Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Great Fictional Characters

I am knee-deep in re-reading two of my favorite books - A Game of Thrones and Anna Karenina - and they set me pondering on fictional characters. Both books have a diverse, enchanting, complicated set of characters. That may be the end of any major similarities between the two (aside from the description “epic”, which applies far more to War and Peace than to Anna Karenina).

But it’s enough. With very few exceptions, the most memorable books are those with memorable characters. Take Dickens, for example. Ask readers who love Dickens what their favorite books are. Eight times out of ten the answer will be either Great Expectations or Bleak House (I prefer the latter). Why? Because Pip, Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham, Esther Summerson, Inspector Bucket, and Mr. Jarndyce are Dickens’ most vibrant (and mutable) characters.

It takes a unique talent to make characters come alive, with all their heroism and eccentricities and faults, their selfishness and doubt and endless crises of faith. It isn’t always a comfortable situation. However much the reader may criticize her actions, or stand on the sideline sadly shaking our heads, we recognize in poor doomed Emma Bovary – who has always a romantic yearning toward what she doesn’t have – a certain part of ourselves. It may be deeply buried, but it’s there.

So I began the futile effort of casting about it my head for my favorite characters. There were almost too many to list, but I was eventually able to pare it down to five or so, with a handful of honorable mentions:

  • Tyrion Lannister, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire

      From the moment we first meet Tyrion, he mesmerizes us. Tyrion is a dwarf (as in the medical condition, not the prototypical fantasy race). He is also a member of the primary family of antagonists in the books, and perhaps the most arrogant of them all. But he sets himself apart from the common run of enemies with his wit, honesty, and charm. A complicated character, we come to discover his doubts, his demons, his struggles with ineptitude, his lechery, and his heroism. But most of all his thirst for life.

  • Constantine Levin, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

      It isn’t easy to select one favorite character from Tolstoy. Pierre (from War & Peace) is comparable to Levin. Anna Karenina and Natasha Rostova are two of the finest female characters in literature. Stephan Oblonsky, Levin’s easygoing and likeable brother-in-law, demands consideration. But Levin manages to carry off, through his internal and external struggles, the prize. His social awkwardness, fierce jealousy, and struggle with faith ring incredibly true, probably not least because he expressed so many of Tolstoy’s own ideas and doubts. In a novel full of sharply-drawn, beautiful characters, Levin stands in as the crowning achievement.

  • Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

      Most female readers are enamored of Mr. Darcy, and yet I think that Elizabeth Bennett is more than a match for him (or any man). It is impossible, while reading Pride and Prejudice not to fall in love with Miss Bennett. Her high ideals and sharp tongue are irrepressible, and I often found myself smiling over her words, whether she was dissembling with the comically dim-witted Mr. Collins or bandying insults with Darcy. One would never grow bored with her around, though one might become overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of her wit.

  • Augustus McCrae, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove

      Gus single-handedly manages to lift Lonesome Dove from an “above-average” novel to a great one. Pull Gus from the book and you have the fascinating story of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. With Gus, you have a complicated saga, complete with humor, wisdom, pathos, and a kind of dusty, gnarled charm. Not only does Gus provide the humor and a large portion of the dialogue, but he provides the kind of counterpoint – the flashlight, so to speak – by which we can better see the depths of the other characters. Woodrow Call, the stoic leader of the Hat Creek outfit and Gus’s friend, would have come off entirely flat without Gus to illuminate him. Great characters can carry a story, and Gus shoulders more than his share of the load.

    Sir John Falstaff William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I & II

      How can any list of great characters be complete without Falstaff? Drunken, lecherous, idle, and yet possessed of such a depth of brilliance that I find new puns and new ways to read his dialogue every time I encounter Henry IV. He is, I think, the only Shakespearean character that can mentally vie with Hamlet, and yet he doesn’t possess the Danish Prince’s nihilism, nor his fascination with death. Falstaff’s fascination is with life. His zest and laughter is contagious to everyone who reads or watches the play.

There are many, many more that made the short list, but didn’t quite find their way onto the final five – Nabokov’s prosy pedophile, Humbert Humbert; Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the wizard Ged from LeGuin’s Earthsea books, etc…

You get the picture.

Now you try! Please, feel free to share your favorite characters in the comments, and just as importantly, share a few words about why they appeal to you.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Review - Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I said in my “Upcoming Reviews” post that I would review Under Heaven and Across the Nightingale Floor together. I lied. I decided Under Heaven deserved its own review. But I’ll get around to Nightingale Floor soon enough.

I hope.

Prior to the last few months, I’ve read little Asian-inspired fantasy. I can’t say exactly why that is. My fascination has always been with European history, myth, and legend. Native American history and mythology has always had a pull on me as well.

But the Far East has primarily stayed off the radar. The history of the Silk Road countries – the Middle-East, China, India, etc… – is fascinating, and has an immense bearing on the European history that I confessed an interest in earlier. The Far East gave Europe spices, weapons, slaves, new modes of thought, Ghengis Khan, and the Black Death, amongst many, many other things. European history would be far different without them.

So what, exactly, does it take to draw me to an Asian fantasy novel? Guy Gavriel Kay, of course.

Kay is one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and moving fantasy novelists writing today. His historically-inspired fantasy novels – particularly Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, & A Song For Arbonne – deserve to be mentioned among the very best fantasy novels ever, in my opinion.

So when I noticed the release of his newest book late last year, Under Heaven, I knew I had to have it, even if it’s subject was outside of my realm of knowledge. Especially since it was outside my realm of knowledge.

Under Heaven lives up to its promise in just about every way. Kay once again captures the essence of a time period, in this case Tang Dynasty China. It is full of snippets of song and poetry, lyrical fragments that echo the beauty of traditional Chinese verse and is full of recurring Far Eastern imagery:

    Why sir, it is true: on the shores of Kuala Nor
    White bones have lain for many years.
    No one has gathered them. The new ghosts
    Are bitter and angry, the old ghosts weep.
    Under the rain and within the circle of mountains
    The air is full of their cries.

The narrative follows the stories of two protagonists: Shen Tai, who has gone to the battleground of Kuala Nor in his grieving time after his father’s death to honor the dead; and his sister Li-Mei, who in Tai’s absence has been given as a bride to the leader of the barbarian Bogü people north of the wall.

For his work honoring and burying the battlefield dead, Tai is given a priceless gift that sets off a chain reaction of political intrigue, with Tai at the center, and he has to fight to merely stay alive. Meanwhile, north of the wall, Li-Mei finds herself in mysterious, unexpected company.

The characters are exactly what one expects out of a Kay novel – fully-rounded, interesting, thoughtful. Kay’s protagonists are a thoughtful bunch, and Shen Tai and Li-Mei are no exception.

And as usual, even the antagonists of the story are shown in their many shades of grey. Self-centered, stubborn, and power-hungry, certainly. But fully human in their desires and goals, as prone to mistakes and miscalculations as anyone else.

I have read elsewhere online that many were not happy with the ending. The novel does change pace during the final third of the novel, as if Kay had far too much story to wrap up within a single volume. The main narrative arc of the novel comes to rest directly before the primary action that the novel has been building toward, and I can see how some might find it anti-climactic.

I, however, struggle to find fault with it. Can you have a novel that takes place directly before the start of WWII? Does it then have to encompass WWII, or can it merely encapsulate its events and the parts the characters played in those events? That is the situation here – wherein the main novel essentially ends prior to a major event – and that event (and our characters’ roles in that event) are wrapped up epilogue-style, as if by a future historian looking back.

While I don’t find fault with the hurried dénouement of Under Heaven, I did find myself wishing to spend more time in Kay’s alternate China. I certainly wouldn’t have been opposed to two books to tell the entire tale.

By turns beautiful and heartbreaking, Under Heaven is not to be missed.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Upcoming Reviews

Due to my general laziness (I may have mentioned this previously), I’m several books behind on my reviewing. I started with the intention of reviewing most of the books I read this year.

So an idea of what you can expect forthcoming in the next few weeks:

  • The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Across the Nightingale Floor by Liam Hearn
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones
  • Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I probably won’t review all of the aforementioned books, depending upon time and desire. Since there are some similarities between them in setting and tone, I will likely do a joint review of Under Heaven and Across the Nightingale Floor. Compare and contrast, that sort of thing. I feel almost bad to do that to Nightingale Floor, since it was a solid first novel, but very few novels compare well with Kay’s best works.

Currently Reading:

  • The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (audio).

The Rothfuss book will be joining the list of “To Be Reviewed” shortly. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Into a Dark Wood - Reviewing Robert Holdstock

 I stumbled across a recent (and excellent) review / overview of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood” cycle over at The Green Man Review, and it got me to thinking about the books.

If you’ve never read them, these books are some of the most mind-blowing, original, puzzling, and under-appreciated novels in the fantasy genre. And they’re nearly impossible to explain. They’re “you had to be there” novels, because nothing I say can clearly capture, or even loosely capture, the essence of Holdstock’s novels.

Ryhope Wood is a small tract of forest in Herefordshire, England. It’s approximately three miles across. You could ride around it entirely in a few hours. But inside, once you breach its outer defenses, it is both timeless and nearly endless. You could travel for lifetimes without reaching the far side.

What Holdstock does in these novels is capture that most difficult thing in all of writing to capture. Magic. I mean real magic. Not fireballs and unicorns and all the other stuff genericized by the larger part of the fantasy genre as “magic”. I’m talking real bone and sinew magic. Echoes in the blood magic. That fleeting feeling that momentarily comes over you when you hear a snatch of music, or smell a campfire, or feel a sudden kinship – however briefly – with your older, deeper self. The self that still remembers cold nights huddled over smoldering fires in the primeval forest. The self that remembers the smell of animal-skin clothing and the taste of rare boar meat.

These books won’t appeal to everyone. They are difficult. Opaque. Unlike most fantasy novels, the reader never fully understands the rules of the wood. As soon as something starts to become clear, we realize we are walking on quicksand and must move aside and reconsider things. Quickly. If you think you are aware of where one of the novels is heading, there is a good chance that you are dead wrong.

The books venture into the labyrinth of the subconscious, the hidden parts of our mind that we can’t directly access but are there nonetheless, living fragments of our latent human instincts, remnants of our “survival of the fittest” past when each day was a struggle to survive. As such, the labyrinth is the recurring theme of the books. The mind and the forest are reflections of one another, labyrinths, and each character travels in toward the dark, unmapped center in search of the self.

Is there really a collective subconscious? I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. And I’m certain psychologists couldn’t agree on an answer either. But reading these novels, it certainly feels true. And for those with a background or an interest in mythology and mythological symbolism, these books are a treasure-trove.

