Brandon Sanderson – The Well of Ascension

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Just like that, Brandon Sanderson has turned into George R. R. Martin. A more appropriate title would’ve been ‘The Hell of Continuaton’. There’s no excuse to write such a dull, plodding sequel to a fairly exciting fantasy adventure. What happened? Imagine if a Grindcore band released a twinkly Post-Rock album but kept the noise and the screaming. Actually, that sounds too ambitious. If a Grindcore band did that, it’ll be a push towards new territories. Sanderson had no money for an editor.

Static paragraphs are a disease, especially in adventure stories. These are paragraphs in which literally nothing happens. All we get is the rambling of the narrator or of the character. Since the narrator is often 3rd-person omniscient, we don’t really care about its thoughts. This narrator doesn’t even exist. If it’s the rambling of the characters, a question arises. Why not just write in first person?

It’s a symptom I see in many rookie writers who lack confidence. They don’t see the reader’s point of view or understand what is necessary to them. They don’t understand art is an experience, not a collection of facts. Paragraphs teasing what will happen, what could have happened, what the characters are like litter the pages. As notes, they might be useful. By writing down who your characters are, you have a solid idea of what you should be writing. By writing down what might happen, you have a solid idea of what routes you can take. As a technique to avoid ‘just write the next scene’ writing, it’s brilliant.

These are just notes for a novel, not a novel itself. Bands don’t put all their jam sessions and demos smack in the middle of a song. Imagine if, in the middle of “One Step Closer”, Linkin Park put a random jam session that later gave birth to the chorus of “Numb”. Sure, it’s interesting but what is it doing in the middle of a punchy Nu Metal song? Any time an author puts rhetorical questions in a 3rd person narrative, he’s being a horrible author.

Narrative questions are always answered, so asking us ‘will he be able to save her’ is pointless. We’ll see in a few pages. As for philosophical questions, they must not appear since fiction is expression of philosophy, not an essay about it. I did put some rhetorical questions in this review. The purpose was to make you imagine, to focus your attention by varying sentence structure and expressing disdain at such techniques. In narrative prose, they make zero sense.

What’s odd is that it’s the only bad technique Sanderson falls into. In all other aspects, he remains fine. His story is still shallow, but he avoids the long-winding descriptions of Martin or his misogyny, or his multiple plot threads that go nowhere. Sanderson describes rooms using, at best, 3 sentences. It’s never profound, but he emphasizes the right details. The plot is also tightly focused, with a small arc inside the gigantic save-the-world one. The book was padded to 700 solely because of these static paragraphs. If Sanderson got rid of them, we would’ve been had 300-400 pages of a shallow but exciting story. Did Sanderson pad it so it would look cool on the Fantasy shelf?

As for the story itself, it’s just as shallow as the previous one. All hints of something deeper, more original are gone. As a role-player, I noticed there’s a scale between games heavy on playing a pesonality and games playing on skill. The latter are elaborate puzzle games with a bit of pretending, whereas the former are an improvised theater. The former are more fun, since they’re more emotionally engrossing and memorable. Whenever I jump into a game I always aim for that direction and find myself not doing anything. My character has a lot of skills which I’m supposed to use but forget about. I don’t care how good the paper says I am with a sword. I want to understand my character, get into his mindset and interact with other characters.

Sanderson comes from the opposite tradition. His magic system exists solely for RPG’s, with instruction manuals and technical information but little meaning. This is a world where people can influence emotions, store attributes yet the psychology of this never appears. I don’t buy the excuse that they all had to go into hiding. That’s just Sanderson avoiding confronting the meaning behind his magic. As a role-playing system, it seems exciting. Reading about it is dull.

