Nicking from Novels

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.

A New Feature: Nicking from Novels

I am reading more. I haven’t quite made it to a book a week yet, but that owes as much to skimming several books at once as to a lack of time spent reading. Last week I posted about Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. That post was more or less a book review. A short one, but a book review.

That’s not what I want to do on this blog. I love books. I sometimes like reading book reviews. My personal reading plan, though, revolves around mixing up books that I “should” have read—ones generally agreed to be good—with arbitrary grabs off the library shelves. Those won’t all be good, and I don’t want to fill up my blog with takedowns of authors who are probably perfectly nice people writing perfectly serviceable fiction that doesn’t please a snob like me. (I reserve the right to flex my scathing review chops if I come across something truly awful, though.)

Instead…instead I’m going to write about literary larceny. Grammarian grand theft. Reckless writerly ransacking. In short, I’m going to approach the books I read like Conan approaching a jungle temple. Even bad books do good things. The point of reading—as a writer—is to take those good things and make them your own when you need to.

Back when I was doing my degree in (music) composition, I had to listen to unfamiliar pieces of new music every week. Usually, I was listening along with the score. Given the average age of the composition faculty, it’s not surprising that we tracked this ongoing assignment with notecards. On the front of the card, we wrote the particulars of the recording and the score. On the back, we wrote notes about what we heard (and sometimes what we saw). In addition to building familiarity with a range of new music, the idea was that we could return to these pieces if there were techniques we wanted to use. I had a big stack of 3×5 cards by the end of my two years. They didn’t make the move from Minnesota, but it was a good project while it lasted.

The new feature here at Walking Ledges will be something similar: Nicking from Novels. For all the books I read, I hope to find a few things that the author does particularly well. I’ll describe those, providing some quotes when applicable. Over time, it will create a compendium of sorts for other people to use (while giving props to the original authors), and be more interesting than just hearing whether some guy in Texas liked a book or not.

Planning the new feature has already changed the way I’m reading. I spent years as an undergrad and grad student picking texts apart—sometimes for content, sometimes for delivery. It was analytical work. Reading novels for technique is not quite the same. It is, again, like the listening I did when I was a composer. The what and why become less important than the how. (This was also the thing that led me away from composition: I really cared about the why.) Sometimes the things I notice are little, like the one I mentioned last week about Chabon sketching his background characters with mini-anecdotes. Sometimes they are larger: how the author deals with magic, with the foundation of the world, with characters’ roots. I don’t expect that it will kill my enjoyment of what I read. I have a better perspective on the questions now than I did ten years ago, and can approach them a bit more like I approach eating things other people have cooked: what’s tasty? How can I use that stuff in my own recipes? Will it work without mushrooms?

Anyway! First proper post of the new feature will likely come tomorrow. The series should continue to run weekly on Fridays.