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.

Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange begins with a bonkers fight between magic-wielders that gives a glimpse of the inventive action we’ll be seeing in the rest of the film. It sets the tone of the movie—dark and in places violent, but with loads of awesomeness—and before we even meet most of the main characters, we’re eager to learn about this new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we trust the movie to teach us.

 

And teach us it does. There is a ton of exposition in this movie. More than half of the conversations in the movie are about communicating plot or worldbuilding information to a character and to the audience.  It should, by all rights, either bore or confuse us. But I found myself enthralled throughout the entire movie. So much so that I forgot to take mental notes for this review and had to take stock after it was over—a feat only a handful of movies have managed since I started writing reviews.

 

What is this movie’s secret? How does it introduce what is essentially an all-new, complex world, with rules different than our own, without alienating viewers?

 

Partly because, while the events in the movie involve fantastic and imaginative magic, the characters almost without exception are grounded. Their emotions and motivations are familiar to all of us. These are people who have known pain and regret, people whose pride has been or is hurting them, people who are trying to do what they think is right or what they feel they must to survive. There’s even one beautiful scene that made me empathize with the villain.

 

The acting helps. Most of the speaking roles are taken by Oscar-nominated actors and actresses, and I didn’t feel a single performance was phoned in. Cumberbatch cemented himself as the only Doctor Strange that I think of when I hear the name, and Chiwetel Ejiofor played his role with a sincerity that I found heartbreaking in places.

 

The standout performance was Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. I wasn’t expecting to say that going in, between the casting controversy and the failure of the trailers to convince me that she was a fit. But she had a presence that kept my eyes on her and made me pay attention to every single word she had to say.

 

Having great characters and fantastic actors helps to mitigate many of the problems that such an outlandish story can create in terms of keeping viewers invested. But instead of settling for not bored, the makers of Doctor Strange worked to make sure that their audience was enthralled.

 

For those of you who just came here for the review, and don’t particularly care about the nuts and bolts of writing, here is your stop. The movie is awesome, is great in Imax, and is the most fun 3-D experience I’ve had so far in theaters. If you like superhero movies, you’ll love this one.

 

For those still with me, how does Doctor Strange keep viewers informed and invested throughout the movie? By following foundational rules of writing Fantasy.

 

It starts us off with some action that shows us how cool their magic is, a promise that we’ll get to see more of it soon. As we follow the pre-origin-story life of Doctor Strange for a bit, that magic stays in the back of our minds. What happened in that scene? And why? What did the different magics do? We have mysteries to ponder, and to get excited about seeing solved.

 

That leads me to another thing it did right. It throws magic in our faces, but it doesn’t explain what or why (outside of seeing how said magic is used and what basic effect it seems to have). It lets us be confused when we are supposed to be confused, lets us feel in the beginning that this is something different than what we’ve seen in the MCU before. Then it teaches us, bit by bit, until the viewer can not only recognize each kind of magic without being told, but can also anticipate certain spells and try to piece together a solution based on what they have learned. It welcomes us into this world and rewards us for paying attention.

 

Whenever the movie gives us a rule—for instance, what a certain spell or item does—it sticks to it. It remembers that this is a rule of the world, and it can’t change. Action A has effect B, every single time. Other movies in the MCU could learn a thing or two—looking at you, Ant-Man. Some of these rules are explored in great depth, in ingenious ways I never would have guessed.  Some, on the other hand, still have room to be explored further, which gets me excited for Strange’s future appearances in both the inevitable sequel and the larger MCU.

 

None of the information shared is just one character telling another character something so that the audience can have the information. It’s always presented in a way that feels natural the characters will be talking about this. The information is always given in such a way that we learn something about the character providing it. The way it is provided helps to develop the tone for the scene, or foreshadow something later, or refer to events we’ve seen. In short, the information is presented in a way that feels real.

 

The final, and perhaps most important piece that Doctor Strange gets right is that, while it starts us off unsure of what’s happening, and while it only gives us answers in a breadcrumb way that keeps us salivating for more, it makes CERTAIN that we know what we need to know for the next scene to make sense.

 

Is Doctor Strange a perfect movie? No. Is it the best movie Marvel has ever made? Not quite. But it is a master’s class in exposition. And even days afterward, I still find myself happy that we’re living in a world where this movie could be made.

 

SPOILERS

 

Minor gripes:

Nobody pointing out how dangerous and stupid it was for him to keep the Eye of Agamotto on him while fighting. He’s a newbie, facing down a well-trained set of villains, and nobody suggests that he shouldn’t keep it on him? I realize there isn’t much time between fights in the second half, but come on.

Strange’s ascension to Sorcerer Supreme is very sudden. I’m sure there must be dozens of surviving members that are more qualified as of the end of the movie. I understand that’s where he’s going to end up, but it seems like it’s only been a few months. Having to accelerate him into position for Infinity War is probably the culprit here. Minorly annoying, but unavoidable.

He gets stabbed in the chest, almost dies, gets shocked in a way that should have killed him, and then he finishes the rest of the movie without resting? I find that unlikely. I haven’t found a workaround for this plot hole yet. I just choose to ignore it because I enjoy the movie so much.

 

Ok, now that those are done.

 

The rewind scene at the end! The one apprentice getting sucked up into the aquarium! The guy launched out of his car rewinding back into it! That whole scene is delicious. I wish it could have been longer, but it must have been ridiculous to make, both cost-wise, and logistically. I’m just grateful it happened.

 

The cape was great. Funny, but also super-violent. I love that Strange is so stubborn he ends up fighting with it.

 

The moment when Kaecilius is in the restraints, and he and Strange talk. The look of recognition on Strange’s face as he realizes that he very well could have become Kaecilius. The absolute understanding, and yet the horror. And the way that scene ended. Just amazing.

 

I couldn’t tell you how good the martial arts aspect of the movie is, because we got to the movies just in time for trailers, and only the front row was available. Imax 3-D from the front row? I might have missed some things, visually.

 

I…just realize that we walked out before the second end-credit scene. I’m sad now.

Crash Course on Perspective: Third Limited

This is my second post of three on the subject. Here’s the link to the first post in this series in case you missed it:

https://nathanhalledits.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/crash-course-on-perspective-first-person/

In Third Person Limited, the pronoun used for the character is “he” or “she”. That’s why it’s called Third Person. It’s called Limited because, unlike in Omniscient, we don’t have access to all of the characters’ thoughts at any one time. It’s limited to just the thoughts of the viewpoint character.

So that’s what it is. This is what I feel about it.

Third Limited is the perspective that I would choose if I could only ever write in one of them ever again. Good use of Third Limited is the reason that I write and edit today.

Why do I love it so much?

It’s incredibly versatile. It has many of the advantages of both First Person and Third Omniscient, with few of the drawbacks of either.

It is almost as intimate as First Person, and allows the writer to develop a voice for each PoV character in a way that Omniscient doesn’t. However, unlike in First, Third Limited doesn’t make the writer a slave to that voice. There is a separate, uniform quality to a novel’s prose that allows you to, for instance, describe the city as the character sees it, in greater depth or with more poetry than that character might do themselves.

What it gets from Omniscient is that uniform voice, but it’s also the ability to be in more than one character’s head (without jumping through hoops to do so). However, it allows the reader to really sink into the character in a way that Omniscient can’t easily do. It allows for a more character-driven experience.

This leads me to the thing that Limited can do better than First or Omniscient, and the reason that it’s so important to me. Third Person Limited allows you to write a scene from one character’s perspective, and then switch to a different character for the next scene. It allows you to more easily juggle multiple viewpoints.

The ability to juggle multiple viewpoints allows the writer to tackle large-scale conflicts from multiple sides, each with nearly the same depth and personality as First person would be able to do with one perspective. This changed the face of Fantasy forever.

There are inherent weaknesses to Limited, dangers that a writer has to be aware of.

The first, most common danger is omniscient slips. This is where the writer slips in knowledge that the PoV character couldn’t possibly have. For instance, character A can’t know what character B is thinking or feeling. A could see B’s expression, and make an educated guess. You’re still bound to the rule of First—unless a viewpoint character receives information, the reader can’t have it.

