Thursday 25 June 2020

Feet of Clay by Sir Terry Pratchett

By way of introductory remarks, let me state that Feet of Clay is the best City Watch novel and this is a scientific fact.

That is not to say everyone will think it is the most enjoyable read, or have the greatest wow factor. In fact, I suspect that if I got people to vote on this, it'd be a fair way towards the bottom (but then we are talking the single greatest series in fantasy in my opinion). But while the other books in the City Watch sub-series might be better in general, they're not better at being about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. From here on Pratchett has a tendency to remove them from the city and split up the characters, tinkering and playing with the creation of genius he made. It is typical of the man that as soon as he perfected the idea, he moved on.

I put this first because this shadows my view of it, and I wanted people to know. Anyway -

First Time Reader

Most first time readers will know what to expect from this book by now, because they'll have probably read Guards!Guards! and Men At Arms. They could skip to here if so inclined with relatively little loss; some character dynamics lose a little pep, but it still stands well as a book in its own right and its contents offer few big spoilers to the preceding two books. 

In any case, this is a refinement and expansion on what came before. The focus is on the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, most boisterous and jaded of fantasy cities, as they struggle with a new plot to replace the Patrician with a King and their new expanded role as a force that's actually expected to fight crime. Foiling the plot against the Patrician - which features a mix of golems, arsenic and aristocrats - forms the main arc, with the various changes to the nature of the Watch making for endless subplots that weave in and out. Pratchett's ability to tie loose ends together in a seamless and artless way is masterful here.

The use of the subplots makes the book lively and full of fun, each page filled with comedic scenes where Pratchett doesn't have to particularly manipulate the dialogue to get his laughs. More than anything else, Feet of Clay is entertaining as all hell, a finely balanced mix of comedy and twisty mystery. There's a limitation to how twisty the mystery is because we're shown early what has happened and why but nevertheless, the mystery of how Sam Vimes and the Watch put it together is very rewarding.  

In fact, watching Sam Vimes go about his business is in general just a pleasure and a privilege. We've all got our sweet spots and I am very much suckered in by stories that focus on the intricacy of character. I also have a big fondness for cynical, flawed, ageing characters with big hearts behind sometimes clouded eyes, but that's largely because of reading so much Sam Vimes to begin with. He is that archetype to a T. 

And because of this, Feet of Clay isn't just fun, it's got a streak of darkness and thoughtfulness that makes this an all-round treat. The theme, as you might expect from such a title, focuses heavily on individual flaws, with many of them centering on individual prejudices. The best subplot here is the friendship between Cheery Littlebottom and Angua. Cheery is the dwarven alchemist hired to be the Watch's first forensics officer; a female dwarf who wants to be outwardly female like human females rather than adopting one size fits all dwarfishness and who hates werewolves in the way someone from an area with an aggressive werewolf aristocracy will. She naturally gravitates to Angua, who's mastered the art of being one of the boys without sacrificing her femininity, and who is also a werewolf. It's a sweet, tangled maze of secrets shared and hidden, with Captain Carrot and his socially conservative dwarven upbringing acting as a good counterweight at times. It'd be easy to make Angua out as the good one here, but she's got her own prejudices about golems. As she notes, everybody needs somebody to look down. That and her crack about you can be whoever you want in the boy's club as you long as you act like a boy both still ring viciously true, both in the specific sense and in a fill in the blanks way.

There is a huge amount more I can say but I don't want to overwhelm any would-be first time readers. Feet of Clay teems with detail but it's heart is easily discerned. It's a glorious romp of a police procedural with sharp characterisation and plotting, coating in a fine layer of bastard with a little core of hope at the heart. The character dynamics are fantastic.

And honestly?

Maybe it is just the best novel in the series.

Second Time Reader

Guards!Guards! was a series of jokes about the guys who get hacked down by the heroes and a bunch of other stuff starting with the heroes who kill dragons, with a few grizzled detective things. Men At Arms expanded that to being about a small group of crazy police and inter-species problems. Feet of Clay is a further expansion. There's a real police department feeling to it, that of a large and not entirely wieldy organization; Vetinari doesn't know why the Watch have been indenting for pigeons until he meets the gargoyle officer. Which incidentally doesn't feel very Vetinari but that's besides the point.

If the police department has expanded, so too have the inter-species issues. The gargoyles are no problem; they just stay where they are and eat pigeons. The addition of a few extra types of Undead add a little spice. The expansion of dwarven culture so it's no longer just one story adds a few problems. The super strong gnome Wee Mad Arthur is hilarious. But the real cherry on the cake here are the golems.

You can see why the rest of the cast are creeped out by them. They're silent. Expressionless. Uncanny valley giants. They're life, but the type of life that doesn't seem to think at all like us. What's more, you can see why they're threatened by them. They're not just hugely strong and seemingly immune to pain and everything else, they never stop working. It's really easy to see how the people of Ankh-Morpork think there mightn't be room enough for both them and golems.

That is one of the big damn themes here. People thinking there's not enough room for two communities. There's not room for dwarves if there's going to be dwarves who act like women. There's not room for coppers like Colon in the Watch if there's troll and dwarves and there's not room for the aristocracy if the guilds have money. There's not room for dwarves if there's werewolves who might eat dwarves. And that's a good one, because dwarves aren't wrong that people who eat them are pretty darn hard to co-exist with, but not all werewolves eat people and the dwarves can miss some good things if they forget that. It's not too good for werewolves if they start thinking they can't do anything other than eat people.

The two characters who seem most free of it are Vimes and Carrot. Vimes is partially free because he thinks the worst of everyone. He thinks everyone is a bastard-coated bastard with a bastard filling. And yes, at times that takes the form of prejudiced thoughts, but it almost never strays into thinking there's no room for the people he's prejudiced against because at the end of the day, they're no bigger bastards than anyone else. About the only time he goes against that are Vampires, who have to drink blood (although more on that later), and Assassins, who have to kill. If you're going to have to give in to your prejudices, it's a solid list.

Meanwhile, Carrot is the opposite. It's in this book that Carrot really takes his first big stride into being the man who understands the rest of the world doesn't see things his way, and that he can rely on that divergence of opinion to his advantage. He still sees the world in a very simple way but he understands what levers to pull. And do you know one of the things I like about Carrot, the mythical ideal king? He pretty much always leaves the other person with a way out. He's not interested in humiliating people or utterly defeating them. He just wants what's best and fair for everyone, and knows allowing people to feel alright about going along with it matters.

In many ways, Feet of Clay is a manifesto for being hard (within reason) on your own flaws and kind (also within reason) on other people's for after all, don't we all have our own? The reason bit is important. Sam Vimes doesn't lash out at a bigoted snob by hiring zombies to patrol outside his house because Pratchett believes in unlimited tolerance. But it was always one of Pratchett's gifts to give humanity to all - even those with none, like the golem - and to be friendly even in his anger, like he believed our flaws would surface again and again so often it really wasn't worth getting more than exasperated for all but the worse. Which may be a true reflection and may not.

What I think is true though, is that Pratchett believed you could be flawed and be good. That you could be fighting part of your nature, your beliefs about yourself - some true, some untrue - and still ultimately treat the world with decency. Just because we all have feet of clay does not mean our trail will only leave destruction. Not if we want it.

p.s. The Angua-Cheery relationship is really fantastic. I can't really say much more about it than is said here but it might be Pratchett's single best.

Monday 22 June 2020

A Time of Exile by Katherine Kerr

You find an author. Their ideas intrigue you, their stories thrill you. You gobble up a series, and then you find out there's another one. Glee! Joy!

But the experience is not glee and joy. Something's not quite right. The new ideas aren't interesting. The old ideas no longer carry the show at best, or feel rehashed and stale at worse. And, sooner or later, you're not longer reading your favourite author, you're reading something that feels like a fan fic of them. 

I feel like most of the Epic Fantasy fans in the audience (and do I have any other audience?) know what I'm talking about. Has to have happened with at least one author, right? Maybe multiple. Maybe most of them. Part of the joy of re-reads is finding out when your memory is playing tricks on you because I'll be honest, I thought Katherine Kerr was one of those authors, but not here she isn't.

One of the big reasons for that is I'm a sucker for a strong theme that you see repeated again and again in a book, and we get this in spades here. Every strand of the book is about having to choose and what it is to lose when you do choose and leave what you can't take behind. It's right there in the name. Buy in to that theme and let it guide you to the characters' emotions like I did and you'll really enjoy A Time of Exile.

If those arcs of loss and exploration aren't doing it for you, however, then this book may not be for you. A Time of Exile doesn't really have a lot to offer other than these journeys. There's a number of pleasant character dynamics, and a lot of delving into worldbuilding questions posed by the first quartet, but much as I enjoyed those elements I don't think they're capable of carrying the story. It's a very different experience from most of what went into Deverry before and it's only in the last third we really get the blend of bloody war and grasping politics that was so much of the original hook in Daggerspell. Of course, what made Daggerspell so great is that that blend was always mixed in with the big personal journeys I mention in the prior paragraph. Here it is separated. It doesn't work so well.

In a mild tangent, when I was in a chat with fellow blogger Rin, someone mentioned a book rating system based around assigning scores to multiple areas then averaging them out. My response was that interesting as I found the idea, I didn't think it would work for me as basically I mostly grade on the great and abysmal in a book. A Time of Exile is perfect proof for this. I think it's great because it nails theme (which isn't even an area of interest in this system now I look again, boo and hiss) but have to admit on a lot of areas, it's kinda just okay to good.

Doing reviews for books deep in old series is something of a happy thing as I know I'm not really selling the book either way. There's very few people out there who've read Darkspell and are wondering whether to pick up the next one. This is me waffling on for my own amusement, and for once I think I've actually been concise and to the point. But to be even more concise, for said few who are reading - A Time of Exile makes a few tweaks to the Deverry recipe and has a slanted execution in how it does so, and this will make it very unlikely everyone loves all of the book evenly. But for those who love watching the characters choose and lose, they'll love enough of it that it doesn't matter.

Saturday 20 June 2020

This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I am always self-critiquing. I am always seeking to write better things. When considering how to write better reviews, one of the things that I'm trying to do is to spend less time in writerly dissection and concentrate more on just how reading the book was and will probably be for other people.

Unfortunate then is the day I read This Is How You Lose The Time War because it is so very much a writer's book. It is dense with allusion and cleverly crafted, the sort of book where it is easy to sit back and just feel jealous. The worldbuilding in particular impresses me because in a tiny, tiny book they have managed to construct a world, a conflict, in which it feels like thousands of stories could be happening. It floors me that having constructed this world, this idea that could fuel other writers' entire careers with a massive space opera, they didn't get distracted from what they wanted to do by it at all. I deeply envy that sort of focus and crystal clear vision.

