Overall, this collection of "constellation"-themed stories is OK, and none rate more than three stars in my opinion.
"A Heritage of Stars" - Eric Brown...moreOverall, this collection of "constellation"-themed stories is OK, and none rate more than three stars in my opinion.
"A Heritage of Stars" - Eric Brown - This one starts out well enough about a near-future where aliens have given humans immortality and how that might affect the relationship between two people. Brown drops the ball, however, ending the story with a sappy, feel-good resolution that could have been much more interesting.
"Rats of the System" - Paul McAuley - This is an episode from a time when humanity is divided between interstellar colonies established after AIs took over Earth and humans who have made those AIs gods and are bent on destroying the infidel. (The AIs apparently take no notice of this, going about the galaxy doing their inexplicable things. On the plus side, they're good enough to leave human-colonized stars alone and only work with uninhabited systems.) The story in itself is good. McAuley is an accomplished writer and I've enjoyed what I've read of him but this feels like a chapter in a longer book and leaves the reader hanging.
"Star!" - Tony Ballantyne - A tale about a human who wants to be a star and the AI who helps her out.
"Lakes of Light" - Stephen Baxter - An episode from Baxter's Xeelee future history.
"No Cure for Love" - Roger Levy - An elliptical tale about a man who may or may not have caused civilization to collapse.
"The Navigator's Children" - Ian Watson - A decent story about a future where humans have learned that we're all part of a simulation (a la The Matrix) and the navigator of the title - who has serious issues with children and dolls - inadvertently reconfigures reality.
"A Different Sky" - Keith Brooke - A tale of alien abduction.
"The Fulcrum" - Gwyneth Jones - This story reminded me of Frederik Pohl's Gateway books.
"The Meteor Party" - James Lovegrove - Except for meteors, there's nothing particularly SF about this story. Instead, it's a meditation on the place of humans and their worries compared to the universe.
"Written in the Stars" - Ian McDonald - This is another story that raised some intriguing ideas but ultimately left me wanting more. In this future, astrology works - people receive daily horoscopes that guide their lives, and one day the hero of our story gets the wrong one.
"The Order of Things" - Adam Roberts - Competently written if not overly memorable tale about a future ruled by a theocracy that believes its God-given mandate is to make the world conform to its ideas of what He wants - both physically and mentally.
"The Little Bear" - Justina Robson - This is a story about quantum mechanics, teleportation and alternate worlds.
"Kings" - Colin Greenland - This is an allegory based on the Three Wise Men of the Christian Bible.
"Beyond the Aquila Rift" - Alistair Reynolds - I enjoyed this story the most. Humans have discovered and are using an alien network of (what may be) wormholes to colonize our nearby stellar neighborhood. Occasionally, however, a mistake occurs and a ship finds itself far from its intended destination. This is a story of a crew that finds itself a long, long way from home.
Not a bad collection but not one that stands out. If any of the authors mentioned above are favorites, you might want to check this book out (and I mean that literally; I wouldn't lay down money for this).(less)
I picked up this novel from the library shelf on impulse.
But I can't finish it. It's not that the writing is bad, which is why I've given it two stars...moreI picked up this novel from the library shelf on impulse.
But I can't finish it. It's not that the writing is bad, which is why I've given it two stars. Usually, if I can't finish a book, it gets one star. But there's nothing here that's engaging me on any level, and I don't want to waste my time with it when I have so much on my shelf that promises to be more interesting.
Obviously, I'm not recommending The Drowning City but I wouldn't want to deter anyone from reading it. It may be just the thing for some reader.(less)
**spoiler alert** There’s a dialog about 1/3rd of the way through The Hermetic Millennia where Menelaus Montrose is talking to a Warlock of the 48th c...more**spoiler alert** There’s a dialog about 1/3rd of the way through The Hermetic Millennia where Menelaus Montrose is talking to a Warlock of the 48th century AD, one of the human races the Hermeticists have created in their quest to create a suitable slave race for the alien intelligences of the Hyades. They’re discussing the man’s holy scriptures and the “history” they relate:
Or, in your case, as wide. Wait. Did you just say Gandalf?
