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.