Wednesday, February 25, 2015

GoodReads Review: The Golden Swan

The Golden Swan (Book of the Isle, #5)The Golden Swan by Nancy Springer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The worlds of Isle and Vale collide as crippled, lovesick prince Frain from the mainland washes up on a beach and is discovered by Dair, the wolf-form son of the King of Isle. The book follows the same format as the previous volume, three (roughly) equal first person sections, with the character who is the driving force (in this case, Frain) taking the final portion. Maybe it's because it was new in the first book but is a deliberate echo here, or maybe it's because the three characters can't freely and mutually communicate for most of the book, but it doesn't work quite as well.

The flaw that plagued the earlier volumes are also in evidence here. Prophecy and destiny are used as motivations and explanations; mysterious, inexplicable events feel less like the markers of an invisible world than randomness or convenience. (This latter is, again, a product of its time. Nowadays, fantasy readers expect more rigorous logic underpinning the worldbuilding.)

I had trouble pushing through this book because none of the main characters really seem to have solid motivations to drive the plot. They are carried along, instead, by the vision of one, to a conclusion that is equal parts sorrow and joy, and could be more poignant and affecting with stronger desires driving it. It feels more like a product of the world and its cosmic forces than the characters' efforts.

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Wednesday Wanderings

I think we all adopt phrases and verbal tics that in some cases started out as humorous or clever, but have become such an integral part of our daily lexicon that we no longer think much of them ... until we say something and the person next to us stares or bursts out laughing.  Oh.  *Oh*.  Some of them simply may be "regular" sayings that have passed out of common usage.

For your (hopeful) amusement, here are some of mine:

We're off like a herd of turtles:  my family says this all ... the ... time.

(I'll be back in) two shakes of a lamb's tail:  I have no idea where I picked this one up, but I say it a lot.

Easy breezy lemon squeezy:  blame my pastry instructor.

Good enough for government work:  same.

I have two brains - one's lost, and the other's out looking for it:  this has become one of my stock responses when I do something dim-witted.

The wheel's spinning, but the hamster's dead:  about the same.

It takes me two pages to say hello:  I'm long-winded / wordy.  At least in writing.

Hello, Department of Redundancy Department, Hello:  another family standard.

It's good to be the king:  ... if you haven't seen Mel Brook's History of the World Pt 1, this one won't make much sense.  (See also:  "The streets are crawling with Romans!" and "Walk this way.")

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

I've run into an interesting situation with Unnatural Causes as I wind towards the revelation of the murderer:  though the main characters are able to piece together his/her identity, he/she has hidden their tracks too well - my heroes know whodunnit, but they have no way to prove it to the authorities.  The body is gone; simply going to the guard would result in a he said / she said scenario, and neither of my investigators have a lot of political capital.  (Politics, influence and power are an integral part of the storyline, much to the dismay of my extraplanar narrator, who has no patience for this kind of thing.)

I have no idea how I'm going to resolve this; however, I also know I'm an incubator and ideas develop on my mental backburner.  So, I'm continuing to write - there are a few more major scenes before the confrontation - and hoping that something will come to me.  If worst comes to worst, I can go back and edit in some weak link that the investigators can use.  Or maybe ... just maybe ... the solution will be that there is no solution.

When I started writing this novel, my motivation for choosing it over other projects was two-fold.  First, fantasy mystery - in the sense of a mystery / detective style story set in a secondary world, rather than a mystery / detective story in our world with fantasy elements added - is something I've always wanted to write.  It fits very neatly into the "mannerpunk" style that I like writing, where social status, politicking and battles of wits are more important than armies.

Second, this concept flexes my writer muscles with some challenges:  I've never written a novel-length mystery story before; and my first person narrator is an extraplanar being who I was very determined to make FEEL alien to the reader, not just a human in a funny suit.  (And it is a very funny suit:  familiars materialize in this world as a blend of human and two or more animals.)

I initially set out with the goal that I wouldn't know whodunnit until shortly before the investigators did, but I found that untenable for laying out the storyline, so I stopped and worked out the motivation and nature of the crime.  I did, however (and this is a slight spoiler), make myself promise one thing:  I wouldn't go with the easy out of "everyone dunnit," where multiple people were in some way responsible.

The idea of multiple attempts on the same life does fascinate me, I'll admit, because of some of the opportunities it presents.  The classic example is of three men in a desert.  Two of them independently decide to kill the third.  The first man poisons his water canteen.  The second man pokes a hole in the canteen so the water drips out and he dies of thirst.  So ... who actually killed him?  I love thought experiments like this.

But since I have done it before, it felt like a cop-out in this case.  I still couldn't resist having multiple components to the murder, but ... you would have to read it for details.  What I've enjoyed with this book is that when I started it, I deliberately made the choice to write slowly.  I'm an incubator, so I wanted the time to let it ferment in my head (now I'm mixing my culinary metaphors) and not reach for the most obvious tool in my toolbox. 

The title Unnatural Causes, by the way, is a bit of occult geekery.  In pre-modern magical thought, the natural was the realm of things that behaved as they were in nature:  birds fly, leaves, and so forth.  The supernatural was the realm of God, demons, spirits, and so forth.  Between that was the unnatural:  things that behaved in ways that were against the natural order.  So, for instance, a rock fired from a sling was as unnatural as a magical spell!  Science and magic dovetailed.  In many ways, this liminal view of the world was what kept magical thought alive.