He is the founder of our order, and the first of the Five Warlocks. He comes from afar across the Western Ocean, from Easter Island, or perhaps from Japan.
No, I think he comes from the mind of a story writer. An old-fashioned Roman Catholic from the days just before [the] First Space Age. Unless I am confusing him with the guy who wrote about Talking Animal Land? With the Cowardly Lion who gets killed by a Wicked White Witch? I never read the text, I watched the comic.
Oh, you err so! The Witches, we have preserved this lore since the time of the Fall of the Giants, whom we overthrew and destroyed. The tale is this: C.S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke were led by the Indian Maiden Sacagawea to the Pacific Ocean and back, stealing the land from the Red Man and selling them blankets impregnated with smallpox. It was called the Lewis and Clarke Expedition. When they reached the Pacific, they set out in the Dawn Treader to find the sea route to India, where the sacred river Alph runs through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea. They came to the Last Island, called Ramandu or Selidor, where the World Serpent guards the gateway to the Land of the Dead, and there they found Gandalf, returned alive from the underworld, and stripped of all his powers. He came again to mortal lands in North America to teach the Simon Families. The Chronicle is a symbolic retelling of their journey. It is one of our Holy Books.
Your Holy Books were written for children by Englishmen.
The gods wear many masks! If the Continuum chooses the lips of a White Man to be the lips through which the Continuum speaks, who are we to question? Tolkien was not Roman. He was of a race called the hobbits, Homo floresiensis, discovered on an isle in Indonesia, and he would have live in happiness, had not the White Man killed him with DDT. So there were no Roman Catholics involved. May the Earth curse their memory forever! May they be forgotten forever! (pp. 135-6)
The passage illustrates two things. One – and this isn’t a bad thing – is how time and human nature twist narratives so that they are hardly recognizable. The second thing it illustrates is a major problem with the book as a whole, and that is the author’s indulgence in asides and Easter eggs catering to readers “in the know” about SF tropes and authors. It takes the reader out of the story too often, and – worse – doesn’t serve any purpose other than to show off Wright’s shallow cleverness.
The Hermetic Millennia is the second book in the series that began with Count to a Trillion. That book ended with Menelaus Montrose, who was determined to resist the enslavement of humanity by the armada on its way from the Hyades cluster, losing a duel with Ximen del Azarchel, his erstwhile friend, equally determined to create a human race that would be suitable for the aliens’ needs, and being buried under the wreckage of a space elevator. In that same catastrophe, Rania Grimaldi, Menelaus’ recent bride and Azarchel’s former fiancée, is swept away into space, where she takes the starship Hermetic and sets out to confront the masters of the Hyades and redeem humanity from its impending servitude.
The Hermetic Millennia begins with three prologues that take place in AD 2535, 2540 and 9999, respectively, and set the stage for the rest of the novel. In the first, we learn that Rania has reached the antimatter star V 886 Centauri and has appropriated it to power her voyage to the M3 cluster, where the galaxy’s masters reside. Menelaus has set up a network of Tombs so that he can survive until AD 70,000, when Rania is expected to return, and so he can be reawakened occasionally to thwart Azarchel and the Hermeticists’ schemes. The Tombs also serve to preserve various human species across the aeons. The second prologue takes place on the farside of the Moon, where Azarchel lives in exile. He and the Hermeticists map out the next eight millennia of human history. Each will have 1,000 years to create a human race and attempt to prove that his version of Man is best suited for enslavement. The third prologue takes place 7,500 years later when Menelaus awakes to discover that Azarchel has apparently wiped the slate clean by dropping a planet-killing asteroid that’s triggered a global ice age.
In part four, we finally get to the story. We’re dropped in media res about 500 years later as Menelaus’ slumber is interrupted by Tomb raiders. Though these thieves are looking for the fabled Judge of Ages (aka Menelaus), they don’t recognize him and Montrose finds himself one of a group of revenants awakened from every era since the events of Count to a Trillion. What follows – in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales or Dan Simmon’s Hyperion (which, itself, is based on the Tales) – are a series of chapters told from the point of view of these relicts that bring the reader up to date on what’s happened since AD 2500. Interspersed between these asides is Menelaus’ effort to get the contentious human species to work together to free themselves.
