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According to the author, Deryni Rising (1970) represents the first modern fantasy novel. In that year, her books established the genre. How well has it held up over the years? Pretty well, in my opinion, but not perfectly. Much of the reason for its solidity is that she avoided the excesses of her time, basing her text style on the other genre styles popular in their day.

In this story, King Bryan dies, leaving young Prince Kelson to ascend the throne. Secretly opposing him for the throne is a Deryni sorceress, who assassinated King Bryan, and plans to tear apart his legacy as she seizes the throne.

For a first novel, the book holds together pretty well, although its plot's as thin as a made-for-TV movie. That comparison is not without merit. Not only could I follow the visual cuts, the chapters fell where the commercial breaks should go, complete with strong act-outs and mid-chapter twists. However, I found the constant one-sidedness hammering on the protagonists a bit much by halfway through. While I can believe that smart people can be fooled with misdirection, when this happens every few chapters, with people attempting to arrest and execute the most trusted servant of the prince, the whole setup stretched beyond credulity.

The prose is clear and serviceable, rarely leaving the reader to doubt who is thinking what at any particular time. Every character has a clear motivation. The plot moves along, rarely bogging down. There's a few info dumps, but they don't rise to any measurable inconvenience.

I can happily recommend the book, even now. I can't think of another setting quite like this one. It's like a mini Game of Thrones three decades before Game of Thrones was written, just a whole lot less murderous and far more family friendly.

Pages Read

Today, Amazon reports that one of my books had one page read. One. That's one page. One. That's worse than one star. Really, Amazon, you can have my 1/2 cent back. Thanks.
Few series in the fantasy canon are as divisive as the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. This was true in the late 70's when it was published, with the dividing line being that boys like the series while the girls reviled it, and true today, where many men join many women in reviling. What is it about this series that polarizes the readership so much?

This series is not escapist fantasy. If you want to be someone else for a while, Thomas Covenant isn't him. Although the Land has many attractive elements to it, to live there during the depicted time ought to rank very low on your to-do list.

The war depicted in these books is not the great and noble battles of old, but the war of post-Vietnam America, where body counts were the totals of the day, and incendiary bombs rained upon villages. Our hero is a leper whose hands no longer feel, his disease rotting him from the inside, much like the world around him rotted from the inside. There is no heroism in war. There is no sanctity in peace.

To escape the fundamental allegory is to escape the fundamental exploration of our modern unheroicism. Without the allegory, the novel has no meaning, delivering you only ambivalence and the gritty taste of ashes in your mouth. Only with the allegory does the series delivery any reward at all, but that sort of reward takes thinking from the reader, one who all too likely has become exhausted in the reading of the work.

Yet there is a slice of the reading population jaded by heroes that never face consequences, where morals are won at the point of a sword, where kings rule by right, and the divides between good and evil are wide and verdant. For those readers, the very aspects which drive many readers away bring these readers in. To this day, I can't think of a fantasy series so relentless in its deconstruction of the cult of heroism, so willing to deliver the bad news that war is hell and heroes are just people who believe in their world's illusions more than anyone else.

Thomas Covenant is the unbeliever. He doesn't believe in the land, what is stands for, or the health it offers to him, because when he returns to the real world, that belief will destroy him. Illusions will destroy him. False belief will destroy him. Heroism grants him nothing. The only thing that keeps him alive is the non-self-serving belief that leprosy is permanent and nothing will cure it, much as the sins of mankind are permanent and nothing will destroy them, even if we life in a fantasy world with magic and wonders. Remember, we are as lepers, rotting from the inside.

Having warned of you what's here, I can neither recommend nor pan this series. It's up to you to know what you want from your fiction. There are no correct answers here. If you aren't up for the experience, then move on. You know your heart.
The Power that Preserves concludes the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. If you'e made it this far, you surely know what you expecting, giving you a grimly grim experience of grimdon. If you've enjoyed the series so far, you'll get more of what you expected, but even more so. If you don't like Thomas Covenant, then I can't fathom why you're even bothering. And if you're on the fence, this book will most likely knock you off the fence, onto your back, and kick you in the belly, just for good measure. This book doesn't believe in wishy-washiness.

After a week back in the real world, Thomas Covenant returns to the Land. Lord Foul has the world in a grip of eternal winter, a magical polar vortex. His army marches towards Revelstone, well over 200,000 strong. In desperation, the Lords call on Covenant once more.

After that, it gets grim.

When I was sixteen, I thought this among the best fantasy novels that I'd ever read. I'm not sixteen any more, so I can admit that I was wrong. What seemed cool and complex then seems rather contrived now. I'm not going to knock Donaldson for trying, for seeking to make a more meaningful fantasy novel. In many ways, he succeeded, but to get there, you need to go through an emotionally hostile work. The emotional and philosophic grind tolls you far more than the conclusion uplifts you. If you expect the nature of the book to fill your abstract needs, then like a food with costs more calories than it gives, gorging yourself only leaves you feeling emptier.

When I was sixteen, I read every word. On this read through, I skimmed massively. Any editor could easily cut half the words from this story without altering either the mood or the world building. Like they say up north, for what it is, there sure is a lot of it.

Why Did Europe Develop the Best Armor 2?

I sat down and chatted with my friend Colleen, and we hashed out this conjecture of why Europe developed the best armor.

My original conjecture was because the armor wearing classes began talking to the armorers. She wasn't satisfied with that, so we argued a bit, and hit on a revision of the conjecture.

We propose that Europe had developed a mercenary middle class due to its ongoing wars. For a farmer/soldier, investing in armor that would be used sometimes, but not often, didn't make much sense. However, for a professional soldier, better protection meant everything. These people risked battles every year. No armor was "good enough." If they had extra money, they would invest it back into their kit. It was these mercenaries that pushed the envelope on armor technology, constantly striving for better, more comfortable, more durable, and more practical. As they pushed the armor technology, so the rest of Europe followed.

Why didn't the sumptuary laws limit the armors of non-nobles? If clothing could be regulated, then surely armor should have been regulated? There are a number of factors preventing this. First, your enemy is always looking to hire the best armored troops that he can hire. You have no incentive to limit the armors of your non-noble troops because you'll be outclassed. Nobody held enough of Europe to put any restrictive laws in place, so mercenaries would always come from somewhere. Second, although the armors were expensive, they weren't sumptuous for the average soldier. A rich suit of armor said that you were a noble, and the enemy would seek to kill you, capture you, and hopefully hold you for ransom. If you're an ordinary mercenary, they'll figure out that you aren't worth anything and get mad, likely killing you. On the other hand, as an ordinary mercenary, the enemy might just let you go if your side lost the fight. Any noble who butchered mercenaries would soon find himself unable to hire them, so its in the winner's interest to let mercenaries leave the field, or even hire them on.

Yes, soldiers could fight to the death, but usually they didn't need to.

How do demonstrate this conjecture? That would take work. I welcome anyone to do so.

Weekend Wedding

The big event this weekend was my cousin Rachael's wedding. (You'll forgive me if I don't remember her husband's name. Yes, that's bad of me.) The wedding was held up in a Catholic church in Ellicott City, while the reception was in Savage Mill.

We left DesignGirl on an all-day playdate and headed up to Ellicott City. I thought that I could exit on 103, but I was wrong. I wound up exiting on 40, then trying to find my way south to 103. On the way, we passed through old town Ellicott City, which I hadn't visited since the early 90s. It looks the same, of course, but I never knew it well enough to tell you what had changed. We did eventually make the wedding, only a little late.

The Catholic service was a Catholic service. I hadn't seen one in a decade, and they now seem so odd compared to Methodist. The service felt empty, which is the reason that I stopped going to church. It felt like faith codified to a firm formula, and in that codification, losing everything that it tried to codify. Of note, when communion came around, none of my siblings went to communion. I looked to them as a cue for what I should do. I had not expected that none would stand for communion.

The reception went well. The reception room in Savage Mill is really a nice space. We fled when the DJ turned up the music too loud. Otherwise, it went as routinely as most receptions do. I did like their dessert table, where various family members had brought desserts for the table. That worked so well that I'm stealing the idea for my next wedding.

One thing that I did become aware of was that most people in the room had gotten married, so they knew how to benchmark the prices of everything. So now I understand why weddings are all about social PVP (player vs. player). Everybody knows.

Sunday wound up as a laundry day. As our church is in Georgetown, we firmly believed there were be abysmal parking. DesignGirl had an all-day play date with our old next-door-neighbor girl. I washed and gamed. They mostly took care of themselves.
The Illearth War (1977) continues Stephen R. Donaldon's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. If you liked the first book, you'll like this one, and if you didn't like the first book, then you won't like this one either.

In this tale, the unlikable leper, Thomas Covenant, is pulled back to the Land by the summons of Elena, high lord of Revelstone. But a few weeks have passed for Covenant since his first adventure, but a full forty years have passed in the Land. The time of Lord Foul's victory draws near as Lord Foul's minions mass for imminent war. They hope that the power of white gold can save them.

On this visit, Covenant finds that he's not the only real-world person drawn into the land. Another person, Hile Troy, had been summoned years before and has risen to the position of General. He's not counting on magic to win, but his use of strategy and tactics. He'll have his work cut out for him, because Lord Foul has a fantasy army of unstoppable proportions.

The work itself contains a split narrative. Midway through the book, Hile Troy becomes the main character as we follow the desperate Illearth War. Meanwhile, the final third follows the quest of Covenant and High Lord Elana.

If you expect a happy ending, you've got another thing coming. This is a Thomas Covenant book. Not having every burn in Hell counts as victory (but some people are going to burn).

The fantasy war itself remains Tolkienesque. While the human army tires, needs to eat and drink, and suffers from mortality, Foul's army mysteriously never tires, nor hungers, nor anything. He's got a perpetual war machine going. This is pretty normal for "overwhelming invasion" fantasy stories.

Covenant himself gets more bearable if you just skip most of the text. This is an easy book to skim. Most of the description doesn't add to the story. Skimming also helps you to skip over all the self-loathing and angst, which helps immensely.

I first ready this book back in 1979, and it was massive and huge and all sorts of awesome. How well has it stood the test of time? Like platform shoes and heavy sideburns, the book shows itself a relic of its time. Take away the angst, and the story itself becomes astonishingly simple, with very little for Covenant to do. He influences events, but almost never by his own choosing. For most of the work, we can substitute him with a recording that says, "Don't touch me," and "Hellfire," and never notice that he's not a real person at all. The only major woman in the story requires trigger alerts. [Warning: Icky ahead. Really.] Yet, the story also shows itself more progressive than would be expected. Both man and women are in the armies, earning rank equally. Even this mere attempt at inclusiveness puts this work far ahead of many SFF works of the day.

The book still deserves its place in the 70's as one of the best fantasies out there, but in the larger SFF literary context that's emerged since that decade, the reader has many more engaging options.

Traffic after Snowzilla

The traffic around here continues to be sucky. The reason is that the main artery roads, such as 355, haven't gotten cleaned up. Once they were plowed on Monday, they stayed the way that they were improperly plowed. As a result, these main roads have produced horrible backup.

Even while cleanup is happening, the number of people going to work has increased steadily while the roads haven't. This has made traffic worse and worse over the last few days.

Worst, because snow has piled up in the side lanes, as the snow melts, the side lanes don't. They're going to be like that until some vehicle comes along to push them aside. Even a good rain won't get them melted quickly.

Why haven't the traffic people prioritized the main arteries? I have no idea.

Snowzilla

We survived Snowzilla in grand fashion. All that we really needed to do was shovel, shovel, and shovel.

I am sad to announce the near demise of Shovel. Shovel has been three major blizzards, being a veteran of Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, and the most recent Snowzilla. During the course of its duties, it cracked down the center and near the handle. Shovel is survived by its friend, the Square Tipped Coal Shovel, who despite his geriatric age, and even more brutal duties, continues to break ice.

I parked my car off to the side for the snow, but what I should have done was to back the car in behind my wife's car. That would have cut down on shoveling. As it was, I had to shovel out a huge swath to back my car over to the driveway. I correctly predicted that the snow plows would come in a make a mess of things, which they did. On balance, they did more good than harm, but they still made a mess. By moving the car, I gave them a big blank area to move the mess into, greatly improving our own fortunes. Jenny pitched in as well, meaning that we moved a lot of snow.

Of the people who shoveled snow, we all stopped at digging out our cars. We all know about the snow plows, and their random havok, so why work against fate?

I haven't shoveled all our sidewalks yet.

Our new game for the snow-holiday (snowliday?) was Mhing, a game I hadn't played since the 90's. My daughter and my wife absolutely enjoyed the game, and we look forward to introducing more friends to it. Mhing is one of those games that easy to learn, although that does take a bit of time, but it's the scoring game that makes it quite interesting as you're always balancing opportunity vs. scoring. For your first five "credits" the scoring is 2^Credit, meaning that playing for credits hugely rewards you over playing for opportunity.

I was video gamed out by Saturday night, so on Sunday and Monday, I worked for finish painting the plaster village church that I had begun painting two Christmases before. I also had several other ornaments. I finished the Santa ornament as well, while DesignGirl, my daughter, finished the snow woman. I was gobsmacked by my daughter's design choices. Two years ago, she was a mess with plaster. Now she producing imperfections that look terrific. (There's a reason that I've nicknamed her DesignGirl.)

We made challah for french toast. That worked so well that I made an additional loaf of egg bread. Oh-mi-gawd fresh bread.

I couldn't make it into work on Monday. The metro was down. The buses were down. My 4WD car couldn't get out of the area. My old Subaru may have been able to get out, but not my Ford 500.

I also took time to finish watching Season 5 of My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic. I was rather pleased and entertained by the scripts. This season met my expectations far better than Season 4 had. The back half of the season didn't came in stronger than the first half.

The cat is bored, but has suffered valiantly with the snow. He looked at me when he saw all that snow, didn't try to blame me at all, and just gave a resigned sigh. "This again." This cat had seen both Snowmageddon and Snowpacalypse. He knew the routine.
Lord Foul's Bane (1977) begins Stephen R. Donaldson's epic fantasy, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Thomas Covenant is a leper, and must keep his wits about him because his leprosy demands vigilance. When summoned into an alternate world, the Land, the magical healing of the world heals his body, but in his soul, he is still a leper.

This is a divisive book. I've known far too many people, mostly women, who simply could not read the series. The world and the outlook posed to them simply did not work. Of all the books that I've read from the 70's, this is the only one that requires a trigger warning. The protagonist rapes a girl.

The book hit like lighting in the 70's. This is one of those books that dared to be different. It gave us an unlikable man who didn't want to be a hero. Donaldson gave us a different narrative to "yes, I'll be the chosen one." He gave us sturm and drag. He gave us doubt that the protagonist would do the right thing, and in many cases, veering from the epic fantasy script.

Underneath all that, the book itself is a fairly exemplary epic fantasy. It has dwarves, elves, kung fu easterners, wizards, goblins, and all that, except that they've had their serial numbers filed off. They may be described as humans and cavewrights and ur-viles, but we readers know better. Lord Foul has returned after a thousand years, threatening to take over the land. In response, the Lords must defeat the evil Drool Rockworm and recover the Staff of Law. Between good and evil is wild magic, white gold, the very wedding ring that Covenant wears upon his finger.

As far as villains go, they chew the scenery very well. Their rants come across as rather theatrical. Lord Foul even gives his evil rant at the beginning of the novel. There's no need to wait.

Lord Foul's Bane is the weakest book in this first trilogy of Thomas Covenant. I often felt myself unengaged and uninterested in the main event. I honestly didn't care who lived or died. Donaldson's writing is quite competent, often flowing, but the overall work often falls flat.