Grief and the Dreaming

What was supposed to be an overnight vet visit to stabilize some low blood pressure readings became something of an emergency situation, which at midnight last Sunday became a very difficult decision we had to make.

Chloe, my wife’s beloved cat of 15 years went to sleep that night and didn’t wake up, and now our house feels very empty and in want of a small, inquisitive face peering out from the shadows or from some corner of the back garden.

It was a pretty good death, all things considered. She was at a point where she was only going to get worse as the night went on, but she was awake and tired and aware of her people around her, giving her gentle pats as she got to close her eyes and nod off. It’s the kind of passing I wouldn’t mind for myself one day. It was a case of making all the right decisions, as the vets confirmed for us, but life throwing a wrench in the works at the last second. The initial prediction of 4-5 months wasn’t wrong because it wasn’t the initial illnesses that got to her, it was a random bug that hit her weakened immune system and caused a chain reaction. There’s nothing we could have done, even if we had tried different treatments earlier this probably still would have happened.

Strangely, all the logic and rational thinking in the world doesn’t make it any less painful.

I feel worse for my wife than I do for me, obviously. I was only in this cat’s life for a little over a year, she’s had her for nearly half her life and their bond is as strong as any mother and daughter you could name. She’s holding it together much better than I would have anticipated, and we’re both acknowledging that there’s no one at fault but nature, and after a week the pangs are still sharp but not enough to leave someone bedridden with grief.

It’s really weird how different people process it, though. Personality-wise we’re definitely in the opposites attracting category, and beyond the shared interest in keeping ourselves distracted with movies, and television, and books, it’s tackled in such different ways. She’s grieving in what I would definitely call a normal way, how I’d expect someone to grieve for a lost pet.

I find myself thinking back on a page from the very end of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics where Shakespeare is lambasting Morpheus. Earlier they had made a deal that the latter would help the former become a world-changing playwright, and at the end of his life William is coming to understand the repercussions of that deal:

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I saw Gaiman speak a little while back and he talked about how he’s always had a hard time with processing grief, because it’s filtered through a lens of wanting to capture exactly how it feels, how to put that down on paper, how to make other people feel it by reading those words as a shared grieving, a way of forcing empathy and emotional connection and drawing the reader in. He mentioned that he felt that way when Terry Pratchett passed away; the immediate shock, followed by turning inside and carefully documenting that shock and the following emotions as they happened, adding them to a toolbox to be pulled out later if necessary.

I totally get that. I’ve never heard someone so accurately describe how I experience mourning. I’m sure part of it is the toxic guy “bury-your-feelings” process I grew up surrounded by, but my immediate response to feeling so awful is to try and figure out how I would translate that to a piece of fiction, locking it away not because I view the emotions as shameful or bad, but because someday I might want to write a scene where I want to evoke the same kind of feeling.

It seems to be a running theme with writers both professional and hobbyist, but it feels strange to examine it and to be aware of that routine even as it’s running.

On the plus side, it kind of frees me up to help with others whose grief is rawer and more immediate, which I view as a blessing. If I can take that step back and observe even my own sorrow as a bit of a third party, it means I can take care of things that can’t be stopped just because we’re mourning.

We’ve started idly looking at other cats now. We’re not in any rush to adopt, but neither of us has been in a no-pet household for more than a couple of months. It would be unfair to “replace” a member of the family because you then project a lot of expectations on the new adoptee, and we’re both hyperaware of that, but we also find ourselves in a position where we could do something like adopt bonded pairs that might have more trouble finding homes, or black cats that have a notoriously difficult time due to lingering superstition, or eventually even a puppy that we wouldn’t have been able to get with an elderly and then fragile cat. So from these particular ashes we’re certain a Phoenix will rise and we’ll move on, just with new scars for us.

 

Cats, Beaches, Television

SO, as I alluded to in my prior post, things have been pretty busy in my small corner of the world.

There have been two big events in our household over the last month, one good and one bad.

