Saturday, April 23, 2022

Review: The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Eskov

“After all, history will be written by those who will win under your banner. There are tried and true recipes for that: cast Mordor as the Evil Empire that wished to enslave the entire Middle Earth, and its inhabitants as non-human monsters that rode werewolves and ate human flesh.” 

- The Last Ringbearer, by Kiril Eskov

“History is written by the victors” is a cliche, a useful maxim, and the underlying theme behind many books I enjoyed. The Lord of the Rings, with its rather simple “united good guys vs power-hungry evil guys” themes and its dehumanization of orcs and other denizens of Mordor, seems like fertile ground for exploring the political nature of history. I was fully ready to love a fanfic constructed on this premise, or at least look past some flaws.

The novel is divided into four parts, and Part 1 starts with promise. We are introduced to a Mordor on the cusp of an industrial revolution, an age of science and technology that will, if left unchecked, cause a real threat to the extant ruling classes of magic wielders: the council of wizards and the elves. Alternative perspectives of familiar Middle Earth scenes are interspersed with asides on philosophy, farming technology, diplomacy versus military solutions, popular literacy, and the Great Man Theory (“Climate change can play a larger role in the history of a people, or even a civilization, than the deeds of great reformers or a devastating invasion.”). The highlights of this section were, I thought, the debate in Chapter 4 in which Saruman decries the genocidal brutality hidden beneath Gandalf’s measured calls to check Mondor’s growth by allying with the Elves; and Chapter 17, where a Nazgul affably chats around a campfire about the One Ring, a failed ploy to split Gandalf’s Western coalition. I rolled my eyes a little at the Chosen One plot that seemed to be materializing – Haladdin, a mathematician with the rare trait of being immune to magic, alone can save the material world from the magic of the elves.

I needn’t have worried about the triteness of the Chosen One plot, because Haladdin, along with all twentieth century geopolitical allegories, virtually disappears from the story until Part 4. Part 2 reads like an excerpt from a generic Eowyn/Faramir ship fanfic, tied to the events of Part 1 with the faintest of tendrils. Part 3 seems like a reskin of a generic 1990s spy story draft, and cheerfully shrugs off the shackles of a setting reminiscent of Middle Earth that anchored Part 2. The net plot contribution of these two parts is to get the MacGuffin into its intended hands. 

The convoluted plan to destroy the magical parallel universe comes to its fruition in Part 4, and – unbelievably, anticlimactically – goes off essentially without a hitch. In the final moments, Saruman warns Haladdin that the ramifications of destroying the magical plane aren’t entirely known and experimenting could have devastating consequences. Haladdin ponders this, gets a cramp in his leg, then decides that saving the life of his friend is worth potentially destroying the whole world. Our Chosen One mathematician drops the magical artifact into a volcano with the words:

“I’m dropping my ball into the crater! Run like hell if you can! You can figure yourself how many seconds you’ve got – I’ve never been good at figuring in my head…”

The world turns out just fine.

And even this disappointing excuse for a plot I could have borne for the sake of the neat premise, had the storytelling not been quite so rife with racism and sexism. Enslaved people are repetitively described as black, and the n-word is thrown in for good measure just in case you missed the allusion. Rape is a recurring punchline (“I wonder if this is what a woman feels like after rape” a character wonders after being stared down by an enemy). Women are silly, shallow sex objects. Haladdin’s love interest, who we never meet but serves only to motivate the actions of a man, “fulfilled her life’s destiny by becoming a loving wife and wonderful mother.” 

I'm certain Eskov rejects all criticism of this nature. Through the voice of the scholar writing this revisionist history of Middle Earth, he takes a moment to complain about the fictional dramatization of these events:

[The actress who plays] Alviss is black (excuse me – Haradi-Amengian), and the relationship between Tangorn and Grager has distinct gay overtones. The critics predicted as one man that the judges of the Silver Harbors Film Festival would protect themselves from the charges of racism, sexism and other horrible ‘isms’ by throwing every conceivable award at it, which is exactly what happened. 

I seethed my way through the rest of the book mostly out of determined spite. The author (presciently?) warded off my criticisms with the closing lines: 

“In other words, guys, live and let live. In our case it translates to this: you don’t have to listen to me spin tall tales if you don’t like them.”

I cannot urge you emphatically enough: do not read this tale.

No comments:

Post a Comment