These books aren’t without their faults. They are unevenly paced. Their strangeness is sometime off-putting, keeping the reader at arm’s length. Since they operate on a different set of rules, we don’t often clearly understand the characters’ motivations, and it causes us to mentally question the decisions they make.
These are quibbles, really, in the greater scope of things. Because these are great, great books. If you are a reader of fantasy literature and you haven’t read any of the Ryhope novels, you are missing out on one of the truly great series of this (or any other) genre. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Oh, and start with Mythago Wood. It’s the right way to introduce yourself to Ryhope.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Laziness and other Virtues

I’m terribly overdue for a few new posts. I’ve been on silent mode. Mute.

Why, you ask?

It’s complicated. Incredibly, densely complicated. Remember theoretical physics? Complicated like that.

I’m lying, of course. I never took theoretical physics. And if I had, well…I suppose it’s probably best for my self-confidence that I didn’t.

I haven’t posted because…wait for it…I’m lazy. This is therapeutic, right? Admission is the first step on the road to recovery.

I’ve got a long streak of laziness that creeps past my blogging (or anti-blogging as it might be called) activities and into my everyday life. I’m working to conquer it. I’m just not working very hard. That’s my only pun, I promise.

This is the bane of my writing life (and also my home- and yard-care regimen, according to mine own dear wife). But, you see, conquering my reluctance to actually sit down and write is the very reason I started this blog. I wanted to cultivate the habit of writing. Every. Single. Day.

Even when it’s hard.

Even when I’m tired, or lacking confidence, or distracted, or when I don’t have a single idea what to write.

That last point was the blog’s intention. Random thoughts. Spew out my ideas on music, or baseball, or family, or a recent book I’ve read. I’ve got plenty of them rolling around up there in my cluttered, disorganized mess of a mind. It’s about initiating a habit to sit down and allow words to flow onto paper (or screen).

Because I’ll be honest. I’m not the world’s greatest self-motivator. I’m not a Type A personality. My attention span is approximately five seconds, give or take four. It’s a miracle anything gets done.

But it does. Work progresses. I’ve completed a couple of stories recently, and began another that has outgrown its initial idea. I think there’s a novel there. A damn good, original novel. If I can get it out. It’s going to be fun to write.

My current novel is stalled, however. Twenty-two chapters in, somewhere around the 2/3 point. This is (to put it mildly) frustrating. Not overwhelmingly frustrating. I am not contemplating a belly flop from a high bridge.


It is damaging to my fragile self-motivation because now – oh now – I have to go back and try to fix it. I wrote this far without a script, without any more than a vague plan for an ending. And now that things are coming to head, I don’t have confidence in the direction it has taken. It seems contrived, and a bit stale.

I have no intention of letting it die, but it’s clear to me now that substantial portions of it are going to need to be reconsidered and rewritten. Frankly put, it’s a mess, and it threatens to undermine my daily resolve.

So, two things.

One, back to the blog. Fingers on the keyboard. Thoughts on the page. Habit.

Two, outline.

I’m afraid that my pre-planning is a disaster. I wrote myself into a corner because I didn’t plan enough in advance. I let the plot flow with minimal forethought for where the story was going. Sometimes these things work themselves out. In short fiction, they usually do. Or, at least, they’re easy to fix. This novel, on the other hand, is like a river that’s come over its banks. And I failed to put up any levees. Time, I suppose, to get out the squeegee and the wet/dry vac and try to put things back in order.

My goal is to spend more time on set-up. It’s a fine line to walk, because outlined scenes are simply not the way I write. I like to allow scenes to proceed naturally from the characters and situation. Outlined scenes so often seem wooden and lifeless, like a scene from a daytime soap. Characters can surprise you. They grow. They change. And, occasionally, they take you places you hadn’t planned or intended to go.

When it happens, and it works, it’s wonderful. When it doesn’t, you end up with the mess I have now. So it’s become abundantly clear that I need to set a clearer target for my stories, all while staying the hell out of the characters’ way.

Sounds complicated. But considerably less complicated than theoretical physics. That’s something, at least. I’ll let you all know how it goes.

And, I'll leave you with a pretty picture. You're welcome.

Monday, April 18, 2011

...On Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite novelists, occupying a place at the top of my list with Tolstoy and Tolkien and very few others. There, I’ve said it. I enjoy Thomas Hardy and his peculiar brand of pessimism.

Having admitted Hardy is among my favorite novelists, I’ll admit something else. I’ve only recently read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I can’t say why it is that I’ve waited so long to get around to reading what many consider to be Hardy’s masterpiece, except to say that Hardy isn’t someone whose entire oeuvre you swallow whole. He needs to be digested in bits and pieces – for the reader’s sanity, at least.

It also reminds me of an essay by the very funny and acute Nick Hornby, who wrote in response to his first (late) reading of David Copperfield (Dickens is Hornby’s favorite writer):

    “Even the snootiest critic/publisher/whatever must presumably accept that we must all, at some point, read a book for the first time. I know that the only thing brainy people do with their lives is reread great works of fiction, but surely even James Wood and Harold Bloom read before they reread? (Maybe not. Maybe they've only ever reread, and that's what separates them from us. Hats off to them.)”

Hardy’s novels, however, test the very reasons that we read. Why do we read? To discover? To explore? Escape? Learn?

Few people, whatever their reasons, read specifically to be depressed. Unless a novel is really spectacular in other ways, if it depresses me I will eventually put it aside and probably not return to it. Crime & Punishment was that way for me. In spite of an interesting plot, halfway through I found that I dreaded picking it up again. A few of Faulkner’s novels have affected me this way - Sanctuary, to name just one.

