Essays


Part 2 of my, uh, delicate dissection. *wields scalpel*

Red Seas Under Red Skies

Narrative structure. Ahhh… I was honestly confused when I read on forums complaints about Mr. Lynch’s use of flashbacks, and what they called ‘infodumps’. Certainly not! Detect my indignant tone! I loved those interrupting interludes, and the way the book was sectioned into different parts, or books: c’mon, do you really want all the books ever written in life to be written in the same damnably boring straightforward pointA-to-pointB style, which besides being didIsayboring would also mean the death of a huge part of literary study and also necessitate the abuse of authors that dabble in such analepsis for example toni morrison alice sebold yann martel and about half the literary canon? *wheeze* Don’t make me come after you with meat cleavers. I only hope that Mr. Lynch didn’t seriously consider those comments as representative of all his readers’ opinions, and that instead, the lack of good flashback, infodumping scenes in Red Seas Under Red Skies was only because he had a clever interwoven flashbacky structure in The Republic of Thieves, Gentleman Bastard Sequence book 3. I loved the Half-Crown War interlude, for example, very nicely played, kept right until just after the “Complication” part of The Lies of Locke Lamora. In Red Seas, I did like the scenes revealing how Jean and Locke got away from Vel Virazzo, and the abseiling practice session had me giggling throughout, but later on, there weren’t any interludes to check the plot before it went bubbling into pieces. Melted pieces. On a sponge.

Meaning I found the second half of the book messy. In a way, the narrative structure of The Lies of Locke Lamora was so tight and focussed it knew what it wanted to deliver and did just that. It didn’t pretend to debate morals and ethics, nor elements of mythology nor symbols pointing toward some great flaw in humanity that we needs address. It wasn’t trying to win the World Fantasy Award (though getting nominated was probably a nice experience for Mr. Lynch…*jealous*) so much as entertain its readers. Red Seas Under Red Skies, on the other hand, wound up a dance of strangers, no character being really fleshed out enough to get my hate or my lifelong affection, and scenes or ideas being introduced too late – the part where Jean and Locke hurriedly list the members of the Priori confused me, for example. I thought it was my memory telling me it’d gone bust with disuse before I realised Cordo and Lyonis and the others had never been mentioned before. Would it really have been so difficult to include a hint of them earlier? I don’t know. Mr. Lynch is the master; I’m just the disgruntled reader who finds messy writing leads to detached reading, which is never good except when approaching textbooks thicker than an inch.

Since we’re talking in comparison to Lies, another major cause for dismay was the prologue. While Lies‘s prologue set an atmosphere of possibilities – that Locke was highly skilled, highly capable, “and therefore look out! the rest of the book will be as highly skilled and highly capable and you will be shocked”, Red Seas‘s prologue threw a storm over our heads, some bolts of lightning, devastated the landscape and replaced it with a heath, made Locke old and bearded and wearing a crown of thorny twigs and shouting “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” and Jean a Fool tagging along behind. OK, so even if Locke didn’t quite make the definition of Shakespearean tragedy, his apparent ‘betrayal’ by Jean made us wary of everything Jean said to Locke in the book. Only to finally reach that opening scene later in the book, and have it resolve just as quickly as it was introduced. Besides, since some of us were pretty certain Jean would never betray Locke, we spent a lot of time wondering what trick Jean was working, and just how intricate it would be, and perhaps it would be just sneaky enough to prove Jean almost as quickwitted as Locke himself and therefore a better partner than we thought. To resolve all that speculation so rapidly seemed a waste. So putting that scene in the prologue made it all rather melodramatic, and would have worked better left only in the main story, so that you felt that same horror as you did when Barsavi toppled Locke into his cask.

Oh! How could I forget this – I had a pretty damn hard time accepting the Salon Corbeau section. Why? I know some of you loved it, but I really couldn’t get over how it seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. It seemed so deliberately contrived to get our sympathy for the sacking of an entire city, and yet, it didn’t seem gruesome enough – not as gruesome as, say, Sage Kindness’s glass-massage in Lies. I almost winced at it; it’ll be some time before I can go back and read it without recoiling mentally. That’s just me, of course, and people who know me will probably say I’m a stickler for the very subtle, over the overt. Go ahead and disagree – that’s what the comment box is for ๐Ÿ™‚

That’s the jist of my quarrel with Red Seas Under Red Skies. See earlier post for some of it. Characterisation – Ezri, Zamira, Stragos, Rodanov, flat. Merrain might have been a mystery, but the kind inspired out of an annoyance over loose ends on your carpet, than the Grey King’s implacable, reticent, hatred. Mood and setting – oh, not too bad. Camorr was more tangible. More charismatic. I’d love to go back there one day. Book 5, perhaps, Mr. Lynch? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Plot and narrative – the list of names Locke and Jean rattle at one another? Why are these people significant?

Not exactly important, but I did miss the, hm, constructive detail, so to speak. The Lies of Locke Lamora had Camorr’s Beautiful Arts, the Shifting Revel, ‘teeth lessons’, Falselight, crow’s cages, ‘first touch’, and even the mention of Locke’s vocabulary games being a sign that he was confident – it also had references within itself, like having Lorenzo Salvara as a boy appear in the House of Glass Roses interlude. Red Seas didn’t have that. Of course, Locke and Jean were in a new and unfamiliar city, and no interludes into faire childehood had been scheduled, so… well, let’s just say I’m anticipating The Republic of Thieves with more enthusiasm than I usually anticipate books following not-so-hot books. Was that deliberate? I wonder. Are all authors of sneaky con-books as sneaky as their characters?

But there are good scenes, of course. Really good scenes. My favourites have to be the abseiling practice session, which was plain rollicking good fun, the opening Carousel Hazard game, with all of the Gentlemen Bastards’ “look who’s really winning” blithe smart-mouthing, and for some reason, the legerdemain display in Requin’s rooms. I love picturing things like that. Pouring wine for the ‘gladiator’ in the wasp cage under the guise of disdain – terrific. The ‘reverse burglars’ comment had me in stitches. (Actually, that whole break-in scene reminded me of that part in FF7 where Cloud breaks into the Don’s mansion dressed as a girl, and threatens his manhood. Bloody ingenious, that. Still wish it’d been done in literary form. Would have loved to have read it!) And love the ending; Locke must be a step ahead of Jean, or else how can he be garrista? Like someone said on asoiaf forums – another ending where the Gentlemen Bastards wind up “slightly more fucked” than how they started out.

In conclusion (What’s my word count, sir? Funny how I’m using time I’d set aside to write my philosophical essay to write this. Scott Lynch now owes me about 4 hours), I was disappointed, yes, but no more than I was with Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy – like her trilogy, this sequel carries the same writing style, the same quirks that mark each author as separate entities and not growing appendages off one pulsating blob of authorship, and also the same unravelling of tight plot structure. To me, anyway. Argue with me as you wish. …Actually, I was bitterly disappointed, downright pissed, with the Soldier Son trilogy, so my relatively mild dissatisfaction with Red Seas Under Red Skies is really just that – mild. Nothing to stop writing over, Mr. Lynch. *winning smile*

Nice book, all in all. 3.5 star rating. Wouldn’t reread it all that much though.
What is written, is irreversible. You cant take it back. So, even though I’m in all kinds of excitement to read book 3, I do so hope Mr. Lynch takes his time, as much as is possible, with book 3: to slow down, reread, feel it out, explore his characters and his cities, show them to us in all their full, vibrantly coloured exteriors and rotten, corrupt interiors. Reading is one thing. You got to get your readers rereading. *goes off to buy new version of The Lies of Locke Lamora, replete with sexy French cover*

***1/2 (3.5 out of 5)
Some extra speculation. Sabetha and plays. Obvious link. Three line synopsis on Mr. Lynch’s official webpage: very, very suggestive. Interview with Mr. Lynch, mention of the Falconer of Karthain’s mother. Ooh. Named Lady Patience. …she better not have an attendant named Lacey. Plus, poison hanging over Locke. All this makes me just as excited to read book 3 as I was to read book 2. And here’s a question for you to think about … I reread Lies’s chapter on Locke travelling to the farm he was to ‘apprentice’ on, and caught in Chains’ voice what seemed like emphasis on “country bandit“, when he explained to Locke the benefits of learning the country people. I instantly thought: aHA! Trav! … ๐Ÿ˜› What do you think?

