writing

Reflections on a Third Teaching Year

Forty-eight hours ago, I turned in my keys and signed out of my school for the summer. That doesn’t mean there’s no work to do: I have some projects to plan, some bureaucracy to manage, some trainings to attend…but by and large, the next two and a half months are mine for other things. Including (finally!) getting back to Walking Ledges.

My thoughts after my first year of teaching full time were long enough to require three separate posts. Last year, I apparently didn’t feel that anything beyond signing my contract renewal was noteworthy.

This year has been different in that it has been largely the same as the previous one. Signing that second contract was a big deal; working a second year in the same place was less about the moments and more about the way the work shaped other moments.

Teaching advanced placement and intervention simultaneously kept me on my toes. I joked that I had “only the skinny parts of the bell curve.” That’s not entirely true; some students end up in intervention classes who don’t belong there, and the same is true of AP classes. They all require different strategies (differentiation!). They all require attention. They all require—have a right to—the best teaching the school can provide. We  teach the students who walk through our door.

That’s one of the things that hasn’t changed from that first set of reflections: students are the best thing about the job any time they aren’t the worst thing about the job. (Most of the time, the worst part of the job is bureaucracy.) What did change? Well…

Improvisation and Iteration

My class assignments changed back in August, and I had to hit the ground running with my AP Literature course. Mid-August up through November was a bit of a blur. I knew only a few of the texts I taught. One or two were a matter of staying ahead of my students. One of the perks of having done this for a while, though, is that you’re better able to leverage the authority you get just for being the one at the front of the room. I’ve always worked from broad outlines and sketches, filling them in as I go. That’s become my general mode of lesson planning…at least until I’m wrangling challenging material or challenging students. At those times, I damn well better bang out specific, timed lesson plans. Most of the time, though, teaching AP allowed me to improvise and bounce ideas around with my awesome students.

Teaching intervention was, most days, at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d taught the course a full year. With it being a one-semester course, I’d already taught it twice by the time the 16-17 school year started. That meant that I had plenty of material sitting around waiting to be re-used. Or modified. Or shifted to a different context. Or thrown out all together. The pleasure of teaching a course I’d been through before is much like the pleasure of editing and revising. The iteration helps you smooth things out, improve the good things, eliminate the ones that aren’t working, and try new things in small doses.

Of course, you get new students. Tests change. Administrative requirements change. Lessons that were awesome for one class can fall flat the very next period. So even when you’re fine-tuning, you frequently have to improvise a new melody.

Collegiality

I’ve said it before, and I meant it: I like teachers. Not all teachers are awesome people, but it seems like most of them are. (No self-congratulation intended!) In a year when there was so much craziness going on in the world, I appreciated having colleagues who could help keep me grounded and focused on the things I could control. My fantastic department head won district teacher of the year, and deserved every bit of it. My fellow AP/pre-AP teachers are doing cool stuff with curriculum. My next door neighbor is the loudest guy in the building, a raconteur who holds down the head of the teacher’s lounge lunch table. It’s good to have work friends again.

Plus, my colleagues get (most) of my jokes. Even when they’re not funny jokes.

On Finding my Niche

I started teaching full-time at a charter in East Austin, commuting too many miles and too many minutes. I spent my days with eighth graders who, mostly, were not good at being in school (no matter how smart they were). I’d done most of my substitute teaching in middle schools. It seemed like a good idea. Looking back, it’s hard to sort out which challenges were first-year-teacher things, which were specific to the school, which to the commute, which to the grade level… Being a first year teacher is hard!

This year, teaching AP, things felt…right. Teaching advanced placement seniors is about as close to teaching college as you can get without actually doing it. There are advantages, though: I get to spend so much more time with my students. I see them every day, learn so much more about who they are and what they hope to do. I would have gotten some of that with professor-ing full time, with the mythical tenure-track job. I was absolutely not getting it as an adjunct. The AP kids, usually, remember to call me by the correct title.

I still love teaching writing. I got faster, over the year, at grading the exam-specific stuff. I’m working on more and better ways to build writing into the curriculum. I love showing students how a text can do multiple things at the same time, how no matter what a multiple-choice exam might require you to ‘understand,’ literature and life are messier. When I do my job well, when it is at its most satisfying, its the students who get that, who find the meaning in the glorious mess, who explain it as best they can (which is sometimes brilliantly).

