exposition

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.

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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.