It has taken me three years–three full years in which I also read plenty in between each book–to finish all ten books in Steven Erikson’s gargantuan fantasy series: The Malazan Book of the Fallen.
Being the longest series I’ve ever read, and possibly the longest series of epic fantasy (Jordan’s is thirteen books, but at least 6 out of Erikson’s 10 are well over 1000 pages), I feel that this is a momentous occasion. It’s an accomplishment that leaves me stunned when I think about actually writing that much. But to quote from Erikson’s forward in the tenth book: “What’s three and half million words between friends?”
Well–a lot of time, I suppose. And, as volumes this size go, quite a lot of those words were absolutely worth it. On occasion a book would drag on–get wrapped up in itself and set out on unnecessary detours. But mostly I just couldn’t get enough. And now that it’s all over I’m feeling…nostalgic.
Sure, I’m ready for other authors, other worlds, other characters and voices; but take a moment (if you have never read something this large) to imagine what it could be like to be invited into someone’s imagination for such an intense, sustained period of time. Imagine also, what that could be like when the world you’re invited into is as heartfelt, as sorrowful, as horrific, and as lovely as you can…um, imagine.
Footnote (for the sake of scale…and to impress you): The Malazan story arc calls to mind similarities with a Greek tragedy. It follows the rise and fall of the great Malazan Empire that reminds me more of the Romans than the Greeks, but whatever. In the series of campaigns and wars that span across at least three continents (to say nothing of countries and people groups), each book is drawn inextricably toward a climactic convergence at the end. The reasons for each war often involves about 30,000 years of relevant history that interacts with nine or ten different races of beings apart from human. And then there are the god’s own schemes and the different dimensions they inhabit (a lot like Greek mythology here).
Steven Erikson studied anthropology in school, and it shows. The interactions with different peoples and the details carefully giving to cultures never stopped amazing me. The author’s compassion for groups of people practically rivals his attention given to individual characters.
So now perhaps you understand how this series can stand up under its sheer length and still have purpose. Could it have been shorter? Certainly. Would that have made it better? Possibly.
Would it have the same purpose?
The Malazan tales do what few other books do. Call it self-absorbed and indulgent, but Erikson gives us something that we can immerse ourselves in. And that’s what he set out to do from the beginning because the plot tangles in the first two books don’t even start to get wrapped up until the third, and that one only opens more doors for exploration.
This was always about exploration, and I’m ready for something succinct, but I never regretted a moment of what I found here. It’s like reading a history book that gives you way more information than you need, but it’s all delicious for that same reason. Sometimes looking down all possible avenues is exactly what we need, and I’m not saying Erikson wraps everything up with a tidy literary bow. He still leaves much to the adventures in our heads, and that’s why I couldn’t get enough.
He creates an epic that slowly defines a world and gives reflections into our own, many times exaggerating both the darkly cynical and the redemptive sides of human nature.
So if you want a fascinating and heartfelt safari of a new world, this will keep you busy, possibly until you die. If you want brevity you’re probably in the wrong genera anyway.
Nothing has changed.
No, I’m kidding. It’s been a while since I’ve managed to find time to blog or write, and my life has felt scattered and unorganized because of that. Writing is truly one of my biggest centers. A focuser. And apart from that, many things are different–the biggest of which has the been the move.
Everything feels more temporary than it used to. More rushed. Not busier; it’s not at all what I thought. But it is less easy to define a day’s activities in a sentence than it used to be. Everything that happens seems to be punctuated with commas, breaths are shorter, and I’m looking around for what I might call “home” not just as a more permanent living place, but in the work place and other aspects of life.
Finding time to write more often will undoubtedly help with that.
This whole thing reminds me of a Christian Wiman poem I read recently while watching the Arizona clouds meander by in the West’s infinity skies. It was during a road trip with some long-time friends that this poem struck me with thoughts about home.
Home is momentary, a way of seeing, a sweet lingering in a cloud before it drifts beyond the form [we've] found for it.