The second novel in the Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence, following The Lies of Locke Lamora. Erm, ‘ware spoilers. This isn’t a review so much as a dissection. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Red Seas Under Red Skies - II

I hate that Australia, despite being one of the first countries to experience ‘tomorrow’ as ‘today’ compared to the rest of the world *cough* the US *cough*, always seems to get her books last. It’s like the other countries carry out clandestine transactions behind her back while she courageously essays forth to greet the day first; and only when she’s bludgeoned the night away do her followers offer her the dregs of the deals. Bah! See, Red Seas Under Red Skies finally hit local bookshelves just a week ago, here in Brisbane. September! Damn! September!

But it was worth the wait. Psyched myself to the point of breaking tradition and buying the large paperback version, tackily shimmery as it was. (I’m even going to buy the recent Gollancz SF version of The Lies Locke Lamora, with its remodeled-French-version cover – sexy figure on cover, sexy.) I actually stood there in Borders for a few minutes, exulting that it had finally come. Then I got home, swept with supreme carelessness PHIL2140, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad off my desk, grabbed French Onion Kraft dip and some Arnotts and thenceforth seated myself beside Locke and Jean at Carousel Hazard. There was a prologue, but my version of Lies already had it as a teaser at its very end, so it wasn’t going to stop me much or make me go “GAH! Betrayal!!” since I’d already gone and done that.

It was a pretty good book. Entertaining, funny, occasionally clever, more lighthearted than epic-dramatic and that’s a darned good thing, when you’ve been like me and read Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, and Robin Hobb on end. Mr. Lynch definitely has a knack for writing good dialogue, and he knows it well; he doesn’t need to put in flowery adjectives or long unintelligible monologues in the stream-of-consciousness style to get across what his characters are experiencing. *points smug smile at Molly Bloom* But I’m afraid, good as it is in its own rights, it definitely didn’t match the standard set by The Lies of Locke Lamora. Yes, I know there are glowing reviews saying Red Seas Under Red Skies is either almost just as good as, equally good as, and even better than, Lies, but I just can’t agree.

“Well, why? C’mon, you incompetent, half-pint, mangy little girl-whelp, Locke was awesome when he charged the Jeremite Redeemers all by his scrawny self!”

True, that. And also true that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the book. In fact, there’s nothing at all ‘wrong’; it tries very hard indeed to please its readers with the same plot, character and wit mix that the first book gave us oh-so-pleasingly. And that, I think, is where the problem lies. It seems to try too hard to have all those things. I got the impression that the book was written too hastily, too feverishly, and without enough of the backward glance that checks to see if the world it left in its wake is really a complete and three-dimensional one. So let’s see what gave me that idea…

The characters lacked real depth this time around, especially the female characters. There were a couple of people at asoiaf.westeros.org that thought the same thing I did, that is, that the female characters were remarkably predictable, and flat, and that Ezri and Zamira, the two females that accompany Locke and Jean for most of the book, were disappointingly simple – Ezri tellingly so. Her past was glossed over, her appearances were mostly used to complement Jean’s character, and you already knew that because of how straightforward these things made her character, she was going to die. It was kind of a vicious cycle thing – you knew she was going to die, so it seemed kind of pointless to really attach yourself to her, which made her seem even more superficial. I spent most of the time wondering what Locke was doing and thinking during those Ezri/Jean scenes, than concentrating on Ezri. Zamira…her initial showing, when threatening Jean to see Locke’s response, was brilliant – sharp, intelligent, very efficient: a female Barsavi with double his mental clarity. She seemed to fade after that though. I expected her to do something interesting at the pirates’ meeting. She didn’t though. Just talk. Pity.

Selendri was probably the most appealing female character on scene. Only half a real woman, but twice as dangerous as any other. And she oozed a bold pride to match Locke’s; flaunting her scarred side as disconcertingly much as her whole one, was just fantastic. She was underplayed of course, being Requin’s sidekick. That was another pity, putting Requin and the Sinspire game aside for most of the book, since Requin was much more charming a character than Stragos, who just seemed a little Hitleresque for my taste, what with his dreams of the future. This is part of what gave a fair number of readers, including myself, the strong feeling that the first half of the book being much better than the second.

An aside: why do I keep thinking of non-protagonists as NPCs? Weird. The peripheral characters here were certainly not NPCs, a fact which bugged me a great deal. They were more PC than I ever wanted. I hate reading the other characters’ points-of-view, especially when they’re on the ‘enemy side’ – it reminds me of those children’s books that attempt to teach us that nobody is truly evil. Really now, by the time you get to reading Lies and Seas without having your parents gasp at the amount of liberal (but very amusing ๐Ÿ˜€ ) swearing in them, you’ll have understood that moral very well, and you’d expect books to be describing the difficulty of dealing with the problems that cause such ‘evil’ to be done, rather than explaining it. And that description won’t involve POVs from their side. I admit Requin’s narrative at the end of the book was pretty necessary, to explain succinctly what was going to happen to the government of Tal Verrar, however, the effect of Strago’s POV, and Merrain’s, took away the latent danger of atmosphere that Lies so effectively gave Camorr. Barsavi’s potential to absolutely ruin Locke and Jean’s life had no parallel here – you expected Locke to stay on top.

– ok, this post is getting too long. If you’ve been a patient reader, click here for the next part.

…part one of some thoughts on the series by George R. R. Martin. Realism, controversy, and irony.

(warning: a few spoilers)

that witch! …perhaps the most despicable heroine ever.

I’m only about halfway through A Storm of Swords, and already suffered what seems like several heart attacks – the only reason they’ve stopped happening recently is because I seem to be numbed to Martin’s casual offing of important characters, including narrators. Not to mention his lopping off limbs of some of these important characters. And other bodily parts. Now I wonder why I was shocked when Scofield lost his toe in Prison Break – heck, that’s nothing on getting your head chopped off in front a crowd, in a narrative not even your own! But seriously, Martin is a master. He’s the one. *kowtows*

I’m going to have to finish what’s been published of the planned 7 novels in A Song of Ice and Fire and reread the whole thing over again to really write an informed review, but I do want to talk about it a bit while the books are still fresh in my mind, and while I’m in the mood for some Descartes-style Meditations.

It seems like Martin’s planned his books for decades. His world has a depth to it that puts cobwebs and real bones in Westeros’ tombs, cracks in the stone walls of Winterfell, a sour rancid air to King’s Landing, a threatening roar in the swelling of the Trident, an ancient, forbidding beauty to the cliffs beyond the Wall, a dusty exotic air to the abandoned cities in the far East. Take the Targaryens: in the very first narratives, the reader is given to believe Robert Baratheon and his men were in the right, and Rhaegar in the wrong, but with Daenerys’ narrative the reader is told that Rhaegar was wronged, and that atrocities were done to his family. Naturally this confused me, until I realised what Martin was doing. Controversy. It happens in real life, but never in fantasy, it seems; not until Martin decided to present the fantasy genre as Tolkien intended it to be: not an escapist world of dreams and melodramatic romanticism, chivalric knights and bosomy dames awaiting them in their cold high towers, but a what-if portrayal of the real world. Controversy about history is inevitable, after all, since what is past cannot be accurately witnessed, and only memory can retell the tale, and memory is flawed and biased.

And controversy surrounds politics, which you’ll know if you’ve been alive for a bit. Politics can’t be avoided here, though you won’t get fancy terms like liberalism or neo-conservatism, you’ll have ample executions, betrayals, alliance-marriages, bribes, dark magicking and dubious sexual relations instead. Give me sword-swinging over mudslinging any day. (Axe-murdering that irritating roommate… yaHAH)

So, I always thought the books kind of specialise in a certain aspect of the fantasy genre. Let me indulge in a little theorising. Book 1 is introductory; presenting the ubiquitious ‘all-evil’ and non-human side in the Others, and the beginning of the end of peace. Martin lets us know this isn’t another ordinary ‘bestselling’ novel with his stark and unadorned storytelling, casually offing a narrator we thought might have been marginally protagonistic (*rolls eyes* well look what became of him. Bones.), paralysing another narrator, among other unexpected twists we’ve come to expect of him; and also infusing the whole novel with a sense of impending chaos. You quickly realise that there is a problem, or several problems, in the land of Westeros that can’t be solved easily. And hence, a 7 book series. Book 2 delves into the murky feudal era politics, meaning swords, poisons, prisons and captives. And wars. Plenty of wars. Tyrion’s narrative shows us the finer points of manipulation, also known as ‘the way to win the Game of Thrones’, that poor Ned Stark failed to show us; and on the other side of the world, Daenerys shows us that 13 year olds can play at that same Game, and have a chance of winning. Then of course, there are the 5 kings that clash as predicted in the title; all of which are flawed in their own ways. Book 3 thickens the plot. And gives us a few interesting ironies along with it. (Does irony have a plural?) Jaime, for example, seems to increasingly reflect his younger brother Tyrion, both in being ‘deformed’, and his suggested pairing with the pitiably un-Beautiful Brienne of Tarth can be compared to Tyrion’s pairing with the ravishing Shae, not to mention Tyrion with the Lady Sansa Stark. Also, when I say ‘thickening’ the plot, the involves some very interesting revelations, such as Jaime’s startlingly genuine love for his sister, and affection for his brother, and Littlefinger’s being the real danger at court. More unexpected events fill this novel, including the deaths of 2 significant characters within a page. Actually, make that the death of practically the whole army, in a few pages. Ah, deceit, deceit, and more deceit.

the fallen hero! …fool. But that fate was still undeserved!

I love that Martin keeps converting other characters into narrators. About the only narrator I didn’t like, so far, was Theon; and I’ve never really warmed up to Daenerys. Sansa and Arya posed problems for me initially, and I found myself skipping their narratives from time to time in the first novel, but with the introduction of Mr. Fantastic – I mean, Jaqen H’ghar, I changed my mind about Arya; and after her father’s execution, Sansa became much more tolerable. I’m waiting to see if a narrative by the Hound will crop up anytime soon.

A link to some other thoughts I was giggling over because it was exactly what I felt. This starts off discussing the TV series to be made by HBO based on ASoIaF, but when some ASoIaF-virgins start reading the books, coerced by some of the other board members, there’s book discussion too.

Right. Back to book three. I’m practically trembling with excitement with the thought of reading more Martin. In fact, I’m already believing this is one of those series that when it finally ends, years from now, I’ll be devastated by. Hobb’s Fool’s Fate did that; left me staring blankly into space for hours, wondering what I was to do now that Fitz was finally ‘content’. No more Skill? No more dragons? No more Fool? No more botched assassinations, no more Wit, and no more self-pitying reflections that let us love Fitz the flawed narrator as much as we do? Ah, bugger all that. I got reading to do.

…the first two are all that are out, but they’re good enough to receive **** (4 stars).

The third and next book is expected in October of this year, according to Jones’ official webbie.

Sword from Red Ice - upcoming book 3

She’s put up a preview from the next book, A Sword from Red Ice on that there website. It’s the prologue, and sounds mighty interesting…though we did know that hunk o’ rock would shatter sometime soon.

The Sword of Shadows books are, in my humble opinion, much better than Jones’ earlier work. While The Book of Words trilogy seemed another indelicate traipse down the rutted road of cliched fantasy, often crudely glossing over important details of background, period, and character, these books are pretty sophisticated. I hold back on lavish praise simply because the ending isn’t out for me to read yet, and we all know how important endings are. Never a good book without a good ending. Book 1, A Cavern of Black Ice, had much to offer, throwing the reader straight into an environment so tangibly freezing it was hard not to pull an Orrl cloak about myself, if I had one. Jones takes pains to elaborate on setting (apparently based on the Scottish clans) and history, so drawing out our enjoyment of the tension, in a story that practically twangs with tension. She wastes no time with peaceful pastoral beginnings (think how Eddings’ Garion started, Tolkien’s Bilbo, Jones’ own Jack, the baker’s boy) but leaps straight into a competition of bows and arrows and running rabbits between the brothers Raif and Drey Sevrance. Within a few pages, we already learn of Raif’s strange ‘skills’, and lines later we are presented with a mysterious, tragic but chilling massacre, of which the brothers’ father is one of the fallen. All throughout, a pervading ominous aura keeps us on our guard for more surprises, along with a lingering, disturbing, strange feel: rather like we were aliens, or foreign creatures. This land that Jones describes, the clansmen’s land, is no land we are welcome to, and Jones’ revels in distancing us from it.

That opening scene alone is brilliant. Tense mood, bows and arrows, wind and snow, prey and hunter, a brotherly tussle and a spot of dark magic – and then cold murder aplenty; this is what we can expect of the Sword of Shadows sequence. What happens next?

Fortress of Grey Ice - book 2Cavern of Black Ice - book 1

A briefish synopsis…(I might be getting facts from book 1 and 2 mixed up, so warning: SPOILERS)

Raif is our main narrator, and he’s not too detestable. We are told he used to be a normal, lively child, but at the novel’s outset, he is 16, recently orphaned, and morose, reflective, and bitter. The mysterious massacre took the life of his clan’s leader, so his adopted son, Mace Blackhail, takes over the position as clan Blackhail’s leader. He was apparently at the same camp that was massacred, but according to him, managed to escape. Blaming the massacre on clan Bludd, Mace orders a raid on a group of Bludd carts. Drey is sent out, and Raif insists on joining the raid, though he has not yet sworn a clansman’s oath – that is, not come of age. Raif manages to win the right to take the oath however, and does so, although the clan guide prophesies his betrayal, and bringing of doom – as he wears a raven lore, unlike his brother’s and father’s bear lore. The Bludd party turns out to consist of women and children, the kin of the Bludd lord, and while Drey joins the slaughter, Raif cannot bring himself to kill women and children, and flees back to Blackhail. He finds his uncle, Angus Lok, there, and Angus offers to take him away, knowing he has deserted and so broken his oath as a sworn clansman. Angus also reveals his knowledge of Raif’s ‘magic’. Not without regret, Raif complies, and the two set off toward the south. They stumble on another of our narrators, Ash, who has been kept locked in the city by her adoptive father, Penthero Iss, a weak sorcerer. Ash has the same power, but more of it, and when she attempts to escape the city, finds herself about to be dragged back by Marafice Eye, her father’s man. Angus and Raif help her escape, a move which Raif does not understand, and then set off again, but only after Raif discovers Ash’s great but dark power, and recognises some of that same power in his own skill at marksmanship. (more…)

Dennett is a damned genius. Actually, all philosophers tend to be, in their own respective ways. They bend logic like putty with their minds. Or sometimes, they present logic, without their minds. Without their brains, to be more precise.

Dennett’s essay, aptly entitled ‘Where am I?’, can be found in ‘Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology’, and uses a scenario almost (and I use almost) like a conceit to discuss where the self might be within us – body, brain, mind…perhaps in hyperspace, in non-existence. It is written in the style of a speech, or address to an audience, particularly obvious (and important) at the end, where Dennett’s ‘alter-ego’ takes over his body. The scenario is basically as follows: Dennett is asked by the Pentagon to undertake an extremely dangerous, secret, but important mission to retrieve a radioactive warhead lodged deep underground. He is told that he must undergo a brain removal operation, as the warhead’s radioactive rays only affect the brain, and nowhere else. Dennett eventually agrees, and after the operation, goes to visit his brain, slightly dizzied. On seeing his brain, he wonders why it is that, if thought originates in the brain, his perception is stemming from the body – should it not be vice versa? And try as he might, he cannot change his view that he is seeing his brain from his body, and not his body from his brain. He then considers the impracticalities of applying law and order to a disembodied brain, or a debrained body, or both – an entirely ridiculous notion, as he proves. He then suggests that the self, or the perceiving self, stems from wherever the self thinks it is. This is a much more comfortable notion to live with, although at first glance it seems too perfect and too convenient an answer. Dennett then discusses the perception-extension nature of virtual reality, or of operating machines, where we project our selves into what we are watching or doing with those mechanical arms. He then decides that, yes, it may be possible to adjust his perceptions to see from the viewpoint of the brain, staring out at the body.

This adventurous, secret-agent Dennett then comes to another of his philosophical milestones when he is already underground, working on the warhead. His radiotransmitters sending signals between his brain and his body begin to fail; he loses control and sensation in all his faculties, and winds up in an unfeeling void. The only thing that proves his existence still is his capability to think (ref Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum). (more…)