Quote of the Moment

"Magic comes from what is inside you. It is part of you. You can't weave together a spell you don't believe in." - Jim Butcher

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - World-Building and Structure

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms there are spoilers in this essay.


* * * * *




The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a great dark epic fantasy that kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next. N. K. Jemisin did an excellent job with world-building, and the structure she used was a nice addition which added a whole new layer to the story.

I admit, I initially had a difficult time getting into the novel. Near the beginning, we get more of a world-building info dump, instead of story progression and characterization. I honestly think this was one of the drawbacks of the novel. Too much backstory and world-building right at the beginning has a tendency to drag the narrative down. The true pull into Yeine's world didn't come for me until she first meets Nahadoth, at the end of chapter three. "The black-haired man lifted his head to look at me. He was smiling. I could see his face now, and his mad, mad eyes, and I suddenly knew who he was. What he was" (23). Those words sucked me in, and I was lost in Yeine's world for the rest of the novel.

Nahadoth is a god, a fallen and imprisoned one, but a god nonetheless. He and the other gods who appear in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are not only well-rounded characters, but the best vehicle Jemisin uses to expand the world-building. It's through the false and true stories of the gods, along with their previous war, that we truly learn about this world and how things work in it. Even though the entire novel is told from Yeine's point-of-view, we still see things from the gods' perspectives, either through her interactions with them or through strange dreams that visit her, dreams she has because within her is the soul of a dead goddess.

The structure Jemisin uses deviates a bit from the norm, but it all makes sense in the end and fits the story well. There are two main types of interruptions in the narrative. First, there are asides from Yeine, commenting on something she remembers, things important for the story. Second, there are small conversations between Yeine and who we eventually find out to be the goddess Enefa--the soul that shares Yeine's body. Even right at the beginning, we know Yeine struggles to remember. Almost the entire novel, until the very end, is her remembering the events that lead up to her death. And it's no secret that she's going to die at the end. "I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore" (1).

These interjections that Jemisin uses demonstrate how much Yeine tries to remember, and how hard it is for her to do so. When we reach the end of the novel, when Yeine's soul is hovering over the scene and watching things unfold, we understand she had been piecing things together all along as she told her tale--her death jarred her senses, and she had to remind herself of who she was and the events that led up to her death. In truth, the novel begins when she dies, and the entire novel is her putting the puzzle pieces together.

The interruptions also serve another purpose, though. It avoids an info dump at the end of the novel. Yeine's soul hovers in space, alongside Enefa's soul. And they talk, they communicate. If that entire conversation was at the end though, showing how Enefa encourages Yeine to remember, it would have brought the action of the novel's end to a grinding halt. By weaving in the conversation throughout the novel, we have the sense at the end, when Yeine rises again as a goddess in her own right, that so much more had gone on between Yeine and Enefa before Yeine was restored to her body. It also gives that disembodied feeling of how time is nothing to the gods, their conversations seemingly lasting for a long expanse and a short moment all at the same time.

Aside from my initial issues near the beginning, Jemisin successfully immersed me in the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It comforts me to still see great dark epic fantasy written today, since it's my chosen genre. I look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.


WORKS CITED

Jemisin, N. K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Orbit: New York, 2010.


NEXT UP: A guest blog post from J. Gunnar Grey!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Steampunk

Last week I looked at the steampunk elements found in Boneshaker. Steampunk is such an interesting sub-genre that I thought I'd take a closer look at it and offer some links.

When I think of steampunk, the first thing that comes to mind are all the neat contraptions people have built that I've seen pop up across the internet - the copper and brass computers, modern technology with a historical/Victorian flare. I haven't had much experience with the steampunk genre otherwise (aside from a neat episode of Castle a few months ago) before reading Boneshaker (at least I didn't think I had until after my research!).

Steampunk.com covers the definition of steampunk well in their article "What Is Steampunk?" They touch on all of the aspects of what it represents, starting with the literature. Here were the general bullet points copied directly from the website:

"* Take place in the Victorian era but include advanced machines based on 19th century technology (e.g. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling);
* Include the supernatural as well (e.g. The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger);
* Include the supernatural and forego the technology (e.g. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, one of the works that inspired the term ‘steampunk’);
* Include the advanced machines, but take place later than the Victorian period, thereby assuming that the predomination by electricity and petroleum never happens (e.g. The Peshawar Lancers by S. M. Stirling); or
* Take place in an another world altogether, but featuring Victorian-like technology (e.g. Mainspring by Jay Lake)."

