Observations About LotR – The Return Of The King

071tfThe Quill to Live team is currently doing a reread of Lord of the Rings because for many of us, it has been awhile since we read it (on average about a decade). I initially thought about doing a review piece, but no one needs to hear another review about LotR to know it is amazing. We all know it is amazing. Instead, I thought I would instead do a compilation of some of the more amusing observations people had about the book, usually having to do with things not being as we remember. This is the third and final entry on The Return of the King, our thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers can be found here:

1) RotK is 50% epilogue – Literally. I never realized as a child how early in the book they destroy the ring (spoilers). Frodo casts the ring into the volcano at around 55% in my version of the book, and the rest of the story is showing the happily ever after. It suddenly makes a lot more sense as to why the movie seemed to have so many endings – because there are so many little vignettes that Peter Jackson was trying to cover.

2) I see what Tolkien meant about his series in the prologue – At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien states that his series was meant actually as one book but they had to break it up for publication due to size. When reading the first two novels I didn’t think much of this note, but upon reaching Return of the King it becomes a lot more obvious. While the first two books in the trilogy feel like full novels, Return of the King doesn’t really stand on its own. The book breaks down into three sections: the first part is one long protracted battle with the larger party, the middle and smallest section involves Sam finding Frodo and them quickly tossing the ring into the mountain, and the back half of the book is cleanup for the entire series. It very much feels like a continuation of The Two Towers and The Fellowship as opposed to its own entity to me.

3) The book drags a little bit more than its predecessors – This was not a unanimous feeling in our reading group, but a good number of people felt that the middle of Return of the King dragged a lot. There is a section of about 40 pages (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it sure felt like it to me) where Sam and Frodo are trying to locate the right mountain – and they do this by walking up to about 5 different ones and going “is this it? Nope”. I initially really enjoyed Tolkien spending some time elaborating on Orc culture and fleshing them out as a race more, but I don’t need to be told more than one time that Orc clothing is incredibly uncomfortable and I did not find myself enlightened when Tolkien talked about it the seventh or eighth time.

4) I get it now – My first three thoughts might seem very harsh, because I think LotR has a bunch of writing issues when compared to today’s modern style. However, while I had a bunch of small issues with Return of the King, I also can finally see what everyone sees in it. As you read this series, in particular the finale, you can see a map of thousands of books that it inspired. The landscape of the fantasy genre starts to make more sense, and you can see the source of tons of tropes and philosophies that permeate it. You can see why so many people have tried to emulate these aspects of this trilogy. Lord of the Rings is fun and whimsical, but also serious and philosophical. It is a timeless masterpiece, as I am sure everyone already knew, that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. If you haven’t given it a read recently, I recommend you check it out again.

Series Check-In – Vlad Taltos

Today I am trying something a little different. Awhile back I reviewed the first three books in the Vlad Taltos series, starting with Jhereg, by Steven Brust. I enjoyed the books a bunch, so much so that I have continued and read nine of the sequels. It is difficult and repetitive for me to post reviews of each of those sequels, so when reading large series like this I hardly ever do. On the other hand, I have invested a lot of time and energy into nine books to not say anything about them, and I have some thoughts on my journey so far. As such I thought I should do a series check-in and give you some general spoiler free thoughts as to if Vlad Taltos is worth your time. I will let you know that I just finished the ninth (sorta) book in the series, Dragon, and that all of these thoughts are from those nine books.

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If you missed my first review, Vlad Taltos is planned to be a roughly 17 book series (with 14 of the books out so far). The book follows the stories of a human assassin named Vlad working in the Dragaeran (sorta like elves) empire where he is a constant outsider. The empire is broken down into 17 houses and each book in the series both showcases one of the houses, indicated by the titles, and slowly builds the story of Vlad and his companions. The difficulty with big series like this is that they inherently have slower (but usually better) character development as the stories are almost always about the growth and change of a character over a large number of books. This has both benefits, like that you grow very attached and invested in the cast, and drawbacks, such as the initial books in the series often aren’t that engaging. When I finished Jhereg I was lukewarm on Vlad because while I thought his character was amusing and fun, he had some tendencies that made him seem like he was trying to be a badass all the time and constantly falling short. What felt like awkward character writing at the start of the story has revealed itself to be intentional character flaws and long term character development. Speaking of characters, when I initially started this series (and for the first three books really) I assumed that this was a story solely about Vlad. However, the more that I read the more I realize that it is really about his relationships with the people around him and learning to find companionship and love in a world where both are culturally looked down on and where one is an outsider. It is a wonderful theme, and as I have learned more about Vlad’s friends and family, they have steadily moved from fond acquaintances to close friends.

While the characters are certainly the series’ driving force, the plot becomes surprisingly nuanced and captivating as well. Brust published the books out of chronological order, which results in the timelines of the stories being an absolute mess. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in big series because I feel it prevents a meaningful linear storyline from developing. While I still wish that Vlad Taltos was chronological, Brust is a master of information manipulation and has written his series so that even though the books aren’t in the order they happened you have this sense of a growing body of knowledge. An example of this is I just read the third book chronologically, but the ninth in publishing order. While none of the events that happen in this book can effect what is happening in the current timeline (or rather, the furthest point in time chronologically), I am learning information and twists from the third book that greatly alter my understanding of what is happening in the ninth. You realize quickly that the details matter and that the closer you pay attention to the little things in the book the more you will be rewarded. This keeps you on your toes as you read and does a great deal to keep the books feeling fresh.

Speaking of keeping things fresh, when I finished the first few books I was a little worried that the series might fatigue me as they share a lot of similarities. Brust relieves this by beginning to drastically change the style of his narration and storytelling in each book. Each house in the Dragaeran Empire gets its name from different animals they were genetically altered with, and the qualities of that animal they embody. The translations from animal to behavior to cultural values are not always intuitive (especially when some of the animals are original to Brust), but they are all definitely distinct. As such, the story of each book reflects the house it is about. In the last three books I have read one was on self discovery that was deeply philosophical, one that was a murder mystery, and military adventure about a civil war. Each of these books did a great job of teaching me about their respective houses, adding to the collective plot, and changing up Brusts formula to keep me from being even slightly fatigued.

When I read a series that has 10+ books, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish if I like the books or if I am just mentally trying to justify the amount of time that I have sunk into them. With Vlad Taltos I can safely say it is the former, and I have found myself changing up my reading schedule to read ‘just one more Vlad book’. While I was lukewarm about Jhereg, the more time I have spend with Vlad and his friends, the higher my passion for the series has risen. I have definitely started to see why some consider this one of the best fantasy series of all time, and I recommend you dig in and see for yourself.

Making A Point – Too Like The Lightning Vs. Stranger In A Strange Land

I read two notable books over the last two months, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. They are both science fiction novels, the first is one of the most famous from the last era, and the second is a new entry that is making waves. Both of these great books are built around a similar storytelling objective: using a sci-fi story to argue philosophical points and explore ideas about humanity and society. While both books have interesting and new ideas, they go about very different methods of making their points.

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Let’s start with Too Like the Lightning. Lightning’s plot is a little hard to sum up succinctly, but the general gist is it’s a political drama centered around a few key individuals that are shaking up a neat and ordered society. In Lightning, fast transportation everywhere on Earth has eliminated geographic boundaries, and national identities have dissolved and reformed into ideological identities. This allows the society to run much more smoothly and achieve greatness, or so everyone is led to believe. There is a lot going under the surface, and we slowly discover that things may not be as great as we have led to believe. Add into this mix an individual who has manifested the ability to magically bring the inanimate to life , and you get a confusing and exciting story with a lot of philosophical depth.

Lightning is one of the smartest books I have ever read. It subtly plays with the readers emotions, expectations, and engagement with the narrator to pull off some astounding reveals. At the same time, it makes a lot of interesting and well thought out arguments about humanity, society, the cause of conflict, and solutions for peace. The characters are astoundingly well written, and it introduces some of the best science fiction concepts I have read in awhile. However, my favorite part of the book is that Lightning not only makes really interesting philosophical arguments, but it weaves them into the story to make them more fun and exciting to read. It turns what could feel like a philosophy textbook into clever exciting work of fiction, and I love it.

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Alternatively, Stranger in a Strange Land is a book from the 60’s that tells the story of a human raised by Martians returning to Earth. The idea behind the book is culture clash and observing a new way of looking at the world through the eyes of a man who is not constrained by the social conditioning and taboos that come with growing up in Earth society. It is incredible how good this book still is, but some of the arguments that Heinlein makes do feel a bit dated. However, many of the points that Heinlein tries to make still have a lot of teeth and I found it a compelling read.

