Saturday, August 25, 2012

Link to Cool Thoughts on Jackson's Upcoming Hobbit Movies

The Herch shares his thoughts about a possible breakdown for the Hobbit Trilogy here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Painting Miniatures and the Imagined World of Warhammer

Painting miniatures has been my hobby ever since Jr. High.  One of my friends discovered the wonderful world of Games Workshop somewhere in seventh or eighth grade and I've always had an especial appreciation for the quality and imagination evinced in their Citadel line.  It was a childhood dream come true when the company acquired the rights to produce miniatures based on Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  I don't have near the time to paint that I once did, so my ability to keep in step with the doings over at GW has greatly decreased.  Still, even if I'm behind the times, I'm always excited to see what their newest creations.

Citadel's Finecast range of resin miniatures has been out for several years now, but I haven't had an opportunity to sit down and work with one until last week.  A very obliging friend sent me Korhil, Captain of the White Lions for Christmas.  I can't tell you how impressed I was.  The level of detail was staggering.  My first thought was: how am I going to get this thing out of the sprue without breaking it?  My next was: how am I ever going to paint this in a way that will do it justice?  Well I did get it out of the sprue without breaking it (It turns out resin is more forgiving than plastic).  As for the paint job, if I had a working camera I'd let you be the judge.  As it is, I'm pleased enough for now.  There's always time for touch-ups...

Hobby details aside, the real pleasure of working with Games Workshop's products is being able to interact creatively with a richly imagined world.  In assembling, modifying, and painting Citadel miniatures, a hobbyist can participate, in however miniscule a fashion, in expanding the world of Warhammer.  This can be done with online games as well, but I appreciate the uniquely tactile quality of working with miniatures.  When you're done, there's an incarnate bit of an imaginary universe sitting there in front of you.  It can be picked up, handled, admired, or dropped (accidentally, we hope).  This cooperative process of adding art to story is something Tolkien hoped for when he set out to create a mythology for England.  I don't know what he would have thought about painting little miniatures, but not all of us can compose operas or direct films.  Painting little men is something I can do and, for what it's worth, I'm grateful that I can still find some time in the business of life to do it.

As an addendum, you may have noticed that this post is going where so many of my posts tend to go.  If you have, or even if you haven't, let me try to explain.  All this is to say that I stand for the right to imagination, the right to fill in the spandrels of creation, to make by that law in which we're made.  If humanity has a Creator, then we are more like that Creator when we create.  As contingent beings, consumption is necessary for our being, but we spend too much time in modern culture merely consuming.  So I do celebrate when, even in little ways, people make the choice to no longer consume but to also create.    

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Return of the Seven Heavens of Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CXCI

Well folks, the end of the summer is upon us and that means it's time for the annual "Seven Heavens of Summer Reading Awards."  For those who don't know or don't remember, the SHSRA were started right here in 2008 in honor of Michael Ward's groundbreaking Planet Narnia.  In this work, Ward asserts that Lewis ordered his seven Narnia books around seven planets of Medieval cosmology.  Thus, when the end of summer draws near, I pick the top seven reads of the summer that best match with the characteristics of the seven Medieval planets.  Without further ado, then, let's get on to the awards!

Moon: For the planet of madness, change and flux we have Terry Brooks' The Druid of Shannara.  This meditation on mutability has a city turned to stone along with its godlike keeper, a woman changed into the earth, an elemental changed into a monster, a wandering minstrel into king, and finally a reluctant recluse into the first of a new order of Druids.

Mercury: For the planet of language and travel, only one book this summer will do: Memories of Odysseus by Francois Hartog.  Hartog devotes this masterpiece of the historians craft to the way the ancient Greeks, and by extension ourselves, understand the interplay between language, boundaries, and identity.

Venus: For the planet that knows the two sides of Love, divine and infernal, only Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte will do.  In her quest for Love, Jane learns to discern between the two sides of this powerful sphere and learns why God tempers his justice with Sorrow as well as Mercy.

Sun: The heaven of scholars in these awards has traditional belonged to the Inklings and their interpreters.  In keeping with this spirit, I have two awards to give in this category, one for an Inkling and one for a piece of Inklings scholarship.  For the Inklings the prize goes to Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays by J.R.R. Tolkien.  For Inklings scholarship, the award goes to The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac Glyer.

Mars: Infortuna Minor was viewed by ancients and medievals alike as one of those "necessary evils" which befall men upon middle earth.  This year's award goes to a work that struggles to keep in view both the good and the bad of the martial spirit: G.K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse.

Jupiter: The award for the planet of kings goes to that prince of comic characters Hellboy and Mike Mignola's Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury.  I'd tell you more, but that would risk spoilers...

Saturn: For the planet of endings, this summer's final award goes to The Iliad by Homer.  The Iliad presents us with a world that, like the shield of Achilles, is full of scenes of ceaseless conflict and in the end born up by the war that is at the heart of the cosmos itself.  Homer, that prince of poets, looks into the void of chaos and mother night and seeks a way to live.

So there you have it folks, 2012's Seven Heavens of Summer Reading.  It's been quite a trip, but well worth it.  So how about you?  What are your "Seven heavens" this summer?

*Runners up: Comus by Milton, Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield, Posthomerica by Quintus of Smyrna, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, David Elginbrod by George MacDonald, Lewis Agonistes by Louis Markos, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, and The Elf Queen of Shannara

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

More Talismans of Shannara: The Platypus Reads CXC

Reading The Talismans of Shannara, encountering its particular tone again after so many years, brings with it a constant succession of images.  For some reason, Tyrsis and Varfleet are linked in my mind with the wintry world of Narshe in Final Fantasy III/VI (the book predates the game by two years).  I suppose there's also a Resistance in the game and several attempts to enter and escape an occupied city.  Still, I'm not quite sure how these things became connected in my mind.  Other disjointed memories come floating in: eating bread and cheese in the basement before going out to shoot with the bow and practice knife throwing, listening to the BBC's production of The Hobbit, playing a Tolkien ccg in the vaulted family room during a thunder storm.  Was I reading the book when these things happened?  Why these images and not others?  I don't know.

One thing I do know: we did because we read.  Our world was interesting because it was wrapped in story.  Hiking, fishing, archery, knife-throwing, wilderness lore, canoeing, camping, weren't mere pastimes, they were doing the sort of things our literary heroes did.  The woods were more interesting because they were elven.  Because there was Eldwist, all abandoned buildings were transfigured.  There were no Shadowen in the woods, but the woods became different once we knew that they were the sort of woods where Shadowen might live.

Those are my thoughts.  It's odd to have them connected to a piece of light fiction that I wouldn't have bothered to pick off the shelf for summer reading if I hadn't had a reason for it.  Maybe that's Terry Brooks' ultimate triumph: creating images, however poorly, that sink into the leaf mold of the brain and wind themselves into the way we see our world.

*Begin Plot-Relevant Material*

Today's post brings us up to the mid-point of chapter nine.

Too many prison breakouts.  The Tyrsis prisons will have to install revolving doors, ours heroes go in and out of them so fast.  So now we have Damson in prison and Padishar and Par organizing a jail break.  This, of course, goes awry and leaves Padishar in jail with Par and Damson free to organize his rescue (which, after some initial resistance, they don't seem in much of a rush to do).  The scene does keep the plot moving, however, and gets rid of Padishar long enough for Par to begin developing a little heroic spine.  Par's choice to drag Damson out of the prisons and abandon Padishar moves him out of the passive role that he's had for quite some time now.  Indeed, Brooks was obliged to find some way to get Padishar out of the way from the moment he appeared on scene just to give his major character enough room to grow (an thus catch up with Wren and Walker).  The capture scene is at least and efficient way of doing that that flows logically from the plot and characters.  Plot a tone are really all that are saving the novel at this point.