What they wanted to do is write a lesbian love story about two incredibly competent covert operatives, communicating by forbidden letters as they travel through time to ensure their faction's destiny comes to fruition, each mission a little alteration of history in their favour. The messages start as playful rivalry, the acknowledgement of finding a worthy opponent in their grand work, and build predictably. 

The pacing of this relationship is one of the two great joys of this book. Each letter shifts them gradually towards each other as they share more and more, both as a display of daring and for want of anyone else to give these thoughts to. The growing weight of emotion convinced me utterly and dragged me along with it, thrilling in their ever bolder admissions of intimacy. 

The other great joy is watching the two operatives, Red and Blue, going about their missions. These scenes are just sheer wonder. They're just gem after gem, sparkling vignettes that blend surrealistic moments with very real human emotions. The writing is at once poetic, descriptive, and yet straight to the point and incisive. Some of the scenes are things I'll remember for a long time.

Others, admittedly, aren't. To a certain extent, this book runs together. Not every scene feels delineated from the next, despite the obvious breaks provided by the action scene-letter sequence. I couldn't tell you what the differences between Red's and Blue's personality are either, or at least, not right now. And it doesn't really matter to me because it was such a joy to read in the moment, but it maybe robs the book of a little of after the fact impact.

However, my real criticism of the story would be that once the love story has happened, once they've admitted their love for each other, what follows feels almost anti-climatic. That was the main emotional drive of the story. I said afterwards that the book was a hair's breadth away from perfection but I didn't know what. Now I know. This was the distance. I finished the book however many thousand words after the real climax of the book to me, which meant I finished it on a downer. 

Now I say it out loud it feels like a pretty big distance. Make no mistake though. This Is How You Lose The Time War  was such a good read. It was like watching fireworks suddenly merge and dance like a phoenix, like music lifting you in the arms of euphoria, like watching two very eloquent people lay their heart bare. Wait. It was the last one. It was power. One of those experiences that remind you why you read.

I don't know who's going to dislike this book. I guess people who want to explore the technology rather than the characters, people who want more straight-forward action... that's about it. I can't imagine readers who want character-driven love stories with speculative backgrounds not enjoying this. I know they'll exist, but my mind does not comprehend them. It cannot imagine them.

So, please read this book, and please try not to prove me wrong.

Thursday 18 June 2020

Project Transformation Part Nine - Return Flight

I've enjoyed this holiday. I've read a bit, worked on the main project a bit, did a lot of non-book related activities. But I also did another book related activity. Like any sane writer with two manuscripts on the go, I started working on another idea. 

Now I'm saying NOTHING about this one. If Project Transformation is playing with the idea of accountability, NOTHING is playing with the idea about keeping a story in and forcing it out. But I can tell you a little about how I'm planning it. And I'm planning it real good. I dunno when I'm gonna write this, but the home is planning the shit out of it will permit me to just shit the words out.

The starting point for this plan is a method I invented just for it, and by invented I mean came up with something like a lot of other planning methods and that's probably identical to three other people's, but is still mine. The idea was to simply write out nine sentences - the opening image, the first quarter, quarter way image, second quarter, etc.etc. - and then start adding details underneath like setting, juice, mood, and so on. Actually I just thought of mood, I should add that. It's a simple way to get the bones of the story out.

Gee, if only there was another story I needed to do that for?

Incidentally, while I'm rambling, this nine sentence plan is basically a three act plot, just getting more detail through treating the middle as two separate parts. I have to say, the older I get, the more three act stuff makes sense to me. I used to win to do five act, or four act, just to be different, but ultimately it all looks like variations on three act to me now because when you get down to it, beginning-middle-end is the most obvious structure in the world. We can, and probably should, go around sub-dividing those up, but they're still the divisions.


I haven't written out my nine sentence plan for Project Transformation yet but I've had enough of a think to know roughly how it's done. I think it's becoming a bigger book than I meant it to but, oh well, shit happens. Seeing how it goes down is allowing me to do a better job of pick on theme and other ideas. There's a little other stuff I want to check up on before fully deciding but things have got a little more firm. Which characters are major and which aren't is less of a thing, but if other things are solid I feel like I can afford to just find that out.

Very vague, isn't it? Well, I'm not back from holiday yet.

But I know what I'm doing when I get there.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Dragonspell by Katherine Kerr

Back to the land of Deverry for Dragonspell, the end of the first series in the sprawling affair that is the Deverry Cycle. I'll once again be be doing a first time and second time review, with the second half having most of the spoilers. The first half will assume a little that you've read the other books in the series, or some of the other stuff I've written about Daggerspell, Darkspell and Dawnspell, or reviews at other great sites like Womble's or Imyril's but it should work just fine on it's own.

Now get in the fast lane Grandma, this bingo game's ready to roll!

First Time

Friend, Rhwmanes, Nerdyfolk,

I am actually here to praise. I'm here to praise a lot. The first series of the Deverry Cycle is one filled with huge ambition in terms of the narrative arc, a personal focus, and sharp observations about the world. It's a fine ride but often stories are only as good as their ending. Fortunately, Dragonspell offers the finest take on Deverry since the series opener. Or to be more strictly accurate, the world of Deverry, because most of the action takes place not in the High Kingdom but in its neighbour Bardek.

It's at this point that I realise writing a review of book 4 that doesn't spoil books 1, 2 and 3 is basically impossible. Oh well. You've been warned. Still gonna try

The reason most of the action takes place in Bardek is due to a trap the Dark Dweomer has set for Nevyn, designed to lure him there. The old wonder himself is in Deverry for most of it, dealing with various political issues. That's the only real Deverry element though, particularly as this is the only book in the opening quartet that doesn't have any preincarnations. While this loses a bit of the charm the other books had, it does allow for a more compact and focused storytelling experience. For the ending, I think it was a wise move.

