The Redemption of Althalus–David and Leigh Eddings

I first read this book about half of a lifetime ago. It was one of the first fantasy novels that I read (wait, surely that can’t be true!) Okay, it was one of the first stupidly-thick, can-be-used-to-club-seals fantasy novels that I read. It was described to me as nine hundred pages of Fetch Quests. (Gather your party, go to a place, do a thing; rinse and repeat, making sure to check in with the Quest Giving Non-Player Character often enough.) I don’t remember whether I thought that this was fair at the time, but that description has definitely influenced how I’m approaching this reading of the novel.

I’ve mentioned David Eddings previously when I reviewed the Belgarion novels: Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician’s Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter’s End Game.

Author stuff: David Eddings was an American fantasy writer. His Wikipedia page is here and his Amazon page is here. Along with his wife Leigh (she is getting co-author credit by now–Wikipedia and Amazon) he wrote more than twenty fantasy novels, most of which were best-sellers. Their partnership is regarded as a staple of the fantasy genre.

Athalus, burglar, armed robber, is paid to steal a book by a sinister stranger named Ghend. Althalus sets off to the House at the End of the World where the book is kept. There, in the same room as the book Ghend described, he finds a talking cat. What he can’t find when he turns around is the door by which he entered.

By the time he sets out again, Althalus can read. He’s read the book and discovered that the evil god Daeva is trying to unmake the world. The cat, whom Althalus calls Emerald, is in fact the god’s sister, and she needs Althalus to prevent Daeva returning them all to primordial chaos. Althalus will teach her what she needs to know, which is how to lie, cheat and steal — ‘Whatever works,’ Emerald reflects.

Althalus is the first and foremost of a band of colourful helpers who will batlle Daeva and his bizarre, deadly minions. The existence of the world hangs in the balance in this glorious epic fantasy.

That’s pretty much it. And damn you person who is going to remain anonymous who fifteen years ago described the book as an epic series of Fetch Quests, as I couldn’t not view it in those terms upon this reading! Althalus is presented as a likeable rogue, but he is a thief, he is an (occasional) murderer, he fraternises and cavorts, and generally leaves people worse off! Dweia (Goddess of Change, sister to Deiwos (God of Creation) and Daeva (God of Destruction), for reasons absolutely unknown sees him as the saviour of the world, and spends two-and-a-half millennia somewhat falling to break him of his unsavoury habits. From there, it’s finding his companions, who are presented well-enough, but eventually (sadly!) become caricatures who occasionally don’t quite ring true. It honestly felt like the authors had the big plot points written, and wrote the bridging parts later. There is nothing wrong with this, nothing at all! But, it doesn’t quite integrate naturally in places. The motivations sometimes just feel a bit “off”.

It’s an easy nine hundred pages, mind you. There cast of characters, both main and supporting, are well-presented (barring some minor motivation problems, as mentioned above), and the mixture of literary styles is well done. Using the mental link between the members of the group and Dweia allows the story to nudge up against the fourth-wall at times, which generally works quite well. There is a heavy emphasis on the importance of stories, and the importance of narrative, which is quite interesting.

So, should you read it? Sure. It’s not the best example of fantasy literature, but it’s light, it’s enjoyable, the characters are fun enough, the plot is uncomplicated (a very nice way of saying completely linear with almost no subplots whatsoever), and the authors generally did a good job.

It’s available in hardcover, softcover, and is probably available in your local second-hand bookshop. Well, if you’re lucky enough to still have one of those!

Amazon linky:

The Long Earth (Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter)

The Long Earth is the first in a series of books (three so far!) by renowned British fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, and British science fiction author Stephen Baxter. It is anticipated that there will be five books in the The Long … series.

Author bio stuff: I’ve reviewed one of Terry Pratchett’s books previously. He really is one of my most adored authors, and I cannot help but love the vast majority of the Discworld novels. I was quite surprised to see him venturing into Science Fiction territory, though he’s dabbled in it previously. I have, however, found the last few Discworld to lack the sparkle and magic that I had come to expect. This is almost certainly because “Pratchett was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease called posterior cortical atrophy (PCA) in 2007, a condition where the symptoms root themselves more in the physical rather than cognitive.” (Source) The following quote is from Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s collaborator on Good Omens, one of my beloved books: “Terry still has all of his faculties. He’s fighting Alzheimer’s, but he has a rare kind of Alzheimer’s which means physical objects no longer make sense to him, but he still has memory, and he still has a mind, and he’s still very much the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he couldn’t read the script, so I had to give him his lines. … And it was this very strange, sad, sweet, funny, odd moment, as the two of us sat in the car with Dirk’s lines inspired by a line that one of us had written 26 years earlier. With me saying my line first and then Terry’s line. And then Terry echoing his lines. It was a little moment for me and Terry. I don’t know if we’re acting terribly well, but it’s a moment that made me extra happy.” (Source) Given that, it was quite surprising to me that Pratchett was collaborating on a new series.

Stephen Baxter, Wikipedia page and Amazon page. I will admit to not having heard of Baxter prior to this collaboration. He writes hard science fiction (emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail), and has been quite prolific over the past two decades.

The basis for the story was from an unpublished short story by Pratchett, The High Meggas, details of which can be found in a collection of his short stories, A Blink of the Screen. The Discworld series took off, and the story was never pursued.

The Long Earth is a (potentially infinite) series of parallel worlds similar to Earth that can be reached by almost anyone who has build a “Stepper” device, the plans for which were released anonymously on the internet. It is believed that each of these worlds are present on some probability tree, with the defining changes occurring longer ago as a person travels further from the original Earth (or “datum” Earth). Humans in the form of homo sapiens appear to be unique amongst the Earths, though not the only form of sapient life. The story primarily follows Joshua Valienté, a level-headed young man who is a natural stepper–that is, he can step between worlds without the use of a stepper box. He is co-opted to an exploratory journey by Lonsang, an artificial intelligence who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. (I’m sure that there are references there to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values that I’m missing.) As they explore more than a million parallel Earths they encounter other sapient humanoids (the peaceful “trolls” who carry their history through song, and the violent “elves”), as well as humans who discovered that they were natural steppers prior to “step day”, and an extinct race of dinosaur descendants. There is plenty of political commentary and social and scientific speculation on how humanity would act and develop if freed from the constraints of limited land and resources.

The book is good. Fantastically good. And I’m surprised. As I mentioned in my author bio section, Pratchett is sick, and his writing has been suffering badly as a result of that (in my opinion). But this book is strong! The pacing is good, the story is well-crafted, there are sufficiently many storylines interweaving with each other, and there is a good overall arc to the narrative. I’m sure that a lot of that is due to the strong influence of Stephen Baxter as a coauthor.

I really hope that Terry Pratchett remains healthy enough to finish the series. At the moment it is at three books: The Long Earth, The Long War, The Long Mars. The Long Utopia is scheduled for release mid-2015. The novels have been released on a fairly strict yearly schedule (second week of June each year). With Pratchett’s failing health, I don’t hold out too much hope, sadly.

Of course, the book is available on Amazon: (I read it on Kindle, but Amazon is still refusing Affiliate links to Kindle titles):

World War Z by Max Brooks

The full title is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. The wikipedia page is here, the Amazon page is here.

A few initial points. It’s zed not zee. Zombies are beyond a cliche now. And I’ve seen the recent film adaptation of this book. I cannot help picturing Brad Pitt as the protagonist.

If you’ve seen the movie, don’t fear, the book has very little to do with the film. Seriously. The film was okay, but nothing more. It was very disjointed, and apparently half of it had to be re-shot as test audiences couldn’t stand the third act. It showed, as the film went from a Hollywood blockbuster to a tense claustrophobic thriller. Sudden change there!

The book, however, is what I’m supposed to be talking about. I mention all of the above, because it’s nigh-on impossible to view and review these works in isolation. This book has a big cult following. The movie had Brad Pitt! Does that change how I write this? Of course!

Max Brooks is an author and screenwriter, son of the famous Mel Brooks, and has a serious love of zombies. (He has also written The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.)
His Amazon page is here, his Wikipedia page is here.

Plot summary: the narrator is a UN investigator who survived the outbreak, the apocalypse, world war Z; it has many names. (Strider, Aragon, the king in the north…) It is about a decade after the decade-long uprising of the undead. Or reanimated dead. The story unfolds over many interviews with key figures in the history of the outbreak. This technique provides a quite different approach to story-telling. The little vignettes offer glimpses, snapshots only, into this world, and you’re given just enough to see some of the picture, and you’re expected to fill the gaps yourself. It’s a definite change to have an author who recognises that the reader can do some of the work themselves.

It is unclear where and how exactly the virus came to be, but unchecked movement of the infected, and organ-trafficking from China are two of the main causes of the initial spread. A moderate delay between infection and turning also assisted with the spread. Once the virus spread, countries reacted differently. Israel essentially barricaded themselves in. The USA took a military and social engineering approach. South Africa took a cold-blooded stance, and deliberately sacrificed large parts of their population who did not satisfy the cost-benefit argument to be saved. Canadians fled north, the Iranian government and Pakistani government managed to declare war on each other. None if this is directly revealed, of course, it us expected that the dots are joined as they are presented to you.

There is a problem, and that’s the ending. Now, I don’t want to spoil things, of course, but I’m going to make some general points. First, there’s a scene, world leaders, strategists, and the like: they’re coordinating efforts, and the American stands up and makes a rousing speech. The book notes that if this was a film then there would be a slow clap, building to a crescendo, a bald eagle would fly into the room wrapped in the stars and stripes (okay, I made that bit up), and it’d be “gosh, the solution was just good ol’ fashioned American spirit and a never-say-die attitude”. Very cynical, nice acknowledgement of the standard tropes. But then the book turns around and does exactly that! The Americans decide that enough is enough and they’re Americans goshdarnit, and all this is going to take is a bit of effort. It leaves a real sour taste.

The second point relates to the movie: it has a much better ending. The film, for all of its many faults, turns into a tense, well-paced thriller for the third act. The book finishes very weakly, and takes the gloss off what was otherwise an excellent presentation.

Is it worth it? Sure. The story-telling is good, really good. It’s clever, it’s inventive, it’s different, and that makes it worthwhile.

Amazon links (I get a fraction of a fraction of a cent, apparently, if you buy from this link). The Kindle link doesn’t work, but you can select that option from the paperback option, which is here:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War