As Padishar and Damson escape, Brooks wisely begins uniting the different threads of his master-narrative with the discovery of Paranor and the return of Coll.  Paranor offers some hope for our hitherto much thwarted main character, and Coll gives Brooks the perfect excuse to pry him away from his chief prop: Damson.  This is the pattern of character growth that has worked so well for Walker and Wren: take the character, remove everything that supports and defines them and see what they do.  The episode with Coll also gives Par the further assurance that the Sword of Shannara is real: another powerful win that should give him the courage and determination he needs for some darin' do.

Finally, we shift the story back to a more developed character: Morgan.  Morgan's become fairly cool since his journey north and now he's actually a fit hero to follow.  Morgan has been wailed on for most of the time he's been on screen and I'm guessing that much of his time in this final episode will be spent rebuilding and healing.  We get a little picture of this in the flashback to his illness after coming down into the Rabb.  The main venue of this healing shows up almost immediately in the form of Matty Roh.  Lose one girl, get new girl.  Not very imaginative, but it will keep the story moving.

That's as far as I've gotten.  There's lots of adventure, but little substance so far.  We'll see what happens once the novel kicks into high gear.

Monday, August 20, 2012

First Thoughts on The Talismans of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXIX

In my end is my beginning -T.S. Eliot

So, dear reader, I end where I began.  The first Shannara book I read was The Talismans of Shannara.  I don't quite remember how I came to pick up the last book of the Heritage Series first.  Somewhere along the line I suppose I got the impression that they were serial novels.  Anyhow, I was experiencing severe withdrawal after having come to end of all the Tolkien I could get my hands on.  Back then, when a young teenage boy asked what he could read next, the Shannara books were where everyone sent him.  So, just an author's name in hand, I shuttled off in my mom's Taurus wagon to the library (a wonderful, old Victorian edifice).  There among the stacks I grabbed the first volume by Terry Brooks (who I assumed at the time must be a woman since I didn't know any Terrences) that came to hand.  I remember sitting at the table in the breakfast nook and looking out the window at the forest where the trees made their endless dance of silver and green.  There, I opened the book and began reading about a man named Rimmer Dall.

It's been a long road from Connecticut to Texas.  Picking up The Talismans of Shannara, even just looking at its cover, opens up a doorway in my mind to those lost summers.  Scents, sights, voices, odd sensations, a different state of mind all come flooding back as if the intervening years mean nothing.  There's the garrison colonial at the bottom of the hill with its grey walls, white trim, black shutters, and the big red door.  -or the sound of Canada geese lifting off the lake in the morning.  I remember living in the finished room in the cellar, and trips with the quiz team to Pennsylvania.  All the lost years are there, wedged into the pages of a paperback book.

*Begin Spoilers and Other Relevant Stuff*  

This post will cover up to the beginning of Chapter 5.  Herein we learn how Rimmer Dall plans to deal with the scions of Shannara, how Padishar Creel discovers Par and Damison in Tyrsis, how Damison is then captured by the odious Federation and with the aid of the Mole her escape is attempted, and how Walker Boh finishes his druidical transformation and is besieged together with Cogline and Rumor by the Four Horsemen.

The Talismans of Shannara resumes with the same tone as The Scions of Shannara.  This means that there is (again) a slight jerk in the mental gears as we shift from the previous novel.  Stringing out three plots over four books puts a definite strain on the series, but it is not terminal.

Moving on, it is interesting that the novel begins with Rimmer Dall.  This is a good move on Brooks' part as he gives us a scene that immediately raises the tension and creates a sense of anticipation.  By letting us in on Dall's "evil genius" planning session, we instantly know what problems our heroes will face and begin wondering how they will get out of it.  That curiosity will carry us through the next few chapters as Brooks then takes time to establish said challenges or at least produce adventurous interludes that keep readers turning pages.

