Sunday, 13 January 2019

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

When I go a prolonged time without reading an acclaimed new author I start to feel itchy. Maybe its fear of missing out, maybe its disgust at myself for intellectual laziness, but whatever the reason, I feel compelling to check out those with big reps. Its therefore mildly surprising to myself that it's taken me so long to read one of Mark Lawrence's books. That's doubly so as I've read kindle samples and enjoyed his style. 

There seems to be a distinctive voice to British trad fantasy at the moment, unflinching about brutality and laced with self-mocking gallows humour. It feels like a mix of Gemmell and Pratchett, although I think I'd be wrong to place it entirely as the natural hybrid of the two greatest British fantasy writers of the 80s/90s. Is it a reflection of the post-Thatcher world? Something inherited from older writers? Did we all just watch too much Blackadder?

That's a trick question as there's no such thing but there is definitely something of Blackadder to Prince of Fools' main character, Prince Jalan. Although its more accurate to say there's something of Flashman; Blackadder is a loser, Flashman is a winner. And so is Jalan. A complete cad with considerable natural gifts, Jalan is obsessed with the good life and gets it. Or at least to start with. 

Now, I've sometimes complained about such characters as being utterly dislikable. But I also love some of the characters like this I read about. The key for me is a certain self-awareness and at least some sense of empathy and responsibility, no matter how crabbed. Jalan has these things, even if he would protest about the second. Therefore, I'm prepared to sign off on Jalan as a fun character. And I do! Jalan is a lot of fun as narrator.

My issues with Prince of Fools starts with he has to narrate. Most of the book is a quest, or as I've taken to calling it, a travelogue. I'm beginning to think that quests/travelogues are some of the hardest books to do. One of the reasons is that a good travelogue requires a huge number of genuinely interesting locations to go through, which is no mean feat when doing secondary worldbuilding. Personally, Mark Lawrence's medieval Europe with the serial numbers filed off doesn't meet the criteria. 

The other hard thing about Quests is that it messes with Conflict. Its easy to maintain a sense of conflict when characters are mostly in one place dealing with one enemy. But when they move from place to place? Either there's still mainly one enemy we see, which can lead to the same situation again and again. Or there's a cast of different enemies, in which case it can feel uneven and like a chain of loosely connected scenes rather than a story. The one big Conflict an author has during Quests that stays consistent is the Protagonists vs Each Other and the Protagonists vs Themselves. 

Without giving away too many spoilers, I think Lawrence clearly understand this. He puts Jalan through a decent amount of internal conflict. I'm just not sure how well he executed in terms of keeping my interest (even after finishing it). Jalan chews over his problems endlessly, but he only ever really has one option, and I often know that before he does. Like I know he's going to stay basically the same person throughout the book. And the longer the book went on, the more aware I was of this, and the more I was dragged out of enjoying the story.

And make no mistake, I did enjoy Prince of Fools. But I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would at the start. Hopefully the next book will have more cad and less quest.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

"Complex Ideas Under the Cover of Exciting Entertainment": An interview with Toby Frost

Yet another volunteer! Toby Frost, author of the Space Captain Smith series, kindly agreed to be 'interrogated' about his new book 'Up To The Throne', writing, synthesis, and nuns with guns...

PL: Hi there Toby! Going from Sci-Fi comedy to dark Fantasy revenge seems quite the leap, but you're doing it anyway. Where did the inspiration for Up To The Throne come from?

TF: Hi Peat!

It does seem quite a change, but it's more a project that's been running alongside the SF comedy for a while, rather than a total change of direction. It's an aspect of my writing that hasn't seen the light before, but it's always been there.

The inspiration came from loads of places. Part of it is from history, part from fantasy, part from old spy and detective novels, and part from various scraps of pop culture. The first idea for the heroine came from a picture in an old Dungeons and Dragons manual (3rd edition, I think). The atmosphere and tone came partly from the history of cities like Florence and Worms, and partly from writers like John le Carre and Raymond Chandler. There's even a bit of inspiration from a very old computer game called Thief, from about 2001!
Like the Space Captain Smith books, inspiration comes from loads of places, and slowly gets filtered through the workings of my brain until (hopefully) it becomes a coherent whole.

PL: I do like a good synthesis. Was there any one particular piece or moment that drew it altogether? Or was it more a slow evolution?

TF: I think it was a slow evolution. Sometimes, as a writer, I'll have a concept for a story but it'll take a very long time for the structure of it to all come together. With Up To The Throne, I knew I wanted a story about vendetta and revenge, as it suited the time period. Stereotypically, in the Medieval period people went on quests and fought big battles, whilst in the Renaissance they murdered their way to being prince (whilst designing helicopters and painting the Mona Lisa)! So it seemed appropriate to write a murky, noir-style story in which nobody could be trusted very much.

The one thing that really struck me was a picture in a D&D manual of a woman picking a lock (she's called Lidda the Halfling Rogue if ever you feel like looking it up). I thought "That's the kind of person I'd like to write about". As it happens, Giulia Degarno doesn't look that much like her, but it was that image that set my mind going, and I think that's what counts.

PL: I remember that blog post! Would you say your gaming background has influenced your writing at all? And, come to think of it, is there any fantasy books that's particularly fed your enthusiasm for stories like this?

