Monday, September 22, 2014

Memories of the Four Lands

It begins with a novel that is remarkably influenced by The Lord of the Rings, almost as if Lester Del Rey approached Terry Brooks and said, "hey, what if you just re-wrote Lord of the Rings instead?"  There are now 26 published novels in the Shannara milieu with more to come.  What started as being heavily influenced by Tolkien quickly became its own thing.

I grew up in a small town with a small public library.  It has since undergone a remodel, but I can clearly picture how the library was laid out when I first discovered it and where I spent so much time browsing its limited shelves. At the time, though, the library was big because I was small.  I was in eighth grade and randomly choosing what to read next.  I know the librarian was formative in introducing me to a handful of fantasy authors, but the memory I have right now is of browsing the shelves and finding a small hardcover of The Sword of Shannara.  It was casebound (the art was printed and laminated to the cover, so there was no dust jacket), though I didn't know what that was at the time.  It was different, and I was entranced by the glowing sword and the closed door looming behind those awkward characters.  I wanted to know more, so I borrowed the book and started reading.

This isn't so much about The Sword of Shannara, though.  As vital as the discovery was, and as interested as I was to read more of Terry Brooks, the book felt a bit stilted and older than the 1977 publication would suggest.  What was important about The Sword of Shannara was that it was the beginning of something.  I would say it was the beginning of my interest in epic fantasy, but that honor belongs to David Eddings.  It was more than just the beginning to the Shannara series, though it is also that.  I think The Sword of Shannara did two things.  It helped me realize just how many worlds there were to discover, and it also introduced me to The Elfstones of Shannara.

Oh, the story of Wil Ohmsford and Amberle Elessedil.  Stee Jans.  The seige.  If I was ever to re-read the Shannara novels, I might skip over the first book and go right to Elfstones. Elfstones of Shannara is the novel with which Terry Brooks showed the most growth and development as a writer and and storyteller.  It also is where Brooks hooked me for the next twenty years, even when later novels did not hold up to the level of quality I expected from Elfstones through his Heritage of Shannara series and the Word / Void novels. 

Like many others, Elfstones was a novel of great adventure, but unlike a number of the fantasy novels I was reading at the time, it was also a novel of great loss and sacrifice.  While this is something that is reasonably common for those who have read widely, it was a new thing for me and it sealed Elfstones as a novel I would come back to, seek out, and recommend. 

I have been reading the Shannara novels for a good twenty years or more, but it is the battles, last stands, and the Ellcrys that I remember so clearly. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Lou Anders Leaves Pyr

(Via Rob Bedford)

I learned today that Lou Anders is leaving Prometheus Books.  Anders is both the editorial director and art director of Pyr, and imprint of Prometheus. Anders is leaving to focus on his writing career. I wish Lou and Pyr nothing but the best, with good fortune to follow on both sides.

In my mind, Lou Anders IS Pyr.  I understand that there is and was a team in place making everything happen, but Lou was the face of Pyr, a public advocate for the fiction he was publishing, and he was the editorial director. It was his vision and guidance that drove the sort of fiction published at Pyr.  The reason I am familiar with and fans of James Barclay, Justina Robson, Kay Kenyon, and Joe Abercrombie is because I was introduced to them by Lou Anders. There are another dozen or so writers I haven't read yet, but they are on my radar simply because Lou published them.  They have to be good.  Not only did he publish good books, as art director, his books looked good, too.  They looked sharp.  They looked like something you'd want to pick up. 

Books selected by Lou would, from the first year, be nominated for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Hugo, World Fantasy Award, Compton Crook Award, The John W Campbell Memorial Award, Sideways Award, Philip K Dick Award, and the Locus Award. Among others.  The art that he selected would be nominated for and win the Chesley Award. Short fiction he edited would invariably be nominated for awards, and Lou himself would be nominated for the World Fantasy Award and win the Hugo and Chesley Awards.  It isn't an exaggeration to say that if Lou Anders published a book, I could assume right off the bat that it was going to be worth checking out.  Lou Anders built the Pyr brand and knowing that a book was published by Pyr, I'd give it a second or third look. 

I almost wrote that it is sad to see Lou leave Pyr, but that would only be the selfish thought of someone whose reading life has benefited from and been enriched by the work that Lou has done with Pyr.  Lou Anders is leaving to focus on his own writing.  His first novel, Frostborn, has been published and has been well received and if leaving Pyr gives him the opportunity to fully embrace and chase his dream and his personal goals, then that's the right decision and the right call. 

