Tuesday 1, February

The Crippled God starts awesome

There's an excerpt on site, "The Crippled God" is out in about 20 days.

I obviously won't read further, but this line was awesome in its meta-narrative quality:

‘I have no intention of explaining a damned thing.’ He looked up, eyes locking. ‘Do you understand me?’

I guess it's a better premise than the beginning of the end of LOST ;)

Thursday 16, December

Felisin Vs the world (of characterization)

Collecting some comments I wrote in the Malazan series re-read at Tor.

Tyrion or Jaime or Sansa in GRRM's series where there's more transition that leads to personality changes and development.

Oh, I so disagree. Martin, in those cases and more, just expertly pulls at heart strings. Whatever he does with a character is VERY deliberate and very precise.

If even one reader develops antipathy for a character like Tyrion, then it means the book failed. There's nothing truly open to interpretation if not the illusion of it. Martin always chases an effect as is typical of Hollywood/western writing. Nothing can be accidental or uncertain. Which is why he writes and rewrites incessantly till the experience isn't absolutely perfect and works the way he wants for everyone. The book is built to be successful when EVERY reader has the exact same response to it.

Tyrion is one of those characters whose negative traits are cleverly exploited to ADD to his sympathy. It's anti-hero done in a trivial way (written and executed well).

With Felisin instead Erikson creates a character that can trigger a different response depending on how you approach her, and there's no "right" or "wrong" way to get the character. I'm not more "right" than you saying that I loved Felisin. Erikson doesn't shove the reader in a specific direction that "feels" natural but that is instead carefully defined. It's not on rails. Whatever you draw from that story is up to you, a subjective emotional response and all the "truth" about it, you keep it to yourself and no one can say you're wrong. The character arc has nothing of the typical uplifting destination, and a lot of true ambiguity.

People always tell say they love gray characters when what they love is to read heroes who are "gray" only in a slight, but pleasing, nonconformity that feels very "hip" and "modern".

Martin is a great executor and a very good writer. But it's all pre-chewed material.

I also kind of chuckle when I see that "maturity" is taken as synonym of wisdom and moderation. But it very rarely is. Maturity only defines someone more broken than another. It's just a collection of the number of pieces you've shattered into and how deluded you are about them.

Nope, you'll rarely get to put the pieces back together. And that's is valid both for Felisin and everyone else in the real world. Well, besides fantasy stories. In fantasy stories you can.

When I started to read the prologue of DG it was right after finishing the last page of GotM, I was well aware of who Felisin was and also of the fact she was going to be a major character in the next book.

The prologue starts with a very cinematic scene. You can see the camera panning while following the Hood Priest. The Priest is the initial focus of the scene and the PoV follows it as it walks toward its mysterious destination. Only after this initial set-up Felisin comes into play and we discover that it's instead her PoV. We see the Priest approaching right toward Felisin, who's merely an observer of something that seems to have gone "wrong". Feelings of foreboding, the slaughter, the season of Rot, the mule, but still no mention of how this is going to be related to the plot (or to Felisin, she's still out of the scene, out of perceived threat).

So up to this point Felisin is an external/passive observer. It came to me as a total shock that she was chained with the others. You have this Priest walking toward someone or something. Felisin wonders if it's really her to be the target. But for the reader this becomes about discovering that it's her the *victim* already. There's no way out. We have been shown a Felisin chained right from the start, without any hope to get free. The fate is sealed.

Usually we see a character who faces danger and struggles to find a way though. We read anxiously how the story develops. It builds tension. Here we are thrown in a situation in which "possibility" is crushed. The chains locked before the first written line but the reader's realization comes with delay, and in the text is completely understated, almost tangential. The scene is then followed by an escalation of brutality that shows clearly that there's no way to turn back. It's a path carved deeply into hell and the more you go down the worse it is. Even if you find a way through and up again the price you've paid would be already way too much to find any sort of absolution or justification in it. The threshold has been already passed and the reader somewhat forbidden to experience any sense of hopeful possibility.

What's worth saving is already irremediably lost.

I'm still awed by the prologue and how it works spectacularly on its own. In two pages the reader goes through the feeling of having chains locked by having Felisin only entering the scene last. It's her PoV right from the start but Erikson structures the scene so that the perceived PoV is completely overturned as one reads. From a side we have a cinematic scene, from the other we have an effect that is basically impossible with a camera, since the PoV would be already "bound" to the character.

Erikson uses cleverly everything that is unique to the writing medium. Even a small scene like this is brilliant not just because of what happens, but in how it is carefully structured and narrated word by word. Defiant of expectations, and ambitious.

