Finishing the Book of the Fallen: Immediacy

There comes a time in all of our lives when we will experience the loss of a loved one. Upon that loss, we will probably go through what is commonly known as the Five Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is a hard time.

For me, I have found that when I finish a particularly brilliant book or series I experience similar feelings of grief. I’m emotionally exhausted, bereft, and feeling upset that there are no more books to come. My favourite characters are gone, forever. There is nothing so contrived as the Five Stages of Literary Grief; I don’t deny the book is ended or get angry, or any of those tropes. But I think there can still be a benefit from talking about the experience.

That’s what I’ll be doing here upon finally having completed Steven Erikson’s masterpiece, ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen’.

Caveat: I am well aware there are more books coming, and there are even more books coming from his partner in the series, Ian C Esselmont.

Malazan books: Garden of the Moon up to Toll the Hounds.

There is something distressing in that moment when you flip onto the last page, seeing how the text doesn’t reach to the bottom of the page and, more often than not these days, seeing a different font-size alerting you to the fact you have finished the series. It’s bad enough with a trilogy. Finishing Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series I was left wanting more. So what hope did I have reaching the concluding pages of a series which had run into ten thick, thick books?

Closing the back cover down on the end of ‘The Crippled God’ was surreal. Finishing the Malazan Book of the Fallen was a different experience for me. It was like that moment after Lord of the Rings when it all became apparent just how different this particular piece of fiction was. It became apparent that there is a need for a label beyond fiction so that we can categorise what we’ve just experienced. Schindler’s List is not the same movie as Bad Boys, despite their respective merits. The latter is done for entertainment, the former is done to educate; to tap into a different part of the human mind and prod the sedentary thought process of a lazy population.

Steven Erikson sets you up for that feeling at the very beginning. In the Preface to the Gardens of the Moon redux, he writes thus: "In writing Gardens, I quickly discovered that ‘back story’ was going to be a problem no matter how far back I went. And I realized that, unless I spoon-fed my potential readers (something I refused to do, having railed often enough at writers of fantasy epics treating us readers as if we were idiots), unless I ‘simplified’, unless I slipped down into the well-worn tracks of what’s gone before, I was going to leave readers floundering. And not just readers, but editors, publishers, agents…"

Start reading ‘Gardens of the Moon’ and you’re already lost. Who are the Malazan’s? How’d they get to Pale and, hang on, where’s Pale?! What’s a High Fist and why does he only have Onearm? And what on earth – if Earth it be – is Burn’s Sleep?

This was history. Fiction unlike anything we’d ever encountered. Sure, Glen Cook had gone before and done something similar, and decades earlier than that J. R. R. Tolkien had come along and given us a complete world, languages and archaeology included. But Erikson went that one step further. He took what he’d learnt from both Cook and Tolkien, and then ran with it, bringing along moral inquisitiveness and a mirror to humanity as he went.

So what happens when you finish all of that?

The same thing that should happen when you finish reading an account of the Battle of the Somme, or the African-American Civil Rights Movement. You should have learned something. You should be changed! There must be a shift in your perception of reality, at least a portion of it. Fair enough; maybe Erikson’s work doesn’t touch on every aspect of the human condition – and certainly not the fragility of life that Glen Cook reflects in his ‘Black Company’ series – but Erikson sure as hell brings you close to the edge of what it means to be human, and then leaps across the gap and shows you everything in full relief.

How does it make you feel, really, to consider the sheer frequency with which we set to killing one another over something so trivial as where our imaginary border-line is placed? What is your reaction to the death of children left to fend for themselves?

Without a doubt, this is a fantasy novel and, as a result, has taken these examples to the extreme. But, then you have to start thinking … how far are we from the extreme? How are the wars depicted in the Malazan Book of the Fallen at all different from those we have fought ourselves? In what manner is The Snake different to the thousands of children left starving and defenceless throughout Africa and Asia?

Close a novel. Bring that back cover to rest for the last time on top of near a thousand pages of story. Breathe in. If you aren’t thinking, if you aren’t one-hundred percent focused on what you have learned, then you’ve missed the point entirely.

