Review: Wheel of Time S01

Wheel of Time S01 (2022)

The Rafeverse isn’t a different turning of the Wheel as Rafe and Sanderson have claimed, nor even a Turning in which the Dark One won as some have suggested here (if that had happened, he would have been free in all worlds, at all times), but a Mirror World or World That Might Be.

The distinguishing feature of these Mirror Worlds is that while they are possible worlds, their appearance and sustained existence is improbable in the extreme. Stronk women taking down Trollocs with a pocket knife commando-style, while a blademaster can’t kill a single one. Globalized cosmopolitan age levels of ethnic heterogeneity in podunk villages that haven’t received more than a couple of peddlers per year for a millennium. Social mores of a late liberal society persisting after an apocalyptic total war and 3,000 years of upheavals and decivilization. “Darkfriends” managing to erase mention of the Eye of the World from Tar Valon’s libraries

Causality in this world is broken, with all its attendant effects on world self-consistency. Incidentally, this also explains the very low IQ of the characters in the show. Intelligence is only adaptive in worlds governed by consistent rules that can be figured out and then exploited for a competitive advantage. In a world in which an Aes Sedai can’t stop Whitecloaks from burning her at the stake while a bunch of untrained wilders destroy an entire Trolloc horde, or in which a village Wisdom can follow an Aes Sedai’s “tell” which her own Warder cannot, there is no significant payoff to intelligence, hence it was never selected for there. In this sense, Lan is actually rational and smart for not wasting his time training any of the boys in how to use their weapons, this is not how XP is actually gained in this world. He, at least, is fully cognizant of how his world works, and navigates it efficiently.

I would say that the aesthetics of this world tends to back up this theory. It has a washed out look, lack of attention to detail (costumes that spontaneously clean themselves), empty spaces, near empty sets, inconsistent distances and timelines, scales and measures that have no anchor in objective reality, and extreme warped perspectives, as when our heroes go for a Sunday jaunt into the Blight and Trollocs emerge to attack the Gap a few hundred meters behind them (in a normal world, this would beg the question of how they managed to avoid getting caught up in that flood, but not one in which time and distances “bend” in arbitrary ways as in the improbable Mirror Worlds).

One prediction we can make from this is that if the Mirror World theory is true, then it is an already highly unstable and indeed “fragile” existence, and one that may well unravel completely when balefire is weaponized again and breaks the already seeping chains of causality that hold reality in place beyond some critical tipping point. The likeliest point for that to happen is in connection with certain events at the Stone of Tear, i.e. the presumed end of Season 2.

Instead of holding anger against Rafe and the showrunners, I would suggest instead sparing a thought and extending some compassion towards the benighted denizens of this Mirror World, who live tormented and twisted lives with no understanding of how things are really meant to be, and whose very existence will probably soon end, at least bringing with it the small mercy of a final release from the permanent psychosis in which they are forced to live.

(Original).

Book Review: C.S. Friedman – Black Sun Rising

Black Sun Rising (Book 1 of the Coldfire Trilogy) by C.S. Friedman, published in 1991. Rating: 3/5.

The Coldfire Trilogy is sometimes described as a successful fusion of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So what better work to start reviewing on this site?

I will be forthright: By far the most wondrous and intriguing element of this series is the world Celia S. Friedman built. Not really in the details – names are generic, and cities have no character of their own – but in the metaphysics. This is a world where simply thinking about something can bring it into being. This is reminiscent of other fantasy worlds like Solaris, numerous Philip K. Dick creations, and The Wheel of Time’s Tel’aran’rhiod. If you’re the type who has a lot of nightmares, living there probably wouldn’t be your cup of tea: “Erna is a harsh mistress.”

The interrelations between the cognitive and physical realms are mediated by the fae. The fae are a sort of energy current that can be manipulated, or “Worked,” by conscious minds to produce what we might think of as magic. But don’t call it that! For as the main hero of the story points out, “The fae is as natural to this world as water and air were to our ancestors’ planet.” Nor is it all bad: It can reinforce buildings against earthquakes, and cure wounds (giving faith healing an altogether more literal meaning!). The natural world, as a result, is subject to Lamarckian evolution: “Here, if trees grow taller, the next gaffi calves are born with longer necks.”

