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REVIEW: The Neon Court by Kate Griffin


The Neon Court: Or the Betrayal of Matthew Swift by Kate Griffin Title: The Neon Court: Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift
Author: Kate Griffin
Pub Date: March 24th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Excellent, evocative, and innovative world-building with ambitious characterization techniques.

Like many of my favorite fantasy finds, I first came across Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels while on a business trip to London. This is kind of appropriate, considering how central London is to Griffin’s impressive urban fantasies. In her third Matthew Swift novel, The Neon Court: Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift, Griffin continues to impress with her unique take on contemporary magic and successfully strengthens her already-impressive characterization.

I first noticed Griffin’s writing with A Madness of Angels. In that book, she created a fascinating new spin on magic by inverting traditional eldritch trappings and fundamentally modernizing them. Her underlying conceit is that sorcery is a by-product of life, and because we lead ever more urban lives today, magic, too, must grow more urban. As a result, the magic of Griffin’s London is not that of moonlit rituals and twining ivy, but instead of subway cars and swirling fast food wrappers. What makes this conceit work in A Madness of Angels, and what continues to make it work through The Neon Court, is how solidly Griffin grounds her system in the real London, and how consistently she applies her new spin on magic.

Griffin’s images of contemporary London seep through into her characters and the urban magic of her world. The incidental characters we meet along the way are appropriate to their locales. Whether we’re talking about the professional Westminster-ish Aldermen (a bunch of bureaucrats…and more), the Tribe in the deepest parts of the East End, or an Irish seer living in Mile End, the characters are all believable because every one of their aspects is rooted in place: speech patterns, clothing, behavior, values, they all ring true to their environment.

This sense of place is also inextricably woven into the magic of her world. Every metropolitan idiosyncrasy becomes grist for Griffin’s magical mill. One gets the sense that there is sorcery lurking just beneath every insignificant fragment of Griffin’s London. Consider the Oyster travel card, or London’s many tourist traps. In the hands of a lesser author, the former would just be an incidental prop used to get on or off public transit, and the latter would just be settings. But Griffin makes them all potent magical talismans. This was impressive when first developed in A Madness of Angels, but even more impressive is how Griffin continues to expand and develop her magic system as the series progresses. In each of the Matthew Swift books, she introduces us to significant new facets of London’s magical underbelly, and nearly half of the fun in reading these books is seeing what new urban wizardry Griffin’s imagination will come up with. In The Neon Court, she asks how would the traditionally rural Faerie Court evolve in the modern urban world? Other authors – notably Emma Bull in her seminal War for the Oaks – have asked this question as well, and Griffin’s spin on it (the titular “Neon Court”) is innovative, unique, and fundamentally believable.

Her characterization – and especially that of her hero/narrator, Matthew Swift – is the next most impressive aspect of this series. Swift is a fractured hero, his mind merged with that of the blue electric angels (god-like personifications of the ghosts-in-the-wire who inhabit telephone and electric wires). Depending on which aspect of his personality is in ascendance, his narration veers from the perpendicular pronoun to first person plural, and at times shifts into a disjointed stream-of-consciousness. In the earlier books, this was a daring gamble on Griffin’s part. It made Swift’s struggle to re-assemble his mind and personality vivid, but risked disorienting an inattentive reader. Griffin walked a fine line in the earlier books, but she managed to pull it off. Swift’s fractured nature is so intrinsic to the first book’s plot, that the disjointed narrative added to the storytelling overall.

By the time we get to the third book, Griffin, Swift, and the electric blue angels are all more comfortable in Swift’s head. As a result, the narrative flow of The Neon Court is smoother, with fewer sudden shifts, and where those sudden shifts do occur, they are handled more subtly than in the earlier books. In general, I find the characters in The Neon Courtto be more carefully constructed than in the earlier books. As Swift’s focus shifts from internal (putting his mind back together) to external (saving London and his friends), Griffin’s characterization of secondary players strengthens as well. I felt that the third book does a much better job characterizing supporting characters like Penny (Swift’s apprentice), Dees (Swift’s Alderman lieutenant), and even Theydon (a thrall in the Neon Court) than the earlier books did.