Ultimately, what makes a good ending is resolution. This is something Kerr mostly nails, although a few moments will come too easy for some tastes, and in some areas she deliberately leaves things open. It works for me but some might find it merely good. Rhodry the boy wonder finally - mostly - learns to see beyond his upbringing as the perfect honourable warrior-noble and get a more responsible view on life. He's no longer the man who'd cause endless trouble simply because he can't keep a lie. It's a long road, a painful one, and one that's not entirely altruistic, but it's realistic and satisfying. Cullyn finds happiness and truly leaves his many life-long obsessions behind.

And Jill? Jill finds the dweomer. Jill finds the understanding that she can't have it all, that no love is worth more than her self-worth and destiny. It's a hard ending but one that makes total sense.

If I had one criticism, it'd be that the plot is fairly straight forwards. This isn't a thriller and at times it trends towards introspection - it's the least warlike of this series. And that works for me.

All in all, a very fine ending.

Second Time

I'm not sure I really have a whole lot to add that's spoilery and deep. This is the least complicated of the books, after all.

Let's start with Lord Perryn, the mostly unwitting supernatural rapist. I'll be honest, I have a slight soft spot for his story simply because his not quite human nature manifests in such a dick. Don't get me wrong, in real life I'd have zero patience, but fantasy thrives on the alien and his half-understanding of morality is just that. Does he get off lightly for what he's done? Maybe. He suffers (some), he helps (some). It's restitution of a sort but I'm not sure it's enough to earn his very happy ending. But maybe that's the point. Sod revenge, go easy on the justice, and concentrate on our own happiness. Perryn won't do what he did again, and the rest can move on. As they do.

That said, this doesn't line up too great with a lot of the book. Jill accidentally creates magical creatures of pure revenge with very little consequence. Rhodry runs into an inferno just for revenge and survives. We know his desire for vengeance on Slaith will result in a very unhappy marriage, but that consequence is out of story. If Kerr's theme came through clear as flame in prior books, it's a little muddled here. It's a cracking character driven narrative but there's some issues that maybe don't hold up to more than casual scrutiny.

I'm really struggling to think of other issues. It's like Kerr's doled out all her lessons and here's it about the characters showing they've done their homework. In Rhodry's case, I do sometimes wonder about Kerr's decision to give him a fairly enjoyable bout of slavery (with the worst parts happening of screen). Maybe she needed him to be a slave but didn't want to go too deep into misery in her story. I certainly don't object to this. Maybe there's some subtle point of story I'm missing.

In any case, this is Jill's story. Thematically this makes sense. The boys needed to stop controlling her life so she could figure things out. Well, Cullyn and Nevyn saw sense long ago, and without the need to care for Rhodry, she's free. Arguably too free as she's learning the dweomer with only that prattling elf Salamander for guidance, which as noted, doesn't end well. This is not a tract in favour of complete total independence; it clearly says one of the best things you can do with your choice is to follow the right person. Is that satisfying? It was when reading it I guess.

And that's all that counts.

Really Late Round Up

I had meant to post this round up on Friday as per normal but the world got away from me and in any case, there's been some other stuff that's popped up then. I'll stick that towards the back though, as it's long and not all that relevant to everyone and who knows, maybe it's all died down enough that I shouldn't even write it?

1) I recently had a good chat on Twitter about the way Small Press is getting squeezed by the publicity machines of the Big Trad Publishers on one side and the determination to support Self-Publishing on the other - which is great but doesn't usually include the Small Presses. I know some places do try to do right by them (The Fantasy Hive has some good pieces and I know Womble is looking for authors to review). I'd like to do a little to highlight and talk about the Small Press thing. The emphasis is very much on the little as this is not a big platform (although I am going to ask some of the bigger places if they want to run it) but hey, I do what I can.

So if anyone reading this is - or knows - a small press publisher or author and would be happy to answer some questions or do an inteview, or just someone who has some recs, please let me know. If you want to go anonymous and complain, that too is cool. Anything to get people talking about it.

2) Right! Cool stuff. Aliette de Bodard has sold a new novella called Fireheart Tiger to Tor and yes, I am already excited for it. I've had a little lull so current novella Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders has only been read a little but it's very charming so far (well, okay, I just got up to the murder victim, but it's a charming murder victim) and I am all about the spate of novellas popping up (speaking of novellas, there's a This is How You Lose The Time War review coming soon). Bonus points for having a really metal name, because that is what matters to me.

3) While I'm touting authors, Jen Williams' art looks really fun and full of character and I keep musing about what I might get if I didn't have lots of moving house in my future. And there's a really good craft twitter thread from Megan O'Keefe here.

4) One of the predictable responses to expressions of support for Black Lives Matter from publishers was black authors asking where the support had been when it came to getting published and paid. There have been some calls for submissions from them but we'll see how this goes. I say this not to criticize, but to highlight the big issue here which is ongoing support. Who wants to put money against there not being many more authors from outside the main cultural strand of fantasy in one or two years? Or five years? If we're looking for equality of opportunity, then people need to be mindful to keep giving opportunities. So far I've done one list of sample reviews that made a big effort to highlight authors from outside the fantasy mainstream. Am I still going to be doing that in a year? I hope I'm still giving them a shot and am challenging myself to do so. And I hope other people are committing to change and if anyone else has recs, let me know - it's a shame a lot of the good ones are more YA (like this one from Jenna) which is not quite my cup of tea but gotta keep looking.

5) A blogger stuck up an account of their experiences with book tours last night that was fairly critical and things went downhill from there very quick, particularly as it was very clear which book tour they were talking about and the organisers (both book bloggers themselves) felt attacked.

Note - I'm not using names here as I'd rather talk about the generalities and those involved have enough heat on them right now. There's no intent to talk about people behind their back

Now, there's two main issues as I'm seeing them. The first is the pressure to stick up a good review. The second is a lack of transparency about why the tour organisers are doing it i.e. are they getting paid. And it all folds into a general mass grumble that goes around every now and again about how book bloggers put in a lot of work that is important in an ecosystem of making money but in which they don't, and all they get is some occasional kudos and satisfaction. The risk of losing that kudos is big; nobody wants to be seen as dishonest. The subject of money in the whole thing, both in terms of integrity and probably secretly in fairness, is sore. This is certainly something that should be born in mind when talking about blogger responses, and ample reason to treat them with a degree of sympathy, rather than shrugs and fuck yous. Not that the organisers deserve that either. It's not pleasant to put a lot of work into something for not a whole lot and be told it's all bullshit. A pinch of empathy would go a long way right now.

Personally, I do think that it is important that there is transparency over who gets paid what and who knows who in an honest review system. I want to know how the reviewer got the book and what strings were attached, I want to know if they're friends with the author. And yes, I'd want to know if the book tour organiser got paid, particularly if they're paying their own review. Do I believe anyone involved in book blogging is crooked? I don't want to, I've never met anyone I'd point a finger at, but we're only human and there are stories of reviewers approaching authors asking for payment for five star reviews. It would be stupid to assume every review is free of bias. Which, to be honest, is what I do do when reading them - unless I have reason to think someone's not being honest about how they came to be reviewing the book.

So, please, let us be transparent. And more important, let's not blow this up more than needs be (said the guy who wrote five paragraphs on it). Not every group activity will work all the time. There's no need to make it more than that. Yes, there some's talking to be done in the community about how it engages with the publicity machine. But the drama probably doesn't help.

Friday 12 June 2020

Project Transformation Part Eight - Holiday

I'd meant to stick this up yesterday but was just feeling down about everything, which is part of my decision to take a holiday. Everybody has their point at which fatigue and stress simply sits too heavy (I'm keeping Tade Thompson's twitter thread on this bookmarked from now on). I feel ridiculous but there we go. That said, that's post-fact rationalising.

What I'd actually meant to do was let the story sit and percolate for a couple of weeks so I could make the decisions that would make the writing go smoother while I worked on something else. Project Transformation would end up taking the same amount of time because there'd be less wading through treacle, and the redraft would be a lot smoother, and I'd get work done on the other ideas that deserve it.

Now it's Thur - it's Friday m - it's Friday afternoon and, well, not a whole lot. I've written a new line in Gumshoe Paladin and taken a little time to be very specific with myself about what I'm doing. I've had a half-idea for a Heroic Fantasy-esque tale in a which a priestess, her bodyguard, and a bunch of mercs and thieves quest for the cure to a plague. Workable, but lacking in awesomeness. I've had another idea for a story, this one non-fantasy, about a bloke who persuades his black mate to come join him playing rugby at a club down sorta where London becomes Kent (i.e. where I play my rugby). It's a fun idea and one that'd be super relevant but, while it's my best idea for making it big, it's not the one I feel most about and not the one I'd do best. I know damn well that racism happens in the game but very little of it, or at least that I understand, within my hearing.

I've done a bit of worldbuilding and talking things over with a friend about some of the choices I need to make to solidify this too. I haven't got much resolution out of it but, with the help of a few days' thinking and article by Seth Dickinson about The Traitor Baru Cormorant I'm starting to get an idea of the things I need to resolve.

1) What type of story is this?

Yeah, that's a real big one to leave flapping around. The nature of fantasy is that just calling a book a fantasy - even a High Fantasy or Epic Fantasy or Urban Fantasy - still leaves a certain amount of ground unmarked. I never really addressed this with Project Transformation and have, as a result, piled concept after concept onto it. At some point this needs to stop and a few base concepts need to be established, with everything else either kowtowing to their demands or getting the hell off of base.

2) What's the time usage?

Does this story span years, told in short sharp bursts of things happening with development left off screen? Or it is one continuous chain of events, everything chronicled? I'd assumed the latter and feel those are easier stories to write but the former opens up a lot of doors, such as...

3) When does it start?

Does it start when Sooley becomes a healer in the Sovereignity's Mission? When his mentor disappears? When the new guy arrives confirming Sooley's in charge, giving him a split loyalty? Is it some moment in the rebellion? I probably don't need to know this right away but it help gives me a few things towards getting the ending right.

4) What happens in the denouement? Is this a series?

I am at roughly halfway. I do have an idea for an ending, but it's a fairly similar scene to the climatic middle part, and I don't know how I feel about that. I have a rough three book arc if I want to use it, but I'm not a 100% sure about that. I have one interesting infiltration path but that would require some revision and again, I'm not sure how I feel about it. We're kind of back to the "what concepts am I using" thing here but the specificness helps.

5) Who's the central cast?

I think I've mentioned something about this in the past but I've got a lot of characters and I can't make them all cool. I've got to pick three-four peeps who are going to carry this book, and then work out how all the others show them off.