Life is about transitions, I suppose. Everything settled is an in between-time spent preparing for the next transition. I used to hate transitions and moves and changes. Still do to a degree. I used to be afraid of unfamiliar places. Part of me still is. It’s the part of me that looks, or hopes to find the same shape in the cloud I just saw. And it’s the same part of me that not only misses that shape but also wants to move on too. Get things over with.
But things are never over with.
The cloud is still there, and there’s a new shape, and it’s made up of all the same principles, and even (in my case for now) people.
So home is a thing of fine fluidity, and transitions are adventures.
And no matter how melancholy it may seem, things were never meant to stay the same. Life has as many metaphors as it has transitions, so I won’t go on. But I look around me, and I find that all the things that have remained the same are the things that count most, that will hopefully never change.
One of these is writing, and I will have to adapt to different schedules, write in smaller places–create as fiercely as ever. Oh, and on the best days I’ll have to share them here with you all.
There are still so many more words to be written and to be read. So many more adventures to have.
I have an aphorism artfully written on a board I keep with me. It says: “Life is a novel. Let God be the novelist.” There’s more to be said about that metaphor–stuff about characters and about freewill. But sometimes I’ll say it to myself, and I like to let it hang in the air and be what it is.
And I feel at home.
Well, I’m graduating. And this ends another stage in my life as I move on from my undergraduate self and try to apply all the knowledge buzzing around in my brain before it flies out of my ears. Some of the stuff I’ve learned will have the same lifespan as a fly…and I’m definitely ok with that.
But one of the most profitable and important experiences that I’ve had in my college career is not likely to crash and burn anytime soon. My three years working at the Rhetoric Center (known as the RC for those with style) were probably where I learned the most during my time at Calvin. Classes are great for book knowledge and writing practice, but in the office I gained practical communication skills. I think I was shy before I had to talk commas with paper-frustrated individuals…that sorta pegs me as a hopeless nerd.
But so are these wonderful people, and I will miss working with all of them. Who else am I going to have the pleasure of geeking out about well-written papers with? Who else am I going to talk to about the possible sins of ending a sentence with a preposition? It’s a myth, folks. Now that I can’t be fired for saying this: go for it. In any case, I only get glazed looks from my housemates when I talk about writing, and my family has expressed their earnest disapproval at me pointing out grammar mistakes in newspapers.
So I will miss you all and your bookishness. I’m writing this to you now from my classroom where I’m supposed to be taking my second to last exam. The prof sent us the essay prompt, and I “forgot” I wasn’t supposed to write it before hand. I wish you all could read it…it’s really, really terrible.
I thought I’d give you all a snapshot of the complete map of Urthrite because the image I have posted before is a tricky one, angled and zoomed in and all that. Here is Urthrite in its entirety. No tricks. The whole thing.
And let me amend that statement by saying this is the whole map of the known world…If you know what I mean.
Most fantasy enthusiasts would agree that world-building is vital for the life of any particular novel. Just like a character, the landscape itself should have dramatically vivid attributes that define it and set it apart from the monotony of average fields, mountains, rivers and seas (and even those can come alive with the right details). An imaginative author can design a world that is as memorable as some of the best characters of that genre.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of material to work with–much more than just an array of flora and fauna which may or may not be alien. Worlds have scars and weather patterns (consider Sanderson’s Way of Kings and the brilliant world defined primarily by its volatile storms and wind-hardened creatures).
Think also in terms of cartography. What makes Kevin Anderson’s Terra Incognita series so intriguing? Or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Even the inhabitants of that world don’t know what lurks over the horizon. It makes for some wonderful suspense. Some authors think big, taking in whole atlases and mythologies; some think small, ruminating on an old building or focusing on one city in great depth.
Wrapped up in all these considerations are seasons, animal behavior, abnormal catastrophes, storms, etc…and above all: Culture. The world is tied inseparably to the people and the people to the world. How do they shape each other? The fantasy/science fiction author has to become a biologist, and archeologist, a historian, and an anthropologist all at once. Not to mention a psychologist and a linguist. The best writers employ a whole college of disciplines.
