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. 

Friday 5 August 2016

The Basics

This blog's been silent for a number of reasons but one of the main reasons is that I wanted to talk about writing and I've had nothing to say. Or rather, lots of things to say, but none that I could voice well enough to be worth reading. There's a huge amount of advice out there - it would be a mistake on several levels to add something that offered nothing of great value to the pile.

So I am going to start by talking about rugby.

For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, rugby basically comes down to running with a ball through a line of fifteen Goliaths who are allowed to stop you with just about everything short of weaponry. 

This is obviously quite difficult.

There are a number of ways this can be accomplished. One can of course simply meet them head on and triumph by being more brutal than they can be; the purists' approach. It is also possible to beat the defence with breathtaking agility and speed, or by incredibly accurate passing and kicking, both of which can suddenly create space where there is none. Most fans love to see this; most sports fans are hooked to the adrenaline rush that comes from surprise success.

The best teams though don't rely on either method to win. What marks out the best as different - other than a lot of silverware - is their accuracy. What they do often looks breathtaking but on closer inspection is actually quite simple. They don't rely on incredible athleticism (although they have it). They rely on doing the simple things better than anyone else. They rely on getting the basics right.

And this is where I can start talking about writing. Do the basics right.

As I said, there is a huge amount of advice out there. If every list of dos and don'ts for writers was a pie, we'd all die of heart attacks. Most of it is quite good but there is a risk that with all this information and little tricks of the trade, we forget the basics. Its easy too to let creativity wild and in the process, distract us from getting the basics right.

Now I'm not saying its enough to get the basics right all by itself. If you get the basics wrong though, you lose. Another draft bites the dust. There's worse things of course but life is too short to go around chucking away drafts.

Here's the basics as I see them:

Write clear and easily understood prose - Ask yourself if an eleven year old could understand it. If they can't with someone explaining the difficult words, you could have probably made it clearer. Unclear writing is slow writing and your ideas are too cool to make people wait for them.

Describe your events, places and people in the way your readers experience them - Use the five senses. Use metaphors people understand. Use the physical reactions to emotions rather than just naming the emotions. 

Have your characters act sympathetically, interestingly and in a way that makes sense - If characters have readers going "Wtf", "Boring" or "Not Cool", the reader will probably stop reading. You can get away with a lot of frowned upon stuff when writing a character but these three are non-negotiable.

Have events link to each other in a way that is consistent and increases interest - Plotting is perhaps the most difficult part of writing; it is certainly the bit most likely to get tangled in complexity. Getting those two things wrong though is another good way to stop the reader from reading.

There are a lot of other things that usually happen in a good book. Editing for one. Research and Ideas. I haven't mentioned Foreshadowing at all. There's helpful little tricks like the Tags and Traits recommended by Jim Butcher.  And on and on and on and - hey, this isn't the Gaviscon advert. There is a reason why there's so much advice out there. There's so many ways to improve your writing.

These things turn good books into fantastic books though. Doing the basics well gives you a good book (with an edit) and without doing the basics well, there is no potential for a good book. And the writers out there with the longest, most successful careers? They're the ones who have the basics down. Not the people with the amazing ideas or the heartstoppingly beautiful prose or the incredible intricate and interesting worlds. They might write some fantastic books, but the people writing readable popular books year after year after the people who have the best basics.

So that is my advice to any fledgling writers out there, including myself. Never lose sight of the basics of writing. Never stop trying to make them better, never stop trying to make them second nature. Because being good at the basics is how people are good at anything.