Monthly Archives: June 2014

DAVID GEMMELL, HEROIC FANTASY AND LITERARY FOILS

David Gemmell was one of the great fantasy authors. He chose to write heroic fantasy, rather than high or epic, and he mastered his preferred form. He remains, probably, the finest writer in that field. Nor is he likely to be surpassed. But what lifted him to the top of the genre?

Certainly, his books are page turners. Like any good writer, he knew how to hook a reader into a story and then to keep them in suspense. He filled the pages with excitement and then finished with a rousing bang. But many writers know how to do that.

He also deployed the full range of characters: good guys, bad guys, bad guys who turn good, good guys who turn bad – and most, just like ordinary people, aren’t really one or the other. They have traits of both. But lots of writers do this, too.

Regardless of the strong fantasy elements of his books, his stories are grounded in reality. In fact, he seemed to take great pleasure in grinding the reader’s face into it. Here, he’s a bit different from many, but hardly alone.

He also matches his characters external conflicts with internal counterpoints. That raises him a few rungs up the ladder, higher than many, but by itself doesn’t make him the master of heroic fantasy.

What sets him apart is that his stories resonate with depth. Not the depth of world building (languages, histories, appendices etc.) found in The Lord of the Rings, but something else that Tolkien also used: the power of contrast. They say conflict is king in storytelling. If so, contrast is queen, and she is an equal ruler.

In The Lord of the Rings, contrasts abound everywhere. Most things have a counterbalance – or an outright opposite. Think Gandalf/Saruman, Moria/Lothlórien, the hope of Théoden/the despair of Denethor. This is a trait shared by some of the great English storytellers. Shakespeare used opposites: comedy in tragedy/tragedy in comedy. Charles Dickens used contrast a different way in one of the best selling books of all time – A Tale of Two Cities. This is how it opens: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . .

Small wonder that this is one of the best known literary quotes in the English language. It’s right up there with that other ultimate of opposites, “To be, or not to be…”

My point with all this is that contrasts (foils if we want to get technical) are powerful tools. They throw light on things in the same way that deserts taste sweeter after eating something sour.

Gemmell concentrates on his characters, which is fitting in heroic fantasy, and that’s where his contrasts are most at work.

Let’s take just one example and study how he uses the technique. I could choose any of his books and find a similar effect, but I think it’s most pronounced in Waylander.

The book takes its name from the main character. Waylander tragically lost his wife and children many years ago and has since lived the life of an assassin. Haunted by anger and guilt, he seeks revenge against his family’s murderers. In the process, he became a killer for hire. His last mission was the assassination of the Drenai king, and it’s shortly after this that the story begins.

Early on he meets the mystic, Dardalion. Dardalion is a Source Priest: kind, gentle, pure and a pacifist horrified by violence.

Waylander saves him from torture and death at the hands of outlaws. He achieves this with ruthless efficiency, for his skill at fighting is far superior to ordinary men. After the rescue, Dardalion travels with him, and they interact. Waylander’s ruthlessness washes off on the priest, and Dardalion’s goodness washes off on Waylander. Over time, he regains his conscience, though he loses none of his deadly skills. He puts them to use no longer as an assassin for hire, but to fight a great evil, and he transforms into a hero. And Dardalion, under Waylander’s influence, realizes that pacifism in the face of annihilation is not the only, perhaps not even the best, way to serve the Source. Ultimately, he forms a band of warrior-priests who also fight evil.

The two men are not only opposites of each other, but their futures are opposites of their past. They transform into something new, their change not only inspired by the other party but by the part of themselves that they realized was weak. They each find a balance – with the world and with themselves.

This is a kind of literary yin and yang. One force gives birth to the other. By their synergy, the whole becomes more than its parts.

The blurb to Waylander foreshadows this yin and yang contrast. Most tellingly in this:

Stalked by men who act like beasts and beasts that walk like men, the warrior Waylander must journey into the shadow-haunted lands of the Nadir to find the legendary Armour of Bronze. With this he can turn the tide.

Here, we have the men/beasts opposites, the shadow-haunted lands/(shiny) bronze armor opposites, and the tide, which is always in a state of flux; a perfect symbol of yin and yang harmony.

Gemmell could easily have told the story without Dardalion. But he was a master of his art, and he brought them together so that their contrasts would throw a sharper light on Waylander’s heroic struggle.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

SHANNARA AND ORIGINALITY IN FICTION

Terry Brooks is sometimes criticized for a lack of originality in The Sword of Shannara. Detractors claim it’s nothing more than a poor clone of The Lord of the Rings.  But is this fair, and what is originality in fiction?

