Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Keep on Bookin'

For perhaps the first time ever in a Clive Cussler novel, our hero is unsure of himself.

Oh, Dirk Pitt may have gambled on a risky scheme before. Juan Cabrillo may have wondered if he would be in time to save the day. Isaac Bell may have feared his enemies were too powerful, crafty or ruthless to overcome. And Sam and Remi Fargo may have worried they've bitten off more than they can chew.

 But as we open on him in Ghost Ship, Kurt Austin doesn't know if he's ever going to be the same again. Austin's role in a failed ocean rescue has hit him harder than just his physical injuries. Nightmares and depression have sidelined him from his work at the National Underwater and Marine Agency, and when there are some questions about the circumstances of his injury and the fate of those he sought to help, he's not sure he can handle the job.

The fourth "collaboration" between Cussler and Graham Brown offers the usual suspects of straight-ahead action, cutting-edge techno-thriller gadgetry, sinister skullduggery by sinister skulllduggers and of course  femmes both fatale and héroïque. Austin's symptoms resolve themselves as the story unwinds, and Brown manages to slip some actual character development into one of his villains.

Ghost Ship steers the same course that Cussler adventures -- whether from his pen directly or by way of one of his co-authors -- usually do, but Brown doesn't promise more than he can deliver and delivers on his promises.
Before Brandon Sanderson was tapped to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, he had a few books of his own under his belt. Sanderson sees much of his work as interlinked within something he calls "the Cosmere," a way of subtly connecting the different series that doesn't require reading all of his other series in order to follow along. Michael Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" theme is somewhat similar.

The Way of Kings came out in 2010, while Sanderson was finishing Jordan's series. It's the first of the "Stormlight Archive," Sanderson's own multi-volume epic fantasy series. We're looking at a time of war between two nations, Alethkar and Jeh Keved, primarily through the eyes of four main characters: Kaladi, the peasant and prisoner of war; Shallan, the minor noble trying to protect her impoverished family; Dalinar, the uncle to the young king and Szeth, the magic-wielding assassin.  The goal of the war is control over magic left behind by divine beings who inexplicably abandoned it.

As with most epic fantasy series, the main hooks are the world the author builds and the characters which populate it. Sanderson is fabulously successful on the first front; he holds as a rule of all of his work that consistency and plausibility within its own terms are musts for good fantasy novels. He's less successful at the second. Our main viewpoint characters become pretty clearly sketched early on in the book and the rest of their stories add little to their mostly black-and-white natures. That wouldn't be much of an issue except that "early on" means roughly the first couple hundred pages and "rest of their stories" refers to the next eight hundred. Which is a key to understanding the ultimate failure of a work that's only about an estimated 20 percent complete so far: I care far more about the people in a world than I do about the world they're in, and every effort to paint over the former's limits with more of the latter's colors just makes things longer instead of better.

The problem is that the first two books in the series average 400,000 words apiece, and Sanderson says the planned "Stormlight Archive" is ten volumes. Fantasy epics, if they sell well, have a habit of expanding, and since this first pair are already at a thousand pages or better we're looking at a minimum projected four million words and ten thousand pages.

And neither Brandon Sanderson the storyteller nor Brandon Sanderson the stylist are worth that investment. To be fair, the love child of Victor Hugo and George Eliot, adopted and raised by Mark Twain with extended periods at boarding school being taught by Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky and an internship under Virginia Woolf would probably not create work worth that investment. Kings is too long. The whole series is too long at ten books, especially ten books of this size. Pushing through to the end of a too-long book may bring some feeling of personal accomplishment, but it's more like someone who finishes a long-distance race on a treadmill. You've run a long way, but you're still where you were when you started, so there's no reason not to get off now.

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