Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

Jessica Jones Logo

 

Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

Short Version:
A brilliant, mature, dark show that investigates the personal cost of abuse, violence, and notions of justice, and clearly demonstrates the range the superhero genre can encompass, all wrapped up in compelling drama populated by fascinating characters. Well worth watching.

Actual Review:
A TV show about the survivor of an abusive relationship who is a hard-drinking, bitter, and emotionally scarred private eye trying to take down her abuser, seems at odds with much of the public perception of superhero television, and in a number of ways Netflix’s Jessica Jones is as far from a traditional superhero series as you can get, and is all the better for it.

Jessica Jones, a Netflix Original series, is the 13 episode, live action superhero show based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos Marvel comic series, Alias.  Like its sister show Daredevil, and two planned future shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Jones is set in the same New York as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and occurs after the events of Avengers (2012).  But Jones eschews the grand, epic battle of heroes against countless nameless and disposable minions, and focuses intently, and uncomfortably, on the personal human cost of living, and surviving, in a world of superheroes and villains.  Make no mistake, this is not a children’s show, nor is it a rip-roaring excitement filled adventurous romp with no emotional consequence, this is a powerful show that examines the darkest parts of the superhero genre and the human condition.

 

Jessica Jones and Kilgrave

Krysten Ritter plays Jessica Jones, a hard-bitten, cynical, PTSD-stricken, alcoholic, running a shady one-woman PI firm in a dilapidated office situated in a grubby, and well realised, section of New York city.  Eking out an existence serving subpoenas, photographing cheating spouses in the act, and the occasional missing person’s case, in order to keep a roof over her head and her liquor supply constant, Ritter’s Jones is a far cry from the costumed heroes we are perhaps far more familiar with, yet the strength of her performance is that Jones feels more real, more substantial and more believable than even the grittiest superhero portrayed thus far, even if she has super-strength.  While Jones drops barbed comments and snarky come-backs like a jaded stand-up, Ritter imbues her performance with a vulnerability and fragility that highlights the character’s struggle to hang on and survive as a victim of extreme abuse.  Her very humanity and brokenness give the story its touchstone and allows for the tension, horror, and sense of threat to feel palpable rather than nebulous or cartoony.

Ritter manages to convey the complexity of Jones’ character with consummate ease and makes her portrayal seem both effortless and natural.  On the surface Jones appears crude, cold, callous and pragmatic, distancing herself from the world and those around her.  She is tough as nails and a no nonsense survivor ready to face down any physical threat and isn’t shy of a verbal put down or a judgemental swipe.  But underneath that calculated swaggering exterior Jones is a bundle of contradictory emotions and feelings, including guilt, self-loathing, fear, and extreme pain.  Despite this Ritter manages to convey that in her heart Jones is driven by a need to help and save people, that she is loyal to and protective of those she loves, and that she is a true hero doing the best she can to survive.  It is an impressive feat, and one that allows the audience to feel for Jones, to forgive her mistakes, and to become deeply invested in Jones’ development arc.

The main story is launched by a missing person’s case as Jones is hired to find Hope Shlottman by the worried young woman’s parents, but soon focuses on the re-emergence of a shadowy and abusive figure from Jones’ past, the despicable Kilgrave.  Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a master manipulator with the insidious ability to absolutely control people’s minds and actions, and possibly the most sinister and frightening of any Marvel villain thus far portrayed on screen.  While previous villains have had the ability to blow things up, wreak havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the invasive and disturbing power wielded by Kilgrave is far more intimate, and far more devastating on a personal level.  While other villains destroy buildings and bodies, Kilgrave destroys the mind, the soul and the heart of his victims, leaving them scarred, broken and screaming in his wake.  He calls into question their sanity, inspires paranoia, and rips apart their ability to trust anyone ever again.  He uses people as disposable puppets, and exhibits no compassion, remorse, or even an iota of guilt about his rape of their minds, and their bodies, and his destruction of their lives, even if he lets them live.

As the series delves into Kilgrave’s past with Jones the audience gains new and horrifying insight into what he is, what he did and what he continues to do to Jones.  A result of this is building admiration for Jones’ strength of will and huge amounts of sympathy and empathy for her struggle.  If we were perhaps hesitant at first to forgive her more egregious behaviour, seeing the monster of her past puts it in perspective.  As the extent and horror of Kilgrave’s plans and manipulations become more and more apparent, Jones’ paranoia, fear and trust issues become profoundly understandable and we gain insight into how destructive Kilgrave can be.  The more people he manipulates, the more twisted and sadistic his games, the greater the fear and paranoia of Jones’ character is translated through the screen and we soon start questioning the actions of every character, feeling tension every time someone knocks at the door or approaches Jones.

An amazing strength of the show, the writing, and Tennant’s acting, is that despite Kilgrave’s clear villainy, despite his sheer disgusting, depraved and evil nature, he is made understandable, watchable, and even entertaining at times.  Similar to how Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was portrayed in Netflix’s Daredevil, the audience is invited to understand Kilgrave, to see his motivations and to get into his head, without ever once excusing his abuse or absolving him of his guilt.   Kilgrave has motivations and reasons that run deeper than the standard villainy for villainy’s sake, and it is refreshing to see comicbook adaptations produce genuinely disturbing villains whose evil is traceable, believable, and recognisably possible.  It is a fine line to walk, and Jones accomplishes it effortlessly.

