Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review: Throne of Bones

                On his blog Vox Day has a very black and white combative style. He’s very logical and interested in facts, but there is no graciously presenting his opponents’ argument in the best light or giving the benefit of the doubt when someone says something incoherent. If you make a misstep in an argument with Day he’ll nail for it mercilessly. I don’t always agree with him but I enjoy reading the blog. It has the same sort of high energy, no holds barred, feel that watching WWF does.
                I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the same style translated to a novel so I didn’t pick up Summa Elvectica until it went on sale. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in fiction Day is one of
the best authors I’ve ever read at showing different sides of a question. I was also very amused to find that while most authors, many theoretically enamored of a pacifistic ideal, need an epic battle to create an epic fantasy novel, here was an author who embraced confrontation and managed to magnificently pull off an epic fantasy where there was no battle but instead the plot revolved around scholarly debate of philosophical issues. And he managed to make that thrilling, intriguing and believable.
            Throne ofBones if set in the same world and includes some of the same characters. But the story also widens its scope to include many more characters and countries. The basic plot is more the standard Epic fantasy dark-forces-threaten-the-world. One of the things that first struck me was how standardized and predictable most fantasy is as this book shattered expectation after expectation. Throne of Bones has the grand sweep, the magical feel, and the sense of walking with legends that I look for in fantasy novels. It is also intricately and complexly three dimensional in a way that I didn’t realize I was missing in other works.
            Instead of just a “this is the way this world works” world building, each culture, and sometimes each character has a slightly different vision of how the world of Selenoth works. You can see them interlocking is areas of shared experience and sometimes conflicting in areas where one or both cultures lack concrete experiences. There are intriguing nooks that invite speculation on which way the world will actually work in practice. We get to share in the adrenaline as characters get their mental world expanded as they learn new bits of lore.
            Throne of Bones uses clearly identifiable historical patterns. But there isn’t the sense that a chunk of plot has been lifted out and is playing on autopilot against a different background. The historical presidents set the stage and then the interactions with different challenges are allowed to play out to their own end. For example Amorr is clearly inspired by ancient Rome, however it isn’t the Rome of and particular sequence of events. The impulses of later Christian Rome and the impulses of earlier republican Rome are allowed to blend and integrate with each other. The questions of whether citizenship should be expanded and whether preserving the republic and the real power of the senate is worth any cost, are one again lie issues and there isn’t a clear answer because the history hasn’t been written yet.
            The exact threat to Selenoth and its root cause are also complex and continue to surprise. Exactly how the protagonists should respond to the various subsidiary threats is presented as grounds for legitimate differences of opinion. My own evaluations of some of the characters often when through several revisions (even as the characters stayed consistent) as I saw them against the backgrounds of different issues and problems. I changed my mind several times on the goal the characters should be pursuing as they dug more deeply and discovered more of the problem they were facing. There were conflicting goals among the characters that changed and compromised so that which characters were truly irreconcilable and which allies was not set in stone.
            But what I most admired was that with all the things that were shone as relative and changeable the book still maintained a sense of right and wrong. None of the characters was perfect. All of them had at least some fault, not just of skill and knowledge but of moral fiber. I had to think about the moral dilemmas that came up, not just automatically agree with the “good” characters. The characters struggled with questions of the right thing to do very realistically but the book still managed to project very strongly that there was a morally right thing to do. It showed that choosing that was satisfying and good in itself, even as there were times when the results of doing the right thing didn’t seem fully satisfactory.
            This wasn’t a quick, easy read for me. There were passages where I felt a little battered by the reverse and alarms the characters were going through. I was challenged to think beyond what I’m used to in a fantasy novel. But I feel I’ve been stimulated to new understanding and new ideas. The story arch didn’t reach a complete conclusion in this book, and I’m not entirely certain where it will end up going. I’m looking forward, with trepidation as well as excitement, to reading the next book when it comes out.

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