January 22nd, 2011

wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - Furies of Calderon

Book Two

Codex Alera 1: Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

As you probably have noticed by now, I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. The books are fun reads - fast-paced, gritty and realistic, while still maintaining that a tarnished patina of fantasy about them. They have a great narrative voice and I could read them the same way I eat a bag of Doritos - all in one sitting, unsure of how it happened, but with less orange Cheez (tm) on my fingers. I know for a fact that as long as Jim Butcher continues to write The Dresden Files, I will continue reading them.

At a certain point, I became aware of his Codex Alera series, mainly because he talked about them in author's notes in the backs of the latest few Dresden paperbacks. I didn't really read through the notes, usually because I was far too impatient to get into the next book, but I knew they were out there and that I would, sooner or later, have to read them. I also knew that they would be a different beast from what I was used to.

This series is Butcher's real baby, as he tells us. From his childhood, Butcher was fascinated with high fantasy, the kinds of epic journeys that were made famous by people like Tolkien and Eddings, Zelazny, Brooks, and Weis and Hickman, to name a few. So, when he decided that he wanted to be a writer, it was on that kind of world-spanning, epic fantasy that he set his sights. He found what a lot of young writers find - that this kind of fiction is viciously hard to do well, and is really suitable only for writers who have either mutant-level innate talent or who have spent many, many years honing their skills.

Out of the process of working on his craft, of course, Butcher gave birth to Harry Dresden, which has certainly made the world a better place, but he never forgot his dream of writing an epic fantasy series. After much hard work, and what was no doubt a series of terrifying decisions to let it go public, Butcher published The Codex Alera, his contribution to the Sword-and-Sorcery genre.

It introduces us to the nation of Alera, an old and massive country build on swords, intrigue, and the strange talent possessed by most people to shape and control the very elements themselves. Within the very earth itself, in water and air and fire, trees and metal and stone, there are furies - spirit beings that can bend these elements to their will. The furies, in turn, link to a human, who gives them direction and purpose. A human in control of a fury is a force to be reckoned with, whether they are just bending a water fury to tell if someone is telling the truth, or compelling an earth fury to raise great walls in defense of a population. Most everyone has one or two furies at their command, and some of them have more. Young Tavi, living in the frontier region of Calderon, has none.

Despite his disadvantage, however, Tavi is surrounded by good people. He's been raised by his uncle, Bernard, who is the leader of their community at Bernardholt, and Bernard's sister, Isana. Like all people on the edges of empire, the people of Bernardholt have learned to be tough and live without the security of armies or the support of central government. They take care of their own matters, thankyouverymuch, and don't need a lot of interference from the rest of Aleran political society.

Unfortunately, of course, what they want doesn't really matter. They soon find themselves at the heart of a violent coup, a plan to overrun the empire and topple its leaders. With the help of the inhuman Marat, the traitors to the First Lord are willing to sacrifice everything in order to save what they believe are the best parts of their nation.

Of all the themes that kind of got lost in this book, that last one is the one I wish had gotten more play - that sometimes people do horrible things for reasons that they believe are not only defensible, but actually good. The main antagonist, a man with the hilariously ironic name of Fidelias, starts out as a wonderfully conflicted character. He tricks his apprentice, the Cursor Amara, into traveling with him to the rebel camp. He makes an attempt to convert her to his way of thinking, and when she rejects a place in his coup, he reverts to Villain Pastiche - the former teacher who is very, very disappointed with his student, to the point where he just has to kill her so she won't give away the plan. Fidelias travels with a sword-happy knight, Aldrick, who is almost invincibly good at what he does, and the knight's lady-friend, a semi-psychotic water-crafter named Odiana.

It's kind of unfortunate, really - I really wanted to be uncertain as to whether Fidelias and his crew were actually good guys, but I was pretty much convinced of their alignment within a few chapters. If I had one wish for this book, it would be that Butcher had kept me wondering throughout the book. I mean, it's not impossible that the First Lord was deserving of being toppled, and that Amara had given her loyalties to the wrong man, but I stopped questioning that pretty quickly once Fidelias reached mustache-twirling levels.

In general, there were some parts of the story that I really liked, some that left me cold, and a lot that had me playing "Spot The Fantasy Trope" drinking game. Some of the best scenes were fast-paced and full of action, scenes that Butcher has always been good at. Whether it's Tavi being chased by giant, heat-seeking spiders, or an all-out assault on a semi-impregnable fortress, Butcher does a very good job at controlling the action and making sure the reader knows what is going on where.

