July 24, 2011

Review: Iorich by Steven Brust

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:53 pm

Steven Brust is slowly ploughing his way through a fantasy series that will ultimately have at least 18 titles (not counting backstories and sidestories about other characters). He started in 1983 and has produced 13 so far (again not counting backstories and sidestories) which gives him a productivity of almost one novel every two years. Iorich, published in 2010, is book 12 (counted in order of publication, internal chronology is more complicated).

I’ve been collecting Draegaera books since the 1990s and had almost a complete matching set. Unfortunately the cover design has changed with this latest book and I will have to resign myself to non-matching editions from here on. One reason I didn’t get this book last year was that I was waiting for the paperback. For a time I bought the hardbacks as they came out but I’m trying to fit more books on my shelves and hardbacks take up too much space. Another reason is that I feel this series has severely dropped off in quality. From the puff quote on the back, Cory Doctorow disagrees with me to the extent that I wonder if he was reading a different book.

The problem is that the early books in the series were so very good. In Taltos we met Vlad Taltos, a human assassin working the mean streets of Adrilankha who gets mixed up with the high nobility of Draegaera. In Jhereg we found out more about Vlad’s job and the complicated politics of assassinations. In Yendi we learned about the twisting turning machinations of politicians and sorcerers. In Teckla the scope of the plot expanded to urban unrest and Vlad’s marital troubles. Since then we have followed Vlad through plots involving the highest people in the land, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, the Empress, the Gods and other beings who oppose the Gods. Vlad now has a price on his head and a Great Weapon on his belt.

Vlad is no longer the insouciant assassin and sarcastic courtier with no responsibilities and a knack for trouble I first admired. He’s grimmer, glummer, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and seems to have lost interest in narrating his own adventures. Once he investigated dodgy happenings, created complex spells of courcery and witchcraft, matched wits with his betters and hatched plots of his own. Now the events of his life, world-shaking as they are, have been rendered much more mundane. In Dzur he went out to dinner and annoyed various people. In Jhegaala he tried to find some relations, failed, and annoyed various people along the way.

Now in Iorich, his friend Aliera is in prison for something everyone knows she is guilty of but is almost certainly not the real reason for her arrest. It takes Vlad almost the entire book to establish that this is the case and that although his various noble friends feel sick about it no one is doing anything about it for political reasons. Vlad wanders around Adrilankha easily avoiding the hundreds of people who have cause to wish him ill dead. He drops in on his old friends and makes sarcastic comments. He spends two days following someone and then realises this isn’t a good use of his time and stops. Eventually he comes up with a plan and invites various important people to be involved (their unexciting roles are basically to keep various other people busy at the critical time) but the critical details are not narrated. This is a far cry from the excitement of Jhereg in which Vlad had to ask everyone he knew for help, explained all the details and even then the reader wasn’t sure if it would work.

In Iorich there’s never a sense of danger. Even when Vlad gets beaten up it’s not as exciting as when he was beaten up in Yendi because he doesn’t know why, doesn’t care about it and his life isn’t in danger. If his life had been in danger he could have easily escaped by drawing his sword: one of the 17 Great Weapons which can destroy souls, save you from having your own soul eaten, slay Gods and kill other beings even more powerful than Gods. Despite all these advantages, Vlad isn’t totally happy with his sword because he’d like to have a conversation with it and doesn’t know how. (I can think of at least 5 characters who could teach him how but this option doesn’t appear to have occurred to Vlad.)

The life seems to have gone out of this series. Even the dialogue is flat where once it was sparkling. It may be deeply significant, especially if you’ve read the other books in the series and can guess what some of the people Vlad speaks to are feeling and thinking. But it’s not lively, doesn’t further the plot and doesn’t seem to get Vlad or the reader anywhere. Vlad barely bothers with the Iorich advocate he has hired and when he does he doesn’t say much of significance because he’s wary of the advocate witnessing against him. This does not make for a thrilling plot.

Eventually someone is conveniently stabbed and all the politics get sorted out – at least enough to accomplish the main purpose of Vlad’s mission, although no one is precisely elated about it. Job done. Another Taltos story completed.

These novels are my addiction. I can’t help caring about Vlad, about his ex-wife Cawti, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, Kiera the thief, Kragar the Jhereg boss, Daymar the Hawklord, Aliera and her cousin Morrolan, and the host of characters who have passed through the pages of the series so far. I’d have lied to meet The Demon again (who isn’t a Demon) and the Necromancer (who is) and the Demon Goddess Vera (opinions vary) – although I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Telnan after spending far too many hours in his company in Dzur.

But where were these people in Iorich? They all seemed to be drinking wine or eating cheese or off somewhere with Sir Not Appearing in This Book. Where was Mario? Since he’s every inch an assassin and turned up in the last book when we weren’t looking for him and weren’t bothered about him, why wasn’t he in this one when his lover was in danger of execution? What about Khaavren who is expected to show up in the next book, might he be interested in a political conspiracy? Isn’t his job to unravel this kind of stuff? For that matter where are the villains who spent the entire book off stage being sneaky behind the scene?

