A Sale of Two Doorstops

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).

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8 Responses to A Sale of Two Doorstops

  1. evangoer says:

    Acacia: Game of Thrones :: Sword of Shannara : Lord of the Rings — that seems awfully unfair to Acacia, or at least gives way too much credit to Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones and its sequels are… not good. Each volume is at least as bloated as Acacia, plus they work *way* too hard at trying to prove how grim ‘n gritty the series is. (And now we shall ‘unexpectedly’ kill yet another character!) Meh.

  2. Doug says:

    Let’s put our structural hats on for a few moments. I’m as tired as you are of the hidden-prince narrative, but how does it look from the other side? You’ve got this spiffy fantasy world, full of dramatic events (it’s epic fantasy after all); which story are you going to tell? The stories about the big conflicts, the heroic adventures, the epoch-making events? Then chances are good that you’ll be telling the tales of the princes, hidden or otherwise. Once you decide to go for the big payoff, you’re headed toward the clich?ÃŽ?d roles. And if you don’t go for the big payoff, your editor may well be asking why you’re telling the story of the kid next door instead of the One True King. Maybe your spiffy fantasy world is chock full of exciting and epic stories, but I can still imagine the temptation — artistic as well as editorial and possibly pecuniary — to tell the story that makes the biggest difference in the spiffy world. (I think I wrote earlier here that this is my worry that Naomi Novik is headed to this territory. One of the reasons that the Aubrey-Maturin novels work is that Jack Aubrey is not important to the Royal Navy. With Temeraire shaping world history, NN has raised the authorial stakes considerably, and I am far from sure she is up to it.)

    I wonder if bloated books sell better than their svelte cousins. Then constraints on editorial personnel would dovetail with commercial desires, and probably authorial ambitions as well. (Who wants to leave so much of their spiffy world on the cutting room floor?) Or maybe experienced readers (dare I say old?) have less patience for extraneous spiff than they did when they were twelve? And folks who have read a fair amount of history are probably even worse off, because we know the models that the authors are cribbing from.

    I skimmed through big chunks of Game of Thrones et seq. going, ok, War of the Roses, Richard III, Mongols, yeah yeah yeah. I’m in the middle of The Lies of Locke Lamorra right now, which is reasonably enjoyable, but of course it’s an exaggerated version of Venice. I barely got through Sailing to Sarantium, for example, because it was just the story of Emperor Justinian tarted up with a few glowing lights pretending to be magic.

    I also wonder whether there’s a related problem of authors who are well read within the genre, but not very experienced outside of it. Looking at these two, maybe not, though Durham is probably a different problem. Acacia seems to be his fourth novel, with one about Hannibal and two other in the 19th century US behind him. I’ll be his editor doesn’t know what to think. And Bakker is about our age, so he ought to have read a bunch of stuff apart from f/sf and the reading list for his philosophy PhD studies. But maybe not. Over at Charlie Stross’ blog not long ago, a reader asked why starships encountering a new planet didn’t pop out a slew of GPS satellites when they went into orbit, the better to orient any landing parties. Stross said it probably came from writers reading science fiction instead of science, and thinking within the genre rather than within reality.

    Enough on why things are the way they are. Who breaks the mold? Your favorite discoveries of the last few years?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Interesting thoughts. I did like Game of Thrones simply because its template was different and because I thought Martin spun it along pretty well. Agree though that the sequels have an increasing, accelerating problem with bloat and narrative coherence.

    I also agree that once you do world-building, you’re almost certainly going to want to do “the big story” of that world. Which is ok, and I like me some epic as much as anybody else. But I also think it’s right to suggest that the really original thing might be to do smaller, richer stories if it’s a genuinely compelling world. Jack Vance did that very nicely, for one example.

    So who breaks the mold with fantasy? I like some of the mood in Mieville, Vandermeer, Bishop, and some of the desire to do a very different kind of imaginative work. Bishop’s novel The Etched City was probably my favorite out of that sensibility, though Perdido Street Station is also great. I also like Greg Kurzawa’s Gideon’s Wall, which I think is a bit in this vein, but less dreamy and extravagant.

    Paul Park’s fantasy series has been an interesting subversion of a lot of the genre’s tropes, but he’s mostly aiming at an even deeper template for fairy tales, etc. rather than the typical world-creating Tolkienesque doorstop series.

    I don’t know why, but sometimes the bloat doesn’t get to me as much even when I can see how an editor could seriously trim a lot of self-indulgence out of a text. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind was like that–a good read even with the wretched excess of the characterization and narrative.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Also, interesting point on Novik, Doug. But I think you have to give her credit for not just returning in each book to a default point so her characters can just have more or less the same adventure next time. Where I thought she was going a bit was to have the Scottish Enlightenment happen with the participation of dragons, but letting Napoleon successfully invade England shows a lot of willingness to shake things up a bit as well.

  5. johnbr says:

    Well, I’ve found Game of Thrones to be incredibly refreshing, although it certainly is getting bogged down with all the characters, and all the plot threads. Reading Martin’s blog is painful – he seems to be spending far more time marketing figurines, games, TV shows and rooting for football teams than actually working on his books.

    But I’ve gotten kind of burned-out on fantasy, ever since I read Tad William’s comments at the beginning of ‘Memory, Sorrow and Thorn’ that it wasn’t like other fantasy novels and then, when all is said and done… it is exactly like every other fantasy novel!

  6. evangoer says:

    Agreed with you completely on Name of the Wind — I guess the pace and the writing was snappy enough that I didn’t mind the bloat. On the other hand, some of my friends who are very well-read in SF hated, hated that book.

    Discoveries in fantasy, people who break the mold? I would love to discover some new titles to investigate. I really did like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. She has a much leaner prose style than you see in most fantasy novels (maybe because she spent years honing her craft with the Miles Vorkosigan books). And both novels feature an interesting, well-realized, middle-aged protagonist, which is something of a revelation in fantasy.

  7. Doug says:

    Does Bonaparte succeed in the fifth book? I haven’t read it yet (waiting for paperback, plus accessibility in Tbilisi is limited), so that would indeed be fun. Glad to see that she’s making use of the freedom that playing with fantasy and alt-history offer. I never read more than one or two Patrick O’Brians at a go, so I didn’t mind the similarities of the adventures, at least not until well into the series. There was also a bit of the Red-Shirt Phenomenon that any longish series is probably prone to. I wonder if Temeraire is building to any particular climax, or if Novik even knows for sure at this point.

    I enjoyed the heck out of A Princess of Roumania, and did like the subversion, but got distracted about a third of the way through Tourmaline and haven’t picked it back up yet. The last book is due for paperback next spring, so maybe then the mood will strike for the full run. Park is also playing around with recent and 19th century history. A Romanian ruler named Ceausescu certainly has associations, and the story of Germany’s rise within Europe (which I take the Ratisbon angle to be) is one of the more potent ones for the 19th/20th century in our timeline. Sinking Britain like Atlantis is a nice swipe at the usual conventions of the genre.

    Vance also sprang to mind as someone who told great stories without their dominating the spiffy world’s history. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are in here too, as is a lot of Poul Anderson. Even Conan, iirc, was not the center of the world. Is small-ball fantasy a niche waiting on a few good manuscripts? A fashion soon to return?

    Thanks for the names — I’ve been overseas a long time now, and only get to browse an f/sf section once or twice a year at best. Dorothy Dunnett and Henryk Sienkiewicz, both on the historical fiction side of things, have appealed to some of the same things I like in good fantasy.

  8. G. Weaire says:

    With Patrick O’Brian, the adventures may be basically similar – but the development of Aubrey and Maturin’s lives (marriages, career, scandal) is ongoing. That being said, I never made it to the last book.

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