I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
I enjoyed Professor Michael D. C. Drout???s 14-lecture class on modern fantasy, which mainly focus on J. R. R. Tolkien, which is fine, because Tolkien is a major figure in modern fantasy. Professor Drout has a pleasing enthusiasm and a comprehensible clarity as he lectures.
After discussing the fantasy genre (a hybridization combining oral epics with novelistic techniques and concerns), Drout limns the origins of modern fantasy (Victorian works like the Alice books, The Waterbabies, and The Princess and the Goblin), and then dives into Tolkien, depicting relevant facts about his life and philological study before assessing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as difficult work like The Silmarillion and important scholarly essays on Beowulf and fantasy. Drout next covers two followers of Tolkien, Brooks the imitator and Donaldson the reactor, as well as two ???worthy inheritors??? who create fantasy as aesthetically and thematically consistent and compelling as that of Tolkien: Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert Holdstock. He then discusses children???s fantasy (Narnia, The Dark is Rising, Prydain, and a bit of Rowling and Pullman) and then the Arthurian genre (T. H. White, Mary Stewart, and Marion Zimmer Bradley). He concludes with a chapter on magical realism (Borges and Garcia-Marquez), arguing that, unlike most modern fantasy, it denies rather than provides healthy escape and is oriented around tragedy rather than Tolkieniean eucatastrophe.
I like the many insights that Drout provides as he lectures, like about Le Guin???s solution to death in The Other Wind or about class in The Hobbit or about the way in which Peter Jackson???s movies make Tolkien???s world smaller. Sure, I wish he???d have covered more authors (like L. Frank Baum, Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, Robert E. Howard, Mervyn Peake, or Michael Swanwick) and to have gone into more detail in non-Tolkien chapters, but that only shows how much I enjoyed his ???class??? and wished it could have been twice as long.
In Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself (2006), swords, knives, axes, maces, spears, staves, bows, crossbows, tongs, chisels, lumber, fists, feet, arms, legs, teeth, and magical force all are put to bloody use during scenes of cinematic graphic violence ranging in scale from arrests and interrogations to ambushes and skirmishes (full scale battles are sure to come in the second or third novels in Abercrombie's epic fantasy noir First Law trilogy). But good as Abercrombie is with a blade, he really excels at character development, irony, and humor.
The Blade Itself focuses on the troubles of the Union: the king is senile, his callow sons are unfit to lead after him, squabbling factions weaken the government, the over-taxed peasants are restive, the Northmen have invaded from the north, and the Gurkhul Empire is preparing to attack from the south. Into this situation Joe Abercrombie introduces three main point of view characters, each of whom is darkly delightful to follow.
--Logen Ninefingers, the most feared warrior of the North, is a killer who has come to regret his bloodthirsty youthful exploits. Surprisingly for a "barbarian," he is philosophical and open-minded--but look out if his Mr. Hyde berserker alter-ego the Bloody Nine surfaces! Acting on advice from spirits, Logen heads south to meet a mage who's seeking him. What will he make of civilization and it of him?
--Sand dan Glokta sourly remembers his glory days as the champion swordsman and star noble of the Union, which ended during the last war against the Gurkhul Empire when he was captured and tortured for two years. Now thirty-five, he is an ostracized, cynical cripple, limping around in constant pain as an Inquisitor for the Inquisition. Glokta regularly asks himself why he's doing what he does, even as he tortures confessions out of small fry "traitors" like plump merchants. Will he ever uncover the true enemies of the state?
--And Captain Jezal dan Luthar is a vain, snobbish, and lazily ambitious nobleman, expert in winning his fellow officers' money in cards and leading them in drunken debauchery. Does he have the desire required to train seriously enough to win the Union's annual swordsmanship competition? Will he ever fall in love or mature?
Abercrombie writes interesting supporting characters, too, among them Major Callem West, a farmer's son who rose through the ranks by dint of hard work and courage; Ardee West, Callem's intelligent and frustrated sister, who chafes at being limited to a woman's role; the Dogman, the scout for a band of Northern outlaws who believe their chief, Logen, is dead; Ferro, a black-skinned, yellow-eyed, snarling female ex-slave criminal warrior who lives for revenge; and Bayaz, the centuries-old, legendary First of the Magi who thinks that world affairs could use a little wizardly aid again. The Blade Itself is great fun when its characters--each with different cultures, backgrounds, personalities, prejudices, and agendas--spend time together.
