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Posted by Keith DeCandido

This edition of “4-Color to 35-Millimeter” is dedicated to the memory of Len Wein, the co-creator of Swamp Thing (along with dozens of other comics characters, including Wolverine), who passed away earlier this month. We miss you, buddy.

The 1970s were a boom time for mainstream comics to try out other genres with their superheroes, bringing in other pop-culture tropes into their four-color world. In particular, there was a horror renaissance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with DC having success with characters like the Spectre, Dr. Fate, and Deadman while Marvel would give us the Son of Satan, Ghost Rider, and the seminal Tomb of Dracula comic.

In this atmosphere, Swamp Thing was created.

Gerry Conway and Len Wein were roommates at the time, both writing comics for both Marvel and DC. Stan Lee and Roy Thomas co-created Man-Thing for Marvel and gave it to Conway to script, and not long after, Wein co-created Swamp Thing for DC. The latter debuted in a 1971 issue of House of Secrets as an early 20th-century scientist is caught in an explosion and becomes Swamp Thing. The standalone story was sufficiently popular that Wein and artist/co-creator Bernie Wrightson were asked to do an ongoing comic with the character, who was updated to modern times, and which debuted the following year.

As created by Wein and Wrightson, the comic did well, and won several awards. However, as time went on and both moved on to other projects, interest in the title waned, and it was cancelled in 1976.

However, Wes Craven got his hands on the film rights, and wrote and directed a film in 1982. In order to capitalize on this big name attached to one of their characters, DC revived the character with a monthly title The Saga of the Swamp Thing. Wein served as the editor of the title, which was written by Martin Pasko. When Pasko left the title after 19 issues, Wein also left editorial reins, his last act being to bring in an obscure British writer named Alan Moore. New editor Karen Berger gave Moore free rein to revamp the character, which he did. It’s the comic book that truly put Moore on the radar of American comics readers, and led to further work, most of which you’ve probably heard of…

Swamp Thing would later be folded into the Vertigo imprint run by Berger, which published some of the finest horror comics of the last three decades (most notably Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Hellblazer starring former Swamp Thing supporting character John Constantine).

And we owe it all to Craven doing that first movie…

 

“There goes the neighborhood…”

Swamp Thing
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Produced by Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker
Original release date: February 19, 1982

Alice Cable arrives in the Louisiana swamps via helicopter for her new assignment: working with Dr. Alec Holland and his sister Dr. Linda Holland on a top-secret government project to create genetic hybrids of plants and animals in the hopes of being able to grow crops basically anywhere. It’s not clear what Cable’s specialty is, but given that she recognizes the equipment and is assigned to fix a sensor that’s gone down, she’s probably an engineer. It’s also not explained why she’s wearing a suit and heels and her escort is also in a suit, given that they’re in, y’know, a swamp. Apparently, the project has been going through personnel at a great rate, and Ritter, the chief of security, is particularly concerned about a rival scientist named Arcane.

Their most recent breakthrough is a formula that’s literally explosive, but which may have the transformative capabilities they were hoping for. Linda throws some onto the wooden floor and it explodes, but later that same wet spot starts to sprout plants. Alec, who has been giving Cable a tour of the compound, is so elated, he kisses Cable, much to her surprise. (Basically, everyone in the place except for Linda treats her with unconcealed disdain or waggling of eyebrows. Yay sexism.)

The Hollands have been recording their work in a series of notebooks, and this new formula goes into the seventh and most recent one. Shortly thereafter, a group of mercenaries attack the compound, killing several of the personnel, including Linda. Alec is doused in the formula which explodes and he catches fire and falls into the swamp. Cable manages to get away and hide the seventh notebook.

Ritter is revealed to actually be Arcane in a latex mask. He takes the six notebooks, assuming them to be all of them, and it isn’t until he gets back to his lavish mansion that he realizes that the last entry in the sixth notebook is two weeks old. His two prime henchmen, Ferret and Bruno, are torching the compound and disposing of the bodies. A large plantlike creature emerges from the swamp and starts tossing Ferret’s soldiers around like rag dolls. The attack by this swamp thing (ahem) enables Cable to get away to a nearby gas station, managed by a kid named Jude. She calls in to Washington, and they put her through to her direct superior on the scene: Ritter. Cable didn’t see that Ritter was a fake, and she reports to who she thinks is Ritter. Arcane sends his thugs to pick her up. She and Jude manage to get away, though the gas station is badly shot up.

Jude takes her to a cabin that has a change of clothes and then the pair of them go to retrieve the seventh notebook. Along the way, Swamp Thing saves her from Ferret and his people. Cable gives the notebook to Jude to keep safe, but then Ferret’s people attack him and kill him. Swamp Thing uses his healing touch to bring the kid back to life, and Jude entrusts the notebook with him.

Eventually, Cable realizes that Swamp Thing is actually Alec. At one point, she bathes while Swamp Thing watches with an expression that’s probably supposed to be longing, but mostly comes across as creepy.

Realizing the same thing that Superman’s foes realized ages ago—if you want Superman to appear, kidnap Lois Lane—Arcane has Ferret kidnap Cable. However, Cable manages to get away on her own, by kneeing Ferret in the nuts when he tries to kiss her and swimming away. When Ferret catches up to her, Swamp Thing appears; Ferret cuts off his left arm and then Swamp Thing crushes his head. The sight of that makes Cable faint—this same woman who has held her own throughout the movie and comported herself with more skill and gumption than all the other characters combined, but she faints now. Sure.

Bruno manages to capture both Swamp Thing and Cable with a net and also retrieve the seventh notebook. Arcane celebrates by having a combination dinner party/bachelor party/orgy in his mansion, complete with Cable tied to a chair at one of the dinner tables (Swamp Thing is chained up in a dungeon). Arcane toasts Bruno for his superlative work, then uses him as a guinea pig for the formula in front of everyone. Bruno turns into a tiny plant creature with none of Swamp Thing’s strength (and also scares the living shit out of all the dinner guests as he screams and mutates in front of them).

Arcane brings Cable and Bruno to the dungeon, chaining the former up. Swamp Thing explains that the formula only expands what’s actually there. Bruno isn’t a strong person, so his new self isn’t strong. Arcane decides he’s going to take the formula himself.

Once light starts to come into the dungeon’s tiny window, Swamp Thing is able to use photosynthesis to regrow his left arm and break out of his chains. He frees Cable and Bruno shows them a way out (it’s a doodad that is used in case a guard accidentally gets locked in a cell; Bruno’s too short to reach it in his new mutated state, and the others couldn’t do it until they were unchained).

Arcane has taken the formula and transformed into a weird kind of porcine beast. Grabbing a sword, he chases Swamp Thing and Cable to the swamps and they have a big-ass fight. Arcane stabs Cable dead, but Swamp Thing heals her and then seems to kill Arcane. Then he goes off into the sunset, leaving Cable behind.

 

“You never feel safe about anything—will you just go?”

The Return of Swamp Thing
Written by Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris
Directed by Jim Wynorski
Produced by Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker
Original release date: May 12, 1989

Five ATF agents are going through the Louisiana swamp to go after some moonshiners, and then they’re attacked by some kind of monster. Two of them are killed, and two more are shot by a woman in a jeep. One agent survives, saved by Swamp Thing.

While Arcane was left for dead in the previous movie, two scientists found his mutated body and nursed him back to health: an asthmatic named Rochelle and a woman named Lana Zurell. Arcane and Zurell are also sleeping together. Arcane has a team of mercenaries led by Gunn, and also including the woman who shot the ATF agents, Poinsetta.

Arcane’s stepdaughter, Abby, leaves her plant shop in Malibu, having realized after four therapists have told her that she has unresolved issues with her stepfather and the death of her mother. She travels to Arcane’s mansion, where she’s welcomed with open, if sinister, arms. Their experiments have resulted in awful mutations like the creature that killed the ATF agents. But Abby’s mother had the right blood type to make the serum work, and maybe Abby will, too. All of this is designed to prolong Arcane’s life, of course.

Two annoying boys get together while their parents are out to look at porn magazines when the monster who killed the ATF agents shows up. They’re saved by Swamp Thing, but only after considerable destruction.

Arcane and Zurell give Abby a ring of her mother’s that “accidentally” cuts her finger, thus giving them a blood sample to test. Abby is weirded out by her stepfather and goes for a walk. She’s almost raped by a couple of redneck moonshiners (possibly the guys the ATF agents were after?) before Swamp Thing saves her. He explains who and what he is, as we flash back to the previous movie.

However, Arcane’s mercenaries blow Swamp Thing up with grenades and take Abby back to the mansion. Some mercenaries stay behind to try to find a sample of Swamp Thing’s body, as they need it for the serum that will keep Arcane young.

Bits of Swamp Thing’s body flow through the water into the pipes that feed Arcane’s mansion.

Rochelle reveals that the only way to make everything work is to combine DNA from a compatible donor with Abby’s—and the only two people with the right blood type are a security guard and Zurell. Zurell overhears Arcane telling Rochelle to “do what he has to,” thus showing that she’s expendable. She draws a bath, but then decides to betray Arcane. After she leaves, Swamp Thing starts to flow through the faucet and reform himself in the tub.

Abby is held in a cell by Gunn. Abby manages to trick him to freeing her and then knees her in the nuts (the common fate of Arcane’s security chiefs at the hands of Swamp Thing’s girlfriends). Zurell gives her the keys to one of the cars even as Swamp Thing tears through the mansion, tossing mercenaries around. They escape in a jeep, Abby shooting some of the mercenaries as Swamp Thing drives.

They wind up in a glade, and each bites off a bit of Swamp Thing’s body that turns out to be a hallucinogen, thus allowing them to have drug-induced hot monkey sex. (Hot plant sex? Whatever.)

Meanwhile, the two annoying kids are trying to find Swamp Thing to get a picture that they can sell to the tabloids. Instead, Gunn and his people find them, but Swamp Thing saves them. However, before they can get the picture, Abby is kidnapped by Arcane and Poinsetta. She’s brought to the basement lab where Arcane will use the security guard and her to rejuvenate himself.

Zurell has injected Rochelle with the formula and locked him in a closet in order to keep him from using her in the experiment. The procedure seems to be a success, with Abby dying in the process, but there are odd mutations on Arcane’s hand. He realizes that Zurell has betrayed him and shoots her.

Swamp Thing breaks into the mansion, taking out all the mercenaries one by one (at one point, dropping a grenade down Gunn’s shorts). When he arrives in the basement, the now-mutated Rochelle breaks out of his closet and attacks Swamp Thing—the door landing on Arcane, crushing his legs. Tossing Rochelle into the elimination triggers the basement lab’s self-destruct, er, somehow, and Swamp Thing grabs Abby’s corpse and departs, leaving Arcane, not to mention the bodies of Zurell, Gunn, and Rochelle and a couple of the monsters in cells all behind.

The mansion goes boom. Swamp Thing uses his healing powers to bring Abby back to life and they live happily ever after. Or something.

 

“I’m a plant.” “That’s okay, I’m a vegetarian.”

Most of what you need to know about these two movies is established by the director credit. Wes Craven is one of the great horror film directors, and most of Jim Wynorski’s credits are soft-core porn comedies. Also Wynorski got his start as a protégé of Roger Corman.

Not that there’s anything wrong with soft-core porn comedies in the right context, but The Return of Swamp Thing is just a slog. Every bad 80s movie cliché is present and accounted for: bad guy with foreign accent, cheesy dialogue, dumb guys in mullets, attractive women with big hair and tons o’ cleavage, a not-really-as-cute-as-the-filmmakers-think animal that comments on the action (in this case a parrot named Gigi), two nowhere-near-as-cute-as-the-filmmakers-think children who both should probably have been drowned at birth, a high body count, and tons of explosions.

Swamp Thing is much more fun to watch, mainly because for most of the movie, it isn’t really about Alec Holland or Swamp Thing, it’s about Adrienne Barbeau’s Alice Cable, who is awesome. She holds her own and more with the dumbass men around her (who either drool over her or dismiss her), she manages to stay ahead of Arcane for much of the film, and she frees herself from Arcane’s clutches without help.

Which is why it’s so annoying that she is suddenly and unconvincingly turned into the damsel in distress once Swamp Thing kills Ferret and she faints. First of all, the fainting is just ridiculous. She’s seen much scarier stuff just in this movie, including a crapton of dead bodies in the compound after Arcane attacked it. But once she faints, she stops having any agency or action, being captured in a net, tied to a chair, chained to a wall, and stabbed while standing around like an idiot while Arcane and Swamp Thing fight.

Of course, this is preferable to Heather Locklear’s awful Abby. Locklear does the best she can—I don’t think she actually deserved the Razzie she got for her performance—but the character is just awful, and particularly pales in comparison to Cable. In a movie that has truly wretched performances by Joe Sagal (Gunn), Monique Gabrielle (Poinsetta), Daniel Taylor (one of the annoying kids), and especially the top-billed Louis Jourdan, who has much more screen time in the second movie as Arcane, which does not do the movie any favors, to single out Locklear just seems absurd. Sarah Douglas is delightfully evil as Zurell, but her heel-turn doesn’t really play to her strengths, and someone really needed to explain to Ace Mask, who played Rochelle, that asthmatics don’t just use the inhaler randomly.

The one way in which The Return of Swamp Thing is superior is Dick Durock—both his makeup and his performance. He looks like a plant creature in the second movie, as opposed to a guy in a rubber suit, and his performance is relaxed and pleasant (something that would continue in the Swamp Thing TV series starring Durock that spun off these movies).

Of course, none of the live-action versions of Swamp Thing can hold a candle to how the character was rendered in the comics by the likes of Bernie Wrightson, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, and Nestor Redondo, which is half the problem. These movies are treated, not as the entertaining horror stories of the comics, but rather as monster movies. Mind you, Swamp Thing is actually a good monster movie, but these two stories are ultimately a shadow of the source material.

Which is too bad. When Alan Moore took over the book, he completely redid the character’s backstory, making this the latest in a series of Swamp Things, part of the Parliament of Trees that care for the Earth’s ecosystem. The series that established that was created specifically to cash in on the first movie, and it’s only too bad that the second movie and TV show ignored it, sticking with the much more standard backstory the character originally had before Moore’s retcon. A movie spun out of the classic The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 (“The Anatomy Lesson”) could be amazing. Oh, well.

The same year as The Return of Swamp Thing, another, better known DC character had his second foray into feature film territory. Next week, we’ll take a look at the two Michael Keaton Batman films.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is what he is and that’s all that he is.

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Posted by Brit Mandelo

Autonomous is a stand-alone novel set in a near-future world rearranged into economic zones, controlled at large by property law and a dystopic evolution of late-stage capitalism. The points of view alternate between two sides of a skirmish over a patent drug that has catastrophic side-effects: one of our protagonists is a pirate who funds humanitarian drug releases with “fun” drug sales and another is an indentured bot who works for the IPC to crush piracy. As their missions collide, other people are caught up in the blast radius.

While many sf readers are familiar with Newitz, either in her capacity as editor of io9 or as a writer of compelling nonfiction and short stories, this is her first foray into the world of novels and it’s a powerful debut. Wrapped up in a quick, action-oriented plot are a set of sometimes-unresolved and provocative arguments about property law, autonomy, and ownership. Issues of gender and sexuality are also a through-line, considering one of our main characters is a bot whose approach to gender is by necessity quite different than that of their human counterparts.

Jack, a successful humanitarian drug pirate, makes for an engaging perspective on the whole mess of the world in Autonomous. She’s old enough, and has experienced enough, to be world-worn without giving up her version of idealism. At baseline, she’s attempting to do the right thing and discovering herself still in the process—first as a public intellectual revolutionary, then as a disgraced scientist, then as a smuggler and pirate. Conversely, we have Paladin, a bot who has just barely come online and who is indentured to the IPC for at minimum ten years of military service to earn out the contract generated by their creation. When Jack’s pirated productivity drug begins causing rashes of addiction and death, IPC notices—as does the rest of the underground.

So, while Jack is trying to create a solution to the problem and pin the unethical drug on its corporate creators, the IPC sends Eliasz and Paladin to hunt her down. Eliasz, a soldier of sorts for patent enforcement, first perceives Paladin to be male, though Paladin does not have a gender; this causes him distress, as he’s attracted to the bot but resistant to his own repressed sexuality. When he finds out that Paladin’s human network, a brain donated from a dead soldier, is female he asks if it’s all right to call her “she.” After she agrees, they embark on a romantic and sexual relationship that is complicated by the fact that Paladin has loyalty and attachment programs running in the background at all times.

Paladin, in a sense, cannot consent—and the novel explores this in a complex way, while also dealing with her agreement to go by a pronoun and gender she does not feel to maintain a relationship with a human she is engaged by. There’s a ringing discomfort to this that is, strangely, familiar: for several nonbinary readers, I suspect it will strike a familiar chord of conceding one’s own comfort for the comfort of a partner in terms of pronouns or perception, even if they don’t quite fit one’s own self. Paladin does not have a gender; nonetheless, Paladin goes by both he and she throughout the novel, and refers to herself using female pronouns once Eliasz begins to.

And Eliasz, himself a victim of an upbringing in the indenture system and concurrent repressive punishment for sexuality, is desperate to believe that he is in love with a woman. However conflicted and problematic he is, he also is willing to ask consent as much as he can and to then buy and release Paladin’s contract so she can be free to make her own choices about their relationship. At this point, too, Paladin’s brain has been damaged, leaving her unable to recognize human facial expressions—so, she has also become a disabled veteran, in the context of their world.

These background relationships, as well as the relationships between Jack, Threezed, and Med, among others, are all fascinating and frequently queer. Gender seems mostly irrelevant to the majority of the humans in the novel. Eliasz is the only one who struggles with his attraction. The rest have much more to do with power, consent, and privilege, which also renders them consistently engaging.

Spoilers follow.

Perhaps the most compelling and unexpected thing for me about Autonomous is that it does not offer large-scale resolution to a single one of the social conflicts our protagonists come up against. The indenture system for humans and bots remains brutal and underexamined, oligarchy rules unabated, and even the corporation that willfully created Zacuity gets off without much of a scratch. The conflicts that cost lives and pull apart whole communities are, ultimately, limited to those individuals and communities—and it’s clear that something indescribably bigger will be necessary to change the world in a meaningful way, if it’s possible at all.

The result is a Pyrrhic victory. Medea Cohen, the autonomous bot, is able to publish the cure for Zacuity-addiction to undo the damage done by Jack’s uncontrolled release—and perhaps to make people think twice about using it. However, the corporation is undamaged and able to force the removal of the paper accusing them of producing an addictive drug on purpose. Jack survives and is able to pick her projects up again; Threezed enrolls in college and gets his first non-indentured job; Eliasz and Paladin quit the IPC and travel to Mars, where their human-bot relationship will not be as much of a liability.

Krish dies, though—and so do hundreds of other people, all told, several at the hands of the IPC agents Eliasz and Paladin. Newitz’s argument, ultimately, rests in Autonomous‘s savage and realistic representation of a global capitalism that has, through a series of social maneuvers, consolidated all things as tradeable property, including humans and bots. No one is able to escape participation. The system of indenture is a logical evolution of the current system of wage-labor, taken to its extreme; so, to, are the controlled drug patents that lead to extreme acts of piracy and counter-enforcement.

Therein lies the real horror of Autonomous: it doesn’t feel particularly dystopic, because it’s too close to home. The introduction of artificial intelligences and the resultant commoditization of autonomy across humans and bots, as well as the luxury of functional medical access and wild wealth stratification, are all natural if intensified versions of experiences familiar in contemporary life. Newitz, in looking through this lens and making it relatable and familiar, has done the real work of sf: she has given us a “what if” that forces an examination of our current moment, our current priorities, and our current dangers.

It’s got big ideas, this book, and it refuses to offer the wish-fulfillment of simple large-scale solutions. Autonomous doesn’t shy from the towering realities of power, privilege, and social dysfunction. The reader must swallow both the individual success of the surviving protagonists and the failure of global change—and that’s fascinating as a thematic stance that forces the reader to occupy a more “average” role as opposed to the role of a savior-figure. It isn’t necessarily nihilistic, but it is rather grim. I appreciated that careful balance.

As a whole, Autonomous is a fantastic debut. The plot is fast and sharp; the characters are complex and flawed and often horrible; the conflicts are full of ethical grey areas and self-justification. The blurbs from Neal Stephenson and William Gibson feel especially prescient, as this is certainly a book that knows its predecessors in cyberpunk and branches off from them with intention and skill. The true stand-out difference is in Newitz’s refusal to offer a clean, simple fix to a set of messy global conflicts, instead giving us individuals, their choices, and a crushing sense of the vastness of the problems late-capitalism nurtures. Narrative closure is achieved, as is personal closure—but political closure remains out of reach, a fight still in progress with an uncertain conclusion.

Autonomous is available now from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone TellingClarkesworldApex, and Ideomancer.

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Posted by Emily Asher-Perrin

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

Three years after the release of Sci-Fi’s Dune miniseries, its sequel premiered. While it was titled Children of Dune, it in fact encompassed the storylines of both its namesake and Dune Messiah. It remains, along with its predecessor, two of the three highest-rated programs that the channel has ever broadcast—and there are ways in which this sequel series outstrips the initial series entirely.

Children of Dune is separated into three film-length episodes, with the plot of Dune Messiah taking up the bulk of the first. There are a few clever changes made in order to connect the two stories better, the primary one being that rather than having Princess Irulan work as a conspirator against Paul alongside the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, and the Tleilaxu, her sister Wensicia is brought to the fore sooner and given that role. This has two advantages; it means that Irulan’s love for Paul doesn’t come out of left field the way it does at the end of Dune Messiah, and it means that the story spends more time with Wensicia… who is played with antagonistic relish by Susan Sarandon.

(In case anyone is unaware, the rules are that if you have the ability to use Susan Sarandon, you always must use Susan Sarandon. You must slip her into ever scene and transition, you must linger on her imperious eyebrows, you must dress her like a glittering carnivorous plant. Obviously.)

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

A plant with a belly window in her space suit.

On the other hand, the series cannot cover up how thin on the ground the plot of Dune Messiah truly is. Even ninety minutes is too long a time to stretch the story, and there are a few lengthy awkward montages in the first episode to make up for a lack of machinations and intrigue. Because Messiah is so caught up in philosophical meanderings about the nature of time and religion and leadership, there’s no real way to translate its majority to film, and instead we wind up with strange visions from Paul’s (shirtless) future son and constant lingering shots of a swirly carved wall. It is clearly supposed to seem mystical, but when it happens too often the whole thing tips into a repetitive fever dream.

There is a lot of recasting that had to happen for Children of Dune, and those decisions ran from genius to the downright baffling. Saskia Reeves was unable to return as Jessica due to pregnancy, which resulted in the producers getting the person who they had originally wanted to play the role—Alice Krige. While it’s hard not to miss Reeves’s elegance, there is an otherworldliness to Krige that suits a Bene Gesserit “witch” superbly. Duncan Idaho is recast in the form of Edward Atterton, and while his turn as Atherton Wing on Firefly was odious, he plays the mentat ghola reincarnation of Idaho with all the upright stoicism and vulnerability that the character is owed. Karel Dobry, who played Kynes in Dune is recast here as the betraying priest Korba… which seems an apt metaphor in the transition, yet never succeeds in being anything less than confusing. But the most awkward of all these moves was the recasting of Stilgar; Steven Berkoff is an incredible character actor, but there is nothing about him that even remotely invokes the old Fremen Naib. Instead, he reads at the beginning like the Atreides family butler before moving onto Old British Wardog Supreme.

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

Stil, you don’t have to stand there staring straight ahead until I give you something to do.

