Recycling

As a fiction writer, I’m about as organized as your recycling bin. I’ve written seven or eight novels, and there’s at least one incomplete first draft that I started a couple of months ago, plus a half-finished third draft of a book that I thought was finished only it’s not. My first two (1985 and 1991) were published in paperback by actual New York publishing houses. My third (1993) my agent wouldn’t even try shopping. It was a splendid idea that I had no hope of being able to pull off; probably nobody could. My fourth he tried to shop, but it failed to sell, and for some good reasons. Without a complete floor-to-ceiling rewrite it’s dead.

The fifth novel — we’re moving forward to the year 2000 now — was never submitted to anybody. The computer files are long gone, but I’ve kept the paper manuscript. It’s sitting on my desk right now. I’m wondering what on Earth to do with it. I think it’s pretty darn good, but there are Problems.

It’s a mystery. The setting is a town named Puteoli, on the Bay of Naples. It’s 65 CE, and Nero is the emperor. Vesuvius won’t blow its top for another 14 years. When I started it, I thought, “Wow, what a great idea! A mystery set in Ancient Rome.” While working on the book, I belatedly discovered that at least three other writers had had the same idea before me. The concept was not even faintly fresh.

Whether any of those writers is still plying their trade I don’t know, and I don’t much care. I’m past all that marketing nervousness.

The second problem, and probably the biggest one, is that it’s just too damn long. About 210,000 words, at a rough count. For comparison, even the fattest mysteries (Elizabeth George, for instance) seem to weigh in at about 130,000 words.

Third, I prefer to try to be as realistic as possible. I’ve done a lot of research on Roman culture; it’s been 20 years, but I still have the shelf full of books. And, slavery. The entire Roman economy ran on the energy of slavery. So the book is full of slaves. And I’m pretty sure that would be a problem for a lot of modern readers. Roman slavery, as awful as it was, was nothing like what we’re familiar with today. It was not race-based. Freed slaves could and did move up in society, and while a certain opprobrium attached to their status, their children were just as good as anybody else, because you couldn’t tell whose parents had been slaves just by looking at their complexion.

Modern readers would just have to relax and accept the slavery in the book as normal. It was certainly normal to the Romans (and to everybody else in the ancient world). Aside from a couple of major uprisings more than 150 years before the time of the novel, nobody had any thought that slavery ought to be abolished. The idea would have been laughable.

Lurking within this fact is a technical problem for the mystery writer. When a well-born Roman gentleman was murdered, his slaves had to be tortured. That was the law! The reasoning behind the law is not hard to see: The Roman nobility lived in close proximity to their household slaves, day in and day out, and on some half-conscious level they were terrified of them. A slave could easily murder you in your sleep, so the law had to present the strongest possible deterrent.

But having spent several long chapters introducing my characters, some of whom are slaves, I darn well refuse to torture them! It would be disgusting, and a bad sidetrack for the plot. So the historical realism, which I value highly, kind of flies out the window.

Problems. Still, it’s a good story.

I hold no hope that a publisher would make an offer on a 210,000-word mystery. Ain’t gonna happen. Maybe it’s time for another stab at self-publishing.

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Damaged & Damned

I’ve been binge-reading Ross MacDonald mysteries. They’re good stories — fast-paced, realistic, and often with a twist at the end. You don’t really know who the murderer is until the last possible moment. There will be a redemption at the end, but it’s always partial. In The Underground Man, for instance, the little boy is rescued and reunited with his mother, but his father is dead and his grandmother’s house has burned to the ground.

He has other habits as a writer, some worth emulating, some maybe not. He compresses both space and time, packing a great deal of action into one nearly endless day. He can be heavy-handed with his imagery. For instance, leafing at random through The Far Side of the Dollar, “I turned and looked at the mountains on the far side of the valley. They loomed like half-forgotten faces through the overcast.” A little of this is fine, and MacDonald can usually restrain the impulse, but once in a while he goes overboard with it, straining an image to the point where it loses credibility. His goal, transparently, is to create a dark mood, and he’s a master.

