Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

The 29th installment of my ongoing complete Discworld re-read.

Permit me a slightly fanciful new classification of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. There are novels that, it feels, he wrote because he needed to write a new book: books like The Last Continent, for example. There are novels that, it feels, he wrote because he had what he thought was a cool idea for a book, like Feet of Clay or Maskerade. There are novels that it feels as though he wrote because there was something he wanted to write about – Soul Music, for example, or Jingo. And then there are a small number of novels that, I can’t help but feel, he wrote because he was born to write them. The Colour of Magic, oddly, is one of those books – it may not be one of his best novels, but it’s one I can’t possibly imagine anybody else (or even the same author at any other time in his life) writing. Another is Small Gods, his widely-acknowledged magnum opus.

And a third is Night Watch. Continue reading

Beyond the Moons (Cloakmaster Cycle vol. 1), by David Cook

The great pulp fantasy era of the late 1980s and early 1990s produced some great novels. OK, no, it probably didn’t. But it did produce a few surprisingly good novels.

This is not one of them.

Then again, maybe that’s not the point. After all, this is Spelljammer. Being good is not the point. The point is being batshit insane…

 

For those not fully au fait with the world of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons circa 1990, Spelljammer was an innovative and unusual roleplaying game setting devised by the good people behind D&D (that is, TSR). TSR had spent the 1980s gradually developing D&D from nothing more than a game system into an entire multiverse of expensive rulebooks, campaign settings, boxed adventures, computer game adaptations, and novels. There were three major D&D settings at this time: the generic high-fantasy, high-magic Forgotten Realms (the sort of place where any plot could be set), the slightly more traditionally sword-and-sorcery Greyhawk (the FR/Greyhawk split was mostly political in origin: after the creator of both D&D and Greyhawk left the company, the company developed FR in response, but later decided to continue to placate the existing Greyhawk fanbase), and the more epic-oriented Dragonlance. TSR wanted to link these worlds more concretely. How could they do that?

Isn’t it obvious? By placing each of those worlds within giant crystal spheres floating in a sea of phlogiston, and then filling that sea with roving alien space-pirates. As you do. Now, all three of these older setting were fairly traditional European mediaeval fantasy worlds, and space pirates do not naturally fit alongside traditional European mediaeval fantasy worlds. This potential problem was dealt with in part by making the space pirates be a weird combination of science fiction and mediaeval fantasy tropes, a sort of retrofuturism before Steampunk became popular – or rather the opposite, a futurohistoricism, because these were mediaeval people (those who were people, that is, rather than, say, floating clusters of eyes, or tentacled brain-eaters) who just happened to be going around in space ships, with the emphasis on ‘ship’, as in big wooden things with sails, only sort of part giant space-fish and part submarine, or in the case of the eponymous ‘Spelljammer’ ship itself, a colossal outer-space manta ray several miles wide. It’s a kind of sailpunk-meets-Verne-with-a-hint-of-Lovecraft sort of thing.

Yeah, this was a strange idea they had. Popular fantasy was young back then, and people hadn’t learnt yet that they were only meant to be writing knights and princesses. So they wrote space manta ray spaceships, and space-empires of genocidal space-elves. [Spelljammer was only the beginning of a period of great experiment in D&D. It was followed by the Ravenloft gothic horror setting, the Dark Sun pseudo-post-apocalyptic pseudo-Mesopotamian desert draconic-godkings-and-telepathic-giant-insects setting, the ‘make all of the characters dragons’ Council of Wyrms setting, the ‘let’s make the characters be bloodthirsty tyrants controlling armies and negotiating political alliances’ setting of Birthright, and finally Spelljammer’s replacement as a metaworld, the downright peculiar bizarro-setting of Planescape, which I’m not even going to begin to describe; at the same time, Forgotten Realms, which had already had a pseudo-China added to its pseudo-Europe, gained new a pseudo-Mongolia, pseudo-Arabia, and pseudo-Mesoamerica. It was an exciting explosion of weirdness and diversity in the genre… and it made TSR bankrupt.]

Anyway, as with most of their big setting ideas, TSR decided that Spelljammer needed some novels. For TSR, of course, novels were not written to be good, per se, but to advertise the campaign settings, which made much more money than the books ever did. So, two years after the campaign setting was launched (and beaten to the punch by the setting’s comic book, published by DC), eager readers got this, Beyond the Moons.

Well, I say ‘eager’, but I’m guessing the reason these books were written was because not enough people were buying into the setting. And that explains why this Spelljammer book has remarkably little spelljammery stuff in it. Events are set not out in space, but in a very familiar location: Krynn, the world of the bestselling Dragonlance books. This is a book that intends to say: “hey, Dragonlance players, look at this new game!”

