Posts Tagged ‘review’

The original cover art of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane.

The original cover art of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane.

I feel that I must preface this review by saying that it was a foolish idea to dive right into another author directly on the heels of reading Steven Erikson.  After all, who could possibly follow in the footsteps of Erikson without flagging in the pursuit?

Thus, it is with great trepidation that I begin writing this review of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  Published in 1977, Lord Foul’s Bane (henceforth referred to as LFB) falls smack-dab in the middle of the first generation of epic fantasy that follows John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1955.  As most fans of epic (or high) fantasy will know, it was Tolkien’s work that launched the genre into the public sphere proper.  The Lord of the Rings is also considered to have codified, in some manner, the rules of the genre – as if everything that followed is only fantasy by some relation to Tolkien.

Now, you might at this point be asking, “I’m 173 words in, when are you going to start talking about Stephen Donaldson?”  And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so as the ultimate point of this article is to review LFB, but I plan on taking a winding road (not unlike the one taken by Thomas Covenant in LFB) to get there.

I mentioned Steven Erikson and J.R.R. Tolkien for a reason.  In my mind they represent two ways you can go about writing fantasy.  Tolkien, as stated above, is the quintessential epic fantasy.  It plays by the rules, has a finely-crafted mythos, and is very highbrow in the writing style.  Erikson, on the other hand, eschews the typical tropes of the genre, deliberately obscures and even hides his mythos, and descends into the purely comic or sickeningly brutal at the merest flight of whimsy.  The other contrast that makes these authors so appropriate to the discussion of LFB is in terms of timeline.  Tolkien is old fantasy: his work is a tried and true classic.  It will stand the test of time even if it isn’t always the flavour of the month.  Erikson is new fantasy: his work readily engages with the mindset of the 21st century reader that wants fast-paced action that isn’t confined to the realm of PG-13.  It remains to be seen if Erikson will be seen as one of the classic fantasy authors, but he does possess an uncanny understanding of the current fantasy audience.

Going back to the very beginning, I mentioned that following Erikson with Donaldson was a fool’s errand.  The reason for that is because Donaldson is very far from being Erikson in terms of style and timeline.  Reading Donaldson directly after Erikson resulted in a culture-shock akin to switching genres entirely (e.g. trying to find my way in a Michael Connelly detective novel after polishing off George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows).  What I did find, however, is that Donaldson treads very closely on the heels of Tolkien, and it is this observation that will form the core of this review.

Last time around, when reviewing Erikson’s Forge of Darkness, I mentioned that I should try to say something nice before saying something critical.  However, this time I’m going to be blunt: LFB was an extremely unsatisfactory read.  At first glance, the reason for this reaction might be simple: as an avid reader of fantasy – and new fantasy in particular – Donaldson’s work just might not have touched me in the same way it would have touched people in 1977.  That might be true, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t try to explain my dissatisfaction in more technical terminology.

The first major point that I would like to make is that the similarity to Tolkien that I mentioned above, while positive in the sense that mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, is far too pronounced to see LFB as anything other than an attempt to ride Tolkien’s literary coattails.  Without going too in-depth and revealing too much about the plot, it seemed like every new page contained another similarity to Tolkien, whether it was the “foreign” words that were bandied about (much in the manner that the people of Middle Earth tossed about snippets of elvish like they were English-speaking tourists trying to master French), a race of peoples that were eerily similar to Tolkien’s Ents in both description and mannerism, or the fact that the protagonist sports a ring of great power that his enemies seek to wrest from him.  Even the tone of Donaldson’s writing itself was a throwback to the stuffy, refined style of Tolkien.  To the experienced fantasy reader, or even one who is solely familiar with Tolkien, LFB has a strong air of been-there-done-that about it.  As such, it is hard to take seriously as a stand-alone novel within the greater context of its genre.

A pictorial representation of the monomyth.  Read from top left around the circle.

A pictorial representation of the monomyth. Read from top left around the circle.

