Nicking from Novels

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.

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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.

Nicking from Novels: Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

I was recently talked into giving Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden a second chance. I didn’t much care for Dead Beat—I felt that it was larded with extra characters, and that the hero was getting bailed out constantly. The zombie T-Rex at the end and cries of “Polka will never die!” only got me so far.

Something else happened, though, since I complained about Storm Front: Steve Brust’s Hawk. Brust is one of my favorite authors, but Hawk… Well. Hawk had many of the same problems I described in Dead Beat. Vlad wasn’t necessarily getting bailed out every other chapter, but the book was larded with cameos. It seemed like Kragar got stabbed just so Aliera could show up to save him. We got a Morrolan appearance so he could prepare a spell. We got Sethra and Kiera and (of course) Daymar. We even got Khaavren! He, at least, had a reason to be in the story. Many of the cameos felt gratuitous, and the plot didn’t hold up especially well. Hawk, to me, felt like a book meant to get you from point A to point B in Vlad’s overall saga without much to recommend it as an individual story.

What if Dead Beat was the same way? A lackluster middle segment in an otherwise quality series? Butcher and Dresden deserved another chance.

The Overview
Harry’s a freelance wizard who consults for the “weird stuff” unit of the Chicago PD. Plenty of loving references to noirish detective stories. Dames and slick gangsters (even though Harry never calls them “dames,” they’re clearly dames). Magic that’s pervasive without stealing the spotlight from the detective work. Lots of werewolves of different sorts in this one. First person point of view, contemporary urban setting.

The Plot
Murders are happening in bunches around the full moon. Evidence suggests early on that Dresden’s nemesis Gentleman John Marcone is involved somehow, possibly as a target. The FBI is competing with Murphy and her Chicago Special Investigations unit. Pawprints at the murder scenes and chewed up corpses. Magic circles and street gangs. A protagonist whom the law is not sure whether to adopt or arrest.

The Cool Thing to Consider
Let’s consider pacing and exposition.

Fool Moon is relentless. At nearly every moment of the story, something is happening. Harry is always doing something, even when his narration is feeding us exposition. He makes potions while his skull familiar explains the varietals of werewolf. He reflects on his life choices while in the middle of a gun/wolf/berserker fight in a dark auto shop. An infodump from a demon sizzles because it’s also a confrontation for Harry’s name and/or soul.

All of that (and more) is exposition. If you sift back through Fool Moon after you’ve finished it, you find exposition all over the place. Butcher, via Harry or somebody Harry is conversing with, tells us things all the time. There’s magic to explain. There are oh-so-many types of wolf monster to explain. There are attractive women to explain.

The cool thing is that Butcher manages to do all of this without slowing things down. It’s a much different way to survive the need for exposition than that of, say, Gene Wolfe, who adroitly uses unreliable narrators and incomplete explanations to inform readers indirectly. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, because as I mentioned, it’s mostly telling rather than showing.

I think there are three reasons Butcher gets away with this much telling. First, this is a detective story. Detective stories are about processing information—that information has to come from somewhere. Whether the detective is finding them herself, getting them from others, or some combination of the two, the clues have to eventually add up. We get a little more of that kind of exposition than usual in Fool Moon because it’s told from first person perspective—Harry is telling the readers things as he hears them.

Not all of the exposition is directly related to the werewolf murders, though. We learn things about Harry’s past, about his feelings, about the characters around him. It’s mostly delivered in snippets and asides via a conversational tone that ties the whole novel together. That’s the second element—the strength of Harry’s narrative voice allows Butcher to tell rather than show as often as he does.

The third trick that allows Butcher gets away with all the exposition is that, as I mentioned earlier, there is always something happening. Fool Moon is fast. It’s not for nothing that fully half of the back jacket quotes mention the pacing. The book reads fast because, as Elmore Leonard might say, Butcher has left out the parts people skip. The only time Harry—and the readers—rest is when the wizard is knocked out. Whatever bones I might have to pick about the use and abuse of secondary characters, Butcher spins a hell of a good yarn.