TF: Not really all that much in terms of gaming, apart from a few illustrations. I suppose the experience of Thief and similar games – of sneaking around enemy territory, rather than hacking through it – did have some influence, but that’s also the sort of thing you might see in a spy or detective story. But I do think you have to be a bit careful about being influenced too much by pop culture. It can all end up as a bit of an in-joke if you’re not careful.

A few fantasy novels have inspired me, but not in a direct way. If I was to compare Up To The Throne to fantasy, I’d say there are definite similarities to Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora in the setting and The Witcher in the way that the various species don’t get on – but I read both of those after I’d written the first draft. While it always helps to know the genre in which you’re writing (especially in terms of selling), I think if you’re writing fantasy – especially fantasy that riffs on a particular real-world setting – it helps to look at history and art of the time. I can think of no scarier picture of the undead, for instance, than Bruegel’s painting The Triumph of Death. Going back to the source material can throw up strange, interesting details that nobody noticed before.

Going back to the source material to go up to the throne

PL: I'd have thought you'd enjoy a good joke as a comedic writer. And certainly, while I'm referring to Captain Smith, I was very sure you were a 40K player after reading just the blurb for that.

But back to Up To The Throne and the thief! I know only a little about Giulia - what sort of woman is our protagonist?

TF: The in-joke thing is interesting. Comedy is fine, but what doesn't appeal to me is the sense that the writer is winking at the reader. It's purely personal preference, but that's why, say, the films of Quentin Tarantino don't do much for me: there's a sense that it's all ironic, so why should anyone really care?

Anyway, Giulia is smart, wily, and determined, but also vengeful and selfish at times. She's someone who has lived for revenge for a long while, and while that's resulted in her being very skilled and resourceful, she's become preoccupied with her own problems. I think she sees the world as having rejected her, and doesn't think that she owes anyone anything. As the story goes on, the people she meets and the events she helps to trigger challenge that view. So in a way it's a story about that taking of responsibility, of accepting that you're actually part of the world rather than just its enemy. And it's also about assassins, monsters and a flying machine. What more could anyone want?

PL: Intriguing. What sort of comedy do you prefer?

And I like the juxtaposition of themes there - responsibility and flying machines! Do you think that a balance of theme and outright cool is needed for a good book?

TF: It's hard to pin down a particular sort of comedy, but there are definitely shows I think are especially good. The writing in Blackadder and Father Ted is excellent. I'm also a great fan of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, as well as the songs of Tom Lehrer. There's something about Lehrer's mix of sophistication and crude cynicism that really appeals to me.

Actually, yes, now I think about it, you're right about theme and cool, at least for certain types of book. I like the idea of presenting complex ideas under the cover of exciting entertainment - you can see it in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, or Raymond Chandler's crime novels. I'm not sure it's the only way to do it, but it's very effective to have both in the same story like that. I suppose it makes the complex stuff easier to digest, and gives a sense of weight to the lighter material (if that makes sense).

PL: Ah, another Lehrer fan! Marvellous. As for the mix of theme and cool - is there any particular theme you find yourself gravitating towards regularly?

TF: Lehrer is a genius! If I'm writing for myself, I'm always writing about things that really interest me, and which I feel strongly motivated to write about. But I think about story and character long before I think about theme. That said, a lot of stories I've written are roughly about something: the Smith books are about the strange habits of the British and how we see ourselves, and Up To The Throne, I suppose, is about the selfishness of revenge. A couple of times, I've finished a story and then realised that a character represents some facet of myself. I suppose my most regular themes must be those in the Smith books, just because I've written a lot of them!

PL: Speaking of Smith, I only just realised that the series has been out there for ten years - I think that makes you the longest tenured author foolish enough to agree to these interviews. How long were you writing in a "I want to be an author way" before the publication of Space Captain Smith?

TF: Ten years and I've still got the day job. What went wrong?

I wanted to be an author since I was about 12. The strange thing is that I've got no idea why. I read huge amounts of science fiction and fantasy as a child, but I don't know what prompted the step from reading to writing. Certainly, I remember writing a story about a dragon (with illustrations) when I was 12. All through my twenties I tried to get various things published, with little success. Strangely, it was Space Captain Smith, which I wrote as a joke, that saw print first. Perhaps there's a moral in that, but I doubt it.

PL: Never take yourself too seriously?

Anyway, has there been any particular changes in how you go about writing over that time?

TF: Yes, I think I'm more comfortable with rough drafts and just getting things down as quickly as possible the first time around, then going back and doing a more comprehensive edit. I don't expect things to be perfect the first time that I'm typing them. Of course, you have to be careful about this. I remember editing one book and finding the words "fight scene here" instead of several thousand words of text! I think I'm also more confident about the quality of the writing and my ability to produce decent prose. I still have moments of indecision - or rather, thinking what I've written is absolute rubbish - but they pass more easily and I'm less inclined to worry about it now.

Also, as I've written more, I've become more confident in doing it the way that works for me. A lot of writing advice lays down absolute rules - the amount you should be doing per day, how you should write and so on - and I think that inevitably works for some people and not others.  

