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Friday, September 3, 2010

The Great eReader Debate

So the New York Times published a lengthy examination over the debate about the future of books.  As this is a book blog, I felt I should weigh in.  Kindles, iPads, iPhones, and their competition abound.  The article in The New York Times, did not however mention the most critical problems with eReading that I have.

Instead, the hype was about how the wife liked the look and feel of the paperback, the husband liked the sleek design and functionality of the iPad and thought only the content mattered.  What a ludicrous argument.

I'm going to write this post Wittgenstein style.

1.  iPads are expensive.
2.  Kindles are expensive.
3.  Storage space is expensive.
4.  Paper back books are cheap.

If the publishing industry dies, maybe they won't be cheap anymore, but at this point, it's still much cheaper for me to buy a paperback.  Which leads me to another point.

5.  eBooks are only available for "subway fiction," those of us who prefer niche fiction, or non-fiction that's not book of the month, are still getting the shaft.
6.  I don't care about the look and feel of the paperback.
7.  I lose shit.
8.  I've lost three phones in two years.  I lost my phone two months ago and a kind soul returned it.
9.  I've been damn lucky with my iPod.  I've only lost that three times and managed to get it back all three times, once after it spent the night outdoors.
10.  If I lose my eReader, I'm up shits creek.  Unless they offer eReader insurance.  Either way, my enjoyment of a novel is circumvented until the damn thing can be replaced.
11.  I don't have time to read.
12.  I'd much prefer e-audiobooks.
13.  I have the kind of job where an audiobook would be very helpful. 
14.  Millions of people in this world have similar jobs where they need their fingers eyes and hands, but not necessarily their brains.
15.  Audio books are only available for "subway fiction"
16.  Tor released Brandon Sanderson's new book, The Way of Kings.  The hardcover is $30, the ebook is $14.  The audiobook is $70.  I'll wait a year and buy the paperback for $10.
17.  My wife would love for me to get rid of my fantasy books.  An eReader would be a great way to accomplish that.
18.  I'll miss the pretty fantasy covers.  iPads could include more illustrations, cheaply.  Yay pretty fantasy covers.  Yay interactive comic books
19.  What if the power goes?
20.  What if the power stays gone?
21.  I live in a city where the power almost never goes off, but has on two notable occasions.
22.  It was nice to have a paperback at the time.
23.  It was more nice to drink the beer before it skunked because of the heat.
24.  What about upgrades and new equipment costs?
25.  I've read Eye of the World 15 times.  I've never had to replace it.

26.  My Great Hunt was not so fortunate.  I've replaced that twice at a cost of under $20.
27.  Technology gets stolen.
28.  No one steals books.
29.  I mean, maybe the dead sea scrolls. Or buy the ebook
30.  The market for books has dwindled.
31.  Ordinary people don't read books anymore, they watch TV, see movies, play videogames.
32.  The problem isn't paper backs, the problem is that books are now luxury, elite goods.  And only the elite can afford these technologies.
33.  I forgot another hidden cost.  You need a computer to buy an eBook.
34.  You need a computer to store eBooks.
35.  Even if eReaders come equipped with wireless and can buy their own content, you're still faced with the same basic problems.  How many books can your eReader store?  What if you lose your eReader?  Does that mean you lose $60-200 worth of books stored on it?

I'm not opposed to eReading.  I'm opposed to the burden of cost it places on a reader.  Most of the "readers" of the world work in publishing these days.  That makes them a bit myopic because many of their companies provide eReaders to their staffs as a matter of course.  I do not anticipate buying an eReader in the next year.  I spend $400 dollars on books every year.  Lucky for me, if the publishing industry dies, my paperbacks will survive at least another twenty years, and I can re-read them as many times as I like.

Unless my fiance throws them out.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Videogame: DragonAge: Origins

So, I'm going to expand this blog to include fantasy video games because I found a crunkin' awesome one.  This game will knock your socks off.

I was waitng for the next big fantasy game to come along.  I'm sort of retro in my video gaming.  This is because of a general technological lag in equipment, and the fact that I'm fully employed, in grad school, and engaged to a Ph.D. student.  This does not leave much time for video game playing.

