The first volume in Vance's Lyonesse trilogy felt like such a departure for the author--not that it didn't have his characteristic wit and oddness, buThe first volume in Vance's Lyonesse trilogy felt like such a departure for the author--not that it didn't have his characteristic wit and oddness, but I really felt it was one of the first times that I was invited to feel for his characters. His usual fare is light and disconnected, skipping across the surface without taking time to reflect. His characters are often clowns, comically suffering for their own errors and bruised egos, motivated by base urges, like spite and greed, and lacking more personal depth--yet I found Suldrun's subtle sense of alienation and melancholy to be vastly more intriguing than all of Cugel's adventures in Dying Earth, no matter how wacky they became.
Which is why it was a disappointment that this second volume returns to more of the same from Vance: largely episodic picaresque scenes. And yet, unlike the more silly and freewheeling style of Dying Earth, here his silliness is at constant odds with his larger, more serious plot of war and politics and betrayal.
The explanations of politics and history fall particularly flat, trying to drum up some interest in the intrigue and battle which would be better served by personal connections from the characters through whom we experience the tale--as opposed to references to (thankfully brief) appendices and lengthy descriptions of architecture and food.
He gets caught up in these explanations and descriptions, in reminding us of where we are, what's going on, and what the characters' motivations are. These are central aspects of the story, so the fact that he feels that he has to keep restating them just highlights the fact that he's struggling with focus, structure, and pacing in a longer, more interconnected story.
These explanations extend to the characters--we're often being told why they do what they do, and it's not just that we're in their heads, but that Vance seems concerned with making them transparent to us. It’s not really an effective use of words to sit and tell us why the characters do everything. The reader should be able to figure that out from the behavior and details, from how they are presented. If it isn’t clear from how it’s presented, then you don’t really gain anything by sitting down and telling us.
It’s also a denial of the reader’s act of interpretation, that instead of looking at the character and trying to figure them out, to read them, we are instead told what ‘the truth’ of it is. This doesn’t mean we should never get into the characters’ heads, but what makes a character intriguing is to see their conflicts, and the gradual progression of those conflicts, which eventually lead to a point of climax, where we see that conflict come to some kind of fruition. Of course, these conflicts should also relate to the character’s outer life--the problems they have to face should reveal those internal conflicts, and force the characters to come to terms with them.
During one section, Aillas knows there is a spy in his midst, but doesn’t know who it is. So, he goes on to mention several times that he’s concerned that there’s a spy, and that he wonders who it might be. As readers, of course we’re curious, but it’s just redundant to have the character keep mentioning it in the same way without any kind of progression or fresh view on the subject.
Certainly, sometimes a writer has to remind their reader of a fact, to catch them up, and it's admittedly always a challenge to find a way to do this without being obtrusive or repetitive, and to find a balance between too much explanation and not enough--but that's what sets an author of skill apart.
In the first book, Vance managed to do a better job giving us Suldrun's and Aillas' internal conflicts without overstating them, and letting them develop naturally, over the course of the book--and besides Suldrun and Aillas, we also had the strange intertwinings of Faude Carfilhiot and Melancthe, these figures trying to discover their own identity, at once competent but unfulfilled, literal half-creatures searching for wholeness.
In The Green Pearl, there is a similar relationship between Melancthe and Shimrod, but we really only get one side of the story. We see Shimrod's pining after her, his attempts to romance her, his thoughts and desires, but not hers. She is meant to be a mystery, and we do get some explanations for why she behaves the way she does, but by and large, she serves mainly as a motivation and foil for Shimrod's romantic intentions, the source of his desires and frustrations--which is unfortunate, since she seems to be a much more interesting character, with more intriguing motivations.
That Vance faltered here may be because the emotional depth he's dealing with isn't as intense as the star-crossed romance in the first book--and also because a star-crossed romance is much easier to get your head around, rather than the existential struggle with identity that Melancthe and Shimrod go through as magical creatures.
Vance’s villains also tend to be more interesting than his heroes, not an uncommon trait in writers, because villains are, overall, given more free reign in terms of behavior and personality. This being said, they are still rather flat, often acting out of malice and spite instead of more complex internal motivations. It's more that they have more vigor, that they are more demonstrable in their personalities because they are given freer reign.
All in all, it shouldn't be surprising that Vance should struggle somewhat with this series. Here is an author who tends to prefer silly, amoral heroes motivated by greed and self-preservation now trying to produce characters of depth and pathos, who prefers episodic, humorous, unstructured stories but is now trying to relate a long-running, large scale political conflict, who tends to tell stories about character faltering and ultimately failing, now trying to depict a rise to power, who usually portrays sex as a lewd joke, but is now trying to capture deeper romantic feelings.
It's all outside of his comfort zone--which is why the true surprise is that he did so well with this experiment in the first book. Then again, the second volume in a trilogy is notorious for lagging and struggling along between the promise of the opening and the excitement of the climax. I'm still intrigued to see where this experiment ultimately ends up....more
There are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is thaThere are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is that, despite these things, there is always something that carries them through it, some verve or strength that makes up for it.
This is especially true for pulp and genre authors: their work may be unpolished, even bordering on the cliche, but some aspect of their approach and vision still shines through. Lovecraft's pacing and voice often left much to be desired, but his unique vision of cosmic horror still makes much of his work intriguing. Early on, Moorcock struggled with subtlety and sophistication, but his odd conceptual approach often saved him. Indeed, for Howard, the more polished his style became, the more it lost the vitality that set it apart.
With Wagner, I struggled to find the unique aspect of voice that makes a story worth telling--and worth reading. Certainly, there are some things he does well: his writing shines when he is setting a scene, in descriptions of places, structures, weather, the tapestry of a landscape passing the lonely traveler by. There is some real loveliness there, some fine turns of phrase and genuine tone.
However, outside of these passages the style becomes finicky. The action scenes get bogged down in deliberate, meticulous description, preventing them from flowing, from being dramatic and wild. It all begins to feel like a foregone conclusion. Wagner doesn’t seem to be able to create interesting tensions within the action to keep us interested.
In actions scenes, there is always the obvious, overarching conflict that must be resolved. In combat, it is the naked question of who will prevail, whose sword arm will prove stronger. In the chase, it is the question of whether the quarry will escape, or be captured. In order to lengthen these into full scenes, there must be a sequence of smaller conflicts playing out which are progressively dealt with en route to the final conclusion.
However, it is vital that these smaller conflicts be interesting in themselves, and not just be an extension of the larger. So, it cannot just be ‘our hero sees a new foe before him’, to be cut down and defeated in a repetitious succession of thud and blunder. There must be some wrinkle, some particular that must be overcome in a way that requires something specific of our hero, that engages him. It is not enough simply to have a quick foe, or a massive one--that quickness or size must be given some particular thrust--some detail that makes it feel true to the reader, that makes it imperative to the hero’s momentary survival.
Kane is meant to be preternaturally skilled and competent--but even the most certain man must grit his teeth and will his way through at least some of his struggles. The combat often ends up lacking a sense of danger or thrill or unpredictability to keep things moving. It shows how difficult it really is to produce the kind of exciting flow that Howard seems to create so effortlessly--almost thoughtlessly--in the Conan stories.
Wagner’s dialogue likewise shows a niceness that causes it to lose much of the punch it might otherwise have. Firstly, he walks that line le Guin marked in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in that when he makes his language conversational, it can start to feel overly modern and plain in the mouths of these outlandish characters. That isn't to say that characters in fantasy should all speak like chivalric knights errant, but creating conversation that is both rough and retains a period feel is no easy feat.
Secondly, like many authors unsure of their own voice, he seems to fear being misunderstood. So, he leaves nothing implied, allows no subtle nods, instead making sure the whole is stated outright for the reader. So, if we have our hero speaking with a shady character, a dark-cloaked spy who works both sides, you can be certain that at some point, there will be an aside where he thinks to himself ‘I’m not sure if I can trust him’. If two characters are planning to break into a castle, one will probably mention that he doesn’t want to be caught and tortured.
