Monday, 24 September 2012

Overhaul

So, I'm going to be giving this space a bit of restructuring (or... destructuring) over the next few weeks. I keep two blogs, this one and the more subject-specific Rushlight List. I originally set this one aside for fantasy book reviews and the occasional piece of my own writing, and it'll continue to serve this purpose, but I've also decided to move in and make it my own personal blog. This effectively means that I may occasionally blog about stuff apart from fantasy books, like regular books and films and even - mon dieu! - life. There'll also be some cosmetic changes to make the place more bitternine (botaurine?) and generally a bit more professional.

I've just finished vol. 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire, having finally given up my 'have-to-be-the-first' pride and joined the masses. At this point I'm planning to review the series in one segmented post when I've caught up to the most recently published.

I'm rather less sure what to do about The Wheel of Time. The author died two books ago, the final volume is out this month, and I'm only up to vol. 9, with a good 5,000 pages still to go (and let's just take a moment to reflect on how this sentence could only apply to Robert Jordan's epic). Do I review the entire series, or knuckle down and review each book in turn? Well, I can say that it's not going to be the latter.

In fresher news, I started Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen recently; at some point I'll post a review of the first book, Gardens of the Moon. I'm looking forward to comparing three of epic fantasy's most interminable series; so far I've been very impressed by all three.

Currently I'm reading Great Expectations, in the hope that soon I might finally start to have a handle on classic literature. I've found I tend to read around the classics in a way that might be called Gummo Marx Syndrome - if I'm going to read a Brontë it has to be Anne; if someone tells me to read Jane Austen I'm more likely read Mansfield Park than Pride and Prejudice. With Dickens it was a struggle not to go off and find a copy of Edwin Drood, but this time I managed to restrain myself and to pick up one of his best known works. So far what I've heard about Dickens has been borne out: gifted but verbose, witty and observative but with no understanding whatsoever of women.

Writing goes slowly. I had a piece published online in Untold Method magazine ('Black Bells' in Issue 4: Infestation) and otherwise I'm feeling rather backed up. All ideas, but whenever I try to put them down in some semblance of order something doesn't quite click. Alas. These things come in waves, and, to quote the fabulous Varys of A Song of Ice and Fire, "Storms come and go, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling." Writing has always felt more like paddling than swimming to me, and as long as my head's above water I have no intention of stopping.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Glass Architect - Prologue


