Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March Madness is nearly over ...

... and I'm not talking about basketball.

In the latter half of March, I turned a year older and got myself a job. No, it's not a cool, geeky job in IT -- which I am woefully underqualified for regardless -- or the comic book industry. But it's a good job working with good people and I was lucky to get it, and now I'll be able to do things like put gas in my car, take my girlfriend out to dinner, and buy books.

Sadly, while I've been training for that, the things I love doing -- namely working on Project: Oz, reading fantasy fiction, and blogging about the two -- have all come to a grinding halt. Happily, once my training period is over, that will change, and things will shift back towards something like the status quo of at least one update per week.

Looking forward, I'll soon be back to talking about things like:
  • Comparing and contrasting John Norman's Gor series with The Vagina Monologues et al., because I just happened to read them at approximately the same time and saw the humor in it;
  • A guest review of China Mieville's Kraken over at The Ranting Dragon;
  • Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes, because emotional literary masochism is good for us;
  • For completion's sake, Clementine, Cherie Priest's other entry in her Clockwork Century;
  • Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World;
  • Caitlin Kittredge's The Iron Thorn, which certainly took long enough to get to me from the library so I hope it's any good; and 
  • tackling the entirety of Tad Williams' Shadowmarch series.
These are, of course, just the book reviews that are coming up. Occasionally, other topics that pop into my mind -- musings on the writing process, my D&D game, etc. -- will get written down, too, just as I've been doing since I started this blog. And the book reviews that I've just mentioned (not necessarily in that order) are coming up soon-ish just because these are the books sitting on my coffee table or atop piles in my bedroom as I write this entry. Other reviews will come along pretty much in the order that I get the books in my hands.

And hopefully Friday I'll have a really exciting announcement about this blog that some of you have probably already guessed, you clever foxes, you.

I'm looking forward to it -- I hope you are, too!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Gorean teaser

The good folks at io9 profiled John Norman, the CUNY philosophy professor and author of the Gor series of novels, in an article you can read here.

I'll be talking in more detail about a few of the Gor novels later on (hopefully in April, possibly in May). I'm reading the seventh book in the series now.

The article actually reads sort of like Norman's Gor books: interesting, thoughtful, and densely worded -- so much so that I hesitate to blame anyone who applies the "TL:DR" label.

Even so, happy reading, because there will be a quiz on this later!

Friday, March 18, 2011

State of the Genre: Are we living in fantasy fiction's Bronze Age?

I don't remember who said what at Patrick Rothfuss's book signing last week, but somehow or another, the author got to talking about tropes, and how he enjoys playing with them. In his speech, Rothfuss said that he didn't want a goblin army tromping through The Kingkiller Chronicle -- not that there's anything wrong with goblin armies, but they've been done to death for goshsakes and it's time to move on. I won't try to repeat the eloquence with which Rothfuss likened his trope-play to playing with his infant son (it was a really great analogy), but suffice to say that it involves expectations: once you know what your audiences expectations are, you have a certain power over them. You can mix it up, throw them a curve ball, and keep them on the edge of their seats and wanting more.

After some reflection, I realized why that sounded familiar: it's the same tactic that comic book writers of the Bronze Age used. Which, naturally, led me to wonder whether or not we are living in the Bronze Age of fantasy fiction.

You see, first of all, comic books had what experts call the Golden Age, which began when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced Superman in Action Comics #1 (DC, 1938). Other heroes came onto the scene soon: Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, etc., all in their flashy capes and tights, saving damsels or whole cities in distress from mobsters, mad scientists, and Nazis.  They respected authority and promoted patriotism, didn't sweat, didn't smoke, and helped little old ladies cross the street -- it's not for nothing that Superman is sometimes called the the "big blue Boy Scout".  Looking back now, we take for granted that a lot of these comic books, with their fairly simplistic art and story lines, are a little silly. But back then, this was explosive and dynamic stuff that captivated a nation and captured the imaginations of budding creative geniuses.

