Friday 31 July 2020

What Convenient Character Decisions Look Like - Lackey's Owlsight

A lot of writing advice will tell you about the need to stay true to characters and not have them simply making the decisions the plot needs. But what does it look like? Recently, I thought I saw it in Mercedes Lackey's Owlsight and I wanted to share this with people. I enjoy Lackey's stories, but sometimes they do feel a little tidy which mars enjoyment. This was one of these times.

It started with Darian, the MC, chilling like a villain at a big party at his new adopted home. To give a little background - Darian is a conscientious, polite young man who has shown a willingness to take on a mature adult's role responsibly in the first book of the series (Owlsight is second). His new home is a Tayledras vale, and while he has been an adopted Tayledras for a long time by this point, this is his first time actually visiting his home.

Now, here's the two quotes that set my spidey-senses tingling:

"For the most part, his erstwhile dancing partners were just as winded as he was, and the hertasi circulating among them with more of the refreshing mint-flavored drink soon found themselves emptyhanded. Summerdance was the only one who still had breath to talk; she introduced him to the other dancers, but he promptly forgot most of their names." 

"He paid quite careful attention to their names as Nightbird introduced her friends, and fixed names properly with the faces in his memory."

These two quotes are mere pages apart, perhaps a couple of hours apart in story-time. Either reaction makes sense - being overwhelmed, being conscientious - but they are two different reactions from the same character to the same situation. Nothing is important, but it created an impression in my mind that Lackey wasn't sticking to what made Darian Darian.

"Now hang on," you might say. "You've already said both reactions make sense. Real people have different reactions all the time." True, and this only goes to show how difficult it is for fictional characters to demonstrate all the fickleness of real people while feeling like they have a strong personality. Maybe this isn't fair, but what the reader sees is what they see. There needs to be some sort of explanation.

"Well, he's tired one time, he's not the other". Again, true. But I only realised that when putting this article together after reading and having a slightly lukewarm impression of aspects of the book. If there's one thing I've learned from beta readers, it's that it's really hard to overestimate how explicit you have to be for a reader to notice something. Even realising it, it still feels a bit convenient. The lad paying careful attention wouldn't even try to remember the names when exhausted? To pick another example from the party:

"Darian motioned Summerdance to go in ahead of him, feeling as if he would make a poor showing if he let hunger overcome manners."

And let's pick another from a little after, when news of a barbarian invasion prompts him leaving his new home:

"He paid very close attention to his feelings about her and tried his best to decipher hers for him; he didn’t want to leave without her if what tied them together was closer than mere friendship. Their dalliance on the night of the wedding had been an entirely new set of experiences for him, and like a child with a new tooth, he felt as if he had to probe his feelings constantly to see what they were. He might even have convinced himself that he and Summerdance were meant for each other as permanent partners, if it hadn’t been for the fact that she didn’t act any differently toward him than she did toward any other young man whose company she enjoyed."

Darian doesn't let duress affect him. That's who he is. Emotions, physical discomfort - he stays in control. Until all of a sudden he doesn't. Whenever he doesn't, it looks off. And if it wasn't for that one small slip there, I mightn't have noticed.

This issue only comes back right at the climax (the fact Darian's grace under pressure isn't really tested for most of the book is a big sign as to what sort of book this is, for better or for ill). The barbarian invasion is more complicated than a straight military fight; there is a risk of pandemic, a question of whether to fight at all. It's also the conclusion of the other arc in the book, that of Keisha, village healer and Darian's love interest. We start to see this as Keisha's sister, Shandi, a trainee-Herald, appears out of nowhere on the strength of magical foresight. Despite reasoning Keisha out of her fears over Shandi, Darian is very short with her, telling her she must obey orders and acting like she has no understanding of the situation; he accuses Keisha of acting like Keisha's mother, then dresses down Shandi like he was her father.

There is no reason for him to be so logical with Keisha, then be emotional and confrontational with Shandi. The latter is very unlike him and there doesn't seem to be a reason that makes sense other than the author wanting to inject drama. Reasons are given - Darian is "unimpressed by Shandi's casual attitude" - but they didn't persuade me. Not only did Shandi not come as casual to me (more like the adrenaline of tiredness, which anyone with Darian's experience would recognise), but even if she had, for a polite, conscientious young man (who fancies her sister) go off like that rather than being diplomatic? That wasn't the Darian Lackey had persuaded me existed, and Lackey presenting me with a different Darian to cause drama is a sour note.  