Another habit: The college students whom private eye Lew Archer encounters in his cases always seem to be studying French. In one book a mysterious character claims to be from Paris, but probably isn’t. Psychiatrists are regularly featured, as are mobsters from Vegas. And then there are the young men. A staple for MacDonald is a young man in his early 20s who has not matured. He acts like a 14-year-old in one way or another — madly overeating, picking hopeless fights, or stealing a yacht, that type of thing.

But the most consistent, and probably the most important, aspect of MacDonald’s novels is that none of his characters are ever happy. There is no joy, no contentment, no serenity. Everybody is damaged or damned. The rich people are angry, insecure, or emotionally inert. Their marriages suck, and not infrequently they’re being blackmailed. The poor people are beaten down and ugly, and they’re either boundlessly cynical or living on tissue-thin dreams. The beautiful young women are deeply troubled and make terrible decisions; usually they either run off with or actually marry the dreadfully wrong man.

Once in a while you might meet a character who is stable and modestly successful, but if so, you’ll soon learn about the past trauma that that person has struggled to overcome. The rare good people, such as Archer’s downstairs neighbors in The Underground Man, are not at home. They’re missing from the narrative — away from home on vacation, in this case — because they would undercut the tone.

Here’s a typical character introduction, again from The Far Side of the Dollar. Dr. Sponti is the director of a boarding school for troubled boys: “He had a glass of buttermilk in his left hand and a dietetic wafer in his right…. He was dark and florid and stout, with the slightly desperate look of a man who had to lose weight…. He was expensively and conservatively dressed in a dark pinstripe suit which hung on him a little loosely…. He reminded me of undertakers I had known. Even his office, with its dark mahogany furniture and the gray light at the window, had a funereal look, as if the school and its director were in continuous mourning for its students.”

This is all within half a page. Note the repeated use of “dark.” You don’t necessarily notice it when you’re reading, because it’s packed in with more colorful words, but there it is. And in the moment when we meet Dr. Sponti, his undoubted success as a school administrator is undercut by his struggle to lose weight and by referring to him as an undertaker.

I’m not criticizing this approach to crime fiction, I’m just noticing it. It serves an important purpose in creating the noir atmosphere for which MacDonald is famous. Plenty of writers enjoy lampooning the hard-boiled detective style — but lampooning it is easy. Doing it well, I would guess, is a lot harder than it looks.

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Where’s the Beef?

Among the important questions a writer of fiction must ask when devising a new story, perhaps the most important is, what’s at stake? (And yes, the pun is intentional.) The reader who continues to turn the pages, one after another, must in some way be concerned with the outcome of events. What is to be gained or lost, in the lead character’s life? What are the stakes?

If the reader is not convinced that what’s at stake is important, then the question of whether to continue to read or, alternatively, to set the book down and perhaps never come back to it becomes, at best, a matter of whim.

The convolutions of that sentence might suggest to the perceptive among you that I’ve been reading Henry James; and in that you would be correct. I’ve now waded through 16 chapters of The Portrait of a Lady. At this point in the story, young Isabel has rather decisively turned down two proposals of marriage. She quite likes both of her suitors, and she hasn’t entirely slammed the door on either of them. Though her freedom is at this point largely theoretical, she values it too highly to commit to a marriage.

One might continue to read wondering whether in the end she’ll change her mind and marry one of them, and if so, which one. The difficulty is, it doesn’t much matter. It’s not that she’s making a mistake; James gives us no hint of that. She wants to see the world and experience life, that’s all. Her aunt is going to take her on a tour of Europe. If her heart were smitten by either of her suitors, she could easily plan to spend a few months in Europe and then come back and get married. But that’s not the plan. She doesn’t have a plan. She wants to be independent, but she has no inkling what to do with her independence. And because she doesn’t have a plan, nor is likely to face any grave danger through lack of planning, it’s hard for the reader to care what happens to her.

Something may happen, but if it does, it will be a matter of happenstance. It will not have happened because of any guiding passion of Isabel’s.

Henry James was a very successful novelist. I’m sure readers at the end of the 19th century liked this sort of story a great deal. The question of whom a well-bred young woman would marry was probably a lot more engaging to them than it is for us. In some sense, that may have been the only question that really mattered, where a well-bred young woman was concerned; and there were reasons both economic and social why that should have been the case. But today it’s weak tea indeed.

The novel suffers as well from a profound upper-class bias. Isabel explicitly describes herself as poor, so one might expect that an offer of marriage from an extremely wealthy English lord and an American manufacturing magnate would inspire her to some practical thought as to her future. But no. At the end of Chapter 16 she’s staying in a good hotel in London, in a two-room suite, and she certainly hasn’t paid for this herself. Her uncle is a rich banker and land-owner, and it’s his money that’s supporting her lifestyle. The servants, meanwhile, are nameless and faceless.

Money not being a consideration, James has nothing to capture his attention or ours but the elaborate and heartfelt but nonetheless rather artificial and etiolated thought processes of his characters. He’s very good at this. I suppose it’s why people still read his books. Nobody would read The Portrait of a Lady because they really cared about Isabel; that’s not to be considered.

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The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

In fantasy fiction, that things happen that could not happen in the real world. That’s the essence of fantasy, and it’s obvious. There could be dragons, ghosts, zombies, unicorns, you name it.

What’s perhaps less obvious is that in fantasy, most of the things that happen are exactly what one would expect to happen in the real world. Gravity works as expected. Digestion works as expected. Conversations and facial expressions work as expected. Money, clothing, weather … everything is normal, except the parts of the story that aren’t.

In constructing a fantasy world, the writer begins with a counter-factual premise. That premise leads to certain observable phenomena (hauntings, the drinking of blood, the ability to fly through the air on a winged horse), which the writer will work out, we hope, with enough care to make them internally consistent and therefore believable. But anything in the fantasy world that doesn’t derive from the premise remains normal.

A classic example is to be found in Naomi Novik’s novel His Majesty’s Dragon. The setting is the early 19th century on Earth, and everything is exactly as we know it from the historical record — except, there are dragons. The rules for what dragons can do and how people interact with dragons are entirely fantastical, but nothing else is even remotely off-kilter.

The one apparent exception — and it’s more apparent than real — would be a dream-world story like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In this story, animals can talk, people can change size, and a flamingo can be used (awkwardly) as a croquet mallet. But the premise underlying the story is simple. The premise is, implausible things can happen. But except for the implausible things, everything is normal. If it weren’t, the story would make no sense. In particular, Alice is a very ordinary little girl. She doesn’t suddenly start speaking Russian or chew on the Mad Hatter’s face.

I started ruminating about what a fantasy premise does and does not do following a conversation on Facebook. Somebody had posted something on a fantasy fiction page about Stephen Donaldson’s series on Thomas Covenant. I replied that I lost interest in the story midway through the first book (Lord Foul’s Bane). Thomas was camped out in the forest and having trouble sleeping, so he was gazing up at the night sky. Donaldson told the reader that a full moon rose at midnight and set again long before dawn.

This is flatly impossible. The celestial mechanics just don’t work! The moon is full when it’s at the point in its orbit opposite the sun. A full moon can rise only at sunset; it can’t rise in the middle of the night. Also, the moon crosses the night sky at approximately the same rate as the stars. If we assume the night is 12 hours long, the moon will set 12 hours (actually a tiny bit more) after it rose, not four or five hours. If the moon were moving that quickly across the sky, it would have to be much closer to the Earth, because gravity is the same in a fantasy world. If the moon were that much closer, it would also have to be a lot smaller. Now, there’s no reason to assume a moon couldn’t be smaller and closer to Earth, that’s not the problem. The problem is, if it were closer to the Earth it would be in the Earth’s shadow for much of the night. It would be eclipsed. Not full to start with, and then eclipsed.

Evidently Donaldson was ignorant of celestial mechanics. So I put the book down and never touched it again.

Predictably, somebody in the Facebook thread replied that the story is fantasy, and the moon might do something different in Donaldson’s world. But that argument is fallacious, because the movement of the moon in its orbit has nothing to do with the story premise. As a writer, you don’t get to change just anything you happen to feel like and then say, “Oh, but it’s fantasy!”

You can do absolutely anything in a fantasy story — except that you can’t violate your own premise. The impossible things must arise from the premise. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are a good example. Discworld is packed with impossible fantasy stuff. The world itself is flat, and rests on the backs of four unimaginably large elephants, who are standing on the back of a giant turtle who swims through space. There are vampires, zombies, wizards, witches, dwarfs, trolls, a werewolf, and a talking dog named Gaspode. There’s a very skinny guy with a permanent toothy grin, who carries a scythe, shows up when you die, and ALWAYS SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. He puts in an appearance in just about every Discworld book, and he has a granddaughter named Susan. (She’s adopted.) He rides a white horse called Binky.

Pratchett’s premise is something like, “This is a world in which fantasy elements from a bunch of different human cultures are all real and are all packed in together.”

Within that wild and wacky context, however, a lot of things are very normal. Sergeant Angua is a werewolf, but when she transforms back into her human form she’s naked, because wolves don’t wear clothing and have no way to carry any. The trolls and the dwarfs don’t like one another, and while their racial characteristics are fantastical, their feuding is very much like what we can imagine happening between rival gangs in any large city on Earth; it’s exaggerated, but the emotional attitudes are realistic. Sam Vimes loves his son, and his expressions of that fact are completely normal. He doesn’t love his son one day and not recognize him the next day; that would violate the fantasy premise.

With apologies to Robert Heinlein, the moon is a harsh mistress. You can have dragons, but you have to get the moon right.

 

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Never the Twine Shall Mete

This post is about 2D vs. 3D world modeling, but I’ll start with a preamble for those who arrived after the newsreel.

Preamble. I’m a writer. I do text; I don’t do graphics. If I feel like creating an interactive software something-or-other, as happens from time to time, I’ll head straight to the text adventure (also known as interactive fiction) arena. I’ve been doing exactly that, off and on, for more than 20 years.

Parser-based games were the norm in the Good Old Days of Yore. In a parser game, the reader/user/player types commands, such as “pick up the sword,” and the software responds in some manner. The user interface is based on the teletype metaphor of 1970s-era computer software. The term “parser-based” means that when the user types a command, it has to be parsed behind the scenes by a piece of software called the parser in order for the game software to make sense of it.

For today’s trendy young people (which is to say, just about all of them), the teletype metaphor is about as familiar as the Greek alphabet. You youngsters don’t want to be parsed, you just want to click or tap on links.

Parser-based games in the old style can still be written, very effectively, in several development environments, such as Inform and TADS. But if you want to write an interactive story that will attract people who were born after Zork (AZ), you’d be well advised to look into a development system that produces games that can run in a web browser. It’s true that both Inform games and TADS games can be leveraged to run in browsers, and they can be equipped with clickable links, but they’re still parser-based. They’re still BZ, not AZ.

The Point. This morning I started looking a little more seriously at Twine. It’s quite popular these days, and Twine games run natively in your web browser. To navigate through the game/story, the user clicks or taps on links. None of that messy typing.

Twine is a sophisticated system, and offers some real advantages for the would-be author of interactive stories. For one thing, you can make the “pages” of your story more attractive more easily. Also, Twine is in active development. (Inform and TADS haven’t changed significantly in the past five years.)

Now for the disadvantage. Parser-based development systems give the author a suite of tools with which to construct a three-dimensional world model. By “dimension” I don’t mean the ability to travel up and down as well as east, west, north, and south. I mean that some concrete assumptions are built in: The world of your story will have rooms, objects, and people with whom the user/player/reader can interact.

