Book Review: Night Winds

Night Winds is the third Kane book by Karl Wagner that I’ve read. I already liked Death Angel’s Shadow and Bloodstone very much and so I had pretty high confidence that this one wouldn’t disappoint me either. Like Death Angel’s Shadow, Night Winds is a collection of several unconnected stories of various length. And as many others have already claimed before me, Kane seems to be at his best during these shorter tales when Wagner can get straight to the point. The more stories I read, the more I am surprised that only Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are widely regarded as the great giants of Sword & Sorcery, but I think Wagner can easily stand among them as an equal. The stories of Kane are a lot more gloomy and less exhilarating fun compared to Conan, but I think when judging them by their own strengths they really come out pretty even.

Just like Conan, Kane is always the centerpiece of his stories and the defining element of the series. The stories are not just with Kane, but always about Kane. And as a character he is extremely fascinating. Kane is possibly one of the most extreme cases of anti-hero with a heart so black and cruel that he would easily be a villain in any other stories but his own. And from what what other people tell about the things he is doing between the stories, being a full out villain is apparently his normal mode. Not only is he an evil man, Kane is also cursed to be immortal. He does not age and recovers from injury and sickness much faster than any normal human. But he can still be killed and he does feel pain like any living man and that’s the true punishment behind his curse. Because the one thing that Kane hates more than his eternal life is the very idea of seeking escape in death. He probably could kill himself or allow others to kill him with no problems, but his pride drives him to cling on to his tormented life with bare hands and teeth until his very last breath. With all the time in the world and a powerful body, he mastered the arts of fighting and sorcery ages ago and is quite probably the most dangerous person in the entire world. But in the world of Kane, sorcerers don’t cast spells and are much more like Lovecraftian ocultists, and even a warrior like himself can not fight a dozen men by himself. He spends his eternity by gathering armies of mercenaries and bandits to carve out small empires to rule, but eventually he is always either defeated by his enemies or simply gets bored with it and walks off into the wilderness with nothing but his sword and his clothes to sink into sorrow or find himself some new kind of diversion. It is during these times where almost all of the tales of Kane are taking place.

Undertow is the first story in the book and I think an excelent choice to start with. It was the first time I’ve read a Kane story last year and it’s a great introduction to the character. Somewhat unusually, Kane has only very few and short appearances in this story. Instead we mostly follow other people talking about Kane, who is currently the sorcerer king of the city. This works surprisingly well and does a great job at establishing Kane as a really mysterious and dangerous character, because they are all completely terrified of him. It worked for Sauron and it works for Kane.

In Two Suns Fading we have Kane just after he got fed up with his last empire and simply walking out into the desert, leaving all his advisors and generals to figure out what to do next by themselves. It probably will all fall into chaos and bloodshed, but Kane doesn’t care. In the desert, Kane encounters a lone giant who is on a quest to find the tomb of an ancient giant king, and with nothing better to do Kane decides to join him. It’s a relatively short story and not one of Wagner’s best, but still pretty entertaining.

In The Dark Muse, Kane has made himself an underworld boss in some desert city, where for some strange reasons he has become a good friend and generous patron to a famous poet. This seems rather uncharacteristic at first, but so what? It’s Kane! He’s lived almost forever and is a highly intelligent man who can be quite cultivated when he wants. Surely he has been doing much stranger things through the ages. The two come into possession of a strange sorcerous artifact that has the power to send a person into the realm of dreams, and also nightmares. Kane’s poet friend really wants to try it out in hope to finding inspiration for an incredible masterpiece, but when they begin things do turn very strangely and dangerous.

Raven’s Eyrie takes place in wintery forrested hills, where a badly wounded Kane and the few surviving members of his recently destroyed gang of bandits are running from a band of bounty hunters close behind them. And it is also the night of the Demonlord’s Moon, so they have little choice but to take refuge in a small and isolated inn that Kane had previously raided some eight years ago. The owner is one of the few survivors who didn’t get masacred by Kane’s men and senses an opportunity to get her revenge. This is one of these great stories where there aren’t really any heroes but instead you have just a group of terrible people doing horrible things to each other out of hate and greed. But Wagner manages to still make it a strory that is very enjoyable to read, as he generally doesn’t go overboard with the violence and gore. It’s a dark tale and a somewhat bleak tale, but it doesn’t revel in unnecessary suffering.

