Specter of the Spheres: Prologue

It’s probably not fair to spend years on this blog teaching writing and prose techniques and critiquing other novels without ever showing my own. Here’s the prologue from my newest book for your enjoyment.

Specter of the Spheres


Priestess Elienne squinted toward the southern horizon. The blood moon hung low, and time was short until daylight burned again. The grand arch glinted in the moonlight, marking the entrance to the underground vault. They would make it in time.

Her defender swarm pattered a rhythmic beat across the ruined lands and lulled her into a trance as they pressed forward. Each defender looked exactly the same: smooth obsidian shells that came up to her knees and eight razor-sharp legs. They had no eyes or faces. They moved by sensing the priestess’s heat signature or potential enemies.

Elienne knew from her studies that people would have called them spiders in the old language, but this wasn’t quite right. They were larger, and they had an intelligence spiders didn’t have.

They also harbored the souls of dead people. This was how they got their name: specterlings. They weren’t ghosts, though, a common misunderstanding of how the necromantic arts worked. A priestess had incarnated the shells, merely giving the illusion of life.

Elienne’s head snapped toward the western hills as the lead defender cried out its warning signal.

The sun?

No. A lava nethermental rushed at them, and the first crawler darted forward to protect the priestess.

She shouted, “No! Get back!”

The specterlings swarmed forward anyway, not understanding the true danger. Their only trained goal was protection. In most circumstances their leg blades would shred any threat: the swarm a stampede of razors.

Molten rock oozed out of the nethermental’s body, leaving a trail of dark pumice. The huge body rose to twice her height. It swung its boulder arms viciously at the attackers. Bits of lava and fire splattered haphazardly.

Elienne had no time to figure out who would have breathed life into such a destructive golem—probably one of the Persuader’s minions. She watched in horror as the lava hardened in an instant, trapping every one of her defenders.

A bright trail of fire arced and crackled through the air as the beast swiped at the lead crawler again. The crawler’s incinerated body melted into poison, a last-resort line of defense should all the specterlings die.

But the lava nethermental stomped over it, unfazed. No one had predicted such forces would try to stop her. Elienne needed time she didn’t have. One of her remaining specterlings had to remain alive for a banishment enchantment.

She pulled a dark purple crystal from her pack and slammed it into the sandy ground. It poked out at an awkward angle but stayed upright.

A vibrant glow emanated outward, and she began to sing in the ancient language.

Swipe: two more specterlings down. Poison pooled outward, and Elienne’s breathing doubled as she realized she might be too close to it. Her flesh body was not immune.

There isn’t time to move away, she thought.

She continued to sing with intense focus. The crystal shook under the tension in the winding melody. The song carried Elienne away from the scene. She closed her eyes. The beauty hurt. Her body shook with the pain, and she took it all upon herself. She needed more pain than ever before if she was to kill the powerful beast.

The ground now shuddered under the weight of the nethermental as it trampled closer. She opened her eyes to see the damage. Only one specterling remained. Elienne looked at where the nethermental’s eyes should have been but only saw oozing rock.

It somehow knew her location and moved directly toward her.

She needed that last specterling as a sacrifice for the necromantic ritual to work. As the nethermental’s swipe came forward, she completed the song and pushed pain into the crystal.

The crystal converted the pain to energy, which shot into the specterling. The defender called out a dying shriek, and Elienne relaxed. The specterling died before it received the blow from the nethermental.

The energy from the sacrificed life pulsed into the blazing golem in an ascendant burst. It landed with a sharp crack, and the beast collapsed into a lifeless heap of black rock, still glimmering from the heat.

Elienne fell to the ground, panting from the effort. Her small army of defenders were dead, and now she was on her own. If any more danger appeared, she’d have to fight without necromancy. She looked to where the monster had been, and the world distorted in waves from the shimmering heat.

Elienne pushed back to her feet and returned the depleted crystal to her pack. The sands tumbled under her feet, making the long journey harder than it needed to be. A heavy weight pressed on her shoulders.

She didn’t think she could continue; the ritual had taken too much out of her. Every muscle in her body drooped toward the ground, begging for rest. The singeing pain lingered from the ritual, but the sorrow at having failed her people hurt worse.

She was a priestess who had taken on vows. It had been over a millennium since the last failure, and that had wrecked the world. They almost hadn’t survived. With how things were now, all life would end this time.

Elienne glanced from her feet to the horizon once more. The arch marking the entrance to the vault grew as she approached, and she realized there was still hope. A quick flutter of energy titillated her chest, but the blood moon hung low. If the heat of the sun peaked the horizon, she’d be burned alive—darkness or moonlight were the only viable possibilities for survival.

She pressed on faster, not caring about her own life. It would be sacrificed at the coming ritual in hours anyway. Each one of the seven sects would send one priestess to complete the ritual and keep the world going.

They were seen as evil by most. Necromancy looked like an unnatural art to the rest of the world, and people had tried to squash them since the dawn of time.

But they weren’t evil. They protected life through sacrifice. Without death, there could be no life. Why couldn’t people understand that instead of sending these beasts to destroy them each blood moon?

