Sunday, February 28, 2016

High Deryni (1973)

Well written but emotionally pointless, High Deryni (1973) completes Katherine Kurtz's original Chronicles of the Deryni. In this work, the country and the church is torn asunder by civil war over the issue of a half-Deryni upon the throne, and the half-Deryni who serves the throne. Meanwhile, a neighboring King, a trained Deryni sorcerer, seeks to subjugation of King Kelson's realm.

On paper, that looks pretty good. In practice, I just have no idea what sort of novel this was supposed to be, where it was supposed to go, or why it went the way that it went. Despite plotting along in a coherent manner, the work never found its narrative, never quite decided which story it was telling and why. The novel itself details events, including all the inconsequential things that can be skimmed over, while skimming over the events that seem consequential. As a result, skimming over the novel produces a satisfactory gloss of events.

If you felt distant about the previous novels in this series, this one won't redeem itself. If you enjoy what and how Ms. Kurtz writes, I think that you will find this the best of the series. Don't let my dissatisfaction stop you from your own enjoyment.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Deryni Checkmate (1972)

Released in 1972, Deryni Checkmate continues the original Deryni trilogy of Katherine Kurtz. The Deryni are a race of humans with magical powers who once ruled the Eleven Kingdoms, but are now feared and reviled, their magic called evil by the church.

In this book, Bishop Loris decides that the Deryni Duke Morgan must be held accountable for his Deryni magic, so he threatens all of King Kelson's kingdom with interdiction (the refusal of sacramental services) until the King turns out his Duke.

In this second novel of her career, Katherine writes clean prose, clear characters, and comprehensible scenes.

Sadly, all the good traits of this novel are overwhelmed by its anemic plot and unfathomable characters. Chief of these unfathomable character is Bishop Loris, who insists on prosecuting Morgan for his sins, never mind the civil war he's about to instigate or the church crisis that he triggers. These never bother him. Despite his clearly well-developed intelligence, he pushes the kingdoms towards doom for the weakest of pretexts, ignoring all his peers, and ignoring all the rules which he so richly upholds.

Humans purportedly fear Deryni because "they are different." I think that's odd, because humans are right to fear anyone who can attack your mind, change your memories, wield vast deadly power, read minds, defeat all locks, talk mind-to-mind across vast distances, sense your presence remotely, and alter your emotions. The powers that the Deryni display in the book are truly intimidating, if not disturbing in their implications.

I counted five main plots in the books, most of which don't amount to much. In following so many threads, I felt like no thread got the time that it deserved. Some of the plot lines felt like filler.

As I read, I found myself profoundly bored. In the end, I wound up skimming my way through the book. I don't feel that I lost any plot nuances.

If you like many descriptions, you're predisposed to like the work. Kurtz loves describing everything. If you don't like descriptions, the book feels extremely padded.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Deryni Rising (1970)

According to the author, Deryni Rising (1970) represents the first modern fantasy novel. In that year, her books established the genre. How well has it held up over the years? Pretty well, in my opinion, but not perfectly. Much of the reason for its solidity is that she avoided the excesses of her time, basing her text style on the other genre styles popular in their day.

In this story, King Bryan dies, leaving young Prince Kelson to ascend the throne. Secretly opposing him for the throne is a Deryni sorceress, who assassinated King Bryan, and plans to tear apart his legacy as she seizes the throne.

For a first novel, the book holds together pretty well, although its plot's as thin as a made-for-TV movie. That comparison is not without merit. Not only could I follow the visual cuts, the chapters fell where the commercial breaks should go, complete with strong act-outs and mid-chapter twists. However, I found the constant one-sidedness hammering on the protagonists a bit much by halfway through. While I can believe that smart people can be fooled with misdirection, when this happens every few chapters, with people attempting to arrest and execute the most trusted servant of the prince, the whole setup stretched beyond credulity.

