Where my book life was born

I’m sitting in my dad’s dining room, next to shelves full of his books. It’s made me realise what a huge influence he’s been on my taste in literature. There are piles of science fiction, fantasy, alternative history and historical fiction. There are factual history books, the ones that led me to spend six years studying the subject. Somewhere around here is a book mapping out all the journeys in Lord of the Rings, which triggered my interest in old and fantastical maps – it’s no coincidence that I had the Discworld on my ceiling as a teenager.

Dad’s DVD collection is the same. Historical epics, fantasy adventures, sci-fi spectaculars. It’s through Dad that I appreciate Star Wars and El Cid, Star Trek and Shane.

Dad’s undoubtedly the biggest influence on my reading and writing life, and I’m very grateful to him for that. He showed me that stories don’t have to be real to be relevant, that the past is a fascinating place, and that even pacifists can enjoy action stories.

Who made the biggest influence on your taste in stories? Was it a parent, a relative, a friend? What books did they hook you in with? Leave a comment, share your memories.

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Communists by Gideon Defoe

I love Defoe’s Pirates books. I love the film based on the first one. I love their wacky antics. I love how little relation they bear to real pirates. I love the strange historical mishmash and the fantastical elements. I love the way my nieces have started playing at being the Pirate Captain, complete with luxuriant beard.

So when I found this book hidden like buried treasure in the children’s section of the St Ives Oxfam shop, I was pretty excited.

Top of the heap in my holiday reading pile
Top of the heap in my holiday reading pile

 

Kids books for adults

One of the central gags of the Pirates books is that they’re written much like children’s books. The prose is simple, the focus on dialogue and action rather than thought and emotion, and there’s a complete disregard for many expectations adults bring to a book.

But I’ve never thought that these were really children’s books. Sure, children can enjoy the wacky adventures, but how many of them will get jokes about Marxism and Moby Dick, or about the romantic feelings of the pirates?

These are stories that say ‘who cares if you’re an adult, don’t you want some silliness and child-like delight?’ To which I say heck yes. I love stories that progress from ham night through to 19th century philosophical giants wrestling on the rim of a volcano. I don’t always need things to make sense, but I often want them to be fun.

Defining delight

A brief aside here, much like the footnotes in Defoe’s book.

The delight I feel reading a book like this is very different from the delight I feel reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium. The latter is a deep, powerful emotion that puts me in touch with the wonder of the world around me and makes me see everything with fresh eyes. The delight of The Pirates is a light, frothy thing that puts a skip in my step and makes me laugh out loud. They share the same name, but they’re very different feelings, and both wonderful in their own way.

Take that genre!

One of my favourite things about children’s books is that they are less bound by genre expectations than adult ones. That feeling that anything goes is replicated here. It’s not that the book sets out to expand genre boundaries and conventions, it just ignores them. It’s OK for romanticised seventeenth century pirates to roam the streets of Victorian London, spend time in literary salons and attend an opera with a steampunk finale. Things aren’t explained, they don’t make sense, but they are always fun.

Yaarh me hearties

I’m sure you get the idea by now. This is a silly book, but one written in a smart way. It’s a lot of fun, and if you’re looking for a light, easy read it’s well worth it.

What have I learnt from it as a writer? Mostly that you can get away without much explanation if you’re funny enough. Which isn’t much help as I don’t write comedy, but it’s worth knowing.

Anyone else read it? What did you think?

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

I love to see and hear about the process of creating art. Whether it’s writing, painting, acting, sculpting or any of the other limitless expressions of human creativity, understanding how it is achieved fascinates me.

During our recent trip to Cornwall, Laura and I got to see inside an artist’s studio. We saw paintings in progress, tools of the trade, learned a little about how she developed her work. I was enraptured.

That feeling of living inside art, of seeing how it works and how it moves people, is something that Guy Gavriel Kay has captured beautifully in Sailing to Sarantium.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

Art and artisans

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of Caius Crispus, an expert mosaic maker. He lives in a world based on the eastern Mediterranean in the period a century or so after the fall of Rome. Following his artistic partner’s summons to go east and decorate the great dome of a temple being built in Sarantium, Crispin travels a rough road to a city of wonder and intrigue.

I loved how much we got into Crispin’s head as an artist. He sees the colours and contrasts in the world around him. He is overwhelmed by art when it is beautiful and he is thoughtful about its potential and flaws. He is an expert artisan, and the details of his knowledge and world view make him completely convincing in that role. They also helped me, as a reader, to understand the world as he saw it and to be drawn into his emotional world.

