Wednesday 24 April 2019

The Empyreus Proof by Bryan Wigmore

I haven't fallen completely in love with many new books over the last few years. Age of Assassins was one and so was Three Parts Dead. Another was The Goddess Project. I'll add the disclaimer that Bryan is a friend here, but I've a lot of friends who write books and I love none of those books so completely. It hit so many sweet notes for me, including ones I didn't even realise I have, like wanting fantasy books that borrow the modern day thriller's Grand Occult Conspiracy. The name even sounds a bit like one.

So does The Empyreus Proof. This is appropriate as this is a sequel that doubles down on everything that made The Goddess Project great. The mix of Edwardian technology and society with primal Shamanistic magics. The heavy focus on the theme of "Who am I?" The desperate quests for revelation and safety in a treacherous world. My go to comparison was The Northern Lights trilogy grown up and run away to sea but as the series has grown, it has become more of its own thing.

The book opens with the Orc, Cass and Hana at the end of their great voyage, hoping to have some time to unravel the mysteries they found and save a friend. But they don't have that time. They seize the power needed to solve their problems, but that only creates bigger problems and deeper mysteries, and before we know it we're back to questing against the Grand Occult Conspiracy. Their travels take in ancient mystic monasteries, eerie castles, seats of power and repression, airplanes, mutated creatures, creepy twins and some intense vision quests. The Empyreus Proof is a rollicking good adventure read.

It is more than that though. The musings on identity become sharper, each arc more contrasted with its fellows, as the cast become more aware of how other people have shaped them, made them. This isn't that unusual for the fantasy genre, which often has a big focus on mistaken identities. My tentative thesis on that would be that this theme has endured in the genre thanks to the many bildungsromans that have resonated with younger readers grappling with the fact that they're the person their parents created and how to be create themselves. In any case, Wigmore pushes the issue further than most. The effects of magic and power in terms of shaping identities; the extent to which these forced identities make them unhappy; the number of arcs to which it is central; all of these things are greater in magnitude than in most other books.

This is one of the things that I think could put readers off of The Empyreus Proof and The Fire Stealers series as a whole. It might remind them a little of Rand's extended angst in WoT, or any other number of somewhat annoying teenagers. And yes, there is an element of that here. The characters are young, they do navel gaze and complain and take their frustrations out on others. I personally believe that element is not overdone and adds just the right amount of verisimilitude and drama to proceedings. But caveat emptor for those with a pet hate for that aspect of coming of age stories.

For me though, that aspect has to be there, for without it how do we appreciate the journey from powerlessness to power (one we take in a lesser form as we age ourselves?). And something I very much appreciate about Wigmore's work is the way he sorts through types of power. The protagonists of The Empyreus Proof have been weaponised and at times do stunning things but at other times, that very weaponised nature works against them. Orc in particular has some fantastic scenes for both in his arc. He looks at the way its done with social mores too, as Cass struggles to find an edge in the misogynistic societies in which she travels. As above, so below.

The writing and storytelling are mostly in what I would consider the Le Guin/GGK/De Bodard strand of the genre. They are lucid and stately, unhurried and unafraid of poetry and melodrama. Sometimes I wish the pace was livelier but I find the pay-off worth it. The poetic touches result in a few awkward phrases, but one a few. I think more readers are likely to struggle with the prose when it comes to the dissonance that can be produced by the contrast of the grand, formal tone that is most of the book and the more down to earth nature of some of the dialogue. I struggled with it myself at times.

The challenge presented to authors by second books is nothing new. I listed three books I loved at the start of this; I didn't love the sequel to either Age of Assassins or Three Parts Dead. But The Empyreus Proof satisfied me just as much as The Goddess Project, even with a few minor gripes. It adds an epic note to the world that expands the story yet stays very close to its themes. And the ending is particularly satisfying, shedding light on the Grand Occult Conspiracy and setting things up for the next book in such a way that I want it now.

Alas, I can't have it yet. But for anyone who is intrigued by the sound of epic fantasy adventures full of Conspiracy, Shamanism and Questions, The Empyreus Proof is here. 

Thursday 18 April 2019

I would probably choose a giant anteater: An interview with RJ Barker

In search of fresh victims, I decided to try asking one of the best new authors from the last couple of years and funniest men on Twitter, RJ Barker whether he'd like to answer some questions. Here's the results...