So you know where I'm coming from, some of my favorite fantasy and fantasy related video games include Heroes of Might and Magic III, the entire Final Fantasy franchise from Final Fantasy II on up., to Final Fantasy 12. I also like strategy fantasy games like Age of Empires and Age of Mythology.  And of course, the entire Baldur's Gate series. 

So on to DragonAge: Origins.  When I finished classes this summer, I wanted some innocuous fun during my time off.  I checked list after list for the best RPGs.  I wanted something current, but I wanted to stay away from online video games.  Why?  Without diverging too much: time for videogames, is time for me, and me alone.  I am NOT looking for any interraction with the broader populace. I have an active social life, I don't need friends online.  This is not to disparage people who do--merely expressing a preference.  I was exceedingly disappointed when Square released Final Fantasy 11 as only an online game.  That's right--you can't actually even play it without going on line.  I was very much afraid that DragonAge would be a game like that.  The game does in fact have that capability, but it has an undeniable throughline that is completely playable without the internet.  What a relief.

I'd also heard that there were some difficulties with the PC version of the game.  Employees of both GameStop and BestBuy who raved about the game, both suggested I buy the console version, and stay away from the PC.  Had I an XBox or PS3, I may have done so.  But I got a new computer just a year ago.  I purposely spent twenty bucks extra for a nice video card, and fifty for extra ram, but my machine is by no means a performance whore.  I wouldn't even know how to make a gaming machine.  As it is, you'll be glad to know the game plays absolutely fine.  The Wiki for DragonAge has reported on some general programming bugs, but they have not made the game in anyway unplayable, unlike my attempt at playing the more recent Heroes of Might and Magic, which required seven different patches to play.

So onto the FFF

Note:  I haven't finished the game, I was too excited to wait.  And I rarely get to finish videogames, which require a skill and tenacity that simple reading does not.

1)  Character:
So holy neato!  You don't just play one character in DragonAge Origins.  When you start, you get to choose one of six different story lines.  The quests are largely universal, but the dialogue changes for each character.  You can choose from three races, two genders, and the choice of a Magi, creates a wholly different storyline.  I chose the story of a Dwarf Commoner.  So, I can almost guarantee that many of the developers who worked on Baldur's Gate, also worked on DragonAge.  Much of the informational dialogue is written in the same way, and, the controls and view points are very similar.  One neat thing about DragonAge, is that you can zoom in on the character and play it first person, from any perspective.  I don't particularly like the claustophobic nature of first person shooters, so I tend to operate at the three quarter level, but when I want to see a detail of the scenery, it's nice to be able to zoom in.  As in any video game a la Baldur's Gate, or any role playing game, you get to choose the sort of dialogue you want.  You can be a buttface, but you can also play really good characters.  This is bad for me, but good for the teenagers out there who are angry at the world.  I've never wanted to play a player character who was evil.  Even being cruel to imaginary creatures is difficult for me.  As someone who enjoys writing creatively, I can only write nasty characters with the personal knowledge that I fully expect to be writing their comeuppance one day.  (For an example of my creative fiction, tune in to my Eagles Landing blog.)  So you get to choose your own character.  That means that your main character is slightly less enjoyable than the npcs  (non player characters).  NPCs never leave character.  And players are inconsistent, and since you get to choose their story, less fascinating than having a traditional yarn.  Why is that?  Well, I hate making decisions that matter in my own life.  The responsibility of having to make them in my videogames isn't a joy, it's one more burden.  What that says about me, I don't know.

However, the neatest part of DragonAge is that you can play up your NPCs allegiances.  You had a similar capacity in Baldur's Gate, by gaining or losing reputation points.  If you had a bad rep, "good" characters would decline to join your party, or would fight other members of the party.  DragonAge has expanded on this.  You can even sleep with some of your fellow NPCs if you say the right combination of words over the course of the game, and give them the right number of gifts.  All of which leads me to another opinion of video gaming.  Teenagers and gamers will have the endless hours necessary to unravel all of the game's secrets.  Regular Joe's will not.  I will probably not buy another video game in a year or two.  And in that time, I might finish this game.  If I do, I will probably play it again as a different type of character.  No way am I going to get through this game six times.  Maybe six years from now.  But six years from now I'll have kids of my own, and even less time.  So it's nice that the game has increased playabilitiy, but it's also nice to have a plethora of online experts providing guidance on how to complete certain quests, and which gifts will make the NPCs take their clothes off sooner. Some of the characters are really enjoyable, like Morrigan, a witch, or apostate, who is pretty hot, and also pretty contrary.  Other characters like Alistair provide excellent comic relief and great side quests that really help develop the story.

