Friday 23 December 2016

The True Meaning of Christmas

I think a lot of people in long term relationships have that moment when the other person does something that makes you think "We've got a keeper folks!". One of mine was when my lady announced she hated Christmas.

I loathe Christmas. I despise Christmas. One of my great dreams is to someday spend Christmas in a hotel room with a giant pile of books and Chinese take away and pretend it isn't happening. People tell me I'll feel differently when I have kids of my own. I can't think of a better reason to never have kids.

Despite this, there are things to be admired about Christmas, and I'm not just talking about the opportunity to try and consume your own body weight. That's every day. Or that chance to fill your book shelves even more.

Look at Christmas - the date, the trappings, the everything. Look at - presuming a fair bit of cultural commonality here - the tree. Look at angel decorations. Look at the fat git in red with the smug expression who's everywhere. What do you see?

Okay, so that's what I see, but everyone else...

Syncretism. No blogger autocorrect, not cretinism, even if I think you're close to the mark there. Syncretism. Christmas as we know it, at least in the UK and many other parts of the Anglosphere, is a mixture of traditions from many different places. And those traditions - and the food stuffs, the drinks, the deities, and the everything else - are constantly evolving as people find ideas they like and drop ones they don't.

And syncretism - perhaps not the right word when talking about ideas - is very much evident in many of the great works of fantasy. They draw on a wide range of influences, just like real world traditions, and this is what gives them the depth and vividness of culture that makes people rave about books. 

In contrast, there are books that give the impression of the author having read nothing but the genre for the last ten years. Sometimes I like those books. Occasionally I even love them. Sometimes I read a few pages and put the book back. What I never do is think "Here be one of the greats". Even with the most compelling writing, the most captivating characters, the tightest plotting... it just won't catch. Its like cooking. Incredible technique and imagination can only so do much with tired ingredients. In the case of fantasy literature, the best ingredients means a few ideas that aren't in every book already.

These don't have to be giant-sized idea or crazy combinations. Tolkien took his own experiences and beliefs, married them to a blend of northern European legend, and created a legend of his own. Martin got a mileage out of an unusually direct port of a very specific time in English history. And JK Rowling stuck gold with British boarding schools + Wizards. Neither of the latter two were the first to go there either; the ideas don't have to be completely new. There just has to be something fresh about it.

So I urge all of the writers reading this to embrace the true spirit of Christmas and keep blending ideas together in that quest to find the perfect whole, beloved by nearly everyone.

Maybe its not such a bad holiday after all. Hmm... nah. Bah humbug everyone!

Thursday 8 December 2016

Legend by David Gemmell

As 2016 comes to an end and we reflect on just how miserable a year it was, we should also take time to remember the good things that happened. Even the darkest cloud has a silver lining somewhere. Take cancer. Now, in the words of the great prophet Deadpool, el cancer is a shit-show. But without David Gemmell getting a terminal cancer diagonsis, we may never have had the legend that is, er, Legend.

Once upon a time, there was a man with a very big axe...
Of course, Gemmell would have probably tried publishing something else if he hadn't had that experience. It would have probably have included a gruff old warrior of a father-figure because he has relived that part of his childhood many, many times in his book. It might have even been a story about a siege given his interest in the Alamo.

But it wouldn't have about the continual focus and meditation on what its like to face death right in the face. And that's what makes this book great right there.

The basic plot of Legend is that an undermanned citadel has to stop a Not-Mongol horde. That's it. Pretty much all of the characters agree its only going to end in failure and yet they do it anyway. The story is mainly told from the perspective of Rek, a somewhat cowardly wanderer and veteran who wants nothing to do with to do with this. However, Fate/Gemmell pisses all over him, he falls in love with the wrong/right woman, and into the blender he goes. Yes, just like Deadpool, this is a love story.

Like this... only with more killing... and more mystic voyeurs... okay, nothing like this
It is not just Rek's tale though. Many many characters get PoVs, often just one or two before their inevitable death. That really shouldn't be a spoiler by now. In the process, we get to know a little about their dreams, their fears, and everything that makes them human. The result is a war story with an unusual and compelling empathy. Yes its a war story as well as a love story. Its a really good one too; even in the first book of his career, Gemmell knew how to write an action scene. And he knew violence, and he knew what it was like to stare death in the face.

He doesn't dwell on these things. He doesn't dwell on anything really. Its a fast paced book and sometimes you wish he'd gone deeper into the things he brought up. Like Rek's romance or his fear, the latter of which feels particularly unfollowed by the end. That is just the nature of the beast though. Gemmell makes a statement, then he makes another one, then another, often setting them against each other. I might wish he'd done it differently at times but it certainly works. Its like a great big thematic drum, simple but powerful.

Simple but powerful is a good way of describing this book. In the author's own words, it has "all the flaws you expect in a first novel". The prose is best not closely examined although it more than does its task for readers who let the pace of the book sweep them away. Characterisation is done in broad strokes. The plot is straightforward and some of the death scenes are lacking emotional resonance - although perhaps that is simply a result of how much death is in the book. For some people, there might not be enough going on, or they'll find the style jarring. But for those who aren't too bothered by such things, I reckon plenty will read it and agree with me in exclaiming at the end:

Expect a lot more Deadpool references in the future
As people will have noticed from this blog, my tastes are pretty old fashioned. I started working my way through a big old pool of authors when I was 16 and have only recently run out of material. These reviews aren't just to entertain you lovely people reading, they're also a way to look at my influences and work out what they did and what I took from them. In doing so, I've found a lot of things that irk me about these authors as well, reasons why modern authors have supplanted them as titans of the genre.