The second danger is infodump. Unlike in First Person, where the character’s voice can often carry infodump well, there is very little leeway for this in Limited. The writer has to be careful to keep information either directly relevant, or at least give the character a good reason to think about the information. It’s much more of a magic trick than in First, because the writer needs to get the information across without having it seem like the purpose for the words is to get the information across.

And the last danger is, Limited can enable a writer to make their story too big. It makes it very easy to scale up the story, but it makes it hard to know when to stop scaling up. If the writer isn’t careful, it can grow difficult for either they or their readers to remember who is where, when, and why—and even harder to remember who knows what.

If you plan to write in Third Person Limited, I’d highly recommend The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. This is the series that made me want to write. It does things with Limited that I’d never seen before, and have rarely seen since. While it gets some largely deserved criticism for slowing down and growing too bloated with PoV characters—there’s that danger I was talking about—it remains one of the greatest achievements of the viewpoint, in my opinion.

As promised, here’s a passage I’ve written using this perspective. It’s…a bit longer.

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Leaning against the ancient stone wall, Jerin sucked in a breath, and winced at the stitch in his side. The fields in the distance and the untended tall grasses, and the forest beyond, were vibrant, verdant, dancing with wind. He could imagine, in hours to come, the farmers out in the fields. For now, despite the dawn, the town and the fields were still eerily silent.

Jerin slowly reeled in his breathing, and tried to quiet his mind. Would he hear them, before they were upon him?

He pushed the thought down, down into the quiet depths where the Masters had taught him to leave anything that weakened him. There was no time for weakness. No time for fear. He sidled to the corner of the wall and peeked around the corner, down the streets he had run before.

The world was bright enough to sting his eyes, orange from a sky just on the other side of dawn, green from weed-mottled grass, yellow from thatched roofs that poked up over tall white wooden fences. All of it was so deep, so full of color that he could almost reach out and touch it from where he stood.

The fences kept the people safe in their houses, separate from The Road and whatever might travel on it—especially from those that could Pull. The houses were set at odd angles and with odd spaces between, so that he could only see little ways down the street. He might not see them, if they were following, until it was too late.

The Gluttons wouldn’t care if he was afraid. Wouldn’t care if he begged. They wouldn’t care that the Masters had never asked if he wanted to join them. They would only care that he could Pull. That made him dangerous, made him less than an animal, but more, to the Gluttons, it made him food.

Sria

Jerin tucked his head back behind cover, trying to push the name down into the dark. It resurfaced, too buoyant to drown.

Srialleine’s scream breached the surface of his thoughts; her scream, and the sharp, sudden end to it, like the breaking of a branch over a knee. She’d been beside him, laughing, leaf-green eyes sparkling in the campfire’s light, and then she was screaming, and they were on her, all claws and teeth. They had been focused only on her—she had been stronger than he, many times stronger, and years more practiced—and he had run.

He had run.

Pain lanced through memory, jerking him back to the present. He swallowed the acrid taste of blood. The Masters had trained him relentlessly, more so even than they had the others. The throb at his lip didn’t matter beside the renewed focus it brought.

The Nine Edicts demanded that houses outside the cities were staggered, demanded the fences, so as not to aid those who could Pull. The Gluttons couldn’t see through houses any better than Jerin could, but they didn’t use their eyes much during a hunt. It was all smell with them, smell and taste, instinct and hunger. Jerin took a deep breath, careful, quiet, and peered around the corner again.

The breath in his lungs seemed to freeze solid.

Green grasses, blue sky, yellow thatch behind white fences. The grey paved Road, and crawling on it a half-dozen sickly, ashen silhouettes. Smallish, man-shaped but for spiny tails, they scurried with a lithe, predatory grace. Eerily human. And too close for the silence. He should have been able to hear their claws clack on the pavement. Even watching them now, he heard nothing.

Nostrils, flush against their faces, sat between long slits for eyes. Layered, curving fangs kept callous lips in a perpetual rictus, and forked tongues flicked out to taste the air. To taste for him.

His lungs felt swollen in his chest, straining. Carefully, he let the breath out in a slow stream from his nose, mouth tightly shut. As close as they were, they may not smell sweat enough to track him. But could they smell the blood? His eyes stung, but he couldn’t make them look away long enough to blink.

Watching them made his stomach clench. Naked, hairless, skin almost rough enough for scales, all of them that queasy shade of grey. They lacked any ears beyond holes in the sides of their heads. Grotesqueries of humanity, primal and sinuous, always hungry. Male. They were all male. He didn’t know where their females were, but the males were put on the hunt.

Gluttons. These vile things had a name. As feared as they were, they still had a place in the world. Jerim swam in the terror, unmoving against the ancient wall, and weathered a sudden wave of hatred. These things were almost pets to them, to the Veritiers. Cats hunting mice, hunting vermin.

Worse than all of that was the horror of memory. Muscle tearing under serrated teeth, bones snapping from the pressure their jaws could bring to bear. And all the time, there was silence. He had been close enough to smell their unwashed fetor, the stench of rotten meat in their mouths. But he hadn’t heard them. Hadn’t heard her screaming, once they were on her. Sria had watched him, green eyes dripping with terror and pain. All he could do was watch them. All he could do was run.

He watched them now, hand clenched around the edge of the wall. Trembling.

Saliva dripped form gaping maws, trailed in viscous lines to pavement. Long, swaying tails scraped silent against the road, claws making minute scratches. Why didn’t the things make noise?

Blood pulsed in Jerin’s ears, throbbed almost painfully. The colors of grass and sky and thatched roofs pressed in on him in waves. He could make them make noise. Make them scream. In the moments before he finished ripping them apart.

Putting his feet beneath him, he pushed off the wall, back toward the fields and the tall grass and the forest. Yes. He could attack. And die. With another of those breaths through his nose, he checked his belt, the pouch and the half-haft ax hanging from the loop. Hadn’t he been afraid, only a moment ago? Maybe it was still there, buried beneath shame, loathing, and rage. Sria deserved better. She deserved to be avenged. The Gluttons deserved pain for eating her. And Jerin deserved death for leaving her to die.

He managed another step backward, and another, and turned to start toward the tall grass. This wasn’t about what they deserved. This was about the Masters, what he knew, what they needed to hear.

The Hundred Swords had been drawn, and the Defilers were awake.

The price to see them imprisoned had been the end of the world. The crumbling of kingdoms, a devouring chaos that had left the people with a fear of those who could Pull but no memory of why. He refused to think what the price would be now, if the Masters were caught unaware.

The smell warned him. Rancid skin and old carrion. Without thought he fell forward, twisting as he did, pulling the ax free and throwing it in one practiced motion. The ax whistled through the air in a shining arc, and stopped silent in the creature’s skull. The beast didn’t make a sound as it hooked almost upright with the force of the ax’s impact, blood spraying noiselessly against the stones behind it, and then fell limply onto its stomach. The ground shook beneath Jerin’s boots when it landed, but he still heard nothing.

As blood pooled beneath the creature’s ruined head, another of them paced around its fallen comrade. Its head turned to the dead at its side, tongue flicking out, before it turned back to Jerin with a silent snarl, and pounced. Sucking in a breath, Jerin Pulled.

The orange of the morning sky sang in his skin, the green of the grass seeping through his pores. The white fence stood cold and impassive, and the grey pavement lay beneath him, uncaring. Seconds slid by, slow enough to feel them prickling on the hairs along his skin.

Each touch was different. Red was always strongest, a searing pressure, demanding use; that was why the Nine Edicts forbid red. White exuded nothing.

Jerin drank it in, sang with its sweetness. Training had made the next step almost beneath thought. He reached into a blade of grass between himself and the monster. Time snapped back as power flooded the blade, lighting it with the colors of the world.

The blade of grass swelled and shot tall, twisting so that its edge turned to the Glutton. The thing had just enough time for its eyes to focus on the blade before they collided. The blade’s keen edge sliced clean through the monster’s shoulder and into its chest. Fallen, twitching, to the ground, its mouth opened in a whine, but no sound escaped.

The blade stood tall, solid and crystalline, a milky, translucent white beneath the blackness of blood.

