Highlights from ‘The Gathering Storm’

When I pushed to complete my scifi/fantasy novel, Vengeance Will Come, it was for professional reasons. I wanted to divert some time from writing into learning c# and polishing up my programming skills. In my next blog post I will reveal some of the early fruits of that work. (Hint: it’s Nerd-Author Fun on steroids).

For this post, I’ll share my highlights from The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson, book 12: The Gathering Storm. This book was released after Jordan’s death, and completed by Sanderson (working with Jordan’s notes) to finish the series. It is my opinion that Brandon has done a wonderful job in giving readers the end of the series, admirably trying to imitate the series’ voice. As per usual to keep the size of the post manageable I’ve selected only those quotes I liked the most.

I found it a great surprise that on the very day I published my scifi/fantasy novel: Vengeance Will Come, I later read this passage:

…ignore this insult, Corana. Vengeance will come. Once this war is… (page 257)

What’s the chances of that? 🙂

There is humour which beautifully occurs over multiple pages. Everyone has sat on a chair before and wondered how long it is going to be before they collapse, or if they’ll be able to get out of it. Camping chairs are particularly notorious. It’s something 99% of readers can relate to. First the set up, with a funny description of the chair’s craftsman:

Mat asked, still suspicious as he seated himself on the pillowed bench. He hated the thing; it was completely impossible to sit on it in any way that was comfortable. Pillows didn’t help. Somehow, they made the seat more awkward. Bloody thing must have been designed by insane, cross-eyed Trollocs and built from the bones of the damned. That was the only reasonable explanation. (Page 588)

Notice how the funny description is reinforced by it being “the only reasonable explanation.” The story then continues, and the last paragraph in the scene returns to the humble bench for a final laugh:

Mat tucked the folded paper into his belt, then started to leave. ‘And have somebody burn that bloody bench. I can’t believe we carted the thing this far.’ (Page 597)

In book 12 Egwene really develops as the head of the Aes Sedai, the Amrilyn Seat. We see how her earlier time with Aiel is used to fashion her and help her to overcome Elaida’s punishment as she embraces pain, and is able to laugh through it. Multiple books worth of adventure and experience are beginning to make sense and we see how they fit into the narrative of the character arcs and broader story. The loose threads of the story are being woven together before our eyes.

‘You are a coward and a tyrant. I’d name you Darkfriend as well, but I suspect that the Dark One would perhaps be embarrassed to associate with you.’ (Page 283)

Plus some great descriptors:

  • The monster was a nightmare, given a body and let loose to kill. (Page 21)
  • many of his men were ill trained or too old for fighting. He almost lumped himself in that latter group, as the years were beginning to pile on him like bricks on a pallet (Page 31)
  • Some men were made weak by age, others were made to look tired or slovenly. Bryne had simply become distinguished, like a pillar, crafted by a master stonemason, then left to the elements. Age hadn’t reduced Bryne’s effectiveness or his strength. It had simply given him character, dusting his temples with silver, creasing his firm face with lines of wisdom. (Page 142)
  • He could feel the palace around him shaking from the earth’s own sobs. (Page 816)

For the majority of the last 10 or so books the main protagonist, Rand Al’Thor aka The Dragon Reborn, has been mentally and emotionally hardening himself. He has accepted his own death as inevitable and has transformed from a caring young man into a hardened fatalist. We have seen him push his friends away, use them as tools for his cause and grow impenetrable, the anger raging like a fire inside of him. His mind and heart have become hard, assuming that ultimate strength comes from overcoming emotions.

‘You believe the Last Battle is close, then?’ she asked.
‘Close?’ al’Thor asked. ‘It is as close as an assassin, breathing his foul breath upon your neck as he slides his knife across your skin. It is close like the last chime of midnight, after the other eleven have struck. Close? Yes, it is close. Horribly close.’ (Page 581)

Narratively, we know that he must change. Various side characters have repeatedly described how important it was that he “laugh again”. We knew the darkness inside of him somehow had to break or he wouldn’t be able to stand up for the Light. He, and the world would be lost to the Dark One.