It’s not too late for this series to pick up again. After all, there are still a number of books to go. But we need to see Vlad fighting for something, or against something, or doing something more than just existing and fretting about his problems. Pull up your socks, Vlad, draw your Great Weapon and do something!

August 20, 2010

What makes a book YA fiction?

After I posted about boys and girls as readers and characters I got some very interesting responses. One comment in particular stuck with me though; this one from Dom who wrote: “Good YA books are, from my perspective, misshelved adult books.”. I replied: “Are good YA books misshelved adult books? I don’t think so. Good YA can be read and enjoyed by adults but I don’t think that makes it adult fiction. Not unless adult is a synonym for quality.”

I had my Writer’s Polygon on Wednesday and we started talking about this. The other people present are very original and creative writers, to the extent that although they are writing YA their works don’t fall into any conventional sub genre. Frances Hardinge has described her work as ‘whimsical’. Ralph Lovegrove is a not-yet-published writer whose work is rich and full of resonance. In comparison I think my work is much more typical of YA and my backgrounds are much less fantastical. I tend to start in the ‘real world’ and then move sideways.

So, inspired by this evolving discussion I began a web hunt on “what makes a book YA fiction” and was instantly presented with this article from suite101.com, containing the following list of what makes a book YA:

Books for teens are almost always written in the first person and usually have:
* a teenage protagonist
* adults characters as marginal and barely visible characters
* a brief time span (the story spans a few weeks, yes, a summer, maybe, a year, no)
* a limited number of characters
* a universal and familiar setting
* current teenage language, expressions, and slang
* detailed descriptions of other teenagers’ appearances, mannerisms, and dress
* a positive resolution to the crisis at hand (though it may be subtle and never in-your-face moralistic)
* few, if any, subplots
* about 125-250 pages in length (although many of the newer YA books are much longer)
* a focus on the experiences and growth of just one main character
* a main character whose choices and actions and concerns drive the story (as opposed to outside forces)
* problems specific to adolescents and their crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood

Some of that is fairly reasonable, although reducing anything to a list makes it seem flat and uninspired. I think the list would have worked better for me if it were introduced as qualities YA books may possess. ‘Teenage protagonist’ is fair, almost all good YA in my opinion does have a teenager character. But there are successful and popular YA books with older characters e.g. Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockheart series. ‘Marginal and barely visible adult characters’ is often true of the YA fantasy quest novel but less so in contemporary fiction, the YA fiction of Margaret Mahy never brushes off the adults as unimportant although the teenagers are driving the narrative. ‘A brief time span’, is true of most fiction. Epic speculative may deal with the sweep of decades but in the main books include only a couple of weeks of elapsed time. ‘Limited number of characters’ is certainly not my experience or true of my fiction – and somewhere Frances Hardinge just burst out laughing and doesn’t know why. ‘Universal and familiar setting’ isn’t always the case, especially when no setting is universally familiar to every child. If a book deals with gangs in New York does that count as familiar because we have heard of New York and of gangs? Or are books set in schools automatically familiar because many children attend schools – regardless of the type of school or it’s location? Tricky.

Continuing boldly on, the ‘teenage slang’ isn’t all that common. Partly because writers often only remember their own now-outdated slang and don’t feel comfortable using a more modern but less familiar idiom. Also publishers will cut swearing and that accounts for a lot of slang. ‘Detailed descriptions of other teenagers’ appearances, mannerisms, and dress’ does occur in mainstream YA fiction but once outside that mainstream is less common. Even in the mainstream it’s more true of the younger end of the YA pool. ‘A positive resolution to the crisis at hand’ is most fiction again. Adult fiction certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on dark, Patrick Ness anyone?

‘Few, if any, subplots’ – oh dear, I’m definitely doing it wrong if that’s true! ’125-250 pages in length’, I never think in numbers of pages so I’ll have to do a sum. Wikianswers tell me there’s 300 words to a page so that’s 37,000-75,000 words. That’s a wide range. I’d say most current YA is between 70,000 and 100,000 words and the popular Harry Potter books have been significantly longer.

‘A focus on the experiences and growth of just one main character’, in my experience YA fiction more often involves a close knit group of characters. ‘A main character whose choices and actions and concerns drive the story’, eh, again that’s most fiction not specifically YA. But ‘problems specific to adolescents and their crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood’ is one I do agree with and a central element of my fiction.