Next year, barring another last minute change, I’ll only be teaching seniors—AP and “on-level.” As excited as I am about spending the summer writing, about my summer to-do list, I’m already excited about what’s coming up when August rolls around.

Reality’s Got Teeth

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
—Shylock, Merchant of Venice (III.i)

Most of what I write is fantastic.

waits the necessary beat

…by which I mean it’s not real, nor is it intended to be. I don’t think there are many places that becomes clearer than in the way so many of the novels I read and games I play deal with violence and its consequences. In most roleplaying games, damage is abstracted to hit points or health levels. It usually doesn’t matter where you get hit or what you get hit with, because damage is just another stat that you track. Healing, likewise, is a matter of popping a healing potion or medkit, sometimes resting a few days. Few games deal with scarring. I’ve yet to see any deal with rehabilitation.

A lot of the novels I enjoy are the same way. Our heroes get the crap beaten out of them. They get stabbed or shot or scorched by magic. Then, a chapter or two later (sometimes just a page or two later), they’re back to running across rooftops or dueling with evil wizards or piloting starfighters. Writers—myself included—build in medical technology or healing magic that’s just as fantastic as the dragons or fireballs or jump gates. I’ve tried, in the novels I’ve written, to keep track of injuries, to let them mean something. But I’m guilty, too, of slapping magical healing or nanosurgery or such on my characters once the crisis has passed.

Partly, it’s a genre expectation. Partly, it’s really hard to effectively write a scene where being able to sit up unassisted for fifteen minutes is a victory. Mostly, I think, we as writers and readers find pain, well, painful. Agonizing months of rehab, scars that don’t fully heal? No thanks. Get me back to the monsters and swordfights and ancient mysteries.

Recently, a family member was in a serious car accident—the “we’re not sure she’s going to live” kind of car accident. She spent a week in the hospital with a laundry list of trauma. Now that she’s out of the hospital…she still has that laundry list of trauma. Her recovery will take months. Realistically, she may never recover 100% of what the accident took. Almost dying will do that to you. Right now, the walk from bed to the bathroom is a hike to Mordor carrying the one ring.

Injuries have consequences. Pain is real. If you prick us, we bleed, whether or not we’re Jewish. This is why current U.S. politics are seeping so deeply into so many lives: policies cause material harm, whether that’s choosing between health insurance and utilities or facing deportation or understanding that your rights aren’t as good as somebody else’s. Life isn’t fair, but that’s no excuse for abandoning the work of trying to make it better.

Watching my sister-in-law in her hospital room, working to breathe, only inconsistently able to track what had happened to her and what was going around her, I couldn’t help thinking “there’s no way to write this pain.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Writing and reading promote empathy. When reality has the kind of bite it does right now, that’s more important than ever.

Nicking from Novels: Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon

This is probably the first time I have picked up a book because the author kept showing up in my Twitter feed. Michigan-based Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon came out in 2012. He’s an award-winning writer of short stories, with quite a publishing history behind him by the time Throne dropped. He’s also a prolific Tweeter.

Overview

Throne of the Crescent Moon follows an aging ghul hunter, his friends (a magus and an aklhemist), his apprentice (a dervish), and a nomadic girl who turns into a lion. It’s possible (though not entirely fair) to sum up the story in simple fantasy terms: heroes band together to stop an ancient, black-magic wielding evil. The old characters complain about being too old for the job; the teenage characters are bellicose and as naive as they are sincere. The villains, servants of the Traitorous Angel, are wholly depraved and black-hearted; what complexity they have is in their history rather than their motivations.

What makes the novel, well, novel is that it’s not set in the faux-Medieval Europe that forms fantasy’s “default” setting. It is, to pull from Kevin J. Anderson’s back-cover blurb, “a beautiful story of a demon hunter in an Arabian Nights setting.” It also isn’t. More on that below.