I'm probably going to have to add more, or distill these down, or something. I'll settle that when I'm back on holiday from the book. But this is where my mind is roughly at in terms of what I've got keep pondering while I'm on holiday.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Inside Sample Mountain - Early June Edition

The Kishi - Antoine Bandele

The first thing that struck me about this sample was how smooth and readable it felt. Bandele has a style that is inviting and flows well and, thanks to the use of thoughts in italics and the slow build opening, feels very 80s/90s classic fantasy. That's a good thing to me. I don't think it's going to work so well for people looking for an immediate hook or action, but there's definitely a sense of tension building. I do want to know more and I'm almost certainly buying the book for reals.

The Throne of the Five Winds - SC Emmett

This is here on the recommendation of cupiscent from Fantasy Faction, a person who I trust immensely on the selection of books. I have to say, I'm not sure I'd be keeping this on the list without her word as the introduction, while well written and posing an obvious source of tension with its post-disaster scenario, just misses some tiny little thing for me. Maybe it's too mannered and formal? Perhaps the stakes for the MC are too focused on family and not themselves? Perhaps it's just a mood thing. It is good, and it does come recommended, but maybe not for me. Or maybe it is. We'll see.

Conquest - Celeste Hart

This one threw me as the blurb and cover led me to expect something medieval-esque and the setting and writing are far more contemporary feeling, with a definite YA vibe to the protagonist. Once I adjusted my expectations I quite enjoyed the first person narration and prose, and the character was interesting. However I was then thrown again by the broadcast from the Great Faresh, which felt like a clunky turn to exposition. I don't think that'd be a deal breaker if I was more invested in the concept and vibe, but this sort of personally focused YA is take it or leave it for me. Worth a look for those who are into that though.

The Last Sun - K.D. Edwards

This one's been heavily touted on my twitter feed and as someone who wants more things based on real world occultism, the whole Tarot thing gave me a push towards it. It's a book that packs a lot of setting into its opening scene, at once modern and openly very magical. And there's a heist. Once you give it time to settle though, it reads rather nicely. Plus the Tarot thing. I think I'll give it a go some day, although maybe not soon. One final note - it has given me a new pet peeve; prose that drops a ton of f-bombs but doesn't have any other swearing in. Not everything has to be The Thick of It, but what's wrong with calling someone an oxygen stealing bastard, or a dozy twat, or a useless bellend, shitehead revisited... okay, maybe everything should be The Thick of It when it comes to swearing. But I'll excuse The Last Sun for not being this.

Nasomi's Quest - Enock Simbaya

In these days of "Go! Go! Go!", I have to note that Nasomi's Quest might have the single most prosaic first line I've read - Nasomi opened the basket to admire her work. And I slightly worry some people will read the first page paragraph or two and never look again, because that would be a shame. There's not only a very real sense of place and realism - Nasomi's father complaining could be so many people's fathers, but it feels like that exact version would only grow where he does - but there's a lot of charm. There's a warmth and wry humour to the characters interactions, particularly between Nasomi and her prospective beau, that's just really well done. Brought.

Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh - Shi Naian (translated by JH Jackson and Edwin Lowe)

I actually have very little to say about the book itself, as the foreword and introduction take up most of the sample, and the book's reputation is sufficient that there are many, many better places to look for information on it than my little sample review. Nevertheless, I did sample it, and it struck me as typical of the translated Chinese fiction I've read. What I can say is that the foreword and introduction are very informative, and do a a great deal to give me a context for the book itself and how it's translation came to be. I don't know if this should be the definitive translation, but Lowe does a good job of persuading me it should be.

The Stormcaller - Tom Lloyd

People talk about when prologues should be used. I wouldn't be surprised if there'd been a discussion over whether the two first pages should have been for this book, as they're sufficiently different to stand alone. Which didn't endear me to the book. It also has some of the closest set, smallest type on Kindle, which is not to its favour. Yes, I know I could probably change it. Despite the two biggest things I spotted not being about the book, I did rather enjoy the prose. It has whatever secret ingredient it is that appeals to me, despite not having any other obvious reason to be read over other Epic fantasies (other than ScarletBea has recommended it). It'll stick on the list, probably waiting for a kindle sale.

Priestess of Ishana - Judith Starkston

Another book where I'm wondering whether there was any thought about whether the first chapter should be a prologue or not. Judging from the blurb and the second chapter - which I nearly didn't reach - maybe it should have. In any case this is well written and people will tell me I'm wrong (or so I hope) but I'm afraid to say I didn't feel the love.  The first characters I saw didn't give me a strong sense of internal life and the scene didn't grab me. Part of me wonders why someone with such a strong selling point - Hittite fantasy by someone who's done the research - didn't start embedded straight into Hittite culture. A deliberate choice to make it more standard fantasy? Just what felt right? Who knows. In any case, I am still recommending this for anyone who goes "Yes" at the sound of Hittite fantasy, but it's probably not something I'll read.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia McKillip

I'm a big believer in trying to know the genre's past, and I mean really know it, not just read some Jordan, Tolkien and Le Guin. In part of doing so I have come to the conclusion that McKillip is a forgotten beast in her own right - an author with countless awards and accolades who's barely ever talked about. The biggest author you've never heard of. I'm trying to work out which of her books I want to read to try and put right the fact I've never read. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld might be that book because not only is it's concept instantly intriguing, it reads like a forgotten mythology from somewhere you've never heard of. I'm a sucker for that. Very much recommended on a few pages for anyone else who likes that formal mythological style.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Cheap Thrills

I don't know if I've mentioned Will Storr's interview with Joanna Penn, talking about how specific character flaws can really shape a story and other things. If this is the first time I've mentioned it, go read it. It's really good and full of useful things. However, one of the most useful things about it is the way it's started me thinking about the approach he didn't mention.

