Robert Jordan – The Eye of the World (1990) Review

6/10

With the TV show coming out, I finally, after 20 years of reading, buckled under the pressure and picked up The Eye of the World (1990). I knew a bit of what I could expect, notably the similarities between this first book and JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Nevertheless, I was about to quit this novel at around 60% because of cumulative boredom and general frustration, but persevered through sheer mastodonic willpower to its messy final act. 

First, the Tolkien thing. That wasn’t even the reason that did me in, but let’s address it. I’ve often heard the excuse that is made for these similarities with Tolkien and that is that the publishers at the time wanted epic fantasy to resemble Tolkien for greater sales. But I don’t really understand that and it goes against what Jordan himself has said. Surely there has been fantasy published before the 1990s that was unlike Tolkien? Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane was published in 1977, and, while also inspired by Tolkien, was not nearly as blatant in it as The Eye of the World… Jordan said that he wanted to present the readers with something familiar and comfortable, before branching out on his own ideas of epic fantasy, and I take it that he was not coerced into making this decision. To shine a more positive light on it, Jordan’s book acknowledges the roots of the epic fantasy genre, before subverting that structure and pushing it into newer directions. In that sense he followed the same footsteps as Stephen Donaldson’s series and Tad Williams’s The Dragonbone Chair (1988). It would only be a few years later when George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996) completely flipped the table.

The Eye of the World may be so heavily inspired by The Lord of the Rings that it has copied not only the general structure of the plot but also has the equivalents of its locations, character groups and races, down to a Mountains of Dhoom and fireworks in the Shire – but that doesn’t mean that Jordan didn’t put any effort into making something nice out of it. In the opening chapters, for example, we find ourselves in Emond’s Field, the little village where Rand and his Merry- and Pippin-equivalent friends are gathered for a big party before the adventure really starts, and Jordan makes this a quaint and sweet little village with quaint and sweet villagers, using a bit of comedy here and there. And when Rand’s life is upended and his call to adventure begins, the events are suitably harrowing. Jordan gives himself free reign within the framework he co-opted.

Jordan’s style and prose are quite unlike Tolkien’s. In a dramatic prologue he already shows that his approach to dialogue and drama has a more modern, theatrical feel. The same goes for the arguments between villagers in Emond’s Field and, very notably, the interactions between men and women. Their constant confrontations are grating. Every conversation between a man and woman, or between two women, has a sickly undercurrent of a power struggle about who is in charge, who is bossing around who and about scoring points against the other. Otherwise, Jordan’s writing is smooth and clear, easy to follow, but wordy though. He repeats the characters’ thoughts a lot, sometimes literally. He’s heavy on descriptions of everything – clothes, farmsteads, villages and forests, and never seems to focus on the point of a chapter. Every action needs to be worked towards with elaborate descriptions of surroundings and thoughts. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, reading entire paragraphs sometimes feels optional for following the story. It’s a choose your level of immersion novel.

The key to enjoyment lies in accepting what Tolkien’s plot structure aims for: a slow escalation of danger and stakes, a slow build-up of dread, while slowly weaning away the characters from their safe home and collecting them together for a necessary adventure. And Jordan does a couple of things well here and some things not so well. For a standard farmboy-to-hero story, the characterisations of Rand, Mat, Moiraine, Lan and others feel solid, distinct, if rather crude, and promise good character arcs over the course of the series. I appreciated Moiraine as a coolheaded, female Gandalf. Rand is for the moment a bland, wide-eyed, drooling youth, but it is easy to feel for him and we follow his every step and thought, whether we want to or not… Unfortunately, a promise is all that it remains. We also get enough hints about the history and races and the intricacies of magic, which again gives a promise of a rich world to discover. Although, a lot of that seems influenced by Arthurian legend, which sounds a bit cheap on top of the Tolkien framework (naming something an “angreal” isn’t exactly the peak of imagination), but the book stands out by a very heavy take on prophecy that Jordan wields to make the book grow above the homages and into its own take on fantasy.

That slow escalation of dread that Tolkien’s structure does, doesn’t come out well. The entire book follows a repetitive cycle of long travel followed by a bit of action. Once you notice the pattern, each cycle gets more annoying as it keeps asking you to work through stretches of unexciting travelling, arguments and side-quests from inn to inn. Basically, nothing of interest happening in excruciating detail. And this interrupts the build-up of dread, dropping the excitement to zero again and again. The severity of the attacks by the enemy also leave little room for escalation later in the story. There’s a general lack of goals and motivations among the characters and the stakes are not clear. In The Lord of the Rings we have at least the goal of trying to get a ring to Mordor, but the reasons why anything is happening is far from clear in Jordan’s book. The final act about the mysterious “eye of the world” feels tacked on to the travel story and doesn’t feel like a logical continuation of the episodes of danger that preceded it.

In summary, it is a long travel story with lots and lots of walking and riding from one village to the next, with a couple of teenagers who argue, never pay attention, wander off, touch things they shouldn’t touch. A bit like trying to go camping in France when your kids are just about old enough to go off on their own with friends, if I should believe my parents. And with Orcs and Nazguls chasing you, which is not uncommon in France. 

