Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Further Meditations on the Questing Ensemble

Here be more spoilers.

Anyway - following on from the last article - what of the group dynamics?

Let us accept for the sake of argument that People are their Actions (and lack there of). Any author's portrayal of their characters therefore relies on their actions. The majority of their actions, when in a questing ensemble, will be towards the rest of the ensemble. They're the ones together the most after all. This is less true if we're talking of major actions - climatic fights, plot altering decisions, moments of transcendental character growth - but the rest of the ensemble will still bogart a lot of that. The decision to rescue a friend, a betrayal, revealing a secret that leaves you completely vulnerable... all of these and more will probably be between a character and other ensemble members.

The short version of that would be "Your key tool for establishing character in an ensemble is their relationships with the other members of the ensemble". I'm just showing my working out in case I'm full of it and need to be called out.

Now one of the best ways - maybe the best way - of establishing character is conflict. As T.S. Elliot said, "If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?" Which means there needs to be conflict within the group.

Okay, yes, that's really obvious now I've written it down. Shut up. I'll get to the point.

Lets look at Lord of the Rings. Pretty much all of the conflict in the Fellowship stems from Boromir. Yes there's moments of exasperation among the others, particularly with the early stages of the Gimli-Legolas double act, but little compared to Boromir's general doubt. I don't know if its coincidence that Tolkien killed off his agent provocateur when breaking up the Fellowship, but there is a neatness to it.

The idea that there's one guy at the heart of all the discontent seems pretty common. I should have re-read Dragonlance before starting this; it features a great group and one of the features if I remember right is Raistlin being a right royal pain in the posterior. In the Belgariad, which personally relies heavily on the group dynamic for its reputation, Silk is at the centre of most of the verbal sniping. Yes there's plenty of 1 vs 1 side shows - Belgarath vs Pol, Mandorallen vs Lelldorin, Relg vs Taiba, and Garion vs Ce'Nedra - but Silk shows up pretty much everywhere else, and often as a commentator on the above.

While Best Served Cold is just filled to brim with unhappiness, no one is quite as good at getting under so many people's skins as Castor Morveer, with him taking part in a lot of verbal sniping and quite a few attempted killings. David Gemmell has a fondness for using cantankerous middle-aged men as his primary source of needle - see Beltzer in Quest for Lost Heroes and Bison in Winter Warriors. I am a big fan too of how Butcher handled Dresden in Skin Game, where Dresden becomes the primary source of antagonism by being the good guy among the villains, rather than the usual antihero among the good guy. Its a fun inversion and it would be nice to see more writers take a swing at that.

Its not the only way to do it of course.The Sword of Shannara and Silverthorn don't really have that sort of internal dissension while in The First Law, its a royal rumble of bitterness with everyone causing trouble. I think a lot of what's made The First Law so big is how much it played with all the usual ways of doing quest fantasy (among other subgenres and also Glokta). But its popular and it works.

So if you have one chap acting the maggot, what other roles are the rest of the ensemble filling to round out the dynamics? I think a lot of traditional ensemble models don't really address this, mixing what the character does with how the character acts, as in TVTropes' Five Man Band page. You get a leader, someone railing against the leader, someone holding it together, comic relief and... whatever the big guy is doing.

Certainly there will be someone bowed under the weight of responsibility - often quite a few of them. Sometimes that's because they're leading, sometimes that's growing up - you can pretty much guarantee a kid who's got to grow up in most fantasies - or sometimes something else. There's probably comic relief, which can also be combined with causing conflict - true of Castor, Silk and the Gemmells here; true of Loki in mythology. Someone will probably be the main source of comfort to the group too, TVTropes' The Chick role. They too can be comic relief, particularly if they're less emotional comfort and more idiot child that makes us feel better/really bad at providing comfort; I'd argue that Elan in Order of the Stick is a good example of that.

But that doesn't tell us anything about how the characters relate to each other. 

I think that's ultimately because people relate to each other because of how they view the world. Talking about how they act, or the challenges they face, or their role, is putting the cart before the horse.

Look at Best Served Cold. It would be pretty easy for a group of outsider mercenary types to become too samey but Abercrombie is clever in using the obvious point in common - the willingness to kill - as one of the major points in difference. Castor is the driver of conflict in that his incredibly dismissive view of everyone else means he puts far less value on human life than anyone else. Caul Shivers' desire to be a good man puts him at the opposite pole with Monza in the middle. 

Yet Castor's conflict causing goes further. His ego leads him to take everything incredibly seriously, which creates friction with Nicomo, whose flippancy and desire for novelty gives him an incredible unprofessional facade. Monza is less in the middle here, yet it becomes clear that Nicomo's need for diversion has created her, for without his backing and failures she would have never become a great Captain. Nicomo's tendency to see the world as a place best not taken seriously jibes best with Friendly, who cannot quite understand the world himself.

So there's Castor, a man with a gigantic ego and disdain for the world that transfers into an uncompromising demand for professionalism, oblivious to anything else. His apprentice Day serves mainly to lampshade how this destroys his relationships. His main enemies are Shivers, a killer struggling to believe in old fashioned straight forwards honour and kindness, and Nicomo, a mercenary whose whimsical adventurous nature makes it very hard for him to stick to either professionalism or honour. That's the essence of the exchanges that drive the book.

Or at least so I believe. If I'm wrong, tell me!

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Quick and Idle Thoughts on Fantasy Questing Ensembles

Warning - Here Be Spoilers.

