On Reading

Nicking from Novels: Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Miracles

This post is a first for Nicking from Novels—I’m going back to an author I’ve already written about, a series I’ve already written about. (I sort of went there when I covered Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionovar Tapestry in a single post, though.) We’re going back to Bulikov today, site of Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. Why? Because his conclusion to the trilogy made me do this:

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been one of those slightly-too-cool kids who can’t help throwing qualifiers even at the stuff I love the most. I don’t take pride in it (anymore), but I can pick out flaws around the edges of just about anything. (Thank you again, graduate school.) What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t do “Holy shit!” reactions. Once every few years, maybe. Mr. Bennett’s City of Miracles provoked one. After re-reading it, I’ll go ahead and say it earned one. This is a book that made me tear up a little with just this line:

“‘Okay,’ she says quietly. ‘Okay.’”

So we’re starting with pretty much the most enthusiastic recommendation I can give. If you like books (and I can’t imagine you reading this post if you don’t), go out and find these books. City of Stairs, City of Swords, and City of Miracles. Got it? Good. Because now I’m going to try and be all smart and writerly like these posts are supposed to be.

Overview

Like its predecessors, City of Miracles sits somewhere between the genre expectations of fantasy and science fiction. Miracles are part of the setting’s fabric. More than in the preceding novels, the divine is part of City of Miracles’ characters. You won’t find wizards running around, nor laser pistols, but you won’t miss them.

Miracles jumps more than a decade past Blades, which itself jumps ahead a few years from Stairs. The novel begins with the assassination of Shara Komayd (can’t be a spoiler if it’s on the book’s back cover!). Shara was the protagonist of the trilogy’s first novel, and has subsequently risen to and fallen from political power on the strengths (and weaknesses) of her revolutionary politics. Miracles follows Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, who I described thusly based on the first novel: “[Shara’s] Dreyling ‘secretary.’ (Said secretary writes most of his memos in the blood of his enemies.)” That’s still true as Sigrud pursues first Shara’s murderer, then the backer of said murderer.

His pursuit takes him to various cities on the Continent and on Saypur, and eventually back to Bulikov, City of Stairs, haven of miracles, and historically messed up place. There’s action, and mystery, and, most importantly, real humanity underlying all the explosions and miraculous happenings.

The Plot

As mentioned, Sigrud pursues Shara’s murderer. He’s dealing with his own burdens—atrocities he has committed as a Saypuri agent, the murders he committed in a rage after his daughter died, a pervasive existential bleakness. (There are lots of dad feelings in the novel, too.) Sigrud’s investigations lead him to Shara’s adopted daughter and to divine conflicts that have their roots in the first novel and beyond. The novel’s finale does a phenomenal job of tying loose ends together. It also saves the world in a profound way without fixing everything.

The Cool Thing to Consider

So many! This is such a good book and such a fitting end to the trilogy. The characterization makes me jealous; I’ve not read much (and not yet written much) that makes even wildly improbable characters real people. Bennett captures the motivations and humanity of characters that appear even in isolated scenes that exist mostly to demonstrate that the Big Bad is, in fact, big and bad. Sigrud himself has come a long way (both as a character and fictional person) from simply being Shara’s enforcer. I’ve got a soft spot for heroes whose defining attribute is preternatural resilience. Sigrud’s resilience actually becomes a significant plot point for the novel—another great bit about it.

The defining Cool Thing about this novel, though, is the way that it is profoundly moral without moralizing. If Stairs was about history’s inescapability, and Blades was about the persistence of war, Miracles wraps those into broader questions about power and power’s legacy, about the human and moral costs of necessity and perceived necessity.

Ancient children populate the fringes of the novel, trapped in repetition because a dead divinity made them that way. The “mere mortals” of the book, most of whom are aging and scarred by past battles, intrude on these repeating patterns. As an adult, what do you do with petulant, eternal teenagers who happen to be able to rewrite parts of reality? How do you choose to influence power? How do you try to teach it? How do you break cycles? Should you even try?

Bennett is good enough at his craft that he doesn’t need characters to ask these questions explicitly, nor to speechify with their answers. Conversations that directly address the novel’s moral center are rare, and happen when there are enough significant plot elements in play that they do not distract. The moral questions are part and parcel of “what do you do when the world is falling apart?” (I wish that question were less timely.)

How, though? This is the part where we try to figure out how it all works, to distill some element of a novel into something you can nick, something that’s a writing tip without being banal enough to appear across a hundred different amateur writing blogs. How, specifically, does Bennett make Miracles moral stakes work?

Some of the answer hops back a paragraph: Bennett knows how to make words do things. When you have enough control over your tools, you can make miracles (sorry) happen. The path to craft is to read and write and read and write and let other people tell you what’s not working so you can go back to reading and writing and getting better.

