Maybe I should make this a new feature, where I sit on my porch in a red flannel shirt and shake my cane and winge about movies, television shows and books that fail to measure up to my standards. This is a blog after all.
Well, we'll see. But I do want to talk about the TV Series Hannibal, at least Season 1, which I watched thanks to my Amazon Prime membership and my Roku box. (As as aside, technology is cool.) And they did tremendous job and made tremendous mistakes.
Now, I'm a fan of the Thomas Harris books (Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, in particular. Hannibal, not so much) and I dearly hope he's been busy writing under a pen name rather than sitting around, cashing royalty checks and brooding. He's a damn good writer and wrote damn good stories. These stories are also perfect examples of the dangers of secondary characters running away with you.
The first thing you need to know about the series is that it is a Horror show, in the most specific meaning of the word. There are images so horrific and gory in this show that I can't believe this was ever shown on television. Things have changed a lot since I canceled my cable in 1999.
The second thing you need to know about the show is that this is a world without lawyers. This is important for dramatic reasons, in real life and in books, lawyers ruin everyone's fun. Yet, in small doses, lawyers to perform a useful function, reminding people that certain actions are illegal, unethical and providing useful cannon fodder. Related, the FBI's once-famed and respected Office of Professional Responsibility doesn't show up even once and it dearly needs to.
Third, and this is mostly for fans of the books and movies, this seems to be a case of alternate continuity. So much depicted here directly contradicts what Thomas Harris wrote that, if you're like me and take your stories too seriously, you might need to medicate yourself to the point that you forget the books and movies ever existed. Of course, if you could do that, why would you bother watching the show in the first place. Well, I'll tell you. Then I'll rip the show a new hole that it clearly would enjoy televising.
The performances (with the possible exception of Lawrence Fishburne) are uniformly good, at least for the leads. Mads Mikklesen does a remarkable job playing Hannibal Lecter, managing to step out of Anthony Hopkin's shadow. I can't say enough what an accomplishment this is. He is courtly, suave but with an air of subtle danger about him. I have some nits to pick but he did a fine job. Same with Hugh Dancy, who plays the Byronic Hero in the series, Will Graham. There are fatal flaws in the characterization but his performance is well done.
It is daring. It reminds me a lot of Millennium (which I'm not the only one who sees that show as an inspiration. They have a cameo by Lance Henriksen who played Frank Black in that show). Millennium gave us visuals and stories that got under your skin and squirmed around. Hannibal goes even further, with even more horrific images and crimes. I don't know if that's a good thing or not culturally, but i can recognize the skill with which it was done.
The arcs are well written. There are some mis-steps but they are conceptual, not in execution. The arcs include: Will Graham losing his mind, Hannibal's attraction to Will (non-sexual, he sees will as a kindred soul), Will's PTSD from shooting a serial killer in episode 1, Abigail Hobbs flirting with the killer in her and her own responsibility in her father's crimes and Dr. Gideon's red herring role about being the Chesapeake Ripper. Each arc is very well done, paced with great skill, each is resolved in a way that leads to new plot arcs.
The final image is very cool, if utterly out of canon. So let's use that as the transition to what doesn't work. The final image is Will Grant in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, behind bars. Saying, with a crazed look, 'Hello Doctor Lecter', who is visiting him. Cool? Yes. A great reversal from the first time we see Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs. And it's a crowning example of what the writers did wrong.
The biggest problem is with that final image and the whole Will Graham insanity plot. Will Graham (and for that matter, Jack Crawford) is loosely based on John Douglas*, the real-life FBI agent who created profiles for Bundy, Gein and other serial killers. In the book, he's the man who caught Hannibal, earning Lecter's hate. Hate. You can't describe it any other way, both in the book and the movies, Lecter hates Graham who deprived him of his freedom. Famously, Graham caught Lecter, not because he was smarter but because Lecter had a disadvantage: he was insane. This who plot, Will going crazy, takes away the advantage Will Graham had in the original story: his sanity. Will fought with monsters and made it out alive. He didn't become a monster. He didn't fall. He didn't lose. He didn't make it out unscathed, he stopped profiling serial killers because they'd take up headspace inside his mind, that's true. But he didn't succumb. Putting Will in the Hannibal cell and putting a clear lucite mask on him is daring but its also a betrayal of the original character. As a practical matter, it stretches the credibility that Will can effectively operate as a teacher and investigator while his mind is deteriorating.
I'm also seriously doubting how much research the writing or directors did about procedures and policies in the FBI. You get a feel for how much ice there is below the surface of the water and I'm not feeling a lot. The X-Files had a lot of ice, so did Millennium. Hannibal has a culinary advisor but if there's a technical advisor, I'm not seeing it. Some details could be dropped for drama but I've yet to see anyone Mirandized, even Will when he's arrested at the end of the first series. Nobody has an attorney present during questioning. Ever. Ever,ever,ever. And they make a huge deal out of Will Graham being a 'Special Agent' instead of a 'full Agent', which is a fake distinction. They're same thing. Does the character have a badge and a gun and investigates crimes (as Will has) ? They they're a Special Agent. I'm starting to doubt they even used Wikipedia, let alone the contacts a major network would have with the FBI.
That ties into one of my surprise gripes, that of Lawrence Fishburne's performance as Jack Crawford. It's not just that I feel Scott Glenn did a better job. It's that Fishburne's leadership style seems to be 'leadership by yelling' and 'leadership by endangering my employees'. Seriously, the guy has already gotten one student killed by sending them after serial killers. Yes, Jack Crawford did send Clarice Starling to Hannibal Lecter but he was in prison at the time. He didn't send her after Buffalo Bill. Fishburne's character is told, and believes, that Will Graham is deteriorating mentally, but not only does he keep using him, he justifies it as 'saving lives'. I don't know any professional law enforcement officer who would operate like that. And if they did, the OPR would be down on him like a ton of bricks and he'd be supervising cactus in New Mexico by the end of the week.
The support characters don't really shine. Scott Thompson keeps reminding me of the Kids in the Hall and though he isn't as arch as he was then, he doesn't quite feel like a tech geek or a professional CSI admin. Hettienne Park is cute, but she can't act and she doesn't behave like a professional either.** The reporter character, played by Lara Jean Chorostecki, is also cute but her TMZ style reporting ought to earn her the fate that the similar male character in Red Dragon suffered.***
I have other nit picks, Hannibal throwing dinner parties and inviting Jack Crawford and his wife, Hannibal offering marriage counseling to the same, the plausibility of erecting a totem pole made of human body parts without discovery, etc. But that's enough to go by.
In conclusion, Hannibal is a well-written Horror show, if you can ignore the lack of research and suspend your knowledge of the books/movies. Good performances, no lawyers. For better or for worse.
* I HIGHLY recommend his book, Mindhunter. I bought it back in the 90's
** She wanders around, sorta flirty, disturbing Graham when he's working and her speech to Will Graham when she's scraping blood from under his nails is especially cringe-worthy
***Gruesome death. But I'm sure you knew that.
Well it must be something in the air. Last night I watched "The Cabin in the Woods" and tomorrow I'm going to World Horror in Portland.
A few of my fellow Wordslingers, as well as wonder-editor Jennifer Brozek, will be attending as well. There seem to be a few really interesting writing panels this Saturday that I'm looking forward to attending.
I have an odd relationship to horror. I do write a little horror, I'm working on a Lovecraftian story set in Aberdeen right now. And I love Richard Laymon, John Everson and I have a lot of respect for at least half of Stephen King's output. I was a big horror fan back in the '90s but after 9-11, I lost my taste for tragedy and torture. But there is one thing the horror genre does that no other genre can: It takes away the certainty that things are going to end ok.
In horror, there are not guarantees that the main character will succeed or even survive. And on one level, I really like that. Uncertainty drives tension, so long as it doesn't swerve into confusion. But as much as I appreciate that tool in the toolbox,it can be mis-used. And that brings me to "Cabin in the Woods".
While I admire the concept and enjoyed some of the performances, it didn't work for me. And a big part of that is the ending.
So, let me talk spoiler first and I'll backtrack. Jump out now if you haven't seen or if you have and want to talk about it at World Horror, look me up. I'll be the big, bald guy in black...or one of them.
So the central concept of Cabin in the Woods is that all the slasher and horror killings are real and they have a purpose. They are human sacrifices that are used to appease sleeping elder gods and keep them asleep. These killings are stage-managed by a mundane company hidden beneath (in this case) the titular cabin. If the killings are not accomplished, and in a specific-ish order, the world ends. Those are the stakes.
Either we (humanity) kills 5 kids a year, making them suffer, or the world ends*. And the stoner character fucks us all up, destroying the world. It's almost the biggest anti-drug movie since "Requiem for a Dream". Or it should be. I can't tell you how much I hate that character and his actions. But I don't just want to rail against the character, I want to rail against the writing. So let's do that.
Ok, now that I spoiled the ending, I'll back up and describe the rest of the story. The movie opens with a couple of office/corporate types talking inanely about work. Then there's a big title drop, deliberately over the top. We get introduced to the young characters, the designated 'survivor girl' walking around in her panties and a tee shirt while the 'slut' is fully dressed.
This is what the movie does well and does wrong. First, it's playing with our expectation. Like showing the 'virgin' character...isn't a virgin. Far from it. And showing 'behind the curtain' at the technicians who'll be stage-managing the horror. And, with the title leaping out, telling the audience that it's not taking itself seriously. And all of this, with the exception of playing with expectations, is a mistake. But let me go on.
After we're introduced to all five characters (including the hated stoner character who is driving around bombed out of his head. If he was drunk instead, I wonder if people would have laughed as hard at him. Or maybe they're showing us early just how irresponsible he is, which still doesn't endear me to him). The five kids to to a cabin in the woods, vaguely owned by a relative of one of them. On their way to the cabin, the are met by a creepy guy who warns them away. They ignore him, go to the cabin and settle in for some good times.
Down below, we see the techs debating the morality of what they're going to do. We see themes of voyeurism and horror, right out in the open. All good so far. Then a basement door is opened and a variety of occult objects are discovered. Still good. Whichever item they are drawn to, determines which monster they will be stalked and killed by. An old diary containing some spooky Latin-esque text is read aloud, inbred zombies rise and begin the killing.
There is a lot going on here. Still good stuff, lots of genre-aware commentary by characters in the cabin and downstairs in the control room. Still good. There's some nudity (but no sex, though we get plenty of gore...sigh. I miss the old 80s movies that served up both) and one by one the kids are killed by zombies or by traps or by the control panel folks just being bastards. Chris Hemswroth shows a LOT of charisma in this movie. He doesn't really have much screen time...and that's another huge mistake...but he seems noble, active, protective. His supporting cast is a bit in his shadow but ultimately he dies as does everyone but the last girl.
