Saturday 30 March 2019

Five Books: A Springtime Selection

It's been a bit of a slow reading time for me recently, but there's still a few books I want to talk about...

The Deep by John Crowley - Crowley is an author I've been wanting to read for a long time, so when I spotted this in the gamble I decided to take a gamble despite this not being a book I'd heard much about. The concept is very simple - a half-robotic creature is sent to visit a feudal world for reasons he doesn't know - and has a compelling nature as a result. What is also compelling, but simultaneously offputting, is the decidedly archaic and formal nature of the prose. It is at once evocative and maddeningly slowing. This book is only a 170 pages but I still haven't finished it.

Nevertheless, I have to recommend The Deep to, well, anyone. It captures the mythic, grand saga feel of fantasy's beginnings while feeling like something from a different evolutionary path and the story itself has a certain Shakespearean grandeur to it. Normally I'd try to bolt through a book like this to try and find out how it ends, but this time I'm going to take it slow and savour each moment.

Distaff: A Science-Fiction Anthology by Women by various - While I'm on a Sci-Fi kick, here's an anthology I was recently given a chance to review. Full disclosure - all of the authors are members of the SFFChronicles forum, which is to say I already internet know and respect all of them, and have received a lot of friendship and help from many. So needless to say, like the snake I am, I'm looking forwards to repaying the favour by turning on them and sticking a knife in their back.

... don't give me that look.

Alas, the stories I've read so far are of a uniformly high quality, with many of them leaving me wondering what happened after the story ended and one wishing I'd written it myself. Its hard to say more than that when I've only read halfway and they're all individual stories. I can say though that so far, its been a wide-ranging journey over SF's various sub-genres and that if anything unites this collection, it is a feeling of being about normal women who are more than capable of dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

Up to the Throne by T.A. Frost - From one SFFChronner to another; I've been excited for Toby's first fantasy novel for a while as a mix of Noir Revenge and Renaissance-based fantasy is right in my sweet spot. I even interviewed him about it. The book itself I found somewhat hard to get into to begin with due to a decent sized cast and a fast action-based opening but as my familiarity and emotional connection to the players increased, so did my enjoyment.

There's a very inevitable Joe Abercrombie comparison to be made here so I'll make it - this book is about as different from Best Served Cold as two pseudo-Italian revenge stories with hard-bitten female protagonists who use cunning and the odd dose of violence to take on their far more powerful foes can be. Up To The Throne has more focus on both sides of the conflict, and its focus on inhuman races, faith and magic makes it feel more fantastic. The supporting cast is less double-dipped in villainy and the heroine, Giulia, feels more like Caul Shivers in some way than Monza. So if that sounds like interesting differences, give it a go.

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson - I'm not a big Malazan fan. I tried reading Gardens of the Moon and spent a pleasant 200 or so pages reading it before deciding I'd probably get more enjoyment out of another book. Somewhere at home, I have one of the spin-offs that had a similar fate. I enjoy his writing and I love what I hear of his ideas but somewhere in the execution it lacks excitement.

I got Forge of Darkness out of the library to have another go and dear gods I found this book difficult. Everything I said about Crowley's prose goes double. The cast is gigantic, the internal monologuing constant and while I support strong messages, the tone preachy. Nevertheless I did find myself enjoying the book as I got into it - but before I'd got even a third of the way in, I realised that two months had gone and the library wanted its book back. And I gave it back without much regrets. My quioxtic quest to find out what everyone else sees in Malazan will have to continue with another book; if anyone out there is on a similar quest, this is not the book for them.

Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes - I was reading this book at the same time as House of Shattered Wings and I kind of forget about it after getting completely hooked on House. But I fully intend to return to this tale of piratical misdemeanours and politics. It has the feel of a story intent on establishing its characters before going epic; it is quick-paced and I smile at most of the right moments.

But perhaps most importantly, I don't know what's going to happen to Stillwater and Drake. Most stories have a shape to them where, even if you may be wrong about the details, the grand shape of them is apparent quickly enough. Not here. Either could be a hero or a villain come the end, or even just a corpse. Their ambiguous personalities and status as dual protagonists offers the prospect of a fascinating game of cat and mouse.

Also, pirates. Just not enough Pirate Fantasy out there.

Thursday 28 March 2019

The value of a good Magician

I was sitting there at work the other day minding my own business when a colleague asked to look at the book on my desk. I said sure and he picked up Jimmy and the Night Crawler while remarking that Raymond E Feist had been one of his childhood favourite authors for one book.

"Magician?" I guessed.

"Yeah. I think there were two others but they never made much impression. Something to do with Darkness?"

Feist did indeed write two others, and some more beyond that. He wrote 30 books in the Riftwar Cycle. But in my experience, if someone's talking about one of his books, 90% of the time its Magician. And more than half of those times, the speaker will say he didn't care for any of the other books.

Now that I stop to think about that, it looks like a pretty interesting phenomena. Most times, people are fans of an author rather than a specific book. They look the writing style, the characters, the imagination, and so on and so on, and stick with the author for a long time. Certainly, plenty of people did with Feist. You don't get to write a 30 book series if people don't buy it. But there's a very vocal element that didn't and that's unusual.


Magician and its two immediate sequels, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon (see, he remembered a little) are very different beasts. The latter two are quest fantasies with sprinklings of politics; its very easy to see that Midkemia started life as a D&D campaign world. Magician by comparison is arguably the most 'everything and the kitchen sink' type book in fantasy. It's possibly the epitome of epic fantasy - how else do you describe a book that spans nine years and two worlds - and features some of the most over the top ideas I've yet to see in the book. Yes, some of these elements survive in the sequels, but they're pale echoes.

Is the answer then that you can take the same writing style and get vastly different results based on the ideas used? Maybe.

Or maybe the answer is that if you sell the fans something in Book 1 and something else in Book 2, you have issues. And Feist definitely did that. I've already illustrated some of that above; another factor is that Pug and Tomas, the heroes of Book 1, are mostly sidelined as Arutha becomes more of a focus. He was kind of a main character in Magician but his story was far less eyecatching. Judging from some interviews, it feels like Arutha was always meant to be the main character of Magician but Pug took over the show as the agent/publisher felt it needed someone more relatable.

And Pug the keep orphan is very relatable. He's Harry Potter before Harry Potter existed, except instead of (understandable) anger issues he brought an inquisitive empathy to the table. He's by turn prodigiously insightful and very slow, like most normal people, and has a cracker of an arc that ends with him in a far more adult place than most of fantasy's heroes. The only bad thing about that is it that it didn't really lend itself to a sequel, hence the disconnect.

Maybe the lesson - or one of the lessons - to take away from this is that there's an appetite for hugely epic stories that are told in only one story. Magician stands almost alone in conventional Epic Fantasy for this; success has bred no imitators here. The only things I can think of close to it is Adrian Selby's Snakewood and David Gemmell's Sword in the Storm.

But then again, perhaps I am thinking of this all the wrong way. Because while I think there are lessons in terms of what sells and what doesn't here, that's a subject that can bog down new writers. New writers (like myself) should be encouraged to strive, to dream, to invent wildly and see what is good.

And here Magician provides a wonderful lesson. The incredibly ambitious and imaginative first novel lives on as a classic, a book people remember decades after. The safe genre stories don't.