If there is a weakness in the Matthew Swift novels, it is that it would be hard to start with the second or third installment. In The Neon Court, Matthew Swift struggles to save London and his friends from a terrifying magical threat amidst a burgeoning factional war amongst London’s magicians. The stakes, the characters, the plot, and the world are all adequately communicated. But a reader coming fresh to this world is likely to be confused by everything that came before. Swift’s history with R.J. Bakker (established in book 1), and his role as the Midnight Mayor (which was established in The Midnight Mayor: Or, the Inauguration of Matthew Swift), for example, are all central to The Neon Court’s plot. While there are passing explanations offered in the text, the book assumes the reader is already familiar with these events. However, their ramifications would be unclear to someone coming into the series with the third book.

Despite this fact, I recommend Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels, and especially The Neon Court: Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift. Readers who enjoy contemporary fantasy with innovative, vivid world-building will find a lot to enjoy in these novels. They are excellent examples of urban fantasy, particularly of the non-paranormal romance variety. If you enjoy the fantasies of Neil Gaiman, Emma Bull, Jim Butcher, or Harry Connolly, I suspect you will also enjoy Kate Griffin’s books. The entire series is good, and I found that it strengthens significantly in all of the right ways as it continues.

Where are the massive epic science fiction series?


I’ve really been enjoying the invective-laden “debate” between Sam Sykes and Ari Marmell over at Babel Clash this past week. Their discussion, essentially on “standalone fantasy novels” versus “single-story epic fantasy series” raised an interesting question in my mind. With door-stopper tomes so common in fantasy, why does fantasy’s cousin science fiction not have similar Chihuahua-killers?

It’s hard to think of contemporary fantasy without the likes of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Steven Erikson, Brent Weeks, etc. There’s quite a bit of commonality across these authors: first, they have written (or are writing) series telling a single story across more than four books, which take up entire shelves at the bookstore, and where each individual book is heavy enough to weigh down a tent.

The last thirty years in fantasy can generally be described as giving us longer series, and longer individual titles within those series. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Tolkien-inspired, 300-page apiece trilogy was the general rule. In the 1980’s, David and Leigh Eddings gave us the quintet (where again, each title was about 300 pages). In the ’90s, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and George R.R. Martin gave us the N-teen volume epic series, with each title clocking in at 600 – 1000 pages. In the 2000’s, we have a fresh bevy of fantasists like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, and Steven Erikson continuing the process. Where are science fiction’s gargantuan multi-volume epics?

If we can generally say that over the last thirty years, a significant portion of fantasy has used (a) more books, and (b) longer books, to tell a single story, why has this trend not appeared in science fiction? Sure, science fiction has its share of series. But these series tend to be trilogies or duologies (with a very rare quartet). Each of the novels in best-selling “series” by authors like Alastair Reynolds or Iain M. Banks is a standalone title, sharing a universe with its siblings, but little else. So…why is this?

I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer, although I do have some thoughts on narrowing down the cause. The way I see it, the reason that science fiction hasn’t expanded the way fantasy has can be laid at the feet of one of four actors in the process: the readers, the writers, the publishers, or the stories.
Saying that “science fiction readers are different from fantasy readers” doesn’t fly for me. Sure, the two audiences differ. But there is very significant overlap between the two, and, fundamentally, people are people. The drive to lose oneself in a fantasy universe applies just as strongly to a science fictional universe. That’s one of the many reasons why Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are so popular, as are Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. So I don’t buy any argument that says “readers of science fiction wouldn’t like it.” To me, that’s the equivalent of someone in 1965 saying that readers of fantasy would never accept a quintet. Time and time again, readers have proven such accepted wisdom wrong.

So if the readers aren’t at fault, what about the writers? Are science fiction writers too good to produce what some would call bloated epics? Or – to apply the flip side of that coin – are they too limited in their outlook to conceive of a story/universe on so grand a scale? I think the answer to both questions would have to be “no.” Science fiction writers are just as talented – and just as fallible – as their fantasist counterparts. Saying that there are no multi-volume, large science fiction epics because of the writers is too simplistic. Nature and publishing abhor a vacuum, and sooner or later a new author would come along and write one. After all, the fantasy genre didn’t typically expand beyond trilogies until the 80’s. And the door-stoppers didn’t show up until the 1990s. It all starts somewhere.