Lynortis Reprise is probably the creepiest Kane story I’ve read so far. The plot is very simple and there isn’t really much happening, but the real star of this story is the location where it takes place. Lynortis and the surrounding area are the remains of a battlefield where thirty years ago tens of thousands of soldiers had laid siege to a city for two years. It is overgrown with weeds and bushes and littered with broken siege engines and mountains of skeletons, and riddled with craters, trenches, and tunnels, and the ruined remains of what once were farms and mannors. It really reads like Wagner had just been working on a World War I horror story before writing this. Kane encounters a group of old mercenary companions who are looking for a treasure they believe to be hidden somewhere in the ruins of the city and Kane eagerly accepts the offer of joining them. There is probably more gold and jewels than they can carry and they also need to be quick as there are others hunting for the treasure as well. However, treasure hunters are not the only people in the area as there are still some survivors of the battle living in some of the ruins and there are also things in the tunnels below the ground that one character refers to as the half-men. That’s already an ominous name, but the meaning behind it is even more disturbing than one would probably expect. In many ways the story feels somewhat experimental and is presented different from the other stories in the book. Sometimes it works quite well, at other times not so much. But it’s still a very interesting read. The following is probably one of my favorite paragraphs I’ve read:

Spewing tentacles of incandescent death blossomed over the roadway. Where it stuck, men flamed into cinder. Searing fragments reached out like lethal fingers, burning all they touched. Men and horses shrieked in pain and terror, bolted over the outer wall in blind panic. Flaming bodies pitched over the edge, falling like stars into the darkness far below.

This story also surprised me by having a simple but really good twist that I totally did not see coming. And the way it is presented you have several opportunities to figure it out yourself instead of having a character step forward and saying it directly, which I think makes it hit a lot harder when the pieces suddenly come together in your head. Only when I caught it did I realized that I had already missed two previous hints that could have given it away. Putting this story close to the end of the book was another good choice in organization as you really have to be familiar with Kane to make it work. If this were the first or second Kane story you read, it would probabaly just be strange and look like poor plotting. But this way it was a great wow moment when I made the realization.

The last story is Sing a Last Song of Valdese, which again is relatively short compared to the others. It’s a nice little spook story about a group of seven travelers spending the night in a small inn in the middle of a wilderness haunted by bandits and ghosts. It’s really a pretty straightforward horror tale rather than an adventure story, but it fits the world of Kane. Nothing amazing and it probably could have been expanded into something much more refined, but I like the idea behind it.

Not surprisingly, I really like this book. It’s just as good as Death Angel’s Shadow and a step or two above Bloodstone. If you like Kane you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read any Kane stories but want to, this one is a very good pick to start with as well. I very much recommend it.

Review: 4 books I did not finish

For me thie last month was one of great disappointments. I played Dark Souls and watched the early seasons of X-Files, and both failed to live up to my expectations and had me quit at some point. I’ve also been trying to broaden my horizon in books instead of reading more Witcher or Robert Howard, which I already know I love. I ended up starting three different fantasy books and stopped reading all of them. For various different reasons, but also some that are very much the same. Since I have completed neither of them, I can’t do actual review of them. But I think that none of them are actually truly bad and each one has some great things about them. So what I’ll be doing is to give a short summary of each book, also including one I tried a few months back, and the reason I quit reading, as well as going into some more detail what they all have in common that had them fail in entertaining me. This is not “4 books I don’t like and the reasons why”, but instead “4 examples of novel openings that failed to capture my interest”.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

When I started trying to catch up with fantasy books that have come out or become popular in the last 10 years, the Malazan series was obviously one of the biggest names I’ve regularly came across. Normally I would never attempt to try a series of 10 doorstoppers, but praise for this one is so great that I thought I could at least read the first book and then decide if I want to do the whole thing. But it turns out, I could not. I don’t think I got very far with it either. The writing was nothing objectable and the scenes presented in a quite engaging way. This one was a while back, so I don’t remember very clearly, but I think I got introduced to four different characters. And at least within the limited amount of exposure they got in my reading, they were all totally bland and forgetable. Young nobleman, young female soldier, mysterious man on some special mission. And I think some kind of weird queen. And then I lost interest. I got introduced to several characters and to several locations and situations in which they find themselves. But I did not get any information on what role these people play in the story or their world and why or how these scenes are relevant to the plot. Usually I always try to go into a story pretty much blind. Vague praise of the qualities of a work get me interested and then I want to experience it myself without knowing where exactly the story will go. But since I was already at the point of giving up on the book, I tried looking up a brief and general outline of what the story is about. Then I asked people who love the series to try and explain to me what the story is about. And they couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand their replies or found them unhelpful for what I wanted to know. The fans themselves were not really sure what the actual story is. Aparently this behemoth of printed paper keeps on going about different people doing various things that don’t really follow any primary plot. I can appreciate abstract narratives and stories relying mostly on characterization. But I need a goal or purpose for the combined efforts of the characters. From what I can tell, this series doesn’t have that.

Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

I got this book recommended by several people at different occasions when I mentioned my search for recent Sword & Sorcery and fantasy adventure books. So I gave it a try. It starts with an infamous fight scene in which the heroes fight off an attack by pirates. Which makes up th entire first quarter of the whole book! Let’s say this is a quite “courageous” descision to start a book with, especially by a new writer. I actually read through the whole scene and got about a third through the book before putting it away. And I think the scene did not work out. Because even though it is very long, there is very little actually happening. There is a lot of fighting, but it doesn’t rally accomplish anything. It doesn’t feel like the enemies start to get fewer, or that the heroes are running out of strength and resources. No ships are sunk or new ones arrive, and throughout almost the entire battle, the situation is pretty much the same. At some point I was flipping quickly through pages to find the point where something new is happening and skip the repetitive stuff. But the majority of the lines are not actually fighting, but characters talking and thinking. Now, I am not a person of strong negative emotions. I don’t usually hate any things, and I don’t get angry about things. But reading this book… I think anguish could be an appropriate term to describe my experience. Most of the talking is a gang of loveable rogues doing witty banter. It rally is not the fault of the author, it really is just personal preference. But I fucking hate loveable rogues and witty banter! And this book is nonestop unrestrained witty banter. Or at least it tries. Every single word that comes out of the mouth of one of the heroes is a supposedly witty insult directed at each other. And after twenty, thirty pages of this, you really start to ask yourself why these people even form an adventuring party together? They all despise each other to no end and since they are all loathsome and terrible people, it seems quite implausible that they have not all killed each other in the first scene. It was an ordeal to read, I don’t want to see anything of it ever again. Yet, I don’t outright hate the book. It does has its qualities. Something many people commented on the book is that the author really has terrific skill at using language. His sentences are great and I enjoyed the style very much. If only he would have been telling a good story. Tome of the Undergate has pretty good ratings when you look around online, and I think this skill with words is probably a big reason for it. People I talked to about my unpleasant experience with the book told me that his pacing and plotting improved significantly in later books, and as muc as I despise this one, it really makes me interested in trying out something else by him in the future. I feel even inclined to compare him to one of the three giants of Sword & Sorcery. He reminds me a lot of Fritz Leiber. I love his writing, even though his stories are terrible. ^^

The Eagle Shoting Heroes by Jin Yong

As far as I am informed, this is one of the biggest and most famous Chinese fantasy books. And fantasy is a big deal in China, just as it is in America and Europe, though the markets mostly exist pretty much isolated from each other. Movies are easily redubbed and there is some exchange, especially in recent decades, but with books this is much less the case. The Eagle Shoting Heroes was written and released in the same period as The Lord of the Rings and a massive success, but somehow it never got published in English. Chinese fans made translations of it themselves, which I found to be of pretty good quality. It has been turned into movies and TV shows many times, some of which did get English releases as Legend of the Condor Heroes. Which does’t make any sense as it takes place in medieval China where there are no South American birds. For the first few chapters I really liked the story. It begins with a taoist priest coming to a village and having a clash with two villagers who turn out to be no ordinary farmers but secretly heirs of great warrior dynasties who had to flee their homeland. And of course, they have a big kung-fu fight. Taoism is one of the big Asian religions I know the least about. But in Chinese fantasy stories, traveling taoist priests are basically Jedi. And this novel is not pseudo-historic fiction. This is full out, balls to the walls fantasy loosely inspired by historic events. It’s total awesome. Because after the initial fight is over and everyone apologizes for the unfortunate understanding, a gang of ninja show up and the action gets even more outragous. Then an evil officer screws everything up, women are kidnapped, terrible revenge is sworn, crazy flights in the night. It’s glorious. This is one of the occasions where I can use my favorite word in the English language: “Preposterous”. I really loved it. Then in the second chapter the priest has a confrontation which a gang of seven famous kung-fu masters who would best be described as superheroes. Sadly, then the story skipped 18 years into the future to introduce one of the actual protagonists. There are more fight scenes that are quite entertaining, but the plot completely loses all steam. In fact, the plot of the previous chapters has been pretty much resolved. It only served to give us some backstory on who the boy is and how he got to be trained by kung-fu masters. And I felt left hanging, wondering what’s going to happen next. The first chapters are huge action spectacle with great pacing and stuff happening. And then it’s just a boy getting trained by his masters and some bits about the career of Djingis Khan. There’s no immediate goal or sense of direction. Just a series of scenes with no real indication what it might be a buildup to. Basically the same problem that made my give up on Gardens of the Moon. And it’s very clear that the book is about two heroes whose fates are tied together, and by the point where I stopped reading the second hero had not even been introduced yet. I have the strong suspicion that after the origin story of the first hero, we probably get the whole origin story of the other one before theh finally meet each other. And this is a really big novel. I had read quite a lot by that point, but it was still just a 10th of the book. And there are actually three more books after this one. Thanks, but no. If I can get it in smaller chunks of 50 to 100,000 words, I’d really love to read more wuxia stories. But these giant mammoth books just are not for me, especially when they don’t have a tight plot.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