Fantasy has come a long way since The Eye of the World and the farmboy-to-hero travelogue and Arthurian references make it feel positively ancient, and not in a good way – makes it feel much older than it actually is. There was nothing about the story that filled me with awe or wonder. A lot of it shows promise, but that is all that it remains: a show of promise. The characters remain bland and the story and mythology remain derivative. It takes a lot of energy to push through without getting much back. But I have to admit: towards the end I started to like this group of characters a little bit. The three young guys started to differentiate a little bit, Moiraine and Loial became interesting and even the insufferable Nynaeve began to feel like a character. Maybe I am clutching at a piece of string to drag me through the muck, but there’s hope.

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The Matrix Resurrections (2021) and 11 Other Mini-Reviews of Recent Films and TV Shows

The Matrix: Resurrections (2021). This film is so “meta”, that the writers took their own brainstorm meetings at Warner Bros and said: “you know what, let’s just make a film about these meetings. Let’s make a film about people trying to make Matrix 4.” You know what I say to that? No. Try to make a real movie. And making a joke about how Warner Bros is so demanding inside your own movie doesn’t let you off the hook. Yes, there is a joke about Warner Bros inside the movie. You remember when TV shows had these clip show episodes where they just reused fragments of the season? That is this movie. Is this the final evolution of the Hollywood reboot: showing actual clips from the previous movies? And where the hell is Hugo Weaving?

Last Night in Soho (2021). When young Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) travels to London to chase her dream of fashion design, she finds out that reality is a lot harsher than expected. Those dreams stay literally dreams, for at night she dreams she is a star (Anya Taylor-Joy playing her alter ego), popular and adored. The problems for Ellie start when those dreams start flowing over into reality. It’s a creative psychological horror-light. The transitions between one world flowing over into the other kept me engrossed. The way actors fill in the shoes of the same characters, slipping in and out of them, was well shot, edited and well acted, and no surprise that this was directed by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver). In the second half the film starts misstepping in its stylish dance. Some of the story elements could have been scrapped, the 1960s theme is dropped, some twists don’t really make an impact and so the quality of the first hour is never recaptured. It’s still worth a watch.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021). This film is too unusual to simply dismiss as a run-of-the-mill superhero film. All the focus is on the connection between Eddie Brock and the symbiotic Venom, and the dialogue flirts with hints of homosexuality between them but the film is also too ridiculous to take any of that seriously, but sometimes uses it as a source of comedy. And in some scenes this works and in other scenes it is dumb. I applaud it for being different, I guess, but what this movie is, I am not sure about.

Ron’s Gone Wrong (2021). A run-of-the-mill animated film about a new robot toy for children and one awkward kid who makes a friend out of a faulty robot. It takes elements from Big Hero 6, it takes elements from The Mitchell’s vs The Machines, it has the typical bumbling young guy character from films like Onwards and Luca. It works, but only in the way that every fast-food chain can produce a good caramel sundae with the right ingredients.

The Last Duel (2021). Who is ready to be spirited away to the Middle Ages, and follow Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver in this star-studded historical epic by Ridley Scott? Apparently no one, because the film’s promotion failed. But this is a film well worth seeing. An amazing production, colder and less dreamy than The Green Knight, but dealing with darker themes. What makes this different from Scott’s Robin Hood is a three-act Rashomon structure where we see the same situation from three perspectives. And so we don’t focus on some grand battle but on a mystery, and through that on medieval culture and sense of honour. It is at times unflinching and realistic, brutal, but also very compelling to watch. Great acting, great script and final 20 minutes are powerful. One of the best films of the year, no doubt.

Don’t Look Up (2021). Fantastic satire about scientists trying to warn the world about a disaster, but the world is too stupid and greedy to listen. Awkward scientists vs politics and sensationalist news. At times hilarious, painful and infuriating. It has a thousand little jokes, some running gags and many great quotable lines. A stellar cast and fantastic guest performances. I loved it.

Encanto (2021). In Disney’s tour around the world, their newest animated film is set in Colombia, featuring a family with magical powers in a magical house. It didn’t enchant me. I thought the story was a bit bland. The story needed a lot of songs to explain, and none of them were catchy. The climax, the emotional catharsis of the story, felt empty.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021). The nostalgia is strong with this one, but it is quite an entertaining and watchable movie. It borrows and references everything that the original movies did with ghosts (did they really have to reuse everything?) instead of coming up with any new ideas, but this new cast does a good job and the story is kept simple and sweet.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts (2022). This is 1.5 hours of people telling Daniel Radcliffe that he can act, while he still can’t. Anyway, the documentary is good vibes. It makes an effort to separate art from the artist, to contextualise the films as something produced by an entire team of creators and separate from the controversial writer. So many great actors/tresses were part of this series that it is wonderful to see them all appear here.

The Platform (2019). A Spanish film, El Hoyo. Intriguing, high concept thriller/horror that is a mix of High-Rise, Snow Piercer and Cube. People are trapped inside a hole with a platform that moves down every day. On the upper level the platform is loaded with food. Each person on a level eats their fill and if you’re out of luck at the end of the month you might be transported to a lower lever where there will be little food left. And what is left is half-eaten leftovers. It might be the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for the struggle for resources. Disturbing, disgusting, but highly watchable. It’s full of impossible, tense situations that at the same time work wonderfully for its double meanings. Fascinating all the way through. Highly recommended. 