In developing a parser game using one of these systems, you don’t have to write your own code in order to create rooms or objects that can be picked up and carried. In Inform 7, for instance, writing the text “The Dining Room is a room” actually creates an object in the model world — a location that the player can visit. In TADS 3, the equivalent would be something like diningRoom: Room ‘Dining Room’.

Not only that, but the documentation for both systems assumes that you want to create rooms and perhaps new actions for the player. Maybe you want the player to be able to “flatter the prince.” There is no “flattering” action built-in, but you can easily create one. Once you’ve done it, the player can try “flatter the little girl” or “flatter the tortoise,” and the game may have an intelligible response if you’ve provided a default output in response to the “flatter” command. The docs will tell you how to construct this intuitively palpable world by writing code.

Twine has nothing like this. Twine’s model of the world of your story is nonexistent. Calling it 2D is perhaps being a little too kind. Twine is about presenting text in the browser, and that’s all it’s about. It’s very good at that, but if you happen to need, let’s say, a dagger object with which to stab the evil duke, you’ll have to write something like $dagger = “dagger”. This is not an object in the model world; it’s simply a variable ($dagger) that contains some text (“dagger”).

Twine’s documentation, from what I’ve seen so far, has absolutely nothing to say about constructing a story that embodies a model world. Your story is your affair. The Twine tutorials focus entirely on explaining how to manipulate and vary blocks of text.

Ultimately, of course, a parser-based game is only text too. But there’s a conceptual layer under the hood that makes certain useful assumptions and allows the author to leverage those assumptions to produce a satisfying story. Twine has no conceptual layer at all; it’s strictly a delivery system.

I haven’t reached any firm conclusions about the relative values of these two very different approaches, but I do sort of wish there was a single software tool that embodied both of them.

Footnote. For the player/reader/user, as opposed to the author, the difference between a Twine story and a parser-input story boils down to this: If you’re playing a parser game, you have to think. You have to visualize the scenario that’s being presented to you and imagine the possibilities. There may be things you can do in a given room that are not obvious on the surface.

Perhaps the simplest example would be, if you (the player character) are in a room with a bed, you should probably try the command “look under the bed.” That command may or may not reveal something important to the story — and there are any number of less obvious commands that the fiendishly clever author may be asking you to imagine. If you breeze through the story and take everything at face value, your experience will (if the author is any good) be badly impoverished.

In a tap-the-link “game,” that never happens. If a link isn’t presented to you, visibly, on the screen, it’s not there at all. A chimpanzee could be trained to play a Twine game without being able to read a word of English. Or a rat, I suppose, if you put the screen down on a table and gave it a suitable piece of cheese as a reward. Not only is imagination not required, neither is comprehension. The process is mechanical.

All of the choices in a tap-the-link story are yes/no. Use this link? Yes. Use that link? No. Still, you can make it look pretty, and it’s easy for people to experience your story. I guess that counts for something.

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Informed or Reformed?

Pardon me; I’m going to kvetch. This is sort of about computer programming, but it’s also about writing stories, so I’ll try to provide a few relevant bits of technical information along the way.

What with being stuck at home (like most of us, unless we work in a hospital or a grocery store) and being more bored than usual, I thought maybe I’d write a new text adventure game. The game I’ve worked on, off and on (mostly off) for the past few years is still as bloated and unmanageable as it ever was, so I thought maybe I’d do a new one instead. Something shorter and more straightforward.

Providentially, the yearly competition for interactive fiction, the IFComp, has a deadline at the end of September. Plenty of time to write a game and have it tested. Yowzah! Let’s go for it!

The landscape of text gaming has shifted over the past decade. Slid downhill, that may be a better way to describe it. Back at the turn of the century, parser-based games were the norm. These are games in which the user/player/reader types commands, such as perhaps HIT TROLL WITH SWORD, and the game responds in some fashion, such as “The troll easily ducks your clumsy swing and smashes your skull with his mace. *** You have died. ***”

Increasingly, though, would-be authors don’t have the patience to learn even the rudiments of computer programming. Instead, they use systems like Twine, Inklewriter, and ChoiceScript, in which the story unspools when the reader clicks a button to see what comes next. These systems are grouped under the heading CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure), surely a finalist for the Optimistic Acronyms Award.

