Monday, July 22, 2013

Rereads: The Sword of Shannara

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.
Oh, this book. Just look at it. That Brothers Hildebrandt cover. The goofy font. That word: Shannara. The scroll on which the title block is "printed". All of this is too painfully familiar to me. The book came out in 1977, but that's not when I read it; probably it was about 1980 or so when I got the book. I can't remember if my mom or my dad bought it for me, but I have clear memories of reading it at my dad's house, and of the book later living there in a drawer in a desk that wasn't mine. Maybe it was my dad's writing desk? Probably that was the case. He didn't use all the spaces in that desk, so I probably put this book--which I can remember liking very much--into a drawer to keep it safe.

Terry Brooks is a great Pacific Northwest success story. He was the first fantasy author after Tolkien to really get big, go mainstream. He was a New York Times bestseller, and with this book, this very book taht I tucked into my dad's desk. It had all the great elements: a humble hero, his doofus of a sidekick, his other irresponsbile sidekick who grew into a great and admirable warrior, the mysterious wizard, the exiled prince, the dwarf, the elf, the One Ring...wait a minute. I was talking about the Lord of the Rings there for a minute. Let me fix that. Strike out the One Ring and change it for the Sword of Shannara, and all the rest can stay. Because, and of course when I was a youth I barely registered this, if at all, this book is the second most obvious knock off of Tolkien ever to be written (here's the current title holder).

Brooks went on to write about a hundred thousand more Shannara books (well, twenty or thirty) and just published what's supposedly going to be the last of them. They veered into their own world, their own creation, very rapidly; the second book in the series, called The Elfstones of Shannara, was my favorite of them, and already moves far away from Tolkien, or as far as one could after loosely establishing a world that was so very much in the master's shadow.

I got this book from the library a couple weeks ago, and was daunted to see it was huge. That's not an uncommon occurrence in fantasy, of course, and I'd read the book before two or three times, but it came as something of a shock after how much slimmer all my other rereads have been. Brevity used to be valued to a degree in fantasy, which is almost entirely gone; in my years as a bookstore clerk I saw people pass on buying fantasy novels--from authors they liked, no less--simply because at 300 or so pages, it wasn't enough content to justify buying. Well. I'd rather a good short novel than a bloated piece of poorly written tripe any old day.

Did I say bloated, and did I say tripe? Well, I meant them. The Sword of Shannara was Brooks's first book, and his editor, I'm given to understand, helped to shape it to be as much like the Lord of the Rings as they could manage, to the detriment of the material. Further, there's never a long and pointless description that isn't used; Tolkien did the same, but with the intent of showing his world's carefully built history and languages and culture. With Brooks, in this book, it was mainly to describe how grey a stretch of countryside was, things like that. Further, he has a lamentable tendency to recount what you've just read thirty pages before, as if the reader might have forgotten; and to also attempt to make grand things which patently aren't. He speaks of his heroes as old friends, when most of them met three or four weeks earlier, and when none of them have enough personality to actually become friends. We're told, all the time, how cheerful or reckless or irascible or noble people are, but there's precious little evidence for any of it. The story is ridiculous, one of those things that requires too many coincidences and too much knowledge kept back solely for the making the plot more complicated. The scale is embarrassingly small: the whole novel takes place in an area maybe three hundred miles across, four hundred at most, which is meant to be viewed as huge. Travelling across is for literally days, we're meant to treat this as an epic quest, but it just feels like a bit of a walkabout. And how they travel: forty and fifty miles a day when there's no roads--or alternately well maintained trails in forbidden territory--night travels in pitch blackness with no moon, always on foot because...well, I'm not sure why, because they have horses in the world, and no one seems unable to ride them when called upon to do so.

I'm far from the first person to say this book stinks. It was never my favorite; the next two I read over and over, despite some silliness especially in naming conventions, and the first one just two or three times. It doesn't hold up well at all, and I think everyone is aware of that. But Brooks got much better, his books much richer, his world almost entirely his own. He's had an amazing career, all based on this one novel that is slightly questionable but was fun, and was embraced by the world. 

I skipped over paragraphs and sometimes pages as I read, and still found it too long. But I'm glad I went back to it all the same. Of the re-reads I've done so far, this is the only one that's still fully relevant to fantasy today (because the last book in the series came out less than a week ago, so seriously, this thirty five year old book still matters.) But it's a piece of work. Boy, howdy. Give it a pass and move on straight to the second one, is all I can suggest. You'll be happier for it.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Just ahead of the curve

Turns out that is following my lead, with a (much longer, and one presumes more thorough) reread of Elric of Melnibone. Well, the whole series, but their blogger is starting with the first book as originally laid out, the same one I did my reread of. Hurray for being trendy!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shelly Shapiro

I read a lot of fantasy books when I was growing up. Like, hundreds. Thousands? Surely it must be thousands. One of my favorite things in them was that they had maps. I loved maps growing up, I was in fact a Maphead. There were good maps and bad, maps that showed the places in the book only, that showed places not in the book in addition (and could tease you with what might come later) and maps that showed nothing of any use at all. For a time, though, say from 1982 to 1995 or so, there were an almost unlimited number of maps by one person, and that person was Shelly Shapiro.

