Tag Archives: Fantasy

THE LORD OF THE RINGS – J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)

The Lord Of The RingsBefore I get to the main course of this massive 7261 words review after the jump, some introductory remarks on my relationship to Tolkien first.

There will be one big problem with this review: I truly cannot assess this book on its own merits. I was 22 when the first Peter Jackson adaptation came out, and over the years I’ve seen all three movies multiple times, as well as the extended versions. Not that I consider myself a The Lord Of The Rings geek – not at all – but the movies were such a dominant cultural force back in the days, with CGI and other special effects on a scale unseen before. In an age before streaming, popping in a LOTR DVD simply was easy escapism, even if you’d seen it twice already.

I had read The Hobbit in translation when I was 14 or so, but wasn’t that impressed, and subsequently got bogged down in a Dutch translation of The Fellowship of the Ring a few months later. When the movies came out a few years later, I didn’t feel like I needed to read the books – as my friends who had read them assured me there wasn’t a whole lot more to the story, so I wasn’t curious – I mean, why read 1000 pages just to get a few scenes with Tom Bombadil or Radagast The Brown? And yes, the Scouring of the Shire is a significant coda, but it wasn’t crucial to satisfy my escapist urges.

Today, I have read the books. I even read the 894-page A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull – well, I skimmed certain parts of that, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek, but the 2014 version of 2005’s Companion was included in the edition I ended up buying. I wanted to have a hardcover edition (with the appendixes) in 3 separate bands – as I’d found that the single tome I bought first was simply not practical to read, so I send that back, and an edition with the Companion turned out to be the cheapest. As I knew I wanted to write this review, I thought it would be interesting to read up a bit on LOTR now that I had that Companion anyway. For those of you interested, I’ve included a short review of Hammond & Scull’s volume at the very end.

All the prefaces and introductions and histories of the work’s origin and quotes from letters and notes and notes and notes did enhance my reading experience. It showed that Tolkien had too much time on his hands, and invested so much in backstories of details that the entire Middle-earth mythos is a work of art so far out there it borders on the insane – the fact that A Reader’s Companion makes crystal clear again and again Tolkien was foremost preoccupied with the linguistic aspects of his creation only amplifies that.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself: I was talking about the one big problem of this review. I will do two things in the remainder of this text:

First, I’ll talk about my reading experience in relation to having seen the movies first, and try to compare the two. That might be of interest to a whole lot of new LOTR readers, as I take it most newbies will have seen the movies first, but it might also be of interest to people who read the books first, as, paradoxically, having seen the movies first also allows me to reflect on the bare bones of the story as story, regardless of medium.

After that, I’ll write a fair bit on what I wrote in my 5500 words analysis of that other monument of speculative fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined. At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control. As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem (…).

It is my firm conviction such is also The Lord Of The Rings most basic problem, and it turns out again that authors are not always the best theoreticians about their own work: Tolkien’s writing on his own writing is a mess.

For those who might be confused by what I already wrote so far: I’m generally positive on this Monument of Fantasy. If pressed, I would give it 4 out of 5 stars as a literary accomplishment – which is excellent: 5-star reads are rare. As a work of outsider art, it’s way off the charts: 5+++ it is!

This text is the longest review I have yet written and especially the part on choice and “acts of will” is heavy with quotes from LOTR itself, but you can skip those if you want. Throughout this review, I will also quote extensively from letters Tolkien wrote, and I’d say those are crucial either way.

If you’re a seasoned Tolkien fan, I’m very curious about your view on what this LOTR newbee wrote about the matter, so don’t hesitate to disagree in the comments.

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DESDEMONA AND THE DEEP – C.S.E. Cooney (2019)

Desdemona and the deep

C.S.E. Cooney’s collection Bone Clocks was fantastic – one of my favorite fantasy reads ever. It won a World Fantasy Award, and the titular novella The Bone Swans Of Amandale was nominated for a Nebula. So I was pleased to see Desdemona And The Deep published by Tor: her first longer form publication. I wrote ‘longer form’, and not ‘long form’, as generally I’ve seen Desdemona And The Deep referred to as a ‘novella’ – I guess it says something about the inflation of the fantasy market that a 220-page story can’t just be called a novel.

Anyhow, it’s the third book in the Dark Breakers series. The previous installments The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers – both about 88 pages – were only published in magazines and as Kindle editions by Fairchild Books, and there’s talk of Tor reissuing them. The stories are set in the same world, but each can be read as stand alone.

That world is a world in three parts: Athe (more or less like regular Earth in a 1920ish setting), Valwode, a magic country in between where Gentry lives, and beneath that, Bana The Bonekingdom, where goblins dwell.

As for the story, this is what the back cover promises: the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.

As you instantly see, it ticks a couple of 2019’s boxes: pollution, social justice, inequality. It’s not overtly on the cover, but you can add an explicit transgender story line to that list. I have to say Bone Swans was much more amoral, much less grounded in today’s political debates.

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FALL OR, DODGE IN HELL – Neal Stephenson (2019)

Fall Or Dodge In Hell

Stephenson’s first new single author book since 2015 is yet again a whopper: 883 pages. Seveneves was a love it or hate it affair: page after page crammed with technical details about what would happen if the moon would “blow up without warning and for no apparent reason.” 2017’s The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O., co-written with Nicole Galland, was a much lighter affair about time travel and witches – a breezy beach read I enjoyed, yet it lacked the single-minded urgency of Seveneves or the original brilliance of Anathem.