Certainly, there are obvious parallels between the books in terms of character, setting and structure. Here are just a few:

  • The Shire / Shady Vale
  • Frodo and Sam / Shea and Flick
  • The Wizard Gandalf / the Druid Allanon
  • Elves / Elves
  • Dwarves / Dwarfs
  • Frodo begins his journey without Gandalf / Shea begins his journey without Allanon
  • Gollum / Orl Fane
  • Orcs / Gnomes
  • The Black Riders / The Skull Bearers
  • The Dark Lord / The Warlock Lord
  • Underground tunnels (Moria) / underground tunnels (Hall of Kings)
  • The siege of Gondor / The siege of Tyrsis

There are more, but what do shared plot points and archetypes really tell us about The Sword of Shannara?

Not much.

To appreciate a story, it must be experienced as a story, not broken down into a list.

Stories often appear similar on the surface. Just like a glass of Coke looks like a glass of Pepsi. But if you actually taste them (rather than merely note that they’re fizzy, dark and wet) you find that they’re not the same. Books are no different. Reading them, as opposed to summarizing them, is an emotional and psychological experience – one that’s created by the mind of the author and that sparks to life in the mind of the reader.

Terry Brooks is far a different person from Tolkien, and the emotional and psychological effect he invokes is different. This is because stories are more than character, plot and setting: they have a voice, the author’s voice, and this resonates (or fails to resonate) with the emotions of the reader.

So, what is originality in literature? Stories have been told since hunters and gatherers first sat down around a campfire – probably even before they discovered fire. Storytelling is based on real life, the emotional things that drive us such as fear, courage, hate, love, greed, generosity, resentment and forgiveness. Those emotions haven’t changed in the six thousand years of recorded history. And because there are only so many emotions, there are only so many stories. You can’t tell a story about a rock – inanimate objects don’t have emotions.  But you can tell one about a man who first discovers the secret of smelting iron ore and who forges weapons to protect his homeland from invaders.

Let’s examine one parallel between the The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara, and see how it effects us emotionally.

Both stories have a wise mentor: Gandalf /Allanon. In both, their absence at crucial points allows the hero to grow. Otherwise, The Lord of the Rings would be a story about Gandalf rather than Frodo, and The Sword of Shannara would be about Allanon. In both books the mentors are hooded, wise, mysterious, secretive, sometimes grumpy, and more powerful than they at first seem. But these are all superficial characteristics. What are they like as people? What’s at their emotional core?

Gandalf has an overriding mission. He’s an emissary sent to help the inhabitants of Middle-earth resist evil. He has enormous power, but won’t use it to influence those he helps. He’s swift to anger, but shows kindness to the small and great alike. He’s a kind person with a massive task, and his heart has deep stores of compassion, mercy and pity.

So much for Gandalf, but what about Allanon? Who is he really? He could be all the things that Gandalf is. He probably is all those things, but fate and circumstance drive him down a darker course. He keeps a deadly secret from Shea. He does this because he must, because it’s ultimately what’s best for the Four Lands and Shea himself. But he’ll never be thanked for it. His burden is to serve, to do what’s right, and to be mistrusted for his personal sacrifice.

At heart, these two mentors transcend their superficial characteristics. Or rather, both authors transcend the common archetype that they use. As readers, we like and admire Gandalf; we marvel at his store of wisdom, understanding of human nature and his capacity to help those for whom he feels pity. Our reaction to Allanon is different. It’s for him that we feel pity.

Despite superficial similarities, Gandalf and Allanon are worlds apart, and their emotional effect on us is just as distinct. They speak to us in a different way. Originality is to take something and to infuse it with your own voice. For there is nothing new in storytelling, not since before that first camp fire.

I could say something similar about all of the parallels. Instead, I’ll finish on this point. The voice of both authors is entirely different. The Lord of the Rings is heavily laden with a sense of loss, of the passing of much that is good, even in victory. The Sword of Shannara is filled with fear that humankind might repeat their past mistakes, but also a quiet hope that they’ll rise above their baser emotions, and that the future is full of promise.

As I said, Tolkien and Brooks are as far apart from each other as possible. So too are their stories.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

ROGER TAYLOR: HIGH FANTASY EXCELLENCE

Roger Taylor is a fine author, and The Chronicles of Hawklan is probably the most underrated fantasy series going around. The books have the authentic mood and classic style of high fantasy, but manage frequent bursts of originality.

The series abounds with intrigue, battles, strange creatures, magic, even a Dark Lord. But there’s not an elf or dwarf in sight. It’s a potent mix of genre cliches and new perspectives. Best of all, the story has a thread of philosophy running through it. This serves to unify the whole thing, to give it backbone and (at the same time) subtle grace. That’s a masterful achievement.

Perhaps one of the reasons the books never broke out on a massive scale is that they’re patchy. It’s almost like they were written at different stages over a long career, although they were published close together. This patchiness exists in some of the subsequent standalone novels, too.

I’m willing to forgive an author a bit of patchiness. Even Shakespeare had off moments. The main thing (for me at least) is that a book should take me into another world, thrill me, move me, make me think, make me want to linger even when the last page is turned. Roger Taylor does that, so I salute him. It’s no easy task.

Perhaps some of his later standalone books are better written. However, most readers of epic and high fantasy hanker after a series, preferably a long one. His finest work might well be Arash-Felloren or Farnor. Farnor is a two book series and also serves as an entry point into the world of Hawklan.

At any rate, I don’t mind giving a shout out for an author who provided me with some great reading over many years. In fact, I think I might dust of my old paperback copies (already read multiple times) and immerse myself once more. To me, books that can be kept, treasured and reread, are the telltale mark of a great author.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

HIGH STYLE, POETIC PROSE AND ELEVATED DICTION

I argued here that one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is poetic prose. But how do the great writers achieve their “high style?” And what exactly is high style, or as it’s more officially (but less beautifully) called, elevated diction?

Fantasy stories (at least those of an epic flavor) are a natural home for this kind of writing. The genre tropes lend themselves to it: light against dark, heroes against villains, courage against despair and the great sweeps of time during which the fate of people, nations and even worlds hang in the balance.

I’ll give some examples of high style because it’s one of those things that’s hard to describe but easy to recognize when you see it. But first, I’ll run through what it isn’t.

David Eddings uses the term in his introduction to The Rivan Codex. He says, “Next came the question of how to tell it. My selection of Sir Perceval (Sir Dumb, if you prefer) sort of ruled out ‘High Style’. I can write in ‘High Style’ if necessary (see Mandorallen with his ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s and ‘foreasmuche’s), but Garion would have probably swallowed his tongue if he’d tried it.”

I don’t want to disagree with a master of the genre, but in this he was wrong. Is Mandorallen’s speech archaic? Yes. Is it formal? Yes. Does it provide contrast to the earthy dialogue of Belgarath, the witty observations of Silk and the sarcastic tones of Ce’Nedra? Yes. But it’s not high style. It’s everyday speech from a few hundred years ago. Would the people who spoke that way have considered it high? Not at all. For them, it was ordinary. Something more than archaic formality is needed to lift writing to the status of “high.”

Some people group high style together with purple prose. According to Wikipedia, “Purple prose is written prose that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context.”

Well, that sounds like a good definition. However, what does “beyond the requirements of its context” mean? It means nothing at all, for whether or not the context requires ornate prose is a matter of taste. It’s like saying good food is unnecessary because the human body can survive on stale bread and gruel. Apologies to stale bread and gruel aficionados.

The great pulp era writers like Robert E. Howard (author of the Conan stories) were sometimes accused of purple prose. But much of Howard’s writing was true high style (to my taste). And I suggest that his critics simply didn’t care for sensually evocative writing in any context. Howard was also a great user of adjectives, a habit mistakenly frowned upon by some critics.  My thoughts on that are here.

So, what exactly is high style?

High style is a simple style. It uses the right word in the right place. It uses specific nouns, shuns weak adverbs, uses active verbs, prefers an unusual verb to a common one and uses adjectives to invoke strong imagery. Above all, it’s terse. Actually, that’s just good writing. High style, in addition to all that, adds layers of poetic technique such as simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration and resonance. In short, the words have a ring to them, for words, whether spoken or read, are musical.

Of course, there’s a time and place for everything. An author wouldn’t use high style to describe two bugs crawling up a wall (although the writer in me is twitching at that challenge). Prose, like music, needs variation to work. It should rise to high style when the emotional impact of the prose reaches a crescendo.

Showing is better than telling, so here are some examples.

This is the beginning of Robert E Howard’s The Phoenix on the Sword.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

Now, to my taste, that has a ring to it. It’s exquisite. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis (which would take far more room than I have here) but I’ll draw your attention to a few of Howard’s techniques.

Some of the most powerful phrases are personifications (the giving of human-like characteristics to inanimate objects): the oceans drank Atlantis . . . shadow-guarded tombs . . . the proudest kingdom . . . the dreaming west. Also, note some of the adjectives that provide vivid imagery: gleaming cities . . . dark-haired women . . . spider-haunted mystery . . . jeweled thrones . . . sandalled feet.

This is another example. It’s from Tolkien’s The Silmarrillion. Fingolfin has just challenged Morgoth to combat.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable on-blazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.

This is the work of one of the great masters of the English language. The paragraph is thick with similes and at least one metaphor: like thunder . . . like a tower . . . like a stormcloud . . . as a star . . . glittered like ice. Not to mention the adjectives again: subterranean throne . . . black armour . . . iron-crowned . . . vast shield . . . And there’s personification in the rumour of his feet. Also, note some of the alliteration: feet, forth, black, before, clad, king, iron-crowned, cast, stormcloud.

Let’s rework that paragraph without the sensually evocative prose.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne. His feet trod loudly on the stairs. And he issued forth clad in armour; and he stood before the King, and his vast shield cast a shadow over him. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it, for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil. 

That just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? And I didn’t even remove the alliteration.

So, to all the haters of poetic prose who would have me eat only stale bread and gruel, a thousand poxes upon your houses, and may you be flooded by a ceaseless tide of ever-more-vivid adjectives. And if that’s beyond the requirements of context, I’ll find a way to live with it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

HIGH FANTASY: HOW TO WRITE A BLURB

I promised in my last post to share my ideas on how fantasy blurbs attract readers. The best way to do this is to take a single blurb and examine it in detail. As I know how I write my own blurbs, I’ll use Renown of the Raithlin as an example. It’s climbed high on Amazon’s Epic Fantasy Bestseller List, so I know the blurb works.

A marauding horde. A famed city. A lone man who stands between them.

This is often called a tagline. Taglines are more of a crossover from movies than a traditional part of book blurbs, but they’re useful and quickly ground readers in the story – no lead-up or explanation required.

The first three words do a lot of work. Horde acts as an indicator that this is a fantasy novel of the high, heroic or epic kind. Readers deserve to know as soon as possible what type of book they’re looking at. If it’s not to their taste, they can move on without wasting time.

Not only is there a horde, but it’s marauding. This implies action. And not only action, but it lets the reader know who the bad guys are. Nice people don’t maraud . . .

A famed city.

This lets the reader know what’s at risk. It’s not an evil city, or a dark city, or a cesspool of a city. Famed implies that it’s large, wealthy and grand. Now we know where the good guys live, and not only that something is in danger, but a very specific something, and all the people who live in it.

A lone man who stands between them.

Here, we’re introduced to the hero. And we find him in a seemingly impossible fix. The marauding horde is opposed, and although it’s not clear what one man can do to defy and army, it’s apparent that he has a plan of sorts, although it must obviously involve great risk. Fertile soil in which a story can sprout.

So, a tagline covers a lot of ground in short order. In fact, it can set up the whole novel – not bad for a few measly words. And they’re right up the top so that a potential reader is either hooked into the rest of the story or can decide straightaway that it’s not for them.

Can one man defy an army? Only one of the legendary Raithlin would try. But trying is not succeeding – or even surviving.

This second line, again short to aid easy reading, builds on the tagline. It amplifies some of the same information and adds specific details. The lone man is now identified as one of the legendary Raithlin. Who or what they are isn’t clear – but they’re legendary for a reason, so the hero has something going for him, even if he’s outmatched.

Lanrik is confident in the time-honored skills of the Raithlin scouts. He tries to slow the army long enough for a warning to reach his home city, unaware that political intrigue, duty and ties of loyalty will test him more than the enemy.

Here, we’re introduced to the hero by name. His background and skills are mentioned, and we get an idea of how it might be possible for one man to try to achieve a near impossible task. But just as we learn that, we also discover that the marauding horde isn’t his only problem. The stakes are raised and we realize that Lanrik is in an even greater fix than we thought . . .

He enacts a bold plan against overwhelming odds to protect all that he loves. But his choices lead him ever deeper into a life-changing struggle. Dark forces of sorcery and witchcraft are on the move. So too are the powers that contend with them. The conflict draws him into a quest for the safety of the whole land and toward a girl who comes to mean more to him than anything. He enters a world of magic: sometimes beautiful, often perilous and always unpredictable.

Now, having given the reader a firm grounding in the story, it’s time to really open up about what’s happening. It’s safe to do it here, because if a reader has come this far the story resonates with them. They’re ready for a long and detail-heavy paragraph – the sort that would only have confused and turned them away had it appeared earlier.

At the same time as giving details, the stakes are raised still further. It’s no longer just about the city, but the whole land. The blurb, so far plot driven, now enters a character driven phase. The emotional components become clear: protect all that he loves . . . life-changing struggle . . . a girl who comes to mean more to him . . .

