Of Course It’s Derivative

I read a lot.  I know this because I keep track of it.  The first year I kept track was from summer 2007 to summer 2008.  I was taking the bus to UBC every day and had a lot of time to read.  I read 54 books that year.  Yes, I averaged over one a week.  In 2011 I started tracking again, this time starting January 1st.  I read 41 books in 2011.  So far in 2012 I’ve read 23 books.  We’re in week 26, so I’m doing pretty good.  I try to read at least 30 books a year.

Because I read so much I read a lot of bad books.  I read a lot of good books to, but I read a lot of crap.  Sturgeon said that “ninety percent of everything is crap”, and it’s true to a certain extent.  For example I no longer read books published only in e-book format, when three for three were terrible I gave up.  The lesson I took from this is that there’s a purpose to gatekeepers.

Why is any of this important?  Because I’m noticing a problem with peoples definitions of “bad”.  Too often I read a review of a book that talks about how derivative it is of previous books.  I’ve even made the same argument.  But there’s a difference between derivative and bad.  A derivative book is one that pulls a lot of concepts from previous works.  Because over 75% of my reading tends to be Fantasy I feel that I can accurately say that nearly all Fantasy novels have some derivative elements to them.

For example:

Tall elegant elf like creatures: Tolkien
God stand-in to guide the plot: Lewis
Super intelligent horse: Lackey
Long drawn out quest: Tolkien, and too many to count
Mass group of intertwining characters: Jordan (or GRRM)

But here’s the issue.  These writers were derivative as well.  Do you like George R. R. Martin?  Well I’m afraid that it comes down to a mixture of War of the Roses with a pretty standard fantasy setting, and some Mervyn Peake.  Try watching a Shakespeare history play, basically the same thing.

Robert Jordan?  Re-read Eye of the World. There is so little original in it that it’s almost laughable.

Mercedes Lackey?  cookie cutter fantasy with magical horses added in.

C.S. Lewis and Tolkien must be original!  Nope.  Lewis owes everything to George MacDonald, which he gladly admitted, and Tolkien has tied together Norse and Germanic fairy tales with Anglo-Saxon romances.

Ahh… but does taking things from further back in history make one less derivative?  No.  It just means that you have a broader education.  If I lift part of my song from Bach instead of the Beatles am I any less derivative?

This doesn’t mean any of those authors aren’t good.  I read and re-read all of their books (well except for GRMM, but I’ve never been a War of the Roses fan anyway).  What it means is that being derivative doesn’t matter.  Fantasy literature comes out of the Romances (traditional meaning, not modern one) of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons.  It comes out of the fairy tales and legends of the past.  And it comes out of a desire to reconnect with the Quest.

When we criticize Fantasy novels as being derivative we need to ask ourselves “Why does it matter?”  Because  everything is derivative.  Instead we need to look at the story by itself.  That’s what’s important.  How well does the author immerse you in their story?  How well constructed is it?  Not where s/he got this idea from or that idea from.  That should be a last refuge for when the story fails.  If the story doesn’t work then you can sit and pick it apart as being derivative.  But not before.

Look at stories as they are.  Read them for them.  You can recognize where some elements came from, but remember everyone is derivative.

Book Shops and Vampires

I like Vampires. I enjoyed reading Dracula, I enjoyed The Vampyre more. I loved the Vampire Lestat. I have watched more bad vampire movies than I care to admit (here’s a hint, look up Shadow of the Vampire). I have read the Twilight books, all three of them; and even the fanfiction that was book four.

And yet. Yes there must be a yet.

I walked into a book store the other day. I was half way through Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, which was loaned to me by a friend, and I wanted to buy my own copy, and maybe the sequels.

So I go up to the Fantasy section, my favourite haunt, and low and behold there is only one kind of fantasy left: Vampire Fiction. But it’s worse than that, most of them aren’t of the classic gothic style, or even in the Anne Rice style. No, most of these are chiclit with fangs. Vampire bodice rippers which are aimed at and written for primarily women. But are they in the romance section? No, they’re in the Fantasy section, pushing out authors like Weeks. There was only one Robert Jordan, they weren’t carrying any Tolkien, and they had a few lonely paperbacks left of Modesitt. Everything else had been pushed out by vampire novels. Vampire novels by the tonne. At least when Harry Potter was popular other forms of Fantasy still thrived. What is it about Twilight that has encouraged people to read while at the same time limiting the types of books that they will read?