The Use of Language in Fantasy Novels

I sat down last night and picked up ‘The Blood Knight’, the third in Greg Keyes’ The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. I finished the second book, ‘The Charnel Prince’ maybe a month or two ago and promptly found myself without the third (and fourth) to continue on with. The order from a certain online store had yet to arrive and was already about three months late.

Months passed, other books were read, a few weeks went by without me reading any fantasy at all (though I did start in on Dewey: The Small Town Cat Who Touched The World, which I’m loving as I pick it up every now and again).

Finally the third and fourth books in Keyes’ series arrived and went onto the shelf next to book one and two. I was looking forward to it, but I had a few other books that had arrived as well, including three books by Joe Abercrombie and Trudi Canavan’s next book. So I didn’t really know when I was going to get to read Keyes, as I suspected the others – new books from publishers rather than purchased and old – would get preferential treatment.

I was wrong, and I’m probably about halfway through The Blood Knight.

And I’m loving it!

I really love Greg Keyes work. From a simple story point of view, it’s great. The general concept is unlike anything I’ve ever read, as it isn’t just a “usurper stole the crown” story or a “there are monsters in the land” story. In fact there are about five different “stories” in here that all intertwine and rely upon one another. The characters are fully realized and fleshed out, tangible and very ‘able: which is to say either likeable or hateable.

I’ll say more about the story in reviews, that’s for certain, but I wanted to touch on something that Keyes does, I think, remarkably well.

Many fantasy authors – myself included – spend a lot of time working out different languages and sources for their languages. You don’t want a book that all of a sudden has a Julius walking into the scene or someone entering a Coliseum; it’s too close to home, too close to reality. Fantasy books are supposed to be just that, fantasy, and that means that they need to take you away from the reality you’re in. One of the methods used to do this is to use different words for commonplace things and peoples names.

Some people succeed, others fail. I’ll get into who else does either at some later date.

For now, let’s just look at how well Keyes does it.

And he does do it well. Very well I think.

Within the novel Keyes’ characters travel through and encounter a variety of different cultures. Some live right next door to each other, and some are across seas. Some are related to one another and others are not. But in every instance, with every new culture introduced, there is a modification or variation on the language. Some of them bear striking resemblance to the “common” tongue (ie, the written word on paper for our reading eyes) while others are substantially removed. Oftentimes the older the reference made the farther removed from the “common” tongue it is, though there are several instances where the native tongue of someone our protagonists come across is indecipherable, saved only by context and/or explanation.

I have just finished reading a scene tonight where Anne Dare meets a native of a particular area whose language is similar, but just a little off from hers. Words like “welcome” are closely written but maybe off by a letter or two, and the way in which the sentences are structured are clumsy by common standards.

But this only makes it more impressive because behind the clumsiness is a certain grace that you can see exists within the natives language but that is lost in translation. Keyes somehow manages to imprint the lilting music of another language without us even hearing it, let alone understanding it.

More than the simple usage of different words (that are either italicized or not) to separate different cultures from our protagonists cultures, but the lead characters have different phrases for commonalities in our world. For example a nightmare is known as a Black Mary, and is frequently used as such with no hesitation. It is not a once off thing but just the way that the people speak. ‘They wake up from a bad dream and they want to cast off the lingering touch of the Black Mary,’ or something like that.

And these changes – both language wise and phrase wise – are beautifully interwoven into a story that is as much dependant on these changes as the changes are dependant on the story.

The differences between the common tongue and other tongues and historical tongues are integral to unravelling what is going to happen, revealing mysteries to the reader at the right time and creating moments of “ah ha” for the characters. One character is important almost solely for his ability to understand multiple languages both past and present. That takes a lot of guts to create a character like that, who is essentially a scholar without any of the Indiana Jones-esque abilities.

So I’d suggest that if you are at all interested in languages (or well written fantasy) than these books are for you.

The New Jedi Order

A look at the list of Star Wars novels will see the Star Wars expanded universe split into several eras. There is the Rise of the Empire era, the Rebellion era, the New Republic era and the New Jedi Order era (as well as the Legacy era which follows). For the majority of those periods of time the books that fill it are a collection of trilogies, duologies and individual books.

