Why does fantasy have to be so long?

Why is so much speculative fiction so long?

In the past year I have read several stories that were more than 500 pages: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (782 pages), Brandon Sanderson’s Well of Ascension (763 pages), Eric Flint’s 1632 (592 pages), and Jo Spurrier’s Children of the Black Sun trilogy (more than 1300 pages). I enjoyed them all, for different reasons, but each one dragged at some point, making me wonder if I would ever finish.

I’m not saying I don’t like long novels. I do, although generally not back-to-back or side-by-side. If a story is complex and compelling enough to justify a 2.5-inch brick, as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is, I’ll keep reading. But most are not that compelling or entertaining. In far too many, I slog through, hoping the pace will pick up. More often lately I give up. There are at least a dozen books on my shelves of 600+ pages that I may never get around to reading because I just don’t want to commit the time needed.

Publishers are partly to blame. Baen, for one, in their submission guidelines, states that they prefer manuscripts between 100,000 and 130,000 words long, and are uncomfortable with manuscripts under 100,000 words. At somewhere between 250 to 300 words per page, their minimum is 330 to 400 pages long.

Why? Because the world building needed to transport the readers to imagined worlds needs the extra space? Sometimes, yes. But some authors pack a lot of colour and description into tight spaces. Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, less than 200 pages in my edition, is one of the most atmospheric and haunting fantasy worlds I have ever been privileged to visit. Other oldies on my shelves communicated their stories and exotic settings in under 350 pages. Here are a few: Ringworld by Larry Niven, The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien, The Thrall and the Dragon’s Heart by Elizabeth Boyer, Watchtower by Elizabeth A Lynn.

Far too often, writers use guidelines like Baen’s 100,000 word minimum as license for self-indulgent excess, padding page after page with digressions and repetitions that drag the story to a halt rather than building complex, multi-layered but still-tight narratives. With so many book being published these days, why should I spend my time with ones that don’t keep me captivated?

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy was the trigger for this post. The first book, The Final Empire, was a bit long (643 pages), but with all the main character had to learn—the magic system, the politics, how to deal with her new crew, etc.—the story kept moving along (mostly). But the second book, The Well of Ascension, is even longer (763 pages), with not nearly as much excuse. The amount of new world building and character development doesn’t justify the bloat. I would have liked the book twice as much at half the length.

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Armistice Day

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns stopped.

That was one hundred years ago today.

Out of a population of one million, New Zealand sent nearly one hundred thousand (100,000) men—and a few women, mostly nurses—to serve in World War I. (In proportional terms, that is as many men as fought in the American Civil War.) 80% of those New Zealand troops were volunteers. Given that the population of eligible men was around a quarter of a million (250,000), this means that one out of every three eligible men volunteered, and for a war fought on the far side of the world, not one defending their own homes.

To those of us who haven’t experienced an all-encompassing war, that is a mind-boggling statistic. Every family in the country would have been affected; if they hadn’t watched their own sons, fathers, husbands, or brothers march away, they would have known friends and neighbours who did.

16,000 of those men are buried in places with names like Gallipoli, Passchendaele, and Somme. Many more were wounded but survived. Even the ones who returned home physically undamaged would have been irrevocably changed by what they experienced. Some of them would have been near strangers to their families after years away.

Whatever we call this Sunday—Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Remembrance Day—let us not forget its purpose. It’s such a small thing to take an hour or two from our lives to honour those men and women who have been called to serve, and who have sacrificed so much in the line of duty.

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Uprooted, the Nebula-award-winning novel by Naomi Novik, is one of the most captivating fantasy novels I have read in several years. I was hooked within the first page, from the fairytale-like opening paragraphs, and although there are a few things I didn’t like, I couldn’t put it down.

It is, at heart, a war story. It is other things as well—fantasy, mystery, romance—but the core plot is the culmination of a country’s long struggle against a malign, implacable foe, the Wood. Not a mere dim, inert forest, the Wood in this story is an aggressor, acting with intelligence to sow corruption and discord among its fiercest opponents, misleading them into fighting and nearly destroying each other when they should have been united against their common enemy.

Deeply rooted (pun intended) in Polish folk tales, the world-building is superb, calling to mind the days before technology let humans conquer our fears of the dark and unknown with our klieg lights and chainsaws. The days, not so long ago, when we huddled around the hearth, barring the doors and windows against the howling wolves, knowing that the natural world was greater than we were and would kill us without remorse on our slightest misstep. (Those days may be coming back, but that’s an essay for another time.)

We’re given hints about the Wood early on, but it takes time for the sense of menace to grow and take form. I sometimes get frustrated with fantasy’s emphasis on world building, when an author’s love for their imagined world gets in the way of plot and bogs down the story. That wasn’t the case here. The world building is an integral part of the plot as we come to understand what the Wood is and how it came to be that way, and how deeply intertwined the Wood is with everything in the country of Polnya.

The narrator, Agnieszka, is a young woman who grew up in the valley next to the Wood. Even with the Wood looming over them, threatening them on a daily basis, none of the inhabitants except for their overlord, the wizard called the Dragon, understand the Wood’s full threat. When Agnieszka shows herself to be a witch, the Dragon takes her away to train her, as by law he must. Under his tutelage she begins to understand what a danger she would have been to the people of the valley, and indeed to all of Polnya, if the Wood had managed to control her. It’s her organic, instinctual magic, so different from the Dragon’s disciplined use of intellectually complex and long-practiced spells, that pushes the war with the Wood to a new level and brings them within reach of either victory or defeat.

This is a powerful story with some wrenching passages. It is noblebright as well. When Agnieszka makes some impulsive, disastrous choices, it’s always because she’s fighting to save people she cares about. The Dragon is a cold, arrogant ass, but he’s brave and heroic, too, for more than a century stubbornly fighting a losing battle to keep the Wood in check. The villagers Agnieszka struggles to protect are ordinary, decent people, some brave, some not. Even when Polnya is tearing itself apart, the leader of the army attacking the Dragon’s stronghold is not evil as much as misled, another victim of the Wood’s malicious interference.

Now for the bits I didn’t like:

  • The romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon didn’t work for me. At the beginning of the story he was contemptuous and abusive (verbally and somewhat less physically, but at least not sexually) of her, and his idea of teaching was to beat spells into her by rote and then rake her over the coals for not understanding. It took far too long for him to see her as a person worthy of his regard. They do eventually develop a rapport where they can work together, and it would have been fine to have left it there, but to have her fall in love with the man who abused her? No. Just no.
  • The resolution was a bit too easy, too glib. I couldn’t buy that centuries of hatred could be laid to rest as easily as it was.
  • Agnieszka was a klutz—literally, a mess. She couldn’t go anywhere without getting her clothes muddy or ripped, she spilled food on herself while cooking, etc. The fastidious Dragon hated the state of her clothes; the king’s courtiers jeered at her. Her friend pointed out that magic was involved; she had seen branches reach out to snag Agnieszka’s clothes. Was this Agnieszka’s magic at work or the Wood’s? Or something else? If it bothered the Dragon so much, why didn’t he investigate? What was the point of all that, anyway?

Despite these flaws, it’s a powerful story. It kept me enthralled on the 14-hour flight from Auckland, to Houston, Texas. I consider that well worth the purchase price.

Audience: Adult, maybe late teens. Some serious violence, a couple of mild sex scenes, and a misbegotten romance.

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Although I love fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty, with its passive princess, is not usually one of my favourites. But in Spindle, Polyhymnia is no princess, Luck, the man who kisses her awake, is no prince, and being dragged kicking awake is just the beginning of the outraged Poly’s adventure.

Who put Poly into an enchanted, 300-year sleep? Why does Luck keep talking about her magic when she knows she has none? Why is someone trying to kill her? And why can’t she remember the wooden spindle that keeps finding its way into her pocket?

Don’t look for the familiar overlooked-and-insulted-fae trope here. Once they leave the crumbling palace and its thorny hedge behind, the story bears more resemblance to Howl’s Moving Castle than it does to Sleeping Beauty. Like Sophie, Poly is stubborn, independent, and clueless about her charisma. Like Howl, Luck is smug, maddeningly uncommunicative, self-interested, and just barely often enough charming and heroic. They bicker and spar and get under each other’s skin as they trek across the realm of New Civet in their quest to free Poly from the curse that keeps trying to put her back to sleep.

The author, W. R. Gingell, doesn’t quite play by the normal rules. She takes chances. She expects the reader to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty as she piles on one unexplained plot point after another. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion, but some important plot threads are simply left dangling. (Onepiece is adorable, but who or what is he, really? What became of Poly’s parents?) Other minor mysteries are introduced, dropped, and never mentioned again. (Why was Poly, lady-in-waiting, in the princess’ dress, not to mention the princess’ bed?) Gingell obviously never heard of Checkov’s gun—the advice that anything not essential to a story should be trimmed: If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Besides the random, dropped plot points, there were a few other irritations:

  • The magic was confusing and strange, with ordinary magic Poly could see, and that sometimes got twisted so that she had to smooth it out with her fingers. There was also anti-magic and unmagic: magical negations of magic. The explanations of how these magics worked didn’t explain much.
  • It had some pacing issues. The beginning, besides being confusing, was a bit slow, and then the end was too fast, leaving me not entirely sure what exactly had happened.
  • I was annoyed with Poly at the beginning, for obediently following the overbearing Luck without having any good reason to trust him. On the other hand, she turned out to have more spunk and backbone, not to mention a stronger sense of self-preservation, than was apparent at first.

Among the things I liked are the dialog, and the fantasy world that isn’t populated with nasty people out to rob, assault, humiliate, or otherwise harm a teenage girl. Yes, there is one clear villain and a gaggle of power-hungry government officials, but most of the people Poly meets are fairly ordinary, decent people. Neighbourly, one might say, especially in Luck’s village. A story needs conflict, and this one has it, but I can’t take grim dark dystopias; I’d rather read noble bright fantasies, thank you.

If, like my husband, you want everything tidied up at the end or you can’t tolerate a fair amount of confusion at the beginning, this story is probably not for you, but despite it’s flaws I enjoyed it enough that I expect to read more of this author’s work.

Audience: pre-teens through adult. No sex or bad language, and very minimal violence.

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Fingersmith, Sarah Water’s neo-Victorian crime novel, is the lesbian daughter of Oliver Twist and The Woman in White, fostered by Jane Eyre. Got your attention? There is a romance, between two people who happen to be women, but ‘lesbian’ is a less significant nugget of information than ‘neo-Victorian crime’. If you like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins[1], or the Brontë sisters, there’s a good chance you’ll like Fingersmith.

Susan Trinder, the narrator of the opening section, is a young woman raised in a den of thieves. (A fingersmith is a pickpocket.) When a con man in their extended family, affectionately known as Gentleman, asks for Susan’s help with a plan to persuade an heiress to marry him, she agrees. In exchange for a promised share of the proceeds, she sets off for Briar, the heiress’s home, to serve as lady’s maid and go-between with Gentleman. That Gentleman intends to commit the heiress to an insane asylum as soon as he’s secured her money doesn’t bother Sue. Not, that is, until she finds herself falling in love with the heiress, Maud Lilly. Gentleman bullies Sue into carrying out his plan despite her growing misgivings, he and Maud elope, and the first section of the book closes with a bang on the novel’s first major plot twist. Other plot twists follow, leading up to a rather gory murder and it’s aftermath.

The story is broken into three parts, with Maud narrating the middle section before returning to Sue in the third. Maud is not the plump and innocent pigeon Sue initially took her for, but then, no one in this novel is quite what they appear. This is more a story more about camouflaged emotions, betrayal, and misplaced love than a whodunit. By the time Sue begins to unravel the why, the who had long since been given away.

Waters does a fine job of bringing some of the nastier aspects of Victorian society to life: the casual cruelties inflicted on children and servants, the ease with which a man could have an inconvenient woman incarcerated, the baby farms where infants were dosed with gin to keep them quiet… If the injustices inflicted on Jane Eyre raise your hackles, this book can send you into a rage. Maud’s uncle is a particularly nasty specimen. Life at Briar makes Sue’s thieves look like a normal, loving family in comparison.

I confess I would have liked Fingersmith better if it had been 450 pages or less rather than 550. The pacing is uneven; sometimes it moves right along, but there are other times, when Waters indulges in showing off her knowledge of Victorian England or focuses on atmosphere, that we lose sight of the plot. The section on the tortures in the madhouse, painful for both the victim and the reader, goes on for about 60 pages, most of it peripheral to the plot. And as for creating a bleak, claustrophobic atmosphere, Waters does a superb job, but I could only take so much of it at a time, especially when the narrative doubles back on itself to give us Maud’s point of view on events Sue already covered. Some of that was necessary for understanding the two main characters, but it did get a bit tedious.

In short, 3.5 stars instead of 4 or 5. It’s an impressive piece of story telling, but a bit too melodramatic and grim for me to rave about, and the plot, though entertaining, doesn’t hold up to hard scrutiny. Mouse over for spoiler. Am I glad I read it? Now that I’ve had a few weeks to recover, the answer is yes, but in reaction to it my next read was light and fluffy.

Audience: Mature, mainly for the pervasive psychological abuse. Some violence and bad language, and one rather mild sexual encounter.

[1]Wilkie Collin’s 1860 novel The Woman in White is one of the founding novels in the mystery genre, and is still a good read. Fingersmith makes some obvious nods to it. If you like Fingersmith and haven’t read The Woman in White or The Moonstone, check them out.

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Pay Dirt

The ghoul claims he’s cursed. Ozzy Turner tells him he isn’t, and Ozzy ought to know. He makes a living breaking curses and finding lost items, and every test he knows has come up empty. He’s right; when the ghoul turns up dead—decapitated—the next day, it wasn’t a curse that killed him. The ghoul’s death comes hard on the heels of a message from an old friend asking for Ozzy’s help—a friend appearing to be involved in the same business, whatever it is, as the ghoul—and Ozzy dives in without second thoughts. He soon finds himself, once again, in serious trouble. With his mentor Early missing, his undead girlfriend Lillian going berserk, and a deadly wraith on a rampage through the town of Lost Falls, the odds are not looking good for Ozzy surviving another journey deep underground.

Pay Dirt, Chris Underwood’s second novel in the Lost Falls series featuring cunning man Ozzy Turner, is as good as the first, Cunning Devil. This urban fantasy, with a likeable protagonist and sympathetic portrayals of the town’s oddball preternatural residents, takes us on a fast-paced ride through their world. The fractured community of Strangers, held together by mutual fear of exposure, is under attack by a group of fanatical witch hunters intent on slaughtering them all.

I won’t give any more away, but the end, while resolving the immediate crisis, leaves enough plot threads dangling to spin out several more Lost Falls stories. I’m looking forward to them.

Audience: Adults and older teens. No sex, but plenty of gore, violence, and foul language.

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In most ways, Melissa is a typical fourth-grade girl: she likes to wear pink, she cries when upset, she has a BFF, and she loves Charlotte’s Web. She loves the character of Charlotte so much that she’s devastated when she is rejected for the part in her school’s play, even though in the audition she read the part with more depth of feeling than any of the other girls. Her teacher even reprimanded her for reading the part, saying she can’t possibly be cast as Charlotte when there are so many girls that want the role.

Because, you see, Melissa is also George. That’s the name her parent gave their biologically boy baby, and that’s the name her teachers and classmates know her by. Only Melissa knows she’s really a girl, and her struggle to claim her identity as a girl is the story told with empathy and compassion in George, by Alex Gino.

I picked George out of the American Library Association’s list of the ten most challenged books in 2017, to read for this year’s Banned Books Week. It’s easy to see why it upsets some people; the idea that gender identity does not always align with a person’s biologically assigned sex is one that our society as a whole is just beginning to grapple with. Does that make it inappropriate for preteens? Not in my opinion. Better, in fact, that the preteens who do not have gender identity issues should be introduced to the idea that others might before puberty’s raging hormones kick in.

And as for the children that are transgender people? They’re the ones who need it the most, to know that they’re not alone, that they do have options, and that there are people who will support them in their choices. Many transgender people are aware of the discrepancies between their assigned sex and perceived gender from an early age. The discrimination transgender people face is huge; no one proclaims they are one on a whim. It just seems silly to worry that a story like George would make little boys who aren’t already experiencing gender dysphoria decide they must be girls, or vice versa.

Nor do I expect most children will get more than momentarily confused by the pronoun usage in George. They’re more likely to adapt and get on with the story than the adults whose preconceptions have hardened.

Is George a great book? No. The prose is mostly OK, neither outstandingly good nor bad. Some of the action and dialog seems a bit off-kilter or too old for the characters, it’s a little slow, and the acceptance Melissa gets when she confesses to her best friend is too immediate to feel real. On the quality of the writing alone, I’d call it average: three stars. I also found Melissa’s absorption in stereotypical female behaviour a bit off-putting. (As a woman who dresses in jeans, usually forgets to apply makeup, and was the first girl in my high school to take machine shop, I wonder just what it is that makes a woman a woman. But not having experienced gender dysphoria, I have to accept that the author, who has, is speaking from experience, and that experience is valid for some transgender people.)

Are George and the few other books like it necessary? Yes. The good work they do in encouraging open minds and empathy is priceless. George may save someone’s life someday. Five stars.

Audience: Preteens, or anyone struggling to understand transgender people.

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Resurrection in Progress

You would think, wouldn’t you, that a computer science professional who’s been in the business for decades would know the value of backups? I do, and I have most of the content of my blog backed up on my home computer, so I didn’t lose nearly as much as I could have when the host server went belly up. The configuration and administrative data is another matter. We were relying on the company hosting us to do their part in backing up the host server, and when they admitted, after nearly a week of providing non-answers, that the machine was completely fried and they had no backups, we had to rebuild the website from scratch.

My husband, bless his heart, is doing most of it. System administration is the aspect of dealing with computers I like the least. The fact that the server died right before my stepdaughter’s wedding didn’t help. We’ve had a busy few weeks.

I’m not sure what lessons we can take away from this fiasco. Always do our own backups of critical administrative data, even if it means duplicated work, is probably one. Keeping detailed records of the steps needed to set things up is probably another. (And don’t look to us for help or advice with backup and recovery issues. There are plenty of people out there who are better at it than we are.)

It will take some time yet to get things back the way they were (I do, after all, have a day job), but we are and will continue making progress.

Thank you for your patience.

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Rendezvous with Rama

The year is 2131. Aboard the Solar Survey ship Endeavour, Commander Bill Norton and a team of scientists are on a mission to intercept and glean what information they can from an alien spacecraft as it hurtles through our solar system. The alien ship, dubbed Rama after the Hindu god, is a gargantuan hollow cylinder. The Endeavour lands on one end and the crew enter Rama through a series of airlocks to explore the interior of what appears to be a dead world. It’s a shame the ship is derelict, but not surprising; projecting its trajectory backwards to find the nearest star it could have launched from suggests it has been in flight for at least two hundred thousand years, perhaps longer.

The explorers are competent professionals, dealing with one problem after another as they penetrate further into Rama’s secrets. They are awed but not terrified of it, and take care not to inflict unnecessary damage.

But as they draw closer to the sun, Rama comes to life…

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke is a hard science fiction classic. (Hard meaning grounded in physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences. Don’t be put off by that; the language is accessible to the average person. I first read this in high school, and later to my daughter when she was ten. We frequently went off on tangents explaining things, but she understood it well enough to enjoy the story.) Published in 1973, this First Contact novel has been a strong influence on many others written since.

This novel is all about world building, although not in the sense of that term as it is so often used to justify interminable descriptions and boring backstory. Clarke’s prose is lean—my copy is only 274 pages—but he gives us enough sensory details to capture the explorers’ experiences and enough explanations from physics and the other sciences to underpin the validity of his imagined world. Characterisations are weak, and there’s hardly any plot to speak of. The journey of exploration is the destination here.

Wonder and optimism are essential components of this story. Wonder at the technological prowess and long-term thinking of Rama’s builders. Optimism that we humans, given enough time and resources and the will to overcome our divisions, could do something equally grand. The story ends with unanswered questions—Who built Rama? Where did it come from? Where is it going?—but that’s fine. This is a book to feed the imagination, and to stretch our sense of scale. Not to make us feel wretched for our insignificance; rather to broaden our horizons and nudge us out of our egocentrism.

Audience: Everybody. A few hints at off-screen sex, but no violence or bad language.

Rendezvous with Rama was intended to be a stand-alone novel, and is fine to be read that way. About fifteen years later, another author wrote several sequels, with some input from Clarke, but the sequels are dismal and disappointing. They are more about human shortcomings than aspirations, and take the story in a direction that is, to my mind, in conflict with the original. Mouse over for spoiler. Don’t bother with them.

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Thirteen Orphans

Years ago in the Land Born of Smoke and Sacrifice, a China-like alternate reality, the winners in a war exiled the losers into our reality. The exiles—the young emperor and his twelve advisors, each personifying an animal in the Chinese zodiac—went first to China, but most eventually arrived in the United States, where their oddities were less apparent, and settled down, blending in but not forgetting.

But now, something is attacking the 21st-century descendants of those exiles. The ones attacked are not dead, but have had memories stolen, and it is evident to those who knew them that they are not the same people they once were.

Gaheris Morris, the Rat, is one of those attacked. His 19-year-old daughter, Brenda,  joins forces with the other exiles as the Tiger—Pearl, an elderly half-Jewish former actress—calls them together to defend themselves. Their battles play out among the shopping malls and suburban streets of San Jose, California, with weapons ranging from swords to thrown spell papers. Brenda, who had known nothing about her father’s heritage, receives a crash course on magic and history. If she is going to restore her father’s memories and protect her new friends, she will have to grow into the role of the Rat, and she’ll have to do it fast.

The urban fantasy Thirteen Orphans, by Jane Lindskold, is slow moving and much too talky. Aside from that, there’s a lot to like. The cast is intelligent, diverse, and well-drawn, with both Brenda and Pearl formidable women. The book is filled with details that ground the story in modern America, San Jose in particular, and the Chinese culture-based magic, like divination using personalised mah-jong sets, was appealing. (Lindskold has gotten some flak, I believe, for cultural appropriation. I can’t say whether or not that’s justified. I just know I found it a nice change from the seemingly ubiquitous medieval European-based fantasies.)

But most of all I liked that the Orphans acted like rational adults, banding together and working as a team, something that doesn’t seem to happen often in modern fantasy. (Yes, I know, conflict is necessary for dramatic tension, but some writers throw in so many personality quirks and conflicts that I want to shake their characters and say, “Grow up!”) Even their opponents, once revealed, are mostly honourable people dealing as best they can with a bad situation. That made for a more complex and satisfying conclusion than banishing yet another one-dimensional evil villain would have.

Thirteen Orphans is the first in a trilogy. I haven’t read the others yet, but the second book, Nine Gates, is waiting in my To Be Read pile.

Audience: Adults down through mid-teens. No sex or bad language. Some violence but no gore.

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