Monday, 25 May 2020

Epic vs High

Because I am god's own special idiot*, I am ignoring my own advice on fantasy's genres and jotting down my thoughts on what the difference between Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy should be considered as, and why the differentiation matters.

To me it boils down kind of like this. Epic Fantasy is like the Iliad. High Fantasy is like Malory.

Epic Fantasy should be seen as stories that try to tell everything (for given values of everything) about a momentous event. The momentous event can be as big as the fate of the world or as small as one particular land, city or fort - such as Troy. But there's (almost) always an event and it's almost always seen from multiple angles.

High Fantasy should be seen as stories about a person colliding with the supernatural and undergoing trials that challenges them as a person, hopefully for the better. The person (or people) don't have to be entirely free of the supernatural to begin with; they can be a knight with inhuman powers, or a hobbit, or an apprentice wizard. But what they confront will be beyond their ken.

These two definitions are not mutually exclusive and many works fall under both. But nor are they mutually inclusive and there's some sharp differences. Epic Fantasy is set up to be plot-focused; High Fantasy to be character-focused (although neither has to be). Epic Fantasy benefits from PoVs from both sides of the conflict, and arguably should have them to qualify; High Fantasy's task is arguably easier for not showing us the mindset of the mysterious and supernatural beings the protagonist meets. Epic Fantasy requires characters who are suitable close spectators of and participants in these events; High Fantasy requires characters with a certain degree of ignorance, making it highly suited for bildungsromans. And so on. There's probably some points I'm not thinking of.

My point though, I trust, is made. To have a work that is both requires either some canny work in terms of reconciling the differences, or a big canvas. The canniest route is for books to start as High Fantasy and become Epic Fantasy and that is the template of most of the blockbuster books in Trad Fantasy, which admittedly has made it feel less canny due to familiarity. 

Where I think I'll get some disagreement is the idea that works that don't have PoVs from both sides of the conflict aren't truly Epic Fantasies, particularly as that disqualifies Lord of the Rings. Is it conceivable to suggest Lord of the Rings is the work that inspired Epic Fantasy by having most of its qualities, yet wasn't actually of the type itself? I think so, although it will fail the common sense sniff test for most.

Certainly though, having both sides shown has become a big part of the genre, and I think to its advantage. It is easy to demonise the other in a war (and Epic Fantasy is usually the tale of a war); it doesn't happen so easily when you see inside their head. And in a way, the idea that Epic is usually the tale of a war further gently pushes me further towards the idea that LotR isn't truly an Epic, for LotR is the tale of a quest, and the war one of the byproducts. War is just a crucible for the character's growth, rather than the source of the story. Perhaps another good example of the difference is that in Epic Fantasy, victory comes about through good old fashioned military domination; in High Fantasy, it is the by-product of the character's growth.

That perhaps accounts for the link between High Fantasy and a moral impulse but dark apotheosis or morality free growth are possible, and have been seen. It's just a far harder sell. Epic Fantasy makes it easier to explore dubious characters.

In this schema, LotR is definitely High and debatably Epic, and is certainly more High than Epic. Likewise, the Fionavar Tapestry. Also High is A Wizard of Earthsea, the Deverry Cycle, The Wounded Kingdoms, much of Pratchett's Witches series, Harry Potter and so on.

In the Epic corner we find Feist's works, Gemmell's Legend, most of Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar, Dominions of the Fallen, American Gods (just about), Tigana, The Deep, Interesting Times, The Traitor Son Cycle and so on.

However, I think the most interesting thing about the link between the two comes from looking at Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire.

WoT starts off as High Fantasy to its roots. It becomes an Epic around book 3/4, but doesn't abandon the High Fantasy arcs it has set up for its more characters. When we get final victory, while there is a military victory (made possible by Mat's fulfilment of his trials), it mostly comes from Rand's personal victory in understanding and accepting without hate the supernatural fate put on him. It is both Epic and High in a way very few other series are (to me, it is the true start of Epic).

SoIaF however is an Epic from the get go. It doesn't ease the reader in at all. However, once it has set up its nature as an Epic, it gives many of its characters very High Fantasy plotlines. Jon's arc is straight up High as it gets. Dany's arc is very reminiscent of it too, although twisted and inverted in many places. Bran too has many an echo of it, although one somewhat butchered in the meaning of his final trials in the TV series. And so on. Ultimately, it is just as much Epic and High as WoT. It's not a surprise that these are the 800lb gorillas of trad fantasy. Nor is it a surprise that they've gigantic out of control narratives that have nearly undermined what they do.

The point here though is that a book doesn't have to be consistently High or Epic all the way through, and adopting the conceits of the other at particular points for particular purposes is a crowd pleaser. Which is probably why the two genres are so closely linked (well, that and LotR). But they are - or at least should be considered as - two different things with two very different purposes.

But that is my truth, tell me yours.


*as most have noticed, God's Own Special Idiot is a rank claimed by many in these times; there are armies near untold of us. I personally am God's Own Special Idiot number 2521566978, Idiot First Class of the Windmill Tilters, motto "Too smart to be happy and too stupid to be successful"

Would You Rather Book Edition

In today's blog, I'm following a tag from Rowena Andrews for a Would You Rather set of reader questions. I enjoyed reading her answers and am looking forwards to doing some thinking about the sort of things  I don't think about too often. Without further ado:

Would you rather read from a hardback, paperback or E-book?

Paperback. While it's not a massive deal to me, and I'd read a book printed on the back of a can label if it came to it, there's just something about a paperback that feels easier to read for me.

Would you rather crack the spine of a Paperback book or ruin a hardback’s dust jacket?

Honestly, I treat my books like crap, and therefore would blithely do either by accident with little more than annoyance at myself after the fact. Since I tend to lose hardback dust jackets really quickly, ruining them is probably the correct answer.

Would you prefer info dump on a world/magic system to a drip-feed technique?

It really depends on the book/writing style - that's what Rowena said and I agree. I probably trend a little towards info dump largely because I tend to find that when done badly, drip-feed just feels like reaaaaally long info dumps for me. If it's not being done that well, get it out of the way. If it's done very well, then... both? Give me the basics of it and then drip feed all the juicy details. If an author's done it well, then give me all the info!

Would you rather jump on board with a book series and wait to see if it gets traction or wait for a successful book series to be brought to your attention?

While the latter is how it is about 99% of the time, I prefer the former and love getting a chance to shout about books where I got to do that and where they should be brought to attention. The Goddess Project! The Woven Ring! The Emperor's Edge! Heart Blade! Sir Edric! The Eagle's Flight! The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids! You might notice I've yet to get in on a big publishing house story on the ground floor. The closest I got was RJ Barker's Age of Assassins and while I enjoy talking it up, I feel like it's already a successful book series.

Would you rather have dinner with your favourite character or author?

Well, having dinner with Sir Terry Pratchett would imply some rather startling and/or worrying things about mortality so...

It's a tricky one. Guy Gavriel Kay is very into his cocktails and seems to have an endless amount of good ancedotes; Aliette de Bodard posts recipes on her website, which is a good sign; RJ Barker has a wicked sense of humour. Not sure about Jim Butcher though.

However Sam Vimes is ridiculously rich, loves food with burnt crunchy bits, and Sybil is a fantastic host. Mat Cauthon would be fine fun as long as I don't let him talk me into dicing. Granny Weatherwax, however, would be an awful person to have dinner with.

Anyway. Sir Pterry if I don't have to die to do it, Sir Sam if I do.

Would you rather have a soft magic system or a hard magic system?

If I have to pick one, then the likelihood is I don't really care about the ins and outs of the magic system - if I want that, I'll read an RPG rulebook - and therefore I'll go with soft simply because hard means a lot of time explaining something I didn't really want explained. Just don't do any deus ex machina and we're good. That said, in an ideal world, make the central plot altering parts of the system hard and leave the rest of it soft and fuzzy.

Would you rather read duologies, trilogies or standalone books?

The longer the series the better if I'm enjoying myself. I love a good standalone, but not as much as I love a nice long series.

Would you rather read self-published or traditionally published authors for 2 years straight?
Trad published for two simple reasons.

a) I can talk with far more people about them
b) I'm an avid re-reader and my list of trad published authors I love to read over and over is far, far longer

It's not a reflection of quality at all, as I think the best in self-published matches the best in trad published and honestly, might fit my taste a little better.

Would you rather be stuck in your favourite fantasy/sci-fi world or your favourite fantasy/sci-fi book?

Not sure I get this question as, a few books apart in fantasy aside, surely the world gives you all the benefits of the book but with far more room to explore. I guess if you pick a portal fantasy, you can kind of go home whenever you want? In any case, world. Let's be honest, this one isn't exactly a draw right now.

Would you rather be allowed to read one book series (as it’s published) or all the books by one author?

Again, surely all the books by one author covers the book series and more anyway? A few co-writtens aside that is.

Would you rather read fantasy or science-fiction?

Fantasy. I'm one of those fantasy fans that would rather see the two genres decoupled if they had their druthers.

Would you rather have your favourite book adapted into a film or into a television series?

Leave it the hell alone, thank you all the same, and go write something fresh and new meant for TV. Adaptation-mania annoys me at the best of times, and when my favourite series is currently being adapted for TV and is being butchered in the process, it is not the best of times. I'm excited for authors who get a much needed boost from the process, but for the actual adaptation? I'm more excited to eat a nice piece of stale brown bread.

Would you rather have to reread your least favourite book every month, or never read your favourite book again?

That's a monstrous question. I guess never my favourite book again because there's a lot of other good books and all the candidates are more or less locked into my memory, where as forcing myself to read books I don't like is actively bad for my mental health. But boy would I be unhappy about this.

Would you rather secretly love a book everyone else hates, or secretly hate a book everyone else loves?

The latter, quite comfortably. There's a very long list of popular fantasy books that do very little for me already and I don't talk about them much because I don't see much point being negative. So I already do that. And I don't like being secretive about books I love!

Would you rather dog-ear your book, or never be able to mark your place?

I'm perfectly content to dog-ear and to rely on memorizing my place, so either works. I guess the latter?

Would you rather listen to your favourite book as an audiobook narrated by the worst narrator ever, or never read it again?

Do you know what - I've never actually listened to an audiobook. I prefer my information written and my ears free for music. But still, a listen is small price to pay, and I suspect I'd probably just tune it out anyway.

Would you rather have a disappointing end/unfulfilled cliffhanger, or lose your favourite character?

Great character deaths are the greatest endings. Kill away!

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Darkspell by Katharine Kerr

Back to Deverry. I'd meant to do a really in-depth review of Daggerspell but that turned out to be just a little too much like hard work. What I did get from it though is an appreciation for just how much Kerr is setting up this harsh, bewitching secondary world as both a source of atavistic wonder and as a lens for poking at certain social behaviours. That's going to be influencing a lot of the words in this review. Also an influence is Imyril's own Deverry reviews at https://onemore.org/ which were a bit of an influence on getting back on the horse.

Also on their horses are Rhodry and Jill, or at least so they are after a long meandering set-up featuring dweomer councils and celebratory feasts. And not for very long, because we're set on another preincarnation flashback. I can see it driving a lot of readers berserk as its page after page of nothing happening but establishing mild tension, almost totally reliant on the reader enjoying the atmosphere and characters. I'm all here for that but some books you know you can recommend them to people who won't feel the same love and some you maybe can't. This is maybe can't, but its book 2 in the series so it doesn't matter anyway.

Flashback time. We're now at the start of the Deverry civil wars and a blood feud between the Boars (made greedy and proud by receiving the Falcon's demesne) and the haplessly positioned Wolves puts Gweniver (Jill) on a collision course with would-be King Glyn's warleader/half-brother Dannyn (Cullyn) and everybody else in a five mile radius, because Gwen is bad news.

Something Imyril pointed out in her review is the progression from Lyssa (Jill v0.2) to Gweniver (Jill v0.3) and we had a small natter about how in many ways, the arc of Deverry is about the characters learning the mistakes of their first lives. As Branigwen (Jill v0.1), she just lets people tear her destiny to shreds and when it happens, lacks the mental resilience to fix it. Her lesson is to be less inert and self-destructive. As Lyssa, she sticks the course and things play out. As Gweniver she flips the switch and is completely, stridently in control of her life and to hell with anyone who'll get in the way - no matter the cost. You'll be shocked to hear this is a tragic arc I'm sure.

Frankly, Gwen is an ass. So too are Nevyn and Dannyn mind, and I like them all. It shouldn't be rare and refreshing to meet characters that are both charismatic and sympathetic enough to like, but also prejudiced, boorish and petty enough to be asses, yet here we are. It's intriguing how Ricyn (Rhodry v0.3) is a lot freer of the nonsense (although he still butts heads with Dannyn) than the others. There's two possible explanations here that don't contradict each other. One is from the beginning, Rhodry's preincarnations are generally easy going and empathic, and that continues. The other is that Ricyn isn't noble born and therefore doesn't have his head as stuffed full of impossible honour codes and his own importance. There's a third I just considered too - Gwen has a chip on her shoulder as a woman, Dannyn has one as a bastard, but Ricyn just has none. I think it's interesting and good that in a story that's strongly if quietly feminist, Gwen's rightful grievance for not being taken seriously as a woman is balanced by other rightful grievances about not being taken seriously, and neither is right all of the time.

In any case, it's a fun excursion and it's nice to see Nevyn slowly realising he should be trying to control everything, but I always wished it had come after I'd got my Rhodry and Jill fix in terms of the book's pacing because I never like it as much as I deserve for that reason. I'm also not sure what thematic resonance it has with the next bit of present day action, nor does it help that it's given me a few questions about the worldbuilding. Namely - 

How did a hundred year civil war lead to such little cultural change?

More importantly, where the hell do riders come from? Its clear that Ricyn is considered common born here. But it's also clear, here and elsewhere, that spearmen are considered far more common, and being a rider in a warband isn't a dishonourable thing for a noble-born man to do. How does this work? Are riders common or noble? Do they come from farms or noble households? Who's paying for their armour and horses anyway?

Ahem. I'm done.

The rest of Darkspell is taken up by a mundane piece of caravan escorting that gets sucked up into a plot by the dark Dweomer to steal some talisman jewels from the High King and use them to fuck his day up. My only real criticism is that it lacks a great punchy ending, something I'll get to in a little. But first, the dark Dweomer.

The blackhats of the universe are represented by the sorcerer Alastyr and his apprentice Sarcyn. Both are rapists, Alastyr's a paedophile, and their sexuality isn't totally clear but isn't straight. Somewhere Crowley's laughing it up and I'm furious it took me so long to spot that (dunno if its intentional or not, but funny either way). There's plenty of people less impressed by them (and the original writing of them was a fair bit nastier) and the way it plays into certain stereotypes of homosexuality. Given they're the only gays shown in the book it's an understandable point of view.

However, I would say that I still enjoyed their presence in the book. Why? Because the way they seek to bolster their ego through displays of posturing dominance both rang very true as human behaviour and was dramatically satisfying. Likewise, Sarcyn's journey as abuser and victim was enthralling and felt real. Could it have been more sympathetic, or set in a framework showing multiple facets of the gay story? Yes, but ultimately that's not what the Deverry Cycle is about. 

The Deverry Cycle (other than awesome storytelling and wild Celtic tales) is about breaking the cycles of mistakes and violence, and about how often the way men treat other things around them as trophies is a huge part of it that needs to get in the bin. It is the original sin and the lesson that Cullyn/Gerraent and Nevyn both need to learn in particular. If Daggerspell hammered home how women were the victims of it, then Darkspell turned its attention to how men do the same thing to men. Now I think about it, I think the inclusion of male on male rape was if not necessary, the next closest thing because that's the biggest hammer in the shop, not just for the victim's terror but the way Rhodry and cousin Blaen react to being reminded they too could be a helpless victim some day. The idea of masculinity being something that renders you invulnerable from such things, and harm in general, is an issue. Again, I understand anyone who looks at the overall set of choices and raises an eyebrow, but to me it makes such total sense in the narrative whole I never really stop to consider it until afterwards.

And now I've spotted how this ties in with the Gwen/Danno/Ricco arc. Dannyan is the victim this time, because in a violent and political court, others see him as a piece to take off the board and as a result, nobody seeks to help him be his better self but rather eggs him on to destruction. He has to take final credit for his bad decisions but in a better environment, Dannyan survives that arc. So too does Gwen and Ricco. And it has to be noted that Gweniver is in many ways hyper-masculine here and that attitude plays into it big style. It's part a celebratory moment as she finally gets her own back on Gerraent, but it's also part a failure. As Nevyn notes at one point, she is quite mad, and revered for it in a time of blood. Part of feminism is raising the question of why should women adopt male social attitudes and why shouldn't men adopt female social attitudes. Kerr's argument is buried under sufficient strata of story to qualify as quiet in my view, but once you dig through to it is a barnstorming sermon.

I will get back to the story in a moment but one final point in response to Imyril - she says that not making Salamander bisexual was a missed opportunity. While I get that in response to the way non-straight men are portrayed here, I'm not sure having the only eloquent knowledgeable man in the boys club atmosphere be non-straight is great for stereotypes either. 

Anyway! The story. It is fun, and the main characters get a decent layer of fleshing out here, with Jill's common sense getting a more prominent role and us getting to see Rhodry's dark side. The secondary characters are far better drawn than in Daggerspell too, with Blaen and Salamander my two favourites. Note how it's called out how Rhodry can have a far closer relationship with his cousin Blaen, who he's not in direct competition for anything with, than he does with his own brother. He's mostly bluff alcoholic country lord stereotype, but he gets so many good lines with Rhodry who cares. As for Salamander - he's a straight up scene stealer. I very much struggle to think of many characters in fantasy whose personality is so instantly obvious from their dialogue, and whose dialogue is so distinctively theirs, and who manages to feel so real. If she wasn't Kerr's favourite character to write, she's Kerr-razy.

Oh gods, bad puns, time to wrap this up and sleep.

Where this book falls apart is the long, drawn-out nature of the ending, which went on a long time after it would have stopped in other books with the intent of raising further tension for the next book. For me, that didn't work so great. It also felt like Kerr was trying to make the final showdown more than it was. And honestly, on this re-read, that was kind of the tale of the book. Darkspell is full of compelling scenes, characters and themes, but the narrative doesn't tie them together for me like it should.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Friday Five With Added Grouchiness

1) Last Friday, somebody tweeted about the lack of female authors writing fantasy outside of YA. While this somewhat merited the explosion of "you don't know about these!" (only somewhat), it nevertheless does point at an uncomfortable sore point for the genre in that how we treat and talk about authors does swing a fair amount by who they were born. Point in case - the number of female authors placed or encouraged towards YA when they probably shouldn't be is a well known travesty. The result? People thinking there's no female authors outside of YA. Part of that is ignorance (call me unforgiving, but if you can comment on twitter you can search for what want in your browser), but part of it is people having engrained habits from what they see. And as I've learned recently on twitter, that's a long way from being the worst women get for being in this genre. Some people need to check their empathy chips still function to say the least. If nothing else, they'd probably get even better fiction for doing so. 

2) My favourite reaction to that post came from the blogger Asha who made this fantastic tweet thread. It's recs on a bit of everything but mainly about women writing fantasy with non-teenage protagonists. I haven't looked at it yet because I'd forgot to bookmark it, but I've put that straight now. I'm particularly intrigued by her pitch for Daughter of the Sun. However, it's really not hard to find other recommendations; put -"young adult" -ya on your search if you really don't want it. Doesn't work perfectly but it'll get you places. You can also find them on most blogs, both in dedicated articles and in random lists. You can find them at this blog. And you can find them at other blogs. Hell I'll even throw in another rec - Patricia McKillip, maybe the most celebrated author that nobody in this genre has ever really heard of. If people want to read awesome lady authors writing about non-YA stuff, it is there to find, and I think you'd need to have some pretty specific desires before it's hard to find them.

3) While I'm being grouchy though, something else I don't like is the sporadic boosting up of female authors who aren't on the big lists by tearing down those who did make those lists. There's all sorts of reasons I don't like it, starting with the fact I do like a fair number of the authors that get mentioned all the time. More than that though, I think its insulting to the genre to go around calling the big authors of yesteryear mediocre or the like. Even if you ignore vast swathes of the population as happened in the past, the competition to become a published author is pretty stiff. To do and then go on to publish multiple loved books is even stiffer. Even if some of those authors aren't as good as our favourites, or don't meet our personal taste, they're a long way away from mediocre. The only way that wouldn't be true is if the fantasy genre was just mediocre to begin with. Finally, I don't think generating us vs them is a good way to solve the unfairness in the genre. It's a good way to rally people to fight against it but sooner or later, persuasion is needed too. 

4) It's not just women that get a hard time. We just had Non-Binary as a Wyrd & Wonder prompt and while I didn't take part partially because doing about fifty blogs in a month is a wonderful idea to run out of ideas, it's also not something I have a great deal of knowledge about. That's why Jake is Reading's tweet thread featuring non-binary/non-het authors and characters was an interesting read for me. There was a good review at Parsecs & Parchments on The Empress of Salt and Fortune too. 

5) Finally, let's give a shout out to the various authors with heritage stemming from outside the Anglosphere. In particular, I'm dead chuffed to have got an ARC of Aliette de Bodard's Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders. I wish I could fill this out with profiles of the shortlistees of the Gollancz award but alas I forgot about that. Maybe next week! I also got a sample of Mariam Petrosyan's The Grey House to look at, and this tweet thread to dig through.

And that's it for this working week. I completely support everyone's right to like whatever little corner they want, but everyone looking for the best should look as wide as possible. And nobody should be a dick. 

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Project Transformation Five - Heating Up

This will be a shorter post than usual because gloating about how well things are going is far less interesting to me than analysing what's going wrong. Right now, I'm motoring along at the expected pace, I'm beginning to find the writing voice I want for this, and ideas are beginning to fall in line with each other. This is beginning to feel more like a project that will happen than a project I am grimly willing into existence.

I can see problems on the horizon though in that I've got some decisions to make. I'm out of map now, insomuch as I ever had a map. I jokingly complained to Anna Stephens that I was about to embark on a scene that I didn't think would be making the book. Why? It was the logical move on from where I was with the book, but I wasn't sure what it added. It's adding more than I'd thought, but it might still go. I suppose I could make all my decisions that way - just pick something quickly and see if it makes sense at the end - but that seems so unlike me. I don't know if that'll work. Yet if it doesn't work, I'll ever have to get clever very quickly or lose a lot of momentum. Yay for growth opportunities?

The thing is, most of the choices I've got to make are so nebulous I can't really talk about them here even if I did fancy risking spoilers. I'm still thinking about characters but in such a vague way I don't know what to say. I think one is a spy. Maybe. For who? What's Sooley's flaw? Is he even going to be called Sooley?

I have at least made some progress on the worldbuilding, although I wish I had a good map making bit of software. I'm honestly considering buying Civilisation 2 just to custom make maps and figure things out in. I don't need it at all mind, not in the slightest, just there's things I want to know that are irking me.

That's about all I have to say. It's going well. Making decisions at random with the intention of ironing them out later is working. I'm picking up pace, albeit at the cost of the blog. And honestly, right now, the fact I'd rather be writing the book than this post means I'll be stopping here.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison Readlong Week Two

The fact that I'm posting my answers up for Week 2 just after Lisa posted the questions for Week 3 doesn't mean I'm late. I'm not behind, you're behind.

Here's the deets about what's going on:

Week 1: Wednesday 6th May, Chapters 1 through 9
Week 2: Wednesday 13th May, Chapters 10 through 17 (end of part 2)
Week 3: Wednesday 20th May, Chapters 18 through 26 (part 3)
Week 4: Wednesday 27th May, Chapters 27 to End (part 4 & 5)

Lisa at DeerGeekPlace is hosting the readalong . The questions will be posted weekly in a Goodreads group page, and will also be tweeted out weekly from the @wyrdandwonder account using the hashtag #TheGoblinEmperor, as well as the standard #wyrdandwonder tag.

Right. Let's do this. 

So many verbal encounters. So much political muck! Let's start with Princess SheveƤn, who seemed so very outraged at the idea of the late emperor's body being 'desecrated'. Do you buy that as her reasoning? Or do you think she was making a scene for another reason?

I'll take option B thanks.

Well. Maaaaaybe someone else wound her up and put her up to it. I can believe that she is less elf and more drama llama to begin with. But there is something nefarious going on, no doubt about that.

Cala and Vedero both have some hard but pragmatic advice for Maia here: Cala's concern is for the emperor being seen to be weak for treating his nohecharei as equals when their job is to protect him; and Vedero's situation is different but her concern is basically the same as Cala's. She seems alarmed at the idea that Maia might go against society and tradition by refusing to bargain for a marriage for her. How do you feel about these scenes, and the conversations between them? Are they being too harsh and/or cynical, or is Maia simply being too naive?

When someone walks into the tiger cage, advising them how best to not get mauled is neither harsh nor cynical. By the standards of the court, they're the mercy of mother's milk itself. It's not on them that things are the way they are there.

That said, while Maia is looking naive, so would everybody else in such a situation, I'm not sure about being too naive. Too naive would be if he didn't believe them. Right now, he's feeling out his way on what he can and can't do. That's going to involve some getting it wrong. So for now, I don't think anybody is too anything; they're just doing what thesituation dictates.

Setheris attempts to come at Maia from his more abusive position, clearly intending to railroad his cousin into giving him a position at court he feels is worthy of him. Yet Maia sticks to his intention of sending Setheris somewhere he will not have so much easy access to the new emperor. Do you think, with that, that Setheris's days of troubling Maia are over?

There is nothing to make me think Setheris will be a further issue save for the shape of the story; too much have been invested in him for nothing to happen nine times out of ten.

Also, I renounce my previous theory that Setheris will come round. I guess maybe he will, but he is clearly a bit of a chode.

A discovery is made that the sabotage of the Wisdom of Choharo may have been caused by the Cetho Workers League - a "dissident group". Do you think this will lead to a resolution of the investigation, or did the plot just thicken?

My money is on this being with noble backers at best and an outright black flag at worst; someone close to Maia is to blame here. So yes, the thot has plickened.

Maia's grandfather is coming to court for Winternight, though this seems to please Maia far more than it pleases Chavar ... What do you make of Chavar's open disagreeableness during the dinner at the ambassador's home? Is it plain arrogance (albeit the racist kind), or do you think his disapproval of goblin folk runs deeper than that?