I've been devoting a lot of brainpower to ensemble casts in fantasy. I want a new project while I hammer out the fine details of the Sir Albric project. I keep finding myself stumbling on coming up with enough characters that hold my interest. So I keep thinking about ensemble casts, what makes them work, what makes them tick.

Certainly fantasy literature loves ensemble casts. There's plenty of lone heroes and tightly knit groups its true, but when we talk of fantasy, they don't seem to be what comes to mind first. Or at least they don't come to my mind first. Even when you're avoiding the Epics with their casts of thousand, there's still an urge to really inflate the cast.

So I started thinking about Lord of the Rings and the questing party. Lord of the Rings is epic in scope and does have a fairly big cast, but really it comes down to the nine dudes in the Fellowship. Which is a pretty big number anyway. How do you give equal page time to nine characters if they're all in the same spot? Obviously the Fellowship breaks up quick enough that this never really arises. What you really get is a bunch of smaller groups. Prior to formation, the hobbits are a group by themselves for a bit, then there's also the hobbits and Aragorn. After the break-up you get Frodo & Sam, Merry & Pippin, and Aragorn, Legolas & Gimli. Deliberately or not, Tolkien basically breaks them down into the original units, with the newcomers off doing their own thing. ALG go off and have warlike adventures; F&S have their quest; M&P act as the readers' eyes, while at the same time showing the heroism of the underestimated and innocent.

You kind of have a similar model in Eddings' Belgariad. There you get a core group, those who leave Faldor's farm; Garion, Durnik, Belgarath and Polgara. With the addition of Silk and Ce'Nedra, those are the characters that start and finish the book and when you see the party broken up, three of the four will generally be in the same activity group. Barak, Hettar and Mandorallen sort of form their own martial group equivalent to ALG (although Barak also has the buddy act going on with Silk equivalent to L&G, although its obviously a Leiber homage). To a certain extent, Eddings repeats the model in the Elenium. Sparhawk, Sephrenia, Kurik and Kalten are the core group. Tynian & Ulath get the buddy act - which so far seems to be placed outside the core (not that there aren't double acts in the core).

In Feist's Silverthorn, the questing group originally comprises of Arutha, Gardan, Laurie and Martin (although that's never seen on page), quickly joined by Jimmy & Locky (our buddy act), then there's Roald and Baru on the road. Once again, the main role for late comers seems to be muscle, although the original party is hardly short of it (much like Eddings' Elenium crew). The Sword of Shannara is similar to the Belgariad and LotR from memory; a core group of innocents and wizard (Flick, Shea, Allanon), the quick addition of the guide (Menion), then a bit later on all the muscle (Balinor, Hendel, Durin and Dayel).

Lets look at something a bit more modern. In The First Law, Abercrombie mixes up the order a bit. We start with the wizard and a member of team muscle (Bayaz and Ninefingers) and they end up picking up the bildungsroman 'hero' Jezal and the guide Brother Longfoot. There is some additional muscle in the form of Ferro, with whom Ninefingers forms a double act. If you count the apprentice Malacus Quai as another 'innocent', you do have something looking a lot like the traditional questing party, even if its formation has been somewhat twisted round, just like poor old 'Malacus'.

Of course not everything works this way. Take Jen Williams' The Ninth Rain and MD Presley's The Woven Ring, to pick two modern 'quest' fantasies; both of them have parties with only three members, none of them particularly innocent. In the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher has a rotating cast around Harry for when its quest time, although I can't think of anything much in the trad fantasy field with this sort of episodic nature. Going back to Abercrombie, Best Served Cold features a questing ensemble, but there's no real core group or innocents, unless we call Monza and Shivers the core with Shivers being the innocent. Which kind of works.

Nevertheless, it does seem a common enough model: a core group of adventurers, containing the story's innocents and their main guides (or with them joining shortly after), with further characters added as needed, mainly to act as protection. The protection usually forms its own bonds and has its own adventures. If the party breaks up, it usually breaks up into the groups it was originally made up of prior to the formation.

What does this mean? I've no idea. I'm not sure its helped me form new ideas. Although I guess you could have some fun with a story about a core group of protection who stumble across some innocents and their mentor fleeing from danger, take them on, and then find out they're not as innocent as they seem. 

But its nice to look at how things work (or at least I think so, and since you've got this far, you probably agree). And the more we think, the more ideas come. I guess the next thing to think about would be just how this effects the dynamics.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Gettin' techie with it

The other day I went to my first ever meet of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club in London (although going to the pub after Jen Williams' book signing was very much a sort of prologue to this). 

Being possessed of all the social grace of a half-brick in a sock, I can't say I found it super relaxing, although there's nothing like trying to get the peel off an awkward sticker to make friends. It was good fun though, particularly the authorial Q&As, and I shall know people a little better next time. I might even manage some social grace. Hopefully it will even fall on a day when I don't have to run away from the pub to go to work.

The most interesting question came when someone asked Ed McDonald, medieval weapon enthusiast and new author, about whether he found his weapons knowledge to be a boon or a hindrance when writing Blackwing, his forthcoming book. 

He said that he'd found it necessary to tone down the technical details, for readers were a lot more interested in the details of how the characters felt than the angles at which the blades met. Which seems obvious really - its the advice most authors give.

However, I would like to ask 'Why not both?'

It seems to work for Miles Cameron after all. At times, his Traitor Son Cycle reads like a primer to medieval military history, KJ Parker is another author who often gets deep into technical descriptions in the course of his narrative. While they do cop the odd criticism online for that, I'd say that their writing styles has attracted more than enough fans to be getting on with.

One can point to them not being in the blockbusters and saying its a niche market. My counter would be Tom Clancy, who became one of the more commercially successful authors ever on the back of painstaking technical detail. Frederick Forsyth has done very well on the back of a similar style. They're not fantasy authors, of course, and the audiences are somewhat different. Nevertheless, I think there is room for saying that putting a lot of technical detail into a fantasy book can be a sound decision.

The key here is passion and enthusiasm. Its not enough to present interesting information is a clear way. Its when you can practically hear the writer thinking "this is really fucking cool" as you read that you pick up on their enthusiasm and enjoy the technical details in the same way they do. 

And usually you can hear the writer thinking that because one of the characters is doing so. Or at least appreciating the technicalities and being scared shitless about what their implies for their future health and longevity, or lack thereof. Which brings us right back to focusing on how the characters are feeling in these life and death situations. Yes, we want to feel their fear, their pain, their excitement. A lot of readers want to feel the characters' emotions at all times.

But the emotion can - should - be blended with an appreciation of the world around them. Emotions mean nothing without context. Now, pushing that appreciation to include the exact angle at which the blades met (to paraphrase McDonald), that is a bit much. But the more vivid the description of the world, the more power it lends to the emotions. And I believe a piece or two of technical description - sometimes very technical description - can go miles in making the world very vivid.

I don't know where exactly Ed McDonald strikes the balance in Blackwing but I know I do like authors who find a sweet spot, so I'm looking forwards to seeing how he manages it. And every other author I read too. Please be geeky and detailed with what you know. Most of your readers are intelligent, curious beings. We don't want technical manuals, but we do like to learn.

Every story has their details. The more real, the better. Get technical.

p.s. If you went the title and felt the urge to "na na na na" and then hated yourself because why do you even still remember that song, you are truly one of my people.

p.p.s. I can very much recommend SRFC and will be back - thank you to everyone who helped organise it and I look forwards to seeing people there again. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

"Identity seems to be my theme": An interview with Bryan Wigmore

After I finished mainlining The Goddess Project, I found myself very curious as to the influences behind the story. Fortunately, Bryan Wigmore is a very accommodating fellow and readily agreed to answer my questions.

PL: Could you give an idea of the main characters in The Goddess Project?

BW: Sure. Orc and Cass are two freedivers found washed up on a remote beach with their memories blocked. They feel like they were lovers, but because they look somewhat alike, they daren’t act on those feelings in case they’re brother and sister. The book is mostly about the monstrous mess they get into trying to recover their memories.

PL: Was that “can they/can’t they” situation the inception point for the novel?

BW: No, incredible as it seems to be me now, Cass wasn’t even in the story when I began mapping it out. All I had at the start was the idea of Orc as an amnesiac freediver raiding underwater ruins for something, with an otter spirit guide, and the people behind the clairaudio transcripts [PL: which readers can find between some of the chapters.] I still have the notebook in which I was jotting notes about Orc one morning in Costa Coffee, and scribbled “maybe there's a girl too”. Thank God for that three-shot Americano.

PL: Ah, so you're one of the “Powered by Coffee” breed too?

BW: Actually, for health reasons I've largely taken myself off caffeine since. The upside is that when I do now imbibe, it has more effect!

PL: So if not the characters’ situation, what did inspire the story in the first place?

BW: The rough idea for the book came about through a collision between Ken Wilber's Up From Eden, the anime Fullmetal Alchemist, and wanting to include my own experiences of freediving and shamanism. After “finding” Cass, and realising how well she fitted the themes I wanted to play with, I sketched out the religious/magical bones of the world. The story then developed through a combination of constantly-revised planning and pantsing. What that meant in practice was that I thought I'd planned it out in detail, only to keep finding that I'd done no such thing. I always had in mind three or four scenes I wanted to include, though. The difficulty, and the purpose of most of the planning, was to join them up in a coherent manner.

PL: Which particular scenes were those?

BW: One was the climactic fight, though that turned out very different to how I’d expected. The other was the “psychic disruptor” in the hotel room, loosely based on a supposedly non-fictional account of a trap left by a magician.

PL: So you wanted the magic element to reflect the kind people have actually practised?

BW: Yes – I’m no magician myself, but have met a couple of supposed ones, and read books by others, and, being naturally of a mystical bent, the subject fascinates me, especially some of the mystical-magical ideas that were floating around at the turn of the twentieth century: the Theosophists, the ritual magic(k) of the Golden Dawn, and so on. I wanted to include something along those lines, rather than fireballs and whatnot. The basic underpinnings of TGP’s world, that of a realm of information that exists alongside the physical one, fits with the ideas of the Akashic Records and Jung's collective unconscious. And those underpinnings fit with shamanism as well; it allows a lot of scope from just one broad concept. Almost all the magic in TGP is non-physical, and involves the magician or shaman either working on their own mind or someone else's, by connecting through the information-world of the psychosphere (something you could say is a bit like the internet). The physical element, manifestation, is allowed for by the notion that even physical atoms are only information, and that it is therefore possible in the right circumstances to turn thought into matter. And it all tracks back to some massive secrets in the story-world, of course.

PL: *nods* The similarity to real-life occultism was one of the things that really drew me into the book and is one of the things I wish was more common in fantasy. Are there any books that you think do a good job of drawing on these traditions?

BW: Some practising magicians from the Golden Dawn were writers, and the fiction of Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune are both worth a look. Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out is a classic, of course, if a bit lurid and sensationalist. I also drew on Andrew Collins's write-ups of his “psychic questing” experiences, such as The Seventh Sword and The Black Alchemist (the source of the “psychic disruptor” idea).

