Friday, May 27, 2011

Dawnthief by James Barclay

Imagine a world where instead of hiring hobbits as saviours, Gandalf went and found mercenaries who share a spiritual fraternity with Conan the Barbarian. Then imagine that, instead of being a grandfatherly figure, Gandalf's a young, arrogant, manipulative bastard. Pretend that, instead of being noble enough to eschew using the One Ring, every nation and power player in the land are prepared to use the Dawnthief, an extinction-level spell, to their advantage. There is no Rivendell, no last homely house where the heroes can rest between excursions. One of them will be dead in the first twenty pages, just to show our author means business. Half of the remaining heroes will either die or abandon hope and their companions before the quest is completed. Imagine all these things, and you've got a handle on what to expect from Dawnthief, the first book in James Barclay's pulp-fantasy series, Chronicles of the Raven.

I've been wanting to read Barclay's series for years, based upon descriptions of the series as : I picked up copies of individual books from the series here and there, but longed to get the chance to read the series in its entirety. PYR's re-release of both Raven trilogies, Chronicles of the Raven (Dawnthief, Noonshade, Nightchild) and Legends of the Raven (Elfsorrow, Shadowheart, and Demonstorm), have permitted me the chance to do just that. 

The Raven--"six men and an elf, sword for hire in the wars that have torn apart Balaia--is a mercenary group living in a secondary world predicated on the ethics of force. Balaia is a violent world, requiring violent solutions. The book opens in media res, with the Raven ready to decisively enter a battle as surgical strike. Their mode of combat is about guarding your partner, like the Hoplites of Sparta, and when this is abandoned, one of the Raven loses their life. This opening reveals two things about Dawnthief: the loyalty code of the Raven, which figures largely into the character arcs, and Barclay's willingness to kill major characters. Like the mercenaries in Predator, none are safe. The brutality of Balaia touches all, and the body count is considerable on both sides of the conflict. Further, because the ethics of Balaia are those of a dog-eat-dog world, the nobility of the Raven's quest to save the world isn't shared by all in that world. Real-world dynamics of power and corruption affect the heroes' journey, and they are as likely to be betrayed or abandoned by allies as helped. This is why the code of the Raven is one of the character keys to this novel: if it feels episodic, then you're not paying enough attention to the character journeys. The melee and mayhem are backdrop to the relationships, and the theme of loyalty. The Raven hold each other above even the salvation of the world--they'd rather let the planet go to a literal Hell, than betray each other and the oaths they've taken.

Maybe I've just been nose-to-the-grindstone with my steampunk research too long, but Dawnthief was a refreshing read for me. Barclay is no Mieville in wordsmithing, but he his narrative is compelling, pacing between intense-can't-put-it-down passages and moments where, were Dawnthief a film, you'd have a chance to go to the bathroom. Maybe it's a Dungeons and Dragons thing. Barclay readily admits the Raven's RPG roots, which is evident without being awkward in the narrative: Powerful magic works immediately, and individual spells have names. You can almost hear the dice rolling above the din of combat. Despite these roots, Barclay's fantasy equivalent of a Black Ops team isn't entirely derivative. Barclay takes fantasy ideas that have been worked before, but as Dawnthief is really a character-driven story, gives them new life. We aren't just told a magician experiences pain at the loss of a familiar, we experience that pain through the magician's thoughts and feelings. We don't just see the resurrection of a dead hero, we also learn of the emotional consequences a stolen death has on a man who had chosen the moment and manner of a good death. We weep with a mother over loss, thrill to the invasion of an enemy stronghold, and cheer when the outsider finally says, fully embracing the Raven's code of loyalty, "Raven with me."

From the publisher:

Isolated, Betrayed, and Facing the End.

The Raven: six men and an elf, sword for hire in the wars that have torn apart Balaia. For years their loyalty has been only to themselves and their code. But that time is over. The Wytch Lords have escaped and The Raven find themselves fighting for the Dark College of magic, searching for the location of the Dawnthief. It is a spell created to end the world, and it must be cast if any of them are to survive.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Embracing the Darkness, Sorrow, and Brutality of Pan’s Labyrinth

I lost track of how many times I have seen Pan’s Labyrinth while using it as a case study for my Master’s thesis: I watched it at normal speed, on high speed, with commentary, and without; I watched all the DVD extras, then watched them again. After I had defended my thesis, my wife asked me what I wanted to watch. I replied, “One more time, all the way through.” Since then, I’ve viewed it in six different courses as my end-of-term movie (I realize students stop reading several weeks before the end of term, so I prefer to work with that problem, not against it). And when students ask me if I’m tired of watching it, I reply, “No. Every time I watch it, I see something new.”

I’ve met a number of people who cannot imagine someone subjecting themselves to an encore viewing, let alone so many they lose count. These viewers dislike Pan’s Labyrinth for its darkness, for the sorrow and tragedy of its ending. They find the brutality of Captain Vidal abhorrent (and well they should). Like Stephen King, they are terrified by the Pale Man. For many, the film’s darkness overshadows the light; consequently, viewers are often repulsed by it. I love Pan’s Labyrinth for its darkness, sorrow, and brutality. Without those harsh elements the film would be a milquetoast modern fairytale, as tame as The Lady in the Water: a tale of wide-eyed wonder without the wolf.

Read the whole article here at!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Conan the Barbarian, Issue 115

This is where it begins for me. Okay, it really began with Star Wars, but a geek born in the early '70s telling you they love Star Wars is like saying the sky is blue. My love of Jules Verne and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is best expressed by my Steampunk Scholar blog. And while there are a few "cooler-than-thou" fantasy fans who get their rocks off deriding Tolkien, nearly all high-fantasy aficionados cut their teeth on The Hobbit. Nothing new there. Besides, I'm not sure I'd read The Hobbit when I set out for a bike ride with my cousin in the summer of 1980.

I spent much of my childhood and all my teen years in Medicine Hat, a city by Alberta's standards, with a population of 70,000. Medicine Hat is classed as a desert climate, complete with cacti, rattlesnakes, poisonous insects, and intolerably hot summer days. It was on one such torrid afternoon that my cousin and I set out on our three-speed bikes for the nearest Mac's convenience store, to acquire slushes, aka slurpees, freezees, the child's equivalent to the Daquiri or Margarita: crushed ice and syrup. We made daily pilgrimages to the Mac's to procure this heat squelching drink, whose only ill side effect is the dreaded brain freeze. In addition to my slush, I would often peruse the comics rack: some of you remember the comic rack. I rarely see comic racks now, but in my childhood, their presence in convenience stories was ubiquitous. They were the library of my youth--that summer, my cousin, who had been trailing in literacy, would join me in pre-slumber reading from my considerable stack of comics, inadvertently catching up to his peers in reading ability.

On that fateful summer's day, as my fingers flipped through the racks of comics, they sensed an issue that was considerably thicker than the others. I stopped, and pulled out issue 115 of Marvel Comic's Conan the Barbarian. I have no memory of why I decided to buy it, other than that it seemed to afford a better bargain than any other comic on the stand that day. 75 cents was only a quarter more than the going price of comics in 1980, but it was clear there was a hell of lot more going on inside that John Buscema/Ernie Chan cover than the latest edition of Action Comics or Spider-man.

I couldn't tell you what my initial reaction to the story was: as an adult, I tracked down a copy (I got rid of a lot of comics in one tragic evening of utter stupidity I'll tell you about some day). I re-read it for this post, and was entertained by how many Conan cliches abound between its cover pages.

"A War of Wizards" was written by Roy Thomas, the man responsible for bringing Conan to Marvel comics, and drawn by John Buscema and Ernie Chan, who rendered the arguably most recognizable comic-book incarnation of Conan with the bearskin loincloth, leather boots, matching gold wrist bands, and slim bicep-encircling gold band. How the hell Conan ever got those wrist bands on, and how that upper arm band stayed on were a mystery as powerful as Red Sonja's chainmail bikini, which we will get to shortly.

The plot seemed labyrinthine to my young mind, and even as an adult, I have to give it credit for being more than Conan-wanders-into-town/tomb/jungle and engages in combat with locals/undead/monsters either after or before having sex with tavern girl/nobleman's concubine/frost-giant's-daughter. On the road to the city of Akkharia (I think one of the attractions to Conan was its resonance with the place names from my Old Testament Sunday school lessons), Conan is confronted by a vision of the spirit of Zukala, a powerful sorcerer, who seeks to procure the warrior's services. Conan hates magic users of all kinds, and flatly refuses. Arriving at his destination, he is reunited with old sword-mate, Red Sonja. If Conan is who every adolescent boy wishes he was, Sonja is the girl every adolescent boy wishes he was dating. Carrie Fisher might have been the queen of the metal bikini, but Red Sonja did it first. Ladies, if you wish to net yourself a fanboy, simply tell him you have a bedroom fantasy involving Conan and Red Sonja.

