Thursday 30 April 2020

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

This is the review of a book I didn't finish. And I feel really bad about that, because I got this as a publicity copy that I asked for and was so excited about it, but here I am, unable to finish it. I just reached this point where I wasn't able to finish it properly. There's only one thing I can think of to do when that happens, and that is to write a review so the people who will finish this book and love it will find it.

Lets started with the good, then?

I was so excited to get a hold of The Library Of The Unwritten because the conceit about this idea is fantastic. The big idea is that there's a library in Hell called the Unwritten Wing where every book left unfinished by its author rests, and that characters from these books can materialise and escape. I shudder to think how many shelves I have there. Nobody's ever constructed a genre name for those stories about little pockets of reality just off the world where myths are real, mixes of whimsy and adventure and horror, but when there's a name, this idea would be considered a prime example of it. And no, its not really Urban Fantasy, even if its lumped in with it often enough.

Needless to say, a character, and that's where we start - with a small team chasing after this character. And equally needless to say, things go south very quickly when they discover more than they wanted. It's an enjoyable read at first, with smooth prose, a lively but not numbingly fast pace, and some fun little twists. Hackwith is a talented writer who is particularly good at knowing when to keep the plot moving and giving a character their own individual voices. She comes recommended.

But where me and her ideas started to part company were the characters. The team chasing after the big secret are forced together by circumstances and frequently bicker and snap at each other. The result was many of them were constantly shown at their petty worst. I found it wearing. Boring. Witty repartee and enmity rock but I don't care for a constant diet. It is, after reading much of this book, a concept I might steer clear of in future. Or maybe it is just Hackwith's choices here with Hero in particular finding his way high up on my list of "characters I'd like to see fall down the staircase with a loud snapping sound and never be mentioned again." Some characters we love to hate, some we find fascinating in their awfulness... and some, we just find unbearable.

And as my dissatisfaction with the characters grew, the more I nitpicked. The more I tried to plough through it and get to the other side of the character dynamics. Didn't work. And today I gave up.

Hopefully many readers at this point are saying "but I like fast moving books with bickering characters and the concept is awesome" and are now going to try it. Good. Or they are nodding at what I said about the character dynamics and know to concentrate on something more down to their tastes. Also good. But what if someone is on the fence? Let me share three more thoughts/observations about The Library of the Unwritten and see if it sways people.

1) Most of the plot up to the halfway plot has the characters haring across the world to exotic locales in good old fashioned Quest mode. Having flicked to the back to see if I was missing anything (honestly, I suspect I am), I think we spend a lot more time in the Unwritten Wing in the second half, but anyone who's really in it for the location has a long wait. Anyone who's in it for a motley crew of supernatural types chasing dangerous book-things is in the right place.

2) There's also a considerable Heaven vs Hell arc involved, with one (kinda) of Heaven's host acting as a secondary character.  It's a tad reminiscent of Gaiman's work there, possibly a tad too reminiscent given Good Omens' recent TV series. Some people might be chomping at the bit for more of it, others may have had their fill, or prefer a kinder interpretation of Heaven such as that found in the Dresden Files

3) Finally, Hackwith is engaged in a bit of a conversation with storytelling in general, poking fun at stereotypes and what not. It reminds me a bit of Abercrombie's The First Law in that sense. If you're down with that and enjoy the stereotypes she's cutting down, you're in for a treat. If you found The First Law a little preachy in its view on stereotypes, and maybe a little lacking in situations where the conversation was meant to be the hook and it didn't work for you, and maybe tilting a bit at windmills... I think that's where it lost me too.

To sum up, A.J. Hackwith has written a very good book with a distinct flavour that will endear it to many and not work for others. Just because I am with the others doesn't mean people should ignore it. 

As mentioned, I received a copy of this book in return for an honest review from Lydia Gittins and Titan Books, and I am very grateful they did so. And wish I liked it better.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Character, Plot, Worldbuilding and Interweaving

After reading the last two blogs, Bryan (whose sanity remains sadly intact) asked whether evolving character dynamics could be used in the same way as a plot as a story framework.

I don't see why not. But I've never seen it done.

I've certainly seen one character's emotional journey be used as a story framework - indeed, as the actual plot. It's what The Hero's Journey is. But a duo? Or more? I'm guessing if I read more romance, I'd have seen it as a framework of it too, as that is entirely based off two characters' relationship changing, right?

But in a non-romance, not romantic relationship way? Some crime stories are built around a dance between detective and criminal but how much evolution is there? I could cite Line of Duty as an example, the way Arnott and Gates manoeuvre around each other, but it is clearly not the main driver. It is a byproduct. And 99% of the time, that's how it works. The plot drives action by demanding the characters act. Their actions change their mindset and create changes in character dynamics, frequently leading to some of the story's most memorable scenes. Does that count as something that can be used as a framework?

I think a better way of thinking is that it's something that could be built into a framework. That you could have a story framework that doesn't just list the plot events, but also the emotional events - such as changing character dynamics - that result from it. Have multiple versions covering multiple relationship dynamics. Indeed, once you've done that, you can plug and play to a certain extent.

Or, freestyle it on the plot but use the character framework. Or, hell, reverse engineer from the character framework. If you've decided that halfway through the story you have something that splinters the group and forces them to get back together before they can bring down the enemy, you know you need an event that forces them to question each other. The big momentum changing fight or revelation has to be of a certain type. Is this prescriptive? It can be. Could it work, both as prescriptive framework and as an idea to riff off? I don't see why not. The big crack against genre fiction is its plot driven, not character driven. It's not a bad thing, but it can be limiting, and I think the advice in genre fiction can be very much plot focused. Having ideas on how to alter it can be liberating. And a bottom up approach, where we focus on the characters and how they'll change, and then start constructing the plot around that? Feasible. Just there's no set advice. And I reckon if I was talking to romance and YA fans, they'd be rolling their eyes right around five lines ago.

And why limit it to character? Another friend, DT, pointed out most of my ideas seem to be centred around characters, while he centres on worldbuilding and Big Ideas. Is that wrong? Of course not. I've been looking through a friend's draft on worldbuilding theory recently, which has given me some great ideas and taught me a lot about how people do this. As is pointed out in the draft, it's a more Sci-Fi way of doing things (and DT defends the SF genre with terminal intensity) but there's no reason it can't be done in Fantasy, or Horror, or anything really. Of course a writer can sit down and say "I need the audience to learn this, and feel this way, about the Big Idea here, here and here, so I'll need something here, here and here in the plot, and I get to those spots by doing this" ad infinitum.

The more I look at story theory, the more I believe in the idea that Character/Plot/Worldbuilding basically make a circle, and that when we have ideas around one, the wheel starts to turn and ideas form in all of the other segments. And the wheel continues to turn and soon we're back to whatever part of it was the original idea, with more ideas about it. The dominant stories out there, the 800lb gorillas in the room, are there because they are strong in all areas. The only way that works is if Character/Plot/Worldbuilding are as interwoven as possible, so that every detail feeds as much of those three areas as possible, and enthralling levels of depth are created in the limited space. If that's not happening, then something will end up going by the wayside.