Above all, blurbs must foreshadow the story. It isn’t possible in a few paragraphs to explain hundreds of pages, and authors shouldn’t try. They need to invoke a feel for the book in the same way that the smell of good food attracts passersby into a restaurant.

Anyway, that’s the breakdown of one of my own blurbs. Other authors might do it a little differently, but at heart the recipe that most follow is this: ground the reader, give them a hero to cheer for, pose enticing story questions, add ever-deeper layers of intrigue, constantly raise the stakes, show the emotional impact and, most important of all, foreshadow the feel of the story.

Looking at that, it’s no surprise that a good blurb attracts readers, because the recipe for a good blurb is also the recipe for a good book.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

EPIC FANTASY AND AUTHOR BRANDING

Branding is important. It’s important in the commercial world of buying and selling. It’s important in politics. Religions have been doing it for thousands of years. Sports stars do it. Your local bakery does it. But what about epic fantasy authors?

First of all, what is branding?

A brand is something that represents a product. It might be a gimmicky logo, or perhaps a pithy catchphrase. More often than not, it’s both at the same time. Whatever it is, the best ones have an instant recognition factor. You see it, and it invokes a feeling for the whole product: what it stands for, how it’s different from its competitors and what it means to you emotionally.

There are two sides to this, which are often confused. The brand, and the brand experience. The two work together, and the more seamlessly they do so, the better the results.

S0, the brand of an author includes things like their name, the titles of their books, the look of their covers and, most of all, their blurbs. The brand experience starts from the first sentence and continues through to the last page. And more than that, it also includes an author’s website, newsletter, their correspondence with fans and comments during interviews.

To an author, the brand is important. It helps fans discover a newly released book from a writer that they like. It’s also a vital part of attracting new readers, especially if it can trigger that sudden recognition that this might be the type of book they like. More on that later.

Once purchased (or borrowed) the most important thing for both author and reader is the brand experience. This is the feel of the story, the mood and emotions it invokes. Most of all, it’s the author’s voice and how the reader reacts to it.

The voice of David Eddings is unique. So too Robert Jordan. They both wrote classic epic fantasy, reveling in its archetypes, plot cliches and tried-and-tested tropes. And yet they’re cheese and chalk.

Here’s a question. If the most important aspect of author branding is the brand experience, and a reader doesn’t know what this is until they’ve read at least some of the book, how can an author capture it in a few pithy words?

Well, blurbs do it all the time. So do leitmotifs and epigraphs. Whether you’re scanning a product description on Amazon or the back cover of a paperback in a store, those tantalizing few paragraphs foreshadow the brand experience. The better they do that, the better they give insight into the author’s voice and the mood of the whole book.

For now, I’ll have a look at how some of the great fantasy authors used recurring leitmotifs for their books. I’ll tackle blurbs in a future post.

 

A magnificent epic of immense

scope set against a history

of seven thousand years of the

struggles of gods and kings

and men – of strange lands and

events – of fate and a prophecy

that must be fulfilled!

This appears on the back cover of all five books of The Belgariad. At least, on my paperbacks bought in the 1980’s. The current editions have lost it, much to to their detriment.

Now, I can actually remember one bright morning, on the way to school, stopping at the local newsstand and looking for something to read. I found Pawn of Prophecy. It was the leitmotif that sold me – I didn’t have time for anything else. It sold me because, having read The Lord of the Rings for the first time only a few months previously, I recognized that this new book was the kind of epic story I wanted. That’s a brand at work. And as I read the series, waiting eagerly for each book to come out, the initial foreshadowing was met. The brand experience lived up to expectations.

Now, how about this?

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and go, leaving

memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and

even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth

returns again . . .

This appears on the back cover of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. At least, just as with David Eddings, on the paperbacks I bought in the 1990’s. Once again, the current editions have lost it. I can’t help but think that great authors know how to sell books better than publishers. Anyway, once again, it screams epic fantasy – and that was just what I was after.

And the high master of them all?

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky. . .

No need to quote Tolkien’s ring verse in full. Most of the English speaking world has heard it. Just like the others, this serves to foreshadow the entire story – to give a feel for it: elves under the sky, dwarves in their halls of stone, mortal men doomed to die, one ring to rule them all. In its own poetic way, it’s a plot summary.

So, the next time you’re looking for a new author to read, have a think about how they handle branding. Does it foreshadow the story and the author’s voice? Does its mood resonate with you? If so, you could be onto a winner – just as I was one morning before school in the early 80’s, on a day that was full of promise.

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized