Fear of Rewrites

Over the years I’ve had occasion to critique quite a few pieces of fiction by aspiring writers. When I critique, I call it as I see it. If there’s stuff that’s awkward or doesn’t make sense, I say so. I’m not always right (though of course I always think I’m right), but I do think in detail about the story or novel I’m reading and make precise observations.

My experience has been that, quite often, writers don’t want to change what they’ve written. Again and again, after I offer a critique, the writer will explain how their story has to be the way it is.

Folks, last year I paid a freelance editor $5,000 to critique my novel series (see the covers up at the top of your browser window). I’m still doing rewrites on Book 4. My editor was not right about everything, but she was right about a lot of things. I had to toss out some scenes that I really liked. I had to do a lot of difficult grunt work to fix things that were flawed.

Not just sentences. Fixing sentences is easy. I’m talking about fixing basic story problems.

Why don’t all writers do this? I think they’re too emotionally attached to their work. A certain level of emotional attachment is of course vital! If you didn’t care about what you were writing, why would you bother writing it?

The challenge is this: When it comes time to edit, you need to separate yourself from those emotions. You need to be willing to look at your own work in a cold, clinical way. If there’s an emotional attachment, it should be at the very highest level — to the work as a whole, not to a certain character, a certain scene, or a certain plot premise.

Maybe, in order to be loyal to the work as a whole, you have to ditch a character or rethink your plot. This is painful, and it’s a lot of work. Amateur writers don’t want the pain, and they don’t want to do the extra work.

Maybe if I charged $1,000 instead of offering to critique for free, my comments would be taken more seriously. Maybe.

There’s another factor to consider, and this may be more central. I spent many years as a staff writer and editor at a magazine. We published only nonfiction, and that may make a difference. My job as an editor was to provide good material for the readers. The level of satisfaction or anguish that freelance writers might experience when I asked them to change a story mattered not a whit. This paragraph makes no sense: change it. Your lead is boring: change it (or I’ll change it myself and not even consult you — I did that a lot). You need to do more research on X and Y.

What mattered was the reader’s satisfaction, not the writer’s.

I should note in passing that over the years I’ve sold a few fiction stories to well-known science fiction magazines. No magazine editor of fiction ever changed a word of any of my stories. They rejected a lot of stories, but they didn’t demand changes. Novels — a different situation again. Yes, editors of novels at mainstream publishing houses do demand changes.

The factor that makes a difference is not magazine publishing versus anything else. It’s about whether the story works for the reader. Editors are in the business of judging that.

My suspicion is that most amateur writers of fiction have no idea how to separate their own deep emotional satisfaction over what they’ve written from the potential satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) of their eventual readers. They’re unable to step outside of their work and look at it the way a reader would.

This is hard to do. I’d be lying if I said I can always manage it. (That’s why I hired an editor.) We all need to have someone else read what we’ve written and provide that outside perspective. But once I have those comments from an outsider, I take them seriously. I rewrite. That’s where, as the saying goes, the rubber hits the road.

In other English-speaking countries, “rubber” is a synonym for “pencil eraser.” ‘Nuff said.

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Not Watching the Movie

From time to time I dip into the bottomless pool of self-published fiction, just to see what’s thrashing around out there. I prefer not to shine a spotlight on the awful prose I run into. Dwelling on it would look petty. So I’m not going to mention the name of the work I encountered this week, nor name the author. The problem I observed can, I think, be described in general terms.

This particular story had an opening that was a fast-paced action scene. (The opening was all I read. It was visible thanks to Amazon’s Look Inside utility.) The action was exciting enough, and an action opener is always good. The trouble was, the scene didn’t make sense in a coherent, linear way. The bits of danger and creepiness were not well attached to one another.

I began to feel that the author had failed to watch the movie. Not that this story has been made into a movie, you understand. What I mean is, the author had not entered deeply enough into the scene to notice all of the details of the action. Not having noticed them, he was unable to put them on the page in a way that the reader could follow.

It occurred to me that possibly this author first developed a passion for writing fiction by reading comic books. In a comic book or graphic novel, there is no linear narrative at all, just a sequence of still frames.

I can’t read (if that’s the right word) graphic novels. I’ve tried. A prose narrative is as different from a graphic novel as it is from a filmscript. If you don’t understand the differences, you’ll never be a good writer.

In this particular story, the hero is climbing up a rock face. He is being pursued by a malevolent creature. We hear the sound of scritching claws. He clambers onto a tiny ledge. And suddenly the creature is there with him on the ledge — but we, the readers, have not seen the creature climb up onto the ledge. It appears suddenly, in a still frame.

There were other problems with this particular story opening; no point going into them here. The essential point is, a writer needs to envision a scene — every scene — in enough detail that all of the important points of the action can be described. And not just the points; the linkages. Which points and linkages are essential and which can safely be omitted is, of course, an endlessly complex juggling act. But if your hero is climbing up a rock face while being pursued by a creature, the moment when the creature clambers up onto the ledge is not a moment that can be omitted. Didn’t the hero try to kick it in the head or stomp on its hands while it was trying to get onto the ledge? If not, why not? This is one of the many questions that a good writer would ask while writing this scene.

Until you’ve envisioned a scene in considerable detail, you won’t have the raw materials at your fingertips. You’ll just be tossing in whatever you think will excite the reader, without regard for narrative continuity. At best, you’ll be scripting a comic book.

Watch the movie. That’s what your imagination is for.

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Kvothe the Raven

Large fantasy novels sometimes get off to a slow start. When tackling a new one, I try to give it 125 pages before I decide whether to go on or bail out. By that point, if not before, a writer should have made his or her intentions clear.

The Name of the Wind is a fat paperback — more than 700 pages. I figured I really ought to give author Patrick Rothfuss 200 pages before I rushed to judgment.

It was tough sledding. I really wanted to give up around page 150, but I forced myself to stagger onward. Such is the price of virtue.

First the good news: His prose is very good. Very readable. The problems with the book have to do with the plot and the lead character.

In the opening we meet an innkeeper named Kvothe. A local farmer comes into the inn one night with the remains of an evil creature he has killed — a black spider the size of a wagon wheel. Knowing these creatures never hunt alone, Kvothe goes out into the woods and kills five more. Single-handed. Clearly he’s not an ordinary innkeeper. What he’s doing hiding out on the backside of nowhere, pretending to be an innkeeper, Rothfuss does not trouble to explain.

An invasion of giant spiders could be the inciting incident of a vivid dramatic story. But it’s not. Once the spiders are dead, the incident seems to have no further importance. Kvothe is not worried about why the spiders showed up, or what they might portend. He does not summon the villagers and give them a stern warning about what to watch out for. He doesn’t even lay out any special defensive measures. He just goes back to his inn, tends a few scratches, and that’s the end of the business. The novel’s opening incident is, in essence, a fake — a cheat. It’s intended to grab the reader’s attention, but the real story seems not yet to have begun.

A scribe arrives at the inn. He has been seeking Kvothe, who is apparently famous for some reason, though Rothfuss doesn’t bother to explain his fame to the reader. Miraculously, the scribe has stumbled upon his quarry. Whereupon he whips out a sheaf of paper, and Kvothe begins telling the story of his life. Starting from when he was a lad.

At this point the book shifts into first person — great swaths of first-person narrative, interrupted by brief chapters in which the scribe takes a little break. In theory, Kvothe is dictating the story of his life to the scribe, and we’re reading what the scribe wrote down. However, the narrative is far too detailed for that to be believable. We aren’t actually reading the manuscript narrated by Kvothe. Rather, the incident of the giant spiders is a frame-tale for the real narrative, which is a conventional first-person novel with young Kvothe as the narrator and lead character. The frame-tale has by this time dawdled on for more than 50 pages — but hey, it’s a fat paperback. Why be in a hurry?

Young Kvothe is a kid in a traveling theatrical caravan. His father is the caravan leader. It seems a rather idyllic childhood, and indeed there doesn’t seem to be a cloud on the horizon. We’re told that young Kvothe is very bright. Oddly, he has not a single friend his own age. There seem to be no other children in the caravan, and the adults aren’t very colorful characters either. Why aren’t there any other children? Does Kvothe wish he had playmates? We’re not told.

An old guy starts traveling along with the caravan. He teaches Kvothe some magic. Real magic, that is, not stage magic. The old guy is a sorcerer. But after a while he leaves the caravan.

Shortly afterward, the entire caravan is massacred by some demons, or fae or something — the exact nature of the evil creatures is not made clear. Young Kvothe, of course, is off in the woods when this happens, and he is miraculously spared.

This is a terribly traumatic event. Kvothe goes into shock. He retreats into the woods and lives there for months, all alone, playing his father’s lute and trapping rabbits to eat. Only when three of the lute strings have broken does he figure out that he needs to get back to civilization. Figuring a small town is unlikely to have lute strings for sale, he heads for the big city.

The possibility that the demons might come back and hunt him down while he’s camping in the woods seems not to have occurred to him. The possibility that ordinary outlaws might find and kill him — no, the woods are a safe haven, apparently. He has no desire to tell anybody what happened. Warn the nearby villagers that demons are roving around? No. Arrange for the bodies of his parents to be buried? No. Young Kvothe has no motivation at all. He’s numb.

I’ll buy that this sort of trauma could make an 11-year-old boy retreat emotionally for some weeks, and would have lingering repercussions for years. But we’ve been assured that young Kvothe is exceptionally bright. From the moment his parents are butchered, he starts acting like an idiot.

Naturally, his father’s precious lute is smashed the day he arrives in the big city. He then spends three years as a beggar — a homeless boy, often half-starved, clad in rags, getting beaten up more than once. And during this entire period, he makes no friends among the other beggar children. He doesn’t try to find work. He doesn’t use the magic the old guy has taught him in order to get money, nor does he show a trace of normal intelligence. He has become an idiot and a victim.

Even by the age of 15, he has no motivation. He’s not trying to do anything other than keep from freezing when winter rolls around. Find a place to sleep indoors? Nope. Get a job sweeping out some stable somewhere? Nope. Make friends with bigger, stronger boys who can protect him? Nope. Notice a pretty girl? Nope. Vow to get revenge for his parents’ death? Nope. Take a bath, even? Apparently not.

That’s the point at which I stopped reading. There’s no rising action or motivation in the frame-tale, and there’s none in the first-person story either. I don’t like stories in which the lead character behaves like an idiot, and that’s exactly what young Kvothe is doing. He isn’t even a very interesting character. He’s not colorful or clever or eccentric. He’s just a punching bag.

Yes, sometimes a story takes a while to reveal itself. But along the way, the reader needs to be given some reason to keep turning the pages. If the lead character is not going to roll up his sleeves and tackle his foes, we need to meet some colorful characters, or be drawn into a fresh and exotic world, or at least get a few laughs. Rothfuss gives us none of that. The Name of the Wind is grim and motionless.

Am I going to keep reading? Nevermore.

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Epic Fantasy Done Right

If you’re looking for a fine and somewhat unusual epic fantasy series, may I recommend Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife? It may be a little low-key for some readers’ tastes, but in the end it packs quite a wallop.

The four volumes are titled, respectively, Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon. The main characters are an 18-year-old farm girl — well, let’s say “young woman,” because she’s short and spunky, but definitely not a child, in spite of her name, which is Fawn — and a 55-year-old patroller named Dag. And of course they soon fall in love. I won’t spoil the details of how their romance develops, other than to say that the first unusual thing about the story is that it models a healthy loving relationship. An unlikely relationship, of course, given not only the age difference but their very different backgrounds, but Bujold has no trouble convincing the reader that this is a real love story.

It’s not just a love story, of course. The world in which they live is menaced, intermittently but in a dire way, by creatures called malices. A malice is a sort of evil psychic thing that pops up out of the ground and starts turning whatever living creatures it can find into its puppets. As a malice feeds psychically on wolves, bears, or people, it gets stronger and smarter. And malices are basically immortal. There’s only one way to kill them, and it’s insanely dangerous.

Dag and his fellow patrollers hunt the malices, and they have a magic (the sharing knives of the title) with which malices can be killed. This makes for a couple of harrowing battle scenes, but battle scenes aren’t Bujold’s primary concern. There’s only one big battle scene per book, and only three of the four involve malices. (The malice in the last book is the scariest. Hoo, boy, is it scary! No kidding.) The heart of the story is about the friction between the patrollers and the farmers. They don’t like or trust one another. The farmers think patrollers are cannibals. The patrollers hold themselves aloof, because they have a psychic power that the farmers lack, and they need that psychic power to fight the malices. They’re saving the farmers from what would be literally a fate worse than death, but the farmers don’t appreciate it or even believe the threat is real.

Dag struggles to find a way to create a rapprochement between the two cultures, because he sees that in the future they’re going to need one another. The patrollers think he’s crazy, and they want nothing to do with his farmer bride. Oh, I wasn’t going to mention that they get married. Too late now. Dag’s patroller campmates don’t even recognize that the marriage is valid, and they certainly don’t want a farmer girl in their camp.

The working out of this conflict takes 1,500 pages or so. And the story works as well as it does, holding our interest (well, holding my interest, anyway), because Bujold has the skill to give us real people. We come to know Fawn and Dag. We care about them.

The world Bujold has created is perhaps a bit too simple to be realistic. The farmers have no kings or dukes, no palaces or castles, no standing armies — no government at all, really. And no religion either. When Fawn’s brother Whit is about to marry his lady friend, they go before the town clerk. That’s as organized as a farmer town gets, and the farmers have nothing bigger or grander than small towns.

I don’t have the heart to complain about this too loudly, though. For one thing, it’s refreshing to read a fantasy story that’s not larded with thick slabs of palace intrigue. Can’t have palace intrigue when there are no palaces! There’s not even an ultimate evil to be defeated. Malices are nasty and dangerous, but the danger they pose is strictly local, not globe-spanning (though it could easily become globe-spanning, if the patrollers ever failed to find and kill a malice before it grew too powerful to be attacked).

Bujold’s writing is very concrete, detailed, and precise. She doesn’t give us a hurried, shallow, slapdash account of this almost-too-simple culture. People eat, and urinate, and get saddle sores, and occasionally vomit, and play tricks on one another, and get broken legs, and tell lies, and have miscarriages, and get bitten by mosquitoes. Dag gets along fine with only one hand, because his left hand was chomped off by a malice-driven wolf some years ago. He has a hook, which is held on with a harness, and sometimes he swaps out the hook for a clamp that can hold a bow, so that he can shoot. The details of this handicap ground the narrative as well as making the strange courtship between Dag and Fawn more poignant.

Hundreds of pages of this unlikely couple traveling through their world, facing danger now and again, but more often having to explain, over and over, to both scandalized farmers and hostile patrollers, that yes, a patroller and a farmer can be married to one another — it’s an amazing love story.

And as we might expect of a master storyteller, there are a couple of twists along the way. Only patroller magic can kill a malice; farmers are powerless against the evil things. So naturally Fawn kills a malice only 50 pages into Book 1.

I’ll let you discover the rest of the story for yourself.

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Trick or Treat

I thought Tamora Pierce’s first novel about Beka Cooper was pretty good. Haven’t read the second one yet. While browsing in our Friends of the Library used bookstore, I spotted a two-in-one hardback called Tricksters (containing her Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen). For a buck, how could I go wrong?

You can’t always tell a book by its cover. Tricksters has possibly the cheesiest cover art I’ve ever seen on a commercially published hardback. (To be fair, the yellows are brighter than you’re seeing here.)


But the novel could be terrific, right? Alas, no.

Sixteen-year-old Aly is terrifically smart and not a little impetuous. She wants to be a spy, but her father (who operates the spy network) says no. Oh, and she comes home from college with blue hair. Blue hair in a Medieval-style story with horses and castles and swords and such? Really? But this is a Young Adult story; we’ll cut Pierce some slack on the hair.

Aly sets off in a boat — solo sailing on the open ocean. Not smart. Her jaunt is swiftly interrupted when she’s captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Now, being captured and sold into slavery would be very, very traumatic, right? But Pierce doesn’t actually show us what happens. She tells us about it afterward. Omitting a deeply emotional event that moves the plot forward: not a highly recommended technique for the canny author.

So Aly, whose godparents are the king and queen of her homeland, is now a slave, complete with a magical metal collar that will choke her if she tries to run away. But she steals a dagger (slaves are not permitted such things, obviously) and cheerfully imagines that she’ll be home with her parents by autumn. She’s bought by a good family of nobles. Break out the waterproof hip boots: We’re now wading knee-deep in the YA swamp.

The good nobles are sent into exile by the mad king of this other land, so they sell most of their household slaves, keeping only a dozen or so (plus the free servants, plus the men-at-arms) and board a ship for their country castle, which is high up in the jungle mountains.

Aly is now the child-minder for the two younger noble children, and has made friends with the two elder daughters. When Aly is out tending the goats, the noble girls wander out into the countryside to chat with her. The two noble girls seem entirely oblivious to the class structure of their society. They’re modern teenagers, is what it amounts to.

A god has recruited Aly to keep these two girls safe from harm; by the hints we’re given, it’s not hard to guess that the elder of the two is going to end up as the queen. Why a god would recruit a 16-year-old girl with a stolen dagger to guard his chosen queen-in-waiting is, shall we say, a bit obscure. He could perhaps have found a stalwart young man with a sword. But whatever. This is YA.