Once Rimmer Dall is out of the way, we return to the hero who began it all three books ago, Par Ohmsford.  Par is the weakest character in the ensemble, but by now there's enough material to at least make him a character that can hold readers' attention if there's a suitable amount of action.  Brooks is wise to keep the story rolling at a fast pace whenever we turn to Par, and the reappearance of Padishar Creel with the subsequent capture of Damson Rhee do the job.  Brooks does incur some authorial debt by having Damison captured, however, as the "prison break" motif is already overused in the series.  Again, the pace of the adventure, the increase in stakes due to the growing unpredictability of the Wishsong, and the rich setting of Tyrsis all work to mitigate some of this debt.

Walker Boh is a little bit more robust of a character, so when we turn to him the narrative can slow down a little.  Walker is just finishing his transformation into the new druid when we meet him, and it's interesting that the process of becoming has been spread out over all four books, rather than confined, like Wren's, to a single volume.  With Cogline and Rumor still alive, it seems that the final stripping has yet to take place before he can truly be divested of his old identity and reconstituted as the new Allanon.  Stringing the process out like this means that The Druid of Shannara lacks the same "punch" as The Elf Queen of Shannara, but it also serves as plot thread that unites the four works together.  This leads me to wonder: if the first series is really about Allanon, is the Heritage Series really about Walker?

Those are my thoughts for now.  The school year is getting started around here, so future posts may be less frequent and more abbreviated.  We'll see.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Final Thoughts on The Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXVIII

I've been on a trip and that's kept me away from the keyboard for the past week.  It hasn't kept me away from the books, however, and I ended up finishing The Elf Queen of Shannara.  Rather than try to break that huge chunk of pages down into several posts, I'm going to attempt to summarize here my thoughts on the work as a whole with a brief summary of the events since chapter 18 to help jog any faulty memories.

*Spoiler Alert*

When we last left our heroes, Wren had taken up her role as Queen of the elves.  Now, we have remaining in the company of the Loden only Wren+animal friends, Garth, Eowen, Gavilan, Triss, and Dal.  With Ellenroh's death, Eowen decides to tell Wren the secret behind the demons and the renewal of elven magic.  Quite simply, the elves are both the demons and the Shadowen, or least some of them are.  The elves delved too deep and too greedily and awakened that from which they fled...  Oops, wrong book.  This revealed, Eowen predicts her own death and is promptly captured and killed by the Drakuls (name give any hint?) who use her as bait to get at Wren.  Wren blows them all away with super-awesome pyrotechnics and finally begins to overcome her reticence about using the magic.  Upon returning, Wren, Garth, Triss, and the happy forest creatures discover that Gavilan has nutted up and knocked Dal's brains out, running off with the Loden.  There's a wonderful chase through the jungle terminating in that wonderful little Checkov's Gun, the Wistron.  Gavilan's been gutted like a fish and Wren has to use more super-awesome pyrotechnics to destroy the Wistron and reclaim the Loden.  Garth is poisoned over the course of the fight and commits suicide (with Wren's help) after revealing that he knew Wren's parents and had been training her to one day be the savior of the elves.  Wren has angst.  Triss and the fuzzy friends make it to the beach after smoking hordes of demons and Tiger Ty returns just in time to save the day.  After that, Wren puts the elves back in their proper place and we end with a cut-away to Walker Boh restoring Paranor and becoming the first of a new line of Druids.

That's the summary, now comes my thoughts.  This is the most tightly plotted of any of the books thus far.  There's reason for this as The Elf Queen of Shannara stands or falls on the tightness of its plot.  The whole work is straight action-adventure fair without any complexities to help carry it.  Compare this with The Druid of Shannara which actually manages to survive with most of its conclusion shoved into another novel(tEQoS).  Brooks, finally nailing it this time, sets himself a fairly simple goal: make Wren Ohmsford into the Queen of the Elves.  Everything in this work, even the cut-aways to other plot lines (which give us space to breath, contemplate, and raise the stakes of Wren's quest), is subservient to this one end.  How Brooks accomplishes this end is rather simple: use the death-trap of Morrowindl to strip his leading lady of everything that made her former identity and then use it to force her to accept a new identity as Queen of the Elves or die.  That's the whole book -and it works.

The only larger take-away I can find here is that I think I've forgotten just how much story is dependent upon plot.  I like Wren as a character, but in the end I was turning pages to find out what happened next (even when I sometimes remembered from prior readings!).  It was the tightness of the plot that held me.  Right now, I don't know what I think about that, but if I do I'll be sure to tell you.

Until next time dear reader.  We're three books down and one more to go!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXVII

This morning's post will take us all the way up to the beginning of chapter 18.  We're more than half-way there folks.

*Spoiler Stuffs*

The minute the company leaves Arborlon the body count begins to rise.  Tolkien hated character killing, but Brooks has always been willing to spill blood.  Early on, he did this with armies of red-shirted-ensigns.  With The Elf Queen of Shannara even the ensemble are no longer safe.  In a matter of a few chapters we lose both the Owl and the Queen.  From a plot standpoint, this is necessary to allow Wren to assume leadership of the company and thus become "the Elf Queen of Shannara."  Killing them off also raises the stakes forcing the reader to acknowledge that no one in this book is safe as well as investing the audience more deeply in the work via the pathos created by the death of a beloved character.

Brooks' writing, from a plot standpoint, is at its best in this portion of the work.  Everything that happens is logically connected and subordinated to the ultimate goal of making Wren queen.  Using the Loden weakens Ellenroh allowing her to contract a fever that leads to her death.  That fever is contracted in the swamp that they become lost in due to the disappearance of Stressa after the raft is attacked.  They might have been able to get out of the swamp, but the Owl is killed by a darter, a poisonous plant that Brooks has been careful to nonchalantly introduce earlier in the work.  The loss of Stressa and the Owl doom Ellenroh to death.  The maddening conditions of the jungle and the loss of his aunt act to unhinge Gavilan and thus cement Ellenroh's decision to make Wren her heir.  The urgency of the Queen's illness, the loss of their guides, and Garth's inability to track in dense jungle terrain all force Wren to use the elfstones and thus become the group's de facto leader.  Stressa does return, but too late to keep Wren from using the magic or being able to provide the root he used to help assuage Wren's fever (which Stressa has assured Wren did nothing to actually cure her anyhow).  Stressa's return, however, adds just enough lightness to help the audience bare the death of Ellenroh and accept Wren's sudden boost of determination to take charge and fulfill her grandmother's dying request.

To sum up, Brooks' story mechanics are firing on all cylinders here.  This is finally the stuff that I remember being so riveting and enjoyable as a kid.  It's also a reminder for writers of the increase in power that comes from paying careful attention to plot.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Tolkien's Dark Tower: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXVI

Tom Shippey points out in his Road to Middle Earth that the germ of Barad Dur, Sauron's Stronghold, comes from a scrap of Chaucer where the poet makes an offhand reference to a knight and his approach to "the dark tower."  Chaucer expected that everyone knew that story, but somehow in the intervening centuries it has become lost.  Using his imagination, Tolkien tried to delve back into the mine of story and imagine what this Dark Tower might have been.  We see several tries at this image, or several "accounts" in Tolkien's corpus.  The first is Thangorodrim, Morgoth's "dark tower," where he sits "on hate enthroned."  The second, and like unto it, is Sauron's original keep at Tol Sirion.  This is the dark tower before which Luthien, in all her frailty, stands and lays the deepest pits bare with her song (an image oddly reminiscent of protestant poets like Spenser, Bunyan, and Wesley).  Building on these two images, Tolkien constructs his final Dark Tower, Barad Dur, the body-fortress of Sauron.  This is the only dark tower that was known to the public in Tolkien's lifetime.  The other two would have been lost in the mines of story had not Christopher Tolkien gone dug into his father's papers and brought them to light in the published Silmarillion.  Interestingly, however, after all that work to bring the elusive "dark tower" to light, Tolkien deliberately begins the process of mythologizing it at the end of his Return of the King.  At Aragorn's coronation we find Ioreth telling her kinswoman that a halfling and his squire went deep into the enemy's territory and set fire to his tower.  Right after the events have happened they are already being obscured and passing into legend.  The Dark Tower begins to fade at the very moment of its recovery.

In a literal sense, this is true.  Tolkien's recovery of The Dark Tower as a mythopoeic image has led to the obscuring of his particular recovered image in popular culture.  In 1977, Terry Brooks gave his Warlock Lord his own re-imagined "dark tower."  Stephen King has his "Dark Tower" as well.  In how many other ways has this symbol been reworked and re-imagined since Tolkien brought it to light in the 1950s?  Even the films by Peter Jackson, due to the unique requirements of story-telling via film, have exerted a subtle distorting effect on Tolkien's original Barad Dur.

What does all this mean?  It might mean that symbols and stories are more powerful than the people who create them.  It might mean that the most powerful images are not actually created so much as "unearthed," or "reforged."  That, of course, begs the question of where such images come from if not ultimately from the mind of a human creator.  We could also ask if anyone has the "right" to fix an image, to create the definitive "dark tower."  After reading the Iliad, the relationship between recovery and loss, memory and forgetting stands out strongly in my mind.  G.K. Chesterton says that human beings are like Robinson Crusoe, survivors of some unaccountable shipwreck.  We are forced to work with the fragments that surround us and somehow shore ourselves together.  What caused the shipwreck is unknown, but all art and poetry, according to Chesterton, means that for a moment we remember that we have forgotten.  

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Favorite Shannara Characters: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXV

So I've been doing a lot of gabbing here about the Shannara books and their relative merits as light adventure fiction.  Thus far, there's been plenty of analysis, but very little geek out of pausing to simply enjoy the books as fun stories.  In that spirit, then, I'm going to take a shot at naming my favorite characters from the first seven books and invite you to do the same.  Who are your favorite Shannara characters?  Here are mine (in chronological order?):

1. Allanon:  Tall, bearded, dresses in black, learned, mysterious past, and packing more firepower than half the star fleet.  For me, at least, he is the most interesting character in the first three books.  The little glimpses we get into his thought, history, and struggles blow everyone else away.  I also enjoy watching him age and change from the angry-young-Gandalf of The Sword of Shannara, to the more grandfatherly and sad figure in The Wishsong of Shannara.  We really get to explore what it means to have the world (or at least the Four Lands) on your shoulders with all the limits of an exalted, yet finite being.

2. Garret Jax: Hardcore.  How can you not like a guy who looks like he just walked out of an Akira Kurosawa film?  I love the mystery that surrounds this wandering duelist and there's some real pathos to his death.  This is a pulp character in the great tradition of Haggard and Burroughs. 

3. Walker Boh: Walker is basically a younger version of Allanon who keeps his angst in different places.  I like Walker.  Sure, he can be whiny, but no more so than most late-twenties-early-thirty-somethings.  At that age there's always going to be tension between who you are and where you're at and who you thought you were supposed to be and where you actually are.  Having Cogline as a mentor also helps.

4. Rimmer Dal: The classic evil genius villain -but also a hard-core fighter in his own right.  I think he was the first of this sort of villain that I came across.  Sure, the Operative in Serenity is more sophisticated and Sauron is more mythopoeic, but I just like Rimmer Dal.  He's a great anti-Allanon. and definitely ups the ante in the world of the Four Lands.

5. Wren Ohmsford: She's the first one of Brooks' "tough girls" to come off as a believable and likable character in her own right.  Wren preserves a sense of adventure and wonder at the fantastic world that Brooks has created without seeming sappy or unduly naive.  Her more level-headed drive, and understanding that even the greatest heroes need to rely on their friends puts her cousin Par to absolute shame. 

Alright, so there we go.  If you have a dog in this fight, feel free to jump in!  I'd love to hear who your own favorite characters are from the first seven books.

Monday, August 06, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXIV

This morning's post will cover up to the beginning of chapter 14.

*Begin Spoilers*

After viewing the city and learning a little more about the history of the elves on Morrowindl, Wren is summoned to the council hall.  Here, we have Brooks try his hand at political writing as he imagines the elven high council arguing with the Queen over the fate of the island.  Ellenroh pushes for them to use the Loden, an elfstone set in the Rukh staff that the queen carries, to magically enfold the city so that it can be transported back to the Four Lands.  After initial objections the council, of course, agrees, and plans are made to begin the journey back to the beach the following day.  We then get a magnificent description of the invocation of the Loden's magic and the drawing up of the city into the Loden.  Just as things are getting interesting, however, Brooks cuts back to Walker Boh and Cogline at Paranor.


1. I appreciate Brooks' attempt at political intrigue.  This is new territory for him, at least in the Shannara books, and his initial sally is well handled.  We come away with a definite picture of how Ellenroh uses weight of personality and magical mystique to manipulate the council.  The various other players, though they don't get a lot of screen time, are given real objections and personalities.  To add spice to the mix, we are allowed to see how Gavilan hides behind his boyish charm to advance his own agenda, though what it is at this point remains unclear.  Wren's combination of teenage insistence on transparency, Rover street-smarts, and political naivete is quite believable and helps us negotiate the political situation while preserving a sense of "otherness" and mystery.

2. Did you notice that the company of the Loden shall be nine?  Little homage to Tolkien there.  Ok, so we are going to get the company of the ring here, but the trope is deployed in a more sophisticated way that it has in previous Brooks novels.  They're actually running away from Mount Doom rather than towards it with something to save rather than something to destroy.  Wren isn't exactly a hobbit, though she is still a teenager (teenagers=hobbits in Brooks' world), but she's far more savvy than any of the previous Ohmsfords with the exception of older and more magical Walker.  Without Allanon, we might also add that there's no obvious Gandalf analog.  Very interesting.  It's as if the fellowship of the ring have been thrown into Michael Chriton's Congo.

3. Has Brooks really hamstrung himself by having to constantly insert chapters that follow the other three plots?  I don't know.  It seems like they become random intrusions that disrupt the integrity of the individual novels, but I don't mind them.  They also have the advantage of keeping the other characters fresh in the audience's mind.  Still, the do disrupt the flow of the  larger narrative into which they are inserted.  It's an interesting technical choice, but I don't know what I think about it.

4. Wren's cool, but I still think Walker Boh is my favorite character in these books.  Make of that what you will.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXIII

A quick post today just to finish off chapter 11.

*Begin stuff-that-you-might-not-want-to-read-if-you-haven't-read-the-book*

Chapter 11 really is the most interesting chapter (for me) in the book thus far.  Brooks keeps the pacing fast even though most of the chapter is taken up with conversation.  All the character's uneasiness and Brooks' stinginess in handing out information keeps up a good sense of tension that rolls right on to the next chapter.  Even though the space is brief, Brooks' is able to give us strong and swift portraits of the key players: Ellenroh, the Owl, Gavilan, Phaeton, and Eowen (shame on you Mr. Brooks!).  The frantic battle scene that ends the chapter with its display of the raw power the elves have rediscovered is quintessential Shannara.  These last two points, strong, swift character portraits and lavishly drawn battle scenes, are the hallmarks of the Shannara series; sometimes the only thing they have going for them.  With the return of these elements, it seems like Brooks is back on his game.

This does make me wonder about the risks involved in trying something new as a published author.  As I've said before, I'm convinced that Brooks is trying some deliberately different techniques in the middle books of the Heritage Series.  There seems to be a greater attempt at working cross-genre and a willingness to discard earlier tropes (where is the "fellowship of the ring" in the novel thus far?).  Some of these novel techniques seem to have worked and some seem to have fallen flat.  To be honest, if I hadn't made a deal with myself, I'd probably have ditched The Elf Queen of Shannara by now (and missed the good stuff!).  All that to say it seems like an author needs some considerable rapport with the publisher and the audience before it's safe to experiment.  The copy of The Elf Queen of Shannara I have is a well-bound hardcover with thick and lovely faux old-fashioned paper.  I think it originally retailed at somewhere around thirty dollars.  Lavishing that sort of production cost on a pulp novel says something about the publisher's confidence that it will sell, and sell big.  I guess if every book you've put out is a New York Times bestseller, you can get a little freedom to experiment.  But what if you're not?  I think of the kind of herculean patience Allen and Unwin had with J.R.R. Tolkien.  He had one fairly decent selling book and the publisher was willing to wait twelve years for a very different and very expensive to produce sequel.  Who would have published The Lord of the Rings if they had lost their nerve?  Then I think of the creative eclecticism of C.S. Lewis.  What publisher today would allow for all the genre crossing and experimentation that marks Lewis' distinctive canon?  Brooks' experimentation is small beans compared with these old titans and yet they got away with it before they were famous.

