Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Reading

I nearly managed to achieve one of my ambitions and receive no Christmas presents other than books (two pesky DVDs, including the glorious Spartacus) broke the run. Here are the bookshelf-busters Santa delivered:

Sharon Penman When Christ and His Saints Slept and Here Be Dragons
Sebastian Sebag Montefiore Stalin--The Court of the Red Tzar
Dan Simmons Drood
Marc Morris A Great and Terrible King (biography of Edward I)
Ian Mortimer The Greatest Traitor (biography of Roger Mortimer)

So far I've read a couple of hundred pages of When Christ and His Saints Slept, the first of a saga addressing Britain in the 11th century. It's serviceable enough, but not on the same level as The Sunne in Splendour. It also contains the notorious Ranulf I mentioned in this piece last year. I have to admit to finding Ranulf somewhat irritating: not because he is a fictional character thrust into a purportedly historical situation, but because he has no discernible flaws. Perhaps he'll get roughened up as the book progresses, but so far he's managed to switch sides in a civil war and still everyone in both camps loves him. He's handsome, charming, witty, constant in his affections and brave to boot. On that basis I doubt I'd like him in real life so I'm damned if I'm going to like him in fiction either.

I think next we'll move on to Drood; set in the 19th century it's quite contemporary for me. I admire Simmons' imaginative force but his last novel, The Terror, failed to capture the voice of 19th century British English--a sort of literary Dick van Dyke. I'm interested to see if he can pull it off here.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pared to the Bone
Brief observations on the stylistic development of Jack Vance

Ryan David Jahn linked to a fascinating piece over at Guns and Verbs which hypothesised that Agatha Christie was suffering from Alzheimers in her later years, based on clues from her later published work. In her late 70s, Christie's work showed a marked reduction in vocabulary, use of specific language and sentence complexity. (A similar analysis reached the same conclusions on Iris Murdoch's work).

It occcured to me that Christie was an ideal subject for this kind of exercise. Over the main body of her career she exhibits almost no stylistic development, so any changes to her work are more likely to arise from "organic" variation.

If one were to carry out the same analysis on Jack Vance the results would not be reliable because of his considerable stylistic evolution. For a writer whose reputation is for the baroque, his mature work shows considerable restraint: his language over time becomes, like late Christie, simpler, his syntax more pared.

We can see this by looking at the novella 'Guyal of Sfere,' originally published in 1950 (though probably written in the mid-40s) and then materially revised for anthology publication in 1968. The scope of the revision is enormous.

Detailed comparison of the 1950 and 1968 texts reveals in full contrast the differences between the lush, almost hypnotic early style and the more measured, detached control of the middle period. ‘Revision’ is too restrained a word for the way in which Vance has modified ‘Guyal of Sfere’. The later version is nearly one-sixth shorter, and the emotional tone of the piece markedly cooler.

Some of the changes are simply tightening up on perceived verbosity, as in the first sentence:

Guyal of Sfere had been born one apart from his fellows and early proved a source of vexation for his sire.

…the trivial and useless had been discarded, leaving a residue which was all that was necessary to a sound man. (1950)

…the trivial and useless had been discarded, leaving only that residue necessary to a sound man. (1968)

In other cases, supporting detail judged unnecessary to the story is suppressed. Perhaps most often, metaphorical imagery is judged unnecessary and struck from the record.

The sun, old and red as an autumn pomegranate, wallowed in the south-west; the light across the plain was dim and watery; the mountains presented a curiously artificial aspect, like a tableau planned for the effect of eery desolation. (1950)

The sun wallowed in the southwest; the light across the plain was dim and watery. (1968)

The reader may ask the question: “Have these revisions improved the story?” It’s perhaps not as straightforward as that: the later version of the story is not so much better or worse, as different. The revision is lean, spare, the work of a writer who has ruthlessly pared down his method, leaving behind the excesses of youth. The seasoned reader, who will find the middle period Vance every bit as evocative as his earlier work, will marvel at how he achieves the same effects with so much greater economy.
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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Essential Fantasy List

As requested by David Isaak, the fantasy books you must read. Don't worry if you haven't read them all--neither have I! And in some cases I've not been able to finish them; but I don't need to eat my vegetables to tell you to eat yours...

The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie is the LC Tyler of fantasy fiction (with added gore). In the First Law series he takes the tropes of Tolkienesque fantasy and turns them around to produce a cycle of wit, drama and a grimly appropriate conclusion. Add in his deft control of voice and point of view, and you have probably the best writer working in the field today. At once affectionate towards and utterly deconstructive of the history of the genre.

Inversions, Iain M. Banks
Technically science-fiction, one of the things that appeals about Banks is the way that he manages to blur the lines between "sf" and "f". This novel influenced me hugely; with his trademark mixture of sassiness, wit and liberal outlook, Banks is a major figure in the field.

The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
OK, so I never managed to get past about page 30 of this, but don't let that stop you trying. Alongside Lord Dunsany--another I struggle to finish--he illustrates that fantasy existed before Tolkien.

Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
Less than 30 years old, Swordspoint is already almost forgotten. Such is often the fate of excellence. This is fantasy for grown-ups; no pyrotechnics, no flash worldbuilding, no magic, no elves or dwarves. Swordspoint is just a human story with quiet intrigues and plenty of swordfights. It's influenced me more than I realised, which probably doesn't say much for my commercial prospects.

The Earthsea cycle, Ursula K. LeGuin
LeGuin is sometimes a little "in your face" for my tastes, her politics often undigested in her fiction. But I can forgive her most things for Earthsea, perhaps the best of the "boy wizard grows up" genre. There's never been a better evocation of the cost of magical powers.

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
This is the novel that rescued epic fantasy from the cosy cliches of Tolkien-lite. Subsequent volumes have never matched the shock value of the gritty, bloody opener. His readiness to kill off viewpoint characters still astounds today. Martin launched fantasy noir with this one book.

Fevre Dream, George R.R. Martin
Long before the current vogue for vampires, Martin's tale of the undead in the 19th century Deep South showcased his ability to revitalise tired genre tropes. Altogether less epic in scope than his latest work, Fevre Dream nonetheless repays close attention.

The War Hound and the World's Pain, Michael Moorcock
I find Moorcock's output desperately uneven, but at his best he's hard to match. When I first read this tale of heaven and hell in my late teens, I thought it the most extraordinary book I had ever read, and even a quarter of a century later it remains a powerful presence. If fantasy has a Paradise Lost, this is it.

Gloriana, Michael Moorcock
Considering that I'm no great Moorcock fan, I find myself recommending him again. One of the most delicious historical fantasies, Gloriana shows us a sorcerous John Dee at large in an Elizabethan court unlike any representation of it you've ever seen. Strange but glorious.

The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Another historical fantasy, Powers' romp through Egyptian mythology, werewolves, time-travel and the Romantic poets defies ready description. You really have to read it to understand, but that's no hardship.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The novel that launched modern commercial fantasy. Tolkien is often criticised for not doing things he never set out to do in the first place, but this book is so influential that even if it were crap (it isn't), it would demand to be read. Tolkien is often unfairly maligned for the feeble imitators he has spawned--as if that's his fault.

The Lyonesse trilogy, Jack Vance
Vance's attempt to write a Big Commercial Fantasy succeeded on every level except the commercial one. It's been relegated to the role of neglected classic rather than the household name it should be. Vance answers all the lazy criticisms that he can't plot and that his series run out of energy as they unfold. The best of the best, but because so much of the charm lies in the voice, very difficult to imitate.

The Dying Earth cycle, Jack Vance
Written over 35 years, these four books are only loosely connected. The Dying Earth itself, while not sui generis (it owes a lot to Clark Ashton Smith) deserves better than to be remembered for its influence on Dungeons and Dragons; the two Cugel books are masterpieces of black comedic picaresque, and Rhialto the Marvelous is what fantasy would be like if P.G. Wodehouse had joined the field. Vance misses the mark with many readers but if you've not tried him you owe it to yourself to test him out

The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, Gene Wolfe
I have to be honest and say that I find Wolfe an easier writer to admire than enjoy. No-one does unreliable narrator games better, and if he wrote outside the genre he'd be much better known and respected. His work is has too many intellectual puzzles and not enough emotional engagement for my taste (but then I never got on with James Joyce either), but he's a major figure in the field.

The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny
This ten-volume cycle steadily wanes in interest, but the first few are gold dust. Stylistically innovative, this saga of family feuding, magical powers and parallel universes always reads to me like the ultimate 60s acid trip.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

A Fantasy-Writer's Reading List

I am always suspicious of the credentials of those aspiring writers who say they are too busy writing to read. No doubt their word-count is impressive, but I'm not sure I'd want to read what comes out of the sausage machine. Reading is a hugely important part of the writer's life, for a host of reasons: edification, market research, breadth of mind, simple enjoyment.

The genre writer has an additional pitfall to negotiate, for there is a strong temptation to confine reading to the genre in question. This must always be a mistake. While it's helpful to know what's going on in your field, if you never read beyond it, your chances of producing genuinely original work are limited.

With this in mind, I've set a score or so of books that I think are excellent primers for the writing of fantasy:

Fantasy genre

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Even if you don't like it, this is the book that created commercial fantasy. You need to know how it works

Lyonesse, Jack Vance
To show just how good the field can be. Genre writing should aspire to more than functional.

The Eyes of the Overworld, Jack Vance
You can mix fantasy with very dark humour

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie
You can also subvert the original model


History is very close to fantasy. Understanding the history of our world will help you create a plausible history for yours

Byzantium, John Julius Norwich
All human life is here, including a full measure of absurdity. You'll never have a more genial guide than Norwich

1812, Adam Zamoyski
If you want to understand hubris and military logistics (and why wouldn't you?), start with this account of Napoleon's Russian campaign


Augustus, Allan Massie
Times may change but power-politics never does.

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier
If someone tells you not to write a first-person narrative, give 'em this. It couldn't work any other way, and it's perfect.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
While we're on the subject of perfection. You'll never want (or be able) to emulate this, but it's a corrective to the prevailing fantasy wisdom that you need to write long.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens
If, on the other hand, you want to write a really long novel, sit and learn at the feet of the master. Dickens' understanding of structuring a long book has never been surpassed.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I assume you want believable and engaging relationships in your fantasy? Austen shows you how it's done (humour, precise observation and a dash of lemon).

L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy
Fantasy needs a sense of place to draw the reader in. It's unlikely your place will be much like Ellroy's Los Angeles, but the lessons he teaches are worth learning

Aubrey-Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian
O'Brian's richly detailed evocation of the early 19th century is at once tender, vigorous, dramatic and heartbreaking - and that's before we touch on the beauty of his prose. Fantasy world-building should aspire to be this good.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The reverence in which we rightly hold the Bard's language often obscures the brilliance of his dramatic pacing and structure.

Read that lot and we're up and running!
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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The best thing about being a published writer...

It's got to be the money, right? OK, maybe not. It's communing with the muse to nail that perfect sentence, then? Perhaps - I'll let you know when I've managed it.

I can only speak from my own experience. The thing that's suprised and delighted me the most is the occasional email I've received from a reader previously unknown to me, saying how much they enjoyed the book. Writers are highly visible in these days of blogs and the internet, and it's the work of seconds in most case to find out how to contact a writer who's prepared to be contacted. It's still a thrill to get an email from a stranger with whom your book has made a connection. I've seen online and in print reviews from readers of The Dog of the North who found the book unsatisfactory; these people have, from delicacy, trepidation or indifference, refrained from contacting me directly. As a result, the emails I've received have been uniformly positive.

The Dog of the North may not have sold enough to make the series commercially viable, but it's always a thrill to find that someone who picked up one of the few thousand copies to make it out of the bookshop thought enough of it to track down the author and say so. Your good wishes--as well as your good taste--are much appreciated.