Fall or, Dodge in Hell falls somewhere in between: Stephenson caters to a larger audience again, without an overdose of scientific stuff, and hardly any difficult vocabulary – he (or his editor) even felt the need to explain references like one to M.C. Escher – but at the same time this is not mere entertainment.

Like Seveneves, Fall is actually 2 books in one. The second storyline appears after about 300 pages, and alternates more or less evenly with the first one for a couple of hundred pages, after which it dominates practically all of the final 200. In Seveneves the final part was far-future scifi, while Fall‘s second book is marketed as high fantasy – something it is not, as I’ll get back to in a few seconds.

It’s of note that this book isn’t really about Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast, even though he is the titular character. Dodge was the main character in REAMDE and Stephenson says he picked Dodge to recur because he liked writing him. Much to my surprise, he hardly figures in the book, at least as his biological self. (I haven’t read REAMDE, and Fall is a standalone book for sure.)

Shouldn’t you know already: Fall is about mind uploading after death, and a big chunk of the book is about executing Dodge’s last will and testament, after he suddenly dies at the very beginning. He wants his brain frozen, so it can be uploaded to a digital world when the technology comes into existence. As such, Fall starts in a very near-future setting, and we spend quite some time in the next 20 years or so. At the end of the book, we’re about a century from 2019.

The Dodge that manifests in the digital realm is simply a different character. A flat character. Which takes us straight to this novel weakness: the final 200 pages. If you allow me to pan those first, I’ll end with what makes this book worth a read.

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SENLIN ASCENDS – Josiah Bancroft (2013, 2017)

Senlin Ascends

On the fence about this one. Praised/hyped widely, this debut was first self-published in 2013, and picked up by Orbit in 2017. You’ve probably read it elsewhere, but Senlin Ascends is the first in a four book series – The Books Of Babel – about a headmaster on a quest to find his wife, which he lost while on their honeymoon in the Tower of Babel. Not the biblical one, but a mammoth with an unknown number of ‘ringdoms’, in a steampunkish setting. Thomas Senlin transforms from a quiet armchair bibliophile to an air-balloon pirate in the process.

While lots of reviewers rave about the prose, to me, it felt different. It’s generally okay for sure – it does the job telling an escapist story which main goal is entertainment – but it didn’t ring truthful to me. I guess I should not expect natural speech in a fantasy story like this, but there’s an artificiality to Bancroft’s wordiness that made me aware of the fact I was reading a 21st century book trying to masquerade as something set in a secondary world at the dawn of electricity.

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THE FARTHEST SHORE – Le Guin & THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – Hemingway

These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature. One could easily write a 50-page essay on similarities and differences, but the farther I’m removed from the literary sciences that dominated my early twenties, all I can think is: why would I?

Assuming Hemingway and Le Guin are authors positioned differently on the ideological spectrum, it could be a fun exercise to point out they share a lot of common ground, but in the end, doing that would also point out the relativity of such verbal heuristics – which ultimately most theorizing about culture is.

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, her old man also returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

But I digress – I’m not going to write that essay. Instead, two reviews after the jump.

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THE BONE CLOCKS – David Mitchell (2014)

The Bone Clocks

What a fantastic book this is. Or rather 6 books. David Mitchell’s sixth novel is a tour de force. Mitchell is no small name: Cloud Atlas gathered widespread praise and attention – and also in The Bone Clocks he serves a grand narrative via 6 connected stories across 6 points in time – from 1984 to 2043, seasoned with a few shorter asides going back to earlier centuries. And similarly, The Bone Clocks is genre defying in a manner that’s pretty singular: the bulk of the book being straight forward literary fiction, but nonetheless with a backbone that’s firmly supernatural fantasy, and a final part that is straightforward, hard hitting dystopian near-future science fiction. This should appeal to nearly any type of reader, and I think it’s a masterpiece – not a term I whip out lightly.

I will return to the significance and impact of the final 6th in the second half of this review, and that part might be of interest for those of you who’ve read this book 3 or 4 years ago. It might be time to reconsider a few things. But first let me get a few other, more general remarks out of the way.


I haven’t read Cloud Atlas, or any of his other books, so I can’t comment on whether this title is better or not – and part of the answer to that question will be taste – but I can’t shake the feeling this is Mitchell’s magnus opus – for now. Written in a seemingly effortless and tasty prose, filled with real characters, genuine emotions, strong & urgent themes relevant to us all – this isn’t only escapist reading. Add to that a broad, kaleidoscopic feel, and an intricately constructed plot that’s obviously visible to a degree, yet so confident that you do not mind seeing the construction – as one does not mind seeing the brushstrokes when examining a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh up close, on the contrary even: seeing the actual brushstrokes and how they work in the composition is part of the joy.

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DEADHOUSE GATES – Steven Erikson (2000)

Deadhouse GatesWhen I wrote my review for Gardens Of The Moon, I didn’t have that much new to offer to readers familiar with the series, and instead I tried to convince possible new readers to give that book a go, as it was one of my favorite reads that year. This is the sequel: what to say about a 943-page book that is the second in a 10-book series, set in a universe co-created with Ian Esslemont – who also wrote another 7 books?

Let me start this review by something that could be also of interest to readers not familiar with the series, namely the philosophical foundations underlying the book, and presumably the entirety of  The Malazan Book Of The Fallen.

After that, I’ll try to voice my assessment of Deadhouse Gates as a work of High Fantasy fiction – the actual review, so to say. That might also be of interest to readers still pondering whether to start this series, as I didn’t feel this book to be as successful as Gardens Of The Moon.

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