The Diner: Post One (Introduction)

Person A walks into a diner for lunch. As he’s waiting to be served, person B sits down on the other side of the table. Person B flashes a gun, and says this: “In an hour, I’m going to shoot you in the head. There’s nothing you can do to stop that. Whether I tell you why you’re dying, whether I let you say goodbye to your family, all depends on our conversation between now and then.”

I’ve had this idea for a movie script rolling around in my head for a couple of weeks. I don’t know much about scripts outside of a handful of tutorials, and I don’t have the time to research screenwriting when I don’t mean for this idea to sell, necessarily.

Originally, this meant that I would post the idea on my Facebook Author/Editor page and release it into the wild, as I sometimes do with ideas I don’t mean to develop. I still welcome anyone to take inspiration from this idea and craft it well enough to get published or bought.

However, I’ve decided to take inspiration once again from Brandon Sanderson. A few years back, he started Warbreaker, a Fantasy novel. He decided to publish each draft as he wrote it, all the way to completion, for free. As far as I know, it’s still up there; it’s both a great novel and an interesting look into the writing process.

I’ve decided to use this idea in a similar way. But I mean to take it a step further. In a series of posts, I plan to share my thought process, developing the basic concept by choosing characters and location and outlining the plot, eventually even publishing a full first draft of a script.

This will probably take several weeks and a dozen posts at least. I have a tag cloud that will help you find all posts, under “The Diner”. I’ll also number the posts as I make them.

Feel free to give feedback or ask questions in the comments! I hope you have as much fun with this as I think I will.

Being Concise.

Concise. It’s quite possibly my favorite word. I love how it sounds. I love how it looks. And I love what it means.

A Google search brings up: “Concise: giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive.”

This is what I strive for in my writing. To be clear without being wordy. To give information with both breadth and depth, without boring the reader. And it’s what I seek to help writers reach as an editor.

Being concise makes your work feel shorter than it is. If you’re writing an 80K word thriller, and it’s concise, people will run through it in just a few hours, and want to start it over. If you’re writing a 400K word Epic Fantasy, being concise will keep them up at night reading. Being concise is one of the key factors to making readers say, “One more chapter!” until the sun comes up.

But how do we make sure that we’re concise? How do we avoid boring readers with extraneous information, and still avoid leaving anything important out? I have a couple of questions that I try to ask myself as I write. They should work for everything from the color of a side character’s hat to the final revelation that turns the story on its head.

First, I determine if what I’m writing belongs in my story at all:

1) Is this information relevant to the plot? Does it become relevant later?

2) Does this information develop character? Does the character noticing this information or their thoughts on it help us to understand them better, or move their arc along?

3) Does this information add color and depth to the world?

The basic three: Plot, character, setting! If the answer to some of these (or even better, to all of these) is yes, I will include the piece.

Second, I determine if the information belongs where it is in the story:

1) How important should the reader think this information is when the characters come across it? This will determine whether to have it in the midst of other information, or out by itself.

2) Is this the only and/or best character to come across this information? If it would be more effective with someone else coming across it, make sure they do.

3) Is this information spaced properly between the previous information and the future information? Are the breadcrumbs laid out in an enticing trail? Are the handholds both close enough to reach, and far enough to progress? More than once, I’ve moved information because it was too close to a previous piece, or too far from the next.

Third, I determine if it’s presented correctly:

1) Is there any way to make this information serve multiple purposes at once? If it’s a plot clue or revelation, let the character’s reaction to it inform the reader. If it’s a character moment, let that tie into theme, or let the character interact with the setting. If it’s setting, let it inform the tone, give it ramifications for the plot.

2) Is the way the information is currently presented the way that will give it the most emotional impact? Even if it is a quiet scene describing a trip through the countryside, does the description of the swaying of dry yellow grass, not with a rustling as it should but instead with a scrape, evoke the suffering that the drought has caused rather than merely that there has been a drought? An explosion in a novel can be either exciting, or funny, or frightening, or saddening, all depending on how it’s described, how it’s framed.

3) Is there a way to shorten the delivery without diminishing its effect? The more you can cut without losing what’s essential, the quicker the story will read, the more people will want the next story or to start the current one over.

Once I’ve done all of this, I know that the information has been presented in the best way possible.

