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October 24, 2003

Wurts, a Sixth Time

I finally got around to finishing book six of Wurts's epic. That I put it that way says something. It was an effort. She edges up into the ultraviolet, from the mere purple, as she moves towards the climactic events. "As she moves towards" is meant to imply she has not, apparently, arrived at them quite yet. Though the front matter makes no mention, it appears there is to be at least one more book in this epic of epics. I will read it to see how she wraps her plot, but it will be an effort.

So I don't sound like a Janny Wurts hater (I'm not), rather like a considered critic, let me do more than say her prose is too purple. In addition to her fondness for excessive use of modifiers, she suffers a deficit of understanding of "in media res." Without claiming to have examined every chapter, I can say that I have noted over and over again that many chapters would be instantly improved with the simple excision of the first two paragraphs. Almost always these are pure description, and overladen with modifiers to "pretty up" the description. My reading strategy involves reading the first line of the chapter to confirm it's descriptive, then dropping down a half page to where the third paragraph starts and actually starting there. Almost always that is the first place where action actually takes place. In an epic of six (so far) books of more than 500 pages, this becomes a bit tedious. I do think she was a bit better here in this sixth book.

What Wurts needs is a good editor, one with a firm blue pencil accustomed to drawing large Xs over paragraphs and strikethroughs on unnecessary modifiers.

This is a good place for a sample. I am going to risk delving into the sixth book at random, and pick the first sentence my finger lands on. I will probably find a perfectly fine sentence since I take the risk, let's see:

"Were he spotted, they need do nothing at all but close in and form ranks and surround him."

Murphy's Law in action! That is a perfect example of what does not, to me, characterize Wurts's prose style. Well, perhaps she is a little redundant there, but it's pared clean of her normal modifiers.

Here's the opening to a paragraph on the prior page:

"Twilight fell. The drifts lay on the land like iridescent silk, tucked in folds of cobalt and violet beneath a sky deepened to indigo. Under a spattered brilliance of stars, Arithon climbed down from the pine that had sheltered him."

This is not excessively excessive, but it's more in line with what I see as the norm. Notice the careful attention to the colors, the iridescent silk and the spattered brilliance of stars. Contrast this with the verb use, the passive, cliched "twilight fell" and the plain "climbed down." I get the impression Janny is far more interested in her modifiers, the description, than her verbs and nouns, the action.

Yet she is a wonderful plotter. Her plot in this epic is such that it's kept my interest, despite my dislike of her prose style, though over 4000 pages.

Before I move on to other, more interesting aspects, another example is in order.

"Closed in the barren solitude of a two-penny attic chamber, the quartz sphere her need had put to the test delivered a stark lesson in humility. Eliara pressed shaken hands to her heart."Ath's mercy, forgive!" She realized how little she understood the coiling depths of the power she engaged day to day, without thought, sheltered beneath the insular traditions fostered by the Sisterhood."

Again, notice the modifiers: "barren," "two-penny attic," "quartz," "stark," "shaken," "coiling," and "insular." I would prefer something on the order of, "Closed in the attic chamber, the quartz her need had put to the test delivered a lesson in humility." I just don't need those extra words. They buzz like annoying flies. My imagination is sufficient to fill in the rest. She already told us the attic chamber was mostly empty. We know it was very cheap. Why the lesson is "stark" when it's already humble, I don't really understand. By adding that "stark" she makes it seem less humble, not more. (After all, she thinks it deserves another whole modifier!) And her use of "shaken" is ill considered. A shaken hand is one that someone just shook, not one that is still shaking. Yes, her sense for it is not technically incorrect, it's just subtly wrong in the context. This is another common characteristic of her prose style. Wurts seems to like to use unexpected words that are almost, but not quite, right. These annoy me often.

A certain amount of self-consciousness in prose style can be fun and a pleasure to read. A word that surprises and delights with its precision, its perfect rightness, brings me a warm glow of pleasure, a frisson of delight, not a buzz of irritation. I believe Wurts is intentionally employing a slightly wrong word to instill more of a sense of alienness to the diction and tone. But it only instills an annoying rasp like nails on a blackboard to my sensibilities. The ultimate test of this sort of thing is "does it work?" In this case, to me, it simply does not.

Now, I will eventually get around to rhapsodizing over the skill with which Steven Brust does exactly what I think Wurts is trying to do. We'll see if I can adequately describe and illuminate his achievement. An important distinction between them, aside from this one already made, is that Brust is style-driven, not plot-driven. Wurts should stick with her strength and avoid her weakness. Her strength is her plot(s). She is capable, clearly, of writing clean, pared-down prose. That Murphy's hit in the first sentence is but one example. But she has a desire to write poetry into her plots, and she simply fails. All she does is slow the pace and dilute the effect of her plot. There is a place for slowing the pace, I will grant her that. It does not occur nearly as often as do her purple passages. When a book is over 500 pages in length I'm not terrible anxious to see the pace slowed in any case.

Gripes about prose style aside, and praise for intricate and involving plots established, there's another element to Wurts that intrigues me. It annoys me too, but not in the fashion above. This epic feels as if it has political content (of course, the postmodern critics will say, all writing has political content!), but it's very tricky to determine exactly what is that content. It feels like a sort of complex allegory, but I don't think it is. To give it more credit than it's due, it reminds me in this fashion of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare is a very slippery character. There are all sorts of political content in his work that inspires all kinds of discussion and argument, but no definitive answers. I feel a similar sort of response to Wurts's epic.

She establishes a conflict between "light and shadow." Note, not "darkness." Two half-brothers, the combined pair that fulfilled a prophecy to return sunlight to the world, are cursed in the process with a geas-driven hatred for each other. One, the Prince of Light, Lysaer, whose power is light and bolts of light, lacks training and character to even battle the curse for control over his own actions. The other, the Master of Shadow, Arithon, has mage training and acquires bardic training, both which help him fight the curse (albeit less successfully than he believes, at the time). In the process of struggling with the curse, however, still acting under its influence, Arithon serves as trigger to catastrophic events. He, who was destined to be the restored Prince of the realm, becomes the reviled demon responsible for every child's cry. His half-brother, in contrast, is beloved and is raised up as the savior that will protect them from the Master of Shadow.

The topsy-turvy of the convention of light and shadow assumes a very sinister coloring. Lysaer assumes an Hitler-like posture, exercising masterful propaganda campaigns to win over the continent and undermine the truths of his half-brother's efforts to actually save the world both from the effects of the shared curse, and other, even more dangerous, threats. There is class warfare and genocide, with the merchant class interested in promoting technology siding with Light while the traditional, conservative royalists, who were overthrown in a revolution before the start of the first book, siding with Arithon. But the conservatives (in many senses) share much with what would be a modern Green party. They know the world is sentient and all things have life. Things, rocks, trees, animals, are not simply objects to be used and disposed of, but must grant their permission. This has echoes of the Rosseauian Noble Savage. Except, while a bit savage due to circumstance, and certainly noble to an extreme degree, the deposed royalists are cultivated, not barbarians as the townborn merchants would have it. The royalists are the conservators of the heritage of the world and their people, even of the townborn merchants.

And there's more, there are yet two other main "parties," the Sisterhood, an order of "witches" that seeks to promote the development of technology (but mostly to increase their own political power) and a circle of seven mages, who are so ancient as to be beyond understanding and who have a compact to protect the world, even from the depredations of humans. Within both of these latter groups there are divides. Along with internal struggles and conflicts, there are struggles between these two, and indeed among all factions. It's a confused roil of angry ants scurrying about trying to find order in a very disturbed nest.

As you can see, there is tremendous opportunity to explore political interaction, and Wurts does a lot of it. A lot of it is infuriating in that the two sides, or more sides, often have radically opposed views of the facts. This is complicated by the use of magic (with limits) to spy and see at a distance, at least if the spying party knows where to look. The heavy inclusion of precognition and its effects also complicates things.

Someone, I think Arthur C. Clarke, said "a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This epic reverses that (as it does many things) to "a sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." The magic is precise, powerful, and limited. And, among the townfolk it's entirely suspect and very out of favor. Yet they find ways to align with various magical groups in order to further their own ends, reminiscent of pacts in modern day politics, especially in this case that of Hitler with Stalin.

While the townfolk seek to limit magic, mostly by killing any they can who show any hint of magical ability, the circle of seven tries to contain technology, most notably the redevelopment of gunpowder. The cycle of development (which the circle has seen many times and on many worlds) which follows after gunpowder is too great a threat to the world itself to be allowed. The irony here is that the magic wielded by Arithon and Lysaer, especially curse-driven to annihilate each other, is more than sufficient to destroy the world. While on the one hand Wurts seems to be criticizing gunpowder, as the motive force behind bullets fired from guns, on the other she seems to be suggesting, "well, if it's not guns, it's something else. The problem is not the object, or the technology, it's the use to which it's put." But that is most likely my read overlaid on her writing.

Which was my original point: In all of this delightful solution of dissolved conflict and upturned convention and expectation is a stimulating and thought-provoking brew of questions and ideas. The epic encourages the reader to question her own view of politics and the interactions between parties of opposition.

Most fantasy books have very clear-cut "good" and "evil" sides. Wurts does not. The issue is clouded with external forces and curses. There are better sides and worse sides, but we are never allowed to totally empathize with one side and revile the other. This is a rather multiculturalist stance, except that Wurts does seem to encourage judgment. One side can be more right, or more wrong, but neither is permitted to be all right or all wrong.

And it's this, and finding out how Arithon eventually saves the world (assuming he does), that will bring me back to read the seventh, eighth, ninth, however many it takes, books. Not the prose style which I will fight my way through. Not the knee-deep (though colorful) adjectives and adverbs.

I can forgive Wurts a less-than-perfect prose style because I can't forget her characters and plots.

Posted by dan at October 24, 2003 08:47 PM | TrackBack
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