We step into the mucky sinkhole of my metaphorical swamp on page 94. I invite you to contemplate her interaction with one of the old slaves:

Lokeij gripped the back of Aly’s neck with a friendly hand. “A word of advice. Slaves aren’t so knowledgeable about history,” he murmured. “Not unless you’ve been specially educated and sold as a tutor. Are you a tutor?”

Aly smiled at him. “That’s so sweet,” she replied. “My da always said my brains were too big for my head.”

Lokeij looked into her face, his rheumy dark eyes inspecting her almost pore by pore. “If I were you, little parrot, I’d rub dirt in my bright feathers and work harder to pass for a sparrow,” he said.

Aly spread her tunic, streaked with grass and mud stains. “The goats have taken care of that, don’t you think? I’m sparrowing already,. Chirp. Tweet.” She winked at him….

Here we have a young noblewoman who has been sold into slavery. She is receiving a friendly warning from an older slave: Carrying on the way she has been reveals too much. She could get herself into serious trouble. Like, you know, dead. And what does she do? She makes a joke of it and then winks.

The lesson in this for aspiring writers is clear: Your lead character must take her situation seriously! Yes, your heroine can be 16 years old, spunky as all get-out, smart enough to match wits with a god, and endowed with whatever superpower you like — but when she’s in danger, she must take the danger seriously. She must worry. Even when putting on a bold front, she must feel the fear.

If she doesn’t take her predicament seriously, your readers won’t.

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The Rudiments

When a writer has become successful, there is always, I suspect (I wouldn’t know), a temptation to think, “Oh, the basics of good writing no longer apply to me. I know what I’m doing.”

This temptation seems to have gotten the better of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing of his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan. It’s 500 pages long, and I slogged through 400 pages before deciding it would be a waste of time to read the last hundred pages. Too much had gone wrong. I just didn’t care anymore.

To begin with, there’s an enormous amount of telling in this novel. Novice writers are generally advised, “Show, don’t tell.” There are certainly exceptions to the rule. Sometimes you have to tell. One of those exceptions, arguably, comes into play when your story is an epic depicting a great sweeping historical drama. In such a case, yes, a few judicious pages of telling may be necessary. And indeed, Lions is a great sweeping historical drama. But there’s just too much telling in it.

I open nearly at random to page 266. From 266 through to 269 we’re treated to more than 1,000 words of straight-up telling. I could quote you the whole thing, but it would numb my typing hands as thoroughly as it would numb your brain. Let’s peek at a few bits and then hurry on. The paragraphs open as follows: “There were also winter entertainments of esoteric variety….” “The Jaddite taverns were always crowded in winter, despite the imprecations of the wadjis. At court, in the taverns, in the better homes, poets and musicians….” “There were even some entertaining wadjis to be found in the smaller out-of-the-way temples, or on street corners….” “Many of the higher-born women of Cartada enjoyed attending upon these ragged, wild-eyed figures in the morning, to be pleasantly frightened….” “It was not at all a bad place to be in the cold season, Cartada. This remained true….” “Almalik I had governed Cartada for the khalifs of Silvenes for three years, and then reigned as king for fifteen….” “Now there was, and the prevailing view seemed to be….” “Nor was the new king a weakling, by all early appearances….” “A number of the more visibly corrupt of the officials had already been dealt with….” “There were some of this sort at every court….” “Those apprehended officials who were not yet castrates had been gelded before execution….” “New officials were appointed from the appropriate families….”

It goes on like this, almost interminably. To be fair, more than half of the book consists of dramatic episodes, not exposition, but some of the dramatic episodes seem oddly irrelevant. Queen Ines is shot with a poisoned arrow, but after a number of pages in which she almost dies and then recovers, the incident seems to have been forgotten. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Jehane, the lady doctor who is the lead character of the book, is courted (urbanely, not in a pushy way) by the chancellor of King Badir, but then the chancellor switches his attentions to the exiled Queen Zabira, who is more receptive. And so what? Assassins attempt to kill Zabira’s two young sons, and the assassins are thwarted and killed. And so what? Rodrigo and his men massacre a bunch of other men and steal a bunch of gold — but is the gold important? No. Does Rodrigo’s character change as a result? No. Some other assassins try to take out Rodrigo, but they only manage to kill Jehane’s faithful servant Velaz. And so what? Though Velaz has been trotting along in Jehane’s footsteps for 350 pages, he has never become a real character; he’s what writers call a red shirt — the anonymous crew member who beams down to the planet with Kirk and Spock but will shortly die.

It would be wrong to say there’s no rising action in the story. At the point where I set the book aside in disgust, a major battle is clearly about to erupt, a battle that has been brewing from the beginning (or really for centuries before that). The problem is that the characters’ actions have little or no impact on the main historical arc of the story. The arc of the story would proceed with or without these particular characters. Lions is about history, not about people.

There are, to be sure, people in the book. The central characters are Jehane, her lover Ammar (another assassin, by the way; also a renowned poet), and the mercenary Captain Rodrigo Belmonte. I stopped reading for two related reasons. First, these three have no realistic hope of halting the enormous battle that is about to erupt. It’s going to roll right over them. Even if they (bizarrely) manage to stop this battle, the historical forces that led to it are still in play, so there will be another titanic battle a few years down the road. Not even a naked deus ex machina could produce a happy ending using these ingredients. Second, and even more important, they’re not very interesting characters. I didn’t find myself liking or caring about them.

Putting these three factors together — tons of telling, actions that could have been deleted without changing the story, and characters who are rather shallow, powerless to change the outcome, and not very likable — and you have a book that violates what is arguably the most basic precept of fiction writing:

Thou shalt not bore thy reader.

A novelist can get away with almost anything, as long as he or she doesn’t ride roughshod over that precept.

I’ve liked some of Kay’s other novels. This one is a sore disappointment. After setting it down, I picked up the first book of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife. In two days, I’ve read the first two books in that series. Couldn’t put them down. Characters you like and care about, and not a speck of telling anywhere. It’s all showing. The first volume seems a little light, but the second picks up the pace, and it’s easy to see that the third is going to launch into high gear pretty quickly.

Sorry, Guy. Not oh-Kay.


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Butcher Block

Human history is a dreadfully bloody affair. Few readers above the age of 12 would want to read a fictionalized history in which all is sweetness and light. Wholesale butchery, however, is not very attractive in a story. One wants the hacking and slashing to be leavened with a healthy dollop of hope.

I want that, anyhow, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

I’ve been reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. I’m about halfway through it, and I’m asking myself whether I want to go on. Kay is a fine writer, so I probably will. But I’d be lying if I said I’m enjoying the story.

Lions is set in an alternate-history Europe, in what we would call the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance. It’s not really Europe, it’s just a whole lot like Europe, and he’s quite content to have you understand the parallels. In place of the Islamic sphere, he gives us the Asharites, who worship the stars. In place of Christianity, we have the Jaddites, who worship Jad, the sun god. And in place of the Jews (sort of — the parallel is very loose) we have the Kindath, who worship the two moons. Both the Asharites and the Jaddites discriminate viciously against the Kindath.

The story is set in a western peninsula called Esperana. (Spain, in effect.) Historically, southern Spain was part of the Islamic sphere until 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella finally drove the Muslims out and made all of Europe Christian. Kay has given us a loose equivalent. Esperana is partly Asharite, partly Jaddite, and there’s going to be a war.

But who is the reader supposed to root for? The Asharites in the desert across the strait (that is, they’re sort of in North Africa) are a monstrous crew. An Asharite prince from Esperana has appeared before their leaders to request their aid, and the leader cuts off the prince’s hand. Why? Because he’s impolite and not pious enough.

On the other side, the Jaddites to the north of Esperana are planning what we can’t call a crusade, no cross being involved, to invade the Asharites’ homeland in the east. On the way they have paused to butcher a whole city full of Kindath, a people who only want to be left alone.

There are no good guys in this story, and that’s a big problem.

The main characters in the novel are a captain of mercenaries and an assassin. They’re the good guys. They have just tricked and butchered a bunch of soldiers who were trying to transport casks full of gold. No surrender, no ransom, just wholesale butchery. And these are the good guys.

Looking down the road, I’m guessing that the novel will conclude with a gigantic battle between the Asharites and the Jaddites. And do I care who wins? No, I do not. As in real life, both sides are equally contemptible.

First-year students of fiction-writing are taught that your lead character should be likable. The lead should be a person readers can identify with, at least a little. They should be rooting for the lead, hoping he or she reaches a happy ending. Kay seems to have forgotten that precept. The conflict in Esperana is not going to have a happy ending.

There’s lots of hacking and slashing, though. Horses falling into pits lined with spears. Guys having their heads whacked off with one blow of a sword. A battlefield surgeon sawing off a man’s leg to save him. What jolly fun we humans are!

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