Hardy doesn’t depress me. His novels plummet unerringly toward the tragic. Poor Tess Durbyfield is doomed. Nearly everyone who picks up this novel understands that before reading the first line. Most of Hardy’s novels work in similar fashion – tragic character flaws bring about a downfall; circumstances conspire against happiness; selfish (and even well-meaning) secondary characters contribute to the effect.

I think it is a mistake to think, however, that all this adds up to a sum total of gloom. It does not. Aside from one particular instance in Jude the Obscure, gloom often suffuses the books but never dominates them. Hardy was pessimistic about human nature. He was also well aware of nature’s ambiguous attitude toward humanity. Nature the sheltering hand, the ever-nurturing mother, does not exist in Hardy. Nature is nature – beautiful and treacherous and altogether enigmatic.

This ambiguity and general pessimism does not supersede beauty, which you find literally everywhere in Hardy’s novels and stories. Beautiful people, magical moments, and – more than anything – an incredibly vivid and breathtaking landscape, are ever-present.

Hardy’s prose is poetic in the extreme, and more visual than just about any other writer I can think of. That is something the three novelists I mentioned in the opening have in common. Hardy, Tolstoy, and Tolkien all create some of the most vivid scenes and landscapes imaginable.

One thing that great art does is allow us to see things more clearly than we could with our own eyes. Hardy’s “Wessex” is that way. Everything down to the smells, colors, and sounds of that country are indelibly impressed upon the mind, more so that if we had walked that country ourselves. Consider this passage, describing Tess and Angel’s rambles into the morning pastures around Talbothay’s dairy:

    Or perhaps the summer fog was more general, and the meadows lay like a white sea, out of which the scattered trees rose like dangerous rocks. Birds would soar through it into the upper radiance, and hang on the wind sunning themselves, or alight on the wet rails subdividing the mead, which shone like glass rods. Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls. When the day grew quite strong and commonplace these dried off her; moreover, Tess then lost her strange and ethereal beauty; her teeth, lips, and eyes scintillated in the sunbeams and she was again the dazzlingly fair dairymaid only, who had to hold her own against the other women of the world. (136-137)

Hardy’s novels (and short stories) are absolutely brimming with scenes like this, which makes the reader long to walk into the story however poorly things are bound to turn out.

I consider myself an Anglophile with a particular love of the English countryside – thatched cottages, rolling English hills, stone fences, a thousand years of history at every turn. For someone with an interest in that sort of thing, Hardy supersedes even the charm of Dickens or Austen, who are less pastoral in their approach.

That is not to say that Hardy’s novels are not flawed, in some respects. The overarching doom of the protagonists seems almost contrived rather than naturally-occurring. There are so many little moments of hope and possibility for these characters, and yet always there is that chance meeting that destroys all, the one comment left unsaid. Hardy is often keen to point these moments out with comments like – “If she only would have appealed to --” Of course she does not, the road to happiness goes untaken, the fate is unfortunately sealed.

Quibbles, really. Because like the best travels, the point of Thomas Hardy’s writings is the journey, not the destination.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review - Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds is Ian Tregillis’ first novel, though a reader would never guess that. It is a dark, troubling, ambitious alternate history retelling of World War II. As alternate histories go, this era is perhaps more commonplace than any other. It is the fulcrum of modern history, and as such gets appropriate attention. And those greedy Germans make for perfect villains.

To his credit, Tregillis finds a way to stake an original claim on this period of history. His Germans a suitably villainous, though not the complete foil that so often appear. The English come off as at least as shifty and dislikable, since they are willing to do just about anything – pay any price – to avoid being taken by the Germans.

In this WWII, the Germans have scientifically-engineered a limited number of individuals with incredible talents – one individual is able to create (and clothe himself) in fire. A second can make himself essentially a ghost for limited periods of time with the ability to walk through walls and allow bullets to pass through him. The process by which this set of characters is created is left shadowy throughout, though we are led to know that the procedure is incredibly cruel.

By contrast, the English have discovered a way to fend off the almost-unstoppable German surge. Magic. A small subgroup of Englishmen has the ability to negotiate with a race of cosmic godlike creatures. This sounds strange, but it works within the construct of the story.

The story’s villain – one thinks, though we’re never entirely certain – is Gretel, one of the re-engineered Germans whose “gift” or superpower is an ability to see the future. She is an enigmatic character whose motives are always in doubt, and whose foreknowledge plays an intricate role in the unfolding of the plot. She is also an apparent sociopath with little or no concern for other lives, and often a blatant disregard for them.

The protagonists are two Brits; Raybould Marsh, a secret agent, and William Beauclerk, a friend of Marsh and a noble schooled in the secret arts of a warlock. When Marsh discovers the Germans’ secret weapons, he turns to his old friend as a way to counter the threat.

The British magic is, in its way, reminiscent of the magic in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, though I don’t think it this novel ever achieves either the believability or potency of Clarke’s alternate England. Tregillis’ magic exacts a terrifying cost, though the ground rules for its use and the reasons for that cost are not well explained.

Marsh and Beauclerk, as protagonists, I found rather lacking. They certainly change throughout the novel – as anyone who endures their suffering would – but at no point do they truly strike me as human characters. Perhaps it is because the reader does so much skipping around through the various characters’ heads, but their transformation and decision-making rationale throughout the novel never seems fluid or well-defined.