Secondly, in LFB, Donaldson sticks far too strongly to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) as expressed in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Campbell’s monomyth features strongly in most fantasy texts.  To an extent, the degree to which a text challenges the strictures of the monomyth is a sign of how readers will respond to the text.  An astute reader will be able to link sections of texts to the monomyth instantly.  They will also be able to recognize when a text deliberately breaks from the mold or seeks to challenge a certain aspect of the monomyth.  A familiar story that sticks to the monomyth doesn’t offer the reader much of a challenge or much satisfaction upon completion, especially when compared to a text that challenges the monomyth in well-thought-out and deliberate ways.  That being said, LFB doesn’t seem to challenge the monomyth at all.  Take, for instance, the first four recognized elements of the monomyth: The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, and Crossing the First Threshold.  LFB follows these elements exactly, even if slightly out of order.  First, the protagonist is literally removed from his/her familiar world when Covenant is transported to the Land.  This doubles as Covenant’s Call to Adventure when combined with the task placed on him by the titular Lord Foul.  And if Covenant’s refusal of that call weren’t obvious in the actions of the character, Donaldson screams that it from the rooftops by nicknaming Covenant “the Unbeliever.”  As those in the screenwriting world are wont to say, that’s pretty on the nose.  Further, to address the last of the four exemplary elements, Covenant receives so much “Supernatural Aid,” both in the form of magic and people themselves that one would be forgiven if one went three-quarters of the way through the novel wondering when Covenant would actually do something for himself.  In short, Donaldson’s subscription to the monomyth is his undoing as it creates an overly familiar, and overly simple, text.

Since I ranted quite a bit about Tolkien and the monomyth, I’ll try to be brief with my last few thoughts on LFB.  Having gotten my major criticisms of the text out of the way I want to offer some specific things about the text that rankled me or were in some way unsatisfactory.  First, at points the novel read like a tourist brochure for the mythical Land.  Donaldson seemed to go out of his way, backed by the flimsy excuses of the characters, to show the reader as much of his fictional world as possible in the 474 pages (mass-market paperbound) of the text.  By page 200 it was getting rather tiresome when, by flipping to the map located in the front, one could trace a simple straight line from A to B and save at least 50 pages that could have been better spent elsewhere.  And one of the best places to spend it would have been to invest the reader more in the characters through segments of introspection or dialogue that revealed each character’s hidden layer.  Readers long to be connected with the characters – and great fantasy thrives on it – but LFB didn’t offer much of that outside of Covenant’s periodic protestations that he is only a leper and should not be expected to save the world.

My last thought is this: despite how unsatisfying I found Lord Foul’s Bane, Donaldson’s text occupies an important place in fantasy history.  As a student of the history of heavy metal, I take great joy in tracing the lineage of creative influences and production (publication) timelines.  And I see The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in the same way I see Judas Priest (apart from the fact that Judas Priest made good music).  Priest occupied the transitional phase of heavy metal from its forefathers – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin – to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and landmark bands such as Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, Motorhead, and Saxon.  Donaldson’s work also occupies a transitional phase between Tolkien and classics such as Robert Jordan (I’m sure that I don’t need to remind you that A Memory of Light is just around the corner) and Terry Goodkind.  Donaldson represents the stage where Tolkien’s work is being mimicked in an attempt to find a successful product.  Jordan in particular found that successful product and it is easy to imagine at certain points when reading Donaldson seeing Jordan do the same and make a mental note to tweak this or that when writing his own novels.

Thus, if for nothing else, one should read Lord Foul’s Bane and the rest of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for the historical value.  I know I will be.

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This entry marks the first in a series of book reviews I intend to write as I work my way through various texts. Ideally I will write a review for every book I read but time and laziness will assuredly conspire against me. Since we have got the “this is a book review” mumbo jumbo out of the way, I don’t think I need to warn you that there might be spoilers. No matter how hard I try to keep them out, they’re going to creep in. Just start this and any other review I write with this in mind and we’ll save each other the mutual pain of having to read/write “Warning: Spoilers!” over and over again.

So, without further ado…

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

You might wonder, “How can Steven Erikson possibly follow-up his 3-million+ word Malazan Book of the Fallen series?” Or, “Wasn’t 3.3 million words enough?”

Luckily for Erikson, the world he and Ian Cameron Esslemont created in 1982 – and originally imagined as a role-playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons – has too many characters, too much history, and too many intertangled plots to satisfy a mere 3 million words. That the finale to the Book of the Fallen series, The Crippled God, left readers simultaneously satisfied and scratching their heads is testament to the depth of the Malazan world.

Steven Erikson came back from the dead – proverbially – with 2012’s Forge of Darkness. In FoD, Erikson delves into the history of the Tiste peoples and in particular the city of Kharkanas. This story is set many millennia prior to the events of the Book of the Fallen, and, in some ways, provides readers with a little bit of satisfaction insofar as they get a further glimpse into the mythos of the Malazan world.

Now, my creative writing teachers, when explaining how to workshop someone else’s work, have always told me that one should always lead with a good comment before diving into anything critical. While I do believe that any self-respecting adult should be able to take constructive criticism without having to be wined-and-dined first, I’m going to stick with this piece of advice for this review…as much as I really want to get into the criticism.

The first compliment I want to pay to Forge of Darkness is that it is ambitious, and a lack of ambition has never been one of Erikson’s faults as a writer. If I were Erikson and had just penned the greatest work of fantasy ever written, I would likely be content to set that world and those characters aside for fear of damaging the fragile word-child I had produced. Instead, Erikson decided to dive right back in and tackle the stories of some of his most beloved and most hated characters – namely Anomander Rake and Errastas. Whether he is able to pull it off – remember, there are still two books remaining in this trilogy – is irrelevant at this point. Kudos are in order for even trying.

Secondly, the device Erikson uses to frame this trilogy is nothing short of ingenious. Those who have read the Book of the Fallen will be familiar with the poets Blind Gallan and Fisher Tel Kath. These readers will also be familiar with Gallan’s Road used by the Shake and Fisher’s epic poem “Anomandaris.” To put it quite simply, this trilogy is “Anomandaris” made into prose, or properly speaking Gallan narrating to Fisher the events that comprise “Anomandaris.” Thus, what we get is Erikson writing a history within the context of his own created world. This isn’t a history textbook written to simply fill a void in the canon of Erikson’s works. FoD is a history as related to a great poet. It has purpose within the Malazan world. In other words, this tale is necessary even when to our, non-Malazan, eyes it isn’t.

Those who know me will know that I don’t like my literary criticism in the “Nice” flavour with a side of a pat on the back. Thus, I wouldn’t really be able to respect myself as a reviewer if I didn’t tell you exactly why I didn’t enjoy FoD quite as much as anything from the Book of the Fallen.

An artist's representation of Anomander Rake

An artist’s representation of Anomander Rake

First, and this touches upon some of the things I commented on in the “positive” section of this review, when reading FoD it sometimes feels as if Erikson is trying too hard to write a historical narrative and not enough on making it a compelling read for those of us in real life who spent real money on the book. While, as a lover of Erikson’s work, I do appreciate the frankness with which Erikson relays some historical details, a part of me pines for the days where you couldn’t tell if Silchas Ruin was going to hug you or run you through with twin keening swords. The book still seems satisfying, but it’s a “hey, I read something new” satisfaction and not a “holy crap, I didn’t see this coming but it all makes sense now that I think about it” satisfaction.

Speaking of satisfaction, another frustrating element of FoD is the lack of resolution with regards to the Malazan world creation myth. This may be a case of unrealistic expectations, but I had assumed coming into the novel that Erikson would be treating me to some great revelation about the creation of the Malazan world. I expected to learn about where the magical power comes from and where the gods themselves come from. Given the place on the timeline that the Tiste cultures fall this was a rather slim hope to begin with, but I was still hoping for something more than the classification of what were previously ‘gods’ as Azathanai. As far as meaningless revelations go, this might just take the cake. And it still doesn’t explain much of anything…

Lastly, as I was reading this novel there felt like there was something missing from it that made other Erikson novels unique. While FoD is assuredly an Erikson text, it read like it could have been written by a rather skilled imitator and not Erikson himself. It took me a while to pinpoint what this was and then, like a an assassination by Cotillion himself, it hit me: the military fiction – think Bridgeburners, Bonehunters, Coltaine’s Army, Paran’s Host, etc. – is non-existent. Gone are the scenes of banter between squad mates while on a march to a battle no one wants to take part in. Gone are the battles themselves. The only inkling of military fiction we get are in brief patches following squads sowing anarchy in Kurald Galain – and the characters that populate those scenes aren’t even like-able a la Fiddler, Quick Ben, Kalam, Bottle, Smiles, Corabb, et al. The trademark Erikson style, learned from Glen Cook and improved upon immensely, just isn’t there.

That being said, I shouldn’t let my eagerness to criticize overshadow the fact that I did, ultimately, enjoy the book. Those who are familiar with Erikson will certainly find it to be a worthwhile read while those who are new to Erikson might find it a more accessible starting point that the Grand Canyon-esque drop off that is Gardens of the Moon.

And, at 700-odd pages, it isn’t quite as daunting as Erikson’s other binding-stretching works.

I hate Raj.

I’ve sat through three and a half seasons of The Big Bang Theory and I’m now finally comfortable saying it: I HATE RAJ.  I have given him countless chances to carry an episode, most notably in The Pirate Solution (304) and The Thespian Catalyst (414), but he has never delivered in any kind of satisfactory manner.

He adds nothing to the show on his own, but only serves as a foil for the other, more interesting characters.  Without Sheldon, Howard, or Leonard, Raj is nothing.  He even needs others to talk for him.

This week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory underlined this in my mind.  Raj’s role in The Prestidigitation Approximation was nothing short of abhorrent: he was simply Wolowitz’s tool in messing with Sheldon.  Raj did not play any independent role of his own, just bobbing his head along annoyingly to Wolowitz’s quips and tricks.

Raj is there simply to make up the numbers and his presence takes away from a show whose other main characters are all interesting and drive the action.  All of the other main characters act, they don’t, like Raj, simply respond.  Each character is forced to respond to the actions of the others, but they also act upon the others as well.  For an example of this, look at the rest of this week’s episode.  Howard acts upon Sheldon, who in turn acts upon Raj, Penny, and Leonard.  Priya acts upon Leonard, who in turn acts upon Penny.  Penny acts upon Leonard and Priya, causing Priya’s acting against Leonard.  Raj simply responds to the actions of Howard and Sheldon without directly acting of his own volition.

Now, before I dissect the rest of the episode, I must explain why there’s no “Battle of Thursday Nights” post this week, despite there being a new episode of The Big Bang Theory.  And the explanation is simple: because there was no episode of Community this week, I have nothing to compare this week’s TBBT to.

Some of you might wonder why I am not automatically awarding a point to TBBT.  I don’t award points for weeks where only one show has a new episode because that practice would necessarily be biased in favour of Community, which has two more episodes per season than TBBT.

So, on to the analysis…

While taking good steps in recent episodes to move on from the Leonard and Penny relationship, this week’s episode just forces this storyline forward with no consideration for subtlety.  The explanation for this could come from two sources.

On one hand, Priya is a forceful character who knows what she wants and when she wants it.  And right now she wants Leonard.  However, I don’t buy this as the full explanation.  It certainly works in order to give some legitimacy to the storyline, but I can’t buy that this storyline falls conveniently after weeks of Leonard-Penny turmoil.

That leads into the other explanation: the show’s writers are pushing for a final resolution to the Leonard-Penny relationship.  For its entire existence the show has been focussed on this relationship and in order for it to go on for another four or five seasons it needs to resolve the old stories and begin some new ones – which they already have to an extent with the introduction of Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler as full-time characters.  This tension between Priya and Penny can resolve itself in one of two ways: either Leonard finally gets over Penny for good and stays with Priya or Leonard and Penny get back together permanently.  In either case the show would then be open to new storylines.

Overall though, I thought that the “card trick” half of the episode was no more than filler.  It won’t feature in any future episodes and did not contribute to any existing storyline in the slightest.  While it was refreshing for Sheldon not to be right for once, was it really necessary for the show to spend half of an episode on, considering that the other half will actually have a big impact on the future of the show?

The potential is there for this episode to lead to great things, but those great things are not present in this episode.  The Pestidigitation Approximation just sets the scene for the end of the season; it doesn’t steal the scene on its own.

Tune in next week for the renewal of hostilities as The Big Bang Theory and Community both return with new episodes!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@bazinga_shaw just in case you don’t already follow me) and are my friends on Facebook will know what is coming here: it is my weekly comparison of the television series The Big Bang Theory and Community.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with this comparison, I’ll fill you in on a little history.

When it was first announced that The Big Bang Theory would be moving from Monday nights to the 8pm on Thursday timeslot, I was torn.  It would directly conflict with another of my favourite shows: Community.  I had been routinely praising both shows for their humour, writing, and acting, so I was in quite a dilemma.  Given that I could only watch one at a time, I needed a system to figure out which one to watch.

And so the comparison system you see today was born.  The premise is simple: whichever show’s episode is better in a given week gets a point.  The show with the most points at the end of the season would be declared the best, and therefore the one to watch first.  If I can’t choose between them on a given week, half a point will be given to each show.

The current score, after 14 weeks, is 9 points for Community and 5 points for The Big Bang Theory.

So, now that you’re up to speed, it’s time to move on to this week’s episodes…and just as a head’s up, there will be spoilers…

The Contestants: The Toast Derivation (The Big Bang Theory) vs. Intro to Political Science (Community)

Let’s start by breaking down what each episode did right.

Community’s Intro to Political Science gave us a couple things that I found very interesting, both of which have been touched upon in previous episodes.

The first is the Jeff-Annie romance sparking up again.  While some viewers might not see these two characters as a good fit, the key point is that a new multi-episode arc seems to be picking up, replacing the rather mediocre Pierce-trying-to-be-accepted storyline that took up most of the season to this point.  And deep down, we really pull for characters like Jeff and Annie.  Despite Jeff’s standoffish attitude towards his friends and family, he is a likable character and Annie, because she’s so innocent most of the time, really tugs at our proverbial heart-strings.  By pairing two like-able characters in a multi-episode arc Community’s writers have given themselves a very good platform to work off of in future episodes.

The second item is the testing of Troy and Abed’s relationship.  In Early 21st Century Romanticism, the inseparable duo were tested by a shared crush on the school’s librarian.  This time the testing sets out to be more subtle.  After having their elections-coverage talkshow interrupted by FBI investigators, a relationship seems to be slowly developing between Abed and Special Agent Robin Vollers, despite her job getting in the way.  We don’t know how this storyline will develop, but at some point Troy will have to deal with Abed spending more time with Robin and how that plays out will definitely be worth watching.

Both of these items are all about moving the show forward and giving the audience something new to watch.  Without this progress, the show becomes stale (much like Season 5 of How I Met Your Mother).  Although Annie and Jeff kissed in the Season 1 finale and have shown some hints of attraction between then and now (see Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design and Asian Population Studies), we have yet to see them in any kind of real relationship with real, consistent feelings.  New relationships always signify forward movement in the story as the relationship will either fail – and the characters will learn something new about themselves – or succeed – and the characters will be one step closer to the point at which their story concludes.

Community also did a very good job depicting student elections in this week’s episode.  You UWO students out there, just picture Omid Salari as Jeff Winger talking his way past Andrew Forgione as Annie Edison, only to be undone by Annie/Andrew’s resourcefulness (except that I think you’d be hard pressed to make Omid ashamed of anything you caught him doing on camera…).  From the silly Dean Pelton-style applause-o-meter to South Park being the write-in winner, nothing seemed out of place.

On the other hand (or should I say “out of the other eye?”), The Big Bang Theory finally produced an episode that was high on substance and/or emotion and wasn’t boxed in by the same, heavily broken-in character types, instead using the traits of the characters to set up the story before letting it loose.

What I’m talking about here isn’t immediately obvious upon first viewing.  Sheldon’s initial reaction to the group moving their hangout spot to Raj’s apartment was to be expected.  In this instance, the writers have used our familiarity with Sheldon’s personality and quirky tendencies to draw us into the episode and that’s what we want.  From the point that Sheldon parts ways with the group for his conglomerate of Stewart, Barry, and Zach, the episode could have gone two different ways.  The way it went, with Sheldon and the group making up in a very co-dependent and bittersweet manner, was one way and it was a positive move on the behalf of the show’s writers as it gave us something that we wouldn’t expect.  Given what we know of the characters, we might have expected the rest of the group to be on top of the world without Sheldon to drag them down and Sheldon to engage in a maniacal scheme to bring them down.  All of which would be concluded with a yelling match between Sheldon and Leonard and an abrupt and unsatisfying make-up.

This leads perfectly into the other side of the equation: how the group fared without Sheldon.  Despite adding a member who is inherently more stable than the erratic Sheldon in Priya, the group misses its, as Sheldon would put it, “social glue.”  Given what we have seen in previous episodes like The Vegas Renormalization or, more recently, The Bus Pants Utilization, the group should get along just fine without Sheldon around.  That they don’t is a great sign that the show can still defy our expectations, which has been sadly lacking so far this season and is a big reason why the show is 4 points behind Community in the rankings.

All in all, there’s not much bad I have to say about each contestant this week.  I could have done without the Girls’ Night storyline of The Toast Derivation as I felt it just slowed down and dragged out the episode.  With Community, Pierce, Shirley, and Britta were mostly missing from the episode.  Pierce and Britta were both “candidates” for the Presidency, but apart from a few lines, they didn’t figure in the main storylines of the episode and Shirley was pretty much non-existent.

Therefore, this week I will award both shows half a point.  Both had me laughing and both impressed me with their writing, meaning that choosing between the two is a near impossible task.

The score after this week is now Community 9.5 – The Big Bang Theory 5.5.