Monday, May 30, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The Silver Spike

When last we left our heroes, quite a huge battle took place on the Barrowlands, where the evil Dominator was struggling to throw off his chains. Darling led the Black Company to prevent his rise, in conjunction with the Lady and her forces, who wished the same. Meanwhile Raven's reckless attempt to access the Barrow (possibly to murder the Dominator, or at least to ensure he still slept) threatened to raise him, and Raven found himself trapped alongside the physical body of the wizard Bomanz who was placed in suspended animation after his attempt to subvert control over the Lady centuries ago.

In the ensuing fracas, One-Eye managed to free Raven's spirit, while the company managed to revive Bomanz, and together with the Lady's forces, Bomanz himself, Raven and his soldier friend Case, the Company managed to subdue the Dominator, drive a silver spike through his head and burn his body, encasing his demonic will into the spike. They then drove the spike into a sapling that was the son of the great Father Tree, the god of the Plain of Fear.

Tracker and Toadkiller Dog, two demons that had been trapped with the Dominator but were accidentally freed by Raven, ended up taking two sides in the war: Tracker joined the Company but didn't survive the battle while Toadkiller Dog remained loyal to the Dominator, and while he was badly wounded in the battle, he seems determined to harry the sapling, doing his departed master's bidding.

Having their true names revealed, the Lady and Darling both end up losing their powers. The Taken are now free agents and the Company no longer has a White Rose to protect.

The Company itself barely survived the battle of the Barrowlands, Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin, Silent, Otto, Hagop, standard-bearer Murgen and three others we'd not spent time with before being the only survivors. Croaker, as the ranking officer still alive, assumes the role of Captain and decides it's time for the Company to disband. The only thing left is to deliver the annals to the mysterious country of Khatovar, where the Company began, over 400 years earlier.

Silent opts to stay with Darling, as do the three soldiers we'd not seen before, so the rest of the company heads south, the Lady traveling with them.

Their story will be told in The Books of the South, which begin in the next volume. For now, let's return to the Barrowlands and the fate of the silver spike.
Toadkiller Dog, in assumed form and true form

The idea behind driving the spike into the sapling was that eventually the trunk would grow around the spike and no one would even be aware it was there. The sapling had the same defensive powers as its progenitor, so none dared get too close. Except that old Toadkiller Dog is determined to raise the fallen Taken, the Limper, now only a head in a shallow tomb near the Dominator's crypt. While fending off Toadkiller Dog, the sapling fails to notice the gang of thieves who have come to steal the spike until it's too late.

The thieves, a pair of cousins named Tully and Smeds, along with their partners Old Man Fish and Timmy Locan, are only after riches, knowing the spike will be of value to powerful people, and they can sell it and retire off the money. That was Tully's idea, anyway, and Tully is shown to be a man who thinks small. Sure, there are people after the spike, but they're not particularly interested in paying for it. They steal the spike, but now the real trouble has begun for them.
Meanwhile, the Limper has been raised thanks to the efforts of Toadkiller Dog, but suffice it to say the process of being reduced to just a head has left him quite mad.
Raven and Case decide that only the remains of the Company can help deal with the stolen spike, while Bomanz heads off looking for Darling, thinking she and Old Father Tree are the only ones who can help. Eventually they all end up together in one group, facing the Limper, two sorceresses and the whole of the Empire's forces, all looking for the spike, or in the Limper's case, just revenge.

The Good
Three words: Old Man Fish. Man, talk about your basic badass grandpa! I wish this weren't his only appearance. He'd be an amazing asset to the Company, heck, he might be a better captain than Croaker. This is how you write good badasses. Don't make them a Mary Sue, but do make it so the reader believes in them. How he manages to turn Smeds into a respectable guy is pretty well done. He might be among my favorite characters in this series.

I also really like how Raven's story is fleshed out here. Raven has been a figure of mystery for the initial trilogy, and while Croaker always thought of him as kind of a badass, the fact is that he's got some deep-seated attachment issues. His dark side and his light side are in constant battle, and the dark side might be winning. Watching this through the eyes of Case is actually pretty revealing. While Croaker was kind of impressed with Raven, seeing only is battle skill and mysteries, Case cuts through the bullshit and reveals to us who Raven really is, and it works, even if it shouldn't.

Despite not really feeling the Bomanz chapters in the previous novel, I actually grew to like and admire the old boy here. Despite how full of doubt his inner monologues show him to be, he's pretty capable and more than once comes through where others fail. He is essentially the opposite of Raven; he has fears, but he ignores them because stuff needs to be done. Raven knows stuff needs to be done, but he ignores it because he has fears.

The Bad
Smeds is an interesting character, but there were two fatal flaws that kept me from rooting for him like I was obviously supposed to. One is that he's a pedophile. I'm not using that word lightly. When we're introduced to him he's having a threesome with two sisters, ages 11 and 12. Later he makes a date with a 14-year-old he's forced to break, thank god, but we're reminded of his tendencies when he meets Darling, who is now in her mid to late 20's, and he thinks to himself that she's fairly attractive but "too old".

I kept waiting for him to get some sort of come-uppance due to this, but that never happens. He lives to molest another day. Just because he only molests kids who are willing doesn't make him any less creepy. Seriously, couldn't it have been Tully, who we're not supposed to like, that has that quality? This is the second time a sympathetic character has revealed at least possible pedophilic tendencies, and this, I feel, gets a little close to the line when it comes to asking me to still cheer this character on. Thankfully the first character doesn't actually physically commit this crime, but Smeds does.

Also, Smeds's story has already been told in this series, and told much better. There's hardly any difference at all between Smeds's path to becoming a real man and Marron Shed's story from Shadows Linger. Heck, their names are even similar. But whereas I liked Shed and felt that the transition was natural, I did not like Smeds for the reason I stated above and felt that his transition from whiny little bitch to man of action happened too quickly to be believable.

I was also confused for most of the story. Who exactly are Gossamyr and Spidersilk, the twin sorceresses after the spike? I assumed they were new Taken, but the Lady never mentions them in future volumes, and neither do we get any further explanation as to who Exile is. He's a dignitary, apparently from "the Tower", but he can't be that highly placed or the Lady would have had to talk to him when she visits the Tower in the next book. For that matter, who exactly are the "Black Riders" that Toadkiller Dog devotes himself to after he decides the Limper is too crazy? This is when Cook's natural laconic voice starts to work against him. Some fleshing out of these characters and the threat they pose is absolutely necessary.

For that matter, just who's telling about half this book? Cook sets up each tale as though it's a narrative of one of the characters who lived it, now relating it to the reader. For The Black Company it was all Croaker, in his duties as Company annalist. In Shadows Linger, we got two perspectives, Croaker's and Shed's, but Croaker gets Shed's story in full and tells us he's going to be including it. In The White Rose, we're never really told who related Raven's story to us, but presumably it's Croaker again, making some educated guesses. For this book, however, Croaker is completely absent and Case only knows what he's around to witness. Yet we get perspective chapters Case could in no way have learned about or figured out. From whence come Smeds and Old Man Fish's stories? Or the chapters from the point of view of the Limper or Toadkiller Dog?

Let's also talk a little more about a wizard's one true weakness. Basically if you know their true name, you can instantly depower them. They can rebuild, but at the conclusion of the last book, once the Lady's birth name, Dorotea Senjak, is spoken aloud, she loses all her power. The idea of a wizard's power being bound up in their true self, represented by their true name, is not old, and in fact another of my favorite series uses this, which is The Dresden Files.

But in that series, it makes a bit more sense. First of all, you have to be a demon, fey or powerful wizard in order to use a wizard's name against them. And it doesn't cause them to lose their powers, it just gives you some measure of control over them. You have to know their full name, middle-names included, and you have to speak it with the same kind of authority that they would. I can't just say "Harry Dresden" and gain control over him. I would have to use his whole name and speak it in the same way he does, and even then all I likely accomplished was defending myself against his spells or perhaps momentarily weakening him.

But in this world, knowing a sorcerer's name means you pretty much end their sorcerous career. Too bad it's not applied with any consistency.

Practically as soon as he's back to health in the previous volume, Bomanz reveals that his real name is Seth Chalk. I assumed he was trying to depower himself by giving his true name out, but no one speaks it, so he keeps his powers. But here, a talking vulture from the Plain of Fear repeatedly uses Bomanz's real name, much to his annoyance, but it doesn't do diddly squat to old Bo.

The Ugly
Not to repeat myself but I'd say setting up an unrepentant pedophile as a sympathetic character is pretty ugly.

But moving on to other issues; hey, Cook, can we be done with the Limper now? Can we please never have him return? Any potential he may have had as a scary villain is 100% gone. Sure, he's a bit creepy still, being just a head with an artificial body, plus the creature he turns into at the end is pretty gross, but in no way compelling enough to make up for his chapters.

For that matter, Toadkiller Dog, too. Neither character is compelling enough to warrant several chapters from their perspective. I'm okay with never using these guys again. Any time I realized we were back to them, I wanted to put the book down.

Final thoughts and ranking: honestly, while there were some great parts of this, particularly those involving Raven, Bomanz and Old Man Fish, I wasn't as impressed this time. And it had nothing to do with this book sort of being outside the main narrative, thus not including Croaker, Goblin, One-Eye or a number of other characters I'd gotten to know and love. It was just missing something this time out. Don't get me wrong; large parts are compelling, and don't get the idea that you can just skip it. Some pretty momentous stuff happens here, including the ultimate fates of two characters that you definitely will want to be there for. Thankfully, as short as this book is, the parts I wasn't keen on didn't dominate.

Story: B-
Writing Style: B
Characters: B+
World-Building: C
Readability: A-
Accessability: B
Consistency: C

Final Ranking: B-

From here, it's on to The Books of the South and the return of Croaker and the Lady.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Robert Stanek and his Ironic Lack of Effort

Meet Robert Stanek. Or better yet, don't, but by all means google him. His story is worth your time and effort.

Much has been said about Stanek, whose name is actually William Robert Stanek, and thus, I shall refer to him as Billy-Bob for the rest of this post. Seriously, just googling his name will turn up all the relevant hits of the story, but the most comprehensive collating of all pertinent Stanek-related material is absolutely this site here. Go there. Read the whole thing. I'll wait.

To make a very long story short, Billy-Bob is a self-published author who has produced, by his own count, well over 100 books. In fact, he says over 150. He is a multi-nationally published author with over 200 million in sales to his name and a bucket-full of awards. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He is one of Amazon's top sellers. He is the next JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling (two writers he constantly compares himself to, despite the two having nothing in common). At least, that's what his website says and what he himself says a lot.

None of it's true, however. I'm not going to say that no one's ever read a Stanek book and come away thinking "that was pretty good", but then, there are dumb people in the world. I'm reasonably sure that 99.9% of the people that have actually subjected himself to his writing come away wondering  what the unholy fuck they just read. I can't really speak from experience, because I haven't read a full Stanek novel, but the excerpts I've read are enough to convince me that my last lingering thread of sanity will be fully snapped by the time I'm finished even one chapter.

Billy-Bob gets around this by creating hundreds of "sock-puppet" Amazon accounts and posting umpteen positive reviews of his own works under all these different names.

But I'm not here to discuss Billy-Bob's work or antics in detail. That's been done so many times I'm sure I have nothing new to add to it. What I want to talk about Billy-Bob's incredibly skewed focus when it comes on where to expend his energy.

Others have commented that if Billy-Bob put even half the effort into writing that he does into his unethical, and oftentimes bordering illegal, self-promotion tactics, he might have actually produced something worth reading by now. But that's exactly the problem. As far as I can see, when it comes to actually writing, Billy-Bob hasn't committed a ton of time or effort at all.

But wait! Isn't this the guy with over 100 books to his name? Well, yes. And no. Let's blow one lie away right now; Billy-Bob Stanek has not written over 100 fictional novels. In fact, even that page I linked to is misleading, because Billy-Bob habitually re-releases the same books over and over again with different titles. Including some that blatantly rip off other, better authors, possibly pulling an Asylum Films act here, hoping that you'll buy these books believing them to be the ones you've been hearing about.

On that goodreads page, notice how the covers for his This Mortal Coil and After the Machines series look identical? That's because it's the same series, listed twice, for some reason. Same with Cards in the Deck, a single novel split in two. He does that a lot, also.

In fact, This Mortal Coil or After the Machines or whatever you want to call it is also just one novel, split into several novellas, averaging about 70 pages each. Keeper Martin's Tales, Ruin Mist Chronicles and Ruin Mist Tales are all the same book. And yes, they're just one book. And I don't mean they're different versions of the same book; I mean they are literally the same book.

As near as I can tell, his Ruin Mist series contains four novels: Keeper Martin's Tale, Kingdom Alliance, Fields of Honor and Mark of the Dragon. It's impossible to tell, though, because he keeps splitting them each into two volumes (so, eight very short books) and retitling them. In addition to this series, he's written This Mortal Coil, Cards in the Deck and two duos, The Magic Lands (real inventive title, there) and Dragons of the Hundred Worlds, both of which contain two books each, each of those books being just over 100 pages. Literally everything else is either his Bugville Critters books, which are apparently close to text-free, and his non-fiction.

Now, I can't really speak to his non-fiction, because I understand that most of it consists of computer manuals that he actually is paid to write. There's no question he includes those books in his 100+ count, however. He also apparently has written some non-fiction novels about the military, and apparently does have some military experience, and personally I don't care if this is true or not, but it wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't. Crying wolf, and all that. It's hard to pin down how much non-fiction he's written, but he also doesn't spend much time trying to promote it, so I won't really focus on that so much.

So, totaling up Billy-Bob's fiction (and discounting Bugville), that's ten novels, all together. Ten. Four of them are really more like novellas, and the others aren't much longer, if goodreads can be believed, and I'm sure they can. As I can't really tell which listings for his Ruin Mist books are the full novel and which aren't, I can't really pin down how long those books are, individually, but we'll give Billy-Bob the benefit of the doubt that they're all novel-length.

So compared to his hype about how much he's produced, it's ultimately very little when you really examine it. I'm not a published author, and I am not sure if I ever will be, but I know I've written more than he has in terms of sheer word count. I am forced to conclude that Billy-Bob doesn't like to expend much effort when it comes to actually writing.

In fact, as he's been re-titling and re-releasing the same 10 books now in various forms for the past decade plus, one wonders just how long ago he wrote them, or how long it's been since he's sat down to write anything recently. You can't do the same thing for years and not get better at it, even just a little. Can you? Actually, maybe not, so forget I said that, but really, if you listen to Billy-Bob, the impression you get is that he's passionate about his writing, that he really wants to reach out to the world through his writing, that what he's produced is transformative, and educational, even producing "study guides" that he tries to hawk to libraries and schools.

But his actual output is, when you stack it up, pathetically small. It only looks bigger thanks to Billy-Bob's tricks. In fact, Billy-Bob spends most of his efforts doing just that; trying to trick you.

Instead of writing more books, Billy-Bob has spent countless hours attempting to look famous and revered. That is where his entire focus is; on trying to get people to believe that he's well-known and well-loved. He yearns for the prestige of a JK Rowling, or JRR Tolkien, or George RR Martin, but he doesn't want to do any of the actual work required to reach such heights.

This is indicative when you consider how much he's changed his approach in recent years. He used to continually refer to himself as "professionally published", and talked endlessly about how authors such as Martin and Patrick Rothfuss apparently considered him a threat to their sales. He accused them of using friends and family members to attack him. I'm not kidding. I won't link to it, but google enough and you'll find the story.

What he clearly wanted you to think was that he was this big-time best-selling author who was so good that name authors at the top of the genre were afraid of him knocking them off their perch (not, of course, that this is how big-name authors actually behave).

Nowadays, his approach is a bit different. In the last five years or so, independent publishing (or self-publishing) has actually started to get noticed. Self-published authors like Hugh Howey or MR Mathias have actually earned enough self-publishing their material that they refuse to "go label", as remaining independent is earning them plenty of cash and allowing them to maintain total creative control over their brand. Authors like Michael J. Sullivan, Anthony Ryan and David Dalglish have had gone from self-published to professionally published over the strength of the material they were producing. There's even a Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, hosted by author Mark Lawrence, that deliberately sheds light on the best of self-published fantasy fiction of given years (and I haven't even mentioned self-published fiction from other genres, but I can guarantee you've heard of some of it).

Of course, Billy-Bob had to get in on that, so he fashioned a new blog for himself, now titled "ReadIndies", and with the tag line "Discover self-published authors". This is an honorable goal, and for the first couple of years he was at this, it seemed that, in fact, the goal of the site was to promote indie authors. And yes, shockingly, not just himself! Of course, he never compiled a list of "best of" that didn't include one of his books on it, and spent a lot of time talking about himself and all he's done in the world of independent publishing.

But, of course, it wasn't long before he started talking about his "haters", unethical practices within the publishing industry, other authors he accused of gaming the system, either by writing their own reviews (irony of ironies) or buying good reviews, or who knows what else. He would talk about these authors by name, and of course, would produce no proof whatsoever of his accusations. Not only that, but he would also call out his "haters" by name, including many professional authors like Patrick Rothfuss, David Louis Edelman, Jim C. Hines and Melissa Foster. He also attacked Hugh Howey (in a series of over-the-top accusations launched at him) and, elsewhere on the web, David Dalglish. You'd think that if his goal was to promote indy fiction, he'd embrace those two as brothers.

In other words, he kept pulling the same crap he pulled back when he was claiming to be a leading best-selling professionally published author. Only now it's worse because back in the day he wasted time attacking people that were likely completely unfazed by it (I doubt George RR Martin lost a single sale thanks to Billy-Bob's ranting). Now he's attacking people who really are just getting started in the industry and just beginning to see real success.

Honestly, just going through his blog and selecting any post with a whiny-sounding title digs up some pretty awful behavior on Billy-Bob's part. It's quite sad that he reprints emails he's sent in full, harassing people and accusing them of all sorts of crimes they are of course in no way guilty of. I mean, it's his website and he's showing us his juvenile, borderline illegal behavior and expecting us to be on his side. It gets worse the more you plow through it; accusing the New York Times of maliciously editing their best-seller lists to keep certain titles off of it (I presume in hopes that we'll say "Oh, that's why we never see his name on best-seller lists! It couldn't be because he's not really a best-seller!") and launching personal attacks, again, by name, against many people, some of whom are not actually rich, famous or in any way able to protect themselves. He has a whole post about arguing with a small-time blogger trying to force him to remove his negative review of Keeper Martin's Tale from goodreads. The ironies continue; he bemoans authors who "trash competitors" and repeatedly acts as though it's others who write phony reviews, then accuse him of doing it. And not a shred of proof, or even evidence, anywhere.

Billy-Bob is obsessed with the idea that writers like Foster, Edelman, Hines, Rothfuss, even Martin, etc., view him as a competitor and are threatened by how well he's doing. Of course, this isn't how it works, and never has been. Writers who are doing well enough to make their living writing generally don't obsess about other writers who might be doing better, or becoming more popular. They understand that readers can buy their books and other books as well. My bookshelf, both the real one and the virtual one, has many, many different names on it (and we'll be getting to most if not all of them in due course). It's not a competition. No writers who get into the game do so in hopes of unseating other writers in terms of sales and acclaim.

Nobody except good ol' Billy-Bob.

So, again, it's just sad how much time and effort Billy-Bob has put into:

  • Creating fake Amazon accounts and posting glowing reviews of his own work, and/or posting reviews of other work, comparing it to his own, in an effort to have his book show up under "also recommended"
  • Brazenly lying about his sales, reviews and awards (of which he has none)
  • Re-titling and re-packaging his books in order to look like he has more output than he really does
  • Attacking anyone he finds speaking negatively about him online, often accusing them of horrible crimes in the process
  • Accusing other authors of unethical practices that he himself is actually guilty of
  • Spamming various websites like and Wikipedia in an effort to make himself and his work look important
  • Accusing the publishing industry of deliberately trying to stop his allegedly meteoric rise all because they're threatened by indy writers
  • Attacking other indy writers who are doing better than he is and/or have managed to sell their work professionally
  • Attacking bloggers (most of whom don't earn a cent with their blogs) who have posted negative reviews of his work and accused them of slander, even saying they're harassing his readers
  • Whining about how all the people he's attacked are actually the ones ganging up on poor widdle him
But the comparative amount of effort he's put into actually writing seems, by and large, pathetically small. This likely explains why he's never gotten any better, which can also be explained by the fact that Billy-Bob also thinks of himself as perfect already and can't handle even the most constructive of criticism. Many blog posts "attacking" Billy-Bob have, in fact, offered advice on how he can improve, but, naturally, Billy-Bob accuses them all of being "haters" who are slandering him and harassing his readers.

It's just sad. Clearly, Robert Stanek is capable of great effort. He's just applying entirely to the wrong end of things. He doesn't care about actually being a good writer. He just wants the fame and glory, without doing any of the real work.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The White Rose

And so we come to it; the final volume in the initial Black Company trilogy.

I guess I didn't make it more clear that Glen Cook divvied up the books in this series. While there are ten volumes in all, the first three make up the trilogy called The Books of the North, and are followed up with a "stand-alone" novel that serves to wrap up the loose ends for some of the characters from that first trilogy. Then there's The Books of the South, in which the Black Company tries to return to its roots, and then The Books of the Glittering Stone, which I know little about. We'll see what those are like when they get there.

But with this book, The White Rose, we officially cap off The Books of the North.

First, a recap. Again, spoilers from Shadows Linger will be many, so please don't read further if you have not read that volume unless you just don't care about spoilers.

Shadows Linger ended with the Company aiding the Lady and her bound sorcerers, the Taken, in their effort to ensure the Lady's former husband, the Dominator, was unable to break the bonds of his prison-like tomb. The "Black Castle" turned out to be a portal powered by human bodies (both freshly dead and alive) that would serve to allow his escape, and Raven had been unwittingly aiding his rise by selling dead bodies to the creatures from the castle that served the Dominator. He only needed money to get a ship so that he could take his ward, Darling, who was the reincarnation of the White Rose, far from where the Lady could get her hands on her, but in the process was bringing forth one who makes the Lady look like a Care Bear.

To make a long story short, the Dominator was prevented from rising, thanks to the combined efforts of the Company and the Taken, but as soon as the battle was appearing won, the Company got some strange orders that they knew meant they were about to be herded up and disposed of; they simply know too much at this point.

Breaking away from the city of Juniper and fleeing the Taken, the Company is reunited with Darling, learn that Raven is apparently dead, and devote themselves to the White Rose.

Old Father Tree protected by his minions
Now the Company, serving as the White Rose's personal guard and strike force despite there only being about a hundred of them left (there had been hundreds upon hundreds before), are holing up on the Plain of Fear, a stretch of land that needs to be seen to be believed. Populated by strange, otherworldly creatures like "Wind Whales" (which are just what they sound like", flying mantas, walking trees, backward centaur-like creatures and talking stones, the Plain is ruled by Old Father Tree, a mysterious guardian from ages past, and afflicted by "change storms" that...well, just read it.

The creatures of the Plain have formed a temporary alliance with the Company, and all are protected by Darling's magical null. See, what makes Darling the White Rose is that her mere presence prevents magic from being affective. When she was a little girl, it protected only her from magical attacks, but as she's grown, so has the null, which now extends around her in a miles-long radius.

The Taken have been skirting the Null's edges, trying to strike at the Company where they can, while the talking Menhirs of the Plain keep watch for intruders, and repeatedly warn Croaker of "strangers on the plain". Most of the strangers are couriers bearing mysterious letters for Croaker, informing him in a very dramatic manner just how the old wizard, Bomanz, managed to contact and raise the Lady and her Taken all those centuries ago.
But they talk.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Corbie (yeaaaah) has arrived in the Barrowlands, moved into Bomanz's old house and begun piecing together the Barrowland's history and Bomanz's place in it. You don't get any points for guessing who this really is, or that he's the one sending Croaker all those messages.

Meanwhile, realizing that the Taken have regrouped, added to their numbers and retaken a lot of lost ground since the Company took to the Plain, Darling decides the time to strike has come, and organizes a raid. The Company is aided by a mysterious traveler named Tracker and his pet mutt, Toadkiller Dog. Also, once Croaker lets Darling know about the letters he's been receiving, she sends him to the Barrowlands to discover their source.

The Good
Dangit if Glen Cook hasn't addressed my primary concerns yet again. I wasn't happy with the way the last book ended, mainly because I knew Raven wasn't really dead even before I knew it, and I didn't think it was in character for him to abandon Darling like that. Well, the answer as to why he did it is in this book, and it is heartbreaking. It reveals so much about two characters, and I love how it was handled. This is one of the reasons why I feel like even with Cook's laconic style, he still ropes you in. You care about these characters. And you're justified in doing so. Maybe Cook won't address all your concerns in one book, but he hasn't let me down once yet. I admire that.

I also enjoyed the Plain of Fear. There's enough weirdness going on here that it's practically ready for a story of its own. I can even see the cover art in my mind, like something by Robert E. Howard: "Conan and the Plain of Fear". And don't worry; Cook lets you know what's up with it. I like that he answers the mysteries of the plain by introducing another mystery and leaving it mysterious. Somehow that's even more satisfying.
Wind Whales and flying Mantas!

And here's something I've been waiting for since the series began; the Lady actually gets a great bit of face time in this story, and we learn a bit more about what she's really like. There are discussions on the nature of evil, whether or not something like true evil can exist, and whether the Lady matches that description, but now that we're spending some time with her, it becomes clear that she's not even sure what her motivations are anymore, and finds this entire conquest to be exhausting. I enjoyed this humanizing of a character whom we've spent two books fearing. I already knew that she couldn't be as brazenly evil as Sauron, but I was wondering myself what her end goal is. Turns out she might be doing all this conquering because that's all she knows how to do.

And the ending is great. That's all I'm gonna say since I won't include spoilers until my recap in the next review. But I really was moved to tears. I never thought this series would do that to me, but it did.

Finally, I like that we're getting more POV's as each book goes on. The first was entirely Croaker's POV, while the second book added Shed's, and this one splits between three: Croaker, Corbie and Bomanz. That said, it did lead to some issues...

The Bad
For one thing, I began to wonder as of this book why Croaker's chapters are the only ones that are first-person perspective. In the first book it made sense, and in the second, it also did, because Croaker mentions putting Shed's story in full in the annals. But here, I don't think he was given Raven's whole story, nor does he mention deciding to include it if he was. I can understand why he included the Bomanz chapters, but then, that's another issue.

I couldn't really get into the Bomanz chapters. I don't know why, but they just weren't all that interesting. There's a lot of family squabbling, some conversations with the guardian of the Barrow, a twist ending that actually was sorta cool, but not cool enough to spend all that time with him. We're not done with Bomanz, by the way, which isn't much of a spoiler, but let's say I enjoy him better later.

I also was not keen on the characters of Tracker and Toadkiller Dog. They added nothing to this story whatsoever, and their endings didn't make much sense, in my opinion. Even knowing what happens in the next book didn't make me think they needed to be included at all.

Finally, it's been mentioned in the other books, but here it comes to light just how silly a wizard's one weakness is. More on this in a future post.

The Ugly
I'm starting to wonder what the point of the Taken are. Not the originals, who were interesting (and maybe not 100% written out, either), but the newer additions. Whisper, Feather and Journey, expanded upon in the last book, barely appear here at all (Feather is already gone) but at the beginning of the book, a scout tells the Company about the newest members of the taken, and they seem like they could be interesting...if we ever even once got to meet just one of them.

And no, I don't think we're ever going to. I'm midway through book 5 right now and there's been no mention of them since book 3. Kinda pointless to bring them up if you're not going to use them. Chekhov is very angry with you, Mr. Cook.

Final Thoughts and ranking:

If you muscled your way through The Black Company and enjoyed Shadows Linger, as I did both, The White Rose will not disappoint. It's a fitting and moving conclusion to The Books of the North. And it still keeps you interested enough to move on to the next collection. Aside from a couple of smaller problems, this one's a winner.

Story: A
Writing Style: B
Characters: B+
World-Building: B
Readability: A-
Accessability: B+
Consistency: C+

Final Ranking: B+.

I'm truly enjoying my journeys with the Black Company, and I hope you are as well.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Shadows Linger

I'm really burning through this series, for me, anyway. Reading is often a slow process for me because I have to be able to see and hear what I'm reading. Character looks and voices must be securely in place. I need to be able to see a scene in my mind. I need to see it as it plays out. I find that people who read quickly often come away with the wrong impressions of what was really going on, or don't accurately recall what certain characters, said, did, or looked like.

I finished this one several days ago, and I'm nearly finished the third in the series. I wanted to get ahead of my reviews for a bit so that I could be a bit more knowledgeable about where this series was going. I should warn you that spoilers from the previous volume may come up here, so if you haven't read the first, please do so before you read this review, unless, of course, you're the type that doesn't care about spoilers.

First, a bit of a summary. The ending of The Black Company found our main character, Croaker, and his titular company, still in the service of the Lady, a diabolical sorceress of great power whose goal is to conquer all of humanity. She tried once, centuries earlier and for her reward was defeated by a woman known only as the White Rose, and entombed in a deathless sleep until she was woken by a curious wizard.

The Black Company, the last mercenary company from the southern continent of Khatovar, was contractually bound to serve the lady at the start of the first book, and there they are, still stuck in her service despite the fact that the Rebel (the name Croaker uses to refer to those who are fighting back against the Lady's rule) is all but beaten. Raven, a mysterious man who enlisted with the company in the previous book, and Darling, a young girl he rescued and became fiercely devoted to, desert the company and go on the run, and Croaker realizes that this is because Darling is, in fact, the White Rose reincarnated, and as Raven will do anything to protect her, he decides running from the Lady, and thus, the Company, is the only option.

Raven is now in a city called Juniper, a northern shithole built upon worshipping death, and as such, is now falling apart. Juniper is a strange place. Above the city is a huge black fortress known only as the Black Castle. No one knows why it's there, who's in it (and there is someone in there) or where it came from, and they don't want to know. But it's there, and it's growing. Legend says it began as black chunk of rock, and grew from there.

Marron Shed, an inkeeper and bartender, doesn't know or want to know what's up with the Castle. He just wants to be able to survive the coming winter, keep his place and keep his aging, blind mother safe, but that means he needs wood to keep his fire going and food, but how's he to get that when he's in debt up to his eyeballs? A mysterious customer named Raven might be able to help there...

Meanwhile, Croaker and a few other Company members, including the forever-squabbling wizards One-Eye and Goblin, are sent ahead to Juniper, after a request from its governor comes to the Lady. They're tasked with figuring out what's up with the Castle, and partly the way they'll find out is by tracing old coinage. See, someone's been delivering bodies to the Castle, and being paid handsomely for it, in coins that are still legal tender, but quite old. And then there's Croaker's visits from the Lady, who tells him that the Castle has its roots in the Barrowlands, where her husband, the Dominator, still lies restless in his crypt, looking for a way to break free. And as bad as the Lady is, the Dominator is far worse.

The Good
Nearly all my complaints from the first book are redressed in this one. I wanted at least one other point of view than Croaker's. About half the chapters take place from the perspective of Marron Shed, and he's a surprisingly relatable character who, though incredibly flawed, sort of takes us on a journey of what it means to be human. I wanted the narrative to slow down a bit and let us catch up. It definitely does that here. I was still somewhat mystified as to what exactly was going on at the conclusion to The Black Company, but felt I was really learning about this world, these characters, and this story in this book.

One thing that made the first volume hard to read was how bloody long the chapters were. In a book that is over 300 pages, there were only seven chapters. Seven. Think about that. It almost felt like I was reading a series of novellas that had been welded together. Cook completely reverses course on that score. The chapters here are much, much shorter, some only a page or two. They gradually grow longer as the book goes on, and as the reader grows more involved. Because there are alternating points of view, that also makes it that much more readable. I like Croaker, and I was glad to get to spend more time with him and get to know him and his fellows better, but I also liked the Shed chapters. Neither one kept up too long or made me want to put it down. Instead, they complimented one another and made me all that much more eager to keep going.
The Black Castle

Then there's the under-representation of the fairer sex. In the first book, the Lady, her minion Soulcatcher and the young waif Darling were the only female characters that we spent any real time with. Darling was a deaf nine-year-old child, Soulcatcher spent a majority of the book pretending to be a man, while the Lady doesn't really take an active role in events until the book is nearly over. Here, the Lady has a bit more to do, and her minion Whisper (a wordless cameo in the first book) gets quite a bit of page time. Also, Shed's barmaid, Lisa, plays a pretty large, important role, and Darling, now 18 (yeah, these books time-jump between volumes), gets a bit more to do, or at least we're further educated on how important she is.

The chief difference between this volume and the first is that Cook lets us in. With this volume, he wants to let the reader see, feel and experience his world, while still not betraying Croaker's thinner narrative. And it works so much better. If you've read the first novel and struggled through it, this one makes it all worth it.

The Bad
Despite this novel being more accessible, the simple fact is that Cook still sticks quite a bit to his "tell, don't show" style of writing. This shows up the most often when the wizards start working magic. I've said before that because Croaker is our narrator, we primarily get his perspective on magic, which is that he doesn't understand it, and doesn't care to, but accepts it as part of his world. This means that some vital questions about magic just aren't answered, or even addressed. One-Eye and Goblin are supposedly not all that powerful, Silent is a bit more so, the Taken blow them all away, but what are magic's limitations? What can it not do? What does it cost the user? These and other questions need to be asked if you're going to include magic as a large part of your story. Every now and then Goblin or One-Eye will inform Croaker "I can't do that!" but they never explain why. When we've seen them do something amazing, and Croaker asks them to do something that seems borderline mundane by comparison, why can they not do that?

There are also times I wish he'd slow down a little. There's a joyous reunion in this book that he takes less than half a paragraph to describe. Yes, I know that's just Croaker's terse writing style, but I could have used more emotion in that scene. The chapters from Shed's point of view do seem a bit more descriptive than Croaker's, even though he allegedly wrote those, as well.

There were also a couple of characters I wish had not died. They died just as they were getting interesting.

The Ugly
Well, mainly the cover art. Look at it up there. I said look at it!

Seriously, though, if I have to mark anything as ugly, it's how Raven is treated in this story. As before, he never gets any point of view chapters himself, but we're now two books in and we still have next to no idea who he is or what makes him tick. This book has him take some pretty seriously dark actions, all in the name of protecting Darling, only to do something crazy out of character that I suppose we'll have explained in a future volume (I'm nearly finished the third novel and his motivations still seem unclear). The way it leaves his arc is so blatantly a red herring that I'm sure no readers were fooled even then.

Final thoughts and ranking:

This is a major step up for the series, and despite the continued uber-modern style of dialogue and the often stilted prose, I recommend this one heartily. This made me see why this series is so loved, and I think if you're a reader of fantasy, you'll love it as well.

Story: A
Writing Style: B-
Characters: B+
World-Building: B+
Readability: A
Accessibility: B
Consistency: A

Final Ranking: B+.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Wheel Weaves as the Network Wills

Welp. It's happening, apparently. We all knew it. The only question was when. And the answer, it would seem, is soon.

Of course, I'm talking about Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time being adapted to television. In the wake of Game of Thrones, there have been umpteen period costume dramas and/or fantasy series adaptations headed to television, including Spartacus, Camelot, The White Queen, Vikings, The Bastard Executioner, The Last Kingdom and on the lighter end, The Shannara Chronicles. Similar in tone, if not setting, is the pirate series Black Sails. Networks have been accused of all wanting their own Game of Thrones, though in some cases I think the intent was to ape the sumptuous costume dramas of Showtime, such as The Tudors and The Borgias.

The Wheel of Time is probably one of the more well-known and rather infamous epic fantasy series to exist, and unlike most of what we're covering on this blog, it isn't really all that dark. It sorta straddles the line between adult and young-adult fantasy, in fact, and the darker aspects are more hinted at than really explored. It's a classic good-vs-evil tale, very much in the vein of The Lord of the Rings, if also different in a lot of ways.

It tells the tale of a world where magic (referred to only as "the One Power" or just "the Power) is split in half based on gender. The Dark One (yes, that's the level we're on here) and his minions, the Forsaken, were bound in an eternal prison by Lews Theron Telamon a powerful figure known as the Dragon, a male channeler of the One Power and a member of the order known as the Aes Sedai. In retaliation, the Dark One managed to taint the male half of the One Power, causing anyone who uses it to gradually go mad and eventually destroy themselves. This happened to Lews Therin, who went out in spectacular fashion, creating a giant mountain known as the Dragonmount. A prophecy would later foretell that the Dragon would be reborn on the slopes of the Dragonmount, and that he would destroy the Dark One and save the world, but in the process would destroy himself.

Flash forward to the main timeline, wherein the Aes Sedai is now a female-only organization, the world distrusts One Power users in general and the seals on the Dark One's tomb are weakening. Already the Forsaken are free and they're working to help the Dark One rise.

In a tiny village in a remote part of the world, a shepherd named Rand and two of his friends, gambler Mat and blacksmith Perrin, are found by a mysterious member of the Aes Sedai named Moiraine, who has determined that one of them must be the Dragon Reborn.

That's how it starts, and if you want to know more, the internet pretty much will tell you the rest. The books themselves are among the only series you could probably find on book store shelves in their entirety even today. Really, unless the series is less than two years old, it's pretty hard to find complete collections on modern-day book store shelves, and especially so if the series is very long, which this one is. The only series 20+ years old that you can still find whole these days are pretty much limited to the Middle-Earth books, the Shannara books, the Sword of Truth books and the Wheel of Time. There are 14 volumes and a prequel novel. There's also a graphic novel set that covers the same ground.

To be perfectly blunt, this is one of the more divisive series out there. There are people who love it, people who hate it, people who admit it has a lot of problems but love it anyway and people who hate to admit the series' many glaring flaws. And oh, yes, it has them. In spades. For one thing, it's way too long. I'm all for series with intricate, multiple plots building on each other, and umpteen characters, but a great deal of what happens in this series is pure padding. If you trim the fat from this series, you might get three to five good novels out of it. There are numerous other issues with it, and I don't particularly want to go over all of them as it will take forever and that is not the purpose of this post.

Now, this is one of the first fantasy series I ever read, I was pretty much smack dab in the middle of the target demographic (early 20's) when I started and I also got swept up in the thousands of fan theories the plot generated. One could almost say I grew up with it, but that's not entirely true because I was already an adult when I read it, if still quite a young one. Still, it was one of my introductions to fantasy, and I know it was for a lot of other readers as well, and thus, we forgive a lot about it due to our fondness for it. And personally, I still think the main story is pretty good, and I like the characters, especially some of the supporting cast.

So, would I watch the TV version? You bet I would, and so, I'm willing to bet, would countless others.

But as I tend to do, I'm overthinking this one. How to make this good and not a bland rehash of The Legend of the Seeker, and how to avoid turning it into teeny-bopper silliness like The Shannara Chronicles?

My first thought would be to put Steven S. DeKnight and his production crew behind this one. They're the ones responsible for Spartacus, and while that show could get silly, I think it looked absolutely superb, like the movie 300 brought to television. This would help set The Wheel of Time apart from both Game of Thrones and The Shannara Chronicles early on. After all, it's going to be accused of aping both shows; why not make it as stylistically different as one can?

Michael Hirst I'd like brought in as executive producer and co-head writer. He can bring in his costume designers from The Tudors, because if there's one thing this series is definitely going to need, it's amazing costuming.

Because this series doesn't overdo it with the blood and sex, it doesn't have to air on a cable channel like HBO or Starz, but I like the idea of Showtime, because while Showtime doesn't insist on copious nudity, it also doesn't mind when shows do engage in it. The Wheel of Time has several scenes of nudity, and while Jordan doesn't describe them, it also has quite a bit of sex. Our central hero has three lovers. At once. Hirst and DeKnight both have a history with such material, and will likely show us what Jordan only hinted at, which isn't all that bad because one of the umpteen issues readers had with this series is Jordan's attempts at including sex and sexuality with a kind of blushing, "aw, shucks, they're kissing" mentality.

Other thoughts; age the characters up. A majority of the lead characters are somewhere around 18-20 years old. Not as young as Jon, Robb, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys and others were in A Song of Ice and Fire (which is the name of the series Game of Thrones is based on) but still fairly young, and in the early books, they act even younger. Screw that noise. Just make them somewhere in their 20's and cut all the blushing and immaturity. While the interplay between genders (another issue readers had) can be mostly be kept, particularly the idea that men and women continually frustrate each other for similar reasons, the idea that Rand, Mat, Perrin and others have a hard time talking to women at all should be cut, and while these books often do pass the Bechdel Test, too many of the female characters act like love-struck tweens, and that should be toned down as well.

The effects need to be amazing. The Trollocs, Myrdraal, Ogier and others need to enthrall us, not take us out of the story.

Then there's the story and characters themselves. Game of Thrones started out pretty faithful to the books but moved a bit further onto their own path with each season. I think this series should start out being only about half-way faithful. Use the major story landmarks, obviously, and keep our main characters mostly as they are (again, older and with more maturity), but streamline the plot, do away with all the needless side-trails and please, please use composite characters. You think A Song of Ice and Fire has too many characters? This series will drive you nuts.

Do all of that and I think you've got a great show. But I know the question you're all asking, assuming you've read the books: who's going to play Rand?

Well, wonder no more. I've taken the liberty of casting the major characters for the first season. I actually did this a couple of years ago, but several of the actors have aged out of the roles, a few aren't available anymore, and a couple have died. I also have an eye to the idea of making this series more racially mixed. So, the main roles I have changed from my old list.

Here is my cast for The Wheel of Time, Season One.

Matt Milne as Rand al'Thor
Rand is a very hard role to cast because his lineage is important, so whoever plays him has to be red-headed (or easily made so) and very tall. Rand is about 6'6". He'd also have to be the right age and still look handsome and innocent, and a lot of very tall actors either too old or too fierce-looking, or both. Downton Abbey actor Matt Milne is the perfect blend of young, handsome, innocent-looking and almost exactly the right size, at 6'5". Initially I had Black Sails actor Tom Hopper in the part, but Hopper doesn't look like he'll be available any time soon and is close to being too old.
Rosie Day as Gwen al'Vere
First thing to note is that I've changed this character's name. There are already two prominent female characters on this show whose names end with "aine", and "Egwene", this character's name in the books, is actually pronounced "ee-GWAINE". Considering that's just too many "aines", I changed her name to Gwen. Gwen is pretty, but kind of haughty (and only grows more so), so I wanted someone who kinda looked like her shit don't stink. That's why I picked Day, who is also the youngest of the main cast.
Andrew Simpson as Matrim "Mat" Cauthon
Mat Cauthon will be a difficult role to pull off, because he's a gambler and trickster who seems to be pretty knowledgeable of the world despite coming from the Two Rivers, a place few people ever travel from. Andrew Simpson looks so close to how I pictured him that I had to pick him for the part.
Matthew Cheetham as Perrin Aybara
Perrin is also hard because he's supposed to have huge shoulders and look kinda like a football player. I found this guy on an Australian actors' union site, and it doesn't look like he's had much work, but he does have a showreel which shows that he's a pretty good actor and absolutely could play the strong silent type that is Perrin. His broad shoulders also work for the character, though he'll probably have to work out to turn his bulk into muscle.

Anna Julienne as Nynaeve al'Meara
There's got to be some nuance to this character when adapted to the screen. In the book she's kind of a bitch who can't wrap her head around the idea that the world outside her home doesn't work like she's used to and that's not a bad thing. But she also falls in love with a man whose heritage couldn't be more different from hers, so I'd like to see the actress who plays her bring more layers to her.
Antonio Te Moaiha as al'Lan "Lan" Mandragoran
One of the most popular characters from this book, Lan the fierce warrior with the secret heritage is a man of few words who prefers to let his fighting skills talk for him. The actor will need to be skilled, as much of his acting will be with his eyes, and he'll need to be very tall and look like a warrior. That's part of why I chose Te Moaiha up there. Another reason is that the northerners in this world have a culture based somewhat on ancient samurai but don't look Asian. I figured getting them all to be played by Maori actors would be a neat way to introduce some racial mixing.
Jade Anouka as Elmindreda "Min" Farshaw
More racial mixing! Written as a white woman in the series, Min doesn't really delve into her past much, so there's no reason she can't be a runaway Sea Folk (African-like sailors) or something. Min's chief characteristics from the book are that she has visions, prefers men's trousers to dresses and is the most blatantly seductive of Rand's three lovers. Anouka could add something to this role.
Mary McCormick as Elayne Trakand
I'll be honest; much like Egwene, there's not a lot to the part of Elayne, or at least, not much. In both cases I can think of little that sets them apart from other fantasy heroines. Elayne is a princess, and red-headed, and about the same age as Rand. So I picked a New Zealand-based actress that matches that description. She'll do.
Neil Fingleton as Loial
Loial the Ogier is much larger than most humans, to the point where there almost aren't any actors tall enough. Enter Neil Fingleton, England's tallest man, who has gotten into acting of late. At 7'7", he's just about the right size for a short Ogier, and wouldn't need more than make-up to complete the illusion. He's pretty used to being covered in make-up. I am not certain if I would want Fingleton is a good enough actor to pull off this part (pretty much all his roles have been silent thus far) but I did see that he's been taking lessons, so I think he could pull it off.
with Peter Capaldi as Thom Merrilin
Christopher Lloyd was always my Thom throughout the years. As he's still (kinda) acting, I kept thinking he should just go ahead and be cast. But he's now 77 years old and not looking like he's in great health. But I just wasn't sure who else could do it. Every other suggestion is lacking in some way. Sam Elliot is the one I see the most often, because he has the white hair and long mustache already, but he also has a heavy southern drawl that he can't get rid of. So he's out. Then I decided to look for actors who were also musicians and see who fit the bill the most. Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, former rock star who still shreds on a guitar, is perfect. I mean, he's just perfect. He's got Thom's litheness, his projecting voice, the eyes. Ooooh, the eyes. So perfect. And with hair dyed white and a long white mustache, he looks the part perfectly. Now, of course, right now he's the star of one of the biggest sci-fi series in Great Britain the world, but there's two reasons that might not be such a big issue. Partly it's because Doctor Who doesn't film throughout the year, so he'd have time to do two shows, and also he's been talking about leaving after his third series in the role, so he might have open availability.
and Maggie Q as Moiraine
Height? "Ageless" face? Mysterious, cool facial expression? There's no question Maggie Q would make a great Moiraine. I also picture Cairheinin looking slightly Asian, so that fits as well.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Uncrowned King: Why Must Tolkien Forever be the Best?

Like many readers of fantasy, I grew up on Tolkien. My father read The Hobbit to me out loud before I learned to read. He read The Lord of the Rings to the whole family when I wasn't yet a teenager. I've read it myself all the way through twice and a few other times I've read long sections to re-familiarize myself with them. I'm sure I'll read it all the way through again, possibly more than once. I've not read the History of Middle-Earth books or The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, though I do plan to some day, and in lieu of those I have read through many Tolkien encyclopedias, compendiums and the like. 

I say all this to say that I am very familiar with JRR Tolkien's world of Arda, or Middle-Earth, if you prefer, and the two primary novels set therein. I was raised by an ardent Tolkienite who is a walking example of how people can almost worship Tolkien. 

Recently I've come upon the site, where the creator of the site (and apparently some others) group and rank fantasy books as a way of giving people a definitive guide on what types of fantasy books they'd enjoy, what type they'd be wise to have a look at, which to avoid, etc. There are numerous groupings, and within each group, the novels (and series) contained within are ranked. Be it urban fantasy, grimdark fantasy, military fantasy, epic fantasy, high fantasy, low fantasy, steampunk fantasy, literary fantasy, young adult fantasy, sword-and-sorcery fantasy, you name it, there's a separate list for it. He also has some broader lists, including "Best fantasy you've never read", "Best stand alone fantasy", "Best fantasy series", and even, naturally, "Worst fantasy books". 
But at the top of the lists is the list "Top 25 Best Fantasy Books", which is meant to be a grouping of the best fantasy works of all time, regardless of subgenre. He makes sure to let you know that this is a list that includes old, new, obscure, mainstream, and across the broad spectrum of that umbrella description of "fantasy". Now, this list is clearly just an opinion list, but he does defend his choices quite well, and while I wouldn’t myself list certain series/books in the same order, it's hard to argue that he hasn't grouped together some of the greatest fantasy literature of all time. 

Where people tend to disagree with him is his rankings. You see, George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series is presently at number one (though he warns that it could drop if the series continues to lag with its more recent volumes). Number two is Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle, perhaps most widely known as The Name of the Wind (which is actually just the name of the first volume). Joe Abercrombie's First Law series is number three. 

The Lord of the Rings is number four. 

Chances are pretty good that a number of fantasy fans who just read that last sentence are boiling with rage and ready to head over to that site to give the writer a piece of their mind. Many already have. Just a few select choices from the comment section are as follows: 

  • "The Lord of the Rings will always be best. A Song of Ice and Fire is barely in the top ten." 
  • "I disagree with putting LotR at #4... Is Hamlet still one of the best plays ever written, some hundred years after it was written? Tolkien not only created a genre, but wrote something that is basically the Hamlet of the 20th century... A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly not better. Soiaf should be at #5/#6" 
  • "Tolkien is the best fantasy author he basically started the genre and every new fantasy series has elements of his work in it." 
  • "I don't understand how Tolkien's books are not number 1... Everybody on this list is writing in his shadow. It seems like a decent list otherwise, but I dislike seeing Game of Thrones as number 1 just because of its popularity. While I can appreciate the intricacy of the plot and characters, I don't think he's the greatest writer, I don't think he imagined any completely original ideas, I don't think he changed the fantasy genre (people were already doing the realism thing before him), and I don't think his story is the most memorable one. Just because anybody could die next, doesn't make it any better of a book either. My opinion I guess." 

And these were just the ones that were intelligible. There were plenty more that were just screeches of "TOLKIEN CAN NEVER BE ANYTHING BUT NUMBER ONE!!!" And "The fact that Tolkien isn't at number one is an insult!", and other fits of screaming. 

By the way, I can't let this go without comment; Tolkien did not "create" the genre of fantasy. He just wrote the book that is often cited (correctly) as the most influential work in the genre. Tolkien is often given far more credit than he's actually due. He didn't create the concept of "secondary worlds", or "fantasy worlds", or even writing a book that took place exclusively inside one. He also isn't the one who originated his presentation of elves, though he did popularize it. The first "fantasy world"
It's the first fantasy world to have a map...even if technically it's actually Earth.
in novelized form was Phantastes by George MacDonald, and the first book to take place entirely within a fantasy world was William Morris's The Well at World's End. The inventor of elves as depicted in The Lord of the Rings was Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland's Daughter. His depiction of dwarves as a race of miners comes from numerous classic faerie tales, Snow White being the most obvious. He's often accused of taking the concept of a magic ring from Wagner's The Ring of the Nibulung, which he's on record as denying, but it's hard to take his denial at face value. He also plucked elements from British mythology. Probably the only aspects from The Lord of the Rings, apart from the story itself, that originated solely through Tolkien were hobbits, orcs and balrogs. Call Tolkien the man who changed the way we think of fantasy literature, or even the first world-builder, but don't attribute ideas to him that he didn't come up with, and don't call him the inventor of the genre. 

Getting back to the comments section, there were, of course, almost as many, possibly more, comments attacking Tolkien and using words like "overrated" and "no longer relevant". For what it's worth, that's not my opinion, or the opinion of the man who made the list (although based on the comments, it also sounds like this list was made by a small committee). 

The author of the list has this to say:  

"Without a doubt, Lord of the Rings is a transcended (sic) work of art. It's a trilogy born from years of hard research, channeling everything from Tolkien's linguistics background, to his years in the muddy trenches of World War I, to his love of English mythology all forged into an indelible modern myth that's spawned an entire literary genre. 
If we look at the sheer contribution these books have made to the genre, the series would rank #1. If you have not yet read this series, it's time to get it over with. And no, the movies are NOT the books. 
Why Lord of the Rings is NOT ranked number one on this list is the most often asked question left in the comments. The reason? While Tolkien has influenced the genre, his books are also more than 50 years old and the genre has radically evolved since Lord of the Rings was first written. You are firmly stuck in the past if you don't yet realize this.  
Tolkien's works are classic and are rightly regarded as masterworks, but are they the best in light of 2015?  
I firmly state they are not and will vehemently argue the genre has evolved quite a bit since the 1950's. You simply just have to look at how characterization (in the genre) has evolved, how women are not mere pretty perfect window dressings but actually real (and flawed) characters now, how heroes are flawed creatures with a bit of villain in them and villains are not all bad who may even have a bit of the heroic about them too. 
Fantasy has grown up folks and become more nuanced -- far more complicated than Tolkien's simple dichotomy of good and evil.  
And, for f--k's sake, let some other writers have a chance at some glory dammit you selfish people :p -- where's the fun if Lord of the Rings is always at the top spot?  
Because of Tolkien influence on the genre, I've put him at #4. Is he the best in the genre? I say no. Is he one of them most influential -- even up to the present -- I say definitely yes! But, the genre has moved on since then so give him the recognition but not get fixated on past glories and instead look to the future." 

Hardly a dismissal of Tolkien, his work, his influence, etc. In fact, he acknowledges the greatness of all of that. But he argues that really, by itself, The Lord of the Rings is hardly the best fantasy novel in existence. Oldest (which it isn't) or most influential (which it really is) doesn't necessarily mean best. 
Let's clear something up right away before the Tolkien detractors leap on it; the reason we call Tolkien the "father of modern fantasy" isn't because he was "first" or because nothing that came before him is remembered. Yes, I know Robert E. Howard's Conan stories are older than anything in the Middle-Earth saga, as are Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, not to mention the works of men like Morris, Dunsany, L. Sprague DeCamp, William Makepeace Thackeray, CS Lewis, and ER Eddison, just to name a few. 

The problem was, prior to the 1960's, fantasy literature was considered primarily to be meant for children, or was tucked away outside of polite society in pulp magazines like Weird Tales or at best were considered "prose romances" or "faerie stories" and, while many were admired, few were widely circulated, and none were considered inspirational or even anything to be taken seriously. If you think fantasy is a genre of ill repute today, you haven't seen anything. If you were to walk into a book seller's shop in any time period up until probably 1979 or probably even later and ask where the fantasy section was, you'd likely get a quizzical look from the proprietor. Fantasy was being written, yes, but those who wrote it also wrote more "serious" realistic fiction and even non-fiction. There was no such thing as a "fantasy writer", though there were plenty of "writers for children" who marketed their work exclusively to the younger set. Even in the 60's, fantasy literature was embraced by "counter-culture" types, and not at all by the "serious literature" crowd.

If you were a Howard, or a Leiber who tried to market your fantasy fiction to an older crowd, you were generally mocked by the so-called "literati" and good luck trying to get a full novel published. You may wonder why most Conan or Lankhmar books are collections of short stories. Well, the reason was, that's the only way they could be published. Pulp magazines, which were primarily read by collectors of the salacious and scandalous, were among the only places they could see print. 

It was Tolkien who set the tone and changed it all. But it didn't happen right away. In fact, he didn't live to see any but the earliest fruits of the revolution that began with his work. 

See, it wasn't until part way through the sixties that The Lord of the Rings truly caught on. The Hobbit had been a huge, immediate hit but when it became clear that its sequel wasn't exactly a children's novel, the public lost interest and the books didn't make much money. There was a war on at the time anyway, and who had time for "frivolous nonsense" anymore? But in the sixties, when idealism replaced the cynicism of its previous decade, Tolkien's book caught fire. Among those who grew up reading it, first reading it perhaps as teens or young adults, were such names as Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Raymond E. Feist, David Gemmell and David Eddings, among numerous others. All those names I just mentioned have stated that they decided they wanted to be writers thanks to Tolkien, and they followed their dreams and did just that, creating the fantasy boom of the late 70's and early 80's, proving that there was a market for it and making it a genre one could actually make money writing in exclusively. 

This simply had never happened before. And we can thank Tolkien for it. 

But just being the most influential...should that, and that alone, be the qualifier for whether or not you're the best? Some would argue yes. I don't. 

Again, I have the utmost respect for Prof. Tolkien and his work. He has unquestionably earned his place in history. With no hesitation I call him the father of modern fantasy. No one before or since has put more thought into his or her world-building including world's and people's history, language, cosmology, etc. Tolkien really did invent the concept of world-building, and believe me, I'll have more to say about that in future posts.

But is The Lord of the Rings purely as a novel the unqualified absolute best that this genre has to offer? 

Simply put, no, it isn't. Not when taken just on its own merits. 

I know, heresy, right? I certainly know there's a ton of people who would pronounce doom upon my head for even suggesting that The Lord of the Rings isn't a work of towering genius, or that anything written since could ever come close to matching this masterpiece. Just look at the comments I selected above: claims that "every new fantasy series has elements of his work in it" or that "everybody on this list is writing in his shadow". 

Really. Everybody. All fantasy writers for the past sixty-plus years have been writing in Tolkien's shadow, without exception. I see. Even those, a growing number, who don't consider Tolkien their primary influence, have written works that are literally nothing like anything Tolkien wrote, in some cases even don't think much of Tolkien at all? Would you like to tell China Meiville to his face that he's writing in Tolkien's shadow? 

For those of you who don't know who I mean, China Meiville is a British speculative fiction author whose work has been classified as part of the "new weird", incorporating numerous elements of various genres, including science fiction, horror and steampunk, and creating a setting and ideas that are so far removed from anything Tolkien ever dreamed about that one could barely imagine they're considered by anyone to fall even remotely within the same genre. Also, Meiville is no Tolkien fan, and believes the professor actually did more harm than good to speculative fiction. I don't agree, but it just shows that not all fantasy writers can be said to be writing exclusively in "Tolkien's shadow." 
For that matter, it's almost an offensive statement to make, even if the author in question is a Tolkien fan. What you're saying, in effect, is that no matter how good your writing is, you will always be ranked below Tolkien, because you're writing in his genre, and thus, even suggesting another work is better is like saying that someone wrote a better Bible than God. 

These people don't even consider Tolkien to be in the same playing field as other fantasy writers. It's not that Martin, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Sanderson, et al, are incapable of competing with Tolkien in the final rankings, it's that Tolkien's not even one of the players; he's the inventor of the game. It's not whether or not someone will one day produce something better than he did. It's how close anyone else will ever come to even matching what he did. In order to be considered even so much as Tolkien's equal, they would have to do something like more or less re-invent the genre. And no matter how close they come to doing so, they will still be well short of the mark. Because there's only one JRR Tolkien, and he is fantasy. 

I mean, forget that some of the writers out there beneath the broad umbrella of fantasy have left Tolkien's playing field in their dust and have started games of their own. You remember all those subgenres I listed earlier? Some of them are so far removed from anything even vaguely Tolkienesque that they're hardly even the same genre at all. When I read Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, Alan Campbell's Deepgate Codex, or Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air, not only do I not think of them as shadows of Tolkien, I don't think of Tolkien at all. They literally have nothing in common with his works. How can you be in the shadow of man if you're not even writing anything akin to what he wrote? 

That's sort of like saying that all crime writers are in the shadow of Raymond Chandler, all horror writers are in the shadow of HP Lovecraft, or that all period dramatists are in the shadow of Jane Austin, or every writer of military thrillers is in the shadow of Tom Clancy, or every writer of legal dramas is in the shadow of John Grisham. 

See what I mean? Those statements sound ludicrous, even though the names I just mentioned are among the biggest in their genre. Other genres don't even have a Tolkien, so why must fantasy?

Or, how about this; is every rock and roll group from the 70's until today just in the shadow of the Beatles? Let's really delve into this, because the Beatles did not invent the genre of rock, and the term when invented wasn't even being applied to them. They weren't even the first popular rock and roll band. Numerous bands from that era were just as ground-breaking as they were and I think one can argue that bands from the 70's and 80's, by and large, didn't even try to sound like them. Some did, but certainly not all, or even most. How can you compare the Beatles and, say, Led Zeppelin, and state conclusively that the Beatles must be better? The two are nothing alike. What objective measure could you use to claim one "better" than the other, rather than just "different"? You can say which one you enjoy better, but that's hardly objective. I'm willing to bet that if I took 100 classic rock fans and asked each one which group is better, I might even have more people voting Led Zeppelin. 
Are they wrong? What if they name other groups as the best? Groups that are--gasp!--even newer than Led Zepp? What if they think Metallica is the best? Or Nirvana? 

This is sort of how I feel when I listen to Tolkienites who get hot under the collar at the mere mention that Tolkien may not be the best of the best of the best from now until infinity. They react as if such a thing is impossible; that objectively nothing that has been put out since Tolkien even comes close to being as good, nor will it ever. Of course, they tend to defend their arguments by touting the sheer number of people influenced by Tolkien, many of whom have written books of their own examining Tolkien's work. All this really proves is that Tolkien is the most influential, which no one is arguing against. 

They speak of the esteemed professor in the sort of glowing tones usually reserved for deities. I heard one person describe him as "the gateway to fantasy." I suggested he was a gateway, and was told "No, the gateway." I'm still not sure exactly what they meant, but I think I can guess. 

See, to a Tolkienite, doing anything that Tolkien would not do, or even might disapprove of, or perhaps just anything that offends them as followers of Tolkien, is by itself a wrong, or at least, makes you something less than him. Something that isn't "pure" fantasy. I have heard Tolkienites dismiss some pretty amazing works of fantasy lit simply because it contains too much in the way of violence, profanity or sexual content. If a decision is made by the author that they feel goes against the spirit of Tolkien, it was a wrong decision. 

Or, alternatively, if your work is a thinly disguised re-working of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, it's automatically garbage. I would agree with that, as some works like The Sword of Shannara or The Iron Tower pretty much are just The Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off. But I've seen some works classified as "Tolkien rip-offs" that make me wonder how anyone could believe that of them, including the A Song of Ice and Fire series or R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series. If a series has any of the following: a young or otherwise small hero, a wizard, a quest, a magical artifact, a motley company of adventurers, elves, dwarves, a dark lord, a map at the
beginning, etc. It immediately gets accused of ripping off Tolkien, despite all of these elements existing before, in some cases long before, anything Tolkien wrote. Well, except for the maps. 

But really, it goes deeper than that. My father, a devout Tolkienite, has repeatedly slammed A Song of Ice and Fire for the simple reason that he does not understand how the series hoped to continue once they killed off Eddard Stark. To him, Eddard was the central protagonist, and one without whom, the story cannot continue. Because, you see, Eddard was the pure, noble, honorable hero. In a Tolkienesque story (heck; in almost any story), he would be the one you know will ultimately be victorious no matter what. Without him, what have you got? A bunch of kids and a bunch of adults who are one and all various shades of grey 

Recently I finished a re-read of the First Law series. Fair warning; spoilers are about to come in spades. 

I love how this series manages to present, then subvert, almost every fantasy trope in existence. All the elements you might want are there; a young hero destined for greatness, a barbarian warrior, a cantankerous wizard who guides our heroes along, a quest for a powerful artifact, the motley company of adventurers, etc. It's all there. And it's all turned on its ear. 

The young hero is a pompous, spoiled, rich snot who looks down on everyone that he feels doesn't have the same "good breeding" that he does, which is more or less everyone. The barbarian warrior would love to put down his sword forever, but he's got a split personality that knows nothing but killing, and it takes over at the worst times. The company of adventurers doesn't get along with each other at all and the quest actually fails, at least, initially. But the biggest reveal of all concerns the
wizard, Bayaz, the First of the Magi. 

Throughout the story, Bayaz plays the role of the Gandalf, or Merlin. There are hints that he's a darker man than either, but ultimately, you can't help but think of him as the wise one, the character all the other characters would do well to listen to. Until... 

...Until he finally gets his hands on that aforementioned artifact, and begins wholesale slaughter of his enemies, while cackling madly that he is greater than his masters. He's no Gandalf. He's Saruman. 

The "first law" of the title, you see, is that man is forbidden to meddle with "the seals" and make contact with the "other side", which is to say the Underworld, or Hell. Bayaz uses the artifact to do that very thing. 

The kicker comes in a speech he gives another character once he gets called out on his committing genocide. Says Ferro to Bayaz: 

“You tampered with the seals. You put the world at risk. The Tellers of Secrets…” 
“The First Law is a paradox. Whenever you change a thing you borrow from the world below, and there are always risks. If I have crossed a line it is a line of scale only. The world is safe, is it not? I make no apologies for the ambition of my vision.” 
“They are burying men, and women, and children, in pits for a hundred. Just as they did in Aulcus. This sickness… it is because of what we did. Is that ambition, then? The size of the graves?” 
Bayaz gave a dismissive toss of his head. “An unexpected side-effect. The price of victory, I fear, is the same now as it was in the Old Time, and always will be.” He fixed her with his eye, and there was a threat in it. A challenge. “But if I broke the First Law, what then? In what court will you have me judged? By what jury? Will you release Tolomei from the darkness to give evidence? Will you seek out Zacharus to read the charge? Will you drag Cawneil from the edge of the World to deliver the verdict? Will you bring great Juvens from the land of the dead to pronounce the sentence? I think not. I am First of the Magi. I am the last authority and I say… I am righteous.” 
“You? No.” 
“Yes, Ferro. Power makes all things right. That is my first law, and my last. That is the only law that I acknowledge.” 

I showed that part to my father and he agreed it was "chilling stuff", but said "I suppose in the end he'll get his, though." 

I laughed at that one. "That's not the kind of story Abercrombie writes," I said. "In his approach,
you're never sure if good will triumph but one thing is for certain; it's never without a price. There are no 100% happy endings in his world. Think of it less like a fantasy novel and more like an alternate history. And how many times in history have things always worked out for the best in every way?" 
All he could do was nod and agree: "Not many." 

But therein lies the problem. "True" fantasy, according to a Tolkienite, comes from a certain set of values, and among them is the idea that evil, by its very nature, cannot win. That a good man will always make the right choice. That he cannot make a wrong choice without paying for it, possibly with death or with becoming evil. That once the "Dark Lord" is defeated, all will be well. The idea that a Saruman-like character could actually win goes against everything they consider "proper". Remember what the compiler of the lists said about Tolkien's dichotomy of good vs. evil. In the mind of the Tolkienite, in fantasy, that dichotomy must exist. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and the good guys always win, preferably with as few deaths of major characters as possible. 

Forget the idea that some might actually like to have their expectations challenged. Forget that going beyond the bounds of where Tolkien would have gone allows for a more visceral, realistic world to come to life before you. Forget that you often sympathize a good deal more with characters that are allowed to have more than token flaws, or who are allowed to make the wrong decisions without it being their "start of darkness", or perhaps even make what looks like the better choice only for it to turn out to be the worse. Forget the idea that if you know the good guys will ultimately win, it can make a story take an all-too-predictable track. This is fantasy, and fantasy heroes are supposed to be pure, and good is always supposed to win. 

I've read that book. Many times. Forgive me for saying that it doesn't inspire the way it used to. 
The Lord of the Rings as a novel tells a story that follows a set morality. However, it does allow more room for grey, I suppose, than is often attributed to it. After all, the ending has our "incorruptible" hero, Frodo, giving in to the One Ring's influence and claiming it for himself. If it were not for Gollum, a villainous character, attempting one last time to steal the Ring for himself (and ultimately succeeding, if not the way he dreamed), the quest would have failed and Frodo would have been lost. A lesser writer than Tolkien probably would have had Frodo consider taking the Ring for himself, only to finally come to his senses and toss it in. Tolkien understood the corruptible nature of mortal beings, and despite showing that Hobbits were among the few species to be able to resist the Ring's effects long term, ultimately Frodo was just as ensnared as Gollum was, if for only a few moments until the Ring's destruction. 

But that does not negate the over-arcing morality of the book, in which all "good" characters follow the same moral code and all evil characters are irredeemable, with the possible exception of Gollum but even he chooses to remain corrupted. There is still the idea that this "dark lord" is the source of all that's wrong, and with his defeat everyone can live in peace. There's a clear right and wrong choice, and characters cannot make bad choices without paying for it, so most characters don't make the wrong choice at all. 

Peter Jackson's film versions of the books definitely took a different track when it came to certain characters and their motivations. Aragorn, for example, has no desire to rule anything and has become a ranger mostly to run away from his royal destiny. In the novel, his status as a ranger is basically just a part of his being of the line of the Kings of Numenor, and he knows very much what his destiny is, and seeks it. He never for one moment considers running away and having a happy life with Arwen away from his responsibilities and in fact, it is considered kingly of him that he desires the throne of Gondor. To allow himself to be anything less would be dishonorable. 

Then there's Faramir. In the movies, you might recall, Faramir has spent his entire life in the shadow of his elder brother, their father hardly noticing his contributions to the kingdom, and when he realizes he now has the One Ring in his grasp, decides to take it back to Gondor and prove his worth to his father. Much later, he realizes that the Ring is not a weapon he or any mortal can hope to use, and lets Frodo, and the Ring, go. 

In the books, however, Faramir is good and thus cannot be allowed to commit what could be thought of as a "bad" action. If Tolkien had written Faramir the way he is portrayed in the film, Faramir would have to pay for his initial actions, either by becoming a new Boromir (or Denethor) or by being killed. Since that wasn't what he wanted for the character, he decided to write him as being incorruptible, despite the fact that every word of the story, up to that point, had shown that no one is totally resistant to the Ring's influence. Not even Gandalf, or Aragorn, the most noble human character in the story. Hobbits can apparently hold out longer than most, but even they succumb, and humans can succumb even just by being near it for a few days. Yes, I understand that the Ring uses whatever darkness is already in your heart to corrupt you quicker, explaining why Boromir fell to its influence so fast, but even Gandalf refused to touch it without need because he knew that if he had it in his possession, he would use it out of a desire to do good, and thus become corrupted. So here's Faramir, who still has the "ignored younger brother" complex, instantly realizing that the Ring is evil and that he would not even pick it up if he found it laying in a gutter. 

This last part is also inconsistent. The Ring's corrupting influence is not widely known. In fact, when Boromir suggests using it against Sauron, he and others present are shocked to have Elrond tell them that it cannot be used by anyone without that person becoming corrupted. Boromir doesn't even believe it. For Faramir to somehow instinctively know that the Ring is evil and to be so free of corruption that he has not the slightest desire to keep it for himself rings false. (see what I did there?) 
Tolkien's overall morality insists that if Faramir is good, he cannot be shown even being tempted to do wrong, even if it means sacrificing consistency. This is what the list-maker meant by his "simple dichotomy of good and evil." I won't call it "simple" as that implies Tolkien is a simpleton, but there's no question it's very black and white. This sort of sensibility simple has not aged well in a world where we now widely acknowledge that it's entirely possible for good people to do bad things, bad people to do good things, people in general to do good things for the wrong reasons, people in general to do bad things despite good intentions, etc. 

You can tell he's the bad guy because of his advocating of pragmatic, but ultimately barbaric, ideas
The flip side of that is that evil is evil because it is evil. Bringing down Sauron is the ultimate good, and it doesn't matter if destabilizing Mordor will put millions of Orcs and giant spiders out of work and homeless because Orcs and giant spiders, and anything else that might be in Mordor, are irredeemably evil. There isn't even any discussion on whether or not Orcs can be redeemed; we just know that they cannot. Same can be said for men who willingly side with evil; Saruman, the Mouth of Sauron (who is described as a "living man"). Even the Ringwraiths, initially men, are apparently corrupted beyond hope. It's easy to just not care what happens after Sauron is defeated because Sauron and everyone associated with him is completely, one hundred percent evil. Now, I know there are some who will tell me about Sauron's backstory, how he was corrupted by Morgoth, etc., and that's all well and good, but if anything it just makes it worse. We're never given real motivation other than a desire for power that turned Sauron evil, but then, a desire for power is innate in all creatures, according to Tolkien, so really, why was that enough to corrupt Sauron? 

Further complicating things is Tolkien's writing style. He writes a large portion of this book in a sort of High Tone that is quasi-Shakespearean at times but much easier to understand. While it may be easy to understand, what it often is not is accessible. It seems to keep the reader at arm's length, and has the added effect of making the world seem less real. 

I once heard an apologist describe this as "feeling like you're hearing this tale as told by a bard from Middle-Earth, while other fantasy just sounds like it was written by a fantasy writer." So, yes, this writing style can be a selling point, if you're the kind of reader who relishes the feeling of reading "classic literature". However, to modern readers, and I have to believe even to some readers at the time, such a style sounds less like the adventure is unfolding before your eyes and more like it's being related to you by proxy. I have a hard time believing that the sort of "purple prose" style Tolkien wrote in is actually how all the characters truly spoke to each other; it's just the tone the "bard" chooses to relate it in. It also lends the effect of them all sort of talking alike with few of them having anything unique about their tone or wording. There are exceptions, of course. Tom Bombadil, Gollum and Treebeard all have very unique manners of speech, although in Treebeard's case, we later learn that all Ents talk like that, so it's a bit of a cheat. Hobbits speak in a more earthy, less artistic manner, with the exception of Frodo and, at times, Bilbo. But Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir (for the most part), Elrond, Galadriel, Theoden, Faramir, Denethor, etc., all speak in very much the same voice, sometimes making it hard to remember who's talking if there's a scene with several of them together. If a novel like that was released in the last decade, I'd definitely call that poorly written, so why shouldn't it be poorly written just because Tolkien did it? 

And for those who appreciate the sort of high tone I'm referring to, well. I sometimes think you're all guilty of  the same thing some Christian sects are when they hold the King James Version of the Bible in much higher esteem than other translations, mainly because it just sounds more authoritative. Using words like "brethren" instead of "brothers", or "verily" instead of "truly" can automatically make a relatively simple sentence sound like a grand pronouncement. However, for an increasing majority of readers, so many characters speaking in similar-sounding grand pronouncements gets a bit repetitive after a while. 

It can also be a bit silly. For example, do you remember the scene in the film version of The Return of the King where Eowyn confronts the Witch King? In the movie, he laughs at her, says that it's known that no man can kill him, whereupon Eowyn whips off her helmet and says "I am no man!" Stab! Bye, bye, Witch King. Now, read the following exchange and have someone else shout "stab him!" repeatedly and see how many times they can say it before the moment finally comes: 

“Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known. 
'Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!' 
A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all
darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.' 
A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.' 
'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!' 
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”  

See what I'm talking about? Both Eowyn and the Witch King speak in the same grand style, and they talk so damn much that you wonder if they plan on killing each other with words. Is it time for speech-making or is it time to make with the stabbity-stab? In a real scenario like that, Eowyn either would have stabbed him while he was speechifying about "houses of lamentation" and the "Lidless Eye". Or, if she failed to do that, he would have made short work of her before she got as far as "You look upon a--hrk!" Stab! 

This is a great example of how, indeed, the genre has changed over the years and in many cases has left some elements of this story having not aged all that well. One thing Peter Jackson's movies did is give each character a unique voice that made it possible to see differing personalities in each of them. It wasn't always a roaring success; many have been justifiably critical of how Jackson turned Gimli into comic relief, but still, different characters with different personalities need to have distinct voices, and with only a handful of exceptions, Tolkien fails here. 

Also, much has been said about Tolkien's penchant for endless description of travel over hills, woods, streams, etc., which often can paint a vivid word picture but can also be pretty needless since it's not difficult to imagine a wooded area without the writer telling us what the various trees, stones, etc., look like. It's one thing to tell us about the majestic Mallorns of Lothlorien, but to describe Frodo, Sam and Pippin's journey from Hobbiton to Buckland in such detail? Do we really need that? 
Seriously, there are three chapters of this
There's also the inclusion of many, I mean many of Tolkien's songs and poems, only a few of which are relevant to the plot. In The Hobbit it was cute, which was okay as the story was meant for children. In The Lord of the Rings it's often just weird, particularly when the song is just about traveling or having a bath. I'm not kidding. There's a song about having a bath. Such cuteness doesn't really have a place in a story for adults. And yes, I'm aware that Tolkien started the story thinking he would be making another children's book but the tale, as he put it, "grew in the telling." But that's when you go back and edit out all the cutesy stuff intended for younger audiences. As an adult, it takes me right out of the story when Sam starts singing about stone trolls just after they come across the statues of the trolls Bilbo encountered. As a kid, it amused me. 