So maybe the fault lies with the publishers. Here, my natural cynicism makes me want to say “Aha!” and blame editors and acquisitions departments. But again, I fear that’s too much of an oversimplification. If at some point an author tried to write a multi-volume science fiction epic, then sooner or later some editor would take a chance on it. And if it did well, then others would quickly follow suit. That’s the nature of the industry (Vampires, anyone? Zombies?). So I don’t think this is a case of publishers not wanting to publish books like that because they don’t want to take a chance. Eventually, someone would try it out and a new trend would start.
If the reader, the writer, and the publisher aren’t at fault, is there something intrinsic to the science fictional story that precludes a 10+ volume series? Is fantasy somehow exceptional as a genre in that it either enables or requires such series where other genres do not? If the story is to blame, then the fault must lie in its setting, characters, or plot.

We fantasy fans talk about these giant series in terms of losing ourselves in a fictional universe. We love to take our time exploring the richly imagined lands of Westeros, or Genabckis, or Randland. But science fictional settings can be just as richly imagined, just as Other, as fantastical ones. What’s the difference between Arrakis and Westeros? Or the universe of the Culture and Randland? From a technical standpoint, the real differences are window-dressing: spacecraft and ray-guns rather than galleons and swords. Sure, that’s flippant and over-simplified, but any science fictional world is just as fantastical as a fantasy world. This applies just as much to space opera, sociological SF, the future (whether post-apocalyptic or not), time travel stories, etc. The quality of the world-building rests in the author’s hands, and science fiction presents just as much opportunity for involved and interesting world-building. I don’t believe that fantasy settings do something that science fictional settings don’t (or vice versa). They’re settings, imagined universes with rules and actors and factions as complex or as simplistic as the author wishes to make them. Alien is alien, whether they carry swords or blasters.

So what about the characters? Huge fantasy series are replete with a dizzying cast of characters – so much so, that the appendices to keep dramatis personae and their factions straight are a cliché feature. Typically, these large casts effectively comprise different protagonists who we follow at different points in the story. Farah Mendelsohn makes a great point in her Rhetorics of Fantasy, which – if I may paraphrase somewhat – suggests that this is really a shell-game: It takes what are essentially separate epic plots, and disperses the reader’s attention across them. We think that there’s one complex story going on, but really we’re watching ten or twelve simple stories happening in parallel. This isn’t a bad device, and it is one which I enjoy very much when done well. But why does this device appear in fantasy, but not in science fiction? A complicated cast of deeply personified characters is not unique to fantasy. Ever read Victor Hugo? Or Tolstoy? Or Iain M. Banks? There is no reason why this technique, or why this character structure, cannot apply in any genre.

So that leaves the science fiction plot as the remaining culprit. Perhaps there is something in science fiction’s plots that precludes such epic myth-making. I’ve read quite a bit of theory on fantasy, and rather a lot of excellent research on the morphologies of fantasy plots (I cannot recommend Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy enough). But I haven’t come across much morphological research on science fiction. When I think about all of the criticism of SF that I’ve read over the years, I can’t think of a single piece of criticism that tries to postulate a morphology of plot structures in SF. There are many great books on the history of the genre’s evolution, on the different themes that crop up in SF, and even on the techniques by which these themes are communicated. But I can’t find anything that deals with the sequence or structure of science fiction narrative.

So rather than try and come up with some back-of-the-envelope set of structures based on the books I can remember right now, I’ll instead leave you with three questions:

1 First, does science fiction have broad categories of plots the way fantasy does?
2 If it does, then do those categories somehow preclude the development of multi-volume door-stopper epics in science fiction?
3 And if not, then why aren’t we seeing series like that get published?

The Desperate Horror of Suburbia: Thoughts on Shirley Jackson


A couple of months ago, I wrote about different modes of horror, and while enjoying the Library of America collection Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, it got me thinking about how Jackson employed (and mastered) the art of identification in her stories.

The Library of America collection, selected by Joyce Carol Oates, contains forty-nine of Jackson’s stories. Except for the previously-unpublished works, the collection effectively spans the entire twenty-year period in which Jackson wrote before her untimely death in 1965. The stories range in length from what today would be considered flash fiction (like the two-page Colloquoy) to Jackson’s short novels (including the classic The Haunting of Hill House). The book starts with Jackson’s earliest stories that were originally collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, and when I think of Shirley Jackson, these are without a doubt my favorites.

