On Kushiel’s Dart

In my continuing look at other modern fantasy books and authors, I landed on Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (2002). It consistently ranks high in top ten “best fantasy” lists.

From this book I’ve learned:

  • The “inciting incident” should be early in the book.
  • The characters need to struggle early in the book.
  • A beautiful setting isn’t enough to make a good book without the above.
  • (Also, just now I learned that my WP Theme doesn’t do bullets for crap.)

Allow me to explain. Carey’s prose is beautiful. The world of Terre D’Ange, an alternate history version of Renaissance France, is complex, lavish, and exotic. It reminds me a lot of Dune in its … I don’t know … what’s the word? Grandiosity? Splendor? Otherworldliness?

That being said, I’m stopping after chapter 25, page 242 (of 901 — it’s big) for a number of reasons:

I think I’ve got the “flavor” of the book and the author’s style, which, as I said, is beautiful, and something I could never recreate in a million years of trying.

Kushiel’s Dart is not within the realm of fantasy that I prefer. It’s more of an alternate history fantasy, whereas I’m more fond of the kind of fantasy where impossible stuff can happen. I can like alternate history, but not without a compelling plot and characters (see below).

Politics is a major driving force in Kushiel’s Dart, but it is simply too complex for me to keep track of it all. Adding to that, the names are very difficult to keep straight, as they are all French and they all look the same to my uncultured American eyes. (And, reading on a Kindle, it’s impossible to flip to the glossary — somebody needs to solve that problem.)

But mainly, unfortunately, I can’t discern the plot. I don’t know what anyone’s goals or motivations are. For example: Delauney is a mysterious character with a mysterious past, but since he’s also a major character, it would be nice to have some idea of why he has Phedre and Alcuin gathering information for him. Is it for revenge? Personal gain? A daring bid to become king? It’s anybody’s guess. Phedre (the narrator) doesn’t know, so unfortunately I don’t know either. The book unfolds a lot like an autobiography: Phedre telling her life story. Albeit she tells it in a wonderful voice (you know how you can listen to some people talk all day? They have that certain quality of tone or inflection or charisma that is just pleasant to listen to? That’s what the narrator’s voice in this book is like), but still, there’s a frustrating lack of substance. In the first 242 pages, Phedre herself doesn’t seem to have any motivations except to “love as thou wilt.” I suppose that’s a fine life goal, but it lacks a narrative arc. The book is obviously building toward something but I can’t even guess what it might be. (Okay, well, I can guess it will probably be a confrontation.)

The characters also suffer a bit from a lack of flaws or internal struggles that affect the plot. Everyone seems to be in the place they want to be in their life (except Alcuin, but we only see his story tangentially). Nobody seems to be striving to overcome any obstacles — certainly not Phedre, the narrator. She is thusfar just a passive observer of a bunch of inexplicable political machinations by Delauney. It’s as if the “inciting incident” of the hero’s journey hasn’t happened yet and all we’re seeing is backstory. I suppose it has to happen later in the book, but surely it should be somewhere within the first 242 pages? (With my luck, I’m probably stopping right before it happens.)

P.S. Okay let’s just put this out there. If you’re squeamish about sex, you might want to avoid this book. It’s basically a first-person autobiography of a courtesan in Terre D’Ange, a world where instead of the repressive Catholic Church, a polar opposite Church of Elua develops, which teaches us to “love as thou wilt.” Sex is not only celebrated, it’s part of the religion. The narrator is a courtesan with a special gift for, well, enjoying pain. Yeah, like from whips and stuff. It’s explicit, but I didn’t think it was graphic or gratuitous, if that makes any sense. (At least in the first 242 pages — there was plenty of book left to ramp it up.)

Wizard’s First Rule, Part Two

Well, I don’t know how Goodkind did it (which makes it a good topic for study, I guess), but somehow Wizard’s First Rule crawled up under my skin and embedded itself there. It kept getting better and better and in the end, I am shocked to say that I had a hard time putting it down and enjoyed it.

Why? I think because it had a lot of “heart.” The characters won me over. First Kahlan, then I even started rooting for Richard in the end. Though I must admit I thought the final solution was a bit cheesy (spoiler alert: love conquers all). I guess the whole book was cheesy too. It’s basically Romeo and Juliet where the tragic ending is narrowly averted. It’s a fairy tale, with a (spoiler alert) fairy tale ending.

