Sunday, November 5, 2017

Dragonlance: Chronicles [1] Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984)



I found this re-read to be quite interesting.  I'm always excited thinking about the story and the world and the nostalgia it brings, but when I actually start reading...I struggle to keep my focus half the time.  While this first book was more enjoyable than any of The Apprentice Adept books, it's still subpar for my tastes in this day and age.  Some parts shine, while others drag it all down.  That dragging kept me from getting this first blog entry up in a decent amount of time.

The writing is generally okay, but suffers from slippery points of view and too much telling / info dumps.  And some of the battle sequences clearly feel turn-based and lifted from a Dungeons & Dragons gaming session (which of course, many are).  Just like much of the other fantasy I read as a teenager, it's basically equivalent to today's Young Adult (YA) fantasy, except the subject matter isn't about dystopian societies or not fitting in.


Before you continue:

  • This is Part 1 of my Dragonlance Retrospective
  • See this blog post for an overview of the Retrospective
  • These blogs are not plot recaps—they are most effective in conjunction with your own re-read of the series
  • Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BOTH SERIES

What it is

The series is essentially a mash-up of Lord of the Rings and David Eddings' The Belgariad and The Malloreon.  You get all the high fantasy trappings of a multi-class/racial party that jokes around with each other combined with a serious quest to save the world.  Yet Lord of the Rings does the races and lore better, while David Eddings did the "bantering companions on a quest" better.  Middle-earth feels real, with a plausible history.  Garion and Belgarath and Silk and all of them feel like family and are simply fun to read about.

As for Dragonlance, it's kinda half of both, with neither half completely succeeding.  Some characters really standout (Tanis and Raistlin), while others are generic caricatures (Caramon and Flint).  They add interesting new races, while the traditional elves and dwarves are ho-hum and not much different than what Tolkien did.

There are some rousing, original action scenes (Xak Tsaroth is the highlight for me), but it frequently reuses fantasy staples from other works.  Like the mysterious Darken Wood no one wants to enter (Fangorn Forest in Lord of the Rings), or the Sla-Mori (Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings), or the founding of a sword in the tomb of a dead king (Conan the Barbarian anyone?)...I could go on.  They are enjoyable in their own way, but if you're a big fan of fantasy like myself, they're nothing new.

How it Differs

Weis & Hickman made the world of Krynn unique in a few ways.  They have an additional race called kender, that are basically adult children with elven ears who are super curious and have no fear.  They get into trouble a lot, provide much of the comic relief in the story, and tend to serve as characters who never lose their sense of wonder about the world.

Another differentiator is the race of draconians, human-like lizards that die in strange ways.  For example, one type of draconian (Baaz) turns to stone after it dies, so if you stabbed it with a sword...it's stuck in the stone corpse until it crumbles to dust.  Another type (Kapak) turns into a puddle of acid.  Not good in the heat of battle.

(I remember playing the Champions of Krynn computer game back in the early 90s, and the draconians that explode upon dying (Bozak) were always super annoying.)

The concept of magic is slightly different too, stemming from the design of the campaign world for Dungeons & Dragons.  Magic users have an "alignment"—for example, you are either a good, neutral, or evil wizard or cleric.  These powers wax and wane according to the three moons of Krynn: Solinari (silver moon), Lunitari (red moon), and Nuitari (black moon), respectively.

Who's Narrating?

Something that was quite jarring for me that I totally forgot about over the years: the use of the third-person omniscient point of view throughout the book.

Usually with strict third-person, there's a scene or chapter break to indicate that you are shifting to someone else.  But in this book, the authors abruptly shift perspective from one character to another, with the reader privy to each of their thoughts.  This sometimes happens from paragraph to paragraph, and can be hard to follow.

This is not a writing style I personally like to employ, due to the potential confusion it can cause readers.  And really, you shouldn't need to use third-person omniscient ever.  If there's something important in each character's thoughts that the reader needs to know that requires use of third-person ominscient...well then I think the story should be written a different way.  Or quickly switch between characters with scene breaks.  It's not hard to do.

For example, in my The Hope of Memory trilogy, there are four different POV characters, and some events are told multiple times, from more than one viewpoint character.  It provides a greater impact, done the right way, in my opinion.

The Cover

Courtesy of Wikimedia
Quick aside for the cover, a Brad Murgen Retrospective Tradition.

There have been a few different versions of covers for this series, but they are all essentially the same: a few of the characters standing around with a dragon lurking in the background.

I'm partial to the original version, since that's what I have.  Unfortunately I couldn't find a better complete image online, so you get the Wikimedia one.

It's painted by Larry Elmore, a titan of fantasy illustration, and features Tanis, Goldmoon, and Sturm.  So not too exciting, and not a scene from the actual book, but it's at least somewhat accurate in its depiction of the characters.  My only nit is that I feel Goldmoon should look more tribal.  Just adding some fur fringe doesn't do it for me.

The Wertzone has a much higher resolution version of the painting by itself, if you're so inclined.

Shades of Red

Okay, the thing that I liked the most: Raistlin.

He's by far the most interesting and memorable character in the book, because of his ambiguity.  He vacillates between helping the group and being selfish.  He's a red mage here—neutral—and it shows.  Which makes for an interesting read.

Weis & Hickman do a great job showing you that Raistlin really is selfish at the core, he's interested in power more than anything else...yet his good side pops up at random times for the benefit of the group.  It's hard not to like him when the gully dwarves follow him around like puppies.  And his whispering and always being sick are classic traits that stick with you.  It's the thing that stands out the most in the book.

His twin brother, Caramon, however—the dumb-as-a-doornail stereotypical warrior.  The Legends trilogy focuses on Raistlin and Caramon, so hopefully Caramon is as bearable as I remember him to be.  Because I'll have to read six books worth of him.

Shades of Human

The thing I liked the second most is Tanis Half-Elven.  His half-elven nature is also ambiguous, and it's interesting because he embraces the human side more than the elven (growing a beard and using his human name).  There have been half-elves in fantasy fiction before (Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Shea Ohmsford in The Sword of Shannara), but I feel like Tanis was the first time an author really got the conflict between the human and elven sides right.

Tanis's heart is pulled in two directions, another facet of the internal human vs elf battle.  He has a childhood sweetheart named Laurana, an elven beauty who still loves him, and who tags along halfway through the book to prove her worth.  But Tanis also has an adult sweetheart named Kitiara (the half-sister of the twins Raistlin and Caramon), and he's convinced he loves her, but has doubts because she didn't show up for the reunion of the companions at the beginning of the book.

Kitiara doesn't make an appearance until the next book.  Her absence makes for an interesting setup, though, and with Raistlin's ambiguity, is one of the hallmarks that drives the series.  More on that in the next blog.

The Illustrations

Oh and another thing I like!  Each chapter has a little illustration, and instead of a chapter title, uses a few short phrases to describe what's coming.  It's a nice touch that seems to only be done for YA books these days (further reinforcing my idea that this is YA fiction before there was a YA section).  Harry Potter comes to mind...I love the illustrations they have for each chapter.

Here are my favorite two from this book:

 


As you can see, the illustrations are super awesome.  They're in all the books (though the Legends trilogy did away with the phrases, boo) and are drawn by Valerie Valusek, who did a lot of illustrations for TSR in their heyday.  I did a search and it doesn't seem that she has much of an online presence, and wants to keep it that way, so I won't make a fuss.  A Google Image search brings up a lot of examples of her work, do one sometime.

For each book in this Retrospective I'll post my two favorites.  They do a lot to set the mood and feel of the world, and I can't imagine the books without them.

Fizban

So I have to call out this character...the stereotypical "old wizard."  I honestly don't like this character at all.  I didn't back when I was a teenager, and I still don't now.  He feels completely out of place, and adds too much of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card-ness to the story.  I know it's supposed to be "fun" fantasy, but Fizban goes a little too far.  He's too goofy compared to every one else (even Tasselhoff Burrfoot, our lovable kender).

Now, there's obviously more to Fizban than meets the eye, and it took me a while to remember exactly who he was.  We'll talk more about him in the future.  That doesn't excuse the implementation of the character here, though.

What's also annoying about Fizban, is that Weis & Hickman also use him in their Death Gate Cycle series (going by the name of Zifnab, to avoid copyright issues since TSR owned the Fizban character).  If I ever do a Retrospective on that series, I'm sure I'll have a few choice words about that.  They might have even used him in some of their other work.  I don't know, since I haven't read much of anything else by them.

Regardless, if you're going to have characters cross worlds, or pretend to be something they're not, at least make it believable and not so obvious.

The Story

I haven't really talked about the story yet, huh.  We'll get more into that during the other blog posts, but you should know by now that I don't like to simply recap things.  You can read it for yourself.  (TV recaps that literally recap the events without adding anything new drive me nuts.)

The story begins as standard fantasy fare.  Some new evil has arisen in the land and our companions unite to try to figure out what.  They visit a ruined city and rediscover some of the magic that disappeared when the gods turned away from Krynn after the Cataclysm.  They see dragons for the first time in forever, travel back and forth across the same small section of land, meet up with some elves, and have another big confrontation with dragons and the Highlords that ride them in another city.  Oh, and there's a dude with a green gemstone lodged in his chest.

There's plenty to wonder about.  How big is this world of Krynn?  What's up with the constellations disappearing?  Who are the Dragon Highlords?  What are Dragonlances?  What's the Cataclysm all about?  Who is Fizban really?  What's up with the Green Gemstone Man?  Why is Raistlin obsessed with Fistandantilus?  Where is Kitiara?

And hey Brad, what about all the other characters you didn't even mention like Flint, Tasslehoff, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Tika, Gilthanas, Verminaard, Fewmaster Toede, Bupu...?

Stay tuned!  I'm sure I'll have more to say about them later.

The Movie

Courtesy of Wikimedia
Oh, and I can't forget to mention the animated movie they did of this book!  It was released direct-to-video back in 2008, with Raistlin voiced by Keifer Sutherland.  Lucy Lawless (of Xena: Warrior Princess fame) voiced Goldmoon.

I have a copy of it and watched it some years ago...but honestly all I can remember was that it wasn't very good, and it generally got panned.  They shoved the entire book (which is a fairly decent size, 450 pages) into a single 90 minute movie, which obviously is not easy to do well.

You can read more about it on Wikipedia and IMDB.

However, I just discovered today that a live-action version might be in the works?

Next:


Book 2 — Dragons of Winter Night

Previous:


Retrospective Overview

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Dragonlance Chronicles / Legends - The Retrospective

Dragonlance was another of those series I read when I was an impressionable teenager.  I'm pretty sure I first read it in 9th grade in Newport, Rhode Island, so that would have been 1990-1991.  I distinctly recall carrying around these books like a dork from class to class at Rogers High School, reading whenever I could.

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy borrows heavily from Lord of the Rings, with the same types of races, and a group of heroes made up of one of each "character class" (i.e. warrior, cleric, wizard, thief, etc).  There's a larger female presence here, similar to The Belgariad, and at its most basic is essentially a high fantasy adventure.  Good fantasy fun, generally not too serious, with plenty of plot holes and nonsense geared more towards young adults.

Dungeons & Dragons

This series has its roots in the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game, which has featured a number of campaign settings (i.e. worlds) in which to play your adventures.  Dragonlance was actually the very first such world, released in 1984.

I was definitely into D&D at the time, and played frequently with my friends in Rhode Island: Jed, Josh, and JP.  Jed and Josh weren't actually allowed to play D&D (their parents were quite religious), and mine and JP's parents knew that, so we could only play at our two houses, and if our parents came to check on us, we'd have to quickly scramble to hide all the D&D materials...shove them under the bed or whatever before they opened the door.  Fun times.

Josh and I wrote to each other after we moved away from Rhode Island, but sadly we lost contact after a year or so.  Too busy to write letters, I guess.  If you're out there reading this, Josh Rader, let me know how you're doing.

I had this edition, the box was beat to hell when I
finally got rid of it.

Why didn't parents like D&D back then?  Mainly the role playing aspect, and the bad reputation it had in the 80s.  People thought kids were actually learning how to cast spells, or worshipping the devil...silly stuff like that.  My parents made me go to church growing up, and I remember we had a youth group sleepover once, where we spent a good hour or so trying to explain to the youth pastor how the game worked, that it wasn't evil at all, that role playing in the game isn't much different than trying to be like Jesus or whatever.  We didn't succeed.

If you want to learn more, there are some good articles floating around, like this one from Geek & Sundry.  You've got Google, search for them.

Dragonlance

Anyway, since we played D&D, of course we read D&D books.  The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy was released when the campaign was, written by two of the creators, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.  The story itself derived from actual gameplay sessions they had, using the campaign modules Weis and Hickman had written.  Some events and character traits in the books were taken directly from those sessions.

They followed up with the Legends trilogy, which focused on some of the same characters and delved into the history of Ansalon, the continent where the story action takes place. I remember liking Legends more than Chronicles.




I thought these books were awesome back then.  I read them constantly.  I got into more of the campaign world fiction as the years went on, but none ever stood up to Chronicles and Legends.  Weis and Hickman didn't do any more Dragonlance books for a while, and other writers contributed to the shared world...but like typical multi-author shared worlds, the quality was inconsistent, with some volumes being downright terrible.  (In particular, Weasel's Luck was atrocious, I barely managed to finish it).

My experience with Dragonlance (and a few others, like Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft, or the Star Wars "Expanded Universe"—now called "Legends") are why I'm not a fan of shared worlds.  Sure, you could make the events consistent, but eventually contradictions arise, and quality widely varies.  Too many cooks in the kitchen.  It's really just a legalized version of fan fiction, when you think about it.

The Authors

Weis and Hickman have written many works together.  The only other work I've read from them in its entirety is The Death Gate Cycle, which I remember as awesome.  (You always remember them as being awesome when you're a kid, of course).  In fact, that series could be a possible future retrospective, though I'd have to buy the books again on Kindle, as I donated them long ago.

Anyway, I tried a few of their other series but none of them did it for me like Dragonlance and Death Gate, and I didn't bother to finish any of them.  Most likely because I was older at that point and my tastes in fiction were changing.  I moved on to other authors and series, but occasionally came back to Dragonlance, and I dutifully carted the Chronicles and Legends trilogies around with me all over the country.

Funny aside, for a number of years I thought both authors were female.  Who named their son Tracy?  This was before the internet, mind you, so I didn't even know what they looked like or where to find more information on them.


Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis in 2008, courtesy Wikipedia

The Retrospective

I checked my media database (where I track everything I read etc), and it appears I read the first volume, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, back in 2007, but I didn't continue on with the rest of the trilogy at the time.  The others I'm guess I haven't read in at least 20 years.

Will I think these trilogies are awesome now?  Or will more of my childhood nostalgia be destroyed, as they were with Piers Anthony's The Apprentice Adept trilogy?

Let's find out, shall we?

As with all of my retrospective, there may be spoilers for the entire series in each post, so these are best read in tandem with your own re-read.

Dragonlance Chronicles
Book 1 — Dragons of Autumn Twilight
Book 2 — Dragons of Winter Night
Book 3 — Dragons of Spring Dawning

Dragonlance Legends
Book 1 — Time of the Twins
Book 2 — War of the Twins
Book 3 — Test of the Twins

Saturday, July 8, 2017

RIP Photobucket

Yeah so I got caught up in the Photobucket snafu.  They disabled all third-party linking unless you pony up $400/year.  Google it for more info.  I've been hosting hundreds of images there for nearly 12 years now (I joined on Nov 5th, 2005).  Virtually everything on my blog here broke, as well as many images I had on forum-based gaming guides.

It would have been nice to get some kind of advanced warning, but it is what it is.  Since I already pay for my own hosting—which is much cheaper than Photobucket's new option—I'm moving all my images there and updating the links.  To be honest I should have done this a long time ago, but I can be lazy at times.  It gives me a chance to clean up and reorganize them, so it's actually a good thing.

So they should all be fixed soon.  Clearly a few lessons to be learned from this.
  1. Always have backups of important content on a local device
  2. Don't depend entirely on free cloud-based services
  3. Don't turn something off abruptly without giving your customers advanced warning; they will be much more receptive to changes

There's a good article about this on Fstoppers.  I suggest you take stock of the web services you use, especially ones that provide you with income.  If they suddenly went away, do you have an alternative?  Do you have all that content backed up?


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Blog Refresh

After 6 years, I've decided to make a change to the blog design, including changing the font to Roboto and switching the template to dark on light for accessibility reasons.  It doesn't look as fancy as some blogs, but it serves its purpose and I want to keep it simple.  Maybe I'll play around with the design more later.

Unfortunately, this change means that I have to reformat most of my older posts because I stupidly hard-coded the font by selecting it in the Blogger editing tool, rather than using site-wide CSS.  Some of the older posts are wonky now, with inconsistent formatting.  I'll have to gradually fix that manually.

I removed all of the gaming widgets.  I don't game as much these days and they just add to the clutter.  For fun, I've replaced them with a "Popular Posts" widget that shows the top 5 posts for the previous 7 days.

And lastly, I cleaned up the post labels by removing many extraneous ones.  I'll probably pull a few more, but for now, enjoy the much smaller and cleaner label section!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Retrospective Conclusion - The Apprentice Adept



So did I really just spend over a year trying to do this Retrospective on The Apprentice Adept?  And it's only three books?

Man, I'm slow.  Been busy with work and stuff, you know.  Well...that and the fact that the trilogy wasn't as engaging as I remembered.  I promise to be faster on my next Retrospective (fingers crossed behind my back).

Biggest takeaway from this: I read a lot of crappy fantasy back in the day.  Getting something like this traditionally published now would be nigh impossible.  Fantasy has matured quite a bit, and today's generation of authors, publishers and readers are very different.

Before you continue:
  • This is the final part of my The Apprentice Adept retrospective
  • See this blog post for an overview of the retrospective
  • These blogs are most effective with your own re-read of the series
  • Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TRILOGY

Letters to Me

As I was going through this trilogy, I recalled that I had actually written to Piers Anthony a number of years ago.  I rooted around in my garage and found his response...dated JewelLye 25, 2000 (Anthony uses pun versions of the months, inspired by Xanth).

After reading it for the first time in probably 15 years, I can easily infer what I asked him:
  • I can't find Thousandstar, when are you going to self-publish it?
  • Why do you add on to series that seem complete?
  • Should I try to get published with a standalone novel or the first in a series?
  • Why don't you do more horror?
  • Have people tried to make movies of your books?
Not surprisingly, I brought up the first two in my Retrospective Overview.  You can read the letter yourself in full below:



He gives a reasonable explanation for continuing a series.  I understand the urge to make something open ended (I'm doing that for my The Hope of Memory trilogy), and you can definitely do that and still make the series feel complete...but I suppose the challenge is how you continue the series.  Later works in a series / universe will always be compared to earlier ones, and audiences are harsh critics (and hypocritical; you want more, but not at the expense of tarnishing an "original"...typically you can't have one without the other).

Also note that he mentions balking at writing a book called The Sopaths because it's "so horrible."  He did eventually self-publish this book in 2011, and it's got some really harsh reviews on Goodreads.  I might have to check it out for myself, despite that...

References on the Web

There's not much Piers Anthony fan-related content out there.  Like David Eddings, Anthony's heyday was before the internet, so only the most passionate of fans have made some fan sites centered around the prolific author.

I remember there being a few, but it seems they have been swallowed by the void of the internet.  I could probably find them in the Wayback Machine, but honestly it's not worth it.  About the only real fan site existing now is a Wikia for Xanth (incomplete), with some attempts at Incarnations of Immortality and The Apprentice Adept content.

Beyond that, you're likely to only find articles and blog posts complaining about pedophilia and misogyny in his books.  As a kid it really wasn't so overt, but yeah when you read some of his stuff today, it's a bit cringey.  Although I think people need to realize that Anthony grew up in a much different time (he was born in 1934, remember), and his worldview is much different than someone born in the 70's or later.  Not trying to defend him, just providing a little perspective.

Hi Piers

Of course, if you're looking for Piers Anthony on the web, the place you'd want to go is his personal website, Hi Piers.  Where the did name come from?  Glad you asked.  Before the internet he had an 800 number you could call to get author info and stuff.  It was 1-800-HI-PIERS.  I believe it's listed in a lot of 80s and 90s books, in the Author's Notes at the end.

Funny aside...after he shut down the 800 number, it was reused as an adult sex line.  I remember him mentioning somewhere that angry parents wrote him about that, as kids were trying to call the number listed in the older print runs of the Anthony books they had.

Anyway.  If you want to see what a website in the early days of the internet looks like, visit Hi Piers.  It's hosted by Earthlink, which is enough to make me cry (my parents still use an Earthlink address, and they pay a monthly fee for it).  But looking at his site, it's clear that web design has come a long way.  I remember in college in the mid-90s, using the Netscape Navigator browser to look at sites with horrible design exactly like Anthony's, all hosted on Geocities.  Ah, memories.

There's not much to the site these days, beyond his monthly newsletters, where he rambles on about what movies he's seen, what books he's read, politics, sex,  hatred of Windows, etc.

Author's Notes

This is something I kind of missed while re-reading The Apprentice Adept.  I'm not sure when Anthony started doing it (mid-80's I'd guess), but many of his books have an Author's Note at the end.  In it, he usually talks about what happened during the writing, things that inspired it, etc.  For the Xanth novels, he always lists out readers who contributed puns to the book.

Most authors who include some kind of "Afterword" usually just thank people who helped get the book published and absolve themselves of any liberties they took when telling the story.  Anthony has always provided a bit of extra perspective on the writing of the book, a "behind the scenes" if you will...something you don't see often.

Sadly, these weren't present in The Apprentice Adept, otherwise I might have had more to talk about.

The End?

Will I do another Anthony Retrospective?  I'm not sure.  While not a very popular author today, his effect on the landscape of fantasy and science fiction back when it became a mainstream genre is considerable (I believe Ogre, Ogre, the 6th Xanth novel, was the first fantasy paperback to hit the New York Times Bestseller list), and it's important to talk about him and his contributions.

To be totally honest, though, I'll be donating my copy of The Apprentice Adept—I can tell you with all seriousness that I won't be reading it again.  I do still have my copies of:
  • Incarnations of Immortality (first 5 books)
  • Cluster (5 books)
  • Tarot (3 books)
  • Xanth (first 9 books)
  • Battle Circle (3 books)
  • Anthonology (short stories)
I'm kind of scared to read any of them again, for fear of destroying more childhood nostalgia.  But it could be a good way to clear out more shelf space.

If I decide to do another Anthony Retrospective, it'll be after a few more important ones I want to do first.

Next up: Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends!

Previous:

Book 3 — Juxtaposition
Book 2 — Blue Adept

Book 1 — Split Infinity
Retrospective Overview

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Apprentice Adept [3] Juxtaposition (1982)



I started reading this right away after finishing the second entry, Blue Adept.  Like the others, over the years I had completely forgotten what happened in this book.  It starts out alright...but unfortunately fizzles out and the endgame of the trilogy is somewhat lackluster.

So...not as awesome as I remember it.  Clearly this stuff was much more interesting when I was a teenager, first starting to read fantasy and science fiction.


In other words: I didn't know any better.


Before you continue:
  • This is part 3 of my The Apprentice Adept retrospective
  • See this blog post for an overview of the retrospective
  • These blogs are most effective with your own re-read of the series
  • Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TRILOGY


Blog

Anyway, there's a ton going on in this book, and events are rather complicated.  I've had a tough time writing this particular blog... every topic I try to talk about makes no sense without a bunch of caveats and "because X and Y happened, remember?"  Summarizing events didn't help either, because the simplest things ended up three paragraphs long.

So what does that tell us?


First, it speaks to how complicated Anthony's plotting was in what seems to be a rather simple trilogy.  Parts of the story drag, but he managed to pack a lot of content into three normal sized novels (each book is about 135K words).


Second, it tells me that perhaps I should "retrospect" this book differently than I have in the past.  Ideally a reader of this blog should have already read the series, and thus an in-depth recap is not necessary.


(That drives me nuts about some TV recap columns today, by the way... the writer simply summarizes the episode without adding anything new or interesting to it.  I know what happened in the episode, I just watched it!  I want to know your reaction and thoughts on it, analysis, blah blah.)


Last—and most importantly—it tells me that I spent way too much time trying to write a Retrospective on an obscure 35 year old book that hardly anyone is reading these days.  So I'll just get on with it, rather than try to be clever.


Citizen

Stile wins the Tourney and becomes a Citizen.  Shocker!  It seemed the obvious conclusion, given he's an Adept in the other frame.  The final three matches of the Tourney are:
  • A fierce game of backgammon (I've actually never played backgammon, so maybe this match wasn't as exciting as it should be)
  • A number guessing game (a throwaway match to move the story along)
  • An extemporaneous poetry battle (yeah!)
That's all it takes to be a Citizen.  And once a Citizen, all the others want to bet with Stile on random stuff, and he finds a way to amass a vast fortune through some clever betting... it's entertaining, but it's a bit too clean.

We do—finally—get to see more about the inner workings of the Citizens, which is something that's been lacking in the entire series.  Despite this, it's not that exciting.  They generally sit around in their estates and bet on stuff.

Cover

So here we have another cover by...wait.  No, it's not Rowena Morrill.  For some reason, they changed the artist for the third volume, and it's none other than our old pal Laurence Schwinger!  If you remember, he did the covers for David Eddings' Belgariad, which I covered in an earlier retrospective.



This cover is very simple, and easily my favorite of the trilogy.  It shows Stile and the Lady Blue on their honeymoon.  Stile is on the unicorn Clip, while the Lady Blue is on her steed, Hinblue.


Compare that to the European cover, which makes absolutely no sense.  It's a demon carving a naked woman out of stone?  Love the marketing blurb, though, which is something you'd never see printed on a book today:


"Twin sagas racing to fireburst conclusions"





Clef

Stile's been the main character for this trilogy, but Anthony takes a detour in regards to Clef, a Proton serf that Stile defeated in the Tourney back in Book 2.  He's a gifted musician, and apparently the one destined to separate the frames (Proton and Phaze) by playing the Best Gosh Darn Music Ever on the Platinum Flute.  And all according to prophecy, of course.  Shocker!

I will say it's a nice play on the "hero of prophecy" trope, because fantasy at this time (early 80s) typically focused on a singular hero destined to save everything.  Stile certainly is the spearhead in "saving" Phaze (separating it from Proton to prevent its exploitation), but Clef has a huge amount of responsibility, maybe even more so than Stile.

In fact, many of the other side characters throughout the series are pulled in to perform monumental tasks, while Stile simply directs everything, much like a conductor.  Essentially, all his good deeds in the past reap considerable rewards in the future.


Adepts

Alright, so there were a few new Adepts here, and clarification on an old one:
  • Green — We met him in Book 2, but it's not until this one that we see his magic...which is still unclear.  He can turn invisible, but I've read on other sites that he uses hand gestures for magic.  Whatever.
  • Orange — A crazy old man who can control plants...he tries to stop our heroes and fails, of course.
  • Translucent — He has control over water and creatures within.  Also tries to thwart our heroes.  Also fails.
  • Tan — Hurting for colors here apparently...but Tan has an "evil eye."  He factors in the climax of the story.
There's a Purple Adept that was mentioned, I believe...but is not in the trilogy (I honestly don't remember at this point).

Map

We have another new map, revealing a bit more of the world, stretching as far as the West and East Poles.  Hey, it's a fantasy.


However, if you compare it to the previous maps, you'll notice it's actually different.  The Goblins are now to the west of the Yellow Demesnes, the curtain to the east of the Red Demesnes follows a considerably different path, etc.  It's not the best map to begin with, but they could try to at least be consistent.  Perhaps they wanted to illustrate how the curtain moves later on?

Most likely Anthony had no map in mind (I believe Xanth is his only other work—out of like a dozen series—that had a map, and that's just an analog of Florida), and probably didn't want one, but this was 80's fantasy, and every trilogy needed a map back then.  So they did the best they could.

Map credited to Chris Barbieri.

Oracle

Oh, so the identity of the Oracle is finally revealed, and it's none other than a computer that got stuck in Phaze when the frames separated.  I think there was an explanation as to how it still worked in Phaze (machines aren't magic), but I missed it and can't be arsed to search.

Essentially, the whole trilogy could boil down to this: the Oracle computer wants to get back to Proton, so it gives people ambiguous answers that incites them and sets events in motion to achieve the juxtaposition and eventual separation of frames.

Keeping true to the dual-identity nature of the series, even the Oracle has an analog stuck in the world of Proton: the Book of Magic, a hidden tome with countless spells that pretty much anyone can use.  Hey, a super powerful object that no one knows about until halfway through the last book!

Anyway, of course Stile gets it with very little hassle and Sheen ends up using it later during the final battle, becoming a sort of "Robot Adept."

Ball

Like Star Wars and Anakin Skywalker, we now must bring balance to the world.  In Phaze, they've been mining so much Protonite, that it has thrown the frames out of balance.  So to fix it, they've gathered this giant ball of Phazite (the analog to Protonite) on the Phaze side, and must roll it to a certain area where it can cross the curtain into Proton.  Doing this restores the balance, like moving weight from one side of a scale to another.

Of course, it's not that simple, because many Citizens and Adepts stand to lose power if balance is achieved.  So with the juxtaposition of the frames, we have fantasy creatures fighting robots and androids, and it's just a mishmash of all manner of strangeness.  The task of transporting the Phazite to the curtain takes up the last chapter of the book, which is 60 pages long.

It's basically a massive Tourney game for the fate of the two frames...an epic match of Phazite Ball!

Suffice it to say, they succeed in getting the ball to Proton...but only because of a very fortuitous reversal spell cast from the Book of Magic.  At the end, the goblins had taken over the ball and successfully rolled it away from the curtain, triumphant in their victory, without understanding that the reversal spell had switched the directions of the world!  North became south, east became west...and the wrong direction became the right.

Switch

And wouldn't you know it, once the frames are separated, Stile remains in Phaze, while Blue's soul occupies an android in Proton (I'm not even going to go into the storyline about the original Blue Adept's soul...I told you this book was complicated).  Stile gets to remain with his love, the Lady Blue, after all!

How is this possible, you ask?  By the very reversal spell that determined the match of Phazite Ball.  It sent Stile and Blue to the opposite worlds they were expecting, because it's like, a reversal spell.  Whether this sends everyone else to the wrong world is unknown for the novel ends right there.  Why only Stile and Blue?


Why ask why?  It's a Piers Anthony fantasy. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Apprentice Adept [2] Blue Adept (1981)




I wasn't expecting to like this book after forcing myself through the first one.  It's been so long since I read Blue Adept, that I honestly didn't remember it at all.

But it's actually not too bad.  And since I've conveniently gotten a lot of the complaining out of my system during the Split Infinity post, I'll spare you for the most part.  On to the book!

Before you continue:
  • This is part 2 of my The Apprentice Adept retrospective
  • See this blog post for an overview of the retrospective
  • These blogs are most effective with your own re-read of the series
  • Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TRILOGY

The Story

Stile continues his quests in both frames, Phaze and Proton, fantasy and sci-fi, shuffling between them via the Curtain.

On Proton, he's entered a new tourney with the hopes of eventually becoming a Citizen, and is also hoping to find out who's been trying to kill him with the help of his robot friend, Sheen.  Remember, his double on Phaze, the Blue Adept, was murdered.

On Phaze, he's also trying to find out who killed his Phaze-self.  He gets help from the Lady Blue (the Blue Adept's widow)—who initially doesn't like him but seems to be coming around—and his unicorn friend, Neysa.  This brings about some other challenges, which mirror the Tourney matches.

There's a lot going on in this novel, little side quests and characters and such that aid the story but really aren't worth mentioning, and like the first novel, some of it is boring, and yes, the writing style drives me nuts for the most part.  But as I said earlier, it's not too bad.  If anything, Anthony is good at clever plotting.  That's his strength, if you ask me.

Anyway, by the end we know who's trying to kill Stile.

Since the story shuttles between distinct quests in Phaze and Tourney matches in Proton, it's probably easier to discuss each world separately.  But first, let's get our bearings.

The Map(s)

So I totally neglected to talk about the map in the previous post.  Not that you're missing much, as the maps are very basic, and only show Phaze.  And to be honest, they're not very useful, I think I referred to it once during my re-read?

Like the chapter titles, the regions have unimaginative names, and all the mythical / magical creatures have their own areas where they live, denoted simply by their names.  No cool place names or cities, etc.  Except for maybe Meander River?

The maps go side by side, Split Infinity on the left, Blue Adept on the right.  Sorry if they look a little crooked, they span two pages in the book.  I did some of my Photoshop Adept magic on the first to align it; I'm quite proud of myself.  The second one wasn't printed well in the book itself.

Split Infinity

Blue Adept

Both maps are credited to Chris Barbieri.

A funny aside, I remember as a kid I used to pronounce "demesne" as "de-mes-ne"—like actually as it's spelled.  It was a number of years before I learned that it was pronounced "duh-main".  Silly me!

The Games

The first Tourney game Stile has to play here is a football game, where the rest of his team are androids.  I don't believe Anthony is a big sports fan, but from the perspective of someone who is (I wasn't when I first read this, some 27 years ago), it was actually well done and entertaining to read.

Stile played in a non-traditional manner to keep his opponent off guard, like kicking field goals early without trying for touchdowns, frequent onside kicks, etc.  Such gameplay might actually work in today's game, and be a hell of a lot more interesting to watch, but no one has the balls to buck tradition in the college or NFL game.  Reminds me of that high school team that always goes for it on 4th down and always uses the onside kick.

The football round gets most of a chapter, while the other rounds are generally glossed over.  Subsequent rounds are: riddles (okay), giant mazes (eh), slot machines (eh; this is only one Stile loses, and only because of its random nature), ice climbing (eh), flute battles (pretty good, with a clever resolution), word puzzles (okay), sewing (eh), soap bubbles (eh)... but those are peanuts compared to the climax: interpretive dance battle.  More on that later.

At the end of the day, by virtue of how far he got in the Tourney, Stile guarantees himself additional tenure on Proton, so he's not going anywhere any time soon.

The Adepts

I probably should have touched on this during the blog for Split Infinity, but again, I was too busy complaining to really explore the content and ideas in this trilogy.  Sorry about that!

Stile has been visiting different Adepts to figure out which killed his Phaze double (the original Blue Adept).  He invades each of their demesnes to figure it out.

I've never understood how the Adept colors came to be, though.  Why does Blue use the magic of music?  Or where they come from, since there's so few humans in Phaze (humans seem to be relegated to random villages).  There's some talk later of why they create elaborate castles and demesnes, but the origins and stuff have remained unanswered so far.  Anthony is not the best at world building, as too much of it doesn't make sense, to the point that it's hard to suspend disbelief.

That's one of his weaknesses, and what makes much of his fantasy writing seem frivolous, in my opinion (his older science fiction is fantastic).  Anyway, let's run down through the Adepts we've met so far in the first two books.

  • Yellow — (Book 1) Yellow is a woman who makes potions. She's an old crone but uses a potion to appear young. She likes to capture animals that come too close to her demesnes.
  • Black — (Book 1) Black is a man who uses "line" magic.  He can create massive black lines that form into anything he wants.  A maze, a castle, a dragon... you get the point.
  • Green — (Book 2) Green is a man... but that's all we know. Stile briefly meets him at the Unolympics (Olympic games for Unicorns... yes, I know... frivolous, remember?).
  • White — (Book 2) White is a woman who uses symbols for her magic.  She draws on the ground and it does something.  Typically white, she lives in the frozen mountains to the north.  What that has to do with symbol magic I have no idea.
  • Brown — (Book 2) Brown is a little girl who creates golems, inanimate objects that are given magical life.  They are clearly the analog to robots in the Proton-frame.  A golem of Stile was used in Phaze to cover up the Blue Adept's original murder, but Brown was only "fulfilling an order."
  • Red — (Book 2) Red is the one who makes amulets, and is ultimately the one Stile has been looking for (since an amulet tried to kill him when he first arrived in Phaze).  Her double in Proton was "disposed of" and the curtain crosses her demenses, so she can move between frames easily.  She's also a contestant in the Tourney, one of the final six as we learn in the epic interpretive dance battle that ends this book.

We know that there are also Purple, Orange and Gray Adepts, but we haven't met them yet.  Will they factor into the final novel?  I honestly don't remember at all.

The Cover

But first, the cover.  Another one by Rowena Morrill, in Phaze again (no nudity allowed in the US!), showing Stile's encounter with the Red Adept.


It's another decent cover, a typical fantasy-style cover of the day.  Stile's small stature is not readily apparent here (the book says he's 4'11", which is really small for a grown man), as he looks no smaller than the Red Adept.

It wasn't all that apparent on the cover for Split Infinity either, because Neysa is supposedly a runt of a unicorn... but I don't know why I'm criticizing the accuracy of a fantasy novel cover.  As we've learned from my previous retrospectives, artists get the simplest of details wrong, which drives me nuts.

For instance, Stile is supposed to be floating the entire battle.  I guess that would look weird as a still image, though, but a good artist could probably figure out a way to make it work.

And then you have the European cover... I think those are the Mound Folk?  I seriously don't know WTF those are.


The Oracle

Wait, we can't forget about the Oracle!  An 80's fantasy novel can't go without some form of prophecy to remove the illusion of freewill from the plot (and generally muck things up).

The Oracle is in Phaze, and answers one—and only one—question for each person.  Basically, you go to the Oracle's residence and ask your question to an intercom and it responds.  That's it.  We don't actually see an Oracle.

This plot device has been used throughout both books, but I haven't mentioned it yet because it was basically a throwaway fantasy convention until the end of this book.  Stile used it in Split Infinity when he wasn't sure how to proceed.  He asked, "What is my best course of action?"  The answer was "Know thyself."  Basically, figure out you're the Blue Adept, duh.

In this book, when Stile finally confronts Red, they have a chat about why she's trying to kill him.  It goes something like this:
Local vampires don't like living near Red, and ask the Oracle how to be rid of Red's yoke.  Oracle answers: "Bide for two months."
Red hears of this and likes it not, so she asks the Oracle what her fate in two months will be.  Oracle answers: "Blue destroys Red."
Red decides to take the initiative and has the Blue Adept in Phaze killed.  Then in Proton she tries to depose of his double, Stile—but it turns out he's not that easy to kill.  And this whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If Red hadn't asked that question, would she have still murdered the Blue Adept?  Or would something else happen to cause Blue to kill her?

Stile even decides he can safely fight the Red Adept once the Lady Blue reveals her Oracle question and answer.  She wanted to know what kind of children she would have, and it said "None by One, Son by Two"—implying that Stile, as the second Blue Adept, would be the father.  He figures the Oracle is always right, so he won't die confronting Red since he and the Lady Blue haven't, um, consummated their marriage (oh yeah, they get married towards the end of the book, forgot to mention that).

Prophecy is hard to use effectively in fantasy, because you don't want it to dictate too much of the plot.  In this trilogy it's used fairly well, and adds to the mystery of why someone would want to kill Stile.  I mean, we know why Red took action, but not the real why as to how Blue would destroy Red—if there is one.  The Oracle could just be playing them off each other.

The... Interpretive Dance Battle?

That's right.  After a pretty cool battle between worlds, where Stile and the Red Adept move back and forth across the curtain trying to kill each other, Neysa and Sheen helping Stile in the Phaze and Proton frames, respectively, it all culminates in the next round of the Tourney.  Red is also one of the six contestants left in the Tourney at this point, and she and Stile must face off in an epic interpretive dance battle in the final chapter, with the exciting one word title of "Dance."

It's some Arabian story, where they are prince and princess of different lands, and scorn all their suitors, but dream of each other and eventually fall in love.  Which is amusing because the Red Adept is like a foot taller than Stile, and apparently hates men.  So the stage is set!  Literally!

They have to lie with each other and pretend to like it, dance and pretend-kiss, all kinds of pretend-stuff that's amusing when just the chapter before they had been trying to kill each other.

And at the end, as you can imagine, Stile wins after goading Red into getting angry about him getting close and pretend-touching her.  She really does hate men!

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Apprentice Adept [1] Split Infinity (1980)




Well, it's certainly taken a while to post the first entry in this retrospective.  You can always chalk it up to being lazy and busy with more "important" things (like work), but there's also a reason I wasn't entirely prepared to accept.

I didn't like the book anymore.

Now, as I explained in my overview post, The Apprentice Adept was one of the first fantasies that I ever read, along with The Belgariad and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  I thought it was great, I re-read them so many times...

...but honestly, this will be my last.  I haven't read them in at least 15 years, and I must say, the years have not been kind to them, and I clearly have much different tastes in fiction now than I did at 13 years old.  Not to mention actual writing skills.