As a genre, horror has a great many tropes: moonlit streets, foggy nights, sexy gentlemen with a dark side, the unrelenting psychopath, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. However, most of the stories that rely on these tropes tend to either utilize revulsion or dread to induce the delightful frisson of horror. For folks who look for their horror to be splatterpunk blood-fests, or for sexy vampires lurking languidly in the night, most of Shirley Jackson’s work would disappoint. The reason for that is that she utilizes every tool of the horror trade like a scalpel, and in her earliest works the tool she most relied on was identification (or realization).

Most of the stories collected in the original The Lottery and Other Stories (and which are now reprinted) have zero supernatural elements, depict no violence, and arguably lack the thriller-tension that most readers think of as horror. If it were not for the subtle manipulation of the reader’s morality, these stories would be utterly forgettable slice-of-life or Americana stories, accurate, in their representation of small-town life but insignificant as to the broader human condition. However, what makes Jackson unique in my view is the way that she can ellicit abject horror and revulsion from these utterly plebian events.

Consider Flower Garden, which on its face tracks the musings of a young Mrs. Winning, a 1940′s housewife, as she goes about her life in a small country town. She interacts with people like her neighbors, the grocer, her family. Shortly into the story, we learn that a new woman (a Mrs. MacLane) has moved into town from the city, and that she has a son of an age with Mrs. Winning’s boy. However, as the story proceeds, Jackson shows us the underside of small-town life, with its small-town prejudices. As the newcomer forms a friendship with one of the town’s few African American families, the “respectable” portion of small-town society begins to draw away. What Jackson does amazingly in this story is in the way that she portrays Mrs. Winning’s rationalization of their ostracization. Mrs. Winning isn’t guilty of any such prejudice: no, that’s only for more small-minded people. But ultimately, she adopts a similar stance to the other townsfolk and effectively isolates poor Mrs. MacLane in this new community. The story works because Jackson makes us care – deeply – about the characters, both Mrs. Winning (who we know isn’t all bad) and Mrs. MacLane (who is the victim). Jackson accomplishes this using three tools:

  • Keeping Her Point of View Character Oblivious to the Theme. This is a technique which Jackson uses frequently in the best of her stories. In Flower Garden, Mrs. Winning is completely oblivious to the prejudice that is going on around her. She notices that her relationships in town are weakened by her friendship with Mrs. MacLane, and so she begins to avoid her friend without even drawing attention to it. But when eventually she does notice it, she rationalizes it such that she never recognizes the moral choice that she has already made. Because we – the reader – are aware of this choice, our emotions are engaged and our minds focused on the theme: it’s like watching a movie where you want to shout at the heroine “Don’t go in there!” because you know something she doesn’t. Jackson elicits the same emotional response, only without the knife-wielding psychopath.
  • Employing Minutia to Ground the Reader. Jackson takes much time to show us the petty, inconsequential elements of Mrs. Winning’s daily life. Her conversation with the green grocer, the fact that she went to high school with him, her relationship with her mother-in-law: these facts have zero bearing on the primary plot. However, they lay the foundation for Jackson’s character, and for the broader community. As such, they establish the “feel” of the world Jackson paints for us. And it is a world that anyone who has lived in small-town America (even seventy years later) would instantly recognize. The reader places themselves into the nameless small-town, precisely because the prosaic details are so true-to-life and believable.
  • The Tragic Triumph of Moral Failure.When we read Flower Garden, we know what the “right” outcome should be. We know – morally, intellectually – that the community’s prejudice against Mrs. MacLane is abhorrent. However, in the end, it is their prejudices – and Mrs. MacLane’s own inverted prejudices against the small-town set – which triumph. The story ends tragically, not in the dramatic sense of everyone on stage dying, but rather in the Aristotelian sense of characters changing state from good to bad.

There is nothing to suggest that Flower Garden is a horror story: there is no violence, no fear, no physical tension of any kind. There are no ghosts or other supernatural elements. Yet it leaves the reader horrified at the underlying truth dramatized through the story’s actors. It ensures that we not only understand the author’s message but that we recognize it as an inevitable (and morally repugnant) consequence of human nature. And nowhere does Jackson come out and spell this message out for us: it is in the pauses between her characters’ thoughts, in the punctuation of her sentences, in the selection of her words. The story leaves us uneasy because it is all too easy to see ourselves in it.

Jackson applies this pattern in many of her works, and I find that it is put to best effect in her short stories. There, she evokes similar sensations of horror, disgust, revulsion, and tragic catharsis but with admirable economy. In her later novels, Jackson employed more supernatural (or ambiguously supernatural) elements, which often serve as sleight-of-hand to provide us a cozy rationalization for the real cause of our horror. Of course, even this interpretation is likely an over-simplification because even in her “supernatural” stories, Jackson leaves everything delightfully ambiguous: perhaps we need to blame our terror on ghosts and demons because the alternative – that humanity itself produces such horror – is too unsettling.

For anyone looking for an excellent author – whether a literary/mainstream author, or for one of the greatest horror writers ever to put pen to paper – I strongly recommend Shirley Jackson. Having come to her stories some sixty years after they were first published, I often wonder how my modern values affect my interpretation. I suspect, however, that the themes that Jackson addresses are universal and timeless. The foibles of humanity, the petty iniquities of small-town life, the dark secrets that lurk unspoken in our hearts: these never go away. It is easy to paint a black and white moralizing picture and say a character’s actions are morally repugnant: that does not mean those actions are unrealistic, or that they are not presented in cathartic and artistic fashion. Jackson offers no easy solutions. In fact, she doesn’t offer any solutions at all. But she raises questions that go to the heart of what we value as individuals, as a community, and as a broader society. That alone makes her worth reading. The fact that her works are fun, and unsettling, and in some cases absolutely horrifying, makes it that much better.

REVIEW: Second Sight by Cheryl Klein


Second Sight by Cheryl Klein Title: Second Sight
Author: Cheryl Klein
Pub Date: March 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A strong reference compilation on writing from an experienced children's book editor.

Several years ago, The Professor (my fiancée) introduced me to children’s book editor Cheryl Klein’s blog, where I discovered several years’ worth of thoughtful, analytical, and insightful talks she has given on the craft of writing and its intersection with the craft of editing. Having found her thoughts interesting, I was excited to learn that Klein is now releasing a self-published, crowd-funded (via Kickstarter) book on writing entitled Second Sight. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a review copy not too long ago, and found it be challenging, insightful, and professional in all the right ways. This is a book for people seriously interested in writing as both a craft and a career: people looking for touchy-feely encouragement or platitudes on the “writing life” need not apply.

From my perspective, this is high praise. What I look for in books on writing is a serious discussion of the techniques used to construct effective, powerful, and publishable fiction. Whenever I read a new book on writing, I am always comparing it to the books on my “Writing on Writing Shelf,” which is primarily stocked with classics like E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand’s (very different) The Art of Fiction, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Klein’s Second Sight is like these excellent books in many ways.

Second Sight demands a modicum of pre-existing knowledge. Someone still struggling to grasp the basics of writing (figuring out what a plot is, understanding the difference between point of view and voice, etc.) will likely find this book intimidating. An intermediate writer (as I like to consider myself) – who has been working at the craft for several years, who has a finished (though not yet published) novel or two under their belt, and who is looking for helpful ways to think about technique – will derive a lot of value from this book.

Like Forster, Gardner, and Rand, Klein flits effortlessly between the high-concept philosophy of writing (the nature of fiction, the nature of art) and the gritty reality of constructing a working novel (building point, character, plot, and voice). It is clear in reading this book that Klein has thought long and hard about what constitutes good writing, and what criteria to apply when judging the written word. However, unlike E.M. Forster, or John Gardner, (and certainly unlike Ayn Rand) Second Sight is far less didactic.

Reading Le Guin’s, Forster’s, or Gardner’s works on writing, I am often reminded of looking at a skyscraper. In Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, he takes 192 pages to walk us through the six pillars on which all novels rest. Each chapter builds on those that precede it to concisely outline the author’s vision of The Novel, like one floor resting atop another. This kind of writing on writing provides immense value, but it is by its very nature broad: it speaks in generalities from a hundred stories above the ground, glossing over many challenging aspects of writing. But if reading Forster is like looking at a finished skyscraper, reading Klein is like looking over an architect’s shoulder.

When I finish classic books on writing, I am often left with a feeling of “Whoa,” as my perception of The Novel has changed. Reading Klein cover to cover doesn’t produce that response. Instead, each chapter of Klein’s book leaves me with a smaller sense of “Neat!” that shifts my thinking on a particular facet of the craft. I wouldn’t be able to swallow a book like this in one or two sittings. In the two or three months that I’ve had my review copy, I’ve found that I would read a chapter or two, put it aside, and then return to it repeatedly when running into tough spots in my own writing. And that is its primary value: as a helpful tool for the dedicated writer struggling with the minutia of craft.

The primary meat of this book is framed by practicalities. It opens with a series of brief philosophical musings on the nature of good writing, and then dives right into the process of finding a publisher. That fact alone should tell you that this isn’t a book for someone who has never written anything. However, those early chapters are beautiful for their simple, straightforward discussion of the publishing process. The annotated query letters (one “from hell” and one which “gets it right”) are excellent, providing real-world lessons that can be applied by anyone intending to pitch editors or agents.

The middle of the book consists of independent chapters on various aspects of writing. The subjects range from a working definition of young adult literature, to techniques for constructing picture books, to the relationship between plot and emotion. There are commonalities across all of these sections, but they are not structured – and should not be read – as laying out a dialectical argument. Instead, they are insightful musings on varied aspects of writing, which may be relevant to some readers some of the time…but not to everyone, and not always.

It is only as she approaches the end of the “meaty” section that Klein veers into a Forster-esque mode of outlining a “theory of the novel.” Captured in a sixty-four page quartet of chapters (with their own introduction), Klein discusses what she considers the pillars on which a novel rests: point, character, plot, and voice. While these chapters are insightful and valuable, they represent the book’s one structural weakness: up to this point, the chapters all provided valuable insight without relying on the other chapters. Diving into the quartet on page 186, with its concomitant shift in structure and tone, struck me as inconsistent with the rest of the book’s structure. Without a doubt, the quartet deserves a place in this book, and I understand the difficulty Klein likely had in figuring out how to get it to fit. However, I suspect it could have benefited from either an alternative placement (perhaps earlier in the book, amidst the more “philosophical” chapters), or a better lead-in. But despite the inconsistency in structure and approach, the quartet – and the other independent chapters – still provide great value.

The last third of the book returns us to the brutal reality of revising a finished work. Her chapter on twenty-five revision techniques is immensely practical, the type of bare bones heavy lifting that every author should do, but that nobody likes to think or talk about. This section is immediately applicable to anyone who has finished a written work (of any length), and is now embarking on the revision process. The concrete advice given here clearly stems from years of editing books as a career. No shortcuts are given, no platitudes are offered: writing is hard work, and Klein lays out a series of techniques to produce higher quality work.

Second Sight is unlike most of my writing library. In general, that library consists of books that either try to lay out an all-encompassing theoretical framework (Forster, Gardner, Rand), analyze critical genre theory (Mendelsohn, Clute, Suvin), or exhaustively detail a particular facet of writing (Card, Kress, Propp). Some of the books in my library are well worn: the books I return to frequently as I think about my own writing. Since getting my review copy of Second Sight, it has never left my desk. It doesn’t answer the question of “What is The Novel?” but it does answer the question “What goes into an effective novel?” And for someone working on writing new works while revising what they have already written, I suspect this is the most important question.

NOTE: As I mention above, Second Sight is a self-published book, and can be ordered from Cheryl Klein’s web site at: http://cherylklein.com/buying-second-sight. Also, be sure to check out her great blog.

REVIEW: The Crippled God (Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 10) by Steven Erikson


My apologies for posting this on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday. I know I’m late, but I got caught up with day-job work and so…sorry. Hope the timely review makes up for the delay.

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson Title: The Crippled God: Book Ten of The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
The impressive culmination of an epic eleven years in the making.

The word “epic” gets thrown around more often when talking about fantasy than a well-aimed dagger. I’ve seen it applied (and done so myself) to Tolkien, Brooks, and Donaldson, to Jordan, Martin, and Eddings, to Jemisin, Rothfuss, and Sanderson, and the list goes on. In most of these cases, the word “epic” is an apt descriptor. But I would argue that Steven Erikson and his ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen out-epic all of these other epics in its epic-ness. The world created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont, each individual book in Erikson’s series, and the complexity of the story Erikson planned out from the beginning: each of these alone can be justly described as epic in scope, epic in scale. But in this genre that tosses around the E-word like it was going out of style, I believe that Erikson’s ambition is the most epic of all. And having now read Erikson’s The Crippled God, the tenth and final installment in his Malazan Book of the Fallen, I believe that Erikson delivered on the “epic” promised back in 1999.