Other characters demonstrate similar levels of expertise – a grey-haired alchemist who has created unique wonders; a ruthless and wily political schemer turned emperor; the finest dancer in the city of Sarantium. Characters are often judged for their expertise and dedication to their field, and that dedication seems to be held up by the book as a good thing. But it is Crispin who carries us through the story.

Religion as construct

As with The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay explores religion as a social construct. We are given little clear indication as to the truth of the characters’ beliefs, but those beliefs are central to the story. From the forced converts continuing pagan sacrifices in the woods to the religious schisms restricting and enabling art, religion is a complicated matter, one that people shape.

Religion does not just happen to people in this book. There are moments of startling emotion that could be considered divine revelation, but it is up to the characters how to respond and what to believe. Religion is a choice, and this human, social representation of religion is one that I really enjoyed.

The sublime

For all that he peers behind the scenes of art and shows the human side of religious experience, Kay stills creates a sense of wonder. That wonder lies in how we are moved by art, by passion, by moments of human contact. That feeling left me utterly enthralled.

And though Kay lets us peer into the workings of the mosaic maker’s craft, he still left me bewildered and in awe at his own craft. This is a big book, and a slow paced one. Yet I remained passionately engaged throughout, fascinated by every moment, rushing towards each new page.

And I don’t know why.

Seriously, I spend hours every week listening to podcasts about writing, reading about writing, practising my own craft. And I still don’t know how, in technical detail and technique, he kept me so engaged in a book whose size and pacing would normally put me off.

As I read more of his books – next up is the sequel, Lord of Emperors – I hope to work at least some of this out. But for now I have experienced the pleasure both of learning a little more about an artist’s craft and of remaining in awe at the wonders that art can achieve.

That is some damn fine reading.

Other opinions are available

So, who else has read this? I know some of you have. What did you think? Did you enjoy it? Why? Or why not? What were your favourite elements? There’s space here for comments and discussion, please feel free to use it.

Re-punking your steam – three obscure slithers of Victorian history

Steampunk is fast becoming one of the main ways that modern culture interacts with our 19th century past. But for all the ‘punk’ in its name, it’s all too easily for steampunk to steer away from the radicalism of the punk aesthetic, to look only at a very mainstream view of history.

I’m not saying that this is always intentional. But like writers of fantasy and of historical fiction, steampunk writers take inspiration from the pieces of history made available to them, and that often leaves out the more interesting details, the more challenging subjects, the voices from the fringes of history.

As I’m currently reading a book on 19th century history* I thought I’d share a few bits that caught my attention, that I thought should be more widely known and maybe used for literary inspiration.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF_U4VGl1Jk&w=560&h=315]

 

Epilepsy

We all know that historical doctoring was often dubious, whether inspired by superstition or the latest scientific advances. US presidents Washington and Garfield both died as much from doctoring as from their maladies.

But the treatment of less well understood ailments could be shocking and downright bizarre. In the 1870s, New Jersey State Asylum staff sprayed patients with alcohol and set them on fire to see if they were faking epilepsy. Because epilepsy isn’t hard enough without some lighter-wielding lunatic burning off all your body hair in the name of truth. That kind of cruelty and incompetence has great potential for an antagonist.

Miners

Yes yes, I know, you’ve all heard how important mining was to the industrial revolution. But given the hundreds of thousands of people who worked down the mines, how much do you know about their lives?

Did you know, for example, that they were often highly superstitious? That makes sense when your life can be snuffed out without warning in a pit accident. Miners in the Durham coalfields of the 1840s wouldn’t go down the pit if they’d seen anything as strange and unlucky as a woman on their way to work. (yes, there’s a glaring gender issue there too – more on that subject later)

Or how about the fact that some miners were also terrorists? The Molly Maguires, a secret society fighting for workers’ rights in 1870s Pennsylvania and West Virginia, used arson, intimidation and assassination in their struggle for a better life, only to be brought down by a hired corporate spy.

Where are the bomb-throwing ghost-fearing miners in my fiction? (note to self – awesome character idea – go write that next)

Women

That really shouldn’t be a heading in an article on obscure bits of history, but women don’t get equal representation in our examination of the past. And how often do you see sexual inequality tackled head on rather than worked around in genre fiction? But until 1850 almost every state in the United States recognised a husband’s legal right to beat his wife. This in the nation founded on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On a lighter note Lucy Stone, the first American woman to keep her maiden name after marriage, financed herself through college, lectured on antislavery and in the 1850s helped organise some of the first women’s rights conventions. Bet she had to be stubborn as all hell to manage that in those days – story conflict potential aplenty.

