Thursday, July 25, 2013

Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword: The Platypus Reads Part CCXXXV

Today's post will review Robert E. Howard's The Phoenix on the Sword as part of a greater series on the Howard anthology The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  Though these stories have been around since the 1930s, those who have not read them and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

*Plot Material Ahead*

The Phoenix on the Sword introduced the world to Conan, that great hero of Sword and Sorcery.  Oddly enough, it is an introduction that begins near the end, rather than beginning with the beginning.  Howard claimed that he wrote the stories without any reference to chronological order so as to give the impression that they were "fireside tales" told as the occasion and recollection prompted.  In our initial meeting with Conan, we see him as king and conqueror, soon to be a figure of legendary proportions.  All the swashbuckling, pilfering, and roaming we find in the tales of Conan's early years is to be understood in this light: our hero is meant for something greater.  In doing this, as Patrice Louinet notes in the introduction to the volume, Howard sets Conan up as a character who grows.  Most of the adventures may run the same: Conan has lost everything from the previous adventure and rolls into town to make his fortune once more by dint of his strong arm.  The character who takes part in each episode does not remain the same: and that's were Conan's story becomes compelling.

Even in the first story, we are immediately aware that Conan inhabits a richly imagined world.  Robert E.Howard studied history and enjoyed writing historical fiction.  We can see him in this first episode welding together elements from our world that strike just the right tone without feeling obtrusive.  Quotes taken from various "documents" open each chapter offering us further hints.  Without bogging down the story, Howard is careful to include strategic references to the history, politics, and culture of Conan's world in the conversation of the characters, thus avoiding lengthy explanations by the narrator.  The overall effect is astounding: Conan's Hyborian Age comes alive right out of the gate and doesn't let up until the finish line is far behind.

The plot construction of The Phoenix on the Sword is also ingenious.  The core story is an assassination attempt narrated from multiple viewpoints revealing the thoughts, motivations, and reactions of both the conspirators and the intended victim.  Over this is layered a revenge story detailing Thoth-Ammon's over-throw, enslavement, and return to power seen chiefly from the point of view of the villain.  The final layer is composed of legendary material in which the Marduk-like Epemitreus (note the older-sounding Greek name given to the founding hero of the Romanesque Aquilonian Empire that gives the whole myth a flavor of antquity) enlists Conan's aid in his eternal struggle against the Tiamat-like Set.  Howard smoothly interlaces all three stories together to form a confident, swift whole that caries the reader along while keeping any one thread from getting stale or falling into mere cliche.

So, from the first Conan story Howard's genius for telling a "ripping good yarn" is already evident.  He works as an established professional who knows exactly what he's doing, weaving history, myth, and fantasy together to create exactly the desired effect.  Perhaps the real masterstroke of The Phoenix on the Sword is in giving us a character with a built-in teleology, a literary down-payment if you will, that guarantees the scale and interest of the stories yet to come.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

First Thoughts on The Coming of Conan the Cimerian: The Platypus Reads Part CCXXXIV

With the Summer of Shannara safely finished and some weeks of the summer still remaining, I have decided to use the same reviewing techniques to examine a new work by a new author: The Coming of Conan the Cimerian, the first in a volume of collected short stories by Robert E. Howard.  Howard helped create and define sword and sorcery giving the genre its archetypal hero before his death at the age of thirty.  His craft as a pulp writer at that age was already incredible and one can only wonder what heights he might have reached.  At his best, Howard's stories have a reality and immediateness that rivals, and perhaps surpasses, Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Other authors in the genre like Leiber, Moorcock, and Zelazney can't compare.  All that to say I'm looking forward to beginning this quest into the realms of pulpy goodness.

With that said, I do have some matters to attend to that will keep me from posting my findings for a week to a week and a half.  Sorry for the delay, but stay tuned.  Good things are coming.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Final Thoughts on First King of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CCXXXIII

This post will cover the remaining chapters of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara along with my final assessment of the work.  Those who have not read the book and do not want the ending spoiled should not read on.

*Spoilers Plain and Simple*

So here we go.  The end was known from the beginning and now we have it: the final confrontation with the Warlock Lord and the creation of a legend.  Rather than outline it all for you, I'll break this last section down into pros and cons.  Pros need to go first.

Pro: The action rises straight through to the conclusion.  The penultimate battles are striking and well-narrated.  The final chapter shifts into a more "legendary" tone that lends the ending sufficient gravitas and the mood is fitting for the Pyrrhic victory with which the story concludes.  Allanon also becomes integrated into the cast in the way he needs to be for the ending to satisfy.  The greatest praise goes to the subtle way in which Brooks allows us to feel that the tide of battle is turning against the Warlock Lord without ever letting up on the tension or allowing us to think that victory is a foregone conclusion.  In a book where we already know that the villain will lose, that's quite the achievement.

Cons: The final battle with the warlock lord feels like it would have worked better on film than in a novel.  There was too much meaningless cutting back and forth between the characters that did little to raise tensions and made great swaths of it feel contrived.  The Warlock Lord is also just not that impressive as a villain.  Finally, Tay Trefenway never has enough weight as a character to become the rallying cry that Brooks wants to make him.  He and Risca always feel like throw-away characters right down to the bitter end.

With the last chapters of the work out of the way, it's time to give a final assessment on First King of Shannara.  From a mere technical standpoint, Fist King of Shannara is superior to the seven books that precede it.  Bremen is a wonderfully realized character and, like Qi Gon Jin, my only regret is that we don't get more of him.  The other characters that people the book are less fully-realized, but the fact that this is the first fully adult cast in The Shannara Series helps elevate the general tone of the work and avoids some patent silliness present in the previous books.  What is lacking in First King of Shannara that was present in its predecessors is that sharp inventive edge that gives the series its imaginative force.  The chapters surrounding the forging of the sword are the only place where it appears.  The rest of the work is rather bland by comparison and leaves me with the final verdict of "merely competent."  However, "merely competent" is a good place to strike out for further writing endeavors.  Mr. Brooks is still publishing.  ...and I am still reading.        

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXIII

Ephemera.  Ephemeral.

It's the little details that make a place a place.  Those little details are what artists and set designers seek out to give that final touch of reality to their creations.  They're also often what gets ignored and so they weather, crack, and fade away into nothing: the dilapidated old house at the corner, the row of fence posts with their rusted barbed wire, the cemetery at the edge of town.  In our McWorld, these are the things in all their impermanence and unimportance that in the end create definition and individual identity.


A Return to Throne of Blood: Film Platypus

I hung out with film majors during my college years.  It was great.  Not only were they fun people, but I learned a lot about today's dominant story-telling medium.  Some of my best memories revolve around marathon movie watching, particularly when several of the guys were going through the Akira Kurosawa phase.  Recently, my wife and I have been using Netflix to boost our appreciation of great film and I suggested adding a good chunk of Kurosawa to the queue.  So far, we've done Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood.

I don't think I've seen Throne of Blood (1957), Kurosawa's retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, in about a decade.  Watching it again last night reminded me why this film drew the admiration of T.S. Eliot himself.  The black and white is used to maximum effect creating a world of shadows and mists that perfectly underscores the moral murk of the story.  The special effects are simple and evocative.  The acting is wonderful with Isuzu Yamada's portrayal of the Lady Macbeth analog, Asaji, as the best I've ever seen.  Toshiro Mifune as the Macbeth character, Taketoki Washizu, is stellar as ever and wins the method acting god award for performing his final scene while under fire from real arrows.  Most importantly, Kurosawa's adaptation stands completely on its own: no knowledge of the source material is necessary to appreciate this monument of cinematic art.  Coming from the English speaking side of the equation, the transferal from original material to new composition is complete.  It would have made that consummate borrower and adapter, Shakespeare, proud.

So, whether you're a film buff, a Shakespeare enthusiast, or just like a good story, consider moving Throne of Blood strait to the top of your Netflix queue.  I did, and I wasn't disappointed.

First King of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CCXXXII

Today's post will cover chapters XXIX and XXX of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  As always, don't read on if you haven't read the book yet and want to keep it a surprise.


Chapter XXIX cuts away from the action in the west to follow Kinson and Mareth's attempt to rally what's left of the dwarves.  The pass through the ruins of Culhaven, fight a skull bearer left to keep watch and link back up with Risca and the dwarven remnant.  Brooks attempts to continue Mareth's character development in this chapter by having the skull bearer pretend to be her long lost father.  The action plays like a hasty remix of Rimmer Dal and Par Ohmsford in The Talismans of Shannara and thus falls flat.  The dramatic smooch between Kinson and Mareth when its all over is too cliche to be really satisfying (For me reading about it at least.  If it worked for them, who am I to disagree?  That's what I get for peeping in on other people's business).  Aside from character development, the scene is also meant to simultaneously increase tension by keeping us wondering what's happening with the elves while at the same time giving us just a little hope that with the dwarves found the tables can be turned.  Welcome to the world of pulp.  This is how we roll.

Chapter XXX cuts back to the battle for the Rhenn.  Terry Brooks seems to have read a little Sun Tsu between this and the last chapter so the battle scenes have a freshness that's been lacking so far.  Jerle's continued struggle to believe that the Sword of Shannara can help him is kept at the forefront of our attention in tandem with his military genius.  The hope is that we will admire Jerle as a legendary leader while understanding his ultimate failure to use to the sword.  It's a bold move, and I think it's probably more than Brook's story is able to handle.  My guess at this point is that he'll partially pull it off.  The question of whether he'll finesse the rest with pulpy panache is still up for grabs.  There have been enough flat spaces in First King of Shannara to make me doubt, but enough inspired moments to give me hope.  The end is coming soon, so I won't have to wait long to find out.

Friday, July 19, 2013

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXXI

This post will cover chapters XXVI through XXVIII of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  We're nearing the end of yet another "Summer of Shannara" and I hope to have this book finished by the end of next week.  Plans are in the works for a similar blog-through of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories so stay tuned!  In the meantime, let me give the usual waver: if you haven't read First King of Shannara and want to remain spoiler free don't read on.

*Plot Sensitive Material*

Chapter XXVI closes out the section entitled The Forging of the Sword.  Here, Bremen takes the weapon forged by Urprox Screl to the spirits of the Hadeshorn.  Rising up from the abyss, the druids of the past each impart what remains of their power to convert the sword into a talisman capable of destroying the Warlock Lord.  We've already had one Hadeshorn scene in this book, but this second tryst doesn't disappoint.  The council of druid shades is frightening image and Brooks plays it to the hilt.  He also wisely holds off on explaining what the druid dead have done to the sword while the scene is playing out (though we can guess having read the earlier books).  The sense of mystery heightens the dramatic tension.  Brooks has done so many of these summoning scenes in the first eight books that it amazes me that he can make each one interesting.

As an addendum to the Hadeshorn, chapter XXVI closes with Bremen following in the destructive wake of the Warlock Lord's army.  The scenes of devastation are well-narrated, as are most scenes in the Bremen plot-thread.  The finding of Allanon in the rubble of Varfleet is the only bit that fails to work for me.  The whole thing seems forced.  To be honest, if I were Terry Brooks, I would have kept Allanon out of the main action and had Bremen anoint Mareth with the druid legacy in an echo of The Wishsong of Shannara maybe coming to claim a baby Allanon in a post-script.  If Allanon is going to be present in the main story, then I would have done more to develop his appearance as an organic part of the plot.  As I said, the way Brooks has it play out feels forced.

Chapter XXVII brings us to the section entitled The Battle for the Rhenn.  Poor Rhenn.  I swear this must be the most fought over real estate in the Four Lands.  Chapter XXVII itself deals with the preshow before the fight gets started.  We get a good performance from Bremen and a typically lack-luster performance from everyone else.  Brooks lets us know see in no uncertain terms why Jerle Shannara will fail.  Since we know that already, the author needed to put some sort of spin on the material that would make it interesting: as in the chapters relating the forging of the sword.  Since the characters are weak and Brooks decides to play it straight with the narration, there's really nothing to interest us.