What We Nick from This Novel
Pace and space isn’t just for the NBA.
Sometimes exposition is inescapable. You might have a world to build. You might have mysteries to solve. You might, for plot reasons, need somebody to explain something. One way to deal with that is to spread the exposition out (space) and keep stuff happening during the exposition (pace). This is a variation on “don’t let characters lecture.” Butcher is better than Hoffman at stringing together scenes, though his job is made easier by the fact that Fool Moon covers only a few nights—we get narration for most every moment Harry is conscious from the moment he arrives at the first murder scene to the final confrontation with the baddies. It’s frenetic, though. Even the lulls in the action—those few moments where nobody is actively trying to turn Harry into literal or figurative dogmeat—have something going on. It should feel busy and forced, but it never does. This is what a page-turner looks like.

Nicking from Novels: Tony DiTerlizzi’s WondLa Trilogy

If Tony DiTerlizzi’s  work had begun and ended with the art for the old Planescape boxed set, he’d still have a special place in my heart. Fortunately for all of us, it didn’t. He’s gone on to create books of his own—art and otherwise. The Spiderwick Chronicles (in collaboration with Holly Black) are probably the best known thanks to a movie that I haven’t seen and haven’t heard anything good about. They’re good. (I only just learned that he and Ms. Black wrote a second set of Spiderwick books, which will be coming home from the library a few at a time for me and the kids.)

Today, though, I want to write about his juvenile sci-fi/fantasy novels, the WondLa trilogy. (They’re now available in paperback!)

The Overview
Stranger in a stranger land. A world full of aliens, exotic wildlife, and strange technology. Color art plates at the beginning of each chapter. A young protagonist who must save the world from itself while learning to understand her own power. Ecology. Third person limited point of view, with some important events happening off camera. Fairy tale elements combined seamlessly with sci-fi.

The Plot
Eva Nine lives underground with Muthr, her robot mother. An invader destroys the sanctuary and sets Eva on a course of discovery and self-discovery. She befriends an alien named Rovender Kitt, hears a prophecy, and finds her WondLa. In the subsequent volumes, she meets her people, tries to prevent a war, and eventually saves the world through bravery and kindness.

The Cool Thing to Consider
First, an aside: if I had tens of millions of dollars to throw at imaginary art projects, I would get Studio Ghibli and DiTerlizzi to make this trilogy into a movie. (It could be compressed into one or two movies without losing too much, I think.) It has the right environmental overtones, a young female protagonist, flying machines… The story sits comfortably in amongst Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, Spirited Away, and Mononoke. It would be awesome. (And WondLa is probably easier to translate to an animated film than Spiderwick, which is both more baroque and somewhat more kid-centric.)

DiTerlizzi’s prose is functional, and comfortable in that functionality. WondLa’s plot is not twisty (though there are some nice reveals). The form and content of these books ground them in the “middle grades” fantasy category; they’re kids books. Like most good children’s books, though, there is substance enough in them for adult readers. (This is another thing WondLa has in common with Miyazaki.) There are, as you might expect from an illustrator, fantastic images. Some of them are literal images—DiTerlizzi’s illustrations are every bit as good as you’d expect. DiTerlizzi also creates some fine images with words. WondLa’s environment is visually and conceptually rich.

It would have been easy, I think, for the environment to overtake the story. It’s a common enough problem with worldbuilders. DiTerlizzi avoids the problem in part through his plotting, but mainly through his characterization. Orbona, the world of WondLa, is built on connections. Eva Nine is, especially at first, a stranger to those connections.

The cool thing is that DiTerlizzi introduces Eva to an environment of connected characters as well as a connected physical environment. All of the primary characters and most of the secondary ones have connections to the world. Some also have connections to each other. Eva is the protagonist. She gets to make the important decisions that resolve the novels’ plot. But! The other characters all clearly have places in the world independent of their relationship to the protagonist.

I mentioned in the overview that some important things happen off camera. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. In adventure stories, we never want to feel like the protagonist is ineffectual. She can be overmatched, but even her failures have to matter. In most stories, the things that matter happen to, for, and near the protagonist. Because DiTerlizzi has created a world of characters who exist independently Eva, that is not so vital. It’s not just Eva who has agency.