The only reason I can see for Gemmell not still being considered one of the big boys is that he's dead. Its hard to stay relevant when you're no longer publishing regularly and even harder to keep publishing regularly when part of the Choir Invisible. A few authors see their name and reputation last beyond that inevitability. I would not be surprised if, twenty years down the line, David Gemmell was one of them. I certainly hope so.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

General Update

Well its been rather silent here recently. And no one likes an awkward silence. Therefore, I will waffle a bit to break it.

You have been warned.

Here's what I've been doing.

1) Hating everything I've been reading

Well, not everything. But most things. And in fairness this has been going on for a while.

What happens is I pick up a new book, read for a bit, then put it down, disappointed in some thing. Its happened with indie authors, its happened with Sanderson, its happened with everyone in between. I'm not sure why its happening - writing leaving me hypercritical? A side effect of my less than stellar outlook on the world in other issues? Sheer bad luck? Who knows. It is quite irritating though, not least because I do have to go back and give some of these authors a second go.

I'm not going to list everything I've bounced off - that would take a hella long time - but I did think I'd shout out the two new books that have pierced my armour of hatred.

Those are Heart of Granite by James Barclay and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Very different books, but if there is a link, I would suggest it is that neither is taking itself completely seriously. Which is a very underrated trait in fiction if you ask me.

2) Eating at Bar Shu

I don't know how many people reading this blog will have much of an interest in high end Sichuan cooking in London. It should be everyone but people are odd sometimes. Or have no interest in going to London.

In any case, a friend dragged me out there the other day. The original plan had been to eat around London Bridge, but she decided I need some exercise and she'd route march us to Soho instead. I wasn't complaining as getting a good meal around London Bridge can be a bit of a trial and I love Chinese food. This was my first time in a restaurant concentrating on the Sichuan region. I know of the cuisine; I know enough not to order anything considered hot by the menu.

And it was an incredibly big menu, covered with pictures of not your standard Friday night takeaway. Generally I have a rule about eating at places which show you pictures of the food (try not to) but I didn't mind on this occasion. It did make ordering very slow. Eventually I ordered the Muxu Pork and some whelks. The pork was not at all hot, but rather silky and comforting and downright delicious. The whelks weren't as good but did provide a nice counterpoint between mouthfuls of pork. My friend got the Gong Bao prawns with cashew nuts. I stole a few - they were some of the best prawns I've had in a while.

Googling the place finds plenty of less than glowing consumer reviews online. This surprised me a little although upon reading further, the main objection seemed to be to the service. Bad service in restaurants is of the devil tis true, but I had no problems. They even brought me a fork when it was clear I am horribly inept with chopsticks.

Me and the friend are already planning a return visit with a big posse so we can try more of the menu.

3) Playing dumb computer games

This has occupied far too much of my time.

Dumbest of all is an online idle browser game called Midas. The idea is you're Midas, gathering ever greater sums of money. At some point you get more diamonds than there are atoms in the universe. It is strangely compelling despite the fact pretty much nothing happens.

Slightly less dumb but still dumb is Freecell. I tell myself I'm using it as a mental warm up but the reality is I play it as a way of doing something to avoid being bored when I can do nothing more challenging.

Only kinda dumb is Mount & Blade: Warband, where I frequently spend my evenings yelling at other people not to die so quickly. They don't listen but that's okay as I'm usually being a little hypocritical when doing so.

4) Doing an internship

My return to the job market has featured a detour through internship land. I'm currently acting as a sorta digital copywriter/editor to Healthwatch Camden, updating and improving their Start Here guide to health in the borough.

Its been pretty interesting actually. There is a huge array of bodies offering some form of health or care to the public, or oversight of those, or the ability to complain about them. If someone wants to be actively informed about what they do with their health problems, they face overload. One of the things I've been doing is trying to make sure all the options are there for them to pick from without it being too overloading.

The weird thing is I've found having the structure of work actually helped with my writing. That is until...

5) Not writing like I should

Well, you knew that. There's been no writing on the blog.

Eventually, the whole hating everything I read thing got to my own writing. I hit a tough point in the plot where a lot happens in a short space and found I couldn't edit it for love or money because everything I wrote sounded awful. There's only one thing to do when that happens and that's to put the project aside for a little. Either clear your head of writing, or work on something else, or anything else at all. I'm all for writing crap to hammer out a draft but once you get to the editing stage, either do it right or not at all.

Anyway, since then I've cleared the head and yesterday on the train finally started tearing into that difficult little scene. It isn't done yet but we're on the way again to finish that book and putting it out for all you people. So time to finish this filler blog post and get back to work on the book.

Thursday 20 October 2016

The Stone Road by GR Matthews

Sometimes, a book's title can be incredibly apt. This is one of these times.

Take Stone. It is obvious. Reliable. What you see is what you get and what you get is what you like. It is not perhaps something we associate with beauty yet with time, you can do the breathtaking with it. The symbolism of the road is obvious; roads are for journeys. Therefore, a stone road should be one where the start of the journey is safe and pleasant but the ending is in a far distant place to the beginning.

And, roughly speaking, that is what we get here.

