Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Answering Review Request: The Amber Treasure

Richard Denning asked me to read his novel "The Amber Treasure". It takes place in fifth-sixth century British Isles and involves territory wars between the Saxons and the Romano-Britons. I will examine plot, characters and polish and then assign a grade.

PLOT

There are two plot threads here, personal and impersonal, and they are skillfully woven together. On one hand, the protagonist is looking to rescue his sister and retrieve a family heirloom, but on the other hand, the guy responsible is part of a plot to conquer Saxon land and drive the Saxons themselves back into the sea.

One might think that this is going to be a solo journey, or at most, a ragtag bunch of misfits but it's neither. It's more realistic than that. It's a formal militia marching to the guy's lair. It doesn't end there either. This story is a military campaign conducted by kings with Cedric, a greenhorn soldier, as it's emotional core. It's engaging and exciting but it is not hotblooded.
I call Amber Treasure the Blue Oni to 300's Red Oni. Instead of Large Hams and bullet time and badass boasts etc there is planning and rhetoric and reflection. This is because it is a first person account written by Cedric as an old man. Naturally he has had time to think about what happened and present everything the way a historian would.

Another thing I like to say about this book is "Your Sister Is In Another Castle". There is a repeated sense of 'not quite there yet' as Cedric continues his personal quest to retrieve what he lost when his village was attacked.

There's an Idiot Ball or two but it is understandable. I've read too many real life historical accounts about people dooming themselves because of idiotic actions to hold them against fictional characters.

There is a terrific resolution. This is a story that resolves it's current conflict but leaves open the path to future conflict. It's hard to strike that balance but Mr.Denning does a fantastic job.

 

CHARACTERS
 
I like Cedric, the protagonist. He's a heroic guy and a humble guy. He's aware of his faults. He fights bravely but is not a Conan the Barbarian expy. One of his friends is bigger and stronger while his other friend is faster and a better archer. This guy is the leader. Cedric the Narrator will comment on the qualities of a leader and how he possessed them in sufficient qualities to lead men as a teenager.
What I like about this is that Cedric states at the beginning that he writes this story to preserve what happened but he doesn't paint himself in a flattering light. Indeed, more often then not it's a self-deprecating light.

Cedric's friends, Edward and Cuthbert are minor characters and receive characterization appropriate to minor characters. I could say the same for the rest of the supporting case but what I want to focus on is the nameless background characters.

There is no such thing as Always Chaotic Evil in this story. Cedric often writes how their enemies are no different then himself and his community. Indeed, he points out several boys his age on the other side that are just as scared as him. Then he goes further and says that the Britons have more basis for calling the Saxons Always Chaotic Evil then the Saxons do the Britons because the Saxons migrated to the British Isles and took over and enslaved the natives.


 
POLISH

No typos, no grammar errors. It has a thoughtful and reflective air about it. It wouldn't be hard for Mr.Denning to pose this as a real life historical diary.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Amber Treasure" an A+ (The third such for a novel)

Click here for the next review (not a request): "Eragon"

Click here for the previous review request "Welcome to Harmony"

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Originality and Tradition

I finished reading Eragon the other day and I decided to use it as the basis for a post on originality and genre tradition. (You can read my review here)

I read a lot of criticism about how the book supposedly rips off Star Wars or Tolkien or whatever. It's intense. The mods at Tvtropes had to lock the main page for The Inheritance Cycle due to flame wars about its originality or lack thereof.  I saw only superficial things that could have come from elsewhere.

1. Farm Boy that becomes a warrior
2. Raised by Uncle due to secret heritage.
3. Old mentor figures from the old order
4. Fallen order
5. Evil overlord traitor
6. Rescue a damsel in distress.

For each point I'll briefly explain the trope's appeal in the fantasy genre and widespread nature.

1. Farm Boy is a trope. 302 wicks
The first line on the page is "A staple of fantasy adventures" and indeed there is over three dozen entries on the page. Star Wars and Inheritance Cycle are only two of those.  There's a reason for this.