Jerin pushed himself to his feet, regaining his breath. Five heartbeats had passed since the first had fallen. Maybe ten. He had to hurry. They wouldn’t have heard his Pulling—it was silent as the Gluttons themselves—but they would smell the blood of their kindred and come running.

Giving the second, still-writhing creature a wide berth, he put a boot on the first monster’s back, pulling the ax free with a sharp jerk. He kept his ax in hand as he hopped down away from the Road, away from town. Tall grasses brushed at his thighs as he sped his pace, almost running.

They would smell the thing’s blood, be able to track it. His breath caught for a moment at the thought, but he made it steady, made himself move. Yes, they would smell their own death on him. It would drive them forward, in fear and rage. It would consume them almost as it had Jerin.

Leaving the Road was a dangerous gamble. There were things in the wilderness, things nearly as dangerous as the Gluttons, and far more numerous. But this way was the Masters. Closer than by the Road. And the Gluttons would be prey in the wild no less than he was.

The sky was brightening, the orange fading to blue, but he soaked up that orange while he could. At dawn he was strong, fueled by the traces of red in the morning sky, the bleeding of the sun.

The wind brought the sweetness of the dark forests ahead, and the grass grew all the way to his waist. It slowed him, but he was glad for it. It would slow the Gluttons even more, would make them almost equal. He was careful of his footing; one stumble, and they would be on him. He didn’t look back, but he could feel them there, in the prickling along his neck.

Moments passed, bringing him closer to the forest’s edge. The tension between his shoulders melted as the trees loomed overhead before him. He let his pace slow a little, to a step he could hold for hours. He would have to, as long as the scent on him drove the Gluttons beyond caution, beyond conditioning.

Conditioning. He’d never taken to the Master’s training as well as the rest. Had never truly learned to bury weakening thoughts. Even now he thought of Sria.

Sria, without a doubt, would have welcomed death, if it got the message to the Masters. But it was wrong. He should have been the one to die for it. She had always been the strongest of them, second in power only to the Masters themselves, had saved more young than anyone from the purges. She was a hero. He was an upstart, brash, foolish. Stubborn. If he hadn’t insisted on stopping, if he hadn’t insisted on the fire—if he hadn’t run—then maybe Sria—

Fire tore through his shoulder, knocking him forward. Instinct rolled him back to his feet, and hurled the ax at the landing creature before him. Even as he watched the thing go down with the ax in its side, he knew he was dead. Cursing himself for a fool, he spun to face the creatures stalking him, and Pulled.

The last traces of orange in the sky bled into his soul. Time drained like honey through a sieve. Jerin threw his hands up, pushing into the grass ahead, and they were radiant, twisting as they shot upward into a fence taller than those surrounding the houses. The creature in the lead tried to jump over the sprouting, crystalline barrier, and took a point in the chest, dangling from it as it grew overhead.

The fence bought him seconds, not nearly enough time to worry about the ax. Jerin glanced at his shoulder as he ran, and grimaced. Long scores along his skin, almost hidden by pooling blood. Not as bad as he’d feared—the needle and thread in his small pack would close the wounds cleanly—but they might be fatal, nonetheless. He drank in the calm blue of the sky, pushing hard.

The wounds from the Gluttons were were a poison, leeching the body’s strength. If he didn’t get away from the pack hunting him in the next few moments, he wouldn’t have the strength to fight them.

Now he looked back often as he trudged toward the forest. He had to reach the Bastion. It was worth his life, was even worth Sria’s. If he died before he reached the Darkroads, her death would be meaningless.

Beyond the tall grasses was a clearing of scrub and dirt, moss and mushrooms, where the trees blocked the sun. He was close.

He could trace the Gluttons in the wavering of the grass around the new wall’s edge. The silence of that movement was eerie, repeated on either side, reconverging behind him. Reaching into the pockets of his bag’s shoulder strap, he retrieved rounded vials, full of bright red dye. If only he could Pull through glass. He pushed forward through the grass, keeping the vials in hand.

Jerim counted breaths. How many did he have before he reached the edge of the grass? How many breaths before they were upon him? How many breaths away from dying? He counted them. Six. Four. Two.

Stumbling as he breached the field’s edge, he spun and threw. The vials shattered, spraying dye in all directions, thick and vibrant enough to sit on the scrub. Jerin let the glistening red fill him until he thought he’d burst.

Heartbeats bled by as he stepped backward, away from the dye and the ground it had stained. Not even breaths until they reached him now. Now he counted heartbeats. Three. Two.

On one he Pulled, sucking in the green and brown and blue, but more than anything sucking in the red. Jerin pushed the power into the dye, into the grass. Time flashed to normal as the dye exploded and the grass burst into flame all along the front line. A dark form broke the line of fire and bounded into the air, pinning him onto his back.

One had gotten by. The thought was frantic, a rat’s thought as a cat snapped it up in its jaw. The field was aflame. Impassible. But one had gotten through, and one was more than enough.

Instinct, beaten into him by the Masters’ training, brought his hands up, up to the leathery sag of the beast’s neck, pushing it to arm’s length. Claws cut long trails of agony in his side, in his arms, and sparked that terrible heaviness wherever they touched. Their claws were dangerous, feeding apathy and exhaustion, but their teeth were death.

The thing pushed down on him, jaws snapping silently, inching closer despite the desperate work of his arms. The stench was on him, making his stomach heave. Drool leaked in a thick line, and he jerked his face away, but it spattered on his cheek, stinging. A cry ripped from Jerin’s throat, but no sound escaped.

Jerin managed a single, powerful shove, and the thing was lifted onto its hind legs, its face far from Jerin’s neck. The Glutton’s claws ripped through leather and wool and skin, biting deep into muscle. Cold agony announced where they scraped ribs.

The heaviness infected his thoughts, made it hard to reason. Hard to care that he was dying. That, without warning, the Defilers would sweep the Masters into the abyss. That the rest of the world would fall without them.

Jerin’s hands faltered, falling at his sides; with a soundless growl, he pushed them back up aginst the creature’s chest. He was too weak. Barely an inconvenience for the thing anymore. The Glutton reared back, claws and teeth and hunger. Death.

Jerin looked down with a cold detachment, watched the blood gush dark and red from wide gashes in his chest. Lethal by themselves. The beast’s mouth opened wide, and started forward, down toward his neck. Jerin didn’t have the strength to fight it. He had no weapons, and nothing to Pull, not close enough to matter, not the right color to do what was needed.

Something inside Jerin shifted, like snapping into place. He couldn’t. It was impossible.

Jerin Pulled.

Blood could not be used to Pull. It was one of the first lessons ingrained in him, before he even truly knew what he was. They’d had him try, again and again over the years of training, as if to make sure that this inability felt as true as the inability to fly. Blood could not be used to Pull.

But power flowed into him now, stabbing hot, scorching away the cold of the wounds, the emptiness. Time stood solid, a thick line of drool drooped halfway to his face, the creature’s eyes open just wide enough to reflect a shadowy image of Jerin’s face. Shock twisted his features, but he felt it as he saw it in the Glutton’s eyes, like it belonged to someone else. It was impossible to Pull from blood, the same as it was impossible to do what he did next.

Without moving his hands from the cold roughness of the creature’s chest, Jerim pushed the power into the Glutton. Time leapt forward.

The explosion drove him into the dark earth hard enough to squeeze the air from his lungs, hard enough to crush his bones. His ears shattered with the enormity of the thunder, and the light seared his eyes shut. Pain grew beyond bearing, beyond knowing. His heart slammed in his chest, a handful of beats from ripping to pieces.

Seconds passed in false silence as the explosion tore through the world. Seconds passed, beyond what he thought he could endure. The fires continued to rage not far away, their color stabbing at him even while blind. The sky fell down on his skin, pressing, throbbing. With a breath that rattled in his chest, he Pulled.

It was impossible to Pull from blood. He knew that to be true. And it was impossible to push that power into thinking creatures—any being it was tried on developed a slow rotting disease, but nothing else. And yet he had done both.

Last, it was impossible to Pull power into himself and keep it. No matter what use he had for it, it would burn out the core of him and leave him smoldering but untouched on the surface. It was impossible to save himself.

As he pushed the power through crumpled veins, into torn muscle and pulverized bones, he cackled bloodily. Flesh knitted, bone set, muscle reattached. Languidly, he soaked up the blue, pouring it into himself, and laughed.

The sun was sinking violet on the horizon when he pushed himself, stumbling, to his feet. The fire had burned wild among the summer grass, still covered the area in seeping smoke. It had driven the Gluttons away or taken them with it. Shedding a leather jerkin and wool tunic too torn and burnt to cover him and finding smooth skin underneath, he smiled. Jerin abandoned his pack and turned to the forests, and the Darkroads beyond.

He had a message to deliver. And questions to ask. The Masters had a lot of explaining to do.

Asymmetry in Magic

One of the best aspects of any Fantasy story is the magic system. As a writer, the fun is in opening up that toy chest and playing around with what’s inside. As a reader, it’s in following along in breathless anticipation for the mayhem that the writer has in store. This was the reason we got into the genre in the first place. Magical combat is the place to have fun.

Sometimes that means setting up a line of magical troops on either side and having them march toward each other. That can be fine; for the most part, that’s what the combat is in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Channelers typically fight other channelers. Sometimes you have to write battles that take place this way, and most stories contain at least a couple of fights that fit into this style.

When magic this way, though, it can easily become a war of attrition. Whoever has the greatest strength or the most troops is the winner. If you aren’t careful, that can make your work feel typical, generic, and even boring.

You can sometimes avoid that problem by giving the magic wielders secondary objectives to set them apart. Maybe magical artifacts that give their wielders an edge, as the Wheel of Time does. Maybe the magic users find alternative uses for their powers. Maybe the quality setting them apart is how far the characters are willing to go in order to win.

But you could also design your magic systems asymmetrically.

Imagine two mages fighting in a city. You could make both of these mages throw fire at each other, like some demented game of dodgeball. And that could be fun. But you could also have one of them use fire, and have the other create magical barriers. Suddenly, instead of having marching lines of equal combatants, you have a fight between sides that are wildly mismatched, each scrabbling for an advantage.

Brandon Sanderson is great at this. In Mistborn, he has three different magic systems playing off of each other, and even has trained non-magic-users that can hold their own and be a legitimate threat to the people who use the magic. In a way, Allomancy from his Mistborn series is founded on this concept; even if there are two Mistborn in a fight, the odds that they have the same metals to burn are unlikely. The story is filled with battles where only one side is using a particular magic, and the other has to compensate.

If you use this method, you can still create secondary objectives for your magic-wielders to take the fights to the next level. What if the barrier mage is trying to protect the town during the battle? Does the fire magic splash off of the barriers so that the mage has to be careful to keep collateral damage down? Maybe the fire-wielder is looking for an artifact in the town, but the barrier mage would rather the town burn than the artifact be captured? Then the fire mage must use extreme precision to keep the fires away from the places the artifact would be. As you can see, the possibilities for the fight explode when you have two unequal opponents battling with very different abilities.

What are some of your favorite examples of asymmetric warfare in Fantasy?

The Climb

This was an entry for a flash fiction contest. I didn’t end up winning, but I had a lot of fun writing this, and I definitely learned a lot about trimming.

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Death’s just tumbling down the mountain, Kehr often said. Life’s a climb to the top.

The Ravager flaked into ash behind Berise. The Oneness with her past lives was already fading; soon she would be only herself. Thousands of soldiers cheered her, ignoring puddles of their enemy’s ichor smeared across the battlefield.

Tens of thousands, broken on the ground, didn’t cheer. They were louder.

Seeking Kehr, Berise followed a young soldier down to the walls where their battle had started. With somber eyes, he pointed to a crumpled form on the ground.

The composite Berise remembered losing thousands she loved during a thousand cycles. It promised reunion in cycles to come. But that consolation was silenced beneath the real Berise’s screams.

Collapsing beside the body, she cradled Kehr’s head and sobbed. “I can’t! Not without you. Please.”

He was the only friend the Ravager couldn’t turn against her. He was the only reason she’d made it this far. He was why she had kept fighting.

He had been dead for hours.

The Ravager would shatter her soul, break the cycle, undo everything she had fought for. Was fighting even worth it?

It is, the other her said, the words almost too quiet to hear. Her head shook in denial.

Part of her remembered the choice she made between lives: to return, to continue the cycle. Without her, the world would drown in darkness. But she could end it all. Find peace.

Was this worth her suffering? Her loss?

It’s not!” the real Berise cried.

Kehr would say it is. The thought left her reeling.

She let Kehr’s head down, and pushed herself to her feet.

Tell the troops to gather,” she said, wiping away her tears. “We’re going home.”

Life’s a climb, Kehr had said.

So she climbed.

Eye of the World Re-read

Let me start with complete honesty, here. The Wheel of Time series is the main reason that I’m writing today. It’s my favorite series, and I tend to read through at least my favorite books every couple of years. This is not going to be an unbiased review of the first book in the series.

What it will be is a post describing some of my impressions of reading this book for the first time in several years. The things that I notice or think about differently, having read the last book, having developed as a writer and editor. Me rambling, basically.

That said, I figure I’ll just start.

The style of the first book is radically different to all following books. It’s a poorly-hidden secret that Jordan intentionally aped Tolkien’s style to a degree, in order to give readers familiar ground to start their journey on. You see it in Moiraine’s tales of Manetheren, the history of Shadar Logoth, and Lan’s past (The fall of Malkier), and in other odd places throughout.

I, for one, feel that he succeeds too well in this. As someone who was never able to make it all the way through Tolkien (aside from The Hobbit, which hardly counts), I found some parts very hard to get through. I can only imagine what it was like for twelve-year-old me. But even aside from these parts, there is sometimes a sense that this is more about the grand world and epic scope and awesome magic than it is about the characters. Thankfully, these moments are relatively rare.

I also noticed that the first four chapters are unbearably slow. I knew this from my first read through, more than ten years ago, and it’s even more true now. When I read it the first time, I saw the purpose behind it. I though it brilliant. I still do. But there must be a way to accomplish it without making these chapters a struggle to read.

Last among these complaints is the “early-bookisms” as most fans of long series call them, or EOTWisms, as Wheel of Time fans might know them. That is, flaws in continuity where the author develops canon after the first book, so that the first book is not consistent with the rest of the series. They’re all over the place in The Eye of the World. They’re hardly a big deal, and can largely be explained away in “head-canon” among fans. But it’s worth mentioning.

Do all of these complaints mean The Eye of the World isn’t a great book?

Don’t be silly! It’s absolutely a great book!

Even in this early novel, Jordan is already showing the seeds of the best parts of the series. He’s writing an unreliable third person limited, with the occasional expertly-worked omniscient/cinematic passages. He can suggest in one sentence both what the PoV character thinks, and that it might not be the truth of the matter. He sets up mysteries that have satisfying conclusions books from now. And he gives us characters to care about, to root for, from page one.

His prose is for the most part fantastic, and he has all but mastered the art of “show vs. tell”. What little we see of the magic system is exciting and almost completely consistent with the rest of the series. And while his plotting at times is similar to the meandering trek that Rothfuss is infamous for, Jordan keeps a single, strong line leading us from beginning to end.

Robert Jordan continues to provide lessons for me as a writer: how to use tight third person narration to create unreliable viewpoints, how to use description to evoke emotion and build tension, how to create characters that, while flawed, still try to be good, still get us to cheer them on. However, as a more mature writer, I can see other lessons he’s taught me. Don’t imitate the style of others to your own detriment. Don’t allow the backstory to overshadow the main plot. Don’t allow your reader to be bored during the introductory chapters.

A part of me, the part of me that was inspired by The Wheel of Time series to become a writer in the first place, is saddened by the fact that there are aspects of The Eye of the World that set examples of what to avoid. But there are, and I will, and I’ll become a stronger writer for doing so.

The Eye of the World comes in near the bottom of a series full of my favorite books ever written. On to The Great Hunt; let’s see how that one holds up, shall we?