Friday, May 30, 2014

What to learn about Exposition from Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files

Preface: I’m not gonna say much about the quality of Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Of course it was phenomenal. Butcher always brings the goods. If you like Urban Fantasy, you need The Dresden Files. But given that the book came out 3 days ago and there are already over 200 reviews, once again I’m not needed to help sell this one either.1  So instead, I’ll use it as an example of how to do exposition right. 

Warning: From here it’s spoilers all the way down.

Butcher is a master of exposition. We’re fifteen novels into this series and his fantasy ‘verse is VAST.2  Butcher views world mythology like a giant treasure vault that he’s got the keys to, so pretty much anything can show up. 3 As this book brought back a lot of old characters for a big multiplayer heist narrative (They knock over the Vault of Hades. It takes like three days because Harry’s a badass.) Butcher was free to bring a lot of past stuff in.

One thing he brought in was The Genowska, one of the Forest People. Now, I’m an avid reader, but I didn’t remember them at all. I was wondering if I’d missed a book, and it turns out I had. The Forest People were introduced in a short story published in an obscure anthology I haven’t read.4 However, because Butcher is a master of exposition, he managed it subtly.

(Presumably the Zombie T-Rex has it?)
We’re introduced to The Genowska subtly. In the abandoned slaughterhouse being used as a base there’s a pen containing eleven goats.
Then ten.
Then eight.

Something’s eating them, one at each meal. We get about 170 pages to worry about what terrible, invisible monster Dresden’s employer is feeding. Dresden, being tactful as a jar of live bees, gets tired of being in the dark.

“Whatever big, ugly, stinking, stupid thing you've got hanging around in here with us probably doesn't deserve to be in this company. Given our goal, I don’t see the point in taking along a mindless mound of muscle.”

But then the Genowska removes its veil. We get a good paragraph of description of a big, hulking thing, like the side of a mountain, growling at Dresden’s rudeness. But it’s not the size, or the growl, or the eyes “glinting like an assassin’s knives from a cave’s mouth.” It’s that Dresden stops being a wiseass.

“An ogre?” Ascher asked. 
“Not an ogre,” I replied immediately.5 “He’s one of the Forest People.”

Dresden then launches into a description of a Forest Person tearing through “about twenty ghouls in a fair fight.” However, note the technique: Butcher doesn’t just tell us that the thing mighty, but gives us an example of exactly how mighty. We’ve seen Dresden struggle with just three ghouls a few chapters back, so this is an impressive juxtaposition.

To reinforce that he’s worried enough about this thing to be respectful, he apologizes to it. “Sorry about what I said earlier. I figured [my employer] had a troll stashed around here somewhere. Didn’t realize it was one of the Forest People. I’ve done a little business with River Shoulders in the past. Maybe you’ve heard of–”

And then the Genowska punches Dresden across the room.

"The Ice that should have entombed him just...drained away..."
“Consider this a friendly warning. I am not one of the whimpering Forest People. Speak of me and that flower-chewing groundhog lover River Shoulders in the same breath again, and I will devour your offal while you watch.”

This is what's called “The Worf Effect.” When you have something badass, if something else beats that thing up it proves how dangerous it is. Here we have the Genowska calling something that can tear through a score of Ghouls “Whimpering” and “flower-chewing.”

And thus we have a dangerous and powerful foe established, juxtaposed against characters the reader hasn’t met (if they didn’t know about the short story, like me) and a mythology built up around them, all done through a single scene that builds on a history that, for all I knew, could have been only in the author’s head, but I still understood all of it.
The "Dean of contemporary
urban fantasy." – Booklist

In this single scene, we learn enough a suitable amount about

  • The Forest People 
  • How dangerous they are 
  • The Genowska 
  • How much more dangerous he is

To review, Butcher built up this monster by

  • Hinting at its presence several times 
  • Revealing it visually 
  • Showing how a character reacts to it, to give context 
  • Gives it an action and a line of dialogue

At no point does the book flat out say “The Genowska is dangerous.” We learn that through action.

Exposition can very easily bog down a book, especially a fantasy book. The lesson here is that when introducing something important to the novel, give it its own scene, show how it interacts with the world in action, as opposed to exposition.

If you want to learn more about how to write good fantasy, go pick up these books. It’s one of he best choices an aspiring fantasy author can make.

This isn't really related to writing, I just wanted to remind everyone that
this is canonically part of the Dresden Files now.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Who Needs Neopagan Rites by Isaac Bonewits?

"That which is
remembered lives."

I’ll start by saying that Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work is an excellent book. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of my pagan friends have copies, shared around to the point where people have lost track of whose book is whose. Written by the late Isaac Bonewits1 it is enlightening and well researched, benefiting from Bonewits longstanding importance in the community and years of writing liturgy. Exploring all the considerations necessary for creating Neopagan Liturgy, it manages to be an enjoyable read even in the slower sections, crackling with wit.
 "…you may be forced to have paper cups and plates on hand, but for Goddess’ sake, have them at least look dignified.  Using Styrofoam is probably a sin."
 This book doesn’t need my help to be read2, so instead of praising it, I’m going to give a bit of advice for potential readers.

This book is not for everyone. Somewhat light on examples, it assumes a certain familiarity with Neopagan ritual, especially group ritual, and a knowledge of some of the history of Neopaganism and magic. I would not advise this book if
  • You are only just starting out on a Neopagan path3 
  • You live in an area without an active pagan group 
  • You aren’t ready to take part in the Neopagan Clergy 
  • You have never participated in a public/large group Neopagan Rite 
  • You are easily offended by occasional jibes at Christianity4
"The Gods are watching us, so let's give them a good show!"
I would advise this book if
  • You are or plan to start leading group pagan rites, especially public ones 
  • You have practice with Neopagan rites and think you know what you’re doing5 
  • Your local Neopagan group needs to spice up its liturgy/shake up traditionalism 
  • You have a solid grasp of Neopagan theology/thealogy6 and history 
  • You want a valuable addition to any Neopagan library, personal or group 
Or, and this is the biggest reason: You don’t have any experience. You’ve only got a handful of other Neopagans in your area. You’ve got no leaders, no practice, no real unity, but you want them. An important aspect (often overlooked) that Bonewits stresses is for a ritual to include a reminder of continuity with rituals of the past and the future. This book provides that. It carries the feeling of growth, of little rituals building to big ones, faith groups that should flounder managing to soar. If you’re going to start from scratch, this may be the best place to start. If you’ve got nothing to go on, just pluck and sincerity, this will at least provide you with some sort of ground to stand on.7

"Remember that if you do a fall equinox rite at sunset, you will probably not be able
to get the sun to delay setting while latecomers straggle in."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Syzygy, Beauty, by T Fleischmann - Review

My friend recently finished Dark Lord of Derkholm.1 When she gave it back to me, I darted upstairs to fetch Year of the Griffin2 for her, and she told me “I don’t think I’ll be able to get to it until the end of the Summer, is that okay?” I pshaw’d3 and told her not to worry, “I almost never reread books.”

 T Fleischmann’s essay Syzygy, Beauty, the second nonfiction book from Sarabande that I’ve reviewed, is a rare exception. In the picture above is one of my favourite quotes, and when I was first making it, it was only going to read "I have been so many places I must be sunlight. Listen, I have been diffused by clouds, by everyone who has touched me."4  But when I went back to check I hadn’t messed it up, I read the last bit, and understood the subtlety of being "destined for the earth."5 The whole book is like that, every time I thumb through it I learn something new.

"Your boyfriend is an atmosphere, there before
me and remaining to sustain you now."
Half art-critique and half meditative memoir over a series of relationships, Syzygy, Beauty explores art, gender, love, travel, loneliness, and a wide variety of other subjects. Fleischmann’s relationship with the omnipresent but never truly defined "You" feels both intense and ephemeral, the "You" always at arm’s length even in intimate moments, occulted6 by their lack of name and their other boyfriend(s) who often seem to eclipse the narrator. Intriguingly, when asked,7 Fleischmann said that "You" was not a single person, but an amalgamation of a variety of similar relationships. "If I ever said something bad about 'You', I could always say 'Oh no, that wasn’t you, it was the other one'"

 This hits at the core of why I love this book, and what it represents, the untruthing of the nonfiction genre. It’s easy to assume that nonfiction must succumb to what Esther Wolfe once called "The fetishization of reality" but Syzygy, Beauty deconstructs the ideas of reality and truth. While it may not tell the True-True or the Whole-True,8 it still tells truth, possibly more truth than it could tell if bound by reality. Fleischmann, in this book, is blurring the lines of reality and fact, the result being somewhere in-between.

"Keep kissing me, you'll see,
new houses aren't haunted yet."
This works remarkably well with many themes of the novel, whose narrator always seems to be in a state of transience. Between lovers, between city and nature, between boy and girl, the narrator always seems most 9 However, while the essay complicates ideas of gender and beauty and place, it never offers real closure. Most pages will open and close with a sentence about, say, Grayson Perry or Louise Bourgeois, juxtaposed with a body of narrative in-between.10 The reader is presented with ideas and left to make their own meanings, which might be the most nonfictional thing in the world.
happy in the middle, where what all of those things mean can be complicated. “When you held my arms to the bed, I felt like a femme fatale who could swing a hammer…”

A fantastic and emotional read, I've been slow to review it only beacuse I've been throwing it at everyone I know.  I think a lot of people could benefit from this book, especially people encountering this brave new world, that has such non-binary gender ideas in it.
"Even God can't really say what something is without burning stars."