I have never met Lou Anders, though I hope one day our paths cross and I can buy him a beer and sit down and talk books with him for a few minutes, but he has my sincere best wishes in this next stage of his career. 

On his blog today, Lou has some poignant words about Kermit the Frog.

Somewhere along the way, it became less about his own dreams and more about facilitating others' dreams, about accruing and enabling a group of like-minded individuals to reach their own potential.

As an editor over the last ten years at Pyr, Lou Anders has done exactly that.  While the nuts and bolts of editorial work is largely invisible to the reader, to a very real point, the job of an editor is to facilitate the dreams of others and to enable them to reach their potential.  And like Kermit, he has been remarkably successful at bringing those voices forward and making them known.  He has been the public face of a company's brand.  Now he is stepping forward himself, making his own dream a reality, pushing his own vision and stretching to tell his own stories.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Forthcoming Books: October - November - December 2014

Coming to the end of 2014's third quarter, it is time to look ahead towards some interesting stuff being published in the final three months of the year.  I'm using the Locus Forthcoming list because even though it may not be exhaustive, it is a fairly representative list of what is coming out over the course of a year.  My list below is based simply on that which strikes my own fancy, and I'm sure I'm overlooking all sorts of excellent stuff that if only I knew more about it or was familiar with the author's work, I would be excited for it.  But, alas, I am not.

October: I'm a huge fan of Brust's Vlad Taltos series and he simply cannot write them fast enough for me now that I have finally caught up with the series.  After the year Ancillary Justice has had, I'm not sure any explanation is needed for Leckie's follow up.  I'm behind on my Hamilton, but I wanted to note this one anyway.

Hawk, by Steven Brust
The Abyss Beyond Dreams, by Peter F. Hamilton
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

November: What Baxter I have read has been fantastic, and this seems to be an impressively ambitious new novel.  I'll read everything Stephen King writes, same with Modesitt's Recluse series, and I'm interested to see where Mira Grant takes the Parisitology series.  It's not as impressive, thus far, as the Newsflesh novels, but it's still a good read.

Proxima, by Stephen Baxter
Symbiont, by Mira Grant
Revival, by Stephen King
Heritage of Cyador, by L. E. Modesitt

December: It's been 8 years since Katherine Kurtz published Childe Morgan, the second volume in her trilogy of the same name. I haven't loved this trilogy (so far) the way I have many of her other Deryni novels, but new Deryni is always cause for celebration. I only hope that, now that the trilogy is complete, she might work on either the 948 novel or the Orin and Jodotha novel which she hinted about years ago. I've also never read Nora Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy, so what better time than a new omnibus?

The Inheritance Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin
The King's Deryni, by Katherine Kurtz

Monday, September 15, 2014

Memories of Riva

I was fourteen or fifteen when I first tried to write a novel. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure I made it a good ten or fifteen pages before realizing this was a horrible decision.  Ten or fifteen pages was a fairly big deal for me at the time and it gave me hope that I would be able to push forward and write the whole thing.  It would be epic, I would sell a gazillion copies and would become rich.  I was set.  The only problem, besides not being very good at telling a story or having any idea what I was doing, came when I realized I was more or less re-writing Pawn of Prophecy.  What can I say?  It was influential.

After Piers Anthony, David Eddings and his five volume Belgariad series was the second major step in my discovery of science fiction and fantasy.  Unlike the various characters of Xanth, I was pretty much of an age with young Garion, a farm boy destined for so much more. Where Xanth was my gateway to fantasy, the Belgariad was my hook. I would read these five books over and over again, probably more times than I could even guess.  Sure, I would venture out into other fantasies and continue to explore new worlds, but I would keep coming home to this particular world.

It was the simplicity that brought me back.

When you're first discovering a genre, you don't know what the tropes are.  You're a kid reading about a boy your age with a quiet and boring life on a farm who is pulled away on an adventure for reasons that don't quite make sense. That adventures begins to grow and grow and you, through the rather bland protagonist, discover new lands and new magic and find out that your destiny is so much bigger, that perhaps you might be a lost scion of royalty, an inheritor of magic, and you're probably going to marry a princess and become king. 

