Monday 30 September 2019

The Five Books Fing Returns

Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes - Sam Sykes' prose *swaggers*. That's the most important thing to know about this book and for many people, the biggest selling point. Sykes' writing rivals Abercrombie's finest when it comes to portraying the sardonic and cynical. It brings Sal the Cacophony, its protagonist and first person narrator, to vivid more than life.

SSBiB's strength is also however its achilles heel. Because we're always with that strong voice, it can get wearing. Because Sal's personality is so prevalent, readers aren't able to gloss over if they don't like her. And after a while, I realise I didn't. It didn't matter to me whether Sal succeeded or not. So this is a book I won't be finishing.

That doesn't mean nobody else will enjoy it. Lots of people will, and that Abercrombie comparison is a good measuring stick for whether you're one of them. And I'm certainly interested in trying Sykes' work again; maybe on a different day I'd have taken to Sal.

Lord of Midnight by Cassandra Clare - I'm not utterly sure why I picked out Cassandra Clare's work out of the many YA books in the library; I knew I wanted something different for me but there was a lot of different for me there. In any case, I picked it up and am very happy I did, for what Lord of Midnight offered was pretty familiar. It's a book about interesting characters with big hearts and interesting flaws trying to keep their world safe; the same as the fantasy I grew up with.

Okay, yes its in an UF world with Vampires and Faeries rather than a semi-mythical one with knights and dragons, but that's not the important part. The important part is that it captured a type of story I miss and don't find enough of. I didn't really get that so much from the next book in the series but even so I will be returning to Cassandra Clare for more fun twisty emotional feel-good action fantasy at some point in the future.

The King In Yellow by Robert W Chambers - This has been a long, long read for me, as if often the case with older reads. They are reads that demand attention and a certain shift in mindset. A lot of the old supernatural horror - in my opinion at least - requires a level of unease with a chaotic world that doesn't really seem to exist for most people today. Oh, we hate how chaotic the world is, but it's our normal. The slow inexplicable realisation that things no longer make sense is kind of the day to day. Maybe that's just my idiosyncratic take on it, but it seems to be mirrored in what I've heard at least some say.

In any case, once the mindset's adjusted, its full of tension. It's also well written, imaginative and generally entertaining. However, the further I got through, the more critical I felt. Maybe I just got bored with the style, maybe (and probably) the back half of the book isn't as strong. It's still worth grabbing for those who like the subtle horror of Lovecraft or reading the genre's history, but for me I'd have probably been happier only reading half of it.

Voice in the Night by Andrea Camilleri - When I first discovered the Inspector Montalbano books, I went through every single one I could find translated in about a month. More-ish is an understatement. I feel an ass for calling a book 'muscular' but it fits here - Camilleri's (translated) prose and storytelling is powerful, straightforwards and visceral. It forces its way into your brain and grumbles and snaps all its frustrations about the world there, but with so much charm and ruefulness that it's a pleasure. Voice in the Night isn't my favourite of the series - Montalbano's main foil seems to be Catarella, who's never my favourite in the books - but its still rather good. The whole series is.

What Does This Button Do by Bruce Dickinson - I once tried fencing for a year and in that time, I was taught by a man who'd done a fair bit of fencing with Bruce Dickinson. It was a lot of fun and I wish now I'd kept it up (I went with a friend where I was drifting out of the friendship and was worried about the stress on my gimpy ankle). Anyway, this book is also a lot of fun - Dickinson's lived about three lives to everybody else's one - but the parts about Iron Maiden are very much skirted over. It's a bit like ordering a steak dinner and finding that the chips, the sauce, the everything else is wonderful and the steak's a bit small and ordinary. You still enjoy yourself, but feel gypped. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the man, or even just interested in restless high achievers - but walk in beware.

Wednesday 4 September 2019

War For The Oaks by Emma Bull

You know, posing review questions is a great outlet for us subconscious voices. So - War for the Oaks - give it the sell!

Eddi McCandry is a talented but down-on-her-luck rock n'roll musician until the Seelie Fey kinda kidnap her and tell her they need her help in a war with the Unseelie for Minneapolis. It's say Yes or the Unseelie start with her. Eddi's left with the infuriating and shape-shifting Phouka, a long list of questions, a serious case of nerves - and a new band to form.

