The Wrong and Grinding Load

It’s never a good idea to criticize one’s fellow authors, especially in public. But I’m in a hellish mood today, so I may as well slop a little of it around.

In search of a jolly distraction, I ventured into my book room (small room, shelves and more shelves) and grabbed Dennis McKiernan’s The Dragonstone. Picked it up at a used book sale, I’m sure. I’ve never read any of his stuff. But it’s a fat fantasy novel, and that’s what the doctor (I’m also the doctor) ordered. Great cover art, too — a wizard doing something while two enormous dragons bare their teeth.

One of the very first things they teach in how-to-write books is that the plot advances only when your lead character takes action to solve a pressing problem, and as a result the situation changes. If the character tries something and it doesn’t work, that’s a change, because the character has learned something, but it’s better if the problem gets worse.

If, on the other hand, the story proceeds through page after page of wheel-spinning activity, during which the lead character does not address the plot problem in any vigorous way and nothing in the situation changes, that’s not plotting. It’s bad. Delete it and get on with the story. The example that’s sometimes used is, a man gets up in the morning, showers and shaves, gets dressed, goes downstairs, catches a cab, rides to the airport, gets on a plane, and flies off to Rio de Janeiro — and nothing has happened. Start the story when the plane touches down in Rio; you can (and should!) skip the rest.

Near the beginning of The Dragonstone we learn that a female elf named Arin has had a terrifying vision — the world engulfed in war. The vision is specific as to the bloodshed and the grim aftermath, but we’re given no hint, nor is Arin, about who has plunged the world into war, or why. She doesn’t even know whether the vision portends something that will happen soon, or whether it will happen centuries hence.

She and half a dozen of her fellow elves then set out on horseback, riding hither and yon through a stunningly immense and sparsely populated forest, hoping to find somebody who can interpret the vision. They cross a great river. They ride some more.

Eighty pages later, they’re still searching. And absolutely nothing has happened. There have been, to quote Paul Simon, incidents and accidents, hints and allegations — but the plot is completely stalled out.

What’s worse, their entire quest for information is surrounded by a frame-tale. In the frame-tale, which is where the book begins, Arin is telling two men about the quest. Evidently she has been told in a vision or prophecy that a one-eyed man will help her, and that she’ll find him in this harbor town. She and her faithful female Japanese warrior companion (wait? Japanese? what is a female samurai doing in a world that clearly isn’t Earth? don’t ask me) have now found two one-eyed men, and they don’t know which one is the right one, so Arin is telling the tale to them both. Her tale is spun out over the course of some days, during which imminent danger is quite evidently not lurking. On that basis we can reasonably guess that the story in which they’re riding through the forest for months on end is not going to ramp up to any disturbing complication. And when I say “months,” I’m not exaggerating for rhetorical effect. At one point McKiernan mentions that it’s July. Later, they’re still riding and it’s November.

No, wait. Months with Roman names? Am I going to nitpick about that? Yeah, I guess I will.

Along the way he ladles out plenty of mythic grandeur. The elves are immortal. The trees they planted in the forest millenia ago are hundreds of feet tall. There are silver wolves and silver larks and an ancient fortress. Magical beings are glimpsed among the trees.

What’s not glimpsed is a functioning rural economy. At one point the questing elves, while preparing to depart from a village of some other elves, fill their saddlebags with grain for the horses. Grain is grown in fields, right? But where are the fields? This village is in the middle of an ancient forest! And where are the farmers? Elves don’t farm, everybody knows that.

The elves themselves are flat as to characterization. Even Arin herself is not quite all there. She cries sometimes, but her individuality is tissue-thin. The other elves are described mainly in terms of their hair and eye color, plus ancient titles of respect and frequent references to their height. The business of height is odd; McKiernan uses the word “foot” in what is evidently the modern human sense, without seeming to notice that his elves, who average less than five of our feet in height, would have small feet. By their own measure they would be six feet tall!

The Dragonstone was published in 1996 by Roc, a division of Penguin Putnam, and went through at least half a dozen printings. I’d guesstimate it at about 200,000 words. If there’s a lesson in those facts, it escapes me at the moment. I’m baffled.

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