regardless of his actual intentions) is the story of the gardens of the moon; an offer of future bliss and release from their present sufferings.

2. Apsalar's telling of the story of the 'gardens of the moon' frames it as a kind of fairy story or children's tale or fantasy.

In other words, it requires a certain naivety or wilful self-delusion to buy into it wholly, so there's actually two opposed themes derived from it:
( a ) subservience to - or faith in - a wilful self-deception or illusion offering the hope of future bliss,
-- versus --
( b ) clearer-eyed experience (or cynicism) teaching a truer but harder reality that hope is often transient (unless you struggle to hang on to it) and bliss elusive (unless you lower your expectations of it).

And that opposition is the crux of the drama in the entire series. Most (almost all?) of the major characters in the series embody the struggle between these notions in some way, and their experiences and personal evolution are an examination of these two competing ideas. (Consider Paran's path in GotM[2].) That's what makes the choice of title of the first book so brilliant.

Of course, the longer someone has been around, the closer to the second category they generally fall. In terms of groups, rather than individuals, the embracing of the second ideal isn't often the result of revelation, but entropy and experience, and although groups don't encompass the free-will aspect of this idea (see note [1]), the important factor is that they are (largely) without the hope of reward or bliss. Think of the ennui that permeates the Tiste Andii and what led them to that (much of which only comes out in later books, admittedly), or more amusingly, Tool's often quoted ruminations about the T'lan Imass:

"Tell me, Tool, what dominates your thoughts?"
The Imass shrugged before replying, "I think of futility, Adjunct."
"Do all Imass think about futility?"
"No. Few think at all."
"Why is that?"
The Imass leaned his head to one side and regarded her, "Because Adjunct, it is futile."

--------------------------

[1] One of the more amazing notions that appears in the series is that all forms of society, even the smallest community - is a form of tyranny. From anyone else, this'd sound like pure cynicism, but from an anthropologist (as Erickson is), it is - at least in the context of the Malazan series -something to bear in mind. Now I think this idea is first spelled out, albeit in passing, in MoI (in reference to the Jaghut's self-imposed personal isolationism), although it utterly dominates some later books. What's of interest (to me, at least) is the way in which this notion of tyranny as a social force appears reflected in the two opposed themes of the 'gardens of the moon' story: a personal subservience versus a rejection of the consolations of companionship.

[2] Paran has given over control of his life to an ideal of service to the Adjunct (early on in GotM) - in part a wilful self-delusion; that by following rather than making his own choices he can be absolved of the myriad challenges of free will. But new friendships undermine his isolation, casting him adrift as a pawn of other powers who test him sorely, and only by finally seeking to break his subservience to them does he begin to leave behind his illusion of hope granted by unthinking service; and now has to face the nasty idea that redemption (of any kind) will not come from any self-deception, and that new forms of more freely given service to others (and other ideals) - while being more ethically true to his heart - are without (illusory) guarantees of redemption. It's the hard road - no more gardens of the moon for him... apparently.

Many other characters touch upon this idea in different ways. Compare Lorn's path with Paran's: after being tested, and tempted to leave her illusions behind, she appears to return to the path of the gardens of the moon - in action at least, but what about her heart?

Or consider Whiskeyjack, Toc the Younger, and Rallick Nom (what do they really trust in? and how have their outlooks evolved with their allegiences/friendships and experiences?).

I should also mention that this is STRONGLY related to "Disciple of the Dog" that I think I could safely define as the most extraordinary book I've read.

The enlightenment is right over there. One just has to figure out if it's desirable or not.

Sunday 26, September

Disciple of the Dog - some quotes

My reading priority has been revolutionized since my hardcover copy of "Disciple of the Dog", by Scott Bakker, has arrived. Almost no one is talking about this book, so I thought this flimsy and whimsy blog can serve better its purpose if I give this the priority over "The Way of Kings" (that, btw, gets much better and I'd say it's good and very readable) and also-Bakker "The Darkness that Comes Before" (that forced me to read one battle twice because it wasn't exactly clearly described, but the book is great).

The fact with "Disciple of the Dog" is that the book looks relatively plain. Being out of the fantasy genre, Bakker can't rely on his fans publicizing the book, and so the hardest part is finding an audience, gain a reputation. I would almost suggest to write some kind of introduction that would make readers consider what the book IS. Why reading this instead of a million of other books? Why now? Why this relatively unknown writer? As I said the book looks quite plain, and the cover blurb isn't particularly compelling or revealing. Basing my impressions solely on the presentation I can say that I would have never ordered this book. It just doesn't show anything "necessary" to me. If I bought it is entirely because I'm now reading the fantasy side of Bakker, loving it deeply for the style and, especially, for the intent. For the nails and teeth.

But this book doesn't need any introduction to fire the reader's interest, because the first three pages are already a wonderful manifesto of intentions. I think those three pages are enough to express the "necessity" of such a book and give the reader a motivation for reading it. I'm also surprised because it's several degrees more brilliant than what I read of the fantasy series.

Which leads me to agree with Bakker when he says he's surprised that no one seems to review the book and all promotional copies sent being completely ignored. This book can't leave one indifferent. Nor it takes a full read to deliver its punch. I think the first two chapters show polish to the extreme. Written very tightly and so that the novel gets you in just one or two pages. He knows that if he wastes time he'll lose readers, so he goes straight to the point. The first three pages are about that manifesto I've described. The second chapter gives you already plenty of clever characterization and plot that grips.

With only 25 pages read I have no idea if it works or not as a whole, but more than Disciple's voice it's Bakker's voice that one has to appreciate.

I have a similar approach to this as The Red Tree by Kiernan. I see the character as someone the writer is strongly, personally involved in. Something like autobiographical voice even if the plot isn't. Everything he says rings so true, little things he observes I also noticed, nothing directly trite or conformed.

I also moved smoothly from Disciple's voice to plot. I was in for what he was saying and the way he was saying it. Every line makes a wonderful quote for eternity. Then the plot about the missing girl came up and I was interested in it more than Disciple's own quibbles. I know from reading a bunch of review of "Neuropath" (the other non-fantasy Bakker book) that the main criticism was that the "Argument" was too detached from the level of story and character, and so that the book came out way too unbalanced. In this case Bakker's unique ideas and approach are still his trademark, but it's all functional to characters and story.

The humor is also another high point, something also immediately noticeable and working greatly. Humor that not only works spectacularly and serves the purpose when it happens (it's not just a joke thrown at random), but it's also quite pulpy and abrasive. It sets the mood really well.

Since I'm not an expert of the genre I can only draw parallels to the very few things I know. In this case Chandler and "Pulp" written by Charles Bukowski. But this comparison works surprisingly well, especially if you consider that kind of humor and the fact that this investigator writes in first person.

Pulpy, reckless and littered with epiphanic Truths.

And I love the quotes.

For some mysterious reason, maybe genetic, maybe environmental, maybe some combination of the two, I am doubtful and irreverent through and through.

A true-blue individual - that's what I am.
You would think that would make me popular, you know, home of the brave, land of the free, all that crap. But such is not the case, alas. Truth is, the only kind of individualism Americans believe in is the one that numbs the sting of name tags, or that makes a trip to the mall an exercise in self-creation. The consumer kind.
The false kind.
And who knows? Maybe that's the way it should be.
Ignore the Merge sign long enough, and sooner or later somebody gets killed.

I am what you would call a cynic.
This isn't to be confused with a skeptic. Skeptics don't believe in anything because they care too much. For them the dignity of truth is perpetually beyond the slovenly reach of humankind. We're just not qualified.
A cynic, on the other hand, doesn't believe in anything because he doesn't care enough. I mean, really, who gives a fuck?
You?
My name is Disciple Manning.

She thinks hammering my more toxic memories into narrative form will give them some kind of psychologically redemptive meaning.
Sounds foofy, I know. I've always thought writing is just what happens when we pursue our genius for justifying our scams for its own sake.

The ad hoc decisions piled up and up and up, until I found myself stranded on a mountain not of my own making.

It's these kinds of decisions that define who we are, by and large. The small kind. The lazy kind.
And then one day you wake up, and the distance between your youthful hope and your middle-aged actuality yawns like a tiger on the wrong side of the cage. What happened?

I could tell that he recognized something in my eyes as well. Weird, all these little moments that pass between people. For most everybody, they slip into oblivion, but me, I catch them like flies.

The story they told me sounded like something cribbed from the Biography Channel. Flattering and negativity-free. You see, people always make cases. Always. Rather than simply describe things, they pitch them this way and that. So when the Bonjours said that Jennifer was a curious girl, an overachiever, and so on, they were literally offering evidence of the adequacy of their parenting skills, while at the same time saying, "She wasn't the kind of girl who ..." They wanted me to know that whatever it was that had happened to their precious daughter had precious little to do with them.

Life has a nasty habit of dishing up calamity at the punchline of a joke as well

They both looked at me in expectation - funny how some couples turn every third party into a marriage counsellor - so I held them in suspense for a thoughtful moment.

After the Bonjours left, I had sex with Kimberly in the copy room - or, as I had devilishly dubbed it, the copy-feely room.