Once Dune Messiah has run its course, we get into the meat of the story with Children of Dune’s plot, and we get to meet Paul’s children—who were, similar to Paul in the previous miniseries, aged up for this telling. It is a smart move here, as finding two ten year old kids who had the ability to behave as though they had millennia of ancestral memory bubbling up inside of them was always going to be an impossibility. Instead, we have two teenagers who are inordinately close… the series doesn’t really have the time to delve into the weirdness of Leto and Ghanima’s role-play as their parents via their memories, so we’re treated to your average twin-strangeness (which is an official genre fiction term, as far as I’m concerned) and vague incest-ish vibes. Not Cersei and Jaime incest vibes, though. A decidedly more healthy, non-abusive incest vibe that mostly involves the two finishing each other’s sentences, the occassional kiss, always turning their heads at the same moment, and playing space chess while giggling.

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

Very normal soft-lit sibling relationship.

Oh, and did I mention that Leto is played by none other than baby-faced James McAvoy? That is, baby-faced, constantly shirtless, ponderously pouting, unaccountably ripped James McAvoy. Which should not be read as a disparaging remark, by the way—he’s easily one of the highlights of the miniseries, and he plays the part with a sort of brooding-yet-impish etherealness. He’s really excellent, and his rapport with Jessica Brook’s Ghanima is dazzling. McAvoy had done a couple of things on screen (including the Band of Brothers miniseries) before this, but Children of Dune was the first time I ever saw him, and I remember thinking in my teenaged precociousness, This guy is clearly going somewhere. Two years later he was Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which cemented his SFF cred long before Professor Charles Xavier was ever on the table.

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

The other highlight of the series is Daniela Amavia’s turn as Alia Atreides. Because a television series is ill-suited to the philosophical questions that the Dune books are constantly posing, there is more of a chance to really explore the characters in a way that Frank Herbert himself often neglected. Alia suffered quite a bit in this regard, which makes it all the more satisfying to see her struggle played out to the fullest. When Jessica arrives back on Arrakis and they embrace, we can see Alia briefly overcome with warmth at her mother’s presence before shutting down when she sees that Jessica is focused on her grandchildren. Her slow cave to the Baron Harkkonnen’s possession, her descent into paranoia and fury, her grief at the Preacher’s murder, all of this receives the attention it warrants. One of the most cinematic scenes from the book—where Jessica finally comes to blows with Alia in the court and is whisked away by loyal Fedaykin—is preserved with aplomb.

And rather than have Alia throw herself out a window to end her possession once and for all, the miniseries does something devastating—Alia stabs herself, and as she lies on the floor dying, Jessica takes her into her arms. In a moment of exact parallel between her child self in the Dune miniseries, Alia reaches up to touch her mother’s tears, tastes them, then whispers, “I want my brother,” before joining him in death. It is one of those rare moments that makes the book seem clumsy and frail by comparison.

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

In a departure from the original story, Wensicia’s part in the tale doesn’t come to an end until Farad’n has been delivered to Ghanima, which is a smart play to keep Susan Sarandon around as long as possible (see the aforementioned rules), and also heightens the drama as the series barrels toward its conclusion. More thought is put into Wensicia’s scheming, and more thought as well into Irulan’s plight as a discarded member of the same family. While it is depressing to see Irulan resigned to spending her life looking after other people’s children, giving her a complete character arc and keeping her at the center of things is far better than what she receives in the books.

There are other moments of perfect execution, proving that the makers of this miniseries still cared deeply for the story they were telling and the universe it occupies. The dual conversations between Irulan and Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim—and later Jessica—are gorgeous, offering subtitles to their sign language while an entirely different conversation plays out in words. The iciness of Wensicia Corrino as she belittles her son Farad’n over and over, only to be outsmarted in the end. Gurney’s sorrow on meeting the Preacher and realizing that he must be Paul, and the Preacher’s assurance that Paul Atreides is no more to spare his old friend the grief. Leto tearfully confessing to the Preacher that he wished for a childhood spent with the father he never knew. Children of Dune paints the pain of these mythical figures in grounded tones, giving it that Shakespearean quality that so many epics scrabble toward and fail to find.

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

There are little quality control issues that niggle, though. For example, the Fremen blue eyes that many characters should have simply disappear, with Jessica being the most conspicuous in that absence. The stillsuits don’t make sense in this version; in the books, there are cheaply made new stillsuits coming to market, but that doesn’t explain why all the characters would have them. No one seems to age, which could be viewed as either a bug or a feature—fans know that the spice can keep people younger, and that Alia deliberately manipulates her body to prolong her life, and the result is a wide array of ages for cast members in ways that can run delightfully backwards. The CGI is poorer this time around, and the sound stage sets are more obvious than they were in the original miniseries. Whether this was a budget issue, or a problem of needing more desert sets, parts of the series are rendered in a manner that almost seems unfinished.

This was not true of the costume department, however, as the success of the previous series only seemed to prompt the question ‘hey, can we do even more and better this time?’ The result is a gorgeous array in a variety of textures, styles, and colors. But perhaps my favorite part of this is that practically all of the costumes for the ladies look like they have elaborate skirts on the surface, but are always hiding pants beneath. All of these powerful women get dress silhouettes, but still have the benefit of leg wear. They are some of my favorite costumes in SFF history. Functional, outrageous, and stunning.

Children of Dune, miniseries, 2003

More pants!

The actual themes of Children of Dune are a bit lost in this version, however. Leto claims that he wants to bring about the Golden Path in order to give humanity a future free of premonition, where people can decide their own destinies, which is only… half true. Leto certainly means to prevent the terror of predetermination, but mostly by giving himself the means to hold a status quo for several millennia in the form of a worm-god. The changes in the miniseries make Leto’s end a bit more palatable, but also harder to understand. It’s never precisely clear what he is working toward, other than making sure that his aunt is no longer regent. The ending is bittersweet, which is not truly the case in Hebert’s books, where the long view of history makes it impossible to celebrate overmuch.

All in all, the Children of Dune miniseries is a treat to watch. Which is saying something considering that the books it heralds from would have been considered unadaptable to many. The fact that the story has been rendered so carefully is a surprise to this day—the fact that it is still worth watching even moreso.

Emily Asher-Perrin has a ridiculous soft spot for this series, and will often comfort watch it ahead of Dune. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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Posted by Liz Bourke

Malka Older’s Infomocracy (book one of the Centenal Cycle) made its debut last summer to rapturous praise, including from The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review. (I admired it too, although I was late to the party.) Now, in Null States, Older returns to the world of Infomocracy, with a cast of characters both old and new.

Two years have passed since the last global election, and global microdemocracy is still dealing with the fallout from the controversies and illegalities that attended the change of Supermajority. The new Supermajority is struggling to define itself and to make its case as the first new Supermajority since the beginning of the global microdemocracy system, while Information—the pervasive and supposedly objective organisation and system that underpins global microdemocracy and makes it possible—is still somewhat under pressure from the weaknesses that were revealed during the last election. Meanwhile, a shooting war in Central Asia, between two states that aren’t part of the microdemocracy system, is putting pressure on the system, with several centenals—electoral and administrative divisions—squeezed between the shooting war and the nation-state of China, which is not very happy about the situation near its borders.

Roz is part of a special Information team that helps in (potential) crisis areas. She’s sent to a region formerly part of the nation of Sudan, which only joined microdemocracy at the last election. The new government is very local, led by a young and charismatic leader—who’s assassinated in front of the Information team. His assassination may or may not be part of a pattern, and may or may not be a destabilising force. Roz finds herself at the heart of a mystery and local politics that may prove to be globally important.

Meanwhile, Mishima—a former Information agent with several very specialised skills, and one of the main characters of Infomocracy—goes undercover at the headquarters of the Heritage government on behalf of Information. Heritage has been threatening to secede from microdemocracy over sanctions imposed on them—or potentially about to be imposed upon them—as a result of their involvement in shenanigans around the time of the last election. They’re one of the largest global players, and a secession would threaten the microdemocracy system as a whole, when it’s already potentially threatened by a shooting war creeping over its borders.

Both Roz and Mishima will discover a lot more than they expected, and face the truth that Information and the global microdemocracy system is a lot more fragile and a lot more corruptible—and potentially a lot less lasting—than anyone might have hoped.

This is a story about governance and governing, about power and systems, and the edges of both—the parts where they break, and warp, and potentially break down. Older’s gift is to make those systems fascinating and human: relevant, and easy to grasp. Well, one of her gifts: she has great skill with evoking place and its complicated histories, when her characters stay in one location long enough. This is notable in the parts of Null States set in the region formerly part of Sudan, when Roz comes face to face with ways of life and ways of relating to the world that start with very different assumptions than the ones she’s used to.

Null States is a complex, sprawling novel, but one that nonetheless has the tight control and pacing of a really good thriller. Older keeps many different narrative threads rolling without tangling them up. They branch and return, and it’s still easy to follow them even in the midst of many things happening at once—because Older’s characters are focused on what’s important to them. It makes them really human and really familiar, in their conflicts and their new relationships, their uncertainties and their heartbreaks. There are a lot of characters, although not so many viewpoint characters, but all of them, every one, feel like individuals.

Science fiction is frequently about power and revolution, seldom about the technical stuff that makes power possible—seldom about governing, as opposed to governments in crisis. Null States, like Infomocracy, feels refreshingly new and strange—wondrously strange, in fact—because of its focus on the nitty-gritty of how things get done, and how things can be done, and whether or not this is a stable system or one whose equilibrium has reached a tipping point of some kind.

I really enjoyed Null States. It’s entertaining. And it is massively geeky about governance. I like that. I want to read more. When’s the next one? I hope soon.

Null States is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
State Tectonics, book three in the Centenal Cycle, publishes in Fall 2018.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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Posted by Jo Walton

The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a children’s book, for one thing, and it talks down to the reader. It’s not quite set in Middle-earth—or if it is, then it isn’t quite set in the Third Age. It isn’t pegged down to history and geography the way The Lord of the Rings is. Most of all, it’s a first work by an immature writer; journeyman work and not the masterpiece he would later produce. But it’s still an excellent book. After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.

If you are fortunate enough to share a house with a bright six year old, or a seven or eight year old who still likes bedtime stories, I strongly recommend reading them a chapter of The Hobbit aloud every night before bed. It reads aloud brilliantly, and when you do this it’s quite clear that Tolkien intended it that way. I’ve read not only The Hobbit but The Lord of the Rings aloud twice, and had it read to me once. The sentences form the rhythms of speech, the pauses are in the right place, they fall well on the ear. This isn’t the case with a lot of books, even books I like. Many books were made to be read silently and fast. The other advantage of reading it aloud is that it allows you to read it even after you have it memorised and normal reading is difficult. It will also have the advantage that the child will encounter this early, so they won’t get the pap first and think that’s normal.

I first read The Hobbit when I was eight. I went on to read The Lord of the Rings immediately afterwards, with the words “Isn’t there another one of those around here?” What I liked about The Hobbit that first time through was the roster of adventures. It seemed to me a very good example of a kind of children’s book with which I was familiar—Narnia, of course, but also the whole set of children’s books in which children have magical adventures and come home safely. It didn’t occur to me that it had been written before a lot of them—I had no concept as a child that things were written in order and could influence each other. The Hobbit fit into a category with At the Back of the North Wind and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and half of E. Nesbit.

The unusual thing about The Hobbit for me was that Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit and a grown up. He had his own charming and unusual house and he indulged in grown up pleasures like smoking and drinking. He didn’t have to evade his parents to go off on an adventure. He lived in a world where there were not only dwarves and elves and wizards but signs that said “Expert treasure hunter wants a good job, plenty of excitement and reasonable reward.” He lived a life a child could see as independent, with people coming to tea unexpectedly and with dishes to be done afterwards (this happened in our house all the time), but without any of the complicated adult disadvantages of jobs and romance. Bilbo didn’t want an adventure, but an adventure came and took him anyway. And it is “There and Back Again,” at the end he returns home with treasure and the gift of poetry.

Of course, The Lord of the Rings isn’t “another one of those.” Reading The Lord of the Rings immediately afterwards was like being thrown into deep magical water which I fortunately learned to breathe, but from which I have never truly emerged.

Reading The Hobbit now is odd. I can see all the patronizing asides, which were the sort of thing I found so familiar in children’s books that I’m sure they were quite invisible to me. I’ve read it many times between now and then, of course, including twice aloud, but while I know it extremely well I’ve never read it quite so obsessively that the words are carved in my DNA. I can find a paragraph I’d forgotten was there and think new thoughts when I’m reading it. That’s why I picked it up, though it wasn’t what I really wanted—but what I really wanted, I can’t read any more.

I notice all the differences between this world and the LOTR version of Middle-earth. I noticed how reluctant Tolkien is to name anything here—the Hill, the Water, the Great River, the Forest River, Lake Town, Dale—and this from the master namer. His names creep in around the edges—Gondolin, Moria, Esgaroth—but it’s as if he’s making a real effort to keep it linguistically simple. I find his using Anglo-Saxon runes instead of his own runes on the map unutterably sweet—he thought they’d be easier for children to read. (At eight, I couldn’t read either. At forty-five, I can read both.)

Now, my favourite part is the end, when things become morally complex. Then I don’t think I understood that properly. I understood Thorin’s greed for dragon gold—I’d read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and I knew how that worked. What puzzled me was Bilbo’s use of the Arkenstone, which seemed treacherous, especially as it didn’t even work. Bilbo didn’t kill the dragon, and the introduction of Bard at that point in the story seemed unprecedentedly abrupt—I wonder why Tolkien didn’t introduce him earlier, in the Long Lake chapter? But it’s Bilbo’s information that allows the dragon to be killed, and that’s good enough for me, then or now.

Tolkien is wonderful at writing that hardest of all things to write well, the journey. It really feels as if he understands time and distance and landscape. Adventures come at just the right moments. Mirkwood remains atmospheric and marvellous. The geography comes in order that’s useful for the story, but it feels like real geography.

Noticing world differences, I’m appalled at how casually Bilbo uses the Ring, and surprised how little notice everyone else pays to it—as if such things are normal. Then it was just a magic ring, like the one in The Enchanted Castle. The stone giants—were they ents? They don’t seem quite ent-ish to me. What’s up with that? And Beorn doesn’t quite seem to fit anywhere either, with his performing animals and were-bearness.

The oddest thing about reading The Hobbit now is how (much more than The Lord of the Rings) it seems to be set in the fantasyland of roleplaying games. It’s a little quest, and the dwarves would have taken a hero if they could have found one, they make do with a burglar. There’s that sign. The encounters come just as they’re needed. Weapons and armour and magic items get picked up along the way. Kill the trolls, find a sword. Kill the dragon, find armour. Finish the adventure, get chests of gold and silver.

One more odd thing I noticed this time for the first time. Bilbo does his own washing up. He doesn’t have servants. Frodo has Sam, and Gaffer Gamgee, too. But while Bilbo is clearly comfortably off, he does his own cooking and baking and cleaning. This would have been unprededentedly eccentric for someone of his class in 1938. It’s also against gender stereotypes—Bilbo had made his own seedcakes, as why shouldn’t he, but in 1938 it was very unusual indeed for a man to bake. Bilbo isn’t a man, of course, he isn’t a middle class Englishman who would have had a housekeeper, he is a respectable hobbit. But I think because the world has changed to make not having servants and men cooking seem relatively normal we don’t notice that these choices must have been deliberate.

People often talk about how few women there are in LOTR. The Hobbit has none, absolutely none. I think the only mentions of women are Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother (dead before the story starts) Thorin’s sister, mother of Fili and Kili, and then Bilbo’s eventual nieces. We see no women on the page, elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit. But I didn’t miss them when I was eight and I don’t miss them now. I had no trouble identifying with Bilbo. This is a world without sex, except for misty reproductive purposes, and entirely without romance. Bilbo is such a bachelor that it doesn’t even need mentioning that he is—because Bilbo is in many ways a nominally adult child.

I think Bilbo is ambiguously gendered. He’s always referred to as “he,” but he keeps house and cooks, he isn’t brave except at a pinch—he’s brave without being at all macho, nor is his lack of machismo deprecated by the text, even when contrasted with the martial dwarves. Bilbo’s allowed to be afraid. He has whole rooms full of clothes. There’s a lot of the conventionally feminine in Bilbo, and there’s a reading here in which Bilbo is a timid houseproud cooking hostess who discovers more facets on an adventure. (I’m sure I could do something with the buttons popping off too if I tried hard enough.) Unlike most heroes, it really wouldn’t change Bilbo at all if you changed his pronoun. Now isn’t that an interesting thought to go rushing off behind without even a pocket handkerchief?

This article was originally published in September 2010.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and thirteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is Thessaly. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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Posted by Emily Asher-Perrin

C-3PO and R2-D2

Technology-based lifeforms have to communicate, just like any other living beings. And just like living beings, science fiction has come up with a variety of ways for them to do so. Keeping tabs on the way robots, computers, and A.I. convey information in genre fiction offers an fascinating glimpse into what humans think the future might look like—and how we would prefer to interact with technology ourselves.

When looking to science fiction for sentient life created by artificial means, there are plenty of possibilities to choose from. A.I. and robotics are some of the oldest hallmarks of the genre, and there are countless ways to render characters that fit the bill. But with those characters come a number of questions about how they move through the world (/galaxy/universe) and who they interact with. Were they created for a specific purpose, or to exist as they will? Do they have a community of their own kind, or are they restricted to humans and aliens and other organic matter? And if they do have their own communities… doesn’t it stand to reason that they would have their own traditions, their own philosophies, and even their own forms of communication? And what do those forms look like?

A lot of it, unsurprisingly, comes down to functionality.

Data, Star Trek: TNG

Artificial intelligence that looks and behaves in a human manner is hardly a surprising concept, and there are plenty of well-loved characters in sci-fi who fall into this particular niche. Star Trek’s Data communicates like your average human being, even engaging with the Enterprise much in the way that his shipmates do—he sits at a station, he uses a tactile interface. Data does have certain abilities that allow him to bypass this manner of interface, but he often prefers to behave as a human would; he interacts in this matter because his creator—Noonian Song—designed Data to that specific purpose. By and large, Data continues on as his creator intended, and spends most of his time connecting the way a human would. The major differences for him on this account are his inability to pick up every human cue through speech and body language, but that’s to be expected for any being with a lack of experience.

What’s notable about this is that Data doesn’t have many peers, but when he does encounter other artificial intelligence (such as his predecessor, Lore), he still makes the choice to communicate in a human manner. There is no “robot communication” that they engage in, no special language that humans aren’t privy to among their own kind. And this is an interesting decision because it makes humanity’s own anxieties about the Singularity all too clear—an anxiety only stoked the closer we get to true sentient artificial intelligence. Watson may talk to other humans in plucky commercials, but Facebook was recently running a couple A.I. that began creating their own language… and promptly had to pull their plugs because humans couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Indeed, the way that fiction tends to portray robots and A.I. has a great deal to do with our own personal comfort in that ability to converse, and whether the characters in question should be frightening or relatable to us. In 2001, HAL 9000 deliberately communicates in a manner that is civil and friendly, even while slowly murdering the crew of the Discovery One. HAL’s ability to seem benign and even chipper as he commits horrendous acts is part of what makes him terrifying. The same is true of Portal’s GLaDOS, though with her mastery of human language, GLaDOS is fully aware of how to insult someone while maintaining a seemingly helpful facade; she spends the game essentially “negging” the central character Chel.

Both HAL and GLaDOS essentially operate as individuals, but what about interconnected A.I. networks? The Matrix framework contains a multitude of consciousnesses, both human and A.I. Though programs (like the Agents) can use the construct of the Matrix as a means of communicating with the humans connected to it, it is unknown if there are other ways that artificial beings within the Matrix have the ability to connect with and contact one another. There are hints, suggestions that the code of the Matrix itself gives them clues about where others are, but we are never privy to those interactions, making the Matrix a far more dangerous place. Skynet from the Terminator series has the distinction of being a sort of group artificial consciousness, but we are similarly shut out of how that hive communicates, or even how a group consciousness could be said to function in that aspect.

The Matrix, Agent Smith

Annalee Newitz’s upcoming novel Autonomous has a fascinating construct in place to indicate the difference in robot-to-robot communication. Whenever two robots come into contact, they engage in an introduction that works as a sort of alternative to the human handshake. Here is a sample of one such greeting:

The mantis beamed Paladin a hail. Hello. Let’s establish a secure session using the AF protocol.

Hello. I can use AF version 7.6, Paladin replied.

Let’s do it. I’m Fang. We’ll call this session 4788923. Here are my identification credentials. Here comes my data. Join us at 2000.

This opening clearly has multiple purposes, and serves robotic needs rather than organic ones; the robots indicate what sort of software they are using to contact one another, labeling their conversation so that it has a place in their memory, and offering credentials to ensure authenticity. Humans have their own ways of doing the same, using our senses to get a better “read” of a person and what thy might be comfortable with and require in a one-on-one situation. While the robots in Autonomous have a new script, they are asking for similar cues, highlighting the dividing and unifying lines between people and A.I. in one swoop.

Farscape offers an adjacent possible route in mechanized interaction through the Leviathan species—ships that are biomechanoid, incapable of existing without their biological or their technological components. These ships are thought of as organic beings overall, but it is never made clear where their sentience originated. The entire show took place primarily on Moya, a Leviathan ship who plays host to a mismatched crew of criminals. But Leviathans have no way of communicating with their passengers directly; instead, Moya has a Pilot who has the ability to communicate with her, and can convey her thoughts and feelings to her crew. Moya also has the ability to communicate with repair drones known as DRDs–though their manner of communication is also never explained in any detail–and the ability to communicate with other Leviathan ships, but Pilot’s ability to communicate on her behalf was singular.

The idea of having an interpreter for a form of artificial intelligence is also the common arrangement for two of pop culture’s most beloved robots: C-3PO and R2-D2. Indeed, the Star Wars universe has a multitude of technological sentience that communicates in a variety of ways—though this often goes ignored by the organic life in their universe. Both Threepio and Artoo display sentience, but Threepio communicates in a human manner because his function as a protocol droid calls for his ability to communicate with multiple species. As an astromech droid, Artoo was primarily created to repair and maintain ships and other mechanical systems, so he speaks in a manner that is more useful among machines. This suits his function, but it means that when Artoo wants to converse precisely with organic lifeforms, he requires some form of interpretation. Humans do sometimes guess what the astro droid is saying, but nothing is as precise as an on-screen translation… or Threepio’s more colorful explanations.

C-3PO and R2-D2

The Star Wars universe also appears to have computers with a certain amount of sentience as well, which humans interestingly cannot communicate with if they don’t have a droid handy. In Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo tells Threepio to “talk to the Falcon” to find out what’s wrong with the hyperdrive, and Threepio makes mention of the Falcon’s computer having a “peculiar dialect.” The protocol droid scolds Artoo for trusting “a strange computer” on Cloud City. In Claudia Gray’s Bloodline, Threepio has a hard time getting the information he needs from a computer in a timely manner because the computer has been “lonely” and wants someone to talk to. So there are levels to Star Wars A.I. communication that go unremarked upon by the universe’s organic lifeforms, and they offer a strange depth to that galaxy’s dependence on technology.

The ways in which artificial intelligence and robots communicate with one another perhaps tells us more about humanity than it does about the emergence of A.I. … but it still conveys a great deal about where we might go as we continue to develop more advanced technology. After all, while they may develop languages of their own, robots and their ilk will still be shaped by the humans who create them, in accordance with what those humans believe they want from A.I. It’s only a matter of time before we see how many of these stories ring true.

Emily Asher-Perrin is waiting to have robot friends. Still. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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Posted by Liz Bourke

Ruin of Angels Max Gladstone Goni Montes

The speed of my reading lately frustrates me. I need to read faster, so I can talk about some of the amazing-looking novels in my to-be-read pile, like Elizabeth Bear’s The Stone in the Skull, K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter, Jodi Meadows’ Before She Ignites, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade, and, oh, let’s call it several more. (“Several” is such a flexible word.) Because they all look good, and some of them—like R.E. Stearns’ Barbary Station, who doesn’t love pirates and mad AIs?—look like me-catnip.