One Cut of the Dead (2017). This Japanese film starts with a director trying to make a zombie film. And that is all that I’m going to say about it. Others advised me not to do any research about this film at all and to watch it all the way to the final minutes and seconds, and I completely agree with this. This ended up a fantastic, funny, heartfelt film. Even if there are parts that may not impress you, keep going. Keep watching.

Cowboy Bebop – Season 1. I have never seen the original anime series, and maybe that is what saves me here because everyone who was a fan of the anime seems to consider this adaptation a radioactive turd, but I am loving it! Yes! I love the world-building, the interplanetary road trips full of cheap diners, sleazy drink holes, strip clubs, all floating along on a jazzy soundtrack. I love the infusion of casual science fiction candy into all those recognisable film noir elements, like chocolate with coffee. Scenes are all well-structured, visually well-composed, dialogue is snappy, storytelling is comedic and fast-paced. The bounty hunters and their ship reminded me of Firefly, as did the comedy. I really don’t understand the low ratings, unless this adaption butchered some of the anime storylines, but I wouldn’t know about that. I am sad it got discontinued. 

The Witcher – Season 2. This suddenly became a totally different show. It’s still a good one – and for many reasons a better one than the first season – but different. With the dropping of the short-story format and the plunge into that of a lengthier epic, we’re asked to take this world and its lore a lot more seriously. And that is something I find hard to do with this series. Basically, any time Henry Cavill and Freya Allan are not on screen, it is terribly boring. The Witcher and Ciri are great, but the rest of them…. meh.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky – Shards of Earth (2021) Review

8/10

Tchaikovsky goes in big in his prologue as he talks about a moon-sized eldritch space horror, an Architect, emerging from unspace, and giant fleets in which more than one alien race is present, and a main character named Solace, who is part of a genetically designed soldier sect called the Parthenon, who with her Myrmidon sisters watches as the giant space horror is beaten back. Looking at the connotations that all of these names evoke, Tchaikovsky clearly wanted to give everything a larger-than-life quality. Planet-sized horrors and tragedies and militaristic, Spartan warrior amazons, in spaaaace.

Skip fifty years, and we find Solace and others as part of a motley crew aboard a shabby salvage ship and the rest of the novel follows their adventure as they make a shocking discovery about the Architects and are then hassled by gangsters, foreign agents and a fantastic alien antagonist. I always like reading these found-family situations on rusty ships and it didn’t take me long to develop a fondness for this lot. Now, I haven’t read many of Tchaikovsky’s novels, but in comparison with Children of Time (2015), I’d say that he has greatly improved in writing human characters. In that earlier book, the human characters stood out as a weakness of the book as a whole, but not so in Shards of Earth.

It is best not to expect deep explorations of themes in this novel. All focus is on plot and universe-building, and offers little food for thought about the deeper mysteries of human existence. Looking at the tropes, much of this book offers very similar things to what other series and properties have offered, like the Mass Effect games (from what I’ve heard), Farscape, and even some of Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space and James SA Corey’s Expanse series can be found in here. Combine the crew of the Rocinante (Expanse) with the inhibitor threat (Revelation Space), and put it in a baroque and bombastic space opera setting, bada-bing bada-boom. But this could also be a positive point for you, if you like these series. Shards of Earth offers very similar things, but has the energy and imagination to stand on its own feet. 

Getting our first glimpse of this universe was great fun and I would love to learn more about all the alien species and the political dances between them. What ultimately makes this book stand out from all the other generic space opera series is the inclusion of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror dimension, unspace, that doubles as the hyperspace faster-than-light insert, and it is interesting to see how the other alien races deal with this as well, as a shared galactic problem for every civilization to find an answer to. This ties into a theme of shared identity that pops up a lot in the story. Almost every race has this shared problem, but as soon as the problem fades into the distance, you see the political splintering and fighting over influence and power. The cosmic horror is the great “other” and symbol of death, and when that loses power, the “other” gets shifted to other objects.

The crew of the Vulture God is a counterpoint to this and a microcosm of that diverse galactic situation. And some characters, like Idris, are still alone in all of this, and his loneliness is then tied back into the cosmic horror element. Idris is the locus where the personal and the galactic fold into each other, but instead of a Luke Skywalker he is the most vulnerable person of all.

And it is all so well executed. The alien races are fascinating. The pacing of action, emotional reflections and background exposition is terrific. All three are maintained in balance while the plot thickens at a brisk pace, making this novel very smooth and easy to follow. Looking at how many novels and novellas Tchaikovsky produces per year and thus how little time he takes for rewriting, he must have developed a fine instinct for these matters. As a result, the universe that Tchaikovsky creates here is not felt as “too complex” or “difficult”, but as rich, colourful and intriguing. It’s an adventurous romp through the galaxy with many strange aliens, many inhabited planets and offshoots of humanity. And even with a bad cold, a headache and sleep deprivation I found it easy to keep track of. 

This was very satisfying space opera and I’m looking forward to the next entry in the series.

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Robert Sheckley – Dimension of Miracles (1968) Review

8/10

Every article that I can find online about this book starts with one of the following questions: “how similar is Dimension of Miracles to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”, and “was Adams inspired by Dimension of Miracles to write his series?” This by itself should give you a pretty good idea already about what kind of book this is. For the record, Adams hadn’t read Sheckley’s book, but he agreed that the similarities were eerie, but a coincidence. But Sheckley was there ten years before Adams.

