Thursday, June 28, 2007

REVIEW: Phantom by Terry Goodkind

What is there left to say about Terry Goodkind and The Sword of Truth saga that hasn't been said before? At times, he has been nothing less than brilliant. Wizard's First Rule and Stone of Tears are classics of epic fantasy. They were fresh, they were original, and they were challenging. The 'Seeker of Truth' . . . the 'Mother Confessor . . . the 'Mord-Sith' . . . daring, creative, fascinating concepts, with believable characters behind them. The philosophical moralizing was heavy-handed at times, yes, but still a welcome change from the typically 'spiritual' distinction between good and evil.

After that, the series began slipping downhill. Goodkind admitted that he was more interested in exploring his philosophies than in following the plotting of an epic fantasy - and boy did it show. Action gave way to talk, and talk gave way to . . . well, more talk. What was once original became boringly repetitive.

Ironically, it was a book that hardly featured Richard or Kahlan at all that recaptured my interest. Pillars of Creation was not what I expected after 6 volumes, and I couldn't have been more pleased. There was still more talk than action, but Lauren breathed new life into a stale series. Too bad Naked Empire couldn't sustain it.

That brings us to Chainfire. I generally loathe it when characters are stripped of their powers/identities, just to create tension and restart a sagging plot. It rarely works for me, and this was no different. Richard and Kahlan are great people, but it's hard to get excited when there's no seeking of truth and no explosive confessions. Not only that, but the plot felt . . . recycled. After all, we'd already dealt with the Boxes of Orden in the first 2 books of the series.

The only reason I picked up Phantom is because I'm curious to see how Goodkind plans to wrap everything up in this, the 2nd volume of the 'final' trilogy. Things don't start out well. Over 200 pages of talking, of saying the same thing over and over again, of bashing us upside the head with the obvious. I was about ready to give up when, suddenly, we rediscover the lost art of the plot.

Not to spoil anything for those who haven't read it, but there are some really interesting developments in this book. After building up the armies of the Order to the point where they truly are unstoppable, Goodkind deftly sidesteps the issue of confronting them with Richard's shocking advice to the D'Haran troops - and it absolutely works for the reader. We get a confrontation between Jagang and the Sisters of the Dark that beautifully resolves so many nagging questions, and sets the stage for a new conflict. Richard learns a lot more about himself and his role in the grand scheme of things, and all the myriad plot pieces finally begin coming together.

The ending is a shocker, and something I never expected to see. For the first time in a long time I am looking forward to the next book of the series. If Goodkind delivers on even half of what he seems to be promising, it will be well worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

REVIEW: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson


Everything that Gardens of the Moon promised, this book delivers. Stronger and more focussed than the first volume, Deadhouse Gates adds a few 'quest' threads to the militaristic fantasy tapestry, taking us into a part of the world that is even more sordid and violent than anything we've enountered before.

The epic quest of Felisin, Baudin, Hedoric, and Kulp drags us into physical, moral, and philosophical depths that are as uncomfortable for the reader as they are for the characters. It's not often that a storyline so deftly involves you with its characters than you become infected by the same sense of utter hopelessness. It's also been a long time since I was as thoroughly engaged by a setting as I was with the haunted ship Silanda, manned by the headless undead, adrift in a magical warren, and under siege by an insane wizard.

Meanwhile, there's the quest of Crokus, Apsalar, and Fiddler. While not as dark or as hopeless as that of the others, it's still presents the reader with an intense journey through some of the strangest, oddest, most alienating points of interest in the series so far. Iskaral Pust, his cliff-side temple, and its demonic little winged monkeys offer some much-needed lighter (albeit twisted) moments, although their significance to the story is key.

Finally, we come to the story of Duiker (the soldier-historian), Coltraine (the barbarian-commander), and the Malaz 7th Army. We enter the story already on the edge of a revolution, and it doesn't take long for the worst to happen. Much of the story follows the flight of the 7th Army and the refugees under its protection through a harsh, hostile desert where every possible safe haven is taken away before they can get there. The battles are brutal and intense, and there is nothing chivalric or noble about them. This is realism - survival of the fittest, and the sacrifice of the few for the many. The penultimate battle, beneath a cloud of brightly coloured butterflies, has to be one of the most chilling, haunting experiences in fantasy literature.

Once again, if you're into epic fantasy and don't mind the moral shades of grey, dive in an experience Erikson's world.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

REVIEW: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

This a book that struck me in much the same fashion as Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World. I picked it up, starting reading it, and put it back down . . . several times.

In Jordan's case, I think it was the pacing that allowed my attention to drift. The characters were interesting, and the history/mythology definitely captured my interest, but I felt as if the story was always waiting in the wings. The appeal of Erikson's work was very similar, but something about the narrative structure kept putting me off. There just seemed to be a lack of depth in how and why things were happening.

Fortunately, in both cases, something eventually clicked. There was no 'ah-ha' moment, no turning point that I can pinpoint - just a span of pages that finally pulled me down into the epic maelstrom and refused to let me go.

For those unfamiliar with The Malazan Book of the Fallen (of which Gardens of the Moon is the first volume), this is a very militaristic fantasy saga. The focus is on the front lines, in the trenches, with the soldiers, renegade armies, and barbarian warriors. Scant attention is paid to royal intrigues, family crises, romantic sub-plots, and political machinations that pad the pages of so many of Erikson's contemporaries. With a dying empire, a surging rebellion, and a holy war brewing off-stage, there's simply no need.

Among the Bridgeburners at the forefront of the story are an ex-assassin, a damaged wizard, a fallen dark priest, and a young recruit possessed by a dark god. If you're looking for idealized, perfect, fairy tale heroes, this is not the book for you. As much as the reader might admire their motives, the moral ambiguity can be a little unsettling.

There is also a very strong magical/mythological element to the story, complete with ascendant gods, immortal races, and magical warrens. For me, that's where Erikson rises head and shoulders above authors such as Glen Cook, George Martin, and even David Gemmel. It's the supernatural elements that give the novel its depth, even if they are as down and dirty as the rogues and soliders that struggle against them. There's no sense of childish wonder and delight here.

Anyway, that brings me back to the Robert Jordan comparison. Once I made it through the first book of The Wheel of Time, I was hooked. It may have taken me a couple years of false starts to do so, but I read the rest of the series between the hardcover and paperback appearances of Knife of Dreams. It's looking like the same will be true for Erikson. I'm halfway through the second volume, Deadhouse Gates, and already wondering if I'll be able to wait for the paperback before reading volume five, Midnight Tides (which hit stores in hardcover last month).

If you're a fan of epic fantasy, have some patience for a different approach to the genre, and don't mind shades of moral grey (as opposed to absolute shades of white/black, good/evil), give Erikson a chance. He will surprise you.