Tolkien likes borders. I suppose you have to like them, as a fantasy author, otherwise you’d never find the patience to draw up the map. You’d swiftly become bored with all those stories about people who step through an gate in the wood and fall into Faerie, or people who pay the toll to take a ferry across a river and end up in a different world.
Crossing a border happens often in The Lord of the Rings: Sam leaving The Shire for the first time, the hobbits going under the hedge in Buckland to enter into the Old Forest, the crossing the Celebrant to reach Lothlórien, and even Aragorn and Company simply first crossing over into Rohan. This seems to be what’s going to happen again here, as our group approaches the Black Gate. The first sentence of the chapter states that “before the next day dawned their journey to Mordor was over.” It’s… not, quite, and you could argue that a lot of this chapter rehashes what came before. However, the arrival at the Black Gate serves as an emotional fulcrum for both Frodo and Gollum, prompting decisions that shape the rest of the narrative.
Frodo at the Black Gate
“I did,” said Frodo. His face was grim and set, but resolute. He was filthy, haggard, and pinched with weariness, but he cowered no longer, and his eyes were clear. “I said so, because I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way. Therefore I shall go this way. I do no ask anyone to come with me.”
This is the first time Frodo speaks in “The Black Gate Opens,” and it’s startling. It’s a big step away from his behavior in the marshes where he was near silent, dragged down by the weight of his burden and increasingly aware of a deadly gaze ready to pin him to the spot. It’s nice to see Frodo suffering less. At the same time, his new attitude isn’t derived from hope but the realization that his quest is finally over. “I am commanded to go to the land of Mordor, and therefore I shall go,” says Frodo. “If there is only one way, then I shall take it. What comes after must come.” It’s a resoluteness built on certainty, a certainty built on inevitability.
His renewed clarity stems from the fact that Frodo believes he’s reached the point where there aren’t any more choices to make. He’ll try to get through the Black Gate. If he does, he does. Then he’ll take it from there. It’s something that Sam realizes immediately and – like last chapter – does not try to talk him out of, or provide him with any false hope:
Sam said nothing. The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless. And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed. Now they were come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all this way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him.
Of course, Frodo isn’t given much time to relax with his clarity of mind . Sméagol/Gollum provides him with another choice, as impossible as all the rest. Throughout his journey, Frodo has been remarkably light on the self-pity (no joke, guys, I would have felt sorry for myself every single step). He slides close to it here, wondering why Gandalf’s guidance and advice had been taken from him so early. But he never sinks into it. He comes to the conclusion that it’s not a choice with a right answer, a choice that anyone could make based on wisdom and sound judgement. It’s simply a choice.
And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice?
We never get a direct insight into how Frodo makes his choice. It’s interesting though that he chooses to follow Gollum’s ominous-sounding path right after witnessing Sam sing about oliphaunts, and then talk about them with Sméagol. It’s also interesting that Frodo frees himself from indecision with a laugh—right around the time that, off to the west, Gandalf laughs to free himself from the vestiges of Saruman’s voice.
It’s never stated explicitly, but it’s hard for me to read this section and interpret Frodo as choosing the more hopeful path. I mean, it’s not that hopeful – Gollum is being openly shady in his description of it, and his answer to whether his secret path was guarded is to ignore the question and until finally doing the equivalent of throwing up is hands and yelling, “yeah, PROBABLY.” Attempting to infiltrate the Black Gate would be a suicide mission. In turning away from it with a laugh, Frodo is embracing the reality of having to endure more pain and uncertainty for the improbable hope that it will lead to a better end.
Gollum at the Black Gate
Gollum, of course, is in the inverse situation. While Frodo for a moment seems to be free from further choice, Gollum’s choice becomes impossible to postpone. He fears the Ring falling into the hands of Sauron at least as much as Frodo does, and he fears it more viscerally. “Don’t take the Precious to Him!” he says. “He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world.” It’s interesting to see here, too, that Gollum bestows Important Capital Letters not only on the Ring, but also on Sauron. He’s standing right on the border with the land where he underwent what we can assume was some terrible trauma (at one point he says that Sauron’s hand only has four fingers, but “they are enough”). He doesn’t want the Ring to return to it, and he has only a final chance to stop it.
Gollum’s first attempts to do so are rather pitiful. Before he suggests Cirith Ungol as an option, he makes the vague, half-hearted suggestion that Frodo simply give the Ring to him, and go away to “nice places” and not worry about it anymore. Even Gollum doesn’t seem fully convinced that it will work. He only has one real path to take (as Frodo assumes he himself does), but he doesn’t yet want to do it. He doesn’t want to send his master into a spider cave and doesn’t want him to be endangered. So he tries something else, a nebulous, unconvincing proposal to just adopt the Ring and let everyone live happily ever after. But when Frodo states resolutely that he will go into Mordor with it, no matter what, Gollum panics and admits that there is “another way” (another, orc-and-spider-filled way). It was where his choice was heading from the start.
You Will Never Get it Back
When Gollum offers up this choice, things go mentally downhill rather quickly for him. At first he gets a stern warning from Good Cop Frodo (even Bad Cop Sam is approving of his style):
“Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol, you said. Do not say that again. Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back.”
Frodo then goes on to promise that if Gollum were to try to take the Ring, Frodo would put it on and use it first (in a close foreshadowing of the actual end of “Mount Doom”). It’s an awful moment for Gollum, and he collapses into an “abashed and terrified” mess. It’s hard to know if it’s because of Frodo’s closing threat or the stark repetition: “You will never get it back.” The speech is a telling moment for Frodo as well. As far as I can remember, this is Frodo’s first suggestion that he would be willing to put on the Ring and to use it against someone else. It’s hard for me to tell at this point how much of a hold it has over Frodo, which is part of what makes this moment so frightening. It’s hard to know how much of his speech to Gollum comes from personal experience (the sense of being twisted, perhaps) or from his own fears (you will never get it back).
Now for a somewhat off-topic discussion. While The Lord of the Rings has not been maliciously racist, “The Black Gate Opens” continues the trend of unfortunate racial connotations. I’m not convinced that Sauron’s supporters marching into Mordor are designed to be any particular ethnic group, but they do read like an amalgamation of traits that a white Englishman in the early 20th century would use to describe non-Europeans.
“They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold. And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have round shields, yellow and black, with big spikes. Not nice; very cruel, wicked men they look.”
That’s not great, and at best it’s a rather orientalist view of foreignness. At worst, we’re left with the notion that one of the very few non-European peoples in the story were either (a) dim enough to being unquestioningly duped by Sauron, (b) too weak to mount a resistance, or (c) totally on board with Sauron’s whole vibe.
This would be less a problem, of course, had Tolkien not associated most of his heroes with whiteness and fairness. Hobbits are perhaps an exception. As far as I recall hobbit skin tone is only related to the reader as various shades of brown, and the hobbits with the darker skin are described as far more numerous. But even in that scenario, we run into problems. Frodo, for example, is frequently described as being fairer than most of his hobbit brethren. His fairness also tends to be correlated to an inner nobility and moral strength. It’s a relatively small part of Tolkien’s overall thought, I’d say, but an unfortunate one.
- Gollum’s insistence that he did escape from Mordor on his own was very sad, to me. “I did escape, all by my poor self. Indeed I was told to seek for the Precious; and I have searched and searched, of course I have. But not for the Black One. The Precious was ours, it was mine, I tell you. I did escape.” While I’m sure it was not intended this way at all by Frodo and Sam – the questions they were asking were important ones to ask – Gollum seems to have interpreted it as an attack on his agency in escaping a place he views with deep-seated fear.
- This chapter is particularly adept with the foreshadowing. When Frodo is disappointed to discover that it’s not Gondor marching on the Black Gate, he compares the imaginary soldiers as “risen like avenging ghosts from the graves of valor long passed away.” We have quite a few chapters to go until Aragorn reaches the Paths of the Dead, but chronologically it’s only about two days away.
- Frodo’s reference to the Trees of Silver and Gold (Laurelin and Telperion) is another nice reference. Additonally, Shelob—whose unstated presence hovers over this chapter—is the last descendant of Ungoliant, the spider-darkness-monster (?) that destroyed the two trees.
- Sméagol’s insistence that he doesn’t want oliphaunts to even exist again walks the funny/sad line well. “No, no oliphaunts,” said Gollum. “Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be.” Poor Sméagol has been having a tough time, so I can understand not wanting to have to deal with war elephants, but the extent to which he escalates things made me laugh a little.
- I loved this: “He said: we’ll go to the Gate, and then we’ll see. And we do see. O yes, my precious, we do see. Sméagol knew hobbits could not go this way. O yes, Sméagol knew.”
“Then what the plague did you bring us here for?” said Sam.
Never change, Sam.
- Prose Prize: It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. I like this so much, both as a sentence and with the following acknowledgment that kindness isn’t the equivalent of naivete.
- Tolkien’s Wanton Cruelty to Innocent Punctuation Marks (sponsored by Mytly): A tough inaugural chapter all things considered. There are boatloads of semicolons, but I wasn’t able to catch any of the rarer three-in-one-sentence uses. At one point he uses a semicolon in three of four consecutive sentences. If we expand our scope, though, to Tolkien’s general language brutality, a clear winner emerges. Tolkien’s use of “amidmost” on the first page of the chapter, to designate the Sea of Nurnen that is presumably… most amid Mordor, is something that I both hate and love. Calm down, J.R.R.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien was kind enough to build this one in for me! Thanks, buddy! As noted in the chapter, Gandalf and the Fellowship 2.0 are speaking to Saruman at Isengard. And Pippin’s palms are starting to get itchy.
- Guys, it’s almost Faramir time.
All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of the Black Gate is courtesy of Ted Nasmith.
GRRM’s The Hero is a strong commentary on war
Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
We started our journey through the works of George R. R. Martin (GRRM) with his early amateur writing, published for the first time in the Dreamsongs collection. Like The Fortress or And Death His Legacy, GRRM wrote The Hero during his college years. It marks an important point in his career: this is Martin’s first professionally published story. That’s right, our boy GRRM went pro!
The long story behind its publication is told in the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs. I recommend you all to read it, since it’s an interesting account on the backstage of publishing in early ‘70s and what it meant to start a career in writing. Written in late ‘60s, The Hero was published for the first time in the February, 1971 issue of Galaxy.
How well did it age?
From here on, spoilers for The Hero. Due to the nature of the points chosen for analysis, that segment contains spoilers as well.
The Hero follows Field Officer John Kagen, a soldier from the Terran Expeditionary Force on a quest to conquer new planets. The natives of those planets are no match for Terran technology, in all the glory of its Hollywood Science.
Back at the outpost, Kagen has orders to see Major Grady about this pesky little thing he wants:
“My term of enlistment is up within two weeks, Major. I don’t plan to reenlist. So I’ve requested transportation to Earth. That’s all there is to it.”
After twenty years of service, Kagen is entitled to retire with full pension. Major Grady doesn’t want him to leave, citing his great records and all the excitement that is to come now that they’re close to open war against the Hrangan Empire. Despite his insistence, Kagen is adamant about retiring and settling specifically on Earth. Born in one of the War Worlds that provide soldiers while Earth provides high-ranking officers, Kagen wants to see what he’s been fighting for all those years. He’s getting bored of fighting and feels he’s getting older and slower. Also:
As you say, everyone on Earth must know me. I’m a hero. […] On Wellington I’m just one of hundreds of old vets. Hell, every one of the troopers who does retire heads back to his old barracks. But on Earth I’ll be a celebrity. Why, I’ll be the fastest, strongest guy on the whole damn planet. That’s got to have some advantages.
When it becomes clar that Kagen knows his rights and won’t step down, Grady tries to reach his gun. Kagen stops him, but is seized by the tractor beams protecting Grady’s office. Still, Grady decides to give Kagen what he wants.
On the day of his retirement, Kagen takes a shuttlecraft for a starship to Earth. He’s kept in place with tractor beams for the liftoff, but instead of releasing him the tractor beams get tighter and tighter, to the point of hurting him.
“‘Cut it out!’ he cried, his voice shrill with pain. ‘You’re killing me. Damn you, you’re killing me!’ And suddenly he realized he was right.”
In the outpost, the perpetually bored Grady tells his aide to space Kagen’s corpse, release a fake news note on his death blaming the Hrangan Empire, and send his medals to the barracks museum in Kagen’s homeworld.
On Corps and Corpses
There are many reasons why I’m a fan of GRRM’s work, but when it comes to stories like A Song of Ice and Fire his skill with characters and worldbuilding stands out. To my disappointment, those two aspects fell flat in The Hero during my first read. It was only with time, thinking about the story and its themes, that I came to appreciate what GRRM was trying to achieve.
The story has only three named characters, but Ragelli doesn’t really count because he simply exists. Kagen and Grady have better characterization and we can tell more about their motivations and personalities, but they still feel quite bland.
The story constantly emphasizes how bored Grady is, and I think it’s part of the point that GRRM is trying to make with this character. He seems very aloof, seeing soldiers and natives as nothing but tools to achieve his goals. He clearly considers War Worlders second-class citizens, to the point of feeling offended with the idea of Kagen moving to Earth. Overall he reads as a sharp criticism against the people responsible for wars, who hide behind desks disregarding the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.
Kagen barely has any inner life and the only information we have about his personal motivations comes during his conversation with Grady. He feels more machine than human, particularly when he meets a group of natives early in the story:
One began to speak. He never finished.
During the brief flickering instant before the natives’ fingers began to tighten on their triggers, Kagen did not pause, Kagen did not hesitate, Kagen did not think. Kagen killed.
Kagen spun, still reacting, searching for the next foe. He was alone.
His reaction feels almost automatic, and it’s an effective moment to show how this violence has become a part of Kagen’s routine. His apparent lack of inner life does have a point: after twenty years of service that translated into killing, maiming, and conquering, there seems to be a little less humanity left in him. Kagen dedicated his life to military service and it took everything it could from him, both physically and emotionally. Even his death will serve to further an agenda against his personal wishes.
So both Kagen and Grady have a reason behind what feels like an apparent lack of characterization, but I wonder if the execution was done effectively or if they’re more commentaries than characters.
The setting suffers from a similar problem, because for the most part it feels very generic. There are a few hints of something more interesting underneath the surface: the near paranoia of the Terran Expeditionary Force, the fact that soldiers are expected to be on drugs to keep their performance, the hinted conditioning of soldiers in the War Worlds, the dynamic between Earthers and War Worlders… but most of this isn’t explored.
I suspect this also has a point: it’s not about this planet in particular or these people in particular, but the pattern on this military and those behaviors that GRRM denounces. The fact that the setting is so generic turns it into a surrogate for any real life conflict the reader may see on it. We never learn the reasons behind this conflict, but it doesn’t really matter.
So both characters and setting share this quality, an apparent blandness that is almost the point. I can’t say how well it worked for me, but I can understand why they were written this way.
What I can’t really understand is again the lack of diversity. Yes, I’m going to insist on this in every single story of this reading project, because it’s becoming a pattern in GRRM’s early writing. All his stories are about men, presumably white, straight, cis, etc. I say “presumably” because I don’t like the idea of assuming whiteness or heterosexuality as default, but he doesn’t give us any hint that this may not be the case. I realize the story has very few characters, but women aren’t even mentioned.
War… war never changes
The most interesting aspect of The Hero for me is GRRM’s commentary on war. Different readers may have a different reading since each country has different views on war and military forces—as for me, coming from a country that experienced a long military dictatorship in a not so distant past, I must confess I’m not very fond of the guys. It’s useful, however, to keep in mind the context during which The Hero was written.
GRRM wrote this story in the late ‘60s, during Cold War. We know from the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs that he opposed the war in Vietnam and even applied for conscientious objector status. When we consider those circumstances, we can see their influence in the story.
The Hero isn’t even subtle on its sharp criticism on war. We never learn the reasons of the conflict between Earth and the Hrangan Empire, so the whole thing feels somewhat pointless. It’s two major nations measuring forces against each other in a cold war, conquered people and territories be damned, but we never understand what they’re fighting for besides this expansionism. It doesn’t help that Kagen himself says he wants to see what he’s been fighting for, implying he doesn’t know that yet.
What we do see of this conflict are its consequences, from the vivid description of the assault of a nameless city in the story’s opening scene to everything that happens with Kagen. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that Kagen’s exhaustion or his drug use are exceptions. It’s just how it is.
Those issues, the character of Kagen as a whole, and his dynamic with Grady remind me a lot of the way GRRM handles war in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve seen fans defending that ASOIAF is an anti-war statement, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s hard not to see a point in conflicts like Robert’s Rebellion or the war against the Lannisters, even if we don’t agree with how they were conducted. I think ASOIAF, much like The Hero, wants you to think about the consequences of war. It argues that the people fighting this war or suffering its effects more directly are often not the ones that will benefit from it.
I see echoes of Kagen’s story in the famous “broken man speech” from A Feast for Crows. The speech is too long to copy on its entirety, but it deserves its place among the most well-remembered lines in ASOIAF:
“One day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world . . . And the man breaks.”
One could argue that Kagen is a broken man, or a man in the verge of breaking. War isn’t glorious, but now there’s no going back. And who is he fighting this conflict for, anyway? He gave so much of himself, physically and emotionally, and it was sort of… expected?
The ending is perhaps the sharpest criticism of all: what do we do with our war heroes? Once the war is done and we took everything we wanted from them, what do we do? Do we fulfill whatever promises that sent them away from home? Do they get rest, peace, an exciting life for themselves? Are they honored as heroes or celebrities? Or do we honor just their medals, but not the person carrying them? What do we do with that person?
Despite its shortness and shortcomings, The Hero was a surprisingly deep story. It’s still not classic GRRM destroying our hearts with his sweet, sweet themes, but he’s getting there.
The story’s commentary on war and the treatment of war heroes are surprisingly contemporary. It’s not the first time one of GRRM’s old stories touches issues similar to the ones we’ve been dealing with, and I suspect it won’t be the last time either. It’s not very subtle and the execution isn’t perfect, but I think The Hero is very successful in making the reader question those issues in real life.
Next time: haunted highways and genre mash-up await us in “Exit to San Breta”
The Force Resurfaces in Legends of Luke Skywalker
So, with Ken Liu’s Legends of Luke Skywalker Luke is finally really back to the extended canon of new Star Wars. Of course, it is not his first official appearance. He took part in many adventures in the comics series, for example; but, Legends of Luke Skywalker is the first new canon novel installment to focus on the Jedi and his personal path. The first to give us a close-up on him.
It is quite understandable why Luke stayed on the margins of larger story for so long. Luke is the centerpiece of The Last Jedi, after all. So, when dealing with his character and plot, they have to avoid both spoilers and a chance for out of character actions. Which is great, by the way, as such caution is new for Star Wars.
All that to say, Ken Liu had a very complex mission cut out for him. And oh my, did he succeed! Gretchen wrote a really deep and insightful essay on how the book acts as a manifesto of New Canon’s overarching goals, particularly the emphasis on diverse storytelling. Me, I’m going to take a different route and talk a bit about the world- and character-building aspects of the book and how they relate to the Expanded Universe (EU).
Meeting Luke Skywalker
But did we actually meet him? Ken Liu himself advises us against this assumption:
“Without giving away spoilers, I do want to caution the reader against assuming that any of the Luke-like figures they encounter in the book is in fact Luke Skywalker. Sometimes we retell legends not just by recounting the stories, but by emulating their heroes.”
However, having read the book, I think we can assume that we did in fact, as did the people telling us these stories, meet Luke Skywalker and walk with him for a while. That’s the assumption I’ll be working with in this piece, that this novel gives us actual insight into what the Luke Skywalker of New Canon did, said, and is like.
And this person we met is somewhat of a stranger to us, especially to those of us who are accustomed to the much less closed off, much more outgoing and social-oriented Luke of the EU. It is difficult to imagine the Luke of Legends changing girlfriends once an issue/novel and being a prototypical Masculine Hero of the whole Galaxy. It’s hard to imagine Legends Luke in this (perfectly canon; those women are physically attracted to him because he’s a Jedi, you see) situation:
The Luke we meet in Liu’s book is a dreamer, a hermit, a pilgrim. We see him interacting with other people and see that despite being friendly and helpful he is very closed person. He seems estranged from the others—all the more as years pass.
What Does Being a Jedi Mean?
This Luke, unlike his EU counterpart, comes with a question: “How does one be a Jedi?”. Which is understandable, given that this Luke, unlike his older counterpart, is created in the post-prequel era.
Before those movies there was no true definition of what a Jedi was, apart from the general idea of being a Force-user. Thus, Luke could both be a Jedi and adventure around the Galaxy with random girls who leave him as soon as a story arc ends. He could even afford to marry the most fanbase-acclaimed of them, Mara Jade.
Even more so, he could afford to create his own Jedi Order with only such vague rules regarding what it meant to be a Jedi as existed among the authors at that time. Those Jedi married each other and lived with their families in a Jedi temple; they kinda practiced some Force technique or another; they served the New Republic. They fought the Dark Side, too—which mostly meant “some weird guys who believe they are new Sith.” The Dark Side as “something bad within a person” was generally just that: something bad, like envy, hatred, or anger. They were spiritual, of course, but again, it was a very vague spiritualism and adapted to the needs of the authors. Nothing was standardized.
The Luke we encounter in Legends of Luke Skywalker exists in the post-prequel universe. This shows not only in a quick mention of Padme Amidala, but also in how the Jedi theme is presented. A Jedi is meant to be an ascetic, selfless person now. With no attachments and no interest in the outside world, apart from serving the Republic they are sworn to protect that is.
And while Luke is not quite free from being interested in worldly matters, he is still much closer to that ideal than he ever was in the EU.
As a side note, I find it interesting that while Luke’s character has changed because the concept of Jedi has changed, Star Wars: Rebels provides us with a very old-fashioned New Jedi Order-like figure in Kanan. But old (and by “old” I mean “pre-prequel”) EU traces in the series are a subject for a different essay, I think.
The Force And Luke
So, as our main hero is a Jedi, he has to deal with the Force, has he not?
And this book is rich in Force worldbuilding. Some of it is fairly traditional; we see people talk about Dark Side and Light Side, using familiar tricks and all that. Some of it is truly revolutionary, and I can’t help thinking if it may be connected to The Last Jedi.
I mean “Fishing in the Deluge,” of course, which included a idea truly new idea for the Star Wars universe: that using the Force in and of itself may be wrong, or at least inherently prone to distortion. If the Force is what it is believed to be, why try bending it to your will? Better devote yourself to it, and let it flow freely and do its job. This is interesting as a religious view, as well; it reminds me of Orthodox prayer “do not what I want, please, but what Thou think would be better.”
Along with “Big Inside,” Legends also provides us with glimpses of non-Jedi Force-using communities. While they are very different from each other—one is primitive fishermen tribe, the other a highly organized society with the ability to weave time itself, one deems using the Force always wrong and other has mastered things nigh impossible with it—they share important elements. They both are post-prequel creations. They both seek freedom from attachments, for example, though not in the same way as each other, or the same way as the Jedi do.