All these details about what they push, how they push, how they recover strength is so dull. When someone tells you their character in their RPG has 80 STR, do you care? Does it make you want to play the game? The problem with writing about fictional fighting is that it’s so arbitrary. Sanderson dispenses a lot of physical facts about non-physical objects. Non-physical objects don’t have physical traits. All fiction is symbolic since in the end it’s just some ink on the page. The action scenes consist of unimportant physical information with nothing symbolic. Conflicts are elaborate chess games, with enemies having a weak point you need to use V.A.T.S. to target. One scene even features a dungeon crawl. To his credit, the final confrontation had some emotional depth.

His characters remain his strong point. Even if by this point they won’t ever have a complex psychology, they have personalities and distinct dialogues. His dialogues are the most excited parts and not just because dialogues are exciting by nature. He gives his characters obvious quirks that affect all of their speech patterns. Even when Ham isn’t musing philosophically, he has a more thoughtful tone. Breeze’s conceit is always apparent, sometime more and sometimes less. That’s why even if Sanderson’s story is, at its heart, shallow his characters are alive enough to make it exciting.

His story mode also eschew the typical long journey story mode for a more static one. Most of it is spent waiting for the big climax, but by sealing our characters in a small area he gives them a lot of room to interact. His story is less driven by action and more by character interaction. If there was any opportunity to launch his story into something truly special, it was here. Sadly, it padded by a lot of static paragraphs. The ending is also disconnected from the main story. Whereas the novel’s center is the siege, the ending brings back the Hero of Ages myth. Sanderson isn’t very good at splitting his books and dividing them into individual stories. That’s sad since they are here. He only needed to finish the book when the siege was over.

Sanderson doesn’t deliver on the promise of Mistborn. Then again, I heard this was typical, run-of-the-mill fantasy. Sanderson’s storytelling is more energetic, more character driven and his writing isn’t so stiff. It helped make the first book an exciting adventure, but this one is a good writer in search of an editor to help his writing give shape. I’ll still tackle the final book but I’m worried.

1.5 failed ascensions out of 5

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Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Final Empire

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Sanderson puts an impressive new coat of paint on your typical tale about saving the world. Sometimes he even hints at subversion or deviation. Then again, I must be just a hopeful person dying for a good story. They’re not hard to find, and I constantly find seeds of them in bad or decent stories. At some point, though, I worry that I might be just digging to deep hoping to find dinosaur bones in shallow grounds.

The book isn’t bad, but it’s hard to reconcile the unique backdrop with its horribly ordinary structure. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you know how the story goes. A mentor meets a complete nobody. He helps that nobody discover their hidden powers and it turns out this nobody was actually way more powerful than the rest. A crew of good-natured rebels do some jobs all building up to the revolution that’s only missing some Rage Against the Machine

Mistborn is as cookie-cutter as you can get, yet it’s fun. It avoids nearly every bad trope of fantasy. While not injecting anything too subversive, Sanderson writes with enough energy. By trimming the fat, he managed to write a fun fantasy romp that despite stretching to 600 pages never actually loses steam.

Praising a book for what it doesn’t have feels weird. A good book should be defined by what it makes special. I can praise Sanderson for not writing in a bloated way, for not relying so much on worldbuilding but does that sound tempting? Great works don’t earn their position because they weren’t bad, but because they’re good in a unique way. Bad books fail in many departments. Good books are successful in a very specific thing.

Sanderson’s strength isn’t special, but it’s a rarity in modern fantasy. Despite being praised for worldbuilding and a ‘developed magic system’, the novel doesn’t actually rely on these. The magic system only adds some flash to the combat scenes and the worldbuilding is focused on concepts, not details.

His worldbuilding is strange. The commonly praised method of worldbuilding in fantasy is horrible. We’ve seen in that popular disaster by George R. R. Martin. Pile a lot of details, and all you do is bore the audience. Just because a detail exists doesn’t mean it’s important. Even non-fiction books which should be about facts choose which to present. What was Stalin’s preferred method of eating potatoes is most likely irrelevant in a general history of USSR.