Chapter XXVIII suffers from all the defects of chapter XXVII and adds to them a tired rehash of the night raid from The Elf Queen of Shannara.  I also have trouble buying in to the tactics and logistics of Brooks' armies at this point, but maybe I'm not the target audience (I've just been reading Jim Lacey's First Clash, and account of the logistics, strategies, tactics, and politics involved in the Battle of Marathon).

All this means that with less than 100 pages to go, this novel is really struggling to hold my attention.  That's ok.  When you right a book once a year for thirty years some of them will inevitably fall flat.  The thing is to get back on the horse and keep trying: and that's exactly what Terry Brooks has done.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXX

Today's post will cover chapters XXIV and XXV of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Once more, the goal is to blog after each of my reading sessions in order to record a more in-depth assessment of the work as I'm actually experiencing it.  A final post giving my thoughts on the book as a whole will be posted at the end.  For previous entries in this series, click on the label "Shannara" at the bottom of this post.  Thoughts on other authors of note can be found on the side bar.  For the sum total of my literary musings, click the label marked "The Platypus Reads" at the bottom of this post.  As always, if you don't want spoilers, don't read on.

*Spoilers...  I know, I feel like I still have to say it...*

Chapters XXIV and XXV begin the inevitable interlacing of the three plots (the sword, the elves, the dwarves) that will draw the novel to its thundering conclusion.  The first part of chapter XXIV features more dramatic dwarf battles that again break off with a cunning escape.  To keep the tension up, the second half of the chapter switches to the Elves and their decision to crown Jerle king and finally get a move on.  For the first half, I don't have much to say.  The narration is more of what we've come to expect from Brooks' fight scenes.  Risca seems to have almost unlimited power and still seems rather ill-defined as a character.  I mean, what doesn't this guy do an who doesn't he know?  The only thing the scene really produces is tension and that's what it's meant to do.  When in doubt, fall back on pacing.  The second scene is only really interesting in the Preia Starle seems to have moved from sex-object to Lady MacBeth.  If Brooks had built her up as Lady MacBeth from the beginning it would have made for a more compelling sub-plot.  Jerle's character would have made more sense and the overall effect would have been compelling -like watching two people saw off the branch their sitting on.  Maybe that's what Brooks was going for but, if so, he totally flubbed it.  As a side note, I am waiting for someone to say "En taro Trefenwyd Executor."

Chapter XXV is really all about plot business and is actually a very cleverly disguised laundry list: figure out what to do about sword, split up the company, keep Mareth and Kinson's relationship growing, hint that the dwarves have been wiped out, help Mareth out with her magic a bit, and throw in the King of the Silver River to please the fans.  All of that should make for a crappy chapter, but somehow it's a lot more readable and compelling than the previous one.  Again, Brooks seems to fire on all cylinders only when he's with Bremen and Co.  From what I can see, they are the particular characters and the particular plot that he wanted to write.  Except for the fact that Brooks has been wedded to frenetic p.o.v jumping since at least The Elfstones of Shannara, it might have been better for him to have written the entire novel from Bremen and Co.'s p.o.v.  After all, Jerle functions better as a mythic character anyway and the dwarf plot is already underdeveloped.  At least it would have produced a more daring novel in the vein of The Druid of Shannara.  As it is, two-thirds of this book falls flat. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part XXII

Assisi.  It's like wandering through Minas Tirith.  The town is mostly depopulated after a devastating earthquake in the late nineties.  Aside from the occasional car barreling through, the medieval city is perfectly pristine.  We spent the night here in tower-like building that had been converted into a hotel.  There was also plenty of time to wander.  If you ever go to Assisi, that's perhaps the best thing to do: just wander.


First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXIX

This post will address Chapter XXIII of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Those who have not read the work and wish to remain spoiler-free should not read on.

