Fun Pulp Action: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

I like a deep, solid book. The twisted literary architecture of Gormenghast. The brief, stunning beauty of The Great Gatsby. But sometimes I want something pacey and enjoyable, something that provides the sort of accessible action long associated with pulp fiction. And that’s what drew me into the second of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, Fool Moon.

Urban Fantasy Chicago Style

Fool Moon is a product of a very modern genre – urban fantasy. The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard for hire in modern Chicago, balancing his struggling finances with his noble instincts through work for the police force. When a series of brutal murders show every sign of being committed by werewolves, Dresden becomes part of the investigation. Soon there are monsters, gangsters and even the police on his tale, and all he has to save him is a gun, a magic amulet and his trusty posing coat.

OK, he doesn’t call it a posing coat, but we all know that’s what long coats are for. Sherlock doesn’t have his because it’s practical, he has it because it looks damn cool.

I haven’t read much urban fantasy, but to me Butcher seems to do a good job of combining the elements of modern life and fantasy adventure. The workings of the police, criminals and local politics aren’t just background, they’re integral to the plot. The monsters and magic aren’t just added colour for a detective story, they’re also central. Together, these make a fascinating mix.

The Unchanging Adventurer

Fool Moon also dips into an older literary tradition – that of the pulp serials, escapist fiction in which action is prioritised over character progress.

I wrote a while back about how you might structure such a serial, and it’s reassuring to find that Butcher, one of the most successful writers in this style, uses many of those tricks. The illusion of progress is created by setting Harry Dresden back at the start of the story, so that when things come good at the end it seems like a step forward, even though he’s essentially where he was at the start of the last book. There’s a romance that similarly jumps through positive and negative hoops before ending up back where it was. There’s an ongoing villain in the form of gangster Johnny Marconi, as well as immediate menaces who appear and are dealt with within this one book.

Harry Dresden’s life doesn’t need to change for his adventures to be entertaining. Which is a good thing, because Dresden as a character seems as resistant to change as his world. Butcher has done a great job of creating a character whose looping life makes sense.

All the Clichés!

Lets be clear – none of the elements in this book are terribly original in and of themselves. From the noire-style succession of hot ladies in Harry’s life, to the gangster the law can’t touch, to the eventual solution hung in pride of place like Chekhov’s Gun at the start of the story.

To me, this isn’t a story with a deep message or something new to say. But it’s a lot of fun, and worth it for that.

Bonus points go to the audiobook of it I listened to, which had James Marsters doing the reading. He suits the story very well, and mercifully doesn’t have to revive his British accent from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Audiobooks, Reading and How to Talk About Books

Not the sort of books you can listen to
Not the sort of books you can listen to

If there’s one thing most readers love as much as reading, it’s talking about the books we read. Whether it’s presenting theories on Jon Snow’s parentage or discussing which is our favourite Pratchett book, we all do it. But that’s become a little tricky linguistically.

Reading With Your Ears

For over a year now, I’ve dabbled in the Sword and Laser reading group on Goodreads. It’s a great place to find out about interesting books and to discuss them with other readers. It’s made me aware of a trend I’d never noticed before – referring to listening to audiobooks as ‘reading’.

When people want to discuss the experience of taking in a particular book, whether by reading, listening or a combination of the two, it’s become common to use ‘reading’ to refer to the experience in general. We don’t have another word that covers it, and that’s become the default. But it can occasionally be confusing, as it turns out that someone has been ‘reading’ a book without ever looking at a single line on a page or screen.

Does it Matter?

This came up in a discussion with fellow speculative fiction author Rita de Heer about one of my previous posts. As Rita pointed out, the way we take in stories changes the experience. An audiobook gives you around 150-160 words per minute, while an average silent reader will take in and understand 250-300 words. Proof reading might take you to 200 wpm, depending on the quality of the work, but we go a lot faster when reading novels.

Then there’s the fact that an audiobook adds another person to your experience of the story. The quality of narration can add to or detract from the experience. I love listening to James Marsters reading the Dresden Files books (review of one coming up next week), but there’s no denying that I’d imagine Harry Dresden differently without that voice.

