A Wizard of Earthsea

Coming to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels as a mature reader, I started with her mature works The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. These novels are philosophical and profound, part of her allegorical Hainish Cycle. By contrast, I put off reading A Wizard of Earthsea because it is simple, a book for a younger audience.

Sparrowhawk (real name: Ged) is a promising young mage from Gont, an island in the archipelago on Earthsea with a reputation for giving birth to powerful mages. As a child he manages to repel a Kargish raid on his village and is subsequently taken in by the Mage Ogion. The novel is, in effect, a chronicle of Sparrowhawk’s early exploits where he demonstrates his power by binding the powerful dragon Yevaud to Pendor and achieves his first great triumph: defeating a shadow that he himself summoned into the world.

In short, this is a classic Bildungsroman for a young wizard. I have found myself increasingly bored by stories about preternaturally talented young men and this concern lingered the entire time I was reading this book that is clearly written for younger readers.

But to dismiss A Wizard of Earthsea as shallow or rote is to give Le Guin too little credit. As she notes in the Afterword, this is a story about a person of color who is betrayed by light-skinned characters. He is explicitly a good and well-intentioned person with a positive male friendship, and is his own enemy. This is story without overt militarism or wars that define the fantasy genre from the Arthurian models through Tolkien and beyond.

Le Guin writes:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the war Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the “right” side and therefore will win. Right makes might.

Or does might make right?

If war is the only game going, yes. Might makes right. Which is why I don’t play war games.

A Wizard of Earthsea came out in 1968, far before the start of the recent golden age of fantasy literature. The best that the modern genre has to offer (e.g. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season) offer more complex plots and more fully developed characters, but this just makes it easier to underestimate her achievement. Even today, too many fantasy novels default to a faux-Medieval Europe setting and feature heroes whose “best” skill is their ability to end lives. Wrestling with the morality of this skill may be a common feature in recent novels, but there remains a residual attraction to sword-wielding prodigies.

I remain in awe of Le Guin, whose keen insight imbues this attractive mid-grade novel with subtle depth. Still, I was not the primary audience for this book and had difficulty connecting with the characters because of the tendency to narrate at a remove rather than embedding the reader in their points of view––something that heightens the superficial resemblance to Arthurian Romance.

All of this to say: I am glad to have finally read A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m not sure that I will read on in the series.

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I am about a third of the way through a history of the Greek War of Independence that broke out in 1820. The book has turned into a bit of a slog. The most interesting thing, though, is exploring the difficulties of creating a nation at a time when seemingly the only people who conceived of “Greece” were educated people from Western Europe who visited the region with their eyes filled with visions of the distant past and a society of ex-pat merchants and soldiers of fortune.

Across the Nightingale Floor

I found Across the Nightingale Floor by accident. Browsing through my local bookstore, I picked up another book in the same series and opened it because Ursula K. Le Guin had given the book a blurb. Rather than get that book, I redirected to read this one because it was the first in the series, totally oblivious to who Lian Hearn was or really knowing anything about the series. I was not disappointed.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a straightforward fantasy in the tradition modeled after Medieval Romances of brave warriors and doomed love, set in an alternate medieval Japan.

Takeo, as he comes to be known, was raised among the Hidden, a secretive sect of pacifists, until his village of Mino is attacked by men of Tohan. Takeo escapes with the aid of a stranger who turns out to be Lord Otori Shigeru. This fortunate encounter catapults Takeo into a world of clan politics. Tohan recently came to prominence after defeating the Otori and killing Shigeru’s father and brother. Recognizing in Takeo something of the Tribe, a sect of assassins, Shigeru adopts him, raises him, and makes plans to use him to seek revenge.

The second half of the romance comes from Kaede, the heir Shirakawa family and close relative of another powerful family headed by Lady Murayama. In short, through Kaede lays a potential path to power, and since the rise of Tohan when she was a child, Kaede has been a hostage at Noguchi castle. Now that she has reached marriageable age, her captors have decided that it is time she marry and propose to use her as a pawn to undermine the last opposition to Tohan rule: brimming discontent centered on Otori Shigeru.

Across the Nightingale Floor does not have a complicated plot. It is filled with strong motivations, dramatic gestures, and two simple arcs that are gradually brought closer together with just enough action to propel the story. Around the teenagers at the heart of the story the motivations and plots are more complex in that this is a world of competing political motivations, but the sweeps are no less dramatic and the agendas nuanced only marginally by the weight of personal histories. Hearn hints at a more complex story and throws in a few twists along the way, but ultimately chooses not to elaborate.

This is not to say that Across the Nightingale Floor isn’t well-crafted. It is a lush story with significant research into the Sengoku period in Japan and a plot that I found propulsive. But it is also a story that feels like it belongs in an older fantasy or epic tradition, one that is more like a medieval Romance.

Using these traditions leads to certain consequences on top of reducing certain characters to their broad motivations. Older fantasy has a flat-map problem where anything that exists off the world-map might as well not exist. Narnia is literally flat, but elsewhere the flatness is implied, often with an authorial choice not to engage with the possibility of an interconnected world. Sometimes the plot doesn’t demand this engagement, but the consequences still exist.

Hearn offers slight nods to a wider world, with occasional references to a land over the sea that could be an approximation of China, but stops short of engaging with the wider consequences of the historical setting. For instance the Sengoku period was a period when Portuguese merchants conducted a brisk trade with Japan and the persecution of the Hidden strongly resembled the persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. Similarly, in one scene characters eat a meal featuring maize, a new world crop that came to Japan in the 16th century and therefore would have been rather new. None of these points were critical to the plot, but struck me as limits of projecting a story into a world modeled on a historical time and place without fully engaging with that context.

There was one final question that stuck with me as I read Across the Nightingale Floor. I picked it up without looking into Lian Hearn, and only belatedly learned that she had no connection to Japan other than having fallen in love with the country after visiting. Nevertheless, Hearn clearly did her research and avoids orientalist tropes, which put me at ease regarding cultural appropriation.

In sum, I enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor as a perfectly pleasant, easy read, but many of the same features that made it enjoyable and the reasons I’m in no hurry to read any of the other books in the series. Perhaps on a beach (or a grassy equivalent) this summer I’ll be ready to pick up the second, but in the meantime I don’t really need another epic featuring a functional but flattened setting and a young male protagonist on the cusp of learning the ways in which he is special.

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It is the end of the semester here in central Missouri and while that means I’ve had a bit more time to read, I’ve also been falling behind on writing (both her and elsewhere). I recently finished Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Go, Went, Gone, a novel about immigration to western countries, and am now about halfway finished with David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a history of the Osage murders in the 1920s and the creation of the FBI.

Black Leopard Red Wolf

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself best?

Sometimes when I am reading a book the words of a review start writing themselves. Other times the author has strung out the significance of the book in such a way that the meaning of that book doesn’t become clear until the final word. (A sign of a great novel, according to Orhan Pamuk.) And then there are books where I look back and think “what was that?”

Marlon James’ new novel Black Leopard Red Wolf belongs in the last category.

Set in a fantastical world of African history and mythology, Black Leopard Red Wolf is the story of Tracker, as told in his words under question by an inquisitor. As he says, Tracker’s preternaturally gifted nose caused certain agents to employ him to track down a missing boy, presumed dead, for purposes that were originally unknown to him. Along with a motley cast that includes the Sadogo, a giant brawler with a morose demeanor, the centuries-old witch Sogolon, and Mossi, a prefect soldier from the far North East, Tracker follows the boy’s scent from city to city, belatedly realizing the complexity of the task. Not only has the boy been taken by the demon Impundulu, being turned effectively into a zombie and employing a series of magic pathways that criss-cross the land, but also his employers are playing a dangerous game: trying depose the mad king by restoring succession of kings through the female line.

This story comes out in fits and starts, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that defies identifying anything––with the possible exception of sexual attraction––as true.

Distilling Black Leopard Red Wolf to the narrative arc that explains the circumstances of Tracker’s interrogation, however, installs limits that James defies. Instead, this is a novel about setting, character, and mythology. Tracker tells the inquisitor of his childhood and background, how he rescued Mingi children and became lovers with the shapeshifter Leopard, with whom he killed the demon Asanbosam.

Only belatedly does he get to the hunt for the boy and the cities he visited along the way. The political intrigue and imminent war that forms the backdrop enter the tale slowly, coming only as Tracker begins to realize what he is caught up in.

There is a lot to like in Black Leopard Red Wolf. James brilliantly undermines the political ambitions on both sides of the conflict. The boy simultaneously serves as an existential threat to one political order, the final hope of another, and MacGuffin for our narrator. And still, James manages to in some ways undermine all three, revealing the threat to be greater, the hope to be hollow, and the catch to be more personally important than originally acknowledged.

This is a grotesquely beautiful novel, with James’ prose creating a hallucinogenic effect that heightens the unfamiliarity of the African setting. James doesn’t shy away from the sexual and the shocking, including unexpected, if not out of place, discussion of female genital mutilation.

All together, though, I found Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to follow and Tracker an alien narrator. The end result is a novel that I found more frustrating than satisfying. I am left wondering whether returning to this world a second time when the next book in the proposed trilogy appears will be worth the investment. The prospect leaves me cold, but I also feel like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the world by the time I reached the end.

Putting these thoughts together was a challenge, so I’ve been reading other reviews. This one from Amar El-Mohtar on NPR states many of my thoughts, only better:

“like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Painful and strange, full of bodies shifting from personhood into meat, and somehow, always, still, upsettingly beautiful…Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke.” 

I also liked this review at the NY Times Book Review.

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I also recently finished reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and have since begun Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The last few weeks of the semester have been exceptionally busy, so I am looking forward to a short break coming up soon.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

There is social unrest in England in 1806. Napoleon appears invincible and with Admiral Nelson dead the question on everyone’s mind is when, not if, he will invade. But there are other developments afoot. 

These events by all accounts began at an otherwise unremarkable meeting of the Society of Theoretical Magicians in York, where the scholarly society  congregates to discuss issues of the history of magic. The participants are not actual magicians, but learned in the history of British magic—or they were until the first practical magician any of them had ever met appeared and forced them to recant their pursuit. That practical magician, Mr. Norrell, with the aid of his trusty man Childermass who has been collecting every available book of magic, stakes a claim to being the only magician in Britain. Norrell makes himself of service to the government and restoring the life of Lady Pole, albeit with the help of a fairy, the man with Thistledown hair, to whom Norrell bargains away half of Lady Pole’s life.

Of course, Norrell is presumptuous in assuming his singularity, and it soon appears that there is a second magician, Jonathan Strange who the raving street magician Vinculus prophecies will help restore magic to England.

Norrell and Strange form a partnership that is complementary and combative. Norrell is bookish and controlling, where Strange is ambitious and creative. As their skills grow, Strange becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the secrets Norrell keeps and the restrictions he establishes, and they particularly clash over the fundamental nature of magic: Norrell wants a magic for the modern man, but Strange believes all magic is of the Fairy and therefore incompatible with the modern world. Where Norrell hones his skills in the refined security of a library at the beck and call of government ministers, Strange’s magic is put to the test in on the battlefields of Spain and Belgium.  These crucibles lead Strange to wildly inventive magic, but, to Norrell, they also engender a dangerous wildness in his erstwhile pupil.

Told in a format that blends the prose in an nineteenth century style with a presentation as a learned historical text of the sort that the theoretical magicians produce in the story, the windings of the plot in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are too long and intricate to do any justice here. What I can say is that while there is no love lost between myself and Mr. Dickens, whose stories this in some ways mimics, I was completely taken by this alternate history.

Clarke does a remarkable job of bringing the world of magic into early-nineteenth century England, seamlessly fitting an entire alternate history of this one aspect into the wider concerns of the day. Moreover, she breathes fresh life into an old trope from nineteenth century literature of the buttoned-up, scientific, modern man being challenged by unbridled forces that threaten him with destruction.

I had just one main complaint, which requires discussion of a particular plot point. (Consider yourself warned.) Vinculus’ prophecy about the tells of a third person, a man without a name who will become king. One person who feasibly fulfills this description is Stephen Black, the black servant of Sir Walter Pole. The man with Thistledown hair takes a shine to Stephen while visiting the Pole household, commenting on the nobility of his bearing and greatness of his spirit, showering him with royal gifts, and taking him into his entourage for the fairy balls. I liked the inclusion of a black man who would fulfill the prophecy and Stephen’s abhorrence at the methods of the man with Thistledown hair speak well enough for him, but for all of the buildup to Stephen’s greatness he is a passive character carried along by the whims of another who serves only to fulfill the prophecy. In the world of prophecy this works because it is an unexpected resolution, but in the world of a hefty novel it lags behind the rest of the characterization and plot.