We fantasists have to be as much in this world as anyone else. We have to be paying attention. Doing research. Learning, jotting stuff down, and drawing maps. The best imaginary worlds are still tied to ours in important ways. There are no rules, but there are guidelines.
This brings us to the wonderful paradox of fantasy. Readers need some realistic grounding and will therefore complain if a world has no anchor in reality. If the seas are made out of toxic wastes, the fish better be monstrous creatures who can breath it. If the whole world is covered in snow, people won’t be wearing sandals. Usually a fantasy world will have great similarities to ours with only small, plot-defining differences. It’s easy to get out of hand. It’s easy to forget the world for the story and both suffer from malnutrition.
Landmarks are a good way to avoid loosing readers. Reminding them of that unstable volcano in the vicinity of the spider-infested forest where the action is taking places could be a beneficial detail–especially if you plan on making the lava flow later. Introduced landmarks should be used, should become part of the plot. One of the most common complaints about certain fantasy authors is that they’ve become over indulgent to the world they’re creating, adding details that don’t add to the understanding of the information important for the plot. This is a fuzzy line, but when an author’s writing for themselves it’s noticeable.
The best fantasy authors can develop a world that gives readers a sense of it’s vastness or character without throwing out unnecessary details. Here’s a panoramic view of Middlearth that Tolkien gives us in The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s good stuff:
“It was now as clear and far-seen as it had been veiled and misty when they stood upon the knoll of the Forest, which could now be seen rising pale and green out of the dark trees in the West . In that direction the land rose in wooded ridges, green, yellow, russet under the sun, beyond which lay the hidden valley of the Brandywine. To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale grass where the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands and flowed away out of the knowledge of the hobbits. Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” – Chapter 8, The Fellowship of the Ring
It sets the scene for the impending adventure. Tolkien uses colors, the placement of the sun, names of places, and all the points of the compass to paint before us a tapestraic picture of a world that seems more real every moment. It puts you there. That’s the key to world building: make it real to your readers. Transport them to the world.
Photoshop Design project: We were asked to link a phrase and image that were not intended to connect in order to alter the meaning. I was going for humorous,wondering what e. e. cummings would think of one of his most famous lines as linked to bovine ambitions. It’s not really a project worth any of the skills I’ve picked up in this class, but we just started moving into images with text to form meaning, so the exercise is appropriate.
Let’s be honest…the grass does always look greener on the other side, and right now, with graduation just over that white picket fence, I’m trying to figure out whether the grass is real or just a photoshop altered mirage.
I hear people saying that these college days are the golden days, the sunniest days. It never gets any better than this! Granted, these maxims mainly come from faculty who never really left college in the first place, and from where they sit it just isn’t as fun as it used to be.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Hopefully. Now that I’m ed-u-ma-cated I should have the wits to find some of that grass. Even for a poor writing major with no street compass. I should have the guts to do a bit of exploring.
Sure, I’ll hop that fence with style and take whatever leafy green shoots I can find…Nope.
I’ll probably trip up and land on my face, feet tangled in the place I just left. Most events in life happen that way. The good thing about the ground is that’s where the grass is. (that’s the sound of a metaphor stretching to its ripping point).
Hopefully God has it in mind to smile ruefully and let me trip my way into a green patch. I’ll keep faith in the suspicion that the best things in life happen because of our blunderings and his design. It’s wonderfully humbling, but it’s no wonder Scripture constantly compares us people to livestock.
“Golden days” probably has more to do with one’s eagerness and earnestly and less to do with actual circumstances. That’s what I love about this line from e. e. cummings that I plastered on a Google image of cows. The eagerness. The excitement about whatever the hell is over there we don’t know let’s go.
I love cummings’ use — or lack of — punctuation. It’s a small gesture that creates an entire style, and, as readers, we feel the excitement of it. There’s no time for commas or periods! Let’s go go go! (Cows wouldn’t know how to use punctuation either, so you see how this is all coming together).
