Then, everything fits so nicely

So I finished writing down my Warhammer 40k hype, coming on the blog after my rant about genre prejudices (and prejudices in general), and then I discover this awesome conversation abut tie-in fiction between Mark Charan Newton (new kid on the fantasy block) and Dan Abnett himself:

Mark Charan Newton: For an author to write tie-in fiction – that is, fiction connected to a franchise or character, that isn’t technically owned by the author – it is still treated as a gaucherie by the majority of genre fans. The books suffer by not getting proper review coverage, and sometimes they are not even considered as ‘real’ works. Why do you think tie-in fiction is treated as the second-class citizen of the genre world? I mean, the same could often be said about the treatment of genre fiction and the literary world.

Dan Abnett: There are any number of contributing factors, and many of them are inevitably contradictory. Let’s start with a basic assumption: if you write as a hired gun, you must be in it for the dosh. You don’t really care what you’re writing. Therefore (obviously), you’re just crapping it out, words per square inch. In other words, tie-in fiction MUST by the very nature of its manufacture, be poor, disposable and second-rate.
It’s possible that an awful lot of people think this. They may not even mean to think it. There’s also a possibility (actually, a very high probability) that an awful lot of people in what I’m happy to refer to as “my line of work” believe that’s what other people think.

I think it’s worth getting this out of the way right at the start: writers of tie-in fiction may, sometimes, involuntarily, feel slightly guilty. They may be, involuntarily defensive. They know what the perception can be, and it contaminates them slightly. Tie-in writers can be their own worst enemies.

Despite the odd and inevitable case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, surely readers can tell if something’s good or not by their gut response? They can tell if someone’s just banging it out and their heart’s not in it? Can’t they? Please tell me they can!

I should honestly admit that sometimes I doubt of myself ;)

Books at my door – Warhammer 40k edition

Volcano cloud be damned, but I’ve still got my 5-book order from the UK today. 1 wrap for each book, for a total of 5 wraps and 13 books (?) to unwrap with glee like if it’s Christmas again.

All of 5(13) part of the same lineage: Warhammer 40k.

One would think that books based on the Warhammer universe are in the same league of novelization of movies or books based on Star Wars, Star Trek or AD&D and similar, which means basically little more than garbage and totally forgettable. Instead the reason why I got interested in this (and invested enough to make this order) is because the premise is totally different. I read everywhere that these are damn good books that are worth reading even if one has not played Warhammer (the miniature wargame) or hasn’t a particular interest or knowledge of the setting. They say these books are good on their own terms and written well: read them, it’s cool stuff.

So: do not come with prejudices.

Which fits me. So I come, and with great hype! The great majority of this supposed quality comes from a particular writer who consolidated as the main pillar of the whole Black Library, and so of the Warhammer 40k universe in literary form: Dan Abnett.

After a lengthy and careful research among reviews and forums of every kind I narrowed a list of “best of the best” of these 5 books that I have then ordered in one block:

Eisenhorn – Dan Abnett – 760 pag
This is an omnibus, written small, and contains a complete series. It tells the story of an inquisitor, written in first person. This is considered by fans and reviews as the very best and most famous thing of the whole Black Library, recommended even to those who don’t have a particular interest in reading in the Warhammer universe. It should have a grand scale even if it focuses on one protagonist and should be filled with political intrigue.
Ravenor – Dan Abnett – 890 pag
Another omnibus even more massive than the previous. This is truly sexy with the black cover and the stylized silvery embossing, spectacular edition. It should be a sort of follow-up to Eisenhorn, with various characters reappearing. Ravenor is the name of the inquisitor featured in this omnibus. Quality-wise this is compared to Eisenhorn, the first series is still considered the better one but the quality is supposed to be similar and if someone liked the first he should like this too.
The Founding – Dan Abnett – 760 pag
Another omnibus, part of the series Gaunt’s Ghosts. There are two other omnibuses already published and a fourth in preparation. Quite a bit to read considering the others exceed the 1000 pages. It’s with this series that Abnett starts writing in the Warhammer 40k universe. Even if this is the earliest work, it’s here that Abnett got his reputation and in the introduction (all omnibuses have one) he says he’s absolutely proud of what he did here. I know the third book contained (Necropolis, which comes with a pretty map) got enthusiastic reviews and should tell the desperate story of a city under siege. From the handful pages I read I got the impression of World War II stories, down in the trenches and face to face with soldiers and their obsessions. The whole series has a good reputation, with the books filled with unrelenting action and good characters. It’s considered as some of the best military Sci-fi even outside the Warhammer setting (for example John Scalzi).
Ciaphas Cain – Sandy Mitchell – 760 pag
Another omnibus, but non-Abnett. Good edition with plasticized cover. From what I read this was heartily recommended as very good stuff much different from the dark, gloomy apocalyptic setting typical of Warhammer 40k. More lightweight and humorous. The subtitle reads: “Surviving the 4ist millennium, one battle at a time”. It tells the story of a “hero of the Imperium” written down by himself years later. The peculiar part is that this hero is in truth a coward who only tries to come alive out of the most desperate situations with a mix of luck and survival instinct. This even got notes at the bottom of the page and commentary written by the “editor”, so I guess with humor emergent from the interaction of these parts. The series doesn’t end with this omnibus since there’s already another out and a third in preparation.
Horus Rising – Dan Abnett – 412 pag
Back with Abnett but not omnibus this time. Meaning that instead of a 800 pages monster this one is 400 pages (written bigger). This should be the founding pillar of a series of 15 books “The Horus Heresy” (halfway through at this time) written by different authors. It’s the tale of probably the most important event in the whole 40k universe, with plenty of repercussions. The book is considered the best of the best Abnett wrote as of yet, on par with Eisenhorn (Abnett then has a total of three books of his own planned in this 15-book series, and even if quality depends on who’s writing, overall the series should stay high).

That solves the mystery of 5 books for a total of 13. Four omnibuses with 3 books each.

Lots of stuff to read. I’m rather sure that I narrowed the best stuff to get here. I’ve read mention even of other good authors but this should be (way) more than enough to figure if it’s good stuff or not. I expect at the very least some good fun and a “calmer” companion while I tackle Erikson.

The circle of hypocrisy

I can get annoyed. I usually have a rather high tolerance to trolls, but sometimes it gets to the point that it is annoying and deserves a reaction. So this time I’ll voice an idea that I’m getting more and more, and that isn’t circumscribed to trolling.

It seems that nothing can be learned and that everyone is destined to commit the same mistakes. We think we’re better, but we aren’t. This happens inside the fantasy community at large. The fantasy community has a predominant trait of being discriminated and be seen through prejudices, yet the fantasy community, at large, discriminates and is filled with prejudices itself. How can this be? I am dismayed.

It seems everything is trapped in a circle of reaction where what you suffer you have then to retort precisely onto someone else. Is that what gets us satisfaction and makes us feel better? Why one can’t, simply CAN’T, enjoy a book and an author without feeling the impelling need to go on a holy crusade against similar writers? And why this is more typical in the fantasy genre than it is outside of it?

Why is the word “fan” being constantly used with a negative connotation? What’s wrong with liking something? Why the constant need of oblique and sly remarks to diminish or ridicule a certain writer? I mutiny against this stupid idea. Having a taste, ideas and preferences can’t mean that one is biased and comes with prejudices. This premise can’t be accepted.

I have tried to find some answers. Being branded as a “fan” implies being considered “biased”. It means your opinion is worthless because you are unable to express it in a balanced and true way. You aren’t reliable, your opinion is automatically discarded, useless. You may have a taste and ideas, but by being a fan you are also a liar.

I am a declared “fan” of Erikson. This doesn’t happen because I’m born in a geographical region and so lead to root for a specific home soccer team. I am a fan because I prefer Erikson much more compared to other fantasy writers. There are motives. Being a fan is a consequence of motives, not a cause (of biased opinions). I haven’t rolled some dices to pick who was going to be my favorite writer. I read the books. Found things in the books. The fact that I (or whoever else) enjoy a particular writer is a positive. It means that I can at least relate to it in some way. But what are instead the motives of “haters”? What are the motives of those who HAVE to jump in every forum thread and spill sly and oblique remarks that they believe being soooo veeeery subtle but that instead are really not? They HAVE to make known how much they hate this and that, again and again.

Yes, I’m talking about YOU. No one is innocent. It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, there’s always a foe deserving the unleashing of hate and scorn so that the other side can enjoy moral superiority. It can be Goodkind, it can be Stephanie Meyer, or whoever else. There are always hate & scorn festivals to be celebrated so that people can feel better.

Why this happens specifically in fantasy, a genre that already suffer discrimination and that, for this reason, should at the very least learn to not discriminate? Maybe the answer is in there:

Fantasy readers seem to suffer a form of insecurity. They try to hide their shame for loving fantasy because, deep down, they are are hollow with self-doubt and shame. The more they negate that shame and the more it spreads and fills and rots. So the need for a target that has to appear universally, objectively beyond all doubts, lesser and inferior (unable to defend itself and instill self-doubt). By marking this difference then can then affirm and elevate their moral superiority because they read fantasy but they don’t go so low as liking Goodkind, or Erikson, or the moody vampires. And then round and round. Goodkind’s fans will proclaim that what they read isn’t even “fantasy”, and Stephanie Mayer’s fans will reread the books 20 times, but always say that the books weren’t all that good.

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Reading House of Chains

I stopped reading House of Chains at pag 250 in September when I had the crazy idea of embarking onto Infinite Jest and the book requiring all my attention and then more.

I resume the book now at a fitting point since it wraps up Karsa POV as a kind of self contained story and then opens up from a different perspective that neatly ties threads back with book 2. I just need to get used again to the style after reading Jordan. So I read this three pages POV. On a ship with army recruits approaching a port. Just as I’m nearing the end of this short section I think: this part was surprisingly straightforward in the presentation, it may as well pass as traditional fantasy narrated in a traditional way. Nothing that seems to show Erikson’s fingerprint, which happens rarely. Then I read the very last, short line. And everything changes.

Instead of reading further, I have to go back and reread from the beginning these three pages. Suddenly they appear littered with hints. The lines of dialogue that appeared so straightforward and simple for once, all acquired a second meaning with much subtlety and different taste. Everything meant something else. It was simply awesome. The character introduced as new was revealed as one of the most well known character. Just that. Three pages that seemed so linear, and then the trick at the end that makes you reconsider everything and unveil the hidden layer. And this is simply to reintroduce a character.

House of Chains may not have the huge impact and scale of Memories of Ice, or the intensity of Deadhouse Gates, but it’s no lesser or weaker book. I actually believe it’s a much better distilled version of what the Malazan series is. It is condensed and effective and lean. It plays with tricks with much better execution and in a matter of few pages, using aptly all knowledge that the reader has built through the three previous books. Every page has something cool or a surprising twist. Dense in a very positive way.

After those three pages comes a section that revisits and refreshes plot threads coming from book 2 that were never brought to the foreground. In retrospect everything makes sense and shapes up. There’s a brief flashback that gave me chills and that was a much necessary complement to the part of the story in book 2 that was jumpstarted without enough premises. You read this scene and everything starts moving into place.

Loving the book.

The Dragon Reborn – Robert Jordan

I started this book while I was well into Infinite Jest and I needed something else that I could read with the brain turned off so that I could sleep afterward. Infinite Jest was getting me obsessed and The Dragon Reborn was perfect and made me sleep rather peacefully. With such premise one would think I’m already putting the book under a negative light, but that’s not completely true. I’m not masochist, I read slowly and have no time to read (and comment) books that I think are terrible, so if I finished even this one it means that I have at least enjoyed it to an extent. The kind of extent of enjoyment is a key element that I think is rather important not only from my personal perspective, but also in defining what is that makes this series so widely successful and popular.

It is accessible, I’ve already said this before and it’s an important element, but what is truly meaningful to understand is something that was exposed in a snarky review written by this Adam Roberts guy and that I’m quoting:

The writerly-technical term for this is ‘padding’; but the prolixity is such a fundamental part of what Jordan is doing that I suspect it misses the point to object to it. I was reminded a little of Scott, and his swaddling swathes of garrulous prosifying (except that, unlike Scott, by bulk, about half of Jordan’s padding is dialogue). It has specific textual effects; and the one that struck me, on reading through it, is of upholstery. It’s a comfortable sort of style, like settling into a bath; a mix of stiff little archaic touches and chattily modern waffle.

Putting aside the (deserved or not) snark, what rings true for me is that reading this series is kind of pleasant. The comparison with settling into a warm bath is the most fitting he could imagine and one of the most important elements to which I ascribe the success of the series. Calling it in a different way, I’d define this perk as redundancy. It’s the redundancy that stands out in this series and in this book in particular, and that is a strength because in the same way the prose can soothe and ease into a bath, the redundancy helps to ease into a fantasy world and induce “immersion” (fitting word, thinking of baths). This redundancy, despite its negatives, is used as a quality here. It’s not just redundancy of prose style, but also reflects in the way characters are portrayed (idiosyncrasies that have fallen now into parodies well known among readers, with the infinite tugging of braids, smoothing of skirts or all three male protagonists convinced how the other is better dealing with women) and even the worldbuilding.

About worldbuilding. I’m still waiting. I’ve read how the series goes much deeper into describing the world and its cultures. The second book in the series opened things a bit and made them look more interesting and convincing than just a Tolkien-translated world, but this third book doesn’t really expand anything. Characters move and visit some key cities but the way these are described doesn’t add any meaningful depth beside listing some traits and differences. Which brings me back to the redundancy. Cultures are described in a simplistic way, mostly observed through the eyes of characters who know nothing about them, but this helps to define the perimeter of the setting. Nothing in the book appears out of the grasp of the reader. We get to know things in a way that is never staggering or unmanageable and, soon, we build familiarity. Familiarity leads back to redundancy and both have the effect of easing into the story and tag along. This is why it works. It comfortable and familiar, tension is kept under control and the redundancy helps to never feel like missing something important. The more the familiarity builds up, the more the ease into reading. Then he, Jordan, lets it flow.

It flows well even if I consider this book sensibly worse than the second in the series (that I thought was much better than the first, since it was starting to flesh out the world instead of simply mimicking devotedly Tolkien). In a total of 700 pages, the 650 in the middle are a very boring travelogue that doesn’t really add enough to the story to be considered entertaining. The second book had travel, but somehow Jordan was able to put at least something meaningful in each chapter, forming a deliberate structure that I thought was keeping the book going relatively strong. This one is just more ephemeral in meaningful content, it relies too much on the characters’ personalities which I also thought were particularly weak this time. While I didn’t overly noticed the characters’ idiosyncrasies in the first and second book, I felt as if this one was itself a parody of everything readers complain on forums and reviews. An endless stream of repetitive actions and thoughts that were themselves kind of circular and leading nowhere. This gave me a feeling of stall that made the travelogue even worse.

Bad habits in the writing style flare in this book, much more than the second. The whole first section of the book is one long coed sleepover with not one redeeming feature. The plot is rather stupid and utterly fails to build up a mystery that was already revealed as it formed. Characters and plots gets sensibly worse as they get separated and lack the friction and build up between each other. In this book they move on on separate stories too soon and by the time they converge there are only six pages left. The supporting cast is also thinner so, as a whole, I thought this one book failed to build something relevant. It felt too unwound and going nowhere.

Yet there’s something that I consider positive: characters evolve. Even if the book oozes immobility in plot, worldbuilding and characters, at least something happened between the books. This is important because it’s part of a strong thematic aspect of the book that I consider successful: there’s no turning back. As the series starts you see from the perspective of these farmboys and girls too scared of adventure and that would rather just return to their normal life. The book exposes enough of that familiar life so that it is familiar for the reader as well, so you get the feeling of how the scenery changes, you feel some of that estrangement and then nostalgia for the initial bucolic world. All stories seem built cyclically so that defeating the evil will bring you back right to the start and the happy life. Suspect builds, on a series of 12+ books, about plots being cyclical as well, one book copying the one that precedes it with slight changes. Instead despite the redundancy of certain aspects and structure, I felt that the characters are definitely moving on, that there’s no return and that the plot has at least a direction and that isn’t simply folding on itself and repeating. There’s a process of maturation that, even if it doesn’t fully affects personalities (being characters rather dumb), at least affects their roles.

I got again a certain satisfaction toward the last 60 pages, with the convergence. It feels like things start moving again and have a point. Jordan has still the quality of weaving the tapestry and having a control of the big picture, so when the pieces actually move in context this is satisfying, but the satisfaction didn’t last long because the actual final confrontation was stupid. Here comes the usual abstract battle between Rand and the evil guy, leading to one big revelation that left me completely indifferent since it changes absolutely nothing nor feeds any purpose. It’s just one unnecessary deus ex machina that fails even to build surprise (one also wonders why “evil guy” tries to strike Rand only the one moment when Rand is able to strike back). All characters are particularly retarded in this part, even worse between each other which made me dislike this (brief) reunion I was awaiting. Mat himself transformed for the whole book into a walking deus ex machina who can seemingly do everything simply because he’s “lucky”. So he pulls every kind of stupid stunts, makes plots align “by chance”, and even becomes an undefeatable warrior with a staff confronting veteran soldiers and whatever comes on his path. Boring, and on top of a character whose insubordination comes so much as a stereotype that I found it only annoying and arid. A character used poorly. Along Zarine, another character who could be at the very least fun, but that is destroyed by reflection upon Perrin, whose reaction to Zarine is totally pathetic and, simply, dull & unfun. It fizzles. Like damp fireworks.

This book puts aside much of the lore and infodumps that I at least enjoyed in book 2. They were at least shaping things up. Here instead there’s a dearth of ideas supporting the 700 pages. No new ideas, nor novelty in dealing with old ideas with potential. There’s some repetition. Only a very brief glimpse toward the end at the nature of evil, still done better in book 1 & 2. The bad guys are more willingly to say the truth than the good guys. There’s still a gray area that makes the bad side vaguely more interesting than just a stereotypical foe, something that works because Jordan takes it from a deeper truth coming from the real world, but that isn’t used well or up to the potential in this book.

I’m aware book 4 is considered by many the best in the series and adding some to the worldbuilding. Up to this book the setting has been traced not unlike the characters, with very typical and broad traits “borrowed” from real-world culture and often without original twists. I’m waiting for depth or even breadth. The characters still mostly don’t work for me. The traits that define them not only aren’t convincing but they also get annoying and I find myself enjoying a lot more supporting characters (Zarine here despite the mishandling of potential, Thom a bit less than usual since he’s been downplayed so that Mat could put his super powers on display, Loial, Liandrin, Min). I still enjoy the broad scope that sporadically surfaces and hints at more. If anything I found this third book as the most juvenile of the three while I hoped things would have progressed, even slowly, toward a more convincing (and engaging) maturity. Not all is lost and I still enjoyed the book enough to make to the end (and peeking at the first chapter of Shadow Rising, where’s the prologue?).

There are various aspects I forgot to comment, one I wanted to add: I’m aware that the careful description of clothes has been criticized and considered excessive. I don’t agree, up to this book there’s always a purpose when it is used. The way people are dressed is a way to recognize who they are. Not only it differentiates cultures, but it also defines social structure and roles, and what you can expect from who’s in front of you. I don’t know if Jordan lingers too much in later books but here it’s done deliberately for a reason and provides infos that are useful in context. Another aspect is that, as I said at the beginning, I find Jordan extremely easy to read. I can read it before I go to sleep and when I’m tired. Not so much with other writers. There are fantasy writers that I enjoy much, much more than Jordan, yet Jordan is the one I return to more easily. That’s why when I begin to read just the first chapter of the next book there’s always the risk I won’t stop ;)

Steven Erikson on writing (reflections and diffractions)

Two quotes from his latest blog where he started to describe his approach to writing.

In a general sense, I write elliptically. By that I mean I open sections with some detail I want to resonate throughout the entire section, and through the course of writing that section you can imagine me tapping that bell again and again. Until with the final few lines, I ring it one last time – sometimes hard, sometimes soft, depending on the effect I want, or feel is warranted.

While the narrative infers something linear, as in the advancement of time and a sequence of events, in fact the narrative loops back on itself again and again. And each time it returns, the timbre of that resonance has changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes fundamentally.

It sounds like playing with rays of light and mirrors (reflections, diffractions), and it also made me think about Infinite Jest. In IJ the characters couldn’t be more different between each other, yet they are all reflections of each other. Both Erikson and Wallace use the writing as way to see reality and both use heavily this game of light and mirrors. What they write is layered and interconnected, it’s up to you to find out the links and make them resonate so that they can tell something unique and true.

The same happens in the way Erikson creates his characters. I’ve read on forums how some readers consider some characters as copies of each other. So, for example, Kruppe is essentially the same character of Iskaral Pust. At a superficial level this is true. Both characters have a funny way of speaking and relying plenty on wordplay (sometimes metalinguistic wordplay! my favorite kind). They are both quirky and both used as a humorous interlude. They both act mysteriously and following an undisclosed plan. Yet seeing them as equals means failing to recognize their purpose.

At a basic level these two characters are not specular, but opposite. This is the first thing I noticed when I started to read about Iskaral Pust and why I enjoyed the way they are related in their being opposite. Kruppe is a man who’s deliberately trying to appear clumsy and harmless. He is aware of himself and his quirks are mostly a deceit in order to make an impression. What Kruppe does in the first book is trying to not be noticed and be underestimated so that he can pull threads and manipulate things in the back. He plays his part deliberately and willingly. He’s sly and only dressing himself an idiot because that’s part of his play. It’s all sleight of hand: he is in control.

Iskaral Pust has a kind of similar explicit role because he also passes as an idiot who babbles on about useless stuff. He appears as nuts, completely fool, gone. But he is INDEED a fool. He thinks he is smart and he is outsmarting everyone else, but this conceit is a false one. Iskaral Pust thinks aloud without being aware that others can listen his most secret thoughts. He is blind toward his own condition and he is definitely: not in control. In fact he is manipulated directly by Shadowthrone and it’s very hard in the text to figure out when what he says “belongs” to himself or his master.

These characters ARE related. But they aren’t related because the writer isn’t good at characterization and “repeats” himself, but because the narrative is emergent FROM that relationship. It’s the relationship between the two characters that builds “meaning” in the text and helps layering it in a meaningful way. What’s written opens on a much broader sight.

See how all this takes back to Erikson’s quotes.