PL: Greetings Dread Antlered Overlord of Leeds! One of the things that's struck me most in your interviews is how important music is to your writing (and how much you like Fields of the Nephilim). Are there any particular influences or parts of the story that come from the music, or is it more of a general thing?

RJB: Music is a huge part of what I do but its not really applicable to any particular scene or character cos that's not how I write but it all does sink in there. As well as The Fields of the Nephilim (who you're right I do love) I've been listening to a lot of dark folk and country, bands like 16 Horsepower, Wovenhand and Jay Munly and it sort of becomes a mood, if that makes sense? There's a song called Poor Mouth by 16 Horsepower and that sort of sounds (in my head) like the Tired Lands: sparse and dry and lonely -- full of foreboding. It's brilliant as well.

PL: That makes perfect sense. Speaking of influences, I notice you've cited a wide range of inspirations and what not - English folk traditions, the Welsh naming, the Assassins being like ninjas. Is that deliberate, or do you just of things and the ideas come from everywhere?

RJB: I steal mercilessly from everywhere and anywhere I find interesting. I'm a huge fan of Arthurian myth and there's a lot of that mixed up in there, which is partly where the Welsh sounding names come from. And I find a lot of ancient Japan interesting, there's a lot of Samurai stuff slid in there and then we have more Norman castles. I'm sort of a frustrated history writer in some ways. The great thing about fantasy is that I can nearly write history but don't have to do the research. And I joke about being lazy but the truth of researching history is it's far too interesting and I;d spend all my time reading and get nothing done. Queen Adran is largely based on Margaret of Anjou who I'd been writing a script about. I'm a magpie.

PL: I hadn't caught the Arthurian influences - what's your favourite Arthurian myth? And are there any parts of history you're particularly interested in that you've yet to plunder for your writing?

RJB: Oh it's there. The handing over of the 'king's sword' and (SPOILER) the overlooked boy who becomes a king but they are quite fantasy tropes anyway. There's also a nod to the Fisher King in there which really fascinates me. And a really silly joke no one has worked out yet but one day someone will notice. I really like sort of post roman Britain right up to the Norman invasion, that's a time I find really fascnatiing because there was a huge amount going on. And then there's the classic age of sail which has always fascinated me.

There's totally going to be a review of this book on this blog soon

PL: Now I'm going to have to re-read the series looking for that joke. Darn. Are any of these things going to surface in The Bone Ships? In fact... scratch that, tell us everything you can about the Bone Ships at this point!

RJB: I can't tell you much. It's very different to The Wounded Kingdom books and is much more of a 'new' world where the WK books are quite a familiar fantasy place this is a bit less so. It's a matriarchal society, it's not a mystery, it's more of an adventure and it's a book very much about second chances. I've also moved from first person to third person for this one as it fitted the book better. There's magic too but it's not sort of wizardy magic, it's quite subtle and world specific. There, i said a lot without saying much. Oh, MASSIVE DRAGONS. Though not dragons as you kind of expect.

PL: Well that'll have to keep us readers going for now! Does writing it feel any different now that you've finished and published a trilogy? Or does the process feel the same?

RJB: The process is the same. Everything else is just sort of stuff flying about around me sitting on the couch trying to write two thousand words of whatever nonsense comes into my head every day. I really enjoy writing, it's a thing I've done for years and now I'm lucky enough to get paid for it (and I totally know how lucky I am to be in that place). But in the end, I'm still just sat here on the couch writing things that I'm not sure make much sense. I mean I'm very lucky that my agent and everyone at Orbit just let me get on, so I don't really feel like there's any pressure.

PL: I'm jealous enough of reliably doing 2k words a day, nevermind getting paid for it! What's the best and worst pieces of writing advice you've heard over those years?

RJB: The best piece is 'what works best is what works for you.' And the worst is, well, nothing is necessarily bad, but maybe it would be truer to say that maybe the more absolutely sure someone is that their way is the right way the less you should listen. But no one knows how you should write, I would definitely not advise anyone do things the way I do. But maybe something I do might be of use to someone so pick and chose. Mostly I would say find things that help you enjoy writing, because if you're enjoying something you're never wasting your time. And if you enjoy something you'll want to do it more and the more you do it the better you get at it.

PL: Amen to that. Kinda backtracking a little - in a few interviews you've talked about how the Wounded Kingdoms are mysteries, and that Girton being a not-so-great detective allows you to have the reader a step ahead. Do you think its easier/more fun to write a Girton than a Sherlock?

RJB:Well, yes and no? A Sherlock is basically a trick (I love Holmes BTW this isn't a criticism) but what you do is set up a crime that is hugely unlikely so the reader stand no real chance of working it out then work back. And cos you know the trick you can drop in things the reader will never see and have your Sherlock notice them so he appears hugely clever. And once the reader knows the trick it seems really clever but it's actually a cheat. But you're not really reading stories like that to work it out, you're reading to find out how it was done. And I do do this a bit, in Age of Assassins, you can't work out who is actually behind it until the moment I want it to click because I just don't give you enough information. So it's balancing it, wanting you to be a bit ahead of Girton so you feel tension (and a bit clever) and not wanting to give you too much either. But I love that, re-read and find stuff thing. So if you re-read Age of Assassins after King of Assassins you'll find things and think 'oh...' Because I knew when I was writing it where I was going.

PL: I think that ability to keep the reader unsure until you put down the last piece of the puzzle and for it to then seem completely obvious and inevitable is one of those things that really makes or breaks mystery books (if that makes sense). Are there any authors who you feel do that particularly well?

RJB: Well, Christie and Doyle. And I like Edmund Crispin and marjorie Allingham. We don't tend to see that sort of puzzle box writing as much now, though I'm sure there are people doing it. Partly cos it's much harder to do because people know the tricks. Stuart Turton has done a very clever twist on it with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

The real and unmentioned hero of these books; Xus the Warmount, as painted by Tom Parker

PL: I've seen you talk about Girton/Merela being intended as a counterpart to Adran/Aydor. Is there are any character who you think particularly parallels Girton's arc in King of Assassins?

RJB: Well yes. More than one actually (i'm being very wary about spoilers here). There's Boros and Barin and of course, by the time of the events of KoA Girton has become who Merela was in the first book. And REDACTED SPOILER. (His redaction, not mine - PL).

PL: I do see what you mean about Girton and Merela, although obviously Girton isn't as cool. Have you ever considered doing some Merela-centred prequels?

RJB: I have considered writing a book about Merela and have a rough plan for one. I'm kind of 50/50 about whether I want to. I think it's a good idea for a story and would be fun to do. On the other hand, should we ever go back? It's a finished and complete story and does what i wanted it to. And it depends on whether Orbit would want to do it as well. And I have ideas about what I would like to do after The Bone Ships.

PL: The curse of an author - so many ideas, so little time. And speaking of which, thank you for your time Dread Antlered Overlord but before you go - a few random questions for funsies. Favourite bassline to play?

RJB: Oh, it would have been Mountain Song by Jane's Addiction.

PL: If you could pick one animal to have as a pet, regardless of impracticalities, which animal would it be?


PL: Imagine I'm doing the Doctor Evil pinkie expression right now

RJB: It comes down to two really. My wife really loves anteaters and my son really loves tigers. Now I know MrsRJ would give up her anteater for our son. But he is 9, and he wouldn't really look after a Tiger properly so we would end up looking after it. And also, an anteater is probably less common as a pet than a tiger. So I would probably choose a giant anteater knowing the boy would come round and it would make my wife incredibly happy.

PL: You, sir, are a good man. Who'd win in a fight - Sayda Halfhand or Quohrin Halfhand?

RJB: Sayda. The thinking behind the assassins was that they were evolved specifically to take down an armoured opponent. Also, ALWAYS CHOOSE YOUR OWN CHARACTER. :)

PL: Damn right! Back your girl. Finally - if you magically woke up a King in the Tired Lands and could pick any other author as your heartblade, who would you pick?

RJB: Oh, now quite a lot of authors do sword things. Anna Stephens does martial arts and swords, Ed Mcdonald and Sebastien Castell are also excellent swordsmen. Ed Cox would definitely die for me and Gavin G Smith, well, Gav would probably poison my drink actually. But I think Stuart Hotston (whose novel Tangle’s Game is out quite soon) is the most dangerous of them. It's best to be completely mercenary about this type of thing so I'd go with him.