We don't have quite as big a milestone as Action Comics No. 1 to start off the fantasy genre's Golden Age. It began more slowly, with folks like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and others writing for the fiction magazines of the day, C.S. Lewis writing a series of otherworldly Christian allegories for his goddaughter. Arguably, the Golden Age ended when J.R.R. Tolkien published the granddaddy of them all, the epitome of Golden Age fantasy, The Lord of the Rings (Geo. Allen & Unwin, 1954-1955). Here, brave warriors, plucky children, and New Englanders fought eldritch horrors and saved whole kingdoms using swords or their wits (or both), aided by elves, dwarves, or friendly talking animals, saving the world from dragons, goblin armies, or monsters from another realm. As with comic books, these stories were largely considered fringe stuff for overweight basement-dwellers, who devoured them with voracity and dedication, and set about to create their own works.

(Okay, okay. Comic books really did begin before the beginning, and there's all sorts of examples of pre-Golden Age comic books out there. But it wasn't until the Golden Age that the medium really took off running. Likewise, fantasy fiction has its roots in mythology and heroic epics. But it wasn't really until the Golden Age that it became a genre all its own.)

The bottom line is that the Golden Age established the tropes that we've come to know and love in our comic books -- heroes in tights with silly names, fighting The Good Fight -- and in our fantasy fiction -- swords, spells, other races, other worlds.

If the Golden Age established the tropes, then the Silver Age perfected them. In the Silver Age of comics, which ran from approximately the late 1950's to the 1970's, the art and stories were slicker and more stylized. Older characters were revamped to be slightly less silly, and newer heroes -- the Fantastic Four, the X-Men -- were introduced. The morals were a little leaner: the characters fought The Good Fight, but sometimes wondered which side of it they were on. The comics were melodramatic and still sort of silly, but the Silver Age saw some of the great, classic story arcs and events that nerds like me still remember fondly, such as The Dark Phoenix Saga and the death of Gwen Stacy.

In fantasy, the Silver Age was the great age of Everything That Came After Tolkien, where everything old was new again and the tropes that were established earlier, were played till they bled. The stories were increasingly better written and less allegorical, the worlds bigger and more detailed, and the brave warriors and plucky children more closely resembled ourselves and the selves we wanted to be. The dragons they faced were bigger and more cunning, the goblin armies they faced were ... well, they were still goblins. This was the age of Michael Moorcock's Elric and Gene Wolfe's New Sun and John Norman's Gor, and a whole host of other heroes in other worlds. This was the age when a number of authors first got their chops writing original Conan stories, picking up where Robert E. Howard left off. This was the age when Dungeons and Dragons burst onto the scene and made fantasy something we, the fans, could live out rather than just read about, and with its success came a number of tie-in novels of varying quality, of which the Dragonlance universe is probably the most famous and successful. This was the age when James Oliver Rigney, Jr. sat down at his desk, came up with the pen name Robert Jordan, and began to craft his decades-long Wheel of Time saga (Tor, 1990-present).

As great as the Silver Age was, it had one inherent flaw: every story was exactly the same. Perhaps not exactly the same, but frightfully similar. The influence of Tolkien could not be escaped and, like a dark and shadowy demigod, loomed over all the great fantasy of this Second Age.

And out of that sameness ... came a new breed of fantasy ...

The Bronze Age didn't burst onto the scene like Nevermind amidst a sea of hair-glam pop. It's hard to say where it began. Rather, in both comic books and fantasy fiction, it crept up insidiously until it was there and we didn't realize that the new was newer, something was definitely different, and Goddamn did we ever like it. Because it didn't assume the same old tropes that we were used to. Instead, it thought about them, and when it could, turned them on its head.

The twenty years of the Bronze Age (c. 1970-1990) saw its usual cast of characters and the adventures they led turn dark, gritty, and more socially aware. Themes like racism and drug abuse affected heroes like the X-Men and Spider-Man, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Questioning authority, heretofore verbotten in any mainstream comic, was suddenly the name of the game. There was sex, and there was violence, and both of those things had marked consequences. The flaws of our heroes were more pronounced, and in many ways served to make them more human, grounded, and easier to relate. True brilliance was met with critical and lasting acclaim: Alan Moore's anti-totalitarian classic V for Vendetta (Vertigo, 1982-1989) and his seminal Watchmen (DC, 1986-1987), which is the only comic on Time's list of the 100 greatest novels. At the same time, Frank Miller made a name for himself with The Dark Knight Returns (DC, 1986), the story of an older, angrier Batman and his conflicts with an evolving society and a Superman whose morals never changed while society's did. James O'Barr wrote the cathartic Crow (Caliber, 1989). Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (Vertigo, 1989-1996) defied labels and descriptions. You could say "Hell" and "damn" and it would be all right. The Good Fight was fought in our heroes' hearts.

Which leads me to the Bronze Age of fantasy fiction. It's harder for me to pin down, since this whole editorial is driven by the question over whether or not it exists -- has a new age been ushered in, or are we now at the apex of the Silver Age?

As with the Bronze Age of comics, fantasy fiction's current crop are dark, sexy, violent, and real. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Jacqueline Carey, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss captivate us with new and original stories of heroes we care about and worlds we wish we lived in (or are glad we don't). The worlds are the biggest and the most detailed they've ever been, with politics as intricate and convoluted as those of our own world. The characters that populate them are the most familiar we've yet seen: brilliant yet ignorant, selfish yet brave. Heroes are no longer plucky orphans or handsome princes dreaming of renown but suffering everymen thrust into adventures and dangers beyond their ken. Warfare, once depicted as glorious, is now a violent bloodbath initiated by fools and executed by the desperate; swords are the symbols of both power and its abuse. Magic comes with a price -- possibly, the spellcaster's soul. The goblin army mentioned has vanished from the scene, replaced by barbarians, cold and brutal armies, or horrors from beyond the world. This is the age of the epic, where the fate of worlds hinges on the decisions of one poor sod.

Fueled by a widespread social angst of terrorist attacks, increasing government powers, global fiscal meltdowns, and natural disasters, the fantasy genre has fairly exploded within the past ten or fifteen years, until a fantasy novel sits pretty at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The genre reaches out and caresses others: among the most successful mystery and romance titles on the market today are those that feature vampires, werewolves, and ancient magic.

Now, here's the kicker, folks: as with all good things, this, too, must end. The Bronze Age of comic books came to a close in the 1990's, when the industry sort of collapsed inward. This was due as much to poor management as with the creative minds putting out stories, but it still led to the Dark Age. A few glimmers of light stood out, such as Jeff Smith's Bone (self-published/Image, 1991-2004) and Marvel's epic Age of Apocalypse crossover, but the decade was largely overshadowed by crass commercialization. While the medium has largely rebounded, with excellent titles including but not limited to Bill Willingham's Fables (Vertigo, 2002-present) and the various works of Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis, and J. Michael Straczynski, there's also a lot of dribble nursing its hangover from the 90's.

So. Is fantasy fiction doomed to repeat the pattern of comic books? The book and comic industries have historically been structured and marketed very differently (less so, now, since the advent of the graphic novel), so it's possible that the same mistakes that imploded the one won't be made by the other. Still, the precedent is set, and is worrisome. While I've no doubt that the genre will continue to evolve -- perhaps the grand epics we cherish today will be considered unwieldy tomorrow -- whether it will continue to use the tropes we've come to know and love, change them further, or chuck them out entirely in favor of new, remains a question.

For now, I think it's best to enjoy the Bronze Age, if it exists, and make as much of it as we can. If nothing else, it'll be great to point at it twenty or thirty years from now and say to our children, "Those were the days!"

BlogSpot, WordPress, and Me

Folks, for a long time now, I've considered taking this blog to the next level. We've had some good times here -- but I've consistently wondered whether or not BlogSpot was really the right forum for what I have to say.

With that said, check this out.

The WordPress blog is an experiment -- I'm still working on the aesthetics -- but so far, I like what I've been able to do with it: it's neater, cleaner, and more organized. With it, I'm able to take a blog and turn it into basically a full-power website. A lot of people have said that they've had trouble leaving comments on this blog, and there's not a subscription feature for when I post something new; WordPress fixes both of those things. And while it may not mean anything for you, it's a lot more convenient for me to make minor changes and updates.

In short, BlogSpot's been good to me, but I wonder if WordPress would be great for me.

But what does this mean for me? you may ask yourself. Not a thing. Let me make that perfectly clear: NOTHING FOR YOU WILL CHANGE EXCEPT FOR THE URL to the same content you've enjoyed for a while, and I will leave notice on this blog redirecting you to the new site if you get lost. My Twitter -- probably the way you came to this site -- will remain the same, and I'll advertise my posts the same way I have been for months.

This is still all very hypothetical, so I'd appreciate your feedback. If you can leave a comment on here, great. If not, you can email me at

Thanks, everybody -- I can't wait to hear from y'all!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All good things to those who wait, pt. 1: The Wise Man's Fear reviewed

If it seems like I've been written a lot of glowing reviews lately, then it's because I've had the good fortune to read a lot of really excellent books in the past few months. And also because I've just plain put down a few bad books without bothering to finish them for review. The latter reason seems like a journalistic failing to me, even though I don't in any way fancy myself a journalist; still, it's a bad habit that I'm trying to break. Rest assured that my next review (I'm already pretty certain) will not be so warm.

That said, it seems like 2011 is sort of the Year of the Books We've Been Waiting For, doesn't it? Perhaps most notable is the scheduled release of A Dance with Dragons (Bantam, TBR July 2011), the long-delayed fifth volume of George R.R. Martin's acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire series. Personally, I remain skeptical (I, like many of you, have been hurt too many times to be otherwise), but this time the promised release date is backed up by a statement from the author himself on his website, whereas apparently the other dates were just overly optimistic guesses.

But first, to tide us over with a dark, prosaic dose, comes The Wise Man's Fear, Day Two of the Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss (DAW, 2011). And even if we, the collective fan base, haven't been waiting for it quite as long as we have for Dragons, we've been waiting for no less enthusiasm. As a reflection of that enthusiasm, The Wise Man's Fear debuted at the No. 1 (hardcover fiction) spot on The New York Times Bestseller List.

Which says that the thing was eagerly anticipated. But was it worth the wait?

In a word: Yes.

If you were a fan of The Name of the Wind (DAW, 2007) you won't be disappointed here. (If you weren't, why would you read the sequel?) Rothfuss brings the same haunting, lyrical prose and deft storytelling to The Wise Man's Fear that made us fall in love with the original.

If you haven't read The Name of the Wind, I recommend you do so now. It's okay. I'll wait.


I'll wait.

All done yet?

No, that's okay. Take your time.


All right, then.

Now, when I went to go see Mr. Rothfuss speak last week, the author expressed a strong desire to bottle up the spoilers, so please, no talking about the book, thank you. Having had the opportunity to read both this and The Name of the Wind with as little foreknowledge as I think possible, I can definitely see Rothfuss's point. Which leaves us with the question of how I'm supposed to talk about the book without, you know, talking about the bloody book.

Well, first I'll talk about the physical book itself: as with the last book I reviewed, The Wise Man's Fear is a monster, weighing in at just under one thousand pages. And not one page of that -- not one word -- is a disappointment. Not one word is filler. Indeed, one even gets the impression that this author trimmed the thing down of any excess, any fluff or fat, to give us the leanest, meanest fantasy epic he could.

The result is an epic tome that keeps your attention all the way through, with nary a boring moment in the whole thing. Hell, if you're anything like me, you'll read this book even when you should be doing other, more productive things. I bought this book Thursday night and finished it this (Tuesday) afternoon.

Like The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear is a story within a story: that of Kvothe, hero and legend in his own time reduced for unknown reasons to the post of a small-town innkeeper, telling his "true" story and setting the record straight. Here, Kvothe goes on adventures and ...

Wait, I can't tell you that.

No, not that, either.

Or that.


In the interest of not spoiling the book for you, as it was so graciously not spoiled for me, I'll tell you that Kvothe has adventures. Has the time of his life, even. Learns a thing or two. Grows up a little. I think I'm safe in saying that much.

As our narrator through both novels, Kvothe is obviously the most developed character; his narration makes for an interesting story dynamic as he explains what he experienced in his youth through the lens of a more educated and worldly grown-up. Other characters are seen through his eyes and processed through his (sometimes lack of) understanding. To that end, a few of the supports are fairly fleshed out and interesting, with their own stories to be unraveled, but many other minor cast members come off as a little flat -- there's the loyal friend, the dour mercenary, the kooky teacher, and so on.

That last is a little bit surprising.  The Kingkiller Chronicle is happily free of many of those classical tropes that, poorly tended, can make every epic fantasy novel feel like the same epic fantasy novel you just read last week.  Other tropes, he turns on their heads (or at least on their sides).  Rothfuss even spoke publicly to that effect -- that he didn't want to write the Same Old Story.  Still, as I've mentioned above, a few of the old standbys are present and accounted for.

Rothfuss clearly put a lot of thought and effort into shaping Kvothe's story-within-a-story journey, and no secrets are revealed before their time. I won't speak for the status of the major plot points in The Wise Man's Fear except to say that Rothfuss picks up all the threads from The Name of the Wind and carries them deftly. This is one of those few, rare cases where More Of The Same proves to be Exactly What We Need.

(Okay, I'll be honest: one or two subplots within The Wise Man's Fear were resolved perhaps a little hastily or too conveniently for my taste, such that I wonder as to their necessity. Still, they're not a waste of time, since they add to Kvothe's development and are entertaining.)

The storytelling itself is The Kingkiller Chronicle's ultimate strength. Rothfuss has an intricate, delicate, almost poetical form of narration that's easy to get swept into and hard to pull yourself out of. My own words fail me as I try to describe it. Suffice to say, it's some positively powerful prose, the likes of which there is tragically too little on the market right now. I'm eager to see what more wordplay this author has in store for us, both in The Kingkiller Chronicle's conclusion and in the continuance of Rothfuss's career.

I suppose you could say the eloquent narration stems from Kvothe's life as a musician, and at one stretch it's actually a plot point -- but I think it has more to do with Rothfuss's writing style than the development of this character.

With all that said, I would like to suggest something truly dangerous: Kvothe might actually be The Kingkiller Chronicle's weakest link. I don't mean that he's a bad protagonist, or even a bad character. He's not. Not at all. He's as resourceful and resilient, articulate and accessible a hero as you could possibly ask for. But that's also sort of the problem: even in his flaws, he's pretty much perfect. Of course, this is Kvothe's story in his "own" words, so a certain amount of leniency can be granted when Kvothe triumphs over and/or learns from adversity. But I get the feeling that Rothfuss, like many authors (J.K. Rowling and Stieg Larsson come to mind) is a little bit too in love with his own creation. It's a sadistic love, and Kvothe suffers on a Frodo-ian scale, but it gives me pause as I consider how Rothfuss will eventually resolve the Chronicle.

At the end of the day, a few quibbles aside, this is The Kingkiller Chronicle's Empire Strikes Back, a dark, heroic, mightily satisfying second act that was well worth the wait. Though it may be another five years before Kvothe finishes his journey and all our questions will be answered, The Wise Man's Fear leaves me with confidence that our patience will be rewarded.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fanboy squee!!

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicle (that's The Name of the Wind [DAW, 2007] and The Wise Man's Fear [DAW, 2001]) came out to Books & Co. at The Greene in Beavercreek tonight, and despite the wicked weather, I drove out there to see him. The Name of the Wind actually brought tears to my eyes when I read it last year, and I wanted to meet the man who could write that prosaically.

While waiting for the event to begin, I began reading The Wise Man's Fear. I won't say anything about other than: if you weren't already, expect a review in the next few weeks.

Two bearded geeks: me (l) and Patrick Rothfuss (r). 
He said "Let's do 'tough.'"  He does it well; I look a little bloated, don't I?  Gosh.

Mr. Rothfuss, I'm happy to report, seems like a pretty nice, down-to-earth guy: early on, he established that he wanted to give everybody the sense that we were all chilling in somebody's house, rather than a stuffy, formal environment where he's A and you're B and the lines don't cross; he's a geek who clearly appreciates and takes part in geek culture; he's a fine storyteller (No, really? I hear your sarcastic mutterings) in spoken as well as written word, who seems to really enjoy spending time with an audience; and he's got a terrific beard.

I've met a few authors at signings in my day (most of them at Books & Co.'s two locations, come to that) and few have been quite as personable as Mr. Rothfuss. If you get the chance, go see him: it's worth the trip, even in snow like we had here tonight.

I won't pretend that I was slick when I met the guy -- anyone who knows me personally knows that this simply could not be the case. I handed him my book with something approaching awe. My tongue stumbled over my lips. He seemed pretty okay with that. And at the end, I handed him my business card (holy crap you guys, I handed Patrick Rothfuss my business card!) with a "Hey, this picture'll be on my blog," which he probably didn't care about, but took in stride. Because he's a geek and he knows how we roll.

So, hopefully in about five years or so, he'll be finished with The Kingkiller Chronicles and he'll swing back around this way, and I can get another fine piece of fantasy literature signed. Cross your fingers!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's good to be king: Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings reviewed

I believe in Brandon Sanderson.

I first heard his name when he was tapped to complete the late Robert Jordan's widely acclaimed Wheel of Time series (Tor Books, 1990-present). Even though I haven't yet taken on that particular fantasy behemoth (please hold your stunned gasps and calls for my head on a pike until the end, thank you), I'm told that Sanderson's work on the series has been an impressive tribute to Mr. Jordan.

My first personal encounter with Sanderson was his Mistborn trilogy (Tor, 2006-2008). Taken as a whole, this was unquestionably the second finest work I read in 2010 and the finest fantasy that I read that year. It's a bold, complex post-apocalyptic fantasy saga with a little bit of Hong Kong kung-fu action. Its world building is solid and detailed. Sanderson's grasp on his characters is truly excellent: in each of them, we see strength coupled with vulnerability played out in a thousand fascinating facets, and yet each of these characters are their own individual. By the time I finished the trilogy, I was genuinely sad; I felt as though I'd just said goodbye to dear friends.

Okay, so Warbreaker (Tor, 2009) wasn't excellent. But I knew that Sanderson was capable of great things, so I was enthusiastic about The Way of Kings, the first volume of his proposed Stormlight Archive.

The Stormlight Archive is an ambitious undertaking, and would be for any author. According to Sanderson's website, his original plan was for it to span ten whole volumes (no telling whether or not that plan has changed). This would put it in a league with such fantasy heavyweights as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (Bantam, 1996-present), Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth (Tor, 1994-2007), and of course, the aforementioned Wheel of Time.

We're off to a fine start.

The best word to describe The Way of Kings is "epic." Everything about this book is done on a grand scale. As with Mistborn, there's a multinational plot whose roots trace back thousands of years, to a time when gods walked the land with men; a caste system whose strictures are threatened; magic, including what might as well by lightsabers; a continent of flora and fauna specially adapted to survive the harsh terrain; and a cast of fully realized and unique characters with whom you'll laugh and cry, struggle and despair and triumph.

That doesn't mean that Sanderson's delving into the same old territory as Mistborn. Though all of the skills that he perfected there are brought to bear here, Stormlight's world and characters are their own.

More immediately obvious than the book's internal elements is its outward physical size. It's positively titanic, weighing in at over one thousand pages. While this verbosity may be seen as a failure of some other authors who, as the old saw goes, were failed by their words and so used too many of them to overcompensate, let me hasten to assure you that this is not the case with Sanderson and The Way of Kings. This is a big book, but it's so packed with action and character development that there's nary a dull moment. Like a mighty river, this book flows smoothly and rapidly over rocky terrain; like a little inflatable raft on that river, Sanderson relentlessly carries us towards the waterfall finale.

This is the story of the soldier-slave Kaladin, who struggles to keep his team alive against impossible odds while discovering mysterious powers within himself. It's about the plotting scholar Shallan, whose quest for knowledge reveals secrets she never imagined. It's about Dalinar and Adolin, father and son aristocrat warlords who have to face an unknown enemy on the battlefield and unseen threats from their fellow nobles.

It's the story of Roshar, a continent continuously assaulted by sweeping killer storms and divided by nationality, ethnicity, and religion, and the looming threat, centuries-old, that hangs over the whole land.

Themes of leadership, integrity, self-assurance, and whether or not the means justify the ends, abound. Kaladin's quest to survive and lead his troops out of Hell's backyard incorporates an internal struggle against despair, powerlessness, self-doubt, and distrust of authority. Shallan's studies overtly court the discipline of ethics while she contemplates whether or not to betray her mentor's trust in order to help her family. Dalinar follows a strict code of ethics which dictate his every move, while around him people whisper that he's either grown too pompous and self-righteous, or mad, or both, to continue to lead; Dalinar wonders if they might be right. Perhaps more so than Mistborn (itself a cerebral trilogy), Stormlight promises to be a story of ideas.

While Kaladin is probably the "main" character of the book -- and he's a damn good one -- Shallan is the one I want to know more about. And it's worth noting that, while I didn't think much of Dalinar or his story arc in the beginning, by the end, I couldn't help but root for him.

Perhaps more intriguing are the secondary characters: Sadeas, who may or may not have good intentions while he does bad things; Szeth, the mournful assassin; Jasnah Kholin, who clearly isn't telling us everything; Wit, who definitely isn't telling us everything. Hopefully, their stories will be told in full as Stormlight unfolds.

While fairly self-contained, The Way of Kings sets the stage for a truly awe-inspiring fantasy epic that grips the reader's mind and heart. The Stormlight Archive has the potential to be truly monumental.

In Brandon Sanderson we trust.

Monday, March 7, 2011


A thing you're probably already aware of, but in case you're not: Suvudu's 2011 Cage Match is up and running! (and apparently has been since Friday. huh.)

In the presently running divisions, I'm voting for:

Arlen < Beowulf
Takeshi Kovacs < Jon Snow
Alvin Maker < Thomas Covenant
Gollum > Molly Millions
John Carter > Severian
Mandorallen < Zedd
Jacob Black > Eric Northman
Vin > Logen Ninefingers

I'm still deciding on the next two divisions, where Katniss, Paul Atreides, Martin the Warrior, and Percy Jackson all come out swinging.

The Cage Match is a nice diversion -- it kept me far more entertained than it should have last year, when I was chair-bound for a few weeks from my own battle wound -- and Rand al'Thor battled Jaime Lannister for the title. This year they've got a good line-up going, and I'll be interested to see how the voting goes.

(Personally, I want Vin to take it all. If you've read the Mistborn trilogy, you'll understand why.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ranting Dragon 2011 Locus Challenge

Before I call it quits for the week, one more thing:

You should totally participate in Ranting Dragon's 2011 Locus Challenge. Ranting Dragon is some good people, and I reckon they've got a good thing going here to promote excellence in science fiction and fantasy literature.

Me, I'll (hopefully) be doing a guest spot review for them, so be on the lookout for that in coming weeks.

If you're not on board already -- get on board! What are you waiting for?

"Write what you know"

The age-old advice that I've heard since I was a wee little Jeffling, is to write what you know.

Seems pretty sound. Don't you think?

It should go without saying (except that I'm saying it now) that experience enriches writing. You can know about a thing, study the subject all you like, observe it or watch it done, but unless you've actually gotten your hands dirty and gotten up close and personal with it -- if it's a verb, then, unless you've actually done it -- then it could be argued that you can't accurately impart the experience onto the reader.

For example, if you were a construction worker with literary aspirations, you could write pretty authoritatively about the trials and tribulations of construction workers. Your characters would be based on the people you knew. You can make the reader understand the full weight of your sledgehammer, the heat and the sweat, the long hours, the anger and frustration you feel over your corrupt boss and your weak union. You could fill your story with all the beautiful minutiae that we outside of the construction field might miss, that make a story real and true.

Okay, maybe you could risk a little extrapolation -- maybe you're a nurse but you know enough about doctors, or vice versa -- but the old adage "write what you know" taken in its purest and most literal form, pretty much limits us to writing our biographies. And, to paraphrase an old commercial, would you want to read a book about your life?

I don't like to be that restricted.

I don't want to write a book about, say, political and legal theory, small businesses, drives through Appalachia in a very small car, or over-brewed tea. Yet, by the literal definition of writing what I know, those and a handful of other minor misadventures are all I'm qualified to write.

Instead, what I'm writing, Project: Oz can loosely be described as a "fantasy western." There may be some over-brewed tea in there, but not much else that I've personally experienced.

Or is there?

The book has a theme, and that theme relates to that political theory that I mentioned above -- not in so many words, but the relationship is there. The book has characters; some of those characters are based directly on people I've known well, while others are composites. I've had to create a world that strongly resembles our own world in the Nineteenth Century, with a similar society and government, which relates to my backgrounds in political theory and also in history, a topic I've studied both formally and informally for years. Genre-wise, the book would obviously be found in the Science-Fiction Fantasy section of your local bookstore (or just plain fantasy if you've got a really good bookseller), and that's a genre in which I've read extensively for about as long as I've been able to read, so generously we could say that I'm more than passing familiar with its tropes.

Taking a looser definition of the "write what you know" adage, I'd say we're off to a good start.

I've never ridden a horse, but I could just drive up the road and learn. I've never shot a gun, but I know someone who could teach me. I've never been to Texas, but I could hop on a plane tomorrow, survey the Hill Country, and eat some barbecue.

That's all well and good. But one of my main characters is a wizard. Not just a main character -- a point-of-view character. Which means that he's casting spells, using magic. He's using it a lot. He's talking about it. He's thinking about it. And during those portions of the book that he's narrating, you, the reader, are casting spells with him.

Which means that I, the writer, have to know what that's like.

As far as we know, magic of this sort does not exist in our real, mundane world. Okay, well, neither do dinosaurs, but Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park (Knopf, 1990). To prepare for Jurassic Park, I figure Crichton either built a time machine or researched the topic. I can't do the one thing, but I can do the other: I can read up on magical practices throughout history (there's that history thing again!), from prehistoric shamanism through Middle Age alchemy to modern neo-paganism, Simon Magus and Nicholas Flamel and Aleister Crowley. Fiction and myth are practically filthy with wizards from whose experiences I can learn: Circe, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Prospero, Thoth-amon, Gandalf, Raistlin, Zed, and even Harry Potter are all fine role models.

Clearly, I can know about magic without ever practicing it myself, since that's impossible.

Or is it?

Enter my third-favorite game of all time, Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons, along with its myriad of technology-based followers (World of Warcraft, the increasingly inaccurately named Final Fantasy series, and Fable come to mind) allow one to swing a sword against an angry ogre, match wits with a devious archfiend, and sling fireballs at an evil god, all without ever leaving your chair.

As I realized on the drive home from my last D&D session, I had, through my character, Tym the gnomish sorcerer, used magic in a realistic, simulated problem-solving situation. Tym and I had done it with our staff in hand: engaged in combat, worked with a team, and completed a mission.

I couldn't know what it felt like to have the energy of the cosmos flow through me -- not without some pretty hefty drugs -- but through D&D I could test out the effects of sorcery in various situations.

While I already had a system of magic in place, it was all based on theory and explained how things worked the way they did, not how to implement them. I had, in essence, been doing it wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but there were things I hadn't thought all the way through, and in doing so, I had made my wizard protagonist too powerful.

And that just doesn't fit: he's a flawed character, so shouldn't his magic be likewise flawed? Shouldn't his spells take time to cast? Shouldn't enemies present a dangerous and moving target while he conjures their arcane doom -- they didn't all graduate from the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy, did they? And does his lightning bolt automatically hit its target? What happens when his aim is off and he winds up setting the room on fire?

These are questions that I'd been periodically asking myself for over a year now. But Dungeons & Dragons let me put the answers into practice. As a character, Tym may not be anything like my wizard protagonist, but the latter -- and the world he inhabits -- learns a lot from the former.

Hopefully, Project: Oz will be a lot better for it.

A word in edgewise

I'm going to try -- I'm going to try really hard -- to get a post in next week for you folks. Probably, it will be a book review, unless another topic just screams for my attention. So, cross your fingers and look for that.

Just in case I don't make it, though, I'm giving you good folks a double dose (technically a triple dose) of posts this week to tide you all over.

In the meantime, have some tea and talk amongst yourselves. ;)