Only....that isn't what happened. In a hard-to-believe twist, the stoner character gets the better of his killer. Off screen. After being stabbed in the back. And with him alive, they survivor girl can't be killed. Again, the order of the death matters because otherwise the elder god won't be appeased. Again, this is important, end-of-the-world kind of important.
The two surviving kids get into an elevator that leads down, which somehow the stoner knows how to hotwire. They go down into the complex, discover a HUGE collection of monsters, free them, cause everyone in the facility to get killed, and end up confronting the director of the company/organization. She tells them about the purpose of the killings, about the stakes and they see the temple holding the elder god as he slumbers. And...though a variety of contrivances, manage to outsmart and overpower and trick the remaining monster and the Director and...let the world get destroyed. While they light up a joint and say that maybe someone else's turn will come next, that humanity doesn't deserve to survive. They die as a huge hand breaks free from the prison, the end.
So, back where I came in. This ending really, really pissed me off. If the stoner had been right and refusing to kill himself or let himself die somehow did not unleash the elder god or if the survivors had found some other way to avoid the god's awakening, I could have bought the ending. The movie would still have serious flaws, which I'll get to next, but it would have ended 'well'. Or if he or the survivor girl had killed the stoner and saved the world, it would have ended well. Or even if they tried to avert the awakening of the god and failed, it would have ended well. Or if the characters had been LIKABLE, it would have felt like tragedy. But it didn't.
See, this is where the strength of the horror genre, that happy endings are not guaranteed, is wasted. Because a 'down' ending only works if you care about the characters. And we don't here. And I don't think it's just because of my dislike of the stoner character. The problem with the movie's ending is structural.
We open on the real protagonists, the techs. They're the ones trying to save the world. They are making the hard choices, sacrificing not just the 'teens' but their own honor and morality. But we're wired to like the kids, to want them to survive and triumph and the movie half supports that. But only half. See, it's not just the opening that's the problem. Opening on the techs does fake out the audience but it also spends precious minutes establishing characters that we aren't supposed to be rooting for. And the normalcy of these guys going to work wastes time that could be used creating tension.
Because the Cabin in the Woods is neither a comedy, nor a horror movie. It's trying to be both and it fails. Comedy and horror are conflicting emotions and themes. Comedies are cathartic. Horror is creating tension. Laughter removes tension. It distances the audience from what they're seeing. It's insulation when what you need is a live wire.**
If it had committed to comedy, the movie could have worked, despite the gore. But a comedy can't have a down ending. Down endings don't make you laugh and the purpose of a comedy is to make the audience laugh and feel good at the end.
If it had committed to horror, the movie could have worked, despite the humor. Humor is a great tool in defusing tension, in creating a positive catharsis, just as the 'kills' create a negative catharsis. A horror movie can have a down ending, if you care about the characters. It's still risky, which is why most 'down' endings are surprise or stinger endings (like the last shot of Carrie or the last image of Prince of Darkness) but it can be done but only if you are invested in the characters.
And this is the other big failure of the movie: we don't have focus on either possible protagonist(s). The movie jumps from the control room to the teens, never spending enough time with either of them to let us get immersed in their struggles. We're robbed from feeling the tension of the dead rising and stalking the main characters because we keep jumping to the control room. We're robbed from caring about the protagonist(s) by having to split precious screen minutes with the other characters, separated from each other in every way. The teens are painted as archtypes by the control room people and despite the fact we're 'told' that they aren't cliched characters, we aren't given time to be shown how they aren't cardboard cutouts.
So the deaths mean less. We don't have a clear rooting interest in either side. The control room people have the high stakes, higher than just their own life and death. But they don't have the majority of the screen time. The teens have the emotional sympathies of the audience but they aren't given time to develop and become real people.
There's a lot more I could talk about, things that worked and things that didn't. But I'll stop here.
"The Cabin in the Woods" is basically a 'Scary Movie' title with a bigger budget and subtler gags...and a worse ending.
*This sort of plot is handled with much better grace in the story " The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
**There are very, very few movies that work as both.
Tucker and Dave vs Evil " is a similar movie but despite the gore, it's a comedy. "The Evil Dead" crosses both lines but is ultimately a horror movie with lots of cathartic laughter and silliness.
It is with great joy and tremulous humility that I come to you, electronically.
My short story, "The Body as a Ship", was purchased by Evil Girlfriend Media last fall. It appears now in the anthology, Bless Your Mechanical Heart. (You can buy it on Amazon here or for other platforms here) It was edited by the talented Jennifer Brozek.
As Katie Cord, the publisher, has kindly said, this is the story that sort of inspired the anthology. I met Katie when we were both workshopping stories at the Cascade Writer's Workshop about two years ago. Katie, by the way, is all kinds of awesome. Talented, ambitious, hard working and beautiful. And, no, I'm not saying that because she liked my story. She really is.
"The Body as a Ship" was my first attempt to do real science fiction, something that was about man and technology and the future. It is about body replacement but in an optimistic future or I see it that way. Though you can't gain things without losing other things, I feel, so there is a certain wistfulness, a longing in the main character. Or that was what I was going for.
The book, and surprisingly my story, are both getting good reviews. If you read it and like it, let me know.
The Dragon's Path surprised me, pleasantly.
I didn't know much about Daniel Abraham, going into this. He was suggested by a friend of a friend kind of thing and somehow, in my head, I got him mixed up with Peter Orullian. Don't ask. I have not read his Long Price quartet, but now I think I will.
This is a pretty straightforward secondary-world Fantasy. It's a low magic world, one where Dragons magically created a number of human sub-races and then killed each other off in near-legendary past. The sub-races are one of the few stumbles. The idea is cool but trying to keep clear the difference between a Tralgu and a Yemmu is hard. If ever a book needed accompanying illustrations, it's this one. It's a concept that belongs more in a role playing game than in a novel or maybe the author just didn't' do enough description up front. That's a tough balancing act, I know, between too much info and too little. Where it came to the races, I'm afraid he erred on the side of too little but that was the only thing to take me out of the story. Well that and one of the characters burning a city of ten thousand people in a fit of pique.
There is a lot of politics, which I love, but not a ton of action. That doesn't mean there isn't tension, though. There is, on nearly every page there is conflict. Just don't expect a lot of sword fights or magical duels.
What you do have are pretty compelling characters, with flaws the reader can see that the characters themselves can't (nice bit of tension and irony there as you are mentally yelling at people not to do something). There are no clear villains in this book, either and the traditional hero, Marcus, isn't really the focus of the book. This is the first in a 3+ book series so what we're mostly doing here is setup and worldbuilding but most of the characters (but not Marcus) do get a story arc that resolves in the best way possible: by making space for more stories.
I'm being a bit vague on the plot, but not deliberately. There's no earth-shaking mysteries here, just a lot of characters. This is fantasy VERY much in the George R. Martin mold, albeit, without the GRRM bodycount of main characters. If you like A Game of Thrones, I can safely say you'll like this book.
Ok, let me dig in a little bit more about what worked and what didn't for me.
The good: I like most of the characters. They felt real and where they didn't feel real, they felt interesting. For example, Cithrin is a very interesting female protagonist. She's very intellectual, very smart but she doesn't feel like the teenager she's supposed to be. I can feel the author trying but she just feels too mature. That's not a serious dig, though, because I did find her interesting and I cared about her and her problems. Geder, different story but I'll get to him in the 'bad' section below.
The world is also interesting. I like that the world feels lived in, people have prejudices, needs, wants, conflicting desires. The world had dragons ruling humans, changing them, making them into purpose-made slave races. That's very cool. The main kingdom we see, Antea, feels Roman, specifically Republican era room where nobles jostled to be 'First Man', albeit, there is a king in Antea. Still, I like Rome and the Republican era so that really worked for me.
Daniel Abraham does a good job of keeping the reader's interest. Good pacing, good use of tension and plot hooks. He's definitely a good writer and, again that surprised me just because I hadn't heard of him.
Ok, on to the bad:
I had a real problem with Geder who ends up with the biggest changes in the book. He starts out a bookworm and a buffoon but ends up rising the highest in society by being the right pawn in the right place with the right (lack) of connections. He's the guy who burned an entire city to the ground and, yes, he regrets it and is even haunted by it. But that doesn't explain WHY he would think mass murder would be a good idea. It is baffling. Also, his return back to the main capital he uncovers a conspiracy and becomes renowned all in the course of one chapter. This really should have been drawn out, with us seeing him interacting with more people and him uncovering more over time. I don't know if this was an editorial decision or if the author was just rushing towards the ending. Which I get, I've done that, too. But it stood out.
Also Marcus Wester is unused here. He's just a mass of unresolved tensions and unrealized action. He's supposed to be a deadly swordsman, reputed to be a literally legendary leader but we never see him fight. Never see him do much of anything. God knows, David Gemmell would have known what to do with this character but I get the feeling David Abraham put this character into the book because he felt he needed to but they didn't know how to actually write an action hero. Dunno. It's like putting a legendary gunslinger in a western novel and then never having him draw his gun. It's just odd.
The only real misstep is the number of races and the difficulty in picturing them, though. The issues I have with Marcus and Geder are mostly nit picks. It's a good book and I'll be buying the rest of the series.
It's time to dust off the old blog and do some more book reviews.
My own writing is picking up and if I get lucky (very lucky) I may even be able to start blogging again regularly but frankly with my job and commute, spare time for blogging is hard to find. Also ipage is pissing me off. Posts are showing up blank for some reason, forcing me to re-post them and edit them again and again. Not happy.
Anyway, on to the first book. I'd like to talk about the "Promise of Blood".
The Promise of Blood is a 'flintlock fantasy' written by Brian McClellan. I don't know him personally but I am definitely going to be watching his career and reading what he puts out.
The setting is a secondary world, so not set on earth, but there are strong echoes of Revolutionary France in here. My synopsis of the book would be: "Napoleon deposes Louis XVi and takes over the government. Also there's magic." A little tongue in cheek but it feels accurate. This reads like a traditional fantasy novel but the technology level is roughly 18th century levels. There are flintlocks (the author doesn't go into the vast and complicated variations of gunpowder weapons of the 18th century) but there are also mages. Two groups of mages, which is one of the big conflicts of the novel: traditional magicians who use magic gloves to 'touch' magic and destroy things on a vast scale and gunpoweder mages.