On the face of it, this is a silly story about a Mr. Carmody, a regular office clerk, who is informed one day by an alien that he is the winner of the Intergalactic Sweepstakes and he is whisked off to the Galactic Centre to receive his prize. What that Prize is, isn’t clear, but it talks. The rest of the book chronicles his efforts to return to planet Earth. On the way, he encounters parallel worlds, incompetent bureaucrats, a guy who designs planets and lots and lots of the absurd and the unexpected. 

Now I am the first to say that stories like these do not always make for good writing or entertaining books. I thought that Adams’s final Hitchhiker book, Mostly Harmless (1992) was depressing and its main character Arthur tedious and boring. And the recent Adams knockoff Space Opera (2018) by Catherynne M. Valente was simply overdoing it – it was exhausting and lacked story. But Sheckley’s version, yes, it works. Written a decade before Adams, Sheckley is working from his own inspiration and, unlike Adams and Valente, is not trying to recapture the magic of an earlier book. And Sheckley has his own style, his own authorial voice.

‘It’s a heavy responsibility,’ the Messenger said.

‘It certainly is,’ the Clerk agreed. ‘What do you say we kill him and forget the whole thing?’

‘Hey!’ Carmody cried.

‘It’s OK with me,’ the Messenger said.

‘If it’s OK with you fellows,’ the Computer said, ‘then it’s OK with me.’

Carmody made several vehement statements to the effect that he did not want to die and ought not to be killed. He appealed to their better instincts and sense of fair play. These remarks were judged tendentious and were struck from the record.

What stood out to me was that Sheckley, although he stuffed the book full of the absurd, is very philosophical about it. He invents the wildest motivations for all the strange characters in the story. Mr Carmody may have to deal with a faulty computer, but the computer might have a religion for which it piously commits errors in celebration of life and free will. Mr Carmody might solicit the help of a local God, but has to argue with the sulking God that its natural Indwellingness makes it unhappy and should therefore applaud the arrival of Carmody as an external reality. In what is probably a homage to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965), we meet inventors of basic laws of nature – including some laws that Sheckley comes up with himself.

The plot – for lack of a better word – is mostly just a series of set-pieces as Mr Carmody is sent from one place to the next. My impression is that Sheckley is foremost a short-story writer and this novel is a string of short stories stitched together. This approach can get stale fairly quickly but the book is quite short and a quick read. Its best qualities therefore do not lie in character or plot development, but in individual scenes and how they play out – in witty dialogues, wordplay, sudden unexpected circumstances and clever concepts.

I liked it, but it is not as good as the first few Hitchhiker novels. Maybe there’s a point to be made about British vs American comedy, because Sheckley’s wacky characters don’t have that dry quality or social awkwardness, but that’s all a matter of taste. I admired Sheckley’s cleverness and want to explore more of this author’s work.

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Andrzej Sapkowski – The Last Wish (1993) Review

Translated by Danusia Stok, 2007

7/10

When Andrzej Sapkowski penned his first Witcher stories in Polish in the early 1990s, I doubt that he foresaw that 30 years later, the series would be an internationally known phenomenon with computer games, comics and TV shows. And frankly, I don’t really understand that either. Why did it get so many adaptations? Why, of all series out there, did this one get lucky? Apparently the books were a huge hit in Poland in the 1990s, and it was the Poles who first made a computer game out of it, and I think it is the games that eventually propelled the series towards international success. That is not to say that the books are bad… Let’s start at the beginning, with the first short stories.

The Last Wish (1993) is a short story collection and a natural point of entry for the Witcher books. It reads a bit like a sword-and-sorcery collection of the likes that Fritz Leiber or Robert E. Howard would write, something along the line of Solomon Kane, but the Witcher series has a much more fairytale-esque atmosphere with the kind of monsters that you would find in a Brothers Grimm collection and with a Central/Eastern European flavour added to that. So, besides dwarves and dragons and vampires (vampires themselves being of south-eastern European folklore), we also get strigas and rusalkas and other Slavic folksy creatures. It also has wizards, princesses, potions, curses and all that classical Disney and Shrek stuff. Some of the stories are deliberate deconstructions of known fairy tales like Snow White and Beauty and the Beast. Sapkowski successfully combines those old classical elements with a more modern approach of short story writing.

The Witcher himself, Geralt of Rivia, is presented as the dangerous, mysterious stranger. Like a nameless gunslinger in a Western, entering small towns to solve a problem. The whole mood of the stories is very much like what you would find in an American Western, but set in a fairytale environment. You know, a town is besieged by bandits and local sheriff can’t handle it, but throw the lone gunman a coin and he will reject the coin but still drive the bandits out and save the local sweetheart. But instead of a sheriff we have an alderman and the bandits are werewolves or vampires.

