DeFlip Side #114: Summer Fantasy League

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

With the arrival of spring, and summer soon to be upon us, my more sports-minded friends have been waxing enthusiastic about their fantasy baseball leagues. Not being a sports guy, I usually zone out and start to think about Fantasy books. So I’d like to take this opportunity to wax enthusiastic, book-geek style, about my own summer fantasy league—one for actual Fantasy novels, with a roster of authors who have hit it out of the park.

First at bat is Brandon Sanderson, pinch-hitting for the late Robert Jordan, whose tragic death left the long-running and unfinished Wheel of Time series at the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded, and fans fearing that they’d never get to see the end of the game.

Sanderson took his first swing at completing the series in 2009 with The Gathering Storm, and now he’s stepped back up to the plate with Towers of Midnight, the penultimate volume in The Wheel of Time.

The gathering storm has broken and the Dark One’s taint mars the land. Trolloc hordes surge out of the Blight. The Black Ajah is at large and death stalks the halls of the White Tower, with Aes Sedai found mysteriously murdered. And armies are marshalling too late under the banners of Andor, Malkier and The Dragon Reborn, as the Forsaken scheme in the shadows to thwart destiny and crush the Dragon before his final confrontation with the Dark One at the Last Battle.

With his seemingly effortless synthesis of plot, character and action, Sanderson has proven beyond doubt that Jordan’s legacy couldn’t be in better hands. He has knocked The Wheel of Time into overdrive, and has brought some long overdue character growth to the big three: Rand, Mat and Perrin.

Rand is kinder and gentler than we’ve seen in a good while. The Dragon Reborn has finally rediscovered compassion and will no longer callously sacrifice innocent people and entire nations in his preparations for the Last Battle. Yet he remains unbendingly resolute in his chosen course of action for confronting the Dark One—a plan so shocking that it has put him at odds with Egwene and Elayne.

Mat, meanwhile, has taken the Band of the Red Hand to Caemlyn and joined forces with Elayne to begin his own preparations for the Final Battle. But there’s still the matter of the gholam that’s hunting him and a deadly mission he must undertake with Thom to the Tower of Ghenjei in an effort to rescue Moiraine.

And Perrin’s evolution is the most marked and welcome by far. He had become such an introspective mope that he was like the Eeyore of Randland. Whenever you saw his wolf sigil at the head of a chapter you girded yourself for another heaping helping of sawdust and melancholy. But internal battles with the wolf half of his nature, and an external final showdown with the Whitecloaks force him to finally quit the pity party and decide once and for all who he wants to be.

Towers of Midnight is in many ways most remarkable for Sanderson’s deft resolution of a host of pre-existing plot issues. When Jordan died, the series had gone almost completely off the rails. Entire books would go by without a peep from Mat or Perrin or even Rand. Some novels spanned months and others only hours. It became impossible to tell who was doing what when, or how it all fit together in the context of the larger story. To his credit, Sanderson has done a phenomenal job of re-synching the plot, and his course corrections are nearly seamless.

The main characters are finally all in the same timeframe, and the story is firing on all thrusters. We’re no longer reading about three boys from Emond’s Field who are unwittingly in over their heads, but three men who know what they’re about, preparing to face what they must. The pieces are in place for an explosive endgame in A Memory of Light, the final volume of The Wheel of Time.

Next at bat in our summer Fantasy league is James Morrow, with his novel The Philosopher’s Apprentice. When philosophy dropout Mason Ambrose gets hired to go to an exotic private island in the Florida Keys to imbue an eccentric genius’s cloned daughter with a moral center, he sets events in motion that shake the entire world.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice starts on an exotic Jules Verne-y kind of note, but the modern-day Scientific Romance eventually veers into a scathingly satirical exploration of the controversies surrounding abortion and cloning. I especially like that science isn’t presented as a panacea, but rather a tool that can be perverted like any other, according to the philosophy of the person wielding it. And as always, Morrow delivers his unique brand of social commentary via prose bursting with humorous erudition, a smart plot and compelling characters.

More compelling characters come to our Fantasy league courtesy of our next heavy hitter Octavia E. Butler and her novel Wild Seed, in which an apparently immortal, shape-shifting African woman named Anyanwu agrees to travel to 17th Century New York with a body-swapping entity named Doro who has been cultivating his own human “seed” populations for millennia.

In relaying the events of the ensuing centuries, Butler weaves an increasingly twisted relationship between Anyanwu and Doro that’s like nothing I’ve ever read. And though they and most of the other central characters manifest a slew of fantastic powers, the fantastic elements never overwhelm the human stories. It’s a fine line that Butler walks masterfully.

And batting cleanup is Jeffrey E. Barlough, with his latest book A Tangle in Slops, sixth in the Western Lights series.

The bleakest of bleak midsummers has descended on the Shire of Slops, bringing events strange and tragic to the Village of Plumley.  It’s a dark time for the denizens of Orkney Farm, where a rogue mylodon has snatched Mr. Magnus Trefoil out of his study. Superstitious townfolk attribute this ill fortune to Trefoil’s unearthing a cache of mystical items belonging to his late ancestress, the legendary sorceress Tronda Quickensbog. But might the reclusive Mr. Tom Posthumous, lately taken up residence at the deserted old hermitage of St. Guthlac’s, have anything to do with these eldritch events? Or the irascible kramkar? No good can accompany the reappearance of that itinerant old peddler. Adding to the confusion, Mr. Magnus’s relatives have come to Plumley to hear the reading of his final wishes.

And many adventures follow, as A Tangle in Slops revisits the rustic setting and some characters Barlough first introduced in Western Lights volume four, Bertram of Butter Cross. Like Bertram, Tangle is a stand-alone tale that ventures beyond Barlough’s usual gothic horror into more enchanted territory. And that gave me some trepidation.

Bertram crossed the line from quaint to eye-rolling with the inclusion of animal point-of-view in the narrative—family pets and work beasts and the like. As Tangle takes place in an adjacent setting, I was uneasy about yet more anthropomorphic musings—worries that were justified right out of the gate, as the book’s framing device is of a man telling the novel’s story to a squirrel, and getting some cheeky squirrel answers in return. But my faith in the author is such that I grit my teeth and read on, powering through scattered dog POV, horse POV and further squirrel POV. I’m happy I did, because old Jeffrey E. had an amazing twist up his sleeve.

He actually gave all the cutesy animal elements a logical and very powerful reason for being included, and wound them up for a markedly haunting and tragic ending that was like a punch in the stomach—a darkness most welcome, thoroughly redeeming the Bertram-verse in my eyes. That being said, Tangle is on the whole a lighter story that revels in moments of comedy, both droll and farcical. And though you’ll piece together key elements of the book’s mystery long before the characters do, there’s still the delight of watching the bigger picture emerge.

A Tangle in Slops is Barlough in top form, showing that the author is becoming a virtuoso of his own style, taking the best of everything that’s come before and honing his narrative voice to start hitting the high notes—or grand slams, in Fantasy league speak.

So why waste your summer following the stats of a bunch of boring outfielders? Log onto my website at DeFlipSide.com and find out more about these and other great books to while away the summer and beyond. Because here’s the best thing about the DeFlip Side Fantasy league: the homeruns keep coming all year long.

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    Full Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
    Full Review: A Tangle in Slops by Jeffrey E. Barlough
    James Morrow’s Website
    Octavia E. Butler’s Website (SFWA)
    Jeffrey E. Barlough’s Western Lights Website