Fantasy is a wide genre. Vampire novels are a proud part of that, but so are quest adventures like Tolkien, militant-political examinations like Jordan, and sociological adventures like Modesitt.

A reader of fantasy isn’t just one kind of reader, they are a reader of everything. Though it is true that fantasy tends to focus on things from the past and on fantastic worlds, this is simply a vehicle for the story, be it escapism, social commentary, or coming of age. To see all of this subsumed by one subset of the genre is depressing.

Please, read a Vampire novel. Then pick up Way of Shadows. Trust me. You’ll like it. Once you’re done that, why don’t you try some leGuin, she will knock your socks off.

Review of “Arthurian Omen” by G. G. Vandagriff

Arthurian OmenArthurian Omen by G.G. Vandagriff

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Arthurian Omen, by G.G. Vandagriff deals with the intense passion that arises when the location of a long lost manuscript is uncovered. The story is starts out being riveting and it makes you want to find out more, and then when you do, it disappoints.

The first thing that will strike you about this novel is the stupidity of the characters. They seem to make more bad decisions in the first three chapters than most of us make in a year. Their stupidity, though, doesn’t stop there. They continue to make poor decisions, and leaps of logic that can only be author inspired.

From beginning to end the characters come across as flat caricatures who exist merely for the convenience of the plot. The “bad guy” in the novel is constantly ascribed greater malevolence than befits his actions, while the lurking secret behind the story, a Colombian drug cartel, disappears into the mist several chapters before the lackluster climax.

The suspense is held by keeping the identity of most of the characters a secret from the reader, while showing us tantalizing hints of which of the hunters on the grand quest might have an alter-ego under one of the pseudonyms we know is used by one of the bad guys. This suspense is held until about two thirds through the book when, for no apparent reason, Vandagriff breaks the suspense and tells us who is who, leaving just one villain unmasked. The unmasking of the final villain at the climax of the book, left me with only one word: meh. I didn’t care about who it was. The reasons behind the nefarious deeds then come out to be some sort of poor family relationship that the character had as a child, and a nanny who brainwashed them. Of course none of this is mentioned until after the unmasking, which means that the reader is not invested in the investigation, and so has no “aha” moment at the unmasking.

I was once told that directors and writers are like the Wizard of Oz, the character, not the book. If they’re very good you’ll never notice the man behind the curtain. Every author’s motto should be “take no notice of the man behind the curtain”. Vandagriff, instead, writes more like she is standing in the middle of a three ring circus, rather than behind the curtain. The author’s hand is visible on the strings of every character, forcing them into decisions that no reasonable person would make, and manipulating them into actions that seem out of place given their past history.

This is not to say that the novel is not enjoyable. I quite enjoyed the quest through the Welsh countryside. I enjoyed her descriptions of the landscape as they moved through it. I did, though, have some concerns about the amount of detail that went into describing the outfits of the main character, not seeing the reason behind telling us exactly what she is wearing down to the last stitch and hue.

Though the novel had some bright points, this is not an author I will be seeking out in the future. She is too visible in the actions of her characters, and does not allow them to behave as they desire. The story, while interesting, can not make up for the lack of depth in her characters.

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Books of old

As some may have noticed, I’ve been reading books which I’ve read before.  Yep.  Most of the books in my “just read” list are ones that I’ve read before.  Why?  Well I decided that I’d read the same books with new eyes.  And it’s great.  I’m picking up things I completely missed.  It’s given me a greater appreciation for many authors.  It has also let me know which aren’t as good as I remember.  Why am I saying this?  Well, I’d like to challenge everyone to pick up a book you remember liking in high school.  I promise you you’ll learn something new. Now I’m going to sleep.  -Noah