Geralt is quiet and competent. Ruthless. A bit of a power fantasy for men, really, and therefore no wonder that he sleeps with a lot of women in these stories. Sapkowski did not set out to make this a deep character study. Geralt can be a bit of mystery, especially at first when we simply don’t know much about him nor about the ways of the Witcher. Each story adds a bit of lore for us to build up a picture of the man while we work our way through the collection. As such it is a series of short stories that keeps adding stuff, and the dramatic tension of not knowing who he is or what the wider world is all about makes this an interesting read. Although, the nations, races, languages all feel invented on the spot as throwaway articles.

There are some problems on a sentence-level and I can’t make out whether the fault lies with Sapkowski or with the translation. Sentences don’t flow well, some word choices feel off and the dialogues feel unnatural. Sapkowski uses dialogue for a lot of exposition, and that’s all right, but characters make sudden leaps between topics, or connecting sentences are missing between paragraphs, which gives me the impression that something got lost in translation. The same goes for confusing efforts at sarcasm by the characters. It was not so bad that it made me quit reading the book, but something was noticeably off. 

All in all, the Witcher stories present an interesting fusion of styles and genres that appealed to me. I think the short story format works very well for this character and for the range of fairy tales it explores. It was fine, but I was not all that impressed with the writing and the world didn’t pull me in with a promise of greater things to come, so I am not rushing to buy any of the sequels.

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Review: The Metabarons, by Jodorowsky & Gimenez

After reading this book, I am now a paleo-meta-warrior with the techno-techno to fly space-whales.

If you are familiar with Jodorowsky and Moebius’s The Incal, then you know that among all the daft ideas in that crazy crazy comic, there was a side-character named the metabaron. We don’t know why he is a baron; we don’t know why he is meta. All we know is that he has a metacraft and lives in a metabunker, and he is the greatest warrior in the universe. This is the most Jodorowsky thing ever. He is in love with the nebulous concept of “the warrior”, and by adding adjectives like “meta” or “techno” or ”ultra”, he thinks he dials up the coolness to eleven, even if it is devoid of meaning. Let’s indulge him for now. 

The artwork won me over on the first page. Argentine artist Juan Gimenez has a style very reminiscent of that of Don Lawrence (famous for his Trigan Empire series and Storm science-fantasy series), one of meticulously painted panels, that kindled my love for comics and fantasy at a young age (a bit too young for Storm, perhaps). Seeing Gimenez’s work impressed and enchanted me as if I was back at my grandmother’s place, browsing old comic weeklies. The way he evokes scale and uses perspective easily rivals that of Moebius’s Incal drawings, and the same universe now looks even grander. His forte lies in painting space ships, technology and futuristic citadels. Some panels take a moment to figure out, only to discover some dynamic action going on, at the very moment of hitting. 

So, yeah, this is a full space opera in the heavyweight category, full of space ships, planets, galactic empire, odd cultures and costumes (but I suspect Jodorowsky has no idea what science fiction is and how technology even works). If you’ve read The Incal and are looking for a wider exploration of that galaxy and a sense of awe and wonder, this book is what you need. Gimenez’s heavy depiction of technology makes it a slightly scary and otherworldly militaristic place that feels similar to Frank Herbert’s Dune. Especially the film versions of that story. It is also very masculine, full of self-styled warrior characters and exaggerated notions of pride and manliness, to the point that it becomes all a bit emotionally unhealthy. 

It did not take me long to realise two things: one, a lot of this is inspired by Dune, probably as a result of Jodorowsky’s earlier attempt to make a Dune movie. And two, all the characters in this book are mentally insane. In the second chapter there is a baron who threatens to murder his own baby, then exiles the baby and mother to the wilderness for 7 years, where the mother trains the boy into an emotionless warrior for all that time, with some incest themes added, and after those 7 years they return and the mother and the baron (“those two extraordinary beings!”) still love each other, but if the boy cannot complete a special fight and become a warrior, the baron will kill him and then commit suicide. 

And all I can think of is how Jodorowsky forced his own son into a brutal martial arts training regime for two years as preparation for his role of Paul Atreides in the Dune film that never came.

The story takes the shape of a family saga, following the metabarons for a couple of generations, and each generation is crazier than the last. No wonder, with the kind of parenting they get. In the first quarter of the story, Jodorowsky lifts the story of Lady Jessica, Paul and the Bene Gesserit in its entirety from Dune, but gives it his own spin, which means that it is bloodier, more violent, more intense and with more whiffs of child abuse. And he reduces it to “we must kill the whore-priestesses”. There are still original ideas squeezed into the larger borrowed framework, so I won’t call it a ripoff. There is also a scaffolding story of two robots who live in the present day time, where one of them narrates this entire family saga to the other, and the dialogue between them tries to be funny, but was mostly Jar-Jar Binks talk to me. 

My personal reader’s journey was one of making peace with the material, again and again. If it wasn’t for the spectacular painted panels that convey a true sense of grandeur, this story would have been hard going. Because I am dragged along by the drama and presentation, I can overlook some of the bad writing, but it is giving me second-hand embarrassment. This series reaches the point where the hyper-masculinity and pseudo-psy-power bullshit becomes so exaggerated that I cannot take the story seriously anymore, and indeed flips over into some machismo psychosis and I can’t even tell whether it is satirical. 