It was great to see some examples for each of the types of steampunk. The movie Sherlock Holmes was also mentioned in the article. I never thought of that movie as steampunk, but it clicked and made perfect sense when I saw it listed here.

Near the end of the article, they say, "Another criticism has been that steampunk focuses on the best of the past and quietly sweeps the bad (i.e. slavery, child labor, widespread disease, etc.)." I found this statement interesting, since Boneshaker doesn't fit this at all - it's very much a book that shows the bad side of things. This observation was paired with a link, though, to "The Future of Steampunk" by Paul Jessup.

In Jessup's article he talks about how steampunk needs to veer away from focusing on the good of the era. "But I do see a disturbing trend towards Empire worship and a hidden undercurrent of racism." He also includes Boneshaker as an example of one of the novels that goes against this current trend.

So, like many other sub-genres, steampunk is also one that is still growing and being defined. Jessup insists that it needs to take a new direction, to look at the bad in the era, like in Boneshaker: "And for it to thrive without hate or tyranny, it is a road we need to follow."

Some links I came across in my searches that I thought were fun:

Steampunk Magazine - Yes, the sub-genre has its own magazine! Did you write a steampunk story? This is probably a good place to submit to.

Steampunk: 20 Core Titles - Yup, Boneshaker is on this list.

Top 25 Novels for Steampunk Aficianados - I never would have thought of The Golden Compass as steampunk (great book), but it does make sense! And yes, Boneshaker is on this list too.

12 Classic Steampunk Books - Can never have enough book lists.

Steampunk: A List of Themes - Great list to see the particular things that tend to crop up in steampunk literature.

Clockwork Couture - Fun corsets in the steampunk style. I know, not literature based, but I had to include one of the awesome clothing sites in my links.


NEXT UP: A look at the novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Searching for Steampunk in Boneshaker

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read Boneshaker there are spoilers in this essay.


* * * * *




The most interesting things for me in Boneshaker by Cherie Priest were the steampunk elements. Once we ventured into Dr. Minnericht's underground, I was fascinated. So, I thought it would be fun to examine what makes Boneshaker steampunk. I utilized the article "Steampunk: A List of Themes" as a starting point. It's a long list, and Boneshaker includes many of the ideas listed.

First and foremost, Boneshaker takes place in an alternate universe, as it's an alternate history. The American Civil War, or the War Between the States, is raging and Washington still hasn't become a state. The thing is, the war has been going on for 15 years. In our timeline, the war only lasted for about 4 years. At one point in the book it mentions a certain Confederate General not dying during a battle he dies in in our timeline, and that the English came to help the south, which is what likely stretched the war out longer.

Zeppelins and sky pirates are also often found in steampunk, and Boneshaker doesn't disappoint in this area. Briar needs to ask the help of sky pirates to get into the walled up city to rescue her son, Zeke. We even have a rollicking scene between two balloons fighting it out because one was stolen (again, as the captain it was stolen from originally stole it from the Confederate army). "'Some miserable goddamned son of a bitch thief flew off with the Free Crow!...The only warship ever successfully stolen from either side, and someone had the temerity to steal it from me!" (Priest 392-393).

The world in Boneshaker is also a dystopia. Aside from the war continuing on, Seattle has been walled up, due to a Blight being released from underground--a gas that causes death or zombification, what the people in the story call Rotters. These Rotters are monsters, yet another element sometimes found in steampunk.

But we can't forget what released the Blight gas in the first place, and one of the bigger things people think of when steampunk is mentioned--the Boneshaker, a huge machine was created by Leviticus Blue, Briar's husband. It burrowed deep under Seattle 15 years ago, releasing the Blight on the city. "Its grinding drills--each one the size of a pony--had twirled and twisted around everything near them; Briar remembered thinking of giant forks twirling at a bowl of spaghetti. And although rust had taken the biting edges off the grooved, bladed drills, they still looked nastier than a devil's dream" (Priest 403). Briar even comes across some of Levi's other old machines near the end of the novel.

Big machines, though, aren't the only gadgets prominent in steampunk. Smaller things, like Lucy's mechanical arm also permeate this sub-genre. "She flexed her fingers, and the knuckles popped with a tiny clack. 'The whole thing's mechanical. It gives me a little leak every so often'" (Priest 189). There is also Jeremiah's Daisy, which uses static electricity to charge up and releases a loud noise to down the Rotters for a few minutes. Near the end we're also introduced to the destructiveness of the Sonic Gusting Gun.