Elienne shook herself free of these thoughts as she felt the sun burn her shoulders. She despaired that she had failed in her duty. She had been trained as a priestess for this one moment. The ritual kept the gods appeased. Without the ritual, during the full blood moon, the caverns would crack open and be exposed to the sun. They would all die, and without them, the humans would die as well.

Elienne ran with all her might. She couldn’t let that happen. A vicious scream came from her lips as the sun rounded the horizon. The lava nethermental had caused too much of a delay.

She reached the steps leading down to the vault, but the heat was too much; she collapsed. And with that, the end of the world began. The fools who had sent the monster knew not what they had done.

Six figures towered over Elienne, each adorning the black robes of a priestess. Every part of her body hurt. She could tell there were bruises all over. Flashes of the scene struck her memory: tumbling, crying out, and cracks of flesh on stone.

Elienne blinked several times as she tried to get her bearings.

One of the other priestesses said, “You made it. We didn’t think you were coming.”

She didn’t say anything. What was there to say? They’d all be dead the next night when they sacrificed themselves—no need to make friends. They had a job to do.

She looked around in fascination. Elienne had wondered what the inside of the vault looked like since she was a child. Now she had a single day to explore it. She cautiously pushed herself to her elbows. Her voice was shaky.

“What happened?”

Another priestess said, “We don’t know. We heard screams and rushed over. The vault sealed itself, so we’re safe now.”

Another said, “You should rest. You’ll need your strength for the ritual.”

Two of them swooped in with bizarre coordination, and Elienne felt too exhausted to resist. She gave in to the arms as she was carried to a different chamber. Seven beds were lined along the wall, and the two priestesses set Elienne on the first one.

She let the blackness overtake her.

The sound of whispered voices woke her, and she had no idea how much time had passed. They wouldn’t have let her sleep through the ritual. One of them noticed the stirring and called over.

“It is time.”

A pang of disappointment filled Elienne. She had dreamed of the vault her whole life, and now that she was here, she wouldn’t get the chance to see it before sacrificing herself on the altar.

She stood from the bed, still shaky from the pain song. A sudden fear filled her. What if she didn’t have the strength to go through with it? The upcoming ritual sacrifice would take much more concentration and intensity than the simple banishment spell she had done on the nethermental.

Elienne pulled herself from the bed and limped to the huddled group. Each step brought a sharp pain to her ankle, and she wondered if she had broken it while falling down the stairs.

One of the priestesses asked, “Can you make it to the altar?”

Elienne nodded. The group trudged along, up the stairs to the altar on top of the vault. She didn’t expect the simplicity of it. It appeared to be a stone statue with none of the intricate flair of the temple they worshiped at back home.

Seven circles rounded the altar, one for each priestess to stand on.

The group knew exactly what to do. They had all trained for this moment intensely. They waited for the proper alignment of the blood moon through the aperture in the statue. When the moment hit, a dark blood stain appeared across the altar symbolizing the first sacrifice that saved the world.

They held hands, and the priestess from the Haiel faction began the song. Each faction had a separate part of the song, and none had heard any of the other parts. A thrill filled Elienne now that she would get to hear it in full. After a few measures of the melody, the second priestess joined in.

The harmony produced a dark, strange sensation inside of Elienne. It was nothing like the painful beauty she was used to. Her turn came third, and she started the song. She focused hard at producing a clean tone when the first notes came out raspy.

The sounds meshed, and her voice cleared. Pain entered the song with her voice, and she saw the others cringe who hadn’t started their part.

They needed to take on the pain. It was essential to the completion of the ritual.

The rest of the parts joined, one by one, and each brought its own emotions to it. The cacophony of the counterpoint almost made Elienne falter. It was hard to focus on her own part when so many strange sounds kept coming at her and making her feel intense sensations: rage, lust, and even joy.

As the song intensified to the point of no return, the blood stain brightened. Elienne feared they had sung all the way to morning, and now the sunlight would burn them before they succeeded.

The light brightened more and more. But it wasn’t the fire of sunlight. It had no heat, just an intense whiteness.

She was blinded by it but kept her focus on the song. A burst of ecstasy exploded in Elienne’s gut, and she couldn’t sing anymore. It didn’t matter, because the song ended, and all that remained was the light.

Specter of the Spheres - High Resolution

A note on genre and buying options if you’re curious:

The full novel isn’t quite as fantasy-oriented as it sounds. It fits better under the category of magical realism or slipstream (if you know what that is). Here’s the description:

The world ends each blood moon.

But a faction of priestesses sacrifice themselves to keep it going. What happens when Aceline wants more for her life and decides not to do it?

Wallace has chased his dream of becoming a poet for a lifetime. It leads him toward a mysterious aurora.

Robert just wanted to connect with other humans in a world dictated by screens, algorithms, and addiction.

These three become linked across worlds, and each must uphold their end of a quest to prevent catastrophe at the hands of a tyrant in a land full of necromancy.

It officially releases tomorrow as an e-book. It will be free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and can be pre-ordered now. Also, the paper version can be ordered now, and you will get the e-book free if you get the hardcopy.

Amazon page here.


Year of Mystery Novels, Part 2: Mystic River

For my second mystery novel of the year, I decided to do Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I know this was a really famous movie when it came out, but somehow I went into this not knowing anything about the plot or mystery at all. I highly recommend this to anyone who can manage it.

I really should have started the year with this one, because it blew me away. It could very well end up being one of my favorite books I read this year. It also clarified for me what I didn’t like about The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

This is what the Sherlock Holmes novel was missing. Mystic River is first and foremost a novel with subplots and tension and a bunch of moving parts contributing to the plot. The Holmes novel was a mystery first and maybe character study next. The “novel” part was more an afterthought.

Let’s move on from these vague descriptions to some of the takeaway lessons. There will obviously be spoilers from here on out.

It takes 150 pages to get to the discovery of the dead body. Before this happens, Lehane carefully sets up a bunch of scenarios. It’s unclear which, if any, will turn into the main mystery of the novel.

The way he does this is to give us points of view of people tangential to the potential crimes. The opening chapter is from the point of view of a childhood friend of a kid that is abducted. Next we get the wife of a man who comes home with blood all over him.

This sets up a bunch of scenarios, all of which pique the interest of the reader even if they end up not being the main crime. It’s rather clever, because the book doesn’t turn so much on figuring who did it. Instead, we want to figure out how each of these scenarios are related. It’s a much more engaging way to let the mystery unfold.

Another thing this book does well is to show the grieving of the families involved. In a more classical mystery telling we are so focused on the detective and clues that this human and emotional component totally disappears.

I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will say that it is nice to have the crime be so believable. I don’t like when it turns out to be a complete sociopath or someone who can only be described as “pure evil.” Turn on the news. People die at the hands of others for really mundane reasons. And, wow, the final reveal in this book will leave the most coldhearted person shaken.

The pacing and tension were done really well for all the the above reasons. My only complaint is my standard one. This is clearly “commercial fiction” with how sloppy the prose style is. The first fifty pages took some effort to plod through.

Without hunting for the truly egregious sentences, here’s one on a random early page:

He’d [Sean’s father] planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job.

This is very typical. The sentences are fine, except at the end they get needlessly confusing and wordy. Lehane tends to use pronouns a touch too long without reminding us who it is referring to. He also conflates point of view (like in this one it’s hard to tell if Sean’s father or Sean is supposed to be the viewpoint).

Overall, I think the biggest takeaway from this novel is to keep the mystery active with scenarios and character actions. It creates a more compelling read than when information is revealed through the discovery of clues.

The Book of the New Sun

It took me three months, but I finally finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was published as four novels, but it is clearly one giant novel. Each one practically ends in the middle of a sentence, and none are standalone. There’s so much to say about this, and yet it basically defies talking about.

The initial critical reception was quite good. It was published throughout 1980-1983. So it fits into a transition time for SF/F. The pulps had died off by this point and a lot experimentation happened in the 60’s and 70’s, but the genre hadn’t fully evolved into the literary phenomenon that it would become by the end of the 90’s.

This book is very much ahead of its time in this sense. The Washington Post said Gene Wolfe is “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” Maybe. But the genre has taken the best of both worlds: fast-paced genre action/adventure/fun and quality literary writing that imparts deeper meaning on subsequent readings.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any sufficient amount of time will know my views on abstract, difficult, or avant-garde art, especially writing and music. I love it. I love having to dig in and listen to a piece of music 10+ times to start to understand what’s going on.

These types of pieces often give the listener the most rewarding artistic experiences. As DFW once said (I paraphrase), art is a relationship between artist and viewer. Relationships can’t be meaningful if all the work is done by one side. The more you put into experiencing a work of art, the more you get out of it.

Anyway, I won’t rehash that argument any further. My views when it comes to long novels have evolved a bit. There’s something of a difference between getting more on repeated readings and requiring multiple readings. It’s a respect thing. I respect an artist who promises more depth on another visit. An artist is disrespecting my time if I spend three months experiencing their art only to be told at the end that I can’t have understood it on the first time and I absolutely must spend another three months rereading it to make that first time around meaningful.

So that’s where The Book of the New Sun ends. The novel intentionally draws the reader out of the story many times. Two of the most difficult points for me were the long play within the novel in Book 2 and the sequence of short stories told by various characters in Book 4. Yes, I get that they are vital pieces to that underlying secret story that couldn’t be understood the first time. But they’re pretty obnoxious if you aren’t on that second read.

Overall, don’t let this dissuade you from reading these. The first read is pretty good outside of those complaints and a few meandering bits. The futuristic society Wolfe creates is shockingly deep and remains fresh and original today despite the number of dystopian/dying earth novels that have come out since then.

The writing is incredible. Wolfe is often too good I’d say. First off, he has created an SF/F series with a bunch of weird terms that sound oddly fitting. It turns out that every strange word in the book is actually a legitimate English word that has fallen to the wayside of history. This is an incredible idea to create both an ancient, strange sound that also feels very familiar. Same thing with the names of characters. They look all fantasy-like, but they are all names that were common at one point in history but have fallen out of fashion.

The dense, precise writing often challenges the reader to stay in the story rather than contemplate what it says:

War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulimus and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.