There are so many books in the world, and so little time.

Let me segue from this eternal truth (the eternal cry of the voracious reader) to a related matter, one that has returned to my mind more and more often this year. That’s the issue of scarcity: the scarcity of certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of protagonists, certain representations of ways of being. There are so many books in the world, and so little time—but when it comes to some kinds of stories, there are still so few that reading three in row without actively looking for them is a visceral shock.

Bear with me: I’m reaching towards things that I find hard to put into words.

I’m a queer woman (bisexual, and to a degree genderqueer, if precision matters). Much of my reading experience, particularly with new-to-me authors, and even more so with male authors, involves bracing for things that are tiresome, wearying, and/or hurtful. Whether it’s active misogyny, background sexist assumptions, gratuitous sexual assault of women (which may or may not be used to motivate the character arc or development of male protagonists), Smurfettes, women without communities that include other women, transphobia, Buried Gays, or just the general sense that the world the author’s created has no room for people like me in it, there’s frequently a level of alienation that I need to overcome in order to be able to enjoy a new book—or film, or television show, or videogame, etc.—and constantly being braced for that alienation is exhausting.

And that’s even before we get to books that are outright badly done, alienating in ways that aren’t aimed at me (but fuck racism), or just aren’t to my tastes (a lot of comedy, most horror, certain themes that need to be really well done to work for me).

But I’m so used to experiencing this alienation, or to expecting it, that it’s a wrenching shock when I find books that just… welcome me in. That don’t place any barriers in my way. I don’t notice the amount of effort overcoming this alienation requires until I don’t have to make that effort—like not really knowing how much pain you were in until it stops.

Recently I read five books in a row where the books were, in more ways than not, books for me. Now, one novel on its own isn’t a rarity. Two happens… not as much, but still quite a lot. But a run of three or more, unless I specifically sought them out and/or reread? Friends, that’s damn near unprecedented. (And at least one of them—Max Gladstone’s Ruin of Angels—had a pair of queer romance arcs whose culmination, in both cases, damn near made me cry ugly tears of relief and gratitude.)

This led me to wonder out loud: is this feeling of utter acceptance, of being a normal and unremarkable part of the landscape, of being self-evidently interesting and complex and worthy of multiple different protagonist-type roles, and also not dead, invisible, brutalised, or in doomed love—is this what (straight, white) guys just… expect to find when they come to fictional narratives? Is this one of the ways their experience of the world differs from mine?

If so, wow. I cannot articulate the difference it was, to read five books in a row where most of the protagonists were women, most of them were queer, and most of them had relationships that did not end in doom and grief.

It’s been making me think afresh about the problem of scarcity, and how books and other fictionalised narratives with non-straight non-white non-guy protagonists carry so great a weight of hopes—because there have been so few of them, comparatively, that it’s not like you can just shrug and find another with a protagonist that reflects these aspects of your identity if you don’t like it. (And if it’s badly—insultingly—done, then it’s like being slapped with a rotten fish.) It’s also making me think about the cues that indicate to me that a work of fiction has good odds of being an inclusive narrative, along more than one axis: the cues that signal this work of fiction has a good chance of being welcoming to me.

Spoiler: those cues rarely turn up on cover copy, and only sometimes in cover art. Press releases are a little better, but most of the time, it’s hard to tell unless you have word of mouth, really.

So I’m left thinking about the ways that weight of alienation has shaped, and is shaping, my engagement with narrative, and my critical engagement, in ways that I can’t see. It’s only its occasional and utterly shocking absence that has let me come to realise it’s even there. What does it mean?

I don’t know, but I’m still thinking.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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Posted by Malka Older

The micro-democratic system in Infomocracy and its sequel, Null States, features thousands of districts, all with their own laws. Electing an over-arching world government—in this instance a “supermajority”—would be impossible if many of these districts didn’t merge their interests and form larger political parties.

Infomocracy introduces these major parties, but they change a lot over the course of the book (as well as in the ensuing novel Null States, but let’s not spoil that here!). Here’s a refresher on who the major players are, and where they’re at by the end of Infomocracy!

 

The first Supermajority, which held that title for two decades, Heritage pioneered the model of forming a government based on a coalition of corporations, and with laws to suit those economic interests. Headquartered in Geneva, Heritage has centenals all over the world, and even after losing the Supermajority in the third global election they are a force to be reckoned with in Global politics. Previously lead by William Pressman, Heritage is now helmed by Cynthia Halliday

 

Policy1st is based on the idea that governments should be about their policies, rather than the appearance of their spokespeople, the personalities of their heads of state, or the logos of their corporate constituents. In this interest, Policy1st focuses on the evidence around different potential government programs, and tries to avoid being linked to a single individual. In practice, however, they have two co-heads of state: Vera Kubugli and Veena Rasmussen, the latter previously of Earth1st. The new Supermajority, Policy1st has struggled with the role.

 

  • Liberty: A corporate government severely sanctioned in the last elections, but still popular in some places.
  • PhilipMorris: A government originally formed by the tobacco firm, now a conglomerate including other like-minded businesses. A frequent contender for the Supermajority.
  • 888: A large government mainly, though no longer entirely, composed of businesses that originated in what was once China. A frequent contender for the Supermajority.
  • EuropeanUnion: A large government with global reach imitating the values and legal structures of the European Union cerca 2035.
  • AfricanUnity: A mainly East African-focused government with visions of expanding Africa’s global power through trade and diplomatic deals that increase economies of scale and voice on the international stage.
  • YouGov: A large “individualist” government, focusing on participation and tailored solutions to policy questions.
  • 平和亜紀 (Peaceful Asian Era): A superficially pan-Asian, peace-loving government with a semi-covert Japanese expansionist agenda.
  • La Raza: A Mexican and Chicano nationalist government that has attempted to make the leap to Pan-Latin@, without much success.
  • DarFur: A small government, limited to the eastern edge of the Sahara, focused on the Fur tribal group.
  • DarMasalit: A small government, limited to the eastern edge of the Sahara, focused on the Masalit tribal group.
  • JusticeEquality: A small government, limited to the eastern edge of the Sahara, focused on the Fur tribal group.
  • NomadCowmen: A small government of Sahelian pastoral nomads.
  • SecureNation: A government based around the vestigial United States Army, with centenals primarily around where bases were and a system of government based on the military hierarchy, an economy from renting out military services. Now defunct.
  • YourArmy: A military-based government that rents out its services to other governments.
  • EuroVision: Moderate-sized government that combines a European culture and economy focus with a reputation for an amazing nightlife.
  • LesProfessionnels: A military- (and mercenary-) based government that rents out its services to other governments.
  • ElNuevoPRI: A Mexican nationalist government based on nostalgia for and power structures of an old political party.
  • NousSommes: A West African corporate conglomerate government.
  • ToujoursTchad: A small government popular in some areas of the former nation-state of Chad, trading mainly in Chadian nationalism and nostalgia
  • Economix: A mid-level government focusing on economic policy.
  • ForzaItalia: A government named after the former Italian political party, trading mainly in Italian nationalism and nostalgia.
  • SavePlanet: An ecology-focused government.
  • AlThani: The main government of the Qatari peninsula, based around the old ruling dynasty.
  • 1China: A government purporting to enshrine the values, approaches, and policies of the People’s Republic of China, 1China has close ties to the remaining nation-state of China (which encompasses a smaller area than its previous incarnation) and is particularly popular in areas with large numbers of unassimilated Chinese migrants around the world.
  • RépubliqueLéman: Small French-Swiss nationalist government.
  • FríuFøroyar: Single-centenal government of the Faroe Islands.
  • Asia’s Return: Moderately-sized government pushing for Asian power through economic success.
  • OrgulloDominicano: Small government with centenals primarily in New York City and surrounding area catering to the Dominican diaspora.
  • RastaGov: Small government taking its policy platform from Rastafarian principles.
  • Oranje: A small Dutch nationalist government.
  • YourStory: A large government marketing itself on individual focus and choice.
  • Free2B: A small government with a relaxed aesthetic, more concerned with quality of life than economic growth.
  • HipstaLand: A small government located mainly in North American urban areas specializing in artisanal products and a fascination with the turn of the century.
  • ChouKawaii: A single-centenal government, based in Tokyo, specializing in fanfic and cute characters.
  • AllFor1: A mid-level government promising policies tailored to each individual and almost universal employment.
  • Privacy=Freedom: A two-centenal government without surveillance cameras.
  • StarLight: A government entirely run by and focused on celebrities.
  • Sony-Mitsubishi: A technocratic government initiated by the two large companies it is named after.
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Posted by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer Brandon Sanderson

Start reading Oathbringer, the new volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive epic, right now. For free!

Tor.com is serializing the much-awaited third volume in the Stormlight Archive series every Tuesday until the novel’s November 14, 2017 release date.

Every installment is collected here in the Oathbringer index.

Need a refresher on the Stormlight Archive before beginning Oathbringer? Here’s a summary of what happened in Book 1: The Way of Kings and Book 2: Words of Radiance.

Spoiler warning: Comments will contain spoilers for previous Stormlight books, other works that take place in Sanderson’s cosmere (Elantris, Mistborn, Warbreaker, etc.), and the available chapters of Oathbringer, along with speculation regarding the chapters yet to come.

 

Chapter 10
Distractions

Perhaps my heresy stretches back to those days in my childhood, where these ideas began.

—From Oathbringer, preface

 

Kaladin leaped from a hilltop, preserving Stormlight by Lashing himself upward just enough to give him some lift.

He soared through the rain, angled toward another hilltop. Beneath him, the valley was clogged with vivim trees, which wound their spindly branches together to create an almost impenetrable wall of forestation.

He landed lightly, skidding across the wet stone past rainspren like blue candles. He dismissed his Lashing, and as the force of the ground reasserted itself, he stepped into a quick march. He’d learned to march before learning the spear or shield. Kaladin smiled. He could almost hear Hav’s voice barking commands from the back of the line, where he helped stragglers. Hav had always said that once men could march together, learning to fight was easy.

“Smiling?” Syl said. She’d taken the shape of a large raindrop streaking through the air beside him, falling the wrong way. It was a natural shape, but also completely wrong. Plausible impossibility.

“You’re right,” Kaladin said, rain dribbling down his face. “I should be more solemn. We’re chasing down Voidbringers.” Storms, how odd it sounded to say that.

“I didn’t intend it as a reprimand.”

“Hard to tell with you sometimes.”

“And what was that supposed to mean?”

“Two days ago, I found that my mother is still alive,” Kaladin said, “so the position is not, in fact, vacant. You can stop trying to fill it.”

He Lashed himself upward slightly, then let himself slide down the wet stone of the steep hill, standing sideways. He passed open rockbuds and wiggling vines, glutted and fat from the constant rainfall. Following the Weeping, they’d often find as many dead plants around the town as they did after a strong highstorm.

“Well, I’m not trying to mother you,” Syl said, still a raindrop. Talking to her could be a surreal experience. “Though perhaps I chide you on occasion, when you’re being sullen.”

He grunted.

“Or when you’re being uncommunicative.” She transformed into the shape of a young woman in a havah, seated in the air and holding an umbrella as she moved along beside him. “It is my solemn and important duty to bring happiness, light, and joy into your world when you’re being a dour idiot. Which is most of the time. So there.”

Kaladin chuckled, holding a little Stormlight as he ran up the side of the next hill, then skidded down into the next valley. This was prime farmland; there was a reason why the Akanny region was prized by Sadeas. It might be a cultural backwater, but these rolling fields probably fed half the kingdom with their lavis and tallew crops. Other villages focused on raising large passels of hogs for leather and meat. Gumfrems, a kind of chull-like beast, were less common pasture animals harvested for their gemhearts, which—though small—allowed Soulcasting of meat.

Syl turned into a ribbon of light and zipped in front of him, making loops. It was difficult not to feel uplifted, even in the gloomy weather. He’d spent the entire sprint to Alethkar worrying—and then assuming—that he’d be too late to save Hearthstone. To find his parents alive… well, it was an unexpected blessing. The type his life had been severely lacking.

So he gave in to the urging of the Stormlight. Run. Leap. Though he’d spent two days chasing the Voidbringers, Kaladin’s exhaustion had faded. There weren’t many empty beds to be found in the broken villages he passed, but he had been able to find a roof to keep him dry and something warm to eat.

He’d started at Hearthstone and worked his way outward in a spiral— visiting villages, asking after the local parshmen, then warning people that the terrible storm would return. So far, he hadn’t found a single town or village that had been attacked.

Kaladin reached the next hilltop and pulled to a stop. A weathered stone post marked a crossroads. During his youth, he’d never gotten this far from Hearthstone, though he wasn’t more than a few days’ walk away.

Syl zipped up to him as he shaded his eyes from the rain. The glyphs and simple map on the stone marker would indicate the distance to the next town—but he didn’t need that. He could make it out as a smudge in the gloom. A fairly large town, by local standards.

“Come on,” he said, starting down the hillside.

“I think,” Syl said, landing on his shoulder and becoming a young woman, “I would make a wonderful mother.”

“And what inspired this topic?”

“You’re the one who brought it up.”

In comparing Syl to his mother for nagging him? “Are you even capable of having children? Baby spren?”

“I have no idea,” Syl proclaimed.

“You call the Stormfather… well, Father. Right? So he birthed you?”

“Maybe? I think so? Helped shape me, is more like it. Helped us find our voices.” She cocked her head. “Yes. He made some of us. Made me.”

“So maybe you could do that,” Kaladin said. “Find little, uh, bits of the wind? Or of Honor? Shape them?”

He used a Lashing to leap over a snarl of rockbuds and vines, and startled a pack of cremlings as he landed, sending them scuttling away from a nearly clean mink skeleton. Probably the leavings of a larger predator.

“Hmmm,” Syl said. “I would be an excellent mother. I’d teach the little spren to fly, to coast the winds, to harass you.…”

Kaladin smiled. “You’d get distracted by an interesting beetle and fly off, leaving them in a drawer somewhere.”

“Nonsense! Why would I leave my babies in a drawer? Far too boring. A highprince’s shoe though…”

He flew the remaining distance to the village, and the sight of broken buildings at the western edge dampened his mood. Though the destruction continued to be less than he’d feared, every town or village had lost people to the winds or the terrible lightning.

This village—Hornhollow, the map called it—was in what once would have been considered an ideal location. The land here dipped into a depression, and a hill to the east cut the brunt of the highstorms. It held about two dozen structures, including two large storm sanctuaries where travelers could stay—but there were also many outer buildings. This was the highprince’s land, and an industrious darkeyes of high enough nahn could get a commission to work an unused hill out by itself, then keep a portion of the crop.

A few sphere lanterns gave light to the square, where people had gathered for a town meeting. That was convenient. Kaladin dropped toward the lights and held his hand to the side. Syl formed there by unspoken command, taking the shape of a Shardblade: a sleek, beautiful sword with the symbol of the Windrunners prominent on the center, with lines sweeping off it toward the hilt—grooves in the metal that looked like flowing tresses of hair. Though Kaladin preferred a spear, the Blade was a symbol.

Kaladin hit the ground in the center of the village, near its large central cistern, used to catch rainwater and filter away the crem. He rested the Sylblade on his shoulder and stretched out his other hand, preparing his speech. People of Hornhollow. I am Kaladin, of the Knights Radiant. I have come—

“Lord Radiant!” A portly lighteyed man stumbled out of the crowd, wearing a long raincloak and a wide-brimmed hat. He looked ridiculous, but it was the Weeping. Constant rain didn’t exactly encourage heights of fashion.

The man clapped his hands in an energetic motion, and a pair of ardents stumbled up beside him, bearing goblets full of glowing spheres. Around the perimeter of the square, people hissed and whispered, anticipationspren flapping in an unseen wind. Several men held up small children to get a better look.

“Great,” Kaladin said softly. “I’ve become a menagerie act.”

In his mind, he heard Syl giggle.

Well, best to put on a good show of it. He lifted the Sylblade high overhead, prompting a cheer from the crowd. He would have bet that most of the people in this square used to curse the name of the Radiants, but none of that was manifest now in the people’s enthusiasm. It was hard to believe that centuries of mistrust and vilification would be forgotten so quickly. But with the sky breaking and the land in turmoil, people would look to a symbol.

Kaladin lowered his Blade. He knew all too well the danger of symbols. Amaram had been one to him, long ago.

“You knew of my coming,” Kaladin said to the citylord and the ardents. “You’ve been in contact with your neighbors. Have they told you what I’ve been saying?”

“Yes, Brightlord,” the lighteyed man said, gesturing eagerly for him to take the spheres. As he did so—replacing them with spent ones he’d traded for previously—the man’s expression fell noticeably.

Expected me to pay two for one as I did at the first few towns, did you? Kaladin thought with amusement. Well, he dropped a few extra dun spheres in. He’d rather be known as generous, particularly if it helped word spread, but he couldn’t halve his spheres each time he went through them.

“This is good,” Kaladin said, fishing out a few small gemstones. “I can’t visit every holding in the area. I need you to send messages to each nearby village, carrying words of comfort and command from the king. I will pay for the time of your runners.”

He looked out at the sea of eager faces, and couldn’t help but remember a similar day in Hearthstone where he and the rest of the townspeople had waited, eager to catch a glimpse of their new citylord.

“Of course, Brightlord,” the lighteyed man said. “Would you wish to rest now, and take a meal? Or would you rather visit the location of the attack immediately?”

Attack?” Kaladin said, feeling a spike of alarm.

“Yes, Brightlord,” the portly lighteyes said. “Isn’t that why you’re here?

To see where the rogue parshmen assaulted us?”

Finally! “Take me there. Now.

 


 

They’d attacked a grain storage just outside town. Squashed between two hills and shaped like a dome, it had weathered the Everstorm without so much as a loosed stone. That made it a particular shame that the Voidbringers had ripped open the door and pillaged what was inside.

Kaladin knelt within, flipping over a broken hinge. The building smelled of dust and tallew, but was too wet. Townspeople who would suffer a dozen leaks in their bedroom would go to great expense to keep their grain dry.

It felt odd to not have the rain on his head, though he could still hear it pattering outside.

“May I continue, Brightlord?” the ardent asked him. She was young, pretty, and nervous. Obviously she didn’t know where he fit into the scheme of her religion. The Knights Radiant had been founded by the Heralds, but they were also traitors. So… he was either a divine being of myth or a cretin one step above a Voidbringer.

“Yes, please,” Kaladin said.

“Of the five eyewitnesses,” the ardent said, “four, um, independently counted the number of attackers at… fifty or so? Anyway, it’s safe to say that they’ve got large numbers, considering how many sacks of grain they were able to carry away in such a short time. They, um, didn’t look exactly like parshmen. Too tall, and wearing armor. The sketch I made… Um…”

She tried showing him her sketch again. It wasn’t much better than a child’s drawing: a bunch of scribbles in vaguely humanoid shapes.

“Anyway,” the young ardent continued, oblivious to the fact that Syl had landed on her shoulder and was inspecting her face. “They attacked right after first moonset. They had the grain out by middle of second moon, um, and we didn’t hear anything until the change of guard happened. Sot raised the alarm, and that chased the creatures off They only left four sacks, which we moved.”

Kaladin took a crude wooden cudgel off the table next to the ardent. The ardent glanced at him, then quickly looked back to her paper, blushing. The room, lit by oil lamps, was depressingly hollow. This grain should have gotten the village to the next harvest.

To a man from a farming village, nothing was more distressing than an empty silo at planting time.

“The men who were attacked?” Kaladin said, inspecting the cudgel, which the Voidbringers had dropped while fleeing.

“They’ve both recovered, Brightlord,” the ardent said. “Though Khem has a ringing in his ear he says won’t go away.”

Fifty parshmen in warform—which was what the descriptions sounded most like to him—could easily have overrun this town and its handful of militia guards. They could have slaughtered everyone and taken whatever they wished; instead, they’d made a surgical raid.

“The red lights,” Kaladin said. “Describe them again.”

The ardent started; she’d been looking at him. “Um, all five witnesses mentioned the lights, Brightlord. There were several small glowing red lights in the darkness.”

“Their eyes.”

“Maybe?” the ardent said. “If those were eyes, it was only a few. I went and asked, and none of the witnesses specifically saw eyes glowing—and Khem got a look right in one of the parshmen’s faces as they struck him.”

Kaladin dropped the cudgel and dusted off his palms. He took the sheet with the picture on it out of the young ardent’s hands and inspected it, just for show, then nodded to her. “You did well. Thank you for the report.”

She sighed, grinning stupidly.

“Oh!” Syl said, still on the ardent’s shoulder. “She thinks you’re pretty!”

Kaladin drew his lips to a line. He nodded to the woman and left her, striking back into the rain toward the center of town.

Syl zipped up to his shoulder. “Wow. She must be desperate living out here. I mean, look at you. Hair that hasn’t been combed since you flew across the continent, uniform stained with crem, and that beard.

“Thank you for the boost of confidence.”

“I guess when there’s nobody about but farmers, your standards really drop.”

“She’s an ardent,” Kaladin said. “She’d have to marry another ardent.”

“I don’t think she was thinking about marriage, Kaladin…” Syl said, turning and looking backward over her shoulder. “I know you’ve been busy lately fighting guys in white clothing and stuff, but I’ve been doing research. People lock their doors, but there’s plenty of room to get in underneath. I figured, since you don’t seem inclined to do any learning yourself, I should study. So if you have questions…”

“I’m well aware of what is involved.”

“You sure?” Syl asked. “Maybe we could have that ardent draw you a picture. She seems like she’d be really eager.”

“Syl…”

“I just want you to be happy, Kaladin,” she said, zipping off his shoulder and running a few rings around him as a ribbon of light. “People in relationships are happier.”

“That,” Kaladin said, “is demonstrably false. Some might be. I know a lot who aren’t.”

“Come on,” Syl said. “What about that Lightweaver? You seemed to like her.”

The words struck uncomfortably close to the truth. “Shallan is engaged to Dalinar’s son.”

“So? You’re better than him. I don’t trust him one bit.”

“You don’t trust anyone who carries a Shardblade, Syl,” Kaladin said with a sigh. “We’ve been over this. It’s not a mark of bad character to have bonded one of the weapons.”

“Yes, well, let’s have someone swing around the corpse of your sisters by the feet, and we’ll see whether you consider it a ‘mark of bad character’ or not. This is a distraction. Like that Lightweaver could be for you…”

“Shallan’s a lighteyes,” Kaladin said. “That’s the end of the conversation.”

“But—”

“End,” he said, stepping into the home of the village lighteyes. Then he added under his breath, “And stop spying on people when they’re being intimate. It’s creepy.”

The way she spoke, she expected to be there when Kaladin… Well, he’d never considered that before, though she went with him everywhere else. Could he convince her to wait outside? She’d still listen, if not sneak in to watch. Stormfather. His life just kept getting stranger. He tried— unsuccessfully—to banish the image of lying in bed with a woman, Syl sitting on the headboard and shouting out encouragement and advice.…

“Lord Radiant?” the citylord asked from inside the front room of the small home. “Are you well?”

“Painful memory,” Kaladin said. “Your scouts are certain of the direction the parshmen went?”

The citylord looked over his shoulder at a scraggly man in leathers, bow on his back, standing by the boarded-up window. Trapper, with a writ from the local highlord to catch mink on his lands. “Followed them half a day out, Brightlord. They never deviated. Straight toward Kholinar, I’d swear to Kelek himself.”

“Then that’s where I’m going as well,” Kaladin said.

“You want me to lead you, Brightlord Radiant?” the trapper asked.

Kaladin drew in Stormlight. “Afraid you’d just slow me down.” He nodded to the men, then stepped out and Lashed himself upward. People clogged the road and cheered from rooftops as he left the town behind.

 


 

The scents of horses reminded Adolin of his youth. Sweat, and manure, and hay. Good scents. Real scents.

He’d spent many of those days, before he was fully a man, on campaign with his father during border skirmishes with Jah Keved. Adolin had been afraid of horses back then, though he’d never have admitted it. So much faster, more intelligent, than chulls.

So alien. Creatures all covered in hair—which made him shiver to touch—with big glassy eyes. And those hadn’t even been real horses. For all their pedigree breeding, the horses they’d rode on campaign had just been ordinary Shin Thoroughbreds. Expensive, yes. But by definition, therefore, not priceless.

Not like the creature before him now.

They were housing the Kholin livestock in the far northwest section of the tower, on the ground floor, near where winds from outside blew along the mountains. Some clever constructions in the hallways by the royal engineers had ventilated the scents away from the inner corridors, though that left the region quite chilly.

Gumfrems and hogs clogged some rooms, while conventional horses stabled in others. Several even contained Bashin’s axehounds, animals who never got to go on hunts anymore.

Such accommodations weren’t good enough for the Blackthorn’s horse. No, the massive black Ryshadium stallion had been given his own field. Large enough to serve as a pasture, it was open to the sky and in an enviable spot, if you discounted the scents of the other animals.

As Adolin emerged from the tower, the black monster of a horse came galloping over. Big enough to carry a Shardbearer without looking small, Ryshadium were often called the “third Shard.” Blade, Plate, and Mount.

That didn’t do them justice. You couldn’t earn a Ryshadium simply by defeating someone in combat. They chose their riders.

But, Adolin thought as Gallant nuzzled his hand, I suppose that was how it used to be with Blades too. They were spren who chose their bearers.

“Hey,” Adolin said, scratching the Ryshadium’s snout with his left hand. “A little lonely out here, isn’t it? I’m sorry about that. Wish you weren’t alone any—” He cut off as his voice caught in his throat.

Gallant stepped closer, towering over him, but somehow still gentle.

The horse nuzzled Adolin’s neck, then blew out sharply.

“Ugh,” Adolin said, turning the horse’s head. “That’s a scent I could do without.” He patted Gallant’s neck, then reached with his right hand into his shoulder pack—before a sharp pain from his wrist reminded him yet again of his wound. He reached in with the other hand and took out some sugar lumps, which Gallant consumed eagerly.

“You’re as bad as Aunt Navani,” Adolin noted. “That’s why you came running, isn’t it? You smelled treats.”

The horse turned his head, looking at Adolin with one watery blue eye, rectangular pupil at the center. He almost seemed… offended.

Adolin often had felt he could read his own Ryshadium’s emotions. There had been a… bond between him and Sureblood. More delicate and indefinable than the bond between man and sword, but still there.

Of course, Adolin was the one who talked to his sword sometimes, so he had a habit of this sort of thing.

“I’m sorry,” Adolin said. “I know the two of you liked to run together. And… I don’t know if Father will be able to get down as much to see you. He’d already been withdrawing from battle before he got all these new responsibilities. I thought I’d stop by once in a while.”

The horse snorted loudly.

“Not to ride you,” Adolin said, reading indignation in the Ryshadium’s motions. “I just thought it might be nice for both of us.”

The horse poked his snout at Adolin’s satchel until he dug out another sugar cube. It seemed like agreement to Adolin, who fed the horse, then leaned back against the wall and watched him gallop through the pasture.

Showing off Adolin thought with amusement as Gallant pranced past him. Maybe Gallant would let him brush his coat. That would feel good, like the evenings he’d spent with Sureblood in the dark calm of the stables. At least, that was what he’d done before everything had gotten busy, with Shallan and the duels and everything else.

He’d ignored the horse right up until he’d needed Sureblood in battle. And then, in a flash of light, he was gone.

Adolin took a deep breath. Everything seemed insane these days. Not just Sureblood, but what he’d done to Sadeas, and now the investigation…

Watching Gallant seemed to help a little. Adolin was still there, leaning against the wall, when Renarin arrived. The younger Kholin poked his head through the doorway, looking around. He didn’t shy away when Gallant galloped past, but he did regard the stallion with wariness.

“Hey,” Adolin said from the side.

“Hey. Bashin said you were down here.”

“Just checking on Gallant,” Adolin said. “Because Father’s been so busy lately.”

Renarin approached. “You could ask Shallan to draw Sureblood,” Renarin said. “I bet, um, she’d be able to do a good job. To remember.”

It wasn’t a bad suggestion, actually. “Were you looking for me, then?”

“I…” Renarin watched Gallant as the horse pranced by again. “He’s excited.”

“He likes an audience.”

“They don’t fit, you know.”

“Don’t fit?”

“Ryshadium have stone hooves,” Renarin said, “stronger than ordinary horses’. Never need to be shod.”

“And that makes them not fit? I’d say that makes them fit better.…” Adolin eyed Renarin. “You mean ordinary horses, don’t you?”

Renarin blushed, then nodded. People had trouble following him sometimes, but that was merely because he tended to be so thoughtful. He’d be thinking about something deep, something brilliant, and then would only mention a part. It made him seem erratic, but once you got to know him, you realized he wasn’t trying to be esoteric. His lips just sometimes failed to keep up with his brain.

“Adolin,” he said softly. “I… um… I have to give you back the Shardblade you won for me.”

“Why?” Adolin said.

“It hurts to hold,” Renarin said. “It always has, to be honest. I thought it was just me, being strange. But it’s all of us.”

“Radiants, you mean.”

He nodded. “We can’t use the dead Blades. It’s not right.”

“Well, I suppose I could find someone else to use it,” Adolin said, running through options. “Though you should really be the one to choose. By right of bestowal, the Blade is yours, and you should pick the successor.”

“I’d rather you do it. I’ve given it to the ardents already, for safekeeping.”

“Which means you’ll be unarmed,” Adolin said.

Renarin glanced away.

“Or not,” Adolin said, then poked Renarin in the shoulder. “You’ve got a replacement already, don’t you.”

Renarin blushed again.

“You mink!” Adolin said. “You’ve managed to create a Radiant Blade? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“It just happened. Glys wasn’t certain he could do it… but we need more people to work the Oathgate… so…”

He took a deep breath, then stretched his hand to the side and summoned a long glowing Shardblade. Thin, with almost no crossguard, it had waving folds to the metal, like it had been forged.

“Gorgeous,” Adolin said. “Renarin, it’s fantastic!”

“Thanks.”

“So why are you embarrassed?”

“I’m… not?”

Adolin gave him a flat stare.

Renarin dismissed the Blade. “I simply… Adolin, I was starting to fit in. With Bridge Four, with being a Shardbearer. Now, I’m in the darkness again. Father expects me to be a Radiant, so I can help him unite the world. But how am I supposed to learn?”

Adolin scratched his chin with his good hand. “Huh. I assumed that it just kind of came to you. It hasn’t?”

“Some has. But it… frightens me, Adolin.” He held up his hand, and it started to glow, wisps of Stormlight trailing off it, like smoke from a fire. “What if I hurt someone, or ruin things?”

“You’re not going to,” Adolin said. “Renarin, that’s the power of the Almighty himself.”

Renarin only stared at that glowing hand, and didn’t seem convinced. So Adolin reached out with his good hand and took Renarin’s, holding it.

“This is good,” Adolin said to him. “You’re not going to hurt anyone. You’re here to save us.”

Renarin looked to him, then smiled. A pulse of Radiance washed through Adolin, and for an instant he saw himself perfected. A version of himself that was somehow complete and whole, the man he could be.

It was gone in a moment, and Renarin pulled his hand free and murmured an apology. He mentioned again the Shardblade needing to be given away, then fled back into the tower.

Adolin stared after him. Gallant trotted up and nudged him for more sugar, so he reached absently into his satchel and fed the horse.

Only after Gallant trotted off did Adolin realize he’d used his right hand.

He held it up, amazed, moving his fingers. His wrist had been completely healed.

 


 

Chapter 11
The Rift

THIRTY-THREE YEARS AGO

Dalinar danced from one foot to the other in the morning mist, feeling a new power, an energy in every step. Shardplate. His own Shardplate.

The world would never be the same place. They’d all expected he would someday have his own Plate or Blade, but he’d never been able to quiet the whisper of uncertainty from the back of his mind. What if it never happened?

But it had. Stormfather, it had. He’d won it himself, in combat. Yes, that combat had involved kicking a man off a cliff, but he’d defeated a Shardbearer regardless.

He couldn’t help but bask in how grand it felt.

“Calm, Dalinar,” Sadeas said from beside him in the mist. Sadeas wore his own golden Plate. “Patience.”

“It won’t do any good, Sadeas,” Gavilar—clad in bright blue Plate— said from Dalinar’s other side. All three of them wore their faceplates up for the moment. “The Kholin boys are chained axehounds, and we smell blood. We can’t go into battle breathing calming breaths, centered and serene, as the ardents teach.”

Dalinar shifted, feeling the cold morning fog on his face. He wanted to dance with the anticipationspren whipping in the air around him. Behind, the army waited in disciplined ranks, their footsteps, clinkings, coughs, and murmured banter rising through the fog.

He almost felt as if he didn’t need that army. He wore a massive hammer on his back, so heavy an unaided man—even the strongest of them— wouldn’t be able to lift it. He barely noticed the weight. Storms, this power. It felt remarkably like the Thrill.

“Have you given thought to my suggestion, Dalinar?” Sadeas asked.

“No.”

Sadeas sighed.

“If Gavilar commands me,” Dalinar said, “I’ll marry.”

“Don’t bring me into this,” Gavilar said. He summoned and dismissed his Shardblade repeatedly as they talked.

“Well,” Dalinar said, “until you say something, I’m staying single.” The only woman he’d ever wanted belonged to Gavilar. They’d married—storms, they had a child now. A little girl.

His brother must never know how Dalinar felt.

“But think of the benefit, Dalinar,” Sadeas said. “Your wedding could bring us alliances, Shards. Perhaps you could win us a princedom—one we wouldn’t have to storming drive to the brink of collapse before they join us!”

After two years of fighting, only four of the ten princedoms had accepted Gavilar’s rule—and two of those, Kholin and Sadeas, had been easy. The result was a united Alethkar: against House Kholin.

Gavilar was convinced that he could play them off one another, that their natural selfishness would lead them to stab one another in the back. Sadeas, in turn, pushed Gavilar toward greater brutality. He claimed that the fiercer their reputation, the more cities would turn to them willingly rather than risk being pillaged.

“Well?” Sadeas asked. “Will you at least consider a union of political necessity?”

“Storms, you still on that?” Dalinar said. “Let me fight. You and my brother can worry about politics.”

“You can’t escape this forever, Dalinar. You realize that, right? We’ll have to worry about feeding the darkeyes, about city infrastructure, about ties with other kingdoms. Politics.

“You and Gavilar,” Dalinar said.

“All of us,” Sadeas said. “All three.”

“Weren’t you trying to get me to relax?” Dalinar snapped. Storms.

The rising sun finally started to disperse the fog, and that let him see their target: a wall about twelve feet high. Beyond that, nothing. A flat rocky expanse, or so it appeared. The chasm city was difficult to spot from this direction. Named Rathalas, it was also known as the Rift: an entire city that had been built inside a rip in the ground.

“Brightlord Tanalan is a Shardbearer, right?” Dalinar asked.

Sadeas sighed, lowering his faceplate. “We only went over this four times, Dalinar.”

“I was drunk. Tanalan. Shardbearer?”

“Blade only, Brother,” Gavilar said.

“He’s mine,” Dalinar whispered.

Gavilar laughed. “Only if you find him first! I’ve half a mind to give that Blade to Sadeas. At least he listens in our meetings.”

“All right,” Sadeas said. “Let’s do this carefully. Remember the plan. Gavilar, you—”

Gavilar gave Dalinar a grin, slammed his faceplate down, then took off running to leave Sadeas midsentence. Dalinar whooped and joined him, Plated boots grinding against stone.

Sadeas cursed loudly, then followed. The army remained behind for the moment.

Rocks started falling; catapults from behind the wall hurled solitary boulders or sprays of smaller rocks. Chunks slammed down around Dalinar, shaking the ground, causing rockbud vines to curl up. A boulder struck just ahead, then bounced, spraying chips of stone. Dalinar skidded past it, the Plate lending a spring to his motion. He raised his arm before his eye slit as a hail of arrows darkened the sky.

“Watch the ballistas!” Gavilar shouted.

Atop the wall, soldiers aimed massive crossbowlike devices mounted to the stone. One sleek bolt—the size of a spear—launched directly at Dalinar, and it proved far more accurate than the catapults. He threw himself to the side, Plate grinding on stone as he slid out of the way. The bolt hit the ground with such force that the wood shattered.

Other shafts trailed netting and ropes, hoping to trip a Shardbearer and render him prone for a second shot. Dalinar grinned, feeling the Thrill awaken within him, and recovered his feet. He leaped over a bolt trailing netting.

Tanalan’s men delivered a storm of wood and stone, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Dalinar took a stone in the shoulder and lurched, but quickly regained his momentum. Arrows were useless against him, the boulders too random, and the ballistas too slow to reload.

This was how it should be. Dalinar, Gavilar, Sadeas. Together. Other responsibilities didn’t matter. Life was about the fight. A good battle in the day—then at night, a warm hearth, tired muscles, and a good vintage of wine.

Dalinar reached the squat wall and leaped, propelling himself in a mighty jump. He gained just enough height to grab one of the crenels of the wall’s top. Men raised hammers to pound his fingers, but he hurled himself over the lip and onto the wall walk, crashing down amid panicked defenders. He jerked the release rope on his hammer—dropping it on an enemy behind—then swung out with his fist, sending men broken and screaming.

This was almost too easy! He seized his hammer, then brought it up and swung it in a wide arc, tossing men from the wall like leaves before a gust of wind. Just beyond him, Sadeas kicked over a ballista, destroying the device with a casual blow. Gavilar attacked with his Blade, dropping corpses by the handful, their eyes burning. Up here, the fortification worked against the defenders, leaving them cramped and clumped up—perfect for Shardbearers to destroy.

Dalinar surged through them, and in a few moments likely killed more men than he had in his entire life. At that, he felt a surprising yet profound dissatisfaction. This was not about his skill, his momentum, or even his reputation. You could have replaced him with a toothless gaffer and produced practically the same result.

He gritted his teeth against that sudden useless emotion. He dug deeply within, and found the Thrill waiting. It filled him, driving away dissatisfaction. Within moments he was roaring his pleasure. Nothing these men did could touch him. He was a destroyer, a conqueror, a glorious maelstrom of death. A god.

Sadeas was saying something. The silly man gestured in his golden Shardplate. Dalinar blinked, looking out over the wall. He could see the Rift proper from this vantage, a deep chasm in the ground that hid an entire city, built up the sides of either cliff

“Catapults, Dalinar!” Sadeas said. “Bring down those catapults!”

Right. Gavilar’s armies had started to charge the walls. Those catapults—near the way down into the Rift proper—were still launching stones, and would drop hundreds of men.

Dalinar leaped for the edge of the wall and grabbed a rope ladder to swing down. The ropes, of course, immediately snapped, sending him toppling to the ground. He struck with a crash of Plate on stone. It didn’t hurt, but his pride took a serious blow. Above, Sadeas looked at him over the edge. Dalinar could practically hear his voice.

Always rushing into things. Take some time to think once in a while, won’t you?

That had been a flat-out greenvine mistake. Dalinar growled and climbed to his feet, searching for his hammer. Storms! He’d bent the handle in his fall. How had he done that? It wasn’t made of the same strange metal as Blades and Plate, but it was still good steel.

Soldiers guarding the catapults swarmed toward him while the shadows of boulders passed overhead. Dalinar set his jaw, the Thrill saturating him, and reached for a stout wooden door set into the wall nearby. He ripped it free, the hinges popping, and stumbled. It came off more easily than he’d expected.

There was more to this armor than he’d ever imagined. Maybe he wasn’t any better with the Plate than some old gaffer, but he would change that. At that moment, he determined that he’d never be surprised again. He’d wear this Plate morning and night—he’d sleep in the storming stuff—until he was more comfortable in it than out.

He raised the wooden door and swung it like a bludgeon, sweeping soldiers away and opening a path to the catapults. Then he dashed forward and grabbed the side of one catapult. He ripped its wheel off, splintering wood and sending the machine teetering. He stepped onto it, grabbing the catapult’s arm and breaking it free.

Only ten more to go. He stood atop the wrecked machine when he heard a distant voice call his name. “Dalinar!”

He looked toward the wall, where Sadeas reached back and heaved his Shardbearer’s hammer. It spun in the air before slamming into the catapult next to Dalinar, wedging itself into the broken wood.

Sadeas raised a hand in salute, and Dalinar waved back in gratitude, then grabbed the hammer. The destruction went a lot faster after that. He pounded the machines, leaving behind shattered wood. Engineers—many of them women—scrambled away, screaming, “Blackthorn, Blackthorn!”

By the time he neared the last catapult, Gavilar had secured the gates and opened them to his soldiers. A flood of men entered, joining those who had scaled the walls. The last of the enemies near Dalinar fled down into the city, leaving him alone. He grunted and kicked the final broken catapult, sending it rolling backward across the stone toward the edge of the Rift.

It tipped, then fell over. Dalinar stepped forward, walking onto a kind of observation post, a section of rock with a railing to prevent people from slipping over the side. From this vantage, he got his first good look down at the city.

“The Rift” was a fitting name. To his right, the chasm narrowed, but here at the middle he’d have been hard-pressed to throw a stone across to the other side, even with Shardplate. And within it, there was life. Gardens bobbing with lifespren. Buildings built practically on top of one another down the V-shaped cliff sides. The place teemed with a network of stilts, bridges, and wooden walkways.

Dalinar turned and looked back at the wall that ran in a wide circle around the opening of the Rift on all sides except the west, where the canyon continued until it opened up below at the shores of the lake.

To survive in Alethkar, you had to find shelter from the storms. A wide cleft like this one was perfect for a city. But how did you protect it? Any attacking enemy would have the high ground. Many cities walked a risky line between security from storms and security from men.

Dalinar shouldered Sadeas’s hammer as groups of Tanalan’s soldiers flooded down from the walls, forming up to flank Gavilar’s army on both right and left. They’d try to press against the Kholin troops from both sides, but with three Shardbearers to face, they were in trouble. Where was Highlord Tanalan himself ?

Behind, Thakka approached with a small squad of elites, joining Dalinar on the stone viewing platform. Thakka put his hands on the railing, whistling softly.

“Something’s going on with this city,” Dalinar said.

“What?”

“I don’t know.…” Dalinar might not pay attention to the grand plans Gavilar and Sadeas made, but he was a soldier. He knew battlefields like a woman knew her mother’s recipes: he might not be able to give you measurements, but he could taste when something was off.

The fighting continued behind him, Kholin soldiers clashing with Tanalan’s defenders. Tanalan’s armies didn’t fare well; demoralized by the advancing Kholin army, the enemy ranks quickly broke and scrambled into a retreat, clogging the ramps down into the city. Gavilar and Sadeas didn’t give chase; they had the high ground now. No need to rush into a potential ambush.

Gavilar clomped across the stone, Sadeas beside him. They’d want to survey the city and rain arrows upon those below—maybe even use stolen catapults, if Dalinar had left any functional. They’d siege this place until it broke.

Three Shardbearers, Dalinar thought. Tanalan has to be planning to deal with us somehow.…

This viewing platform was the best vantage for looking into the city. And they’d situated the catapults right next to it—machines that the Shardbearers were certain to attack and disable. Dalinar glanced to the sides, and saw cracks in the stone floor of the viewing platform.

“No!” Dalinar shouted to Gavilar. “Stay back! It’s a—”

The enemy must have been watching, for the moment he shouted, the ground fell out from beneath him. Dalinar caught a glimpse of Gavilar— held back by Sadeas—looking on in horror as Dalinar, Thakka, and a handful of other elites were toppled into the Rift.

Storms. The entire section of stone where they’d been standing—the lip hanging out over the Rift—had broken free! As the large section of rock tumbled down into the first buildings, Dalinar was flung into the air above the city. Everything spun around him.

A moment later, he crashed into a building with an awful crunch. Something hard hit his arm, an impact so powerful he heard his armor there shatter.

The building failed to stop him. He tore right through the wood and continued, helm grinding against stone as he somehow came in contact with the side of the Rift.

He hit another surface with a loud crunch, and blessedly here he finally stopped. He groaned, feeling a sharp pain from his left hand. He shook his head, and found himself staring upward some fifty feet through a shattered section of the near-vertical wooden city. The large section of falling rock had torn a swath through the city along the steep incline, smashing homes and walkways. Dalinar had been flung just to the north, and had eventually come to rest on the wooden roof of a building.

He didn’t see signs of his men. Thakka, the other elites. But without Shardplate… He growled, angerspren boiling around him like pools of blood. He shifted on the rooftop, but the pain in his hand made him wince. His armor all down his left arm had shattered, and in falling he appeared to have broken a few fingers.

His Shardplate leaked glowing white smoke from a hundred fractures, but the only pieces he’d lost completely were from his left arm and hand.

He gingerly pried himself from the rooftop, but as he shifted, he broke through and fell into the home. He grunted as he hit, members of a family screaming and pulling back against the wall. Tanalan apparently hadn’t told the people of his plan to crush a section of his own city in a desperate attempt to deal with the enemy Shardbearers.

Dalinar got to his feet, ignoring the cowering people, and shoved open the door—breaking it with the strength of his push—and stepped out onto a wooden walkway that ran before the homes on this tier of the city.

A hail of arrows immediately fell on him. He turned his right shoulder toward them, growling, shielding his eye slit as best he could while he inspected the source of the attack. Fifty archers were set up on a garden platform on the other storming side of the Rift from him. Wonderful.

He recognized the man leading the archers. Tall, with an imperious bearing and stark white plumes on his helm. Who put chicken feathers on their helms? Looked ridiculous. Well, Tanalan was a fine enough fellow. Dalinar had beat him once at pawns, and Tanalan had paid the bet with a hundred glowing bits of ruby, each dropped into a corked bottle of wine. Dalinar had always found that amusing.

Reveling in the Thrill, which rose in him and drove away pain, Dalinar charged along the walkway, ignoring arrows. Above, Sadeas was leading a force down one of the ramps outside the path of the rockfall, but it would be slow going. By the time they arrived, Dalinar intended to have a new Shardblade.

He charged onto one of the bridges that crossed the Rift. Unfortunately, he knew exactly what he would do if preparing this city for an assault. Sure enough, a pair of soldiers hurried down the other side of the Rift, then used axes to attack the support posts to Dalinar’s bridge. It had Soulcast metal ropes holding it up, but if they could get those posts down—dropping the lines—his weight would surely cause the entire thing to fall.

The bottom wash of the Rift was easily another hundred feet below. Growling, Dalinar made the only choice he could. He threw himself over the side of his walkway, dropping a short distance to one below. It looked sturdy enough. Even so, one foot smashed through the wooden planks, nearly followed by his entire body.

He heaved himself up and continued running across. Two more soldiers reached the posts holding up this bridge, and they began frantically hacking away.

The walkway shook beneath Dalinar’s feet. Stormfather. He didn’t have much time, but there were no more walkways within jumping distance. Dalinar pushed himself to a run, roaring, his footfalls cracking boards.

A single black arrow fell from above, swooping like a skyeel. It dropped one of the soldiers. Another arrow followed, hitting the second soldier even as he gawked at his fallen ally. The walkway stopped shaking, and Dalinar grinned, pulling to a stop. He turned, spotting a man standing near the sheared-off section of stone above. He lifted a black bow toward Dalinar.

“Teleb, you storming miracle,” Dalinar said.

