Friday, April 12, 2013

Bared Blade

A quick and dirty read at 288 pages, Bared Blade--the second of the Fallen Blade series and sequel to Broken Blade which I read a week or two ago--was an excellent book.  I quite enjoyed it more than the first.  I'm glad to see that the two main characters develop nicely, and get a crop of (mostly) new characters to interact with as well.

I'm also quite glad to see the setting expanded upon and explored at some length more so than in the first book.  But I'm also glad to see that in doing so, the fundamentals of writing a good story weren't set aside.  I've said it before and I'll say it again (repeatedly--possibly even ad nauseum) but I think customers for fantasy fiction strongly desire and in fact even demand that their novels explore and explain a fantasy setting.  By this I mean that readers want to see some setting development.  And it also means that they want to see something fantastical--their fantasy can't be too subjected to the mundane.  Daniel Polansky's Low Town failed to really develop the setting any and failed to show much fantasy in the setting, frankly, and I think it's to it's detriment in the marketplace.  But this can't get carried away to the point of subsuming the demands of telling a good story with good characters and good plot structure and pacing.  All too often, fantasy writers indulge this too much and their novels turn into plodding travelogues.  Although I don't exactly think this myself, it's a common enough complaint about The Lord of the Rings that it takes the better part of 200 pages to actually get started for real because until then, it's basically a travelogue of the territory of the Shire, the road to Bree, from there to Rivendell, etc.  China Mieville's Perdido Street Station also tends to wander afield showing off how "edgy" he is by adding gratuitous nonsense in the form of setting detail.  Of about 600 pages (in paperback), close to 200 pages could be cut without harming either the narrative or character development, for instance.

McCullough, in Bared Blade, manages to give us quite a bit of detail about the Others--the non-human Durkoth in particular--who are really nothing like your typical standard fantasy races at all.  More imaginative than Mieville's bug-headed people or cactus people, in my opinion.  Fascinating folks, actually.  He also gives us a lot of detail we hadn't seen before about not only the political situation of the world (which he also names for the first time in this novel) but now magic works, and what it can and can't do.  But this information was carefully dispersed to never feel like a lecture or travelogue, and to a great degree, it's actually integral to the resolution of the plot which is always a nice surprise.  I recall advice in a lot of old "how to write science fiction" books and essays from various authors who make a point of saying that science fiction isn't really worthy of the label unless some element of science is actually crucial to the plot and in fact the story couldn't be told without referring to it.  Stories that only had the trappings of science fiction, but did not integrate them into the plot (so that you could swap those trappings with those of a western, or some other adventure story, and still tell the exact same story) were disparagingly called "Bat Durstons" in reference to the mocking fake examples given repeatedly in early science fiction magazine Galaxy.  I've never actually heard of anyone making a similar admittedly fairly snobbish appropriation of this concept to fantasy, but the lesson was sufficiently drummed into my head that I actually kinda like to see a fantasy story that actually relies on some of it's fantastic elements, without which the story would have to actually be modified.

Other than that, though, the set-up and plot reminded me sharply of The Maltese Falcon, including a desperate search by various parties steeped in skulduggery for a lost MacGuffin.  Not that there aren't important differences, of course, but the basic set-up is the same.  As in Broken Blade this novel also cultivates--or perhaps more accurately merely flirts with--a noir voice.  But it doesn't feel genuine here any more so than it did in the earlier novel--it felt too lighthearted.  To re-use my earlier example, it felt like a swashbuckling caper wearing a noir Halloween costume.  And as before, that is not in the least a complaint--if anything, I found the voice and tone incredibly compelling and interesting, and suggest that it greatly contributes to the charm of the novel and the series (so far) overall.

Almost immediately after finishing the novel, I put in a request for the next one for ILL, and put in a request to my library that they buy all three of the existing books as well as pre-order the fourth one which is due out this summer.  If the next two stand up to the same standard that the first two have, I'll probably just buy them and continue buying them as long as the series continues. 

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