Yet, it is hard to dislike this book when every other page has magnificent paintings. It has the most beautiful space ships, strange alien creatures, exotic locales – every page a new wonder. Even though every other page also has some ridiculous story twist that may involve mass suicide, casual extreme violence, decapitated babies or cringe-inducing robots. I’m not insulted by it; I’m trying to reconcile these two extremes of style and content. In any case, it is one hell of a ride, and you never know what is going to happen next and it never gets repetitive. Jodorowsky remains a fountain of imagination, but his notions of honour and love are completely nonsensical. 

Sadly, Gimenez died from COVID-19 in 2020. According to Jodorowsky, he was a true “master warrior”, whatever that means.

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Steven Erikson – Reaper’s Gale (2007) review

8.5/10

Reaper’s Gale (2007), sequel to both Midnight Tides (2005) and The Bonehunters (2006), has a bit of a frustrating structure, but sticks the landing. There, that’s my review. No, let’s dive into it. This entry in the series revolves around fated confrontations between powerful characters and empires that we all know has been coming since the middle of The Bonehunters. But Erikson lets this simmer for a long, long time. He has two hands full of new characters he is exited to introduce first! Divided into four “books”, each subsequent book delivers more excitement than the one before it, but some patience is needed to let Erikson set it all up and slowly work his way forward. It’s a “slow burn”. Many of its storylines feature steady dissolutions and rising crises, which all come to a head later in the novel. 

Coming from The Bonehunters and all that that promised for the future, starting Reaper’s Gale feels like a reset of tension that may be disappointing for some readers. Personally I had no real problems with all the new characters but my reading energy did drop over the course of the novel as the confrontations never seemed to arrive.

The best storylines all involved the characters we already know from previous books, and their stories are what I am here for. Sadly, of the newly introduced characters, not many stood out as memorable. There was nothing much wrong with the new additions, but the new Edurs were interchangeable and the new Letherii felt like the standard evil twisted men that you find in dozens of other fantasy novels. The book suffered a bit from an overload of these characters, which expanded the page count between the more thrilling moments and so dampened the overall excitement. On the positive side, of the new faces Yan Tovis adds an interesting dimension about identity, Beak stirs feelings of brotherly protection and Redmask has a stirring rise to power.

And after 500 pages of setting up all these new characters, Erikson mostly drops them to focus on the arrival of the Malazans. Reaper’s Gale reinvents the city of Letheras with its internal power struggles to set the scene for the Malazans, and their impact on this continent is the great question to explore and is the greatest source of excitement in the novel. Only at the end does Erikson pick up all those dropped ends to tie everything together into a satisfyingly complicated ball. He also ties in plotlines from earlier in the series that many readers (including myself) might not have guessed play into them. The series as a whole has a unique structure that still throws me for a loop and brings huge satisfaction when things come together. 

One of the pleasures of Reaper’s Gale is seeing destiny unfold for so many characters. Midnight Tides did set up so many side characters too, like Feather Witch, Hannan Mosag, Silchas Ruin, the Errant, Fear Sengar, Ublala Pung and many others, and only in this book do their roles in the grand tapestry come to full fruition. The book is really an essential continuation of Midnight Tides in that regard. And we have a side plot that echoes the American expansion to the West and its clashes with Native American tribes. This too is an expansion of the social commentary that could be found in Midnight Tides. At other times, Erikson channels some very obvious inspiration from military fiction. Some chapters feel like they come straight from World War I or Vietnam war novels. I can readily picture the Malazan marines trudging through French farmland. 

Reaper’s Gale addresses a couple of interesting themes. One of the character groups looks suspiciously like an actual fantasy quest group. If you’ve made it this far into the series then you know that Erikson loves to acknowledge, examine and subvert well-worn fantasy tropes, so rest assured that this quest will make for an interesting journey. Is there actual value in plain dumb masculine heroism? In some ways, maybe yes. This group, whose names would spoil Midnight Tides, is one of the great reasons I was excited to start this novel, because each member in that group is unique with a fascinating past and outlook on life. Their interactions are great fun to read, and one of them is an unstoppable badass striding unchallenged through the first parts of this novel. He also may be the first one to make us think twice about the plight of the Crippled God.

The Tiste Edur, meanwhile, have fully conquered the Letherii, but do not understand their capitalist social system, and as a result they are being assimilated into it, like flies trapped in amber. Or, as Erikson may suggest, like ghosts trapped in delicious dragon blood. The book extends the commentary on capitalism and colonialism that is found in Midnight Tides, but gives it here a much darker twist into dystopia and oppression. We are not in Ankh-Morpork anymore. The new Letherii characters introduced here are all horribly ruthless, but there is meaning in that the Letherii culture comes to life again in a new way, even after their submission to the Edur. What is power? Is one of the questions this book asks, and power is more about ideas, paradigms, even trickery, than about physical force.

Another recurring theme fits with this very well, and that is that the world is complex, and there are a couple of small tyrants in this novel (Anict, Sirryn, Invictad) who want the world to be simple, and want to exert the violence to make it simple. But by doing so, they reap consequences of a more complex reality. And by extension, we the readers enter this novel with our desires and expectations. We have expectations for what we want Karsa and Icarium to do in this story, but do we then truly care about their happiness? Are we imposing our desires for a clear story of good and evil on their happiness?

