02 August 2010

Reading Monday: Five Unnecessary Opinions about Five Fantasy Epics

I'm not sure what y'all expect for a book review. If you tuned in (that's old-timer talk for "navigated here") expecting a literate discussion of the latest literary offerings, well... there's always next Monday.

Instead, I'm going to write about these fantasy classics:

The Elenium, by David (and Leigh) Eddings

SYNOPSIS: Once upon a time, King Aldreas, under the sway of his sister and an evil churchman, exiled his knight-champion, Sir Sparhawk. Now the king is dead, and Sparhawk returns home to serve Aldreas' daughter, Queen Elenia.

But though Elenia sits on the throne, sustained by powerful magic, she has been poisoned and is dying. Sparhawk and his hardy companions set out to find a cure. Hilarity ensues.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein

SYNOPSIS: Sauron makes ring. Sauron loses ring. Gollum finds ring. Bilbo acquires ring. Frodo inherits ring. Gandalf declines ring, instead offering Frodo a unique Mordor vacation package. Lalaith ensues.

The [Complete] Book of Swords, by Fred Saberhagen

SYNOPSIS: A pantheon of not-so-benevolent gods decide that humanity's violent struggles just aren't amusing enough. They therefore forge twelve ultra-powerful magical swords and pass them out among the humans to stir things up a bit. Hilarity ensues, but not as the gods planned it.

The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

SYNOPSIS: Some guy wakes up in a hospital with severe amnesia and decides to investigate the cause and his own identity. He learns of Amber, the universal hub of many parallel worlds, and that he is Corwin, an immortal prince of Amber and likely contender for the throne. Occam's razor be damned.

Corwin then sets out to press his claim by launching a massive assault on Amber, attempting to oust Eric, his brother and rival. Violent hilarity ensues.

The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

SYNOPSIS: The satanesque Dark One is breaking free of his prison and mucking up the world (in accordance with Prophecy). To oppose him, a unique hero titled "The Dragon" is reborn in the person of Rand al'Thor (in accordance with Prophecy). Rand sets out to prepare the world for the Final Battle. These opposing forces cause massive chaos, war, jealous plotting, and rediscoveries of powers long lost. Hilarity ensues. In accordance with Prophecy.

* * * * * * *

So here are five unnecessary (and unqualified) opinions about each:

The Elenium

Writing Style
Smooth, crisp, and intelligent. Eddings is thoroughly versed in classic literature and mythology. He also has personal experience with outdoorsy stuff, which adds realism and quality to a low-technology setting.

But his first love is for characters and dialogue: Wherever possible, explanations and descriptions come from the mouths of his characters instead of the narrative. There's plenty of witty repartee.

Notable Strength
Readability -- without loss of quality. Eddings is masterful at alternating modes of action, blending humor, dialogue, action, description, and background. It feels like you're reading something short and fast-paced, but when you get to the end, you realize that you've absorbed a rich and detailed epic.

Notable Weakness
The closer the author gets to a character, the more he wants to like him, which tends to affect a universal shift towards a single tier of "good guys". Thieves, murderers, and despotic rulers inexplicably develop a heart of gold.

Perhaps this is an optimistic reflection on human nature -- i.e., most people aren't so bad once you get to understand them. But it leaves the story with a narrow spectrum of good guys and bad guys. The villains either don't get much examination, or they turn into violent nutcases more appropriate to melodrama.

The series opens with a fascinating premise: Queen Ehlana has been poisoned. The suspected poisoner, the corrupt Primate Annias, then attempts to seize power by placing Ehlana's half-brother Lycheas on the throne.

But then the Pandion Knights (aided by Sephrenia, their instructor in the "secrets") physically slap the dying Queen Ehlana onto her throne and encase her in a magical crystal box that's slows down the passage of time. Lycheas is forced to play regent. In your face, Annias!

Unsolicited Suggestion
I suppose the howling, raving Rendorish hordes are a necessary plot element. But couldn't we have one character from Rendor who isn't a total caricature?

Reader Recommendation
A must for fans of fantasy. General literature fans who like good dialogue should definitely browse a copy, and decide if they style is to their liking.

The Lord of the Rings

Writing Style
Unique. Tolkein famously lacked editorial input or typical writer training. Middle Earth fans probably already know that this led to some struggles, with Tolkein even abandoning the work and starting over from scratch.

There is a massively detailed background, especially in terms of linguistics, that serves to impress and enrich. And because the style is unique, the series lacks the yawn-inducing predictability of lesser works.

Notable Strength
The heart of Lord of the Rings is a profound morality tale. Instead of a grand struggle between good & evil forces both trying to acquire power, Tolkein offers the sublime alternative of refusing power.

Notable Weakness
There are places (much of the visit to Lothlorien comes to mind) where readers might wonder why they're being given extraneous details. This is pretty much a direct result of Tolkein not really writing for publication, but for himself and his friends. The details are meaningful to the greater milieu, just not so much to the immediate storyline.

#1 P.O.V. selection. You might not notice on the first read, but after the large-group sections in Fellowship, Tolkein always passes the point of view down to the lowest-status character. Most of Sam & Frodo's journey to Mordor is told from Sam's point of view; the beginning of Return of the King is told from Merry's point of view (with the Rohirrim) or else Pippin's (at Minas Tirith); and when a hobbit-free journey is taken along the Paths of the Dead, even Gimli gets into the rotation in favor of the higher-status elf and Returning King.

This seemingly-minor detail serves, most obviously, to maintain the high status of more awe-inspiring characters like Aragorn. But it's also part and parcel of one of the fundamental themes: The appearance of relative weakness and lower status is not indicative of a person's importance in the grand scheme of things. Which leads to...

#2 Samwise Gamgee -- possibly my favorite character in all of literature. Sam has no magical powers, negligible fighting ability, and he's not particularly intelligent. His skill set is limited to tying rope and cooking rabbits. If you were playing Dungeons and Dragons, Sam would be the most worthless PC ever.

And yet... Sam is the ultimate hero who saves Middle Earth. He demonstrates that loyalty, courage, and morality-- qualities accessible to anyone, regardless of talent-- are the deciding factors in the fate of the world.

Unsolicited Suggestions
Aragorn totally should have hooked up with √Čowyn.

And (selected parts of) The Silmarillion would make an infinitely more awesome movie than The Hobbit.

Reader Recommendation
Required for native English-speakers who wish to be considered literate.

The Complete Book of Swords

Writing Style
This is "high fantasy" with familiar elements: Gods, demons, magicians and dragons. Saberhagen skips over the lengthy explanations required by authors who create their own version of medieval magic and jumps right into the story.

Notable Strength
I love the organic story flow. Saberhagen eschews prophecy and its inherent weakening of believability. The various, conflicting forces-- combined with random events-- are more than sufficient to produce a coherent storyline.

Notable Weakness
A common criticism of Saberhagen is that his characters are a bit flat. This is essentially true, in that they lack personal details.

However, I will disagree with the assertion that he lacks a proper spectrum of good and evil. The main protagonist Mark is downright heroic, but Ben & Barbara are heroes with significant self-interested motivation; the leaders of the Red Temple (and the people who try to rob them) are neither good nor evil, but simply pragmatic; Yambu is a villain with some redeeming qualities; and Vilkata is purely evil.

Saberhagen is also a science fiction author, and the world of Swords actually has a science fiction genesis (detailed in a prequel, Empire of the East). Although not apparent, or really necessary, to the readers, there is a somewhat coherent explanation for all the magicks of his world.

More immediately, the setting is in our own distant future. There are vague memories of the "Old World Magic" of technology, and even a few remnants. Not only does this provide greater texture, but it gives an interesting philosophical background to the existence of their gods and demons.

Unsolicited Suggestion
Seriously, couldn't you come up with some better titles? The volumes are called The First Book of Swords, The Second Book of Swords, and The Third Book of Swords. I don't even think the series has a proper collective name.

I'd call the whole thing The Book of Swords. The three parts could be Game of the Gods, Treasure of the Temple, and War of the Swords.

Reader Recommendation
A superb read for fans of fantasy. Probably not for others.

The Chronicles of Amber

Writing Style
Fast-paced, irreverent, and slightly gritty (but not dark). Zelazny rushes through the story at top speed, piling on magical concepts from his fertile imagination.

Notable Strength
Despite the sheer volume of ideas, magic, and settings, Amber is an easy read. The language is crisp, the characters are easy to keep track of, and the action never slows down.

Notable Weakness
Lack of detail. When reading Zelazny, one gets the sense that his efforts in establishing background simply cannot keep up with his original ideas. More analytical readers (like myself) will be left with dozens of questions about the uses of magic, the economics of Amber, and nature of Shadow worlds.

The story is written in the first person from the perspective of the protagonist, Corwin. Despite being essentially non-human (he's a centuries-old Prince of Amber with unique powers), he's very believable. The perspective allows for plenty of irreverent commentary, and allows the readers insight into a dynamic and well-developed character.

Unsolicited Suggestion
The whole series could stand a re-write. It's all good, but I get the impression that Zelazny didn't really plan things out. I suppose that will have to wait until copyright expires or someone offers a sweet deal to Zelazny's estate. In the meantime, it's fertile ground for fan fiction.

Reader Recommendation
This is a fairly quick and easy read for anyone who likes fantasy at all. Some of the action takes place on Earth, too (it's one of the "Shadow" worlds), thus incorporating a modern setting with more conventional action. Just don't expect to read something profound. And I don't really recommend the follow-up series (unless you absoultely loved Amber), as the quality tends to degrade from book to book.