And back to you

I’m not saying to throw away your mainstream histories, to forget 1066 and the founding of the Union and the French Revolution and all that jazz. I’m just saying next time you pick up a history book, and in particular next time you look to history for inspiration, try to find something new. Something a little more punk. It makes for more interesting fiction, and it makes sure that those under-represented voices don’t remain obscure.

What are your favourite interesting historical details? Who do you think doesn’t get enough attention? Leave a comment, share your views.

And for more great history tidbits, try Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.

 

* It’s the Reader’s Digest Life During the Industrial Revolution, picked up for a quid in a charity shop – see, finding interesting history is easy.

 

Willing ignorance

How far can we allow our characters or our narrative voices to be more ignorant than our readers?

I didn’t think this was a difficult question, but after listening to the latest episode of Writing Excuses I’m not so sure. In this episode they talk about the gap that sometimes exists between what the writer and reader knows of the world and what’s written on the page. I thought they were going to be talking about the dramatic potential in this, but instead they mostly discussed the pitfalls. The fact that, if a character says something inaccurate about science or a historical setting they’re living in, the reader may see this as ignorance on the author’s part and so be thrown out of the story.

True, sometimes this does reflect the author’s ignorance. But a lot of the time that’s not the case. Mary Robinette Kowal discussed a story she’d written in which a character was unaware of prejudices common in her setting. This was a deliberate move on her part as an author, and the book went on to address those prejudices and tensions. But for at least one reader she spoke with it became a block to reading the book. That ignorance on the character’s part seemed so implausible to her that she couldn’t go on with the story – she thought Mary was missing something crucial.

You can get around this sort of problem by lampshading it. Have the character be ignorant of something but have the narrative voice draw attention to that ignorance. But what if the character is providing the narrative voice? And how much lampshading can you do before that too becomes irksome to readers? Then it becomes much more difficult.

Of course this sort of gap can also be a powerful tool. Think of the dramatic ironies in J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, when characters at an early 20th century dinner party talk of the unsinkable of the Titanic and the impossibility of war in Europe. Or the tensions in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books that arise from Katniss’s lack of awareness of her own circumstances.

But writer beware – it seems you can’t just throw those ironies around with glee. Be careful what your readers will think of your writing skills and how that will colour their reading of the book.

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.

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!

Seriously.

Now.

Go.

Who are you calling unadventurous?

Fantasy literature is often accused of having a regressive or conservative tone as a genre. There’s an attitude among some commentators that it’s a way of retreating from real world issues, of romanticising aspects of the past without considering its dark truths. It’s an argument that’s extended to steampunk in this interesting but not entirely convincing piece I found via For Whom The Gear Turns.

I can see where people are coming from on this. A lot of fantasy and steampunk does romanticise certain aspects of the past, and of society in general. To generalise broadly about a hugely diverse genre, we tend to look at the nicer bits more than the really wretched ones, and to repeat a lot of the same features others look at. I’d love to read more steampunk that explores Victorian social and political trends like mass protest, social division, colonialism, the emergence of Marxism, or any of a hundred other things. I sometimes try to balance that in my writing. But it’s a small part of the published picture.

Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can't be fun?
Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can’t be fun?

However, to criticise fantasy or steampunk for under-representing these subjects is to miss an important point. What are we comparing the genre with? If it’s reality then yes, fair cop, things look whitewashed. But if it’s compared with other literature? Then I don’t think it’s a fair criticism.

Consider historical fiction. Does that address the whole range of historical experience in a balanced way? Certainly not. There are dozens of books in which the likes of Richard Sharpe fight the dastardly French, and almost none in which they steal people’s countries and subjugate their populations. Or how about the dark side of Victorian England? Sharpe’s Peterloo Massacre anyone?

How about literary fiction? Yes, some of it deals with problems of race and society, but an awful lot of it is navel gazing from a middle class, middle aged perspective. The experience of Britain’s disengaged modern underclass, while not absent, receives literary attention that’s nowhere near in proportion to the real balance of our country.

If fantasy or steampunk is, on average, quite unadventurous then that’s only because it’s like the rest of our culture. And if it weren’t for the more adventurous writers, carving out new niches on our bookshelves, then these genres would never exist in the first place. Yes, we should be more daring. But that’s not about fantasy or steampunk. That’s about people.

 

Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons

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.

Lions

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.