Friday, April 1, 2016

March Reads Part Two

The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon beckoned to me because the series is notorious for complexity and density. The first of ten books, Steven Erikson's d├ębut novel is often denigrated as the worst of the bunch. The bumpy beginning, I am assured, is worth it for the glorious increase in quality as the series continues. Gardens of the Moon, reviews warned me, drops the reader into a complicated plot already underway.

Luckily, the novel wasn't as vicious or withholding as reviews made it out to be. In fact, I found the novel a brisk and entertaining read, albeit complex. Patience tempered any frustration the moments of obscurantism introduced, as the novel would eventually give up its secrets. I found myself surprised by how much I enjoyed the damn thing, despite being an outspoken critic of fantasy. Gardens of the Moon is within some of the limits of paradigmatic fantasy, yet irreverent with many aspects. There are no elves, no orcs, but there still exists the Anglo-Saxon fixation on swords and dragons. The novel throbs with political intrigue, reminding readers, no doubt, of GRRM's A Song of Ice and Rape.

This book series, I presume, came before the huge grimdark push. I admit my ignorance in regards to the history of grimdark but I believe it say to safe Erikson was an influence. The nihilism, or rather, the posture of nihilism, of grimdark does seem to have a progenitor in Erikson's violent and dark universe. The moral ambiguity of grimdark makes its appearance here, to an almost absurd degree. No character the novel follows emerges as a protagonist, or even as an antagonist. Rather, there's a large cast of people with clear motivations and clear objectives who antagonize each other, even if their goals are not immediately apparent.

The overarching plot, if I could succinctly identify it, concerns an Empire waging war against a city that refuses to acquiesce to colonization. A few discrete cabals scheme to either sack the city or protect it from sacking. On top of their political manoeuvring, the characters also become aware of supernatural meddling; the gods have a stake in this game, though exactly what, few know.

Some of the more magical parts of the plots are a bit hard to follow, as Erikson seems allergic to exposition. It behooves the reader to glean details and make their own conclusions, a strategy I applaud. For example, the sorcerers keep mentioning "Warrens," but never is it explicit what this is. The patient and attentive reader will figure that it out, that the Warrens are sort of dimensions full of magic. The mages tap into the Warren and extract magic. Much to my amusement, the magic in Gardens of the Moon is hyperbolically violent. A simple duel between magicians often results in the total destruction of the surrounding land.

What makes the novel successful, for me, is not the worldbuilding but the confident and strong grasp of storytelling. Every character has motivations and objectives produced from the text organically. Or at least, these goals come from other characters rather than coincidence or authorial meddling. Even if I wasn't always crystal clear on each person's allegiances, I would in time see their aim. Reading this around the same time as seeing Batman v Superman highlights the latter's complete lack of basic storytelling skills. This may have been Erikson's first novel, but he has control over his narrative, a confidence.

His work with characters isn't as forceful, but neither is it dire. Some manage to leap off the page while others languish in two dimensions. His everyman character, Paran, never grows into anything more than "good dude trying to do good." Likewise, his only clear villain, the Adjunct to the Empress, has perspicuous targets but a pervasive flatness. On the flip side, Sargent Whiskeyjack emerges as the most tangible character of them all, thanks to Erikson's deft use of hinted backstory. A forceful moment in the novel comes when Whiskeyjack begrudgingly admits, only to himself, the soldiers under his command are his friends.

I wish I hadn't liked the novel so much. I feel compelled the read the next in the series, which I'm also assured is an improvement. If Gardens of the Moon is the worst novel in the series, then I am surely in for a treat.

I wish I had written something of the second half of The Book of the New Sun when it was fresh. I can only say now that I loved my time with Severian in the back half. I find myself totally under the spell of Wolfe and his obfuscating tactics. So much so, I look forward to the next quartet. Alas, I'm struggling to write anything perceptive or illuminating about the two novels. The trickiness of the project becomes more intelligible, even if the trick gets less lucid.

March, unfortunately, was a month of only straight white dudes. I need to improve my parity, post-haste. I don't want another month of mayonnaise.

I wrote this entire post with the help of the Hemingway App, a text editor that seeks to clarify people's writing. I took half of my Alien essay and put it into the app, which informed me, much to my dismay, that my writing is "poor." I use too much passive voice and too many adverbs, I'm told. The app advises using zero adverbs, which strikes me as bonkers. Adverbs should be used sparingly, I believe. Note, this last sentence used the passive voice, according to Hemingway, but I can't imagine rearranging it without changing the meaning. The app isn't perfect. It seems to think complex sentences with multiple clauses are a phenomenon to avoid. It also wants me to avoid using "multiple" when "many" is simpler. I do think my writing can and should improve. I hope I can console myself that even being reflective of my process is better than believing I've no room for improvement. So, gentle reader, I will work harder to better my prose, even if I end up being my only audience member.

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