Holding back – lessons from Al-Rassan 4

In discussing The Lions of Al-Rassan I’ve deliberately kept one aspect of Guy Gavriel Kay’s technique until last. It’s an interesting one, and it’s one that he mostly uses well, but if there’s one thing about the book that bothers me then it’s over-use of this. So, not to put you off, but today I’m going to be slightly less gushing and slightly more critical.

Withholding on character

Authors always withhold some information from their audiences. Without it there are no mysteries. What’s the point of a Poirot story if you see who done it at the start?

There’s a particular approach to this that is more unusual and that can be used to build up tension. That’s withholding key information about a character. It’s often used to develop surprising twists in short stories and jokes, as the audience discovers near the end that an assumption they were led towards about the character’s gender, identity or state of being is wrong.

Sixth Sense, I’m looking at you. And I’m looking with admiration.

It’s a neat bit of trickery that pulls the rug out from beneath the audience’s feet, or that can create mystery in an otherwise dull situation. Jill is walking down the road to see a man, but which man? There are two we know that she has been seeing. Which one has she chosen? When will we know???

And right there, that’s also the problem with this technique. You’re building tension out of nothing. You’re often seeing the scene from the point of view of a character who knows exactly what’s going on, and the author is going to great lengths to hold something back, avoiding proper nouns or describing things in a circuitous fashion. Itrelies on the novelty of the technique rather than the strength of the story, and that’s a dangerous thing.

Withholding in Al-Rassan

Kay does this several times in the course of The Lions of Al-Rassan. Every time he writes it well. He builds up suspense in the reader. In one scene we know that a character has died and we know how. We know from the other characters’ reactions that it’s someone we care about. But who is it? By showing the scene from several different perspectives Kay draws out this tension and adds to the emotional punch of the moment, as the tragic truth approaches the reader through a maze of red herrings.

The problem is that he does it several times, and by the end it was starting to feel rather forced. A character thinking about his wife repeatedly over several pages without ever letting slip her name to the reader? That doesn’t feel natural and it reduces my immersion in the story.

I’m glad that I got to see how Kay used this technique, but I could have done with a little less of it. So my final lesson from this book is that, if you’ve got a clever literary trick you want to play with, don’t overdo it. All things in moderation.

Loving the Lions

I don’t want to finish on a bum note. No book is flawless, but The Lions of Al-Rassan is a great one. And so for the last time this week I say go read this book. It’s well worth your time.

Have a fun weekend everyone. Go read some good books. Maybe tell me about them, or your thoughts on Al-Rassan, in the comments below.

Making it personal – lessons from Al-Rassan 3

One of the things that Guy Gavriel Kay does best in The Lions of Al-Rassan is making big things personal. I must have written about this before, but it’s important enough as a lesson for writers and readers that it’s worth looking at what Kay does.

Kay's writing is as beautiful and intricate as the Moorish art that helped inspire it. This metaphor, on the other hand, has all the nuance of those Frankish crusaders who came stomping back in.
Kay’s writing is as beautiful and intricate as the Moorish art that helped inspire it. This metaphor, on the other hand, has all the nuance of those Frankish crusaders who came stomping back in.

The huge

The Lions of Al-Rassan is, in some ways, the story of huge political events. It depicts the political and religious struggles for control of a region currently broken up into separate kingdoms, and the end of a way of life.

It also depicts the dangers of fanaticism and bigotry, how these shape history and endanger lives.

Big themes, huh?

The intimate

Despite all this, the story is structured around the personal relationships of a small group of characters. It’s the story of Jehane bet Ishak’s journey out into the world and the recovery of her relationship with her father. It’s Rodrigo Belmonte’s struggle to protect his family, caught up in a deadly web of politics. It’s Ammar ibn Khairan’s quest to do right by his people. It’s the emerging relationship between the three of theme, often subtly depicted and always intriguing.

If the novel’s so concerned with big themes then why do these people matter?

Because it’s the personal that draws us in. The politics and the warfare can be exciting, but they’re also distant from what’s familiar to us, and sometimes impersonal. The relationships between the characters give us something that’s more familiar, if still fascinating. Love, loyalty, ambition. And by connecting those characters into the themes and events of the novel Kay gives us reason to care about the big events, to feel them deeply and personally.

Tying them together

While it’s important to have the small and personal alongside the grand events, it’s also important to connect them together. Kay does this by depicting a group of characters whose allegiances are pulled in different directions, whose loyalties, religions and ethnicities tear them apart against their will, like the land they live in. They are placed at the centre of events but not through the most obvious positions. They are not the kings and caliphs, and for most of the novel not the generals leading the armies. They affect and are affected by the struggles, but their places in those struggles aren’t always obvious. Their need to negotiate that, to work out what they want and why, highlights the struggles and themes of the book.

So that was good

As I’ve made clear before, I think Kay writes beautifully, and the way this book works shows that he can also plot like a badass. This sort of nuance doesn’t just fall into place, it takes skill and planning.

Tomorrow, more Al-Rassan. For now, go forth and read. Think about how characters tie in to bigger themes and events in books. Maybe tell me about other great examples below.


Picture by Larry Wentzel via Flickr creative commons.

Religion as society – lessons from The Lions of Al-Rassan 2

I love to see genre literature explore religion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the vicarious thrill of the non-believer getting inside the head of a person of faith. Maybe it’s the wonder of exploring the deeper possibilities of the universe. Maybe it’s the lure of giving in to the irrational, of wanting something more behind the scenes.

I particularly enjoy seeing fantasy explore the monotheistic traditions of Europe and the Middle East. I think that it’s something we used to be wary of. Fantasy religion tapped into the pagan stuff become that was safer and more acceptable. But the sub-genre that became urban fantasy has, to a large extent, smashed that taboo, and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s magnificent Preacher leapt up and down on the pieces with filthy and humanistic vigour, really challenging what religion and the church are about.

What’s still rare, in my experience at least, is fantasy that explores the structures rather than the tropes of monotheism’s history.

That’s part of why I enjoyed the religions portrayed in The Lions of Al-Rassan so much. While not monotheistic they are clearly representative of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in their medieval forms. It’s not about the supernatural side of religion, it’s about the human institutions – the priesthoods and pogroms, the moments of beauty and horror all inspired by faith. It looks at religion with the eye of a sociologist or historian, not a myth-maker, and says ‘what’s going on here then?’ But it shows the results in a close up, personal way.

I can only speak from my own personal experience and reading, but I found the portrayal of the characters’ varied religious views and experiences more honest and intriguing than most others I’ve read.

All this allows the book to explore the themes of fanaticism and bigotry, as Jon Taylor pointed out in response to my previous post. And it does it well, not getting preachy and in your face, just showing the damage these things can do.

It’s a fascinating and very human portrayal of religion, and that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much. It’s one I’ll be thinking about next time I’m building a story world, considering how religion fits in as a social institution. And once again, it shows the things that Guy Gavriel Kay manages to do a little differently.

* * *

On an unrelated note, if you have access to the BBC’s iPlayer then I strongly encourage you to go listen to this week’s Chain Reaction, in which comedian Frankie Boyle interviews comic writer Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of the most interesting and insightful people in popular culture, responsible for some magnificent story-telling and some mind-bending madness, and it’s a pleasure to hear him talk.

Steal and steal well – first lesson from The Lions of Al-Rassan

I finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan yesterday. It was a beautifully written and fascinating book, and I’ll probably be writing about it most of this week, because like all the best books it’s taught me lots of lessons.

Spoiler alert - it's not about real lions
Spoiler alert – it’s not about real lions

Setting somewhere different

First up, the most obvious thing to talk about – the setting.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel with almost no fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world version of Medieval Spain, a period known in real world history as the Reconquista. There’s one single magical fantasy element in the whole book, and other than that it’s essentially a piece of historical fiction with the details tweaked.

It’s an interestingly different setting, one that emphasises the world-building aspects of fantasy rather than the magical ones. It’s a bit like chopping the most wacky ten percent off of George R R Martin’s Westeros and leaving behind the world of people and politics. It lets Kay explore the possibilities and wonders of a historical period without being tied down to specific events and without the risk of someone turning round and calling him out for historical inaccuracy.