The good thing is that I got brought on as a full time employee at what had been my temp assignment that kept getting extended, which is a huge weight off my shoulders, and very exciting. I have successfully tricked enough people into thinking I know more than I actually do, which is really, really funny because the basis for it is tragically nerdy. I am doing data as someone who has historically sucked at math and numbers (which is one of the many reasons I took refuge in English and History and a sprinkling of Psychology in college) and 90% of my successes at the office draw from having minmaxed video game stuff. Looking at analytics? I basically treat it like I’m going through damage meters in an MMORPG and trying to find the reason for gaps in different sequences. On the money side of things it’s from resource management in strategy games and looking at sustainable incoming-outgoing levels.

So, you know, if there are any wayward teenagers in your life who seem to be playing too many video games or D&D or what-have-you, it might actually be applicable later in life even if they don’t want to be throwing it on their official resume.

Outside of that, my wife’s cat has fallen quite ill. Well, our cat now, really, but my wife has had her for over a decade and a half while I’ve only been in her life for a couple of years, so she takes precedence there. A few weeks ago she went badly off her food and was acting quite sullen and sick, so we took her to the vet for a check up. The check up spiraled into a multi-day stay as they tried to figure out if it was kidney disease (a death sentence) or lymphoma (a slightly slower death sentence).

It has turned out to be both. The kidney disease is somewhat manageable–you can slow its severity–with dietary changes which we’ve begun to implement, but the lymphoma is kind of a… hard cap on how long she has. There was the option of treating her with chemotherapy, but in a best case scenario that would be seven months of her being absolutely miserable, us not being able to pet or hold her, her feeling achy and sick the entire time. She’s already an eighteen year old cat on top of that, so for all we know we might be making her miserable for seven months only to get one good month afterwards. What we’re doing instead is essentially palliative care, or kitty hospice. She’s on a daily dose of prednisone to keep any potential pain in check and to stimulate her appetite and her desire to drink, since the lymphoma might make her too nauseated to eat enough, and the kidney food is different than what she’s eaten before even as we slowly wean her onto it. She’s fairly stable now, and the vet thinks we could get up to half a year of “normal” lifestyle out of her before one of the diseases becomes too advanced to manage, and then… well, we make that decision when we come to it, but both of us have lost pets before and we know the drill, even if it’s going to feel awful.

But for now she’s quite perky, eating regularly, cuddling in the mornings and evenings, and spending a lot of time sunning herself in the garden.

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Our coping mechanisms of choice, outside of doting on her until she gets fed up with the attention, have been trying to spend more time out at the beach together before the weather gets too cold, and catching up on a backlog of television shows we’ve been meaning to watch since forever.

We finally finished Twin Peaks a couple of weeks back, this being my… ninth or tenth time through, I think, and my wife’s first. She liked it enough that she helped me design the Dale Cooper tattoo I’m actually about to go get two and a half hours from now.

We also watched Legion religiously up until its finale the other week. Probably my favorite show since Hannibal was cruelly taken from me. I seriously can’t think of any way to talk about it without spoiling it, since the entire show is dense with tidbits that become huge things, but it’s the kind of show I could recommend to anyone. It’s a superhero show that doesn’t require you to like superheroes, it has enough X-Men easter eggs to keep a fan happy while being separate enough that you won’t feel lost if you’ve never picked up an X-Men comic before. The acting is top notch, the music is amazing, and the visuals are like someone has hooked up several different feeds into your brain and is overloading it.

We’re almost done with The Expanse, or as I like to call it, the Amos Hour of Power this season. I’ve read the books a few times through over the years but they’ve managed to throw in enough twists and turns to keep me on my toes, to the point where I wish the Game of Thrones showrunners had taken more of this kind of approach to their material.

We just finished Stranger Things last night, even though I knew I’d love it since the first trailer came out we just never found time to watch it together while we were living in opposite time zones, and then it fell off the radar after I moved. It’s glorious, though, and manages to make me feel genuine nostalgia for a time a couple of years before I was even born.

