Sunday 31 May 2020

Men At Arms by Sir Terry Pratchett

I did not intentionally pick this book because of recent world events. Nevertheless, they have added an extra level of... immediacy, I suppose, to the story.

This blog is not for politics. But it is not not for politics. This blog is for discussing the fantasy genre and what is good and interesting, and occasionally what is bad, in it. Given how many people deliberately put real world parallels to painful issues such as politics and racism into their fantasy works, it is impossible to avoid them entirely and insulting to try.

Therefore, when reading Men At Arms, a fantasy story all about the difficulties of policing in non-monolithic societies and the intoxicating effect of power, that will be at the centre of the review. I can't put it anywhere else. And while you can read Men At Arms without paying too much attention to theme, just enjoying the story and scenes for what they are on the page, it's difficult not to notice Pratchett's points. This is not a particularly subtle book.

Consider the premise. After rescuing the city in Guards!Guards!, the Night Watch is rewarded with new recruits. They are Detritus (a troll), Cuddy (a dwarf), and Angua (a w... oman). "Representation from minority groups" as Carrot puts it. It's a small and non-cohesive force but when species tensions flare in Ankh-Morpork thanks to a series of mystery killings made with a new weapon then, well, the City Watch might need men but this is what it has. 

The story itself is wonderful. In G!G!, Pratchett was still feeling out what he had, more interested in jokes about fantasy guardsmen secret cultists than the potential of a really good investigation story. We get one here and while Pratchett's showing of both sides of the situation means it's not a true Whodunnit, enough details are left out until needed that the mystery is left alive. The humour is more focused and makes better use of absurdist situations and observation than before (and anyone who's ever talked to a copper knows very few people know more about either as part of their daily life). The decision that the Night Watch weren't the guards who get their heads kicked in except this one time, and that they're fantasy policemen is huge in just about every sense.

If the plot takes a leap forwards to rather good in its own right, the characterisation takes a huge leap forwards. The main characters feel like living, breathing people I might know, if I knew incredibly fascinating people. The little nuances and seeming inconsistencies in their depiction add a huge amount of depth and entertainment to what had once been stock stereotypes, making them both archetypal and atypical in the best possible way, as easy to root for and laugh with as to ponder. I stated in the G!G! review that this is the best series in fantasy. While everything is done to a high quality, the characters are why it is the best.

The best way to get across how good Men At Arms is how difficult it is to think of anything where it looks like Pratchett didn't do what he intended to do. Some people won't enjoy the humour, or want something more action-packed and bloody, or with a tighter world (but while the worldbuilding might be loose at times, it's hard to imagine worlds that feel more alive than Discworld), or, well, something Pratchett wasn't trying to do. But for anyone who wants a mix of comic fantasy and police procedural that delivers a quick-paced romp across satirical territory with plenty of asides on the human condition, or even just doesn't hate the idea of it, this is fantastic reading.

For the Already Reads

Before I get stuck into the prejudice stuff, let's talk about kingship.

Pratchett takes the jokes about how the true king reappears and the idea of everybody missing the true heir and doubles down in this book. Any ambiguity about Carrot's status flies out of the window (and pretty early too or I wouldn't talk about it this high up). And because he's taking a more real world, satirical tone here, a lot more meaning dribbles in. In particular while Pratchett is very, very clearly against the idea of kingship, the idea that one person is higher and more sacred than us and it gives them authority and it goes by blood, he does seem kind of interested in the idea that the world could be a better place if there was just that one right person in charge. 

Vetinari is that man in Ankh-Morpork but Carrot is a type of wistful dream. Page by page, we see the full magnificence of his character come to flower, and the way he rises to the challenge. He leads by charm, straight-forwards talking, a genuine desire for the best and the occasional act of menace. It is perhaps telling that even in Pratchett's more utopian moments, his ideal king is a man who can punch out a troll. Of course, this is at least partly because he's playing off of mythology's and fantasy's conceits, but I suspect it's that Pratchett doesn't believe in humanity's ability to be governed without a final recourse to violence being available.

It's also telling that Carrot, the nicest man alive, still struggles with the idea that the Undead are people just like everybody else. Something that Pratchett makes forcefully clear is that just about everybody is bigoted in some way. Sam Vimes, arguably the most honest man alive, is particularly bigoted to the point of clear speciesism at points, although he's also a straight up misanthrope as well to boot. Of course, we also see Sam mocking other bigots and defending other species from them. Why? 

Sybil: 'But I've often heard you being . . . rude about dwarfs and trolls.' 
Sam: 'That's different. I've got a right. That idiot wouldn't know a troll if it walked over him.' 

First off, you've got consider that this is Pratchett showing Sam excusing himself when maybe he shouldn't. This is not necessarily Pratchett's own view. What he is depicting however is the difference between someone who genuinely interacts with a culture, and someone who believes a lot of nasty stuff about them from a distance. Sam knows what dwarves and trolls are like; not perfectly, but he's met them. That's his excuse to holding to his prejudices about them but it's also his reason for defending them. It is, at the very least, a starting point.

From there, there's actually getting to know them. Cuddy and Detritus start as enemies the way that only two species where one mines rocks and the other is basically rocks can do. But they find themselves lumped together, largely because Sergeant Colon doesn't really know what else to do, and their choices are to either find a way to get along or have a miserable time. They get along.

More than that, they become cops. 

Something I've started to uhm and aah about in the fantasy genre is how, for all the many tight knit warrior brotherhoods, how often they don't feel quite right. I can't quite put my finger on it but there's something, I dunno, something a little too normal about them. You spend your time around a bunch of the lads day in, day out, few nights too, going through weird experiences, and it changes you. Even if normal people become cops, or soldiers, or whatevers to begin with (they don't) they don't stay that way. 

Watching Cuddy and Detritus become more aware - more suspicious - its fun. Its real. The first time we see them, they're quarreling in the face of a troll-dwarf riot while Carrot single-handedly disperses it. The next time, they are uncomfortably aware there's only them, and that the trolls and dwarves don't care that they're a dwarf and a troll, and that they've only got each other for help to survive.

I guess that's part of it really. How many close knit brotherhoods really show the license you give to one of the few people you know will risk their life for yours?

Ultimately, questions like that are central to the theme. One of the central ones is what do you do when granted power?

Edward d'Eath, Lord Cruces and Vimes all get the ultimate power of the gonne (i.e. gun) at one point or another. In Edward's case, this is what Pratchett has to say about it:

"And that, more or less, was the end of Edward d'Eath. Something continued for a while, but what it was, and how it thought, wasn't entirely human." 

It is a very rare abrogation of humanity for Pratchett and in some ways, thematically dissonant given the nature of the book. That he does so is a statement of just how corrupting holding the power of life and death can be.

Cruces does a bit better, but is still willing to break the assassin's code of close, caring, fair deaths. When arrested for the deaths caused by the gonne, he protests all of them save Lettice Knibbs, killed in the opposite of the assassin's way - by accident without any way of defending herself. He says nothing about her. What defence can he have by his own moral code? He has broken it thanks to the allure of power. And what attracts him about that power? The ability to reset the world as he sees fit. At least, that’s the promise made to Vimes:

“All that you hate, all that is wrong – I can put it right.”