As a form of interactivity, CYOA is boring and trivial. On the other hand, the user interface of parser-based games is derived from the command line interface that was de rigeur on computers in 1980. Younger users are likely to be completely unfamiliar with it, and unsure what they ought to do to get the story moving. Everybody understands point-and-click, or perhaps I should say “tap.” So there’s that.

I’ve written parser-based games in Inform 6, Inform 7, and TADS 3. Of these, by far the most popular (for very small values of “popular” — interactive fiction is not taking the world by storm) is Inform 7. I prefer TADS 3, but I thought I really ought to give Inform 7 another chance, if only because the process of playing an I7 game is likely to be more seamless and familiar-looking to the people who play the competition games. And, well, it’s a very capable authoring system. It’s not crude or limited in scope.

Now for the kvetching part. After two days of starting to draft a new game in I7, I’m ready to pull the plug and switch back to T3. I’ve only started the development process, so switching now would be far easier than stalling, getting increasingly frustrated, and switching later.

The annoyances built into Inform 7 are several. In no particular order:

In I7 all of your source code is in one big file. In T3 you can split it up, for instance with your characters in one file, your map (the rooms in which the story takes place) in another file, your new actions in a third file, and your built-in hint system in a fourth file.

This fact has two consequences. First, every time you go to compile your source code, I7 has to compile the whole blessed thing from scratch. With even a smallish stub of a game that you’ve only started working on, compiling takes I7 close to 30 seconds. If you compile 12 times within a one-hour writing session, and that’s a very normal thing to do, you’ve just wasted six minutes. Compiling in T3 is faster because the compiler produces intermediate-level files and then links them together. When compiling anew, it only needs to recompile the files that have changed. Much faster.

Second, as your story grows, it gets harder to find the things you’re working on in the I7 IDE. (That’s the Integrated Development Environment.) Sure, you can put in headings and subheads, and you should, but you’ll still find yourself scrolling up and down in the file looking for the kitchen, because the character who is in the kitchen is in a different part of the file. In the T3 IDE, this is a one-click operation.

I7 generates an Index of all of the objects and headings in your source code, so in theory you can find things by clicking on items in the index. Trouble is, this feature doesn’t work worth beans. It’s based on line numbers (though line numbers are never displayed in the IDE). So if you’ve written something new near the top of the single massive source-code file, all of the linkages to the index will be horribly wrong until after you’ve recompiled, which takes another 30 seconds. Workflow? Not so nice.

The documentation for T3 is just plain better than the documentation for I7. Eric Eve wrote most of the T3 docs (as well as the alternative T3 library that I prefer), and he’s more articulate, more orderly, and more patient than Graham Nelson and Emily Short, who did the I7 docs. (Nelson is the person who created Inform.) There’s a definite gee-whiz quality about the I7 docs, a tendency to assume that the reader really doesn’t care about all the details and just wants to get going quickly. That may even be true, but when you’re looking for details it’s deadly.

The coding language of T3 is better structured and easier to read than I7 code. T3 is closely based on the syntax of C++, so things that belong together are found together in tidy blocks of code. I7 is a rules-based language, in which the compiler assembles rulebooks out of little snippets of rules that both the individual author and various developers of add-ons can strew out all over the place in whatever order or section they fancy. This becomes especially problematic when you’re trying to figure out what one of those add-ons (called Extensions in Inform-speak) is doing with its newly defined rules. You can read the source code for the Extension, but make sense of it? Maybe, maybe not.