The Wheel of Time

Writing Style
Detailed. Holy %&#*!, is this ever detailed! Not only does Jordan create a complete world, but he tells a very complete story, with multiple, highly-developed characters, and numerous well-developed plots. The story is told from varying points-of-view, with access to the inner thoughts of most major protagonists and even several villains.

Notable Strengths
Absoultely nothing is left out in the creation of Jordan's world. It has it's own cosmology, theology, natural laws, modes of magic, history, economy, language, style, geography, music, literature, and more cultural customs than you can shake a spear at.

The fidelity is superb-- Jordan never deviates from his strict style rules. He never breaks the "fourth wall" and thus the experience is very immersive.

Notable Weakness
Seriously, do we need to know what Nynaeve is wearing today?

While most readers will appreciate the rich background, the immediate narrative details can be daunting. Fans often joke about the ever-present descriptions of clothing, but the more significant challenge is keeping track of second- and third-tier characters.

But even though I call that a "weakness", it's really a matter of how I might have done things differently. In all fairness, for what he wanted to write and what he wanted to accomplish, Jordan's work is virtually perfect.

Jordan simultaneously embraces gender equality and gender difference like no other writer I've seen.

At the core of the story is the ability to "Channel" (i.e., use magic, but Jordan never calls it that). This ability draws on two different sources of power: One male, and one female. As the story opens, the male half of the True Source has been tainted for the past 3000 years. Any man who tries to channel will be affected by the taint and eventually go mad. Hence the active Channelers are all female, and some of them are dedicated to hunting down men with the ability and severing them from the Source to prevent the depredations of their madness.

Pretty cool, huh? And beyond the ability to Channel, there are different male and female roles (sometimes equal, sometimes not) in every culture throughout the world of the Wheel.

Unsolicited Suggestions
#1 Less dramatic irony. Too many plots are, if not spoiled, at least weakened by previous insight into the villain's plans through the inner thoughts of those same villains.

#2 For those who don't know, Robert Jordan passed away in 2007 after completing eleven volumes of what he planned to be a twelve-volume work. However, he left detailed notes and the series is being finished by Brandon Sanderson (who's doing an excellent job of it).

Because of the amount of story left to tell, Sanderson is completing the work with three more volumes instead of just one. But my suggestion is that we hold constant seances throughout the world until we establish contact with the departed spirit of Jordan, so that the series can be completed in, say, six more volumes instead of just three more. 'Cause that's how it would have happened, I'm sure. And I like them that much.

Reader Recommendation
The ideal series for people who are constantly running out of things to read. For non-fantasy readers, there's plenty of politics, intrigue, conventional action, and interesting characters; and the "magic" is not only explained well, but it's thoroughly incorporated into other aspects of the story (notably, the personal experiences of the characters who use it).

But for fans of fantasy and non-fantasy alike, this is definitely a series for patient readers.

Happy reading,



Elizabeth Spann Craig said...


I think it's amazing how well you were able to boil these complex books down into nuts and bolts, Jason. You won't have any problem writing queries or synopses.

And...I'm reading through these carefully. My son is always looking for new books to read and loved Lord of the Rings.

Jan Morrison said...

Ditto what Elizabeth said! How about a run at Dune and The Foundation Trilogy? You put me in mind of my early adulthood when I read all my first husband's sci fi and fantasy books. I still read them from time to time but not as much. You've intrigued me with a couple I haven't tried though.
Jan Morrison

Hart Johnson said...

This is great, Jason! I came to fantasy very late in life and am still getting my legs under me for what I like and don't like, but you've given exactly the detail I need to maybe choose a couple and NOT choose a couple of these.


Unknown said...

Wow! You are nothing if thorough. There are several books on the list that I have not read and am adding to my Amazon Kindle wishlist.

I am particularly interested in Elenium and Amber. This will help me work my way up to The Complete Book of Swords.

I've read The Lord of the Rings on three separate occasions and can't get enough of it.

Jemi Fraser said...

Very thorough!

I read Eddings probably a decade ago and loved his stuff. I'm a huge LotR fan, but could never find a way to enjoy Wheel of Time. Haven't tried the others. Yet.

CA Heaven said...

I never got hooked on the fantasy genre. I started on Lord of the Rings, but never got through it; too many words, to much detail >:)

Cold As Heaven

ViolaNut said...

Hmmm... somehow, I've never even HEARD of Saberhagen... and you're right, needs a better title! Granted, I can't title either, but still.

I've made it through the Belgariad and the Malloreon, but the Elenium is still parked in my bookcase waiting to be cracked open... maybe I'll take it to the beach this weekend. ;-)

Belle Wong said...

Wow! Loved reading your observations. Now I want to go dig up my Amber books and give them a reread. Haven't read them since I was in my teens. I'm starting on book one of the Wheel of Time again - I stopped reading at Dragon Reborn quite a few years ago, and with the new book out, I decided I would treat myself and start at the beginning again, and read the series through to Sanderson's!