Then, as the temperature rises and they debate options, Darian decides to keep his own idea quiet in order to avoid being ordered not to pursue it; to capture an enemy so they can get their language by them from magic and start talking to them. A clash between responsibility and a sense of respect would be an interesting dilemma for Darian that goes by sadly fast, but it looks far less of a clash for the way Darian has treated Shandi. He believes in orders and being careful, until it's convenient otherwise. What's the excuse here? The traditional disease of the protagonist that the rules only apply to them? It makes Darian less. It makes the story less. When the story tells me Darian is right, I can't agree.

There is one final wrinkle here. Keisha and Darian do indeed get their captive, and he fetches his brother who needs curing from the disease. Once that happens, Darian decides leaving the young unexperienced healer alone to cure a deadly disease she's never encountered before is a-okay, because now he has to report. As responsible judgments go it's a bit of a disaster, but hey, if he helps, where's the big dramatic finish where Darian and Shandi have to give Keisha the strength to make it? Which would be a good finish if I believed in it. But I don't.

What could have been done differently?

1. Emphasise there's two sides to the character early

If you want a character to be able to act against their most dominant personality traits, you need to establish this can happen and how. A good example is how Bernard Cornwell handles Arthur in The Warlord Chronicles - a good and virtuous ruler with sudden fits of ruthlessness and anger that simultaneously enable him to be a good and virtuous ruler yet undermine him. How do we know that's how he is so we aren't alarmed the first time it happens? Because other characters tell the MC so. You can also trace it in the actions - the elimination of rivals, the harshness when heartbroken, the ethically dubious deals - but its show *and* tell here.

Incidentally, the fact that a single character trait has a dark and light side - that Arthur's ambition enables him to be a successful warlord, enabling him to be a good ruler, but also leads to him making fatal mistakes - is also hugely beneficial here. There was so much Lackey could have done with Darian's sense of responsibility, but she didn't. And that's partly because didn't...

2. Make Things Worse

If all of a character's possibly out of character decisions work in their favour, it looks convenient. If it frequently doesn't, then there's still some issues, because then it looks like they conveniently become an idiot when the plot needs it. Bad things are needed though, if only to mix up the pattern. There is more to this though. Bad things give us a prism for revealing who characters really are; it's easy to be good when times are good, less so when they are hard. When we make the events hard, the choices hard, we are allowing the characters to really establish themselves. Who knows? Maybe I read Darian's character all wrong. But if I did, let's ask why. Why? He had no hard times for most of the book. Of course, this is a feature of Lackey's and not a bug, but it is one that makes some writing options hard.

3. Consistency

Of course, there's an easy option of simply being more consistent. Or having other characters call out the hypocrisy. Or having Darian apologise. Or, just, well, back to the consistency.

Owlsight is a good book. But there's a big lesson for authors that prevents it from being more. 

Monday 27 July 2020

The Mage Storms Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey

Part of being a community of mutual interest is continuous discussion. What's good, what's not, what's acceptable, what's not, and so on. One of the conversations that most interests me is "which authors of the past should be promoted to the next generation?"

There's multiple facets to that. Are we looking for historic value - do we still urge Urban Fantasy fans to check out Emma Bull's War for the Oaks as that's one of the starting places? Are we looking to promote gems underappreciated in their time - I don't think Peter Morwood's The Horse Lord was ever big, but I enjoyed it and don't mind taking the occasional moment to nudge awareness of it. Or is it just about books that age very well or were even ahead of their time?

In any case, Mercedes Lackey is one of those authors who seems to be fading gently from the fantasy mainstream (very gently) and into history. I'm not writing this review specifically to urge for or against that (and even if I was I'd struggle to know which side I'm on) but that thought is on my mind as I write.

One specific instance where this comes up is Lackey's general subject matter and aesthetic. The Mage Storms is centered about Karal, a young priest and secretary who is sent as part of a two man embassy from the historically puritanical and xenophobic nation of Karse to Valdemar, their hereditary enemies but generally objectively good eggs thanks to divine magic. Much of the first book, Storm Warning, is taken up with Karal being forced to confront certain prejudices and fears from his own mind and other people's. A strong subplot throughout is his friendship with An'desha, a mage who survived prolonged possession by an insanely evil mage and is trying to find his own identity and purpose, which doesn't always coincide with his boyfriend Firesong's view of their future. The real meat of the plot though are the eponymous Mage Storms, a natural disaster that threatens to devastate everyone's countries. 

Is that a story I'd promote to the next generation of fantasy readers? Yes. Given the number of fans who want to see stories in which war and death aren't the centre of things, who want to see societies that hold world views closer to their own on issues such as sexual diversity, and a general desire for a bit more optimism, The Mage Storms has an audience and maybe even a bigger one than when it came out in the mid-90s. That audience will not love every detail Lackey has to offer here (and it certainly doesn't replace the desire to see a future for the genre that contains more stories with similar principles), but I think many of them will like enough of it to like the story.

But what of the story itself? If Lackey was possibly ahead of her time in what she wanted to write about, she was firmly of her time in how she did so. The Mage Storms is notable for its long expository inner monologues and just generally 90s-drenched optimism. It actually cleaves quite well to more modern fiction with its love of close third and lack of omniscient and head-hopping, but there's still a dated feel to the prose. I never loved Lackey's prose - found it easy to read, yes, but it's functional at best - but re-reads don't help it. What re-reads really don't help though is the feeling of a slow, meandering story. Those expositions I mentioned feel even less needful on the Xth go around and in terms of the raw events, The Mage Storms is rather sparse. It's like getting a drink with gigantic amounts of froth; I may enjoy what drink is there, but I would ask the bartender to top it off. Would I promote that to the next generation of fantasy readers, having seen the generally high octane drift of the genre? Not if I wanted to make them happy. Hell, I'm not sure I'd promote it to most readers of my own generation and taste.

So what matters more? The vibe or the construction?

That's a person by person, mood by mood thing. For me, there are times when I'm definitely on Team Vibe here and as such, really enjoy this trilogy. I can't imagine these being the books I read every time but they've got their place and are as good as I know at what they do. They're hardly thrilling, but they're enjoyable and full of characters its fun to read about. I've got a particular soft spot for Karal as a bookish, empathic, kind man who neverthless gets exasperated when others can't see past their irrational fears. Several characters have a fine line in peevish snark - Firesong first and foremost - and the foolish and selfish are made to look bad.

That's how I'd recommend the book. Do you want to just enjoy spending some time with some mostly kind people being mostly kind, in the style of The Goblin Emperor or Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders? Not so bothered about thrills and secrets but just want something emotionally satisfying? Then The Mage Storms is worth a shot.

And while I uncertain about whether Lackey should live on from generation, her presence in this relatively unexplored (at least in my circles) part of the genre will give her a chance.

Sunday 26 July 2020

How New Girl Became Old

Well, that was a fun break from thinking about stories.

Part of it involved watching the sitcom New Girl, a modern coming of age (i.e. early 30s) comedy about a group of flatmates in LA. My wife put it on hesitantly and was delighted when I loved it. And I did. But come Season Six, I was routinely leaving the room and shouting at the TV. Why?

Something that I think is important in long stories is being able to sell the audience on every arc. It is natural for characters go through changes, for the focus of the story to shift, and if it doesn't it's probably not going to be a very long story, but every arc has to work. If it doesn't, people aren't going to enjoy the whole story. How I experienced New Girl is a good example of how this can go wrong.

The first season of New Girl was very much an exploratory one, judging from what the writers said. After that, they were running arcs about how the characters were growing up and where they were going. The main arc was Jess (quirky dork and the eponymous new girl in the flat) and Nick (chaotic slacker) and their growing romantic tension. The second arc was Schmidt (Nick's best friend and flatmate and metro douchebro) and his sexual attraction to Cece (Jess' best friend and successful model). Then there was Winston, general comic relief to both.

To me the Schmidt arc was the best because Schmidt had the best internal character tension. One part of Schmidt was a gigantic turd who valued visible success above everything else and was a shallow douchebag as a result. The other part was a people pleaser, a guy with a heart of gold. Both parts came out in his courtship of Cece. But Jess and Nick was solid value too.

Then, as you'd expect, those arcs came to ends. Schmidt and Cece got together, broke up, then got back together and got married. Jess and Nick got together, broke up... but couldn't get back together as quickly because you can't use the same one for both, can you? And while it was clear they'd eventually get back together again as well, that romantic tension couldn't be the main ingredient.

So what was there? No Schmidt becoming a better man. Winston remained a mostly secondary character. The show became mainly about Jess getting involved in various things but with less dramatic motivation. So essentially, episode after episode became Jess seeing a point of dramatic tension, then sticking her nose in for no good reason. It made her look narcissistic and selfish. She was unbearable. The writers of New Girl brought one set of arcs to an end and didn't replace them well. 

What do I think they should have done?

Option one is wrap up all the arcs at the same time and call it a day. It's neat (probably too neat in a show partly about the chaos of being young).

Option two is to give Jess a new arc and purpose that gives her a purpose other than "I can fix anything if I want to even if it's clearly not about me".

Option three is to move in a strong secondary like Schmidt was. I think they tried to do this with Winston but he never had an internal conflict. He got attention, but he was a guy who knew what he wanted and could get it (except for the romantic partner of his choice, which was fair overplayed by that point in the series).

Option four is a lack of purpose for Jess, but someone forcing her into doing things (instead of forcing her to be sane).

Option four would have made most sense to me thematically but might have been hard to sell dramatically. Option three would be my preferred choice, although maybe it might have not been enough. In any case, they didn't build that conflict in Winston or Nick prior to time. Arguably this is the greatest weakness in a discovery method for a long project. The initial arcs are great, but once resolved, they haven't built the next step. Yes, I am looking at GRRM here, and maybe Robert Jordan too.

I don't have a solution here, but it is something worth thinking about for those doing on longer projects. 

Thursday 9 July 2020

Project Transformation Part Ten - Delayed Landing

Then the optimism faded away.

I don't know what is for everyone else, but for me, writing is a habit. And in that holiday, I lost it. 

It took a long time to come back. I've only done eight blog posts in the more or less month since I wrote the first holiday post. Maybe I needed that holiday. Maybe it did more harm than good. Maybe I've been reluctant to come back. This story's been feeling dull, uninspired, not something I want to work on. The plan I've had felt needlessly complicated. I'd like to talk about how I'm going to hack my way out of that only once I can see a path opening up though. 

In the mean time, let's talk about some of what I did. I re-read ferociously - I've got seven Deverry books to review and a whole Lackey trilogy (I think that'll be done as one). I played more computer games, although that one hasn't gone totally smooth as the X-Com 2 Long War mod isn't working right. But there's a browser game called Retro Bowl that's very addictive.

In the last week or so, I've started getting the hockey bug bad again. I've dropped way too much money on books about understanding the game for want of actual hockey to watch and conversations to have. The best resource though has been free - Jack Han's website.

And there's a couple of ideas there that I've found interesting from a storytelling point of view. 

The first is his first principle of hockey - Create a small advantage, then connect them in sequence to create a larger advantage.

It's pretty obvious, isn't it? It's a game played over a 200ft area. There's five opposition skaters to get through. If you're by your net, 200ft away, and all five skaters are between you and the opposition net and its goaltender, you're not scoring right away. Trying to will result in disaster. But if you can create a small advantage - say you elude an opposition skater so its 5 v 4 for a precious five seconds - opportunities will open up. You might be able to turn it into 3 v 2 with the next pass.

This is how writers need to think most of the time. It's easy to get caught up in the concept of a goal but it's not always helpful, particularly in the first draft. I'm trying to thread perfect passes through five big guys with sticks over 200 ft. It ain't happening. But by creating interesting scenes, I can build my interest in the book and get momentum going. I can create interesting opportunities from those scenes, more scenes I'm excited to write. And when someone comes to read it? They won't know everything from the get go. That's the point. They'll just have one scene after another, and I need to use each other to build curiousity and emotional attachment a little more. 

Let's pick another one, a coaching idea he stole from chefs - Respect Your Ingredients.