I guess I can’t speak with any integrity about the woes of the daily grind when I’m used to the twists and surprises of college. Keeps me sharp. Can’t complain now, and maybe I won’t complain then when I’m munching on grass that’s exactly the same shade of green as the stuff I just left. That’s pretty green. Bitter on occasion, but, hey, it’s not worse and it’s not bad.
Here begins a series of scattered posts where I showcase some of the best lines and quotes I picked up from recent books I’ve read. Sadly, I only just read Ursula K. Le Guin’s frst Earthsea novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, a few months ago. I’m no longer ignorant to the fact that I was really missing out on a work of stunningly original and wise literature.
I hope that by going back over some of these quotes and themes we might be inspired in our own writing. I want to be able to make something of these catalogues of great lines. Also, if any of you have read this book and have things to add, please don’t hesitate to comment! Let’s keep these stories alive.
For those who have never read A Wizard of Earthsea:
Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea. But he was once called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.
Here is an author who has the wisdom of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien’s capacity for legend. In a world that is more sea than land, where a person’s true name is never spoken except in the greatest of trust or for the most evil of reasons…some of its best lines:
“Ged crouched among the dripping bushes wet and sullen, and wondered what was the good of having power if you were too wise to use it.” 
“Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light?” 
“…you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act.” 
“Enjoy illusions, lad, and let the rocks be rocks.” 
“It is the shadow if your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?” 
“Go to bed; tired is stupid.” 
“…it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.” 
“From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things.” 
“And the grey sea closed over him.” 
“That is between me and my shadow.” 
“It is light that defeats the dark,” he said stammering,–”light.” 
“As a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one’s self, playing away the truth.” 
“At the spring of the River Ar I named you,” the mage said, “a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to, but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being.” [178-179]
“He knew only the torment of dread, and the certainty that he must go ahead and do what he set out to do: hunt down the evil, follow his terror to its source.” [204-205]
“…I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.” 
“I was with you at the beginning of your journey. It is right that I should follow you to its end.” 
I had many more notes and highlights as I looked back though, but I think these are some of the best. This book comes at my highest recommendation. It could change the way we look at fantasy and add a stronger dose of thought and spirit to the flashy wars and assassin’s creeds of popular fantasy now …“if the wind blows true.”
When I wrote in part 1 of this post series that the backbone of my book is war, I meant that the backbone of the action – the driving force of the action throughout the story – is primarily war-like activity. The book what I call a military fantasy. War is the major problem/conflict that the protagonists seek to resolve. Without the war, without the various sides and alliances and betrayals, I don’t have a plot. (Similarly, if there was no murder in the beginning of a murder mystery, it ceases to be a murder mystery).
Something to clarify: When I say war I don’t mean violence, but rather all of the political, social, emotional, and (in a sense) spiritual aspects wrapped up in a war. There is violence. In some cases, graphic. But I have no intention of glorifying it, only strengthening the seriousness of certain situations, and, by contrast, strengthening the beauty of others.
I don’t mean to communicate that the war is the most important vehicle moving the plot forward. The characters are that vehicle, and they are what I’m most interested in, which leads me to favor the writing method of warfare Martin calls the “vivid and visceral.”
More often then not, we see the battles from the eyes of a character who is directly in the center of the action. Despite the chaos that can be difficult to keep track of as I write it, I find it more effective for inviting the readers into an emotional attachment to the action. If the general’s view (Commander Winters standing stoically – almost – in his bird’s-eye tower) can be equated to the head, than the “vivid and visceral” is the heart. And I think the heart can be used for greater effect by an author.
Head: Or mind, as you saw in part 1, gives us our panorama – our chessboard in which the general moves the pieces as best he can for the greatest possible outcome. I use the word head because of the demands on the general to see the battle as a problem to be solved with numbers and impersonal things that, by necessity, distance him from the horror on the ground. The difference between this and my example in Pt. 1 is that the general is seen through the eyes of the political leader who, in this case, is a gentle man, and he still sees and registers the horror, which was my way of adding some heart to that scene on the tower.