Chapter Titles

I take chapter titles seriously. In Fantasy, at least, I feel it’s usually better to have chapters than not, to have titles rather than just numbers, and to have colorful, evocative titles rather than bland, generic, one-word titles. I don’t always live up to my own expectations here (I don’t know any author who does), but here’s what I think a chapter title has to keep in mind ideally, to be among the best.

One: the title must in some way represent the events or themes in the chapter ahead. This one’s obvious, and most people get it right.

Two: it shouldn’t spoil anything. This one is trickier, because you have to take into account how the previous chapter ended and what mysteries might be pulling the reader on at the moment–and give a hint at those mysteries without giving them away. But you also need to consider that the reader can go back and look at the chapter list at any point, and there should be no point where the title tells too much.

 

Three: if possible, the chapter title should fit with the overall theme or events of the book, and should add to the tone and atmosphere of the novel as a whole. This is the hardest of the three criteria to get right, and it’s not something that I’d expect every chapter to manage. But the best of the best do this.

“Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” Review

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is a film every bit as full of color and character as the first, a bit lighter on laughs but heavier with drama. Like the first, I spent most of the time smiling. But unlike the first, the sequel doesn’t launch to the top of films in the MCU or comic book movies in general. I enjoyed it, I recommend it, but it is middle-of-the-pack for me.

 

All of the actors gave great performances.I don’t have a complaint about a single one. A couple stood out, though: Michael Rooker as Yondu has some great, unexpected moments. Chris Pratt surprised me by making a potentially cheesy scene feel real. And Kurt Russell brought just the swagger his role needed (and made me happy every time he was on screen).

 

The action was great. Even in scenes where multiple characters were fighting on multiple fronts, I was never confused as to who was where or why. I always knew what was going on. And all of the carnage was both gorgeous and funny.

 

Anyone going into Guardians 2 expecting a fun, Sci-Fi/Action Comedy will be happy.

 

What brings it down for me, then? A couple of things. First, its pacing is all over the place, almost to the point of being nonexistent. Its plot is disjointed, due to the first half hour being an extended prologue. And yet, what really hurt the movie is harder to explain.

 

The movie doesn’t know the meaning of words like “subtle” or “understated”. That’s fine when they’re blowing things up. But Guardians 2 prides itself on spending more time on character. And in drama, a lack of subtlety can kill a movie.

 

Warning: I am going to spoil the original Guardians. Yeah, I know, I’m spoiling Guardians for the second post in a row, and focusing on the same scene! But it’s a safe bet that many of the people who might want to watch the sequel have seen the original. And I need something to compare to in order to explain what Guardians 2 gets wrong.

 

Imagine when Groot surrounds the group to save them from the crash, and Rocket tearfully says, “You’ll die!”, and Groot smiles sagely down to him and responds, “We are Groot.” Imagine that punch to the gut, and how you felt the first time you saw it? What does that phrase mean to you? If you’re anything like me, it has layers of meaning, layers of emotion. It’s such a resonant, powerful phrase, because it lets the viewer understand through context.

 

Now imagine Groot saying that, and then Rocket explaining just what it meant. “It means he sees us all as part of him. We’re together, we’re family. We’re one. He will survive as long as we survive, because we are him. Oh, and also, he stashed a bit of himself away and will survive and regenerate eventually.” How robbed would you feel, if Guardians had built that beautiful moment, and then interrupted it, and your own emotional reaction, to tell you how you should be feeling?

 

But no. All it gives us is Groot’s zen, and Rocket’s pain.

 

Guardians 2 constantly sets up meaningful moments that would have impact, and then rips away any emotion by giving us the lines that make explicit what we had been processing emotionally before. It got to the point where an emotional scene started to build, and I never fell into that raw emotional place, because I was waiting for the line to betray it. And I was rarely wrong.

 

It’s the difference between Batman movies where we focus on Bruce Wayne’s dead parents, and movies where they’re never mentioned.

 

The other problem that emotional scenes had was that they didn’t feel properly motivated. Why are these characters in the mindset to spew sappy backstory? And why are the characters they’re speaking to the ones they trust with this information?

 

In a movie where absolutely everyone is doing their best, the writer brought their B game.

 

The last main problem I had was with the villain. And this coming from someone who usually thinks Marvel’s villains are fine for what they’re doing (and thought Ronan was awesome). I’ll be writing very carefully here to avoid spoilers, but if you don’t want to risk it, I’ll just say: The type of villain in this movie needed more screentime than they got.

 

In the first movie, Ronan was a villain unto himself, and a threat that had very little to do with the main characters except by way of Thanos. Because Ronan was so self-contained, having only a handful of scenes worked perfectly.