Beyond Bennett’s craft, though, what makes the morality of City of Miracles work is the close relationship between the interior and exterior conflicts. Conflict drives plot. Fiction 101. Characters need some degree of internal conflict to be interesting—second week of Fiction 101. We find exterior conflict easily enough: the Fellowship versus Sauron, John McClane versus Hans Gruber, Harry versus Voldy. Fantasy and science fiction, when they’re the most “genre-y” tend to fixate on the external conflict. Internal conflicts get reduced to “character Z needs to believe in herself” or “character N has feelings about his dad.” Those conflicts get sorted out not as part of the exterior conflict, but as something that needs to happen on the way. When character Z believes in herself, she can use the mcguffin to zap the Big Bad, for example.

City of Miracles transcends that. Sigrud, creature of violence, comes to moral understandings about himself and the world. His answers are not incidental to the broader “save the world” conflict. His answers are the resolution to that conflict. By the novel’s climax, there’s no meaningful division between Sigrud answering his moral questions and Sigrud leaping off a staircase hundreds of feet in the air.

That is how the novel manages to be profoundly moral without moralizing. Literature is a hell of a drug.

What We Nick from this Novel

Characters pick their battles for a reason. Know it.

Sometimes, battles are forced upon us, and we make the stories as we go. Even then, there must be reasons to fight, to pursue conflict rather than surrender. Even in situations where the choice is “fight or die,” the external conflict can’t be everything. The relationship between internal and external conflict does not have to be, as it is in City of Miracles, one that is ultimately congruent. Contrast can be powerful. Whatever you, as a writer, choose, make sure it’s a choice, not just a default or a placeholder. The more you understand the relationship between your characters’ interior conflicts and the external conflicts of your story, the better you’ll be able to tell it.

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NfN: Shanna Germain’s The Poison Eater

I haven’t read a new novel published by a gaming company since the days when Dungeons & Dragons was still a TSR property. Back then, I spent a lot of time with novels that frequently wore their related game mechanics on their sleeves, sometimes to the point that you could see a change in editions in a character’s new capabilities. Some of those old novels were good, but many exemplified the worst of “genre” fiction.

Monte Cook Games ended my long hiatus from game-company fiction by including a novel from Shanna Germain as a stretch goal in one of their (awesome) Kickstarter launches. The Poison Eater is a novel of Numenera, the first of the Cypher System games. Numenera, as a game, is hard to pigeonhole. It is essentially a game about discovery in an impossibly far-flung future. Mix the surreal sci-fi art of the 1970s with Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, sprinkle liberally enthusiastic extrapolations from modern sciences, then dial the weird way up, and you’ll get close. As a game, it’s a long way from D&D.

And The Poison Eater? It’s a long way from those old Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels.

Overview

First: Numenera is as distinct enough as a setting that you need no acquaintance with it to appreciate Germain’s novel. There’s little reliance on conventional fantasy or science fiction tropes. Numenera, as a game and setting, relies on “the weird.” It’s an actual thing in the game, something you’ll see in sidebars and in the main text. The weird of Numenera drives the game—there are billions of years of accreted and discarded and forgotten technology. It is, functionally, magic. What sets Numenera’s weird apart, though, is the persistent sense that all of these devices and ruins meant something else, or still mean something else to a sufficiently knowledgable party. Residents of the Ninth World are bricoleurs, tinkers assembling meaning and utility from bits of other worlds they can’t ever fully comprehend. (I’ll spare you the long tangent about engineers and Claude Levi-Strauss and semiotics.)

Talia, Germain’s protagonist (and the titular poison eater), is just as much a bricoleur as the rest. She’s putting together a new life from lies and devices she doesn’t understand. For much of the novel, she knows just enough to hide what she knows. She and Khee, her faithful warbeast companion, have run to Enthait, a city in the middle of a desert, protected by its greyes and zaffre and by the visions of the poison eater. Said visions are induced by some of the city’s weird devices. The society’s pattern is thus: the poison eater identifies threats to the city; the greyes and zaffre deal with them. When neither the visions nor the dealing with them are simple, you have good grist for a novel’s mill.

Germain’s writing is evocative. She creates the setting as much by what she neglects to explain as what she does explain. It reminded me, at times of Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is better than anybody I’ve read at picking exactly the right amount of exposition, the perfect details that allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Germain accomplishes similar things not so much through her selection of details, but through her diction. There’s a persistent poetry to The Poison Eater that perfectly suits the ambiguities of its protagonist and the inexplicabilities of its setting. The ambiguities of her word choices and the way she uses sound convey Talia’s uneasy relationship with the world. Good stuff.