My complaint about Stephen Black notwithstanding, though, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a brilliantly realized novel worth every one of its many pages.

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I recently finished Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive novella* Edgedancer, and am now reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

*novella is a relative definition here, barely squeaking in at 40,000 words, by any measure except in comparison to the main novels in the series.

Ship of Magic – Robin Hobb

A storm is brewing in the Vestrit family. The patriarch, Ephron, is dying, the family debts are growing daily, and the first voyage of their liveship Vivacia with son-in-law Kyle Haven as captain bodes poorly for the future. When Ephron dies, passing his wisdom and experience to Vivacia, the ship and estate pass to Keffria Haven, and thus to Kyle who, contrary to tradition in the old trader families, believes that women’s management has caused Vestrit fortunes to falter. Althea, the younger daughter who has sailed on Vivacia for years is put off the ship, along with the mate Brashen Trell and some others of Ephron’s chosen crew, and replaced with men of Kyle’s choosing. Since liveships, vessels brought to life with magic, require a member of the family to sail them, particularly once “quickened” and come to their full consciousness, Kyle has summoned his oldest son Wintrow back from the monastery he was dedicated to, forcing him to become a sailor. What’s more, Kyle has decided that the solution to the Vestrit financial crisis lies in changing the usual cargo, turning the Vivacia into a slave ship.

Althea runs away. The situation on the between Kyle and Wintrow Vivacia deteriorates, and the situation at home becomes even worse as the tensions between Ronica, Ephron’s widow, and Keffria are only put aside when they realize that Malta, thinking that her mother and grandmother are prudish and lame, has decided she is old enough to start courting boys and in her naivete and fascination with finery becomes entangled in a courtship with a member of a powerful family from the Rain Wild—a place of magic and death that made the traders of Bingtown wealthy, but at what cost?

And then there is the pirate Kennit, determined to capture a liveship and use it to become king in the Pirate Isles.

Ship of Magic is a fascinating and richly complex book that takes place in the same world as The Assassin’s Apprentice, but quite far to the south. There is a large, possibly apocalyptic story in its backdrop, since we receive glimpses of worms, large carnivorous sea creatures that can terrorize ships, who may have some connection to liveships and believe that a time of change is upon the world, but that is not the driving narrative. The plot arc involving the pirate Kennit is more fully developed, but it serves as a Chekhov’s gun that is repeatedly returned to than a central feature of the plot.

No, Ship of Magic is a family drama in a time of social change. The book is built around the figure of Kyle Haven, despite rarely, if ever, getting his perspective. At the outset the family largely accepts Kyle despite that he is not from one of the old families. He makes Keffria happy (they have three children together, but this happiness is both physical and emotional), he is an experienced sailor and wants what is best for the family. Once the stabilizing presence of Ephron is gone, however, Kyle’s domineering attitude and lack of respect for tradition come to the fore. The latter is particularly problematic because he is both unaware of and indifferent to old contracts with the Rain Wild Traders that require gold or blood and the magic that animates the liveships. The only thing worse than bringing enslaving your son on a liveship so that it will sail is turning the liveship into a slaver, but Kyle only sees the one as a way to fulfill a requirement and the other as cargo. Back in Bingtown, his presence likewise looms large since his actions caused Althea to disguise herself as a boy and flee to sea under a false name and for Malta to defy her mother and grandmother in the belief that Kyle will side with her.

There is a lot I liked about Ship of Magic, certainly enough that I will read the remainder of the series at some point. I am now absolutely convinced of the importance of EQ in this world. Not only does it govern the functioning of a Liveship since it is that relationship between ship and family that allows it to sail (and the ship’s ability to sense emotions of everyone onboard is a key reason why people don’t use these vessels to carry slaves!), but despite moments of action and adventure on the high seas, all of the tension in the book is pulled from relationships created and broken, whether from love, hate, or respect. To wit, Kyle is the central villain in the story, and Hobb sets him up to fail with deep character flaws, but not because he is evil. (There is an evil character in the story. His name is Torg.) Kyle’s villainy lies in his sexism and in his inability to see outside of what he wants, which is fine when, for instance, he wants to please his wife, but less so when it leads him to ignore Trader and Vestrit custom. These emotional tension sometimes made the book tough to read, but, despite the length of the book, they did not bore me.

I also appreciated the complexity of Ship of Magic. The book contains an unusually large number of different points of view, more than The Eye of the World and the same number as Game of Thrones. This feature, however, also led to one of my main complaints. Ship of Magic is long and sprawling and interesting, but its structure seemed incomplete. There are multiple plotlines that are eventually brought in touch with the Vestrit family drama to greater or lesser extents, but that are largely at odds with the rest of what is happening or that spring up seemingly out of thin air or are mysteriously dropped. This is good in the sense that it leaves the impression of a richly textured world, but bad because it muddies up the book. This is fine in the middle of a series where the readers are already on the hook, but not great as a premier that contributes to the stereotype of fantasy literature as bloated and dense.

While more difficult than it sounds, I do wonder if there was a different structure that could have split the series differently, perhaps into five or six shorter books each with a clearer coherence that would then allow Hobb to receive more credit for what she does well. There is a touch of artificiality about the cultures in the world, with names a little on the nose and instances where “northern” and “southern” stereotypes of our world are transposed into this land, but they are not reduced to tokenism. The social changes at Bingtown, both cultural and economic, with the influx of slavery and a relative decline of the old families that signed the compact with the Rain Wild Traders, form a well conceived and executed backdrop that offer avenues for challenging the Vestrit family and the emotional payoffs in Ship of Magic are earned at every step, better than most novels I’ve read regardless of genre.

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I am now reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and while I can appreciate its importance and how it captures moments in American history, I am not loving it thus far. I have a few directions I can go after that, but am very much enjoying my streak of science fiction and fantasy written by women suspect that I will be reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky in close succession.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

One of the consequences of growing older and becoming busier is that I don’t have the same impulse to stay up all night reading books, even ones that I really enjoy. For the most part that is a phenomenon of my past, but every once in awhile there is a book that makes me want to read straight through in one sitting. This is one such book. I restrained myself, parsing out chapters as a reward for getting enough work done on weekdays, but I wanted to start with this introduction in order to cut right to the chase: the The Fifth Season is spectacularly good and the first book in a series that has won back-to-back Hugo awards for best Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel.

Appropriately for its title, The Fifth Season starts with an end. A deep, fiery, man-made rift opens in the planet’s single continent, the Stillness, spewing ash and starting destructive earthquakes. Like in all fifth seasons, apocalypse-level cataclysms, society crumbles and people die while clinging desperately to the advice preserved in Stone Lore. All the while, obelisks drift through the sky above the stillness.

The Fifth Season rotates between three viewpoints, each following a woman at a different stage of life: Damaya, in her youth, Semnite, as an upwardly mobile professional, and Essun (referred to as “you”) as a middle aged woman chasing her husband through the apocalypse because he killed their son and absconded with their daughter. Each narrative revolves around the issue of orogeny, a hereditary magical ability that allows the wielder to to harness the kinetic energy of the earth in order to quell or incite geological material and activity. This power, which manifests at an early age, is commonly received with superstition and fear, with the wielders killed by angry crowds unless they are swept up by the Imperial Fulcrum, a training program where they can be controlled and protected by the Guardians.

Thus Damaya is swept into this system and exposed to its benefits and horrors, but often finds that her questions about the Fulcrum’s secrets go unanswered. Semnite, by contrast, is a fast-rising “four-ringer” Imperial Orogene and is now authorized to operate in the world on her own, and is dispatched with the prodigy ten-ringer Alabaster to clear a harbor of coral. Her mission is simple on the surface, but the subtext is that she is required to have a child with Alabaster who, in turn, teaches her about orogeny and the true nature of the Fulcrum. Essun, finally, experiences orogeny in the world when her husband kills their child upon finding out this secret.

The three narratives draw together as the book progresses, both serving a larger plot and remaining distinct stories in their own right.

Despite the breadth of the time and space covered by The Fifth Season (the attention to the scale of the continent was refreshing), the cast of characters remained relatively small, which allowed room to explore them in some depth. Jemisin likewise builds depth into the world, both with ruins of civilizations destroyed by fifth seasons past forming the bones of the continents and with an attention to the variety of racial features that set the different people apart.