The Stone Road is the tale of two young men in a fantasy not-China. Haung is a would-be soldier offered the chance to serve his Duke as one of his secret elite. Zhou is a diplomat who gets his big break in a mission to secure peace with his province's bitterest enemy - Huang's province. From there things become a bit of a flustercluck and the next thing you know is that there's mad wuxia action all over the place. Hooray! That's what I tuned in for at least.

There is a 50% chance I'm doing this review simply as an excuse to look at Martial Arts gifs

As I have already alluded to, there is nothing groundbreaking about the start of the book. It is a simple idea executed with a solid level of competence. I very nearly did this review after my post on the basics of good writing simply because The Stone Road's beginning struck me as an excellent example of an author doing the basics very well and creating a highly readable story without doing anything amazing. 

This sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise and to an extent I am doing just that. It is definitely good and it is definitely not great. If there is anything great here, it is that Matthews' authorial voice succeeds in making it very charming. There is something touching about the sincerity and naivety with which the main characters take on the tasks that are so clearly poisoned chalices. Everything is crisply narrated, leaving nothing uncompleted or question worthy in the mind. 

Of course, I didn't do this review after the post on the basics. The reason for this is that as things progress, to do so would felt more and more like underselling.

Words of wisdom for any author and/or breaker of people's faces

This is pretty difficult to do without spoiling the ever loving daylights out of the book so I shall have to use generalities. The characters become richer, fuller people and as with real people, they learn from some mistakes and not from others. By the end of the book, Huang, Zhou et al are different people and yet very recognisably the same characters we were introduced to. Matthews posted the following in the Fantasy Faction book club

"More than anything, I wanted the book to be about the growth and change of the two principal characters."

He achieves that. 

He also achieves a broadening complexity of situation, both in terms of the forces opposing the characters and the capabilities of their powers. Some of the former is a little formulaic at times; I do not mind as it is done very solidly. Some of the latter however is quite clever indeed. There is one minor plot thread in particular that had been bugging me throughout the book and is resolved in such a fashion. Normally, resolutions that rely on new knowledge of magic lack satisfaction. However, on the reveal, I realised that the pieces of the puzzle had all been there all along. That's a craftsman's touch that.

Things that should never happen mid-cuppa
Ultimately it is the little touches that make this book. It doesn't possess wildly innovative ideas or grandstanding scene-stealing characters. As fantasy books go, this is a comforting cup of tea rather than that rare single malt that your hands tremble just to touch. It reads quickly and undemandingly yet, as you go on, you realise someone lavished a lot of care on getting the cup of tea just right. 

And sometimes as a reader, all you really want is a very well made cup of tea.

The Stone Road is such a beast. And at the end of the journey, it hints at being something more. One of these days I'll have to pick up the other books in the series and see where it goes. For now though, I recommend that anyone looking for a straightforwards enjoyable character-based read with some intelligent twists start their journey here.

The Stone Road was self-published by GR Matthews and is available now at Amazon. For further information about GR Matthews and his books, visit his website.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Abendau's Legacy by Jo Zebedee

On the 4th of October, 11:39am, I received my ARC of Abendau's Legacy from Jo Zebedee. At 6pm the next day, I email her back to tell her I've finished it.

In that time I also slept for about 12 hours, prepared for, interviewed for and started an internship, walked a half hour around London to find KFC, and performed various other parts of life's miscellany. This was not an empty 30 hours. I finished the book stood on the London Overground, swaying slightly with my big old laptop resting in one hand.

I really liked this book. 

Of course, I was primed to. Abendau's Legacy is the last in a trilogy and having gotten along just dandy with books one and two, I opened up the file for book three with confidence. But getting someone to like your trilogy ender is easy. Getting them to love it is hard. Readers get their set ideas of how the characters should work and the author has to both work with them yet confound them. Expectations are sky high. One fluffed plot resolution can drag the whole thing down.

Every author has that moment where they think this is happening with their book
An example of this is that, despite being clearly utterly captivated, I'm still not quite sure whether I really like Abendau's Legacy or whether I loved it. This is a question that sets a ferociously high standard though as I've loved very few books this year. Suffice to say all fans of the trilogy should walk away satisfied; any new readers should go and pick up Abendau's Heir, knowing that the series is finished and finished well.

At its heart, Abendau's Legacy is about the main cast confronting all their failures of the previous two books and setting them right. It is not the hero's lap of honour; it is not their last desperate roll of the dice either. Kare, Sonly and Lichio all have their chances to walk away and deliberately decide not to do so. In doing so, they set the theme of the story. Every scene, every page can be read as a facet of the need to confront the mistakes of the past before people can move on. I don't know whether this is a deliberate choice by Zebedee or not. Regardless, it works. It gives the book real emotional heft and closure.

This is reinforced by the roles given to Kerra and Baelan, the two children introduced in Sunset over Abendau. They are placed front and centre with their older relatives and while the older characters correct their mistakes, the kids both struggle with the impact of that and make their own. It adds a nice contrast and another view of the human cost of these great epics so beloved of SFF. Its also quite unusual in that I'm really struggling to think of other books in the genre with main characters of such a range of ages, save A Song of Ice and Fire. Zebedee's desire to explore the human cost and willingness to make unconventional decisions in doing so remains one of her big strengths and selling points.