That sounds like...

A lot of things? Yes. War for the Oaks was one of the founding stones of the Urban Fantasy genre and now, thirty plus years down the line, is made to look just a little cliche by its legion of spiritual offspring. Gotta say, I wonder if Emma Bull ever feels a tad peeved about that, or just proud of her work's influence. As someone with an appreciation for the genre's history, I was excited to read this. But even as someone who doesn't read all that much Urban Fantasy and doesn't get that annoyed by cliche and trope, this did evoke some deja vu at times. It doesn't help that my introduction to Urban Fantasy as a kid was Mercedes Lackey's Bedlam's Bard series, which fishes in very similar waters.

Got it. Urban Fantasy like Urban Fantasy's mama made it. What's it actually like though?

It's fun. Bull's two greatest strengths as an author here are witty banter and evocative descriptions (particularly of the uncanny) and you can build most of a fun story on those alone. My mind's eye saw and heard what Bull wanted it to see and hear and I smiled at the right times. Not that its non-stop wisecracking all the way; there's plenty of fear and nerves in the characters reaction when there should be. It's a story about a small group of people having a crazy adventure, half-laughing at it and half-WTFing at it, and the plot rattles along intriguingly enough. War For The Oaks is in the just straight up entertainment category.

Just how entertaining is it really?

I'd put it down as good but not great. Nothing about it had that "Holy Shit" impact for me - no damp eyed moments, no crowning moments of glory, no really good insults - nothing I'd rave about to my friends. For the most part that's an after the fact thought but occasionally the desire to see some real fireworks occurred while reading. Its hard to give too many details on that without a mahossive spoiler, so I'll simply say that when one early plot point is reintroduced right at the very end, I'm very underwhelmed at what's meant to be a big climax.

And part of that's because that plot point went unmentioned for most of the book. On a similar level, I can't think of a time when Eddi did this really clever thing, or made a really hard choice, or even just a choice that built a high level of dramatic resonance for later choices. Indeed, most of that comes from her bodyguard/sidekick, Phouka, who is unsurprisingly the most interesting and memorable character. But even his motivations feel a little underfleshed, and underfleshed is basically the best way I can think of to describe War For The Oaks' drama. It's still an enjoyable book, just not quite fulfilling its potential for me.

Did you turn to the back at any point?

Three-quarters through when it was too late to finish in one sitting, but too near the end for me to go to sleep without knowing.

Any Other Points of Interest?

Not really. If you love 80s rock, you'll love all the references. I guess from the point of view for anyone looking at representation, there's one black guy and Phouka is described as dark skinned (and also described with a N-bomb by one charming fellow). There's a fair amount of romance. Lots of female characters - although that's kinda the Urban Fantasy standard, isn't it? That's the thing with War For The Oaks. Its a very ronseal book these days (does exactly what it says on the tin). I wish I'd read this back when it was published but, well, I was struggling with not shitting myself and walking then, nevermind reading.

This is at least a straight forwards book to recommend. Interested in Urban Fantasy, Light-Hearted Adventures, and the Fantasy Genre's History? Step this way. Not? Probably not. War For The Oaks probably won't transcend genre lines for anyone. Not anymore. And I feel a sadness now that I've typed that for that's the cruel march of time in a nutshell. But so be it. This is still a good example of its genre.

Sunday 1 September 2019

For the Actual Greater Good - Five Surrenders of Power

Outside my window, the sun shines and the world I've always known continues to disintegrate. The balance of power that helps protect our liberty is under is under assault and ordinary people stare at it and shrug. Hell, the fact I'm not out there shouting about it right now feels like a shrug. 

To me, power is one of the great themes of fantasy. But in most fantasies, it's about the price of having it. Very few books seem to talk about the necessity of sometimes surrendering it; of knowing that sometimes it is better to let the boat float the wrong way than stop it floating altogether. So while the manaics seek to put holes in the boat, I thought of five moments in fantasy books where people weren't like that.