Thank you Mr Barker! The Wounded Kingdoms trilogy is completed and available at all good book stores and it sounds like the Bone Ships will soon be ready for launch. To find out more about RJ Barker, visit

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Wyrd Sisters by Sir Terry Pratchett

So there I was at the library t'other day when I decided to check out Witches Abroad as a good 'refocus' read - something I can use as a lodestone of what good writing is and a nice comfortable re-read to give me a hit of happiness.

It wasn't until I was outside that I realised I'd taken out Wyrd Sisters instead by accident.

Now, I am a huge Sir Pterry fanboy. A list of my favourite books would feature his name over and over, more than any other author I've encountered. But I have to admit that when it comes to the early Discworld books, I'm somewhat ambivalent. I find them the works of an author whose storytelling talent had yet to match his imagination, who had yet to learn that less sometimes had better impact than more when it came to humour, and who was more parodist than satirist and humanist.

As such I wasn't too sure whether I'd done a good thing. I couldn't remember whether this was a book I truly loved reading.

Wyrd Sisters, for those who don't know, is a rather loose parody of Macbeth told from the perspective of the three witches - but here they don't encourage the paragon of vaulting ambition, but rather oppose him when they manage to stop bickering with each other.

It is also where the Witches sub-series truly begins. Oh, I know that Granny Weatherwax and the Kingdom of Lancre appears in Equal Rites, but it starts as one idea and becomes another one here. The introduction of Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick automatically change Granny's character by introducing different, better dynamics to her interactions. Lancre itself becomes a defined world.

And it is a very good book.

What makes it good for me is how much I cared about the characters and, even in a re-read, how much I enjoyed the tension of what would happen to them. This isn't a book that can deliver huge twists - the general shape of the plot is very obvious to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the Scottish play - but it can deliver splendid characterisation and that is nowhere more apparent than Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.

Every time I see a complaint about the lack of roles for older actresses, I wistfully wish that some one would give the Witches series the screen treatment and normally I don't want to know about my favourite books getting such a mangling. But the contrast and chemistry between is so fantastic that I want everyone to experience it. Its like a buddy cop movie, except featuring very cranky, very powerful old ladies instead. And arguably they are at their best here.

A lot of my thoughts about Sir Pterry's first ten books remain the same after re-reading Wyrd Sisters. I laughed at some of the jokes, but not all. I think it could have been a better story if it had strayed further from its inspiration and had done more with the Felmets (the Macbeth expies). But some of them have changed. I think I'd state that the clear premise of Pratchett's later career is "We all have terrible urges for that is being human but we can rise above them because that is also being human, and fuck those who won't." And that is so very clearly evident here.

So in sum totality, what do we have here? Wyrd Sisters is a comedy, although it is more than that. It is a story about ambition and power, about female friendship and rivalry, about stories themselves. I think it still lacks something when put next to the later books, but then Snowdon would lack something if put next to Everest. Its still a mountain.

And this is still a very good book.

Sunday 14 April 2019

If Fantasy Books were Rugby Teams: Game of Thrones

Hello all three of you reading this blog! I've decided that I should celebrate the imminent return of TV's greatest fantasy series, and in what better way with some silliness? A classic tradition among rugby fans everywhere is to hypothesise what the best XV would be out of some group that has nothing to do with rugby (you haven't lived until you've argued loudly over whether a bear or a tiger would be a better flanker). And so I'm going to bring this tradition to Game of Thrones, which is rich of material when considering which sort of nutter goes where. So rich in fact, that I feel like I could do two teams, which in proper GoT fashion I'll split into sorta-good guys and not-at-all good guys, or to put closer to the approved terminology - Non-Cunts vs Cunts.

I even got a ref for it - Jon Snow. After all, he knows nothing, which makes him perfect match official material. I'm putting this one up top as I'm fairly sure its the one joke that'll work for all sports fans.

And with no further ado:

Yara Greyjoy – Full-backs should be dependable and tough enough to be the last line of defence, and ambitious and quick enough to attack from anywhere; Yara fits the bill here
Nymeria Sand - I want a lot of chemistry in the back three, so I'm going with the Sand Snakes en bloc; Nymeria is the most sensible, so she gets the most responsibility.
Gendry – Wings are where you want speed and as a friend pointed out, the speed with which Gendry makes the wall maybe makes him the fastest man in Westeros. He’s also a unit so in he goes.
Obara Sand - A daring risk-taker who'll attack out of nowhere, Obara's game fits perfectly on the wing. Mightn't be the most defensively secure but should make up for it in tries.
Jaime Lannister – Irrepresible confidence and all round skill make for great outside-centres. Jaime would be able to go straight through opposition defenders or around them with equal ease.
Karl Tanner - A minor villain maybe, but a very capable one with fantastic footwork; he'd be able to break the defensive line with no space at all. Also just really aggressive. Can't go wrong with that.
Robb Stark – I worry that he’s too honest for rugby, but his nous and lead from the front style are too much to pass up on; he’d be a fine playmaking, ball-carrying centre.
Lancel Lannister - This backline is going to play with pace, so I want someone young with a lot of drive here. Lancel seems as good a shout as anyone.
Arya Stark – Sure she’s small, but probably no smaller than Shane Williams. She also has fantastic footwork and is a deadly finisher.
Tyrene Sand - The final of the Sand Snakes, picked in the hope that she'll get under the opposition's skin and work hard to link up with her sister.
Grey Worm – The fly-half is the team’s general, and Grey Worm is one hell of a general, not to mention his toughness and speed would make him a formidable individual
Tywin Lannister - Can there be any other choice for this team's mastermind? Everything turns to shit for his side when he's forced off injured dead.
Ygritte – Scrum-halves are meant to be quick-thinking high-skilled individuals; they’re usually gobby gits with anger management issues. Ygritte fits both requirements admirably.
Roose Bolton - This team needs some wise old heads making the decisions, so Bolton in at 9 - he does also have the ability to surprise defences.
Barristan the Bold – Technically proficient and indomitable, Barristan’s advanced age would prove no bar to him continuing to dominate in the front row.
Meryn Trant - A big strong man who'll do what you tell him to, no matter how repugnant. That makes him a decent choice for loosehead.
Davos Seaworth – Another ultra-reliable and tough operator, Davos would be another fine scrummager in the front row and he definitely knows a thing or two about the dark arts.
Ramsey Bolton - Tradition dictates a strong chance that the hooker is the biggest psycho on the pitch. So Ramsey Bolton it is.
Robert Barethon – Sometimes you just have to respect tradition and pick the strongest fattest person you can find for tighthead prop. Step forwards Robert.
Xaro Xhoan Daxos - Another big guy, but this one's picked for his willingness to do anything needed to do to win. He'll need that attitude in the scrum.
Hodor – Yes he’s a bit passive, but get Bran to warg into him for the full 80 minutes and that’s no issue, and every rugby club in the land wishes they had someone his size in the second row.
Styr - The Magnar of Thenn is a big old nutcase who's willing to take a bite out of any challenge. In other words, perfect lock material.
Sandor Clegane – Another big unit for the second row, Sandor’s all round aggression and skill will be invaluable on the field.
The Mountain - Expect Ser Gregor to be at the heart of everything good with this team; or at least everything brutal. 
Brienne of Tarth – A non-stop motor, never say die attitude and huge physicality; these are the things that make a great blindside flanker.
Alliser Thorne - A wily veteran who you can imagine wreaking havoc at the bottom of a ruck; I see him as being this team's poor man's version of Richard Hill.
Bronn – Cunning and mobile opportunist with little respect for the laws of the game or regard for others' physical wellbeing; this description fits both Bronn and openside flankers to a tea
Locke - Another tenacious wily cheat who gets everywhere; you can trust him to track the ball well. And won't let anyone keep their hands on it.
Tormund – To round out my pack, I need another big unit who’ll carry all day long and make an impact in anything. That’s Tormund.

Khal Drogo - A fearsome athlete and gloryhound with no particular respect for others' feelings, Drogo is perfect 8 material. He'll never pass but be worth it anyway.

So who would win? Have I even got the right people picked? And have I even got people on the right teams anyway?

The classic truism of rugby is that the packs decide who wins and the backs decide by how much. The Cunts pack has some of the stand-out names - good luck tackling the Mountain or Drogo - but I'm not sure the quality levels are consistent enough. Most of Martin's memorable villains are schemers, not skullsmashers. In particular I think the Non-Cunts have a big edge in the front row. I wish I'd had time to do a subs bench as I think that's where the difference would really come through, but even just going to 80 I think the Non-Cunts look fitter and stronger all round. Plus you just know Sandor's going to do a great shutdown job on his brother - that's hatred as a motivator for you.

