The Doll’s House

Continuing my Sandman re-read which I started here, as I’m focusing on themes of portraits, I’m skipping right to the end of Volume 2 The Doll’s House. The volume is bracketed at the beginning (following the prologue) and the end with depictions of the same portraits, but rendered with both subtle and obvious differences.

As I described for the start of the volume, we see a portrait of Desire in statue form followed by a depiction of Desire’s Gallery. At the end of the volume, this order is reversed as we see first Dream’s Gallery and then Desire’s statue on the final page.

The Gallery is a space in each of the Endless’s Realm. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their Gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The Gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Dream’s Gallery is made up of the same framed portraits as Desire’s but the frame has changed; Each symbol is framed with a highly ornamental golden frame. As well, although the colour tones are similar to Desire’s Gallery, small changes make the space slightly less alien, as the pictures are clearly arranged as framed pieces on the wall instead of a disturbing doubling effect where they also appear to be comic panels.

The portrait of Desire is also slightly less alien. There’s no mistaking it for a portrait of a human – the eyes are whited out, with no pupils or irises. But the colour pallet and setting has changed. In the first, the setting is immediately recognizable as a realm of the Endless with a background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon, an image that would not occur in the natural world. Here, Desire’s portrait is set on a clear sky blue with a rolling tan landscape. Likewise, while the first depiction of the statue is done in cold colours, hinting at a metallic or marble hard and enduring medium, the depiction here hints of yellows and tans, a dusty, sandy substance that seems it will crumble away. It matches the final messages of the volume as Dream tells Desire:

We of the endless are the servants of the living–we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. When the last living thing has left the universe, then our task will be done. We do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will.

Neil Gaiman, The Doll House

Rather than being supreme and mighty beings, the Endless living at the whimsy and service of of the humans. In this light, the Endless Realms are just another “doll house”; tucked away in a decorative shell until their service is required. Desire demonstrates this with their flippery, pondering their existence in one moment, and in the next moment “smiles and forgets, for Desire is a creature of the moment.” Desire’s whimsy reinforces the idea that they are a doll themselves, a creature unable to maintain sustained thought when not being “played with”. In this light, we can re-examine the sculpture of Desire. While the dimensions of the first suggested an immense and powerful being, the sculpture of Desire here is a blank, empty doll.

Lessons in Brevity

Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.

I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy

We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).

I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.

In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:

  • Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
  • First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
  • The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
  • The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
  • The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)

Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.

At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).

Sandman Issue 10: An Introduction to the Gallery

Continuing the Sandman re-read that I began here, today we get our first glimpse of the gallery; a personal, private gallery, housed in each of the Endless’s Fortresses. We’ll later learn that there are 7 Endless “siblings.” We were introduced to two of them in volume 1: Dream, of course, along with his older sister Death. Issue 10 opens with another Endless sibling, Desire, introduced by means of a visual portrait on the first page of the issue. As I discussed last time, the portrait is cold, alienlike. Portraits, of course, show us the artist’s representation of the qualities of the person. I’ve been musing on Desire’s portrait for the last 24 hours. The concept of desire, for me, evokes ideas of heat and passion, fire and colour and energy. But Desire here is cold, detached. It is perhaps a more appropriate depiction of Desire than the image in my head. Desire does not equate to passion. Passion seems to suggest a depth of feeling brought about by connection. One fuels the flames of passion by constantly feeding it, nurturing it, sustaining it. Desire here seems to indicate an intense longing for something without doing the work to achieve it. It suggests a fickle feeling that passes once one’s attention is diverted.

Given this assessment, the design of Desire’s gallery is suitable with their person. The gallery of the Endless is a personal space in each of their fortresses. But instead of being lined with famous artwork, the gallery contains “portraits” of each of the Endless siblings. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Desire’s gallery is.. cold. Reminiscent of a real world art gallery, in some ways… wide open spaces, large art pieces dominating the room with little context or curation. But the room is dark, threatening. Splashes of red add small marks of colour. The gallery pieces are placed in a uniform line on a nearly black wall.

Desire’s Gallery in Issue 10 of The Sandman

The image is cleverly depicted like the squares of a panel in a comic or graphic novel. But in fact this is the way the gallery is exhibited: simple but powerful images on a canvas of white hanging on black. The simplicity is stark and cutting, much like Desire themselves. This is not a space that invites its viewers to linger.

That feeling of uneasiness increases as Desire summons their sibling, their twin, Despair, and the two discuss Desire’s plots against their elder brother Dream. Given that Dream has firmly been established as the protagonist of the series at this point combined with the memories of the events of the last volume, the reader is left with a quiet foreboding that a trap has been set for Dream, one that might be just as horrifying as his last set of challenges. Hopefully he will emerge from this next trial will less collateral damages.

Click here if you want to see the next post on my Sandman read-along.

Sandman Issue 10: Portrait of Desire

Since I’m focusing on portraits for my Sandman re-read, we’re skipping past the rest of volume 1 (which I started here) and heading straight to issue 10. Volume 2 The Doll’s House is where the motif of portraits become interesting, especially in just the first few pages. We’ll talk about the first one today: a full page portrait of Desire on the first page of the issue:

Sandman Issue 10 page 1, portrait of Desire

How do you read a graphic novel? With full page spreads like these I take more time to examine the illustration before reading the text, let it sink into me like I’m in an art gallery. (With panels I need to read the text first for direction before I fully appreciate the image.) This image puts us into the realm of the Endless right away: the background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon; white teeth gleaming, an uncomfortable oddity to the rest of the face and torso which is in shadows; gleaming red eyes; and a nebula of red not-stars around a planet-like heart.

The narration tells us that there is only one thing in the realm of Desire: this fortress, shaped in a giant “statue of Desire him-, her-, it-self”. An immense statue towering alone on a blanket of emptiness. The narration also identies the statue as a portrait “complete in all the details, built from the fancy of Desire out of blood, and flesh, and bone, and skin.” There is something cold about the statue, the dark blue tones echoing of cold marble or slate. The notion that it’s made of blood and flesh and bones and skins is slightly alarming. … did Desire dream it up? Is that what the text means with “fancy”? Or did Desire somehow acquire these materials to craft their self-portrait? … given the events of the last volume, perhaps it’s best not to ask.

The fortress/ self-portrait is called The Threshold. “Desire has always lived on the edge.” The text pairs nicely with the image as again we’re drawn to examine it; the background gives us a sense of that edge, an empty vastness marked off neatly with borders. The next page continues this theme as the fortress has “empty, echoing veins, like tunnels. You will walk them until you grow old and die without once retracing your steps.” Finally we’re drawn to the centre of the image, the heart itself, which seems almost to pulse. “There was only one place in the cathedral of its body to make its home. Desire lives in the heart.” While in most cases, the phrase “Desire lives in the heart” might be written off as sentimental muck appropriate for a greeting card, here the image is sublime again: something grand and terrifying. This affect is supported with the reference to a Cathedral, another large, echoing cavern which makes its audience feel humbled and awed in the face of something part divine, part alien. The first installation of volume 2 (following the prologue) thus begins with a firm reminder that the Endless are not human nor gods, but something else inexplicable. Something frightening.

Click here to see the second part of the Issue 10 read-along.

Sandman Issue 3: “Dream a Little Dream of Me,”

Continuing my discussion of portraits in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which I began here, in issue 3, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” we are treated to a portrait on the very first page. We see a suburban house and someone lying on the bed. The bed is in complete shadows, stark dark shading juxtaposing the lightness of the room. Only a hand is shown. The accompanying text describes decay: “Her hair comes out in clumps“; “Her skin is flaking“, “the ragged nails rip her skin when she scratches” (bold font part of original text). The narration draws the reader to assume that the text is referring to the person lying in the bed. “She’s counting to a hundred,” the narration says, alongside another text box (presented in different colours and typography) in which someone is counting. The narrative text continues: “Will she dissolve it in her mouth? Breathe it? Rub it into her skin”. The accompanying picture shows a hand reaching to bag sitting on the nightstand, open, with white power spilling from its opening. On the bedside table is a framed photo of a grinning woman, with a certificate of some sort in her hands. The woman is pretty. The picture is smashed. Lines of broken glass mar her face. And yet, the photo continues to sit on the small bedside table despite this damage.

When we turn the page, we see a shot of an alarm clock radio: “… for all of you crumblies out there, here’s one from the vaults. A real rave from the grave.” Was the narration not actually a description of the scene, but instead the DJ narrating a short section of prose before playing their next song? Our new protagonist, John Constantine, begins: “Have you ever have one of those days when something just seems to be trying to tell you somebody?” What an odd question. Flipped around like that. Instead of “somebody trying to tell you something.”  Throughout the next few panels, we see that John is haunted. By snippets of music. By dreams and nightmare. Something trying to tell him somebody. Madd Hattie, who is 247 years old, warns him that Morpheus, the Sandman, is back. John dismisses it as a fairy story.

John Constantine is another DC original with his own series, Hellblazer (although you might be more familiar with him through the film or television adaptations, especially the Keanu Reeves 2005 film and the 13 episode cancelled series produced by NBC from 2014-2015). Constantine is a sorcerer, a working-class detective, and an occultist who regularly converses with angels and demons alike.

Morpheus aka Sandman aka Dream catches up with John 3 days later, in pursuit of a leather pouch full of sand. John thinks its in storage, but after 2 hours of searching finds nothing except an old photo. It’s a picture of John with a girl. The one from the bedside table? The portrait triggers John’s memory, and so we follow the trail of crumbs (in photo form) to find Dream’s leather pouch. Again, we see the picture John has found as he and Dream are in a taxi cab: “Everyone shuts up, and Chas jolts us up the motorway. Our visitor melts into the back seat shadows. And I remember Rachel. Amazing Rachel. Junkie Rachel.” Junkie Rachel who ran out on him and stole his stuff to pawn for junkie money.

When John Constantine and Dream find Rachel, the readers are shown the same scene from the first page: a bedside table with a framed portrait, pouch on table, the rest of the room in dark impenetrable shadows. We’re shown Rachel on the next page, nearly a full spread, naked, decaying, a living corpse. At the bottom of the page John lights a cigarette, an obvious attempt to regain his balance. “Jesus. Rachel. Jesus.” Next to this panel is the photograph of the two of them again. Like with the photograph of John Dee in the last issue, the portrait here is of a past nearly forgotten, of a life and identity that can never come to be again. But while in issue 2, the new image of John Dee haunts the reader, warning of the possibilities of the future, here the haunting gives a small sense of closure. Dream gives Rachel a happy dream before she dies, of herself restored, healthy and beautiful again. “She knows he’s waiting for her,” John, the love she ran out on. By doing so, Dream restores the reality of the picture, creating a dream space that doesn’t haunt but instead allows John Constantine to move forward and walk away from this image of the past. It ends the issue on an odd optimistic note: although Dream is on his way to Hell, John walks away singing “Mister Sandman” in good cheer.

Sandman Issue 2: “Imperfect Hosts” and an Imperfect Being

Today I’m continuing my discussion of portraits in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which I began here. There’s only one major portrait in issue 2, “Imperfect Hosts,” but it’s a good one. The first panel on that page introduces us to a building with the following placard in front: “Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.” Are your alarm bells going off? What does the Lord of Dreams have to do with Batman and the Justice League?

Next we have an old woman, Mrs Ethel Dee, looking for her son who she hasn’t seen in a decade. The son in question is John Dee – the same name of an actual historical figure, court astronomer for Elizabeth I before leaving to pursue his passions in occult scholarship. If you’ve been following along with the dramas of the Order of Ancient Mysteries from issue 1, Ruthven Sykes, the order’s second-in-command, disappeared with the Order’s treasures, money, and Ethel Cripes, the Magus’s mistress. (The text is bolded in the script as well.) Ethel Cripes walks out on Sykes 6 years later. “She took the demon’s gift with her,” an amulet that was keeping Sykes safe.

To return to the present Mrs Ethel Dee and her missing son, Mrs Dee is armed with a photograph of the son in question, a black and white portrait of a handsome man with a chiseled square jaw and a hint of a smile on his lip. “This is my son, John Dee. I believe he’s imprisoned under his “nom-de-crime” of Doctor Destiny.” Further alarm bells should be ringing by now. Even if you’re not familiar with every single super villain in the DC or Marvel Universe, you’re probably aware that any Super Villain with a “Doctor” title, followed by an abstract noun are the worst super villains of all. (… Rest assured that my own Doc Fantasy title does not mean that I’m a super villain myself…). In the DC Universe, Doctor Destiny’s super powers is the ability to manipulate dreams. Gaiman here provides a neat retcon for the source of his powers, one that becomes a defining feature of Doctor Destiny’s character.

Arkham confirms that Doctor Destiny is indeed a patient there and Mrs Dee is led down to the bowels of the Asylum where Dee is kept locked up from society; he is too dangerous to be let out of his cell for any purpose, the guide tells her, stating: “He no longer sleeps, or dreams– in the normal sense of the word… and physically, he’s quite debilitated.” The ambiguity of this comment is intriguing. How can a man who – from the sounds of it – has wasted away be so dangerous? OR, is he dangerous because he no longer sleeps, is no longer, quite normal… or human.

Finally we are shown Dee himself: gaping mouth with broken and lost teeth; his face seems to be melting away as flecks of fluid drip from his ears, his mouth, his hands; and his eyes…. his eyes are not right, seemingly at once to be bulging and also set deep within his face; the shapes are odd, angular and pointed at the apex, and rounded at the bottom; and the colour is a soft sickly yellow with a small bead for pupils and no irises. Is this the same man… the same creature as the handsome figure in Ethel’s photograph? Instead of being haunted by the past (as the portrait in the first issue), the portrait here is of an identity long dead and forgotten; it bears no resemblance at all to the living present. Instead, it is the living creature that haunts the reader: not the echoes of the past and what he once was long ago, but instead the possible dread of a future in which John Dee escapes his cell. This isn’t the last we see of the character in Sandman of course, and for those of you re-reading the series, you know where Doctor Destiny ends up. But I won’t spoil it for those of who you are reading it for the first time.

Depiction of Doctor Destiny from JLA Classified #32 (March 2007) i.e NOT from Sandman

If you want to see the next post in my Sandman read-along, click here.

Is there any news, Reshi? – (A Contrast of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear – Chapter 1)

I’m taking a break today from the University 411/811 blog to read some fantasy fiction. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up a running commentary of a comparison between Book 1 and 2 of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (which I began here), but for now it’s amusing me to see the similarities and contrasts.

“A Place for Demons”, Chapter One of The Name of the Wind, begins simply

It was Felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

Old Cob was filling his role as storyteller and advice dispensary. The men at the bar sipped their drinks and listened. In the back room a young innkeeper stood out of sight behind the door, smiling as he listened to the details of a familiar story.

The Name of the Wind, p. 3

It’s an interesting way to introduce the hero of the story. “A young innkeeper,” no other identifying markers except age and job title. He’s not even in the scene, but standing just out of sight, listening to the events on stage – the gossip and folktales relayed by his 5 customers – and not contributing anything himself until two pages later. When he does speak, his customers evidence surprise: “The men at the bar seemed surprised to see Kote standing there. They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months and Kote have never interjected anything of his own before” (p 5). It’s almost comical, that the minor characters in this story are shocked to see the protagonist and to hear him speak. It’s also noteworthy that it takes 5 pages before the readers are even introduced to our hero’s name. Of course, as the narrative continues, Rothfuss fully puts his reader through their paces in interrogating the protagonist’s actions as heroic. Kote’s uncertain status is established just a few sentences later, as the passage continues: “Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so. He was still a stranger” (5). We still have no details of Kote, except his name, that he’s a stranger, and he evidently has detailed knowledge of half-completed idioms, but brushes off this knowledge as “Just something I heard once” (p. 5).

The mystery of Kote only continues in chapter 1 as a missing companion joins them, hurt and bloodied, and carrying the body of the beast that attacked him, “a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate” (p. 7). Kote immediately identifies the creature as as a “scrael,” cleans and sews up Carter with fourty-eight stitches, and takes the leads in identifying the scrawl as a “demon” by pressing a piece of iron on the body. In each case, Kote attempts to hide his authority as knowledge-keeper by dismissing them: as sources of gossip (a traveller told him about the scrael); or a common saying (that demons react to iron); or by telling his student-companion Bast to spread a rumour about (in this case, that his grandfather was a caravan guard, as explanation for his stitching skills). He also confirms in his conversation with Bast that he made sure they properly disposed of the scrawl (burning it in a fire made of rowan wood and then burying in a pit that was at a suitable depth): “They took it to the priest. He did all the right things for all the wrong reasons” (p. 12). That Kote knows more than a priest, a person who holds secret, divine knowledge, suggests that Kote is at once more learnĂ©d than a person who puts their stock in faith, while also functioning as a figure who had knowledge of deep mysteries itself. The question on hand, after all, is the presence and explanation of a *demon* and while the reader – like the minor characters – might be considering explanations for this mysterious beast, the fact that it reacted to iron in a physical way (smoke arising from burnt flesh where the iron touch), gives the reader a sense of a supernatural mystery that the novel in their hands will hopefully give some answers to. Taken together, the reader is also quick to pick up on the clues that Rothfuss lays out: that our hero is a skilled and knowledgeable person that is in hiding. Rothfuss makes this plain when he finally introduces Kote properly on page 10:

He called himself Kote. He has chosen the name carefully when he came to this place. He has taken a new name for most of the usual reasons, and for a few unusual ones as well, not the least of which was the fact that names were important to him.

The Name of the Wind, p. 10

Who then is Kote? What is his real name, and why did he take a new name? One presumes that the “usual reasons” are because he’s hiding, but hiding from what? And why are names important to him? Clearly there is something significant here, given the title of the book: The Name of the Wind.

In contrast to The Name of the Wind, Chapter One of The Wise Man’s Fear (“Apple and Elderberry”) sets a slightly different mood. As I discussed when examining both prologues, while the beginning notes in The Name of the Wind worked together as a “complement” (NotW p.1), The Wise Man’s Fear adds a “counterpoint” (WMF p.1 ), another layer to the melody. Instead of a scene set at night with a nearly-empty room (5 customers with Kote off-stage), we begin in the morning, in early dawn, with Bast standing in that same room alone and bored. The set piece stays the same, but the scene has changed. Instead of fanciful gossip of demons – “The word ‘demon’ was being spoken, but it was with smiles half-hidden behind raise hands” (NotW p. 16) – we move now to the very real and serious aftermath of a man’s death – “Bad business last night. Chances are, that would be all Graham would had to say about the death of a man he had known his whole life” (WMF p. 7-8). There are echoes between both chapters in the form of gossip of serious topics, demons and death, but while the first is treated with half-amusement and small caution as both townspeople and the reader are unable to confirm fact from fiction, the latter is treated with proper gravitas as both the townspeople and the reader are contemplating the death of a man at the end of the previous novel. The note of this somber counterpoint is reinforced in the final paragraph of chapter 1 in WMF:

The only sounds were the rhythmic creak of the wood and the slow patter of the cider as it ran into the bucket below. There was a rhythm to it, but no music, and the innkeeper’s eyes were distant and joyless, so pale a green they almost could have passed for gray.

The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 11

These final sentences of chapter one closes with a careful evocation of rhythm without music, a feeling of a joylessness, distant, grey, setting a mood similar to the one from NotW, but with a deeper resonance that conveys a forced and false normality.

A Silence in Three Parts: A Return to the Prologues of the Kingkiller Chronicles

As I sat down to re-read Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (2007) last year, the title of the Prologue struck me as significant. A Silence in Three Parts. As I’ve read the book once before, I’m knew the importance the role of music played for the main character. Born into a travelling troupe, music formed an integral – and almost habitual – part of Kvothe’s early years. I also recalled (*spoiler*) how Kvothe responded to the loss of his family, how he spent nearly a year in solitude, not speaking, but with his father’s violin as his sole companion. Thus the title of the prologue, itself almost a contrast to the title of the first book (The Name of the Wind), seemed particularly poignant.

Unlike countless other Epic Fantasies, works that tend to overrely on lengthy prologues to set up the series, Rothfuss’s prologue fits onto one page. The prologue describes the “silence of three parts”. The first and the “most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking” (p. 1). The paragraph describes a nearly-empty inn, one missing the hustle and bustle of busy taverns. The second silence comes from “a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, […] they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts” (p. 1). Finally, the third silence was one difficult to discern, but emanated from a red-haired man: “it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. […] It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die” (p. 1). Three heavy silences, which sets a tone of despair and dread right from the start. And yet, the descriptions reminded of another book, but not a Fantasy or a novel at all, but a children’s picture book, The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and illustrated by Julia Kuo. There was one key difference though, between the silence presented by Rothfuss and Goldsaito, while Rothfuss’s silence is cold, aching, a death rattle, Goldsaito’s silence is one of peace, of anticipation and reverence:

Afterword from Goldsaito’s A Sound of Silence

The Japanese concept of ma is the silence between sounds. It’s the moment when musicians pause together,

Goldsaito, Afterword to The Sound of Silence

It fascinated me (still does), the idea that silence, the absence of sound, can have such deeply nuanced meaning, to the extent that it could evoke two opposite and contradictory emotions in the hands of different artists.

While in most other Fantasy texts, the prologue offers important world-building information or historical information essential to the understanding of the plot, Rothfuss here takes a completely different approach. Admittingly, there are rumours that the entire Kingkiller Trilogy is itself a prologue to a larger series. If that’s the case, then Rothfuss makes a shrewd choice in presenting a prologue that establishes mood and tone, building atmsophere rather than providing further information. But the prologue also introduces the idea of sounds harmonizing together, complementing each other in a way that is, while not jarring, also not comfortable. Given the significance of sound, (music and speech) throughout the first book, it seems unlikely that Rothfuss presents this idea accidentally. However, I’m still trying to uncover the full significance of silence and sound in Rothfuss’s text. (A bit difficult, as, a decade after the publication of the last book, we still don’t have a firm release date for the final book of the trilogy.)

There are perhaps further clues in the prologue of book 2, The Wise Man’s Fears (2011). The prologue shares the same title and structure as the prologue of book 1. Here “A Silence of Three Parts” has shifted slightly. The first and third silences are still the same: the first, an “echoing quiet made by things that were lacking” (p. 1); the third, “holding the others inside itself. […] was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die” (p. 1). Thus we are still haunted by the empty Inn and a lifeless man, perhaps even more so as readers return eagerly to where we stopped with Kvothe’s narrative. But the second silence has changed. It comes from a man creeping through the inn, avoiding familiar creeking boards, “Each slow step made only the barest tep against the floor. In doing this he added his small, furtive silence to the larger echoing one. They made an amalgam of sorts, a counterpoint” (p. 1). While the second silence in the first book formed an alloy to the first, a complement, this silence forms its opposite: a counterpoint. Still a barely noticeable note, but one that adds texture to the silence. Here we move from “ma” to the first deep breath before the note is blown. This counterpoint adds another layer to the sound, or of Kvothe’s story, but this time Kvothe doesn’t own the silence as he did the first three. This silence comes from the furtive creeping of a man attempting to stay silent. It is Bast of course, creeping through the inn, and one wonders whether the note he is getting ready to play is a harmonious melody or a discordant one. In a sense, then, the prologue functions as almost a Greek chorus, one that foreshadows and reflects the events of each novel. Within 1 page, 2 pages if you count the prologue of both books, Rothfuss has managed to convey so much information simply by describing the sound of silence. The sound of ma is certainly a powerful one and Rothfuss uses it here to great effect.


Check out this post if you want to see more of my Rothfuss read-alone

The DNF Pile: When Sirens Fail to Lure You to Adventure

Well, we’re only 2 months into the new decade and I’ve already abandoned 3 books from my “to-be-read shelves”. I don’t know about you, but I always kept my Did-Not-Finish piles in the “one day I’ll read this” fantasy dream. But, now that I have a tiny human to take care of alongside the daily realities of work and independent research (i.e with little to no leisure time), I feel the world’s too short to have a to pile of books looming over me, judging and shaming my failure as a reader.

Interestingly, I actually LOVED one of the books that I gave up on. So, being an academic and critic, I couldn’t simply accept the idea that I didn’t like something. I had to dwell deeper. Into the why. and the what. and the how.