So Sanderson avoids piling on these details. He mentions that a lot of great houses exist, but he never provides of a list of them. He drops some names only to show they exist, but the story is focused around one or two or three. This deliberate refusal keeps the reader’s mind on the story, rather than memorizing all the great houses. Imagine how more energetic Game of Thrones would’ve been if Martin trimmed his fat.

He uses this technique often. Names of cities and of people appear, but they always exist only to inform the reader that the world is big. Sanderson avoids writing an entire encyclopedia of his world in the novel. In the end, you will only know the basics about Luthendel, where the Terrisman live and that’s it. By teasing the reader about the parts that aren’t too relevant to the story, Sanderson makes his world feel actually big and makes you wonder what other stories can take place.

As for his magic system, it’s definitely meant for an RPG game rather than a novel. Sanderson is always on the brink of telling you how much mana points the magicians have left. His deviation don’t mean much, since they’re never explored conceptually. The magic is biological in nature, which makes for an inaccessible class of wizards. We see a little of how their culture exists, but not enough. Changing it from mana to consumed metal is a cool aesthetic and it does affect the world’s relationship with metal, but again we don’t see it enough. In a world where metal is both a source of strength and a weak point for a powerful class, how does it affect people’s view of metal and their relationship with it? Mistings aren’t obscure. Metals are integral to humanity, so integral we don’t question out relationship.

At least his system isn’t overly complex. As a way to dress up action scenes and make them more fun, it’s good. The brevity is integral to the action scenes. They consist of set-pieces that connect instead of a blow-by-blow account that’s hard to follow unless you’re a WWE fanatic. He mines the technique of pulling and pushing steel objects for some cool scenes, but they display the weakness of action scenes in novels. Action gains its strength from the visual. Seeing a person getting hit is more affecting than reading “A fist hit a person”. While there’s thrill to hear about a tornado of metal objects, it sounds more like the cure for Hollywood’s sorry state of action movies.

What Sanderson does get right – and what’s pretty confusing – is his characters. There are some archetypes, but they’re distinct. One of the most arresting scenes is between Elend and Vin-as-Valette, and that’s solely because each has subtle speech patterns. The dialogues are engrossing because they feel so real. Breeze and Ham and Kelsier may not be deep, but even the dialogue between Breeze and Kelsier is different. Both are arrogant, but Sanderson lets snobbishness into Breeze’s speech whereas Kelsier talks like he believes himself to be a rock star.

This is why the book works, despite not containing anything extraordinary. It avoids all the flaws of a typical Fantasy novel, but its live characters make its adventure fun. How similar the structure to Star Wars is irrelevant when the characters are completely different but the novel has that same focused narrative. Mistborn isn’t amazing, but it’s something we need – a Fantasy story about saving the world with entertaining characters that’s actually fun.

2.5 mistings out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

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‘Children’ is an appropriate word in the title. As for the ‘Mind’, not so much. Card’s finishes his quadrilogy – which started with two classics – on a ridiculous low. It’s not that the novel is bad, but that the flaws are brand new. Card succumbs to all the flaws he avoided when he first started.

Why did the two books split up? Considering how much Card had to say in Speaker for the Dead, it makes sense. His intelligence and complex philosophy still shines through. Instead of shining through storytelling, it’s one essay after another. Sometimes it’s inside the characters’ heads. Sometimes they ruminate and we get the whole thing, uncensored and unabridged. If this was part of a style, fine. It’s not. Rather, it’s a collection of notes – events, ruminations, extended dialogues that all should’ve been trimmed down.

The quadrilogy has philosophical weight, but in the end these novels aren’t pure philosophy. There is an engaging story beneath them about saving the world and what it means to be human. The constant ruminations are like a decent guitar solo extended for 10 minutes. One or two profound phrase is okay since it helps us focus on the themes. When there are whole paragraphs where nothing happens, that’s when you know the editors were dead.

If Card is so against destroying other species, why are the editors extinct? This is a flaw I encounter a lot when reading works by unpublished writers. They’re confused, not sure entirely what their story is about and afraid the audience won’t get them. The fear is justified considering how everyone loved Fight Club for the wrong reasons. So they fill their stories with character thoughts and speculations.

When I get these stories fresh from the oven, I don’t mind. Nobody has gone over them to trim the unnecessary stuff and what should remain as notes. A story doesn’t come fully formed from our minds. We must write it down, see how it looks like on paper and then play around with the pieces. You don’t really know how your story works until you actually write it down. If I read a story where half of it is notes the author should’ve kept to himself, that’s fine. They needed to write this to get the information out of their heads, to acknowledge it exists.

When I read a story filled with notes by a published author, I get angry. Card doesn’t show ideas. He doesn’t even let characters’ personalities filter them. Philosophies are the main characters now. The novel is filled with philosophical conversations and ruminations, and it’s all so disconnected from the story.

Philosophical essays contain ideas, but fiction is how we imagine them taking from. We need literature because that’s how we imagine the effect philosophies have on our live. I can write an essay about how everyone should have assisted suicide easily available for them, but through fiction I can imagine how such an idea might impact society.

The danger of piling philosophical conversations and ruminations in your novel is this. If they overpower the story, they lose connection. We no longer see the ideas in action, so we no longer see the importance. A good story doesn’t just give me insight into an idea, but makes me care about it. By having an emotionally engaging or thrilling story, I get emotionally invested and see the importance of the idea.

The philosophical conversations have no element of humanity in them. They rarely inform us about the characters or their big worldviews. Watching them is like watching a discussion on CMV-Reddit. You see the ideas isolated from a person dissected, analyzed and evolved. That’s fascinating, but that’s not a story. Moreover, CMV has an abundance of people. This novel written by one person. It’s really one long monologue in disguise, which is a shame. A monologue by a person – especially a talented writer like Card – could’ve been fascinating.

Children of the Mind isn’t an unrestrained novel. It’s a novel without purpose that jumps from topic to topic but in the end goes anywhere. We shouldn’t kill other people. We should try to understand people. Haven’t we heard this all before? Wasn’t it more convincing when characters were either morally grey, or when we saw the weight of heroism? The absence of Ender makes his character duller. Without him to show us the weight of his virtues, everyone just opens up a fanclub.

Everyone also acts like douchebags towards each other. Suddenly 21st-century internet lingo caught on and characters swear. Dirty words don’t offend me, but their sudden appearance is odd. Even more similar to stereotypical internet talk is how many dialogues go. So much belittling, being sarcastic and condescending you have to wonder why these people are doing with each other. Nothing actually happened between this novel and Xenocide, so when did everyone started swaggering like Tarantino?

The basic idea behind the ending couldn’t have been better. It ties the novel directly to the first one, but it’s still anticlimatic. Besides that tie to the first novel, nothing actually happened in that ending. The conflict was solved, events happened but no conclusions reached. The people of Lusitania may feel better and may be able to expand their colony, but I’m in the same place.

Children of the Mind gets by only because it’s a part of the Ender Saga. There are interesting ideas, but Card is trying hard to push himself when he ran out of things to say. It even lacks the occasional outrageous moment of Xenocide. That novel was empty, but you could trim it to a decent novella. A kind editor should’ve told Card that he’s writing a story, not a hodge-podge collection of conversations with self, ruminations and the occasional encounter with aliens. At least the first two books are constructed well enough they stand on their own.

2 children out of 5 minds

Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas

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Is this really the person who wrote The Wasp Factory?

You can feel it’s the same mind for a while. Banks’ world is weird and unstable enough. The basics of it are simple at heart, focusing more on cool ideas rather than an abundance of details. Often, there are bits of madness that bring the world to life like the small tribe arc. The prose is worse than stiff though. It’s so invasive it literally turns a rollicking adventure with great characters into the word ‘kilometer’ placed between references to violence.

the story isn’t a dull travelogue with Banks showing off his worldbuilding skills. Banks uses the smart technique of showing bits and pieces, emphasizing the size of the world rather than just writing an encyclopedia. The structure is a simple one. Man goes on a mission, things go wrong and he has to solve the problems. Each problem is different and each setting is different. Even without character development the novel could give you a good time.

The prose is closer to the horrifying George Martin prose. Saying it’s better doesn’t say much. While Banks isn’t as offensive (and the story is overall better), it’s hard to ignore how crippling the writing is. The third-person omniscient writing is so detached. The epilogue features some dry history about the world. That section is more interesting since such writing fits when you look at things from a distance.

The story is an adventure. Why does Banks tell it like it’s a history book? It sucks out all the excitement and it’s more offensive when the story is very close to being fun.

The distance ruins any character development Banks was attempting. They never become psychological or grand-mythic, but even a little personality injects life. There’s something about Horza being a badass, Wubslin being an obsessed engineer and the drone being unpleasant to everyone. I’m not sure what it says about the novel when only a drone has unique reactions to things.

How characters react to the world around them is too generic. One is a little more apathetic. Another is more confident. There are no quirks, no special modifiers to these reactions. Unimaginative authors should at least be capable of repetitive archetypes. Banks’ characters don’t even qualify as that. If one character had a trait where they’d swear more than everyone, they’ll be more lifelike than everyone else.

Banks also has a weird obsession with exactness. The world ‘kilometer’ repeats itself often. The exact measures and structures of everything will haunt you in your sleep. Not only Banks is into writing history books, he also enjoys writing instructions manuals on how to build a ship.

Now, such manuals have no room for exciting or beautiful prose. Their purpose is to give the exact details. How exact can you be with fiction? Banks forgets something crucial. All these ships and planets aren’t actually real. Describing their exact size doesn’t make then any more so.

We don’t experience the world in measuring units. First of all, we perceive things as ‘big’ or ‘small’, as ‘long’ or ‘short’. Fiction is human thought and it should connect our thoughts. You use descriptions to make the reader understand what it feels like to witness the destruction. Some authors use a pile of details for this, but the good ones never gain their strength from being exact. Shopping list as a writing technique is about creating a variety of images.

The writing isn’t shopping-list style. It simply relies on being very exact. All it does is making you either feel confused (Because the exactness doesn’t give a proper image of what it feels like) or sucking out the life out of the prose. I’m not sure which is worse and it often happens at the same time.

The epilogue is perhaps the best part of the novel. Although it’s dry history, the prose works there. Maybe Banks is more interested in huge stories thna small adventures. After all, this series became huge. Sadly he was too scared to write a full book in this style and instead we get this dry adventure.

If you’re into shenanigans about traveling in outer space, explosions and weird cultures there’s fun to be had here. It’s buried under layers of dull prose. Nothing about is offensively bad. I never got the urge to put it down but I never got much of one to pick it up. Make of that what you will.

2 kilometers out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

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Scott Card still puzzles me. Here, he’s beyond the power of editors. The writing is more dense, with more inner monologues and more pointless words. Nothing about it is terrible, but it does reek of an inexperienced author who can’t edit himself.

Authors who can’t edit themselves will let their worldview seep into the novel. If they lack critical thinking. then expect all the Good Guys to hold their opinion and all the Bad Guys to disagree with them. The novel won’t raise questions or confront the difficulty of its subject matter. At best, it will give the illusion of realism using cheap techniques like ‘surprise deaths’.

Where’s the bigotry, though? I mean, Scott Card is a homophobe and very strictly religious. This only goes to show you how bizarre and full of contradiction the human mind are. Religion and homophobia are, justifiably, close-minded dogmatic ideas. They’re about limiting our options, and won’t be held by people who try to think deeply.

Card broke the stereotype on Ender’s Game, and here he continues. In fact, if you didn’t know his background you wouldn’t guess Card holds such views.