He stood silhouetted against a canvas of night, chin tilted towards the sky and the slender hook of white moon from which it hung. There was a myth among his people that truly momentous events took place only at full moon, but the Green Man had seen too much and lived too long to give credence to the mutterings of the ignorant. Change could come as suddenly and unpredictably as the wind, and he had not risen so far by bending with every fresh gust.
Rock beneath his bare feet. A balmy summer breeze rifling through his hair. It was the Solstice, and he had matters to attend to. With an agility belying his true age, he turned away from the sickle moon and leapt from the overhanging rock, arms spread wide like a bat taking wing. He fell perhaps twenty feet to land in light undergrowth, supple legs flexing, absorbing the force of the impact. Even so, it hurt. He had isolated himself for too long, and it was beginning to wear through to his bones.
A large wolf appeared at his side; a loner from the far reaches of the northern hinterland. During his centuries of roaming, the Green Man had picked up many such companions, discarding them as carelessly as cornhusks once they had served their purpose. But this fellow he rather liked; Uskar, he had named him; Laird of Night in an ancient and all-but-forgotten tongue. The wolf was more than a hound; he was his right hand, his enforcer. He possessed intelligence beyond his kin, and he knew the Green Man’s will and obeyed it without scruple.
The Green Man strode through brush that thickened rapidly to forest, Uskar at his heels. He stood a full seven feet tall, towering over most men, and covered the distance with unnatural speed. His features were hidden by a great mask, a mane of verdant foliage framing a fierce, grimacing face of russet. The eyeholes gave onto blackness as still and empty as millponds on a summer night, and the open mouth seemed frozen in a wordless bellow.
Just when it seemed that the woods could grow no thicker, he heard voices, saw firelight ahead of him. They had come, as he had known they would. As they always did. Uskar fell back into the shadows, and the Green Man proceeded towards the clearing alone. When he emerged from the trees, he was greeted by a complete hush. All eyes turned to him, and he gazed back at them silently, blank eyeholes boring into every face.
They were a ragged lot, the Crainn, but a swift headcount revealed that they had all come – chestnut, dogwood, yew; every one of them. That was important. On some years, a Crann or two had taken it upon themselves to revolt, and he needed cohesion now more than ever. One summer, albeit a summer so far back as to be beyond the memory of living man, three of them had joined themselves together in coalition against him. Against him. None of the three had lived to see the winter, and none since had dared to openly challenge his primacy. He doubted whether they even questioned it in whispers any more, but it paid to steer with a firm hand.
The Crainn had formed a circle, just inside the ring of standing stones which marked the edge of the clearing. All eyes were on him as he mounted the central stone, which served as both altar and dais. He turned slowly, a full circle, taking in every upturned countenance. Finally, when he was certain he had their rapt and undivided attention, he spoke. To the listeners gathered in the clearing, his voice seemed to shift the very earth beneath their feet; it rippled outwards, through the tangled brush and foliage and into the deep of the forest.
“Tonight, my children,” he intoned, speaking words as old and gnarled as the trees, “tonight, we hunt.”

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

An Interview with Ricardo Pinto

The Chosen
The Standing Dead
The Third God












It's not particularly often that a novice writer has the chance to interview one of their idols. Ricardo Pinto, author of the Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, may have yet to become a household name, but ever since I first picked up The Chosen in 2001 the series has been a firm favourite of mine.

The Stone Dance is a beautifully, painstakingly rendered fantasy, a feat of worldbuilding to easily rival Martin, Jordan and yes, even Tolkien, and, perhaps most importantly for me, a work of great emotional intelligence and empathy - traits which the vast majority of fantasy writing has sorely lacked. Pinto's writing is sublime, dreamlike and yet at times terribly visceral. For all its alienness, it's the most human fantasy I've ever read, and for that, ranks among the very best.

Ricardo was kind enough to give extensive answers to all of my questions, and so, without further ado, here they are in full.
First of all, you don’t identify yourself as a fantasy writer. This came as something of a surprise to me, as the Stone Dance is an example of painstaking world-building, a technique usually limited to sci-fi and fantasy as traditionally defined. Are you intending to move away from this in your next novel, or will you be reconstructing your historical setting in a similar style?
RP: Actually, I've put my historical fiction project aside for the moment, and am experimenting with a sci-fi project that is something like a John Wyndham.