Gunpowder mages are the challenge to the old order of magic users. They are also very cool. McClellan clearly comes from the Sanderson school of complex magical system creation. Which is fine and fairly cool. I enjoyed seeing people consuming or snorting gunpowder to get a buzz and to empower themselves. It reminded me a lot of the alloymancy from Sanderson's Mistborn, though the mechanics are different. Gunpowder mages can shoot vast distances, bend bullets, empower bullets for extra damage and consume powder to bonuses to strength, stamina and perception. Everything is powered by powder and since gunpowder is the dominant weapon of choice, it makes them very powerful when confronting armies.
The story is fast-moving, easy to read and does a good job hooking the reader. We have three main protagonists: Tamas, the military genius and powder mage who deposes the corrupt king, his son and notable marksman, Taniel (also a powder mage and addicted to snorting gunpowder), and Adamat, a former policeman and investigator for hire. There are other secondary and side characters and McClellan does a good job creating interesting, multi-dimensional characters. Tamas is probably the least-developed, oddly because he is the prime mover in this book.
The plot begins with the coup already accomplished. Adamat is summoned to the palace where he finds the coup completed. He is hired by Tamas, as he sits bloody on the throne (great image and the cover art for this is great as well), to investigate what was the meaning of the last words of the king's magical cabal. This sets in motion a decent mystery that ties gods, a magical geas and post-revolutionary politics together.
Ah, the politics. I like that sort of thing, the moving and shaking, the negotiations and the maneuvering of nations and powerful men (and one woman). I don't think it bogs the story down any and it gives good motivation for alliances, betrayals and all that stuff good drama is made of. Tamas did not take the throne alone, he had allies and backers and all of them need to be kept happy and all want a piece of the pie now that Tamas has seized it. Of course, one of them is a traitor, which drives the last third of the book.
Lots of good action, fairly well described. Lots of magic and power but also investigation and deductive reasoning. The plot with the gods really threw me for a loop, as it did the characters in the book. Everyone here comes off as grounded Enlightenment characters, the real existence of gods was a fascinating plot twist. People care about things, each other, families and friends. The characters feel real as a result and are easy to sympathize with, even if closet royalists today may cringe from the bloody deposition of a king and his nobles.
I recommend the book.
That doesn't mean it doesn't have flaws, though. For once, very annoying thing, the author seems to have done his research very shallowly. He doesn't seem to know what order you load a musket in (powder, patch, then ball) and he seems to be under the impression that labor unions equal industrialization. Rather than labor unions arising after the factory system had created the industrialized worker. His female characters are sparse on the ground, with the exception of the intriguing red haired Amerind stand-in Ka-poel and Nila, a house servant who has some plot-relevant scenes trying to save/avenge/protect one of the last noble children. He has some scatterings of female soldiers as a sop to contemporary political correctness but none really stand out or get much space the story. A book with mostly male protagonists doesn't bug me but readers who see every book through a lens of gender studies handouts might be bothered. The dangers of powder addiction, which Taniel clearly has, are hinted at but we never see anyone suffering from it. I hope/expect we'll be seeing that in the second book but it seems like a missed opportunity. The ending is rushed and the final gunshot that 'kills' a god is confusing and vague. I have a feeling the author got near the finish line and just sprinted past it rather than crafting a truly satisfying ending to this book (which is first in a trilogy).
But I think the good far outweighs the bad here. If you like Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks, you will like this book.
This is a pleasant surprise. I love space opera and this is a great example of the genre written by J.L. Doty. The story concerns York Ballin who starts out as a fairly low-level starship officer and ends up as a starship captain and…. Hm. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what the book does well and what it doesn’t.
York Ballin goes through some good character growth (and some bad, but we’ll get to that) but one thing Doty does well was he makes him suffer. It is hard not to feel empathy for the poor guy as he gets dumped on, maimed and legitimately tormented. The character isn’t excessively noble, he does some morally questionable things and he has some serious demons. But he does his duty to the best of his ability and keeps his honor, even when those above him forget theirs.
The bad guys are both legitimately bad and, for the most part, competent. The bad guys need to be better, bigger, more of a threat to the main character. And for the most part again, they are.
The setting is a long time after humanity has gone to the stars. Like David Weber’s books, society has regressed back to a feudal society. You can make the argument that aristocracy is a pretty normal state of affairs and democracy is a bright, temporary aberration. But the feudal society also helps add a level of unreality that actually works to help the user suspend disbelief. The galaxy has been at war for centuries and you get the feeling that things are falling apart, supplies are rare, even uniforms are mostly patched or frayed. It’s a nice touch.
The sailors and marines mostly come off as realistic. There are few plaster saints here and fewer demons and most of the dialog and character motivations will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent time around military vets. Yet it doesn’t go too into acroym-heavy realism. It’s a good balance.
The plot is also pretty good, most of the book being a prolonged chase as Ballin tries to get his ship to safety while being chased by just about everyone. I found it to be a good page turner.
Plot-required stupidity. The main character repeatedly fails to kill the main antagonist, Sierka when he is legally, morally and responsibly able to. He also threatens to do so without following through on it. Part of this feels like just plot contrivance to allow Ballin to have someone to plot against him and torture him. It’s just dumb and frankly, out of character of him considering how many other people Ballin kills, in the heat of battle and otherwise. Likewise, the main puppetmaster, Abraxa, has been smart and cunning but at the end starts bloviating like a Bond villain and basically talks himself into a grave.
Character and plot drift. The tone of the book shifts a bit, which happens a lot in novels as you write them, honestly. A consistent tone isn’t easy. This one starts out with York Ballin acting as a put-upon naval officer, getting handed shit jobs and doing them pretty well. But then he’s revealed, though conversations of other people, as a drunk and drug addict and ONLY THEN do we see him drinking and taking drugs. After that, he settles into a pretty consistent character but it’s not the same person who we’re introduced to. Likewise, the book has three distinct plots. First we have a rescue mission and Ballin being forced to act as a Marine officer instead of his normal naval role. But later, he is built up to be this mythical veteran of every major war of the past twenty plus years. Suddenly everyone is in awe of him and there’s a huge bounty put on his head…it just comes out of nowhere. But, again, once the plot jumps tracks, it sticks with that plot for most of the rest of the book until…
The long-lost bastard son of the king. This is the second book by Doty that I’ve read, the first being ‘The Thirteenth Man’ which I’ll review later, and in both books, the main character is the long-lost bastard son of the king. I’m almost afraid to pick up his fantasy novels :) Honestly, that whole plot isn’t necessary to the book. It doesn’t ring true and the character would have worked fine as being just a normal guy who has guts, honor and duty earned the hard way. If that whole plot line was cut, the story would be leaner and better.
It’s good space opera. Lots of big threats, big plots and good characters. I liked the battles, the tech and the setting. There are flaws but there are damn few perfect books out there. In a way, it reminds me of the late Ric Locke’s “Temporary Duty” but it has a more fantastical ‘High Space Opera’ feel, if you will. It feels a bit like military sci-fi but not to excess, more like David Feintuch’s space opera with a little David Weber mixed in.
There’s sex, violence, torture and betrayal and most of it isn’t gratuitous.
I recommend it.
Finally. Ipage had me locked out of my site for a month now.
Ian Esslemont is writing some of the best high fantasy novels out there nowadays. High fantasy, with its sprawling plotlines, dozens of characters, huge magic and complex plots, is rather a rare beast nowadays. Growing up, high fantasy was where it was at. From Robert Adams to Roger Zelanzy, I read a lot of secondary world fantasies. But the genre seems to be dying out as of the 2000’s. One of the big, last gasps of the multi-volume doorstoppers was the Malazan Books of the Fallen, mostly written by Steven Erickson* Despite their huge world, large scope and some serious cribbing from Glen Cook’s work, they mostly fail. But Esslemont, the co-creator of the Malazan setting**, gets it right and he does it by paying attention to his characters.
If you’ve read my reviews of Erickson’s work, you’ll know I really dislike his characters. Esslemont is just the opposite. His characters live, breathe, love and, yes, weep. Though not to emo-Erickson levels. And though there are some head-scratchers at the ending and some plot flaws, I enjoyed this book very much. Ok, so let’s get on the review.
Complex and sympathetic characters, even the antagonists, make this fantasy novel a joy. The ending has some serious flaws but the journey is much more enjoyable than any the characters endure in Blood and Bone. The plot is complex with a number of sub-plots, most of which are resolved by the end of the novel but with one main thread that will lead into the sequel. The magic system of the Thaumaturg***, a sort of biokinesis that controls the body, is very cool and ties in nicely with the title****. We have a nice mix of soldiers, mages, gods and young girls as protagonists which gives a nice variety of points of view.
The plot is complex but I’ll sum it up as briefly as I can. In the main plot thread, the mages of Thamaturgs are invading the jungle of Himitan to reach the legendary city of Jakal Viharn and its protector the demi-goddess Ardata. Meanwhile, Saeng, a village girl, has been chosen as a new High Priestess of…something? Light maybe? That’s vague. But her desire to protect her family, especially her brother, and her basic decency makes her story one of main cores of the novel. Meanwhile, again, two renegade Malzan mages, Murk and Sour, are hired to retrieve a fragment of the Shattered God, the Big Bad of the whole series. Meanwhile yet again, the leader of the semi-immortal Crimson Guard, K’azz is semi-compelled to come to Jakal Viharn to confront the renegade Disavowed, though this plot thread is viewed mostly through two women: Shimmer and Mara on the Disavowed side. Meanwhile yet once more, a mysterious mercenary convinces the Tribes of the Adwami to invade the Thamaturg lands, this plot line is mostly viewed through the young prince Jatal. I’m leaving out a lot of sub plots and sub characters here :) These plot threads mostly converge at Jakal Viharn as a meteor kinda-sorta is being brought down by a magical ritual caused by the Thamaturgs.
Whew. There’s a lot going on here, probably too much. That’s why the ending doesn’t quite satisfy.
What does satisfy are characters. Everyone here, from the villains to the heroes, have problems. They care about things, about people. This is huge and is missing from the Erickson books. Just watching the Thamaturg Master Golan having to deal with a prissy and passive-aggressive Principle Sage (appropriately named Thorn) gives us so much empathy (and amusement) for a character that would be easy to be a one or two dimensional bad guy in Erickson’s work. See, I’m pretty sure Erickson sees his characters (they are shared between books sometimes) as just this well-rounded with the same rich, inner life. But he never puts it on the page or if he does, he drenches it in bathos and pathos. Esslemont just gets it right. I’ll be using this book as an example of good character writing from now on.
Ok, that’s the short version, something I can share on Goodreads and Amazon without putting too many people to sleep. I do want to dig into what was good and what was bad in the book, because it isn’t flawless.