2) Cliche:
So this game bears a lot of resemblance to the world of Tolkien's Middle Earth.  This in no way inhibits the story.  It gives the game a certain visual feel.  You can almost see Peter Jackson's fine visuals in the opening cinematic sequences of the game.  Likewise, the main races are humans, elves and dwarves.  That pretty much ends the cliche.  Ironically, given the religious nature of Tolkien, there was little reference to classical religion in the Lord of the Rings.  DragonAge origins, has an entire religious system that bares striking similarities to Christianity, while also providing excellent critiques of organized religion overall.  God is known as The Maker.  I like simple names in fantasy, multi syllabic names is often a deflection from real content.  They actually use a real group of religious knights, The Knights Templar, to provide a really neat counterpoint to magic.  But I'll get to that.  One Tolkien cliche avoided is that the villanous Darkspawn, though divided into races that look suspiciously like Orcs, Goblins, Giant Spiders, etc. do not come from different lands or tribes, as they did in Middle Earth.  There is a unifed enemy, emerging from the Earth, but also from an alternative demension called The Fade.  These creatures are called demons, and are controlled by an arch demon that is said to resemble a dragon.  This is a wonderful example of how, a popular cliche (The Dungeons and Dragons cliche), is given new life.  Even more fantastic is that as the game progresses, the character can even elect to become a demon, and/or sympathize with demons, who really just want to leave The Fade, and enjoy a more tactile pleasurful existence as a mortal.  One memorable scene occurs with a Pleasure Demon, who has seduced a knight Templar.  You can kill her, and him, since his mind is utterly controlled, or you can let her and him go, on the premise that he knight has let himself be seduced and that he and the demon really are leading a brief but intimately pleasurable life.  Such moral gray tones provide a rich tapestry for the game's story to develop.  Rest assured, the demoness will kill her host, but the knight's fantasy is quite humble, a wife and a loving family-things that are forbidden by the holy vows that a knight makes on entry to the society.

3) Scope:
Honestly, I'm still learning about the scope of DragonAge.  The World Map is quite large, but so far, only a few areas are playable.  These areas have provided many hours of gameplay so far.  The game does include a number of brief histories, again, much like Baldur's Gate, called Codexes.  These insert a great deal of depth, history, vision and possibility into the story.  And again, unlike a paperback, a popular videogame can simply use an expansion pack to enhance and enlarge gameplay and story.  But the history of the land is fairly dense, the individual characters have full histories, born in certain cities, living and growing in others.  I'd say the game has impressive scope.  Also, in the Jordanian strain of fantasy--that scope is hinted at straight from the beginning.  This means that as the game grows and expands, the history and story presented will feel more integrated, and less ad hoc, than say, the Seeker series by Terry Goodkind.

4) Magic:
So the system of health and magic is a huge departure from other fantasy games.  Each character has a set number of hitpoints and magic points, that grow, as the character grows his stats, again using a D&D cliche, of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and several other factors.  In combat however, as the fighter uses special abilities, or the mage uses spells, it takes away from stamina, or spell points accordingly.  That's standard stuff.  What isn't standard is that, once the battle is over, both health and magic regenerate.  So rather than carrying hoards of potions, you end up carrying maybe a dozen, and than waiting between battles.  This provides some downtime in play, but given the complex operation of the characters, changing armor, equipping weapons, reading codexes, this merely provides another sort of gameplay.  The type of spells used is fairly standard, but there is a greater emphasis in delaying and stunning spells.  Since the characters do not attack in real time, meaning you can't simply hit the x button twenty times in a row to attack twenty times, delaying other characters attacks provides a real advantage on the field of battle.  Likewise, certain spells have cool down periods, ranging from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes, whereby you'll have to wait before you can recast.  Above I alluded to the history of magic in DragonAge.  In DragonAge, magic is regulated by the Templars.  There appear to be two types of magic, regular, and blood.  Blood magic seems to be far more powerful, hence the appeal to evildoers and other teenagers, but it requires ritual sacrifice, hence the prohibition.  Mages who are regulated, report to an organization called The Circle.  Though the agency has a veneer of self governance, the real power are the Knights Templar, who govern the grounds of the tower and can call the Rite of Annulment if the mages go bad.  And there is a very real possibility of that.  Another really neat part of the system is that, all mages are vulnerable to being controlled by Darkspawn still trapped in The Fade.  One of the main story quests relies on one such character.  And you, as player character, get to decide, do you support the Templars unilaterrally and say that the danger posed by mages should be erradicated before people are harmed, or do you believe that some mages are innocents and that all innocents should be protected?  And that choice affects the entire storyline!  How cool is that?!