On the other hand, a lot of the narration itself, especially in the beginning, is way too talky. Probably one of the hardest things for any epic fantasy writer to do is to introduce his or her world to the reader in a way that is not only clear, but that also makes sense from within the story. Often characters spell out details of history and culture that they already know, and really don't need to recap.

It would be as though I called my friend back in the United States and said, "As you know, President Obama, who was democratically elected by the people -" "Yes," my friend says, "in a process that was established over two hundred years ago!" "Indeed," I say. "President Obama - who is African-American - is thought be some to be Muslim!" "But he isn't! He is a Christian!" "That's right, a follower of that ancient religion founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ...."

It would be weird. But writers do this all the time, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction. And you have to feel a little sorry for them - they have all this information to give us, and no natural way to do it, because the residents of that world already know it. That's why so many epic fantasies (this one included) tend to start in backwater, isolated regions, where people haven't seen a tax collector in generations, and why the protagonists tend to be young, working-class people. They are the only ones who would need this kind of history recap. It's one of the most common ways of filling the audience in, from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Star Wars, and Butcher is not an exception.

There is a lot of potential here, though, shining through all the weight that the first book of a fantasy series always has to bear. There's a complicated political system that we have barely begun to explore, and the way that people and furies interact is shown to be very flexible and creative. As we follow Tavi through the rest of the books, we'll get to see how someone without the ability to call on a fury might make his way in the world.

Incidentally, that is a place where I have to give Butcher credit. I seriously expected Tavi to finally gain his furycrafting powers in a big way at some point in the book, but he never did. For all intents and purposes, Tavi is a cripple in this world, and that is going to be a serious obstacle in his future endeavors. It looks like Butcher's going to allow the boy to stay disabled, which makes for a far more interesting character in the end.

Anyway, out of loyalty to an author I really like, and in the hopes that he will be able to break the shackles of the Fantasy Formula, I will continue with this series. Don't disappoint me, Jim....

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"Two days ago, I had a lot more sense...."
- Tavi, Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
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wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - The Day After and Other Stories

Book Three

The Day After and Other Stories by Wil Wheaton

If you had asked me, back in 1988 or so, - when I was a Trek fan who hadn't quite figured out the real reason I liked seeing Wesley Crusher on screen - what Wil Wheaton was doing at any given time, it would have sounded like a completely irrational question. How should I know? He's probably doing whatever it is actors do in their free time, which my mind generally rendered as some sort of eternal cocktail party where all the famous people knew each other and none of them would be caught dead with a prole such as myself.

And this isn't just Wheaton - the idea that I could know what any of my favorite creative people were up to at any given moment was just impossible back then. It was just a fact of life. I am over here, and they are over there, and the chances of our two spheres of reality intersecting were precisely nil. They were members of America's elect, and I was, well, me.

Now it's the future, and we have connected our lives online to an extent that would have been almost unfathomable twenty years ago. Wheaton has greatly expanded his creative repertoire, and I am an Internationally Famous Podcaster and Book Reviewer. [1] For those who have access to it, the internet has democratized creativity in many ways. People who otherwise might have gone unnoticed in the world now have a chance to shine, and the daily workings of the famous are laid bare to everyone with a Twitter account.

Suddenly we can see that these people aren't as special as we thought they were - they're not living the eternal cocktail party of the gods. They're working and juggling their careers and their families. They're getting upset about politics and worrying about paying the bills. They're having great ideas that never quite work out and massaging small ideas until they bloom. The creative process is now open to everyone, and the potential for your work to be noticed is that much greater.

Of course, the caveat is that your creative work has to be that much better. If you're a short fiction writer, for example, you no longer have to shop around for agents and wait for the big publishing companies to take on your book. You can publish it by yourself and see what happens. But if that's the route you've chosen to take, then you'd better be damn good. There are a whole lot of fish in that pond, and you're only going to end up on the internet's dinner table if you are big, juicy and succulent.

Okay, I don't know where that particular metaphor came from. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Wil Wheaton is definitely one of those big, succulent fish. He's got his years of work in film and TV to support him, and he has become one of the stars of the 21st-century internet. As of this writing, he has over 1.7 million Twitter followers and runs a very successful blog. He's a darling of the summer convention season and probably the TV guest star that I most look forward to seeing. He makes a living writing and blogging and acting, has a gorgeous wife and two sons that have turned out to be fine young men.