As I mentioned, the characters. Barely a misstep here, almost everyone has a clear motivation for what they’re doing and has problems accomplishing it. The setting is vast, very much larger-than-life with a world that seems filled with history and politics that Blood and Bone barely scratches the surface of. Which is how it should be. The fight scenes are clear, including those involving magic. The setting was amazing, a fantasy makeover of China/Southeast Asia (Himatan is Cambodia/Thailand, it felt like)...just don’t think too much about the geography and climate. The humor. Mostly in the Murk/Sour scenes but as I mentioned, Golan is not without chuckles and even the Crimson Guard/Renegade plots are not without light moments. Not everything has to be doom and gloom or slapstick. People love. Seriously, they act like real people in these books. It’s just a breath of fresh air and since I’m wrapping back to characters again, let’s move on.
What didn’t work:
Little stuff first: Esslemont seems to suffer from a mild case of Hyperpolysyllabicomia. He can’t resist exotic or unnecessarily long words.***** Though Esslemont wrote some very well-rounded characters, he’s still playing in the Malazan world. So though Shimmer is a well-written female warrior, there are a lot of ‘man with tits’ characters here as well like Ursa, Burastan among others. The entire plot line with Gothos and Osserc could have/should have been cut. Little is resolved, little is accomplished except for bloviating and post-modern physchological digressions that are way out of place. Some of the dialog, especially with Osserc and Gothos felt too contemporary, down to using slang words. Very odd. The plot has too many threads here and they don’t all wrap up in a satisfying way. Let me go into that a bit.
Ok, the ending of the book just feels rushed. Up until the last 10% or so, things have been proceeding organically. Like the author is an exploration writer and he’s just been telling the story the way it felt to him it should unfold. Then suddenly, he noticed he was near his wordcount limit. So he rushes everyone to Jakal Viharn (or almost everyone, another flaw) and there the big confrontations happen only…except for one plot thread, Saen’s, the actual resolution happens off camera. Which is just weird. We’re teased and set up for this big confrontation between K’azz and Skinner, between Ardata and the Queen of Dreams, between the army of the Thamaturgs and Ardata’s Children, between Kallor and the Thamaturgs, between K’azz and Ardata and…most of it we don’t get to see.
Either the author didn’t pick the right POV characters or he couldn’t imagine a way to get them to the place to show us the action or…it was all a tease. Take K’azz and Ardata. Ardata took Skinner as a Consort. Skinner abandoned/betrayed her, just like he betrayed the Crimson Guard. Ardata says that she realized that it wasn’t Skinner she wanted it was K’azz. A man who could be her equal. That’s good, heavy stuff. A demi-goddess who wants love and companionship. Wouldn’t that conversation between her and K’azz be great? Full of drama and emotion? Well who knows, the two of them walk off alone and that’s all we get. Next we see Ardata, she’s offering to Skinner, again, to be Consort again. WTF? She’s said earlier that she didn’t want Skinner, she wanted K’azz.
So the climaxes happen but we mostly don’t see them. But the biggest disappointment is the one we do see. This is a nit-picky rant, so if you don’t want to read that, feel free. Go buy the book, read it. You’ll like it. Then maybe email me and we can chat offline about how you felt about the end.
Ok, Jatal is one of the best characters in the book. A young, bookish Prince who is expected to be a leader of this expedition. He falls in love with his family’s traditional rival. Real Romeo and Juliet kind of stuff. Only she seems to (and maybe does) betray him to sleep with and ally with Kallor in his mercenary warlord guise. And she dies in Jatal’s arms, thanks to Kallor, pledging her love to him with her dying breath. And Jatal is just broken, enraged, seeking death and vengeance. He goes on a huge (if brief) chase after Kallor. But Kallor is cursed, he cannot die and even a meteor seemingly falling on him doesn’t kill him. But what does Jatal do when he finally catches up to a wounded Kallor? He doesn’t even try to kill him. He basically pitches a fit and says, “I hate you, I hate you, you suck. Now kill me.” It is the MOST passive-aggressive thing I think I’ve ever seen in a book. It’s like Frodo getting to Mount Doom and yelling at Sauron and calling him names instead of throwing the ring into Mount Doom.****** So Kallor kills him and…goes on his merry way. It’s just bizarre. It don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing but…who considers that a satisfying ending? That kind of passive-aggressive hissy fit?
Other parts of the ending don’t make a ton of sense. Spite’s whole plot line is gratuitous. She never is a mover or player after the novel begins. She’s just a naked shapeshifting dragon hottie. Which would be fine as a book cover but she’s not even there. Osserc SEEMS to divert the metor the Thaumaturgs are calling down (or is it a god?) but we don’t see that either. We don’t see final destruction of Golan’s army. We don’t know what religion Saeng is supposed to be High Priestess of (some Light-based faith or Warren? It really, really isn’t clear…even to Saeng). Ardata’s fate isn’t clear, is she a goddess in truth? What does that mean? We don’t get a resolution on what the Vow is that the Crimson Guard is or how it works, though that seems to be the real reason K’azz is there. It just sucks and these failures ruin what could have been a 5 star book.
I still recommend reading it, there’s a lot to love. And I will be getting the next book he comes out with. Esslemont can write, I’ll say that about him. He just needs someone to sit on him and hold him accountable for his plot threads. Or just trim them out.
* Real name Steve Lundin
** It was their GRUPS fantasy settings. As an old-school GRUPS player/GM, I love that.
*** Why he didn’t just call them Thaumaturges, I don’t know
**** It is similar to some stuff I’ve fiddled with in my game designing days, so I really enjoyed that.
***** Yes, I know what I did there
****** Yes, I know he doesn’t actually throw it in the Lord of the Rings.
Oof. I’ve been trying to write this review for days. I do realize I own a recounting of Dragoncon and Jody Lynn Nye’s writing workshop but I need to get down my thoughts about Riddick while they’re still semi-fresh in my mind.
Short review: I liked it, it’s not a great movie but I’m glad I saw it. It’s a solid B movie with lots of stuff to like for action movie and sci-fi fans.
Longer, rambling review: Warning, here there be spoilers.
I want to talk about movies mostly from a writing POV, since that’s what I love and do with my spare time. (ha, spare time…) And this movie plays with expectations and plays to them. One expectation, dark as it may be, is a captive kept on Santana’s ship. She’s a pretty, ethnic criminal and when they showed her being freed, I fully….fully expected there to be some bullshit romance subplot between her and Riddick. Instead, she gets shot in the back as she’s running by Santana. (his ‘kick the dog’ trope moment, first of many) She dies feet away from Riddick as he watches her die, without emotion on his face, without any attempt to help or even comfort her as she bleeds out. I did not expect that, props to you Twohy, you played with my expectations. I also expected the mercenaries to be utter monster or just cardboard cutouts and though some of them were flawed, there were entertaining and came off as at least half-competent. The mercs even debate just giving Riddick what he wants once the body count goes up but they don’t roll over and quit Hudson-style (from Aliens). They die but they almost all die trying. I can respect that. The monsters were interesting, clearly based on 17 year cicadas crossed with scorpion demon…thingys. I didn’t buy them as a real threat, unlike the monsters in Pitch Black and some of the hoverbike stunt stuff came off as stupid and showy XXX-style (the movie, not the porn genre) pandering. But it also doesn’t take itself more seriously than it needs to. I mean, it commits to itself but it is a B movie. It is not trying to be Star Wars or Star Trek…to the movie’s credit. It deserves to succeed and I hope it does.
So let’s start with the good stuff.
One thing that intrigued me was that it tried to use two main plot archtypes: Man Vs Nature and Man Vs Man. The first third of the movie is mostly Riddick going all Jeremiah Johnson, surviving on an alien world with no tools and only his wits and his toughness. To its credit, I found this enjoyable. I’d have watched a whole movie like this. I totally bought that Riddick was the kind of person who could survive no matter what. And the early parts of the movie show him as “merely” extremely tough as opposed to a superhero. He’s within human limits, if a real-life guy can cut his own arm off with a pocket knife and walk out of the mountains, nothing in the first third of the movie is unbelievable. I’ll talk about the Man vs Man stuff later. I feel it’s a mistake.
The second thing was the alien world. The setting and the creatures in it really intrigued me. The wild dogs acted like wild dogs, the weird alien scorpion things…we weird but they acted in a consistent manner, neither exhibiting supernatural intelligence or unbeatable super powers. They were just animals from another world. It was really well done and my hat is off to the effects team that animated them.
Next, Riddick feels like a real character. Not a real person, no, but he’s internally consistent. He’s a man with a code and he follows that. It’s admirable. Characters that keep their word, keep their promises to the audience as well. Also, Vin Diesel inhabits Riddick. He’s not playing a part, he’s being the part. That comes across. Lots of people play James Bond, damn few -if any- actually are James Bond. Diesel always knows what the character should do or would do and that shows.
The dog. A classic ‘pet the dog’ trope (or ‘save the cat’ for screenwriters) pulled off well. Whoever animated the dog, did a wonderful job. I have a 18 month old Rottweiler and he acts a lot like this alien dog does. The segments when he and Riddick are on screen together made me smile. When the dog died, I felt Riddick’s rage and determination for vengeance…and I wanted to go home and hug my dog.
The mercs. Most of them are a little two-dimensional but there are some standouts I want to discuss. One, Santana (Jordi Molla) could have stepped out of a spaghetti Western. He’s the kind of guy you love to hate. Every time he gets hit, you enjoy it. But he feels ruthless as well, you can see him more as a bandit than a merc to me but he’s well-played. Diaz by Dave Bautista felt real. The kind of ‘you don’t want to meet me in a dark alley’ kind of guy that you can really see selling his gun to the highest bidder. Not an idiot, either, which was refreshing. He even has some character touches, like his refusal to kill the dog when he could have (or that’s how I’m interpreting that). Most of all, Johns (Matt Nable) was a standout, in fact, this movie is really HIS movie and I’ll get into how and why (and why it shouldn’t have been). But on the whole, both merc teams had a kind of camaraderie that reminds me a lot of infantry squads I’ve known, seen and read about. Yes, the dialog is a mix of realistic and ‘movie speak’ but they didn’t feel like kill-crazy monsters or complete idiots, which is how mercs usually get depicted in movies and video games.
That’s most of the good stuff and I’m going to go on the bad and what didn’t work but keep in mind, I did like the movie. I had a good time watching it and I’d recommend it to anyone who liked the previous movies in the franchise. I hope we see more Riddick properties.
Ok, the bad.