In particular in came up when talking with my mate Dan Jones. No, not that one. Now, Dan's a very talented author and I'd talk about his book Man O War more if it was fantasy rather than near future Sci-Fi thriller. And maybe if I did, I'd come to the realisation about other ways first. Because when I think about Dan's characters, it's not their specific flaws or deep inner lives that come to mind, it's that one of them found a near-real sex robot floating in the sea and it tore all their lives into pieces.

It's not that Dan's characters are dull or bad. It's that when recalling the book, the conceit, the plot, the scenes, that come first. And in that respect, he's not much that different to Le Carre, Forsyth, Clancy, and probably a lot of other stupidly successful authors.

Now, even in those books, the characters matter and talking about how to build characters is relevant. They may even be pivotal to the way the writers build the books - but they're not to how they're enjoyed.

Like most people who talk on writing, I usually talk a better game on no true way than I play. By the simple nature of curating the advice I take in and pass on based on my tastes, I pick a way and don't show the others. I don't necessarily talk about how to do a book like Le Carre or a story like Line of Duty, for all I do talk about that show on occasion. I pick at ideas of them but the idea of committing hard to that thriller? No. Which is ironic because my first finished manuscripts were a military sci-fi and a fantasy murder mystery. 

So. Point One of this is to always keep looking for ideas and not let get comfortable with your one idea of a story.

But Point Two is to remember what people remember. Remember what fans actually rave about. Yes, sometimes the theory is necessary to get to that, but ultimately when people rave about Star Wars, it's about lightsabers and spaceships and wookies. Does character matter? Yes. See Han Shot First. But the characters are no deeper or greater than many other speculative fiction characters. They're simply in a story where the conceit and aesthetics wow. Which is why Han Didn't Shoot First doesn't affect the story going forwards. His main importance is his part in the aesthetic, no more and no less. It's easy to forget this sometimes. 

Thursday 4 June 2020

Project Transformation Part Seven - In The Mire

The middle.

Writing good beginnings is not that difficult, although the standard demands amazing beginnings these days. Writing good endings isn't that difficult either, at least not in the grand scheme of writing, much as many major screen franchise writers will try and convince you otherwise. I suppose maybe that's a case of weight of expectation?

In any case, it's the middle that's trouble. Sorts the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the finishers from the quitters, the greats from the good... 

And sometimes the dumb from the not so dumb, because getting it right takes a dumb amount of work. Or so it feels.

I finished writing today a day shy of 40k words, a total that is minus a few missing scenes here and there right in the middle. It has become like pulling teeth as every unmade decision has caught up with me. It's also seen me completely depart from good story structure, writing transition scenes out of a vague feeling they should be there, putting in emotional heart to heart scenes then ending them quickly because it didn't feel right...

It's sucked. But I'm getting there. It will continue to suck.

There's an idea that I'm very fond of that I kind of stole from this column and that is the bad version of a good idea. It's just tossing out a solution to the creative problem in front of you, even if it's obviously a non-goer, and going from there. It is the same basic idea as the whole "write crap just to get it down and edit" but it sounds better and it goes for everything.

I do believe there's a good idea here. I do believe it's an idea I want to share. But lord oh lord am I stumbling through the iterations. 

The idea is getting better and clearer. I read an interview with Storr recently on specificity and that's helping. The theme to this, what makes it cool other than knights and gangsters and alchemists and ghosts and an early-renaissance-esque fantasy mish-mash of adventure and intrigue, is about cowardice and courage when all choices seem terrible. Very specifically that.

What I don't have specificity on is the exact nature of a lot of the things making it cool that are non-theme. The big action scene I just wrote was really hard for not being quite clear on what I was trying to do with it. I now need to build towards the big decision before the finale and I'm not sure what it is. And if I have a flaw as an author, it is the same I possess as a person where I try to use rationality to avoid conflict where possible. Books without conflict are dull. But so are books with super idiots who happily plunge off cliffs! This is the big learning opportunity for me.

This feels very much like the last verse.

What I can say is I'm starting to form a cast around Sooley (Sulei? Salei? Asavei?). There's a bunch of power old untrustworthy mages, a scheming young miss who's picking a difficult path, and a prodigy with a blade. There's also now a ton of setting info, which is the good thing of working in a pre-established world, and if I was nice I'd tell a little about it. 

But I'm not nice, it's 1:50 in the morning, and I've done enough to keep myself honest and on track.

The only question is whether I'll stay on track. In a lot of ways, I want to sack this off for a few weeks and do something less painful. Find a few more answers by letting it marinade, do some editing. I'm not sure if that's the right idea but as a headlights planner, I'm really totally driving in the dark. So the plan is to write a bunch tomorrow because I do at least have a few scenes in mind, and then take the weekend off - work on another project a little - and see how I feel.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

The Goblin Emperor Readalong Parts 3 and 4

Ahem. Not at all late. Here's 3 and 4, all rolled together. Thank you everybody else who took part - going to have a look at everybody else's comments when I'm done with this! To have a look at what everybody else did, go to Imyril's or Lisa's round up

These chapters open with a very candid, yet significantly warmer than most, conversation between Maia and Arbelan, and from there things begin to change as Maia learns to act with more confidence. Do you think Arbelan's kinder treatment of him is what sparks this, and if so, how much of an impact do you think it had?