PL: Only one of those I've read is Crowley and Diary of a Drug Fiend which I gave up on and have yet to return to. Have you read The Invisibles by Grant Morrison or Promethea by Alan Moore?

BW: The Invisibles I think is a work of flawed genius, tremendously exciting to those interested in magical reality, and I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand it. Promethea is one of the best and most accessible introductions to hermetic magic around, but is badly lacking in plot terms.

PL: Are there plans to look at more magical ways to the same path in the sequel?

BW: Yes -- one character in The Empyreus Proof begins to develop a more scientific-rational way of engaging with the psychosphere, in the hope of avoiding its danger of insanity. Being pre-computer, the analogy she works with is of catalogue index cards.

PL: Apart from the occult aspects, is there anything else about the 1900 period that particularly intrigues you? I want to guess the naval race between Britain and Germany but I could be wrong!

BW: You're not! Something about warships of that period has long fascinated me. It might have started with seeing the cover of Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds album as a kid. The dreadnought race between Britain and Germany was so ruinously expensive, and all to build machines that, though we recognise them as being fairly modern, would be outclassed by the smallest frigate with a guided missile these days. There's something romantic about ships of that period too, which post-WWI vessels lack for me

PL: Modern ships don't look half as cool either.

BW: As for other aspects of that period, the prevailing attitude to the body -- especially women's bodies -- is important thematically to the story I wanted to tell, though this comes out more in the sequel. Clearly we haven't left those attitudes altogether behind, but they were more obvious then. I wanted to try to get to the bottom of those, because I think they're very deep-rooted, and I'm not sure it's well-understood as to why.

PL: Does that theme tie in with the magic aspects at all?

BW: I think so. The whole skeleton of the story-world is based on there having been an exaggerated split between “male” and “female” in ancient times. The north got the male, and the south (Golgomera) got the female, symbolised by the splitting of the serpents in Orc's shamanic vision on the island -- the Mandala, the totality of existence, divides into Saeraf (fiery, winged, armoured, representing male, intellect and ego, sky) and Chthonis (slippery, eel-like, representing female, body and subconscious, earth). This was all laid down at the start of writing. But despite planning the metaphysics, I hadn’t really thought about how it would interact with the gender of the human characters, mad as that now seems, and at the end it started to worry me that the first book might almost seem to be the work of a misogynist.

PL: Because of the attitudes in Highcloud and the Victorian-Prussian-type Empyreum?

BW: Not just that. For example, I expected to be challenged about why there were only male viewpoint characters in the book’s first half. I did wonder about giving Cass an early chapter, swapping one of Orc’s. But then I decided I liked the way it’s all male for the first half, and female-dominated for the second (if you add the Goddess to the mix, though in terms of POV I think even the second half is 50/50 at best). It seemed to suit the theme.

PL: With all this talk of the split, and with Orc and Cass, would it be fair to say there’s a kind of yin/yang thing going on?

BW: Yes. In fact, that was reflected in a draft cover I did when I toyed with the idea of self-publishing.

Bryan's draft

I did show this to Emma Barnes at Snowbooks, who did the final cover. That has some of the same feel, though of course it omits the freedivers.

PL: Which is a major part of your story.

BW: Yes, though not the major part. But it was firmly in my conception for Orc, partly because I hadn’t seen it written well in sci-fi or fantasy, and as a freediver myself I wanted to include it.

PL: What’s freediving like?

BW: Amazing. It has many limitations compared to scuba, but I love the silence, simplicity and grace of it. If you're comfortable with holding your breath for fairly long stretches, then the feeling of hanging weightless in fifteen metres of water surrounded by sea-life is like nothing else. On holiday a couple of years ago I was able to sit on the white sand sea floor next to a (deliberately) sunken tugboat and study all the tiny fish in the wheelhouse, with a reef shark swimming around near me: an experience I'm sure will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life.

PL: You’ve indicated that some of the shamanism was from your own experiences too.

BW: I only go in for shamanism-lite, really, but Otter and Hare are my own main power animals (though “my” Otter doesn’t speak, let alone call me “bruv”). Hence their inclusion in the Fire Stealers myth within the story.

PL: The Fire Stealers myth was awesome. How did you pick the other animals?

BW: Raven and Fox are classic folklore tricksters; Sparrow for her cheek (I once saw one pinch nesting material from a blackbird's beak!) and Eagle probably because it would appeal to Raven's vanity to have so prestigious a creature involved.

PL: If anyone was interested, is there a particular starting point you’d recommend for shamanism?

BW: Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan is a good general intro with a Celtic focus. Healing the Wounded King by John Matthews, though a self-help book, was my introduction to the actual exercise of journeying (“scaping” as it's called in TGP), and is based on parts of the Arthurian stories. The whole tying up with the wild woods of England and Wales was part of its attraction to me. That’s also true of some of my favourite fantasy, such as Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. I like fantasy that explores the nature of reality, or the margins where one thing turns into another, for which watery places and woods have long been associated. I also like stories that hint at occult secrets I might almost have believed in my more credulous twenties: I love allowing myself to slip back into that kind of mindset. My favourite stories also explore the magical side of nature, especially the darker side.

PL: If I was to say there's one big theme about the book (and I'm a pretentious git so I will), I'd say it was identity. There's not just the situation of Orc and Cass, there's Tashi's struggle with coming down from the mountain, the contrast between him and Ranga. Anything deliberate there?