It’s also interesting to see an author use that setting as a basis for any sort of fantasy. Secondary world fantasy settings, while usually taking a lot of their queues from medieval Europe, haven’t often played with the particular features of the Iberian peninsula. While this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Arabian-influenced fantasy it is the first time I’ve seen someone use the particular political and culture encounters, the clashes and compromises, and the elegant half-way-house culture that was Spain during the great struggle for dominance between Europe and Islam. It makes for a very different feel.

Here comes the history…

OK, let me step back a moment and put my history graduate hat on.

For those who don’t know it, Spain was torn between Islamic and European influences for most of the middle ages. These two great cultures – Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East – were defining themselves in contrast and conflict with each other, but also by absorbing influences from each other. From the first Islamic invasion in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492 they grappled to control the Spanish peninsula, as a succession of different states rose and fell. The resulting culture took the best of both worlds to create something bold and vibrant. The resulting politics was bloody and horrifying, with battles and massacres aplenty.

Everybody in the peninsula defined themselves by their religion, even if other factors also came into play, and the differences between religious, cultural and political allegiances were not clear cut. But while this was mostly a land of Christians and Muslims competing with each other it was also a land in which a small Jewish minority sought to survive and to carve out their own niche amidst the chaos.

Using what’s distinctive

What’s so wonderful about Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of this is that he hasn’t just taken the outward trappings of the period – the caliphs and kings, the poets and princes. He’s taken the deep rooted institutions and issues and riffed on them to build his world. There are religions mirroring the places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in medieval Spain. The politics between the city states reflects the real challenges and tensions of a period in which allegiances were slippery and borders ever-shifting. The massacre of one religious group by another is all the more powerful for reflecting what really happened to many Jews as tensions rose. And the plot of the book reflects the polarising influences that arose in the most bloody periods.

This means that you get much more than just another fantasy adventure. You get a world that’s both different and familiar, that’s utterly convincing in its detail. And for me, as a fantasy fan and a history fan, that’s some damn good reading.

Not done yet

I’ll be back to write more about this tomorrow I’m sure. In the meantime thank you to my friends who persuaded me to read this, especially Glenatron who’s evangelised for GGK any time I’ve created an opportunity.

Have you read The Lions of Al-Rassan? If you have let me know what you thought. If not then go read it!




The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m having an interesting time at the moment with books that shouldn’t work for me but do. On Monday I wrote about Steve Aylett’s The Inflatable Volunteer, which shouldn’t work because it’s such a wild, surreal mess, but which I love. But the example I want to write about today is very different.


Following recommendations from several people I’ve started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. It’s a secondary world fantasy in the style of medieval Spain, nicely written, with a rich setting and intriguing characters.

GGK lions

The thing about it that wouldn’t normally work for me is the way that setting is delivered. Kay has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into developing this world, and wants to explain it. There’s quite a bit of exposition early on, explaining the different social and religious groups and the political turmoil that’s engulfing the region. Normally I grind my teeth at such blatant info dumps. So why am I enjoying this so much?

Text and texture

I think there are three things carrying me through.

One is Kay’s prose. It’s beautifully written without being full of literary flourishes, so it keeps me engaged and carries me smoothly through. It’s pleasing but not pleased with itself, meaning that I’m never bored and never distracted by it.

Then there are the characters. They’re in interesting positions that illustrate how the world works and that make me want to see what will happen to them. They’ve got edge without slipping into dark, brooding cliche. I’ll put up with quite a lot for that.

But most important is the world itself. It’s unique and interesting. Having studied this period of history I can see what Kay is drawing on, the parallels with the major religions and wars of Spain in the middle ages. And I can see that he’s using that to create a secondary world that stands out from the rest, both in its different shape and its rich details. I’d sit and read articles about a world like this, so I’m certainly happy to read some exposition.

Old ground broken well

It strikes me that what Kay is doing isn’t necessarily all that ground breaking. Smooth, clear prose, interesting characters and a well developed world are fundamentals of good fantasy writing. What this book shows is that, if you do really well in some areas you can ignore others, like avoiding swathes of exposition.