Besides being an obvious play on "death by natural causes," Unnatural Causes is also particularly appropriate because the magic in the setting is essentially technology:  enchanters build "thought machines" to execute their spells.

So in the end, rather than be anxious about this problem in my novel I haven't yet solved, I'm excited to see where it takes me.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

The more you know, the funnier life is.

So much of humor is based in juxtaposition or the inversion of expectations.  Obviously, you have to have expectations to invert them!  Other times, what will tickle your funny bone is a bad pun or a literal, absurd translation of a common phrase / information / fact / etc.  You have to "be there" to get these jokes.  Pop culture jokes become irrelevant and obscure with surprising speed.

Many jokes rely on common knowledge, whether it be of history or a public figure.  For instance, there's a great Far Side cartoon, which sadly I couldn't find online, which depicts the Great Sphinx in Egypt with two workers peering over the head and the following dialogue:

"'That's fine,' I said.  'Good nose,' I said.  'But no, you had to hit the hammer on the chisel one more time.'"

This isn't particularly funny unless you're already aware of the fact that Sphinx is missing its nose.

When knowledge gets a bit more obscure, the opportunity for humor continues to expand.  Recently, there was a very fun discussion on my Facebook feed when I noted a typo in my textbook:  "tart-eating apples."  So ... what ... small pastries chewing on Granny Smiths?  My geeky writer friends and I had a blast rewriting this phrase with different punctuation.  None of this would be funny if you didn't know the applicable grammatical rules.  (Now that I think about it, technically, "Eating, tart apples" would be correct, because "eating" and "tart" are two independent adjectives describing the same noun - apple - but it definitely doesn't pass the clarity test ...)

I had a bit too much fun with this in Who Wants To Be A Hero? - a lot of jokes aimed to various levels of mythological knowledge.  Zeus gets parodied; there's some snide commentary about divine family trees; and I mock Beowulf.  A lot.

Sometimes, knowing a little more gives you the ability to laugh at others - be kind, please!  I was in a fantasy writer's session when a panelist admitted that, when she drew her first world map of an island, "There was a river running straight from one side to the other," and most of the room laughed:  either they knew the geographic likelihood of this (extremely unlikely), or had probably done the same thing as a young writer, or both.  So really, we were laughing with her.

I think most of us would like to keep learning all of our lives.  Isn't it a great benefit that it gives us more opportunity to laugh?

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

Recently, Nyki Blatchley put up a post about the kind of characters he likes to write about, with a fair amount of attention for the age of his protagonists, and that got me thinking about my own patterns.

I think most of us fantasy writers who started out young began writing about teenagers, both because of the appeal of the coming-of-age story and due to some degree of wish fulfillment.  That's not to say this is a "newbie choice" - there are deep themes, both mythic and personal, that these characters make possible.  People never stop discovering who they are, I think, so reading about a character who is undergoing that same journey in a world with very different possibilities than ours has a powerful draw.

If those of us who started writing these characters when we were knee-high make any mistakes, it may be that we make our protagonists a little too young, because it seems plenty old to us.  I wrote or rewrote one of my early novels about three times; throughout, Nelia changed from being 17 to being 19 to being 21, and each time, that seemed like a massive leap to me as a writer (along with the thought of, "What was I thinking?  She's too young.").  Now, looking back on all those ages (never you mind how far), 21 seems the most reasonable.  I wouldn't want to make her much older for the storyline I'd developed, but on the other hand, she needs time for her warrior training and other background.

In any case, when I started writing older, more established characters, it was a revelation.  Characters who are embedded in their society, who have a stake in their own identities and what they've built, present a whole different set of challenges.  It was ideal for Butterfly's Poison, my intrigue novel, because the resources of the characters - and most particularly, what they had to lose - were key to the plot.  In many ways, I think I generally prefer this kind of character.  On a personal level, I never really had that teenaged identity crisis of, "Who am I?" - I always was very centered in my sense of self.  So it's hard for me as a writer to get into the mindset of that flux, and there's a degree to which I think I subconsciously believe it's not actually possible.  ;-)

I find a lot of fertile ground in the idea of someone who has lost everything, who has start to over and reinvent themselves at a point when they thought they had the world figured out.

I have gone back to the teenager and the young adult.  Anaea in Scylla and Charybdis discovers herself even as she discovers the rest of the universe.  (She is also profoundly a misfit:  her "calling" in life doesn't even exist in what she initially thinks is the full sum of human existence.)

Obviously, there are older and younger characters than this.  I am fascinated by immortality and its ramifications, so I often write about immortals, especially gods.  I think my childhood obsession with Greek myths has something to do with this:  I never get tired of the juxtaposition between divinity and human pettiness.

... which probably explains the entire existence of Who Wants To Be A Hero?

I do touch upon the "merely" old, though not as frequently.  One of my favorite characters in Who Wants To Be A Hero? is a contestant who happens to be the grandmatriarch of a pseudo-Norse clan.  Still, if I were to make some conscious choices, this is an age demographic I'd like to pay more attention to.

I'm also fascinated by what I think of as the "eerie child" - the youngster who is far more poised and mature than their years would suggest.  Humans develop cultural filters as they mature, and most of these are important for survival (at least until you move), but children who haven't developed these filters yet can see things the rest of us can't.  Verdant from Taming The Weald is one of my best examples of this.  (Shameless plug ... you knew there had to be at least one.)

If there's one thing all this brings to mind, it's that life is not always a straight line.  We've reached the end and we're just starting out in unexpected places.