BW: Nothing deliberate as such, but I could have predicted it -- identity seems to be my theme, for some reason, and always has been. If I can out-pretension you, it also links with the story-world, in that a crucial part of its history is the point at which the truly separate self-identity, or ego, became possible. In the history of this world, this is the point at which the Sun-King refused to sacrifice himself to the earth (as alluded to in Daroguerre's exhortation to Skalith). Orc witnesses it in his shamanic experience on the island as the two serpents separating. It's also the root of the exaggerated gender split I referred to above, and the Fire Stealers myth too.

PL: And now we’re reaching the end, what's been the hardest thing about writing your first book?

BW: Though this is my first published book, I have written others. But TGP was the first with more than two viewpoint characters, and managing the complex plot this allowed took some doing. It was also the first I'd written whilst being a member of a writing group, and though this brought many advantages, it did make me more aware than previously of the inevitability of someone reading it. And once it started to seem that I might actually have hit on something, there was the pressure to not muck it up!

PL: What were the preceding ones, if I may ask? How long would you say you've been seriously writing?

BW: I've been writing for almost 25 years, and I've always taken it seriously, though not always in the sense of applying a serious amount of energy to it. My first novel mixed ideas of the Nephilim, the Antarctic theory of Atlantis, the Anglo-Saxon legend that the faery were the third of the angels who refused to fight against Satan, and the story of a young man growing up in a seaside town in Sussex -- with identity issues!! -- who turns out to be et cetera. The only other long one I've completed was about a young man growing up on the edge of a desert -- with identity issues!! -- who teams up with an explorer girl to head off into the wilderness and find the secrets of their world and his birth. A massive laser cannon was involved.

PL: And what was the best bit of advice you got from the group?

BW: No one particular piece of advice, but thousands of specific pieces that can be broadly collected under the umbrella of not letting me get away with slacking off. And they got me out of a couple of horrible plot-holes.

PL: Also, what's the worst bit of writing advice you've ever seen?

BW: I had feedback on the desert novel that contained (roughly) the line: “If she isn't interested in being a mother, why make her female?” (And this was from a female agent!)

PL: Good grief. That's... kind of magnificent. Last question: what's your favourite moment in the book?

BW: That's a toughie. I think it might be the back-and-forth between Orc's and Cass's points of view at the Great Ziggurat. Or when Tashi both loses and wins in his final chapter. Or when Tashi runs with Yaggit on his back to save Shoggu. Or maybe when Orc first calls Otter. Or it might, now I think of it, be the story of his Initiation.

I'd agree with the latter three as well, although like Bryan, I found it pretty tough to pick as well. Thank you very much to Bryan for taking the time to talk about The Goddess Project. I hope this provided further elucidation to those of you who've read it - and to those who haven't, further inspiration to pick it up.

Monday, 30 January 2017

On Fantasy and Magic

As I sit here editing an interview and dodging doing any of my own writing, I find myself pondering the subject of magic.

Once upon a time, being a smartarse, I replied to a thread on overused things in fantasy with the answer 'Magic'. That was part me showing my irritation at that sort of question, but part genuine answer. It is very very difficult to find a fantasy book that does not feature someone practising magic at some point. There is no shortage of fodder for fantasy novels out there that don't involve anyone casting spells at all.

Nevertheless, magic does dominate the genre's imagination. A new "Help me with my magic system" thread pops up on my various forums every week or two. People often recommend books partially due to their innovative new magic system. Many an author has chimed in with their thoughts. Those I've read tend to focus more around magic's use as a plot device and unique fighting style, which judging from the aforementioned threads, seems to be very helpful advice to many.

For my taste though, this leads to an overly narrow and unholistic view of magic in the genre. I would like to see more advice and more thought on how to use magic as a setting detail.

I would stress straight away that I cannot think of a single author who doesn't embed the magic into their setting in some way. The more you think about it, the more you can see what they've done. But you do have to think about it and it is uncommon, in my experience, for it to go deep. I think authors are doing themselves a disservice by doing so because vibrant settings make for vibrant books and the deeper any setting detail runs, the more vibrant the setting is.

I think a great example of this is The Wheel of Time. Its arguably one of the classics of the genre and in a lot of ways you have to ask why. Few series attract as much internet teeth grinding over characters and plot. It would be remiss to suggest that there isn't a great deal of love for the characters and plot (often from the same people) but it clearly overcame many flaws to hold its position. If you compared WoT to many of its peers, one of the things that stands out most clearly is the quality of the worldbuilding. That goes for the One Power as well. History of its use, different philosophies, social status of users, its effect on history - its all there. Trying to imagine WoT without the One Power is like trying to imagine it without Rand.

Another example would be Tigana, again an arguable classic (and certainly an internet favourite for best stand alone). There are very few stories where magic is more central to the plot but it runs deeper than that. Every culture has its own magic and practices, as well as their views towards its use. It forms part of their deepest, oldest myths. It forms part of their heresies, their politics, their everything. And Tigana isn't even a magic heavy book - not next to Mistborn or WoT. Just there's a few really well placed bits of magic and the ramifications are everywhere.

There's some common threads here at a quick look -

If magic is truly part of a setting, then it should be part of its history and its pre-history.

Views on magic should vary by culture. Even in worlds where believing in magic is like believing in the kitchen table, differing histories and philosophies will lead to divergent views on magic, just as there's divergent views on how to eat your dinner.

Usage of magic should change too. The closest equivalent to magic in terms of real world history is probably military technology, and the most cursory inspection of the history of said reveals continuous difference in usage.