And on the plus side, it has an ending. There’s no need to read the next book (although I put it on my wish list).

Here’s the caveat: The book does take a while to get rolling. I stopped reading around Chapter 18, when Richard and Kahlan enter the Boundary (somewhere around 30% through). At that point, the only interesting question to me was, “what’s the deal with Kahlan?” But it seemed pretty clear that Goodkind was going to drag that out through the whole book, which was getting annoying.

So, thinking I was done, I went to read some book reviews, and they all kept saying how much sex and violence there was in the book. That blew my mind, because for the first 18 chapters, Wizard’s First Rule is about as softball, G-rated, goody-twoshoes as you can get (like I said, it’s a fairy tale!). So, if only to see what all the fuss was about, I kept reading (actually, er, skimming).

The first instance of “graphic violence” occurs in Chapter 21, p. 210. It’s not really that bad. It’s more of the cartoonish, over-the-top sort of violence you see in, for example, Kill Bill. It almost makes you want to laugh more than cringe. He takes a single moment in time, ratchets up the film speed so it’s in super slow motion, and describes everything in detail. It was a fairly important moment, so I didn’t have a problem with it.

Then the unthinkable happened. Somewhere within Chapters 25 through 28 (the trials and tribulations with the Mud People) is when I first thought to myself, “wow, I think I kind of like this book.” (This is also where the first “sex stuff” happens, which was also PG-13 at worst.) It was a suspenseful time in the book, and one thing Goodkind can do is build suspense. And looking back at it now, I realize it was also the area where the writing switched from Richard’s POV to Kahlan’s POV, which could well have had a lot to do with it. IMO, Kahlan is a way more compelling character than Richard.

Starting in Chapter 29, we are introduced to a young orphan girl named Rachel, who is an adorable kid who could melt the heart of a sociopathic serial killer. She’s a side character on an almost entirely self-contained side adventure. Again, it was pretty suspenseful because I was completely sure that there was no way this sweet, innocent little child would be able to escape the evil clutches of the Bad Queen. But (spoiler alert) being a fairy tale and all, she did.

The infamous “torture porn” (a term used to describe movies like Saw) starts in chapter 41. But instead of being grisly and disturbing like I was led to believe, it was actually one of the most emotionally compelling parts of the book. I think that was the first time I started caring about Richard, and my hat is off to Goodkind for somehow making us genuinely care about his Mord-Sith captor Denna (spoiler alert: Richard gets captured).

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t think it was all that excessively graphic. If your idea of epic fantasy ends at Lord of the Rings, then yeah it would probably be pretty shocking. But it could have been much, much worse… a lot of really graphic details were missing. There were “hints” but almost nothing really shown “on screen.” It was more psychological torture in a way; there was a lot of dialog.

And in defense of the length of it: I think it was necessary to effectively build Denna as a two-dimensional character, and Richard’s relationship with her. One could argue whether a side character needed that level of characterization, I suppose, but it would have been a pretty boring part of the book otherwise.

On Wizard’s First Rule

In catching up on the fantasy genre, I wanted to read popular books that were considered good, and popular books that were considered bad. So now I’m reading Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind, the first in the Sword of Truth series, which for some reason is often seen as the “rival” to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Goodkind is a very devisive writer. People seem to either love him or hate him, which I suppose, is exactly the reception that Robert Jordan gets. Usually people like one or the other, but rarely both.

I have to admit that I started Wizard’s First Rule expecting it to be bad. And, to be honest, the first 18 chapters supported this preconception. But if you make it to chapter 19, the book suddenly becomes pretty compelling. At that point, Goodkind starts building suspense very well, and he is able to communicate a lot of emotional resonance.

For my purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether the book is good or bad. As an aspiring writer trying to learn from established writers, I’m just analyzing the writing, character, setting, and plot. Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Goodkind so far.

Realism is important to an adult audience. I want to be a writer that pays at least some attention to details. Goodkind has said Sword of Truth isn’t really in the fantasy genre, and now I think I understand why. It’s really more of a fairy tale or soap opera than a typical epic fantasy. But I think adult fantasy audiences today require a little more realism. Not necessarily a historical fiction level of realism, but enough to let the reader know that the author has at least given some thought to how a person with medieval technology might light a candle in their tent at night while it’s raining too much to build a fire (see Wizard’s First Rule Chapter 15, p. 150).

Character flaws are vitally important. I want my characters to have flaws. This is pretty self-evident, but Sword of Truth really illustrates the point. In the first eighteen chapters, none of the characters have any flaws. They are all polite, kind to one another, friendly, eager to help, etc. None of them are missing an arm (okay, one is missing a foot), or scarred by their childhood, or tempted by drink, or afraid of spiders, or addicted to crystal meth, or anything like that. The biggest character flaw in Richard is that he’s afraid of getting too angry. (This is not to say the characters don’t have secrets; they have plenty of those.) Addendum: The reader should know the character flaws early in the story. As it turns out, Kahlan has an epic, tragic flaw which is pretty mind-blowing when you get to it, and makes you wonder how a person could possibly live with such a crushing weight on their soul, but you have to wait until Chapter 34 to fully get it.

Magic should have a cost and consequences. I want my magic-users to suffer for their art. Magic is “mysterious” in Sword of Truth in the sense that there is no logical, scientific explanation for it, which is my preference, but it goes too far into the all-powerful fairy tale snap-your-fingers-and-stuff-happens magic. That is, when Zedd the wizard magically holds up a bridge so it doesn’t collapse while they cross, seemingly with just a thought, one has to wonder why the wizard doesn’t use that levitation ability to do other more practical things, like float around so he doesn’t need a horse, or keep all his belongings suspended in the air around him instead of putting them in a backpack, or hell, frickin’ pick up his whole house and carry it with him.

Characters should act like normal humans. I want my characters to behave like ordinary people, not melodramatic stage actors. Most of the characters in Sword of Truth suffer from severe bipolar disorder which manifests as violent mood swings and dramatic outbursts. For example, when a character is irritated by something in a conversation, he might jump to his feet and get angry, or pound his fist on the table at odd moments. I’ve never known a person to “jump to his feet” in reaction to a conversation. It just doesn’t ring true.

Strong emotion loses its impact when overdone. I think that when the characters laugh or cry at the drop of a hat, the emotional impact of what they’re saying or doing starts to diminish over time. Richard and Kahlan certainly have reason to be crying all the time, but when it’s a constant, steady stream, chapter after chapter, it makes the characters seem a bit unstable.

One other amusing observation: All writers and especially new writers tend to repeat a phrase a lot (myself included). Wizard’s First Rule is apparently Goodkind’s debut book, and he is no exception to the rule. The most-repeated phrase so far is: “without emotion” or some variation thereof. “He showed no emotion” or “he betrayed no hint of emotion” or “he said without emotion.” Search for the word “emotion” and it comes up quite a lot.

On The First Book of Swords

I read most of The First Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen. I’m not sure, but I think I was supposed to start with Empire of the East. But I didn’t feel like I missed any essential pieces of story. I stopped reading about 75% through because it was pretty clear there would be no ending, and I would have to read all of the other Sword books.

Saberhagen’s writing has a more literary feel to it. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what makes it seem so. Perhaps it’s the average sentence length and complexity, which seems higher than average. Perhaps it’s just the natural quality of an experienced writer I’m seeing.

Medieval fantasies set in the future are cool. I will freely admit that I’m fascinated by the idea of setting a medieval fantasy story in Earth’s future. I have a vague recollection that Terry Brooks put an old rusty skyscraper somewhere in the Sword of Shanara, which, when I first read it as a teenager, I thought was the coolest thing in the entire universe. Saberhagen’s world is also set in the future, with several blatant references to the Old World and their technologists.

Metric measurements shouldn’t be in a fantasy story. There are three mundane elements of worldbuilding which I struggle with in fantasy writing: Money (which I mentioned before), units of time and measurement, and swearing. I won’t go into the full details of why I struggle with them, but suffice it to say that I find it hard to come up with terminology that is foreign yet recognizable, and realistic yet fantastical. So I’m keenly interested to see what other fantasy authors do in these areas. Saberhagen does something I haven’t seen before: Metric units. Meters and kilometers and so forth. It makes sense in Saberhagen’s world, I suppose, if America died out and only the metric system survived. But for me, his system fails on the “fantastical” test, and so I can’t see myself emulating it.

Now moving on to Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, which I will have a lot more to say about. :)

Rolf Sighting

I find it amusing and heartening for some reason to see “famous” authors using a character name that I’ve thought up for one of my novels. I somehow feel like it validates my own work as an aspiring author.

The other day I was looking at the description for Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East, and noticed that the protagnist’s name is Rolf. The five of you who have read my Lute of the Sparrow may recognize that as the name of Jasper’s quirky sidekick.

Since mine is a side character, I could probably get away with passing it off as an “homage,” even though clearly I invented my name some ten years before I ever heard of Fred Saberhagen. (That he published his Rolf story in 1968, before I was born, is totally irrelevant.)

There Is Too Much To Read

It is said that new authors should read recently released books in their genre to get an idea of what publishers are looking for. It is also said that new authors should read everything in their genre to avoid repeating what has come before.

The problem is, in the fantasy genre, that is quite a daunting task. I actually thought I was reasonably well-versed in the classics of the genre, but guess what? There’s an enormous list of people writing fantasy now (I mean books published since, say, 2000), and every time I look at another “best of” or “worst of” fantasy list I have to add more: Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, Jacqueline Carey, James Dashner, Steven Erikson, Neil Gaiman, Terry Goodkind, J. V. Jones, Scott Lynch, Robert Newcomb, Patrick Rothfus, Fred Saberhagen, R.A. Salvatore, Brandon Sanderson, Naomi Novik. Those are only the most famous names; there are probably ten times more out there. And these are not small books we’re talking about. Many of them are the 1000-page whoppers we’ve come to expect from epic fantasy, not to mention that many of them are series of anywhere from three to one-hundred-and-fifty-three books.

I’ve even missed some of the old pantheons like Orson Scott Card, Anne Mccafrey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. I am one of the last people who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter books. I have read Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson, Weiss/Hickman, and Fritz Lieber, but not in at least a decade or two. The only fantasy authors that have been in my reading list for the past two years have been George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams, and Robert Jordan. (Tolkien is a given, of course.)

This is going to take forever! At least I can check off these authors now: China Mieville (oddly cited in many fantasy lists, though Perdido Street Station is only a distant cousin of fantasy if you ask me), Brandon Sanderson and John Brown (because I’ve been listening to Writing Excuses), and I’m now reading Fred Saberhagen’s First Book of Swords (because it’s blessedly short).

February Update

Time for another fan update. Because real writers do that, or so I’ve read.

Last time I mentioned a short story about a magic sword with a bad personality. Well, I got bored with that. I was trying to write it from the perspective of the sword, which sounded very cool in my head, but, well, it didn’t work out.

I did, in fact, write a short story called Lucas the Jewish Vampire, which I thought was hilarious, but it will probably not be as funny when I go back to revise it. (In it, I learned that vampires are afraid of rabbis… who knew?)

I also wrote a very short story about a harpy named Margway, who was a side character in my NaNoWriMo novel Kubak Outpost. The short story is the chapter I had envisioned to introduce her character long before I had decided on the Kubak story. In it, we find out she had lost her son in a tragic accident, and her husband died in battle (mainly from grief over losing their son), and then she was driven out of her home eyrie, so now she wanders the land, bitter and alone, looking for her true purpose in life. As it turned out, none of that was relevant to the Kubak story. But I thought the harpy race has been sorely under-represented in fantasy literature.

Speaking of Kubak Outpost, I think I have decided that instead of splitting it into two different novellas, I will attempt (later) to patch it all up into one novel. I think I just need to move some of the elements from the second half up closer to the beginning.

Before revisiting Kubak, though, I began a new fantasy novel, part of my finish-two-more-novels-before-November master plan. It was going to be set in a world with big floating creatures that served as transportation between mountain cities, but as I outlined and re-outlined and re-re-outlined the story (something I don’t normally do, incidentally), the flying stuff didn’t come into play at all, so now it’s just set in a regular old medieval city, where the Elahi aristocracy breed and train their Buhite servants, sort of like dog breeders. What could possibly be more uplifting than a story about the human capacity to fully degrade and de-humanize another species?

Oh, and I installed WordPress on my site, so I won’t be using Tumblr anymore. Now you can see my witty Twitter updates and my witty blog posts in the same place!

Learning from Kinshield Legacy

So in my continuing quest to read more modern epic fantasies, I started The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May. I honestly don’t remember where or why I got it — it’s possible it was a free Kindle offer at some point. Actually it looks like it might be self-published since Peach Orchard Press isn’t exactly lighting up a Google search.

Here’s my question: How many pages should I give a book to grab my attention before I set it aside? I’ve read 69 Kindle pages, which is 19% of the book (it’s short). Thusfar it’s not grabbing my attention but maybe I’ll stick with it until the 25% mark. Okay that’s my new rule: From now on, I will give a book 100 pages or 25%, whichever comes first, to become awesome. At least, for authors I don’t already know.

So what works and what doesn’t work in Kinshield Legacy? The prose is clear and easy to read, which is a plus. I don’t much care for overly pretentious writing where I have to grab a dictionary every other paragraph. That’s not the kind of writing I want to produce.

What doesn’t work? Epic fantasy characters should not use the word “ain’t.” I gather it was supposed to convey that Gavin speaks like a commoner, but this particular word doesn’t work for me in the context of epic fantasy.

On the other hand, I liked the Farthan dialect shown in Chapter 6: “Oh, your head. You are injure.” “Bend down so I will reach you.” Conclusion: Changes to verb tense make a character sound like a foreigner, without going too far overboard.

In the first eight chapters of this book, a rather large number of characters are introduced, with I believe five different POVs (Gavin, Brodas, Daia, Brawna, and Risan). And these are fairly short chapters, so we actually don’t spend much time with each one of them. For me, it was hard to get a handle on them. Which leads me to this conclusion: It’s important to spend enough time with new characters as they are introduced so that the reader will recognize and remember them later.

On the subject of chapter length, I prefer somewhat shorter chapters, but I think these were a bit too short. At least for the amount of information that needed to be communicated. I strive for around 3000 words or so, which is kind of short, but Kinshield Legacy chapters felt closer to 1500 words. (I wish that was something the Kindle could show: Number of words in the book, and in each chapter.) (See update below.)

Now let’s talk about money. Every epic fantasy needs to have a system of coinage, and this is something I struggle with all the time. It’s hard to avoid going straight to the D&D brass/tin, copper, silver, electrum, gold, platinum model. You want some amount of realism, but I think coinage is one of the key things that distinguishes a fantasy world from the real world. Simply naming and describing a coin and the symbols on the front and back has the potential to provide a great deal of setting and history for a fantasy world. Kinshield uses the following coin denominations (so far): The pielar (copper), the kion (small silver), and the dyclen (large silver, equivalent to five kion). There was also something called a dycla, which I assumed was another word for the dyclen. Maybe the plural form. I puzzled these things out because it’s something I specifically look for, but I’m not sure a casual reader would have figured it out. So my takeaway point is this: Coinage should be dead simple, or clearly explained and reiterated often.

I generally write something simple like “copper coins” or “silver coins,” or even just “coins,” but I have never been happy with it. So I am definitely looking to steal somebody else’s ideas here. (John Brown used coins called “boxings” in Servant of a Dark God, and while I commend him for making up something new, it just doesn’t sound valuable to me. :) I can’t remember what Robert Jordan did offhand, but I recall it being fairly well done, with each kingdom having its own type of coins stamped with the face of the king or queen or whatnot, which is pretty realistic.)

At any rate, coinage in epic fantasy is a tricky subject. It’s one of those things that if you’re going to go into detail, you better get it right, otherwise you’re going to sound silly. (“Then he was paid 500 gold pieces for his flute… then he collapsed under the weight of it… then he was robbed because he couldn’t fit all those coins in his pants pocket… and oh yeah, medieval pants didn’t even have pockets, so he had to hold all 500 coins in his giant, five-feet-long hands… then he was depressed because of the outrageous inflation in the land, because if it costs 500 gold coins to buy a wooden flute, what must it cost to buy a horse?”)

UPDATE: I figured out that the first three chapters were 3038, 2094, and 1636 words respectively, for what it’s worth.

Learning from Servant of a Dark God

I finished Servant of a Dark God by John Brown the other day, and I thought it was a pretty good epic fantasy. It is the first in a series of books (as is the unspoken requirement for “epic fantasy”), but it was still very self-contained. Ie. the book had a satisfactory ending, and I didn’t feel like I was being coerced into rushing out to get the next book. (Don’t get me wrong, there were many questions left unanswered, but answering them would begin a new story.)

So in the spirit of “critical reading,” I’m going to list out what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t work. That is, things I might want to emulate, and things I might not. Thing number one is that the novel was self-contained. If I ever get around to writing a trilogy or whatnot, I’d like to do the same thing.

The “feel” of Brown’s writing seemed unusual for epic fantasy. I think mainly because the sentences were short and uncomplicated throughout. But it didn’t feel condescending, it actually felt right for the most part. Perhaps Brown was trying to emulate how young commoners might speak. I liked it, but I think for my own “epic” writing I want to retain a more “educated” tone (which is what I’ve been doing so far), unless maybe I’m specifically writing from the POV of a child or under-educated person.

The “structure” of the book remains elusive to me. Most stories are supposed to have a 3-act structure, or a 7-point plot, but I’m having a hard time applying those to Brown’s story. (It’s entirely possible that I’m terrible at that, though.) I’m not sure what the “inciting incident” was. I guess for Sugar it was her parents getting attacked. But what about Talen? His everyday world didn’t change until the latter half of the book, when River revealed all the magic stuff to him. As a matter of fact, halfway through the book I remember wondering who the main character even was (there were I think four main POVs, and they all seemed to be on parallel courses for quite some time). It was only near the end that I was sure that Talen was the main character and not Sugar. I think. (I still enjoyed the story, I just couldn’t fit it into a neat little box, which is probably a good thing.)

I thought switching to Hunger’s POV in certain places was brilliant. By doing so, Brown was able to really communicate how indestructible he/it was. From Hunger’s perspective, people attacking him were so ineffective that they barely warranted mentioning. He tossed them away without a thought. Describing the same scene from the attacker’s POV would have required tons and tons of superlative language about how strong the monster was, and I don’t think it would have conveyed its strength as well. So that’s definitely something to keep in mind. I also liked how the monster became more “humanized” and almost remorseful every time it ate someone’s soul.

On the less good side, I noticed a lot of explanations between spoken dialog. For example, a character would say, “We better get the magic widget,” and then there would be a paragraph of explanation about what the magic widget was. Then another character would reply, “That won’t do any good, we need the iron whatnot,” and then there would be another paragraph of explanation about the iron whatnot. When I notice it, I find it a little annoying and it distracts me from the story (because sometimes the explanation is so long you can’t remember what the character is replying to). Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin do this too. And I’m sure I will as well, but I definitely want to minimize those situations. If nothing else, I’ll try to keep the explanations really brief so that it doesn’t interrupt the conversation. Or save the explanations until after the conversation ends.

The chapter with the most emotional impact for me, hands down, was Chapter 34 “Sacrifice.” Saying goodbye to the wife and kids, Nettle volunteering his Fire, and Argoth struggling within himself over using the filtering rod. Great, soul-wrenching conflict-y stuff.

Anyway, all told, an enjoyable book and a fairly quick read. Good world design, good realism, very few tropes (ie. no ninja elves or grumpy dwarves). A good one I think if you like your epic fantasy in small, bite-sized chunks. I can definitely see myself reading more John Brown in the future.

Tinderbox Demonstration

I was about to write in my medieval fantasy story about a character entering a dark room and lighting a candle he found on a table. Then I thought, hey, how exactly would one have done that before the invention of matches? Apparently you would have used a tinderbox. But I couldn’t figure out from the descriptions and pictures how all the pieces of a tinderbox actually worked together, so I watched this YouTube video. Then I realized there is no way any medieval person would use a tinderbox just to light a single candle in a dark room. They would either build a roaring fire and light the candle from that, or they would not light the candle at all. Stupid reality!