It’s ironic I’m judging Card like this, in a review of a novel where judgment is a big theme. The religious theme of forgiveness is here, and just like in the previous novel Card doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s always looking at a subject from both sides, always willing to accept both the good and the bad involved. The best moment is the actual ‘speaking’.

Evil doesn’t exist in the real world. Everyone is convinced they’re right. We need morality and to mark some actions as wrong, but we must be wary of branding people as just ‘sick assholes’ and be done with it. It’s important to understand why they do what they do. This way we won’t go down that path, and we will be able to prevent it.

Murder is considered one of the most horrible things you can do, and Card uses it cleverly to make us question what is evil. From the viewpoint of an organism that doesn’t really die when they’re killed, there’s no such thing as murder. So when they do the same to you, can you really brand them as evil? They sure they were doing you good, bringing you to your next life.

His desire to understand people, the idea that we should see people as people through their flaws reflects in the characters. They’re all flawed humans, doing what they think is best. Some of them are crueler than others, but each has a reason for what they do. Some Card clearly disagrees with, like the religious zealotry of Quim or the Bishop. They never slide into the unlikeable. They never become wrenches in the gears of the plot that the heroes have to get rid of. Like everyone else, they have a worldview of their own that they adjust as they learn new things. Card never converts them to their side, but lets them learn like people do.

It sounds fun and deep, but it never goes as deep as it should. The biggest challenge is to take a true scumbag, a person who disregarded everyone else and make them sympathetic. Not every cruel person is a tragic case and could be redeemed. Some people do use their power for pleasure while hurting others. Some people are so extreme in their views they cannot be changes. He confronted the reality of inevitable violence in Ender’s Game, but here he’s hesitant. The novel has a bigger plot, a wider scope and states its subject matter more clearly. Yet it doesn’t match what came before for depth. Despite the simple plot, Ender’s Game did go much further.

The story itself is great though. The writing is more dense and a little more rambling. The easy flow of Ender’s Game is gone and Card has no stylistic quirks, but it’s readable. It also helps Card tends to ramble on the novel’s focus, its characters. The prose is otherwise is easy to read. Plain utilitarianism has its place, especially when everything surrounding it is good enough.

For a very famous series, its structure is vastly different than stereotypical sci-fi. Science fiction is burdened with the stigma that it’s all technobabble, silly worldbuilding and too much exposition. I even talked to some people who think sci-fi is all about new technologies.

Speaker for the Dead is a character-driven novel where gadgets take a secondary place. The best sci-fi comes up with meaningful technologies or aliens. They don’t ask how a new technology can function, but how it will affect society. The effect of technology is more central. It doesn’t bore us with how space travel works, but we constantly see how the lack of aging affects relationships. How the big computer network functions doesn’t matter. What does is that it creates a new ‘currency’, a new way to hold power without weapons. The new biology is also a symbol of such ideas. The whole ‘third life’ thing creates a situation in which killing is different, where ‘symbiosis’ is taken to the next level. Card is more concerned how such a difference in biology breeds different cultures, how they clash rather than the plain mechanics of it.

It’s also a perfect example of how a sequel should be. Books in a series should be separated for a specific reason. When we say a sequel should ‘stand on its own’, we don’t mean that it should be accessible for those who didn’t read the predecessors. ‘Stands on its own’ means the sequel is a work with its own unique qualities. It has its own style, themes and structure that separates it. A sequel shouldn’t just show us what happens next but offer something new. Speaker is different in many ways – prose, structure, characters, atmosphere – than Ender’s Game, and all that justifies its existence.

The flaws are negligible. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ender’s Game because it’s not as willing to face the darkness and it rambles more. These prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s still a great sci-fi story. It’s a story of ideas and characters, using setting, technology and aliens to raise questions instead of spitting technobabble. Whatever views Card holds, his story is multi-layered and doesn’t preach dogma but encourages understanding the unfamiliar. Hopefully, the good stuff doesn’t stop here.

4 dysfunctional families out of 5

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

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Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5