Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review of Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

I've just finished reading Brandon Sanderson's first novel, Elantris.  Since I read his most recent novel, The Way of Kings, about a week ago, this means that I've read every novel he's published so far.  I'll get to The Way of Kings later, but for now, what about Elantris?

Let's start with the premise, which is original: Elantris is the city where the Elantrians live.  Elantrians are those people blessed by magic: it can come to anyone, rich or poor, old or young.  The blessing transforms them physically, giving them silvery skin and white hair, at the same time that it gives them access to AonDor, the magic they wield by tracing runes in the air.  Their city glows with the magic, which imbues every corner of it.  But ten years ago, the magic stopped working.  Those blessed with it were cursed.  Their skin became gray with black spots, their hearts stopped beating and they no longer bled.  You couldn't kill them by normal means, but they continued to feel pain.  In fact, they felt it even worse: since they could no longer heal, their wounds never stopped hurting, and a neverending hunger gnawed at them.  (Okay, so they're magical zombies.)  The common people turned against them, killing them.  But the blessing never stopped occurring at random.  Anyone now struck by the curse is sealed away in Elantris, a city that is now crumbling and covered in slime.  There they live wretched lives, unable to die, but slowly going mad from the hunger and pain.

The story centers around three characters.  The first is Raoden, previously the prince of the surrounding nation, Arelon, now cursed by Elantris.  He attempts to build a real society among the Elantrians, even while trying to discover the reason for its fall.  The second is Hrathen, a high priest of the Derethi religion.  He's come to Arelon to convert it to his religion, before his master brings destruction upon it.  Finally, there's Sarene, Raoden's betrothed.  She arrives in Arelon to find that the betrothed she never met is dead, unaware that his true fate has been hidden by his father.  She takes it upon herself to oppose Hrathen's conversion, while trying to fix the problems caused by the king's inept rule.

It's a colorful and original premise.  But, after reading his more recent work, I can confidently say that Sanderson is a better writer now than he was then.  Simply from the point of view of style and technique, you can see how he's improved his writing style, learned where to put the details in his descriptions, and made his dialogue smoother and more natural.  While modern idiom in fantasy doesn't bother me, in Elantris, Sanderson's use of it can be jarring.  He still does it, but you can see how he's gotten better at knowing what works and what doesn't.  But he's gotten better in more than just the details of writing, and you can see it in some of the weaknesses of the book.

While his characters have distinct personalities, they're often simplistic, and his characterization can be ham-handed.  He really doesn't need to tell us that Raoden's an optimist at least once a chapter, or that Sarene's bold but insecure.

Plot-wise, there are a lot of twists in this book.  Some of them really are surprising and necessary, but some just feel contrived.  And none of them had quite the feel that I think the big reveals should have: when a reader is completely surprised, but thinks to himself, "I should have seen that coming."

I say all this not to say that it's a bad book.  It's actually a very good one, and better than most of the fantasy fiction out on the market.  Sanderson's one of the best new writers in the field.  But I always find it fascinating to see how writers improve.  Almost universally, their first book is going to be their worst one, and I was impressed by how good Elantris was for a first novel.  But I'm also happy to say that he's gotten better since.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Who wrote the first fantasy story set in an other world?

Over at Black Gate, Matthew Surridge explores this question in a couple of posts.  It's an interesting question, but before it's asked, the first question is "What's meant as an other world?"  Matthew lays out four requirements:
  • The world has a distinct logic (the existence of magic fulfills this)
  • The world is not meant to be perceived as part of this world (many mainstream fiction stories create countries or cities that do not actually exist, but are meant to be accepted as existing in this world)
  • It has its own history
  • It has its own geography
Matthew points out that many fantasy stories fulfill three of these, and he considers three (specifically 1, 3, and 4) to be sufficient to constitute an other world.  Why skip two?  Because many of the early fantasies were set in a mythic time in our world, but the time is sufficiently different that it still counts.  Before getting into the question of who the first author to write in another world is, he asks:
Before naming that writer, though, I’d like to tackle a related question. And that is: why did it take so long for somebody to come up with the idea?

Consider: Morris’ The Wood Beyond the World was published in 1894. Even if the first otherworld fantasy was in fact a few decades earlier, then people were still telling tales for thousands of years before coming up with the idea of an independent world (it would be interesting to see when the term ‘world’ began being used in criticism, as in ‘the world of Dickens’ or ‘Shakespeare’s green world’). Why the long delay?

It’s not because people were less imaginative. Rather, it seems to me, looking at older stories containing fantastic material — stories close to being high fantasy — that certain structural devices keep recurring, which in retrospect prevented the need for the development of the idea of an otherworld independent of the ‘real world’. These devices were ways for a story to contain strong fantasy elements while also situating them in this world. You can find stories from before 1800 in which a setting seems to fit three or even four of the characteristics I listed in my first post; but, rather than be established as its own world, the setting is, one way or another, given a relation to conventional reality.
It may be more accurate, though, to turn my phrasing around. Rather than talking about frames or links to this world, we could say that there are a number of techniques by which fantasists displaced their fantasy, putting it beyond the bounds of the world of everyday life. The idea of the otherworld, then, is just one of the most recent displacement strategies to be developed. You could even say it’s the most sophisticated, because it most thoroughly embraces the idea of fiction as fiction, of a story as a self-contained creation that does not need to be justified by a precise placement in relation to the real world.
So who was the first one?  Matthew hasn't told us yet, but he's promised to get back to us next week.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Storyblogging Carnival CXII

Welcome to the 112th Storyblogging Carnival. This is our sixth anniversary edition.  If you're wondering how six divides into 112, I have to admit that the carnival's period has varied over its life.  Originally, the carnival occurred every two weeks, but we reduced its frequency once we'd gone through people's repertoire and had to give them more time to write stories.  We also skipped a few due to moves and other life distractions.

Brassy Limerick
by Madelein Begun Kane of Mad Kane's Humor Blog
An under 100 word word brief story rated PG.

The tale of a woman with husband problems and music problems, told in a three verse limerick.

The Green Piggy
by Elijas Zaremba of The Vault of Thoughts
A 269 word brief story rated PG.

A story with a moral.

The Blue Light, 2011
by Mark A. Rayner of The Skwib
A 330 word short story rated PG.

Inspired by the Brothers Grimm tale, The Blue Light, 2011, tells the story of a soldier returning from war, and his encounter with an economist.

The Birth and Death of Nameless
by Webster of The Vault of Thoughts
A 497 word brief story rated PG.

"I woke up. For a split second I sincerely wished I hadn’t. I couldn’t say why. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to answer that question."

The Shades: Part I of The History of the Domini
by Donald S. Crankshaw of Back of the Envelope
A 690 word brief story rated PG.

For the first time, Randall Aurelius reveals the history of the Domini, the mysterious society of sorcerers who wielded such power in the world before the War of the Elementals.

Home Sweet Home
by Thom McNeilly of The Blog of Thom McNeilly
An 1,464 word short story rated R.

"Nigel Kingsley looked down at the crumpled heap in the dark doorway and sneered. The disgust he felt for the woman looking up at him with her grimy face was unparalleled. Leaning on his walking cane, something he never left home without, Kingsley considered spiting in the tramp’s face, but at the last moment he decided to have some fun with her instead." 

The Zapak Gambit
by Surendra Singh of Sury's Stories
A 2,379 word short story rated PG.

When a chess player needs money to buy a phone that satisfies his one addiction- facebook, he decides to scam people in a chess game... When he meets an 18 year old, well, almost!, what turn of events will surprise him?

A Bad Box
by CJ Burch of Divas for Geeks
A 4,774 word short story rated PG.

It's sort of a steam-punk thing...sort of.

This concludes the one hundred and twelfth Storyblogging Carnival.

If you'd like to take part in a future carnival, please contact me. I am also looking for hosts. Other carnivals can be found here.

The Storyblogging Carnival can be found at The Truth Laid Bear's ÜberCarnival.

The History of the Domini: Part I

This history is based on a draft written by Randall Aurelius just before the War.  As you know, the War rewrote our understanding of our history.  As such, this manuscript is more an historical curiosity, an explanation of how the Domini saw themselves at the time, than an accurate account of our past.

Part I: The Shades

Any history of the Domini must begin with the Malwer.  Unfortunately, so little is known about the Malwer that every history of the Domini is, of necessity, incomplete.  Nevertheless, I will endeavor to record what is known of our origins, and hope that someday the blanks may be filled.

Who, or what, the Malwer were is the great mystery of our origins.  Today, the uninitiated refer to them as demons, but in the days of our enslavement we considered them gods.  At a time before humans had any magic, every Malwer was gifted with it.  It came to them as naturally as breathing, and they viewed their magic as the proof of their right to rule mankind.

Our tradition calls the first human to discover magic Saul.  This is almost certainly not his name, and his identity is as much a mystery as how he discovered magic.  Human magic only comes through training: to this date there is no verified case of any human developing this ability spontaneously or through his own meditation.  It is as ludicrous as gnats forming spontaneously from dust or frogs from mud (a belief still held by many of the superstitious Novari).  Many have speculated that Saul must have been taught, either by a renegade Malwer or, more plausibly, by one of the Amaranthine, although this was centuries before they revealed themselves to the rest of the human race.

Whatever the source of his power, Saul knew that magic might be the key to humanity’s freedom.  However, he also knew that he did not have the ability to challenge the Malwer on his own, so he could not risk discovery by the Malwer.  Saul was most likely a field slave, with little enough contact with the Malwer to avoid their suspicion.  Even so, he proceeded with the greatest of caution.  He found others with untrained magical ability and taught them, all the while keeping his identity hidden from his students as much as anyone else, wrapping himself in an encompassing robe every time he met with them.  He knew that if any one of them were discovered, the only chance he and the rest of his students would have for survival was anonymity.  His students did the same, perhaps hiding their identities even from one another.  Eventually, his students grew knowledgeable enough to train students of their own, maintaining the practice of keeping their identities hidden from their own students. 