Whichever way you look at it, I don’t like the idea—it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

I guess it's worth discussing. On your blog you posed the question whether "rape" can be "art". The discussion is broad, but also quite straightforward from my point of view.

What's the purpose of a book? Flatter its reader with edifying stories and encouragements?

Is "art" whatever we enjoy, and non-art whatever we despise and contemn? Is art exclusively self-congratulatory?

The point here is that the book will tell its story. The book has EVERY right and legitimation to tell its story without censorship. It's the reader who decides how to personally weigh what he reads.

So should a book just tell a story that makes its readers comfortable and content? Nope, all stories are legitimate as long there's someone who wants to hear them.

At the same time not feeling comfortable with a story and refuse to read it, is a personal and legitimate choice that should always be respected.

So I really won't support the idea that criticizes Erikson for tackling certain themes that may hurt common sensibilities. Every reader can make there a personal choice whether or not to read it, but one can't attack a writer for writing outside certain expectations.

Writing, as part of culture, MUST break through imposed or perceived barriers and limits.

And I write this not because someone has stated the opposite, but because that idea always lingers in these types of discussions.

I think it is too ingrained in some people to be judgmental about her trading sex for favors in the prison camp. Or the drinking and smoking scenes, just because we tend to frown on that as a modern society

You can as well stop that first line at "it is too ingrained in some people to be judgmental". That's enough.

I'm very, very uncomfortable even thinking of JUDGING Felisin personally. I feel it very wrong and perverse.

I think personal choices are always to be respected because the external point of view is so hypocritical and partial. It's too easy to nitpick from the outside about the personal choices someone else makes. It's haughty and arrogant.

Felisin makes choices that are solely about her. She hurts herself in some cases. She never deliberately takes action against someone else (at least up to this point).

So, whatever is her choice, I would always respect it because it's not a restraint on someone else's choice. Maybe not approve it, but respect it.

People shouldn't tread carelessly and be judgmental over pain and trauma of others. It's a delicate topic.

Even posing the question whether one of her choice is "right" or "wrong" is about taking a truth out of it and rationalize what can't be rationalized.

Monday 22, November

Update from Steven Erikson

We got his words directly. The news was he finished the editing of The Crippled God and is at work on the 5th Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novella.

"finished edit on The Crippled God which means that's the last time I will ever read the novel front to back. Feels like I can die tomorrow and be fine with that, and all the rest of the time allotted me is, like, free. Oh, and started the next B&KB novella yesterday. And 'Excesses of Youth' will star a new character inspired by someone most of you know... Did I ever mention my evil streak?"

Friday 19, November

Another (better) Gardens of the Moon review

The guy who rose some controversy this past August by criticizing George Martin's series, wrote possibly the very best review ever of Gardens of the Moon. It's quite enlightening and wonderfully focuses on important aspects of that novel that are often dismissed or overlooked (including myself).

Some quotes:

You see, as with most sword and sorcery stories, and especially given its kitchen sink approach to fantasy tropes, there’s a danger that Gardens of the Moon won’t quite pass the giggle test, what with its floating mountain, assassins and thieves guilds, and hulking fantasy stereotype Anomander Rake. Erikson defuses this by starting off grim. By present standards, Gardens of the Moon is not a really dark book, but its darkest moments are at the beginning to set the tone.

From this bleak beginning, Erikson moderates the tone and eventually introduces various elements that, considered in isolation, would seem pretty silly. But these are defused by the inertia of that serious beginning and the constantly down-to-earth attitude of the main characters.

Erikson is actually pressed for time. In traditional fantasy, diverse groups of characters band together to achieve some sort of goal. In Gardens of the Moon, everyone has their own thing going on, resulting in not just one plot, but over a dozen. Only strong unities of place and time keep the novel from feeling more like a short story collection.

Again turning to Lord of the Rings as a useful model, the timespan of that story caught almost every important event. Aragorn had been alive for over a hundred years when he meets Frodo, but little of what he was doing had much impact on the outcome of the story. The same is true for most of the other characters. Ask a character after the events of Lord of the Rings when the important time of their lives was and all would point to the War of the Ring. Gardens of the Moon is completely different. The older characters (and even some of the younger ones) have been active for years and this is just the latest situation they’ve had to confront.

Tolkien probably felt our world was about 6,000 years old and so was his Middle Earth. Erikson no doubt sees our world as much older, and this is likewise reflected in his fiction. The Malazan Empire is just the latest of a thousand civilizations, a tiny sliver of hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of history. And this being a fantasy, there are immortal characters who have seen a sizable fraction of that history. Unlike Tolkien, who maintained a generational distance from the events of myth (Elrond was present only for the events at the very end of the Silmarillion), the influential immortals of Erikson’s present were just as influential in past millennia. This results in a unique effect where the past can feel extremely distant in one scene and very immediate in the next, depending on who is present.