Marsh, as the primary protagonist, should be understandable. Accessible to the reader. And somehow he never is. His grief, his regret, his pain. They are implied, but seldom felt. Beauclerk, at least, translates as a troubled and pain-ridden character, haunted by the things he’s done. Even by the novel’s end, Marsh is still an alien subject for me, and I’m left with only a vague distaste and repulsion.

That is the novel’s primary weakness.

For me, the most compelling of the novel’s characters was Klaus, one of the gifted superhuman Germans whose conscience and understanding slowly emerges throughout the course of the novel. He is the most realistically-drawn, the most relatable, of the novel’s characters. Gretel – the strange, sociopathic “precog” – is Klaus’s sister, and yet we realize that he understands her no better than we do. Perhaps less so.

Some aspects of the real WWII are notably missing, though whether this is through omission or Tregillis' alternative vision is unclear. Though we are constrained by viewpoints, the Final Solution to the Jewish Question – the pogroms and concentration camps and cattle-trains full of Jews – is scarcely mentioned. The Russian front – and how the Red Army succeeds against the invading Reich – is left hazy. Some answers are given, but they remain unsatisfactory. It remains to be seen why, if the war in the east was going so poorly, the Nazis did not employ their team of superhuman soldiers on that front. It seems likely that the Reich would use every weapon at its disposal to turn the tide of a war that had begun to go against them.

These are legitimate problems with the novel. Its strengths, however, are many. The prose is fluid and clear, at times excellent. The settings are vividly drawn and believable. Tregillis has done his research, and that gives this fantastic premise the ring of believability.

We are tragically drawn into the pain and loss of the war and the gut-wrenching decisions involved. Given a decision between two evils, what choice do you make? What price is too much? We are drawn back to Churchill’s dictum: Never, never, never, never give up. Sounds like great advice, in hindsight. What does that mean, when we examine it in more detail? When we put a human face, a human cost, on the balance?

This novel raises that question, but we are left to draw our own conclusions. As the first novel in a trio, perhaps the author’s stance will become clearer in later books. We are left instead with a pessimistic vacuum at the end of this novel, an unsettling ending that leaves an acrid flavor in the mouth, as the novel’s title suggests. There is very little human joy, little thought of redemption remaining. Only an echo of Babies. Monsters. caroming through my brain.

All the same, this is a novel worth reading. I’m afraid I haven’t done a suitable job of selling that conclusion, but it is the truth. I am interested in knowing where the next two novels are going, and I will be hitching along for the ride.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review - The Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle

I finished this book a few weeks back but I’m just now getting around to the full review. I'll give the disclaimer that this was a re-read, not my first experience with the novel.

Peter Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song is not a new book. Far from it. It was initially published in 1993. I read it years ago and it has remained one of my favorite fantasy novels.

When my turn arrived to suggest a book for my fantasy reading group (a weighty responsibility) I considered and sorted through twenty-odd novels before settling, not without great trepidation, on The Innkeeper’s Song.

The problem with suggesting a favorite novel read in the past is that they often fail to measure up to your initial impression. Few novels that I read ten years ago or more retain the same charm they had upon their initial reading. We all grow more critical - more jaded in some ways - as we age.

Thankfully, this was not the issue with this novel. In fact, I found that it had grown upon me since my last reading. Beagle is a masterful stylist. I’d recently rediscovered much of Beagle’s short fiction due to an anthology titled Mirror Kingdoms released last year by Subterranean Press. So the high quality of the writing was no surprise to me. Full of wonderful, unexpected metaphors and a subtlety that relies upon the intelligent reader to make connections.

    Lilies, corpses, ghosts – if these are white, then there must be another word for that woman’s skin. It seemed to me, gaping in the road, that her color was the color of something inside her, some bright, fierce life thumping and burning away with no thought at all for her body, no care or pity for it at all.

His narrative style jumps from character to character, allowing us to see each individual chapter from a different character's viewpoint – a style that George RR Martin adopts in his Song of Ice & Fire series of books. Some points-of-view work better than others. The Fox – a shapeshifter – is marvelous throughout, one of my favorite characters in all of fantasy literature.

    Pigeons. Lift up my nose, no ceiling, no rafters between us. Close my eyes and see rumblysoft pigeon dark, juicy wing-beats filling the air with dust and grain, fluffy little under-feathers drift down. Much talking, much shifty-shuffly on their nests, restless with me. Close their pretty eyes like drops of blood, they see me, too.

The plot is not as strong as the prose itself. There is one long stretch of subplot involving two characters that is entirely unnecessary to the novel as a whole, other than to buy time and create some sort of quest adventure. It reminds me of a similar piece of unnecessary subplot in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

Some characters – most notably Tikat – come across a bit flat, or at least fail to entirely capture the reader’s imagination. Tikat is the first character we meet in the novel and it is assumed that he will be the primary protagonist. That is not the case. He is the least fleshed-out of the characters and the reader never really identifies with his motivation.

All that said, the novel overcomes its shortcomings so incredibly well because of Beagle’s skill with language. Chapters are given in first-person POV. Beagle flows effortlessly in and out of stream-of-consciousness. This gives the narrative a breathless, headlong speed – like a train rolling downhill – when it’s needed. In places, a fierce musicality. At other times the tone is slower, more reflective.

There were a number of instances I found myself - alone in my reading chair - whispering the words aloud to myself as if I were chanting a song. The song of the Fox, of the stable-boy Rosseth who is so charmingly and realistically drawn. The song of Lal-Alone, of Nyateneri and the Man Who Laughs. The innkeeper's song. My own.

I was asked several times during the course of the group discussion why I’d chosen that particular book. My answer was simple. Some books you love because they’re wonderful, magical, exciting, poetic, even all of the above. Some books you simply wish you’d written. This is one of those, for me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Early February Writing Update

Hmm. I realized that I stated in my first post that this blog was going to be primarily about my writing. One month in…nothing. So, time for an update I suppose.

Current submission log = four stories. Three spec fiction stories and one literary story out right now. I’m feeling cautiously confident. One story, “Deerslayer” (not, incidentally, by James Fenimore Cooper, yuk), has been out to a major magazine for about sixty days. I received an email about twenty days in that my story had been shortlisted and sent forward to the primary fiction editor, who happens to be a well-known and fabulous writer. So, fingers still crossed on that one.

I like to think with each day that passes “Deerslayer” has survived another round of cullings. Probably not true, but I amuse myself in this way. It may be that upon receiving the manuscript the aforementioned editor immediately burned and spread its ashes on the four winds while cackling maniacally. It’s a distinct possibility (and a great image). But one I try not to dwell on.

My output for January? Meh. Two new short stories, the second of which bled into the first couple days of February. They are two stories I’m very happy with, however. They surprised me. Almost wrote themselves, once I started the snowball rolling. I love it when that happens, especially when things don’t go the way I plan them. I love to be surprised.

The first of them is making the rounds of the magazines. The second is “in utero” so to speak, receiving some first-reader feedback and undergoing preliminary edits. I’ve already made some major upgrades. Hopefully it will be ready for submission later this week.

The novel? Slow. I finished a few chapters during January. But it’s been hard-going, primarily because I want to have a better idea where things are going before I move too far ahead. When a short story takes you to unexpected places, its easy to adapt. When a novel does…major reconfiguration. There are many threads that have to knot together into a coherent whole. But I’m getting there. Just don’t wait up for me.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Dilemma

First, the good news. My lovely wife bought me a new pair of barrister bookcases for the den as an early anniversary present.

On the downside of this is the fact that while I’m always in need of new bookcases, I’m officially out of available space for them without some major redesigning of the room. I was able to shift a bunch of stuff around and squeeze one of them in along the wall. The other…? No clue. I don’t have enough books to fill the second yet anyway, so I’ll put that problem off into the indeterminate future.

As of right now, everything is in disarray as I pull books out of storage and rearrange them all again. It’s a time-wasting and comical event that occurs every time a new bookcase arrives. There's a method to my organization, after all.

I'm beginning to think the haphazard, stick-em-where-they-fit approach might be better. Two days and many hours later, the new bookshelf has finally been filled.

Now I just need to figure out how to turn the room into Mary Poppins’ satchel. Or perhaps the Weasley’s tent. Now that would be an item worth owning. If anybody knows the spell for that, let me know.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is probably the most lauded and widely-respected speculative fiction writer alive, and for good reason. I’ve been working my slow way through her various novels and short stories over the past several years, and she continues to surprise and delight.

Her Earthsea books are among my favorite fantasy novels. Few other novels deserve to be in the discussion. Her short fiction is full of little gems that I come back to over and over – “The Poacher”; “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”.

Her novels disdain the plot-driven mechanisms so typical to speculative fiction. They are powered not by great battles or endless action, but by the hero's or heroine's internal journey, a journey toward self-discovery. That is not to say her novels are devoid of action - they're not - but that they do not depend upon it. Her characters go where they go and do what they do based upon their internal logic. They are not dragged along like marionettes without wills.

I’ve just completed Lavinia, her novelized account of Vergil’s Aeneid, told from the perspective of Aeneas’ Latin wife of that name. Lavinia is an afterthought in the great poem, a mention in passing at the end of the epic. Le Guin felt the need to expand on Lavinia’s role, to give her the voice she was denied.

Le Guin’s writing is always spare, but perhaps even more so in this book. That is not to say that it does not have splendor. One doesn’t need an ornate writing style to convey poetry. The simplicity just makes it appear effortless.

Of all the great writing qualities that Le Guin possesses, the most evident is her restraint. It is the gulfs of silence, the meaningful glances, the interior dialogue that suggest such emotion and humanity.

Her characters struggle against both internal and external forces, and Lavinia is no exception. She is wonderfully self-aware as a character. She tells us in the very first chapter:

    No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet’s idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, emotions I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.

So her story begins. As a King’s daughter in a primitive culture, she is pawned out to suitors, none of whom she intends to marry. She visits the sacred wood of her people to seek guidance from her ancestors. Instead, she meets Vergil.

He is nothing but spirit there, a dream. He tells Lavinia the story of Aeneas as he has seen it. His arrival, the war that will come, their marriage. The Aeneid has already been written, in that far-off future. Having now met Lavinia, Virgil is morose, disillusioned about his great work – “…what I thought I knew of you – what little I thought of at all – was stupid, conventional, unimagined. I thought you were a blonde!...I will tell them to burn it.”

Le Guin’s gift is an incredible insight into humanity, particularly of her female characters. Lavinia is a worthy successor to Tenar, the heroine of Earthsea. Le Guin captures the complexities, the struggle between the domestic and the sacred, the everyday and the timeless.

    “Who was my true love, then, the hero or the poet? I don’t mean which of them loved me more; neither of them loved me long. Just sufficiently. Enough. My question is which of them did I more truly love? And I cannot answer it.”