With rich irony, Luthar and Glokta see the powerful mage Bayaz as an "old lunatic" or an "old fraud." The caustic thoughts of Luthar and Glokta often hilariously contradict what they say, especially when kowtowing to superiors. Logen has some great lines, too, as when Bayaz explains to him that civilized people enjoy the theater, and he says, "Stories? Some people have too much time on their hands." There are plenty of funny similes, as when Bayaz sends an obnoxious Northern prince packing with "a face as red as a slapped arse." There are plenty of pointedly comical situations, too, as when Bayaz leads his gormless apprentice and Logen into a theatrical supply shop to buy gaudy costumes with which to convincingly play their real roles. Even the action scenes have funny touches, as when Ferro and Logen are being chased over city roof tops by persistent Inquisition "Practicals," and they crash through a roof and land in a bed in a room and Logen thinks, "In bed with a woman again, at last."
Stephen Pacey reads the novel masterfully, turning a four star work into a five star one through his use of different voices and accents for the characters from different cultures and backgrounds. He gives Glokta a gap-toothed lisp, Bayaz a John Geilgud-esque sly grandeur, Logen a Northern England accent, Ferro a feral attitude, and so on, each choice entertainingly enhancing Abercrombie's characterizations.
The Blade Itself does have plenty of typical features of the epic fantasy genre, such as the identity-less, Orc-like Shanka overrunning the far north, the evil Prophet sending evil cannibal mages on evil missions, and the varied group of people preparing to go on a vital and dangerous quest led by an old wizard. But Abercrombie gives the genre a fresh spin with his anti-hero heroes, unpredictable plot developments, irony, and entertaining imagination.
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), the first of the four books that comprise Gene Wolfe's science fiction masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, is a rich, moving, and challenging novel. Just in the first few chapters we learn that narrator Severian (who is writing his life story) was an orphan apprentice of the guild of torturers (the Seekers for Truth and Penitence) in the Citadel of sprawling Nessus (the City Imperishable) in the far future of Urth (earth?), under a dying sun; that the towers of the Citadel are long-derelict spaceships; that Severian has an eidetic memory; and that his youthful encounter with the rebel leader Vodalus set in motion events that will lead him to betray his guild, become an exile, and sit on the throne.
The novel is disturbing! There are glimpses of the appalling "excruciations" the guild performs upon its "clients," and many characters are afflicted with grief, including Severian, who is cursed to remember every detail of his sad experiences. But it is also funny, as in the eccentric and grotesque characters like Dr. Talos and Baldanders and the banter between Severian and Agia.
Severian's history is a demanding read. As in novels like A Voyage to Arcturus, everything seems to bear symbolic as well as narrative meaning. And Severian is not a completely reliable narrator, for he often lies and may be insane, and although he remembers everything, he selectively tells his story, at times eliding painful things and alluding to them later while narrating different events. And some things he recounts question the reality of his world (and ours).
Severian has much to say about reality, memory, history, story, art, culture, justice, religion, meaning, and love. Provocative lines punctuate his text. Symbols "invent us, we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges." Or "time turns our lies to truths." Or "the charm of words … reduces to manageable entities all the passions that would otherwise madden and destroy us."
Additionally, the richness of the novel's language, the elegance of its style, and the fertility of its imagination require slow savoring. In Severian's text common words rub shoulders with archaic or obscure ones, evoking the exotic texture of his world, as in names for officials (autarch, archon, castellan, chiliarch, lochage) and beasts of burden (dromedaries, oxen, metamynodons, onagers, hackneys).
Numerous descriptions yield shivers of pleasure: "She sighed, and all the gladness went out of her face, as the sunlight leaves the stone where a beggar seeks to warm himself." Or "Behind the altar rose a wonderful mosaic of blue, but it was blank, as if a fragment of sky without cloud or star had been torn away and spread upon the curving wall." Or "(A spell there was, surely, in this garden. I could almost hear it humming over the water, voices chanting in a language I did not know but understood.)"
Numerous scenes impress themselves on mind and heart, as when Severian visits the blind caretaker of the Borgesian library, finds a horribly wounded fighting dog, connects Thecla to the revolutionary, receives the black sword Terminus Est, falls into the Lake of Birds in the Garden of Everlasting Sleep, performs for the first time the mysteries of his guild's art, or witnesses a miracle with Dorcas.
Jonathan Davis adds so much to the novel with his witty and compassionate reading, modifying his voice to enhance each character without drawing attention to himself. And it's a pleasure to hear him relish Wolfe's beautiful prose or say words like anacreontic, carnifex, epopt, fuligin, fulgurator, hipparch, paracoita, and psychopomp. (Though it does help to have the text handy!)
At the end of The Shadow of the Torturer, Severian says he cannot blame his reader for refusing to follow him any more through his life, for "It is no easy road." Nevertheless, the next three novels reward the effort to read them manifold.