When I saw how much people praise and hype this book, I assumed it was the latest breakout success enjoying its 15 minutes of fame. But turns out it’s actually already 10 years old. Now that’s something that catches my interest. I am both picky and lazy, so most books, movies, and videogames I give any attention to are things that have already become classics and proven themselves to have a quality that survives beyond the initial excitement. When people still sing praise about something that’s an old hat, that’s what catches my curiosity. And I think The Lies of Locke Lamora has become established as one such classic. This one will probably still be remembere in 10 or 20 years. And reading it, it is easy to see why. It really is very good. I like it. But it’s not really doing anything for me. It is the story of Locke Lamora, a charming young man who was born to be a thief. He is the leader of a group refered to as the Gentleman Bastards. Some people steal out of necessity, some do it professionally. But for Locke and his team, stealing is not simply a job, or even an art. It’s a religion. They all have been raised and trained by a priest of the trickster god, and stealing is their life. And for Locke in particular, it’s his instinctive nature. They don’t care much about money, as they could easily steal more than they could ever spend. They are in it for the challenge and so only the most elaborate con games are good enough for them. Which I admit is a pretty good and new concept for a fantasy book. However, as I mentioned above, I really am no fan of the loveable rogue archetype. Though I have to give it to the book, that none of the character struck me as annoying or unlikeable. But I still don’t care for them. There are certain elements and themes in fantasy stories that fascinate and interest me and that feed my personal cravings in entertainment. And even when written as excelently as here, these stories just don’t deliver in that regard. It’s nothing qualitative. It’s plain personal taste. However, there is an actual problem I have with the story, which is that I am really not sure what the plot is about. I am about a sixth into the book and there’s still no sign of an antagonist or a conflict. Locke and his crew are setting up an elaborate con to trick two rich nobles out of their money, but it still feels more like setup for the actual plot that has not been introduced yet. Which is made worse by the fact that the story uses a technique that I really dislike and consider incredibly cheap. Even though we experience the story through the eyes and the mind of the protagonist, he has a lot of information about what is going on that the author does not share with the readers, but which is critical to understand what the protagonist is doing and why he behaves the way he behaves. And we know that he knows, because it’s all his briliant plan to begin with. We read about him going through with the plan without knowing what the plan is. It creates excitement and keeps the readers attention and interest. And it almost always works magnificently. But I consider it incredibly cheap, because the author is basically lying by omission. He tells us that there is a mystery where none exists. We are in the head of the protagonist and supposed to feel with him. Yet crucial pieces of information are withheld. It may work, but it’s a cheap trick. Especially in the first pages, events are often shown out of order, showing us a dramatic scene, but not giving any context. Which I call the Breaking Bad Opening. And like Breaking Bad, the supposedly dramatic scene often turns out pretty mundane amd unexciting once you actually get the information needed to understand what’s going on. Which the characters of course had all the time. It’s smoke and mirrors, and once you see them, it becomes impossible to ignore them. But again, other than that, it’s really well written and quite enjoyable, and the only book of these four that I very much recommend. It just is not what I am looking for, and when I am reading it I am always thinking that I could instead read something else that’s more my style.

The Big Problem

What I noticed a few days back, and what really motivated me to sit down and write all this, is that even though the books are all very different and I mostly have different problems with them, the main issue that makes me stop reading them is always the same. None of these books is able to tell me within the first 50 pages what the story is about. They are stories, but they don’t seem to have plots. What is the goal? What is the obstacle? What is the conflict? Where is it all going? What kind of story is this? In many popular stories this is pretty clear. In The Lord of the Rings the goal is to end the threat of Sauron getting back the ring while avoiding his minions. In the storie of Conan, the goal is almost always to steal a treasure or defeat an evil sorcerer. Not terribly original, but you know what kind of story it will be. Even in the Witcher novels, which are quite meandering with many different characters going to different places with diffuse goals, it’s very clear that the goal is to find out what the deal is with Ciri’s powers and why the thugs are hunting her and Geralt. It’s not a tight plot, but it’s a plot. Which is all I am asking for.

Now I do love pretty artsy and ambigous fiction. But with many fantasy books of recent years, I regularly end up at a loss when trying to figure out what they are about and what kind of plot they have. Even with the danger of appearing like an illiterate brute, my preference in fantasy is clearly adventure. And at least in this one point, I do applaud Tome of the Undergate. I really dislike the characters and the plot, but it’s an old fashioned adventure story of the kind that doesn’t seem to be any popular these days. On the Fantasy Faction forum someone had been asking a few weeks ago “Does a story need to have a hook?” And my personal answer is yes, it really does. I am quite willing to go along with a highly unconventional story about nonheroic characters dealing with diffuse issues. But I need to know what the story is about, and I would like to have a general idea within the first chapter. Because at least in my own individual case, I stop reading when I don’t get an answer to that question.

Book Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves is the third book of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski. Unlike the two previous books that were collections of stories, this one is the first novel, but they all can really be seen as a single series following a common storyline. In The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, continuity consisted mostly of regular characters that would travel alongside Geralt for a while and there were several references to previous story. In this book the plot begins to become concrete. Geralt and his friends stop wandering around wherever the road and coincidence take them and start pursuing a common goal. Now they have a purpose.