He reached the other side and plucked an axe from the hands of a dead man. Then he charged up a ramp toward where he’d seen Highlord Tanalan.

He found the place easily, a wide wooden platform built on struts connected to parts of the wall below, and draped with vines and blooming rockbuds. Lifespren scattered as Dalinar reached it.

Centered in the garden, Tanalan waited with a force of some fifty soldiers. Puffing inside his helm, Dalinar stepped up to confront them. Tanalan was armored in simple steel, no Shardplate, though a brutal-looking Shardblade—wide, with a hooked tip—appeared in his grasp.

Tanalan barked for his soldiers to stand back and lower their bows. Then he strode toward Dalinar, holding the Shardblade with both hands.

Everyone always fixated upon Shardblades. Specific weapons had lore dedicated to them, and people traced which kings or brightlords had carried which sword. Well, Dalinar had used both Blade and Plate, and if given the choice of one, he’d pick Plate every time. All he needed to do was get in one solid hit on Tanalan, and the fight would be over. The highlord, however, had to contend with a foe who could resist his blows.

The Thrill thrummed inside Dalinar. Standing between two squat trees, he set his stance, keeping his exposed left arm pointed away from the highlord while gripping the axe in his gauntleted right hand. Though it was a war axe, it felt like a child’s plaything.

“You should not have come here, Dalinar,” Tanalan said. His voice bore a distinctively nasal accent common to this region. The Rifters always had considered themselves a people apart. “We had no quarrel with you or yours.”

“You refused to submit to the king,” Dalinar said, armor plates clinking as he rounded the highlord while trying to keep an eye on the soldiers. He wouldn’t put it past them to attack him once he was distracted by the duel. It was what he himself would have done.

“The king?” Tanalan demanded, angerspren boiling up around him. “There hasn’t been a throne in Alethkar for generations. Even if we were to have a king again, who is to say the Kholins deserve the mantle?”

“The way I see it,” Dalinar said, “the people of Alethkar deserve a king who is the strongest and most capable of leading them in battle. If only there were a way to prove that.” He grinned inside his helm.

Tanalan attacked, sweeping in with his Shardblade and trying to leverage his superior reach. Dalinar danced back, waiting for his moment. The Thrill was a heady rush, a lust to prove himself.

But he needed to be cautious. Ideally Dalinar would prolong this fight, relying on his Plate’s superior strength and the stamina it provided. Unfortunately, that Plate was still leaking, and he had all these guards to deal with. Still, he tried to play it as Tanalan would expect, dodging attacks, acting as if he were going to drag out the fight.

Tanalan growled and came in again. Dalinar blocked the blow with his arm, then made a perfunctory swing with his axe. Tanalan dodged back easily. Stormfather, that Blade was long. Almost as tall as Dalinar was.

Dalinar maneuvered, brushing against the foliage of the garden. He couldn’t even feel the pain of his broken fingers anymore. The Thrill called to him.

Wait. Act like you’re drawing this out as long as possible.…

Tanalan advanced again, and Dalinar dodged backward, faster because of his Plate. And then when Tanalan tried his next strike, Dalinar ducked toward him.

He deflected the Shardblade with his arm again, but this blow hit hard, shattering the arm plate. Still, Dalinar’s surprise rush let him lower his shoulder and slam it against Tanalan. The highlord’s armor clanged, bending before the force of the Shardplate, and the highlord tripped.

Unfortunately, Dalinar was off balance just enough from his rush to fall alongside the highlord. The platform shook as they hit the ground, the wood cracking and groaning. Damnation! Dalinar had not wanted to go to the ground while surrounded by foes. Still, he had to stay inside the reach of that Blade.

Dalinar dropped off his right gauntlet—without the arm piece connecting it to the rest of the armor, it was dead weight—as the two of them twisted in a heap. He’d lost the axe, unfortunately. The highlord battered against Dalinar with the pommel of his sword, to no effect. But with one hand broken and the other lacking the power of Plate, Dalinar couldn’t get a good hold on his foe.

Dalinar rolled, finally positioning himself above Tanalan, where the weight of the Shardplate would keep his foe pinned. At that moment though, the other soldiers attacked. Just as he’d expected. Honorable duels like this—on a battlefield at least—always lasted only until your lighteyes was losing.

Dalinar rolled free. The soldiers obviously weren’t ready for how quickly he responded. He got to his feet and scooped up his axe, then lashed out. His right arm still had the pauldron and down to the elbow brace, so when he swung, he had power—a strange mix of Shard-enhanced strength and frailty from his exposed arms. He had to be careful not to snap his own wrist.

He dropped three men with a flurry of axe slices. The others backed away, blocking him with polearms as their fellows helped Tanalan to his feet.

“You speak of the people,” Tanalan said hoarsely, gauntleted hand feeling at his chest where the cuirass had been bent significantly by Dalinar’s rush. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. “As if this were about them. As if it were for their good that you loot, you pillage, you murder. You’re an uncivilized brute.”

“You can’t civilize war,” Dalinar said. “There’s no painting it up and making it pretty.”

“You don’t have to pull sorrow behind you like a sledge on the stones, scraping and crushing those you pass. You’re a monster.

“I’m a soldier,” Dalinar said, eyeing Tanalan’s men, many of whom were preparing their bows.

Tanalan coughed. “My city is lost. My plan has failed. But I can do Alethkar one last service. I can take you down, you bastard.”

The archers started to loose.

Dalinar roared and threw himself to the ground, hitting the platform with the weight of Shardplate. The wood cracked around him, weakened by the fighting earlier, and he broke through it, shattering struts underneath.

The entire platform came crashing down around him, and together they fell toward the tier below. Dalinar heard screams, and he hit the next walkway hard enough to daze him, even with Shardplate.

Dalinar shook his head, groaning, and found his helm cracked right down the front, the uncommon vision granted by the armor spoiled. He pulled the helm free with one hand and gasped for breath. Storms, his good arm hurt too. He glanced at it and found splinters piercing his skin, including one chunk as long as a dagger.

He grimaced. Below, the few remaining soldiers who had been positioned to cut down bridges came charging up toward him.

Steady, Dalinar. Be ready!

He got to his feet, dazed, exhausted, but the two soldiers didn’t come for him. They huddled around Tanalan’s body where it had fallen from the platform above. The soldiers grabbed him, then fled.

Dalinar roared and awkwardly gave pursuit. His Plate moved slowly, and he stumbled through the wreckage of the fallen platform, trying to keep up with the soldiers.

The pain from his arms made him mad with rage. But the Thrill, the Thrill drove him forward. He would not be beaten. He would not stop! Tanalan’s Shardblade had not appeared beside his body. That meant his foe still lived. Dalinar had not yet won.

Fortunately, most of the soldiers had been positioned to fight on the other side of the city. This side was practically empty, save for huddled townspeople—he caught glimpses of them hiding in their homes.

Dalinar limped up ramps along the side of the Rift, following the men dragging their brightlord. Near the top, the two soldiers set their burden down beside an exposed portion of the chasm’s rock wall. They did something that caused a portion of that wall to open inward, revealing a hidden door. They towed their fallen brightlord into it, and two other soldiers—responding to their frantic calls—rushed out to meet Dalinar, who arrived moments later.

Helmless, Dalinar saw red as he engaged them. They bore weapons; he did not. They were fresh, and he had wounds nearly incapacitating both arms.

The fight still ended with the two soldiers on the ground, broken and bleeding. Dalinar kicked open the hidden door, Plated legs functioning enough to smash it down.

He lurched into a small tunnel with diamond spheres glowing on the walls. That door was covered in hardened crem on the outside, making it seem like a part of the wall. If he hadn’t seen them enter, it would have taken days, maybe weeks to locate this place.

At the end of a short walk, he found the two soldiers he’d followed. Judging by the blood trail, they’d deposited their brightlord in the closed room behind them.

They rushed Dalinar with the fatalistic determination of men who knew they were probably dead. The pain in Dalinar’s arms and head seemed nothing before the Thrill. He had rarely felt it so strong as he did now, a beautiful clarity, such a wonderful emotion.

He ducked forward, supernaturally quick, and used his shoulder to crush one soldier against the wall. The other fell to a well-placed kick, then Dalinar burst through the door beyond them.

Tanalan lay on the ground here, blood surrounding him. A beautiful woman was draped across him, weeping. Only one other person was in the small chamber: a young boy. Six, perhaps seven. Tears streaked the child’s face, and he struggled to lift his father’s Shardblade in two hands.

Dalinar loomed in the doorway.

“You can’t have my daddy,” the boy said, words distorted by his sorrow. Painspren crawled around the floor. “You can’t. You… you…” His voice fell to a whisper. “Daddy said… we fight monsters. And with faith, we will win.…”

 


 

A few hours later, Dalinar sat on the edge of the Rift, his legs swinging over the broken city below. His new Shardblade rested across his lap, his Plate—deformed and broken—in a heap beside him. His arms were bandaged, but he’d chased away the surgeons.

He stared out at what seemed an empty plain, then flicked his eyes toward the signs of human life below. Dead bodies in heaps. Broken buildings. Splinters of civilization.

Gavilar eventually walked up, trailed by two bodyguards from Dalinar’s elites, Kadash and Febin today. Gavilar waved them back, then groaned as he settled down beside Dalinar, removing his helm. Exhaustionspren spun overhead, though—despite his fatigue—Gavilar looked thoughtful. With those keen, pale green eyes, he’d always seemed to know so much. Growing up, Dalinar had simply assumed that his brother would always be right in whatever he said or did. Aging hadn’t much changed his opinion of the man.

“Congratulations,” Gavilar said, nodding toward the Blade. “Sadeas is irate it wasn’t his.”

“He’ll find one of his own eventually,” Dalinar said. “He’s too ambitious for me to believe otherwise.”

Gavilar grunted. “This attack nearly cost us too much. Sadeas is saying we need to be more careful, not risk ourselves and our Shards in solitary assaults.”

“Sadeas is smart,” Dalinar said. He reached gingerly with his right hand, the less mangled one, and raised a mug of wine to his lips. It was the only drug he cared about for the pain—and maybe it would help with the shame too. Both feelings seemed stark, now that the Thrill had receded and left him deflated.

“What do we do with them, Dalinar?” Gavilar asked, waving down toward the crowds of civilians the soldiers were rounding up. “Tens of thousands of people. They won’t be cowed easily; they won’t like that you killed their highlord and his heir. Those people will resist us for years. I can feel it.”

Dalinar took a drink. “Make soldiers of them,” he said. “Tell them we’ll spare their families if they fight for us. You want to stop doing a Shardbearer rush at the start of battles? Sounds like we’ll need some expendable troops.”

Gavilar nodded, considering. “Sadeas is right about other things too, you know. About us. And what we’re going to have to become.”

“Don’t talk to me about that.”

“Dalinar…”

“I lost half my elites today, my captain included. I’ve got enough problems.”

“Why are we here, fighting? Is it for honor? Is it for Alethkar?”

Dalinar shrugged.

“We can’t just keep acting like a bunch of thugs,” Gavilar said. “We can’t rob every city we pass, feast every night. We need discipline; we need to hold the land we have. We need bureaucracy, order, laws, politics.

Dalinar closed his eyes, distracted by the shame he felt. What if Gavilar found out?

“We’re going to have to grow up,” Gavilar said softly.

“And become soft? Like these highlords we kill? That’s why we started, isn’t it? Because they were all lazy, fat, corrupt?”

“I don’t know anymore. I’m a father now, Dalinar. That makes me wonder about what we do once we have it all. How do we make a kingdom of this place?”

Storms. A kingdom. For the first time in his life, Dalinar found that idea horrifying.

Gavilar eventually stood up, responding to some messengers who were calling for him. “Could you,” he said to Dalinar, “at least try to be a little less foolhardy in future battles?”

“This coming from you?”

“A thoughtful me,” Gavilar said. “An… exhausted me. Enjoy Oathbringer. You earned it.”

“Oathbringer?”

“Your sword,” Gavilar said. “Storms, didn’t you listen to anything last night? That’s Sunmaker’s old sword.”

Sadees, the Sunmaker. He had been the last man to unite Alethkar, centuries ago. Dalinar shifted the Blade in his lap, letting the light play off the pristine metal.

“It’s yours now,” Gavilar said. “By the time we’re done, I’ll have it so that nobody even thinks of Sunmaker anymore. Just House Kholin and Alethkar.”

He walked away. Dalinar rammed the Shardblade into the stone and leaned back, closing his eyes again and remembering the sound of a brave boy crying.

 


 

Chapter 12
Negotiations

I ask not that you forgive me. Nor that you even understand.

—From Oathbringer, preface

 

Dalinar stood beside the glass windows in an upper-floor room of Urithiru, hands clasped behind his back. He could see his reflection hinted in the window, and beyond it vast openness. The sky cloud-free, the sun burning white.

Windows as tall as he was—he’d never seen anything like them. Who would dare build something of glass, so brittle, and face it toward the storms? But of course, this city was above the storms. These windows seemed a mark of defiance, a symbol of what the Radiants had meant. They had stood above the pettiness of world politics. And because of that height, they could see so far.…

You idealize them, said a distant voice in his head, like rumbling thunder. They were men like you. No better. No worse.

“I find that encouraging,” Dalinar whispered back. “If they were like us, then it means we can be like them.”

They eventually betrayed us. Do not forget that.

“Why?” Dalinar asked. “What happened? What changed them?”

The Stormfather fell silent.

“Please,” Dalinar said. “Tell me.”

Some things are better left forgotten, the voice said to him. You of all men should understand this, considering the hole in your mind and the person who once filled it.

Dalinar drew in a sharp breath, stung by the words.

“Brightlord,” Brightness Kalami said from behind. “The emperor is ready for you.”

Dalinar turned. Urithiru’s upper levels held several unique rooms, including this amphitheater. Shaped like a half-moon, the room had windows at the top—the straight side—then rows of seats leading down to a speaking floor below. Curiously, each seat had a small pedestal beside it. For the Radiant’s spren, the Stormfather told him.

Dalinar started down the steps toward his team: Aladar and his daughter, May. Navani, wearing a bright green havah, sitting in the front row with feet stretched out before her, shoes off and ankles crossed. Elderly Kalami to write, and Teshav Khal—one of Alethkar’s finest political minds—to advise. Her two senior wards sat beside her, ready to provide research or translation if needed.

A small group, prepared to change the world.

“Send my greetings to the emperor,” Dalinar instructed.

Kalami nodded, writing. Then she cleared her throat, reading the response that the spanreed—writing as if on its own—relayed. “You are greeted by His Imperial Majesty Ch.V.D. Yanagawn the First, Emperor of Makabak, King of Azir, Lord of the Bronze Palace, Prime Aqasix, grand minister and emissary of Yaezir.”

“An imposing title,” Navani noted, “for a fifteen-year-old boy.”

“He supposedly raised a child from the dead,” Teshav said, “a miracle that gained him the support of the viziers. Local word is that they had trouble finding a new Prime after the last two were murdered by our old friend the Assassin in White. So the viziers picked a boy with questionable lineage and made up a story about him saving someone’s life in order to demonstrate a divine mandate.”

Dalinar grunted. “Making things up doesn’t sound very Azish.”

“They’re fine with it,” Navani said, “as long as you can find witnesses willing to fill out affidavits. Kalami, thank His Imperial Majesty for meeting with us, and his translators for their efforts.”

Kalami wrote, and then she looked up at Dalinar, who began to pace the center of the room. Navani stood to join him, eschewing her shoes, walking in socks.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Dalinar said, “I speak to you from the top of Urithiru, city of legend. The sights are breathtaking. I invite you to visit me here and tour the city. You are welcome to bring any guards or retinue you see fit.”

He looked to Navani, and she nodded. They’d discussed long how to approach the monarchs, and had settled on a soft invitation. Azir was first, the most powerful country in the west and home to what would be the most central and important of the Oathgates to secure.

The response took time. The Azish government was a kind of beautiful mess, though Gavilar had often admired it. Layers of clerics filled all levels— where both men and women wrote. Scions were kind of like ardents, though they weren’t slaves, which Dalinar found odd. In Azir, being a priestminister in the government was the highest honor to which one could aspire.

Traditionally, the Azish Prime claimed to be emperor of all Makabak—a region that included over a half-dozen kingdoms and princedoms. In reality, he was king over only Azir, but Azir did cast a long, long shadow.

As they waited, Dalinar stepped up beside Navani, resting his fingers on one of her shoulders, then drew them across her back, the nape of her neck, and let them linger on the other shoulder.

Who would have thought a man his age could feel so giddy?

“ ‘Your Highness,’ ” the reply finally came, Kalami reading the words. “ ‘We thank you for your warning about the storm that blew from the wrong direction. Your timely words have been noted and recorded in the official annals of the empire, recognizing you as a friend to Azir.’ ”

Kalami waited for more, but the spanreed stopped moving. Then the ruby flashed, indicating that they were done.

“That wasn’t much of a response,” Aladar said. “Why didn’t he reply to your invitation, Dalinar?”

“Being noted in their offi ial records is a great honor to the Azish,” Teshav said, “so they’ve paid you a compliment.”

“Yes,” Navani said, “but they are trying to dodge the offer we made. Press them, Dalinar.”

“Kalami, please send the following,” Dalinar said. “I am honored, though I wish my inclusion in your annals could have been due to happier circumstances. Let us discuss the future of Roshar together, here. I am eager to make your personal acquaintance.”

They waited as patiently as they could for a response. It finally came, in Alethi. “ ‘We of the Azish crown are saddened to share mourning for the fallen with you. As your noble brother was killed by the Shin destroyer, so were beloved members of our court. This creates a bond between us.’ ”

That was all.

Navani clicked her tongue. “They’re not going to be pushed into an answer.”

“They could at least explain themselves!” Dalinar snapped. “It feels like we’re having two different conversations!”

“The Azish,” Teshav said, “do not like to give offense. They’re almost as bad as the Emuli in that regard, particularly with foreigners.”

It wasn’t only an Azish attribute, in Dalinar’s estimation. It was the way of politicians worldwide. Already this conversation was starting to feel like his efforts to bring the highprinces to his side, back in the warcamps. Half answer after half answer, mild promises with no bite to them, laughing eyes that mocked him even while they pretended to be perfectly sincere.

Storms. Here he was again. Trying to unite people who didn’t want to listen to him. He couldn’t afford to be bad at this, not any longer.

There was a time, he thought, when I united in a different way. He smelled smoke, heard men screaming in pain. Remembered bringing blood and ash to those who defied his brother.

Those memories had become particularly vivid lately.

“Another tactic maybe?” Navani suggested. “Instead of an invitation, try an offer of aid.”

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Dalinar said. “War is coming; surely you have seen the changes in the parshmen. The Voidbringers have returned. I would have you know that the Alethi are your allies in this conflict. We would share information regarding our successes and failures in resisting this enemy, with hope that you will report the same to us. Mankind must be unified in the face of the mounting threat.”

The reply eventually came: “ ‘We agree that aiding one another in this new age will be of the utmost importance. We are glad to exchange information. What do you know of these transformed parshmen?’ ”

“We engaged them on the Shattered Plains,” Dalinar said, relieved to make some kind of headway. “Creatures with red eyes, and similar in many ways to the parshmen we found on the Shattered Plains—only more dangerous. I will have my scribes prepare reports for you detailing all we have learned in fighting the Parshendi over the years.”

“ ‘Excellent,’” the reply finally came. “ ‘This information will be extremely welcome in our current conflict.’ ”

“What is the status of your cities?” Dalinar asked. “What have the parshmen been doing there? Do they seem to have a goal beyond wanton destruction?”

Tensely, they waited for word. So far they’d been able to discover blessed little about the parshmen the world over. Captain Kaladin sent reports using scribes from towns he visited, but knew next to nothing. Cities were in chaos, and reliable information scarce.

“ ‘Fortunately,’ ” came the reply, “ ‘our city stands, and the enemy is not actively attacking any longer. We are negotiating with the hostiles.’ ”

“Negotiating?” Dalinar said, shocked. He turned to Teshav, who shook her head in wonder.

“Please clarify, Your Majesty,” Navani said. “The Voidbringers are willing to negotiate with you?”

“ ‘Yes,’ ” came the reply. “ ‘We are exchanging contracts. They have very detailed demands, with outrageous stipulations. We hope that we can forestall armed conflict in order to gather ourselves and fortify the city.’ ”

“They can write?” Navani pressed. “The Voidbringers themselves are sending you contracts?”

“ ‘The average parshman cannot write, so far as we can tell,’ ” the reply came. “ ‘But some are different—stronger, with strange powers. They do not speak like the others.’ ”

“Your Majesty,” Dalinar said, stepping up to the spanreed writing table, speaking more urgently—as if the emperor and his ministers could hear his passion through the written word. “I need to talk to you directly. I can come myself, through the portal we wrote of earlier. We must get it working again.”

Silence. It stretched so long that Dalinar found himself grinding his teeth, itching to summon a Shardblade and dismiss it, over and over, as had been his habit as a youth. He’d picked it up from his brother.

A response finally came. “ ‘We regret to inform you that the device you mention,’ ” Kalami read, “ ‘is not functional in our city. We have investigated it, and have found that it was destroyed long ago. We cannot come to you, nor you to us. Many apologies.’ ”

“He’s telling us this now?” Dalinar said. “Storms! That’s information we could have used as soon as he learned it!”

“It’s a lie,” Navani said. “The Oathgate on the Shattered Plains functioned after centuries of storms and crem buildup. The one in Azimir is a monument in the Grand Market, a large dome in the center of the city.”

Or so she’d determined from maps. The one in Kholinar had been incorporated into the palace structure, while the one in Thaylen City was some kind of religious monument. A beautiful relic like this wouldn’t simply be destroyed.

“I agree with Brightness Navani’s assessment,” Teshav said. “They are worried about the idea of you or your armies visiting. This is an excuse.” She frowned, as if the emperor and his ministers were little more than spoiled children disobeying their tutors.

The spanreed started writing again.

“What does it say?” Dalinar said, anxious.

“It’s an affidavit,” Navani said, amused. “That the Oathgate is not functional, signed by imperial architects and stormwardens.” She read further. “Oh, this is delightful. Only the Azish would assume you’d want certification that something is broken.”

“Notably,” Kalami added, “it only certifies that the device ‘does not function as a portal.’ But of course it would not, not unless a Radiant were to visit and work it. This affidavit basically says that when turned off, the device doesn’t work.”

“Write this, Kalami,” Dalinar said. “Your Majesty. You ignored me once. Destruction caused by the Everstorm was the result. Please, this time listen. You cannot negotiate with the Voidbringers. We must unify, share information, and protect Roshar. Together.”

She wrote it and Dalinar waited, hands pressed against the table.

“ ‘We misspoke when we mentioned negotiations,’” Kalami read. “ ‘It was a mistake of translation. We agree to share information, but time is short right now. We will contact you again to further discuss. Farewell, Highprince Kholin.’”

“Bah!” Dalinar said, pushing himself back from the table. “Fools, idiots! Storming lighteyes and Damnation’s own politics!” He stalked across the room, wishing he had something to kick, before forcing his temper under control.

“That’s more of a stonewall than I expected,” Navani said, folding her arms. “Brightness Khal?”

“In my experiences with the Azish,” Teshav said, “they are extremely proficient at saying very little in as many words as possible. This is not an unusual example of communication with their upper ministers. Don’t be put off; it will take time to accomplish anything with them.”

“Time during which Roshar burns,” Dalinar said. “Why did they pull back regarding their claim to have had negotiations with the Voidbringers? Are they thinking of allying themselves to the enemy?”

“I hesitate to guess,” Teshav said. “But I would say that they simply decided they’d given away more information than intended.”

“We need Azir,” Dalinar said. “Nobody in Makabak will listen to us unless we have Azir’s blessing, not to mention that Oathgate.…” He trailed off as a different spanreed on the table started blinking.

