Tag Archives: David Eddings

WHAT MAKES A BOOK WORTH REREADING?

I loved The Da Vinci Code. I turned each page in a fever of excitement that excluded thoughts of the outside world. When done, I placed it on my bookshelf, weary with the fatigue that only a long book read at breakneck speed can brew. It sits there now, many years later, just where I left it. It’ll probably stay there, untouched, until I sell it secondhand or give it to a friend. And yet I have other books on that same shelf, books that I do reread year after year. Some of them, decade after decade.

Why?

I have an answer. At least, I have an answer that applies to me. It’s nothing to do with the quality of the book, as such. Dan Brown is a fine author (I like all his novels). It seems fashionable in some circles to shoot him down because he’s had enormous success. Good luck to him, I say. He earned that success.

There are many reasons for his popularity. The aforementioned page-turning fever of excitement is one. He’s a master of suspense, and plot twists, and a bunch of other things that I (and as it turns out, a few other people around the world) like.

So, why won’t I read The Da Vinci Code a second time? Is it because I already know what happens, where the plot twists are and how it all ends? I don’t think so. I know the same things about all the books I reread, and that doesn’t stop me.

I do think it’s part of the problem, although only a small part. Dan Brown relies on these things more than most authors. Suspense, thrills, twists and theme are the chief attractions of his books. Once these elements are taken away, there’s not that much left.

So, what is left to any book when those elements are taken away? In Dan Brown’s case – a simple prose style. Clear, efficient and similar to most other thrillers. How does this differ from the books I reread?  These call me back by the sheer delight of their prose.

Good writing has a rhythm: each word, each sentence and each paragraph rings with music. It can lift me like poetry. It can bring goosebumps to my skin like a singer whose voice makes the air sweet. It can strike a chord in my heart like the glance of a girl across a crowded room. Good prose is a guide that leads me, step by step, without fault or jar, right into the heart of the story.

If a book has that, there’s something to fall back on when you already know what happens. Because while you’ll remember the details of the plot for a long time, the wording becomes fresh again in a matter of months. Prose of high quality works together with the story. Words, plot and character entwine and become one. Tolkien had that gift, and Ursula Le Guin, and David Eddings.

With some writers, the prose is a character, or it reflects the character’s dialogue so well that you don’t need to be told who’s speaking. There’s no mistaking Silk’s dialogue in The Belgariad: his deep intelligence, his dry wit, his bravado, the hidden but underlying depth of his feelings. All of these things drip from his every comment. It’s the same for Tolkien. He can convey a world of meaning by a simple name. Gollum. Moria. Mordor. Ithilien. You know who’s good or bad, what’s beautiful or fowl, just by the resonance of the name.

When prose, names, characters and story are one, there’s no limit to the number of times you can reread a book, because the reading is as much a pleasure as the story.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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HIGH FANTASY, WHY DOST THOU THUS?

Why do many high fantasy books have an element of archaism?

Certainly, the genre is archaic by nature, and the pages of its books are full of lightning-fast swordsmen, the slow but deadly maneuvering of armies, the desperate clash of steel on shield and the siege of thick-walled fortresses.

But that’s not what I mean.

Epic fantasy and heroic fantasy share these elements. And yet these stories are often told in a modern manner. The dialogue, sharp and witty, is just as we would speak today. The characters are people we can easily relate to. In fact, they’re so contemporary that it’s easy to picture them standing around in faded jeans and smoking cigarettes.

This quote from Magician’s Gambit, book three of David Edding’s Belgariad series, shows you what I mean:

“He’s not dead, is he?”  Durnik’s voice was almost sick.

“Not yet,” Yarbleck replied, “but Taur Urgas plans to correct that when the sun comes up in the morning. I couldn’t even get close enough to that pit to drop a dagger to him so he could open a vein. I’m afraid his last morning’s going to be a bad one.”

This is as modern as it gets, both in wording and worldview. Please don’t misunderstand me though – David Eddings is one of my favorite writers.

Yet one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is a poetic prose style, and archaic language, if used just right, is one of the most useful implements in a wordsmith’s tool box. Its use can evoke mood, setting and temperament. It can enrich a story.  Most of all, the language itself, given impetus by its very strangeness, speaks with rare clarity and vigor. It rises above the white noise of a thousand other books, of TV and Radio, of day-to-day speech itself.

The question is, how can it be used just right?

The problem with authors who occasionally use thees and thous is that readers often find those passages jarring. The archaism appears out of the blue, and disappears just as quickly. It’s not a natural part of the created world and disrupts the flow of a story that’s otherwise told in modern language.

Alternatively, if they’re used throughout, they become wearying to the ear.

So, how do the best writers do it? For them, the archaism is a natural part of the prose, from beginning to end. It might intensify during certain scenes or when certain characters speak. It flows and ebbs, but it’s always present. And subtlety is their friend. It’s often not the words they use, but the order in which they appear. Sometimes, they’ll use an archaic word too, but rarely a cliche like thee and thou, and they’ll choose one whose meaning is apparent from the context.

Cast your eyes over this, from The Lord of The Rings:

“For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.”

This is modern English, and yet it isn’t. It’s not how the guy on the phone trying to sell me health insurance talks.

The main difference lies in the inversion of normal word order. Also, contemporary English is clipped – we like short sentences nowadays. Additionally, some of the words, like damasked, though not really archaic, are rarely used.

This is the same passage without the Tolkien magic.

“He chose a dagger for each of the hobbits. They were long, curved, and sharp. They were also of fine workmanship, decorated with red and gold snakes. He drew the blades from their black sheaths. They gleamed. They were crafted of some strange metal that was light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. The blades were unrusted and sharp, and they glittered in the sun. Time had not touched them. Possibly, some magic in the sheaths protected them. Or a spell lay over the mound.”

There’s nothing wrong with this – but the subtle unusualness of the true version stands out more.

It’s high fantasy at its best.

It’s poetry.

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