Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay—a review

A common criticism leveled at fantasy is that it’s all about monsters and magic and plot and fails to address the human condition, and therefore fails as “serious” literature. I think that’s a lot of rot and that fantasy is no worse or better than mainstream fiction (some of it's great, some is awful, and most indifferent). But if there is any merit to this argument—and there is some—one can point the blame at the J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard clones, writers who churn out multi-volume paint-by-numbers epic quests or rote stories of bad-ass, brawling heroes in formulaic stories bereft of thought or complexity.

About the highest praise I can give for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana (1990) is that, with more novels like it, fantasy would garner a lot more respect as a genre worthy of serious study and discussion. This observation doesn’t imply that Tigana is now among my favorite fantasy novels (it’s not, though it is quite good), only that it makes use of the conventions of what most academics consider serious literature.

Kay is an author with whom I have little acquaintance. I’ve read his Fionavar Tapestry, which I thought was okay but nothing too unique or exceptional. But over the years I’ve heard that Tigana, a 1991 nominee for the World Fantasy Award, was a must-read. Now that I read it my summation is that it's very good, but not great, checking at a solid four stars in my scientific five-star rating system.

Tigana takes place on a peninsula called the Palm, whose nine small provinces have fallen under the rule of two invading armies from Ygrath and Barbadior, each led by a powerful sorcerer-king. Although conquered, the nine provinces are more or less left intact, paying tax and tribute to their respective new rulers (who maintain an uneasy truce, though behind the scenes they seek to oust the other and take the Palm for themselves). The exception is the province of Tigana. A fierce battle waged by Tigana’s defenders resulted in the death of Stevan, son of the tyrant king Brandin of Ygrath. Grief-stricken and blinded by vengeance, Brandin ordered Tigana—a place of art and culture and beautiful spires—to be razed to the ground. Using powerful magic, Brandin also expunged its very memory from the residents of the Palm. As the novel opens only a few remember its existence; most know of it only as Lower Corte. The remainder of the novel follows a small band of freedom fighters determined to cast off Brandin’s yoke and restore Tigana to memory and its former glory.

Tigana is high fantasy, so you get the standard trappings that come with the territory (a map, detailed geography and history of the Palm, epic, world-altering events, etc.). Kay does a nice job casually inserting magic and myth and religion into the novel, which makes these elements feel real. There’s no long dissertations on how they operate, which is typically the case in high fantasy (incidentally this is one of the reasons why I largely avoid high fantasy—I get bored with long explanations and backstory). I wish more authors took a cue from GKK.

Being high fantasy there’s not much “blood and thunder” in the pages of Tigana, but Kay does a good job of keeping the reader on edge with political maneuvering and backstabbing and harsh torture and punishments meted out by tyrannical rulers. Think George R.R. Martin lite.

Where Tigana shines is in its presentation of complex characters conflicted with self-doubt and warring emotions. In particular Tigana contains some wonderful depictions of women. They’re all beautiful, of course, but as a male reader that works for me. There’s the red-haired Catarina, who bears a heavy burden of disgrace inherited from her father, who fled Tigana with her and her mother instead of taking up his sword in its defense. Dianora is perhaps the book’s most convincing character. A woman of Tigana whose father was slain in its defense, Dianora works her way into Brandin’s harem and eventually into his heart in a lengthy, complex plot to assassinate him.

Tigana also shines in its clever inversions of the standard devices associated with high fantasy. Brandin is portrayed as no mere monster, and despite her thirst for vengeance Dianora realizes she’s fallen in love with him. Some of the rebels of Tigana meanwhile adhere to the belief that ends justify the means, making them little better than their barbarian invaders.

But I did have some problems that Tigana that knock the book down a few notches (and if you’ve read Tigana, your mileage may vary, of course).

I felt that Kay was guilty a few times of telling instead of showing, a writing no-no. There are a few instances in which he tries to evoke sympathy for the despotic sorcerer-king Brandin by telling us that freedom fighters Devin and Alessan now saw him as a man, and not a monster. But that’s not effective. We should instinctively come to realize this in the text through observing his actions, and I never did. Kay wants the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for Brandin and I couldn’t muster any. What he did to Tigana and its ruler, Prince Valentin, was too despicable. I wanted him dead at every turn.

I also thought Tigana had some extraneous page-padding side plots that could have been effectively excised. Also, the ending felt rushed. Right around page 610 or so (Tigana checks in at a hefty 672 pages) I was actively worrying whether Kay could adequately wrap things up, or whether he was setting me up for a cleverly hidden sequel. Tigana does have a conclusive ending, but it didn’t occur to my satisfaction and felt rather abrupt.

