Posts Tagged ‘Umberto Eco’

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

January 12, 2011 2 comments

Jacket artwork by Michael Whelan

Rather in the same style as one of those old ads for miracle products to rid us of acne or baldness, I think it best to have a before and after picture.




I suppose the question ought to be what most people feel when they pick up a 1,000 page book. But in these reviews, we never mind the “oughts”. Being a selfish and cantankerous old man, I am only thinking of myself at times like this. I feel intimidated. I know it is not fashionable to admit to physical frailty, but I am not joking when I complain about the weight of books. After holding the damn things for any length of time, wrists do grow tired. In this case, I have decided to cheat, raising my legs on a low stool to take the weight and, with knees carefully adjusted, balancing the tome without stressing the spine in all senses of the word. Now I only have to worry about the other thing. Will a book this length hold my interest? Born and raised on novels clocking in somewhere around the 40,000 to 50,000 word mark, I could easily read one, if not two, in a day. The local library loved me for my fast turnaround. There’s little time to grow bored when you’ve already finished it. But when a book staggers in at three-hundred thousand plus words, it gives you pause. What on earth is this author going to rabbit on about at this length to keep it interesting? Perhaps more importantly, will I still remember who everyone is as I get nearer the end?




Well, this has been a remarkable experience. I am pleased to report that this is completely fascinating. I am reminded of Hal Clement (the pseudonym used by Harry Stubbs). He delighted in world-building to present his readers with puzzles. Probably the best of these is Cycle of Fire in which the local ecology has evolved to cope with major climatic shifts every 65 years. It is like a mystery or detective story in which you see the world through the eyes of the main protagonist and have the same chances of working out the solution. So Brandon Sanderson has developed a highly complex world for us to explore. There are multiple types of life-form, both physical and intangible. The real is described from the grass up, and is very specifically adapted to local climatic conditions. The other forms are hinted at and described. There also appears to be at least one alternate dimension in play.


This is a very postmodernist fantasy with a major part of the work devoted to describing the cultures, defining roles by gender and other physical attributes. In this, the most important academic skills are considered appropriate for women in general and certain sects or groups of individuals. Rather in the same way that Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is built around the abbey’s library, so we are also invited to spend time in the planet’s major library with Shallan and Jasnah as they excavate the past and interrogate the written texts to determine the significance both of what is written directly and as glosses, and of what is not written. Although we are not quite in the same league as Eco in describing a full scholastic methodology as a part of semiotics, we do have a real opportunity to watch two scholars try to interpret the past, using different tools. This may be logic or philosophy as they try to tease out meaning from the content as written and as commented on. In this, they must often try to reconcile stories within stories, separating what may be facts from the fiction. In this note that the title of this novel, The Way of Kings, is a reference to the name of a largely anecdotal work on how to unify and run a kingdom extensively quoted and relied on by characters in the book.


The process of archaeology as proposed by Michel Foucault is complicated by the religious character of some of the information. Different sets of powerful people through time try to distort or conceal parts of the discourse. In the main, this is achieved by scapegoating or demonising some earlier or contemporary groups as evil or wrongdoers in both the literal and the religious senses of the words. Religion is often used by those in power to control access to information or to skew the interpretation of past events. This story is a classic example of the problem, signaling its intent by making one of the scholars a well-known atheist. More generally, the novel gives us a perfect opportunity to watch the different individuals access information as visions, and from their oral traditions and written texts. Their interpretations differ according to their cultural backgrounds.


That said, the main thematic concern of the novel is the question of honour and it poses the interesting question of whether it is a good in its own right. Altruism has always had a fuzzy feel to it because what is a selfless concern for the welfare of others in the minds of some, is loyalty to abstract concepts like government or a national state in others, or duties and obligation owed to leaders, or self-interest to those who are part of the group that will benefit from the planned activity. In this, we are primarily interested in Kaladin, whose story we work through in direct narrative and flashbacks. This is a man who constantly struggles with who he is and how he should relate to others. His early life training as a surgeon with his father taught him the notion of service to others but, in the real world, such service has not always been welcomed or valued. Similarly, Brightlord Dalinar Kholin struggles with himself as a warrior. What code of honour should he follow in his life and in combat? How much can or should he bend to achieve what he believes to be necessary improvements in the way his local kingdom is set up to run? It is all about ends and means, thinking through whether the journey is more important than the arrival at the intended outcome.


At the end, we have everything perfectly set up for the next thrilling installment. All the right people have been moved into position. Even the enigmatic “fool” is on the move as one of the key plotters emerges into the light.


I can well understand why it has taken so long to get this book into print. It is a major work of fiction, showing immense narrative skill in balancing “adventure” and “physical conflict” with the more cerebral elements. Although Elantris and Warbreaker are substantial and impressive works, this is has moved one step up the ladder of complexity and interest. If Brandon Sanderson keeps on improving, he could become the premier fantasy writer of the first part of this century. I unreservedly recommend The Way of Kings Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive, even though its use may not put hair on your head or remove unsightly zits.


Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

For the record, The Way of Kings won the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2010.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)

August 18, 2010 4 comments

Neutrality is a most curious convention in International Law. When all about you are fighting, one country stands aloof and refuses to support any of the “sides”. The curiousness lies not so much in the wish to avoid fighting — the risk of casualties both in the armed forces and the civilian population would deter all rational governments from involvement — but in the willingness of the actual combatants to respect the assertion of neutrality and not allow the theatre of war to stray over the relevant borders. So Sweden managed to remain relatively uninvolved in WWII. There was significant trade, significant volumes of money moved through the banking system, some Swedes fought in the German army. Some even worked as guards in Treblinka. The degree of collaboration is one of those unexplored pieces of history. More modern Swedish governments prefer to remember heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian jews by issuing them with Swedish passports, carefully reconstructing history in the schools and media generally to divert attention from the inconvenient truth.

One of the more illuminating lines in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor is that everyone has secrets, even countries. Given that the plot surrounds a family whose wealth was undoubtedly enhanced through collaboration with the Nazis, we are immediately pitched into a classic murder mystery from the Golden Age with the political ideology of Aryanism to the fore. Only a limited number of people could have “done it” because, at the relevant time, all the key players were trapped on an island by a serious traffic accident. But there are two elements that lift this from a mundane Agatha Christie plot into a work for modern sensibilities. The first is that it plays with the nature of history and the power of the modern eye to interpret and reinterpret the signs from the past. In this, it’s clearly following in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose with its deconstructionist and semiotic undertones. The ability to manipulate images and to excavate the past for even the most trivial of pieces of paper are the keys to all understanding. The second decision of note is to take an unflinching look at misogyny. I cannot remember a film in recent years that exposes all the prejudices and abuses that lie mostly hidden under the surface of most modern societies. Perhaps from a poor understanding of Scandinavia, I had always thought Sweden was a relatively civilised country. Sadly, if this film is in any way representative of reality, it seems just as venal and corrupt as the rest of the world when it comes to the treatment of women.

In this, the pivotal character is the eponymous girl, played with outstanding suppressed violence, by Noomi Rapace. It’s an intensely demanding role and, in the wrong hands, it would have completely changed the character of the film, probably condemning it to the direct-to-video route to oblivion. As it is, her performance is one of the most memorable I can recall in the last decade. She has been abused at every point during her life, yet she manages to retain integrity and a brutal kind of honesty. In the end, she gives as good as she gets. Playing her foil is Michael Nyqvist as a journalist paid to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of a girl some forty years ago. Nyqvist is passive and understated but, because of his honesty and empathy, he is able to bridge the gap with Rapace’s character. Apart they are interesting. Together they become an unstoppable force for truth. Unlike Sweden itself which played a game of neutrality during WWI, this film takes no prisoners when it comes to confronting the abuse of women in Swedish society.

Almost without exception, every character is beautifully played from the obsessed industrialist who pays the journalist to find the murderer, to Peter Andersson’s extraordinarily corrupt Guardian responsible managing the dragon girl’s money while she is out of mental hospital on licence, to Björn Granath as the determined local police officer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with the current stars of Swedish film and television, but the entire cast of “unknowns” emerge as fresh and talented. One further cast member must be mentioned. The scenery of the island and key locations are stunningly beautiful, if somewhat bleak, a factor that plays against the emerging horror of the investigation and surrounding events.

I am disturbed by stories that the film is to be reshot for American audiences. Apparently, Daniel Craig is lined up to play the journalist. Frankly, I think this is a supreme insult to the director and cast of the Swedish original produced by Yellow Bird. I cannot conceive of any sanitised script with a cast of stars coming remotely close to being as good. Having James Bond in the remake is ludicrous casting against type and can only be explained by Hollywood’s lack of faith in the quality of the story. You can just imagine the producers in a smoke-filled room, “We need a star to carry this movie — unknowns would condemn our remake to the arthouse circuit.” In truth, the only reasons for this offensive decision are the extreme parochialism of America that, for the most part, is hostile to any culture other than what it claims as its own. And the inability of the audience to read the subtitles. Let’s face it, the desperation of US distributors cannot be better illustrated than by the rerecording of the voice tracks for Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animations. There has been no worse butchery in recent years than cutting out the sensitive vocal performances of the Japanese casts in favour of Hollywood stars. I shall be watching the other two Swedish films in this Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I will not be queuing to watch the Hollywood remakes.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

July 31, 2009 1 comment

For this review, I’m travelling back in time a little. I’ve been putting off reading this second in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson until I had the time to read the last two books together. It avoids the cliffhanging ending being too much to bear for a year and more until the last episode comes along. So, off we go with another strength-enhancing dumbbell of a book. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, The Well of Ascension continues the fantasy saga of the Mistborn. But rather than a “conventional” text, it’s written with very clear postmodernist sensibilities. It would be easy to see this story as only about a small group, mainly magicians of varying degrees of power, trying to cobble a government together using democratic means while being threatened by invading armies. But there’s a lot more going on in the text.

Michel Foucault proposed in a series of articles and books that the best way to understand the present is to interrogate the past. He described this process as a type of intellectual archaeology. Researchers dig down into the early layers of documentation. Every new piece of evidence being important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. The lacunae are just as important as the finds. This process is central to this book as the Terris Keepers are walking archaeologists, each carrying a datastore of the accumulating knowledge about the past and present. As new facts are uncovered, the researchers cross-reference and annotate, creating an ever more comprehensive view of past events. All this scholarship does, however, rest upon a simple assumption. That no-one else can change the records they find or keep. Just imagine how distorted the research would become if someone was able to manipulate the records.

This theme directly links into the second proposition that access to control over people depends on a linkage between pouvoir and savoir — power and knowledge. Societies are built on and driven by a continuing stream of discourse. In their most refined form, the discourses of constitutional law and political influence dictate the shape and operation of the state. At the lowest levels, the discourses of class and culture determine how people present themselves to the others with whom they interact. Everything is essential from the clothes they wear, their body language, the accents with which they speak and so on. Leaders dress in particular ways to communicate their right to lead. There are deliberate borrowings from semiotics in this fantasy as Tindwyl, one of the Terris Keepers, tries to instruct Elend, the potential leader, in the theories of communication and the manipulation of signs and symbols.

In this story, there is access to all parts of the discourse at a metalevel with only the records engraved on metal outside direct control. Lower down in the layering of discourse, access follows the real-world structures of political power brokers and increasingly less influential classes. But, interestingly, two of the magical skills are soothing and rioting which allow those with the power to directly interact with the emotions of those close to them. Thus, the combination of words, body language and magical ability (substitute “charisma” in the real world) endows speakers with the maximum ability to influence their audience.

Then there are matter of the heart. Hardly the concern of a postmodernist but Sanderson rises to the occasion with an extended parable about choice. In one set of relationships based on romantic, courtly love (albeit not quite in the real-world mediaeval European style), the Mistborn finds herself between two brothers who could not be more different. She is young and inexperienced in love, but the need to make a choice between the two brothers becomes increasingly real as the book continues. In the second relationship between a mature couple, we are presented with two Terris Keepers. Male Keepers like Sazed are eunuchs. Tindwyl has her own reasons for preferring to remain platonic. In this trilogy, Sanderson’s central preoccupation is on the relationship between love and trust. He muses on how people might transcend their differences and find comfort in each other. It could be an entirely rational and somewhat dispassionate process. Or it could be intuitive as the couple try to see beyond surface impressions. It might be driven by the genetically-programmed desire to continue the race by producing children, or the couple might be intellectually compatible while incapable of producing children. As a separate but allied thread in the plot, we also have the developing relationship between the Mistborn and her kandra who, by reason of his ability to take on the shape of humans and animals, is not who he seems to be. With the kandra, we have a person who feels bound by the strict letter of his race’s agreement with humanity, yet is tempted by the freedom to choose.

The danger with books of this kind is that they become too preoccupied with the discussion of ideas. Every author walks a fine line. One of the best examples of the problem is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. As an academic specialising in semiotics and literary theory, Eco could have sidelined the mystery to identify the murderer in a mediaeval abbey, but the primary narrative of how William of Baskerville “solves” the case manages to rise above its context. Although not quite on the same level as Eco, Sanderson also drives the plot along as the imperial capital of Luthadel finds itself surrounded by two armies. The threatened arrival of the third non-human koloss army keeps everyone on their toes. The merits of a democratic as against various kinds of more direct power structures are pivotal to the unfolding of events, but they remain sufficiently a subtext to let the narrative to drive forward. The emerging interest in religion also hints at future developments.

On balance, I found this an intelligent and pleasing book. I hesitate to limit it by genre. Yes, it’s ostensibly the second in a fantasy trilogy, but Sanderson’s willingness to explore the ideas and relationships gives an added depth and resonance to the otherwise simple story of daring-do. For once, I swept through a long book and immediately picked up the concluding volume, The Hero of Ages, to see how it all turned out. Five hundred and seventy two pages later, I had the answer.

For a review of the sequel, The Hero of Ages, and two YA novels set in different universes, see Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener’s Bones and The Rithmatist. There’s also a stand-alone novel called Warbreaker and a novella The Emperor’s Soul.
You also have the first two novels in The Stormlight Archive:
The Way of Kings
The Words of Radiance.

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