The Plot

Adoulla is an aging ghul hunter, the last of his order. He’d like to retire—or to die—but can’t bring himself to do either. He has an apprentice named Raseed, a teenage holy warrior who is fond of quoting scripture. What starts as a normal ghul hunt turns into something more. There are too many of the ghuls for any normal magician to raise. Raseed and Adoulla are saved from being overwhelmed by Zamia, an Angel-touched girl who can turn into a lioness. Her band has been destroyed, body and soul, by the monster that drives the ghuls. She reluctantly joins forces with the learned Adoulla. In consultation with Litaz the alkhemist and her husband Dawoud the magus, the trio endeavours to find the source of the ghuls. They uncover a deeper mystery and get tangled up in the political struggles of Dhamsawaat, where a corrupt Khalif is challenged by the self-styled Falcon Prince.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Let’s talk about “palette swap.” The term comes from video games, where, for example, Sub Zero and Scorpion from Mortal Kombat were the same “ninja” model with different colors. It’s a labor-saving device to create the appearance of novelty. More generally, the concept is used for a simple re-skinning of previous creative work. You take somebody else’s engine and wrap some different skins over the animations, maybe program a few new weapons, and call it a new game. (Consider the endless Candy Crush variations.)

It’s tempting to try and read Throne of the Crescent Moon as a mere palette swap. Adoulla’s a cleric (albeit an irreverent one). Raseed’s a paladin. Zamia’s a shape-shifting barbarian. There’s an evil old necromancer with a monstrous henchman. All the typical elements of Eurocentric fantasy, just painted over with an “Arabian Nights” brush (or put through a filter, if Instagram is more your thing).

Tempting, but wrong.

“Readers yearning for the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser will delight in the arrival of Adoulla and Raseed,” Walter Jon Williams writes in another jacket blurb. There are similarities to the Lankhmar books, certainly: inscrutable magics, master swordsmen, an endlessly busy and dusty city. As somebody who enjoyed the Lankhmar books, I appreciate those similarities. (In passing, I’ll mention that it occasionally reminded me of Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road.)  I also think that the similarities are just one layer. Throne of the Crescent moon is not a palette swap on the old sword and sorcery.

I do like the idea of thinking about different palettes, though. There are ways that Throne reminds me of old comic books, cheaply printed in layers of colored dots. It has a different quality than most contemporary fantasy. And unlike those vintage comics, Ahmed’s colors pop; they’re vibrant. They are not particularly blended.

This isn’t to say that Throne of the Crescent Moon simple or plain. To build a character like Adoulla from swathes of bold, unshaded color is hard. There’s the veneer of the old swords-and-sorcery or swords-and-sandals stories in those bright colors. Throne isn’t a throwback, though, because Ahmed, like those old comic colorists, works wonders with juxtaposition and balance. We can appreciate Adoulla as the type that the palette suggests while understanding his complexity thanks to Ahmed’s skill in balancing the swatches of color.

The setting, too, is created through careful application of color. Dhamsawaat is on the Tiger River. The characters’ monotheism is flavored by Islam, from Raseed’s proverbs to the repressive Humble Students. The myths of the Middle East underpin the magic—for heroes and villains alike. None of these are “painting over” a Eurocentric fantasy setting. Ahmed paints his own setting, in his own colors, on his own terms. Dhamsawaat is not Lankhmar (nor is it Baghdad).

Looked at from a distance, or read quickly, Throne of the Crescent Moon might seem a mere palette swap on pulp fantasy. It’s enjoyable at that level, for sure: the action is compelling, the love at first sight entertainingly troubling to the two young characters who don’t know how to deal with it. Throne rewards deeper attention, though, where we can pick out the individual patches of color that blend at a distance. We see the contrast between Raseed and Zamia’s budding relationship with the long marriage of Litaz and Dawoud (and Adoulla’s long suffering with neither). We see the ambiguities in the choice between a known tyrant and the brilliant braggart who’d usurp him. We see the characters constantly interpreting their environment based on their separate experiences. That’s what makes the novel compelling.

What We Nick from this Novel

Local color is no excuse to be lazy.
It’s always tempting to grab for easy novelty, whether that’s writing in dialect or picking a real place as a “skin” for our concocted settings. That’s a bad palette swap. If we want different color, we need to think about the whole palette, the whole technique of the painting. Taken out of the analogy, we need to consider how our setting, characters and the way we write about them influence our story. Throne of the Crescent Moon works because palette suits the painting; it’s the right way for Ahmed to tell that story. We should aspire to do suit method to message as well as he does.

Adventures in Taglines

When I started this blog, it was not supposed to be about #postac. I was going to write about writing, all the time. I was going to say profound things. I was going to share my keen insights into the writing process. I was, if nothing else, going to write about the things I was thinking about to try and make sense of them. I had the vague idea that I should have some sort of web presence to point to when people asked about my writing.

That’s what I was doing when I wrote Of Dreams. It was my third post on the blog. It’s still responsible for my highest traffic day. I just re-read the post. It’s raw, and probably the most open I ever was about how much quitting higher education had wrecked me. It was not self-consciously #postac, because I didn’t even know what #postac was. I found out quickly enough. I left academia at roughly the same time Rebecca Schuman was carving out Thesis Hatement and venting her spleen (usually constructively!) on pan kisses kafka.

I was fumbling through on my own with far less attention. I kept writing about writing, but I kept writing #postac stuff, too. It got me traffic. I cared about it. I wanted to document my journey in solidarity with all the people I knew were going through similar struggles. When I went and read other people’s postac writing, I felt less alone. I changed the tagline on the blog to “The Adventures of a Post-ac Writer.” That was back in 2013.

Last week, I went through and checked my links, shuffled a few things around in my sidebar. The virtual housecleaning was necessary—some of the links were broken. Pan kisses kafka is on indefinite hiatus while Dr. Schuman gets her memoir out, continues to write for Slate, and does the whole “parent” thing. Some of the postac sites that had featured my work don’t exist anymore.

I wondered, almost two years ago, whether you can ever really stop being a postac. I wasn’t sure you could, any more than you can stop being from where you grew up. We carry our pasts with us, always.

That doesn’t mean we have to write about them.

I just finished my second year as a full-time classroom teacher. It’s been three years since I was even nominally on the higher-ed job market. I’m much more concerned about preparing my students for college than I am with the preparations necessary to teach college. Really, I wrapped all of my big thoughts into the 4,000 word essay I wrote for “How to Leave Academia.” I still have little ones, and there are occasions where my past and my present overlap in hopefully interesting ways. I’m still going to write about those here. It has felt increasingly wrong to keep the “Adventures of a Post-ac Writer” tagline, though, no matter what it might do for SEO.

My PhD hasn’t expired. I’m still #withaphd. The #withaphd hashtag is great, because it helps erode the “you are your degree” mentality that is so prevalent among academics (and exiting academics). I’m still a writer. But I’m not really a “post-ac writer” anymore. I haven’t been for a while. I’m a writer and teacher who happens to have a PhD.

So, new tagline: Adventures in Wordwork. That label more accurately gets at the mix of writing, reading, and teaching that occupy my time these days, that occupy this blog. Let’s see how it works out.

(P.S. If you are looking for my writings about postac, There’s an annotated list accessible from the menu at the top of the page.)

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.

Something Funny

I want to write something funny, something longer than a tweet.

The first novels that I tried to write, back around third grade, were rather shameless and childlike takeoffs on things like Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. (Yes, I was completely oblivious to the innuendo in those books.) I read lots of Robert Asprin, the Myth and Phule’s Company books. Hell, even in high school most of what I wrote was funny, or tried to be and settled for clever. (Or worse.)

That went away, I think, around the time I started writing Serious Poetry. I was, as my students might say, “in my feelings.” I was in love with what I imagined to be profound as only a seventeen year old can be. Yes, there were self-indulgent love poems about crushes I didn’t know what to do with. (No, I’m not posting them.) A lot of the poems I wrote, though, were about the nature of reality, about girls who smoked flowers and rode to improbable places on desk chairs. Some of them were okay. By the end of college, I wasn’t writing many of those. My honors project was a long poem about stories and telling them and chasing them. It was super-serious and I meant every word of it. I still like it.

Meanwhile, I was turning from Anthony and Asprin to R.A. Salvatore (true confessions!) and Tad Williams and various kitchen-sink epics. I had a few fleeting projects along those lines. More importantly, those kinds of fantasy stories were the ones I was reading when I was writing for Imperial Secrets. Hallas and Leor and Dzalin were all serious characters who had various reasons to save, break, or re-make their respective chunks of the world.

By the end of college, I’d turned even further to Brust and Gaiman and Wolfe and Zelazny. Good writers, all. Funny moments in all (even in Wolfe, where they’re always a surprise), but the stories were never hangers for jokes like so many of the books I read when I was a kid.  I “knew” what I wanted to write: thoughtful, clever stories leavened with intermittent one liners. I wanted to put all the thoughtfulness that eventually led me to graduate school behind fantasy stories. (The degree to which it had to go behind the story is another post.) There was not a single whimsical thing in the process.

My kids will both, immediately, tell you that I am the silliest person in the family. They’re not wrong. I pretend all sorts of ridiculous things all the time. The kids are nine and approaching seven and I’m silly enough to make them roll their eyes like teenagers. (My daughter’s head start on that count is frightening.) My students will tell you that I’m funny and weird (and a lot of other things, I expect). Growing up, conversations in my family often revolved clever comebacks (and bad puns). The humor may be pretty dark, but…

…what I’m getting at, or trying to get at, is that it oughtn’t be a stretch for me to write something funny. It is, though. Part of that is the issue of acting versus reacting. One-liners and retorts bounce off of what was said to prompt them; they don’t appear out of nothing. Part of it, too, is that I have spent so much time treating writing as Serious Business. Writing Me is Serious Me, with big thoughts and careful language. Writing has been a way to prove that I’m smart. On the nonfiction side, it’s frequently didactic: here, let me help you understand this thing. (Look, it’s no coincidence that I’ve spent most of my adult life as a teacher of one sort or another.) On the fiction side, most of the stories I want to tell are not particularly funny.

Writing humor is challenging, though. Writing jokes is challenging. Even writing satire—which comes most easily to me—is challenging. It is just as much a skill as being able to explain Bourdieu to your uncle or complex-compound sentences to a disinterested high school freshman. Just as it takes more than speaking well to write well, it takes more than being funny to write funny things. Timing functions so much differently, for one. I know people who can make the stupidest knock-knock joke hilarious because they get the beats just right. Making those beats work in writing takes work, especially when you know that your readers will hear it not in your voice, but in their own inner voice.

How do you get better at things? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. (My alma mater has a science building named Carnegie Hall; it was a running joke that music students would go practice there just to say they’d played in Carnegie Hall.) Luckily or unluckily for you, my practice space is this blog.

I want to practice, too, because for all the progress humanity has made, there are a lot of bleak things going on. We could all, I think, use something funny…and I don’t do cat videos.

Nicking from Novels: Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry

The Fionavar Tapestry consists of Guy Gavriel Kay’s first three published novels (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). Kay is an author I’ve been recommended to read intermittently for years, mostly his later stuff. One of my colleagues in the English department is a big fan of Kay’s work, and refreshed those recommendations this spring. When I finally made it back to the public library in May, I grabbed Fionavar, in part because the library’s collection of Kay’s newer works is a combination of sparse and frequently checked out.

canadafionavaromnibusfull

Overview

The Tapestry books belong to that broad category I call “Narnia Books”—not because they are a thinly-veiled Christian allegory, but because they are the story of contemporary real-world characters plucked from their world into a wholly-discrete fantastic one. (The “wholly discrete” thing is a useful distinction—it makes the Thomas Covenant books “Narnia Books,” but not things like Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which are more about discovering a secret world that overlaps with our own.)

Paul, Kevin, Dave, Kim, and Jennifer are taken by a mage named Loren from Toronto to Fionavar, the “first of all worlds.” It’s a little Amber-ish in category, but Fionavar’s firstness is only ever used to goad certain characters forward. Ostensibly, the Canadians are taken to Fionavar to celebrate the 50th year of a king’s reign. Naturally, fate has different things in store for them.

Many of those things are dark. The alternative version of this post revolved around the idea that “nothing comes without a cost.” People suffer. People die. People suffer worse than death. The whole second book in the series is like the doomed ride of the Rohirrim in Tolkien: stoic bravery in the face of impossibly bad odds. (I’m a sucker for that brand of heroism.) There’s much about fate, and about avoiding fate through sacrifice.

Fionavar is a rich world that borrows its tropes mostly from Celtic mythology. It is solidly built. Kay does good job weaving a story that is intimately tied to his mythology without making the story about the mythology. There are just enough novel idioms (such as “brightly woven” for “well done”) to mark Fionavar as distinct without making it a chore to learn them all.

The Plot

It’s a trilogy. To try to summarize the plot here would certainly spoil at least things from the first book. The broad plot points are standard fantasy fare from the Tolkien playbook: ancient, divine evil must be stopped; artifacts and ancient forces must be properly activated and marshaled; elves get involved. Don’t let that discourage you, though, because as soon as you start to zoom in, the plot points get more interesting. Elements of sacrifice and forgiveness are pervasive. Characters advance the story through sacrifice and error and fierce love.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Kay does something that ought to be impossible: he gets away with telling rather than showing. Constantly, and largely through variations on “impossible.” Despite being, as mentioned above, a sucker for doomed rides and last stands, I teared up all over the place through The Wandering Fire…and mostly at passages like this:

And grieving, grieving, Paul did so. Looking up, he saw Loren’s face distort with wildest hate. He heard the mage cry out then, tapping into his uttermost power, sourced in Matt Sören the Dwarf, channeled through the Whitebranch of Amairgen, and the very heart and soul of Loren Silvercloak were in that cry and in the blast that followed it.

(I could have also picked just about any passage involving horses or dogs. There are many of those to choose from.)

It really shouldn’t work. It’s not quite lampshading, but Kay consistently calls things “impossible,” or “uttermost” or “so deep it could not be named.” This is classic telling—it’s bigger than life simply because I say it’s bigger than life. We get showing, too, rending of garments and swinging of axes and yelling, but so much of Tapestry’s affect relies on the author telling us that things are, basically, indescribable—indescribably sad, indescribably brave, indescribably inspiring.

Kay manages to make this work, I think, through a bit of sleight of hand. I’m sure I’m missing pieces of it, but there are two main ways this telling sidesteps the usual “telling” problems:

First, Kay consistently centers the observation of the indescribable in a character. It’s Paul who, in the passage above, notes all the superlatives. Grounding the “telling” in a character puts it at just enough of a remove as to blunt the force of it. As a bonus, Kay also uses these moment to reinforce characterization.

Second, and far more subtle, is the general pattern of Tapestry’s language. The books draw heavily on mythology (no surprise). More importantly, they are told using elevated, formal language that echoes oral tradition. The word “and” appears frequently; most sentences in any given scene are linked directly to the next. There are plenty of spots one could change the “and” to “and, lo…” While centering the observations in a character blunts the obtrusiveness of the telling, the books’ tone takes the narrative a few steps away from mundane reality.

This combination could flatten everything, limit it to the two dimensions of the titular Tapestry. Instead, Kay is deft enough with his language, his characterization, and his allusions to mythology to elevate the whole story without losing depth. It’s myth-making, it’s world-building, but it’s also (as I commented to my spouse early in the first book) a little bit of a soap opera. The Canadian quintet all have their own hang-ups and backstories. Those contribute to the story’s depth without becoming the story, just as the myth-making contributes to the story without becoming its sole purpose.

It’s worth noting, too, that Kay does not use this telling when it comes to explaining Fionavar itself. The characters do have to explain things or have things explained to them, but that always happens in fragments. They get what they (and we as readers) need in the moment, explained by characters who understand it. There are no recitations of history, though history permeates the novels. Kay sometimes plays around with the timing of events to help achieve this—there are spots in the novel where we are tracking multiple characters simultaneously, where a scene starts at the same moment as a previous one, or halfway through the one that follows. It’s all deftly done, not quite walking a Gene Wolfe-level tight rope, but much better than most “mythic” fantasies.

What We Nick from this Novel

Suit your sins to your style. When you are writing something mythopoeic, you can get away with simply telling us how characters feel, with using superlatives as emotional bludgeons, with starting many, many sentences with ‘and.’ If you are writing noir, you can lean on the occasional cliche. Rules are not meant to be broken, but they do shift depending on what you’re aiming for. As we look at our own work, particularly in the revision process, we need to consider which rules are most important and which ones might not be relevant.