And it should have a place in the power structure. Power has always found its way into governments somehow. If practitioners are not involved, then there must be a reason. 

I would add a final thing that's sorta there, sorta not, but in any case, something I really like to see -

Fantasy worlds with acknowledged magic should see people with very different views on life, death, the sacred and everything else to those of this planet. This is most pronounced with D&D-esque worlds where cheating death is relatively straight-forwards (if difficult) and where its entirely possible to summon angels and ask them questions about the gods, but even in low magic worlds it should be making a difference. 

Maybe people would view it with the same matter of factness they treat the technological advances of today. Maybe they'd react with the violence of the Luddites. Maybe they would view it as inherently sacred and spiritual. Maybe we'd get people taking the philosophy of magic and applying it to their everyday business, like people do with Sun Tzu. But there should be something. The miraculous and other acts of genius change the world. Worlds - even imaginary worlds - that don't change are stagnant.

And vibrant worlds sell books. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore

Every now and again you find a book that is so closely matched to your tastes, you could almost believe the author had hypnotised you and questioned your deepest psyche about what made a truly superior story. Now I've met Bryan Wigmore a couple of times and he really doesn't seem the sort of guy who'd do that without my agreement, so clearly this is just one hell of a coincidence. Its also one hell of a book. I received an ARC one morning, read a little, read a little more, then eventually finished all 520 pages seven hours later. Its that good. In fact, spoiler alert: I'm going to tell you to buy The Goddess Project. I believe everyone should. However, I have to acknowledge my tastes are not objective truth, so let me tell you what this book is all about.

The long version is that The Goddess Project is the tale of two separate groups of people that come together in a search for secrets. The first is about a pair of freedivers (Orc and Cass) seeking out the artefact that can restore their lost memories. The second is about other a monk and his apprentice (Shoggu and Tashi) sacrificing their place on the holy mountain to chase down a nebulous threat. Together, these people fight crime get into serious trouble, all shown on a rich background of shamanism, naval arms races, secret conspiracies and diving. You might say they get in over their heads.

This is either the characters reaction to much of the plot, or your reaction to that pun. Works either way.

The short version is that this is what would have happened if His Dark Materials had grown up and run away to sea.

A lot of what makes that comparison so easy to make lies in the book's setting. There is the same collision point between an industrialising world and the spiritual, something of the same focus on the true nature of what goes beyond. Wigmore seems to approach the subject from a rather different view point and where His Dark Materials is provocative and maybe even a little angry, The Goddess Project seems more wry and amused by the subject. An example of this can be found in Otter, Orc's shamanic guide and arguably the best character in the book. The spirit manifestation of all things furry and fish munching takes an irreverent and cheerful approach with his charge, almost like Delboy and Rodney. Only with both of them having a clue what they're doing. Non-Brits, think... maybe Silk and Garion. Only better.

Nevertheless, there is something questioning and a bit iconoclastic here. Wigmore does not merely use the aesthetics of the early 1900s; he also engages with the nature of the beast in the way it divided humanity. There is something of a tendency in steampunk and other fantastical works drawing from the era to ignore these things in the name of adventure. Nor is it unknown for books to focus heavily on the darker side of those times. The Goddess Project walks the line. There are thoughts about the damage done by gender inequality and colonialism there if you want to read deeply and think but, if you're not particularly thinking about them, the subjects fade into the background in a way reminiscent of Pratchett. What it does do that will please everyone thought is create a deep, vivid, conflict-filled world for the story that really draws the reader in.

This is what happens when you let an Otter be the mentor, bruv

The real theme of this story though is identity. As already mentioned, we've got two characters who can't even remember who they are and another two who give up their place in the world, but pretty much everyone in this book is looking for or questioning their identity somehow. Its like the marbling in quality beef. Of course, it would be very easy to overdo this and end up with a cast as whiny as the worst of The Wheel of Time. This doesn't happen largely because the characters are constantly active and when they stop to think, its usually to wonder how on earth they're going to repair the damage they've done. However, while they're always doing something, they're not action heroes. Much as I enjoy some bloodletting, its very refreshing to see some protagonists solving their problems with their brains. Or at least trying to.

The best things about the characters though are how central they are to the plot. They are stumbling across the great submerged evil because they're seeking the answers to their own problems, managing the neat trick of being reluctant heroes while being pro-active all at once. Also, because the character's problems are so central to the plot, we get to spend a lot of time with them. Pretty much everything that happens shines a light on their personalities. They're not always the most sympathetic, but they're always ones you can empathise with and this adds a real emotional weight to their actions. I can't really go into details without spoilers but Cass gets some great scenes with the new friends she makes, Orc's final shamanic journey is awesome, and pretty much everything Tashi does is really cool. But particularly his first appearance and his bit right at the end. That said, what makes them great characters isn't their epic scenes or witticisms, its how real they feel due to how how much we dwell in their thoughts and depths.

This is traditionally the part of the review where I tell you what's wrong with the book. Well, the problem here is I feel bad recommending it so wholeheartedly as surely I must be missing something. My friends will pick it up expecting genius and go away disappointed. I know other advanced copy readers agree with my assessment but I can't escape that nagging feeling. Nothing can really be this good. Well, I think it might just be. I would allow however that some people might think Orc and Cass quarrel too much. I disagree but can see people not enjoying it. Also, anyone looking for high octane action is in the wrong place, as are those looking for political intrigue in the halls of kings. These are everyday folk solving their own immense mystical problems. If that's what you're looking for, The Goddess Project fits this well:

In any case, I think either I've sold you or I haven't by now. What makes a book good or bad is how well it fits your tastes and the tastes of others. We've already established the former in my case. I really believe it'll do a great job with the latter too. I haven't read a book this good since the downright incredible Bridge of Birds early in 2016. So go check The Goddess Project out. Even if its just the Kindle sample. I know not everyone will love this book as much as I do. I'll be surprised though if most fans of intrigue-heavy character-led fantasy don't really like this though. I really will.