Kimberly, you should know, had long ceased taking me seriously. One more happy consequence of banging your employees: they know what you look like naked. For whatever reason, it's hard to take naked men seriously. Personally, I blame the balls.

Wednesday 22, September

Mock's Vane

"Mock's Vane" is the object whose description opens the Prologue of Gardens of the Moon. I was briefly discussing its description on Westeros forums when I noticed that on Tor reread it was interpreted in a completely different way, without triggering any debate. So I thought it was worth elaborating here.

This is the paragraph with the description:

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

And this is Bill interpretation on Tor's site:

Hardly a cheery start, but an appropriate one. I like to think of that vane as synonymous with the Bridgeburners: their armor also rusted and stained (albeit with real blood), balancing atop a sharp point (between loyalty to the Empire and defiance towards the Empress), hammered into its current shape by a cruel forging, and buffeted by the winds of war and politics.

It makes sense but I think my interpretation is more accurate and convincing. I'm not a particularly intuitive guy and these things usually defy me, but in this case I used a rather simple framework. I took the object and divided its basic qualities. Those traits will probably qualify what the vane stands for/symbolizes.

In particular, it's the fact it's a century old that makes things clearer. What is also a century old? You just have to glance above the first line of prose:

96th Year of the Malazan Empire

As to say "a century old". It already defies the Bridgeburner interpretation as the Bridgeburners were most likely created much later.

This particular vane is then featured again in "Night of Knives", the Esslemont book. It appears twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the book.

On its pike at Temper's side, Mock's Vane, the winged demon-shaped weathervane, shook and hummed as if caught in a steady gale. Temper frowned at the old relic; the winds were calm this evening.

Down the wall, Mock's Vane stood silent on its pike. Temper eyed it - the damn thing appeared frozen athwart the wind.

The main reason why I criticized this book in my review, is that Esslemont is like Erikson stripped of all subtlety and we see a good demonstration in those two quotes. The symbol is stripped of ambiguity and reveals its meaning all too plainly: the vane moves, without wind, at the start, and is still, even with wind, when the night is over. Why? Because its symbolic meaning is more important than it being a weathervane and so pointing the direction of the wind.

"Night of Knives" is the book with the story of the night that the Prologue of Gardens of the Moon anticipates. Mock's vane is there to represent the old empire under Kellanved. Its description and physical properties are "thematic" and analogous to that sort of empire he built. The vane is restless because a convergence is close (but the reader doesn't know this yet), in Night of Knives it moves before the convergence, then stops when the night is over. Mock's Hold, in Erikson's own words, represents a position of power and control, in this case it "observes" from above.

An old thing stirring. An emperor that comes back. A misshapen, grotesque imitation of life (movement).

There are lot of things and meanings packed there. In just a few lines. All the various meanings are directly connected with the prologue and what the prologue stands for (the "Night of Knives"). It works really well because it is coherent with everything Erikson wanted to do with that Prologue. You can accuse it of being maybe too plain and obvious, but here we got that piece interpreted in a different way, or considered by other readers as being pointless or not having any real meaning.

From a side Erikson is accused of being too obscure, and when instead symbols are more obvious then he's accused of being too plain.

One has to consider in particular how that part is approached by a reader. A first time reader doesn't know what is about to happen, doesn't know what happened to the emperor. One doesn't know the rules of Ascendancy and gods can be only considered on a level that is entirely separated from human affairs. This "disconnection" allows Erikson to do some of the most obvious foreshadowing and brilliant sleight of hand. Things are spelled so clearly and yet the readers are so masterfully deceived. The vane can only be registered as ominous foreshadowing that can't be placed yet (and that aspect was well commented by Bill). Its real meaning isn't even revealed if one reads the whole book because what happened that day is the apex of a long story involving the matters of the "old empire" and "old guard" that the reader pieces together in the longer term. It takes maybe up to House of Chains to get the whole picture.

Good foreshadowing = when some vague hint acquires a much greater import in retrospective.

And in that, Bill's interpretation is actually incorporated by the greater one. The Bridgeburners are caught in bigger situation and just one of the parties involved. That day, foreshadowed by the vane stirring, has a much bigger impact. And so, depending on the level of awareness of the different reader, it adapts its meaning.

Sunday 19, September

The White-Luck Warrior Cover (R. Scott Bakker)

I continue to like much better the old cover style. This one would be actually very nice if they only entirely removed that pointless face. There's a great cover hidden behind.

Original is on Bakker own blog.

Saturday 18, September

The Way of Kings - (my) problems with prose

As I said I expected to have some problems with the prose and need to adjust to it. Hopefully enough so that I don't focus on just nitpicking.

I was discussing especially that I dislike infodumps that are out the context of the PoV character and written solely to fill in the reader. Directly writer to reader without characters as filters.