If the Cunts do get ball, I think the combination of experience at half-back and trickery and pace out wide could do real damage. I sort of wish I'd given them a power runner now, but none of them will shy away from physicality. That said, the Non-Cunts have lots of pace and trickery themselves, and players like Gendry and Jaime will bring the power game. A particular mismatch might be asking an old git like Tywin to tackle Grey Worm - he'll spend the game clutching air if he's no careful.

But they won't get enough ball and that should be the end of them. 

Should players be in different spots, or different players selected? You could argue for swapping the Bolton boys, as Roose is far more willing to face actual danger (scrum-half is a very good position for cowardly agitators). I originally had Brienne as a crash 12 before deciding it'd be a better game with a running playmaker there. Yes, I am capable of extrapolating playing styles from the characters' attributes.

I wish I'd found a spot for Oberyn Martell - he'd definitely be the supersub here. Ned Stark would have made a good hooker if not so honest, the Blackfish would make a great maverick fly-half, Daario and Syrio would be fine outside-backs... the list is endless for the nice folk. For the Cunts, well, slimmer pickings. Although arguably they should have Jaime. And you could probably fit Stannis in, although I imagine opinions might be split as to where he should be.

So let me know what I've got wrong and who you think would win.

p.s. I decided against including Giants/the Night King because that'd be too silly. But if you do include them, the winner is the side with the Night King. Hard to beat a player whose hand-off can kill you...

Saturday 13 April 2019

Why Max Gladstone is one of the best things about fantasy today

I recently mentioned Max Gladstone's work here in a mildly critical tone and I thought I needed to expand on this a little because Mr Gladstone is one of the best authors around.

I don't talk about his books a lot here so that mightn't come across like it should. I'm not sure why I don't - his name is mentioned prominently in my end of year lists and then forgotten for the rest of the year - but I should. Maybe part of it is I space out reading his books so I don't accidentally consume them all in one go. 

In any case, Max Gladstone = must try reading and here is why.

It starts with the ideas. My fantasy reading is in a strange place these days sometimes as I want fantasy to resemble the fantasy I grew up, but I also hunger for new ideas. I still read books that keep closely to the old ways and books that are heading in different directions, but I go through moods with them. For me, Gladstone's idea of a world where Gods are companies, where magic and souls are currency, and where worship is business, is one of those things that hits the sweet spot in the middle. I imagine for others that this will sound way too out there and I get that, but my idea of fantasy has always been about history meeting myth and this has that.

What his books also have is a great conception of the smaller details too. Gladstone's cultures combine modern day problems with the resonance of legends. He's done three different locales in three different books and in each case, he has made both sides of the coin feel utterly real. Personal everyday problems are just as riveting as incredible displays of magic. And his use of stereotype and trope is adroit too. Lots of books feature that special lady who the man falls in love with right away; few delve as deep into the psychology as work as he does.

It helps that Gladstone writes fantastically well too. He has a knack for the succinct and evocative scene setter: "Kai met the Craftswoman a week later in a nightmare of glass."  He has a good balance between detail and brevity - closer inspection shows he often goes for three sentences - and a fine eye for life's little absurdities: He describes the uncanny very well too: "More like a stream of water, if water were invisible, and not precisely wet". Most crucially for me, he very rarely gets carried away. He can wax poetical but those waxings are there to give the work its finish, not to be the finish itself. Gladstone is, first and foremost, a very lucid writer.

What then of his storytelling? The part of his craft I was mildly grousing about earlier? It is the easiest part of his books to criticise, but also something at which he is easily more than adequate. A preference for strong themes and tight character casts does occasionally result in telegraphed decisions but other than that he twists plots well. I admire the pacing with which he reveals details about the world and he manages the arc of emotions very nicely. If I ever end up as good a storyteller as Max Gladstone, I'll be proper chuffed.

All in all, he is a truly special author in every way. And the overall effect reminds me so much of Sir Terry Pratchett, only American and more serious. Not only have they both created worlds that feel at once loving and utterly irreverent about fantasy, there is a similar approach to how they approach humanity; with gentle anger. So much of fantasy is about power and while almost no authors are uncritical about its effects, very few are so direct about the messes we tolerate. It is often quietly said so as not to drown out the story itself, but it is direct.