*Plotsees my precioussss....*

Chapter XXIII brings us to the moment we've all been waiting for: the forging of the sword.  Here, at last, Terry Brooks is firing on all cylinders.  There is just the right blend of anecdote and archetype for the scene to function in the novel and yet be the epic moment that fans have wanted since 1977.  If more of the First King of Shannara was narrated in this tone it would be a better book (think how the elevated tone of The Silmarillion preserves its feeling of antiquity even when the narration "zooms in" on specific characters and events).  We even have the satisfaction at the end of the chapter in knowing that Urprox Screl isn't a throwaway character but the ancestor of the the Creels so that when Panamon and Padishar insist that their fates are bound up with the Shannara family, they are saying something true.  That should be hokey, but when Brooks is at the top of his game, as he is in Chapter XXIII, then it works.

The trouble Brooks has been having in this book seems to be a result of the project itself: to write a successful prequel.  Tolkien got lucky when he created the material for The Silmarillion, published The Hobbit and then wrote The Lord of the Rings.  Each part of the story developed as a story in its own right first and then fed into the next work as it was in turn developed.  The Silmarillion and The Hobbit can function as "prequels" to The Lord of the Rings because they really do precede it.  More importantly for them, they can also function as isolated works in their own rights without reference to any others in the Legendarium.  I've had college friends who made their first entre into the works of Tolkien with The Silmarillion and loved it.  Coming back to Brooks, he didn't have this advantage of organic development when he sat down to write First King of Shannara.  Instead, he was left with seven books of developed material and a few disconnected episodes he had used in the first to get the story going and then modified in the third (the introduction of the Ildatch) to keep it going.  Here we have an author who is forced to commit to decisions he made twenty years ago as a college student.  It's not exactly a recipe for success.  I know his most recent efforts have been to create even more prequels to link his various series together and it makes me wonder if he's learned anything about the difficult and dangerous art of prequel writing (look what happened to George Lucas!).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXVIII

This post will cover chapters XIX through XXII of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Those who have not read the book and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

*Spoiling Schtuff*

Chapter XIX brings us back to Risca and the dwarves' attempts to delay the army of the Warlock Lord.  This chapter is "merely competent" in execution and might serve as a symbol of much of the book.  The fight scenes are well-narrated in simple, readable language.  The pace is fast without sacrificing coherence.  The problem is that it's all generic material that we've seen dozens of times before.  Raybur, Risca, and company are as soul-less and cardboard as the enemy hordes they face.  The setting and the action itself also fail to be evocative enough to supply what the characters lack.  The chapter, like so much of the book, is "merely competent" lacking the necessary flair to capture the imagination.

Chapter XX fairs little better than chapter XIX as we turn back to the elves and their crippled kingship.  Jerle is a defined character, but he isn't particularly likable.  Preia is too objectified by the narrator to be quite real and Vree Erreden is only interesting enough to pull his own weight.  In addition, Brooks' monarchs are entirely too democratic to entrance us with the pomp of royalty.  This chapter could have been saved (like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) by less stilted romance and more sweeping political pageantry.  The figure whose name dominates the entire cycle is about to be crowned king!

After finishing the previous two chapters I was seriously considering writing the book off as a failure.  Chapters XI and XII saved the day.  Dechtera, future capital of the Federation, pops to life in the first paragraph.  Instantly, we're back in the kind of imaginative setting that has always fueled the series.  My mind started to go back to the fantastic industrial landscapes of Final Fantasy VI and VII.  In short, I was ready to read again.  That readiness was repaid as Brooks carefully deploys his most developed characters (Bremen, Kinson, and Mareth) and returns to the main quest: forging the sword of Shannara.  This combination of setting and characters turns two rather static chapters into interesting reading.  Brooks actually makes Kinson's little trip to the sword shop work!  Mareth and Bremen are established enough that finally finding out why the one has sought out the other engages and satisfies.  Bremen as both teacher and grandfather figure charts his own territory: neither Allanon or Gandalf.  Mareth, the teenager who wants to find herself, should be a tired old trope, but Brooks has put enough time into developing her that she complements Bremen and enhances his character while also growing and developing on her own.

