pacing

NfN: Garth Nix’s Sabriel

I brought home Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy (which has expanded to include five novels and two novellas) from my classroom library with competing, vague senses that I had read the first book before and also that I “should” read it. I thought I had read Sabriel, the first novel, in middle school, which, given the publication date, is impossible. I think, at some point in the past, I must have picked it up and read part of it. Reading it yesterday, I certainly didn’t have the sense I’d read it before. Mostly, I wanted something to hold my attention away from the news and social media. Happily, I found a good book.

Overview

Sabriel is the titular character of the first novel in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. At 18, she is just about ready to graduate from boarding school when her family history catches up with her. That family history comes from the other side of the Wall, a magical construct that (mostly) divides the kingdom of Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom. Ancelstierre has early 20th century technology (cars, machine guns, and electric lights). The Old Kingdom instead has magic of a sort that keeps technology from functioning. Some magic bleeds across the Wall, particularly when the wind comes out of the Old Kingdom. Sabriel’s boarding school is close enough to draw on that magic, but the farther south one travels, the more magic ebbs.

The Plot

After the prologue, we first see Sabriel resurrecting a fellow student’s pet bunny. Shortly thereafter, she receives a sending from her father, Abhorsen, delivering her his sword and bells. (The bells are used by necromancers to bind and manipulate the dead.) Intent on finding her father, Sabriel leaves school, crosses the wall, and discovers that “Abhorsen” is a title, not a name, and that with her father dead (it’s complicated), she must become the Abhorsen. She struggles to rescue her father with the help of Mogget, who is not actually a cat, and, eventually, Touchstone, a young man displaced in time. They battle the restless dead, and eventually confront the Big Bad.

It’s a brisk adventure story that touches on enough of personal and setting history to make the relatively small cast shine.

The Cool Thing to Consider

I said “brisk.” I meant it. This novel flies, particularly in the first half.

Pacing is a tricky beast, one I wrangled with a lot as I hashed out the beta draft to Ghosts of the Old City (which I finally finished on Monday, incidentally). Too fast, and you end up with an action movie: trying to solve plot holes by jumping over them fast enough that the audience doesn’t notice. Taken to extremes, you end up losing the meaningful connections between events that make “plot” more than “sequence.” Too slow, and you lose the reader in a morass of…whatever your slowdown is (exposition, tangents, sidequests, S. Morgenstern’s loving descriptions of trees…).

Sabriel is brilliantly paced. The prologue sets a tone and suggests the mysteries that will come in the novel proper. We get fifteen pages to establish Sabriel-the-student and receive the mysterious package, both, followed by just enough time at the Wall to give us a hint of the Abhorsen’s responsibilities and the dangers that creep the Old Kingdom. All together (prologue included), that takes us to page 62.

The next 130 pages are, effectively, an extended chase scene. Sabriel is pursued by her enemies, finding respite briefly enough that she can do little but refresh her resources. It is not until her headlong flight results in a literal crash that Nix allows the reader to pause for breath. This is a risk for a number of reasons. First, Sabriel doesn’t have much to interact with. It is hard to reveal new aspects of a character when you keep her in the same situation. Second, it’s difficult to get the right balance of power for the opposition. Nix needs it to be overwhelming enough to chase Sabriel from even her best refuge, but not so overwhelming that the reader doubts the plausibility of her continued escape.

Nix manages this by altering the terms of the chase, gradually amplifying the magical interventions as Sabriel gets further and further away from the Wall. (This, in itself, is a neatly done bit of macro-scale writing.) Sabriel begins her journey on skis. After a fight with a frightening (but somewhat easily beaten) monster, she soon has to abandon her skis as a more powerful enemy appears behind her. This enemy could clearly overpower her…until she reaches a sanctuary that seems to offer protection. Then the fresh enemy proves to have resources capable of breaching that sanctuary, forcing Sabriel to flee once more via more powerful magic…

Framed this way, it sounds like simple escalation. It does not read like simple escalation, though, because Sabriel’s emotional state provides continuity. As readers, we see her fear, her frustration, her bewilderment. By keeping us grounded in the single character’s perspective, Nix is able to use what goes on around Sabriel to pretty incredible effect. That’s how he manages to zip along to the soft reset that occurs about 200 pages in without losing the reader or the thread of his narrative.

(After Sabriel’s crash, the story pivots from her flight to her assumption of the quest “proper,” and the pacing, while still great, works in the more usual way.)

What We Nick from this Novel

There are many ways to counterbalance pace. For Nix in the first part of Sabriel, that counterbalance is characterization. To a lesser extent, it’s also worldbuilding. Nix can whisk us along through quite a lot of material because he balances the frenetic pace of the action with what we’ll need to understand later in the novel. The reverse can apply, too, balancing slow parts of the action with dynamic changes to character.

Alternative lesson: take your chases to interesting places. Give your characters some interesting places to and modes of travel as they run for their lives or chase down their nemeses.

The Abhorsen Trilogy is available as a boxed set (ISBN: 978-0-06-073419-0). Sabriel, as a single volume, can be found with ISBN 978-0-06-447183-1.

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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.