On that note, let's talk about a major irritant of mine, and that is Tolkien's shoe-horning of Tom Bombadil into this book. This is probably the largest crime Tolkien commits, and one that would be the first to go if I were the editor of this book. Maybe you aren't familiar with the character, especially if you only saw the movies and didn't read the book, but Tolkien had a character that he wrote poem upon poem about. Good old Tom was based on a memory of his childrens' dutch doll, and beginning in 1934 with The Adventures of Tom Bombadil Tolkien wrote many a fanciful poem about the spritely "merry fellow" that is Tom Bombadil. Naturally, he wanted to include him in his next book, and did so...where he serves no useful purpose whatsoever. 

"Ring-ding-a-dillo! Come now, merry-dol and.." SHUT THE FUCK UP!
I'm serious. The three chapters in which he appears can be excised from the books almost in their entirety and we would lose nothing. The only part of those chapters which has any bearing at all on the remainder of the book is that Sam, Merry and Pippin get their swords from a barrow that Tom rescues them from. In the movie, Aragorn gives the swords to them, which is just as useful. 
Now, some fans really like Tom, and it's not just because they approve of anything Tolkien writes. They argue that Tom, who is shown to be immune to the Ring's effects due to a sort of otherworldly nature in which he seems completely unaffected by anything outside his valley, is a symbol of the idea that some parts of the world will go on, and continue to thrive even in the times of Shadow. Tom himself is implied to be the oldest living thing in Middle-Earth, and might very well be a physical manifestation of the power of the earth itself. Okay. But what does that have to do with advancing the narrative, or even developing our main characters? Nothing at all. He's even discounted as a potential "safe keeper" for the Ring, because to Tom, nearly everything from outside his valley is merely ephemeral, and therefore unimportant, and he might therefore misplace it. 

I bring all this up not to dismiss Tolkien as a hack, but to show that it's possible that on its own, stripped of the history and myth surrounding its name and author, The Lord of the Rings is not really without flaws at all. In fact, it is guilty of some things that I would suggest cannot be written off as mere "products of their time". 

Now, some other criticisms of this work, and Tolkien himself, can. Tolkien is often called a sexist since the women in his story tend to just "sit around at home" while the men accomplish things. The exception here is Eowyn, who modern feminists also aren't kind to, since they claim that Eowyn's desire to "rise beyond her expected gender role" is portrayed as a bad thing, even though she's the one who kills the Witch King, and in the end she's content to go back to "playing housewife" with a man she just met because "a woman needs a man". This is an unfair interpretation of her, as it's pretty clear that when introduced, she has a bit of a death wish, brought on by her uncle's condition, her brother's exile, her cousin's death and a feeling of being completely powerless to change any of it. What Aragorn and others try to teach her is to embrace life as it is rather than seek death, even a glorious death on the battlefield. Her romance with Faramir is meant to show that she finally understands that life goes on, and she has chosen to go on with it. 

That said, it is true that modern sensitivities to race and gender roles can cause The Lord of the Rings to not sit very well among modern readers, and this can't be just dismissed. If such a book were written today, it wouldn't be allowed, and that's not a bad thing. This is a large part of why, if you're looking at a wide spectrum of "all time greatest", you can't start making allowances for anybody. If we're talking about an "all-time" look at the genre, you can't say "well, this book is the greatest if you overlook the blatant sexism and racism. After all, it was the times." 

No, I don’t think Tolkien was a racist or a sexist, and yes, I understand that from his perspective, making all his heroes white was just a product of his own world. However, in today's world, it can cause people to be uncomfortable, which can't simply be written off by a desire to say "but it's still the best." 

Of course, some might reply by saying "Yes, but the level of violence, language and depravity used by Martin, Lawrence, Morgan, etc. makes me twelve times as uncomfortable as the unintentional racism and sexism of Tolkien! I can't stand reading books that are so graphic!" Okay, but you miss my point. 

A modern author will often include graphic content like violence, depravity, sexual violence, harsh
Probably the most evil protagonist you're likely to meet
language, gore, etc. But they don't put it in there for thrills or because they're desensitized to it. Quite the opposite; such inclusions were intend
ed to shock, to appall, to upset, and often, to make a point. George RR Martin once talked about how strange it is that people who read his books have frequently told him how disgusted they were with the sexual content, but nowhere near as many people complain about the far more prevalent level of violence. And in this case, he's not even being hypocritical, because often the sexual content is of the repelling kind. None of it's intended to get you off. But for some reason, a reader who is offended to the point of wanting to put the book down because a character is raped is somehow less likely to have the same reaction if a character is beheaded. 

But in the case of Tolkien, he doesn't mean for you to feel the discomfort of noticing that the only dark-skinned characters are bad guys and the only thing women do is sit at home while the men go out and get stuff done. He isn't trying to illustrate a point or shake up our worldview. He just didn't know how to write any other way, and while I can overlook it and still enjoy the story, and still call it the most influential work of fantasy to exist, I have to take it into account while judging him against the remainder of the genre throughout history. I don't think it's a subjective thing to say that if an author's work begins to accidentally rub people the wrong way over time, that it's a mark against him. Even Shakespeare depicted his times well, but left it to his audience to judge the propriety of it. He even gave us a black hero well before that sort of thing was acceptable in western society. Well before Tolkien's time, or George MacDonald's, for that matter. 

Now, maybe you prefer books that feel more wholesome. Maybe a high level of adult content is by itself a dealbreaker for you. But to suggest that this alone makes one book objectively better or worse than another is nonsense. Any list intended to be objective has to take more into account than just how "offensive" a book is. One qualifier would have to be whether or not the book reads as well as it once did a hundred years later, and I mean in total, not just in language. Shakespearean language aside, it's astonishing how well Shakespeare's plays hold up centuries later. Tolkien's work isn't even a century old yet, but already has shown signs of age. 

(By the way, if it sounds like I'm making an allowance for Shakespeare, I'm actually not, or at least not overall. I am saying that if you translate Shakespeare's language into more modern dialects, which has been done many times, it all, at least mostly, still holds up. But as Peter Jackson proved, if you try that with Tolkien, it becomes a tad necessary to change more than just the language.) 

Finally, I want to talk about the supposed allegorical aspects of The Lord of the Rings. I firmly believe that one of the reasons it remains so popular is that people were able to read so many allegorical themes into it and even spend a lot of time arguing about which allegory is the "real" one. 
The two biggest allegories, and I know there are others out there, that get argued about are whether Tolkien meant this story as an allusion to WWII, or whether the entire thing is a Christian metaphor. 
The first one I can say without reservation is purely an invention of readers. Tolkien himself was asked if the story contained any WWII metaphors, such as the Ring being the atomic bomb, and Tolkien laughed this off, saying that if that had been what he intended, he definitely would have had the Fellowship use the Ring against Sauron. 

The second one is something of a sticking point. Tolkien himself was a devout Roman Catholic, and although Tolkien went to his grave insisting that he hated allegory and that at no time did he intend for The Lord of the Rings to be an allegorical tale, there are those who insist his beliefs shone through in his work. This is not all that hard to believe, as this might explain Tolkien's conviction, shared by Sam Gamgee, that good would always triumph in the end. However, some take it way too far, assigning Christ Allegory roles to Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn and perhaps Sam, or even insisting that nearly everything, every event, every race, every character, is analogous to some Biblical person, place, thing or idea. This also isn't all that far off from truth; Arda has a God, who in turn has angels, and there is also a devil. But Gandalf is not God, or even God made flesh, and Sauron is not Satan. Tolkien would vehemently deny that he intended the story to be a work of overt Christian overtones, but that hasn't stopped quite a few Christians from believing he did, nor has it stopped some churches from stocking the book in their library. I think a large number of the Tolkienites who will never see The Lord of the Rings as anything other than the greatest fantasy story of all time are people who have attached a spiritual component to it that Tolkien himself did not intend. It's not just that Tolkien is better than everyone, it's that he's the only one on the list doing God's work, even if unintentionally. In all fairness, there are plenty of atheists who hate The Lord of the Rings as much as Christian Tolkienites love it, and for precisely the same reason. 

However, even Christians don't benefit from pretending there is no such thing as lasting harm in the world, and could use a bit of challenge in what they read. A lot of confirmed Christians like to stay away from anything that seems too "unchristian", such as works that don't shy away from a lot of harsh realities. They prefer to read material that doesn't seem offensive to them, and thus, the less offensive the more they approve. They're certainly free to keep to that track if that's what they prefer, but to suggest that anything containing material they deem "offensive" is automatically of lesser quality than what doesn't offend them is...well, at best it's far from objective. 

I've also encountered an attitude that age is a factor in how much you appreciate The Lord of the Rings vs. Some of the more modern works. I don't think that's true at all, because it seems to suggest that the more mature you are, or at least the longer you live, the more you come to appreciate Tolkien's work whereas the younger you are, the more his writing style, black-and-white morality, etc., might grate on you. I think age is irrelevant. For one thing, it was my childhood, teen years and 20's where I unreservedly loved The Lord of the Rings and believed whole-heartedly that anything else was at best a distant second. It was only in my 30's that I began to have issues calling Tolkien and his work the very best ever with no qualifications. In fact, the closer I came to 40, and the wider read I became in the genre and many subgenres of fantasy, the harder it was to love Tolkien without reservation. 

For that matter, I have encountered Tolkien fanatics who put my father to shame who are significantly younger than him, or me, for that matter, as well as people who appreciate the more modern take who are well over 60. The reverse is also true, naturally. I don't think age has anything to do with the approach. In today's world, you either grew up reading Tolkien or you discovered him as an adult. There aren't many people alive today who were adult fantasy readers when The Lord of the Rings hit shelves, so it's really not, and never has been, "new" fantasy to anyone in this era. Everyone who sits down to read it understands that they're not just reading fiction but a real piece of history. A landmark that will always be there. It's just that some people think it's the only landmark on the terrain, and that's how it should be, whereas others are willing to see that in fact, there are many landmarks out there now, and some are much older, some aren't anywhere near as old, some look far different and some look similar, but their age and appearance doesn't change the fact that they will be remembered among the greats. 

Yeah, there's little doubt that in a hundred years fantasy readers will still be calling Tolkien the father of modern fantasy, and he will still be the one considered the most influential. There likely won't be books written about the world, characters and themes of Robert Jordan or Mercedes Lackey or Robin Hobb or Patrick Rothfuss. But fantasy as a genre has grown. It is far more inclusive today than it ever has been. New ideas, new presentations of older ideas, new genres entirely have sprung up in the 60-plus years since The Lord of the Rings hit shelves, and the idea that nothing written since then can even be held up to Tolkien for comparison, or that being younger or less influential automatically makes everything that isn't from Tolkien's just wrong. 

Again, yes, no question Tolkien is the most influential, but even that achievement, to paraphrase Boromir, isn't Tolkien's save by happy chance. Had Terry Brooks not decided to write The Sword of Shannara, we might have ended up with a writer inspired by Howard or Leiber instead kick-starting the genre. Tolkien has earned his place among the greats, but it is important to understand that, in pure terms of writing style, characterization and storytelling, yes, not only can Tolkien be matched, but he can even be surpassed.