Currently I am marathoning my way through Orphan Black, which, again, I knew I’d love but never had the time to sit down and watch. I started Thursday night and I’m just on the last episode of season 1 now, so I’m pretty sure I can get through the whole thing by the end of Easter weekend.

So yeah, that is the state of things right now. I have a giant pile of books to review over the next couple of weeks, and a ton of historical tomes I picked up at the library that I also need to delve into on top of that.

Review: The Malice

First of all, apologies for being scarce on the reviews lately. I have actually been churning through a ton of books I want to talk about, but it’s been a fairly hectic month and in what little free time I have outside of reading, I’ve been prioritizing my writing. I’ll do a life blog thing later on to go into some detail.

But the most recent book I read, I really want to talk about and hopefully get some people interested in.

26160162.jpgI am talking about Peter Newman’s The Malice. It is the second book in his The Vagrant trilogy, and a wonderful book. I read and reviewed The Vagrant earlier this year and a lot of what I said about that book held true here.

I have mentioned before, but I think Newman has a gift with naming things. You would think this kind of gift would be common in fantasy and science fiction where you’re kind of making things up wholesale and need to come up with a descriptor for them, to get across certain concepts, tones and ideas to people who would never encounter them in real life. It is not common at all, and in fact I find it a major failing of a lot of fantasy in particular. Occasionally you get actual mad geniuses like Gene Wolfe spewing out beautiful prose that requires you to go digging through esoteric thesauruses to figure out what the hell he means. Elsewhere on the sliding scale you have someone like China Mieville who uses grotesque and bizarre word combinations to put uncomfortable images into your head (I will never forget reading about the limb-farms and bile-tanks of the Grindylow in The Scar).

Newman utilizes elements of both. He plays with words that don’t typically go together, and makes them work, makes you think of very disparate things and how they might physically appear or influence the tone of an object or a person.

To wit, one of my favorite things he’s come up with is a group called the Knights of Jade and Ash. I just love the taste of those words together. You don’t often find jade in the company of ash, so what on earth has drawn these two words into a singular troupe? He’s fairly sparse with his descriptions, too, so you can fill in the blanks with your imagination.

The story is a nearly textbook bildungsroman as a young girl named Vesper inherits a very dangerous weapon from her father and begins a long trek to grow as a person, a warrior and a savior (or destroyer) of a world threatened by a massive cyst in reality known as the Breach.

Honestly, a lot of the good I have to say mirrors my thoughts on The Vagrant itself, but I think this book does a bit better than its predecessor. This may be by virtue of featuring a talking protagonist, someone who has to grow and change quite a bit, instead of favoring the ronin motif of the first book. I love the Vagrant himself as a character but past a certain point you kind of knew what was going to happen; he’d be surrounded, forced into a fight, and he would decimate his foes in a beautiful, almost lyrically-written fight sequence. Vesper starts off as someone who is a bit more pure, a bit more naive in the ways of the world, but still very much willing to throw down like her old man.

I must also admit a weakness for enchanted blades, and The Malice itself is a delight. It’s explored far more thoroughly here than it was in the first book. You learn a bit about its history, its powers, its potential. It’s a scary holy weapon that will turn on you if you falter or show weakness, or will get you killed spurring you into a crusade that your body cannot yet handle. I don’t see cursed “good” swords very often; usually they’re straightforward in trading your soul, your blood or your friends for fighting prowess. Here, on the other hand, is a blade so driven to fight the forces of the abyss that it will turn you into a monster in pursuit of this divine task. The descriptions of it are brilliant too, I love the eye-pommel and the twitching wings that make up its crossguard, and the…

Well, you’ll have to read on to see what else, I hate spoiling.

All that said, definitely start with the first one. There’s a nice little catch-me-up section at the very beginning here but you’re losing a ton of context and brilliant worldbuilding if you dive in midway, even if the story will make a rough kind of sense.

Review: The Djinn Falls in Love (And Other Stories)

I love genies, or djinn, or jinn, about as far back as I can remember. I think my first exposure to them was an extremely child-friendly edition of 1001 Arabian Nights and the original Aladdin (which was set in China (written by a Muslim guy to look exactly like an Islamic city (which is how you get characters like the Sultan of China))) that kept out a lot of the more gruesome elements. Then, of course, there was the Disney version that came out when I was about 7 years old. and is one of the first films I remember seeing at the theater. In my teens I stumbled upon Neil Gaiman, who took a much more adult approach and delved into some of the background of the race.

They’re fascinating to me because they are completely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in mythological studies. They’re a supernatural race that isn’t an existential threat, or an enemy of the regional god, or demigods themselves. They’re more like our half-remembered brothers and sisters. We were made of clay and dirt, they were made of fire and shadow. We were given the oases and fields, they were given the dark places and the glass palaces hidden in desert mirages. We see each other out the corners of our eyes sometimes. In many places where the djinn legends are prominent, they follow the same religion as the human cultures, complete with prayer rugs and singing. Even the most basic description of them from the old texts, men made of smokeless fire, is something I’ve always found evocative and striking.

I like that just like people, they aren’t good or bad by nature, they have free will and can choose to use it in the way they wish. You get good djinn who do bad things, bad djinn who do good things, and neutral ones who simply want to be left alone, just like you see in humanity.

51s9+SWaZ6L.jpgThe new anthology The Djinn Falls in Love manages to capture so many aspects of what I love about the dense and intricate folklore of these beings. I don’t think that such a thing could have been captured outside of a collection like this, because the djinn are so diverse that you need many stories to explore their many facets.

It opens up with possibly my favorite story of the book, a tale about a boy who stumbles into his mosque to find it inhabited by a congregation of strangers with flame-red hair who all fall through their prayer rugs at the end of the service, and goes from there. You have everything from mysteries, to love stories, to military thrillers to horror. Often these genres are mixed up and you’ll find several in the same story, which is tremendously fitting for the subject matter at play here.

It’s one of those anthologies where I liked some stories more than others, but I didn’t dislike any of them. If I were to re-read it I don’t think I’d skip around to favorites.

I was very appreciative of how accessible the stories were. There are some books I don’t recommend to friends unless they’re also into reading a lot of the weird and esoteric stuff I do, and like stories that require you to have a bit of that background. You could walk into this not knowing anything about the djinn and walk out with a good understanding of just how diverse the folklore around them is.

I also like how many new authors it introduced me to. Of course Gaiman’s story from American Gods still holds up remarkably well (and feels even more relevant in today’s world of immigrant and refugee crises), and Nnedi Okorafor’s delving into African djinn legends was fascinating, but I ended up with a big to-read list based on the entries of some authors I’d never heard of before. Sami Shah’s REAP is one of the creepier pieces I’ve read in awhile and I would read an entire novel set in the military-horror setting he’s created. Sophia Al-Maria’s Righteous Guide is equally creepy for entirely different reasons and doesn’t shy away from exploring the repression of women in many of these regions, and the interplay between the idea of djinn possession and female sexuality for some of the more superstitious. E.J. Swift’s Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice grabbed me way harder than I would have expected; space opera did not seem like a logical place to start exploring djinn magic but there you go.

Not all of the stories will make you feel good, but all of them will definitely make you think and give you an appreciation for an element of folklore and mythology that often doesn’t show up in western fiction unless it’s been scoured clean and bowdlerized beyond recognition.

Review: Torment – Tides of Numenera

You wake up plummeting towards the ground in a cocoon. It’s slowly shredded away from your body to reveal a vast crystalline dome below you and a collapsing moon above you, and you have no idea who you are or what is happening. You accelerate and black out just before impact, and reawaken on a vast platform of mirrors and obsidian, studded with glowing orbs. When you touch them, they pour forgotten memories into your mind, everything from underwater cities to ancient castles. Each new memory awakens latent skills that your body still knows even if your mind can’t make sense of them.

But something is stalking you through your own mind, a tumor made of smoke and teeth, and it’s closing in fast. Spectral figures emerge from the very landscape to try and help, but they end up as food for the creature that you only hazily remember as The Sorrow, and as it closes in on you, you manage to force yourself out of your unconscious and back into your twisted, mangled body.

You’re lying on the floor of a rotting laboratory next to a crystal sarcophagus, watched by a man covered in living tattoos and a woman surrounded by dozens of ghosts that look exactly like her. They think you might be a God.

Thus begins Torment: Tides of Numenera.

That was about five minutes. Over the next several hours it gets significantly weirder.

I love almost everything about this game. I backed it way back when the kickstarter began around 2013 and grit my teeth through almost half a decade of delays, because I played Planescape: Torment back when I was 14 and I would give anything to capture some of the awe that game inspired in me.

As the spiritual successor, with a lot of the same staff and a similar design philosophy, this game is so good. Of the recent old school RPGs to come out (Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny) this is probably my favorite.

04ad676271fd34f4cdcd4f49df31299a.jpgThe setting is to die for. It’s purestrain Monte Cook. He lists his major influences in creating it as the art of Moebius, and the writings of Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and and Gene Wolfe. It’s a world one billion years from now where eight great civilizations have risen and fallen on the bones of their predecessors, littering the dying planet with technology so alien that it’s practically magical. The Ninth Age has just hit the feudal era, and sword-wielding knights coexist alongside “mages” who can control ancient nanomachines to cast spells, and rogues who are more like cyberpunk hackers than medieval thieves. Every area you explore oozes personality and thousands of tiny details to look through. I bought the pen and paper game ages ago but the translation to video game as a medium is perfect.

This is the first game in ages where my initial playthrough hasn’t been a warrior/fighter type. I’ve been playing as a Jack, the rogue class, a literal jack-of-all-trades and homage to Jack Vance’s influence on the genre. You learn a little bit of everything and can talk your way out of practically any conflict. In hours of playing I have had one tutorial fight and managed to manipulate or sweet talk my way past any other show of arms. It’s almost like playing through a novel, with well-written branching dialogue and a ton of replay-ability evident even in the midst of my first go.

If I have any complaints, it’s that what I did see of the combat feels incredibly clunky. I don’t know that I’d enjoy a fighter character unless a large part of that was using intimidation checks to avoid fighting people, ironically enough. But the game really does throw a lot of options at you; my Jack is often presented with the ability to turn enemies against one another, or make myself into their ally, or simply misdirect their wrath somewhere off the screen. I could easily see a nano-wizard being able to scan their minds and influence them that way, or a grizzled glaive warrior scaring a bunch of wasteland scavengers off just by unsheathing his giant blade and grimacing at them.

It’s not quite as good as Planescape: Torment, but PST is honestly one of my gold standard games when it comes to writing. Even pushing aside the heady nostalgia factor, it just has a borderline-perfect cast of characters, every single action you take has weight behind it, and it works within one of my favorite fantasy settings ever. Numenera is young compared to Planescape, and this Torment game has a lot to live up to, but absolutely an A+ for effort and something I can advocate buying at full price, because if you like good storytelling you’ll probably get at least 2-3 replays out of it and that comes out to 60, 70 hours or so.

Fresh Ink

So it’s officially into Autumn now and I have survived what several people have described to me as the most god-awful hot summer in Sydney’s recorded history, with a record breaking number of days in the high 30s and low 40s, humidity levels that make it feel like you’re swimming and your clothes stick to you from the second you get out of the shower, and breezes that feel a bit like standing in front of a hair dryer.

So I did the intelligent thing and picked up some new tattoos, my first two in Australia.

In my defense, when these were booked I did not count on it being so hot that I almost sweated my healing ointment off within minutes of stepping outside. That was not pleasant. Have you ever had A&D drip down the inside of your arm, stained with the various inks that your skin is slowly pushing out during the healing process? It’s the grossest feeling thing.