There’s a reason that writers don’t do this: ‘While fully dressed and facing forward, he walked with his feet across the green grass lawn’--most of those words simply aren’t necessary. The exact same image is communicated by ‘He walked across the lawn’. The true job of a writer is deciding what needs to be shown versus what can be left unsaid. If our hero walked backwards on his hands while naked across a perfumed lawn of purple bones, that might be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it makes Wagner’s writing tedious to get through--less like characters engaged in conversation and more like two writers plotting the outline for a script.
The Cthulhu bits are played too straight, too matter-of-factly. Wagner isn’t adding anything or putting his own spin on it, he’s just lifting Lovecraft’s descriptions whole cloth. Indeed, the characters often speak of magic and demons with all the wonder and fear of a mechanic talking about rebuilding an engine.
Moreover, the events of the story don’t really seem to touch Kane, to change him moment to moment. Of course, his immortality would give him an unusual point of view, and it’s certainly not unthinkable that he should feel disconnected from the world--jaded and detached. But even so, this jadedness does not seem to drive him, it does not modify his reactions, it simply leaves him blank. With Moorcock's Elric, we get the idea that he has grander desires that drive him, even if they tend to be personal ones, and he otherwise feels separate from the world.
Now, if the intent were to explore the existential ennui of immortality, that could make for an interesting story, but the events of Kane’s life are very much the norm for a sword & sorcery hero--battles and demons, pirates and assassins. His own actions in this world are also very much the norm, so it’s not as if we’re being provided with some fresh outlook or approach to underscore his unique perspective.
I was excited to try this series, based on it's reputation--a darker Conan, a modern take on Eddison's and Anderson's violent, blood-and-glory tales--unfortunately, the tone, characterization, dialogue, and plotting simply weren't up to the challenge. Ultimately, though Wagner is certainly reaching for what might be an interesting vision of fantasy, he never quite succeeds at bringing it to life, on the page.
Carthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet theCarthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet the legacy Carthage has left to us, her history, her culture were deliberately erased, burned to the ground with nary a trace remaining, and then replaced with the politicized fictions of Rome, who destroyed her, followed in her footsteps, and replaced her. The shadow of Carthage looms large across the ancient world, but she is always a shadow: dark, unknowable, menacing, cloaked in rumor. Her real presence, her real character still remain unknown to us.
Some things we do know: that she was a colony of Phoenicians who became a power in their own right, the figures of Hanno the navigator, Hannibal the general, and some other greats, mostly sprung from the grand Barca line. Yet our knowledge is always filtered through Roman eyes, Roman words--to the point that the great Roman cultural epic, Virgil's Aeneid, personifies Carthage in the figure of Dido: the angry, jilted lover intent on preventing Rome's ever being born. In the end, warmongering Cato's oft-repeated line Carthago delenda est--'Carthage must be destroyed'--was followed to the letter.
In preparation for this book, the follow-up to his acknowledged masterpiece of psychological Realism, Madame Bovary, Flaubert spent months researching, burying himself in ancient histories, trying to recover the lost empire--even visiting its former site. One can see the fruits of his labors in the book's mostly delightful details--which at their best evoke the poetic list-making of Ovid or Milton--while at other times, they run to the banal, as a certain lengthy explanation of the difference between the catapult and the ballista.
There is definitely a sense that Flaubert is working more in the milieu of history here, not melodrama--which is unfortunate, because the story cries out to be told with pathos and character, to be sung. We're never allowed into the characters, psychologically--instead of seeing their thoughts develop toward the moment of decision, Flaubert sticks us with mere descriptions of what has happened. What a Shakespearean performance this might have been--full of contentious dialogues, arguments, coercions, seductions--I longed to see these grand figures strutting the stage, demonstrating their mastery, their force of personality, their depth of emotion. It's no wonder that luminaries like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff tried to craft operas from the tale.
