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.

Empire by Profound Decisions – that’s what I call world building

Writing about working with the core of your world has got me thinking again about world building. We talk about this a lot in fantasy and science fiction literature, but one of the best examples I’ve seen doesn’t come from books. It’s a wiki for a live roleplay game. So today I’m going to enthuse about Empire.

EmpireBanner

A damn fine game

Empire is a fantasy live roleplaying (LRP) game run by Profound Decisions (PD). It’s a game designed for thousand of players, set in the high fantasy world of an empire on the verge of collapse, with barbarian orcs battering at its borders, the empress dead, and internal machinations capable of tearing the whole thing down.

To support the game, PD have written and published a huge background wiki. This gives the people playing their game an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the world, creating something that’s complex, consistent and completely engrossing. For a LRP, this is great for creating immersion and atmosphere – a point Matt Pennington, PD’s founder, talks about so eloquently that I’ve cited him when writing about teaching.

The aims of a LRP background are somewhat different from those of world building for a novel, but there’s also a lot that’s the same, and that’s what I want to look at here.

Working from what’s known

As long as there has been fantasy literature it has taken features from the real world and from established mythology, using them as shortcuts to evoke atmosphere. If an author shows you a world of samurai and ninjas, you immediately fill in a lot of the gaps around them – geisha, robes, minimalist furniture, translucent partition walls, whatever says medieval Japan to you.

Empire uses that. By creating nations that seem familiar, such as evoking Medieval English yeomanry in the earthy Marchers, they let your brain fill a lot of gaps.

But they don’t just present you with real things. Where would the fantastic be in that? They mix it up, showing how these countries are different from the ones we know, how their magic and history make them distinctive. It’s not some hotchpotch re-enactment of the past – it’s something fresh derived from it.

Working out the detail

One of the things I most admire in China Miéville’s writing is his clear grasp on the deeper structures of his worlds – the economic, social and political elements that hold them up. This applies in Empire as well. Each nation has its own culture, costume, magical traditions, social hierarchy, military structures, and so on and so on. You can even hear what sort of music they like to make, and read about how they treat children. It’s an extrapolation from the starting point of each nation, just like Chew extrapolates from food super-powers, and it’s fantastic. It’s a depth and richness of background that’s pretty much incomparable in its detail.

Which results in…

Of course, by running a game for all those people, PD stop being the sole authors of their world. Every single player contributes. And it’s those players who take this material and, like Layman and Guillory in Chew, push it in all sorts of logical but crazy directions, bringing the world to life.

As a player, I initially found it intimidating. But then I realised that, as with the background to a well written fantasy novel, I didn’t need to know it all. In the same way that a novel can give you just enough information to be getting on with, and let you learn the rest as you go along, this wiki let me learn just enough to get started, then soak up the rest from the atmosphere other players created.

Even if you’re never going near the game of Empire, give their wiki a look. It’s a great example of world building, peeking into what’s hidden behind many authors’ story telling. If you’re the sort of person who likes to read guides to Middle Earth, or who buys D&D supplements just to read about the cities and monsters, then you’ll love this.

Something to get your teeth into – Chew’s world building

Having raved yesterday about TV writing that explores the core concepts of its world, I was reminded of a good example from comics, one that takes its concept and pushes it in all sorts of brilliant directions – Chew.

The comic that bites off more

If you’re not heavily into comics then you probably haven’t heard of Chew. Written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, it tells the story of Tony Chu, a government agent with a strange power – whatever he eats, he gains its memories. If he eats an apple, he remembers growing in the warmth of the sun, being dappled by the rain, what the hand felt like that eventually picked him. If he eats a piece of bacon, he gets the slaughterhouse experience, in all its pain and horror.

Tony Chu doesn’t eat a lot of meat.

Chew1Coverrevised

But Chu’s world, and the centrality of food to it, goes beyond his own power. There’s a crisis going on around bird flu, illegal chicken restaurants, poultry substitutes, and a growing level of food-related weirdness. This makes Tony, and the small handful of other people with food-related powers, really quite important.

Different powers, different directions

Layman and Guillory haven’t just created one novelty and rested on their imaginative laurels. They’ve taken that core concept – a super powered world that revolves around food – and explored it in all sorts of different ways.

There are a wide range of people with different food related powers. And it’s not just the obvious – everyone experiencing food memories through their different senses, or all gathering information from food, or being empowered by it in different ways. There’s a character who can list every ingredient in the food he tastes. Another who writes about food so realistically that readers feel like they’re experiencing it. Someone who reads the future of anyone she bites.

And a super-spy chicken, because poultry is huge in Chew, and why shouldn’t the food get the powers sometimes?

Repercussions

They’ve thought through the repercussions of all this food related madness. Government departments with a food remit have become hugely influential and heavily armed. There are food-inspired terrorists, rebellions, cults and conspiracies. There are even meta-powers, food-powered individuals feeding off their peers.

The core concept of the comic seeps into every idea in the story, every panel of the art. It’s rich and fantastic and completely consistent, despite its wild and crazy content.

You should read Chew because it’s awesome. But if you’re interested in how good world building works when it’s built around a single theme, then pick up a copy and read it for that too. Because Chew is amazing.

Back to the core of the story – a great week of TV

I watch my TV online through channels’ streaming sites and Netflix, to avoid the schedules and the adverts. Also because I tend to forget that stuff’s on. So over the weekend, I ended up watching last week’s Misfits as well as Agents of SHIELD. They were both great episodes relative to their shows – though Misfits, being Misfits, was far more interesting – and they both acted as reminders for me of how important it is to stay true to the core of the world you’re exploring.

Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.
Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.

Spoilers ahead for both shows. Just saying.

Agents of SHIELD

I know some people have been down on this episode. But for me, it focused on the things the show originally promised – how living in a superhero world affects ordinary people, and connecting up with the Marvel movieverse.

The whole plot stems from the actions of a group of fire fighters who helped clear up the mess in New York after the Avengers film. They’ve been through a lot just doing that, and naturally enough they’ve taken a souvenir. It was a great reminder that somebody has to clear up after the destruction of these superpowered showdowns. That that’s hard, sometimes heart breaking work. And that, for the people involved, it would be a huge moment in their lives.

The souvenir, an alien helmet sitting in a fire station, was also emblematic of the exotic element entering ordinary people’s lives. Of the sense of wonder those fire fighters felt seeing beings that had come from another world. Of just how brightly that moment must have shone for them compared with their ordinary lives. And of the fact that something that powerful, that exotic, can also be dangerous.

This was followed up in the second half of the show when Simmons became infected by the virus on the helmet. She was all excited about science, and then she was facing her own death. Because she was ultimately just a scientist, and she’d been infected by something from another world. The way she handled that almost had Mrs K crying.

So what looked like a mystery of the week became an exploration of the show’s themes and the nature of its world, and that was great.

Misfits

To my mind, Misfits has been upping its game all through this series, following the wobbles of the last one. It’s getting properly focused on its own core theme and the point of its world – slightly rubbish super powers possessed by slightly rubbish people.

This week they explored that theme in a big way, paying off the promise of Abby’s mysterious background. Who was this girl who couldn’t remember her past? Who had she been before the storm? And, from the more meta perspective of the audience, why was she in the show if she didn’t have a super power?

The answer paid off both promise and theme beautifully – Abby wasn’t a real person. She was someone’s imaginary friend, the output of that person’s power. She was, in essence, no-one. And, as a result, she lost what was becoming the great romantic relationship of her life.

It was heartbreaking. But in true Misfits style, this wasn’t made maudlin, but delivered with a flurry of sex gags and inappropriate behaviour. The episode was both beautiful and hilarious, and a reminder that the people society treats as hopeless and unimportant can have as deep and powerful feelings as anybody else.

Just goes to show

For me as a writer, this was a reminder not to get too distracted. To remember the core theme of the world I’m writing within, and make the whole story an expression of that. And also that superpowered stories don’t have to be just crash-bang-wallop.

So, if you got through all my ramblings, did you watch those shows? And what did you think?

 

Picture by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr creative commons

World building

Adrian Tchaikovsky recently wrote an interesting piece about world building for Fantasy Book Critic, in which he challenged a sort of snobbery that exists against the art of world building. It’s a good piece, and got me thinking about what world building involves, and how we can perhaps look at it in a more sophisticated way.

When we talk about world building in science fiction and fantasy, we’re usually talking about the work the author does in creating the setting for their book. Whether it’s extrapolating technology, detailing magic systems, or scrawling a map across your office wall, it’s creating the background to the story. It’s fun and creative and immensely satisfying, and if you’re not careful it can eat up all your writing time. It’s the author let their imagination run wild.

But is this really just a genre thing? When F Scott Fitzgerald invented West Egg, filling it with wild parties and houses such as Gatsby’s, wasn’t that an act of world building? When Hardy dreamed of Wessex, fictionalising its towns and countryside, wasn’t he building his own world? Casterbridge might be based on Dorchester, but for all the blue plaques on the walls of Dorchester, there is no real Casterbridge.

Seriously, Dorchester, he didn't live there. Because he wasn't real. (photo courtesy of Elliot Brown via Flickr creative commons attribution licence)
Seriously, Dorchester, he didn’t live there. Because he wasn’t real.
(photo courtesy of Elliot Brown via Flickr creative commons attribution licence)

When looked at that way, fantasy world building is an extension of something all writers do, and the disdain in which some people hold it seems even more absurd. Sure, getting caught up in it at the expense of actually writing is a problem, but if it’s a problem you’re having fun with then is that all bad?

But here’s what I really wanted to get at. Whether you’re writing The Great Gtasby or Empire in Black and Gold, world building is actually two separate activities. There’s building the world in the author’s head (and notebooks, and wikis, and office walls). But after that comes building it in the reader’s head, getting that world across.

While the first stage of world building is an act of imagination, the second is an act of craft, using writerly skills to portray the world so well that the reader can reconstruct it from your words. In a sense, the reader is the world builder here, but the writer is the one giving them the materials to build it from. That’s an incredibly challenging thing to do, the more so if the world is very different from our own. It involves a different set of skills from what we usually talk about when we say world building, but it’s just as vital to the process. And if this part doesn’t work, then all that building in the author’s mind will just go to waste.

Better understanding world building leaves us better equipped to defend it as a part of writing, and to do it well ourselves. If we accept the critical depiction of it as something only fantasy authors do, and something that’s separate from the actual writing, then we’re already conceding half the argument, and limiting our own understanding. Like most things, the better we understand it, the better off we are.

What do you think? Do you enjoy world building, as an author, as a reader, as a way to pass the time? What examples of world building do you particularly like? Leave a comment, let the world know.