The Plot

For all that the novel’s climax features a battle with inhuman forces, the fundamental conflict of The Poison Eater is an interior one (more on that below). As the poison eater, Talia must decipher her visions, which, rather than visions of distant places, are instead memories of her previous existence as a captive of the monstrous vordcha. She must negotiate her relationships with her lover, Isera, and Isera’s daughter, with the captain of the greyes and a technician and the orness (Enthait’s nominal ruler). Talia must decide whether she will commit to these people, whether she will trust them, and whether she will let them trust her.

Talia’s internal conflict plays out against the backdrop of the city of Enthait and against an increasingly imminent exterior threat. There’s a classic skeleton to the story: establish a group of characters with complex relationships, then add heat and pressure to see what breaks and what welds.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Germain establishes the central conflict—and the coolest thing about the novel—in the first two sentences:

Poison never lies.

But Talia does.

“This statement is a lie,” right? Talia knows she is a liar. She has, we quickly learn, been making up the visions the poisons bring. Her comrades expect her to die soon, because that is what poison eaters do. (The poisons really are poisonous.) Talia has other plans, though. Surviving the tenth poison means becoming the orness and getting control of Enthait and a superweapon. The superweapon would, hopefully, allow Talia to destroy the vordcha. The problem? Talia isn’t sure whether she’s a true poison eater. She’s not sure whether the superweapon actually exists. She’s especially unsure of the orness.

Talia consciously wraps herself in lies and, like so many heroes, finds the isolation of falsehood hard to bear. She is torn between desires: desires for the weapon (which would end her fear), desires for stability, rather more literal desire for Isera—but that, too is coupled with a need for their relationship to be more than mere coupling. She must face the question of merely surviving versus actually living. Ho hum, yadda yadda. Mopey intrapersonal conflict. Why do we care?

Beyond the obvious reasons (the quality of the writing, all the reasons we read novels in the first place), we care because Germain keeps wrong-footing Talia, and, by extension, her readers. Just when Talia thinks she has figured something out, she discovers another layer. The nature of truth itself gets murky as Talia matches wits and belief with the orness, her memories, and herself. This is a novel deeply concerned with questions of truth and consequences.

It reminds me at times of China Mieville’s Embassytown (one of the few Mieville novels I have enjoyed without rolling my eyes at the way he wears his cleverness). Embassytown is a novel for linguistics nerds and philosophers, but similarly involves alien forces and the power of lies. The aliens speak two words at once and, because of the relationship between the simultaneously spoken words, cannot lie. Resolving the eventual crisis in that novel requires that, via metaphor, the aliens learn to lie.

There’s nothing so complicatedly linguistic in The Poison Eater, but there’s a similar shell game with what is true, with simultaneity and the effort to comprehend competing ideas. Germain makes it work, which is what takes the novel beyond low-level genre expectations. She does this in part through her use of language; poetry is great for wielding ambiguities and simultaneities. Though Germain doesn’t do any Tolkien-esque pages of song, her novel is shot through with passages that are suggestive and allusive rather than properly expository. She also makes it work by refraining from explaining everything.

That brings us back to bricolage and bricoleurs and Numenera as a game and a world. What makes this novel “literary” is also what makes the game cool: though the foundation and frame are built of fundamental human questions, the rest of the structure is pieced together from the partially-unexplained and the wholly-inexplicable. It’s a fantastic place to play with truth and lies and mystery, and Germain does a great job of it.

What We Nick from this Novel

Reverse your reversed reversals.

Keeping both your characters and your readers guessing is a dangerous game. It’s too easy for the whole thing to slide into murkiness. This is especially true if you throw out all the mysteries at once. What makes The Poison Eater worth nicking from, though, is the way that single strands of mystery weave to and fro. Characters find intermediate answers that seem, in the moment, to be final. Don’t be capricious about it, but let your characters run with incomplete or wrong answers for a while. You—and your readers—will learn something about them, and you’ll potentially do a good job of building the drama, too.

Perpendicular to Everything

I had planned to write a Nicking from Novels today about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve just finished rereading the novel. I picked it up at an airport bookstore coming or going from Wales—it seemed like the kind of thing that, as a 17-year-old who desperately wanted to be a writer, was a necessity. I remember being caught up in the madness of it, the descriptions of jazz and the mythology of the American Road. Dean and Sal screwed up too many things to really be role models (and it wasn’t the 1950s anymore), but they were close. I thought there was something to emulate in the life fully lived, the mad saintliness of a Dean Moriarty.

On the Road ought, as a thumbnail sketch, be a buddy comedy: two friends pursuing kicks back and forth across the country. Rereading it over the last week, I’ve thought more about how much the two protagonists screw things up. Dean leaves wreckage in his wake, always, whether it’s his broken marriages, stolen cars, or nicked wallets. Sal, vitally, knows better and goes along with Dean anyway, even encouraging him. They enable each other in all the worst ways. It’s a tragedy.