What works for this gentleman is tea

PL: That leads me neatly into my favourite question - what's the best and worst pieces of writing advice you've heard out there?

TF: I think sometimes people get too dogmatic about writing advice and don't allow for flexibility where being flexible would benefit the story. If I had to pick one, I'd go for "Write what you know". It's not so much wrong as inaccurate: how can someone writing about a dragon write what they know? Really, it should be "Write what you can depict realistically". Describing a spaceship "realistically" might mean describing a submarine, or a cross-channel ferry, or a fighter plane, depending on the setting. It's about making the story convincing in its own world, not necessarily repeating your own experience.

Best advice: learn to do whatever works for you (not easy in itself!) and keep going. Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving and don't give up.

PL: Speaking of spaceships, what was it like writing for Games Workshop?

TF: It was good, but strange. Writing in someone else's world, where they have the final call about what goes in and what doesn't, is an interesting experience, and probably a good one in terms of learning how to meet deadlines and write for an audience. Very quickly you realise that you are writing another story that works by the rules of the setting: you won't be the guy who writes the story that breaks the rules. Also, because it's Warhammer, there has to be a huge amount of fighting. But around that, it was enjoyable and there was a lot of room for creativity. I was interested to see that in White Dwarf, Straken was described as containing a lot of black humour - I suppose it's hard to keep the jokes out! I'm glad I did it.

PL: For me, Warhammer's never made sense if you take the jokes out! Are there any other parts of the 40K universe you'd like to revisit as an author? Actually, lets make that a wider question - what else is on your writing horizon as we speak?

TF: I've always thought that some of the more obscure factions - Sisters of Battle, Genestealer Cult and so on - might be fun to write. The space marines don't appeal at all. More generally, I'm planning to release a sequel to Up To The Throne, and ultimately I'd like to write more in that setting, perhaps in a bigger, epic style. I'd also like to revisit Smith's world, but at the moment I don't feel up for doing another Smith novel in the same way. That said, these are all rather vague plans, and they may well change depending on what works in the months to come!

PL: You know, I've actually got a Sisters of Battle army. Really beautiful, really iconic miniatures. Are there any wargaming minis that you really like?

And if you had to go through a portal and forge a life in one of the worlds you've written about, which one would it be and what sort of life would you like? I'm gonna guess you don't actually want to be a Jungle Fighter, but you never know...

TF: Awesome! I always liked the Sisters because they seemed like 40k at its purest: medieval people in space being very bleak and yet slightly ridiculous. An entire army where everyone is Joan of Arc, except with tanks and some of them can fly.

I'd like to see Space Captain Smith's world. I imagine parts of it as very pleasant indeed (other parts are less pleasant!). I'm not sure what sort of life I'd like in it, though: perhaps a colonist on a settled planet - provided that the local wildlife wasn't too big or hungry.

PL:  Before I let you go, one final question - is there any one particular favourite scene in Up To The Throne? One that you're most looking forwards to hearing reader reactions to?

TF: There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and I don't want to ruin any surprises. However, there's one scene near the end, where we realise what's been happening all along, that I'm especially proud of. The reveal is pretty cool, I think. On a subtler note, there's a scene where Giulia buys a crossbow that I particularly like. There's a moment when the shopkeeper realises that he's dealing with someone who knows their stuff that I'm very pleased with.

Thanks again to Toby for his time! To find out more about Up To The Throne, either visit the website where you can read the first chapter free or buy it at Amazon. You can also find out more about the author here and see his miniatures too

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This is a story about two very different young people with one key trait in common. Nahri survives the slums of Napoleonic era Cairo thanks to guile, amoral pragmatism, and a drop of supernatural talent. Ali is a prince of a tribe of Djinn, a future soldier with high-minded and inflexible ethics. And the key trait in common is that when Nahri arrives in Daevabad, heralded as the secret heir of a lost family, neither is remotely equipped to deal with the ensuing political mayhem.

City of Brass wears its membership of the trad portal fantasy community proudly on its sleeve and therefore the devil here is in the details. One of these is the Middle Eastern and Islamic provenance of its world. I am not tired of the traditional style of worlds, but I am hungry for new mythologies and that's the main reason I picked this book up from the library. I don't know how faithful or inventive Chakraborty's version is, but I do know its very well done in the sense of an enthralling setting.

S.A. Chakraborty does a lot of things well. In particular and most crucially, she handles depicting characters who are a bit on the douchecanoe side in a way that makes them interesting while not flinching away from their darker aspect. Judging from reviews, I get the feeling a lot of readers would prefer her to be more condemnatory of certain character choices. Personally, I think that would have made them less interesting, and possibly undermine the way her trilogy will develop.

The other key part that she had to execute and did was the political aspect. Its easy for an author to get lost when showing multiple threads and giving the reader information that the characters don't have - or for the author to make the characters look like idiots. Chakraborty did neither of those things, but instead make a tense page turner that helped reveal the finer details about her characters and world.

Unfortunately, it takes a while to get to this stage and here I have to talk about the crucial flaw that nearly ruins the book - pacing. The stage setting for both characters arriving in Daevabad takes way too long and doesn't add enough for what it does. The fury of the ending then accelerated the book's pace once I'd got used to it and happy with it. This detracted significantly from my enjoyment.

