Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Blood Knight

[SPOILSPORT: this post contains spoilers for The Blood Knight by Greg Keyes.]
“After all these years, I am still involved in the process of self-discovery. It's better to explore life and make mistakes than to play it safe. Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.” -Sophia Loren

Book 3 of Greg Keyes' Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series and, for me, the seams are starting to show.  Toward the end of Book 2, I began to feel as if characters were treading the same paths they had already been along,  both thematically and geographically.  I couldn't really tell where Aspar and Winna were but I was certain they'd been there before.  The same goes for Stephen and Leoff, both of whom find themselves in the same position they were in a previous book: walking a Faneway or composing a piece of music, the intent of which, is the opposite its patron intends.  Anne and Austra spent much of Book 2 far from home, but now they are back, along with Cazio and Neil, who have returned to their tasks, obedient as lap dogs. 

Still I wait for something urgent, something daring to happen in this series.  The antagonists keep unfolding and unravelling, turning out to be not so very bad after all, in fact, the real enemy are these other things over here.  And the focus changes.  I've not felt for a moment that any of the principal characters were in danger of being killed; injured, sure; perhaps morally inconvenienced, but dead?  No.  And I think that's a problem for an author who is trying to generate tension and interest and sustain it across a four book series.  Mr. Keyes has some vital and engaging characters but he never really lets them loose: Cazio is one of the few with a genuine spark of wit and danger but, by the end of the third book, even he is reduced to a kind of parody of his earlier actions.  

It's all very nice - the battle scenes are just technical enough to be convincing, the world building just rich enough to grow a layer of authenticity (if a little white washed), and the characters have enough individuality to tell them apart - but it's just too safe.  These books are never going to offend anyone.  The story never comes snarling and sneering and snapping off the page.  The characters never do anything truly shocking or audacious.  The author never reaches for something more than a simple tale, simply told.  

Friday, June 25, 2010

Abercrombie - Progress Report

Over on his blog, Joe Abercrombie has posted a progress report on the editing of his upcoming novel The Heroes.  
Progress on the editing and revision of The Heroes presses doggedly forward.  I’ve finished a second draft which means I now have a complete and hopefully coherent book considerably tighter, more focused, slightly simplified, and lacking in characters who suddenly disappear and are never mentioned again.  It’s also some nine thousand words shorter than the first draft.  Readers sometimes get nervous about these kind of cuts (don’t destroy those valuable words!  That’s two whole short stories!) but believe me when I say these cuts are nothing you’d want to keep.  Only one thing even approaching a full scene was cut, and that one was crap, added nothing to the story, and contained nothing either particularly witty or exciting – that’s why it got cut.  The rest is all sharpening shoddy paragraphs, removing repetitive dialogue, and tightening up at the micro level.  A short story made from the bits cut out is nothing anyone would want to read, believe me, and the book benefits in the same way a boxer might from sweating out a few pounds before a fight.

The Heroes has a U.K. publication date of Jan 20, 2011.  I can't wait. 


Friday, June 18, 2010

Swords and Dark Magic

Graeme Flory, of Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, has posted his thoughts on a new anthology I've got my eye on:

It's a new collection of fantasy short stories and features a few of my favourite authors: Steven Erikson, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie - it's like the starting line of the Montreal Fantasy Mavens!  Also included are some well regarded writers like Glenn Cook, Tim Lebbon and Michael Moorcock.

The book arrives in stores on June 22, 2010, and is already available for pre-order at Chapters-Indigo.  I'm thinking this might help ease the strain of waiting for the new books from Erikson, Abercrombie, and Lynch, all due some time in 2011.


The Charnel Prince

[SPOILY: this post contains Level 5 spoilers for The Charnel Prince, by Greg Keyes.]

Last week I finished The Charnel Prince, book 2 of Greg Keyes' Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series and am already 150+ pages into The Blood Knight, which is book 3.  As I suspected, Robert turned out to be the titular Charnel Prince, even though he didn't make an appearance until quite late in the novel.  For a few hundred pages I was getting a serious Arya vibe from Anne's plotline: she fled to a dusty, foreign land, forced to work as a scullery maid (or equivalent) and, having had her assassination studies cut short, I was half-expecting her to pick them up again with a local purveyor of poison and daggers, but it was not to be.  

There were a few jolts to the plotting in book 2, including Alys Berrye, a much maligned lover of King William, who turned out to be an assassin, and, for a while at least, provided comfort and companionship for  Muriele, and the Briar King, who, it seems, is not such a bad guy after all.  There was also a fascinating woman, Brinna, who has a ship full of sailors at her behest and who rescued Sir Neil from a watery grave, and who I hope returns to the main thread in some form.  The most affecting person I met was a composer named Leoff, who is responsible for one of the most moving, compassionate acts in the series, which I will not go into here: I refuse to spoil it, so rich and nuanced it was.  I love Leoff.

