The last time I read The Wheel of Time was in anticipation of A Memory of Light. The culmination of the series was a big deal for me. I discovered The Wheel of Time shortly after The Shadow Rising (book 4) was released, which means I waited over twenty years for the series to finish. I was a kid when I started reading it and a man when the series concluded. In the interim I lost two immediate family members, graduated from high school, college, grad school, and law school, got my first job, got my first real job, got my first promotion, changed careers twice, lived in four states. The Wheel of Time was a constant through all of that. It may be the only reason I read fantasy today—for the better part of a decade I would not have read any fantasy but for a new Wheel of Time book every two or three years. It was the excitement that the book would be finished that turned me back toward fantasy permanently.
As a kid, I reread the books obsessively, rereading each at least once in anticipation of the next book. Later I would read the newly published book once and leave it at that. Once I even *gas* went months after publication before buying the newest book. A hectic life since A Memory of Light kept me from a full reread. I got married, became a father, changed careers again, and lived in two more states. Oh, and started two blogs. My desire to write reread posts here was part of the delay. Rereading four million words and writing about them is a much bigger commitment.
It is accepted that we live in an Early Dystopian State. Claiming that we are merely decadent is what passes for optimism these days. The real debate is not whether things are bad but over which dystopian novel best reflects our current and coming dystopia. The Handmaid’s Tale is a popular choice despite making no sense whatsoever in the current political climate. 1984 is an evergreen option since Orwell was prescient enough to include all the favorite tools of oppression of both the contemporary Left and the contemporary Right. Taking a page from 1984, as our leaders appear fond of, has its advantages—in these days of fragmented popular culture 1984 offers the rare common language of oppression, a shorthand that oppressors can take advantage of to save a bit of work. No bureaucrat is so committed to oppression that he won’t cut a corner or three. Much better, then, if the people are polite enough to facilitate their own oppression. And American’s today are certainly committed to facilitating their own oppression—out of sheer mental laziness if nothing else. Which makes Brave New World, with its happiness substitute drug Soma, a popular choice these days. I am here today, though, to give Fahrenheit 451 its due.
Guy Gavriel Kay has given us a true epic in a single volume in The Lions of Al-Rassan. It is a thinly veiled retelling of El Cid and the Reconquista, albeit altered and compressed (the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula did take centuries, after all).
My journey through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels (and my Vintage SF Month 2021) continues with Return to Mars. Return to Mars collects Barsoom books 4-6: Thuvia, Maid of Mars; The Chessmen of Mars; and The Mastermind of Mars. The three together manage to exceed ERB’s first three Barsoom books.
Which is a little surprising, perhaps, because John Carter is the great highlight of the first three books but plays a very limited role in these three. John Carter’s son Carthorsis stars in Thuvia, Maid of Mars (along with the titular Thuvia). John Carter’s daughter Tara stars in The Chessmen of Mars (unlike Cathorsis, she is a new character). And a completely new character, Ulysses Paxton stars in The Mastermind of Mars, with John Carter only making a sort of cameo appearance.
That . . . was a crazy year. Not just in the news, with the pandemic and the U.S. presidential election and dozens of events in between that would be worth mentioning in any other year. It was also a tumultuous year personally. I spend the second quarter of the year sequestered at home, working remotely and leaving only for weekly groceries and maybe takeout once a week. Then I took a new job, commuted halfway across the country twice a month, sold one house and bought another, and moved across the country. I was extraordinarily busy with work, both at my old job and new. My wife took a new job and my toddler decided it was time for her vocabulary to start doubling weekly. Strider abides.
You don’t work, you don’t eat (Strider’s job is to supervise).
Like New Year’s resolutions, Vintage Science Fiction Month ideally should be started in December. First up for me is a review of L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall.
They had me at double-entry accounting. Seriously. The entire reason I kept an eye out for this book every time I set foot in a used bookstore was because I read somewhere that it was an alternate history where the protagonist introduced double-entry accounting to a post-empire Rome. It is indeed that and much more, deserving its reputation as one of the great early works of alternate history.
Martin Padway is an American archaeologist visiting Rome during the present day (1938 at the time). By mysterious means, he finds himself in Rome in 535, on the eve of the Gothic War. Uniquely suited by his education and training to the task, he sets about working to avert the dark ages by changing the result of the war and allowing a unified, post-empire Italy to survive.
In which Machin Shin is waiting at Lord Barthanes manor and at Stedding Tsofu (and Rand learns Padan Fain will be waiting for him at Toman Head), Thom faces another tragedy, Fain delivers the Horn to the High Lord Turak, Erith and the Maidens of the Spear are introduced, and the fellowship decides to travel by Portal Stone.
This is all a segue to getting the fellowship from Carhien to Toman Head in the most awesome way possible. Notwithstanding, it includes two very interesting mysteries, one very tragic turn, and the catalyst for one momentous event that happens entirely off-page.
It has been a cruel eight months of waiting, but our long national nightmare is finally over—episode two of the Whiskey and Book Club is up at YouTube. Joining me for the second episode of the Whiskey and Book Club is the indefatigable Jim Cornelius from Frontier Partisans. In addition to his long running Frontier Partisans blog, Jim has recently launched a Frontier Partisans podcast. His first, four-part series focuses on Kit Carson.
Joe Abercrombie wrote what is perhaps the landmark initial work in the “grimdark” subgenre in The Blade Itself (especially if you refuse to count A Song of Ice and Fire as grimdark, although I have always found that argument very weird). Reading it almost 15 years after initial publication does, I think, detract somewhat from the experience, its influence rendering it less novel. And there is a bigger problem.
The pandemic continues to rage, but my life finally regained some level of normalcy in November. My wife and daughter rejoined Strider and I (experiencing the joy of sharing one bathroom for the week we spent in my apartment). We closed on both houses, despite many a slip twixt cup and lip (seriously, both processes were a nightmare). We got moved into our new house (well, sort of). I am wrapping up the busiest semester of my academic career, if not the worst.
There is a temptation during hard times to turn to comfort food. Both when it comes to actual food and when it comes to reading material. I cut my teeth as a fantasy reader with Tolkien and Jordan and innumerable other Tolkien-influenced writers in the 90s. There was a time when I was burned out on 90s-style fantasy, but that time has long passed. When I return to it these days, 90s-style fantasy is very much comfort food. And John Gwynne’s four-book The Faithful and the Fallen series reminds me of 90s fantasy in all the best ways.