Within moments, he’s face to face with an assassin (one of Vimes’ pet hates) snobbishly barring his way. The gonne shoots by itself but Vimes jerks it up. Why? Because it’s not right. It’s not a legal or necessary killing. But even his morals aren’t completely proof against it. When he’s got Cruces at his mercy for a moment, he’s ready to simply count down the chimes until he’s no longer a watchman. Vimes can’t kill him as a watchman. It’d go against everything he think a watchman should be; killing Cruces as a watchman isn’t putting a wrong right. But just as Sam Vimes? He’s not against Sam Vimes killing Cruces. It takes Carrot to talk him down and there’s a few particular words that are important here.

“Personal isn’t the same as important.”

He’s saying this because Cruces shot Angua, his newfound romantic interest, but really it’s at the heart of it. Vimes, Cruces, d’Eath - their personal prejudices aren’t important as to how the world should run. They can try and impose them with a gun but that’s wrong. D’Eath  and Cruces, they don’t get it. They can’t separate it. Vimes gets it, just about, with Carrot’s help. That is part of what makes Carrot the utopian ideal of a ruler - he completely totally buys into the idea that personal isn’t important, and he is able to make other people see it too.  

But it is incredibly difficult. Carrot’s virtually a superhuman. Vimes - a scrupulously honest, justice-minded man - can’t do it. Vetinari, a man with almost no personal interests beyond the good running of the city, cannot make other people see it and part of his genius is he doesn’t try. His method is to find ways to align other people’s ideas of personal with what is important. But Vetinari’s interest in only the public good is also virtually superhuman. We must try to put important before personal, but it’s not always going to happen. For ourselves or other people. But it’s easier when you have other people to help. And it’s easier when it’s people like Carrot with his ability to see the best in other people, and convince other people they’re good. It’s quite notable that it’s Carrot’s charisma that brings the watch together, not Colon’s sniping or castigations.

Ultimately, one of Pratchett’s great charms and strengths was the ability to suggest we be better people with gentleness and warmth, as well as anger. It’s the call for morality of a man who believes we’re all flawed, and will remain flawed, and that we should (at times) forgive and seek to actually inspire others to be better rather than just snarling (although there is snarl and always while upholding a standard). Men At Arms is a good example of that tendency.  It is a book that mostly lionises the work of the police in terms of stopping criminals while containing lines like:

“So many crimes are solved by a happy accident – by the random stopping of a car, by an overheard remark, by someone of the right nationality happening to be within five miles of the scene of the crime without an alibi.” 

Any conclusion taken from the book must be nuanced, and probably deserves more words than it got here (or less and be to the point). However the basic points that prejudice is cured by talking and empathy, and that those given the power of life and death need to be reminded that their personal feelings are not the same as their important duty, seem to be more important now than where they were written. And they are points that add extra depth and satisfaction to the reading experience when born in mind. 

Wyrd & Wonder Prompts

After twenty days of faithfully following the Wyrd & Wonder prompts, I kind of just disappeared for the last ten. Turns out that if you're coming up with ideas on the spot all the time, sooner or later you'll realise you're just using the same ideas all the time and don't know where to find fresh ones. That's a shame as there were some good prompts I ignored. So, I've decided to just do a mass post, a couple of ideas for each one. Next time, I will plan this out in advance so I don't use the same ideas over and over, and even hand out illustrated copies of each individual post to all other Wyrd & Wonder bloggers while riding my flying pig.

And since this is the end, I thought I'd say thank you. Thank you to Imyril, Lisa and Jorie who have done a huge amount of work to give us all so much to bond over. I caught the end of this last year and thought it was great; taking part this year has been even greater than I hoped. Thanks to all of the other bloggers who've posted so many great reads and in particular, those who've commented here, chatted with me on twitter, shared my articles and so on. To name a but a few, Jenna and Beth have been fantastic about comments (it's no longer just Bea), I look forwards to sharing my thoughts on Mistress of the Empire with Rin, JonBob has been great on twitter... I can't name all of you, but you're cool peeps. And this won't be the end, because I'll be seeing you on the interwebs, leaving comments, shouting about your good work, and so on.

Here we go...

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: I tried very hard to think of a non-Discworld answer to this, but I think this the Witches sub-series by Pratchett. It is all about power - magical power, social power, ingrained power - and the responsibilities that come from it. Some of the speeches, particularly from Granny Weatherwax, are as straight to the point about it as anything could be. Other things that spring to mind with a bit of thought are Aliette de Bodard's Dominions of the Fallen and Kim from GGK's The Fionavar Tapestry.  

Beyond the Binary: Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy seems to fit this in many way. It blurs the lines between good and evil, it has heroes who become villains and villains and who becomes heroes and many who fit uncomfortably in between, and it shows many different types of sexuality.

Tall Ships: Paul Kearney's The Sea Beggars is my forever cry out when it comes to nautical fantasy. It's a great duology and the fact it was never finished as a series is just a sadness upon me. I wish people knew more about it, I wish that they did and that this might translate to it getting its ending. Also, a little shout out for The King's Buccaneer by R.E. Feist, one of his semi-forgotten post-Riftwar books that is a tidy little adventure fantasy.

Comfort Reading: A lot of people say Pratchett for this but while I can't deny it kind of is for me, it kind of isn't. Every Pratchett makes me think. It doesn't always fit comfort read. What did work for me was David Eddings but, ah, well, I don't think I'll be going there again. So where now. David Gemmell maybe? Katharine Kerr? Ooh, what about Hughart? But I think really its Lindsay Davies. I think that when I get a paperback copy, RJ Barker's Age of Assassins will join the ranks.

Consummate Professional: David Gemmell's Waylander come across as a very deadly assassin. Erik von Darkmoor from Feist's Serpentwar Saga is the sort of man who'd be professional at whatever he did - blacksmithing, horse handling, soldiering. Ehiru in Jemisin's The Killing Moon is totally dedicated to his priestly vocation and clearly very good at it.

Mic Drop: Tigana might be as old as me but it is still, to me at least, the unquestionable heavyweight champion among trad fantasy standalones, which tbh mightn't be the greatest thing ever. There's a lot of fine ones in the more modern liminal tradition but trad, not so much. Priory of the Orange Tree might be up there when I finish it mind. Small shoutouts to Echoes of the Great Song and Snakewood.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes: Karal in Mercedes Lackey's Storm Winds trilogy. He's a priest, a pacifist, a man whose magical power is to sit there and let other people do great things through him which is about as unheroic as you can get. Yet it's his capability for empathy, for forgiveness, for reaching out to people and persuading them to change - his courage - that's the most important thing in the trilogy.

As You Wish: Oh... uhm... I mean, hmm. You know, for all I love a good romantic relationship, I can't think of many I want to shout about. Falco's and Helena Justina's in Davis' Falco series is just a life goal, but that's not a fantasy book. Uhm. Hmm. Weird beginning aside, F'lar and Lessa in McCaffrey's Pern books are pretty cool. I have soft spots for Erik and Kitty in the Serpentwar (boo that retcon), Rek and Virae in Legend, Rhodry and Jill in Deverry (broke my heart a wee bit), but, I dunno, nothing wowing.

Book Rainbow: A difficult one to do in words, so here's a list of books in a rainbow of mood.

Really Idealistic and Comforting: Mercedes Lackey is really good at this when she wanted it to be with books like By the Sword and Take a Thief. I think Brennan's Turning Darkness Into Light fell under this for me too.

Idealism in Harsh Lands: I think RJ Barker's Age of Assassins is a great example of this, although you could also do Pratchett, or Hughart's wonderful Bridge of Birds

A Light in the Dark: Kerr's Deverry cycle, or Gemmell's Rigante series

Bastards vs Bastards: Abercrombie's Best Served Cold and Dickinson's The Traitor

Fond Farewells: If I ever find an author and series that sticks with me like Sir Terry Pratchett and Discworld again, where long remembered scenes still make me chuckle and the ideas inform how I see the world, then I'll consider myself a very lucky man. I still haven't read The Shepherd's Crown because I haven't been able to bring myself to say I've read all the Discworlds.

Fave Read: This was Cold Forged Flame by a long chalk. Shoutout to House of Sundering Flames as well. And honestly, I think those are the only two first time reads I finished in the entire month. I started a lot, but it was only when I started re-reading that I really started to enjoy myself. Sometimes I look at all the people constantly finding books they love and wonder what the difference is between them and me. 

Saturday 30 May 2020

The Space Between Two Things

When people talk about what makes stories great they usually talk about characters, plot, prose, sometimes worldbuilding, occasionally voice (close to prose but not quite), and theme. And maybe a few other ideas but rarely do I see people talk about relationships, or dynamics, or interactions, or any of the many names you could give to what happens between one actor in the story and another.

I hear fans talk about it. "I love the romance between Han and Solo". "It's really cool watching Jean and Locke be friends". "When Tyrion and Tywin go head to head, it's compelling". It's clearly a decent sized chunk of what people remember, what people talk about. Yet writing theory as I'm aware of mostly locates it under character and occasionally plot or theme. This makes a certain degree of sense but I think undersells it.

This is mostly coming from two books. One is The Goblin Emperor, where I'm chronically behind on a readthrough because I'm just not that into it. The prose is enticing and the idea intriguing but it just hasn't been doing it for me after the start. The reason? It's a character-based story where for a huge part of the book, none of the various decisions lead anywhere much. Why? Most of the decisions are with different characters. Because of this, no one thread builds momentum. This is a plot problem. But there's a side issue in that none of the decisions or interactions are entertaining enough to carry me without plot. That's a relationship issue. There are too many different character relationships for any particular one to build depth and complexity. 

Compare and contrast with Men At Arms which has wowed me once again and where the characters are the best thing about the book. Why? Many reasons, but one of them is they are constantly thrown into conversations and scenes with each other that highlight who they are compared to each other. The relationships in this book are big and bold and vibrant and full of the sense of reality.  And relationships between each character influence their relationships with others. When Angua and Carrot are in Vimes' room, their conversation is with each other, but it's shadowed by how they feel about Vimes. The level of depth you get from that is just outstanding.

Of course, a lot of people love The Goblin Emperor. Why? One person talked about enjoying Maia's struggle with his court and fitting in and trying to make it better. They were, by my lights, talking about enjoying the relationship between Maia and the entity of the entire court. I didn't get it but to me, that's a perfectly sensible relationship to love. It's why I said actors. The relationship between a character and the organisation they're part of, the city they're in, the culture they're from, it all makes sense. It's all important. In Men At Arms, how Carrot relates to the city of Ankh-Morpork is a big part of who he is. In Line of Duty, how Arnott feels about the police and its mission is huge. In Dragonlance, Tanis' identity as only half-elven in an elven nation is a vital part of his motivation. And so on. I think people will say this all fits under character and they're right to a point, but it is such a crucial and important part that to a certain extent, it's like trying to fit two big people under a small umbrella. It can work but life is happier for a degree of separation.

Plus, of course, these links can be between organisations. The Houses' beefs in Song of Ice and Fire, the web of interactions in Harry Potter - between houses, between Ministry and Hogwarts, and so on. These are in worldbuilding but I see no reason why the theory on how it works is any different. That's part of why talking about relationships as it is own thing matters.

What should be the theory? Honestly, I've no idea, and I'd love it if people read this and said "Oh yes, this is a thing dumb-dumb, here it is". However, if I had to come up with something off the top of my head.

1) Most great dramatic relationships are built on having ready points of conflict and potential grounds of shared interest; obviously enemies/best friends/lovers might be different in terms of tilting hard towards one or the other, but even then there's usually a bit of both. Accounting for this when making characters is wise.

2) It is easier to start assigning relationships for main characters if they're larger than life and will always be more X than people on some end of the spectrum; honour with Ned Stark and Jon Snow, cynical rage with Sam Vimes, cunning with Locke Lamora, etc.etc. Because everybody will deal differently with that X, you start getting depth on it. Not the only way to do it but it works. It doesn't have to be extreme either, just more or less than the other main cast members work. Han Solo is memorable because he bogarts all the lines about looking out for themselves in Star Wars, despite not being completely mercenary throughout the whole series.

3) Relationships between A and B can add text to A and C. The Angua and Carrot in Vimes' room example I used is a good one but, oh, think about the way Harry Potter's and Snape's relationship is shaped by their relationship with Potter's parents. Which is incidentally a good way of showing that despite multiple PoVs making this easier, it's not necessary. 

I guess ultimately it's about building the characters, and their environment, to interact with each other. Then making sure they do and are changed by it, rather than saying their lines and going home for the night. And then making sure those changes flow out and come back in. And then do it over and over, because some relationships just work but if you've got enough good ones, failing to hit a reader on one doesn't matter that much. 

To go back to The Goblin Emperor, there is a book where if you don't whole-heartedly love Maia for who he is and his struggle with the whole court, the book's basically not going to work. It's all or nothing. It doesn't have to be that way, even in books so tightly focused on one character; when the Dresden Files get going, Harry's got a lot of really close people to bounce off. Not fond of Harry's relationship with Murphy? Then maybe you'll enjoy the way he snarls at his antagonists like Marcone and Nicodemus. Or bonds with the super wholesome Michael. Or look at The Wounded Kingdoms or The Warlord Trilogy. Similar things.

This sounds super simple and obvious but it seems to go missing often enough for me. Some of that's people trying other things. Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence isn't going to have that multi-faceted depth of multiple character relationships when over half the book is just two characters alone. Fair enough. But some of it feels like misses, or people not considering it. I think The Goblin Emperor falls into the former but I wonder. Obviously taste comes into it but not always. It's pretty hard to claim, for instance, that Feist built in as much conflict into his character relationships as Jordan or Pratchett did, and it's part of why the latter two would be considered to have deeper characters.

One final point. Whenever writers talk about characters, talking about this aspect of personality or that flaw or whatever, I think there's a tiny misleading thread to it. That's because, what the character is in the writer's mind, on the page they are simply a set of descriptions, actions, monologues and dialogues, with whatever else the reader's mind adds from context or their own imagination on top. Anything that is not shown through that doesn't exist. Anything that can't be shown through that doesn't exist. 

And those descriptions will be told mostly through the eyes of other characters, and their actions will be mostly in opposition to other characters, and the dialogues will be with other characters unless they're batshit crazy. In short, a character without meaningful relationships to other characters (and other big things) is probably a boring one. The personalities we give them is the seed of all that, but maybe we should talk about the tree from time to time as well.

Thursday 28 May 2020

House of Sundering Flames by Aliette de Bodard

Let's get right to the point. I am not fully sure what I make of House of Sundering Flames. I ponder and mused, then decided waiting for my mind to be fully reconciled would do a disservice to the review. 

House of Sundering Flames is the final book in the Dominions of the Fallen trilogy, a gothic romance set in a 19th century Paris that was ravaged by a great war and ruled by Fallen Angels and the occasional Annamite (Vietnamese) Dragon. The series has been one full of bittersweetness and harsh power politics played out through barbed words and magical threat, a fantasy of manners that's more about the harm that can be hid behind etiquette than the lovely gestures themselves, but the third book brings a new level of violence and anger to the mix.

I've developed a theory, one that might be making overmuch of coincidence (although if it is one it's a very fine one) that the series is three linked books on how to deal with certain types of threat and pain, with the clues in the names. The first, House of Shattered Wings, is about reacting to threat and pain that has already half-broke you at least, about healing and asserting one's own identity against that being forced onto you. The second, House of Binding Thorns, is about dealing with the ties and bonds that you whether you like it or not, the ones that you think could destroy you. Finally, House of Sundering Flames is about what you gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you.


Okay. More accurately, it's about death and destruction coming for your world, although for some of us on this planet that's just a daily thing. Do you run? Fight? Want survival? Revenge? Does it twist you? Do you stand firm in who you are? Thematically, it's a very fitting capstone. And in that light, it makes sense that the book has so much more, well, fire.

The plot is that one fateful night, House Harrier starts to die in flames. Truly die. And something can kill the others too. The various factions we've seen previously - Hawthorn, the Annamite community, Silverspires, and desperately Houseless - have to find a way to survive. Yes, I know plot summaries are my specialty. Yes, I know you were being sarcastic. It is a difficult story to summarise though, and one with a lot of characters to name. We've all heard of the series where people grown about them going on longer than anticipated. Dominions of the Fallen might be one of the few that needed an extra book. I only say might.

The story is a slow burner after the original explosion due to the size of it and De Bodard's natural style. She's an unhurried, character-focused writer with elegant prose who writes wonderful scenes so that's just fine by me. It starts to really take off when Morningstar himself strolls deep into the burning embers of House Harrier to set free the caged, tortured Tiger Spirit and weapon Dan Chay.

From there it's a roiling mix of drama and pyrotechnics, one punch after another. It's really good and hits all of my sweet spots. In particular, watching Annamite Immortal Phillipe carefully navigate his way through a mesh of politics, his own fool feelings, and the rising likelihood of getting incinerated was a lot of fun. The conclusion to that arc was very satisfying, his duels with Dan Chay breathtaking. Likewise was seeing the resolution of Thuan's integration into House Hawthorn, and the changes he made there. It could have used more Asmodeus but I'm sure that will come with my ARC of Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, the soon to be out novella focusing on the couple. Okay, disengage smug mode.

Unfortunately, the book hit a few sour notes too. For the first time in my series, I found myself longing for an info dump into how the magic here all worked, particularly with Aurore's arc. Aurore's arc - a new introduction to the story - left me a little confused at times, a little bemused at the pace at others. It did mostly come together at the end but part of me would have preferred a book without her. The other part of me believes she's absolutely necessary to the story and its themes. I could also quibble a bit about repetition; citrus and bergamot reached braid-tugging levels of ubiquity. Looking at other reviews, for some that repetition also became an issue of subtlety of theme, which I'm not sure I share but don't find utterly crazy either. It certainly blazes with feeling and anger, that's for sure.

Ultimately, where I found myself confused was the tone and theme towards the ending. For a book that menaced much and presented a dark view of the world, the ending felt a little fairytale (albeit in ruins). Yes, De Bodard has always written happy-ish endings for this series, but with the trauma pushed so high it seems... dissonant. That goes doubly so with the theme of how these conditions make monsters. Yet at the end, despite the all-round violence, it splits into good and bad. The bad guys are put down; the good guys live on, hale and reunited with their families. There is some talk of guilt, of prices to be paid, but it would be a more convincing ending to me if we saw the piper take his actual due. Some of the monsters got theirs, most walk on, and I'm not as convinced as I'd like to be that this happened as deserved. Take Asmodeus; is his dictum of only taking from those outside the group that moral, or his enlargened view of the group something that survives? Looking at the ending scene, I'm reminded of Pratchett's quip not to trust revolutions because they always come around again. If there was a sequel, would all of the people shown there forged a good place together? Or would the slide back to warring madness have already taken hold? I am unconvinced.

The fact that I'm wondering what this Paris would look like twenty years down the line is, of course, a tribute to the power of this book. The world it creates has formed its own little dominion inside my head, a tiny part of my brain that is forever France. My moments where the narrative tossed me clear are mostly idiosyncratic, although I can see them chucking other people due to theirs. There's just a little bit of unevenness for want of a better word What is good about the book - the way tension is fed to create a bonfire, the depth of character and world, the magic duels, those are mostly objective facts. It is a shining example of how to make representation of non-European heritage and homosexuals seem as natural and obvious as light at dawn and dark at night. It's epic, moody, enchanting and sometimes a little sweet. It confused me at the end but now, having set it all out on paper, I know my feelings. This is a very good book that didn't convince me at a few important moments and left me with a few too many unanswered questions; I want a sequel.

House of Sundering Flames lives up to its name and is well worth reading for anyone who likes their fantasy epic, character-driven, magical, dramatic, and a little different. 

Project Transformation Part Six - Premature Celebration

It is a fact universally acknowledged that being aware of how good things are going is usually the first step towards them going wrong.

Complacency sets in. Motivation slips a little. Self-belief gets a wee bit out of hand.

I don't think that's what has happened here but dear me, the timing is something eh?

Part of it was the three day weekend. I take weekends off mostly, do some worldbuilding if I'm feeling crazy. I find it difficult to focus on writing on days that are utterly formless and due to how much I'm doing on the weekdays and the state of the world, need to slough off a little brain detritus.

Part of it was a panic I got into last night about whether I was pursuing this story idea the right way. There I was, puzzling away at the relationship between Sooley and his new soul, and it occurred to me "Why aren't they separate?". Well. Why not? It makes a lot more sense. It just also completely invalidates thirty thousand words. What did I do? Forge on and hope for the best? Wait for a solution? Forge on with what anyway?

I decided to solve this as best I could. I'm sure most of us have heard of the idea of writing what your dream fan letter would look like. I started doing that with my head and didn't get very far as I hit the answer almost immediately. I want this story to be really eloquent on what it's like to suddenly become powerful, to be a hero, a stakeholder, someone who can really make things better - or worse. That doesn't work if it's just this old prehistoric knight brought back to life. Great story, but they're not going through that.

Of course, now I've written it out, there's no reason it can't be both - MC gets power from a quieter soul, prehistoric knight running around. I'm so great at thinking things through.

But! That still fits with what I've written, more or less. So I can keep going.

I'm currently on a big action scene. It's dragging, not least because I don't really know what my limitations are. It's tempting to just write *PLACEHOLDER* and come back once the theme has made that clearer, but right now I'm going to keep plugging as Plan A. That plugging has definitely helped make a lot of the character dynamics start to pulse, and start giving Sooley his personal stakes, which seem to be an old friendship from a dark place, and a touch of lust elsewhere. I know I keep saying it, but the whole point of this process is to force answers out. They might be bad answers, but even bad answers can be the bad version of a good idea.

And with that said, the good version of a good idea is to get some sleep. 

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett

Truly, there is nothing more likely to have me doing re-reads than a big pile of things to read properly and review. There's a lesson here that I refuse to learn. Before I go further, I'd like to thank Womble and Hiu, whose review/mentions of G!G! pushed me into re-reading it, because I like to make sure people know who else is partly responsible for me putting you through this.

I am once again following a split review process for those who haven't read and those who have, with spoilers and deeper discussion of themes in the latter.

For First-Time Readers:

Let me ask you a question, oh would-be audience of Guards!Guards!

Have you ever thought to yourself "why isn't there a fantasy book full of bumbling guards, cruel dragons, runt dragons, scheming politicos, and hapless secret society members, all colliding with tons of action, humour, and the occasional Dirty Harry impression?"

Of course you haven't, because that isn't the idea of a sensible person. It is however the idea of Sir Terry Pratchett, and honestly it's the sort of idea where the need for further explanation is almost unnecessary. Either it's not your thing, or it is.

For the undecided though, G!G! comes well recommended on many fronts. It's above all a piece of entertainment, cramming as many jokes and as much drama as it can into its thin page count. Some of the jokes are groan-worthy puns, but there's much observational humour and plenty of surreal scenes, and some of the crowd dialogue scenes feel somewhat Pythonesque. Action wise, it's more about staying alive against seemingly impossible odds than being the impossible odds.

The plot itself doesn't do much more than bear the weight of the many, many ideas that Pratchett piled onto it. The characters are mostly stock with depth; the embittered loner cop (Vimes), the idealistic rookie (Carrot), the slimy superior (Wonse), the untrustworthy lowlifes (Colon and Nobbs). Somewhat unique is the casting of jolly aristocratic spinster Sybil Ramkin where you might get a femme fatale, and everyone's favourite friendly despotic dictator in Lord Vetinari. Yet they too are somewhat stock of their type as once again, the weight of the ideas takes most of the space. While the characters' voices and personalities are a big part of winning over most readers (and are very entertaining), this is firmly a plot driven book. The number of PoVs followed doesn't help in this regard either.

It's not just the action and jokes that are crammed in. Pratchett pushes a huge amount of theme in. If he's not taking friendly jabs at the king in disguise stereotypes or class politics, he's going for the throat with some of his takes on human nature. It's not a particularly cheery take either, doubly so given the generally upbeat nature of the storytelling. This is a moody, cynical noir fantasy story with a coating of happy-go-lucky glee and gallows humour.

It's also a rather good story. The feature of too many ideas crammed into not enough pages isn't one of my favourite ones and something that personally means the book doesn't quite reach its potential. Nevertheless, this is a classic of comic fantasy for a reason; it's almost impossible to imagine someone who likes Pratchett's sense of style disliking this book.

Highly Recommended for Everyone Half-Interested.

For Already Reads:

This is where the magic starts. If one was so inclined, these are hallowed pages.

When chatting with Womble about this after his own review, I mentioned I found the book unsatisfying compared to what the rest of the series was (which doesn't invalidate the above; partly I enjoyed it more this time around, partly I'm setting it against the single greatest series in fantasy) but noted that Sam Vimes' whole series character arc is fantastic and this book is absolutely necessary to that.

One of the fascinating things about Discworld re-reads is the way that Pratchett tinkered with setting and characters between books, never too beheld to continuity if he spotted something that worked better. It is telling that while he expanded on the City Watch he used in G!G! he didn't really replace anything. Vimes, Carrot, Colon, and Nobbs, all under the Machiavellian gaze of Vetinari and benign auspices of Lady Sybil, are the bedrock of the series. The reason for this is they all have something to say about power and authority.

The most telling moment about Colon is his unspoken hesitance in adding dwarves to the rights of men. He's an instinctual minor bigot who lacks the courage to say anything about it should there be the risk of objections, an approach that serves as his guiding rule to everything throughout the book. That Pratchett makes him one of nature's sergeants is one of the most damning insults he could give to the rank, bodies that include it, and middle management in general, but it's not without merit. I'm sure we can all think of one middle manager we know who's fawning to those above, harsh to those below, and fully of cringy statements; people who have a taste of power and to whom it is gravely important, despite and because of how poorly suited they are to having it. It's almost the entire plot of The Office for crying out loud. Colon is the intersection of humanity's mediocrity and power.

Nobbs is just human mediocrity. No, scratch that. As the joke goes, the only just about Nobbs' humanity is 'just barely' and he's not mediocre at all. Ninety per cent of the time, Nobbs dreams of touching mediocre, and the other ten per cent, he's surprisingly gifted. That ten per cent mostly covers low cunning and the art of being nice to people because Nobbs, lowest of the low, treats just about everybody as worthy of respect.  It's a trait he shares with Lady Sybil, highest of the high. It's not an accident that Pratchett designates the two characters with the least complicated class situations, and the least to fear from life, as the nicest. And when you come down to it, having little to fear from life (for want of anything to lose or so much it's impossible to imagine losing it all) is a considerable form of power.

The third member of Team 'Too Nice For Their Own Good' is Carrot, who also has the least to fear from life due to his insane optimism and overwhelming physical prowess. They're good traits for a king of yore, and the joke here is that Carrot is clearly the long-lost heir to the throne and clearly has all the traits needed, but it doesn't happen. If he became king, it would no longer be a joke. He just stays a watchman. There's rich, rich material to be mined here, but not in this book. Here he's just occasionally an example of the power of appealing to other people's better natures and being naturally strong enough to throw Trolls around the place. He is humanity's excellence compared to Colon's mediocrity.

This leaves Vetinari and Vimes, the yin and yang of cynicism, both cut off from humanity by their idiosyncratic view of the race and vaguely, just about united in their love for the city. Vetinari accepts his cynical worldview entirely, seeing himself as a necessary evil that makes the world a better place. Vimes doesn't and, unable to fight it, simply loses himself in the gutter and the bottle. Lady Sybil notes at one point that he's impotent to fight the dragon, but the dragon is a metaphor for all of humanity's wickednesses here. Vimes rages, he drinks, all because he can't fight meaningfully against the wave of wrongdoing he swore to stop. It is not an accident that the first we see of him is dead-drunk under guttering lights. And, in what may be clever understated imagery or a sheer happenstance of fate, if you search an electric copy for mentions of the word light in this book, they're normally near Vimes' name, the state of the light indicating the state of his belief. This is the story of how Vimes came to believe he could light a candle in the dark. It's the sort of story humanity badly needs right now. 

I would dearly love to know just how much of the future arc for Vimes Pratchett had considered by the time he sent off the manuscript off, but I feel fairly sure that Vetinari was a bit of a work in progress. The Evil Overlord part of his nature becomes less; this is not the same man who'd later state that as a young man, he felt the need to be more moral than nature. Or maybe it is. Does one trust anything out of Vetinari's mouth, even when making grand statement speeches? It is conceivable that he feels the impulse to morality but decides it is better to provide Vimes with a wholly nihilistic viewpoint to rage again. Indeed, one aspect of their relationship that is seeded here is that Vetinari finds it useful to wind Vimes up and point him at things. It is a cold, chilly form of leadership, one that rubs up against Pratchett's later stated insistence that evil starts with treating people as things. But effective. 

And while Carrot might be the undeclared heir to the throne, the Patrician is the man on it. Vetinari might not claim the title, but as Carrot's father notes, 97% of being king is telling people what to do. Which is Vetinari's role. Or is it? As seen here, his favourite governing style is to leave things be as much as can, and then act through people like Vimes when he can't. Arguably, Vetinari doesn't tell people what to do. He merely arranges for there to be an opportunity for people to do what they'd do anyway when good for the city, and closes the door when it isn't. He does do an awful lot of telling people what to do though. 

This ongoing discourse between the characters through their actions and personalities is what gives the series its depth, the salt that turns the jokes and mysteries and observations into something astounding. The backdrop is the mob of humanity, a fickle beast that will shy away from deliberate cruelty and close its eyes to accidental ones, always ready to rationalise whatever works best for them. It's a very difficult to argue with view of humanity these days.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Dawnspell by Katharine Kerr

This review is going to use an experimental format. The first part will be the review for people who've not read the book; the second part will be the review for those who have. The first part aims to give an account of the book (and series, since this is book three of a quartet) so that people can judge whether they're on board; the second part is more an accompanying essay with my thoughts, so others can give their thoughts and also maybe have their enjoyment of this book deepened. It may also contain spoilers. Does this make sense? No? Good.

Review Part One

Dawnspell is the third book in the first quarter of the Deverry Cycle, a bleakly glorious and tangled up story about a small group untangle a horrendous snarl of fate that has bound them together over multiple incarnations. In Dawnspell (known in the USA as The Bristling Wood) the main characters are Rhodry and Jill, a pair of young lovers living life as disgraced mercenaries in the pseudo-Gaulish/Welsh feudal kingdom of Deverry. However, greater matters than Rhodry living through the next war overhang them. Jill has a burgeoning magical talent that is calling to her, even if it sometimes scares her; Rhodry is the disinherited heir of a great noble title, struggling to deal with his lack of status and hopeful of reprieve. And both are subjects of attacks from dark magicians that seek to use them as bait to draw out the great dweomerman, Nevyn.

However, a lot of the book deals with Nevyn and other characters plotting to get Rhodry recalled; Rhodry's mysterious half-brother, Salamander, seeking out Rhodry to give him an enchanted ring; Nevyn, Salamander and other dweomermen trying to put an end to the schemes of the dark dweomermen; the other dark dweomermen; and a past incarnation of Rhodry getting tangled up in Deverry's civil wars. I haven't done the list of events justice but rest assured it makes sense to those who've read the first two books providing they're up for a series that grows in complexity.

The result of this diffusion of plot is to make a book that functions best as a character-driven read and fortunately Kerr gives us the characters needed for that to work. Each character is a distinctive voice and mix of virtue and vice, both larger than life and true to life. I've always had an affection for her characters but re-reading shows just how good Kerr is at showing subtle but meaningful character growth. In particular, this is the book where it definitely feels Jill is over any fear of her magical talent.

This is not to say the plot is dull. It's anything but and Kerr is more than ready to put her characters through the wringer to achieve it. Some of her choices aren't my favourite for entertainment value and there's an arguable plothole towards the end, but those are far more subjective than objective. And I do appreciate that while Kerr's willing to get a little dark, she rarely wallows in pain and focuses more on the defiance of said darkness. Meandering start aside, it's got a lively medium tempo, lots of drama, and is fully of tasty little details. It's particularly appealing for its ability to show how the genre can concentrate on very personal stakes while still having a huge, impressively ambitious plot. And speaking of tasty little details, Deverry and the surrounding lands feels crammed full of them. It's a setting that feels real, familiar yet alien, with a truly different point of view.

Thematically, Kerr has a strong but careful touch, with the good stuff about choice, power and love that was in Daggerspell built upon. There's one prolonged arc where magic is used to accomplish rape that lays it out with a heavy hand but that's the exception, not the rule. We also dig deeper into what honour means, and that side of power as well.

All in all, this is a superior piece of fantasy with very few flaws. It's not the easiest to follow, some mightn't enjoy the slightly mangled Celtic setting (it feels Celtic mix rather than Welsh or Gaulish or whatever), and there's some bold choices with the themes that might put some off. But for everyone who's not put off by that and halfway interested, I strongly feel that Dawnspell is a strong continuation of a strong series.

Review Part Two

Oh wow. There's a lot here. Where to start? I'd love to talk about everything it seeds and the writing craft element of it, but that's a bit spoilery to start right next to the main review.

Let's talk about Maddyn aka Rhodry v0.4. I think this is my first re-read of the series after reading all the Civil War chunks and being genuinely excited to see him. From the outset you get the core of his character and that just a nice, admirable, talented guy. Of all the characters in the series your kids could bring home as a potential spouse, Maddo's one of the few where you wouldn't raise your eyebrow once. I love my complex characters, but a straight up good chap is welcome, particularly in the Deverry civil wars where most people are a bit bent out of shape by the situation.

It also means he's the straight man in most of the situations he finds himself in such as discovering the wildfolk and being part of the first Silver Daggers. This is interesting to me because me and Imyril have been lightly batting around what is Rhodry's incarnation arc and if there's one thing I've noticed about Rhodry in the first four books, he's frequently the one that doesn't know what's going on and who needs explanations. It's not a fine character arc, but it does feel like the Rhodry archetype is usually Kerr's go to for "I need someone to ask questions and stumble into situations", at least outside the present day arc. It sort of makes sense; Cullyn's incarnations are too busy playing quasi-antagonist and having Jill's incarnations do it rather ruins the main arc. 

However, I think an arc of sort does appear with Maddyn, something I've sort of alluded to. Blaen (Rhodry v0.1) is more or less there just to serve story needs; give Galrion/Nevyn a potential out with Branigwen (Jill v0.1), highlight the the tragedy of Gerraent's (Cullyn v0.1) actions, show that some Deverry lords do have a real sense of honour and desire for more than bloodshed. There's no arc and he's led like a sheep to the slaughter. Gweran's (Rhodry v0.2) main lesson from this is do unto others before they do unto you. That's the wrong lesson. Ricyn (Rhodry v0.3) again plays the role of nice guy swept up in the rivalry of Nevyn, Jill and Cullyn's souls. Maddyn is the first time we see Rhodry free of that and it lets a personality develop. The core of him is the same - nice, a genuine sense of honour, more than a warrior - but for the first time, it's allied to a strong sense of responsibility. Ricyn shows a little of it but Maddyn takes it to the next level. But even then, Maddyn's still one of nature's followers. Rhodry needs to learn how to lead, to maybe even sometimes be a little selfish and ruthless.

To me, there's a bit of this in Maddyn's winter romance with Belyan and where he realises it wasn't so much a romance, as Belyan wanting another child and seeing a handy man who wouldn't stick around to have one with. Maddyn's a little vexed but he hides it. I don't think he did wrong there, but I think his choice highlights his selflessness in a non-threatening time. Belyan's made some choices for him and one of the big themes is there's a bit of an issue doing that.

That little cameo feeds into quite a few things I see in the book, but let's talk about the choice thing. Let's talk about Perryn's sorcerous rape of Jill. I think it's handled very well both in terms of the drama of the story, and how those involved are treated. Jill is the victim, straight up. Perryn's situation is a little different, as he didn't completely realise he was raping her, as he didn't know what he was doing magical. However, he was still taking choice away from her. Even if he didn't realise quite how, he'd heard the word 'no' often enough before that to have an inkling he should leave her the hell alone. Instead he presses on and for that he's appropriately punished. The whole of his story is a tale for Dragonspell so I'll pick it up there except for a little note on Perryn's Uncle Benoic.

Now, Benoic gets a bit of a bad rap from the other characters and I don't think its entirely fair. He provides for his kin, protects them, enforces the King's law well enough, and makes sure Rhodry doesn't kill Perryn. He may not get Perryn but he's trying to do his best by him. However, because he has a very set idea on how to do best by someone, he gives Perryn little choices. Again, bad. This is something Kerr is clear about in a very consistent manner - men taking choice from women, men taking choice from men, women taking choice from men. Everytime, it is criticised, even if in some small way.

As for the other side of it - something I wish I knew about literary theory is what difference is seen between feminist-fuelled utopia and feminist-fuelled dystopian critique. As Imyril helped me see, this is the book that has the least positive feminist moments, but I'm not sure that means it's the least feminist. To me, it feels like Kerr's getting her Atwood on a little, providing some consequences as an argument for why it matters through Jill's ordeal and subsequent legal status. Belyan's little affair however is a nice little positive moment, a woman enjoying a bit of fun and getting what she wants. Her father sucks air through his teeth and wishes she'd done it different but at the end of the day, what's it to him really? Another pair of hands is to his advantage even if it isn't 100% honourable.

This brings me to Imyril's point about the explosion of the honour myth. If Belyan was a noble daughter she'd be in deep shit, because her honour would then be more valuable than the child and because in her odd way, Belyan has more power than the noble daughter here. I think the weighing of honour isn't just about money, it's about power. Graemyn can lop his enemy's head off with impious disrespect because he's the most powerful person there. The moment Uncle Benoic is there and can start throwing his weight about, all of a sudden Graemyn has to row back and play honourable after all. Honour goes as far as somebody's ability and willingness to enforce it, and as we see with the politicking over Rhodry's recall, the noble-born are very reluctant to let somebody be in a position to enforce it on them. This reminds me of Cullyn telling Jill to never dishonour herself because it'll stick to her. He has to believe that, because the number of people with the ability to enforce his dishonour on him is high. The noble-born? Nyet, good comrade.

Which isn't a good thing. Part of why Rhodry attracts so much support from those who know him is they know he really does believe in it and will enforce it. It is part of what's needed in a ruler. Ironically, as we'll see, the same core of honour that inspires Rhodry's best as a ruler will inspire his worst. I abso-fucking-lutely love it when an author makes one particular quality the heart of a character's good and bad.

What else? Honestly, it breaks my heart to see Rhodry and Jill apart from each other. They're perfect together. But it is necessary for reasons we'll see in Dragonspell. It's fun to watch Blaen and Salamander go about their separate ways some more, and also to see the dweomerfolk in action, setting plans and using scrying for communication. However! That raises a sore point. Are you seriously telling me there wasn't a dweomerfolk along Rhodry's way that couldn't have set things straight? It's not a big deal and I'm only picking on it as I didn't want it to go down that way, but it is a minor hole.

The best and most important parts of the book are in the Civil War segment though, particularly when Nevyn stumbles on Maddyn's idea of a dweomer leader, a man everyone would choose to follow. Nevyn agonising over whether it's right to involve himself that way is his first big breakthrough in his character arc. It's very Pratchettian; I think Nevyn would have got on as well as possible with Granny Weatherwax (i.e. extremely badly). But then, both the dweomer and Lancre witchcraft have their roots in the same occult traditions. The fact he does need Maddyn and Belyan to give him the ideas does make him look like a dolt though, but it can't be helped. Besides, who hasn't known some extremely intelligent people trip over themselves at times?

Other fun little throwouts here are Owaen (Cullyn v.05) earning the dagger in a manner very, very similar to Cullyn; we know he doesn't learn the same lessons as Cullyn but it'll be interesting to track their journeys. I enjoy the Lords of Light's exasperated response to Jill's attempt to kill everything as Gweniver by casting her as the perfect warrior sized male in Branoic (Jill v.05). You can almost imagine them saying "Go on then clever clogs, lets see you solve all your problems with this body now." Spoiler - it did not work.

So far, my statement would be that Daggerspell is the best, and Dawnspell and Darkspell suffer a little because the conceit is a little more muddled, not quite as compelling, and there's no set cast around Rhodry and Jill - but Kerr is not yet skilled enough to compensate for that. But we are about to see how she is in Dragonspell. And I'm looking forwards to writing this review before Imyril can do hers!

Monday 25 May 2020

Epic vs High

Because I am god's own special idiot*, I am ignoring my own advice on fantasy's genres and jotting down my thoughts on what the difference between Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy should be considered as, and why the differentiation matters.

To me it boils down kind of like this. Epic Fantasy is like the Iliad. High Fantasy is like Malory.

Epic Fantasy should be seen as stories that try to tell everything (for given values of everything) about a momentous event. The momentous event can be as big as the fate of the world or as small as one particular land, city or fort - such as Troy. But there's (almost) always an event and it's almost always seen from multiple angles.

High Fantasy should be seen as stories about a person colliding with the supernatural and undergoing trials that challenges them as a person, hopefully for the better. The person (or people) don't have to be entirely free of the supernatural to begin with; they can be a knight with inhuman powers, or a hobbit, or an apprentice wizard. But what they confront will be beyond their ken.

These two definitions are not mutually exclusive and many works fall under both. But nor are they mutually inclusive and there's some sharp differences. Epic Fantasy is set up to be plot-focused; High Fantasy to be character-focused (although neither has to be). Epic Fantasy benefits from PoVs from both sides of the conflict, and arguably should have them to qualify; High Fantasy's task is arguably easier for not showing us the mindset of the mysterious and supernatural beings the protagonist meets. Epic Fantasy requires characters who are suitable close spectators of and participants in these events; High Fantasy requires characters with a certain degree of ignorance, making it highly suited for bildungsromans. And so on. There's probably some points I'm not thinking of.

My point though, I trust, is made. To have a work that is both requires either some canny work in terms of reconciling the differences, or a big canvas. The canniest route is for books to start as High Fantasy and become Epic Fantasy and that is the template of most of the blockbuster books in Trad Fantasy, which admittedly has made it feel less canny due to familiarity. 

Where I think I'll get some disagreement is the idea that works that don't have PoVs from both sides of the conflict aren't truly Epic Fantasies, particularly as that disqualifies Lord of the Rings. Is it conceivable to suggest Lord of the Rings is the work that inspired Epic Fantasy by having most of its qualities, yet wasn't actually of the type itself? I think so, although it will fail the common sense sniff test for most.

Certainly though, having both sides shown has become a big part of the genre, and I think to its advantage. It is easy to demonise the other in a war (and Epic Fantasy is usually the tale of a war); it doesn't happen so easily when you see inside their head. And in a way, the idea that Epic is usually the tale of a war further gently pushes me further towards the idea that LotR isn't truly an Epic, for LotR is the tale of a quest, and the war one of the byproducts. War is just a crucible for the character's growth, rather than the source of the story. Perhaps another good example of the difference is that in Epic Fantasy, victory comes about through good old fashioned military domination; in High Fantasy, it is the by-product of the character's growth.

That perhaps accounts for the link between High Fantasy and a moral impulse but dark apotheosis or morality free growth are possible, and have been seen. It's just a far harder sell. Epic Fantasy makes it easier to explore dubious characters.

In this schema, LotR is definitely High and debatably Epic, and is certainly more High than Epic. Likewise, the Fionavar Tapestry. Also High is A Wizard of Earthsea, the Deverry Cycle, The Wounded Kingdoms, much of Pratchett's Witches series, Harry Potter and so on.

In the Epic corner we find Feist's works, Gemmell's Legend, most of Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar, Dominions of the Fallen, American Gods (just about), Tigana, The Deep, Interesting Times, The Traitor Son Cycle and so on.

However, I think the most interesting thing about the link between the two comes from looking at Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire.

WoT starts off as High Fantasy to its roots. It becomes an Epic around book 3/4, but doesn't abandon the High Fantasy arcs it has set up for its more characters. When we get final victory, while there is a military victory (made possible by Mat's fulfilment of his trials), it mostly comes from Rand's personal victory in understanding and accepting without hate the supernatural fate put on him. It is both Epic and High in a way very few other series are (to me, it is the true start of Epic).

SoIaF however is an Epic from the get go. It doesn't ease the reader in at all. However, once it has set up its nature as an Epic, it gives many of its characters very High Fantasy plotlines. Jon's arc is straight up High as it gets. Dany's arc is very reminiscent of it too, although twisted and inverted in many places. Bran too has many an echo of it, although one somewhat butchered in the meaning of his final trials in the TV series. And so on. Ultimately, it is just as much Epic and High as WoT. It's not a surprise that these are the 800lb gorillas of trad fantasy. Nor is it a surprise that they've gigantic out of control narratives that have nearly undermined what they do.

The point here though is that a book doesn't have to be consistently High or Epic all the way through, and adopting the conceits of the other at particular points for particular purposes is a crowd pleaser. Which is probably why the two genres are so closely linked (well, that and LotR). But they are - or at least should be considered as - two different things with two very different purposes.

But that is my truth, tell me yours.

*as most have noticed, God's Own Special Idiot is a rank claimed by many in these times; there are armies near untold of us. I personally am God's Own Special Idiot number 2521566978, Idiot First Class of the Windmill Tilters, motto "Too smart to be happy and too stupid to be successful"

Would You Rather Book Edition

In today's blog, I'm following a tag from Rowena Andrews for a Would You Rather set of reader questions. I enjoyed reading her answers and am looking forwards to doing some thinking about the sort of things  I don't think about too often. Without further ado:

Would you rather read from a hardback, paperback or E-book?

Paperback. While it's not a massive deal to me, and I'd read a book printed on the back of a can label if it came to it, there's just something about a paperback that feels easier to read for me.

Would you rather crack the spine of a Paperback book or ruin a hardback’s dust jacket?

Honestly, I treat my books like crap, and therefore would blithely do either by accident with little more than annoyance at myself after the fact. Since I tend to lose hardback dust jackets really quickly, ruining them is probably the correct answer.

Would you prefer info dump on a world/magic system to a drip-feed technique?

It really depends on the book/writing style - that's what Rowena said and I agree. I probably trend a little towards info dump largely because I tend to find that when done badly, drip-feed just feels like reaaaaally long info dumps for me. If it's not being done that well, get it out of the way. If it's done very well, then... both? Give me the basics of it and then drip feed all the juicy details. If an author's done it well, then give me all the info!

Would you rather jump on board with a book series and wait to see if it gets traction or wait for a successful book series to be brought to your attention?

While the latter is how it is about 99% of the time, I prefer the former and love getting a chance to shout about books where I got to do that and where they should be brought to attention. The Goddess Project! The Woven Ring! The Emperor's Edge! Heart Blade! Sir Edric! The Eagle's Flight! The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids! You might notice I've yet to get in on a big publishing house story on the ground floor. The closest I got was RJ Barker's Age of Assassins and while I enjoy talking it up, I feel like it's already a successful book series.

Would you rather have dinner with your favourite character or author?

Well, having dinner with Sir Terry Pratchett would imply some rather startling and/or worrying things about mortality so...

It's a tricky one. Guy Gavriel Kay is very into his cocktails and seems to have an endless amount of good ancedotes; Aliette de Bodard posts recipes on her website, which is a good sign; RJ Barker has a wicked sense of humour. Not sure about Jim Butcher though.

However Sam Vimes is ridiculously rich, loves food with burnt crunchy bits, and Sybil is a fantastic host. Mat Cauthon would be fine fun as long as I don't let him talk me into dicing. Granny Weatherwax, however, would be an awful person to have dinner with.

Anyway. Sir Pterry if I don't have to die to do it, Sir Sam if I do.

Would you rather have a soft magic system or a hard magic system?

If I have to pick one, then the likelihood is I don't really care about the ins and outs of the magic system - if I want that, I'll read an RPG rulebook - and therefore I'll go with soft simply because hard means a lot of time explaining something I didn't really want explained. Just don't do any deus ex machina and we're good. That said, in an ideal world, make the central plot altering parts of the system hard and leave the rest of it soft and fuzzy.

Would you rather read duologies, trilogies or standalone books?

The longer the series the better if I'm enjoying myself. I love a good standalone, but not as much as I love a nice long series.

Would you rather read self-published or traditionally published authors for 2 years straight?
Trad published for two simple reasons.

a) I can talk with far more people about them
b) I'm an avid re-reader and my list of trad published authors I love to read over and over is far, far longer

It's not a reflection of quality at all, as I think the best in self-published matches the best in trad published and honestly, might fit my taste a little better.

Would you rather be stuck in your favourite fantasy/sci-fi world or your favourite fantasy/sci-fi book?

Not sure I get this question as, a few books apart in fantasy aside, surely the world gives you all the benefits of the book but with far more room to explore. I guess if you pick a portal fantasy, you can kind of go home whenever you want? In any case, world. Let's be honest, this one isn't exactly a draw right now.

Would you rather be allowed to read one book series (as it’s published) or all the books by one author?

Again, surely all the books by one author covers the book series and more anyway? A few co-writtens aside that is.

Would you rather read fantasy or science-fiction?

Fantasy. I'm one of those fantasy fans that would rather see the two genres decoupled if they had their druthers.

Would you rather have your favourite book adapted into a film or into a television series?

Leave it the hell alone, thank you all the same, and go write something fresh and new meant for TV. Adaptation-mania annoys me at the best of times, and when my favourite series is currently being adapted for TV and is being butchered in the process, it is not the best of times. I'm excited for authors who get a much needed boost from the process, but for the actual adaptation? I'm more excited to eat a nice piece of stale brown bread.

Would you rather have to reread your least favourite book every month, or never read your favourite book again?

That's a monstrous question. I guess never my favourite book again because there's a lot of other good books and all the candidates are more or less locked into my memory, where as forcing myself to read books I don't like is actively bad for my mental health. But boy would I be unhappy about this.

Would you rather secretly love a book everyone else hates, or secretly hate a book everyone else loves?

The latter, quite comfortably. There's a very long list of popular fantasy books that do very little for me already and I don't talk about them much because I don't see much point being negative. So I already do that. And I don't like being secretive about books I love!

Would you rather dog-ear your book, or never be able to mark your place?

I'm perfectly content to dog-ear and to rely on memorizing my place, so either works. I guess the latter?

Would you rather listen to your favourite book as an audiobook narrated by the worst narrator ever, or never read it again?

Do you know what - I've never actually listened to an audiobook. I prefer my information written and my ears free for music. But still, a listen is small price to pay, and I suspect I'd probably just tune it out anyway.

Would you rather have a disappointing end/unfulfilled cliffhanger, or lose your favourite character?

Great character deaths are the greatest endings. Kill away!