Right from the start it is made clear that this story is revolving around Ciri, a girl whose story began in The Last Wish and who first appeared in person in The Sword of Destiny. The one who is going to be Geralt’s Destiny, even though nobody knows what this is going to mean. But the circumstances of her childhood and previous encounters with Geralt are too strange for anyone to dismiss as coincidence. War is brewing in the Northern Kingdoms. The mighty empire of Nilfgaard has already conquered all the lands in the south and already devastated and occupied Cintra and nobody believes that they are going to stop. To make matters worse, the Nilfgaardians have open support within the Northern Kingdoms in the form of the Scoia’tael, radical young elves and dwarves who are hoping for autonomy as provinces of the empire instead of opression under the feudal lords and kings. Maybe they are impatient or under direct order of the emperor, but many have already begun striking at the human lords and their subjects wherever they can, causing chaos and destruction and forcing others of their kind to pick a side. All nonhumans become suspect and the situation in the towns is only going to get worse for them. In these dark times Ciri is having regular terrifying visions she can neither make any sense of nor remember, and out of ideas the witchers turn to their friends among the sorceresses for help. Meanwhile a mysterious assassin appears in the Northern Kingdoms, looking for both Ciri and Geralt.

The book includes many of the old characters. In addition to Geralt and Ciri, there is of course Dandelion, Geralt’s frequent sidekick on his adventures. Also a major roll goes to Yeneffer, the sorceress Geralt met in the last story of The Last Wish and whose complicated relationship was an ongoing theme in The Sword of Destiny. There’s also the dwarf Yarpen Zigrin, King Foltest of Tymeria, and the priestess Neneke again. First appearing here in person are Geralt’s old master Vessemir and the sorceres Triss Merigold, and we also get introduced to Philippa Eilhart and Shani. There’s quite a lot going on.

However, as it is common for the Witcher, there is not really that much happening yet. This book introduces a lot of information and explanation, and I think there’s only a total of three fight scenes. It is far from being a boring book, though, and it never feels like info dumping. There are a few moments where characters are having conversations and they spell out in several sentences thing that everyone present already knows, and I think it’s often pretty obvious and easy to spot. But these moments are short and happening alongside discussions and debates that feel a lot more natural and not as artifical. You can see when it happens, but it doesn’t hurt the story in the long run.

Blood of Elves is a novel, but it’s written in a way that blends together very well with the previous story collections. There are only seven chapters and each one sticks with only a single character, generally in a single location and a timeframe of perhaps a few hours at most. Then the next chapter follows a different character in a different place, days or weeks later. Sometimes the main character of the previous chapter will be a supporting character in the next. The chapters would not make sense as stand alone stories, but the format is very close to the previous books. It’s very different from any other novels I’ve read but works really well in my opinion. It reminds me a bit of TV.

While I felt somewhat disappointed with the writing in The Sword of Destiny, here it is a lot better again. I think even the best in the series I’ve read so far. Dialogues are well written, characters feel natural and very interesting, and it has lots of really funny pieces of the very dry humor I already loved in the previous books.

So, how is the book overall? Yay or Nay? Clear and unambigous Yay from me here. This is a really excelent book that I think everyone should read who really liked the style of The Last Wish. One of my favorite books I’ve read.

Book Review: The Sword of Destiny

The Sword of Destiny is the second collection of stories of the witcher Geralt of Rivia by Andrzej Sapkowski that predate the novels. The events of the stories are only losely connected, but there are frequent nods to previous stories that establish some degree of chronological order, that appears to cover a couple of weeks or months, several years after the stories from The Last Wish. This is quite similar to how Fritz Leiber often connected his Lankhmar stories. Unlike the previous book, this one does not have an overarching “meta-story” in which the other stories are inserted as kind of flashbacks. I thought it was a pretty clever device (and I believe added long after the individual stories were originally written), would have been fun to see something similar done with this one as well.

I am having a bit of a hard time reviewing this book in my usual format, because frankly my main impressions pretty much comes down to “The Last Wish was much better”. Giving away my final opinion of the book right here at the start, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But not as great as The Last Wish, that comes before it in the series, or Blood of Elves, which comes after it and I have been putting on a break after being about two thirds through it to read this one first. And having read the entire thing as a whole, I think it’s really worth reading for fans of the first book who want to continue with the series. But more on that later.

The Sword of Destiny consists of six stories, which in a similar fashion to the first book all have titles that sound corny and pretentious at first, but have a real meaning that only becomes apparent after you completed them. You can’t get any more cliched with a fantasy book title than “The Sword of Destiny”, but though the term comes up several times there isn’t any actual magic blade to be found anywhere. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. Overall, the book is a lot more introperspective than the other two books I’ve read so far, which I think is a major reason why it felt so odd, especially at first. For stories about a monster hunter in a brutal world, the Witcher always has remarkably few and often quite subdued action scenes, but here even more so than usual. Very little is done and the center of the book is really Geralts inner life. Which particularly in the first two stories is not very well done. Geralt is gloomy, talks almost nothing, and I can’t help to think of the word “moody” or maybe even “moping”. He’s always there, but all the talking and acting is done by other characters while the main hero stays in the background with a bleak mood. In the third story he seems to have gotten over it and from then on I enjoyed the book a lot more. But even then I never felt like “Fuck, yeah! Geralt is badass!” However, Dandelion appears in half the stories and he’s always having a blast.