Now, having made such an extended comparison to Tolkien, I have to make clear that although Erikson’s world has a depth similar to Tolkien’s, he is a very different writer. He doesn’t share Tolkien’s gift for languages, nor does he lavish nearly so much attention on the landscapes. Erikson was a professional anthropologist, so the details he emphasizes are those of culture. When Tolkien described a hill topped with ruins, he spent most of his time on the hill, whereas Erikson lingers on the ruins. The result is that Erikson’s landscapes are not beautifully evoked, but they come off as being genuinely inhabited (whether now or in the past) in a way that Tolkien’s empty countryside does not.

Whereas Tolkien’s world was fundamentally Christian, Erikson’s is thoroughly pagan. His gods are capricious and quick to interfere in the affairs of mortals. There’s no sense that humanity has dominion over the earth…the opposite, in fact.

That disparity in power is perhaps the most old-fashioned element here. It’s easy to forget that for all the inequalities of wealth in our era, most people deny there is much difference between the average person and, for example, the American president. But to the ancients, there was an enormous gulf between the lowly peasant and Pharaoh, son of Ra.

However, mixed into this authentically ancient outlook is a very modern flavor. Unlike traditional Tolkien-influenced fantasy, the past is not considered better, nor is the present a slide down into a faded future. Oh, there were still powerful races and empires in previous eras who forged mighty artifacts and fought incredible battles, but while they are certainly due some respect, ultimately there is an assumption that modern magic is just as good as the old stuff, if not better. Even the Jaghut Tyrant, an ancient evil feared by all and the closest thing in the novel to a Dark Lord, is implied to be somewhat obsolete and rather out of his depth.

Even the Bridgeburners, who are indeed glorified as a legendary military unit and present some of the most interesting and sympathetic characters, turn out to be ambiguous at best, given they attempt to orchestrate murders and then prepare a terror attack on a civilian population. They are well-intentioned, but so are their enemies who live in Darujhistan. When they meet in the right circumstances, people from the two different sides even become fast friends. Yet the intentions of ordinary people cannot change their world, so the conflict continues, grinding up human lives in the vast gears of ambition and intrigue.

It’s Erikson’s achievement (and this is, in my opinion, a considerable achievement) that not only do we as readers immediately have the same reaction as Crokus but we have it for the same reason. Immersed in the Malazan world with its manifold deities and deep magic, there’s nothing implausible about the idea of beautiful gardens under an ocean on the moon tended by an elder god. No, the only thing that seems unbelievable about Apsalar’s description is its last image: “There won’t be any more wars, and empires, and no swords and shields.” An end to suffering and war? That’s just fantasy.

Friday 5, November

Characterization in the Malazan series

I was writing in a forum and trying to figure out if there's a simple way to summarize how characterization works in the Malazan series. It's one aspect that is also criticized and matter of debate and so I think it's all about the reader and his personal reaction to a different style. For some it works, for others it doesn't.

One problem is that for books that are part of a specific genre readers come with very specific expectations, and so it's not easy to make them accept different canons and structures, they will judge a book by comparing it to other books in the genre that are considered absolute points of reference. The quality of a book is then relative to its performance on those canons. Malazan has an ever harder time because its differences start already with the style of the writing. So it depends entirely on whether or not this style works for a certain reader or if instead one gets "bounced back".

"Characterization" is one of those aspects where "innovation" or change or originality of approach isn't usually welcome. A classic kind of characterization works well and achieves a lot of important functions. Most successful books, even if much different, have similar approaches to characterization. They can do it better or worse, but usually they follow similar structures. This is instead one aspect that Erikson does in a completely different way (or in a way that represents a minority).

In the Malazan series things aren't driven by characters, but by scenes. Often scenes are linked thematically, and different characters relate to the same theme in their own different way. In most other fantasy, putting in the same group Tolkien, Martin and Jordan to quote three of the most visible, characters are established before plot. In Tolkien we get to know the Hobbits well before the story and the journey picks up. There's the whole birthday scene, but also lots of "infodumps" about the quirky habits of the Hobbit and all the different families. Characters and story are well contextualized before they are set in movement. Jordan follows the structure closely, sets up the countryside village, its inhabitants and what will become main characters. You have a nice bucolic scene set up, including fundamental characterization, before things start to happen. Things are again properly and carefully contextualized so that the reader acquires a certain familiarity with them before "changes" arrive. Martin, even if completely different from both Jordan and Tolkien, also starts by contextualizing. Bran's first chapter is a well written introduction to the whole Stark family, and before the chapter closes the reader will be already familiar with all the most important traits and characters that define the Starks. Here the plot moves already as part of the contextualization, but it's all again measured on the reader. Even with the following chapters characters are introduced in a way that lets the reader develop familiarity, and things only move after the reader got hold of them.

