Friday, July 15, 2011

Review - Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I said in my “Upcoming Reviews” post that I would review Under Heaven and Across the Nightingale Floor together. I lied. I decided Under Heaven deserved its own review. But I’ll get around to Nightingale Floor soon enough.

I hope.

Prior to the last few months, I’ve read little Asian-inspired fantasy. I can’t say exactly why that is. My fascination has always been with European history, myth, and legend. Native American history and mythology has always had a pull on me as well.

But the Far East has primarily stayed off the radar. The history of the Silk Road countries – the Middle-East, China, India, etc… – is fascinating, and has an immense bearing on the European history that I confessed an interest in earlier. The Far East gave Europe spices, weapons, slaves, new modes of thought, Ghengis Khan, and the Black Death, amongst many, many other things. European history would be far different without them.

So what, exactly, does it take to draw me to an Asian fantasy novel? Guy Gavriel Kay, of course.

Kay is one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and moving fantasy novelists writing today. His historically-inspired fantasy novels – particularly Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, & A Song For Arbonne – deserve to be mentioned among the very best fantasy novels ever, in my opinion.

So when I noticed the release of his newest book late last year, Under Heaven, I knew I had to have it, even if it’s subject was outside of my realm of knowledge. Especially since it was outside my realm of knowledge.

Under Heaven lives up to its promise in just about every way. Kay once again captures the essence of a time period, in this case Tang Dynasty China. It is full of snippets of song and poetry, lyrical fragments that echo the beauty of traditional Chinese verse and is full of recurring Far Eastern imagery:

    Why sir, it is true: on the shores of Kuala Nor
    White bones have lain for many years.
    No one has gathered them. The new ghosts
    Are bitter and angry, the old ghosts weep.
    Under the rain and within the circle of mountains
    The air is full of their cries.

The narrative follows the stories of two protagonists: Shen Tai, who has gone to the battleground of Kuala Nor in his grieving time after his father’s death to honor the dead; and his sister Li-Mei, who in Tai’s absence has been given as a bride to the leader of the barbarian Bogü people north of the wall.

For his work honoring and burying the battlefield dead, Tai is given a priceless gift that sets off a chain reaction of political intrigue, with Tai at the center, and he has to fight to merely stay alive. Meanwhile, north of the wall, Li-Mei finds herself in mysterious, unexpected company.

The characters are exactly what one expects out of a Kay novel – fully-rounded, interesting, thoughtful. Kay’s protagonists are a thoughtful bunch, and Shen Tai and Li-Mei are no exception.

And as usual, even the antagonists of the story are shown in their many shades of grey. Self-centered, stubborn, and power-hungry, certainly. But fully human in their desires and goals, as prone to mistakes and miscalculations as anyone else.

I have read elsewhere online that many were not happy with the ending. The novel does change pace during the final third of the novel, as if Kay had far too much story to wrap up within a single volume. The main narrative arc of the novel comes to rest directly before the primary action that the novel has been building toward, and I can see how some might find it anti-climactic.

I, however, struggle to find fault with it. Can you have a novel that takes place directly before the start of WWII? Does it then have to encompass WWII, or can it merely encapsulate its events and the parts the characters played in those events? That is the situation here – wherein the main novel essentially ends prior to a major event – and that event (and our characters’ roles in that event) are wrapped up epilogue-style, as if by a future historian looking back.

While I don’t find fault with the hurried dénouement of Under Heaven, I did find myself wishing to spend more time in Kay’s alternate China. I certainly wouldn’t have been opposed to two books to tell the entire tale.

By turns beautiful and heartbreaking, Under Heaven is not to be missed.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Upcoming Reviews

Due to my general laziness (I may have mentioned this previously), I’m several books behind on my reviewing. I started with the intention of reviewing most of the books I read this year.

So an idea of what you can expect forthcoming in the next few weeks:

  • The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Across the Nightingale Floor by Liam Hearn
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones
  • Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I probably won’t review all of the aforementioned books, depending upon time and desire. Since there are some similarities between them in setting and tone, I will likely do a joint review of Under Heaven and Across the Nightingale Floor. Compare and contrast, that sort of thing. I feel almost bad to do that to Nightingale Floor, since it was a solid first novel, but very few novels compare well with Kay’s best works.

Currently Reading:

  • The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (audio).

The Rothfuss book will be joining the list of “To Be Reviewed” shortly. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Into a Dark Wood - Reviewing Robert Holdstock

 I stumbled across a recent (and excellent) review / overview of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood” cycle over at The Green Man Review, and it got me to thinking about the books.

If you’ve never read them, these books are some of the most mind-blowing, original, puzzling, and under-appreciated novels in the fantasy genre. And they’re nearly impossible to explain. They’re “you had to be there” novels, because nothing I say can clearly capture, or even loosely capture, the essence of Holdstock’s novels.

Ryhope Wood is a small tract of forest in Herefordshire, England. It’s approximately three miles across. You could ride around it entirely in a few hours. But inside, once you breach its outer defenses, it is both timeless and nearly endless. You could travel for lifetimes without reaching the far side.

What Holdstock does in these novels is capture that most difficult thing in all of writing to capture. Magic. I mean real magic. Not fireballs and unicorns and all the other stuff genericized by the larger part of the fantasy genre as “magic”. I’m talking real bone and sinew magic. Echoes in the blood magic. That fleeting feeling that momentarily comes over you when you hear a snatch of music, or smell a campfire, or feel a sudden kinship – however briefly – with your older, deeper self. The self that still remembers cold nights huddled over smoldering fires in the primeval forest. The self that remembers the smell of animal-skin clothing and the taste of rare boar meat.

These books won’t appeal to everyone. They are difficult. Opaque. Unlike most fantasy novels, the reader never fully understands the rules of the wood. As soon as something starts to become clear, we realize we are walking on quicksand and must move aside and reconsider things. Quickly. If you think you are aware of where one of the novels is heading, there is a good chance that you are dead wrong.

The books venture into the labyrinth of the subconscious, the hidden parts of our mind that we can’t directly access but are there nonetheless, living fragments of our latent human instincts, remnants of our “survival of the fittest” past when each day was a struggle to survive. As such, the labyrinth is the recurring theme of the books. The mind and the forest are reflections of one another, labyrinths, and each character travels in toward the dark, unmapped center in search of the self.

Is there really a collective subconscious? I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. And I’m certain psychologists couldn’t agree on an answer either. But reading these novels, it certainly feels true. And for those with a background or an interest in mythology and mythological symbolism, these books are a treasure-trove.

These books aren’t without their faults. They are unevenly paced. Their strangeness is sometime off-putting, keeping the reader at arm’s length. Since they operate on a different set of rules, we don’t often clearly understand the characters’ motivations, and it causes us to mentally question the decisions they make.
These are quibbles, really, in the greater scope of things. Because these are great, great books. If you are a reader of fantasy literature and you haven’t read any of the Ryhope novels, you are missing out on one of the truly great series of this (or any other) genre. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Oh, and start with Mythago Wood. It’s the right way to introduce yourself to Ryhope.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Laziness and other Virtues

I’m terribly overdue for a few new posts. I’ve been on silent mode. Mute.

Why, you ask?

It’s complicated. Incredibly, densely complicated. Remember theoretical physics? Complicated like that.

I’m lying, of course. I never took theoretical physics. And if I had, well…I suppose it’s probably best for my self-confidence that I didn’t.

I haven’t posted because…wait for it…I’m lazy. This is therapeutic, right? Admission is the first step on the road to recovery.

I’ve got a long streak of laziness that creeps past my blogging (or anti-blogging as it might be called) activities and into my everyday life. I’m working to conquer it. I’m just not working very hard. That’s my only pun, I promise.

This is the bane of my writing life (and also my home- and yard-care regimen, according to mine own dear wife). But, you see, conquering my reluctance to actually sit down and write is the very reason I started this blog. I wanted to cultivate the habit of writing. Every. Single. Day.

Even when it’s hard.

Even when I’m tired, or lacking confidence, or distracted, or when I don’t have a single idea what to write.

That last point was the blog’s intention. Random thoughts. Spew out my ideas on music, or baseball, or family, or a recent book I’ve read. I’ve got plenty of them rolling around up there in my cluttered, disorganized mess of a mind. It’s about initiating a habit to sit down and allow words to flow onto paper (or screen).

Because I’ll be honest. I’m not the world’s greatest self-motivator. I’m not a Type A personality. My attention span is approximately five seconds, give or take four. It’s a miracle anything gets done.

But it does. Work progresses. I’ve completed a couple of stories recently, and began another that has outgrown its initial idea. I think there’s a novel there. A damn good, original novel. If I can get it out. It’s going to be fun to write.

My current novel is stalled, however. Twenty-two chapters in, somewhere around the 2/3 point. This is (to put it mildly) frustrating. Not overwhelmingly frustrating. I am not contemplating a belly flop from a high bridge.


It is damaging to my fragile self-motivation because now – oh now – I have to go back and try to fix it. I wrote this far without a script, without any more than a vague plan for an ending. And now that things are coming to head, I don’t have confidence in the direction it has taken. It seems contrived, and a bit stale.

I have no intention of letting it die, but it’s clear to me now that substantial portions of it are going to need to be reconsidered and rewritten. Frankly put, it’s a mess, and it threatens to undermine my daily resolve.

So, two things.

One, back to the blog. Fingers on the keyboard. Thoughts on the page. Habit.

Two, outline.

I’m afraid that my pre-planning is a disaster. I wrote myself into a corner because I didn’t plan enough in advance. I let the plot flow with minimal forethought for where the story was going. Sometimes these things work themselves out. In short fiction, they usually do. Or, at least, they’re easy to fix. This novel, on the other hand, is like a river that’s come over its banks. And I failed to put up any levees. Time, I suppose, to get out the squeegee and the wet/dry vac and try to put things back in order.

My goal is to spend more time on set-up. It’s a fine line to walk, because outlined scenes are simply not the way I write. I like to allow scenes to proceed naturally from the characters and situation. Outlined scenes so often seem wooden and lifeless, like a scene from a daytime soap. Characters can surprise you. They grow. They change. And, occasionally, they take you places you hadn’t planned or intended to go.

When it happens, and it works, it’s wonderful. When it doesn’t, you end up with the mess I have now. So it’s become abundantly clear that I need to set a clearer target for my stories, all while staying the hell out of the characters’ way.

Sounds complicated. But considerably less complicated than theoretical physics. That’s something, at least. I’ll let you all know how it goes.

And, I'll leave you with a pretty picture. You're welcome.