Of course we have to have a mad scientist to create these things, and Dr. Minnericht fits that role perfectly. He has a bit of an obsession with lights, which is only one example of how crazy he is. "Lamps of all shapes and sizes blazed around the room on pillars and poles. They were strapped to the walls and to each other, and bundled into groups. Some functioned with an obvious power source, and their lemony flames cast a traditional glow; but others broadcast beams made of stranger stuff. Here and there a lamp burned blue and white, or created a greenish halo" (Priest 304). He attempts to convince the inhabitants of Seattle that he's Leviticus Blue, another mad scientist from Briar's account, but Briar knows otherwise.

Even some small things are examples found in steampunk. Briar's goggles, the lenses acting like a magnifying glass to see the Blight, her corset-like top, as well as the detail of the oriental rugs and the velvet couch when Briar finally enters her old home after 15 years have passed. Even Dr. Minnericht's watch exemplifies the small intricacies and details that show up in this sub-genre. The Blight itself is used to make a type of drug, bringing in the chemistry side of things.

These are some of the main elements found in Boneshaker that can be considered steampunk. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and if you look closely, you can see other themes and tidbits that tend to show up often in steampunk. It's an interesting genre, and I hope I find the time to explore it more thoroughly one day.


WORKS CITED

EvilEgg. "Steampunk: A List of Themes." Writing.com. 2007. Web.

Priest, Cherie. Boneshaker. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2009.


NEXT UP: A closer look at steampunk!

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Eyre Affair - History and Humor

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read The Eyre Affair there are spoilers in this essay.

* * * * *




An interesting protagonist, a multi-layered plot expertly woven, and the set-up for future books in the series--The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde has a lot going for it. The only thing that derailed me a bit were some of the point-of-view hopping choices. For me, though, it was the history and the humor that made this a great alternate history novel.

I have to admit, I don't know historical facts all that well, so I read the first chapter out loud to my husband, so he could confirm for me what was and wasn't a part of our own timeline. Even if I didn't have a husband who is knowledgeable when it comes to history, or if I chose not to look the historical facts up, not knowing our own history wouldn't have detracted from my reading. It was presented in such a way that I knew things were different from our own timeline, even if I didn't know specifically how. Thursday's quirky father grills her about history, and I immediately knew we were in an alternate history. And most of the big historical differences were presented in the first chapter, instead of bombarding the reader throughout the novel.

What made the alternate history even easier to swallow, though, was the humor added into the mix. We're greeted with that humor in the first sentence: "My father had a face that could stop a clock" (1). It made me laugh, at least. And it's quickly explained to us that this is not an insult, but a literal statement, as Thursday's father is part of the ChronoGuard and can cause time to stand still. Even the description of the world as it's frozen, then subsequently unfrozen, around Thursday when her father arrives has humor in it. When time freezes, Thursday observes, "Cars and trams halted in the streets and a cyclist involved in an accident stopped in midair, the look of fear frozen on his face as he paused two feet from the hard asphalt" (3). And we revisit that cyclist once Thursday's father leaves. "...and over the road the cyclist hit the asphalt with a thud" (6). The banter back and forth between Thursday and her father is even laced with humor. A grand beginning, the humorous making sure the history doesn't weigh down the prose.

Of course, the humor doesn't stop after chapter one. Thursday can be very straightforward at times, her responses to some questions sounding funny when read. Even names in this novel can be humorous, most being a play on words that got a snigger or two out of me. Some of the quotes at the beginning of each chapter are written by Millon De Floss, a silly nod at the Victorian era writers, since most of the novel concerns Jane Eyre. The name that got the biggest response out of me was Jack Schitt--what a perfect name for a greedy corporate shill.

Fforde also uses things from our own timeline to tickle the funny bone. Thursday's Uncle Mycroft is an inventor--many of his inventions are quirky and interesting. One particular invention referenced is a Retinal Screen-Saver. "Pretty soon I was staring at a whole host of brightly colored fish all swimming in front of my closed eyes....the scene shifted to an inky-black starfield; it seemed as though I was traveling through space." (98). The joke finally clicked for me with the final shift. "'Or how about this?' asked Mycroft, changing the scene to a parade of flying toasters" (99). Ah, the humor of those first screensavers on computers. Too funny.

The Eyre Affair is a wonderful read, and the humor helping the alternate history along is only one of the great things about this book. I could probably go on, at length, about many other things I enjoyed, but I'll refrain from doing so. Though, I will mention, I now want a pet dodo that goes plock-plock.


WORKS CITED

Fforde, Jasper. The Eyre Affair. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2003.


NEXT UP: A look at the novel Boneshaker.