It's easy to dream of these characters and put yourself into Garion's shoes, to perhaps wish that you would be pulled away on that adventure. You'd forget about the fear Garion must have faced and sure, you'd probably miss things like electricity, plumbing, and your family - but what an adventure!  What dreams! 

I sometimes spend time thinking about what books I want to introduce to my kids. They'll be surrounded with all sorts of books and I'll probably read wildly inappropriate books to them at a very young age, but who knows. My wife is pregnant with our first child, a boy.  I've got a number of years to figure out what I might want to slide his way, but would I give him the Belgariad?  I don't think I would push him towards Xanth, but on the off chance I think of this in the future, I might be willing to share this one with him.  It's such a simple story, but it's perfect for hooking a young boy.

My memories of David Eddings extends beyond just the Belgariad, though they start there. I'm still, somewhat, a fan of The Mallorean, which is the five volume follow up series to the Belgariad.  And by "follow up", I mean the same exact story told with twice as many pages in each book.  It is.  Eddings plays with that idea a little bit with "didn't we already do this?" comments and weaving the ideas of the first series into something different in the second.  The Belgariad stands well enough on its own, and while I think I'd prefer it without the second series, if you're still young enough, you can latch onto the Mallorean.  I distinctly remember receiving a copy of Guardians of the West for my birthday and eagerly awaiting each subsequent volume.  It was a chance to spend more time with Garion, Durnik, Belgarath, and Polgara. And friends.

But the one series which I think I most want to revisit is the three volume Elenium, which is set in a completely different world and features a world and war weary older knight Sparhawk. There is a similar interplay with mortals and gods and kings and queens, and it is clearly written by David Eddings, but overall the novels (beginning with The Diamond Throne) feel more serious and intense. Despite all the books I need and want to read for the first time, I think I need to revisit this one.  I'm feeling nostalgic. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Catching Up: The 2014 To-Read List

Back in February I posted a list of 19 books I wanted to read this year, the list ordered by presumed publication date.  I meant to do this update post a couple of months ago, but time got away from me, I completely forgot, and here we are.  I'll update this again at the end of the year. 

So far I have read 7 of the 19 books from the list, which for me is actually pretty good. Even better, I have a copy of Steles of the Sky at home, and expect to get through One-Eyed Jack, Lock In, and Hawk in the near future from the library. 

I'm at least one book behind on three of the series volumes, so I won't get to Valour and Vanity, Cibola Burn, or The Thorn of Emberlain until I catch up.  

Feist's King of Ashes has been pushed to next year.  Going Gray has already been published, but Traviss has self-published the volume so my ability to get a copy might be a bit more limited as my book buying budget is very low (hey, we just bought a house and we've got a baby on the way) and my library carries few self published titles.

So far, so good. 

1. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (Feb)
2. Locke and Key: Alpha and Omega, by Joe Hill (Feb)
3. Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson (Mar)
4. Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear (Apr)
5. Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Apr)
6. King of Ashes, by Raymond E. Feist (May)
7. Cyador’s Heirs, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr (May)
8. Defenders, by Will McIntosh (May)
9. My Real Children, by Jo Walton (May)
10. Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey (Jun)
11. Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King (Jun)
12. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine (Jun)
13. One-Eyed Jack, by Elizabeth Bear (Aug)
14. Lock In, by John Scalzi (Aug)
15. Hawk, by Steven Brust (Sep)
16. Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest (Sep)
17. The Thorn of Emberlain, by Scott Lynch (Nov)
18. Symbiont, by Mira Grant (Nov)
19. Going Gray, by Karen Traviss (Dec)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance
Brandon Sanderson
Tor: 2014

Words of Radiance is epic. It is the second novel in a planned ten volume series and clocks in at nearly 1100 pages. I made a final push to finish the book last night and my wife looked over and said, "damn, that's a big book".  The scope of the overall series, The Stormlight Archive is nearly impossible to see this early on, despite being 2100 pages in.  We can see some of the shape, but with three volumes to go in the first set of five books, we don't quite know where this is going.  The novel itself is epic, spanning three primary viewpoint characters which helps ground and focus the novel, and a handful of minor viewpoint characters during the "interludes" between major sections of the novel.  Words of Radiance deals with world changing ideas and events and this is fantasy writ large with the rediscovery of lost powers and ancient enemies.  The novel is big and heavy and can probably be used as a weapon or a shield, depending on one's preference. 