As I said, this is the aspect that most sets Erikson's writing style apart from most of everything else. It's not much that the first book starts in "medias res", or in a point in time that is already quite complicate. That's a detail. The real difference is that no characters are contextualized as a deliberate choice. In Erikson's books no character is closely followed, no character is carefully presented before the plot gets moving. We get scenes. Characters are part of scenes and they get swapped depending on the scene. We get glimpses of characterization, because even when there's direct introspection it's always closely related to the theme in that scene. We see specific characterization and reactions. We get flashes. What we do not get is the fully disclosed character that the reader familiarizes with and knows so well to consider like a close friend. This never happen. All characters, even those who appear more often and that are minutely developed, keep obscure aspects about their lives and thoughts. There is no spotlight that clears all shadows and offers a special status of clarity. This is immediately evident from the beginning of Gardens of the Moon, where Paran, in the scene where he goes in Gerrom to find out what happened with the missing girl and her father, even with direct introspection we only get hints, glimpses and suspicions about what Paran is thinking. There is no omniscient light poured into a character.

All this is not the result of a lack of strong characterization, even compared to books praised for it, it's just a matter of different style. Characters in the Malazan series develop in the longer term, the more those slices of characterization build up to something more cohesive. The facets we see have plenty of depths, character never develop predictably and Erikson's habit is about breaking patterns and expectations. Malazan has plenty of originality and depth, but it is nuanced and only comes out on a emergent level. It's not straightforward and clear, it takes effort from the reader to put together the pieces of characterization. As is the case with everything else that makes this series.

Agreeing or not on the merit of characterization in the Malazan series, I think it's still obvious to say that characters only relate to the specific scene and nothing else, and that this is a constant for the whole series and all characters involved. There's a neutrality of approach that in the end delivers something powerfully authentic. Which is as far as you can go in the matter of characterization.

Saturday 30, October

New Malazan covers for American market

Lot's of things I'm following off the blog. A number of Q&A sessions with Erikson and now Esslemont too on and also the usual weekly re-reads.

Today I received from the bookdepository a copy of "The Bonehuters", American Tor mass market freshly reprinted with the new cover (UK version). This is at the moment the best mass market format, slightly smaller than UK MM and looking more solid & flexible. The interior (font, pagination) is exactly the same of the UK version (so a very good thing). At the moment only this and Midnight Tides are available in shops in this updated style (plus Dust of Dreams when it comes out next month), so I asked Irene Gallo (Tor art director) if they were going to release the books in a consistent style. Here is her reply:

We are trying to standardize the series as the older books run out of stock and we need to reprint. Unfortunately that doesn't always happen in series order.

It will take a while I guess.

I'm a bit torn about what is going to be my reading copy since I love both this updated MM but also the "UK book club" hardcover edition that is much smaller than classic hardcover. But in the meantime I should deal with The Way of Kings and The Darkness that Comes Before :)

Saturday 9, October

Stonewielder, first comments & details

Pat received the page proofs of Stonewielder. The official release is 25 November and official page count is the same as RotCG, 720 pages. It's odd because Pat says the book is 635 pages and so there's quite a gap to fill with just map + glossary + Dramatis Personae. Someone speculated there may be an excerpt from The Crippled God, but it's unlikely as Hardcovers don't usually have excerpts of any kind. I estimate the wordcount at 250k.

Update: Pat also posted the map that goes with the book, map of the Korel subcontinent. I saved it along my collection of the other maps.

As usual the interesting part is about Pat's ongoing comments on the book:

Okay, about 100 pages into Stonewielder, so here's the first update:

Esslemont's narrative skills have improved yet again, and he seems to be finding his voice.

So Greymane and Kyle are laying low in Delanss, where Greymane opened a fighting school. But shit happens, and it seems that Greymane won't get to enjoy the perks of retirement. . .

Someone tries to enter the Deadhouse with a surprising plan in mind. . .

An ex-priest of Fener sets up shop in Banith, but soon finds out that he's disturbing the established order of things. . .

And a new character with Toblakai blood is introduced. . .

There's more, of course, but that's about it for now.

Good start. Good pace. Better writing all around. More promising than Return of the Crimson Guard at this point. . .


Now 217 pages into Stonewielder. . .

As far as the writing is concerned, it is by far Esslemont's best effort.