To finish up these semi-cohate musings: I wonder what role publishers play in helping or hindering authorial development.  How free was Brooks to experiment in this series?  He's certainly grown as an author over the course of writing them.  Would greater freedom have produced better work or frittered it away chasing snipes?  What budding Tolkiens or Lewis out there have been cut off by the financial realities of the publishing industry.  Those aren't rhetorical questions.  I simply don't know.

Friday, August 03, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXII

Today's post will take us up to the middle of Chapter 11, or roughly half way through the book.

*Spoiler Material*

Wren, Garth, and the happy forest friends arrive a a besieged Arborlon after being chased around the island by various nondescript "demons."  Wondering what in the world they're going to do now, they run into Link the Owl who offers to escort them into the fortified city.  More nondescript monsters attack and Wren is "forced" to use the elfstones again to annihilate a city block's worth of baddies.

That's about what it felt like to read things up to that point.  I wasn't able to really engage with the story and it all fell a little flat.  Even the monsters, which are usually Brook's favorite part, seemed pasteboard.  Upon entering Arborlon, however, the story finally begin to pick up some steam.

Now we find out that the Rover girl is really the long lost elven princess.  Her return has been prophesied for years and she will now somehow save her people.  But there are problems, and for now, at least, no one will admit to Wren what they are or that they exist.  Predictable, perhaps, but now we're getting somewhere.  Characters (Ellenroh, Eowen, Galavin, the Owl, Triss) come pouring in and ask us to make quick judgements on their characters and motives.  The nature of the demons remains elusive as well as how exactly the elves managed to transport their entire city to Hawaii Morrowindl.  There's even the question of how the evac will take place, though it's clear that the elfstones will play some role.

Like I said, now we're cooking with propane.

So, that said, what was the problem with the first third of the novel?  Looking back, I think I can take a few guesses:

1. Problems of subcreation.  The one elf we meet in the first third of the book doesn't "feel" elfin in any noticeable way.  In fact, Tiger Ty's archetype, the cranky pulp pilot, is decisively modern and belongs in the rather un-elfin world of motors and machines.  In Brooks' world, magic and machinery don't go together so even if he's flying a Roc and not a bi-plane there's still a clash between the inherently modern character and the magical race he's supposed to represent.  There are ways to work the logic here, but the literary "flavor" is still disrupted.

2. Wavering between a concrete threat that lacks any depth and creeping dread.  The demons that form the main antagonists in the first third of the work just aren't that scary or interesting.  Brooks usually revels in creating horrific monsters, but the denizens of Morrowindl lack any verve or vigor.  If they were just shadows and nameless fears, that could really work, but Brooks has to have them come out and chase our heroes around the island, and by then the game's up.

3.Happy Forest friends that break the tone of the work.  Though they are the products of experimental mayhem, ala The Island of Doctor Moreau, Stressa and Faun are just a little too cutesie for the setting.  Perhaps Stressa could be gotten away with, but Faun (thought I have nothing particular against him as a character) is just a little too "happy forest creature" for an island that's supposed to be a death-trap.

None of these three points is fatal on its own, but put them all together and they drain much of the interest out of the plot.  Perhaps this could be compensated for with deep psychological yum-yums, but they're just not there.

Anyhow, all of that said, I'll look forward to seeing how the work progresses from here on out.