Talking about the first book in a series is easy to do.  Everything is new.  The characters and the setting and the story have not been explored before, and touching on them can shape a review.  But when we get to the second book, and two of the three primary viewpoint characters are the same as from the first book, it's easy to talk about how those characters journeys have changed them and how they have developed, but that is only talking to those readers already familiar with Kaladin and Shallan.  If you haven't read The Way of Kings, those names and that development means nothing.  Those who have read The Way of Kings already know if they are going to read Words of Radiance or not.  Those who haven't are probably not going to start here.

Which raises an interesting point.  Despite being the second book in a ten volume sequence, Words of Radiance does stand on its own far more than I would have expected.  Readers won't appreciate Kaladin's journey nearly as much if they didn't read the first book, but I can see how the novel could potentially hold up for a reader new to the series. I'm not new, so I can't confirm that one way or the other, but Words of Radiance is a reasonably contained novel that builds off the first book and sets up the third.  But with that setup still comes a story that ends.  I wouldn't recommend Words of Radiance to be read on its own, but I think someone could pick up the novel and still appreciate it without being completely lost.   

On a completely different note, Sanderson is tying his books together and it is happening here.  If you know what to look for, you'll see it.  Or, in my case, if you see other people mention the connections, you'll see it.  It is completely unnecessary to know this or catch it to enjoy the books, but Sanderson has been very open about his larger "Cosmere" and that the majority of his original work (not counting Wheel of Time, or anything set on Earth) is part of this Cosmere. Right now most of the Cosmere action is taking place in the background. We can see the occasional character moving around, and I think it is going to be much more evident in The Stormlight Archive, but it's icing on the cake for the more devoted and careful readers. Or, again, for those who follow the connections others have pointed out.

So, what do you talk about when you talk about Words of Radiance?

Words of Radiance doesn't break new ground when it comes to epic fantasy. Brandon Sanderson is still a fairly traditional fantasy writer. He is very well aware of the genre and occasionally plays with some of its tropes (Mistborn), but he's really telling straight up epic fantasy with a variety of settings and magic systems. He's ambitious though. Think about his plans for the Cosmere, he's definitely ambitions.  The thing is, Words of Radiance doesn't need to break new ground. That's not the story Sanderson is telling (I think), and there is room in the genre for all kinds of storytelling and fantasy. Words of Radiance is a very good fantasy novel and, happily, Sanderson's reach does not exceed his grasp.  He's stretching and striving to tell a very, very big story and two novels into The Stormlight Archive, he's nailing the mark.

If you like a big fat fantasy novel in the vein of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince (the intrigue and the magic), or some of the earlier Terry Brooks (though without the echoes of Lord of the Rings), Brandon Sanderson is your guy.  He will give you exactly what you're looking for, and despite the heft of Words of Radiance, he'll still leave you wanting a couple hundred more pages to stay with these characters to see what happens next.

To Mr. Sanderson, I can only say, "More, please, and thank you."  Words of Radiance was a delightful journey.

Some Other Reviews (Non Spoiler) (Very Spoiler)
Neth Space
Staffer's Book Review
Fantasy Book Review
Fantasy Faction
Ranting Dragon
The Wertzone

Monday, September 08, 2014

Memories of Xanth

I remember overhearing two kids talking about some books they were reading. The boys were excited about how cool they were and how "adult" these books were.  They felt like they were getting something over on the adults and the other kids who weren't old enough, weren't mature enough to handle reading those books.  I was one of those kids who they didn't think could handle the adultness of these books.  I didn't know what they were, but I knew I wanted to read them. I was quietly desperate to be part of any sort of group and these were books.  Books!  I love books!

This was the end of seventh grade and my family was in the process of packing up and moving from New York City to some small town in Minnesota.  Those kids will never know it and I don't remember their names, but they set the course of what I would read over the next twenty years and more. 

I had never read much fantasy before I was thirteen.  I'm sure I had read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but that's probably about it when it came to fantasy (I devoured The Hardy Boys).  But when I heard those kids talking about the adult books they were reading, I just had to read them.  I don't remember what they said, but I remember where they were in the classroom and I remember what the series was.

They were talking about Xanth. 

Looking back over the last twenty two years, it is difficult to imagine that Xanth would have been nearly as formative as it was, or that anyone today would consider Xanth "adult".  Juvenile, sure.  Adult? 

Consider the perspective of twelve and thirteen year old boys, though.  There is plenty of adventure and Piers Anthony talks around sex and violence and growing up and, if my memory is worth anything in this reminiscence, it seems to hit that sweet spot for a thirteen year old boy who doesn't know much about anything at all but wants to disappear into some other world for a while.

So when I read A Spell for Chameleon for the first time in the fall of 1992, I was hooked.  Xanth was magical, and I don't mean anything to do with the magical nature of the world created by Piers Anthony.  Xanth was magical in how it transported me to a different world with characters I could care about and follow on grand adventures.  Xanth was magical in the escape it represented.  That the escape also happened to be to a place where magic was possible and the danger was not too real and always fun (and often funny) was just a bonus.

My life had just been uprooted from Staten Island, which as the least populous of the five boroughs of New York City still had a 1990 population of nearly 379,000 people - but that was still part of a much larger city with over seven million.  I landed in Rush City, population not quite 1700.  There was culture shock, and I buried myself in the public library and with the help and prompting of the librarian at the time, Jeanette Monthye, discovered new worlds that were so much larger than the small one I found myself in.  When I think about Xanth, I tend to think about everything else except the novels. I think of my life at thirteen, about how the books made me feel, about escape and magic and wonder and discovery.  I think of the journey.

At the time when I first discovered Xanth, Piers Anthony had written fifteen or so novels in the series.  I didn't know that at the time, I just knew that for quite a while, there was always a new Xanth novel at the public library for me to read.  I have very specific memories from the earliest books in that series and it laid the groundwork for my venturing on to other science fiction and fantasy authors. 

Without Piers Anthony, I don't progress to David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Raymond Feist, Terry Brooks, and Katherine Kurtz.  Without Piers Anthony, I'm probably not reading Jeff VanderMeer, Elizabeth Bear, George RR Martin, or Ann Leckie today. 

I don't have the twenty two year journey of reading science fiction and fantasy if I don't take a first step.  The first step was Xanth.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Books Read: August 2014

Below is a listing of all of the books I read in August. All links go to my reviews.

1. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine
2. Annihilation, by Drew Karpyshyn
3. The Devil's Snake Curve, by Josh Ostergaard
4. Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer
5. Earth Awakens, by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
6. Cyador's Heirs, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr
7. The High Druid's Blade, by Terry Brooks
8. Memory of Water, by Emmi Itaranta
9. Divided Allegiance, by Elizabeth Moon
10. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer (unfinished)

Best Book of the Month: Whether this is Best or Favorite, I was completely hooked by Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. I think I said everything I wanted in my review, but even though I didn't quite expect this after Mechanique, this is the novel I am not at all surprised Valentine wrote. It's fantastic, people. Read it.

Disappointment of the Month: It is difficult to decide if my disappointment was the new Terry Brooks, from which I expected a little bit more since he seemed back on track after The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy and instead got something that seemed like he farmed out the novel to a writer who isn't on his game or if it was The Devil's Snake Curve which is a book of essays on baseball combined with offbeat meditations of America. As a Books and Bars pick, it should have been perfect, but I found it mostly tedious and the essays were more quick thoughts than actual essays of any length.  I think I'll pick both. 

Discovery of the Month: None.

Unfinished of the Month: The New York Times suggested that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot may be "the novel of the summer" for 2014.  I didn't care. It did read a bit like a less esoteric DeLillo novel, but through one hundred pages or so I realized that I was forcing myself to keep reading out of some misguided need to finish everything that isn't completely awful. I stopped. I expect that I stopped just short of the point where things would begin to ramp up and get truly absurd and interesting, but if I have to force myself to continue, I shouldn't.

Worth Noting: I never quite managed to write the review of Authority that I had planned and almost started several times, but Authority spins a different side of the story of the Southern Reach. It deals with the fallout from Annihilation (my review) and while it focuses on a different character outside of Area X, it is very much informed by it and still has that claustrophobic feel of Annihilation.  More so, perhaps, because now we've got governmental bureaucracy clustered around the weirdness of Area X. 

Gender Breakdown: Three out of the ten books I read last month were written by women, which isn't a very good representation. The thing is, I saw this coming, but since these were mostly library books that all came at the same time, I read myself into a corner. I'm looking to have a stronger rest of the year. Right now all of my own books are boxed up for the forthcoming move, but I'm pushing to get a number of things from the library and then when I'm all moved in a couple of weeks, it's on like Donkey Kong.  I am currently at 39/92, which rounds up to 42.4% of the books I've read this year are written or edited by women.  On one hand, I believe that is possibly the strongest percentage I've had.  On the other, I can do better.

Previous Months

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Fishbowls All the Way Down: The Series Is Doing Just Fine

Yesterday, Justin Landon wrote about how "The Series is Dying, and the Internet is Killing It", and if that's not a title designed to catch the attention of speculative fiction fans, I don't know what is.  His argument, abbreviated as I can make it, is that in today's world of social media and "online buzz" the word of mouth conversations that used to occur in bookstores are now happening online, but the spaces in which those conversations are being held are driven by clicks and getting people to keep coming back - which means much more focus on the new shiny thing than on subsequent volumes of a series. As such, series are likely to be less successful now than they were in the past.  Landon is a bit more cogent, so you should really just read his article first. 

Landon admits in his final paragraph that

This editorial presents a lot of hypotheses without any supporting data. There’s a reason for that… the data is hard to find. I have no idea if series are more or less successful today than they were ten years ago, or twenty years ago, or fifty years ago. Anecdotally, it feels true, but that’s hardly the same thing. 

But that's the problem, isn't it?  It isn't quite irresponsible to say that the series is dying and the internet is killing it, but it's clearly ill informed.

The fact is, we just don't know.  I would like to believe that publishers know, and unless they feel like being part of this conversation, really don't have much incentive to crunch the numbers and figure out if there is a greater or lesser hit percentage for a series today as there was at any other time in the past, or if the percentage is down because the volume of new series are up.  Or if any of that is true. 

The trouble is that Landon is relying on his perception of "buzz" and also on his perception of sales.  He writes about how reviewers tend to not review the later volumes of a given series because "what's to say that hasn't already been said?" - and to that point, I would only agree from a personal perspective. I do find it difficult to say something new about later volumes in a series, especially when the level of quality, such as it is, is consistent.  If I feel a later volume is exceptionally poor, that's worth remarking on.  But those middle volumes?  What to say? 

I don't feel that this is representative of anything, though.  I don't know or have any way of knowing if this is even different than what happened twenty or fifty years ago.  The venues for reviews and conversations are different, but isn't it still the same thing?  Haven't we always been excited about something new and that's what we like to talk about?  Isn't buzz really about the new shiny thing?

Does this really have anything to do with sales?  We're playing around and talking make-believe without data.  There are no numbers to crunch and every time you point to a series that started out strong, had plenty of "buzz" and then faded after X number of volumes, I point to one that is still going strong and seems to be growing.  But then, do we even know how these books are selling?

What if "nobody" talks about a series but it continues to sell a consistent number, year after year, and remains in print and with each new book, more people discover the first volume and it keeps on going?  How do you measure that, except anecdotally?  

I don't have answers.  Only questions. 

I think the premise is a touch myopic because as broadly as we think we read and as broadly as we think we explore the internet and are plugged into various circles and conversations, we are only seeing a fraction of what is being discussed online.  So, where we see that "nobody" is talking about the fourth volume of a series, someone else may be engaging it on any number of sites.  Or, where "nobody" is talking about the fourth volume, it continues to sell well beyond the "buzz" that we don't see.  Yes, this year has seen plenty of buzz for Ancillary Justice, The Goblin Emperor, and The Mirror Empire and yes, it is certainly possible that there will be much less visible "buzz" for books two and three (or volume 15 of CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series, for that matter), but they may still sell in sufficient volume for the series to be viable. 

I do think that is important to remember that we who engage in online discussion and analysis are more likely to be such a small fragment of the book buying public, and those tweets and blog posts and podcasts and tumbles - as awesome as they are and as many people as they reach - still don't represent the real reach of the long tail of book publishing.