“It’s the Thaylens,” Kalami said. “They’re early.”

“You want to reschedule?” Navani asked.

Dalinar shook his head. “No, we can’t afford to wait another few days before the queen can spare time again.” He took a deep breath. Storms, talking to politicians was more exhausting than a hundred-mile march in full armor. “Proceed, Kalami. I’ll contain my frustration.”

Navani settled down on one of the seats, though Dalinar remained standing. Light poured in through the windows, pure and bright. It flowed down, bathing him. He breathed in, almost feeling as if he could taste the sunlight. He’d spent too many days inside the twisting stone corridors of Urithiru, lit by the frail light of candles and lamps.

“ ‘Her Royal Highness,’ ” Kalami read, “ ‘Brightness Fen Rnamdi, queen of Thaylenah, writes to you.’ ” Kalami paused. “Brightlord… pardon the interruption, but that indicates that the queen holds the spanreed herself rather than using a scribe.”

To another woman, that would have been intimidating. To Kalami, it was merely one of many footnotes—which she added copiously to the bottom of the page before preparing the reed to relay Dalinar’s words.

“Your Majesty,” Dalinar said, clasping his hands behind his back and pacing the stage at the center of the seats. Do better. Unite them. “I send you greetings from Urithiru, holy city of the Knights Radiant, and extend to you our humblest invitation. This tower is truly a sight to behold, matched only by the glory of a sitting monarch. I would be honored to present it for you to experience.”

The spanreed quickly scribbled a reply. Queen Fen was writing directly in Alethi. “ ‘Kholin,’ ” Kalami read, “ ‘you old brute. Quit spreading chull scat. What do you really want?’ ”

“I always did like her,” Navani noted.

“I’m being sincere, Your Majesty,” Dalinar said. “My only desire is for us to meet in person, and to talk to you and show you what we’ve discovered. The world is changing around us.”

“ ‘Oh,’ ” came the reply, “ ‘the world is changing, is it? What led you to this incredible conclusion? Was it the fact that our slaves suddenly became Voidbringers, or was it perhaps the storm that blew the wrong way,’—She wrote that twice as large as the line around it, Brightlord—‘ripping our cities apart?’ ”

Aladar cleared his throat. “Her Majesty seems to be having a bad day.”

“She’s insulting us,” Navani said. “For Fen, that actually implies a good day.”

“She’s always been perfectly civil the few times I’ve met her,” Dalinar said with a frown.

“She was being queenly then,” Navani said. “You’ve got her talking to you directly. Trust me, it’s a good sign.”

“Your Majesty,” Dalinar said, “please tell me of your parshmen. The transformation came upon them?”

“ ‘Yes,’ ” she replied. “ ‘Storming monsters stole our best ships—almost everything in the harbor from single-masted sloops on up—and escaped the city.’ ”

“They… sailed?” Dalinar said, again shocked. “Confirm. They didn’t attack?”

“ ‘There were some scuffles,’ ” Fen wrote, “ ‘but most everyone was too busy dealing with the eff cts of the storm. By the time we got things somewhat sorted out, they were sailing away in a grand fleet of royal warships and private trading vessels alike.’ ”

Dalinar drew a breath. We don’t know half as much about the Voidbringers as we assumed. “Your Majesty,” he continued. “You might remember that we warned you about the imminent arrival of that storm.”

“ ‘I believed you,’ ” Fen said. “ ‘If only because we got word from New Natanan confirming it. We tried to prepare, but a nation cannot upend four millennia worth of tradition at a snap of the fingers. Thaylen City is a shambles, Kholin. The storm broke our aqueducts and sewer systems, and ripped apart our docks—flattened the entire outer market! We have to fix all our cisterns, reinforce our buildings to withstand storms, and rebuild society—all without any parshman laborers and in the middle of the storming Weeping. I don’t have time for sightseeing.’ ”

“It’s hardly sightseeing, Your Majesty,” Dalinar said. “I am aware of your problems, and dire though they are, we cannot ignore the Voidbringers. I intend to convene a grand conference of kings to fight this threat.”

“ ‘Led by you,’ ” Fen wrote in reply. “ ‘Of course.’ ”

“Urithiru is the natural location for a meeting,” Dalinar said. “Your Majesty, the Knights Radiant have returned—we speak again their ancient oaths, and bind the Surges of nature to us. If we can restore your Oathgate to functionality, you can be here in an afternoon, then return the same evening to direct the needs of your city.”

Navani nodded at this tactic, though Aladar folded his arms, looking thoughtful.

“What?” Dalinar asked him as Kalami wrote.

“We need a Radiant to travel to the city to activate their Oathgate, right?” Aladar asked.

“Yes,” Navani said. “A Radiant needs to unlock the gate on this side— which we can do at any moment—then one has to travel to the destination city and undo the lock there as well. That done, a Radiant can initiate a transfer from either location.”

“Then the only one we have that can theoretically get to Thaylen City is the Windrunner,” Aladar said. “But what if it takes him months to get back here? Or what if he’s captured by the enemy? Can we even make good on our promises, Dalinar?”

A troubling problem, but one that Dalinar thought he might have an answer to. There was a weapon that he’d decided to keep hidden for now. It might work as well as a Radiant’s Shardblade in opening the Oathgates— and might let someone reach Thaylen City by flight.

That was moot for the time being. First he needed a willing ear on the other side of the spanreed.

Fen’s reply came. “ ‘I will admit that my merchants are intrigued by these Oathgates. We have lore surrounding them here, that the one most Passionate could cause the portal of worlds to open again. I think every girl in Thaylenah dreams of being the one to invoke it.’ ”

“The Passions,” Navani said with a downward turn of her lips. The Thaylens had a pagan pseudo-religion, and that had always been a curious aspect in dealing with them. They would praise the Heralds one moment, then speak of the Passions the next.

Well, Dalinar wasn’t one to fault another for unconventional beliefs.

“ ‘If you want to send me what you know about these Oathgates, well, that sounds great,’ ” Fen continued. “ ‘But I’m not interested in some grand conference of kings. You let me know what you boys come up with, because I’m going to be here frantically trying to rebuild my city.’ ”

“Well,” Aladar said, “at least we finally got an honest response.”

“I’m not convinced this is honest,” Dalinar said. He rubbed his chin, thinking. He’d only met this woman a few times, but something seemed off about her responses.

“I agree, Brightlord,” Teshav said. “I think any Thaylen would jump at the chance to come pull strings at a meeting of monarchs, if only to see if she can find a way to get trade deals out of them. She is most certainly hiding something.”

“Offer troops,” Navani said, “to help her rebuild.”

“Your Majesty,” Dalinar said, “I am deeply grieved to hear of your losses. I have many soldiers here who are currently unoccupied. I would gladly send you a battalion to help repair your city.”

The reply was slow in coming. “ ‘I’m not sure what I think of having Alethi troops on my stone, well intentioned or not.’ ”

Aladar grunted. “She’s worried about invasion? Everyone knows Alethi and ships don’t mix.”

“She’s not worried about us arriving on ships,” Dalinar said. “She’s worried about an army of troops suddenly materializing in the center of her city.”

A very rational worry. If Dalinar had the inclination, he could send a Windrunner to secretly open a city’s Oathgate, and invade in an unprecedented assault that appeared right behind enemy lines.

He needed allies, not subjects, so he wouldn’t do it—at least not to a potentially friendly city. Kholinar, however, was another story. They still didn’t have reliable word of what was happening in the Alethi capital. But if the rioting was still going on, he’d been thinking that there might be a way to get armies in and restore order.

For now, he needed to focus on Queen Fen. “Your Majesty,” he said, nodding for Kalami to write, “consider my offer of troops, please. And as you do, might I suggest that you begin searching among your people for budding Knights Radiant? They are the key to working Oathgates.

“We have had a number of Radiants manifest near the Shattered Plains. They are formed through an interaction with certain spren, who seem to be searching for worthy candidates. I can only assume this is happening worldwide. It is entirely likely that among the people of your city, someone has already spoken the oaths.”

“You’re giving up quite an advantage, Dalinar,” Aladar noted.

“I’m planting a seed, Aladar,” Dalinar said. “And I’ll plant it on any hill I can find, regardless of who owns it. We must fight as a unified people.”

“I don’t dispute that,” Aladar said, standing up and stretching. “But your knowledge of the Radiants is a bargaining point, one that can perhaps draw people to you—force them to work with you. Give up too much, and you might find a ‘headquarters’ for the Knights Radiant in every major city across Roshar. Rather than working together, you’ll have them competing to recruit.”

He was right, unfortunately. Dalinar hated turning knowledge into bargaining chips, but what if this was why he’d always failed in his negotiations with the highprinces? He wanted to be honest, straightforward, and let the pieces fall where they may. But it seemed that someone better at the game—and more willing to break the rules—always snatched the pieces from the air as he dropped them, then set them down the way they wanted.

“And,” he said quickly for Kalami to add, “we would be happy to send our Radiants to train those you discover, then introduce them to the system and fraternity of Urithiru, to which each of them has a right by nature of their oaths.”

Kalami added this, then twisted the spanreed to indicate they were done and waiting for a reply.

“ ‘We will consider this,’ ” Kalami read as the spanreed scribbled across the page. “ ‘The crown of Thaylenah thanks you for your interest in our people, and we will consider negotiations regarding your offer of troops. We have sent some of our few remaining cutters to track down the fleeing parshmen, and will inform you of what we discover. Until we speak again, Highprince.’ ”

“Storms,” Navani said. “She reverted to queenspeak. We lost her somewhere in there.”

Dalinar sat down in the seat next to her and let out a long sigh. “Dalinar…” she said.

“I’m fine, Navani,” he said. “I can’t expect glowing commitments to cooperation on my first attempt. We’ll just have to keep trying.”

The words were more optimistic than he felt. He wished he could talk to these people in person, instead of over spanreed.

They talked to the princess of Yezier next, followed by the prince of Tashikk. They didn’t have Oathgates, and were less essential to his plan, but he wanted to at least open lines of communication with them.

Neither gave him more than vague answers. Without the Azish emperor’s blessing, he wouldn’t be able to get any of the smaller Makabaki kingdoms to commit. Perhaps the Emuli or the Tukari would listen, but he’d only ever get one of those two, considering their long-standing feud.

At the end of the last conference, Aladar and his daughter excusing themselves, Dalinar stretched, feeling worn down. And this wasn’t the end of it. He would have discussions with the monarchs of Iri—it had three, strangely. The Oathgate at Rall Elorim was in their lands, making them important—and they held sway over nearby Rira, which had another Oathgate.

Beyond that, of course, there were the Shin to deal with. They hated using spanreeds, so Navani had poked at them through a Thaylen merchant who had been willing to relay information.

Dalinar’s shoulder protested as he stretched. He had found middle age to be like an assassin—quiet, creeping along behind him. Much of the time he would go about his life as he always had, until an unexpected ache or pain gave warning. He was not the youth he had once been.

And bless the Almighty for that, he thought idly, bidding farewell to Navani—who wanted to sift through information reports from various spanreed stations around the world. Aladar’s daughter and scribes were gathering them in bulk for her.

Dalinar collected several of his guards, leaving others for Navani should she need some extra hands, and climbed up along the rows of seats to the room’s exit at the top. Hovering just outside the doorway—like an axehound banished from the warmth of the fire—stood Elhokar.

“Your Majesty?” Dalinar said, starting. “I’m glad you could make the meeting. Are you feeling better?”

“Why do they refuse you, Uncle?” Elhokar asked, ignoring the question. “Do they think perhaps you will try to usurp their thrones?”

Dalinar drew in his breath sharply, and his guards looked embarrassed to be standing nearby. They backed up to give him and the king privacy.

“Elhokar…” Dalinar said.

“You likely think I say this in spite,” the king said, poking his head into the room, noting his mother, then looking back at Dalinar. “I don’t. You are better than I am. A better soldier, a better person, and certainly a better king.”

“You do yourself a disservice, Elhokar. You must—”

“Oh, save your platitudes, Dalinar. For once in your life, just be honest with me.”

“You think I haven’t been?”

Elhokar raised his hand and lightly touched his own chest. “Perhaps you have been, at times. Perhaps the liar here is me—lying to tell myself I could do this, that I could be a fraction of the man my father was. No, don’t interrupt me, Dalinar. Let me have my say. Voidbringers? Ancient cities full of wonder? The Desolations?” Elhokar shook his head. “Perhaps… perhaps I’m a fine king. Not extraordinary, but not an abject failure. But in the face of these events, the world needs better than fine.”

There seemed a fatalism to his words, and that sent a worried shiver through Dalinar. “Elhokar, what are you saying?”

Elhokar strode into the chamber and called down to those at the bottom of the rows of seats. “Mother, Brightness Teshav, would you witness something for me?”

Storms, no, Dalinar thought, hurrying after Elhokar. “Don’t do this, son.”

“We all must accept the consequences of our actions, Uncle,” Elhokar said. “I’ve been learning this very slowly, as I can be as dense as a stone.”

“But—”

“Uncle, am I your king?” Elhokar demanded.

“Yes.”

“Well, I shouldn’t be.” He knelt, shocking Navani and causing her to pull to a stop three-quarters of the way up the steps. “Dalinar Kholin,” Elhokar said in a loud voice, “I swear to you now. There are princes and highprinces. Why not kings and highkings? I give an oath, immutable and witnessed, that I accept you as my monarch. As Alethkar is to me, I am to you.”

Dalinar breathed out, looking to Navani’s aghast face, then down to his nephew, kneeling as a vassal on the floor.

“You did ask for this, Uncle,” Elhokar said. “Not specifically in words, but it is the only place we could have gone. You have slowly been taking command ever since you decided to trust those visions.”

“I’ve tried to include you,” Dalinar said. Silly, impotent words. He should be better than that. “You are right, Elhokar. I’m sorry.”

“Are you?” Elhokar asked. “Are you really?”

“I’m sorry,” Dalinar said, “for your pain. I’m sorry that I didn’t handle this better. I’m sorry that this… this must be. Before you make this oath, tell me what you expect that it entails?”

“I’ve already said the words,” Elhokar said, growing red faced. “Before witnesses. It is done. I’ve—”

“Oh, stand up,” Dalinar said, grabbing him by the arm and hauling him to his feet. “Don’t be dramatic. If you really want to swear this oath, I’ll let you. But let’s not pretend you can sweep into a room, shout a few words, and assume it’s a legal contract.”

Elhokar pulled his arm free and rubbed it. “Won’t even let me abdicate with dignity.”

“You’re not abdicating,” Navani said, joining them. She shot a glare at the guards, who stood watching with slack jaws, and they grew white at the glare. She pointed at them as if to say, Not a word of this to anyone else. “Elhokar, you intend to shove your uncle into a position above you. He’s right to ask. What will this mean for Alethkar?”

“I…” Elhokar swallowed. “He should give up his lands to his heir. Dalinar is a king of somewhere else, after all. Dalinar, Highking of Urithiru, maybe the Shattered Plains.” He stood straighter, speaking more certainly. “Dalinar must stay out of the direct management of my lands. He can give me commands, but I decide how to see them accomplished.”

“It sounds reasonable,” Navani said, glancing at Dalinar.

Reasonable, but gut-wrenching. The kingdom he’d fought for—the kingdom he’d forged in pain, exhaustion, and blood—now rejected him.

This is my land now, Dalinar thought. This tower covered in coldspren. “I can accept these terms, though at times I might need to give commands to your highprinces.”

“As long as they’re in your domain,” Elhokar said, a hint of stubbornness to his voice, “I consider them under your authority. While they visit Urithiru or the Shattered Plains, command as you wish. When they return to my kingdom, you must go through me.” He looked to Dalinar, and then glanced down, as if embarrassed to be making demands.

“Very well,” Dalinar said. “Though we need to work this out with scribes before we make the change officially. And before we go too far, we should make certain there is still an Alethkar for you to rule.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing. Uncle, I want to lead our forces to Alethkar and recapture our homeland. Something is wrong in Kholinar. More than these riots or my wife’s supposed behavior, more than the spanreeds going still. The enemy is doing something in the city. I’ll take an army to stop it, and save the kingdom.”

Elhokar? Leading troops? Dalinar had been imagining himself leading a force, cutting through the Voidbringer ranks, sweeping them from Alethkar and marching into Kholinar to restore order.

Truth was, though, it didn’t make sense for either of them to lead such an assault. “Elhokar,” Dalinar said, leaning in. “I’ve been considering something. The Oathgate is attached to the palace itself. We don’t need to march an army all the way to Alethkar. All we need to do is restore that device! Once it works, we can transport our forces into the city to secure the palace, restore order, and fend off the Voidbringers.”

“Get into the city,” Elhokar said. “Uncle, to do that we might need an army in the first place!”

“No,” Dalinar said. “A small team could reach Kholinar far faster than an army. As long as there was a Radiant with them, they could sneak in, restore the Oathgate, and open the way for the rest of us.”

Elhokar perked up. “Yes! I’ll do it, Uncle. I’ll take a team and reclaim our home. Aesudan is there; if the rioting is still happening, she’s fighting against it.”

That wasn’t what the reports—before they’d cut off—had suggested to Dalinar. If anything, the queen was the cause of the riots. And he certainly hadn’t been intending Elhokar to go on this mission himself.

Consequences. The lad was earnest, as he’d always been. Besides, Elhokar seemed to have learned something from his near death at the hands of assassins. He was certainly humbler now than he’d been in years past.

“It is fitting,” Dalinar said, “that their king should be the one who saves them. I will see that you have whatever resources you need, Elhokar.”

Glowing gloryspren orbs burst around Elhokar. He grinned at them. “I only seem to see those when I’m around you, Uncle. Funny. For all that I should resent you, I don’t. It’s hard to resent a man who is doing his best. I’ll do it. I’ll save Alethkar. I need one of your Radiants. The hero, preferably.”

“The hero?”

“The bridgeman,” Elhokar said. “The soldier. He needs to go with me, so if I screw up and fail, someone will be there to save the city anyway.”

Dalinar blinked. “That’s very… um…”

“I’ve had ample chances to reflect lately, Uncle,” Elhokar said. “The Almighty has preserved me, despite my stupidity. I’ll bring the bridgeman with me, and I’ll observe him. Figure out why he’s so special. See if he’ll teach me to be like him. And if I fail…” He shrugged. “Well, Alethkar is in safe hands regardless, right?”

Dalinar nodded, bemused.

“I need to make plans,” Elhokar said. “I’ve only just recovered from my wounds. But I can’t leave until the hero returns anyway. Could he fly me and my chosen team to the city? That would certainly be the fastest way. I will want every report we’ve had from Kholinar, and I need to study the Oathgate device in person. Yes, and have drawings done comparing it to the one in the city. And…” He beamed. “Thank you, Uncle. Thank you for believing in me, if only this small amount.”

Dalinar nodded to him, and Elhokar retreated, a spring in his step. Dalinar sighed, feeling overwhelmed by the exchange. Navani hovered by his side as he settled down in one of the seats for the Radiants, beside a pedestal for a little spren.

On one side, he had a king swearing to him an oath he didn’t want. On the other, he had an entire group of monarchs who wouldn’t listen to his most rational of suggestions. Storms.

“Dalinar?” Kalami said. “Dalinar!”

He leaped to his feet, and Navani spun. Kalami was watching one of the spanreeds, which had started writing. What was it now? What terrible news awaited him?

“ ‘Your Majesty,’ ” Kalami read from the page, “ ‘I consider your off r generous, and your advice wise. We have located the device you call an Oathgate. One of my people has come forward, and—remarkably—claims to be Radiant. Her spren directed her to speak with me; we plan to use her Shardblade to test the device.

“ ‘If it works, I will come to you in all haste. It is well that someone is attempting to organize a resistance to the evils that befall us. The nations of Roshar must put aside their squabbles, and the reemergence of the holy city of Urithiru is proof to me that the Almighty guides your hand. I look forward to counseling with you and adding my forces to yours in a joint operation to protect these lands.’ ” She looked up at him, amazed. “It was sent by Taravangian, king of Jah Keved and Kharbranth.”

Taravangian? Dalinar hadn’t expected him to reply so quickly. He was said to be a kindly, if somewhat simple man. Perfect for ruling a small city-state with the help of a governing council. His elevation to king of Jah Keved was widely seen as an act of spite from the former king, who hadn’t wanted to give the throne to any of his rivals’ houses.

The words still warmed Dalinar. Someone had listened. Someone was willing to join him. Bless that man, bless him.

If Dalinar failed everywhere else, at least he would have King Taravangian at his side.

 

Oathbringer: The Stormlight Archive Book 3 copyright © 2017 Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC

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Posted by Sweepstakes

Emma Newman’s second Industrial Magic novella, Weaver’s Lament, is available October 17th from Tor.com Publishing—and to celebrate, we want to send you a galley copy of it, along with a copy of the first book, Brother’s Ruin!

The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.

In Weaver’s Lament, Charlotte is learning to control her emerging magical powers under the secret tutelage of Magus Hopkins. Her first covert mission takes her to a textile mill where the disgruntled workers are apparently destroying expensive equipment. And if she can’t identify the culprits before it’s too late, her brother will be exiled, and her family dishonoured…

Comment in the post to enter!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States and D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec). To enter, comment on this post beginning at 3:30 PM Eastern Time (ET) on September 18th. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM ET on September 22nd. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Tor.com, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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Posted by Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer

Last week’s blog post was a fast pass through a large number of Mirror Dance’s middle chapters, and between that and having now actually reread the entire book, I’m finding it much less terrifying; the torture scenes are still lurking out there, but they are no longer lurking stealthily. It turns out they’re pretty close to the end. But now that I’ve found my peace with it, the truth about Mirror Dance is still that I would like to read something else.

This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.

There are very few parts of this novel that I don’t appreciate on some level. I almost always hate reading about frustrated male sexuality, but that’s really about me, not about Mark, Miles, or Mirror Dance. I think it would be great if one day someone rescued some clones off of Jackson’s Whole without getting handsy with at least one of the rescuees. Again, that’s really about my preferences as a reader; I’m sure many readers got through those scenes without muttering “my what big boobs you have” under their breath. I could have lived quite happily without Miles ever having sex with his cryo-revival specialist (who got permission from her grandmother first, which tells you something about the Duronas that I’m not sure I needed to know). These are minor quibbles.

From an artistic and literary standpoint, Mirror Dance is an unquestionably great work. Its middle and late chapters mark Aral and Cordelia’s return to the center of the action, through the lens of the long-lost son they have just met. And they are gorgeous. All of the difficulty, awkwardness, and pain involved in rebuilding the Vorkosigan clan with this new addition is rendered with stunning care and concern from multiple perspectives. Bujold’s characterization is richer than ever, and Mirror Dance is studded with small gems like the scene where Cordelia’s desperation drives her to ask Mark if he has a psychic connection to Miles. He does not, and she immediately turns her attention to more pragmatic plans – mortgaging some family land to buy him a ship so that he and the Dendarii can continue the investigation of Miles’s disappearance on Jackson’s Whole.

Other treasures include a brief exploration of Illyan’s feelings about ImpSec Headquarters. ImpSec is a miserable excuse for a building, designed and constructed to be unpleasant and uncomfortable, by the first lord Dono Vorrutyer. The sole member of the Vorrutyer family who has already appeared in this series raised some very serious questions about the family’s values and child-rearing practices. The Vorrutyers who appear in later volumes are more interesting and more redeemable (and one of them is also named Dono). They don’t seem to see architecture as an important part of their family legacy. Illyan’s antipathy towards ImpSec headquarters will reach its dramatic nadir until Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. Illyan’s discussion of architecture (he nearly defected when he saw the intelligence building on Escobar) flows neatly into an argument between Illyan and Mark – Mark suspects that Illyan isn’t giving the search the search for Miles his undivided attention. Illyan has concerns about the possibility that Mark did something to Aral and has to tend to the ordinary business of the Barrayaran Empire. He tells Mark he has his best available man heading the investigation of Miles’s disappearance on Komarr (I don’t recall anyone ever saying so, but I want it to be Duv Galen), and that ImpSec can walk and chew gum.

This last segment of the book brings the return of Miles’s POV. He has amnesia, which complicates his recovery from being dead. The Duronas are desperately hoping that he is Admiral Naismith, because they believe that Naismith can get them off-planet. Mark’s analysis was correct, but when he finally finds Miles, Mark is kidnapped by Ryoval and Miles by Baron Fell. Miles has the presence of mind to avoid blowing his cover when his memory finally returns.

Miles’s journey here is a relatively sedate one. Fell is planning to sell Miles to Ryoval, and keeps him (and his increasingly short-tempered personal physician) safe until a price can be negotiated. Miles uses the opportunity to free one more clone, the dangerous Flowerpot, who poses as the doctor and joins the Duronas. Miles’s exploration of his romantic relationships revolves around the question of who would crash a lightflyer for him. Dr. Durona would not. Elli Quinn would, without hesitation, she just might strangle him later.

The limits on Miles’s suffering highlight the depth of Mark’s. Bujold describes Ryoval’s torture in brief, but evocative strokes. Most of the hideousness I remember, I created by filling in the details for myself. It’s still too much – it has to be to justify the fracturing of Mark’s personality into its protective components Grunt, Howl, Gorge and the nameless Other. This last emerges as Killer when Mark crushes Ryoval’s larynx with a kick, and then stomps him to death. Despite the brutal violence of the only available methods and Mark’s use of a surgical drill to ensure that Ryoval’s brain can never be transplanted, and the removal of Ryoval’s hand to deal with palm locks, I don’t remember this scene as excessively graphic. Ryoval deserved it. Elena pledged herself to Mark as Armswoman, and she destroys the tapes Ryoval made of Mark’s torture at Mark’s request – he doesn’t want his mother to see them.

Miles has a beautiful conversation with Bel here, about Bel’s mistakes and future options. Leaving the Dendarii isn’t the end of the world, it seems, and Miles will miss Bel terribly. We return to Barrayar in time for Winterfair, where Mark and Kareen dance together.

Is there more to this? Yes. I’ve glossed rapidly over a stunningly intricate work of art. It’s one of Bujold’s best. It is the darkness you need to truly appreciate the light. And now I am moving on. Join me next week when we start Memory, the book where Miles starts again from his beginnings and never breathes a word about his loss because that’s all classified anyway, and have you heard about his personal chef? You’re about to!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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Posted by Emily Nordling

A year after their release of Ursula K. Le Guin’s complete Orsinia works, the Library of America has released a stunning two-volume set collecting the author’s most famous sci-fi works. The Hainish novels and stories do not unravel like a traditional series—the author even chafes at their common designation as a “cycle”—but they are, at least, connected by a shared universe, pieces and fragments of a shared history, and an ethos of exploration and compassion that is arguably the touchstone of Le Guin’s entire oeuvre. The Hainish worlds (including our own Earth, or Terra) were propagated millennia ago by the people of the planet Hain, and are now gradually reuniting under the interplanetary alliance of the Ekumen. From anarchist revolution to myth-inspired hero tales, the stories of the Hainish planets are as wide and variable as their inhabitants. And yet it was only a matter of time that they be collected in one place.

The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, both included in Volume I of the collection, are two of Le Guin’s most widely read, studied, and praised works of fiction. Placed alongside some of her earliest novels and lesser-known stories, the novels are cast in new and stunning light. They become pieces of a story bigger than themselves. Doubt is thrown on their truths and authoritative readings. Where other compendiums and collections might serve to build a more solid and definitive world-building project, Le Guin’s stories become weirder and more complex when placed side-by-side. This strangeness—in a collection whose theme is often uniting under strangeness—is as fitting and thrilling as it is messy.

[More thoughts on authority, plus the Table of Contents]

I wrote in my review of the LoA Orsinia collection that the new edition lent Le Guin’s fictional European country a certain authority or reality. It has been noted time and time again that Le Guin’s works are anthropology-inspired; but maps, timelines, linguistic notes, and shared cultural touchstones make the collection feel even more like an anthropological study than it would on its own. It should also go without saying that a large, well-regarded publisher like LoA all but inducts its selections into an American literary canon (however problematic the concept of a canon might be). The Orsinia collection thus becomes an authority text not just because of its realistic claims to a fictional history and culture, but because it is definitive and well-regarded by a literary elite. This all holds true for the Hainish collection as well. No matter that planets like Werel and Yeowe are more obviously unreal than the nation of Orsinia—they are presented in a minimalist designed hardback edition with appended notes on their language and natural history, and are as real as any fictional pair of planets could hope to be.

And yet Le Guin cheerfully troubles her own waters. She freely admits in the collection’s introduction and appendices that she never intended the stories to form a canon, and that she changed her mind multiple times in the thirty plus years of their writing. Universe-changing concepts like mindspeech appear and disappear, depending on the story. Timelines are muddled. Gender roles and social commentaries shift and flow. If you read the Hainish novels and stories over the course of thirty years, or even over the course of one, it might not be as noticeable. But reading them as a collection is its own unique experience. For one thing, readers will see the tides of change in our own twentieth century history reflected in Le Guin’s changing ideas (her 1987 redux of the 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary?” is an amazing example of this). They’ll find a naturally talented author sharpening her skill over time, honing her voice into something unique and vital. They’ll also hopefully discover something that the Hainish stories were saying all along: that there are no authoritative texts, and that we create meaning piece-by-piece, story-by-story, even when those stories are contradictory.

Maybe the best example of this is the last story in the collection, Le Guin’s 2000 novel The Telling. The somewhat graceless and rushed novel seemed to me at first to be a bad note to end on. It hurries along plot points in favor of heavy-handed social commentary, and its ending leaves a lot to be desired. But, thematically-speaking, the novel also perfectly wraps up the rest of the Hainish stories. In it, the protagonist Sutty struggles to complete her work as a historian of the Ekumen while on the planet of Aka. She has arrived on the planet after a cultural revolution wiped out much of their peoples’ written history and literature; a new language has replaced the old, and a ceaseless push towards scientific progress has eradicated philosophy and religion. Authority, on the new Aka, is delivered from the top-down. Gradually, Sutty uncovers the Aka that has gone into hiding, a religion most accurately called the Telling. In the Telling, people share stories with one another—sometimes contradictory, sometimes short and sometimes epic. The morals of these stories are not always clear, but their meaning is this: to listen, to share, and to collect.

The LoA Hainish collection, like the history of Aka, lacks a central or hierarchical authority. The meanings it presents are many and various, and open for interpretation. The fact that the stories sometimes contradict one another or change throughout their tellings, is not a flaw, but instead their central strength. Even without the beautiful meanings that it unfolds, the LoA Haicollection would be worth seeking out for purely aesthetic and practical reasons. But rest assured, too, that you’ve never read Le Guin’s Hainish tales quite like this.

The full table of contents, along with the dates of publication and featured Hainish planets are listed below.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories is available from Library of America.
Read Le Guin’s new introductions to both Volume One and Volume Two of the collection here on Tor.com

 


Table of Contents

Vol. I

  • Introduction
  • Rocannon’s World (1966, Fomalhaut II)
  • Planet Of Exile (1966, Werel)
  • City Of Illusions (1967, Terra)
  • The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969, Gethen)
  • The Dispossessed (1974, Anarres | Urras)
  • Stories
    • “Winter’s King” (1975, Gethen)
    • “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” (1971, World 4470)
    • “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974, Urras)
    • “Coming of Age in Karhide” (1995, Gethen)
  • Appendix
    • Introduction to Rocannon’s World (1977)
    • Introduction to Planet of Exile (1978)
    • Introduction to City of Illusions (1978)
    • Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1976)
    • “A Response, by Ansible, from Tau Ceti” (2005)
    • “Is Gender Necessary?” Redux (1987)
    • “Winter’s King” (1969 version)

Vol. II

  • Introduction
  • The Word For World Is Forest (1972, Athshe)
  • Stories
    • “The Shobies’ Story” (1990, M-60-340-nolo)
    • “Dancing To Ganam” (1993, Ganam)
    • “Another Story Or A Fisherman Of The Inland Sea” (1994, O)
    • “Unchosen Love” (1994, O)
    • “Mountain Ways” (1996, O)
    • “The Matter Of Seggri” (1994, Seggri)
    • “Solitude” (1994, Eleven-Soro)
  • Story Suite: Five Ways To Forgiveness
    • “Betrayals” (1994, Yeowe)
    • “Forgiveness Day” (1994, Werel)
    • “A Man Of The People” (1995, Yeowe)
    • “A Woman’s Liberation” (1995, Werel)
    • “Old Music And The Slave Women” (1999, Werel)
    • Notes on Werel and Yeowe
  • The Telling (2000, Aka)
  • Appendix
    • Introduction to The Word for World Is Forest (1977)
    • “On Not Reading Science Fiction” (1994)

Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.

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Posted by Stubby the Rocket

Robert Jordan America's Tolkien

On September 16, Brandon Sanderson commemorated the tenth anniversary of Robert Jordan’s passing with a heartfelt blog post on his website. Sanderson expressed the difficulty of marking a day of loss, especially that of “a mentor I’d never met.”

Describing the Wheel of Time author as “an almost mythical figure,” Sanderson nonetheless was able to distill Jordan’s legacy into a simple but deep anecdote: “Robert Jordan taught me how to describe a cup of water.”

Sanderson elaborates:

It seems a simple task. We all know what water looks like, feels like in our mouth. Water is ubiquitous. Describing a cup of water feels a little like doing a still life painting. As a child I used to wonder: Why do people spend so much time painting bowls of fruit, when they could be painting dragons? Why learn to describe a cup of water, when the story is about cool magic and (well) dragons?

It’s a thing I had trouble with as a teenage writer—I’d try to rush through the “boring” parts to get to the interesting parts, instead of learning how to make the boring parts into the interesting parts. And a cup of water is vital to this. Robert Jordan showed me that a cup of water can be a cultural dividing line–the difference between someone who grew up between two rivers, and someone who’d never seen a river before a few weeks ago.

A cup of water can be an offhand show of wealth, in the shape of an ornamented cup. It can be a mark of traveling hard, with nothing better to drink. It can be a symbol of better times, when you had something clean and pure. A cup of water isn’t just a cup of water, it’s a means of expressing character. Because stories aren’t about cups of water, or even magic and dragons. They’re about the people painted, illuminated, and changed by magic and dragons.

Read the entire piece here.

Autonomous

Sep. 18th, 2017 05:00 pm
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Posted by Annalee Newitz

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?

Annalee Newitz’s science fiction debut Autonomous is available September 19th from Tor Books. Read chapter 3 below, and check out additional excerpts at the Tor/Forge blog and on Boing Boing.

 

 

Chapter Three
Private Property

When does the thinnest smear of genetic material left by spilled blood finally evaporate? At some point it becomes invisible to human eyes, its redness dimmed by water and the mopper’s crawl, but there are still pieces left—shattered cell walls, twists of DNA, diminishing cytoplasm. When do those final shards of matter go away?

Jack watched the rotund blob of the mopper as it swished back and forth across a pinking stain that had once been a red-black crust on the floor of the control room. A blue glare of water-filtered sunlight came directly through the glass composite in the windows, blinding her until she dropped her eyes back down to the stain. She’d disposed of the body hours ago, its legs lashed to the cement blocks. By now, it would be frozen deep under the water.

Jack hadn’t had to kill anyone for a long time. Usually, in a tight situation, she wasn’t in the middle of the ocean. She could run away instead of having to fight. She ran a hand through the salt-stiffened tufts of her hair, wanting to vomit or cry or give up again in the face of the hopeless, endless pharma deprivation death machine.

That last thought make her crack a self-chiding smile. Pharma deprivation death machine. Sounded like something she would have written in college and published anonymously on an offshore server, her words reaching their destination only via a thick layer of crypto and several random network hops.

Black pharma smuggling wasn’t exactly the job she’d imagined for herself thirty years ago, in the revolutionary fervor of her grad student days. Back then, she was certain she could change the world just by making commits to a text file repository, and organizing neatly symbolic protests against patent law. But when she’d finally left the university labs, her life had become one stark choice: farm patents for shitty startups, or become a pirate. For Jack, it wasn’t a choice at all, not really.

Sure, there were dangers. Sometimes a well-established pirate ring in the Federation would find a few of its members dead, or jailed for life—especially if a corp complained about specific infringements. But if you kept a low profile, modest and quiet, it was business as usual.

But not usually business like this: cleaning up after a guy she’d killed over a bag of pills and a bot.

Where the hell had he even come from? She gestured for the sub’s local network, flicking open a window that gave her a sensors’ perspective on the mottled surface of the ocean from a few feet below. Nothing but the occasional dark hulk of icebergs out there now. Maybe she’d really started to lose it after all her years of vigilance? He’d exploited some obvious hole in her security system, fooling the ship’s perimeter sensors until he was on board and stuffing boxes of her payload into his rucksack. Selling a bag of those dementia meds wouldn’t have gotten him much more than a year’s worth of euphorics and gambling in some Arctic resort right on the beach.

The dead fusehead was the least of her problems right now, though. Jack needed to figure out whether something had gone wrong with her batch of reverse-engineered Zacuity. She still had some samples of the original drug she’d broken down to its constituent parts, along with plenty of her pirated pills. Jack tossed the original and pirated versions into her chem forensics rig, going over the molecular structures again with a critical eye. Nothing wrong there—she’d made a perfect copy. That meant the issue was with Zacuity’s original recipe. She decided to isolate each part of the drug, going through them one by one. Some of them were obviously harmless. Others she marked for further examination.

Jack finally narrowed the questionable parts down to four molecules. She projected their structures into the air, regarding the glittering bonds between atoms with a critical eye. A quick database search revealed that all of these molecules targeted genes related to addiction in large parts of the population. Jack paused, unable to believe it.

Zaxy had always placed profit over public health, but this went beyond the usual corporate negligence. International law stipulated that no cosmetic pharmaceuticals like productivity drugs or euphorics could contain addictive mechanisms, and even the big corps had to abide by IPC regulations. Her discovery meant that Zacuity was completely illegal. But nobody would figure that out, because Zaxy was rolling it out slowly to the corps, keeping any addictions carefully in check. When Zacuity came out of beta, the drug would be so expensive that only people with excellent medical care would ever take it. If they got addicted, it would be dealt with quietly, at a beautiful recovery facility somewhere in the Eurozone. It was only when somebody like Jack started selling it on the street that problems and side effects could be magnified into something more dangerous.

Jack was torn between rage at Zacuity and rage at herself for bringing their shitty drug to people without health resources. Hundreds of people might be eating those pills right now, possibly going nuts. It was a horrific prospect, and Jack wasn’t prepared to deal with the enormity of this problem just yet. Reaching into the pocket of her newly washed coveralls, she pulled out some 420 and sparked it up. Nothing like drugs to take the edge off drug problems. Besides, she had unfinished business with that bot behind the locked door of her cargo hold. He might prove to be unfixable, but at least that wasn’t her fault.

Jack expected the bot would still be in the same spot where he collapsed, eyes wandering under the control of some shit algorithm yanked off the net. But he wasn’t. Jack squinted, trying to figure out why the bot was huddled into a shadow where the wall met the floor. She’d started the ship moving again, and bubbles slid past the dark portals.

He was sleeping.

Suddenly Jack realized why the bot could look so beaten up but still show no signs of an alloy endoskeleton. This wasn’t a biobot—it was just plain bio. A human.

She leaned against the bulkhead and groaned quietly. A damaged bot was almost always fixable, but a damaged human? She had the goods to repair a mutating region in his DNA, and purge his body of common viruses, but nothing could fix a wrecked cognition. As she pondered, the hunched figure sat up with a start and stared at her with eyes whose emptiness was now far more awful than bad software. She wondered how long he’d been indentured to the dead thief. There was a number branded on his neck, and he’d obviously been following orders for a long time.

The 420 gave Jack a kind of philosophical magnanimousness, and with it a sense of resigned obligation to this kid. It wasn’t his fault that his master had decided to rob an armed pirate in the middle of nowhere. She’d do what she could to help him, but that wasn’t much.

“Do you want some water?” she asked. “You look like you could use it.”

He scrambled up suddenly, grabbing the edge of a crate to keep his balance, and she realized he was actually rather tall—taller than she was, though so malnourished that his height made him seem even more fragile. If things got dicey, it would be no trouble for her to overpower him, snap his neck, and toss him into the airlock.

“Please,” he said. “And food, too, if you can spare it.” His English accent was pure middle-class Asian Union, which wasn’t exactly what you expected from a kid with a brand on his neck.

“Come on, then.” Jack touched his shirtsleeve lightly, careful not to hit exposed skin. She led him down the spiral staircase from the control room into the wet lab/kitchen, where she booted up the cooker and gestured for broth and bread. He sagged into her chair at the tiny table, the wings of his shoulder blades showing through his thin shirt as he hunched over and stared at his hands.

She put the food in front of him. “I’m Jack.”

He ignored her, taking a sip from the bowl, then dunking the bread in and biting off a chunk. Jack leaned on the counter and watched, wondering if the kid even had a name. Families with nothing would sometimes sell their toddlers to indenture schools, where managers trained them to be submissive just like they were programming a bot. At least bots could earn their way out of ownership after a while, be upgraded, and go fully autonomous. Humans might earn their way out, but there was no autonomy key that could undo a childhood like that.

“I’m Threezed,” he responded finally, breaking Jack out of her spaced reverie. He’d swallowed about half the broth and his face didn’t look quite as blank as it had before. It was hard to miss the fact that the last two numbers branded onto his neck were three and zed. That scar was his name, too. Jack folded her arms over the sudden stab of sympathy in her chest.

“Nice to meet you, Threezed.”

Excerpted from Autonomous, copyright © 2017 by Annalee Newitz.

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Posted by Alex Brown

Every librarian has those select few books they recommend to just about everyone. Books that hit a lot of marks and can appeal to a variety of people even as they tell very specific stories. Books that are well written with evocative layers, truthful and realistic depictions, and characters from diverse backgrounds. I am constantly handing people copies of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novella series. And inevitably they come back begging for more.

Of course, also high up on that pile of librarian-approved recommendations is Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper series. If ever there was a Must Read about Brooklynite Latinx teenagers using magical graffiti to battle evil, this is it.

Shadowshaper kicks off with a frightening incident at a party one night where Sierra Santiago learns about Shadowshapers, magicians with the power to summon spirits into art. As Robbie, a Haitian American boy from school, pulls her deeper into the shadowshaping mythos, Sierra uncovers painful family secrets riddled with misogyny. Sierra and Robbie go on the hunt to find who out has been killing shadowshapers but things quickly spiral out of control. She makes enemies of the Sorrows, powerful beings from the House of Light in order to confront the dangerous enemy trying to do her harm, a choice that will haunt her in the sequel, Shadowhouse Fall.

With her newfound power, Sierra becomes the leader of Shadowhouse and therefore the yin to the yang of the House of Light. As the Sorrows come after her, she turns her friends and family into a veritable magical army. As Sierra resists her destiny, the truth of her relationship with the Sorrows is revealed. Conflicts from the real world bleed into the magical, and vice versa, until Sierra is battling enemies from all fronts. She’ll need all the teamwork she can get if she wants to defeat the Sorrows.

There are also two novellas starring set between books 1 and 2. In Ghost Girl in the Corner, girlfriends Izzy and Tee investigate the spirit of a young woman haunting Manny’s newspaper office. And in Dead Light March, Sierra struggles with being Lucera, her brother Juan writes a new song to impress his crush, and her classmate Mina learns more about the House of Light. Their stories intertwine at the West Indian Day Parade.

What strikes me the most about the Shadowshaper series is how unapologetic it is. Older pulls no punches. The microaggressions, harassments, and systemic oppression Sierra experiences aren’t there for dramatic tension. Every damn day marginalized people go through exactly the same (non-magical) stuff Sierra does. To exclude those experiences would be to disregard the truth of our lives, yet all too often that’s exactly what happens.

Through Sierra, Older calls out white supremacy, the New Jim Crow, misogyny and sexism, racism, and toxic masculinity. She confronts white feminism, performative versus active allyship, and what it’s like to be a young woman of color navigating a world dominated by older white men. Add in the experiences of Izzy and Tee, Pulpo’s mental health issues, and Juan’s growing understanding about how detrimental the patriarchy really is, and you have honest, realistic diversity.

For her whole life, those in power have made demands of Sierra. Her parents have the usual rules, but nearly everyone else—her school, the cops, even other members of her own family—have already decided what she’s worth. Before Shadowshaper, there wasn’t much she could do about that. Her aunt Rosa could make awful comments about Robbie’s dark skin, her grandfather could shut her out of her magical inheritance, the criminal justice system could take what it wanted without repercussions, and white men could try to break her. But now she can fight back. Sierra no longer has to choose between standing aside and living or standing up and probably getting killed. She has the power and the allies to take on those who would oppress her.

The Shadowshaper series is my catharsis; Sierra’s triumphs are mine vicariously. I look at Sierra and think of my ancestors who suffered and died and resisted and fought back on plantations and against Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement so I would not have to. Neither Sierra nor I are not entirely free, but the shackles are shattered. Sierra literally stands face to face against her oppressors and holds her ground, something I can only metaphorically do.

Clearly, Older is a strong, creative writer. The Shadowshaper universe is vast and unique yet true to its characters. Yes, the series has the dreaded love triangle (doesn’t appear until the second novel), but this is one of the few times I didn’t mind it. It’s resolution neither invalidates her first romance or detracts from her second. When crafting said love triangle, Older remembered that Sierra and her beaus are actual teenagers still figuring out both how to feel and understand what they’re feeling. Sounds obvious, I know, but if you read a lot of YA you’ll know how rare that is.

If I had to pick something to whinge about I’d say the plot moves a little too quickly and that I’d like to have a bit more time to take in the scenes. But when the only con I can think of is “GIVE ME EVEN MOAR GOODNESS,” I ain’t stressing.

I liked Shadowshaper a whole heckuva lot, but I completely and utterly loved Shadowhouse Fall. Each addition to the Shadowshaper canon—novellas included—have been stronger than the last. Shadowhouse Fall is an A+ novel and I can’t frakking wait to read the third novel. Plus, that cliffhanger is going to haunt me until I get my grubby hands on the ARC next year. You’re killing me here, Older.

The Shadowshaper Cypher series—Shadowshaper, Shadowhouse Fall, and the novellas Ghost Girl in the Corner and Dead Light March—are available from Scholastic.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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Posted by Judith Tarr

I was going to write about horse breeds and fantasy worlds, but I’ll save that for later, because there’s a more topical topic for us this week. Considering that half the US is burning and much of the other half is underwater, and that whole swaths of the rest of the planet are in similar straits, I think it’s apposite to discuss how equines get through disasters. Or how they don’t.

How does that relate to horses in genre fiction, you ask? Well, if you’re a writer, you’ll be doing terrible things to characters, including your equines, and if you’re a reader, you may be wondering if the equines in the book are acting or reacting as they should (even if, logically speaking, they shouldn’t).

These parenthetical remarks are important. Keep them in mind. Also, take a moment to watch this video from Houston.

This is beautiful horsemanship under very dangerous conditions—and not just from the water. If the horse had decided to panic, she could have taken herself and her rescuer down, and it would have been all over. What that man was doing was real “horse whispering”—in the sense of radiating calm, whispering with his body language, approaching mindfully and carefully, and asking the horse at every step if this was all right, if he could make the next step. He didn’t rush. When she said no, he stopped and let her have her space. He persuaded her that he could be trusted, and that if he took charge, he would take her to safety.

That was a dangerous undertaking. She could have reared and battered him with her hooves, or turned and kicked him, or bolted over him and trampled him—both before he had the rope and while he was leading her to shallower water. Once she had the halter on, training took over, she recognized the equipment, she was safe to lead away. (And letting her graze was good horsemanship, too: eating grass calms the horse down, settles her stomach, gets endorphins going from the chewing.)

The thing about horses in panic situations is, they are least likely to choose the safest option. A horse confronted with a flood will bolt into it, rather than away from it, especially if she’s alone, but in a herd she can actually be worse. She loses her mind and runs to her death with the rest of her family.

This happened to a horse-colleague years ago, when a dam near a large stable broke and flooded the property. There were thirty horses in the barn and fields. Their caretakers tried desperately to free them, but those that managed to get away turned around and ran back into the flooded barn and would not leave.

Of the thirty, five made it out alive. Two died of stress and injuries. Only three survived, including the one stallion whom this lady had hand-led out of the flood. His descendants live on my farm, thanks to her efforts. But twenty-seven horses died, most because they would not do the sane or safe thing and run away from the water.

Somewhat weirdly,—except it’s a horse so weird is normal—a horse on dry land who is confronted with water may go nuts trying to avoid it, even if there’s a predator chasing her. She can be driven into it, but she’s just as likely to lose her mind and stall out completely rather than touch a hoof to the water.

Even if the water is half an inch deep. Especially if it’s half an inch deep. If she can’t tell how deep it is, she’s not going there.

Fire if anything is worse. Horses are justifiably terrified of it. Even the smell of smoke can make them seriously uneasy, and open flame can panic them unless they’re extremely well trained by trainers whom they trust implicitly. Those movie horses galloping through fire have been trained long and thoroughly.

And yet, when a horse is caught in a fire, as with flood, he’ll run toward it rather than away from it. That’s why barn fires are so deadly—not just that horses can be trapped in closed stalls and burned to death, but that even if the stalls are opened and the horses freed, they’ll turn around and run back into the burning barn. The only reliable way to save them is by hand, one by one—and if they won’t leave the barn, or if they flail and bolt and panic, that’s deadly for the handlers as well as the horses. A flood is a terrible thing, but a barn fire is a horse owner’s worst nightmare.

Barns burn hot, too, if they’re made of wood and the loft is full of hay. It’s not just a dropped match or an electrical failure that can start a fire; hay itself, if improperly cured and stored, can build up heat within the pile and spontaneously combust. Bale the hay while its damp and it starts to ferment inside, store the bales packed together so the heat has a chance to build up, and you’ve got the ingredients for a ferocious fire—with horses directly underneath or beside it.

Fire and flood aren’t the only threats to horses’ lives and safety, either. Horses and other large, four-footed livestock are highly susceptible to lightning strikes, not only when sheltering under trees but when out in the open. Lightning loves horses, especially if they’re steel-shod. The only really safe place for them in an electrical storm is in a barn with good grounding.

But in storms that feature a lot of wind—hurricanes and tornadoes—a barn can be a death trap. The best one can do in the face of these is to fasten all the doors and windows firmly open, likewise the pasture gates, and firmly attach or paint or Sharpie key information on the horse’s hooves and body (phone number, horse’s registration number, address, whatever fits). Then pray the horse makes it through and is found after the storm passes.

It is possible, in short, to train a horse to overcome its instincts, and a well-handled horse can trust its handler enough to follow the handler’s lead, but it’s not a sure thing. Horse brains just seem to break when they reach a certain level of existential terror. Given a choice between escape and death, they’ll choose death.

But is that necessarily a terrible thing? A domesticated horse has value to humans, and that value can be considerable. It’s in the humans’ interest to keep him alive and well for as long as possible. Humans have invested a great deal of resources and ingenuity in training, care and feeding, and veterinary medicine.

A horse in the wild has none of these options. Horses are highly vulnerable to diseases and infections of the lungs and brain, and their digestive systems lack certain failsafes such as the ability to vomit. Leg and foot injuries are most likely fatal, either because the horse can go into shock and founder, which is excruciatingly painful (the bone in the foot drops through the sole and renders the horse unable to stand or move), or because the horse can no longer run fast enough to escape from predators.

In the middle of a natural disaster, an individual horse or a whole herd might be better off choosing a fast death than a long, lingering one from injury, disease, or starvation (if fire or flood strips their habitat of fodder). So maybe, in extremis, the horse who runs toward the deadly thing is acting logically within the larger parameters of equine physiology and psychology.

These aren’t things horse people want to think about, but when the planet starts attacking the creatures that live on it, it’s a good thing to be prepared. Not just with disaster kits and barn-safety designs and evacuation plans, but with handling and training that will help the horse to overcome her natural death wish.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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Posted by Jeff LaSala

In a hole in the ground lived one of literature’s smallest badasses, Bilbo Baggins, who in 1937 burst onto the scene in a ring of smoke. That’s right: 80 years ago this week, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fur-footed, waistcoat-wearing protagonist went there and back again for the very first time when George Allen & Unwin Ltd. published The Hobbit.

When it first landed, The Hobbit was a hit, and early readers understandably compared it to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because it’s not like the literary scene was exploding with dragons just yet. Disney’s animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also came out later the same year, so at least there were some people of the short and bearded persuasion on the scene. Although I think we can agree that Thorin Oakenshield is a lot of things, but he sure ain’t Dopey.

But let’s get back to Bilbo, the bravest little hobbit of them all.

Every Tolkien fan has their own history with this character, this book, this author, and his other works—and if they’re really lucky, that exposure started in childhood. For me it certainly did. Old Tollers died years before I came along, but his legacy made the foundations of contemporary fantasy extremely fertile (and also, we have to admit, challenging to deviate from), not just for me but for the authors I grew up on. Halflings got built right into Dungeons & Dragons at the ground floor, even though the game’s co-creator Gary Gygax wasn’t actually a fan of the books and generally disliked hobbits. Heck, halflings got reimagined as the diminutive, klepto, fast-talking kender in the mid-80s Dragonlance books I dearly loved. Ahh, these were the actual Stranger Things days…

Speaking of nostalgia, it wasn’t strictly Tolkien’s text that kickstarted my lifelong fandom—before I ever encountered the book, my impressionable young mind was absolutely won over by the one Hobbit movie already in existence. I’m speaking, of course, about the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated film—made by the same production team that gave us that stop-motion TV holiday special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, not to mention The Last Unicorn, and later The Return of the King itself.

Some of us were lucky to have a VHS, a cassette tape read-along, AND a record.

This 78-minute Hobbit was, to a kid like me—and tons of girls and boys—utterly perfect, utterly enchanting, and all that it needed to be. Like Bilbo, I felt “the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through” me. As an adult, it still remains a truncated but no less delightful fairy tale, though it only dips a few furry toes into the splendorous waters of the full book. Sure, as a Tolkien nerd I can’t help but note every time the story skips ahead or changes something—but so what? It’s been said that Tolkien himself wasn’t too happy with The Hobbit being perceived as a children’s book, but this adaptation is certainly a children’s movie.

It’s sort of a reversal of the complaints many book fans voiced about the recent Peter Jackson Hobbit films. “Too long!” “Stretched out!” Whatever, says me. More is almost always more. I’ve discussed this issue at length already, though, and so I won’t revisit it here, but I have observed that moviegoers who are also book fans can get pretty bent out of shape if an adaptation doesn’t fall perfectly into the third, “just right” category, following the prerogative of Goldilocks. I even came across a scathing review of the Rankin/Bass production from issue #11 of The Dragon (what would become simply Dragon magazine later) from the year of its release. The editor concluded:

In summary, what we got was an inaccurate, poorly developed rehash of one of the finest fantasy novels ever written. Xerox, the sponsor, did not get its money’s worth in material.

Alas, I find adulthood to be cynical and overrated. Well, at least the reviewer liked the book! It’s an adaptation, not a pure book-to-film translation—not a Xerox copy, if you will—so of course it’s not going to please everyone.

The TV movie first aired on November 27, 1977 on NBC, which means that as The Hobbit itself turns 80, the Rankin/Bass production is turning 40!  In celebration of both, I’d like to talk about and appraise the film as an adult (but with one eye nostalgically unapologetic).

As I’ve said, I came to the book later, well after becoming completely enamored of this movie. And aside from inspiring me to want to live in Middle-earth pretty much all the time, it also helped establish some lifelong mental images of Tolkien’s world, in my imagination. Even though it’s a cartoon, the scenery is lovely, offering some of that often grey, washed-out, and watercolor style I would also recognize in Tolkien artist Alan Lee’s paintings. It gives the world an impressively ancient and storied quality.

In fact, it seems to me that almost everyone who depicts Middle-earth landscapes, from painters to sketch artists to filmmakers, somehow always does a good job of making the world look “lived in.” I love that. Some fantasy stories are a bit too clean and perfect. Middle-earth looks old and weathered, like its maps.

If you’ve never seen this movie but are considering watching it, I should warn you: It will put some dippy 70s tunes in your head, but mostly in a good way. Mostly. After you’ve experienced the whole thing, if you don’t have Glenn Yarbrough’s warm and folky warbling of  “The Greatest Adventure” popping up randomly in your head with from time to time throughout your life, I kind of feel like you’re missing out.

 ♩ ♪ The greatest adventure is what lies ahead
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said
The chances, the changes are all yours to make
The mold of your life is in your hands to break

The greatest adventure is there if you’re bold
Let go of the moment that life makes you hold
To measure the meaning can make you delay
It’s time you stop thinkin’ and wasting the day ♫ ♬

Sorry—that’s sort of just playing on a loop in my psyche, forever.

Producer/writer/composer Jules Bass turned a number of the poems in The Hobbit into real songs without, mercifully, turning the whole thing into a musical. Every goddamned one of them is catchy, from the “Chip the glasses, crack the plates” to “Down down to Goblin-town” to “Roads go ever, ever on,” often performed by a chorus or else by Yarbrough and his zany vibrato. Even Gollum’s “darkness” riddle is played as an eerie interlude as our eyes pan across the walls of his dark cave, suggestive of the passing of time. It works well, and so in my mind, that riddle has remained exclusively in musical form ever since.

As far as the actual character design—their colors, their movements, their voices—there’s nothing ho-hum about this Hobbit. Some choices are good, some not so much. Adult me finds the cherubic Bilbo a little bit too round, maybe, but this is the Rankin/Bass style, and ultimately it’s a suitable shape for a hobbit. They “are inclined to be fat in the stomach” after all. And the dwarves, while a tad more craven than their book counterparts, are still quite fun—plenty of wagging beards and running away, tempered by bouts of stubbornness and pride. In fact, the first few minutes of the movie paint the perfect picture of the dwarves and their beautiful works in the Lonely Mountain as Thorin tells their story.

Of course, there are also some especially goofy choices, some of which hilariously date the production. Bard seems to be sporting a Tom Selleck mustache, the Wood-elves all look like leaf-wearing little blue Martians, and close-ups of Gandalf tend to make him look like a deranged, staff-wielding hobo. And what the hell is wrong with Balin’s forehead?

There have been some bizarre interpretations of Tolkien’s characters over the years—particularly pre-Jackson—but by and large the style choices in this movie feel appropriate to a kid’s sensibilities. Everyone has large eyes, noses are either huge and blocky (Bombur), long and narrow (Gandalf), or tiny (Gollum). The trolls and goblins all have massive horns or tusks. There’s a heck of a lot of beards and lots of long white or grey hair (but that’s always the case in Middle-earth). Everyone but Gollum seems to have a cape or cloak, even the goblins.

Interestingly, Smaug has decidedly feline features, mostly in the eyes, ears, and back-fur, but I find that lends itself well to his lounging atop the gold as if he were an enormous, lazy cat. The spiders of Mirkwood have actual faces and fanged mouths which, matched with the shrill voices they’re given, make them pretty damned freaky.

And the goblins! Their arrival, if you’re a little kid, is downright scary. They materialize out of the darkness slowly before revealing impossibly huge mouths. The Great Goblin himself looks like he could simply gobble Thorin up. They definitely terrified me the first time around. Bilbo and the dwarves are caught up quickly and humbled before them; goblins are intimidating with their chains and slavering tusks, and their rollicking all-bass choruses.

Down, down to Goblin-town they go. ♫ ♬ Now see if you can keep that tune out of your head, too…good luck, my lad.

In stark contrast to the exaggerated body shapes of all the fantastical peoples and creatures in this film, the “normal” animals and the actual humans have realistic proportions. That should bother me, but somehow the juxtaposition works, particularly in the case of the wolves that the goblins ride, and also the eagles, who don’t disappoint, doing the swoop-in-suddenly thing that they’re best known for.

The voice acting ranges from over-the-top to downright goofy to spot on. Sixties TV actor Orson Bean characterizes Bilbo as both sunny and courageous when he’s not whimpering like Winnie the Pooh. Oh bother! And since Sir Ian McKellen isn’t voicing Gandalf here, I’m glad legendary Golden Age actor/director John Huston took the role (and whoa, he’s Anjelica Huston’s, aka Morticia Addams’s, dad!). Huston’s Gandalf comes across as sagely and grandfatherly with a touch of irritability, perfect for our favorite wizard. Thorin, who is especially cranky and demanding in this movie, is appropriately voiced by character actor Hans Conried, a regular on shows like I Love Lucy and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

Casting director Otto Preminger in the role of the Elvenking strikes me as a bit odd, since I’ve personally never imagined Thranduil as speaking with an imperious Viennese accent, but I guess the Misty Mountains really have created a stronger cultural divide among Elves than I thought! Oh, and the guy who voices Gollum is totally the gruff older Klopek from The ‘Burbs. I can totally hear it now. (And if you don’t know The ‘Burbs, I’m sorry to hear that. You kids.)

Sadly, Beorn didn’t make the cut—the eagles fly the company right to the edge of Mirkwood and that’s that. Also, no stone giants in the Misty Mountains, but that’s all right. Scenes are understandably rushed and some elements are trimmed right out to keep the runtime low. There’s no Laketown master, or really much talk about Dale at all. There’s no Arkenstone, no lasting debate about who should have the gold once the dragon is dead. The dwarves, elves, and humans are ready to come to blows pretty quick before the goblins and wolves show up. But you know what they kept in—and what I missed dearly in Jackson’s version? Talking animals! Which of course includes Bard’s thrush-delivered intel about Smaug’s missing scale; his Black Arrow moment is brief but memorable.

The use of darkness and especially of shadows is aesthetically brilliant throughout the film. We see the shadows of the dwarves on Bilbo’s wall, then those of their ancestors in the Lonely Mountain, and somehow that lends the most mundane of activities—tinkering or playing instruments—a mythic, legendary quality. Add the stirring voices of the men’s chorus behind it and you’ve got instant movie magic.

Along with the landscapes I mentioned earlier, my other favorite aspect of the visual artistry of this move is the look of fire, which appear as actual flames. We see it in flashbacks, in the pine trees as our heroes are escaping from the goblins, and of course—especially—with Smaug himself. The artists and animators of Topcraft, the Japanese anime studio that would later become Studio Ghibli, are to be extolled for this wonder. The fire curls and spirals, subtly at first, shot forward in thin rays before the overwhelming blast that follows. I could watch it all day. The overall style isn’t anime, but you can see the influence there.

There are only two little cringe-worthy moments, from the perspective of an adult viewer who knows the books well. One is when Bilbo says “Ta-ta!” to Gollum as he hops over him, invisibly, during his escape. Because, c’mon. Tolkien would not have been okay with that (among other things). The other is when Gandalf summons the dawn itself to defeat the three trolls. As in, he just straight-up conjures it instead of, you know, tricking the trolls into losing track of time. (Psst! Ix-nay on the owers-pay, Mithrandir. You’re one of the Istari, for Eru’s sake. Keep your origin story on the down-low.) On the other hand, watching that scene as a kid? Gandalf made the sun come up! Yay, in your face, trolls!

The movie also kills off more dwarves than the book does, in the end. Which is weird. But then the film’s version of the Battle of the Five Armies, when shown from afar, also looks likes Pig-Pen’s family had big reunion or something, so… I guess not every frame of the animation can win First Prize.

As with any adaptation, if you care about the source material, you care most about seeing its spirit maintained. I think Rankin/Bass managed that, even though there is actually a hell of a lot more going on in the original book—way more than you’d think at first gander. But the essential themes of embracing adventure, of turning cowardice into heroism, and of the curious nature of luck—it’s all there for the intended audience, the kids this film was made for.

My affection for The Hobbit was born out of this animated movie, making my appreciation of the book itself, and all that followed, an inevitability. Now I’m a new parent, and I’m biding my time, waiting for my son to be old enough to let me read it to him, while simultaneously trying to figure how not to come on too strong with this stuff. Probably impossible.

But hey, it’s not like I’d dress him up as a hobbit for Halloween twice in a row, right?

Oh, right. I did do that.

I should probably just start with this movie, though. I am very fond of it; but it is only quite a little movie in a wide world after all.

[A quick note for hardcore fans of The Hobbit—those like me who reread and try to encourage others to read it—you should know that the excellent The Prancing Pony Podcast is about to embark on an in-depth discussion of the book, with each episode dedicated to a chapter. Having tuned in for all their Silmarillion episodes, I can tell you firsthand that those guys are both insightful and entertaining. The Hobbit discussions will begin with Episode 053. Most recently, they spoke with Corey Olson, the Tolkien Professor (who did his own deeply insightful podcast series on this book), in Episode 052.]

Jeff LaSala is a production editor and freelance writer who can’t leave Middle-earth well enough alone. He also wrote some sci-fi/fantasy books and now works for Tor Books. He also wants to point out that today and tomorrow are yet to be said. ♫ ♬

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Posted by Emily Asher-Perrin

Good Omens, Crowley and Aziraphale, David Tennant, Michael Sheen

Production for the BBC’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is well underway, which means that they have a little gift for us… our first peek at Heaven and Hell’s finest.

In a manner of speaking.

There it is, folks, your first look at David Tennant and Michael Sheen as Crowley and Aziraphale, everyone’s favorite theological odd couple. Where to start? Crowley’s I’m-a-judgemental-established-rock-star chic? (Pretty sure those boots are their canonical snakeskin finish….) Aziraphale’s pocketwatch-through-the-buttonhole librarian aesthetic? Their hair? This is too much. And that’s without bringing the latest casting news for the miniseries to light….

Adria Arjona–of recent Emerald City fame–will be playing Anathema Device and Jack Whitehall (Fresh Meat) is Newt Pulsifer. Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders) and Ariyon Bakare (Life) are playing demon duo Hastur and Ligur respectively, and Nina Sosanya (Love Actually) will be Sister Mary Loquacious. And in case that’s not enough for you, Michael McKean and Miranda Richardson will be taking on the roles of Sergeant Shadwell and Madame Tracy. Let that sink in for a moment. Then laugh preemptively because it will be impossible to laugh enough when you’re actually watching them in those parts.

Shooting is underway! Or it will be once Rob Wilkins and Neil Gaiman give the production staff back their clapperboard. The series is set to premiere in 2019 on Amazon Prime Video before being aired via BBC Two.

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Posted by Tor.com

State Tectonics Malka Older

In 2016, Malka Older’s Infomocracy proposed a future where voters all over the planet choose which centenal–a group of 100,000 voters–represents them, regardless of origin or geographical placement.

Could this system possibly work? Infomocracy begins to explore that question, while the follow-up book, Null States, out September 19, reveals how states which opt-out of infomocracy function in this interconnected future.

Tor.com Publishing is happy to announce that this story will reach its conclusion in the final volume: State Tectonics, currently scheduled for publication in fall 2018!

About State Tectonics:

The future of democracy must evolve or die.

The last time Information held an election, a global network outage, two counts of sabotage by major world governments, and a devastating earthquake almost shook micro-democracy apart. Five years later it’s time to vote again, and the system that has ensured global peace for 25 years is more vulnerable than ever. Unknown enemies are attacking Information’s network infrastructure. Spies, former superpowers, and revolutionaries sharpen their knives in the shadows. And Information’s best agents question whether the data monopoly they’ve served all their lives is worth saving, or whether it’s time to burn the world down and start anew.

Infomocracy and Null States, the first two books in Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, are out now.

Reshaping Old Stories

Sep. 15th, 2017 07:00 pm
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Posted by Camille Griep

As children, we are warned to steer clear of addictive influences. But I can blame my eventual affliction on something on the shelves in my family’s library, two doors down from my room: a book of fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson.

Much of my reading as a child was unsupervised. At night, my grandparents slept two floors above, innocent of my night childhood insomnia. The spine read Fairy Tales, but inside, the stories weren’t like anything I’d been read before bedtime. The endings to Christian Andersen’s signature stories, ranged from the merely unjust to the downright macabre. How could I avoid dreaming adaptations and futures for swan princes and mermaids? My addiction to reshaping narratives has comprised a large part of my writing for many years. But perhaps no other retelling cemented the sort of stories I wanted to write than C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth.

The original story all starts with a jealous Venus. After hearing Psyche’s beauty rivals her own, Venus dispatches her son Eros with his famous arrows to entrap Psyche into falling in love with something ugly, monstrous, or, better yet, both. When Psyche’s parents discover her intended is a beastie, they bid her adieu. Deposited on top of a mountain, Psyche is not greeted by a monster, but by an unseen Eros who has clumsily scratched himself with one of his own arrows and fallen truly, madly, deeply in love with Psyche.

Eros remains hidden, keeping Psyche in deluxe accommodations. Chartruese with envy, Psyche’s sisters demand she shed light on her beastly husband. Duped into their awful plan, Psyche discovers a mate whose beauty rivals her own. But uncovering him, she burns him with the oil from her lamp. He wakes and flees. Alone, sorrowful, and heartbroken, Psyche wanders until eventual tasks of fidelity allow her to be reunited with her love.

Though iterations of the story have been retold for centuries—from folktales such as East of the Sun West of the Moon (beautifully retold by Edith Pattou in the lush YA East) to fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast—Lewis threw out romantic love for his exploration of the myth, and refocused the perspective from Pschye to one of her meddling sisters, whose actions Lewis was unable to reconcile, even after years of consideration.

The narrator of Til We Have Faces is Orual, a brave, strong, but disfigured warrior whose love for her sister Psyche outshines her self-admittedly shameful jealousy of the latter’s beauty. In this, Lewis begins exploring a litany of dichotomies: strength versus beauty, fate versus chance, gods versus man.

In fact, Orual’s stated purpose for her narrative is to file a formal complaint to the gods themselves, for, it is partially their fault for disallowing her the ability to see the beautiful castle Psyche had described. Like the jealous sisters of the original myth, Orual demanded Psyche uncover her mate and benefactor because she wanted to protect her sister, and had thought her completely mad. Instead of granting Orual clarity, the Gods punished Psyche, causing her painful trials and tribulations, leaving Orual untouched and wishing badly to die from guilt, shame, and loneliness.

CSLewis-facesThough the novel was in some ways a 30-plus year study in Apologetics for Lewis, who searched for a way to believe in benevolent gods, for me, it was one of the first times I had felt so badly for such a deeply flawed character. Orual was hateful in ways I could touch and feel and understand, in ways my own love had turned white, hot, and dangerous. Similarly, the application of that love scarred those it touched, much like the lamp oil spilled by Psyche.

I keep the tradition of re-reading Til We Have Faces every year, and have since my early twenties. Each time, more is revealed to me, about life and love and strength and forgiveness, about trust and beauty and what those things really are—both evolving through the years. Like Orual, I continue to learn, continue to be shown, by questioning and reshaping old stories the true wonder of the human experience, and our capacity for narrative imagination.

This article was originally published in July 2015, as part of our Writers on Writing series.

Camille Griep lives and writes just north of Seattle, Washington. She is the editor of Easy Street and senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Letters to Zell is her first novel. Chat with her on Twitter @camillethegriep.

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