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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.