So there you have it.  I'm re-invigorated and ready for Chapter XXIII which should get us down to the sticky business of actually forging that magical sword.       

Monday, July 15, 2013

Tolkien and "The Ring of Words": The Platypus Reads Part CCXXVII

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, discusses Tolkien's involvement with the O.E.D. as a recently de-mobbed vet and goes on to examine the particular "word-hoard" created by this titan of Fantasy literature.  The book is a welcome resource for anyone who takes seriously Tolkien's assertion that the Lord of the Rings was primarily linguistic in inspiration.  Tolkien created the world of his stories to support his invented languages.  In writing those stories in English, then, Tolkien also worked to create a "poetic diction" that would impart the necessary "flavor" and shades of meaning to support the invented languages.  The Ring of Words is a short, concise look at this central aspect of Tolkien's creative process and a consideration of its unintended effect on the English language.

If you have read The Lord of the Rings, then this work stands on its own, but it also makes a nice companion piece with Tom Shippey's Road to Middle Earth.  Though I have issues with her synthesis, The Ring of Words may also pair well with Verlyn Flieger's Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXVI

This post will cover Chapter XVIII of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Those who have not read this book (or others in the original and Heritage series) and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

*Plot sensitive material follows*

Chapter XVIII details Bremen, Kinson, and Mareth's journey to Darklin Reach and their meeting with the former druid Cogline.  Bremen hopes to learn from Cogline the scientific process for making a metal that can withstand the intense forces that will be involved in forging the Sword of Shannara.  Cogline, after some intial reluctance, tells Bremen the procedure for making steal.

I was first struck by the lack of "wandering monster encounters" in the journey from Storlock to Darklin Reach.  Indeed, there has been a general lack of "wandering monsters" in the book as a whole.  This is a real improvement from the seven previous books that seem to revel in presenting the reader with a random "freak of the week" every time there's a travel narrative.  We all know how much Brooks likes his monsters, so this shows real restraint on his part in the service of telling a more believable story.

Places like Darklin Reach always remind me how very North American Terry Brooks is, and that his world is meant to be a post-apocalyptic North America, not a fantastic medieval Europe.  Tolkien casts such a long shadow over all of Brook's work that these "American" elements always feel jarring.  The meeting with Cogline is a thinly disguised camping trip complete with citronella candles.

Speaking of long shadows, it interests me that so many of the Shannara Books revolve around "involvement" versus "non-involvement."  Bremen is good because he gets involved.  Cogline is good, because once he's huffed a bit he gets involved.  Being a hero = getting involved.  Those who refuse involvement, like the Druids of Paranor, are not only selfish, they are also foolish since "non-involvement" always leads to destruction.  This seems to be something picked up from misreading Tolkien in light of the second world war.  Tom Shippey points out that Peter Jackson makes the same mistake in his film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  It's a sort of U.N. notion that we must all put aside our differences and unite to fight evil.  Tolkien agreed (with all sorts of caveats and reservations) with uniting to fight evil, but he strongly opposed anything beyond a simple defensive coalition.  The idea of a centralized order like the Druids of Terry Brooks' world would have struck him as a precursor to Barad-Dur.

Finally, Terry Brooks seems to envision Science as some sort of "force" locked in a ying-yang relationship with Magic.  Magic and Science are both alike in that they represent attempts to know and harness the material world through practicing a technique.  Indeed, they walked hand in hand together far longer than most realize.  Even just a century ago, Science was charging full speed ahead as was Occultism.  Brooks gives frequent nods to this in the book, but ideas like "science sleeps while magic is in the ascent" treat Science like it's a force, or power, or thing in and of itself rather than the name we give to a particular set of techniques oriented toward achieving a specific kind of knowledge with the goal of manipulating our world to suit our tastes.

So there you have it.  We'll see how these ideas play out in future chapters but, for now, I'm going to find some lunch.   

Friday, July 12, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXI

Europe has so many beautiful churches and so little use for them.  No one wants to bulldoze a work or art but, then again, not many feel the need to go to church anymore.  So what do you do with all the buildings?  Many urban centers in the United States have this problem too.  I've seen churches turned into art galleries and night clubs -this particular church in Venice has been converted into a museum of stringed instruments.  Note that the central image has been removed and that the lamps of the presence are out.  I'll let you make of it what you will.

First King of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CCXXV

This post will resume our discussion of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara, beginning with chapter XVI.  Once again, the purpose of this series of posts is to record my impressions after each reading session in order to create a more detailed and "in the moment" analysis of Brooks' literary skill.  Readers who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

*Plot Information*

Chapter XVI leads us into the Chew Magna, a fortress from the lost age of Faerie.  It's also the first real imaginative piece that I've seen in this story.  Much of First King of Shannara has felt a little paste-board and recycled.  With the Chew Magna, Brooks' world suddenly pops into life.  This is a setting to compare with the lost city of Eldwist in The Druid of Shannara or the labyrinthine tunnels and endless hideouts of The Scions of Shannara.  The garden at the center of the fortress formed from the life-forces of the fey who once used the Black Elfstone is at least worthy of an episode of Star Trek.  This was the first point in the novel where I found it hard to put it down.

Chapter XVII closes out the second section of the book with the finding of the Black Elfstone and the death of Tay Trefenwyd.  While the garden of the Chew Magna is strongly reminiscent of the Wishsong of Shannara's Maelmord, the scene has it's own life and narrative arc.  Once again, evil magic is portrayed as vaguely sadomasochistic; an odd quirk of Brook's that always bothers me.  Jerle Shannara is a defined character by now, but he isn't a particularly likable one and with the death of Tay it's hard to know how he'll carry the narrative load.  Preia Starle and Vree Erreden are only character sketches as well.  Tay's death has some pathos and nicely closes his character arch: he has no place in the world and musy die with the rest of the druids -with this difference: that his death has meaning.

The next section of First King of Shannara is called The Forging of the Sword and presumably returns us to the stronger character of Bremen.  This is all for the best since this is really his story more than any of the other characters.  I look forward to seeing how Brooks does.  The image on the jacket cover suggests that the artist found the forging of the Sword of Shannara to be the most evocative image in the book.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XX

What do you say about a bunch of guys who thought that one of their great achievements was stealing a dead body?  Ok, so the Greeks did it all the time with dinosaur bones...  Above, you can see a mosaic depicting the body of Saint Mark being unveiled in Venice after venetian merchants stole it from Egypt.  The mosaic stands over one of the doors of the Church of Saint Mark, the Doge's "little chapel."  Celebrating this kind of thing in glass and gold is yet another factor contributing to the sense of "inwardness" that seems to dominate the city.  One understands why Shakespeare set his "Othello" here.  The sense of exclusion is palpable. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXIV

Today's post will focus on Chapters XIV and XV of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Readers who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.  Also of note, I will be taking a week break from this series starting tomorrow in order to attend to some business.  Once that's over, the blogging will resume.

*Spoiler Stuff*

Chapter XIV returns us to the exploits of Tay, Jerle and company.  I guess I should say "little company."  Along with the word "shrug" it's one of Brooks' favorite terms.  Unfortunately, Brooks and his editor have not been able to extirpate all his bad habits over the course of two decades.  Oh well...  Moving on, this chapter returns us to the search for the Black Elfstone and also the search for Preia Starle.  There's lots of pulpy high adventure here complete with reconnaissance, sudden intuitions, chases, and a frantic ride right through the enemy picket line.  This is the stuff Brooks loves and he writes it well with panache.  We're losing red-shirts now by the half-dozen and have even lost named character Retten Kip, thus upping the stakes for our ensemble.  Hanging over the whole episode like an enormous Chekov's gun is the realization that Tay can kill people just by looking at them (with enough time and concentration).  This sparked one of the few memories I have of this book: Tay is going to have to kill himself.  That's really what we're working up to.  The audience needs to feel sorry for Tay so that they will feel the full force of his sacrifice.  There's more to it than that, but we'll discuss the rest when we get to it.  There's more of this sort of logical "tightness" in First King of Shannara than in Brook's previous work.  Though the book itself isn't as flashy or experimental as some of the others in the series, it is better written on a technical level.  Writing is a craft that can be learned and Mr. Brooks just keeps working at it.

Chapter XV is split roughly in half.  On a narrative level, it brings us from the pass to the hidden lake where the fortress containing the Black Elfstone resides.  The first half of this narrative, however, focuses on Tay and his continuing sense of dislocation.  Some of the material is repetitive, but the overall thrust remains: Tay must find some sort of meaning if he is to continue and finding the Black Elfstone must be it -the culmination of his life's work.  Thus, in finding the Black Elfstone Tay hopes to find himself.  The second half of the narrative is a Rider Haggard-esque discovery scene that provides the necessary sense of adventure after Tay's introspecting.  It's an interesting one-two punch, but the danger lies in the two elements getting in the way of each other.  I'm not sure whether I think that Brooks pulls it off.

Well that's it for now.  I'll look forward to posting again after the break.


Monday, July 01, 2013

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXIII

Today's post will cover chapters XII and XIII of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  If you have not read this book yet and wish to remain spoiler free do not read on.

*Spoiler Alert For Anyone Who Needs It*

So we're cutting away from the quest for the Black Elfstone.  Chapter XII and XIII turn away from Tay to follow up on the quests of Risca and Bremen.  Brooks did this sort of thing in the Heritage Series and I don't think it worked out so well.  If we're going to label an entire section of the book The Search For the Black Elfstone, oughtn't we to stick to only what relates to finding the Black Elfstone?  Cutting back and for allows us to keep the other characters in view and can be deployed tactfully to increase narrative suspense, but it comes at the price of unity.  I'm not sure why Brooks structured the sections of the book as if he was going to preserve the unity of each action and then interrupted it to keep his other characters in view.

That aside, let's look at the individual chapters.  Chapter XII follows Risca's attempts to assassinate the Warlock Lord on the spur of the moment.  It doesn't work.  The goals of the scene seem to be to establish Risca's hardcore credentials and to show that the Warlock Lord is invincible.  The action flows smoothly in true Brooksian style, but I don't know that it functions well enough in the overall story to be worth it.  If Risca really is the ultimate tactician, why would he make such a foolhardy attempt on the spur of the moment?  Brooks also violates the "unseen monster" principle again and risks "Voldemorting" his main baddy through too much screen time.  Given that his characters are all in their thirties or older, it can't be because he thinks he can pull one over on his pre-teen audience.  In the end, it comes off as a bit hard to swallow and without any of the pulp flair that allows the audience to laugh and go along with it (c.f. Edgar Rice-Burroughs' A Princess of Mars).  It's a good stock scene (infilitrate the enemy camp), but it suffers from poor placement and insufficient supporting logic.

Chapter XIII follows Bremen and Co.  Bremen is actually out when the scene begins and so we're just left for some totally-not-going-to-fall-for-each-other quality time with Kinson and Mareth.  We learn a little more about Mareth: that she can't fully control her magic and that she doesn't know her own origins.  (It sounds more like X-Men to me, but ok.)  Next, however, we get the unexpected pleasure of learning that we're going to get to see Cogline.  Old friends are always welcome and it will be interesting to see how Brooks presents the character at this point in his life.  Until we meet Allanon, this is the first character that brings us a real connection with the other books.  In between all this character interest, Brooks makes sure to keep the tension high with the patrolling skull bearer and the raiding party of trolls.  The incident with the trolls folds back into character development as Mareth uses more of her magic to scare them away.  The chapter closes out well with a thwarted Bremen finally making his appearance to announce that they are headed to Darklin reach and Cogline.

Chapter XIV promises to get us back on track for finding the Black Elfstone.  Were the past two chapters a wash?  This first one could probably have been scrapped.  The second works well as a discrete unit, but could perhaps have been better positioned in terms of the book as a whole.  Them's the breaks...  Writing a novel with multiple sub-plots isn't easy though if you're trying to follow Tolkien, using his structure might be a place to start.