The first book, Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World (2004), has a typical Call to Adventure (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces) that seems to promise some blood and mayhem at least. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it that far. The main character is introduced as “Smith,” an anonymous, generic name that matches the make-up of the character. That is, he doesn’t seem to have a character. In the early pages, he serves as a vehicle to carry the story, and reacts to rather than drives the narrative. His personality, former profession, associates, etc, is all tied up in this anonymity so that we know nothing about him. Now for some, this question might be enough to spur them to continue reading (See my discussion of Jess Smith’s Bone for a quick crasher on how micro and macro questions makes for a page turner). However, the summary on the book jacket threw in another complication: the story is described as the tale of Smith, and “the large extended family of Smith”; but it becomes clear very early on that these characters are not related in anyway, and that “Smith” is just a generic title that they have adopted in order to hide in anonymity. It’s unclear whether the copy on the book jacket was just sloppy editing or whether it was deliberately written to hide a double-meaning in the words; either way, the muddled synopsis left a bad taste in my mouth.

Character and narrative voice are key in inviting a reader to continue on with the story. You can have an exciting action-packed opening scene, but if you don’t connect with the voice from the start, then reading becomes a chore. K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter (2017) is another novel I added to my DNF stack due to my lack of engagement with the character/narrator’s voice. The story is conveyed as an embedded frame narrative through a series of letters between the two main characters. As a result, the main narrative is told in second person throughout. Second person voice is a hard sell. It CAN be done effectively (i.e. see N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, 2015-2017; for fear of spoilers, I won’t go into details of why the second person viewpoint served a dramatic purpose in all three novels, but let me just say that utilizing the second person voice to serve a purpose was sheer brilliance on Jemisin’s part). Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case for Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. The story (at least in the first few chapters that I read) is simply told as character 1 relaying the events of their past to character 2 in a “remember when we did x? I’m going to tell you the story of it anyway in this long letter because I love the story so much.” This style of writing seems forced, as if the author wanted to use the letter-style of writing but couldn’t figure out a way to justify its use. Consequently, the letter-writing simply serves as a vehicle to tell the story, instead of using it as a medium to further explore nuances of theme and voice. It would have made more sense if the letter-writer had revealed some unknown fact or perspective that the letter-reader was previously unaware of; or it would have been more interesting if the letter-reader had reacted to the perspective of the letter-writer in some way, perhaps with their own interpretation of events, or an emotion of guilt, or nostalgia, or something. But this didn’t appear to be the case, and I sadly added it to my DNF pile. It was a shame, because I had such hopes for the story (the narrative concerns the romantic relationship between two strong, competent women, both daughters of equally strong, competent women). But as I kept waiting for the “main story” to start, and only realized (after a quick Goodreads search) that the letters was the main narrative, I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

On the surface, The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (2018) bear some relation to The Anvil of the World and The Tiger’s Daughter. Like The Anvil of the World, The Tangled Lands is novella collection. But, like both Baker’s and Aresnault Rivera’s narratives, this structure is not made clear on the book jacket synopsis. (In fact, The Anvil of the World is advertised as Baker’s first Fantasy novel, which is clearly incorrect.) Now, while I have nothing against novella collections, I would like to be made aware of the structure before I’m a quarter of the way into the book. Knowing the structure and medium of a text is important. It allows the reader to anticipate the peaks and valleys. Hit a peak or valley too soon or too late, and it puts the reader on the wrong footing. What do I mean by this? As I was unaware that the book was a novella collection, as I started reading the first “part,” I immediately felt that the pacing was too fast. It was building too quickly towards a climax, with the stakes being high very early on. Had I been aware that the narrative was a short-story, I would have approached it differently. I would have been prepared for the sprint, rather than settling in for a long, slow journey.

But more frustrating is that I became too emotionally invested in the characters. I had geared myself up to join them on an epic adventure, and befriended them early as a result. I worried for them and feared for them, in a way that I didn’t with my first two DNFs. Bacigalupi (who writes the first story in the collection) does an incredible job of creating characters with depths and high stakes with just a few brush strokes. The main character is presented to us with a history, one who has fallen and suffered great lost. It’s easy to feel worry for him and his young daughter as they dabble in things that are too dangerous for a simple craftsman. And so it was that when I got to the end of the first short story, I felt disappointment, as if I’ve been cheated. I wanted to know what happened to them, and wanted to continue joining my new friends on their dangerous adventure. Unlike the first two books, where I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to continue reading their stories, here I felt like I had lost new friends that I had only begun to discover. And so I may yet return to The Tangled Lands to read again. But only after my grief has time to mellow and heal.

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

A very, VERY badly sketched rendition of the outfit. I really can't draw.

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.