Obviously I’m not at the point where I can start breaking the rules. You’ve got to be very good to get away with that. And Guy Gavriel Kay is very good. This is a fabulous book, and you really should read it.

Oh, and if you want more to ponder about backplot and explaining your world, check out everwalker’s most recent blog post.

Reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I enjoyed reading The Final Empire, the first of Brandon Sanderson‘s Mistborn books.. It’s not in my list of all-time greatest reads, but it’s a fun tale well told, and I got to the end despite its epic length. This comes as a relief, given how much I like Sanderson’s writing advice – I’d have had a lot of re-learning to do if one of my favourite writing guides turned out to be a shmuck.

Final Empire

A world builder’s book

This is clearly the work of someone who loves world building. That has a lot of advantages. The background and mechanisms of the world are elaborately and consistently worked out. As you learn about the society and magic nothing feels out of the blue or incongruous – it all makes sense. There was slightly more direct explanation than I needed, characters explaining to each other how everything worked, but that was included as smoothly as it can be, and was always important to the development of the plot.

Not really a heist story

Sanderson has said that he intended this to be a heist story. I can see that intention in the book – the protagonists spend the book planning a caper/revolution, but I think this story was actually something else.

The heist stories I’m used to are films. They’re lean and snappy, rattling along without giving you time to consider their logic. There might be lots of set-up but its never padded out, and characterisation mostly comes through action.

Epic fantasy is in many ways the opposite of that. It takes time to explore its world and characters, to expand upon details and create a sense of wonder, to pause and let you consider how things work. That’s no better or worse than a heist story, it’s just different.

This is definitely epic fantasy, and so while it contains many elements of a heist story, it never feels like one. It’s a quest full of criminals.

Hint of cheese

The story has its inter-personal cliches, and the big twists didn’t surprise me. This isn’t to say that they were wildly telegraphed, just what you’d expect given the story, characters and set-up. I found them satisfying but not novel. After seeing them coming for so long, I would have preferred to be wrong in a way that made sense, but at least it wasn’t some terrible ‘gotcha!’ twist.

Lessons learned

So, what have I learned from this book as a writer?

Firstly, think through the implications of your world. Sanderson does a fantastic job of this, and it’s what has me interested to read the next book. It means that the characters, plot and setting fit seamlessly and satisfyingly together.

Be careful about modern idioms. The characters talk in an informal way that doesn’t try to create something antiquated and olde worlde, which was mostly great. But just occasionally – literally three times in 643 pages – there were phrases that felt too modern, and that jolted me out of the scene. That was a real shame, but so easy to do. I wonder how far that’s a matter of the writing and how far it’s a matter of my personal perspective, but it’s still a useful lesson.

You can get away with a lot with likeable characters. Seriously, I would never have got through this thing if the characters hadn’t been both likeable and quite interesting. I’d have liked to see more edge from some of them, and more depth in others, but in the end I wanted to spend more time with them, and that’s a good thing.

Final thought

Up until now I’ve kept it spoiler free. So unless you’ve read the book, or don’t intend to, now’s the time to stop.

So, the final twist in Kelsier’s plan – I couldn’t help but see that as a commentary on religion. I mean, here’s a man of magical power letting himself be put to death to inspire others to a greater good. But when you read it, did you feel that it cast a cynical or an optimistic light on religion? Was it saying ‘hey, look how a messiah can inspire people’, or was it saying ‘hey, this guy just manipulated people into building his cult’? I’m pretty sure Sanderson intended it as optimistic – he’s a Mormon, so not likely to be too cynical about religion – but did it feel that way to you?

And on that note, I shall get back to work. Then maybe some more reading – I have two more Mistborn novels waiting on the shelf. In the meantime I’d be interested to hear what others think of the book – leave your comments below.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

I’ve been meaning to read Rivers of London for a while. I’m intrigued by the idea of hidden cities lurking beneath our own, both literally and metaphorically, and this looked like it would play on that theme. I’ve not read much urban fantasy, but this looked fun and a bit different, and I’m familiar enough with London for that to add to my interest. I don’t know how original this is by comparison with other fantasies in modern settings, but it worked for me.