20170204_191020I started off with a design I’ve been wanting for some time now, Morpheus from the Sandman comics. The problem was that I wanted him on my right arm, which is mostly poppy and colorful, and Morpheus is a character of black and white with a few dots of color to him. Thankfully my artist (Melanie Milne, if you ever find yourself in Sydney and in need of a great tattoo) was far more visually skilled than I am and came up with a concept that worked: incorporating something a little bit like genie smoke, with slumber-sand slipping through his fingers and transforming into a rainbow hue of vapors as they moved down my arm. It came out really, really good and is almost fully healed up now with next to no color loss during the process.

I love Sandman, it’s in a three-way fight with Transmetropolitan and Lucifer for my favorite graphic novel series, and it feels kind of right to have the lord of dreams and stories taking up a hefty chunk of my dominant arm, the arm I do most of my writing with.

20170226_194132.jpgThe second one I actually got just this past Sunday. It’s based on one of those films where I watched it as a kid, and I rewatch it as an adult, and I go “wow, so this had a bigger influence on my aesthetic than I ever realized.” I am speaking, of course, of the filthy muppet monsters of The Dark Crystal. In a wrap around my wrist, ending just before the joint, I’ve got one of the Mystics, his corresponding Skeksis, and the broken crystal that splintered them from one glowing being into two muck-bound magical creatures. Sorry if the picture is a bit wonky and distorted, but getting a decent shot of a wrap is really difficult. It’s still a bit of a work in progress, it only covers 2/3 of the area and I’m going in at the end of March to fill in the back side a little bit. The astrological signs of the Great Conjunction and the silhouette of the Skeksis castle where the shattered crystal is located, most likely. I’m looking forward to it. That’s most of one arm fulled sleeved up, with just a couple of small gaps to fill in.


Speaking of new ink, I’ve also surged ahead in writing. I spend much of my lunch break each day scribbling away, and then in the evenings as I can. I’ve broken 45,000 words recently, on the side project, and it feels good. Writing multiple stories at once is nice because if you feel the burn out coming on, you can change gears, still be productive, and change back afterwards. You’re still getting 3,000 words down in a session, just split across two stories instead of 2,000 words in one.

It is funny, though, that I find myself getting inspired for one story what I’m writing in the other. I had one passage that I wrote for the secondary piece, and then later came back to it, went “ugh it’s too good, it needs to be in the primary one” and poached it, replacing it with something that fit the tone a little better. It’s helped to define a lot of the elements of each story by making me think about them, and making me concentrate on not accidentally sinking into the same prose for radically different tales. Having to keep the narrative voices distinct naturally drives the text along.

Writing at the office has also broken me of my habit of getting lost in research holes. If I only have 30-45 minutes to work on something with the deadline of “my boss will get antsy if I keep going,” it’s excellent at keeping me from popping on google to check something and then half an hour has gone by and I’m intimately familiar with the history of the textile industry when I just wanted to make sure I was using the right word for part of an old carpet.

Not to say that the research stops, it’s just far more compartmentalized. I’m still accruing books like mad and I even sprung for a cheap laptop to make note taking easier, so I can just pop it open in bed and jot down random points of interest.

Review: The Heart of What Was Lost

51qdqrflmcl-_sy346_So, obviously, this is going to have some spoilers for Memory, Sorrow & Thorn, the story beginning just a few weeks after that series ends. If you haven’t read them, tread lightly, because they do have some good twists and you’ll want to read them before tackling Heart here.

I am actually going to be the weird guy here and say that I enjoyed this more than the original trilogy. That seems vaguely heretical coming from a fantasy fan, but I actually didn’t get into MS&T until I was in my late twenties, and at the behest of my wife. I knew that it was a good series but it was kind of relegated to the “oh god, I don’t have time to devote to a doorstopper fantasy series right now” pile and when I did have time I inevitably ended up with some new release in my lap.