5) Theme:
As mentioned above, the overall feel of the game is Tolkienesque.  There is a desperation to the Order of The Grey Wardens, your character is one of them, in that the land has on many occasions been affected by The Blight, and on each occasion it has cost more lives to repell.  The Blight by the way, is the name for the darkspawn invasion.  The Grey Wardens exist to fight The Blight.  The theme reeks of Tolkien and Baldur's Gate--but as stated previously--it doesn't detractgameplay, it only serves to enhance it.  Those tropes help to color what your eyes already see, and fill in the gaps on the places on the map where nothing seems to exist.
I love this game, and would recommend it to any serious gamer, any "lite" gamer like myself, and also to casual fantasy lovers, looking for some time away from their eReaders and paperbacks.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Women Reading on the Subway 1

I'm iritated by the fact that the yuppy women of New York all read the same book each month.  So henceforth, I am going to expose them.

Today it was one of these three of these novels.  I hate to make this sound sexist.  And I don't think it has much to do with women per se, it's just men read less, and so there is much less data to collect.  NYC women are particularly easy to peg because subway reading is a "thing" here.  It's like any accessory, it matters. 

So the first three for the list:

1.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson
2.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
3.  The Girl who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson.

Keep it classy ladies.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Books of the South by Glen Cook

So before I go any further I have the following corrections to make.  In some of my earliest posts, I referred to Glen Cook as a new fantasy author.  He is new to me.  His wikipedia page shows that he wrote his first fantasy novel, The Black Company in 1984!!  He worked at GM and produced three novels a year as an auto worker!  The man was also a soldier, and you can definitely tell.  So my apologies to Glen Cook, and my hats off.  The Black Company is a truly awesome fantasy series.  Cook's writing was miles ahead of his time.  The back of my copy even has a shout out by Steven Erikson saying "Glen Cook single-handedly changed the face of fantasy--something a lot of people didn't notice and maybe still don't."  I used to think Erikson's originality was unparalleled.  Now I can see that he took much of his style from Glen Cook's work.

Anyway, is it too late to do a review of books that were published in the 80s?  Absolutely not!  They've been rereleased in anthologies and their beautiful covers by Raymond Swanland are sleek and modern.  Starting with the cover this book was a great investment.  I remember seeing a comic book when I was a kid, that had the picture of a massive warrior, completely covered in blocky slabs of black enameled, spiked steel.  The warrior carried a wicked halberd with a blade a foot and a half long.  The image was so deeply foreboding and exhilarating that it burned itself inexorably into my mind.  Swanland's cover art reminds me of that image--I just had to pick it up.  And man am I glad.

The Books of the South takes up where the Black Company ended, in the volume called The White Rose.  The anthologist, Tor, made a slightly odd decision in publishing the series in one book.  They chose not to bind them in order of publication.

The six original book of the Black Company were published between 1984 to 1990 in this order
1.  The Black Company
2.  Shadows Linger
3.  The White Rose
4.  Shadow Games
5.  The Silver Spike
6.  Dreams of Steel

The new anthology, Books of the South, reverses the order of The Silver Spike and Dreams of Steel.  Personally, I don't think this was a great choice.  Regardless, the stories are beautiful.  I recommend you read the stories in the original order of publication.