Taken individually, I enjoyed reading each chapter but in terms of the narrative, they keep bringing the story to a screeching halt. We spend nearly 400 pages absorbing background but never going anywhere. It’s only in the last chapter that things begin to move but then Wright leaves us hanging from an even higher cliff than last time.
And – as in Count to a Trillion – there’s no character development. I still like Menelaus but we don’t really get to know anyone else. There are possibilities: The three people outside of Montrose who get the most face time are Illiance, one of the Blue Men who are plundering the Tombs; Soorm, a Hormagaunt from the 69th century; and Oenoe, a Nymph from the preceding human race. All three have potential that isn’t developed.
I want to know what’s going to happen; I continue to enjoy Wright’s prose; and that part of me who enjoyed the appendices in The Return of the King, didn’t mind the backgrounding. So if anyone were prompted to read the first book from my review, I recommend The Hermetic Millennia. It suffers from a sever case of middle-book-of-a-trilogy syndrome but if Wright can return to the pace and focus of the first book, the fever can be endured and the author’s self-indulgence forgiven.(less)
I tried to read The Golden Age several years ago and remember that I couldn’t finish it. As I recall, the writing was florid and overblown, and it was...moreI tried to read The Golden Age several years ago and remember that I couldn’t finish it. As I recall, the writing was florid and overblown, and it was a chore to read. While the style here is still florid, it worked for me this time (and I may go back to The Golden Age to see if my opinion of that has changed).
The story revolves around Menelaus Illation Montrose, a mathematical genius and member of humanity’s first manned mission to another star – V 886 Centauri. An unmanned probe had been sent there because it's made of anti-matter. If the star can be mined, it promises a future of unlimited energy. Arriving, the probe discovers a moon-sized alien artifact. The Monument – as it comes to be called – proves to be a blueprint for communicating with its builders. Unfortunately, as translation slowly progresses, it becomes clear that the star is a trap, and now an armada is on its way from the Hyades Cluster to enslave humanity. Moving at 10% light-speed, it won’t arrive for 8,000 years but for a star-faring race that’s an insignificant amount of time. Part of the starship’s crew mutinies; seizes control of the anti-matter after massacring their enemies; and returns to Earth, where they establish a benevolent dictatorship based on their control of energy. Menelaus’ role up to this point has been peripheral. In an effort to become smart enough to translate the Monument, he had injected himself with a witch’s brew of biochemicals. He becomes smarter but he also goes insane. For the next few centuries, the mutineers occasionally awaken him from suspended animation to interpret parts of the artifact. Meanwhile, two factions have emerged. One faction, led by Menelaus’ former friend, wants to prepare a future humanity that will be of maximum use to the invaders. The other side, led by a posthuman chimera created by the mutineers, wants to raise humans up to a level where they can negotiate with the aliens on a more equal footing and retain as much autonomy as possible.
It becomes apparent, as more of the Monument’s secrets emerge, that the Hyades is only the first layer in a hierarchy of galactic civilizations. They are the servants of an even greater polity in the Praesepe Cluster that, in turn, is subordinate to the Milky Way’s masters, who reside in the M3 cluster, nearly 34,000 light-years from Sol. A civilization as far above humanity as humanity is above the amoeba.
It’s that controlling civilization that the posthuman faction aims to contact.
The novel ends on a cliff with the reader hanging but I’m interested enough to want to know more so when I return this volume to the library, I’m going to pick up the sequel.
I complained in my review of David Brin’s Existence that I couldn’t find any hard SF that had both interesting ideas and interesting characters. In Count to a Trillion, I’ve found an answer to my plaint. Wright doesn’t develop any character beyond Menelaus – and that character can be painted in broad, cartoonish strokes – but I like him and I’ll take what I can get.