Secondary characters’ ability to exist and act independently of the protagonist depends on their full realization as individuals. We have to believe that the secondary characters can do things that influence the story. They must have depth and motivation. They don’t need Stephen Daedalus-level complexity, but they need something that makes them seem real. DiTerlizzi accomplishes that by giving most of the characters in WondLa backstory.  Eva never analyzes her friends, and the characters do not ramble through expositional monologues about their pasts. We get hints and pieces and occasional short explanations. Sometimes, characters who have deep connections talk to each other without involving Eva at all. (This works because…this is how people really interact with each other. Sometimes things are not about everybody sitting at the table.)

The result of all this is that we’re never jarred out of WondLa’s world. Because DiTerlizzi has so gracefully written the characters into their surroundings, it’s effortless for us readers to go through the story with them.

What We Nick from this Novel
You can characterize without psychologizing, especially if you anchor your characters in their worlds.
It’s a truism to say “everybody is the hero of her own story.” There’s no doubt that Eva Nine is the hero of the WondLa trilogy, but there’s a distinct sense that every character has his or her own story. Some, like Rovender Kitt, have stories in which Eva plays a major, personal part. Others, like the Queen, experience Eva as an oddity and force of nature intruding on their personal tales. Because all of the characters are anchored in their world, though, we can get a sense of them without further exposition.

DiTerlizzi shows us who characters are without worrying us overmuch about how they think. This is small but vital part of what gives WondLa the wings that let it soar.

Nicking from Novels: Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor

This week, we’ve got an arbitrary grab rather than a recommended must-read. I vaguely remembered seeing something about Katherine Addison’The Goblin Emperor before I saw it on the library shelf, but it was not until I got it home that I realized I’d read some of the author’s own thoughts about it on John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” feature.  (Fun tidbit, “Katherine Addison” is the pen name of Sarah Monette, who in addition to being a novelist holds a Ph.D. in English literature. #postac tie-in!)

The Overview: Court intrigue set in a world populated by elves and goblins (who are biologically similar enough to crossbreed). There are airships and clockwork and gas lamps, but also limited amounts of magic. Intermittent acts of violence, but there’s no war or combat here. Third person limited point of view (protagonist’s only). Rich cultural background and a thoroughly fleshed out system of names, titles, and etiquette. The names and titles, incidentally, are in concocted language that takes some getting used to, but adds to the immersion.

The Plot: Stranger in a strange land. Maia, the forgotten son of a bitter political marriage, becomes the titular emperor after an airship accident kills the sitting emperor and heirs. He is quickly sucked into an imperial court he hardly knows, navigating political and personal challenges while he establishes his power. It’s part Bildungsroman and part political thriller set in a fantasy Versailles.

The Cool Thing to Consider:

There are many, many excellent things in this novel. It’s a damn good book. Before I was “supposed” to be reading it to prepare for this feature, I’d already picked it up and been sucked in. Addison’s Maia is a wonderfully human protagonist, a completely believable blend of naïvete, native cunning, and moral decency. The complicated names and titles begin as a distraction, but quickly become familiar enough to help the reader navigate the hierarchies of the imperial court. The supporting characters are standard tropes (conniving minister, painfully upright soldier, absent-minded mage, super-competent secretary), but you only notice that when you try to describe them. Addison’s characterization clothes those trope-ish skeletons in believability.

I could write about any of those things, but I want instead to dig in to the novel’s first chapter. Beginnings are, generally, hard, but The Goblin Emperor sucks the reader in right away. This will be a little more technical and detail-oriented than my previous Nicking from Novels posts, because it’s worth going into that detail to figure out how a great opening chapter works.

Addison starts with one of the canonical sins of story openings: her protagonist waking up. You’re Not Supposed to Do That. Addison gets away with it because she immediately levers us into action (rather than reflection or description): “Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.” From the first sentence, we know that something is wrong. Maia is confused. His cousin snaps commands and uses exclamation points, giving neither Maia nor the reader time to lay back and figure out what is happening. Despite the “waking up” first sentence, this is really an in media res beginning. The action’s already going, even if the protagonist doesn’t understand what it is.

By the third page, the reader has learned that Maia’s cousin Setheris is a bitter alcoholic who has thoroughly cowed Maia. We learn that Maia is young, a half-goblin. We get glimmers of Maia’s appearance in contrast to the travel-stained but elegant messenger. We get a profound sense of Maia’s confusion and shock. After the messenger has verified Maia’s identity, we get the following passage:

“And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug. ‘Your Imperial Serenity,’ he said.”

Look at how much Addison gives us with that pair of sentences. Maia is doubly “bewildered.” The messenger is a disciplined courtier with impeccable manners. The house (of which we have seen little) is run-down, an odd place to stash an archduke. And then we’re hit with the revelation of Maia’s new title. Explanation of the airship crash that killed Maia’s father and half-brothers follows. We need it just as much as Maia does.

The whole book is peppered with these kinds of dense statements. It’s over 400 pages in hardcover, but you don’t notice. Addison wrings impressive amounts of detail out of every statement and interaction. Pure exposition is virtually nonexistent.

Back to the first chapter. Once the messenger has made his announcement, Maia opens the letter that formally invites him to the court (for his father’s funeral). Addison prints that letter for us, something she does intermittently through the rest of the book. This particular letter is from the lord chancellor, who is not, we are shown right away, somebody who holds Maia’s best interests at heart. Bam! We have an adversary, and we’re still in the first chapter. How do we know the chancellor’s an adversary? The bitter cousin explains it, dissecting the letter for function and hidden meaning. (Addison uses this device throughout the novel to good effect.) The cousin mentions in passing that he and the chancellor are old enemies. He all but demands that Maia disrupt the chancellor’s plans by immediately heading to the capital by airship.

In the seven pages of the first chapter, Addison gives us the precipitating event (the airship crash), the biggest challenge of the plot (the unprepared Maia must become emperor), a lingering difficulty from Maia’s vanishing life (the abusive alcoholic cousin), a direct impending threat (the lord chancellor), and foreshadows what comes next (the airship journey to the capital). Seven pages! And one of them is half-eaten by a block-quoted letter. That is some phenomenal density of good stuff, all managed without anybody talking even a little to the camera. Addison takes advantage of the naive protagonist, sure, to explain some of the things her readers need to know. The casual density of meaning in her sentences, though, makes the exposition more like the steady flow of sand through and hourglass than the lumping together of plotbricks. Most importantly, she keeps her characters moving, literally and metaphorically. The first chapter feels like a rush to catch up with a story that’s already running ahead…and I mean that in the best way possible.

What We Nick from this Novel

Get in the car! I’ll explain on the way.

Especially for pantsers, it’s easy for early chapters to be about the story rather than part of the story. It’s okay to write your way into the story, but don’t make your readers follow along. Think about how you can set your characters in motion (even if it’s just metaphorical movement). You do not have to start in media res, but give your readers some mystery or threat or treasure to be interested in right away. Don’t let the readers get it, obviously, but give them that urgent invitation to get in the car. You’ve got the rest of the book to explain what it all means.

Also, go read The Goblin Emperor, because it is excellent even if it lacks for swordfights.

Nicking from Novels: Jim Butcher’s Dead Beat

This week on Nicking from Novels, my first encounter with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

The Overview: Contemporary supernatural with the whole standard slate: vampires, fae, werewolves and wizards (among others). First person narrative with an extensive supporting cast (more on that below). This volume is far enough into the series that protagonist Harry Dresden has accumulated a bunch of miscellaneous powers in addition to his raw wizardry. Nothing particularly fancy or clever going on with the language. Protagonist succeeds through raw talent and stubbornness. And consistent outside intervention.

The Plot: An old enemy (a vampire) blackmails the protagonist into going after a macguffin. He finds out what it is, finds out there are Bad Guys who also want it. There are some fights. Then there are some more fights. Between, there is investigating. The finale takes place on a literal dark and stormy night. Background events combine with main story events to suggest plot points in later volumes of the series.