As it is now more than a millennium since humans first settled the planet, the concept of a world without fae is hard to imagine. Even though Damien Vryce, the main protagonist, serves a Church that is committed to the extirpation of the fae, he himself reacts to a vision of such a world with terror:

Explosives fire like a sharp drumroll in the distance, the crack of a hundred pistols perfectly synchronized. He feels a sharp bite of fear at the sound, at the unnaturalness of it. What kind of Working must it take, to make it possible for so many guns to fire successfully, with such planned precision? … For the first time in his life, he knows the rank taste of terror. Not the quantifiable fear of assessed risk, but the unbounded horror of total immersion in the unknown. Guns fire once more in the distance, and for the first time since coming here he realizes why they can function with such regularity. Man’s will has no power here—not to kill and not to heal, not to alter the world and not to adapt to it. The whole of this world is dead to man, dead to his dreams, impassive to his needs and his pleas and even his fears. The concept is awesome, terrifying.

This vision was created by Gerald Tarrant, the anti-hero of the story, to evoke fear in Damien. He is a centuries-old sorcerer who escaped death by pledging himself to demonic forces, gaining immortality and great power over the dark fae in return for regularly engaging in murder and feeding off the fear and terror of his victims – hence, his psychological torture of Damien, which the latter agrees to. But Tarrant is also the original founder of Damien’s Church, even if he has long abandoned its ideals (albeit he says it’s not that simple). This makes for an uneasy and tension-filled relationship between the two that looks like it will evolve in interesting directions in the next two books. It is also the main reason that I will continue reading the series to its end.

So why the rather mediocre rating? Plot. Characters. Consistency. It is not entirely clear why Damien became so committed to Ciani in the course of a weeks-long fling that he would literally travel to the ends of human civilization to bring back her stolen memories. Nor do I even recall why she was singled out in particular. The Big Bad’s fortress is originally described as a massive, physically-impossible structure of “naked stone” that “rose up from the earth like a basalt column,” but soon afterwards it becomes a citadel that was like “a jewel, a prism, a multifaceted crystalline structure that divided up the night into a thousand glittering bits.”

The very title of the book is “Black Sun Rising,” but there is only one reference to a black sun that I can recall. And unless it’s a metaphor for Tarrant, I don’t see it leading anywhere:

In the far north, across the Serpent’s waist, a midnight sun is rising. Black sphere against ebony blackness, jet-pure; a thing that can only be Felt, not Seen. Into it all the light of the world is sucked, all the colors and textures that the fae contains: into the crystalline blackness, the Anti-Sun. He stares at it in adoration and horror and thinks: There, where all the power is concentrated, like matter in a black hole . . . there is the power we need for this quest. Power to shake the rakhlands and make our kill and move the earth besides!

Apart from the stolid Damien Vryce and the darkly seductive Gerald Tarrant, the other characters are quite wooden, Senzei in particular giving off the vibes of an expendable (and accurately so, it turned out). Despite or rather because of his inherent intrigue and dark mystery, Gerald Tarrant is – looking at it in another way – a quite banal product of the feminine erotic imagination. Like a fusion of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires, and the serial killers who get bags of love letters in the mail, as channeled through Ciani:

With consummate grace, Tarrant walked to where she stood, took her hand in his, and bowed gallantly. Gritting his teeth, Damien was forced to acknowledge the man’s charm. … With a sinking feeling Damien realized just how drawn she would be to the Hunter, and to the mystery that he represented. It would mean little to her that he tortured human women as a pasttime, save as one more fact for her to devour.

It’s all the same power to her. He’s just another adept. More interesting than most, perhaps—but that only makes him more desirable. The cost of it means . . . nothing.

Essentially, the sheer awesomeness of Gerald Tarrant paradoxically cheapens him as a character, especially when he decides to slum it with mere humans. But maybe I am missing something big that explains all this in a later book.

Finally, there is also an ecological and anthropological element to the story. There is “The Forest” that Gerald Tarrant had engineered into existence with the force of his will, his need, and his intellect; sunlight and its solar fae are deadly to a man of the dark like himself, so over the long centuries, he created an entire ecosystem that could thrive without sunlight. There are the rakhlands, home to the rakh, a cat-like species that – under the avalanche of human fears over a rival species – evolved intelligence. The humans tried to exterminate them out of existence, with the result that the rakh retreated to an isolated part of the continent and erected a barrier called the “Canopy” to protect themselves from humankind. In a world where thinking really is existing, the Canopy can be seen as an “extentsion of their communal protection [and of] their need for protection [against man].” We also meet the “Lost Ones,” subterranean-dwelling relatives of the rakh who eat creatures from the above – including their cousins – for sustenance. They are the Morlocks/Falmer of Erna.