And you can’t deny that it does: the weirdness of Spelljammer quite literally crashes straight into the staid peasant farming communities of Dragonlance (just outside Kalaman, shortly after the events of the Legends trilogy, I think).

 

OK, you’re smelling a rat here, aren’t you? You’re wondering why I’m waffling on about the history of the setting, rather than talking about the book. Well… the book just isn’t all that interesting. I like it more for being a representative of Spelljammer than I do as a novel.

In fact, as a novel, Beyond the Moons has very little to recommend it. Shockingly little, in fact. After peasant farmer Teldin Moore encounters some people from a spelljammer ship, he embarks on a travelogue across Krynn. Then the book ends.

The problem, though, isn’t that the entire novel is a travelogue, it’s that it’s a travelogue without any descriptions of travel. Teldin crosses an entire continent, but if you didn’t look at the map you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d just popped over a mountain pass to the neighbouring town, and then sailed across a bay (and by the way, novel-writers, having a map that points out exactly when the interesting events of the plot will happen and what they are is… a bold move. It might work if the labels were sufficiently obscure, but when the label is ‘minotaur pirates attack’, it kind of detracts from the tension of the shipboard scenes…). There are a couple of ‘eye-level’ remarks, intended to juxtapose this ordinary peasant’s experience with the epic-level events we saw in the central Dragonlance cycle, but not very much, and nothing particular distinctive. So the novel is not successful as a tour of a fantasy world, even though that’s how the entire plot is structured. Well fair enough in a way – this is meant to be an introduction to Spelljammer, not to Dragonlance. But for some reason the Powers That Be decided to make the introduction to Spelljammer a novel with almost no Spelljammer in it. All we get is a brief glimpse of a ship, a semi-comic-relief giff travelling companion, and some villainous neogi.

The giff, for newcomers, are human-shaped hippopotamuses who form a highly regimented gun-obsessed warrior culture. The giff in this book is mildly amusing (even in a fantasy world, he has to be concealed (difficult when you’re a hippopotamus) or passed off as the hideously mutated semi-amnesiac victim of genetic experimentation, which I’ll admit got a smile out of me), but the fact it just took me two minutes to remember its name is not a great sign. The ‘so militaristic they have no identity beyond their place in the regiment and their battle honours’ trope is difficult to pull off if you want to actually have a compelling character rather than a cliché.

As for the neogi… well, D&D gave the world some fantastic villainous species. And also the neogi. There are features of the neogi that ought to make them creepy and weird – the ‘Great Old Master’ thing, for instance – but the diminutive little slave-masters are too much the embodiment of every cliché about evil and horror, and come off in practice too much like spoiled little brats – to really be effective. Then again, maybe I should be glad the novel doesn’t use illithids instead – I’d rather have a bad impression of some new guys (neogi basically don’t appear outside of Spelljammer) than of one of the classics.

Now, you could make a case for this book not being terrible. The fact that there is no plot can be waved away – this is book one of a series of five, and it may be better to see it as the first part of a book that has been unwisely split up and sold in parts even though those parts don’t make sense by themselves. Though this interpretation is admittedly somewhat dented by the fact that, in true TSR fashion, the instalments were handed out to completely different authors, so book two will have the same characters, the same ongoing plot, but a different writer (which may be a good thing…).

What the book does have is an impressively radical vision of the genre. The author clearly wanted to do something different, which mostly takes the form of setting up a lot of conventional cliché plot points, and then blowing them to smithereens. There is a very clear message: this isn’t anything you’ve seen before, this is Spelljammer. And when the plot demands that cliché is observed, it’s observed to a cliché-breaking success. This is strongest in the early chapters, which are genuinely shocking, even when read in 2015 – my reaction at the time was that the beginning of the book read like Little House on the Prairie meets Predator.

The thing is, though, that the author may have had bold ideas, but he didn’t actually have much in the way of writing ability. TSR had some good writers in its stable (for a relative value of ‘good’), but it also had a habit of getting D&D game designers to write novels, and that’s what’s happened here. I can see how these ideas could work as a campaign setting, or even how this might make a fun RPG adventure (and the author is the guy who wrote the Planescape Campaign Setting, so his heart is in the right place). But the writing is – while literate – uninspired at best and sometimes outright poor, certainly without the skill that would be necessary to overcoming the limitations of the book design. Instead, the writing amplifies all the faults, making it seem much more cliché and boring that it ought to be.

[And it falls victim to a couple of idiotic flaws of this kind of work. One – minor, sure, but irritating – is that a character is casually referred to by the narrator as the Cloakmaster. This is because this whole series is called the ‘Cloakmaster’ series. And we know who the Cloakmaster is because they’ve got a cloak. The problem is – other than the fact that ‘Cloakmaster’ is an unutterably stupid-sounding title – we don’t at this stage have any clue what’s so important about the cloak, why it might have a master, or why we might care, so calling them the Cloakmaster of the blue is just weird. It’s like seeing a man pick up a cup of coffee and walk toward you and saying “The Muglord is approaching!” – sure, once people learn that the Mug he has picked up is the sacred Mug of Ra, giving its user divine powers of mind-control but warping their very soul, calling the guy the Muglord makes sense. When, so far we know, he’s just some guy who happens to have picked up a slightly unusual mug and is otherwise going about their daily business, calling him The Muglord just makes people look at you funny. I spent a lot of this novel looking at the novel funny. And idiotic thing Number Two: half the characters have proper High Fantasy names, and the other half have modern American names (and no, it’s not based on class or culture or anything systematic like that, it’s just random). You can even see this in the name of the main character: Teldin (fantasy!) Moore (modern America!). It frustrates me because it’s so weird and suspension-breaking, yet could so easily be avoided. I’m not expecting a fully-worked-out fantasy language with a coherent naming system, I’m just asking you to not have a character called Telvar Shal and then have his parents be Liam and Eloise, I mean how difficult can that be?!?]

Ultimately, then, Beyond the Moons is a genre-bending, unexpected introduction to an interesting setting (one which, incidentally, continually blends the disturbingly dark with the irritatingly silly, in which regard this novel is fair reflection of the world…), hamstrung by being shit. Not even “it’s basically shit but it’s still fun!” but just shit.

 

Adrenaline: 2/5. To be fair, it felt shorter than it was. Chapter followed chapter in a fluent, easy-to-read way, and there were some entertaining set pieces. However, the lack of any feeling of stakes badly undermined this.

Emotion: 2/5. I’m knocking this up from a 1 just because a couple of bits are effectively horrible. But the author has to go full speed just to get any emotion out of me at all, because I don’t care about the characters and there are no real stakes outside of the early chapters.

Thought: 2/5. Giving it the benefit of the doubt, some setting ideas were actually intriguing.

Beauty: 2/5. The prose is ungainly.

Craft: 2/5. The prose, plot, and characterisation are all fairly bad. On the other hand, they’re not appallingly bad, and the author should get points for the way he subverts some expectations.

Endearingness: 2/5. The novel features tinker gnomes, who are hugely irritating but also inherently funny. Their presence was a big help in making sure I got through the later chapters of the book.

Originality: 3/5. A strange collision between hyper-conventional storytelling and world, and unexpected deviations from those conventions both in plot and in setting (the main character is a mediaeval peasant accompanied by a gunwielding space-hippopotamus while being pursued by a psychotic space-empire of genocidal spider-eels… come on, it should get points just for getting me to write that sentence…) – it’s like this book has no middle gears when it comes to originality!

Overall: 2/7. JUST PLAIN BAD. This one, for me, was right on the threshold between ‘bad’ and ‘bad but with redeeming features’, because I do like the element of weirdness, I do like the subversions of expectations, and I do like the fact that I didn’t find it a really hard read. But overall, to be honest… yeah, no, this is a bad book. It’s not an offensively, eye-meltingly bad book, but it is bad.

And I’m going to read the sequel. Although, admittedly, only because I happen to own it already. And because it has a totally different author, so who knows? And maybe the second Spelljammer novel will actually take place in the Spelljammer setting…

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

My complete re-read of the Discworld novels continues…

So, you’re a successful novelist, twenty four volumes into a series that has been hugely popular for over a decade. The main character arcs that have been driving the last ten or so novels seem to have come to their natural conclusions. So what do you do? Well, you take a sudden turn, introduce new characters and a new, more realistic atmosphere, kicking off a new era of your career. Hence The Truth. Surprising at the time, perhaps, but it makes sense in hindsight. Then what? Well naturally you decide to link together several parts of your world… in an illustrated novella? Bold choice: The Last Hero. Is now the time for something predictable, something safe?

No, now you go and write a children’s book.

It’s fashionable to call things like this “young adult” novels, but let’s not beat about the bush: this is Discworld for children, and it’s not ashamed to admit it. Continue reading

Looking for recent Fantasy/SF

So, if you’re reading this you probably know I’m a fantasy fan… sort of. Because the truth is, I haven’t actively been reading new fantasy novels since the early part of the last decade. Since then, I’ve been mostly re-reading books, following a couple of my favourite authors (Hobb, Martin, Pratchett have lasted the longest), and now and then catching up on something I might have read as a kid but never actually did [plus trying to catch up on some classic SF, and even some non-genre works].

And I’m not going to suddenly go back to being a huge pulp fantasy reader. Don’t have the time or the energy.

But there’s been a meme this week, ‘which popular series have you secretly not read?’ or the like… and I look at people’s answers, and not only have I not read any of these popular series, I haven’t even heard of most of them! And this has pushed me to a crisis (er… in the technical sense, not the melodramatic sense!) that I’ve been heading toward for a while now.

I need to go at least a little way toward actually catching up on some of what everybody else has been reading the last decade.

But since I’ve not been reading it, I don’t know what it is.

So. I’m going to buy some books. Does anybody have any suggestions as to what I should buy?

– should mostly be fantasy, or maybe approachable SF
– should have been written in the last 15 years or so
– not necessarily THE biggest series, but should be fairly well known (unless it’s really fantastic, of course!)- I’m not hugely interested in grimdark for the sake of grimdark, although I don’t mind some mature content in a good cause
– I’m not really interested in political screeds and gimmicky pointscoring, whether it’s from the ‘Left’ or from the ‘Right’. I don’t mind sincere ideological content under the skin of a book, but if its main attraction is it being politically ‘right on’ for some readers, it’ll probably irritate me.
– I like intellectual, artistic, unique books. On the other hand, I can also appreciate big dumb fun books. [what tends to irritate me is books that pretend to be intellectual, artistic and unique, while actually being commercial and simplistic]
– I can really love huge tomes. I love Hobb’s giant books, I really quite liked Martin’s latest even gianter book. I can love big series. On the other hand, I don’t have has much time or energy for this as I used to have, so a huge long book or a massive series is going to have to be really good to get me to stick with it. And ideally it should get good very quickly if it wants to hook me.
– In terms of subgenre, I’d really like to discover some new epic fantasy to get into. But I have eclectic tastes, and I’m will to try pretty much anything, even romance (I actually really like romance stories in theory… I just almost always find them infuriatingly awful in practice; by ‘awful’, I mostly mean too much inauthentic and overly-cliché angsting).
– oh, and at present I only read actual, physical books. Feel free to mention things only available digitally, since I do intend to move with the times eventually, but I’m mostly looking for actual paper things I can buy.

 

Three things NOT to recommend to me: Seraphina, which I’ve read (liked it, I’ll buy the sequel, but I didn’t love it); Gail Carriger and Joe Abercrombie – I’ve got copies of books by both of them, which I do intend to read, but haven’t gotten around to yet.

 

So, anyone got some good ideas for me? [Many thanks in advance for your help!]

The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett

The Last Hero isn’t particularly substantial – it’s little more than a short story, bulked out with lots of illustrations. It’s also not particularly new, as it revisits a lot of themes and characters from earlier Discworld novels.

It is, however, very good.

For such a short tale, it’s surprisingly clear-cut in its division between comedy and tragedy. The early part of the book is mostly an excuse for jokes… and they’re very good jokes. They suffer a bit from the artificiality of the set-up and a certain disjointedness of scenes, but they don’t feel like Pratchett is just throwing gags at the page, as he sometimes does, or like lazy attempts at broad humour to fill the word count and bring the punters in. No, it really feels as though these jokes – and the plot they set up – have been carefully crafted. This may be the successor to Eric, in the sense of being an illustrated novel, but where that earlier experiment seemed casual, off-the-cuff, this one seems very much planned and intended. Sculpted. Continue reading

Babel-17, by Samuel Delany

Babel-17 was published when the author had just turned 24. It was his seventh published novel. He wrote his first when he was 19, after dropping out of college after one semester, and he got it published thanks to the intervention of his wife at the time, who was an assistant editor. This should tell you three important things: first, that the author was clearly precociously talented and bursting with ideas; second, that as a married novelist at 19 the author was clearly in a great big hurry to be an adult; and, third, that as a 23-year-old who had been writing continuously since childhood, with growing financial and critical success, all through the age when other people might be attending university or starting a ‘real’ career, he still basically writes like a teenage boy.

Collectively, those three things are probably enough to sum up this novel.

Continue reading

Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my on-going complete Discworld re-read project

…I don’t know what to say about this one.

It’s a frustrating novel, this. For two thirds of the book, it is in many ways among Pratchett’s best. It’s funny, it’s very pacey, it’s weird, it’s interesting, it’s intellectual. Surprisingly intellectual – I couldn’t help noticing that some passages come very close in content to another book I’m reading at the moment, John Wisdom’s once-seminal (now largely forgotten) classic of Oxonian analytical philosophy, Other Minds (though this says as much about Wisdom as it does about Pratchett, I think). Continue reading