There is another issue I have to highlight before ending the review and that goes back to world-building. There's a lot of complaints on Goodreads about how well the book represents Islam. That's not my wheelhouse but I can confirm there's not a lot of Islam in the book - influence from the culture of Islam's cradle, but not the religion itself. If anyone is reading this review and that matters to them, I'd suggest finding some more reviews from people who know more. Caveat Emptor.

If you're just looking for a fantasy story however, then step this way. City of Brass has flaws, its true, but what it does it does very well. It reminds me of a more straight forwards version of Guy Gavriel Kay. Its not recommended for anyone looking for their next high-paced action fix, nor anyone desiring heroes that are mostly admirable, but for most other fantasy readers - its worth a look. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

"The Knight is no Fool": An interview with Thaddeus White

While searching for more victims, Thaddeus White bravely volunteered. Probably that Yorkshire grit. As a long time fan of his work, I immediately accepted and here's the result...

PL: Where exactly did the idea for Sir Edric and Dog come from? I've always been curious as I could see lots of guys who look like Sir Edric in fiction, but was never sure which ones in particular you were inspired by.

TW: The idea for Sir Edric came after I wrote Bane of Souls. It's a story centred on a fictional city, with an array of characters (as you'd expect). Amongst them is a pompous chevalier, and a self-regarding and quite corrupt Captain of the Watch. Somewhat disconcertingly, I found it very easy to write a wealthy, selfish bounder of a man and, as such a man lends himself to comedy, I thought I'd give it a crack. When what became the opening to the first book went down well on SFF Chrons, that was a green light for me to continue.

Dog's a bit different. I wanted Sir Edric to have a sidekick but to avoid either a Blackadder/Baldrick approach (the servant being an imbecile) or the reverse, whereby the knight would be useless. Whilst Dog's utterly heroic and Sir Edric's motivated by self-preservation, the knight is no fool.

PL: Ah! Bane of Souls. We'll have to return to that later. But right now Sir Edric. The rough level of equality between the two is definitely unusual and I do like the dynamic it gives. Do you find there's a difference in writing character dynamics when writing straight-up comedy and when writing more serious books?

TW: Yes, although that's at least partly down to Sir Edric's stories being entirely from his perspective, whereas my 'serious' stories are multi-POV. That means everybody's defined by Sir Edric's relationship with them. There's also, often, a vast yawning chasm between his internal monologue and his actual words/deeds (which is something I think we can all relate to. When your boss gives you an impossible task or your girlfriend has ordered a salad but decides to steal half your chips, most men have a gulf between their thoughts and words).

The Sir Edric-Dog relationship is the key one. They're clearly not equals, but the relationship falls into a grey area between friendship and master-servant. Dog's heroic in almost every way, but his pathological loyalty to a man who absolutely doesn't deserve it makes a vice of a virtue.

PL: Personally, people who steal my chips find out what my fork is actually for... but enough of that. I have to say I've always found Dog's pathological loyalty to Sir Edric puzzling. Do you ever plan to reveal why, or is it one of those secrets that are better to keep? Are there any other of Sir Edric's relationships you find particularly fun to write? And what's your favourite character dynamic in Sir Edric and the Plague?

TW: Sir Edric and Corkwell are quite nice. He's obviously a womaniser, but having a dominatrix paramour introduces an element of control and danger if he strays too much. It also prevents her from being 'just another bedwarmer'.

In Plague, I liked Jasper a lot. He's a twelve foot golem, practically invincible, but has the mind of a small boy (he's only four). Sir Edric and his other companions are more sophisticated but Jasper's uncomplicated and affable, and the contrast works well. 

As for Sir Edric and Dog, that's going to remain a secret. Probably.

PL: Ah, I was hoping you'd mention Jasper. He was a definite highlight of the book for me. You use a very wide Fantasy palate when it comes to Sir Edric if that makes sense - is that deliberate? Or just one of those things where if you think it'll be fun you throw it in?

TW: In terms of both drawing on different areas of fantasy and comedy, that's something I try to do. There are plenty of monsters from Greek myths used (and the elves use mostly Greek-ish names), but there are odd references to classics like Lord of the Rings and the Eagle Question. I think it works because Sir Edric's a cynical realist, so the fantastical nature of elves and magic often founders on the rock of his (fairly) down-to-earth perspective (hence mocking them as wand-fondlers). Varying the comedy often comes from changing who Sir Edric encounters, from the enthusiastic but naive, to violent man-eaters (like Orff No-Balsac). Variety helps keep things fresh.

Speaking of fresh, here is Sir Edric himself with a large amount of foliage

PL: Speaking of variety keeping things fresh - lets go back to Bane of Souls (my first and favourite of your books) and your other more dramatic books, such as Kingdom Asunder. What about writing those stories scratches the itches that Sir Edric can't?

TW: I like comedy a lot, but it has a necessary comic strain running throughout. A comedy that doesn't make you like or smile doesn't work. 'Serious' books can have more emotional highs and lows, differing moods, and can retain occasional comedy (in Kingdom Asunder I like James' flowery repartee, and in Bane of Souls think Roger, and Rufus' commentary on the challenge of trousers, quite amusing). It's especially difficult trying to mingle comedy and sorrow, as they're such diametrically opposing emotions, expressing levity and gravity.