Many genre writers, to the extent that they think about prose, might want to show the horror of war by having the description be short, choppy, and crude like the thing it is describing. How many times have you read something like: “War is hell—horror everywhere. It changes your world.” This is lazy and cliched writing.

Wolfe’s elegant imagery does so much to bring the terror to the readers mind. War is a new world. This hinges on the cliche, but the followup prose doubles down on the imagery by precisely describing the geography of this new world: insignificant hills are lifted to the importance of cities. I get chills when I’m transported to such a devastating world. And then I’m off thinking about this and pulled out of the story. It’s almost a catch-22: write too well and it might be a distraction to the reader. I’m only half joking about this.

The astute reader is presented with some difficulties early on. The narrator claims to have a perfect memory. Later on, we start to get contradictory information about what happened. So either he lied about his memory or he’s lying to us about parts. This isn’t a logic puzzle. We have 100% confidence that the narrator is unreliable at that point, which puts the reader in an awkward position.

Since I recently read Imajica, I was struck by the similarities. I’m pretty sure Barker was not inspired by New Sun, but the archetypes and structure are the same. Barker has the Reconciliation and Wolfe has the Conciliator. I guess these, or similar terms, are bound to come up in any grand savior plot.

Will I reread this? I’m not sure. It won’t be anytime soon for sure. Do I recommend it? I’ll cautiously say yes. It’s very, very good. As Neil Gaiman said, “The best SF novel of the last century.” I’m not willing to go that far.

My main reservation is that you’ll certainly struggle at points, and you might be disappointed that everything changes at the end, requiring another reading. On the other hand, if you want to sink a few years of your life into discovering the hidden depths of an excellently written book, this is probably your best bet (seriously, peruse urth.net for a half hour to see the truth of this).



Everyone Should Write a Romance Novel Once

When I say “everyone” should write a romance, I mean everyone who wants to write in some genre whether it be literary or sci-fi or otherwise. I’ll start with the obvious: most novels have some sort of romance subplot in them. It’s always a good idea to do focused practice to get better at something. How many times have you cringed at the romance subplot of an otherwise good novel? Probably more than once.

But there are some less obvious reasons to do this exercise (and no, it doesn’t have to be a full novel or even good). I, and many other writers, get caught up in certain aspects of the craft. I tend to over-analyze and polish prose, as can be seen with the several dozen posts I’ve done here only looking at prose style. I’m also into plot, and I think most writers start a project because they are excited about a plot idea.

Now you might be thinking: what else is there? Exactly. That’s why you need this exercise. Romance novels almost universally ignore both prose style and plot. I know I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but just go look at the top few romances on Amazon. Browse the first few pages for free. The number 1 book for months and months has been Everything We Keep. The prose is almost laugh-out-loud funny, so clearly readers of the genre don’t care about that stuff.

This means you’ll be free to focus on other aspects of writing that often get ignored. The thing romance does well is create memorable, interesting characters. You’ll need to focus on characterization a lot.

Dialogue is very important as well. The dialogue should create tension and chemistry between the characters. Dialogue has to push the story forward by constantly revealing things. You can’t have a bunch of stiff “shoe leather” dialogue about the weather and small talk and greetings (unless its a historical where that type of thing might reveal status).

Lastly, setting description will be important. Romance readers want to be transported somewhere. This is a common focus of many other genres as well, but it’s one of the reasons so many romances take place in the lush countryside of Ireland or some Duke’s castle.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to write your romance. You are not to focus on plot. This has been predetermined. Pull up a random word generator. Here’s your plot. Answer the following questions using the random words. I’ll give sample answers.

How do they meet? Ans: “Dove”

Opening scene: They are both walking in a park and they stop on opposite sides of a pond to watch a dove. The dove flies off and poops on male lead. The female lead laughs. They meet eyes. He storms off.

Why can’t they be together? Ans: “Advocate” re-roll “Crop” So advocate for farming rights?

Male lead is a lobbyist for Monsanto-like corporation. Female lead is an activist against his company.

Next set of scenes: They meet at some high roller D.C. party, and she has infiltrated it with an attempt to wreck chaos as a form of protest. Right before she does it, they meet eyes across the room. He goes up and confronts her about laughing at him. Chemistry ensues. Early signs of love. Then she does her protest, and they realize they can’t be together.

They keep meeting up, falling more and more in love. They try to make it work despite their differences. There will be a sex scene or at least a kiss depending on how graphic you go. Eventually something so bad must happen that it seems they won’t be together.

You can use another random word here, or just tie it to what you have. Probably here it would be something like female lead makes male lead promise he won’t cross the line with some legislation. He promises, but gets caught in a no-win situation and crosses that line. She finds out and breaks it off. A scene or two of wallowing ensues.

Then there needs to be a proof of love scene. Here it’s easy. Male lead devises a way to kill the legislation, but it costs him his job. But that’s okay. Female lead is worth it. They live happily ever after. I know. This sounds suspiciously like The American President, but I swear those were my random words. And if you break down any romance, you’re going to find the same outline.