Usually I am never a fan of funny bard characters in serious fantasy stories, but Dandelion just always works for me. And he’s actually a particularly irresponsible and outright irritating example of a bard but Sapkowski just makes it work. I think the main thing that helps making him both believable and likeable is that despite his careless general attitude and shameless womanizing, he does have a real awareness of what is going on around him, what people think of him, and when he’s getting into real danger. He does not care what most people think of him, of what he does, and of the people he’s with, and he’s not concerned about women yelling at him in public or husbands hating him. But he knows when things are getting out of hand and doesn’t fool around when it’s about life or death. And even though he’s regularly traveling with one of the meanest and most badass swordsmen in the region, he is not a fighter himself and always very concerned for his own safety and that of others. And that’s what makes him different from the standard funny fantasy bard. He’s not a liability to have around who almost certainly is going to get you killed sonner rather than later and then not grasping that he did anything bad. I love Dandelion. He’s fun.

Yennefer, the sorceress Geralt met in the story The Last Wish, also makes several appearances and the strange relationship between her and Geralt is an overarching theme of the book that connects many of the stories. To say “it’s complicated” is putting it mildly. Both Geralt and Yennefer are far from normal people and both odd in very different ways. Their love does not only seem unlikely, it’s also not the result of ordinary attraction and they both are well aware of it, which probably is the main reason why they both feel so uncomfortable being together. But at the same time they truly are in love and both unable to forget about each other. A big love story in a dark and often violent fantasy series about a monster hunter? Somehow Sapkowski makes it work, probably precisely because the relationship is such a strange on. It’s interesting to read and doesn’t feel tacked on at all.

Other names that might be familiar are Vessemir and Triss Merigold and we also meet Yarpen Zigrin and Ciri, as well as the druid Mousesack from the first book. Also, the whole business with the Nilfgardians is introduced, and the encounter with the elven warriors from The Last Wish gets expanded into the Scoia’tael. Both become hugely important in Blood of Elves and the recent videogames Assassins of Kings and The Wild Hunt.

As I mentioned above, the stories in The Sword of Destiny are relatively low in regard to action. Only three of them deal with fighting a monster. One is a relatively lighthearted fooling around with preconceptions, another one has the monster being only of secondary relevance. The third one is about a big dragon hunt. If you’ve read The Last Wish, it will come as absolutely no surprise that the story does not end with the heroic hunters proudly carrying home their trophy. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. One story is entirely about Geralt and Yeneffer. And the last two really serve as staging grounds for the novels. I like those two the best. Though I have to say the last one was also the strangest story of chapter I’ve read of the witcher so far. It’s quite good, but at times slightly surreal and for large parts literally delirious.

I am not really very happy with this review, but that matches my overall perception of the book. It’s weird. It feels really quite different from the one before and after it, and I don’t think that’s a result of the translation. It feels odd and at many points made me wonder what the writer’s intentions where when he wrote the stories. They feel a bit out of place between the other books on either side. And somehow I really don’t know how to put a finger on it. It’s not a terrible book. I’ve read much, much worse and for many long sections I really did enjoy reading it. But in the end it really comes all down to my initial impression. “The Last Wish was better.”

So, Yay or Nay? This one is difficult. To anyone who hasn’t read anything about the witcher yet, I think there really is no reason to start with this one. If you’re interested in the series start with The Last Wish. For people who read the first book and thought it was okay, I also can’t really recommend this one. But for people who read the first book and totally loved it and want to read the entire series, I think this one really needs to be read. It’s not a long book and it’s not terrible or a chore to read. But having read most of the novel that comes after it, there are several pieces of continuity that are not exactly important but I still believe very much worth having read in their original form. And getting ahead to my next book review, it gets so much better again after this one and for fans of The Last Wish it will be totally worth it!

Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan

Several months back I had been asking about recommendations for fantasy books. I don’t remember what exactly I’ve been asking for and the reasons why people picked it, but The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin came up a lot. I don’t even remember the other books recommended at my querry back then. Somehow I only got around to reading it now. I really didn’t know anything about it or anything else written by Le Guin but at only about 150 pages it’s a pretty short book and seemed liked a good opportunity to broaden my horizon and knowledge of classic writers. I generally turn pages at a quite leisurely pace and still took only about 4 hours to read it.

The Tombs of Atuan appears to be set in the world of Earthsea, which is a name I heard about before and that appears twice in the book, but otherwise it appears to be entirely a stand alone story. It’s about a young woman who becomes high priestesses at the temple complex at the very same Tombs of Atuan, being believed to be the reincarnation of the same high priestess who held the position since the very creation of the site by the other priestesses. Which brings me to me first problem with the book: The plot. In the first half of the book, nothing happens. In the second half, very little. I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson once saying that generally you want to tell the audience what the story is about very quickly. As a writer you make a promise to the readers what kind of story they can expect to get and what themes it will be about. The Tombs of Atuan doesn’t have anything like that. It simply gives you some characters and some scenes, but no indication at all why you should care about any of this is and how it might become important later on. This drags on almost to the halfway point of the book until finally something actually happens. Some little potential disturbance of the status quo. But even from that point on there is no actual goal anyone is trying to accomplish, and with a short exception of just a few pages towards the end, not even a conflict of any kind.

But not all good books need to be about plot. There are many amazing stories in which the plot really barely matters at all. But these stories have other areas in which they shine. Worldbuilding can be one of these things, but The Tombs of Atuan has almost none. Almost the entire book takes place in the same temple complex at the tombs, with all the scenes happening in only four locations. The temple is build next to an ancient religious site in some kind of desert where the protagonist has been for as long as she can remember. We don’t learn anything about the desert, nor anything that lies beyond the desert. We’re not really being told anything about the geography, the culture, or the history of this world. All we’re ever told is that some of the current rulers are referred to as god kings and that this has not always been the case. It’s just this one temple that also is very much lacking in any actual history and even though all but one character in the story are priests there is never a single word about their religion. The underground tunnels below the temple are somewhat interesting at first, but unfortunately the entire book is very sparse on visual descriptions or mentioning sensations of any kind. And the protagonist is going in and out of the tunnels so frequently that they pretty soon become very mundane and lose the potential mystery and spookiness they might have had. And why is it called the Tombs of Atuan? It doesn’t seem to be any kind of burrial site at all. And I think Atuan is just the name of the land in which it is located. The title sounded curious, but it’s really “The Tunnels under the Desert”, which doesn’t sound not nearly as snappy.

Both plot and setting feel quite lacking, but in these two regards my feelings for the story are mostly indifferent. Where the book starts to have a real problem is with the characters. For the first half of the book the protagonist is slowly somewhat developed as we get several scenes of her being brought to the temple, trained, and eventually taking on more and more responsibilities of being the high priestesses as she grows up. And she did start to somewhat grow on me as she became more strong willed and fierce, especially in her relationship to the other two old senior priestesses. Once the established order gets a teeny tiny bit desturbed in the middle of the book, though there’s still not really any plot starting to become visible, there seems to be some attempts to make the story about a crisis of faith. But it just doesn’t work at all, because at no point is there any mention of what the characters might believe in. There’s occasional rituals, but they seem to serve no purpose and we are never told anything about the ideology or dogma of the priestesses. There’s just a vague feeling of doubt and unease. But doubt of what? Why is the altar a giant empty throne? What are the Namless Ones to whom the site is dedicated? What’s the role of the Twin Gods? Having no name or being twins is not a religion. It’s just empty words.

Even though the protagonist did start to grow on me, once things start to happen, she immediately falls apart, becoming highly insecure and unable to deal with the situation. And all because of the arrival of a man! She doesn’t instantly fall in love with him, but you still have a story in which nothing happens the entire time until a man arrives in a place inhabited only by women and eunuchs. The book is 45 years old and I understand that we now have very different expecations of a fantasy story than back then, and also take objection to things people may not have thought anything about. But once things start to actually get tough, the “heroine” immediately becomes very winy, helpless, and frankly annoying and has to be figuratively dragged along by the male character to not lie down and die in despair. At first it appears that she is under the influence of some dark supernatural force that tries to errode her will and that of the man as they start to become a nuisance. But once they are free of that influence, she still goes on like that.

For some reason the big showdown of the story happens about four fifths into the book. But it doesn’t end and you basically get a terribly overlong epilogue that takes up the entire final fifth. And in a way, the protagonist only gets worse from there on. After having escaped from danger with the man he promises her he will bring her to a safe place but then continue on his way. And then she apparently falls in love with him completely out of the blue. She gets even more moody and dramatic than before and at one point takes a dagger in what seems to be an attempt to kill him but can’t go through with it. And a while later instead decides that he just should drop her off in the wilds so the elements and wild animals can kill her. And the whole time she needs that man to tell her that she’s wrong and that it’s not so bad, and that she’s a wonderful person and did so great, and blah blah blah. Lack of plot and weak worldbuilding I can excuse. But the characters are really quite bad. And there’s only really five of them. None of which are in any way interesting or likeable. But a young woman being super whiny and dramatic and needing a man to help her live is just terrible. And this from one of the few great female fantasy writers of the 20th century.

To make it all somewhat worse, I also thought the writing felt very bland. Nothing evocative, clever, or snappy about it. So the question of “Yay or Nay?” really only becomes a formality.

Nay.

Book Review: Bloodstone

A while back I reviewd Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner, which I really quite liked. So I picked up Bloodstone, which was published two years later, but being a somewhat obscure series from the early 70s I have not the slightest clue in which order they were originally written. I have a feeling that Bloodstone might actually be a bit older, and perhaps even the first story of Kane.