It's starting to feel a little like Keyes has only one story to tell and it starts here - book 1, and ends here - book 4, which does tend to make the drama a bit flat.  There is tension as characters are thwarted from getting where they need to be, but it looks like the only story that matters is that of Anne, and everyone else's story will end when hers does, and she's the Queen so there.  I tend to think that drama comes not only from preventing characters from getting what they want, but also by having smaller, shorter stories that overlap the main story and end at different points along the timeline, in the same way that slate tiles overlap each other: only a few of them touch the sides of the roof but together they make it stronger by the way they connect.  (Hood!  That's an unwieldy metaphor.  Let's forget I wrote it, yeah?)  

Anyway, I wish for a bit more complexity in the plotting but things are proceeding apace, and I've met a number of well drawn characters who engaged me and drew out my understanding and compassion.  I'm already burning through book 3 and am hopeful that Mr. Keyes can keep his plate spinning in the air for another book and a half.

(Books 3 & 4 are The Blood Knight and The Born Queen.  You don't need six kinds of book learning to figure out that The Born Queen will turn out to be Anne, but who is the Blood Knight?  Sir Neil, perhaps?  I wonder, does his heart, already so battered and brittle, finally break, turning him away from the light toward shadowy pursuits?  I'm still waiting for a dark turn in this series, something to remind us what it means to sacrifice or to lose someone important to us, and I feel like books need something like that for them to achieve true greatness.  I'll write about this more when I'm done with book 3 but I'm starting to feel like the characters are shuttling back and forth over the same patch of narrative they trod in book 1 (and the same geography) and, while I'm still very much enjoying the story, I find myself waiting for Keyes to do something bold, something daring with his plot.)


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Winter Is Coming

HBO have posted a brief teaser for the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Game Of Thrones.  Not much to see except some brief flashes of action and a tracking shot through a wood but the still of Sean Bean as Eddard Stark looks about right:

I'm cautiously excited about this show, but I worry that a) George has yet to finish the sequence (although maybe HBO knows something no one else does), and b) Expensive HBO shows don't always get to finish properly (Deadwood, Rome).

However, I'm so thrilled to see adult, mature fantasy being given wider exposure.  The more the genre comes into the mainstream the more people will be inspired to write and read it.

Winter is coming.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Malazan Ascendancy

Jay Tomio, who is (I think) one of the admins over at Fantasy Bookspot (which is now part of BSCreview) has begun a blog in which will be recorded their re-reading of The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Tomio is doing a chapter by chapter re-read and making notes on chronology and character and whatever else they find interesting.  The blog is here: Malazan Ascendancy and is an interesting read for people who are familiar with the series.  WARNING: spoilers grow on the blog like mushrooms.  If you don't want this magnificent series spoiled for you then stay away.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Stonewielder - Synopsis

PS Publishing has posted a pre-order link for the sooper special limited edition of Ian Cameron Esslemont's upcoming Malazan novel Stonewielder and have included a synopsis:

Greymane believed he'd outrun his past. He now ran a school for swordsmanship in Falar and was looking forward to becoming fat and lazy. With him was Kyle, though the plains youth was not quite so contented with civilian life outside the mercenary company the Crimson Guard. Yet it is not so easy to disappear when you are an ex-Fist of the Malazan Empire, especially one denounced and under a death-sentence from that very Empire.

For there is a new Emperor on the throne of Malaz, and his thoughts turn to the lingering drain of blood and treasure that is the failed invasion of the Korel subcontinent. In the record vaults beneath Unta, the Imperial capital, lie the answers to that disaster. And out of this buried history surfaces the name Stonewielder.

In Korel, Lord Protector Hiam, commander of the Stormguard, faces the potential annihilation of all that he loves as with the blood of his few remaining men and a crumbling stone wall that has seen better days, he labours to stave off the sea-borne Stormriders who would destroy his lands.

Meanwhile, religious war has broken out all across these lands as the local cult of the Blessed Lady, who has stood firm for millennia against the assaults of the Stormriders, seeks to stamp out all rivals; a champion refuses to stand against the alien 'Riders' and takes up arms in rebellion; and a local magistrate innocently pursuing the mystery of a series of murders is brought to the very heart of a far larger and far more terrifying ancient crime that has stained the entire subcontinent. 

Who is the new Emperor on the throne of Malaz?  Of course, if you've not read Return of the Crimson Guard, the previous book in the sequence you maybe wondering what happened to the old Emperor.  If you're balking at the idea of paying $300 (!) for the special edition, the regular version will be out a month later.  I can't wait.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Advice for First Time Fantasists

If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.  ~Toni Morrison
Kate Elliott, author of the Crossroads and the Crown of Stars series, among others, has posted over on her blog some advice for the first time fantasy novelist.
You have to learn how to write like it’s a job while maintaining the ability to nurture the spark of inspiration. That means being able to write through the dark night of the soul because it’s very likely that at some point or another you will walk down those stairs and have to climb back out again with a hundred-ton boulder of doubt on your shoulders.
Kate also has some advice on world building, character, and strategy.  All interesting and useful to read, especially if you're starting out and looking for some guidance.

My big problem is rust.  There's a calcified layer of matter growing on my writing muscles, and this blog is part of a plan to chip it off, shake it off, do whatever I can to get back in the habit of writing again.  I know there's really nothing for it but to sit down and do the work, but I find it useful and inspiring to read how authors manage their machinery.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Malazan Book of the Fallen Pt. 1

[SPOILED: This post contains (very mild) spoilers for The Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson.]

Now these ashes have grown cold, we open the old book.
These oil stained pages recount the tales of the Fallen,
a frayed empire, words without warmth.  The hearth
has ebbed, its gleam and life's sparks are but memories
against dimming eyes - what cast my mind, what hue my
thoughts as I open The Book of the Fallen
and breathe deep the scent of history?
Listen then, to these words carried on that breath.
These tales are the tales of us all, again yet again.
We are history relived and that is all, without end that is all.

So begins Gardens of the Moon, book 1 of Steven Erikson's fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  When I first read the novel, I was confused, here and there, but it has many ingredients I connected with - assassins fighting on the rooftops, a fascinating magic system, compelling characters - and I liked it well enough to move on to Book 2, Deadhouse Gates, which I thought less confusing and more confident.  By the time I was done with Book 3, Memories of Ice, I was convinced of what a special writer Steven Erikson is and moved eagerly on to the other titles in the series.  There are currently nine in total, with the tenth and final installment due in early 2011, and almost all of them clock in at over 1000 pages.  This is a difficult sequence of novels.  They contain hundreds of characters and races and locations, many with names that feel rough and unfamiliar on the tongue: K'Chain Che'Malle, Y'Ghatan, Dessimbelackis, Jaghut Tyrant, Seguleh, Onos T'oolan.  Some characters are named with a noun or adjective - in the manner of soldiers - which best reflects their most prominent feature or flaw: Fiddler, Quick Ben, Mallet, Surly, Whiskeyjack, Hood.  There are multiple viewpoints and story lines and because one of Erikson's themes is the sweep of history and the idea that a viewers lens influences their perspective on an event, he provides alternate versions of the same scenes, offering no clue to us, the readers, which is the truth, because truth itself is subjective.  We are supposed to make up our own minds, hewing towards or away from characters we love or revile, deciding for ourselves if a moment, or a person, is good or bad or indifferent.  The story lines are not linear but move back and forward along the timeline (in fact, Books 2, 3, and 5 all take place at roughly the same time, and the first 300 pages of Book 4 take place several years before them), so every now and again (a few times in each novel) you will find yourself scratching your head, wondering who is this you're reading about and how do they fit into the larger framework?  When that happens it's best to just float along on the surface of the narrative, if you try to swim, you'll drown.  Erikson is still putting pieces on the board in book five, but in the middle of book six, when I first noticed he was starting to draw together the three main plot strands I was gobsmacked.  This is a dense, complicated series, hard to like, at first, filled with thick, sinewy prose and hundreds of characters, but it contains the single most gentle, graceful story arc I've ever found in literature - it is the very passage of experience hardening into lore, the drawing of human moments into history - and if you have the patience for it the rewards are immense.     

Erikson's world is a meritocracy.  His idea is you can't force a woman into the kitchen if she can open a Warren (an alternate dimension which forms the basis of the magic system) and level a city.  And in the books, all the good things he thinks about women flow from that one idea.  In the world of Malaz women (just like men) are more likely to be oppressed and subjugated because of their social class than their gender (one of the major themes of this series is how history happens to all of us, not just the aristocracy who win battles and get to write about it).  Women are soldiers and rulers, high mages and assassins; they get to be noble as well as villainous, they have integrity and humour as well as fear and weakness.  Erikson's female characters have just as much agency as the males, and exhibit the full range of human expression.  They're allowed to be sexual without it being a moral judgement on their character; they get to have meaningful relationships without being punished for them; they get to live rounded and fulfilling lives.  There are even women who serve as Heavies (the front line heavy infantry) in the Malazan army.  It is wonderful.  In book 3, Memories of Ice, we meet a company of soldiers called The Grey Swords for whom 'Sir' is a form of address indicating respect, not gender.  They call each other 'Sir' regardless of whether they are speaking to a man or a woman.  This is the world I want to live in.

The scope of the books is quite broad, encompassing everything from the longterm goals and concerns of an Elder God, to the immediate need a blacksmith has to care for his charge and make his way.  And the world building in this series is remarkable.  Steven Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist which means his world has a crust, a patina of authenticity.  Every race, every culture, no matter how tangental to the plot has its own legacy, its own customs and cadence.  These places and people feel as real to me as if I had travelled there and met them.  Erikson has an enormous capacity for empathy and he extends it in every direction, which makes even his bit part characters memorable.  You'll find ideas in these books - picked up, examined for a few pages, discarded - that other, lesser authors would devote an entire novel to.  For example, he has thought a great deal about what it means to be a demon.  There is a demon named Pearl, present in one book for perhaps only a page and a half, but Erikson forever secured my love for this demon by having it say, upon seeing a particular character in a group of enemies approaching, "See the one who comes now… Do you pity me?"   There are two demons who chose for themselves a couple of cottages to retire to - a very unusual concept, I thought - but the little thatched houses they selected happened to be in the path of the invading Malazan army.  There is a demon summoned by a great mage to fight in a war that it has no stake in.  It was fishing, back in it's dimension; gathering food for it's family, and suddenly found itself fighting for it's life.  These are examples of characters we spend less than two pages with, yet they endure; they stand out because we get to learn something about their natures, something we recognize and understand.  These books are filled with characters doing things we recognize and understand.

The job of soldiering is a subject this series hinges on, and one it spends a lot of time exploring and pondering.  Very early we are introduced to the legendary 9th squad, The Bridgeburners.  (And what a fabulous nickname: invoking both their practical work as sappers and marines, but also the metaphorical function they serve for the Emperor, who, when deploying them, is usually burning bridges diplomatically.)  Led by High Fist Dujek Onearm and Sergeant Whiskeyjack, featuring many characters who go on to have enormous impact on the storyline: the mage, Quick Ben, the assassin, Kalam Mekhar, Corporal Fiddler, Mallet, Smiles and Blend, among many others.  There are numerous ideas being unpacked in the plotlines of these women and men, these healers and marines and sappers and heavies and scouts.  One idea is that an army moves and fights via commerce, and how that flow of coin is generated and maintained across large distances.  Another is the difference, in the field, that a paid,  professional, disciplined soldier can make to a battle.  The most crucial idea, for Erikson, I think, and certainly for the reader, is that, in the end, the political reasons for warfare matter very little to the people doing the actual warring: a soldier is fighting for the person to the left of them and the person to the right of them, and sometimes (although rarely) for the senior officer that asked them to do it.  It's hard to describe the impact the friendships between these soldiers has on the reader, built as they are, over multiple thousands of pages.  By book 7 or 8, Erikson has to do very little to provoke a profound emotional response from the reader, having deposited in us, over the course of many books, the bonding moments, the sharing and fighting moments, of so many sharply drawn, deeply human characters.  

When I read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast I fell in love (as most do) with the character Fuchsia.  So tenderly is she marked, so vulnerable her outline, so raw and stinging and human her aspect.  In the Malazan series I have found more than a dozen characters who are her equal in complexity and affect.  Karsa Orlong, Coltaine, Apsalar, Mappo (and Icarium), Duiker, Felisin, Udinaas, Lady Envy, Barathol, Fiddler, Whiskeyjack, Toc The Younger, Tehol (and Bugg), Fear Sengar, O'nos T'oolan, Anamander Rake, Surly, Cottilion, Emperor Kellanved, Quick Ben, Beak…  As I make this list, more names occur to me.  Moving through this series very much feels like reading a history book: the events are real to me, the characters are people I have commiserated and bled with, friends I have loved and relied upon, and because Erikson opens the sequence by telling us they are all gone, that these are stories of the Fallen, the relationships feel more urgent, more fleeting, and therefore more important.  By starting his series with the quote at the top of this post, Erikson is telling us that in these books, just like life, it's the journey that matters.  And also, as is the case in life, you won't always know what's going on, you'll be confused and need to use your own best judgement to figure out where you are, but at the end of every day, when you settle down to rest, you'll feel privileged to have seen what you did.  And you'll be changed by it.


The Worst Fantasy Book Covers

The wise and benevolent Jeff Green pointed me to this website Good Show Sir which showcases the worst of Fantasy and Sci-Fi cover art.

Who do we thank for the improvement in fantasy cover art?  Is it because the genre has become more mainstream and popular, which means larger art budgets?