Tigana also contained a few too many characters for my liking and despite Kay’s best efforts, some of its personages are rather one dimensional. For example, the sorcerer-king Alberico never breaks the mold of a transparent bad guy, something that the rest of the novel seeks to avoid (and generally does).

But in the end Tigana succeeds not as a character-driven novel, nor as a compelling plot-driven page-turner, but rather as an exploration of themes like memory and identity, and love and vengeance, and their opposition. Memory is integral to self-identification, but Tigana also teaches us that an inability to break with the past is a dangerous thing. Without revealing any spoilers, there’s a horrific twist at the end of Tigana, that, revealed in full, could have resulted in a further continuation of a bitter, destructive war. But the one man who knows the truth keeps it in his heart in order to spare the future.

Likewise love, often portrayed simplistically as something we all need and the great healer, has its limitations. Dianora's love for Brandin for instance can be seen as corruptive and a cause of betrayal to the larger good:

She knew Brandin better than anyone alive; it had been necessary, in order to survive, especially in the beginning, in order to say and do the right things in a mortally dangerous place. Then as the years slipped by necessity had somehow been alchemized into something else. Into love, actually, bitterly hard as that had been to acknowledge. She had come here to kill, with the twin snakes of memory and hatred in her heart. Instead, she had ended up understanding him better than anyone in the world because there was no one else who mattered half so much.

Says Kay in an afterward:

These are ambitious elements for what was always meant to be a romantic adventure. They intimidated me as they began to emerge, even recording them now I find myself shaking my head. But beneath them all lies the idea of using the fantasy genre in just this way: letting the universality of fantasy - of once upon a time - allow escapist fiction to be more than just that, to also bring us home.

Some of these ambitious elements work and some fail, but I credit GKK for attempting them. They make Tigana an important touchstone in fantasy literature, a novel that’s dares to stretch its boundaries. Overall Tigana was a nice change of pace for me; I wouldn’t want to read a steady stream of similar works, but it is nice to see an example of what a skilled writer can accomplish in a too-frequently dismissed genre.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My top five reads of 2010

For my final post of 2010 I thought I would revisit something from my days as a writer for the now-defunct Cimmerian blog: My top 5 reads of the year. Not super-original, I know, but the New Year always seems to bring out the list-maker in me.

Some of these books were new to me and some were old favorites that I revisited, but all are highly recommended.

The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

As 2010 began I returned to J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium after a span of several years. While reading I wrote a series of blog posts about it over on The Cimmerian (they start here if you’re interested). I was excited at the prospect of revisiting Middle-Earth’s back stories and foundational myths and hoped that The Silmarillion would reward a return voyage.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website .

Monday, December 20, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond—a review

Guns, Germs, and Steel is one of those books I’ve heard so much about—mostly in the positive—that it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it. Published in 1997, it won a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve frequently seen it cited around the internet as a must-read book on the origins of the human species. Today I was able to finish it up.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is certainly well-worth reading. One of my petty complaints is that it more accurately should have been called Latitude, Longitude, and the Development of Human Society (I guess Guns, Germs, and Steel was catchier). That’s because Diamond postulates that all our development, including current inequities among continents like South America and Africa vs. North America or the countries of western Europe, can be traced to geography. “Much of human history has consisted of unequal conflicts between the haves and the have-nots: between peoples with farmer power and those without it, or between those who acquired it at different times,” Diamond writes. He then sets out in Guns, Germs, and Steel to explain how this unequal distribution of wealth and power occurred.

In short, Diamond argues that the topography and east-west alignment of Eurasia set the stage for its success. It was more conducive to farming, was populated with native, domesticable livestock and plant life that facilitated mass food production, and allowed for trading between various peoples and dispersal of scientific invention. This in turn led to sedentary populations able to devote time and brainpower to the invention of writing and the development of technology. Australia, North America, and Africa, with their north-south axes and corresponding extremes of climate, were late to the starting line of development. Their slower diffusion of cultivatable crops caused them to become history’s “have-nots,” leading to their subjugation or outright extermination and repopulation by foreign invaders, or their place as a third-world nation.

“The peoples of areas with a head start on food production thereby gained a head start on the path leading toward guns, germs, and steel,” Diamond writes. “The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history.”

First, what I liked. Guns, Germs, and Steel is well-written. It has an incredible scope, summarizing human development from our start as a divergent strain of chimpanzee up to the modern age. It’s very thought and opinion provoking as well.