I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen. And then, beautifully-written, it occurs. A masterstroke of plotting. It isn’t a trusted advisor, an old friend or a lover who draw the moment out, but between a father and his son.

Maybe you can’t pick where you are forced to go, but you still have a choice.’
‘But how?’ Tam laid a hand on Rand’s shoulder.
‘The choice isn’t always about what you do, son, but why you do it. When I was a soldier, there were some men who fought simply for the money. There were others who fought for loyalty – loyalty to their comrades, or to the crown, or to whatever. The soldier who dies for money and the soldier who dies for loyalty are both dead, but there’s a difference between them. One death meant something. The other didn’t. (Page 794)

You may not be able to choose the duties you’re given. But you can choose why you fulfil them. (Page 795)

And, importantly it isn’t a conversation which brings about the plot resolution. They have the conversation, then in a fit of rage Rand almost kills his father. He then almost destroys everything… but it is the conversation with the father that changes his mind, that pulls him back from the brink. A mere conversation wouldn’t have been enough; it would have been too quick, unbelievable. But how it happens is fantastic writing.

‘How do you fight someone smarter than yourself?’ Rand whispered. ‘The answer is simple. You make her think that you are sitting down across the table from her, ready to play her game. Then you punch her in the face as hard as you can. (Page 616)

And the word-power words:

  • diaphanous – Of such fine texture as to be transparent or translucent (Page 21)
  • cairn –  A mound of stones erected as a memorial or marker (Page 244)
  • sagacious – Having or showing keen discernment, sound judgment, and farsightedness (Page 708)

Note that there are less of them. It could be I marked less, but I suspect that Sanderson choose to use less than Jordan did. A good decision, I think.

Advertisements

Resource Alert: Brandon Sanderson 2016 Lectures

Just a quick one because I am supposed to be finishing the short story When Nightmares Wake. Brandon Sanderson has begun releasing his 2016 writing lectures. He announces the videos here.

I have previously found his earlier lectures very helpful, and you can’t argue with the price of FREE. I love how Brandon and some of his fellow writer’s actually love to give back to the community of readers and other aspiring writers.

Inspirational Reading

Recently the skillful poet Thom Sullivan wrote about the poetry that he found inspirational in his development as a poet. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery and I thought it was an interesting question to consider: what novels have been influential to me in my writing?

Adventure

Notwithstanding the frailty of my memory, the earliest novels which I remember enjoying were Australian author John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began series. The teenagers-turned-freedom-fighters mixed together with the maturing hormones captured my imagination. In my experience a heady blend of (limited) war, independence from adults and finding yourself developing into a hero speaks to every young adult male.

A lot of books seldom fit precisely into genres, and so I shall take liberties with a little genre-crossing on this list. The pre-and-post apocalyptic adventure/war/faith-based Left Behind series by Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins also spoke to my prepping instincts, and merged my love of reading and faith. After all, what plot could provide more of a challenge than being a minority group of people vs. the rest of the world in both the physical and spiritual realm?

Fantasy

Naturally, Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings must rate a mention in fantasy. It is a grand epic adventure which blends together aspects of good and evil, loyalty and betrayal into a story of sacrifice and struggle. Tolkein opened my eyes to the fantasy world like so many other readers before me. Though at times he was a bit of a waffler, he is the grandfather of the fantasy genre. (To a lesser degree was CS Lewis’ Narnia which I probably enjoyed first, but which pales in comparison).

I remember also being captured by the sweeping and deep world-building of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (WoT) series in my early twenties to the detriment of other important things. Sadly the belated publishing of the latter books stretched out to the point where now the final books by Brandon Sanderson remain unread; awaiting a time when I can re-read the series in its entirety.

The WoT series was my first introduction to an in-depth and heavily interrelated world building. I loved the fact that multiple cultures all revered the same character, though knowing them by different names. I also appreciated the way that the environment was woven into the culture but still avoided existing clichés; for example the Ariel who lived in the desert and used expressions of endearment such as ‘shade of my heart’. Excellent!

Science Fiction

This list would be grossly incomplete without mentioning the epic masterpiece of Frank Herbert’s Dune, by which all science fiction is measured against in my mind. (Not to say that it is the best in all aspects of writing and story-telling, but is a very sound measuring stick; especially as a series). The beauty of Dune is in its complexity and time-scale over generations. The world-building in Dune is like an elaborate ecosystem; a multitude of gears where turning one cog results in all of the others moving also. Each concept is tied together into a beautiful interconnected tapestry of cause-and-effect throughout the entire Dune universe. Frank Herbert was indeed a formidable world builder, and one worthy of great respect.

Few minds are as great or imaginative as Isaac Asimov who wrote a plethora of amazing short stories. I think especially of the Foundation trilogy; which shows deep insight into human nature and projects it outwards far beyond his own time. I am only a novice at writing short stories – two of which I am especially proud of available on this site – but Isaac Asimov was a master.

Faith-based

I could say that is started with Jesus and all of his parables ‘There once was a man…’, but it was probably earlier than that… In modern terms, Francine Rivers showed me how powerful story-telling could be in the Mark of the Lion series. A story, told in the emotive perspective of characters that you fall in love with, can speak to reader in ways that a cold essay could not. Philip Yancey wrote it best when he said that ‘a piece of flattened pulp can penetrate the mind, bypassing its defences and lodge deep inside the psyche’ (paraphrased and expanded).

When I look back over my reading history, these are the books which stand out brightest in my memory. As I consider them, even now they beckon me to read them again.

What are the books which you have most enjoyed?

 

 

Technique: Magic Systems

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 14 and 15. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Brandon Sanderson acknowledges that these are the rules that he uses. I won’t write too much on them because you can follow the links and read the essays if you want.

Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

You have to explain the magic to the reader before you can solve problems with it or it feels to the reader like you are cheating.

They mention that in Lord of the Rings Gandalf doesn’t do very much with his magic. When he does use magic to fight the Balrog, it ends up killing him. (Though he does come back, bigger and stronger… so an argument could be made that dying was actually beneficial for him. I don’t remember it being particularly surprising for him either, though it’s years since I read it).

They mention the excellent logic puzzle where the Witch King “who cannot be killed by any man” is killed by a woman. It is a surprising, yet (in hindsight) inevitable plot development.

  • If you have a rule-based magic system, then the heroes can solve problems with magic by being clever. (It’s his cleverness that solves the problem more than his magic ability).
  • You gain reader immersion and understanding.

Sanderson’s Second Law: Limitations > Powers

Limitations enable tension and conflict within the story.

Magic shouldn’t be “free”; there should be some kind of cost/consequence in order to create conflict.

  • Frodo can wear the One Ring, but it instantly starts to weigh him down, and twist him; also drawing Sauron’s attention to him.
  • Don’t make it too quantifiable or it will feel like a video game.
  • Engage the feelings or emotions of the character. That type of cost gives you a lot of latitude.
  • Try and come up with a unique cost.

One (cool) possible limitation they mention is that using magic could age those that you love.

Sanderson’s Third Law: Put more effort into how the magic effects things than what the magic can do (my paraphrasing).

They mention Dune as an exemplar: the magic system is tied into everything in the world: religion, economy, military, politics. It is fantastic in some novels where the full implications aren’t seen until subsequent books. The actions and events in Dune influence the very culture in the following novels.

  • The world around your magic system must continue to make sense. e.g. if you there is common telekinesis then there would be no manual labor jobs.

Final thought:

Work out how to break/exploit the world using magic to find the problems in your design.

 

Good Reading

I’m currently reading a couple of books, and enjoying them both for completely different reasons.

The Archivist’s Story

First there is the older The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland.

It is a slow-moving story, but deep, emotional and rich in content, language and character. The story follows Pavel Ivanovich an ex-lecturer in literature who under Stalin’s socialism is forced into service at the KGB headquarters. As a lover of fine literature he detests his job which consists of cataloging and then destroying literature deemed dangerous to the State.

You can sense the tension in the book as Pavel suppresses his own thoughts, because they put him at odds with the socialism. Though the danger is immense, you feel his integrity is starting to reassert itself against the lies that he must continually repeat to stay safe in socialist Russia.

Pavel’s relatively young mother (early 50’s) also has ailing health, which Pavel is struggling to deal with. The following excerpt is where they are in the waiting room of a neurologist in an attempt to diagnose his mother’s ‘black outs’.

“In the waiting room a little boy weakly flails away on his mother’s lap, paddling the air with his hands, as if struggling to wake from some dream of falling. The boy’s eyes, beautifully blue, follow Pavel as he passes; the frank despair in them chills his heart. Is this what awaits him and his mother? Private miseries played out in public, as in the pages of a novel. Like that old woman who couldn’t remember her own daughter. Only these people aren’t characters conjured from the imagination, their stories do not end when the reader closes the book and shuts off the lamp. He is unable to prevent himself from imagining a morning years from now when his mother will no longer remember him, when she will turn to him and ask, Do I know you?

And Pavel will tell her, I am your son. (page 60)

Excellently written and highly poignant. Though I haven’t had to go through the experience of seeing a parent in such circumstances, I can imagine how difficult it must be. It is something that I have certainly thought about before, which led me to write two short stories The Captive and the follow-up Alone.

Pavel is also grieving the loss of his wife who died in a train de-railment (while he remained at home). Though he misses her terribly there is also a hint of attraction for him toward his younger neighbour.

“I sometimes wonder ,” says Pavel, surprising himself, “whether it would be better if I just put her pictures away.”

Natalya glances at him, and Pavel sees at once the question in her eyes. What is he telling her? That it is so painful to go on looking at Elena’s pictures day after day, knowing he will never see her again? That would be the simple answer, the expected answer. How then to reconcile this with the sense of uneasiness that has grown up in him since his wife’s death? Uneasiness, because Elena has slipped, ever so gradually, into abstraction. She has become these pictures. A handful of memories. Worse, she has become the imagined last moments of her life, which Pavel will never likely be able to let go. (page 101)

Though I failed to bookmark any particular quotes the description of depression, both on the economy and on people’s psyche is also excellent. It describes people going through the motions of survival; lacking joy or optimism.

The Alloy of Law

The other completely different book is Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law. As one of the author’s in the Writing Excuses podcasts I thought it was about time I read some of his work. Sadly, my local library seems entirely lacking with this being the only Sanderson book they had.

It is a light-hearted adventure/crime fantasy. It’s not the first in the series, so I did feel a little under-prepared in respect to an understanding of the magic systems, but I still found it enjoyable. I noted several things about the book, worthy of a mention:

Sanderson does a good job of designing a plot where the pieces fit together well at the end. I’m talking specifically about the final fight scene where they defeat the almost-invincible enemy. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it, so I was impressed with the resolution.

I like the way he does dialog. There is an incredible amount of dialog in the book. In my writing, I don’t think I have as much dialog, and rely more heavily on the characters doing something, rather than what they are saying. (Which I’m not sure if it’s just different or not as good). Also I noticed that his dialog is often flourished with movement, which I think works really well. For example, this is all of the dialog on page 176 (italics added):

“Well?” she asked.

“Two Tripwires,” Waxillium said, “rigged with explosives. Nothing else dangerous we could find. Other than Wayne’s body odor.”

“That’s the smell of incredibleness,” Wayne called from inside.

“Come on,” Waxillium said, holding the door open for her.

She stepped in, then hesitated in the doorway. “It’s empty.”

“Sleeping quarters up there,” Waxillium said, pointing at the other side of the foundry. “The main chamber here is double height for half the building, but the other side has a second story. Looked like they could house some fifty men in there, men who could act like foundry workers during the day to maintain the front.”

“Aha!” Wayne said from the darkness on the left side of the chamber.

“How easily did that open?” Waxillium asked, trotting over.

From this I take two pointers – not to be used always, but frequently:

  • Where is the character when they say the dialog?
  • What is the character doing when they say the dialog?

As can be seen from the example above, the story is well-peppered with comedy. The two main characters play off each other in a very humorous way. There’s a joke or smart comment every few pages at least. The character Wayne is funny too – he’s something of a kleptomaniac who doesn’t steal, but trades without consent. For example he might take someone’s gun, but leave in its place a picture that he drew.