Underlord Book Review

Underlord: Cradle Book 6
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (March 1, 2019)
ASIN B07NJ3B6HN

If you have been following along with the Cradle series, you will have a pretty good idea of what to expect by now. Our young protagonist, Wei Shi Lindon Arelius, will have adventures, face insurmountable odds, and advance his Path. Wight has got a good thing going here, and he sticks to what works. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: these books are just fun. But I want to stop a moment and look at why it works. Indulge me.

And work it does. When Underlord released on March 1st, 2019, it rose at least as high as #5 on Amazon’s Kindle store, and maybe higher. Wight doesn’t run any sort of amazing social media campaign, his books mostly sell by word of mouth and through the praises of reviews like this one. His release schedule helps, you don’t have to wait years in between installments. But I think this is good evidence that Wight gives his readers what they want. What they [I] want is a good story, and Wight does that.

Fresh off of reading J. D. Cowan’s multi-part review of Sam J. Lundwell's Science Fiction: An Illustrated History, I have a new appreciation for just how good the Cradle series is, and new gratitude to Will Wight for writing the things I like to read. In particular, I learned something about just what it is I like about stories like this. Lindon needed insight into himself in order to advance, and in much the same way I needed insight in what makes a story good in order to be able to understand my own tastes.

One of the things I learned from Cowan’s review is that science fiction isn’t really a genre. In fact, debates about what is or isn’t science fiction tend to get bogged down, because the usual definitions don’t cut nature at the joints. By analogy, what is usually called fantasy isn’t a genre either. Cowan proposes instead that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all subgenres of adventure fiction, which is meant to evoke the emotion of wonder in the reader.

Wonder is a trait from adventure fiction and its subgenres fantasy and horror. It is the adventure of exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities.

This was the insight that I needed, because now I can understand what I like, and what I don’t. There is an irreducible element of personal taste in all of our entertainment, but I learned that adventure fiction is the kind that I like to read, precisely because the emotion of wonder is what I am after. There are lots of books labeled as sci fi or fantasy that I don’t like, but this is because genre, the emotion meant to be evoked, has been confused with milieu, or setting.

In the sense that I mean the term, setting a story in the future doesn’t make it science fiction. Swords and dragons don’t make a book fantasy either. If the emotion the author is trying to invoke in me is despair or rage, I don’t really want to read that book, no matter what trappings it has. I finally understand why Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance. He was connecting his work with an older tradition, not inventing a new one.

Wight’s books work for me because he is taking me on an adventure! I see the remarkable world of Cradle: Iteration 110 though Lindon’s eyes, and I get to see him grow up as he learns about the marvelous world in which he finds himself. The speculative fiction element is subdued, but not wholly absent. The focus here is on Lindon and his journey, rather than exactly what kind of society you would get if we lived in a simulation and cheat codes were enabled. There is just enough thought given to the structure and sociology to make it plausible. Everything else is about fun.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Will Wight

Cradle Series:

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5 Review


Traveler’s Gate series:

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

The Crimson Vault: Traveler's Gate Book 2 Review

City of Light: Traveler's Gate Book 3 Review

Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

Skysworn Book Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 257 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (September 30, 2017)
ASIN B0762YQ2H8

And so we come to the end. For now. Will Wight's website says work on the next installment in the Cradle series will start after the summer of 2018. Thus, it is appropriate that a number of plot threads from the first three volumes get wrapped up here. 

Lindon finally faces Jai Long, his nemesis. Yerin achieves a final solution with her unwelcome guest. Someone finally catches up with Eithan. It is a time of endings.

I'm not sure what it is, exactly, that reminds me of the four last things in Skysworn, but it does. There has been an apocalyptic element in the background all along, but this is the first time it comes to the forefront. Maybe it is Lindon's first real brush with death, with his own mortality. Or the Naru clan, with their angelic wings. Or maybe it is just the eldritch horrors that we finally meet face-to-face.

The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell  By Hans Memling - http://mng.gda.pl/zbiory/sztuka-dawna/hans-memling/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1455943

The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell

By Hans Memling - http://mng.gda.pl/zbiory/sztuka-dawna/hans-memling/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1455943

This fifteenth century triptych of the Last Judgment is oddly evocative of Skysworn for me, given that it in general the Cradle series has an Eastern vibe to it. Perhaps it is St. Michael in the middle, weighing souls, reminiscent of Suriel and Ozriel saving people from chaos. Or the glowing sword behind Christ's head. Or the fact that Christ is sitting on a rainbow. I could see a high level sacred artist doing something like that.

For all of the pan-Asian flair of the Cradle series, it has some of the aesthetics of Christian apocalyptic art. Of course, the apocalypse is not unique to Christianity. It is something like a human universal. Probably for the reason that the world does occasionally look like it is going to end.

But this is not the end for Lindon and his friends. Not yet anyway. He still has a long way to go before he meets his destiny.

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Blackflame Book Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 370 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (April 30, 2017)
ASIN B0716GZ8QX

One of the things I like best about the Cradle series is the pace. There are secrets to be discovered, but you don't need to wait forever to find out. Take Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn as a counter-example. Sanderson is slowly building up his Cosmere, a shared universe in which all his books somehow hang together. But hell, you don't even find some things out until you get to the Alloy of the Law series, books written more than three years later. And even then, Sanderson drips out his little hints, slowly, slowly.

I'm only three books into Wight's Cradle series, and I already know the backstory of the inhabited worlds and I have an idea of where Lindon is going to end up, and new information comes at a fast and furious pace, quickly linking up with things already established. And we aren't even three years into the whole series. I liked Sanderson's books, but this is just so much more satisfying. For example, Blackflame actually did address the question I raised in my review of Soulsmith: why hasn't someone invaded and pillaged the Sacred Valley of Lindon's birth? We don't get a complete answer, but we did get something.

“We could…go west,” she suggested hopefully. He started to tell her no, but hesitated. She was referring to a legend. In the mountains to the west of the Desolate Wilds, there was supposed to be a hidden valley that occasionally emerged to trade with the outside. The inhabitants were weak, but protected by a curse.
 
Spiral power

Spiral power

Much like Cole and Anspach's Galaxy's Edge series, the amount of Wight's world we can see gets bigger and bigger as we go along. The structure of everything is the same, but also simultaneously new and exciting.

As Lindon gains new abilities, he [and we] gain new insight as well. Things that were previously seen through a glass darkly suddenly snap into focus

 

In my review of Soulsmith, I said that the ranks of sacred artists on Cradle were something like natural kinds. There really do seem to be differences in kind, and not just in degree. Yet, part of the arc of Lindon's life itself is that isn't the whole story. Lindon, unsouled and unworthy, achieves things no one in his home would have thought possible even for the best of them, let alone poor Lindon. 

Orthos gingerly stretched out a leg, wincing at the pain. “Humans make every stage into a legend. A Lowgold is just a Jade with teeth. The only difference between Jade and Gold is a mountain of power.”

This pattern continues to repeat itself once Lindon escapes the Sacred Valley, and he is repeatedly discounted by his social betters, even as he vaults past them in power. As is typical for this kind of a book, Lindon himself is special, and he receives help, of a sort, from his patron Eithan, who sees Lindon as he is, rather than as he appears. 

What we don't yet know, is the depth of the games that Eithan is playing. In Soulsmith, Eithan takes Lindon and Yerin under his wing. Here in Blackflame, Eithan adopts them into his family, and his plans. What those plans truly are, we do not know. But there are hints that Eithan knows far more than he lets on, perhaps even is more than he lets on.

Yet even Homer nods. Eithan's games are high stakes. Eithan does everything he can to cheat, to better the odds in his favor, but things still sometimes go awry. The final battle of Blackflame was genuinely exciting to read, tense and gripping. I was actually surprised at how it all turned out, so I won't ruin it for you. You should go see for yourself.

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Soulsmith Book Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 286 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (September 26, 2016)
ASIN B01M09PWJQ

I saw a line in another review that I'm going to steal: these books are like candy. I just can't stop reading them. Although I worry the implication of the phrase may be unfair to Wight; while fast and fun reads, the Cradle series has been anything but empty calories.

 
Ruth Benedict  By World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14649, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1276865

Ruth Benedict

By World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14649, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1276865

In Soulsmith, we pick up right where we left off at the end of Unsouled, Wei Shi Lindon is desperately fleeing the vengeance of the Heaven's Glory School, whom Lindon has robbed blind and shamed by killing one of its highest ranked members. Out in the wilderness beyond the Sacred Valley, adventure awaits. The fun lies in learning about the world at the same time, and mostly in the same way that Lindon does.

While this is fantasy, and thus not really an attempt to present some insight about the world in the context of an adventure story, there are nonetheless interesting elements of the world Wight has built. For the most part, fantasy relies upon historical examples of human societies to provide building blocks which are then reshuffled as needed to create the fantasy world intended without straining credulity too much.

A critical part of the culture of the world of Cradle is shame. I'm using the word in the same sense as Ruth Benedict did in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed and rejected or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case, it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one’s own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed and a man’s feeling of guilt may actually be relieved by confessing his sin.

Benedict, 1946, p. 223

 

The sacred artists of Cradle live within an honor code of vengeance and shame, like many real-world human societies, both past and present. Justice is mostly of the vigilante variety, with your blood relations the only people you can really trust.

Another building block of the culture of Cradle is the natural hierarchy that results from the ranks of sacred artists. I call it a natural hierarchy because the ranks seem to be natural kinds. There really is something qualitatively different about an Iron artist compared to a Copper, and between all the other ranks as well. Unlike many such theories in our world, whether social, racial, occupational, or what have you, there is an essence of Ironness that underlies the social distinction.

However, those essences are also very meritocratic. Ranks are earned, through hard work and discipline, and above all, through competition. When you put all these things together, a shame culture with a social hierarchy built on real distinctions of ability and power, and the need to compete not only for social distinctions, but for power itself, you get unending war.

This last bit is perhaps the most interesting to me. Lindon's home in the Sacred Valley has the same shame culture as the world outside, but the power levels to be found within are far lower. Perhaps in compensation, it is also a far less brutal place to live. Not only is life easier there, but there are valuable materials and items available there. I'm genuinely curious why someone hasn't rolled in from the wilds outside and taken everything, because it would be easy.

I'm hoping this turns into a plot point later. It would be genuinely interesting to see why the most pleasant place we have seen so far that is also the most undeveloped in terms of sacred arts hasn't been sacked and looted. As for the rest of the world, it must be something very much like Hobbes' state of nature, although we haven't yet been to the Blackflame empire, purported bastion of civilization. I suppose we shall see.

I'm pretty happy I picked up Soulsmith, and I'm looking forward to volume 3.

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Unsouled Book Review

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 292 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (June 13, 2016)
ASIN B01H1CYBS6

As of today, February 24th, 2018, Will Wight's Unsouled is free on Amazon as an ebook. You should go get it right now. 

Did you get it? Good. This was a really, really fun book, and I can't believe Wight is just giving it away. Well, I guess I can, because I'm having a hard time not immediately buying the other three books in the series. I suppose they call this kind of thing a YA novel now, but I still think of them as juvenile novels, following Heinlein's classic formulation: a protagonist on the cusp of growing up, no sex scenes, a lot of details about magic/technology/etc., and some mildly didactic life lessons.

This book was marked as martial arts by Amazon, which I suppose it is. Unsouled has the same faux-Asian flair as Avatar: The Last Airbender. The last time I reviewed a novel with a martial arts theme was nine years ago, so I wasn't quite sure what I was getting myself into. As it turns out, I liked Unsouled quite a bit.

Unsouled is a fantasy book with a hint of Clarke's Third Law about it's system of magic/martial arts/self-improvement. For me, a large part of the fun of this kind of book is seeing how the author puts together his system. Wight's system, based on madra, vital energy, is as good as any I've seen. Internally consistent enough to make sense without breaking the suspension of disbelief, and still esoteric enough to make it feel like you gotta really work at mastering it.

The other thing that is really fun about a book like this is the way we get to see Lindon grow up. YA novels, coming of age, juveniles, whatever you want to call them, are a part of the great chain of becoming for many a young woman or man. I read many of them myself, and I suspect they helped me along the way. To the extent such books can help inculcate even a small measure of perseverance or self-reliance or the willingness to try just a little harder, then they have served their purpose well.

I enjoyed this book, and I would gladly give it to any of my own children for a bit of entertainment with a side of self-improvement. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

Book Review: Tengu

Tengu

The Mountain Goblin

by John Donohue

YMAA Fiction

287 pages; $12.95

In all honesty I thought this book was going to be terrible. I was disappointed when it showed up for review, and I have been putting it off for months. I decided to simply get it over with, and I discovered that the book was not terrible. I actually enjoyed it, and found a number of interesting things within.

Much like the process Donohue describes, how men of action come to slowly respect one another, I came to slowly enjoy this book more and more as I saw it progress. The prologue was terrible. I almost put the book down. The writing seemed overwrought and far too full of adjectives. However, I persisted, and the style settled down into something more workable. I am uncertain what changed, but Donohue fell into his groove, and the story flowed more naturally. There are few surprises in the plot, but that is the fun of this kind of book. You know that there will be some good fights, and the bad guy gets it in the end. You just have to suspend disbelief and experience the story as the characters do, and feel the tension and fear as if it were your own.

I also appreciated Donohue's perspective on the martial arts, and on fighting in general. I feared the book would be a potboiler full of fanciful moves and stale platitudes, but instead there is a very mature and thoughtful look at what it means to be the kind of man who places himself in harm's way, repeatedly and deliberately, knowing full well the consequences. This book does not shirk from displaying those consequences, especially the toll taken by injury compounded by age. This is not a lesson absorbed well by the young and healthy, but Donohue communicates it well. One cannot fight and emerge unscathed, but it might still be something one should do, something one must do.

The various martial arts [and they are various, Donohue does an excellent job of demonstrating the immense variety and rivalry of the many schools that exist, East and West] are at heart as much spiritual or moral as physical. Perhaps even more so. As one ages, one gains wisdom but loses strength, flexibility, and energy, but these latter things can be more of a vehicle for allowing the unreflective to slowly absorb the truths that enable one to live well, and to die well. Thus the practitioner of the martial arts can come to learn by blows what a more sensitive soul might learn from philosophy or religion. The action of the book is much the same, an apparently flashy, sweaty, brutal camouflage for a penetrating insight.

Wrong Dude to Rob

I saw this posted by a friend on Facebook, and I just loved it! As I have said before, you ought to know exactly whom you are messing with before you start.

This video is pretty instructive. You can see the clerk assess the situation, grab the stool, block the machete, then close with the dude to keep him from swinging. Then he wrestles the machete away and turns the tables.

I was pondering the use of a machete as a weapon, and decided that it is a pretty crappy weapon. It is really designed for bushwhacking. It is really heavy so you can cut down branches, and it is designed for slashing, not thrusting. I would be more afraid of a knife than a machete, because it can be thrust, and because it would move much faster. A machete could cause serious damage, but is too unwieldy to really be effective.

News report can be seen here.

h/t Abe