The Lions of Al-Rassan: The Passing of the “Golden Age” in Islamic Spain

les-lions-dal-rassanRead the following passages from a widely-loved novel. If you had to guess the historical period, you might not surmise a medieval nation under Islamic rule. A Christian and Muslim having wild sex out in the open, on the night of a holiday carnival. A jamboree of music and wine and cross-cultural gang-bangs, in flagrant violation of the sharia strictures of Islam.

The first passage describes the novel’s characters buying masks in preparation for the Carnival:

They had met on this mild, fragrant morning to buy masks for the night when torches would burn until dawn in the streets of Ragosa [Zaragoza]. A night when the city would welcome the spring with music and dancing and wine, and in other ways notably different from the ascetic strictures of Ashar [Islam]. And from the teachings of the clerics of Jad [Christ] and the high priests of the Kindath [Jews], too, for that matter.

Notwithstanding the clearly viced opinions of their spiritual leaders, people came to Ragosa [Zaragoza] from a long way off, sometimes traveling for weeks from Ferrieres [France] or Batiara [Italy] to join the Carnival. The return of spring was always worth celebrating, and King Badir, who had reigned since the Khalifate fell, was a man widely honored, even loved, whatever the wadjis [Muslim clerics] might say.

The next evening, at the Carnival itself:

They had been drinking since the first stars came out. There was food everywhere and the smells of cooking: chestnuts roasting, grilled lamb, small-bones fish from the lake, cheeses, sausages, spring melons. And every tavern, thronged to bursting, had opened its doors and was selling wine and ale from booths on the street. Ragosa [Zaragoza] had been transformed.

Alvar had already been kissed by more women than he’d ever touched in his life. Half a dozen of them had urged him to find them later. The night was becoming a blur already. Now he watched as the grey spider approached him slowly, came up, and kissed him on the lips. Twisting, he managed to free his arms in the press of people and put them around the spider. He kissed her back as best he could from behind his eagle mask. He was improving, he thought. He had learned a great deal since sundown.

The spider stepped back. “Nice. Find me later, eagle. She reached downwards and gave him a quick squeeze on his private parts.

Alvar never hooks up with the spider, but he is snared by a ferocious cat with a fetish for leashes, who leads him into an opulent upstairs bedroom:

Alvar moved with this woman, and upon her, and at times beneath her urgency. They had removed their masks when they entered the house. It didn’t matter: she was still a hunting cat tonight, whatever she was by daylight in the customary round of the year. He had raking scratches down his body, as if to prove it. With some dismay he realized that she did too. He couldn’t remember doing that. Then, a little later, he realized he was doing it again. They were standing, coupled, bending forward against the bed again.

“I don’t even know your name,” he gasped, later, on the carpet before the fire.

“And why should that matter tonight, in any possible way?” she had replied.

Some time afterwards she chose to blow out all the candles and leash him in a particularly intimate fashion. They went out together, naked, with the marks of their lovemaking on both of them, to stand on the dark balcony one level above the square teeming with masked crowds.

She leaned against the waist-high balustrade and guided him into her from behind. Alvar was almost convinced by then that something had been put into his wine. He ought to have been exhausted by this point.

The night breeze as cool. His skin felt feverish, unnaturally sensitive. He could see past her, look down upon the crowd. Music and cries and laughter came up from below and it was as if they were hovering there, their movements almost a part of the dancing, weaving throng in the street. He had never imagined lovemaking in such an exposed fashion could be so exhilarating. It was, though. He would be a liar to deny it. He might want to deny many things tomorrow, but he was not capable of doing so just now.

“Only think,” she whispered, tilting her head far back to whisper to him. “If any of them were to look up… what they would see.”

He felt her tug a little on the leash. He didn’t think he was going to be able to deny this woman anything tonight. And he knew, without yet having tested the limits of it, that she would refuse him nothing he might ask of her between now and dawn. He didn’t know which thought excited or frightened him more. What he did know, finally understanding, was that this was the truth at the heart of the Carnival. For this one night, all the rules were changed.

The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) is an historical fantasy, or what Guy Gavriel Kay calls “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic”. It deals with the fall of Islamic Spain, or Al-Andalus (“Al Rassan”) and asks us to lament, with its characters, the passing of an enlightened age. The heroes of the novel are two men and a woman representing the Abrahamic faiths: Rodrigo Belmonte, a Christian warrior (based on El Cid); Ammar ibn Khairan, a Muslim assassin, advisor to the taifa king of Cordoba (based loosely on Muhammad ibn Ammar, who was vizier to the taifa king of Seville); and Jehane bet Ishak, a Jewish physician in Toledo. These men and woman become allies in a mercenary band until the Reconquest efforts of 1085 AD divide them. The character of Alvar in the above passages is part of that band, a Christian soldier from Rodrigo’s homeland.

It’s a story about unlikely friendships in hard times, and still after twenty years one of my favorite novels. But what, in Kay’s brilliant narrative, is fact-based? In some cases he goes off the rails in indulging the myth of Islamic Spain’s “golden age of tolerance” — that the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed under an enlightened Islamic hegemony — not least in the above festival. In some cases he can get away with it, because the genre excuses it; historical fantasy imposes less reality than historical fiction. In others Kay really does seem to be under false impressions about history that he wants to urge on the reader. Given how many people today believe in the myth of Islamic Spain’s multicultural paradise, it’s worth going through the novel and seeing what aligns with history and what doesn’t.

First things first: the setting

To set the stage: The alternate world resembles 11th century Spain, in the time of the taifa kingdoms (~1031-1094 AD), after the fall of the Cordoba Caliphate. (See the black-and-white map, and compare with the colored map of the actual Spain.) In this world, the taifa period lasts fifteen years, not sixty-three, and the story narrates events al-rassanthat take place during our year of 1085 (the Reconquest invasion and take back of Toledo), and ends with the fall of those petty kingdoms — to the Christian crusaders invading from the north, and to the Islamic fundamentalist “rescue operation” coming up from the south across the ocean. In our world, this fall happened in a series of battles between 1085-1094, but in Kay’s world it takes only two years, across the final chapters of the novel. The epilogue then forwards us twenty years later to show the Reconquest finally taking back all of Spain. In our world that process took over a century longer: most of Muslim Spain fell between 1212-1248, and Granada would hold out until even 1492.

In the fantasy world of Al-Rassan and Esperana, the Asharites represent the Muslims; they worship the stars. The Jaddites are the Christians, worshiping the sun. The Kindath are the Jews, worshiping the two moons (one silver, one blue) of this world. The celestial bodies of worship hold no significance or theological parallels to the faiths of our world, which is effective; since there are no analogies to the figures of Muhammad, Christ, and Moses, we are less predisposed to judge or favor any of the three faiths in advance. Across the sea, the Majriti Desert represents northwest Africa, where the Muwardis are parallel to the Almoravids — the fundamentalist Muslims who are planning to “rescue” their fellow Muslims in Al-Rassan against the efforts of the Christian Reconquest. As in our world, the Almoravid Muslims are far worse than the Christian crusaders, though as we will see, Kay doesn’t always have the best handle on the issue.

Kay has fun rearranging geography and cities, to remind us this is an evocative world and not an exact parallel. Cartada is based on Cordoba; Fezana is Toledo; Silvenes is Seville; Ragosa (the city he takes the most liberties with) is Zaragoza. Ruenda, Valledo, and Jalona are approximations of Leon, Castile, and Aragon, but with an historical reversal used to raise the stakes: King Ramiro of Valledo is based on King Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile, but the historical Alfonso reunited his father’s split three-way inheritance (of Galicia/Leon and Castile) before invading Al-Andalus, not afterwards; in the novel King Ramiro must deal with the machinations of the two sister Christian kingdoms on top of his invasion plans of Islamic Al-Andalus, which heightens the drama.

taifa-spain

The “Golden Age” of the Caliphate

The only sense in which the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031 AD) was a “Golden Age” was in terms of power and might. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Islamic Spain was wealthier and stronger than the Christian states, and it could hardly have been otherwise since it inherited the wealth from the province in 711 and built on its power base since. That doesn’t mean Islamic Spain was more humane or enlightened, and in fact it certainly wasn’t. Required reading on this subject is Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, published this year. It’s sort of like a book that might be called The Myth of the Happy Slave in the Antebellum South. Are such proofs even necessary? Sadly, yes, and there are far more people who believe the former than the latter. I should emphasize that I don’t think Guy Gavriel Kay buys into the myth of the Andalusian paradise completely. There is enough reality evoked in The Lions of Al-Rassan to call it an historical novel, albeit one that takes license based on common misunderstandings.

Let’s start with Jehane — the Jewish heroine of the novel — as she reflects on the “Golden Age”:

The poets were calling the years of the Khalifate a Golden Age now. Jehane had heard the songs and the spoken verses. In those vanished days, however, people might have chafed at the absolute power or the extravagant splendor of the court at [Cordoba], with the wadjis [Muslim clerics] in their temples bemoaning decadence and sacrilege. Yet some among the Kindath [Jews] had risen high among the courts of the [taifa] kings. They paid the heretics’ tax, as did the Jaddites [Christians]. They were to practice their religion only behind closed doors. They were to wear blue and white clothing, as stipulated in [Islamic] law. They were forbidden to ride horses, to have intimate congress with Asharites [Muslims], to build the roofs of their sanctuaries higher than any temple of the Asharites [Muslims] in the same city or town. But there was a life to be found.

This sort of description actually isn’t too bad. Kay mentions the clerical hostility called forth by libertine caliphate, and the degrading laws imposed on the Jewish and Christian dhimmi. The dhimma system was not one of benign taxation; it was a mafia-like extortion racket that kept the Jews and Christians in humiliating servitude. The protection could be revoked at a whim and often was.

However, Kay also says “there was a life to be found”, which is about the equivalent of saying “there was life” for African American slaves in the antebellum south whose masters were known to make them “part of their family”. As Dario Fernandez-Morera bluntly puts it, “The celebrated Umayyads elevated religious and political persecutions, inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions to heights unequaled by any other set of rulers before or after in Spain” (Myth, p 120). And as other honest scholars have pointed out, in no other place in the Islamic empire was the daily influence of Muslim clerics as strong as in Islamic Spain. Clerics played a central role in the inquisitorial system of surveillance. Blasphemy against Muhammad or Allah was a capital offense. If “there was a life to be found” it was for a tiny few.

Sharia and Jihad

What needs stressing is that throughout the entire history of Islamic Spain — from the emirate following the conquest (711-929), to the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), to the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), to the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties — through all these periods, Islamic religion was the law, and sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from the public to the private. Jihad was taken for granted. In fact, one ruler of the Caliphate “Golden Age” period, Al-Mansur (r. 981-1002), carried out close to 60 jihads and commanded that the dust on his clothes be collected after each battle against the Christians so that he could be buried under the glorious dust when he died. The Caliph whom today’s liberals love to cite, Abd al-Rahman III (r. 929-961), developed an Islamic inquisition to combat Greek philosophy.

And yet, for reasons that escape me, people are under a strange impression that the Almoravids and Almohads introduced, or re-introduced, sharia and jihad into the Islamic way of thinking, while the 711-1094 period was somehow free of these core doctrines. That’s completely false. The later fundamentalist dynasties objected to the rich, decadent, and lax lifestyles of the ruling caliphs and taifa kings; and they had stricter or different interpretations of sharia law. But sharia ruled the Muslim way of life in all periods, and it was always oppressive.