The weird thing is there doesn't seem to be a lot of noise about him. I know a few people who are even bigger fans than me, I see talk about his books once in a while, but he seems to be slipping under most people's radars. A while back when I was first connecting properly with the wider fandom, I asked for recommendations on what's good and recent and nobody mentioned his name once. Granted, it was a small survey, and only one person recommend NK Jemisin so clearly a lot has changed since then, but its some modicum of proof that my mind isn't playing tricks on me.

I hope this changes. I hope Gladstone becomes massive and that there are movies about his books. He deserves to. And I hope that there's someone who reads this, likes what they hear, and decides he deserves a shot on their TBR list.

Because he is one of the best things about fantasy today.

Tuesday 2 April 2019

The Shape of Stories

The first time I ever worked out who dun it just by realising there was only one major character left not cleared of suspicion was when reading one of Max Gladstone’s books (which are fantastic beyond fathoming). I didn’t know how, I didn’t know why, but I knew that there was only way a professional author was taking this set up. I knew the shape of the story.

And I wasn’t all that pleased.

Since then, I’ve been having little niggles at the back of my brain from time to time, all to do with recognising the shape of the story. Now, I love analysing stories and what makes them tick, but when I’m reading for pleasure, I’m generally not thinking all that much. The analytical part of me is only woken up if prodded and when it wakes, it tends to start savaging whatever is in front of it like a pack of hungry dogs with a single steak.

When reading the following article by MD Presley some of my thoughts on this started to coalesce as to just why its so important not to let the story's shape be so obvious.

I believe that at the very heart of storytelling, the most important thing is that we are asking our audience to agree with us that we’re saying is something that could have happened. It’s often hung with a million caveats, like magic being real or owls and pussycats going boating together, but we are saying either “This is what happened” or “Maybe this could have happened”. We storytellers are nothing without credibility. Even the most far-fetched absurdist is sunk if people start going “but no one would react like that, this isn’t real at all”. Not that it has to be real mind; it just has to feel real. We are in the business of selling verisimilitude.

Which is why things like Chekhov’s Gun is important. Our audience know we’re liars (if I ever make it I’m having professional liar put on my business cards) and they’re okay with it, but they want a framework to the lies so they can play along at home. It has to make sense. It has to feel real. We can’t have things suddenly appear out of nowhere because that makes them remember that they’re not real. So far so obvious.

But of course there is an issue and that is the one Matt has identified – it is telegraphing what will happen. And if it telegraphs too much, if we start running out of ways to the use the gun, then he shape of the story is too obvious. And if something is too obvious, if it feels too convenient, it begins to press against the belief that this could have happened.
How to manage this depends partly on genre. Chekhov’s Gun makes a lot of sense for those working in constrained mediums. But if one is writing Epic Fantasy, which deliberately seeks to tell the tales that don’t work in constraints, or mysteries where obfuscating the shape of the story is rather important, then it maybe shouldn't be following all that close. If one is writing both, it creates issues multiplied. But you still need framing devices. You still need foreshadowing.

One idea I’d like to suggest (it’s probably been suggested far better by someone else) is a market stall. If there is only one object of importance present in the first act, then the shroud over the story’s shape is very fragile. If there is only one object of importance and a lot of red herrings, then once we’ve disposed of the herrings, we’re back to the same problem. There’s nothing wrong with thing in and of itself, but there is if every story is some variation on those two.

If there are many objects of importance, then the reader is left with a logic puzzle of what goes where and even if they think they know one of the answers, they’re unsure. The most obvious example I can think of is the many unfulfilled prophecies and potential claimants left in GoT, but it can just as easily work with multiple crimes and multiple suspects. I can think of one detective story that answered the question of who tried to kill the victim by having it revealed that they all tried.

Is this going to work for every story? No. But then, it would be bad if this was every story as well.

Are there any other ways? Part of me wants to know how late you can leave it to introduce a major character or plot point and what needs to be done to make that work (major foreshadowing I suspect; Chekov’s empty holster?) Part of me wants to know if you can get away with shooting Chekhov’s gun at the halfway mark and sending the plot on a crazy right turn at that point rather during the third act (which of course still leaves you free to reload it and fire again right at the end); part of me suspects this is what GRR Martin has actually done.
And, of course, there is the careful usage and timing of one or two objects to create a very tight, very suspenseful plot. It would be beyond foolish to say this isn't an option. 

But when looking for ways to avoid giving away the shapes of our stories, we should always be looking for new spins. And we should always be careful about giving away too much.