Goldenhand: What the hell happened to Garth Nix’s editor?

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Spoilers abound!

For approximately 70% of Goldenhand, practically nothing happens. An unending chase eats up pages, it’s inevitable conclusion making the whole thing pointless and boring. Where other Old Kingdom books have very few unnecessary characters, this book has an entire cast of them, a village full of people who assist a secondary character in running away. All of them are pointless.

The chapters alternate between this chase scene an an equally endless holding pattern between Lirael and Nicholas. Where the Ferin sections (the chase scenes) have too many characters, the Lirael sections have too freakin’ few. It take roughly half the book for these idiots to stop being awkward, and while there are moments of occasional charm, it is frankly quite soon.

Essentially, the first part of the book is badly imbalanced. Ferin’s sections are packed with urgency, but that urgency can’t be felt when you know she’s going to escape, because if her message delivers everyone is going to die–which won’t happen. And it’s impossible to believe it will happen, when the momentum of her plot is ritually slaughtered every time we switch from her to Lirael, who is in a cliched romantic comedy without a shred of urgency to be seen. This tonal jarring is discarded in favor of Old-Kingdom-Flavored urgency and dread and dire peril, but the goofy comedy keeps bubbling up under the surface, diminishing the whole damn book.

Roughly 70% of the way through Goldenhand, Garth Nix’s editor woke up and the book got pretty good . I know exactly how long this took because I was keeping score. I counted 21 times when the narrative literally broke.

Nix, it turns out, has a habit of stepping out of his characters’ perspective. He turns to the reader and tells you what the characters don’t actually know, telling you that the characters don’t know it. “Neither Ferin nor Young Laska knew this,” “not acknowledging to herself,” “not noticing that behind her…” etc. About 70% in, these breaks (which completely murder reader immersion) stop happening.

Another sign of editorial napping is the way big apparent foreshadowings turn up, wave, and then evaporate. The first time this happens is when Ferin tells another character the super special secret message that she has been sacredly entrusted with from before she was even born–basically her whole destiny and plot purpose is this message, and she should really probably have died trying to deliver it. But she tells another character. A woman who disappears without a goodbye and is never heard from again.

Then there’s the moment when the Disreputable Dog reanimates her statue, goes to the window of a room, looks out at a boat coming into the Clayr’s Glacier, and turns back into a statue. When Lirael finds the statue, there is a boat pulling into the Glacier.

My brain practically exploded at that point. See, the last time a boat was in the narrative, it was full of free magic creatures chasing Ferin. Ferin, who just arrived at the Clayr’s Glacier. Oh my God, the glacier is being invaded!

But nope. Turns out the Dog was just glancing in on Nick.

Worse than this, Lirael’s brain is apparently on vacation during this whole sequence. See, she once saw the Dog statue turn into the actual Dog. And when the Dog dies, she turns back into the statue. Then the statue disappears from Lirael’s hand as she sleeps, and turns up on a windowsill in a position no Sending would have left it in. Does Lirael realize that the Dog is periodically coming back and taking the statue back with her? Nope.

On top of all these issues, there are cliche-sized holes in the narrative the Nix wove (which, again, contrasts like mad with the original Old Kingdom books). A guy and a girl of roughly the same age meet, instantly fall in love, and are having sex when the book closes (which is a crazy tonal jar, but whatever). As previously mentioned, Lirael spends half the book trapped in a corny rom-com. Both Mogget and the Dog return (the Dog after a wonderfully dramatic send off, but then she is disreputable), and though both returns are in keeping with their characters and neither is actual performs the dreaded deus ex machina, both are basically fulfilling the first half of the deus ex machina cliche. Forgivable only because their absence turned out to make the books terrible. Oh, and worst of all, Nix leaps through huge hoops to keep more powerful adult characters safely out of the narrative’s way while he lets the wheels spin in the first part of the book. There’s a big terrible flu and all the Clayr are sick, oh and Sabriel and Touchstone are on vacation for exactly as long as is necessary.

