Nicking from Novels

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.

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.

Nicking from Novels: Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry

The Fionavar Tapestry consists of Guy Gavriel Kay’s first three published novels (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). Kay is an author I’ve been recommended to read intermittently for years, mostly his later stuff. One of my colleagues in the English department is a big fan of Kay’s work, and refreshed those recommendations this spring. When I finally made it back to the public library in May, I grabbed Fionavar, in part because the library’s collection of Kay’s newer works is a combination of sparse and frequently checked out.

canadafionavaromnibusfull

Overview

The Tapestry books belong to that broad category I call “Narnia Books”—not because they are a thinly-veiled Christian allegory, but because they are the story of contemporary real-world characters plucked from their world into a wholly-discrete fantastic one. (The “wholly discrete” thing is a useful distinction—it makes the Thomas Covenant books “Narnia Books,” but not things like Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which are more about discovering a secret world that overlaps with our own.)

Paul, Kevin, Dave, Kim, and Jennifer are taken by a mage named Loren from Toronto to Fionavar, the “first of all worlds.” It’s a little Amber-ish in category, but Fionavar’s firstness is only ever used to goad certain characters forward. Ostensibly, the Canadians are taken to Fionavar to celebrate the 50th year of a king’s reign. Naturally, fate has different things in store for them.

Many of those things are dark. The alternative version of this post revolved around the idea that “nothing comes without a cost.” People suffer. People die. People suffer worse than death. The whole second book in the series is like the doomed ride of the Rohirrim in Tolkien: stoic bravery in the face of impossibly bad odds. (I’m a sucker for that brand of heroism.) There’s much about fate, and about avoiding fate through sacrifice.

Fionavar is a rich world that borrows its tropes mostly from Celtic mythology. It is solidly built. Kay does good job weaving a story that is intimately tied to his mythology without making the story about the mythology. There are just enough novel idioms (such as “brightly woven” for “well done”) to mark Fionavar as distinct without making it a chore to learn them all.

The Plot

It’s a trilogy. To try to summarize the plot here would certainly spoil at least things from the first book. The broad plot points are standard fantasy fare from the Tolkien playbook: ancient, divine evil must be stopped; artifacts and ancient forces must be properly activated and marshaled; elves get involved. Don’t let that discourage you, though, because as soon as you start to zoom in, the plot points get more interesting. Elements of sacrifice and forgiveness are pervasive. Characters advance the story through sacrifice and error and fierce love.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Kay does something that ought to be impossible: he gets away with telling rather than showing. Constantly, and largely through variations on “impossible.” Despite being, as mentioned above, a sucker for doomed rides and last stands, I teared up all over the place through The Wandering Fire…and mostly at passages like this:

And grieving, grieving, Paul did so. Looking up, he saw Loren’s face distort with wildest hate. He heard the mage cry out then, tapping into his uttermost power, sourced in Matt Sören the Dwarf, channeled through the Whitebranch of Amairgen, and the very heart and soul of Loren Silvercloak were in that cry and in the blast that followed it.

(I could have also picked just about any passage involving horses or dogs. There are many of those to choose from.)

It really shouldn’t work. It’s not quite lampshading, but Kay consistently calls things “impossible,” or “uttermost” or “so deep it could not be named.” This is classic telling—it’s bigger than life simply because I say it’s bigger than life. We get showing, too, rending of garments and swinging of axes and yelling, but so much of Tapestry’s affect relies on the author telling us that things are, basically, indescribable—indescribably sad, indescribably brave, indescribably inspiring.

Kay manages to make this work, I think, through a bit of sleight of hand. I’m sure I’m missing pieces of it, but there are two main ways this telling sidesteps the usual “telling” problems:

First, Kay consistently centers the observation of the indescribable in a character. It’s Paul who, in the passage above, notes all the superlatives. Grounding the “telling” in a character puts it at just enough of a remove as to blunt the force of it. As a bonus, Kay also uses these moment to reinforce characterization.

