Another recommendation from over-Christmas reading: the 1999 fantasy novel The Last Ringbearer. I mentioned it in February 2011, and liked the concept a lot, but for whatever reason only just got around to reading it, after recent reacquaintance with Tolkien's world led me to a handy ePUB version that worked on the Kobo.
The Last Ringbearer, written by Russian paleontologist Kirill Eskov as Последний кольценосец and translated by Yisroel Markov, is a revisionist account of the events depicted in The Lord of The Rings. It works on a number of premises, one being a geologist's take on necessary consequences of Tolkien's geography of Middle Earth (the world has to be bigger than the part he shows) - but the most significant is the idea that The Lord of the Rings is a mythologised 'history written by the victors'.
The trio of chief characters of The Last Ringbearer are two from Mordor - Haladdin, an Umbarian academic turned field medic, and Tzerlag, an Orocuen sergeant (an orc, in fact, in this book a human ethnicity) - and Baron Tangorn, a disaffected Gondorian soldier-aristocrat. The three are thrown together in the deserts of Mordor after its fall: Haladdin and Tzerlag save Tangorn, who has been left for dead after he tried to stop an elf-led civilian massacre by mercenaries on his own side.
After this brief framing, we get a flashback of The War of the Ring told with a very different slant from Tolkien's. Mordor is an enlightened technological civilisation ruled by the unremarkable Sauron VIII against a general backdrop of barbarian feudal rival kingdoms such as Gondor and Rohan. It has, however, damaged its self-sufficiency by disastrous land irrigation mistakes, and this weakness is taken as cue for the warmongering Gandalf to advise a Western attack on it.
This attack succeeds through various factors. The "vast Mordor hordes" are a propaganda exaggeration. The Western forces have magic: they can create undead armies, have palantir communication, and got the Elves on their side by the loan of a powerful clairvoyant and magic-enhancing device, The Mirror. They indulge in various breaches of rules of engagement, such as failing to honour conventions on single combat. In the aftermath of the main battles, Aragorn seizes the throne of Gondor by engineering the murder of the de facto king, Denethor (with the unlikely cover story that the latter just happened to set fire to himself), and assures the compliance of allies by hostage-taking (he keeps Éowyn, sister of the Rohan heir Éomer, along with the genuine Gondor heir Faramir, under guarded exile). However, it's not all roses for Aragorn: Arwen will not consummate their alliance, as from her immortal Elvish viewpoint, he's little more than a primitive baby. The Elves also, naturally, won't give back The Mirror.
Haladdin, Tzerlag and Tangorn form an alliance, initially for mutual protection from Gondorian mop-up operations, and kill Eloar, the elf who was behind the massacre. Then, while on watch, Haladdin gets a visit from a Nazgûl, Sharya-Rana (the benign and rational spirit of a dead mathematician) who tells him what's at stake for the future. The world ("Arda") is at the interface of physical and magical worlds, and the Elves have plans to exploit this and lead Middle Earth into an Elf-dominated stasis. The only way to stop this is to disconnect the worlds by destroying The Mirror in the Eternal Fire of Mount Doom within 100 days: a daunting task since The Mirror weighs 1000 pounds and is installed in the totalitarian Elf stronghold of Lórien. Haladdin has been selected to do it because he has no magical abilities, and so is impervious to magical attacks. Sharya-Rana dies - or rather discorporates, having used all his energies - and Haladdin is left to contemplate how he can achieve this quest (of which more in a moment).
I was reading this book well into the small hours - I finished at nearly 5am - and was gripped. Eskov has thoroughly worked out the whole revisionist scenario, and it fits the Lord of the Rings timeline beautifully. The overall stance is humane and rationalist, fiercely polemical in its stance of outrage at misrepresented history. And, as Eskov has stated, it avoids alignment of good/evil with ethnicity or military side. It's thoroughly realistic in its portrayal of brutal Realpolitik and the double-edged aspect of espionage: for example, Baron Tangorn's personal shame is that he compiled for Gondor the open source intelligence report on food imports showing that Mordor was no threat, not realising that this very report would be used as the rationale for Gondor's unprovoked attack on it.
Eskov takes a real joy in his world, too, showing vividly the multifarious cultures that thrive in a geographical area stretching across the equivalent of, say, NW Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. He delights in food and wine and how they're prepared, in total contrast to Tolkien's descriptions that really seem to stem from the latter's dull and abstemious tastes. However, this joy does have a slight downside: Eskov occasionally digresses into cultural back-story that holds up the plot. There's a huge and not very relevant chunk about the history of Middle Earth's Africa analogue, and an interminable section (which really belongs in a separate novel) about Baron Tangorn's adventures as a spy in the port city-state of Umbar, playing off the various security services against each other.
That aside, The Last Ringbearer made very satisfying reading, rich in allusion to similar scenarios in real-world history (if you don't spot them, there's an appendix) and more than a few neat references - when the characters discuss the "World as Text theory" - to the whole issue of the fictionality of both The Last Ringbearer and The Lord of the Rings. Despite it being let down in places by longueurs, it's a superb book: a commenter to my earlier post called it "This is a true book of ideas in the Russian tradition". And it's freely available, now in a 2nd Edition.
The copyright is undoubtedly still very 'grey': free or not, this is still an unauthorized derivative work. The Tolkien estate is not known for its liking of derivative works, but there doesn't seem to have been any move from it lately on the matter. Here's the official page, and here is where I found the ePUB version.
(Check out also this striking Flickr image of Dubai by Rick's Images. A detail of this, which shows towers including the Burj Khalifa under construction in March 2008, was used as the cover image for the Tenseg Press edition I read).
Spoiler warning: I've completed the plot summary below, in white text. Mouse over if you want to read it.
So ... Haladdin works out a solution to the problem of getting The Mirror to the Eternal Fire of Mount Doom: do the opposite, and use a pair of palantíri to transmit the Eternal Fire to The Mirror. They obtain the palantíri (one of them by aiding a coup to free Faramir) and set up the second half of the plan. Baron Tangorn goes alone to Umbar, where he conducts months of espionage in order to contact the Elven underground with a forged letter and the fiction that Eloar is still alive but imprisoned. The Elves don't initially buy this idea, and Tangorn thinks he has failed; he plans to leave Umbar with his courtesan lover Alviss, but is tragically murdered by his pursuers when he steps out to buy her a gift. Ironically, the Elves take this as evidence of the truth of his carrying dangerous information; unknown to him, he has succeeded.
Haladdin's plan goes ahead: to subvert Eloar's mother, the high-ranking Elf Eornis, into setting up a palantír connection, thinking she can talk with her son. The Mirror, she is told, must be in sight at her end as a bona fide of her location. The palantír is dropped into Lórien from a glider piloted by the troll Kumai - trolls are another human ethnicity - and the Elves fail to find it (Eornis has glued it underneath The Mirror). Even though The Mirror is giving distinct warnings of impending doom, the Elves fail to act decisely because of their one weakness: a paranoid demarcation of decision-making among their politely bickering Politburo-like leaders.
However, as the moment approaches when Haladdin will drop his palantír into the Fire, Gandalf spots the danger and casts a spell on Haladdin's palantír to turn him to stone; it doesn't work, because of the latter's lack of magical nature. Saruman takes over, attempting to reason with Haladdin via the palantír, and tells him what's probably the truth: that Sharya-Rana's scenario is just one theory, and that destroying The Mirror may in fact destroy the world. However, fate intervenes when Tzerlag accidentally touches the palantír and begins to turn to stone. Haladdin takes the chance and destroys it to save his friend, who lives with just the loss of a couple of fingers.
There are massive detonations - and the magic simply goes away. Elves become just beautiful people without power or charisma. Magical items, such as Elven medical kits, cease to work. Arwen loses her power over Aragorn, and he goes on to a career as an enlightened king who brings in a long era of democracy in Gondor, and is ultimately succeeded by Faramir.
The book ends with a future perspective - a future in which history has gone more or less like ours, with another continent called Amengo discovered - discussing the historicity and modern media treatment of the characters in the narrative. A "Western literary adaptation" called The Lord of the Rings is one of them.