Fortunately, none of the characters have pets
Speaking of characters who take a step forwards, Lichio seems to go from major supporting actor to co-star. His motivations and actions receive more depth and he gets a bigger share of the emotional scenes. The result is a better book. I've made the criticism before that unrelieved grimdark is a bad thing (see the link up the page). Well, Lichio is the relief. He has a levity of spirit, even when undergoing pain, that keeps things from getting too intense. The comparison that springs to mind is the Wheel of Time; he is Mat to Kare's Rand. Not a joker, but the straight man when life is getting too dramatically overwrought. Jordan had plans for outrigger novels involving Mat and I think Lichio is just as good a target for a spin-off (hint hint).

So why am I unsure about whether I loved it?

Abendau's Legacy reads fast. Very fast. Hell, I've pointed out just how fast I've read it. And maybe, just maybe its too fast.

A lot of things happen in Abendau's Legacy and they happen in a relatively short amount of pages. Looking at the kindle files, this is comfortably the shortest of the trilogy. Usually things are the opposite and there's a reason for that. There are plenty of relationships that I wish could have been dealt with in more detail, such as that between Kerra and Baelan, and Lichio and Josef. And all of the other relationships in the book. Literally all of them (well, barring those involving the Empress). There's a few moments where I don't just wish I could have spent more time with the characters, but felt the plot needed to. There were important moments where it was a little jarring just how quickly they flew by. I've always viewed Zebedee's writing as being fast paced. Here, it is breakneck. She did actually tell me she worried about things going too slowly. That's a bit like Slayer being concerned that Raining Blood wasn't quick enough.

Artist's impression of Abendau Legacy's plot
Here's the rub though - would I have finished this book so fast if the story wasn't so taut? Every chapter raises new important questions about what happens next. There's something very moreish about that when done well, as it is here. 

I can guarantee that there will be someone - multiple someones, lots of them - who absolutely definitely fall in love with this book because of how fast it is. A few will have my reservations, only more so. This is a matter of taste after all.

And how will I feel about Abendau's Legacy six months down the line? Five years? After all, I'm not quite done making up my mind now and books, like all other forms of media, can grow on us or become old and pale. In the here and now though, I'm undecided whether I love it. Which means maybe I do. Which is, just so we're clear, a pretty big recommendation from me.

How big is pretty big? To approach this in a round the bushes way, I've noticed I often compare Zebedee to some pretty badass authors. There's two reasons for this:

  1. No one is going to read a writing blog where *everything* is explained by reference to Extreme Metal, collision sports, gastronomy and cat pictures. Some form of comparison to other writers is necessary. Breaks my heart but that's the truth. I'm trying though.
  2. They just flow outta the fingers.

They just do. She writes memorable characters and epic situations that stand with the big boys and girls, so its natural to compare her to them. Abendau's Legacy is her best example of this yet by some distance, and I say this without saying anything rude about Zebedee's other books. So pretty damn big.

Now there's a slight caveat to that. Character and situation are generally the most important things to me in a book. I'm in my glory here. People who demand deep immersive world building might not do so well with these books. Likewise readers who demand very complex stories. The book is good enough that I think such may well like it, but these are not the story's strengths.

Anyone who's looking for characters first though, could make a best new friend here. I can't recommend it strongly enough to those readers. I imagine most reading this will have the trilogy so far but those who have not, go and start at the beginning of the trilogy. It starts very well and it ends excellently. Hmm. Maybe I do love this book after all. Go and give yourself a chance to do so too.

Abendau's Legacy will be published on October 24th by Tickety Boo Press. It can be pre-ordered on or More information on Jo Zebedee's books can be found on her website. I would like to thank Jo and Tickety Boo Press for my Advanced Review Copy. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Saturday 8 October 2016

How much can they take?

One of the reasons for the slight slip up in posting here has been the resumption of the rugby season. I'm not quite as addicted as when it would account for three gym sessions, three games watched, one game played and one training session very badly delivered a week, but it does fill up time.

My first game was a couple of weeks back now - late in the year due to a lot of cry offs on friendlies - and I went off injured. Nothing serious; just a thigh strain. I'd tried running around on it a bit but found that running wasn't really a good description for what happened. It implies speed. I had the speed of a 12 hour filibuster speech.

I wasn't the most spectacular injury that day mind. A friend of mine had his shoulder pop right out - lovely! It popped back in and then, after a break in play and some 'medical' treatment, he tried to keep on playing.

Let us be clear here. This is a completely amateur team, playing 2s fairly deep down the Kent merit tables. Literally nothing was on the line here other than a bit of pride and an enjoyable Saturday afternoon. And he, a mid-thirties guy with a desk job, decided that the obvious thing to do with a dislocated shoulder was keep playing rugby. There's lots of tales about professional sportsmen doing absurd things while heavily injured, but those are people in at the peak of athletic potential with huge amounts of motivation. Not slightly flabby blokes having a laugh with their mates. Of course, being the latter helps account for why he came off, but its still a bit ridiculous.

Ridiculous and its synonyms are words I often hear trotted out on forums when readers are discussing character actions. In SFF, we often write about big damn heroes, who go around doing big damn heroic things. They're right on the edge of human potential and sometimes a little beyond. Sometimes they're a lot beyond. People get surprisingly argumentative about what is physically possible and what is not. They get even more argumentative about what's in line with the previously established physical limits of a character.

And it gets yet worse when talking about the mental limits of a character. Part of what adds to reader discontentment here is that very often, people seek to conflate other people's mental limits with their own. 'I would have seen that trap, so why didn't she?' 'I wouldn't complain about that, so why is he whining?' 'She's smart, and I'm smart, ergo she definitely should have that trap!'