POV change. This is a big one for me as it caused me some confusion as a writer and as a viewer. Riddick feels like two movies sandwiched together. For the first third, we are tightly in Riddick’s POV. We follow him as he tries to survive, we endure his narration (see my next point), and at no time does the camera leave him. This is not an omniscient POV movie at the beginning as, say, “The Hunt for Red October” is. But right after Riddick finds the service station, our POV switches and for the rest of the movie, we’re following the mercenaries. Riddick becomes a lurking threat, the monster in a slasher movie. There is so much so wrong with this, it makes my head spin. As a writer, you have establish your POV and stick with it. If we’re going to have multiple POVs, you need to have those scenes from someone else early. Worse, the story changes from Riddick’s story of survival to John’s story of his need of closure on his son’s death. Now Riddick is an archetypal character, like Conan, he doesn’t change. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is that his conflict is less compelling than the supporting character’s. Pitch Black, which introduced Riddick, has him in the opening narration but the story is pretty clearly the ensemble’s need to survive. You can also make the case that the story is Carolyn’s (Radha Mitchell), not Riddick’s. This movie is actually called Riddick and yet the main character all but disappears for the second third of the movie and remains in the background until the very last action scene in the movie. Very bad.
--how do you fix it? You establish the multiple POVs really early. Do a two minute scene with Johns grieving for his son and then getting news about Riddick fleeing the Necromongers. Because his ascension to Lord Marshall would not be a secret. Alternatively, pick one viewpoint character and stick with it. If that’s Riddick, show us him sneaking around, evesdropping, planting traps and planning his attacks. Or stick with the mercs all the way and keep Riddick as the monster.
The need to link the movies. Can’t we just forget about the Chronicles of Riddick? Clearly this movie wants to. Chronicles was a huge sci-fi adventure with invading armies and interstellar conflicts. A totally different beast from Pitch Black or Riddick. I actually liked Chronicles but it does not belong in the same plot line as either movies that bracket it. So, sadly, here we have to explain how we got from Chronicles, with Riddick trapped into being Lord Marshall of the Necromongers (in other words, written into a corner) to Riddick being injured and stranded on yet another abandoned world. (I’ll get into this trend of abandoned worlds next) This movie does this with a Karl Urban cameo (I liked him in this, actually) and some gratuitous nudity (which is very nice) which grinds the just-started movie to a halt.
--How do you fix it? Have Riddick flee the Necromongers and have them shoot his ship down. Start the movie with starship crash, which will also give you the callback to Pitch Black that Twohy wants so badly. That starts us out with action, drama and gives a plausible reason for Riddick to be here.
The empty universe. This is the second human-habitable planet we see in this universe that…doesn’t have any humans. But it does have abandoned supply and research stations. This time for…mercenaries. Huh? Look, I’ll buy that mercenary companies keep a cache of gear on different planets but I have a hard time seeing them share it with rivals. There is something very odd about the Riddick universe. There are prisons, Riddick is a fugitive from one, but there never seem to be any cops. (though Johns in the first movie is mistaken for one) Likewise, there don’t seem to be an interstellar governments or armies. Who is fighting the Necromongers? Where is the Star Patrol or Space Rangers? Starships may be expensive but that means its more likely to be owned by governments and corporations than private military corporations….or headhunters like Santanna’s outfit. What we have here is what feels like an abandoned universe. One where humanity spread out optimistically, terraformed worlds, mapped them, the fled and concentrated back on a handful of colony worlds. It feels like I’m missing something, some plague or war or social instability that happened in the past. I mean, why have Riddick find a mercenary outpost with a distress beacon? Wouldn’t a government facility make more sense? Who else would have the kind of money to construct them and the short-sightedness to abandon them?
--How do you fix it? Make it a government facility. Have mercs intercept the distress beacon, find out it’s Riddick and come screaming in. This gives us more time to set up the POV change and it gives the mercs a clock: They need to catch Riddick before the cops get here.
Narrative hiccups and the lack of threat setup. Say what you like about Chronicles, at least it’s a narrative straight line. We start with him running from (and killing) mercs and end with him as Lord Marshall of the Necromongers. Silly? Yes, but the plot moves him along. This movie is way more disjointed. We start with him wounded and half-armored with no idea of where he is or how he got there. (We never do find out where he is) Then we flash back to his time as Lord Marshall and his betrayal. Then we flash to him doing more survival stuff…but we don’t really know if that’s happing before the flashback or after. It’s very confusing. Eventually we can see that he’s well along on his attempts to survive, making tools and weapons and eating raw eels. We get the idea of the passage of time from the increase in his gear and from the advancing age of his alien dog but how much time? No idea. Based on my Rottweiler, I’m guessing at LEAST a year. But that’s not the impression the movie gives. Then we see the dog growling at the oncoming rainstorm. But we never see the results of the rainstorm. This is a huge fail. It fails to set up why Riddick wants off this planet before the rains come to the outpost (which begs several questions about the weather and the outpost and the world and the mercs and…sigh). Let’s hammer out the failures real quick: We fail to see that there are lots of the scorpion aliens in the ground, waiting to come to life in the rains. We don’t have any idea if rain is rare or not. We don’t know if the outpost has survived the rains before (it must have, right?). We don’t know if this kind of alien spawning season is documented anywhere. (At the very least, there should be warning flyers in the outpost or in the planetary notes). We don’t get any setup, what we have is hidden information and conveniently ignorant people. All for the cute payoff of the director playing “I know something you don’t know”. Now, you can hint at things without coming out and saying it, but there are still huge plot holes here. Then there’s the whole ‘neuter our spaceships so WE’RE trapped too’, which is so dumb even the characters in the movies call it out.
--How do you fix it? Two ways, the least-interesting lets you hide things from the audience. Give us a scene of Riddick and the dog watching the rains from some safe vantage point, say the jagged peak where the last action scene takes place. Don’t show us what he’s looking at, but show us his reaction. Show us horror and fear and we’ll say ‘hey, anything Riddick is scared of must be bad’ and then hype up the rains coming to the outpost. Make us dread it. But that’s weaksauce. The better way is to give us all the information and give the characters all the information they’d logically have. Let the mercs talk about the dry season. If it’s coming to an end, it’s another ticking clock for the mercs, more tension for them to get the job done and get off planet. It also shows the mercs as desperate or greedy and we can even see them take some intelligent precautions against the monster spawning season, giving us more things to go wrong for them (Man Vs Nature again, and Nature is too big to fight, usually). If we see the Mercs researching the planet, we the audience get to learn about it and become intrigued, rather than just try for the shock and surprise of seeing the monsters literally rising up out of the earth without warning.
The characters that didn’t work.
Oy. This might just be me but some of these characters just didn’t work for me. On the whole, Dahl (Katee Sachhoff…who has a magnificent rack, by the way and, yes, you will get to see all of it) didn’t work. For one thing, I kept thinking her name was ‘Doll’ which was a bold, borderline sexist name for her (which may have been appropriate. Soldiers are not plaster saints). She comes off as strong-ish but maybe a little too aggressive. Now this may actually fit. Any woman who chooses the profession of arms is walking into a world of troubles, with their eyes open. They may very well be trying to conform to the male idea of strength (ie. Beating the crap out of anyone who harasses you) but there are a couple of problems with that. One, men are stronger than women and they hit harder and can take a hit from a woman better. Yes, you can blur the lines a little with a combat-trained woman fighting against an untrained man but not with two people of roughly equal skill. There’s a reason women don’t compete against men in MMA unlimited weight class and it isn’t sexism. There’s at least one scene when Dahl is pinned to the ground by Santana and…we never see how she gets out of it. We just see some blood on the floor later. Now that is borderline funny and awesome and I didn’t hate the character. She was a lesbian (or at least she says she ‘doesn’t fuck guys’) but she doesn’t come off as hating all men. She is trusted and relied upon by her team and she fits in with them well without drama. All the hostility and rape threats comes from Santana and, oddly, Riddick. But here’s the thing, Carolyn from the first movie was a strong female character who didn’t try to be a man. Dahl, like Starbuck in BSG (also Sackhoff) is trying to compensate for being in a man’s profession by being ‘more manly’ than the men are. Ripley in Aliens didn’t need to do that to be strong. Neither did Naomi Watts’ character in Prometheus. Strong doesn’t always mean physical strength. All right, enough about her, most of you all are probably rolling your eyes at me already.
--How do you fix this? Make her strong without making her a less-sympathetic version of Vasquez in Aliens. Give her someone to care about, to show affection towards. And if you’re going to write her as a lesbian, don’t have her flirt with Riddick at the end. You didn’t see any of the guys there saying how much they wanted to fuck Riddick. Same thing, otherwise it’s just the ‘I can bang lesbians, I’m so cool’ trope and Riddick doesn’t need that.
In a more general sense, the merc characters didn’t work. There are places where characters who’ve been shown as competent and wary (like Lockspur played by Raoul Trujillo) become stupid, like Bokeem Woodbine’s Moss staring stupidly up at a skylight so an alien can nab him rather than grabbing cover and gunning up like we’d expect a combat veteran to behave. Then there’s Luna, played by Nolan Funk. He’s another one like Dahl that I was on the fence about. He’s the kid and the religious one. He comes off as being as out of place as a Mormon missionary at a gang fight. I will give the movie credit, it addresses how much he doesn’t fit in head-on. Santana calls him ‘his good luck charm’, I can see that. In fact, he even lives, much to my shock. And I like the fact that even in the future, people still have faith. There’s Luna here and there’s the Iman in Pitch Black and Riddick. One of the flaws of Science Fiction is the elimination of religion from the future. This series doesn’t do that. But despite that…he doesn’t work. He’s not as obnoxious as, say, ‘the religious guy’ in Doom but…he doesn’t work. Every time he opened his mouth I thought either how he didn’t fit in with bloodthirsty, greedy killers or I just wanted to smack him. I’ve heard some digs at the dialog and there are some dumb lines but on the whole, it worked for me. Remember, this is dialog, not real conversation. There is a place for writing the lines you’d wish you could think up if you had balls of steel and unlimited time. Nothing I heard stood out as out of character and if the character had witty comebacks and quotable dialog (retard bingo…still makes me laugh), well, it wasn’t nearly as bad as a Joss Whedon movie and people seem to like his dialog. (well, people who aren’t me)
--How do you fix it? Commit to the character, keep them consistent and write them like a real person. It’s not easy but your characters deserve it. You can still kill them but don’t kill smart characters like they’re the stupid characters.
