association-list a veritable mint for dunning-kruggerands

A brief diagnosis of the epidemic

I recently finished reading Shadows of the Apt, Book 1 An Empire in Black and Gold (SoA1), on the recommendation of several people. Surprisingly, I found that it was decent, although the prose was nothing special, verging on bad (some of the dialog, like whoa). Still, it was mostly refreshing. There wasn’t a ton of violence and there were even some family relationships. The basic premise is nothing particularly special, although it’s entertainingly literalized. I worried, at first that we’d see kinden piled atop kinden in an ever-escalating invention fest, but it didn’t actually pan out that way. On the whole, it could have been tighter, but as it was a first novel, and entertaining enough, I gave it a pass and moved more or less enthusiastically on to the second.

Unfortunately, it was nearly unstartable. Rapidly, we get signs that there is going to be the kinden-escalation mentioned earlier, we spend too much time with ninja badassery, and then to seal the deal there is some truly embarrassing grade-school level concealed-information foreshadowing.

First, though, a deeply nerdy nitpick of the series so far: Having your characters wind a ‘clockwork engine’ is required to be less efficient than having them powering their vehicles directly. I realize this is fantasy but it’s science so bad that it’s a major distraction. What else are you getting incredibly wrong?

OK, maybe another one. The major ninja-badass of the series uses some sort of mantis-claw blade gauntlet thing which sounds really cool until you spend two seconds thinking about it, then you realize that it’s a recipe for a broken wrist and has some disadvantage compared to a more traditional sword of the same length.

All right, back to more serious concerns and a general broadening of the topic.

Initially we spend a lot of time in SoA2 with Tisamon and Tynisa watching them fight each other and various people and we spend little bit of time with a chilly (not really chilling) psychotic who has it in for the conflicted baddy of the first book and seems to ninja everyone nearby to death. As far as I can tell these scenes add exactly nothing to the book, save the up the ninja quotient.

At some point, you have Too Many Ninjas. Epic fantasy series, this is your bane.

Glen Cook’s Black Company books are arguably the model for all of the books under discussion here. Inasmuch as they were compelling, it was because they dealt primarily with real people, albeit tough people in dire circumstances. If there were ninjas, they were rare and seldom called upon, only to resolve plot points of heavily foreshadowed near-impossibility. They were short and punchy and Cook is a serviceable writer with a very clear conception of what skills he does and doesn’t have.

The early Malazan books from Steven Erikson were great fun. They had Cook-ian characters that you could relate to as they went their grumbling, competent-but-fallible way through this decadently overbuilt world. And Erikson is a decent writer, so when you finally get to the point where the Ninjas come on screen, he just lets rip, and they tear shit up. It’s pretty great, the way that it comes together in those first few books. Unfortunately, we’ve only ever got a couple of people we can relate to, and we spend less and less time with them as we go on. More and more people become ninja badasses, which makes them harder to relate to, and ensures that their storylines will be followed up on later, further bloating a series of books that arrived already overweight. Although at his best, Erikson is a finer writer than Cook, he’s less clear on what he’s good at, and the bad stuff (the poetry, the mythopoeic origin/gods-and-heroes sections) seems to get more and more protracted. Eventually you give up, if you’re me. The adjunct Crimson Guard books fail from the first, because not only are they less well-structured and less well-written, everyone you meet from page one either dies promptly or is/becomes a capital-N Ninja. It’s hard to share the author’s glee in their creation, because there’s no hook (or rather, there’s the attempt at one, but you don’t get enough time with him because there’s so much other Neat Stuff the author just can’t help but share).

Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books work better, though I give them less weight since structurally, they’re not epic fantasy in the Cook mold. But while they trade heavily in Tolkien subversion for structure, they borrow liberally from the Cook inspired gritty fantasy oeuvre, which I think makes them relevant here. For the most part, Ninjary is kept off-screen or invoked (in the case of Logen) at horrific cost to everyone nearby. The supernatural in general is sparse here, and thus the author feels constrained to limit his badasses to the merely human, or they’re used as enemies to sinister effect.

So, suggestions to future writers of epic fantasy, be it gritty, dark, or light:

  1. Ninjas: err on the side of too few! They may allow for cool scenes but, but they distance your readers from the story that you’re trying to tell. The scenes that they allow are also too often hollow displays of showing. Either they carry more weight than ‘X fought Y and was (slightly/greviously/un)hurt.’, or it’s just so much special effects wankery.
  2. Ultraviolence is near terminally overdone! It’s OK to have characters who have families and love people and care about things other than honor & skill. Writing a little romance won’t kill you, either.
  3. Don’t underestimate the quality of writing in terms of making your books easier to read.
  4. Shorten it up. I realize bloat is the tradition, but everyone will be better off if you can keep it down to 90-100k words or so. Take heart, it means you can sell 20 books instead of 5-10! But…
  5. Pay attention to the broader structure of your books. You need multiple entry points and books that could potentially stand alone, otherwise you kind of disappear up your own tailpipe when book one goes out of print.
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