I feel that Heart manages to capture my favorite aspects of the original series while jettisoning many of the parts I found arduous. Now, don’t get me wrong, I did like all four books of the original trilogy (god damnit Williams) but there were segments that you could cut out and not lose anything from the story. What I loved was the sense of depth and history that he managed to infuse the setting with, and speaking through unreliable narrators long before that became a standard trope and the basis for many grimdark series. The idea that ancient prophecies about fighting back dark lords might actually refer to genocidal human imperialists, and that they might not realize it until after they tried to fulfill those prophecies with themselves as the heroes, that’s really good stuff and you can see how it shaped the genre as a whole.

Heart takes the idea that even in a fantasy conflict there is more depth than first appears, and applies it here to an incredibly stereotypical conflict: big, burly viking warriors versus sadistic dark elves.

Except the vikings actually kind of did wipe out the elves’ fore-bearers without much provocation, and only a few members of the current leadership would consider offering mercy to even the women and children of their enemies. These are the kinds of vikings who will very literally ravish and pillage your town in the worst ways, but we are conditioned to consider them the heroes of the story through certain framing devices and juxtaposition with enemies who are far worse.

Except the aren’t.

There wasn’t very much story told from the perspective of the Norns, the darker half of the elven/fairy race in the original trilogy. Here a full half of the book explores their culture, their religion, the interplay between different state powers, and the vast web of personalities that inhabit their mountain strongholds. While they served as faceless mooks in the first books, you kind of retroactively feel awful for them here.

The story is told through three perspectives: the Rimmergard lord Isgrimnur is trying to deal with his bloodthirsty (and rightly so, in some ways) lieutenant and with an infuriatingly enigmatic Sithi emissary both at the same time, each pulling him in a different direction when it comes to approaching the siege of the Norn lands. There are a pair of mercenary warriors who find themselves very far from home and not sure how to deal with that. Finally there is Viyeki, a military engineer from the Norn homeland, serving at the behest of his elder and the leader of the engineer corps.

The meat of the story is in this last third. We kind of know what to expect of the Rimmersmen from their prominent role as shock troops in the original trilogy, but the Norn stuff is very new and incredibly interesting. Their immortality adds a certain tragedy to them; each of them has hundreds if not thousands of years under their belt, knowledge of the forgotten world lost forever in the swing of a sword or an axe. You get a glimpse at their magic practitioners, the engineers, and the military forces who consider themselves dead from the moment they pick up a blade. Each one wants a different thing out of the conflict, and is willing to sell out certain aspects of their timeless culture to bolster what they consider important. Underneath it all you come to understand that the Storm King is far from the scariest being in their wasteland home, and there’s a very good reason that they came willingly to his banner when faced with some horrifying alternatives.

I like antagonists who make me think, which is one of William’s strengths.

It’s short as well, which forces him to condense what I like instead of meandering off. There’s a certain number of set pieces here, only a couple dozen named characters, and the immediacy brings a certain vividness and urgency to the narrative. While MS&T was all about sweeping fantasy, exploring the corners of the world and forging alliances with far-flung kindred in the face of obliteration, this is about a very bad siege. For the people involved in it, the expansive world outside no longer exists, and their entire lives revolve around sapper tunnels, food, and how and when they want to die. Beyond the races, the only link to the first trilogy is that both stories deal heavily with the idea that history is not as it seems, that as a set of lies agreed upon by scholars it is subject to change and rewrite depending on who happens to be holding the biggest pen at the time.

It left me looking even more forward to the second trilogy, which this serves as a bridging novel to, The Last King of Osten Ard. I’d love to explore the depths of the Norn mountain stronghold even more fully than we got here, and I especially love the hints he’s continuing to drop about the origin of the Garden from which all the elven peoples originally sprung.

I also kind of wish more books were like this. At his best I consider Williams the master of blending elements of grimdark with epic fantasy. It isn’t a curse-laden swear-and-rapefest like grimmer offerings, but it has enough unexpected deaths, a mature approach to medieval politics and too bloody-minded a take on combat to fit comfortably among the true heroic fantasy out there. And that’s to it’s benefit, because whitewashed heroic fantasy gets very old, very fast, and I’d much rather have the best of it mixed in with deeper questions about colonization, revisionist history, culture clashes and misunderstood prophecies.