Sunday, January 15, 2012

Best World Building

I had planned a second post on the spectacular world of The Cloud Roads. But since I've finished reading The Serpent Sea (and yes, I love and highly recommend it), which takes place in the same world, I'll cover this one instead.

The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells

Genre Fantasy

How it starts The court is moving on air ships (not like steampunk dirigibles - these have sails, and their flying mechanism isn't... mechanical) to their new home. Moon is strolling across the deck and getting dirty looks from some of the warriors, who hate that a feral consort now has such an important place in their court. He's still recovering from having his body broken in a fight, but tries to look tempting so they'll attack him and he can beat the crap out of them.

General premise The Indigo Cloud Court arrived at their ancestral home, a gigantic mountain-tree, to find that the tree is dying because the seed has been stolen. Only someone who understood the tree could have done such a thing, and Moon feels conspicuous as rumors fly about a feral solitary (like himself) betraying the court. If the tree dies, the court will have to move again, and they have nowhere else to go. Afraid of embroiling himself and his queen in more political squabbles he doesn't understand, Moon is happy to set out to recover the seed. As the only one who has lived among outsiders, he's included in a team led by his queen and comprised of the old consort who found him, his mentor-turned-warrior friend who's also an outsider at court, and several of his rivals.

Page 13 quote

Moon leaned over the railing and tried to see the ground, but it was hundreds of paces down, lost in the shadows. Not far below the ship he could see platforms covered with greenery standing out from the trees and completely encircling the trunks, connecting the trees to each other in a web, many more than large enough for the Valendera to set down on. They looked like tethered chunks of sky-island, covered with grass and flowers, dripping with vines, most supporting glades of smaller trees. But as the ship drifted closer to one, he saw the platforms were thick branches that had grown together and intertwined in broad swathes, catching windblown dirt and seeds until they built up into solid ground.

Page 2 quote from The Cloud Roads

Hac looked like a typical Cordan: short and stocky, with pale gray-green skin and dull green hair. Most Cordans had patches of small glittering scales on their faces or arms, legacy of an alliance with a sea realm sometime in the history of their dead empire. On some of the others, especially the young, the effect was like glittering skin-jewelry. On Hac, it just looked slimy.

Best world-building

I love that this world seems to be based on the animal kingdom rather than on human history. Inhabitants have blue or green or bronze skin, hair or feathers or scales (or all three), and live everywhere - in hives, on the ground, in the sea or the sky, and in one striking case, in a rotating city built on a giant wheel turned by a waterfall. The author makes the varied creatures of her world believable and relatable. Based on the cover illustrations I imagine them as humanoid-ish, but I don't know if that's what she pictured.

Usually when I'm bowled over by a fictional world, it's because of the intricate and original political/cultural structure. And these books definitely have that - the Raksura courts seem to be based on colony-dwellers like ants or bees, with a powerful queen, warriors, consorts, and various types of workers, all different sizes and abilities when in their altered (winged or climbing) forms. But I was left breathless by the physical world and its brightly-colored beauty.

The scenery's so lush and gorgeous. It brought me back to that awed longing I felt when I read Enid Blyton books as a kid, or watched cartoons involving fairy rings and toadstool houses or Wind-in-the-Willows-style panoramic views. Having lived in deserts all my life, visiting Sweden brought this same feeling - as if people shared enchanted space with nature rather than beating it into submission, or being beaten by it.

rainy pond in a Swedish city

Except the parts of Sweden I've seen are really, really green, while the world in these books is vibrant with all colors of the rainbow: flocks of flighted lizards in blues, golds, and violets that flutter away when startled; flurries of tiny yellow frogs that play in waterfall spray; flying islands covered in crumbling ruins that contain abandoned libraries of disintegrating books, overrun by wild vines.

stone bridge in Sweden

Anyway, non-earth-based worlds weren't uncommon in books I read in middle and high school. They tended to be science fiction, with FTL flight and a universe teeming with non-humanoid aliens, both of which seem to be making a comeback in science fiction after disappearing behind generational ships, worlds populated with humans who originally came from earth, and most recently, humans who never left earth at all.

I think it's a good thing fantasy moved away from LotR-style magic that seemed to be able to do everything and yet never actually did anything. But the other extreme is magic that's so much like science that people are afraid to play with it, and so we get minor variations on the same traditional magic over and over and over, until now I'm actually surprised when I come across fantasy that reads like a whole new world, rather than like medieval Europe with some of their less-interesting superstitions come true (vampires, werewolves, witches, what have you).

Thank you, Martha Wells.  I hope this isn't a trilogy. I hope you keep these books going forever.

More books with nontypical, excellent world-building:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Genre: magical realism/historical

Celia and Marco have trained their entire lives for an epic duel set up by their instructors, and the black-and-white Night Circus is the magical battle field. Despite their growing love for each other, leaving the fight is physically impossible, and only one of them can win.

Currently reading this. It's definitely earth-based, but the magic is so free of constraints that I have to just marvel at how coherent Morgenstern makes it all. It's a lush, achingly beautiful book.

Avatar directed by James Cameron
Genre: SF/F movie

Yes, I know it's fashionable to hate this movie, but I love it. The story's not particularly original, but the way it's told certainly is. My husband's done over 600 scuba dives, and says there's nothing original about the Avatar world, either. But for those of us who prefer our water in a glass or a shower, and prefer our fish...well, elsewhere, bringing the underwater world to the surface was just magical.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Genre: science fiction

I just about cried when I read this book (I DID cry when I read the second one, The Ghost Brigades). It was like revisiting the classic SF I'd loved as a kid, where people hopped from one planet to another, where authors took the swashbuckling of the high seas and transferred it to outer space. Perhaps the world-building here isn't unique in the sense of Martha Wells's books, but it is fascinating.

And while we're on science fiction that's a throwback to the older stuff, I'll go ahead and recommend
Orphanage by Robert Buettner
Genre: science fiction

This is like Old Man's War; it's military SF that's a lot more like stuff I remember reading as a kid. I keep hearing that no one reads science fiction anymore. I don't think that's true. I do think there's a difference between science fiction aimed at people who have followed the genre's evolution since the 1950s or whatever, and those who want to be entertained by a good story that involves spaceships without having to retake AP physics first (though of course, if you took AP physics the first time around, understanding the science is probably not your biggest problem with the SF genre).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Third Culture Kids in fantasy

I love books release days! The Serpent Sea, the second in the Books of the Raksura series, came out this week. Since I don't want to miss a single detail, reference, or allusion in it, I'm rereading the first one, making it the perfect time to write a couple of blog posts about this amazing book.

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

Genre Fantasy

How it starts Moon is kicked out of yet another community for being different. This time, his former neighbors poison him and stake him out for the wild animals. Moon is snatched up by a creature he's certain had tried to eat him earlier that day.

General premise Moon's learned the hard way not to trust anyone. In his flying form, he looks too much like the Fell, who destroy cities and eat their inhabitants. Stone is the first person he's met who looks like him, can answer all his questions about himself, and truly wants him around. Intrigued, he agrees to move to Stone's settlement. But looking like his kind doesn't mean Moon fits in. He doesn't know the things he should, doesn't do the things they do or like what they like. Worse, Stone led him to believe he was a warrior-type, but Moon finds out in an epic showdown that he's actually a consort. The reigning queen hates him for tipping the balance of power in her young rival's favor, and the challenger keeps leaving gifts for him that he's afraid will mean he owes her something it will cost him too much to repay. Moon isn't interested in power struggles - he has enough problems of his own. But the Fell intrude on his new life, too, and fighting them is the only option.

Third Culture Kid

I'm going to leave the spectacular world-building for another post and concentrate on Moon. Moon is pretty much a Third Culture Kid, illustrated in the dramatic way only fantasy fiction can do. Briefly, a TCK is someone who grew up either in a culture different from that of their parents, or in several different cultures. Missionary kids. Military kids. Kids of business expatriates. Kids of first generation immigrants. TCKs tend to be a product of several cultures, and therefore don't fully belong in any.

That's bad enough, but Moon has it worse than most TCKs. He's completely alone, and has been since childhood, when his family was killed. No matter where he goes, he's always a foreigner who looks like the enemy. Every time he thinks he's finally found people who accept him, they do something that reminds him they will always look at him and see someone "different".

It's particularly poignant when Moon finally finds someone who can mentor him. Someone like the father he's never known, like the mother he lost. (I love mentor characters, BTW. There just aren't enough fictional characters like Allanon of the Shannara books, or Moiraine of Robert Jordan's WoT series. Someone who can answer all your questions, guide you so you don't go too far in the wrong direction, and always be on your side? Sign me up!) Of course, Stone turns out not to be perfect, but that tends to be the way that goes.

Other stories where people definitely don't belong:

Wolfblade by Jennifer Fallon
Genre: fantasy

Okay, I don't think Elezaar is the protagonist in this story, but he's definitely someone who always stands out as a target. Elezaar is a dwarf (not the mythical fantasy being normally found in books that also include elves, orcs, and wizards; I believe he's actually a "little person" of the physically disproportionate variety). He's also a slave who witnessed a political assassination, and needs protection, fast.

The protagonist is young Marla Wolfblade, who is being married off to seal a treaty. In keeping with their culture, she goes to choose a courtesan who will, um, train her so she knows what she's doing (and no, I don't think there are any sex scenes in the book). Rather than go for the hot guy with the vacant expression, she chooses Elezaar, because he convinces her he's the only one interested in helping her navigate the political morass she's about to be thrown into. This is the first of about a million times Marla shocks everyone by doing the one thing no one anticipates.

On a complete aside, I LOVE the names in this series. I normally take no notice of names at all. I can love a book, read it six times, and a week later not be able to tell you any of the characters' names (though I can describe the plot in detail and tell you everything I loved about the personalities). But the names of the powerful houses were just so epically awesome. Hawksword. Eaglespike. Ravenspear. Foxtalon. Krakenshield. I love you for using these names, Jennifer Fallon. Seriously.

Lord of the White Hell by Ginn Hale
Genre: fantasy

Kiram is a mechanist prodigy, and the first of his people admitted to the prestigious Sagrada academy. Because he's not a native, he's bullied and ostracized, and also forced to room with a popular guy everyone else is afraid to sleep near - Javier Tornesal, whose family is powerful and rich, but cursed. Kiram is instantly attracted to Javier, and Javier seems to return the sentiment. But the relationship, acceptable in Kiram's land, is forbidden in Javier's, and it could get them killed - if the White Hell doesn't kill them first.

It's been a while since I read this, but I really, really liked it. Stellar world-building, danger, adventure and forbidden love. And of course, not belonging.