Here's an example from the Prologue:

He hit the ground in the midst of the soldiers. Completely surrounded, but holding a Shardblade.
According to legend, the Shardblades were first carried by the Knights Radiant uncounted ages ago. Gifts of their god, granted to allow them to fight horrors of rock and flame, dozens of feet tall, foes whose eyes burned with hatred. The Voidbringers. When your foe had skin as hard as stone itself, steel was useless. Something supernatural was required.
Szeth rose from his crouch, loose white clothes rippling [...]

Extraneous info dumped by an omniscient narrator solely for the reader and unrelated to the PoV or context. Between one step and the other. Right in the middle of an action scene.

It's an obvious choice of style and the whole Prologue is written like that.

Other things I have to digest are the insane number of compounded words, as already pointed out, and some redundancy of prose. Like:

As always, the Shardblade killed oddly; though it cut easily through stone, steel, or anything inanimate [...]

Turn two pages:

The rock sliced easily; a Shardblade could cut any inanimate object.

Turn another page:

When your foe had skin as hard as stone itself, steel was useless. Something supernatural was required.

And it even ends with a rather weird and clunky - yet again seemingly off context - consideration:

When one killed with a Blade, there was no blood. That seemed like a sign. The Shardblade was just a tool; it could be not be blamed for the murders.

I also noticed a repetition of expression:

pag. 27
as he approached, small fearspren - shaped like globs of purple goo - began to wriggle from the masonry, pointing toward the doorway.

pag. 38
Small fearspren - like globs of purplish goo - began to climb up out of the ground and gather around his feet.

Not just same description, but also a repetition of the structure of the sentence.

I guess the redundancy helps the accessibility as the reader is expected to absorb various notions that are specific to this fantasy world. The same infodump style was used even for the description of the magic system, which produced some cinematic scenes. Feels quite like wuxia, or wire-fu. With the hero flying around like in those Chinese movies, only through the use of gravity manipulation rather than great leaping skills. A system that made me question a bit its "logic" since it's unclear whether it works on area of effect or is somewhat selective.

That said the action moves felt a bit formulaic and repetitive. The scene also ends because of what I consider very dumb choices that in the text were defined "clever".

EDIT: Worth updating. I'm now further into the book and for all the issues I had with the prologue it seems that I don't have anything bad worth quoting for the rest. Either the writing suddenly "improved" or I got interested more in the flow of the story and less in nitpicking the style of prose. I haven't noticed anything else that is odd and characters, albeit not exactly wildly original, are already claiming their space. I suspect this book reads very easily and quickly despite its bulk.

Thursday 16, September

The Way of Kings took a while...

...But the book has finally arrived yesterday after a 2-weeks trip around the world. Considering my reading pacing and that I'll read the book while also being already engaged with the Prince of Nothing it means that I'll be done not sooner than a couple of months, but I already have a bundle of comments, all not indispensable but enough to waste a post about them :)

I mean, it must be quite original commenting a book on its first 8 pages. I've read those 8 pages, and have plenty to say if I can fish all that feedback from my yesterday's memory.

So, the book is pretty & precious. If I had received the ARC as I wished I would be pissed by now because it misses all the frills of the retail hardcover. Lots of work spent on the package. To begin with it has 4 full-color illustrations "enclosing" the book. Meaning that two comes right after the cover, and the other two at the very end. Very colorful and eye catching. The first two have, one symbols enclosed in spheres, arranged in a way very close to the Kabbalistic tree of life. In front of this one instead we have a world map of Roshar, pretty but undetailed, only showing the division in zones. The world has a vague squeezed spiral shape akin to a galaxy. The other pair of color illustrations are a mirror of the first two. Not simply copied but reworked. We have the same Kabbalistic tree but with different art/symbols and the same shape of map that may refer to a different time or plane.

Inside there is another 2-pages Roshar map, this time black & white and detailed with the usual stuff like mountains, rivers, major towns. Beside these, the index mentions 19 other illustrations, ranging from other maps to sketches of creatures and other contextual things. Chapters also have their own chapter icons, with variations probably depending on theme or character involved. The book ends with a 4-page "Ars Arcanum" appendix with some details, I think, on the magic system and the Kabbalistic tree.

This wraps up the extraneous content of the book. I wonder how they can make a mass market version of this, because there are 1000 pages in total and lots of text on a single page. It will probably need a 1300 pages book in the smaller format.

Anyway the book is so pretty that I had a problem soiling it. I treat my books well, my read copies are almost pristine but I don't refrain to write all over the page with a pencil. I keep notes and such. This book makes a so nice package that I had to put more determination than usual to decide to write over it and underline stuff.

It is still a book, so all this stuff is completely superfluous, but it's undeniable that it immensely improved the first impression. Publishers should probably pay attention because if done well this could "sell" the book to those who are doubtful and undecided.

The text: I already had a couple of pages online so I knew about certain things that I could find annoying. Namely the compounded and capitalized words. I had to underline them. In the first 6 pages we have: thunderclast, Surgebinders, Dustbringers, the Desolation, Shardblades, Oathpact, Radiants, Truthless, Shin, Parshendi, parshmen, musicspren, Stormlight, Alethi, flamespren, Shardbearer. All of these used without much context, so a reader is required to simply file them in memory as placeholders. Yet, other things come out quite easily. For example I was able to spot already a link between the prelude and the prologue despite it's said 4500 years passed between them. The names of the characters of the prelude return as statues of the Ten Heralds. Not exactly requiring brilliant intuition since Kalak, Jezirien and Talenel become Kelek, Jezerezeh and Talenelat. But the point is that even while setting things on the stage at large, we already have manageable elements after an handful of pages, and you can start speculating possible relationships between the two moments and what they represent in the large scheme of things. So despite the huge setting is only starting to be laid out, the reader is already taken in and involved.

The impression I have, as a whole, is that Sanderson is chasing THE childhood dream. He had been a fan of the genre for a long time, and specifically with this series he wants to embrace just everything that he ever liked. Taking the chapter icons from the Wheel of Time, having a prologue, prelude, interludes, epilogue and endnote, a bunch of maps, the target of a 10 book series right from the start and already revealing that this series will plug into another, so even breaching that wall, writing a book close to 400k words and focusing a lot on worldbuilding to aim for immersion. I think he's grabbing all these spurious elements and gathering them into a cohesive project. The aim is simply to place himself in the same position of his childhood myths. He wants that throne. His purpose is to write an accessible series that can reach a vast public, all-encompassing inside out. He wants to step in with something that is both "his" and yet genre defining. And in chasing that childhood dream he's hoping to embody the childhood dreams of his readers. He dreams big in a way similar to the "nineteen" introduction on The Gunslinger by Stephen King.

Now it's kind of obvious that all this is just "fluff", as it is fluff all that extraneous material that comes with the book, but I think the important point is that this is obvious even to Sanderson. I think he is approaching that childhood dream knowing exactly how frivolous it is, and also knowing/believing he can complete it ideally with all the experience he achieved as an adult. And so he is "preserving" that dream by filling it with actual value. The child dream made ageless and for everyone. Not childish anymore in the same way children don't look at their own dreams as a limited thing.

Before reading those 8 pages I had many doubts. I've never read anything he wrote so the fluff was all that was evident. The profusion of compounded words and a kind of infodump-y prose didn't exactly dispel those doubts, but eight pages were enough to make me curious and more positive. He seems to have things to say and has a way of presenting and dress them that is interesting. So one could as well take this kind of structure and reverse it: IN SPITE of all the fluff that may indicate something exclusively targeted at hardcore fans and RPG players, there may be a cool book hidden inside. 1000 pages that are worth reading and that make a good journey instead of just a commercial grab of a genre.

A reminder to not judge a book by its cover. Even when it's so pretty and colorful.

Sunday 5, September

Steven Erikson on the Malazan series

Another wonderful gift from Steven Erikson. He wrote some comments for Tor ongoing reread about why new readers struggle reading his books, his style of writing, how to approach the series and some specific aspects of Gardens of the Moon.

I think there's a rule that is true for all books and writers: we can only hope to understand and appreciate a fraction of what is offered. This is an even bigger problem with Erikson because the text is dense and one doesn't even expect that every word and every scene is so strongly charged of meaning and metaphorical intention. If there's a description we approach it as a description, and most of the layers and delicate complexities are lost. If instead one wants to dig, soon he'd find himself swallowed whole. Erikson has the range of the greatest writers.

It takes some modesty to admit of not having fully understood a book. It also takes a different point of view to realize we haven't fully understood one. If we see nothing we are sure that there is nothing. But the truth, and it's a truth valid for all writers, is that we may be closer or far, but we always understand a fraction. Bigger or smaller, still a fraction.

Two times I reread that book, so much I've treasured, and I feel like I could still only glide on the surface.

Hello all,

The great thing about having a cold is the privilege of sitting round for days doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. Having read through the chapter commentary from the beginning, I'd like to take you all back more than a few pages, and talk about why these novels seem to thrive in the context of re-reads, and why first-time readers are often left feeling bewildered. I think the two are very much related.

It goes back to how I first started writing fiction. I was in a Master's program in archaeology when I came second in a local short story contest in Winnipeg, a tale called 'Wooden Trucks.' On the weight of this one venture into writing I applied to attend a creative writing program at the University of Victoria. I recall being in a sweaty phone box in Belize, on the phone with my mother back in Winnipeg, as she opened the envelope telling me I'd got in. From that moment onward, my entire world changed.

The writing program at Uvic at that time was at its zenith. When I showed up it was as a wide-eyed neophyte with a secret love of genre fiction (one keeps these things secret if one wants to be taken seriously). What I learned, almost from day one, was that I knew nothing about anything; that my writing to that point had only 'worked' because I was instinctively consistent, with emphasis on the word 'instinctively.'

Uvic taught me the craft of writing; it taught me to be mindful. The key though is this: it made me a short-story writer. Short stories are a particular beasts. In them, not a single word is superfluous. Everything carries extra weight, or at least that's how I saw it.

Track forward a few years and scores of short stories later, and I begin writing novels, only to discover that my 'muscle memory' is now absolute -- the obsessive adherence to multifunctional, multilayered writing (line by line, word by word) is not something I can relax -- when novel writing in fact demands just that: an ease with wandering, with transitive passages, with a gentler hand taking hold of the reader, etc. Instead, novel-writing for me is the building of ever more elaborate structures, designed to carry ever more weight.

A long ramble to get to this: on one level details in making a setting carry the more obvious virtues -- placing the characters somewhere, giving them things with which they can interact; in creating an atmosphere and a tone; and in painting a picture for the reader's imagination. But other levels are possible. Setting as 'animated environment' can feed your sense of the characters in it; can foreshadow elements of plot; can reveal theme.

Take some opening scenes in Gardens as examples, and see how they relate to subsequent scenes for those select characters. Whiskeyjack and Fiddler on Mock's Hold: high above a burning city, in a place of power. There's smoke and the smell of carnage -- they are above it but only moments from descending into it. But we don't see that bit. They are on stonework, but it's cracked, and their backs are to the sea. All of these details shapes the reader's sense of them to some extent. When next we see them, they are on the ground, far away from Malaz City, surrounded in destruction and desolation. It's a different place, but their descent began in the prologue, if you see what I mean. And even then, they were only a short time earlier under the ground itself.

If we look to Kruppe, things get a little more complicated. Kruppe and his city are the same things; just as his language and attitude (and mystery) reflect the exotic, byzantine confusion of Darujhistan, so too his half-mocking smile and spark in the eye invite you into the labyrinthine cityscape (and the literally over-the-top assassin/Crokus chase). Kruppe is both flashy but on close examination somewhat scuffed, stained. He has a cherubic face, but plenty hides behind that. And so on. His voice is the city's voice, and it begins in a dream, as all great cities do.

Where is all this going? It goes here. Three storm clouds converging over Lake Azure, into which Whiskeyjack and co. are headed. A reader comments that I'm too smart to now say that there was deliberate portent in the detail of three clouds warring over the lake. Hmm. It's been too many years since that for me to be more specific than this: I could have written 'there was a storm over the lake,' and left it at that. The foreshadow is obvious enough. But, if I'd written that description, I would have immediately seen the foreshadowing element -- it's almost too cinematic and verges on cliche. I could then have changed it to two storm clouds, but then, that wouldn't have made sense; or rather, it would have been suggestive but inaccurately so. There are three forces converging on the city. Two storm clouds would have been lazy and misleading; careless.

Of course there are three storm-clouds. Of course this detail is relevant. It's how short stories work.

Uh oh. This ain't a short story though, is it? And therein lies the problem. I know what I'm up to; I know how I think and how I write. And to make matters worse, everything I put into a narrative is saying (pleading, begging) 'you can trust me, honest.' But I'm not taking the reader by the hand. I've invited them into a place, left them standing, looking round, wandering a bit but not far, not far at all. And every now and then I tap a shoulder, point, nod to over there, or here. And that's it.

Re-readers will nod and smile. First-timers will blink, bewildered -- and will decide to either trust me or not. I really want them to trust me, but I don't know how to manage that... beyond making sure that everything fits, that everything has meaning.

A virtue or a flaw in my writing? Maybe both. You see, I already know that world, but the only details I show you are the important ones. There's no filler. And that's not fair.

And the structure is such a crazed, manic machine, an engineer's nightmare, a spider's acid trip, it's really no wonder that readers will doubt, and on occasion give up on the effort, on the trust I so desperately ask for.

So, to all you new readers on this, I am ever amazed and slightly astonished to find you staying with me. I tell myself that what is happening is a kind of education process: read me this way, it's the only way. Pay attention! You will be tested on all of this, I guarantee it. Stay with me and in turn I will promise you that it will be a blast.

And even better, then you'll have all those re-reads, when things will really get wild.

Cheers for now
Steve

Saturday 4, September

The Red Tree - Caitlín R. Kiernan (revised version)

Another attempt at polishing the review I've written. I usually adjust a few things after I post one but in this case I was less satisfied than usual because I gave too much importance to certain aspects and almost ignored others that I think are more important. The biggest problem was that I wrote my comments just an hour after finishing the book and I started to understand the book better while writing those comments, which caused them to be even more rambling than usual. So I'll do some cut & paste and restructuring.

The framework first. "The Red Tree" is a supernatural, horror, psychological journey that borrows heavily from the long and solid tradition in the respective genres and whose best parallel in themes, atmosphere and development is Lovecraft. It is not conceived or delivered as an homage or imitation, it's not a book existing in a "shadow" of something else, nor it is one that uses conventions to break out of their prison and open on a new, "modern" world. What it achieves is about recovering the deeper and most powerful elements of that tradition and reveal that they are not dusty, opaque and antique, but still alive today, relatively uncompromised. The book is structured in a way similar to Danielewski's House of Leaves, with nested texts, stories within stories, and dreams that leak into reality. So it's up to the reader to take an active role and second-guess and interpret/rebuild what is going on. The basic form is the diary so everything comes through an unreliable narrator and a fragmented narrative that can leave gaps of days and then only re-interpret and fictionalize what happened. Without another authoritative point of view the reader can only cling to the voice of the diary, trust it, and go through the most unnerving parts as in a first-person narration, making it quite effective. All this is at the same time simplified and complicated by a strong meta-narrative. If one gives a look online (and yes, you're supposed to, I'll explain why) would discover that Caitlín R. Kiernan has more than a few analogies with Sarah Crowe, the fictional writer of the book. Both are lesbian writers who had to deal with the death of their partner, both suffer from epileptic attacks that add another dimension of precariousness to the story. I don't want to delve further because I feel like invading a personal space and the boundary between reality and fiction is best left blurred. Yet I think a reader should be aware of this layer as it offers a way to better understand the implications and the origin of the book. No book prescinds from its writer, and here this fact is particularly important.

The semi-autobiographical story is about this alter-ego fictional writer, Sarah Crowe, who is fleeing from her former life in Atlanta to rent an house in the countryside of Rhode Island. Without the motivation or the focus to start writing a long postponed novel, she begins instead keeping a diary mostly to describe some weird, unpleasant dreams that are haunting her. After exploring the basement of the house she discovers an incomplete manuscript next to an old typewriter. The manuscript is written by "Dr. Charles Harvey", a name she's never heard, so she "googles" it and finds out it belongs to a professor who "was on an extended sabbatical from the university, supposedly writing a book on the evolution and propagation of fakelore". A professor with "an interest in urban legends and occultism" who lived in that house for three years, and died in the property by hanging himself. The title of his manuscript and research is the same that is shared between these three layers, "THE RED TREE". Title respectively of Kiernan's book, of Sarah Crowe fictional diary, and of Harvey's unfinished manuscript. Soon the bits of legends Sarah reads seep into her reality and slowly build an estrangement from the "real" world. This red tree being a huge oak tree not too far from the house, becoming Harvey's former and Sarah's current obsession. One doesn't even have to speculate the woman will likely share the previous tenant's fatal destiny as that is already spoiled right in the introduction of the book. It's a descent into madness when the solid reality under one's feet starts to crack and give way. The "abscess" that opens and swallows, and that one's too frightened to look into.

The ideal spook story would then end with a plausible rationalization that explains everything but with the supernatural element still very possible and not completely fended off. The reader left wondering if it was all true or not, and so the resulting haunting ambiguity. All this stays true to this book. While I was reading I kept waiting for some reversal of canons that would bring novelty and would justify the great praises the book received, but that didn't come. Or it didn't come from the direction I was expecting it. The story stays well within the canons, it's not a "modern" interpretation in its structure. It doesn't drop some classic conceits: it appropriates the canons. And that is where it hits. It's about looking straight into the darkness and understanding it. The horrors of the book are always perceived and off the page, just out of the corner of the eye, never completely undeniable. The idea of movement, of sounds, of impossible perspectives. As a teenager I fed so much on the horror genre that nowadays it hardly has anything to offer. The "psychological" horror is a concept that I know quite well but it is how it is used to determine its power. Whether or not the "roots" feed on something true or just a weak conceit. The strength of this book is about knowing those roots and, instead of obfuscating, reveal the original darkness that can't be defeated by modernity. That it's still not even notched today. Whether it's written by Lovecraft of Kiernan, the source is the same and ageless.