So Is It Reading?

We need a word to refer to taking in stories whatever the format, as it’s still the same story and we want to discuss it with ease. Until we come up with something else, ‘reading’ is going to have to do. But if we want to appreciate the subtleties of how reading works and what it means, we need to remember that there’s a difference between reading and, well, reading.

Do you refer to audiobooks as ‘reading’? Do you have another word to cover all ways of experiencing stories? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.

Pleading Poverty: An Easy Way to Motivate Characters

5659908590_a2fb90dfc0_zGoing to see Little Shop of Horrors, it struck me was that the play uses one of the all time classic character motivations – poverty.

Skid Row Survivors

Most of the characters in Little Shop of Horrors are poor people living in a poor neighbourhood. While this isn’t the only thing motivating Seymour, the story’s protagonist, it’s an important one. It drives him to seek fame and fortune when the opportunity arises, even at a terrible cost.

It’s also the motive for many other characters in stories, from Harry Dresden’s ongoing struggle to pay his bills through to Oliver Twist’s need just to get fed.

Because of Necessity, Dumby

The reason this happens so often is obvious once you think about it. Poverty prevents us from attending to even our most basic needs – food, shelter, warmth. A poor character can be motivated to all sorts of actions to survive. A poor character with principles can easily be given internal conflict, as the needs of survival clash with those principles. Just look at Seymour, forced to take increasingly grisly steps to retain the monstrous Audrey Two and his ticket out of the slums.

Poverty drives conflict, for characters at least.

Sure, it’s an easy option, but it’s one that works. By definition, half the population has less wealth than average, and there are always people struggling to survive. Just because all these characters are driven by poverty doesn’t mean that their lives and struggles will be the same.

Penny for the Writer?

If you want to help a struggling writer avoid poverty at no cost to yourself, please go download a copy of my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, free on the Kindle until the end of tomorrow. Those free downloads will help to raise the book’s profile on Amazon, even more so if you leave a rating once you’ve read the book, and will make me money in the long run. Keep an eye out in there for ‘Day Labour’, another story of poverty and carnivorous plants, though a very different one from Little Shop of Horrors.

Picture by Aaron Patterson via Flickr Creative Commons.

A Dresden Files example of ‘show don’t tell’

It had been my mother’s – my father had passed it down to me.

– Jim Butcher – Storm Front

That quote might seem like a pretty innocuous piece of writing, but it caught my attention as I was listening to the Storm Front audiobook. Why? Because I think it’s a good example of what we mean when we say ‘show don’t tell’.

Not such a new series any more.

As Victoria Grefer has pointed out, there isn’t really a clear divide between show and tell, and there’s some merit to both. But for me, the value of showing lies in replacing exposition with implication. I love fantasy literature, but sometimes when authors try to cram in the backstory of their world or characters it comes across like a thinly disguised exert from a text book. I don’t want that, I want story, and I want it smoothly and efficiently told. I want the world revealed through actions, dialogue and naturally occurring thought, not dumped out in paragraphs that break the flow.

Look at what Butcher’s done in that sentence. He’s shown us, in just thirteen words, that the item under discussion has sentimental value for Harry Dresden, his lead character. He’s shown us that Harry’s mother is dead, probably died too young to pass things down to Harry. That somewhere along the line Harry’s father has been his lone parent. He’s shown us that this is an item of personal value beyond its material or magical worth. And of course he’s told us how Harry got the item.

Any time you show you have to tell something. The showing comes in the other details that are revealed in the cracks between your words.

I’m not holding Storm Front up as some kind of master class for writers, though its popularity shows it’s doing something right. Heck, I haven’t even got to the end yet – my audiobook listening it regularly interrupted by fascinating podcasts. But sometimes you can learn a lot from examining one line.

Do you have a favourite line, one that you’ve written or that you’ve read, that you think carries a valuable lesson or demonstrates what ‘show don’t tell’ means to you? Why not share it below?