You probably don't know the name. Even if you read fantasy published in those years, even if you, like me, enjoyed looking at maps, even if you realized all the maps you were looking at were in the same style, you might not have noticed her name, in rounded letters, that was in some corner of virtually every map. I did, of course, because I wondered at first if it was a place on the map (that seemed unlikely) and then the second time I saw it knew it was the person who'd made it. An actual, honest to god cartographer.

She had her peculiarities. Rivers were never simply lines, they were always provided with actual width, even when that rendered her maps into strange things almost like cut out snowflakes from a child's art class. Coasts were always rounded and blobby. Text she fit in wherever she could manage, as needed. But the maps were complete: they showed what you needed to see, in essentially the positions that the places should be at, and with a pretty decent suggestion of how far one thing was from some other thing.

I loved her maps. I looked forward to them. For a while I'm guessing publishers must have realized people like me existed: people who enjoyed the maps in the front of the book (or joy of joys, within the book, as with the Belgariad, a series littered with Shelly Shapiro work), and they played up to us. Shelly had steady work, for probably not much pay, and less recognition.

But, well, I recognized her. Ignoring the flaws, embracing the good, I was always happy to see her. Like an old friend, she would turn up every few weeks or months, and I'd get to see what she had been up to.

The map market slowed down in the nineties, and more so in the aughts. And not only were there fewer maps, but they weren't by Shelly anymore. She quit appearing in books, vanished from my literary life. Not long after I started reading much more ordinary fiction, much less fantasy. The two weren't connected, of course. I just branched out. Working in a bookstore will tend to do that for you.

There's not a lot of information about Shelly Shapiro online, which is kind of odd for someone who shaped the images people had of a good number of very popular series. Apparently she ended up as an editor in the late nineties, and perhaps is still doing that work. I don't know.

I wonder if there's a drawer, or a filing cabinet perhaps, in her house, one filled with the drafts of her maps. They would have almost all been hand drawn; no other way to do it, really, back in the eighties. So there must be originals. I'd like to imagine she pulls them out every so often and looks them over, like a traveler going over her old photos and remembering back when. And then she picks up the pile of them, taps them back into order, and tucks them back into their drawer, among the dust and old memories, and forgets about them for another few years.

Thank you, Shelly, for charting out my childhood.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rereads: Pawn of Prophecy

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.
Oh, lord. This thing. Well. 

I read the Belgariad by David Eddings--all five volumes--over the span of probably a week, maybe even a couple days less than that, when I was in 8th grade. My mother had found the whole thing in some supermarket, all five books (which strikes me as very strange, but the book rack in supermarkets was a different place back in the day I guess). I didn't just read these books, I devoured them with a frenzy that has seldom been equaled. There was something about them: the giant prophetic nature of them, the boy hero barely older than I was, the absolute coolness of some of the characters, the vast and sprawling world.

As with all books in those days, I reread them many a time, probably at least half a dozen. Eddings wrote a bunch more books in several more series, but essentially all of them were the exact same story told again with diminishing returns: The Mallorean (and doesn't that sound like an apartment building?), the Elenium (again, apartments, a little nicer maybe?), the Tamuli (did you try that new Tamuli restaurant?). Later books were tacked on prequels to these various series, until finally late in life he tried a couple new things and had less success with them.

One other curiosity is that those later books listed his wife Leigh as co-author, which would eventually be revealed to have been the case on every single book he wrote. Why it took more than two decades to get her the credit is unclear to me, but better late than never, one supposes.

All right, so I've laid out that I loved the hell out of these books, and read them plenty of times. But compared to my last two rereads (here and here) it's been longer since I picked up Pawn of Prophecy, and my fondness for it was rather less. Having gotten it from the library, I flipped open the cover and dove right in. 

Wow. Did I actually love this book? Did I even like it? Well, obviously I did. I can even remember talking about it with my friends Ben and Jeff at my middle school, which was not often done, discussing books, so that's saying something. Let me say something else: Pawn of Prophecy does not hold up well. It's very clear to me why, as a thirteen year old boy, I loved these books. There's a lot of shit going on, and there's mysterious badasses, and there's a hero who's fourteen for most of the book, which is pretty much my age when I read them, so that's cool, right?

