Thursday, June 19, 2014


People have asked why I don’t post pictures of the monsters I blog about.  And honestly, I sometimes wish I did—there’s no question I could triple my audience that way.  But early on I decided this blog was going to be original content only.  So unless one of you draws it or I photograph it, no dice.

But if Paizo is going to post a picture, I damn well can link to it.  Feast your eyes on the almiraj.

The almiraj seems like a joke at first, but it’s actually got a storied past from Islamic poetry as Al-mi’raj.  And Mattias Fahlberg’s Bestiary 4 art perfectly straddles that silly/serious line as well—that bunny is one part derp, one part “Seven gods above, it's digging its horn into the wound!”

And did I mention it has to eat its prey—yes, it’s carnivorous—alive, because if it kills with its horn the corpse turns to stone?

I’m sure in most campaigns, almirajes will remain witch’s experiments, faerie creatures, or limited to the remotest of areas.  But who knows…if your campaign takes its cues from Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Maxx, or Wildstar (Look at me! I’m current! I have seen a trailer for a video game!), almirajes might be as common as prairie dogs.

After Lord Bavend’s cavaliers were routed—“by bunny rabbits,” he snorts (not having witnessed how the acrobatic predators pogoed up the knights’ own lances), the aristocrat swears he will have a cloak trimmed with almiraj fur and an almiraj horn dagger to match.  And whom does he send to fetch these items, to drive the insult home to his retainers?  His worst squad of irregulars, of course: a band of novice adventurers.

Driven aboveground by violence, a band of svirfneblin has not acclimated well to surface life.  Utterly paranoid, they plot to kill anyone they cannot hide from. Typically this involves inviting their quarry to take a meal with them in a nearby cavern, before releasing their pet almiraj to deal with the guest.  Whatever evidence the magical beast does not eat, the svirfneblin quickly shatter with their heavy picks.

Any soldier at Fort Tillman will tell you jackelopes aren’t real.  But in their spare time the superstitious halberdiers skewer almost any rabbit they can find with quarrels or musket fire.  When pressed, they whisper that Jenas Medicine, the local Proudfoot witch, swore to send her familiar after a squad who had bullied a local weaver.  The men who laughed all wound up as stone lumps in the scrubland.

Pathfinder Bestiary 4 8

Folktales from both the American South and South America are not my strong suit.  Props to dr-archeville and agelfeygelach for enlightening us re: the ahuizotl with healthy doses of hags and flytraps.

My buddy Damien has been kicking around LA recently, and recently that work has been bearing fruit.  Assuming I get this up by 9 PM (Edit: Well, I almost made it), you should watch the new show he’s been writing for, Dominion, premiering on SyFy tonight.

Do you guys care about audiobooks?  They’re how I do the majority of my “reading” lately, because the Internet has destroyed my attention span and my bed is a sinkhole of sleep.  I don’t usually do critiques here, because there are plenty of other spaces for that on the Net…but sometimes a notion grabs ahold of me and won't let go until it gets expressed.

Anyway, one of the things I like to do (and am forced to do, since I get most of my audiobooks from the library) is pick up a book from the middle of a series.  Yeah, sometimes spoilers are a pain, but if Book X can hold me with zero introduction, I can be confident I’ll probably like the rest of the series.  In fact, I’ve discovered some of my favorite worlds that way: White Night (#9) got me into the Dresden Files, Black Powder War (#3) got me into Temeraire, The Far Side of the World got me into the Aubrey–Maturin series, and after some initial resistance I fell for Lirael (#2) of The Old Kingdom.

So now you know how I got into Imager’s Challenge (#2 of The Imager Portfolio) and Scholar (#4, but kicking off a new trilogy set a hundred or so years before) by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. 

There’s a lot here to recommend to a Pathfinder/D&D audience.  The world’s system of imaging is interesting—I need to go back to the first book and find out how it is initially introduced and described, but I picked up the gist quickly enough and found it to be a nice take on magic in a low-magic world (and one with rudimentary gunpowder to boot).  IC is also to be recommended because it avoids the fantasy tropes of the orphan or lone wolf; Rhennthyl has a family and a love interest, and the actual work of maintaining those relationships in the face of adversity/adventure is very much part of the narrative.  The Imager Portfolio also portrays an interesting monotheistic religion—unusual both for the aforementioned single deity (most fantasy novels either go for a pantheon or skip religion altogether) and the detail with which its worship is rendered.  (That said, the sheer amount of page time it gets puts it in an awkward place—it’s too well explored not to be part of the plot…and yet by and large the belief system offers little of relevance, at least not in the two books I’ve listened to.)  And finally and most importantly, there’s plenty of intrigue and plotting (especially in Imager’s Challenge) and a decent share of action. 