It's super obvious, isn't it? Play to the strengths of what you have in the book (that should be really easy, we all put it there). Don't boil meat that should have crispy skin. Don't serve that meat with a vanilla cream sauce. Don't mix overpowering flavours.

If you have a character who wants to do the right thing but doesn't know what it is, you need to keep waving the (maybe) right thing at them. If you have a character whose need to survive and thrive wars with their friendships, test it. 

And that's it for now.

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard

Picture Paris. Picture a place there by the water's edge, surrounded by buildings that have gone nine rounds with a very angry magician who cheapshots, and picture the interplay between guttering lights, prowling shadows, and the sheen of pollution on the water. 

Above the water, it is ruled by Fallen Angels, creatures of magnificence and brilliance. Below is the realm of the Rong, Annamite (Vietnamese) water spirits. They mostly hold each other in mutual contempt, seeing each other as the alien, totally different, yet they do share a ruthless respect for power; the power of social mores, of rules, and of sheer naked strength and intimidation. Kindness is an uncommon currency here.

Now picture the sort of man who might belong to both worlds and not be at home in either.

This man is Thuan, a Rong Prince who had previously been sent off in an alliance marriage to Asmodeus, Fallen head of House Hawthorn. Thuan is a thoroughly decent young type indeed, full of ideals and morals. Now he's returning home for Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year). I'm sure the smart among you can look at the title and work out what he thinks he's returning to, and what he's actually returning to.

Let me avoid misleading the reader though. The feasts and murders aren't the important part of this novella (I believe it's only 120 pages). The important part of this is Thuan and his relationships. I've made a number of comparisons for Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders but the best one is probably The Goblin Emperor - this is a young(ish) man's personal development in a moral environment he doesn't agree with.

Another point on which I could be misleading readers - this book is set in the same world as De Bodard's Dominions of the Fallen series and both Thuan and Asmodeus are major characters there. This novella isn't a true standalone. However, nor is it tied into continuity and only readable for those who've read DotF (although in my opinion, why wouldn't you?). What's more, there's a notable tonal shift and a slight setting shift that might mean this works with readers who didn't love DotF. The main series happens mainly in the Fallen's realm; this book is entirely in the Rong's domain. And tonally, DotF trod grim, dramatic ground in a similar manner to Dickinson's The Traitor or Jemisin's Dreamblood or maybe even GGK's Lions of Al-Rassan. This book has a more intimate, warmer feel to it, like Mercedes Lackey co-authored a book with Mark Lawrence - or Addison as noted, or later Pratchett when not being comedic. Incidentally, this tonal shift goes off seamlessly.

Well. Nearly seamlessly. The tonality worked great for me, but there's a few prose adjustments too - this book is more casual, with a few modernisms slipped in. I didn't hate them but I didn't love them and it always took me out of the book for a moment. 

That's the only real criticism I have. I know there are some things that people will not appreciate. I've sort of touched on most of them, but I'll expand on one, namely that there's a lot of idea hinted at in the blurb, and obviously it can't all make it into the 120 pages. Anyone who was really jonesing for that murder mystery will be disappointed; come for Thuan's relationships instead. 

Thuan and his relationships are fun. I'll freely admit I'm probably not the ideal audience for Thuan but I still had a lot of fun. What gives Thuan an arc here is the murky waters of his ignorance about the true nature of his home, personified most by the Rong Van (who is sent to distract Thuan and Asmodeus and becomes an ally), and the allure of easy solutions, personified by Asmodeus (a masterpiece of barbed wit). The combination means he ends up deeper than he realised when he agrees to find the murderer; he has to fight to stay true to himself as well as to survive. And it's all done with elegant prose, often witty and snarky, sometimes a little dark, that portrays Thuan and his world in very human terms. And entertaining. And fun.

Ultimately, that's what Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders. It's a fun romp, a Fantasy of Manners that walks the edge between comedy and drama with aplomb where you can cheer for a basically good person. There's a tasty little package about composite identities there too, a slightly bitter core to the chocolate coating. I imagine the most consistent criticism will be readers wishing it was longer and really, what higher compliment can you pay a book?

I received an ARC from Aliette de Bodard in exchange for an honest review - thanks! To find out more about her books, visit her home page and to buy this one, it's out now in e-book and physical format.

Still not decided? Read some more reviews at One More and Parsecs & Parchment, or if you want the review of someone who hasn't read DotF, this review by Artur Nowrot on Goodreads is a good one

And if you want to find out more about Dominions of the Fallen, here's my reviews of House of Shattered Wings, House of Binding Thorns, and House of Sundering Flames

Friday 3 July 2020

A Time of Omens by Katherine Kerr

First Time:

Sometimes a book tells you - more or less - what it's all about in the title.

Time of Omens is all about characters who find themselves living in those grand fantasy tales we all love so much - kings claiming the throne! ladies running away to be princesses! prophecy and high adventure! - the gap between expectation and reality. Or, characters in times of omens. If Time of Exile was about loss, this is about getting too much, or getting the wrong thing. And adventure!

Which, for those of you who've read the previous Deverry reviews is about as much as I need to say, other than I liked it a lot. It does what it does very well.

That's a very short review though, so lets waffle some more. For those who don't know Deverry, it's a series of books that straddle the line of the various trad fantasy genres, with signature traits of a pseudo-Celtic accent and culture, very character development-led arcs, a mix of a mystical and semi-religious style of magic with primal, brutish politics and warfare, and most crucially, looping narratives that sweep in and out of history as it follows its key characters' various incarnations. Time of Omens features all of those in spades and it's one of the best mixes of the core concepts since series starter Daggerspell.

In fact, everytime I praise the book, I look back and think I'm underselling it. I'm split as to whether this is merely very good, or in fact excellent. Part of that is the story's fractured narrative causing an absence of powerhouse weight of momentum behind the ending. Scenes from Time of Omens live longer in the memory than the whole thing. Part of that's maybe not enjoying certain parts of the narrative as much as others. The middle part in particular feels like the sort of connecting part that maybe should have been skipped and dealt with in flashbacks.

So why do I think it might be excellent? There's an immersive, addictive quality into how deep she takes you into the character's mindsets. Kerr writes manly men better than most men; she captures the nerves, the bravado, the strange curiousities, and the sudden sober looks at the world. I presume she captures women just as well; she's convinced me at least. The characters feel human (well, they feel their own species) and yet they feel real living examples of a society a long way removed from our own.

In any case, I suggest anyone looking at the series, or wondering how deep to continue, to read on and find out for themselves.

Second Time:

The great thing about sequels is getting to revisit old friends and see how they've grown. Rhodry and Jill really come of age here. Jill reminds me of Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax - very much intent on doing right by people, but impatient and cold-hearted and very much aware that right isn't always nice. I saw one person complain about this on Goodreads, and the complaint makes sense to me, but at the same time it's the logical conclusion of the arc to me and entertaining to read. Jill's incarnations always needed to learn how to stand up for themselves without losing control of themselves. Jill does that.

Rhodry, by contrast, is a long way from being done. He has lost everything twice and he's now quite clearly not fully in control with himself and tired of life. He's not suicidal; he talks about longing for Lady Death, but it'd be very easy for him to get himself killed if he was. But he's the next best thing. There is, in retrospect, something of a missed opportunity here, as we see most of Rhodry's despair through the eyes of others. I'd have liked to see a bit more of his thoughts, and a bit less of the berserk howls of laughter, which should truly be up there with braid tugging for the overused tags of the fantasy community.

It's been a long time since I went to memetown for a review, but Thor damn it if this wasn't the right time

Of course, there's another side to the whole seeing old friends thing, and that's when it feels like a twee reunion tour. I'm not entirely sure what seeing Perryn added to the book, other than "yay it's the weird guy who raped the MC". Maybe these are famous last words, but that's not usually the character readers are hankering to see again.

Speaking of not quite grasping the point, I'll be mogadored if I ever get what the Civil War arc brought to the Deverry Cycle other than a lot of very enjoyable story. Yes, that is the main point, but in a story that layers meaning after meaning through its use of incarnation jumping and theme, it's far from the only one. It's a shame I've got to poke at that because it really is a fun read, just... someone explain it to me, damnit!

That's actually the summation of my feelings here. The sense of cohesive theme that I'm such a sucker for is kinda AWOL here. Time of Exile was an uneven story that really achieved a great resonance of theme. Time of Omens is a great story that is missing some glue.

Time of War? We will see.