The obvious way of avoiding this sort of negative reaction is consistency. You'll never win over all the readers, but if your characters always react in the same way, then there's no inconsistency to complain of. There's many problems with this though. If a character always acts the same, how is he meant to grow? How do we prevent them from being boring? Perhaps most crucially, how do we prevent them from being unrealistic? Humans are by nature inconsistent. The same person who might struggle to to write one simple email without bursting into tears might the next day be a hero. An utterly fearless warrior can turn into a panicking wreck if forced to swim. Readers know this and accept this, until all of a sudden it doesn't fit their own personal parameters.

Ultimately, this is a blog post without an answer. Consistency is obviously still key, but we have to build consistency for lots and lots of little subroutines and that's pretty hard, particularly if you were planning to tell a story at some point. Part of its simply finding the readers who think like you and accept your logic for how characters work and what they can do. Everybody's heard the doctors talk about the likely effects of James Bond's described drinking habits. James Bond fans don't care. 

Nevertheless, its worth considering. Authors that don't fulfil reader expectations rarely achieve their goals. And human capability for well, anything, has a way of confounding reader expectations. One of my favourite stories related by an author is how Hollywood passed up on a script about a Colombian drug cartel trying to buy a Russian submarine because it was too unrealistic. I mean, this is Hollywood here. And, as some of you may know, this actually happened. No matter how many dragons and wizards we write about, passing off what occurs in reality as realistic will always be one of our biggest troubles.

p.s. A coda. The events described at the start took place in Game One. Game Two, I slam the back of my head very hard onto the ground. Not a concussion, but it still took me a long time to get up (more rain please Thor). Probably even longer to want to get up. I see out the rest of the game, somewhat against my better judgement. 

Game Three is today (in fact, I should be there as we speak) and I clearly did something right as I'm starting. Honesty compels me to admit I really don't want to be as I'm quite unfit at present (not that I'd ever be that honest if any of my rugby team read this). I have no idea how I'll cope. Maybe I'll go off blowing early. Maybe I'll somehow do eighty - after all, fitness isn't just the ability to do something without pain, its the ability to do something while accepting the pain.

Humans are very inconsistent. Perhaps that's why we're so much fun to write about.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Protagonists and Observers

If I was an energetic sort, I would make a tongue in cheek "Writer Advice bingo card". Everyone who haunts a forum with an active writing community will probably be able to think of five good truisms for this within a second. One of the candidates for this card would be "Everyone is a protagonist in their own story", a piece of advice that has been on my mind since reading Jo Zebedee's wonderful blog post about the subject.

For those not familiar with the term, it boils down to the fact that all the secondary characters in a story aren't just bits of scenery for the main character, but characters with their own motivation, goals and outlook. Its a regularly repeated piece of advice because its very easy for authors to treat them as the former and a lot better to treat them as the latter. Its also often remarked upon that secondary characters often have more fun and charm that the main character; outstanding secondary characters are often the hook that really drags readers in.

Then Juliana Spink-Mills posted a riff on the subject, linking the concept to personal experience and my brain went into overdrive. I started thinking about how often we get to be the protagonists in our own lives, how people perceive the idea of themselves being a protagonist. I think most people have episodes in their life where they are not the protagonist* - but if we are not the protagonist, what are we? Me, myself, I would say when that happens, I often find myself an observer of someone else's story. But it is still my story. I am simultaneously protagonist and observer.

So what happens when your story's protagonist becomes an observer? What happens when they venture into someone else's story?

Temporarily, the story becomes about the protagonist's reactions, not their actions. This is something of a high-risk high-reward move. The risk is that the protagonist is seen as boring and passive because they're being inactive. People don't want to read about how the protagonist watched all these amazing people solve the problem of the world's imminent end. Its why all those farmboys level up very quickly.

Your protagonist don't get to say that shit if they're always an observer
However, to paraphrase Jim Butcher, reactions are how you get readers to give a flying frack about your characters. Watching them love, hate, get confused, wonder why their significant other hates cheese - that's where readers form bonds. Reactions are what makes characters. That and the choices they make, and we need their reactions for their choices to make sense. 

Having a protagonist react to other people's issues rather than their own allows them to demonstrate their character more fully. You can't see empathy if they're thinking mainly about themselves. You can't hug yourself either, or stand there looking awkward with a hand half-raised as a bad substitute. A protagonist that's not always reacting about their own issues is a lot harder to label as a whiner too.

How people observe tends to reveal a lot about them too. Do they notice the way people fiddle or the slight variation in intonation? Do they have a febrile imagination, filling out people's lives for them with the slightest glance? Do they need beating with the clue stick before they spot things? Another way of putting this would be saying that when the protagonist stumbles into someone else's story, they become the narrator. A short glance at any forum would tell you how much readers think they can work out authors based on how the story is told. When a protagonist tells a story, the author can make it far more explicit how the protagonist is affecting the story they're telling.

The protagonist is always the protagonist. But sometimes we get more of them when they're in someone else's story other than their own.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

The Fionavar Tapestry review

Since it seems people enjoyed the Pawn of Prophecy review nearly as much as I enjoyed writing it, I thought I'd do some more old school fantasy stuff. I had meant to continue through the rest of the Belgariad, but it occurred to me that this wasn't the most efficient way to do things. No, the best way to do it would be to review whole series at a go. Since I've queered that pitch with the Belgariad, I need a new victim.

Enter Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry.

