No character in a fantasy novel ever has to go to the dentist, or have his appendix out, or stand around waiting in line for something. I think that’s why some people love fantasy–and also why some people hate it.
It boils down to how realistic you want to make your fantasy world–always keeping in mind that one of the chief purposes of fantasy is escape. But its other chief purpose is to enable the reader to view reality from a whole new angle. So it’s a juggling act.
I’ve added a physician named Tam to my cast of characters: she learned the healing science from her father. So in my fantasy world you can get sick, or injured in an accident.
But I refuse to write about weight-loss plans and protest marches.
We know Laura as a visitor to this blog. She once won a comment contest by writing “Ugh.” I’m so glad that didn’t start a trend.
Where the Music Ends (available on amazon.com, $5.99) is her first published novella. I read it in a sitting yesterday, 99 pages. I enjoyed it, and I won’t easily forget it; but to review it analytically–well, that won’t be easy.
That’s because it’s a kind of fairy tale, or myth. As such, it leaves many things unexplained. It’s as if a painter tried to portray a landscape in as few brush-strokes as possible.
So we have a valley, with seven villages in it, surrounded by a powerful spell laid down by an evil witch, and no one can get in or out. Worse, the witch periodically creates some kind of “music”–it is not described–that summons children out of their homes by night: some of them never to return at all, and others spiritually maimed. We’re not told why the witch does this, or what she does with the children that she keeps. We can only wonder.
Twins Alice and Joseph are called out by the music. Alice is able to resist the witch’s power, but she can’t save Joseph. She meets another boy named Gilbert who has also resisted, although wounded by the attack of a probably magical wolf. As they try to get back home, and get a doctor for Gilbert, they discover that the witch has cursed them with a very nasty curse: people can’t see them, hear them, or help them. Their only hope is to get out of the valley altogether.
I don’t want to try to retell the story here. Suffice it to say that, to overcome the witch and lift her spells, and to save Joseph if they can, the children must discover and then speak the “free words,” whatever they turn out to be; and it seems that what will also be required are “a sword, a word, and blood.” And this means sacrifice.
I can’t decide whether this story is just right as it is, or whether many more details should have been provided. Start doing that, though, and the next thing you know, your novella is a bust and you find yourself writing a novel. As a fantasy writer–who writes novels, not novellas–I do believe in allowing much scope to the reader’s imagination. It’s often more effective than anything I can think of saying about certain people and locations, etc. Should Laura have told us what the witch’s music sounds like? Or would that have risked ruining the story? I don’t know. It’s not my story.
When I was a boy there used to be a program on educational TV, “Japanese Brush Painting.” The artist would demonstrate how to paint a horse, for instance, in just a few simple strokes, achieving not photographic realism, but something of the essence of a rearing horse. It really worked! I didn’t have a brush, but I did try to imitate him with a ball-point pen. I turned out some pretty nice pictures of horses.
Where the Music Ends reminds me of one of those Japanese brush paintings. There is beauty in it, simplicity–and a lot of somewhat creepy stuff going on in the background. I don’t know whether Laura has ever read Lord Dunsany, but there’s something in here reminiscent of his shorter stories of supernatural encounters.
All of which means that I enjoyed the novella and can recommend it to you.
It’s bad enough, you populate your fantasy with stock characters whose every action and reaction is totally predictable. Bad enough you name your lead characters after popular pain reliever products. But to do both at once is to create something monumentally bad.
I find it hard to get my books reviewed because so many potential reviewers and interviewers say, “But that’s just fantasy.” Like it’s all verbal cliches and stupid unbelievable characters named Feen-a-Mint or Tylenol.
This is the third book in The Wind Rider Chronicles by Allison D. Reid, best known to this blog as our friend “Weavingword.”
Two things make this series stand out from all the others. First, it has a fully Trinitarian theology: no one else I have read in fantasy has been bold enough to try this.
Second, although many–one might even say “most”–fantasy novels are set in an imaginary world similar to our world’s Middle Ages, this series boasts a unique feeling of authenticity. When it comes to the way life was lived by most people in the Middle Ages, Ms. Reid really knows her onions. Her wealth of authentic detail persuades the reader to believe in the story. Food and drink, technology, weapons, architecture, dress, the means of producing everyday goods and services–it’s all here.
And one other thing–tiresome fantasy cliches, like the Invincible Female Warrior, the Crusty But Benign Old Wizard, and Know-It-All Elves, are refreshingly absent from these books. I stand up and cheer for that!
These books are written as a continuous story, which means I had to go back and re-read the first two.
Elowyn and Morganne are two sisters who, having fled their increasingly disturbed home city and a mother who, for reasons we don’t yet know, hates them, have to find a place where they can live normal, peaceful lives. This is hard to do, because their world is under attack by supernatural forces. Morganne, the elder, is a weaver by trade and a scholar by avocation. Elowyn, the younger, has an affinity for the woodlands. These are engaging and believable protagonists.
At the root of their world’s problems is an evil wizard, Braeden, who controls their country’s weak and foolish king and is using necromancy to open, it seems, the gates of Hell and let out all sorts of evil and monstrous beings to prey upon the people. There is a Kinship of warriors who try to fight the evil, but are hard-pressed to keep it from devouring their towns and villages. They’re warriors, but they aren’t supermen. There’s a very real possibility that they won’t be able to hold the line.
There are still some important things that we, the readers, don’t know. Who, exactly, is Braeden, where did he come from, is he even fully human, and why is he doing this? Much of the answer, we expect, lies in the world’s ancient history, which must be painstakingly recovered if there is to be any hope of countering the evil. Why does the sisters’ mother hate her daughters, and who was their father? I strongly suspect the answer to that last question will come as a surprise, if not a shock.
Some readers will wish the story were carried forward at a faster pace–with more reminders, along the way, of what has gone before. But Ms. Reid is improving as a story-teller as she goes along, and I think we must be patient. Meanwhile, there is a well-crafted sense of growing menace that makes me eager for the next book in the series.
These are available both as e-books and paperbacks, and can be ordered through amazon.com.
“Weavingword” is weaving something good here, and I look forward to seeing how it all turns out.
Ah, what the heck, I can always use reviews. Here’s a new one by Forrest Schultz, covering The Temple and The Throne, Books No. 8 and 9 in my Bell Mountain series. I don’t think my character, Ysbott the Snake, made a hit with him, but then Ysbott rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He’s a villain and an idiot, so he’s supposed to do that.
When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in high school–and I’m currently re-reading it, I don’t know how many times–it blew me away. I didn’t know it was possible to write such stories; but a couple of chapters into it, I knew I wanted to write fantasy. It took me over 40 years to come up with Bell Mountain.
A lot of people write fantasy, but according to any number of readers, few write it well. After Tim Wildmon interviewed me on his internet TV show, he turned to his assistant and shook his head. And said, “He made the whole thing up! Whew! I don’t know how you do that.”
Practice, man, practice…
People ask me why I have to sit outside to write it. Well, the phone doesn’t ring outside. I’ve got trees and sky, birds and squirrels, to keep me company. And I have to get myself into a world that doesn’t exist except in my imagination. I have to be able, in my mind, to see it and hear it and touch it. This takes a great deal of concentration, easily broken.
I have to relate to characters that I invented as if they were real. Although I’m inventing what they say and do, think and feel, I can’t just have them do anything I want. They have to behave as if they really live. Again, lots and lots of concentration. A character like Helki the Rod doesn’t just grow on trees. He has to say and do whatever he would say and do if he were real.
I have to see these landscapes, it has to be a movie in my mind. And I have to resist the temptation to load my story with elves and dwarves and wizards and all the other stock characters that burden so many other fantasies. No invincible female warriors, no crusty but benign old sages. Impossibly beautiful, know-it-all elves, uh-uh. Otherwise, next thing you know, all you’ve got is a pile of cliches.
It’s all very difficult, a constant challenge–but it’s the kind of work that I love best. The finished product has to be very different from everybody else’s finished product. I reach back into vanished worlds of the long-gone past and pluck out animals that most of my readers never heard of before. Creatures known to us only imperfectly, from bones and scientific speculations that may or may not be accurate.
Nor can I do any of this without prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.
Which leaves me, when a book is finally done, figuratively gasping for breath and wondering, “Well, now what do I do???” But the Bell Mountain stories are a kind of history, and in history there’s always yet another chapter.
What kind of kook comes up with a title like The Mabinogion? Well, strictly speaking, this book doesn’t have a title. It’s just some ancient stories that wound up in a collection in the Middle Ages, and later on the woman who translated them from Welsh into English decided to call it The Mabinogion because the first four stories end with lines like “With that this Branch of the Mabinogi ends.” Nobody knows what a Mabinogi is supposed to be. It may be a 19th-century editorial error.
Some of these stories were already terribly old when they were copied down 800 years ago. So old, in fact, that by the Middle Ages no one understood them anymore. We don’t know who first told these tales, or when, or whether anything in the stories is a reflection or a messed-up memory of something that really happened. All we know is that they’re really cool stories that people have been enjoying for a very long time.
My favorite is Math Son of Mathonwy, which is the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, whatever that means. It tells the story of Gwydion the Magician, who couldn’t find a wife for his son and so wound up making a flower-maiden–yes, that means a girl made out of flowers–to be the young man’s bride. Or is it Branwen Daughter of Llyr, in which the gigantic Bran the Blessed wades across the Irish Sea to rescue his sister Branwen from a cruel mis-marriage?
Back in the 20th century, Evangeline Walton rewrote the Four Branches of the Mabinogi into coherent fantasy novels, which were reprinted in paperback circa 1970, when the success of The Lord of the Rings created a nearly insatiable market for fantasy. Walton’s series, starting with The Island of the Mighty is really quite good. I enjoyed those books, and still have them.
But the original (if we may call any translation an original) is much wackier, and tantalizing. I keep asking myself, what are these stories really all about? I love to delve into the roots of things, but I don’t think anyone has yet dug all the way down to the roots of The Mabinogion.
These ancient tales, whose meaning has been dissolved by time, have provided much inspiration for my own Bell Mountain series. Not that I would dare rip off such startling scenes as “the cauldron of rebirth”–if one of your warriors is slain in battle, toss him into this big pot and he’ll come out a virtually indestructible monster–but I don’t mind borrowing a proper name or two.
Just dipping into The Mabinogion from time to time revs up my imagination. I think it might work some magic on you, too. Give it a chance.