Second, and far more subtle, is the general pattern of Tapestry’s language. The books draw heavily on mythology (no surprise). More importantly, they are told using elevated, formal language that echoes oral tradition. The word “and” appears frequently; most sentences in any given scene are linked directly to the next. There are plenty of spots one could change the “and” to “and, lo…” While centering the observations in a character blunts the obtrusiveness of the telling, the books’ tone takes the narrative a few steps away from mundane reality.

This combination could flatten everything, limit it to the two dimensions of the titular Tapestry. Instead, Kay is deft enough with his language, his characterization, and his allusions to mythology to elevate the whole story without losing depth. It’s myth-making, it’s world-building, but it’s also (as I commented to my spouse early in the first book) a little bit of a soap opera. The Canadian quintet all have their own hang-ups and backstories. Those contribute to the story’s depth without becoming the story, just as the myth-making contributes to the story without becoming its sole purpose.

It’s worth noting, too, that Kay does not use this telling when it comes to explaining Fionavar itself. The characters do have to explain things or have things explained to them, but that always happens in fragments. They get what they (and we as readers) need in the moment, explained by characters who understand it. There are no recitations of history, though history permeates the novels. Kay sometimes plays around with the timing of events to help achieve this—there are spots in the novel where we are tracking multiple characters simultaneously, where a scene starts at the same moment as a previous one, or halfway through the one that follows. It’s all deftly done, not quite walking a Gene Wolfe-level tight rope, but much better than most “mythic” fantasies.

What We Nick from this Novel

Suit your sins to your style. When you are writing something mythopoeic, you can get away with simply telling us how characters feel, with using superlatives as emotional bludgeons, with starting many, many sentences with ‘and.’ If you are writing noir, you can lean on the occasional cliche. Rules are not meant to be broken, but they do shift depending on what you’re aiming for. As we look at our own work, particularly in the revision process, we need to consider which rules are most important and which ones might not be relevant.

Nicking from Novels: William Gibson’s Neuromancer

Sex, Drugs, and Damaged Souls

Part of the original purpose of this feature was to catch up on books I “ought” to have read years ago. Neuromancer certainly qualifies—William Gibson was one of the first people I followed on Twitter, and until a few weeks ago, I had not read any of his books. One of the many small (and not so small) luxuries that have come with my change in schools is a principal who really advocates for student reading. He gave all the English teachers a budget to start classroom libraries (alongside an academic independent reading initiative). Among the books I bought for mine was Neuromancer.

First: wow. This is a damn fine book. Occasionally, you read something this wildly inventive and wonder “how the hell did the author come up with this?” More rarely, that comes in combination with writing that holds up at the sentence level, with plots that reveal themselves with the right layers at the right pace. Neuromancer does that. It’s that good.

Overview
If you’ve ever played the role-playing game Shadowrun, this is it: a mysterious figure gets a hacker (console cowboy) together with a razor girl (samurai) for some carefully-planned invasions of corporate assets. (Six years before the first edition of Shadowrun.) This is a world where complicated neurosurgery allows people to interface directly with computers, where you can buy cloned replacements for your liver and pancreas when you’ve done too many drugs. It’s world where life is cheap and everything costs something.

It’s a dirtier, busier, more cosmopolitan dystopia than the more recent vintages of the Hunger Games and Divergent series. It is also a dystopia of fragmentation, deep shadows, and decadence rather than simple totalitarianism—one that seems more likely even in the current political climate.

The Plot
Case is an addict with a death wish, a formerly promising cowboy whose ability to flip to the matrix was crippled by drugs as payback for a run gone bad. Molly is the samurai sent to Chiba City to collect him for the mysterious Armitage. Armitage has technology that will restore Case’s damaged nerves. Case leaps at the chance, but after restorative surgery, discovers that Armitage has also laced his blood with slowly dissolving sacs of the poison that crippled him in the first place. He has to go to work for Armitage. Case quickly falls into bed with Molly. (That’s about the only moment in the book that I scratch my head about.)

Case and Molly, assisted by various subcontractors, make a number of intermediate runs—stealing a ROM with the personality and skills of a deceased hacker, collecting an illusion-projecting sociopath named Riviera, and eventually heading for a space station. Along the way, Case and Molly make their own investigations and discover that Armitage has a secret backer. Neither Armitage nor the backer properly exist. (Explaining why would take spoilers.)

The novel’s ending is wonderfully ambiguous—one more delicate grey stroke on a canvas full of them.

The Cool Thing to Consider
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel with a cast of such damaged souls. (Graham Green’s The Third Man comes close.) Nobody is whole. Case has his addiction and the quiet death-wish that underlies it. Molly has skeletons in her closet and has devoted her life to violence. Armitage is built on slender threads of borrowed sanity. Riviera is, as mentioned, a sociopath whose kinks are rather beyond degenerate. The supporting cast is likewise full of flaws: terrorists who consider themselves performance artists (or performance artists who consider themselves terrorists), mangy data cleaners, space Rastas. (I love the space Rastas.)

The remarkable thing about Neuromancer is that Gibson doesn’t make the plot about fixing the characters. The characters have their internal conflicts. Those internal conflicts pull and push on the central plot without needing to resolve themselves neatly. Case might understand his damage better at the end of the book, but he’s not healed.

Nor is it a case, precisely, of fitting together the jagged edges of the characters’ personalities. Molly and Case have a thing. There’s something real in it, but it’s not a fix for either of them. It probably isn’t even love. The characters’ jagged edges cut and scrape against each other.

This all fits hand-in-glove with Neuromancer’s technicolor grays. For all the vivid descriptions of drugged highs and the life of professional criminals, for all the color in the book, there’s no moral black and white. There aren’t heroes; there aren’t villains. There is mystery. There are obstacles for the characters. They face vital decisions with ramifications that extend well beyond the personal…but those questions are never about the “right” thing to do. (I won’t discuss the  brief moral questions toward the climax for the sake of spoilers, but the characters don’t spend much time indulging them.)

What We Nick from this Novel
You don’t have to have heroes (or antiheroes) to tell a good story.
It’s easy, especially for those of us who write imaginative fiction, to fall back on tropes of heroic fantasy and the myths that underlie it—heroes and villains and monsters. I’ve never been a fan of absolute evil in storytelling, but I’ve also never indulged in protagonists as unheroic as Case and Molly. Gibson’s Neuromancer is a fantastic case study in telling a story that’s big not only in its themes, but in the scale of its events. He does that while letting his nominal heroes stay smaller than the story. They barely get what’s going on. They barely get through what’s going on…and the story is all the better for it.

Nicking from Novels: Gail Z. Martin’s The Summoner

My last two Nicking from Novels posts have been books that I’ve wanted to read from previous experience. It’s been a while since I’ve just grabbed a book from the library shelf to see what I can learn from it. Monday afternoon, the kids were wound up at the library. Necessity is the mother of arbitrarily grabbing things from the shelves to read, which is how I ended up with this week’s book: Gail Z. Martin’s  The Summoner.

What I knew when I picked the book out: the cover art isn’t bad, I didn’t recognize the publisher, and that the story is about a character who deals with ghosts. That last point was the most telling. My pending Ghosts of the Old City, as you can probably guess from the title, also features ghosts. I was curious how a different author might treat both the ghosts and the dealing with them. (The answer: with a much more “high magic” feel than I do.)

The Summoner is also the longest book I’ve read in a while—600 pages. It reads fast, though, and aspires to be epic through the stakes rather than by addition. It’s reminiscent of Tad Williams and David Eddings, with an ensemble cast surrounding a nominal protagonist who discovers great powers and old secrets. It’s not criticism when I say Martin’s book is unambitious. It knows that it is a perfectly serviceable high fantasy novel. It doesn’t push on genre boundaries, but it works quite well within them. There’s enough novelty to the characters to keep things interesting. The world is well-crafted without being overbuilt. If you like fantasy novels, this one will keep you happily reading for hours.

The Overview
High fantasy, medieval setting. Characters are based on archetypes but nonetheless interesting (I couldn’t help thinking of the mercenary Jonmarc Vahanian as “Han Solo played by Clint Eastwood”). Spirits and divine intervention play prominent roles. Supernatural evil and supernatural good without adding nonhuman species. Monsters have their place. Narrative emphasizes travel and action rather than nefarious skulduggery. It is straightforward to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. (And the bad guys are super evil.)

The Plot
Prince Martris Drayke survives his brother Jared’s murderous coup, escaping with some of his friends/loyal guards. He sees ghosts and discovers that he can do magic related to them, that he is the mage heir of his super-important dead grandmother. Tris and his friends seek sanctuary and enlist a mercenary as a guide. Meanwhile, the princess of another kingdom (who is contractually betrothed to Jared) gets sent on her own mission. Eventually, they come together. Obstacles along the road are overcome. Relative safety is reached by the end of the book, but not where expected, and certainly more pause than completion. (This is the first book of a trilogy.)

The Cool Thing to Consider
Quests, man.

They’re essential to fantasy fiction. Tolkien certainly made them more so and helped give them heft, but even in the lighter (and more interesting to me) pulp stories of swords and sorcery, the quest is the fundamental unit of story. There’s an object to retrieve, a villain to topple, a secret to learn…or some combination of those. (One of my all-time favorite quests is one that ends with the realization that the sought object wasn’t important after all.) They involve going somewhere, passing challenges, sometimes getting better at things…

Martin’s novel has me thinking about quests for two reasons. First, her set-up is rather traditional. Tris joins a long line of exiled princes who must reclaim their birthrights. Second, the other characters have their own personal quests. Those quests align with Tris’s, but it’s more a convergence than an intermingling. The cool thing to consider is the way Martin balances her individual characters within an overarching plot.

Compare this with Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship has one quest: get the ring to Mordor and destroy it. As a fellowship, they fail, but for the time they have together, everybody has the same goal. Protect Frodo. Keep on keeping on. The characters signed on to support Frodo’s quest. In The Summoner, it’s not quite the same. Tris has a kingdom to reclaim from his wicked brother, but also has Serious Magical Obligations. The bard Carroway is Tris’s friend, as is the guard captain Soterius. Like him, they’re fleeing in part because they’re dead if they stay. Harrtuck—another of the royal guards—is loyal to Tris for what he represents as much as anything personal. The mercenary Vahanian is in it for the money, but also because he has a history with some of the bad guys. The healer Carina and her brother Cam are looking for a cure to a curse. The warrior princess Kiara has her Journey assigned to her by the goddess.

The quests of the other characters thus overlap with Tris’s, but they’re not the same. Clearly, they’re all set up to eventually face off against the big bad. Just as clearly, they will have their own reasons for doing so. Martin reveals bits and pieces of those reasons as The Summoner progresses.

For some of the characters, the reasons are pretty explicit: the Goddess tells them to jump and their only option is to ask how high. Kiara was chosen by the Goddess before the events of the novel properly began, and is sent on the path that eventually intersects with Tris’s. Tris, too, gets occasional messages from the Goddess. As calls to adventure go, these are explicit, but in a high fantasy story there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes quests are that important.

The Goddess is also curiously effective as the means of bringing the characters together. Most of the cast has some relationship to the Goddess in one of her aspects. They are fairly quick to identify her divine will in bringing them together and in her influence on their various paths. Done less deftly, this would seem almost like lampshading. Because Martin has written the Goddess so thoroughly into the setting, though, it works. In a high fantasy environment, divine will (and the implicit suggestion of Fate) is perfectly reasonable. The more often the characters (especially the minor supporting characters) mention it, the easier it is to believe.

What We Nick from this Novel
Fellow travelers can have fellowship without being a fellowship.
Whether you’re working with an ensemble cast or not, consider your characters’ motivations carefully. If the world is at stake, yes, brave people will be trying to save it. It can be even more effective, though, to do as Martin does and make the characters interested at first in saving their own parts of the world. Characters can work together without the plot becoming monolithic. Keeping motivations individual helps both to differentiate the characters and to allow for the stakes to be raised organically.