Rivers of London follows policeman Peter Grant as he’s drawn into a world of supernatural danger and politicing. It’s rich and convincing in its detail, including that on police life and London’s history. I don’t know if it would stand up to an expert in those fields, but I’m no expert, and Aaronovitch convinced me he knew what he was doing. In fact, that was one of the biggest lessons I learned from this book as a writer – do more research. The throw-away details and the real-sounding depiction of the nuances of police life really sucked me in, even when dealing with the unreal.

Story-wise, this was pretty familiar. An apprentice drawn into an exotic life, growing out from beneath the wings of his master. A mysterious power to be thwarted. A crime with limited suspects. A hint of love triangle on the side. Nothing innovative, but nothing wrong with that. The parts combined well, it was easy to follow and cracked along at a good pace.

And strangely, I’m struggling for more to say. There was nothing that stood out as wrong with this book, and nothing that leapt out and made me go ‘holy cow, I must talk about that!’ It was good enough that I’ll probably read more Peter Grant books, and at the end of the day, isn’t that a success for a novel?

Overall, worth reading. I enjoyed it, I’ve learned a bit, now on to the next story.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?

Lessons learned – A Writer’s Guide to Characterisation by Victoria LynnSchmidt

This is the third of Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s writerly ‘how to’ books that I’ve read, and the things I found useful about it are very similar to the previous two books. I doubt that it’s breaking deep new ground with its approach, but it’s useful for me, and will be one I’ll refer back to a lot over the next year.

A Writer's Guide To Characterisation - available in soothing mint green
A Writer’s Guide To Characterisation – available in soothing mint green

A Writer’s Guide to Characterisation builds on the archetypes Schmidt gave in her previous 45 Master Characters. These archetypes are designed as bases for characters who will click with an audience, and the first half of the book looks at how the archetypes interact with each other. Schmidt discusses how these archetypes are likely to see each other, how they will cooperate and how they’ll clash. I took some issue with the division into male interactions, female interactions and romantic interactions – as if only male-female relationships can be romantic, and they can’t be any other way – but I understand that Schmidt’s providing shortcuts in a limited page count, so I’ll cut her some slack. The romance could be added or removed from these relationships while still making use of Schmidt’s guidance. If you’ve read 45 Master Characters, then it’s a useful appendix to that.

The second half of the book gives a new set of archetypes, based around animals and loosely grounded in Jungian psychology. These aren’t substitutes for the previous archetypes, but something that could be used just as readily with them as instead of them. Rather than focusing on classic fictional personality types, these focus on the character’s theme, purpose and arc. While this isn’t totally detached from the character’s personality, it did remind me that the two aren’t the same. You could write three similar protector characters but give each a very different story by making one learn about trust, one about freedom, and one about patriotism. I don’t think I’ll be looking at these as often as the previous 45 models, which I use for most of my characters, but I will use them.

I ended up with two main lessons from this book. One’s familiar – frameworks and archetypes can be useful. If you treat them as a support rather than a restriction, then they can provide shortcuts on some aspects of a character, freeing you up to think about the other details. If you know where you’re starting from, they can also raise the right questions to give your character depth.

The other lesson was that a character’s personality and motivation aren’t the same as the arc, the changes they’ll go through and lessons they’ll learn from the story. Having options in a book will help me not to use the most obvious arc for each character, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Now excuse me, I have a chapter to go write. But before I do, I should consider whether my heroine’s character arc fits the archetypes of a horse or a whale.

Watching creations grow

Jeph Jacques, creator of the Questionable Content web comic, was on the most recent Writing Excuses podcast. Writing Excuses (which I’ll abbreviate to WE, because it’s sooo loooong to type) is my favourite podcast, and Questionable Content (QC, same reason) my favourite web comic right now. Listening to them talk got me thinking about how much I enjoy seeing someone creative grow into their creations.