You might notice that it took me a lot less time to summarize Stranger in a Strange Land’s plot than it did to summarize Too Like the Lightning’s. Despite this, Stranger is a much longer book than Lightning. This is because, unlike Palmer, Heinlein treated his science fiction setting as window dressing to his arguments. Large swaths of Stranger’s text are taken up by monologues arguing philosophical points and trying to convert you to Heinlein’s way of thinking. This might immediately sound like a negative, but I found a lot of his points to be well argued and compelling. The real issue I had with Stranger is it felt like it dragged compared to Lightning. The fact that Heinlein didn’t weave his points around a better story it just made the book feel slow and boring, despite some very clever points.

So in conclusion, both of these novels are excellent and are worth a read, but I definitely prefer Too Like the Lightning. Submerging your arguments in a great story is a much faster and more fun way to convert me than getting on a soapbox and shouting at me. Additionally, the plot of Lightning was so good that I am definitely going to have to dive into the sequel Seven Surrenders very soon. The Quill to Live recommends both of these brilliant novels, but Too Like the Lightning is definitely going to be on my list of favorite books.

Rating:

Too Like the Lightning – 9.0/10
Stranger in a Strange Land – 7.5/10

Observations About LotR – The Two Towers

9780547928203_p0_v2_s192x300The Quill to Live team is currently doing a reread of Lord of the Rings because for many of us, it has been awhile since we read it (on average about a decade). I initially thought about doing a review piece, but no one needs to hear another review about LotR to know it is amazing. We all know it is amazing. Instead, I thought I would instead do a compilation of some of the more amusing observations people had about the book, usually having to do with things not being as we remember. This is the second entry on The Two Towers, our thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring can be found here:

1) Aragorn has no chill – “When have I been hasty or unwary, who have waited and prepared for so many long years?’ said Aragorn.” Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Two Towers. That is a line that Aragorn says about halfway through The Two Towers, and it caused explosive laughter. Mostly because Gandalf’s reaction to this is “Aragorn you are right, you are so calm” – to which we ask, are you reading a different book Gandalf? Aragorn needs to calm down, a lot. He is constantly surprising hundreds of armed horsemen on edge by jumping out of bushes, telling the entire kingdom of Rohan to fight him 1v1, and generally making choices that would be likely to get a person stabbed repeatedly just because they scared someone holding a sword. He sounds like the most stressful party member ever, and if my co-adventurer told me his plan was to swagger into the king’s hall assuming he didn’t have to give up his sword since he was also a king…WITHOUT EVER HAVING A CORONATION OR, EVEN MORE, NOT EVEN GOING TO GONDOR BEFOREHAND, I would stab him myself.

2) Faramir is a baller – Boromir’s brother who helps guard Gondor is a lot cooler in the book than I remember. In the movies he is portrayed as just Boromir 2.0, trying to steal the ring from Frodo. But in the books, he is just a regular old human who isn’t even slightly tempted by the ring, making 90% of the cast look pretty dumb. He is a really interesting character who adds a lot of depth and realism to the story. He is the first character I saw to question Aragorn’s claim to being the king, and seems like the kinda guy you would want in charge of an army trying to beat back the forces of evil. He has this practicality to him that is extremely lacking across most of Tolkien’s other characters and makes a really good juxtaposition with pretty much anyone else in the books.

3) The book doesn’t drag where we expected, and does drag where we didn’t – Going into The Two Towers I was really excited for the ents and Helm’s Deep, and dreading Frodo and Sam’s frolic through the swamps. I thought it was going to be hard to get through pages of Sam and Frodo whining to Gollum after experiencing the might and majesty of Saruman vs. everyone. Turns out, the opposite is true. The first part of towers involves a lot of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas camping – and talking about camping – and retelling the story of how they camped. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that The Fellowship takes place over multiples years, and Towers takes place over like a week. Because of this, Tolkien gets a lot more granular in his story telling. While this is arguably needed, it does make some scenes feel like they last forever, Meanwhile, in the second half of Towers Tolkien amps up the language and poetry so that Sam and Frodo’s journey becomes magical and filled with awe. I could not put down the second half of the book as Sam narrates the bleak landscape and dwindling hope of their cause.

4) Speaking of the first half dragging, the battles are… not great – First off I did not expect to go into this and have the greatest written action scenes of all time. Tolkien is known for his worldbuilding and prose much more than his fights. However, I was really disappointed with the fight at Helm’s Deep. It had so few descriptives and often broke down to “we fought some orcs and killed them”. Based on the movies you would think the battle lasted weeks, when in actuality it was closer to 24 hours. The scenes are confusing and not very satisfying, and I am hoping the battle of Pelennor Fields will step it up a notch in book three.

5) Treebeard is the best, and Sam is still amazing – I love Treebeard, and have since I first met the ents when I was young. I expected to reread Towers and find that my love for him was a bit overzealous, but I instead found it completely justified. Treebeard is just fun every second he is on a page and makes me genuinely happy as I read about him. His story is both interesting and moving, his personality is just smile inducing to be around, and he is just an all around well written character. He was definitely the highlight of book two for me, although Sam continues to be an all star as well. Most of the second book is narrated by Sam, with Frodo taking a back seat as he deals with the delirious effects of the ring. As mentioned in point three, these sections were a lot more exciting than I expected – and most of that is due to Sam’s great narration.

I liked The Two Towers less than The Fellowship this time around, but it was still a great (albeit sometimes slow) read. I am really excited for The Return of the King sometime this month, as I remember almost nothing about it other than they chuck a ring into a volcano at some point.

Observations About LotR – The Fellowship

lotr11The Quill to Live team is currently doing a reread of Lord of the Rings because for many of us, it has been awhile since we read it (on average about a decade). I initially thought about doing a review piece, but no one needs to hear another review about LotR to know it is amazing. We all know it is amazing. Instead, I thought I would instead do a compilation of some of the more amusing observations people had about the book, usually having to do with things not being as we remember:

1) Sam is really obviously the hero of the story – I read LotR when I was 12, and am 27 now. When I was about 18 I remember reading a piece by Tolkien talking about how he actually intended Sam to be the hero of the story, and it blew my mind. What a revelation! Who could have guessed that Sam was the true hero all along? Answer – probably everyone. At 12 I thought it was the cool prince, but reading now it is painfully obvious that Sam is the greatest. When everyone is running around being an egotistical douche, Sam is usually making comments like “all I want is love and peace on Middle Earth, and to see elves and tell them I love them”. He is the most wonderful character in the series, gets shit done, and whenever he is asked a question usually has a profoundly wise answer. He is not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need.

2) The famous “Not all who wander are lost” line that is quoted endlessly actually comes from a much larger poem – And the rest is equally kickass. It is from Aragorn’s prophecy and the rest goes like this:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

3) Aragorn is a lot less princely, and a lot more crazy homeless person than I remember – When I read LotR I remember thinking Aragorn was the coolest. That was probably some projection on my part, because Aragorn feels like a crazy person who lives in the woods (which he is!) in the books. He’s a lot less romantic and a lot more “can’t have a normal conversation with another person” than I remember. The movie Aragorn with his lush hair, perfect smile, and princely charisma has definitely warped my memory of this crazy ranger who lives in the trees

4) Tolkien has some pretty ridiculous “TL:DR” writing occasionally – For those unfamiliar, TL:DR stands for “too long, didn’t read” and is usually a one line summary of a long piece of writing. Here are some of the major events that Tolkien sums up in a single line: Aragorn randomly reforging his sword, the entire fellowship dealing with the death of Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli going from hating one another to being BFFs, and Gandalf escaping from the death trap atop Saruman’s tower. I would have liked to see all these scenes in more detail, but I also found a lot of humor at their suddenness.

5) Tolkien is actually really funny – It can be hard to realize that Tolkien is actually hilarious, because his prose is usually so complex and occasionally archaic. But after reading a few scenes I took a step back and thought about them and found myself laughing out loud. An example; when the hobbits and Aragorn are being chased by the Ringwraiths, Frodo turns to Aragorn and asks him what is following them and here is a close approximation of how the conversation goes:

Frodo: Hey Aragorn, you are wise and worldly – can you tell us what this scary mystery force is chasing us? I am quite terrified and anything you can tell me about them will make me feel better.

Aragorn: Oh no, you are much better with me not telling you. Like, what is chasing us is so pants-shittingly terrifying that if I told you even a little about what they are and the 11 million ways they will murder and torture you when they catch you, you would be so scared you would LITERALLY die.

Frodo: HOW? HOW WAS THAT HELPFUL? IN WHAT WAY WAS THAT USEFUL INFORMATION, YOU COULDN’T HAVE JUST LIED TO ME? ALSO WHATEVER THEY ARE CANNOT BE SCARIER THAN THAT HORRIFIC DESCRIPTION YOU JUST GAVE.

Rereading the Lord of the Rings has been a lot more fun than we realized, and we recommend you all reread it (or read it for the first time!) when you get a chance. The movies had corrupted my memory of the actual books a lot, and I was surprised to realize how much better many aspects of the story are in their pure original version. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien continues to impress with every read of his masterpiece.

