Just My Opinion : Words of Radiance & Oathbringer

So I’ve binged my way through both of The Way of Kings‘s sequels.

…and I kind of stand by my assessment. Don’t take the binging as an indication that the books are amazing: they’re good, but probably could have been a hundred pages shorter on average. I’ve been looking for a decent fantasy fix for a while, and it scratches that itch – but it’s not as good as any of several fantasy series.

The excessively detailed worldbuilding has a certain payoff, I’ll freely admit that. The problem isn’t that it exists, it’s that it’s too much (and IMO, in books 2 and 3 it gets downright fillery. Sure, the fauna and flora is superweird. Don’t need to explain it sixty-eight times.

I also stand by my initial thoughts on the flashback conceit – in fact, it’s probably even more of a weak point in book two and three. The backstory we get in book two weakens the character, burying an interesting concept in overwrought drama. As to book three, it probably has the most appropriate flashbacks, but again it’s probably a chapter or five too exhaustive.

So, my verdict so far: worth a read, but it’s not Sanderson’s best.

Just My Opinion: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is the first book in a “gigantic pile of doorstoppers” fantasy series. Which is kind of strange because Sanderson tends to be a more concise, efficient writer.

Then again, I want to try new things as a writer, so I shouldn’t complain when somebody else does.

First, let’s be clear: I enjoyed the book overall, enough to get started on the sequel right away.

But it’s way too long for its content. At first, I thought it was an editing problem, but it’s actually something more insidious: it’s an overload of characterization and worldbuilding.

Let’s tackle worldbuilding first: Sanderson sets his novel in a fantasy world that is significantly alien. The flora is weird. Animals are mostly crustaceans. Massive, regularly scheduled superstorms rip across the countryside. And so on and so forth. All of that needs to be described, but Sanderson deliberately avoids infodumps and so he constantly injects small bits of data in the text.

It reads well, but it adds up (to much more than the equivalent infodump would be.) And so far, the relevancy of a lot of the alienness isn’t really relevant. It’s extremely consistent (how would life survive the constant superstorms if it hadn’t evolved specifically for that?) but it does have a disproportionate effect on the length of the novel.

In itself, it’s not too bad. If it was the only issue, I’d be willing to dismiss the criticism. But combined by the overcharacterization… it really does push the novel beyond the wordcount the plot justifies.

Sanderson’s significant character count is relatively low for a novel of this page count. We’re looking at four main point-of-view characters, a few secondary-but-important characters, and maybe ten or so supporting characters. We get more than enough characterization for each of them… and then there’s the flashbacks.

We get the excruciatingly detailed backstory of one of the main characters (judging from book 2, each of the main characters will get their flashbacks throughout the series.) That’s chapter after chapter of background info on one character… which ends up justifying a basic character trait (and a few relationships.)

It’s all relevant information… that would have justified maybe a quarter of the words used to convey it.

The worldbuilding was a bit too much, but it’s within the bounds of discutability. The characterization is just excessive.

The book is still good, and worth reading (particularly if you have a hankering for fantasy.) But it’s also a good example of overwriting stuff. Thankfully, that’s not one of my weaknesses as a writer.


Just My Opinion: The Prince

Machiavelli’s The Prince is one of the seminal works of political theory. I’m eminently unqualified to discuss its importance, apart to mention that it’s honestly worth a read, because it’s ultimately not full of the malevolence and manipulative behaviour the term “Machiavellian” implies nowadays.

In addition, since it’s non-fiction, there aren’t that many lessons I can personnally glean from it for my own writing. But still… writing is writing.

First, some caveats: I don’t read Italian, so I had to read a translation. Which means a lot of the literary flair, for lack of a better word, of the work was lost on me.

I’m also not a history scholar, and the version I read was a bit sparse on annotations and explanations (I’m currently reading a much more detailed analysis of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and it helps a lot.)

That said…

I think that as a literary work, The Prince is a bit too flowery for the content. In other word, there’s a bit too much noise for the signal. In this case, it’s taking relatively simple concepts and discussing them in long-winded passages, with a couple of (often unnecessary) examples to illustrate them.

Now, I’m not saying scholarly works should be short. I’m saying that they should be right length (and one of the strength of The Prince is that it breaks down the art of governance into small, easily digestible chunks… so why bury the small chunks into long diatribes?)

That’s a good lesson to keep in mind for fiction… and one I think I should try to heed. It’s easy to run up a word count with chaff and flowery, adjective-laden language. And, unfortunately, some padding can be unavoidable because of the realities of publishing – if you need an 80,000 word text to be published in your genre, there’s no shame in padding your 78,465 manuscript with an otherwise useless description of a sunset.

But if you have a 24,000 words manuscript…. Maybe pitch it for short story collection instead of as a novel?

Reading Progress

I at least made some progress on the reading list for this year.

In no particular order, I’ve gone through:

Monster Hunter International: Urban (except not really) fantasy that’s almost on the military end of things. Not badly written, but didn’t hook me. Worth a look if you’re into high-gunfire stories.

In my case, it’s going onto the reference shelf for decently written firefights and action scenes.

The Crown Conspiracy: Straight fantasy. The characters felt interchangeable, the quest felt underwhelming, the world felt small. One of those “I’ll pull myself through it” books, but definitely not something I’d recommend.

Altered Carbon: well of course given the current hype I’d take a look. I’ve read the criticism that it was obviously written to be turned into a movie/series, and I can’t say I disagree. Still worth the read. From a writer’s perspective, there’s not much to learn from it: it’s a well-written (but not amazingly so) novel, built around very good ideas that I don’t see myself stealing.

As to right now: I’m going through The Prince, by Machiavelli. That’s worth a Just My Opinion post. I’ll also go through Sun Tzu’s The Art of War later this year. Beyond that, we’ll see.

Just my Opinion: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is another classic, albeit of a different style than Ulysses or Du côté de chez Swann.

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m not a romance fan, and Pride and Prejudice wasn’t going to change that.

It’s also lacking a certain something, and part of me can’t help but think it’s considered a classic by virtue of having been the fashionable novel at some point in time.

I mean, it’s well-written and I can absolutely see why it’s going to hook anyone wishing to fantasize about the Regency period. I also understand why it’s such great adaptation fodder.

But it’s just not on the level of Proust. It’s nowhere near. If I had to fit Pride and Prejudice in modern book categories, it’d fall squarely in the “commercial fiction” bracket. Maybe, on a good day, it’d be considered upmarket commercial.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It’s just not something I’d necessarily recommend as part of a “become a good writer” reading list, except for someone wanting to write Regency romance.

(As a pure entertainment vehicle, however, I imagine that it’s a great read for anyone who likes romance. )

But that’s enough Austen for me for the next few years, I think.

Just My Opinion: At the Sign of Triumph

I’m a huge David Weber fanboy.

Scratch that. I’m a huge fan of his Honor Harrington series, as well as of some of his other works.

The Safehold series, of which At the Sign of Triumph is part… not so much.

It’s well-written, but it really suffers from two major issues:

1-Unwarranted Doorstopper Syndrome. It’s, so far, nine big books long… for a series that could probably have been pared down to maybe six medium-sized books. The problem is that Weber really wants to give the readers at least a quick look at every major engagement in a world-spanning war. Which leads to a lot of awfully formulaic “Character X’s viewpoint of Battle Y, whose outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion.” That’s bad enough… but then there’s problem 2.

2-Tech-Driven Lack of Tension: The main conceit of the series is the rapid reintroduction of various bits and pieces of technology. The good guys benefit from that, while the bad guys are effectively opposing the introduction of that tech. Then to compound that, the main protagonist has indistinguishable-from-magic levels of tech available to her as well.

Which means that those near-identical battles? They’re almost always of the “bad guys show up, get curbstomped by whatever new toy the good guys have this week.”

I think Weber wanted to show the entirety of the conflict and the detail of the evolution of military tech… which is interesting from a very dry worldbuilding/world management perspective, but really makes most of the books in the series feel the same. And At the Sign of Triumph, despite being at least the end point of the first major arc of the series, doesn’t buck the thread.

There’s a supposedly big military conflict looming for most of the book – but it gets neutered by a simple intelligence ploy (in a series where the bad guys’ spies have been ridiculously ineffective from day one.) There’s one last series of naval battles which are just a victory lap for the good guys’ navy (because the naval war was conclusively won at least two or three books ago.) And ultimately the big bad gets taken down for the count in a handful of pages by minor characters, yet another application of magic tech, and a logical but utterly undramatic series of events… which coincidentally doesn’t resolve the core conflict of the book, so that another series taking place 25 years later can be written on the same premise.

So… not a recommendation, unless you have an enormous amount of free time available, or a passion for the nitty-gritty of Age of Sail/Early steam naval warfare.

Just My Opinion: Consider Phlebas

Well, it’s nice to be back to reading books of a level that I think I could emulate. Consider Phlebas is certainly a well-written book, but it’s no Swann’s Way.

That doesn’t mean it’s airport fiction. It’s classic science-fiction – don’t go in expecting a detailed description of the technology behind a Mark 7 Graviton Bomb, or painstakingly modeled battle tactics. It’s got its fair share of action scenes, but it is very much a “look at issues in our society through the lens of a sci-fi story.”

I have neither the inclination nor the space to go into a detailed look at the themes of the book. Suffice it to say that it’s an interesting take on religion, transhumanism, and cultural conflicts.

I’m more interested in the technical aspects of the book. It’s competently written, albeit relatively sparse on characterization. But it shines at worldbuilding. Consider Phlebas manages to create an especially interesting universe with comparatively little infodumping. Forget show-don’t-tell, Banks does a ton of work with imply-don’t-show. With a few ideas and a handful of lines of text, he conveys the incredibly diversity of cultures you’d find in a fully settled galaxy. And he manages to exposes the flaws of some of those cultures with a few extra paragraphs.

It’s not a book that I’d re-read for fun, but it’s one of those I’ll refer to if I ever need to create a galactic-sized setting. And for what it’s worth, it’s managed to get me to want to look at another Culture book, just to see where we go from there.

Just my Opinion: Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann)

Well, I’m through with the first book of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time.)

There’s really only one way to put this: if you want to be a novelist, you should probably learn French just so that you can read it in its original splendor. It’s that good.

I’m equally as unqualified to critique this novel as I was to critique Ulysses, but I certainly enjoyed Swann’s Way more, simply because it’s less of a challenge to parse. Ulysses is a book that shows you how masterful a work it is by challenging you at every word; by contrast, Swann’s Way  shows you its magnificence by being incredibly accessible in its treatment of very subtle themes.

For a would-be novelist, Swann’s Way is both a technical masterpiece to be studied and a fantastic lesson in eliciting emotion and feelings through writing. There’re no tricks at play there, either clever or cheap. It’s all about using exactly the right words, in exactly the right way, to convey a tapestry of information and sentiments to the reader.

Is it entertaining? Not for me. I enjoyed reading it, because I want to get better at writing. But the major themes don’t really interest me, and the contemplative nature of the work doesn’t lend itself to excitement and suspense. I will say that it’s now on my list of books to refer to when describing societies: Proust’s depiction of French aristocracy in the late 19th, early 20th century is flat out fantastic, even though it’s not the real focus of the novel.

Will I keep reading À la recherche du temps perdu? Hell yes. I will probably eventually re-read it too, once I’ve seen the entirety of the novel and can better understand how each volume fits it. But for now, let’s get back to lighter fare.

Just my Opinion: The Belisarius Series

I’ve re-read the first four volumes, and read the last two, of the Belisarius series, by Eric Flint and David Drake.

Overall, it’s an entertaining series. It covers a period of history and geographic locations that we don’t often get to see in movies or in book or TV series, and it manages to convey that feeling of authenticity you want from an historical novel without falling into the trap of endless descriptions or pontificating.

As alternate history, of course, we get a sci-fi veneer, but thankfully the authors manage to keep it fairly low-key. The focus is entirely on the in-period conflict; the bigger sci-fi framing story gets a few lines (if even that) in the first five books, and gets resolved almost as an afterthought in the epilogue of the sixth book.

Also… the series is blessedly short. Six short-to-medium novels, no dangling plot hooks, no unreasonable plot twists, and no long stretches of “well, here’s mildly interesting filler.” Sure, by the end of Book 4 you’re wondering how can the bad guys ever come back from the latest defeat… but unlike some other series I could name, by then we’re almost to the finish line.

And… this is the big one for me as a writer: the series ends well. Sure, it’s a happy ending, but what I mean is that the ending is well-paced, doesn’t invalidate the series conflict, but also doesn’t pretend that everything will be perfect forever afterward. It’s exactly the right amount of closure.

The series isn’t perfect. It overuses the same jokes over and over again. It doesn’t pretend the good guys are perfect, but the bad guys often fall into comic-book clichés or Chaotic Stupid behaviour. And there’s a distinct glint of plot armour on many of the main characters which got on my nerves at the end. Those are all small issues, however – the kind of thing I try to pay attention to, so that I don’t make the same mistakes in my writing.

But overall, it’s worth a read. Maybe not three or four re-reads, however.

And… that’s it for the Just my Opinion posts for a while. I’ve started on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is fantastic so far… but oh god it’s seven volumes long!


Just my Opinion: Yeruldelgger

Yeruldelgger is a relatively recent, prize-winning French crime novel (it’s still commercial fiction, but apparently a good example of the genre.)

Here’s a confession: I don’t really like crime novels. After reading a few, they all sort of start to feel the same to me. Some reveal their villains early, other go for a twist. Maybe the villain escapes or maybe he doesn’t, there’s usually an incompetent or corrupt policeman, and so on and so forth. Most crime novels remind me of the standalone episodes of crime procedural shows.

And at the end of the day, most try to distinguish themselves with a gimmick. Some go for the torture-porn angle, others shoot for improbable backstories for their protagonist.

Yeruldelgger is, unfortunately, no exception (except it double-dips the gimmick) Gimmick 1: it takes place in and around Ulan-Bator, Mongolia. Gimmick 2: the main character has an implausible backstory (including time spent in a monastery and the tragic loss of one of his daughter.)

If you can get past that (and I could) – the book is decently well-written. It avoids relying on Parisian slang, and it’s short on magical coincidences (even though it at first seems to fall into that trap at first.)

Verdict? Tolerable airplane reading material, increasing to straight good if you’re a crime book fan. It’s definitely not worth learning French to read that though, but since we’re going to take a look at Proust in the coming months maybe get started on that anyway.