So, with all that, why should he be scared to publish this book, his first collection of short fiction? After all, it's a limited print run, and if it fails then so what? It's not like this will be the end of the Vast Wheaton Empire, right? Why should this be so important to him?

It's because he understands the new dynamic between the creator and the consumer. He understands that his creative work must live or die on its own merits, and not just because it's Wil Wheaton putting his name on the cover. He knows that he's no better than anyone else who loves his craft and puts it out for the world to see.

The Day After and Other Stories is a very short collection of four stories that Wheaton has written - his first published collection of fiction. The title story takes its name from the movie of the same title, and is an exploration into what it might be like to be a survivor of the end of the world. Tim, a young man just out of high school, is living among the dead. The walking dead, that is. Zombies have taken over everything, and he and a few people from his town are holed up in a high school gym in the hopes that things might someday get better soon. Of course, they won't. Tim knows that, the girl he loves, Erica, knows that - everybody knows that. But they have to try and hold on anyway, because there's nothing else they can do.

"Room 302" is a bit of flash fiction, inspired by a photograph. Most of it is a pretty straightforward analysis of a mediocre photo, and an explanation of why it can't be used in a news paper. Fine, a nice scene and some good dialogue - with a creepy twist at the end that, much like "The Day After," makes me wish there was more story to read.

Wheaton tells us that "The Language Barrier" was inspired by a real event - overhearing a couple of ladies having a heated conversation in a mixture of Russian and English. In the story, the conversation is exactly that, but the eavesdropper, Mike, does what we wish we all might be able to do - he steps in and says what most needs to be said. It's one of those moments where l'esprit d'escalier is beaten to the punch.

Finally, "Poor Places" rose from Wheaton's love of poker. I never was able to get into poker, probably because I am really risk-averse when it comes to money, but there was a time in the mid-Aughts where poker was the trendiest game to be had. In this story, a couple of players in their local Hollywood bar proceed to fleece some tourists in a back-room poker parlor. It's probably the weakest of the four stories, but I grant that not knowing poker lingo really doesn't help.

All in all, they're four good stories. Wheaton has a good ear for dialogue and a way of making characters sound believable, even if the plot structure is a little weak in points, or the narration tries to carry more weight than it can bear.

Probably because it is the longest of the stories, "The Day After" is the most guilty of this - Tim is described by other characters as "kind of an asshole," but his actions don't really match that so much. He complains a lot, sure, but who wouldn't be a bit bitchy after human civilization has gone to the zombies? When he's told it's his time to fill the generator, he goes. When the girl he's crushing on offers a bit of apocalypse-sex, he considers turning it down, the way he did when they were in high school to protect her reputation. We don't see the guy that the other characters do, which makes me wonder what else we're not seeing. Internal conflict is a great hook upon which to hang a story, but the conflict between others' view of him and his view of himself isn't developed nearly as well as it should be.

In addition, his internal narrative tells us things that would be better shown, and overall the whole thing could stand to be tightened up. I also have some questions regarding the gas can (a full one left next to the generator? Who would have left that there?) and their discovery of Alvin (the guy camped out only about twenty feet from the school gym and never noticed that there were survivors living in there?) While interesting, adding a mini-quest to the story - get gas, then fill the generator - would have been fun, and the dead guy just served to heighten the sense of loneliness that was already there. A sense that was about to be mitigated once they got back into the gym with the other survivors. It's nitpicking, but sometimes that just has to be done....

All that said, it looks like the beginning of a much longer story, albeit a bleak one, which I hope he works on more. [2]

If you haven't bought this, you're probably out of luck - the print run lasted for a very brief window of time, but I reckon an electronic version of it will be up at some point. If it is, scrape a few bucks together and pick it up. It's a quick read, and I feel like it'll be something to hold on to if Wheaton decides to pursue more fiction. If he does, I'm sure he will approach it with the same honesty and humility that he had when he released this book, which means that I'll certainly be willing to pick it up.

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"I'm terrified that nobody's going to like it, but the goal isn't to be perfect; the goal is to be creative. I'm going to keep saying that until I don't feel like I'm going to throw up."
- Wil Wheaton, from his blog
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[1] Source: Me

[2] When I was in college, my creative writing teacher told me exactly that - the short story I had written was actually the beginning of a novel. The whole thing immediately dried up under my fingers and turned to dust, and the novel he thought I was writing never came to be. I hope Mr. Wheaton is made of sterner stuff than I was.