Five Reasons Why You Should Be Reading The Expanse

corey_babylonsashes_hcI recently finished Babylon’s Ashes (which was fantastic), by James S. A. Corey, and was moved to take a moment to talk about The Expanse in case there is anyone out there not currently reading it. For those of you unfamiliar with The Expanse, it is a mega space opera set over nine books that are still being published, of which Babylon’s Ashes is the sixth. The series is one of my favorites, and below I am going to simply outline a list of reasons that you should be reading it so that it can be one of your favorites too. For those of you looking for a Babylon’s Ashes review, I do not have one for reasons outlined below, but it is suffice to say that it is excellent.

 

  • It is basically Game of Thrones in Space – This is a gross oversimplification, but an analogy that is actually useful in this instance. The Expanse is a space opera, which essentially means that the sci-fi is window dressing. The story is all about the excellent characters that litter the books. Much like GoT, the books are all about the individual stories of the people who make up a larger world, and their personal struggles bring the plots to life. It is very accessible to all readers as it appeals to both readers who don’t like science fiction and those looking for an introduction to the genre – making it a series for everyone.
  • The aforementioned characters are amazing – As mentioned in the previous reason, these books are about people – and boy is there a diverse cast. The Expanse has someone for everyone and one of the most eclectic and interesting casts I have ever encountered. There are multiple POV’s per book, with only one carried over from novel to novel. This allows the story to give you a center-thread to orient yourself from, while also exposing you to a huge cast with tons of different perspectives and identities. In addition, not only is the cast diverse, it is also extremely memorable – creating some of my favorite characters of all time. If you read these books and don’t like Chrisjen Avasarala I am going to assume you are a robot.
  • The books are all self contained, but also have a continuous plot – Several people have mentioned to me that the reason they haven’t picked up The Expanse is that it is not complete. Starting unfinished series can blow when you are left with cliffhangers every year, but The Expanse gives you a satisfying and self-contained story every time. Each of the books is about humanity tackling a new and interesting problem thrown at it. These include: war, the unknown, politics, poverty, new frontiers, the military, terrorists, and almost always some sort of extinction level threat. Each book feels distinct from the rest, but also passes the touch of an overarching backbone of the plot. While the series isn’t finished yet, each year I get a book that leaves me satiated, but excited for the sequel.
  • They are consistently on time and consistently good in quality – Speaking of release schedules, these books almost always come out annually. There has only ever been one delay, and it was just for a few months while one of the authors finished a different series. The books are published on one of the the most predictable schedules I have seen and it keeps me pumped for their release month every year. More importantly, all the books are excellent. Babylon’s Ashes was probably in my bottom half of the six books released so far, and I still would give it at least a 9/10. It is unbelievable how these authors can continuously deliver quality time after time and I trust that they will be able to finish up the final three in the same pattern.
  • James S. A. Corey is a pen name for two authors, and they both bring their A game to the story – Corey is actually two people, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Abraham is an extremely creative writer who is known for his strange book premises and unpredictable plot lines. However, his writing can also be occasionally a little dull and slow, making it hard to appreciate his creativity. Ty Franck is a sci-fi author known for his action sequences and pulse pounding scenes, but can occasionally let the action get in the way of story. Together, the two of them eliminate their weaknesses and amplify their strengths, creating some of the best prose I have read in the genre.

These books are good, really good, to the point where I can never bring myself to review them after I finish because the post would just be “yea it’s still amazing”. On top of being an amazing, huge, and engrossing book series – there is now a TV show on Syfy that does it justice and expands the world further. On top of that, Corey regularly releases novellas and short stories from the universe – sometimes for free – that expand it further and are great reads. So if you have reservations of reading The Expanse, or were holding off for some reason, or simply haven’t picked up the most recent book – go check it out. The world is getting bigger and better and I want all of you to experience the joy and wonder of exploring the unknown with Corey as your co-pilot.

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The Drenai Saga – Part 4/4

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Part 3

Drenai part four, the Drenale. We have come to the end of our journey, and what a journey it has been. The final two Drenai books are a duology about a new character, Skilgannon the Damned. Skilgannon is Gemmell’s take on a hero tormented by his past, and a wrap up character to tie off the entirety of the series. So let’s talk about the final two books of the series: White Wolf and The Swords of Night and Day.

n48612Book 10 – White Wolf The story of Skilgannon begins with him abandoning his people and becoming a rogue warrior. Haunted by his choices as the preeminent general of a warrior queen, Skilgannon decides to leave everything behind and search for inner peace in the world. Skilgannon is less than successful in his search for tranquility, and is soon thrust back into the center of happenings. He eventually meets up with Druss, and they team up to go on a quest.

The story has many strengths, but one of my favorites is how Gemmell depicts Skilgannon’s childhood. On top of being compelling and heartwarming, Gemmell continues to hammer home the concepts of acceptance and love for all people regardless of who they are or where they come from. In addition, I found Skilgannon to be a refreshing take on the tormented hero front. He feels crippling regret for his past actions, and but he does not wallow in it. It is very easy to see how that regret profoundly changes and shapes Skilgannon, but Gemmell never falls into the trap of making him whine about what he did every two seconds. Skilgannon remains a deeper character than just his remorse, and it makes him one of the best tormented heroes I have read.

Rating: White Wolf – 9.0/10

07fc35a0637c9d0a2d7695b745034994Book 11 – The Swords of Night and Day The final book of Drenai is very different than the other 10. This is both the final book chronologically and in publishing order, taking place over a thousand years later than the other novels. Swords follows a magically resurrected Skilgannon, brought back from the dead to fight a rising menace in the future. The magics, and the magic users, from the earlier books have gotten more and more degenerate over the years until they threaten to engulf the world. As a last ditch effort, a small group of mages attempt to resurrect heroes from past ages to see if they can provide solutions to stopping the magic.

The Swords of Light and Day serves three major purposes in the Drenai saga, the first of which is to give a satisfying end to Skilgannon’s story. Tormented for his sins from White Wolf, Skilgannon has been burning in purgatory and seeking redemption. Swords gives Skilgannon a great ending and cements him in my mind as one of the best characters to come out of the saga. The second purpose is to bring together many different plot lines and characters throughout the entire saga. Much of Drenai consists of independent characters from different ages, and Swords brings many of them together for one last party. The final, and likely most important, purpose of Swords is to reaffirm the cyclical nature of history that Gemmell has been preaching since Legend. The final book of the series shows that nothing really ever changes and there will always be shitty tyrants who will try to selfishly rule the world. However, the book also drives home that for every dictator that tries to rule the world, there will always be a hero who stands in their way – no matter how feeble it may seem. Those heroes will keep standing up for what’s right and striving to make the world a better place regardless of the odds, and that through the act of standing up they make a difference. This message is the crux of the Drenai story, and it is one I can get behind with all my heart.

Rating: The Swords of Night and Day – 9.0/10

Reading the Drenai Saga is an incredible experience that I think every fantasy fan should go through. Gemmell is an exemplar of character building, heroic storytelling, and powerful sub-themes that I think every author could earn from. The man wrote the most compelling prologues I have ever read, sucking me into each book by page four every time. Despite each of the books following similar plot structure, having a chaotic timeline, and introducing a new cast every few books, I never got tired of them or felt fatigued by the story. It is easy to see how Gemmell has shaped the current fantasy landscape, as hundreds of authors try to emulate his exciting, touching, and deep characters. My favorite book ended up being the one I thought I would like least, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, but I enjoyed every single book in the saga more than most of the other things I have read this year. There are hundreds of quotes from the series now embedded in my memory, and I want to sell this series to every person I meet. If you have not had a chance to read Drenai, I highly recommend you do and find out why a generation of authors turn to it for inspiration.

Passion – NYCC 2016

Once again New York Comic Con has come and gone, and once again all the big publishers in New York came out to play. As usual, I took home entirely too many books – both free and purchased – and now sit in a paper mausoleum that is close to sealing me off from the rest of the world. This year, one of my lovely editors, Sean, accompanied me to the event. We had a ton of events we both wanted to go to, but there was one in particular that Sean was keen on: a Star Wars writer’s round table. See, Sean is the one who wrote the guest post about Star Wars novels a short while back (found here), so he was unsurprisingly very excited about this panel which consisted of a variety of Star Wars writers talking about the future of the book universe. As I do not read Star Wars myself, I was not very interested, but I decided to tag along in the name of camaraderie because what else are friends for? But while we were in that panel of writers I found myself overcome with a strange, previously unknown feeling, I wanted to pick up Star Wars book.