Ursula Le Guin gives us speculative fiction writers something to aspire to, something to look upon and say – aha! So that’s how it’s done! We can hope she continues to churn out her timeless writings for many years to come.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Deliveries 1-10

The UPS stork arrived with the post-Christmas haul from my Barnes & Noble gift cards. I’ve been looking forward to several of these for a while, even though they’ll probably sit on the shelf for a few months until I get around to them.

Two trade paperbacks by Catherynne M. Valente:

  • The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden

  • The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin & Spice

And two hardcovers:

  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar

The bad news is that Under Heaven will probably need to be returned. It’s a little banged up, and for some odd reason the text on the back of the book jacket is smeared.

A new(ish) Kay novel is always cause for celebration, and it has gotten rave reviews just about everywhere I’ve looked.

Enchanted Hunters has been on my radar for a year or so, since I read a review by AS Byatt in The Guardian. Tatar is a Harvard University professor, and the book is a study of children’s stories, of what children want and need from stories, and how what they take away from those stories is not always what adults (parents) imagine it to be. The risqué title is taken from the name of the hotel in Lolita where Humbert Humbert first debauches his nymphette (or, as Humbert says, “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury…I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.”)

The central argument of the book seems to be that the mind of a child feeds on a mix of beauty and horror. Nothing exceptionally new there, though I think she wants to show that the darker sides of fairy tales and children’s literature – those things that we so often try to sanitize for children – are the very things that give the stories their power. But I’ll withhold further comment until after I’ve read more than the jacket blurb.

The two books by Catherynne M. Valente have also been on my “want” list for a while. The first of the two, In the Night Garden was a 2007 World Fantasy Award nominee and the pair won the 2008 Mythopoeic Award. I’ve not previously read any of Valente’s novels, but I have experienced (yes, that’s the right word) some of her short fiction in Clarkesworld Magazine.

Her prose is beautifully surreal. Dreamlike. I strongly recommend you check out her short story, available online, “Urchins, While Swimming”. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to these.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Muskrat Ramble

My 2nd grade daughter came home from school Friday talking about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. I usually take it upon myself to expand on what she learns at school because I like to hear myself talk and I enjoy torturing my children (metaphorically, of course).

I filled her in (briefly) on slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and lynchings, the KKK and Mississippi Burning (incidentally one of my favorite movies). I read a couple of Langston Hughes poems, while her attention slowly drifted.

We concluded by listening to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, a song she was already familiar with but had never really listened to. Like most children, she has a fascination with the morbid, so once I told her it was about a hanging she was all ears. That song has always given me the chills.

Overall, a winning and informative afternoon. I fulfilled the role of fatherly teacher with aplomb. Even my three-year-old jumped into the conversation when it turned to crows eating dead bodies (a weighty and important subject to all three-year-olds.)

I probably scarred them both.

The offshoot of all this is that I rediscovered some of the great jazz CDs in my collection. I haven’t listened to them much in probably a year. I broke out Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Hot Sevens on the way to and from work. Bix Beiderbecke & Miles & Wynton Marsalis on Rhapsody at the workplace. What fabulous music.

I’ve resolved not to let the discs gather dust again this year.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In Defense of The Wheel of Time

I’ll tackle this one since I just finished the 13th(!) tome in the Robert Jordan / Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time series, The Towers of Midnight, and its all so fresh in my mind.  These are books that linger with you, whose characters and little mysteries bustle around in your brain for weeks.

It’s hard to believe that I started these books oh, fourteen years and three million words ago. Ninety-one hundred (hardcover) pages of a single, continuous narrative. It’s ludicrous. And a bit overwhelming. The Lord of the Rings times seven.

Each time, during the lull between books, I almost begin to believe all the negative buzz. How it drags on and on, how inferior it is to other books of its kind, how derivative it is.

Then a fresh copy is delivered into my hands. And I’m whisked away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Wheel of Time has its faults. Many, many of them. I’m not (and never have been) blind to those. Some of the characters rub on you. There’s a definitive pattern to each book, a slow (at times glacial) buildup toward a confrontation between the series’ primary protagonist and one of the “Forsaken” - the chosen generals of the Dark One. Of the thirteen books, at least nine of them finish in this fashion.

To boot, you have that customary fantasy epic dichotomy of “good” and “evil”. The Creator and the Dark One. Doesn’t sound so unique, eh? It’s Paradise Lost meets The Lord of the Rings. The good are never wholly good, but they are mostly good. And the evil are almost always despicable, heartless characters (though often given human motive).

There is the typical fantasy "cannon fodder". Trollocs are nothing so much as orcs in disguise. The Forsaken? Ringwraiths. The Dark One? I won't even go there.

And the repetition!! I think it almost goes without saying that when you travel with the same cast of characters through 9000 pages, things will be repeated. Nyneave tugs at her braid. Mat curses and rolls his dice – “Blood and bloody ashes!” Perrin just wants to be left alone, he doesn’t want to lead. He’s no bloody lord. Rand hardens himself, argues with the voices in his head. Lews Therin’s refrain of “Ilyena!”

I have occasional problems with the pacing and, in spite of the kudos I have to give Sanderson for the job he is doing in completing the work, I have problems with Sanderson’s heavy-handed use of foreshadowing.

I have issues with the heavily southern Christian mythology of the world. The Creator is far too similar to the Christian God. The protagonists are like conservative backwoods southern farmboys. Rand bloody Al’Thor (the main protagonist) is too damn much of a Christ figure, especially since he’s transformed from "Rand the Grey" to "Rand the White" (not literally, the Gandalf reference is mine).