Of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafii, Hanafi), the Maliki held authority in Spain, which is the second most strict of the four. The Maliki code forbade Muslims to socialize with Muslims of a different school of law, let alone share in good will with Christians and Jews. As in the other schools, there was no distinction between civil and religious law. In contrast to this, prior to 711 AD in Spain, the Visigothic code of law had combined Visigothic practices, with Roman law, and some Christian principles that, rather remarkably for its time, tried to limit the power of government like the later Magna Carta.

More generally on this point, as Fernandez-Morera explains, the frequent claim that there was no separation of church and state in Christian lands isn’t precise. It’s true that the distinction was blurred at the political level: Christian thought indeed influenced political decision making; the church legitimated monarchs, while secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. But what gets lost in this is the clear distinction between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other (Myth, p 93). This wasn’t true anywhere in the Islamic world — and certainly not in the supposedly enlightened paradise of Spain.

Women

Muslim women were treated horribly in the “Golden Age”. Female circumcision was taken for granted. Muslim women caught in adultery were stoned. They were expected to stay home as much as possible and wear the veil in public. (Women who went out with loose hair and rich garments were usually sexual slave girls.) They couldn’t use the public baths. It’s no surprise that Kay avoids using Asharite [Muslim] female characters in The Lions of Al-Rassan. Even his fantasy revisionism can’t accommodate empowered Muslim women without huge suspensions of disbelief. Zabira is a proactive character, but she is the highest exception, being the favored concubine of a taifa king.

By comparison, the northern Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile were relative “paradises” for women. A Catholic woman’s access to power in the public sphere was light-years ahead of any rights enjoyed by “free” Muslim women in Al-Andalus. It was a unique judicial system in the north, Castile especially, that grew out of independent peasant-soldiers in frontier territory, and according to scholars it may be the only medieval European analogy to English common law. Catholic women could own property and participate in local assemblies. They could work town businesses and own farmland. They could use public baths on certain days that were allotted to them.

That being said, the character of Miranda Belmonte in Kay’s novel is a bit hard to swallow. She is the analog for El Cid’s wife (the historical Jimena Diaz), who admittedly had a will of steel and ruled a city (Valencia) for him after he died. But Kay runs a bit wild with this figure. At one point she orders the servants and soldiers on the Belmonte ranch to restrain her husband returning home, tie him down, whereupon she proceeds to give him a tongue-lashing for his recent military decisions, and then sexually “assault” him before untying him. It’s entertaining fiction, but a bit over the top.

Any truth at all to the “Golden Age”?

The question presses: Is there any kernel of truth to the myth of Islamic tolerance in Spain? There are two points of contact.

First, the culture of the Islamic elite. It’s true that caliphs, and even more so the taifa kings, flouted religious law when it suited them and lived hedonistic lives according to their pleasure. It’s also true that this is a banal observation. The elites of all cultures lived luxuriously and did what they wanted. The significant fact is that most Muslims in all periods of Islamic Spain were subject to clerical policing of detailed religious observance.

Second, the Jews. They had become allies with the invading Muslims in 711 AD out of political expediency, having suffered discrimination under Visigoth rule. The Islamic invaders exploited this, finding it convenient to employ Jewish officials since as dhimmi (second-class citizens) the Jews were dependent on royal favor and easy to control. In a similar way, Hernando Cortes exploited the Tlaxcalan Indians in his struggle against the Aztecs. No one ever dreams of trying to pass off Cortes’ policy as a Christian Spaniard “tolerance” for the Tlaxcalan way of life, or their religious beliefs, or even relative good will. Nor do we hear that the colonial Belgian authorities in the Congo were “tolerant” because they favored the minority Tutsis against other groups. Or that the United States was “tolerant” in working with the Montagnard Hmong against the Marxist-Leninists in Southeast Asia. (See Myth, p 178.) The Islamic conquerors were no more “tolerant” of Jews than any of these invaders or imperial powers — and in many ways they were worse. Caliphs and kings never called their Jewish physicians and viziers “allies” in any case, but rather “servants”, since the Qur’an demonized Jews even worse than Christians. The Muslim masses demonized them too, which is why pogroms and assassinations broke out, like in 1013 (when the Jews were expelled from Cordoba), 1039 (when the Jewish vizier of Zaragoza was assassinated by a Muslim mob), and 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were killed).

Thus, Kay’s portrayal of hedonistic taifa kings (Almalik of Cartada, Badir of Ragosa) and privileged Jewish physicians and advisors (Ishak ben Yonannon, Mazur ben Avren) — we will get to these figures in due course — is historically correct, and reflects a sliver of truth to the so-called “tolerance” of the “Golden Age” period. But that really amounts to nothing. It’s simply “a selective concentration on the remains of an elite culture, in conjunction with the relative and always precarious politically expedient favoritism shown to members of the Jewish community” (Myth, p 239). When Kay goes beyond these two superficial points to imply “there was a life to be found” in this age, he’s indulging revisionism.

The Day of the Moat

The event that ignites the plot in Chapter One is based on the historical Day of the Ditch (806 AD), when Emir Al-Hakam beheaded 5000 people in Toledo on suspicion of treachery. Of the around 5000, 72 were nobles singled out for massacre at a banquet, and then crucified and displayed in a ditch. In the novel, it is 139 people who are killed: the noble, elite, and merchants of Fezana [Toledo], invited to the palace by the visiting prince of another taifa kingdom, Cartada [Cordoba], sent by his father the king who has designs on annexing this one. The guests are attending the prince at a ceremony which is supposed to be the consecration of the palace’s new wing:

They were individually escorted by soldiers down that dark corridor. Approaching the end of it, each in turn could discern a blazing of sunlight. Each of them paused there, squinting, almost sightless on the threshold of light, while a herald announced their proffered names with satisfying resonance.

As they passed, blinking, into the blinding light and stepped forward to offer homage to the hazily perceived, white-robed figure seated on the cushion in the midst of the courtyard, each of the guests was sweepingly beheaded by one of the two soldiers standing on either side of the tunnel’s arch.

The soldiers, not really strangers to this sort of thing, enjoyed their labors perhaps more than they ought to have done. There were, of course, no wadjis [Muslim clerics] waiting in the courtyard; the castle wing was receiving a different sort of consecration.

The toppling bodies were swiftly seized by other soldiers and dragged to the far end of the courtyard where a round tower overlooked the new moat created by diverting the nearby Tavares [Tagus] River. The bodies of the dead men were thrown into the water from a low window in the tower. The severed heads were tossed carelessly onto a bloody pile not far from where the prince of Cartada [Cordoba] sat, ostensibly waiting to receive the most prominent citizens of the most difficult cities he was one day to rule, if he lived long enough.

This event is “historical” in the sense that it represents the kind of thing which happened in all periods of Islamic Spain — the Emirate (711-929), the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), and the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties afterwards. Muslim rulers slaughtered their own as much as they did the dhimmi Jews and Christians, for any number of reasons ranging from the ruthless to the paranoid to the petty. Kay is entirely realistic in this scene.

The Blinding and Silencing of Ishak ben Yonannon

There is the tragic backstory to Jehane’s father, who was rewarded and punished (the parts in bold) for saving a mother and her child during childbirth:

Ishak had performed the only recorded delivery of a child through an incision in the mother’s belly while preserving the life of the mother at the same time. Not Galinus himself, the source and font of all medical knowledge, nor any others, had reported successfully of doing such a thing, though they had noted the procedure and tried. No, it was Ishak ben Yonannon of the Kindath [Jews] who first delivered a living child in such a way, at the palace of Cartada in Al-Rassan in the second decade after the fall of the Khalifate. And then he had healed the mother of her wound and tended her after, so that she rose from her bed one morning, very pale but beautiful as ever, to reclaim her accustomed place in Almalik’s reception hall and his gardens and private chambers.

For this act of courage and skill, on a scale never before known, Almalik of Cartada had gratefully offered a quantity of gold and a gift of property such as to leave Ishak and his wife and daughter secure for the rest of their lives.

Then he had ordered Ishak’s eyes put out and his tongue cut off at the root, that the forbidden sight of an Asharite [Muslim] woman’s nakedness be atoned for, that no man might ever hear a description of Zabira’s splendor from the Kindath [Jewish] doctor who had exposed her to his cold glance and his scalpel.

It was an act of mercy, of a sort. The ordained punishment of a Jaddite [Christian] or Kindath [Jew] who feasted lecherous eyes on the unclothed figure of an Asharite [Muslim] woman who was bride or concubine to another man, was as everyone knew, the death between horses. And this woman belonged to a king, the successor to khalifs, the Lion of Al-Rassan. The wadjis [Muslim clerics] had begun demanding the death of Ishak the moment the story of the birth escaped the palace.

To my knowledge there has never been an Islamic law that stipulates punishment for an infidel who sees a naked Muslim woman, probably because the situation almost never arose. Islamic law does call for the death of infidel Jews and Christians who rape a Muslim woman. (A Muslim, on the other hand, who rapes a Jew or Christian free woman might only be lashed.) And there are plenty of laws and penalties that apply on the Muslim woman herself when she is seen naked or even partially exposed by non-family members, or even raped. Kay’s fiction is a logical complement of sharia law, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if one of the historical taifa kings did something like this. The Qur’an and Islamic law are obsessed with infidels and regulating women. Kay plausibly joins the two in a rather unique scenario involving a Jewish doctor using extraordinary skills to save a Muslim woman and her baby.

Christian Antisemitism: Queen Vasca

At a critical point in the story, Jehane challenges Rodrigo on the subject of bigotry in his Jaddite [Christian] faith:

“Do you remember,” asked Jehane, “what your Queen Vasca said of us [the Jews], when Esperana [Christian Hispania] was the whole peninsula, before the Asharites [Muslims] came and penned you in the north?”

“That was more than three hundred years ago, doctor,” said Rodrigo.

“I know that. Do you remember?”

“Of course I do. But–“

“She said that the Kindath [Jews] were animals, to be hunted down and burned from the face of the earth.”

“Jehane,” Rodrigo said. “I can only repeat, that was three hundred years ago. She is long dead and gone.”

“Not gone! You dare say that? Where is Queen Vasca’s resting place?”

“On the Isle. Vasca’s Isle.”

“Which is a shrine! A place of pilgrimage, where Jaddites [Christians] from all three of your kingdoms come, on their knees, to beg miracles from the spirit of the woman who said that thing.”

Actually, there was no Christian analog to Queen Vasca in our world who advocated genocide of the Jews. I suspect that Kay wanted to create an equivalent to the massacres Muslims committed on Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain (i.e. the Christian martyrs of Cordoba between 851-859, the Jewish thousands in Granada in 1066). It’s true that the laws of Visigoth Spain in the sixth and seventh centuries were antisemitic. Jews couldn’t hold public office or have any power over Christians; and Jew-Christian marriages were illegal. After 613 they were forced to be baptized, which resulted in emigrations and false conversions. The antisemitic theologian of this period was Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636), who authored On the Christian Faith against the Jews. But even Isidore, while he condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus, explicitly opposed the state’s policy of forced Jewish conversions. So not even he comes close to being a parallel to Kay’s Queen Vasca, who called for a powerless people to be hunted down and destroyed.

Of course, Kay can do as he pleases in his fictional alternate world, and part of me actually likes the idea of a bloodthirsty queen whose shrine is revered on a sacred isle. But in today’s politically-correct culture that demonizes Christianity at every opportunity while whitewashing Islam, it’s helpful to point out that Queen Vasca is completely unhistorical.

The Jewish Prince: Mazur ben Avren

We’ve already seen the reason for Jewish privilege in Islamic Spain, which had nothing to do with Islamic “tolerance”. One might guess, however, that Kay pushes the envelope with the character of Mazur ben Avren — chancellor under a king who actually grants him military power.

The two men had known each other a long time. Badir had taken a huge risk at the very outset of his reign in appointing a Kindath [Jewish] chancellor. The Asharite [Muslim] texts were explicit: no Kindath [Jew] or Jaddite [Christian] could hold sovereign authority of any kind over Asharites [Muslims]. The penalty was death by stones. Of course, no one who mattered in Al-Rassan followed the texts. Not during the Khalifate, not after. The glass of wine in the king’s hand was the most current evidence of that. Even so, a Kindath [Jew] chancellor had been a very large thing. There was a chance that roll of the dice might have cost Badir his newly claimed crown and his life if the people had risen in righteous wrath.

In return for that risk taken, Mazur ben Avren had made Ragosa [Zaragoza] not only independent, but the second most powerful kingdom in Al-Rassan in the turbulent years after the caliphate’s fall. He had guided the city and her king through the dangerous shoals of a swiftly changing world, and had kept Ragosa [Zaragoza] free and solvent and proud. He had ridden with an army himself in the first years, in campaigns to the south and east, and had directed it in the field, triumphantly. His mount had been a mule, not a horse forbidden to infidels; Mazur knew enough to offer the wadjis [Muslim clerics] their necessary symbols of deference. Nonetheless, the simple truth was that Mazur ben Avren was the first Kindath [Jew] to command an army in the western world… Much could be forgiven if a war went well and an army came home with gold, and much had been forgiven — thus far.

Believe it or not, this extravagant character is historical. Mazur ben Avren is based on Samuel ibn Naghrela (993–1056 AD), who had become the most powerful Jew in the history of Islamic Spain. He was the only Jew to command Muslim armies — the direst of blasphemies. In our world, he was the vizier to King Badis of Granada; in Kay’s alternate world, he serves King Badir of Ragosa (our Zaragoza).

Samuel ibn Naghrela is the classic case held up by today’s liberals to promote the “Golden Age” theory of the Andalusian paradise, which is silly since he’s the outlandish exception proving the rule. As I covered above, the caliphs had found it convenient to employ Jewish administrators, merchants, and physicians, since (unlike high-born Muslims) they depended on royal favor and were easy to control. (The Jewish scholar Hasdai, who served Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, is another example.) When the Cordoba caliphate fell and the taifa kings carved out their own kingdoms, they were frequently at war with each other, which gave Jews even more opportunities. And for whatever reason, King Badis of Granada went the whole blasphemous nine yards in appointing a Jewish military commander. So the character of Mazur ben Avren aligns with the history of our world. Unlike the rest of what we find in Ragosa…

The City of Ragosa

Pretty much everything else about Ragosa is a psychedelic fantasy. But it’s very good fantasy, in my opinion, showcasing some of Kay’s best writing and character drama. At the top of the post I cited Alvar’s loss of innocence at the Carnival, which comes towards the end. Here is his first exposure to the city, when he arrives to serve as a mercenary under Rodrigo Belmonte (the El Cid character):

It was true, what he had been told: the [Muslims] of Al-Rassan inhabited an entirely different world than [his people in Castile]. Every second object in the palace or the gracious homes he had seen seemed to be made of carved and polished ivory, imported by ship from the east. Even the handles of the knives used at some tables. The knobs on the palace doors. Despite the slow decline of Al-Rassan since the fall of [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza] was a conspicuously wealthy city. Besides the celebrated workers in ivory there were poets and singers here, leather workers, woodcarvers, masons, glassblowers, stonecutters — masters of a bewildering variety of trades.

For the Christian Alvar, who has never been beyond the lands of Castile, these cosmopolitan wonders start to erode his blind hostility to the Muslim world. By contrast, the Islamic fundamentalist Yazir ibn Q’arif has a purely hostile view of his Muslim cousins in Spain, based on reports that he receives in the Majriti (the northwest Africa of Kay’s world):

Yazir’s soldiers and mercenaries sent home all their wages, and with these sums came tidings of affairs in Al-Rassan [Al-Andalus]. Some of it was comprehensible, some of it was not. He learned that there were courtyards within the palaces of the kings, and even in the public squares of cities, where water was permitted to burst freely from pipes through the mouths of sculpted animals — and then to run away again, unused. This was almost impossible to credit, but the tale had been reported too many times not to be true.

One report — this one a fable, obviously — even had it that in Ragosa [Zaragoza], where a Kindath [Jewish] sorcerer had bewitched the feeble king, a river ran through the palace. It was said that there was a waterfall in the sorcerer’s bedchamber, where the Kindath [Jewish] fiend bedded helpless Asharite [Muslim] women, ripping their maidenheads and laughing at his power over [Allah’s believers]. Yazir stirred restlessly within his cloak; the image filled him with a heavy rage.

With regards to the historical Zaragoza of our world, Yazir has the right of it. Kay’s depiction of the city is a complete fable. But as I said it’s a powerful one, and perfectly appropriate in historical fantasy. It’s not as if Kay wants us to believe (or at least I hope he doesn’t) that our real-world Zaragoza, or any of the taifa cities, hosted anything like the annual spring Carnival, where the people of all three faiths took to the streets in masks, sharing food and drink, cavorting to music, and having sex with complete strangers. He seems to be using an extreme vision to make a point about the potential of cross-cultural sharing that perhaps could arise in slightly less extravagant settings that he presumably believes existed, historically, in the taifa cities.

Alas, even that potential was hardly there. In all periods of Islamic Spain, including those of the Cordoba caliphate and the taifa kingdoms, cross-cultural sharing was a farce. Maliki jurisprudence forbade socializing with even Muslims of a different school of law, let alone “sharing” with Christians or Jews (Fernandez-Morera, Myth, p 115). The Christian diet of pork and garlic, not to mention wine, was an obstacle to sharing table-fellowship with Muslims, and when Muslims did have to interact among the dhimmi, they had to use their own utensils and eat “in parallel” rather than actual fellowship. As far as festivals, Maliki law prohibited musical instruments and singing, let alone booze. Clerics had authority to enter houses to break up strings and wind instruments if they even heard them playing. That some rulers and rich Muslims flouted these laws (their singers and musicians were usually slaves) doesn’t negate what dominated most of society. As for interfaith sex, it was entirely out of the question.

I wonder if Kay took some inspiration for his Carnival from the mistaken assumption (even among scholars) that Muslims in Cordoba were known to have “shared” in public Christmas celebrations. The problem with this is the timing. We have evidence of this only in the 13th century, after the Christians had taken back Cordoba in 1236. As Fernandez-Morera says, it makes no sense to point out what Muslims did in Christian-controlled cities as supposed evidence of religious harmony and tolerance in Islamic Spain! In Muslim controlled cities, Jewish and Christian festivals were never allowed to be celebrated in public, let alone “shared” with Muslims (Myth, p 114).

Nevertheless, I don’t begrudge Kay for inventing the idea of the Carnival and running wild with it. Literature often explores the theme of a common humanity across the ethnic divide. The following interaction takes place the day before the Carnival, between Alvar and Husari, dressed in the garb of the other’s faith:

“In the name of the moons, look at the two of you!” Jehane exclaimed.

Alvar was dressed in a wide-sleeve linen overshirt, ivory-colored, loosely belted at the waist, over hose of slightly darker shade and Asharite [Muslim] city slippers, worked with gold thread. He wore a soft cloth cap, crimson colored, bought in the market weeks before.

Husari ibn Musa wore a plain brown Jaddite [Christian] soldier’s shirt under a stained and well-worn leather vest. His horseman’s trousers were tucked into high black boots. On his head he wore a brown, wide-brimmed leather hat.

“My sadly departed mother would have been diverted, I hope,” Husari said. “She had a gift of laughter, may [Allah] guard her spirit.”

“Mine would be appalled,” Alvar said in his most helpful voice. Husari laughed.

Jehane struggled not to. “What would any rational person say, looking at you two?”

“I think,” Husari murmured, “such a person — if we could find one in Ragosa this week — might say we two represent the best this peninsula has to offer. Brave Alvar and my poor self, as we stand humbly before you, are proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds. That we can take the very finest things from each, to make a new whole, shining and imperishable.”

“I’m not sure that vest of yours is the finest Valledo [Castile] has to offer,” Alvar said, “but we’ll let that pass.”

“And I’m not sure I wanted a serious answer to my question,” Jehane said.

Husari grinned. “Did I give you one? Oh dear. I was just trying my pendant’s manner. I’ve been asked to give a lecture on the ethics of trade at the university this summer. I’m in training. I have to give long, sweeping answers to everything.”

(A sidebar about the overpraised “universities” in Islamic Spain: they were actually schools for the study of religious texts and law. When the Arabs conquered the Christian world and took over the Christian Greek universities, it is true that they started teaching subjects like medicine and philosophy, and this was the case in Spain; but even at this point, the only degree you could get at these schools was in religious law. Philosophy was a hobby for the select few and had no impact on daily life, for that was the role of sharia. As for most of the arts — sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric — they weren’t taught at all, deemed unseemly if not blasphemous. See Fernadez-Morera, Myth, pp 65-68, 76-77.)

At certain moments, Jehane thought, in the presence of men like Husari ibn Musa, or young Alvar, it was actually possible to imagine a future for this peninsula that left room for hope. Men and women could change, could cross boundaries, give and take, each from the other… given enough time, enough good will, intelligence. There was a world for the making in [Leon/Castile/Aragon] and [Al-Andalus], one world made of the two — or perhaps, if one were to dream big, made of even three.

Jehane’s thought process may come across as unduly modern, and the scenario historically unlikely, but it works. And that sums up my feelings for the Ragosa chapters. They are unhistorical, even wildly so in the case of the Carnival, but as long as we’re under no delusions, they fulfill the ambition of good literature. Kay doesn’t use Ragosa to make angry statements about ethnic bigotry; he doesn’t preach. Rather, he engages the social drama of his (admittedly propagandist) world, and tests ideas by showing what happens when they naturally unfold. The results are ugly — the killing of Jehane’s servant being the painful climax of the Carnival — and the reader is left struggling, much like the novel’s characters, with timeless human dilemmas. That’s a huge score.

“Civilized” Al-Rassan vs. the Desert Tribes from Across the Sea

In the chapter set in northwest Africa, the prince of Cordoba begs aid from the desert warrior Yazir ibn Q’arif, whose character I relish:

The tribesmen of the desert would not be sparing any moments of prayer for the secular degenerate worse-than-infidel, King Almalik of Cartada [Cordoba], who had just died. As far as the Muwardis [Almoravids] were concerned, all of the kings of Al-Rassan merited approximately the same fate.

Yazir had long ago realized — and had tried to make his brother understand — that the softness of life in Al-Rassan had not only turned the men there into infidels, it had also made them very nearly women. Less than women, in fact. Not one of Yazir’s own wives would have been half so pathetic as this Prince Hazem of Cartada [Cordoba], his nose dripping like a child’s in the face of a little wind. And this young man, lamentably, was one of the devout ones. One of the true, pious followers of Ashar [Allah] in Al-Rassan. Yazir was forced to keep reminding himself of that. [The Qur’an] had taught that charity towards the devout was the highest deed of earthly piety, short of dying in a holy war.

Hazem had been corresponding with them for some time. Now he had come himself to the Majriti [North African coast], a long way in a difficult season, to speak his plea to the two leaders of the Muwardis [Almoravids], here on a blanket before flapping tents in the vast and empty desert. Cities and houses were what the soft men of Al-Rassan knew. Beds with scented pillows, cushions to recline upon. Flowers and trees and green grass, with more water than any man could use in his lifetime. Forbidden wine and naked dancers and painted Jaddite [Christian] women. Arrogant Kindath [Jew] merchants exploiting the faithful and worshiping their [false god instead of Allah]. A world where the bells summoning to prayer were occasion for a cursory nod in the direction of a temple, if that much.

Yazir dreamed at night of fire. A great burning in Al-Rassan and north of it, among the Jaddite [Christian] kingdoms of Esperana [Leon/Castile/Aragon]. He dreamed of a purging inferno that would leave the green, seductive land scorched back towards sand but pure again, ready for rebirth. A place where the holy stars might shine cleanly down and not avert their light in horror and what men did below in the cesspools of their cities.

Kay portrays the Almoravids of northwest Africa as fundamentalist Muslims who despise their “worse-than-infidel” cousins in Spain, which is historically accurate. But he also implies that the decadent dynasties of the taifa kings are an indication of a more enlightened or pluralistic society in Al-Andalus, which is false. Fundamentalist rhetoric paints such a picture, but that’s the nature of fundamentalism. When Kay writes in the same chapter that “Al-Rassan after the Khalifate’s fall, and even long before, had not been the most devout place in the [Muslim] world,” he’s essentially adopting the hostile fundamentalist perspective and treating it as truth.

In fact, as we’ve seen already, Al-Andalus was very devout. The idea that non-fundamentalist Muslims don’t believe in jihad and sharia law is like saying non-fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection.

The Reconquest: Proto-crusades

A strong advantage of the alternate-world genre is that it allows Kay to telescope historical events for simplicity and better effect. In this case, the Reconquest invasion of 1085 AD with the First Crusade to Palestine in 1096:

The High Cleric, Geraud de Chervales, announced: “Hear, then, news to cause all hearts to exult and offer praise: the king of Ferrieres [France] and both counts of Waleska [Germany], and most of the nobility of Batiara [Italy] have come together to wage war.”

What? Where?” said Constable Gonzales, the sharp words pulled from him.

The cleric’s smile grew even more triumphant. His blue eyes shone. “In [Palestine],” he whispered into the stillness. “In the desert homelands of the infidels, where Jad [Christ] is denied and cursed. The army of the god [the First Crusade] is assembling even now. Already, though, a first battle has been fought in this holy war; we heard the tidings before we left to come to you.”

“Where was this battle?” Gonzales again.

“A city called Sorenica [Salonica]. Do you know it?”

“I do,” said King Ramiro quietly. “It is the Kindath [Jewish] city, granted them as their own long ago, for aid given the princes of Batiara in peace and war. What Asharite [Muslim] armies were there, may I ask?”

Geraud’s smile faded. There was a coldness in his eyes now. The belated recognition of a possible foe. Be careful, Ramiro told himself.

The cleric said, “Think you the Asharites [Muslims] are the only infidels we must face?

Few people know that the Spanish Reconquest was the real “first crusade”. By as early as 1063, Pope Alexander I promised indulgences to Spaniards who drove out the Muslims. That was 30 years before Pope Urban II launched what we call the First Crusade in 1095. The Reconquest, of course, had been prosecuted on-and-off for over 300 years since the 720s, but by the 1060s popes began treating Reconquest efforts as a religious campaign equivalent with the emerging theology of holy war. Kay telescopes the retaking of Toledo in 1085 with the crusade to Palestine in 1096-1099 as being coordinated at the same time, allowing the theme of Christian holy war to resonate more strongly. That’s a smart use of the fantasy world.

Kay blunders, on the other hand, with the Jewish massacre that occurred during the First Crusade. He gives the Jews a special city where they govern in autonomy. Sorenica seems loosely based on Salonica/Thessaloniki, which had a large Jewish population, though obviously not exclusively Jewish, and they obviously didn’t have their own rule; and historically the Jews of Salonica got plundered in the Fourth Crusade, not the First. These adaptations are fine and harmless. But Kay makes the Jewish slaughter part of the church’s intent, which is a common myth. The Catholic church never, in the entire era of the crusades, preached a holy war against the Jews. When misguided crusaders slaughtered Jews, they were roundly condemned by popes and church authorities. Instead, Kay has the high priest practically salivating at the thought of killing Jews.

“A camel herder in the Majriti or a shepherd in Esperana?”

In other words, if you were a Muslim in Spain, would you want to join rival Muslims in Africa or be taken over by Christian crusaders? Ammar ibn Khairan chooses the former:

“Fezana [Toledo] will fall to [our crusaders],” said Rodrigo, “before summer’s end. And then [the Almoravid Muslims] will come across the straits to meet us. Al-Rassan is theirs, or it is ours, Ammar. You must see that. Fezana [Toledo], Cartada [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza], Silvenes [Seville], they cannot be saved. Even you cannot dance that dance between fires. And surely, Ammar, you must know –“

“I have to try.”

“What?”

“Rodrigo, I have to try. To dance that dance.”

Rodrigo stopped, breathing hard, like a horse reined up too harshly. “Your faith means so much to you?”

“My faith? I would put it differently. I would say, my history. Not just [Al-Andalus], but [Palestine and Arabia], the desert of [Muhammad’s] homelands. The [Almoravids]?” Ammar shrugged his shoulders. “They are a part of that. Every people has its zealots. They are as most of the people of your north are today. Righteous, convinced, unforgiving, uncivilized. But I confess I find little of value in your cities of [Leon and Castile] either. The [African] desert is a hard place, harder than even your northlands in winter. [Allah] knows, I have no bonding of spirit with fundamentalists, but I share even less with those who venerate your fanatic saints. Would I rather be with the [Almoravids]? Again, put it a little differently, and then leave it, Rodrigo, as my last words, lest we quarrel before we part. I suppose I would rather, if [Al-Andalus] is to be lost, herd camels in [Africa] than be a shepherd in [Spain].”

“No! That cannot be the last word, Ammar!” Rodrigo shook his head vehemently. “How do I let you ride to them? Do you know what they will do to you?”

What they did to Al-Mu’tamid, in our world, was nasty. He was the taifa king of Seville, and the historical figure who said the words that Kay gives to Ammar — that he would “rather be a camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. And for his loyalty to Islam he was “rewarded” by being made captive by the Almoravids and tortured. No camel driving career for him.

Kay cops out of this history in favor of a happy ending. In the epilogue we learn that Ammar was pardoned by Yazir ibn Q’arif (despite the cries of Yazir’s people for Ammar’s slow and painful death), and is living with Jehane in Italy. For me, this is the worst part of the novel. Ammar deserved a tragic ending like Rodrigo.

It’s important to note the false equivalence Ammar makes between the Muslim fundamentalists and the Christian “fanatical saints”. In fact, as we’ve seen repeatedly, the Christians in the north were more enlightened than not only the fundamentalist Muslims from Africa, but also the Muslims of Spain. For all the laxity and decadence in the courts of the taifa kings, jihad and sharia law remained (as always) oppressive tenets of Islam, especially under the Maliki code of jurisprudence. The fundamentalist Almoravid tribes in Africa simply had differing interpretations of sharia law and zealous hatred for the cosmopolitan elite. Ammar is one of those elite (a court poet and assassin), and he could never achieve friendship with an Almoravid in the way he did with a Christian warrior like Rodrigo.

And yet aside from the false equivalence, Ammar’s stubborn allegiance to Islam — like the historical Al-Mu’tamid’s — is completely believable, and all the more disturbing for it. It’s not easy to let go of our heritage. As Ammar says, it’s less his faith (being a hedonist in the elite courts) and more his history, or cultural identity. I think this is a point for many liberal-minded Muslims today who get defensive when Islam is criticized as a system of toxic beliefs that is inherently more dangerous than other religions.

Ammar is my favorite character in The Lions of Al-Rassan, and his response to Rodrigo, “rather a camel herder in Africa than a shepherd in Spain”, is my favorite scene, precisely because it’s so realistic and misguided. History proved that with Al-Mu’tamid. I only wish that Kay had followed history all the way through, by giving Ammar an appropriate tragic ending.

The Passing of an Age

But what kind of age? Kay blends fantasy and historical realism, but the scales tip on the propagandist side. He really wants us to grieve for the fall of Al-Rassan, and view the northern and southern invaders about equally benighted. If I lived in 11th-century Spain, frankly, I’d be inclined to welcome the Reconquest. Kay’s propaganda is a success, because the fact is that I do keep grieving for Al-Rassan every time I read the novel — the story is so damn compelling. This scene from the final chapter chokes me up every time, when Ragosa is besieged, and the Jewish chancellor Mazur ben Avren offers to sacrifice himself to the outside mobs, so that his king might receive some clemency.

King Badir scowled. “We have been through this. Do not vex me again. I will not accept your resignation, your departure, your sacrifice… none of these things. What am I clinging to, so desperately, that I would allow myself to lose you?”

“Life? The lives of your people?”

Badir shook his head. “I am too old to clutch like that.” He gestured around the room. “We made this together, my friend. If it goes, one way or another, I will make an end drinking my wine with you. Do not speak of this again. I regard the subject as a… betrayal.”

Ben Avren’s expression was grave. “It is not that, my lord.”

“It is. We find a way out together, or we do not. Are you not proud of what we have achieved, we two? Is it not a denial of our very lives to speak as you are speaking now? I will not cling to some miserable form of existence at the price of all we have been. Are there not some things we have made here, some things we have done, that are worthy to have been in [Cordoba] in the Golden Age?”

And Mazur ben Avren, with a rare emotion in his deep voice, replied, “There has been a king here, at the least, my lord, more than worthy to have been a khalif in those most shining days.”

Another silence. “Then speak no more, old friend, of my losing you. I cannot.”

It could almost make me wonder if King Badis of Granada and his Jewish prince ever had such a deep friendship.

Nothing in my analysis has been intended to undermine the power of Kay’s novel. I consider The Lions of Al-Rassan inspired enough to constitute lasting literature, and because it’s so good it gets away with plenty of dramatic license. What I have tried to do is show where Kay’s world and ours intersect, and where they do not, for the historically curious. And as I finish writing this, I am about to start Kay’s latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, set in the same alternate world but centuries later in the time of the Ottoman Empire…

Review: A Dream of Spring

dream of springWhen I heard that the last Song of Ice and Fire book would be released this summer, I called bullshit like everyone else. In hindsight, I suppose skipping over The Winds of Winter was Martin’s best move. The sixth season of the TV series did more than steal his thunder; it underscored how badly he had fallen as a writer. Like the early novels it moved mountains of plotting, and some critics are calling it the best season yet. If Martin ever does bother finishing The Winds of Winter he should simply adapt the TV-script with minimal modifications. Weiss and Benioff showed him up big time this year, and the message was loud and clear: Remember who your readers are, George — what they signed on for, and what you used to be capable of.

Martin was evidently worried this might happen, because for the past year he’s been rushing to crank out book seven. Yes it’s really here, and it’s pretty damn good, certainly the best entry since A Storm of Swords, though it shows signs of haste. At 574 pages it’s the shortest volume (even Feast for Crows topped 600), and overloaded with shocks, deaths, and surprises that come flying out-of-nowhere and sometimes feel forced. Above all it betrays an author who is pissed at how superior his story has become in the hands of TV adapters. A Dream of Spring is Martin’s desperate appeal that he can still write a good story, and his blatant attempt to go out with a bang before the show writers can. He’s largely successful in this regard. He was too under the gun to craft anything close to a masterpiece; but where he does score, the payoffs are grand.

Huge spoilers follow, so stop now if you don’t want to hear them. Bran is the character who demands the most attention, but before his memorable lead in the first chapter comes a six-section prologue which in some ways — and I hope I’m not damning the book on whole by saying this — is the most suspenseful part. Martin’s novels have always relied on prologues to set the stage, but they’re usually brief and seen through the lens of trivial characters. In A Dream of Spring he serves up what is virtually a short story about the Citadel conspiracy in Oldtown: six chapter equivalents from Samwell’s point of view. (I’m sure most of these were originally intended as Samwell chapters for The Winds of Winter.) Sam has basically traded warfare at the Wall for an intellectual battle at the Citadel, in which sorcery clashes with science and leaves no easy place for his allegiance. It doesn’t hurt that the “antiquated” school has colorful conspirators carrying the flag, nor does it help that “progressive” maesters do little more than sit around and pass gas; Sam is torn both ways, starting as a key player for a Targaryen comeback until shafted by Sand Snake Sarella — a shocking twist that pays dividends as he ultimately throws in his lot with the dominant faction.

In some ways the Citadel conspiracy is my favorite part of A Dream of Spring. It has the tight focus we haven’t seen since the early novels, before Martin spread his story over too many minor characters. And the drama is tense as hell. I was sweating trying to figure out who was doing what to whom. Truths are revealed as half-truths and lies, allies more lethal than enemies, the kind of intrigue we saw in book 1 as Ned was trying to figure out who killed Jon Arryn, and in book 2 when Tyrion was playing all sides against the middle. The transition to Bran was almost a come down after this cracking intro; Martin should consider writing mystery thrillers. This is all to say that the rise and fall of the Citadel conspiracy is deftly executed, brilliantly complex, and proof positive that Martin hasn’t lost his touch. He still has the mojo when he applies himself. He perhaps over-applies himself, however, with Bran.

Bran’s homoerotic passion for a Forest Child will be extremely controversial, not least because of his age. In the TV series Isaac Hempstead Wright has become a strapping youth of 17, but in the books Bran is still only 10. (Four years have passed since the first chapter of book 1.) It is implied that Bran’s greenseer powers have accelerated certain aspects of his biology, but this is still disturbing territory, and there are heavy shades of Ishmael, the androgynous figure from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In that film Ishmael physically caresses the prepubescent Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Pollen caresses Bran and empowers him in a similar way to murder someone leagues away, but the carnality is much more overt; Pollen is blatantly sexually assaulting him until Bran’s rage turns to passion. It’s an extremely well-written scene, and I’ve said in previous reviews that Martin’s best writing comes in the Bran chapters. But it’s a scene you will feel ashamed of reading.

Bran’s chapters will be controversial in other ways. He’s the most important character (he gets 14 chapters out of 62, almost a quarter of the novel), but his seminal moments depend on changing the past in ways that don’t really change it at all. That worked brilliantly in the TV series in paying off the character of Hodor, but at this stage the results are too predictable: It is Bran Stark who raises the Wall 8000 years ago, unleashing an explosive force of weir-magic through his ancestor Bran the Builder. It is likewise Bran Stark responsible for the mysterious vanishing of the Others in that same year, as he summons them forward in time to the point of four years ago, in order to precipitate the events which will lead to Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings. And he is also Bran the Breaker, who in a fit of epileptic fury defeats the Night’s King and solves the riddle of Joramun’s Horn. Time travel is always risky business, and for the most part Martin handles it well, but again, the events are rather banal once they are telegraphed; we’ve seen this kind of thing done before in fantasy and sci-fic. On the other hand, it’s a solid payoff to Bran’s warging abilities combined with his weir-magic that gives him a near godlike omniscience and omnipresence across time.

The lady Starks get good chapters and surpass themselves. It’s impossible to not feel elated for Sansa as after so much torment in the previous books she assumes control of both Winterfell and the Eyrie, and shafts Littlefinger by consigning him to the Wall. Arya assassinates literally hundreds of Freys and Lannisters before being snared and gang-raped by hundreds more. Her prolonged torture and death is inflammatory by even Martin’s standards, and while this isn’t exactly a complaint on my part, there does seem to be a “My dick is bigger than yours” thing going on between the novels and TV series, as if Martin and Weiss/Benioff are competing to outshine each other with shock value. I wonder how Martin’s spouse-equivalent has reacted to this. Arya is her favorite character and was originally slated to die in book 2; it’s well known among fans that she forbade Martin to kill her off. Arya is my favorite character too, and while I don’t object to her dying unjustly, I’ll certainly say she deserved to go out better than this.

There are shocks around every corner, and by far the most gratifying one is the Iron Throne’s literal rejection of Cersei Lannister. While there have been hints that the Throne is sentient (“Some days you can feel it eating into you,” said King Robert in book 1), the reawakening and arrival of dragons in Westeros seem to have triggered a full-blown animation. The First of Her Name pronounces war on Dorne and the Reach, speaking her awful judgment from the throne only to be gruesomely impaled by its blades. It’s a bit cartoonish but I was cheering; Jaime is another matter. His murder at the hands of Ser Enchanted-Gregor is anything but cartoonish and rather upsetting. We’ve come a long way with Jaime since he threw Bran off the tower, and it’s safe to say he will go down a big favorite of many fans. He finally opposes his wretched sister, and makes a sacrifice for Sansa so sublime that brings perfect closure to the arc with Brienne. All of Martin’s characters are believable, but none more so than Jaime. He has been Martin’s most authentic character by far.

As for the showdown between the Hound (villain turned hero) and Lady Stoneheart (hero turned villain), it’s entertaining but the tone is all wrong, like something out of a B-grade horror film. In chapters like these Martin was clearly taking the piss in his hurry to finish the book. Euron is another case in point. The Greyjoy thread was my favorite part of A Feast for Crows; it was loaded with potential. But Euron’s story devolves into a caricature of sadistic kinslaying — brandishing Theon’s head in public while dressing up in his niece’s skins to terrorize his fellow man. On the other hand, Aeron Damphair gets a standout chapter. His toxic prayers against Euron backfire (literally: he’s killed by a sea-storm so wild it may as well be the Drowned God incarnate), but his righteous tirades are the most entertaining I’ve read in a work of fiction.

The battle between the dragons and the Others is what we’ve long waited for, and it’s good if somewhat by the numbers. On TV next year it’s sure to be mind-blowing. The identity of the dragon with three heads is as I predicted — Dany on Drogon, Aegon on Rhaegal, and Tyrion on Viserion, until Tyrion dies (more on that in a moment) and Jon supplants him. It’s surprising that so many readers dismissed Aegon as a phony pretender. If that were true, Dany’s revelation in the House of the Undying would make no sense. Besides, there is a Martinesque poetry in two bastard sons (Tyrion from Aerys, Jon from Rhaegar) “sharing” a dragon, and the way Viserion’s reins are handed off to Jon is extremely well played. At the Wall, Littlefinger makes the most treacherous move in the series — even I was appalled — and Tyrion dies saving Jon, closing the loop of their friendship established in book 1 when Tyrion visited the Wall on a whim. As for the character of Aegon, he’s somewhat a mixed bag. He began as a cipher in Dance with Dragons (I’m not surprised the show writers dumped him, at least so far), but he’s more interesting now; the problem is that he doesn’t get enough chapters warranted by his role as “the song of ice and fire”. On top of that, much of his story would have been fleshed out in the unfinished Winds of Winter, and so we’re left to fill in the blanks without assistance from the TV series.

Fans have expected Jon and Dany to fulfill the ice and fire prophecy — Jon being the ice and Dany the fire. In fact, it is Sansa who is the ice (she being a complete Stark, unlike Jon), and Aegon the Targaryen fire as promised. I didn’t see it coming with Sansa, even though a fringe group of fans have been predicting a Jon-Sansa pairing. I rejected that theory and am now eating crow. Their passion for each other is intense, though somewhat cheap; I didn’t care for the way Sansa’s red hair evoked memories of Ygritte every time she and Jon were in the sack, nor for their cheesy promises to each other. The Iron Throne does seem to be where Jon is headed until Martin pulls a fast one, leaving the rule of Westeros to Aegon and a heartbroken Sansa who reluctantly then resolutely steps up as queen. Jon and Dany practically fade to black, saviors of Westeros whose cousin and nephew will wear the crowns. That is Martin’s song: the marriage of House Stark and Targaryen’s most capable members.

Many will object to Dany’s ending, but I honestly never thought she would rule Westeros. Her departure for Mereen may seem anti-climactic, but for me it works, especially considering the unfinished business there on top of Daario Naharis’ assassination. In the end she is truly concerned about oppressive injustices more than a prestigious birthright, which is Aegon’s anyway. She accepts that she is a tyrant despite her cause for the dispossessed (unlike Sansa who is naturally tender and knows cruelty firsthand); Jon sees that he’s idealistically naive (unlike Aegon whose integrity is balanced by political realism). I love their farewell at the Wall, and no they don’t get married. In the epilogue Jon is ruling Winterfell without a queen, by all indications as celibate as when he wore the black. And as grim: the Wildlings seem to be a major problem. He reaps what he sowed by his noble intentions, like Dany in Slaver’s Bay. Which is all fine and well. A Song of Ice and Fire was never slated for the most happy ending, and it deserves to live up to its grim reputation. The closing chapters do that, leaving us with only a dim hope, or dream, for a better Westeros.

I doubt that Martin will ever bother finishing The Winds of Winter, and at this point that’s probably just as well. The TV series told that part of the story better than he could ever hope to. I’m just glad he was able to pull his shit together for A Dream of Spring and produce a satisfying conclusion. Even without a leg A Song of Ice and Fire now stands as one of the best epic fantasies of all time.

Ratings

A Game of Thrones — 5
A Clash of Kings — 5
A Storm of Swords — 5+
A Feast for Crows — 3
A Dance with Dragons — 4
The Winds of Winter — ?
A Dream of Spring — 4 ½

(Previous volumes reviewed here.)

Stormbringer = Tolkien’s Long Defeat + Noah’s Flood

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It strikes me that the Elric saga crosses the long defeat theme of Middle-Earth with the nihilism of Noah’s flood. Whether or not this was Moorcock’s intention, I’ve no idea, but it practically leaps from the pages in the final novel Stormbringer.

(1) The Long Defeat. The premise is that Elric is fighting the forces of Chaos, even though his people have been the agents of Chaos. The Melniboneans in this sense are a bit like Tolkien’s elves, a high race tied to that which they are fighting against, and doomed to pass so that men can take over in a more manageable age. The One Ring was pure evil, but the elves’ magic depended on it. As Galadriel says to Frodo, his quest to destroy the Ring is, from her point of view, “the footstep of doom”:

“If you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.”

Galadriel even wishes that the One Ring had been lost and never found, so that it wouldn’t have to be destroyed. Its existence enables the elves to work their enchantments (by their lesser rings of power) and keep alive the pocket-paradises of Lothlorien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens.

The Melniboneans are likewise a race for whom magic is innate, though unlike the elves, they tend to be evil like the forces of Chaos they serve.

“Elric’s people were neither true men nor true members of the ancient races who had come before men. They were an intermediary type and Elric was half-consciously aware of this; aware that he was the last of an inbred line who had, without effort, used Chaos-given sorcery as others used their earthly skills — for convenience. His race had been of Chaos, having no need of self-control or the self-restrictions of the new races who had emerged with the Age of the Young Kingdoms.”

Moorcock describes the Melniboneans and their sorcery as “an older cleaner sort of evil” contrasted with “the perverted upstart” sorcerers of Pan Tang who are now seeking to emulate Melnibone without understanding how, and thus threaten the world’s stability. Elric, on the other hand, is an exceptional Melnibonean, striving for a world in which justice and Law can be possible, and as such he becomes the agent of Chaos who will defeat the forces of Chaos and ensure his own downfall.

“Elric knew that in reality, Chaos was the real harbinger of stagnation, for though it changed constantly, it never progressed. In his heart he yearned for this state, for he had many loyalties to the lords of Chaos and his own folk of Melnibone had worked, since their inception, to further the aims of Chaos. But now Chaos must make war on Chaos; Elric must turn against those he had once been loyal to, using weapons forged by chaotic forces to defeat those selfsame forces in this time of change.”

Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is thus somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Both will defeat evil, but in the process cause the passing of gifted races who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age — a historical age in which humanity will have more of a fighting chance, without entities like Sauron and demons like Arioch.

(2) Complete Destruction. In Elric’s world, however, the new age of history won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must destroy the world so humanity can start over with a clean slate. Things are so bad that a purging is required, the equivalent of Noah’s flood. Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what. Everything he has ever known — his fallen empire, the newer kingdoms, his wife Zarozinia who impaled herself on Stormbringer after being warped by Chaos into a huge worm from the neck down, all his friends and enemies and loves — will be wiped away and forgotten. It’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. Thanks to Elric, order and justice will rise from the ash, and chaos and evil will become at least manageable.

I almost never compare fantasies to Tolkien unless negatively, to describe how lazy and unoriginal they are. The Elric saga is an exception. Here the Tolkien vibes are strong and in a good way. Which is ironic considering Moorcock’s vocal disdain for The Lord of the Rings. Maybe he took more from Middle-Earth than he realized.

How to Read the Elric Saga (Publication Order vs. Chronology, Part II)

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In the ongoing debate about prequels, I have said that publication order is almost always preferable to narrative chronological order. Prequels are usually bad starting points, but there are exceptions, and the Elric saga is one of them. In this case you should definitely not follow the publication order. Here are my reasons.

1. All over the map. That’s where you’d be. Moorcock didn’t write a trilogy or two, followed by a few prequels. He wrote every bloody thing out of sequence, starting with stories that would comprise book 4, ending with book 6, and blitzing around in-between:

Book 4: The Weird of the White Wolf (1961)
Book 7: The Bane of the Black Sword (1962)
Book 8: Stormbringer (1963)

Book 5: The Sleeping Sorceress (1970)
Book 1: Elric of Melnibone (1972)
Book 3: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)

Book 2: The Fortress of the Pearl (1989)
Book 6: The Revenge of the Rose (1991)

That’s a mess. I can understand why a literary analyst or a die-hard fan might want to follow this order to get the full effect of Moorcock’s evolution as a writer. The ’60s books are nihilistic products of an angry man in his 20s involved in bad love affairs. The ’70s stories are more polished and their cynicism less raw. The latter-day Moorcock of books 2 and 6 show a sophistication rarely seen in the pulp-fantasy genre. Publication order would admittedly minimize the schizophrenic feel of this, but strangely enough, the schizophrenic feel is much the series’ point. Depending on situation, Elric is more control of himself or in thrall to the homicidal urges of his sword. He takes drugs too, and in a way the saga feels like it’s on drugs. It reads naturally when it’s all over the map like this in tone, but not with a butchered chronology.

2. The Problem of The White Wolf. If I had started with Weird of the White Wolf, I would have gone no further. Not because of the stark nihilism (that part is great), but because the stories are so woefully underdeveloped. Elric’s momentous return and destruction of his city reads like a footnote, glossed over in 60 pages, and the characters of Yyrkoon and Cymoril are mere ciphers. Cymoril wakes from her enchanted sleep and is immediately impaled on Elric’s sword. She and Yyrkoon speak — literally, I kid you not — a single line of dialogue each before dying. Elric of Melnibone, on the other hand, is a perfect entry. It doesn’t read like a prequel at all; the characters are lively depicted and the world takes you right in. I realize why fans cherish Weird of the White Wolf: in 1961 the stories offered an unprecedented vision of a tragic anti-hero, a demonic sword that is a character as much as Elric, and classic scenes like the dragon attack on the fleeing ships. As magazine short-stories they were surely impressive. But Moorcock should have fleshed them out later, when repacking his saga in novel format. Read in chronological sequence, Weird of the White Wolf is underwhelming. Read first, it could kill your interest in the saga altogether.

3. The Final Act. You have to end with Stormbringer. Its devastating bleakness remains unrivaled, and the more you read about Elric beforehand the greater the payoff. Hell comes to earth and warps everything — the land, seas, air, and all lifeforms including people who turn so hideous they kill themselves — that Elric has no choice but to destroy the world, and himself. It’s the novel to end all novels (certainly one of the best fantasy novels of all time), and any prequel after this would seem trivial. Or put it this way: if you actually read Stormbringer third in the series, you will need to get a huge distance before continuing with any of the five “prequels”. It’s just too dramatically traumatizing to fall anywhere but last.

The Upshot

The Elric Saga is an exception to the rule of publication order. Follow this chronological order. It pays dividends.

Book 1: Elric of Melnibone (1972)
Book 2: The Fortress of the Pearl (1989)
Book 3: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)
Book 4: The Weird of the White Wolf (1961)
Book 5: The Sleeping Sorceress (1970)
Book 6: The Revenge of the Rose (1991)
Book 7: The Bane of the Black Sword (1962)
Book 8: Stormbringer (1963)

Out of Line: Release Order vs. Chronology

Novel and film prequels are a bone of contention, and in most cases I advise reading/watching them in release order rather than chronological. Prequels build on foundations as much as sequels do, and they usually aren’t designed to be jumping-on points. They flesh out mysteries and can easily spoil those mysteries when taken out of turn.

Publishers are clueless

narniaThe Chronicles of Narnia are exhibit-A. In recent years the seven books have been published as a single volume which favors their chronological order — The Magician’s Nephew placed first instead of sixth, and The Horse and His Boy third instead of fifth. That reordering slaughters the reading experience. The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe has to be the first book, because it allows you to take in the wonder of Narnia as first seen through the eyes of young Lucy. Reading The Magician’s Nephew beforehand not only spoils where the wardrobe came from, it gives you a more esoteric introduction to Narnia (the creation of the world). It also rather kills the enigma of the Professor to know everything about Digory’s backstory in advance.

Repositioning The Horse and His Boy is even worse. To read it right after Lion and before Caspian disrupts the unity of the first four books — Lion, Caspian, Voyage, and Chair — which are portal fantasies focusing on the trials of kids from our world. The Horse and His Boy is about natives of Aslan’s world, set during the epilogue-era of Lion, granted, but in which Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are entirely incidental characters. The story of Shasta and Aravis stands apart — and with a more “realistic” and cultural feel — from the portal fantasies of the first four books.

The question of reading order has been debated for other series, like Anne McCaffrey’s. Many fans take the sensible view that Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1971), and The White Dragon (1978) are proper stepping stones into Pern. Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983) is a prequel set in the time of a plague mentioned in the original trilogy, and Dragonsdawn (1988) goes back to the earliest days when the planet was first colonized. All the Weyrs of Pern (1991) then returns to the present, right after the time of the original trilogy. There are those who swear by reading Dragonsdawn and Moreta first, but the problems are equivalent to those of The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy.

The film industry is no better

godfatherAnd to think I almost purchased this: The Godfather trilogy in a repackaged format (called the Coppola Restoration) in which the first two films are pieced together chronologically. The incompetence of such a re-edit is staggering. The flashback scenes of the second film (with Robert DeNiro as the young Vito Corleone) carry the force they do precisely on the strength of what has been seen in the first film. Without exposure to Marlon Barndo’s performance as Don Corleone, DeNiro’s younger version is barely interesting. On top of that, when stripped of its flashbacks, the second film loses its intended contrasts between the father and son who is now on his own rise to power in the cutthroat scandals of Nevada.

Then there is Star Wars, which I admit is a problematic example. The prequels are so bad that they arguably shouldn’t be watched at all. But there are fans, and George Lucas himself, who insist those prequels should be watched first. Advice doesn’t get any worse, and I’m not just talking about the spoiler that Vader is Luke’s father. As I said, Episodes I-III are so shitty that if you watch them first, you may have no desire to even get to the good trilogy. But even on the generous assumption of redeeming value, Episodes I-III are a poor entry point. They were designed to show the tragic backstory of Darth Vader and how the Republic fell. We care about Anakin’s younger self only because we know what he will become; the dynamics of the Republic are interesting since we’ve already felt the boot of the coming empire.

The rare exception

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and in the next post, I’ll explain why Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga should not be read in publication order, but rather in the chronological order I’ve just finished criticizing.

Retrospective: Faerie Tale

faerieRaymond Feist is known for his Riftwar saga, which I could never appreciate. Before Game of Thrones, fantasy was cliche, and in the ’80s especially, aside from the works of Stephen Donaldson, had become near emasculated. But somewhere Feist took a break from Pug and wrote Faerie Tale (1988), a horror novel which allowed him, in his own words, to “stretch myself as a writer, as the serial fantasy genre didn’t allow me to address aspects of contemporary humanity — sexuality, fear, the day to day considerations of relationships”. Again, in the post Game of Thrones world, that’s a ludicrous dichotomy, but it does remind us how hard it was to think outside the box in the ’80s, when fantasy, much like the D&D game, was being increasingly sanitized and not allowed to breathe a hint of adult realism.

I first read Faerie Tale in ’92 when I was in the Peace Corps. It was one of many beat-up paperbacks sent to me in a care package, and on my mountain in Lesotho I read almost anything. It turned out quite a surprise — one of my favorite novels which still holds up today. I read it again this month to “celebrate” St. Patrick’s Day. If it isn’t the scariest book I’ve read, it’s certainly the one which most convincingly conveys the fear of its characters. I’m not easily unnerved, but in his experimental stretch Feist gave me more scares than Stephen King at his best.

The plot is simple: a family moves into an old farm house in New York State, with acres of woods in their backyard, which happens to be the playground of spirit beings out of Irish folklore. The novel explores the dark side of these faeries. Puck and Wayland Smith make an appearance, as does the Wild Hunt. There are sprites and leprechauns — but again, not the benign creatures we think of on St. Patrick’s day — and contorted creatures of demonic fury (see the book cover above). The strongest of these beings have the power to incite terror and lust in a person, fan those passions like a blaze, and then feed on both until there is nothing left of the soul. That’s how they “feast” on humanity, in envy of the mortal form they can only artificially assume.

Gabbie’s scene in the barn is the first example of such an attack. It’s a vivid depiction of every adolescent girl’s nightmare, being in thrall to a rapist’s sexuality. Her attacker is a “boy” who looks about fifteen years old, but who we are given to understand is Puck:

“The youth moved in front of her and she saw that his eyes were electric, a blue like flashing lightning. His boyish features were masked by a shadow of ages, both childlike and ancient. He was beautiful and terrifying to gaze upon. Her mind shrieked and yet she could make no sound; and from deep within, a desire was building. Her own body became a thing unto itself, alive with awareness. Her nipples were hardened to a painful state and her stomach and groin were awash in damp heat. A distant voice deep within screamed in horror, pleading with her to flee.

“Through a crimson haze of her own pounding blood, she could see the youth moving to position himself over her. A face of cruel beauty regarded her, which lowered to meet hers. His hot breath was as sweet as mulled cider, his thrusting tongue hinting at peppercorn sharpness. His kiss seared her lips; his touch shocked her skin, and pleasure mounted to levels of intensity beyond her capacity to endure. The burning wet heat between her legs became electric, and as she climbed new heights of desire, the gratification of that desire remained just beyond her reach. Seeking unobtainable release, Gabbie crossed the boundary between passion and torment. Desire fled as, in that instant, pleasure turned to pain.

“Terror engulfed her. Within her own mind she screamed, but her lips only moaned in pleasure, as her body remained a thing apart from her. She screamed again in her mind, but her body only made hoarse sounds of sexual satisfaction. The youth attacked her with animal fury, his teeth and nails leaving fire upon her white skin, each nip and scratch eliciting a yelp of pleasure. Deep within herself, Gabbie shrank away in fear, a spectator to her own body, so mindless in its grotesque lust that even this pain became a delight. Silently, inwardly, she wept in mortal terror.”

I’ve severely compacted the narrative. Puck’s assault on Gabbie actually goes on for pages, with her lust and terror building, opposing and reinforcing each other in a much more graduating crescendo. It’s a phenomenal scene that Feist apparently sweat over and revised several times.

That scene pales, however, to the one much later on, when Sean and Patrick are molested in their beds. The Faeries go after children too, and the nastiest of them all, The Fool, appears in their room late at night, pummeling Sean with lusts his eight-year old body can barely interpret:

“Sean lay frozen, afraid to look, barely able to breathe. There was an odd sound in the corner, a movement, a slight scrape of weight shifting against the wall, but it also echoed with an overtone like music, alien and terrifying. Then the smell of flowers and spices reached Sean. With a sharp intake of breath he pulled his covers up to his face, peeking over to look across the room.

“Someone stood in the corner. Hidden in the darkness of the farthest corner, he was motionless, but his outline could be faintly seen. Sean felt him there. Cold terror clutched at the boy’s chest. He fought to will breath into his lungs, so he could shout, but sound lay beyond his ability. He could not move. The dark man stepped forward, closing the distance to the bedside, as if to get a better look at the boys. Sean wished nothing more than to scream for Mommy and Daddy, but no sounds came forth. He scuttled to the head of the bed, trying to get as far from the glowing black figure as he could. His small feet scraped against the sheets and covers. Tears ran down his face as his eyes were locked, staring at the invader.

“Then the dark man leaned close, until his face was scant inches from Sean’s. In his eyes Sean saw lightning dance, as electric-blue orbs sought to burn his soul. A beauty so pure it was terrifying greeted Sean in that instant, something alien, beyond the ability of the human mind to accept. And in that instant Sean wanted nothing more than to give up all will and go with the man, and in that rush of unexpected longing came a desire so concrete Sean’s body rocked. For that desire was something he was not ready for, something reserved for changes not yet come, when love and tenderness turned to passion. But now it struck Sean with a wanton heat, a hunger so intensely sexual that his body could not interpret his desires. Sean found his child’s penis stiffening unexpectedly, while his body shuddered and his skin prickled with chill bumps. Perspiration poured off his body, soaking his pajamas. His heart pounded in his chest and he could endure no more. His bowels contracted, and his tiny erection vanished as his bladder emptied. His stomach spasmed as if a knot were pulled tight. And in that instant of blinding light, of adult longings shocking his child’s body, of beautiful passions twisted to black lust, Sean screamed.”

Again I’ve compacted a much-longer narrative that includes other hideous elements, not least the kidnapping of Patrick, who is supplanted with a demonic doppelganger to confuse the family. The entire scene is probably the scariest terrorizing of a child I’ve read in a work of fiction, and yes, I’m including The Shining‘s Danny Torrence.

The novel also explores the idea of forgetfulness: the cultural forgetfulness of people who treat myths lightly throughout history, and individual forgetfulness inflicted by way of enchantment. One of the reasons the Hastings family stays in the house for six whole months is that the Faeries are able to make them forget (or barely remember) the strange occurrences and attacks. Thus Gabbie doesn’t manifest any rape-victim symptoms (anger, depression, anxiety) unless her memory is triggered in some way. The boys are the exception. Unlike their sister and parents and visiting neighbors, Sean and Patrick can remember everything, the Fool’s attack being the worst, but also the incidents before, like the monkey-like demon (on the book cover) which almost tears Patrick to shreds under a stone bridge. That the kids can’t confide in the grown-ups revs up the horror factor considerably. Feist also seems to be saying something about the nature of children, for whom everything is magical and are thus receptive — and most vulnerable — to the supernatural.

The final act takes place in the actual Faerie lands, which Sean enters on a suicide mission to rescue Patrick. The description of this dark wonderland is of the highest order, and the showdown a ripper. From now on I will forever think of St. Patrick’s Day as a second Halloween. Leprechauns and changelings have all the potentials of ghosts and vampires, and if Faerie Tale doesn’t convince you of that, you’ve grown up too much.

Novels I’d Save from Extinction

I forget who started this meme and where, but here are my favorite novels that I’d save if intellectual tyrants took control and burned down the world’s libraries. They influenced me in extraordinary ways, in some cases even changed my view of life.

lord-of-the-rings-original-book-cover-wallpaper-4

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954-55. What can be said here that hasn’t? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his mythic prehistorical approach which leaves little room for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, and his ability to filter simple themes (courage, friendship, and passing on) through all of this to result in the greatest story ever told. But it’s the long defeat theme that really sells Middle-Earth. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a defeat, containing glimpses of final victory but never more, and so Frodo had to be a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His cause was triumphant only because of a fluke — or “euchatastrophe”, as Tolkien called it — the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. The destruction of the One Ring is a lesser of two evils, as Galadriel warned in Lothlorien: “Do you not see now wherefore your coming to us is as the footstep of doom? For is you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” That’s what the Grey Havens is about in the end, and it crushes me every time.

shogun12. Shogun, James Clavell. 1975. I put Tolkien first, but he really shares the top with Clavell. Shogun completely re-contextualizes you. You begin horrified by the Japanese and somewhere, somehow, become convinced they’re the civilized ones. By the end, you’re actually thinking like a samurai and endorsing ruthless codes against your integrity. Ritual suicide and honor killings ended up making complete sense to me; that’s how good Clavell is making you forget your values. It’s probably the most didactic novel I’ve ever read (its message being that western people have much to learn from easterns) and yet it never feels preachy. Clavell is a storyteller whose priorities are action, romance, and political intrigue; endless backbiting; and cracking dialogue. He wants you to live and breathe the past, and to see feudal Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to sail there. He reinvents historical figures like Will Adams and Ieyasu Tokugawa without sensationalism, knowing exactly when to loose the bounds of his imagination. Shogun taught me as much about thrilling fiction as it made me reflect on themes that were clearly important to Clavell — death (escaping from “the abyss of life”, as one samurai reflects), love (understood in terms of duty more than affection), and treachery (the other coin to honor-shame loyalty, and sometimes esteemed as a virtue). Shogun is The Lord of the Rings of historical novels, and its influence as direct.

throat3. The Throat, Peter Straub. 1993. The early Straub wrote in the shadow of Stephen King, but once he started doing his own thing with mystery-thrillers, he became a favorite of mine. The so-called Blue Rose Trilogy is his masterpiece of metafiction, dealing with terrible murders, secrets, and psychopaths, and how crimes of the past bear on the present. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories have nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but the book also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Everything seen through Tim Underhill’s eyes becomes disturbingly intimate. Not only the murders in an Illinois town, but his bleak childhood that haunts him, and the religious rites of cannibalism his friend partook as a Special Forces agent in Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing.

stormofswords24. A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin. 2000. The Song of Ice and Fire series still isn’t finished, and some of the novels are better than others, but the third is an absolute juggernaut. The Red Wedding is already legendary (thanks to the TV series as much as the book), and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best chapter in fantasy literature after the Grey Havens. The cues are brilliant: Grey Wind’s snarling, the booming music and torrential rainfall, the general sense of impending doom. When the heads finally roll, it’s bad enough, but Arya’s failed reunion heaps insult upon injury. But it’s not just the Red Wedding. The entire book is a roller coaster of shocking, ugly twists spread over so many plots that miraculously don’t overburden the narrative. There is Jon’s story in the north, where after patient development over the previous books, everything explodes: the Others assault the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assault the Wall, and Jon finds himself going from renegade to lord commander, nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Dany shows her teeth in east, and I still get chills over her gambit to “give up” Drogon, who then roasts the slavers of Astapor. By the final pages, virtually everyone important on the continent of Westeros is left dead, half-dead, or isolated. A Storm of Swords is the rare 1000-page monster that keeps landing bombshells and killing off characters you love, and hate to love, one by bloody one. Novels like this come once or twice a generation.

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5. The King of Vinland’s Saga, Stuart Mirsky. 1998. If Shogun is about the clash of east and west, this is of Viking and Indian, and the codes of honor just as deadly. Mirsky’s narrative is lyrically old-fashioned, but incredibly addictive once you get used to it. The dialogue sea-saws between descriptions of what is said and the actual quoted speech. For example: “Osvif said this was all very irregular and a serious matter, ‘or didn’t you know that it is a fatal flaw to bring charges against men, if you are equally guilty of them?'” Or this: “Arnliot laughed and promised to bring her back many fine gifts from the land of the Skraelings, ‘and not least of these, the heads of those who oppose me’.” I’ve never seen this style wielded with such rhythmic discipline, and it meshes perfectly with the gloom-and-doom tone of the Norse and Icelandic sagas. The story is about Leif Erickson’s grandson who sails to North America and reclaims the territory of Vinland, assimilates into a Skraeling (Indian) tribe and battles against another, and then finds himself in hot water when the enemies he left behind in Greenland come after him. This is a page-turner of family feuds, overseas conquests, hopeless battles, and doomed warriors. And there’s no Dances with Wolves political-correctness here; neither Vikings nor Skraelings are heroes or villains. Each is fluent in savagery — and each capable of the rare tender mercy.

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6. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1980-83. They proved that sequel trilogies can be good, and even much better, when authors push themselves. The First Chronicles haven’t aged well, and the Last Chronicles are a mixed bag. The Second show Donaldson completely on his own terms and bring heavy measures of horror into the fantasy genre. The One Tree in particular was a milestone for me. It turned the horror of The Wounded Land inward with devastating self-scrutiny. The sea voyage to the tree is framed around two pivotal chapters, “Father’s Child” and “Mother’s Child”, in which Linden relives her traumatic childhood. Those harrowing confessions are the book’s best, and yet for all the suffocating self-therapy, the story never loses sight of the quest at hand. I can’t stress enough how affected I still am when I read it. Not only Linden but everyone’s trials are on display — Covenant’s catatonic terror, his possession by Linden, Cabledreamer’s waking nightmares, Hergrom’s death outside the Sandwall, and the Haruchai’s shame and departure from service after being seduced by the merewives. In the context of a sea voyage this all integrates flawlessly, and Starfare’s Gem becomes the macrocosm of inner voyages and demons just as lethal as the Nicor. And the failure at the isle of the Tree is pure courageous tragedy.

Silmarillion-cover7. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The history of Middle-Earth resonates on a level that suggests, yes, this really is how our world began. How I wish. The important theme running through it is the Fall, which shows how Tolkien intended his world to align with Christian belief without containing or allegorizing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to aid the Valar; this mirrors the fall of humanity from the garden of Eden, not spelled out in The Silmarillion but implied. The Second Age sees a second fall when the elves recreate paradise on their own terms in Middle-Earth, with the Three Rings of Power — Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens (harking back to Gondolin, Doriath, and the Falas, respectively). Running parallel to this is the second fall of men: the downfall of Numenor, which again involves the breaking of a prohibition, as men grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood. Men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion, cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed until the end of time.

dune8. Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965. What makes Dune a great science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent; clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads take their place. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam. In particular, to show messianic devastation wreaked across an entire universe. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and all the more deadly for it; his jihad will kill sixty billion people. For many years I’ve dreamed of the desert planet of Arrakis, where water is precious as gold, and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And of course, the only source of the highly addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes it possible to travel between the stars. Dune is simply impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It’s a mind-bender of ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The sequels aren’t so impressive.

boy life9. Boy’s Life, Robert McCammon. 1991. This book is widely loved for good reason. It’s a little of everything. The magic of childhood. Growing up in a world of change. Life and death. Tom Sawyer meets the Prince of Tides. And through all this wonder, a gruesome murder used to explore the loss of innocence. That last serves as the plot in the way Injun Joe loomed over Tom Sawyer’s adventures. In this case we’ve no idea who the murderer is, and the clues come subtly, slowly, without our knowing it. At the risk of overstatement, this book is so well crafted that you become the 11-year old Cory Mackenson, not just as an engaging literary experience, but as a full immersion in a virtual persona. You live Cory’s life as he “flies” his bike, collects monster magazines, confronts school bullies, suffers a pastor crusading to save the town from “Satanic” rock ‘n roll (the Beach Boys, go figure), wishes his dog back to life then regrets it, and watches his poor father deteriorate. I’ve no idea what energy McCammon was channeling to write Boy’s Life, but I thank the gods for his inspirations.

lost boy lost girl10. Lost Boy, Lost Girl, Peter Straub. 2003. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final terrible page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.

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11. The Gap Cycle, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1992-96. It doesn’t get any darker than the five-volume The Gap Cycle. Plots and counterplots are so convoluted that you need a notebook to keep track of them. Everyone is betraying someone. Allies are more lethal than enemies, including the secret hero who puts his raped pawns through even worse hell to achieve justice. No one has so much as a decent thought. Perhaps every fifty pages, a character will say something close to nice, and you heave a sigh of relief. But the suspense sets a new bar; the narrative crescendos are enough to give you panic attacks. I was shaking during the race to escape Thanatos Minor, when the whole damn thing exploded. Every corner of that planetoid remains burned in my mind’s eye. Especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Never has there been a fouler den of pirates, traitors, and junkies willing to sell out humanity for the basest of pleasures. Crazy as it sounds, I love the central character of Angus. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of free will, I feel sorry for him. The Gap Cycle is about evil authorities, nasty aliens, and thoroughly vile people. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three.

les-lions-dal-rassan12. The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. 1995. I consider this story inspired enough to constitute lasting literature, and it gets away with indulging certain myths about Islam’s “golden age” because the genre excuses it. It’s a fantasy, that reinvents 11th-century Spain beyond the constraints of standard fiction — with empowered women, sexually libertine carnivals, and heightened multiculturalism. It also telescopes historical events for better effect. For instance, the Reconquest of Spain was a proto-crusade which predated the first holy war to Palestine, but here they occur at the same time. For all the liberties taken, there is enough reality to justify the “historical” label. Kay doesn’t flinch from the ruthless Islamic pogroms inflicted on the Jews, nor the dynamics between the Umayyads and the invading Almoravids from Africa. The story shows the crusading reconquest of Spain through the eyes of a Christian warrior (El Cid), Jewish doctor, and Muslim assassin, who become allies in a mercenary band until the war divides them. It’s an epic about unlikely friendships in time of war, and the collapse of an age. Even if we like El Cid, we grieve for the fall of Al-Rassan. And if this version of Islamic Spain is too good to be true, our emotions don’t depend on that fantasy. When El Cid begs Ammar to join the Christian cause, and the Muslim replies that he would rather be “a camel herder in Africa than a shepherd in Spain”, his defiance rings true, even if he has far more reason to despise people of his own faith than the Christian crusaders.

The-Last-Battle-Cover13. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. 1956. Kids are still traumatized by this book, which is ironic given Lewis’ intent to use Narnia as a benign evangelical tool. In the other six books he did this by papering over unpleasantries: Edmund was a Judas-traitor, but unlike Jesus’ disciple he was forgiven and redeemed; Digory was an Adam-analog (bringing evil into unfallen Narnia), but at least he and Polly weren’t bad enough to eat the forbidden fruit. The Last Battle pulls no punches and kills you while you’re down. Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s wayward animals thrown into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft (she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex). But this is what apocalypses are: outpourings of divine wrath that serve a “justice” so hyper it redefines the meaning of the word. They’re mysteries like the Book of Job. From a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle‘s dark content is its strength, and something seldom seen in children’s literature on this scale. The Revelation-plotted narrative is a ripper, as evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious in its very distressing way. This story went through me like an awl, and that’s saying something for a kid’s book.

ready_player_one_cover-image114. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. 2011. This will give you an orgasm on every page if you grew up in the ’80s playing D&D and primitive computer games. But it actually has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel painfully real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of reality. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. The virtual recreation of the Tomb of Horrors is for me one of the most gratifying chapters I’ve read in a novel.

tai-pan15. Tai-Pan, James Clavell. 1966. It may not be the jewel Shogun is, but it’s still a masterpiece, and it has the most colorful cast of characters in any novel I’ve read. We all know the cliches of characters so dynamic they “leap from the page”, but cliches were made for novels like Tai-Pan. The setting is the British occupation of Hong Kong and an empire built on opium smuggling; the hero a Scottish pirate who dreams of uniting the best traditions of China and Europe, as he also works to bring down a former shipmate who owns a rival trading company. The vicious conflict between these men and their families is the heart of the story, and every time you think a confrontation will go a certain way, it doesn’t. As in all of Clavell’s stories, the thrill of the plot dominates in a clash of cultures, with a deep respect for the east that doesn’t patronize. In fact, Clavell wasn’t very politically correct. Multiculturalism, for him, involved the cost of choice — recognizing this lifestyle as better, and that value as superior, so that something has to go. Dirk Struan (like Shogun’s Blackthorne) ultimately “chooses” the West for its democracy and free trade, and the East for its diet, cleanliness, sexual pleasures, and philosophy. This is the only novel on my list without battles or invasions: trade is the theater of war, and its castles are the opium, spices, teas, and silks so highly valued in an age of British colonialism. Trust Clavell to make stock prices so exciting.

shadowland216. Shadowland, 1980. This novel is precious to me. On my rereadings in later years, I’d forgotten how it plagiarizes the magic-user spells of Dungeons & Dragons to a tee. Tom and Del are taught to fly and water-breathe. Tom takes a sleigh-ride over an arctic hallucinatory terrain. A school bully is magic jarred and transformed into the hideous Collector. Del’s girlfriend Rose was created stone to flesh from a statue. How could I have forgotten this? On the other hand, I never forgot Tom getting a hand-job from Rose, as they fall in love and betray Del. I certainly remember Tom getting crucified. When he finally frees himself of the nails by pushing his hands forward (screaming so the universe can hear, his hands incarnations of pain), I feel the agony in every atom of my being. Shadowland is about a ruthless education on a punishing fairy-ground. The magician takes in the kids on pretext of grooming one of them (whoever can prove the better) to be his successor, but he really wants to kill them both, and needs to make them rebel against him so he can rob their talents with impunity. It’s about jealousy and broken friendship and tragic outcomes. Del is killed, shapechanged into a glass sparrow. Rose leaves Tom for a water-world, to escape her feeling of walking on knives. Tom grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. The final pages are as heartbreaking as the Grey Havens — and I don’t make that comparison lightly.

faerie t17. Faerie Tale, Raymond Feist. 1988. If only Feist’s fantasy novels were this good. But before Game of the Thrones, fantasy didn’t go for heavy-handed doses of fear and sexual violation, especially when it comes to children. I’m not easily unnerved, but the horrors of Faerie Tale are more effective than Stephen King at his best. Gabbie’s scene in the barn is so well-written I always read it twice. It’s the adolescent girl’s nightmare, of being in thrall to a rapist’s sexuality. As for the scene in the boys’ bedroom (which is too suffocating to go back and read twice), it still paralyzes me. Sean is wracked with sexual hungers that his eight-year old body can’t even interpret, and the other terrors that hit him and his brother defy description — yet Feist finds the words to describe them. If this isn’t quite the scariest book I’ve read, it’s certainly the one which most convincingly conveys the fear of its characters. The plot to the story is simple: a family moves into a home on an old farm house with acres of woods in their backyard, which happens to be the playground of spirit beings out of Irish folklore. The novel explores the dark side of these faeries. Puck and Wayland Smith make an appearance, as does the Wild Hunt. There are sprites and leprechauns, but again, not the benign creatures we think of on St. Patrick’s day. They fill the heart with terror and lust, fan those passions like a blaze, and then feed on both until there is nothing left of the soul. Full review here.

twelve children18. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks. 2013. This is the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (1572) as Quentin Tarantino might envision it — pulp historical fiction at its most graphic and obscene. The violent content was judged so extreme that it couldn’t even be published in the U.S. The hero’s slaughter-fests make him as bad as the villains. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed “knights” hardly worthy of the title. He kills out of simple revenge for his wife, hardly caring who. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre began as a royal stab against the Huguenot elite but degenerated into a full-blown extermination of unarmed Protestant civilians by the Paris militia. Tannhauser’s personal degeneration matches the city’s; there’s backstabbing everywhere, and a kingdom of beggars and thieves shunned by everyone. Those dark alleys are Tannhauser’s ultimate destination, and where an unexpected salvation is found. There, and in the souls of raped and dispossessed children he rescues along the way. The cloak-and-dagger intrigue is crisp, and the mystery of who wanted Tannhauser’s wife dead and why unfolds at the right moments. It’s an unusual novel that indulges hyper-elements to explore the consequences of hurt, and the inability to transcend monstrosity.

captain from castile19. Captain from Castile, Samuel Shellabarger. 1945. Popular novels of the ’40s look like high-brow literature today, and Captain of Castile may as well be a classic. It throws you into the life of a young Spaniard who seeks honor and wealth in Aztec lands, after fleeing in terror from the Spanish Inquisition. The capture of his family and death of his sister at the Inquisitor’s hands drive incredibly powerful scenes, and Cortes’ conquest of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) seems drawn from first-hand accounts. For a ’40s effort, the contrasts between the new world’s “pagan savages” and supposedly superior conquistadors is handled with surprising subtlety; Shellabarger’s decade was a politically incorrect one, to say the least. What politically incorrect elements do emerge are a strength in any case, for the same reason Clavell’s brand of multiculturalism is; respect for the Other doesn’t preclude judgments or even feelings of superiority, and there’s as much (if not more) to judge about the Aztecs as the Spaniards. There are dilemmas about friendship, racism, and religious tyranny. And a powerful love triangle: Pedro pines for an aristocrat beyond his reach, but is also madly in love with a tavern-wench beneath his station; it’s impossible to predict how that will end. Captain from Castile is focused abroad, but it’s the first part set in Spain, revolving around the fist of the Inquisition, that stays with me, more than even Aztec sacrifice.

wizard and glass20. Wizard and Glass, Stephen King. 1997. I’m not wild about King. He’s garrulous, shouts at the reader, and is given to lazy plotting. But his early volumes of The Dark Tower are incredibly inspired (the last three are a sloppy self-indulgent mess). The Gunslinger is his most disciplined effort and reads like classic literature. Wizard and Glass is the crown jewel. It’s the story of Roland’s first and only love, and the tragedy that made him hard and unforgiving. Adolescent romance can be hopelessly cliche, but King nails Roland and Susan on all the right notes. It’s an incredibly well told story, about the young gunslinger’s exile in a province teeming with rebellion. Every character is rich (Rhea the witch-hag is definitely one of King’s greatest creations of all time). King shows us a world where everything is rushing to oblivion, in a meshed genre of western, science fiction, fantasy, and futuristic dystopia. I only wish he had maintained this quality of storytelling in volumes 5-7 (one of which should have been about the fall of Gilead), but after Wizard and Glass, he was taking the piss. Let the record state clearly that the first four volumes are a noble work; this one in particular achieves a tragic greatness that made me weep.