PL: Are there any further plans for more of these non Sir Edric books?

TW: Well, I need to finish off The Bloody Crown Trilogy, so there's definitely that. Sometimes I toy with the idea of a plague aftermath story or something similar. I like Sir Edric and Dog a lot, but other styles of writing too so (final part of the trilogy aside) it's likely I'll keep writing 'serious' stuff, although I don't have any specific plans at the moment.

PL: How do you go about writing your books anyway, to change topics? Are you a planner or a discovery writer?

TW: Generally, I plan the whole story fairly closely but leave (for comedy) some play in the chapters to add or remove things, or alter them, based on how things are going. I think planning's useful scaffolding for keeping things pointing in the right direction, to mix metaphors horribly, but sometimes things work a lot better or worse than expected. When that happens, it's daft to be chained to a plan.

PL: And is this how you've always wrote? Or has your process changed as you've finished more books?

To paraphrase AC-DC, dirty deeds at a dirt cheap price

It varies quite a bit. For serious stuff, particularly with Bane of Souls (which is the first I wrote set in the same world as Journey to Altmortis and The Bloody Crown Trilogy) I did a lot of world-building before I even started writing, because I wanted to keep the world consistent and cohesive. For Sir Edric's assorted shenanigans, I had certain ideas in mind (him loathing elves, and the Ursk [nine foot tall slavers who see humans as a sort of edible currency]) but I mostly fill in the details as I go along.

With the earliest Sir Edric stories I'd make up 95% as I went along. That's huge fun but can also make it slow going when things get bogged down. Because of that, I plan a little more now to help stop slowdowns (worked well for the latest work-in-progress. Excepting the first two, each chapter only took an average of three days or so). Experience is also helpful because redrafting and editing means you sometimes spot future problems at the drafting stage, saving pain down the line (same as for most activities, you stop making rookie errors when you're not a rookie any more).

PL: Ah yes. Poor elves. I've always wondered whether that was just you finding it amusing or you disliking elves. Are there any fantasy tropes you particularly dislike?

TW: Hmm. Whilst I'm not fond of elf-worship (there can be a tendency to portray them as wiser/more in tune with nature/fairer than humans) I don't dislike them as Sir Edric does. Took me a while to think of a trope I dislike, but the end of the Lord of the Rings, which exemplifies the fodder race trope, does irk me a bit. Inherent pure evil or goodness, even in high fantasy, seems quite incredible. Couldn't an orc make a decent mercenary? Or guard? Or blacksmith?

PL: No such thing as a decent guard. Anyway - are there any fantasy tropes you'd like to see more of?

TW: Not necessarily a trope, but I do enjoy morally ambiguous characters. The uncertainty means you can't predict the plot as easily, and also gives a character a greater range of actions because they're not pigeon-holed into good or evil. (Sir Edric's not a villain or a hero. Amidst the comedy, he does do quite a number of dubious things, and it's nice being able to have him just smack someone on the back of the head if it makes sense for his desired self-preservation).

PL: Finally - my standard question - what's the best and worst pieces of writing advice you've been given?

TW: Not sure I listen to advice enough to give a good answer to that. Mind you, at school an English teacher advised that writers overuse 'said' and other dialogue tags (declaim, shout, protest etc) should be used. That's rubbish advice. 'Said' is one of those words that becomes almost invisible, and countless pointless variations can just look like the writer swallowed a thesaurus (obviously, sometimes other tags are needed, but mostly not). The best advice, and I can't remember who gave it, alas, was that the first draft is like telling yourself the story. It doesn't need to be perfect or anywhere near perfect. Like scaffolding on a construction site, as long as it gives you the skeleton of the story you can change the rest in redrafting. Don't stress about a first draft being a bit rubbish (recently wrote a blog about this for Kraxon, incidentally. Ch4 of The Adventures of Sir Edric was a mess at first, but thorough redrafting made it perhaps my favourite in the whole story).

Thanks to Thaddeus for taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to learn more about his books, visit his blog here or go to his Amazon author page to buy them.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Weekend Five: What I've been reading

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Thanks to the magic of kindle sales, I finally caught up with one of the big "Everyone's read it" fantasy releases of recent times. I kinda wish I hadn't heard all that hype as maybe that warped my expectations. In any case, after the opening pages I was expecting a dramatic and gritty adventure against desperate odds. What I actually got was a Eddings-esque romp in which invincible heroes and deus ex machina removed pretty much any sense of drama and desperation. A lot of fun and a cool idea, but that expectations thing disappointed me.

A Warning by Kit Power

Thanks to the magic of publicly begging, I also get to catch up with this. Its a short story anthology built around an Invisibles-esque framing device of a future malcontent accessing memories of a history no longer known about. There's a good story to be made out of that alone, but fun in this collection lies in Power's ability to capture the essence of a very wide variety of human reactions. Very highly recommended for short story enthusiasts.

Horse's Arse by Charlie Owen

Yes, this is the set of mini-reviews in which I admit to reading non-fantasy. Horse's Arse is the tale of a fictional group of cops set in the 70s, back when villains were villains and the cops were also villains. Just on the right side. Well. I say fictional but they're probably not all that fictional, which is basically fucking terrifying. That aside though, the book is scatologically hilarious and a great view into a vanished world. The plotting isn't fantastic but the individual scenes are.

Waylander by David Gemmell

Seemingly every time I write about Gemmell here, it is non-stop marveling at how effortlessly he melds simple action stories with shrewd insight into the human condition. So it is again. There's times when Waylander feels a tad corny, a tad convenient; you can tell tis an earlier book. But the sub-arc with Karnak in particular is wonderful, and the whole thing is an absorbing read that sticks in the memory.

The Poppy War by RF Kuang

I didn't actually realise this book was a big deal when I picked it up on kindle sale. I promoted it to the top of the list after MD Presley told me he'd been jarred by the contrast by magic school and sadistic war. He's not wrong about it begin jarring. There were many times I considered DNFing the book. But many passages of the book are also extremely good. I'll probably do a full review of this some time, somewhere, once I've sorted out how I feel about it. But for now, I'd recommend everyone at least have a peek at what this book is about and think about whether its worth a shot for them.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

"Fantasy does immersion best": An Interview with Daniel E. Olesen

After reading Daniel E. Olesen's debut, The Eagle's Flight, I had a lot of questions for the guy. When I found out he was releasing a new book, it seemed the ideal opportunity. Fortunately Daniel was in an obliging mood...

PL: Congrats on the new book release! But before you tell the nice people about the new book, I have to ask about your first book, The Eagle's Flight. Its is one of the densest and most detail driven fantasy books I've ever read. Like, Wheel of Time but with more medieval realism. What was behind the decision to go that route?

DEO: For me, fantasy rests on three pillars. Characters, plot, and world-building, in that hierarchy too. The first two are obviously integral to any good story in any genre, but fantasy like nothing else can really get the reader immersed. I believe that's the secret behind the biggest successes of the genre - the reader can vividly imagine living in this world. For me, getting into all those little details, scrounging them out of history and using them as suits me, was my method to make my world as immersive as possible.

PL: Did you do a lot of research to get those details? And have you taken that approach forwards into Prince of Cats?

DEO: Very much, yes. I've always been reading history books as I'm that kind of nerd, especially after I knew I wanted to build my own world. Now, when I have something specific to work out, I usually seek out articles that might cover the topic. Same goes for The Prince of Cats, yes. As prepatory research, I read 5 books on the history and architecture of Moorish Spain/Andalucia to get the culture and cityscape of Alcázar right, and I consulted with an Arab reader for all my uses of Classical Arabic sprinkled across the story.

PL: Nice. Moorish Spain is definitely something that deserves more love from authors, so I'm excited to read this book now - as if I wasn't excited to read a book called Prince of Cats anyway. Has it been a change of pace writing about thieves instead of politicking nobles, or much the same?

DEO: A very big change! I intentionally wrote this as an entirely different kind of story in every way; in part to entice new readers, in part because I needed a change of (writing) pace. The setting is the only thing my books have in common. And I did have enormous fun allowing myself to write from Jawad's perspective, his observations, his inability to keep his mouth shut, not to mention how much easier it is to write a book with a small cast and singular plot!

PL: I'm not surprised. I'm still slightly stunned that you chose a behemoth like that for your first book. Or was it? How long were you writing prior to getting The Eagle's Flight out there?

DEO: I started writing a bit in my teens, and I tried my hand at a novel when I was 19. It was atrocious, and I deleted the whole thing, starting over. About a year later, I realised I was not at all skilled for this. I spent my twenties studying literature at university and practising on short stories until at age 29, I used the few useful bits of my first attempts to make a third attempt. So admittedly, it may not have been wise to go for such a beastly tome as my debut novel, but it was the story that had been knocking around in my head for a decade, and I had to get it out.

PL: Where did the story come from originally? Is there any particular moment of inspiration you can remember? Or was it an idea that built up slowly?

DEO: It was very much the latter. I can barely remember when I first started thinking about this story, except a vague notion of a city between mountain peaks and a civil war between noble houses with a few notable, minor players. The very original version had those bones along with characters like Godfrey, Brand, Arndis, and Theodoric, which is what I salvaged. Everything else has slowly arrived over time, usually as I read or watched something, whether fiction or non-fiction, that I wanted to add to my world and story.

PL: Did you have the same process of creation for Prince of Cats? Or was it different, what with having done so much world building and writing prior?

DEO: I guess the process was much the same. I still needed to do a lot of research into fleshing out this part of the setting and make sure I got all the details right. With both books, I started with a rough idea of where the story started, what major beats it should go through, and where it should end. I usually only outline a few chapters in advance when I write, so I don't get 'locked' in, writing the plot in a direction that turns out to be forced. So I only outline based on where I am in the story right now, and what it makes most sense to happen next. In that sense, the only difference between my process for my two books was that each of these outlining steps was a lot easier for The Prince of Cats, because the cast and plot was much simpler.

A tenner says he's thinking "I can see your house from here"

PL: So you're outline a bit/write a bit over and over? You ever tried outlining everything or nothing?

DEO: Yes, exactly. I've never tried either of those approaches. I think outlining everything would feel much too constricting for me, but perhaps writing without outlining anything would be a worthwhile experiment one day!