He liked the old silk ones, or at least liked them better than the other ones, right? I think this is ninety per cent pure snobbishness and if he's got an issue, it's with modernism in general. 

Maybe. 

I'll be honest, the information overload really got me for this section and right now, what'll be will be. I enjoyed the start of the book but this is beginning to feel a bit muddy middle, or maybe a better way to put it would be I'm not sure we've progressed from the set up and that means there's not a momentum sucking me in. And while Maia is growing on me, I'm still waiting to see a little more about these around him.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Servant of the Empire by RE Feist & Janny Wurts

Non-prompt related post today because I spent all my time writing/reading Darkspell. Imyril, if you're reading this, I have so many thoughts. I also nearly caught to everybody else on The Goblin Emperor too. These are not the books this review is about. This is review is for Servant of the Empire and before I go on, I have some framing thoughts.

It is a truth commonly recognised but voice best by Sergeant Angua in Feet of Clay that everybody's got to have somebody to look down on. The dwarves and trolls have each other, the undead have the golems, and fantasy readers have romance readers.

Honestly, I think that is a big part of the wide animus against romance that suffuses so much of the genre. We can't pick on the Sci-Fi fans because they're us, the Crime guys are cool, but Romance? Easy targets. And there are of course other reasons, some of them overtly sexist, some of them the product of deep buried sexism, many of them probably weird, and a few even based somewhat on straight up literary taste. One complaint that always stuck with me was someone remarking how they disliked the romance plot in one of McCaffrey's books as it turned the heroine from a tough, remarkable woman into a simpering idiot. This statement is going to be rather pertinent here. And that's why -

We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Kevin is the Midkemian slave who is brought by our heroine Mara and ends up having a torrid romance with her. So far so good. She deserves some happiness. 

He is also the source of all good ideas, unravels centuries of Tsurani tradition with but a single question, never causes a serious mistake by wrong, is wanted by all women, and is the biggest badass in the book. Which, depending on what you want, is possibly less good. Possibly it's even better.

Where the issue lies for me is what it means for Mara's story as she goes from fearless source of ingenuity to frequent fool and defender of bad traditions. It's not cool and while I knew going into this re-read I'd have something to say about it, I wasn't expecting to feel so badly about it. It affected my story enjoyment. Something that didn't bother me so much but will bother others a lot are the overtones of the western cultured-Midkemian Kevin being the other to go around pointing out all the bad things the Tsurani do. Does the storyline make sense? Yes. Is it the only way it could be done? No. Would doing it other ways not raise the specter of some dodgy stuff? Yes. It feels more clumsy than nasty but it's certainly not a plus point.

While I'm picking on the flaws, I would note my friend Bryan pointed out that the first book is nearly alt-history due to how closely aligned to east Asian culture it appears and how thin the fantasy conceit is. True (not the flaw, at least not for me) but the fantasy conceit does get more of an outing here. The problem is part of its outing is as part of a deus ex machina ending that doesn't show Mara at her best either.

Considering that Daughter of the Empire worked because Mara was a boss and due to tight plotting, these are pretty serious flaws. Servant of the Empire is still full of enjoyable scenes and reads smoothly, but a cohesive momentum isn't there. And honestly, a lot of those enjoyable scenes are between Mara and Kevin. They do work well together. Just the narrative doesn't serve them well.

To end on a positive note, the world is fleshed out here and minor characters start seeing a bit more depth. Oddly enough, it's mainly Mara's ancestral foes in the Minawabi that get the good treatment, but old Force Commander Keyoke gets some nice depth too.

But let's not beat around the bush. Unlike the trilogy starter, this book aged very poorly and while still enjoyable to people with a taste for this thing, it lacks the quality to appeal outside its niche. Its a huge shame but Servant of the Empire does not serve its characters well.