I’ve spent a long time on this one list but that’s because most of the other links my search produced were booklists and recommendations: a ‘I can’t describe it but I know it when I read it’ approach to the question. John Scalzi has a blog post form a couple of years ago about the placing of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother on the YA shelves in which he says YA Sf sells better than adult SF but adult SF readers seem blind to YA titles. This reminds me of Philip Pullman who’s been saying for years that he finds YA more exciting and imaginative than adult fiction. I also found a blogger writing about engaging with teens through their choice of fiction who says: “[YA books] can talk about really controversial stuff, actually, in a way which is interesting and true and informative and not just included for shock value.”

So, now I’m throwing the question open to the blogosphere. What do you think makes YA fiction? How does it differ from adult fiction? Are you an adult reader of YA or a YA reader of adult fiction – what informs those choices?

November 15, 2009

A penny for your thoughts

Filed under: links,living in the future,Q&A — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 3:54 pm

A friend linked me to the discussion that’s been going on in writerly circles about donation buttons, direct selling to your readers and whether it’s possible to make money from online publication. Here are the posts I’ve been reading:

  • Steven Brust on begging for alms
  • Bill Ward on patronage and an online audience
  • Cory Doctorow in Locus about creative commons licenses and other ways of gaining attention for your books
  • Paul Raven in a Futurismic blog post about how to make money from fiction in the internet age
  • Since plenty of bright people will be putting forward their two cents of thoughts into the discussion I’m not claiming mine are the ultimate answer. Here’s where I stand on some of the questions that have been asked.

    Steven Brust asked what people thought about him putting a donation button on his website to help him with his finances because he is “bad at money management”.

    To this I’d say he’s perfectly free to put such a button on his site just as visitors are free to ignore it. I personally wouldn’t use it to donate to him. While it’s true that the author gets a pretty pitiful percentage of the cover price, this is how conventional publishing works. Very few people make large amounts of money from their writing – most writers do not make enough to support themselves, let alone their family. I’m not saying this is how things should be – but I’d rather look at solutions that affect the whole system and donating to Brust wouldn’t be a solution to anything other than gaining him a bit more cash.

    I donate to Brust by buying every last one of his Dragaera books, regardless of quality, typically in hardback. I then later buy again in paperback and donate the hardback to charity. If he’d like to make some extra cash from me then offering me something that would appeal to me as a fan of the novels would be a better way to persuade me. But again, I personally would prefer to donate extra content to my fans – hoping to persuade them into buying more books.

    I also don’t think being bad at money management is a good enough reason for a “moderately successful novelist” to ask for money. I can understand his problem, I can share his pain (I too am Not Good at money management) but I think you shouldn’t ask dedicated fans (who have already bought the product, see below on those who haven’t) to pay something for nothing.

    Paul Raven asked “leaving aside dead-tree or digital books bought in the traditional manner, where do you pay to read fiction, if anywhere? What does it take to get you to pay, and what amount seems reasonable to you for what you’re getting – if anything?”

    The answer to this, for me, is I don’t pay for fiction except from booksellers. I gain my reading matter either from a bookshop or online seller, for free as a review copy or gift, for cheap from a second-hand shop or (occasionally, but not often) borrow them from a library. I do pay for some online services (generally the ad free version or premium version of a site I use) but I have never donated money to an author or paid an author directly for their product. It would take a lot for me to be persuaded to. If Ursula Le Guin was in some sort of extremis (in danger of being without shelter or food) then I would donate to her and if she produced a book that was only available to be be bought direct from her website, I would buy that book. But she is my favourite author.

    I think I might make more of an exception for physical book objects or book-relate objects sold at promotional events. If I went to a book fair and found an author signing copies of their books and a table of books to be bought, assuming that I liked that author’s work in the first place and the prices of the objects seemed reasonable, I might then buy a self-published book by that author. As for what constitutes a reasonable amount, I wouldn’t pay anything higher than publishing company prices (between £4,99 and £14.99) and I’d be less likely to buy something at the high end.

    Cory Doctorow asked
    a) Will people donate to support a free book? How much? Will they donate more to support an audiobook or a print edition?
    b) How much work does it take to replicate a professional publisher’s contribution to publicizing and distributing your book?
    c) How much demand is there for premium editions, and what characteristics make those premium editions more valuable?

    My replies are:

    a) If you’re donating in order to gain a copy of a book, how is that book free? I would describe this as buying a book. I personally prefer physical book objects because they are easier on the eye and I can read them in the bath.

    b) Publicity and distribution are THE main things a professional contract gets you. (Also good editing if you’re lucky enough to have an editor who you work well with, but that’s not a given.) Even when the marketing of a book is effectively zero, you’re still benefiting from the name of the publishing company, a listing in their catalogue, and the kudos of professional publication. A known name like Macmillan is worth a lot to an author, especially when compared to a smaller lesser known publisher or a self-published title. I don’t think it’s possible to replicate this sort of distribution or publicity. Self-published books have to find a different method of distribution and a different kind of marketing. Viral marketing and word-of-mouth marketing are good for this type of title but very difficult to create yourself.

    c) A premium edition would have to press a quality of specialness that I actually wanted.

    JKR’s special charity editions of her tie-in Harry Potter title were handwritten by the author. I personally don’t give a damn about having a personal handwritten edition, I like print. It pains me to think of an author I cared about wasting their time laboriously copying out their words when they could be getting on with a new book. I wouldn’t want to support them in doing this for fear it would become popular.

    When it comes to books I don’t want or need them to have lots of bells and whistles. I barely remember to read the ‘Forward by Famous Person’ sections and when I do I find them so full of lushing up and soft soap I don’t care for them. I don’t need more artwork or a free CD or a special bookmark. I just want the words.

    I wish it was easier for authors to make money from their writing. But right now I don’t see a way to achieve that.

    August 7, 2009

    Colouring over the whitewash

    Filed under: covers,publishing news — Tags: , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 9:22 am


    So, who’s been following the recent debacle about a Bloomsbury book with the cover image of a white girl to illustrate the story of a black girl? Liar by Justine Larbalestier was due to hit shelves in November with the cover image of a white teenage girl (left). One problem: the protagonist is black.

    The news appeared in July on industry blog Editorial Anonymous where commenters were outraged by the decision. One commenter pointed out that this sort of whitewash is nothing new: “Reminds me of the old-school sci-fi covers I’ve seen. On Octavia Butler’s (whose protagonist’s are always black women) book ‘Dawn’, the original cover was a pale woman with long, blond hair. They corrected it in the next edition (or printing), but still. Completely incongruous with the actual story.”

    Larbalestier made a post on her blog and told her readers the sad truth already known to those of us in the trade: “Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.”

    Publishers Weekly picked up the story on the same day (Justine Larbalestier’s Cover Girl) where Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers did not cover herself in glory with the following comment: “The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar. Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?” The suggestion that this decision was made deliberately is even more alarming than the idea it was unintentional.

    Boing Boing also posted an article about the story. Cory Doctorow wrote Race and book covers: why is there a white girl on the cover of this book about a black girl? pointing out that this cover choice was not made in isolation and that all over the publishing industry authors are protesting against the same thing happening to their own books. White children are mainstream. Black children are urban fiction.

    There’s supposedly a happy ending to this modern fairytale. Bloomsbury have decided to postpone publication until October and create a new cover. (Reported in Publishers Weekly: A New Look for ‘Liar’.) But the statement the company has issued is not exactly an apology:
    “We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity. In response to this concern, and in support of the author’s vision for the novel, Bloomsbury has decided to re-jacket the hardcover edition with a new look in time for its publication in October. It is our hope that the important discussions about race and its representation in teen literature continue…”

    Does anyone believe the part about the whitewash being a symbolic reflection of the character’s psychology? Well done to whatever marketing bod thought that up but it sounds profoundly unlikely doesn’t it? Can you envisage a cover meeting where someone said: “You know, I think it would be a really good idea to show this child as white even though she’s black, that would really convey the psychological aspect of her being a liar.” Surely any modern children’s publishing person would respond with cries of “dear lord no!” or at the very least “that could be problematic”.

    So while there is cause for celebration in this cover change, those who should be celebrated are the internet bloggers (amateur and professional) who didn’t allow this story to go away, who demanded a response from the publishing company and who stated publicly that this is not okay. I’d like to be able to praise Bloomsbury too but I don’t think you get cookies for backing off from a racist act, not unless you issue a full and heartfelt apology and a promise to do better.

    And we can do better. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to a vision of the future in which white people are not the default, the mainstream and the uncontested image of everyman. We can ‘be the change’. The only thing stopping us is not seeing it as important.

    April 30, 2009

    Judging the Clarke Award

    Filed under: Arthur C. Clarke award,awards,events — Tags: , , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 1:57 pm

    Yesterday, the 29th of April, was the final judging meeting and the ceremony for the Arthur C. Clarke award. The judging meeting took all afternoon and although all details are confidential I cna confirm the chair of the judges comment that “it was a particularly intense and long shortlist meeting”. In the end the winner, chosen from the shortlist of six, was Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod.

    There are two write-ups of the ceremony on the Guardian site here and here. (I’m not the judge mentioned in story two, by the way.) There’s also a write-up on Torque Control.

    For me the evening was a great experience, it’s a huge honour to have been chosen as a judge and I am so grateful to the SF Foundation for having asked me to represent them. I’ve really enjoyed reading the books and re-reading the shortlist and it’s been great to discuss the titles with my fellow judges. I look forward to continuing in the role next year.

    Highlights of the ceremony were getting to meet people whose names I know but who I’d not previously had the opportunity to meet including: Niall Harrison (Vector editor), Roz Kaveney (critic and author) and Cory Doctorow (SF author and technology guru). Exciting stuff!

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