Image: New Jedi Order

However, towards the end of 1999, the beginning of a single line of books, published under the title The New Jedi Order, or more commonly referred to as NJO, was started. The brains trust behind the Star Wars novels decided it was time for a change, and the change would leave a lasting impression on the Star Wars universe.

The New Jedi Order is made up of 19 novels, plus a collection of short stories, ebook novellas and comic books. Published between 1999 and 2003, the series wrought heavy changes in the Star Wars universe.

Possibly one of the biggest changes was the dark tone that the series took. Death and destruction were brought to the fore, and the death of several major characters had fans outraged and unhappy. Most unfortunate was the untimely release of Star by Star, a book that bore striking resemblance to the September 11 attacks and was sadly released so soon after said tragedy.

Though not as unloved as the prequel movies, the NJO books were not the huge success within the Star Wars fanbase that the brains trust had hoped for.

Star Wars novelist Timothy Zahn felt the series was too dark and had stayed from the “feel” of Star Wars, and later Editorial Director of Del Ray expressed his regret over some of the grimmer aspects the series portrayed, and of the main villain, the Yuuzhan Vong.

For those with the “trust” of continuing the Star Wars universe in this format, it is only fair that they are seen to be taking the blame for something that some fans did not like. However it is a little sad that the backlash was such that they were forced into such a decision.

Being only three books in, I’ll admit that maybe the series deepens in its “grimness” and actually strays from the Star Wars ethos. But so far all I’m seeing is Star Wars characters dealing with a level of violence they had yet to encounter. This is not a bad thing, and helps deepen the characters out of the “good guy/bad guy” stereotypes that were originally conceived in the movies.

So stay tuned to Fantasy Book Reviews newest section focusing solely on the Star Wars universe for more NJO reviews as I get through the books. I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum except for three deaths which cannot be overlooked (I’ll make sure to warn before the review).

Books making up the NJO series;

–        Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore (25 ABY)

–        Dark Tide I: Onslaught by Michael Stackpole (25 ABY)

–        Dark Tide II: Ruin by Michael Stackpole (25 ABY)

–        Agents of Chaos I: Hero’s Trial by James Luceno (25 ABY)

–        Agents of Chaos II: Jedi Eclipse by James Luceno (25 ABY)

–        Balance Point by Kathy Tyers (26 ABY)

–        Edge of Victory I: Conquest by Greg Keyes (26 ABY)

–        Edge of Victory II: Rebirth by Greg Keyes (27 ABY)

–        Star by Star by Troy Denning (27 ABY)

–        Dark Journey by Elaine Cunningham (27 ABY)

–        Enemy Lines I: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston (27 ABY)

–        Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand by Aaron Allston (27 ABY)

–        Traitor by Matthew Stover (27 ABY)

–        Destiny’s Way by Walter Jon Williams (28 ABY)

–        Force Heretic I: Remnant by Sean Williams & Shane Dix (28 ABY)

–        Force Heretic II: Refugee by Sean Williams & Shane Dix (28 ABY)

–        Force Heretic III: Reunion by Sean Williams & Shane Dix (28 ABY)

–        The Final Prophecy by Greg Keyes (28 ABY)

–        The Unifying Force by James Luceno (29 ABY)

Other additions to NJO;

–        Boba Fett: A Practical Man by Karen Traviss – eBook Novella set after Vector Prime

–        Emissary of the Void by Greg Keyes – short story set after Balance Point

–        Recovery by Troy Denning – eBook Novella set prior to Edge of Victory I: Conquest

–        The Apprentice by Elaine Cunningham – short story set after Dark Journey

–        Ylesia by Walter Jon Williams – eBook Novella set after Destiny’s War

–        Equals and Opposites by Nathan Butler – comic book set after Force Heretic I: Remnant

–        Or Die Trying by Sean Williams and Shane Dix – short story set after Force Heretic II: Refuge

The New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch reviewed

Set: 17 ABY

Somewhere in the galaxy, millions suddenly perish—a disruption of the Force so shocking it is felt by Luke at his Jedi academy and by Leia on Coruscant. While Leia must deal with an assassination attempt, a rumored plot against the New Republic, and allegations that Han Solo is involved, Luke seeks out a former Jedi student who may hold the key to the mass destruction. But Brakiss is only the bait in a deadly trap set by a master of the dark side who is determined to rule as emperor. He’s targeted Luke, Leia, and Leia’s children to die. Then billions will follow, in a holocaust unequaled in galactic history.