I have more than a hundred I7 Extensions installed, written by 29 different authors. Some of them require others in order to run, so even if you can figure out the code in the one that’s puzzling you, it’s likely to relate to other stuff that you have to hunt for. The adv3Lite library for T3, in contrast, has literally everything. No extensions are needed. Also, Eric Eve grabbed good ideas from I7, such as scenes and regions, and built them into his adv3Lite library. So you really don’t lose much by sticking with T3. Except possibly users’ access to the completed game. I’m still investigating that.

Way too much I7 code is one-off syntax, designed to do just one thing — in a tidy way, to be sure, but you have to know the correct syntax for that one thing. Today I was having a problem getting a certain thing to happen in my story. The code looked fine, but it didn’t do what I wanted. So I posted a message on the forum, and someone soon suggested a way to write the code that solved the problem. What this suggestion didn’t do was inform me how the new code phrase related to what I had just tried, or didn’t. It was a one-off solution to a specific problem, so it taught me nothing that I could use elsewhere in the future.

Yes, I7 has some nice features. And T3 isn’t perfect. But the little aggravations build up.

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Tone-Deaf

I’ll make this short. It’s late, and I’m tired. One of the more destructive things a writer of fiction can do is insert a sentence that breaks the tone of a scene. And here we have a fine example.

As I mentioned in my previous bulletin, I’m reading Book 3 of Michelle West’s House Wars series. We have now reached the hugely dramatic climax. The setting: the dark and grimly magnificent warren of tunnels that lie beneath the city. On one side, the good guys: the two kings, the three high priests, a small group of wizards, a bunch of bards (who can sing magic stuff), one seer, the kings’ stalwart guards, and an undetermined number of armed and armored men. On the other side, the bad guys: Three demons from the depths of Hell.

There has already been a skirmish with some lesser demons that left five of the good guys dead and another fifteen injured. Peculiarly, West has left that encounter offstage. But now we’re ready for the main action. One of the three big demons shows up, evidently with maleficent intent. The viewpoint character here is a guy named Devon, but he doesn’t have much to do. The only other thing you need to know to appreciate (?) this passage is that a fellow named Meralonne is the chief wizard, and an important character throughout the story. Aaaand … here we go:

With fire came light; it was an orange light that shed heat and twisted the air as it moved. In its wake, Devon thought, mouth drying, legend walked, cloaked in flame. It was not human, nor had it ever been; no one could mistake the creature for anything but demonic. It was taller than the tallest man present, perhaps double the height, and wings of flame, with hearts of ebony, spread from either side of its back, its large shoulders. It stood like a man — like a giant — on two legs, and its arms, burning as its wings burned, rested a moment at its sides.

It had no eyes but fire, and when it opened its mouth, fire flew as well.

“This is ill news,” Meralonne whispered softly….

When I hit that last line, I laughed aloud. Faced with a ten-foot-tall fire-breathing demon, Meralonne makes a soft comment that would be fitting in a conversational scene in a genteel drawing-room. We can almost picture him pausing to light his pipe. This is tone-deaf dialog with a vengeance. In a single brief phrase, Michelle West has turned her dramatic battle scene into a rubber bath toy.

The preceding paragraph is, I have to add, pretty typical West. It’s badly over-written, and yet curiously unfocused. Orange light is twisting the air. Devon thinks about a legend, and the only hint of the awful fear he must be feeling is that his mouth is getting dry. That’s not a good detail. Sweat and heart palpitations I would buy, laced perhaps with a little anticipatory loosening of the bowels. Dry mouth, not so much. And those hearts of ebony in the wings of flame? Not a clear visual impression.

She can’t be satisfied with one phrase to describe something; she has to keep piling on repetitive description — “taller than the tallest man present, perhaps double the height,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, “like a giant.” It’s not enough that the wings spread from its back, she has to mention the shoulders too. She does this sort of thing throughout the story.

“It was not human … but demonic.” Well, duh. And note the authorial intrusion: “nor had it ever been.” West does a fair number of those little intrusions. At first I thought it was a sophisticated technique, but by now I’ve concluded that she just can’t resist telling us more stuff.

Ah, well. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

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