See the round table was actually filled with a variety of authors new and old, and they were extremely passionate about their work. There was everyone from an industry legend, Timothy Zahn, to one of the up and coming Star Wars writers, E. K. Johnston. At this panel each and every writer talked about what happened in their lives that got them into the Star Wars books and why they wrote the stories they did. The thing about authors is, not many of them write their books out of some sort of twisted feeling of obligation. Most of them are extremely passionate about what they do, and when they talk about their books that passion tends to power through. The thing about passion is, its infectious. There are few things I like more than seeing people talk about their passions. Everyone has at least one, but many people hide them for fear of ridicule or embarrassment. This is a shame because passion is amazing, and it can change the lives of the people around you. Someone else’s passion is how I went from feeling completely ambivalent about Star Wars books to nervously clutching a copy of Heir to the Empire as I approached Timothy Zahn to get my book signed. Passion is what got me to finally start this site and keeps me up late every night before work writing these posts.

I just wish we lived in a world that everyone embraced what makes them happy (unless it’s like murder, then you need to keep that under wraps). Which is why NYCC continues to be a source of more and more joy to me every year I go. In addition to the previously mentioned panel, every inch of comic con is filled with either passionate fans displaying their love, or people cautiously curious about what brings so many others out to such a large convention. Every year I see new and creative displays of love for media and nerdom that I spend an entire year getting more pumped to come back. On top of this, every year I see more and more people take a chance, go to the show, and come away more excited and enthralled than they believed they would be. It’s a great time for all and I highly recommend you check it out.

So, in summation, never stifle your passions – for it is a part of what makes you great. Come check out comic con, where your friends and other fans can somehow convince you it’s an amazing idea to start reading an eight bazillion book universe.

The Drenai Saga – Part 3/4

Part 1
Part 2

Drenai part three, the re-Dre-aning. Welcome back to my semi-journal of my slow and wonderful experience through the Drenai Chronicles. At this point I am pretty confident in saying that this is probably one of the best fantasy series of all time. I may only be about 3/4ths of the way through, but the books would basically have to literally blind me at this point to lower their overall score enough for me not to recommend it. However, these next three books on my journey were definitely the weakest so far (comparatively, they are still excellent) so we will have to see. Up first, The Legend of the Deathwalker!

legend_of_deathwalkerBook 7 – The Legend of the Deathwalker – The third of the four Druss books, this novel picks up the story of Gemmell’s iconic character shortly after the conclusion of book six. This book starts in the middle of Legend and opens with Druss telling a previously unknown story about himself to a fellow footsoldier to calm the younger warrior. The book follows Druss and Sieben as they journey into Nadir lands to defend a people they hate from a crime they know is wrong. It is a story about doing something for people you don’t like because you know it is the right thing to do, and Gemmell handles it masterfully. The book also follows the rise of the Nadir people, prepping for the inevitable uniter that will raise hell in Drenai book one, Legend. This book lost a very small amount of points because it felt like its goal was more to add depth to Legend than stand on its own, but it is still incredible in its own right.

Racism is a big issue that Gemmell tries to tackle and discuss in all his books, and does so very successfully. None of them (at least so far) do it better than The Legend of the Deathwalker, which has probably my all time favorite quote about overcoming bigotry by Sieben (not pasted here because spoilers). The book also has a massive arc of character development for Sieben, and brings him to the forefront of Legend of the Deathwalker as a protagonist instead of a support character. It is a fantastic choice, and Sieben adds more depth and richness to the story than Druss could by himself. The book is also much more magical than any of its predecessors. I am not sure how much I like this turn, as I have grown accustomed to enjoying magic take a back seat to warriors in Gemmell’s stories. However, this Druss novel is still quite enjoyable despite not quite living up to its predecessor.

Rating: The Legend of the Deathwalker – 8.5/10

winter_warriorsBook 8 – Winter Warriors – The eighth Drenai book, and probably my least favorite, is about demons. It is strange to me that this book that breaks out of the Drenai mold more than any other is likely the most unique, and is less enjoyable for it. Our story is set far in the future compared to all the previous Drenai novels, chronicling a team of heroes as they try to survive a coming demon apocalypse. The world is reaching it’s end, demons are passing over from the other side, and starting to ravage the land. This previously mentioned group of heroes must keep an infant king alive from otherworldly terrors in order to prevent the end of times.

If this seems somewhat confusing, then it mimics how I felt reading this book. Winter Warriors comes out of left field and departs from the classic Drenai formula that made all the other books work. Instead we are treated to some great characters struggling helplessly to deal with an otherworldly problem. The character depth and growth in the book are just as good as any other Drenai novel, but the plot felt strangely divorced from the previous seven books, and seems to be telling the end of a story that I missed 50 percent of. It turns out the beginning of the demon’s story is covered in book nine, Hero in the Shadows, and I honestly would recommend reading them in reverse order for the most enjoyment. I admire Gemmell for trying to mix up the story, but I was not in love with the result. Hopefully book nine will be back to the tried and true hero on an impossible quest with lots of political world building.

