Monday, May 30, 2011

Foundations: My Seminal Fantasy Books

The other day I was re-reading Judith Tarr’s The Hound and the Falcon trilogy, and it got me thinking about what are seminal fantasy books/series for me.  To start off my list, here are three authors that my mother read aloud to my siblings and me, all of which have had an impact on my own imagination.

J. R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  My mother read both of these aloud, but we also had them on cassette tape and listened to them until the tapes were all warped and slurred.  Some of the elements which I am particularly drawn to in these books include the richness and depth of the world, the lyricism of Tolkien’s writing, the nobility of his characters and the simplicity he brings to a complex tale.

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising quartet.  This YA series blends the modern day with a mythic world quite seamlessly.  Unlike some of the more recent attempts to do so, there is less of a sense that there is a hidden world of magic, and more of a sense of continuity between the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Cooper draws on Celtic mythology, particularly the Arthurian cycle.   I particularly like the way she reimagines customs and stories of the British isles, weaving together history, myth and her own inventions to create a grand set of adventures.

Ellen Kindt McKenzie: Taash and the Jesters.  This book is exciting, funny and engrossing.  It has many traditional elements: an orphan mysterious origins, a kidnapped prince, a long quest through a Medieval fantasy world, disguises, mistaken identities, wicked witches, good witches, and happy accidents.  One particular reason I have great affection for it is that the author lived in the area of California where I grew up, and I always fancied that the landscape of Taash was influenced by the same landscape that is often at the center of my imagination.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Writing Short Stories - Part 1

In the process of learning to write short-stories I have learned – or, perhaps, relearned – that I have a tendency to be verbose.  I think it is partially instinctive, as I have always had a love for completeness.  It is not enough to know the bones of the story: I want to know what they ate and how they made paint or glue or how their language evolved, and what happened in the places they left behind.  The trick that I am starting to learn is that all of that can be explored, but the story is the network of moments within it that fit together in one tight, sleek shape.  I hope that in time I will be able to shorten the process – rather than writing the 20,000 word version, then the 12,000, then the 9,000 and then finally the 7,500, I will be able to hold the 20,000 version in my head while I write the 9,000 version and then edit it down.

The other reason I tend toward wordiness is from academic writing.  Somehow, when I was receiving my training, there was much more emphasis on achieving the page number than on saying everything that needs to be said elegantly and succinctly.  In retrospect I wish I had had a teacher who was skilled in teaching how to define a topic that is the right size for that 25 page paper while being concise.  I have had a lot of good teachers over the years, but as I think about it, very few good writing teachers.

At any rate, I am rewriting and editing five stories at the moment.  While I am nearly done with Tav’uran, I have decided that I am not going to start the next country until I have at least two, if not three, of the current stories polished up to the point I feel I can start submitting them for publication.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Book Review: The Dragon's Path

The Dragon’s Path
The Dagger and the Coin Book 1

Daniel Abraham
Orbit 2011

There are two ways to meet the world.  You go out with a blade in your hand or else a purse” (526).

The Dragon’s Path is the beginning of an interesting tale.  Following multiple viewpoints through a world that is preparing for great change, this particular story spent a little bit too much time on introductory elements and only got into the meat of the tale near the end.  The characterizations are very well done – rich, well-rounded and always an energizing mix of likeable and dislikable.  It is hard to get entirely comfortable with any of the characters, which fit the uncertainty and uneasiness of the world they live in. 

There are two main threads of the story, corresponding to the two “ways to meet the world:” one of commerce and the other of war.  Both threads contain characters who are growing into their worlds, coming from the isolation of childhood, education and obscurity into the arena of adulthood, application of learning and recognition.  The first thread of the tale starts with a doomed caravan guarded by an aging hero, Captain Marcus Wester, his lieutenant Yardem and a troupe of actors pretending to be mercenaries.  In the caravan is Cithrin, a young banker’s ward who has been charged with the task of smuggling a vast amount of wealth (in the form of silks, gems, spices and tobacco) from the city Vanai, which on the verge of war.  This particular strand develops the world of the commerce as Cithrin plunges into the risky and intricate world of banking, juggling issues of trust, honesty, legality, opportunity and necessity.  She becomes both betrayer and betrayed; pawn and free agent.

Similarly, the other thread of the tale follows Geder, who like Cithrin, is pulled to and fro by the events of his world, sometimes seeming to direct his own fate, other times fully at the mercy of those around him.  His tale is that of the sword.  He begins as the target of every joke made by his company, which is a part of the forces of King Simeon.  After they take Vanai, he becomes a convenient sacrificial lamb to one side of the political forces struggling to gain the upper hand with the King.  Yet from the moment he is given any sort of power, his choices keep unexpectedly changing his own fortunes, as well as the stakes of the whole conflict.
Abraham plays his cards very close to his chest.  Throughout the novel, I found myself uncertain as to where he was going with some of his elements.  It appears that Geder is shaping up to be the villain, but it is possible he will realize the danger of the road he has chosen.  It also appears that the pair of Cithrin and Marcus Wester will be in a position to stand against Geder and the sinister forces he has unknowingly loosed in the world.  However, Abraham kept me guessing through The Dragon’s Path, and I am sure he has some further reversals in the continuing tale.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Book Review: The King of Attolia

The King of Attolia

Megan Whalen Turner
EOS/HarperCollins 2007

It is advisable to read Turner’s series from the beginning, starting with The Thief (1998) and then The Queen of Attolia (2001), as her stories are very closely linked.  All three books are good, though I found The King of Attolia the most engaging as it contained a satisfying character arch and the reward of some of the elements she had built up in the previous stories.  In the first two books the protagonist is Eugenides, and the tale focuses on his adventures.  He is an interesting mix of learning and foolishness, cunning and artlessness, and always a sort of manic energy.  In The King of Attolia, the story is primarily told from the point of view of Costis, a young guard who becomes embroiled with the twisted workings of Eugenides’ schemes.  This view point works very well because having come to know Eugenides from the first two stories, the reader can see into or through some of the situations that have Costis confused, yet there is a freshness in seeing Eugenides through eyes that do not know him yet.

The plot centers on the layered conspiracies and politics in the court of Attolia and the slow unraveling and reveal as multiple players try to twist and turn things in their own way, only to slowly discover that they are all playing against a better player, in the person of their new King, Eugenides.  It is one of those tales that as it is unfolding I was so engrossed in the twists and turns it all seems entirely plausible, yet when I step back from it there is a sense that it is a little too pat, that Eugenides’ cleverness is a little too omniscient.  However, I did enjoy the journey very much and look forward to its continuation in A Conspiracy of Kings (2010), though, as it focuses on a different character, it may only have Eugenides in the background.