Bloodstone is a single full-length novel which begins with Kane coming into possession of a strange old ring with a large green and red bloodstone. It awakens some long lost memories in his immortal mind and leads him to start another one of his enigmatic plans of conquest. In typical Kane fashion, even though he is the protagonist of the story, Wagner doesn’t tell us anything of what Kane is knowing or planning for most of the time. Usually witholding important information from the readers which the characters obviously know ranks at the very lowest level of cheap writing tricks for me. But with Kane Wagner is always consistent and we’re always kept in the dark of what is going on in his head. In fact, for large parts of the book Kane is completely absent and as in the other stories, the plot mostly follows other people who had the unfortunate fate to get caught up in his wake as he leaves a trail of destruction wherever he goes. Of those other characters we do learn a lot and their thoughts and plans are usually revealed very quickly. It’s a very daring and couragous method of telling a story, but one that Wagner manages to pull of successfully and it works really well.

In Death Angel’s Shadow and Undertow, I always had the impression that Wagner was not a man of great words who uses relatively simple language to talk about very complex and fascinating things. In Bloodstone, it seems more like he is trying too hard in channeling Lovecraft and Howard and pretty much every paragraph has at least one word which I don’t know. I always understand what he means out of the context of the sentence within the scene so it doesn’t hurt too much, but I think he clearly went overboard with it in Bloodstone. His other (and I presume later) works are much better in this regard. The other thing that I noticed negatively is that the story drags on for too long. Especially when it comes to describing the big fight scenes, but also when another mysterious location is visisted. I love well written description that go into a lot of detail to bring the sights and atmosphere to life, and the lack of such is something that often find frustrating in many fantasy stories I’ve read in recent years. But in this case Wagner is often not adding anything new and just repeats more of the same things he already said. With the big battle scenes I was sometimes tempted to flip ahead three or four pages, but I have to say that I generally get very easily bored by battle scene all the times. I usually skip the battle scenes when watching The Two Towers and I don’t even have Return of the King on DVD. So maybe it’s not actually that bad. Overall, this books seems not particularly strong when it comes to the degree of skill at the craft. Language a bit too cheesy, pacing could be a lot better, and the characters are not particularly deep or complex.

But all that doesn’t bother me at all, because it’s the plot where Bloodstone really show. Like the other stories I’ve read, Wagner once more showed that he had a really good instinct for creating plots that don’t tread down the old paths. At several points in the novel I got the feeling that everything seemed close to resolution, but when you’re only a quarter into the book, you know that it obviously can’t be the case. Part of this comes from the fact that we never really know what Kane is planning in the long term and we only follow his antagonist or allies as they are dealing with the issue currently at hand. But any time it seems like the adventure has been wrapped up, Kane plays his next card and reveals another step in his grand plan to the rest of the world. In a TV show or comic this could probably get pretty frustrating, but as Bloodstone is a single volume novel you know how much more you can expect to follow. There are plenty of nice twists, with probably the best one being the one at the end. It’s a rather unusual approach you’ve probably not seen before very often, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere and you probably see it coming two sentences before it happens.

Kane himself is mostly Kane as we know him. A brilliant schemer and utterly selfish bastard. But while his planning and manipulating in this book is very nicely done, his character is not quite as fascinating and disturbingly ambigous. In Death Angel’s Shadow, it is made very clear that everyone who know about Kane thinks that he is a terrible monster in the shape of a man, and everything we learn about his thoughts actually supports that assesment. Not that he’s eating babies and impaling people on big spikes, but it is very clear that his mind has absolutely no regard for anything that normal people would consider just or decent and that he walks on the corpses on innocents without any second guess. This element of his character, which combined with his compelling charisma makes him such an intriguing character, is mostly absent in this book. Here he is simply selfish. If you havn’t read any Kane stories before and then read Bloodstone, you’d probably not feel anywhere near as fascinated by him as I do. If this is indeed one of the first stories Wagner wrote about the character, he’s getting a lot stronger later on.

What I found very interesting about this book is that it finally reveals why Kane does anything that he does. In Death Angel’s Shadow that was always a great mystery. Why does he consider his immortality a curse and why does he live the kind of life he does if he could do pretty much anything he could ever want to? In Bloodstone, this part of his character is explored only briefly, but deep enough to get a pretty good understanding of how he ticks. It’s not really complicated at all and makes a lot of sense. If this is actually a good thing I am not sure. I really loved the walking mystery that was Kane in the stories I’d been reading before, and as of now I can not say if understanding his way of thinking makes his character more enjoyable or less. I probably have to read another collection of stories before I really know.

With all that being said, I still really loved reading this book. And I do recommend it, but with some considerations. If you havn’t read any Kane story before, I don’t think this is a good one to start with. It’s still a pretty good book, but it doesn’t really showcase how good Wagner could write this character. Even if the series of Kanes stories is something you’d love, Bloodstone might not be the book to win you over. If you know Kane and consider picking up this book, I fully recommend doing so. But if you are thinking of giving the series a try for the first time, better start with something else. Death Angel’s Shadow would be a good start, for example.