I'd rather not complain in these blogs, but from a writer's perspective, there are a few things I must talk about.

Before you continue:
  • This is part 1 of my The Apprentice Adept retrospective
  • See this blog post for an overview of the retrospective
  • These blogs are most effective with your own re-read of the series
  • Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TRILOGY

Show Don't Tell

The age-old writing adage.  I haven't read Anthony in so long, I forgot how much "telling" he does.  It's out of control.  He doesn't let the reader infer anything from the text; he literally explains everything as if you're a total dumbass.  And he uses semi-colons every other sentence; he can't seem to help it.  It gets annoying really quick; I couldn't stand it.  I ended up skimming over much of the text, to be honest; he spends pages explaining something that should take less than one.

See what I mean?  I totally forgot how much he did that, but before I even got to the second chapter, it all came back to me.

So not exactly the smoothest prose to read, but Anthony always has interesting ideas.  It's what drew me to his work.  That and the "I do what I want" attitude, though that can only get you so far, I suppose.

The Story

Before I complain too much, there's still a story here.  So on to the content itself.  The book is really slow for the first half, but it has an interesting fantasy / science fiction hybrid going on.

To summarize, our hero Stile is a serf on the planet Proton.  In this futuristic society, serfs go naked (so basically 99.5% of the population) and work for Citizens.  The serfs play the Games a lot.  It's essentially a bunch of competitions between serfs and there are rankings, etc... it's complicated to explain and not relevant to the summary.  Suffice to say, Stile is really good at the Games, and suddenly someone is trying to kill him.  With the help of a nubile female robot named Sheen, Stile hides... and abruptly finds himself in a fantasy world when he passes through a mysterious shimmering curtain in the air.

This fantasy world is called Phaze and set on the same planet as Proton (occupies the same space in a different dimension).  Everyone on Proton has a double in Phaze.  Only when your double dies can you pass through the curtain between worlds.  With the help of a nubile female unicorn named Neysa, Stile discovers his double was an Adept, one of very few color-based magicians of this world, who was murdered.  It seems that whoever killed his double in Phaze is also trying to kill him in Proton.  Why?

And so the stage is set.  Stile moves between worlds via the curtain, and between non-human girlfriends (Sheen and Neysa), trying to stay alive.  In Proton he competes in the Games while in Phaze he seeks out the Adepts, trying to figure out which one he is/was.  The Adepts all go by colors... Stile eventually finds out he is the Blue Adept.  Spoiler!

Anyways, the book essentially ends with Stile realizing his powers and making peace with his disparate robot and unicorn girlfriends.

The Cover

You can't have a Brad Murgen Retrospective™ without a commentary about the cover, now can you?  Thankfully there's no Darrell K. Sweet on The Apprentice Adept (though he did do the cover for the extension of this series, volumes 4-7 that we aren't covering, as well as many other Anthony titles).

The US cover is done by Rowena Morrill.  According to Wikipedia, she's "credited as one of the first female artists to impact fantasy cover illustration."  And an interesting aside, two of her paintings were found in one of Saddam Hussein's "love shacks" (safe houses) after the fall of his regime.

Iraqi dictators notwithstanding, it's a good cover, I like it.

Of course it's set on Phaze.  In fact, all of the US covers by Morrill are on Phaze.  Can't be on Proton, everyone would be naked!


Contrast that with a European cover, of a naked Sheen (Stile's robot lover):


Boring Chapter Titles

One of Piers Anthony's many quirks is that when he titles chapters, they are always one word.  I'm pretty sure it's 100% of the time.  I don't know why he does it, it seems... unimaginative.  Or lazy.  I don't know, it's something that's always bugged me.

Chapter titles should be used to evoke anticipation or mystery to the reader, or to sum up a theme for the chapter.  For example, I pick up a book and look at the table of contents, and see some interesting chapter titles.  That makes me more likely to read it.  Or with a series, you can maybe infer what's going to happen later based on the titles, and it heightens your anticipation.  Every time I got a new The Wheel of Time book, the first thing I did was read the chapter titles in the table of contents, and try to guess what was going to happen.  It was great fun.

Not so with Anthony.  Here are the chapters in this book:
  1. Slide
  2. Sheen
  3. Race
  4. Curtain
  5. Fantasy
  6. Manure
  7. Neysa
  8. Music
  9. Promotion
  10. Magic
  11. Oracle
  12. Black
  13. Rungs
  14. Yellow
  15. Games
  16. Blue
  17. Tourney
  18. Oath
Exciting.  Chapter titles really are an art, in my opinion.  It's just as important as the content of the book, or the marketing blurbs, or the synopsis, etc.  I'd rather not have chapter titles if this is all I'm going to get.

Sex Sex Sex

Another of Anthony's quirks is how much he focuses on sex.  He does this a lot, even in his Xanth series, which is generally marketed towards pre-teens.  It's prevalent throughout many of his works and sometimes it's downright uncomfortable.

This series doesn't have a ton of sex, but the characters are naked most of the time (because Proton) and Stile wastes little time entertaining thoughts of relations with Sheen and Neysa.  It wouldn't be all that bad, except it doesn't have much bearing on the story and it's treated so matter-of-fact.  It's just like, this hot female is really into me, let's go back to my apartment, oh she's a robot, that's okay let's get it on!

Anthony does this frequently, so it's hard to characterize his writing at times.  I mean, books with real depth and an important message have been banned for much lesser offenses, but you could easily find this naughty stuff in school libraries when I was a kid.

That said... whether it detracts from the story is up to your own personal tastes.  It doesn't bother me all that much, but it does get old and in my opinion it was completely irrelevant to the story Anthony is telling.

On to the Next Volume

That's about all I have to say about Split Infinity.  I'm not sure when I'll get to the next volume, Blue Adept.  I still have a backlog of regular books to read through.  And writing to do.  But I'll squeeze it in at some point.

Next:

Book 2 — Blue Adept

Previous:

Retrospective Overview