Highlights from ‘A Memory of Light’

The dog didn’t eat my homework, but the browser and/or WordPress sure chewed and swallowed my post 😦 Thankfully I wasn’t finished but it still set me back a long way.

Earlier this year I began to re-read the Wheel of Time tomes. I’d never read the whole series, so I thought it was time. After reading 14 books and a staggering 4.4 million words the journey has ended. This is my final post where I discuss the last book – and share my favourite highlights from A Memory of Light. You can see all of my other reviews here:

This is spoiler-filled.

Writing the final book in this long series was always going to be a hard task. The reading audience is heavily invested and they expect to be rewarded for lasting through the previous 13 books. All the promises have been made and now all that remains is to fit all of the puzzle pieces together. Oh, and in case that isn’t hard enough the majority of the book is a battle. The Last Battle (i.e. it better be epic) where the forces of Light and Darkness clash for the final time. And the change in author (due to Jordan’s death) was always going to increase scrutiny. Certainly it was never going to be easy to write. Additionally the battle had to be stretched out to the length expected of a Wheel of Time book. No pressure, none at all… Brandon Sanderson deserves credit for taking on such a difficult task and doing it so well.

Making the Pieces Fit. I hadn’t considered it before read it, but it made sense that the Last Battle would have to involve time distortion. Even a fictional battle between the ultimate forces of Good and Evil can’t extend for 350k words; fights are intense and tiring; rarely prolonged. Time dilation allows time to crawl infinitely slowly near where Rand fights the Dark One (and his mini-boss) and it moves in days (or weeks) the further away. This allows the cast of lesser-heroes and villains to get in on the action. It means the battle can be more nuanced that a choreographed fight scene.

Keeping the tension up in such a book would be challenging. Jordan has set the context of the novels and it’s a different tone to George RR Martin. Readers going in can be confident that Rand will win the Last Battle. And further, they can be confident that the cost of that victory isn’t going to be too high. The victory would come (potentially) with some losses but not the obliteration that would be almost expected had Martin written the series.

Plot Twists are a very Delicate Balance. A very delicate balance. A successful plot twist is surprising yet inevitable. The reader has to be surprised by a plot twist, but then with the benefit of hindsight see that there have been hints along the way and this is the logical outcome.

One of these which worked excellently for me, was the genius of Matt and the Horn of Valere. Early on in the series Matt blows the Horn and summons up the ghostly apparitions of heroes to push back the Seanchan army. Everyone knows that in doing so he is linked to the Horn until death. The heroes will only come at his horn blow. He’s also recounted many times that he died or near-died (I think both are used) when he was hung from the tree and saved by Rand. And though he tells us he’s died because he’s alive and well I hadn’t connected the two. And so as the Last Battle rages and the forces of Evil are winning with the Horn on the wrong side of the battlefield I had no idea how Matt was going to get to it. It turns out, he didn’t need to. Genius.

I didn’t see the connection between the events. Undoubtedly others did. To say it another way, the plot twist worked for me. One that didn’t work for me (at all) were the Sharans.

As the Last Battle is progressing the Sharan army appear through a Gateway from a distant land and surprise the forces of Light by joining the Dark side. A vast army with a lot of male and female wielders of the One Power, they are a counter-balance against the White Tower and Seanchan channelers. (The Black Tower is split down the middle).

The Sharans have scattered mentions throughout the books, often by alternate names. And the Forsaken, Demandred, was mentioned to have been notably absent a lot, as in “what’s he doing?”. They were referenced so infrequently that I had assumed they were referenced to expand the world. I thought it was Jordan pointing at shadows to assure the reader the world was deeper and broader than that which the reader had seen. I didn’t think they were important, and honestly, had largely forgotten about them.

In the later book they were given a greater prominence but coming so late in the series the sections felt clunky. I assumed that Jordan was pulling a ‘Tom Bombadil‘: letting his imaginative expression override his this-fits internal editor. I actually found the sections annoying because they were taking me out of the story.

So when the Sharan appear in the Last Battle, it didn’t click for me. I didn’t think it a brilliant plot twist; more of a deus ex machina to help balance the Dark side of the forces. That might be harsh but the plot twist didn’t work for me.

Speaking of deus ex machina: the new form of Travelling using the True Power. I suspect it was added so that the enemy could zip in-and-away constantly.

I did like the fact that the Great Captain’s were all corrupted (or at least taken off the playing field). Though it doesn’t rise to the level of a plot twist, it was a clever plot turn. Here is this resource that we expect the side of the Light to have, and yet in one foul swoop it is taken away.

The ending… it didn’t really leave me feeling satisfied. I think I would have preferred if Rand had died in a final heroic act.

Onto my highlights:

  • The approaching refugees would soon discover that they’d been marching toward danger. It was not surprising. Danger was in all directions. The only way to avoid walking toward it would be to stand still. (Page 70)
  • The bored soldier there had a face like an old shovel—it was half-covered in dirt and would be better off locked in a shed somewhere. (Page 261)
  •  He did not go into the Rahad. The place looked different, now. There were soldiers camped outside it. Generations of successive rulers in Ebou Dar had allowed the Rahad to fester unchecked, but the Seanchan were not so inclined. Mat wished them luck. The Rahad had fought off every invasion so far. Light. Rand should have just hidden there, instead of going up to fight the Last Battle. The Trollocs and Darkfriends would have come for him, and the Rahad would have left them all unconscious in an alley, their pockets turned inside out and their shoes sold for soup money. (Page 262)
  •  “Being in charge isn’t always about telling people what to do. Sometimes, it’s about knowing when to step out of the way of people who know what they’re doing.” (Page 295)
  •  The entire land wilted faster than a boy at Bel Tine with no dancing partners. (Page 336)

 And some more funny one-upmanship between Rand and Matt.

Rand: “What did you do to your eye?”
Matt: “A little accident with a corkscrew and thirteen angry innkeepers. The hand?”
“Lost it capturing one of the Forsaken.”
“Capturing?” Mat said. “You’re growing soft.”
Rand snorted. “Tell me you’ve done better.”
“I killed a gholam,” Mat said.
“I freed Illian from Sammael.”
“I married the Empress of the Seanchan.”
“Mat,” Rand said, “are you really trying to get into a bragging contest with the Dragon Reborn?” He paused for a moment. “Besides, I cleansed saidin. I win.”
“Ah, that’s not really worth much,” Mat said.
“Not worth much? It’s the single most important event to happen since the Breaking.”
“Bah. You and your Asha’man are already crazy,” Mat said, “so what does it matter?” He glanced to the side. “You look nice, by the way. You’ve been taking better care of yourself lately.”

“Sure,” Mat said. “By the way, I saved Moiraine. Chew on that as you try to decide which of the two of us is winning.” Mat followed Tuon, and behind him rose the laughter of the Dragon Reborn. (Page 368)

It seems late to make the decision, but I think I like Matt’s point-of-views best. He has more of a cheeky disposition which is fun to read:

  • Her new clothing looked very nice on her … Min’s was a dark green shiny silk with black embroidery and wide, open sleeves that were at least long enough to stick your head into. They had done up her hair, too, sticking bits of metal into it, silver with inset firedrops. There were hundreds of them. If this whole Doomseer title did not work out for her, perhaps she could find work as a chandelier. (Page 544) 
  • “Please, if I might make a humble suggestion, Highness? You are unprotected; let me at least give you some proper armor.” Mat thought for a moment, then agreed that her suggestion was a prudent one. A person could get hurt out there, what with arrows flying and blades swinging. Tylee called over one of her senior officers who seemed to be about the same size as Mat. She had the man remove his armor, which was extremely colorful, overlapping plates lacquered green, gold and red, outlined with silver. The officer looked bemused when Mat handed him his coat in trade, saying that he expected it to be returned at the end of the day in the same condition. (Page 558)
  • If you do not learn from your losses, you will be ruled by them. (Page 425) 

This below quote is worth a mention. A murderer standing over you is scary. One who is thoughtfully considering an everyday thing about you takes it further.

  • Still, bedding down here was like trying to sleep while a murderer stood beside your bed, holding a knife and contemplating the color of your hair. (Page 629)
  •  “Thank you.” She glanced at the sword.
  • “I’m a Warder now.” He shrugged. “Might as well look like one, eh?” He could cut a Trolloc in half with a gateway at three hundred paces, and summon fire from inside Dragonmount itself, and he still wanted to carry a sword. It was, she decided, a male thing. (Page 697)
  •  Some men would call it brash, foolhardy, suicidal. The world was rarely changed by men who were unwilling to try being at least one of the three. (Page 885)  
  • Below, the battle churned like a meat grinder, ripping men and Trollocs into chunks of dead flesh. (Page 950)

 And just a couple of interesting words:

  • starveling (Page 70)
  • occluded (Page 477)

Thus ended the Wheel of Time. If you’ve read it, I’d be curious to hear how you felt about the ending?

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Highlights from ‘Towers of Midnight’

This is my penultimate Wheel of Time series highlights post, where I pull out my favourite lines and reflect on some of the themes or writing style that I observed.

I read through book 13 of the Wheel of Time with a near insatiable hunger. I normally read on my daily commute but also found myself reading in every spare minute I had (including, when I should have been doing other things). I read with great anticipation. It felt as though I had journeyed so long through the series, and the end of the journey was in sight. For twelve long books the story has been reaching slowly toward a climax and now I knew it was just around the corner. The prophecies would be fulfilled, the Last Battle would finally come. With anticipation (and a tinge of sadness) I looked forward to finishing the journey with the myriad of characters who I’ve spent the more than half a year with.

There were two other things I particularly liked about this book (especially now that I consider them in hindsight). I’ll be a little vague so as not to spoil it. The first is the treatment of the character of Noal Charin. This elderly – and yet surprisingly spritely and dangerous – senior citizen first appears in book 7. He pops in and out for a while, until he begins traveling with Matt. Noal is very suspicious and we’re used to seeing assassins and Darkfriends hiding in plain-sight, so it’s no surprise that the reader assumes he’s somehow nefarious. Not until Towers of Midnight do we understand who he really is. He has a secret, only it’s not the one we think it is. At least that’s how I felt.

The second is the fulfilment of the prophecy where Matt would have to trade “half the light of the world” to rescue Moiraine. I always wondered what that meant, and how it would be achieved. Now I know, and it was excellently plotted. And of course, finished off with some trademark-quality Matt irreverence:

Mat stepped back and tipped his hat to the creatures. ‘Looks like the game can be won after all,’ he said. ‘Tell the foxes I’m mighty pleased with this key they gave me. Also, you can all go rot in a flaming pit of fire and ashes, you unwashed lumps on a pig’s backside. Have a grand bloody day.’ (page 897).

Now onto my highlights:

Dull green moss hung from the branches, drooping like shreds of flesh from rotting corpses. (Page 22)

I love some good descriptive phrases; words that really paint a picture that flourishes in the imagination. What’s particularly great about this one is more than just the vivid description: the phrase reinforces the theme and setting. One wouldn’t use a description like this to describe trees at a wedding, but trees in a world that is literally ‘spoiling’ fit it perfectly.

Like an old friend. A dear, beloved old friend that you were going to stab through the eye, open up at the gut and consume by handfuls while drinking his blood. That was the property way to treat friends. (Page 36)

This block starts off one way, making you think about a friend; and then pivots 180 degrees to show that it’s actually the opposite. (It is a terrible block. For context: it’s an evil villain who has been entirely corrupted by darkness. The thought-process also reveals the character’s warped madness. At the time I didn’t really understand this passage. Only now with hindsight – having finished book 14 – do I understand it. I guess it was foreshadowing and my memory may be foggy – perhaps it does play a bigger part in book 14?)

Continuing the theme I’ve mentioned before about a character understanding and relating to what they are familiar with: Faile comes from a culture noted for their cavalry and adeptness with horse bows.

Faile was actually a perfect complement to Perrin. Where he was a blunt and leveled lance at charge, she was a subtle cavalry bow. (Page 123)

And, Androl a master craftsman who worked with leather:

Logain was a hard man, broken around the edges, like an old scabbard that hadn’t been properly lacquered. But that scabbard still held a deadly sword. Logain was honest. A good man, beneath the scuff marks. (Page 746)

Also, taking what is a cliche for us, and bending and twisting until it’s different enough so as not to be boring. ‘A face only a mother would love’ becomes “Berg had a face ugly enough to make his own mother wince.” (Page 149) and the ‘long arm of the law’ becomes

There were many who would think to exploit a lone wanderer at night, particularly outside the city walls, where the arm of the law was a little on the flabby side. (Page 377)

Some gender-based humour, where men and women looked askance at one another:

  • She was not there at the wagon, fortunately for Mat. She would complain at him again for not having gotten her a bellfounder. She seemed to think him her own personal messenger boy. An unruly one, who refused to do his job properly. Most women had moments like that. (Page 259)
  • there was nothing a woman liked better than finding men who were relaxing, then giving them orders. (Page 266)
  • Nothing was more dangerous for the sanity of men than a woman with too much time on her hands. (Page 266)

‘Nobody walks a difficult path without stumbling now and again. It didn’t break you when you fell. That’s the important part.’ (Page 208)

Besides, I can only fight in one place at a time. What is coming will be grander than that, grander and more terrible than any one man could hope to hold back. I will organize you, but I must leave you. The war will be yours.’ (Page 554)

This passage explains what we should expect in the final book. Rand will face the Dark One, but the cosmic battle between good and evil will not be the only battle. The forces of darkness are many, and the full cast of characters will be used to hold-back the enemy.

Truth, veiled in fiction:

  • But also because it was for the best. If two bards tried to play different songs at the same time, they both made noise. But if one stepped back to give harmony to the other’s melody, then the beauty could be greater than either made alone. (Page 626)
  • The men who don’t want titles should be the ones who get them, it seems. (Page 681)
  • Small things were important. Seconds were small things, and if you heaped enough of those on top of one another, they became a man’s life. (Page 746)

Some great repartee:

‘I don’t like this,’ Birgitte said.
‘You don’t like anything, lately,’ Elayne said.
‘I swear, you’re becoming more irritable by the day.’‘It’s because you’re becoming more foolhardy by the day.’
‘Oh, come now. This is hardly the most foolhardy thing I’ve done.’
‘Only because you’ve set a very high benchmark for yourself, Elayne.’ (Page 833)

And

Mat just shook his head. ‘Well, we’re out, one way or another. But Thom, next time I want to do the bloody negotiating, sneak up behind and hit me on the head with something large, heavy and blunt. Then take over.’

‘Your request is noted.’ (Page 907)

Just great phrases:

  • Eventually, the wind encountered another continent, this one quiet, like a man holding his breath before the headsman’s axe fell. (Page 46)
  • He was a young man, but the way he stood – relaxed, yet poised, hand on the pommel of his sword – indicated he was a practiced soldier. Too bad he had such a pretty face. A life in the military would probably end up wrecking that. (Page 303)
  • at night, the holes and scars on the White Tower were patched with a bandage of darkness. (Page 361)

Some interesting words that I’d either not heard before, or seldom:

  • whelp – A young offspring of a mammal, such as a dog or wolf. (Page 85)
  • succor – To give assistance to in time of want, difficulty, or distress (Page 95)
  • expurgations – purging, cleansing from anything noxious, offensive, sinful or erroneous (Page 316)
  • fecund – Capable of producing offspring or vegetation (Page 429)
  • bittern – a type of wading bird (Page 721)
  • superlatively – Of the highest order, quality, or degree; surpassing or superior to all others. (Page 784)
  • sonorous – Having or producing a full, deep, or rich sound (Page 895)

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.

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.