Those were things that, I think, it would have been impossible for me to understand at 17. I could think, in the abstract, that it was bad for Dean to abandon first one wife, then another, then the mother of yet another of his children. As a parent, an adult with “real world” responsibilities, I get just how awful it really is. I also see the casual, almost helpless misogyny in so many of the protagonists’ interactions with women. The desperate moments—picking up cigarette butts on the street, going without food, having  to beg shelter from resentful near-strangers—stand out more. I got a much better sense of just what beat meant to Kerouac, and it wasn’t good.

None of this keeps On the Road from being a beautiful book. Kerouac does breathtakingly poetic things with language, whether he’s talking about Dean or music or the Road. There are these brilliant moments where a metaphor snaps everything into perfect focus, the kind of clarity that only comes when a thing is likened. It’s magic. I can’t recall any other author (or many other poets) who can do that so consistently, make it seem so natural within the flow of words.

The metaphors make the melancholy all the more sublime. On the Road is simultaneously a deeply Romantic book and a deeply American book. It embraces loneliness and the pursuit of women just as enthusiastically as Keats and Byron and Shelley. It transposes the unknowable wilderness to the road itself, but treats it similarly: a place to be astounded and to know oneself. The characters chase life. They do that, though, in an American context. The American Dream is always in the background, the dream America dreams of itself: the mythic West, the tumult, the go-ness that always wants a home to return to. Sal and Dean never seem quite sure whether they’re running toward something or away from it; they’re fleeing life, too.

For me, today, it has been about away. I’m sitting in a coffee shop and the news has spent the morning rehearsing a gun attack on a congressional baseball practice. The Senate is manufacturing a healthcare bill in secret that seems likely to be catastrophic to people I care about. Last night I dreamed of concrete and plywood and baseball and music and all these things have knotted together in my stomach. I want to go, to go perpendicular to everything, away from everything in a direction that doesn’t exist. I get—I dig—a bit of what push-pulled Sal and Dean to the road over and over and over. They’re chasing something, fleeing something. Their drive—and their driving—is inseparable from the melancholy, from the sense that the world is spinning and spinning and the only things worth knowing are the things that are spinning away.

Tonight, probably, I will sleep better. Tomorrow, probably, the news will be a little less dire. Tomorrow, probably, there will be no knot in my stomach making my feet itch to walk in a direction that doesn’t exist. Today, though, I’m a little beat, a little beaten down, with words the only things that can take me the direction I need to go.

Nicking from Novels: Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon

This is probably the first time I have picked up a book because the author kept showing up in my Twitter feed. Michigan-based Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon came out in 2012. He’s an award-winning writer of short stories, with quite a publishing history behind him by the time Throne dropped. He’s also a prolific Tweeter.

Overview

Throne of the Crescent Moon follows an aging ghul hunter, his friends (a magus and an aklhemist), his apprentice (a dervish), and a nomadic girl who turns into a lion. It’s possible (though not entirely fair) to sum up the story in simple fantasy terms: heroes band together to stop an ancient, black-magic wielding evil. The old characters complain about being too old for the job; the teenage characters are bellicose and as naive as they are sincere. The villains, servants of the Traitorous Angel, are wholly depraved and black-hearted; what complexity they have is in their history rather than their motivations.

What makes the novel, well, novel is that it’s not set in the faux-Medieval Europe that forms fantasy’s “default” setting. It is, to pull from Kevin J. Anderson’s back-cover blurb, “a beautiful story of a demon hunter in an Arabian Nights setting.” It also isn’t. More on that below.

The Plot

Adoulla is an aging ghul hunter, the last of his order. He’d like to retire—or to die—but can’t bring himself to do either. He has an apprentice named Raseed, a teenage holy warrior who is fond of quoting scripture. What starts as a normal ghul hunt turns into something more. There are too many of the ghuls for any normal magician to raise. Raseed and Adoulla are saved from being overwhelmed by Zamia, an Angel-touched girl who can turn into a lioness. Her band has been destroyed, body and soul, by the monster that drives the ghuls. She reluctantly joins forces with the learned Adoulla. In consultation with Litaz the alkhemist and her husband Dawoud the magus, the trio endeavours to find the source of the ghuls. They uncover a deeper mystery and get tangled up in the political struggles of Dhamsawaat, where a corrupt Khalif is challenged by the self-styled Falcon Prince.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Let’s talk about “palette swap.” The term comes from video games, where, for example, Sub Zero and Scorpion from Mortal Kombat were the same “ninja” model with different colors. It’s a labor-saving device to create the appearance of novelty. More generally, the concept is used for a simple re-skinning of previous creative work. You take somebody else’s engine and wrap some different skins over the animations, maybe program a few new weapons, and call it a new game. (Consider the endless Candy Crush variations.)

It’s tempting to try and read Throne of the Crescent Moon as a mere palette swap. Adoulla’s a cleric (albeit an irreverent one). Raseed’s a paladin. Zamia’s a shape-shifting barbarian. There’s an evil old necromancer with a monstrous henchman. All the typical elements of Eurocentric fantasy, just painted over with an “Arabian Nights” brush (or put through a filter, if Instagram is more your thing).

Tempting, but wrong.

“Readers yearning for the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser will delight in the arrival of Adoulla and Raseed,” Walter Jon Williams writes in another jacket blurb. There are similarities to the Lankhmar books, certainly: inscrutable magics, master swordsmen, an endlessly busy and dusty city. As somebody who enjoyed the Lankhmar books, I appreciate those similarities. (In passing, I’ll mention that it occasionally reminded me of Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road.)  I also think that the similarities are just one layer. Throne of the Crescent moon is not a palette swap on the old sword and sorcery.

I do like the idea of thinking about different palettes, though. There are ways that Throne reminds me of old comic books, cheaply printed in layers of colored dots. It has a different quality than most contemporary fantasy. And unlike those vintage comics, Ahmed’s colors pop; they’re vibrant. They are not particularly blended.

This isn’t to say that Throne of the Crescent Moon simple or plain. To build a character like Adoulla from swathes of bold, unshaded color is hard. There’s the veneer of the old swords-and-sorcery or swords-and-sandals stories in those bright colors. Throne isn’t a throwback, though, because Ahmed, like those old comic colorists, works wonders with juxtaposition and balance. We can appreciate Adoulla as the type that the palette suggests while understanding his complexity thanks to Ahmed’s skill in balancing the swatches of color.

The setting, too, is created through careful application of color. Dhamsawaat is on the Tiger River. The characters’ monotheism is flavored by Islam, from Raseed’s proverbs to the repressive Humble Students. The myths of the Middle East underpin the magic—for heroes and villains alike. None of these are “painting over” a Eurocentric fantasy setting. Ahmed paints his own setting, in his own colors, on his own terms. Dhamsawaat is not Lankhmar (nor is it Baghdad).

Looked at from a distance, or read quickly, Throne of the Crescent Moon might seem a mere palette swap on pulp fantasy. It’s enjoyable at that level, for sure: the action is compelling, the love at first sight entertainingly troubling to the two young characters who don’t know how to deal with it. Throne rewards deeper attention, though, where we can pick out the individual patches of color that blend at a distance. We see the contrast between Raseed and Zamia’s budding relationship with the long marriage of Litaz and Dawoud (and Adoulla’s long suffering with neither). We see the ambiguities in the choice between a known tyrant and the brilliant braggart who’d usurp him. We see the characters constantly interpreting their environment based on their separate experiences. That’s what makes the novel compelling.

What We Nick from this Novel

Local color is no excuse to be lazy.
It’s always tempting to grab for easy novelty, whether that’s writing in dialect or picking a real place as a “skin” for our concocted settings. That’s a bad palette swap. If we want different color, we need to think about the whole palette, the whole technique of the painting. Taken out of the analogy, we need to consider how our setting, characters and the way we write about them influence our story. Throne of the Crescent Moon works because palette suits the painting; it’s the right way for Ahmed to tell that story. We should aspire to do suit method to message as well as he does.

Nicking from Novels: Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs

Funny story: I first picked up the sequel to local Austin author Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, City of Blades. I got about fifty pages into Blades and realized I very much wanted to know the characters and the world better before I read it. The next trip to the library, I picked up City of Stairs. It did not disappoint.

Overview

City of Stairs sits somewhere between “fantasy” and “science fiction.” There are no space ships or aliens. There are guns and cannons and swords, but there are also miracles. One could reasonably describe the miracles as “magic,” but not once in the novel did I ever think “that character is casting a spell.”

Bennett reminds me, in both prose and concept, of China Mieville…only without Mieville’s academicism and bouts of pretension. City of Stairs is a tremendously clever novel that never puffs out its chest to show how clever it is. Behind the plot’s mysteries lie thoughtful considerations of historiography, colonialism, sexuality, and religiosity. There’s also a six-and-a-half foot quasi-viking who bites out somebody’s throat, monsters, and plenty of intrigue. The deeper ideas are all there, but you don’t have to appreciate them to enjoy the book. (Which may be the biggest difference from Mieville.)

The world of Saypur and Bulikov is broken. About 80 years before the novel opens, a Saypuri general kills the Divinities of the Continent (who had been treating Saypur rather like England treated Ireland). When the gods died, their miracles stopped functioning; some of those miracles had touched on the fundaments of reality. For Saypur, which lacked a god, the effects were minimal. In Bulikov, especially, the effects of this “Blink” were disastrous. Since then, Saypur has ruled Bulikov (and the rest of the Continent) as occupiers. The Continentals remain bitter about gods the youngest adults barely know, and about the fact that the Saypuri killed those gods and broke their world.

The Plot

Into this mix of resentment and resignation comes Shara Komayd, intelligence operative and descendant of the Kaj who killed the gods. Saypur’s greatest historian has been murdered in Bulikov. Shara arrives to investigate with Sigrud, her Dreyling “secretary.” (Said secretary writes most of his memos in the blood of his enemies.)  Investigation of the professor’s murder leads indirectly to Shara’s ex, Vohannes Votrov, as well as a group calling themselves “Restorationists.” The Restorationists want to bring back the old ways (and more).

Chaos ensues! There are secret messages, secret warehouses, secrets of families and cultures. The climax is a heady collision of action and metaphysics. The denouement answers some questions, asks others, and leaves things open for sequels. (The second book follows a military officer who is a secondary character in Stairs.)

The Cool Thing to Consider

I’m analytical by inclination and, even moreso, by training. Years and years in school have turned my instincts toward vivisecting what I read, even when I’m reading for pleasure. I remember walking out of Serenity (the Firefly movie) and wondering at how much the movie had sucked me into its world. I had watched the whole thing with trying to spot tricks of narrative (or score, which is what usually gets me).

The setting in City of Stairs worked a similar magic. It’s probably the freshest, most cleanly realized setting I’ve read in years. Jackson Bennett allows the characters to live completely inside the world. He uses epigraphs to provide more background for readers who want it. Shara is a historian as well as a spy, but her explanations fit so tidily into the narrative that they never felt like pure exposition. Select flashbacks fill things in for characters while providing context.

How does the author make it work, though? While one can’t, by definition, imitate the originality, there are things to take away from Jackson Bennett’s methods.

First, language matters. Jackson Bennett names his Saypuri characters and places in quasi-subcontinental style. The names “sound” like they’re from the Indian subcontinent. The Continental names “sound” like a collision of Slavic and Central Asian influence. (The Dreylings are quasi-Nordic, although there’s only the one character in this novel.) Jackson Bennett uses these naming patterns consistently, which helps distinguish the cultures as well as the characters. Bulikov is not an undiscovered part of England, nor is it a jumble of vowels and consonants meant to evoke the fantastic. The language works organically to suggest that the world is bigger than the characters we’re following.

Second, Jackson Bennett makes good use of the “stranger comes to town” element of his story. His protagonist has spent years on the Continent, but not many in Bulikov. She arrives in an emergency situation and is forced to assimilate information at breakneck speed. She travels around the city and meets important people. We’re introduced to people and places through her eyes, helpfully dodging most raw exposition.

Third, and trickiest in relation to the above point, Shara knows more than anybody around her about the world. Part of Saypur’s domination of the Continent relies on the World Regulations, a grand censorship of all mention of the Divine. Shara has studied the Continent and the Divine extensively, with resources only available to Saypuri. She knows more about Bulikov than that city’s citizens do. (It’s terribly unfair, and Jackson Bennett makes that clear.) Shara’s knowledge is still incomplete; she’s still the stranger that comes to town. Her ability to explain so much, but never everything, helps suck the reader in. We want to know what’s next, what’s really going on. It’s the frustration of missing the last few pieces of a puzzle. That lack helps the plot move forward and sucks readers with it through the world and its history in an organic, unforced way.

Strategic use of flashbacks also helps establish the setting. Shara and Vohannes have a history; Bennett uses that history to personalize the broader conflict between Saypur and the Continent. We get a few flashbacks from Sigrud that offer hints of the Dreyling lands, but Bennett keeps things center on Shara. It works better than it ought to because the author is strategic in the use of flashbacks; they always connect to what is occurring in the novel’s current moment.

Last, least, but still important: Bennett gives us epigraphs at the start of every chapter. Many of these are by the murdered historian. Some come from other sources. They’re all in-world texts, though. They shed small light on the events of the chapter and cast relevant shadows on the setting.

What We Nick from this Novel

Characters live somewhere, even when the camera is off.

Good settings give the impression that they exist as more than vehicles for the story. There’s no question that Shara Komayd is the protagonist. She solves the riddles. She defeats the “bad guys,” more or less. The world keeps moving around her, though. We learn enough about Bulikov to infer what its residents are up to after the novel ends (and what they were up to before it began). It works as though it’s a real place, without the author making a show of explaining it. What more can we, as readers or authors, ask of a setting?

Nicking from Novels: R.S. Belcher’s The Six-Gun Tarot

R.S. Belcher’s The Six-Gun Tarot is a random library grab. It’s relatively recent, published in 2013. The next book in the Golgotha series, The Shotgun Arcana, is out, with a third book, The Queen of Swords, due out sometime this year. Belcher has a long resume in journalism; he also has an urban fantasy series published by Tor.

Overview

The Six-Gun Tarot is a “Weird West” book. Belcher describes it as “kind of Zane Grey meets H.P. Lovecraft.” That’s not far off, though Lovecraft lacks coyote spirits and mad science. Golgotha, the fictional Nevada town in which the story is set, is a magnet for the weird. Our nominal protagonist, Jim Negrey, arrives in Golgotha with his father’s jade eye. Nearly arrives, anyway. He requires rescuing from the desert by a deputy who’s half capital-C Coyote and a man who’s got an unseemly fascination with dying. Jim soon meets a variety of other characters, including a sheriff who cannot die until a particular day, a Mormon mayor who has to deal with both his sexuality and safeguarding the relics of Joseph Smith, and members of the Chinese Green Ribbon Tong. That list leaves out the Lilith-cult ninja, her daughter, and the story’s villains. And an angel.

So we have, on one hand, standard elements of a Western: a young man with wanted posters out to prove himself, an unflappable sheriff, a Fancy Dan of a mayor, handsome widows and a cagey half-blooded American Indian. On the other, we have two different ancient cults, angels, a great old one, the left eye of (a version of) the creator, Mormon relics, ghosts, and a head in jar. Belcher does a great job of folding the weird into the western. There’s never any sense that you’re bouncing back and forth between sets of tropes.

He also handles a legitimately diverse cast with a deft touch. There are no tokens. There is difference, there is relativism, but it’s never an excuse for lazy storytelling or indecisive characters. Belief matters. Belief inflects reality, particularly when you get into the weird stuff. Belief is not, though, a substitute for morality (nor for reality). The characters bear their own truths, and the author manages to balance them. That is quietly the most impressive thing about this book.

The Plot

As mentioned, Jim Negrey is running from trouble at home. He is the stranger who comes to town. He’s not the only one, though. Two outsiders have recently acquired the deed to the “busted” Argent Mountain Mine. They’ve brought another pair of men with them, and that pair has some sinister plans not only for the mine, but for the world. As characters weave in and out of each other’s orbits, they keep secrets from one another, discover clues, and eventually end up trying to stop the bad guys while the stars fall out of the night sky. The novel’s climax is full of dynamite and magic swords and bloody knives and stubborn ghosts.

The amount of exposition, though, almost kept me from getting to the climax. The hardcover is 360 pages, and nothing happens for the first 120 pages. It’s all introductions and flashbacks and it is not, despite the cover blurb, “a hell of a lot of fun.” Once somebody ends up murdered, the pace picks up considerably. I flew to the end in a few hours.

The Cool Thing to Consider

The Six-Gun Tarot is the closest thing I’ve read in ages to a novel without a proper protagonist. Nominally, it’s Jim. He’s the stranger who comes to town, the one in the first scene and the last. He does a substantial part of the day-saving when the world is ending, and he does it by realizing his father’s legacy. Jim doesn’t take point in any investigations, though, and he rarely knows what’s going on. He’s a good young man who’s done wrong, a kind of apprentice for the role of “unflappable hero.” (I dig unflappable heroes. They’re especially good in Westerns, where I imagine half of them as Clint Eastwood.)

In terms of impact on the plot’s outcome, though, Jon Hightower (the actual sheriff), Mutt (his half-Coyote deputy), Maude (the ninja-woman) or Harry (the Fancy Dan mayor) all have just as much to do. That includes making use of their particular varieties of “weird.” With the exception of Jon, those characters all have well-developed internal conflicts that play out of over the course of the novel, too. It would not take much of a shift for any of those characters to be the protagonist.

That’s also the thing that makes the first third of the novel almost unbearably slow. We jump from character to character with flashback after flashback. The tangents provide plenty of background for the town, but nothing happens. It takes a lot of time and space to introduce these characters and provide their backstories. One set of characters, in particular, seem to exist only to be “civilians” and perhaps to set up the next book in the series (or at least part of it). In terms of density, we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum from Karen Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. That novel is remarkable for the economy of its opening, the speed at which the author kicks the plot into motion. The Six-Gun Tarot plods through introduction after introduction to establish the ensemble; establishing the plot is largely ignored.

Once that ensemble is established and a murder sets plot-wheels spinning, The Six-Gun Tarot positively hums. Belcher balances all of his plates without dropping any. There’s no moment that establishes a Tolkien-ish fellowship. The characters come together organically and act together within the patterns the author has established. There’s more space between the flashbacks, and they mesh better with the present-day plot. None of the characters are sold short during the climax, nor during the denouement. The final two-thirds of the novel were as fun as the blurbs promised, more fun than any of my dad’s traditional Westerns that I read as a kid.

What We Nick from this Novel

Ensembles can be magical, but don’t make the reader wait for them to play.

This novel reminds me of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony in reverse. Over the course of that work’s final movement, members of the orchestra get up and leave in ones and twos until the stage is empty. Here, Belcher brings his characters out one and two at a time, and he can’t really start developing the material until they’re all there. The novel wouldn’t work without its ensemble, but it almost fails because of its ensemble. A novel without a clear protagonist is such a rarity in genre fiction. That’s due in part to the way that many novels rely on the reader’s sympathy with the protagonist as a hook. Using an ensemble cast, you don’t have that hook. Make sure you come up with a good replacement…or hope that, like Belcher, your characters are interesting enough in themselves to hold a reader until things start to actually happen.

Fate, Fionavar, and Final Notes

You get another dose of Fionavar this week, because I crashed through the final volume in a day and continue to be blown away by it.

Endings are, in my experience, the hardest part of stories to get right. A satisfying ending follows almost automatically from everything that has come before. Some stories end with hand-waving happiness. More leave loose ends—not to be followed up on in later stories, but just dangling. Others may have the right events but the wrong mood. When you don’t get the ending right, it matters, because that’s where people leave the story. I always tell my students, whether writing fiction or essays, to get the beginning and the ending right, because you have to hook the reader and satisfy the reader.

In Fionavar, Guy Gavriel Kay satisfies. He nails the ending when there are, I think, many ways it could have gone wrong. I mentioned in the Nicking from Novels post that The Fionavar Tapestry belongs to “Narnia” type books, with many of its heroes plucked from our contemporary world. Usually, those books end with the characters going home. We get to see how their experiences elsewhere have empowered them for their mundane lives. Without spoiling it, Kay ends Fionavar just before certain characters go home. The characters get to make their decisions in the aftermath of victory and tragedy. We see those decisions. We don’t see how they play out. There’s happiness, but no guarantee of a happily ever after.

More impressive than finding the right moment, the right tone, is that Kay leaves startlingly few loose ends. Throughout the trilogy, Kay weaves together (and I use that phrase intentionally) the threads of so many characters, of so many parallel and overlapping stories. He doesn’t leave any dangling. He tucks them in and ties them off and their ends are, in just about every case, satisfying. (I wish, though, that there had been a sentence or three about Sharra in the last chapter; she alone deserved more of an ending than she got.) The climactic battle and its aftermath allow the stories to play out, to come together and, where needful, again diverge.

Kay does not use the word fate in Fionavar. He doesn’t write, explicitly, about destiny. Yet many of the characters play out stories that have been told before. They are echoes of older selves. Things happen, in many cases, because they “must.” Fionavar as a world, as the first of all the worlds, has its rules. Prices must be paid—and they are, beautifully and terribly. Characters are driven by magic outside their control, by gods who can intervene only when asked and paid in sacrifice. One of the protagonists is a seer, guided by visions.

But there are few prophecies. All the magic, all the visions…they force questions rather than provide answers. It is up to the characters to provide the answers. Their choices are wholly their own. Kay elevates this to a thematic level through inclusion of the Wild Hunt; they are a primal force of chaos that guarantees people can decide. There are patterns. There are rules that bind. But there is always, always choice. (The sociologist in me could create a whole tangential post here on Bourdieu’s model of field and habitus.) The ultimate fate of Fionavar hinges on choice. Two characters in particular, sons of divinity, must choose between the Light and the Dark.

It’s clever and more than a little meta—as with Tolkien, there is in Fionavar a deep backdrop of other stories. Kay leans heavily on Arthurian legend, for one. There is a pattern that Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere have enacted countless times. Those characters, and the ones around them, simultaneously understand that they are falling into the patterns of the old stories and, through the actions of others, fighting against them.

In mythology, fighting against Fate never works. Fate is tricky. Fate gets its way in the end. Always. Because Kay uses patterns rather than Fate, though, characters can change it. Characters do, though the cost is great. The closing chapters of Fionavar are full of sacrifice made to change the patterns. As with The Lord of the Rings, the characters of The Fionavar Tapestry act to end an age. They break cycles. They shape the old echoes through sacrifice that will, we expect, create new echoes.

And, as the last notes of the heroes’ actions fade, Kay stops…before the echoes can begin. He sticks the landing without need for appendices, without need to return to Toronto where the trilogy began. It’s representative of the remarkable alchemy of these books: the old stories matter so much, the old patterns shape events at every turn, but it is always the characters who act. It is the characters who decide. With the exception of Gene Wolfe’s Wizard-Knight duology, I don’t think I’ve read a story so beautifully driven both by the characters and the world they occupy. It’s part of what makes The Fionavar Tapestry one of the first things in a long, long time that I expect to re-read.