Contrary to its title Guns, Germs, and Steel contains disappointingly little discussion on guns. I was hoping for some good debate on the effectiveness of the blunderbuss vs. the musket, for example. But Diamond does lay out a convincing case that germs, not guns, were the primary reason smaller groups of Europeans were able to dominate far more populous indigenous races. He shows how the introduction of germs derived from domesticated animals, introduced to native populaces with no immunities, resulted in catastrophic epidemics which in some cases resulted in a 99% mortality rate among the infected. It’s all very interesting, and it strikes me as true.

Now some negatives. Some of the arguments Diamond spends considerable time building feel rehashed and/or self-evident. However, this may be because Diamond’s book has been assimilated into mainstream thought. After all it was published 13 years ago.

But my main problem with Guns, Germs, and Steel is in the degree of importance Diamond attaches to geography. In Diamond’s view geography is the overwhelming factor in the “success or failure” of a nation (meaning its ability to produce food and thereby develop a complex culture). Diamond’s book takes no account—and I mean none—of the influence of different political systems, or religion, or even individual initiative. For him, human history is purely scientific, the result of geographic determinism. He argues that even the biggest individuals—the Alexander the Greats and the Adolf Hitlers of the world—are scarcely relevant in the grand sweep of history. In the epilogue Diamond anticipates arguments to the contrary with a half-hearted apology:

“The label [geographic determinism] seems to have unpleasant connotations, such as that human creativity counts for nothing, or that we humans are passive robots hopelessly programmed by climate, flora, and fauna. Of course these fears are misplaced,” Diamond writes.

Yet to me Diamond’s equivocating rings hollow. There’s seemingly little to no place in his intellectual universe for things like free will and personal responsibility. I felt personally diminished reading the book. That’s not a value judgment of Diamond’s book, just my personal reaction upon reading it.

Another area in which Guns, Germs, and Steel can be criticized is some of the petty biases that Diamond allows to creep into the book. His occasional forays into editorializing are simply out of place in a book that purports to exalt science. For instance, he flat-out calls modern native New Guinean hunter gatherers not equal, but smarter than your average educated, sedentary resident of Europe or North America. He relays another story about a noble Native American corrupted by coarse Montana farmers into adopting their hard drinking, wasteful lifestyle. Both of these observations are purely anecdotal, not the result of any scientific inquiry. I detected a slight undercurrent of disdain for modern life and a romanticized (albeit very faint) view of the hunter-gather lifestyle. Their presence diminishes the work.

In the end my opinion of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it is no more a true version of human history than a book about capitalism/communism or Christianity/Islam as the sole shapers of mankind’s destiny. It’s an important but incomplete piece of the truth.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

AMC’s The Walking Dead: Devouring six million viewers, and me

Confession: I watch almost no TV. Well, that’s not quite true: NFL football, an occasional news program, and the odd episode of The Simpsons aside, I watch no TV. Lost is lost on me. There aren’t enough hours in the day for 24. The Sopranos? Fuggedaboutit. There are too many good books to be read in the world and not enough time for television.

Another reason I avoid TV, particularly serialized programming, is the “that guy” phenomenon. When it comes to shows like Lost, there’s always one person in the office who insists on telling you how much you’re missing, or describing the minutiae of a cast of fictional characters’ lives for whom you know and care absolutely nothing about. It just ends up making me hate the boob tube even more.

So now that I’ve set the stage for why I avoid TV, let me tell you all about AMC’s The Walking Dead! I’m a huge fan of the zombie genre and the temptation to watch a TV program about the undead was too great not to tune in. After an excellent episode one I was hooked. I’m mortified that I have to wait until the fall for episode 2.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lansdale and Keene: Two tastes that taste great together

Over the last couple weeks I’ve managed to plow through two of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series of novels and Brian Keene’s City of the Dead. I enjoyed the heck out of all of them and thought I’d write a combined review here.

(As an aside, my posting has recently suffered quite a bit, and that’s because the high school team I’ve been covering for the local paper is playing in the Super Bowl today. From Thankgiving through the playoffs, Massachusetts high school football is crazy. I plan to get back to posting on a more regular schedule).

As I’ve said before, Joe Lansdale tells a story as well as any author writing today. Reading one of his books is like listening to a weathered Texan grandfather who saw time in the South Pacific in the Big One spinning raw war stories seasoned with equal parts humor and horror.

The two books I read were The Two-Bear Mambo and Bad Chili. In The Two-Bear Mambo Hap and Leonard set out to find Florida Grange, Leonard’s gorgeous ex-girlfriend. Florida disappeared while investigating the suspicious suicide of a black criminal, found dead in his jail cell in the Ku Klux Klan infested town of Grovetown.

