Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

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Sanderson’s books are puzzling. Take their surface, their visual ideas and the overall story and you’re left with a rollicking adventure that occasionally goes deep. Add his stilted, unoriginal prose and method of solving conflicts and you’re left with a generic Fantasy book that doesn’t insult the reader. After reading his essays and his view on the genre I’ve come to the conclusion he’s an awful writer who stumbled upon some great ideas.

The problem with Sanderson isn’t the story itself, but his approach to storytelling. He views his stories as a mechanical process, with the purpose of everything is get to the end. Characters, magic and objects have meaning which is determined only by how much they can solve conflict.

If we’re talking reality, this view can make sense. Life is full of conflicts and we need tools to solve it. Literature and Philosophy can be such tools. The difference is in the nature of conflicts in real life, and conflicts in fictional world. The conflict in real life is imposed on us. By that, I mean we don’t fully control it. We can instigate, but never design it from scratch. I can go out and start a fight with someone I don’t like, but I don’t control all the elements – our personal histories, which influence the conflict, are out of our control. The other person’s reactions and choices are also out of my control.

Fictional conflicts are the opposites. You build them from scratch. This is something many people forget when they talk about stories. Authors fully control their work. Authors can – and should – impose laws on their work, but even those laws are something the authors can control. Creating a problem just so you could solve it is like the brilliant Useless Machine. It’s a contraption that you turn on so it would turns itself off. If the purpose of everything in your story is that you’d solve the conflict, why create the conflict in the first place?

Sanderson’s parts fit nicely, but I see nothing admirable about that. Complexity doesn’t equal depth, and depth is what matters in fiction. Compexity can be engaging in activities that are thinking for thinking’s sake, but Chess also involves human interaction and a real conflict whose elements you don’t fully control. Reading the Mistborn novels is like playing Chess against yourself, only with a fancier dressing.

It was so disappointing when Sanderson took an important symbol and turned it into the final plot coupon. Sazed’s story is absorbing. It is the existensial crisis made physical, questioning what the hyper-intellectual who only researches, instead of providing answers and doing things, will do when the world is ending. The idea is sometimes explored, but Sazed mostly stares off into space and ruminates. By the time he takes the center stage, he realizes all his knowledge is the last screw to seal the Bad Ending’s coffin.

Too many scenes are about doing Allomantic stunts. Sanderson writes them like they’re a blow-by-blow account of a role-playing game. Even in those role-playing games, they are the most boring parts. No one cares about Fallout‘s battle systems. Planescape: Torment is a towering achievement because of the writing. These games can employ a battle system, because the person experiencing the art actually gets to use them.

Fantasy authors often forget that the position of the reader isn’t like the writer’s. The author may feel like he’s discovering a new land when writing. For the reader, it’s all laid out, no exploration of thought needed but just an info dump. The author may feel like he’s using a complex system of game rules to solve conflicts, but the reader only gets to observe it. The reader doesn’t actually use these rules. Imagine if a sports caster told you exactly how the basketball player’s legs work.

All these details in those big fights don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Remove them, and the battle will be slightly shorter. In general, battles don’t work in literature. Violence is visual and immediate, something that’s hard to replicate in the relatively calm activitiy of reading. It’s also swift, so exact descriptions of it come off as silly. People don’t experience violence like Sanderson writes about it. It’s always over before we know what happened. He never once tries to capture the thrill of violence.

The story is more focused this time around. Stalling, the defining feature of the second book, is gone. Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to structure stories. He never gets lost, never rambles too much or digress. He understands epicness doesn’t have to come from how many miles your characters walk, but the scope of the conflict. So making his story about stopping the end of the world is a good idea, and there is an energy in the final scenes, the emotionally appealing concept of the world torn between creation and destruction.

I want to hear Sanderson tells such a story. He can tell it without losing track, but when it’s covered in dull prose I lose hope. Many a pointless sentence fill the book. Inner thoughts drown the books in obvious or unnecessary details. I truly don’t understand why authors do this so much. I sometimes edit out of kindness prose of young writers, and they do it all the time. Are they afraid that nobody will understand? So long as you don’t write like Hegel, we can understand you just fine.

I do give him credit for not digressing too much. Scenes do gel together for a coherent story. One arc does feel like it’s separated from the main story, but Sanderson tells it like it’s self-contained, with its own conflict and resolutions. It doesn’t exist just to add details, but as an actual story. His descriptions are often to the point.

His exploration of themes is particularly bad. He wants to say something, and his fairly sparse story means ideas emerge clearly. For all the talk of worldbuilding, there aren’t too many details to keep up with. When the ideas emerge though, they’re just there. Sanderson does nothing with them. The secondary arc is about the evils of revolution, but all it has is a bunch of extremists using the government for their own selfish needs. There is no understanding or insight or sympathy towards them. It doesn’t reveal anything about this archetype, but perpetuates an empty pattern. The final antagonist also stands for nothing but death’n’destruction. It’s fun enough in a simple story, but Sanderson aims higher – a complex machine which has no reason to exist but to turn itself off.

Occasionally, it’s fun and it concludes. Mostly, it’s a Useless Machine, but not as amusing and not as offensive as George R. R. Martin. I understand some people dig epic fantasy, but this is 700 pages. Dunsany wrote a brilliant novel with only 230 pages, and reading it three times will keep revealing new things and is a better usage of my time.

2 heroes out of 5 ages

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Brandon Sanderson – The Well of Ascension

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Just like that, Brandon Sanderson has turned into George R. R. Martin. A more appropriate title would’ve been ‘The Hell of Continuaton’. There’s no excuse to write such a dull, plodding sequel to a fairly exciting fantasy adventure. What happened? Imagine if a Grindcore band released a twinkly Post-Rock album but kept the noise and the screaming. Actually, that sounds too ambitious. If a Grindcore band did that, it’ll be a push towards new territories. Sanderson had no money for an editor.

Static paragraphs are a disease, especially in adventure stories. These are paragraphs in which literally nothing happens. All we get is the rambling of the narrator or of the character. Since the narrator is often 3rd-person omniscient, we don’t really care about its thoughts. This narrator doesn’t even exist. If it’s the rambling of the characters, a question arises. Why not just write in first person?

It’s a symptom I see in many rookie writers who lack confidence. They don’t see the reader’s point of view or understand what is necessary to them. They don’t understand art is an experience, not a collection of facts. Paragraphs teasing what will happen, what could have happened, what the characters are like litter the pages. As notes, they might be useful. By writing down who your characters are, you have a solid idea of what you should be writing. By writing down what might happen, you have a solid idea of what routes you can take. As a technique to avoid ‘just write the next scene’ writing, it’s brilliant.

These are just notes for a novel, not a novel itself. Bands don’t put all their jam sessions and demos smack in the middle of a song. Imagine if, in the middle of “One Step Closer”, Linkin Park put a random jam session that later gave birth to the chorus of “Numb”. Sure, it’s interesting but what is it doing in the middle of a punchy Nu Metal song? Any time an author puts rhetorical questions in a 3rd person narrative, he’s being a horrible author.

Narrative questions are always answered, so asking us ‘will he be able to save her’ is pointless. We’ll see in a few pages. As for philosophical questions, they must not appear since fiction is expression of philosophy, not an essay about it. I did put some rhetorical questions in this review. The purpose was to make you imagine, to focus your attention by varying sentence structure and expressing disdain at such techniques. In narrative prose, they make zero sense.

What’s odd is that it’s the only bad technique Sanderson falls into. In all other aspects, he remains fine. His story is still shallow, but he avoids the long-winding descriptions of Martin or his misogyny, or his multiple plot threads that go nowhere. Sanderson describes rooms using, at best, 3 sentences. It’s never profound, but he emphasizes the right details. The plot is also tightly focused, with a small arc inside the gigantic save-the-world one. The book was padded to 700 solely because of these static paragraphs. If Sanderson got rid of them, we would’ve been had 300-400 pages of a shallow but exciting story. Did Sanderson pad it so it would look cool on the Fantasy shelf?

As for the story itself, it’s just as shallow as the previous one. All hints of something deeper, more original are gone. As a role-player, I noticed there’s a scale between games heavy on playing a pesonality and games playing on skill. The latter are elaborate puzzle games with a bit of pretending, whereas the former are an improvised theater. The former are more fun, since they’re more emotionally engrossing and memorable. Whenever I jump into a game I always aim for that direction and find myself not doing anything. My character has a lot of skills which I’m supposed to use but forget about. I don’t care how good the paper says I am with a sword. I want to understand my character, get into his mindset and interact with other characters.

Sanderson comes from the opposite tradition. His magic system exists solely for RPG’s, with instruction manuals and technical information but little meaning. This is a world where people can influence emotions, store attributes yet the psychology of this never appears. I don’t buy the excuse that they all had to go into hiding. That’s just Sanderson avoiding confronting the meaning behind his magic. As a role-playing system, it seems exciting. Reading about it is dull.

All these details about what they push, how they push, how they recover strength is so dull. When someone tells you their character in their RPG has 80 STR, do you care? Does it make you want to play the game? The problem with writing about fictional fighting is that it’s so arbitrary. Sanderson dispenses a lot of physical facts about non-physical objects. Non-physical objects don’t have physical traits. All fiction is symbolic since in the end it’s just some ink on the page. The action scenes consist of unimportant physical information with nothing symbolic. Conflicts are elaborate chess games, with enemies having a weak point you need to use V.A.T.S. to target. One scene even features a dungeon crawl. To his credit, the final confrontation had some emotional depth.

His characters remain his strong point. Even if by this point they won’t ever have a complex psychology, they have personalities and distinct dialogues. His dialogues are the most excited parts and not just because dialogues are exciting by nature. He gives his characters obvious quirks that affect all of their speech patterns. Even when Ham isn’t musing philosophically, he has a more thoughtful tone. Breeze’s conceit is always apparent, sometime more and sometimes less. That’s why even if Sanderson’s story is, at its heart, shallow his characters are alive enough to make it exciting.

His story mode also eschew the typical long journey story mode for a more static one. Most of it is spent waiting for the big climax, but by sealing our characters in a small area he gives them a lot of room to interact. His story is less driven by action and more by character interaction. If there was any opportunity to launch his story into something truly special, it was here. Sadly, it padded by a lot of static paragraphs. The ending is also disconnected from the main story. Whereas the novel’s center is the siege, the ending brings back the Hero of Ages myth. Sanderson isn’t very good at splitting his books and dividing them into individual stories. That’s sad since they are here. He only needed to finish the book when the siege was over.

Sanderson doesn’t deliver on the promise of Mistborn. Then again, I heard this was typical, run-of-the-mill fantasy. Sanderson’s storytelling is more energetic, more character driven and his writing isn’t so stiff. It helped make the first book an exciting adventure, but this one is a good writer in search of an editor to help his writing give shape. I’ll still tackle the final book but I’m worried.

1.5 failed ascensions out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Xenocide

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Don’t we all want to believe in the myth of the free artist? If only we break the chains of record labels and publishing companies! A truly great author doesn’t need a pest of an editor. Their glorious minds just spill diamonds on the page. Really, this is an attractive fantasy. It means we can just write whatever the hell comes to our heads and it might be brilliant. We don’t have to actively seek criticism and feedback, since that will soil our purity.

For every brilliant album like The Fragile, you get a book like Xenocide. Actually, Dr. Dre was invovled in “Even Deeper” so maybe even that album isn’t a product of a single, untamed genius. Human beings are flawd and social animals. Without feedback or criticism, our ideas don’t improve. Becoming intelligent is no different than working out. You have to practice. You have to up the ante and you have to try new things and hear the words people different than you.

Card is clearly intelligent or else he wouldn’t be able to write the two previous novels. They were vastly different in style and were self-contained. There was an overarching story but the books weren’t separated just so it would be easier to sell them. They had a beginning and an end, different prose styles and different structures. That’s all before you get into how Card explores his ideas, how he focuses on characters and refuses to demonize everyone. These things are here too, only Card has no one to restrain him.

Lack of an editor doesn’t mean Card’s good habits can flow freely. It means he sinks to the sin of overwriting, joining the ranks of authors like King and R. R. Martin. He rambles on for most of the books, talking to himself and writing down notes. There so many passages that fit more a stream-of-consciousness narrative but this clearly isn’t one. The narrator is omniscient and the stream of thoughts don’tm provide any psychological insight. It’s a reptition of things we already know.

He’s similar to R. R. Martin not just in the rambling style, but in how the rambling holds the book back. When ramblings aren’t poetic or insightful, all they do is fill up the page and cause build-up. Build-up isn’t a good thing. There’s no reason to tease the readers with ‘something will happen!’ when it’s possible to write interesting things that are happening right now.

Only in the last 100 pages things are actually happening. Until then, people mostly speculate. Although there are many characters, the speculations aren’t patricularly varied. People mostly think about what happened, what may happen and what are the odds of something happening. It’s an author not sure how to move his story, so he writes neutral, meaningless things.

It’s tempting to write these paragraphs. Looking at how many words you wrote brings a feelings of satisfaction, of having done a work. Lying bricks in an order doesn’t automatically lead to a house. Writing a lot of sentences doesn’t automatically lead to a story or an essay or insightful philosophical musings. Card’s prose is more nimble and easy to read than other ramblers, but making it more pleasant doesn’t make it any less of a ramble.

The worst sin Card commits is lacking any purpose to his story. What’s Xenocide about, in the end? What does it add to the world of Ender? We shouldn’t judge other people too hastily. People may seem immoral to us but perhaps their value system is vastly different and we need to find a bridge. There’s no progression of ideas here from the previous novels. For all of its philosophical musings, the novel is empty. The only thing that happens is that the characters confront a virus, discover faster-than-light travel and start to rise against Starways Congress. Does that sound like a story that needs 600 pages?

The novel was apparently meant to go hand-in-hand with Children of the Mind but they were split in two. Whenever a book needs to split up because it’s too long a red flag rises. That’s a sign the story doesn’t actually end in the book itself (Here, it hardly concludes) and that the author found themselves writing a little too much.

The usual strengths are here. Although Starways Congress are the first actual antagonist in the series, Card generally refuses to paint people as wholly evil or wholly good. Characters are conflicted. People do horrible stuff and later Card makes us understand them without justifying it. The idea of ‘varlese’ is pretty brilliant – accepting that sometimes we have to kill a different species because we fail to communicate but not because they’re evil. The novel never develops these. We don’t get anything like the piggies’ radical view of death.

There’s also more techno-babble this time around. Expect a lot of ramblings in the last 100 pages about Outspace and Inspace. It’s good he doesn’t pretend this is hard science and the philotes are more of a philosophical concept than a scientific one. But Card spends more time telling us how it works and none of it is barely cool enough for Stoner Rock lyrics. Again, it’s an author whose pen are getting away from them. No editor was here to cut off the fat and leave the substance.

Normally these are the worst flaws a book can commit. Offend the reader, but at least be interesting. Boredom cannot be forgiven. Boredom merely kills the reader’s time and no one lives forever. Yet Xenocide is, overall, a bearable book. It’s not very enjoyable, but it’s never offensively boring. The rambling prose fattens the novel, but it never becomes a struggle to read. When things do happen, they’re interesting.

That’s thanks to Card’s great foundation. He always comes off as a compassionate, wise person in his novels instead of a homophobic conservative. The world is still dominated by concepts and ideas, rather than trying to predict hard science. There is still no main character, but a wide cast. Some get more focus than others, but each is given a rational basis for their actions (Although Quara is a bit dramatic). Card never demonizes anyone.

Such tiny merits manage to make the book fairly pleasant, if not great. It’s a huge step-down from Speaker for the Dead and makes me wonder if this is where the series ran out of steam. Still, Card manages to ramble and focus too much about build-up and avoid writing a horrible book. That takes some skill. There’s nothing here unless you really loved the first books, but if youd did the ride may be pleasant. Hopefully the sequel is worth it.

2.5 xenocides out of 5

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

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Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5