Most fantasy settings takes place in a pre-industrial society and in a pre-industrial society some ninety percent of the population is rural and involved in some form of agriculture or animal husbandry. Thus, the vast majority of boys in this setting are going to be farm boys.  There are other reasons besides:
1. Farm boys are in good physical condition
2. Farm boys likely know how to hunt
3. Farm Boys can serve as an Audience Surrogate
For these reasons they are a good place for an author to start; talk about the world from their ground level view and drop a few chekhov's skills along the way.

Finally for this trope, it's just a starting point. Anything can happen to this farm boy after he gets the Call to Adventure. (Itself a trope with so many subtropes it's an index)

2. Secret Legacy is a trope with 225 wicks.
Again Star Wars and Inheritance Cycle are only two of those and they have a different legacy. Ancestry and heritage are big deals and so a character learning that everything they have believed about themselves their whole lives is false turns their world upside down. Regardless of whether or not it's obvious to the reader it can be devastating for the character themselves. How they respond to it can vary from character to character and what the legacy itself is can vary.

3. Old Mentor is a trope with 245 wicks.
There are many mentor tropes and these two stories belong to the Mentor Archetype "A more experienced advisor or confidante to a young, inexperienced character". This did not begin with Star Wars and nor will it end with The Inheritance Cycle. In fact, it goes all the way back to one of the oldest stories we know: Odysseus entrusted his son to an old friend named "Mentor" which is where we get the word.

This has a basis in real life in the Master-Apprentice relationship. Back in the day it was the primary method to transmit trade skills across the generatioins. Naturally this is reflected in literature and why not? It's a good way to train and provide character development for younger characters.

4. The Order and Order Reborn  have 112 and 34 wicks respectively.
There are many such organizations of warriors in fiction and real life. One could say that both Star Wars and Inheritance Cycle are ripping off Arthurian Romance with its Knights of The Round Table. Both of them are different but they have the same general purpose and core. That's what makes them a trope. You even have one of them betraying the others and leading to the downfall of the whole Order.

An author can have both Doylist and Watsonian reasons for including an order of warriors. There's idea of safety in numbers, world building, character development, and the fact that Orders often have trappings like armor, creeds, and uniforms that make them look cool.

 5. Evil Overlord has 2,816 wicks

This high number is why TvTropes calls it "The archetypal High Fantasy and Science Fantasy (and sometimes Heroic Fantasy) villain. " People in Modern Age stories and Real Life are called this so comparing two stories based on this is grasping at straws. Going into all the ways that Galbatorix and Darth Vadar differ could be it's own blog post.

All stories need conflict and the villain is the primary means of creating conflict. For the fantasy genre, an evil overlord provides a target for the hero to bring down and a reason to venture into the Unknown World.


6. Damsel in Distress has over 6,000 wicks

The most unreasonable of them all and especially when compared to the two stories in question. Their jobs are different, their means of sending The Call are different, and the method of their rescue and its details are different. There is enough similarity and contrast that I could write a blog post about them.

I could go on but I believe I've made by point. TvTropes created The Tropeless Tale because no matter what you do, your story will contain tropes. Inevitably, someone will string enough together to call the story a rip off some other story.  In fact, I once read that Star Wars itself was criticized of ripping off Kirby's "New Gods" comics and Akira Kurosawa's film "The Hidden Fortress".  There's no shame in seeking inspiration from older stories. This is why genres exist; new storytellers continue the tradition of the old storytellers while adding their own imprint.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pros and Cons of Escapism

Today's post relates to last week's post about the dichotomy of The Protagonist and deals more precisely on my views concerning escapism.  In a nutshell, my feelings are complicated.

Disclaimer: This my personal opinion. I mean no offense to anyone else's opinion.

On the one hand, it offends my sensibilities as a novelist. I don't like the idea that my novels (or the novels of others) are used as a disposable hiding place. It gives me a feeling of 'tissue paper', or worse, 'toliet paper'; covered with crunge to provide temporary relief. This practice equates the novel to a feel-good drug that ultimately does nothing but harm to the user.

On the other hand, I DO like the idea that my novels (or the novels of others) could provide such relief to someone in need of it.  Life can be very hard and a disposable hiding place could make it tolerable. This practice equates the novel to cough syrup which dampens pain while the user works to overcome the source of the pain.

Originally, only the first paragraph described my feelings about escapism. When I was younger my preception of the world was much narrower and so my feelings on most subjects in real life were informed by what I saw in real life (other people like me) and online (varied).  When I thought of escapism I thought of people whose only problem was boredom and laziness. I figured they played games, read stories, etc in which they could insert themselves to relieve this boredom. I thought of Audience Surrogates who were fawned over by many beautiful girls (because the audience was too shy to talk to any in real life) or defeated demons (because they couldn't handle 'demons' in real life) and other wish fullfilment that shadowed what they wanted in real life.

This idea stayed with me when I decided to become a novelist and the thought of pandering to this sort of audience to make a living made me ill.  Then I found the following quote on Tvtropes. Believe it or not, it was on the trope page for In-universe escapism, that is, esscapism for the characters in the story.

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" lecture, 1939

I didn't bother arguing with this point becaue I couldn't think of a valid point to argue. If I was imprisoned without hope of release or escape then I would certainly want to immerse myself in a more pleasant environment, even if it was imaginary. My problem with escapism comes from those that are not imprisoned or facing similarly harsh circumstances. The reason for my problem is summed up in this line from "The Oatmeal" website. I found it on the Tvtropes page for Escapist Character.

"By creating this "empty shell," the character becomes less of a person and more of something a female reader can put on and wear."
-The Oatmeal, 'How Twilight Works'

I don't want to write stuff like that and so Eric is not a pair of pants for the reader to wear. I think I offended a few people who started reading with this idea in mind. Instead they're introduced first to Tasio the Trickster and then to Eric; the former laughs at the latter. My goal for the book was for Eric to better himself and become a stronger person without leaning on magic or a flock of beautiful admirers. It was a self-imposed challenge at first, but if someone were to follow his journey and benefit in the same way then I would be thrilled.

If the world that the reader escapes to is one that empowers them when they leave, then I see nothing wrong with escapism. If the world that the reader escapes to is devoid of the tramua that otherwise plagues them, I see nothing wrong with escapism. If the world that the reader escapes to contains a pair of 'perfection pants' or some other wish fullfilment, then I do see something wrong with escapism.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Protagonist; Loser or Champion

I do a lot of reading about the craft of writing; books, other blogs, TvTropes, and I noticed a trend when they talked about The Protagonist. It was often about how the protagonist should be 'relatable' to the reader and how the reader should 'emphasize with' or 'identify with' the protagonist. I never understood this because I've never 'identified' with a protagonist. Have I rooted for one? Yes. Have I sympathized with their goals and/or plight? Sure. Identify with them? Never. I dislike this mood of thinking because it lends itself to a false dichotomy when it comes to protagonists; they can only be losers or champions.

This leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it cheapens the story. It is like saying the protagonist is not a character in their own right but a new skin for the reader. It frustrates me that there is a sense that an author can only create one of these kinds of protagonists: lower or higher than the reader for different grades of escapism. Under this paradigm the only third option is a featureless Everyman who is even more suitable as a 'new skin' for the reader because there are no characteristics to get in the way.

The Tvtropes page for Action Survivor states it better than I can so I'll quote it here:

"The Action Survivor is the opposite of the Action Hero; he's pretty normal in just about every way, so much so that if the Action Hero is ostensibly a fantasy idealized-self, the Action Survivor is more of a self insertion for the viewer, giving us someone easily related to because we're wimps. "

The page goes on to say that the Action Survivor will eventually become a full fledged Action Hero, thus creating the off-spring of the two; a loser that becomes a champion. While this is great if a reader uses the story as inspiration to becom a champion in real life, it has a Bread and Circuses vibe to me.

I did not write the protagonist of A Mage's Power to be reader-relatable. I wrote him as a self-imposed challenge. I'll write more about that later on because it's irrelevant to this post. The point is that I would rather my readers join Tasio in laughing at the protagonist then feel that Tasio is laughing at them personally. Now that I think about it, maybe that's why this one person quit reading after four or so pages.....