August 30, 2010

Negative reviews

I was prompted to write about negative reviews by this post on Publishers Weekly on The Value of Negative Reviews. The PW post was in turn inspired by a blog post by Sarah Rees Brennan and comments on that blog post about the value of positive vs negative reviews.

Someone said that they didn’t read all positive review sites which is interesting to me because I have done my most reviwing for Armadillo which had a policy of not publishing reviews that panned a book. By and large that rule has held true for me in reviewing. On my blog and in trade magazines you won’t find me reviewing a book negatively. I have in the past reviewed books negatively: in my brief stint as a Guardian teenage reviewer and in online reviews for a BBS I ran for recommended reading. Nowadays I feel uncomfortable about putting bad reviews in the public eye.

I may privately wax lyrical with my friends about hated books. Sometimes I need to vent about a book and my friends get the outpouring of bile about a title I haven’t enjoyed. Like Sarah “I can act out, scene by hateful scene, some of these books.” Our book group has a good balance of liked to hated books and we’ve had several books which we’ve spent a pleasant evening tearing apart. When I review publically, I review books I like.

Even when I complain about an element of a book this is within the context of me contining to read the books. Sometimes I forget to take this into account when criticising long standing series writers. As a collector of writers I can get disappointed with someone’s current strand of writing, like their work generally but not specifically. It can be hard in the fervour of hate for a book to remember that you were gripped while reading it and enjoyed a great deal of it.

I’m suddenly inspired to give negative reviews and to explain the ‘why’ of the negative for books I own and intend to keep. For example:

  • I buy all Steven Brust’s Dragaera books but not in hardback anymore. I love the world and the character and I want Brust to finish the 23? book sequence but I feel they’ve bogged down now and lack the playful stylish inventiveness of the earlier books in the series
  • Did Lois McMaster Bujold hit the ultimate Vorkosigan novel in Memory? Can any book in that series top that masterful work? I end up being disappointed in the novels since that one just because I enjoy them so much and I want so much of them. Is this fair criticism? (The fear of every artist has got to be that you have already completed your best work eg Michael Jackson and Thriller)
  • Diana Wynne Jones will always be on my top ten, Margaret Mahy likewise. But it’s been a while since either of them wrote fiction that influenced me as much as their earlier work. Is that because I’m no longer a teenager?
  • Spider Robinson seems to have turned into Robert Heinlein. The evolution of Callaghans Bar has moved the conceit so far away from the things I liked about it – and yet I continue to buy the series. I like the character development but I hate who the characters have developed into.
  • John Scalzi is experimenting with different POVs in pre-existing story/universe, I want him to get on and write new work. Tie-in novels are not as good as original ones they’re merchandising, not fiction. Yes, I know this is harsh.
  • I adore Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian series and Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish series. I resent it when they write other books. Yes, I know this isn’t fair.
  • David Weber, Peter F Hamilton and George R R Martin and other authors create these huge worlds and universes with so many interlinked plotlines and character proliferation and I wonder if those series will ever be completed, like Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time. I wish they’d write shorter 3, 5 or even 10 book series which stand a chance of being completed. Oh, and PS: if you’re going to have over-titles and individual titles please keep them consistent: Book 1, Book 2 and Book3a and Book3b is aan unhelpful way to title books of the same length.

Yes, I feel negatively about books. These are my kinder criticisms. But we criticise because we care – I think that’s something to remember.

August 11, 2010

The Naming of People

Filed under: Advice for writers — Tags: , , , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 10:15 am

The naming of people is a delicate art in any book but is particularly important in speculative fiction. Citizens of a galactic empire or subjects of a fantasy king are made credible by the resonance of their names for things, including themselves. Authors adopt different strategies of naming, according to their preferences and what style they think will work for a particular novel.

The Recluce Method
This is one of the easiest, but no less effective for that. L.E. Modesitt adopts this in his Saga of Recluce. Characters have names that are almost but not quite like familiar ones with a scattering of more familiar ones thrown in. The Magic of Recluce has a hero named Lerris with contemporaries called Wrynn, Tamra, Krystal, Dorthae, Mryten and Sammel. He acquires a teacher named Justen, an admirer named Deirdre and an enemy named Antonin.

This method works pretty well. It tends to use a few more Ys than modern English, possibly a result of celtic influence, but generally hangs together pretty well. It’s not my favourite because I think the results are a bit haphazard. I can care about a character called Tamra because I like the way it sounds but Lerris is just a noise to me and Krystal a bit confusing in a fantasy milleu.

The name of ‘Recluce’ itself, the island from which all plot emanates is a classic example of this. It acquires the meaning of ‘recluse’ with a fantasy edge. My favourite name in this series is the white city of Fairhaven, later destroyed by evil magic and renamed Frven.

Other authors who use a similar method include David Eddings and Melanie Rawn.

The Celtic Method
Celtic names are so popular in fantasy they deserve a citation of their own. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander is a good example of this. Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper grows up in Caer Dallben. He longs to be a hero like Prince Gwydion and accidentally has an adventure that pits him against the Horned King and the Enchantress Achren. Along the way he acquires the friendship of Princess Eilonwy, a sword named Dyrnwyn and a bard named Fflewddur Fflam. The books are loosely based on the Mabinogion.

This strategy works. It’s one of the least adventurous of the options but it gets the job done – Alexander is particularly good at creating colourful and memorable names. The main problem is that Celtic influence is overused in fantasy. Pronunciation issues could also be a barrier.

The Phonetic Method
This is one of my least favourite strategies. It’s typically encountered in fantasy but I recently ran into an example in science fiction. David Weber’s Safehold series has a heroine named Nimue (from another world and background) who is attempting to uplift the characters of Safehold against the will of their corrupt church.

She befriends King Haarahld and Prince Cayleb and sets herself against the forces of Archbishop Erayk. There are a lot of characters in this series and the author has listed them alphabetically in the back of the book, so I’ll just list a few to give you the flavour:

Zherald Ahdymsyn
Nahrmahn Baytz
Ellys Brownyng
Zhaspyr Clyntahn
Ahrnahld Falkan
Charlz Gahrdaner
Gorj Haarpar
Ahlbyrt Harys
Ernyst Lynkyn
Rholynd Mahlry

I could go on since I’m only halfway through the alphabet but I can’t bear to. This is one of my least favourite methods. The author is trying to suggest some linguistic drift (there’s a rationale for this in the background) but since the book is written in English there’s a perversity in expecting the reader to struggle through these names. It interupts the plot for me as I try to work out what these names would have been before being garblerised like this. And I find it hard to believe in the linguistic drift concerned and feel instead that there’s something tortuous about a construction that can produce Zhaspyr Clyntahn for Jasper Clinton. And there are too many Ys. Fantasy authors of the world, lay down your Ys, they do not do you any good!

The Could Be A Name Method
This is the strategy of author Chris Wooding and I’ve not seen it employed by anyone else with the same conviction and authority. I first encountered it in his The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray, the title itself being an example of the method. Wooding takes familiar names like Eliza and Isabel and slides them into each other to create a new and, to me, intrinsically believable name. Other characters in the same book include Thaniel Fox, Cathaline Bennett, Priscena Weston, Curien Blake and Mammon Pyke.

Wooding uses the same method in Retribution Falls, an unconnected adult novel. The hero is Darian Frey, Captain of the Ketty Jay. His crew includes Grayther Crake, Jezibeth Kyte, Jandrew Harkins among others. He is being hunted by Captain Trinica Dracken.

I really like this method. I think it has a fantasy flavour while preserving the credibility of a believable naming system. Wooding is good at it – so good I was surprised to encounter a book by him that doesn’t use this method and I was disappointed not get the name convention of naming.

And more…
There are other methods too, of course. More than I can enumerate in one post.

My own preferred style is Names As Things which you see in Hex with characters called Raven, Wraith and Revenge, in Rights of Passage with Charm and Ciren, in Waking Dream‘s Poppy and Bad Blood‘s Fox. I might be growing out of it though. There’s barely a name of a thing in my most recent book.

What name styles do you use and how do you employ them?

This was originally posted at my blog and then syndicated elsewhere. If you see the syndicated post, please comment on my blog.

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