I'm assuming most people reading this know who GGK is; if you don't, you're probably missing out. He's never been one of the genre's rock stars, possibly because of some unconventional choices, but he's consistently been one of the best. He's famous for his literary style and strong focus on very human characters. Tigana is often heralded as his magnum opus but it all started in 1984 with The Summer Tree, first book of the The Fionavar Tapestry, and the five poor sods sent away from our reality to the world of Fionavar

The realistic response to finding yourself on a different world
Needless to say, our five intrepid heroes land in a bad situation, which quickly gets worse, and by the time things wrap up in the not at all forebodingly named The Darkest Road, they're just one unlikely hero away from the Dark Lord roflstomping everything. The Fionavar Tapestry has a lot of things going for it but originality is not one of them. This is High Fantasy writ large. Indeed, Kay's on the record as saying:

"At one significant level I wrote the Fionavar Tapestry with the metaphor in mind of throwing down a gauntlet to all of the people who are perceived as having diminished and degraded the genre of high fantasy in the post- Tolkien period by writing derivative, mercenary, lazy fantasies. I saw myself to some degree as trying to say: I'm going to use as many of the central motifs and themes of high fantasy as I can, and I shall try to give the lie to those who have debased it, by showing that there's still a great deal of life in the genre, that it's infinitely larger than twenty years' of hack work. We're not capable of debasing it, ultimately."

And this is very high fantasy indeed. Good vs Evil! Hatred of the light for it is not the dark! The Fate of Kings and Desperate Men! Elves, Dwarves, Orcs Svart Alfar, Mages, and Dragons! GGK runs the entire high fantasy playbook here and he does it without a single twist.

So in an age where high fantasy is usually served with grit strewn all over it like they were sprinkles on a donut, and people complain vociferously about the well-worn tropes of high fantasy, why is anyone going to want to read this?

Its not fair to categorise all of modern fantasy as this. Just a fair amount.

Its only fair to point out that for someone completely burnt out on High Fantasy, The Fionavar Tapestry is not a great book choice. You have been warned now. However, if you've room for more books with Elves and Everything - even if its just one more - and you're not willing to wait for me to do it (I keed) - then consider this one. The reason for this can be summed up with one word: Passion.

For one thing, GGK is passionate about High Fantasy in a way that I don't think most authors in the genre are. Oh, they're passionate about their story, and the stories that inspired it, but not the whole damn shooting match itself. He's writing about this because he thinks it matters, because there's some literary worth rather than just "Hey, I have a neat story". And it shows. He writes all the old familiar cliches with such unabashed sincerity that they feel fresh again. By and large, he does so with thoughtfulness too. Yes, he doesn't really question why the Svart Alfar so loyally serve the Dark Lord, but most of the time he thinks a little about why things work the way they do. The result is a rich, compelling world with real mythic resonance. 

The passion also extends to the characters. These are people that love, hate, mourn and most crucially of all, act. As such, its very easy to love and/or hate them in turn. Its also very easy to roll the eyes like they're Vegas dice at times. Sometimes the melodrama takes that step too far and becomes 'wait did you actually just say that'. Sometimes the prose can get a little purple - okay, scratch that. GGK is fantasy's king of purple prose, especially at this stage in his career. It is totally worth putting up the odd spot of shark-jumping when he gets it wrong because most of the time he gets it right and its glorious. I don't generally find books to be that emotional but there were times when my heart ached for the characters of The Fionavar Tapestry and that simply doesn't happen without feeling they really care about what's happening.

Not only am I actually Donkey Kong, but I did make this face a three times, particularly when at the end *REDACTED FOR SPOILERS*
So it elves and shit with an admirably straight face and feels turned up to 11. What else?

Well its a rather fine story with some rather interesting thematic parts. For example, a number of characters face choices over what to do with their power. Some cling on to it at any cost; some relinquish it. No spoilers, but each and every choice comes with a price. There is a great deal too on the destructive side of love and how we react to heartbreak and abandonment. Maybe I should do a spoiler heavy article on this (maybe one day I'll get round to my article comparing Dumbledore and Granny Weatherwax with an emphasis on love and power).

The interweaving of Arthurian mythology is also rather interesting. Fantasies bridging two distinct worlds are not commonplace these days (although you could argue Urban Fantasy has a lot of it) and as such we get pieces inspired by myth, or pieces based on myth. The Fionavar Tapestry is both at the same time. 

It also features a number of great characters, great arcs and straight up awesome moments. A lot of the moments go to Diarmuid, the generous and scene stealing prince of Brennin, but there's plenty to go round. Dave's arc as he goes from someone who renounces friendship easily to member of a tight bromance is also very touching, but Kim and the dwarf Matt Soren both get pretty awesome storylines too, which coincide neatly with a rather cool scene involving a dragon. Lancelot's big fight is amazing too. 

There's quite a few moments like this too.

I'm starting to lose the track of myself so its time to wrap up. The Fionavar Tapestry is not without its flaws. Many of the flaws are of the type the modern age, if we can judge it as a whole, seems rather impatient with. But unless the flaws are of the kind that make apples taste like ash in your mouth, we should judge a book by its strengths. These are books that do High Fantasy right. They focus on the characters, both on their grand mythical dramas and their little human quirks.

Many authors have set to write out with Tolkien weighing on their mind. The majority of them  (or at least the majority with Tolkien as a positive influence) would have clearly done better for a little distance. In fact, Kay might be the only one where this isn't so, largely because rather than leaning on Tolkien's work, he leaned on Tolkien's influences. An easy and obvious thing to do perhaps, yet few seem to be doing it.