The tech. This barely felt like the future in a lot of ways. None of the merc had drones, night vision goggles (or implants), satellite coverage or anything that really felt high tech. (And seriously, no night vision? At all?) They had some hover bikes and spaceships but other than that…they were just slightly less well-equipped than the LAPD today. I realize that they were on a budget, so I’m not going to beat them up too badly but it was a glaring fault. Heck, most of the guns the mercs used were just off the shelf firearms with the ‘bang’ sound replaced. I saw Springfield XDMs, Ruger LCPs, Beretta Storm carbines and what basically looked like M-4’s. No ray guns, heck the Necromonger guns seemed fake but they at least looked like sci-fi weapons and acted like them. It just didn’t feel like the future. Budget fail or imagination fail, you be the judge there.
--How do you fix it? Have the high tech gear break down or be stolen or whatever. A few grand extra on a prop guy to make your guns look sci-fi. Better effects for when they fire (though that’s going to cost a heck of a lot more than a few grand) or just commit to folks using bullets in the future. Aliens pulled it off, no reason they couldn’t here.
The wrong protagonist. I saved the biggest for last. We actually have a very well done, interesting, consistent, moral character here who suffers, goes through character changes and is tested. Unfortunately, it’s not Riddick. Mad props to Twohy for coming up with the character of Johns and for Matt Nable for knocking it out of the park in his portrayal. If and when I watch this movie again, it’ll be for him. Dahl is the character with a real motivation here, with a real problem and conflict. He needs to find out the truth about what happened to his beloved son (seen in Pitch Black) and only Riddick knows. He forgoes what seems like massive wealth for Riddick’s death bounty for just one thing: the truth. So he comes to this dangerous world, to capture a killing machine that he can’t afford to kill and he has to confront a dangerous rival mercenary who isn’t too smart but who is very ruthless. THIS IS THE PROTAGONIST. These are protagonist problems. All Riddick wants to do is get off planet. Yeah, he wants to find home, Furya. Big deal. Not a big enough motivation. He wants to survive. Again, big deal, everyone wants to survive. Riddick becomes boring after the mercs show up. Partly because he disappears from the screen and we stop following him, but also because his story and his needs are weaker. Instead, Riddick somehow becomes the arbiter of who is moral and who is honorable, believe it or not. Such a big fail and I’m sure it was unintended.
--How do you fix it? Well, you need to have Riddick need something from Johns. Maybe, dare I suggestion, absolution. Give Riddick some guilt over the Pitch Black incident. Maybe his animal side that keeps him alive, that kept him alive on this planet too, keeps him from having a family, form having close friends and comrades like John’s team. Make him admire and envy Johns. Riddick has to need. Alternatively, keep it the way it is, and let Johns be the main character. You can keep Riddick as the cool, archetypical badass who doesn’t need anyone or anything. Keep Riddick as the monster and let Johns carry the story. There’s plenty there to do it. It means swallowing your ego as an actor and director but it would be better than writing a story where your main character is less interesting than his antagoinists. See, Riddick only really shines when he’s interacting with someone and for most of the movie, he’s alone. Maybe getting him ebedded with the mercenaries earlier would be another help, but that doesn’t cover up the flaw that Riddick doesn’t NEED enough.
Anyway, thanks for reading or putting up with this over-analysis. Let me know what you think if you’ve seen the movie too.
I'll be honest, I delayed reading this book. Early reviews were not kind and I felt a strange reluctance to read the last Wheel of Time book. The last...
Maybe that was part of it. I had spent a lot of my life reading the Wheel of Time series. I'd loved it, been frustrated by it and influenced by it, sure. You get influenced by everything as a writer, the good and the bad, positively and negatively. So was it with the Wheel of Time series.
It did so many things well and did so many things wrong. I think it may be the last of the great multi-book doorstopper series. Though Brandon Sanderson and Tor may yet prove me wrong. So too did this last book do many things well and many things wrong. I want to talk about my reactions, both to what was there and what was not. This may ramble a bit but being more Sanderson than Jordan/Rigney, I hope to keep things on track.
The last book of the series at least does feel like an ending. And a new beginning clearly starting. In that, A Memory of Light is like the Return of the King, quite deliberately so. One age is ending and another begins. Obviously I would have preferred that Jordan had lived to finish the series he'd started but Sanderson might have been the BEST of all possible people to complete it.
So let's start talking about it. First, a summary of what happens and then what worked, what didn't and some final thoughts.
Now I'm going to talk about the series as a whole lightly but my main focus is on the truly last book, A Memory of Light which is actually the last 1/3rd of the last book Jordan/Rigney had planned. However, there were way too many plot threads to fit in even a Sanderson-sized doorstopper so the book was broken into thirds. I'm mostly going to focus on this last book, on the ending of the story.
The book concerns the Last Battle, long promises and prophesied, both the physical battle between the Fades, Trollocs and the humans as well as the metaphysical battle between the Dark One and the Dragon. The Dragon, Rand Al'Thor, acting very serene and not at all insane (not even a little bit), has time for a brief interlude with his three beloved before the battle begins. We spend a little bit of time with several characters and then the battle itself is joined. The whole novel, the whole series is pointed towards this battle and though we have some very effective scenes, particularly the prologue, everything is pointed to the battle itself. And the battle is itself about as long as many books. I'm not even exaggerating. After a final touch on several characters, the battle begins. Rand confronts the Dark One, intending nothing less than KILLING him for good. The humans fight against impossible odds and very questionable strategy and in the end, the good guys win. Did it meet it's goal? Yes, it did end the story and it mostly satisfies. That's the rough summary and it's vague, I know but the devil is in the details.Let's move on to them.
Plot threads resolved:
We get resolution of several long-hanging threads, with mixed results. I'll deal with the dangling ones and the missed opportunities and expectations in a bit. So what got resolved?
Who killed Asmodean? Yes, this was answered but in SUCH an offhanded way that I'm going to move this down into the 'dangling and poorly done' section below.
Rand: The most satisfying resolution is Rand, his fate as the Dragon and his relationship with his friends. We do see him fulfill his destiny and we see just how semi-divine he almost seems. For some, that might be a little over the top but it satisfied me, seeing his very presence making the wasted land bloom. No longer Taveren at the end and no longer in his body..which is odd beyond words. His three women and Cadsune seem to know he's 'alive' but we never see him interact with any of them after his transmigration. Very odd. But he is free and oddly empowered, without the one power but able to seemingly alter reality. No resolution to the whole Dragon/Lews Therin/Third voice in his head at the very end.
Moriane: Rescued by Mat and Thom in a previous book, she reappears and stands with Rand at the end. She's a little 'Moraine ex Machina' at times but it was very good to see her in the few scenes she directly has with Rand.
Mat: Remains a jerk, also remains with Tuon, a woman who still doesn't really seem to love him but tolerates him. Also doesn't seem to have his wandering eye fixed, since he has only one left, could be a problem. Commands the Last Battle, thanks to some bafflingly bad strategy, this is a very close fight won, appropriately enough, more by luck than skill. Which is a little disappointing. Not present with Rand at the end, which was also disappointing. Ends up accepting being a Noble (The Prince of Ravens) and joining the Seanchan. Doesn't blow the Horn of Valere in the Last Battle. WTF?
Perrin: Spends most of the book chasing Slayer/Luc. Sleeps through the Last Battle (?!) appears near Rand near the very end but can't really be said to have helped him. Ends up fairly assertive and content and a master of the Wolf Dream, which is satisfying. Also ends up with Faile at the end, which is less-so.
Faile: One of my least-favorite women in this series, which is stiff competition. Her personality like most of the characters in Sanderson's take, is sanded down to blandess. Which is an improvement. Manages to almost get the Horn to Mat. Does manage to ride off to distract the Trollocs chasing the Horn and Olver, seemingly sacrificing her life. But not really, sadly.
Nynaeve: Another contender for worst character, she also is sanded down to nothing. Is present with Rand in his duel and does help him save the world. Doesn't throw a snit fit until the very end of the book, which was welcome. Almost not in the book.
Lan: Somehow, Lan becomes the main hero of the book. A real "Aragorn clone", he somehow becomes a battlefield commander of great skill and ability (which is a common skill in this last book, every main character seems to be one) and is the man who finally kills Demandred. Somehow survives being run through with a sword. Personality and background drifts but ends up being King of Malkier and possibly other Borderland kingdoms as well. Still Nynaeve's Warder, though. Very cool character but suffers from character drift in this book.
Morgase: BARELY mentioned or used. The former Queen of Andor was mostly disposed of in previous books. She has a cameo organizing civilians briefly. Does not interact with Elayne or her sons, even at their death.
Tuon: Empress in truth, she is very untrustworthy and has to basically be brownbeaten into helping in the Last Battle. Still, could be worse, I suppose. Several people are allowed to stand up to her but there's barely an indication that she's going to change as a character. She's still blind-stubborn in her beliefs. Supposedly, she talks to the Spirit of Artur Hawkwing but it happens off camera, which is baffling. Still a supporter of Slavery, storing up trouble for the future, I suspect. Ends up supporting Mat and pregnant by him, which may actually make it easier for her to kill him off, which seems half joke and half serious. Or maybe more than half serious.
Egwene: Worst character derailment in the series. Leads the White Tower but doesn't feel like the person we've read about for 10+ books. Stupid-stubborn like Tuon but admirably focused on the Last Battle. Dies in combat, one of the few main characters to fall.
Gawyn: Huge dumbass. Sorry, but that's the only word for him. Stupid and suspicious, pays for his arrogance and disobedience by getting killed by Demandred. Very satisfying ending. His death pushes Egwene pretty close to the edge, which was actually unsatisfying since if anyone deserved a final goodbye death scene, those two stupid kids did.
Galad: Gains a little tolerance but just a little. Actually is rather admirable in the Last Battle, attempts to fight Demandred but loses an arm. Ends up in Berelains's fortress in Mayene where I suspect he'll remain in her bed, arm missing or not. Not well wrapped up, we're not sure what his final fate is or that of the Children of Light.
Berelain: Relegated to a support role, which she performs well. No sex kitten games, for better or for worse. Houses the wounded in Mayene and arranges for triage. Not present at Last Battle, though her Winged Guard are. Also not resolved but we can safely assume she'll be a power in the future.
Lanfear: Shows up for the final act. ALMOST turns to the light but decides to stab Rand in the back. Her and Rand/Lews Therin's drama is well-resolved. Killed by Perrin in the wolf dream after she tries to Compel Perrin into helping her kill Rand.
Aviendha: Her arc is complete and has joined the world of the grown ups. She is a Wise One now, not a Maiden of the Spear, fully. Which is more of a character arc than a derailment, though she also doesn't feel quite right, she's not too far off. Gets her swerve on with Rand in the end and manages to neutralize Grendal almost on purpose, half by accident. Gets her swerve on with Rand in a pretty big way. Implied she's pregnant and due to damage to her feet, unable to fight ever again. Not sure I buy that in a world with healing but anyway... Her relationship with Rand seems very strong now, but there's no final resolution of whether she'd go after him or not. Seems unlikely with her strong Wise One focus now but she also had strong feelings for him. Very frustrating lack of resolution there.
