A while back I wrote a little bit about writers doing research. Writer Christina “DZA” Marie invited me over to her place to flesh that idea out a bit more, with a particular focus on fantasy writers doing research. It’s a thing!
One person’s trash is another’s treasure, as the saying goes. I think the literary version of that might be that one person’s second book problem is another person’s interesting, deep dive into character lives.
Remember last year when I blogged about the second book problem – the tendency for middle books in trilogies to sag a little bit given their place in the middle of the overall narrative? At the time I was laboring under the assumption that most people would agree on when second books were problematic or not. A recent experience has convinced me otherwise.
A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy.
It’s set in a kind of alternate history world during the 19th century where there are actually four Londons existing in parallel worlds with different levels of magic (ours is “grey” London, which about sums up the magical nature of it). The first book in the series, A Darker Shade of Magic, has a lot of hopping between worlds as it spirals towards a universe-altering conclusion.
The second book, by contrast, is a lot more sedate. It takes place mostly in red London, where magic is like air and just about everybody makes use of it in some way or another. A kind of World Cup of magic called the Element Games brings together the two main characters, Kel and Lilah, who were separated at the end of book one. We get deep into the tournament and what it means politically in the world of red London. All the while, occasionally, we pop over to black London (where a magical incident years before basically turned it into a burned over hellscape) and see that something bigger is brewing.
To be honest, the brewing seemed like it was part of another book. I was really grooving on the tournament, the way it allowed us to get more into the heads of Lilah and Kel (and his brother, Rhyl), not to mention a couple of new characters. It seemed like the perfect use of a second book, to deepen both the world in which the story takes place and the people in it whom we are supposed to care about. Then the tournament wraps up a little early and the black London stuff comes crashing down on our heroes. It all happens so fast that I think it would have worked better as an expanded second part of the book or as a short, brutal epilogue to setup the final book in the series. Still, overall, a good read and I’m definitely on board for the conclusion of the trilogy.
And, don’t get me wrong, lots of people love this book (and the series). But there were more than a few super pissed fans of the first book who thought A Gathering of Shadows was just boring filler – until the very end, when the black London stuff comes calling. In other words, they felt just the opposite of the way I did about it (one reader said it was “is majorly afflicted with the infamous 2nd book syndrome”). One person even suggested that all the important things that happen in this book could be collapsed into the first chapter of the final volume of the trilogy.
Are those folks wrong? Yes and no. I think they’re wrong because books (or stories of any kind) do more than simply push the major plot along and there’s a lot of other stuff going on for most of A Gathering of Shadows, stuff that I happen to enjoy (a lot of books, beginnings of them, get described as “slow,” but I love the time spent settling into a place or getting to know characters). On the other hand, it isn’t wrong to say that by the end of A Gathering of Shadows not a lot has happened on the grand “fate of the worlds” scale on which the first book operated. I can understand the frustration, even if I don’t share it.
While this is another in a long line of examples of why all are is personal, it’s also an example of people wanting different things from extended works. A trilogy or series, by definition, invites readers in and lets them spend more time in a world than a single story. It’s not surprising that a writer might take that time to do things other than move the plot along. But it’s also no surprise that fans brought back to the world by a quick-paced first book might find a second one slow if it can’t match that pace.
Neither set of readers is wrong in their expectations (or their permissions), but neither is a writer “wrong” for taking one path over the other. It’s worth thinking about what people said about the first book before deciding to slow things down in the second. Maybe that’s the best way to tell the entire story you mean to tell, or maybe it’s a second-book trap you’re falling into. As with most things about writing, a little forethought can head off some disappointment down the road.
Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .
Nemesis Games (2015)
I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.
Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)
Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.
If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.
The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)
Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)
Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.
Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)
N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)
I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.
Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.
Children of Time (2015)
I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.
Every time I finish reading a book or watching a movie I have a routine I call “doing my due diligence.” I hop on the Web and read up on what I’ve just finished, looking for critical reviews, viewer feedback, and any interesting interviews/analyses I can find. Rarely do I find a review headline that so completely nailed my feeling about book during this due diligence as I did after I finished How to Stop Time. As the Irish Times put it:
I mean, it can’t get much better for a writer than for a critic to say “the only thing wrong is there’s not more of it,” right? Always leave them wanting more, as the saying goes.
It’s not quite that clear cut when it comes to How to Stop Time, but it does get pretty close.
The central conceit of the book is a reverse of progeroid syndromes, actual conditions where people age rapidly, usually dying young. The main character here, Tom Hazard, has just the opposite problem – he only ages one year for every 14 that pass. He’s not immortal, but long lived and robustly healthy. Needless to say, it causes issues.
The book bounces back between “now,” where Tom is trying to lead a normal life as a history teacher (makes sense), and various points in his past. Thus we see (in the 16th century) Tom do the one thing that all nearly immortal souls make – falling in love. The scars of that love run deep, reaching into the “now” world as Tom tries to overcome them. Along the way he rubs elbows with some famous folks – works for Shakespeare, sails with Captain Cook, hangs out with Fitzgerald and Zelda – but mostly drifts kind of aimlessly.
Trying to give some structure to things, and help those like Tom stay off the radar (because there are others), is the Albatross Society, so named because the birds have long life spans. Hendrich, the leader of this group of “Albers” who’s been around so long he actually looks old, dictates the parameters of Tom’s life as a mean of protection, he says, although it’s never really clear if there’s much of a threat.
Which is part of the problem with How to Stop Time. While the flashbacks are all interesting and dive deep into Tom’s character, the actual story doesn’t really get going very far until well past the book’s midpoint, at which is careens into motion so fast that it’s hard to keep up. In truth, this seems like about half a book, rather than a full novel. Is the threat Hendrich repeatedly intones real? Could Tom really find love with a regular woman in the modern world? What about his daughter with that long-dead love, a woman who has the same condition as he? So many areas go unexplored as the book barrels to its finish.
So it’s not so much that How to Stop Time is so great from beginning to end that you just want more of the good stuff; it’s more that it feels incomplete. Which is a shame, because the run up is really good and the basic idea is executed really well. Still highly recommended, even if you might wind up saying “is that all?” when you’re done.
Once again, author Eric Douglas has invited other writers to do some short fiction for Halloween. Once again there’s no word limit or target, so naturally my entry this year is twice as long as last year’s. You can read that one here, as well as my two prior 100-word entries here and here. And, as always, head over to Eric’s place to check out stories from all the other folks.
Now, without ado – “Killer Queen”
Sanchez wasn’t surprised that there was a crush of onlookers and paparazzi when she arrived. A bloody murder at the Calabria Club was just the kind of thing that got social media in an uproar. She whipped out her badge and used it to cut a swath through the gawkers.
“Evening, detective,” said a young officer. “Quite a scene.”
“Nothing like what’s inside, from what I’ve heard,” Sanchez said, slipping under the crime scene tape.
“It ain’t pretty.”
She already knew the basics. They didn’t make any sense, so she did her best to put them out of her mind. She wanted to view the crime scene with the freshest eyes possible.
The Calabria Club was the kind of small, hip club Sanchez could never hope to get into. She imagined it was usually all dim lights and pulsing music. Now it was deadly quiet except for the muffled talk of cops and lit as brightly as the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. It was like when you see the person you took home the night before for the first time in the cold light of morning. Never a pretty picture.
The vic was on the floor next to the bar. She was a young woman of indeterminate ethnicity, with long black hair and a short, sparkly silver dress. She lay on her back, hair spread around her head like ink spilled from a well.
Most of her face was gone.
Sanchez leaned down. “Holy shit.”
Doc Forbes, the medical examiner on call, stepped over. “Never seen anything like it.” She pointed to the vic’s throat. “Ripped clear out. I mean, somebody went in with bare hands and literally tore this woman’s throat apart. I’ve seen mob killings, dismemberments, you know? Where they’re sending a message? Never anything like this.” She shivered and walked away.
Sanchez had never seen anything like it, either. The vic’s face was a mess of blood and torn flesh. In a couple of spots Sanchez could even see bone. The vic’s throat was nothing more than a dark, damp chasm where her windpipe had been.
Sanchez shook her head. There was another officer nearby. “There’s a perp, I understand?”
He nodded to a back room.
Sanchez thanked him and headed behind the bar, toward the back office. She knocked and let herself in.
“I don’t believe it,” was the only thing Sanchez could say. “Twitter was right.”
Stina Blomgren, the up and coming model and social media star, sat slumped in a chair, flanked by a pair of officers. Her hands, caked with blood up past the wrist, lay limp on her lap. Her dress had once been electric blue, but now it was a symphony of arterial red streaks and splashes that would have made Pollock proud. A red smear streaked across her face from her lips, mixing with slowly flowing tears. She was mumbling something Sanchez couldn’t quite make out.
Sanchez tapped Cal Cooney, her partner, on the shoulder. “What happened?”
“We’re getting security footage now,” Cooney whispered, all the while keeping an eye on Stina, “but the witnesses all say that she just went nuts and attacked that girl.”
“Is she a friend? A rival?” Sanchez had a hard time figuring out what could make somebody do that to another human being.
“That we don’t know. She’s not being very helpful, saying ‘something just came over me.’ Over and over, that’s it.” Cooney said. He nodded back over his shoulder. “Stina’s purse is in the next room. Take a look through it, see if there’s anything interesting.”
Sanchez nodded and backed out of the room. In a collection of coats and bags she found a small clutch that matched the dress Stina was wearing. She cleared a spot on the table and dumped the contents out. Out came a state ID card and a couple of credit cards with Stina’s name on them. It was definitely hers. No phone. Maybe somebody in the crowd nicked it. The only other thing of interest was a tube of lipstick.
Sanchez picked it up. The tube was plain white plastic, without any of the design elements she was used to. The only thing on it was a small sticker on the bottom. “Killer Queen,” it said, along with “PINTURA,” the cosmetics company.
“Ooh,” she said. Pintura was so hot these days stores could barely keep it on the shelves. Not that it mattered to Sanchez. This would probably go for at least a sixty, seventy bucks a tube, well out of her reach on a detective’s salary. She popped the top. It was a bright, fiery red, more dazzling than any Sanchez had ever seen, sharp and forceful. It was probably a prototype of some kind, given the plain white tube. One thing was certain – Stina wasn’t going to need it where she was going. It was a shame that it would just wind up rotting in an evidence back somewhere.
Sanchez looked around for moment and, convinced she wasn’t seen, slipped the tube into her pocket. One of the perks of the job.
While the Calabria Club Cat Fight, as the press had dubbed it, was bloody and sensational, it was an easy case to put down. The murder had been filmed by multiple security cameras from beginning to end, with a few cell phone videos managing to capture the bloody conclusion. It was just as the witnesses had said – Stina jumped on the victim without provocation and ripped her apart. They didn’t know each other and had barely interacted at the club. Sanchez’s job was to figure out what happened – that was obvious. She’d let the ADAs and their shrinks try to figure out the why. That was above her pay grade, so she moved on to more pleasant things.
Sanchez grabbed her phone and texted Teo, a guy she met on a dating app a couple of weeks back. They’d met once in person, for afternoon coffee, just to check each other out and make sure they weren’t serial killers. He was cute and had been as nervous as she was, so she decided he was okay. She’d also run his name through the databases at the station. Sure, it was against the rules, maybe even illegal, but this wasn’t the kind of thing you took chances with. She was satisfied that Teo wasn’t a criminal, so it was time to push things to the next level.
They agreed to meet for dinner that evening at a small bistro in Sanchez’s neighborhood. She put on her best little black dress, the one that let her show off the curves she had to pretend she didn’t have at work, and grabbed the lipstick she’d taken from Stina’s bag.
She’d gone to the Pintura website to look up the color, but couldn’t find anything called “Killer Queen” in their lineup. That meant it had to be a prototype or early edition. It went on more smoothly than any lipstick she’d ever used. It was as bright red as she’d imagined, like the paint job on a Ferrari. It glistened just a bit, enough to add a thin shine to her lips. She wondered if there was something else in it, as it burned just a bit on her lips. It was like one of those Aztec chocolates that warms up the back of your mouth just as the chocolate flavor dies off. It wasn’t painful, just odd.
She and Teo sat at the bar and had a drink while they waited for their table to be ready, making small talk. He knew she was a cop, but not yet that she worked homicide. It was too early for her to tell stories of blood, bullets, and ripped apart families. Someday she hoped to have someone she could share those burdens with, but for now she kept him entertained with stories from her days as a beat cop. Amusingly insistent drunks, drag queens on bath salts, and neighbors engaged in the most intense disputes over the most mundane things, by contrast, made for good conversation.
Teo laughed at all the right places and showed some compassion when expected.
Teo didn’t have any amusing work stories. He was an office manager for a law firm that handled “boring business stuff,” as he put it. That made for steady work, but wasn’t particularly exciting. He came to life, though, when he talked about music and photography and his rec league basketball team which, he insisted, was the oldest in New York City.
Sanchez nodded and smiled, then did that flirty thing with her hair that was pretty much reflex when she was feeling like this. She liked Teo and could see something worth building here. She was also getting warm, like she already had an entire bottle of whiskey in her. Part of that was the flush of arousal and excitement at how well this date was going, but it was more intense than she’d ever felt before.
They were shown to their table in the corner. They kept talking over an appetizer and salads, but Sanchez increasingly found herself with less to say. Teo picked up the slack, but she started to feel like her mind was slowing down, keeping her from contributing much to the conversation. The warmth that had begun in her belly had risen and become even fiercer. Although it was winter and she knew the restaurant wasn’t hot, she found herself sweating. She became intensely aware of her own breathing.
She finished another glass of wine.
Were all of Teo’s stories this boring? She started noticing that he wasn’t really able to string two coherent thoughts together, like he was just vomiting up a stream of conscious. Was it her? She wiped her forehead, which was hot and damp. She chugged an entire glass of water in one go.
“Are you all right?” Teo asked. He cocked his head a bit, like he was genuinely curious. He touched her hand on the table, but she pulled away.
“Fine,” she said, shaking her head. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It felt like her insides were on fire, like electricity was coursing up and down her body. She started breathing fast, like she was running a race. Her heart pounded in her ears, driving on and on like a thumping dance beat. Even after the water and wine her throat was parched. Whatever she did she couldn’t get herself to settle down.
“Melissa,” Teo said. “Are you all right? Can I get you something?”
The table, bare wood without a cloth, was softer than she imagined. Her fingers dug into it while she tried to calm herself. She looked up at Teo. The rest of the restaurant was a blur, but he remained in perfect focus. His look of concern sickened her. Who was he to care about her, anyway? What was his real motivation in all this? That little smile, that smirk he’d worn all night. Something had to be done.
“Melissa?” he asked again. “What’s wrong?”
Sanchez bolted up in her chair, overturning the table and driving Teo to the floor. He yelled something, but the screams that boiled up from inside her, then erupted from her, drowned out his pathetic cries. She went for the face first, slashing and grabbing chunks of dull flesh. Blood flowed, staining her hands, but she didn’t care. She had to keep going.
It wouldn’t have been Cooney’s case anyway – not in his precinct – but it surely would have been taken from him given that his partner was the suspect. Not suspect, killer. A room full of diners saw her do it.
He weaved his way through the onlookers and found the primary, an old friend of his from the academy. Cooney looked at the scene and had flashbacks from the Calabria Club.
“She still here?” he asked.
“In the back,” the primary said. “You look like you’ve seen this before.”
“I don’t know.” Cooney shook his head. “I just don’t know at this point.”
Cooney went to the back room, where Sanchez was sitting in a chair, flanked by a pair of uniformed officers. It gave him a strong sense of déjà vu – blank expression, blood all over her hands and dress, and she kept repeating something over and over. Cooney knelt down beside her.
“Jesus, Michelle, what did you do?” He looked for some kind of understanding in her eyes, but they were blank and empty, like windows of a house where everyone had moved out.
“Something just came over me,” she mumbled. “Something just came over me. Something came over me.”
Pintura Won’t Proceed With “Killer” Line
By Hope Williams, Beauty Business Daily
Cosmetics giant Pintura (NYSE: PNT) quietly announced that it was stopping development on a new line of products that was to be marketed under the “Killer” brand. The press release merely stated that initial reports from beta testers had not been as strong as the company hoped for and, in charting its course for the future, resources were better allocated elsewhere.
The “Killer” line was first announced 18 months ago and received some pushback because of the name’s violent connotations. The company had touted that the products, infused with proprietary compounds developed exclusively for Pintura, would have helped create a bold new look for the modern woman.
Social media has been abuzz with talk of incidents involving some of the “Killer” prototypes. Last month model and Pintura endorser Stina Blomgren was charged with murder after a violent outburst in a New York club, but there is no evidence that she was one of the “Killer” beta testers.
A Pintura spokesperson would not respond to our requests to comment.
Of course, I’m aware of the musical reference (you thought that was a coincidence?).
The old saw goes that, with notable exceptions, sequels never live up to their predecessors. This is a particular issue when it comes to trilogies, as the middle installment often suffers from what some writers and critics call the “second book problem.” What is this, exactly? I think it breaks down into two separate issues.
The first issue is peculiar to speculative fiction, although I could see it coming up in other areas. That is the simple fact that the first volume of a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy is going to have to do some heavy lifting on world building – Is the story set in our world or a completely different one? Are we playing by the physical rules we know (with certain extrapolations) or is scientific accuracy out the window? Are the characters human or not? All of that can (probably should) produce a sense of wonder and awe in the reader as the world unfolds. The initial introduction to Westeros or the Culture or post-apocalyptic Canada should leave the reader a little bit shocked.
That’s gone by the time the second book rolls around. Certainly, a writer should deepen and make more interesting the world in which their story is being told in a second volume, but it’s difficult to capture the initial “wow” factor a second time around. Kings that once ruled the world on the backs of flying, fire-breathing dragons? Awesome shit! The genealogy of those kings, as important as that may be? Not so much.
The second issue is that, just like the middle point of any story, the second part of a trilogy can have a plot that seems to drag a bit. The initial flush of excites as the plot unwinds in the first volume is gone, but the satisfying conclusion of the entire tale in the final volume is still a ways off. At best there’s a lot of clever table setting and some interesting side plots; at worst, there’s a lot of wheel spinning.
“Wait a sec,” you might be thinking, “didn’t you write a trilogy? Aren’t you writing another one? Do you think you’ve solved the second book problem, smart guy?”
Probably not, but that’s ultimately a question for readers to answer. I tried to make The Endless Hills work as a middle volume by broadening the number of characters to provide a wider view of the conflict that flamed to life in The Water Road. I hope that helped with the second issue, but I’m not so certain about the first.
What seems true, however, is that even really excellent writers still fall victim to the second book problem. The hottest writer in fantasy right now is N.K. Jemisin, whose brilliant The Fifth Season I noted a couple of months back. The third book of that trilogy, The Stone Sky (which I’m now deep in the middle of), just won a Hugo, making Jemisin the first writer to win the award three years (and three books) in a row. Still and all, The Obelisk Gate, the second book in the trilogy, can’t help but sag a bit. The world, which gets a lot of depth and shading, isn’t “holy shit!” anymore and one character’s story falls into the “table setting” genre pretty well. It’s still amazingly good (did I mention three Hugos in a row?), but it shows that even someone as talented as Jemisin isn’t immune from second book syndrome.
So what makes the exceptions to the rule stand out? Maybe it’s because the next installment was a step down or maybe there’s enough new and different in the second installment to keep the freshness alive. Or, maybe, when a trilogy or series is all said and done we tend to brush over the criticisms of the middle parts the way we kind of brush over the middle parts themselves. It may be inherent to the trilogy format itself. I’m not sure, which is kind of a problem for a writer. Like most things, keeping the issue in mind and trying to deal with it is probably the best course, and keeping in mind that it bedevils just about everyone.
It’s a fairly standard setup for a fantasy story – a gang of unruly characters get together to journey across the land in order to fulfill some quest. But what if the gang is a band? I mean, what if a group of fantasy mercenaries was treated like a rock and roll band? That’s the great conceit of Kings of the Wyld.
The band, in this case, is called Saga. When the book begins the band has been broken up for a while and Clay is making ends meet as a city watchman, married with daughter. That all changes with Gabriel shows up in desperate need – his own daughter, now a mercenary herself, is stuck in a city besieged by various beasties and baddies on the other side of the world. He needs to get the band back together to save her.
What follows is a pretty fun read, although it comes off a little shallow. Part of the fun is that is that Nicholas Eames really leans into the “group of mercenaries as a band” idea. A lot of the names are references to music in our world – the wizard named Moog, the axe called Syrinx (a Rush reference, I’m guessing), and even Saga itself, which I think is a reference to the Canadian semi-prog band The characters also play the parts. Moog is the keyboard player stand-in (naturally), weird and aloof and always in flowing robes (not capes? Rick Wakeman weeps somewhere). Gabriel is the nominal front man, the once pretty face up front. Clay plays the bass player roll, holding everything together. The bands also relate to each other like musicians, equal parts jealous of the others’ success and impressed by their prowess. Plus there’s a whole thread about how in Saga’s time bands had to go real feats of heroism, not empty, showy displays in huge stadiums. There’s even sleazy managers! That all works really well.
The actual plot doesn’t fare quite so well. It at times feels like an overgrown Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with the crew moving from one adventure to the next without any real weight to them. Characters change from friend to foe and back again because the plot requires it. At one point a character loses a limb, but then regrows it. There aren’t really any harsh consequences to face. Add to that the fact that the object of the quest – saving Gabriel’s daughter – seems painfully far away for most of the book, until suddenly it isn’t. To be fair, the book wraps up the story and doesn’t leave us hanging, but it comes off as rushed.
But the biggest issue, for me, is that the story sets up as a story of old guys getting back together to relive their former glories, but very few of them act like it. Nobody’s really lost a step when it comes to fighting, everybody heals quickly when needed. It’s a lost opportunity, since aging heroes aren’t often the main course in a fantasy epic.
All that being said, Kings of the Wyld is a fun read. The episodes themselves, while they don’t add up to much, are well done in and of themselves. The dialogue is quick and funny. And Eames manages to work in a staggering array of creatures and beasties for our heroes to interact with. It verges on overload, but it doesn’t cross the line. So if you’re a fantasy fan and want a familiar tale with a twist, this one’s for you. Sometimes it is good to get the band back together.
Dystopian fiction can be tricky. Assuming you’re setting it on Earth, you either need to have the whole world go to hell, which isn’t all that probable, or the shit show is more localized, in which case you have to address how the rest of the world interacts with the place where the story is set. I’ve been set to thinking about this a bit thanks to two recent bits of television.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as localized as dystopia can get. It’s told entirely from the point of view of the titular handmaid, June, and doesn’t concern itself at all with the outside world. Gilead is what she experiences; nothing more.
The TV adaptation probably couldn’t have worked if it maintained that rigorous POV, so it wisely broadened its world from the get go. In the first season, therefore, we learned that June’s husband and her best friend managed to escape to Canada, where there’s a growing population of expats from the area that used to be New England. But we don’t really know what that means in a global socio-political sense.
That was evident in the recent episode “Smart Power,” where Commander Fred and his wife, Serena, take a diplomatic trip to the Great White North. They’re received professionally, if coolly, in the manner you’d expect for delegates from a nation with which the Canadians have at least some normal relations. But do they? We don’t really know. Things are complicated when an American agents of some kind offers Serena a new life in Hawaii, one where she actually gets to control her destiny.
All this is a bit confused because we don’t really know how Gilead relates to the rest of the world – or what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead (once some info leaks out during the Commander’s visit, we quickly find out, at least partly). How big is Gilead? We know it’s centered in New England, but what of the rest of the United States? Does Canada recognize it as an independent nation? If so, why? What does the United States look like?
None of these were really important in the book, since it was June’s story above all else. But by broadening the focus (something that had to happen for the TV series to continue), these questions become relevant and I’m not certain the show’s brain trust really has the answers.
The recent HBO adaptation of Farhernheit 451 suffered even more acutely from this problem. It makes explicit the story’s setting (Cleveland) and, via an implausible update that involves the works of humanity encoded into DNA, sets up an endgame where Montag has to help someone escape to Canada to rendezvous with some scientists. We’re never told if that’s just because that’s where they are or because Canada is the safe area we always assume it to be.
This is particularly important to Farhernheit 451 given its semi-hopeful ending of an underground group dedicated to actually memorizing great works of literature to ensure they don’t disappear.* That still happens, but it’s now supplemented with the DNA thing. But if Canada is a safe haven, if it exists outside of the dystopia the United States has become – then why the need to preserve all knowledge? Isn’t it safe elsewhere in the world?
To a certain extent this is an issue with any speculative fiction worldbuilding. Writers need to have some idea what happens beyond the bounds of their stories, since those things should influence those stories in some ways. But it’s compounded dystopian fiction set in the “real” world because readers and viewers presume the world is as it is in real life, unless we’re told otherwise. That can lead to confusion, or at least some disappointments.
* Kudos to the writers for updating the preserved works to include writers who are women and people of color (and even some women of color!). However, the impact is a bit muted since only the minority characters are memorizing the work of minority authors.
I didn’t grow up reading comic books. I can’t say why. They weren’t verboten in our house and their residence in the same ghetto as science fiction and fantasy, but for some reason I never really dove in. Maybe it was because I perceived comics as being about super heroes and they never interested me much. It wasn’t until I got to college and my roommate corrupted me with some Batman did I get a chance to read them.
Even then, I didn’t really get into comics or graphic novels (I prefer waiting for a bunch of issues to get collected – makes for a more satisfying reading experience) until I got exposed to a pair of the traditional gateway drugs for the genre – in other words, stuff so good that even people who don’t read comics read them. One was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a deconstruction of the entire superhero genre; the other, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which follows the exploits of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and his extended family.
While both of those are great ways for readers not familiar with comics to dip their toes into the graphic waters, they’re both “classics” by this point, held in such reverence that people might risk approaching them like you would Homer or Hemingway – things you should read because they’re important and exemplars of the form, but maybe not just for the enjoyment of it.
Thus, allow me to suggest another gateway, one that’s fresh, ongoing, and just released its 50th issue – Saga.
Created by Bryan K. Vaughn (words) and Fiona Staples (images), it’s a sprawling science fantasy saga with a heavy helping of just plain weirdness. Vaughn and Staples take full advantage of their chosen format to give the story a scope and a visual sense that would be impossible to pull off in another format. In the same way that 2001 epitomizes what a motion picture can be (an completely immersive audio-visual experience), Saga is the apex of what comics can be.
As amazing as Staples’s art is, Saga wouldn’t be worth reading without a compelling story and characters we care about. The basic setup is simple – a world, Landfall, has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for years. In the middle of the war, Alana (from Landfall) and Marko (from Wreath) fall in love and produce a kid, Hazel (who is the narrator), who really shouldn’t have been able to happen. They try and survive in a world where damned near everyone wants to hunt them down, from soldiers to bounty hunters with sentient lie-detecting cats.
Along the way, as they blast from world to world in a spaceship that is also a tree (did I mention this is science Fantasy? Definitely a capital “F”), collecting other outcasts to form a very bizarre, very fractured, but very sweet extended family (as this article points out, Saga is almost impossibly diverse in its characters). Vaughn has said that’s what Saga is really about:
I now have two kids. I first starting thinking about this while waiting for our first kid. And I always used writing as an outlet to talk about my fears, concerns, and passions. I really wanted to talk about creating new life. And I found talking to my friends who are strangers to the fatherhood experience—I would watch them start yawning or looking at their watch–difficult. If you’re outside of that world you don’t really give a shit. When you’re living in it, it’s really exciting. So I wanted to find a way to make people who don’t have kids or who never intend to have kids feel what it’s like to be a parent.
That’s where Saga was born.
Not having kids I can’t say whether having them makes Saga more meaningful, but it does emphasize the foundation of the story. All the amazing art and “holy shit” concepts don’t add up to much if the characters aren’t ones we care about in the first place. That’s true of good fiction in general, but particularly good speculative fiction. At bottom, it’s a story about love, fear, and survival. The tree ships and arachnid bounty hunters are just gravy.
What I’m trying say is that Saga isn’t something I recommend to comic newbies because it’s a classic (although it’s on its way to becoming that) or because it’s something, to channel one of my high school English teachers, “that well read people know.” It’s because it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop. I mean, really, what else do you need?
Very happy to announce that how, instead of buying three separate books to digest the entire story of Antrey, Strefer, and The Water Road, you can now get them in one convenient package. Presenting The Complete Water Road Trilogy box set:
This version is only available in eBook format. And for April, it’s on sale for just 99 cents! Get one in your preferred format at the links below.