The Man In The High Castle, S01E01

The other night I discovered that Amazon Prime has a long list of original shows just like Netflix. I don’t know how this escaped my attention. Actually I do know: I usually find something to watch on Netflix before I click the Amazon button on my Vizio remote.

Anyway, scrolling through the Amazon Originals list I spotted The Man In The High Castle, which is a show I’ve heard about often but never realized it was an Amazon show. I don’t know where I thought it was. I just assumed it was on some channel I didn’t have, like Showtime or Starz or something.

I also never realized it was a show about an alternate timeline where the Axis won World War II, based on a Philip K. Dick novel. I always thought it was some kind of generic spy show, maybe like The Americans.

The point is, I finally watched the first episode. My expectations were fairly high, but unfortunately I didn’t really get into it.

I had one big problem with it, and it’s a really nerdy, nitpicky detail that I shouldn’t have in a show that is obviously fiction and not even about this: They didn’t adequately explain to me how the Axis could possibly have won World War II and go on to invade America. I wanted to see a historically accurate, plausible explanation, with all the logistical details of how they replaced the U.S. government with a German government, but all I got was: They used the atomic bomb first, and they invaded Virginia Beach.

That’s what I was waiting for through the entire first episode: The explanation. Some explanation. Any explanation. I guess I did get “any” explanation, but it was rather disappointing.

I’m not an expert on WWII, but I know enough to know that “Germany dropped the A-bomb first” is not a good enough explanation to overcome historical facts. I mean, the Normandy beach landings across the English channel were a logistical nightmare, how did Germany pull off an invasion of Virginia Beach, across an entire ocean?? Where did Germany even get the manpower to pull off such an invasion?? Presumably they wouldn’t have dropped their A-bomb(s) until late in the war, at which time they were utterly devastated as a country and an army. The only way any of it makes sense is if they drop their A-bombs on Day 1 of the war, before they got the bright idea to invade Russia. And yet nobody had A-bomb technology on Day 1 of the war, so how do we explain that little detail? (This is why I don’t write historical fiction. Too many details to pick apart.)

That’s the kind of stuff I kept thinking about while I was watching the episode.

The things that the characters were actually doing on screen seemed unimportant to me in comparison to figuring out how they arrived at that time. As the show went on, I got the impression there is some kind of time-travel element, because that woman had tapes of the “real” outcome of World War II. That was a bit of a disappointment, too. Not only did they not give me a plausible explanation for the Axis winning, they weren’t even committing to it! They are saying that the events of this show are happening in the “wrong” timeline, and presumably our heroes will be spending the show trying to fix things. Or–even more preposterous–the war turned out the way it was supposed to, but something happened after the war to allow Germany and Japan to take over America, and it was all covered up to the point that nobody knows about it.

Given that I didn’t see anything better on Amazon, I guess I’ll watch some more to see if I can resolve some of these mysteries, but I’m probably not going to be glued to the television while the episodes play.

I rate the first episode a “meh.”

P. S. The second episode did not draw me in either. It occurred to me that Nazi bad guys are such a cliche now that seeing actual Nazi bad guys in an appropriately Nazi setting seems like more of a joke than a serious dramatic element. Especially since they are playing them up as stereotypical Nazi bad guys instead of complex characters who happen to be Nazis.

Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Today’s writing topic is: Chris Cornell, who sadly committed suicide.

I might be a smidge older than some of the other folks reminiscing on Twitter about Soundgarden and Chris Cornell in the wake of his recent death. My memory of Soundgarden is limited to exactly two songs from 90s radio: Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. I liked both songs, possibly even loved Spoonman. I remember vividly where I was the first time I heard it, actually. It’s an enthralling song.

But I was never a “fan” of Soundgarden per se, and I couldn’t name or hum a single other song they did. I never bought any Soundgarden CDs. I didn’t know Cornell by name back then.

Overall I never got into grunge music in the early 1990s. I liked the “sound” of it, particularly those heavy guitars, which I often tried and failed to replicate, but I never felt it as a social movement like others did. Looking back now, I think I held a little bit of a resentment toward grunge, because they pushed all of “my” familiar rock music from the radio.

It was also around that time that I discovered the progressive rock of Queensryche, and I had also begun to write my own music. I was also working at home trying to make an Amiga software development business work, so I was pretty busy. It wasn’t until years later that I really started to appreciate the grunge movement. (I was always partial to Stone Temple Pilots, though, particularly their second album Purple, which I still think is a masterpiece.)

Now I want to fast forward to around 2002 or 2003, when I heard a little song called Like A Stone. I cannot even tell you where I heard it. I certainly wasn’t listening to FM radio in 2002, and MTV and VH1 were long gone. Even Napster was gone. It’s possible I heard it on a Winamp “Internet radio” station, because I remember playing around with that for a while.

Regardless of how I heard it, I thought the song was amazing. It was such a simple piece with a lot of powerful, evocative, almost religious lyrics. And then the lead guitar started and it just floored me. What was this alien sound and how the holy hell did they get a guitar to make this sound?? (I still don’t know but I assume it was some kind of pitch shifter pedal, possibly that DigiTech Whammy pedal.) I made a mental note of the band named Audioslave.

Not much later, I heard another song by Audioslave called Show Me How To Live. It had a lot of the same qualities as Like A Stone, but it was more of a rocker.

(It’s weird watching those videos now… I’ve never seen them before.)

At that point I’m pretty sure I got Audioslave’s first album. I don’t remember if I heard it first, then bought it, or if I just bought it based only on those two songs. It’s sort of unusual for me to buy a whole album based on only two songs, though. At that time I was into what I think the local rock stations called “buzz rock” and Audioslave fit perfectly, although it seemed to me that it rose considerably above the median.

Every song on that first Audioslave album is amazing, if you ask me. Most every song on the second and third album is amazing, too. That was when I learned the name Chris Cornell, and found out he used to sing for Soundgarden. (I knew his voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.) I was very surprised to learn that the rest of Audioslave used to be Rage Against The Machine, whom I had heard now and then but never cared for.

That’s how I’ll remember Chris Cornell… as the frontman for Audioslave.

“I’ve been wandering sideways
I’ve stared straight into the sun
Still I don’t know why you’re dying
Long before your time has come”

- Chris Cornell, Your Time Has Come

 

Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson

I wrote this pseudo-review sometime in 2016.

I finally got around to reading Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson, which had been sitting in my Kindle library for years. I knew basically nothing about the book, except that it was one of those books that comes up a lot in geek circles, so I felt like I was obligated to read it.

Neil Stephenson is a hit-or-miss kind of author for me. Snow Crash is the only other book of his I’ve read. I only read that one because, again, I felt like it was one of those books that a modern nerd simply had to read. I remember almost nothing about the story now, but I remember enjoying it up to a point about two-thirds of the way through, when it took a weird turn and/or ground to a complete halt and I lost interest and put it away.

I went into Cryptonomicon expecting another cyberpunk kind of story, but it’s not a cyberpunk story at all. The book is really two stories: It follows characters in and around the field of cryptanalysis during World War II (Bletchley Park, etc.), and different-but-related characters in the 1990s starting up a telecommunications business in the Philippines. It’s one part World War II war story, and one part modern techno-drama. (Not techno-thriller, because there wasn’t any action.) Personally, I greatly preferred the World War II parts of the book and felt like most of the 1990s story was uninteresting. (Seriously, how can you possibly compare the drama of freakin’ World War II with the drama of … starting a company?)

I enjoyed some chapters, while others felt like studying for a security certification. (I have literally studied for tests that encompass cryptography material similar to some chapters of Cryptonomicon.) This is what I mean about the hit-or-miss nature of Stephenson’s writing. Sometimes I find myself riveted to the page, soaking up the text, while other times I feel like I’m reading a technical manual and wondering why I’m wasting my time. I skipped whole sections of text in this book to get past them. I don’t care how interesting cryptography is, it’s not even remotely dramatic.

My biggest criticism is that I thought the book ended rather abruptly. Throughout the book, I kept wondering, “Where is this book going? What are these characters after? What is the endgame?” That was a large driver in what kept me reading, to be honest. (Also, boredom.) I kept expecting a revelation that would tie both time periods together and allow everything to make sense, but I never got that. The book just … stopped.

In the afterword I got the impression that the author planned followup books, which I suppose explains why it didn’t have an ending. I would rate this book somewhere between “okay” and “good” in my patented overly-indifferent rating system. (The ratings are “meh”, “okay”, “good,” and then “great.”)

Accountant, Bourne, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Last weekend I rented The Accountant on Verizon VOD. It was decent, but not quite good. I felt a pretty strong connection to Ben Afleck’s character because I can identify with many of the symptoms he reeled off about “high functioning autism.” I’ve never been diagnosed but I’ve always assumed I’m on the Asperger’s spectrum somewhere, enough to be recognizable, but not enough to be debilitating. The plot that went on around him, though, wasn’t all that interesting to me (corporate accounting woohoo). Still, there were good performances all around.

Saturday night I watched Jason Bourne on HBO. I didn’t care for it. With the exception of a 10 minute car chase near the end, it was rather boring for an action movie. I’m not a diehard fan of the Bourne movies, but I at least enjoyed the first three. This one was a whole lot of “meh.” It seemed to re-tread the exact same ground as previous movies (“Bourne is looking for something, but we need to stop him before he finds it.”) Most of the movie consisted of shots of people looking at computer screens. I think they were ultimately trying to make a movie about personal data privacy versus government law enforcement, but jammed Bourne into the middle of it.

Sunday evening I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane on Amazon Prime. It was good. Far better than I expected it to be. I had the vague impression that it hadn’t been received very well when it was released, but I thought it was a very tense psychological thriller with some really good, believable performances and more than a few surprises (and not the ones you might think, if you’ve seen it). I don’t remember Cloverfield very well but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. I think I would rate this one better. (The two movies are unrelated, though.)

Grimdark

Grimdark TMNT from 1d4chan. Artist unknown.

A tweet caught my attention Friday and I thought about responding, but it was a topic that would fill a lot more than a couple tweets and I was looking for something to write about anyway.

The gist: Why do people keep making that icky grimdark stuff? Nobody likes that crap!

My first thought was a somewhat defensive, “Well, I like it.”

Then my followup thought was a more pragmatic, capitalistic, “People probably keep making grimdark because other people keep buying it.”

Then my third thought was, “I’m not sure I could describe exactly what grimdark even is.”

When prompted to describe grimdark, @Runesael suggested shows like American Horror Story, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I wouldn’t have described any of those shows as “grimdark.” Amercian Horror Story is, well, horror. True Detective is a police procedural drama, and Breaking Bad is … I don’t know … drama I guess? If I had to lump those three shows together I would just call them serious dramas. (Although personally, I thought Breaking Bad had a ton of laugh-out-loud funny moments mixed in with the seriousness. I mean, the very premise of the show is absurd.)

When I think of grimdark I think of settings like the one in Dark Souls. A place where death is fairly common, and maybe even UN-death is common. Places of dark magic and ritualistic sacrifice, where people struggle to survive. Places where the society and culture and civilization that we know has broken down or never got started.

Now let me look up how Wikipedia describes grimdark:

Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.

How delightfully vague and unhelpful. I guess I was close. Upon further reflection, my definition above is probably more in the area of “dark fantasy” and/or “sword and sorcery” than “grimdark.” Among the many different competing definitions of grimdark, one common thread seems to be realism, which sort of precludes dark magic and the undead. And yet magic and undead are obviously allowed in grimdark because George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is often held up as the progenitor of the grimdark movement (or at least, the first commercial success).

Anyway, for myself, I never felt ASOIAF or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series were abnormally dark or excessively violent. They are unremittingly realistic though, at least in terms of portraying a medieval society and how real, flawed people might behave in stressful medieval-like situations. I suppose they also share common traits of eschewing the idealism of high fantasy (and, I guess, old westerns), where the heroes wear white and the villains wear black and good triumphs over evil.

Now I want to see if I can answer the question, “Real life is already so grim, why add to it?”

First and most amusingly, that sounds disturbingly similar to a comment my mom made about one of my earliest short stories, way back in high school.

Secondly, everyone has a different view of life. All of us live in a world where I daresay most other people are not like us. (This is something I wish more people could wrap their heads around, particularly since the 2016 elections.) Your world might be grim and horrible, and if it is I’m truly sorry, and I completely understand wanting to avoid grim stories.

But my world right now is fairly banal and uneventful. During the course of my average day, there’s very little drama; I don’t have to make any life or death decisions, there is no difficulty finding food and water, there are no monsters trying to drink my blood (except ticks). I get up, go to work, sit in a cubicle all day, come home, and repeat the next day. The most exciting part of my day is turning left onto a busy highway each morning (I suppose you might call that a life or death decision). By the standards of most of history and the world, I live in a Utopian paradise like a king. (Lately it has become a bit grim, though, to be honest, but it’s mostly my own perception.) The point is, from my perspective, a grimdark story is just as much of an escapist fantasy as a fairy tale about frolicking pixies and prancing unicorns banishing evil with chocolate milk and love. (That was the most anti-grimdark thing I could think of.)

I don’t like grimdark stuff all the time, and I don’t like all grimdark. Grimdark just for grimdark’s sake is not enough to capture my imagination. Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns is a good example of how not to do grimdark–I don’t particularly like it because I can’t care about the main character’s vengeance unless I care about the character first. I don’t like ASOIAF because it’s grimdark, I like it because it’s a compelling story about compelling characters, written well.

Here’s a thought I just had: I wonder if “regular” fantasy consumers have an aversion to grimdark because of a lack of exposure to the horror genre. I started with science fiction and fantasy books, then sort of went exclusively into horror books for a long time, and then opened up to a broader range after that. Reading one of these so-called “grimdark” books is not too different from reading a horror book for me. They share some traits, like flawed characters and a grounding in reality.

Well, I’ve lost my train of thought now and don’t know where else to go. Let’s just pretend that I’ve made a great point and eloquently summed it up here.

Off To Be The Wizard by Scott Meyer

I needed to use up some Audible credits, so I picked up an audiobook called Off To Be The Wizard by Scott Meyer. I found it by looking up the works performed by Luke Daniels, one of my favorite audiobook readers, ever since I discovered him from listening to the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. (If you like the Harry Dresden books, you might also like IDC. It’s the same sort of thing, but with an Irish wolfhound.)

The 8-bit cover art was an instant turn-off, and after reading the description, I was skeptical. Really, really skeptical. It sounded like the worst sort of dreck imaginable, to be honest.

It’s a simple story. Boy finds proof that reality is a computer program. Boy uses program to manipulate time and space. Boy gets in trouble. Boy flees back in time to Medieval England to live as a wizard while he tries to think of a way to fix things. Boy gets in more trouble. Oh, and boy meets girl at some point.

But, you know, it’s read by Luke Daniels. I doubt I would have read as many books of The Iron Druid Chronicles in text format as I’ve listened to in audiobook format and that’s entirely because of his performances.

So I took a chance.

Man, oh man. The things I could write about this book, if I put on my editing hat. Like how it starts off with chapter after chapter of exposition about a stunningly uninteresting guy fiddling with his computer. And if I put on my programmer hat, the outrageous way this book talks about “hacking” and “programming” and “text files with numbers that change while you’re looking at them.” So, so many times I thought, “This is unbelievably dumb. Why am I wasting my time with this? How did this even get published??”

(On that last point, it turns out it was published by an Amazon Imprint called 47North. I guess you can draw your own conclusions from that.)

Still, Luke Daniels triumphantly slogs through those first chapters as if he’s actually enjoying what he’s reading, so I kept listening while I was lying in bed waiting to fall asleep.

Then, finally, after what seemed like an eternity, our idiotic hero finally gets to Medieval England and interacts with other people, and suddenly the book started to get a little bit more interesting. Not least because Luke Daniels is fantastic at voices. And the comedy started to get a little bit–dare I say?–funny. I started to chuckle. I had to turn it off because I was trying to get to sleep and it was waking me up.

In the following days, I continued listening and found myself cackling quite a lot. Oh, it’s still terrible in every way, but it’s amusing and kind of fun. While still being terrible in every way. It’s higher praise than the book deserves, but the over-the-top absurdity and humor reminded me of classic Harry Harrison books like The Stainless Steel Rat series and Bill the Galactic Hero.

It’s chock full of little plot holes you have to overlook. Like, for example, the entire premise, and the time-travel. Here’s just one time-travel issue: Our hero thought it would be safe to travel to 1150 in England partly because he figured he’d be able to speak the language. It’s a common mistake, and I fully expected the joke to be on him when he got there (because our hero is a bit of an idiot), but then he has perfectly reasonable conversations with all the natives. Hasn’t Scott Meyer ever read TV Tropes? Has he never read Michael Crichton’s Timeline? Modern listeners would probably have some difficulty understanding Middle English from 1150.

I wouldn’t bother pointing things like that out, except that at other times the author seems to go to great lengths to try to point out how much he’s thought about logical problems in his worldbuilding. He explains in great detail all the rules about cloning objects, and how simple objects like rocks can be cloned but complex objects like watches can’t because they’re made up of tiny parts. I mean, that’s great and all but a) who cares, and b) it doesn’t make me respect the reality of your world any more because you started with editing a text file to travel back and forth in time.

I mean, obviously, the time variable would be a single constant that affects all people in the file, and it would advance at a fixed, constant rate. Each person wouldn’t have his own individual time variable. That’s just silly.

Anyway I found it an amusing little escape. Luke Daniels, as always, does a fantastic job of elevating the text from “meh” to “hey, this is kind of fun.” It’s even tempting to get the next book, but I should probably get through the rest of my other Audible stuff first.

The Shannara Chronicles

Continuing my pseudo-regular new series on television shows and movies I’ve watched recently, because … well, it’s something to write about. These are not “reviews” per se, but merely thoughts and observations. You can assume, though, that if I’m writing a post about a thing, it’s notable to me in some way, either especially good, or especially bad, or otherwise relevant somehow.

Today I’d like to talk about a little show called The Shannara Chronicles.

Wait! Don’t leave yet!

The Shannara Chronicles is a television series that airs (aired?) on MTV. Season 1 is currently on Netflix. It stars a cast of young actors you’ve probably never heard of, and John Rhys-Davies and James Remar, who you undoubtedly know by their faces if not their names.

Surprisingly enough given my recent blogging history, there are no story spoilers below. Well, maybe some tiny ones if you’re super sensitive.

I first read The Sword of Shannara let’s say in the early 1980s. It was one of the first fantasy books I remember reading, after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I can still picture those classic Hildebrandt black-and-white drawings in my thick, beat up paperback copy, which I think I still have around somewhere. At the ripe old age of cough cough cough let’s say 12 or whatever, I loved it. Loved it. Shea, Flick, Allanon, Menion Leah, Balinor, Hendel–they were like real people to me. (Much more so than those high fallutin’ Fellowship wackos.)

These are called “books.” I’ve actually purged many of mine, but kept these.

If I read it today, I would probably cringe at how Shea’s quest was basically an exact clone of the classic Tolkien Ring-Bearer story with only the names changed.

Except everybody knows that Allanon could totally beat up Gandalf.

Later in my teens, I read the Elfstones of Shannara. I don’t remember the characters or story as much, but I remember loving the hell out of that book, too. I had a big trade paperback copy with a bright colorful picture of Wil Ohmsford, Amberle, and some other guy who I think was one of the Elven guards. I did an oral book report on it for English class, a thing which still fills me with embarrassment and shame to this day, for daring to admit to an entire classroom that I not only voluntarily read a fantasy book, but liked it. I have no idea what I was thinking. (Fantasy was not mainstream when I went to high school. You kids today are so lucky.)

Hildebrandt art from the massive The Sword of Shannara paperback.

Fast forward cough cough cough years and I heard MTV was making a show called The Shannara Chronicles, allegedly based on the Elfstones of Shannara. Neato! But … MTV? Really? First of all, MTV is still a thing? Apparently yes, it is. And secondly, is it even possible that MTV can do justice to those epic high fantasy adventures I remember? The early production shots looked … interesting.

I never got around to watching it when it came out in January, 2016. I sort of forgot about it. (I’m actually surprised it’s that new. I thought it was older than that.) Who thinks about watching a genre show on MTV? I don’t remember reading any reviews, but the show did not get a lot of buzz, that’s for sure, and I got the vague impression there was a generally negative vibe about it.

This past weekend, I saw The Shannara Chronicles just sitting there right out on the first row of Netflix shows with a whopping 2.5 out of 5 stars, begging to be clicked. I had just finished watching a PBS documentary on Ruby Ridge, which was pretty heavy with real-life drama and far-reaching cultural and political implications that resonate even to this day. I had finished Mass Effect Andromeda, a long slog through a somewhat disappointing story. So I thought, hey, let’s reset the ol’ brain and watch some pure fantasy and see how bad this MTV thing actually is.

Hoo boy. It’s bad. It’s so, so bad.

But to be fair, it’s not a show for adults. It’s clearly made for kids. (The MTV thing was a tip-off.) Most of the cast are kids. And the source material is not exactly Shakespeare. Terry Brooks is not known for his literary depth, especially in his early books. This show is full to bursting with high fantasy tropes. There’s an honest-to-God Elven princess in it, and while there have been some attempts to de-trope-ify her, she does occasionally still fall down when running away.

Still, there are some decent moments. It’s the kind of show you put on in the background and go about your business, and occasionally something interesting catches your eye.

The basic plot is this: The Ellcrys, a special tree in the Elven capital city, is dying. For various reasons, when it dies, demons will invade and kill everyone. For various reasons, a band of youngsters (including the principles–the half-elven son of Shea Shannara, the aforementioned Elven princess, and a snarky Rover girl) needs to go to a faraway place to save the tree and the world.

I give them credit for not making the first book, which as I said was an obvious clone of Lord of the Rings. They had the sense to skip to the second book which is an entirely different kind of quest (but, you know, still basically the same–a small group travels all the way to a dangerous place to do a dangerous thing that will save the world).

With hindsight, it’s clear to me now why teenage-boy-me liked that book. I mean, come on, a beautiful Elven princess and a snarky Rover girl both fight over a nerdy half-elven boy? I had no chance. And … well, this is a bit of a spoiler but there is an element of Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy, which pushes all of my inner, hidden goth buttons.

By the way, from an adult perspective, I can now share with teenage nerds out there that having two beautiful girls fighting over you is a totally realistic situation that happens all the time in real life.

Ahem. Anyway. One thing I liked about the Shannara books was the occasional hint that the story was set in future Earth and not some past or alternate world. In the books, it was really subtle. One or two sentences if you were really paying attention.

In the show, it hits you over the head with a sledgehammer that the events follow some catastrophic nuclear war. (It’s literally in the opening credits, and all over the promotional material, even though it has no relevance to the story.) The trolls are wearing gas masks or something. There’s old stuff lying around all over the place: Guns, film projectors, CD players, speakers, electricity, etc. I swear to God there is one episode where they show clips of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on a projector and rave to some electronic dance music. Then there’s a gun fight. It’s … weird.

But hey, if I had kids I’d rather they watch this than The Real World.

So I stopped watching before the terribleness hurt my brain and the oversaturated colors hurt my eyes.

Ha!

No I didn’t. I watched all 10 episodes in the first season all the way to the end. And you won’t believe this, but there is an entire second season. I can’t wait.

P.S. I don’t think I ever finished reading Wishsong of Shannara, the third book, and I have not read any of the hundreds of other Shannara books.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

This is another in my recent series of posts that I’m calling, “What in God’s name can I possibly find to schedule for publishing today.”

I saw some folks on Twitter talking about the Farseer books by Robin Hobb, and since I’ve been looking for new stuff to consume, I bought the first book on Kindle, Assassin’s Apprentice. I almost used an Audible credit on it, but I have some complex rules about whether to get books in text format or audiobook format, and this one came up as text format. Besides, it was only $1.99.

I’ve always had a slight aversion to fantasy books about thieves and assassins. I don’t know why, but I do. I guess thieves and assassins seem very tropey to me–it feels like if you stacked up every fantasy book ever released, half of them would be about thieves and assassins.

Anyway, this assassin book traces the life and times of “Fitz,” a bastard son of royalty, and his development from a generally nice kid into a king’s spy and assassin (and a generally nice young adult). The book is written in first-person from Fitz’s perspective, presumably writing his memoirs from some distant future.

I was very surprised to see that it’s set in a European-style medieval world. I didn’t think this was “allowed” in fantasy anymore, but I later found out this book was published in 1995, when it was still safe.

I used to be very meticulous about reading every single word in every book I bought, but as I’ve gotten older and want to sample more and more varied books, I’ve come up with quicker method: I only read the first sentence of every paragraph until my interest is piqued or I decide to pass on the book entirely. I used that technique in this book, because frankly the very first sentence was a little off-putting (“A History of the Six Duchies is of necessity a history of its ruling family, …”).

I’ll be honest. I skipped a lot of words until I got to about the 50% mark, after which I started slowing down, and I think I only fully read the last few chapters in their entirety. I found the writing overstuffed with descriptive yet mundane details and lacking in hooks to draw me in. There were some parts of some chapters here and there that I enjoyed, but especially in the first half I felt like I was going through an endless prologue, waiting for a story to begin. Younger me probably wouldn’t have minded, but older me watching the sands of life slowly draining away prefers to make optimal use of his reading time.

I like to see character relationships and especially character conflicts in stories. But there is very little conflict in the early going. The first real contentious relationship begins in Chapter 14 (“Galen”), at the 51% mark. Literally half the book goes by before our main character faces any real opposition or obstacles. (There is some chafing here and there with Burrace’s opposition to The Wit, but that’s barely worth mentioning.) The inciting incident and the real plot that entangles our main character through the end of the book does not begin until Chapter 19 (“Journey”) which is at the 75% mark. Everything before that is largely backstory.

Robin Hobbs’ writing is good and engaging. (Too good–the vocabulary and sentence structures made me feel quite inadequate as a writer.) I mentioned that it’s first-person voice, but it’s not the sarcastic blogger style of voice that you’ve probably seen overused in urban fantasy and young adult books.

I most enjoyed the relationships that developed between Fitz and his various dog companions, but admittedly I am a sucker for animals in books. I wish there had been more of that here. But I’m glad there wasn’t more of that or I would have been an emotional wreck. I generally try to avoid books and movies about animals because I get too wrapped up in them.

Will I read more of this series? Maybe. Probably not. But possibly. I don’t know. The first book has a reasonable ending point, if not a great one. There are plenty of remaining questions, like what is going on with The Fool, and what is Burrace’s problem with The Wit. I would like to know those answers, but unfortunately I don’t have much interest in learning how the political machinations around the Duchies turn out. The royalty characters remained mostly off-screen and I felt little or no bond develop with them or their lives. I also found Fitz himself a bit lacking as a character to carry a whole series (he seemed emotionally flat from start to finish), and there weren’t many supporting characters around him.

Overall I would rate it as “okay” except for the final two chapters which were “good.” (I stayed up late to finish those chapters so that’s how good they were.) Maybe I’ll get some of the sequels in audiobook format for later.