Tag Archives: heroic fantasy

Book Review: Waylander by David Gemmell

Waylander



The basic story idea of Waylander is like a picture of a Big Mac – perfect, juicy, mouth-watering, and oh so tempting. The book itself, unfortunately, is the sad, squashed reality handed to you in the drive thru.

Waylander is an infamous assassin, whose conscience is touched – literally – by the purity of the priest Dardalion, whom Waylander incidentally saves in pursuit of his stolen horse. Waylander’s walk towards the light would have been more compelling if it had been by conscious choice rather than appearing to be by ‘infection’ with Dardalion’s purity. At the same time, Dardalion is tainted by Waylander’s amorality and abandons his pacifist stance, taking up weapons in defence of the innocent – to the horror of most of his brother priests.

Waylander is approached by the old King of Drenai, and father of the king he murdered, to find and retrieve his fabled ‘Armour of Bronze’. The armour has no special powers, but could serve as a rallying point for Egel, the general leading the failing Drenai army against the invading Vagrian forces. Although there is no particular reason for him to agree, Waylander does so, even though he is assured of almost certain death in the attempt.

While David Gemmell clearly has some understanding of the elements of a good story, his execution into the written word is clumsy at best. There is rarely any sense of setting, and then when there is, it is insufficient for the reader to feel they are present. Many of the characters are poorly defined and indistinguishable from each other. Some minor characters seem to have received more development than they should, while some major characters languished from neglect. Dialogue was short and sharp, with no identifying characteristics to identify the speaker; it suffered from ‘talking heads syndrome’ and the characters were indistinguishable. Some characters act in ways which defy logic or reason, apparently behaving in that way solely because it suited the author. The romance is handled clumsily, and the characters fall into each other’s arms with a suddenness that is unconvincing. In fact, I was more convinced she’d happily cut his throat and never shed a tear.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are Waylander’s explanation of the nature of fear, and his philosophical attitude towards it, and Dardalion’s exposition on why taking up arms in defence of the innocent is more of a sacrifice than merely allowing himself to be killed for the benefit of no one.

While I was not impressed with the book this time around, I did enjoy it a lot more when I was a teenager, and David Gemmell is amazingly popular, so his books do appeal to a certain audience. If you’re in your teens, or simply enjoy your fantasy straightforward, uncomplicated and limited to a single book, this may still be worth your time.

Dialogue and Endings: A Case Study with Joe Abercrombie

Dialogue and Endings

I recently finished reading Joe Abercrombie’s The First LawTrilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it very much and I think Abercrombie is a great writer. But dialogue and the ending were the two things that stood out for me as flawed. I make my comments on the dialogue as a writer and my comments on the ending as a reader. 

Dialogue

Abercrombie uses alternative dialogue tags instead of ‘said’ a lot. There are literally rivers of growled, grunted, hissed and more. Not only does he use these alternatives copiously, but I felt he was repetitive in his choices. Grunted and hissed were used with disproportionate frequency – obviously, because I noticed, right?

As writers, this is something we are told to do with care and even then in small doses. I don’t think either rule was followed in this case and the story suffered for it. Not significantly, but it did eventually annoy me, and after that, every time was an eye roll moment. A definite distraction from the story, which no writer wants.  

To add insult to injury, some characters hissed words, phrases and sentences that did not contain the letter ‘s’. How can you hiss a word that has no sibilants, I ask you? Go ahead and try it!

The dialogue problems were not a major issue for me, but what annoys me most is it was unnecessary. It could have been so easily fixed. 

 
The End 

No, this isn’t the end of the post! I’m talking about the end of the book. I know what Abercrombie was aiming for when he wrote these books because I read his notes on his website. Dark, dirty, gritty, realistic. It was all those things. But, what’s the problem with realistic?

Real life is sometimes, or even often, unsatisfying. Isn’t that part of why we turn to fiction?

What annoys you about those intriguing news stories? Why did he do that? Did they ever find the person responsible? What was the motive? Did they have a happily ever after? You never find out. 

Happily ever after might not be realistic, and therefore not in keeping with Abercrombie’s raison d’être for The First Law series, but in many cases it’s what the reader wants. This is particularly true in fantasy where we tend to expect the good guy to defeat the bad guy. Even if you don’t have that kind of ending, all the loose ends should be tied up and it should be possible to look at the character arc and say yes, these experiences changed the character, even if he didn’t get the outcome he wanted. 

I didn’t get that feeling when I finished these books. Rather, I was looking for more – the reason I was on Abercrombie’s website, trying to find out when the sequel series (say, The Second Law?) would be released. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be one. 

It is one thing to make your reader want more. It is another thing to make them want more and then not deliver. 

You want to make the reader want more at the end of Book 1 so they will buy Book 2. You do not want to leave them wanting more at the end of Book 3 when there is no Book 4 (or a sequel series). Why? Because if the reader wants more, to the point where they incorrectly expect there is another book, you haven’t done something right. The reader thinks the story isn’t finished. When they realise it is, they feel robbed. 

For me, the end of this series felt like nothing had changed. A group of people came together, they fought in a war, possibly on the wrong side, or at least on a side only several shades lighter than the other side, then separated and went on their merry way unchanged. The character I considered the main protagonist went on much as the series started and that wasn’t a very nice road he was walking. His romantic interest disappeared in the other direction with no satisfactory resolution to their romance of any kind. One character looked like he would probably die but the book ended before he did. One character changed into a much better man but faced a future of being used by a man who isn’t very nice at all. Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of happiness going around. 

The only satisfactory conclusion for any of the characters was the one I predicted. Now that’s a good ending. Where you give the reader enough subtle clues they guess at the ending and it makes them happy.

I understand what Abercrombie was trying to create, as a writer, but as a reader, it completely failed to satisfy me. If there had been a sequel series, I would have bought it by now. Instead, I’m hesitant to buy his other, unrelated books for fear of equally unsatisfactory endings. 

The moral of the story? The ending should make sense, tie up the loose ends, make you happy – and make the reader happy. 
 
If you want your readers to come back, anyway. I know I do. How about you?

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Why Do The Bad Guys Need To Be So Ugly?

Bad Guys
My mother fell asleep during the first hour of The Fellowship of the Ring. When the movie finished, I asked her did she really find it that boring. She didn’t like the orcs. ‘Why do they need to be so ugly?’

‘You can’t save the world from fluffy bunny rabbits,’ I replied.

Lord of the Rings orcs
On reflection, I think the villains in high fantasy are not nearly as ugly as those found in other fiction. People often think fantasy is escapism and to some degree it is. The good guys nearly always win and the bad guys get their just desserts and that satisfies some inner need for justice or fairness that most of us seem to have.

But most of all, it’s not real. No matter how terrifying, how depraved, how hideous the villain, I’m never going to lose sleep over him. Because I know it’s fiction. Someone made him up. He can’t possibly come knocking on my door. None of these things are really happening to real people in the real world. If they were, I might cry. But they’re not.

Not so true for other kinds of fiction which often sprinkle in facts – I mean, actual facts from our actual real world, something those of us in the high fantasy genre only have a passing acquaintance with.

I am currently reading ‘Grave Secrets’ by Kathy Reichs (yes, not my usual genre) and I just watched the movie Fair Game. So I’ve been bombarded with various hideous real things like:
  • governments destroying the career of someone just to keep a secret;
  • people who make death threats against the small children of a person they hate (even though they have no good reasons for that hatred);
  • people attack someone publicly on the basis of mixed media reports without firsthand knowledge of that person;
  • genocide and murder, rape and torture, in less fortunate countries than ours, where such things may all be in the ordinary course of a day, never investigated, condoned or authorised by the government, and conveniently forgotten. 
It’s enough to depress a person. While fiction is, by definition, not real, it usually has some basis in fact, whether it is based on a true story or just inspired by some fact, snippet or tidbit. So while the particulars of the stories I have read and watched may not be accurate, it’s a pretty safe bet all of the above have happened and will happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, I know about the bad things that happen in life. I donate to charities and do what I can to help. I have a friend who is currently in Nairobi as a volunteer aid worker, so I know. I see people being nasty and cruel and spiteful to each other, judgemental and intolerant. I know it’s happening. But there’s a difference between knowing and wallowing in it.

When you wallow in it you get a very jaded view of humanity. Start to think maybe our species is a waste of space, maybe it wouldn’t be such a great loss if we were all wiped out. When you look at what we do to one another you wonder what kind of monsters we are.

Why do the bad guys need to be so ugly? Life is ugly. 

When I read high fantasy, sure the villains are all ugly monsters. They are just as ugly as those in the real world.

But high fantasy also has heroes. The genre becomes inspirational rather than mere escapism. 


Because the heroes in high fantasy remind me of everything that is good and beautiful in us.


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