Rise of Empire-Fantasy made economic once more

It’s been an interesting week in reading.

Just 3 days ago, I published a review of The Three Musketeers, which if you read, detailed how the book was a long, tedious and overall underwhelming read. And so it is funny, that just 72 hours later, I get to write a review that claims exactly the opposite.

It took me just one long weekend to rip through “Rise of Empire”, which comes as Sullivan’s sequel to his successful debut fantasy novel “A Theft of Swords”. Both these books were originally self published, and are each split into two parts. However here, for simplicity’s sake, I will consider them in their commercial format only.

Theft of Swords was actually the novel I dubbed my “book of the year” in 2015, when after receiving it as a gift, I was pleasantly surprised by the simple yet gripping fantasy tale I found within. Sullivan is a master of what I call “Economic Fantasy” (a term I believe I’ve invented). It’s not a ubiquitous skill by any means. Many well-regarded fantasy authors get caught up in complex plot devices, sprawling countries and a list of characters that runs right off the page. Sullivan circumvents this; pushing his plot forward so fast that it is impossible for it to gather dust. He trims everywhere, and keeps only the characters and locations that are absolutely necessary.

And now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say his worldbuilding is simple. Quite the opposite actually. The world laid out before us seems minute in his first installment, where literally one half of the book takes place on what you could call “one set”. But where Theft of Swords is condensed, Rise of Empire is like an explosion. Whole sections of the realm Sullivan creates become focal to the plot. What is perhaps more impressive again is how they are accessed. Travel in any fantasy novel that can stagnate a plot if it is not dealt with carefully. Here, Sullivan wisely blends the plot and the travel seemlessly, so much so that our protagonists Royce and Hadrian cross half the known world without it feeling laborious or drawn out.

These two characters, who form “Riyria”, after which the series takes its name, are perhaps the most enjoyable part of the tale. Characterisation can often be undercooked in plot-driven novels, but Sullivan refuses to let this be an issue. Instead, his main duo almost leap off the page, so much so that a master swordsman and an elven thief can almost be related to. Sullivan leaned his first novel heavily on the quick wit, action sequences and fascinating adventures of his protagonist pair, but in Rise of Empire his cast of characters begins to flush out. Added to the foreground are Princess Arista (given far more scope than the first novel), Modina (originally Thrace in the first installment) and Amilia, who only appears in this book. I’m not often one to point such nuances out, but it is key that each of these characters are female. Up until the last decade, nearly all fantasy novels revolved solely around men. Significant steps have been made since then, but a large amount of these belong to the Katniss Everdeens of the urban fantasy world. High fantasy is still awash with male characters, and so having three well-written female characters is a breath of fresh air. In fantasy, women are often painted as either damsels in distress or super killers without any faults. It is hard to understand how so many great fantasy writers can create whole worlds out of nothing, but find the notion of creating a believable female character impossible. Sullivan shoulders this responsibility well. Arista is endearing, strong, learned and brave, and it is clear the author has moulded her with as much care as he has Hadrian and Royce.

Sullivan treats romance with similar deftness. He achieves a fine balance between the non-existent and the overdone, and has the motivations of love and friendship cleverly intertwined with the traits of his characters.

Action is rife in the series, and where Theft of Swords was brimming, Rise of Empire is drowning. Some may argue it swamps the characters, but with the story driving onwards at such a high pace, the action always dances to the beat and never feels out of place. It is wild at times, but so too are our characters, and though they always seem to escape danger with relative ease, a shadow still hangs over the cast that feels very Game of Thrones-esque. Characters seem safe, but every so often we get the subtle reminder they are not, and as the story progresses this threat only ever looms larger.

The plot centres on the kingdom of Melengar, of which Arista is Princess and our main characters royal protectors, fighting against the newly formed empire. This takes us to the south, where Nationalists are battling the same foe, but not yet in one alliance. Arista’s goal is to unite their forces, but even as they do so, the world at large seems to shrink and more enemies come into play.

It’s intrigue at it’s best, and with so many revelations popping up as the story progresses, the stage is set for the climactic “Heir of Novron”, which should finish this trilogy with the storm it deserves!

 

In Defence of Worldbuilding

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*The following post involves a terrifying amount of burger/restaurant metaphor*

The last book you read involved worldbuilding. There, I said it.

What’s world building? Well, it’s quite simple. It is literally the process of creating a world for an art form to take place in. Every novel has to have a world, whether it’s Earth or not. World building doesn’t just include the actual physical setting e.g. Hogwarts or Panem, but actually goes much deeper than that.

If you think of the physical setting as a burger bun, then the rest of world building is all that juicy meat and salad that sits right in the middle. I mean sure, the bun is necessary to hold it all together, but when was the last time your stomach really growled over two pieces of bread with a couple sesame seeds on top? What you want is the filling, right?

The filling of a world, however, is seen in the little things: why does nobody walk down 2nd street at night? Why is the grass blue by the lake? How do you get elected to government in the country?

Of course, government is a “big thing”,but in the grand scheme of a novel it could only be a minor feature.

Another question readers commonly have is not what’s in the proverbial burger, but why are we cooking it at all in the first place?

World building is something stereotypically associated with fantasy or sci-fi novels, where in many cases authors have a blank canvas in front of them and just have to dive in and start somewhere. It’s thought that fantasy authors waste hours and hours drooling over languages and maps and leave little time for an actual story to develop. This is an understandable assumption, but one that leaves a lot of novels outside these genres suffering from terrible foundations. It’s all-too-easy for an author in general fiction or romance to play into this and forgo basic research or background detail in favour of characterisation or plot.

But while many readers might argue they never pay much attention to the details built into a world, it is usually the case that the best writers blend these features so seamlessly into a story that the reader often doesn’t even notice they’re there. Instead they get a kind of subconscious knowledge of the world. It’s a bit like Inception. A good book kind of makes you feel like you are in the world and that it was your desire to be there, not the writer’s skill, that got you there. It’s like the waiter telling you he brought you the vegetarian option by mistake right after you’ve tossed aside your napkin thinking you just wolfed down a quarter pounder and cheese. Sure, you feel aggrieved you weren’t right, but didn’t you enjoy it all anyway?  Didn’t all those details taste so good, regardless of whether you profess to like them or not?

That’s what good world building does. But why talk about all the good burgers (reference noted) when it’s the blackened ruins you remember more? So instead of trying to defend world building by showing you the best thing on the menu, I’m gonna go right ahead and point out a few ways you might ruin a summer BBQ and piss off a lot of readers as a result.

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1) “I have bacon and cheese and tomato and lettuce and hot sauce and jalapenos and…and….and”

Nothing says bad world building like not knowing where to draw the line. One minute you’re wondering how big your city is, and the next you’re trying to figure out which tattoos the Grim Gang get when one of their members gets killed. Who are the Grim Gang? I don’t know-literally just made them up. My point is it’s very easy for good and bad writers to just forget they were in the middle of a story and fall into the pit of “well I can make FOUR gangs where you only had three. I must be better”. Details aren’t merited by their quantity. Any good reader wants something a) innovative and b) well presented, which leads me onto my next point

2)”Can I get you something to drink? By the way the special is a chicken fillet burger”

Your details are only as good as your delivery, and all that excellent creative ability goes to waste if you just walk around the restaurant that is your novel shouting “THE SPECIAL IS CHICKEN FILLET”. Maybe the reader might catch on you’re forcing the point.

What you want is for them to spy it on the corner of the menu, or catch a glimpse of it on a sign on the way in. Make the reader feel it is almost hidden; almost left in by accident rather than you just screaming it in their face. They’re a lot of ways a writer can dangle out this “oops did I mention that my apologies” hook, like blurring details into dialogue rather than narration, or creating plot strings that might nudge in a couple aspects of your world into the reader’s field of vision. Whatever option you choose, it’s important to remember to mix it up. Even when you use a trick, if it’s consistent throughout a novel it eventually becomes predictable and a little annoying.

3)”Let me take your coat. By the way the dessert is pavlova”

Dear God, your reader has only sat down for their dinner and already you’re telling them about dessert menus and the service charge. Slow it down there. I mean, those details weren’t even in the original burger metaphor so this is clearly world building out of control. This is referred to in world building circles *adjusts glasses* as infodumping. Infodumping is where you have a large amount of detail the reader needs to grasp the story but rather than dole it out piece by piece you just want to bring them the entire four course dinner (burger et al) to their table at once and hope they don’t kick up a fuss about it. Long story short, they usually do. Good writers use the length of their novel to their advantage. I’ve read a lot of novels lately that have been exploiting infodumping to appeal to a select portion of readers who collect facts about a world like gold dust. Most people won’t enjoy the overload though, so best to leave the bill at least until after they’ve finished their soup.