It was a hasty essay, I freely admit it, but I hope you’ll still see some value in it. For the final thought, I want to talk about how this book gives us a glimpse of Luke after Kylo Ren’s fall. I am talking about the first story, that from Dwoogan: “The Myth Buster.”
Given that Luke had already gone missing by the time Dwoogan meets the mysterious man in the teahouse, this event would likely be after the tragedy. And this gives a whole new meaning to his words about the Dark Side…
“The heroes of the New Republic didn’t think of themselves as heroes. They thought of themselves as ordinary men and women who did what had to be done to restore freedom and justice to the galaxy. For me to challenge her would have been giving in to fear, fear that their reputations, rather than their deeds, were what mattered. It would have led to anger, anger that they were not worshipped by everyone who benefited from their sacrifices. It would have led to hate, hate that the truth was not enough by itself. But that would have been giving in to the dark side.” (p. 55)
Makes you think, huh?
Images courtesy Del Rey and Marvel Star Wars
Book Review: Shattered, by Lee Winter
I’ve been looking forward to reviewing another book by Lee Winter for a while. Her book, The Red Files, about a May-December relationship between two journalists on the case was an engaging read, and I expected nothing less from this book. This review does contain minor spoilers, but more in regards to craft than content.
Shattered leans into Shattergirl, a first-generation alien/superhero who has gone off the grid. Lena Martin, an alien tracker, is tasked with finding Shattergirl and figuring out where she’s been for the last 18 months. From this premise, we follow Lena to Socotra, otherwise known as the Island of Bliss, to track the missing superhero and figure out how to bring her in.
I expected that this book would take much longer to get to the point. Often, when reading a book where one character must find another, the author labors under building up the mystery character, with the detective character spending chapter after chapter following false leads, missing connections. The tension of the book is contingent on finding the mystery character. What this often leads to is a pacing issue, where the action of the story is backloaded, leading to a tedious start, an arduous middle, and frequently an unsatisfying ending. Winter, however, is far too deft of a writer to do that to us. She instead, comes out in front of the pacing issues, and after setting up the world with only as much detail as the reader would need, makes sure that a quarter of the way in, we’re at the tension of the story.
What works more than anything in this story, is the tension between Shattergirl (who goes by Nyah once she warms up a bit) and Lena. Lena, who poses as a writer so as not to immediately give herself away, begins to interrogate Nyah. And while it is revealed that Nyah knew all along that she was indeed a tracker, the sharp tongues and wit between the two sets the stage for further relational development.
Winter has the ability to profoundly flesh out a character without dropping information. Characteristics are dropped in during moments of suspense, without much staging, allowing for a roundness that I don’t usually see unless I am 5 books into a series. The way characters are painted allows for broad strokes, providing only the most necessary and relevant information first, then going in with finer detail later. This allows for the plot and action to take center stage, and for the characters to be more complimentary.
What struck me most about this book was the angle of looking at celebrity and heroism. The way Lena’s perspective changes through the book, both in response to her job and to Nyah reflects that of the reader. Lena can’t be bothered to have a personal life because she is renowned in her field, leaving her only with the soft reminder of humanity in her apartment neighbor. Nyah, who is adored by the world as a hero, is burdened with the pressure of trying to save everyone, and crushed by the weight of the vulnerable ones she can’t save. Lena, who spent her childhood admiring Nyah for her heroism, is knocked down a peg to the reality of what heroism really looks like.
In a book filled with grace and profound observations, I wish more than anything that this book was longer, or that it had a movie deal or something. Winter has a way of crafting stories that feel real and raw and cut past genre or the obvious direction a book could go in. My only criticism for such a short book is waiting for the other shoe to drop. This book builds itself up to the highest peak, and with thirty pages left, you as the reader are left wondering where exactly all this build up is going. I won’t say that it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, because it does, but the reading experience is certainly unique.
You can find Shattered by Lee Winter by clicking here.
*An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Lee Winter as Lee Winters. This has been corrected and we regret the error.