While I was unclear about the logistics any bedroom antics would entail, I had, since seeing Caroline Munro in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, formed an idea of an ideal female. Red Sonja fit the bill. So imagine my surprise when, goaded by comments about his deceased beloved, Bêlit, Conan physically lashes out at Sonja, knocking her to the floor, and then engaging her in a sword fight. I do not recommend this as good courtship behavior, but it works for Conan when he disarms Sonja, defeating her in single combat. Sonja surrenders herself to Conan, but the barbarian remains mournfully committed to Bêlit. He storms away from Sonja, riding on a new town and a drunken depression. Standing in a deluge of rain, Conan cries to the heavens and is answered by Zukala, who offers "the life of Bêlit" in return for Conan's services. All the Cimmerian has to do is kidnap Karanthes, high priest of Ibis, and bring him to Zukala's lair. In abducting Karanthes, Conan faces Sonja again, who refuses to let him kidnap the priest. In the ensuing struggle, Karanthes inadvertently renders Sonja unconscious with a potion meant for Conan. Karanthes is bound, and with the sleeping she-devil over his shoulder, Conan is off for Zukala's lair. When he arrives, Zukala reveals he needs to trade Sonja's female soul for Bêlit's, which caused me as an adult to wonder on Conan's behalf, "what the hell were you going to do if I didn't show up with an unconscious warrior woman in a chain-mail bikini?" It's the only hiccup in this plot, so I let it slide, especially since the resulting clash of conscience requires Conan to kick some demon ass before beheading Zukala.

I read this issue countless times as a kid, but wouldn't buy my next Conan comic until the following summer, when I picked up issue #127. By this time, I was fully immersed in Middle-earth, somewhere on the way to destroy the Ring. I was making regular pilgrimages to the local toy store to stare at Dungeons and Dragons books and wonder what they were. As a teen, I was put off by Gil Kane's artwork, but kept getting Conan monthly all the same. The comics would lead to the Lancer/Ace collection of Robert E. Howard's stories, edited by L. Sprague deCamp. Those books lead to the Bantam series of new Conan stories by SFF heavyweights like Poul Anderson and Karl Edward Wagner. All this in the space of a year. When Schwarzenegger appeared onscreen as Conan in '82, I was primed. 

As an adult, I like the Gil Kane run of issues better, since that's the Conan I imagine in REH's stories - lean and muscular - powerful, but not in a steroid way. I like Barry Windsor Smith's Conan even better. Nevertheless, it's the Buscema/Chan Conan who first caught my attention, and kept it through many issues of both Conan the Barbarian and the comic-code-free Savage Sword of Conan. Arguably, it's where my love of fantasy began. This is the first step on the path toward Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, and Dungeons and Dragons. Thank God for hot afternoons, slurpees, and parents who encourage the purchase of comic books.  

Thursday, May 19, 2011

2081: The World of Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron

Most people know Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for his novels, but I know him through one particular work of his short fiction: “Harrison Bergeron,” a look at a future when everyone is “finally equal.” I had adopted the text into my intro English courses upon consulting a list of student favorites: along with Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” and John Updike’s “A & P” was “Harrison Bergeron.” I recognized Vonnegut’s name and the much-contested association that name has with science fiction. Is Vonnegut a literary writer, or SF? I like to think he’s both, despite some ivory towers refusing SF to the literary fold. Clearly, Dana Gioia and X.J. Kennedy, editors of Pearson Longman’s Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing are in my camp, as in addition to “Bergeron,” they’ve anthologized Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” another great work of dystopic short fiction.
Like “Omelas,” Vonnegut’s vision of a perfectly equal society doesn’t seem a dystopia at first. Many great dystopias seem like a good idea at first: as an adolescent, the high-sex low-clothing, youthful world of Logan’s Run was brilliant. As a forty year-old who’d already be dead ten years, it’s lost its glow. Vonnegut’s genius is that he not only provides a future premise we think will be fantastic, he writes in a persona that agrees with that premise. The narrative voice in “Harrison Bergeron” has bought in to the idea that being “equal every which way” is desirable. The only indication we have that Vonnegut isn’t serious about this in the opening lines is the disclaimer, “some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime.” The joke may be lost on those closer to the equator, but to denizens of the Albertan prairies, this is a fine bit of ironic humour.
Vonnegut is surreptitiously winking at his reader, saying, “yes, I’m serious about what I’m saying. I’m just not saying it seriously.” His next wink will be his focalizing couple, George and Hazel Bergeron, a clever homage to George Burns and Gracie Allen: George Bergeron is very intelligent, while Hazel (the name of one of Gracie’s three sisters) evokes Gracie’s Dumb Dora act, clearest in the final lines of the short story:
“Gee—I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.
“You can say that again,” said George.
“Gee—” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
Both Bergerons are seated in their living room, watching television: George with a “little mental handicap radio in his ear” to keep him from utilizing his exceptional intelligence, and Hazel without any handicap whatsoever, since she has “a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.” They are watching a ballet featuring dancers “burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot,” their faces masked to hide their beauty. This is the price of a perfectly equal society, says Vonnegut with a satirical smile. Strong? We’ll give you burdens. Smart? We’ll give you headaches. Pretty? We’ll hide your face. Stupid? You’re perfect.