The Five Factors
Cook's works are definitely about characters.  And, joy of joy, the names are simple, and there aren't too many to remember.  The leading man of the series, is a cynical mercenary surgeon called Croaker.  Croaker is the story's viewpoint.  Unlike some central storytelling characters he is neither ancillary, nor banal.  If you're unfamiliar with the series than you should know, the Black Company books are supposedly the Annals, written records, of the mercenary company for which it's named.  Cook's characters are the types of people that you want to know more about.  Their moniker's are army nicknames.  Cook himself served in the military, and their banter and gallows humor is exactly what you might have seen in books or in films.  In fact, Cook's dialogue overall is excellent.  He doesn't bother with any medieval flourishes, or made up oaths, a major plus in contemporary fantasy fiction.  Medieval English, even accurately portrayed, only distances the story from the reader.

This is the rare fantasy novel that doesn't use any standard cliches.  I don't read much military literature, so I can't honestly say that soldier's banter has become a cliche.  Certainly the only other author I've seen use it, is Steven Erikson, who probably borrowed much of his tone from Cook.  One of the central characters in this tome and the last, was Lady, the evil empress of the first three Black Company novels.  She represents a sort of femme fatale cliche.  But there again, femme fatale isn't really a fantasy cliche.  To be sure there are dangerous women in fantasy, think Galadriel the elf queen in the Lord of the Rings, who almost takes the ring from Frodo.  Femme fatale's have to be sexy, mysterious, and ultimately, fatal or would-be fatal to the protagonists.  Cook's lady absolutely is a femme fatal in the first triumvirate of Black Company novels, but not in Books of the South.  She progressively becomes more human, more fallible, and less fatal.  And Croaker's attraction to her has always been tempered with disgust at the heinous deeds of which she is capable.  Cook also skirts another famous fantasy cliche, which I'll call, the Dungeons & Dragons cliche.  That means, elves, dwarves, goblins, and dragons.  This story doesn't have of those archetypes.  It has people and demons.  And those demons aren't Buffy the Vampire style either.

There is no map to this series.  Several ardent fans have created maps for it, but the books themselves do not come with maps.  This is both freeing and limiting to the novel.  When there's no map, your imagination is free to envision, but if your imagination isn't doing much for you, than it becomes a small and dimly lit world, where peoples and places come out of the gloom unexpectedly and disappear just as unexpectedly.  Cook manages to escape this trap.  Even though his descriptions are sparse, the names of places remains very consistent with local geography throughout all the novels.  Given the break he took between novels, this is all the more impressive.  Another contributor to scope is the view point of the main character.  The mercenary captain, Croaker, is a bit player in a large world.  He's no king, or prince, nor is he destined to fight one, at least not without his crew of murderers.  This was more true in the first three series novels, where Croaker isn't even the captain of the outfit, but the medic.  As annalist to the company, Croaker indicates constantly to volumes and volumes of the Black Companies adventures.  These allusions to a wider world grant scope to the work.

So the magic in Books of the South, is really interesting.  This is again, a cliche breaking book because absolutely no effort is made to explain how the magic works.  You have vast magics, powers dark and dangerous, and magics and creatures of a size that is monumental, and no explanation for them.  Normally, this would tick me off.  Some things are detailed, but never explained.  The most powerful figures in the plot (spoiler alert) need to be hacked to pieces to be killed.  And even then, frequently come back together. (Spoiler alert over).  I think the only reason this is bearable, is because the novel isn't really about magic at all.  It's not really properly a fantasy book.  This might be the reason I never saw it until recently, it may well have been sitting elsewhere.  The magic becomes a dramatic foil for the complex relationship of the characters, and not an end to itself, as it is in so many fantasy novels.  All in all, though unexplained, the magic of Glen Cook's Black Company series is thoroughly enjoyable.  Not because it makes sense in any meaningful way, but because it is unpredictable, with a certain degree of wow factor.

Which leads us to the final factor.  The Black Company is all about theme.  Not magic, not fighting, nor fantasy.  It's about the brotherhood of soldiers, and a dissemination on the nature of evil.  The Black Company is a mercenary band.  They don't fight for a cause, they fight for causes.  And some of those causes have been black indeed.  This moral ambiguity works itself out in the physical description of the universe.  For example, there is a general lack of description to the series.  The Lady's fortress is described, as are various bars and melee's, but the majority of the prose describes conversations and dramatic conflicts.  In the end, theme comes down to sensory descriptions, collections of words, so here is what I felt about The Books of the South: darkness, parchment, blood, sweat, dirt, wicked, the grave, desolation, canteens, long marches.