And now the plot thickens, with a lot of good shit ahead, or so it seems!

Just found out why the Korelri campaign fucked up and seemed to be on a standstill for so long. . .


Okay, I'm done with Book 2.

Stonewielder features a much better pace than RotCG, which makes for a more enjoyable reading experience. Not only has Esslemont's narrative improved, but so have his characterization skills. In many aspects, this one reads more and more like an Erikson Malazan book.

And though one of the principal storylines focuses on the Malazan invasion, unlike RotCG, the author doesn't feel the need to throw yet another battle scene every ten pages or so. Although this is a multilayered tale, I feel that Esslemont keeps a tighter focus on the various plotlines.

As is usually the case with a Malazan installment, this one raises way more questions than it provides answers. And the answers usually raise yet more questions.

One thing that bugs me is the timing of this one. Why the hell, when everything in the Malazan Empire is going to shit, did the new Emperor decide to renew a military campaign that went down the crapper over a decade before? Insofar as I've read, there is no hint as to what could possibly interest him in the lands of Fist to launch such an invasion. . .

The cult of the Blessed Lady is another enigma, or the Lady is in any case. Whoever she is, Goddess or Ascendant, it feels weird that we haven't heard about her by now. Even with her ancient name, I can't find anything about her. . . And given how powerful she is, I feel that more should have been hinted at. Though, to be honest, Erikson hasn't been very forthcoming about the Korel campaign in his books. The reason why being one of the most interesting secrets about Stonewielder. . .

There is more to Kyle than meets the eye, and it has nothing to do with his blade. Get used to him because, like the Crimson Guard, I have a feeling that he will be one of the star players in every ICE Malazan books.

Can't really say more without spoiling everything. And unless everything goes to shit in the last 200 pages or so, I'd say that Esslemont has a real winner here!

Tuesday 28, September

"Gardens of the Moon" (on hope, salvation, redemption, consolation)

Why the title in quotation marks? Because we're talking directly of the title itself.

There was a recent reply of Steven Erikson to some provocations of mine on re-read. Lots of interesting topics that are relevant to the genre at large. One was about the use of "magic" in fantasy (a rather broad argument that Erikson handled brilliantly in that reply), another was about the title of the first book, "Gardens of the Moon".

This is what he said specifically:

Before I get to the matter of DEM's and all that ... now that the series is done, and now that I've already said elsewhere that Toll the Hounds provides the cipher for understanding the series, it probably does no harm to reveal what was going on in my mind during the writing of Gardens of the Moon, and how my reality (and sense of it) shaped what I wrote, and gave me the reasons for writing it the way I did.

As any beginning writer well knows, the future is filled with soaring hope and crushing despair. Yes, there are bestselling writers out there making a decent living (or even filthy rich), all happily writing full-time. But they are a minority; and most even published writers need to supplement their habit with 'real work.' So, you hope and you fear. You want but you also need to be realistic. And in the bookshops you pick up titles and read a little bit and wonder how in hell did this ever get published? Or you think, ah, here I am in good hands.

And you daydream. A lot. These days they call it visualisation. So, there we were, living on Saltspring Island, unemployed and on welfare (starving in paraidse, we still call that phase of our lives). A baby about to arrive and scant prospects on the horizon.

But I kept looking at those books in the stores, trying to work out why some ever made it into print; trying to figure out the rhyme or reason of publishing. It looked like the biggest crapshoot imaginable. Seemed to me that luck played as big a role as talent. Who you knew, that kind of thing.

Luck. I sat down to write this fantasy novel, thinking about chance and mischance. Thinking about a life in anonymity and a life that wasn't (refer if you will to Circle Breaker in the epilogue and the novel's last line). Thinking about writing a tale filled with magic, high adventure and a wild, if not insane, climax. And dreaming of getting it published and actually making a living as a writer.

Lots of dreams went into Gardens of the Moon (hence the title, too, and the invented mythos surrounding it), along with ambition. And the writing thereof became on one level a dialogue with myself (as is the entire series).

At the same time I spotted on Malazan forums a comment written by a reader that not only is coherent with what Erikson wrote there, but also drags it more to the surface:

I'm going to nod my head to the genius of the title, "Gardens of the Moon", for as perverse as it seems to name a book after a seemingly obscure reference in a single conversation, that reference encompasses a theme of enormous importance in the book and the series.

1. The story of the 'gardens of the moon', as told by Apsalar, offers the hope of future bliss. More broadly, you can read redemption or salvation for bliss.

To all those struggling in their day to day lives with the seemingly eternal problems of societies (war, injustice, tyranny[1]) and personal existence (heartbreak, illness, hunger), any hope of future salvation and bliss is obviously of enormous appeal. Readers of later books will recognise where this idea goes. The Chained God's apparent doctrine to mortals (regardless of his actual intentions) is the story of the gardens of the moon; an offer of future bliss and release from their present sufferings.

2. Apsalar's telling of the story of the 'gardens of the moon' frames it as a kind of fairy story or children's tale or fantasy.

In other words, it requires a certain naivety or wilful self-delusion to buy into it wholly, so there's actually two opposed themes derived from it:
( a ) subservience to - or faith in - a wilful self-deception or illusion offering the hope of future bliss,
-- versus --
( b ) clearer-eyed experience (or cynicism) teaching a truer but harder reality that hope is often transient (unless you struggle to hang on to it) and bliss elusive (unless you lower your expectations of it).

And that opposition is the crux of the drama in the entire series. Most (almost all?) of the major characters in the series embody the struggle between these notions in some way, and their experiences and personal evolution are an examination of these two competing ideas. (Consider Paran's path in GotM[2].) That's what makes the choice of title of the first book so brilliant.

Of course, the longer someone has been around, the closer to the second category they generally fall. In terms of groups, rather than individuals, the embracing of the second ideal isn't often the result of revelation, but entropy and experience, and although groups don't encompass the free-will aspect of this idea (see note [1]), the important factor is that they are (largely) without the hope of reward or bliss. Think of the ennui that permeates the Tiste Andii and what led them to that (much of which only comes out in later books, admittedly), or more amusingly, Tool's often quoted ruminations about the T'lan Imass:

"Tell me, Tool, what dominates your thoughts?"
The Imass shrugged before replying, "I think of futility, Adjunct."
"Do all Imass think about futility?"
"No. Few think at all."
"Why is that?"
The Imass leaned his head to one side and regarded her, "Because Adjunct, it is futile."


[1] One of the more amazing notions that appears in the series is that all forms of society, even the smallest community - is a form of tyranny. From anyone else, this'd sound like pure cynicism, but from an anthropologist (as Erickson is), it is - at least in the context of the Malazan series -something to bear in mind. Now I think this idea is first spelled out, albeit in passing, in MoI (in reference to the Jaghut's self-imposed personal isolationism), although it utterly dominates some later books. What's of interest (to me, at least) is the way in which this notion of tyranny as a social force appears reflected in the two opposed themes of the 'gardens of the moon' story: a personal subservience versus a rejection of the consolations of companionship.

[2] Paran has given over control of his life to an ideal of service to the Adjunct (early on in GotM) - in part a wilful self-delusion; that by following rather than making his own choices he can be absolved of the myriad challenges of free will. But new friendships undermine his isolation, casting him adrift as a pawn of other powers who test him sorely, and only by finally seeking to break his subservience to them does he begin to leave behind his illusion of hope granted by unthinking service; and now has to face the nasty idea that redemption (of any kind) will not come from any self-deception, and that new forms of more freely given service to others (and other ideals) - while being more ethically true to his heart - are without (illusory) guarantees of redemption. It's the hard road - no more gardens of the moon for him... apparently.

Many other characters touch upon this idea in different ways. Compare Lorn's path with Paran's: after being tested, and tempted to leave her illusions behind, she appears to return to the path of the gardens of the moon - in action at least, but what about her heart?

Or consider Whiskeyjack, Toc the Younger, and Rallick Nom (what do they really trust in? and how have their outlooks evolved with their allegiences/friendships and experiences?).

I should also mention that this is STRONGLY related to "Disciple of the Dog" that I think I could safely define as the most extraordinary book I've read.

The enlightenment is right over there. One just has to figure out if it's desirable or not.

Wednesday 22, September

Mock's Vane

"Mock's Vane" is the object whose description opens the Prologue of Gardens of the Moon. I was briefly discussing its description on Westeros forums when I noticed that on Tor reread it was interpreted in a completely different way, without triggering any debate. So I thought it was worth elaborating here.

This is the paragraph with the description:

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

And this is Bill interpretation on Tor's site:

Hardly a cheery start, but an appropriate one. I like to think of that vane as synonymous with the Bridgeburners: their armor also rusted and stained (albeit with real blood), balancing atop a sharp point (between loyalty to the Empire and defiance towards the Empress), hammered into its current shape by a cruel forging, and buffeted by the winds of war and politics.

It makes sense but I think my interpretation is more accurate and convincing. I'm not a particularly intuitive guy and these things usually defy me, but in this case I used a rather simple framework. I took the object and divided its basic qualities. Those traits will probably qualify what the vane stands for/symbolizes.