The Cool Thing to Consider

In a moment, I’m going to discuss the use of supporting cast, particularly in series. I want to clarify a few things before I get into that, though. The Dresden Files books have been recommended to me by several people whose opinions I respect. I went in hoping for a good read, and instead found what is, at best, a “good enough for an airplane” book. I’m willing to give Mr. Butcher the benefit of the doubt, though. I jumped into the middle of the series, and every author has bad books. (They’re sometimes harder to avoid when you’re an NYT bestselling author with publishing contracts.) Not especially liking the book kept me from getting sucked into the story until the very end—this also meant that I picked it apart more than I generally do. What follows is going to skew academic, because that’s the part of my training that the reading activated.

Phew. Ready?

When I was halfway through Dead Beat, I was mentally sketching a Nicking from Novels about quality supporting cast. Harry Dresden has plenty of friends. A few of them drive the plot here. (More of them show up in passing.) Butcher fleshes out his secondary characters well, combining Harry’s perspective with enough direct experience of the characters’ actions to give a sense of both personality and ability. I liked that.

What became harder to deal with as I continued into the latter half of the novel was the sheer volume of supporting players. Dresden has a laundry list of supernatural friends, foes, and frenemies. Butcher gives many (too many) of them face time here. They become distractions for several reasons.

First, Harry’s reliance on allies makes him less convincing as a protagonist. Butcher shows off Harry’s power plenty, but Harry is constantly bailed out by buddies…and nearly as often by enemies who are inexplicably more concerned with having their own vengeance than with Dresden getting what’s coming to him. By the end of the novel, I was never wondering “how will Harry get out of this situation?” I was wondering “who will come out of the woodwork to save him?” That’s not a good place for an author to leave his or her protagonist.

I think I understand what Butcher was aiming for. Harry Dresden occupies a world full of powerful nasties. Super necromancers. Wizards who can hold off armies of demons with a single spell. Fae nobles who can shred reality. Demons who hide in coins. Ninja ghouls. (Yes. Ninja ghouls. And the ninja ghoul is just a flunky.) Dresden is a bundle of power and, more importantly, the potential for even more power. The bad guys and the grey area guys all want a piece of that, but Dresden isn’t quite tough enough to play in those big leagues yet. Therefore, he needs help. Rather than making the antagonists seem especially big, though, the constant saved-by-a-friend makes Dresden shrink.

Second—and trickier—this is a book well into an ongoing series. Recurring characters are going to recur. I kept comparing it to Brust’s Taltos books. What would I think of those if I jumped into the middle of the series? I mean, technically I did, but I chanced into reading the book that is, chronologically, the earliest. Brust has Vlad accumulate a variety of friends (and a smaller number of enemies). Sometimes the least of these make cameos that are only mildly necessary, or necessary only because of the narrow but extreme competence of the supporting character in question. None of those appearances ever felt quite so gratuitous as the ones in Dead Beat. There are just too many. Dresden needing help is fine. Dresden getting that help from sixteen different angles just dilutes the plot.

Third: because there are so many of them, we’re not invested in seeing the bad guys defeated. We know they are bad mostly because Butcher (via Dresden’s first person narration) tells us that they are bad. Yes, raising zombie armies is bad. Yes, attempting a superspell to siphon hundreds of spirits into your own personal godhood potion is bad. I just didn’t get any personal investment in seeing the villains defeated. We know they are bad and powerful right from the start. We learn nothing more about them. They take turns beating Dresden up until they eventually take turns getting defeated by him (and/or his allies).

I think that Butcher tried to convey some sense of the chaos of competing factions and just didn’t manage it. There’s never a sense that power balances are shifting, nor much sense that the stakes are rising. (The stakes become clearer over the course of the novel, but that’s not quite the same thing.) There’s little differentiation among the villains’ agendas. And the wicked vampire who kicks the plot into motion? She appears twice. Once at the beginning of the book and once at the end. She becomes an afterthought.

There is one place that the secondary characters effectively add to the story. Dresden has a problematic relationship with the Wardens (wizard cops), but he ends up having to call them in anyway. When they arrive, the tensions are sharp and the novel’s main plot snaps into focus as part of broader events. Why does it work? Because the characters take things personally. The antagonisms are emotional and mutual. The way the book is written, Dresden has much more personal stake in getting the best of the Wardens than he does in stopping the wicked necromancers. Those conversations were the ones that had me flipping pages and spurred me to the book’s finale.

Overall, the plethora of secondary characters might be well-realized, but their volume—as allies and antagonists alike—becomes a distraction. There is only room for so much supporting cast, especially in a first person narrative. (It’s one of the difficulties of the technique. The more you focus on secondary characters the more the protagonist recedes toward the background.) There’s a balance to be struck, and Butcher misses it in this book.

What We Nick from this Novel:

You have to choose between Batman and the Justice League.

If you’re going to write a story with a single badass protagonist, make sure he (or she) is at the center of the thing. If you’re going with an ensemble cast, go with an ensemble cast. You can’t have it both ways.

Nicking from Novels: Erin Hoffman’s Sword of Fire and Sea

We’re starting the new series with an arbitrary library grab: Erin Hoffman’s Sword of Fire and Sea. Published by Pyr in 2011, it’s the first book in the now complete Chaos Knight trilogy.

The Overview: This is a high fantasy novel with a limited number of protagonists and lots of magic. Though epic in scope, it’s not epic in length or the number of characters you need to keep track of. The primary protagonists are a sea captain (Vidarian) and a fire priestess (Ariadel). The register is typical for the genre, though there is one character introduced later in the book who uses contemporary American slang. (It makes sense in the context.) There aren’t any particular linguistic adventures—the names are traditional fantasy and dialogue in concocted languages is brief.

The Plot: Old favors are called in. A journey is taken. The female protagonist is abducted and rescued. The male protagonist discovers he’s got magic (it gets complicated quickly). Ancient prophecies come to life. A gate between worlds is heavily involved in the book’s endgame (and helps set up the conflict in the subsequent volumes).

The Cool Thing to StealConsider

Hoffman builds her world around elemental magic. (If you want to go reference my previous post about magic, this is pretty firmly “magic is in and of the world.”) The four classical elements all have divinities and priestesshoods. The protagonist, in the novel’s first chapter, walks across a bridge of stones held together by enchanted air. The priestesshoods are tightly wound up in the novel’s plot. Vidarian is connected to them by his grandfather’s promises.

Hoffman does a nice job reinvigorating old magical standbys. Elemental magic is nothing new, and it’s nothing new to have humans worship associated deities. (I have fond memories of elemental clerics in 2e Dark Sun, though those just worshiped the elements themselves.) What Hoffman does remarkably well is balance technicalities with the plot function of magic. She’s written a complex and deep system of competing magics and practitioners. I have a feeling that if I were to hit her up on Twitter and ask “could character X do this with her magic?,” Hoffman could answer easily. She has spent the time to figure these things out.

Letting magic play such a prominent role in the story without letting it become the story is a worthwhile achievement. Designing and understanding a complex system is tricky, especially when you are simultaneously working from scratch (as part of your worldbuilding) and with inherited tropes (like the classical elements). Hoffman displays marvelous technical chops in the way she handles the magic.

The most impressive part, I think, is that she does it without getting sucked into exposition traps. Vidarian knows almost nothing about magic, and has to have elements of it explained to him frequently. Technically, that’s exposition. Hoffman keeps those explanations brief, though. The whole novel skips agilely from encounter to encounter, never getting bogged down in the explain-y bits. (An aside: That brisk pace sometimes unbalances the progress of the plot and characterization.) A different author could have taken the same plot points and world and written a novel half again as long.  She’s not at a Gene Wolfe level of explaining-without-explaining, but she makes every single bit of necessary exposition count. There’s no extraneous display of worldbuilding.

What We Nick from this Novel:

Never let characters lecture. It’s a good rule of thumb generally, but Hoffman does an excellent job of avoiding the tempting spots to turn her characters loose with exposition. If you design systems for your world, only explain the bits the characters (and readers!) have to know. Technicality is not, in itself, bad.

And oh man…I didn’t even mention the gryphons. Sword of Fire and Sea has gryphons. They’re important. And they’re cool.