To recap, the form is easy. The leads meet. Only after some serious chemistry do they find a difficulty with their relationship. They make it work for a time despite this. Then something bad happens, and they seem to be permanently broken up. But then one proves their love for the other by sacrificing something important. They live happily ever after.

At any point that you can’t figure out what to do, use the random word generator. Throw some twists in with it. Do not, under any circumstances, spend a ton of time on the plot or prose. Get the characters and chemistry and dialogue and setting right. You’ll want to throw in a few side characters as well. Figure out their personalities with your word generator.

Side character 1: “Shark” So female lead has friend obsessed with sharks, maybe so much so that it offers comic relief. They sometimes protest together certain environmental causes, and this is how they met.

Side character 2: “Drunken” Male lead has alcoholic best friend. We see some of male lead’s redeeming qualities that female lead doesn’t see when he helps this friend in a scene.

I’ll end by reiterating that I do not believe this is how all romances are written. I’m not trying to make fun of them by doing this. The point is to forget about plot and prose as an exercise in generating interesting characters with chemistry and strong dialogue. So often these things get overlooked in other genres.

Also, it’s an exercise. Please do not publish this under any circumstances unless you take the time to make it good. The Amazon self-publishing scene is flooded enough with weak novels as it is.


Why Would Wolfe Choose a Torturer in New Sun?

Sorry for the extremely weird question in the title. Gene Wolfe’s most famous work is The Book of the New Sun. It is four novels long and follows Severian, a torturer. I’ve been reading the first one in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer.

This post is mostly going to be uninformed musings. I have not read the series before, so I don’t know the later events. I have not delved very deeply into the first novel either (there are people who have devoted a huge amount of scholarship to these books). I wanted to read them with as few spoilers as possible.

But I do know that the most accepted interpretation of the series has Severian as a Christ figure. In fact, I’ve heard it’s supposed to be a straight up retelling of the life of Jesus. This post lists some early ideas I have for why Wolfe would choose a torturer to play this role.

The premise of the book is that Severian feels sympathy for a woman who has been sentenced to be tortured. He gives her a knife to commit suicide so that she is spared the torture. It is portrayed as an act of compassion, but the fact remains that this is very disturbing. The Christ figure enables a woman to kill herself.

It is well-known that Wolfe is a devout Christian. He also writes with meticulous attention to detail. So we can automatically rule out the laziest idea that this is some blasphemous retelling of the Gospels. Severian is not a torturer in order to put out some anti-Christian story. The profession of torturer was chosen for a reason.

The following ideas are being recorded for my own general purpose. I’m mostly curious how my views on this aspect of the book will change as I read more of the story.

Idea 1: The first, somewhat shocking, thing I noticed was that the Guild of Torturers had the official name: Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. This is quite suggestive. Not only did early Christians consider themselves seekers of truth, they sought to convert people by having them repent of their sins. Despite their actions being antithetical to Christianity, the name of the order is highly suggestive of early Christianity. The society at large hates the torturers (obviously), and this is also in line with how broader society viewed early Christian sects.

Idea 2: In Luke, Jesus appears to be aware of the torture he must undergo when going to his own crucifixion. One reason Wolfe might have chosen a torturer for the protagonist is that when Severian defies the order he is a part of, he does so fully knowing what his punishment will be. He goes through with his act of compassion despite this, which makes Severian’s act more humane.

Idea 3: I don’t want to put in spoilers, so I’ll just say that being part of the order of torturers gives Wolfe a plausible way for Severian to “perform miracles” similar to a certain miracle Jesus performs. Although, it does require a certain tool that I’m not sure I fully understand the symbolism of yet.

Idea 4: Wolfe might have wanted to create moral ambiguity and raise tough questions about the morality of torture and death. This strikes me as not the full story. I can see this being part of the reason, but I really believe he could have done this with any number of professions for Severian.


Best Books I Read in 2016

I’ve finally finished my “book a week” challenge (meaning I’ve read, rated, and reviewed 52 books for the year). I actually read quite a few more than that but didn’t mark them down (on my Shannara binge, I was getting through them every 2-3 days).

This year I went through audiobooks more than any year in the past. My guess is they still made up less than half the books I read, but it’s close. I don’t know if I have relevant commentary on what this means. I still like reading actual books a lot more than listening, but if I’m out on a two-hour run, it feels wasteful to not put one on.

I rated ten of the books five stars. I thought I would only choose from this list, but I’ve now noticed some of the ones I hoped to talk about didn’t make this cut.


Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Wow. I somehow went 27 years of my life without reading Atwood. This is my third book in three years. She is consistently one of the most original writers of our time. It is almost painful to realize this, because I only notice it as I’m reading her. So much of SF consists of doing a slight variant on the Hero’s Journey. She never stoops to this trope.

Atwood is like if Pynchon wrote an SF character study. The way this story gets told is a fascinating and delicate thing. There almost isn’t a story. She creates a magnificent world, rich in detail, and deep, believable characters. The story is an emergent property of these elements. It is such a breath of fresh air to have story subordinate to these elements rather than the other way around.

I’m not sure what my favorite Atwood is, because they are all so good and different. But it might be this one. Be warned, though, this novel is quite graphic and disturbing in parts. She hits the horror of a post-apocalyptic more than any other book I know.

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Somehow there seems to be this swath of British novellas that pack more story and emotion into 150 pages than Americans can do in 500. Now that I’ve decided to do “The Year of Short Fiction” next year, I kind of wish I hadn’t found this until then.

The voice in this story is so compelling, I often looked up from the page confused that I wasn’t chatting with a longtime friend recounting some stories of his life I had missed.

This is a deep meditation on some facts we often want to forget. One: Life breezes by too quickly (which makes this short form such a great choice). Two: Little things we do that we don’t think of as mattering can be all-consuming wreckage for another life.

I’ll leave it at that.

2666 – Roberto Bolano

What can one even say about this book. I wrote a whole post on it here. Even that cannot summarize the artistic masterpiece that is this book.



Blue Nights – Joan Didion

I’ve read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking several times. I had no idea, until recently, that she covered some of the same material in this newer book.

Didion is probably the best “creative nonfiction” writer out there. She meshes sterile facts with personal anecdote with repetitious use of poetic language to bring about real emotional depth to this tragic part of her life.

Galileo’s Middle Finger – Alice Dreger

This is probably one of the most important books of the year. It does a great job documenting the details of how highly-educated, social-justice motivated scientists can spin and falsify data to serve a narrative that isn’t necessarily the Truth. It shows how activists can malign and slander researchers who do controversial research (a fact we’ve already seen many times in the now infamous Twitter hate mobs that ruin ordinary people’s lives).

This book is truly terrifying. It reminds us that we live in a dangerous time. Lay people don’t have the time or resources to hunt through complicated, technical journal articles to see if there are problems. Working researchers have their own research to conduct, so they can’t do it either. But we need people in academia devoted to the pursuit of truth to keep vetting.

One of the scariest stories in this book showed how a biased researcher could get an error-ridden article published in a peer-reviewed journal because the editor and reviewer all had factors motivating them to publish it. Then the media and general public could point to this to make their case. Someone trying to explain how it got published would come off as a science-denying conspiracy theorist. So what is one to do?

This is a real problem, and the book only scratches the surface in laying foundations for minimizing this social justice skewing of science. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The activists have to realize that their activism is best served with truth. Faking it will only get people hurt, no matter how well-intentioned the motive.



A Doubter’s Almanac – Ethan Canin

I’ve been a long-time fan of Canin. Carry Me Across the Water and For Kings and Planets are both exquisite. I thought America, America had lost something in both style and substance. This novel continues on the same trajectory.

The first three-fourths had a flatness to it that his earlier novels didn’t have. His usual style is rich and complex and enhances the ordinary tragic experiences of people trying to live their lives.

The first part of the novel really gets what it is like to do high-level math in a way that no other novel has captured. At the same time, it relies on a tired trope: the mad genius with messed up social awareness. I couldn’t help but cringe when these stereotypes came forward.

Going into the last 100 pages or so, I was still on the fence about how much I liked it. I won’t give anything away, but the end is well worth getting to. He returns to his older, stylistic prose and delivers a stunning conclusion through poetic language and a brilliant shift in structure. This may not be my favorite Canin, but it is still the best novel I read published in 2016 and worth the time.


Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.


Year of Giant Novels Part 8: The Eye of the World

This is probably my last giant novel for the year. I really wanted to do something complicated and serious like Gaddis’ JR, but it was getting kind of annoying to find a reasonable copy. Anyway, I already covered the epic fantasy giant novel, so this will cover a lot of the same stuff.

I think I read at least part of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World around fifteen years ago, but I recalled none of it at the time of starting it this time. I’ll tread lightly, because I know a lot of people really love this series, and despite how this post comes across, I didn’t hate the book.

I’d probably never recommend it, but I don’t regret reading it. There were a lot of “problems,” but none were major. I’m going to tear into the details, because that’s how we discover what works in our own styles. That’s how we get better at writing. But these are mostly style things, and if I had read the book shifted by six months either direction, I might not have seen these as problems.

The structure of the novel is pretty simple. The main character’s village is attacked. This causes a group of people to be on the run from these enemies. They stop at villages on the way, and inevitably something always comes up to force them to run again. Travel – village – travel – village – etc.

On the one hand, it’s a clear Hero’s Journey narrative, but it’s also a travel narrative. These are both perfectly fine choices in general, but something was off in the execution. It took me a long time to figure it out. It lacked direction and positive motivation.

In the Hero’s Journey, the hero is called to action to go defeat the evil. There is motivation. We understand his/her progress in terms of this motivation. I didn’t see any of this in TEOTW. The hero was never called to action. In fact, it isn’t even clear who the hero is, because the bad guy can’t seem to figure out which is the chosen one.

All the heroes do is run away. This is negative motivation. They continually thwart the bad guys from achieving their goals, but they don’t seem to have independent goals of their own. This means the reader has no idea if they’re making progress.

Ah. I hear the retort already. The sense of progress in a travel narrative is if they’re getting closer to their destination. This also fails. Where are they headed? I have no idea. I don’t think I missed this, but it’s entirely possible I did.

At one point, I thought their goal was maybe Tar Valon so Egwene could start her Aes Sedai training, but then they arrived at Caemlyn and I started to think maybe their goal was to get to the false dragon there. As it turns out, neither of there end up being their destination, and it’s not clear to me the characters even knew where they were headed.

This might seem like nitpicking, but without goals or positive motivation, I found the story stagnant. I had a hard time picking the book up to keep reading. If the goal was to defeat the main villain, this could have been more clear. The main villain doesn’t even appear until the last 50 pages (out of 800+). It came out of nowhere. I sort of assumed he would remain this mysterious background force for the next 10 books in the series.

My next complaint has to do with stakes. I never felt like the characters were in any real danger. This has to do with how the book opens. The Aes Sedai easily handles the Trolloc attack on the village single handed. So later, no matter how many times she says they are in danger, it’s hard to take her seriously. I kept thinking: Eh, if it came down to it, she could use those same powers to save them again. Actions speak louder than words.

This is one of those things that’s mostly a product of its time. Fantasy has been worked out and studied a lot since 1990. Writers now know that it’s more important for the reader to understand the limitations than the power of the magic system. Also, instead of continuing to be chased by Trollocs for 75% of the book, throwing something in to raise the stakes would have added the uncertainty needed for a real threat.

There are a lot of “obligatory” scenes that would have helped out here. There’s a reason Gandalf “dies” in The Lord of the Rings. The stakes get raised when the most powerful person can’t keep bailing you out. There’s also the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene where the reader must fully believe it’s all over. The villain could end it all with no problem. The hero narrowly escapes due to a surprising (yet believable) ingenuity.

Those are the two main flaws of the book: lack of positive motivation and the stakes didn’t continually rise to create tension. As with most giant novels I’ve read this year, I think it’s too long. Trimming this by 10% might remove both of these problems. When a book feels stagnant, increasing the pace by trimming the length can do a lot to help.

The real test is if I’ll keep reading the series. I think I’ll at least give the second book a chance, because I have no idea how it will continue from here.


Literature, Genre Fiction, Pulp, &c.

I’ve been working my way through Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I have this really bad habit of reading negative reviews on Goodreads while reading a book. If I love the book, I can make fun of the idiots who “cant even right gud.” If I hate the book, I can commiserate with the brilliant like-minds who saw through the crap. The negative reviews of this novel got me thinking about a few things related to genre.

Some people claim all the 80’s geek and pop culture references make this a trashy genre novel. Some say it even stoops to pulp fiction levels. Some call it nostalgia. I want to first show why this isn’t a good argument, but then I want to try to clarify how I define these different types of books.

We start with the excessive references. I don’t think Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow would be considered genre fiction or pulp by anyone. It is a monster of literary fiction if there ever was one, but the novel is full of pop culture references (from a specific period). The purpose there is not nostalgia or to make it “more entertaining” or whatever else the negative reviews think Cline is doing.

I’ll cover my bases here and say that I don’t think that Cline’s use of pop culture is the same in intent or effect as Pynchon, but the fact that such literature exists shows that one needs a more complete argument than the mere use of pop culture references. Is Infinite Jest genre or pulp fiction? What about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay? This technique has been used in literary fiction for a long time with great success.

To me, the term “genre fiction” merely refers to a novel that stays strictly within the accepted genre conventions. This means the plot follows a known formula. In modern days, the characters fit into a few tropes, and the tenor of the prose is pitched at a certain level.

This means that something like “romance” genre fiction could be extremely well-written and explore serious literary issues and be worth everyone’s time to read (I’m thinking of something like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady). Genre fiction doesn’t automatically mean pure fluff and vacuous entertainment; genre means it follows a formula, and these formulae have a lot of give to them.

I think a lot of people conflate genre fiction with pulp. Pulp fiction, as I see it, is pure fluff and entertainment. It is often poorly written, not as a matter of definition, but mostly because the authors of this style need to pop out a large number of words per month in order to make a living. Pulp is pretty much a subset of genre fiction, again, not as a matter of definition, but because it is easiest to write quickly if you follow a formula.

To recap, genre fiction can be literary, but it can also be pulp. Genre fiction doesn’t tell us much about the quality of writing or redeeming characteristics or depth or content. Someone could spend a life reading high-quality genre mysteries without encountering pulp.

And before continuing, I don’t want to place value judgment here. I’m not saying it’s “bad” to read pulp. You probably won’t contemplate your own mortality, but escapism is healthy in moderation. No one thinks working sixty hour weeks with no vacation is healthy. It’s sort of weird that people think reading only heavy literary fiction with no fun mixed in is healthy. So go relax with a fun novel every once in a while when you feel that urge to veg in front of the TV.

What I think I’m trying to say is that often times there is a ton of crossover between all of these things, and it isn’t easy to tell. The one certain takeaway is that pop culture references do not make something pulp. Pulp is pop culture but not the other way around. In fact, if there are lots of references, it is probably a metafictional device, and this pulls you clear out of pulp.