Overall, while Reaper’s Gale has a lot of good character development for returning characters, like Rhulad, Seren Pedac and the Malazans, and one or two interesting new additions, it nevertheless felt like the bulk of the novel did not live up to what The Bonehunters promised, yet I was still fine with it. Reaper’s Gale has its own qualities, once you accept that its focus is just different from what you might have expected. It stands out in shorter emotional vignettes, and many of those vignettes were contained, temporary points of view. So, zooming in on individual chapters, there is some amazing writing in this novel, but looking at the entire book and the series so far, was this book truly the right place to dive into so many new characters? Every reader will react to that differently. I was mostly fine with it, but I understand those who are not. And I admit that the final 200 pages were such a rollercoaster of emotional gut punches that that retroactively lifted up all the storylines with power and meaning. Those final chapters are sublime and feature one of the best convergences of all the books so far.

<– preceded by The Bonehunters — followed by Toll the Hounds –>

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My TBR List For 2022

2021 is almost over. Looking ahead at 2022, here are the books that are at the top of my list to read in the year to come.

Finishing up series

I made a vow to finish a bunch of series before starting any new ones.

  • The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

Only three books left to read, but they are all big ones, topping out at over 1200 pages each. I read one every other month, so that will take me till June.

  • Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer

The fourth and final book of her Terra Ignota series. Also a big one – looks like twice the size of the third book. And I have forgotten most of it so a reread is in order of the third book. This might be the best book I am going to read the whole year.

  • The Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft

This one too a fourth and final book in a series. Also a big book, similar size of the third one. The plot is a lot more straightforward than Terra Ignota and easier to remember so I can jump right into it.

New Series to Start

  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

I’m not sure how I am going to squeeze this one in, but I want to see the show and I want to have read the first books before doing so. I bought a box with the first three books and I make no promises about reading the entire series. After Malazan I might not have the energy and from what I’ve heard about WoT, I doubt that I have the drive to read all of it. But I want a taster and see what the fuss is about.

  • Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A baroque space opera, from what I’ve heard. The guy writes so fast that the second book is coming out in May 2022, but let’s try the first one before that time. My experience with Tchaikovsky has been a bit hit or miss but this one sounds like my cup of tea.

  • The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski

I actually already read the first short story. The plan for now is to read the first collection of short stories. Maybe the second. I make no plans for the rest.

  • Neuromancer by William Gibson

From my list of shame. If I like the first book, I’ll try the rest and his short story collection. I love cyberpunk, why have I ignored this book for 15 years?

And the backlog list of random assorted stuff and standalones

  • Philip K Dick’s Dr Bloodmoney and Our Friends from Frolix 8
  • Ursula K Le Guin’s Worlds of Exile and Illusion
  • Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84
  • Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Andreas Eschbach’s The Hair Carpet Weavers
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Review: Before the Incal, by Jodorowsky & Janjetov

8.5/10

Before the Incal (1988-’95) is a prequel to Jodorowsky & Moebius’s famous and stunning graphic novel The Incal, and as always the case with prequels, they are made with the expectation that you already know what happened in the earlier published material. That is the fun of prequels. So don’t jump into your Incal adventure here; save this one for later. But it CAN be read as an entry point if you want to.

This graphic novel explores the life of John DiFool, and the events that lead up to the galaxy-spanning crisis in the Incal. For those who wanted some more exploration of character in the Incal and for those who thought that John was an annoying crybaby, this prequel will be very satisfying and will provide some extra depth to the story. Where The Incal is a mad, even slapdash, rollercoaster of constant escalation of scope and stakes, Before the Incal stays put in the vertical city where the story started and takes its time to fully explore that setting, and follows DiFool’s eventful life as he rises to the level of a lowly R-rated crappy detective. We learn some explanations for his behaviour later on too. 

Let’s say something about the drawings. By this time, Jean Giraud (Moebius) chose to be unavailable for a continuation of Incal comics and moved on to other projects. Jodorowsky was hence forced to look for other graphic artists for his vision and he chose the Serbian artist Zoran Janjetov. Janjetov had been a lifelong fan of Moebius and when he sent his drawings to Jodorowsky, him and the Heavy Metal editors thought that the style looked liked Moebius from an earlier period, less polished perhaps than it later became. This made Jodorowsky decide that Janjetov’s style would be perfectly suited for a story set before the Incal, so that the chronology of the story would go hand in hand with changing artwork.

Janjetov’s linework looks very similar to that of Moebius, but it feels busier. At first he might have tried to copy Moebius but he quickly incorporated some of Moebius’s characteristics into his own, and the result looks natural and beautiful. Especially since this story is set in the shaft city, because he treats us with stunningly detailed vistas of futuristic city scapes. Moebius later came into the studio and taught Janjetov about effective use of colours and pronounced his work a meaningful homage to his own. It deserves to be admired on its own terms.

The story itself is… incredibly dark and dystopian. As we already know, the shaft city is a cyberpunk-biopunk hellhole. It’s literally a hole. An arrogant aristocratic class lives in the upper levels, close to actual sunlight, and it all feels like the Indian caste system where the rich see the lower levels as “untouchables”, nothing more than animals. It is also a merciless satire on consumer culture that caters to our basest desires. This is a world where the president sometimes descends to the lower levels to spray around cocaine to keep everyone happy. Where people buy steaks that live and move for the pleasure of killing them on the plate before eating. And in the midst of all this, there are secret and forbidden religions of love, and orphanages for half-human half-animal hybrids. DiFool wades through all of this crap as a teenager to make a life for himself, and tries to find love in a world where love seems absent.