So what is here worth salvaging? Why dedicate the kind of time and effort required to wade through such a repetitive and oversized monstrosity?

Because it works.

Because for all of the problems, the world is there. It exists in a way that Middle-earth exists, in the way that Gormenghast and Ryhope Wood and The Seven Kingdoms exist. Full of raw hope, intrigue, and emotion. Full of characters we care about, however much they dance on our nerves.

The characters struggle with inner demons. No one in this world is perfect. The wise make mistakes. The heroes slowly crack beneath the strain. But their biggest foes are always themselves.

Talk of The Wheel of Time as derivative all you like. Jordan was brilliantly inventive.

The Aiel are his masterpiece, a fallen warrior culture with a shady past and an intricate, fascinating system of honor.

The Seanchan – however they may resemble a far eastern fighting force – are remarkably detailed. Their culture, their complex system of alliances and politics.

And that doesn’t even touch on the Aes Sedai. Schools for wizards (since that is what they are based on, at least in part) are far from original in fantasy novels. But schools solely for female wizards? And the level of intrigue and political maneuvering that takes place amongst the Aes Sedai is mind boggling. Jordan makes extensive, and effective, use of game theory (at least in its political aspect).

We also get in Jordan (a writer with an extensive military background) the body language of power. Body language plays a larger role in The Wheel of Time than in any single fantasy I can think of. Warders emanate lethal abilities. Aes Sedai give nothing away, but hide all emotion behind a cold mask of utter control. The darting of eyes, the stance of the body, the deadly agility of a stride.

Tel’aran’rhoid? Jordan’s world of dreams? I won’t even get into that. It’s too incredibly wonderful. Jordan sets the bar for dreams.

Jordan is not a great stylist, and Sanderson follows in his footsteps. They are not Patricia McKillip, who writes fantasy with a dreamlike, poetic flair. The writing all but disappears beneath the surface of the story. There is nothing to trip you up, no roots to snag at your boots as you dart past. And that is as it should be. It gives the narrative urgency, like a horse at the gallop. Even when the plot moves ahead at a mere trickle, the writing pulls you along for the ride.

More yet, Jordan thrives with battle scenes. He understands tactics. He knows the exhilaration of the fray, the lust for battle, the fear and dust. He understands how to share that burst of adrenaline with the reader, to transfer it through the page and into the sweaty hands gripping the edges of the book.

I could go on and on, because I think for all its shortcomings The Wheel of Time repays patience and dedication. I’m anxious to see how Sanderson wraps things up with the final book.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with The Wheel of Time.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Welcome 2011

Since I don’t have nearly enough going on already, I decided to start this blog to keep track of all the myriad of oh so important thoughts that go through my head on a daily basis. No, not those thoughts. You aren’t privy to them. (Unless, of course, you can read minds, and if that’s the case you’ve already hit the “Back” button).

My actual intention is to make this something of a chronicle of my writing, even if nobody else really gives a damn. Because I need some place to crow about my accomplishments, weep about rejection, and generally vent about my ineptitude. I’m thinking that if I feel I need to update my one regular reader on the progress of my novel or stories, perhaps that will give me one more whisker of incentive to sit down and actually – you know - write.

See, I’m not exceptionally self-motivated. Even a little. I sit down to write and immediately think of oh, say, two dozen or so things to do. Get up and get some water. A cup of coffee. Some chocolate. Oh yeah, let’s check the stock market. eBay.

Oh, dammit. One hundred words? In six hours? Somebody kill me.

As much as I enjoy writing in the sense that I feel good about it and it gives me a sense of accomplishment, it is frustrating and sadistic to sit down at a keyboard and try to wring stories from your brain.

I'll begin this blog by looking back at 2010, since I need a starting point. I began my unnamed fantasy novel at the end of 2009. And I’m now ~45K words into it. Near the halfway point. Not bad. More importantly, I’m happy with the novel thus far, even if I’m not so thrilled with the pace. So +1. Semi-warm pat on my own back.

Just as importantly (for me anyway, I don’t expect you to give two figs), I dove back into writing short fiction again. I took a break from the novel and pounded out 3 1/2 short stories in November. That’s record pace for me. And, again, I was happy with them. (Is this entry too happy for you? Me too. I promise angst and pain before the end.)

So I immediately sent them soaring along to my favorite magazines. Two weeks later - two rejection letters in the oh so polite and heartless forms. Bang! Bang! Like shooting a quacking, flapping ego from the sky.

So I did what all good writers do. I wept. I gnashed my teeth. I considered suicidal measures (not really, Mom).

And then I sat down and viciously edited those stories (like I should have done to begin with). And sent them on their merry way again.

So I currently have the first two stories out. The first to Apex Magazine (one of the best spec fiction magazines around). The second to the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest (pie in the sky, but fingers crossed).

The third story I mentioned? Don’t ask. It’s still in the corner of the workshop, covered in a dirty old dropcloth so no one can see it. It’s what we call a work-in-progress, which is fancy language for “it didn’t turn out the way I hoped and now I’m awaiting divine inspiration”.

So, that's pretty much what I've got for today. Whew!

I'll try not to make this blog all tediously dry writing stuff in the future. I'll mix in some book reviews, some thoughts on literature and music. Maybe some random, humorous bits of daily life as they happen.

Thanks for checking in on me. I’ll keep you up to date as I meander my foggy way through life.