DISCLAIMER: I am not saying that the Malazan Book of the Fallen is “better” than the Wheel of Time, or A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Belgariad, or Shannara, or insert-your-favorite-fantasy-series-here. However, I do believe that it is different. This difference especially applies to its world building and plot structure, and in many respects to its themes and characterization. In its plot structure and world building especially, I find it far more complex than those other series I just mentioned. But “more complex” does not mean better. It just means more complicated.

A little over eleven years ago I was waiting to board a transatlantic flight in Warsaw, Poland, idly browsing the tiny English-language section of a little airport bookstore, when I stumbled across a thick book. Tantalizingly titled Gardens of the Moon, by an author I’d never heard of before, and with a cover not-quite-sf/not-quite-fantasy by Chris Moore that instantly set it apart from the contemporary Chihuahua killer epic fantasies of Jordan, Martin, and Goodkind, I had to buy it. I spent the next nine or ten hours sucked into Steven Erikson’s visceral, violent, gripping world. Since that fateful afternoon, I have eagerly anticipated each new volume in Erikson’s opus, and so it was with childish delight (and squeeing) that I stumbled upon a copy of The Crippled God two days before its official pub date in my local Borders.

Gardens of the Moon (via Wikipedia)

Gardens of the Moon by Chris Moore (via Wikipedia)

To read Erikson’s work, one must be prepared to immediately suspend disbelief, and to dive headfirst into a world rich with layers of history, culture, politics, and mythology that would make Tolkien’s head spin. Readers not already well-versed in the conventions of the fantasy genre might find it all a bit confusing at first. But for those readers able to suspend their disbelief, and who are prepared to intuit or await elucidation, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is an immensely enjoyable series. The Malazan world was created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont in their role-playing campaigns. But the two brought to their creation their extensive expertise in anthropology and archaeology, resulting in a world with intricate, distinct cultures, complex historical societal relationships, economic balances, and military history.

Over the course of the ten book series, we follow many (I lost count at around forty five) distinct groups of characters. Some groups are small, numbering maybe one or two members, while others are large factions with many characters going nameless. However, each of these groups is presented completely, meaning that they are drawn as round (using E.M. Forster’s definition), fully-fleshed characters. Erikson shows us everyone’s fears, doubts, concerns to such a degree that by the time we’re halfway through the first book, the very concept of “hero” and “villain” has lost all meaning. It is this moral ambiguity, this rationalization and justification of character choices and ethical mistakes, that drive the series’ themes.

The first five or six books in the series are self-contained wholes. The events of each book occur non-linearly, following several distinct “tracks” of events separated by both time and space. The main tracks comprise different books in the series, at least in the beginning. This makes it possible for a reader to start either with Gardens of the Moon (Book 1), or say Deadhouse Gates (Book 2), or Memories of Ice (Book 3).

Reading them in order of their publication, I was initially surprised and confused by their non-linearity. Where were the characters I had met and fallen in love with in the earlier books? What had happened to them? What were they doing? But like a master weaver, Erikson successfully introduces new strands while maintaining interest in those that came before. This separation across books in the series begins to collapse around Midnight Tides (Book 5), where a new reader coming into the story would be so completely lost in the whirling politics of gods, cities, armies, factions, squads, races, creeds, etc. as to make it an exercise in futility.

It is at this point in the series (books 6 – 8), that Erikson stumbles for the first time. This stumble is interesting to note, precisely because it touches upon his introduction of higher-level, more abstract philosophical themes into the story. The first six (arguably seven) books are largely plot driven. We follow the striving of different groups of characters – especially the Malazan military – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The books are thematically interesting, but there is a palpable sense that reader doesn’t yet know everything. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, Erikson thickens the plot by explaining more complex historical relationships, and introducing new gods, and new players. The introduction of this history, and metaphysical motivation for certain characters introduced in the eighth book, slows the pacing significantly. These latter books remain readable, but I had to read them at least twice in order to really understand what was happening. They are not bad, but they are much more dense than the other books in the series, and those books are already more dense than most epic fantasy fare. Thankfully, Erikson again hits his stride in Dust of Dreams (book nine) as he now has all of the actors on stage and moving towards the climax in The Crippled God.

And what a climax! The series tracks several hundred (again, I lost count) distinct plot lines. But they are all brought together in the tenth and final book. Perhaps more importantly, it is also in the The Crippled God that we see the thematic lines from the earlier books brought together. The thematic convergence in The Crippled God is one of the most impressive aspects of the series. Each of the earlier books has its own themes, which are in and of themselves complicated and well-executed. But after reading The Crippled God, the themes of earlier books are either clarified, corrected, or shown as illusory. Unifying these disparate (and oftentimes contradictory) themes without invalidating them is a neat trick, and makes the intellectual and emotional exercise of the whole series quite worth it.

From a stylistic standpoint, Erikson takes more from the gritty, boots-in-the-mud fantasy of Glen Cook than he does from the elf-and-dwarf high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Erikson’s primary characters are soldiers, and he draws them as imperfect, swearing, and swaggering. While dragons, and Erikson’s version of elves feature quite prominently, his characters are very far removed from Smaug or Legolas. It is the darkness and grit of his world that makes it compelling, that subverts the traditional tropes of the genre. Dragons as mad almost-gods? Heroes who (along with the reader) are ignorant of their quest, and just have to do as they’re ordered? These are fun subversions.

I found Erikson’s take on women in his books particularly interesting. Historically, I have often found fantasy to be full of stereotypical square-jawed male hero-types, with damsel-in-distress ladies swooning in the wings (if they are present at all). Erikson’s female characters are more likely to break a hero’s jaw than pine or swoon. They are soldiers, and conspirators, and commanders equal in all respects to the men, while still evidencing deft characterization that makes them fully believable. Both the men and women are flawed, emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes not. Erikson makes them complex, while retaining their intrinsic humanity. Which is refreshing in a genre often dominated by particular molds.

I have spent the past twelve years with these characters. Their stories have in many respects become a part of me, like old friends. The tenth book brings Erikson’s enormous cast of characters together, and wraps up their stories. With one or two (notable) exceptions, we learn what happens to everybody, how they end up. The tenth book is in many respects about closure, and Erikson unflinchingly brings the story of different groups and characters to a close. But – and this is one of his points – even though the book gets closed for some characters, life goes on. The unity of character, plot, theme, and execution in this tenth book is singularly impressive.

However, for everything good about his work, the complexity – of his characters, plots, themes – can be quite off-putting. One reader (whose opinions I respect greatly) very much dislikes Erikson’s work. She claims that it is too hard to follow, impossible to keep the myriad characters and plot lines straight even within a single book, let alone across a ten book series. For many readers, this will be a valid criticism. Erikson has produced a truly dense, complicated work of fiction. Myriad plot lines, more characters, complicated races that often go by different names, complex battle scenes shown from the perspective of multiple soldiers in the thick of it, this is writing that demands real work from the reader to keep things straight, to follow along with events. I found myself often having to read or re-read sections (and in some cases, entire books) just to really figure out what the heck actually happened. For many, this will be a weakness: why should I have to work so hard for my fiction? But I personally found that I enjoyed doing that work, that I enjoyed getting to spend time in an ugly, dark fantasy world that was realistically built while still employing the tropes of fantasy.

Back in 1999, Erikson told fans that the Malazan Book of the Fallen would be a nine book series. Like any gargantuan epic, this was an ambitious goal. However, Erikson executed on this ambition both in the creative sense, as well in the practical sense: publishers and fans like to see epic series come out with new installments on an annual basis. Publishers like it because it helps them push paperback editions of the earlier books, and fans like it because we can still remember what’s going on in the story. But in a sub-genre famous for delays (George R.R. Martin’s A Dance of Dragons has been delayed five years already and still counting), it is incredibly refreshing to come across an author whose ambition is so vast, whose story is so complicated, but who still manages to produce quality work reasonably on schedule. It’s refreshing, and my hat is off to Erikson for delivering on his vision.

Although I have read that Erikson is planning a new eleven book arc in the Malazan world, The Crippled God represents in many ways the end of an era. It is a masterfully-executed conclusion to a complicated, ambitious, dense opus. On the one hand, I am glad that the series is over, that Borders screwed up and I managed to get my hands on a copy several days before its official release, and that Erikson satisfied my (high) expectations from it. But on the other hand, I will miss the anticipation of the next book, will miss getting to laugh and cry with the characters I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve years.

Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a complex, involving, and emotionally powerful epic fantasy series. There is no series more deserving of the word “epic”. Pick up a copy of Gardens of the Moon, and see if you like it. Be prepared to work at it, because it is difficult. But difficult does not mean bad, and rest assured that by the time you get to The Crippled God, you will find your investment has been fully justified and amply rewarded.

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

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