John Milton revisited

I’m curiously drawn to re-interpretations in modern fiction of the underpinnings of Christian theology, such as the one in the beginning of Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Since I’ve enjoyed Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, I picked up To Reign In Hell at a con or bookstore, and gave it a read.

Well, I tried to. Twice. The first couple of times, for some reason I couldn’t get a sense of the characters or the premise. Last night, I took a deep breath, and tried a third time with much more focused attention, getting much farther into it. The attempt didn’t work out…

Part of my problem is that, unlike the story of Illuvatar and Melkor, this book is traditionally-Christian enough that you know the ending: Satan will end up pissed and in charge of Hell. That’s not what took me down on this third, and probably final try.

In this tale, seven beings including Yaweh, Satan, Michael, and Lucifer are created from formless Chaos, and must immediately dedicate themselves to protecting themselves from it. Together, they build a Heaven, taking up certain roles to protect themselves from chaos’ recurring assaults. Yaweh comes up with a plan to build a new place safe from chaos, but there will be great risk involved. (Bet the reader can guess what he hopes to build.)

So, you know what ends up the cause of the War in Heaven and the creation of Hell? Lack of proper communication. Satan and Yaweh were pretty much on the same side of the issue, but both had doubts they feared to discuss with the other, and some of the later beings who’d joined them in heaven exploited that to… to… well, mainly to get jollies from it, near as I can tell. That’s right, the religious warfare which has scorched the world for millennia was caused mainly because Yaweh and Satan never sat down and had a heart-to-heart chat over pizza.

Oh, both sides make chains of stupid decisions to follow. I was reminded specifically of Othello, where Iago ruins Othello’s life because he can’t find something better to do, and Othello allows Iago to yank him around like a puppet despite the fact that he should know better.

The deities of this book are really little more than fallible humans with great power. To be fair to Brust, writing a tragic novel about Satan’s ‘fall’ probably demands that, but it gave the book a feeling of weariness from the early chapters, and I just couldn’t force myself through it. Brust brings new plausibility and logic to the War In Heaven, but in the end not enough new perspective, and certainly no new direction.

I still say the Taltos novels are pretty good, and maybe I’ll pick up the next one in line, soon, as a palate cleanser. And the first sentence of this post sure is pleased with itself.

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One Comment

  • jdunson says:

    The deities of this book are really little more than fallible humans with great power.

    It’s difficult to find space for interesting storytelling otherwise, if you’re constrained to connecting with certain existing stories. You almost have to invoke either pretty serious fallibleness, or pretty serious locked-into-iconic-roles, because otherwise things would have turned out differently. The latter gets (reasonably) accused of 2D characterization, which drifts writers toward the former.

    Plus, many (English-language) writers are more familiar with the Greco-Roman mythological setup, which is pretty much a handbook for petty vindictiveness and failures to communicate.

    ETA: On reflection, a third option is to posit that it’s all a Thirty Xanatos Pileup. The problem with that is that none of the characters (and little of the plot) end up being understandable or likeable.

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