Needless to say, this article is spoiler-tastic

1) Galadriel turns down the ring in Fellowship of the Ring

It sometimes feels like Galadriel's role in LotR takes on an importance out of proportion with how much time she gets. Part of that is from people who've read the Silmarillion and know how great an epic solely about her would be. Part of it is because she's one of the very few women there. But part of it is because her brief appearance was, well, incredibly important. One of the themes that beats through LotR is all about sacrifice, denial, wisdom, and knowing that some things aren't worth their price. 

And when Frodo offers the ring to her, it is one of the most important statements of that moment. Galadriel has laid out the bleak choices facing the elves should Sauron conquer; to destroy the land they've loved and works they've made, something they will sorrow over forever as they dwindle away, or see them in the hands of their corrupting enemy. The One Ring will allow Galadriel to avoid that fate. She doesn't hide that she does indeed want the ring for that purpose, and to be the Dark Queen instead of the Dark Lord. But she knows that would be wrong, that the power in her hands would stop her being her.

Better to stay Galadriel and diminish. Better to say no.

4) The Dragonriders of Pern end Thread in All the Weyrs of Pern

The Dragon Riders of Pern have the sweetest deal on the planet in Anne McCaffrey's Sci-Fantasy series. They're the only true protection society has against the menace of Thread and as such, their pre-eminence is as secure as any feudal lord as long as people believe in the menace (it only appears every two to four hundred years after all). Then they discover a way to end Thread altogether. In doing so, they will destroy their own position.

Yet they do it. It is their duty after all. And once they have done it, they do not seek to hold onto positions of authority they no longer merit, but instead find a new purpose and use for the telepathic time travelling giant fire breathing dragons they have. One that isn't "Goodness, what an attractive daughter you have working in that field of wheat. Isn't it a shame that they're out here where they might accidentally get set on fire rather than nice and safe in my Weyr?"

Because they're not bellends.

3) Elspeth renounces her claim to the throne in Winds of Fury

The Princess Elspeth has a long history in Mercedes Lackey's books before we get to the Mage Winds trilogy in which she takes centre stage. We see her parents' tumultous relationship and her father's treachery in Exile's Honour. The Arrows of the Queen series shows us an entitled little brat who needs a good friend. By the Mage Winds trilogy, most (but not all) of the entitlement has been knocked out of her and the series takes care of most of what's left (but again, not all).

As such, when she removes herself from the succession, its not entirely surprising. Nor is it entirely unselfish either. But it is built around a willingness to relinquish something she spent all her life wanting and a sincere conviction that, as someone tainted by treachery and as the country's only mage (i.e. best living weapon), she would serve her country better if she's never Queen. So that's what she does - putting her country first.

2) The Clan Chiefs surrender their staffs to the Emperor in Servant of the Empire

The Empire trilogy has always been one of my favourite political fantasies for sheer enjoyment factor. Part of that's getting to cheer on our heroine Mara as she takes on the weight of an often cruel and uncaring society. Gotta love a good underdog. Yet here, while Mara is the architect, she is not the one surrendering her power. It is the most powerful men in the Empire of Tsurani.

And in doing so, they are giving their power to a previously ceremonial role and giving up centuries of tradition - but all to prevent a war and to prevent a maniac. I guess the gloomy thing is that in the book, it doesn't work because the enemy is still a maniac and still has an army. You'll have to read the book to find out how they survive that (spoiler: may be underwhelming now). But that's what you toss aside tradition for. To protect people. Not to punish them.

1) Sam Vimes arrests Lord Vetinari in Jingo

If you are anything like me, you'll have expected this moment to be mentioned just from reading the first paragraph. The whole book would qualify. I sometimes feel like its the single most relevant fantasy book in the world at the moment and I'm shocked that I don't appear to have done a full review of it as I could have sworn I have. But. Well. After an epic adventure full of misadvised patriotism, casual bigotry, and cunning manipulation of the aforesaid, Sam Vimes gets an order from people he doesn't like to do the unthinkable: arrest Lord Vetinari. And much as he argues against it, his ears catch up with what he's saying and realise he has to. There can't be a "but not him". And Vetinari insists on being arrested.