Hap and Leonard are both martial arts experts and The Two-Bear Mambo features a memorable fight in a Grovetown diner that Lansdale describes as an episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance. Lansdale’s fights aren’t the stylized, dramatized stuff of Quentin Tarantino films, but short, fast, ugly, and dirty.

Lansdale always kicks off his books with a gripping action scene that combines drama with comedy. In The Two-Bear Mambo Leonard has just set fire to a crack house across the street, spilling a motley assortment of low-lifes into the East Texas night. Bad Chili features the two men attacked by a rabid squirrel while taking target practice in the woods with a pistol. Yes, I’m serious.

Bad Chili took a while to heat up (pardon the pun) but I very much enjoyed the slow, deliberate pace with which Lansdale sets up its frenetic payoff of a finish. In this one, Leonard’s boyfriend Raul leaves him for a biker and when both turn up dead the police point the finger at Leonard. He and Hap begin an investigation into the death that exposes an underground crime ring of violent gay pornography and larceny.

You have experience to fully appreciate Lansdale’s always-entertaining writing style. Here’s a description of a barber-shop owner from Bad Chili that I found hilarious and also brilliant in its details, immediately sketching a believable, real character:

Finally a man came over to help us. He was short and pale-skinned and had his dark hair combed back tight and plastered with something so shiny you could almost see your reflection in it. He had one of those pencil-thin mustaches like forties movie stars wore, ones make you look like you had a drink of chocolate milk and forgot to wipe your mouth. He had his colorful shirt open almost to his navel, and let me tell you, that was no treat to view. He had a chest like a bird and a little potbelly and a thin straight line of hair that ran from chest to navel and looked as if it had been provided by the nose hairs the blonde had clipped. He was wearing a gold medallion on a chain around his neck. The medallion reminded me of those aluminum-foil coins you unwrap and find chocolate inside. He must have been on the bad side of forty. A face, a body like that, you’re not born with it. It takes some real abuse and neglect to create.

As with all the two other Hap and Leonard novels I’ve read to date (Savage Season and Mucho Mojo), The Two-Bear Mambo and Bad Chili are highly recommended. I’m looking forward to picking up Rumble Tumble next.

City of the Dead is an absolutely gonzo novel. Graphic gore and sex, morbid humor, religious issues, cosmic tragedy, and more are splashed all over its pages in an entertaining package, albeit not one for the easily offended or the faint of heart.

Keene takes the familiar trope of zombie apocalypse but instead of attributing the cause to biochemical spill or ancient curse or interstellar plague Keene’s zombies are possessed by the souls of demons from the void. When they inhabit the bodies of the dead they take on the deceased person’s memories, which them doubly dangerous. In City of the Dead zombies can speak, use guns, drive cars, communicate and coordinate their tactics, etc. Animals, including dogs, birds, alligators, are zombified, too. Humans don’t stand a chance in this scenario.

A small group of humans manages to fight their way into New York to take refuge in Ramsey Tower, a reportedly indestructible skyscraper where a few hundred human survivors have holed up. The tower is a fortress, but the humans have underestimated the zombies’ intelligence and force they ultimately bring to bear to force an entry.

Keene’s book is full of morbidly funny humor: A zombie sings “the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire” after setting fire to a home with human defenders on the second floor. A zombie, ready to throw a grenade, has his hand shot off, and the grenade falls at his feet and explodes, blowing him to bits. “Now that’s what I call a hand grenade!” another zombie quips. Think of Army of Darkness level of humor.

At the same time the book takes seriously the existence of God and the demons that inhabit the bodies of the zombies. Called the Sissquim, they once walked the Earth but were banished to the outer spheres by God millennia ago. As a result they despise God and kill and eat humans out of that spite. They want to see His most beloved creation and the planet itself utterly destroyed.

City of the Dead is marred by a few lapses in logic. The zombies at times are portrayed as attacking in mindless waves, like Romero-style zombies; at other times they operate with a sense of self-preservation and shy away from shotgun blasts and so forth. The humans defending Ramsey Tower—some of which are hard-bitten military veterans with combat experience—woefully overestimate the building’s defenses, holes that are obvious to any half-attentive reader (the damn building has windows—even though they’re reinforced glass, how can they stand up to a zombie-driven truck at full speed, let alone explosives?)

If City of the Dead sounds a little like a mess, well, it is. I’m not sure how Keene intended the book to be read, as farce or serious fiction. It’s both (probably a little more of the former), but if you’re looking for a book that tells a rip-roaring, entertaining story, City of the Dead succeeds. I listened to the Audio Realms production while driving to work and I can honestly say it made my commute a much more enjoyable experience.