This is why if you read only two High Fantasy series in your whole life, one should be The Lord of the Rings - the other The Fionavar Tapestry.

Monday 29 August 2016

Oracle by Susan Boulton

Of the many branches that exist of the great world tree of Fantasy, those drawing inspiration from the Industrial Revolution are ones I rarely run squirrel-like along. I'm not even sure what the right term for such books are (Google suggests Gaslamp fantasy). Its just generally not my cup of tea as a period of history or genre setting. As such, I must candidly admit that I probably wouldn't have picked up Susan Boulton's Oracle if I hadn't been informed it was on sale for 99p. Truth be told, I still probably wouldn't have if I wasn't quite curious about what I've heard of her next planned book, Hand of Glory. But I was and - hey, 99p. (spoiler - its no longer on sale but is totally worth what you'll pay).

This blog is all about those memes
This was what is commonly referred to as a good call.

I had come to this conclusion by the end of the first chapter. Getting the opening pages right is a source of much angst on most writing forums: Susan Boulton appears to have found it a breeze. The world and main character are introduced vividly but there is no shortage of action to hook the reader in. It is a wonderful set-up that sold me on the book utterly. 

Despite how much I loved the opening, I did falter a little with the next few chapters. The mood shifts, the pace slows, and it is not immediately obvious why we should care for the new characters. At first, it could almost be a different book altogether. This sense of dislocation did not last too long for me however. As the pages turn, we learn more about the characters and more importantly, we learn more about the questions confronting them. Its the sense of mystery that draws me back in most of all. Well, that and the writing itself

Susan Boulton's prose is really rather excellent. It manages the neat trick of being at once dense and light, which makes it officially better than cake. Dense, as in that there is an awful lot of information and atmosphere getting crammed in. Light, as in that it doesn't slow down the reader at all. There's a slightly stiff, formal approach to it that fits the subject matter like a gentleman's calfskin glove. As its best, it reminds me a little of John Banville's work when writing as Benjamin Black. And I absolutely love me some Benjamin Black.

Come to think of it, the Benjamin Black comparison runs deeper than just the words. There's the same sense of a comfortable elite under soft warm lights, praying no one looks at the shadows that hides their secrets and pain. Oracle features more idealistic characters however; they have more in common with the world of The West Wing. It is better to let Oracle stand on its own though; a world filled with political and social turbulence, through which a range of characters stride as they deal with mystery and their own alienation from society alike. 

The characters are by and large more interesting than lovable. I can't quite put my finger on why I felt that way on the latter point - there is something very charming about Oracle herself though - but that's fine. Interesting is more than enough. They develop nicely throughout the story as we learn more about them and their motivations, particularly the secondary characters, who by and large get the most interesting revelations. 

Oracle is not perfect though; nothing is. There is one area that I feel shows notable frailties and that is the plot - which oddly enough, is also one of my favourite things about the book. Oracle does have a compelling plot; just there are things that jarred me. There are a few plot twists where I feel the characters' actions make very little sense and there's a few pacing issues too. I've already mentioned the slowdown after the opening. By contrast, the ending goes by too fast for me and the solution comes too easy. That's a minor quibble though. The characters have earned that after all they've been through and in truth, I got my sense of resolution from having them arrive at being able to apply the solution anyway. 

There was no way I was getting throughout this without a steam train gif
Normally, the hardest bit of a review is giving people an accurate guide as to whether they'll like it. Oracle makes it rather easy. You download the kindle sample, you see whether you agree with me about just how enjoyable the prose is, and you pays your money or not accordingly. If you do, you may have to give the story a little patience, but it is a cracking wee story and once its got you its difficult to put down. It helps if you like steam trains, politicking, dogs and nice young ladies swearing - in fact, if you hate those things, then probably just ignore this review. 

Yeah, I know its a little late to be saying that. Sorry.

But those are just the clothes the story wears. The heart of it is a story about the fate of one woman and the way those out of stride with reality deal with it. And its beautifully written - did I mention that? I may have brought it for 99p but Oracle is worth a great deal more than that.

Friday 19 August 2016

Pawn of Prophecy Review (mild spoilers ahoy)

I have very mixed feelings about David Eddings as an author. Some of his books rank among my very favourites; some of his books make me wonder why I ever liked him at all. Even in his best books there are numerous flaws and a google search of 'David Eddings hack' will quickly pull up many complaints on that score. If you read The Rivan Codex and judge him by his own words, calling him a hack is far from unjustified.

Yet I still re-read his books. I'll still go out to bat for him as an enjoyable author and one worth learning from.

And that's what I'm going to do right now because I just re-read Pawn of Prophecy and its review time.

Well. Bat for at times. 

See, Pawn of Prophecy is the first of a five book series about a Farm Boy who turns out to be the Chosen One and with the aid of the Magical McGuffin, defeats the Dark Lord and Saves The World. And there's not an awful lot I can say about that other than maybe, just maybe, that wasn't as horribly cliche in 1982. In 2016 however, that's a point of historical curiousity, not something that will save your reading experience if you're so over that type of cliched fantasy. I'm okay with it - in fact, I'd hold there's a shortage of farm boys these days, not that I plan to correct this - but it is inescapably as cliched a premise as ever made it big in fantasy. Which in itself makes the book worthy of study if you ask me.