In particular, it's the fact it's a century old that makes things clearer. What is also a century old? You just have to glance above the first line of prose:

96th Year of the Malazan Empire

As to say "a century old". It already defies the Bridgeburner interpretation as the Bridgeburners were most likely created much later.

This particular vane is then featured again in "Night of Knives", the Esslemont book. It appears twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the book.

On its pike at Temper's side, Mock's Vane, the winged demon-shaped weathervane, shook and hummed as if caught in a steady gale. Temper frowned at the old relic; the winds were calm this evening.

Down the wall, Mock's Vane stood silent on its pike. Temper eyed it - the damn thing appeared frozen athwart the wind.

The main reason why I criticized this book in my review, is that Esslemont is like Erikson stripped of all subtlety and we see a good demonstration in those two quotes. The symbol is stripped of ambiguity and reveals its meaning all too plainly: the vane moves, without wind, at the start, and is still, even with wind, when the night is over. Why? Because its symbolic meaning is more important than it being a weathervane and so pointing the direction of the wind.

"Night of Knives" is the book with the story of the night that the Prologue of Gardens of the Moon anticipates. Mock's vane is there to represent the old empire under Kellanved. Its description and physical properties are "thematic" and analogous to that sort of empire he built. The vane is restless because a convergence is close (but the reader doesn't know this yet), in Night of Knives it moves before the convergence, then stops when the night is over. Mock's Hold, in Erikson's own words, represents a position of power and control, in this case it "observes" from above.

An old thing stirring. An emperor that comes back. A misshapen, grotesque imitation of life (movement).

There are lot of things and meanings packed there. In just a few lines. All the various meanings are directly connected with the prologue and what the prologue stands for (the "Night of Knives"). It works really well because it is coherent with everything Erikson wanted to do with that Prologue. You can accuse it of being maybe too plain and obvious, but here we got that piece interpreted in a different way, or considered by other readers as being pointless or not having any real meaning.

From a side Erikson is accused of being too obscure, and when instead symbols are more obvious then he's accused of being too plain.

One has to consider in particular how that part is approached by a reader. A first time reader doesn't know what is about to happen, doesn't know what happened to the emperor. One doesn't know the rules of Ascendancy and gods can be only considered on a level that is entirely separated from human affairs. This "disconnection" allows Erikson to do some of the most obvious foreshadowing and brilliant sleight of hand. Things are spelled so clearly and yet the readers are so masterfully deceived. The vane can only be registered as ominous foreshadowing that can't be placed yet (and that aspect was well commented by Bill). Its real meaning isn't even revealed if one reads the whole book because what happened that day is the apex of a long story involving the matters of the "old empire" and "old guard" that the reader pieces together in the longer term. It takes maybe up to House of Chains to get the whole picture.

Good foreshadowing = when some vague hint acquires a much greater import in retrospective.

And in that, Bill's interpretation is actually incorporated by the greater one. The Bridgeburners are caught in bigger situation and just one of the parties involved. That day, foreshadowed by the vane stirring, has a much bigger impact. And so, depending on the level of awareness of the different reader, it adapts its meaning.

Sunday 5, September

Steven Erikson on the Malazan series

Another wonderful gift from Steven Erikson. He wrote some comments for Tor ongoing reread about why new readers struggle reading his books, his style of writing, how to approach the series and some specific aspects of Gardens of the Moon.

I think there's a rule that is true for all books and writers: we can only hope to understand and appreciate a fraction of what is offered. This is an even bigger problem with Erikson because the text is dense and one doesn't even expect that every word and every scene is so strongly charged of meaning and metaphorical intention. If there's a description we approach it as a description, and most of the layers and delicate complexities are lost. If instead one wants to dig, soon he'd find himself swallowed whole. Erikson has the range of the greatest writers.

It takes some modesty to admit of not having fully understood a book. It also takes a different point of view to realize we haven't fully understood one. If we see nothing we are sure that there is nothing. But the truth, and it's a truth valid for all writers, is that we may be closer or far, but we always understand a fraction. Bigger or smaller, still a fraction.

Two times I reread that book, so much I've treasured, and I feel like I could still only glide on the surface.

Hello all,

The great thing about having a cold is the privilege of sitting round for days doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. Having read through the chapter commentary from the beginning, I'd like to take you all back more than a few pages, and talk about why these novels seem to thrive in the context of re-reads, and why first-time readers are often left feeling bewildered. I think the two are very much related.

It goes back to how I first started writing fiction. I was in a Master's program in archaeology when I came second in a local short story contest in Winnipeg, a tale called 'Wooden Trucks.' On the weight of this one venture into writing I applied to attend a creative writing program at the University of Victoria. I recall being in a sweaty phone box in Belize, on the phone with my mother back in Winnipeg, as she opened the envelope telling me I'd got in. From that moment onward, my entire world changed.

The writing program at Uvic at that time was at its zenith. When I showed up it was as a wide-eyed neophyte with a secret love of genre fiction (one keeps these things secret if one wants to be taken seriously). What I learned, almost from day one, was that I knew nothing about anything; that my writing to that point had only 'worked' because I was instinctively consistent, with emphasis on the word 'instinctively.'

Uvic taught me the craft of writing; it taught me to be mindful. The key though is this: it made me a short-story writer. Short stories are a particular beasts. In them, not a single word is superfluous. Everything carries extra weight, or at least that's how I saw it.

Track forward a few years and scores of short stories later, and I begin writing novels, only to discover that my 'muscle memory' is now absolute -- the obsessive adherence to multifunctional, multilayered writing (line by line, word by word) is not something I can relax -- when novel writing in fact demands just that: an ease with wandering, with transitive passages, with a gentler hand taking hold of the reader, etc. Instead, novel-writing for me is the building of ever more elaborate structures, designed to carry ever more weight.

A long ramble to get to this: on one level details in making a setting carry the more obvious virtues -- placing the characters somewhere, giving them things with which they can interact; in creating an atmosphere and a tone; and in painting a picture for the reader's imagination. But other levels are possible. Setting as 'animated environment' can feed your sense of the characters in it; can foreshadow elements of plot; can reveal theme.

Take some opening scenes in Gardens as examples, and see how they relate to subsequent scenes for those select characters. Whiskeyjack and Fiddler on Mock's Hold: high above a burning city, in a place of power. There's smoke and the smell of carnage -- they are above it but only moments from descending into it. But we don't see that bit. They are on stonework, but it's cracked, and their backs are to the sea. All of these details shapes the reader's sense of them to some extent. When next we see them, they are on the ground, far away from Malaz City, surrounded in destruction and desolation. It's a different place, but their descent began in the prologue, if you see what I mean. And even then, they were only a short time earlier under the ground itself.

If we look to Kruppe, things get a little more complicated. Kruppe and his city are the same things; just as his language and attitude (and mystery) reflect the exotic, byzantine confusion of Darujhistan, so too his half-mocking smile and spark in the eye invite you into the labyrinthine cityscape (and the literally over-the-top assassin/Crokus chase). Kruppe is both flashy but on close examination somewhat scuffed, stained. He has a cherubic face, but plenty hides behind that. And so on. His voice is the city's voice, and it begins in a dream, as all great cities do.

Where is all this going? It goes here. Three storm clouds converging over Lake Azure, into which Whiskeyjack and co. are headed. A reader comments that I'm too smart to now say that there was deliberate portent in the detail of three clouds warring over the lake. Hmm. It's been too many years since that for me to be more specific than this: I could have written 'there was a storm over the lake,' and left it at that. The foreshadow is obvious enough. But, if I'd written that description, I would have immediately seen the foreshadowing element -- it's almost too cinematic and verges on cliche. I could then have changed it to two storm clouds, but then, that wouldn't have made sense; or rather, it would have been suggestive but inaccurately so. There are three forces converging on the city. Two storm clouds would have been lazy and misleading; careless.

Of course there are three storm-clouds. Of course this detail is relevant. It's how short stories work.

Uh oh. This ain't a short story though, is it? And therein lies the problem. I know what I'm up to; I know how I think and how I write. And to make matters worse, everything I put into a narrative is saying (pleading, begging) 'you can trust me, honest.' But I'm not taking the reader by the hand. I've invited them into a place, left them standing, looking round, wandering a bit but not far, not far at all. And every now and then I tap a shoulder, point, nod to over there, or here. And that's it.

Re-readers will nod and smile. First-timers will blink, bewildered -- and will decide to either trust me or not. I really want them to trust me, but I don't know how to manage that... beyond making sure that everything fits, that everything has meaning.

A virtue or a flaw in my writing? Maybe both. You see, I already know that world, but the only details I show you are the important ones. There's no filler. And that's not fair.

And the structure is such a crazed, manic machine, an engineer's nightmare, a spider's acid trip, it's really no wonder that readers will doubt, and on occasion give up on the effort, on the trust I so desperately ask for.

So, to all you new readers on this, I am ever amazed and slightly astonished to find you staying with me. I tell myself that what is happening is a kind of education process: read me this way, it's the only way. Pay attention! You will be tested on all of this, I guarantee it. Stay with me and in turn I will promise you that it will be a blast.

And even better, then you'll have all those re-reads, when things will really get wild.

Cheers for now

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