I am at an age now where I find myself more likely to re-read books I loved when I was young than to seek out new authors. I am not sure exactly why. I suspect that it is because when I was young I read everything much less critically which gave the love a chance to grow. These days I read with a more jaundiced eye particularly towards people working in my own genres. I am much more aware of the tricks used and am much more easily bounced out of my willing suspension of disbelief. I do not for a moment believe that writers working today are less skilled than the ones I used to read, I can actually see that in some cases they are much more so. It’s just that these days I set the bar much higher. That’s my theory anyway.
Of course, there are some writers I have come back to again and again all of my life anyway. I re-read The Lord of the Rings every couple of years. I go through the collected works of Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. There are a number of books by Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock I keep coming back to and all of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books. I endlessly recycle Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett and Dickens and Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky too.
Of late I find most of the books by writers I am unfamiliar with I read are non-fiction. This is a trend I have noticed among many of my friends as well. I am far less likely to try new fiction than I once was. It shames me to admit it but it is so. Perhaps I have become more risk adverse as I am older. Over the years I have spent a lot of money on books I could not get through the first twenty pages of. Re-reading books I know I enjoyed but which I read long enough to have forgotten the details seems to be my new risk adverse strategy. This has some surprising results sometimes.
Some writers you grow with, you come back to them as you get older and you get more out of them and see more in them. Some are a sort of comfort food of the mind. Some are as unsettling as when you visit the street your childhood home was on and find everything changed. They are not at all what you remember them as being. You find the book you recall bear absolutely no resemblance to the book you are reading.You find writers you admired when you were a teenager seem like total nobs when you read them in middle age (Jack Kerouac I am looking at you.)
Right now, I am re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series from start to the current novel. I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn a while back and was sufficiently impressed to want to try his completion of the series after Jordan’s tragic early death. Currently I am at Book Seven, Crown of Swords.
It’s been an odd experience reading these books back to back so close together. One friend asks me why I am subjecting myself to such a cruel and unusual punishment. It is not. It’s a pleasure. A lot of baggage surrounds Jordan. Everyone talks about the info dumps, the braid tugging, the endless soap opera. There’s some truth to this, obviously, but it fails to address the obvious strength of the man’s work; that he can tell a story. He can also create memorable characters. The thing that struck me most strongly re-reading the first few books was the sheer scale of the man’s ambition. So much is promised, so much delivered. Events are foreshadowed that do not occur until a couple of thousand-page books later.
It sounds like damning with faint praise to say you are impressed by an author’s skill at logistics but I do not mean it that way in the least. As someone who has written a couple of longish, multi-book series I know the difficulties involved better than many, and I am gobsmacked by the way Jordan keeps all the balls in the air. If you think what he does is easy, I would respectfully suggest you try it sometime. Someone sufficiently skilled makes even the most difficult things look easy. It is the mark of being skilled.
Scale is the major mark of Jordan’s work, of course; the thing everyone remembers. It is also the thing that leads to the accusations of endless info-dumps. Having gone through a number of the books, I can’t say as I noticed these. Given how much he needs to tell the reader once the backstory has grown, I thought Jordan handled these well. There are very few really noticeable ones and the information is usually skilfully woven into the ongoing story.
I find the characterisation for the most part sympathetic and Jordan handles his themes of power and responsibility well. Jordan actually fought in a war (was decorated in it too) and had clearly thought about what it means to kill and to lead. He handles the guilt well. The scenes where his young heroes return home to by idolised by those who stayed behind and don’t understand are haunting.
Of course there are flaws, the first few books in the series have tremendous narrative drive but the plotting feels chaotic. Characters appear out of nowhere, climaxes just happen. As the series progresses the narrative pace slackens but the writing becomes more skilled. On balance I am enjoying this exercise hugely. I’ll report back when I get to the end!