Recently, mindful of a long flight home, I went looking to the local bookstore to see if there was anything new that I hadn’t read. I looked at some fantasy titles, but most of them had the kind of blurbs that I’ve previously described as a huge turn-off.
I finally settled with some trepidation on two books. One by David Anthony Durham called Acacia: The War With the Mein, the other by R. Scott Bakker called The Darkness That Comes Before.
With Acacia, the title made me think that maybe the book would have an African connection, and the set-up seemed a bit more interesting than orphan-commoner-actually-prince must-find-magic-McGuffin to defeat Dark-Lord. The blurb seemed to me to promise a kind of empire vs. provinces narrative with some kind of moral twist.
Well, that much is correct. I am thinking that this is what somewhat derivative fantasies patterned on George Martin rather than Tolkien are likely to look like (Acacia: Game of Thrones :: Sword of Shannara : Lord of the Rings). More political intrigue, a darker moral world with many shades of grey, a grimmer arc of character development.
Acacia is not terrible, as far as these things go. But it sure could be a lot better than it is, and most of the problem comes down to the basics of the prose. And that in turn maybe comes down to a bad combination of missing editorial input plus the genre-fueled need to bloat fantasy stories up to 600+ pages as if the heft of a paperback is what establishes it as a part of the genre.
The problem with Acacia is a problem that a lot of genre fantasy has: it too often reads like the detailed notes of a Dungeons & Dragons’ gamemaster about his campaign world rather than as a work of narrative fiction. The tedious (but accurate) old dictum to “show, not tell” is violated with astonishing aggressiveness within the first hundred pages, but not in any consistent or deliberate fashion. You know you’re in trouble when the king’s chief advisor Thaddeus murders a messenger who carries vital news and following a description of the act, Durham continues, “Thaddeus was not entirely the loyal servant of the king that he seemed” (and more still along those lines following). No shit, Sherlock. Of the many things that could go unsaid in the novel, this is only the beginning. Almost any of them–the lengthy expositional asides about the cultures, practices or peoples in the novel, the omniscient descriptions of characters and actions that suddenly erupt out of (a great many) viewpoint characters, could be unsaid or said minimally to vastly greater effect. As a sparce, fast-moving narrative that concentrated on its plot, it wouldn’t be half-bad. As a diagrammatic and pointlessly long act of world-creation, it’s clumsy and tedious at many points.
Bakker’s novel The Darkness That Comes Before is in a completely different league. It reminds me of work by Frank Herbert and David Zindell: big, brawny, intellectual and philosophical speculative fiction that’s very savvy about the historical and spiritual referents it means to invoke. Rather like Herbert and Zindell, Bakker goes increasingly wrong as his series continues in the second two books of the series, where his intellectual ambitions give way to pretentious bloat. (Zindell’s latest work is especially frustrating in this way, as his protagonists become more and more a kind of spiritual Mary Sue.) But the first book is pretty gutsy and original stuff. In terms of pure craft, it’s also way more attractive than Acacia, because Bakker lets much of the characterization and situation develop within the action of the story, without omniscient interventions from an obsessive ethnographic observer. The male protagonists are fully-realized adults with rich narrative dilemmas drawn out of Bakker’s readings of human history rather than minor variations on stock genre figures. Bakker also tries very hard to develop two female characters in a distinctive way. I give him credit for trying, but by the second novel in the series, I think he falls pretty short.
In either case, however, I feel like an editor whose main objective was to push back on divergent tendencies towards overwriting would have done either author a great if rather different service. In Durham’s case, it might have saved his book from being just another “fantasy epic” recognizable by its girth and formulaic construction, might have let a relatively interesting narrative emerge from underneath the clumsy exposition. In Bakker’s case, an editor might have pushed him to take the pretention and repetition of the later two books down a notch, to have reproduced some of the sparser and often beautiful prose of the first book in fuller measure.
I have no idea if this has anything to do with the more general view that this kind of editorial influence has largely vanished from fiction as a whole. Genre and speculative fiction often didn’t benefit from that kind of attention in the past, Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s keen eye notwithstanding. But it is frustrating when you can quickly see that shedding one or two hundred pages would make a book at the least far more entertaining (in the case of Acacia) or might move it into the category of undisputed masterpiece (in the case of Bakker’s series).