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4)”The bun is bread. Bread is flour. Flour is wheat. Wheat is cereal…”

This kind of ties in with number one, but here the problem isn’t the amount of stuff you’re packing into the burger as much as how much you’re talking about that damn burger. Think of it like a menu listing. A good menu quips a short two-liner on each item, and that seems to be enough to grab the attention of 99% of restaurant goers. What you want to avoid as a writer is writing a page on every single ingredient like people will flip out if they don’t know. You have to give the customer some credit (warning don’t give them real credit you need money). All readers/ customers are coming into your novel with a basic working knowledge, and if you keep spoonfeeding them they’re gonna want to punch you at some point (love how spoonfeeding works for restaurants here too, as an aside).

5)”Ya so that’s the burger. Meat and bun.”

As a converse to number four, don’t skim all the way back either. You still want your burger to be juicy and palatable. So invest your time in innovating. Bacon in a burger? Game changer. Somebody must have come up with it. The same goes for world building. Fan-favourites such as dragons and alternative universes all had to have started somewhere. So as a writer, try be the somewhere. If you want your world to be more than just a burger, then go ahead and start creating. At the end of the day, you’ll always find people who’ll eat it. Don’t try cook your burger like the place down the street just because they seem to have a staple crowd. For whatever reason, in a lot of cases people just won’t buy yours.

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6) “This is red onion not white onion?”

One of the biggest parts of world building is keeping a tab on it. Just go ask G.R.R Martin how his burger is coming along. You best believe he has to use one of those fancy sticks to keep that mess together. Anyway, if you want to keep a reader in that state of “oh I’m in a restaurant this is great I’m not paying through the roof for this” (commonly referred to as a state of disbelief), then you have to be bringing your A-game. No chef likes to see a burger come back in the door of the kitchen in the hands of a startled waiter. If you’re gonna do it, do it right the first time. Keep accurate accounts of place names, maps, customs etc etc. Don’t try keep all the ingredients in your head. Write down anything you need for your novel and if it relates to anything else, then make a note of that too. It’s usually something really stupid you mess up e.g. red onion-white onion (seen in a novel for example as somebody travelling 100 miles far too fast). It’s very rare you actually are so clued out that you forget the actual burger.

So, as you can see, creating a world isn’t as easy as bun, meat, salad, bun. It takes a good bit of prep work and if not done right can literally blow up right in your face. The best way to move forward is have a system and stick to it (but hey, still leave room for a little flair here and there). World building is a wonderful tool to have as a writer, and one that a lot of readers (either consciously or subconsciously) will welcome time and time again. No matter what genre you’re in, consider it a valid part of your work and invest time into making the all important transition from built-world to world-in-story. Remember, those burgers won’t cook themselves.

Order up!

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How The Walking Dead handles the move to a novel format

It’s been about a year since I took a gamble on following my interest in the ABC show “The Walking Dead” to the point where I purchased and read the spin-off novel; The Rise of the Governor. Mapped out by Robert Kirkman (the mastermind behind the original comic series) and pulled together by thriller writer Jay Bonansinga, the novel focuses on the back story of one of the most recognised and revered characters in the Walking Dead universe; Brian Blake (known widely as The Governor across all the aforementioned media). As my last review highlighted, the book overall pleased me, though it was not without its obvious drawbacks. Now nearly a fortnight into summer holidays, I’ve respectably flicked my way through the remaining three books in the series (though at two hundred and fifty-ish pages each, nobody is calling these a modern day War and Peace).

The second book in the series is titled “The road to Woodbury”, but rather than picking up where we left off with the Governors seizing of Woodbury’s power network, here we are thrust into the world of a separate character; Lily Caul (who is all but absent from the TV adaptation, but shows up as a regular at points in the comics). This installment starts as gripping and enthralling as that of the first, with Lily and her companions constantly facing human and zombie dangers alike. Being on the road, the pace ticks rapidly forward, never giving the reader or our protagonists a moment’s rest; a feature of Bonansinga’s writing that he might call a signature move. The inclusion of a female protagonist is a welcome sight, with Lily standing apart from previous male bravado-type characters and seeming far more human in what seems an increasingly unrealistic world of human responses to apocalyptic life. Josh and the remaining plot characters are written well enough that the story doesn’t suffer (at least not in that department), and by the halfway point there is a genuine desire on the part of the reader to want to see them safe. A huge plot shift occurs on arrival to the eponymous Woodbury. Rather than providing the overwhelming political and interpersonal tension that is characteristic of post-apocalyptic settlements, the novel seems to slip into a coma at this point; the new dangers of avoiding the town’s uglier denizens not living up to the perils seen on the run for our characters. By the end point the Governor is armed with enough psychotic intentions that the climax comes booming from the pages, but not without a splash of melodramatic flavouring.

The Fall of the Governor is split up into two identically sized pieces; its blurb reminding us that at this point characters made popular by the on-screen version are set to make an entrance into the series. Here Lily Caul again features as a viewpoint, a notion now so familiar the reader could wonder whether the Governor ever was supposed to stand out in this trilogy. Luckily this time even though we again find ourselves rooted in Woodbury, the tension is dialed up a notch, with Kirkman edging the Governor further over the edge in his actions, to the point where some of the residents question where the real problem lies-outside with the undead or inside with the living. Characters such as Martinez and Doc Stevens get more explored roles, with the Governor’s own henchmen also featuring to act as antagonists. By the time Glenn, Rick and Michonne arrive (their names so synonymous with the series it does jolt the reader back awake), the plot opens out into a much larger sweeping narrative, with multiple points of view becoming the norm, and short snappy scenes quashing the previous longer internal monologues. Austin arrives as a character throughout this final piece in the series, and immediately bolsters the ranks, with the Woodbury day-to-day life having diminished our pool of characters originally seen in book two. Once the narrative shifts to the prison, the challenge of trying to bring all the pieces into play at the right time really shows up in the pace of the story; the writer now clearly focusing on what is an inevitable outcome rather than giving the series the ending it deserves. The character of Michonne just gets annoying by now, her over the top displays in the field nothing short of laughable, a problem also seen in the TV show, which is no doubt always stemming from Kirkman himself. Lily Caul on the other hand goes from strength to strength, nearly reaching a point where the reader wishes a Woodbury victory over the memorable TV protagonists. Books three and four are swamped in tragedy, their tones far darker than those of the first two. The brutality now is relished by the characters not just thrust upon them.

On a whole the series succeeds in its mission to capture many of the elements of the other formats while giving a good account of the stories of the main characters. It’s a page turner and there’s no doubting it; the evidence of Bonansinga’s thriller writing experience present throughout. When it’s on the road, the novels are tense, gripping and highly engaging. Once it settles into a standstill, the ability of the book to hold the reader falters a little, but not to the point that you will lose faith. The series oozes action scenes, something any interested reader came in expecting, and so there’s no disappointment there. Where the books really fall down is the writing. It’s a lucky thing I came in wanting a theme more than some great novel. Because the latter can never be found. The writing is at best page-turning, at worst it’s enough to make you cringe and wonder did the author’s nine year old daughter step in for a chapter or two. Over description of the most mundane details is widespread. The writer clearly tries to convey some deep knowledge of biology at any possible moment, though having studied basic physiology I could give him a few pointers. Characters become stereotyped the second time we meet them, words are used to the point of outrage (apparently you can just about ‘thumb’ anything) and the phrase ‘nobody notices’ may as well comprise half the series for all its usage. It’s enough at times that the writing is what really is going bump in the night; the danger of drowning in sea of zombies nowhere near as close to that of suffocating beneath an onrush of unnecessary jargon. That being said, not all is at a loss.

Not one hour ago, I switched the TV to Film 4, and seeing that “The Wedding Planner” was just starting, I shrugged and sank back in my chair. It’s a very dull rom-com starring Jennifer Lopez and a boyish looking Matthew McConaughey. Having racked up a meager 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, it leaves a lot to be desired, but there I sat, watching it at my leisure, completely aware of what I was getting into. And perhaps that’s where the Walking Dead books triumph. For all their faults, they give us, the enthused, exactly what we wanted. Seeing that Kirkman has ordered Bonansinga to hammer out another four novels (starting with “The Descent” in October 14), I’ll remain quietly hopeful of a revamp of the series. Let’s not forget, Matthew himself would have laughed on the set of the Wedding Planner if you told he would hold up an oscar for Best Actor not two decades later…

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