And if that's how people are crafting their stories, does it matter which of CPW you start with first? Obviously not - the starting point is not the ending point, and the idea will go round and round the circle before reaching that ending point. I would go further and say that spending a little time thinking about the idea as if you had started with the character - or the world - or the plot has a good chance of collecting dividends. Maybe you'll realise there's nothing compelling or crucial about their place in the plot (or the plot's place in the world) and start thinking about what you can add. Maybe you'll come up with new ideas. I went through an exercise as part of reviewing the Worldbuilding draft where I sat down with a logline and elevator pitch, started identifying the Big Ideas that were mentioned there and ergo had to be done right, started writing down the base bones of how they worked and how things could extrapolate, then started to write about the extrapolations, and ended up with an obvious setting element that I think could really add meat to Character and Plot. Would I have got it without imagining the story as if I was building it from Worldbuilding first? I don't think so. It's not a natural angle for me but that's the point.

As such, that is my new method for getting stories that match the ideas of what they should look like in my head. It's getting some results. And that is my truth, tell me yours.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Character Dichotomies - Fantasy Lit Edition

As I noted at the end of yesterday's post, I struggled to think of character bonds built on heavy dichotomy but with a very strong crucial commonality like that of Peralta and Holt in Brooklyn 99. I gave two, and would like to recant of one very quickly after, and have been trying to think of more ever since to examine how it works in written fantasy form.

It's hard. For whatever reason, it doesn't seem to be a big part of how the genre is written, or at least the parts that I read. We'll often see two characters with a strong bond, but it is rarely written in that way. Good examples of what I see more commonly would be something like Locke Lamora & Jean Tannen (Gentlemen Bastards) or Fahfrd & The Grey Mouser - close comrades with complimentary skills, who sometimes argue but are mostly harmonious and don't have heavily different personalities. Another common example would be the lovers - Phedre & Joscelin (Kushiel's Legacy), Tavi & Kitai (Codex Alera), Mara & Kevin (Empire Trilogy) - they come from very different backgrounds and can clash on that, but they share big commonalities. This is where Falco and Helena Justina from Lindsay Davies' detective books belong too; pairing recanted.

Many Epic Fantasy series feel too big and sprawling to really invest so much of the story in two characters, although we sometimes see it between MC and Mentor (which mirrors Peralta & Holt). Many standalones don't delve deep enough into the characters. It feels like fertile soil for Urban Fantasy and YA, both categories I don't delve too deep into, but I struggle to think of good examples from what I've read. 

There are of course antagonistic pairings. Claire & Hero from The Library of the Unwritten (which I'm currently half-heartedly reading) snarl at each other a fair bit due to a number of differences in personality and background. But there's no commonality seen so far (halfway through the book), just a common purpose. Was that the author's intent? The movement from common purpose with antagonism to friendship is a common one but it is one where I feel putting some form of a bond in early helps a lot. 

Ultimately, I only came up with five interesting examples, two of them from the same author:

Sam Vimes & Captain Carrot (Discworld)
Girton & Aydor (The Wounded Kingdoms)
Granny Weatherwax & Nanny Ogg (Discworld)
Chava & Ahmad (The Golem and the Jinni)
Rand & Moraine (The Wheel of Time)

I'll start from the bottom. I only thought of R&M last minute, having initially discounted them to only really being there for half the series. But that's still a lot of words, and the best half of them too, and in many ways it's the pairing closest to P&H and the best example of what you can do with this sort of dichotomy in Epic Fantasy. Here Moiraine is the highly driven, very polished mentor who is willing to do anything if it makes Rand - sometimes diffident, sometimes stubborn, wholly young and inexperienced - the man she thinks he needs to be. While their backgrounds give a natural contrast, the real conflict comes in terms of their morality. 

Rand is - at least to start with, and never entirely not - a sheep herder from the countryside with simple views on right and wrong. To Moraine, the ends justify the means; there is either victory over the Dark One or total doom for mankind. She can view the suffering of her own countryfolk with dispassionate eyes because resources spent there lessen the chance of victory. The bond? That part of Rand agrees that if faced with total destruction, all is permitted to evade it. That part grows under her guidance until he too is willing to look away from compatriots - although with far more sadness - when he believes it necessary. Rand grows harder, more Machiavellian, more authoritarian and while many factors go into it, the lessons Moiraine teaches are the most important ones. By contrast, Moiraine finds herself more and more out of her depth, and in some ways, their position switches. It's an interesting journey and arguably its ending harms the story, but it is fairly simplistic as a dichotomy and I'm not sure it adds that much to their characters.

With C&A, the contrast is central to their characters, particularly as neither is human. I know, I know, massive spoiler, never would have got it from the book title. Chava is the golem, Ahmad the djinni, and in Wecker's story, those two are very much different in outlook and being. The biggest obvious difference is that Chava was created to be a slave and finds herself unexpectedly free; Ahmad to be extravagantly free but awakes a slave. The obvious bond is that they are equally uncomfortable and in a way only the other can come close to understanding (although obviously there's still a big gap there). It's mildly ironic to think that in a genre full of different species, it took this unusual combination to unlock the potential of inhuman friendships.

The one caveat I have about them, certainly in terms of stealing ideas, is that that everything I just said is situationally based. Yes, their personalities still contrast each others, but I'm not sure the intensity of it, or the bond are there if its just the personalities. Changing the situation may change their relationship, and perhaps that has something to do with why The Golem and the Jinni's sequel has yet to come to fruition. That is pure speculation of course, and situations and personalities can both change again, but the dichotomy isn't hard baked in. 

Now for WOE (W&O is close to woe, and damned if I'm not writing WOE in caps every chance I can get), which is a very human pairing where everything is rooted in the personalities. To draw the dividing line - Nanny Ogg wasn't so much last in line when they handed out shame as saw it and walked on by, where as Granny Weatherwax is both somewhat prudish and has a monumental ego. There's a close similarity to Peralta-Holt there and it feeds into so many of their actions, from talking to strangers, to how to use their magic. I guess there's a reason that the uptight one and the relaxed one are such a common odd couple (although again, I only started to know it from reading outside fantasy) and they are, in their way, as relaxed and uptight as it gets. Nanny is completely comfortable in her own skin - I doubt Granny has spent a single comfortable day in hers.

Is there a bond and commonality though? Certainly there's a bond that comes from their age, power, and common history; there simply aren't that many of their peers around. But an intensely personal one that exists for just them? I think there is one of a sorts, although it's kinda one sided. Nanny is just about the only person Granny can relax a little around, the only one where she doesn't constantly have to be the all knowing witch around and can just be Esme. Not only does she know Nanny really isn't a judger at all, but she knows Nanny understands what it is to bear her responsibilities. Now I type it, I can definitely see some P&H there in WOE; Holt relaxes a bit around Peralta too. I don't think Granny wants to be Nanny Ogg, not for one moment, but in all other ways it's a very similar type of relationship and proof of how effective this sort of character dynamic is.

G&A is - I say this only as I start to type and think - a rather different use of this sort of bond, not least because the two characters' relationship and personality change a great deal over the series. I must take a moment to diverge and say it vex me a little that for all the possibilities fantasy offers with its huge series, few authors target huge spans of time that really let us see how characters change over the span of a lifetime. G&A go from intense enemies, to suspicious allies, to wary friends, to all-but-brothers (all while Girton goes through a similar reverse arc with another character). Girton goes from optimistic and a little naive, to angry and wounded, to tired and questioning, finally ending at peace; Aydor goes from petulant and entitled, to a mild cypher, and then to joyful and boisterous - and at peace. He finds his peace earlier than Girton but in the first and last book, they are strong contrasts (maybe this is part of why I don't like the second book as much?).

The bond - and to me there is a definite one, one that definitely develops - is somewhat built on envy. Aydor envies Girton's close relationship with those around him; Girton, when not afraid of the bullying envies Aydor's privilege a little, and later his contentedness. There's long periods where each would on some level rather be the other. It's less about sharing a personality and more about circumstance, but there does seem to be a commonality in that both are happiest when they are least burdened and can simply be a warrior with their friends. That I think is more an element of the series (Barker does focuses on the crushing nature of power) as it's something they share with other characters, but it is there. 

Finally, the one I thought of immediately last time - V&C. It's a very, very easy comparison. Grizzled cop with very different personality to their affable optimistic junior? Yup. There are of course differences to P&H. Vimes is defiantly of the streets (even when he isn't to anyone else), burning with suppressed rage, and gives off sarcasm and cynicism like steam off a hot pan. Carrot often sounds like "a civics essay written by a stunned choirboy"; he is far too mature and responsible for his own good. Yet on closer inspection, the comparison doesn't work so well. Why? Since the irreverent/respectful part of this has been swung around so the respectful one is the subordinate, there is less conflict. Could I repurpose this as Vimes and Vetinari? No, because they don't spend enough time together. And neither, when you come down to it, do Vimes and Carrot. When investigations come up, as the two senior figures, they have to split up to cover ground.

I do not have a theory of how to do it here. All of the examples I've used here have come from extremely good books, so it's not like mixing it up makes a book bad, or there's only one way to do it. There's also a ton of extremely good books that don't have it, although I have to say the fact I grabbed examples from my favourite author and the best trilogy with continuous characters this millennium suggests I have a heavy bias towards this. And it is perhaps this bias that leads me to say I think I see an underexpoited use of character dynamics in the fantasy genre.

And the great thing about this character dynamic, and those like it where characters have very tight bonds and obvious contrasts? It packs a lot of character into a single dynamic, because whenever the characters interact you get a lot for both, and the audience can start reading into them due to their bond. For me, fantasy is a weird genre in that it is very character-led due to them being the terra firma in the strange altered secondary worlds, but also expected to be very action heavy. When it works it's fantastic but it is all too easy for one of them to go missing due to constrained space. The more character building you can get in when showing them off, the better. 

Is there a risk in that the characters feels flat without their dichotomy around? Maybe, but it doesn't happen in any of examples I name. Weatherwax's journey with Brutha is epic, Vimes can bounce off anyone, some of my favourite Girton scenes are with Merela, and so on. I mentioned that I feel like missing Rand-Moiraine time made the Wheel of Time worse, but that was because of Moiraine's replacements. Min was cool, but the rest? In fact, the fact I'm saying the rest points to the problem. Big casts make for the risk of weaker characters and dynamics. And of course, sprawl is the Wheel of Time's real problem. Yes I think removing that dynamic made it worse, but that's not on Rand.

Monday 27 April 2020

Holt and Peralta - A Study in Dichotomy

One of the most common principles of writing an entertaining cast for any story is to have characters that are in some way mirror opposites of each other, particularly when it comes to the main character and the main secondaries. There's probably some technical term for this that I should know. I'd look it up but I'm busy watching Brooklyn 99. For those who don't know the show, here's some of the loglines:

"Brilliant but immature Brooklyn detective Jake Peralta must learn to follow the rules and be a team player when his squad gets an exacting new captain."

"Talented but laid-back detective Jake Peralta and his dysfunctional peers struggle to get along under their precinct's strict new captain."

"When tightly wound Capt. Holt takes over the precinct, carefree Det. Jake Peralta and his dysfunctional coworkers' lives get demanding."

To spell out the obvious, all of the show's loglines revolve around Jake Peralta and Captain Raymond Holt. They're selling the idea that it is all about those two. Selling it hard. That might seem a little weird given just how much of an ensemble show it is but it makes total sense, and not just because everyone tries to simplify ensemble stories when selling them. It makes sense because Jake is the main character - and Holt is the secondary character with the biggest dichotomy with Jake.

Of course, part of what makes B99 great is that all of the characters have their dichotomies with Jake, but Holt is more or less a total opposite to Jake in terms of maturity, formality, interests, temperament... almost everything. Placing him at the centre of everything with Jake as his boss brings out this contrast and is a constant source of both humour and drama. It's why, when Jake is completely separated from the rest of the group for multiple episdoes when in witness protection in Florida, Holt is with him. The numerous levels on which to contrast their personalities means they can carry far more of the show on just those than any other combination involving Jake other than maybe Jake and Amy (rival/crush/girlfriend/wife), and a crude but not inaccurate description of Amy would be "Holt as a young extremely attractive Latina". But it's not quite as good.

The why of that - what makes Jake and Holt tick as a character dynamic more than other - is that on one small but crucial level, they are identical. They both love catching bad guys and not just catching them, but doing so with cinematic, macho gusto as the centre of attention. Holt's partially grown out of this, but only partially. If challenged, or if driven to high levels of emotion (despair or elation) it comes surging back. See the many Halloween Heist episodes for the best examples, but the core of it perhaps comes from this quote:

"You wanna know why I was so angry all week? When those men came at me, I acted like I was a twenty-year-old. I took a stupid risk and I got myself stabbed. I was in pain and frustrated about lying to the man I love." 

In his heart, Holt is still a gung-ho thief-taker just like Jake. He has grown a different persona that is just as much truly him because he needs it to succeed in the world and who he wants to be, but that Jake-esque quality will be there. And of course, to complete the mirroring, Jake has his own journey towards being a more mature human being, one in which he connects with the core part of him that feels a sense of responsibility to everyone and can't put his own fun ahead of doing the right thing by them - which is in turn quite Holt-esque.

And the best thing? The writers lampshaded it by making Holt's middle name Jacob. His own hidden slice of Jake-ness. The thing that Amy can't complete with in terms of character dynamics (although also because their oppositeness compliments each other rather than leading to conflict) - she's just not Jake enough. Neither is anyone else.

Well. I lied. The absolute best thing about Holt and Jake's relationship is that Holt will, every now and again, leverage his dour reputation of him simply to mess with Jake.

Captain Holt: Do you want to know how I actually hurt my wrist?
Jake: Yes.
Captain Holt: I was hula hooping. Kevin and I attend a class for fitness and for fun.
Jake: Oh, my God.
Captain Holt: I've mastered all the moves. [Shows photos on phone] The pizza toss, the tornado, the scorpion, the oopsie-doodle.
Jake: Why are you telling me this?
Captain Holt: Because no one will ever believe you. [Deletes photos from phone]

And that's because a) It's hilarious and b) It's him being Jake. Nevermind calling himself Velvet Thunder or shouting "Wuntch time is served", him messing with Jake is ironically his most-Jake-esque moments.

I'm sure there must be better examples of this sort of dichotomy between a MC and a leading support character but right now I can't think of them. Maybe it's a genre thing; the only two examples I can think of similar right now are Vimes and Captain Carrot, and Falco and Helena Justina, both from comedically inclined crime series. Maybe it comes from detective series concentrating on a couple of people with a very tight relationship, but why can't that work in War stories, or Quests, or a dozen other things?

In any case, no idea is for every story. But I do think that the principle of having characters mirror each other is so common for a very good reason. The relationship of Holt and Peralta is simply carrying that it to its logical conclusion. In this case, it has produced outstanding storytelling.