PL: At some point you and Matt should argue it out on that approach vs outlining everything - its the only way to make Critical Hits even nerdier! But to go back to the creation process - were there any major beats in Prince of Cats you were really excited to write?

DEO: I'll let him know! And yes, definitely. About two thirds through, Jawad reaches a breaking point, running through a burning city, where he feels everything unravelling and the full ramifications of his own actions hit him - I think that was the best characterisation work I've done in this book. And then last 10 pages, where all the strands of the plot come together, all the character interactions reach their climax, that was extremely satisfying to write.

PL: I look forwards to reading that part then! And weird random question that just popped into my head - if you could get Matt to cook you any fantasy animal, what would you want to eat?

DEO: I did not see this question coming. Let's go with a chimera - there's got to be at least one part of it that tastes good!

PL: I'm trying to mix up my ratio of absurd oddball questions to deep probing ones :D back to the deep probing (i like it because it sounds wrong) - would you say there's any authors you particularly admire for their ability to provide characterisation? Or any particular types of characters you love to write about?

DEO: The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the book I've read most often, in part because I find Edmond Dantes to be perhaps the most interesting character I've ever come across in fiction. Myself, I like to write intelligent characters caught in situations out of their depth - forcing them (and thereby me) to use their quick wits to somehow resolve their conflicts. Having them fail is also a wonderful excuse to delve into their mental state and how they handle failure.

PL: That segues quite nicely into the next question I had in mind actually. I presume that as someone who's studied literature, you've read a lot of not-fantasy. Do you think that's shaped your approach to the genre compared to people who read less outside the genre?

DEO: I imagine so, though I am speculating a little here. If there is a difference, I think it's that I am less interested in the supernatural for the supernatural's sake. For me, fantasy is an excuse to design a world entirely to my preference, so I can tell exactly the story I want. I only include the supernatural sparingly and with a very specific purpose: usually to create a character or plot situation that could otherwise not exist. I guess I'm trying to take the best of other genres and plant it in a fantasy world, and see what I can harvest from that.

PL: *steeples fingers evil mastermind style* And what best of other genres have you been planting in your own fantasy garden?

DEO: From horror short stories, such as Poe's, I have stolen tension; specifically, leaving the reader uncertain on what is true and what is imagined, especially concerning the supernatural. From epic poems, such as the Iliad or Paradise Lost, I've ribbed language and how to use an archaic tone that's still readable. From historical novels, I've taken realism even in small details to make the past (or another world) seem vivid and believable. From modernistic novels, I learned to be sparse with details concerning my characters, and instead write to let the reader connect the dots and form their own conclusions. And postmodernism taught me to be mindful of my narrators as I write them, and that they always tell the story with an agenda in mind.

Its like a doom metal version of A Song of Ice and Fire

PL: And that right there is the glory of the hybrid. Do you think there's any particular part of storytelling that the fantasy genre provides better than others?

DEO: I think fantasy does immersion best of all genres. Nothing else will activate the imagination to such a degree and transport you into the story so vividly. I think this also allows fantasy to offer some of the most sublime reading experiences, where you truly feel as the characters feel. Those are my goals with each story I write - get the reader as immersed as possible and give them situations with emotional intensity, as real to the reader as those moments are to the characters.

PL: Hmm. I will think about that answer and one day argue with you about it. But for now - how do you think having studied literature has shaped your approach to writing? Do you find there to be any particular difference in focus between the writers you know from your studies and the writers you know from elsewhere?

DEO: I think my studies has helped point out all sorts of ideas or aspects of literature that I would otherwise never have noticed. So I probably approach writing with a much more theoretical footing. For instance, Lessing's theory of Leerstellen (empty spaces), leaving gaps in the reader's knowledge to force them to draw their own conclusions, is exactly how I like to write. I wouldn't say there is a difference in focus maybe, but definitely in whether literature is considered a form of (aesthetic) philosophy or a craft.

PL: So you'd definitely do it again?

DEO: Without a doubt. It exposed me to so many theories and thoughts, as well as literature from all over the world that I'd never have picked up on my own.

PL: Gimme another cool theory that I'v probably never heard of!

DEO: Sure! Gadamer gave us the idea of horizons melting together (if it sounds odd, I'm translating from German into English, and neither is my native tongue). His thought was that any text was written in a given age, in a given society, by an author influenced by a host of factors. The reading of any text happens in another age, another society, by a reader influenced by a host of other factors. The text and the reading have their own 'horizons', and the interpretation is where those horizons melt together, as we try to reconcile our understanding of the text with how it was originally written. His point was that we could never understand the original intent of a text due to the differences between author and reader; at best, we can approach it.

PL: I'm not sure I understand the original intent of half the stuff I write either tbh. Okay - I feel like I've heard a lot of the best writing advice you've been given - what's the worst?

DEO: One that always sticks out to me is 'Readers like to be spoonfed', which is basically the opposite idea of Leerstellen, so naturally I am against that. Otherwise, any advice that claims to be a rule. There are always exceptions when going against conventional wisdom in writing will make sense. But I do encourage to follow the advice when you have no reason to discard it - it's conventional wisdom for a reason. So break the rules by all means, but only if you know what you're doing!

