Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Another book update!


I’ve been plowing through more books of late, scattered across various genres. I’ve made a point of not only bathing in scifi but dipping into different genres that up until now I haven’t tried. My method is simple: when an author of note is mentioned offhand in a podcast as someone worth checking out, I make a point of seeking out a sample of their work. This month, the author in question is Raymond Chandler, and the book is “The Big Sleep.”

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been discussed to death by others, but Chandler has an amazing gift for turns of phrase. When I started “The Big Sleep,” I was struck by the same sensation that I had when I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween for the first time, namely that even though I was reading the formative text, I could spot all the cliches of the noir private eye genre in Chandler’s work. Of course with both Chandler and Carpenter, it was all new, and it’s only the countless rip-offs since that have tainted my perception of the originals.

With all good work, the quality eventually shines through, and it certainly did with “The Big Sleep.” It’s an expertly concocted evocation of the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in the late 1930s, with sassy dames, crooked cops and a rumpled but determined everyman sussing out layers of mystery.

The plot, such as it is, exists mostly for Marlowe to cleverly observe the comings and goings around him in a caustic, clipped manner, which is a delight to read. The book is definitely a product of its time, and the women are either femme fatales or bubbly blondes, and gays get treated particularly shabbily.

But despite the incongruity of those attitudes through the lens of the present, it’s still a gripping (and quick) read that’s worth it just for the brilliant dialogue  and descriptions. Though Quentin Tarantino is rightly praised for his dialogue, I’ve always felt the Coen brothers had him beat, and raading Chandler you can see how their writing has been influenced by his work. The Big Lebowski even lifts quite liberally from Chandler’s work.

I can’t be anywhere as effusive about “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Lord Foul’s Bane.” As part of my quest to read the science fiction and fantasy I missed in my youth, I picked this widey praised tome up and dove in. I’m not quite finished, but I’m scratching my head as to why this book is revered in geek circles.

There’s something to be said for an anti-hero, or for a character whose arc goes from reviled to revered. Thomas Covenant starts out as a leper and and outcast in the “real” world, and through a car accident, wizardry, or both, finds himself in a mythical land where he is supposedly the reincarnation of an ancient hero.

I’m willing to go that far with the book, despite the fact that the whole fish-out-of-water/real word to fantasy trope is too cliche for a RPG campaign at this point. I was even up for exploring this new world Covenent finds himself unceremoniously dumped into…until I realized I’d read it all before, and better, in Lord of the Rings.

Lord Foul’s Bane isn’t an exact ripoff of Fellowship of the Ring, but there are certainly similarities. Noble horse people sorta-kinda wood elves, powers derived from the land, singing and even a ring of power in Covenant’s possession. A group of warriors go on a quest, there’s a council meeting to decide Covenant’s fate and that of the realm…you’ve seen it all before, and much better.

But where Fellowship had Frodo, a kindly hobbit out of his depth on a quest to vanquish evil, Lord Foul’s Bane has….well, an asshole. Covenant starts out completely unsympathetic, self-pitying and rude, and he doesn’t change for at least the first 300-odd pages. He may get his act together near the end, and I’m bloody-mindedly plowing through the book to find out how it all comes together, but I don’t hold out much hope.

Covenant seems to me to be an embodiment of a particular breed of angry, self-pitying nerd that blames everyone else for his (or her, but mostly his) ineptitude and lashes out whenever shown any kindness. He’s an awkward man-baby given what amounts to a fantastical ICBM in the form of the ring, and most of the time he just mopes about it. He’s also a novelist before he gets transported to the Land (as the fantasy setting is called in the book), which sounds like a bit of bizarre wish-fulfillment on the part of author Stephen Donaldson.

Oh yes, and Covenant is also (wait for it) a rapist. Apparently this aspect of his character has been hashed out ad infinitum by fandom over the last 30 years, so I won’t go into it other than to say any chance of sympathy for his leprous plight went right out the window when he committed one of the most heinous acts imaginable and really wasn’t punished at all for it.

It’s not the worst written book in the history of swords and elves, but it is wordier than necessary, and feels pretty turgid by today’s standards. It may improve near the end (and I have a plane ride shortly to forge my way to the conclusion, so I may update this post once that’s happened) but I can’t really recommend it.

Up next, “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Leguin and “On Basilisk Station” by David Weber.



Warren Frey is a journalist, freelance writer, podcaster, video producer, and all-around media consultant currently based in Vancouver, Canada. His written work has appeared in such publications as Metro Vancouver, the Westender, Mac | Life and the Japan Times.

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