 

However, in Guardians 2, the impact of the villain is in direct proportion to the main characters. It is the villain’s relationship with these characters that makes us care about them. Because of this connection to the characters, and the reliance on them, the villain here needed a lot more time with the heroes than they got.

 

(I’m going to go into much greater detail on this last point in the spoiler section.)

 

The movie is pretty awesome. It’s a good follow-up to the first, remains true to the characters and the world they’ve established, actually brings some meaningful development to those characters. And it’s a ton of fun. None of that can be taken lightly.

 

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SPOILERS

 

Sylvester Stallone is in this movie? I should have been focusing on the scene itself, the backstory involved, but all I could think about was that question, in all caps. (Sly and Rooker would make an amazing buddy action team, by the way.)

 

When Yondu turns to look at the prostitute android, she deactivates herself. I found it a thoughtful establishing of his loneliness. That whole shot re-introducing Yondu belonged in a darker, more meaningful Sci-Fi movie. Blade Runner-esque.

 

Yondu’s funeral did NOT warrant ten minutes. I understand that they’re closing out the conflict from Yondu’s first scene, but it breaks the pacing of the ending. Spock got less than half that time in Wrath of Khan!

 

YOUNG KURT RUSSELL! And he didn’t look creepy! I know exactly what young Kurt Russell looks like, and even knowing that it was CG, he looked ripped straight out of the 70’s and 80’s. Bravo, Disney/Marvel. It worked this time.

 

Ego, The Living Planet, turned out to be a bad guy, eh? Go figure. I didn’t know much about the character, but I knew enough about the meaning of the word that I wasn’t exactly surprised. Was him being a villain supposed to be a secret? It’s written that way, but any even slightly savvy viewer knows he’s bad from moment one, don’t they?

 

Speaking of which! The part I mentioned above, about the villain. Ego works as a villain in direct proportion to the attachment that Peter has with him. It is a villain who, in essence, gains the hero’s trust and then betrays him. So the most essential part is to show that relationship developing. We need 15-20 minutes with Quill and Ego together, see Ego become important to Peter not as an idea, but as a person (well, give or take). What do we get? A game of energy-ball and a story about how I met your mother. To look at this done right, watch Frozen. Yes, I said it.

 

“I guess sometimes we’re looking for something, and it turns out it’s been right next to us all along.” Paraphrased. Are you kidding me? This is a basic character arc, a simple children’s story moral. It’s fine, if uninspired, to give your character this journey. But here’s the thing: You do not, under any circumstances, put this in your film. It’s almost like the director gave Pratt motivation for his scene, and Pratt threw it in there as actual dialogue. How did this make it to theaters?

 

Even if that was supposed to be Peter’s journey, where is it? Where is the part where we establish that? The Point A of everyone’s journey is eaten by the prologue. If Part C is him learning that he has a family beside him all along, then Part A is him starting his search for his father (which he doesn’t; Ego finds him), and Part B is him rejecting his real family in favor of the pleasant lie of his father. There is some of Part B, but again, that’s in the rushed, antsy-to-get-to-the-ending second act, and I never really feel it. So Part C just becomes, “Oh, is this what the movie was about?”

 

All the raunchy humor in this movie, the innuendo and genitalia jokes. The movie uses a villain that’s all about male fertility, is all about toxic fatherhood from multiple angles. In a more subtle script I’d say that the humor was just trying to play up this theme? I’m not sure it works. It just feels out of place compared to the first.

 

And Nebula! She continues to be my favorite character! Yes, more than Groot. Yes, more than Drax, who gets all the best lines in the movie. Nebula. And I love that she basically goes good, but retains the dignity and strong will to strike off on her own. She’s the Vegeta of Guardians, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rogue One: Making Character Death Hurt

I finally saw Star Wars: Rogue One! Yes! Now I get to tear it apart!

 

No, in all seriousness, I loved many things about this movie. The acting was good, the music was good, the action was good. The set design and cinematography make me sad I didn’t see it in theater. This is the most beautiful Star Wars movie yet, and that’s saying something.

 

Even the dialogue, characters, and overall plot are fine. Really, I strongly recommend watching Rogue One, if you haven’t already.

 

If you haven’t yet, I also suggest clicking away from this post, because I’m going to go into full spoilers from here on out. (I’ll also spoil Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy.)

 

This is a long, dense post. You’ve been warned.