Of course, Vetinari being Vetinari, it works out for him. Vetinari against Lord Rust is only a fair battle of wits if he had a headbutting contest with a truck beforehand. But both men realise that the law has to come before their own power (something even Rust just about manages). It's easy to uphold it against people you don't like. It's harder to do it on behalf of people you detest. But you have to do it, or we might as well all pack our bags up and head back to the politics of the warlord.

Which is of course what so many seem to want. But that is a mistake. As in art, so in life - sometimes the only sane thing is to accept that your power can only run so far. But the world's rather short of sanity right now.

What Writers Are

Bits and parts of this post have been bubbling up for a while, driven by by this twitter comment and that article, some of them talking about what writers should be and some questioning what writers do. A few of those comments are exasperating, a lot have me sympathising with people, and one has been straight up nonsense of a rather dangerous sort. I don't want to give any more publicity to that particular tweet than has already been given, but I do want to vent about this all.

As far as I'm concerned, a writer is simply someone who sees things that they want to write about, then goes and does it. That's all. No education, no particular background needed. Just being interested and following through.

Now, very few people want to be just a writer. Most of us want to be good writers. We want to be known, enjoyed and admired. That's what all of the advice is about. This might be pedantic, but we know how to be writers. Its being good writers we worry about. That's why we worry about where we come from, what we know, what people want, how much we have to work, and so on and on. Now, I may not be a good writer myself yet, but I feel like I do know a bit about what makes one.

The answer to that is that what makes each writer good (personally and all that) starts with the whole see things and write about them idea. It's basically seeing things well and writing about them well. Now, yes, that is a somewhat glib answer, but I think its sensible to start with the actual answer, no matter how simple it may be or how many other questions it might demand.

In this case it does prompt a "Well, how do you those things well?". And that's part natural gift and a huge amount more parts practice. And also maybe a "What things? Where do they come from?" And the answer to that is unique to each writer.

Tolkien was a professor who leaned heavily on his academic learning and interests. David Gemmell was expelled from school and leaned on his formative upbringing in a rough area. Their approaches there are opposite ends of the spectrum and both are among the titans of the fantasy genre. Nor did their different backgrounds stop them from having influences in common, such as their faith and interest in the Anglo-Saxons. And a look around the pantheon's greats reveals no end of different backgrounds, professions, philosophies and influences. Those differences grow ever greater - I can point you to fantasies inspired by everything from Dragon Age to modern corporate structure - yet are all linked together by a set of common reference points.

As for how we write, when we write - there's the same variety. Some swear by writing every day. Some don't. Some carve out a time for a writing state of mind even when in situations most find intensely stressful; some can't and let it rest and have a fallow period; I think a few authors seem to actively thrive on that. None of those things are superior to one another as long as we end up happy and proud of our work. 

Now, yes, some things do seem to be advantageous. I imagine a survey of every fantasy author ever would find that a disproportionate number of them have professional careers that involve some form of writing. I'd also imagine that most of writers can, if not possessed in some formal education in writing, point to people and books that helped provide that education and knowing good people is a big advantage. And that's without touching on the huge and depressing topic of how race, gender, and socio-economic circumstances will affect the opportunities and advice people are given. I would be insulting people's intelligence and experience if I claimed otherwise.

Also, yes, a writer's work ethic will be pretty central to their success. It guarantees little but without it, writers don't even usually get a lottery ticket. Rejecting the mentally macho advice promoting self-immolation in the name of writing is only sane; nobody should go too far the other direction. Not that I've seen anyone do so.

But these are not "things I must be" or "things I must do". They're routes. Imagine a TV show where they took a bunch of novice climbers and started training them for Everest, one mountain at a time, assigning routes up each mountain at random - would you judge which climbers would actually make Everest based on how easy or hard their first random route is? I hope not. When it comes to being a good writer, degrees and life circumstances are only the first mountain, if that.

I really hope that anyone reading this far is going "Well, duh". Or didn't even bother. That this article is me venting about a few odd comments and is pointless. That would mean life is as it should be. But I rather suspect it isn't for too many. And while I doubt they'll see this article and get the boost I hope they would, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Writing a full book is difficult enough without building up the demons of doubt and prescription. And writing itself is simple (if not always easy), and writing well is about doing a simple thing well.

And anybody trying to do tell you otherwise is probably wrong.