I discovered QC last year. At the time, I was in the depths of some pretty serious depression, and my brain couldn’t cope with anything too challenging in structure or content. Web comics, with their short daily format, their humour and their often soap opera-esque plots, were the perfect entertainment for me. And among the ones I tried, QC stood out as something special. I went back to the beginning and read about two thousand strips in hours-long binges. It was sharply written and increasingly well drawn, funny in a barbed yet gentle sort of way, with characters who were rounded and interesting.

One of the best things was watching Jeph’s skills grow. This is really noticeable in the art, which has been through a huge evolution in terms of style and technique. The first few hundred strips show a dramatic improvement, while later ones show shifts in style that, as a non-artist, I find hard to describe, but which are interesting to watch. I wasn’t just enjoying the comics, I was enjoying watching an artist learn and improve on the screen in front of me.

The writing has also grown as QC’s gone along. There’s an incredible diversity of characters, all of whom develop into fully rounded people as soon as they’re given attention. Jeph’s got better at both dialogue and plotting, and discussed the latter on WE. One thing he talked about was going back to little details that weren’t significant at the time – in his case isolated comic strips – and using them in later plots, making it look like you’ve set things up well in advance. It’s a good idea, and one I suspect we often see on TV, even when the creators claim they had a plan (I’m looking at you Lost).

To a lesser extent, you can also hear an improvement in the episodes of WE. The group of writers who talk on the show have got better at working with their format, delivering their points more eloquently and succinctly, adding features like writing prompts. It’s less dramatic than watching QC’s development, but it’s still interesting, as is the content of the shows – if you write any sci-fi or fantasy, you really should listen to WE.

I also get this experience with my friend Matt, who’s a talented artist of odd little things. He recently started working on a comic, and included me in the group of people who see his work in progress. While I’m terrible at giving feedback, it’s been really interesting for me to see an artist develop in detail and to read his comments on what he’s trying to do. You can see his work, much of it about ghostly bears, and read his thoughts on computer games at his Bear Cheek blog.

Jeph’s writing aside, these are examples where I’m watching people develop skills that I don’t use. But I’ve found that it still helps me to learn, because it encourages me to work out how their work is changing, and why, and so to flex the parts of my brain that deconstruct any piece of culture. That’s a skill I can take back to my writing, looking at it with a sharpened critical eye.

As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Can you think of other good examples of creative types developing their skills in public? Maybe examples you’re particularly impressed with? Let me know in the comments.

Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long Earth

Yesterday, I finished reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. I’m a huge Pratchett fan, and was really looking forward to reading this, but it’s left me with mixed feelings. I don’t know how much that stems from my experience of writing, or how much I just understand it better because of that.

First up, all the good stuff. This is a great piece of world building. Or worlds building, given that it’s a story about travel across multiple worlds. We get flashes of exotic settings, chases with boar-riding chimps, forests as vast as the imagination. The social and economic consequences are well thought through – of course large parts of England would become depopulated if you could just step into another world. Who’d choose Hackney over Eden?

There are some interesting characters – Lobsang the computer reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist being the stand-out example. The writing is clear and un-fussy, really letting the story flow, though that does make the occasional Pratchettism feel out of place.

But the bit I struggled with was the plot. After the initial set-up, not a huge amount seemed to change. Different worlds and places were introduced, but they didn’t significantly shape events. The main character, Joshua, went along for the ride with Lobsang but lacked any sense of purpose himself. They seldom seemed in real danger of being thwarted in their mission of exploration.

Meanwhile small sub-plots popped up in the background, almost entirely detached from the main story. And while they came together in the end it was in a fairly token way, with the three strands not affecting each others’ outcomes.

The end result was a pleasant read, but one that left me feeling dissatisfied. This is clearly set-up for a series, but 350 pages is a long time to spend on set-up. I enjoyed it, and will probably read the sequel that’s out this year, but I wouldn’t re-read it, unlike most of Pratchett’s other books.

What I don’t know is how much my response to this is shaped by writing plot. If I’d read this five years ago would I have thought it was brilliant? Or would I have had the same feeling of dissatisfaction, but been unable to articulate where it came from? I don’t know, and I’m curious about that.

So if you’re reading this, and you’ve also read The Long Earth, let me know what you think. It may help me disentangle my own thoughts.