Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 10, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Stormlight, Fast Food Ratings, EVs
I thought, as I read the first two volumes of Brandon Sanderson's
magnificent fantasy epic Stormlight Archives, that this was obviously the
best candidate to be the next sprawling feature-film-quality series to follow
George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones.
Then somebody in a position to know told me that Sanderson plans for this to
be a ten-volume series.
Since Sanderson is the writer who was engaged to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel
of Time series of big thick fantasy novels, you'd think he'd be keenly aware of
the fact that it takes a long time to write all those big thick books, and nobody
Sanderson is younger than Jordan was, and in better health, but there are no
guarantees. And a writer who begins an important, finite series -- a single
massive work in multiple volumes -- has a responsibility not to bite off more
than he can chew.
Or, perhaps, he has the responsibility to make sure he chews up all he has
bitten off. If you have a massive story to tell, perhaps you measure it out a bit
more rapidly than you would if it were only a single volume's worth of tale.
Though I enjoyed the first volume of Wheel of Time, the pace of storytelling was
so slow that I simply gave up. There is such a thing as too much show, not
George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, the series of novels on which Game of
Thrones is based, moves much, much faster than Wheel. In fact, at times it
fairly hurtles along -- the books are so thick not because the storytelling is
slow, but because Martin's world-creation is so intense, and there are so many
characters whose stories we care about, that it takes hundreds of pages just to
cover a few weeks or months of events.
Martin's series has taken so long to complete in part because of his insistence
on writing the books at a pace that is comfortable for him. This is actually
essential -- books that are hurried in order to meet a contractual date or
the clamoring of fans are rarely as good as books composed at the writer's
But Martin isn't getting younger. In fact, he's an old coot (I can say this
because I have achieved about the same age and degree of coothood). So I'm
glad that the production schedule of the HBO Game of Thrones series is
pressing him forward in story development.
Martin is an experienced TV series writer, a genre in which deadlines are
met, no matter what. So once the TV series uses up the existing storylines,
Martin will have to come up with, if not new book volumes, at least enough
story to keep the series alive.
If he ends up writing the last volumes as thick novelizations of TV scripts that
he wrote himself, I'll have no problems -- there is no question about
authorship, because except for the meaningless porn scenes, Game of Thrones
is one of the most faithful film adaptations ever -- and also one of the
most artistically successful.
So what about Sanderson? He is astonishingly prolific, but this series already
had a long delay between the first and second volumes. The intervening book,
however, was the final installment of Wheel of Time, so there should be no more
Unless he thinks of some cool idea that causes him to completely revise the
And at least he has conceived his ten books, not as a single project, but as two
complete five-book series. Presumably book 5 will give us real closure, and
the second series will be starting anew. This is very thoughtful planning on
Sanderson has earned a reputation as a creator of fascinating magic systems,
but I hope he never gets confused and thinks that's why his books are good.
They're good because he understands human nature, and writes compelling
characters into exciting, moving, intelligent stories.
Though his first novels were remarkably good (and I reviewed them
accordingly), he is only getting better. His YA novel The Rithmatist is a delight
-- who thought geometry could be made exciting? -- and his novella The
Emperor's Soul is simply brilliant fiction.
If he had a Spanish-sounding last name instead of a Nordic one, The
Emperor's Soul might have been called Magic Realism, and been highly
praised in literary magazines.
But there can be no doubt that The Stormlight Archives is meant to be his
magnum opus, and deserves to be.
Only two volumes are available right now, The Way of Kings and Words of
Radiance, but I urge you not to wait until the series is complete before
beginning to read them. Each book brings the story to a point of fruition --
though of course they also leave plenty of story issues yet to be decided.
The story takes place on another world, in the midst of a longterm war between
the human Alethi and the Parshendi, a usually-humanoid species that can
change body shape according to the needed social role.
The war is fought out on "the Shattered Plain," a large region of plateaus
divided by deep, narrow canyons. The Parshendi warriors can usually leap
across the chasms, but humans can only cross using bridges, which have to be
transported overland and laid in place under enemy fire.
All this takes place with a constant awareness of high storms, which come at
frequent and fairly predictable intervals. It is almost impossible to remain alive
if you are caught in a high storm without substantial shelter; even the plants
have evolved to retreat underground, or withdraw their leaves when the wind
rises, so they aren't all stripped away in every storm.
But the high storms also recharge the jewels that store up the power of the
high storm, and it soon becomes clear that high storms, dangerous as they are,
serve also as a source of magical power.
Complicating the warfare is the use of Shardblades and Shardplate, which
seem to be left over from an ancient age when the Knights Radiant fought
against the Voidbringers. When the Knights Radiant abandoned the human
race, they left behind their blades and armor.
The humans who acquired these weapons and armor became almost
irresistibly powerful in battle, and though there are perhaps only a hundred
shardblades in the world, a single warrior with both blade and plate is enough
to turn the tide of a battle.
But this is only one kind of magic. Other kinds were believed to be extinct, but
are waking up again in the world, and those who are possessed of such powers
can, by taking certain oaths and then living up to them, become like the
Knights Radiant of old.
The principal hero of the first book is Kaladin, who was raised to follow his
father in the practice of medicine and surgery, but who ended up going to war
and then being cast into slavery. As he is being transported to his last place of
enslavement, he becomes aware of a spren named Syl as an ally who changes
Spren are magical creatures usually thought to have little power. They are
usually small, somewhere between nymphs and fairies. They pop up with
almost every kind of event or thing. If you have an injury that is festering, for
instance, rot-spren begin to hover around. Do the Spren cause the problem,
are they created by it, or are they attracted to it?
They usually seem to be mindless, but Syl comes to have more and more
intelligence, and is able to converse with Kaladin -- though few others can see
or hear her. He comes to learn that she is an honor-Spren -- drawn to
someone who fulfils his oaths.
Another hero is the young woman Shallan, who seeks to become an apprentice
to a woman of great political and magical power, in order to steal a magical
device from her. Eventually her plans change, and in the second volume her
story finally intersects with Kaladin's as they each uncover different aspects of
the ancient legends and the ways that Knights Radiant seem to be coming back
into the world.
This may sound either incomprehensible or foolish, but I promise that all is
unfolded in a way that makes them seem natural and rational. Sanderson, like
George R.R. Martin, is of the new generation of fantasists who borrow
relatively little from Tolkien's Middle Earth and instead do their world-creation according to the principles of science fiction.
Magic is treated systematically, as if it were a science, and as a result, readers
begin to understand the rules and limitations under which magic
functions. Without such rigor, it's hard to tell a powerful story, because, as
Judson Jerome once said to me, "If anything can happen, who cares what does
Nobody handles magic more rigorously than Sanderson, and as I tell my
writing students, the more detailed the rules become, the more story
possibilities emerge. Thus the storytelling in The Stormlight Archives is
lush and endlessly surprising, yet never feels false or contrived.
I did not actually read these books -- instead they were read to me in the
powerful Macmillan Audio recording, narrated by Kate Reading and
Michael Kramer. They both do a splendid job, though I wish Kramer made a
clearer distinction between short i and short e -- from his pronunciation I
thought the spren were "sprin."
Language by its nature invites such slight pronunciation differences; what
matters is that Kramer and Reading strike a perfect balance between
expressiveness and restraint. Narrators need to perform the dialogue in such
a way as to suggest the emotions of the characters without ever indulging in a
full-on acting performance.
And the narration must always be under control, reporting the events rather
than cheerleading them. I can happily say that the audiobook may be the best
way to experience the millions of words of The Stormlight Archive -- since by
wordcount, this series will easily reach many millions before it's complete.
And to Brandon Sanderson, I must offer a personal note: Write down or
record all your plans for the whole series -- key events you foresee, the
probably fate of the important characters, and solutions to the main mysteries
about the past and the present which the characters -- and the readers -- are
eagerly hoping to resolve.
That's because even though he is free, in the process of writing, to decide to
change any of these, if he should not live to complete the series, the more story
information he has committed to paper, the better the chances that other
hands might yet fulfil his vision in completing the saga.
There are still six weeks of summer ahead of us. Plenty of time to read (or
listen) to both of these thick, rewarding fantasy novels. I don't know how you
could better spend your reading time. (Unless, of course, you haven't yet read
everything of mine.)
The August 2014 issue of Consumer Reports rates the quality of various
fast food and fast-casual restaurant chains, and it raises a lot of fascinating
There's a reason why Americans have embraced fast food. The automobile has
allowed us to spread our lives over a much larger area. That means we spend
a lot of our time getting from one place to another.
This is not because everything was closer together before the automobile. It's
because, before the automobile, we didn't even try to get to as many
different places in the same day.
In the old days, if kids wanted to play sports, they got up games in their
neighborhood. Now we drive our kids to organized sports practices and
games -- or to lessons taught in places that our kids can't walk to.
With all this driving around, with all the entertainment options and social
obligations we now attempt to accomplish, we often prefer to grab something
quick to eat that involves no preparation, no clean-up, and as little time as
possible actually rooted to one place while we consume it.
I must confess that my wife and I have converted some of the finest restaurants
-- in Greensboro and elsewhere -- into fast-food dining experiences. We pop in
at a favorite restaurant before six p.m. on a midweek day, a time when you
rarely need reservations. At Green Valley Grill, Fuji Sushi, Mediterraneo,
Positano, Southern Lights, or Leblon, we usually know what we want
without even consulting a menu.
So we order at once, often asking for everything to be brought as a single
course, and we leave the restaurant, having dined on some of our favorite food,
less than half an hour after arriving.
But designated fast food or fast-casual restaurants are designed to be even
quicker in their service. The question, then, is whether the quality is worth
eating at all.
There are fast-food menus that, in my opinion, contain nothing as palatable as
eating good-quality packaged snacks or candy. The thought of eating at such
places makes me think of skipping the meal entirely as a more attractive
But there are other fast-food restaurants that cry out to me in my sleep,
their food is so good.
Of course, sometimes what's calling to me isn't the quality of the food -- it's the
nostalgia. When I was a child, going to the A&W Drive-in was a highlight of
the month. Choosing whether to order a mama burger or a papa burger was
secondary only to drinking perfect root beer from a frosted mug, or just sitting
in a car eating with my family, enjoying the playful or meaningful conversation.
Some of my favorite fast-food restaurants are standalones. They may be part of
a small chain, but I usually know only one restaurant by that name. I think of
Hires Drive-in in Salt Lake City, Burgers Supreme in Provo, Utah, the brilliant
Poquito Mas, Chin Chin, and Fatburger chains in the LA area, and Pie Works
and Cookout in Greensboro.
Being a national publication, Consumer Reports dealt mostly with national or
large-region chains. They combined information from customer surveys, lab
analyses, and systematic taste-testing by experts to come up with their list of
best and worst.
(Try not to picture their experts eating fast food in a parking lot, their car
windows tinted so no one will see them chewing up the food ... and then
spitting it out in "spit jars," as wine tasters do in order to avoid
If you want the full list, then of course you must buy Consumer Reports --
always a good idea, since they are supported by sales rather than
advertising. Their well-deserved reputation for integrity is sustained by the
fact that they never have to compromise their reviews in order to avoid
offending a potential advertiser.
The problem is that even with professional taste-testers, experiences as well as
preferences vary from person to person and from store to store.
For instance, I know several people who think the Five Guys burger chain is
brilliant, and Consumer Reports rates it well enough (except on their list of
most and least healthful, where it's in the bottom five).
But when, on the recommendation of friends, my wife and I tried Five Guys, I
found my burger to be so greasy that before I was half done with it, the
bottom bun had dissolved into a mass of greasy goo, at which point it was
no longer, in my opinion, either a hamburger or edible.
Yet that very greasiness (translated as "juiciness") was one of the things our
friends valued most. So a particular restaurant or menu item might get lots of
survey votes while being quite vile to someone with different tastes -- and vice
Del Taco, for instance, is not even close to the top in CR's quality lists, but I
know a retired gentleman for whom Del Taco is a favorite daily ritual. The
staff know this genial man so well that when they spot him pulling into the
parking lot, they often have his order waiting for him by the time he reaches
For him, Del Taco is a valued experience -- though if he didn't enjoy the food
he would never have become a "regular" in the first place.
There's something about being cheerfully greeted at a restaurant that
makes you glad you came -- and helps you forgive occasional lapses in
So it may be that when we think of a name like "Chipotle Mexican Grill" or
"Subway" or even "McDonald's" or "Chick-Fil-A," we're not so much thinking of
the national chain as of the particular restaurant that we most commonly
Many of the CR comparisons are between menu items that I would never select
Still, I was pleased to see In-N-Out Burger (another small chain) got a high
rating, as did better-known chains like Chipotle, Firehouse Subs, and Baja
The CR comparisons include ratings of clean surroundings, healthiness, and
taste, and unless you never eat fast food, it's worth buying the issue and
comparing your own experiences with their ratings.
Seeing Chick-Fil-A rated highest in taste for the chicken category stabbed me a
bit, because I agree completely, but for the past few years I've had to swear off
Chick-Fil-A entirely, because everything on the menu is cooked in peanut
oil. There are reasons why peanut oil is an excellent choice for delicious and
healthful deep-frying (if "healthful deep-frying" is even a meaningful concept),
but that doesn't help those of us with peanut allergies.
And my wife can't even enter an Arby's, though it once was a favorite, because
during her first pregnancy she had a craving for an Arby's sandwich but
then returned it to the open air in a dramatic and unpleasant way.
Pregnancy-sickness regurgitation can hardly be counted against a fast-food
restaurant, even if it permanently removes it as a dining option.
But even restaurants that are not at the top of the lists can still be favorites, if
that's what you're in the mood for! About twice a year, I have to have a Big
Mac. So sue me.
And there is no better fast-food breakfast than the Sausege Egg McMuffin, as
long as you're in the South, where the sausage they use is spicy.
Every time I start thinking I'll buy an electric golf cart and drive it around on
local errands the way the characters do in Cougar Town, I have to remind
myself that the TV show takes place in Florida, which is flat, and I don't know
if golf carts could deal with Greensboro's ubiquitous (and iniquitous) hills.
Nor do I know whether people would be patient with golf-cart speeds on roads
where everybody breaks the speed limit, like North Elm or Pisgah Church or
Is it even legal to drive a golf cart on the road? I'm pretty sure they're
forbidden on the freeway, but ...
Reading CR's report on electric and part-electric vehicles makes it plain that
we're not quite ready to convert to all-electric vehicles that conform to our ideas
of what a "real car" should be.
Which is a shame. I'm ready for electric now. I just need the technology to get
good electric vehicles (Evs) into my price range. Which the Tesla definitely is
Last week I told the students in my annual writing workshop that in
manuscripts, you always use underlining instead of italics, because it's so easy
to overlook italics during the editing stage.
Now the editor for the book I just completed tells me that my publisher far
prefers to have italics rather than underlining in the computer file I'll be
turning in to them.
Oh well. Things change, and I'll now change what I tell my students.