Review: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Royce the thief and Hadrian the swordsman are known as Ririya — for the right price, and given enough time, they can steal pretty much anything.

They are also the last people you would expect to be suddenly in the middle of a massive political and religious war, but that is what happens in “Theft of Swords,” the first of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations omnibi, which compiles the first two books of his epic fantasy series. Rather than overstuffed mythology or dark-and-gritty realism, Sullivan crafts a tale with most of the fantasy tropes which somehow manages to feel fresh, fun and complicated.

In “The Crown Conspiracy, a foppish noble hires Royce and Hadrian to steal a legendary dueling sword… but when they get to the place where it’s hidden, they don’t find a sword. They find the king’s corpse instead. In a matter of minutes, the two find themselves framed for the king’s murder, and the enraged Prince Alric orders them gruesomely executed the very next day. Fortunately for the pair, Princess Arista knows that someone else killed her father, and she fears that soon the same person will assassinate her brother.

So she is willing to free them, with the stipulation that they kidnap Alric for his own safety, and take him to someone named Esrahaddon. Given the choice between death and babysitting a bratty new king, Royce and Hadrian decide to drag the king on a road trip, but they quickly discover that they are being hunted. And they also learn that this conspiracy to seize the crown has a lot more elements than a simple assassination…

In “Avempartha,” Royce and Hadrian are approached by Thrace, a young girl from the village of Dahlgren, which is being ravaged by an unseen monster. They end up coming with her, because she was sent by a “Mr Haddon,” aka the long-imprisoned wizard Esrahaddon. When the thieves arrive in Dahlgren, they find a broken community haunted by the deaths of loved ones, and constantly threatened by nightly attacks.

Even better, Esrahaddon reveals that the monster is an unkillable magical weapon. The only way to destroy it is a magic sword INSIDE the tower. Which is on a cliff. Surrounded by a very deep river. With no way in. But more complications arise when the Novron Church sends representatives to oversee a strange contest — the person who successfully slays the Gilarabrywn will be considered the Heir of Novron.

Most high fantasy these days falls into two basic categories:
– Derivative of Tolkien, where the author chokes the story on excessive worldbuilding that the story doesn’t actually need.
– Derivative of Martin, where the author bogs down the story on grim, dark grittiness until it’s no longer entertaining.

And what makes “Theft of Swords” so charming is that it isn’t like either of these. Sullivan embraces a lot of fantasy tropes and cliches (elves, dwarves, wizards, Europeanish medievalish culture), but the story he spins out of them is oddly refreshing. He weaves out a genuinely epic story, based on centuries of fictional history and complex international politics, but the story itself stays a pretty intimate affair. And he imbues it with a sense of history, as Esrahaddon laments that a land that once thrived on culture, technology and magic has fallen into stolid ignorance and primitivism. It gives the feeling of a once-great civilization that has decayed, and its history is mostly forgotten.

It’s also pretty fun to read — Sullivan’s prose is nimble and quick-moving, with lots of clever dialogue (“It’s my first day.” “And already I am trapped in a timeless prison. I shudder to think what might have happened if you had a whole week”), wild battles (especially against the Gilarabrywn), schemes from religious and political figures, and the brewing sense that a wider war involving the elves is about to bloom. And despite the seriousness of the situation, he weaves in some quirky humor (a dramatic heroic confrontation between a knight and the Gilarabrywn… ends with the knight getting anticlimactically flattened).

Hadrian and Royce have a touch of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser about them, but these are very distinct characters on their own — one a dark, mysterious thief with a rather cruel outlook and a murky past, and the other a soft-hearted mercenary who totes around three swords and has an ancient fighting style. They’re confident, smart and spend their free time hanging out with the beautiful local madam (whom Royce clearly carries a torch for), a rough bartender, and an assortment of rogues and weirdos.

And the supporting characters are equally interesting — Alric starts out as a bratty prince, but slowly matures into a good king as he realizes what must be done to save his country. The timid monk Myron provides plenty of comic relief (“They are even prettier than horses”) but also a poignancy and innocence, and there’s also the mysterious handless wizard Esrahaddon and the strong-willed, magic-using princess Arista.

“Theft of Swords” is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable pair of high fantasy novels, which manage to tell entertaining adventure yarns even as they set the stage for a much bigger, more epic conflict. One of the most entertaining, fresh and cleverly-written fantasy series in years.

Review: Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1

Once upon a time, Xie Lian was the beloved crown prince of a beautiful kingdom, who ascended to godhood in his teens. But then he interfered in mortal affairs, made things worse, and was cast out. He ascended to godhood a second time… and was kicked out again.

And in “Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1,” we find out what happens when this unfortunate godling ascends to deityhood for the third time. This donghua series (think anime, but Chinese) based on Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s novels of the same name, is a slow-burn that mingles romance with a uniquely Chinese brand of high fantasy, where the powerful or virtuous can become deities, but the tormented and tragic may become something else.

Upon his third ascension to godhood, Xie Lian discovers that nothing has really changed – he’s deeply in debt, and none of the other gods like or respect him. The usual way to pay off his debt is by receiving merits from the worship of mortals… except people stopped worshiping him eight hundred years ago. But there is another way – he can investigate a certain mysterious problem on a rural mountain, where seventeen brides have been abducted by a mysterious “ghost groom.”

With the assistance of the sulky, combative Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he goes undercover to find out what is abducting the girls – and ends up being escorted up the mountain by a handsome, mysterious stranger dressed all in red, who turns into a swarm of silver butterflies. But that man was NOT the ghost groom – which leaves Xie Lian to uncover the horror that lives atop the mountain. To make matters worse, the locals are also searching for the ghost groom, which only makes things more complicated when things inevitably go pear-shaped.

After that, Xie Lian decides to set up a shrine to himself in an abandoned shack, with the help of a young man named San Lang, who is very obviously not what he pretends to be. But trouble finds Xie Lian again when someone tries to trick him into going to the Half Moon Pass in the Gobi desert, near the dead city-state of Banyue. Even weirder, the other gods seem to avoid talking about this.

Along with San Lang, Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he sets out to the pass to find out what’s going on there, and ends up encountering a sandstorm, a few dozen merchants… and a cave full of scorpion-snakes. But that’s only the beginning of the undying terrors that still dwell in Banyue, killing anyone unlucky enough to pass through. And soon Xie Lian realizes that someone in Banyue has a very strong connection to him.

I personally like my romance stories with a heavy dose of plot, which makes “Heaven Official’s Blessing” perfectly balanced – even if the slow-blooming romance weren’t part of the story, it would still be a solid fantasy-horror series with gods, ghosts, goblins, zombies, and a really freaky undead face in the ground. The ethereal beauty of the lead characters and their sparkling heavens is a stark contrast to the nightmarish creatures that lurk in the mortal world below.

It’s also a fantasy that feels distinct from its anime cousins – its world and cosmology are uniquely Chinese, drawing heavily from Taoism and other Chinese beliefs. The two supernatural mysteries are pretty well-developed, both horrifying and yet tragic, and the stories occasionally slow down a little for either some mild comic relief (Fu Yao and Nan Feng’s constant fighting) or an ethereal romantic moment between Xie Lian and his mysterious red-clad man of the silver butterflies.

The animation is quite lovely for the most part, with some really beautiful moments standing out in the Puqi Temple or when the red-clad man escorts Xie Lian up the mountain. The only area where it falls down is when CGI is inserted, usually where it’s not needed. It’s very clunky.

Xie Lian is an easy character to like – perpetually unlucky and unpopular, yet unfailingly earnest and kind to everyone around him (as long as they don’t beat up girls). Howard Wang gives him a low-key, soothing kind of voice even when he’s upset. The mysterious Hua Cheng (whose identity is blatantly obvious) makes for a solid love interest, and the cast is rounded out by Fu Yao and Nan Feng, a couple of clashing, abrasive young men who actually do care about the disgraced prince.

“Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1” is an animated show that perfectly balances out a slow-growing romance, beautiful animation, and solid fantasy/horror. For those seeking an alternative to anime, this might do the trick.

Review: Lord of the Rings Movie Trilogy

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was considered unfilmable for a very long time – the story was too big, too fantastical.

But in the late 1990s, New Zealand director Peter Jackson got the green light to shoot the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy: a sprawling fantasy epic that chronicles the tipping point of the mythical Middle-Earth, and the humble hobbits who change the world. The richness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world is translated exquisitely into a movie trilogy full of beauty, horror, hope, humor and vibrant characters.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” introduces us to the hobbits. Eccentric old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) leaves the peaceful Shire at his 111st birthday, leaving all he has to his young nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) — including a golden Ring that makes the wearer invisible. But the grey wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) reveals that it’s actually the One Ring, which is the source of power for the demonic Dark Lord Sauron. So Frodo and his best pals leave the Shire and join a band of elves, men, and dwarves to take the Ring to the only place where it can be destroyed.

“The Two Towers” picks up immediately after “Fellowship” ends, with Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) lost on the path to Mordor, and being stalked by the murderous Ring-junkie Gollum (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) make a desperate stand with the kingdom of Rohan, but must face off against the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his orc armies.

“Return of the King” brings the trilogy to a dizzying head: Frodo and Sam’s friendship is threatened by Gollum’s trickery, leading Frodo into a potential fatal trap. Gandalf and Pippin head for the city of Gondor, while Aragorn summons an ancient army that might be able to turn the tide against Mordor. But no matter how many battles they win, the war will never be won if Frodo is not able to destroy the Ring once and for all.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is one of those stories that is too big to fit into one movie – it’s almost too big to fit into three. While Jackson had to streamline the story considerably, the heart of the original novels is still there, with its message about how misfortunes can become blessings, and even the smallest and least imposing person can change the world. Despite the richness of the world-building and the complexity of the characters, it all boils down to that.

Changes are certainly made, such as altering and adding to the characters of Arwen and Faramir, as well as obviously having to leave a lot of events and characters out. Certainly the trilogy doesn’t need Tom Bombadil. But the overall story is remarkably faithful to Tolkien’s tale, and Jackson’s script with partner Philippa Boyens is a masterpiece of storytelling – full of humor and dramatic moments, adapting Tolkien’s richly-archaic prose into powerful speeches (such as Sam’s powerful final speech in “The Two Towers”).

Furthermore, it’s a beautifully-constructed movie – the exquisite sets and expansive New Zealand landscapes are breathtaking; the battle scenes are bloody and exciting; the different cultures of Middle-Earth feel deep and well-lived-in. All the trappings — clothes, jewelry, even beer mugs — are realistic. And the special effects are almost entirely convincing-looking, especially the gruesome Gollum. He’s the first fully convincing CGI character, and after awhile you’ll forget he is made digitally.

It also has a cast who give the performance of their lives – Elijah Wood as the wide-eyed, wounded Frodo Baggins; Sean Astin as his steadfast best friend Sam, who supports him no matter what happens; and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the mischievous but brave Merry and Pippin. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is the prototypical wizard – kindly and grandfatherly, but capable of anger and fear when confronted by the Ring – and Viggo Mortensen is outstanding as the noble king-in-waiting Aragorn. Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies round out the cast as the elegant elf Legolas and doughty, down-to-earth dwarf Gimli – and there are a bunch of other great performances by actors such as Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto, and many many more.

The extended versions of the movies are even better than the theatrical versions — plenty of cut scenes that fill out the characters and plotline are put back in. As a result, the extended versions cleave more closely to the original books. Not to mention TV specials, featurettes, cast commentary on everything in the movies, Sean Astin’s sweet little short film “The Long and Short of It,” and extensive behind-the-scenes footage that will inform viewers about special effects, sets, direction, and everyday life filming “Lord of the Riings.”

The movie adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy are classics for a reason – while they have some flaws, Peter Jackson managed to adapt a brilliant story into brilliant, beloved movies. Powerful, gripping and full of beauty.

Review: The Old Kingdom Trilogy

Necromancers are usually the bad guys in fantasy. When you can control dead bodies, it’s a given that people might not like you.

But Garth Nix turned that little trope on its head with “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, three interconnected fantasies about a family of necromancers who lay the dead — and forces of evil — to rest. His richly-realized world, elaborate magicks and brilliantly detailed writing give this wry, horrific high-fantasy a special quality that few other fantasy books have. Each of the three books about the Abhorsens is definitely a deserving classic.

“Sabriel” is the story of a teenage girl living happily at a girl’s school, while her necromancer father (the Abhorsen) roams around putting the dead to rest. All that changes when a sending brings her father’s sword and bells, meaning that he is dead or incapacitated. So Sabriel takes on her father’s duties, accompanied by a Free Magic cat and a mysterious young prince, and battles the specter of a horrible evil creature that is reaching out from death to snare her.

“Lirael” takes us to the cold citadel of the Clayr, a race of seers to whom the Sight is everything. Young Lirael is depressed because she doesn’t have the gift of Sight yet, even though everybody else her age does. But things take a sinister turn when she sets a horrifying, bloodthirsty creature loose, and must work — with the help of the mysterious Disreputable Dog — to get rid of it. But what Lirael doesn’t know is that the outside world is in danger too, from a sinister new enemy — and her destiny may take her out of the Clayr glacier, to where Sabriel’s family is struggling to keep their kingdom safe.

“Abhorsen” brings the series to an explosive conclusion. Lirael and her nephew Sameth — along with “cat” Mogget and the Disreputable Dog — are in danger from the invading Dead, and the Destroyer Orannis has escaped from his prison and is being assisted by an evil necromancer and the Dead called Chlorr — and an unfortunate pal of Sameth’s, who was mistaken for the young prince and his now be bespelled. Now Lirael must face her true destiny — not as a Clayr, but as the future Abhorsen.

Garth Nix had only written a couple of books, one of which was an “X-Files” novelization, when the first Old Kingdom book burst onto the fantasy scene. Now he’s one of the most respected, prolific and well-liked fantasy writers in years — and his tales of the Old Kingdom are undoubtedly his best work. They are a perfect example of dark fantasy, with its grotesque dead zombies that occasionally lurch out to attack the heroes, magical bells, and shadowy beasties that can (sometimes) be restrained.

Nix’s invented world is a seamless blend of the modern and the medieval, each ruling one side of the Wall — and he handles this complex world and its magical Charter with the deftness of a master storyteller. He draws everything in exquisite detail, whether it’s the labyrinthine Clayr glacier or the slightly eerie house of the Abhorsen, a bombed-out bunker or a sunny boarding school. And his command of atmosphere is great enough that his depiction of Death’s grey river is enough to chill.

And he comes up with the brilliant concept of the Abhorsen necromancers — who have power over dead and/or magical creatures, manipulate magic with little effort, and bind malignant creatures with Charter marks and a series of magical bells. Got it — binding, not raising.

Virtually all of Nix’s characters are likable, especially the gutsy Sabriel, the strong-willed Touchstone and their nervous teenage son Sameth. Even the annoying Ellimere elicits some smiles. It takes a bit longer to warm up to Lirael, since she spends several chapters in the same-named book moping about her differentness, but once she gets moving she’s unstoppable — and quite likable, once she figures out who she is. And the animal characters are the most brilliant — Mogget and the Disreputable Dog steal the show with their sharp wit and humorous quirks, although we’re constantly reminded that these are magical beings.

Dark fantasy was redefined and reimagined in “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, and these first three books of Garth Nix’s series are a clever, action-packed, magical journey through the Old Kingdom. Definitely a must-read.

Eowyn and Feminism: A Rant Part 2

Which also brings me to Griffin and Liang’s complaint about Eowyn having her “happily ever after.” They managed to completely miss the entire point of everything that the good guys do at the end of the war. Eowyn turning away from her fighting days at the conclusion of the story is not just about her becoming a wifey. It’s about her choosing to embrace life rather than death, about creating something new and good and wholesome rather than seeking out martial glory.

Again, this is a thing that all the male characters do. Aragorn is rebuilding Gondor after its devastating war; Faramir is doing likewise to Ithilien; Legolas brings in a bunch of Wood-Elves to help fix the place up, and Gimli brought in Dwarves to fix up the war damage to Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep and build a whole new kingdom. And of course, the hobbits return to the Shire and find it’s been wrecked by Saruman and his human lackeys, so once they drive them out, they have to restore the Shire to its former glory, which Sam plays a big part in, since he has a box of special Elven dirt and a mallorn seed. He literally causes the Shire’s plant life to return.

This is what Tolkien thought should happen after a war: not more fighting, but repairing the damage from the war and building things that are better and more noble. Everybody in his book takes part in this. So why is the woman expected to stay a warrior and keep slaying, when all the men are busy fixing stuff up and moving past the killing and death to peaceful lives?

Eowyn’s character arc is not about how she becomes a warrior and stays one forever because WOMAN FIGHTING EMPOWERED. That way, in Tolkien’s world, just leads to decay, blood, death and loss. Instead she embraces a new life of rebuilding and growth and life, which includes embracing romantic love. She even says at the end,

“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King

Faramir even highlights this plan by saying,

“And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King

Furthermore, a sane person would not see Eowyn getting married as being somehow a bad thing. Not only is it her embracing life rather than her suicidal rush towards death, but her relationship with Faramir is depicted as being one of equals. He respects her both as a woman and as a warrior, seeing no conflict between those two things, but wanting her to be happy and fulfilled in a way that fighting ultimately won’t make her.

Their relationship also makes sense because they were both recovering from similar experiences when they died: feelings of alienation and rejection, seeing their civilizations crumble from the corruption of outside forces, the recent death of father figures, and the Black Breath. Yeah, Tolkien could have outlined their relationship more, but her connection with Faramir goes a lot deeper than Liang’s contemptuous “Tolkien thinks women should get married to ANY man available.” They have a lot of similarities to build on, and unlike with Aragorn, she gets to know him as a person and not just crush on him because he’s an easy way out of a life she can’t stand anymore.

At the same time, Faramir is a more optimistic and sunny person than Eowyn, who tends to be kind of dark and moody. He lifts her up. He also provides a perspective for Eowyn beyond that of the Rohirrhim, where great deeds in battle are glorified. Gondor’s a little more sophisticated, and gives her an opportunity to learn to be something more positive than a warrior.

Faramir makes her a better, happier person by being who he is, and that’s ultimately a sign of a healthy, good relationship. Turning aside from being a shieldmaiden and marrying Faramir are part of a whole “deciding to live” change in Eowyn’s personality. You know, character growth. Something you don’t find in a lot of poorly-written characters that Griffin would define as “strong female characters.”

And even if Tolkien wanted to marry off his characters for a happy ending… so what? Is that so bad? Would Griffin and Liang have preferred it if Eowyn had just been miserable and lonely at the end of the trilogy? I already outlined why the “Eowyn stays a warrior and goes around killing stuff” thing was not going to fly in Tolkien’s world, so precisely why shouldn’t she get married?

This is why interpretation of a text from a particular political perspective is not the sole way you should look at it. Unless you’re very well-informed and dedicated to fairness and research, you can end up attributing motives and attitudes to the text and the author that are not fair or just, and you can end up bitching about things that are not actually problems. Like when you get upset when a female character does something that THE MEN ALSO DO, or when you totally ignore how a character’s actions dovetail with the attitudes and beliefs of the author.

That’s ultimately why I can’t take Griffin or Liang’s outrage seriously. Their feminist analysis is so shallow, so blinkered. They don’t think deeply about why Tolkien would have written Eowyn this way, they just condemn it because it doesn’t slavishly follow “strong woman” cliches and have Eowyn turn into Xena.

Seriously, how am I supposed to take “scholars” seriously when they can’t think outside of an incredibly narrow political viewpoint, or interpret a text by actual analysis? Major fail, you guys.

Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, partly because he can take a genre where most of the corners have been explored, and expands them with either amazing skill or brilliant new ideas. He also just executes these books with incredibly complex plotting, such as the Stormlight Archive series, which will apparently have ten enormous volumes (the fourth is currently available for preorder). Even this man’s unpublished books are better than most authors can manage (the original White Sand and Aether of Night, which you can obtain from his message board by request).

And he’s created his own interconnected universe known as the Cosmere, which links together most of his published work. Mostly this is through the concept of Shards, which are fragments of this universe’s murdered power of creation, Adonalsium. This fuels the magic of these different worlds, which comes out in different unpredictable ways – in some of them, you might turn into a living zombie, and in others you can “burn” metals that give you superpowers. This blanket mythology allows him to tell various stories with various types of magic, but allows him to interlink them so that they can have greater significance in the future.

To date there have been eleven books in the Cosmere, along with several novellas and short stories that you can find in the Arcanum Unbounded collection, and a graphic novel series. Which, by the way, I do not recommend reading in its entirety until you’ve read the novels.

If this sounds intimidating, it really isn’t. Some of these works can be read pretty much independently of their greater mythology, and then later works can give you an appreciation of the greater, more universe-spanning story being told here.

If you’re interested in checking it out, I’d recommend that newcomers to the Cosmere start out with Elantris, Warbreaker or the first Mistborn trilogy. White Sand, the graphic novel, is also a good starting point if you want to get into it via comics (although I do recommend the unpublished text, which has some notable differences and a cliffhanger ending). These books were my introduction to the Cosmere, and they are stories that can be appreciated on their own before you connect them to a larger story. Or you can just read them independently, and enjoy them independently. It’s your choice.

(Also, Elantris has some flaws – I’d rate it three stars out of five – because it was one of Sanderson’s early works, but the overall story is an engaging one. So if that one isn’t to your taste, I’d recommend checking out Warbreaker before coming to any conclusions)

Then, I’d recommend checking out the short stories and novellas such as Mistborn: Secret History, Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, The Emperor’s Soul and Sixth of the Dusk. You can find all these in the Arcanum Unbounded collection that I mentioned before, along with a Stormlight Archive novella that takes place after the second book. But obviously, don’t read that until you read the first two Stormlight Archive books. Then there is the second era of Mistborn, which takes up the next three books in a much later time period than the original – and unlike most epic fantasy, it actually has technological advancements!

If you have read the books/stories and like them, and want to see more, then check out… well, the Stormlight Archive. These books are absolutely massive – each one is like a brick made out of paper – but they don’t feel that way. Reading the first one actually flew by pretty quickly for me – it took longer for me to read The Great Gatsby. These are ones that are best appreciated when you’ve read Sanderson’s other works and understand the universe they exist in; they delve into the cosmology of the Cosmere and how things got to be the way they are.

And the Cosmere is still expanding: Sanderson will be releasing a new Stormlight Archive book this November, and a new Mistborn novel after that. Furthermore he has plans for a bunch of other books, including a sequel to Warbreaker, two more trilogies for Mistborn, two more Elantris books, more Stormlight Archive, and a prequel series that he’s planning after the Stormlight Archive has concluded. And who knows? He may get other ideas for novels, novellas or short stories along the way.

So if you want epic fantasy that doesn’t just copy Tolkien, Martin or one of the other big names, Sanderson is a good option (especially since the Mistborn trilogies advance technology over time, and one future one will be a space opera!). And I haven’t even gotten into his non-Cosmere stuff…

Review: The Betrothed

Kiera Cass began her publishing career with a dystopian series about a young woman’s part in seeking a royal’s hand in marriage. I guess now that dystopian sci-fi is no longer in vogue and high fantasy is popular in the young-adult market, she decided to tackle the same material in a high fantasy setting.

Unfortunately, the whole girl-in-the-running-to-marry-a-monarch story is much less compelling or unique when it takes place in a Generic Medieval Kingdom with a Generic Monarchy and a Generic Court. “The Betrothed” isn’t a bad novel in any way, but Cass simply doesn’t draw anything unusual, rich or nuanced out of her story. Every part of it is more or less predictable from the beginning.

Over the past year, young King Jameson has had flirtations with several young ladies, but has never shown serious intentions towards any of them. Hollis Brite initially believes she is just another one, but then Jameson starts showing interest in making her his queen. At first, Hollis is overjoyed – despite her controlling parents, this means she will be a vital figure in a kingdom known for powerful queens. Plus, Jameson is handsome, charming, and he dotes on her, so what downside is there?

But the pressures of royal life begin to weigh on her when the king and queen of neighboring Isolte come to visit, and Hollis begins to wonder if Jameson wants her to take an active role in the kingdom, or just be an ornamental bit of arm candy. She’s also developed an interest in Silas, an Isoltan nobleman who has… blue eyes. That’s about all that is memorable about him. But pursuing her heart has some unpleasant results for Hollis, and sets her on a path that she never imagined.

The biggest problem with “The Betrothed” is simply that it is so generic. The setting is a generic European country that you would find in any fairy tale, without any special cultural flourishes. The worldbuilding is not very rich or deep, and the court drama/machinations are pretty simple. The main story is essentially telling us that you should marry for love and not money/power, which is not a particularly unusual moral for this kind of romantic story. It’s the kind of thing you find in Disney stories.

Cass herself seems to realize that her book is pretty by-the-numbers late in the story, which is when she flips everything on its head and stuff gets dramatic and unconventional. It’s given some foreshadowing in advance, but it could have used some more – instead, a massive development sort of pops out of nowhere, and everything is left hanging on a precipice for what will presumably be a sequel.

Hollis is a pretty bland heroine. There’s nothing about her to explicitly dislike, but she seems very sheltered and kind of clueless about how royal life works. For instance, it comes as a massive shock to her when she discovers that Jameson is already making marriage arrangements for their not-yet-conceived children, which really feels like something she should already know if she’s in the nobility. We’re told how amusing and caring and charming she is, but only some of it filters through.

As for the other characters, few of them make much of an impression – most of them flit into the plot for awhile, then just sort of fade back out. Silas doesn’t have much chemistry with Hollis – as nice as it is to have a pleasant, non-threatening romantic lead, he really felt more like a friend than a lover.

And of course, Delia Grace. Delia Grace is, simply put, obnoxious – we’re assured that she has suffered extensive bullying at court, but that doesn’t really excuse her selfish, bratty, contemptuous behavior towards Hollis. Her jealousy doesn’t elicit sympathy for her life; it just makes me want her gone.

“The Betrothal” throws some curveballs in its final act, but everything that builds up to it is incredibly generic and by-the-numbers. Here’s hoping that Cass brings us something meatier for the sequel.

A problem with the Inheritance series

I’ve been thinking about Christopher Paolini and the Inheritance series lately, and about the large quantities of virtual ink spilled over the years because of it. The series has a lot of problems with it – the derivative world-building, the Gary Stu protagonist, the clumsy insertion of the author’s views about things like vegetarianism, the screwed-up morality, the wildly unrealistic depictions of battle, and so on and so forth.

But I think a lot of the problems stem from the one thing: the author was growing up as he wrote the series.

In case you are unaware of this series, Christopher Paolini was a teenager when he wrote the book Eragon. He was initially self-published, but was almost immediately picked up by Knopf and became a bestselling author. Now, I am not saying that a young person cannot be a good writer. It doesn’t happen very often, as I’ve seen firsthand, but it can happen.

The problem is that if you read the Inheritance series, it becomes obvious that certain parts of Paolini’s beliefs, thoughts and behavior were… not set in stone. As a child, you more or less align with what your parents think and believe. When you’re a teenager, and sometimes even when you’re a twentysomething, you are figuring out what you think, how you see the world, and what you believe is right. Sometimes it ultimately aligns with what your parents think, and sometimes it doesn’t. The point is, those decisions and how you work them out are a part of growing up.

Take religion. The second book, Eldest, is extremely anti-religion, depicting the atheist elves as rational, intelligent and superior in every way, and the religious dwarves as overemotional unintelligent inferiors. Sort of like how many a douchebag atheist likes to depict the world, rather than how it actually is.

And then, at the beginning of the third book… he also features a chapter devoted to cannibalistic religious rituals that honestly feel like anti-Catholic propaganda by someone who doesn’t actually know anything about the religion.

And then… later in the book… Eragon encounters a god. It doesn’t make much of an impression, oddly.

And then in the fourth book, he sort of goes, “I dunno, maybe there are gods, but I’m so awesome and have so much power that I don’t need gods for anything, and obviously they don’t care about anyone anyway.” Which is really a very stupid and illogical perspective, especially written by a mere weak fleshy meatbag like the rest of us, but it demonstrates an evolution of thought over the course of the entire series and the better part of a decade. The perspective, which at least admits the possibility of gods, here is not the same as it was in Eldest. And while this conversation shows no deep or consistent theological musings, he still demonstrates more thought than he showed in Eldest, where the depth of his theological examinations was “LOL religious people suk and atheists are awesome.” At least he was answering points that actually sounded real, and didn’t do it in a condemnatory or bigoted manner.

Here’s another: vegetarianism. We return to Eldest once again, in which Eragon becomes a vegetarian when spending time with the Mary Sue elves. Because they’re elves, and everything they do, think and believe is absolutely perfect, and so on and so forth. This is depicted as the only moral way to live, and that animals should not suffer for human (or elf) consumption (despite Arya wearing leather clothes. Oops). I’m not going to get into a debate about the morality of eating animals, I’m just saying that this is what he presents as the unwavering moral thing to do.

And then… in Inheritance, Eragon starts being tempted by meat, and eventually he decides hey, if he’s offered meat socially, he’ll have a little, and that moderation is an acceptable way to live. After that, he starts eating meat again.

Again, it shows a change in perspective over several years, and it demonstrates that Paolini’s perspective wasn’t a particularly solid one. I’m not saying people older than their teens and early twenties can’t change their opinions or perspectives – far from it. I am saying that the time when Paolini wrote these books was a period when a person is still figuring themselves and their perspectives out.

And there are other things in the series that would point to the naiveté of youth and a lack of personal experience. For instance, the condemnation of the king levying taxes in the first book. Not excessive taxes, like in the Robin Hood folklore – just the fact that taxes exist at all. It’s very much a child’s understanding of how the world works, and it doesn’t do the book any favors to include such a childish perspective.

Simply put, Paolini was growing up and figuring himself out as he wrote these books. He would have been better served by waiting a decade before publishing anything.

For a comparison, let’s take George Lucas. When Lucas made the original Star Wars, he was considered a young bright star on the rise. But he was in his early thirties by then. He was a man. He had grown up completely. Hence why there isn’t a massive shift in perspectives over the course of the original trilogy. There are changes, such as the identity of Luke’s father, but those are more due to Lucas changing the story as he wrote it, rather than some kind of shift in the way he saw the world.

Anyway, since he has hopefully settled down in his opinions and viewpoints, I am going to give adult Paolini a chance to impress me with his new science fiction novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. As long as there are no screeds against meat or religion, anyway.