Have no illusions: This is not a landmark fantasy series. The characters are forgettable, with the partial exception of Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant (although the latter has his own issues). The plot meanders considerably, and is barely discernible in places, like the earth fae over the ocean. I think there are too many points of inconsistency for them all to have been a result of errors on my part as a reader (if so: Apologies. Maybe somebody was stealing my memories when I was reading the book?). There is also one character’s miraculous and unexpected survival at the end that, much like Sherlock Holmes’ faked death, strains the bounds of credulity. I wonder if the author will explain this sometime, or whether its a deus ex machina that will lie buried – unlike the unlikely survivor – to the end.

But it intrigued my just about enough to download the second book. I guess that means that aura of Erna can still draw you in even despite quite significant flaws in execution.

A Gem (or rather, a Ring) from Lucas

The demented Russophobe Edward Lucas has surpassed even his own stellar record of profound insights about the evil empire, this time explicitly comparing Russia to Mordor (the land of shadow in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) from his Yahoo! list.

Quoted below in its entirety for laughs.

The British author JRR Tolkien always hated any attempt to compare his fantasy world of Middle Earth to contemporary political systems. Yet his books were hugely popular in eastern Europe during the years of communist captivity. The “scouring of the Shire”, in which a prosperous agricultural economy is reduced to destitution and misery by the activities of the “gatherers” and “sharers” bears an uncanny resemblance to the collectivisation of the Baltic states in the early years of Soviet occupation. “A lot of gathering, and precious little sharing” says a hobbit dourly.

But as the skies darken once again over the European continent (or Middle Earth if you prefer) , the temptation to find analogies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is overwhelming. Mordor is clearly the Russian Federation, ruled by the demonic overlord Sauron (Putin). His email address, to give a contemporary note, might be [email protected] (the suffix is for Middle Earth). The threat from Mordor—symbolised by the Ring—is the combination of dirty money and authoritarian political thinking.

And Sauron’s henchmen the Orcs are clearly the murderous goons of the old KGB. The new twist—the Uruk-Hai, is the mutation of the old Soviet intelligence service with organised crime and big business. Sauron’s allies—the Nazgul—are the Siloviki, the sinister chieftains of the Kremlin’s authoritarian capitalist system. Like the Nazgul, we seldom see their faces.

And what of the opposition? One candidate for Frodo couild Mart Laar, Estonia’s irrepresible former prime minister and someone who has consistently seen clearly the threat from Mordor and what to do about it. His faithful sidekick could be Sasha Vondra, the equally prescient and doughty deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic. Other possible hobbit-heros are Ivan Krastev, Bulgaria’s top foreign-policy analyst, Jüri Luik, Estonia’s ambassador to Nato,

(more suggestions for hobbits welcome)

The Fellowship of the Ring included elves—a strange but awe-inspiring folk whose presence in middle earth was drawing to an end. They are clearly the Americans, whose long-drawn-out withdrawal from Europe is halted but not reversed by the need to fight the titanic battle against the forces of Mordor. Prominent elves include the thinktanker and propagandist Ron Asmus (perhaps Elrond?_Galadriel (possibly Anne Applebaum), Celeborn, Galadriel’s husband is (twisting the plot a bit) could be Bruce Jackson. One candidate for Legolas could be America’s top diplomat for pipelines and energy security, Matt Bryza. Who would be a good Arwen?

What about Eowyn, or Eomer, Aragorn (poss Radek Sikorski or Carl Bild). Misha Saakashvili could be Boromir (desire for forbidden fruits led him to put his own personal interests ahead of the common cause)
Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the Hobbit, could be Vaclav Havel, or Vytautas Landsbergis, heroes of the battle against the evil empire in previous ages,

But who is Gandalf? One candidate would be Lennart Meri, the much-mourned Estonian former president and elder statesman, who had just the right blend of wisdom, courage and mischief and wizard-like abilities with both people and gadgets. Sadly, Lennart died in 2006. But Gandalf disappeared in the mines of moriar—and came back triumphantly in the third volume of the trilogy. Lennart’s many friends and fans hope for the same, at least in spirit.

Picking out the cast on the bad side runs the risk an encounter with England’s ferocious libel laws. It is not too hard, however, to see candidates to be Wormtongue, the slimy propagandist for Mordor who weakens the will of the King of Rohan, Theoden. His kingdom could be almost any country in Europe, but had better be Germany. And it is easy to think who might count as Germany’s foremost expert on Russia and a biographer of Sauron. Saruman is more difficult still—a hero of past wars who has switched sides to disastrous effect. He could be any one of the top West European leaders who have so disastrously forgotten the lessons of the Cold War and have been seduced by Mordor’s dirty money.

Too bad that poor Ed is not only totally disconnected from reality, but his madness isn’t even original.