Rating: Winter Warriors – 7.5/10

n22651Book 9 – Hero in the Shadows – The final Waylander book. It still has a lot of magic, a great plot to go with it, as well as the glorious Waylander. Hero in the Shadows tells the story of Waylander at the very end of his life. An old man, he has seen and done everything, but becomes unsatisfied with life. In the search and preparation for new horizons, he stumbles upon an otherworldly problem, and sets about fixing it with his normal solution – crossbow bolts. Hero in the Shadows contains the same demon theme as Winter Warriors, but it takes a back seat to the final story of Waylander. The magic injected into the story does a much better job being subtle and adding to the world, as opposed to being jarring as it was in Winter Warriors.

Many Gemmell stories deal with an older warrior dealing with passing his prime and moving into old age. It is a particular flavor of story that I believe Gemmell does incredibly well in a fantasy setting, and I look forward to rereading these when I am much older myself. Hero in the Shadows in particular deals with running out of things to do. Waylander has lived a full and challenging life and is finding he is extremely bored in retirement. Immensely wealthy and wanting for nothing, he has begun to risk himself unnecessarily to feel alive again. It might sound cliche, but I found myself empathizing with Waylander immensely and found myself searching for meaning within my own life. The book continues in the Drenai tradition of teaching philosophies on life that are both profound and extremely simply. Hero in the Shadows brings a fitting end to the story of one of my favorite protagonists, and brings me ever closer to the end of my Drenai journey.

Rating: Hero in the Shadows – 8.5/10

Wish Fulfillment – Living Vicariously Through Protagonists

cover_ukA short while ago, I wrote about Three Parts Dead, and spoke about its special brand of workplace wish fulfillment. In that piece, I mentioned that I wanted to do a post on wish fulfillment in general, and how the ever popular Kingkiller Chronicle employs it stealthily to great success. Well there’s no time like the present, so let’s talk about one of the most powerful writing techniques for immersion – wish fulfillment.

Wish fulfillment is one of the easiest way to drive immersion in books. It takes your hidden fantasies and secret desires and projects you into the life of a book character, letting you live out your dreams. One of the most common types of wish fulfillment in fantasy is the farm boy with a destiny trope. A seemingly ordinary farm boy discovers inner greatness and goes on to become the most important person in the land. It is not a stretch to say that most people have felt they were ordinary, and desired to go on to do something great. These books allow you to fulfill that fantasy, and that projection is what makes them so immersive and beloved. One of my favorite things in stories are magical schools. When I was a child I never could get enough of academics (I was one of those), and I love taking trips back to campus in fantasy books that let me relive those glory years. No matter how old I get, a magic school never seems to cease to enchant me.

However, many argue that wish fulfillment is a cheap trick used in the place of actual writing. By tapping into the secret base desires of everyone, readers are often much more forgiving of book’s flaws in their read through. This causes many critics and fans to claim books with wish fulfillment are of a lower quality than others. I believe that is pure nonsense. To demonstrate my point, let’s talk about The Name of the Wind, a book many regard as incredibly well written, and talk about how it’s one of the most clever forms of wish fulfillment I have seen.

There is a really interesting effect in psychology when you ask people to rate themselves on a variety of skills. We all like to believe we are talented, though most people are semi-realistic and understand that they aren’t the best at everything they try. However, there is an interesting effect where people almost always tend to rate themselves as “above average” at everything. No one likes to be in the bottom 50% in life, and while it is hard for people to lie to themselves that they are great at everything, it is easy to believe you are at least decent at most things.

Kvothe, the protagonist of NotW, is a representation of this is the mentality . Kvothe is not the best at anything, constantly coming up in second and fading behind the leaders. However, there is nothing he ever seems to be bad at. Anything that Kvothe picks up he is good enough at to dazzle and wonder, but never so good that he draws an inordinate amount of attention to himself and spoiling the illusion. In this way, Kvothe is relatable to the reader, fulfilling that deep held belief of accomplishment the reader has, when in fact he is alarmingly skilled in a way none of us are.

Now this in no way means I think that Patrick Rothfuss is a bad writer. Kvothe’s ability to tap into a primal form of wish fulfillment without the reader realizing is incredible. It is a smoke and mirrors trick I have never seen before, and it took a truly talented writer to pull it off. It shows you the absolute power of building in wish fulfillment into a book and hopefully helps explain why I was so impressed with Three Parts Dead, and its own form of workplace wish fulfillment.