One of the things I love about the Star Wars universe is the concept of ‘the Force.’ It might seem overly spiritual to some or thoroughly tacky to others, but I really like the concept of everything being linked; everything being able to affect everything else.

That aspect of the force plays heavily in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘The New Rebellion,’ published in 1996 and another New York Times bestseller. As the blurb above reads, the galaxy is yet again hit with another mass murder, similar to the one we saw in the beginning of the Star Wars universe, in the first movie Star Wars (A New Hope) when Obi Wan Kenobi feels the death of the planet Alderaan and its inhabitants. This time though it’s Luke – as well as Leia and her kids – who feel the death of millions.

The book naturally follows Luke’s hunt for the perpetrator of this crime, but isn’t left sitting in that idling hunt for justice.

Leia Organa Solo is in the Senate chambers when an explosion goes off. Many senators and aids are left dead, and the prime suspect soon becomes Han Solo, Leia’s husband. Leia is forced – as a result of a new group of senate members being allowed in – to allow investigations to continually prove her husband is at fault.

R2D2 and C-3PO are naturally involved, as are Leia and Han’s children; Jacen and Jaina, and their little brother Anakin. Though young, the children make for a really enjoyable addition to the cast.

I really enjoyed this book. It was well written and deeply set in the Star Wars universe. It is these well written books that really make the Star Wars novels a part of the universe in a way that other properties aren’t able to manage. The subplots with Lando, the children, the droids and a young plucky mechanic really enrich the story.

Star Wars: Republic Commando: Triple Zero by Karen Traviss reviewed

Set: 21 BBY

Following the eruption of the bloody Clone Wars at the battle of Geonosis, both sides remain deadlocked in a stalemate that can be broken only by elite warrior teams like Omega Squad, clone commandos with terrifying combat skills and a lethal arsenal….

For Omega Squad, deployed deep behind enemy lines, it’s the same old special ops grind: sabotage, espionage, ambush, and assassination. But when Omega Squad is rushed to Coruscant, the war’s most dangerous new hotspot, the commandos discover they’re not the only ones penetrating the heart of the enemy.

A surge in Separatist attacks has been traced to a network of Sep terror cells in the Republic’s capital, masterminded by a mole in Command Headquarters. To identify and destroy a Separatist spy and terror network in a city full of civilians will require special talents and skills. Not even the leadership of Jedi generals, along with the assistance of Delta squad and a certain notorious ARC trooper, can even the odds against the Republic Commandos. And while success may not bring victory in the Clone Wars, failure means certain defeat.

The second book in Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando series took the whole idea into a very different world. Triple Zero is set one year after the Battle of Geonosis, and thus almost a year after the first book. The commandos are brought to Coruscant where they’re to deal with terrorists who are working on the capital planet of the Republic.

But this book expands the idea that was presented in Hard Contact of four commandos working in the Clone Wars, and takes it to a whole new level. We get flashbacks to their training, their mentor is introduced as a major player, and the brotherhood of clones is evolved well beyond what Hard Contact hinted at.

In fact, beyond the attempt to take out the terrorists working on Coruscant is the beginnings of a huge plot arc that will see the clones’ mentor attempt to acquire a measure of peace and a future for them. Differences in training between various squads are brought into play, rivalries are explained and set up, and Jedi are introduced into the story and given the chance to be something other than the heroic Obi-Wan or the petulant Anakin.

This book was really a great read. I loved the growing relationship between Etain and Darmin, and was fascinated by the lives of the clones; both the flashbacks and their current lives. The minds and personalities of the clones are a brilliant juxtaposition to the almost invisible-cannon-fodder idea we had of them before. They are all different from one another with their own quirks and foibles.

Traviss really knows how to write a great story, and though it might not be in the same league as Zahn, Stackpole or Allston, the Republic Commando stories create and set up characters every bit as vivid and mesmerizing as Thrawn and Fel and Horn.