Heart: Referring to the gritty in-the-middle-of-things emotions. This method, despite the danger of loosing the flow of the work, can work perfectly from showing us a character as he or she truly is. Everything is stripped away. The pawn usually has little to none of the tight control that the general must show. Their thoughts can flow freely across the battle in splashes of black fear and red blood. Where the general employs mostly sight, the pawn moving through the “vivid and visceral” can take in shockwaves of emotions, colors, glimpses and flashes of images and sounds. Fear, joy, sorrow, exultation, and black rage all beat at the character’s sanity, thus producing a more intensely felt world. If written effectively, I think this can be stronger than the focused ruminations of the general.
The Heart Perspective can also serve stronger connections between characters, and in some ways it can bring about redemption. The general wins or looses the battle. It’s obviously never so clear cut, but the Head Perspective is generally reserved for information and cunning plot structure. But characters operating inside the Heart Perspective rarely stand alone. (The lone ranger character is the exception, but I don’t really believe in him…maybe more on that later) This is a chance for the character to save or be saved, love or hate, form camaraderie, fall into a dark place where he or she feels lost, or offer forgiveness. If war is the “backbone” of my story, than the Heart Perspective is the vertebra of that backbone.
Allow me to use the example of the Lord of the Rings movies, which have some of the best examples of warfare and are familiar to almost everyone.
Helms Deep: The first great battle of the Trilogy, Helms Deep, is directed primarily in the Head Perspective. The generals (Aragorn and Theoden), while still being a major part of the action, observe, calculate, and command. This is assuming a looser view of the perspectives, but the premise stands. Both generals are stoics gesturing across the field of battle and affecting the broad sweep of events as they see fit.
As I said, it’s not always one or the other all the way through a scene. Aragorn and Gimi’s back-to-back fight just outside the gate is a connection of trust between them that is all Heart. Gimli even let’s Aragorn toss him! And at the end, the “ride out and meet it” scene is a stunning display of Heart that makes the whole battle worth the watch.
Minas Tirith and Pelennor Fields: These shared climactic battles, on the other hand, are more toward the Heart side of the scale. Neither Gandalf nor Theoden have much say in the actual fight except for the very beginning of each scene. Even the filming itself (in parallel to writing style for books) is often much choppier and jolting than the panoramic views in Helms Deep. We get a much stronger sense of the “vivid and visceral.”
Granted, the lines are a little fuzzy, and this is a movie, not a book, but hopefully you get the idea.
George Martin talks about writing battle scenes in terms of the actual writing and what that does for the reader’s understanding of what is going on. But to think of battles in terms of Heart or Head will give you as a writer more control over what that scene is there to accomplish and keep you focused on that purpose. Likewise, a reader thinking this way will begin to see through the chaos, and I’ll venture to say that it’ll be the Heart that stands out most of all.
The backbone of my book is war. Battles carry the action along from one scene to the next; blood tracks its way across the pages. All my characters get sucked into the maelstrom. Most of them have no wish to do so, but they have to to save the city or the people they love. As I’ve said before, I’m not a glorifier of violence, but my characters react when violence comes upon them. Some know nothing else. Some feel the guilt of the blood they’ve shed as a great burden they have to bare.
This isn’t a post about reasons, though. It’s about the writing of battle scenes. How to do it effectively?
George Martin is an expert in such affairs:
“From where I sit, battles are hard. I’ve written my share. Sometimes I employ the private’s viewpoint, very up close and personal, dropping the reader right into the middle of the carnage. That’s vivid and visceral, but of necessity chaotic, and it is easy to lose all sense of the battle as a whole. Sometimes I go with the general’s point of view instead, looking down from on high, seeing lines and flanks and reserves. That gives a great sense of the tactics, of how the battle is won or lost, but can easily slide into abstraction.”
Both of them have their advantages and disadvantages, but if done right they can be effective, and they can be the fastest turned pages in the book.
Here’s an example of the general’s view from my own work. My best advice in these scenes is to keep them short and sweet and leave them at a crucial moment to keep blood pressure high and abstraction low:
Lord Donthane watched the most brilliant man in Brisha conduct a war as though it were an orchestra. And the flag bearer at his side, whose name Donthane couldn’t recall, acted as though he were an extension of the commander’s will. Flags waved, painting lines of color through the air around the man, and with each command an answering flag could be seen from somewhere along the defensive line.
The barrage did not let up. The Amorians continued pounding the wall relentlessly as though they sought to tear it down brick by brick without ever laying a finger on it. The answering trebuchet fire was not nearly as frenzied or as random. Winters had long ago worked with the Engineer’s Brigade to calculate the distance and power needed to use the weapons to their absolute capacity. Donthane was witnessing first hand that they had been successful. A Brishian trebuchet lurched into action, swinging the heavy weight downward to launch a measured stone the size of a boar into the air. The stones, having been measured and weighed before hand and the distance having been calculated, would strike true practically every time, reducing an enemy siege weapon and its crew to bloody splinters. These shots took time to set up, but slowly the number of heavy weaponry was evening out.
Lan-Kap and his Wake were holding the wall and sustaining losses, but the Amorians still showed no sign of moving in, and the famed sentry division was becoming crippled. Jagged rocks careened down the battlements punching holes in regiments and individual bodies with devastating effect. Some of the stones shattered on the battlements, filling men with hot shards. Donthane was glad he was not close enough to hear their cries, but he knew they were there and he wept for them.
Commander Winters stood like some statue of past battles – hands held lightly behind his back, legs spread shoulder width apart, back ramrod straight. But his mind and eyes were everywhere at once, and at the slightest jerk of his head and the naming of a flag, his commands were known throughout the entire range of officers positioned in the field of battle.
He glanced into the streets below and nodded toward his assistant. “Recruits and light ground infantry from the relief division begin evacuation of Holly District and Pine District. Use Pine as a staging area for rebuilding heavy equipment.”
A green flag with a white arrow slashed through the air, followed by a white flag with a black boarder, which continued flapping back and forth for a while longer before swooping in a wide arc. The response from below was instantaneous. A full evacuation of the southernmost districts was taking place, conducted by relief soldiers from the north side of the city who had just arrived. Winters left no resource idol.
He turned to the Lord of Brisha, momentarily removed from the battle below him. “The evacuation of the lower districts will be carried out as planned without panic or riots, my lord. Temporary housing as been staged just up field, beyond the danger zone.”
“I have complete confidence in your abilities, Commander.” Donthane inclined his head graciously, but a look of worry creased his aged face. “I am concerned about our men on the wall.”
Winters looked down at the shuddering lines on the south wall. “That is war, my lord. I cannot remove them from their post, for as soon as I do the full attack will catch us unprepared. Casualties are a part of battle, I’m afraid.” He said.
“The sooner we can neutralize the siege machinery, the sooner the soldiers on the wall can being actually defending themselves.”
Donthane could do naught but watch innocent men die. But as he looked back toward the enemy lines he saw more commotion. The endless masses of warriors had become excited about something. Suddenly, an uproar like a thunderhead tore through the camp and the pitched siege weaponry sent one last barrage forward. All at once, the remaining ground trebuchets let loose their contents, and a new kind of nightmare flew toward the battlements of Brisha’s south wall. Men coward behind useless shields as the flaming casks of oil shattered about their feet and fires licked flesh like starving demons.
In that instant of chaos, the full force of the Amorian plains was thrown at one trembling city, and even the eyes of the city’s most brilliant leader widened in surprise at its rage.
Not every Big Idea works for a book -- but just because a Big Idea fails in that way does mean it can't inspire other big ideas, some of which might fare better. Francis Knight, author of Fade to Black, explains this concept further.
Fade to Black wasn’t born of one Big Idea, or rather it was, but that got shot down in flames fairly early on (and rightly so).