Excuse me one moment while I look up who Arbelan was again.

Ah! Yes. And yes, I do think it had an impact. Even the most self-sufficient people generally need at least one person who can say "Yes, this is good" and it's easy to downplay people who are in your employ. I feel like Arbelan is that person, and the first person to respond to Maia's attempts to push a different way forwards.

The river bridge scheme proves to be a delightful plot point to push a lot of character interaction forward, as well as opening up the scope of this world. Were you surprised by the developments involving Lord Pashavar?

Mm, not so much. I got the feeling fairly early that most of elf society seems fairly conservative and respectful under the trappings and as and when Maia said "yo, dudes, I am the Emperor" he'd be able to get a decent amount done with most of them. That's pretty much what happened. I did love the glimpse into intimacy, something which felt very rare in the novel.

I have to say that between Arbelan and Pashavar & co, it feels like a lot of this book has the more elderly being willing to break down barriers while the youthful are less sure. It's nice to see it done that way for once.

Like a train gathering steam, a great deal of plot drama happens here. Let's talk about Shevean and Chavar. Were you surprised by their gambit? And how do you feel about the way it all played out (ie. Idra's decision to put his foot down)?

When and how it happened? Yes. That it happened and who was behind it? Nope nope nope. They've both been wrong 'uns from the beginning.

The resolution was... hmm. Part of me did feel a little "Is this it? They've risked their lives and futures and everything on this, and it all turns on them being unable to put their foot down and just make Maia do it, and it all comes down to Idra saying no?" From that perspective, it's one of the fluffiest, least satisfying coups ever. But part of me really enjoyed how it came down to Maia being unwilling to cause more pain and Idra having more time and appreciation for Maia than the mother who overlooked him somewhat. But then again... the woman who's obsessed with being the mother of the Emperor didn't actually spend loads of time moulding her son? And Maia got through to Idra on one conversation?

I don't know. I liked it but wasn't sold by it. But I wasn't sold by it because the book had ceased to convince me of its internal logic/verisimilitude before then and I was reading it overcritically.

We get another surprising turnaround from Ceredin, Maia's intended empress-to-be, as well. What are your thoughts on her by the end of these chapters, compared to her initial impression?

Honestly, in the sea of characters, I didn't have much thoughts on her to begin with and didn't have much thoughts on the change, and wished there'd been more time with her to formulate thoughts.

Let's start with Maia's grandfather! What do you think of the Avar, and his budding relationship with Maia?

The Avar is one of the few characters who immediately leaves an imprint of who they are on the book and other than Cala, one of the few non-Maia characters I can actually picture. He's like Brian Blessed as Richard IV, only regal and empathetic and a goblin. And the way he and Maia bonded made total sense and was sweet and I wish this had happened a lot earlier in the book.

Another plot against Maia is foiled... Were you surprised by the reveal of Tethimar as the one behind the late emperor's murder? And what are your thoughts on this reveal, in light of the way this part of the story played out?

It took me a long, long time to remember who Tethimar was.

When it was all tied together though, it made a ton of sense and this was one of my favourite parts of the book.

For all of the enmity that's shown to him, our emperor has a much more hopeful nickname by the end... Looking back, are you satisfied with/pleased by the way Maia handled all of these situations in which he had to make or break relationships? Was there anything you were left questioning or that you feel should have gone differently?

I don't think Maia should have done anything differently, and admired the way he could put aside his occasional minor impulses to cruelty.

But I wish that Addison had condensed the cast and given Maia more time with Idra, with Ceredin, with the member of his council who offers to help him... I'd have been a lot more satisfied if they'd come at the end of long arcs, rather than short arcs.

And as always, feel free to add any other thoughts/feelings on the book in general, now that it's over!

Hoo boy. I like Addison's prose, I really like the idea of the book and I guess that yeah, overall, I liked it, but there were a bunch of things about it that I wasn't really sold on it and if this hadn't been a group readalong, I wouldn't have finished it. Which would be a shame as the ending was great. Getting there felt like a slog, with much of parts 2 and 3 feeling like the same scene over and over just with a different character at the other end. I got Maia's confusion a little too much. I pride myself on the ability to recall who's who in a book; this time, I was just lost. I really wish Addison had picked a different route through the middle - less characters with deeper connections, more pursuit of a single goal, more immediate threat level, more hard choices... something. Anything.

What the book is, and where it works well, is as Maia's personal journey. His triumph of resilience and grace. But that wasn't enough for me, lovely chap as Maia might be, and even then I feel like the journey would have benefited for more doubt, more temptation. I've just had a chat with a fellow blogger where I said Maia gets off about as lightly as any protagonist in the fantasy genre in terms of what he has to deal with. She disagrees with a long list of things that happened to him. I kinda get her point, I kinda stand by my point, but the big deal in terms of this is that Addison didn't sell me on them. And that's what it boils down to. Some of it I enjoyed, other bits I didn't and started looking for why.

For me, there's few things more frustrating than an objectively good book with a lot of subjectively good traits and a just right sized pile of subjectively bad things that I can't just enjoy it and I can't just write it off either.

That aside... I'm pleased that Setheris didn't do any more dickish stuff, and kinda enjoyed the resolution there, but am slightly nonplussed that was it after all the build up. Chekov's gun didn't get fired there for me. I enjoyed finally getting a little depth into Csevet, I wish we had with Cala.

And I guess that's it. Thanks for reading, time to read everybody else's.