The Nameless Horror

Reviews: THE DARK DEFILES and WINTER'S BONE

My God, it’s been nearly four months. I mean, I’ve been busy, but not that busy. Anyway, here’s some reading done.

The Dark Defiles (Richard Morgan)

The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles wraps up Richard Morgan’s trilogy of delightfully visceral fantasy novels that started with The Steel Remains. I loved that, really loved The Cold Commands and so the last was an easy Christmas present. It did take ages to read, but this was a combination of a pile of work, other things eating into my reading time, and the fact that this isn’t a short read; it can’t be much under 180k words if it’s not more.

The series’ strengths have always been its very grounded characters, its conflicted background (there are no all-out good guys here), and its punchy writing, and all of those are present and correct here too. The first is especially impressive given this is the culmination of a fairly epic fantasy tale, and even though the fate of the world hangs in the balance and Gil, Egar and Archeth have seen their fortunes rise and fall throughout, there’s no pomp or posturing here at all. Motivations remain base and human.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’d happily recommend it to anyone so long as they don’t mind a whole load of sex, violence and bad language (and I suspect I don’t know that many who do).

But, but. I had one quibble, and I think it’s one in some form or another others have had too: I wish it had been longer. The story ends where it does because Gil’s story ends there, and I get that and I get the intent to keep the epic stuff as backdrop in a sort of subversion of the norm. But the backdrop drives so much of the actual narrative that to leave all but one facet of it (the Aldrain) completely unresolved left it feeling incomplete, like there was a fourth book coming.

The whole reason the characters end up where they are at the end of the second book and the start of the third is that their Kiriath helmsman (a sort of AI, if you like) is trying to set those on the expedition up as a cabal to overthrow mad Emperor Jhiral and put Archeth on the throne so she can carry on the Kiriath mission of shepherding humanity (minor spoiler; this is revealed early). She refuses to have anything to do with it when she finds out, and by this point Jhiral has for some reason launched a war with the League causing them all sorts of problems, the fate of nations hanging in the balance, shaping their every choice and action… and the story ends with no one less than a thousand miles from home and everything still going on.

There’s all sorts of talk about how the church suppressed in The Cold Commands will use it to reestablish their importance and threaten this and that, talk about what it’ll do to the League, to Jhiral’s reputation and… you’ll have to fill all that in yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. I do wish those elements had either been reduced in terms of the space allocated or else tied off just a little more, but to be frank “I wish there’d been more” - and who ever asked for more political outcomes in their fantasy reading? - is scant complaint indeed. Thoroughly impressive.

Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell)

Winter’s Bone

I know, it’s a classic, I’m late to the party, blah blah blah. Still, I’ve now read it and you should too.

Winter’s Bone is about as opposite to The Dark Defiles in terms of its scale, size, and setting as it’s possible to get. It’s a short, sharp piece of work dealing with the fate of the Ozark family led by eldest daughter Ree Dolly after the disappearance of her court-bound meth cook father and the complex web of interconnected local family offshoots she has to deal with to get to the truth before she loses their house because her dad used it to pay his bond.

It’s pretty bleak stuff, dealing in rural poverty, family ties, and what it takes to get you through as much as it does (or more than it does, really; it’s all-consuming backdrop, but backdrop nonetheless) life in the meth business.

The writing’s superb, blisteringly cold and hard without veering into suffering porn territory. Things aren’t easy for the Dollys but it’s a life and it has high points as well as low. Ree’s extremely well drawn, as are most of the supporting cast, and the local landscape, the valley the Dollys and their relatives have lived in for generations is wonderfully realized. Bleak, then, without being grim or completely hopeless.

It’s also a fine example of a story told in part by omission, and without a final confrontation between two sides. While it’s the fate of Ree’s father that propels her, and (minor spoilers ahoy) it does indeed turn out he’s dead as she suspects for a reason that would give people motive, she never finds out, and you never find out, who killed him; Uncle Teardrop tells her he knows, and by inference he’s not expecting to be returning, one way or another, from dealing with that, but that event isn’t a part of Ree’s story.

Really good. Strong writing, strong voice, very human story. Loved it, and I’ll be reading more Woodrell.

Reviews: INTO THE WOODS and THREE USES OF THE KNIFE

The holidays are a time of year for gathering with family, huddling against the onset of winter, and apparently reading books about story structure, a subject which I’m well aware is 95% wank and largely instinctive anyway, but still something I find interesting.

Into The Woods (John Yorke)

The approach taken by former Life On Mars (and many others) writer, drama commissioning guy for C4, et al. John Yorke is a little different to many of his contemporaries in so much as he claims not to be pushing a particular structure (“3 acts or none!”, “Give me a Hero’s Journey or give me death!”, etc.) but looking at the root shape underlying most (Western; it’s never stated, because sadly it generally gets ignored, but there are other approaches elsewhere) storytelling through history, regardless of how it’s broken down, what type of story it is, or what medium it appears in. He also goes into the why of this shape (though at nothing like the length you’re led to believe; it’s the last 20 pages out of 230), what it says about/how it’s shaped by our psychology, and, interestingly, why it almost automatically dooms series writing with developing characters to around three outings at most.

On the way, he covers the evolution of the “standard” forms from Ancient Greece, the five-act theatrical standard and how that arose from candle length and audience comfort (the need, then, for regular breaks), then three-act and how that came with gas/electric light and better seating, via Campbell, Vogler, and all the exceptions and variances throughout.

As a writing manual, it’s good, particularly on the character side. I particularly like the emphasis on needing a good antagonist (in whichever form that comes), and why they need to be there. The difference in writing series characters - tinged slightly gratingly by unfortunate terms like “two-dimensional” and “genre writing” that aren’t actually as loaded in context but which I imagine would easily put people’s backs out - and the perils involved are also something I’ve not seen before in a book of this type. His history of screenwriting theory and trends is thorough and engaging (and, if you’re writing in the field today, necessary).

There are some quibbles. The required disclaimer, repeated on occasion, that there will always be exceptions to any rule makes the advice woollier than it might be, I’m not sure there isn’t a bunch of “A=B because B=A” reasoning in the psychology, whose heavy Jungian reliance I’m not sure is entirely advisable, and for all that he claims that all standard structures are merely ways of breaking apart the root story, he tends to outline everything in terms of five acts (which is fine, just seems a touch inconsistent).

All told, though, this is an engaging and thorough dissection of story craft that’s far broader, and thus more helpful, than many other attempts I’ve read.

Three Uses Of The Knife (David Mamet)

A reference in Into The Woods led me to this, Mamet’s short essay(s) from 1998 on what makes good drama (which, pro tip, isn’t available as an ebook in the UK so if you’re a Brit you may have to, uh, trick stores into thinking you’re in the US or get an American friend to pass it along minus DRM).

Mamet - it goes without saying - knows his stuff, and there’s some good material here. Not in terms of framing a story, but in terms of what drives audience interest in a scene or a character, and, again, the why of it (to the extent that some of Yorke’s book reads like a lengthening of what’s here).

It’s also wrapped up in a lot of politics (on which Mamet went on to write a separate book a couple of years ago) and railing against the rise of 700-channel TV culture (IIRC, likewise), and the somewhat scattershot structure means the whole thing reads like the recorded ramblings of your supremely talented but also deeply cranky playwright uncle after a couple of glasses of sherry.

That said, it’s worth reading. Not worth paying print prices for now - in hardcopy you’re looking at $20-30 for, ooh, probably 15k ish words, about half of which go for a long wander - but otherwise.

Why STAR WARS should have ditched the text crawl

I watched The Force Awakens last week, and in what I know is a minority opinion, I found myself wishing it was better. Most of all, I wish they’d ditched the stock text crawl for one simple reason: Star Wars is the only series that can get away with using one, and it encourages lazy writing because you no longer need to establish context through action or character when you can just slap it up as text exposition at the start.

In some films in the series - notably the first two - the script covers everything the audience needs and the crawl has been stylistic and unnecessary as a storytelling tool. From Jedi onwards they’ve become a crutch to save writers having to worry about an opening that establishes the story’s framing. Jedi just about works without the text telling you what everyone’s been doing. TPM leaves you clueless as to why Naboo is being attacked and why the Jedi are there. AOTC uses its crawl to explain who the film’s villain is so it doesn’t need to bother even showing him for two-thirds of its runtime. ROTS tells you the Clone War is happening in a way as meaningless as the film itself, so maybe that’s OK. And TFA, which like TPM has to establish a whole new universe even if you know the previous films, thinks it’s given you enough detail to explain the background - First Order = Empire, Resistance = Rebellion, Luke = vanished - and so none of this stuff needs covering in further detail. That from here on out, “because Star Wars” will allow the film to wave a hand and leave a huge amount unanswered that should in some way have been shown to the viewer.

Perhaps as a result of thinking that more context has been established than it has, or perhaps as a result of needing to ensure there’s a driving sequence of events to avoid the kind of empty A-B-C that made up the prequels, so many of the story’s events, and the characters’ motivations, are waved away. They have to happen because the script says so, and because the fans need to know this film is made by someone who knows the originals. Starkiller Base is like a Death Star - you know what those are, so we don’t need to know much more about it or the threat it poses to anyone - and of course it’s got a weakness and of course it’ll be blown up because you know what Death Stars are like. Threats are dismissed throughout before even being truly established outside prior fan knowledge. Characters make choices “because Star Wars” instead of because of what we’ve seen of them on-screen. And it all happens in a time and a place and a way that has no obvious reason or motivation outside the script needing things to be so. The same lazy establishing of background that begins in the text crawl extends to all parts of the process.

So, relatively spoiler-free, and roughly in the sequence they occurred to me while watching:

Why did Max Von Sydow have the map? Who was he and why would Luke leave it with him?

waves hand

How come the Falcon came to be on the same planet as Main Character Related To Old Characters, in fact in the same settlement, even more hard to imagine given how large planets are?

waves hand

How come Han was right there when it took off, scanning for it?

waves hand

And the First Order, who were originally right there, aren’t?

waves hand

How did Yoda Analogue (who I mostly liked as CGI characters go) - or indeed anyone else - get Luke’s lightsaber given that it was lost when his hand was chopped off and fell somewhere into Cloud City’s automated waste chutes that drop trash straight out the bottom?

waves hand, in this case quite literally with the line, “that’s a long story for another time” that we will never, ever hear

Why is Kylo Ren looking for Luke at all? And even if it’s out of some vague fear that if he stops being a hermit he could train a new order of Jedi, why so forcefully, given that he apparently killed the last lot of new Jedi when he was just a student himself?

waves hand

Who are the Resistance resisting exactly? The First Order wants to destroy the Republic, and the Resistance are fighting the First Order, but so, presumably, is the Republic. There’s some mention of “without the Republic’s fleet, we’re doomed”, implying that they work together, and yet they’re a separate entity, much-rumoured on obscure worlds like Jakku. Are they just the people who oppose the First Order on Order-controlled systems, the French Resistance to the Republic’s Allied Command? If so, why are they based on the apparently neutral world where Yoda Analogue lives and why are they led by surely-Republic-bigwig Leia? This was presumably supposed to be contained within the crawl but if so I missed it. I never thought I’d say it after the prequels, but how does all this work exactly?

waves hand

And who needs justified character drama?

Why does Leia greet Han like they’re old friends rather than having the fight he’s been dreading, and he’s been told he can’t avoid forever? Why set up this tension only to dismiss it completely?

scriptwriter waves hand, having decided that fear of the fight was enough to keep Han and Leia apart for years without it needing to actually happen when they meet again

Why do Leia and Han keep referring to That Guy as ’our son’ rather than by his original name?

scriptwriter waves hand because preserving the reveal of the character’s real name is in some way worth making everyone else’s dialogue ridiculous

How was Poe “thrown clear” of the wreck without his jacket? Why was Finn so sure he’d died that he tells Rey he has?

scriptwriter waves hand, having decided that bullshit ’this character is dead OH NO HE ISN’T’ is still a viable twist that hasn’t been overused in other films, and one, too, that in no way will be ruined by the trailer showing Poe flying an X-wing

Why is Finn so afraid of Rey finding out the truth of who he is when, when she finds out, the news doesn’t even make her mildly nonplussed, let alone cross?

shut your mouth, son; conflict, no matter how reasonable or based in character, doesn’t require resolution if the script demands something else at that point

Why/how is Kylo obsessed with Vader? Is it for any other reason than to show the helmet in the trailer? That “I will finish what you started” line doesn’t even make sense because Vader didn’t start anything.

I’m not even talking to you now.

Why does Leia hug Rey towards the end and not That Other Character Who’d Be Far More Upset? It’s not like they don’t have a long, shared history.

Lalalala

Why did you feel the need to have one character explain another’s motives to them - “You see him as the father you never knew” - when it should be obvious by that point what they see in them anyway? Did you never hear “show, don’t tell”?

I’m calling Security.

I could go on, not least about JJ Abrams’ complete inability to grasp how big space is, much in evidence in Star Trek when Vulcan implodes as well; the nearest planet to Earth appears as a bright dot in the sky but here we have multiple worlds in clear sight of one another, and the beam itself, when the Red Beam Of Death hits. Or about how the Supreme Leader, in a film with such a huge budget, somehow looks like one of the CGI monsters in I Am Legend instead of a believable being, rendering him - and he doesn’t seem to have any reasoning to his choices at all beyond “remember how you guys liked the Emperor in Jedi?” - hollow. Or why Captain Phasma was so woefully underused after her prominent display on all the promo stuff and her special armour. Or, for that matter, and for all that Rey is a good character, why it’s barely any better than the originals in terms of non-lead female screen time.

This isn’t to say there aren’t good points: the Rey stuff on Jakku is largely excellent (though a couple of early lines - “We’re going low!” - are on a par with “I’ll try spinning, that’s a good trick!” from TPM), as is her relationship with Finn early-on, Finn could have been much more fleshed-out as we never see him enjoying being a stormtrooper before he has second thoughts but is otherwise great, Ren is a far better Anakin-alike than Christensen ever was, Harrison Ford seems to be really enjoying being Old Han and plays it with real zip, and the energy and imagination shown throughout is back up to the standard of the originals. On the whole, it’s OK, and the fact that the new characters are the strongest - and that the fan service should be finished with now, and it’s a new director for the next one - bodes well for the sequel.

But I wish they’d ditch the text crawl. I wish they’d ignore the fact that it’s Star Wars and remember that a story comes from a fleshed-out character making choices consistent with what’s been shown to the audience in a context that’s been properly framed. All of which, ironically, was what made the very first movie so strong. You can argue that it’s all easy, cliché, but that doesn’t stop it being effective.

Happy New Year, by the way.

Review: SMALL CHANGE

Yesterday I finished the latest (and by “latest” I mean it’s not out till December) book of Andrez Bergen’s, he of TOBACCO-STAINED MOUNTAIN GOAT, WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CAPES OF HEROPA? and DEPTH CHARGING ICE PLANET GOTH fame, amongst others.

Small Change

SMALL CHANGE (A Casebook of Scherer and Miller, Investigators of the Paranormal and Supermundane) is, as its subtitle suggests, a set of individual stories/vignettes about a PI duo who specialise in “investigating” (more often than not blowing the brains out of the perpetrators of) paranormal crimes and events, and tracks them over three broad time periods (“A bit over two years ago”, “Way back when”, and “More recently”; easily the best timeline title cards I’ve seen in fiction).

The split, and he notes in his afterword that even though many of the stories have been published here and there down the years, he always had exactly this broad time separation in mind, allows for a steady establishment of character, reveal of past history/mystery, and then demonstration of how they’ve changed. This is particularly true for Roy, the POV character, whose past is an interesting poacher-turned-gamekeeper one, but both he and Suzie have plenty of time to shine, and the shift in dynamic and relationship in the final couple of stories is good and helps the collection feel tied-off.

The stories are a return to the knowingly sardonic classic hard-boiled style of TSMG. If you’re going to write the (young, here) Bogart-analogue PI and sidekick duo sprinkled with classic pop culture references, the characters have got to be enjoyable and the whole thing has to have a sense of fun and zip. Happily, both are true. This is as entertaining a slice of paranormal PI fiction as you’re likely to find. And unlike its probable closest lazy “if you like X you’ll like Y” comparison, the Dresden Files books (note: partly a guess; I’ve not read them, but I know the RPG based thereon, so your mileage may vary), neither Roy nor Suzie have any remarkable abilities of their own. They’re everyman characters, not even, in Roy’s case, especially capable in any sense except of keeping his head in a crisis, and thoroughly likeable and believable as a result.

The pace is fast, like the dialogue. Most of the stories are barely about an investigation at all - a good portion of them start in media res with the pair of them dealing with the villain in question already - but about the characters, and so the whole thing rattles along from scene to shining scene.

So, good characters, smart structure, entertainingly zippy pace, screwball style that’s light enough on cultural references to avoid bogging down, and a good mix of situations thrown at Roy and Suzie to keep things interesting. I’d happily recommend it to anyone who enjoys a nod and a wink to the hard-boiled classics with a sense of fun and its own identity. It’s good clean entertainment and the obvious enjoyment Bergen had writing the duo bleeds over onto the page.

My hairs to split number a grand total of three, none of them serious, and mostly revolve around the villains and other supporting cast.

The episodic style keeps things moving along, but other than Roy, Suzie and Art, Suzie’s dad and Roy’s former mentor, there are no recurring characters. Even - avoiding spoilers, as I’ll do throughout - Mocha, who Roy takes a shine to and who he’s involved with long enough to at least theoretically come up directly again, is removed from proceedings off-camera at the end of her story. While Roy and Suzie - and Art, in the way back when section - are a solid centrepiece, the lack of other ongoing presences or longer storylines does risk leaving the backdrop feeling a little thin (note: “risk”; that’s a very subjective judgement and personally I enjoyed the main two enough to wave it off).

Secondly, and working very hard here to avoid spoilers, I wasn’t sure the case that turns out to be a sort of audition to see if Roy is ready for the big time really, truly worked as such for me. The challenge involved in it isn’t working out who the bad guy is, but in getting to him. That challenge is then removed and a bunch of people are killed - apparently by the auditioner - so Roy can get to the guy. But would the person in question have done what they did? Were they capable? And would it still be an effective audition given that it hasn’t shown Roy capable of facing that level of challenge alone? (Also: this particular villain is one I’d have loved to see more of or to come up again, since he remains a little unexplored in terms of how and why he’s doing what he’s done.) I couldn’t help wonder if the reveal was a way of writing the story out of a corner rather than something planned from the start.

And thirdly, while the Roy-Suzie arc develops nicely, and the last case is entertaining enough, it felt like less of a resolution and more as just another step on the journey. I like the shift in Suzie’s role here, don’t get me wrong, and I like that it’s shown in this way, but I was surprised this was the end of the book (the presence of the glossary and afterword fooled me in terms of length-to-go). Basically, I wanted more, which is never a bad thing, but worth noting.

And it’s not a hair split at all, but I was left with a really burning case of the what-ifs by one story. It’s not a spoiler to say it, because you know it happened (years before) right at the beginning of the book, but Art dies, and his final case could so easily, so so easily, have been a tragic metaphor for his fatal alcoholism instead of just a final case. If it hadn’t been a villain who got him - particularly given the nature of the one he thinks he’s looking for - but he’d been genuinely delusional just this once and died in the most sad and mundane way for Roy to find, I’d have loved that as a touch, a little tragedy to show the flip side to the bizarre life the characters lead. Roy already knows, and has already seen, X and Y and Z by the time it happens, so it’s not as though Art’s view of the world as a scary place full of the paranormal needs any reinforcement in the manner of his end. Wishful thinking on my part, but it stayed with me after I’d finished the book.

Those are the only quibbles I had, and they’re minor in the extreme. So when SMALL CHANGE comes out, buy it.