On the issue of identification as a fantasy writer - I suppose I've somewhat mellowed on that point. Distance (from the Stone Dance) has changed my feeling about that... I generally dislike categories in creative work - it seems to have all to do with some kind of attempt to restrict and classify what - in my opinion - should be left to grow freely in whatever direction it wants to go. At the time I was writing the Stone Dance I was feeling smothered by the category 'fantasy fiction' because my work didn't feel as if it had much in common with much else in the 'genre'... If you had asked me this question then, I would have said something like: my books don't have the comfortable 'black hat/white hat' characters of fantasy fiction. Or: my books don't have any magic in them - so they're almost like historical fiction, except only that I've invented the culture and history I am describing... Now, however, I can't really see what I was getting so agitated about. Now, I have no problems with it being characterised as 'fantasy'.
The Stone Dance was for me much more than 'writing', but an act of self-therapy - thus, perhaps, some of the intensity with which I resisted it being restricted to a genre - it was in some way 'me' - and that restriction felt as if it was being applied to me... Don't get me wrong, I still dislike these genre categories - for one thing, I have desires to write in all kinds of genres, and this is something that the publishing world doesn't seem to like.
As to moving away from painstaking world-building - yes, I think I am. It's been a long time since I had anything published. In the interim I have been working on various projects: some fantasy/sci-fi, some not. The writing of the Stone Dance absorbed 10-12 years of my life - and has not been commercially that rewarding. To some extent, my obsession with 'getting everything' right - of continuing the narrative style I had begun with - has buried the books - they were simply delivered too late and too far apart from each other. I feel as if I no longer wish to dedicate so much time and so much effort to one project. For one thing: I don't have enough time left to live *grin* For another, I am no longer convinced that I am well suited to writing books of 300K words (the Stone Dance as a whole is 700K words?!) - because I am not a fast writer. But, beyond this, I feel now that the future is going to see a renaissance in the short form. One of the problems with working on a single project for a decade is that it forms a dam behind which countless ideas for other projects build up. I am now determined to try and find a way to realize as many of those ideas as I can. Thus I have been developing a much terser, leaner prose style - new ways of organizing and constructing my books - and a much lighter touch when it comes to worldbuilding.
What are your thoughts on the influence of other writers? Do you read more or less fiction while writing a novel, and how does that affect your writing?
RP: In truth, beyond my teens, I have read very little fiction. My influences when it comes to narratives and storytelling are far more influenced by film and tv... When it comes to reading: I read about world affairs and devour non-fiction.
However, I have recently been reading some fiction - because it has occurred to me that I may well have avoided some of the problems I encountered writing the Stone Dance if I had only known how other writers solve their writing problems... This said, it's a bit of a struggle - I prefer to generate all my work from 'inside me' - and so it has little reference to the 'outside world', and thus to other writers.
Are you able to trace your own influences at all? Have you ever consciously sought to emulate a specific writer or style?
RP: Nope. It seems to me that we swim in an ocean of cultural and art influences and that, more and more, the boundaries between 'genres' and between 'media' are being breached... Once all cultural products become digital objects, all of them delivered through the same devices (tablets for example), the boundary between what is a 'book' and what isn't, is going to begin to dissolve.
That's probably moving away from your question too much. My core belief is that I must constantly 'feed' my mind with all manner of stuff, that, once digested, will spontaneously generate my own work. The notion of emulating any other writer is entirely foreign to me... (perhaps to my disadvantage *wry grin*)
You probably get asked about this a lot, but your books have drawn some attention for having a gay protagonist. Some readers have been put off by this, while for others it’s been a positive draw. It seems as though homosexuality (at least, in fantasy literature) still raises discussion. How do you feel about this? Do you consider this a defining characteristic of your books? Did you ever consider exploring attitudes towards homosexuality in the world you had created?
RP: I don't feel that homosexuality is a defining characteristic of my books - not even the Stone Dance where the two main protagonists are 'gay' - though I'm not sure they would see each other as such - you may know that 'gayness' is a relatively modern social construct. I am myself gay and my first (proper) book was naturally going to be autobiographical (as I believe is the case for most first novels) and it would have been strange if I hadn't reflected myself in the books. This said, there are aspects of sexuality that I wanted to explore in the books - specifically the political issue of how women are treated by a culture. In the Stone Dance world, dominion by one person of another is the dominant theme... though, admittedly, I did wish to make the point that, in many pre-Christian societies, homosexuality was accepted as being just part of the spectrum of human sexuality - and the lack of investigation of it in the books - the acceptance of it with hardly a comment - is it's own political statement.
As for the reactions to this: one one level I expected them to be more intense; on another, I was a tad surprised by how 'conservative' so many readers of fantasy turned out to be - a strange paradox for me, since I would have thought that, in choosing to read something fantastical, a reader would be naturally open-minded. To go back to your earlier question about why I didn't want to have the books locked into the fantasy genre: this was one of the reasons - that fantasy seemed to be proving that anything too far away from the norm of the whiter than white heterosexual hero versus blacker than black villains - was not really accepted... I would imagine that, having a gay love story at the centre of the Stone Dance cost me a lot of sales... I naturally have always gravitated to the magician rather than the beefcake warrior who always defeats him - and so I was determined to try and overturn these cliches - not, of course, that I am saying that other writers weren't/aren't doing so too.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in writing a novel? The Stone Dance books are very long – what techniques did you employ to make the writing manageable for yourself?
RP: The biggest challenges with the Stone Dance books were their sheer size - both in words and in the time it took to write them. Everything stems from their size - thus my desire to move towards far briefer ways of realizing my ideas. Apart from all the massive commercial problems (I went way over all my deadlines - so much so that my German translator, Wolfgang Krege died  before he was able to translate The Third God - and this, and the late delivery, led to my German publishers not publishing the 3rd book. Something similar happened with Tor in the US - both a great disappointment to me), there were many others. For one, knowing the 2st book would be in print before I finished the 2nd; the 1st and 2nd before I finished the 3rd - imposed on me a heavy discipline to make sure everything made sense. Worse than that was that, over 10-12 years, one changes a lot - and I did - and so did my writing skill and technique - but I felt unable to apply any of this to the Stone Dance books because of my determination to keep them homogeneous in their style... perhaps this was a constraint that I should not have imposed on myself.
Without preempting too much what I want to say in answer to your next question, this made it essential to have a clear idea of the general shape of the book at an early stage. Further, knowing that, for example, certain aspects of the Osrakum landform were going to play a crucial part in the 3rd book - I had to expend much effort making sure that this would be consistent - so that, by the time I came to write the 3rd book, I would not be confronted by problems that, for their solution, would require substantial changes to be made in the previous books - impossible, of course, since these would already be published.

To address specific techniques: for one, I made sure that the Stone Dance world was 'real' - in the belief that, if it was 'real' then, like the real world, it would not suddenly come apart when two fanciful creations led to implications that led, eventually, to contradictions... I also had a very large body of notes - and needed to keep track of these with a master index - and this became crucial as I returned, often years later, to something that, otherwise, would have been hopelessly lost in my mass of notebooks.
Do you plan the structure of your novels from the outset? If so, how far do you take this? Did you write the entire Stone Dance in chronological order?
RP: Even if it had not been the case that the way the Stone Dance was written insisted on it being planned in advance, I naturally would have done so - that is the way I work. I have tried to work without such a master plan - but things quickly go awry. My books are not like water running down a river - rather they form a mechanism - the functioning of which depends on its many components meshing together with some precision. This may have something to do with confidence - a way of negotiating a way through the terror of the mass of blank pages. Aesthetically, it feels right to me: the Stone Dance is sort of fractal in its form - all kinds of aspects repeating themselves at different scales - both of time and space... I believe that this approach more closely mimics the 'reality' we inhabit - and so it creates a world that feels as 'real'... I could say a lot more about this - about, for example, how I believe that, for full immersion in an invented world, it must remain consistent - any consistency causing the 'dreamer to awake' and the illusion to be broken. However, with the Stone Dance as a result of my insecurities, and that I had come from designing 3D simulating computer games - I overdid it... If, like an architect, there was some wisdom in carefully measuring up the ground upon which I was going to build, the scaffolding was, in itself, far more massive than the thing being erected within its grip. The scaffolding itself took much more time than writing the book itself... I have been trying to develop a much lighter form of scaffolding - I call it 'silk scaffolding'.
On recent books, I have tried to keep the world creation far more closely aligned to the story I am writing. In contrast, the world creation for the Stone Dance was (is) complete enough to build a MMORPG... clearly = overkill! Also, not finding software that could help me at the time, for the Stone Dance I constructed a 'system' employing some of the more obscure features of Word. I have thankfully abandoned Word altogether and now use Scrivener and Tinderbox to construct much looser structures.
You stated in your SFF World interview that you once believed video games to be important to the future of storytelling, but have since turned your back on them “because I find their capacity for narrative sadly limited”. With the recent success of the Elder Scrolls series, many seem to be re-evaluating the video game as way of telling stories. Are you still involved in this world at all (even as a gamer)? Do you think there’s hope for video games yet? Do you still care, at this point?
RP: In 1983, when promoting a computer game I had recently designed and had programmed with some colleagues, I stated, in a magazine interview (perhaps a tad pretentiously)  that I thought that computer games would play the same role in 21st century that film played in the 20th... I still somewhat stand by that - but I have been disappointed. As in so much of the rest of our culture, we have focused on the 'easy' thing - the ever widening and increasing power of effects and graphical techniques at the expense of the 'core' - the storytelling... Most computer games I'm aware of are far more akin to sport than they are to film... it's all about performance... The key problem seems to be the failure of AI to appear as was expected by so many people - without it, the only way to have anything like another human in a computer game, is by having that character actually controlled by another human - the MMORPGs - but these - as so much else in our culture are collaborative affairs - not the product of a single mind that is the novel par excellence... Not that I have anything against collaborative works: I am currently engaged in a couple of graphic novel projects with an artist friend of mine - but the book is a uniquely individual pursuit - with all the failings and strengths that implies... I never really played games - even when I was designing them (in the same way that I don't really read fiction) - and have lost interest in them for the reasons I give above.
I think it goes without saying that I'm immensely grateful to Ricardo for taking the time to share all this.

Ricardo Pinto is originally from Portugal, but has lived most of his life in Scotland. He's currently working on several projects, including a sci-fi novel and novella, two graphic novels, and a historical novel set in ancient Persia. 

His website and blog can be found at: http://www.ricardopinto.com

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Green Child


The Green Child (1935) is Herbert Read's first and only novel, a fantasy based on an enduring legend. In the 12th century, two children - male and female - reportedly appeared in the Suffolk village of Woolpit, green-skinned and speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. While the boy died soon afterwards, the girl lived on, and was gradually integrated into village life. Read's tale takes this as its starting point (although he transposes the events to the early 19th century) hypothesising on the later life of the surviving child, before going on to invent a whole race of subterranean 'Green Children' whose worldview is based almost exclusively upon geology.

Woolpit sign depicting the Green Children
I was drawn to this book because of its mystical subject, its roots in English folklore, and the author's claim that the myth constitutes "the norm to which all types of fantasy should conform". This statement at once intrigued and irritated me - the idea that fantasy should conform to anything seems to me a contradiction in terms. I've always felt that fantasy should push boundaries and cross new frontiers, not continually look back at what has been. Still, I must admit I had high hopes for The Green Child. In Read, a contemporary of Mervyn Peake and H. P. Lovecraft, I hoped to uncover a forgotten gem of weird fiction. The reality was quite different, though no less weird.

The story should have baffled me, I suppose. It's hard to say. The bizarre overall structure gives the lie to Read's clarity of expression; you could open it on any page, read a couple of paragraphs, and conclude that it was a rather dull novel by a similarly dull, well-meaning man. And yet, read it in full, and you're left with a distinctly trippy aftertaste, which draws into doubt the author's true intentions. You know you've been taken to a strange place inside your own head, but you don't recall the journey; the fabric of reality has been stretched, but it has happened without your knowing.

It's difficult to catch Read in the act of distorting space-time. An obvious example would be the transition between the human world and that of the Green Child, which takes place at the close of the first section and the opening of the last. This is made particularly disorientating by the splicing in of a lengthy middle chapter, detailing at great length Olivero's rise to power as President of the fictional Republic of Roncador. This section would be unremarkable to anyone even vaguely well-versed in the history of nineteenth century uprisings - or rather, remarkable in that, for a novel, it presents so little of any novelty. While the first and last sections play fast and loose with the laws of physics, President Olivero's story is ruthlessly procedural.

Read's Green Children live in phosphorescent caverns, and have no concept of sky
The first section is without doubt the strongest, and will leave the reader hoping for a pastoral fantasy, with perhaps a bit of the old cross-species romance; hopes that remain unfulfilled. In the final chapter, the narrative ultimately becomes one of philosophical reflection on the nature of life and acceptance of death. These themes do not, at first glance, run through the entire story, and the reader walks away unsatisfied in every sense.

The real question I was left with was this: should I be drawn into the bottomless pit that seems to have consumed those few who have tried seriously to pick The Green Child apart? The shadow of genius looms over this novel to such a degree that I can't help but feel suspicious. It's easy to be an apologist for something that sets itself up to be deliberately obscure, but I'm not even certain that that is what was intended. Perhaps The Green Child was really just the result of poor planning - the fusion of several ideas that should each have been the subject of stories in their own right. This was, after all, Read's only novel; perhaps the weirdness, the incongruities that make this book so unique, are symptoms of his own inexperience.

The Green Children of Woolpit
This book, among other recent reads, has made me realise that I dislike the 'story within a story' trope in the vast majority of cases. Once you've built up your reader's interest in one plotline, it's something of a slap in the face to expect them to engage instantly with another, one that they are well aware will be intermittent and ultimately inconsequential. I'd almost be tempted to suggest that anyone interested in this book read only the first and third chapters, but as a fervent completist I can't condone that.

What are this book's implications for fantasy writing? Well, as far as influence goes, it's as dead as the Darling Downs Hopping Mouse. I still can't see how the story of the Green Children of Woolpit is "the norm to which all types of fantasy should conform", nor even what that myth has to do with his own novel. Still, I found that it rivalled Brian Aldiss's 'Hothouse' as a masterclass in portraying the alien uncomfortably close to ourselves. Most of all, I found the idea of a people who do not imagine the world as matter existing in space, but rather as finite pockets of space in a universe of infinite matter, both beautiful and thought-provoking.

Herbert Read (1893-1968)
Read The Green Child if you're looking for a short, insightful, and thoroughly unique human fable. Not suitable for epic fantasy, action, romance, realism, or history. This book seems determined to please just about nobody, and it was this, above all else, that made me warm to it.

★  ★  ★  ½

Whew. Check back soon for something more contemporary and hopefully a little less hardcore!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A Beginning

Welcome to the Bittern. I'm Michael, and I read and write fantasy, though I'm not even sure what that means, or whether it means anything at all. Because I'm escapist by nature, I read all stories with the hope of being taken to far-off worlds. Ah. That about covers it.

This blog is mainly for fiction reviews. I may occasionally post more general thoughts on writing, and some of my own fiction - we'll see how it goes. My reviews are geared specifically towards writers of the fantastical, but many of the stories reviewed won't fall comfortably within the fantasy genre, and some not at all. Genre fantasy still spends far too much time looking inward, re-hashing old themes and settings. Some are timeless; others are not. As I've said, I consider all fiction to be fantasy of sorts, and in writing about less obviously fantastical literature, certain common themes will surely re-surface.

Who am I to pass judgement on established writers? Well, I'm a highly critical reader who has been fascinated by stories since as long as I can remember. I'm also an active writer, and spend a great deal of time thinking about the intricacies of storytelling: structure, plot, character, pacing etc. Stories are for anyone and everyone, whether you're reading with a wide frame of reference or none at all. I'm approaching from somewhere in the middle.

I hope, down the line, people will have something to say about my reviews - I'm always interested in discussing, debating, and outright arguing over stories, and I'm also perfectly open to changing my opinion. For me, each story is a journey through new and unknown territory, and each person's experience is different and unique. I'd invite anyone treading similar paths to share their own.

Check back soon for my first review: The Green Child by Herbert Read.