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10:06 pm: My thoughts on Acacia, let me show them to you.
Beware, as this post has mild spoilers for Acacia by David Anthony Durham.

Alas, I think I am giving up on Acacia. It's not a bad book, and it has a multiracial world and at least one seriously cool religious concept that I'm impressed with. But I think I've just grown too disenchanted with epic fantasy to have the kind of patience a book like this demands- especially when I don't particularly like any of the characters, and not enough time is spent in their viewpoints to interest me in them. Also, Thirteen has caught my attention to the point where it's hard to want to read anything else right now.

1) I want the world to be lived and expressed through the characters. The characters should seem like natural products of the environment- or, if there are deviations, they're explained somehow- and the environment should show itself to be influenced by their actions, even if only in small ways. Infodumping? Not the way to accomplish this. Acacia sheds the infodumping after the first few chapters, but unfortunately it retains a viewpoint problem. This book is a great example of why the omniscient voice so rarely works for me. Without a personality to that voice, it cuts the world apart from the characters. I can be told anything about the world, and that anything is the truth. Great, but how does that world influence the characters, then? I usually don't know. Don't give me a lecture about the sociological levels of your created world. Instead, show me a character musing on that, through his or her own biased perspective, which expresses the character's personality, conceals surprises where you want them concealed, and shows how this character regards them.

2) I just can't take most of the central concepts seriously anymore. I have a hard time reading about royalty and investing it with as much dignity as the author wants me to put in. Likewise, I roll my eyes at absolutely evil enemies. (Acacia has these, to the detriment of the story). I think destiny is completely silly at best, sadistic at worst. Why should thousands of people have to suffer just so that something can happen at the "right" time? What makes the savior so much more special than other people? I'm interested in prophecies only if the author essentially turns them inside out. And don't get me started about teenagers who basically become rulers because they're too bullheaded to die and have magic that no one else wields. Not good traits for a politician, okay? And a lot of epic fantasies want to have it both ways: the monarch is a political ruler, and yet isn't a politician, never having to make those nasty compromises or deal head-on with the court machinations that tarnish the souls of other characters. Give me a series where the non-political monarchs mess up their countries, and we'll talk.

3) The worlds seem so potted. There's a certain sequence the gods follow in creating the world. (At least Acacia breaks the mold a bit here, with the gods being intimately related to the magic). There's one major event in the past that's the cause of just about all evil. (Acacia, unfortunately, did not escape this trap). There are a few heroic monarchs hanging about in the historical background, never enough to make that history feel populated. People's qualities and allegiances are largely determined by group affiliation, sometimes country and sometimes racial heritage and sometimes magical affiliation. (Acacia does that, too). There is a distinct lack of variation in culture, with the exception of clothing- no art, no literature, no complex patterns of civilization, none of the myriad ways that people come to inhabit their mental and physical worlds and conjoin them together. In the worst cases, everyone speaks the same language all across vast continents, denying even that marker of difference. There is not enough variation. Fantasy worlds need a lot more cultural diversity than they receive.

4) Too much not-happening. The things that do happen are almost always battles, daring escapes, and so on- high on the drama. Then the buildup for further dramatic events strands the authors in the middle of mired plots going nowhere fast. There is little genuine intelligent conversation, almost no domestic time, few relationships that aren't forged on the run or disrupted violently by betrayal or death. Once again, it feels like a setpiece for a certain story, not a genuinely inhabited world that is always existing on and around and with the characters.

5) The world is not adult enough. No, I don't mean the amount of gore or sex. I mean that a great many characters are emotionally immature (you can see this most often in the romances, but also in the melodramatic friendships and the way that characters will change at the drop of a hat). Relationships are not complicated enough; people can be ripped apart and decide to disregard years of affection based on a single revelation about destiny, prophecy, or royalty. And those dramatic events the author spends so much time building into the story? Often, they depend on ignoring certain practical realities. I think it's a lot more fun to show what you can do with small things and cleverness that figures out obstacles and overcomes them, instead of pretending that everyone will be stupid at just the right moment. And if you plunge the characters into a painful situation, show the nuances of that pain, instead of pretending that they can heal instantly or that everything will change because someone else conveniently dies or turns out to be evil.

It's odd, because I do still love secondary-world fantasy more than urban fantasy. But I think I've been lucky enough to find authors who are doing something a bit different with the concepts I like, and I've also changed my reading patterns to include a lot more science fiction lately, so I'm not noticing the real lack a dose of tolerable epic fantasy once would have left in my world.

Current Mood: thoughtful


Date:October 21st, 2007 02:48 am (UTC)
Jeez, watch your subject lines, Limyaael. I thought you'd made an entire post about me.
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Date:October 21st, 2007 03:12 am (UTC)
Heh, no! This Acacia is flatter and has pages. :)
Date:October 21st, 2007 03:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, I got that. Doesn't sound like it's much good, either, so I really got the best of that deal.
Date:October 21st, 2007 05:42 am (UTC)
It just sounds like mediocre writing to me. Compare your points with, say, "Lord of the Rings" or Pratchett's Discworld stories, or Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories.

Point 1)

In LOTR, our viewpoint is always one of the four hobbits; we see the world through their eyes.

In Pratchett, it's whoever is the hero of the story. We see Ankh Morporkh through Vimes's eyes; we see the backcountry peasants through the eyes of Tiffany Aching or Granny Weatherwax; always people who are part of that bit of the world and involved in it.

Vance's characters tend to be lone adventurers, outsiders to wherever they are, giving us a stranger's eye view of whatever marvelous and dangerous part of this alien Earth they are visiting.

2) LOTR gives us the archetypical Dark Lord of fantasy -- yet we are told by Gandalf that even Sauron was not evil in the beginning, and the Silmarillion makes it clear that we are dealing with the Devil and his fallen angels with the names changed, so one rather expects them to be absolute evil. Prophecy in LOTR is actually more a warm fuzzy hope when it looks like everything is up the creek without a paddle, than a compelling fate. Victory isn't inevitable, Aragorn isn't guaranteed to be accepted as king--odds were hellaciously against it, and what kind of crack was the Council on to send a lone hobbit into Mordor? That decision was not a matter of prophecy that they just had to fill in the blanks; there were no prophecies on the matter, just a decision to do the least suicidal thing that had a chance of winning.

Discworld - Pterry loves to subvert the standard destiny and prophecy cliches. Take a look at what he did with the "rightful king of Ankh Morpokh"

Jack Vance - If there are prophecies in his stories, they are traps to snare the unwary.

3) LOTR seems to have originated the "Common tongue" cliche, but if you pay attention, Westron was the common tongue of the former domains of Numenor and its descendent kingdoms, Arnor and Gondor. The hobbits spoke a form of that, and that form spread around as trade tongue and vernacular--but Rohan had its own language, the elves spoke elvish, Gondor used Numenorian for the official court language. 'Common' of Tolkien's world may have been like Greek or Aramaic in ancient times--a very widespread second language.

Discworld - as varied as Earth.

Vance's Dying Earth - possibly more varied than Earth. You never knew what weirdness you'd stumble on over the next hill.

4) LOTR - Hobbits smoking. Hobbits cooking. Hobbits eating. Hobbits bathing. Hobbits doing just about everything except making babies and using the pot on stage.

Pterry - also has a great deal of everyday in his stories. There's far more everyday in a Discworld story than epic.

Dying Earth - Characters just traveling a lot... usually the traveling is a prelude to falling into some nasty situation.

5) LOTR - As far as I can tell, anyone who didn't behave like a sane and sensible adult did so because they were under the influence of (a) the Ring, (b) Saruman, (c) Sauron, or (d) two or more of the above.

Discworld - Everyone acts like human beings here, both good and bad sides with all their variances. Even the monsters and divine beings.

Vance - tended to have a distance from his characters, like an Arab storyteller relating the 1001 Nights.

So, not much good epic fantasy these days? Sad.
Date:October 22nd, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
And now that I understand this OpenID thing, I can take ownership of the above comment. Next time I'll post with OpenID.

Date:October 21st, 2007 08:31 am (UTC)
As a lover of epic fantasy myself, I'll be taking these points to heart (i.e: avoid Acacia on the pain of death, because it sounds like it got my biggest pet peeves wrong).

It's a bit sad that so many authors fall into the traps of bad writing when they try to make their epic fantasy work - which probably explains why George RR Martin is currently the only epic fantasy writer I've got on my regular reading shelf. I'd love to find some more, but most of them turn out to be like Acacia seems to have.
Date:October 21st, 2007 10:16 am (UTC)

Jack Vance

I was going to mention Jack Vance too - think I saw a mini-review of the Dying Earth from you, but have you read much else of his? I think his books exude points number 1 and 3 better than anyone else's IMO. You really MUST read the Demon Prince series.

Here is a good link explaining his genius better than I can, take a look:
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Date:October 21st, 2007 01:20 pm (UTC)
I think it's the same problem as with most genre's these days to be honest. Writers get caught in a 'formula', based on the older 'classics' because those classics, when they came out, were fresh, exciting, and new. Which is why, say, Lord of the Rings is considered an incredible example of the genre, but so many, many books that follow are in the 'It's okay or pretty good, but has it's problem' to 'oh god, please not ravening orc hoardes vs. the Happy Shiny Elves again!'. I honestly think many fantasy writers borrow the bits and pieces of legwork done by successful writers before them, give them what they think are new and unique twists, and call it good.

Tolkien's world, for instance again, took decades to build.

Many fantasy writers? Months, maybe a few years, but it stops as soon as the underlying structure is 'good enough' with hints and suggestions, abd that's it. And I honestly think that's a big part of the problem. Not enough time spent in the world-building stage...and not enough time and willingess spent later during the writing of the story to adjust, add, take away from the initial frame work to help make the world richer.

I'd compare it to, say, having a stage backdrop as opposed to a full, cinematic background. The backdrop is fine if you've in a small stage production, have limited room, and are depending on your costiming--I would actually think the parallel would be a short story or mere chapter (or even part of a chapter) of a book.

You want a whole novel though, or, to bring it back to the background analogy, a full cinemtic event, you're going to have to get out there and get three dimensional backgrounds, show things like trees blowing in the wind, crowds in the background that have nothing to do with what's going on with your character if you don't want the place to feel like a ghost town, weather that changes, climate that changes as you move, lighting for different times of the day, etc and so forth. Evevn the same area has to change in details as time goes on if you don't want to give the audience the feel of being back in a theater watching a play set up against a fixed backdrop.

Unfortunately, I think most authors are using the backdrop instead of the full cinematic treatment.

...Man, I hope that made sense. I haven't had enough coffee yet. :)
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Date:October 21st, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
Also; sorry about all the typing errors. Obviously no where near enough coffee this morning. Next attempt will be better checked. ^^;
Date:October 21st, 2007 07:40 pm (UTC)
The only epic fantasy type books I'm reading and enjoying at the moment are Inda and the The Fox by Sherwood Smith. I think you'd like them, Limyaael - they have an absolutely amazing amount of worldbuilding depth and breadth, complex characters, and there's definitely no Evil Enemies or arbitrary Destiny.

- wordweaver on LJ
Date:October 22nd, 2007 02:21 am (UTC)
I've been starting to have the same problem. I can still read and be somewhat entertained by books like Acacia, but they are losing their luster. The characters just have so much less depth and complexity to them when the author keeps the perspective so distant, and when there's so much time spent with secondary characters at their expense. I didn't need to see the events of Acacia through Leeka Alain's perspective, or that whiny little turd Rialus Neptos, or any of the others who weren't the four children and Hanish Mein. Focus, please. I don't need to be told anything and everything about the plot right when it happens.

What really bugged me about the book, though, was all the damn conveniences. The main characters get exactly what they need when they need it, and the author doesn't even try to hide his hand. *coughMenacough* Each of those instances (and they were many) came near to making me throw the book across the room and not pick it up again.

On the other hand, have you read Daniel Abraham's A Shadow in Summer? I read it just before Acacia, and it was everything Acacia was not. Meaning: damn good. I really need to get my hands on the sequel...
Date:October 22nd, 2007 05:06 am (UTC)
Never ever go near the messes that are Eragon and Eldest by Christopher Paolini. They make all of the mistakes above. The telcom, intersting heroines, DLI, and author's darling rants also apply quite nicely to Paolini's books. Don't go near them if you want to retain your sanity.
Date:October 24th, 2007 12:38 am (UTC)

LJ Link

By the way, do you mind if I link this rant to the Anti-Shur'tugal community on LJ? I'd love to show it to the other members since many of us feel the same way about "epic" fantasy as you do.
Date:October 22nd, 2007 07:08 am (UTC)
More 'what not to do'! That seems to help me with the writing a lot, and I feel pretty confident about the novel-in-progress in this regard. Of course, it's been thirteen years since its first inception so we definitely have the world-building foundations down, I hope :D
Date:October 22nd, 2007 10:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the heads-up on the book!

I love this sentence (fragment), "instead of pretending that everyone will be stupid at just the right moment." I think that's how most of the real world tries to work, sadly.

Reading your rants always makes me want to write. :3

Date:October 24th, 2007 12:27 am (UTC)
Hello. I've been reading your rants for a while, and I quite enjoyed them. ^^ I was wondering, though, if you've ever read any of the Longlight Legacy? It has a ton of prophecy and destiny and saving the world going on, but I didn't find it at all irritating and I found myself wondering if it was just my liking the characters and you would dislike it. Just ignore me if you haven't read it. ^^

Date:October 25th, 2007 08:23 am (UTC)

I'll second A Shadow in Summer

I'll second A Shadow in Summer - not only is it good, but it also dodges many of the cliches you see in fantasy novels.
Date:October 27th, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC)
5) The world is not adult enough. No, I don't mean the amount of gore or sex.

Unfortunately, some writers think gore and sex automatically equals credibility.

Take Raymond E. Feist. The "Riftwar Trilogy" was a very silly, derivative fantasy, peopled with Sues and Stus, but fun if you didn't mind switching your brain off. There were even some quite good plot twists, including a prophecy that turned out to be a hoax.

The later "Serpentwar" series? Just plain stupid. I mean, really, really, really stupid– basically just a rehash of the first trilogy, only now the threat's BIGGER and everyone's MORE POWERFUL– in other words, it's got Lame Sequel Syndrome. The most annoying thing of all is that the author is trying to disguise all this by introducing "gritty realism", i.e. sex, graphic violence and descriptions of bowel movements. This only serves to underline the fact that all the characters are cardboard cut-outs. Really pathetic.

Sorry, that was a rant in its own right.

Date:November 1st, 2007 11:00 am (UTC)
Hi there - I used to follow your rants back on LJ, and they've helped me a lot in the past. I'm migrating to IJ very soon, if all goes as planned, and would like to continue keeping up. Friend? :)
Date:November 3rd, 2007 12:34 am (UTC)

Awesome rant, as always.

I'm actually pretty good for this on my current project. (It's not technically epic, but it's getting long enough to count.)

1) Occasionally, we see the viewpoint of another character, but that's just the setup to the "punchline" of the main character's point of view. And, luckily, her view does not (always) coincide with objective reality, if indeed there is such a thing.

2) How about someone who becomes a god, not because of destiny, but by dint of skill and talent and determination at her chosen field, and then a very happy accident?

3) A sort of lazy, everyday evil, to paraphrase Pratchett, is what's behind most of the "bad guys" in this story. The exceptions are the real scum who have to go and get all proactive, but even they weren't born evil. They're only human, after all. Most of them.

4) Aside from her occupation, the main character has a pretty normal life. She makes friends, influences people, eventually has some kids (she never gets married, tho'). What friendships she makes on the run are short-lived because once they stop running together their paths split off. She likes to...well, everything. Eat, sleep, exercise, fuck, read, listen to music, play music (though she doesn't get into it enough to write her own), spar (though because of her occupation and that she does it for enjoyment, she's more of a stuntperson or performer than a real warrior), talk.

Man, does she talk.

5) Not much violence. Plenty of sex, but usually a very mature treatment of it. She works for a living, loves people who betrayed her because, well, she loved them beforehand and it really was a minor betrayal, as these things go, but when someone crosses her before she gets to know them she can hold a grudge for pretty much ever... And her friends are not solely defined by their affection for her. A scholar and a soldier enjoy each other's company; a barbarian and a princess get to know each other; an angel and a devil get along. And while she's the catalyst for bringing them together, she's not why the relationships end up working.

So if I wanted to make it epic fantasy, I'd have a good platform from which to start.

(Wo)Man, you rock.
Date:November 8th, 2007 10:02 pm (UTC)

Unrelated, but thought you'd like it

Greetings from a lurker! This was a 'saw this and thought of you' thing.
Date:November 16th, 2007 01:26 am (UTC)
I think you should give Prince of Nothing by R. Scott Bakker a try. There's intelligent conversation, an intricate world rife with all kinds of flavor and cultural diversity. Characterization rarely paralleled. It honestly seems to be what your looking for.

As for Acacia, I don't intend on reading it seeing as I've heard it's merely serviceable, and little more. Your comments seem to further assert this.
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Date:February 20th, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)
This makes me realize even more that I haven't touched any fantasy novel in months. I've become increasingly disillusioned by most storytelling in general, with the range being from the silver screen to published novels and especially fan fiction.

When I was younger I followed the typical formulas like other people did but as I got older and realized how...prolific these "qualifications" were, the more I wanted to change things up and do them differently. Whatever prophecies I had were thrown out the window, I shrunk my cast of characters from more than I can count with my two hands to (currently) two distinct individuals, and I'm still plugging away on my world building, where I hope I could successfully portray different cultures, species, and races.

Five years and still going nowhere...
Date:May 28th, 2008 02:50 pm (UTC)
Good... er, rant-type thing. I've made a note to avoid Acacia now.

Your five points gave me an idea... have you read any Robin Hobb? She writes some very good epic fantasy (three trilogies, none of which involve precisely the same characters, although there are commonalities.) This particularly applies to 4) and 5)... of nine books, six feature the same main character, aging from a small child to a man of thirty-five, and in between the intrigue and violence and whatever, she manages to show his life as well. It's not very fun for him at times, though.

And there's some very messed-up royals as well. Of three princes, the eldest (MC's father) abdicates and then gets killed in an accident, the youngest turns out to be a full-on psycho, and the middle one(the actual King) turns out to be a real politician, which was refreshing.

The first of the three trilogies is the Farseer trilogy. First book in that series is Assassin's Apprentice.
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