Sunday 26 April 2020

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Arthur. Is there a single more used man in the retellings of myth and legend? Maybe, but not many. After all, few of them offer as much to the storyteller as Arthur does. Heroics! Tragedy! Drama! And, of course, maybe most crucially, ambiguity. Who was he? Briton, Roman, Sarmatian, euhemerized God? What is the correct way to retell his story? Which of his many companions and tales deserve to be mentioned?

Once upon a time I found out Bernard Cornwell had opinions on this, and that started one of the greatest reading experiences of my life.

Cornwell's decision was to tell it in a "realistic" style - a fairly historical Dark Ages Romano-Britain where the enemy is the Saxons - and does so through the first person narration of Derfel, a brand new character loosely based on Bedwyr/Bedivere. A fair selection of famous characters such as Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Galahad are included; a few major ones like the Orkney brood and Percival omitted; minor characters such as Culwch and Sagramor given more import; and there's some new introductions as well. In other words, his interpretation is pretty loose, but hits most of the major elements.

The looseness becomes more obvious when looking at The Winter King's plot. There, Arthur is the illegitimate son of an ageing sickly Uther of Dumnonia, banished after Uther blames him for the death of his son Mordred at the Saxons' hands. The throne of Dumnonia's true heir (Devon and Somerset mainly) is Mordred's unborn child. It is at the birth that the story begins, for Derfel (a boy on the cusp of manhood) is there as one of a pack of servants to Merlin's priestess, Morgan. The child survives and is a boy - named Mordred too - but with a club foot on a night of ill omens. Uther will die soon. How is a newborn cripple going to be King?

Uther seeks oath-sworn protectors for his heir - his champion Owain, Tewdric of Gwent, and Merlin. Nimue, answering on the absent Merlin's behalf, demands Arthur be included too, and Tewdric goes along with her. And that is how Arthur comes into the story, a warleader tasked to protect his nephew. And the story of The Winter King is how Arthur comes to be the most powerful man in Dumnonia, if not Britain, and how Derfel comes to serve and aid him.

Derfel and Arthur are the heart of this story and one of the many canny things Cornwell does here is making Derfel very like Arthur; honest, mostly straight-forwards, affable, slightly insecure as an outsider but to the point of it twisting them, driven by conscience and ambition. That means even when Arthur isn't involved, it feels Arthurian. It also makes Derfel a pleasant first person narrator to share the thoughts of, for he's a basically good, observant and understandable person. The tendency of first person books to be a tad marmite depending on how readers get on with the narrator is well known, but I've never seen anyone say they can't get along with Derfel.

The difference is Arthur is only mostly straight-forwards. There's a certain Captain Carrot-esque subtlety to him, the ability to trap people with his openness and to suddenly show ruthlessness and authority like a cat unsheathing its claws. Making Arthur feel like Arthur is a big part of doing these retellings and Cornwell nails this for me, to the point that his Arthur is Arthur to me like Alan Rickman is the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Speaking of nail on the head interpretations, I'm not sure Cornwell's Merlin is the perfect Merlin but dear gods is he glorious. Sarcastic, arrogant and mischievous, he is an absolute scene-stealer who makes sense for how a powerful sorcerer would feel in those times - completely superior. It often translates into a sense of malevolence; often playful, but every now and again we get to him exercise it in his full terrifying authority. If Arthur represents the attempt to have lasting, benevolent, consensual power and good government, then Merlin is one of the many counterpoints saying "this is the jungle, and only strength matters". Speaking of Rickman, it is a gigantic shame he never got a chance to play this Merlin on screen.

The storytelling and prose are classic Cornwell, altered only a little for the occasion. To me that is a huge strength as nobody does tales of war, adventure and intrigue better. Nobody. That this is as far into fantasy as he ever got is a huge shame (quick note - it's unclear here whether magic actually works or not, so it's semi-fantastical). The Winter King is mostly focused on the intrigue/politics side and war side, and that works just fine, although its a bit of a shame to have an Arthurian story without quests. There's a couple of excursions but they're more interludes.

And that is the crux of The Winter King. It is a fantastic Bernard Cornwell story and an imaginative retelling of Arthur. Is it going to satisfy someone who wants an update on Malory? I doubt it. It takes a very different slant in its search for realism. If I'm thinking about it as an Arthur story, then I have to admit I feel a little disappointed. As its own thing though, The Winter King is a very compelling story. And that is how I take it.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Asterix Readthrough Books 5 to 8

Before I plough on, I'd like to talk about something Bea mentioned in the comments of the last post and that is the quality of the translation. Asterix is fantastic because of its wordplay and when I found out these comics were originally written in a whole other language back as a wee kid, it blew my mind. It would be like discovering Shakespeare was actually just the translator for a totally unknown Finnish playwright. Judging from what Bea said, they managed the same in Portuguese. This sounds like witchcraft. Before the next one, I might look up the story of how this happened as it sounds like it would be fascinating. However, I did not have the time to do that, so I'm just going to read some Asterix and talk about it.

5: Asterix and the Banquet

The initial concept of this feels very familiar - some bigwig shows up from Rome with bright ideas on how they're finally going to conquer the village. Massive spoiler here - it doesn't work. The only real question is how many Romans Obelix will get to thump before they run away. He wants all of them, he's on 4 when he has an argument with a very early version of Fulliautomatix over whose Roman it is, and then they run. But this time the bigwig (Inspector-General Overanxius) has a cunning plan. Build a wall (this sounds familiar) around them to isolate them from the world so they can't spread sedition across Gaul. This infuriates Asterix who says he'll go all around Gaul, and bring back their speciality foods for the eponymous banquet to prove it. Bet made and Cacofonix intimidated out of singing, it's time for a road trip.

It should be noted this is probably the most French of all the Asterix books. It's filled with in-jokes and references that I don't fully get. For example, at the first stop Rotomagus (Rouen), the inhabitants prevaricate over any question asked to them. It's also filled with interactions with the everyday people of Gaul and now I re-read it, there's some lively little characters. The dodgy used chariot salesman at Lutetia (Paris) and barman Cesar Drinklikafix in Massalia are my favourite, but everyone has a bit of pop to them. Good humour is about getting a sense of personality on every the minor characters (among others) and it is managed well here. 

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be as much care about how Asterix and Obelix win through the challenges. Twice they pull the whole "beat the crap out of everyone then realise its easier to surrender, so they wait for the enemy to come round" thing. There's two different traitors. They steal two different boats. They steal two different Roman vehicles (a breakdown chariot and a post cart). Was there some bet to see if they could do everything twice in the office the day they did this? It's probably why I don't remember it that fondly. In any case, they make it back as heroes and Overanxius gets to experience the village's speciality cut -

The Uppercut.

Which is the best Action One Liner of the series so far.

Best Name: This automatically goes to Fulliautomatix for his first appearance (even if he's completely different later) but I do like Drinklikafix and his wife, Hydrophobia.

Best Pun Exchange: When Asterix gets cornered in a humbug shop there's some humdingers, with it all ending in a sticky mess.

Best Single Panel: The look of abject fear on the treacherous Unpatriotix when he hears the Romans only caught one of Asterix and Obelix at his house.

Least Deserved Fate: When they cast off in a ship bearing menhirs, they do having forgotten four of the menhirs they were meant to deliver. The clerk on shore shouts out this news, so Obelix decides to throw one at him. He doesn't ask for the other three. Poor sod.

Best Action Sequence: Them getting off said ship is fantastic chaos, particularly as they do a cunning smuggling operation to get them on shore and it all goes horribly wrong. Cunning plans that devolve into mindless violence is why I'm here.

6: Asterix and Cleopatra

Time for another classic, and the first example of what would prove to be a particularly common type of Asterix story; somebody outside Gaul has a problem, they come to the village of indomitable Gauls for help, the Gauls go to kick ass and chew bubblegum in foreign climes.

And bubblegum hasn't been invented yet.

In this case the help wanted is Getafix's rather than the gruesome twosome. This is because there's a bet between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar and as a result, hopeless architect Edifis has just three months to make a magnificent palace in Alexandria if he doesn't want to become crocodile food. And only someone who can actually do magic will get it done. Therefore Getafix, Asterix, Obelix and special debuting star Dogamatix (no prizes for guessing) go to the land of the Nile. 

There's two interesting minor wrinkles on the way, showing how the creators were looking to change things up. First off Cacofonix doesn't even try to sing... but still gets beat up when he tries to get the attention of the man standing on his toe, because the man assumes Cacofonix wants to sing. Poor lad. The second is when the pirates show up and see its the Gauls, the captain just sinks his ship to avoid the pain. He's a pirate, he's got it coming.

The main opposition here in another change isn't the Romans so much as Edifis' rival, the dastardly Artifis and his servant Krukhut. They try several schemes, from inciting the labourers to locking the Gauls in a pyramid (from which Dogamatix rescues them like the good boy he is). Needless to say they don't work, mainly because the Gauls are using their head rather than brute strength which is nice. Julius Caesar tries to just knock it down near the end but gives up when caught red handed by Cleopatra. Blah blah, the end. The change in tone - more personal, more tricksy - combined with the fact ancient Egypt just looks fascinating is why this is a classic. It's a brief of fresh air, it feels iconic, and there's some fantastic moments...

Best Name: Edifis' ship is called the Nastiupset. Classic.

Best Pun Exchange: Asterix and co employ some biting wit after we first meet Artifis that very much reminds poor Edifis of the crocodiles.

Best Single Panel: The shaky hieroglyphs that show Obelix's poor mastery of Egyptian

Best Action One Liner: "Boing! Boing! Boing!" Okay, its not great, but there's limited material here. The one issue with this comic.

The Actual Issue: Okay, the actual issue is that the depiction of the black Africans is, er, classically unflattering? Very dated? A triumph of racial harmony this isn't, which is a shame as most of Asterix is about an affection for other nations, even if expressed very tongue in cheek. Gonna keep an eye on how this one goes.

7. Asterix and the Big Fight

From one I've read endlessly to one I've only read three or so times. Rome's latest attempt to conquer the village comes from garrison number two, Felonius Caucus, who suggests using a Gaulish custom called The Big Fight. It allows one chieftain to challenge another to personal combat and the winner takes over both villages. There's only one problem and that is who wants to take on the invincible Vitalstatistix? Even the "as colossal as the Colosseum" Cassius Ceramix wants no part in that. One of the cleverer names that.

So per usual they try to take out the Druid. And for once, it works... after Obelix throws a menhir at the ambush patrol and hits Getafix instead. Who comes round having completely lost his memory and gone soft in the head. He even asks for an encore from Cacofonix. At what point are they going to teach Obelix that using a massive boulder just isn't safe? How many more innocents have to suffer because this WMD is banned?

From here, there's two main arcs (a welcome innovation). One is trying to restore Getafix's memory. The other is preparing Vitalstatistix for the prospect of fighting for the village without the potion. Neither feels truly excellent, although there's some golden moments in the quest to cure Getafix. In fact, lets get right to the best one shall we?

Best Name: That belongs to Psychoanalytix, the Druid brought in to cure Getafix, who asks Obelix...

Best Exchange: 

"Excuse me, but it does take a druid to judge these things... how exactly did he get this tap with a menhir?"
Obelix: "Like this" *hits him with menhir*

So gloriously predictable


Yeah, not a lot else here remarkable.

8. Asterix in Britain

I have read this one the most. Of course I have. It all starts with the poor pirates getting ground up by the Roman fleet coming to invade Britain, and then in fine anachronistic style the Romans conquer, until there's one village left and they need help. The village is led by Mykingdomforanos, which is probably the best name, and one of his warriors has a distant cousin in Gaul named Asterix. Said warrior Anticlimax sneaks through the lines, rows across the channel, and foolishly asks Obelix to shake him by the hand. He survives though.

So off they go, Asterix pocketing some strange herbs first, and its off to the village. But alas! Some Romans twig what's going on. So it's a tricky journey. A very British one, for a given value of British - fog, rain, boiled meat, warm beer, rugby, and so on. One chap reacts rather badly when Romans try to charge across his lawn. There's the Beatles for crying out loud. 

Things go wrong when the Romans manage to confiscate the magic potion in a raid and Asterix has to get it back. It might be the biggest set back so far. In fact... they never get it back. But Asterix says he can brew it himself and sticks the strange herbs in some boiling water, which gives them the strength they had in them all along, and they win. The herbs are later revealed to be tea.

Best Name: Mykingdomforanos is the definite obvious winner, but the bartender Dipsomaniax is a close second.

Best Set Pieces: Number one - watching the Romans test every barrel of Gaulish wine they confiscated in order to see which one is the potion. Number two - Obelix breaking onto a rugby field mid-game to get the magic potion back. Both are some of my favourite pieces of the series and makes the comic instantly wonderful.

Best Pun: "I had to try for a try!"

Best Action Scene: Asterix and Obelix trying to find each other in the Tower of London.

Best One Liner: "My garden is smaller than your Rome, but my pilum is harder than your sternum".

Best Panel Not Related to Rugby: The burly Gaul breaking a lyre behind his back while telling Cacofonix he's no idea where it is. I don't know why cruelty to Cacofonix amuses me so much but it does.

Friday 24 April 2020

Top 10 Writing Articles from 2019

Time for my other top 10 of the year! And by time, I mean about five months late. Because... erm... wow. Good going me, eh? Not. But here it is - the 10 articles on creativity, writing and what not that I found last year that helped me.

Katharine Kerr's Thoughts - A late discovery in the year for me, this is a number of small articles talking about genre and story type among other things. The one on the Roman Fleuve is my favourite as it is the sort of ambitious story that's water to a writer's soul, but all of its worth reading

Why Paul McCartney couldn't believe he'd wrote Yesterday - I love talking about ideas. We talk a lot about good prose, and some about good storytelling - and a lot more about avoiding bad prose and bad storytelling - but we only talk a little about ideas. To me, this article was a great reminder than the world is simply full of ideas just everywhere, so many our mind sometimes forgets all of them. Just got to keep your mind receptive to bringing them in.

Top 10 tips for being a best-selling author - Now there's a clickbait headline. But I like the article. It's less talking about how to write, how to have ideas, and how to be a writer in terms of how to approach your projects. I don't agree with it all of it but most of its worth thinking about and I hugely agree with thinking "What If".

How Do Some Authors "Lose Control" Of Their Characters? - One of my favourite articles from last year because I love looking into how our trained sub-conscious helps us. It's not necessarily so useful for actual writing, but could be a great jumping point for how to train our sub-conscious more and more.

The Shape of Stories - Ahem. So this by me. And I feel embarrassed to do this. But I do re-read this one often and think "Wow, I really hit on something important that I don't see talked about enough". It's a tricky line between telegraphing plot points and not foreshadowing them enough to make sense and returning to the thoughts I put down here helps me walk a line - and make sense of the books I read.

For Prizewinners - This is the transcript of a speech by Harry Matthews to a set of literary prize winners and I really need to read it again because it is dense with info. I suspect there are people who listened to it who were asleep halfway through trying to keep up with it. But I suspect most of them were enthralled, because it is elegantly put and full of interesting thoughts. A real smorgasbord on writing.

Why The Cleganebowl Disappointed So Many - One of my favourite discoveries of last was how much good stuff was hidden in tweet threads. This one by David Dalglish on where the Cleganebowl went wrong brought up a number of good points about what makes combat scenes really sing.

Narrative Momentum - This one introduced a new concept that made instant to me; Narrative Momentum. That is, to quote CC Finlay direct, "a combination of pacing and our engagement with the character or stakes". Very useful, particularly as a reviewer.

How to Boost Your Creative Thinking - A writer is only ever as good as their ideas, which is why I love articles like this. Does it sound rather corporate-y? Yes. Are there good ideas to borrow? Yes. Restriction, Movement, and Mood are my three favourite tools there, although I should probably try absurdity more often.

The Real Reason Fans Hate The Last Season of Game of Thrones - Probably my favourite article from last year, both for the idea of sociological storytelling and because of what it nailed on the problems of shifting tone and focus on fans. Any blurb beyond that would not give it justice.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Project Transformation Part Two - Premature Stocktake

I said I'd take stock at 20k words. I said I'd do this fortnightly. 

Well, that's the great thing about not having a plan isn't it?

I hit 10k words yesterday (after the first info dump) and decided I had a few questions about what I was doing that I wanted to have a little ponder about. The following is a mix of that out-loud brainstorming, and setting down what I brainstormed earlier.

Setting: I never really thought about what the setting of this story would be. I have a lot of settings lying around, each aimed at telling a particular genre of fantasy but none particularly fitted what I was doing (although maybe this is one in a different era; I don't know yet). All I had was something modern-ish, something where magic has created big cities and enabled bureaucracies and where life is, if not exactly modern, not exactly not. But that very statement begs questions. So too does the need for a tyrant for Sooley to rebel against.  Are these linked?

As a wise friend pointed out, I am kinda setting up a scenario where the bad guys are seeking to advance humanity through technology, and the good guys are trying to stop that. I don't mind flirting with that, examining that, recalling Tolkien's disgust with industrialisation. But when it comes down to brass tacks, I like modern medicine and air travel and the internet. Sometimes it feels like technology will doom us but I'm still in favour of it. The idea needs playing around with. And I do have a partial solution - not one I'm willing to reveal at this stage, because there does need to be some surprises for people reading the story - and it's resonating with me pretty hard. What I can say though is that while I want to have a story where there is a side you should root for and a side you should oppose - good and bad, in other words - both sides are full of people who are pursuing what they honestly believed to be the best and people who are in it for themselves. Unless you're resurrecting some some mythic scenario, it is the only way to do it. The trick is actually pulling it off while pulling off good and bad. Better authors than me have foundered on it and some point I need to world build on this. It'll be interesting to see if, when working mostly without a plot, I know when to put that world building in.

There is one other thing I know I'm doing. It'll be mostly city based, and not maze like inner city slums either. I love Tolkien, and I love the English countryside; I know the Compton Downs like the back of my hand, miss walking the fields of Kent and the hills of Sutherland, love watching the moors of Yorkshire and the forests of Pennsylvania go by out of the window... but I'm a city boy. I want to put some of that in, and not just what people think of, but what I think of for I am a true son of suburbia. London suburbia that is, not America's spacious green sprawl. It's not what people associate with Epic fantasy, but why not? Of course, if that's a major part of the setting, that implies a story that doesn't travel much and...

Storyline: I'm not planning this one outside of my head. But I am weighing options, setting ideas for destinations. I want this book to reek of Epic Fantasy but that doesn't mean I can't disagree with it. One area on which I might disagree is the Quest. The Quest - the scenery-chewing journey - is part and parcel of Epic Fantasy's DNA, from Lord of the Rings and The Worm Ouroboros to The Red Queen's War and The Killing Moon. Arguably it is one of the defining traits. But I have to admit to have gotten a little bored of it as a reader and not particularly enjoying it as a writer. Give me deep exploration of a place. There's a real good chance it's going out of the window. 

What do you put in its place then? The classic accompaniments to the quest are political intrigue and war. Some stories, such as The Poppy War or many Valdemar stories or Harry Potter (yes, its Epic Fantasy, fight me) use magic schools as an accompaniment instead. We've seen investigation and spying sneaking into the genre more and more recently with The Killing Moon and Age of Assassins. Plus, of course, there is always character growth and contrast. I'm not sure which of these - or maybe something else if I'm a lot more imaginative than I think I am - I'll be using but I've got to focus on one of these.

Character: What I pick will have a huge amount to do with what I do with the characters. Normally I have a decent idea about them before I start but this has been completely cold and I feel like there's two problems emerging here. Number one is "Who is Sooley" other than a member of the great Epic Fantasy MC clan; brave and kind enough to admire, clever and impetuous enough to be interesting, and short a pair of parents just because. I want a little more meat to the bone to begin with, as a lot of modern authors seem to do; characters like Girton Club-Foot and Nijiri already have skills and experiences. I want to go there. One of the fun things you can do there is make them a fish out of water, which I think adds some interesting story possibilities.

More importantly to me right now though is "Are my other characters useful?". Right now I have about 4-6 characters that may continue to get used other than Sooley. I've sat down and done some counting with other books and that's not an undue amount. But it will be if they take up minor narrative roles and then I have to introduce new characters. And I'm not sure that I've set them up for that. And, thanks to my uncertainty about Sooley, I've not set them up to highlight parts of his personality and come up with interesting conflicts. 

Right now, this is the biggest issue. The world will develop a rough shape that I can twist to my needs. The nature of the world's movers and shakers doesn't need to develop beyond a sketch. The storyline is something I'm forcing myself to take day by day with nothing more than a little awareness of where I'm going. But the characters have to be strong and interesting imo to drive such an approach and right now they don't. As such, I think the next 10k words will see me either stick in some high drama scenes to define characters - or to simply forget they exist and add new ones. I like the ideas I have going on but the characters need to step up their game.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

If Book Titles Were Bands

Hello and welcome to another fine episode of "Peat makes stupid comparisons based on books". This time, we'll be looking at book titles and asking "What would they be like as bands?"

The inspiration for this came from the blogger Imyril (co-host of the upcoming Wyrd and Wonder) who did it herself and encouraged me to come up with my own version. So here's my tip of the hat to her. I've decided to look at particular authors and go through their titles looking for crackers so let's start with the author who gave the best one I thought of up at quick notice.

Robert Jordan: The Wheel of Time is filled with lyrical titles, so there's got to be some good band names there, right? And it is. Most are better album names (I'm shocked there's nothing for Winter's Heart on the metal archives) but there's some solid choices. Lord of Chaos play some lead guitar heavy prog/classic metal that's obsessed with Moorcock; think a band that listens to a lot of Blue Oyster Cult, Hawkwind, and Led Zep. A Memory of Light have an eclectic take on dance and rock; they once opened for 65daysofstatic and have a Killing Joke cover. Some of his best choices lie outside WoT though (and getting published); The Fallon Blood, Infinity of Heaven and Cheyenne Raiders would make a solid hardcore punk bill.

The best band of the lot thought is clearly The Dragon Reborn. They play Power Metal. Cheeeeesy Power Metal and they do it without an iota of shame. They have three guitarists and two vocalists (plus backing vocals) and want to play gigs with a full opera choir and orchestra. Everyone would take the piss out of them save they sound awesome. In fact, they probably sound a lot like this except it needs some keyboards.

JRR Tolkien: That went well so lets see what happens with the man himself, shall we? Unfortunately, nothing about LotR lends itself well to this, although I imagine Return of the King is an acceptable Elvis tribute act. But what about his lesser works? Anything there? Farmer Giles of Ham is clearly one of the guys from this ad who decided to roll with the idea of being a countryside gentleman rapper forever and is now semi internet-famous. Tree and Leaf play some interesting spaced out stuff that wanders between folk and trip-hop; they're probably from Bristol. But this is all small fry. We need a real hit artist.

Step forwards Mr Bliss. Did you know Tolkien had a book about a guy called Mr Bliss driving his new car published posthumously? I didn't until I went looking for inspiration and he did. And Mr Bliss is just a fantastic name. Come on now. How comes there isn't a dance act called Mr Bliss? Surely he was big at the time that The Shaman was? Or maybe he laid down great funk tracks back in the day. Seriously, how did no musical acts called Mr Bliss come back when I just searched for this?

NK Jemisin: From an old master to a modern one. Jemisin is here because I can see my copy of The Killing Moon from where I sit and that's such an easy one for me. The Killing Moon's sound comes right out of the 80s/90s, from that explosion of north-western English jangly guitar indie that wasn't quite Britpop but kinda got lumped in with it after. Obviously, they're big Echo and the Bunnymen fans but they're into the Stone Roses, James, the Charlatans, etc.etc. Plus of course there's her new work The City We Became which is clearly an experimental post-punk band with meandering soundscapes, borrowing liberally from jazz, dance and sludge metal alike.

So two great bands right off the bat. Can we get a clean slate? It's close. The Shadowed Sun play some fine Kyuss-esque desert stoner rock. The Fifth Season is probably more of an album title but it might also be the name of a band very like The City We Became. The Obelisk Gate are a solid futuristic sounding Industrial band. The Stone Sky is an up and coming funeral doom metal act from Finland. But there run out. Sadly, the titles from the Inheritance trilogy just don't work.

Lindsey Davies: Let's try some non-fantasy authors and who better than my favourite historical crime author? There's nearly 30 novels, gotta be some good ones. And there are. Enemies at Home plays straight up New York style hardcore with some good "Oi" choruses. Pandora's Boy are so emo that Conor Oberst thinks they need to calm down. Two for the Lions decided to form a band after listening to Refused and At the Drive In on repeat; when the band split, the more punk orientated guys formed Shadows in Bronze and the more experimental funk led guys formed The Jupiter Myth. So much punk.

Non-punk wise... I'd listen to The Accusers' brand of political hip-hop (I want them to sound like Aquemini-era Outkast). Maybe One Virgin Too Many play Bloodhound Gang style frat rock? Eh. Not buying it. There is, of course, Nemesis. That could be anything, but the naming style screams early extreme metal. In particular I'd guess first wave black metal, but anything would do. There's a reason there's like forty different metal bands called Nemesis after all.

Ian Rankin: Based on a grand total of four comparisons, it seems to me that fantasy makes metal and crime makes punk. So let's try again. The Rebus series does give a lot of punk material. Straight away Knots and Crosses are the Pogues inspired band the world needs so badly. Bleeding Hearts is the more average emocore band ever it hurts. A Question of Blood plays deathcore, leaning more towards the core. Let it Bleed is another classic hardcore band; they played a set with Enemies at Home.

But Rankin's bibliography is rich with material for another genre and that is Gothic. I think Resurrection Men would be the best of them, macabre and jaunty with a swing side to them; the gothic version of Diablo Swing Orchestra. Dead Souls love that 80s sound, The Impossible Dead are more modern and techno, The Naming of the Dead has a heavy Dead Can Dance influence... so much goth. I really want to listen to Fleshmarket Close, as I think they're just the dark side of Depeche Mode non-stop. I honestly could be here all night with this one.

Hilary Mantel: Lets change this up with an author with a far smaller bibliography, which I badly need right now. An Experiment In Love sounds like a shoegaze band waiting to happen; they probably have a lot of songs about how they haven't found love. Most of her book names scream 'pretentious prog band'. I think The Giant, O'Brien would be the most fun of them; a tad folky, a lot dramatic. A Change of Climate is probably the most boring and sound something like Pink Floyd without the talent of restraint.

The winner here is Fludd. They're electro, but with a psychedelic edge. In fact, the term here I want is psybient, a genre of which I've listened to precisely one band and keep meaning to return to when feeling weirded out by life. That band is Shpongle if anyone is curious.

David Gemmell: Back to fantasy and time to go with an old favourite. Gemmell's brand of heroic fantasy was very blood and thunder, so I'm expecting a lot of metal friendly band names. I will try to look for non-metal first to keep it interesting. Up first, Hero in the Shadows is a grooving pop-punk band with a band of an edge, a harder version of Franz Ferdinand if you will. Or maybe a rival to later AFI. Midnight Falcon play classic rock with a bit of a southern twang. Quest for Lost Heroes is totally emocore of the Thursday or Thrice variety. And a shout out to Echoes of the Great Song for their role as spiritual heirs to Dead Can Dance's world music stylings.

But metal. All of the metal. Waylander is an honest to gods black metal band already for crying out loud. The Hawk Eternal play psychedelic Sabbath-influenced metal. The Last Guardian matches The Dragon Reborn for their love of big choruses and guitar heroics. Winter Warriors plays something in between; they're more of the Cathedral/Candlemass meets traditional heavy metal scene, something like this song by Dawnbringer. Stormrider is a symphonic black metal band, full of bombast and melody and fury. Morningstar is just generically metal to the core - three of them by my count. The best of them though would be Knights of Dark Reknown, a Ghost/Belzelbubs-style anonymous superband reinventing Melodeath through their fusion of Iron Maiden and modern extreme metal.

Anyone who got all of that, please come email me for some chats.

Aliette de Bodard: Dear gods I've got to stop picking authors with big bibliographies. De Bodard only has a few fantasy books and... how many short stories and collections? Okay. Lets keep this sane. I'm mainly here for two things. Servant of the Underworld is the most straight up metal name to date and that is saying something. I'm guessing they play some wicked Slayer-esque thrash with a blackened metal edge and a *lot* of blastbeats. Also I haven't done series names yet but Dominion of the Fallen is the Fields of the Nephilim proggy-gothic occult-Morricone loving inspired monster I really want. 

Going through the whole list reveals some other solid choices. On A Red Station, Drifting takes a more electro approach to the cavernous post-metal popularised by Neurosis and Cult of Luna. A Salvaging of Ghosts could be just about anything and I'd love to know what. The Frost on Jade Buds probably isn't a band but it is a beautiful name. Seven of Infinities plays some space-trance very like Stellardrone. I should probably read some of her Xuya stuff.

Micah Yongo: I want an author where every title works. I want to finish on a high. So... new author, not much stuff, certainly no novellas or what not confusing the issue. The answer is Micah Yongo who has two books, Lost Gods and Pale Kings. Perfect. Lost Gods is one of those up-tempo, high energy pop rock bands like Panic! At The Disco or Ladywives, with lots of songs about the breakdown and fall of authority figures. And Pale Kings is a perfect doom metal band - something with a folky death tinge, like early Amorphis or My Dying Bride. Because of course I have had to end with metal.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Asterix Readthrough Books 1 to 4

This is the start of a series of posts about me re-reading Asterix. In case people don't know, Asterix is a series of comics about a cunning Gaulish warrior in a little village that alone resists Caesar's army thanks to magic potion and Asterix. It's very funny and family friendly, with tons of European in-jokes and bad puns. Its just plain awesome. Enough explaining

1: Asterix The Gaul

Where it all began.

This book is very much an introduction to the series' conceit. We see Asterix beating up Roman soldiers, Asterix disturbing the druid Getafix to get some magic potion, talking to his best friend Obelix and so on. One series in-joke is introduced early with the bard Cacofonix, maybe the least musically talented bard in all of fiction. The sheer threat of him playing is enough to see everyone else scatter.

The main plot itself is fairly ordinary. The garrison centurion wants to beat the village, so he forces a legionary to go spy on the Gauls and when he discovers the existence of the magic potion, decides to kidnap Getafix. So it falls to Asterix to save the day.

There's a theory I'd like to advance that a lot of first books end up suffering for their dedicated fandoms because they show the characters at their least developed and the authors a little unsure about what they're doing. I think its absolutely true here. It's a good comic. But at someone who knows what's coming, it's a little unsatisfying. We get far more character and jokes elsewhere.

Best Name: Crismus Bonus raises a smile and is appropriate for an annoying middle manager who thinks he's greater than he is.

Best Pun Sequence: Asterix taking the piss out of Crismus Bonus' magically induced hairiness.

Best... look, I'm just moving on here.

2: Asterix and the Golden Sickle

The village is at peace until the sulphurous swearing of Getafix breaks the silence after he breaks his sickle. Only a sickle from the famed Metallurgix in Luetia will do. So Asterix and Obelix (who's a distant cousin of said sickle maker) volunteer to go through the outlaw infested forest to Luetia and get a sickle. Story! And it only took three pages to set up.

Obviously this goes wrong. There's kidnappings, sickle traffickers, fights in dodgy bars, dodgier bartenders, a spell in jail, and a good old manhunt for Asterix in order to find a new sickle for Getafix. Since I love mysteries, this gets a two thumbs up from me. It is well paced and fun, but the real meat is watching Asterix and Obelix hang out. 

I'm not going to lie, as a kid I kinda wanted to be Obelix. Have fun, be impossibly strong (from having fallen into a cauldron of magic potion as a baby), and want to do nothing more than eat and fight constantly. Surely that is living; to Obelix, the whole world is Valhalla. He and Asterix are great pals, but the occasional spats over Obelix's irresponsibility and Asterix add just enough disagreement to make it work.

The plot follows its inevitable course and after one last big fight and one last twist, Asterix and Obelix get their sickle, the bad guys are punished, and Cacofonix is told that if he tries playing a song in celebration things will go poorly for him. It's a really fun romp and the contrast between this and the first book are night and day, with the obvious one being that Asterix actually gets someone to bounce off for most of the story.

Best Name: Some fine contenders but it has to be Navishtrix

Best Action Scene: After the bar fight breaks out, Obelix goes to the cloak room to get his menhir. He's told that's two coppers so he very politely goes to Asterix to borrow two coppers, gets his menhirs, then starts smashing people around the face with a giant rock. There's no way those people survived, right? But they did.

Best Secondary Character: Surplus Dairiprodus is the Prefect of Luetia, a jaded hedonist whose attention to his duties goes as far as his minimal interest in life and he does so with some wonderful lines.

Best Exchange:

"You make me sick, going on about boars all the time."
"And you bore me going on about sickles."

3. Asterix and the Goths

A strong contender for one of my favourite Asterix books ever. Once again, Getafix is the catalyst for story when he departs for a Druid conference (leading to Cacofonix getting beaten up by an OAP) and gets kidnapped by a bunch of Goths (aka Ze Germans) who want some druidic powers for world domination. Once they realise what's happened, Asterix and Obelix cross the border to go get their Druid back.

There's a lot of fooling around getting over the border but once we get there, it is pure magic. The stereotype of Ze Germans is what you'd expect given how I'm spelling it - militaristic, sticklers for details, and obsessed with power - and it's perfect for the story. I love watching a drill sergeant screaming at the disguised Gauls for turning up on parade carrying brooms. The look on the interpreter's face when he finds out Getafix speaks Gothic and is happy to tell the chief that he's lying.

My very favourite part comes when Getafix decides to confuse the Goths and discourage them from invading by handing out magic potion for all in order to encourage a civil war. It's hilarious. Maybe not that PC, but this is very much a product of its time i.e. less than twenty years after Germany invaded France. For the record, the Goths are treated far more sympathetically in the rest of the series but for me, this is the French version of that Fawlty Towers episode. And page 45 is my favourite single page in the series. Period.

Best Name: I don't love the Goths' names so I'm going with Getafix's British Druid friend, Valuaddetax, and with a shout out for the minor character only ever known as Feeble Druid

Best Action Scene: The Gothic civil wars. All of it. But particularly the chieftain Metric's rampage. He has a system. Of course he does.

Best Running Gag: A tie between the poor border guard who keeps getting excited about invasions, and the poor jailer whose door keeps getting broken. Peak hilarity when Getafix breaks it just to say thank you for his help.

4. Asterix The Gladiator

Time to switch it up as this time, Cacofonix the Bard is the kidnap victim who needs rescuing. What's worse, he needs rescuing all the way from Rome itself, as a visiting dignitary has had him kidnapped as a gift for Caesar himself. Although it starts with him going for a walk in the woods, something Obelix protests against because it scares the boards away.

Cacofonix: Boors! The boars appreciate my music better than you!
Asterix: That's only natural. You sing like a pig!

Fantastic. Everyone else seems to agree, as the Romans capturing him have to put parsley in their ears to blocks out his singing and the galley slaves say its worse than the whip. Something that's very noticeable about this book is how much development they do on the characters and in-jokes. In addition to Cacofonix, Obelix starts collecting legionnaries' helments and saying "These Romans are crazy!". The unsteadiness of chief Vitalstatistix's shield bearers starts. And most happily, they run into the poor pirates, whose attempts to board and rob Asterix's transport goes really awry. This is a series really coming into its own.

Back to the plot. They reach Rome and to rescue Cacofonix, sign up to be Gladiators... after a lot of traipsing around. The title is misleading. There's very little of Asterix being a gladiator which is kind of a shame, but maybe inevitable when he's basically invisible. And speaking of inevitable, they rescue Cacofonix, bring him home to a feast, and don't let him sing. The villagers actually tie him up to prevent it happening. At his own homecoming feast. The dicks.

Best Name: There's a pair of Roman guards named Sendervictorius and Appianglorius which is good for a giggle, but my favourite is the Phoenician businessman Ekonomikrisis.

Best Modern Day Resonance: The screaming match between the residents of a Roman flat block. Its real.

Silver medal to the Roman exposed to Cacofonix's singing who exclaims "These Gaulish secret weapons ought to be banned by the Helvetia Convention!"

Best Paired Lines (in two separate speeches):

Vitalstatistix: And remember, we have nothing to fear but the sky falling on our heads!
Centurion: And remember, Romans, we have nothing to fear but the Gauls!