Supporting Characters

Grounding the entire story are the relationships with and around Jones with a host of beautifully flawed characters.  Rachel Taylor plays Jones’ foster/adopted sister Trish Walker, a former child star (with all the drama that entails) and now popular talk-show host, who also happens to be estranged from her manipulative, unscrupulous mother and former manager and agent, Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay).  The dynamic between Jones and Walker is brilliantly realised, and the chemistry between Taylor and Ritter is fantastic to watch on screen as we slowly get deeper and deeper into their relationship and backstory, with all the complications and messiness of sibling love, exacerbated by the introduction of superpowers, child fame and an emotionally abusive parent.

Yet another of the complicated and flawed supporting characters is Jones’ main employer Carrie-Anne Moss’ calculating, cruel, yet polished and brilliant lawyer, Jeri Hogarth.  Easily viewed as villain, (she is a defence attorney after all) Hogarth is morally compromised due to being embroiled in an office affair with her secretary Pam (Susie Abromeit), while lying to her wife Wendy (Robin Weigert), she is willing to take risks at other people’s expense, is ambitious and wants to win at any cost, and yet, she is not all bad.  She takes on a pro-bono case at Jessica’s urging, and despite Jessica’s less than professional attitude, continues to hire her because she gets results.  Like so many of the characters on the show Hogarth has her demons and flaws but we are continually invited to understand her, even appreciate her.  The show is at pains to paint the characters as real people, warts and all.

Jessica’s life is made a little more complicated by bar man and fellow super-powered character, Luke Cage (Mike Colter).  While Cage acts as a love interest for Jones (or at the very least a lust interest), his character and relationship with Jones are deeper, more interesting, and certainly more involved than that.  A minor quibble, and something that rang as a little too neat and trite, is the convenient overlapping of Jones’ and Cage’s backstories and key events.  Despite this, Colter and Ritter have good chemistry on screen, and their halting exploration of a potential relationship, secrets and all, rings true, and seems far more believable and honest than most of the superhero fare out there.

The last two major supporting characters are Jones’ drug addicted neighbour, Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville), and tough cop Will Simpson (Wil Traval).  Providing something of a mirror of each other characters over the course of the show, Malcolm and Will explore the redemptive and destructive aspects of character development over the series, and how people deal with trauma, abuse and the aftermath.  How they each react to their experiences with Kilgrave is telling and provides a brilliant support structure to the main narrative.  (Personally I found both of their arcs a little too rushed with each character changing fairly dramatically over a short space of time, but this may be a side effect of binge watching the show and therefore not having the gap between episodes that would ease the transition.)

The greatest strengths of this show are the attention paid to character and the care with which realised, flawed and broken characters are portrayed on the screen.  No one person is without blemish, and those defects are genuine, deep, heartfelt scars, rather than glib or artificial flaws superficially grafted in an attempt to create slightly rounded characters.  Each of the characters on screen feels like a real person, and when the world portrayed contains super-powers this adds a huge element of believability and authenticity to the endeavour.  There is an honesty and integrity in how they are portrayed that grounds this reality and makes the tension palpable and resonate.  It is through the characters that the horror of the situation, the stakes, and the repercussions of the story find purchase.  Their misplaced guilt, their fear, the conflicting impulses of revulsion and desire, the self-loathing and blame, all these things become powerful hooks imbedded in each character that grab hold of the fictive reality and turn their characters into people.  People you care about.  People you are invested in.

As I said above, the setting is New York city, but rather than the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple Jessica Jones keeps its attention on the back streets, the alleys and the grittier side, much like Daredevil.  Given the detective noir beginnings it is also unsurprising that many of the scenes occur at night, or in seedy, slightly dilapidated surroundings.  The view is of the personal New York, the real New York, the lived in New York, and the people and individuals that create the story.  While there are moments when the bigger landscape swims into view, and some glimpses of famous locations, most of the time the show stays grounded in the characters and the importance of the people.  This is a story all about the individual and most of the locales are in keeping with this.

 

Conclusion

Jessica Jones is a superhero story, but it is one that uses the medium to do something more than recount a tired tale of derring-do or over the top action.  It uses superpowers and this modern mythic form to provide a lens to examine, explore, and understand the ramifications of abuse, to place the focus on how victims survive and the desperate plight that is created after the instigating event, and to illustrate the strength and heroism of survivors of trauma.  It does all this by providing a story set in an exaggerated world where allegory and symbolism take some of the shocking, debilitating horror away from a real world issue so that we can bear to look at it instead of turning our heads away with a sense of overwhelming helplessness.

Jones is great television, compulsive viewing, powerful and meaningful storytelling, and wonderfully demonstrates what a grounded superhero story can do.  Shows like HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos took unflinching looks at real life issues to produce compelling dramas, and Netfilx’s Jessica Jones joins their ranks, shoulder to shoulder.  This is a show to watch and bodes extremely well for the future of Netflix and for superhero television.

 

Review: Blackdog by KV Johansen

Blackdog

Blackdog by KV Johansen (Pyr, 2011)

Whilst an established Canadian author of children’s sf and fantasy novels, Blackdog marks Johansen’s first foray into epic fantasy. The novel focuses on Attalissa, a goddess re-incarnated as a young girl, and her protector, the titular Blackdog, a spirit that possesses human hosts, as they attempt to deal with the threat of a powerful evil wizard who is attempting to consume the goddess’s power.

On the surface, it appears to have all the elements of a great epic fantasy: cosmic conflicts between good and evil, multiple character perspectives interweaving into a grander narrative tapestry, fascinating hints of legendary backstory and a diverse world setting. Unfortunately Blackdog does not quite live up to its promise since these elements never quite cohere. The story does not seem to know which it would rather be; a gentle, intimate tale following the coming-of-age of the young goddess incarnate or an epic battle between vast supernatural forces. In trying to be both, it has succeeded at neither.

An illustration of this concerns the Blackdog himself. While he is the eponymous character, the narrative vacillates unevenly between his role as guide and protector, reducing him to the position of supporting companion, and the exploration of his ‘curse’ and his repetitive struggles to overcome it.  Indeed, even the character development concerning Blackdog will disappoint most, as all the twists and turns are heavily foreshadowed and never surprise.

Disappointingly, the world and story are told to the reader, rather than shown, resulting in a feeling of thinness and lack of texture. For a book of some 540 pages there is a surprising lack of detail, as plot, action, world building and character development are sketched rather than explored. The plot itself is simplistic, banal and so heavily foreshadowed that there are few, if any, surprises. The shifting of narrative focus between the personal narratives and the larger plot leads to both feeling lamentably underdeveloped. The climax of the plot is overly neat and split between the straightforward coming-of-age narrative and the obvious, underwhelming grand battle. When the disparate elements finally collide, it creates a sense of forced artifice rather than natural convergence.

In terms of action, there are few battles or fights and those included are hastily passed over and never approach ‘epic’ in nature. There is little tension in the short sequences and almost no sense of the viciousness of battle or the emotional repercussions of loss and death. While great authors can evoke much with simple descriptions, Johnasen never gives the reader the page length to fully immerse themselves in the action, and seems more inclined to skip over action sequences in favour of more bland character interaction.

This blandness affects the world itself as there is no real distinction drawn between the various locales, regardless of the radically different terrains.  For a novel that traverses various locales, including desert, steppes, foothills and mountain tops, there is almost no real variance in how the world appears or is described.  In fact how the characters interact with their surroundings and feel about the various landscapes is uniformly mundane.  No matter where they are, each of the characters acts in exactly the same way, and it is seems a missed opportunity to explore the richness of the world that Johansen has built.

The characters are rarely distinctive and very few are developed beyond stereotypical or function-driven roles. Those few interesting characters are inevitably underused and underdeveloped. However, a major point in Johansen’s favour is her treatment of sexuality as she seamlessly integrates non-heterosexual characters into her world in a subtle display of acceptance without the use of gratuitous sex scenes or heavy-handed narrative underlining.

Two minor characters in this novel, Moth and Mikki, are the most interesting of the bunch, primarily because something is left to the reader’s imagination and their backstory is not painstakingly delivered as exposition.  However, due to the fact that they are indeed minor, they are not really a selling point of this novel, although seeing them in later books would be great.

While Blackdog is not good as it falls short of both YA and Epic fantasy, it is inoffensively mediocre and tediously predictable rather than truly abysmal.

(Originally reviewed in Vector)

Review: A Guile of Dragons by James Enge

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A Guile of Dragons : A Tournament of Shadows Book 1 by James Enge (2012)

A Guile of Dragons marks James Enge’s fourth novel featuring the ever more popular character Morlock Ambrosius. Those familiar with Enge’s work, through the previous novels (Blood of Ambrose 2009 (nominated for Best Fantasy Book of the Year), This Crooked Way 2009 (an episodic narrative of linked short stories), and The Wolf Age 2010) or his short fiction in Black Gate magazine (BG14, 12, 11, 10, 9 & 8) or the Swords & Dark Magic (Harper Voyager, 2010) anthology may remember Morlock as the crotchety alcoholic, sword swinging, master maker (wizard). However, Guile is a prequel to the established novels and shorts and is part of Morlock’s origin story.

James Enge sets himself a doubly hard task in A Guile of Dragons. Firstly, it is book one of a trilogy, and, secondly, it is a prequel. Both present distinct challenges. Book ones need to capture attention, give the reader something to engage the imagination and stimulate interest, and provide narrative satisfaction while still leaving something for the rest of the series to develop. This is not easy at the best of times. Prequels also have a few paradoxical conditions all of their own. Fans of the previous books want to delve deeper into a character’s past and backstory, while at the same time see hints and foreshadowing of later events, rewarding their loyalty and knowledge of the series. Narrative tension is harder to maintain when the reader already knows that there is a distinct lack of peril. The story and world must be accessible to new readers but also not bore fans of the earlier works who already know and understand the world and characters. It is therefore a testament to his growing prowess as an author that Enge walks this fine line almost effortlessly.

Enge’s development as a writer can also be seen in how he has moved his story away from its stereotypical mythic roots. As the continuation of a world and series, Enge can’t quite escape the Arthurian influences and connections in his earlier Morlock stories, nor the resemblance to the world construction and cosmology of Zelazny’s Amber, but in Guile, as in The Wolf Age, he has managed to create something that seems much more his own voice and vision. The world of Guile possesses an individual quality and originality that is somewhat missing from many of Enge’s previous narratives too heavily derived from earlier sources. So while Merlin is still Morlock’s father, and some Arthurian elements and aspects remain, he manages to evoke an engaging world that stands on its own as a fantasy creation and setting. What is more impressive is that his short story writing has honed his ability to conjure detailed worlds, characters and societies without resorting to bald exposition and overly long descriptions.