That being said, I think Ready Player One actually is pulp, because the references do seem to be purely nostalgic. The book has few themes, and all are thin, classic good/evil tropes. I’m not sure I can call it genre fiction, because I can’t pin a genre down. I guess it falls into dystopian fiction. I don’t often hear this referred to as a specific genre, but it clearly has a form: one person, in a horribly oppressive futuristic world, must fight through a series of trials to take down the oppressor.

This wasn’t meant as a book review, but I’ll end by saying Ready Player One is pure entertainment through and through, and it really works at this level. I don’t recall the last book I enjoyed this much. It is so much fun for people around my age who grew up the geek. I highly recommend it if that sounds interesting, but don’t expect anything deep to come from it or you might be leaving one of those one star reviews.


Examining Pro’s Prose Part 8

Today we’ll look at some prose from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t put this off forever; any series about prose would be remiss to skip Fitzgerald.

Many writers these days pop out 120,000 word novels every year. The Great Gatsby clocks in at about 47,000 words and was finely tuned over three years. This careful attention to prose is exactly the type of thing we should be looking at in this series of posts.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m pretty sure I read this book in high school, maybe 14 or 15 years ago. I may have just studied some plot summary handout, though. In the years since then, I’ve attempted to read it maybe five more times. I’ve failed every single time. Something clicked this last attempt, and I thought the book was brilliant.

This book is hard! It’s shocking that this is a standard for high school students. Structurally, it jumps around a lot. It is half the length of a standard novel yet has twice as many main characters. Nick, Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, Jordan, plus several other minor characters all have fully realized backstories, personalities, and relationships with each other.

The way Fitzgerald achieves this is with extraordinarily economic prose. Pretty much everything in the novel serves two or three functions (as we’ll get to shortly). The point of view is brilliantly chosen. The narrator is telling of events that happened in his past. This gives an intimacy from the narrator being there and knowing the characters, while at the same time serves a distancing function.

I wish this “partially involved narrator” was used more. It was quite refreshing. The narrator also served to complicate the structure, because we hear the events as Nick learned of them, rather than chronologically. The shaky timeline serves a dual purpose: it reiterates that this is all in Nick’s memory, and it heightens the sense that Gatsby is running out of time.

Let’s get to the prose. Here is an early description passage of a place between Long Island and New York City. This place has huge significance in the later parts of the novel.

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through powdery air.

It starts with a simple declaration to give the reader a picture then em dashes to more detail. It starts a metaphor: it isn’t just a valley but a farm for ashes. This makes sense, because the town is industrial and produces the ash. We immediately get a simile that the ash grows like wheat, staying consistent with the farm metaphor.

The picture is brilliant. We can almost feel it growing and covering everything. We get a few details, but these details are enough to paint a huge picture: ridges, hills, grotesque gardens, houses, and chimneys.

The sentence closes with a description of the people. The phrase “transcendent effort” here is so unique and unexpected. It creates a sense that these people require great will just to move in this oppressive ash. How do the men move? “Dimly” and “crumbling” evoke both the mood of the town but also keeps the description consistent with ash, which is also dim and crumbling.

In one sentence, Fitzgerald gave us all the description of the town we would need for the whole book. He achieved this through consistency in his metaphor but also making the different parts of the description reinforce each other. He used adjectives that did work for both physical description as well as mood.

Lastly, the sentence itself has a type of melancholy to it through its pacing and length. By chaining together those “ands” between the commas, the cadence gets drawn out. It plods along, almost losing you as it does it. The reader drowns in the description like the people in the town are drowning in the ash.

Sentences like these don’t come on accident. It reads like almost careless, effortless writing, but on close examination like this, we can tell how much work actually went into it. Almost the whole novel is like this somehow!

Let’s do some more:

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

I chose this one, because I wanted to reiterate a point from the first one. “He came alive to me” is a simple declaration. The sentence could have ended there, but this would be the type of laziness that pervades less professional writing. If you’re just going to tell the reader something like this, you may as well not include it.

So the elaboration is the interesting part. He again chooses a metaphor: delivered from a womb. This is the point I wanted to emphasize. This consistency in metaphor is one the annoying things I find when critiquing new writers.

Maybe they strike upon some surprising idea like “womb of his purposeless splendor” (though I doubt it). How do you work it in? Tons of ideas might come to mind like “arrived from the womb” and so on. But of course, one has to look to the previous part of the sentence.

We have the phrase “to me.” Babies are “delivered” to people from wombs, so to stay consistent, this is almost the only choice. It is at this point that babies first cry and “come alive” (I am not making any sort of political statement here). The whole thing works as one consistent unit to both elaborate on the coming alive, reinforcing the metaphor, and having dual meanings.

Then there is the last part of the sentence: womb of his purposeless splendor. As in the first example, this is such a striking and unexpected phrase. Gatsby has been living in a womb of sorts, hiding away in his giant house without purpose, but it is certainly magnificent. Somehow those few words capture all of this. Now he is emerging from it and will have a purpose. It is, in fact, this very scene where Gatsby first reveals the purpose of everything.

We could go on like this all day. Notice we’ve only looked at two sentences. I guarantee that if you open the book to any random spot and find a single sentence, you’ll be able to keep doing this. The book is so tightly constructed that it boggles the mind.