According to the Stanislavski system, an actor has to access the “reality” of a character by first considering the external person and then seeking out the characters’s inner thoughts and feelings. I’m reminded that Alec Guinness once famously said he could never get into character until he found the right pair of shoes to wear. Sir Laurence Olivier used to take his characters to see a therapist (only metaphorically, of course). In a sense, such anecdotes capture the essential problem for stage actors. The proscenium arch both separates the stage from the auditorium, and provides a doorway for the imagination through which the audience may empathise with the characters on stage. What attracts the audience through the arch? Why will they suspend disbelief? Although it remains unspoken, there’s a conspiracy between the actor and the audience. The viewers must be convinced of the authenticity of the movements so, if those movement fit the prevailing stereotypes, the performance will be deemed a success. It’s a difficult balance between naturalism and an entirely artificial technique. Think of it as a craft. Those who master it become famous.
One of the more interesting aspects of the writing process is to watch the author find the prose style that most comfortably fits the subject matter. The intellectual process of selecting the words, arranging them into sentences and committing them to a page (virtual or otherwise) creates the proscenium arch. Now the trick for the author is to persuade the readers to pass through the words into the performance by the characters on the page. Blood Society by Jeffrey Thomas (Necro Publications, 2011) is a slight departure from the prose style we see in some of his more overt horror and supernatural writing. This is more densely written, layered with more detail and interior monologue. It takes its time and challenges the reader to move more slowly. So why does this style fit the subject matter?
There are two reasons. The first is Jeffrey Thomas has chosen to move us through time. He begins the story in 1909 and ends in 1996. On the way, we meet several people from history and some of the events match those in the real world. This takes more time to set up. Just as a stage or film production must achieve some degree of credibility in the set design, the choice of furniture and the placement of other more personal objects, an author must decorate his text with sufficient detail so we can believe ourselves in different times. Like the performance, it’s a difficult balancing act to insert just enough information without it becoming a boring history lesson. So, as to external reality, we must have the places described and get the right period shoes for the characters to wear. Then we must come to their inner thoughts and feelings. This marks the second reason. Although we meet a number of people, Blood Society is the journey of Attilio Augusta who, in unexpected circumstances, finds himself changed into something different.
This is not a conventional monster book (insofar as any book about what resembles a vampire may be considered a book about a physical monster). This is a young man who finds himself cast adrift on the seas of time. In due course, he decides the best fit for himself is as one of the mafiosi. Not as one of the leaders, of course. The inability to age would give him away if he was seen too often in public. So he finds a way of working behind the scenes. Although none of the mobsters take kindly to paying him a percentage, he creates enough fear to ensure he becomes rich without being the subject of interest to the police. After all, he does have interesting skills to offer his criminal associates. Years pass, but therein likes the rub. Without anyone else to share his life, he faces the loneliness of immortality. A solution would be to turn others to join him. Together they could watch the humans age and die. But this offends his notions of morality. He was not given a choice. . . Then circumstances conspire. The woman who turned him reappears. Her motives are less than clear. And his adopted son is seriously injured.
One of the central preoccupations evident in the short stories and books by Jeffrey Thomas is the nature of identity. No matter whether we are pitched into contemporary America, an alien world or Hell, we are challenged to understand the main protagonist(s). In this instance, we have a young Sicilian fisherman with an eye for pretty girls. He’s physically strong, a good lover and inexperienced in the world outside Sicily. When he has all the time in that world, what could he become? He could spend the years learning to paint or play an instrument, but he was born into a culture that placed no value on such frivolous activities. In part, this is a class issue. His cultural outlook limits his choices. So, predictably, he drifts into crime. The question is whether this will be his only future. Once formed, habits are difficult to break. He’s accumulating wealth but, at some point, he’s going to ask what value the money has. Perhaps loneliness will divert him. Will the fisherman who was turned into a physical monster and chose to become a criminal monster turn away and find a different life?
I confess to being fascinated. Attilio is the prisoner of his own limited education. He lacks the imagination to experiment, to explore the new body he has developed. He’s essentially passive, relying on reactive defensive skills to get by. Only when his world view is challenged does he make any effort to grow. Even then, he seems locked into the mobster mentality that you meet violence with more violence until the other side has lost too much to continue the battle. So, at each point in time, Jeffrey Thomas finds the right shoes for Attilo to wear and we can cross through the more detailed prose style and understand the tragedy of this monster’s existence. Blood Society is well worth seeking out as one of the more thoughtful and, therefore, best vampire-type books of 2011.
When you set off to write a fantasy, there are a number of rules everyone expects you to follow. There must be a mediaeval world and, in the majority of cases, some form of workable magic, often with elves, trolls and other supernatural folk lurking in the shadows. The political structure will usually follow the European model of relatively small kingdoms and principalities so there’s plenty of opportunity for strife between the various kings and princes. Trade will be mentioned but will rarely be discussed in any detail except to mention where castles might be needed to guard trade routes and collect a small toll every time anyone passes through. The only news on the economic front will usually be some vague reference to how hard it is to collect the taxes. For the most part, readers don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of how these small states pay their way. All they want is action, preferably with people waving swords around and casting the odd spell. For these purposes, there’s a slight difference of opinion. Some authors prefer to gather all the interested parties into the royal court and then have a gaggle of scheming nobles duke it out until the good guy(s) or, occasionally, gal(s), prevail. The others go for a more peripatetic approach with the hero(es) traipsing around the countryside. This has the virtue of allowing us to get a better view of the life of the common people as we variously dive into local taverns and meet up with the underworld — it’s perhaps not surprising how often the heroes are criminals or mercenaries or both. They tend to be more our kind of people. We can feel more comfortable lifting a noggin with a hedge knight than a champagne flute with Lancelot.
All of which brings us to Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan. For those of you not familiar with this author, he has emerged from the obscurity of being one of the unpublished by self-publishing five of his first six novels. His own journey is an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate about the future role of traditional publishing houses. In this instance, having established his name as a brand, he’s been able to sell both American rights to Hachette and foreign rights into a growing number of markets. More power to him and other authors who can establish their credibility through the internet. Except this may be signalling a trend for publishing houses to become even more risk-averse when asked to take up unpublished authors. They may prefer to wait until the cream of the self-published crop rises to the top of the Amazon Bestsellers list and then cherry pick the talent. This gives them a profit stream without the need to invest in building the names of the new talent.
So what’s Theft of Swords about? This is the first of three omnibus volumes as the publishers bring their marketing and distribution expertise to bear on spreading the word about this author. The aim is to rerelease the first six books as pairs. Overall, the series is called Riyria Revelations. This book contains The Crown Conspiracy (October 2008) and Avempartha (April 2009) so it gives reviewers like me a good opportunity to assess this “new” author. I immediately find myself in a parallel world to the short stories and novels by Fritz Leiber featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In this reworking of the trope, we have Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. Respectively, they are thief and muscle, albeit the latter is skillful with the sword and most other weapons that come to hand. They work as a freelance criminal duo and, though modest to a fault, are considered top professionals. Consequently, the rich and powerful pay them to undertake a range of activities from simple theft to assassination.
In The Crown Conspiracy, the first theft goes off reasonably well but the second commission lands them in enough trouble to carry us through to the end of the book. However you look at this work, it’s a rather Spartan piece of prose, delivering a plot at breakneck speed with minimal exposition and surprisingly little description. That’s both good and bad. As a reading experience, it zips along but, with the exception of a little historical background delivered by a monk with an eidetic memory, there’s very little context for the action. We land in medias res and emerge at the end with a rough idea of what’s going on but a lot of unanswered questions. Under normal circumstances, I would find this rather trivial, particularly because the twists and turns of the plot are all rather contrived. To be honest, it’s not very original. But it’s rescued by an underlying sense of fun. While it lacks the wit of Leiber, there’s enough humour on display to encourage us into Avempartha.
Immediately, the intention is signalled as we stand outside the Gray Mouse Tavern and finally learn that Riyria, the business name adopted by the duo, is elvish for “two”. Not that this detail is important in the overall scheme of things, but it’s symptomatic of the lack of explanatory detail in the first volume. Now, there’s a sudden flood of information about Royce’s earlier life as Duster before we set off to Dahlgren (courtesy of Delany who always used to know there was magic in names) to break into a tower called Avempartha where, according to the magician they rescued in the first book, there’s a sword that can kill a rather dangerous beast. Except, of course, the beast may be rather more intelligent than we might initially want to believe. While our heroes are off to find the wizard, the wheels of the conspiracy to restore the Empire are turning with reasonable smoothness and Arista, the young King’s sister, is in the thick of it all, sent out as an Ambassador to represent the kingdom when key people gather for a “contest”. That this contest turns out to be in Dahlgren where the rather dangerous beast is on the loose, is just one of those strange coincidences that adds to life’s rich pattern.
In this second book, Michael Sullivan has chosen to write something more than a plot skeleton and the prose has a pleasing richness. Perhaps, more importantly, the broader intention of the Church’s conspiracy is becoming clear, as is the motivation of our maimed mage (some alliteration when dealing with magicians is always a good thing). Even the dwarf assassin and trap builder from the first volume turns out to be a not too unreliable person to have around. When you take the two books together, this is obviously the start of a very good story. Although the level of inventiveness was unimpressive in The Crown Conspiracy, we can see much more authorial effort expended in Avempartha. The level of detail has improved significantly and the implications of the relationships between the humans, dwarves and elves has a great deal of potential. Theft of Swords has triggered my curiosity bump and I’m genuinely interested to see where Michael Sullivan takes us next. So, if you have not already done so, this pair of books is well worth picking up as a single package. The remaining volumes are Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron and, assuming Sullivan maintains the momentum, equally worth pursuing.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Sense and Sensibility (2008) is a three-part BBC adaptation of the classic novel by Jane Austen starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, Charity Wakefield as Marianne Dashwood, Dominic Cooper as Willoughby, and Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars. One of the points of the novel is the difference between Elinor and Marianne. My own preference, for what it’s worth, is a Marianne who’s a victim of her choice in reading material. Such is her passion for romantic fiction and poetry that she develops an unrealistic view of the world. This colours her actions and attitudes at every point. Elinor, on the other hand, is the epitome of practicality. If she does allow herself dreams of what might be, they are firmly recognised for what they are and subservient to more immediate needs. Yet although Hattie Morahan’s Elinor seems to be striking the right notes, Charity Wakefield’s Marianne seems cut from a similar cloth. Indeed, until we get to her overreaction in meeting Willoughby, she’s been rather more constructive and accepting of their fate in being banished to the wilderness than I would have believed possible. That said, once at the cottage, Marianne is allowed to behave in a completely uncivilised manner without sanction. She wilfully snubs poor Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) who’s kept waiting for an unconscionable length of time, and her reward is to be carried back into the house by Willoughby — neither Elinor nor her mother (Janet McTeer) attempt to correct her barbaric lack of manners.
Willoughby is generally shown to be at the very least culturally insensitive over the offer of the horse and then in whisking Marianne off when Colonel Brandon’s picnic is abruptly cancelled. The slightly scary obviousness of his intentions lead the neighbourhood to believe they are engaged. The possibility of the scandal is therefore established for the visit to London with Mrs Jennings (Linda Bassett). Yet, the whole production feels rushed. We only have an hour and must get Brandon out of the way, Willoughby off to London, Edward Ferrars on a whistle-stop visit, and the Steele sisters into play. That means a lot of ground to cover with a few broad brushes of the scriptwriter’s pen. The last of the three episodes continues at a headlong gallop, often with a rather more modern use of language than Jane Austen could ever have dreamed up. Elinor and Marianne are crushed by Willoughby in public and Mrs Jennings is shocked to discover the libertine is engaged to another. Edward’s engagement is revealed to his unsympathetic mother by the dim Miss Steele and he’s sent off without a penny. In Cleveland, Marianne falls ill (obviously disaster befalls her whenever she wonders around in the rain and has to be carried back in the arms of a strong man), Willoughby appears and Brandon does all the right things. Minutes later, we are back in the cottage by the sea (another interesting decision to include all the dramatic scenes of waves rushing in upon the romantically rocky shore). Marianne plays the piano in Brandon’s library, sees how good he is with a falcon and agrees to marry him. Edward comes and declares his love, and before you can say whatever you feel is appropriate in these situations, it’s all over.
Frankly, I’m in a state of mild despair. The decision to try cramming everything into a nominal three hours (allowing for the odd advertising break every now and again) has produced superficial characterisations, key scenes are omitted as where Brandon agrees to give Edward a living, and the general tone of the production is slightly darker than I would have expected. In the last episode, Elinor and Marianne are in bed together discussing men. There’s no better place for such discussions. Marianne wonders whether men treat women as mere playthings. This seems to be emphasised by the way in the which production is paced. Willoughby is shown as something of a sexual predator. The inclusion of an actual duel with Brandon is an interesting decision to show Willoughby’s humiliation in private does nothing to damp down the public persona. Indeed, his manner in the London ball could not be worse and his dismissal of his new wife when confronting Elinor in Cleveland is cold-hearted, as is the implicit denial of wrongdoing in siring an offspring with Brandon’s ward. Where it not for Marianne’s lack of experience and more romantic temperament, he would never have made progress. Her experience shocks her into accepting Brandon as a rock she can cling to in any storm. I’m not sure I’m convinced by this Marianne’s declaration of love for the man. She seems to be recovering from Willoughby rather quickly and emerging as somewhat flighty. In the novel this is avoided because she firmly explains her emotions as being less than love. That’s why her marriage is a triumph of sense over sensibility.
But the real problem comes with the lack of screen time for Edward. The whole point of this man is his honour. Yet we are never given the chance to get to see the man and understand just how seriously he takes any promise he makes. This underwriting complicates what we see of Elinor’s reaction to him. Depending on how you view their first meeting, he may be seen as leading her on when he knows he cannot take it further. Or we could see Elinor as being as overly romantic in her reaction to him. Why is there this confusion? It’s the scene in the library at Norland. By allowing Margaret Dashwood (Lucy Boynton) to leave and give them the necessary privacy, he’s encouraging Elinor to believe a proposal is coming. Worse, he should know Margaret will almost certainly pass on the news to the rest of the family. The behaviour of a gentleman of the time would never have allowed this to happen. He would have been sensitive to the needs of preserving propriety if others were present or of ensuring privacy. So this production starts us off on the wrong tack with this character. Frankly, this is one of the many problems with the script by the usually reliable Andrew Davies.
We can perhaps forgive the opening sex scene. It does give some credibility to the power the wife Fanny (Claire Skinner) exercises over John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) and sets up the scenes showing the marginalisation and departure of the female Dashwoods to their impoverished cottage. The country houses and interiors, as always, show high production values and give the adaptation considerable credibility. If only there had been four rather than three hours, we might have had the time to meet and get to know the people. Sad really but, for once, this Sense and Sensibility is a poor show despite the more than competent acting of the principals.
Murder of the Bride by C S Challinor (Midnight Ink Books, 2012) is inherently interesting on a number of counts. For books of this type to be regarded as a success, there must be an elegant mystery to solve. Preferably, clues should be lying about in plain sight so we can try to second-guess the detective. The experts or the lucky can then be triumphal. They’ve beaten the author at her own game. The rest of us lummoxes, can do the “aw shucks, why didn’t I think of that” routine when the reveal comes at the end. In this case, kudos to Ms Challinor who pivots neatly in the direction of her gaze before coming to the final explanation. I was my usual lummox self and failed to remember the finer points of our culture when it comes to naming people. This is a pleasing puzzle and, although the casual way the local doctor protects the confidentiality of his patients’ records is contrived, the investigation is credible and the author plays fair. Our series hero, lawyer and occasional detective Rex Graves, really does work it out on the basis of what he sees and hears.
So what’s it about? With brief introductions out of the way, we’re off to the wedding and a quick introduction to the potential killer(s) as the invitees gather at the church. Then we pile into the assortment of available cars and straggle past the pub to the local exercise in architectural vandalism with resulting deaths and the theft of some valuable nick-nacks. It’s a classic Golden Age situation with a reasonably closed number of suspects all milling around a wedding reception that’s spread over several “open” rooms with access to the rest of the building to anyone with the courage to walk upstairs or through unlocked doors. We then come to the second point of interest. All modern “detective” books must confront the problem of a nonprofessional inserting himself into an official investigation. In these modern times, the police on both sides of the Atlantic tend to be a little jealous of their role as the detectives, by default rejecting the help of well-meaning amateurs. Gone are the days of a Christie-style private detective acting as consultant to the incompetent authorities. Almost every modern “detective” must achieve success despite the opposition of the police. Since our hero is already present, is the first to suggest the cause of the problem when guests collapse, and is then left to his own devices with a lone inexperienced Police Constable on the premises, he can get a lot of the heavy-lifting done before a more senior officer arrives. He’s then conveniently recognised as having had success in the past (such is the price of fame) and is informally accepted as part of the team when he fairly quickly explains a part of the day’s events.
This gives him a licence to jump in a car (no problems with the alcohol level behind the wheel) and zoom down into the village to talk with key people and top up the alcohol level in the pub denied him before and after the church ceremony. The third point of interest is Ms Challinor observes the unity of time. Following on the European tradition which first really got started in the work of Racine, the action is continuous over a single day although, as to place, we do move around the village and its environs a little. This means our hero can get to the answer before officialdom shuts him out. On the subject of unity of place, I should mention a death at another location and a need to consider where steps might have been taken to make the murder(s) possible. But the point of view rigorously stays with Rex. Others report outside events to him and so they come within our consideration.
Finally, this is one of those books in which an American author who was educated in Britain, has chosen to base her series character in Scotland. From this auspicious location, Rex launches himself into investigations at various points around the UK, in Jacksonville and on one of the Caribbean islands. The authorial challenge is therefore to strike a balance between a necessary “Britishness” for many of the characters and the dictates of an essentially American reading audience. This is not simply about the spelling. Those who read with any kind of awareness tend to judge the success of any book on whether the creation of each character and mis-en-scène feels credible. For American readers, the author must supply just enough detail to match their stereotypes and prejudices. If there are to be British readers (of which I am one), some care must be taken not to unduly offend their sensibilities. At this point, I’m going to spend a moment being deeply unfair to the author. This is a book intended for the American market and an editor would quickly change details like ER to A&E for British publication. In this series, our Scottish barrister sleuth is on a roving commission to solve crimes in an array of destinations so it dilutes the language problem a little. He can say “och”, “verra” or something equally Scottish to remind us he’s got an accent and then carry on in standard English. Perhaps Ms Challinor should just have called him Hamish. Overall, the speech rhythms are good. I can “hear” English people talking like that. Now a few moans. In my pubby world, Guinness is not a beer, it’s a stout. But then, I’m eccentric and pedantic so all-comers can and should ignore what I say on the subject of ale. I was fascinated to find Rex’s lady, Helen, wearing a flannelette dressing gown in May. How practical of her. My grandmother used to wear flannelette. Finally, the idea of a well-off barrister, allegedly six foot four, folding himself into a Mini Cooper is remarkably down-market. Perhaps he doesn’t want to flaunt his higher status to other road users on his long and tiring commutes. With his income and at his age, he could afford something more comfortable for distance driving.
Putting these trivial points to one side, Murder of the Bride is a real success. The prose is lean and economical, the narrative structure is dynamic and the plot is ingenious. You can’t ask for more than that, no matter which side of the Atlantic you happen to prefer.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When the Saints by Dave Duncan continues the story of the Brothers Magnus begun in Speak to the Devil and rather neatly brings what I take to be the first major narrative arc to a reasonably neat conclusion. In a sense, this book answers the criticisms I had of the first instalment by providing a much more coherent explanation of the way in which magical talents fit into the society as described. Although it’s a slight reach, I approve the explanation of why Joan of Arc could be burned at the stake. This gives us an excuse to suspend disbelief in our own history rather than have to work on accepting an alternate history. If we assume the same families continue to produce talents, we could have a rather pleasing conspiracy theory explanation for events in today’s world. It’s a shame we will probably never get to read this since, for the most part, Dave Duncan prefers to remain in the past (apart from the odd foray off-planet as in Pock’s World).
Anyway, back to the book as written. This is far better than the first on two counts. First, it disposes of the broader battle scenes quite quickly as young Wulf shows courage above and beyond the call both in defending Cardice and then in jaunting around to attack the supply chain. I don’t mind people hacking each other to bits but, after a few pages, it gets a bit repetitive and quite boring. Although I’ve come across fictional descriptions of military campaigns that did hold my interest, e.g. Ash by Mary Gentle, I more often flip through the battles to get to the political, economic and social content. So, not surprisingly, the second improvement is that, having apparently secured a major victory, we can then get into the politics and generalised explanations of the magical system. For these purposes, I’m prepared to accept the device of both Wulf and Madlenka having to learn fast on the hoof. Naturally, they both turn out to be inherently talented in their own ways and, with only a few hiccups, they are soon sailing along quite happily. Even difficult obstacles to their marriage are swept away. After all, they cannot mix in polite society unless their status is regularised. In Wulf’s case, his confidence is understandable because, as a brother born into a fighting family, he’s always been calm under pressure. Madlenka is slightly less credible. I’m all for the talented women having a more modern view of their world. Their abilities mean they cannot be bullied by the majority of men. As an “ordinary” woman born into a military family, I’m less sure Madlenka would have grown up quite as shown here. But this is a minor cavil. Both individually and as a team, the couple learn fast and are an even match for the more experienced people around them.
The underlying metaphors based on falconry are also rather pleasing. This blends into the political structure seamlessly. After all, for the untalented, there’s always the fear of betrayal and double-cross so there has to be a way of policing the relationships. It would never do if someone could renege on a contract of service. For example, suppose a bodyguard could be persuaded to look the other way. This would be bad for the victim and undermine the general reputation of the talented. It’s actually in everyone’s interests that there are enforceable limitations on what the talented can and cannot do with real enforcement powers available in the event of alleged misconduct. To his credit, Dave Duncan has followed the logic of his ideas and comes up with quite an interesting set of solutions. There has to be a balance of power between the different groups.
Not unnaturally, the heads of the various religions are in on the secret and have their own talented members on the payroll. This is the Middle Ages so Europe is a patchwork of small kingdoms and principalities which produces a large number of “rulers” who all want protection. Now add in an emerging merchant class that’s able to pay well for services rendered — assuming they are cute enough to work out that magic is real, of course. There’s a kind of independent guild that offers membership to non-aligned talents and, on the other side of the European borders, there are mirror organisations representing their interests. Think mutually assured destruction and, as between groups of states, there’s enough of a balance to ensure even large jurisdictional disputes can be judged impartially with enforcement action following.
Put all this together and you get a satisfying book with a well-designed magic system in a credible context. It would be interesting to see at least one more book exploring how Wulf and Madlenka get on in this rather different shadow world. I hope When the Saints sells well enough to justify TOR picking up a contract.
The jacket artwork by Matt Stawicki has good clean lines and captures the defence of Cardice rather nicely.
When the Saints was shortlisted for the Endeavor Award 2012.