The "Series" is likely doing just fine with or without us.  When all we see is the fishbowl, we think the fishbowl is the whole world.  It's just a fishbowl inside a larger fishbowl inside a larger fishbowl. It's fishbowls all the way down.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Divided Allegiance, by Elizabeth Moon

Divided Allegiance
Elizabeth Moon
Baen: 1988

Following Sheepfarmer's Daughter (my review), Divided Allegiance is the second volume in The Deed of Paksenarrion.  The first volume was very much a military fantasy novel with a heavy dose of realism in the portrayal of characters and the military campaigns, despite the occasional supernatural elements.  Divided Allegiance picks up shortly after the ending of that first book, which places it some three years or so from the beginning of the series. Paks is still a private in Duke Phelan's army, but she is a much more experienced soldier with combat experience and the emotional scars the prove it. 

It is worth remembering the beginning of Sheepfarmer's Daughter with the section set years in the future letting the readers know that Paks will become a legendary figure, and that the legend is all the family has left of her.  It is a reminder that what Paks had accomplished in Sheepfarmer's Daughter was only putting her feet on a much longer road.  Divided Allegiance contains the next steps of that road as she leaves Duke Phelan's company to train with the marshals and paladins of Gird, a militant religious order dedicated to serving "good" and combating "evil".

There is some lip service paid to this ideal of "good" and it certainly tints the overall impression of the novel, but I think that Moon is doing more than tweaking the epic fantasies of the 1980's (the three volumes of The Deed of Paksenarrion were published in the late 80's).  She seems to be playing in this world where characters talk in a formal heroic manner of upholding virtue, and purport to act in that manner as well, but the reality is that things are much nastier on the ground and the lines of "good" and "evil" are muddied - and that following the path of "good" can still lead into bad situations from which there is no clean escape.  But it is those characters in positions of authority, moral or otherwise, who talk about serving "good".

It raises questions of the moral purity of organizations purporting to have just that, which in fantasy written in later years would be the most corrupt organizations of all, but here shades the white into a bit more gray.

But despite Moon's tweaking of some fantasy conventions, Divided Allegiance has several aspects and instances of being a very traditional quest fantasy novel.  The outcomes of those quests are very different that we might expect from when this was written, but the trappings have this as a much more formal and traditional novel.  It is those trappings that date the novel and cause it to feel like a much older novel than it actually is.

The initial quest portion of the novel after Paks leaves Duke Phelan's army is one of the weaker aspects of the book, which was disappointing given how strong Sheepfarmer's Daughter was as a whole. When Paks travels with the part-elf Macenion, they do some exploring and it feels like a poor novelization of a different role playing campaign.  This section is at odds with the previous novel and even with the rest of the novel, because when Paks later arrives at Brewersbridge the storytelling begins to settle down and sell itself to the reader. I wonder if part of this has to do with my own interests in this book (and others), where the closer Paks is to any sort of organized military the more I appreciate the novel, or if there is a more distinct difference in the novel.  But, from Brewersbridge on through the training with the marshals and paladins of Gird, Divided Allegiance picks up steam and doesn't let go.

I suspect that one should read Divided Allegiance with the concluding volume Oath of Gold close at hand, because Elizabeth Moon does not pull any punches with how she ends the novel.  There is a point late in the novel where some very significant things happen to Paks and I spent the remaining pages trying to figure out when Moon would lay off her protagonist and give her even a small break, but still Moon kept digging the dagger in and twisting. It was absolutely brutal, but so well done.  Moon makes you care, and then kicks you in the face. And even though Divided Allegiance was published some twenty six years ago, it's something better saved to experience rather than being told right off how it all happens.

But, that's why I think having Oath of Gold on hand might be a good thing. Moon ends the novel with some serious darkness (Empire Strikes Back has nothing on Moon) and causes you to wonder how it is possible Paks can get from where she is at the end of Divided Allegiance to anything that would cause her to be considered a "legend".  I should probably take my own advice and pick up Oath of Gold far sooner than I had originally planned, because I feel upset Fred Savage in The Princess Bride because the story isn't going the way he expected / hoped / wanted it to and I want Moon to tell the story right. Except that she is, and it's painful and brutal, and it leaves me hope that Paks will somehow be able to recover and become the legend I expect that she will.  It's just that bit doesn't happen in Divided Allegiance, and the book gets very dark in a hurry nearing the end. 

The best praise that I can give Divided Allegiance, though, is that I stayed up extra late finishing the last hundred pages because I just couldn't stop before I found out how it ended and if Paks was going to be okay.