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Jeff LaSala

The Frankenstein Chronicles Is What Grimdark Should Be

What is this new devilry?

The Frankenstein Chronicles—the ITV Encore production starring Sean “They have a cave troll” Bean currently streaming on Netflix—is exactly what I wish all grimdark fiction would be, and I wish more writers would take a page or two from its book. I may be a high fantasy-loving Tolkien nut, but I’ve also been a fan of horror since forever. The more gothic, the better; the more supernatural, the better. And so, as a period crime show with supernatural elements, The Frankenstein Chronicles is precisely my cup of cold and galvanized tea.

The show is NOT, as other reviews have misguidedly stated, a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix or its producers have marketed it as such to help draw people in. Still, this isn’t a drawback. It’s a selling point, as far as I’m concerned, in an age so full of reboots and rehashed past works. Here, then, is my largely spoiler-free review.

[Beware the beast with the head of a man.]

The White Lady, the Dark Elf, and the Staff of Doom

In Which the King’s Sister Flies the Coop and Meets a Tall, Dark, and Handsome Stranger, Inadvertently Sowing the Seeds of Gondolin’s Destruction

The Hidden City of Gondolin is doing great. Peace has prevailed for years; the future looks bright. What can possibly go wrong? Was Ulmo full of baloney or was there something to his warnings about treachery? For once, we’ll stop discussing the doings of whole kindreds of Elves and zoom in on just one family in “Of Maeglin,” the sixteenth chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion. I’m pretty sure the titular character is the quietest and most understated Elf we’ve met thus far, but that’s all right. This is just his origin story.

Yet this chapter has more drama than you can shake a staff of doom at! It bears all the hallmarks of a classic soap opera: betrayals, bad relationships, unrequited love, baby daddies, giant spiders, and poisoned darts. And it ends like some lost stanza from Harry Chapin’s bittersweet classic “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

[By the swords of the Noldor alone is this post defended.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Tales from Topographic Beleriand: Gondolin, Galadriel, and the Gates of Sirion

In Which the Noldor Plant Flags and Raise Towers, Ulmo Plays Favorites, Turgon Goes Isolationist, and Galadriel Gets People Talking

If you’ve made it this far into The Silmarillion, dear reader, this is where J.R.R. Tolkien gives you the chance to show your quality. “Of Beleriand and Its Realms,” Chapter 14 of the Quenta Silmarillion, is a literary map, and it’s the one where the professor really nerds out on names, places, and earth science, going nomenclative and topographic to the max. This is his jam. There’s no dialogue, action, or conflict, yet it’s fairly important stage-setting for what’s to come. It even features a not-so-fleeting Lord of the Rings crossover. But I sure hope you like maps!

Fortunately, in Chapter 15, “Of the Noldor In Beleriand,” drama and intrigue are not so scarce. Turgon keeps on keeping on for Gondolin—you know, the Elf city that’s so famous, it even gets a mention in The Hobbit!—and Galadriel starts to spill the Noldorin beans.

[Love not too well the work of thy mouse-clicking.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Fey and Fury: When Noldor Attack!

In Which Fëanor Goes All Fey, Balrogs Open A Can of Whoop-Ass, and the Oath Gets Well and Truly Underway As the Noldor Reintroduce Themselves to Middle-earth

With the Sindar kingdom of Doriath now established in Beleriand and fenced by the power of Queen Melian, and with Morgoth having stuck himself where the Sun don’t shine, we hit Rewind once again. In this, the thirteenth chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion, “Of the Return of the Noldor,” we go back to the last days just before the first rising of the Moon and the Sun. We also return to Fëanor, who’s got Noldorin boots on the ground in Middle-earth. With him are his sons, his troop of loyalists, and his burning quest of vengeance to achieve. What could possibly go wrong?

This is another very rich chapter and there is a lot of ground to cover. We’ve got Balrog bullies, Orcs galore, maimings, prophetic dreams, Dwarven excavations, and Elf-politics to address. Not to mention Arda’s biggest bird and…its very first dragon!

[If there lay no grievance between us, read on, good reader.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Middle-earth’s Event Horizon

In Which the Valar Launch a Pair of Satellites, Morgoth Makes a Stink About It, and Men Finally Get Their Act Together and Start Existing

As in the previous chapter, “Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor” begins with a bit of a jump backwards in time, returning to the point where the Noldor have only recently left in exile. We also come to a controversial part of Tolkien’s legendarium—one the professor himself was uneasy about, but which still exists organically from the myths he made. So let’s talk about what’s going on here with the cosmology of Arda. Note that this is going to be the last chapter for quite a while that involves the Valar—at least all working together on something.

And then in the second shortest chapter of the book, “Of Men,” we finally meet the people who will one day—if we’re to believe that Middle-earth is an alternative version of our mythological past—invent the strip mall.

[Dear-bought this post shall be accounted.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Advanced Dungeons & Dwarves (and Grey-elves)

In Which the Sindar Put Down Roots, Dwarves Emerge and Get Right To Work, and Melian Puts Up An Orc-Proof Fence

As we should know from The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien likes to tell stories in a sort of zigzag chronology. This tenth chapter, “Of the Sindar,” rewinds the timeline back to when Olwë and his Teleri first “sailed” off to Valinor on Ulmo’s island-boat, filling us in on what’s been happening in Middle-earth ever since. It’s much darker here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We see what the Teleri have been up to, discover which hardy and hirsute people are now on the scene, then witness the first battle against Morgoth and his Orcs! This is, in part, stage-setting for the Noldor’s return, but one takeway from this chapter might be: Everything’s not about you, Fëanor, and your people aren’t the only ones we have to care about.

[Hurry and read, while evil things are fled far away!]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

The Legacies and Dark Elves of R. A. Salvatore

R. A. Salvatore is an author I can’t quite shake. Let me explain.

I was part of TSR’s target demographic—I think—back when his illustrious Dark Elf Trilogy came out 25+ years ago. I saw the covers of Exile and Sojourn first, with their fiery cave walls, strange cloaks, some grim-faced elf-dude with long white hair…and an awesome black panther! This was a long time ago when a whole lot of novel and D&D game book covers were painted by fantasy art luminary Jeff Easley (among others). I was immediately drawn to the central figure. I had questions. Who was this guy? Hey, has he got a scimitar?! What’s with the crazy pirate earrings? Why the skullcap? Is that panther his friend? Where is this?!

Fast forward some fifteen years later: I published a novel for Wizards of the Coast, penned a second, wrote for both Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and contributed to a few RPG books. And all these fantasy projects—humble as they were—came about, in part, due to encouragement I received from R. A. Salvatore directly. Can I tell the tale?

[There are no shadows in the Underdark.]

Fëanor Rage-quits Valinor

In Which the Noldor Begin Another (and This Time Regrettable) Game of Follow the Leader and then…WTF Fëanor?!!

When last we left the intrepid Noldor in the first half of the ninth chapter, “Of the Flight of the Noldor,” they were listening to the moody but charismatic Fëanor: first trying to convince them to leave Valinor and pursue Morgoth to Middle-earth, then swearing vengeance against “whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril” up to and including anyone there in the audience. Since there is still much exposition to cover in this chapter, it is again easier to summarize what doesn’t happen: The Noldor don’t have a lovely picnic with the Teleri and swap sea shanties. Manwë and Mandos do not keep mum and mind their own business. And Fëanor certainly does not adopt a No Elf Left Behind policy and stand by it.

All these non-events aside, this is the chapter that brings us back to Middle-earth at long last. For many of the travelers, this is a one-way trip…in this life.

[Read on, or not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Melkor Is Rebranded (And Fëanor Goes Under Oath)

In Which Melkor Drops the Other Shoe, Fëanor Rouses a Rabble, and A Promise Is Gravely Made

The dense-but-rich ninth chapter, “Of the Flight of the Noldor,” is like Exposition Central in The Silmarillion. Frankly, it might be easier to summarize what doesn’t happen in this one: Melkor doesn’t stay put. Ungoliant isn’t satisfied. Finwë isn’t long for this world. Fëanor doesn’t let bygones be bygones, nor does he call for solidarity among the Eldar and the Valar. As the Lords of the West sigh wistfully, the Children of the Stars look to eastern shores. And frankly, it’s too much to take in all at once, so this installment will only tackle the first half of this famous chapter.

But let’s get started! That oath of Fëanor’s isn’t going to take itself.

[Read on, or it shall break my heart, and I shall be slain.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Valinor Darkens (and Ungoliant Sucks)

In Which the Valar Throw a Party, Melkor Takes a Friend, Then Tells the Residents of Valinor Where They Can Stick It (Hint: It’s Where the Light Don’t Shine)

In “Of the Darkening of Valinor,” things are about to get real gloomy in the Blessed Realm. But since its residents don’t know it yet, why not throw a big party? There’s been too much tension in the air; this could be an opportunity to come together in peace and solidarity. Meanwhile, there’s an APB out for Melkor. He knows he can’t stick around, but before he skedaddles for good, he’s got one last trick for his old buddies. To pull it off, he recruits a particularly unsavory and many-legged ally. Remember old Shelob? In The Two Towers, we were told that she was “the last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.” But who, exactly, is that?

Well, it’s time to meet dear Mommy Dearest…

[Click here to read more. Yea, with both hands.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Enter the Silmarils! (U Can’t Touch Them)

In Which the Prize Jewels of the Noldor Are Made, Everyone Gawks, and Melkor Is—Surprise!—Outed As A Big, Big Jerk

In “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor,” we see, at last, the pièce de résistance of all Elvendom. The Silmarils are the reason for the treason and the best excuse for this book’s kick-ass title. How and why they come to be made is a bit mysterious, but then we move right along to see the reactions they elicit in all who behold them—their maker, other Elves, the Valar. Not to mention Melkor. We’ll also learn how everyone’s favorite ex-Vala pisses in the well of paradise, inspires weaponsmithing, and pits brother versus brother.

[Get thee gone, and take thy due place!]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Everything’s Coming Up Fëanor

In Which Arda’s Greatest Overachiever Steps Up and Melkor Is Released On Good Behavior

In the sixth chapter of The Silmarillion, “Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor,” we’re given a short but impressive intro on the guy whose actions will upset the geopolitical foundations of Elvendom in the near future. We met him in the previous chapter and even got as far as the names of his kids, but now we’re taking a step back to look at his early life: the intensity of his birth, the tragedy of his mother, and the dilemmas of his father. Fëanor has so much to offer, and some of it will be to the betterment of all, and some…not so much. There is a bit of a call-back in his nature to the Ainulindalë, to the secret fire and to another who went often alone seeking greater power.

Speaking of whom, at the end of the chapter, Melkor will be released from his three-age prison sentence, which doesn’t bode well for anyone. So what does the most powerful of the Ilúvatar’s offspring brood about in prison? Certainly not rainbows and puppies.

[Take counsel from none. Read on ever swiftly and alone.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Here, There, and Everywhere: Sundered Elves and the Valar Who Love Them

In Which An Elf Lord Sees About a Girl While His Westward-Venturing Friends Take an Unexpected Cruise

“Of Thingol and Melian” is a super short chapter that introduces us to two major characters of the First Age even as it brings them together. “Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië,” meanwhile, tells us how all those Oromë-following Elves make it across the Great Sea to join the Valar on the continent of Aman. And just who the heck are these Elves anyway? Well, Tolkien introduces us to them in floodgate fashion, so I’ll focus on discussing the most important ones. One particularly interesting thing about these two chapters is that they’re entirely Melkor-free! That’s right: he’s locked up for “three ages,” however long that is. Now that doesn’t mean there’s no evil in the world—this is Arda Marred, after all—but at least its primary dealer has been contained.

Oh, and hey, this section also introduces us to two Elves familiar to The Lord of the Rings readers: Círdan the Shipwright and Galadriel! (Yeah, they’re really old.)

[A high doom is before you.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Elves, Balrogs, and Nazgûl: 16 Possible Plots for the Lord of the Rings TV Series

Queen Berúthiel’s cat is out of the bag! Amazon made its bewildering announcement last week that it has acquired the rights to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings novels” into a multi-season television show of some kind. Which means it’s obviously time for wild speculation and baseless, unrequited yearning.

What I won’t do right now is overthink this. We just don’t know too much. And now the news is out that Christopher Tolkien himself is no longer part of the Tolkien Estate, which does explain a little bit about what’s going on. As a Tolkien nut, I’m only a little anxious because I’m not particularly fond of where the fantasy genre is at, in relation to television (and I realize I may be alone in that), and I’d hate to see his world sullied by greedy hands in similar fashion. But there is always hope that this series could be amazing in the long run. And frankly, the books themselves will always be unsullied, no matter what they do.

So, care to set aside cynicism and join me for some totally unfounded and ill-considered (if Tookishly adventurous) guesswork?

[Let’s be hasty! Read on.]

Much Ado About Eldar (And Much To Do About Melkor)

In Which the Firstborn Come To, Melkor Gets His Comeuppance (For Now), and Elves Play Follow the Leader

“Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor” finally puts the Firstborn of the Children of Ilúvatar on the board. And there is, of course, much fuss and bother about these Elves, but there’s also some real trouble as Orcs are conceived in their image. We will also see the last of the land-smashing, Valar-based battles for thousands of years and the start of the great Elven trek. You know all that talk of sailing into the West in The Lord of the Rings? This is where that all begins.

[Tarry not! Hearken to the summons.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer