plot

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: R.S. Belcher’s The Six-Gun Tarot

R.S. Belcher’s The Six-Gun Tarot is a random library grab. It’s relatively recent, published in 2013. The next book in the Golgotha series, The Shotgun Arcana, is out, with a third book, The Queen of Swords, due out sometime this year. Belcher has a long resume in journalism; he also has an urban fantasy series published by Tor.

Overview

The Six-Gun Tarot is a “Weird West” book. Belcher describes it as “kind of Zane Grey meets H.P. Lovecraft.” That’s not far off, though Lovecraft lacks coyote spirits and mad science. Golgotha, the fictional Nevada town in which the story is set, is a magnet for the weird. Our nominal protagonist, Jim Negrey, arrives in Golgotha with his father’s jade eye. Nearly arrives, anyway. He requires rescuing from the desert by a deputy who’s half capital-C Coyote and a man who’s got an unseemly fascination with dying. Jim soon meets a variety of other characters, including a sheriff who cannot die until a particular day, a Mormon mayor who has to deal with both his sexuality and safeguarding the relics of Joseph Smith, and members of the Chinese Green Ribbon Tong. That list leaves out the Lilith-cult ninja, her daughter, and the story’s villains. And an angel.

So we have, on one hand, standard elements of a Western: a young man with wanted posters out to prove himself, an unflappable sheriff, a Fancy Dan of a mayor, handsome widows and a cagey half-blooded American Indian. On the other, we have two different ancient cults, angels, a great old one, the left eye of (a version of) the creator, Mormon relics, ghosts, and a head in jar. Belcher does a great job of folding the weird into the western. There’s never any sense that you’re bouncing back and forth between sets of tropes.

He also handles a legitimately diverse cast with a deft touch. There are no tokens. There is difference, there is relativism, but it’s never an excuse for lazy storytelling or indecisive characters. Belief matters. Belief inflects reality, particularly when you get into the weird stuff. Belief is not, though, a substitute for morality (nor for reality). The characters bear their own truths, and the author manages to balance them. That is quietly the most impressive thing about this book.

The Plot

As mentioned, Jim Negrey is running from trouble at home. He is the stranger who comes to town. He’s not the only one, though. Two outsiders have recently acquired the deed to the “busted” Argent Mountain Mine. They’ve brought another pair of men with them, and that pair has some sinister plans not only for the mine, but for the world. As characters weave in and out of each other’s orbits, they keep secrets from one another, discover clues, and eventually end up trying to stop the bad guys while the stars fall out of the night sky. The novel’s climax is full of dynamite and magic swords and bloody knives and stubborn ghosts.

The amount of exposition, though, almost kept me from getting to the climax. The hardcover is 360 pages, and nothing happens for the first 120 pages. It’s all introductions and flashbacks and it is not, despite the cover blurb, “a hell of a lot of fun.” Once somebody ends up murdered, the pace picks up considerably. I flew to the end in a few hours.

The Cool Thing to Consider

The Six-Gun Tarot is the closest thing I’ve read in ages to a novel without a proper protagonist. Nominally, it’s Jim. He’s the stranger who comes to town, the one in the first scene and the last. He does a substantial part of the day-saving when the world is ending, and he does it by realizing his father’s legacy. Jim doesn’t take point in any investigations, though, and he rarely knows what’s going on. He’s a good young man who’s done wrong, a kind of apprentice for the role of “unflappable hero.” (I dig unflappable heroes. They’re especially good in Westerns, where I imagine half of them as Clint Eastwood.)

In terms of impact on the plot’s outcome, though, Jon Hightower (the actual sheriff), Mutt (his half-Coyote deputy), Maude (the ninja-woman) or Harry (the Fancy Dan mayor) all have just as much to do. That includes making use of their particular varieties of “weird.” With the exception of Jon, those characters all have well-developed internal conflicts that play out of over the course of the novel, too. It would not take much of a shift for any of those characters to be the protagonist.

That’s also the thing that makes the first third of the novel almost unbearably slow. We jump from character to character with flashback after flashback. The tangents provide plenty of background for the town, but nothing happens. It takes a lot of time and space to introduce these characters and provide their backstories. One set of characters, in particular, seem to exist only to be “civilians” and perhaps to set up the next book in the series (or at least part of it). In terms of density, we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum from Karen Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. That novel is remarkable for the economy of its opening, the speed at which the author kicks the plot into motion. The Six-Gun Tarot plods through introduction after introduction to establish the ensemble; establishing the plot is largely ignored.

Once that ensemble is established and a murder sets plot-wheels spinning, The Six-Gun Tarot positively hums. Belcher balances all of his plates without dropping any. There’s no moment that establishes a Tolkien-ish fellowship. The characters come together organically and act together within the patterns the author has established. There’s more space between the flashbacks, and they mesh better with the present-day plot. None of the characters are sold short during the climax, nor during the denouement. The final two-thirds of the novel were as fun as the blurbs promised, more fun than any of my dad’s traditional Westerns that I read as a kid.

What We Nick from this Novel

Ensembles can be magical, but don’t make the reader wait for them to play.

This novel reminds me of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony in reverse. Over the course of that work’s final movement, members of the orchestra get up and leave in ones and twos until the stage is empty. Here, Belcher brings his characters out one and two at a time, and he can’t really start developing the material until they’re all there. The novel wouldn’t work without its ensemble, but it almost fails because of its ensemble. A novel without a clear protagonist is such a rarity in genre fiction. That’s due in part to the way that many novels rely on the reader’s sympathy with the protagonist as a hook. Using an ensemble cast, you don’t have that hook. Make sure you come up with a good replacement…or hope that, like Belcher, your characters are interesting enough in themselves to hold a reader until things start to actually happen.

Nicking from Novels: 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.

Hiding the Joints

“Good writing is that which hides the joints.”

That’s one of my favorite pieces of writing advice. It came secondhand, back when I was at school in Wales. The words might not be exactly correct, but we were talking about transitions, about moving from idea to idea. Carpentry’s a good metaphor for it. Mediocre writing can look a lot like the kind of bookshelf I’d build, even if the ideas are good. I know how to measure, and I know how to use a saw properly. I’m confident I could build a fully functional shelf. A practiced carpenter can cut the pieces and fit them together so well that the joints, while not disappearing, don’t catch the eye.

Writers develop plenty of tricks to hide their joints. Transitions can be as simple as using parallel phrase structure in the sentences bracketing a paragraph change. They can be more complicated, of course, and a well-written paper or story can flow as smoothly as the unfurling of a flower or as inevitably as the ticking of a watch. Structure counts. The little things count, too.

Sometimes the little things can hide the joints too well, disguise them so thoroughly that we don’t notice structural flaws. I mentioned a timeline problem in my NaNo project a few weeks back. That was a smooth transitions/flawed structure problem. Reading the first four chapters of the novel, everything flowed naturally and made perfect sense…right up to the moment you stopped to think about it. As soon as you did that, it became obvious that one character had to have gone backward in time. I was able to untangle things, but it was a messy example of the way fluency can obscure problems. Yet another reason to avoid falling in love with your own prose.

Most of my thinking about transitions and structure has been on the academic side of my writing life. How can I lay out an argument to make it convincing? Which concepts are so fundamental to my project that they need to be explained fully and immediately? As I work with long form fiction, I’m having to adjust that thinking. Characters ought to develop, both over the course of the story and in the readers’ understanding. The plot has to unfold smoothly enough that the joints stay hidden…or at least elegantly enough that any breaks are convincingly abrupt.

There can be as much legerdemain as carpentry in hiding transitions. Movies have reminded me of that. I took my kids to see Despicable Me 2, and I was astounded at how brisk everything was. The movie is only ninety minutes. It’s got set pieces in it, too, that eat up screen time while contributing minimally to anything else. There’s hardly any exposition. Things happen, it seems, mostly because they happen. We don’t need motivations. The bad guy is the bad guy. Gru doesn’t want his daughter seeing boys. The minions are wacky. Doctor Nefario of course changes sides. Twice. Zip zip zip. There’s no time to figure out why they do any of these things.

Importantly, there’s no need to figure out why the characters do any of these things. We experience the movie like we experience music: in time. We don’t go backward. If the array of writers, actors, directors, and editors are doing their job, we stay suspended in the movie’s now. One of the easiest ways to realize a movie is bad is that it has given you the time to notice it’s bad. (That doesn’t mean movies can’t inspire reflection while watching them—there were parts of Django Unchained, for example, that were profoundly uncomfortable and made me think without jarring me completely out of the movie.)

The next night, I saw Thor: The Dark World. It was longer, and not in such a hurry, but there was a lot of the same sleight of hand. The characters are what they are. Holes in reality are placed conveniently to propel the plot or just to look cool. The Asgardian defense forces become bad shots when the bad guys invade for exactly the same reason that storm troopers can’t help missing the heroes of Star Wars. We get the bones of a story and a lot of hammer swinging and explodey stuff. It’s fun.

In both movies, the transition-hiding sleight of hand relies on convention. Despicable Me 2 ends with a wedding because of course the girls need a mom. The Dark World ends with the evil dark elf getting smashed up because that is what happens to bad guys in comic book movies. I enjoyed both of the films. What’s interesting to me, though, is how convention and thumbnail sketches of plot work to whisk us past the joints more than to hide them.

How much can we do that with our writing? When can we use convention to avoid the parts people skip? When can we hide the joints with illusion rather than carpentry? I read a piece a while back by a “serious” author doing Young Adult projects that highlighted the challenges of keeping all the attention on the story. Flowery descriptive digressions or psychological submarine expeditions nudge the readers out of the book. She was talking about young readers, but it goes for adults, too—part of the reason Y.A. writing has so many adult fans. The focus is on storytelling rather than being “writerly.”

Gene Wolfe is the best writer I know at managing both of those things. He’s a master of showing rather than telling, even when, in The Sorceror’s House, the whole book is a collection of explanatory letters. He manages economy without creating the forced briskness of an action movie or kids movie. He hides his joints superbly.

What about you? How do you hide your joints? How often do you allow yourself to use a little of legerdemain to obscure what might not be fixable?