Elayne: Everyone's least favorite spoiled rich girl remains spoiled and stubborn. And hugely pregnant. And a tactical and strategic prodigy. Sigh. Needless to say, despite extreme risk and even injury, there's no risk to her precious babies. Seriously, if every anyone should have miscarried, it should be her but she pays no price for her risks, as always. Leads armies at various times in the Last Battle, survives, though Camelyn is mostly destroyed, she saves a chunk of Andor. No strong resolution but also can be assumed to be a power in the next age. It seems very unlikely she'd go following Rand but that's not resolved, either.
Min: Mostly ignored in the book. Ends up as a clerk in the army ??? But then gets sent to Tuon who seizes her and basically drafts her into being her own, personal slave/Doomsayer. Min surprisingly goes along with this and with her talent to see symbols, manages to influcence Tuon very effectively. I enjoyed that. Still very loyal to Rand, though we never seem them together in this book and rarely see her thinking about him. So some character derailment but she manage to smoke out Moghedien and a Compelled Seanchan general. Not with Rand at the end of the book but aware that he's alive. Very strange ending, since I'd assume she'd be riding off into the sunset/sunrise with him if anyone would.
Tam Al'Thor: Actually gets some nice screen time, finally. Leads the Two Rivers folk in battle. We get to see him as the blademaster he is. Very pleasing. Does not know Rand survives, grieves for his loss and lights Rand's funeral pyre.
Demadred: Yeah....guy who comes out of nowhere with the entire nation of Shara behind him. Incredible General, Incredible channeler..he's Gary Stu for the dark side. VERY, very dissatisfying appearance as he really should have been Mazrim Taim. Ends up beating Galad, killing Gawyn and getting killed by Lan. Some nice touches to the character, though, with his relationship with his paramour. Feels like there's a lot more story there than we get to see, disappointing that we never do, though.
The Forsaken: Mostly killed in the run up to the Last Battle. Moghedien gets captured/enslaved in a Seanchan coffle. Lanfear is dead. Grenedal, the most effect of them all really, is Compulsioned and fixated on Aveindha. And ugly. Such heavy-handed irony, it makes me wince.
Logain: More character derailment. Comes off as a power-hungry, almost power-man man. Tortured and nearly turned to shadow but doesn't break before his rescue. Balls of steel. But then damn near sits out the Last Battle, thinking only of the Black Tower he'll rule afterwards and his own lust (damn near literally) for power and control. Went from being almost heroic, or literally heroic, in previous books to being an ass in this book. Ends up saving some civilians from trollocs and they seem to like him. No real resolution but it seems to imply that he liked being loved by the civilians he saved. But there's no ending to his character arc.
Mazrim Taim/ M'Hael: Man, I hardly know what to say...mustache-twirling villain. Ends up being promoted into the ranks of the Forsaken, working for Demadred rather than BEING Demandred. Gets killed by Egwene's red rage of revenge, turned into crystal or something...the opposite of banefire or whatever.
Lord Luc/Slayer: Seems to be allied to the Shadow with the intent on killing Rand or something. It's a bit unclear just what his deal is and why he's important. He always felt like a plot thread that should have been resolved books ago. Killed by Perrin in the Wolf Dream.
Padan Fain: Surprise! He shows up for a chapter. Then gets killed by Mat as he's transforming into the evil mist of Shador Logoth. I actually found his burgening transformation interesting but he shows up and gets killed SO out of nowhere I was left scratching my head.
Julin Sandar (Thief Taker): Oddly, has a few cameos where we're in his POV and we get to hear how scared and confused and disgusted he is and how much he trusts Rand. Left no impresion, had to grab google to recall who he is. Such a big change from one of the main supporting characters of the second, third and fourth books.
Olver: It's never resolved if he's Gauidal Cain or not. Very disappointing. Ends up discovering real fights and real battles are scary. Stabs a darkfriend in the back and ends up blowing the Horn of Valere. Thanks to some odd plot logic, this works and he summons the heroes of the horns to the Last Battle. I didnt' hate him, he wasn't out of character but he is just...unresolved.
Brigette: Turns into a winging, weak woman. Big time character derailment. Spends her time bemoaning her lost memories. Gets killed but comes back when the horn is blown. Says goodbye to Elane after making sure the little blonde shrew can't access the Horn of Valere. Ends up being the hero again after her death and summoning, which was nice but up until that...man, so not the same person as Jordan/Rigney wrote.
Cadsune: Still a witch. Has a few small scenes, recognizes Rand is alive at the end, somehow. Also ends up being drafted as the new Amyrilian. God help everyone.
The Aiel: End up being the world's policemen, enforcing a treaty between the Seanchan and the rest of the world. Not a bad ending, avoiding the worst of the possible futures Aveindeha saw.
Seanchan: End up holding the west coast countries in an iron grip and half the south. Storing up trouble to come, that's for sure. But they can fight and their help tips the balance for the humans. Still, hard to stomach them.
The Creator: Has a one sentence cameo, just to prove he'd been there in the beginning, I guess. Odd but, there you go. God exists.
Everyone else :) The world is saved, there is destruction but not a new Breaking of the World, which was what was promised. Lots of dead kings and commoners but the basic structures of society and history are not wiped out. On the whole, the Trolloc wars of the past were worse than this. There are some minor characters who get a line or two of mention here but that leads me on to my first problem with the series and the last book in particular. Just look at that list above. And that's a very bare bones summary, leaving people out. There aer too many damn characters and plot threads for a final book! But we'll get to that later. Let's look at what worked.
First, mad props to Brandon Sanderson. He stepped into this role as a very much new writer. Yeah, he had a few novels under his belt and more unpublished novels on top of that but he stepped up to the plate and did what Jordan/Rigney couldn't do: He made things happen.
The pace of the book is great. Mostly. Sanderson uses an effect technique of short chapters and scene changes, he jumps us around from POV to POV, keeping the page turns coming. This is a marked difference from Jordan's style. He favored long chapters that were superbly immersive. That is a style change and for THIS book, it works. It's what was needed. But there's a cost to it and I'll get to that below.
It ends. True, not all threads are wrapped up but Sanderson did take Jordan/Rigney's ending and tied it all together. No small accomplishment. But the series is over, for the better.
The sandpaper. Sanderson influence here mostly is seen in changes to characters. Though they lose much of their vivid personalities in his hands, they also loose the rough, needlessly-stupid, edges. The annoying characters, of which there are Legion in the Wheel of Time, are softened. People act more like REAL people and not as sniffing, hair tugging, catchphrase-spewing characters. They actually act appropriately, whether it's Perrin refusing to 'sit' when Nyneve tells him to or Min's refusal to allow Tuon to act murderously indescriminate based on Min's readings, everyone acts like grown ups. That is refreshing.
The gender politics. There is a lot, LOT less of the 'men are so stupid and they broke the world and ruin everything' vibe in this book. Probably because every women in the book is no longer saying that on every page. Honestly, the whole matriarchal society stuff is put aside in the interest of working together. As someone who's grown up during the battle of the sexes, it was nice to see Sanderson put an end to it in fiction at least. Men and women treat each other as equals. As they should.
The Last Battle. I have lots and lots of nits to pick here. I suspect Jordan/Rigney would have done a better job with the battle, it's just not Sanderson's forte. However, it is epic and it is big and the many moving pieces....sorta work. I'll talk more about it below but the Last Battle does feel like the LAST Battle. Likewise the Dark One's touch on the world really does make it feel like the world is ending. That was well done.
Character resolutions. Yeah, I have a lot of nits to pick here but Sanderson did manage to make peace between a lot of characters, ending long-standing, stupid grudges that have persisted for book after book. Though some characters got dropped, most everyone at least got a moment in the spotlight. It didn't always work but when it did, it satisfied.
The Magic. This, not personal or large-unit tactics, is Sanderson's wheelhouse. The use of the One Power is kicked way up than just a notch. It's devestating and awe-inspiring. Jordan/Rigney himself couldn't have done better. In fact, some of the power uses are really inventive and I liked seeing how tactics and even (potentiall) society will change based on how Portals were used.
Androl. Who was this guy? If Rand is the star of a Memory of Light, Androl s co-star. Head and shoulders above every other character besides Rand, Androl ust owns his role. He's fascinating, heroic, flawed, limited, wise. I'd read a whole novel about just him. He doesn't save the world but he is the hero of the book.
The Cover. Just glorious art. Michael Whelan is SO much better than ol' Sweet. He did hide Rand's missing hand, though. A bit of a cheat.
Woo-boy. I'll try to stay focused and not just rand and roar.
Too much Sandpaper. Yes, it's a bad thing. We spent ten books getting to know these characters in Jordan/Rigney's voice. The phrases and attitudes grated but there were other intangibles that just got lost in Sanderson's adaptation. Egwene was simply not the same person she'd been once Sanderson took over and honestly, she's not even the same person she was in previous volumes of the climax. The same is true for many of the characters. They gain skills and ability based on the plot's needs, not based on who they are. Take Lan for example. He's been protrayed very consistently: a stoic Warder, a blademaster, an observer. He's never been a leader nor have we seen him leading armies. He's basically a Sergeant Major, a top-ranked NCO. I'll be he could command a lance of cavalry or platoon of infantry but not an army. Elane, same story, she suddenly has all this command and logistic knowledge. It just doesn't fit with her backstory any more than a teenaged military academy graduate could run an entire battle. I could go on at length but I'll leave it be: the characters are not who they were.
Not enough detail. The one thing Jordan better than just about anyone, was craft a world that had detail. Too much detail, sometimes, but you knew he could SEE this world, odd as it was. You trusted him, maybe too much. But Sanderson's adaptation is missing all those details of dress and terrain that made the Wheel of Time stand out. Now time and pagecount was precious, I understand that. But it's a flaw in the series. And speaking of...
Too many characters. This one lays mostly at Jordan/Rigney's feet. There are too, too many people to keep track of. And too many of them don't matter. There should have been, at most, 6 POV characters in this story. By not letting us get into and stay inside any one character's perspective, we lose depth. But what can you do with a cast of literally hundreds of characters? Too many POVs dilutes immersion and to this story's detriment.
Asmodean. This is another example of Jordan/Rigney just fucking with the fans and it gives weight to my assumption of why Demadred just appears out of nowhere instead of being Taim. Grendedal is the killer of Rand's first channeling teacher, Asmodean but the reveal is made in an aside, as a summary. There's no drama, no revelation, not weight given to it. He didn't care and he mocked us who did care.
The protagonists not fighting together. If there's one thing I've been waiting from since the Eye of the World, it was to see Rand, Perrin and Mat facing the Dark One and the Last Battle together. The story had been pushing them towards this, even flat-out telling them that if they weren't with Rand at the Last Battle, he'd lose. And...it didn't happen. They didn't fight together. In fact, it would have been hard not to push them further apart from each other. Let me go a little more in-depth with this problem.
--Rand: Rand was supposed to be the leader. He is the most powerful channeler in the world. He has Lews Therin (and someone else) inside his head telling him secrets no one else could know, even the Forsaken. He should be the unquestioned leader and commander. Under his banner, the Heroes of the Horn are supposed to ride. But when the Last Battle comes, the Dragon is not there. What a sucker punch.
--Perrin: Leader of the wolves, strong and powerful, a king to be is how Jordan/Rigney has been positioning him. But he spends most of the Last Battle either chasing one single jerk or asleep. I...I hardly have the words. What a waste! What a waste of the character, of opportunity, of storytelling. He should have truly been warding Rand's back the whole time, instead of suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Proving himself on the field of battle would have made him a possible king of not just The Two Rivers but of Saldea as well, which is missing its kings, which would have made his marriage to Faile actually useful in the end.
--Mat: Mat, Mat, Mat...whiner, complainer, joker. Had he of his own will come to the battlefield and chosen to fight alongside Rand....wow, what a powerful character statement that would have been. To stop fighting the ta'veren pull and embrace who he was and what he must do. But he doesn't. Not to mention that having someone with his battle skills running the battle would have been even more amazing if it had come from a unified front, supported by Rand. Imagine what could have been! We have to, it didn't happen.
The Black Tower. The Battle of Dumani Wells was one of the greatest moments in my reading life. And it was just a preview of what was to come in the Last Battle. But Jordan/Sanderson keeps Rand away from the Black Tower after setting it up. Why? Honestly, I don't see the point. Fear of a trap? What kind of protagonist walks in fear of a possible trap? He should have sprung it, netting another Forsaken in the process and he could have done it well before now and not clogged up the last book. Wading into battle with a united Black Tower to stand beside the White...again, a powerful, heroic possibility wasted.
Demandred. Oh God, how this pisses me off. Every sign in the books pointed towards Mazrim Taim being Demandred. I am utterly convinced that the only reason Jordan/Rigney didn't let that fall was that he didn't want to do what his fans had figured out. If Taim and been Demandred, then we would have had one of the Forsaken alongside Rand all this time. All the ravings and feelings of danger from Lews Therin would have been validated. And we wouldn't have needed to produce this 'diablos ex machina' from out of nowhere. It cheapened the story and cheapened both characters. Petty or foolish, take your pick but Demandred lost all his cool points by appearing out of thin air to be: a more powerful channeler than anyone at the Last Battle, a better swordsman than anyone there, a better general than Mat and they even gave him a hot chick to stand around him and coo at him. Disgraceful. What a waste!
The battles. Simply put, not Sanderson's strong suit. Geography is confused. Details of individual fights were ok sometimes and VERY vague at other times. Tactics more or less make sense but only on a specific scene level. We never see how things fit together. Look, we can't all be David Drake, I get that, but whatever research Sanderson put into studying late medieval warfare wasn't quite enough. The battle is too confusing, timelines are garbled, strategy is...odd. I realize some of this is due to the Great Captains being Compelled by Grenedal but...four widely-dispersed battlefields? Really? And outnumbered and out-powered at each? Who thought that was a good idea? Here is where Mat and Rand should have been ordering things.
The Body Switch: This is cheesy at best. IF Rand had planned this, set it up or even seized the opportunity somehow, it would have been a LITTLE better. But only a little. But even that doesn't happen. We have no explanation of what happened, how Rand ended up in someone else's body. It literally makes no sense, it's not telegraphed by any power or weave Rand or Lews Therin knows. The Dark One can apparently put minds into new bodies but we don't see him doing this (and why would he?).
The Ending: Nothing in resolved. We have an ending to the Last Battle, yes and the Dark One is sealed again, as telegraphed. But we have no resolution of what is going to happen to everyone. The book just stops. We don't get any indication who Rand will end up with, what's going to happen to Min and her position at the Seanchan court, to Elande and her babies, to Aviendha and her Wise Woman duties. We know they are aware of his being, due to the bond (which shouldn't work since he can't channel), but they don't react. And we don't get to see them react or speak to him as they think he's dying or reunite with him in his new body. Nothing. We hear Mat ask Hawkwing to talk to Tuon. Does he? What did they say? We don't know, we never find out, it's never shown. After pulling off a needlessly complicated climax, the denoument is left to drift. Disapointing. Look, I know JUST how sick you can get of a book by the end of writing it. Where you never want to look it it again. Often endings suffer like this because the author doesn't have the mental energy to fix it. Is that what happened here? Or did Jordan, with his notes from the grave, dictate this non-ending?
Hm. Ok, I'll stop there. The number of plot threads that are left hanging and missed opportunities could probably take a good dozen pages more but if anyone is still reading this, I'll take pity on you. So final thoughts.
Would I recommend this series to a new reader? Yes, with cavets.
The short answer is, read the first six books and the last three Sanderson collaborations. I'd love to tell people to skip the third book too, but that's a tough one.
Jordan/Rigney just didn't know how to pace things. The pace of the first two books is a hurtling towards the Last Battle. Things happen. But then...we don't see Rand at all in the third book, and he is the narrative heart of this story. The rest of it, the girls quest to be Aes Sedi is...interesting, I guess. But it doesn't advance the plot, it really doesn't The bowl of wings plot line in the 7th book, the whole White Tower split plotline, the Prophet of the Dragon plotline..so much of it is not needed. It is worldbuilding on a grand scale but it's not plot. It's almost not story. It's distraction. Look, the glorious thing about the Wheel of Time is being immersed in the world, living in it. But that can't be the only reason to read. We need things to happen, things that matter.
Sitting back, thinking about the book, even with it fresh in my mind...only a few things stand out: Rand in the Bore, trying to create a world without the Dark One and seeing that choice matters. Fleeting images of channelers lashing the last survivors at the Last Battle. Rand and Aviendha, sharing a final, tender night. Perrin telling Nyneve that dogs sit, wolves don't. Mat getting his fingers lacquered as slaves dress him. Gawyn getting killed. Lan killing Demandred. That's about it. Too much of the book just...slips by. Part of that is the veloicity of how things move, changing scenes, changing POV every couple of pages. It works for James Patterson, to create a pageturner but the other side of it is we hurtle too quickly past moments that should linger. The overall feeling from the book is that its done, not that 'I'm glad its done' or even, as I feared, 'I'm sad it's done'.
I honestly want to go back, now and read the first few books. Jordan/Rigney did SO much right in his first book, The Eye of the World, when it was supposed to be the first book of a TRILOGY. Even most of the Great Hunt for the Horn has energy and motion. But at the same time, we had a world that invited us to witness it. It didn't hustle us towards the exits. Those early books make me feel a lot of emotions, happiness being the main one, I think. This one just makes me feel....done.
In my analysis of why I haven’t been writing anything satisfying, I came to a couple of worthwhile conclusions. Let me share one here.
A good story can be defined as: “An interesting character with an interesting problem”. Vague, I know but hey, defining what a story is, isn’t as easy as you might think. Now I used ‘interesting’ twice there and I’ll get to that in a future post but I want to focus on the character part.
Without an interesting character, I have a hard time writing. With an interesting character, I have a hard time NOT writing. For me, creating someone and them letting them loose is the best kind of exploratory writing. I can create vivid, realistic, well-rounded characters in my head. Then I just let them loose in a situation, that’s how some of my favorite stories (mine and other people’s) work.
However, for the last few months, I haven’t actually sat down and CREATED anyone. I think that’s where all my flailing came from, or part of it at least. And for me, without a compelling character, I don’t have anything to latch onto. I have this issue in movies, as well. If I don’t care about the main character, I am not going to care about the movie. One of the things Iron Man 3 (and the entire Downey Iron Man franchise) did well was it created a character that I wanted to watch. Because of that, I was willing to go along with an unconventional superhero story and even enjoy it. Compare that to Michael Bay’s Transformers or the new Lone Ranger movie…when your main character is annoying or goofy idiot (And that covers both character leads), I don’t care about anything that happens to them. In fact, I hope BAD things happen to them…which never does occur, much to my sadness.
So, on Monday, I sat down to interview some characters. I mean that quite literally, I created an interviewer persona and interviewed three characters. Now, I had NO idea who I was going to talk to, at first. In fact, my first line of faux dialog was me (the interviewer) asking, “What is your name?” He answered “Sam. The E is silent”. And it went from there. I ended up talking to a vivid, brute of an ex-cop who works as a dirty PI. I had no idea what to expect and…out he came and the more I talked to him, the more vivid he became. Now, when the time comes, I can bring Sam(e) back as a main character or a NPC or an antagonist. Second character, I decided to talk to a female private eye, so I did the same thing, this time starting the interviewer out with a compliment. I ‘said’, “you look nice” and she responded back with something like, “Thanks, everything I own is either tight or short” and I could see the grin on her face. This was someone who didn’t apologize for dressing well and when I ‘talked’ to her, her intelligence and manipulative nature came out, so did her loyalty to her friends and her ability to see past surface appearance. I thought that was interesting for someone so good looking, but it sorta made sense. But I realized I’d written to modern-day (more or less) noir type characters. I wanted to write something different. I wanted to write some sci-fi.
That’s what I did different for my last ‘interview’. I told myself I was going to interview someone from a sci-fi story. I fixed in my mind the kind of story, even: an alien invasion story. And, the funny thing is, I ended up interviewing…basically an alien, coming to Earth** to warn us about an impending alien invasion, one who decided to stay and help us. And as I interviewed him, I realized I was actually telling a superhero story. Unexpected and very cool AND…this is important…exactly the kind of story I wanted to read.
That’s something I mess up on, sometimes. So desperate to be a professional writer am I, that I start writing stories I think will SELL and not stories I want to read. That’s a hard balance to strike and it can become a blocking issue for me.
Anyway, I have some characters now, next I have to create the world for them to stand on. This is going to be a lot of work, too, but you know what….it’s worth it. Give the interview a try if you get stuck, if you're like me, once you have a character, everything else starts sorting itself out.
*Except when it starts with something else.
**actually moved it off Earth to a colony world