In some ways I like this even more than The Incal. It has more elements of what I consider interesting storytelling. It has a fuller exploration of setting and character, with a richness of locations and some interesting side characters. I liked seeing how John met his friend Deepo for the first time. The satire is very on the nose, but it is cranked up to such absurdity that it is exploring new territory in the overlap between comedy and tragedy. The ruthlessness and bio-punk craziness are intense and make an impact.

The book still has the weaknesses that every Jodorowsky story have; the man is an old, horny, new-age hippy who cannot write good dialogue to save his life. It’s bawdy but also full of sentimental ideas about true love, and John’s story is full of bland naiveté. The final chapters make a valiant effort to set everything up for the first chapters of The Incal so that there is a seamless continuation between the books, but the effort is so chunky and rushed that the transition is more like a rocky road. Too much is suddenly dragged into the story without explanation, that has nothing to do with what came before.

I would still wholeheartedly recommend this for enthusiasts of the original The Incal. It adds a lot to your overall picture of this world – amazing worldbuilding – and it is a great tale to read with some amazing settings and unusual, over-the-top storytelling.

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Neal Stephenson – Termination Shock (2021) review

8.5/10

A couple of decades into the future, weather events have become even more crazy and heatwaves affect everybody’s lives on a daily basis. Especially in the southern US, where we find ourselves. The Queen of the Netherlands is keeping a low profile as she flies with a small entourage to Houston, Texas, to meet a tech billionaire with an audacious plan to singlehandedly engage in some drastic geo-engineering. Because of extreme heat and an incoming hurricane, their little plane swerves to Waco and then crashes, and the Queen and her entourage is taken up by a local Comanche desperado with a Captain Ahab complex for killing the wild boars that are flooding the state. Not to mention the meth gators. 

As you see, there is a lot going on in this novel and you can count on Stephenson to give us ambitious stories with unusual and funny characters and wonky plot-lines. And yes, it has the unnecessary back-stories and it has the info-dumps, but those are features. I read Stephenson the way I read Bill Bryson: I enjoy his writing voice and interesting ideas (especially when his exposition is about Dutch culture and royalty. I can almost hear Stephenson think: “I need to research the shit out of this. And I need to make a list of Dutch names and expressions”). 

It is a reasonable question to ask how much of this story is about politics, because climate change is by its very nature completely interwoven with politics. Stevenson’s own political preferences are actually not so salient in the story because he is more interested in telling character journeys in a tongue-in-cheek way, while letting the setting of the book tell its own story about the social and natural consequences of extreme weather events. The weather is its own character in the book. As the characters move through that setting, we readers follow their personal confrontations with these events. And sometimes Stephenson makes them say things to indicate that our attitude to petrochemicals is changing. It is foremost a story that investigates a setting and not a political manifesto. 

Termination shock is a technical term that gets its meaning later in the book, but in the meantime we have future shock by all the flooding and extreme heat in the world, and culture shock by the Dutch queen as she makes her way through Texas (which I enjoyed a lot). The US doesn’t come out well in this future, but the story is not as darkly satirical as the first half of Fall, or Dodge in Hell (2019) (but a lot better than Fall’s second half). The story is a bit on the slow side and the characters don’t have any spectacular arcs to follow, because their objectives and desires are abstract and danger is far off, but the thematic material is interesting. Stephenson stands on far shakier ground when he starts extrapolating our current pandemic, and makes predictions about the near future that could be dated very quickly. 

Let’s get down to brass tacks. (I don’t even know what that means.) LET’S GET DOWN TO BRASS TACKS. This book is about an individual act of geo-engineering and the crazy, unexpected consequences. Stephenson doesn’t present this as a good – or even preferable – way to handle climate change, notwithstanding his predilection for putting tech tycoons in his novels. He simply follows the assumption that politics will fail royally to do something about it and that it is a matter of time until some entrepreneurs take matters into their own hands to serve the most desperate customers. It makes for a cool story, and Stephenson is able to root his story in economic and political considerations that make it feel grounded in reality. The unexpected consequences I mentioned above are also seen through that economic and political lens, making the novel blossom into a geopolitical techno-thriller in its final quarter. 

Compared to the rest of Stephenson’s bibliography, it is not his most exiting or energetic novel, but solid and interesting enough and well worth reading. The story ranges all over the world and embeds a lot of cultural depth, post-colonial histories, identities and geopolitical tensions and that is all very fitting for a story about a global phenomenon like climate change. The greatest difference with writers like Robinson is that Stephenson still mostly wants to be cool, and an entrepreneur with a crazy plan is cool, and putting martial arts in your book is cool. It is the basic nerd mindset that shapes the overall mood of the book. 

Termination Shock wisely refrains from picking sides, and is more interested in focusing on the revenge of geography for nations around the world. When your country is in danger of being flooded, or of heating up so much that it becomes unliveable, or when your breadbasket depends on a monsoon, that tends to shape your concerns and motivations. And when the geo-engineering genie is out of the bottle, new political alliances and fault lines emerge. The book sure made me wonder what the next few decades are going to be like.

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