Read the whole article HERE at!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

In anticipation of the Spring 2012 release of the final book in Robert Jordan's fantasy epic series, The Wheel of Time, I'm revisiting the entire series month-by-month. This particular post is a revised version of the one I put up at a few years back, the last time I attempted to do this.

All non-cover images in this series will be from the character renderings of Jeremy Saliba and Seamas Gallagher, whose art, along with the revised eBook covers, form the definitive WoT artwork for me. I only include the abysmal Darrel K. Sweet covers because sadly, I'm not living in the alternate reality where Keith Parkinson got the gig.

Returning to The Eye of the World right after finishing the later books in the series is like getting together with an old friend you have fond memories of. It's been over twenty years since I bought the trade-paperback first edition of Eye of the World and devoured it, enjoying the familiar fantasy plot conventions of what I assumed to be yet another Tolkien clone, albeit a good one. This reading, I experienced the book as a literary scholar, a man in his middle age, listening to it on audiobook, with the attention of a close read, since audiobooks preclude the option to skim or skip passages. I was more aware of Jordan's intentions, not only of where characters will eventually end up, but also from a thematic perspective, thanks to an interview with Jordan at the end of the Knife of Dreams audiobook (this interview is at the end of all the WoT audiobooks, near as I can tell). Knowing those intentions made re-reading the first book a richer experience.

In the interview, Jordan stated that one of his intentions was to explore what would really happen if a rural farm boy was told he was the savior of the world. How would real people, with real concerns, fears, emotions, and desires react if faced with an invitation to a heroic quest? In speaking about this standard epic fantasy trope, Jordan invokes Tolkien, confirming the oft-decried-Tolkien-similarities are intentional. Unlike Terry Brooks, who simply seemed to be writing "Lord of the Rings for Dummies" with his bestselling Sword of Shannara (a book which slavishly, shamelessly, and successfully followed the general plot line of the Rings trilogy), Jordan employs the familiar conventional plot moments to communicate this major theme of his series: what would really happen if Gandalf came to town and asked you to save the world?

So yes, the Two Rivers is like the Shire, the flight to Taren Ferry is very much like the race to the Brandywine River, Baerlon is a lot like Bree, The Ways and Shadar Logoth are much like Moria, Thom Merrilin's sacrificial battle with the Myrdraal echoes the Bridge of Khazad-dum, and Master Gill and the Queen's Blessing seem to have been crafted from Barliman Butterbur and the Prancing Pony, whole cloth. However, these elements are mixed into a story vastly different from The Lord of the Rings, as is evidenced clearly in subsequent books.

Yet even in The Eye of the World there is already a difference between Tolkien and Jordan. Tolkien wanted to write a mythology for England. Jordan wanted to write a piece of historical fiction about such mythologies. In a way, The Eye of the World is to Tolkien what Eaters of the Dead is to Beowulf. Jordan's characters experience those iconic high-fantasy moments, but they do in a fashion which always retains Jordan's rich layers of verisimilitude. Our heroes are noble, but they're scared shitless. They want to do the right thing, but they also want to go home. They like reading about heroes, but they're not interested in being those heroes. It's the reason the later books can contain nearly 1000 pages wherein nothing ostensibly earthshaking occurs. This is the reason for the painstakingly detailed descriptions, because in order to present that strong sense of secondary reality, Jordan focuses on his characters, not the events they are caught up in.

Jordan's novels are a little like watching a Michael Mann film; a lot of screen-time is devoted to the building of characters, so that when the action set pieces happen, they are all the more riveting. Consider the pace of Mann's Heat: the majority of the film has the pacing of paint drying. When the bank heist finally occurs, the speed with which the action is presented causes viewers' hearts to race. Jordan's characters move through the fantasy world of Wheel of Time with similar pacing. Jordan can rest in banality for a good long while, so that when the Myrdraal, or Trolloc, or whatever shows up to threaten our heroes, we care whether or not they live or die.