The Goddess Project is out now, published by Snowbooks. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. I would like to thank Bryan and Snowbooks for my Advanced Review Copy. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

My Modern Fantasy Challenge

This post would be a lot easier to introduce if I'd written when I'd actually had the idea.

Back in May last year, I decided that I don't know enough about modern fantasy. My tastes had calcified. I had a rough idea who was big and I'd read a few of them but, by and large, I was completely out of date. I didn't like this because:

a) As an aspiring author, I needed to know what was doing on out there
b) As a complete fantasy nerd, I hated the idea that I missing out on the good shit

My solution was to take myself off to a number of forums I'd recently joined back then - Best Fantasy Books, Fantasy Faction, and SFF Chronicles - and ask for recommendations on the best fantasy published within the last ten years. No preferences of any sort were given, although in some cases people knew me well enough to guess themselves. In the case of series, that meant those begun in that time span, not extending into it, although I wasn't being strict on time frame. My intention was to narrow down the feedback into a list of nine books by nine different authors - the best of the best. I picked the number nine because it seemed a nice number, large without being overwhelming, and of course if its good enough for Sauron its good enough for me. Then I'd read them all, review them all, and then have an idea how I felt about modern fantasy. That was the idea at least. Of course, the fact I'm writing this eight months after the fact means it hasn't quite gone to plan.

Anyway, what did I get in terms of recommendations? Well, for the first thing, I got the news that I'd read a bit more modern fantasy than I'd realised. I knew that Joe Abercrombie's The First Law fell in this time period - indeed, it celebrated its tenth birthday recently - but had forgotten that Jim Butcher's Codex Alera only just fell outside. I'd also forgotten about Paul Kearney's The Sea Beggars, a series that started very promisingly before getting wrecked on the rocks of publisher problems. Those three authors therefore don't appear below as I already knew about them.

Beyond that, I got recommendations for forty-nine different authors from twenty-one different people. Seven of those authors are self-published. The majority of those recommendations came from the highly talented GR Matthews, whose book 'The Stone Road' has sufficiently impressed me that I'll listen very closely to him. The only self-published author recommended by others was Allan Batchelder, a BFB favourite. In the event, I've decided not to put any of them on my list, because I wanted to concentrate more on what was popular. I will hopefully check out all of them at some point though.

Here's the whole list. I've arranged the recommendations by author rather than by book, and by the number of recommendations each received.

5 - Mark Lawrence, Scott Lynch

4 - Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Naomi Novik

3 - Brian McClellan, Peter Brett

2 - Adrian Tchaikovsky, Brian Staveley, R. Scott Bakker, Ben Aaronovitch, Allan Batchelder, Steven Erikson, Django Wexler, Chris Wooding, Michael Fletcher, Jen Williams, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham

1 - Nnedi Okorafor, Kirsty Logan, Kameron Hurley, Sarah Pinborough, Julia Knight, Emma Knight, Robert Redick, Miles Cameron, Michael Sullivan, Den Patrick, Kate Elliot, Robert Jackson Bennett, NK Jemisin, Alex Marshall, Jo Walton, Christopher Buehlman, Michael Livingston, Tad Williams, Jeff Salyards, Stella Gemmell, Laura Resnick, Ilona Andrews, T.O. Munro, J.P. Ashman, Matt Colville, James Cormier, Barbara Webb, Graham Austin-King (last 6 all SP)

Even before I picked, I was fascinated by the data. Some names came a great deal higher than I expected, others a great deal later. Given how much I'd heard about Patrick Rothfuss, I expected more than two recommendations for him, one of which said "I hated these books myself but they are extremely well regarded". Brian Staveley was another whose names pops up a lot, but who no one wanted to recommend to me. In the event, I read the intro chapters of The Emperor's Blades online and was impressed, then read them in a book borrowed from the library and was bored. No idea how that works!

I also can't help but notice that by and large, it's a fairly masculine list. Naomi Novik is the only woman in the top five recommended and there's only another two in the top twenty. There's sixteen total in the forty-nine, which is not bad, but if I was to remove just three of the people who nominated, I'd have five women nominated out of thirty-four. For whatever reason, the mainstream does not appear to be particularly thinking of women.

The top end of the list is generally dominated by those on the wrong side of the law or the right side if the battle field (or sometimes 'right') - something of a fantasy staple in many ways, but the tone seems much darker. Epic is in. Light-heartedness and adventure - well, there's a bit of it there, particularly among the urban fantasy authors, but it doesn't seem the norm.

Anyway, lets get to the picks. It being eight months after I asked and me being addicted to books, I've gone and read books by a few of the authors above before I ever drew up a list. Those are Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, Ben Aaronovitch, Jen Williams and Miles Cameron. That leaves four slots just like that.

At this moment in time, I don't know who I'm adding to the list. Turns out sifting through 49 authors and making intelligent judgements is pretty difficult, even allowing for all the info out there these days. Also, I'm something of an impulse shopper. I do want to get a decent amount of the people at the top as that's who's really popular out there, but I also want to look at some of the odder concepts out there. 

