Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FURIES OF CALDERON, by Jim Butcher


Another book lent to me by a friend, with strong endorsement. I resisted it for the first 200 pages, somehow uncomfortable with a world in which every character (save one: the protagonist) possesses magic powers. I also had a bit of difficulty engaging with Butcher's prose; it felt a bit lifeless to me in the start. But by the time I got to the first major encounter, the first encounter to bring together all of the principle characters, I was hooked. I finished the last 250 pages in two days, devouring chapters ravenously, at times so wrapped up in my own mind's view of the events that I ceased to be aware of the actual world around me. It was almost like a hypnotic state, the story blooming within my mind so vividly that I saw specific images from the book more clearly than I saw the book itself, clutched before my blurring eyes. Every few dozen pages I'd snap out of my trance, and see the words on the page, so tiny that I had trouble reading them. And then I'd sink back into the story, completely unaware of the act of reading, which had seemed so strenuous just a moment before. I can't remember another reading experience like it.

I think that FURIES OF CALDERON serves as an excellent example of writing that garners its power from plot and character, more than from artistic use of language. There are 7 central characters, and each of them is vividly realized, especially in regards to their motivations. Butcher does such a good job of this that he is able to pit certain characters against other, to bring them into harrowing conflict with one another, and still have the reader sympathize with each and every one of them. It leads to an unusual mind-state for the reader, because the reader doesn't really feel disdain or contempt for any main character--the reader doesn't really want any of the characters to suffer--and yet the characters are attacking each other ruthlessly. Who do you root for in a situation like that?

Butcher is also good at writing battle, and physical struggle. When I read an R.A. Salvatore book a few weeks ago I remember feeling impressed by that author's handle of physical altercation. Butcher is just as good. He's got a rich imagination to pull from, and it yields a varied harvest, so that you never really feel like you're seeing an action repeated. Each sword thrust feels unique.

Butcher's imagination serves him well with his handling of magic, too. Furies--basically elemental spirits--are key to the world where this novel takes place. Individual furies bond with people--every civilized person except the protagonist has at least one fury--and give them powers relating to the element they represent. Water furies, for example, have powers relating to healing, to scrying (seeing and hearing things going on in a removed location), and perception of the emotional states of others. Furies can also manifest themselves in physical form, and therefore be used as attack animals of sorts. Also, a person's ability to interact with their fury is affected by the presence of the element--deprive a water-bonded person of liquid, and they can't call upon the powers of their fury. It's a concept with a satisfying sense of logic, and a lot of imaginative potential. At the same time, it seems to offer so much potential that it can be hard for Butcher to control the plot; the possibilities are so blown open that it's hard to introduce meaningful difficulty for the characters to strive against. Butcher deals with this problem in two main ways: by endowing certain furies with greater powers, so that certain people are more powerful than others; and by setting limitations on a character's ability to call upon his or her fury--summoning the fury is physically draining. Even with these controls, the power and capacity of the furies sometimes undermines the sense of tension needed to make the story compelling. In the climatic battle, for example, a principle character (Bernard) never really brings his power to bear. Butcher tries to make the battle compelling by making it seem desperate for the protagonist's side, but the reader is left feeling like the stakes aren't really as high as they seem to be, because Bernard's power isn't being used. Butcher tries to explain Bernard's lack of involvement by showing him as exhausted, but the level of exhaustion he suffers seems to come too quickly, and too conveniently, to feel believable (generally, though, physical exhaustion, injury and exertion, are another aspect that Butcher handles really well; he really makes it seem like the characters are going through excruciating physical tests in the course of the story, and that they are really being driven to call upon all of their internal fortitude and determination in order to continue).

After I finished this book, I did a little research on Jim Butcher. The most interesting thing about him, for me, is how hard he had to work to get his career as a fantasy writer going. This is a New York Times best-selling author, arguably the type of author who can command the most attention from the mainstream publishing industry, and yet he had to struggle for years to get his first book in print. In the end, after submitting his first novel far and wide for two years, and receiving nothing but rejections, Jim started studying the industry, and attending conventions, and trying to make personal connections with agents and publishers. Finally, he engaged an agent in a conversation, and she agreed to handle his book--even though she'd rejected it earlier when he sent it to her through the mail. That book went on to become a best-seller, and still he had to struggle to keep his career going. It boggles my mind how hard it is to get your shit published in this industry, and it blackens my mood to hear that so much of what results in you getting published has to do with schmoozing, instead of your actual writing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

THE ROAD, by Cormac McCarthy


I started reading this book late one night, got through a dozen pages before going to bed. The next day I read while at work, and then after work I went to a park and kept reading, and that evening I finished it off. It's an easy book to get through in a day, partially because it's not very long (the version I had was 256 pages, but the font is big and it seems to be double spaced), but also because the writing is very stripped down and easy to take in. Quotation marks, commas, and other punctuation marks are almost nonexistent; descriptions are kept short and simple; the text doesn't dip into too many intangibles or abstract ideas, and when it does it makes little attempt to elucidate. It might take a reader a few pages to get accustomed to McCarthy's style, but if you can get through those first few pages you can get through the rest of the book without problems--McCarthy is as unchanging as stone.

Except for a few awkward and ridiculous 'literary' moments--the flashback scene where the man has his last conversation with his wife before she commits suicide, for example--McCarthy wields his words with unquestionable authority; there are no signs of faltering or a weak grip on the plot. He manages this, in my mind, through an iron-fisted dedication to just a few types of sentences. He never loses his authority because he never takes risks; every sentence McCarthy writes sounds like every other sentence he writes; there is no change in tone or approach; moments of tension result from what is happening in the plot, not from a different use of words. The good thing about this is that the reader feels confident in McCarthy as a storyteller, and is willing to give himself over to McCarthy's story. We have little cause, for the most part, to question why he is using the words he is using, and because we don't question we don't step out of the the world he is creating. (Another book that works in this way, which stands out in my mind, is POST OFFICE, by Bukowski.)

I think this concept is a good one to keep in mind for my own writing. I'm working on a novel now, and I end up struggling, sometimes, with decisions relating to how much information the reader needs in order to go along with the book. My novel is about a kid who joins a wrestling team, and it's often difficult for me to gauge how much the reader needs to know about the rules of wrestling in order to appreciate the story. That leads to moments where I'm trying to explain too much, which weakens the narrative flow, which pulls the reader out of the story. McCarthy's writing hardly ever has this problem because he hardly explains anything; his words are focused instead on describing action. With THE ROAD it becomes a little monotonous at times, because the actions are so limited in scope (searching for food, hiding, and not much else), but the story is short enough that the monotony doesn't have much time to develop. Maybe that's a rule I should apply to myself: when in doubt, err on the side of action instead of explanation.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

THE THOUSAND ORCS, by R.A. Salvatore


After my recent disappointment with the DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, I felt tempted to give up on the Dungeons and Dragons world all together. But I still find myself primarily interested in adventure-oriented stories (after all those literary texts in college), and I can't forget how much I enjoyed reading fantasy novels when I was a kid. So the other day, killing time in Aardvark Books, I wandered over to the used paperback sci-fi and fantasy section, and came across THE THOUSAND ORCS, by R.A. Salvatore. I bought it, and read it, and liked it a lot better than the Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman novel I'd been so bored with this summer. (One quick aside: the Weis and Hickman novel was their first, while THE THOUSAND ORCS comes after Salvatore's been writing a book a year for more than a decade, so the comparison isn't really fair.)

One of the things that Salvatore does really well, and which Hickman and Weis didn't manage in their book, is maintain a sense of connection between all of the different scenes. I remember reading DRAGONS and feeling like it was just one thing after another without a logical progression, sort of like a series of unrelated events in random order. With Salvatore, the plot flows in a cohesive way. There are different groups in different areas doing different things, but they're doing those things during the same time span, in the same world, and their actions affect each other, their paths eventually cross.

Come to think of it, this technique of multiple inter-related story lines seems pretty common in page-turner novels. It's a format that lends itself to cliffhangers--one chapter brings a certain character to the brink of some important event, like a shocking discovery or potential disaster, and then the next chapter takes up with a different character, so you plow through that chapter to find out what happens to the first character in the following chapter. Cliffhangers make the pages turn.

Another thing Salvatore does well is action, especially battle. He's got a great imagination for sword fights, and huge skirmishes, and he makes each one compelling and unique.

But probably the most standout aspect of Salvatore's writing, what really seemed interesting and unique, was his handling of different races (in the fantasy context, race refers to dwarf, elf, halfling, human, etc.). Especially with dwarves. You get the sense of a distinct living beings, with a distinct culture and way of behaving, a distinct view of the world. There are individuals within that race--they're not all the same--but their individual personalities exist within a larger cultural context. This race-related sensibility allows Salvatore an angle that brings a lot of interest to his character interaction, especially because of the variety of races comprising the principle group. It's fascinating to watch how the characters form bonds outside of their own groups.

Despite all the good things about the book, I don't see a R.A. Salvatore binge in my near future. ORCS was a good fantasy book, and it reminded me of why the fantasy genre had captured my imagination as a kid, but I don't think I could sustain the same level of interest in another such novel right now. I get the feeling that they've got too much in common, that they're even pretty formulaic, to keep me interested forever. I guess that's true of most pulp, adventure-based books. I can't imagine myself subsisting on a diet of detective fiction alone, either.