Without a doubt, I recommend this series heartily.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Briar King by Greg Keyes

Why did I pick this book up?  It was a series, plain and simple.  I saw that there were at least six novels by Keyes on the shelf.  Usually a good sign of staying power.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, anything that's reached a certain level of syndication has to have some aspect of quality.  This does mean that I'm liable to miss some good fiction, so please go ahead and point them out if I do.  I'm open to suggestion.  But I will say this.  When I find a fantasy realm I love--I want to live in it.  I want to immerse myself in it.  A phenomenal one book novel doesn't really allow for this, not because of any lack of quality, simply a lack of words.

But not all books made into series catch my interest.  When I was a teenager I read almost the entire DragonLance series.  I was in love with the characters established by Weiss and Hickman.  When those characters were co-opted by new authors, they still lived in my mind.  The quality was less true, and the Fifth of the Fantasy Five always fell short, but junkies will live on fumes when that's all they can get.

Let's get to it:

Characters:  The lead character in this novel is a gruff, ranger type, with a problem with commitment.  I can't say I really liked him, even when he softened up a bit and admitted that he cared for the leading lady.  One of the nice things about "The Coming of Age" cliche is that it allows a relatively bland character to grow over time.  But our Ranger, was pretty set in his ways.  Hardbitten characters can be fascinating, I was willing to give him a try.  He did seem to grow over the course of the book--but then again, I almost felt that he grew too quickly.  Unbelievably.  I could tell that Keyes was trying to give the characters depth.  None of them were simple, each had complicated motives for their actions.  But sometimes complex motivations aren't enough to create deep characters.  An empathic connection must be drawn to the reader.  And the only character I began to feel that connection with was killed off by the end of the book.

Cliche:  There isn't a central cliche to draw on.  The Briar King is one of those newer fantasy type novels that relies on a political environment that is supposed to modernize and enliven the drama.  One of the more interesting characters is the King, who has a mistress and an evil brother.  The evil brother is a cliche, and his character's motivations appear to be complex, but his evil is also of the benal sort.  One cliche the Briar King most definitely does NOT use, is a central villain.  There were many characters, in many dramas, and it wasn't clear, even by the end of the first novel who the real villain was.  That's not necessarily a problem, but leaving your reader confused is completely different from leaving your reader with compelling mysteries to contemplate.

Scope:  The Briar King's scope is difficult to ascertain.  There is evidence of a largish kingdom, with allies and opponents that are on the brink of war.  I like politics, but I've only really ever found one or two authors who do a good job of creating fantasy worlds with meaningful political disputes.  It's very easy to create nations.  It's very easy create wars and borders.  But only a really terrific writer can make those disputes come alive.  George R.R. Martin did a really great job with this in the Fire and Ice Series, magic and mystery come second in that world.  In The Briar King there's evidence of an ancient enemy, and other races, but the references to these mysteries are clumsy at best.  A personal pet peeve of mine is creating new races that look identical to races that exist in the minds of fantasy readers already.  What's the point?  An elf is an elf is an elf.  Calling him a Scregyar doesn't change the fact that he's an elf.  What are elves?  Thin, longlived, with point ears, and an affinity with nature.  That hasn't changed since Tolkien, nor has the archetype.  It's grown, it's contracted, but it remains essentially the same.  To be sure--the fantasy greats can create new races with impunity.  But amateurs and new authors have to be really careful.  Caveat:  I am in no way qualified to call Keyes an amateur.  My only credential is I read a lot and I know what I like.

Magic:  I'm not really clear what, if anything the magical system in The Briar King is, the ancient enemy, the Briar King, is sort of cool.  I mean the concept of a malignant force of nature is relatively unused in fantasy novels.  Usually the operative cliche is urbanization v. nature.  Ents have a long history in contemporary fantasy of being creatures of good intent, shepards of the forest.  Although, thinking back, the Ents were the good equivalent of the nasties who dwelt in the Fangorn forest of Middle Earth.  It reminds me of the Heidegger's concept of The Black Forest.  It's an old mythic concept that harkens back to an age that is completely inconceivable to the modern reader, a time when towns and cities were literally swallowed whole by vast swathes of dark wilderness.  The only thing man needs shelter from now is the cold, and other men--another perfect allegory for the Fire and Ice series.  In the first book of The Briar King, a priest like character shows a certain penchant for magical activities, but the system though described, isn't fleshed out entirely.  If the character were less weak and idiotic, I may have been intrigued enough to learn more about him in the next book.

