Well, I can’t really call something a regular feature, or even a semi-regular feature, if this is the first time I do it. So for now, let’s call this an experiment. I like experiments. Being experimented on, not so much. But my confidentiaity agreement keeps me from talking about that, at least not before they offically make contact with our race and settle in North Dakota. And until that happens and life as we know it (and maybe even as we don’t quite know it) transforms utterly, I plan on spending every Saturday talking about what I’ve read, maybe what I’ve watched, and definitely about what’s next on my radar.
Finished: Steven Erikson: The Bonehunters (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Volume 6)
I started this series with Gardens of the Moon back in January of last year, and up until now, have been keeping a slow pace through it, even taking breaks between the ‘books’ that make up each volume. Not only do I not want to finally turn the last page and step away from this world, the series is amazingly complex (sometimes a little too much, but only rarely). The first book, in fact, is probably the most confusing introduction to a fantasy world, since Steven Erikson doesn’t believe in easing his reader in. From the start, you’re in the middle of a war of imperial expansion, with one campaign wrapping up before you even really know what’s going on, and then another one starting somewhere else. The magic system is nothing like anything else fantasy readers are familiar with. Amidst the talk of Ascendants, Decks of Dragons, and Warrens, the characters just go on talking like they know what’s going on and aren’t really concerned if someone listening in, like the reader, doesn’t quite follow. In retrospect, it lends the book a hint of verisimilitude; in real life, you don’t tell your friend “I’m going to drive north to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, which is a state in the Mid-Atlantic region. Yes, I’ll drive my car, that motorised gas-burning vehicle that gets me around.” Likewise, fantasy and science fiction often threatens to lose me if there are long passages of exposition. If they’re discussing something that at least one of the characters doesn’t know, fine. But not when it is, or should be, common knowledge.
Another bright side of the series is that the cultures are different and unique, unlike just about every other fantasy series I’ve read, and there are many different divisions. There aren’t just elves and trolls and goblins. There are three different races that could be called ‘elvish’ and there are cultural divisions among them. Ditto the other races. And there is no ‘common’ language! Because the saga concerns, among other things, an expanding empire, the empire’s language is more common than others, but there are a lot of language and dialect differences that often affect the plot. As a teenager first exploring the world of languages, I often thought that was a weird feature of modern fantasy; there would be a human language, an Elven one, and maybe, just maybe, an “Old Tongue” that was spoken in a bygone era yet has no relation whatsoever to the languages that are currently on everyone’s lips. Some of the credit is due to Steven Erikson being an anthropologist, but he also just happens to be a talented and thoughtful writer.
Alright, on to The Bonehunters. I’ve heard many former readers of this series talk about how the first five books (which are more or less self-contained, though there are threads that run through them) are the best, but if the series really is going downhill, I don’t see it from this book. I’ve described the way Mr Erikson writes about the military and campaigns (especially in the second book) as being so well executed as to give me mild flashbacks; but nothing in the Malazan books I’d read before prepared me for the battle that takes place about a third of the way in. At turns frightening, thrilling, and heartbreaking, it might be one of the best descriptions of any kind of fighting I’ve ever read. (Well, up alongside Bernard Cornwell.) I had to take a week-long break afterwards just to process everything, and when I got back into it, I was expecting that nothing else could quite hold up to the intensity of that chapter. I was mostly wrong. Strictly as an individual novel, I think it might be ‘tied’ with Midnight Tides, the fifth book, but as a continuation of the series, it’s a very worthwhile installment. I don’t recommend starting with this book (though I can almost recommend starting with book 2, utilizing the TOR Read-along, and then picking up the first a little later… almost…) but I can definitely recommend the series. I’m already looking forward to the next one… more on that in the next section.
The Völsung Saga — I already talked about this one a little bit, but I can never recommend or review the old epics too much, and this is one of the best that I’ve read. If you’re familiar with the story of the Ring of the Niebelungs (which is unfortunately not much like the awesome “What’s Opera, Doc?” though really, it should be) you know the basics of the Völsung Saga, though there are enough differences between them to make this a novel read for me. I still stand by my assessment that reading the old epics is like peeking under the hood or reading the source code of the program that makes up our modern world of fiction.
If you’ve never read an epic before, this is a great one to start with. (Yes, better than Beowulf, I think, and for a lot of reasons.) Get an annotated version, sit down with a mug of wine, bookmark the glossary, and go for it. Don’t read straight through like you would a 150-page story written in modern English. Keep in mind that these stories were meant to be told around the fire or after a banquet, and read them slowly. The language is descriptive but not often very dramatic, so fill that in on your own. Take breaks after every few chapters. Try to think about what the characters are doing when they’re not on the page, since a lot is indeed left to the imagination. And the next time you read a fantasy novel with barbarians or trolls or fighter-princes, you’ll know exactly where they came from.
Jim Harrison: The Land of Unlikeness (From The River Swimmer)
I plan on reading the second novella in this collection tonight or tomorrow but this first one was an amazing description of Michigan, which I still consider ‘my homeland’ even though I’ve now lived outside of Michigan much longer than I lived inside of it. (Aside: Yes, Jen, maybe I’ll fix that someday soon.) I’ll review the entire book when I’m finished, but, like all of his short novels, it is full of rich language, though not pedantic and arrogant, and the characterization of its protagonist is painfully relateable. Highly recommended.
I can always use suggestions and recommendations for my reading list. Next week should see me finishing The River Swimmer, and possibly reading another Malazan book, Return of the Crimson Guard; I almost always take breaks between volumes in a series, but this one was written by Steven Erikson’s collaborator and world co-creator, so it’s kind of like reading a different series. Next month, the excellent Sword and Laser podcast/ Goodreads group is reading a book I’d never heard of, Alif the Unseen, so I had to pick that up as well. If you’re not a member of their group, go check them out. Whenever I finally decide on a format for a podcast, it will probably be heavily influenced by them. They’re very good at what they do. It’s for that reason that I had no problem picking up a book they recommended without a second thought, and will probably keep doing that in the future.
So, that’s my week. What did you read this week, and what’s sitting next to your reading chair? What are you drinking alongside? And what does your favourite cat think about your reading habits?
Have a great weekend, everyone. L’shanah tovah!
Cross-posted on The Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon.