Review: “The Allow Of Law” by Brandon Sanderson

I had the pleasure of meeting Brandon Sanderson at a reading in Edinburgh, and I’ll be honest, I’m a fan. This isn’t really an impartial review, therefore, but more a description of what I enjoyed in Brandon’s latest novel in the Mistborn series, “The Allow Of Law“.
I was intrigued by the idea of a fantasy universe which had been allowed to evolve after the (first) trilogy had concluded. The story could be labelled as a western, and it’s interesting to see how the events of the trilogy have become mythology in the “aftermath”, and how the various magic systems have Integrated into a society with firearms and steam engines. I can easily imagine this being done poorly, but in this case the transition is seamless. The theme of metals being important to magic comes through strongly—you feel that it’s part and parcel of everyday life, from slang terms through to someone running an election campaign on the basis of their immunity to emotion-altering magic!

So the message here is: it’s all about the worldbuilding. Irrespective of time period, if you admit magic into your world (and actually this applies to sufficiently advanced technology as well), what are the ramifications? If there aren’t any, then the magic or tech risks being irrelevant. Worse still, the story could veer into deus ex machina territory, and that is rarely (if ever) satisfying. Also, the ramifications can manifest in subtle ways as well as the obvious. Actually, it’s an automatic source of conflict—between the haves and have-nots, and conflict is the life-blood of writing.

The book also has a “surprising yet inevitable” climax. I saw the foreshadowing of what would happen much earlier, but was so swept up the action that I completely forgot about it. That takes skill, and it true was a forehead-slapping moment for me. Satisfying.

If I have a criticism, it’s that I’m not aware of Brandon having plans for a sequel, and the ending had me begging for a sequel. Maybe that’ll happen with the next trilogy, when that happens.

Review: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Ok, this is hardly a new book, but I only just got around to reading it. The concept is simple: take Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice” and add zombies to jazz it up.

From A Reader’s Perspective

This book could so easily have gone down like a lead balloon. Not only does the idea of melding a country-wide zombie plague with historical English fiction about high society seem ridiculous, but the Bennet sisters are changed to be schooled in martial arts.

Incredibly, the execution actually works very well. I confess I haven’t read the original, though I have seen the BBC adaptation, and it appears that large swathes of the story remain unmolested. Thus we have the classic prose and the story of Elizabeth and Darcy, and only occasionally do the modifications the the story come through. Their comic value is increased by Grahame-Smith’s restraint.

From A Writer’s Perspective

Grahame-Smith hasn’t inserted the new elements willy-nilly, and this makes a big difference. More often that not, the zombies are referred to as the “unmentionables” or the “dreadful”, and that matters because it helps to keep the reader in the story. Similarly, though frequent mentions are made of characters having trained in China or Japan, their skills are consistently referred to as the “deadly arts”. In taking the time to cast the new elements in the light of the original time period, Grahame-Smith avoids jarring the readers from the story.

I consider it a lesson is choosing your words carefully. If a writer is trying to represent a time period other than the present day, then often that period will have its own language conventions or vernacular. The author must be sensitive to this or risk jolting the reader out of the story. In a similar vein, people read fantasy in order to escape from the present, if only for a little while, and language has as much to do with this as setting, magic or funny clothes.

On reflection, what Grahame-Smith appears to have done with/to this book is not so much to insert extra elements where he saw fit, but to ponder how the society of the time would be affected if the dead really were to rise. That in itself is a lesson in world-building.

Name Lists & Generators

I like automation, so here are some online generators I have bookmarked;

My favourite writing tool, Scrivener, also has a built-in name generation function, but only for contemporary names, alas.

Sometimes, just a plain old list of names is useful, such as;

For the adventurous, I even found a list of separately written surname prefixes (e.g. the “von” in “von Munchausen”).

Review: “Then” by Julie Myerson

I read this book almost accidentally, since my partner picked it up in a 3-for-2 offer. Still, the premise held enough of a fantasy / sci-fi edge to get me interested. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher’s website;

It was 9.22, the moment when everything stopped. First there was the burning air, then came the darkness, the fire, and finally the frost.

Now, in a frozen, wasted London, a woman – uncertain even of her own name – is fighting to stay alive. Along with a small group of fellow survivors, she takes refuge in an abandoned skyscraper in what was once the financial centre. But spectres stalk the empty offices and endless corridors, and soon visions of a forgotten world emerge, a world of broken love and betrayal, and horrific, shocking mercies – a world more traumatic even than the desolate present.

Then is a novel of singular invention and bravery. With it, Julie Myerson has created an echo chamber of the heartbreaking and the terrifying, and an enduring apocalyptic vision.

From A Reader’s Perspective

I read the whole thing in pretty much two sittings, which says a lot. You really get a feel for the desolation and loneliness of her post-apocalyptic London. No explanation is offered for the disaster, and none is required because really the main thrust of the story is its female protagonist. I won’t name her because you don’t find our her name until probably two-thirds of the way through. Somehow it’s not relevant until them, and it wasn’t until I found out her name that I realised I didn’t know it.

There are two strands to the story – the protagonist’s life before and after the disaster. Myerson skilfully brings both these threads together as the book moves inexorably towards its conclusion. It starts off with a linear structure, but that starts to break apart as things progress, echoing the protagonist’s fragile mind and the way in which her memories drag her back to pre-disaster times, or even mingle with the present.

Despite the confusion this brings to the reader, it works to underpin her situation, helped by the straightforward but compelling writing style. Through the tangle of lost and found memories, the reader discovers the protagonist’s heart-breaking story pretty much as she does. The book climaxes with the real tragedy of her life, brought about by the disaster but essentially the product of a mother’s sheer desperation.

I was left feeling pretty unsettled by this book. I don’t think it’s the sort of novel that you can enjoy per se, but I felt compelled to read the whole thing through.

From A Writer’s Perspective

This book doesn’t employ quotation marks for speech. Not a single one. All the “said”s are there, just not the quotes. This is initially rather strange, but you soon get past that and see how it has the effect of weaving speech, thought and action into a single continuum. When it becomes apparent that the protagonist is essentially under siege by her own mind, the effect is enhanced significantly, making the reader (or at least me) feel pretty firmly embedded in the protagonist’s head. This tees you up for maximum effect during the emotionally charged scenes later in the book.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I’d recommend the technique. I haven’t read any other Myerson so  don’t know if she’s done it before, but I can imagine it getting annoying in other books. I suppose if the story will support it and it helps, rather than hinders, then fair enough. I don’t expect I’ll try it anytime soon—I personally prefer italics for though segments.

The non-linear style of this book works because it reflects how the character is experiencing the world. Although you could call it flashback, it’s not as simple as that. Again, his could easily have become just confusing, but Myerson keeps everything working in concert, despite the disjointedness of it. It’s quite a feat.

I did almost think that there was a shade little too much ‘What? / You know what’ in the dialogue, but given the character’s memory loss, Myerson gets away with it. The dialogue is never laboured, so actually such lines do feel like real speech.

Overall, the book blends some potentially troublesome mechanics and meshes them expertly together. It’s a great example of how to do the above things well.

A Messy Business

As a new author, I seek out advice from a variety of sources, for example, the awesome Writing Excuses podcast. There’s so much advice available about redrafting and editing, or working with critique partners, even writing query letters

.It’s clear to me that in writing s novel I’ve embarked on a multiple-step process. I considered that perhaps it’s like pottery: making the rough shape on the wheel, refining the shape, maybe decorating the surface, then firing the piece to finish it. Hell, I could glaze it and fire it again before I was done.

So, in writing my first draft, I must be at the first stage of throwing the clay and making the rough shape? Yes?

No. The above (and somewhat lengthy) analogy presupposes that I have the material available to begin the process of shaping and refining. Actually, I don’t. I think for me that the process of writing the first draft akin to the digging up the clay in the first place. It’s messy, it’s tiring, and I’ll need more than will appear in the finished article(s), but I need something to work with.

That’s how I’m viewing my first draft. It’s not pretty and it’s going to need a lot of work, but I need to get it written before I can progress to making something prettier.

A Reader’s Manifesto

This isn’t a new piece, but I agree with the sentiment 100%;

“A Reader’s Manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose”, by B. R. Myers

Style over substance makes me uncomfortable, and I hope I never fall into that trap.