Theme:  I could detect very little theme in this book, which was probably the ultimate reason for why I was turned off of the series.  Maybe Keyes hits his stride in the next book, but is it worth another inch on my crowded bookshelves, meh.  There are motifs of political intrigue, war with neighboring countries, betrayal and lust, good nature v. evil nature.  But to tell you the truth, no single one of those really commands the whole novel.  Compare that with a book like The Black Company, by Glen Cook.  I'm desperate to buy the next book--but it's 16 bucks!

Overall, I wasn't so interested in Keyes.  I'd like to give him another try.  The prolific nature of his works indicates that I'm missing something.  But I can't be bothered.  I don't want just another fantasy world, just another sword fight, or love affair.  I need to get sucked in like a dark whirlpool.  And despite having a great title, The Briar King, just didn't suck me.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Five Factors of Fantasy

I usually hunt the shelves of fantasy aisles on my lunch hour.  And I spend a lot of time looking things over before I buy.  I do judge a book by its cover, I'm afraid.  And though this has lead to some disappointments, overall, it seems to work well.  Thank God that I chose to disregard this in the case of the Eye of the World, painted by Darrell K. Sweet, or I would have missed the fantasy experience of a lifetime.  One of the reasons I dodged the bullet on that one is that another natural factor in fantasy selection is:  numerosity.  Quite simply, if a novelist manages to generate four or five novels in a series, there must be some pretty serious demand for his work.

Many people stop reading a book after the first chapter.  I like to give the author the benefit of the doubt and will always finish the first book.

So I will take this opportunity to develop, The Five Factors of Fantasy. 

1)  Character
2)  Cliche
3)  Scope
4)  Magic
5)  Theme

The characters of a fantasy novel really have to appeal.  They don't have to appeal on the first page, necessarily, the first page is about action, scene set up, and drama.  But they do have to set up interesting characters such that the reader is curious enough to continue reading.  A good example of this is from the Prologue of the Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan.  The first character we meet is one that will never directly be a character in the book until well into the fifth or sixth novel.  But he towers over the entire universe of the novel.  He is the Dragon, Lews Therin Telamon--and in the first ten pages of the novel we learn he is mad, extremely powerful--and destroyed his entire family, as well as doomed the world to three or four generations of suffering.  And he's one of the series heroes!

Which brings us to another factor.  Fantasy uses a variety of tropes, and cliches.  Many people use this fact to condemn fantasy literature as schlock, drivel and pulp.  While all of that may be true, depending on the author and the publisher, the compelling use of cliche is what makes good fiction, great.  There are many common fantasy cliches, and I won't waste your time with all of them.  The first and most common is a "Coming of Age" cliche.  Here's an example, Eye of the World, and Sword of Shannara, both start with this cliche.  This cliche may have first been used by J.R.R. Tolkien in the Fellowship of the Ring.  You have an innocent, fairly young, but good and pure of heart, who either by birth, or by sheer happenstance is thrown into extreme danger.  The novel becomes a progress, a quest, over which the character grows up and has a series of fairly commonplace revelations as he does so.  S/he falls in love.  S/he confronts danger and fails.  S/he is afraid of taking responsibility for what s/he must do.  S/he deals with success and its arrogance.  S/he deals with loss.  These are all factors and cliches that take place in ALL fiction, and yet, are unfairly condemned in fantasy fiction as cliched.  A good fantasy acknowledges these cliche's and either breaks through them, or enlivens the characters so well, that they become real people, and thus escape the chains of repeated habit.

All fantasy novels must be huge in scope.  But it's tricky.  The lesser type of fantasy novel takes a well developed fantasy world, and writes it for one novel.  When the Ancient Evil is destroyed, and the publisher wants more, suddenly the world is expanded, the conclusions rewritten.  A good example of this is the series written by Terry Goodkind, the Sword of Truth Series.  The first novel was quite good, as were the second and third.  Yet I couldn't help but feel that there wasn't an overiding, overaching plan.  Each entrance into the series would start with a new ultimate villain.  I think this began to change around the time I stopped reading.  Goodkind is a very good story-teller.  But in my mind, his world lacked the scope of a truly excellent fantasy series.  Scope means that the history of nations is established and old hat to the writer from the first page.  The author doesn't need to explicate the history of the city-state of Tear, every descriptive sentence about Tear describes a history, vivid and ongoing.  The author doesn't need to explain the relationship between Tear and Illian, his mere mention of the two provides centuries of war, economic and religious strife.

This is the easiest qualification to meet for good fantasy.  Afterall, what's more exciting and dramatic, than magical powers.  Nonetheless, creating a world that operates by all the usual physical laws, gravity, etc., is easy, creating a world that operates with all of those elements, and yet can, in certain cases throw off these rules in orderly and consistent ways, is quite difficult.  Dungeons & Dragons created a world of magic that operated along fairly traditional lines.  Lines stretching back throughout the course of history, using a combination of alchemy and spell books to cast powerful spells was adequate to the fantasy writers of the 50s through 70s.  But after that, magical powers began to grow.  Truly fabulous worlds exist now, whose magic operates on well defined rules, and yet never ceases to amaze and awe.  The consistency factor is highly important here.  A reader can suspend disbelief in fantasy, but the mystery of magic must have some theoretical explanation, or else it seems spurious, a convenient ruse for the author to escape from poorly written situations.  Also, magic is linked to the fifth category, theme.  The magic of a fantasy world sets the tone of the entire novel.  Since magic is so closely aligned with theology, philosophy, and yes, science as well, how the system works and on what operating basis sets the characters in place more firmly than the laws of thermodynamics.  As writers have grown with new technologies, so have magical powers.  Magic is more than just power to kill, burn, break or heal.  It's the power to communicate, network, demonstrate, and travel.

The last of the five, is theme.  Theme is always hard to define.  And to me, it's always been closely linked to writing style.  Compare the styles of Jordan, Martin or Cook, and you see a wealth of similiarities and differences.  Each stylistic element adds a depth of tone that is difficult to describe.  Some of the worlds are heavily based in real life, some are incredibly dark, some are highly theoretical without overt description.  Donaldson and Tolkien created very dark worlds like these, as did Cook, recently.  Themes in fantasy aren't created so much by what is said, by then what is not said.  As Rembrandt would have called it, chiaroscuro, light and dark.  Or what my highschool art teacher would have described as negative and positive space.  Each space has a physical body, a presence in the mind of the onlooker or reader.  And around that physical object is the negative space.  The cutout that defines the object more clearly than the object itself.  Well defined fantasy expresses both.  Theme is the fifth and most crucial piece of information.  It really is the magic behind the story.  For any fiction, theme breathes life into what could just be a set of instructions or a screenplay.  Some readers and critics call this "voice."  You know it when you see it.  And you definitely know it when you don't.

Next stop the Briar King

The Fantasy Post

In a further attempt to make all of my time productive, behold, The Fantasy Post.  Here I intend to write reviews of fantasy novels as I read them.  Some of these novels will be contemporary, some older novels reread. 

My credentials:  I read my first fantasy novel when I was ten or eleven, it was The Sword of Shannara, a novel by Terry Brooks.  Since then I've been hooked.  I've gone through all of the greatest series by Brooks, Eddings, Jordan, Donaldson, Martin.  In college I gave up fantasy for chicks and booze.  This turned out to be a grave mistake.  I've been back for a couple of years now and I've discovered some great new authors in my absence.

I am also a big fan of fantasy art.  I once wanted to be a fantasy painter. My favorite at the time was Larry Elmore who did much of the painting in the DragonLance Series for TSR.  Though a reasonable painter and artist, I always needed models to do my best work.  When I saw that many of my friends, painted and drew from their imaginations, I decided to move on.  It wasn't until fairly recently when I started following Tor's rerelease of the Jordan novels in eBook format that I saw that real fantasy artists use models too!

Alas.  Anyway, below is an Elmore painting from the DragonLance series, Time of the Twins, by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman.