Wheel of Time Re-Read: New Spring

After years of fighting, the Aiel War is coming to an end. But while many are hoping for peace, Moiraine Damodred is privy to a piece of information that could set the world aflame once more: The Dragon, the man who all but destroyed the world three thousand years ago, has been reborn.

As all others with this knowledge are found dead in suspicious circumstances, it is up to Moiraine to find the newborn child destined to lead the world to ruin, hoping he can be guided for the good of mankind. Because if the agents of the Dark find him first, it will mean the end of everything.

I was excited about starting my Wheel of Time Re-Read, but I wasn’t expecting to get pulled back into the series so quickly.

New Spring is a slight oddity. It’s a prequel – a prequel that annoyed a lot of people who wanted Jordan to focus on completing the main story – depicting how two of the main characters of the first few books meet and the begin the quest we find them on – eighteen years later – in the first book if the series.

As someone who’s read the series already it’s a great way to start a reread. It’s a reminder that the story has been going on years, even centuries, before the main protagonist of the series was even born, in a way that makes the world seem so much bigger. And this has always been my main draw to the series; how Jordan managed to make the world feel so vast, yet varied.

But I’m not sure where I’d recommend it for someone coming into the series for the first time. It’s interesting to a fan to have this little piece of backstory, but I can’t say for certain it this would add to the experience of someone coming new to the series, or if it would remove some of the mystery from the first few books.

But if you don’t read it first, when would be the best time? Adding it in as a flashback between two of the main books doesn’t seem to work. I’ll have a think about it once I’m into The Eye of the World and see what I think then.

Now on to The Eye of the World.

Diving back into the Wheel of Time

And so it begins.

The Wheel of Time is my favourite ongoing book series. An epic fantasy story told over fifteen novels and spanning a mind-blowingly detailed world and history.

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I remember picking it up at the airport one year. The first book may have a little bit of a generic fantasy plot, but the characters and writing grabbed me so hard I picked up the second straight away. I know many people have issues with the series, but while most of these issue I just don’t see at all, I won’t argue that after book six it looses some of its momentum and I won’t deny that the story could have been wrapped up in 10 books if Robert Jordan had been a little tighter with his story telling. But I still absolutely love them.

I was lucky, as by the time I discovered the series it was already ten books in so I didn’t have too much wait between them. And by the time I caught up I was well and truly hooked. But the last time I read any of them was six years ago, and since we moved house and I rearranged them on my shelves they’ve been playing on my mind. So now I am finally giving into my own pressure and diving back in.

This will be a significant time commitment.

Last time I read through these series is took me three solid months. And that was when I commuted to London, so adding lunch breaks into the mix I had two and a half hours a day to read. This time I’ll be taking my time a little more. Aside from not having that commuting time now, I have other books I want to read, and writing takes up most of my lunchtimes. Plus I might take a break between books to keep things fresh. So we’ll see how it goes.

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All I can say for now is I’m half way through New Spring and I’m already excited to be back in this world.

 

Recommendation: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

It’s World Book Day. I hope you’re all revelling in your favourite reads, or throwing yourself into a book you’ve never read before. Because if there’s one thing that’s just as good as – or perhaps even better than – the joy of rereading an old favourite its that feeling of realisation that the book you’ve just begun is going to be wonderful. That deep happiness of knowing that you will never again get to experience this novel for the first time.

This is what I just encountered with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I wish I could remember exactly who recommend this to me last year, because then I could thank them to directing me to the experience of this read. Sometimes, when you’re trying to describe something, you don’t need fancy words. On these occasions the simple ones will fit better, as they can portray the essentialness of something.

The words that best describe The Night Circus? “Soft” and “Beautiful”.

Le Cirque de Reves moves around the world. It appears in one place as if by magic, opens only between sunset and sunrise, and then after a few days disappears just as suddenly. Decorated solely in black and white, populated by performers and attractions so otherworldly and imaginative that you can barely believe they are real, the experience of walking through the gate is akin to stepping into a dream. And behind all this are Celia and Marcus, two young magicians engaged in a contest to which neither understand the rules or know how or when a winner will be chosen.

Morgenstern’s writing is comforting without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious. It has the feel of something new that’s been expertly hand crafted to feel old and comfortable. She doesn’t rush a single word. If you require fast paced action, this isn’t the book for you. The story takes its time, letting the characters and the world grow at their own pace. Without wanting to sound to pretentious, the experience of reading the book has the feeling of exploring the circus itself; leisurely admiring every aspect as it comes until you complete your circuit and finally understand the full layout.

While I was reading The Night Circus I never felt rushed. I never looked at the number of pages remaining to guess how much I had left. I felt completely immersed, to the point where I actually felt sad when I reached the end. If you allow it, Morgenstern’s writing will sweep you up and carry you off out of this world and into its own.

Recommendation: The Johnny Maxwell books

I find it strange how there are some of Terry Pratchett’s books that tend to get forgotten. Maybe people have come to blend him and the Discworld so much that his books outside that series don’t get the same recognition? Or maybe they just aren’t aware of them? But, as a whole, I believe his children’s books don’t get the recognition they deserve.

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The Johnny Maxwell books are examples of these. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996) tell three separate stories about Johnny Maxwell, a boy who seems to have a ability to see through the world into something more; whether it be entering a computer game while he sleeps to save the aliens from the players, speaking with the ghosts of the dead to save their graveyard from destruction, or travelling back in time to the Second World War.

I’ve always felt that Pratchett had a real knack for children’s books. He was able to take the ideas and themes found in all his work and streamline them for a younger audience. Rereading them now I find it a little odd and oversimplified, which is maybe why they are overlooked, but as a child I remember them being incredibly real. They felt like adult books to me. I was already reading the Discworld novels at this point, but I know now that a lot of the details went over my head.

I prefer the Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) (a separate series, but there are enough connections to assume these two series are in the same universe) but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Johnny Maxwell books. If you’re a fan of Pratchett but not given these ones a go, I highly recommend it. 

For the record, Johnny and the Bomb is my favourite.

One final point: having been introduced to these book through the audio book versions I cannot read them without hearing the words in Tony Robinson’s voice. I don’t get that with the Discworld books. There’s just something about these three that sticks in his voice. Weird how that happens. 

Review: A Blink of the Screen

I can never quite get my head around Terry Pratchett doing short fiction. I don’t know why, but for me he’s a long form writer. That’s not to say anything in this collection is bad, far from it. Possibly its because he books usually have so many layers and meanings and shorter fiction doesn’t really have time for these. Pratchett himself says – in his notes – that he found short fictions hard to to, so maybe he thought the same thing.

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So reading A Blink of the Screen is enjoyable, yet slightly weird. We’re in that strange place where you’re defining each work as inferior to his full novels, but inferior Pratchett is still superior to most writers. I think, if I had to put my finger on it, the issue I have is all of them feel like rough ideas waiting to be developed. As if Pratchett was simply putting down an idea on paper, fleshing it out a little bit with the intention of coming back later. I couldn’t help feeling like there was more there somewhere.

The most obvious example of this being that one of the stories in this collection is almost literally a synopsis of Truckers. Each of the other stories feel like they could be the same.

I did love the longer Discworld story, The Sea and Little Fishes though. That was a wonderful stand alone Granny Weatherwax story that could have been a subplot in a larger book, but actually works well on its own and made me want to pick up one of the older Discworlds that I haven’t read in a while.

I really enjoyed reading this collection, more-so than I did it’s companion collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, which collects his non-fiction works. Pratchett was never an author lacking confidence, style, or ability. But reading through this collection is an interesting way for a fan of his work – which should of course be everyone – so gain a snapshot of how his writing developed.

Writer problems; unexpected inspiration

Last night I had a flash of inspiration, which now has developed into a full concept for a new fantasy/horror novel.

Now I just have to deal with the struggle of fighting down the urge to start developing this new idea further, as I’m already well into my next novel and have at least two more already on the shortlist for the one after this.

So, notes have been made and stored, with each idea written down safely. Now to let it percolate in my subconscious while I get working on the next one in line.

I guess I can’t complain that I have too many ideas for novels. It’s still a pain, though.

International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day, so let’s take a moment to share and celebrate some of the awesome women writers out there. And having looked through my bookshelves I’ve decided to share a series by one of the authors my mother introduced me to way back when I was a teenager; Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’.

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‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’ is an award winning contemporary interpretation of ancient celtic and Arthurian legends. Consisting of five novels written between 1965 and 1977, the Sequence tells the story of several children drawn into an ancient conflict between good and evil that dates back to the time of King Arthur.

This series really stuck with me when I first read it. So much so that it became one of those series that, once I had moved out and begun building my own library, I immediately looked out and purchased my own hardback copy. Cooper pulls together aspects of traditional Arthurian stories, celtic myths and legends, Welsh and British history and weaves them into a story that acts as both a wonderfully realised adventure story in its own right, and also as a perfect introduction to British fantasy traditions and stories that encouraged me to continue on into these stories that have been around for so many centuries, and how different writers now interpret them.

(Just avoid the film adaptation. Seriously, don’t even try. It’s not even bad enough to be good. You’ll regret both the wasted time and your life choices.)

RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

About 20 years ago my mother took out an audio book from the local library for me. When I was younger I used to find it hard to fall asleep without noise in the background, so I would listen to tapes from the library, most of which were picked out by my mother.

Something about this story engaged me more than most, but much to my chagrin I discovered that ended abruptly and without closure. The main character simply dropped off the edge of the world, no less. When I mentioned how unsatisfying this was, my mother informed me that not only did the story continue in the next book, she actually owned it so I could read it straight away to find out what happened next.

Which I did.

This was my introduction to the Discworld, and the writing of Terry Pratchett. It was also the beginning of my true love of reading. I imagine everyone has that one book or author that got them hooked on the possibilities of the written word, and for me it was this. These were the first books I read – at least that I can recall – that were actual grown up books. They had been bought by my mother for herself, not for me or my sisters.

And so after listening to The Colour of Magic I went straight on to read The Light Fantastic. Then Equal Rights. Then Mort. Then the rest.

The Discworld series was my indoctrination into reading for pleasure; of losing myself in language and story. My mother already owned all the Discworld books which allowed me to read my way through all of them without stopping. By the time I had finished them I was ready to move on to other authors, but throughout my adolescence and adulthood I would always come back. Every six months, a new book. I sought out everything I could. I bought the Clairecraft Discworld models. I found the official side books, such as the maps and the diaries. I played all the point and click adventure games. I took part in the local kids theatre groups production of the theatrical adaptations. I found his non-Discworld stories.

Sir Terry Pratchett was one of the biggest influences in my life. His writing was witty, satirical, smart, biting, and yet somehow wonderfully easy to read. He had a style and ease with words that made his work universal, using the world he created to so wonderfully reflect our own. He could twist real world institutions, traditional fairytales and Shakespeare into something new and unique. He had a viewpoint that cut into what mankind is and what it could be. His novels, almost all of which are set in a fantastical world floating through space on the back of four elephants riding a giant turtle, contain ideas and discussions on morality and humanity that any philosopher could be proud of. He was someone who understood the world and had the talent to show the rest of us in a way that we could understand while at the same time making us laugh from our gut.

I’m not usually one for taking part in the mass mourning that pours out when someone famous dies. I’m cynical, and can never get over the fact that I’m sure 90% of the people who flood social media with tributes have no real emotional connection with the person they are eulogising. But Sir Terry Pratchett’s death truly is something personal to me. I never met him – to my sorrow – but his writing has been with me my entire life – literally, as the first Discworld novel came out the year I was born – and has played a major part in inspiring me to be a writer.

I can’t imagine how many words will be written over the next few days honouring this man. Writers all over the world, everyone who has ever read his words and shared in the worlds he created will feel his loss. I’m sure that people with far more skill than I, people who knew him personally and shared his life, will put what I am feeling into more eloquent words than these. And what better way could there be to honour such a great and influential writer than with words that try to reflect those he gave us.

Goodbye Sir Terry. I hope you knew exactly how much you meant to us all. The world is a slightly darker place, but a better one for having had you in it.

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Woman in Fantasy

The portrayal of women in the media has been a very prominent topic recently. These discussions are taking place across many fields and topics, but due to my sphere of interests I’ve found a lot being said when it comes to women in ‘geek’ culture.

When it comes to what are traditionally considered the “geekier”’ genres of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, woman have traditionally had a hard time of it. While there are definitely stand outs within these mediums, women have never been fairly catered to, being shown as only stereotypes and/or sex objects. Both genres understandably suffered from the era in which they grew. I’m not looking to make excuses for or dissect the social opinions of the times, but the early to mid 20th century was a time in which women were not seen as having the prominent role that they do today, and media and literature reflected this.

Media reflects its creators, and those creators were of their time. Tolkien famously created no interesting female characters in his work. Half of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books are unfilmable today due to the casual but specific racism they contain. Stan Lee may well have helped revive the comic book industry in the ’60s, but if you can find a single woman in any of his writing that isn’t a two dimensional stereotype then I’m impressed. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series specifically had male Lensmen, as only male minds had the complexity to cope with the technology.

It became a self replicating cycle. You aim a genre at boys, so only boys read them, so you only aim them at boys, so only boys read them, and on and on ad infinitum.

Now with this new thrust of feminism back into our social conscious, it is slowly become less and less acceptable to let this cycle continue. The whole point about Fantasy and Science-Fiction is that you can create any world you want. Sometimes based on earth or a pseudo-earth, and sometimes complete original worlds in which the only social norms are what the author creates.

But while Science-Fiction has it slightly easier – the whole futurist aspect allows you to move away from traditional gender roles – I feel that Fantasy has it slightly harder. While it is true that Fantasy is often set in a fictional world, it looks back in a way other genres don’t. While not a sweeping truth, as a rule Fantasy worlds tend to be more primitive, harking back to medieval or at least pre-industrial times. While not direct analogues of the real world, these historical influences must inevitably bring to mind times when women were not equal.

I’m not saying you can’t write strong, interesting female characters in Fantasy. That would be a massive falsehood considering how many have done so. But in the same way many have not, and recently enough.

David Gemmell’s Legend was written in 1984, and yet has only one female character. And while starting off seemingly strong and independent, she quickly falls in love and marries the protagonist. From this point in the book she simply becomes motivation for the male protagonist, as well as a reason for him to rise to authority (by inheriting her father’s titles).

You can see where the author was coming from with this character. He set the story in a primitive earth analogue when women would not have been warriors or held their own titles, and this story focuses on war and battle. And yet that is no excuse for such lazy writing. She seems to have some character in the beginning, but them quickly becomes a vapid piece of motivation for the male protagonist. Even in the mid ’80s I would have expected better.

A better example of the themes Gemmell used would be George R. R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series. Again this is a real world analogue setting with a culture where women are expected to be demure and have their own socially defined roles. But he then created interesting, strong female characters within that culture. He didn’t break the culture, or simply stick in females who were ‘different’ for the sake of it, but worked within what he had created and simply used those characters to show different aspects of that world. And this was only 7 years after the publication of Legend. That’s not a whole lot of time.

I’m not saying that you cannot write a society where the genders are imbalanced, but you cannot simply do that to avoid female characters. There is plenty of good Fantasy fiction out there using the ‘traditional’ cultural roles for the genders as a basis, but good writers will use that. It is a great way to create conflict within the story.

Much of the discussion about the lack of female characters in literature and television is that fact that there really needs to be no difference between the genders unless the story requires it. A famous example of this is Ripley from the Alien movie franchise. The character is often cited as a great example of a strong female role model character, but the fact is all of the characters in that movie were written with no gender in mind. It was later decided to cast the role as female, but the creation of the character had already been done. They made more of the gender/mother aspects in the sequels, but in the original the gender did not matter, and we have a classic character who just happens to be female.

So like everything else when it comes to writing, the answer behind it all is do not become lazy. In society today there is no excuse or reason for poorly written, or omitted, female characters. If you want to write in a world with clearly defined social roles, play with that and create interesting characters within that world. And if in your world a character’s gender doesn’t matter, don’t just make them all male by default. That’s just rubbish.

But remember this rule affects male characters just as much. If you’re lazy in any aspect of your work, it will reflect on the overall quality. Think about it, and write interesting characters that drive the story forward.