The Last Ring-bearer by Kirill Yeskov is a, oh, what it is? A novel, yes. It takes place in Middle-earth in the months after the end of the War of the Ring. Yes. It tells a tale of intrigue, double-dealing, and geopolitics on a scope which, while intimate, dwarfs the scale of Tolkien’s work.
Kinda sorta. After the war, some agents of Mordor are recruited to destroy a thingy. A mirror which shows the possible future of the one who gazes into it. That’s the general plot, at least so far, at least kind of. I’m about 170/270ths of the way through.
Let me back up a bit. Why, one might wonder, would someone do this? I mean, isn’t The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, plus all the additional volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien enough? One might think so, but one would be wrong, because, you see, Yeskov wanted something different from what Tolkien was doing.
Which is fine. You can read his intentions, so I’m not going to belabor them. Except to note that he, essentially, wanted a Middle-earth story that grounded the actions and outcomes in recognizably materialist human and geographical considerations. Some of the commentary about this book has cited Roger Zelazney as criticizing Tolkien for… oh, something or other that Zelanney allegedly didn’t like. Nobody who’s brought it up has bothered to run down the context of the alleged criticism, and I’m not going to try since whatever Zelazney said isn’t really relevent to what Yeskov wrote.
I happen to think that an effort to ground a Middle-earth story in realpolitik pretty well misses the point of what Tolkien was doing, and also misses the conception of Middle-earth as a place that’s sort of a precursor to our world (though not literally–the mistake the recent Battlestar Galactica makes), but which–while looking like our world–follows different physical laws. Middle-earth isn’t a planet, for instance.
But that’s a quibble, really. As Yeskov notes, if you don’t like this sort of thing, then it wasn’t written for you anyway, so don’t worry about it. So, with that in mind, how good is what Yeskov actually wrote?
It’s actually pretty OK. It’s a translation from Russian, so I’m not going to linger over some of the actual word choices. The word ‘guy’ shows up a lot, and there’s a certain… oh… high school-y casualness in some of the tone. It’s not a big deal for me, but if you want epic prose there’s nothing to see here, please move along.
The story moves at a brisk pace. There are a few passages where things flagged for me, in this book the elf song are the extended passages where characters go through the motions of stealthiness and hand-to-hand combat. So my eyes glaze over, I skip a page or two, and get back into things.
My major criticism is this: the story is about how this one guy (heh) is supposed to destroy this one thing. In a materialist story he’s supposed to do this, but it’s a magical item, his plan involves using other magical items, and he’s given the task by a magical being. I can be OK with that. Except Mordor is described in this book as a place where they don’t use magic, having chosen rationalism, science, literacy, modernity, and so on. But then a Nazgul is the one to give the job to this one guy, and the Nazgul aren’t actually fundamentally reinterpreted. They’re still, essentially, magical. Which is to say I’m finding the underlying motivations of the characters problematic. But I’m not finished yet, so I might be proven wrong on that point.
The other point where I’m troubled by what’s going on is this: so far, in about 170 pages of text, somewhere north of 100 pages of it have very little to do with the actual quest part of the story. There’s a bit about reinterpreting the established Middle-earth characters and politics. That’s pretty interesting from a Canon Defilement point-of-view. Aragorn and Gandalf come off as especially different characters by twisting their motivations while essentially preserving their core actions. Faramir and Eowyn come off pretty well, actually. Mordor, while not getting a make-over, does get… I think I’ll come back to Mordor in the second post on this book.
Most of the book, however, is taken up with a sort of spy novel with action set-pieces. And a large chunk of that is taken up with a lot of running around and spycraft. I’m pretty sure the object of this is to position a certain piece of hardware. The mirror is held by Elves, and our heroes are working for the ideals espoused by Mordor. So they aren’t going to be able to get close to the mirror. In order to destroy it, they essentially have to trick the Elves into putting the bomb next to it themselves. There’s about a hundred pages left, so that’s plenty of time to do that, and take care of the triggering mechanism for the bomb as well. But… while it’s pretty well written, and pretty well paced and all, I feel like two or three bits of spycraft would have been plenty. Instead we get scene after scene of the four parties involved. (These are the Mordor spy, Gondorian spies, Elvish spies, and Umbarian local authories.) They circle each other, and the Mordor spy does his thing, and–to be honest–I’m not 100% sure he’s actually doing it to place the hardware in the hands of the Elves.
Anyway. It’s pretty good, and worth reading, but so far it’s been most fun if I simply read it for what it is, there on the page, and don’t pay too much attention to the fact that it’s set in Middle-earth.