I try to avoid spoilers and I'll say that by the end of the book I was busy trying to put together the pieces of the puzzles. Turning the last page doesn't mean closing the lid. The book won't be done with you and will continue to haunt. You'll have to deal with contrasting interpretations and contradictions, with pieces that don't fit or that you can't place. Maybe, if you like me have a necessity to strictly define a space, feel frustration because the story defies control and because rationalization is here antidote to comprehension, as it would be in a dream. The book requires and forces a certain readjustment to be understood. But it is important to say that these details of the plot are just a surface. The desire to pin down even the smallest thing. The overall purpose, I think, would be clear. The real explanation is one that contains the different ones within, because at the core there's the human soul, and the darkness within. What one does or doesn't make of it. What you can't push down and deny or forget.

Sarah's isn't alone in this journey, and of this I was thankful since it would have risked of making the story too oppressive and hostile. The wonderful strength of the writing is to be appreciated the most in the description of human relationships, and all the meaningful complexities that come out of them. Constance, a character sharing certain sensibilities with Sarah while also being almost her opposite, will soon join her in the house and the relationship building between them is maybe the best aspect of the book. A relationship devoid of idealization as Sarah's character is cynic and caustic, often her attempts to reach Constance leading to both of them getting hurt and further apart in spite of necessity. Sarah and Constance won me before everything else and I was wondering how the book would proceed if I continued to be so weirdly biased toward the mundane while having very little interest for the supernatural aspect. I think that this effect was intended because it's from those relationships that the meaningfulness of the story is entirely derived. Consequences. On the foreground stay these characters, their relationship, their truth. There's some sex, written well for once, not too graphic and yet not embellished or mystified as it always happens. It should be better to say that there's honesty, and that sex is part of that honesty, and, being that, it becomes extremely important. The language is modern and tight, the voice surprisingly authentic. There's no use of classical language or rhetoric or fancy flourishes. It doesn't read like a dusty old tome. This even affects the plot, while Sarah can be seen as the typical solitary character stranded in a mysterious house, she still has internet, looks up things she needs, goes back to the town and library various times, receives calls from her editor who asks if she's well and is progressing with her book, travels on a car for a couple of days with Constance. There are no artificial boundaries to contain Sarah's story, if not those entirely made by herself. I even interpreted this "freedom" of breaking through certain rules as a hint to the reader: explore, look things up online if you feel like missing something. The book can be as well enhanced by what's outside. Do not worry to step out of the page. The darkness will be kind enough to follow you.

The supernatural aspect comes up with more strength toward the end of the book, obviously, but it does so in an unexpected way. It's the mundane to become horror, and it's one own feelings to open on the pit no one dares look into. The darkness is the human being. Or, to quote Bakker, the darkness comes AFTER:

It's only after that we understand what has come before, then we understand nothing. Thus we shall define the soul as follows: that which precedes everything.

Superstition. Everywhere and in everything, Leweth had confused that which came after with that which came before, confused the effect for the cause. Men came after, so he placed them before and called them “gods” or “demons.” Words came after, so he placed them before and called them “scriptures” or “incantations.” Confined to the aftermath of events and blind to the causes that preceded him, he merely fastened upon the ruin itself, men and the acts of men, as the model of what came before.

But there's obviously some ambiguity, embraced by alternative interpretations and whatever you decide it to be. The darkness comes "after", produced and shaped by men. Belonging to them. As well its opposite, the darkness comes "before", something inhuman, eternal, absolute. Universal. Ageless. Meaning that Sarah's hallucinations were real and used her as a vehicle. But at this point the journey has already become so personal for the reader that even the last answer becomes entirely personal. The descent into madness is proportional to clarity and self-awareness. That's another unconventional and unexpected aspect of the book. The "unreliable narrator" is a device presented in a self-aware way, used to give the text that ambiguity that keeps the disparate interpretations plausible at the same time. But toward the end this unreliable narrator becomes the only authoritative guide. One assumes that madness corresponds to a loss of contact with truth, but here the whole meta-narrative becomes clear in the mind of the character and she even seems to mock herself for it, and maybe it's this to provide a way to escape madness by sacrificing an envelope to it.

It's quite an awesome book that should be read even outside its genre. I enjoyed the characters and the style of writing so much that I would have loved it with or without the supernatural aspects. I love how painfully truthfully it is written. A kind of desperation that destroys any attempt for embellishment or rhetoric. Even WITHIN fiction:

I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That's the paradox of me. And having lied, it doesn't mean that I was necessarily dishonest.

A book whose stronger aspect is, paradoxically, the demystification. And, maybe, literature as a form of therapy. One of the most emotionally involving and authentic novels I've read.

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