Count to a Trillion is recommended for the hard SF fan primarily; but if you’re an SF fan in general, you may want to check this book out.
PS - The copy editor in me raged because I found more typos in this published edition than in the unproofed galley of Stephen Donaldson's The Last Dark that I got to read earlier this month.(less)
The Woman Who Died A Lot is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series and proves to be another enjoyable visit to the book-obsessed alternate Earth...moreThe Woman Who Died A Lot is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series and proves to be another enjoyable visit to the book-obsessed alternate Earth of Swindon, where the enforcement arm of the Library Service agitates for permission to conduct dawn raids to retrieve overdue books, and all of the Service’s members would die to protect any book in the library (except for “those bloody awful Emperor Zhark novels and anything written by Daphne Farquitt”). There are a number of stories going on in the novel: The Literary Detective division of Special Operations is being reactivated; the demise of the ChronoGuard has left Friday – Thursday’s son – without a purpose in life; Tuesday – Thursday’s brilliant daughter – is trying to perfect her Anti-Smite Shield in time to deflect God’s Wrath from downtown Swindon; Aornis Hades continues to exact revenge for the death of her brother Acheron; and the odious Goliath Corporation continues to plot to control everything. Above all, however, Thursday struggles with middle age and the terrifying idea that her best days are behind her.
You need to read the previous novels before tackling this one but if you’ve enjoyed the earlier books, you’ll like this one, so it’s a strong thumb’s up for series fans; and I would recommend the entire run for someone looking for reasonably intelligent, literature-themed brain candy with just enough gravitas to make you care about the characters.
Though they’re horribly dated (esp. in terms of the female characters), I guardedly recommend L. Sprague de Camp’s and Fletcher Pratt’s The Complete Compleat Enchanter, a collection of the authors’ Harold Shea stories, which also play with the idea of real-world characters reading themselves into fictional worlds.(less)
This is a combined review of the three books in the Mistborn trilogy.
I read the first book in the series, The Final Empire, in 2008 – a little over f...more This is a combined review of the three books in the Mistborn trilogy.
I read the first book in the series, The Final Empire, in 2008 – a little over five years ago – and remember liking it enough (I gave it 3 stars) to put the next two on my To-Read shelf. But it should be obvious that I wasn’t overly impressed with it. Of the many Sanderson titles available at the time, I was drawn to this one from the premise – What would follow if the Chosen One failed and the bad guy won?
In the case of Mistborn it’s the thousand-year reign of the Lord Ruler.
Book one is the story of the rebellion that brings down the Lord Ruler’s regime, and introduces us to the series’ main characters – Vin, a cruelly abused street urchin who can burn all the metals of Allomancy, and Elend, son of an abusive noble father and an idealist who dreams of building a better, more egalitarian society. Book two, The Well of Ascension, recounts the quest to discover the location of the titular Well so that Vin can assume its power and bring an end to the Ashfall and the Mists that continue to plague the land. It’s also about Elend’s struggle to create a viable society and government in the wake of the empire’s collapse. The Hero of Ages has Vin and Elend dealing with the unexpectedly dire consequences of finding the Well in book two.
I have to admit that getting through Well was a chore, and I only made it 250 or so pages into Hero before I gave up. Complaint number one with Sanderson is that there were far too many stretches in these books that were downright boring. When he’s advancing the plot or choreographing a fight scene, Sanderson is an engaging and good writer but he gets carried away with unnecessary exposition. Ben’s review of The Final Empire mentions Vin’s development as a character and it’s probably that that gives that book my three stars but the sequels feel “obese,” they both could afford to lose several hundred pounds pages. A second complaint is that – outside of Final – none of the characters engaged me. I didn’t care what happened to them. My third dissatisfaction with the series is that there’s no “magic” in the writing. Certainly Allomancy, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy are interesting magic systems but their functioning is dissected and laid out like a lab specimen, killing the animal and depriving us of the mystery of fantasy. And the prose, while plain and direct, is flat. I remember thinking about the Ashfall and the Mist in The Final Empire. I never quite felt the experience of living in a world where ash fell from the sky as often as rain, the sun was a bloated red giant, and the Mists had blocked the night sky for so long people had forgotten what stars were. I’ll give the last words to Ursula Le Guin, to whose essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” I often return to remind me of what I look for in fantasy and why I read it:
Now the kind of writing I am attacking, the Poughkeepsie style of fantasy, is also written in a plain and apparently direct prose. Does that make it equal to Tolkien’s? Alas, no. It is a fake plainness. It is not really simple, but flat. It is not really clear, but inexact. Its directness is specious. Its sensory cues – extremely important in imaginative writing – are vague and generalized; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic. The tone as a whole is profoundly inappropriate to the subject….
A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you [emphasis UKL’s](less)
The good things about this book: I like the idea behind the Order of Deacons – an areligious order of monkish types (the only traditional vow I think...moreThe good things about this book: I like the idea behind the Order of Deacons – an areligious order of monkish types (the only traditional vow I think you could argue they take is the one of obedience; definitely not chastity) – sworn to keep the barrier between the living and the dead whole. I like the ontological underpinnings of the Otherside, though they’re only hinted at in this first novel of the series. I like the character of Sorcha Faris – mostly.
Why only two stars?: One of the novel’s blurbs says “[o]ne of the most vividly original books I’ve read this year.” But it isn’t ((view spoiler)[or, if it is, then the blurber must have had a sorely disappointing year (hide spoiler)]). There’s no story or character here that I haven’t encountered before: The oddball pair up of experienced partner and novice; the inevitable, passionate love affair between male and female protagonists; the family curse; the corrupted institution; the evil demon lord who wants to manifest in our world; the deus ex machina (or dea in this case); even the faithful gruff retainer.
Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, though. There’s nothing wrong with following the traditional fantasy formula if the storytelling works but – for me – it didn’t. Ballantine’s writing is annoying and intrusive and sometimes, simply bad, constantly throwing me out of the reading experience. For example, the setting is a world reminiscent of late 18th/early 19th century Europe (particularly Russia as there’s a definite Slavic flavor to many names – Kolya, Rossin, the Murashev – but not overly so) yet the characters speak in 21st century idioms. The writing itself is awkward and clumsy; she actually writes “incredibly seriously” at one point. And can we please ban the use of “wryly” to describe any action, at least more than once per novel?
Beyond that there’s no effort to establish character. We’re told that Sorcha’s marriage to Kolya is mostly dead but there’s no attempt to create the context that would give it emotional depth. Thus, when Sorcha – our heroine – falls for Raed Rossin – our hero – so passionately (as we’re told) it’s not believable that she’s starving for a lover. We’re faced with the same flatness in the relationship between Sorcha – the experienced Deacon – and Merrick – the novice. Almost immediately, they are working together like a well coordinated team and bantering like an old, married couple. ((view spoiler)[This despite the fact that Merrick’s father was brutally slain when Merrick was a child because of a mistake the young, inexperienced Deacon Sorcha Faris made. (hide spoiler)])
The story – the “mystery” – is a mystery only for about two chapters. If you can’t see who the bad guys are or who the abovementioned dea ex machina is then you’re a novice reader or you’re not paying attention.
Recommended?: No. I can’t recommend this book. It’s not such a horrible read that you want to gouge your eyes out but if you’re going to test the waters, check it out of the library or borrow it from a friend. If the writing weren’t so annoying and the story so mediocre or there’d been stronger character building, I would be more enthusiastic but the book didn’t quite measure up to what I had been hoping for.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
“You will not fail, however he may assail you. There is also love in the world.”
In hindsight one can see the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant building up...more“You will not fail, however he may assail you. There is also love in the world.”