That said, none of the above praise should be taken as an endorsement of Modesitt as a stellar writer, because (though it pains me to say this about a fellow Eph) he’s simply not one. 

He’s got the usual problems endemic to mid-level sci-fi/fantasy authors: character names that are unlikely strings of letters…too many characters who exist only to let the author try out various disquisitions on power or politics…allowing the protagonist to do ethically questionable things but exonerating and absolving him almost immediately, rather than to let him (and us) live with the ambiguity and consequences…just to name a few.

He’s also got some peculiar peccadillos of his own, which, when taken in toto, are absolutely maddening. 

Modesitt does a lot of furniture moving—a term one of my mentors used for showing exactly how a character gets from point A to B, like a play that leaves the lights up during a scenery change instead of lifting the lights at the start of the next scene.  Modesitt has two protagonists, separated by hundreds of years, with almost identical attitudes toward everything: politics, beer, smart women, and especially their absolutely identical questioning—down to word choice—of whether their god, “the Nameless,” exists (and oh, how that questioning is repeated…and repeated…and repeated).  He is obsessed with food.  He is entranced by the routine of bureaucracies and especially police and military structure. 

Modesitt also insists on describing every room a character enters, no matter how consequential or incidental to the plot, as if he wanted the reader to draft it on graph paper: the exact dimensions in yards, the location of the window casements, the light sources, and the placement of significant objects, with speculation on their use.  This fetish for exactitude goes the other way, unfortunately, if Modesitt’s protagonists cannot be sure of something; then the narrative is overrun with qualifiers: “it seemed to,” “but he couldn’t be sure,” “most likely,” “apparently.”  Seriously, just this morning I encountered a description of Quaeryt going to visit an official (forgive the paraphrase, but I’m not far off) who was located “under a tarp, or perhaps a tent with its sides rolled up”—because that distinction and the uncertainty it represents is apparently crucial.

Most damning, for me anyway, is that Modesitt is utterly incapable of having a character go to a restaurant and not play out the entire exchange between him and the waitress—from picking the table to taking the drink order (always lager) to choosing an item off the menu.  This is a ritual that is fascinating to literally no one who has ever been in a restaurant where the silverware is already on the table when you sit down.  Yet Modesitt doesn't trim or condense a syllable, not once in either book.  And given the urban settings, these characters eat out.  All.  The.  Time.

I’ve done some browsing, and Modesitt gets a lot of praise on the Web for his realism.  But this isn't realism—no character or observer catalogs every room in terms of square yardage and compass points in exactly the same cadence every time.  You can be obsessed with food and fabrics—Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series might as well be a medieval Prada catalog—or the minutia of military life—look at the naval porn that is Patrick O’Brian’s work—but in those works the authors let their descriptions expand and contract to the needs of the characters and the plot.  For them, an antechamber is an undescribed antechamber, unless describing its dimensions offers clues that a character is being insulted by being forced to wait there, or to highlight her inability to hide if the wrong person finds her there.  Not all rooms, meals, and encounters deserve equal weight.

Maybe in print, these flaws aren't readily apparent.  But that’s the joy and the curse of an audiobook: Brilliance is magnified; insufficiencies blare like a siren.  (I suspect, though I cannot prove this, that it also points to the lack of resources publishers have in a post-Amazon world—an editor with more time on his or her plate could have (hopefully) helped Modesitt to recognize and excise these tendencies long ago.)  And they're flaws that should be absolutely unacceptable in an author with more than 50 novels to his credit.

The thing is…I like these books.  At least well enough to listen to and get more from the library.  I’m engaged!  I’m putting them on my iPod as I go walking, and the intrigue and narrative pull is worth at least an extra half-mile.  And it's that disconnect between the pull of the story and the pall of the storytelling that has me so fascinated.  If you’re looking for Renaissance/Enlightenment-ish low-magic fantasy with a dash of espionage, this is a series very much worth exploring.  But go in with your eyes (and ears) open, and don't be afraid to slide the book, respectfully but firmly, back upon the shelf.

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