Now, in spite of all my complaining, I still loved the last third of this book. And somewhere under the unedited mess, there is in fact a very good story. Lirael goes back to the place that was once her home, and it is the same but she is far more different than she realizes. While there, she is able to make peace with the sorrow that was her childhood, and to step into a future where a boy will make everything better (did I mention the rom-com problem yet?). Then she goes on a long journey to meet a woman whose life, unlike Lirael’s was defined not by destiny but by choice–but who slowly became more and more adrift from the world and from humanity, until she was lost to herself.

There were better ways to do this. Clariel could have returned earlier in the narrative, through complicated Free Magic. Chlorr and Clariel being literally two different people was cliched. The rom com did not belong in an Old Kingdom book. But I’m happy, ’cause I got to see the Disreputable Dog.

Oh, and I hate the tagline. Practically no one dies in this book!

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“The Wizard in the Tree”: When the Lessons Feel a Little Too Clunky

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Lloyd Alexander is not famous for subtle narratives. His style is to address fear, selfhood, and growing up in very plain language. Taran wanders through the world in search of a pool of water to show him his fate, and instead finds a plain pool of water showing his reflection. A cloth is woven by the fates but chosen by the ones who live their lives. To return home is to find that one has changed.

Sometimes this works, and when it works it works. The Chronicles of Prydain are incredible novels, classics of children’s literature. But sometimes this doesn’t work, as in “The Wizard in the Tree.”

Maybe it’s just that Alexander doesn’t earn his anvils, the way he earns them in “Prydain.” The characters aren’t as strong and interesting, the world isn’t compelling, the narrative possibilities are textbook-perfect but fall flat. A trope is nicely subverted, as a sleeping wizard proves to be complaining and useless. But when the quotes work best out of context, instead of in context, you know there’s a problem:

“Nothing ends as it does in fairy tales. I did love them so, and I did believe them. I’m sorry they aren’t true.”

“Not true?” cried Arbican. “Of course they’re true! As true as you’ll ever find.”

“But you told me–”

“I never said such a thing! How could you have misunderstood me? Those tales of yours–yes, you people amde them up. They aren’t tales about us, though you may pretend they are. They’re tales about yourselves, or at least the best parts of yourselves. They’re not true in the outside world, mine or any other. But in the inside, yes, indeed.”

 

If Arbican weren’t largely defined by his uselessness, and Mallory by her helplessness, then this all may have hit home a lot better.

Skeleton Man and the Borders of Myth

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It’s one of the central problems of childhood that, no matter how sure you are of something, at the slightest hint of falsehood people will dismiss everything you say. That’s the problem at the center of “Skeleton Man,” in which no one believes that Molly is telling the truth, though she knows that she is a captive and in serious danger. But such things are so far outside the realm of the ordinary that everyone is much more willing to believe her captor.

When Molly finds herself off the beaten path, the protagonist does the only thing she can think of: she retreats into stories. She finds strength in her heritage. She knows somewhere deep in her blood that she is a captive of a Skeleton Man, and she finds the strength within herself to defeat him.

Myth is Molly’s ally in this. Myth gives her a framework in which to make sense of what is happening to her. And myth empowers her to be a heroine. The borders between dream and reality grown thin in “Skeleton Man,” and it is in the realm of myth that the protagonist can find her power. As the myth gains strength in the real world, so does she. And in myths, someone always defeats the monsters.

The Many Probems of Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Raven Cycle.”

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When you have a series, conceived as four separate books forming a symphony, you need a foundation. A solid centerpiece, to bind the books together. A person, a place, and event, or a quest in almost every case.

There are a ton of problems with “The Raven Cycle,” but the worst is a lack of precisely this foundation. Four books–over one thousand pages–need something to unify them, both in terms of plot and theme. Theme is easy (growing up), but plot-wise the books are a failure. I’m going to go through the possible foundations one by one to try to get at why these books left me feeling so hollow and frustrated.

  1. The Quest for Glendower.

This is the first unifier presented. Gansey (the protagonist-ish) is on a quest to find a Welsh king, whom he is convinced was buried in a Virginia town. He believes he was saved from death in order to bring this King back from the dead. The people he draws into his orbit are all united behind him in this quest.

But not only is the quest revealed to be futile, Glendower long dead and decayed but it never really works in the first place. Glendower is a wholly fictional figure, a great king of Wales who was apparently well-beloved, sort of Arthuresque. But at no point is the reader given any reason to care. There are no anecdotes about how glorious Glendower was. There are no compelling sketches of this man. He is an empty, two-dimensional figure. And because the reader has no reason to want him back from the dead, it is possible to invest emotionally in the quest to bring him back only by proxy, through the fierce desire of Gansey.  And even Gansey has pretty much lost interest by the last book, which goes hundreds of pages without mentioning Glendower.

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2. The characters.

This is what I think Stiefvater meant to be the primary unifier. The four central figures of Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Blue are the ones undergoing the thematic journey into adulthood. In Gansey and Adam’s cases, into “kingship.”

But there is something hollow about each of these characters. They are not being led to change their fundamental selves–only their attitudes towards those selves. Blue is led to come to terms with her power, Gansey with his lack of fate, Ronan with his status as dreamed and dreamer, and orphan, Adam as one who leaves his home never to return.

While this is an interesting trick of writing, it is fundamentally unsatisfying until the very end. There is something empty about each character, something that makes them seem like actors. They are resisting themselves, faking to themselves, and so they feel fake to the reader.

There is also a structural problem to the character development. Each book has a different protagonist, really: book 1’s is Adam; book 2’s is Ronan; book 3’s is Blue; book 4’s is Gansey. This results in two serious problems: not only is there not one main character to unite the four books, but there is something strange about continuing to stay with each character after their book has ended. They have done their developing, they’ve finished, but they’re still hanging around. Continuing developments are side plots, and feel awkward and out of place when inserted into other protagonist’s books.

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3. Cabeswater

Cabeswater is a magical forest that bends itself to the expectations and desires of those who come upon it. It is later revealed to be the form of an ancient entity, dreamed into physical presence by Ronan’s power. It’s role in the first book is brilliant, an uncanny and compelling place.

But after that, it is only adjacent to the plot. Really, it works as a glorified battery up until the final pages of the final book. The promise of the first book is never fulfilled: no one is sleeping in Cabeswater.

4. Fate

Fate can work as a very, very good unifier for a series of books. Half the fantasy trilogies of the ’80s and ’90s began with a prophecy. In the first book, it seemed like Steifvater was going to use fate as the solid ground on which to build her plot. She kept dropping hints like “time is a circle,” and “we reuse time,” “past and present are one.”

In that first book, promises of fate were made to the reader. We saw scenes that must not be meant to happen until the very last book. Powers far greater than anything immediately visible were glimpsed, cloaked and eerie in the shadows. Things both terrible and necessary were promised.

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None of those things happened. There was no fate animating everything, no greater power or plan at work. There was just a kid dreaming strange dreams, and an ancient ley line that wanted its battery to work right again. Death was cheap, the dead returning in short order in one form or another.

I like a well-executed plot about how we make our own fate. After “The Chronicles of Prydain” did it so well, it’s hard for other writers to come up with something interesting to say about that plot, and Steifvater just fails.

5. Henrietta

Henrietta is the Virginia town that “The Raven Cycle” is set in. It includes three major locations: 300 Fox Lane, populated by psychic women; Monmouth Manufacturing, an old building purchased by Gansey where three out of five of the main characters live; Aglionby, the school which three characters attend and one attended before dying.

On paper, the town would make a good foundation. But in execution, the locations never intersect with each other, not really. Everyone comes to Fox Lane, but only Blue every goes to Monmouth Manufacturing. The three never unite, and they could be in three different towns spread out over Virginia just as easily. Aglionby is cliched and unremarkable. 300 Fox Way is excellent for the first three books, then gets boring and predictable by the final book.

Of the climactic events in the four books, only one takes place in the town, and that one in an anonymous parking lot. There is no sense of the town as having a personality of its own, although Gansey loves it enough to build a model of it in his house. But just because Gansey cares about something is not enough to make the reader care.

 

This is, in the end, the fundamental problem of “The Raven Cycle.” I’ll be talking in two other posts about all the other problems, but they are really just nit-picking compared to this: you must have something to ground a story spread so large and long as this one. Without it, everything feels flimsy and fragile, and difficult if not impossible to invest in and care about.

Ink And Bone: What’s Institutional Inertia Doing in YA Lit?

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Not that I’m complaining! I love stories of people interacting with big institutions. It’s an odd and random literary taste, and very rarely satisfied in a non-meta way (I’m looking at you, Foster Wallace; I love you but that was really hard to read).

Basically, the idea is that the printing press was never invented. Instead, the Library of Alexandria has monopolized all the knowledge of the world and used it to gain political power. Sovereign states simply cannot exist without the Library.

As she explores the implications of this, Caine proves to have fully realized her world. The date is around 2030, but you only know that because a journal entry is dated early on. From the setting, it seems like it should be around 1850. The centralization and control of knowledge has badly retarded technological progress, and we see the process of stopping development in action as the novel unfolds.

The culture of the library itself, with it’s cutthroat policies, nepotism, and well-designed system, is at the dark heart of the novel. In this culture based around institutional inertia, a couple of kids try to get by, and get their hearts broken.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, Time, and the Pain of the Inevitable

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When you read a time travel book, you know someone’s going to die. That’s just how history works: everyone died at some point or another. If you go back and talk to them, they may seem alive, but from your point of view they’re long dead.

When I read “Tom’s Midnight Garden,” and joined Tom as he traveled back through time to a Victorian garden and Victorian world, perhaps the greatest sorrow I had reading was one never outright stated in the book. I knew that these people were dead, but Tom’s perspective kept him from understanding it.

What Tom learns to understand over the course of the novel is Time. The changes that time brings, the joys and sorrows, aren’t something we are born knowing. We have to learn them. And we have to learn about how love survives when faced with an enemy as implacable as time. Or perhaps, what we really learn is how time can make love all the more precious.

The Neverending Story and the Madness of Writers

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“‘I wonder,’ he said to himself, ‘what’s in a book while it’s closed. Oh, I know it’s full of letters printed on paper, but all the same, something must be happening, because as soon as I open it, ther’s a whole story with people I don’t know yet and all kinds of adventures and deeds and battles. And sometimes there are storms at sea, or it takes you to strange cities and countries. All those things are somehow shut up in a book. Of course you have to read it to find out. But it’s already there, that’s the funny thing. I just wish I knew how it could be.”

“The Neverending Story” is a story about the creation of stories. It is about being an author, about writing a story and the paths that leads a writer down.

Bastian begins by finding a seed, a beginning of a story. Then he finds that this is not just someone else’s story: this is his story. It was somehow his story all along. Just as a writer plays with ideas in her head, reads books, doodles and makes notes: it has started, and it’s growing, and it doesn’t feel entirely within the author’s control.

Bastian, though he is part of the book now, draws back. He knows that name of the Childlike Empress, but he is afraid to speak it because he believes the inhabitants of Fantastica will hate him. Authors are afraid too, to the point of paralysis. The fear is twofold: will an audience like me? Will they care about what I say? And more important than that is a question that can eat writers alive: am I good enough to write this story?

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Then the Childlike Empress forces Bastian’s hand, creates a paradox of a story within a story. This is a glorious sequence, and in it we see the way some stories demand to be written. And once you have begun to enter a story, you can never really escape it again.

Then Bastian enters the story and is changed. At first the changes seem harmless, heroic. He is finally the writer of his own story. But the story is changing him too, just as authors find themselves changing with their creations.

This is where the story becomes very dark, as Bastian is overtaken by his own selfishness, as his desire to create new stories literally eats his mind alive. He destroys his relationships, cuts himself off from everyone.

Finally he comes to a city of mad people. Of all ages and times, they are constantly doing something and yet what they do amounts to nothing. They are what happens when authors loose to much of themselves; they are the madness which being a vehicle of creation can lead to.

But Bastian is able to escape. He still has friends who love him. He still has a home to go back to. And when he leaves Fantastica, he is himself and yet changed, new and yet old. And there is a new story, to join to part of the Neverending Story.