The teaching spread throughout the Malwer lands, and somehow they avoided discovery for several generations, most likely because they confined themselves to teaching fellow field slaves, who had little Malwer supervision, and because they did nothing but teach and learn.  While the masters continued to keep the students from learning their own identities, some cells allowed the students to know each others’ identities.  This became the only means for cells to contact one another once age claimed the former master of the current cell leaders.  Even so, after a few generations, the secrecy had taken its toll and most cells had no contact with anyone removed by a generation or two. 

It is not clear whether the teachings were confined to men deliberately at first: it may simply have been that there were more men than women among the field slaves.  It is certain that those learning magic were exclusively male by the time they took the next step, perhaps for the same reason that all soldiers are men.

It was unlikely a concerted decision, since, as I have already explained, most cells had contact with only a few others.  But at some point the cells began acting against the Malwer.  Rather than a head-to-head war, a cell would track down and kill an individual Malwer, generally one against whom they held some particular grudge.  Other cells, hearing of the rumors, began to do the same, and soon the Malwer found themselves being hunted and killed by an elusive enemy they could not identify.  When the human magic-users were spotted, hidden in their voluminous robes and no doubt further obscured by magical illusion, they appeared as shapeless black shadows.  Thus they earned the name Shades.

New Post: The next part of the story can be found here.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Storyblogging Carnival LXXVI

NOTE: This is a repost of an old carnival, so I can't guarantee the links.

Welcome to the seventy-sixth Storyblogging Carnival. There are eight entries today. Enjoy.

by Jeremiah Lewis of Fringeblog
A 50 word brief story rated PG.

A woman finds a note in her husband's pocket.

She's a Lady
by Jeremiah Lewis of Fringeblog
A 50 word brief story rated PG.

A vamp finds a new lover.

The Last Journey
by Jeremiah Lewis of Fringeblog
A 50 word brief story rated PG.

A well-traveled individual finds his jaded experience is no good to him on his latest and last journey.

by the Dodges of Dodgeblogium
A 143 word brief story rated PG.

"’s the heat from your lies."

The Five Second What???
by Madeleine Begun Kane of Mad Kane's Humor Blog
A 279 word brief story rated G.

Not everyone knows the five second rule.

Thag Grok Free Will!
by Mark Rayner of The Skwib
A 500 word brief story rated PG.

The continuing adventures of the caveman Thag: in this story, he wrestles with the difficult question of free will vs determinism.

My Friend Peter
by Ian Welsh of The Agonist
A 993 word brief story rated G.

My clothes were threadbare, and I would look in the mirror and I could already see myself at fifty, living the same hand to mouth, job-to-job life. Through it all two people helped me; two people stuck by me and never made me feel worthless. One of them was Peter.

Paparazzi Fodder
by Elvis D of 365Fiction
A 1,861 word short story rated R.

A disturbing tale about disturbing people.

This concludes the seventy-sixth Storyblogging Carnival.

If you'd like to take part in a future carnival, please contact me. I am also looking for hosts. Other carnivals can be found here.

The Storyblogging Carnival can be found at The Truth Laid Bear's ÜberCarnival.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Storyblogging Carnival LXXV

NOTE: This is a repost of an old carnival, so I make no promises that the links will still be good.

Welcome to the seventy-fifth Storyblogging Carnival. There weren't many entries this time around, possibly due to the summer doldrums. Still, we have four stories this time, including one of my own. Enjoy.

Sage of Wales Writes...
by Andrew Ian Dodge of Dodgeblogium
A 317 word brief story rated PG-13.

The sage is inspired by song.

Thag Not Talk Much!
by Mark Rayner of The Skwib
A 450 word brief story rated PG-13.

The continuing prehistoric saga of Thag. In this episode, Thag unveils his cave art that he's painted for the Drunka Grunka tribe, and they wonder why he won't talk about it.

Abort! Abort! Abort!
by Elvis D of 365Fiction
A 1,160 word short story rated R.

A paparazzo's tale.

The Hunter of Shades
by Donald S. Crankshaw at Resident Aliens
A 5,307 word short story rated PG-13.

Searching for the dark things which are killing his people, the Hunter finds something unexpected.

This concludes the seventy-fifth Storyblogging Carnival.

If you'd like to take part in a future carnival, please contact me. I am also looking for hosts. Other carnivals can be found here.

The Storyblogging Carnival can be found at The Truth Laid Bear's ÜberCarnival.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Storyblogging Carnival LXXIV

NOTE: This is an old post, so I can't guarantee the links.

Mark Rayner has the latest Storyblogging Carnival posted at The Skwib. Eleven stories this time, with a breakfast theme.