PL: Okay. I want to keep asking questions but there comes a point where I have to respect my readers' desires to read an interview and not a novella, so I'm going to go with one last question - if you fell through a portal into a fantasy world, what would you want your story to be?

DEO: I want to be a skald or bard. Find myself a patron, earn my keep by making some nice verses when the need calls for it, and generally live a relaxed life without manual labour or other expectations upon me.

A big thanks to Daniel for his time, even if his last answer there is sheer cowardice! The Prince of Cats is out now and you can find more details about it and Daniel's other books at his website, the Annals of Adal

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Five things I learned about stories from Scrubs

I'd explain why I want to write this article and think it might be useful but I've got a stinking cold so I'm going to borrow from Kelso. Blah blah blah, nostalgic story, on with the article. Oh, and spoilers ahoy.

1) Laughter and Tears

Scrubs is a lot of things but mostly its a comedy. The majority of things that happen are played for laughs. But like all comedies, its founded on bad situations. Most - at least in Britain - have the bad things happen to bad people. But not Scrubs. In Scrubs most of the core characters are good people, and a lot of the bad things happen to their perfectly pleasant patients. There's some pretty hefty gutpunches; there's an element of pathos usually missing from the comedies I grew up with Fawlty Towers and Blackadder.

And I think that adds to the appeal. I can empathise with the Scrubs characters in a way I can't with Basil and Edmund. I get a wider spread of emotional stimuli. I think it also makes it funnier in some ways. Humour often relies on unpredictability and the greater the range of possible outcomes, the more unpredictable things are.

Its not a particularly original statement that humour needs to be cut with something to increase the effect, but Scrubs is what really brought it home to me.

This is the reaction I'm expecting to this article

2) The importance of opposites

Scrubs is a comedy about a young doctor's (reluctant) coming of age. I feel kinda bad putting it that way as it's a lot bigger than that but at heart, that's what it is. I mean, good grief, the kid's narrating almost every episode and they're all called "My X". It really is all about JD. And the fact that Scrubs is a comedy that's about characters changing rather than a fairly immutable situation puts a certain amount of stress on the storytelling. The story has to be more than a vehicle for the laughs, but it can't get in the way.

This is where having secondary characters who mirror the MC's most important traits are so important. The inherent conflict in that contrast not only makes for easy laughs, but its the straightest and truest path to showing what a character really is. JD's weird relationship with Cox betrays JD's insecurities about his non-alpha male nature and desperate need for approval. His tight bromance with Turk helps to highlight just how slow JD is to grow up compared to his peers. And of course the on-off relationship with Elliot showcases front and centre his fear of commitment and tendency to self-sabotage. Again, the value of characters that have natural conflicts with each other built in is not new, but Scrubs is what helped me understand it.

3) The importance of secondary characters

You might have got a hint from that I think JD's a tad unbearable. That's because he is. He's a egotistical special snowflake with huge maturity problems and - the kicker - not that funny. Fortunately Scrubs is filled with characters who are less grating and also a lot funnier. There's times when I want to call it a ensemble comedy. You've only got to go up a few paragraphs to know why its not true but in terms of making the story, it's deffo a group effort.

Now, pretty much everyone says that the secondary characters are always more fun and that MCs have to be a bit duller due to their everyman status. I think Scrubs is a good example of this. We see the secondary characters when they're going to make the story interesting. We see JD all the time. Of course he's going to be less interesting. That means that the secondary characters really need to bring it.

I'm on Bobbo's side here

4) Flawed people should lose

I didn't learn this one entirely from Scrubs. It took Brooklyn 99 to bring it home as well and I've made that point before here on the blog. But I'm going to make it again. A lot of Scrubs' characters are pretty decent humans but some aren't. Bob Kelso in particular is a piece of work. Perry Cox is a fundamentally altruistic and upstanding human being, but its cloaked by so much insecurity that he openly admits that he needs people to appeal to his giant ego to help. And so on and so on.

But when the Scrubs' characters flaws come up - when you see them being overconfident or narcissistic or overly needy - you know there's a damn good chance they're going to lose. And characters need that. Not just to fit my morals - although I won't lie and pretend that has no part of that - but because characters struggling with their flaws make them more interesting.

5) You can break your own rules and people will love you anyway
This is the big one and the one that made me write this article. Among the many gutpunches that Scrubs has delivered over the years that has really stuck with me is when Dr Cox is talking to a pyschologist that "relationships don't work the way they do on television". Its the start of a speech that goes straight to the heart of the matter in a way that fits the general theme of Scrubs. That theme is generally that everything worthwhile is hard so you simply have to face up to it, work hard, stay with it... and maybe it'll happen. Maybe. Maybe not. But it won't if you don't.

Except of course JD's and Elliot's relationship does indeed end working out like it does in television. They're right for each other and they finally realise it and that's that. They're not wading through the same crap everybody else does. There's a few more fairytale endings in the later seasons that feel like they came from a different place. And? Know what? I don't think anyone really cares now. Maybe that's part of why the show is no longer on the air, but it doesn't taint the memories most people have. Because ultimately mistakes here and there don't matter as much as the whole.