Saturday, February 12, 2005

Book Review: Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon

One of two unknown writers from the fantasy anthology Legends II, I decided to pick up the Symphony of the Ages series which Haydon wrote. The first book is entitled Rhapsody, named after one of the main characters in the novel. It doesn't take much imagination what the theme of the seris is about, especially when you get words like "symphony" and "rhapsody". So, how does Haydon fuse elements of music and fantasy, and is she successful?

The novel opens with a prophecy (an ancient trope in fantasy) and actually had an interesting prologue involving time travel and manipulation. However, as I read on, I feared that the book will descend into the stereotypical plot a lot of fantasy stories fall prey to. And to make a long story short, it did. Haydon follows all the stereotypical techniques of most fantasy novels, inserting prophecy, destiny, ancient evil, magic, and even romance into the mix. If you're looking for a groundbreaking fantasy novel, this isn't it.

Not that the book doesn't have its own share of originality. As I mentioned earlier, Haydon weaves the theme of music and song into the formula. It was interesting at the start but later on, the music theme feels too contrived. I mean there was a portion when Rhapsody and her companions found a secret passage with a puzzle. And guess what, the puzzle involved musical notes, when it really didn't make much sense (at least to me). And if you're looking for melodious interweaving of text, well, this isn't it. You're probably better off with the likes of Patricia McKillip. Haydon though does have some good lines and gorgeous descriptions along the lines of Jordan narration, but it's nothing too spectacular or anything I haven't seen before.

Character development is quite okay. You have the stereotypical naive protagonist who wields great power, the skeptical anti-hero, and a firbolg general with a British accent. They're actually quite okay, although I'm more fascinated with their "coolness" factor more than their original personality.

At a certain point though, the book degenerates into something that a couple of fantasy writers like Eddings and Feist is prone to using, namely that of giving the main characters too much of an edge when it comes to planning and everything seems to fall into place.

Thankfully, there's plot although by the end of the novel, you still have a lot of unanswered questions. Despite the length of the book, there's still a longing for more, since the reader catches only a glimpse of the setting and a hint of the adventures of the characters. I'm curious enough not to regret purchasing the other books in the series, although a more critical reader might want to pass on this series.

Ultimately, Haydon is more or less the typical mass-market fantasy fanfare. It's good mass-market fantasy but it's not breathtaking. It's slightly a step above being a book of guilty pleasures but don't kid yourself thinking that this book is a must-read. If you need some entertainment (nothing too simple but nothing too complicated either), this is probably it. The book shows potential, but it was never developed in the first book. Still, Rhapsody is better than a lot of fantasy I've read in quite awhile and might be a fantasy book I'd recommend to others if they want romance and intrigue.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Emotional Rewards

Let me ask you a question. What do you want? Most likely, your answer will be one from the following list: riches, health, independence, a better world (i.e. developing a cure for aids, ending world hunger, etc.), spreading your faith, popularity, success (whatever that may be for you), or happiness. They're diverse answers coming from diverse motives, or so we think. We're all human beings and no matter how much we might try to suppress it or deny it, we have emotions. And in the bigger picture, it's emotion that fuels our desires.

For example, let's take riches. Do you think you really want wealth? Ultimately, a person's desire for wealth is rooted in emotion. For example, think of your dream job. Most likely, it's one of two things: either it pays well, or it's emotionally rewarding. The latter merely proves my theory. If you chose the former, well, when you think about it, you want a high-paying job because of the money it can give you. And money in itself is actually worthless. It's only when you spend it does it have value (I mean there’s really no difference between a person who has no money and a person who’s not willing to spend his or her money, except perhaps for the psychological confidence the latter has). When we spend for something, we feel happiness because we were able to obtain it. I mean when you purchase your Ferrari or your house and lot, you bought it because doing so gives you a positive emotion. And of course, when you cherish whatever you bought, that’s emotion again. My point? The goal of obtaining riches is merely the means to an end, and the end, of course, is personal happiness.

So let’s tackle health. Let’s say you want to live longer. What’s life anyway? For each person, their life has a different and unique meaning, but one thing you can’t deny is that they’ll have experiences (both good and bad ones). And whenever we experience something, we always have a reaction thanks to our emotions. More often than not, we want to go on living because of the pleasant emotions we’re capable of feeling. I mean why do some people want to commit suicide? Because most of their experiences are unpleasant. If you take away their negative emotions, they might want to go on living. Another aspect of health is having a better body. There could be several reasons for this, ranging from wanting to impress other people or simply to be able to do more stuff (such as the ability to carry heavier weights or to run faster). What you might not realize is that the end product of working out (or dieting) is not just developing your body but developing your confidence. I mean when you have a great body to impress other people with, you can’t help but feel proud of yourself. The same goes when you’re able to do more, whether it’s due to your bulging muscles or your agile reflexes. People who work out tend to have more confidence in themselves than those who don’t. It’s an emotional reward more than it is a development of your physique. No one works out for the sake of doing so; there’s always a drive, an inner need for them to do so (and let’s face it, working out requires effort and discipline; without your incentive, you’d simply stop).

Independence is also closely tied to working out. Why do we want to be independent? Because of the options it gives us. I mean when you’re living with your parents, for example, there are some things you’re not capable of doing. The same goes when you’re not financially independent, emotionally independent (i.e. when you need the approval of others), or physically independent (in the case of those with physical disabilities). What happens when you’re independent? You have more confidence in yourself, you know that you’re capable of doing this and that on your own. Achievement becomes something you treasure more because you know you did it through your own efforts alone. I mean there are children of rich parents who move out of their comfortable homes to strike out on their own. Living the independent life is far from cozy yet when they’re presented with the opportunity to go back home, they don’t always take it. Why? It’s obviously not because of the finances because the financially smart thing to do would be to move back in with their parents. But why do they live alone? Because of the emotional satisfaction they get of being “free”, or not depending on someone else. It’s harder, but it’s definitely more emotionally rewarding. Also, former president of the Philippines Manuel Quezon said “It is better to live in a government run like hell by Filipinos than living in a government run like heaven by the Americans." It’s far from the most logical thing to say but hey, it’s emotion that drives people.

Wishing for a better world is usually attributed to humanitarian acts. But honestly, why do we wish for a better world? I mean more often than not, it’s not for our benefit but for others. When you want to end world hunger, it’s not because you yourself are suffering from hunger, but rather you witness other people suffering because of it. We basically empathize with those people who are suffering. We want them to be rid of the unpleasantness in their lives, be it sickness, poverty, or some other ailment. We want them to be happy. And when they’re happy, we’re happy too. Happiness is contagious after all. Or maybe you don’t have empathy. You just want to take credit for solving an epidemic that plagues the world. It’s because of pride. Either way, your motivations are driven by emotion. People don’t go out looking for solutions to problems that don’t exist: we already have our own share of “unsolvable problems”. We want to solve them, either to help other people out or to boost our own ego. Either way, you can’t take the emotional factor out. Just because you get something out of helping other people doesn’t mean you’re selfish. I mean look at Jesus Christ; we can’t really say he came to save the world for the sake of doing so. He did it because he had one important emotion: love. Or I personally, I don’t help other people out just for the sake of doing so. I have ulterior motives and actually get something in return for my efforts. What are they? Well, I either get to befriend the person (or deepen our friendship), or I simply see them smile and lighten their burden. Having an agenda isn’t wrong. Having a selfish agenda is. But in either case, it’s still driven by a desire to appease our emotions.

Perhaps the same can be said with spreading our faith. I mean most religions believe that they’re the one true religion, and everyone else is more or less damned. And obviously, our innate altruistic natures don’t want other people to be damned, at least not our friends and loved ones. So we make it our mission to spread our faith as much as we can. But why do we do so? Much like wishing for a better world, it’s to help other people, or at least we perceive it be so. And the underlying reason? Well, we all don’t want to be alone in the world. I mean even Heaven or Paradise or Nirvana wouldn’t be so great if you were the only one living in it. Moreover, what’s the best telltale sign of a serious believer? Well, it’s obviously their belief and passion. When you’re vehement about something, people say that you have faith. But ultimately, faith is an emotion just as its opposite, doubt, is. I can only rationalize religion up to a certain point. After that, the rest depends on belief. And you can never remove emotion from that equation.

Popularity is perhaps one of the easiest to defend. Why do people want to be popular? On a certain level, people who crave for popularity are insecure about themselves. They look for signs from other people. When you’re popular, you’re happy. When you’re not, you’re sad. We all know we can’t please everybody yet we continue to try to do so. The best reward we can get from popularity is when we get the approval of a lot of people. It’s not a financial reward but an emotional reward. It strokes our egos, it makes us more confident about who we are. It makes us feel loved (irregardless of whether we truly are loved or not), it creates artificial happiness in some people. Ultimately, popularity is a competition on who can elicit emotion from other people. If you have more charisma, more beauty, and more confidence, the easier it is for you to sway people in your favor. But similarly, when your popularity goes down, so does your charisma, your beauty, and your confidence. It’s all a matter of perception, after all, and no one is totally unbiased as to not let their emotions cloud their judgment.

As for success, what is success? It’s probably one or all of the things mentioned above. But ultimately, success can be summed up as achieving our goal. Ever heard of the cliché statement it’s not the destination that matters but the journey? We go back to experience, to emotions. During the journey, we’re bombarded with all sorts of emotions, both good and bad. Yet we sustain ourselves from the negative emotions by keeping our goal in sight. And once we’ve attained our goal, we nurture two things: one is we nurture our confidence, since after the arduous journey, we succeeded in the endeavor of our choosing. The other thing we nurture is happiness. I mean since when did you hear of a person who pursued a goal that he or she thought wouldn’t have made them happy. Whatever our goals are, we all think that it will give us happiness. It’s the basis for choosing something as a goal. Success is obtaining happiness, and a byproduct of that is confidence.

Obviously, happiness is an emotion. Much like success, happiness is something abstract. The other things we perform are present merely to provide us with a means to obtain this emotion. Most of us yearn for happiness. It’s perhaps the ultimate goal, the ultimate reward any of us can receive. Unfortunately for many people, happiness is an ever-elusive emotion. Some of us know what we want but not how to obtain it, hence we feel sad and lonely. Or sometimes, we simply want to avoid pain. When we’re not in pain, that’s happiness for us. Either way, our goal is an emotional state. One isn’t simply classified as “happy” or “unhappy” but rather we’re in a constant flux of emotions, sometimes feeling happy during the good times, or feeling sad during the bad ones. I think there’s no question as to which emotion we want to be feeling. And it’s this desire that motivates us.

So what’s the point in all this? I think some people lose sight of their ultimate goal. More than the riches or the better body or a better world, what we’re actually looking for is self-contentment, an emotional reward. As human beings, we don’t desire things for themselves but rather we desire it because we’re motivated by what we feel. And of course, since we do have free will, we also exert a certain control over what we feel and what our emotions will be; it’s just a matter of acknowledging them and exerting self-control. Let’s not lose sight of who we’re really pleasing: we might rally to a cause but in truth, we’re rallying to our own sets of beliefs and emotions. If we lose sight of that, we become blinded to our own passions, and might end up losing ourselves to what we feel rather than what we should feel. Happiness, after all, is a state of mind.