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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