 

Like many movies, I find one thing captures my attention to the exclusion of all others. Like Doctor Strange, which I loved despite its many flaws because I could only think about how well it executed its magic, or Ant Man, which I couldn’t enjoy despite it being a fun movie solely because it broke its own rules.

 

In the case of Rogue One, it’s this: I didn’t feel anything when the characters died.

 

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like the characters, didn’t enjoy my time with them. With only a couple of exceptions, the large ensemble cast all stood out and offered memorable moments. For the most part, they had solid motivations, and I believed that they were in this to the end.

 

However, when the dying starts, you need more than that. You need it to hurt.

 

Rogue One had a couple of serious disadvantages on this front. First, it is a large cast. There’s not all that much time to introduce characters and get the audience attached. And second, let’s be honest: most of us went into the movie assuming everyone was going to die by the end.

 

The main failure to counteract the first problem is that our characters only talk about the war. That’s it. There is nothing else, for any of them. There’s only the struggle. Where are the hopes and fears that they have completely separate from the immediate plot?

 

Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy get this right.

 

In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller talks about his wife, and we learn that he used to be a schoolteacher. Matt Damon’s Ryan talks about his brothers. We get a sense of where they’ve come from. They want to go home. See their families again. They mourn the losses of people we never see on screen, and try to make peace with the very real possibility that they are just going to end up as names on a wall.

 

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax and Gamora talk about the ways that Thanos has caused them pain. Sure, that’s great. It works for motivation, and gets us to understand and even like the characters. But the scenes that affect me most, particularly on rewatches, are the opening scene in which Peter loses his mom, and when Rocket breaks down crying after the bar fight, tired of others viewing him as a freak (and tired, too, of fearing that they’re right). These moments have little to do with the immediate plot. And yet they make our hearts ache for these characters.

 

One spot where I feel Rogue One succeeded at this was right after the council, when Cassian reveals that he’s haunted by the things he’s done, that it’s become a Sunk Cost Fallacy: “If I quit, I can’t live with myself. The evil I’ve done won’t have been for any greater good.” It’s a moment of vulnerability and pain that, yes, is still centered around the war. But it’s intensely personal. It means something.

 

But every character needs these scenes in order for the movie to work as intended.

 

The Jedi Temple Guardians (Played in half by Donnie Yen! Yes!) have lost their entire purpose in being, their home, and any family and friends they might have had. Obliterated in an instant. And we get a single reaction shot from them. Where’s the scene talking about the food stall on a corner that made their favorite dish? The child that they’d taught to kick a ball properly?

 

K-2SO was built and programmed to serve the Empire. He’s been reprogrammed and repurposed. Where is his worry that his free will means so little, that his very personality is a whim of anyone with the skills to change it? He has a sense of self, so is he afraid of losing that self again?

 

Bodhi Rook, the pilot, defected from the Empire, risking his life and likely the lives of anyone he cared about in order to do what was right. And for that, he got tortured, driven to brink of madness. Is he resentful? Does he doubt that the Alliance is really any better than the Empire?

 

Even Jyn Erso, our star, doesn’t talk too much about her father. Certainly not enough for us to develop an emotional link and sympathize when he’s killed. We’re left to rely on their acting alone to sell the relationship.

 

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as some of these examples. But step one to making a character feel real to the reader is to give us glimpses of their life outside of the plot.  

 

These things go partially into solving problem two: The savvy viewer goes into Rogue One having written everyone off as dead already. Even without realizing it, this means we have our defenses up. “You won’t get me!” we (or at least I) think, holding back from truly caring about any of these characters so I can save myself the pain of losing them.

 

Making the characters feel real to the viewer is the most essential step. The urge to connect is stronger than the urge to avoid pain in most people. If you can make them real, you can get the viewer to let down their guard, just a little. But that won’t get a story all the way there by itself.

 

The other part to this, which I feel Rogue One completely fails at, is to make the deaths surprising, make them emotionally meaningful.

 

In Rogue One, once the dying starts–too late and too close-together in the story, but we’ll get to that–a pattern is set and never deviated from. Character A accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character B accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character C…

 

I understand why they did it. They wanted to make the characters’ deaths feel like they meant something. But here’s where I feel they made a mistake: We don’t need the character’s death to mean something to the plot. We need these deaths to mean something to us.

 

For instance, back to Saving Private Ryan. Out of all the deaths in the movie, the one that really sticks to me is that of Vin Diesel’s character, Private Caparzo. Tom Hanks’s character undoubtedly has the most meaningful death, from a plot perspective. But it’s poor Caparzo, bleeding out in the rain, that makes me feel like I’ve just been punched in the stomach. It feels like a betrayal. Caparzo shows a little compassion, and he dies for it. He fumbles for his weapon, too late for it to help him. His death isn’t heroic. As he’s dying in the rain, it’s other characters who are competent, who are heroic. All that Caparzo has is his heart. But even as he’s dying, he has a lot of it.

 

In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Groot. Groot’s death should be silly, right? He’s a giant, talking tree, he can only say one phrase. The most meaningful reaction comes from a raccoon with a Brooklyn accent. And yet, “We are Groot” has become a meaningful and enduring line, and the scene itself hardly ever fails to make a viewer tear up. (Marvel ruins it by bringing Groot back immediately, but what are you going to do?)

 

Why do these deaths affect us? What makes them different than any of the half-dozen main character deaths in Rogue One?

 

These deaths work because they surprise us. Sure, we might call that the kindhearted Caparzo, who has no place in this war, might not make it to the end. And certainly, we might figure that Groot would be able to use his regenerative ability to shield the rest of the Guardians. But could we guess that Caparzo would complain about the blood that was now on the letter to his father? Could we guess that Groot would face death with joy, speaking words that cement the family that the Guardians have become?

 

Maybe that’s why the death of K-2SO is the only one that completely works for me. It was surprising that a droid who had to this point been cynical and blase at the prospect of the crew’s deaths chooses to lock the humans away and hold the door. It was surprising and gratifying to see him finally get to wield his blaster. And it was definitely surprising–and a little scary–to see him carry on under a dozen wounds that should have stopped him, in a way that brought the T-800 to mind.

 

And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the rest of the main character deaths. The cycle of success and death, self-sacrifice that never really means much to me as I watch it because it’s utterly impersonal. This cycle actually grew boring, which is something you should never be able to say about main character deaths.

 

They should never have stuffed all of these main character deaths into the last fifteen minutes. Character death has diminishing returns. You can’t rely on sheer volume to make the viewer feel something.

 

Instead, they should have paced the character deaths. When they’re killing characters who have one or two scenes of screen time, they should be killing main characters. Make it feel like anyone can die, not just the wizened mentor and the father-who’s-served-his-purpose. Make us fear for the main characters, and mourn with them.

 

Another mistake they made was copy/pasting the way the characters died. No, I’m not talking about the means with which the Empire killed them (although grenades OP, please nerf). I’m talking about the emotional content of each death.

 

Why are all the deaths in Rogue One bittersweet heroes’ deaths? No one dies a coward, a failure, a victim. Imagine if, instead of having five separate objectives, there were only two. Jyn and Cassian and K-2SO are off accomplishing one, and the rest of the crew are working on the other.

 

Imagine the first character, say Donnie Yen’s Temple Guardian Chirrut, starting toward the switch. He’s repeating the mantra, just as he does in the movie as is. But he gets blasted. Right in front of his comrades.

 

Rook, the pilot, folds in on himself, too traumatized to go on. Perhaps as a call-back to his ongoing fragility after the horrors of war that had led him to defect, and the torture that had driven him to the brink of madness. And yes. Weak, whimpering in the corner of a bunker, Rook dies.

 

Baze, the other Guardian, steps up. He’s clearly terrified of the overwhelming power raised against him. But he walks out into the open, closes his eyes, and repeats his friend’s mantra: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

 

This is a call-back to an earlier scene that should have been, where the friends mourned their home, and Baze confesses to doubting the powers he’s been loyal to for his entire life. In this moment, he’s decided to put his faith in his fallen friend, and walks into danger with nothing but the Force to protect him. He takes glancing hits, but forges on, mantra on his lips. He activates the switch, and he dies.

 

Chirrut’s death is a shock. Rook’s death is sad and kind of pathetic. And Baze’s death has earned the heroism of the moment. Each of those deaths elicits an emotion from the audience. And it makes the sequence dynamic, rather than a loop.

 

The movie has some other flaws kind of related to character death. Wasting characters, and great actors, in particular. Neither Forest Whitaker or Mads Mikkelsen were allowed to do everything they might have and their characters might have, unfortunately.

 

Mostly unrelated to the rest of the post, I was disappointed by Vader’s limited role. They respected the character and didn’t embarrass him, as some other movies might have. But I always had a very different vision for his use in this movie than the one to which they eventually put him.

 

See, in my mind, Vader would have a handful of scenes. And each time he showed up, a main character would die. Each time he was on screen, the movie turned into a slasher flick, essentially. I wanted to have dread in the pit of my stomach at the first notes of his music.

 

Instead, we get a guy who’s just never quite there when he’s needed (through no fault of his own), until the end. The equally glorious and spectacularly stupid ending, where the plans for the Death Star are passed around like the basketball at the end of Space Jam. Vader amazingly keeps up with it by annihilating anyone in his way, but never quite snatches it out of the air using the Force.

 

He is just the right amount of sassy for my liking, though.  

 

I really liked Rogue One. I think I’ll like it even more on future viewings. However, they wanted to be a war movie set in the Star Wars universe, but still wanted it to be upbeat and kinda sappy. I’m not sure you can have both, in this day and age.

 

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Tie for best moment in the movie:

 

Using the Star Destroyers to shatter the shield. So good. So beautiful.

 

Or:

 

“Are you kidding? I’m blind!”

Book Review: Flesh and Spirit

I’d never heard of Flesh and Spirit, or its writer, Carol Berg, before it was strongly recommended to me by a friend who reads Fantasy perhaps even more than I do. When I ordered it, I was in the middle of a half-dozen other books, most of which I’ve since finished and reviewed. I opened it, read a few pages, and then put it down (as seems to be my habit), only returning to finish it a year later.

 

The prose in Flesh and Spirit takes some getting used to. In particular, most of the dialogue has a certain old-timey feel that serves as a hurdle when first starting the novel. It feels exactly like what it is: a modern writer mimicking the sounds of Middle English, borrowing curses and expressions almost directly from the mouth of Shakespeare. Berg does better at miming the rhythms of our ancestor tongue than many (Looking at you, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), but it still feels like tuning a guitar by ear, and hearing one note stubbornly remain just barely out of sync.

 

Her choice in language is fitting, because Carol Berg takes her influences from Renaissance Europe very seriously. From the war of succession that drives much of the plot, to systems of religion that draw direct comparisons to those in our world, even to her use of Latin as a foundation for many of the names and terms throughout, the real world feels just behind the veil. This adherence to our own history lends an automatic authenticity to her worldbuilding; I could see the streets that Valen walks because I have seen those streets in movies and in paintings.

 

My personal preference in Fantasy is a world one step further removed, one step stranger, than the one in Flesh and Spirit. I prefer a slightly steeper learning curve from a worldbuilding perspective. However, as the novel goes on, the world gains shades of complexity. And because she bypasses the thousands of words of worldbuilding necessary for much secondary-world Fantasy, she can spend those on character. She takes absolute advantage of that.

 

Valen, our narrator throughout, is my favorite character since Jorg from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. Every page reveals more depth to Valen’s character, both from what he says about himself and from his actions, which often suggest that he is two different people. On nearly every page, Valen’s actions feel driven by his personality, by his wants and needs, by his fear and his defiance.

 

Valen is a con artist, a philanderer, and a hedonist. He’s in it for the pleasures that he can get out of life, avoiding as much pain, annoyance, and boredom as he can. And yet, as the novel continues, we find an underlying sweetness to him, a courage that drags him kicking and screaming–and cursing–into trouble.

 

The world feels lived in, primarily because it feels as though Valen has drank, danced, and dallied in every inch of it. And our care for Valen makes us care for the world. Valen is unforgettable. He makes this novel work.

 

The premise of this novel is clever: Take an irreverent, immoral scoundrel, dump him in a monastery, and let the sparks fly. Better yet, the monastery stinks with secrets, and the scoundrel quickly becomes determined to root out each and every one.

 

However, there is one major problem with the plot, and this problem kept me from becoming completely invested.

 

Every hundred pages or so, something will happen that pulls the rug out from under the entire story so far. This isn’t a simple revelation of a mystery or large character moment. This is a redefinition. “This is what the story is REALLY about.” Previously-important plot threads get reduced to sub-plots, and then to side-plots. By the time you get answers to questions from early in the novel, it can be hard to care.

 

Not that there are many answers or resolutions to these previously-established plots, mind you. Often we get the introduction of a plot point and perhaps a reminder along the way, but nothing in the way of real development aside from a whispered promise that there will be development…later. Flesh and Spirit is part of a duology, and I would be shocked to hear that it wasn’t outlined as a single book and split in two after an early draft proved too long.

 

Because of the short attention span of the plot, the second half of the novel lacks the drive that is so distinctive of most books this good. And it hardly builds to a satisfying climax. I put the book down, twenty pages from the end, and didn’t feel an urge to pick it up until my next bus ride. The ending was a reasonable continuation of what we’d seen before, no more and no less.

 

I’m ok with cliffhangers and endings that demand you read the next novel, but Flesh and Spirit has no resolution whatsoever, twisting my arm to buy the other book in order to make this book feel more complete. It will probably work, but I’m not above being a tad resentful to a piece of fiction.

 

This is where I say whether I recommend it to readers of the genre. If you write, Flesh and Spirit can teach you a lot about building a character so charismatic that he alone pulls you through a story.

 

If you don’t write, the question is a bit harder to answer. Right now, I can’t say for sure whether the second book gives enough satisfying payoff for all the buildup in the first. If you’re willing to take that risk, I can guarantee that following Valen around is a lot of fun. Otherwise, wait for my inevitable review of the sequel to get a satisfying answer to this question.

 

Random (non-spoiler) notes I couldn’t find places for in the main review:

 

I love that Valen’s world has no judgment of sexuality that I can tell. In a world not based in our own religion and politics, it’s unlikely that something like gender, or sexuality, or race, would be a source of the same prejudices as on Earth. For the most part, Carol Berg ignores any morality attached to these things as they exist in our world. That lack of assumption is great.

 

Despite time spent in the military, Valen is not much of a fighter. It’s such a fresh, interesting take on conflict. He doesn’t think his fists will solve anything, and will often continue trying to talk his way out of problems that are turning into physical confrontations.

 

Come to think of it, the problem I describe in this book’s plot is a more exaggerated version of the problem I had with Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles so far. I feel Rothfuss never juggles so many disparate plots, and does better keeping you connected and reminded of them, but it is the same problem.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

I finished A Wizard of Earthsea in one night. Part of this is because of its length–less than 300 pages. The language and concepts are easy to digest in one sitting, too, since the book was written as a Young Adult novel. But the main reason I read it so quickly is because it kept me engaged from beginning to end.

 

Maybe this was because of the world, every bit as forbidding and inhospitable as that of Dune’s, but never dreary or cynical. It was a world with energy and color, where I was eager to see the next culture, to learn the next detail of worldbuilding and the next hint at what had caused the cataclysm that created Earthsea as we find it.

 

Ged, the main character, is a lesson to aspiring writers on how to balance a powerful character. From almost the beginning of the novel, he is able to perform incredible feats of magic–and indeed, because of the somewhat ephemeral nature of the magic in Earthsea, we’re never quite sure what he can or can’t do, outside of what the main plot demands. But although he’s magically gifted, clever, and compassionate, he never feels too powerful, too competent, or too perfect. Ged is deeply flawed, and has a beautiful arc throughout the novel. He feels real, at every step on his journey.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin made reading A Wizard of Earthsea effortless. I rarely had to reread a sentence to decipher what it meant. That doesn’t mean that her writing is mindless; she puts a lot of detail–whether it be character, setting, or plot–in remarkably few words. But unlike the dense, breathless content that often comes from such rich writing, Earthsea is elegant, enchanting. Similar to J. K. Rowling at her best, Le Guin’s Earthsea feels as though each word on each page is imbued with magic.

 

This isn’t to say that the novel is perfect. The main plot is built increasingly as a mystery as it goes on, but the clues don’t lead the reader to the answer in a way that’s satisfying. The answer makes sense, and feels right, but I never had the “Ah-ha!” that’s so important to mystery plots. In addition, because the narration is distant and storybook throughout, emotional impact in some important moments are dulled. Lastly, it adheres to some cliches that draw a wince today, although some of these are likely only chiches today because she set the trend so many years ago.

 

Overall, however, A Wizard of Earthsea feels timeless rather than outdated. If you enjoy Fantasy, you’ll love it. And if it’s on your to-read list, as it was on mine for so long, I urge you to move it to the front. You won’t regret it.

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I might be wrong, but I can’t help but think that A Wizard of Earthsea was an influence on Patrick Rothfuss. From the main character being arrogant and hotheaded, the magic-school setting, and the True Name elements in both magic systems, Rothfuss feels like a descendant of Le Guin’s writing as much as Jordan seems to be of Herbert.