Society on the Stillness is in the twilight years of an empire that dominated large swathes of the continent through its control of orogenes because this allowed much of its territory to remain stable while technology was developed. Its rule is not what it once was and most outlying comms (communities) are not directly subject to central power the way they once were. But being subject to an empire for so long has left its mark in most communities such that they are organized along similar lines. Each person has a name, the comm they are attached to (particularly important in times of crisis), and their use-cast, such as “leader,” “innovator,” or “strongback.” During a Fifth Season many of these distinctions no longer matter, but they also serve as a mark of normalcy. Center and periphery alike are adhere to Stone Lore, the advice literally carved in stone about how to survive cataclysms that is supposed to be immutable. This convention, however, need not actually be the case.

I’ve enjoyed the other books of Jemisin’s that I have read, but in The Fifth Season she takes the combination of worldbuilding, prose style, and storytelling to a new level. I cannot recommend this book enough and am greatly anticipating its sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

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I am continuing with my streak of reading books by women, so, next up I am reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-winning novel The Word for World is Forest.

Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb

Note: as this this the second book in a trilogy, there will be minor references to the events of the first book.

The second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy picks up roughly where Assassin’s Apprentice leaves off, with FitzChivalry, royal bastard, recuperating after nearly dying in the mountain kingdom. He was successful in ensuring that Kettricken managed to marry King-in-Waiting Verity, but the underlying problems—including the continued raids from the Red Ships and the ambition of Prince Regal—have only intensified. All is not right in the Six Duchies.

Royal Assassin is a long book, and felt it, with the plot covering a lot of ground. It may be effectively divided into two halves: one where hope for salvation comes from men, and another where the hope is straight from legend. In the first, Fitz works alongside his mentor Chade and Verity to thwart the Forged Ones and build a fleet to confront the raiders at sea. In the second, Verity leaves on a quest to find the Elderlings that legend says once saved the kingdom, while Fitz works with Kettricken to hold the kingdom together against Regal’s worst excesses as King Shrewd’s health fails. Bridging the two parts of the story are the continuing personal relationships that so defined the first half. Fitz courts Molly Chandler, reduced temporarily to a maid in the castle, but King Shrewd has other ideas about his romantic future. At the same time, Fitz has to build rapport between Kettricken and Verity who are so different, yet more alike than they care to admit, and negotiate a family drama between Chade, his half-brother King Shrewd, and Prince Regal where the first two are unwilling to accept that the third is willing to sabotage his own family to satiate his own pride.

There are of course more of these relationships, including another one with an animal, a wolf, that plays a critical role in the plot. Rather than parse these relationships in any sort of detail, though, I want to double down on the central point I made in the post about the first book, which is confirmed through the text of Royal Assassin. Fitz is adequate as a character, but what makes this story so effective in its first-person narrative is this web of relationships and the emotional connections they create (including hatred), whether through mundane interaction, through magic, or through their absences in the case of the Forged Ones. Hobb’s genius in this book is how thoroughly she develops the connections, so when they are ripped away, Fitz’ pain is conveyed all the more powerfully. Along the way, the reader gets a sense of both positive and negative relationships in a variety of contexts. If the humanistic purpose of reading is to develop emotional maturity, I cannot think of a fantasy or science fiction book that does this more successfully than this.

Royal Assassin relies on emotional tension enough that it frequently a difficult book to read, even as I became ever-more enamored of its craft. The story feels condensed because so much of the plot takes place in the same handful of rooms in Buckkeep, while, at the same time, there are two powerful threats. The one is nameless and apocalyptic, threatening the very existence of the kingdom as the Red Raiders bear down. Where other fantasy stories might make this the primary conflict, though, Royal Assassin doesn’t. Our central villain is the vain and influential Prince Regal, easily dismissed, but supremely dangerous. Our protagonists suspect what he is up to, but can’t prove anything and so are forced to largely watch helplessly while he schemes his way to the top—and proves better at doing this than at actually governing.

It is possible to pick nits with Royal Assassin. The conclusion, for instance, struck me as both too much like a variation on its predecessor and it suffers a bit from second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome, but its positives vastly outweighed the negatives and I am looking forward both to concluding the series and reading more in this world.

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I am really enjoying this month (or more) of reading books written by women. Last night I started reading Denise Mina’s Still Midnight, a Scottish detective mystery featuring detective Alex Morrow. Without being able to speak to the book’s overall quality just yet, I am already noticing subtle differences with, say Wallander, in terms of the types of details Alex attends to regarding her presentation.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George RR Martin

If George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the dominant representation of the medieval world in popular culture, then the Dunk and Egg chronicles, of which this collection of stories is a part, are his version of the Canterbury Tales.

I am exaggerating here a bit and, much as in the comparison of even a richly textured world like this one and our history, the fictional measures up too flat, but the premise is the same. Each installment is a short story in the adventures of Dunk and Egg—that is, famed knight Duncan the Tall and Prince Aegon of House Targaryen—of the sort as might have been written in the White Book of the Kingsguard. The three stories in this installment are The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword, and The Mystery Knight: the first records the fateful tournament that led to their pairing, and the two subsequent stories occur with Aegon as Dunk’s squire, even though he himself is just removed from that stage of his life and has barely more training than his now-charge had access to in his palace life. (His deep secret that threatens to reveal itself is that Dunk was never actually knighted, but escapes because there is no one who can refute his word, which, ironically, he can defend on his honor as a knight. Dunk believes in chivalry in a way few of his peers do, but knightly honor is a collective fiction that they all subscribe to, at least in public.)

These are small stories that are set almost a century before the events in the A Song of Ice and Fire and largely eschew familiar locations. While the official plot explanation for this is that Dunk wants to help make Egg better than his brothers by giving him experiences outside his privileged upbringing, it serves to build the mythology and thereby lend depth to the world. It is possible one could read these books without the other baggage, but, generally speaking, the stories fall into a sub-genre of heroic origin stories, those where the ending is known, but the path is not. The Hedge Knight particularly hews to this model where the tension is built by establishing that it takes place before the hero was fully formed and thus even knowing the ending it is clear that he is wildly over-matched from the outset.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms more than adequately whet my whistle for tales from Westeros—an unfolding saga that I’ve been reading since I was fourteen or fifteen. I am very much more on the “take all the time you need, George,” than this one.

I don’t like it as much as the main series, but mostly because, like other “legends” books for other settings, I find myself lacking the same attachment to the characters that hooked me in the first place. There is still a lot to appreciate—world building, action, morals—and one of the funniest moments for me was in how the best tourney knight was a man of inconsequential name who, at least in that context, was superior to the famous lords. He’d never be in the debate among the “great knights”, though, perhaps because of his birth, perhaps because he wouldn’t hold up on the battlefield (something not discussed), but more likely because he was just as apt to take a fall in whatever round promised him the best return in terms of gambling odds and prize money. His “honor” wasn’t part of the equation so much as making money. This, of course, scandalizes our honest Dunk, but further serves to raise questions and provide commentary about the reputation of martial prowess, both in the world of Ice and Fire and in the fantasy genre more broadly.

In short: the stories in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms are a pleasant and worthwhile installment in the growing Ice and Fire canon and if the next book out from this setting is a volume dedicated to the Targaryen years, I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with these two since they, by and large, are moral paragons in a world where those are so hard to find. (Really, their stories will be in the second volume of that history, but, as I said before, I can wait.)

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I am currently reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise, a torturous story about art and exploitation, civilization and noble savages and I can’t yet tell if it is profoundly disturbing, utterly brilliant, or both.

EQ in fantasy literature: Assassin’s Apprentice

I am breaking my formula with the title of this post. Ordinarily write-up or review posts are just title:author so as to alert readers to its nature. In this case, I thought it better to foreground the direction this post is going to go.

Fitz is a is the bastard son of Chivalry, the former heir of the house Farseer, which rules over the Six Duchies. This status affords him some advantages, including training and lodging in the castle in Buckkeep where he is raised by Chivalry’s devoted retained Burrich, but also makes him the target of enemies based on nothing but his parentage. Fitz is thrust into the machinations at court, all the while secretly receiving tutelage from Chade, the secretive royal assassin.

All the while, the kingdom is under assault from the Red Ships from the Outislands, brutal raiders whose demands are for wealth in return for killing their captives. Refuse, as they will be returned as husks devoid of everything that makes them human.

Assassin’s Apprentice steers into a lot of fantasy tropes, some of them cringe-worthy. The food is bread and meat, with deep skepticism of fancy dishes, class is hierarchical and predictably ingrained in society, and names have a particular bluntness. Fitz is a preternaturally talented young man, with incredible, untapped, and untrained magical ability. His destiny is not totally within his control, but he is protected by teachers who look out for him—and one who may have other motives. I was underwhelmed by Fitz as a character, in part because of these tropes and in part because as I grow older I am increasingly bored by stories that hinge on the experience (and heroics) of teenage boys.

And for all that, I found myself marveling at Assassin’s Apprentice and thinking that it seemed distinct from other books in the genre, even twenty years after its release and without the explicitly trope-defying mode of some more recent books. The question is, why?

Most fantasy heroes or antiheroes are lauded for the cleverness, their skill at arms, or their intelligence. I am painting here with a very broad brush, but the colors are approximately accurate. When brawn and brains fail, the recourse is to luck or stealth and the world-systems often enable these pathways. There are famous friendships (e.g. Legolas and Gimli) and such relationships can be critically important, but they are not often the principle on which the story is constructed.

In Assassin’s Apprentice, Hobb does exactly this. Fitz is launched into a world of machinations where the things he excels at are the ones that are repeatedly kept from him. As a result, he is repeatedly forced to rely on his relationships and the ability to get a sense for the situations he finds himself in. In other words, Fitz’ greatest strength is his emotional intelligence. This extends likewise to the magic system, ‘Wit’ when dealing with animals, ‘Skill’ for humans. In both cases, its greatest power comes from the practitioner’s ability to manipulate the senses and emotions of a target and multiple plot points rely on the consequences of this magic.

I don’t know whether Hobb’s building Assassin’s Apprentice around emotional intelligence was by design or a happy accident, but, in either case, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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I am now reading China Mieville’s Embassytown.

The Kingdom of the Gods – N.K. Jemisin

Note: This book is the third book in a trilogy so while I will avoid spoilers for this particularly book, there will inevitably be allusions to the events of the previous two.

A century has passed since the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, nearly as much since those of The Broken Kingdoms, and the world is changing again. The power of the Arameri, the family that once ruled the entire world, is diminished—its wealth and power being challenged and its members being killed under suspicious circumstances. But there is an even more fundamental happening: Sieh, firstborn of the godlings, god whose portfolio is most perfectly encapsulated by childhood, is losing his powers. More specifically, he is growing up.

No longer able to reside in the realm of the gods, Sieh is forced to live among mortals, relying on their friendship (and, frequently, grudging charity), including from the Arameri heir Shahad, her twin brother Dekarta, and the youngest of the godlings, Ahad. These people have limited patience for Sieh’s growing pains, though, particularly because he has, at one point or another, managed to offend each of them. Nevertheless, as Sieh discovers nearly too late, they and the world are in grave danger because there is a hidden foe of Sieh’s creation (and antithetical to his nature) that is looking to recreate existence.

The Kingdom of the Gods follows the pattern set by the two earlier books to good effect, dropping into an unfamiliar and disorienting situation right along with the protagonist—Sieh, in this instance. The first person narration once again provides novel insight into the world and moves the plot along well, but also contributes to its jumpiness since one of the plot points is Sieh’s erratic aging. The conclusion to the series also picks up where the previous two books leave off in terms of addressing issues of abuses of power inherent in, for instance, rape, but also manipulations within friendship. The result is a book that provides a thoughtful discussion of friendship and moves along well, but comes cross as somewhat less tightly constructed than the two previous installments, both of which operated on tighter deadlines in the narrative.

On the whole I liked The Kingdom of the Gods as it continued particularly to explore the cosmological setting established back in the first book. Jemisin’s take on these was a logical extension of what had already been established such that elements such as how godlings interacted with things antithetical to their nature and how they discovered what their nature actually is were refreshing. At the same time, though, there was a tendency to err towards making things too neat. This works for the story in the sense that it makes things easier to explain, but it nevertheless left me frustrated because it seemed to diminish the world of depth.

I had other complaints, but I don’t want to nitpick too much. Endings are hard and I did not feel cheated the way I sometimes have with how a series ends. Jemisin does well not making the trilogy continuous so much as consecutive, picking three stories from a long period of time and letting the world breathe between each book. Each sequel is recognizably in the same world and dealing in somewhat different ways with the same themes, but not simply picking up where the last left off. The result is that the gods are the characters who are largely carried over from one book to the next, but this does not mean that they remain constant either. In sum, I am looking forward to reading Jemisin’s other work and have a copy of The Fifth Season on my to-read shelves that I will probably open later this year.

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Next up, I am currently reading Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood. This is my first exposure to Wolfe’s work and only now in the home-stretch am I actually appreciating the plot—the rest of the book strikes me as literary self-indulgence of ego and lust.