I'm pretty sure Naomi Novik's hitting the list. She's popular and she's doing something more than same old same old. I'll probably check out at least one of McClellan and Lawrence. McClellan I'm a bit reluctant about because he's compared so much to Sanderson and I'd like to spread out my sampling. With Lawrence, the issue is a lot of people I know and respect can't get on with his brand of grimdark. I suspect I'll be the same, particularly based on kindle samples.

Looking down the list, Wooding's books sound a whole lot of fun and I'm surprised I didn't receive more call outs for him based on conversations after asking. Tchaikovsky and Abraham both have talent, but I'm not sure I need to read more epic fantasy. Erin Morgernstern's The Night Circus has received a lot of praise and the kindle sample is beautifully written; not sure its quite my thing though. Right now, I suspect the last place or two will be filled out by someone from a shortlist of Jo Walton, NK Jemisin and Robert Jackson Bennett. They read beautifully and have intriguing ideas. Again, after the fact of me asking, I see a lot of praise for the latter two.

But I don't know for sure yet. Maybe I'll see someone on the list in a charity bookshop and snap them up, like I just did with Benedict Jacka and China Mieville. Or I'll spot them on kindle sale, which is how Miles Cameron made his way onto the list. In any case, its not like these are the last and only modern fantasy authors I'll ever read. That would be absurd. But these are the only nine I'm definitely reviewing. Once I'm done with those nine, I'll muse about where the genre is, although I'll be referring to more books than are just involved in this.

And I should at least be up to date by that point. And hungry for more books.

Friday, 6 January 2017

State of the Delirium Address 2017

I started 2016 sublimely confident that I was ready to publish and be proud of my first book just as soon as I'd finished it.

I ended 2016 with that book written - and another one written too - and maybe a million miles away from publishing. Maybe I'm quite close. It is difficult to be sure.

When I started writing, I was a fool. I stepped blindly over the precipice, full of trust that things would be right. Plenty of reading and doing plenty of writing would be enough. It isn't. In hindsight that is obvious but the reality of my experience was quite humbling. 

In a way though, the trust has been well placed. Through luck and through effort and through friends, I have learned a huge amount. I have created a huge amount. I could never have another idea for a story and yet still have enough for a lifetime. Most crucially, I have found support networks and new friends that will sustain me for a long way through this writing journey. I might be wrong about the tools I would use but I have been right that sitting down at the keyboard and writing has been the way to go.

That is not to say I will be successful. I may never write a book I am satisfied with, nevermind one that fulfils my dreams, bringing many people happiness and enlightenment while giving me the ability to work while completely naked. One of the things I've learned is that writing's not that sort of game. 

Something I have learned though is that as long as you're having fun, you're winning. And what I learned in 2016 was a lot of fun. I also learned that writing isn't about waving a magic wand, its about doing the work again and again, and I have been doing the work. Possibly the greatest lesson I learned through is that most writers give up too quickly and that the only thing that can finish you as an author is stopping writing. 

That said, my plan isn't just to keep having fun, keep working at it and never stop trying. That's what I tried last year, and the year before that, and before that too. It hasn't got me to where I am yet. If the heart and soul of writing are desire and discipline, imagination and perspiration, then the brain and muscle is skill and knowledge. I need more brain and muscle to move to where I want to be.

I've seen a lot of writing resolutions on the forums I use, most about the books people will write and release. I'm not going to say I don't have these resolutions, but they are not the goals I am pursuing first and foremost. Because after a conversation with Jo Zebedee sparked by a throw away comment, I have decided my resolutions are all to do with my writing processes. I will trust in the belief that it is performance that matters and if you get the performance right, the results will come.

The first resolution is that every day I will write or edit. I'll even try to learn and how do so without having a distraction at the same time.

The second resolution is to improve my knowledge of narrative structure and storytelling techniques. I'm currently doing my research for books to aid me in this while also searching for online articles such as this fabulous series by Jim Butcher

The third resolution is to ask more questions. That's an idea that weirdly I didn't get because its simple common sense, but due to a book recommendation from Bryan Wigmore (of whom you will hear more shortly). The book deals with the story of the Fisher King, the crippled guardian of the grail in Arthurian legend who cannot be healed until Perceval is able to ask the right question. Its one of the great truths of human condition - that questions must be asked before things can get stronger - and that goes for writing as much as anything else.

Those are my resolutions. Maybe I'll discover they are the wrong ones and change them. No, wait. Maybe in time I'll discover I need different ones; they'll never be the wrong ones because today they are the right ones. If something is right in its time and place, then it is right.

If things go right, then I should self-publish my first book this year. That would be Eye of the Eagle, a military sci-fi adventure set in the same universe as Richard Tongue's Alamo series. I will also have another book to make decisions over, that being the fantasy murder mystery project currently known as Gumshoe Paladin. I'm still unsure over whether to submit it or go straight to self-publication. And there's a few short story ideas that are germinating and might become something, which would be nice, particularly as I've just joined a writing group focused on short stories.

There's a few fun blog things lined up too, like my first author interview (hopefully first of many) and my plans to do big weighty reviews for all the Discworld books. I'm also planning to chronicle my discovery of fantasy written this century and start throwing out the odd very short story here and there. And I'll even have a life outside of writing (Boo! Hiss!) as I'll be getting married in May (love you darling if you're reading this). A full year in other words but as they say, if you want something done give it to a busy person.

Whatever happens though, I will have fun, I will keep pressing forwards and I will keep learning. I hope you do the same.