Text and Pretext

What makes a fantasy novel a compelling read? Many people will have their own answers to this eternal question, and the answer may differ from one reader to the next. But isn’t the answer a kind of Holy Grail that writers seek?

Today I offer what may be a modest clue or two. I usually avoid making pejorative remarks about the work of my fellow writers, but since I may want to indulge in a brief quotation or two by way of illustration, I’ll name names. From the library I picked up a novel called A Turn of Light, by Julie Czerneda. I’ve managed to slog my way through to page 75 (of 840 — this is a fat book). I may keep going; there’s something going on in the story, and what it is isn’t yet clear. But reading it requires patience.

Today the library sent me an email saying that another novel, Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, is due in two days. It had gotten buried in the stack. I hadn’t looked at it, didn’t even remember the title. So after lunch I picked it up to give it a try. I’m now 75 pages in (of only 330), and I’m riveted. I’m eager to find out what happens next!

What factors separate the two books? If I say Three Parts Dead is more realistic, that may give the wrong impression. Its fantasy premise is slightly beyond weird. Magic, a tangle of legalisms relating to the actions of the gods (one of whom has just died unexpectedly, that being the mainspring of the plot), people who can fall from two miles up and not die, gargoyles who shapeshift into human form, necromancy, tattoos that suck the sunlight out of the air — no, it’s not realism in any simple sense.

One difference is that the world in Three Parts Dead is more complex than the world in A Turn of Light. In the former book there are cities with skyscrapers and taxis. In the latter, the author tries to fill in a geopolitical back-story, but the back-story is just a jumble of place-names, border skirmishes, and banishments; it doesn’t jell. What’s onstage is a Disney-style fairy tale. The charming rustic village in which our heroine, Jenn Nalynn, lives has exactly eight families, and everybody gets along like happy baby ducks. Consider this description — Jenn is returning home from a visit to her favorite meadow, where she has been picking the petals off of daisies (and hanging out with an invisible being whom she doesn’t suspect is a dragon):

Jenn climbed the far gate, more mindful of her skirt within the village proper [than she had been in the meadow]. Cynd Treff looked up from berry picking and smiled, her big hat tilted so the sun caught her freckles. From the clanging, her husband Davi was busy at his forge. Off to milk the cows, Hettie Ropp and her stepmother, Covie, waved a cheerful greeting. Cheffy and his sister Alyssa went ahead, arms wrapped around empty milk jugs almost as tall as they were, laughing as they tried to bump into one another. Birds chirped in the apple trees, laden with fruit, that filled the heart of the village; Zehr Emms whistled as he worked on his house. Supper smells filled the air. Everyone was busy. Everyone content.

I mean, doesn’t that just curdle the milk in the jugs? Be honest, now. Berry picking, smiling, freckles, milking cows, cheerful greeting, laughing, birds chirping, apple trees laden with fruit, a guy whistling, and supper smells, all in one freaking paragraph. And this is not an isolated example; the whole beginning of the book is much the same.

Let’s contrast that with what happens to Tara Abernathy near the beginning of Three Parts Dead. She has just fallen out of someplace very high in the air (a consequence of being kicked out of some sort of college of wizards) into a desert, where she had to wring a buzzard’s neck to have something to eat. And now she has made it back to her village:

Four weeks later she arrived on the outskirts of Edgemont, gaunt and sun-blasted, seeing things that did not precisely exist. Her mother found her collapsed near their cattle fence. A lot of crying followed her discovery, and a lot of shouting, and more crying after the shouting, and then a lot of soup. Edgemont mothers were renowned for their practicality, and Ma Abernathy in particular had iron faith in the restorative powers of chicken broth.

Tara’s father was understanding, considering the circumstances.

“Well, you’re back,” he said, a concerned expression on his broad face. He did not ask where she had been for the last eight years, or what happened there, or how she earned her scars….

Here we find: gaunt and sun-blasted, hallucinations, collapsed, crying, shouting, and scars. We find a father who is accepting, but determined not to be curious. In two sentences, the father has become a real person to us, unlike Hettie Ropp or Zehr Emms.

But it’s not just a difference in the content. There are plenty of fantasy writers who write about scars, but do it badly. The difference is in how Max Gladstone does it. He makes it real. If I had to put the difference in a nutshell, I’d say that Czerneda set out to tell a story. Gladstone set out to tell you about some things that happened to real people who happen to live in a magical world.

One book is text, the other is pretext.

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