While the Werewolf city of Wuruyaaria formed the central locale in the last book, the majority of the action in Guile occurs in and around the Dwarven nation of Thrymhaiam. As a nation and a race, Enge has given the Dwarves distinct characteristics and characterisations removed from that of Tolkien’s defining creation or even Markus Heitz’s updated version. Unlike previous authors’ attempts to reinvent an established fantasy race, Enge actually succeeds in making the Dwarves both recognisable in their Dwarvishness and yet feel fresh and naturally developed. Their love of mining and gems is explained simply and yet effectively. Their gruff manner seems natural and understandable given their code of honour and intractable devotion to family and clan. These core aspects of fantasy Dwarves are made to feel simple, straightforward and, paradoxically, original. A revelation toward the end of the novel cements this vision of the Dwarves as unique and provides a wonderful rationale and explanation of their entire world view.

In The Wolf Age, a major strength of Enge’s approach was to design a unique language and culture for the werewolves utilising his academic expertise for exploring and explaining ancient languages and cultures and combined it with his storytelling and inventiveness. A disadvantage to this was that while it was consistent, logical and fascinating, the lupine language was exceptionally difficult to read leading to a frustrating experience trying to understand and articulate character names. The language made logical sense and was a brilliant stroke, but visually (and indeed aurally) it was a major stumbling block for those without his background in classics and ancient history (or an inability to mimic wolf sounds). This has been substantially redressed in Guile. The same attention to detail and creative talent has been utilised to give the Dwarven language and culture an authenticity that hasn’t been seen since Tolkien, but he has taken pity on his reader and minimised the use of the specific language constructs. The Dwarven names are relatively short yet, despite the rare outright appearance of the Dwarvish tongue, this depth of design permeates the entire culture. From subtle nuances such as the method for navigating the deep mines (thankfully not relying on a special power or Dwarvish ability) to more overt cultural aspects such as the clan hierarchy emphasising blood kinship there is both a consistency and originality to the Dwarven race.

As an origin story, the reader becomes privy to the mystical events that lead to the strange and mysterious birth of Morlock. The result of which is that the young baby Morlock is fostered by the ruler of the Dwarves. Understandably this leads to some resentment of not only his birth parents, of whom he is ashamed and resents, but more subtly of his adopted ‘race’ due to his feelings of alienation and difference. Given how this character has been represented later in his life in the other stories, this psychological development and scarring sow the seeds for Morlock’s later dysfunctions and ‘outsider’ status. Yet Enge cleverly weaves this overt character origin story with an exploration of the origins of the Dwarvish race. As the story progresses the reader follows Morlock as he slowly uncovers aspects of his personal history as well as that of his adoptive family. The blending of the two plot lines in this thematic fashion, melding Morlock’s feelings of abandonment and betrayal on both a personal and racial level, adds depth to the narrative and provides a conceptual theme that links the various story elements neatly and effectively. In particular, the leitmotif of betrayal forms a consistent touchstone that Enge returns to again and again to great effect. This combination of recurrent theme and concept permeates the entire narrative providing an effective consistency to the narrative without being heavy handed. Indeed there are very few elements of the story that feel disparate or unconnected which can be a problem in long fiction written by short fiction authors.

As with previous work, Enge does not focus solely on Morlock’s perspective, allowing the reader to view the character from external subjective perspectives. This subtle reframing of the narrative focus encourages reader engagement with other characters, the prejudices and problems of the various cultures and societies, and adds to the sense of verisimilitude of the fantasyland. An additional benefit is that Morlock retains his mystery and mystique as the narration does not delve too deeply into his thoughts and opinions but gives just enough to emphasise Morlock’s point of view and his status as the central character. However, this leads to a discussion of some of the, albeit minor, weaknesses of Guile.

The secondary character of Earno, while initially an important and thought-provoking character perspective, is dropped almost entirely from the narrative at a certain point for little discernible reason. The inclusion of further secondary Graith characters Aloê, Naevros, Noreê, Illion, and Jordel also seems forced and arbitrary. No doubt this signals their importance for later development in the subsequent sequels, and Enge probably wanted to familiarise his readers with them, but ultimately they feel unnecessary and distract from the main thrust of the novel. Another character that doesn’t quite live up to Enge’s originality is the pater familias of the Dwarven clan, Thyr. While a likable and interesting character, a gruff Dwarven king, who is honourable and has a deeply affectionate side, and who also acts as a surrogate father to the hero, Thyr could have stepped straight from the pages of fantasy cliché. Weis and Hickman’s Flint Fireforge from their Dragonlance series, or R.A. Salvatore’s Bruenor Battlehammer from his Forgotten Realms novels, are equally representative of this cliché, but given Enge’s originality in almost every other aspect of this novel, it seems worse that he fell back on this overused trope.

The most disappointing aspect of Guile may also be one of its strongest selling points for other readers. There is a distinct lack of epic action. The majority of the novel focuses on lesser moments of action, when they are included at all, and Enge prefers to explore the build-up to and aftermath of battles and fights from a personal and individual narrative perspective. By keeping the focus so close to a single character in these sequences there is no real overview of the vast, epic nature of the conflicts, and some of the most important action sequences happen off page. As a result, while the story features dragons and undead warrior kings (definitely not barrowwights… well ok so there are still some elements of Tolkien that Enge ‘borrows’), the conflicts feel small and underdeveloped despite their epic ramifications and the scale of the threat. This leads to the dramatic ending of Guile feeling underwhelming and dissatisfying.

On the whole, the strengths of A Guile of Dragons outweigh the minor plotting weaknesses, and the lack of overt epic action is as much a stylistic choice and strength as it is a weakness. James Enge delivers a fascinating and original perspective on Dwarves and has successfully crafted an engaging and entertaining origin story for his signature character, Morlock Ambrosius. This book promises great things for the rest of the trilogy and the continuing development of Enge’s fantasy setting.

(Originally reviewed in Vector)

Review: Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

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Forge of Darkness: The Kharkanas Trilogy 1  by Steven Erikson

Forge of Darkness is the first book in a new trilogy by Steven Erikson. While linked to the world and events of his ten book epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen (MBotF), the Kharkanas trilogy is a prequel to those events and is set millennia earlier, in a different land and it explores the mythic prehistory of the enigmatic Tiste race. The story focuses on a turning point in the history of the Tiste, focalised in the city of Kharkanas, the home of the queen and newly styled goddess, Mother Dark. Tensions have developed in the court due to a classic love triangle developing between Mother Dark, her acknowledged consort, the mysterious Lord Draconus, and her politically pragmatic betrothal to Lord Vatha Urusander, former commander of the Legions. Added to this charged situation are the various groups of disenfranchised and ill-treated soldiers of the various armed forces and House guards, each pledged to a specific faction, and the ever present machinations of a powerful, elite and decadent noble class. The blend of political manoeuvrings, a civilisation in decline, the emergence of a new religion and of wide-spread social unrest creates a classic framework for the interweaving of the personal narratives of key players, their supporters and the innocent bystanders drawn in against their will. This story of politics and the collapse of a civilisation is played out against a metaphysical backdrop of realms of magic and Gods that are being forced to change and alter as the destiny of the world reshapes itself. That Erikson never lets the story become overly complicated or convoluted is again evidence of his mastery of this style of writing.

The tone of Forge is strongly reminiscent of Shakespeare, as are elements of the plot and the structure of the story. At times even the dialogue takes on a courtly Elizabethan feel. Yet this does not feel out of place in a Fantasy novel involving courtly politics and the stirrings of war. In fact it adds to the classical style of the novel and the writing itself remains recognisable as Erikson. He continues to write with the weight and layering of a complex short story and almost none of the expositionary excess verbiage commonly associated with fat Fantasy tomes. His language remains deft, economical and rewards careful reading (and re-reading). The structure of multiple and apparently disparate narrative threads which slowly interweave into a narrative confluence and convergence will be immediately recognisable to fans of the earlier series, although as a Book One, not all threads are fully resolved within the novel and plenty has been left for further development. It should be noted that there is plenty of closure within the novel and several sequences in key places provide excellent reader satisfaction. But where many of the books of the MBotF were written as stand-alone novels set in a broader series, Forge is definitely part of what has become a traditional trilogy format in Fantasy storytelling.

As a prequel to the MBotF, in so much as it occurs millennia before the events of those novels, Forge functions as an accessible entry point for new readers, perhaps more so than Gardens of the Moon (the first book in the MBotF). While there is certainly a large cast of point of view characters and participants, this seems less overwhelming in Forge than it did in Gardens and will perhaps prove less daunting to an audience who have been familiarised with this style by George R. R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (and of course the HBO adaptation A Game of Thrones). Although, in the interests of full disclosure, being familiar with the MBotF may have simply blinded me to some of the challenges faced by new readers. There is, however, a sense that Erikson has streamlined this narrative slightly and has taken some pity on his readers, a result of which is the fact that the story begins at an understandable point of entry rather than right in the middle of a complex conflict, and each of the major figures and focal characters are slowly introduced in sections rather than in a headlong whirl of narrative action. In some respects Forge represents a much more traditional structure, tone and narrative focus than previous Malazan novels, but has done so without compromising the integrity and style that Erikson has developed over the last decade of writing.

Erikson again utilises a tight narrative focalisation through the use of multiple character perspectives to negotiate not only the different story threads but also to reveal a cross section of perspective on the mounting tensions and social unrest. His use of key characters, noble and commoner alike, powerful and powerless, gives a palpable sense of verisimilitude and believability to the world in order to balance the epic and mythic nature of the story. This is not just a story of the great and the good or a band of do-gooding nobles on a quest, but a story concerned with the fabric of a society seen from each of the different factions and levels. As a result, despite many of the metaphysical elements and strange magical constructions, this world feels real. Erikson’s novel creates moral complexity and narrative tensions by narrating the evolving conflict from diverse character perspectives. This both grounds the diegetic reality in distressed and worn realism as well as presenting the metaphysical magically aspects as matter-of-fact and part of the very fabric of reality. As the reader follows the lives of those drawn into this conflict, either at its centre or initially on its fringes, there is never a sense of forced or dictated narrative but rather a sense of exploration and witnessing of a true world event as complex and as complicated as our own.

The strong sense of social inequality and regimented class system of the Tiste could be attributed to Erikson’s time in the UK over the last few years and the British preoccupation with class and hierarchy, but this would be to ignore the applicability of the conceptual stratification to social, economic and racial divides present throughout our modern world. Given that the various conflicts and tensions within the text are predicated on characters acting through either personal agendas or for what they believe is a greater good, there is ample room in Forge to read modern political and economic debates as an analogue of these conflicts. But there is also a strong evocation of the politics and history of Julius Caesar’s Rome. This could perhaps be laid at the feet of Erikson the former archaeologist and anthropologist and his view of the circular nature of history, and the mistakes we are doomed to repeat. Yet this classical connection to Ancient Rome, coupled with the Shakespearean feel and tone signals Forge’s nature as a tragedy, rather than an epic Fantasy romp. So without resorting to stealing a classical setting or specifics from world history Erikson evokes both Greek tragedy and Roman history in this expanding of the mythic backstory. The focus on the leading patrician families, those recently elevated as well as those in decline, in addition to commoners who could unkindly be labelled Rude Mechanicals, certainly adds to the feeling of Classical history being told through a Shakespearean lens. While the by-play of economics, inherited power, political polemic and the treatment of the military as a central theme to the story not only suggests an Ancient Roman influence on the narrative, but also strikes a resonant chord with today’s world. An apt comparison to a modern example would be HBO’s and BBC’s short-lived series Rome which explored the historical narrative through both noble powerbrokers and common soldiers, giving a sense of both the domestic and political world of Ancient Rome, a sense of the epic and the mundane.

The Malazan series is known for its complex morality and lack of clear cut heroes and villains, and a strength of Forge is that it exhibits much of this same moral ambiguity. Every character in the novel feels rounded and developed over time, yet no character is a paragon of virtue or grotesquely evil. The strengths and flaws of each character, coupled with their subjective perspective, personal goals and ambitions, leads to deeply intriguing characters whom the reader is free to like or dislike. Although, as is customary in Erikson’s writing, readers should be prepared to have their opinions of characters challenged on a regular basis. The movement in modern Genre Fantasy toward moral complexity has on occasion been confused with Nihilism, for example in Leo Grin’s articles on Big Hollywood. In some respects Grin is not wholly wrong. There has certainly been a significant move toward increasing numbers of violent psychopathic protagonists, yet unlike many of the ‘gritty’ modern genre fantasy stories, for example Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Erikson does not create dark anti-heroes or malevolent, Machiavellian misanthropes in an effort to make the story darker and more gripping, rather he relies on the moments when characters’ actions create genuine moments of horror, pain or, most often, tragedy. There is no cackling Dark Lord or supernaturally diabolical destructive force behind the action, only people. His fiction focuses on those moments and decisions, seemingly big or small, which, with hindsight, we can see led us on a path of inevitable destruction. As a misspoken command can turn the tide of a battle, or the wrong word at the wrong time can lead to war, Erikson feels no need to invent a devilish villain to create narrative tension. This gives much of the tragic air to Erikson’s writing as the reader witnesses how miscommunication, pride, honour, love and duty collide in an inevitable catastrophic confluence which reshapes the world irrevocably. While some of the characters appear motivated by personal ambition and damn the consequences, others are forced into action as the circumstances dictate, and yet all have understandable, if not always agreeable, motivations. The tight narrative focus on character perspective means that the reader is often faced with a series of actions that they completely agree with, only to have their judgement challenged when the story shifts to the perspective of another faction or character.

Erikson pulls as few emotional punches in his writing as he does intellectual, instead he tends to face emotional and brutal truths of the human condition face on. Forge is no exception in this regard. One scene in particular is particularly distressing and harrowing. Yet Erikson’s depiction of a brutal gang rape and murder is never salacious, never misogynist and never a glorification of rape. He does not sexualise or fetishize one of the most deplorable acts of violence humans are capable of and as a result the scene is disturbing and violent in a way that Fantasy fiction rarely details. That the scene was necessary for the narrative may be a cause of debate among some, others will feel outrage at its inclusion, so those expecting a consolatory tour through fantasyland may wish to look elsewhere. One thing is certain though, those Fantasy readers accustomed to casual sexual violence against women as entertainment will have their perspective radically challenged and will be forced to rethink think the easy way rape is often portrayed in the genre. Yet Erikson’s works have never flinched in challenging readers to confront hard issues. His work is characterised by its complex nature and one of the great strengths of his writing is his ability to challenge reader expectation and complacency. There are no simple answers in Erikson’s world, only the heart rending tragedy of honest, flawed individuals being caught up in a world descending into chaos, victims and perpetrators alike. Again, his use of shifting points of view makes the reader view these uncomfortable truths from multiple perspectives providing insight into aspects of the human condition that we might not otherwise consider.

The world building retains Erikson’s strength of vision and presence, yet the physical locale seems more metaphysical, closer to a mindscape linked to the characters than a geographically fixed mundane world. This mixture of a solid world locale and a more nebulous Faerie realm marks a slight departure from the MBotF which was firmly rooted in a defined reality. An apt parallel might be to describe it as similar to mythic Olympus as it is connected to the concrete landscape of Greece. As the various travellers cross the Realm the reader is exposed to shifting boundaries of a truly mythic land with areas of fixed solidity. Akin to Glen Cook’s Black Company series, the world building of Forge remains thoughtful, detailed and intricately rendered, while at the same time never feeling forced, laboured or overly emphasised. In essence it is a well-crafted world with enough information to fill the mind but not belabouring detail and exposition.

While much of the new book will prove to be a good entry point for new readers, fans of the MBotF will not be disappointed. The prehistory features several of the key characters introduced in the first series who have long remained enigmatic and whose history has been both mysteriously alluded to and yet never fully known. There are a number of ‘reveals’ about key events in this mythic past that shaped the characters that fans have come to know and demand more detail of. In particular, the history and story of Anomander Rake and his brothers Andarist and Silchas Ruin forms one of the central threads of the narrative tapestry in Forge and is a key focal point of the trilogy. An interesting side effect of this strategy of focusing on the familial dimension to a civil conflict is that it not only rewards fans of the previous series, but it also emphasises the import and severity of a civil conflict and how it can pit brother against brother. As expected, characters such as the oft referred to Mother Dark and the enigmatic Draconus feature heavily. Yet Erikson resists the temptation to dictate to his readers and usually presents these figures from the perspective of external witnesses to their actions rather than narrating from their point of view. This discipline serves the dual function of sating fan interest in the history of these key mythic figures while still allowing some mystery and enigma to survive. So while readers new to the Malazan series are given plenty of help to negotiate the story (the lack of which is often a criticism levelled at Erikson’s first Malazan novel Gardens of the Moon) this does not result in pedantic exposition that will alienate fans. Indeed those fans of the series will have a great many questions answered, but as has become a feature of Erikson’s writing, those answers are not necessarily the expected ones and often lead to further questions. But the investigation of Tiste culture, the exploration of Kharkanas and the surrounding environs as well as a more detailed examination of the legendary hust swords are more than enough to sate fans of the series.

Something to note about the narrative frame of Forge is that Erikson has styled this as the telling of the story between one legendary master poet, Blind Gallan, to a younger poet, Fisher kel Tath, who will be a familiar character to fans of the series. In part this returns to part of the focus of Erikson’s novella Crack’d Pot Trail which concerned the nature of storytelling, but it may in fact be a simple defence to forestall criticism that he has altered some of the facts alluded to in the main series. Fans of Erikson’s works are used to the cry of ‘the timeline doesn’t matter’ and in this instance Erikson has the poet admit that he has changed some of the story to fit his poetic sensibilities, ‘what I do not recall I shall invent’(‘Prelude’ 1st page 4th paragraph). However, to simply label it as this would be a disservice to Erikson as this framework fits neatly with the feel of epic tragedy, the Shakesperean tone and the subject matter of the fall of a civilisation. It is also a recognition of the genre’s debt to and evolution from the great epic poems of the past.

For those who have found the length of the Malazan Book of the Fallen to be a daunting barrier to experiencing Erikson’s writing, and those who could not navigate through Gardens of the Moon, Forge of Darkness provides the perfect opportunity to access the work of a unique voice in Fantasy that has grown and developed to true mastery. For fans and new readers alike, Forge is a study in how original, intelligent and astonishing a work of Epic Fantasy can be.

(originally reviewed in NYRSF)

Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks Lightbringer Book 1

The Black Prism

The Black Prism marks the first book in Brent Weeks’ second fantasy series, Lightbringer.  Having reached popular acclaim with his first fantasy series The Night Angel trilogy, Lightbringer was hotly anticipated by epic fantasy fans.  Initially conceived as a trilogy, Lightbringer has now been reframed as a tetralogy.  Set in an entirely new fantasyland, The Black Prism focuses on the story of the semi-religious mage ruler of a land of seven satrapies, Gavin Guile, his discovery of an illegitimate son, Kip, from the civil war that placed him in power, and the rise of new civil unrest under the banner of a rebel leader.  As a result the novel is a blend of magery, battle and political intrigue and the story is delivered with energy, vigour and enthusiasm.  Those familiar with Weeks’ previous work will recognise many of the same strengths and weaknesses of his writing in this book.

One of the major strengths of Weeks’ writing has been his ability to create strong, likable characters who engage the reader and dominate the page, and Gavin Guile, the central protagonist, is no exception.  Gavin is the Prism, the semi-religious ruler of the Seven Satrapies, who serves as a religious focus, chief magic user and, is the titular ruler of the land.  His power is checked by the ruling council of Colours, essentially a secular political council which shapes the mundane and practical aspects of government and prevents the Prism from having absolute power and control.

Gavin initially appears to be the stereotypical over-powered magic-using ruler, but as the story develops, he grows in depth and complexity.  His presumed arrogance is justified through both his effortless command of enormous power and his frustration at the constraints placed on him by the ruling council.  In fact, his interactions with both his bodyguards and the petty political councillors provide several great character moments as well as some much needed levity.  Weeks is careful to explore Gavin’s personality slowly over time so that the reader must assess and reassess assumptions and presumptions repeatedly throughout the narrative.  The political manoeuvring, the family ties and secrets, the personal obligations, as well as Gavin’s irreverent sense of humour add multiple layers to his character that are peeled back chapter after chapter.  This sense of revelation never feels artificial or contrived, but as a natural consequence of getting to know Gavin better.

Gavin’s personal history, the conflict with his brother, and his familial and interpersonal relationships prove to be an engaging aspect of both his character and also have dramatic repercussions for the realm at large.  In particular, his relationship to another central character, Kip, Gavin’s acknowledged bastard son.  Not only does this introduce an important character to the story but thrusts Gavin unexpectedly into the role of father to a teenage boy.  Both Gavin and Kip are depicted as attempting to navigate the bonds and supposed bonds associated with the revelation of their kinship, and Weeks explores many of the steps and missteps such a dramatic change in status and relationship can wreak.

Kip, himself, is not as strongly drawn as Gavin, but again Weeks has been at pains to avoid stereotype and cliché.  An overweight, clumsy yet verbally quick character, Kip subverts many of the assumptions of hero-in-training or ‘chosen one’ status often piled on young Fantasy heroes.  Unfortunately, while he is at times realistically drawn, there is an unevenness to his portrayal.  Initially and frequently cowardly, he miraculously gains heroic courage at the most opportune moments, and, despite lacking any formal training in magic, is a miraculously capable and powerful drafter (mage).  Some of this is implied as hereditary and thus falls into the ‘chosen one’ camp of Fantasy, while others feel like narrative necessity forced on the character, rather than a natural reaction Kip might have.  However, there is a sense that the relationship between Kip and Gavin will continue to evolve and grow more complex over the next novels, and that Kip will continue to grow and solidify as a rounded and fleshed out character.

Weeks has also managed to include several well drawn secondary characters, not the least is Karris Whiteoak, a drafter and onetime lover of Gavin’s brother.  Despite the temptation to perceive Karris as the woman torn between two brothers and simple love interest, Weeks allows her to develop personality and character of her own.  As a Blackguard and a bichrome (able to draft two full colours) Karris holds her own in the action sequences, but it is her depth of character and hints of complex backstory that allow her to hold her own against the other characters.  As with Gavin and Kip, Karris is given the page length to flesh out hints of backstory, and explore aspects of her evolving personality and complex history.  However it is Gavin who remains the focus of the narrative, and the most developed and interesting of the characters.

One of the greatest weaknesses of The Black Prism is also one of its strengths.  In the creation of chromaturgy, essentially a magic system based on the spectrum of light, Weeks does not strike a balance between the system being part of the world, and the system dominating the narrative.  As a relatively innovative system Weeks explains much of its inner workings in an attempt to familiarise the reader with the new concepts.  He also gives over significant proportions of the narrative to exploring its potential and occasionally inconsistent limitations.  As a result the text overly emphasises new terms such as drafting, chromaturgy, and the associated language of the system in a manner that would not be necessary and would be viewed as clumsy if a more traditional system had been utilised.  The system itself uses a spectrum of light: sub-red (infra-red), red, orange, yellow, green, blue, ultra-violet.  Each colour can be drafted by chromaturgs, or drafters, who can shape the light into matter called luxin, or create direct effects from light.  Each colour possesses its own attributes and abilities, and drafting has both repercussions and ramifications for the drafter.  For instance, drafting blue distances the drafter from emotion, making them more thoughtful, logical and, if used to excess, obsessive.

So while the concept of different magical abilities being drawn from different colours is not that new or startling, Weeks manages to create a fascinating and fairly rigorous system from these humble beginnings and as a result the chromaturgy system appears both new and innovative.  The inventiveness that Weeks brings to the creation of the system and its use is a high point of the novel.  As the character of Gavin experiments with novel uses for chromaturgy Weeks manages to impart a real sense of adventure and excitement of a character pushing the bounds of accepted knowledge and practice.  When this is combined with the fact that a character can only draft a finite amount of light in their lifetime before descending into madness and becoming a colour ‘wight’, a monstrous version of themselves shaped by the magic, Weeks imbues the magic system with a strong limiting force and a sense of its importance and cost.

Unfortunately for Weeks, this innovative system becomes too much a focus of the narrative and not simply part of the world.  Despite this form of magic ostensibly being part of the world, none of the characters use informal or slang terminology to describe the art, its effects or its practitioners.  Given the ubiquity of the magic in the world, one would expect at least the occasional use of a slang term, especially between the rival chromaturgs to denigrate the others.  Non-magic users especially would likely have terms to describe magic users as a simple matter of course.   In our own world, slang propagates faster than a dictionary can keep track of the terms, but apparently in Weeks’ world, several hundred years of chromaturgy is not enough for slang and denigrating terms to evolve.  This lack of integration of the magic system into the worldbuilding is exacerbated by another telling fact.  While Weeks’ narrator makes it plain that chromaturgy is an exceptionally rare ability, almost every single featured character, important or not, is a drafter.  For something so rare it is appallingly commonplace in the novel.  As a result it removes some of the novelty from the practice of the magic and undercuts some of the believability of the fictional reality.

Despite this, however, Weeks has created an engaging world, fascinating characters, and has placed enough plot hooks to guarantee a solid reading base for the trilogy.   The complex backstory relating to civil war between Gavin and his brother.  The ongoing civil conflict with the rise of a new challenger to the title of prism.  The interpersonal relationships between characters as they navigate fairly substantial shifts in their private and personal lives.  The abundant action sequences which range from well constructed individual fights to large scale battles.  There is a lot to enjoy in Weeks writing, and he continues to prove he is one of the strongest voices of new fantasy authors.

(originally published in NYRSF)