The book starts with our proto-Chosen One, Garion, growing up on a farm with his aunt Pol. Garion's childhood is covered in extensive detail before the outside world intrudes on both his life and the plot. At which point he goes out into the night on a harum-scarum quest that will drag him halfway across the continent, put him in mortal danger, see him meet the great and mighty and start to discover the hidden truth about the world. All in one 104,000 word book!

I do sometimes imagine Garion looking like this
Take a moment to digest that word count. To put it into perspective, Sword of Shannara weighs in at 265k words. The Eye of the World beats that at 285k words. I can't find one for Feist's Magician but given it was released in many markets as two books and the paperback is 864 pages long and it quickly becomes apparent that by the standard of blockbuster debuts of the time, Pawn of Prophecy is teeny-tiny.

Part of the reason is that the book only follows Garion, rather than multiple PoVs. The greater part of the reason is that Eddings really gets the story chugging along without too much complications. For many, that is part of the charm; straight forwards and inviting to the reader. For others, the lack of depth is off-putting, more suitable for teenagers. I'm in Crowd A. Sometimes that's what I want and I wish that more brave souls in the fantasy genre had followed suit and wrote fast-paced epics. Anyone who wishes to follow suit could do worse than read Pawn of Prophecy. Not everything has to be slower than Doom Metal on Ketamine.

Epic Fantasy's Spiritual Sibling: Doom Metal
No one cares if the plot is pacey and the prose is reader friendly if its all about dull stuff though. Given the heavy emphasis I laid earlier on just how cliche this is, one might worry about whether the ideas are interesting enough to hold up. It is a bit hit and miss. No one will ever read Eddings for the deep and innovative world making; no one will do so for the "Oh My Sweet Jesus" plot twists. The characters? At one point, re-reading it with far better genre knowledge than I had the first time, I actually exclaimed out loud "That's Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser!" Originality is not really Eddings' strong point.

Nevertheless, it is interesting. He puts just enough twist of his own on things. He's very good at making sure the good guys are liked and the bad guys are disliked. There's always something happening and its usually easy to imagine. In retrospect, he's possibly the greatest script writer the WWF never had. Arguably, it takes a lot of talent to make heavy use of straight up cliches interesting. It certainly takes something and whatever it is, Eddings had it.

What makes Eddings really stand out for me however is his levity. Long before I ever read Pratchett, David Eddings taught me that saving the world didn't have to be a po-faced business. People joke frequently in Pawn of Prophecy, none more so than the narrator. There's no shortage of authors these days who treat fantasy with a heavy dose of irreverence but Eddings remains a master of the art. His light hearted voice is a huge part of what makes this book so entertaining.

And at his peak, Eddings is near as fine an entertainer as ever worked in the genre. Its a shame his imagination never matched his facility for entertainment, as history is likely to forget him, but as long as people read him there will be readers having fun. He's the pop music of fantasy, the cheese, the Hollywood blockbusters. Pawn of Prophecy is, like so many debuts, not the strongest example of an author's work, but definitely one of the most charming. Given that Eddings' readability lies entirely in just how charming you find his wry take on straight up genre fantasy, that's a good thing.

There are two things in Pawn of Prophecy that must be brought up before ending this review. I'll start with the negative.

Eddings' penchant for racial stereotypes is a wee bit jarring. Let it be stated that the man did call himself out on it and make a concerted effort to show everyone's point of view as the series goes on, but that doesn't change the fact that nigh universally, someone from X Culture will have Y Characteristic. Its not just the bad guys either, its everyone. Its far less prevalent in later works so I don't think its a case of Eddings holding unfortunate views but at the very least, its shockingly lazy writing. I do not find it book spoiling, but Caveat Emptor.

The positive however is Aunt Pol. We all know what a true fantasy mentor looks like; an old git with beard, staff and seven sets of "I Heart Gandalf" pyjamas, one for each day of the week. Needless to say, Eddings has one of these, but our old wizard is not the true mentor. Oh, he's a mentor, but the true mentor is Aunt Pol. In fact Pol - or Polgara, to use her proper name - is arguably the true hero of the piece, the Samwise Gamgee of the Belgariad.

Now, there's a fair few female Main Characters these days. Plenty of kickass love interests. Plenty of dangerous friends, dangerouser enemies, and Guns of the Navaronne-esque frenemies. But major female mentors are difficult to think of. Highly maternal major female characters are even rarer, possible because conceiving a Chosen One is the most dangerous thing in all fiction. Characters that are both? I am really struggling to think of any other than Isana in the Codex Alera. Polgara's position in the book is as if JK Rowling decided to roll Molly Weasley and McGonagall into one character who then crisply informed Dumbledore to stay out of the way as she had a boy to raise and a world to save.

Who doesn't want more characters like this?

As far as I'm concerned, over thirty years down the line Polgara remains an incredibly important character in fantasy's over all canon. She is still one of the best representations of a universal archetype in the genre. She's also an entertaining character in her own right; her interactions with Garion are frequently the best bits of Pawn of Prophecy and the many sequels. I'd recommend reading the book just for those and Polgara will stand as one of the best creations of Eddings and his wife Leigh (later credited as a co-author). 

Of course, I recommend reading Pawn of Prophecy in general. I don't recommend it to everyone; hopefully the review has allowed people to recognise whether they'll like it or not. That is the point of a review after all. But to those who like some fantasy that's light-hearted and fun, and are not too bothered if the shape feels very familiar, here is a book that is likely to become a friend - if it is not already. After all, it's been around for thirty four years by now.

Thirty four years and still relevant. Not bad for a hack.