Except for all the problems. One, the writing. It's workmanlike, I suppose; it moves along briskly, that's for sure. But there's so many adverbs. And so much repetition of characteristics. How many times must characters call one another "old friend"? And how often must a national trait be referenced (I'm giving you the side eye too, Robert Jordan)? And then there's the characters themselves, each one more ridiculous than the last: the all powerful, all wise, yet still crotchety old wizard; the beautiful, short tempered sorceress; the gigantic were bear nordic warrior; the too-clever thief/spy/acrobat/merchant/did I mention spy (Silk, who I remember really, really loving, and who now just comes off as too much, entirely too much); the villainous villains who are entirely one dimensional; and the boy hero who is always, always, always in just the right place at just the right time to spot a sneaky double agent, or overhear a conversation, or overhear a sneaky double agents conversation with a villainous villain. That last thing happens something like a dozen times in the book, and note, it happens when every other character in the entire book is supposed to be keeping an eye on the kid, all the time. Despite this, our Garion is able to be alone to catch crooks and find out important information every day or two.

It's all too much. Ridiculous. Outlandishly unrealistic even for a fantasy novel.

I'd like to say that I wanted to keep reading it. I'd like to say I found it entertaining still beyond the faint nostalgia value it possesses. But that's not true. I have little to no interest in picking up books 2-5, or any of the scads of related titles, and while I think I could still recommend the books to teenagers, I'd hesitate even to do that when there's so much better stuff out there. This was a bit of a dud, taken all in all, and I'm frankly a little embarrassed in retrospect to consider how much I liked Pawn of Prophecy and the rest of them, twenty five years ago.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Library Books

Having just gotten my library card, I'm only now getting used to things I can do with the library. Like, looking up books, and figuring out they're not at the local branch, and then getting them sent to me at said branch. This is a thing? I know, it's so simple and easy that everyone else in the world knows just how it's done and how to make such things happen, but it's all shiny and new to me. Also: very encouraging to my ability to reread old titles, because it's kind of hit or miss what will turn up in used book stores, but pretty much anything I'd want to reread and blog about it in the library. So I have two more titles to dive (back) into, which is neat.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rereads: Riddle-Master of Hed

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.

I don't recall exactly how old I was when I read Patricia A. McKillip's Riddlemaster books. I must have been eleven or twelve or so, which means I read them a few years after they came out, but not more than five. I read them much more than once, enough that when I picked up this book a few days ago, every name was very familiar (it helps that a lot of them are very odd names: Snog Nutt, for instance, is not a name that fades quickly, even if you can't remember he's a pig herder, and I couldn't). The overall plot was little more sketchy for me, with details flashing very clearly into my head but other parts seeming to not exist at all. And yet, as I read it, I remembered more and more images and scenes, although I thought some of them came later in the series instead of in this first book.

That brings me to a major issue I might have had: the book has a whole lot going on. As in, attempting to detail a slightly peculiar world with a deep history and strange customs; having a world-shaking conspiracy hinted at/exposed; suggesting a love story that brings about the second book's action; explaining magic and mystery; and more. It's not a big book (that's a more modern fantasy convention than most of what I'll be rereading) and so a lot of it feels not very fleshed out. I seem to recall that more will be filled in during the later two books, but there's some great gaps that I'm not even sure ever get made clear. Riddle Masters, for instance: why is that a thing? You see, there's a whole college devoted to riddles: what they are, what their lessons are, how they can be solved. It's essentially the University of the world, but how did it end up being all about riddles? I like the idea, of course: it's clever and interesting and weird. But maybe it's too weird, in that I can't figure out how it happens. The world itself also makes almost no sense; it's just a patchwork of kingdoms scattered around a continent without any real logic or even sensible background. Mind you there's background, it just doesn't really make sense.

When I first started my reread I thought that I was maybe bored, maybe didn't care much about the book, maybe had made the wrong choice. But as I went along I got caught up in Prince Morgon's story again--though it's kind of goofy, and he's kind of too perfect, and I don't really believe it at all. Mere quibbles, as it turns out. I really did like it when it was done, and I wanted to read the other two books right away, getting to scenes I half-remembered, characters I could vaguely recall, story elements that intrigued me in recollected form. But I don't have the other two, so I'm stuck with just this one.

I could wish that it was a little more fully developed (okay, a lot more) and it would be today, that's something I'm sure of. One thing that's amazing is how ahead of its time it is sexually: it's from the late 70s, and there's strong female characters of all sorts (almost: there's no women Riddle Masters that I can recall) and the second book is in fact centered on a trio of women instead of Morgon, who pretty much vanishes. So that's neat.

Overall I'm pleased I reread this one, and I could say it holds up pretty well. I can see how it might have fed strongly into what might be my next reread, Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings; it must have served as a general inspiration in fact. Unlike Elric, I don't think I took all that much away from this for my own writing; assuredly I did in some way, but I can't see it directly.