The prose is clear and serviceable, rarely leaving the reader to doubt who is thinking what at any particular time. Every character has a clear motivation. The plot moves along, rarely bogging down. There's a few info dumps, but they don't rise to any measurable inconvenience.

I can happily recommend the book, even now. I can't think of another setting quite like this one. It's like a mini Game of Thrones three decades before Game of Thrones was written, just a whole lot less murderous and far more family friendly.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

Few series in the fantasy canon are as divisive as the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. This was true in the late 70's when it was published, with the dividing line being that boys like the series while the girls reviled it, and true today, where many men join many women in reviling. What is it about this series that polarizes the readership so much?

This series is not escapist fantasy. If you want to be someone else for a while, Thomas Covenant isn't him. Although the Land has many attractive elements to it, to live there during the depicted time ought to rank very low on your to-do list.

The war depicted in these books is not the great and noble battles of old, but the war of post-Vietnam America, where body counts were the totals of the day, and incendiary bombs rained upon villages. Our hero is a leper whose hands no longer feel, his disease rotting him from the inside, much like the world around him rotted from the inside. There is no heroism in war. There is no sanctity in peace.

To escape the fundamental allegory is to escape the fundamental exploration of our modern unheroicism. Without the allegory, the novel has no meaning, delivering you only ambivalence and the gritty taste of ashes in your mouth. Only with the allegory does the series delivery any reward at all, but that sort of reward takes thinking from the reader, one who all too  likely has become exhausted in the reading of the work.

Yet there is a slice of the reading population jaded by heroes that never face consequences, where morals are won at the point of a sword, where kings rule by right, and the divides between good and evil are wide and verdant. For those readers, the very aspects which drive many readers away bring these readers in. To this day, I can't think of a fantasy series so relentless in its deconstruction of the cult of heroism, so willing to deliver the bad news that war is hell and heroes are just people who believe in their world's illusions more than anyone else.

Thomas Covenant is the unbeliever. He doesn't believe in the land, what is stands for, or the health it offers to him, because when he returns to the real world, that belief will destroy him. Illusions will destroy him. False belief will destroy him. Heroism grants him nothing. The only thing that keeps him alive is the non-self-serving belief that leprosy is permanent and nothing will cure it, much as the sins of mankind are permanent and nothing will destroy them, even if we life in a fantasy world with magic and wonders. Remember, we are as lepers, rotting from the inside.

Having warned of you what's here, I can neither recommend nor pan this series. It's up to you to know what you want from your fiction. There are no correct answers here. If you aren't up for the experience, then move on. You know your heart.

The Power that Preserves (1977)

The Power that Preserves (1977) concludes the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. If you'e made it this far, you surely know what you expecting, giving you a grimly grim experience of grimdon. If you've enjoyed the series so far, you'll get more of what you expected, but even more so. If you don't like Thomas Covenant, then I can't fathom why you're even bothering. And if you're on the fence, this book will most likely knock you off the fence, onto your back, and kick you in the belly, just for good measure. This book doesn't believe in wishy-washiness.

After a week back in the real world, Thomas Covenant returns to the Land. Lord Foul has the world in a grip of eternal winter, a magical polar vortex. His army marches towards Revelstone, well over 200,000 strong. In desperation, the Lords call on Covenant once more.

After that, it gets grim.

When I was sixteen, I thought this among the best fantasy novels that I'd ever read. I'm not sixteen any more, so I can admit that I was wrong. What seemed cool and complex then seems rather contrived now. I'm not going to knock Donaldson for trying, for seeking to make a more meaningful fantasy novel. In many ways, he succeeded, but to get there, you need to go through an emotionally hostile work. The emotional and philosophic grind tolls you far more than the conclusion uplifts you. If you expect the nature of the book to fill your abstract needs, then like a food with costs more calories than it gives, gorging yourself only leaves you feeling emptier.

When I was sixteen, I read every word. On this read through, I skimmed massively. Any editor could easily cut half the words from this story without altering either the mood or the world building. Like they say up north, for what it is, there sure is a lot of it.