In hindsight one can see the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant building up to the Götterdämmerung that is The Last Dark.† In the first Chronicle, Thomas Covenant, an outcast leper in our world, is translated to the Land. There one’s physical and mental health are tangible, and all is threatened by Lord Foul the Despiser, who desires to destroy the Arch of Time (and, thus, the Earth) and escape his prison. Covenant learns that he is the wielder of the wild magic of white gold, the paradox that both sustains Time and is the only thing capable of destroying it. Initially, Covenant resists belief in the Land (hence his sobriquet of “Unbeliever”) and refuses to actively help the many people who befriend him. But events in the course of the first three books contrive to force him into a confrontation with Lord Foul, where he laughs Despite into irrelevance. With Foul impotent, Covenant finds himself back in our world. In the second Chronicle, Covenant is again translated to the Land along with Linden Avery and finds that in saving it the first time, he unwittingly laid the seeds for Lord Foul’s corruption of the Council of Lords and the abomination of the Sunbane. In order to defeat Foul this time, Covenant and his friends seek the One Tree in order to recreate the Staff of Law (destroyed in the first Chronicle) and (hopefully) restore the Land to health.†† Ultimately, they succeed. Covenant gives Foul his white gold ring, and the Despiser unleashes the power of wild magic. The results are not what Foul desires, however. While Covenant’s physical body is destroyed, he becomes a part of the Arch (hence his other sobriquet of “Timewarden”) and again Foul’s desires are thwarted. The third Chronicle begins 10 years (in our world) after the events of the second. Linden is a doctor at the institution where Covenant’s first wife is immured, driven insane by Lord Foul. She has also adopted Jeremiah, a boy whom Covenant saved from sacrifice to the Despiser in the second Chronicle but who’s suffered such abuse that he’s retreated into his mind and appears unreachable. We also meet Roger Covenant, Thomas’ son by Joan, who’s also been touched by the Despiser and is under the control of a Raver. Eventually, all find themselves translated to the Land. Thousands of years have passed and the Land is ruled by the Masters, Haruchai who have determined that the only way to save it is to keep its inhabitants ignorant of Earthpower and the Lore of the old Lords. They’ve also developed an unhealthy fetish for Covenant that takes its most extreme form in the Humbled - Haruchai who have voluntarily emulated Covenant’s halfhand. In order to save her son, Linden selfishly breaks the Law and restores Covenant to life. In the process she awakens the Worm of the World’s End and grants Lord Foul’s greatest desire – an escape from the Earth.†††
The Last Dark opens in the last days of the Earth. The Sun no longer rises and the Worm is devouring all of the Elohim, causing the stars to fade from the sky. Though everything they know tells them that all their efforts will prove futile, Covenant and his companions set out to do several things. Jeremiah will build a fane that will protect the remaining Elohim; Linden will go back in time to gain the knowledge of forbidding from Caerroil Wildwood; and Covenant will journey to Mount Thunder to confront – once more – Lord Foul in his lair.
But there is “hope in contradiction,” as Donaldson observes several times in the novel; and means speak louder than ends. As the Giant Cirrus Kindwind explains to Jeremiah when Stave and Cabledarm are nearly killed finding the malachite the boy needs to build his fane:
Beckoning for Jeremiah to accompany her, Kindwind stepped away. When they had withdrawn a few paces, she said, “We must trust, Chosen-son, that his folk restore themselves in this manner. It appears that his spirit has turned inward. But I will believe that a man who has performed his feats must soon heal himself and return to us.”
Jeremiah swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “I hope so. He doesn’t deserve this.”
“Ah, deserve,” sighed Kindwind. “The notion of deserved and undeserved is a fancy. Knowing both life and death, we endeavor to impose worth and meaning upon our deeds, and thereby to comfort our fear of impermanence. We choose to imagine that our lives merit continuance. Mayhap all sentience shares a similar fancy. Mayhap the Earth itself, being sentient in its fashion, shares it. Nonetheless it is a fancy. A wider gaze does not regard us in that wise. The stars do not. Perhaps the Creator does not. The larger truth is merely that all things end. By that measure, our fancies cannot be distinguished from dust.
“For this reason, Giants love tales. Our iteration of past deeds and desires and discoveries provides the only form of permanence to which mortal life can aspire. That such permanence is a chimera does not lessen its power to console. Joy is in the ears that hear.”
Her assertion startled Jeremiah. It seemed to question his foundations. If he closed his eyes, he could still see the extremity of Stave’s fall. The hard throb of Cabledarm’s bleeding and the excruciation of her shoulder cried out to his senses. Awkwardly he reached for Kindwind’s last waterskin. When she released it, he drank as if his thirst – his dismay – had the force of a moral convulsion.
“So you’re saying,” he protested or pleaded, “what Stave did is worthless? What Cabledarm did is worthless? It’s all dust?”
“Aye,” Cirrus Kindwind assented, “if that is how you choose to hear the tale.” Her tone was mild. “For myself, I will honor the effort and the intent. Doing so, I will be comforted.”
Jeremiah wanted to shout. Instead he fumed, “You sound like the croyel.” Was joy in the ears that hear? Then so were agony and horror. So was despair. “It was forever telling me everything Mom did was useless. Nothing matters. It’s all dust. That’s why Lord Foul laughs – and Roger – and those Ravers. They agree with you. In the end, they’re the only ones who get what they want.”
Kindwind looked at him sharply. Like the flick of a blade, she retorted, “Then her me, Chosen-son. Hear me well. There is another truth which you must grasp.
“Mortal lives are not stones. They are not seas. For impermanence to judge itself by the standards of permanence is folly. Or is it arrogance? Life merely is what it is, neither more nor less. To deem it less because it is not more is to heed the counsels of the Despiser.
“We do what we must so that we may find worth in ourselves. We do not hope vainly that we will put an end to pain, or to loss, or to death.”
Failure isn’t something you are. It’s something you do.
Without warning, Jeremiah found that he ached to share Kindwind’s beliefs, and Linden’s. Perhaps the monolith had never contained enough malachite. Perhaps the deposit had shattered. Perhaps Stave and even Cabledarm would die. Perhaps Mom would never come back. Perhaps futility was the only truth. Still Jeremiah would have to find a way to live with it.
To himself, he muttered, “It’s not that easy.”
Cirrus Kindwind had never been possessed.
Her response was a snort. “We were not promised ease. The purpose of life – if it may be said to have a purpose – is not ease. It is to choose, and to act upon the choice. In that task, we are not measured by outcomes. We are measured only by daring and effort and resolve.” [emphasis mine] (pp. 187-8)
The passage above also contains another important theme – the primacy of agency. The worst thing a person can do or suffer is possession, the loss of the ability to choose. There’s a later scene where Jeremiah has been possessed by moksha Raver, who tempts the boy with the seductiveness of submission:
Do you now discern truth? asked the Raver kindly, eagerly. Long have you striven to evade our intent, long and at great cost. Long have you concealed yourself from suffering, though your wounds festered with every avoided day. Do you now grasp that there can be no surcease or anodyne for an implement, except in its condign use? Do you comprehend that there is both freedom and exaltation in the acceptance of service?
This all true believers know. They submit every desire and gift to the will of beings greater than themselves, and by their surrender they gain redemption. Self-will accrues only fear. It achieves only pain. The highest glory is reached solely by the abdication of self.
Do you understand? Do you acknowledge at last that you are the Despiser’s beloved son, in whom he is well pleased? (p. 498)
Reading this passage, I was immediately struck by the parallel to Matthew 3:16-17:
Then Jesus, when He had been baptized, came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.
And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (NKJV)
It’s too simplistic to say that Donaldson is anti-Christian. One could argue that his defense of unconditional love and nonviolence are Christian in the best sense of the word. But Christianity (and Islam and Judaism, for that matter) demands its adherents submit themselves entirely to the will of a god who will use their lives to further his purposes. And – to be honest – I’ve always found such abnegation of will distasteful; certainly a factor in my admiration for Donaldson. (There’s a thesis paper in here somewhere.)
Another parallel with a major literary work – and another thesis – that came to mind while reading The Last Dark is to the Lord of the Rings. Again, it would be simplistic to reduce the Chronicles to the anti-LotR. Tolkien did not glorify war or violence. He lost two of his closest friends to the First World War, and endured the trenches himself. He had few illusions but it’s unlikely that Gimli, storming an Orc stronghold, would have ever uttered these words: “Covenant wheeled on Branl. ‘We have to get out of here! These are their homes! We can’t start killing their children!’” (p. 461)
Or that Aragorn, in the midst of the Battle of the Pelennor, would have agonized:
With every slash and thrust, every frantic swing, he appalled himself. He had to goad himself with curses like groans in order to keep moving. Otherwise he would have plunged to his knees, crippled by abhorrence. The Cavewights were only simple in their thinking: they were not unintelligent. And they had a long history. On their own terms, they had a civilization. They had never deserved the use which Lord Foul had made of them. They did not deserve what Covenant did to them now.
He promised himself that the Despiser would pay for this; but no promise sufficed to condone such slaughter. (pp. 452-3)
I want to avoid spoilers in this review so I can’t go into any detail about the novel’s end, another example of the book’s “anti-LotRism." I will say, however, that Lord Foul’s fate is very different from either Morgoth’s or Sauron’s.
On the other hand, I would argue that Linden’s struggle with her own role mirrors Frodo’s:
But she could not keep meeting peril with violence, striving to out-do the savagery of Lord Foul’s servants and allies. She could not. She needed a different purpose, a better role in the Land’s fate. She had passed through the wrath of Gallows Howe to the gibbet’s deeper truths; to the vast bereavement which had inspired Garroting Deep’s thirst for blood. The time had come to heed the lessons which her whole life had tried to teach her.
If she did not give up, and did not fight, what remained? She thought that she knew, although she trembled to contemplate it; or she would have trembled had she been less weary. (p. 351)
And that both come to the same conclusion (cf., Frodo’s actions in “The Scouring of the Shire,” The Return of the King):
She understood that now. She recognized, if the bane did not, that healing was both more arduous and more worthy than retribution. And sometimes healing required measures as extreme as the patient’s plight. Surgeons amputated or extirpated. They performed sacrifices. They transplanted. They did not judge the cost. They only did what they could. [emphasis mine] (p. 488)
Another passage that recalls LotR takes place at the end. Actually, it reminds me more of passages from the History of Middle Earth, where Tolkien is discussing the nature of Morgoth’s evil:
Covenant grimaced. He almost smiled. “It’s easier than it looks. Or it’s harder. Or maybe it’s just worth the effort.” He ran his halfhand through his hair. “I don’t know how else to explain it. Lord Foul makes us strong.”
“Strong,” Jeremiah objected. “The Despiser? He would have slaughtered the whole world and laughed about it.”
“Well, sure,” Covenant shrugged. “But ask yourself why he’s like that. Berek said it. ‘Only the great of heart may despair greatly.’ All that malice and contempt is just love and hope and eagerness gone rancid. He’s the Creator’s curdled shadow. He –“ He grimaced again. “I’m not saying this right.
“He gives us the chance to do better.” (p. 527)
Compare the “Ainulindalë,” where Melkor/Morgoth is the mightiest of the Ainur and its his very love, hope and eagerness for Eru’s Creation that curdle into the despite that mars Arda.
I recommend The Last Dark, and the final Chronicle overall. Enough that I’m nudging my initial three stars to four; it inspired me and made me think so despite its manifest flaws (which I mentioned in my reviews of previous books), it’s become one of those books that will color everything else I read for years to come.
† Another reviewer commented that anyone reading this book has almost certainly read the preceding nine so the synopsis that follows is brief and written as if the reader will know of the places and people mentioned. (And that they'll forgive the spoilers from the first two series.)
†† I’m not going to touch on the theme of uncertainty that is a major element in all three Chronicles in this review. Not much, at any rate, except to mention that often (always?) the characters set off to accomplish things not knowing if it’s the correct thing to do or if it will help in the end.
††† There’s a parallel here between Elena’s breaking of the Law of Death to bring back Kevin Landwaster and Linden’s. Where Linden’s differed was that her motivation was unconditional love; Elena’s love was contaminated with her insanity.(less)