Without these passionate struggles, these subtle turns and manipulations, the entire melodrama grows ever more flat, preconceived, inevitable. Yet, as the author, himself wrote:
"I would give the demi-ream of notes I've written during the last five months and the ninety-eight volumes I've read, to be, for only three seconds, really moved by the passion of my heroes."
Sometimes, alas, the work simply does not come together as we wish it might--as indeed we know that it can, for that is what draws an artist to the project in the first place: his sure knowledge that there is a story here worth telling, and the reader surely comes away with that same impression, that there is fertile ground here.
The bloody anecdotes--especially an early one about the crucifixion of a full-grown lion--are rife with opportunity for symbolism, for multilayered writing, if only it had all come together. If only. They do not work as pure history--Flaubert lacks that scholarly depth and breadth, for all his researches--but neither can he quite turn them to an artistic purpose.
In the end, the most interesting way to view the work--and indeed, likely the reason it failed--is as a grand piece of Orientalism. We do not quite get Carthage-as-Carthage, but neither do we get Carthage-as-France. Instead, we get a distancing, a view of Carthage as unknowable, as impossible to sympathize with--that same distance that the Orientalist stance was constructed to produce.
It is either fitting or ironic that we end up here, since in many ways, Carthage-by-way-of-Rome is the original example of the Orientalist posture: the foreign power is destroyed, conquered, converted, and then rewritten by the conqueror as self-justification. The voice of Carthage, its power and influence was so great that Rome had to reduce it, to transform it into something less threatening--even as Rome dutifully copied both the technology and the methods which Carthage established as the necessities of the first true maritime trade empire to dominate the Mediterranean.
Aeneas is not merely a snub to Carthage, after all--but also an attempt by Rome to rewrite Persian greatness into their empire, which was always more Cult of the God King than Rhetoric of the Demos--then, in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reconquista, the European powers once again take on the Roman cause and identity, intent on making an abused lover of Islam, which had so long dominated and loomed over them. For France, Algeria became the colonial site where they most fully explored the perverse decadence that is the ruler's right--at the same time blaming the natives for whatever was inflicted upon them, through the standard process of Orientalist distancing--a process we still use to this day, insisting that any group who cannot prevent themselves from being dominated must, in some way, be asking to be so dominated.
The most extreme example of alienation and vilification crafted by the Romans against the Carthaginians is the Tophet--a site where, it was claimed, infants were sacrificed to the brutal gods as offerings to stave off defeat, disease, and blight. Flaubert repeats this accusation in the most florid and merciless way, as the blood-mad crowd gives up child after child to the mechanized maw of their titanic idol. Recent archaeological study suggests that the Tophet was used for interring the numerous stillbirths and victims of high infant mortality in the ancient world.
Though clearly influential on adventure writers like Haggard, Kipling, and Mundy, Flaubert does not quite achieve the rollicking pace that make those stories enjoyable. Neither can he deliver upon the wild personalities which might have carried the tale as a proper melodrama--the required psychological distance between himself as a French citizen and the necessarily depraved East is too vast a gulf for authorial sympathies to bridge. Neither can it quite be called a history--it is rather too close and personal, too invested in the blood and depravity for its own sake to maintain more objective judgment.
Perhaps Melville--if anyone--could have melded these disparate types of story, through extended symbolism and precisely-constructed moments into a tale that managed, ultimately, to hang together and surpass the mere sum of assembled parts. In the end Flaubert, despite his particular skills and the time he invested, could not....more
A modern man starts receiving psychic messages from hundreds of thousands of years in Earth's future--messages from himself. The sun is dying, the worA modern man starts receiving psychic messages from hundreds of thousands of years in Earth's future--messages from himself. The sun is dying, the world is filled with horrific monsters, and the last remnants of humanity have locked themselves away in a vast pyramid to await the death of their world in peace. They peer out from countless windows at the awful monstrosities which beat at the gates, who want nothing so much as to kill every man, woman, and child within. Then, one day, they receive a message, from far beyond the monstrous lands--someone else is out there.
At first, I thought it no wonder Lovecraft declared this a must read for any scholar or writer of Supernatural Horror--it's a great premise, not quite like anything before, with clear potential for unexpected moments, high tension, a depiction of the ultimate struggle of mankind to survive--and Hodgson squanders all of it. Everything about this book seems designed to work against the story, to undermine it, to remove any thrill or tension or genuine human sentiment.
Our hero isn't just psychic--he's the most psychic, with knowledge and theories that no one else can ever hope to comprehend. The message isn't just from some other survivor, it's from the reborn soul of his dead girlfriend. Though it's supposed to literally be a love for the ages, the romance is as naive and idealized as a Taylor Swift song, full of grand words and gestures but completely lacking in any emotional depth or personal connection.
It's the sort of romance that occurs automatically, without any participation from those involved--there is no connection, and their personalities (especially hers) are entirely superfluous to the relationship. The romance is really for him, to motivate him, to draw him out--it's your standard 'love interest as plot device'. The entire relationship is presented in terms of control and possession, until the 'hero' ends up creepier than all the faceless monsters.
Here's a man who sees himself as far above others, in both body and mind, who constantly talks about his own amazing abilities (Hodgson was, himself, an early proponent of bodybuilding). Meanwhile, he is beset on all sides by a dark, incomprehensible world of faceless figures bent on destroying him. It is such a complete image of self-obsession, persecution complex, and profound entitlement. Hodgson's success in House on the Borderlands seems entirely to hinge on the fact that the protagonist was supposed to be a creepy, reclusive weirdo--'write what you know', I guess.
Then there is the physical style of the work, which begs through bloody lips for some kind of editing. We get the same information again and again, recapped and repeated. The agonist is constantly trying to explain the plot to us, as well as his thoughts, his desires, and every other thing. The story is never allowed to progress naturally, but is instead whipped and drug every inch of the way.
It’s as if an author wrote a short book, perhaps two hundred pages, and then went back through everything he had written and copied paragraphs and sentences, repeating them over and over throughout the story, changing the order here and there, until the book swells to six hundred pages. There is no thought, observation, description, or scene too banal to be repeated five or six times--usually capped off by the narrator saying ‘as I’ve mentioned several times before’.
There are entire chapters (and the chapters aren’t short) which are just the author walking for six hours (always six hours) across some barren plain or dry seabed before reaching some notable piece of landscape he’d mentioned before (usually a large rock), and then, ‘at the tenth hour’, realizing that he hasn’t slept or eaten anything in twelve hours, and collapsing exhausted in a shallow cave to a brief meal before passing out a good long while. When he wakes up, he’ll hear or see some terrible beast nearby, but it won’t notice him. Then he’ll get up and do it all again two or three times, until the chapter ends. That same scenario repeating is literally at least 50% of the book.
Finally, after walking ‘halfway across the world’ (in the narrator’s words), he reaches the only other human settlement on Earth, a place he’d never imagined existed, but which he was determined to reach against all odds. So, what does he do then: Check for supplies? See who else survived? Try to band together and save some of the other people? He doesn’t even look at the place, he just conveniently finds his girlfriend in a shallow cave outside, takes a nap, and then they leave.
Her only home has been destroyed, everyone she knows is dead or hiding from monsters, and yet when they meet, it’s all sweet kisses and blushing, holding hands, laughing and teasing--and of course him ordering her around for her own good, since she’s too stupid to do even the most basic things herself.
Then there's the language, which is artificially archaic, as Hodgson seeming to think that the residents of One Million AD will all sound like a Roanoke colony parson. While I enjoy the carefully-constructed archaism of Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, which provide their works with a sense of tone and poetry, a beauty of language that is appreciable in and of itself, Hodgson’s archaism is clunky and serves only to draw out an already tedious narrative.
The book is odiously stupid, just a constant test of the reader’s patience. Yet, it’s not stupid like most books, which are simply cliche and badly written by accident of the author’s lack of skill--this book is terrible because of a series of increasingly stupid and pointless decisions, all despite the fact that it’s conceptually interesting and inventive. By all rights, this book should have been worth reading, but it simply fails to be, at almost every turn....more