The Eye of the World has a quicker pace than the later books will, but it is still primarily focused on developing characters rather than displaying grand epic battles or magical set pieces. It is largely concerned with Rand, Mat, and Perrin; Egwene and Nynaeve will not come into their own for several books yet. This was a smart move for the first book, given that there was no guarantee any sequels would be released. The book focuses on Rand above the other two (although it plants seeds for the multitude of plot-threads Jordan will weave in later books), and is able to reach a point of closure and conclusion so that, if Eye of the World had been the only Wheel of Time book ever published, it would have been fairly satisfying in terms of closure.

This was one of Jordan's true gifts as a writer: to bring a strong sense of closure to the end of his books while simultaneously hanging the reader over a cliff. There will always be unresolved elements at the end of each novel, but each book forms a relatively neat package. From a nostalgic standpoint, it was nice to tread familiar ground once again, and find it loaded with new surprises, the result of seeing where the multitude of plot and character threads end up playing out.

I love the opening chapters of the book for the way in which Jordan plays up the parallels between the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring and Eye of the World, all the while presenting these somewhat tired conventions in fresh ways. I think my love for it stems from having been roughly Rand, Mat and Perrin's age the first time I read Eye of the World. The three boys are like college age hobbits, minus the diminutive statures. I could resonate with hobbits better before I stood six foot and was interested in girls. But as a young man just out of high school, it was a joy to read the same plot line of leaving the Shire, with young men who were my age, who had the same sorts of concerns I did.

Reading through reviews on Amazon, you'll likely find many who complain of Jordan's use of the Tolkienesque formula followed by so many other major fantasies before Wheel of Time. I don't think Jordan is using it as a template however. In an interview with, Jordan revealed that he wanted to explore what the "Hobbits fleeing Black Riders" template would look like if it were dealing with real people. So while Eye of the World follows many of the conventions employed by Terry Brooks, and more recently, Christopher Paolini, it is my opinion that Jordan was using these familiar fantasy tropes to clearly set forth his thesis. What would happen, Jordan is asking, if the wise wizard (in this case Aes Sedai) showed up to reveal the savior of the world, and he refused to cooperate? Further, Jordan's use of Tolkien's plotline from Fellowship of the Ring further underscores one of the series' other major themes, which is how information gets passed along in a pre-industrial world, and how that information gets changed as it passes through many hands. "In the stories" is an oft-repeated phrase throughout Eye of the World, and since the Wheel of Time has woven many other ages (including our own), it is conceivable that Jordan was giving a nod to Tolkien wanted to draw upon myths and legends, perhaps implying that it was this story which gave birth to the myths and legends Fellowship of the Ring drew upon as inspiration.

Jordan's concept of Time's weave as it regards ta'veren is a stroke of genius as well, as it effectively explains the need for sometimes nearly deus ex machina coincidences. If the thread's of Time's weave have spun the three heroes out into the weave, then it only follows the weave wants to make sure they are preserved. I had asked in an earlier post why only men are ta'veren and was glad when Moraine says that Egwene and Nynaeve are "perhaps" ta'veren. Although we never gain any confirmation of this in the first book, the subsequent novels definitely see these two strong females along with Elayne creating a secondary trinity of female ta'veren.

It's the complaint I have with the eBook cover for Eye of the World, and my applause for the Dynamite comic covers. On the eBook cover, we see only Rand. For the first book, we really need to see the three male ta'veren (seriously, I've come to the conclusion that Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne are ta'veren as well, whatever Jordan said). The first book belongs to the boys: to Rand's youthful optimism, gone too soon in the following books; Perrin's nearly pessimistic resignation, for which only Faile's love will be the balm; and Mat's mischief, which never really goes away. In that way, Mat is somewhat like Sam, always reminding us of the place we began, so that we remember why we are enduring this long road down the pattern to the final volume.

NOTE: In reading book one in such a deliberate fashion, I have settled upon some of my actors for a hypothetical television series. Please remember, that even though this is hypothetical, I want my choices to mirror some sense of reality, so most of the actors I choose will be television actors, not film ones. In the role of Rand, I would choose someone like Jared Padalecki, although he is already too old to play the role. In the role of Mat, I'd want someone like Matt Czuchry, who would encapsulate the mischief very well I think. And for Lan, I'd want Richard Burgi, who I'm positive could pull off the stone-faced warder, and who really needs a break to play a nice guy with a heart of stone. That's all for this time around, although I'm sure by the end of book 2 I'll know who's playing the ladies. And I'm very open to suggestions for a young actor to play Perrin. He's a tough one. Thom Merrilyn is also proving an incredible difficulty, since the actor must be able to sing.

See ya next month for a look at Book 2, The Great Hunt!